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Airlines had a very profitable 2013

"Ancillary" fees from passengers a big reason why

For an industry that appeared down and out a decade ago, the airline industry has enjoyed a strong comeback, capped with what's expected to be a highly pro...

PhotoFor an industry that appeared down and out a decade ago, the airline industry has enjoyed a strong comeback, capped with what's expected to be a highly profitable 2013 when the final accounting is done.

For 2013 airlines around the world are expected to return a global net profit of $12.9 billion, rising to $19.7 billion in 2014, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). That stands in stark contrast to 2004, when six U.S. airlines filed for bankruptcy protection.

Cutting costs

Airlines have bounced back through consolidation, reducing available seats, lower fuel costs and, for course, a myriad of new fees for things passengers once took for granted. These “ancillary” revenues are a key driver of the industry's improved financial performance, according to the IATA report.

Worldwide, these ancillary revenues have risen to an estimated $13 per passenger, the trade group says. IATA says airlines are underpinning their profitability with innovative products and services. Without these fees, IATA says, the industry would be making a loss from its core seat and cargo products.

“Overall, the industry’s fortunes are moving in the right direction,” said Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “Jet fuel prices remain high, but below their 2012 peak. Passenger demand is expanding in the five to six percent range, in line with the historical trend. Efficiencies gained through mergers and joint ventures are delivering value to both passengers and shareholders. And product innovations are growing ancillary revenues.”

Since consumers' willingness to pay a fee to check a bag is boosting airlines' profits, what are consumers getting out of the deal? The improvement in system efficiencies that has helped the airlines save money has come at the expense of fewer flights and fuller planes. Direct flights, even between major cities, are fewer than in the past.

Paying for perks

However, consumers willing to pay extra for perks are finding commercial air travel a bit more tolerable. For example, airlines have added priority seating. Want to sit by a window? You can but there's a fee for that.

American Airlines offers a package of boarding perks that allows you to board with the first group, priority stand-by status if you need to take a earlier or later flight and a $75 discount on any change fee. By boarding early you get the early dibs on overhead bin space, which is at a premium these days with so many passengers trying to avoid checked-bag fees. The cost of the package varies depending on the flight.

Continental allows passengers to purchase extra legroom. The fee varies, depending on how long the flight takes and the market. For example, you would pay more for extra legroom on a flight from New York to Los Angeles than you would from St. Louis to Chicago.

JetBlue charges extra for “roomier” seats and Southwest offers an early-bird check-in for $10, placing you in the”A” boarding group. All airlines seem to be moving to allow some of their passengers increased comfort and convenience, for a price.

Lower fares

While consumers may gripe, the published air fares have actually gone down in inflation-adjusted dollars. Today you can fly round trip on JetBlue between New York and Los Angeles for less than $325. If you could have matched that fare in 1977, when airlines were regulated, the airfare in today's inflation-adjusted dollars would have been $1,249. So airlines are selling tickets for less but making it up by charging for things that, in 1977, were free.

Still, with all the fee-generated income, the airline industry said it could encounter new turbulence at any time.

“It’s a tough environment in which to run an airline,” said Tyler. “Competition is intense and yields are deteriorating. Cargo volumes haven’t grown since 2010 and cargo revenues are back at 2007 levels. The passenger business is expanding more robustly. Some airlines will out-perform our estimates and others will under-perform. But, on average, airlines will only make a net profit of about $5.94 per passenger in 2014.”

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New York vs. FedEx: new use for racketeering laws

Shinnecock Nation shipments in dispute

The RICO anti-racketeering laws originally intended to take down Mafiosi and other dangerous organized criminals are now being used against FedEx for shipp...

PhotoThe RICO anti-racketeering laws originally intended to take down Mafiosi and other dangerous organized criminals are now being used against FedEx for shipping items from the Shinnecock [Indian] Nation – specifically, the cigarette-selling Shinnecock Smoke Shop – to New Yorkers.

Courthouse News Service reports that New York City is outraged to learn that FedEx delivered Shinnecock cigarettes to New Yorkers, and claims that the city was therefore deprived of $15 tax on every such carton delivered, and is thus seeking $45 (thrice the damages) for every such carton.

The Shinnecock Nation is not named in the complaint, likely because it remains perfectly legal for them to sell untaxed cigarettes, so New York is using RICO in an attempt to collect tax money anyway. We can all sleep easy knowing that the dangerous racketeers of FedEx will soon be forced to cease their reign of terror.

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As in past years, the new year will start off with record high gas prices

The year-round average for 2013, however, will wind up being slightly below 2012

There may be lots to celebrate as 2013 winds down but there's at least one sour note: we'll be ringing in 2014 with the highest price on record for New Yea...

PhotoThere may be lots to celebrate as 2013 winds down but there's at least one sour note: we'll be ringing in 2014 with the highest price on record for New Year’s Day. 

In fact, this will be the fifth consecutive January 1 that Americans have paid more at the pump than the year prior and the fourth straight year with a new record to start the year, AAA reports. 

The national average prices to begin 2011, 2012 and 2013 were $3.07, $3.28 and $3.29 respectively.  Despite the recent run of record high starts, gas prices for the entire 2013 year averaged less than 2012 and prices in 2014 should be slightly lower than this year, barring any unforeseen market moving news. 

AAA expects lower prices to be facilitated by increased U.S. refining capacity and crude oil production.  These domestic factors help provide some insulation from the price impact of supply issues like refinery outages or international production concerns, however it’s possible that unexpected events or greater than forecast economic growth could result in higher prices for motorists in 2014.

Today’s national average price at the pump is $3.31 per gallon. This is six cents more expensive than one week ago, four cents more than one month ago and two cents more than the same date last year.  After falling on 19 of 22 days, the national average has now increased for 11 straight days.

The rising national average has been reflected across the country.  Motorists in every state are paying more at the pump than one week ago, and, while prices in four states have declined a penny or two per gallon over the last two weeks, motorists in four states have experienced more than 20-cent jumps during the same span.  

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So far, so good for housing prices

It's been a good year through the first 10 months of 2013

Housing prices in the first 10 months of 2013 have posted their best gains in nearly 8 years. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices -- a me...

PhotoHousing prices in the first 10 months of 2013 have posted their best gains in nearly 8 years.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices -- a measure of U.S. home prices -- the 10-City and 20-City Composites posted year-over-year gains of 13.6%. That's the highest gain since February 2006 and the seventeenth consecutive month that both Composites increased on an annual basis.

This past October, the two Composites inched up just 0.2%, with 18 cities posting lower monthly rates in October than in September. After 19 months of gains, San Francisco showed a slightly negative return, while Phoenix held onto its streak and posted its 25th consecutive increase.

A fading boom

“Home prices increased again in October,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Both Composites’ annual returns have been in double-digit territory since March 2013 and increasing; now up 13.6% in the year ending in October. However, monthly numbers show we are living on borrowed time and the boom is fading.

Thirteen cities and both Composites posted double-digit annual returns. Cities at the top of the range (Las Vegas, San Diego and San Francisco) saw smaller annual increases. On the other hand, cities that have been relatively underperforming (Cleveland, New York and Washington) saw their annual gains grow.

Miami showed the most improvement, and Chicago recorded its highest annual rate (+10.9%) since December 1988. Charlotte and Dallas posted annual increases of 8.8% and 9.7%, respectively -- their highest since the inception of their indices in 1987 and 2000.

The Fed factor

“The key economic question facing housing is the Fed’s future course to scale back quantitative easing and how this will affect mortgage rates,” said Blitzer. “Other housing data paint a mixed picture suggesting that we may be close to the peak gains in prices. However, other economic data point to somewhat faster growth in the new year. Most forecasts for home prices point to single digit growth in 2014.”

Ten cities posted positive monthly returns in October. Las Vegas showed the largest gain with an increase of 1.2%, followed by Miami with a 1.1% monthly gain. Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington were the nine cities that declined month-over-month; two of them -- Denver and Dallas -- are slightly off their peak set last month. New York remained flat. Only Charlotte and Miami accelerated on a monthly basis.

All 20 cities posted growth from October 2012 to October 2013, with 13 showing year-over-year acceleration in October from the month before. Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco continued to post increases of over 20%. Las Vegas maintained the lead, but its return decreased two percentage points to 27.1%. Miami’s annual rate increased the most -- from 14.3% in September to 15.8% in October.

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Lawsuit accuses websites of defamation, racketeering

Attorney says the sites posted false information, then tried to charge her to have it removed

A group of websites are being accused of posting false information about an attorney and then offering to remove the postings for $699. The attorney charge...

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Amazon's Kindle Fire blazed new trails over the holidays

Activations jumped 63% from the December average, far outpacing Apple

If you fired up a new Kindle Fire over the holidays, you were in good company -- so did millions of others. A report by the analytics firm Flurry says Kind...

PhotoIf you fired up a new Kindle Fire over the holidays, you were in good company -- so did millions of others. A report by the analytics firm Flurry says Kindle Fire activations on Christmas Day were 24 times the average for the first three weeks of December.

Apple and Samsung devices both turned in low single-digit gains. Apple was also outpaced in laptop sales, with Google Chromebook sales quadrupling during the first 11 months of the year. 

What do the Fire and the Chromebook have in common? That's right -- low price. The Kindle starts at $139 for the 7-inch model and you can pick up a Chromebook for $199.

In both cases, the devices are basically gateways to the goods and services their manufacturers are selling. Amazon sells the books, movies, music and thousands of other products that you can buy and, in some cases, consume through the Fire.

Ditto with the Chromebook. It exposes you to all things Google -- ads, a social network, books, movies, music ... well, you get that idea.

Of course, Apple has iTunes but its mercantile activities pale beside its competitors and it shows in the price of Apple's products. A MacBook Pro will set you back $1,400 or so and an iPad fetches $400 or more, depending on size and configuration. 

Amazon sells Kindle tablets at cost, putting them within the Christmas budgets of more people than some other devices. The reason Amazon sells tablets at cost is that they are a channel for promoting physical goods and promoting and delivering digital content,” stated a blog post today by Mary Ellen Gordon, Flurry’s head of research.

Amazon is stingy with sales information but said last week that it sold “millions” of Kindle devices during the holiday season. The Cyber Monday shopping weekend was the best ever for Kindle Fire tablets and Kindle e-readers. While impressive, its 24-fold increase in Christmas activations was down from 40-fold and 35-fold gains in each of the prior two years.

However, it should be noted that in the overall tablet market, Amazon doesn’t come close to challenging the share of Apple or Samsung, which had about 30% and 20%, respectively, of the market as of the third quarter, according to an IDC estimate. 

The most likely interpretation of that statistic is that we're willing to cheap out when buying presents but when the gift is for ourselves, we stick with higher-end merchandise.

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Source Eleven and Source Expert Disc bicycles recalled

The set screws in the front hub of the recalled bicycles can loosen

Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling about 173 2012 Source Eleven and Source Expert Disc bicycles with Supernova Switchable ...

PhotoSpecialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling about 173 2012 Source Eleven and Source Expert Disc bicycles with Supernova Switchable Dynamo Front Hubs

The set screws in the front hub of the recalled bicycles can loosen and stop the front wheel from turning, posing a fall hazard.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recalled products are 2012 model year Source Eleven and Source Expert Disc bicycles with Supernova Switchable Dynamo Front Hubs as part of the original equipment. The name “Specialized” is printed on the bicycle’s down tube and “Source Eleven” or “Source Expert” are printed on the top tube. The front hubs have “www.supernova-lights.com” and one of the following model numbers printed on them: 1207, 1208, 1226, 1227, 1228, 1241, 1254, 1263, 1284 and 1344.

The bicycles, manufactureed in Taiwan, were sold at authorized Specialized Bicycle dealers in the United States from October 2011, to September 2013, from about $2,000 to 2,700.

Customers should immediately stop riding the recalled bicycles and bring them to an authorized Specialized dealer for a free replacement front wheel and new Supernova front hub. A list of authorized dealers is available on the company's web site.

Consumers may contact Specialized Bicycle Components toll-free at (877) 808-8154 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Zoom car seat stroller adapter recalled

Adapter clips can loosen on the stroller frame

Joovy is recalling about 1,500 Zoom car seat adapters. Adapter clips can loosen on the stroller frame, posing a fall hazard. The firm has received nine r...

PhotoJoovy is recalling about 1,500 Zoom car seat adapters.

Adapter clips can loosen on the stroller frame, posing a fall hazard.

The firm has received nine reports of incidents involving loose adapters on stroller frames. There are no injuries reported.

This recall involves all Joovy’s Zoom gray metal car seat stroller adapters. The adapters are gray with black plastic clips designed to attach infant car seats to stroller frames. The adapter frame’s dimensions are approximately 17” x 13” x 10”. Recalled car seat adapter models include 00945 for Graco, 00946 for Chicco and 00947 for Peg Perego frames. “Joovy” and the model numbers can be found on the label at the center of the end bar of the adapter.

The car seat adapters, manufactured in China, were sold at independent specialty juvenile retailers and online at Joovy.com between May 2012, and August, 2013 for about $25.

Consumers should stop using these adapters and contact Joovy for a free repair kit to help assure proper attachment to Zoom stroller frames.

Consumers may contact Joovy toll-free at (855) 251-0759 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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How to start the new year with a savings plan

How you think about savings could be a key to your success

A key building block in personal finance is a savings plan yet few of us seem to have one. Instead, we have rising credit card debt.To turn things around...

PhotoA key building block in personal finance is a savings plan yet few of us seem to have one. Instead, we have rising credit card debt.

To turn things around in 2014 it may be necessary to change how you think about saving money. Australian researchers have found that taking a cyclical approach to saving, instead of the typical linear, goal-oriented approach, may be more effective at encouraging short-term savings.

“Americans seem to understand and believe in the importance of having an emergency fund, back-up savings, or simply ‘money in the bank’ — and yet, savings rates are still low,” said Leona Tam, psychological scientist at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia. “Our research suggests a new, alternative method to personal savings that we hope will help to bridge this gap.”

Overly optimistic

Setting abstract goals, says Tam, may not get you where you want to be. She says people who think about savings in linear terms may be overly optimistic, assuming they can always save more down the road.

A cyclical mindset, on the other hand, focuses on the series of interconnected recurring experiences that crop up on a regular basis. A cyclical mindset, the researchers say, should make people less likely to put off saving money by encouraging them to make concrete plans and decreasing overly optimistic thinking about the future.

The findings are based on a study using 145 subjects. One group was left to save money with the traditional, linear approach. The second group was instructed in the cyclical approach. The researchers said people in the cyclical mindset group were able to save more, at least in part, because they developed more concrete plans and were less optimistic about future money-making in comparison to their linear-thinking counterparts.

Just do it

Regardless of how you think about saving, the important thing is to start doing it, say personal finance experts. And no matter how you approach it, saving is not possible without either increasing your income or spending less than you are now. For many would-be savers, that's the problem.

If a raise or second job isn't in your future you'll have to find ways to cut back on current expenses, and most people don't like that idea. However, it might not be as unpleasant as you think.

Cameron Huddleston, a contributing editor at Kiplinger's, recently added up the savings from a few simple steps. Most people can save, she says, by reducing telecommunications charges.

Going wireless

Photo“You need to evaluate whether you really need that landline,” Huddleston said. “Are you using it enough to justify the expense? You could be saving $30 to $40 a month if you can get by with just your cell phone.”

There may also be ways to save on your cellphone plan. For example, how much of your monthly data allotment do you really use. By accessing your account records you can check you usage over the last few months. If you are paying for more data than you really need, you could drop down to a smaller monthly allotment.

Another area where consumers can save is by reviewing their insurance coverage. Premiums are affected by the policy's deductible – the amount a driver or homeowner pays on a claim. By raising the deductible – and assuming more of the risk – the consumer pays a smaller premium.

“I saved by doing this myself,” Huddleston said. “I shaved about $300 off my annual premium by boosting my deductible from $1,000 to $2,000. That's a savings of about $25 a month. You can also do the same thing with your auto insurance. It's also a good idea to do this, especially with homeowner's insurance, because you don't want to be tempted to file small claims, which will just lead to increased premiums.”

Getting real about money

Honestly assessing your financial performance can be another way to get a handle on savings. The first step is to track where the money is going. People sometime avoid doing this because they fear the reality of their spending will force them to make unpleasant changes. However, knowing where money is spent puts a person in control, allowing them to spend mindfully instead of mindlessly.

Adding up your total debt is another unpleasant task, but one you need to do before you can launch an effective savings plan. Once all debt is totaled, review the interest rates for each obligation. Next, total the dollar amount of interest paid each month, and consider how that money could be used if it weren't going to service debt.

As you begin to face reality you'll become more aware of seemingly innocent habits that are creating a money drain. Looking back at a month's spending through the lens of hindsight can add a new perspective to future.

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Researchers suggest new way to kick the smoking habit

And it doesn't include making a New Year's resolution

It's the time of year for New Years resolutions and, if you are still a smoker, chances are kicking the habit is high on your list. And chances are it was ...

PhotoIt's the time of year for New Years resolutions and, if you are still a smoker, chances are kicking the habit is high on your list. And chances are it was last year as well.

A study by researchers at a number of institutions, including the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, finds that smokers start off resolute in early January but often are back where they started by Groundhog Day. That may be a fitting reference since the researchers say smokers often go through the same thing actor Bill Murray did in the classic film “Groundhog Day,” reliving the same experience over and over.

To try to learn why that happens the researchers say they monitored the search query logs from Google from 2008 to 2012, looking for searches related to quitting, such as "help quit smoking." Specifically, they were looking for weekly patterns in smoking cessation. They found them.

Mondays are quitting day

The study found that people look for information about quitting smoking more often early in the week, with the highest query volumes on Mondays. The pattern was consistent across six languages -- English, French, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Why is that important? The researchers suggest a global predisposition to thinking about quitting smoking early in the week, particularly on Mondays. That, they say, suggests smokers are more receptive to anti-smoking messages on Mondays.

“On New Year’s Day, interest in smoking cessation doubles,” said the study’s lead author, John Ayers of San Diego State University. “But New Years happens one day a year. Here we’re seeing a spike that happens once a week.”

That means a New Years resolution to quit smoking is not that important. What happens, for example, if you make it for several days but then lapse back into the habit? Usually it means another uninterrupted year of smoking.

Make it a weekly ritual

PhotoA better approach to discouraging smoking, the study suggests, is a weekly campaign. That way if someone is successful for a short while but falls back into the habit, they get another opportunity right away for a “reset,” in effect starting their New Years resolution all over again.

Previous research has found that it takes seven to 10 attempts to quit before someone finally gives up cigarettes. Reaching them once a week can compress the timeline of the quitting process.

“People around the world are starting the week with intentions to quit smoking – if we can connect those people at school, work and communities we can make a regular ‘Monday Quit’ the cultural norm,” said Morgan Johnson, director of programs and research at the Monday Campaigns and another co-author of the Google paper.

If you are a smoker who is trying to quit, there are several ways you can incorporate this philosophy into your efforts to stop smoking. For starters, seek some positive reinforcement.

What to do

Find people you know who have been able to stop smoking and, at the beginning of each week, seek encouragement from them. If you make it through a week without a cigarette, celebrate.

Take a few minutes every Monday to reflect on the progress you made over the previous week and make a plan for the upcoming week. Write down any cravings you had and how you overcame them, and record any upcoming triggers you may face in the current week.

Use Mondays as a time to recalibrate and recharge your commitment. Start each week reminding yourself of the reasons you decided to quit in the first place.

Reward yourself. If you make it through a week without lighting up, use the money you may have saved on buying cigarettes to treat yourself to a movie, go out to dinner, or whatever reward you think will keep you motivated to stay quit for good.

Finally, don't beat yourself up if you cave. Most smokers do before they finally stop. Remember that you can start the process all over each Monday.

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Lawsuit: insider trading, ethics problems at Angie's List

Pay for play, pump and dump activities alleged

A federal class action lawsuit charges that executives of the popular consumer site Angie's List used false and misleading statements to inflate the compan...

Photo
Angela R. Hicks Bowman

A federal class action lawsuit charges that executives of the popular consumer site Angie's List used false and misleading statements to inflate the company's stock price and engaged in ethically questionable business practices by allegedly forcing companies to pay for favorable ratings and "hot leads" from prospective customers, Courthouse News Service reported.

Lead plaintiffs Eva and Harold Baron charge that Angie's List failed to disclose that it was issuing free subscriptions to inflate its subscriber list while, on the other side of its business, forcing companies to pay hefty fees in exchange for favorable ratings and customer referrals despite its advertising claim that "You can't pay to be on Angie's List."

The suit charges that executives of the company inflated the company's stock price with misleading statements throughout 2013, then sold off much of their own stock for more than $13 million.

"Angie's List believes the securities suit is without merit and will vigorously defend itself against this lawsuit," said spokeswoman Cheryl Reed.

The suit names Angie's List Inc., CEO William S. Oesterle, Chief Marketing Officer Angela R. Hicks Bowman, Controller and Interim CFO Charles Hundt, CFO Robert R. Millard and Chief Technology Officer Thapar Manu.

The suit alleges that Angie's List stock reached a high of more than $28 per share on July 18, the day on which "certain of the individual defendants cashed in" by selling portions of their holdings.

"False and misleading"

The Barons claim that the company's growth and revenue forecasts were false and misleading because they failed to disclose key facts, including: 

  • "that the legitimacy of the service provider side of Angie's List's business model was dubious, as service providers were forced to pay Angie's List thousands of dollars a year in order to be listed as highly rated service providers, and if they did not, they would not get customer referrals from Angie's List;
  • "that Angie's List did not vet the service providers listed and recommended on its website, either for qualifications or for safety, leading many consumers to question the value of its recommendations, causing them to be unwilling to pay outsized membership fees."

On Sept. 30, defendant Manu was fired and the share price dropped by 10 percent in one day, falling to $20.30 on Oct. 1, the suit charges. By Oct. 24, the share price was down to $14.64, nearly half what it was when the company executives sold their shares.

The Barons seek class certification and damages for securities violations.

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No, Johns Hopkins did not discover a dietary cure for cancer

Groundbreaking medical advances are NOT introduced to the world via misspelled emails

We feel equal parts sympathy and admiration for a certain unnamed staff member working for the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center attached to the Jo...

PhotoWe feel equal parts sympathy and admiration for a certain unnamed staff member working for the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center attached to the Johns Hopkins Medical School — specifically, whichever staff member had to update the Johns Hopkins webpage to tell everybody: “Cancer Update Email — It’s a Hoax!”

What follows is a long and detailed list of false claims and rebuttals—starting with the following explanation:

Information falsely attributed to Johns Hopkins called, "CANCER UPDATE FROM JOHN HOPKINS" describes properties of cancer cells and suggests ways of preventing cancer.  Johns Hopkins did not publish the information, which often is an email attachment, nor do we endorse its contents.  The email also contains an incorrect spelling of our institution as "John" Hopkins; whereas, the correct spelling is "Johns" Hopkins. For more information about cancer, please read the information on our web site or visit the National Cancer Institute.  Please help combat the spread of this hoax by letting others know of this statement.

Another hoax email that has been circulating since 2004 regarding plastic containers, bottles, wrap claiming that heat releases dioxins which cause cancer also was not published by Johns Hopkins.  More information from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

…. Emails offering easy remedies for avoiding and curing cancer are the latest Web-influenced trend. To gain credibility, the anonymous authors falsely attribute their work to respected research institutions like Johns Hopkins. This is the case with the so-called “Cancer Update from Johns Hopkins.”

The gist of this viral email is that cancer therapies of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy do not work against the disease and people should instead choose a variety of dietary strategies…. 

 

We admire whoever wrote this because it introduces a plain, straightforward list of hoax claims followed by factual rebuttals, with nothing to indicate that the writer is incredibly annoyed and frustrated at having to waste valuable research time repeatedly publishing rebuttals to ridiculous claims.

Here is a prediction: one of these days, possibly even in our own lifetimes, a brilliant medical genius is going to discover something wonderful -- possibly a cure for cancer, a vaccine for AIDS, maybe the secret to halting the aging process at 26 years old.

And when this happens, said medical genius (or her university’s public-relations staff) will definitely announce this discovery to the world — and that announcement will initially appear in a peer-reviewed medical journal, not in the badly misspelled email Aunt Gertrude forwarded you after she got a copy from a buddy in her bridge club.

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Man claims pornography came pre-loaded on his new Nintendo device

Always check new electronics before giving them to your kids

Usually, when you buy a computer or video-game system, any pre-installed software is considered a nice bonus. But that’s assuming you both want and expect ...

PhotoUsually, when you buy a computer or video-game system, any pre-installed software is considered a nice bonus. But that’s assuming you both want and expect said software, and if you’re buying a video-game system for your kids, chances are you neither want nor expect it to come pre-loaded with pornography.

So it’s a good thing you’re not Tom Mayhew of Hampton, Va., who told local news station WAVY that the Nintendo DS he bought from a local Walmart for his 8-year-old son turned out to have exactly such images on it. And of course, since Mayhew had family visiting for the holiday, it wasn’t only his son who discovered the images on his game system; pretty much all the younger members of the extended Mayhew clan made this discovery at once.

Mayhew told WAVY that he bought the Nintendo game console on Dec. 23, but the obscene images on it were time-stamped in early December. Walmart has not responded to WAVY’s request for comment.

Assuming Mayhew’s story is correct, the most likely explanation is that somebody bought the Nintendo and returned it to Walmart for whatever reason – whether an honest change of heart, or possibly some weird prankish desire to pre-load pornographic pictures onto a kids’ gaming device.

Not the first time

In fairness to both Walmart and Nintendo, this is hardly the first time somebody was surprised by the discovery of old porn on a supposedly new item.

As early as 2003, the BBC reported the story of a British couple who’d bought a “new” digital camera at a respectable department store and found the memory stick pre-loaded with explicit imagery. And only two months ago, a man in New Zealand claimed his son found pre-loaded porn on a new phone.

Though such stories are pretty easy to find online, they’re still very rare compared to the hundreds of millions of electronics sold every year. The chance that you personally will ever find such a surprise on your own newly bought devices is very small — but nonetheless, if you’re giving electronic items as a gift (especially to a minor), even if the items appear brand-new, direct from the manufacturer and still in their original wrapping, it’s a good idea to open and test these items before you give them to their intended recipient — partially to make sure all its features work as they’re supposed to, but also to check against any extra features you’d rather not have your kids exposed to.

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Pending home sales inch higher in November

Strong growth this year may level off in 2014

Monthly increases in the South and West offset declines in the Northeast and Midwest, pushing pending home sales slightly higher in November. The National...

PhotoMonthly increases in the South and West offset declines in the Northeast and Midwest, pushing pending home sales slightly higher in November.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) edged up 0.2% to 101.7 last month from a downwardly revised 101.5 in October. That puts it 1.6% below November 2012 when it was 103.3. The data reflect contracts but not closings.

The market is showing signs of flattening. “We may have reached a cyclical low because the positive fundamentals of job creation and household formation are likely to foster a fairly stable level of contract activity in 2014,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Although the final months of 2013 are finishing on a soft note, the year as a whole will end with the best sales total in seven years.”

He notes that the market still favors buyers in most of the country, but says higher mortgage interest rates in combination with strong price gains mean a more modest growth in values is expected in 2014.

The regional tally

The PHSI, a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, declined 2.7% to 82.6 in the Northeast, but is 1.9% above a year ago;

in the Midwest the index fell 3.1% to 100.6, but is 0.4% higher than November 2012;

pending home sales in the South jumped 2.3% to a reading of 116.1, and is up 0.1% from a year ago; and

the index in the West rose 1.8% to 95.0, but is 8.7% below the same time last year, due partly to inventory constraints.

The forecast

Total existing-home sales this year are expected to reach 5.1 million -- a gain of almost 10% over 2012, and then stay at that level in 2014, before rising to 5.3 million the following year.

The national median existing-home price for all of this year will be close to $197,300 -- a gain of nearly 12% from last year, but is projected to rise at a more moderate pace of 5 to 5.5% in 2014, and grow another 4% in 2015.

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Surgery not effective in age-related knee problems, Finnish study finds

Exercise and rehabilitation just as effective as surgery, with much less risk and expense

Getting older wouldn't be so bad if only the knees didn't age along with the rest of us. Knee pain is very common and so, therefore, is knee surgery. But a...

PhotoGetting older wouldn't be so bad if only the knees didn't age along with the rest of us. Knee pain is very common and so, therefore, is knee surgery. But a new Finnish study finds that surgery is no more effective than exercise and rehabilitation.

The most common diagnosis of the knee that requires treatment is a tear in the meniscus, for which the established form of treatment is the partial removal of the meniscus through keyhole surgery. Most of the treated meniscal tears are degenerative. This means that the tear was not caused by a traumatic incident on a healthy knee, but normal aging.

"This operation has become the most common orthopaedic surgical procedure, or in fact any surgical procedure next to cataract surgery, in nearly all Western countries. Nearly 12,000 partial meniscectomies are done in Finland every year. In the United States, the number is close to a million," said Raine Sihvonen, a specialist in orthopedics and trauma from Hatanpää Hospital in Tampere, Finland.

Sihvonen and colleagues compared surgical treatment of degenerative meniscal tears to placebo surgery. A year after the procedure the study participants, both those in the group who underwent surgery and the ones in the placebo group, had an equally low incidence of symptoms and were satisfied with the overall situation of their knee.

"These results show that surgery is not an effective form of treatment in such cases. It's difficult to imagine that such a clear result would result in no changes to treatment practices," said Teppo Järvinen, a professor at the University of Helsinki.

The study included 146 participants, ranging between 35 and 65 years of age. The study participants were randomly assigned to undergo either an arthroscopic partial meniscectomy or placebo surgery where the procedure was simulated.

In the simulated procedure, the patient's knee was manipulated and instruments associated with meniscectomy brought to the outside of the knee, giving the patient an impression of a normal procedure. No one involved in the study knew whether the patient was in the meniscectomy or placebo group.

A year after the surgery, the patients were asked about the healing of the knee, symptoms they had experienced, as well as their satisfaction with the treatment and its results. The patients were also asked which group they believed they had been in and whether they would be willing to choose the treatment they had received, if they had to make the same decision as they did in the previous year.

In both groups, most patients were satisfied with the status of their knee and believed their knee felt better than before the procedure. Of the patients who underwent the partial meniscectomy, 93% would choose the same treatment, while 96% of those in the placebo group would choose the same.

"Based on these results, we should question the current line of treatment according to which patients with knee pain attributed to a degenerative meniscus tear are treated with partial removal of the meniscus, as it seems clear that instead of surgery, the treatment of such patients should hinge on exercise and rehabilitation," Järvinen states.

"By ceasing the procedures which have proven ineffective, we would avoid performing 10,000 useless surgeries every year in Finland alone", Sihvonen points out. "The corresponding figure for US is at least 500,000 surgeries," he said.

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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New site predicts how much bandwidth an app will use

It's intended to help consumers keep control of their wireless usage ... and bills

You want to find the car that gives you the best mileage and the refrigerator that won't inflate your electricity bill to the size of the national debt, ri...

PhotoYou want to find the car that gives you the best mileage and the refrigerator that won't inflate your electricity bill to the size of the national debt, right?

So it stands to reason you'll want to know how much expensive bandwidth that new app you -- or you offspring -- are thinking of loading onto your smartphone. That's the thinking behind a new website put together by CTIA-The Wireless Association, the oddly-named trade association of the cell phone industry.

There are already tools that will tally up data usage after the fact but CTIA says KnowMyApp.org is the first one to give you a heads-up before you hit the download button.

Visitors to KnowMyApp.org may search by name, operating systems or categories. After locating and clicking the desired app, users will find the following information:

  • How the app was tested;
  • How much data is used when downloaded, at initialization (both first and subsequent start-ups to analyze caching), during active run time and during background time;
  • How the app impacts data plans (i.e., 300 MB, 1 GB, 2 GB and 4 GB); and
  • How users can conserve data usage.

Currently, KnowMyApp.org includes test results for the 50 top paid and free apps from Apple and Google stores with more being tested and added each month.

For example, here's what the site has to say about the Netflix app for Android:

Photo

To put it plainly, watch a few video shorts each day and watch your monthly bandwidth allotment disappear.

CTIA is also providing tips and best practices guides to app develpers to help them develop apps that don't consumer gigantic amounts of broadband.

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Google Chromebooks sales sizzling, at Apple's expense

Microsoft making progress with its tablets if nothing else

Google's Chromebooks are humble little machines, with tiny hard drives, modest processors and low-resolution screens. They will only run apps through the C...

PhotoGoogle's Chromebooks are humble little machines, with tiny hard drives, modest processors and low-resolution screens. They will only run apps through the Chrome browser. If the Macbook Pro is a BMW, the Chromebook is a Ford Fiesta.

But guess what? They sell for as little as $199 and they do just about everything most people need -- which is turning out to be bad news for Apple and Microsoft.

Though supported only by a minimal advertising campaign, the Chromebooks and their cousins, Android-powered tablets, have turned in sizzling sales through November 2013, selling 1.76 million units compared to just 400,000 in 2012, according to the marketing research firm NPD.

Chromebooks accounted for 21 percent of all notebook sales, up from a negligible share in the prior year, and 8 percent of all computer and tablet sales through November, up from one tenth of a percent in 2012 – the largest share increase across the various product segments.

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Source: NPD

“The market for personal computing devices in commercial markets continues to shift and change,” said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis, NPD.  “New products like Chromebooks, and reimagined items like Windows tablets, are now supplementing the revitalization that iPads started in personal computing devices.”

In other words, Apple pioneered the tablet market and others are now capitalizing on it.

No reason to buy anything else

If you look at it objectively, and if your computing needs are relatively normal, there is really no reason to buy anything other than a Chromebook. It does just about everything -- word processing, email, chat, spreadsheets, graphics and photo manipulation -- via the Internet without your having to buy any expensive software. It is also relatively impervious to viruses and it updates itself effortlessly and quickly with a single click.

Windows 8, on the other hand, seems to delight in making you drum your fingers while it goes through its update routine. The other day, I fired up the Windows 8 machine I keep in the office for testing purposes (a/k/a grins and giggles) and sat through 18 minutes of updates, requiring five -- count them, five -- restarts.

OK, I hadn't used the machine for a few weeks and I don't leave it running when it's not in use because it is more virus-infested than a tick-ridden dog, but really -- 18 minutes to update? My Chromebook Pixel does it with a simple restart, which takes about 10 seconds.

Despite that, Windows has been making impressive gains. Windows desktops  increased by nearly 10 percent and Apple sales for notebooks and desktops combined fell by 7 percent during the first 11 months of 2013.

And despite what you may have read, the market for computers of all kinds has been anything but dead this year, NPD reports. Year to date through November 2013, 14.4 million desktops, notebooks, and tablets were sold through U.S. commercial channels, leading to a 25.4 percent increase over 2012. That stellar performance follows the 3.1 percent sales increase experienced in 2012.

Having said all that, we must add that anyone looking for the most economical, robust, flexible and powerful operating system needs to look at Linux. There is nothing better than Linux Mint for those who want the advantages of the Chromebook without being attached quite so securely to Google.  

 

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FOSFOREL herring fillet in oil recalled

The product may be contaminated with Listeria

Zip International Group of Edison, N.J.,, is recalling herring fillet in oil (FOSFOREL, ATLANTIKA) 200 grams in plastic packaging due to Listeria monocytog...

PhotoZip International Group of Edison, N.J.,, is recalling herring fillet in oil (FOSFOREL, ATLANTIKA) 200 grams in plastic packaging due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

The recalled product, which is imported from Russia, includes best by dates 18/01/2014 (UPC: 4607106577526). The best by date is located on the round side of the packaging and was sold to retail grocery stores in New York State beginning on 11/07/2013 and ending on 12/12/2013.

Similar recalls were issued earlier this month and in late July.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled product should not consume it, but should return it to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 732-225-3600, from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM EST, Monday through Friday.

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Giant Eagle recalls Candy Place chocolate Santas

The candies contain peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label

Giant Eagle is recalling 11-oz. packages of Candy Place chocolate Santas due to an undeclared peanut allergen. While the individual peanut butter filled...

PhotoGiant Eagle is recalling 11-oz. packages of Candy Place chocolate Santas due to an undeclared peanut allergen.

While the individual peanut butter filled candies reference “peanut butter,” peanuts are not listed as an ingredient on the primary package label. The product is safe for consumption by those who do not have a peanut allergy.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The affected product was sold in 11-ounce packages with the UPC code 3003407341, and included chocolate, caramel and peanut butter varieties of chocolate candy.

Approximately 1,100 customers have purchased the product in Giant Eagle supermarkets in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland since October 1, 2013.

Consumers may return affected product to any Giant Eagle supermarket location for a full refund.

Questions may be directed to George J. Howe Company, the manufacturer, at 1-800-367-4693 between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. EST Monday through Friday.    

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Ford recalls Lincoln MKZ Hybrids

The transmission range sensor may not function properly

Ford Motor Company is recalling 7,153 model year 2013-2014 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid vehicles manufactured April 26, 2012, through September 24, 2013. Due to a ...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 7,153 model year 2013-2014 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid vehicles manufactured April 26, 2012, through September 24, 2013.

Due to a manufacturing error, the transmission range sensor may not function properly allowing the affected vehicles to be shifted out of the Park position without first applying the brake pedal. Without requiring the brake to be pressed, the vehicle may be unintentionally shifted out of Park, allowing it to roll which may result in a crash.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will update the Powertrain Control Module (PCM) with new software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in January 2014.

Customers may contact Ford at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 13C09.

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Top diet trends for 2014: paleo, gluten-free

The bad news: Consumers increasingly ignore science in making dietary decisions

The commercials for weight loss programs have already begun. Chances are January will bring even more as consumers resolve to improve their health and drop...

PhotoThe commercials for weight loss programs have already begun. Chances are January will bring even more as consumers resolve to improve their health and drop pounds in the year ahead.

Today's Dietitian, an professional journal, surveyed 500 registered dietitians to determine what's hot and what's not when it comes to diet. What emerged was a list of trends that may influence what you buy and eat in 2014.

According to the consensus, the trend away from bread – specifically wheat – should get stronger in the coming year. The Paleo diet and gluten-free food products will continue to command attention from consumers, even though it's been shown that avoiding gluten has almost no health benefits except for people with disorders making them sensitive to the substance.

"Despite the lack of evidence to support wheat- or gluten-elimination diets for weight loss or health – not associated with a clinical disorder or disease – consumers are still looking for ways to control their weight," said Jenna A. Bell, Senior Vice President and Director of Food & Wellness at Pollock Communications, which conducted the survey.

Caveman diet

Just over half of the dietitians in the survey agreed that the Paleo diet, gluten-free or "wheat belly" would top the list of most popular diet fads for 2014. The Paleo diet, also known as the “caveman diet,” consists mostly of fish, free-range meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. Paleo dieters avoid processed oils, refined sugars, grains, refined salt and potatoes.

Not all grains are bad, apparently. The dietitians in the survey cited “ancient grains” as another top diet trend for 2014. Consumers are increasingly buying bread made with quinoa, amaranth, spelt and Kamut, which are considered ancient grains.

These grains are valued for their whole grains, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, and they're supposedly safe for people with wheat allergies or celiac disease, a gluten intolerance.

Hot vegetable

PhotoWhen it comes to vegetables, kale is quickly rising up the diet hit parade. A green leafy vegetable, kale provides high levels of beta carotene, vitamins K and C and is rich in calcium. In the American south Kale is often served braised, either by itself or mixed with other greens such as collard, mustard or turnip.

When it comes to ingredients, 37% of dietitians in the survey report that coconut oil is all the rage, followed by omega-3 and ALA-rich chia seeds. Chia sees are said to help reduce food cravings, making it easier for you to stay on a diet.

What food fads are losing favor? The dietitians in the survey predict “low fat” will fall flat in 2014. The demand for foods low in carbs is likely to remain strong, they say, but there is less demand for low-fat products. In fact, the dietitians predict that the-low fat diet will be the least talked about plan for 2014.

Too much bad information

A negative trend, according to the dietitians, is a growing amount of nutritional information in the public sphere that is simply wrong. The dietitians report that most consumers base their nutritional information on personal beliefs and half-truths rather than published peer-reviewed research. And, 75% of those in the survey say that there will still be a lot of misinformation to digest in 2014.

Where do you get good nutritional information? Overwhelmingly the nutrition pros recommend MyPlate, the replacement for the government's food pyramid. MyPlate is part of a larger communication initiative based on 2010 dietary guidelines to help consumers make better food choices.

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How the secret eBay watch monopoly ruined Christmas

This story would make a terrible holiday TV special, and wasn't much better in real life

Even savvy professional consumer journalists aren't immune to scam attempts...

PhotoI hope your Christmas was less aggravating than mine. While you were presumably basking in the benefits of Santa’s largesse, I spent the week trying and failing to buy my niece a Christmas present from a recalcitrant Chinese watch-seller on eBay.

Which, by itself, wouldn’t be worth mentioning — but when I tried taking my business to a different seller, I discovered that multiple “different” watch manufacturers and peddlers on eBay are fronts for the same seller.

eBay did not respond to a ConsumerAffairs request for comment on this story.

Here’s what happened: I own a mechanical-skeleton-watch necklace, a piece of jewelry that looks like a little glass sphere from a distance but is actually a windup watch with its brass gears and internal workings all visible inside the glass. I bought it from a Chinese seller on eBay a couple of years ago; it looks like a Victorian antique but is actually modern and mass-produced, and identical watch necklaces are readily found on eBay for well under $20.

When I wore mine while visiting my sibling a few months ago, my 8-year-old niece was absolutely fascinated by the watch. Between that and how inexpensively they’re listed on eBay, I figured buying her a similar necklace for Christmas was a no-brainer, right?

Another seller

eBay Dec. 27, 2013, 7:44 p.m.
Consumers rate eBay

So I searched and found one from an eBay seller called “direct.mart,” for $12.99, shipping included; I paid for the item Nov. 30, figuring that would leave plenty of time for a package mailed from Hong Kong to arrive in time for Christmas.

On Dec. 19, the Thursday before Christmas, I left home to visit friends in another state. Checking the mail just before I left, I was relieved to see a small box from Hong Kong – my niece’s necklace! Or so I thought, but inside I found not a woman’s pendant watch but a man’s wristwatch (and a rather ugly one at that).

I shoved the watch in my suitcase (remember, I was literally heading out the door for a ten-hour drive), and in my hotel room that night, I logged on to eBay’s customer support, reported “The item doesn't match the seller's description” and, from the available options, requested “a replacement item” in lieu of a refund.

Next morning, the seller responded with an apology and a request for a photo of the wristwatch:

" Hi there, I am so sorry to hear that. The logistic department made a mistake and sent you the wrong item? Would you mind sending a picture about the issue for us? So we can check more and avoid this happening again? …. Thank you for your help on this matter. Please don't worry and trust me, after I confirm the issue, I will offer you the best solution and resolve the problem for you. Looking forward to hearing from you. Regards, Kate"

A reasonable request, I thought; eBay and PayPal (mandatory for all eBay payments) are occasionally notorious for adopting a “seller is always wrong policy,” and dishonest buyers can easily get undeserved refunds by falsely claiming items lost. I sent a photo of the wristwatch, along with a note emphasizing that I would prefer a replacement necklace in lieu of a refund.

Three days passed before the seller wrote back, at 8:05 p.m. on Dec. 23:

"Hi there, I really too sad the logistic department made a mistake and sent out double cost more expensive item to instead. It is really too heavy loss to little profit shop. I really cry for that. I wounder if you like me refund you USD3.00 to compensate it? As you see the white one is very luxury and come with a box. It is great as a gift for your family or friend. Please update me your idea and if you like it? We are honest seller on ebay, we will resolve any problem for you . please don't worry, friend. Hope to hear from you soon. Very so sorry about the inconvenience. Best regards, Kate"

Ugly wristwatch

I pay $13 for a girl’s necklace, and she offers me three bucks and a man’s ugly wristwatch in return? “Cry me an [obscenity deleted] river,” I muttered in a most un-festive tone, just before sending this message at 8:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve:  "The mistake is indeed sad, as I wanted a skeleton-watch necklace as a present for an 8-year-old girl, and the man's wristwatch I received instead is impossibly too big for her. I would prefer a refund of my full $12.99, so I can buy another present for my niece."

I still wanted a necklace, but concluded that “Kate” and direct.mart wouldn’t be a reliable source. No problem, I thought; plenty of sellers on eBay offer similar if not identical watches. I’ll just have to pay a little extra for fast shipping, to get the watch before I meet my family after the New Year.

A seller named “summersunny1688” offered a similar skeleton-watch necklace and shipping for $15.88, delivery estimated before New Year’s Eve, so I tried buying the necklace with the “Buy it Now” option and saw a message I’d never seen before in the ten-plus years I’ve had an eBay buyer’s account: a pop-up window asking “Buying more items from this seller?” and telling me I had to add the item to my “cart” in order to combine my order and receive any discounts from the seller.

Photo

Except I had no idea I was buying “more items from this seller” — and that brouhaha regarding my niece’s necklace was the only eBay transaction I had going on. I kept checking auctions and buy-now options from different seller names, but every attempt to buy or bid on a watch netted me the same invitation to add a purchase “to my cart.”

Dang. So much for taking my business elsewhere. I sent the seller another message, informing her that I knew my attempts to buy a necklace elsewhere wouldn’t work, and reiterating that I either wanted a replacement necklace, or a full refund as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, my eye landed on the cheap cardboard gift box holding the “double cost more expensive” man’s wristwatch I’d received in lieu of a little girl’s necklace. How much was it worth, anyway? I did a bit of searching and needed almost no time to find an eBay seller offering an identical watch; I sent direct.mart the link and told them: “the allegedly ‘double cost more expensive’ wristwatch you sent me sells elsewhere on eBay for as little as $1.99 plus $1 shipping, far less than the $12.99 I paid for the necklace watch.”

Bad move, because the next time the seller responded, she completely ignored my customer-service issue in order to defend the honor, integrity and giftworthiness of the “double cost more expensive” wristwatch:

“Dear friend, the link you sent me sell 3 items ad the price $1.89 for box only, you can check it from the Band Color: button. And the one you received in our shop high quality and Price: US $19.99 We are honest seller on ebay, we never lie to my buyer. Hope to hear from your idea. I will solve the problem for you . Sincerely apologies to bring you the inconvenience, friend. Best regards, Helen"

Reminder: this is how I spent my Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning I sent the seller a terse message: “I want either the pendant watch I actually ordered and paid for, OR I want my full $12.99 refunded.”

And the day after Christmas, the seller made the following counter-offer:

“Hi, I can fully understand you feeling. Sincerely apologies for this accident. I wonder if you could help to bear part of the postage USD6.00 and I resend you the pendant watch? And you keep the one you received and don't need to return? Would you like it? Don't worry, we will resolve it for you soon. Sincerely apologies again,friend. Regards, Kate "

Facepalm. I told her I would not pay additional costs to cover her mistake, had no use for the wristwatch, and wanted either the necklace or a full refund of all money I paid — though I did offer to send the wristwatch back if she sent me a self-addressed stamped envelope along with the necklace.

She told me that the watch supplier was now “on holiday” but offered to refund all my money; that’s where matters stand as of press time.

Meanwhile, I wondered: how many other eBay sellers have multiple named accounts for the same business?  EBay’s “policy review” states that “There are many reasons why users would choose to have more than one eBay account. For example, users who like to buy and sell may want separate accounts for each activity. Other users who maintain businesses on eBay may prefer to manage separate accounts for different product lines.”  

But there’s no mention of sellers managing separate accounts for identical product lines — then again, they’re not really separate “accounts” but only separate “names,” as my attempts to buy necklaces from “different” sellers proved.

Thus far, eBay’s media-relations department hasn’t responded to my emailed questions asking how many different names or accounts the average large-scale eBay seller has, or what percentage have only the one account for a given product line versus those with several. And I’m still trying to find a good Christmas-gift idea for my niece.

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Crooks fly free on Qatar Airways?

Fraudsters are stopped at the gate but the airline then lets them go

What can happen if someone steals your credit or debit card info? Well, one of the most common consequences is the immediate purchase of one or more high-p...

PhotoWhat can happen if someone steals your credit or debit card info? Well, one of the most common consequences is the immediate purchase of one or more high-priced international airline tickets.

Airlines are aware of this and most try to guard against it by matching the credit card data against the name and address information submitted by the passenger. Not every airline does this, however, and a consumer named Victor would nominate Qatar Airways as one of the top offenders.

Victor, who is based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., recently found $3,000 worth of bogus charges on his debit card -- one, a $1,700 ticket and the other a $1,300 passage, both from Italy to India on Qatar Airways. Victor doesn't know anyone in either country and hasn't been there recently. 

Curious as to how this could have happened, Victor went to the Qatar site and walked through the ticket-ordering process. 

"I discovered that Qatar Airlines only requests the information that is listed on a person's debit/credit card to book a plane ticket for anywhere in the world. Every other company that I know of requires customers to also provide the address that is associated with the debit/credit card, but Qatar Airlines doesn't," he told ConsumerAffairs.

"I quickly learned that Qatar Airlines makes it easy for anyone to get scammed through their website which is plain and simple negligence. Per one of their supervisors, it happens often," Victor said in his original posting earlier this month.

No comment

We contacted Qatar on Dec. 23, asking their press representative to look into the matter but did not receive even a stock reply. 

Since Qatar ignored our request for information, we tried to duplicate the process Victor complained of. We began the process of booking a quick three-day trip from Rome to Delhi on Qatar, using the name of our fine colleague Truman Lewis. This would have set Truman back €1,505 (or about US$2,079) had he not refused to let us borrow his credit card.  

We ordered Truman a special meal -- gluten-free vegetarian -- and the booking process moved along quite nicely. When we got to the payment page, we were unable to replicate Victor's experience. The Qatar site wanted the cardholder's billing address and warned that the card would need to be presented at check-in.

PhotoCould it be that Qatar has in fact cleaned up its procedure? Could Victor have been mistaken? We'll never know, thanks to Qatar's highly unusual failure to even acknowledge our inquiry.

Victor digs deeper 

Whatever Qatar may have done or not done, one thing it definitely didn't do was bestir itself to apprehend the villains. 

Qatar Airways Dec. 27, 2013, 3:05 p.m.
Consumers rate Qatar Airways

"I called Qatar Airlines and asked for information about the travelers who fraudulently purchased tickets through my bank account. An employee gave me their names, date/time of travel (which was about 4 hours from that time), and the places where they were traveling to/from," Victor said. "A supervisor quickly got on the phone and stated that they can not provide any additional information and that the best that they could do to stop them is to request that they present the credit card that was used to purchase the plane tickets."

Sounds kind of exciting, doesn't it? The crooks being headed off at the pass, so to speak. Perhaps, but the story ends more with a whimper than with a bang.

You might think that, once Qatar had found the fraudsters' identity that the Carabinieri or the India Police or someone similar would be summoned to round up the ticket rustlers and herd them off to jail. But it didn't happen that way.

"I was later informed that these individuals were not allowed to travel but the authorities were not contacted," Victor said. In other words, the crooks got off scot-free, missing nothing but a free junket.

"My organization's investigative services have been requesting additional details on these individuals to prevent others from being scammed but to date, their requests have been ignored by Qatar Airlines," Victor said. "We were puzzled as to why they are protecting these individuals. Could they be employees of Qatar Airlines? Qatar Airlines has stated that they will refund my money but to date I am still waiting."

You would think that Qatar would come down from the clouds and favor its earth-bound customers and their media representatives at least a few whiffs of information, but it doesn't look like that's likely to happen.

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What to know before filing your 2013 tax return

IRS offers some ways to reduce your tax bill and increase your refund

If you plan to prepare your own federal income tax return, or even if you are paying someone to do it, it will be helpful to know about every possible tax ...

PhotoIf you plan to prepare your own federal income tax return, or even if you are paying someone to do it, it will be helpful to know about every possible tax break you are entitled to this year. To help, the Internal Revenue Service has just issued Publication 17, a comprehensive guide to tax preparation. 

The guide provides details on a wide range of features of the tax law that might enable you to trim your tax bill. For example, the American Opportunity Tax Credit (APTC) could provide a boost for parents and college students.

Education tax credit

The APTC provides a credit of up to $2,500 per eligible student. It's limited to families with a Modified Adjustable Gross Income (MAGI) of up to $180,000 or $90,000 for single taxpayers. It's available only if the student had not completed the first four years of postsecondary education before 2013.

It's available only for four tax years per eligible student, including any years the Hope credit was claimed. To be eligible, students must be pursuing a four-year degree or other recognized education credential. Also, the student must be enrolled at least half-time for at least one academic period that began during the tax year.

You may be able to claim this credit if you, your spouse, or a dependent you claim on your tax return was a student enrolled at or attending an eligible educational institution. The credits are based on the amount of qualified education expenses paid for the student in 2013 for academic periods beginning in 2013 and in the first 3 months of 2014.

For example, if you paid $1,500 in December 2013 for qualified tuition for the spring 2014 semester beginning in January 2014, you may be able to use that $1,500 in figuring your 2013 education credit.

Child tax credit

The child tax credit is a credit that may reduce your tax by as much as $1,000 for each of your children who meet qualifications. The additional child tax credit is a credit you may be able to take if you are not able to claim the full amount of the child tax credit.

To qualify, a child must be a son, daughter, stepchild, foster child, brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, or a descendant of any of them who was under the age of 17 at the end of 2013. They have to have lived with your for more than half of 2013 and provided no more than half of their own support. They also have to be a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, or a resident of the United States.

Although a child may be your dependent, you may only claim a child tax credit or additional child tax credit for a dependent who is a citizen, national, or resident of the United States. An adopted child is always treated as your own child. An adopted child includes a child lawfully placed with you for legal adoption.

Earned income tax credit

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is available to low income taxpayers. In fact, most recipients don't earn enough money to owe taxes. For 2013 the eligibility limits have been raised.

You may be able to take this credit if:

  • You have three or more qualifying children and you earned less than $46,227 ($51,567 if married filing jointly),
  • You have two qualifying children and you earned less than $43,038 ($48,378 if married filing jointly),
  • You have one qualifying child and you earned less than $37,870 ($43,210 if married filing jointly), or
  • You do not have a qualifying child and you earned less than $14,340 ($19,680 if married filing jointly).

Your adjusted gross income also must be less than the amount in the above list that applies to you.

Meanwhile, for higher income wage earners there is a new Medicare tax, outlined in Publication 17.

Beginning in 2013, a 0.9% Additional Medicare Tax applies to Medicare wages, railroad retirement (RRTA) compensation, and self-employment income that are more than $125,000 if married filing separately, $250,000 if married filing jointly, or $200,000 for any other filing status.

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Illegal credit card practices to cost American Express millions

Unfair billing tactics and deceptive marketing are among the allegations

More than 335,000 consumers who were victimized by American Express's illegal credit card practices will be collecting millions of dollars in restitution....

PhotoMore than 335,000 consumers who were victimized by American Express's illegal credit card practices will be collecting millions of dollars in restitution.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has ordered the financial services giant to refund an estimated $59.5 million for engaging in pratices that the agency says include unfair billing tactics and deceptive marketing with respect to credit card “add-on products” such as payment protection and credit monitoring. The company has also been ordered to pay an additional $9.6 million in civil penalties.

“We first warned companies last year about using deceptive marketing to sell credit card add-on products, and everyone should be on notice of this issue,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “The order, he said means refunds for “thousands of American Express customers who were harmed by these illegal practices. Consumers deserve to be treated fairly and should not pay for services they do not receive.”

The CFPB isn't the only agency getting its pound of flesh. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is fining American Express Centurion Bank $3.6 million, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) is fining American Express Bank, FSB $3 million. This is the fourth action the CFPB has taken in coordination with fellow regulators to address illegal practices with respect to credit card add-on products.

Misleading marketing

PhotoThe CFPB says its examiners discovered that, beginning in 2000 continuing through 2012, three of American Express’s subsidiaries and their vendors and telemarketers engaged in misleading and deceptive tactics to sell some of the company’s credit card add-on products. One such product, a payment protection product called “Account Protector,” allowed consumers to request that 2.5% of their outstanding balance, up to $500, be canceled if they encounter certain life events like unemployment or temporary disability.

Among other things, American Express misled consumers about:

  • The benefits of the payment protection products: Some consumers were led to believe that if they bought the Account Protector product, their minimum monthly payment would be canceled if they experienced a qualifying life event. In reality, the benefit payment would be limited to 2.5% of the consumer’s outstanding balance -- up to $500. In many cases, that amount was less than the minimum payment due.
  • The length of coverage of the payment protection products: Consumers were led to believe that the benefit periods for Account Protector would last up to 24 months. In fact, only two of the 13 qualifying events with benefit periods had benefit periods of up to 24 months. The other 11 qualifying events had benefit periods of only one, two, or three months.
  • The fees associated with payment protection products: American Express or its vendors would claim that there would be no fee if the balance in the account was paid off every month, without disclosing that the account balance had to be paid off before the end of the billing cycle, which was an earlier date than the consumer’s statement due date.
  • The terms and conditions of the Lost Wallet product: American Express used telemarketing sales calls conducted in Spanish to enroll the vast majority of Puerto Rico consumers in this product. Yet American Express did not provide uniform Spanish language scripts for these enrollment calls, and all written materials provided to consumers were in English. As a result, American Express did not adequately alert consumers during the calls about the steps necessary to receive and access the full product benefits.

Unfair billing and other illegal practices

PhotoAmerican Express also engaged in unfair billing practices related to its “identity protection” add-on products. These products supposedly include a service to monitor the card members’ credit information. To obtain credit monitoring services, consumers generally must provide written authorization. American Express, however, charged many consumers for these products without or before having the written authorization necessary to perform the monitoring services. As a result, the company:

  • Billed consumers for services they did not receive: Consumers were charged fees as soon as they enrolled in identity protection add-on products, even when American Express or its vendors had not yet obtained the authorization necessary to begin monitoring the consumers’ credit information. American Express did not inform consumers that they needed to complete a second step in the enrollment process to obtain all of the advertised benefits. Approximately 85 percent of consumers who enrolled in the identity protection products paid the full product fee without receiving all of the advertised benefits. In some cases, consumers paid for these services for several years without receiving all of the promised benefits.
  • Unfairly charged consumers for interest and fees: The unfair monthly fees that customers were charged sometimes resulted in customers exceeding their credit card account limits. This then led to additional fees for the customers. Some consumers also paid interest charges on the fees for services that were never received.
  • Failed to inform consumers about their right to a free credit report: Federal law requires that when telemarketing sales calls are made that include offers of free credit reports, the call must include a disclosure about the consumer’s right to a free credit report from a federally authorized source. In some solicitations, American Express did not make the required disclosure.

The hammer drops

PhotoAmerican Express subsidiaries have agreed to correct their practices and refund consumers who were harmed by the illegal practices. Specifically, they have agreed to:

  • Stop deceptive marketing: American Express must cease selling the Account Protector, Identity Protection, and Lost Wallet Puerto Rico add-on products until it has submitted a compliance plan to the CFPB. The plan will be designed to eliminate all deceptive or unfair practices and violations of other laws relating to the sale, marketing, and administration of these products and to ensure that these unlawful acts do not occur again.
  • End unfair billing practices: Consumers will no longer be billed for certain identity protection products if they are not receiving the promised benefits. American Express also must take steps, subject to the CFPB's approval, to ensure these unlawful acts do not occur in the future.
  • Pay restitution of approximately $59.5 million to more than 335,000 consumers who purchased the products: American Express has already provided refunds to many consumers and must make further refunds. These American Express entities will be paying restitution to consumers who purchased the Account Protector, Identity Protection, or Lost Wallet Puerto Rico add-on products. American Express must submit a plan for remediation to the Bureau. Once the plan has been reviewed, the American Express entities must begin promptly implementing the remediation.
  • Provide refunds or credits without any further action by consumers: If the consumers are still American Express customers, they will receive a credit to their accounts. If they are no longer an American Express credit card holder, they will receive checks in the mail. Consumers are not required to take any action to receive their credit or check.
  • Submit to an independent review: An independent third-party will help ensure the refunds have been provided in compliance with the terms set forth in the CFPB’s order.
  • Review other credit card add-on products: American Express must hire an independent third-party to review American Express’s other credit card add-on products for compliance with federal consumer financial laws. If any compliance issues are found, American Express must submit a plan to the Bureau explaining how it will correct those violations and provide remediation if necessary.
  • Improve oversight of third-party vendors: The CFPB is also requiring that American Express continue to strengthen its management of third-party vendors who manage these add-on products.
  • Pay a $9.6 million penalty: The CFPB has ordered that American Express pay a $9.6 million fine to the agency's Civil Penalty Fund.
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Hulu faces charges it illegally disclosed viewer data to Facebook

The class action suit could be settled quickly at an upcoming hearing

A federal magistrate has cleared the way for a class action lawsuit against Hulu on grounds that it violated consumers' privacy by releasing movie-viewing ...

PhotoA federal magistrate has cleared the way for a class action lawsuit against Hulu on grounds that it violated consumers' privacy by releasing movie-viewing information to Facebook and a market analysis service.

Judge Laurel Beeler ruled that the plaintiffs did not need to prove any damage other than the illegal release of their viewing data, under terms of the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), a statute that dates back to the 1980s, when a movie rental store released the videotape rental history of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork to a newspaper.

Disclosing such information is an "actual injury" under the VPPA, Beeler held.

In depositions earlier this year, several consumers said they were shocked to learn that Hulu had made their viewing history available to others.

"I'm paying for a service, and I thought that I understood what was involved in that transaction," plaintiff Paul Torre said in his deposition, Courthouse News Service reported. "But now I understand more, and it's disturbing."

Beeler has scheduled a Feb. 6 summary judgment hearing, In a summary judgment, the judge can issue a ruling based on the undisputed facts of the case without going through the trial process. 

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Herniated disc? Surgery gives more long-term improvement, study finds

Nonsurgical treatment was successful for some patients in the study, however

An eight-year study finds that surgery is more effective than nonsurgical treatments for herniated discs in the lower spine, commonly called the lumbar reg...

PhotoAn eight-year study finds that surgery is more effective than nonsurgical treatments for herniated discs in the lower spine, commonly called the lumbar region.

"Carefully selected patients who underwent surgery for a lumbar disc herniation achieved greater improvement than non-operatively treated patients," according to lead author Dr. Jon D. Lurie of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the Geisel School of Medicine and colleagues.

The results add to the evidence for surgical treatment of herniated discs — but also show that nonsurgical treatment can provide lasting benefits for some patients. The study is being published in the January issue of Spine

The researchers analyzed data from the Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT), one of the largest clinical trials of surgery for spinal disorders. In SPORT, patients meeting strict criteria for herniated discs in the lumbar spine underwent surgery or nonsurgical treatment such as physical therapy, exercise, and pain-relieving medications.

Patients with herniated discs experience back pain, leg pain (sciatica), and other symptoms caused by pressure on the spinal nerve roots.

The current analysis included eight-year follow-up data on 1,244 patients treated at 13 spine clinics across the United States. About 500 patients were randomly assigned to surgery -- a procedure called discectomy -- or nonsurgical treatment, although patients were allowed to "cross over" to the other treatment.

For the remaining patients, decisions as to surgery or nonsurgical treatment were left up to the patients and their doctors. Standard measures of pain, physical functioning, and disability were compared between groups.

Significant differences

When outcomes were compared for patients who underwent surgery versus nonsurgical treatment, significant differences emerged. On a 100-point pain scale, pain scores averaged about 11 points lower in the surgery group. Measures of physical functioning and disability showed similar differences.

Surgery also led to greater improvement in some additional outcomes, including the bothersomeness of sciatica symptoms, patient satisfaction, and self-rated improvement.

While average outcome scores were better with surgery, many patients had significant improvement with nonsurgical treatment.

Lumbar disc surgery is one of the most commonly performed operations in the United States, although rates vary considerably in different regions. 

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Study: Bacteria survive longer on cribs, toys, books than previously thought

The findings mean that more precautions are needed in schools, daycare centers and hospitals

It's commonly thought that the bacteria that cause colds, ear infections, strep throat and more serious infections don't live very long outside the human b...

Photo
This SEM image shows a mature pneumococcal biofilm: the nearly round structures of S. pneumonaie bacteria are organizing together a matrix of smaller, oddly shaped material surrounding them that makes them more resistant to environmental stresses and antimicrobial agents. Photo credit: Laura Marks
It's commonly thought that the bacteria that cause colds, ear infections, strep throat and more serious infections don't live very long outside the human body, leading to the assumption that cribs, dishes, toys, books and other everyday items are relatively safe.

But a new study by University at Buffalo researchers published in Infection and Immunity shows that dangerous strep bacteria linger on surfaces for far longer than expected. 

"These findings should make us more cautious about bacteria in the environment since they change our ideas about how these particular bacteria are spread," says senior author Anders Hakansson, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "This is the first paper to directly investigate that these bacteria can survive well on various surfaces, including hands, and potentially spread between individuals."

S. pneumoniae, a leading cause of ear infections and illness and death from respiratory tract infections in children and the elderly, is widespread in daycare centers and a common cause of hospital infections, says Hakansson. And in developing countries, where fresh water, good nutrition and common antibiotics may be scarce, S. pneumoniae often leads to pneumonia and sepsis, killing one million children every year.

S. pyogenes commonly causes strep throat and skin infections in school children but also can cause serious infection in adults.

Daycare center studied

The UB researchers studied a daycare center and found four out of five stuffed toys tested positive for S. pneumonaie and several surfaces, such as cribs, tested positive for S. pyogenes, even after being cleaned. The testing was done just prior to the center opening in the morning so it had been many hours since the last human contact.

Hakansson and his co-authors became interested in the possibility that some bacteria might persist on surfaces when they published work last year showing that bacteria form biofilms when colonizing human tissues. They found that these sophisticated, highly structured biofilm communities are hardier than other forms of bacteria.

"We found that these pathogens can survive for long periods outside a human host," said Hakansson. But, he says, the scientific literature maintains that you can only become infected by breathing in infected droplets expelled through coughing or sneezing by infected individuals.

"Commonly handled objects that are contaminated with these biofilm bacteria could act as reservoirs of bacteria for hours, weeks or months, spreading potential infections to individuals who come in contact with them," Hakansson said. He cautions that more research should be done to understand under what circumstances this type of contact leads to spread between individuals.

"If it turns out that this type of spread is substantial, then the same protocols that are now used for preventing the spread of other bacteria, such as intestinal bacteria and viruses, which do persist on surfaces, will need to be implemented especially for people working with children and in health-care settings," he said.

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FDA: Stay away from ' Mass Destruction' muscle growth product

The dietary supplement contains potentially harmful synthetic steroids

Consumers are being warned to stop using a dietary supplement that has been linked to at least one reported serious illness. According to the U.S. Food an...

PhotoConsumers are being warned to stop using a dietary supplement that has been linked to at least one reported serious illness.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- the product called Mass Destruction, marketed as a dietary supplement for muscle growth and is labeled to contain at least one synthetic anabolic.

“Products marketed as supplements that contain anabolic steroids pose a real danger to consumers,” said Howard Sklamberg, director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The FDA is committed to ensuring that products marketed as dietary supplements and vitamins do not pose harm to consumers.”

Liver injury link

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports a previously healthy 28-year-old man developed liver failure requiring transplant after several weeks of using Mass Destruction. Liver injury is generally known to be a possible outcome of using products that contain anabolic steroids and steroid-like substances. The product’s ingredients are undergoing further analysis by the FDA.

Mass Destruction is manufactured for Blunt Force Nutrition in Sims, N.C., and sold in retail stores, fitness gyms, and on the Internet. An investigation is underway to identify the product’s manufacturer. Consumers who suspect they are experiencing problems associated with Mass Destruction or other body building products should consult a health care professional, especially if they have experienced unexplained fatigue, abdominal or back pain, discolored urine, or any other unexplained changes in their health.

In general, anabolic steroids may cause other serious long-term consequences in women, men and children. These include adverse effects on blood lipid levels; increased risk of heart attack and stroke; masculinization of women; shrinkage of the testicles; breast enlargement; infertility in males; and short stature in children.   

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BMW recalls X3 xDrive 28i/35i vehicles

The air bag could deploy improperly

BMW of North America is recalling 3 model year 2013 X3 xDrive 28i/35i vehicles manufactured February 11, 2013, through February 27, 2013. Due to a produc...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 3 model year 2013 X3 xDrive 28i/35i vehicles manufactured February 11, 2013, through February 27, 2013.

Due to a production process error, the tear seam on the instrument panel was not manufactured correctly. In the event of a crash, the air bag could improperly deploy, increasing the risk of injury to the front passenger. In addition, parts or fragments from the air bag system could strike and injure the front passenger or other vehicle occupants.

BMW has notified owners and dealers will replace the instrument panel, free of charge.

Owners may contact BMW customer relations at 1-800-525-7417 or email BMW at CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

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Burn 7 Capsules recalled

The product contains Sibutramine, which is not listed on the label

Deseo Rebajar Inc., is recalling lot #MFD: 07.18.2013 (Exp: 07.17.2015) of Burn 7 Capsules. Laboratory analysis of the dietary supplement found it to con...

PhotoDeseo Rebajar Inc., is recalling lot #MFD: 07.18.2013 (Exp: 07.17.2015) of Burn 7 Capsules.

Laboratory analysis of the dietary supplement found it to contain undeclared Sibutramine, a previously approved controlled substance for the treatment of obesity that was removed from the U.S. market in October 2010 for safety reasons -- making this product an unapproved new drug. The active drug ingredient is not listed on the label for these products.

The recalled products are packaged in 30-count plastic bottles labeled with lot number #MFD: 07.18.2013, and were sold directly to individual customers in the company's offices in Fajardo, Caguas and Bayamon and online at www.deseorebajar.com.

Consumers with questions should contact Deseo Rebajar Inc. at 787.961.6464 or via e-mail at sales@adipotrim.com Monday - Friday, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm, GMT.  

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UPS, FedEx swamped -- with packages and complaints

"Worst Christmas ever," one driver says; consumers steamed over delayed deliveries

Consumers have flooded social media and review sites to complain about lost and delayed packages that left Christmas presents sitting in warehouses or on t...

PhotoConsumers have flooded social media and review sites to complain about lost and delayed packages that left Christmas presents sitting in warehouses or on trucks instead of under trees.

UPS acknowledged that it was overwhelmed by unexpected volume but that explanation didn't sit well with consumers, who said the company should have stopped guaranteeing next-day delivery if it couldn't, well, deliver.

One driver quoted by USA Today said it had been the "worst Christmas ever." 

In a Christmas Day posting to ConsumerAffairs, Mike of Santa Rosa, Calif., said the UPS tracking system had been showing his package was out for delivery since Dec. 19.

"We live about 15 minutes away from the local UPS depot, so we weren't that concerned. Since this was a Christmas gift, and it hasn't shown up as of 12/24, we decided to call customer service. We were transferred to an agent who works at the depot who assured us the package was in their possession and that it would be delivered by noon today," he said. "Around 6 at night, we called customer service again, now they are saying the package is lost. You stay classy, UPS."

On the other side of the country, Robert of Walden, N.Y. said his package had also been supposedly on the truck for delivery since 12/19. He had purchased a hard-to-find game system from the Game Stop and was eagerly awaiting its arrival.

United Parcel Service (ups) Dec. 26, 2013, 1:34 a.m.
Consumers rate United Parcel Service (ups)

Like Mike in Santa Rosa, Robert started to worry after the tracking system continued to show the package "out for delivery."

"We finally got hold of a supervisor on 24th who told us package was 'missing.' After the initial scan upon arrival in New Windsor, it disappeared," he said. "My wife works for a pharmaceutical research company and has had similar experiences often with UPS. Poorly run operation."

In Pottsboro, Texas, Jacki tried to take things into her own hands when her engagement ring didn't show up by Dec. 22 as scheduled. She went to the local UPS store, where she found a crowd of consumers seeking information about their missing packages, while a local television news crew videotaped the resulting confusion.

Jacki managed to buttonhole a manager who said "that my package wouldn't get to me until Friday 12/27 maybe."

Isn't there anyway somebody can go rummage through the truck and find it, Jacki asked, admitting that she knew the package contained her engagement ring, even though it was supposed to be a surprise.

"No, if that was the case we would have these packages delivered already! At least you know about your engagement!" the manager told her, adding that "I'm lucky that I didn't live in Dallas or Austin because they are two weeks behind."

Jacki's not very sympathetic to UPS' claims that it was overwhelmed by having too much business.

"UPS shouldn't state that the are able and capable of taking care of these orders if they truly aren't! Orders shouldn't be sitting outside in UHauls or extra trailors waiting to be unloaded due to the fact there aren't enough drivers to deliver."

FedEx also targeted

FedEx also came in for its share of criticism. Al of Minneapolis had ordered two iPhones as Christmas presents for themselves for delivery on Dec. 24.

Consumers rate FedEx

"On Monday the 23rd, I checked the tracking number and it said it was on truck for delivery by 8pm so I took off work [because] the delivery had to be signed for. Did not show up," he said in a Christmas Day posting to ConsumerAffairs. "Checked tracking number, this time it said it was not due for delivery."

The next day, the tracking system again said the package was out for delivery. But again, it didn't show up.

"This time it said delayed beyond our control," Al said. "Again I took off work to sign for package. Now I have to take another day off and wait for it to come. So I lost 2 days pay and my wife and I did not get our Christmas presents."

Tony of Massapequa, N.Y., had a similarly frustrating experience, although his tale actually ends more or less happily. Tony said the FedEx tracking system showed his package had been delivered but he found no trace of it at his home.

"I called them. They said it was delivered and could have been stolen from my door. I told them no way, so they called the driver who described my home and said he remembers delivering it. ... I checked with my neighbors, nothing," Tony said. He contacted the police and filed a report, then went through the hassle of getting a refund from the company that sold him the item.

"Two weeks later, a lady who lives around the block came over with my package. She was on vacation and found it at her doorstep," Tony said.

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Postal Service gets its wish -- a 3-cent increase in the price of a first-class letter

But the increase is temporary and will be in effect for only two years

The price of a first-class stamp will be going up 3 cents on Jan. 26, to 49 cents. That makes it the biggest rate hike in 11 years but, if it's any consola...

PhotoThe price of a first-class stamp will be going up 3 cents on Jan. 26, to 49 cents. That makes it the biggest rate hike in 11 years but, if it's any consolation, the increase is only temporary and will expire in two years.

Rates for other types of service will also be going up. The increase comes to 6 percent, which includes an inflation adjustment of 1.7 percent,. The inflation-tied portion of the increase was approved in November. 

The Postal Regulatory Commission approved the temporary increase as a way for the USPS to make up the losses it suffered during the Great Recession that began in 2008. It refused a longer-term increase, saying that the two-year increase should bring in an extra $2.8 billion, which is how much the commission has decided USPS lost as a result of the recession.

“The Commission’s decision closely follows the law we are charged by the President and Congress to uphold,” said Commission Chairman Ruth Y. Goldway. “The Postal Service will be reimbursed for exigent losses that can be reasonably quantified. We have determined that amount to be $2.8 billion
to cover the 25.3 billion pieces of volume lost between 2008 and 2011. The funds will come from a rate surcharge that will last just long enough to recover the loss.” 

"Exigent," in this usage, means the increase is a response to "emergency" conditions. None of the increase is intended to cover rising costs or business lost to email and competing parcel delivery services. 

"The Commission also concluded that the Postal Service conflated losses that are a result of internet diversion with losses that were a result of the Great Recession, and that it failed to provide justification for permanent price increases in connection with recession-related mail volume losses," the commision said in a prepared statement.

No one happy

The decision made no one happy. Magazine publishers, direct-mail clients and other high-volme mailers, who make up the bulk of the USPS' business, said the higher costs would further depress mail volume and drive customers to seek other solutions.

So will the USPS produce a 49-cent first-class stamp? Or will it just use the "Forever Stamps" that are valid indefinitely for whatever price the consumer pays for them?

If in fact the increase will be phased out in two years, it wouldn't seem worthwhile to go to the expense of producing a new stamp. But inflation may be enough to push up the "permanent" price to 49 cents in two years anyway, which might make it worthwhile to invest in a 49-cent stamp. 

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Unloading unwanted gifts: the traditonal post-Christmas hangover

Still, it IS the thought that counts

While unwrapping your various Christmas presents this year, how many times did you, for politeness’ sake, have to suppress a wince at the sight of a horrib...

PhotoLet’s take a tally: while unwrapping your various Christmas presents this year, how many times did you, for politeness’ sake, have to suppress a wince at the sight of a horribly tacky and useless gift?

In our case, of course, the answer is “zero.” Every gift we received was tasteful and much-wanted, and we’re not only saying that because we know our friends and family all read our articles here. Nope. Nuh-uh. (We especially adore our lovely new hand towels embroidered with the sharp-edged sequins guaranteed to lacerate any hand they come in contact with, and are happy to report that the towel’s ultra-busy pattern does a great job of camouflaging blood stains, too.)

But maybe you’re less fortunate than we are; maybe your post-Christmas season is spent wondering “What am I supposed to do with all this worthless new junk?” Fortunately, there are businesses willing to help you out, in exchange for either a small fee or just some publicity for themselves.

Awful-gift exchange

Houlihan’s Restaurant announced that it’s hosting an awful-gift exchange where people can drop off unwanted holiday awfulness in exchange for a restaurant gift card and someone else’s unwanted holiday item. Just before Christmas, we warned you about the pitfalls of wasting money on unwanted store cards; there exist entire businesses that sell discounted gift cards — which is only possible because so many gift-card recipients are willing to unload their unwanted cards for pennies on the dollar.

You can also forgo the corporate route and either host your own gift-exchange party (just don’t offer any unwanted gifts given you by various party guests), or find local charities seeking unwanted gifts for resale or redistribution to those who need them.

Giving gifts to charity actually ties in with the original theme of “Boxing Day,” the day after Christmas, when people would traditionally “box up” any uneaten feast food (and, presumably, unwanted gifts) to give to the poor. Nowadays, there’s no need to donate your leftover ham or fruitcake slices (and modern sanitary regulations forbid it, anyway), but as long as we have holidays where people are expected to give gifts, there will be people with unwanted gifts they’re looking to unload.

That said: if you do have any unwanted sequin-embroidered hand towels, do not give them to The Poor. The Poor have enough problems already, without shiny and festive hand injuries making matters worse.

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A November dip for new home sales

Home prices, meanwhile, are on the upside

After shooting higher in October, sales of new single-family houses dropped 2.1% in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 464,000. As it release...

PhotoAfter shooting higher in October, sales of new single-family houses dropped 2.1% in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 464,000. As it released its report , the government revised its October sales figure sharply higher to 474,000 from it's initial estimate of 444,000. Even with the decline last month, the November sales rate is 16.6% above the same month a year ago.

The median sales price of new houses sold in November jumped more than $20,000 from the previous month -- to $270,900; the average sales price was $340,300, up $13,500 from October.

The estimate of new houses for sale at the end of last month was 167,000, representing a supply of 4.3 months at the current sales rate.

The complete report on new home sales for November is available on the Commerce Department website.

Home prices on the rise again

PhotoSeparately, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports home prices were up 0.5% in October. The increase marks the twenty-first consecutive monthly price increase in the FHFA) monthly House Price Index (HPI).

For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from September to October ranged from -1.0% in the East South Central division to +1.2% in the Mountain division, while the 12-month changes ranged from +4.7% in the East South Central division to +17.5% in the Pacific division.

The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages either sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. From October 2012 to October 2013, house prices were up 8.2%. However, the U.S. index is 8.8% below its April 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the April 2005 index level.

Mortgage applications drop

PhotoThe Federal Reserve's decision to begin tapering its bond-buying program helped send mortgage applications down 6.3% from one week earlier, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA).

“Following the Federal Reserve’s taper announcement, mortgage application volume dropped again last week, with rates increasing and refinance application volume falling to its lowest level since November 2008,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Vice President of Research and Economics. “Purchase application volume was weak too, continuing to run more than ten percent below last year’s pace. Notably, government purchase application volume is almost 25% below where it was at this time last year, with the larger drop compared to conventional purchase likely due to the increase in FHA premiums over the course of the year.”

The Refinance Index decreased 8% from the previous week, sending the refinance share of mortgage activity down 1.0% from the previous week to 65% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 8.3% of total applications -- the highest level since July 2008.

Contract interest rates

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) increased 2 basis points to 4.64% from 4.62% -- the highest level since September 2013, with points increasing to 0.41 from 0.38 (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) rose to 4.63%, the highest level since September 2013, from 4.61%, with points unchanged at 0.24 (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 4 basis points -- to 4.29%, with points decreasing to 0.24 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs jumped to 3.74%, the highest level since September 2013, from 3.66%, with points dropping to 0.29 from 0.35 (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 3.26%, the highest level since September 2013, from 3.20%, with points decreasing to 0.39 from 0.42 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.  

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National City Bank -- now PNC -- rapped for mortgage practices

Minority borrowers who were harmed will receive $35 million in restitution

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are coming down hard on National City Bank. The agencies charge the fin...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are coming down hard on National City Bank.

The agencies charge the financial institution charged higher prices on mortgage loans to African-American and Hispanic borrowers than similarly creditworthy white borrowers between 2002 and 2008. They also filed a proposed order to settle the complaint that requires National City Bank, through its successor PNC Bank, to pay $35 million in restitution to harmed African-American and Hispanic borrowers.

“Borrowers should never have to pay more for a mortgage loan because of their race or national origin,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. The enforcement action, he said, “puts money back in the pockets of harmed consumers and makes clear that we will hold lenders accountable for the effects of their discriminatory practices.”

Brisk loan business

PNC Mortgage Dec. 26, 2013, 3:27 p.m.
Consumers rate PNC Mortgage
National City Bank originated mortgage loans directly to consumers in its retail offices, as well as through independent mortgage brokers. Between 2002 and 2008, National City made over 1 million mortgage loans through its retail channel and over 600,000 loans through independent brokers. PNC acquired National City at the end of 2008.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits creditors from discriminating against loan applicants in credit transactions on the basis of characteristics such as race and national origin. In the complaint, the CFPB and DOJ allege that National City Bank violated the ECOA by charging African-American and Hispanic borrowers higher mortgage prices than similarly creditworthy white borrowers. The DOJ also alleges that National City violated the Fair Housing Act, which similarly prohibits discrimination in residential mortgage lending.

The agencies, which began their joint investigation in 2011, allege that National City Bank’s discretionary pricing and compensation policies caused the discriminatory pricing differences. National City gave its loan officers and brokers the discretion to set borrowers’ rates and fees, and then compensated the officers and brokers from extra costs paid by consumers. Over 76,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers paid higher costs because of this discriminatory pricing and compensation scheme.

This is the first joint lawsuit brought in federal court by the CFPB and the DOJ to enforce federal fair lending laws. On December 6, 2012, the agencies signed an agreement that has facilitated strong coordination between them on fair lending enforcement, including the pursuit of joint investigations such as this one.

Enforcement action

The consent order, which is subject to court approval, requires that PNC Bank, as the successor to National City Bank, pay restitution. Specifically, the order requires:

  • $35 million to be paid to a settlement fund. That settlement fund will go to allegedly affected African-American and Hispanic borrowers who obtained mortgage loans from National City between 2002 and 2008.
  • Funds to be distributed through a settlement administrator. The CFPB and the DOJ will identify victims by looking at loan data. A settlement administrator will contact consumers if necessary, distribute the funds, and ensure that impacted borrowers receive compensation.
  • The settlement administrator be accessible. The settlement administrator will set up various cost-free ways for consumers to contact it with any questions about potential payments. The CFPB will release a Consumer Advisory with contact information for the settlement administrator once that person is chosen.
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Finding a cure for a post-holiday credit hangover

Author and credit expert offers up six steps to recovery

Despite the best of intentions it's easy to go overboard in spending on the holidays. If you have the cash, well, that's fine. But if you loaded up your cr...

PhotoDespite the best of intentions it's easy to go overboard in spending on the holidays. If you have the cash, well, that's fine. But if you loaded up your credit cards to make the season bright, you could be facing a credit hangover come January.

Beverly Harzog, a credit card expert, consumer advocate, and author of the book "Confessions of a Credit Junkie: Everything You Need to Know To Avoid the Mistakes I Made," says the first step is not to panic.

"Stay calm and try to get rid of the debt as soon as possible,” she said.

Easier said than done, right? Harzog has come up with six steps she believes can help cure a post-holiday credit hangover. The first step is to put your credit cards away. All of them.

“People panic and start using their credit cards as a crutch to help them get through their normal monthly expenses,” Harzog said. “I know from experience that once you get into debt you start worrying about cashflow. You need more money to pay your rising credit balance but your cashflow isn't getting any bigger.”

This step is number one for a reason. To start paying off your debt you first have to make sure it doesn't get any bigger.

Balance transfer

The second step is to see if you can move that high-interest balance to a credit card with a 0% rate for a number of months. Right now, consumers with excellent credit will find offers ranging from six months to 18 months.

The plus side? You have a chance to pay a big chunk of your debt at 0% interest during the intro period. The down side? Usually there is one. In this case there is almost always a transaction fee, usually about 3 to 4 percent. That means transferring a $10,000 balance could cost you more than $300. Still, Harzog says, it could be a good move.

“You'll save so much by not having to pay interest for several months that paying the fee is worth it, almost a cost of doing business,” she said.

Request a lower rate

If you don't qualify for a 0% balance transfer card you might still be able to save on interest by simply asking for a lower interest rate. Believe it or not credit card companies sometimes say yes.

“It's not going to work for everyone,” Harzog said. “But if you've been a great cardholder, you've paid all your bills on time, maybe you've been a long time customer, you're going to have a little more leverage.”

The fourth step is creating a plan for paying off the debt. Harzog prefers a method she calls debt-stacking.

“Make a list of cards with the balance and the interest rate,” she said. “Start with the card with the highest interest rate and make the biggest payments on it. That makes sense because you're going to save money by paying off the balance with the highest interest rate.”

Found money

Next, look for money you didn't know you had. This doesn't mean looking for cash in the sofa cushions. It means looking at your monthly spending and tightening your belt.

Review each line item and ask yourself how you can cut expenses. In some cases, you can cut out an expense temporarily, like entertainment, until you’re out of debt.

Expenses that can't be eliminated – like groceries – can be downsized. Cut back on the expensive grocery items you buy unless it’s a special occasion. Another option is to check out the excellent couponing websites that can help you save money on a variety of items.

Finally, if you are feeling overwhelmed by your debt, reach out to a certified credit counselor for help. Look for someone who can help you find ways to address your debt and avoid those who offer up easy answers for a fee. Above all, says Harzog, keep your head up.

“There's no reason to beat yourself up,” she says. We've all been through it.

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Lawsuit: AARP medigap plans defraud seniors

The giant nonprofit allegedly added illegal commissions to its health insurance bills

A class action lawsuit charges that AARP defrauds senior citizens of millions of dollars by adding illegal commissions to their health insurance bills...

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Weekly jobless claims post sharp decline

Analysts say volatility makes it hard to get a handle on the labor market

The number of people filing first-time applications for state unemployment benefits dropped sharply last week, surprising a lot of forecasters. According ...

PhotoThe number of people filing first-time applications for state unemployment benefits dropped sharply last week, surprising a lot of forecasters.

According to the government, initial applications were down by 42,000 from the previous week -- to a

seasonally adjusted total of 338,000. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for a decline to 350,000.

The Department of Labor says the seasonal adjustment problems that have produced volatility in the data continued over the holidays period as the Christmas and New Year holidays. Economists say that makes it difficult to analyze the labor market accurately, but that once the holiday period is over, the initial claims level should to return to around 330,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the initial claims sector and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor situation, was 348,000 -- an increase of 4,250 from the previous week.

The full report can be found on the Labor Department website.

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Palama Holdings expands recall of frozen, raw chicken products

The products may have experienced temperature abuse in the distribution chain

Palama Holdings of Kapolei, Hawaii, is expanding its recall of raw, frozen marinated chicken products to approximately 24,784 pounds because they may have ...

PhotoPalama Holdings of Kapolei, Hawaii, is expanding its recall of raw, frozen marinated chicken products to approximately 24,784 pounds because they may have experienced temperature abuse in the distribution chain.

The company has received no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

The expanded recall covers all teriyaki chicken products produced at the company’s Kapolei plant with “Best by” dates ranging Sept. 24, 2014 to November 6, 2014.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 10-lb. cardboard boxes, containing four individual cryovac sealed packages of May’s Hawaii “Hawaiian Style, Boneless and Skinless Teriyaki Chicken Thighs.”
  • 5-lb. cardboard boxes, containing two individual cryovac sealed packages of May’s Hawaii “Hawaiian Style, Boneless and Skinless Teriyaki Chicken Thighs.”
  • 2-lb. cardboard boxes, containing one cryovac sealed package of May’s Hawaii “Hawaiian Style, Boneless and Skinless Teriyaki Chicken Thighs.”

The products were produced on various dates between Sept. 24, 2013, and Nov. 6, 2013, and distributed for retail sale on the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii, and to a nearby military commissary. The packages bear the establishment number “P-11077” in the USDA mark of inspection.

Bloated boxes of the products were found at a retail location in recent days. The problem was initially discovered during shipment when the company’s distributor observed boxes of product swollen with gases from the bagged chicken -- an indication that there may have been temperature abuse during storage prior to distribution.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Gary Hanagami, May’s Hawaii vice president of retail sales, at (808) 682-8300.

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Lee Bros. Foodservice recalls dried sausage products

The products may be contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus enterotoxin

Lee Bros. Foodservice of San Jose, Calif., is recalling 740 pounds of sausage products that may be contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus enterotoxin. Th...

PhotoLee Bros. Foodservice of San Jose, Calif., is recalling 740 pounds of sausage products that may be contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus enterotoxin.

There are no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 16 oz packages of Lee’s Sandwiches brand Pork Sausages produced on 2/11/13 with an identifying code “042P” printed on the back of the package
  • 16 oz packages of Lee’s Sandwiches brand Pork and Chicken Sausages produced on 2/12/13 with an identifying code of “043PC” printed on the back of the package

Each package bears the establishment number “Est. 11041” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. The products were sold at the wholesale and retail level in Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Nevada, Texas and online.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact the company’s Customer Service line at (800) 640-8880.

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Oodle Swings recalled

The swing seat is suspended too close to the ground

Landscape Structures of Delano, Minn., is recalling about 177 Oodle Swings. The swing seat is suspended too close to the ground, posing an injury hazard t...

PhotoLandscape Structures of Delano, Minn., is recalling about 177 Oodle Swings.

The swing seat is suspended too close to the ground, posing an injury hazard to children who can get their legs caught underneath.

Nine children have broken their legs or suffered sprains when their legs got caught under the swing.

This recall involves Landscape Structures’ Oodle Swings. The swing frame is a double arch, comes in a variety of colors and measures 9 ½ ft. high by 13 ½ ft. long by 4 ½ ft. wide. The swing seat is an oval-shaped ring, measures 4 ft. wide by about 3 ½ ft. deep, comes in a variety of colors and is suspended from the frame by four black cables or chains. It holds as many as six children. Landscape Structures is printed on label near ground level on the frame. The swing set’s model number 173592 is printed in the swing’s instruction manual. “Landscape Structures” is molded in the black rubber bumper of the swing seat.

The swing set, manufactured in the U.S., was sold to schools and other facilities with playground equipment nationwide from February 2011, through November 2013, for about $4,350.

Consumers should stop using the swings immediately and measure the distance between the bottom of the swing seat and the ground. If the distance is less than 12 ¾ inches, contact Landscape Structures for a free repair. The company is contacting its customers directly.

Consumers may contact Landscape Structures toll-free at (888) 438-6574 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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How to choose the right healthcare plan

Plans with low out-of-pocket expense rarely the best choice

Now that the Healthcare.gov web site is working a lot better than it did on its disastrous roll-out, more uninsured consumers are beginning to sign up and ...

PhotoNow that the Healthcare.gov web site is working a lot better than it did on its disastrous roll-out, more uninsured consumers are beginning to sign up and choose healthcare plans on the marketplace.

But how do you decide which plan is best for you? There are a lot of things to consider, especially if you have a doctor you like. If you go with a cheaper HMO policy your doctor might not be part of that network.

In addition to making sure your relationship with your current healthcare provider continues without interruption, you will likely consider what the policy covers and what it costs. Even then, however, there are plenty of pitfalls.

Alarming results

Using simulated exchanges modeled on the design of the actual exchanges, researchers at Columbia Business School say their findings suggest that more than 80% of consumers may be unable to make a clear–eyed estimate of their needs and will unknowingly choose a higher-cost plan than they need. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis reached a similar conclusion in November.

Essentially, consumers tend to choose a plan with low deductibles and co-pay and high monthly premiums, regardless of their healthcare needs.

"Consumers' failure to identify the most appropriate plan has considerable consequences on both their pocketbooks as well as the cost of the overall system," said Eric Johnson, co–author of the report and co–director of Columbia Business School's Center for Decision Sciences.

Two problems

The problem is twofold. First, consumers spend more on health coverage than they should. Second, Johnson says if consumers can't identify the most cost–efficient plan for their needs, the exchanges will fail to produce competitive pressures on healthcare providers and bring down costs across the board, which, after all, was one of the main reasons for relying upon choice and markets.

Because the federal government will subsidize many of these healthcare policies, American taxpayers could pay an additional $9 billion for consumers' mistakes in choosing more costly plans, according to the Columbia research.

What you should look for

PhotoIf you are in the market for a new health benefits policy, what kinds of things should you look for? All the plans, regardless of their cost, are required to cover certain essential health services. The difference is how much of the cost you pay and what you pay for this coverage.

For example, some plans pay for more of the medical services you receive. As you might expect, it costs more each month for that kind of coverage. A plan that requires you to pay a bigger share of your healthcare costs will have a lower monthly premium.

Key question

So one question you need to answer before selecting a plan is how much healthcare do you expect to consume? If you have a chronic ailment that requires frequent trips to the doctor and expensive medication, a policy that covers more of those costs might be prudent.

But if you are in reasonably good health and maybe see a doctor once or twice a year, it almost always will pay to select a plan with a lower premium and higher out of pocket costs. Why would you pay an extra $1,000 a year in premiums in order to save $100 on a office visit?

Yet researchers have found that consumers, left to their own devices, seem to gravitate to more expensive policies because they want to avoid out-of-pocket expenses. The numbers simply don't add up.

Johnson and his colleagues identified several things that significantly helped consumers pick a more appropriate policy. These include:

  • Estimate First, Peruse the Plans Second: Estimating your medical services before choosing a plan increases your chances of choosing the best plan.
  • Educate: Tutorial links and pop-ups that explain basic terms like "deductibles" that might not be known to new buyers, increase your chances of choosing the best plan.
  • Implement smart tools: Adding a calculator to the process improves your chances of choosing the right plan and reduces the size of errors by over $216.
  • Implement other "smart defaults": Including a tool that defaults to the most cost-effective plan drastically improves a participant's chances at selecting the most cost-effective plan by 20%, they say. Together, calculators and defaults reduce the average mistake saving consumers and the government $453.
  • Limit the number of choices: Exchanges that limit their amount of choices in healthcare plans will help to avoid confusion among consumers  
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Need a last-minute gift? Don't buy a store gift card

Good luck to recipients trying to trade or sell uwanted gift cards

It’s crunch time, people, and if you still haven’t bought Christmas gifts for various folks on your list, maybe you’re thinking “Y’know, I’ll just buy them...

PhotoIt’s crunch time, people, and if you still haven’t bought Christmas gifts for various folks on your list, maybe you’re thinking “Y’know, I’ll just buy them a gift card for this store here, and let them choose for themselves what they want.”

And we’re here to tell you: that’s a bad idea. Not the whole “let them choose” bit, but the part where you decide to buy them a store-specific gift card; if you must give a card in lieu of actual money, a prepaid debit card valid with any merchant who takes credit cards is far better than a gift card limited to one company.

If you don’t believe us, take a look at this advertising email a friend of ours received and forwarded to us, announcing that “Gift Card Exchange Day is Dec. 26.” The email came from “Gift Card Granny,” alleged seller of “discount gift cards” — a business model that plainly would not exist if not for legions of people getting gift cards they don’t want.

The National Retail Federation reported 80 percent of shoppers planned to give gift cards as presents this holiday season. Additionally, gift cards have topped holiday wish lists for seven years running, with six in 10 consumers hoping to receive one for Christmas this year. Meanwhile, the CEB TowerGroup reports $1.7 billion in gift cards went unused in 2012, leaving quite a bit of money on the collective table.

Unwanted cards

PhotoIndeed. The idea behind the Gift Card Exchange is that people who got unwanted gift cards for Christmas can try selling them for cash — although the odds that, say, a $25 gift card to Company X sell for the full $25 are very slim.

Point is, if you’re the one who shelled out the $25 for that unwanted gift card, chances are your recipient won’t get to spend anywhere near the full amount anyway; you probably gifted money to the store rather than your friend or loved one.

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IRS opens 2014 tax season a day late this year

The agency says the government shutdown has put it behind

Santa hasn't even made his rounds yet and already Uncle Sam is on your doorstep with his hand out. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has just announced t...

PhotoSanta hasn't even made his rounds yet and already Uncle Sam is on your doorstep with his hand out.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has just announced that it plans to open the 2014 filing season on Jan. 31. The tax agency says this will allow it adequate time to program and test its tax processing systems. The annual process for updating IRS systems saw significant delays in October following the 16-day federal government shutdown.

“Our teams have been working hard throughout the fall to prepare for the upcoming tax season,” IRS Acting Commissioner Danny Werfel said. “The late January opening gives us enough time to get things right with our programming, testing and systems validation. It’s a complex process, and our bottom-line goal is to provide a smooth filing and refund process for the nation’s taxpayers.”

Shutdown produces delays

The government closure meant the IRS had to change the original opening date from Jan. 21 to Jan. 31 -- one day later than the 2013 filing season opening following tax law changes made by Congress on Jan. 1 under the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA). The extensive set of ATRA tax changes affected many 2012 tax returns, resulting in the late January opening.

The October shutdown came during the peak period for preparing IRS systems for the 2014 filing season. Programming, testing and deployment of more than 50 IRS systems is needed to handle processing of nearly 150 million tax returns. Updating these core systems is a complex, year-round process with the majority of the work beginning in the fall of each year.

About 90 percent of IRS operations were closed during the shutdown, with some major work streams closed entirely during this period, putting the IRS nearly three weeks behind its tight timetable for being ready to start the 2014 filing season. There are additional training, programming and testing demands on IRS systems this year in order to provide additional refund fraud and identity theft detection and prevention.

Filing options

The IRS notes that several options are available to help you prepare for the 2014 tax season and get any refund you have coming as easily as possible. New year-end has been added to the IRS website.

In addition, many software companies are expected to begin accepting tax returns in January and hold those returns until the IRS systems open on Jan. 31. More details will be available in January.

The IRS emphasized that it will not process any tax returns before Jan. 31, so there is no advantage to filing on paper before the opening date. Taxpayers will receive their tax refunds much faster by using e-file or Free File with the direct deposit option.

The April 15 tax deadline is set by statute and will remain in place. However, the IRS reminds taxpayers that anyone can request an automatic six-month extension to file their tax return. The request is easily done with Form 4868, which can be filed electronically or on paper.

IRS systems, applications and databases must be updated annually to reflect tax law updates, business process changes and programming updates in time for the start of the filing season.

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2013 saw dangerous rise in 'ransomware' attacks

If your computer get infected it will cost you $300 for the cure

Ransomware, malware that takes over your computer and holds your files hostage, is nothing new. But it's latest incarnation is something that has the FBI a...

PhotoRansomware, malware that takes over your computer and holds your files hostage, is nothing new. But it's latest incarnation is something that has the FBI and other law enforcement officials worried.

What has galvanized official attention and terrorized some computer users is Cryptolocker, a Trojan that encodes all the files on your computer so that you cannot access them without the key. And the key will cost you. A spokesman for the FBI in Boston says having Crytolocker on your computer is about the same as having your computer “destroyed.”

Launched with email

It all starts when you receive an email purporting to contain tracking information about a package that is in transit. This time of year millions of consumers are expecting packages.

The email contains a link with instructions to click on it to find out where your package is. However, if you click on the link you launch cryptolocker and your computer locks up. A screen pops up with instructions to follow, along with a countdown clock. When the clock reaches zero and you have not submitted payment the program destroys all the files on your computer. Yeah, these guys don't mess around.

According to report by WBZ-TV, even the Swansea, Mass., Police Department fell victim. The entire department's computer system fell under control of Cryptolocker and it cost the police $750 to get it unlocked.

The security software firm Sophos says Cryptolocker is a worldwide problem and could get much worse in the year ahead. Once a computer is infected, Sophos experts say the Cryptolocker gang demands a payment of about $300 in untraceable bitcoins in exchange for the encryption key to unlock the files. But as in any extortion scheme, there is no guarantee that they will unlock your computer after they have received the ransom.

Dangerously simple

The danger, says James Lyne, Global Head of Security Research at Sophos, is Cryptolocker's simplicity. It requires no special set of skills and your average non-hacker scammer can easily figure out how to use it. Not only will it become widespread but we could see even more variations of it in the years ahead.

”Cryptolocker is very much a deviation from the norm, and I actually think it is a sign of things to come,” James said in an interview with the BBC.

Security experts at McAfee say Cryptolocker is a significant jump in the threat level from so-called “scareware.” This type of malware flashes a warning that your computer has been infected with a virus and offers to remove it for a the small cost of a download.

McAfee says most scareware programs are easily removed and consumers soon learned they didn't have to pay. Cryptolocker, however, significantly raises the bar.

“The encryption method may be known but if the key used is unknown then decryption is, if not actually impossible (the NSA could probably do it), then not feasible for almost everyone who is affected,” McAfee warns on its website. “Cryptolocker is the most recent and most widespread of this class of ransomware, and someone somewhere is raking in the cash as a result. Note that payment for decryption cannot be done using credit cards: you have to make payments using MoneyPak vouchers or BitCoins.”

In the video below, a British security expert purposely infected a computer and walks you through the steps of paying off the extortionists and getting your files back. As you will see, it is not a simple process.

To avoid falling prey to this scam, never click on a link in an email.  Easier said than done, perhaps, but that's the unfortunate truth.

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Trouble remembering names? Google Glass may be the answer

It could also make life more difficult for dating sites

A lot of people are pretty skeptical about Google Glass, saying the goofy-looking goggles have no redeeming social value. Ah, but what if they could recogn...

PhotoA lot of people are pretty skeptical about Google Glass, saying the goofy-looking goggles have no redeeming social value. Ah, but what if they could recognize faces?

A company calls FacialNetwork is claiming it has the software to make that happen. It would be a real blessing for anyone who has trouble remembering names. And just think of the potential dating applications -- all you'd have to do is stare at someone, say the magic word and get their name, email and -- I dunno -- Facebook profile or whatever.

And, sure enough, that's what FacialNetwork is promising. It calls the product NameTag and says it uses some of the most accurate facial recognition software in the world to grab faces using Google Glass' camera, send that face wirelessly to a server, compare it to millions of records and in seconds return a match complete with a name, additional photos and social media profiles.

FacialNetwork.com is also currently creating technology to allow the scanning of profile photos from dating sites such as PlentyOfFish.com, OkCupid.com and Match.com. The technology would also allow users to scan photos against the more than 450,000 entries in the National Sex Offender Registry and other criminal databases.

Story continues below video

A brave new world

"I believe that this will make online dating and offline social interactions much safer and give us a far better understanding of the people around us," said NameTag's creator Kevin Alan Tussy.  "It's much easier to meet interesting new people when we can simply look at someone, see their Facebook, review their LinkedIn page or maybe even see their dating site profile. Often we were interacting with people blindly or not interacting at all. NameTag on Google Glass can change all that."

This all sounds great, at least to those who think such ideas aren't completely loathsome. But so far Google remains unconvinced.

Google has said that facial recognition will not be supported for Glass. Tussy thinks this is due to pressure from privacy groups but he thinks that when it seriously considers the "vast societal benefits," Google will eventually reconsider.

"There will be many providers of augmented reality headsets and even if facial recognition is not supported by some, I'm confident that there will be solutions for such limitations. We are not publishing any information about of our financiers or investors at this time but I will say that we are involved with some very well-respected individuals and venture funds," said Tussy.

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Consumers should get only the medical treatment they want

Too many lives end in the ICU when hospice care would be more appropriate

Consumers Should Get Only Medical Treatment They WantBy Ashley Carson Cottingham Patients, families and their advocates deserve and demand t...

Ashley Carson Cottingham is the director of policy & advocacy for Compassion & Choices, and a former staff director for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging.

 ---

PhotoPatients, families and their advocates deserve and demand that they receive only the medical treatment that they want.  Nothing less… and nothing more.  There is an unfortunate and growing trend of individuals receiving medical treatment against their wishes, most often occurring in violation of their advance directives at the end of life when they cannot speak for themselves

The last place most Americans want to end up is in the hospital, hooked up to machines and tubes at the end of their life.  Polling indicates that people overwhelmingly want to die at home surrounded by their loved ones.  So why is it that we are seeing an increase in the numbers of people dying in the intensive care unit (ICU)? And why do terminally ill patients who are eligible for home hospice care when they have six months left to live are never told of this preferred option until the last few days of their life

The nation’s leading end-of-life consumer advocacy group, Compassion & Choices has joined a powerful group of consumer health organizations, including the Consumer Coalition for Quality Health Care and The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, whose goal is to end the scourge of unwanted medical treatment. 

Informed choices

The “Campaign to End Unwanted Medical Treatment” is designed to empower consumers to make informed choices about their treatment preferences and demand that health care professionals to honor their wishes.  The groups honor the dignity, values, and health care choices of every person at each state of his or her illness.  They also ensure that consumers have access to a full range of well-coordinated care and treatment options, including curative care, palliative care, and hospice care. Finally, they help consumers enforce their constitutionally-protected right to decline unwanted medical treatment. 

In the coming months, the Campaign to End Unwanted Medical Treatment will host a luncheon series in Washington, D.C., aimed at educating policymakers about unwanted medical treatment and formulating a plan to stop the practice.  Each lunch will be followed by the release of a policy issue brief from the National Academy of Social Insurance recapping the important policy recommendations made at the luncheon.  The first brief is titled, “Getting the Treatment You Want: Is Anyone Listening?” and is available for free online

The first luncheon occurred in early December and featured Dr. Bernard “Bud” Hammes, the director of the internationally renowned Medical Humanities and Respecting Choices® for Gundersen Health System. He talked about how this program’s amazing 98 percent success rate in educating consumers about advance care planning and medical staff to follow patient’s choices.

To learn more about the Campaign to End Unwanted Medical Treatment – and to take action – please visit www.endumt.org

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BBB chastises Charter for dissing AT&T's broadband speeds

Charter's speeds are faster but BBB says the comparison wasn't fair

Charter denigrated AT&T in ads for broadband service by implying that companies with AT&T service “are using outdated, slow equipment,”...

PhotoIt might seem odd that globe-girdling duopolist AT&T would feel the need to go running for help because it was being bullied by relative pipsqueak Charter, which is only the fourth-largest cable operator in the country.

But that's what happened and the Better Business Bureau's National Advertising Division sided with AT&T, the marketing journal MediaPost reported.

Charter, you see, had been running ads for its broadband service claiming it was faster than AT&T's. Well, in fact, it is but the BBB said that Charter unfairly compared its broadband service, which offers speeds of 30 Mbps, to AT&T's DSL, which is only one-fifth as fast.

Of course, Charter's broadband is also faster than AT&T's U-Verse, which pins its needle at 24 Mbps.

Charter was unfair

AT&T Uverse Dec. 23, 2013, 5:13 p.m.
Consumers rate AT&T Uverse

But the BBB said it was unfair of Charter to say that AT&T business subscribers were using "outdated, slow equipment” and it also took offense at Charter's claim that “AT&T can’t keep up with your business. It’s time to move on.” 

Not only that, but the BBB also said Charter shouldn't have suggested that AT&T was hindering business with its slower speeds. 

“While a difference of even a few minutes in downloading a file can be substantial for a business, there is no evidence in the record that companies who use AT&T’s DSL and phone service are less productive and/or successful than businesses who use other providers (such as Charter Business),” the NAD wrote.


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Consumer spending outstrips incomes in November

The savings rate dipped as a result

Consumers earned more money in November, but spent even more. Figures released by the Commerce Department, show personal income increased $30.1 billion, o...

PhotoConsumers earned more money in November, but spent even more than they took in.

Figures released by the Commerce Department, show personal income increased $30.1 billion, or 0.2%, with disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- up 0.1% following an 0.2% decline in October.

At the same time, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) rose 0.5% -- to $63.0 billion, the biggest increase in 5 months.

Wages and salaries

Private wages and salaries increased $26.1 billion in November, with goods producing industries' payrolls increased $8.3 billion. Manufacturing payrolls made up $4.8 billion of that. Services-producing industries' payrolls increased $17.8 billion, while government wages and salaries increased $1.0 billion.

Personal spending and savings

Personal outlays, which include PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments, jumped $62.6 billion in November after rising of $43.9 billion in October. PCE was up $63.0 billion, compared with an increase of $44.2 billion the month before.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays – dropped to $525.4 billion last month from $571.8 billion in October. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was down 0.3% in November -- to 4.2% .

The complete report is available on the Bureau of Economic Analysis website.  

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Victor Toasted Sesame Hummus recalled

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Spokane Produce of Spokane Wash., is recalling approximately 59 lbs of Victor’s Sesame Hummus due to concerns about possible Listeria monocytogenes. No il...

PhotoSpokane Produce of Spokane Wash., is recalling approximately 59 lbs of Victor’s Sesame Hummus due to concerns about possible Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported in association with this recall.

The following product is subject to the voluntary recall:

11-oz labeled “Victor™ - Toasted Sesame Hummus” with UPC 6 09722 76501 5, best by 12/29/13.

The hummus was distributed to retail locations (Rosauers, Brewster Market, SuperOne) in Washington and Montana.

Consumers who have purchased Victor - Toasted Sesame Hummus are urged not to eat it and to dispose of it or return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

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Palama Holdings recalls frozen, raw chicken products

The products may have experienced temperature abuse in the distribution chain

Palama Holdings of Kapolei, Hawaii, is recalling approximately 3,600 pounds of raw, frozen marinated chicken products because they may have experienced tem...

PhotoPalama Holdings of Kapolei, Hawaii, is recalling approximately 3,600 pounds of raw, frozen marinated chicken products because they may have experienced temperature abuse in the distribution chain.

The problem was discovered when the company’s distributor observed boxes of product swollen with gases from the bagged chicken.

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

The products subject to recall include:

  • 10-lb. cardboard boxes, containing 4 individual cryovac sealed packages of May’s Hawaii “Hawaiian Style, Boneless and Skinless Teriyaki Chicken Thighs.”

The products were produced Oct. 15, 2013 and Nov. 5, 2013 then were distributed for retail sale in the Hawaiian islands of Oahu, Maui and Kauai and to a nearby military commissary. The packages bear the establishment number “EST. P-11077” in the USDA mark of inspection on the package.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Gary Hanagami, May’s Hawaii vice president of retail sales, at (808) 682-8300.

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Chrysler recalls AWD vehicles

The transmission output shaft may fracture

Chrysler Group is recalling 4,194 model year 2013 Chrysler 300 AWD, Dodge Charger AWD, and Dodge Ram 1500 4x4 vehicles equipped with ZF all wheel drive ("...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 4,194 model year 2013 Chrysler 300 AWD, Dodge Charger AWD, and Dodge Ram 1500 4x4 vehicles equipped with ZF all wheel drive ("AWD") 8HP45 transmissions.

In the affected vehicles, the transmission output shaft may fracture, resulting in a loss of power, which could increase the risk of a crash. Additionally, if the parking brake is not applied before exiting the vehicle, the vehicle may roll away despite the transmission being placed in 'Park'.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the transmissions, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is to begin in January 2014.

Customers may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's recall number is N65.

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'Tis the season for burglaries

Home break-ins spike in November and December

In the classic holiday movie Home Alone, a young boy holds off a pair of bumbling burglars who have targeted his home after his entire family has packed up...

PhotoIn the classic holiday movie "Home Alone," a young boy holds off a pair of bumbling burglars who have targeted his home after his entire family has packed up and left the country on Christmas vacation.

Burglaries around the holidays, from Thanksgiving through New Year's, happen all too often, but unlike the movie, they aren't very funny.

“Burglars are aware that we go away to visit family and friends at Christmas and they tend to prey on unoccupied homes and sparsely populated neighborhoods, where there are fewer neighbors to look out for you,” said Stephen Ebbett, president of Protect Your Bubble, a company that sells renters insurance and other insurance products.

According to the FBI, there are about 400,000 burglaries in the U.S. each November and December. In the majority of cases, these aren't carried out by professional burglars.

In search of drug money

“There's a strong correlation between burglary and substance abuse,” Ebbett said. “A lot of burglars are looking for quick, easy money. They'll pick neighborhoods where they know residents are affluent.”

They also spend as little time in the house as possible, mostly getting in and out in about 10 minutes. That means leaving your home unsecured for just a few minutes while you are out and about can be risky.

Once a burglar is inside your home Ebbett says he will try to maximize his time, getting the most he can for his effort and risk.

“Unfortunately it tends to be the smaller, more valuable items they gravitate to because they're easy to carry,” Ebbett said. “Your gadgets, your jewelry, your art work all tend to be very easy targets.”

Smartphones a prized target

PhotoIn fact, Ebbett cites a statistic showing that 19% of stolen smartphones and tablets and not taken in public but in the owner's home. When leaving home, he says, don't leave gadgets and small, valuable items lying around in plain sight. If a burglar has to spend precious minutes searching for an item, chances are he won't take it.

“I think the key thing about tablets and smartphones is they have a very high resale value,” Ebbett said. “They don't depreciate in the black market the way a lot of other consumer goods do. A $700 iPhone will easily sell on the black market for $500.”

Since burglars tend to target unoccupied homes, it's important to never allow your home to appear unoccupied. If you are leaving town for more than a day or two, stop mail and newspaper delivery or have your neighbors pick them up for you. Use timers throughout the house so that lights come on and off on a regular basis.

Don't leave keys under door mats, flower pots or other predictable places. And in the era of social media we often thoughtlessly broadcast the fact that our home is unoccupied to the world. We shouldn't.

Think before you post

“We're always very eager to update our status on Facebook and tell people what we're doing,” Ebbett said. “But 75% of burglars use social media to help them find their next victims. Don't tell people you're out of town. Maybe wait until you're back before you post holiday pictures.”

Keep your property well-lit, not just inside but outside too. Burglars hate light and a motion-sensitive exterior light, that comes on when someone enters its field of vision, may be enough to send a burglar running, in search of a safer target.

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What to do if you're a recent Target customer

How to protect yourself from the consequences of identity theft

The massive data breach affecting up to 40 million Target customers has left those customers wondering if they're affected and, if so, what they should do...

PhotoThe massive data breach affecting up to 40 million Target customers has left those customers wondering if they're affected and, if so, what they should do to protect themselves. New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman offers these tips:

If you think you might be a victim

  • Report to any of the three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Transunion or Experian) that you may have been a victim of identity theft. Make sure the credit reporting agency has your current contact information so they can get in contact with you. 
  • Ask the credit reporting agencies to put a fraud alert on your credit file.  This will still allow you to use your credit card. If you put a fraud alert on your file, you may ask for a free credit report from each of the credit reporting agencies.  Contacting any one of the three credit reporting agencies above is enough to file a credit alert with all of them.  A credit alert must be renewed every 90 days.
  • You also have a right to put a credit freeze on your credit file.  This will block someone from obtaining credit using your name or personal information.  This means you won’t be able to apply for any new credit cards or loans while the freeze is in effect, but you can continue to use your existing cards.  To freeze your credit file you must notify each of the three major credit bureaus.   You can remove the freeze temporarily or permanently by contacting each of the three agencies.  There is no fee if you have been the victim of identity theft.  You may be charged a fee of up to $5) if you have not been a victim of identity theft.
  • You should also check your credit activity regularly with each credit issuer.  You don’t need to wait for your monthly statement, though you should check that as well.  Many banks provide online information to account holders about recent activity. 

If you are a victim:

  • Create an identity theft fraud report.  To create one, file a complaint with the FTC and print your Identity Theft Affidavit. You can call the FTC at 1-877-438-4338 or go online.
  • Use the FTC complaint to file a police report and create your Identity Theft Report. 
  • An Identity Theft Report will help you deal with credit reporting companies, debt collectors and any fraudulent accounts that the ID thief opened in your name.
  • Put a freeze (not just a fraud alert) on your credit report by notifying each of the credit reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion or Experian).  The freeze can only be removed by you.  
  • Get your credit report from each of the three agencies.  You are entitled to free reports once you post a fraud alert or put a freeze on your account.  Read the reports carefully to see whether other fraudulent transactions or accounts are listed, and then take steps to correct the errors.
  • Check your credit card account frequently to look for any irregular activity.

The contact information for the credit reporting agencies are:

Equifax
1-800-525-6285

Experian
1-888-397-3742

TransUnion
1-800-680-7289

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First class actions filed against Target after massive security breach

Millions of consumers' information may have been lost in still unexplained breach

In the race for justice, the prize often goes to the swift. And in this case that would be Los Angeles attorney Robert Ahdoor, who raced to San Francisco U...

PhotoIn the race for justice, the prize often goes to the swift. And in this case, one of the top finishers was Los Angeles attorney Robert Ahdoot, who raced to San Francisco U.S. District Court yesterday and filed a class-action lawsuit -- dated 1:37 p.m. -- against Target for its role in what's being called the second-largest data breach in history, the theft of credit- and debit-card information on up to 40 million customers.

Ahdoot's suit, on behalf of named plaintiff Jennifer Kirk, claims that a blogger, Brian Krebs, first revealed the massive identity theft on Wednesday "before Target made any attempt whatsoever to notify affected customers," Courthouse News Service reported.

Target has not exactly covered itself in glory so far. It told customers it was sorry and then gave them some paternalistic advice about checking their credit report and keeping a close eye on credit card accounts. It didn't offer to pay for any additional protection.

Analysts of all stripes are lambasting the company for its feeble response and predicting dire consequences.

"There's a level of trust that's diminished and there is perhaps a loss of goodwill," said Daren Orzechowski, a partner at law firm White & Case in New York, who focuses on information technology legal matters, including privacy. The breach "could affect people who choose not to go to those [Target] stores versus a competitor," he told Advertising Age

"Inadequately designed"

Target has said the stolen data includes names, credit card numbers, expiration dates and the three-digit security codes on the backs of cards, but it claimed online purchases were not affected.

The leading speculation among cyber security experts is that hackers extracted the purloined data from the card-swipe machines used to process in-store payments, rather than invading Target's corporate information system.

"It appears that the majority of this information was taken from the point-of-sale (POS) machines themselves, which were infected by malware that intercepted the data itself during the magstripe swipe," said Kevin O'Brien, director of product marketing at CloudLock, in an analysis of the breach quoted by DarkReading"The most likely scenario is the attackers hacked their way to a central relay point, where they could snag credit cards coming through for processing."

O'rien said it "is clear that the security and monitoring systems in place were inadequately designed and managed."

"Ham-handed"

As Kirk's class action suit notes, Target knew about the breach for four days before it bothered to tell customers. Even then, it didn't offer to do anything to help those whose data it had lost, a circumstance it has so far ignored in its public statements.

"We wanted to move swiftly to address the issue. This is a very important holiday week but our focus is on the guests," said Dustee Jenkins, a Target spokeswoman. "We want to reassure people that they can shop at Target."

"The reaction to it has been very ham-handed," said consultant Craig Johnson of Customer Growth Partners in the AdAge account. "You have to get out in front and communicate. No company is perfect but when an issue arises, when there's a theft or fraud thing….you want your customers to hear about it first from you."

Kirk's suit seeks class certification, damages and punitive damages for unfair competition, privacy invasion, negligence, conversion and other charges.

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Could there be a demographic reason for the slow economy?

What Baby Boomers spend -- and don't spend -- has a big impact

There may be many reasons that the economy has sputtered in the five years since the financial crisis of 2008. Most people's incomes haven't risen very muc...

PhotoThere may be many reasons that the economy has sputtered in the five years since the financial crisis of 2008. Most people's incomes haven't risen very much, there isn't as much available credit and perhaps there may be a demographic reason as well

For decades the Baby Boom generation, which came of age in the 60s, entered the work force in the 70s and started families and moved to the suburbs in the 80s, has been a significant driver of the U.S. economy. This group earned a lot and spent a lot.

The onset of the Great Recession coincided with the first wave of the Boomers entering their 60s. They started worrying about retirement and their spending priorities changed. In 2012 the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), a think tank, studied how Boomers spend their money. The main point of the report is that Boomers still aren't saving enough for retirement. But where they spend their money is eye-opening. 

Different spending priorities

Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey, researchers compared the pre-retirement spending habits of today’s middle-aged workers -- 45 to 54 years old -- and today’s older workers -- 55 to 64 years old -- with the spending habits of those same age groups 20 years ago. It turns out that, after adjusting for inflation, Boomers are earning what their age group did two decades ago. But how they spend that money is very different.

The report found that from 1990 to 2010 Boomers increased spending the most for education. Spending rose by 80% for 45- to 54-year-olds and 22% for those 55 to 64. The next largest increase in Boomer spending was for health care.  Just to be clear, Boomers weren't educating themselves -- they were paying for their children.

If you are writing checks to universities and hospitals, that leaves less to spend on consumer goods and services that can stimulate broad economic growth. The NCPA study found Boomers aren't spending more on entertainment, like movies and restaurant meals. They spend less on food, household furnishings, automobiles and clothing, all of which can stimulate the economy when sales rise. Clothing saw the steepest decline with expenditures falling 42% for 45- to 54-year-olds and 70% for 55- to 64-year-olds.

With the economy getting very little traction these last five years the children of Boomers increasingly turn to their parents for financial support, which places an additional drain on disposable income. A recent survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education found that more than half of parents are helping to support their adult children. Among parents of 18-to 39-year-old children, 59% of parents are providing financial support to adult children who are no longer in school.

Even thought Baby Boomers aren't saving what many financial experts believe is enough, there is evidence to suggest that they are trying to save money. The money they put into retirement accounts is money they aren't spending to stimulate the economy.

Boomer flight in NYC

PhotoAARP of New York State sees this outsized Boomer impact on the economy growing, particularly in New York City. It warns of what it calls “Boomer flight,” with a mass exodus of Boomers leaving the city and taking their retirement funds with them. Pennsylvania and other nearby states with lower taxes and attractive countrysides are luring the Boomers.

An AARP survey of New York City's voters 50 and older in November found more than half of Boomers said they plan to leave the city when they retire. After analyzing the numbers AARP estimates 762,087 Baby Boomers -- roughly 53% -- are expected to leave and take anywhere from roughly $12 to $21 billion with them.

That, the group says, should be a sobering thought for the incoming de Blasio administration. In a note of irony, it observes that the Boomers who plan to leave the city in the future are largely responsible for electing the incoming mayor, with de Blasio getting 75% of the Boomer vote in exit polls.

"Literally, the group that elected Bill de Blasio mayor is saying they are leaving the city to retire elsewhere," said Beth Finkel, Director AARP New York.  

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Ally to pay $80 million to minorities who paid higher auto loan rates

Investigation found 235,000 borrowers were victimized by Ally's discriminatory pricing system

Ally Bank has been ordered to pay $80 million in damages to minorities borrowers who paid higher interest rates for their car loans because of their e...

PhotoAlly Bank has been ordered to pay $80 million in damages to minorities borrowers who paid higher interest rates for their car loans because of their ethnicity, plus another $18 million in penalties.

harmed African-American, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific Islander borrowers and $18 million in penalties. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and Department of Justice (DOJ) determined that more than 235,000 minority borrowers paid higher interest rates for their auto loans between April 2011 and December 2013 because of Ally’s discriminatory pricing system.

Today’s orders represent the federal government’s largest auto loan discrimination settlement in history.

“Discrimination is a serious issue across every consumer credit market,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We are returning $80 million to hard-working consumers who paid more for their cars or trucks based on their race or national origin."

Auto loans are the third-largest source of outstanding household debt in the United States, after mortgages and student loans. When consumers finance automobile purchases from an auto dealership, the dealer often facilitates indirect financing through a third-party lender like Ally, one of the largest indirect auto lenders in the United States.

“With this largest-ever settlement in an auto loan discrimination case, we are taking a firm stand against discrimination in a critical lending market,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “By requiring Ally to provide refunds to those who are overcharged because of their race or national origin, this agreement will ensure relief for Americans who are victimized."

Dealer markup

Ally Bank Dec. 20, 2013, 7:23 p.m.
Consumers rate Ally Bank

As an indirect auto lender, Ally sets a risk-based interest rate, or “buy rate,” and then allows auto dealers to charge a higher interest rate when they finalize the deal with the consumer. This is typically called “dealer markup.” Ally then shares some or all of the revenue from that increased interest rate with the dealer. Markups can generate compensation for dealers while giving them the discretion to charge consumers different rates regardless of consumer creditworthiness.

Today’s enforcement action is the result of a CFPB examination that began in September 2012. That examination evaluated Ally’s indirect auto lending program for compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). The ECOA prohibits creditors from discriminating against loan applicants in credit transactions on the basis of characteristics such as race and national origin.

Penalties

Ally is being ordered to:

  • Pay $80 million in damages for consumer harm: Ally will pay $80 million to a settlement fund that will go to harmed African-American, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific Islander borrowers whose auto loans were purchased by Ally between April 2011 and December 2013.
  •  Pay to hire a settlement administrator to distribute funds to victims: A settlement administrator will contact consumers if necessary, distribute the funds, and ensure that borrowers who were affected receive compensation. 
  • Monitor dealer markups to prevent future discrimination or eliminate dealer markups altogether: Ally will implement a compliance program to prevent future discrimination. The program will include dealer education; prompt corrective action against dealers when there are dealer disparities; and portfolio-wide analysis of pricing data for disparities. Until Ally’s compliance program effectively eliminates disparities, Ally will pay harmed consumers each year under the order. 
  • Pay an $18 million penalty: Ally will pay an $18 million penalty to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.
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Petitions demand recall of Fisher-Price "Apptivity Seat for iPad"

Consumer group says the company is showing a "cynical disregard for infants' wellbeing"

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has sent Fisher-Price petitions demanding the company recall an infants' bouncy seat that's equipped with an i...

PhotoThe Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has sent Fisher-Price petitions demanding the company recall an infants' bouncy seat that's equipped with an iPad holder.

“In Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s 13-year history, no petition we’ve hosted has garnered more signatures — or generated more passion,” said CCFC’s director Dr. Susan Linn. “People expect better of Fisher-Price and are shocked that the company is selling a product with such a cynical disregard for infants’ wellbeing.”

The group says the $80 Fisher-Price Newborn-to-Toddler Apptivity Seat for iPad encourages parents to leave their children unattended under the guise of providing them with an educational activity. To date, the group says the petition has been signed by more than 12,000 parents, grandparents, educators, and health professionals.

The seat is described by Fisher-Price as a "grow-with-me seat for baby that's soothing, entertaining and has a touch of technology, too." Like conventional bouncy seats, the Apptivity Seat puts some hanging toys and a mirror --designed to help children develop facial recognitions skills, as well as teach them a sense of self -- within the child's easy reach. But there' s a twist: the Apptivity Seat allows parents to replace that mirror with an iPad.

That's what has parents, educators and pediatricians fuming. 

"A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens," the American Academy of Pediatricians says on its website. It goes on to caution that studies have shown excessive use of multimedia devices by children can lead to a host of issues, including attention problems, difficulty at school and obesity.

Distancing itself?

CCFC sent the petition amid what it sees as signs that Fisher-Price is distancing itself from the controversial iPad bouncy seat.

It quotes Fisher-Price as saying in a statement that it does not “position the Apptivity Seat, or any of our other infant seats, as educational products for children.” CCFC said Fisher-Price also claims that the seat has a timeout feature that “only allows for 10 minutes of activity with our app before requiring a manual reset.”

But CCFC says it timed three apps and found that one, "Laugh & Learn Shapes & Color Music show for Baby," ran indefinitely while two others, "Development with Contrast Colors for Baby" and "Soothing Sights & Songs for Baby," timed out at 12.5 minutes and 13.5 minutes respectively.

“It’s clear Fisher-Price is attempting damage control, but the best way to protect their brand is do the right thing for babies and families and pull the plug on the iPad bouncy seat,” Dr. Linn said.


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E-cigs, foam cups banned in New York

The Bloombergians wrap up their reign with a few more house-cleaning items

Devotees of electronic cigarettes -- and industry lobbyists -- swear that smoking and "vaping" are entirely different but New York City begs to differ. The...

PhotoDevotees of electronic cigarettes -- and industry lobbyists -- swear that smoking and "vaping" are entirely different but New York City begs to differ. The city council voted 43-8 yesterday to add e-cigs to a 2002 law that prohibits smoking in most public places.

And while it was at it, the council also banned foam cups, containers and trays, which environmentalists say are a blight that will continue to despoil the landscape long after the era of human domination has ended. Or something like that.

E-cigs don't really give off smoke but they do emit a visible vapor. E-cig supporters say the vapor is harmless but others aren't so sure. Among them is Jeff Seyler, president of the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

He called the city council's action "a common sense step forward" and said it would help protect the public from secondhand smoke ... uh, vapor. 

“We’re grateful that New Yorkers will not be exposed to potentially unsafe secondhand emissions from electronic cigarettes,” Seyler said in a statement.

"Greatest accomplishments"

PhotoMayor Bloomberg, who has sought to rid New Yorkers of just about every bad habit you can think of, is expected to sign the bill. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who failed to win election to succeed the retiring Bloomberg, said the 2002 Smoke-Free Act was "one of our greatest accomplishments."

E-cig boosters said the vote was illogical and "not based on science." One said it made no sense to "ban something just because it looks like smoking."

And as for those foam cups and meal containers -- they will soon be history, as the council voted unanimously to ban them from the Big Apple. Oh, and another thing: restaurants will be required to compost their waste under yet another measure approved by the city fathers and mothers yesterday.

Thursday's city council session was the last of the year, so if your favorite vice has not yet been banned, you have a few more weeks to enjoy it.

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Refund checks going to purchasers of Acai Pure and Colotox

Central Coast Nutraceuticals was charged with deceptive advertising, unfair billing practices

If you ordered acai berry supplements or "colon cleansers" from Central Coast Nutraceuticals, you may be getting a check in the mail.An administrator wor...

PhotoIf you ordered acai berry supplements or "colon cleansers" from Central Coast Nutraceuticals, you may be getting a check in the mail.

An administrator working for the Federal Trade Commission is mailing 316,716 checks averaging $18.74 each to consumers who bought products from the company.

In August 2010, the FTC charged Central Coast Nutraceuticals with multiple violations, including unfair billing practices, and deceptively advertising Acai Pure, an acai berry supplement, as a weight-loss product, and Colotox, a colon cleansing supplement, as an aid for preventing cancer.

The checks, which total $5,936,243.63, must be cashed within 60 days after they are issued.  The deadline for filing a refund request has expired.

Consumers who have questions should call (877) 283-6531.  For more general information, see www.FTC.gov/refunds.  The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed. 

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Economy shifts into high gear

More consumer spending was a major factor

The economy wasn't just chugging along during the summer -- it was hitting on all cylinders. The government reports real gross domestic product (GDP) -- t...

PhotoThe economy wasn't just chugging along during the summer -- it was hitting on all cylinders.

The government reports real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S. -- increased at an annual rate of 4.1% in the third quarter.

The “third” estimate of GDP, released by Bureau of Economic Analysis, is based on more complete source data than were available for the "second" estimate of 3.6% issued earlier this month. The updated data showed that the increases in personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and in nonresidential fixed investment were larger than previously estimated.

Major factors

The increase in real GDP in the third quarter primarily reflected positive contributions from private inventory investment, PCE (+2.0%), nonresidential fixed investment (+4.8%), exports, residential fixed investment (+10.3%), and state and local government spending (+1.7). These were partly offset by a decline in federal government spending (-1.5). Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased (+2.4).

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, increased 1.8% in the third quarter -- the same as in the second estimate. It was up 0.2% in the second quarter. Excluding food and energy prices, the price index for gross domestic purchases increased 1.5% in the third quarter, compared with an increase of 0.8% in the second.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Playtex recalls Hip Hammock infant carriers

The buckles on the waist and shoulder straps can crack or break

Playtex Products of Dover, Del., is recalling about 341,000 Playtex Hip Hammock infant carriers in the U.S. and Canada. The buckles on the waist and shoul...

PhotoPlaytex Products of Dover, Del., is recalling about 341,000 Playtex Hip Hammock infant carriers in the U.S. and Canada.

The buckles on the waist and shoulder straps can crack or break, posing a fall hazard to the child.

The company has received 87 reports of the buckles cracking or breaking, including two reports of injuries, where one infant required emergency room treatment.

The Playtex Hip Hammock is an infant carrier designed to strap the baby against the caregiver’s body at the hip. It is made of a soft, quilted fabric and intended for babies that are from 15 to 35 pounds. The child seat is attached with straps that wrap around the carrier’s hips and shoulder. “Playtex Hip Hammock” is printed on a label sewn into the front of the carrier. All model numbers are being recalled. Model numbers 05300, 05301, 05302, 05306, 05307 and 05308 are sewn into the inside panel below the instructions for use. They come in basic and deluxe styles. The hip hammock’s fabric is suede or ultra-suede in black or navy colors on the outside, and the inside lining is black, black and white check or burgundy.

The infant carriers, manufactured in China, were sold at Burlington Coat Factory, Target, Walmart, juvenile product, baby and discount stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com from June 2004, through December 2008, and January 2010 in Canada for about $40 for the basic model and $60 for the deluxe model.

Consumers should stop using the carrier and contact Playtex for instructions on how to return the product for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Playtex at (800) 522-8230 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.  

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Red Wing Shoes recalls steel toe work boots

The steel toe cap could fail to protect the wearer’s feet

Red Wing Shoe Company of Red Wing, Minn., is recalling about 114,000 pairs of steel toe work boots in the U.S. and Canada. The steel toe cap in the boots ...

PhotoRed Wing Shoe Company of Red Wing, Minn., is recalling about 114,000 pairs of steel toe work boots in the U.S. and Canada.

The steel toe cap in the boots could fail to protect the wearer’s feet in an impact.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 45 styles of Red Wing men’s steel toe work boots in sizes 11 to 18 and widths ranging from B to H depending on the size and style. The boots have 6, 8, 10 or 11 inch ankle height and were sold in brown, black and maroon-colored leather.

The following style numbers are included in the recall: 2206, 2211, 2223, 2226, 2230, 2238, 2249, 2254, 2270, 2404, 2405, 2406, 2408, 2412, 2414, 2426, 2491, 3505, 3507, 3508, 3526, 3528, 3568, 4208, 4210, 4273, 4406, 4414, 4425, 4433, 4435, 4436, 4437, 4438, 4445, 4481, 4483, 4484, 4494, 22406, 22408, 52406, 52408, 82406 and 82408.

Date codes between 10/12 and 11/13 are included in the recall.

The style number, date code and Red Wing Shoes are printed on a label inside the boot’s tongue. See the firm’s website for the complete list.

The boots, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Red Wing stores and other shoe stores from October 2012, through November 2013, for between $185 and $340.

Consumers should stop wearing the recalled boots immediately and return them to a Red Wing store/dealer or contact Red Wing Shoes for a free replacement pair of boots.

Consumers may contact Red Wing Shoes at (800) 733-9464 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. CT Saturday, or by email at voluntary.recall@redwingshoes.com.

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Report: Major banks financing payday lenders

Analyst finds cozy relationship between big banks and storefront lenders

Store front payday loan companies seem to be everywhere, especially in areas where lower-income consumers live, work and shop. They're especially busy this...

PhotoStorefront payday loan companies seem to be everywhere, especially in areas where lower-income consumers live, work and shop. They're especially busy this time of year.

Consumer advocates generally urge consumers to avoid them, warning that if you don't have money now and need a loan, what makes you think you're going to have the money in two weeks, when payment is due? When you can't pay, you have to take out another two-week loan, trapping the borrower in what consumer advocates call a “cycle of debt.”

Adam Rust, of Durham, N.C.-based Reinvestment Partners, has studied the payday loan industry as a business. He recently authored a report that traces the source of the money that payday lenders lend. It comes in large part, he says, from the nation's largest banks, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Connecting the dots

According to his report – Connecting the Dots: How Wall Street Brings Fringe Lending to Main Street – payday lenders borrow money from the biggest banks at a little over six percent interest and charge consumers often in excess of 500%.

"This report draws a clear line between regulated financial institutions that hold millions of Americans' deposits and the fringe lenders that routinely threaten their bank accounts," Rust said. This chart, from Rust's report, shows the relationship between Wells Fargo and selected lenders.

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To uncover his evidence Rust has followed publicly traded payday lenders just like any Wall Street analyst. He listens in to quarterly conference calls and studies documents the companies are required to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

$5.5 billion in loans

His research identified $5.5 billion in lines of credit and term loans issued by the banks. He says the filings show major banks are making loans to virtually every one of the country's largest payday and car title lenders, rent-to-own companies, buy-here pay-here car lenders, tax refund check providers, and pawn brokers.

Rust says nine of the 10 banks with the greatest levels of participation in fringe lending are national banks regulated by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), which periodically reviews the exposure held by their member institutions to products and practices that expose them to undue legal and reputational risk.

Being part of the payday lending food chain, Rust believes, is enough to damage a respected bank's reputation. Cutting off or reducing the supply of money flowing to these high-interest lenders, he believes, would deal a serious blow to the industry. How big a blow, he admits, is hard to know.

Probably a significant blow

“I think it would impact the scale of financing they would be able to tap,” Rust said. “With a reduced supply of funds and different terms I think they would end up paying more for it.”

The payday lenders, themselves, apparently believe it would be a significant blow if a major source of cheap funds suddenly dried up. As he has listened in to recent quarterly conference calls from what he calls “fringe” lenders, Rust says corporate executives have said things like losing access to financing "could adversely affect our operations," "would have a materially adverse effect on the company," and "adversely affect our ability to achieve our planned growth and operating results."

Pressure

Rust would like to see pressure placed on banks to get out of financing these storefront operators. He points out the total amount loaned to these lenders makes up a tiny portion of the banks' total loan portfolios.

Payday lenders don't operate in all states. Some states have passed laws capping interest rates at 36% APR. The effective interest rate on a typical payday loan is deep into triple digit territory. Couldn't payday lenders charge less and still make money?

“I think the evidence out there suggests that's pretty hard,” Rust said. “The business model is troubled because the payday lenders have to work under the assumption they're going to have significant loan losses. They're setting aside lots of money with the expectation that an awful lot of these loans are going to go bad.”

Rust says he would like to see the OCC force the banking institutions they regulate to divest from companies making short-term, high cost consumer loans.

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Ocwen to pay homeowners $2 billion for its servicing errors

The mortgage servicing firm will also refund $125 million to foreclosure victims

Ocwen Financial will provide $2 billion in principal reductions to underwater homeowners and refund $125 million to the nearly 185,000 homeowners who have...

PhotoOcwen Financial will provide $2 billion in principal reductions to underwater homeowners and refund $125 million to the nearly 185,000 homeowners who have already been through foreclosure, as part of a consent order with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), authorities in 49 states, and the District of Columbia.

Ocwen, the country's largest nonbank mortgage servicer, will also agree to implement stringent new homeowners protections. Headquartered in Atlanta, the company is responsible for collecting mortgage payments and providing customer service to homeowners.

“Deceptions and shortcuts in mortgage servicing will not be tolerated,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Ocwen took advantage of borrowers at every stage of the process. Today’s action sends a clear message that we will be vigilant about making sure that consumers are treated with the respect, dignity, and fairness they deserve.”

Ocwen specializes in servicing subprime or delinquent loans and places a major emphasis on resolving delinquency through loss mitigation or foreclosure. In recent years, it has acquired competitors – including Homeward Residential Holdings LLC (formerly American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc.) and Litton Loan Servicing LP. It has also acquired the mortgage servicing rights from the portfolios of some of the country’s largest banks.

Today's action grew out of a 2012 examination by state financial regulators that identified potential violations at Ocwen. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission referred its investigation of Ocwen to the CFPB after the Bureau opened in July 2011. The Bureau then teamed with state attorneys general and state regulators to investigate and resolve the issues identified. 

"Since my loan servicing was transferred to Ocwen in July, life has been hell," said Pamela of Largo, Fla., in a posting to ConsumerAffairs. "I have 20 years experience in the mortgage and real estate fields, including servicing and default, and have never seen such blatant abuse of mortgagors."

Pamela, like many other homeowners, said she has been charged unjustified fees, even to the point of being charged for the postage on the certified letters Ocwen has sent her claiming she is delinquent in her payments.

Pushed into foreclosure

Ocwen Loan Servicing Dec. 19, 2013, 5:51 p.m.
Consumers rate Ocwen Loan Servicing

The CFPB and its partner states said they believe that Ocwen was engaged in "significant and systemic misconduct that occurred at every stage of the mortgage servicing process." According to the complaint filed in the federal district court in the District of Columbia, Ocwen’s violations of consumer financial protections put thousands of people across the country at risk of losing their homes. 

The complaint chrarges that Ocwen failed to apply payments, failed to maintain accurate account statements, charged borrowers unauthorized fees, forced homeowners to pay for insurance even when they already had adequate coverage and provided false information when responding to consumer complaints.

The complaint also charges that Ocwen deceived customers about foreclosure alternatives, improperly denied loan modifications and engaged in illegal foreclosure practices.

Tina of Henderson, N.C., told ConsumerAffairs Ocwen did nothing to help her stay in her home and refused to take payments that would have brought her account current.

"They are not working with me to stay in my home. They will not take my payments I have tried to send into them -- as soon as I have gotten money I have sent it," she said. "Then find out they refused three payments ... that I know of so far," resulting in late fees of more than $125.

Today's proposed court order will bar Ocwen from committing such violations in the future. It requires Ocwen to provide $125 million in refunds to foreclosed-upon consumers and $2 billion in loan modification relief to its customers through principal reduction. The refunds and relief also apply to consumers whose loans were previously serviced by Homeward Residential Holdings and Litton Loan Servicing.

What to do

For loan modification options, eligible borrowers may be contacted directly by Ocwen. Or borrowers may contact Ocwen to obtain more information about specific loan modification programs and to find out whether they may be impacted by this settlement. Ocwen can be reached at 1-800-337-6695 or ConsumerRelief@Ocwen.com. 

Ocwen will also provide $125 million in refunds to foreclosure victims whose loans were being serviced by Ocwen, Homeward Residential Holdings, or Litton Loan Servicing, and who lost their homes to foreclosure between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2012. All eligible consumers who submit valid claims will receive an equal share of the $125 million. Eligible consumers can expect to hear from the settlement administrator about potential payments.

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A single car insurance claim can be costly

Study shows the average rate jumps 38%

Motorists are, for the most part, aware that when you file a claim or two on your auto insurance, your rate will go up. But how much, exactly?Insurancequ...

PhotoMotorists are, for the most part, aware that when you file a claim or two on your auto insurance, your rate will go up. But how much, exactly?

Insurancequotes.com, an insurance comparison website, conducted a study to find out. The rate hikes after a single claim vary state-to-state but average 38% nationwide.

If you happen to live in Massachusetts, you'll pay a lot more. The Bay State registered the steepest one-claim rate hike at 67%.

California was not far behind, at 62%. Maryland has the lowest post-claim increase at only 20%, followed by Alabama at 22% and Michigan at 23%. File a second claim and it's a much more severe hit. A driver with two claims pays nearly twice as much for car insurance as a claim-free driver – an average of 86% more.

Biggest lesson

"The biggest lesson for consumers is not to file a claim unless absolutely necessary," said Laura Adams, a senior analyst at InsuranceQuotes.com. "Making a claim for a few hundred dollars doesn't make sense if your premium is going to skyrocket as a result."

Most personal finance experts agree. So it makes no sense to pay a higher monthly premium for a low-deductible insurance policy that pays for everything after the first $100 or so. A high-deductible policy, requiring you to pay the first $1000 in repairs, will cost less on a monthly basis.

If the damage total is $1500 you would be much better off paying the entire amount out of pocket rather than filing a claim for $500. Then why even have insurance, you may ask?

It's a legitimate question but one that ignores how the insurance industry works. It's all based on risk and once you file a claim, you go on the risk list. Yes, you can make the insurance company pay for all the damage the contract requires them to pay for. It's just that when you do, they will raise your rates to cover your increased perceived risk except go to another insurance company. And the first question they will ask is “have you filed a claim in the last two years?”

Injury or property claims even costlier

The InsuranceQuotes.com study also found the severity of an accident resulting in a claim also has a big impact on post-claim rate hikes. Bodily injury and property damage claims are the most expensive, raising rates an average of 42% and 41% respectively. Comprehensive claims, for non-collision events such as theft. are the cheapest, barely moving the needle at two percent.

To decide whether it pays to make a claim check out this calculator

Besides filing a claim, the kind of car can affect your insurance rate. In general, a four-cylinder car is less costly to insure than a six- or eight-cylinder car.

“Insurance companies are all looking at the claims different cars produce,” said Kim Lankford, who covers insurance issues for Kiplinger's. “They're slicing and dicing it in various ways, looking at the correlations between car models and claims.”

Even without a muscle car and a claim or two, most consumers are facing higher car insurance rates. A recent study by the Consumer Federation of America found auto insurance rates have increased by 43% on average in the last 25 years, with only California showing a decrease. The study concludes that non-driving factors, like credit scores, considered by insurance companies when setting rates, are behind the increase.

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Security breach threatens 40 million Target customers

Hackers stole credit- and debit-card numbers over the Black Friday weekend

Target says it's sorry. That may be scant comfort, however, to 40 million consumers whose credit- and debit-card numbers may have been stolen by thieves wh...

PhotoTarget says it's sorry. That may be scant comfort, however, to 40 million consumers whose credit- and debit-card numbers may have been stolen by thieves who broke into Target's computer system over the Black Friday weekend. The breach continued until Dec. 15. 

The Wall Street Journal said the data thefts happened in stores rather than online. It may have involved tampering with the machines that customers use to swipe their cards when making a purchase, the newspaper said.

The theft was national in scope and happened in stores, not online, and may have involved tampering with the machines customers use to swipe their cards when making purchases, people familiar with the matter said.

“Target’s first priority is preserving the trust of our guests and we have moved swiftly to address this issue, so guests can shop with confidence. We regret any inconvenience this may cause,” said Gregg Steinhafel, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Target. “We take this matter very seriously and are working with law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice.”

Not much help

Beyond its expressions of regret, however, Target doesn't appear to be doing much to help the consumers whose confidential information was entrusted to its care.

Target Stores Dec. 19, 2013, 12:34 p.m.
Consumers rate Target Stores

"You should remain vigilant for incidents of fraud and identity theft by regularly reviewing your account statements and monitoring free credit reports," Target recommended in an open letterto customers. It didn't offer to pay for credit reports or protective measures.

"If you discover any suspicious or unusual activity on your accounts or suspect fraud, be sure to report it immediately to your financial institutions.  In addition, you may contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or law enforcement to report incidents of identity theft or to learn about steps you can take to protect yourself from identity theft," the Target letter further advises.

Target said it is "partnering with a leading third-party forensics firm" to conduct a thorough investigation of the incident. It's reported that the Secret Service is also investigating.

 

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And the winners are....

IIHS says 39 vehicles met its tougher safety criteria

A high level of protection in crashes and the availability of front crash prevention technology to avoid many collisions in the first place means you're li...

PhotoA high level of protection in crashes and the availability of front crash prevention technology to avoid many collisions in the first place means you're likely to be safer on the road.

By meeting those standards, 22 vehicles earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) highest safety award for 2014, TOP SAFETY PICK+. An additional 17 earn TOP SAFETY PICK by meeting the crashworthiness criteria alone.

New criteria

The institute is using new criteria for the awards this year. TOP SAFETY PICK requires good performance in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests and -- for the first time -- good or acceptable performance in the small overlap front test introduced in 2012. The same level of performance in those tests, along with at least a basic rating for front crash prevention, is required for the higher accolade, TOP SAFETY PICK+.

"We've made it more difficult for manufacturers this year," says IIHS President Adrian Lund. "Following a gradual phase-in, the small overlap crash is now part of our basic battery of tests, and good or acceptable performance should be part of every vehicle's safety credentials. We also felt it was time to offer extra recognition to manufacturers that are offering a proven crash avoidance technology."

The winners

The front crash prevention features of the TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners run the gamut from basic warning systems, such as those offered on the Ford Fusion, Lincoln MKZ and Honda's four winners, to Subaru's EyeSight warning and autobrake system. EyeSight avoids a collision in tests at both 12 mph and 25 mph and is available on the Forester, Legacy and Outback.

Most of the TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners qualify for the award only when equipped with optional front crash prevention systems. When those vehicles aren’t equipped with the features, they still meet the regular TOP SAFETY PICK criteria. The Volvo S60, S80 and XC60 and the Honda Civic hybrid earn TOP SAFETY PICK+ on the basis of standard equipment.

The 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners include eight models that didn’t earn the award in 2013. Among them are fully redesigned models, including the Acura MDX and RLX, Infiniti Q50, Mazda 3 and Toyota Highlander. Among TOP SAFETY PICK winners, the Chevrolet Spark minicar is a new model.

Some winners that did not undergo a full redesign were modified to improve small overlap performance. This includes the popular Toyota Camry, which now qualifies for TOP SAFETY PICK. The 2012-13 Camry models were rated poor for protection in a small overlap front crash, but the 2014 model earns an acceptable rating. The Toyota Prius and the Mazda CX-5 also were tweaked and now earn TOP SAFETY PICK+. Changes to these vehicles and some others were made after the 2014 model year started. See the list of winners for manufacture dates.

Newbies and repeaters

The Volvo S80, a large luxury car, is new to the TOP SAFETY PICK+ list because it hadn’t been previously tested for small overlap performance. However, it has had the same basic design since 2007, so its good small overlap result applies to earlier models as well.

Honda/Acura has the most winners of any automaker, with six models earning TOP SAFETY PICK+ and two earning TOP SAFETY PICK.

With the changes to the criteria, the number of TOP SAFETY PICK+ and TOP SAFETY PICK winners falls from a combined 130 at the time of the initial announcement of 2013 winners to 39 for 2014. Vehicles that have fallen off the list have less than acceptable ratings for small overlap protection or they haven’t been tested yet. All models that made it to the 2013 winners' circle continue to offer a high level of protection in four main crash types -- moderate overlap front, side, rollover and rear.

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Small changes in food portions can help kids cut calories

30 McDonald's restaurants reduced the portion size of French fries to see what would happen

What would happen if a fast-food restaurant reduced the calories in a children’s meal by 104 calories, mainly by decreasing the portion size of Frenc...

PhotoWhat would happen if a fast-food restaurant reduced the calories in a children’s meal by 104 calories, mainly by decreasing the portion size of French fries? Would children compensate by choosing a more calorie-dense entrée or beverage?

That's what researchers at Cornell University wanted to find out and, fortunately, they got some help from 30 McDonald's restaurants, which agreed to reduce the size of a serving of French fries in children's Happy Meals.

Prior to 2012, the Happy Meal was served with one of three entrée options (chicken nuggets, cheeseburger, hamburger), a side item (apples or small size French fry), and a beverage (fountain beverage, white milk, chocolate milk, apple juice). By April 2012, all restaurants participating in the experiment served a smaller size “kid fry” and a packet of apples with each Happy Meal. That cut 104 calories.

The question posed by the researchers -- Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. Andrew Hanks -- was whether kids would make up the calorie deficit elsewhere.

Wansink and Hanks found that 99% of children ordered the same entrée, and orders of chicken nuggets (the lowest calorie entrée) remained flat at nearly 62% of all orders. Yet, nearly 11% fewer children took caloric soda as a beverage and 22% more chose white or chocolate milk – a more satiating beverage. This increase was partially due to small changes in advertising for milk. Interestingly, the chocolate milk served in 2012 was of the fat-free variety compared to the 1% milk variety served previously. It also contained 40 fewer calories.

Overall, the substitutions in beverage purchases resulted in 6 fewer calories served with the average CMB.

It worked

Their conclusion: Small changes in the automatic — or default — foods offered or promoted in children’s meals can reduce calorie intake and improve the overall nutrition from selected foods as long as there is still an indulgence.

Importantly, balancing a meal with smaller portions of favored foods might avoid reactance and overeating. Just as managers have done this in restaurants, parents can do this at home.

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Dirty chickens a threat to public health, Consumer Reports study finds

The magazine found potentially harmful bacteria on 97% of chicken breasts it tested

Many people regard chicken as a more healthful food than red meat but a new study by Consumer Reports magazine may cause them to think again. The magazine ...

PhotoMany people regard chicken as a more healthful food than red meat but a new study by Consumer Reports magazine may cause them to think again. The magazine found bacteria that could make consumers sick on nearly all of the 316 raw chicken breasts purchased at retail nationwide.

The full report, “The High Cost of Cheap Chicken,” is featured in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReports.org.

While Consumer Reports has consistently been testing chicken for more than 15 years, this is the first time it has looked at the contamination rates for six different bacteria – enterococcus (79.8 percent), E.coli (65.2 percent), campylobacter (43 percent), klebsiella pneumonia (13.6 percent), salmonella (10.8 percent), and staphylococcus aureus (9.2 percent).

It also evaluated every bacterium for antibiotic resistance and found that about half the chicken samples harbored at least one multidrug-resistant bacteria.

The researchers also reported that many consumers are confused about labeling and think that chickens labeled as "natural" did not receive antibiotics or genetically modified feed and more than one-third thought “natural” was equal to “organic,” none of which is true.

"Our tests show consumers who buy chicken breast at their local grocery stores are very likely to get a sample that is contaminated and likely to get a bug that is multidrug resistant. When people get sick from resistant bacteria, treatment may be getting harder to find,” said Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and Executive Director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center.  “Our survey also shows that consumers are making buying decisions based on label claims that they believe are offering them additional value when that is not in fact the case. The marketplace clearly needs to change to meet consumer expectations.”

Consumer Reports’ study comes at a time when 48 million people are falling sick and 3,000 dying in the United States each year from eating tainted food, with more deaths being attributed to poultry than any other commodity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What to do

Consumer Reports advises consumers to follow these tips to ensure proper handling and cooking of chicken:

  • Wash hands when handling any type of meat or poultry – frozen or fresh – before touching anything else and wash them for at least 20 seconds with hot soapy water – even if it means multiple washings.

  • Use a cutting board designated strictly for raw meat and poultry. When done, place it in the dishwasher directly from the counter or wash with hot soapy water.

  • Don’t run chicken under the faucet before cooking.

  • When cooking, use a meat thermometer and always cook chicken to 165°F.

  • When shopping, buy meat last; keeping chicken cold delays bacteria overgrowth.  Place chicken in a plastic bag to prevent other items from contamination.

  • Buy chicken raised without antibiotics to help preserve the effectiveness of these drugs; avoid meaningless labels like “natural” and “free range”.

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Sales of existing homes take a hit

Prices, on the other hand, continue to climb

November was a tough month for people trying to sell a home, although those who were successful likely saw a price increase. Figures released by the Natio...

PhotoNovember was a tough month for people trying to sell a home, although those who were successful likely saw a price increase.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show existing-home sales were down 4.3% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.90 million. The decline pushed the rate 1.2% below the pace of 4.96 million a year ago, and marks the first time in 29 months that sales were below year-ago levels.

Existing home sales measure completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops.

Higher rates a factor

It appears the market is being squeezed by several factors. “Home sales are hurt by higher mortgage interest rates, constrained inventory and continuing tight credit,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “There is a pent-up demand for both rental and owner-occupied housing as household formation will inevitably burst out, but the bottleneck is in limited housing supply, due to the slow recovery in new home construction. As such, rents are rising at the fastest pace in five years, while annual home prices are rising at the highest rate in eight years.”

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $196,300 in November -- up 9.4% from a year earlier. Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 14% of November sales, unchanged from October and down 8% from November 2012. A smaller share of distressed sales is contributing to price growth.

A broad-based decline

Existing-home sales in the Northeast declined 3.0% to an annual rate of 650,000 in November, but are still 6.6% above November 2012. The median price was up 5.7% from a year ago -- to $242,900.

In the Midwest, sales were down 4.1% to a pace of 1.17 million, but are unchanged from a year ago. The median price was $151,100 -- up 6.7% from November 2012.

A 2.4% decline in the South pushed sales down to an annual level of 2.01 million. Still they are 1.0% than they were in November 2012. The median price of $168,700 is up 7.7% from the same time last year.

Sales of previously-owned homes in the West plunged to a pace of 1.07 million -- down 8.5% from October and 10.1% from a year ago. The median price, however, was $284,400 -- up 16.5% year-over-year.

Jobless claims

PhotoThe unemployment line got a little longer last week, as 379,000 people filed first-time applications for jobless benefits -- an increase of 10,000 from the previous week. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were looking for the number to come it at 333,000

According to the Labor Department (DOL), the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are still causing problems in the claims data, leading analysts to speculate that it's unlikely a clear and unbiased reading of the claims data will come until after the new year.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, rose 13,250 -- to 343,500.

The full report  is available on the DOL website.

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Fox Factory recalls Evolution mountain bike suspension forks

The suspension fork’s damper cylinder/piston can separate and cause the front wheel to detach

Fox Factory of Watsonville, Calif., is recalling about 12,500 Evolution 2013 mountain bike suspension forks in the U.S. and Canada. The suspension fork’s ...

PhotoFox Factory of Watsonville, Calif., is recalling about 12,500 Evolution 2013 mountain bike suspension forks in the U.S. and Canada.

The suspension fork’s damper cylinder/piston can separate and cause the front wheel to detach, posing a fall hazard.

The company has received one report of an incident in Italy resulting in shoulder injuries.

The recalled suspension forks are model year 2013, 32 and 34 Evolution Series with 120mm to 160mm of travel. The Evolution name and logo are on a sticker on the front fork with the FOX brand name logo. Recalled forks can be identified by the serial number, which is found on the underside of the crown after removing the front wheel. The forks were sold as original equipment on some of the following 2013 model year mountain bikes: BMC, Cannondale, Commencal, Diamondback, GT, Kona, Lapierre, Norco, Orbea, Raleigh, Rocky Mountain, Santa Cruz, Scott, Specialized and Trek. A small quantity of suspension forks were sold to retailers or distributors as aftermarket accessories.

The forms, manufactured in the U.S, were sold at bicycle retailers nationwide between August 2012, and October 2013, as original equipment on bicycles priced from about $2,000 to $4,400. Products sold for aftermarket use for about $600 to $650.

Consumers should stop using the bicycles with recalled Fox Factory suspension forks and bring them to the place of purchase for a free repair. Consumers can check their serial number at www.ridefox.com/, see the link at the lower left of the page, or contact Fox for assistance with discerning whether their bicycle has the recalled product and for instructions on how to return the recalled product and receive the free repair if they cannot bring their bicycle or fork to the place of purchase.

Consumers may contact Fox toll-free at (855) 360-3488 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Stone Independent Research recalls dietary supplements

The products contain milk, an allergen not listed on the label

Stone Independent Research of Syracuse, N.Y., has issued a recall for two dietary supplements marketed as weight loss and “male enhancement” products. Bot...

PhotoStone Independent Research of Syracuse, N.Y., has issued a recall  for two dietary supplements marketed as weight loss and “male enhancement” products.

Both contain milk, an allergen not listed on the label. No illnesses have been reported to date for either product.

The first recall involves 1,040 units of Zanocap Scientific Weight Loss 500 mg capsules. The product was sold to one customer who further distributed it nationwide through Internet sales. The affected lot was distributed beginning on June 1st, 2013.

The dietary supplement packaged in a white plastic bottle containing 90 capsules per bottle, with a white label and blue and black print. The affected lot code is 10W15013 with an expiration date of 05/2015. No other lots of this product are affected by the recall.

Consumers who purchased the recalled product may return it to: ATTENTION ZANOCAP RECALL, 4022 Mill Road, Skaneateles, NY 13152 for refund or replacement.

Customers may contact the company at (607) 372-3901, Monday – Thursday, 10 AM – 5 PM ET, for further instructions and claim processing.

PhotoThe second recall is for 15,657 units of EnhanceRx, which is manufactured for and distributed by Secure Online Shopping Cart, LLC, and sold nationwide via the Internet.

EnhanceRx is a dietary supplement packaged in a white plastic bottle containing 30 capsules per bottle. The two lots affected by this recall are: # 23002 (Exp. 06/20/2015) and # 23003 (Exp. 11/15/2015). They entered the marketplace on June 1st, 2013.

Consumers may return the recalled product to: ATTN: ENHANCE RETURN, 4022 Mill Road, Skaneateles, NY 13152 for a full refund or exchange.

Customers may contact the company at (607) 372-3901, Monday-Thursday, 10AM – 5PM, ET for further instructions and claim processing.

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It's time for some year-end tax planning

Some provisions expire at end of the year, new tax brackets begin

The end of the year, besides bringing holiday merry-making, should also include a little tax planning. There are receipts to find and records to review &nd...

PhotoThe end of the year, besides bringing holiday merrymaking, should also include a little tax planning. There are receipts to find and records to review – not just for the upcoming tax season but for the year ahead.

In 2014 your tax liability might change, for no other reason than you move into a different tax bracket. In the coming year your income doesn't have to rise or fall for that to happen. The current six tax brackets will expand to seven.

Here is how the new tax brackets break down:

  • 10% – Single earning less than $9,075, married filing jointly earning less than $18,150 or head of household earning less than $12, 950
  • 15% – Single earning $9,076 - $36,900, married filing jointly earning $18,151 - $73,800 or head of household earning $12,951-$49,400
  • 25% – Single earning $36,901-$89,350, married filing jointly earning $73,801-$148,850 or head of household earning $49,401-$127,550
  • 28% – Single earning $89,351-$186,350, married filing jointly earning $148,851-$226,850 or head of household earning $127,551-$206,600
  • 33% – Single earning $186,351-$405,100, married filing jointly earning $226,851-$405,100 or head of household earning $206,601-$405,100
  • 35% – Single earning $405,101-$406,750, married filing jointly earning $405,101-$457,600 or head of household earning $405,101-$432,200
  • 39.6% – Single earning $406,751 and above, married filing jointly earning $457,601 and above or head of household earning $432,201 and above

The above numbers, of course, reflect taxable income – the amount after you take all applicable deductions and credits. They are also marginal tax rates, meaning the first $9,075 your earn as a single taxpayer is taxed at 10% and the rest is taxed at the higher rates as your income rises through the brackets.

Last-minute 2013 tips

PhotoIf you plan an end of the year donation to a charity, the Internal Revenue Service reminds you that this is the last year to take advantage of a special Individual Retirement Account (IRA) provision. If you do it before December 31, taxpayers age 70 ½ or older can directly transfer tax-free up to $100,000 to an eligible charity.

This option, first available in 2006, can be used for distributions from IRAs, regardless of whether the owners itemize their deductions. Distributions from employer-sponsored retirement plans, including SIMPLE IRAs and simplified employee pension (SEP) plans, are not eligible.

To qualify, the money must be transferred directly by the IRA trustee to the eligible charity. Distributed amounts may be excluded from the IRA account-holder's income, resulting in lower taxable income for the IRA owner. However, if the IRA owner excludes the distribution from income, no deduction, such as a charitable contribution deduction on Schedule A may be taken for the distributed amount.

If you plan to take a tax deduction by donating clothing and household goods to a charity, remember that the items must be in “good used condition” or better. If the donated item is worth $500 or more it doesn't have to meet this test, as long as the taxpayer includes a qualified appraisal of the item with the return.

Donors must also get a written acknowledgement from the charity for all gifts worth $250 or more that includes, among other things, a description of the items contributed. Household items include furniture, furnishings, electronics, appliances and linens.

Making a cash donation? To claim it you'll need a bank record or a written communication from the charity showing the name of the charity and the date and amount of the contribution. Bank records include canceled checks, bank or credit union statements, and credit card statements. Bank or credit union statements should show the name of the charity, the date, and the amount paid. Credit card statements should show the name of the charity, the date, and the transaction posting date.

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Telecheck Code 3: denying checks despite sufficient funds?

Overzealous anti-fraud net ensnares innocent customers, too

If you’re a modern merchant worried about being defrauded by bad-check writers or identity thieves – in other words, “if you’re a modern merchant” – you ca...

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Is the house greener on the other side of the fence?

There's a new way to keep up with the Joneses

There have been many strategies to encourage homeowners to make energy improvements to their home, to make it as efficient as possible. There have been tax...

PhotoThere have been many strategies to encourage homeowners to make energy improvements to their home, to make it as efficient as possible. There have been tax breaks for high-tech thermostats, insulation and solar panel installations. And then there is the incentive of lower utility bills.

A California non-profit is now tapping into another motivation – competition. Build it Green, a non-profit promoting energy efficiency, with funding from the California Air Resources Board (ARB), has developed the Green Home Calculator. It gives users a green home score that reveals answers to four questions: 

  • How does your home's energy and water efficiency compare to similar homes?
  • Are your utility bills lower or higher than your neighbors?
  • What are a few simple home improvements that could save you money?
  • How can you reduce your home's impact on climate change?

Keeping up with the Joneses

It taps into the desire to not only keep up with the Joneses, but show the Joneses a thing or two.

"Our innovative tool is based on the understanding that a more effective way to engage people in going green is to pique their curiosity and show them how they compare to others," said Catherine Merschel, Executive Director of Build It Green. "The calculator helps people make clearer sense of energy and water information—and it's a lot of fun to play with."

The calculator poses a number of short questions to estimate energy and water usage–the square footage of their home, what type of water heater they have, etc. It then adjusts their green score in real time to show the benefits or disadvantages of various home features.

Green scorecard

PhotoLet's say you get a score of "40 percent more green than your neighbors." That should make you feel pretty good. However, that score drops when you factor in that second refrigerator in the garage. But it could improve if water-efficient bathroom fixtures have recently been installed.

When you get your final score you see your home's current projected energy use, water use, and cost savings you'll see over 30 years compared to homes of the same size and age located in the same ZIP code. With your score you also get suggested green improvements that can help raise the green score even more and save more money.

Bang for the buck

To increase your home's energy efficiency, there are inexpensive steps you can take to deliver more bang for the buck. Among the least expensive is applying caulk around the the exterior of all windows. If windows are old and in bad shape it will pay to spend the money to replace them with new, more modern ones that are much more energy efficient.

A programmable thermostat will also pay for itself quickly since it saves money all year long. In winter program the heat to be turned down at night and when no one is home. In summer you can use it to regulate the air conditioning so the house isn't kept cool when no one is home.

When renovating, take the opportunity to add insulation to attics, walls and crawlspaces. Water heaters are another big energy waster. Upgrading to a new, energy efficient unit – or better yet a tankless, on-demand model -- will save energy.

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Whole Foods dropping Chobani yogurt

The grocery chain says it wants to make room for non-GMO foods

The Chobani yogurt recalls earlier this year left a sour taste in many consumers' mouths and now Whole Foods says it will stop selling Chobani by early 201...

PhotoThe Chobani yogurt recalls earlier this year left a sour taste in many consumers' mouths and now Whole Foods says it will stop selling Chobani by early 2014.

Without mentioning the recall and the many illnesses that were blamed on the mold-infested yogurt Whole Foods said it wants to open up shelf space for more organic and GMO-free foods, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Chobani promotes its product as "natural" but many critics say the company uses milk from cows that are fed with genetically modified feed.

Whole Foods said that, for now at least, it will continue to carry Chobani rival Fage, which is also not GMO-free.

Chobani is credited with starting the Greek yogurt craze in the U.S. and said it hopes to hook up with Whole Foods again in the future. 

In a prepared statement, Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya said the company "is committed to using milk from regional-area farms and strengthening its surrounding local economies."

"All Chobani products ... are kosher certified, contain five live and active cultures, and are made with milk from cows not treated with rBST, with most of its products offering two times more protein than regular yogurt," Ulukaya said, adding that according to the FDA, "no significant difference has been found between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST treated cows."

GMO-free

Whole Foods  Dec. 18, 2013, 8:43 p.m.
Consumers rate Whole Foods

Whole Foods has said that, by 2018, all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores1 must be labeled to indicate if they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)2. Whole Foods Market says it is the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency.

“We are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumer’s right to know,” said Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, at an industry conference earlier this year.

“The prevalence of GMOs in the U.S. paired with nonexistent mandatory labeling makes it very difficult for retailers to source non-GMO options and for consumers to choose non-GMO products.

"Accordingly, we are stepping up our support of certified organic agriculture, where GMOs are not allowed, and we are working together with our supplier partners to grow our non-GMO supply chain to ensure we can continue to provide these choices in the future.” 

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Court lifts ban on horse slaughter

The action means three slaughterhouses can begin exporting horsemeat by year's end

The slaughter of American horses for export is set to resume by year's end. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which had issued an emer...

PhotoThe slaughter of American horses is set to resume by year's end. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which had issued an emergency injunction in November, has now lifted that injunction, saying those trying to save horses are unlikely to succeed in court.

The action clears the way for three licensed slaughtering houses to resume operations and is expected to encourage others to apply for a USDA permit allowing them to get into the business.

The action by the appeals court -- the last stop before the U.S. Supreme Court -- means that further appeals will not be fast-tracked and leaves wildlife advocates with few remaining options.

Inhumane treatment

A U.S. Agriculture Department ban on slaughtering horses, imposed in 2007, was lifted in 2011 after the USDA's Inspector General found it was contributing to inhumane treatment of horses. Owners hard hit by the recession and the high cost of grain were abandoning their horses, letting them starve to death, the IG's report said.

Animal welfare groups have disputed that finding and also say they're concerned that the antibiotics and other drugs pumped into horses could leave dangerous residues in the meat. 

Realistically, Congress appears to be the last resort for animal rights groups. Some states have outlawed slaughtering horses for human consumption but getting a bill -- any bill -- through Congress is fraught with uncertainty in today's political climate.

There's also the grim reality that an estimated 100,000 U.S. horses are slaughtered each year after being shipped to Mexico and Canada. 

All sides agree that the annual slaughter of more than 100,0000 U.S. horses continues regardless despite the animal rights groups' efforts. The animals are simply exported to Mexico and Canada and slaughtered there. 

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Three major chains shorten return windows, annual survey finds

Holiday grace periods will blunt the effect on shoppers, however

The run-up to Christmas is marked by frantic shopping, the period immediately after by equally frantic returns and exchanges, a process that often doesn't ...

PhotoThe run-up to Christmas is marked by frantic shopping, the period immediately after by equally frantic returns and exchanges, a process that often doesn't go as smoothly as consumers would like.

This year, shoppers will find shorter return windows at three major chains -- Best Buy, Sears and Toys "R" Us -- although most retailers' return policies are about the same as last year, according to ConsumerWorld.org.

Best Buy cut its regular return period in half from 30 to 15 days for most customers last March, and shortened its holiday return period by nine days (now January 15 instead of January 24). Special orders now are not refundable.

Sears shortened its regular return policy for major appliances and vacuums from 60 to 30 days, and excludes them from its extended holiday return period. On the other hand, Sears extended the return period for mattresses to 60 days. Sears continues to impose a 15% restocking fee for missing parts or if items are used. Exchanged items are not eligible for a subsequent refund, only another exchange.

Toys "R" Us introduced an extended holiday return policy until January 25 for most items, but certain electronics purchased November 1 onwards must be returned by January 9. Previously, electronic items had a 45-day return window, but now that is reduced to only 30.

Few changes elsewhere

According to the National Retail Federation, 28% of stores surveyed change their return policies for the holidays, while 72% keep them the same. These special holiday policies typically extend the normal return period into January or even February. Consumer World found a few high-profile stores, however, have tightened restrictions for goods like electronics and appliances.

Many stores continue to “slice and dice” their return policies, creating complicated rules for different categories of items. Electronic items may be subject to stricter rules than say, clothing. Computers, digital cameras, and opened goods may be subject to limited return rights, restocking fees, shorter return periods, or no refunds at all, in part to discourage buyers from “renting” goods for the weekend and to help thwart return fraud. Online policies may also differ from store rules.

Noteworthy policies, policy changes, or unusual return policies for 2013 include:

  • Macy’s now imposes a 15% restocking fee on furniture and mattress returns. They continue to affix a return label to some goods so a receipt may not be necessary.
  • Amazon now rejects jewelry returned without all documentation (previously it imposed a 15% restocking fee). Restocking fees were reduced from 50% to 20% for late returns.

Unusual policies:

  • Target.com will pay for return shipping with their label. REDcard holders get 30 extra return days. Items that are opened/damaged/receipt-less may be denied a refund or exchange.
  • Express, Bloomingdale’s, and Macys.com require special occasion dresses to be returned with tags in place to deter “wardrobing” – buying then returning after a one-time wearing.
  • Overstock.com: 37-inch and larger TVs are not returnable, and there is up to a 100% restocking fee for some open, used, or late items.
  • Sports Authority stores will not accept returns of goods purchased at their online store.
  • Office Max’s 30-day return policy excludes refunds on goods that it no longer stocks. Open technology products returned within 14 days are subject to a 15% restocking fee.

“If shoppers follow the rules, they should have many happy returns,” said Edgar Dworsky, Founder of Consumer World, an online consumer resource guide. “But, since the rules vary so much from store to store, you really have to read the fine print.”

Dworsky notes that return policy law varies state to state. Generally, a store can set up any return policy it wants, whether it is "all sales final," "merchandise credit only" or "all returns in 30 days."

Many states require the policy to be clearly disclosed to the buyer prior to purchase, usually by means of a conspicuous sign. Some states do not consider a disclosure that only appears on the sales receipt to meet this requirement. It is not unreasonable, however, to require customers to provide a sales slip or gift receipt to establish where and when the item was purchased, and at what price. Some stores record IDs in a tracking database to detect excessive returns or to thwart return fraud.

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HOA laws make life easy for burglars

Preventing home invasion might lower a home’s value, according to HOA board

Houston-area home burglars looking for an easy score will be happy to learn that the homeowners’ association at the Alief subdivision in Cedar Springs has ...

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Toyota Prius again named Consumer Reports' best new-car value

The Nissan Armada, on the other hand, came out dead last in the CR rankings

For the second year in a row, Consumer Reports has named the Toyota Prius the best overall value for the automotive dollar and the Nissan Armada the worst ...

PhotoFor the second year in a row, Consumer Reports has named the Toyota Prius the best overall value for the automotive dollar and the Nissan Armada the worst in its annual Best New-Car Value analysis. 

The popular Prius has the right combination of performance, reliability and low estimated five-year ownership costs of 47 cents per mile, the magazine said. Last year, the Prius unseated the perennial best-value leader, the Honda Fit. The Fit had held the best new-car value title for the previous four years.

The Armada, a large SUV that gets only 13 mpg overall and scored poorly in Consumer Reports’ annual reliability survey, costs a hefty $1.20 per mile, according to CR’s analysis. 

Toyota and Lexus models placed at the top in three of the 10 categories that Consumer Reports analyzed — with the Prius taking top overall ranking and emerging in first place in the Compact/Subcompact Cars category. The Toyota Avalon Hybrid Limited is the top-scoring vehicle in the Large Cars group and the Lexus ES 300h is the top model in the Luxury Cars category.

Vehicles from Subaru and Mazda were also standouts in the analysis; each automaker had vehicles that topped the rankings in two categories. The Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium was the top-scoring vehicle in the Midsized Cars category and the Subaru Forester 2.5i Premium scored best among Small SUVs. The Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand ranked first overall in the Sports Cars/Convertibles category while the Mazda5 Grand Touring was best in the Wagons/Minivans group.

Best mpg

“The Prius’ 44 mpg overall is the best fuel economy of any non-plug-in car that Consumer Reports has tested,” said Consumer Reports Automotive Editor Rik Paul. “Though it’s not particularly cheap to buy, the Prius’ depreciation is so low that it costs less to own over the first five years than its initial MSRP. We call that a bargain.”

Here’s a look at the winners and losers in each of the categories:

  • Compact /Subcompact Cars: Best, Toyota Prius Four; Worst, Volkswagen Beetle 2.5L

  • Midsized Cars: Best, Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium; Worst, Nissan Altima 3.5 SL

  • Large Cars: Best, Toyota Avalon Hybrid Limited; Worst, Ford Taurus Limited

  • Luxury Cars: Best, Lexus ES 300h; Worst, BMW 750Li

  • Sports Cars/Convertibles: Best: Mazda MX-5 Miata Grand Touring; Worst, Chevrolet Camaro convertible 2SS (V8)

  • Wagons/Minivans: Best, Mazda5 Grand Touring; Worst, Chrysler Town & Country Touring-L

  • Small SUVs: Best, Subaru Forester 2.5i Premium; Worst, Ford Escape SE (1.6T)

  • Midsized SUVs: Best, Nissan Murano SL; Worst, Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara

  • Luxury/Large SUVs: Best, BMW X1 xDrive28i; Worst, Nissan Armada Platinum

  • Pickups: Best, Honda Ridgeline RTS; Worst, Ford F-250 Lariat (6.7L V8)

To learn more, visit: www.ConsumerReports.org or pick up the February Issue of Consumer Reports Magazine.

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New home construction takes off

The November increase was the largest in more than 2 decades

Builders broke ground for new home construction at a red-hot clip in November. Figures released by the government show housing starts shot up 22.7% last m...

PhotoBuilders broke ground for new home construction at a red-hot clip in November.

Figures released by the government show housing starts shot up 22.7% last month -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,091,000. That rate is 29.6% above the year ago  pace and the biggest increase -- in percentage terms -- since January 1990.

The advance was led by a 22.7% surge in single-family housing starts to an annual rate of 1,091,000. The November rate for buildings with five units or more was 354,000.

Building permits

Building permits, a gauge of future construction plans, were up 3.1% to annual rate of 1,007,000 -- 3.1% below the October rate, but 7.9% above November 2012. Permits for construction of single-family homes were up 2.1% -- to 634,000, while apartment building authorizations were at a rate of 346,000. The November rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 354,000.

The complete report for construction of new homes is available on the Commerce Department website.

PhotoMortgage applications

Following a small increase the previous week, mortgage applications plunged during the week ending December 13, 2013.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, its Market Composite Index -- a measure of mortgage loan application volume --  fell 5.5%.

The Refinance Index was down 4% from the previous week. Still, the refinance share of mortgage activity rose 1% from last week -- to 66% of total applications from 65 percent the previous week.  The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity remained at 8% of total applications.

"Mortgage applications fell further last week, with the market index falling to its lowest level in more than a dozen years,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s vice president of Research and Economics.  “Both purchase and refinance applications fell as interest rates increased going into today's Federal Open Market Committee meeting."

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 4.62%, the highest level since September 2013, from 4.61%, with points increasing to 0.38 from  0.26 (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) rose 2 basis points -- to 4.61% from 4.59%, the highest level since September 2013, with points increasing to 0.24 from 0.15 (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 decreased to 4.25% from 4.30%, with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.38 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans.  The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs remained at 3.66%, with points increasing to 0.35 from 0.31 (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 9 basis points to 3.20%, with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans.  The effective rate increased from last week.
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Hobby Lobby recalls accent chairs

The front legs on the chair can loosen and detach

Hobby Lobby Stores of Oklahoma City, Okla., is recalling about 1,400 accent chairs. The front legs on the chair can loosen and detach, posing a fall hazar...

PhotoHobby Lobby Stores of Oklahoma City, Okla., is recalling about 1,400 accent chairs.

The front legs on the chair can loosen and detach, posing a fall hazard and risk of injury to the consumer. The company has received one report of a chair collapsing.

This recall involves black wooden accent chairs with a shaped wood top rail and center back splat. The chairs have a black and white chevron print seat cushion. Item number 5218300 and PO number 9099294 are printed on the chair’s hang tag and a tag affixed to the underside of the chair.

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Hobby Lobby Stores nationwide from March 2013, to August 2013, for about $180.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chair and return it to the nearest Hobby Lobby store. Consumers with a purchase receipt will receive a full refund; those without a receipt will receive a store credit.

Consumers may contact Hobby Lobby at (800) 326-7931 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Suzuki recalls SX4 vehicles

The bolts that fasten the drive plate to the torque converter may loosen and come out

Suzuki is recalling 142 model year 2013 SX4 vehicles manufactured December 26, 2012, through February 4, 2013 and equipped with a continuously variable tra...

PhotoSuzuki is recalling 142 model year 2013 SX4 vehicles manufactured December 26, 2012, through February 4, 2013 and equipped with a continuously variable transmission.

The bolts that fasten the drive plate to the torque converter may not have been installed with sufficient torque and may loosen and come out. The detached bolts can get caught between the drive plate and cylinder block, which may cause the engine to stall, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

Suzuki will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the torque converter bolts, tightening them as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2013.

Owners may contact Suzuki at 1-800-572-1490. Suzuki's recall number is VE.

 

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Fighting back against cellphone theft

Database helps ensure stolen phones can't be used again

One of the fastest growing personal property crimes in the U.S. is cellphone and smartphone theft. It should come as no surprise. These devices can often c...

PhotoOne of the fastest growing personal property crimes in the U.S. is cellphone and smartphone theft. It should come as no surprise. These devices can often cost more than a laptop computer if you pay the unsubsidized price. They can also contain valuable personal information.

That creates a sizable profit margin for crooks on the black market. And it seems to be an easy thing to steal.

“I was at the mall recently and I saw so many people walking around with iPhones sticking out of their back pocket,” said Shane Lyberger, founder of MyStolenPhone.com, an online database where consumers can report stolen devices. “You know how easy it would be for a thief to pull that phone and run? No one seems to have a sense of security about their cellphones anymore.”

Swiped in mid conversation

Even people who think they are being careful with their phones can fall victim. There have been reports of people having their phones snatched in mid conversation, as they were holding the device to their ear.

There are a number of different databases, operated by law enforcement and the wireless carriers, that contain information about stolen devices. Lyberger says his is the largest public database of stolen phones.

Individuals manually submit ESN, MEID, or IMEI numbers that can then be seen by thousands of businesses and other users who access the database when selling mobile devices. That number is an identifying number unique to each phone. It can be found on a sticker on the back of the device or sometimes inside the battery compartment. Each cellphone owner should write down their number and put it in a safe place.

Some law enforcement officials say the carriers -- like AT&T and Verizon -- could do a lot more to combat smartphone theft. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently demanded to know why carriers refused to activate a "kill switch" that Samsung had devised for its phones. It would have turned stolen phones into unusable bricks. 

Victims should always report the crime

In the event the phone is stolen, the device can essentially be deactivated, so that it won't work on a wireless network. But the victim has to report it and Lyberger says that doesn't always happen.

“A lot of people don't realize that if your phone is stolen you can report it and your carrier can keep it from being used,” he said.

If your cellphone is lost or stolen, your first step is to report it to your wireless carrier. It will immediately deactivate your account.

However, sensitive information will remain on your phone. If you have the ability to do a remote “wipe” of the device's memory, you should do so. Next, Lyberger strongly recommends filing a police report, even though they aren't likely to go out and make an immediate arrest.

What the police can do

“If your police or sheriff's office or state police has the ability to list it to the Nation Crime Information Center (NCIC), that's even better,” Lyberger said. It's in another database that's going to help recover that device or prevent that device from being used.”

The industry itself has been active recently on the stolen phone front. CTIA – The Wireless Association, has implemented new databases to prevent reactivation of stolen smartphones by U.S. carriers.

The purpose in trying to prevent stolen phones from being reused is to try to reduce the market for stolen phones. If there is less of a market, phones should become less desirable targets of thieves. But Lyberger is realistic about ever reaching that goal.

Global market

“Unfortunately a lot of phones stolen in the United States are sold elsewhere,” he said. “It's still going to be a huge problem.”

But every once in a while, there are small victories. Lyberger said he received an email not long ago from an individual who was prepared to purchase a smartphone on eBay.

Before making the purchase, however, Lyberger said the potential buyer checked the device on MyStolenPhone.com and discovered it was stolen.

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E-gift cards are this season's hot holiday trend

They're customizable, making them more personal

Gift cards remain an increasingly popular choice when it comes to gifts but the explosive growth in e-gifts is this holiday season's big trend.CEB TowerG...

PhotoGift cards remain a popular choice when it comes to gifts but the explosive growth in e-gifts is this holiday season's big trend.

CEB TowerGroup has tallied the numbers. Last year there was a total of $300 million in e-gift sales. This season the projected total is a staggering $3 billion. E-gifts are expected to boost the overall sale of gift cards to $118 billion, an eight percent increase over 2012.

Most consumers are very familiar with a gift card. It's usually a piece of plastic the size of a credit card and issued by a specific retailer – a closed loop card – or by a credit card company, an open loop card. Gift cards are an easy gift but the knock on them is that they are impersonal – only a step above giving someone cash.

Adds some personality

An e-gifts is an electronic version of the gift card, and while that may sound even more impersonal, it doesn't have to be. Because it is delivered to the recipient electronically, through text, mobile app or email, it can be highly personalized, with words, pictures and even video.

Many e-gifts can be redeemed either online or in a store and carry no expiration date. Retailers that sell physical gift cards in their stores usually have a selection of e-gift cards online. You simply select the card design you like, customize it with a message and select the amount. The e-gift card arrives in the recipient's in-box a short time later, allowing them to purchase what they want.

Entertainment value

The process is similar to sending a digital greeting card, except that there is a monetary value attached to it. To personalize an e-gift there are several options, including attaching a picture of your face to a pre-produced video animation, such as the one below from Amazon.com.

As the numbers suggest, e-gift cards are quickly becoming the “hot” gift, when you can't find the “hot” gift in a store. CEB says the emergence of e-gifts will keep the gift card near the top of the list of most-given gifts for the foreseeable future.

It believes the e-gifting trend will help propel continued growth in the gift card market in excess of $140 billion in sales by 2016. During that same period it expects e-gifts to make up more than $10 billion of that amount, filling a niche for customers who want to simultaneously buy and send their gifts to recipients they may not see in person over the holidays.

Reduces wrapping and shipping

PhotoIn fact, that is likely a major difference. CEB analysts say the traditional gift card segment will remain popular with gift-givers who will see the recipient in person. They are likely to be more comfortable having a physical gift to give.

The selling point to the e-gift, they say, is giving a gift to an out of town recipient. There is nothing that requires wrapping and shipping.

New peer-to-peer (P2P) services from banks and non-traditional financial players such as PayPal, can also be expected to offer more in the way of e-gift products in the years ahead. In fact, CEB says innovations related to e-gifting and P2P services are expected to contribute to the decline of unused gift card value, not so good for retailers, perhaps, but an advantage for consumers.

"The gift card experience continues to get better for consumers," said CEB TowerGroup Senior Research Director Brian Riley. "E-gifting and P2P innovations add a new dimension to the market, which means more flexibility for buyers and recipients.”  

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Experts: multivitamin supplements not worth it

A waste of money at best; an actual health risk at worst

That big bottle of multivitamins on your shelf might not be as beneficial as you think—and it might even be harmful....

PhotoThat big bottle of multivitamins on your shelf might not be as beneficial as you think — and it might even be harmful.

That’s the conclusion of an editorial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine debunked the widely held (yet erroneous) belief that taking high doses of various vitamins confers various health benefits – added protection not merely against vitamin deficiency, but health problems ranging from heart disease to cancer.

Given that the title is “Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements,” you won’t be surprised to learn the editorial concluded that multivitamin supplements probably aren’t worth it. Supplements are useful at filling any “nutrient gaps” in your diet, but the idea that extra doses of vitamins will confer extra benefits doesn’t hold up.

The study looked at hundreds of thousands of individuals who took multivitamin supplements, to determine what if any health benefits they enjoyed. In fairness to the multivitamin boosters, studies did suggest that multivitamins might confer an extremely small level of protection against cancer — but only in men aged 50 and older.

However, researchers found no evidence that multivitamin supplements would reduce anyone’s risk of heart disease, or preserve cognitive function in older people.

But they did discover that extra doses of certain vitamins might increase the risk of certain problems: for individuals already at risk of lung cancer, high doses of vitamin E or beta-carotene seemingly increase the risk of getting it.

This study should not be taken to mean “vitamins don’t matter;” what it does shatter is the myth that taking a pill (or several pills) every day makes an acceptable substitute for a nutritious diet and all-around healthy lifestyle.

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Dogs help protect against asthma and infections

Dust in homes with pet dogs can help "train" immune system by reshaping microbes in the gut

It's been previously observed that children who are exposed to dogs in infancy are less likely to develop asthma, other allergies and infections, and now r...

PhotoIt's been previously observed that children who are exposed to dogs in infancy are less likely to develop asthma, other allergies and infections, and now researchers say they have found the reason -- and it has to do with the bacteria that live in our gastrointestinal systems.

The researchers exposed mice to dust from homes with dogs and found that the dust reshaped the community of microbes that live in the mouse gut — collectively known as the gastrointestinal microbiome — and also diminish immune system reactivity to common allergens.

The scientists also identified a specific bacterial species within the gut that is critical to protecting the airways against both allergens and viral respiratory infection.

The study was led by Susan Lynch, PhD, associate professor with the Division of Gastroenterology at UC San Francisco, and Nicholas Lukacs, PhD, professor with the Department of Pathology at the University of Michigan.

Cockroach allergies

In their study the scientists exposed mice to cockroach or protein allergens. They discovered that asthma-associated inflammatory responses in the lungs were greatly reduced in mice previously exposed to dog-associated dust, in comparison to mice that were exposed to dust from homes without pets or mice not exposed to any dust.

The results are likely to explain the reduced allergy risk among children raised with dogs from birth, according to the study leaders.

The team had previously demonstrated that the presence of a dog that roams both inside and outside was associated with a significantly more diverse house dust microbiome that was enriched for species found in the gastrointestinal tract of humans.

After teaming up with Lukacs, an expert on immune responses in lung disease, Lynch said, "We set out to investigate whether being exposed to a distinct house dust microbiome associated with indoor/outdoor dogs mediated a protective effect through manipulation of the gut microbiome and, by extension, the host immune response."

"The results of our study indicate that this is likely to be one mechanism through which the environment influences immune responses in early life, and it is something we are currently examining using human samples in a large multi-institutional collaborative study funded by the NIAID."

"Gut microbiome manipulation represents a promising new therapeutic strategy to protect individuals against both pulmonary infection and allergic airway disease," Lynch said.

Airway protection

PhotoAmong the bacterial species in the gut microbiome of these protected mice, the researchers homed in on one, Lactobacillus johnsonii. When they fed it alone to mice, they found it could prevent airway inflammation due to allergens or even respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection. Severe RSV infection in infancy is associated with elevated asthma risk.

The researchers showed in this experiment that protection of the lungs' airways was associated with reduced numbers and activity of asthma-associated immune cells.

The level of protection with this single species was less than that obtained with the full complement of dust microbes from dog owners' homes, indicating that other, environmentally sourced bacterial species probably are necessary for full airway protection, Lynch said.

This result suggests that Lactobacillus johnsonii or other species of "good" bacteria might one day be used to reshape the gut microbiome in ways that can prevent the development of asthma or allergies, or perhaps even to treat existing cases, she said.

Lynch's own work and research by several others in the field has led her to become convinced that "the composition and function of the gut microbiome strongly influence immune reactions and present a novel avenue for development of therapeutics for both allergic asthma and a range of other diseases."

The current study demonstrates that changes in the gut microbiome can have wide-reaching effects on immune function beyond the gut, at sites elsewhere in the body, Lynch said.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and involves a multi-disciplinary group of researchers from UCSF, the University of Michigan, Henry Ford Health System and Georgia Regents University.

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New federal safety standard for hand-held infant carriers

The change follows the deaths of 43 infants

In the wake of 43 infant fatalities from 2007 through June of 2013, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has approved a new federal mandatory...

PhotoIn the wake of 43 infant fatalities from 2007 through June of 2013, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has approved a new federal mandatory standard to improve the safety of hand-held infant carriers.

The new federal standard incorporates by reference the voluntary standard, Standard Consumer Safety Specification for Hand-Held Infant Carriers, with one modification that clarifies that semi-rigid hand-held bassinet/cradles, such as Moses Baskets, are within the scope of the standard.

The carriers

A hand-held infant carrier is a freestanding, rigid or semi-rigid-sided product intended to carry an occupant whose torso is completely supported by the product to facilitate transportation by a caregiver by means of hand-holds or handles.

Most hand-held infant carriers also serve as child restraint systems (car seats) for automotive use and are regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Products that fall within the hand-held infant carrier standard include hand-held infant carrier seats (child restraint system for vehicles) and hand-held bassinet/cradles (including Moses baskets).

In addition to the afore-mentioned fatalities, CPSC estimates there were about 66,000 hospital emergency room-treated injuries between 2007 and 2013 related to hand-held infant carriers. The majority of the injuries occurred from falls.

Consumers sound off

ConsumerAffairs has heard from dozens of consumers regarding problems with various brands of infant carriers. Among them:

  • Tanja of St. Helens, Ore., writes that the seat pad on her Touriva car seat kept on having issues coming undone. She says that while she was driving one day, her son started crying. "I checked to see what was wrong, and he had the elastic strap around his neck from the seat coming undone. We after then made sure and put a lot of Velcro in the most vulnerable places. To top it all off, the other day, he was in his car seat and I heard a pop. The bar that goes across in front had popped out of the hole where it is held, and it is completely broken now, not to mention unsafe."
  • Nathaniel of West Covina, Calif., says he has had his EVENFLO Auro On the Go - Travel System for 11 months and has had many problem with it. "For example," he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post , "about 4 months ago the mechanism in the handle located on the carrier broke so we cannot use the carrier to carry our son in it anymore, on the stroller the rear-right wheel has fallen off a few times already and will not stay on, it seems the plastic cap has wore off inside, the last but main concern is the seat will keep unsnapping from the base and swings almost 90 degrees backwards. We have had this system for about 11 months now and has proven to be very dangerous to my son."

The effective date for the new mandatory hand-held infant carrier standard is six months after the final rule is published in the Federal Register.

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Study finds health costs rise steadily as weight increases

"Fat and healthy?" The research doesn't support the idea

Health care costs steadily increase with body mass IMAGE: Analyzing health care claims from Duke employees, Duk...

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Analyzing health care claims from Duke employees, Duke researchers observed that the average medical care and pharmacy costs grew gradually with each unit increase in BMI. (Source: Duke Medicine)

Need another reason to shed some pounds? Here's one: Researchers at Duke Medicine have found that medical costs rise steadily as the body mass index (BMI) goes up.

Even when the BMI is in the high normal range -- 19 or so -- medical costs were higher than they were for thinner people, the study published in the journal Obesity found. 

"Our findings suggest that excess fat is detrimental at any level," said lead author Truls Østbye, M.D., Ph.D., professor of community and family medicine at Duke and professor of health services and systems research at Duke-National University of Singapore.

BMI is a measurement of a person's weight adjusted for his or her height, and can be used to screen for possible weight-related health problems. A healthy or normal BMI is 19-24, while overweight is 25-29 and obese is 30 and above. For example, a 5-foot-6-inch person who weighs 117.5 pounds has a BMI of 19, while a person of the same height weighing 279 pounds has a BMI of 45.

You can calculate your BMI online

Fat and healthy?

The findings may give pause to those who, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, argue that it's possible to be both healthy and obese. 

Østbye said the study was motivated partly by research published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, using death data from several large population studies, which concluded that while higher degrees of obesity were associated with higher mortality rates, being overweight or even slightly obese was actually linked with lower mortality.

Since these findings questioned the general belief that high body mass leads to poor health outcomes, Østbye and his colleagues sought to better understand the rates of obesity-related disease, or morbidity, by measuring health care utilization and costs.

Using health insurance claims data for 17,703 Duke employees participating in annual health appraisals from 2001 to 2011, the researchers related costs of doctors' visits and use of prescription drugs to employees' BMIs.

Measuring costs related to doctors' visits and prescriptions, the researchers observed that the prevalence of obesity-related diseases increased gradually across all BMI levels. In addition to diabetes and hypertension -- the two diseases most commonly associated with being overweight or obese -- the rates of nearly a dozen other disease categories also grew with increases in BMI. Cardiovascular disease was associated with the largest dollar increase per unit increase in BMI.

The average annual health care costs for a person with a BMI of 19 was found to be $2,368; this grew to $4,880 for a person with a BMI of 45 or greater. Women in the study had higher overall medical costs across all BMI categories, but men saw a sharper increase in medical costs the higher their BMIs rose.

"The fact that we see the combined costs of pharmacy and medical more than double for people with BMIs of 45 compared with those of 19 suggests that interventions on weight are warranted," said Marissa Stroo, a co-investigator on the study.

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Huge surprise: Netflix says "binge watching" common among TV viewers

Watching as little as two episodes in a single sitting is defined as "binge watching."

It’s a fact of life that a person who reaches a Certain Age will start feeling strange new urges and desires—specifically, the desire to bore the heck out ...

PhotoIt’s a fact of life that a person who reaches a certain age will start feeling strange new urges and desires — specifically, the desire to bore the heck out of younger people via long-winded tales on the theme, “We sure had it rough compared to kids these days.”

This is easy for folks who grew up during truly tough times like the Great Depression or World War Two, but later generations are reduced to complaints like, “When I was your age, if we wanted to watch a movie for the second time we had to wait up to four minutes for the videotape to finish rewinding.”

Luckily, Netflix provided new old-times complaint fodder this week, in a press release titled “Netflix Declares Binge Watching is the New Normal,” a long, detailed and statistics-packed article that boils down to “People who rent an entire season of a TV series they like rarely limit themselves to watching only one episode at a time.” (Note to young people: you don’t appreciate how good you have it. Why, when we were your age, we couldn’t watch previous seasons of TV shows at all unless the reruns went into syndication — and even then, we were lucky if we could see one episode per day.)

"Binge" defined

PhotoAnyway, according to the press release (which in turn discussed the results of a survey of TV-viewing habits): “A majority (73%) defined binge watching as watching between 2-6 episodes of the same TV show in one sitting.  And there's no guilt in it.  Nearly three quarters of TV streamers (73%) say they have positive feelings towards binge streaming TV.”

If watching a mere two episodes in a single sitting entails “binge” watching of a show, then it’s no surprise the majority of people with DVDs of TV shows deem themselves “binge” watchers.

In fairness, though, there was more to the press release than standard pro-Netflix advertising. The company spoke with a cultural anthropologist named Grant McCraken, who concluded that, due to changing times and the stresses of daily life, especially in this economy, “I found that binge watching has really taken off due to a perfect storm of better TV, our current economic climate and the digital explosion of the last few years. But this TV watcher is different, the couch potato has awoken. And now that services like Netflix have given consumers control over their TV viewing, they have declared a new way to watch. …. Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcomed today.”

So, surprise: TV viewers with the option to choose what they watch, when they watch it and how many episodes they watch at once turn out to adopt viewing habits very different from TV viewers back in the days when your viewing options were limited to “whatever’s airing on TV right now.”

In today’s changing times you might not have control over the big things in life, like your job, family and finances, but thanks to services like Netflix you do have control over what you watch on TV.

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Consumer prices unchanged in November

A significant drop in gasoline costs helped hold the line

The prices consumers pay for the things they use held steady in November. According to the government, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was unchanged last m...

PhotoThe prices consumers pay for the things they use held steady in November.

According to the government, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was unchanged last month after falling 0.1% in October. During the past 12 months, the CPI is up a modest 1.2%.

Energy and food

A 1.0% drop in energy costs helped keep the inflation rate in check last month. The decline was driven by dips in gasoline (1.6) and natural gas (1.8%) -- the fifth decline in natural gas in the last 6 months. On the other hand, electricity prices were up 0.3%, while fuel oil costs rose 0.4%.

Over the past year, energy prices have fallen 2.4%, led by a 5.8% plunge in the cost of gasoline and a drop of 4.1% in fuel oil.

Food prices, meanwhile, inched up 0.1% last month -- the same as in October. The cost of fruits and vegetables declined 0.7%, while meat, poultry, fish, and eggs and nonalcoholic beverage prices each dipped 0.2%. Cereals and bakery products were unchanged. Increases were registered for dairy and related products (0.4%).

The “core” rate of inflation, which strips out the volatile energy and food categories, was up 0.2% in

November, with increases in prices for shelter and airline fares accounting for most of it. For the past 12 months, the core rate of inflation is 1.7%

The complete November CPI report may be found on the Labor Department website.

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Builder confidence on the rise in December

Rising mortgage rates apparently are having no negative effect

After holding steady in November, the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) -- a measure of builder confidence in th...

PhotoAfter holding steady in November, the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) -- a measure of builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes -- is on the rise again.

The HMI jumped 4 points to a reading of 58, reflecting improvement in all three index components: current sales conditions, sales expectations and traffic of prospective buyers.

“This is definitely an encouraging sign as we move into 2014,” said National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Chairman Rick Judson, a home builder from Charlotte, N.C. “The HMI is up 11 points since December of 2012 and has been above 50 for the past seven months. This indicates that an increasing number of builders have a positive view on where the industry is going.”

“The recent spike in mortgage interest rates has not deterred consumers as rates are still near historically low levels,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “Following a two-month pause in the index, this uptick is due in part to release of the pent-up demand caused by the uncertainty generated by the October government shutdown. We continue to look for a gradual improvement in the housing recovery in the year ahead.”

A rise in all components

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 monthly survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.” Scores for 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.

All three HMI components posted gains in December. The index gauging current sales conditions jumped six points to 64, while the index gauging expectations for future sales rose two points to 62. The index gauging traffic of prospective buyers gained three points to 44.

Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the South edged one point higher to 57 while the Northeast, Midwest and West each fell a single point to 38, 59 and 59, respectively.

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Google and HP recall HP Chromebook 11 chargers

The charger can overheat and melt

Google and Hewlett-Packard are recalling about 145,000 HP Chromebook 11 power supply/charger units. The computer’s charger can overheat and melt, posing f...

PhotoGoogle and Hewlett-Packard are recalling about 145,000 HP Chromebook 11 power supply/charger units.

The computer’s charger can overheat and melt, posing fire and burn hazards.

Google has received nine reports of chargers overheating and melting during use. There is one report of a small burn to a consumer and one report of minor property damage to a pillow from an overheating charger.

This recall involves chargers that were sold with the HP Chromebook 11. The charger is black with outlet pins, measures 1¾ inches by ¾ inches, and has a 6-foot long cord with a micro-USB connector on the end. The model number of the charger is MU15-N1052-A00S, which is stamped on the face of the battery charger that has the outlet pins.

The chargers, manufactured in China, were sold at Best Buy stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com, bestbuy.com, Google Play at play.google.com, and HP Shopping at shopping.hp.com from October 2013, through November 2013, and included with the Chromebook 11 which sold for about $280.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled charger for the HP Chromebook 11 and contact Google for a free replacement.

Consumers may contact Google toll-free at (866) 628-1371 between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. PT seven days a week.  

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Another recall expansion of Yauk's meat and poultry products

It's the firm's third recall in under 2 weeks

Once again, Yauk’s Specialty Meats of a Windsor, Colo., is expanding its recall to include an additional product that was produced under unsanitary conditi...

PhotoOnce again, Yauk’s Specialty Meats of a Windsor, Colo., is expanding its recall to include an additional product that was produced under unsanitary conditions.

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

The latest products are are in addition to the various meat and poultry products that were recalled on Dec. 9 and Dec. 12, 2013.

The newest products subject to recall can be identified by the establishment number “Est. 20309” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection and include:

  • “Corner Post Meats” brand hams and bacon.
  • “Old Style Sausage” brand Smoked Andouille Sausage.
  • “Old Style Sausage” brand Smoked Kielbasa Sausage.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Wayne Yauk at 970-686-9080 .

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Infiniti Q50s with Direct Adaptive Steering recalled

The electric steering system could be disabled

Nissan North America is recalling 23 model year 2014 Infiniti Q50 vehicles equipped with Direct Adaptive Steering. The affected vehicles received a power...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 23 model year 2014 Infiniti Q50 vehicles equipped with Direct Adaptive Steering.

The affected vehicles received a power steering software version that, should the engine compartment reach freezing temperatures, the power steering software may disable the electric steering system and also may delay the engagement of the mechanical steering backup system. The disabling of the steering systems could result in a loss of steering, increasing the risk of a crash.

Nissan notified owners and arranged to have vehicles towed to the nearest Infiniti retailer. Customers were instructed not to drive their vehicles until they were repaired. Infiniti retailers provided affected customers with loaner vehicles, while the software update remedy was applied. These services were provided at no cost to the customer.

Owners may contact Infiniti at 1-800-662-6200.

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Hackers like Playstation 4 and Xbox One too

Security firm warns new consoles are under cyber attack

When Microsoft and Sony released new, updated versions of their popular game consoles within days of each other last month, gamers around the world were in...

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CashCall snagged in new federal-state strategy to stop predatory lenders

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and several states file suits against CashCall and its affiliates

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office today announced the filing of a civil complaint against online consumer loan servicing companies, CashCall, In...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and several states are suing CashCall and related companies, charging that they engaged in unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices, including illegally debiting consumer checking accounts for loans that were void.

“Today we are taking action against CashCall for collecting money it had no right to take from consumers,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Online lending is rapidly growing and deserves ample regulatory attention. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will take action against online lenders and servicers that engage in unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices.”

California-based CashCall, its subsidiary, WS Funding LLC, and its affiliate, Delbert Services Corporation, a Nevada collection agency, are all under the common ownership of J. Paul Reddam, and are affiliated with Western Sky Financial, a South Dakota-based online lender.

Western Sky

PhotoWestern Sky Financial asserted state laws did not apply to its business because it was based on an Indian reservation and owned by a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. But this relationship with a tribe does not exempt Western Sky from having to comply with state laws when it makes loans over the Internet to consumers in various states, the complaint alleges.

The loans ranged from $850 to $10,000, and typically had upfront fees, lengthy repayment terms, and annual interest rates from nearly 90 percent to 343 percent. Many consumers signed loan agreements permitting loan payments to be debited directly from their bank accounts, similar to a payday lender. The loans were then acquired by WS Funding and serviced by CashCall.

In September 2013, Western Sky stopped making loans and began to shut down its business after several states began investigations and court actions. But CashCall and its collection agency, Delbert, have continued to take monthly installment payments from consumers’ bank accounts, the CFPB said.

The CFPB’s complaint alleges that the defendants violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s prohibitions on unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices. The Bureau’s investigation showed that the high-cost loans violated either licensing requirements or interest-rate caps – or both – in at least eight states:  Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and North Carolina.

Under statutes in at least those eight states, any obligation to pay such loans was nullified in whole or in part by law. Therefore, the defendants are collecting money that consumers do not owe.

This is the first CFPB online lending lawsuit. The Bureau has jurisdiction over a broad array of companies, including online lenders, loan servicers, and debt collectors. This lawsuit is a significant step in the Bureau’s efforts to address regulatory-evasion schemes that are increasingly becoming a feature of the online small-dollar and payday lending industry.

States also file complaints

Colorado and several other states today joined CFPB in filing civil lawsuits against CashCall and the other defendants. 

“Today, Colorado is collaborating with other states and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to crack down on unscrupulous and abusive online lenders. This is the unveiling of a new state and federal strategy to stop predatory lenders,” said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. “A seven-year, $10,000 loan cost consumers more than $50,000 in finance charges and because the loans are not legal, they are also not valid,” declared Suthers.

In the state’s case against Western Sky, the company claimed that it was not subject to Colorado’s consumer protection or usury laws because of tribal immunity and preemption. The Denver District Court, however, rejected those claims on April 15, 2013.

Similar actions are being filed today by the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and Indiana Attorney General’s Office. 

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FDA proposes regulations on antibacetrial soap, livestock antibiotics

But scientists fear it might be too little, too late to prevent antibiotic-resistant bacteria

If you’re a fan of antibacterial soaps and other products, you might soon notice some changes to your favorite products. ...

PhotoIf you’re a fan of antibacterial soaps and other products, you might soon notice some changes to your favorite products. On Dec. 16, the FDA announced in an official release that:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today issued a proposed rule to require manufacturers of antibacterial hand soaps and body washes to demonstrate that their products are safe for long-term daily use and more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections. Under the proposal, if companies do not demonstrate such safety and effectiveness, these products would need to be reformulated or relabeled to remain on the market.

Today’s action is part of a larger, ongoing review of antibacterial active ingredients by the FDA to ensure these ingredients are proven to be safe and effective. This proposed rule does not affect hand sanitizers, wipes, or antibacterial products used in health care settings. 

The problem, from the FDA’s perspective, is that many ordinary people might erroneously believe antibacterial soaps don’t merely make things cleaner, but confer actual health benefits compared to “regular” soap — specifically, greater protection against illness.

Not only is there no conclusive evidence to support this, it might actually be the exact opposite: antibacterial products might be harmful. As the press release says, “some data suggest that long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products — for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps) — could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects.”

Long-term exposure

The suspicion that antibacterial products might actually be harmful is not new. There is, for example, already a strong correlation suggesting that the recent rise in numbers of children suffering from asthma or allergies might, paradoxically, be due to the rise of children raised in overly clean and sterile environments: if you don’t mind anthropomorphizing the human immune system you could say that it pugnaciously refuses to ever relax and take it easy, so if there are no real germs or bacteria for it to defend against, it will instead pick fights with dust particles, pollen grains, dander or other innocuous-for-most-people things.

Even worse, the excessive use of antibacterial products (especially antibiotics) is directly responsible for the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Indeed, the FDA’s proposed rule change on antibacterial soap comes only a few days after it proposed a voluntary restriction on the use on non-prescription antibiotics fed to livestock. As Dina Fine Maron noted last week in Scientific American:

“Most of the meat on our dinner plates comes from cows and chickens treated with a battery of drugs that helped them grow quickly in dismal, cramped conditions that would otherwise make them sick.  The drugs are blended into their food and water without any requirement for a veterinary prescription…. [the proposed change] calls for pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily alter their drug labels to exclude growth promotion as a listed use, and that would make it illegal to use the drugs for such growth promotion uses in the future.”

 The FDA also proposed new rules requiring livestock producers to get veterinary oversight before using certain antibiotics on their animals – in effect, to make certain antibiotics for animals prescription-only, as they are for humans.

Too little, too late

Yet many scientists fear the FDA’s sudden interest (or, rather, proposed interest) in widespread use of antibaceterial products might be too little, too late. Maron called the FDA livestock proposals "overdue and utterly insufficient," and last October, Dr. Arjun Srinivasan of the Centers for Disease Control warned that, due to the rapid evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains, humanity is fast approaching the “end of antibiotics.”

 

The more you use an antibiotic, the more you expose a bacteria to an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood that resistance to that antibiotic is going to develop. So the more antibiotics we put into people, we put into the environment, we put into livestock, the more opportunities we create for these bacteria to become resistant. …We also know that we’ve greatly overused antibiotics and in overusing these antibiotics, we have set ourselves up for the scenario that we find ourselves in now, where we’re running out of antibiotics.

We are quickly running out of therapies to treat some of these infections that previously had been eminently treatable. There are bacteria that we encounter, particularly in health-care settings, that are resistant to nearly all — or, in some cases, all — the antibiotics that we have available to us, and we are thus entering an era that people have talked about for a long time.

For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about “The end of antibiotics, question mark?” Well, now I would say you can change the title to “The end of antibiotics, period.”

We’re here. We’re in the post-antibiotic era. There are patients for whom we have no therapy, and we are literally in a position of having a patient in a bed who has an infection, something that five years ago even we could have treated, but now we can’t. …

As for antibacterial soap and the proposed new regulations, the FDA stressed that its possible qualms to antibacterial soap does not extend to soap or washing in general: hand-washing remains one of the best ways to limit the spread of germs.

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Danish experiment: Plants die when placed next to wi-fi routers

High school experiment attracts interest from scientists across Europe

Does radiation from wi-fi routers and cell phone have health consequences? That's the question five high school girls in Denmark set out to answer in an ex...

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Healthy cress seeds (top) were not exposed to wi-fi radiation, unlike the diseased cress (bottom). DR Photo

Does radiation from wi-fi routers and cell phones have health consequences? That's the question five high school girls in Denmark set out to answer in an experiment that has scientists buzzing. 

There have, of course, been numerous studies trying to determine whether cell phone radiation is dangerous, but wi-fi hasn't received much attention so far. That may change given the results of the biology class experiment by the students at Hjallerup School in North Jutland, Denmark.

The students were having trouble concentrating as they tried to come up with a topic for their experiment. The more they thought about it, the more it seemed a topic that warranted further investigation.

“We all thought we experienced concentration problems in school if we slept with our mobile phones at the bedside, and sometimes we also found it difficult sleeping,” explained Lea Nielsen, one of the five budding researchers, according to the Danish news agency DR.

A simple solution

Testing the effects of cell phone radiation on humans was, wisely, seen as beyond the capabilities of a high school class, so the girls came up with the idea of using simple cress seeds and a wi-fi router.

They took 400 cress seeds and divided them into 12 trays. Six of the trays were placed in one room, six in another. They all got the same amount of water and sunlight over 12 days. The only variable was that six of the trays were placed next to two wi-fi routers.

They waited 12 days, preparing to measure and weigh the different sets of seeds to see if they could find any significant differences. It didn't take much measuring -- the seeds in the trays next to the routers failed to grow. Some mutated. Many died. 

The other seeds, the ones that weren't next to the routers? They were fine, thanks.

“It’s really frightening that there was such a big effect, and we were really struck by the results,” said Nielsen.

The experiment, though simple, has attracted a lot of attention from prominent European researchers.  

“Within the limitations of their understanding and ability, the girls have carried out and documented a very elegant piece of work. The wealth of detail and precision is exemplary, the choice of the right cress is very intelligent, and I could go on,” said Professor Olle Johanson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, DR reported.

Johanson and others are urging the girls to pursue a career in science. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but the girls agree one thing's certain: they've stopped sleeping with their cell phones next to their beds.

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Feds propose rule to allow cell phone data access on planes

Flight attendants union strongly objects

Among the instructions to passengers aboard commercial aircraft is the requirement to shutdown mobile electronic devices. Flight attendants are known to be...

PhotoAmong the instructions to passengers aboard commercial aircraft is the requirement to shutdown mobile electronic devices. Flight attendants are known to be unyielding on this point.

Actor Alec Baldwin has famously been booted off an aircraft after getting into an argument with a flight attendant over his still-powered smartphone. But the in-flight ban on mobile devices may be about to come to an end, much to the consternation of flight attendants. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a proposal that would permit airlines to install equipment on aircraft that could safely allow passengers to use their smartphones once the aircraft has reached cruising altitude. There is one exception, however. Passengers would still be prohibited from making or receiving phone calls.

Up to individual airlines

The proposal would actually expand the existing default ban on the use of cellphones in-flight to include frequency bands not not included before. However, if an airline chooses to equip its aircraft with specialized onboard equipment that would prevent harmful interference with wireless networks on the ground, the airline would have the ability to enable in-flight wireless broadband access to passengers using their smartphones.

The FCC says the new systems could allow airlines to offer new services to their passengers, including Internet, e-mail, text and potentially voice services. The new technology also would provide airlines with a high level of control over the in-cabin communications environment.

Many passengers may be relieved to learn that the new rules would not allow phone calls – at least not right away. But flight attendants are concerned that if the new rules are adopted as proposed, it's only a matter of time before phone conversations are allowed.

United front

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Alec Baldwin
"Flight Attendants and passengers are united on this issue – there should be no voice calls in-flight,”said Veda Shook, Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) International President. “As first responders in the aircraft cabin, Flight Attendants know that this reckless FCC proposal would have negative effects on aviation safety and security.

Shook says the use of cell phones for voice communication poses “unacceptable risks to the security and safety of America's civil aviation system” and must not be permitted.

As currently proposed the rules would only allow passengers to access their data plans on appropriately-equipped aircraft or send and receive texts. But what happens when a passenger using their smartphone to check their email receives a phone call? It will fall to a flight attendant to respond if they take the call and start talking.

'Last line of defense'

“As the last line of defense in our nation's aviation system, Flight Attendants understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment, and passengers agree,” Shook said.

The FCC has prohibited in-flight mobile cellular use since 1991, due to concerns about possible interference to wireless networks on the ground. The FCC now says that the past two decades have produced technology and engineering, as well as specialized onboard systems that can effectively prevent interference with these ground networks on the ground.

The agency notes that foreign airlines have been using onboard mobile access technology over the last five years on flights operating out of Europe and Asia. The FCC said it believes that these systems can be successfully deployed in the U.S.

If the rule is adopted, it doesn't mean all flights will be open to in-flight cellphone use. It would only allow the airlines to install the equipment necessary to offer the data services.

In fact, some airlines already offering in-flight wifi service. However, as of now it can only be accessed using laptop and tablets.

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Grocery bag bans: The battle rages on

Does "better for the environment" mean "worse for your health?"

It’s still too early to predict which side will enjoy ultimate victory in the “should we or shouldn’t we ban disposable plastic shopping bags” war...

PhotoIt’s still too early to predict which side will enjoy ultimate victory in the “should we or shouldn’t we ban disposable plastic shopping bags” war, though both sides can honestly claim to have won recent battles.

In California, a state appeals court upheld San Francisco’s citywide ban on plastic shopping bags. (Of course, this does not negate the possibility that a still-higher court might later rule differently.)  Meanwhile, in Colorado, voters in Durango overturned a city council initiative that would’ve mandated a ten-cent-per-bag tax on disposable grocery bags.

The old “paper or plastic?” shopping-bag debate has since yielded ground to the newer “disposable vs. reusable?” argument. The case for taxing or outright abolishing disposable grocery bags almost always rests on environmental or anti-waste concerns: plastic bags fill space in landfills at best, pollute the ocean and kill sea animals at worst; and even for biodegradable and presumably eco-friendly paper bags, there’s no denying that “disposable substances” are inherently more wasteful than “reusable substances.”

Breeding grounds

PhotoOn the other hand, there’s an ever-growing body of evidence that unwashed reusable grocery bags become breeding grounds for e. coli and other food-borne contaminants. Indeed, in November 2012, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University published a research paper titled “Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness,” with an abstract that noted (in a .pdf link):

Recently, many jurisdictions have implemented bans or imposed taxes upon plastic grocery bags on environmental grounds. San Francisco County was the first major US jurisdiction to enact such a regulation, implementing a ban in 2007. There is evidence, however, that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria. We examine emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increase by at least one fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.

However, these potential health problems were not raised when opponents of the San Francisco ban made their case to the state appeals court; instead, they argued (unsuccessfully) that the city ban contradicts state regulations on retail stores, and that the city should have done an environmental impact study before implementing the ban.

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Massive smartphone cramming operation sued by feds

"Random factoids" were ignored by many consumers but wound up costing them millions

Does your smartphone serenade you daily with all kinds of fun little factoids, love tips and celebrity gossip? If so, you may want to check your monthly st...

PhotoDoes your smartphone serenade you daily with all kinds of fun little factoids, love tips and celebrity gossip? If so, you may want to check your monthly statement carefully. Chances are, those little factoids aren't free.

The Federal Trade Commission has filed a complaint against a massive mobile phone cramming operation that has placed tens of millions of dollars on consumers’ monthly bills without their permission. In its complaint, the FTC seeks to shut down the operation and recover money lost by consumers.

The FTC’s complaint charges that Lin Miao and Andrew Bachman, through a number of companies they owned and controlled, sent theh "fun facts" text messages to consumers, placing monthly subscription fees for these “services” on consumers’ mobile phone bills without their authorization.

The practice, known as mobile cramming, relies on the fact that consumers often don’t closely examine their monthly statements, or many assume that charges are legitimate.

“This case puts another dent in the armor of scammers who use mobile cramming to take advantage of consumers across the country,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. 

Dismissed as spam

According to the complaint, consumers allegedly received text messages with random factoids that they dismissed as spam without realizing they had received them through a paid subscription service they did not knowingly buy. The defendants also allegedly used misleading website offers to obtain valid consumer phone numbers that they used to sign up consumers for their services without their knowledge.

In one instance, a website told visitors they had won free Justin Bieber tickets, which they could claim by filling out an online quiz. Part of the process required consumers to enter their phone number, and while consumers didn’t receive the Justin Bieber tickets, their phone numbers were likely signed up for one of the defendants’ paid services.

The charges continued to appear on consumers’ bills until the consumers noticed them and took action to unsubscribe. The charges, typically $9.99 per month, often appeared on consumers’ bills with inscrutable names like “77050IQ12CALL8663611606” and “25184USBFIQMIG” and in many instances, consumers did not notice the variations in the amount of their bills from month to month.

When consumers did notice the charges, the process of getting a refund was often highly cumbersome. In some cases, consumers could reach representatives of the company, who would promise refunds that never arrived. In other cases, consumers were able to get partial refunds from their phone company, but only for a limited number of months – sometimes far less than the length of time they were billed.

The number of consumers seeking refunds from their phone companies was as high as 40 percent in some months, and some carriers suspended the defendants from placing charges on consumers’ bills.

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Exercise in middle age protects against muscle weakness in old age, study finds

Japanese researchers document that regular exercise contributes to a healthy old age

A healthy and vigorous old age may depend on how you spend your time during middle age, a new Japanese study finds.Researchers at Tokyo University study ...

PhotoA healthy and vigorous old age may depend on how you spend your time during middle age, a new Japanese study finds.

Researchers at Tokyo University studied the effect of exercising in middle age on maintaining muscle strength and physical performance later in life.

The researchers studied the prevalence of sarcopenia, a condition associated with aging that's marked by loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength. It leads to adverse outcomes including disability, poor quality of life and premature death.

The study included 1,000 elderly Japanese participants and measured such factors at their handgrip strength, walking speed and skeletal muscle mass.

Analysis showed that exercise habit in middle age was associated with low prevalence of sarcopenia in older age and was significantly associated with grip strength, gait speed, and one-leg standing time after adjusting for age, sex and body mass index. 

The prevalence of sarcopenia was 13.8% in men and 12.4% in women, and tended to be significantly higher with increasing age in both sexes.

The study was presented at a meeting of the International Osteoporosis Foundation in Hong Kong,

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Skies were friendlier in October

There were no overly-long tarmac delays and fewer customer complaints

October, it turns out, was a pretty good month to be traveling by air. A new report released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel C...

PhotoOctober, it turns out, was a pretty good month to be traveling by air.

A new report released by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report shows there were no long tarmac delays or chronically late flights for two consecutive months or more, and that consumers filed fewer complaints about airline service.

In addition, to improved on-time performance, airlines posted a lower rate of canceled flights and mishandled baggage than the same period in 2012,

The report also includes data on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, along with consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints received. Also included are reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air.

The full report is available on the Department of Transportation website.

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Volkswagen recalls Jetta Hybrids

Internal components of the gearbox may corrode

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 3,837 model year 2013-2014 Jetta Hybrid vehicles manufactured October 2012, through October 2013, and equipped wit...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 3,837 model year 2013-2014 Jetta Hybrid vehicles manufactured October 2012, through October 2013, and equipped with a DQ-200 direct-shift gearbox.

Due to gearbox fluid additives, internal components of the gearbox may corrode. The deposits from this corrosion may cause an electrical short and result in a stall-like condition. This sudden loss of power while driving increases the risk of a crash.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the gearbox oil with a non-corrosive version, free of charge. The recall began on December 6, 2013.

Owners may contact Volkswagen at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's recall number is 34F6/4V.

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Doodlebutt recalls water-absorbing polymer toys

If swallowed, the toys can expand inside a child’s body and cause intestinal obstructions

Doodlebutt of Lehigh Acres, Fla., is recalling about 1,500 Jelly BeadZ Jumbo BeadZ water-absorbing polymer toys. The soft and colorful products can be mis...

PhotoDoodlebutt of Lehigh Acres, Fla., is recalling about 1,500 Jelly BeadZ Jumbo BeadZ water-absorbing polymer toys.

The soft and colorful products can be mistaken by a child for candy. When swallowed, they can expand inside a child’s body and cause intestinal obstructions, resulting in severe discomfort, vomiting, dehydration and could be life threatening. Similar toys have not shown up on x-rays and needed surgery to be removed from the body.

No injuries or incidents have been reported, but federal officials are aware of one incident with a similar water-absorbing polymer ball product in which an 8-month-old girl ingested the ball that had to be surgically removed, and two cases outside the U.S. with one death.

This recall involves Doodlebutt Jelly BeadZ Jumbo BeadZ and Magic Growing Fruity Fun water-absorbing polymer toys. The toys can absorb from 300 to 500 times their weight in water and can grow up to eight times their original size:

  • Jumbo BeadZ toys are marble-sized water-absorbing balls. They were sold in a package consisting of three separate 2.5-inch x 2-inch clear, resealable bags inside a 3.5-inch x 4-inch clear, resealable bag. Each smaller bag had eight to 12 water balls of slightly different sizes. The balls came in clear, blue, red, orange, yellow, green and purple colors. The front of the larger bag had a multi-colored label with the words “Jelly BeadZ,” “Easy to follow directions” and had instructions for use.
  • Magic Growing Fruity Fun toys are water-absorbing polymers in the shapes of apples, bananas, butterflies, cherries, grapes, pineapples, roses and strawberries. They were sold in 3.5-inch x 4-inch, clear, resealable bag with seven assorted shapes in it. They came in blue, green, orange, pink, red and yellow. The label on the front of the bag has the words “For ‘Kidz’ of All Ages,” “Jelly BeadZ,” “Bouncy and Beautiful,” “Colorfast,” “Non Toxic,” “Safe for the Environment,” and other words that describe uses for the product. The back of the package has two smaller labels. One label contains instructions for use and the other has a barcode with “XU00EC1JRN” beneath it.

The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at Amazon.com from February 2012, through September 2013, for about $9.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled polymer products and take them away from small children. Consumers should contact Doodlebutt for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Doodlebutt, collect at (239) 313-9779 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or by email at whitmana@live.com.

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Acura MDX AWD vehicles recalled

The bolts that attach the drive shaft to the automatic transmission transfer assembly could loosen

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 19,197 model year 2014 Acura MDX AWD vehicles manufactured May 6, 2013, through October 14, 2013. The bolts that at...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Co. is recalling 19,197 model year 2014 Acura MDX AWD vehicles manufactured May 6, 2013, through October 14, 2013.

The bolts that attach the drive shaft to the automatic transmission transfer assembly may not have been properly tightened and could loosen, possibly allowing the shaft to detach. If the drive shaft detaches while the vehicle is being driven. it could cause excessive noise and possibly damage the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and tighten the drive shaft attaching bolts as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2013.

Owners may contact Honda at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's recall number is JC8.

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Yauk's expands meat and poultry product recall

The products were produced under unsanitary conditions

Yauk’s Specialty Meats of a Windsor, Colo., is expanding a recall made earlier this month to include an undetermined amount of various meat and poultry pro...

PhotoYauk’s Specialty Meats of a Windsor, Colo., is expanding a recall made earlier this month to include an undetermined amount of various meat and poultry products that were produced under unsanitary conditions.

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

These products are in addition to the approximately 90,000 pounds of various meat and poultry products that were recalled on Dec. 9, 2013, and carry different brand names.

Products subject to this recall and expansion may be identified by the following brand names and bear the establishment number “Est. 20309” or “P-20309” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. Products that do not bear the establishment number “Est. 20309” or “P-20309” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection would not be included in this recall.

Products subject to the recall expansion include various meat and/or poultry products from the following brands:

  • Four Sisters Farm
  • Heart Rock Bison
  • High Point Bison
  • Luc’s Pizza
  • Mountain States Poultry & Meats
  • Open A Bar 2
  • Rocky Plains Quality Meats
  • Schmidt’s Bakery & Deli
  • Wag’s Livestock
  • Wayne’s Specialty Meats
  • Windsor Dairy
  • Wyoming Pure Beef
  • Yauk’s Specialty Meats

All products being recalled are packaged in retail-ready packaging of various sizes. Each package bears the establishment number “Est. 20309” or “P-20309” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. The products were produced between April 1, 2013, and Dec. 5, 2013 and can be identified by four-digit Julian dates ranging between 3091 and 3339. The products were sold at the wholesale and retail level in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Consumers and media with questions about the recall should contact Wayne Yauk at 970-686-9080 .

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BMW recalls vehicles with possible front passenger air bag problems

Cracks in the passenger detection mat could lead to a system failure

BMW of North America is recalling 76,565 model year 2006 325i, 325xi, 330i, 330xi sedans and 325xi sports wagons, model year 2007 328i, 328xi, 335i, 335xi ...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 76,565 model year 2006 325i, 325xi, 330i, 330xi sedans and 325xi sports wagons, model year 2007 328i, 328xi, 335i, 335xi sedans and 328i and 328xi sports wagons, model year 2006-2007 525i, 525xi, 530i, 530xi, 550i sedans and 530xi sports wagons, model year 2006 760i sedans, model year 2006-2007 750i, 750Li, and 760Li sedans, and model year 2006 X5 sports activity vehicles, equipped with certain seat types.

The front passenger seat occupant detection mat that determines if and how the passenger frontal air bag should deploy in a crash may fatigue and develop cracks which could lead to a system failure. Should the system fail, in the event of a crash, the front passenger air bag would be deactivated, increasing the risk of personal injury.

BMW will notify owners with an interim notification letter in January 2014 since parts are not currently available. When parts are available, anticipated to be in March 2014, BMW will send a second letter and dealers will repair the occupant detection mat to eliminate the possibility that it may crack, free of charge.

Additionally, owners of model year 2006-2007 3 Series with standard seats, 5 Series with comfort seats, and Z4 models, will receive an extended warranty on their front passenger seat occupant detection mat.

Owners may contact BMW customer relations at 1-800-525-7417 or email BMW at CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

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Michelin recalls more than a million LTX M/S tires

The tires could experience tread separation

Michelin North America is recalling 1,200,000 Michelin LTX M/S tires, size LT225/75R16 115/112R LRE, manufactured from January 10, 2010, through June 23, 2...

PhotoMichelin North America is recalling 1,200,000 Michelin LTX M/S tires, size LT225/75R16 115/112R LRE, manufactured from January 10, 2010, through June 23, 2012. The tires are supplied for use as original equipment on certain Ford vehicles, and as replacement equipment on various brand commercial light trucks, full-sized heavy duty vans, small RVs and some large pickup trucks.

These tires could experience tread separation, which can lead to rapid air loss, resulting in a loss of vehicle control and increasing the risk of a crash.

Michelin will notify owners and Michelin dealers will replace the tires free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on January 6, 2014.

Owners may call Michelin Consumer Care Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, or Saturday and Sunday from 8:30am to 4:30pm EST at the following numbers: USA: 1-800-231-5893 (language options: English and Spanish).

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Five steps to getting your finances under control

But you have to be prepared to confront reality

If you have a spending problem, chances are it peaks this time of year. There are gifts to buy, entertainment functions to attend and even appeals from a w...

PhotoIf you have a spending problem, chances are it peaks this time of year. There are gifts to buy, entertainment functions to attend and even appeals from a wide range of worthwhile charities.

Some people might not even be completely aware of the problem or the reasons for it. To get finances under control, here are five straightforward steps that may get you moving in the right direction:

Face reality

Yes, this sounds overly simplistic but financial counselors say it is impossible to know where your money is going until you actually look at where it's going. In many cases there is a lot of resistance to tracking expenses because confronting reality may bring about a level of discomfort; either you stop spending you can't afford or you fall deeper into the whole.

But there's power in taking this step. The result is a more careful spending pattern that takes less of a toll on the bank account.

Add up your debt

If you don't know how much money you owe you can't put together a rational budget. But adding up all one's debt can be a brutal exercise. Not only must you confront the total amount you owe, you have to measure the interest you are paying on your debt.

However, confronting this information might spur you to positive action, such as applying for a 0% balance transfer credit card. It also focuses your attention on how you could be using that money if you weren't spending it on interest.

Break bad financial habits

We all could benefit from a more careful use of our money but it is easy to fall into seemingly harmless financial bad habits. Be aware of the small expenditures at the grocery store. At the department store do you find you usually make an “impulse buy” while standing in the checkout line? These little expenses add up.

Put a price on convenience

Busy people don't always have time to do things themselves so they pay others to do them. We're not just talking about mowing the lawn or cleaning the house.

How many meals out do you eat in a week? Even take-out or delivery usually ends up costing more than food you buy at the grocery and prepare yourself. In most cases, the food you prepare yourself is a lot healthier too.

Second-guess your spending

It's good to think before you spend but don't forget about it after the fact. It's a good idea to carefully review monthly bill statements to determine if the expense, especially if you went into debt to make it, was really worth it.

This look in the rearview mirror, with the benefit of hindsight, can give a new perspective on the spending you will do in the future.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), whose members provide free or low-cost financial counseling, recently commissioned a survey of consumers that found 80% admitted their worst decisions in life revolved around finances. That beat out mistakes in romance, on the job and with their health.

“It is good sign that consumers recognize and admit their problem,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. “Financial awareness often provides the motivation to jolt a person into taking action that can change the course of their financial life,” continued Cunningham.

Getting out of debt

Recognizing the problem is a big step but a realistic plan of action is required to turning things around. Excessive spending is usually easier to control than excessive debt – you simply buy less or find a cheaper alternative.

Getting out of debt is harder and requires more discipline. Look out for those pitching easy answers – they almost always turn out badly.

This article from our friends at The Motley Fool provides some additional debt-reduction tips that might get you started.

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The nine-course Christmas dinner in a can

Christmas Tinner: a bad pun gracing a cylinder of possibly worse food

We’re not entirely certain whether this is meant to be an honest-to-goodness consumer food item or more along the lines of a gag gift ...

PhotoWe’re not entirely certain whether this is meant to be an honest-to-goodness consumer food item or more along the lines of a gag gift – but in our defense, neither are the experts at the august Smithsonian, whose Innovations blog asked “Would you eat dinner in a can?”

Introducing “Christmas Tinner,” a meal-in-a-can purportedly offered by the UK-based video-game retailer GAME. (In Britain, canned food is often called “tinned” food; the pun about Christmas Tinner doesn’t really work in American English but it does on the other side of the Atlantic.) The idea is to offer a full multi-course traditional English Christmas dinner in a can, for video gamers who can’t bear to leave their game consoles long enough to enjoy a feast the old-fashioned way.

The Christmas Tinner offers a nine-course meal layered throughout a single can, with “scrambled egg and bacon” on top, and working its way down through two mince pies, turkey and potatoes, gravy, bread and cranberry sauces, stuffing with Brussels sprouts or broccoli, roast carrots and parsnips, and finally, on the very bottom of the can, a layer of Christmas pudding.

Photo

There’s a near-limitless number of jokes you can make about the likely quality of a nine-course meal layered into cylindrical form and shoved into a can, and we were about to make some ourselves until we read further in that fascinating Smithsonian Innovations  blog post and learned that the tradition of sneering at canned (or tinned) food has some unhealthy snobbery in its pedigree:

Though quite ingenuous (when you really think about it), the bulk of canning’s maligned reputation, it appears, has much to do with its blue collar roots. Conceived, ironically, by Frenchman Philippe de Girard in 1810 as an inexpensive way to preserve food, cans have traditionally been associated with the urban working class. As the domain of miserly survivalists, canned food and beverages are typically what poorer folks stock up on during times of recession and prolonged economic hardship. The can’s already humbled image, however, isn’t helped any by egregious abominations such as Sweet Sue’s whole chicken in a can and the peanut butter and jelly Candwich, which NPR’s Sandwich Monday described as having a taste that’s “somewhere on the continuum between Play-Doh and Taxicab Air Freshener.”

Time and money

There’s no denying that, assuming you have unlimited time and money, pretty much any fruit, vegetable, meat or other edible tastes infinitely better fresh than it does out of a can. Unfortunately, most of us have only limited time and money and buying and cooking everything fresh every day simply isn’t feasible — especially if you want to keep a food stockpile on hand, not even for “miserly survivalist” reasons but for sensible economic ones: if a non-perishable food you like is on sale for a good price, you can save money in the long run buying extra cans now, since you know you’ll eat them later anyway. But try this with perishables and you'll just waste your money: most of the food will go bad before you or your family get the chance to do anything with it.

And, of course, one need not be a “survivalist” to know that storms can and do sometimes cause lengthy power outages even in the most urban of environments. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends all Americans keep a minimum three day’s worth of food and water in their homes — and they don’t mean food that’ll go bad if your refrigerator and freezer quit working.

Incidentally, back in October and November 2011, we (along with more than half the people who lived in Connecticut at the time) went over a week without electricity after a monster blizzard pummeled the state. Luckily, we lived in easy walking distance of a diner that still had power and hot meals—but we couldn’t afford to eat every meal at the diner (especially not after we had to throw away hundreds of dollars’ worth of spoiled food from our fridge and freezer), so we’re very glad we had a good supply of heat-and-serve canned goods on hand, to cook on our little alcohol stove.

However – unlike the people who’ll presumably be adding cans of Christmas Tinner to their emergency stockpiles – even when we made multi-course meals, on the shelf they were one course per can: this can holds the weird-orange-spaghetti course, that can the veggie course, another can of seafood and now it’s time for dessert. But if anyone tries layering sweet corn and tuna fish and neon pasta loops and chocolate pudding altogether in a single can — well, you might be brave enough to try it, but we’re not.

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Wireless carriers will let consumers unlock their smartphones

Industry group bows to FCC pressure and agrees to free consumers at the end of their contract

FCC Chairman Tom WheelerMajor wireless carriers have caved to pressure from the new Federation Communications Commission (FCC) chairman and agreed to l...

Photo
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Major wireless carriers have caved to pressure from the new Federation Communications Commission (FCC) chairman and agreed to let consumers unlock their cell phones when their contracts expire.

The new code agreed to by the carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon -- requires them to notify consumers when their phones are eligible for unlocking and to allow them to do so at no charge.

"We believe this agreement will continue to foster the world-leading range of devices and offerings that Americans enjoy today," said Steve Largent, president of CTIA, the wireless industry's trade group. "The robust and differentiated technological ecosystem has brought unparalleled and world-leading benefits to American wireless users, in the form of high-end and affordable devices, post- and pre-paid options, and with the world’s most advanced devices being launched first in the United States."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler -- a highly respected former wireless and cable industry executive and lobbyist -- has let it be known lately that the time has come for carriers to let consumers claim full ownership of their devices.

Currently, when consumers buy a smartphone or a plain old cell phone, they typically pay only a fraction of the actual cost of the phone. The carrier subsidizes the purchase and, in effect, amortizes it over a two- to three-year contract.

It's possible to buy unlocked phones now but they tend to be three or four times more expensive than the subsidized versions, so consumers may not be as thrilled with unlocked phones as one might think.

On the other hand, unlocking makes it possible to price shop among networks and, sometimes, to sign up for international service when traveling overseas at much lower cost than would otherwise be the case.

Largent cautioned there's also the little matter of frequencies. Different carriers use different frequencies and cell phones are generally manufactured to operate on the specific frequencies of the carrier that sells them.

“It is important that consumers know that unlocking devices may not necessarily mean full interoperability since devices that work on one provider’s network may not be technologically compatible with another  wireless provider’s network. Additionally, unlocking a device may enable some functionality of the device but not all (e.g., an unlocked device may support voice services but not data services when activated on a different network)," he said.

It's not clear when CTIA's new code will go into effect.

 

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MasterCard tightens rules for employers who use debit cards to pay workers

Consumers have complained they are being forced to pay fees to retrieve their wages

Employers who pay their workers with MasterCard debit cards will have to follow some new consumer protection measures being announced by MasterCard today, ...

PhotoEmployers who pay their workers with MasterCard debit cards will have to follow some new consumer protection measures being announced by MasterCard today, the Wall Street Journal reports. 

The newspaper says MasterCard will require employers to offer workers a choice of receiving their pay on a debit card, via direct deposit or check. Federal officials earlier warned employers it is illegal to force workers to get their pay on a debit card. 

There've been growing complaints about the so-called payroll cards. Some workers say they're forced to get their pay on the plastic cards and pay fees associated with the card. Many of the complaints come from low-paid workers in the fast food industry, like Alma of Simi Valley, Calif., who works at a Carl's Jr. restaurant, who said she was paid via a Visa debit card without being given a choice.

"I have a checking account and bank of my choice so why did my employer open another account for me? I already worked hard for my money, so why do I need to pay somebody else to have access to my earned money?" Alma asked in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs last February.

Photo"Is Sunday and is my first payment. my credit card is due and I will have to pay $1.50 to go to a ATM. and $3.00 to go back inside the bank and get the rest of my earned money so I can pay my bills," Alma said. "My employer did not provided me with a pay stub just an ATM [card]."

State and federal officials have taken note of the complaints and MasterCard is apparently hoping to head off new legislation and regulations.

In September, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) published a bulletin reminding employers that they cannot require their employees to receive wages on a payroll card. The bulletin also explains some of the federal consumer protections that apply to payroll cards, such as fee disclosure, access to account history, limited liability for unauthorized use, and error resolution rights.

“Employees must have options when it comes to how they receive their wages,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s release warns employers that they cannot mandate that their employees receive wages on a payroll card. And for those employees who choose to receive wages on a payroll card, they are entitled to certain federal protections.”

The new MasterCard rules will take effect in October for employers currently using the cards, while newly-enrolled employers will have to comply by July.

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New York breaks up puppy-flipping ring

Fast-buck artists bought puppies online, then posed as breeders and resold them

We've all heard of investors who "flip" houses. But puppies? Yes, it's true: New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has tightened the lease on...

Photo
File photo
We've all heard of investors who "flip" houses. But puppies? Yes, it's true: New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has tightened the leash on two individuals who bought puppies online, treated them shabbily, then posed as breeders and resold them online.

In one case, the Attorney General’s office reached an agreement with an individual in the Syracuse area who bought puppies on Craigslist, kept them in poor conditions without access to a veterinarian, and resold them illegally.

In another, the office obtained a court order against an individual in Buffalo who posed as a puppy breeder, when in fact the puppies she sold were purchased online, malnourished, and sold to consumers who reported fleas, filth, and near-death health conditions among the pets.

Both pet flippers have been permanently barred from selling animals or becoming licensed pet dealers.  

“Today’s developments are a win-win. By shutting down operations where animals are being illegally sold, we can help ensure that consumers are purchasing healthy pets, while protecting the animals themselves from those who break the law to turn a profit,” said Schneiderman. “In holding these individuals accountable, we are sending the message that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated.”

Flipping free dogs

Those who flip dogs not only purchase the dogs, but also flip dogs they have received at no cost. Obtaining a dog at little or no cost and then spending a minimal amount (if anything) on the dog’s care quickly maximizes the return. Current pet owners should be aware of this when considering giving up their pet, and should always go through an authorized facility, such as a local SPCA or shelter. 

Puppy flipper Stephanie Arcara bought puppies advertised on Craigslist and then sold them to unsuspecting customers in the Buffalo area. Arcara, who was not a licensed pet dealer, kept the puppies in her home, where they were poorly cared for.  According to one consumer, the puppy she purchased from Arcara was covered in feces and urine, had patches of hair missing on its body and was very thin. Another reported that a puppy he purchased from Arcara was dehydrated and suffered from constant seizures, while others reported that puppies sold by Arcara had worms, fleas and bladder infections. One puppy even died shortly after Arcara sold it.

Arcara illegally sold dozens of puppies to unsuspecting consumers, usually by advertising on Craigslist. She misrepresented herself to consumers as a breeder of the puppies when, in fact, she had purchased them on Craigslist. Arcara also misrepresented the breed of the puppies she sold, sometimes claiming they were purebreds when they were not, and told consumers that the puppies had been dewormed and were current on their shots, which was also not the case. 

Carissa Seaman, of Cleveland, NY, bought animals, or obtained them for free, from Craigslist and the trading post of a local radio station. She would then re-sell the dogs to other consumers for more money than she paid for them – flipping the dogs and pocketing the difference. In just one year, Seaman sold over two dozen dogs.

Seaman, who is not a licensed pet dealer, kept the dogs in her home, but cared for them poorly. None of the dogs sold by Seaman received veterinarian care.  In July of 2013, she offered to sell a five week old St. Bernard puppy that had fleas and flea feces on its skin to two undercover AG investigators. Another seven month old fawn pug for sale had two patches of fur missing from his back revealing raw and irritated skin.  

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Reminder: Stamps.com and the US Postal Service aren't the same thing

Subscription fees catch some by surprise, although they are properly disclosed

Quick reminder to anybody tempted to avoid stamp-buying trips to the post office by subscribing to Stamps.com: you will be charged a monthly subscription f...

PhotoQuick reminder to anybody tempted to avoid stamp-buying trips to the post office by subscribing to Stamps.com: you will be charged a monthly subscription fee, even for the months you don’t buy any stamps. And make sure you don’t confuse Stamps.com with USPS.com, the official website of the United States Postal Service.

We mention this because we received a handful of complaints from Stamps.com customers who seemed surprised by the subscription charges … and a couple more surprised to learn they were Stamps.com customers in the first place.

Cheryl from Connecticut wrote this week to say “I am getting charged $15.99 for nothing! …. I didn't even realize there was a monthly charge or I never would have signed up. Tried to cancel account and was on hold for 1/2 hour before I could actually get someone to do it.”

The week before, Christina in Illinois wrote us after she noticed “a recurring charge on my credit card for $17.95 …. I looked online to cancel. I figured if it was an online service I could cancel online. Wrong. So I called their customer support number to 1) cancel this subscription account and 2) get a full refund.”

Long story short, Christina’s attempt to get a refund didn’t work. She says she bought from Stamps.com back in July, also not realizing she was actually signing up for a subscription. “Please save yourself the trouble and do not even go to this website. It's not USPS (which is what I originally thought).”

Veronica from Washington State might have made the same mistake. She told us “looked at the Stamps.com site at one point while I was trying to purchase postage online. Ended up going to the offical USPS site. They do look alike. I cannot figure out how Stamps.com got my information and started charging my credit card. What a pain to clear up. They did not want to cancel the account online. They wanted a phone call. … I’m still in dispute with my credit card company.”

We’re going to take a wild guess that maybe Veronica, like Christina, thought she was buying from the post office instead of Stamps.com. The two websites are not clones of each other but do use similar red-white-and-blue color schemes and talk a lot about stamps and postage, and Stamp.com’s main page does sport the United States Postal Service logo (as a “licensed vendor” of the USPS).

On Stamps.com’s Frequently Asked Questions page, we found this: “What is Stamps.com? Stamps.com is a service that allows you to print official United States Postal Service® postage directly from your PC and printer. Our services are available for a small monthly fee, there are no taxes or additional fees besides the cost of actual postage printed.”

It does sound as though, even for people who specifically set out to subscribe to Stamps.com, canceling the subscription is much, much harder than starting it. But remember that it is a subscription, not a one-time online stamp purchase.

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Walmart price-matching arrest: not for price-matching at all

Moe details come out in the case of Joe Cantrell

More details have come out regarding the strange case of Joe Cantrell, the Arizona man who said he was banned from Walmart after trying to take honest adva...

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Joe Cantrell
More details have come out regarding the strange case of Joe Cantrell, the Arizona man who said he was banned from Walmart after trying to take honest advantage of their price-matching deal; now, it’s starting to look like Walmart’s version of events might be the more accurate.

Cantrell originally said that he went to Walmart to buy Christmas ornaments. Though he had an advertisement showing those same ornaments listed for a lower price somewhere else, the store associate refused to honor the listed price (in apparent violation of Walmart’s price-matching policy), and when Cantrell complained to management, the manager reported him to the police as a threat. When Cantrell returned to the store a few days later, he said, deputies handcuffed him and informed him he’d been banned form all Walmart stores for life.

That’s the basic story most of America (including us) knew about at the beginning of this week. But on Dec. 12, the Phoenix New Time’s Valley Fever blog reported that, according to representatives of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department, Cantrell (and the ABC affiliate that first reported his story) left out some important details:

Cantrell was heard threatening employees with statements "I'm going to mess this mother f_ _ _ker up" while yelling at a cashier, he told employees he didn't care if he got kicked out of the store because he "was going to f_ _ k up, the cashier and he would be waiting outside for him in the parking lot and he was going to do him in."

The Sheriff's Office was called by Walmart, but Cantrell had left the store before deputies arrived. Before leaving, he told the manager "I'm not the person to F _ _ k with, next time I come in I will beat his ass." A deputy investigated the case as employees were afraid for their safety. A video was captured by store security and PCSO deputies recognized Cantrell from prior contacts. Deputies were unable to locate him at his last known address...

Cantrell posted on his "Facebook" account (December 2nd, 2013) "Tonight I almost whipped a Walmart employees ass." One of his Facebook friends responded to his post and said, "I know you heard Joes gonna kill you in the back of your head. But you did the right thing by walking away mad and not kicking his ass and doing to jail." (sic.) Cantrell then responded back to that post by saying, "I have to be honest with you Richard I came very close."

And why did the store associate initially refuse to match the Christmas-ornament price Cantrell wanted? Initial reports did not say, but it turned out Cantrell was trying to price-match an expired Black Friday ad, well after Black Friday, according to later reports.

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First generic versions of Cymbalta approved

Consumers have an alternative to the brand-name medication

The first generic versions of Cymbalta (duloxetine delayed-release capsules), a prescription medicine used to treat depression and other conditions, has be...

PhotoThe first generic versions of Cymbalta (duloxetine delayed-release capsules), a prescription medicine used to treat depression and other conditions, has been green-lighted by the federal government.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given approval to

Aurobindo Pharma Ltd., Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd., Lupin Ltd., Sun Pharma Global FZE, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, and Torrent Pharmaceuticals Ltd. to market the drug in various strengths.

“Health care professionals and consumers can be assured that these FDA-approved generic drugs have met our rigorous standards,” said Kathleen Uhl, M.D., acting director of the Office of Generic Drugs in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Generic drugs offer greater access to health care for many people.”

Boxed warning

Duloxetine and other antidepressant drugs have a boxed warning describing the increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior during initial treatment in children, adolescents and young adults ages 18 to 24. The warning also says data do not show this increased risk in those older than 24 years and that patients ages 65 and older who take antidepressants have a decreased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior.

The warning says depression and other serious psychiatric disorders themselves are the most important causes of suicide and that close monitoring of patients starting these medications is necessary. Duloxetine must be dispensed with a patient medication guide that describes important information about the drug’s uses and risks.

Common adverse reactions reported by people taking Cymbalta include nausea, dry mouth, drowsiness, fatigue, decreased appetite, increased sweating, and dizziness.

Generic prescription drugs approved by the FDA have the same high quality and strength as brand-name drugs. Generic prescription drug manufacturing and packaging sites must pass the same quality standards as those of brand-name drugs.

Depression is characterized by symptoms that interfere with a person's ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities. Episodes often recur throughout a person's lifetime.

Signs and symptoms of depression include: depressed mood, loss of interest in usual activities, significant change in weight or appetite, insomnia or excessive sleeping (hypersomnia), restlessness/pacing (psychomotor agitation), increased fatigue, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, slowed thinking or impaired concentration and suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide.

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Flu shot: yes or no?

The CDC says you should get one, while others aren't so sure

This is National Influenza Vaccination Week and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is using the occasion to urge estimated 60% of Ameri...

PhotoThis is National Influenza Vaccination Week and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is using the occasion to urge estimated 60% of Americans 6 months and older had who have been vaccinated yet to do so.

To shore up its pro-flu shot argument, the CDC cites a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that says flu vaccination prevented an estimated 6.6 million influenza-associated illnesses, 3.2 million medically attended illnesses, and 79,000 hospitalizations during the 2012-2013 flu season.

The agency says the estimated benefits of vaccination for the 2012-2013 season are higher than any other season for which it has produced similar estimates. According to the report, there were a total of 31.8 million influenza-associated illnesses in the U.SD., last season, along with 14.4 million medically attended illnesses, and 381,000 hospitalizations.

“The estimated number of hospitalizations reinforces what we have always known about flu: that it is highly variable and can be very serious,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.

Difference of opinion

Not everyone agrees, though

Dr. Donald Miller, a cardiac surgeon and Professor of Surgery at the University of Washington, recommends avoiding the flu shot. He recommends taking vitamin D instead. Writing on the website Mercola.com, Miller claims “Seventy percent of doctors do not get a flu shot.”

While the CDC says children aged 6 months through four years accounted for an estimated 69% of prevented hospitalizations last year, Miller maintains that there is a lack of evidence that young kids benefit from flu shots.”

In fact,” he writes, “a systematic review of 51 studies involving 260,000 children age 6 to 23 months found no evidence that the flu vaccine is any more effective than a placebo. But there is also a risk of harm from the flu vaccine itself, particularly from the mercury, aluminum, and formaldehyde it contains.”

The push is on

Despite the continuing controversy, the CDC maintains that getting an annual flu vaccination is becoming a habit for many people. But says Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of CDC's Center for Global Health, “there is still much room for improvement. The bottom-line is that influenza can cause a tremendous amount of illness and can be severe. Even when our flu vaccines are not as effective as we want them to be, they can reduce flu illnesses, doctors' visits, and flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.”

With further increases in influenza activity across the U.S. expected in the coming weeks, she says, “If you have not gotten your flu vaccine yet this season, you should get one now.”   

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Wholesale prices post third straight monthly decline in November

A drop in energy costs was a major factor

Another drop in wholesale prices -- the third in a row. The government says its Producer Price Index (PPI) for finished goods dipped 0.1% in November, sea...

PhotoAnother drop in wholesale prices -- the third in a row.

The government says its Producer Price Index (PPI) for finished goods dipped 0.1% in November, seasonally, following declines of 0.2% in October and 0.1% in September. For the 12 months ended in November, the PPI is up just 0.7%

Energy and food

Much of last month's decline can be traced to a 0.4% decline in energy prices. Nearly three-quarters of that can be is attributed to gasoline prices, which were down 0.7%. Lower prices for diesel fuel and home heating oil were factors as well.

On the other hand, food prices were unchanged in November after shooting up 0.8% the month before. Higher pork costs were offset by lower prices for processed young chickens.

The “core” rate of inflation, which excludes the volatile food and energy components, was up a tiny 0.1% in November -- the third advance in a row. Higher prices for agricultural machinery and equipment also contributed to the advance in the core.

The full PPI report can be found on the Labor Department website.

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Madone bicycles recalled

The front brake can fail

Trek Bicycles of Waterloo, Wis., is recalling about 6,800 model year 2013 Madone bicycles. The bicycle’s front brake can fail, posing a crash hazard. The ...

PhotoTrek Bicycles of Waterloo, Wis., is recalling about 6,800 model year 2013 Madone bicycles.

The bicycle’s front brake can fail, posing a crash hazard. The company has received five reports of loose front brake attachment bolts. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves model year 2013 Trek Madone bicycles with model numbers 5.2, 5.9, 6.2, 6.5, 7.7 or 7.9, and serial numbers starting with WTU and ending with G or H. A list of all serial numbers included in the recall is at www.trekbikes.com. Some of the recalled models are custom-ordered Project One Madones. The model number is printed on the bicycle frame. The serial number is printed on a sticker underneath the frame of the bicycle. The bicycles were sold in a variety of colors.

The bikes, manufactured in Taiwan, the U.S. and Germany, were sold at bicycle stores nationwide from July 2012, through December 2013, for between $3,400 and $6,300, and between $4,000 and $15,000 for custom models.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and take them to a Trek dealer for a free replacement front brake system.

Consumers may contact Trek at (800) 373-4594 from 8 a.m. through 6 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.  

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Volkswagen recalls Tiguans

The holder for the fuse that controls the vehicle's exterior lights circuit may melt

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 62,155 model year 2009-2011 Tiguan vehicles manufactured July 2007, through June 2011. Due to a problem with th...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 62,155 model year 2009-2011 Tiguan vehicles manufactured July 2007, through June 2011.

Due to a problem with the fuse for the exterior lights, the holder for the fuse that controls the vehicle's exterior lights circuit may melt. If the holder melts, there may be a partial loss of exterior lighting. Reduced vehicle illumination diminishes the vehicle's visibility, increasing the risk of a crash.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuse, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2013.

Owners may contact Volkswagen at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's recall number is 97Z9/2V.

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Calling 9-1-1 from a cellphone

Don't assume the dispatcher can see your location

In the event of an emergency, in most places in the country you can call 9-1-1 for help and be confident that the EMS operator on the other end can instant...

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The case of the vanishing Yahoo emails

Inaccessible email accounts and vanishing messages add to an already poor reputation

The German word fremdschämen refers to that feeling of vicarious shame or embarrassment you feel on someone else’s behalf when you watch them ma...

PhotoThe German word fremdschämen refers to that feeling of vicarious shame or embarrassment you feel on someone else’s behalf when you watch them make fools of themselves. We came down with a mild case of fremdschämen a couple of weeks ago, when we told you the embarrassing story of how the new Yahoo email is so bad, even Yahoo’s own employees don’t want to use it.

Not that Yahoo executives paid any attention to customer complaints about the new email; they only kept insisting, “This new email is great, especially all the rich new features we added” and “Don’t you just love our feature-rich new email system? It is great,” and “This new email differs completely from the old one. Ergo, greatness ensues. Check out all these rich new features!”

Unfortunately, these new features apparently don’t include “ability to send email” or “ability to receive email,” which is why our personal fremdschämen levels rose right off the charts when we read the latest installment in the Yahoo email saga: Certain Yahoo users found themselves unable to access their email, starting Monday night – and as of Thursday, some still can’t.

New account? Forget it

PhotoOur editor, by the way, reports that he tried to open a Yahoo account a few days ago to see for himself how good/bad it was. Unfortunately, the process hung about halfway through and he was never able to complete it. Not a good sign, really.

Just to add to your holiday cheer, there’s a chance any emails sent between Nov. 25 and Dec. 9 might have vanished altogether. So if you’re a Yahoo email user wondering why you haven’t been getting responses to things like job-application emails or Christmas gift orders — well, it’s possible the problem lies in the quality of the job application itself, or the mail-order-company’s customer service. But it might also be true that these emails never arrived in their intended recipients’ inboxes.

To console you, here are some reassuring words from that magnificent memo written by Yahoo execs Jeff Bonforte, SVP Communications Products, and Randy Roumillat, CIO, urging employees to switch to the new feature-rich Yahoo email:

“Certainly, we can admire [other established email systems Yahoo employees stubbornly insist on using] 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.”

Confession: we still don’t know exactly what this means, possibly because every time we try reading it our vision gets blocked by enormous blinding clouds of fremdschämen. We were going to ask that you email us if you can explain it, but if your email account is with Yahoo you’d just be wasting your time anyway. Forget we even brought it up.

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Charities: The good, the bad, the scams

There are many worthy causes out there but how do you identify them?

During the holiday season, many Americans open up their wallets to support a favorite charity. From local non-profits to major national charities with $1 m...

Pete Thomson is President/CEO of McQ Media Inc, a media and advertising firm based in Dallas, Texas.   Thomson’s weekly radio program, The Consumer Team, airs on CBS Radio’s KRLD Radio in Dallas, Texas.

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Pete Thomson

During the holiday season, many Americans open up their wallets to support a favorite charity. From local non-profits to major national charities with $1 million-plus advertising budgets, the non-profit landscape is more crowded and competitive than ever.

Just how important are the holidays to your average charity? Non-profits will often admit that over half of all their contributions are received in the fourth quarter, with much of the money being received in December.

Largely because of the strategically crafted marketing campaigns, it’s easy to assume that non-profits are good managers of the money we give them. The images of hungry children being fed or other acts of kindness that result from a donation are indeed powerful. Yet, the reality in today’s marketplace is that a high percentage of non-profits are not effective at managing the donations they receive. 

Some of the biggest, most reputable-appearing non-profits and ministries that dominate television and radio make big promises in their marketing.  However, in many cases, a relatively small percentage of donations actually reaches the needy.  In the case of many of the web-based charity campaigns, little or no money is going to the cause that is advertised. 

Like the Wild West

Charities and ministries that were founded with a mission of helping people, can lose focus of their foundational purpose because of the jaws of overhead.   CEO and leadership salaries, marketing and other infrastructure expenses can easily turn even the best-intentioned non-profit into an organization that is overtaken with the costs of doing business.  

Thanks to several charity watchdog groups, consumers now have access to reliable and unbiased information regarding charities. Charity Navigator is a New York based non-profit that rates non-profits in a number of key criteria. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) offers a similar service which rates Christian charities.

Sandra Miniutti, VP/CFO at Charity Navigator, says that donors need to be very careful before giving money to a charity. She said, “There’s a lot of scoundrels and thieves out there. There are more than a million public charities in America today. The IRS is charged with overseeing them at the federal level and there’s very little oversight. It’s a little like the Wild West and donors need to dig deeper into a charity’s performance before they hand over their hard earned money.”

Financial transparency, according to Miniutti, is an important cornerstone to responsible non-profits. Ms. Miniutti indicated that many non-profits open their books to donors and the general public. Such transparency gives donors a way to confirm that their gifts are being utilized appropriately.

Lack of transparency

PhotoStill, a number of non-profits don’t open their books to the public. Many of these, according to Miniutti, are faith-based non-profits that are not required to share financial information. One such faith-based charity is The Salvation Army. Miniutti said that she finds The Salvation Army’s lack of financial transparency troubling.

If a group is considered a house of worship by the IRS then we’re not able to rate it. And believe it or not, that includes The Salvation Army takes that exemption," she said. "They don’t have to file any financial data with the IRS so we can’t get access to data to evaluate them. We’ve asked them many times to share the data with us and they’ve refused to do so. We’ve found other religious groups that have the exemption with the IRS that will still provide us the data because they know that it’s important to their donors to see how they’re performing financially and to prove that accountability and transparency piece to them.”

Beyond financial transparency, consumers should look at other financial data to ensure that a charity is using donations responsibly. Overhead should be measured as a percentage of total gifts received. According to Miniutti, the most responsible charities keep overhead to less than 25% of total cash gifts received. Another area to analyze is charity CEO salaries, which Miniutti says should be in line proportionately with the size of the non-profit.

Cost of acquisition

The cost of donor acquisition is important because it measures how much a charity pays to third parties for delivering new donors. Radio stations, for example, will sell non-profits large advertising campaigns which are designed to recruit new donors. Charities and media companies attempt to justify the process of charging nonprofits to raise money because the marketing campaigns generate new, incremental donors for a non-profit.

But according to Miniutti, such marketing campaigns cut into charity operations and efficiency: “Anytime there’s a middleman involved, whether it be a telemarketing firm or a radio station trying to take a piece of the pie, that’s very disturbing. The truth is giving doesn’t change much in America from year to year. And if some of that money is evaporating into for profit companies, then the charitable sector has less to fulfill their worthy mission.”

What to do

In spite of the bad charities and scams, it is possible to connect with worthy non-profits. Here are some suggestions.

Use The Watch Dogs  Tap into the vast resources of the charity watch dog organizations we’ve cited. Their services are free and can offer important information.

Don’t Give to Door-to-Door Solicitors Because fake credentials and even uniforms can be easily produced, avoid giving to any charity that comes knocking on your door. Be especially wary of the local organizations with volunteers soliciting for funds on street corners. Charity Navigators generally gives low marks to police and fire fighter charities.

Delete Charity Emails Unless you have an established relationship with a charity that you’ve first initiated, consider all the email solicitations to be bogus.  Even emails that appear to be from a major charity are often a front for a scam, often located off-shore and out of reach of US laws.

Charity Scams Target Older Givers  Older people sadly often fall victim to charity scams.   Their general lack of sophistication with email (see email scams above) combined with isolation and their generosity makes for a perfect profile for the bad guys to go after.   Take time to make sure that the seniors in your life become well informed about charity and non-profit scams.

Charity scams will only get more sophisticated and effective in the future.  Indeed, high technology has given the bad guys a new platform to operate in with great anonymity.  Because of this, consumers need to be even more vigilant in our efforts to separate the good from the bad.    Giving to reputable and responsible charities can truly impact the lives of hurting people.   Before giving, do your research to make sure your dollars are being used wisely.

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Vegetarian on your list? Nuts make a healthy gift

Nuts are a source of protein, as well as some other healthy substances

Vegetarians exclude a sizable source of protein from their diets that carnivores take for granted. To get the required daily allowance of protein, vegetari...

PhotoVegetarians exclude a sizable source of protein from their diets that carnivores take for granted. To get the required daily allowance of protein, vegetarians have to make it up in other areas.

So when shopping for the vegetarian on your list, don't overlook a gift basket of nuts. They're not only tasty but they are chock full of protein. There are other health benefits too, which are useful to people other than vegetarians.

People who eat nuts as a regular part of their diet can lower the LDL, low-density lipoprotein or "bad," cholesterol level in their blood, according to health experts at the Mayo Clinic. High LDL is one of the primary causes of heart disease.

Believed to promote heart health

The Mayo Clinic experts say eating nuts also reduces your risk of developing blood clots that can cause a fatal heart attack and can improve the health of the lining of your arteries. Food companies, however, cannot make that claim. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says the evidence about nuts' ability to reduce heart disease risk, while impressive, hasn't completely been nailed down.

The contents of nuts that are thought to provide health benefits include:

  • Unsaturated fats – these so-called “good fats” help keep cholesterol levels in check
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – Many nuts continue this healthy form of fatty acid that is also found in many types of fish
  • Fiber – All nuts have it, providing another check on cholesterol
  • Vitamin E – This vitamin is heart-healthy, helping to prevent build-up of plaques in your arteries
  • Plant Sterols – Occur naturally in nuts and can help lower cholesterol

Harvard study

PhotoHarvard researchers weighed in last month with similar conclusions. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers found that people who ate nuts on a daily basis were about 20% less likely to die during the study period than those who did not eat nuts.

"This study adds to the current strong body of evidence which demonstrates that eating nuts daily, including almonds, confers health benefits and supports long-term health,” said Dr. Karen Lapsley, Chief Scientific Officer for the Almond Board of California. “Nuts deliver many good attributes in a small, satisfying package."

Earlier this year, a major clinical trial conducted in Spain found roughly 30% of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease were reduced in study participants at high cardiac risk, simply by switching to a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables. The study participants, who were at increased risk for heart disease, followed either a Mediterranean diet or a low-fat diet for nearly five years. 

Gift baskets

Nut producers are jumping onto this trend by marketing their products packaged in attractive gift baskets. Harry & David sells a dried fruit and nut basket that includes cashews, pistachios and honey roasted peanuts for $49.95. 

Norm Thompson markets a Gourmet Nut Gift Box of sweet and salty cashews, cinnamon almonds and pistachios for $29.95.  Of course, you can create your own gift box by buying nuts in bulk at a warehouse supermarket. Choosing unsalted nuts, or nuts without any type of flavor processing, will be even healthier.

A final word of caution -- while the fat in nuts is considered "good" fat, it is fat nonetheless, meaning it's packed with calories. Many of the health benefits of nuts are negated if you eat too many and pack on the pounds.

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Big changes coming to Canada Post

The U.S. isn't the only North American country with a troubled postal system

We’ve written many pieces highly critical of the US Postal Service and have every expectation of writing more in the future...

PhotoConsumers are pretty vocal in their complaints about the U.S. Postal Service and no doubt will continue to be. But it's not just Americans who have cause for complaint about things like rising stamp prices or ending Saturday delivery: at least you're not in Canada.

CBC News reports some major changes coming to the Canadian postal system:

Canada Post is phasing out door-to-door delivery of regular mail to urban residents and increasing the cost of postage in a major move to try to reduce significant, regular losses.

The Crown corporation announced its plans Wednesday, saying urban home delivery will be phased out over the next five years.

Starting March 31, the cost of a stamp to mail a standard-size first-class letter will increase to 85 cents if bought in a pack, up from 63 cents. Individual stamps will cost a dollar.

The idea of ending delivery in dense urban environments to cut costs might seem counterintuitive; here in the U.S., after all, even our much-beleaguered post office has little difficulty making a profit in densely populated urban environments; using pack mules and snowmobiles to deliver mail to people out in the sticks is another story.

But even in dense population areas like New York (or Toronto), door-to-door delivery, however profitable, still costs more than delivery to centrally located community mailboxes. These are already commonplace among Canadian and American apartment complexes and similar setups: the mailboxes are all clustered together at the entrance to the complex, rather than divided amongst individual dwellings.

In fact, according to the CBC, individual mail delivery in already much rarer in Canada than its southern neighbor: two-thirds of Canadians already do without individual home mail delivery, instead relying on “centralized mail points,” group mailboxes and other alternatives.

Opposition to Canada Post’s plan comes from many different groups. The Canadian postal workers’ union, naturally, opposes the postal job cuts the plan eventually calls for. Business groups fear the impact increased postage costs might have on their budgets, and senior-citizen groups fear the end of home delivery will cause difficulties for elderly people, especially those with mobility issues.

On the other hand, it doesn’t look as though Canada Post can afford to continue doing business as it has been, either.

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Electric cars would work for 40% of U.S. households, study finds

Average daily commutes are said to be well within the range of today's EVs

The Nissan LeafThere's a lot of talk about electric cars and untold millions have been spent on research and manufacturing but so far that hasn't trans...

Photo
The Nissan Leaf

There's a lot of talk about electric cars and untold millions have been spent on research and manufacturing but so far that hasn't translated into many of the cars actually hitting the road.

Consumers, concerned about high purchase prices and limited range, have been slow to warm up to the idea of going all-electric but a new study finds that four out of ten U.S. households could use an electric vehicle with little or no change to their driving habits.

“Consumers who might be shopping for a new vehicle this holiday season may be surprised to learn that an electric vehicle could be a good fit for their household,” said Josh Goldman, policy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists Clean Vehicles Program. “Drivers may have preconceptions about whether electric vehicles can meet their driving needs and habits, and this survey shows that for many, they can.”

The survey was released by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Consumers Union.

While less than 1 percent of the country are driving electric vehicles (EVs) today, the survey found 42 percent of respondents with cars — equivalent to 45 million households when applied nationally — meet the basic criteria for using plug-in hybrid electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt.  Over half of those households are also able to use a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) like the Nissan LEAF.

“This new survey shows today’s EVs can be practical for many car buyers,” said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for Consumers Union. “It demonstrates that these vehicles could be a viable option for tens of millions of American households that want lower fuel costs and cleaner air without compromising their driving needs.”

While plug-in hybrid EVs have similar driving range to gasoline-only vehicles, the current range of BEVs on the market today can also meet many drivers' needs. The survey found that almost 70 percent of drivers drive less than 60 miles on a weekday, which is within the range of almost every BEV on the market today.

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TrueCar hopes cash infusion gets its "truth and transparency" drive rolling

It's sort of the Priceline of the car business, but not all dealers are happy

TrueCar.com, the negotiation-free car-buying platform, today announced that it raised $30 million of funding from Paul Allen's Vulcan C...

PhotoTrueCar.com is a negotiation-free car-buying platform that, if it can get out of first gear, could do to the car business what Amazon has done to just about every other business. And the $30 million infusion it just got from Internet pioneer Paul Allen may be just the tiger in the tank that enables it to do that.

TrueCar announced today that it has raised $30 million from Allen's Vulcan Capital and said it will use the funds to fuel market expansion, invest in product development and further build the TrueCar.com brand.

"The Vulcan Capital investment supports TrueCar.com's mission to bring truth and transparency to automotive retail and provides us with the capital necessary to grow the business and develop better products for consumers and dealers," said Scott Painter, Founder and CEO at TrueCar.com. 

TrueCar.com empowers car buyers by giving them transparent insight into what others actually paid, upfront pricing information, a guaranteed savings certificate and a connection to a trusted TrueCar Certified Dealer to seamlessly complete the car purchase.

Dealers pay a monthly subscription to be part of TrueCar and, while some have embraced the program because it helps gets cars rolling off the lot, others have resisted, fearing their profit margins will be eroded. 

$3,000 savings claimed

PhotoOver the past year, the TrueCar.com experience has enabled TrueCar.com users to save, on average, over $3,000 off of MSRP, the company said. TrueCar.com users and its Certified Dealers have completed over 1 million automobile transactions since inception, and nearly 400,000 this year alone.  TrueCar.com works with nearly 7,000 new car franchises and independent dealers operating in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Last month, TrueCar.com users accounted for approximately 2.3% of all new car sales in the US. 

TrueCar.com's nationwide network of TrueCar Certified Dealers is unique within the retail automotive industry because they are willing to provide upfront pricing information and guaranteed savings, where available, as a way of establishing trust with today's car buyers.

"We believe TrueCar.com's negotiation-free car buying platform has demonstrated significant traction in changing the way consumers behave in one of the largest segments of the economy," said Abhishek Agrawal, Managing Director at Vulcan Capital. "Moreover, this remarkable business model has delivered huge value and significant savings to consumers."

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Economy: Retail sales up, jobless claims surge

The November surge in retail sales was the strongest in 5 months

A strong auto sector helped propel retail sales up 0.7% in November, very close to the 0.6% increase economists surveyed by Briefing.com were projecting. ...

PhotoA strong auto sector helped propel retail sales up 0.7% in November, very close to the 0.6% increase economists surveyed by Briefing.com were projecting.

Government figures show auto and parts sales jumped 1.8%, giving the sector its best month since February 2007. Other areas of strength included Building materials and gardening supplies, furniture and home furnishings, and electronics and appliances.

The big loser last month was gas stations, where sales plunged 1.1%. But analysts say that was largely due to lower gasoline prices. Sales declines were also registered by grocery stores and clothing and clothing accessories retailers.

The complete November retail sales report may be found on the Census Bureau website.

Initial jobless claims

PhotoFirst-time applications for state unemployment benefits shot higher during the week ending December 7, due partly to seasonal adjustment problems.

According to the Labor Department claims rose 68,000 to a seasonally adjusted total of 368,000. Officials have said repeatedly that seasonal adjustment problems have made it hard to get a handle on the labor situation. Until the problems are resolved, there's likely to be a lot of volatility.

Speaking of volatility, the 4-week moving average which is considered a more accurate barometer of the labor market because it's less volatile than the initial claims data, rose by 6,000 to 328,750.

You can find the entire initial claims report on the Labor Department website.

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Bridgestone recalls tires with a crack at the inner liner splice

The crack could result in tire failure

Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations is recalling 36 H300 315/80R22.5 18 ply tires manufactured January 2012, through August 2013, and sold to customers in...

PhotoBridgestone Americas Tire Operations is recalling 36 H300 315/80R22.5 18 ply tires manufactured January 2012, through August 2013, and sold to customers in Guam.

The affected tires may lose pressure from a crack at the inner liner splice. Such a crack could penetrate into the sidewall, resulting in a bulge on the sidewall causing a tire deflation and subsequent tire failure, which increases the risk of a crash.

Bridgestone will notify owners and dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2013.

Owners may contact Bridgestone at 1-617-633-3026.

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Trying to sell your home? Market your back yard

Homes with "entertainment potential" sell for more, study says

Watch any real estate show on cable TV and some home shopper is certain to gush, “this would be perfect for entertaining.” Read a dozen real es...

PhotoWatch any real estate show on cable TV and some home shopper is certain to gush, “this would be perfect for entertaining.” Read a dozen real estate listings and it's a safe bet at least one listing agent has written the same phrase.

Even those of us who never entertain seem to want a house that's “perfect for entertaining.” But what, exactly, does “perfect for entertaining” mean? A new study suggests it mostly means using a marketing buzzword to its full potential.

ZipRealty, an online residential real estate broker, commissioned a study to find what property features are most commonly associated with the term "perfect for entertaining." The study of more than 1.7 million home listings on the company's website also reveals which metropolitan areas feature the most entertaining-oriented homes for sale – most are in the west or Sunbelt.

Indoor and outdoor features

The term “perfect for entertaining” describes both indoor and outdoor property features. Indoors, it's used to describe an open floor plan. Being able to move easily through the interior space, without having to enter and exit a lot of rooms, is viewed as a major plus.

But homes with outdoor patios, decks, pools or a spacious back yard also fall in the category of “perfect for entertaining.” If your home can possibly be described that way, it may be in your best interest to do it.

"With the added appeal of being a place to entertain family and friends, we found that the median listing price of homes increased significantly when the term 'entertaining' appeared in the listing description of a property," said Lanny Baker, CEO and President of ZipRealty.

Big difference

PhotoQuite significant, according to the study. The median listing price with the term “entertaining” was $339,000, compared to $260,000 without the term. Average home square footage with the term was 2,408, compared to 2,161 without it.

"Based on the study, home sellers may be able to enhance their listing by marketing their backyard, common areas and outdoor spaces," Baker said. "Adding an umbrella, chairs and table in the backyard may add as much value as applying a fresh coat of paint to the exterior!"

It's also something to keep in mind when you are shopping for a home. Baker says if you find outdoor space that hasn't been properly staged or utilized, you can easily increase your profit by enhancing it before you sell.

“If a desirable home has an empty backyard or outdoor space that hasn't been put to good use, or hasn't been marketed in the listing, you may be able to get a good deal on a house that can easily be upgraded to an entertainer's delight," he said.

Buyers in a good mood

Home buyers, meanwhile, appear to be in an upbeat mood, with their confidence increasing for the first time since the fourth quarter of 2012. Even so, buyers again expressed frustrations about low inventory, rising prices and fluctuating mortgage rates, in a survey conducted by Redfin, another online real estate broker.

Despite a slight decline in the percentage of homebuyers concerned about rising mortgage rates from the third to fourth quarter, the latest survey suggests that homebuyers are nonetheless highly rate sensitive, even though mortgage rates remain near historic lows. Even so, the buyers still in the market are finding deals.

"With fewer people shopping for homes as the holidays approach, buyers that remain in the market are enjoying greater negotiating power and lower competition than they have seen all year," said Redfin economist Ellen Haberle. "This confidence boost won't last long, however. Our survey this month revealed that many buyers hold wildly unrealistic mortgage rate expectations. As rates rise in 2014, many will face a tough adjustment."

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Reports: NSA uses advertising "cookies" to track citizens

The feds just can't resist pilfering the fruits of the marketers' spying

For years, privacy advocates have been wary of the "cookies" that advertisers and marketers use to track consumers around the Web. The industry's response ...

PhotoFor years, privacy advocates have been wary of the "cookies" that advertisers and marketers use to track consumers around the Web. The industry's response has always been that the tracking is completely innocuous and is used only for such relatively piddling purposes as figuring out which ads to show to which consumers.

Ah, but now the Washington Post reports that the National Security Agency documents released by former NSA contactor Edward Snowden tell a somewhat different story.

According to a slide presentation and other documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA looks at the cookies and at the location data that computers and smartphones routinely spit out to decide which Web users are likely suspects for further snooping. They then hack into their machines and browse around.

The NSA spooks find Google's cookies particularly nutritious, the Post said. While Google's recipe doesn't include the consumer's name, it does contain the unique identification code of each user's browser, which is almost as good.

You didn't know your browser had an ID? It does. And so does your computer or smartphone. Each device has its own unique identifier; they're not normally accessible to users but they're easily obtainable by experienced hackers, which certainly includes the NSA.

According to the Post, the NSA isn't sifting through everyone's cookies. Instead, it's using the technique to zero in on individuals who have already exhibited what's deemed to be suspicious behavior. 

Google, Microsoft and other big tech companies have protested the government's spying on their activities but in Washington, where bombast is cheap, such protestations are not taken very seriously. After all, it's the Internet techies who for decades have been telling us information "just wants to be free." Well, guess what, the feds agree and are freeing up a lot of data that has heretofore been used to determine whether you should see an ad for a Verizon smartphone or a BMW. 

Or as Chris Hoofnagle, a lecturer in residence at UC Berkeley Law, put it in the Post article: "On a macro level, 'we need to track everyone everywhere for advertising' translates into 'the government being able to track everyone everywhere.' ... It's hard to avoid."

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Slow shipping from the Bradford Exchange?

Beyond the usual seasonal and storm-related delays

When we first noticed a sudden uptick in complaints from customers of the Bradford Exchange—specifically, complaints boiling down to “they promised fast sh...

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New York asks wireless carriers why they killed Samsung's "kill switch"

Samsung developed the application to "brick" stolen cell phones but the carriers won't use it

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today sent letters to the chief executive officers of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, United States Cellular Corporation...

Photo
A consumer chases a thief who has stolen his smartphone. Photo: Washington Metro
Smartphone theft is a big problem. The phones are expensive and they often contain lots of personal information, including the owner's user IDs and passwords banking accounts and credit cards. Worse yet, consumers are often hurt or even killed when criminals try to steal their phones. 

So when Samsung developed a "kill switch" app that would let consumers "brick" their stolen smartphones, it seemed like a big step forward. But Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, United States Cellular Corporation, and Sprint have prohibited Samsung from pre-loading the app, and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman wants to know why.

Schneiderman is the co-chair of the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) Initiative, along with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and London Mayor Boris Johnson. They've been leading an international coalition of prosecutors, police chiefs, attorneys general, public officials and consumer activists in pushing phone manufacturers and carriers to roll out anti-theft technology immediately, to remove the economic incentives behind smartphone thefts.

“For the past six months, the Secure Our Smartphone Initiative has called on the industry to put safety before profits and stop this violent epidemic. Considering this, it’s disturbing that the nation’s leading smartphone carriers knowingly dismissed technology that could save lives,” Schneiderman said. “My office will determine whether these companies allowed their business relationships to influence their ability to take immediate action against theft. In the meantime, our coalition will continue to demand that the industry take every available step to ensure the security of our citizens.”

"When we met with the manufacturers in June there was agreement that these solutions would be implemented within a year," said District Attorney Gascón"That deadline is rapidly approaching, we cannot standby while the carriers continue to put up roadblocks."

The Attorney General’s letter urges carriers to embrace kill-switch technology “as a simple yet effective way to protect subscribers” from the spike in violent street crimes involving smartphone thefts, which has been observed in communities worldwide. A Harris poll of phone owners found that nearly 10% said their phone had been stolen at one point. Notably, one recent study found that lost and stolen cell phones cost consumers over $30 billion last year.

Anticompetitive issues?

PhotoIn addition, the letter raises concerns regarding the independence of each carrier in deciding to reject Samsung’s proposed “kill switch” from a competitive standpoint, as the first carrier to feature free anti-theft technology could use that as a selling point for consumers who care about safety and security.

The letter notes, “The first carrier to incorporate a kill switch on Samsung smartphones would burnish its reputation not only as the carrier of choice for consumers who want the best anti-theft technology, but also as a responsible corporate citizen.” Attorney General Schneiderman has also made a "document hold" request, asking the carriers to preserve any documents and/or communications pertaining to the decision to reject the “kill switch.”

Schneiderman is requesting that all the leading carriers provide a detailed explanation of their decision to reject Samsung’s proposal and any other kill-switch technologies. Their replies are due to the Attorney General’s Office by December 31, 2013.

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DiGiornio fires dairy supplier over animal-cruelty accusations

Prompt response highlights importance of consumer concerns

If you doubt that concern over animal cruelty has become a mainstream consumer issue, consider how very quickly Nestle (which owns DiGiornio frozen pizza) ...

PhotoIf you doubt that concern over animal cruelty has become a mainstream consumer issue, consider how very quickly Nestle (which owns DiGiornio frozen pizza) ended its business relationship with Wisconsin dairy supplier Wiese Brothers Farm, after an animal-rights group called Mercy for Animals shot undercover video showing appalling scenes of cruelty toward the cows at the farm.

Mercy for Animals turned the video over the NBC News, which broke the story on Dec. 10, and DiGiornio almost immediately announced that it had ceased doing business with Wiese Brothers Farm, which in turn said it fired the employees responsible.

Law enforcement is currently investigating the animal cruelty charges, and Wise Brothers is said to be fully cooperating with the investigation.

Meanwhile, Nestle said in a statement that “We will not knowingly work with companies that violate our Responsible Sourcing Guidelines,” which the company adopted last year.

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FDA moves to reduce antibiotics in animal feed

The antibiotics contribute to antimicrobial resistance, which endangers humans

After years of pressure from critics and food safety advocates, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is moving to phase out the use of certain antibiotic...

PhotoAfter years of pressure from critics and food safety advocates, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is moving to phase out the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed.

Currently, antibiotics are added to the animal feed or drinking water of cattle, hogs, poultry and other food-producing animals to help them gain weight faster and use less food to gain weight.

The antibiotics are, by and large, the same ones used in humans to treat disease and the unnecessary use of the drugs is contributing to antimicrobial resistance -- bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics -- a major threat to public health that is already causing serious illness and deaths among patients whose infections do not respond to antiobiotics.

“We need to be selective about the drugs we use in animals and when we use them,” said William Flynn, DVM, MS, deputy director for science policy at FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). “Antimicrobial resistance may not be completely preventable, but we need to do what we can to slow it down.”

FDA is issuing a final guidance document that explains how animal pharmaceutical companies can work with the agency to voluntarily remove growth enhancement and feed efficiency indications from the approved uses of their medically important antimicrobial drug products, and move the therapeutic uses of these products from over-the-counter (OTC) availability to marketing status requiring veterinary oversight.

Once manufacturers voluntarily make these changes, the affected products can then only be used in food-producing animals to treat, prevent or control disease under the order of or by prescription from a licensed veterinarian.

Critics say the FDA's plan is risky.

"Unfortunately it requires the drug companies who profit from sales of their drugs to initiate the process," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, Food Safety Director at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest"No one is advocating that sick animals should not be treated. But just as our kids see a doctor to get antibiotics, farmers should call a veterinarian, who can assess whether and when treatment with an antibiotic is appropriate. This simple step could save antibiotics as treatment options for future generations of consumers and farmers."

Why voluntary?

The FDA's Flynn said the process was made voluntary because it is the fastest, most efficient way. He said the FDA has been working with associations that include those representing drug companies, the feed industry, producers of beef, pork and turkey, as well as veterinarians and consumer groups.

"Based on our outreach, we have every reason to believe that animal pharmaceutical companies will support us in this effort," said Michael R. Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.

CSPI's DeWaal said the program will have to be carefully monitored to ensure that it is working as intended. 

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American Airlines fined for price advertising rule violation

Carrier surcharges were passed on as ' government-imposed taxes'

American Airlines has been slapped with a $60,000 fine for being less than forthcoming with consumers. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) says th...

PhotoAmerican Airlines has been slapped with a $60,000 fine for being less than forthcoming with consumers.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) says the carrier violated the federal full-fare advertising rule when its agents told consumers that surcharges levied by the airlines were government-imposed taxes. DOT also ordered the carrier to cease and desist from further violations.

“We expect airlines to be truthful to their customers when they provide information about their fares,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We will continue to take enforcement action when airlines fail to disclose their fares fully and accurately.”

Full-fare disclosure

Under the DOT's full-fare advertising rule, the first price quoted for air transportation made by an airline or ticket agent must state the entire price to be paid by the consumer -- including all mandatory taxes, fees and airline surcharges. Airlines do not have to break out the components of the fare, but if they do, they must accurately show the costs of the services or taxes.

Following a complaint from a consumer, the Aviation Enforcement Office investigated how American described to potential passengers the taxes and carrier surcharges that it collected. It found that on a number of occasions in 2012 and 2013, American’s telephone reservation agents mistakenly told consumers that a variety of additional taxes and carrier-imposed surcharges were collectively “taxes.”

A significant portion of these charges were not taxes but fees imposed by the airline, such as fuel surcharges. In addition, pop-ups on the airline’s website claimed that these surcharges were taxes and, on at least one occasion, American issued a reservation statement labeling surcharges as taxes.

The carrier has corrected its website and provided additional training to its agents.

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A slight rebound in mortgage applications

The adjustable-rate mortgage share of activity is the highest in more than 5 years

Mortgage applications have regained a tiny fraction of the huge loss posted at the end of last month, The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its ...

PhotoMortgage applications have regained a tiny fraction of the huge loss posted at the end of last month,

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending December 6 rose 1.0% following a plunge of 12.8% a week earlier. The previous week’s results included an adjustment for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Refinance Index also increased, rising 2%, but is still 16% lower than the week prior to Thanksgiving. Still, the refinance share of mortgage activity was up 2% from the previous week -- to 65% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity jumped to 8.1% of total applications and is at its highest level since July of 2008.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 10 basis points -- from 4.51% -- to 4.61%, the highest rate since September, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.38 (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 4.59%, the highest rate since September, from 4.49%, with points decreasing to 0.15 from 0.24 (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 jumped to 4.30%, the highest rate since September, from 4.17%, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80%. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was up 10 basis points to 3.66%, the highest rate since September, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose to 3.11% from 3.09%, with points increasing to 0.35 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
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Exmark Recalls Commercial Walk-Behind Mowers

The mower’s blade can break

Exmark Manufacturing Company of Beatrice, Neb., is recalling about 7,200 Commercial Walk-Behind Mowers in the U.S. And Canada. The mower’s blade can break...

PhotoExmark Manufacturing Company of Beatrice, Neb., is recalling about 7,200 Commercial Walk-Behind Mowers in the U.S. And Canada.

The mower’s blade can break and injure the user and others nearby.

No incidents or injuries have bee reported.

This recall involves 2013 Exmark Commercial 30” Walk-Behind Mowers, model ECKA30 and serial numbers ranging from 313605897 to 313660824. The phrases “Commercial 30” and “Exmark” are printed on the front of the black and red mower. “Exmark” is also printed on the side of the mower. The model and serial numbers are located on a decal affixed to the engine base above the left rear tire.

The mowers, manufactured in Mexico, were sold at Exmark dealers nationwide from November 2012, through October 2013, for about $1,800.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact Exmark for a free repair.

Consumers may contact Exmark at (800) 667-5296 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Toyota recalls Tacoma trucks

The engines' valve springs may break over time

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America is recalling 3,795 model year 2013-2014 Tacoma vehicles manufactured July 1, 2013, through October 1...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America is recalling 3,795 model year 2013-2014 Tacoma vehicles manufactured July 1, 2013, through October 11, 2013.

The engines of the affected vehicles contain valve springs that may break over time. If the valve springs break, the engine could fail and stall while the vehicle is being driven, increasing the risk of a crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace the valve springs, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2013.

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

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Toro Recalls TimeMaster and TurfMaster lawn mowers

The mower’s blade can break

The Toro Company of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 36,100 TimeMaster and TurfMaster lawn mowers. The mower’s blade can break and injure the user a...

PhotoThe Toro Company of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 36,100 TimeMaster and TurfMaster lawn mowers.

The mower’s blade can break and injure the user and others nearby. Toro has received ten reports of blades breaking. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 2013 Toro TimeMaster 30” and 2013 Toro TurfMaster 30” lawn mowers with the following model and serial numbers: Model number 20199 with serial numbers ranging from 313000101 to 313020271; model number 20200 with serial numbers ranging from 313000101 to 313007366; and, model number 22200 with serial numbers ranging from 313000101 to 313007146. The phrases “TimeMaster” or “TurfMaster” and “Toro” are printed on the front of the black and red mower. “Toro” is also printed on the side of the mower. The model and serial numbers are located on a decal affixed to the engine base above the left rear tire.

The mowers, manufactured in Mexico, were sold at Toro dealers nationwide from November 2012, through October 2013, for between $999 and $1,799.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact Toro for a free repair.

Consumers may contact Toro toll-free at (855) 340-7686 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Neglectful parents top the list of annoying airline passengers

A list of travelers you don't want beside, in front or behind you

Being a frequent flying may have the advantage of racking up airline miles, but there is also a distinct downside. Frequent fliers get to experience the mo...

PhotoBeing a frequent flying may have the advantage of racking up airline miles, but there is also a distinct downside. Frequent fliers get to experience the most annoying habits of other travelers.

These days planes fly full. Rarely is there an empty seat beside you. So unless you are in first class, you start off with a feeling of claustrophobia. If the people packed into the seats around you are inconsiderate, without the slightest bit of awareness of how their actions impact their fellow travelers, then even a short hop can be insufferable.

Recently online travel site Expedia.com commissioned a survey of travelers to identify the very worst breaches of airline etiquette. Crying babies didn't make the top of the list but their parents did. 

Child neglect

“Inattentive Parents” came in at number one, with 41% of travelers finding them annoying. A crying baby is one thing but some respondents cited cases of parents ignoring their older children's loud, obnoxious and unruly behavior.

Coming in at number two on the list of annoying airline travelers is the “Rear Seat Kicker.” Rear Seat Kicker is the passenger directly behind you – perhaps with restless leg syndrome – who nervously kicks the back of your seat the entire flight.

“The Aromatic Passenger” comes in third in the survey. Twenty-eight percent said they find the passenger crammed in next to them wearing too much cologne or having gone too long between baths to be highly annoying.

Close behind, with 26% citing it, is “The Boozer,” the passenger who never lets the drink cart pass without ordering another, getting increasingly inebriated throughout the flight. Often it loosens their tongue.

Chatty Cathy

PhotoAnd that leads us the the fifth most-annoying passenger – “Chatty Cathy.” Eighty-five percent of travelers agree that "a little small talk" is acceptable, but ultimately prefer to keep to themselves. Chatty Cathy is oblivious, however.

The complete list, which includes 16 annoying passenger types, will most likely seem very familiar to many frequent fliers. There's “Seat Back Guy,” who insists on reclining his seat as far back in your face as possible the moment the flight attendants allow it.

And no one wants to fly with “Carry On Bag Offender,” who pushes the envelop by loading all their belongings into a duffle bag they try to cram into an overhead bin, all to avoid the cost and hassle of checking a bag. But they don't seem to mind holding up the line as they struggle to get their bags in or out of the overhead bins.

With airlines cutting our food service on most flights it's understandable that a passenger might pack a lunch. But “Pungent Food Eater” thinks up the most aromatic concoction possible to bring out and consume in a tight, enclosed space.

Sounds like trouble

“Audio Insensitive Guy,” who lets his music bleed from his headphones – or worse yet – doesn't even use headphones, was cited by 19% as an annoying passenger. A prediction: “Audio Insensitive Guy's” numbers climb drastically if authorities follow through on plans to allow cellphone use in the air.

With the holiday season bringing packed planes and crowded airports, John Morrey, vice president and general manager, Expedia.com, says travelers should be aware of airline etiquette, including their own.

"Most of us, when we look at the list of offending behaviors, can admit to having committed one or more of the violations,” Morrey said. “So this season, perhaps we can all take care to be as friendly and accommodating to our fellow passengers as possible. After all, we're quite literally all in this together."

Avoiding airport hell

Annoying fellow passengers not withstanding, there are a few things travelers can do to make the flying experience less painful. Businessweek recently laid out its top ten suggestions, a few of which might not have occurred to you.

For example, always enter the airport near the premier/first class checkin. Even though you are flying coach, the elite entrance is usually quieter and less crowded.

If you need help from an airline rep, approach one in the airline's lounge, if you have access, rather than at the ticket counter. Lounge attendants are less stressed and more likely to do everything possible to help you.

Check out the complete list here.

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Why a pet might not make a good Christmas present

"How much is that doggie in the window?" is not the question you should be asking

The puppy under the tree with a huge bow around its neck makes for a great Christmas card but it might not be such a good idea in reality. Taking on a pet ...

PhotoThe puppy under the tree with a huge bow around its neck makes for a great Christmas card but it might not be such a good idea in reality. Taking on a pet requires some careful thought that should be removed from the emotion of the holiday season, experts caution.

Veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker, writing in her Healthy Pets blog, say she isn't a big fan of giving pets as holiday gifts. 

“Gifting a family member or friend with a 10- to 20-year commitment to a live animal is not something one should do on impulse,” she writes.

People often don't think about the future – at least not the extended future -- when they think about bringing home a pet. The idea that the animal will be with them for years doesn't sink in until later. Before making such a long term decision, there are a number of questions that should be posed and answered honestly.

Questions to ask

For example, how much time each day can you and other family members commit to your pet? There are work and school schedules to consider and the needs of some animals are greater than others. With ample food, water and a clean litter box, a cat can be quite self-sufficient for occasional lengthy periods of time. A dog, on the other hand, is going to need regular outdoor time.

Some dogs are going to need more attention than others, so you have to know something about the breed you are taking on as a companion. Large energetic breeds are going to need at least a couple of walks each day.

Even if you feel you can't make that kind of commitment, remember that small dogs and cats are still going to require plenty of attention.

Like a baby without a diaper

Then there is the age consideration. Puppies are cute but are similar to bringing home a baby, but a baby that runs through the house without a diaper, chewing on everything. Puppies have to be house-broken but in the best of circumstances, accidents are going to happen in the process.

Families often consider their finances before deciding when to have children and doing the same for pets may be viewed as advisable, because having a dog or cat brings with it financial responsibilities.

In addition to upfront costs like adoption fees, there are other factors that raise the cost of a pet. Large dogs consume large quantities of food. Some breeds will need professional grooming services more often. And for particularly spirited puppies and kittens, obedience training might be needed.

Add up the costs

Before bringing home a pet, be sure to look into all the costs associated with that pet, including costs that could come later in the animals life.

If the pet is for a child, how do you know the child is really that interested? Is the child old enough and willing to take on responsibility? If not, an adult in the household will need to step in and do it.

Giving a pet to an adult friend as a gift is even dicier. You may know your own children and are there to provide back up. Not so with the case of a friend living in another household. And while you may think you know your friend very well, the choice of a pet is a very personal decision, best left to the individual themselves.

If you have children who want a dog, cat or other pet for Christmas, a better gift might be a collar, leash, scratching post or other pet paraphernalia, in anticipation of selecting a pet after the holidays. And when selecting a pet, it goes without saying that choosing an animal from a shelter makes the gift much more special, both for the recipient and the animal who gets a new home.

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Walmart price-matching allegedly leads to man's arrest

No more price-matching for Joe Cantrell

An Arizona man named Joe Cantrell has been banned from Walmart for life, after he took advantage of the company’s price-matching policy one time too ...

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A Walmart Christmas tree

An Arizona man named Joe Cantrell has been banned from Walmart for life, after he took advantage of the company’s price-matching policy one time too often — or after he menaced and threatened Walmart employees, depending on whether you believe Cantrell’s or Walmart’s version of events.

According to ABC15 News reporting out of Queen Creek, Arizona, Cantrell is a former professional wrestler who’s now disabled, and thus in reduced economic circumstances. In order to stretch his limited funds, Cantrell started heavily taking advantage of Walmart’s price-matching policy: if you can find a lower advertised price on an identical product, they’ll match it.

Nobody disputes this; the disagreement stems from what happened when Cantrell tried going to Walmart to buy ornaments for his family’s Christmas tree. Cantrell says he tried buying Christmas ornaments at their lower advertised price, but the store associate refused to honor the price. So Cantrell complained to store management, and told ABC15. “When I left, he turned around and called the Pinal County Sheriff's Office and said he felt intimidated and threatened. I was upset but never once did I say anything to the gentleman.”

Banned for life

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Joe Cantrell (Photo via YouTube)
When Cantrell went back to Walmart a few days later, he says, “I was handcuffed, humiliated and embarrassed in front of everybody at Walmart.” Deputies did not officially arrest him, but gave him a court summons and a notice banning him from Walmart for life.

However, Walmart management released this statement to the media:

"We make every effort to make sure our customers have a good experience in our stores. As in previous situations, we attempted to work with this customer. However, in this situation, the associate felt unsafe and so we contacted local law enforcement. We are continuing to cooperate with law enforcement on their investigation."

Speculation: Cantrell looks to be a pretty big guy, possibly big enough that if he’s obviously in an annoyed mood, an associate might honestly feel “unsafe” even though Cantrell may honestly have never intended to come across as any sort of menace or threat.

Different and more cynical speculation: Cantrell admits that shopping and price-matching at Walmart had become a hobby of his, to the point where he'd visit the store upwards of twice a day, every day. Perhaps the store manager was tired of having to honor so many ad matches from the same guy.

Thus far there’s been no explanation of why Cantrell’s initial attempt to price-match the Christmas ornaments was denied in the first place. When we checked Walmart’s website just before presstime, it still clearly promised: “We’re committed to providing low prices every day. On everything. So if you find a lower advertised price on an identical product, tell us and we’ll match it. Right at the register.”

The website does list certain types of advertised prices that do not apply, including going-out-of-business sales and online offers, but so far there’s no indication Cantrell’s Christmas-ornament ad fell into any of the forbidden categories.

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CareCredit, GE Capital ordered to refund $34 million to consumers

More than 1 million consumers were potential victims of possibly deceptive enrollment tactics

GE Capital Retail Bank has been ordered to refund up to $34.1 million to as many as 1 million consumers who may have been talked into signed up for CareCre...

PhotoGE Capital Retail Bank has been ordered to refund up to $34.1 million to as many as 1 million consumers who may have been talked into signed up for CareCredit credit cards by their doctors and dentists.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced the action today, saying that many consumers who signed up for the cards to help pay their medical bills thought they were interest free. But in fact, they were accruing interest that kicked in if the full balance was not paid at the end of a promotional period.

“Medical debt is already a big problem for many Americans. Poor credit card transparency should not be making the problem even worse,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Deferred-interest products can be risky for consumers in the best of circumstances, and today’s action ensures that CareCredit will no longer profit from consumer confusion. The Bureau will not tolerate financial companies that take advantage of patients and their loved ones.”

CareCredit offers personal lines of credit for health-care services, including dental, cosmetic, vision, and veterinary care. Doctors, dentists and other medical providers and their office staff, such as office managers and receptionists, are the primary sellers of the product, offering it as a payment option for their patients. The product is sold by more than 175,000 enrolled providers across the country. There are about 4 million active CareCredit cardholders.

Deferred interest

Approximately 85 percent of CareCredit borrowers are placed in a deferred-interest financing plan. Under this “no interest if paid in full” plan, consumers make monthly payments while CareCredit assesses 26.99 percent annual interest on a consumer’s balance throughout a promotional period, which can range from six to 24 months. If any portion of the balance has not been paid when the promotional period ends, the consumer becomes liable for all of the accrued interest.

According to the CFPB order, since January 2009, consumers who signed up for the credit card frequently received an inadequate explanation of the terms. Many consumers, most of whom were enrolled while waiting for health-care treatment, incurred substantial debt because they did not understand how they could have avoided deferred interest, penalties, and fees. The CFPB began investigating CareCredit after receiving hundreds of complaints from consumers.

During the course of its investigation, the Bureau found evidence of:

  •  Deceptive enrollment processes: The CFPB found that service providers misled some consumers during the enrollment process by not providing adequate guidance clearly laying out the terms of the deferred-interest loan. CareCredit’s limited involvement during the enrollment process and lack of oversight and monitoring allowed this deception to continue. 
  • Inadequate disclosures: Many consumers did not receive copies of the actual CareCredit agreements and instead had to rely only on the oral explanations given by the service provider or office staff. Many consumers were enrolled on the belief that it was an interest-free card, and did not understand that they were actually agreeing to a deferred-interest product with a 26.99 percent interest rate.
  • Poorly trained staff: Many staff members in the health-care offices, who were responsible for explaining the CareCredit agreement to borrowers, had received little or no training by CareCredit, and relied only on pamphlets. In interviews with CFPB investigators, some providers admitted that they were themselves confused by the deferred-interest card.
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Expensive shoe leather doesn't always translate to high treadwear

It's possible to spend a lot of money on shoes; it's also possible not to

The Nike CTR 360Shoes have always been an expensive item on parents' shopping lists, as they try to keep up with their children's rapid growth. Sure, Wal...

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The Nike CTR 360

Shoes have always been an expensive item for parents, as they try to keep up with their children's rapid growth. Sure, Wall Streeters have long favored those sleek Italian loafers but surely there has never been a time in our history when so many have spent so much for shoes.

You know the shoes we're talking about --  they're what we used to call tennis shoes, sneakers or joggers. They've become must-have items for younger males and are sought-after accessories by just about everyone.

But as is true in so many consumer products, paying a lot doesn't necessarily mean the item will be particularly durable.

Take Nikes for example. Lori of Hawthornwoods, Ill., said her son paid more than $200 for a pair of Nike soccer shoes, perhaps something similar to the CTR 360, which lists for $200.

"The seam came apart and you could clearly see the threads coming undone. Nike claims department denied my request four times. They advised that the shoe had been 'cut' by someone or it was due to an outside abrasion (kicking something other than a soccer ball)? They denied it being a 'workmanship' issue," she said in a recent ConsumerAffairs posting.

"It doesn't matter"

Lori said she managed to talk to a supervisor after a service rep turned down her request for a replacement and was told that further protest would be in vain.

"I was told by the supervisor that it doesn't matter how loyal I have been as a customer, Nike does not offer a loyalty program and doesn't care about keeping customers happy.  When I asked to speak with someone who really cares, I was told to write a letter."

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The Nike Lunarglide

Things didn't turn out much better for "M" of New York, N.Y.

"After a very short time of wear, the material at the top of the sneaker above the laces started separating from the toe guard on my Nike In-Season TR 2s (a place on any shoe that doesn't wear out)," she said. "I tried to exchange them at the place of purchase, Foot Locker, but was told that it was a defect in the shoe, and I should bring them back to Niketown."

"M" hoofed it over to Niketown only to be told that the store didn't stock that model anymore and would only reimburse 37% of the original purchase price.

"When I returned home, my husband found the sneakers on Nike's website at the original purchase price. When I complained to customer service, I was told that without a receipt the sneakers could only be exchanged if there was a manufacturer's defect. Please see my second sentence," M concluded.

Susan of Knoxville, Tenn., bought a pair of boys' Lunarglides -- which can cost around $150 depending on trim -- for her son, expecting that he would outgrow them in a year or so. 

"He wore them to school for two months. Over the summer, he was walking in them, and the webbing split on the left shoe," she said. "Fully expecting this to be covered under warranty, I paid to have insurance and two-day shipping to the claims department. I was shocked that they denied the claim due to 'normal wear and tear.' Never has he worn out a pair of shoes before he outgrew them!"

Nike  Dec. 10, 2013, 4 p.m.
Consumers rate Nike

Like "M" of New York, Susan was successful in getting through to a supervisor but that's where her luck also ran out.

"He informed me that, "Well this is the first pair of shoes that he did wear out.' Refused to do anything. Very disappointed. I have better things to do with my time than talk to people who talk down to me," Susan said.

Back in balance

Now in fairness to Nike, these are just a few complaints but they're typical of the nearly 200 in our database and you'll find similar beefs around the Web. 

While it can be hard for parents to resist pressure from brand-brainwashed children who are convinced they will perish without the proper foot attire, there are plenty of alternatives out there.

New Balance, for one, is an established brand with many faithful followers. It makes a couple of $45 soccer shoes and a large selection of kids' shoes -- many in Nike-like bright colors -- also selling in the $45-$55 range.

Our purpose here is not to endorse any brand or vendor -- although it's worth noting that Amazon, Zappos, Joe's New Balance Outlet and many other online stores sell just about every brand and type of shoe imaginable. No matter how much money you may have, it's worth perusing a few of these sites, if for no other reason than to brief yourself for whatever debate may ensure when it comes time to discuss a shoe purchase with your offspring.

And for what it's worth, I'm standing on a concrete floor at my vertical desk wearing a pair of New Balance 856 Cross Trainers which I bought when they were on sale at Joe's for about $70.  I buy a new pair every year or so, mostly because after that time, they have been exposed to enough dog droppings, thorns, mud, snow and ice that they deserve a rest. I can't remember the last time a pair actually wore out.

 

 

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Man alleges Google auto-complete led to federal harassment

Former federal contractor suing national-security officials

There’s a fine line separating “reasonable caution” from “unreasonable paranoia”—unless you’re on the Internet, i...

PhotoThere’s a fine line separating “reasonable caution” from “unreasonable paranoia” — unless you’re on the Internet, in which case paranoia is pretty much identical to reasonable caution — especially where our paranoid national-security apparatus is concerned.

The most recent example of this comes from Courthouse News, which tells of a former federal contractor in Alexandria, Va., who is suing a wide variety of federal officials after a Google auto-complete suggestion unfairly made him a national-security suspect. According to a complaint filed by former federal contractor Jeffrey Kantor:

 "In October of 2009, Kantor used the search engine Google to try to find, 'How do I build a radio-controlled airplane …. He ran this search a couple weeks before the birthday of his son with the thought of building one together as a birthday present. After typing, 'how do I build a radio controlled', Google auto-completed his search to, 'how do I build a radio controlled bomb.'"

But even if the government is making a point of monitoring all of our online communications, surely they know better than to think one errant click on a Google auto-complete makes one a terrorist threat, right?

Ha ha, no. Kantor says he was soon visited by federal investigators who played out “good cop/bad cop” routines with him (with the “bad cop” tossing anti-Semitic slurs at Kantor), and then, according the the court complaint, this happened:

"Kantor's coworkers at the Army, including Northrop Grumman contractors Quem Lumi, Stephanie Buchner and Mike Steinbeck, would repeat back Kantor's private information, including emails, websites he went to, library books he got from the library, conversations he made in his house or in his car, phone calls, information about the contents of his house, and then someone would immediately say that there is a person who dropped dead from hypertension, ….      "If Kantor ever got angry after his private information was repeated back (by slamming a cabinet or typing loudly on his computer), the [subcontractor] CRGT and Northrop Grumman employees would tell the same story about how there was a neighbor in their community who seemed like such a nice guy, but then went on a murder suicide … If Mr. Kantor stayed calm after they repeated back his private information, they would instead spend the hour talking about how people drop dead from hypertension. This happened every day for almost three months."

Kantor maintains that these comments were actually veiled threats.

Not the first time

PhotoIf Kantor’s allegations are true, this wouldn’t be the first time an innocuous Google search resulted in innocent people generated terrifying federal interest. Last summer, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings (caused by a pressure-cooker bomb left in a backpack along a crowded part of the marathon route), a New York couple had members of a “joint terrorism task force” raid their home.  Michelle Catalano described what happened when the police came to her house:

[T]hey were peppering my husband with questions. Where is he from? Where are his parents from? They asked about me, where was I, where do I work, where do my parents live. Do you have any bombs, they asked. Do you own a pressure cooker? My husband said no, but we have a rice cooker. Can you make a bomb with that? My husband said no, my wife uses it to make quinoa. What the hell is quinoa, they asked. ...

Have you ever looked up how to make a pressure cooker bomb? My husband, ever the oppositional kind, asked them if they themselves weren’t curious as to how a pressure cooker bomb works, if they ever looked it up. Two of them admitted they did.

Turns out Catalano was searching online for pressure cookers (which have legitimate non-terrorist uses -- like, uh, cooking) around the same time her husband was searching for backpacks (ditto). These searches were made on a computer owned by Catalano’s husband’s employer, who apparently checked his employee search logs and then called the cops.

This misunderstanding surely led to some extremely awkward boss/worker discussions in the aftermath of the debacle, though nothing remotely as bad as what Jeffrey Kantor alleges in his lawsuit; neither is Kantor's complaint limited exclusively to the monitoring of employer-owned computers and communication devices. Kantor is being represented by attorney Stephen Swift of Swift & Swift.

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Consumer Reports picks the best LED bulbs

The old incandescent bulbs will fade away after January 1

There's always someone who thinks cranky old stuff is cute -- you know, wood stoves, iron skillets, even the plain old light bulb, the incandescent kind th...

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Tax credit helps workers save for retirement

You can increase your refund or reduce tax owed

Low- and moderate-income workers can take steps now to save for retirement and earn a special tax credit in 2013 and the years ahead. According to the Int...

PhotoLow- and moderate-income workers can take steps now to save for retirement and earn a special tax credit in 2013 and the years ahead.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, the saver’s credit helps offset part of the first $2,000 workers voluntarily contribute to IRAs and to 401(k) plans and similar workplace retirement programs. Also known as the retirement savings contributions credit, the saver’s credit is available in addition to any other tax savings that apply.

Still time to act

Eligible workers still have time to make qualifying retirement contributions and get the saver’s credit on their 2013 tax return. People have until April 15, 2014, to set up a new individual retirement arrangement or add money to an existing IRA for 2013.

However, elective deferrals (contributions) must be made by the end of the year to a 401(k) plan or similar workplace program, such as a 403(b) plan for employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations, a governmental 457 plan for state or local government employees, and the Thrift Savings Plan for federal employees.

Employees who are unable to set aside money for this year may want to schedule their 2014 contributions soon so their employer can begin withholding them in January.

What to do

The saver’s credit can be claimed by:

  • Married couples filing jointly with incomes up to $59,000 in 2013 or $60,000 in 2014;

  • Heads of Household with incomes up to $44,250 in 2013 or $45,000 in 2014; and

  • Married individuals filing separately and singles with incomes up to $29,500 in 2013 or $30,000 in 2014.

Like other tax credits, the saver’s credit can increase a taxpayer’s refund or reduce the tax owed. Though the maximum saver’s credit is $1,000, $2,000 for married couples, the IRS cautioned that it is often much less and, due in part to the impact of other deductions and credits, may, in fact, be zero for some taxpayers.

A taxpayer’s credit amount is based on his or her filing status, adjusted gross income, tax liability and amount contributed to qualifying retirement programs. Form 8880 is used to claim the saver’s credit, and its instructions have details on figuring the credit correctly.

Millions saved

In tax-year 2011, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, saver’s credits totaling just over $1.1 billion were claimed on nearly 6.4 million individual income tax returns. Saver’s credits claimed on these returns averaged $215 for joint filers, $166 for heads of household and $128 for single filers.

The saver’s credit supplements other tax benefits available to people who set money aside for retirement. For example, most workers may deduct their contributions to a traditional IRA. Though Roth IRA contributions are not deductible, qualifying withdrawals, usually after retirement, are tax-free. Normally, contributions to 401(k) and similar workplace plans are not taxed until withdrawn.

Special rules

Other special rules that apply to the saver’s credit include the following:

  • Eligible taxpayers must be at least 18 years of age.

  • Anyone claimed as a dependent on someone else’s return cannot take the credit.

  • A student cannot take the credit. A person enrolled as a full-time student during any part of 5 calendar months during the year is considered a student.

Certain retirement plan distributions reduce the contribution amount used to figure the credit. For 2013, this rule applies to distributions received after 2010 and before the due date, including extensions, of the 2013 return. Form 8880 and its instructions have details on making this computation.

Begun in 2002 as a temporary provision, the saver’s credit was made a permanent part of the tax code in legislation enacted in 2006. To help preserve the value of the credit, income limits are now adjusted annually to keep pace with inflation. 

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Feds step up war on Salmonella

Early detection is a key

The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says its unleashing a new bevy of weapons to fight what it calls “the most pressing ...

PhotoThe Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says it's unleashing a new bevy of weapons to fight what it calls “the most pressing problem” it faces -- Salmonella in meat and poultry products, which it says is responsible for an estimated 1.3 million illnesses every year.

“Far too many Americans are sickened by Salmonella every year,” said Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen. “The aggressive and comprehensive steps detailed in the Salmonella Action Plan will protect consumers by making meat and poultry products safer.”

The agency says its Salmonella Action Plan is a strategy “to best address the threat of Salmonella in meat and poultry products.”  The plan is designed to identify modernizing the outdated poultry slaughter inspection system as a top priority. By focusing inspectors’ duties solely on food safety, FSIS believes at least 5,000 illnesses can be prevented each year.  

Enhanced sampling and testing

Enhancing Salmonellasampling and testing programs is also part of this effort,  which is expected to ensure that these programs factor in the latest scientific information available and account for emerging trends in foodborne illness. Inspectors will also be given the tools necessary to pinpoint problems expeditiously.  

With more information about a plant’s performance history and with better methods for assessing in-plant conditions, inspectors will, the agency says “be better positioned to detect Salmonellaearlier, before it can cause an outbreak.”

In addition, the plan outlines several actions FSIS will take to drive innovations that will lower Salmonellacontamination rates, including establishing new performance standards; developing new strategies for inspection and throughout the full farm-to-table continuum; addressing all potential sources of Salmonella;and focusing the Agency’s education and outreach tools on Salmonella.

Building on the base

These efforts will build upon the work that USDA has done over the past several years. In 2011, USDA strengthened the performance standards for Salmonella in poultry with a goal of significantly reducing illnesses by 20,000 per year.  And through the SalmonellaInitiative Program, plants are now using processing techniques designed to directly reduce Salmonellain raw meat and poultry.  Thanks to these innovative technologies and tough policies, Salmonella rates in young chickens have dropped over 75 percent since 2006.

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Bank might foreclose on widow because her husband no longer lives in her house

Not a cartoon villain, but an actual real-world news story

If you’re married with a mortgage and your spouse’s name isn’t on it—you need to fix that, right away...

PhotoIf you’re married with a mortgage loan and your spouse’s name isn’t on it you need to fix that, right away. McClatchyDC has a horrifying story explaining why: the story of Laura Biggs, a California widow whose house is about to be foreclosed upon because the mortgage loan is in her husband’s name, her husband has been dead for ten years and therefore the house is no longer his “primary” residence.

As McClatchy writer Kevin G. Hall pointed out, “Technically, though, it still is George “Kenny” Mitchell’s primary residence. He resides at the home in Rialto, east of Los Angeles near San Bernardino, in an urn. His cremated remains are part of an altar that Biggs, 65, keeps in memory of the trucking-company manager. Many mementos from their marriage surround his smiling photo.”

But, surely, that is a red herring; even if the late Mr. Mitchell currently “resides” at a cemetery, why would that justify foreclosing on his widow? Hall noted, “The problem of surviving spouses not being on loans is big enough that the Treasury Department, which devised a series of incentives for servicers to modify mortgages, has an entire section of a manual devoted to it.”

This is not to suggest that a new widow or widower must automatically fear foreclosure unless their name is on the mortgage loan; Biggs’ problem isn’t with the mortgage itself so much as an attempted modification. The loan originally came from now-defunct housing-bubble inflator Countrywide Mortgage, and over the years eventually fell into the hands of an investors’ group called Select Portfolio Servicing. A few years ago, after some health- and job-related problems, Biggs fell behind on her property taxes, which were then added to her mortgage balance.

But when Biggs tried to talk directly with the company, customer services representatives refused to deal with her, insisting on speaking with Mitchell, something that’s impossible. The offer to roll the taxes into the loan was abruptly withdrawn, she said.

“Because my name was not on the loan, they wouldn’t talk to me,” Biggs said. “It always had my name on the checks. My name has been on those checks ever since we got the property. It was never an issue until last year.”

Biggs tried to continue making monthly mortgage payments but the servicer refused to accept them. The mortgage became delinquent and later was placed in default, despite more than $100,000 in equity built up.

Despite having over $100,000 equity in the house, Biggs currently faces losing everything next week. She currently has a lawyer, George Bosch, working pro bono in hope of saving her house. Bosch told McClatchy: “If you have a surviving spouse, legal documents are not necessary. (Select Portfolio Servicing) didn’t realize they were in California.” Bosch, who did the paperwork to help Biggs seek a mortgage modification through the Home Affordable Modification Program, told McClatchy that Select Portfolio “came with a new loophole: The guy doesn’t reside here.”

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A little pre-Christmas optimism

There was a slight bump up in the way small business operators saw things in November

You couldn't quite call it enthusiasm, but there was a slight increase in optimism among small business operators heading into the holiday season. Accordi...

PhotoYou couldn't quite call it enthusiasm, but there was a slight increase in optimism among small business operators heading into the holiday season.

According to the National Federation of Independent Business's (NFIB), its monthly Index was up 0.9 in November, for a total reading of 92.5. Employment is a major concern among NFIB respondents. Small-business employment is better at the end of this year than last year, as the NFIB indicators anticipated, but not enough to restore the 2007 level hiring. However, uncertainty remains throughout the sector, as it anticipates increased taxes, regulations and health-care costs.

Angst and uncertainty

“The year is not ending on a high note in the small-business sector of the economy,” said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. “The ‘bifurcation’ continues with the stock market hitting record high levels, but the small-business sector is showing little growth beyond that driven by population growth. There is also a hint that employers are getting an inkling of what Obamacare might mean for labor costs, concern about the cost and availability of insurance bumped up 3 percentage points after a long period of no real change.

“Small-business owners who provide health insurance may soon find that their plans ‘unacceptable’ to Obamacare and be obliged to either pay more for the coverage or abandon it and pay the benefit in cash,” he noted, adding, “This will be a major source of angst and uncertainty in 2014.”

November in depth

  • Job Creation. NFIB owners increased employment by an average of 0.05 workers per firm in November (seasonally adjusted) -- half the October figure, but positive. Seasonally adjusted, 14% of the owners (up 2 points) reported adding an average of 3.7 workers per firm over the past few months. Offsetting that, 12% reduced employment (up 3 points) an average of 3.4 workers, producing the seasonally adjusted gain of 0.05 workers per firm overall. The remaining 74% 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 44% reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions.
  • Hard to Fill Job Openings. Twenty-three percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period (up 2 points), a positive signal for the unemployment rate and the highest reading since January, 2008. Thirteen percent reported using temporary workers, down 2 points from October.
  • Sales. The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales in the past 3 months versus the prior 3 months was unchanged at a negative 8%. Fifteen percent still cite weak sales as their top business problem. The net percent of owners expecting higher real sales volumes rose 1 point to 3% of all owners after falling 6 points in October (seasonally adjusted), a weak showing. Not much help for hiring or inventory investment in those numbers.
  • Earnings and Wages. Earnings trends deteriorated a bit in November, falling to a net negative 24%. If these were publically traded companies, the stock indices would not look good. The economy remains bifurcated, large firms doing fairly well, small businesses showing little growth or improvement. Three percent reported reduced worker compensation and 16% reported raising compensation, yielding a seasonally adjusted net 14% reporting higher worker compensation (down 2 points). A net seasonally adjusted 14% plan to raise compensation in the coming months, up 4 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. With a net 14% raising compensation but a net 2% raising selling prices, profits will continue to be under pressure.
  • Credit Markets. Credit continues to be a non-issue for small employers with just 4% of the owners reporting that all their credit needs were not met -- down 2 points. Thirty-two percent reported all credit needs met, and 52% explicitly said they did not want a loan. Twenty-nine percent of all owners reported borrowing on a regular basis, up 1 point but a near-record low. The average rate paid on short maturity loans was steady at 5.4%.
  • Capital Outlays. The frequency of reported capital outlays over the past 6 months fell 2 points to 55%, stuck in the “mid-50s” since recovering in 2012 from the lows of 45 reached in late 2009 and early 2010. The small business sector appears to still be in “maintenance mode”, with little expansion planned in the future. The percent of owners planning capital outlays in the next 3 to 6 months rose 1 point -- to 24%. Capital spending is at its highest point since early 2008 but has been stuck well below normal levels for several years, threatening the improvements in productivity needed to raise real wages.
  • Inventories. The pace of inventory reduction continued, with a net negative 7% of all owners reporting growth in inventories (seasonally adjusted), 1 point worse than October. The negative outlook for the economy and real sales prospects adversely affected inventory satisfaction. The net percent of owners planning to add to inventory stocks was a net 0% -- (up 1 point), no new orders for inventory when stocks are excessive compared to expected sales.
  • Inflation. Seasonally adjusted, the net percent of owners raising selling prices was 2% -- down 3 points. Seasonally adjusted, a net 19% plan price hikes, up 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.
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Yauk’s Specialty Meats recalls meat and poultry products

The products were produced under unsanitary conditions

Yauk’s Specialty Meats of Windsor, Colo., is recalling approximately 90,000 pounds of various meat and poultry products that were produced under insanitary...

PhotoYauk’s Specialty Meats of Windsor, Colo., is recalling approximately 90,000 pounds of various meat and poultry products that were produced under insanitary conditions.

There are no reports of illness due to consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • “Colorado Best Beef” brand various fresh, smoked and shelf-stable meat products.
  • “James Ranch” brand jerky and summer sausage.
  • “Rocky Plains Meats” brand hams, bacon, raw and smoked sausage, jerky and raw poultry.
  • “John Long Farms” brand fresh and smoked pork products.
  • “Horned Beef” brand jerky.
  • “Mile High Hungarian Sausage” brand fresh and smoked bacon and sausage.

All products being recalled are packaged in retail-ready packaging of various sizes, and bear the establishment numbers “Est. 20309” or “P-20309” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. The products were produced between April 1, 2013, and Dec. 5, 2013 and can be identified by four-digit Julian dates ranging between 3091 and 3339. The products were sold at the wholesale and retail level in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Wayne Yauk at 970-686-9080 .

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Researchers: dating sites have it all wrong

New system relies less on what consumers say they are searching for

While it is true that some people successfully find good, lasting relationships on online dating sites, it is also true that many end up frustrated and dis...

PhotoWhile it is true that some people successfully find good, lasting relationships on online dating sites, it is also true that many end up frustrated and disappointed.

Rochelle, a Match.com user from Irvine, Calif., says she has found a troubling pattern with the men she has met online: they aren't telling the truth, she says.

“I've noticed that a lot of men are lying about their age,” Rochelle writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I set my age limit at 45 and about a quarter of the men contacting me are no way even close to 45. Try 55-65! Also, a lot of men use very old pics. Sorry, but any picture older than 2-3 years is irrelevant.”

Disconnect

Researchers at the University of Iowa (UI) think Rochelle might unknowingly be onto something. Not that people are dishonest when they use an online dating site but there's a disconnect -- what they say doesn't really match what they truly want.

Kang Zhao, assistant professor of management sciences in UI's College of Business, and UI doctoral student Xi Wang are part of a team that has developed an algorithm for dating sites that uses a person's contact history to recommend partners with whom they may be more romantically compatible.

Netflix model

PhotoIt's similar to the model Netflix uses to recommend movies users might like by tracking their viewing history. For example, you might not pick a particular movie to watch but Nexflix, analyzing the movies you've watched in the past, says “hey, you might like this one.” In a way, it's putting the computer in computer dating.

Dating sites are taking notice. Zhao says he's had preliminary discussions with two dating services who have expressed interest in learning more about the model. Since it doesn't rely on profile information, Zhao says it can also be used by other online services that match people, such as a job recruiting or college admissions.

The system was developed with the help of a popular commercial online dating company whose identity is being kept confidential. The research team looked at 475,000 initial contacts involving 47,000 users in two U.S. cities over a 196-day span. Of the users, 28,000 were men and 19,000 were women, and men made 80 percent of the initial contacts.

The data showed that just 25% of those initial contacts were actually reciprocated. To improve that results, Zhao's team developed a model combining two factors to recommend contacts: a client's tastes, determined by the types of people the client has contacted; and attractiveness/unattractiveness, determined by how many of those contacts are returned and how many are not.

Better predictor

Zhao believes those two factors, taste and attractiveness, do a better job of predicting successful connections than relying on information that clients enter into their profile, because what people put in their profile may not always be what they're really interested in. And from Rochelle's observation, they could also be intentionally misleading.

Zhao goes a step further, suggesting the average user of an online dating site might not really know themselves well enough to know their own tastes in the opposite sex. A man who says on his profile that he likes tall women may in fact be approaching mostly short women, even though the dating website will continue to recommend tall women.

"Your actions reflect your taste and attractiveness in a way that could be more accurate than what you include in your profile," Zhao says.

Another way of saying, actions speak louder than words. Zhao says that eventually, the algorithm will notice that while a client says he likes tall women, he keeps asking out short women, and will change its recommendations to start suggesting that he contact short women.

If it works for movies, it should work for dates, Zhao says.  

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A 'masked' credit card could be marketer's nightmare

Prevents consumers from being signed up for products they didn't ask for

Cyber security experts have cautioned consumers this holiday season to use extra care in making online credit card purchases. Scam operators have stepped u...

PhotoCyber security experts have cautioned consumers this holiday season to use extra care in making online credit card purchases. Scam operators have stepped up their efforts to take advantage of consumers in search of great deals.

“Especially around the holiday season we get these email's with great deals that almost look too good to be true,” said Rob Shavell, co-founder of Boston based Abine, a software firm specializing in privacy. “But there are some great deals out there and some are totally legitimate. Sometimes it's hard to tell them apart. You never quite know where your information is going when you buy or sign up for something online.”

Shavell's company provides a tool called Mask Me, which can be added to a web browser to prevent websites you visit from gathering too much personal information, such as email addresses, phone numbers, and credit cards. That stops them from tracking you online. When you use MaskMe, the websites see “masked” information. The user can decide when and if to disclose real information.

Mask your credit card

One feature of MaskMe is the ability to mask your credit card, which Shavell says is a way for consumers to safely make purchases online. It's part of the $5 a month MaskMe package but through the holiday period, Abine is allowing consumers to use the masked card feature at no change. All you have to do, he says, is download the software from the Abine website.

“Once you've done that you don't have to do anything more because our software will give you the choice to make a masked credit card or not,” Shavell said.

At the point you are asked to type in your credit card number for any online purchase and the software then gives you the option of masking it. If you choose to mask it, the vendor gets credit card information that is similar to that of a gift card or pre-paid debit card. They can only charge the amount the consumer has authorized. The online vendor, however, doesn't know the difference.

“It's a real, working Mastercard that has a limit which you, the consumer, give to the vendor,” Shavell said. “For an online business it's just a regular Mastercard and it goes through their system just like any other credit card would.”

Eliminates unauthorized charges

While it has obvious benefits to keep fraudsters from loading up your credit card with unauthorized purchases, the masked card is also a way to keep businesses from placing charges on your credit card for things you didn't ask for and don't want. In fact, that could be its biggest benefit.

“We've all signed up for something that has some fine print that says there's a recurring charge of $10 every month,” Shavell said. “Just make a masked card for $10. That way you'll never have to pay that company more than $10, unless you really want the service.”

The practice Shavell just described is negative option marketing. That's when a company starts with the assumption that you have made a purchase, usually for some type of subscription service. It's up to you to cancel the service or get charged $10 to $20 a month. Many consumers don't notice these charges until they have paid them for several months and often, cancelling is not that easy. A masked card, it would seem, would prevent that abuse.

“We encourage everyone, if they sign up for a subscription or a free trial to use a masked card to limit the amount they can ever be charged,” Shavell said.

Power shift

Over the last decade a number of tools have emerged that have returned more power to the consumer during commercial transactions. Shavell says it's about time.

“What you're seeing is the market is finally waking up because businesses have generally crossed the line and people are now aware of how their privacy is being impacted, they're aware that when they get something for free, when they sign up for a free offer, that they are the product, and they need tools and services that restore their control,” Shavell said.

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Missing deliveries plague UPS customers

Even tracked packages can get lost

If you're reading this in the continental United States, there's a very good chance your local road conditions are currently awful, what with t...

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It's official: American, US Airways have completed their merger

The new carrier, now the world's largest, has 600 new jetliners on order

With air travel bollixed by rotten weather across much of the country, it's a bad day for flying, but it's a good day for creating the world's largest airl...

PhotoWith air travel bollixed by rotten weather across much of the country, it's a bad day for flying, but it's a good day for creating the world's largest airline. American Airlines Group Inc. was officially born this morning as American completed its merger with US Airways.

The new carrier immediately became the world's largest airline by traffic.

"Our people, our customers and the communities we serve around the world have been anticipating the arrival of the new American," said Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, in a prepared statement.  "We are taking the best of both US Airways and American Airlines to create a formidable competitor, better positioned to deliver for all of our stakeholders.  We look forward to integrating our companies quickly and efficiently so the significant benefits of the merger can be realized."

The new American has a global network with nearly 6,700 daily flights to more than 330 destinations in more than 50 countries and more than 100,000 employees worldwide. 

It has 600 new jetliners on order, to freshen up its aged fleet and improve the company's fuel economy. 

Parker, who was previously CEO of US Airways, said the combined airline has the scale, breadth and capabilities to compete more effectively and profitably in the global marketplace and said customers will soon enjoy access to more benefits and increased service across the combined company's larger worldwide network and through an enhanced oneworld Alliance. US Airways will exit Star Alliance on March 30, 2014 and will immediately enter oneworld on March 31, 2014.

The hoopla and hype is in marked contrast to the gloom and doom that surrounded American for the last few years, as it watched from bankruptcy as other airlines bulked up. The American-US Airways merger notion began to take hold in September 2012. It encountered resistance from federal and state regulators but a series of concessions finally cleared the way and the merger got its final clearance last week as courts declined to intervene further.

Business as usual

American Airlines Dec. 9, 2013, 3:40 p.m.
Consumers rate American Airlines
It's expected to take about two years to completely merger the operations, including winning FAA approval of the new carrier's Operating Certificate.

In the meantime, American said, customers should continue to do business with the airline from which travel was purchased just as they did before the merger.  In short, it is "business as usual."  The airlines' separate websites, aa.com and usairways.com, as well as the two airlines' reservations systems and loyalty programs, will continue to operate separately until further in the integration process. 

 

 

 

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Foreclosure inventory plunges

But nearly a million properties remain in foreclosure

The number of foreclosures posted a sharp year-over-year decline during October. According to CoreLogic, a provider of residential property information,...

PhotoThe number of foreclosures posted a sharp year-over-year decline during October.

According to CoreLogic, a  provider of residential property information, analytics and services, there were 48,000 completed foreclosures -- a drop of 30% from 68,000 at the same time in 2012.

On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures were down 25.6% from the 64,000 reported in September.

Completed foreclosures are an indication of the total number of homes actually lost to foreclosure. Since the financial meltdown began in September 2008, there have been approximately 4.6 million completed foreclosures. As a basis of comparison, prior to the 2007 decline in the housing market, completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month nationwide between 2000 and 2006.

As of October 2013, approximately 879,000 U.S. homes were in some stage of foreclosure, known as the foreclosure inventory, compared with 1.3 million in October 2012 -- a year-over-year decrease of 31%. The foreclosure inventory as of October 2013 represented 2.2% of all homes with a mortgage, versus 3.1% a year earlier. The inventory was down 2.9% on a month-over-month basis.

‘Good news’ for the housing market

"Year over year, the foreclosure inventory, as a percentage of all homes with a mortgage, has declined almost a full percentage point to 2.2 percent," said Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. "This is good news for the housing and mortgage finance markets, but the rate remains elevated relative to the pre-crisis level of about 0.6 percent. There are almost 900,000 properties still in foreclosure, but a normal level would be only a quarter of the current stock."

The scourge of an elevated foreclosure inventory is easing. In October, every state posted a year-over-year decline in completed foreclosures. "Additionally, the rate of serious delinquencies, which fell more than 25 percent year over year, is at the lowest level in nearly five years,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic, adding that this is “great news as we head into a new year."

Report highlights

  • The five states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in October 2013 were: Florida (115,000), Michigan (50,000), California (46,000), Texas (43,000) and Georgia (39,000). These five states account for almost half of all completed foreclosures nationally.

  • The five states with the lowest number of completed foreclosures for the same 12 months were: District of Columbia (57), North Dakota (411), Hawaii (491), West Virginia(514) and Wyoming (694).

  • The five states with the highest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes were Florida (7.1%), New Jersey (6.7%), New York (4.9%), Maine (3.8%) and Connecticut (3.7%).

  • The five states with the lowest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes were:Wyoming (0.4%), Alaska (0.6%), Nebraska (0.6%), North Dakota (0.7%) and Colorado (0.7%).

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Could it be -- consumers getting burned out on technology innovation?

New report finds growing fear and resentment of constant change

Given the fawning publicity accorded each new iPhone, Google gadget or weird Amazonian package delivery dream, you would think that an eager public waited ...

PhotoGiven the fawning publicity accorded each new iPhone, Google gadget or weird Amazonian package delivery dream, you would think that an eager public waited breathlessly for every new tweak dreamed up by the software minions who have taken over the functions once performed by the automotive designers who hammered out new fins for 1960s vintage cars.

But those of adequate age will recall that consumers eventually got tired of ridiculous fins and change-for-change's sake in automotive design. People got tired of having to buy a new car every few years just to keep up. And a new study suggests something similar is happening in the technology sector, where many may feel the pressure to buy each new iPhone model is getting a little too intense.

A new study by JETIntelligence predicts that a top trend for 2014 will be what it calls "rage against the machine," as consumers rebel against “what’s been lost in our embrace of unprecedented change.”

The research company says consumers -- tired of bots and automated greetings -- will be putting a higher value on “all things human.” 

"For many, technology serves as a gateway to opportunity and an enabler of hyper-efficient lifestyles, but those who are most immersed are starting to question its effect on their lives and their privacy. One result is that more people are trying to find a balance and lead more mindful, in-the-moment lives," the report said.

Loss of privacy

The study also finds consumers increasingly concerned that they are giving up their anonymity to Big Data and predicts consumers will begin to push back and even grow paranoid about technological intrusions on privacy. 

“In this year's trend report, we see how consumers are both welcoming and resisting technology's growing omnipresence in our lives,” JWT said. “For many, technology serves as a gateway to opportunity and an enabler of hyper-efficient lifestyles, but those who are most immersed are starting to question its effect on their lives and their privacy. One result is that more people are trying to find a balance and lead more mindful, in-the-moment lives.” 

The report is the result of quantitative, qualitative and desk research conducted by JWTIntelligence throughout the year. For this report, JWTIntelligence conducted quantitative surveys using SONAR, JWT’s proprietary online tool, from Nov. 5–8, 2013, surveying 1,003 adults aged 18-plus (500 Americans and 503 Britons). 

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Herring fillet in oil recalled by Zip International

The product is contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Zip International Group of Edison, N.J., is recalling herring fillet in oil (FOSFOREL, ATLANTIKA) 400 gram in plastic packaging due to Listeria contaminati...

PhotoZip International Group of Edison, N.J., is recalling herring fillet in oil (FOSFOREL, ATLANTIKA) 400 gram in plastic packaging due to Listeria contamination.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

The recalled product includes best by dates 18/01/2014 (UPC: 4607095500208), which is located on the round side of the packaging. The herring, a product of Russia, was sold to retail grocery stores in New York State beginning on 11/01/2013, and ending on 11/14/2013.

A similar recall was issued earlier this year.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled product should not consume it, but should return it to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact the company @ 732-225-3600, 9:00AM-5:00 PM EST from Monday to Friday.

 

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StockPot recalls chicken noodle soup

The soup contains wheat, an allergen not declared on the label

StockPot, Inc., of Everett, Wash., is recalling 1,864 cases (approximately 22,368 pounds) of chicken noodle soup. The product is formulated with wheat, a ...

PhotoStockPot, Inc., of Everett, Wash., is recalling 1,864 cases (approximately 22,368 pounds) of chicken noodle soup.

The product is formulated with wheat, a known allergen.  However, it was released with a Loaded Baked Potato Style Soup side label, which does not declare this allergen.

The company has received no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 24-oz. plastic tub of Wholesome@Home “Classic Chicken Noodle Soup.” The establishment number “P-18235” is located on the label on the lid.

The product was produced on October 25 and 26, 2013, with a use-by date of February 17 and 18, 2014. It was shipped to distribution centers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Indiana, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington., and sold at retail only.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Susan Baranowsky at 1-866-270-9303.

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Santa Maria Foods recalls prosciutto ham product

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Santa Maria Foods of Brampton, Ontario, Canada, is recalling approximately 2,600 pounds of whole boneless ham prosciutto product due to possible contaminat...

PhotoSanta Maria Foods of Brampton, Ontario, Canada, is recalling approximately 2,600 pounds of whole boneless ham prosciutto product due to possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

There have beenno reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

The ham product was shipped to California and Michigan for further distribution. Case labels bear the Canadian establishment number “473A” within the Canadian mark of inspection. The following product is subject to recall:

Approximately 50-lb. boxes labeled “PROSCIUTTO x 4 GOLD” with the case codes BR031356 or BR031374, produced on Nov. 14 and Nov. 15, 2013. Each box contains 4 individually packaged hams with the case codes BR031341 or BR031354.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall can contact the company’s consumer hotline at 888-886-4428.

 

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What's behind customer rage?

More often than not it's poor customer service

At ConsumerAffairs, we see it on a daily basis. Consumers post reviews complaining – often bitterly – about a product or service.Often the co...

PhotoAt ConsumerAffairs, we see it on a daily basis. Consumers post reviews complaining – often bitterly – about a product or service.

Often the complaint revolves around customer service issues. The consumer is told something by a customer service rep that turns out not to be true. Or the consumer is unable to get satisfaction. Satellite TV, mobile phone providers, banks and online florists appear to spark the most customer rage.

In response to ConsumerAffairs and other Internet sites where consumers can post reviews about a company's products and service, major corporations have stepped up their efforts – and spending – to improve customer service. Mary Jo Bitner, executive director of the Center for Services Leadership at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, says it doesn't appear to be working.

Growing rage

She and a team of researchers have just completed a study showing 56 million American households experienced at least one problem during the past 12 months, and about $76 billion in revenue was at stake for the businesses involved. What's more, the rate of customer rage appears to be rapidly growing. She says many companies are throwing money at the problem without fixing it.

“The moral of the story: Don’t invest in improving your customer service unless you’re going to do it right,” Bitner said. “If a company handles your complaint well, then you typically become a more loyal customer. However, if they don’t, then you become 12 percentage points less brand loyal than if you never complained at all.”

It turns out there is quite a bit of research available about customer dissatisfaction. In 1976 the White House retained Customer Care Measurement and Consulting (CCMC) to work with the Carey School to design and conducted and analyze the first customer rage survey.

Downward spiral

PhotoThere have been five other surveys since then, all showing a downward spiral in customer satisfaction and a rise in customer rage.

“We found satisfaction is no higher than reported in 1976,” said Scott Broetzmann of CCMC. “People are frustrated that there are too many automated response menus, there aren’t enough customer-care agents, they waste a lot of time dealing with the problem, and they have to contact the company an average of four times to get resolution.”

Indeed, that's a familiar refrain for many of the consumers posting reviews at ConsumerAffairs. Having to spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone and still not resolving the issue sends many a consumer around the bend.

The rise in customer rage is remarkable. The 1976 survey put it at 32%. By 2011 it had grown to 45%. Two years later it had jumped to 50%.

Yelling and cursing

The survey also found a rise in yelling and cursing when dealing with the worst problems. Yelling is up from 25% in previous studies to 36% this year – cursing has rising from seven to 13%.

What triggers a bout of customer rage? The number one source of rage, according to the survey, are satellite and cable TV companies.

Finally, the cost of a company not resolving a case of customer rage is significant. The survey shows that a satisfied or pacified customer only told an average of 10 to 16 people about the problem. But if customers were left dissatisfied, they told an average of about 28 people.

Many times they told more, using the Internet. The survey found customer complaint-posting has nearly doubled from 19 to 35% since 2011.

Another report, by contact center provider Five9, also turns up a huge increase in angry consumers. According to its survey, 85% of consumers said they would retaliate against a firm with lousy customer service. As you might expect, 18-34 year olds are three times as likely as their older peers to vent their frustrations online.

The surveys don't speculate about the reasons for the increase in customer rage but plenty of business experts have offered opinions. Especially since the Great Recession businesses have cut expenses as much as possible to improve the bottom line. Fewer, and poorly-trained customer service reps might seem like a good idea in the executive suite but these kinds of moves could turn out to be a bad decision in the long run.

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Tis the season for lost holiday mail

The USPS racks up more non-fans than usual

Tis the season when gaily wrapped holiday packages are sent through the mail and get lost....

PhotoTis the season when gaily wrapped holiday packages are sent through the mail and get lost.  Although tis not the only season this happens; “The U.S. Postal Service lost my mail” is a complaint as perennial as the evergreens used to symbolize Christmas. And as the volume of mail delivery increases with the holiday season, so too does the volume of lost-mail complaints.

Lynda from Illinois wrote us on Dec. 2 to say “I have had a very distressing time with USPS over the past couple of months. I order a fair amount through the catalog and eBay and never had a problem at that point in receiving my packages until October 2013… Because I had never had a problem receiving any packages before, I never purchased insurance before, never had a reason to.”

Lynda says the USPS tracking website listed a package as “delivered” even though she never received it. This is pretty common complaint among USPS customers; Lea in Las Vegas told us on Nov. 17 that “I checked the status of a package I was waiting for. It said delivered to addressee. Well, not sure whose address (apt. number) they delivered it to but it sure wasn't mine. I even went to the office and they didn't receive a package either. If these carriers won't do their job right then go find another job. How hard is it to put a piece of mail or package in the correct mailbox?”

We’ll resist the temptation to offer an extremely sarcastic answer to that question, even though we personally have had the same problem. Last September we told you the tale of the glorious summer when we got our first-ever passport:

The U.S. Department of State sent our passport via Priority Mail, with a tracking number. On July 7 we typed that tracking number into the USPS website and were horrified to discover that the passport had allegedly been delivered on June 29. On July 9, we formally reported the passport as “missing,” and the very next day, the now-invalidated passport (which, you recall, had allegedly been delivered to us two weeks before) finally arrived in our mailbox ….   So, when federal officials working for the Department of State can’t even get their official national-security documents properly delivered, what’s an ordinary civilian to do?

Lynda tried getting help from the USPS customer-service bureaucracy, but “The post office denied my claim solely because I didn't have insurance.”

Insurance not always the answer

Though there’s no guarantee insurance would have helped, either. Jevan in Colorado wrote on Nov. 21 to say “USPS is HORRIBLE. They lost a $450 package of mine. I opened a claim a week ago and was told I'd receive a call back. Well, guess what? Still no call back ... I was on hold for almost 2 hours today and almost 2 hours yesterday trying to get a hold of somebody there! My package is insured and I want my $450 back NOW! I cannot wait for you people to get it together! SOMEONE HAS TO BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS!”

Jevan and Lynda’s complaints come from the perspective of a mail-order customer denied their purchase. But “E” in River Park, Illinois, is arguably in worse shape: he’s one of the mail-order sellers whose packages keep getting lost. As he told us on Nov. 28: “Over the last 2 months my online business has now suffered so much I will be lucky to even stay in business till the end of the year. …. The stress is insane, emails flying everywhere "WHERE IS MY ORDER." Nasty phone calls from customers. Being blasted all over forums and Facebook making me into a thief and a scammer. ALL because the damn USPS is not doing their job properly! I have had about 50 lost orders seems as most of them were in or around area code 352 a few in California and a few on the east coast….”

This is only a tiny sampling of the dozens of complaints we’ve received just since the start of November. As we type this sentence on the afternoon of Dec. 6, the total number of USPS lost-mail complaints in our consumer-review archives is 1,460. If that number is higher by the time you click on the link—we won’t be surprised at all.

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Kent State study: cell phone use, low grades, anxiety all linked

Though multiple interpretations might be possible

In all the history of humanity, we are the first generation of people to take complete 24/7 connectivity for granted, and while there’s undeniably wo...

PhotoIn all the history of humanity, we are the first generation of people to take complete 24/7 connectivity for granted, and while there’s undeniably wonderful benefits to constant communication, there’s also concern that maybe, just maybe, 24/7 connectivity might have a downside as well.

Researchers from Kent State University have published a study suggesting just that: “Frequent cell phone use linked to anxiety, lower grades and reduced happiness in students.”  A study of 500 university students showed that “for the population studied, high frequency cell phone users tended to have lower GPA, higher anxiety, and lower satisfaction with life (happiness) relative to their peers who used the cell phone less often. The statistical model illustrating these relationships was highly significant.”

Yet the study actually appears to show two different (though closely related) things: students with lower GPAs tended to have more anxiety than those with higher GPAs, and students who frequently used their phones tended to have lower GPAs.

Intriguing, but it’s uncertain exactly where correlation and causation lie: presumably, would heavy cell phone use not cause anxiety if the student still managed an A average? What about heavy phone use during semester breaks, when grades are not an issue? Is the problem simply “time spent on the phone,” or “time spent doing anything other than study or schoolwork?”

PhotoSemi-related anecdote: In 1953, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury published a short story called The Murderer, about a man considered insane by his futuristic society because he hates the constant communication devices people are expected to carry with them, to the point where he actually “murders” (destroys) some of these devices, including his “wrist radio.” The man’s science-fictional complaints include children who can call him via wrist radio at any time of day, no matter where he is, to remind him to pay their allowance, and a wife who got “hysterical” because “she had been completely out of  touch with me for half a day.”

Bradbury intended his 1950s audience to be utterly appalled by the thought of a future where you could never, ever be out of reach of anyone desiring your attention. Yet only sixty years later, that’s pretty much the status quo.

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Those Christmas lights aren't worth a trip to the emergency room

The CPSC has some tips to help you Deck the Halls safely

With Christmas less than three weeks off, people who haven't decorated their homes yet will likely be scrambling to get the job dome over the next few days...

PhotoWith Christmas less than three weeks off, people who haven't decorated their homes yet will likely be scrambling to get the job dome over the next few days.

This probably doesn't need to be said -- but then maybe again it does: Be careful!

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates there were 15,000 injuries involving holiday decorating seen in emergency departments nationwide during November and December 2of last year. This is the fourth consecutive year these estimates have increased. In each year since 2009, there have been an estimated 12,000 or more emergency department visits.

It may be funny to see Chevy Chase fall from a ladder or Joe Pesce step on broken ornaments, but real life is not the movies and mishaps like these result in visits to the emergency room or calls to fire departments for thousands of consumers each year.

“There are about 250 injuries a day during the holiday season. Adding safety to your checklist can keep a holiday tradition from becoming a holiday tragedy,” said CPSC Acting Chairman Robert Adler. “Keep Christmas trees watered well, don’t leave candles unattended, and use caution whenever you are on a ladder.”

Frequent accidents

The most frequently reported holiday decorating incidents seen in emergency departments in 2012 involved falls (34%), lacerations (11%) and back strains (10%). When it comes to fires, from 2009 through 2011, fire departments nationwide responded to an average of 200 fires in which the Christmas tree was the first item ignited.

These incidents resulted in 10 deaths, 20 injuries and $16 million in property loss. In addition, candle-related fires from 2009 through 2011 have resulted in an estimated 70 deaths, 680 injuries and $308 million in property loss.

To prevent fires, toss out any lights sets with evidence of damage such as broken sockets and bare wires, water Christmas trees frequently, and always extinguish candles before leaving a room.

Staying safe

The CPSC offers the following safety tips to help prevent decorating disasters this season:

Ladders

  • Heed the warning labels on ladders. Read CPSC’s OnSafety blog, “Ladder Safety 101,” for tips to prevent ladder falls this season.

Trees and decorations

  • Buying a live tree? Check for freshness. A fresh tree is green, its needles are hard to pull from branches, and the needles do not break when bent between your fingers. The bottom of a fresh tree is sticky with resin, and when tapped on the ground, the tree should not lose many needles.
  • Setting up a tree at home? Place it away from heat sources, such as fireplaces, vents, and radiators. Because heated rooms rapidly dry out live trees, be sure to monitor water levels daily, and keep the tree stand filled with water. Place the tree out of the way of foot traffic, and do not block doorways with the tree.
  • Buying an artificial tree? Look for the label: “Fire Resistant.” Although this label does not mean that the tree will not catch fire, the label does indicate that the tree is more resistant to catching fire.
  • Decorating a tree in a home with small children? Take special care to avoid sharp, weighted, or breakable decorations. Keep trimmings with small removable parts out of the reach of children, who could swallow or inhale small pieces. Avoid trimmings that resemble candy or food that may tempt a child to reach for and swallow them.

Candles

  • Keep burning candles within sight. Extinguish all candles before you go to bed, leave the room, or leave the house.
  • Keep candles on a stable, heat-resistant surface. Place candles where kids and pets cannot reach them or knock them over. Lighted candles should be placed away from items that can catch fire, such as trees, other evergreens, decorations, curtains and furniture.

Lights

  • Use lights that have been tested. Select lights tested for safety by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL), Intertek (ETL) or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). Lights for both indoor and outdoor use must meet strict requirements that testing laboratories are able to verify. On decorative lights available in stores, UL’s red holographic label signifies that the product meets safety requirements for indoor and outdoor use. UL’s green holographic label signifies that the product meets requirements for indoor use only.
  • Check each set of lights. Examine new and old lights for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections. Throw out damaged sets, and do not use electric lights on a metallic tree.
  • Check each extension cord. Make sure each extension cord is rated for the intended use and is in good condition. Do not use cords with cuts or signs of fraying.
  • Check outdoor lights for labels. Look for labels indicating that the lights have been certified for outdoor use, and only plug them into a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI)-protected receptacle or a portable GFCI.

Fireplaces

  • Use care with “fire salts.” Fire salts produce colored flames when thrown onto wood fires. Fire salts contain heavy metals that can cause intense gastrointestinal irritation and vomiting, if swallowed. Keep fire salts away from children.
  • Do not burn wrapping papers in the fireplace. A flash fire may result from burning wrapping papers because wrappings can ignite suddenly and burn intensely.
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Judge shows little sympathy for Google users' privacy complaints, dismisses class action

No one has shown any actual damages from Google's use of personal data

The essence of a lawsuit is to enable one party to recover the damages caused by the negligent or deceptive actions or omissions of the other party. In o...

PhotoThe essence of a lawsuit is to enable one party to recover the damages caused by the negligent or deceptive actions or omissions of the other party.

In other words -- no damage, no case.

And that's exactly how U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal viewed the claims of a class action suit taking issue with Google's use of the data it harvests about its users as they search the web, send emails and engage in other online activities, Courthouse News Service reported.

Saying that Google made money from the data and didn't share it with its users isn't much of an argument, Grewal said. 

"A plaintiff must do more than point to the dollars in a defendant's pocket; he must sufficiently allege that in the process he lost dollars of his own," Grewal wrote. "Plaintiffs' allegations certainly plead that Google made money using information about them for which they were provided no compensation beyond free access to Google's services. But an allegation that Google profited is not enough equivalent to an allegation that such profiteering deprived plaintiffs of economic value from that same information."

In other words, it's not as though throngs of competing search engines and marketing companies were waiting in the wings, eager to buy the data that Google obtained by providing free services to its users. 

With that, Grewal dismissed the suit. Game over.

The suit was filed in March 2012 after Google updated its privacy policy to permit the commingling of user data across different Google products, such as Gmail and YouTube. The new privacy policy allowed Google to combine a user's information from one service with the user's information from other services.

The complaint also alleged that the new policy violated the users right to privacy, although there is no explicit right to privacy in the Constitution, popular opinion notwithstanding.

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Android "Brightest Flashlight" app shared users' location without permission

The app developer left users in the dark and lied to them, feds charge

You wouldn't expect your flashlight to spy on you, but the Federal Trade Commission says that's just what one of the most popular Android apps does. ...

PhotoYou wouldn't expect your flashlight to spy on you, but the Federal Trade Commission says that's just what one of the most popular Android apps does. 

The "Brightest Flashlight Free" app has been download millions of times by Android users who, presumably, never expected that the app would report their whereabouts to the app developer, Goldenshores Technologies LLC, and its clients. 

The FTC filed a complain against the company and its manager, Erik M. Geidl, charging that the company's privacy policy deceptively fails to disclose that the app will report their geolocation and unique device identifier to third parties, mostly advertising and marketing networks.

In addition, the complaint alleged that the company deceived consumers by presenting them with an option to not share their information, even though it was shared automatically rendering the option meaningless.

The company has settled the complaint by agreeing to stop spying on its users and delete any information it still has about them.

“When consumers are given a real, informed choice, they can decide for themselves whether the benefit of a service is worth the information they must share to use it,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But this flashlight app left them in the dark about how their information was going to be used.”

A few facts omitted

In its complaint, the FTC alleges that Goldenshores’ privacy policy told consumers that any information collected by the Brightest Flashlight app would be used by the company, and listed some categories of information that it might collect. The policy, however, did not mention that the information would also be sent to third parties, such as advertising networks.

Consumers also were presented with a false choice when they downloaded the app, according to the complaint. Upon first opening the app, they were shown the company’s End User License Agreement, which included information on data collection. At the bottom of the license agreement, consumers could click to “Accept” or “Refuse” the terms of the agreement.

Even before a consumer had a chance to accept those terms, though, the application was already collecting and sending information to third parties – including location and the unique device identifier.

The settlement with the FTC prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting how consumers’ information is collected and shared and how much control consumers have over the way their information is used. The settlement also requires the defendants to provide a just-in-time disclosure that fully informs consumers when, how, and why their geolocation information is being collected, used and shared, and requires defendants to obtain consumers’ affirmative express consent before doing so.

The defendants also will be required to delete any personal information collected from consumers through the Brightest Flashlight app.

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Abbott Labs settles charges ads for Pediasure were misleading

Ads claimed the sugary drinks provided "targeted nutrition" for children

Ads for Abbott Labs' SideKicks gave the impression that the sugary drinks would give children more energy and help them perform better in sports.But New ...

PhotoAds for Abbott Labs' SideKicks gave the impression that the sugary drinks would give children more energy and help them perform better in sports.

But New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said an investigation by his office found that Abbott failed to substantiate the claims that SideKicks were "targeted nutrition" for children's "unique needs" and announced that his office has reached an agreement under which Abbott will stop its false advertising and pay a $25,000 penalty to New York State.

“False and misleading advertising aimed at our children and their parents is exploitative, illegal and may even contribute to the obesity crisis in our communities,” Schneiderman said. “My office will prosecute false claims by companies that seek to hawk their products to New York parents who are trying to provide the best for their kids.”

To introduce and promote its new SideKicks products, starting in 2010, Abbott embarked on a three-year advertising campaign in print media, on the internet and in television commercials. As part of its “You Are What You Eat” campaign, Abbott ran ads on national networks, syndicated television shows, cable television, Nnational Hispanic television programs, Spot TV, Health Guru, and Hulu. Print ads ran in various parents’ and women’s magazines. Ads and coupons were also posted on Abbott’s website.

In the ad, a girl who looks to be 10 to 12 years old drinks SideKicks at home before heading off to aher soccer game. At the game, the girl appears to be more energetic and to perform better than the other children, who seem sluggish and wear costumes depicting them as French fries and a chocolate frosted doughnut.

The goalie, dressed as the doughnut, watches passively as the girl who drank SideKicks scores a goal. As the game progresses, the mother of the “French fries” child turns to the mother of the SideKicks child and states, “Does Tyler look a little slow? Maybe we should have skipped the drive-through.” The mother of the girl who drank SideKicks replies, “Well, kids are what they eat.” The advertisement concludes with the line, “New PediaSure Sidekicks...an extra kick of nutrition.”

The Attorney General was alerted to Abbott’s advertising by advocates who complained that the ad misleadingly implied that pediatricians recommend Sidekicks for healthy, thriving children.

While both drinks contain vitamins and minerals, SideKicks is a sweetened chocolate-, vanilla-, or strawberry-flavored shake-type beverage. SideKicks Clear is a sweetened fruit-flavored drink. SideKicks Clear products have fruit names such as “Tropical Fruit” and “Wild Berry” and depict fruit such as raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries on their packaging but do not, in fact, contain any fruit or fruit juice.

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Bank of America is optimistic about Bitcoin's future

Says the virtual currency could become a "major means of payment"

We’re still living in what future historians will call the earliest era of the Internet age, and it’s still too early to predict exactly how th...

PhotoWe’re still living in what future historians will call the earliest era of the Internet age, and it’s still too early to predict exactly how that will play out, which aspects of contemporary web life will remain and which will fade away. But evidence is growing that virtual currency Bitcoin (or some future variant of it) might be a permanent part of the virtual landscape, rather than a flash in the pan.

Indeed, analysts with Bank of America Merrill Lynch released a Dec. 5 report suggesting that Bitcoin has the potential to become “a major means of payment for ecommerce” and a “serious competitor to traditional money transfer providers.”

Bank of America certainly isn’t the first to take an optimistic view of Bitcoin’s future; the day before the report, CNNMoney reported that former congressman Ron Paul said Bitcoin might “destroy the [U.S.] dollar,” and predicted a crackdown because “Governments absolutely demand a monopoly on money and credit. They're not going to give it up easily ….They will come down hard."  

Arguably, “they” already have; last May, the US government froze funds at the largest Bitcoin exchange, due to vague and undescribed reasons cited by the Department of Homeland Security. On the other hand, even those wont to distrust government secrecy must admit there are some legitimate, non-tyrannical reasons governments might want to crack down on Bitcoin: namely, anti-fraud measures, On Nov. 6, the New York Times’ Dealbook warned readers about a “pump and dump” penny-stock fraud scheme being played out on Bitcoin.

Cracking down on fraudsters is difficult enough with traditional banking and its extensive paper trails; in the anonymous world of Bitcoin it may be close to impossible.

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Cancer survival rates on the rise

Researchers credit innovative treatments and new drugs

People with cancer are living longer after being diagnosed with the disease, leading researchers to conclude the world could be cancer-free by the middle o...

PhotoPeople with cancer are living longer after being diagnosed with the disease, leading researchers to conclude the world could be cancer-free by the middle of this century.

Statistics collected through the Value of Medical Innovation initiative, led by the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI), show U.S. life expectancy for people with cancer has hit another all-time high, rising over 50 million life-years after diagnosis. The estimate is based on the number of additional years of life that each person diagnosed with cancer since 1990 has experienced.

"The benefits of medical innovation to patients and their families can be counted in birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and other life events that would have been missed if it weren't for medical innovation," said Scott Gottlieb, M.D., resident fellow for the American Enterprise Institute.

The numbers tell the story. In 1990, there were about six million cancer survivors in U.S. Today there are about 14 million. In 1990 about 57 percent of cancer patients could expect to live five years or more. Today, that number is nearly 70 percent.

Celebrity cases

Gottlieb said innovative therapies and improvements in healthcare system efficiency has fueled the improvement. Recent cancer cases involving celebrities provide a case in point.

At the start of the 2012 NFL season Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was forced from the sidelines after he was diagnosed with leukemia. After aggressive treatment Pagano's cancer was remarkably declared to be in remission just two months later. By the end of the season he had rejoined the team.

Doctors say that up to 90% of people diagnosed with Pagano's type of leukemia are eventually cured, thanks in part to a new medication that helps neutralize cancer cells.

In September Howard Stern sidekick Robin Quivers revealed that she had been treated for cancer in the pelvic region. After being diagnosed in late May 2012, Quivers underwent 12 hours of surgery in Pittsburgh to remove a grapefruit-sized cancerous tumor. Her doctors told her they would “try to prolong her life as long as possible.”

But Quivers sought a second option from doctors in New York at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where she was placed on an aggressive treatment program. By June 2013, Quivers said she was pronounced cancer-free.

Turning point

"We're at a turning point in battling cancer," said CMPI co-founder Robert Goldberg.

But he adds that recent gains are in danger of being lost if there is any let up in efforts to defeat the disease. He says even greater gains in life-years, along with a decline in the cost of treating cancer, are possible through personalized medicine, which reduces the cost and time of treatment compared with the old one-size-fits-all model.

In addition to novel drugs, researchers have also done some outside-the-box thinking when it comes to treatment. In 2012 researchers at Immunocore designed a therapy using the body's 'T-cells to find cancer cells and destroy them, thus harnessing the body's own defenses to beat cancer.

T-cells are a type of lymphocytes – a type of white blood cell – that plays a key role in regulating the body's immune system. On their own T-cells don't do a very good job of distinguishing between healthy or cancerous cells. The Immunocore system basically arms the body's T-cells with a guidance system that helps them target the cancer cells.

Other cancer research is being done at Stanford Medical Center, again focusing on using the body's own tools to destroy cancer.

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Unemployment rate falls in November as economy cranks out new jobs

Analysts say this shows 'significant' improvement in the labor situation

The nation's unemployment rate fell to it's lowest level in five years in November as the economy continues to create new payroll positions. The governmen...

PhotoThe nation's unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in five years in November as the economy continues to create new payroll positions.

The government reports the jobless rate dropped from 7.3% to 7.0% in November with total nonfarm payroll employment rising by 203,000. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for unemployment to increase by just 188,000, with the jobless rate to inch down to 7.0%.

Analysts say the labor situation has “improved significantly,” which comes as a surprise since many of them believed the government shutdown was going to derail the employment sector with increased private layoffs and furloughs. Instead, they say, the private sector showed “an unexpected resiliency as firms expanded rather than retrenched during the shutdown.”

Gains and losses

Employment in transportation and warehousing rose by 31,000 in last month; while health care added 28,000 positions. Manufacturing, meanwhile, added 27,000 jobs, as professional and business services, retail trade and leisure and hospitality all expanding.

Federal government employment, on the other hand, continued to decline -- losing 7,000 jobs in November. Over the past 12 months, federal government employment has decreased by 92,000.

Employment in other major industries, including mining and logging, wholesale trade, information, and financial activities, showed little or no change in November.

Who's out of work

The unemployment rates for adult men (6.7%), adult women (6.2%), teenagers (20.8%), whites (6.2%), blacks (12.5%), Hispanics (8.7%) and Asians (5.3) showed little change in November.

The civilian labor force rose by 455,000 last month, after declining by 720,000 in October. The labor force participation rate was little-changed little (63.0%) in November, with total employment -- as measured by the household survey -- increasing by 818,000 over the month, following a decline of 735,000 in the prior month. The increase partly reflected the return to work of furloughed federal government employees.

The complete November employment report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Personal spending rises in October despite a drop in incomes

The savings rate took a hit as a result

Americans brought home less money during October, but that didn't seem to have much impact on their spending habits. The government reports personal incom...

PhotoAmericans brought home less money during October, but that didn't seem to have much impact on their spending habits.

The government reports personal income dipped 0.1% after posting an increase of 0.5% percent in September. The largest component -- wages and salaries -- was up 0.1% on top of a 0.4% gain. Proprietors’ income, on the other hand, fell 1.4% in October due to a decline in farm proprietors’ income after farmers received a one-time payment in September for a settlement of a lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture.

Current-dollar disposable personal income (DPI) -- after-tax income -- decreased 0.2% after increasing 0.5% in September. Real DPI, which is income adjusted for taxes and inflation, was down 0.2% in October, giving back some of September's o,4% gain.

Spending on the rise

Real consumer spending -- spending adjusted for price changes -- increased 0.3% in October after inching up just 0.1% a month earlier. Spending on durable goods rose after falling in September.

The spending increase coupled with the decline in incomes pushed the personal saving rate as a percent of DPI down to 4.8% in October from 5.2% in September -- the lowest level since July.  

The complete report on income and spending for October can be found on the Commerce Department website,

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Chrysler recalls Dodge Darts

The front seat mounted side airbags may not be installed properly

Chrysler Group is recalling 374 model year 2013 Dodge Dart vehicles manufactured May 10, 2013, through August 24, 2013 and equipped with the Mopar 13 trim ...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 374 model year 2013 Dodge Dart vehicles manufactured May 10, 2013, through August 24, 2013 and equipped with the Mopar 13 trim package.

In the affected vehicles, the front seat mounted side airbags (SAB) may not have been properly installed into the seat. In the event of a crash, the SABs may fail to deploy as intended, increasing the risk of injury.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the SAB installation and re-install them as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2013.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's recall campaign number is N61.

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Shopping while black at Burlington Coat Factory

Similar-sounding stories from all over the country

If ever you've made a search on Google you're familiar with the auto-suggest function: you start typing, and Google starts generating automatic...

PhotoIf ever you’ve made a search on Google you’re familiar with the auto-suggest function: you start typing, and Google starts generating automatic guesses of what it thinks you’re looking for. When we tried searching for the phrase “while black” (without quotation marks), the first three auto-suggestions we got were “driving while black,” “shopping while black” and “walking while black.”

In modern American colloquial speech, the phrase “[doing something] while black” refers to the commonly reported phenomenon of innocent, law-abiding people harassed by police or other authority figures who suspect them of wrongdoing — presumably for no other reason than “they’re not white.”

One of the most notorious recent cases of “shopping while black” happened in October, when a college student named Trayon Christian went to luxury clothier Barneys New York to buy a designer belt with money he’d saved from his part-time work-study job. But after he bought the belt and left the store, Christian was arrested and detained on suspicion of stealing his own debit card, which he’d used to buy the belt.

Unfortunately, harboring suspicion toward those who engage in “shopping while black” isn’t exclusive to Barneys, or to New York City; if it were, it wouldn’t be common enough for Google to auto-suggest it. To offer just one additional example: since the start of the holiday shopping season in November, we’ve received multiple complaints from shoppers all over America, who claim that security personnel at Burlington Coat Factory stores singled them out for extra suspicion, solely because they were black.

Worst experience ever

PhotoTemisha in Virginia wrote on Nov. 23 to tell us of an experience she had in the Richmond store: “I frequent this store when I'm in the area, and I usually have an ok experience. Today, I went in looking for a winter coat for myself and baby clothes for my new godson and had the worst experience ever. I was profiled for whatever reason, maybe because I had on my work clothes which consist of stretch pants and a tee shirt because I do a very physical job, but more than likely because I'm a minority. I was followed around the store the entire time I was there by the Loss Prevention guy…. walked past me at the very least 25 times and never spoke or tried to acknowledge my presence although it was very obvious he was observing me the whole time….”

This continued for awhile, then a second loss prevention guy started giving Temisha the eye.  “Now there are two men following me around the store. I try to make the best of what's been a very unpleasant shopping experience by getting what I wanted to purchase and heading to the register to pay. . I finish up my purchase and head for the door. While exiting the store, I notice the original LP posted up on the wall outside the building as if he was waiting for the call to say, "We got one!" … Never in my life have I felt so uncomfortable, disrespected, or been made to FEEL like a criminal while trying to innocently shop in a store.”

Only two days before Temisha wrote us, we got a similar-sounding story from R, in Ohio, who said “I’ve been shopping at Burlington for over 10 years now and the treatment that my family and I received this past weekend is unacceptable. … I went in to buy coats for my 3 kids. My husband and my 8 year old son went to looks at boy coats, while me my 7 year old daughter and my 11 month old baby were looking in the girls dept.

“I swear to goodness the manager whom I’ve never seen him there before, he REALLY ran down the aisle to look at my son and husband. I stood there to see what he was doing, so he act like he was doing something anyway as my husband came over to where we were. Yes, look who showed up, ha! The manager again! … And while he was watching us, I noticed 3 white girls stealing over in the next area. …. I’m NEVER EVER going back to Burlington again and neither is anyone else I know."

Busted at Barneys

PhotoBack in September – only a couple weeks before the world learned Trayon Christian was arrested for making a legal purchase with his legally acquired debit card at Barneys New York – Grace in Bethel Park, Penn., wrote us with an eerily similar-sounding story: on Sept. 13, she said, she went to Burlington to return a previous purchase and make a new one.

“After I made payment with my debit card, which was approved, [the cashier] took the phone and started calling the number at the back of my debit card. I asked what she was doing. She told me that she had to call and check with my credit people, which I did not understand her well since my card was debit and from a local bank . I told her that my card is not a credit card but a debit card and she does not have to call anybody for them to approve it. She still continued calling and ignored me. I was not happy with her. I politely asked her to cancel all my transactions. … I was looking at what the other cashiers were doing with other customers. They did not to check or make phone calls regarding their cards and they were served promptly.”

If people wrote us with the problem “How can I prevent scammers from using my debit card?” we could offer all sorts of useful advice. But when the problem is “How can I avoid suspicion of being a scammer while using my own valid debit card,” well, we really don’t know.

We wrote Burlington, sent them some of these complaints and asked for clarification regarding their loss-prevention policies. We even held this story for a couple of days, to give Burlington time to respond. If they ever do, we’ll definitely let you know about it.

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A bargain gift? Careful, it could be counterfeit

How to tell if it's a fake or the real thing

This holiday shopping season there have been some eye-popping bargains so far. But mixed in with all these great deals are some not-so-great offers. Yes, t...

PhotoThis holiday shopping season there have been some eye-popping bargains so far. But mixed in with all these great deals are some not-so-great offers. Yes, the price is rock bottom but the merchandise is a knock-off, a counterfeit version of the brand you think you are getting.

“Almost everyone wants a good deal and wants to save money, but buying counterfeit poses serious health and safety risks, not to mention loss of revenue to businesses,” said Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. “As parents, we need to set the example for our children and explain to them the consequences of buying counterfeit products.”

Safety is an important issue. Counterfeit goods haven't undergone safety inspections like the real version of the product. They could pose a danger to the recipients.

Not a victimless crime

Once viewed as “victimless crimes,” counterfeiting and piracy have become big business in recent years. Since the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports trade in counterfeits has grown at eight times the rate of legitimate trade. Seizures of counterfeit goods by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol rose 125% during the past five years and are up 80% from 2005 to 2006 alone.

How can you tell if that bargain you are considering is the real thing or just a cheap knock-off? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce offers this advice:

Look closely at labels, packaging and contents

This might be your best way of spotting a fake. Look for missing or expired “use by” dates, broken or missing safety seals, missing warranty information, or otherwise unusual packaging.

Consider the source

If you are buying from a reputable, well-known store or website, chances are you are dealing with the real thing. Buying from a street vendor or a website you've never heard of could increase your chances of ending up with a counterfeit article.

Watch for missing sales tax charges

No one likes to pay sales tax but if you aren't charged, that's a red flag. Businesses selling counterfeit goods usually don't report their sales to financial authorities—a difference you may notice in the price you ultimately pay, especially in states that collect sales taxes.

How secure is your transaction?

Operations moving counterfeit goods aren't likely to invest in elaborate security systems to protect your financial information. Walk away if you are uncomfortable with the security of the transaction. When doing business online, make sure your payments are submitted via websites beginning with https:// and look for a lock symbol at the bottom of your browser. If you are making an in-person purchase, check to make sure your credit card information does not appear on copies that can fall into the wrong hands.

Here are some other signs you aren't dealing with the real thing:

  • The product priced substantially below retail
  • The product appears to be of poor quality
  • The packaging is torn or otherwise suspicious
  • The seller accept payments in cash only
  • The logos don't look quite right or are in the wrong place
  • There is no licensing, copyright or trademark information on the packaging

Most common counterfeits

Almost any product can be counterfeited but there are certain items that get copied more than others. Toys and electronic games are a common counterfeit product because they are so easy to fake. Jewelry is another common con – beware the Rolex watch for $50. Music CDs and movies are also easily copied and sold as the real thing. Jerseys of professional sports franchises are easily copied too.

“We must recognize counterfeits for what they are,” Hood said. “They are a serious danger to our personal, financial and societal well-being.”

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Homeowner defends against KB Home suit that seeks to shut down his website

Public Citizen comes to the defense of embattled homeowner

Public Citizen Defends Homeowner’s Grievance Site Domain Name Against Attack by Construction FirmDomain Name of Non-Commercial Website Calling for Ho...

PhotoA new homeowner has the legal right to use the name of his home’s construction company to publicize his website criticizing the company, Public Citizen argued this week in a case before the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Defendant Andrew Smith is one of a group of people living in the Willowbrook subdivision of Lakewood Ranch, Fla., who are dissatisfied with what they say is shoddy construction of their new homes and are calling on the construction company KB Home to take responsibility for its mistakes and buy back the homes. Smith created a non-commercial website at thekbhome.com to express his opinions and campaign for a buyback program.

In August, inspectors from the Manatee County, Fla., Building and Development Department inspected 27 homes in the Willowbrook development and found 20 of them to be "unsafe."

KB Home, one of the largest homebuilders in the U.S., has offered repairs but residents have refused. They are demanding that KB Home buy back the houses. Homeowners in the Willowbrook development have complained for years about what they say are  substandard materials and shoddy workmanship, particularly in the stucco, but say they have gotten nowhere.

"Our community of Willowbrook has been plagued with water intrusion issues and more," Andy, a Willowbrook resident, wrote in a post on ConsumerAffairsAndy and other residents complain that water continuously leaks into their homes, damaging strucco, rotting wood and forming mold.

KB fights back 

KB Home  Dec. 5, 2013, 6:51 p.m.
Consumers rate KB Home

On Oct. 15, KB Home filed a lawsuit against Smith, claiming that his domain name counts as prohibited cybersquatting rather than protected non-commercial speech. As Public Citizen’s memorandum explains, Smith’s site is protected for several reasons, including:

- Decisions of several federal courts have held that non-commercial commentary sites about a trademark holder may use the trademark holder’s name as their domain name without violating either the Lanham Act or the Anticyberquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA). The First Amendment also protects such speech.

- The fact that the objective of the expression on his website and in his domain name is to achieve a change that would benefit him personally, along with others in his community, is no reason to deny him constitutional or statutory protection.

Additionally, Public Citizen explains, KB Home is attempting to prejudice the court by associating Smith with a separate group of Willowbrook homeowners, who allegedly hacked into the wi-fi hotspot of a company doing repairs at Willowbrook and downloaded the company’s emails. But simple allegations of conspiracy are insufficient, the organization argued.

Not official

Upon visiting Smith’s site, one quickly sees a banner reading “Consumer Advocacy & Protection” and “Attention: This is not an official KB Home website!,” the latter in all capital letters.

“Andy Smith has used KB Home’s name to identify a website about how badly this developer is abusing its customers and to try to persuade the developer to buy back the lemons that it sold,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with Public Citizen who is representing Smith. “The price of public spirited free speech should not be having to defend against frivolous trademark claims.”

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Game systems, iPads work their way onto the list for Santa this year

America's kids are growing more tech-savvy each year

While kids still want classic toys like LEGO and Barbie for Christmas, so-called “nontraditional” items are finding their way onto wish lists this year. A...

PhotoWhile kids still want classic toys like LEGO and Barbie for Christmas, so-called “nontraditional” items are finding their way onto wish lists this year.

According to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2013 Top Toys survey, iPads are among the most popular gifts for both girls and boys -- with demand among young girls being slightly higher (girls #4, boys #13).

“Although consumers may spend slightly less on holiday gifts this year, parents will still find a way to check off items from their child’s wish list,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Early promotions and attractive holiday deals will put parents in a position to find their children the perfect gifts while still maintaining their budgets.”

What do they want?

According to NRF’s 2013 holiday consumer survey, 44.3% plan to buy toys as gifts this holiday season. Children are still asking for timeless items like Barbie and dolls (girls #1and #2 respectively) or LEGO and toy cars (boys #1 and #3 respectively).

And the younger generation is clearly more technologically savvy than ever, asking this year for tablets/iPads, smartphones (girls #11) and game consoles like Xbox One (boys #5) and PlayStation 4 (girls #10, boys #6).

PhotoOther popular toys for girls include Monster High Dolls (#3), Disney Princess (#4) and American Girl (#5). The hot new item for boys this year is Skylanders (#7), a hugely popular interactive video game that allows kids to play with a toy action figure at the same time.

“Timeless, classic toys will always resonate with children, but tablets and smartphones continue to steal more attention from today’s kids,” said Pam Goodfellow, consumer insights director for Prosper Insights and Analytics, which conducted the survey. She says that leaves mom and dad with no option but to look for ways to get their children their own items -- “and leave theirs alone.”

2013 Top Toys for Boys

1. LEGO

2. Video Games

3. Cars & Trucks (generic)

4. Hot Wheels

5. Xbox One

6. PlayStation 4

7. Skylanders

8. Remote Controlled Vehicles

9. Action Figures

10. Bicycle (T)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (T)

2013 Top Toys for Girls

1. Barbie

2. Dolls (generic)

3. Monster High Dolls

4. Disney Princesses (T)

Tablet/Apple iPad (T)

5. American Girl (T)

Lalaloopsy (T)

6. Furby

7. LEGO/LEGO Friends

8. Elmo/Big Hugs Elmo

9. Hello Kitty

10. My Little Pony (T)

PlayStation 4 (T)

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Online banking becoming the norm but still carries security issues

Banks encourage it but consumers need to use care in their transactions

It's getting to the point that if you are one of those rare consumers who doesn't use the Internet you are finding it more and more difficult to function i...

PhotoIt's getting to the point that if you are one of those rare consumers who doesn't use the Internet you are finding it more and more difficult to function in modern life.

Take banking, for instance. In the past you made regular trips to your nearest branch to make deposits and cash checks. You spent a lot of time at the end of the month writing checks to pay bills.

Now, you don't have to. Banking is easily done from your computer or mobile device and research suggests more of us are taking advantage of it. Ally Bank, an online institution, recently conducted a survey that found 24% of consumers now bank primarily online. The increase includes all age groups and shows a significant rise since 2010.

"Our survey data indicates a shift over the last several years, as more consumers look online to manage their finances," said Diane Morais, Ally Bank deposits and line of business executive. "Banking with a direct bank offers the same, if not more, opportunities and advantages as traditional banks with physical branches, and consumers appear to be gravitating toward this approach."

Banks encourage it

Make no mistake, banks – even those with huge investments in brick and mortar branches – would prefer that you do your banking online. Most banks offer incentives to you to do so, often waiving or reducing checking account fees if you use direct deposit and pay at least a few bills online each month.

As you might expect, younger consumers have embraced online banking with the most enthusiasm. The survey found that only 31% of consumers age 18-34 said visiting a bank branch is their primary method of banking. Among Millennials, 62% use either an ATM, visit the bank online using a computer or tablet, or use mobile banking either on a cell or smartphone.

That's a big change in just one year. In 2012 the bank's survey found that 46% of Millennials were visiting bank branches for customer service issues. That figure is down to 39 percent this year.

To resolve an issue Millennials said they either call the bank's customer service department by phone, utilize a live chat with a customer service representative, use email or utilize social media channels.

Mobile banking concerns

PhotoBanks are encouraging their customers to utilize online banking because it reduces their costs. But to make the practice universal may require a bit more persuasion, especially when it comes to mobile banking.

A study by Kaspersky Lab and B2B International, companies involved in cyber security, found about one third of users expressed concerns about the safety of conducting financial transactions using mobile devices. By the same token, only 22% said they had no concerns about moving money around with a smartphone or tablet.

Are these concerns justified? To some extent they may be. A mobile device can be easily lost or stolen and, if the user hasn't used password protection, whoever has the phone may be able to access your account. Even if the phone has some security protection, a skillful hacker may still be able to break in.

Public wi-fi no place to do business

Connecting your phone or tablet using a public wi-fi can be very dangerous if you are making a financial transaction. User names and passwords can be stolen and used to obtain access to online bank accounts.

Mobile apps sometimes are contaminated with viruses and malware. Downloading them may then give a hacker access to the device.

“Mobile banking is incredibly convenient, but customers need to remember that any device used to connect to the Internet is vulnerable,” said Frank Keating, President and CEO of the American Bankers Association (ABA). “Customers play an important role in the work that banks do to protect data.”

A recent ABA survey shows eight percent of consumers now prefer to do their banking using their mobile device. That may sound like a small number but it's a 30% increase in one year.

It makes security precautions all the more important – except for those consumers who still aren't using the Internet.

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Consumer Watchdog: deceptive Google Shopping results?

The first price isn't the best price when you search online

There’s a common saying about social media and other Internet companies: “If you’re not paying them anything, you’re not their cust...

PhotoThere’s a common saying about social media and other Internet companies: “If you’re not paying them anything, you’re not their customer; you’re what they’re selling.”

So if you use web-based email or Facebook or Google or other free sites — you pay nothing to use them, so how do these companies make money?  Through advertising, of course, and media companies that sell advertising space are basically selling an audience of potential buyers.

With that in mind, check out a complaint filed with the FTC by Consumer Watchdog, a California non-profit organization, complaining about what it says is deception in Google Shopping results.

Unfair and deceptive

Photo
John M. Simpson

“The way that the Internet giant is featuring results from Google Shopping without making it clear that the highlighted results are nothing more than advertisements for merchants who bid for placement is an unfair and deceptive act, violating Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act," said John Simpson, CW’s Privacy Project Director. "Moreover, consumers are actually being harmed because the featured results from Google Shopping more often than not return higher prices than can be found elsewhere, when consumers would reasonably expect Google’s suggestions to be the best.”

Hmm. Reading that made us recall a story we published last month about rent-to-own or lease-to-buy stores;  the gist of the piece is that you should avoid such businesses, because they sell furniture and appliances for much higher prices than ordinary retail stores. To demonstrate, we chose certain items and did price comparisons between the rental centers and various retail outlets, and said this: “We searched online for that make and model of television, and one of the first websites that came up is Kohl’s (which is not remotely the cheapest store we could find).”

We used Google to do that search, so we can say from our own experience: if you use Google to look for a smart TV, the first results will not offer the lowest prices.

However, Consumer Watchdog’s complaint is not based on any idea that Google is somehow obligated to prioritize its search results based on price. Instead, CW said this:

“Google’s presentation of the Google Shopping results disguises the fact that the results are in fact advertisements. Clicking on any one of the Google Shopping suggestions takes the user directly to the merchant’s page where the product can be purchased … Each suggestion is nothing more than an advertisement, however, there is no label that makes this clear.  The omission of an ad label is even more egregious when the Google Shopping results are presented surrounded by results that are marked as ads. Thus, the consumer can only conclude that the Google Shopping results are suggestions, not advertisements.”

A similar analysis from the Financial Timesshowed that “five out of every six items highlighted on a Google search are more expensive than the same items from other merchants hidden deeper in the Google Shopping service.”

Think of these results as yet another reminder why savvy consumers should never assume the first price they see is the best one.

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Are sharks our ancestors?

Scientists find surprising similarities in the genetic code of great white sharks and mammals

We've all known people who seemed a lot like sharks. And guess what? Scientists at Cornell have fished up some big surprises in what they say is the firs...

PhotoWe've all known people who seemed a lot like sharks. And guess what? Scientists at Cornell have fished up some big surprises in what they say is the first deep dive into a great white shark's genetic code. 

They found that  many of the endangered great white shark’s proteins involved in an array of different functions – including metabolism – match humans more closely than they do zebrafish, the quintessential fish model.

“We were very surprised to find, that for many categories of proteins, sharks share more similarities with humans than zebrafish,” Michael Stanhope, professor of evolutionary genomics at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said. “Although sharks and bony fishes are not closely related, they are nonetheless both fish … while mammals have very different anatomies and physiologies. Nevertheless, our findings open the possibility that some aspects of white shark metabolism, as well as other aspects of its overall biochemistry, might be more similar to that of a mammal than to that of a bony fish.”

Stanhope and scientists at the Save Our Seas Shark Research Center at Nova Southeastern University published the study in the November issue of BMC Genomics. It lays the foundation for genomic exploration of sharks and vastly expands genetic tools for their conservation, said Stanhope.

The study launched when Stanhope and Nova Southeastern professor Mahmood Shivji received a Save Our Seas Foundation grant and a rare gift of a great white shark heart. The heart had been autopsied from an illegally fished shark, confiscated by government authorities and donated to their project.

Of particular interest was that white shark had a closer match to humans for proteins involved in metabolism.

“Sharks have many fascinating characteristics,” said Stanhope. “Some give live birth to fully formed young, while some lay eggs. In some species, the embryos eat the remaining eggs or even other embryos while still developing in the uterus. Some can dive very deep, others cannot. Some stay local; others migrate across the entire ocean basins. White sharks dive deep, migrate very long distances and give live birth. We will use what we’ve learned in this species in a broader comparative study of genes involved in these diverse behaviors.”

Because sharks are apex predators, their decreasing number threatens the stability of marine ecosystems, on which millions of people rely for food. This study also increased the number of genetic markers scientists can use to study the population biology of great white and related sharks, Stanhope said, by a thousandfold, from which they hope to further expand knowledge of these fascinating animals, many of which are in urgent need of conservation.

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Latest numbers point to a strengthening economy

A second look at growth shows a strong autumn performance

The U.S economy, as measured by real gross domestic product (GDP), was doing a lot better in the third quarter of the year than we thought. The "second" e...

PhotoThe U.S economy, as measured by real gross domestic product (GDP), was doing a lot better in the third quarter of the year than we thought.

The "second" estimate released by the Commerce Department shows GDP -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S. -- increased at an annual rate of 3.6% in the July-September period. The first reading put the growth rate at 2.8%. The economy grew at an annual rate of 2.5% in the second quarter.

This latest estimate is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate issued last month. Specifically, the increase in private inventory investment was larger than previously estimated.

Consumers lend a hand

The increase reflects positive contributions from private inventory investment, personal consumption expenditures (PCE), exports, nonresidential fixed investment, residential fixed investment, and state and local government spending that were partly offset by a decline in federal government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

The acceleration is the result of stronger private inventory investment, a deceleration in imports, and a pick-up in state and local government spending that were partly offset by decelerations in exports, in PCE, and in nonresidential fixed investment.

The complete GDP report is available on the Bureau of Economic Analysis website.

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Holding the line on job cuts

There wasn't a lot of change between November and October

Job cuts were virtually unchanged in November, but that doesn't mean there were no pink slips. According to the latest report on monthly job cuts released...

PhotoJob cuts were virtually unchanged in November, but that doesn't mean there were no pink slips.

According to the latest report on monthly job cuts released by outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, U.S.-based employers announced plans to reduce their payrolls by 45,314 workers -- a decline of just 0.9% from the 45,730 planned job cuts announced in October.

Last month's job-cut total was 21% lower than the same month a year ago, when planned layoffs totaled 57,081, and marks the second consecutive month that job cuts came in below the year-ago figure. The October total was down 4.2% from October 2012.

Down for the year

So far in 2013, employers have announced 478,428 job cuts -- 2.5% fewer than the 490,806 cuts announced through eleven months of 2012. If they announce more than 44,934 planned layoffs in December, the 12-month total will surpass last year's of 523,362.

There is a strong possibility that 2013 job cuts will exceed last year’s total, considering that job cuts -- while averaging 43,493 per month year-to-date -- have averaged 45,449 over the last four months. However, December has experienced relatively low job-cut totals since the end of the recession, averaging 37,860 since 2009.

Retail hardest hit

The retail industry saw the heaviest job cutting in November, with 9,998 announced terminations. While the spike in retail cuts heading into the holiday sales season might be cause for alarm, the majority of the planned cuts were related to the closure of remaining Blockbuster video rental stores, as well as the sell-off and closure of a grocery store chain in Chicago.

Safeway Inc. plans to close all of its Dominick’s grocery stores in the Chicago, shedding 5,633 workers from its payroll. “However, there is a good chance that many of these workers will be re-hired by the several grocery-store operators that have agreed to purchase and take over many of the Dominick’s locations,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The key to successfully retaining their positions is to fully embrace the new owner’s way of doing business. There can be no, ‘This-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it’ mentality'.”

Impact of federal budget cuts

Meanwhile, the potential for job cuts at the nation’s aerospace and defense firms has been on the rise since federal budget cuts and sequestration measures were enacted to rein in budget deficits. In November, the sector announced 4,174 reductions, the third largest sector-total for the month. The majority were the result of job cuts planned by Lockheed Martin, where plant closures are expected to result in 4,000 job losses. The cuts were attributed directly to federal spending cutbacks. It was the largest job cut of the year attributed to federal spending cuts or sequestration.

To date, aerospace and defense firms have announced 33,850 job cuts and are on pace to turn in the heaviest 12-month total since 2009, when they reached 52,271. The year-to-date total for the sector ranks fifth among all industries for the year.

The financial sector has seen the largest number of job cuts through November, with employers announcing 59,189 reductions so far this year -- including 1,598 in November. The year-to-date total has nearly doubled (99.6%) from a year ago, when these employers announced 29,653 job cuts from January through November.

“Many of the recent cuts have been concentrated in the mortgage lending business, as banks shed many of the extra workers added to handle the flood of foreclosures and loan refinancing in the wake of the recession,” noted Challenger. “Recent increases in lending rates and home prices are also lowering demand for new mortgages, thus further reducing the need for additional workers.”

Initial claims

In related employment news, first-time applications for jobless benefits were down by 23,000 in the week ended November 30, to a seasonally adjusted 298,000. That brought the initial claims level to its lowest point since early September when the Labor Day holiday and computer glitches from California biased the data.

Analysts at Briefing.com say the current initial claims level also was biased by poor seasonal adjustments data from the Thanksgiving holiday and that, in all likelihood, this latest decline was not the result of an improvement in labor market conditions.

In fact, the Labor Department said adjustment problems have produced unreliable data for each of the past three weeks. Once the biases are removed, the Briefing analysts say, the initial claims level is expected to return to its previous trend of around 330,000 claims per week.

The 4-week moving average, which is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market because it lacks the volatility of the weekly number, was down 10,750 -- to 322,250.

The full report can be found on the Labor Department website.

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Manhattan Group recalls baby rattles

The colored arches can break

Manhattan Group of Minneapolis, Minn., is recalling about 12,400 Manhattan Toy Quixel baby rattles in the U.S. and Canada. The colored arches can break, c...

PhotoManhattan Group of Minneapolis, Minn., is recalling about 12,400 Manhattan Toy Quixel baby rattles in the U.S. and Canada.

The colored arches can break, creating a small part which poses a choking hazard to small children. The company has received four reports of the rattles breaking. No injuries have been reported.

This recall includes the Manhattan Toy Quixel baby rattles, which have four, colored arches (red, orange, green and blue) with sliding beads on each of the arches. The arches are held together by a single string of red, white and blue elastic. The rattle arches measure about 5 inches in diameter. The product was sold with or without a box. “Manhattan Toy” is printed on one of the arches.

The rattles, manufactured in China, were sold at specialty toy and baby stores nationwide, in Canada and online at www.manhattantoy.com from September 2011, through October 2013, for about $15.

Consumers should immediately take these rattles away from young children and return them to the store where purchased for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Manhattan Group at (800) 541-1345 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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SRAM recalls derailleurs for bicycles

The rear derailleur’s rear pivot pin can loosen or dislodge

SRAM LLC of Chicago, Ill., is recalling about 1,700 bicycle chain derailleurs. The rear derailleur’s rear pivot pin can loosen or dislodge causing the rea...

PhotoSRAM LLC of Chicago, Ill., is recalling about 1,700 bicycle chain derailleurs.

The rear derailleur’s rear pivot pin can loosen or dislodge causing the rear derailleur to jam or interfere with the wheel, posing a fall hazard. The firm has received reports of 43 incidents in the U.S. with one report of scrapes and bruises.

The SRAM RED WiFLi Rear Derailleur is a device that moves a bicycle chain gears on the rear wheel. The name SRAM RED and the serial number of the derailleur are located on the back of the inner pulley wheel cage plate and visible when looking thru the spokes of the bicycle wheel. Serial numbers of affected products begin with one of the following four-digit codes:

31T2 37T2 43T2 49T2 03T3 09T3

32T2 38T2 44T2 50T2 04T3 10T3

33T2 39T2 45T2 51T2 05T3 11T3

34T2 40T2 46T2 52T2 06T3

35T2 41T2 47T2 01T3 07T3

36T2 42T2 78T2 02T3 08T3

The derailleurs, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at specialty bicycle retailers nationwide from September 2012 to November 2013 for approximately $380 as an aftermarket installation. They were also sold as original equipment on new high-end bicycles.

Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles with the recalled SRAM RED derailleurs and return the bicycles to the place of purchase or any SRAM dealer for a free replacement, including installation. Consumers who bought the derailleurs as a stand-alone product can take them to the place of purchase for a free replacement or, for those who can make the equipment change themselves, contact SRAM for instructions on how to return the recalled product for the free replacement.

Consumers may contact SRAM at (800) 346-2928 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday CT.

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'Webrooming' this holiday season's biggest shopping trend

"Showrooming" is so 2012

Last year it was showrooming – the practice of checking out merchandise in a store, then ordering it online, usually from some place else.Retailers...

PhotoLast year it was showrooming – the practice of checking out merchandise in a store, then ordering it online, usually from some place else.

Retailers hate that and geared up this holiday season to try and counter it with aggressive online deals of their own. But consumers are on to a new trend – webrooming – according to a new survey from Harris Interactive.

Webrooming is just the reverse. A consumer will use a desktop or mobile device at home to check out deals, then head for the store to make the purchase. Retailers like that a little better, though truth be told most big box chains are now so heavily invested in an Internet sales model it probably doesn't matter.

The survey shows that nearly half of U.S. consumers – 46% – have showroomed, up only slightly from last holiday season. But this year 69% of consumers say they have webroomed.

Not mutually exclusive

Showrooming and webrooming are far from mutually exclusive. In fact, the survey shows that those who have done one are more likely to have done the other as well. Six in ten webroomers have showroomed and nearly nine in ten showroomers have webroomed.

All of this points to the importance of the Internet as a shopping tool. Consumers no longer go blindly into a transaction, with no idea what price another store might have on their item of interest.

While retailers may not like showrooming, webrooming places just as much – if not more – pressure on them. In the comfort of their home a consumer has plenty of time to visit multiple sites and conduct multiple searchers, reading multiple reviews before making a decision. In a crowded, noisy store with their smartphone, the same consumer might visit fewer sites before pushing the “buy” button.

That means retailers' websites not only have to have the best prices, their websites also have to be the most functional and easy to use.

You snooze you lose

Photo“If performance is slow, if you're on your mobile phone or a tablet, and you're not able to access the site quickly, people will abandon that transaction,” said Margaret Kuchler, Director of Industry Marketing for Akamai Technologies. “They may be less likely to revisit the site, and may be even less likely to purchase from the company in the future.”

Dr. Gary Edwards, Chief Customer Officer at Empathica, which consults the retail industry, agrees.

The takeaway for retailers is that shoppers expect the customer experience to be continuous across all channels,” he writes in a recent blog entry. “To take advantage of the webrooming trend, leading retail brands are launching initiatives that expand consumers’ access to information online, while retaining control over the customer journey by emphasizing brick-and-mortar as the customer’s final destination.” 

Other research suggests webrooming is more prevalent than showrooming among the Millennial generation. According to research conducted by the Urban Land Institute earlier this year, 50% of consumers age 18-34 prefer to research their purchase online before heading to the store, while only 11% said they preferred to showroom.

Winners

While new trends always present new opportunities for upstarts, the Harris Interactive poll suggests the established players are benefiting most. The survey shows showroomers are spending the most time at Walmart, Best Buy and Target, in that order – then doing the majority of their buying at Amazon.com.

However, Walmart, Best Buy and Target are benefiting the most from the webrooming trend, because after conducting their research at home, that's where most consumers are going to make their purchases, the survey shows.

"When it comes to the battle for consumers' holiday shopping dollars, all retailers are upping their games," said Mike de Vere, President of the Harris Poll. "Online versus brick and mortar retailers each have their own advantages, and poaching customers from competitors is all about playing to those strengths.”

It also provides more choices for consumers. Want to skip the crowded stores this holiday shopping season? Online is a clear answer. Feel better about being able to take your purchase home with you immediately? Brick and mortar stores have you covered.  

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How to avoid holiday mishaps

'Tis the season for accidents

With the shortened holiday season now in full swing, there's plenty of hustle and bustle, not to mention merry-making, mixed in with high levels of stress....

PhotoWith the shortened holiday season now in full swing, there's plenty of hustle and bustle, not to mention merry-making, mixed in with high levels of stress. It's no surprise, then, that the holiday season can also be accident season.

Citing the latest research available, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says holiday injuries are increasing with more than 13,000 people treated during the 2010 holiday season, up from 12,000 in 2009. Awareness and preparation can be keys to a safe holiday season that doesn't include a visit to the emergency room.

Wrap rage

Believe it or not, one of the biggest sources of minor accidents is “wrap rage,” where consumers become so frustrated trying to open plastic wrapping around toys and electronics that they cut themselves on the sharp edged packaging or with scissors, tools and knives when trying to pry the packages open. According to CPSC an average 6,000 people a year go to the emergency room due to packaging-related injuries.

“Gifts aren’t always designed to open easily, and some people will resort to using sharp objects to cut through hard plastic coverings,” says Dr. Bruce A. MacLeod, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and a practicing emergency physician in Pittsburgh. “Avoid using sharp objects to open difficult packaging and take your time to dodge holiday injuries when decorating, cooking, or even rushing about, especially in inclement weather. Remember, safety always comes first.”

Don't fall decking the halls

People go to great lengths to decorate their homes for the holidays but health experts suggest being sensible about it. The plastic Santa might look great on the roof but putting him up there could be an accident waiting to happen.

CPSC estimates during November and December more than 13,000 people will need medical attention from decorating-related injuries, such as falls, burns and lacerations. If you do venture to the roof, or any elevated place, keep ladders on level ground, clear debris and keep kids away from the area. When placing Santa and the reindeer on the roof, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says you should extend the ladder two or three rungs above the edge of the roof and don't stand on the top two rungs.

Kitchen safety

Big meals and exotic treats are usually part of the holiday season and when there's a lot of food sitting around for long periods of time, the possibility for spoilage and food poisoning exists. Cooking large quantities of meat, like turkey or rib roast, raises the possibility of under-cooking for chefs who don't prepare these dishes on a regular basis.

“Always cook meats thoroughly and refrigerate foods that need to stay cool,” said Charles Barbera, MD, president of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians and chairman of emergency medicine at The Reading Hospital and Medical Center. “You would rather be eating your holiday meal with your family at home than getting an IV in the hospital.”

Not accustomed to carving a turkey or ham on a regular basis? Be careful when you do it. ER doctors say they see too many of these carving accidents during the holidays, when hosts are often rushing, talking or drinking when cutting up the turkey, ham or roast. Never cut toward yourself. Your free hand should be placed opposite the side you’re carving.

Tree safety

Finally, make sure the Christmas tree doesn't go up in flames. Each holiday some 230 house fires start with Christmas trees. These fires cause an average of four deaths, 21 injuries and $17.3 million in direct property damage.

The U.S. Fire Administration, part of FEMA, says one in three Christmas tree fires are caused by electrical problems. A heat source too close to a Christmas tree is another common source of fires.

December is the peak time of year for home candle fires. In December, 11% of home candle fires began with decorations compared to four percent the rest of the year, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

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Correction: Frogs and toads are still croaking

Rate of abnormalities is lower in some places but, as a group, amphibians are still imperiled

A few weeks ago, we reported that the rate of abnormalities in frogs and toads was lower than expected but we incorrectly went on to say that fears of an a...

PhotoA few weeks ago, we reported that the rate of abnormalities in frogs and toads was lower than expected but we incorrectly went on to say that fears of an amphibian "die-out" had been disproven by the study.
 
As often happens, in trying to explain a nuanced, complex scientific study in language accessible to the general-interest public, we reached a conclusion not supported by the study.
 
In fact, say the scientists who conducted the study, "Localized Hotspots Drive Continental Geography of Abnormal Amphibians on U.S. Wildlife Refuges," frogs and toads are still disappearing from the earth, but they are not displaying as many abnormalities -- missing legs, among others -- as had been expected, at least on National Wildlife Refuges of the U.S. The study identified large areas of the country where abnormal amphibians were rare on refuge lands, but also several places (in California, Alaska and the Mississippi River Valley) that deserve further consideration for higher rates of abnormalities than expected.     
 
"Despite our recent findings regarding abnormal frogs on National Wildlife Refuges, the science of amphibian conservation tells us that frogs are in fact croaking. There is a big difference between abnormalities (what we measured) and amphibian population declines (what we did not measure, but others did)," said Mari K. Reeves, PhD, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. "By definition, to measure abnormalities, we need to be able to find frogs. Where frogs are not living any longer is where others have measured a loss of amphibians from areas, indicating population declines."
 
Reeves told ConsumerAffairs both are important things to measure.
 
"But they tell you different things," she said. "Abnormalities can tell you where frogs are still present, but they may need some help. Declines tell you where you have lost species from places altogether, something we know is happening worldwide, including in the U.S."
 
A real issue
 
"Amphibian population declines are a real issue facing a class of organisms that has been on earth for over 350 million years, and our best research shows them to be extremely imperiled," Reeves said. "Amphibians are key components of ecosystems, both as consumers of algae in aquatic environments and insects on land, and as food for other important wildlife farther up the food chain (like birds, mammals, and snakes). Their loss is transforming habitats globally. They are important and they are imperiled," she said.
 
Several studies support that assertion, including a 2004 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which estimated that 31.7% of the U.S. amphibian species were in decline. It may, however, be even worse than that, according to a later study --  "Trends in Amphibian Occupany in the United States" -- published in May 2013 in PLOS One.
 
"Our most interesting (and troubling) finding is probably that even the species that the IUCN categorizes as 'Least Concern' (species they thought were doing OK) were declining at 2.7% per year in our study," said Michael J. Adams, PhD, of the U.S. Geological Survey, who led the study.
 
"That may not sound like a lot but would result in those species disappearing from half their range in about 27 years if that trend continued," Adams told ConsumerAffairs. "Overall, the trends we documented suggest that amphibian declines may be more widespread and severe than previously thought."
 
While no single cause has been pinpointed, Adams suggests the obvious candidates include land use change, disease, pollution and global climate change, interacting with each other and with such other factors as habitat degradation and contamination.
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More cable subscribers are cutting, or at least thinning, the cord

Consumers are starting to add up their monthly entertainment bills

It's pretty eye-opening to look at what consumers are paying each month for cable TV, Internet access, telephone service, wireless and other information pr...

PhotoIt's pretty eye-opening to look at what consumers are paying each month for cable TV, Internet access, telephone service, wireless and other information products like satellite radio, streaming music and video, just to name a few.

It's not surprising that consumers are not only becoming price-conscious but are starting to look for ways to cut back on their information and entertainment spending, as a new survey from Digitalsmiths finds.

The cable bill -- the highest monthly entertainment bill in most households -- is where most customers are starting to whittle away at their expenditures, with Digitalsmith finding that pay-TV "cord-cutting" and "cord-thinning" both climbed a bit in the third quarter.  

Among pay TV customers -- representing some 90% of U.S. TV homes -- 17% either trimmed pay TV networks and services or removed them completely in the third quarter -- up from 14% in the second quarter and 13.4% in the first quarter.

And the trend shows no signs of stopping. The study found that 34% of respondents answered “maybe” when asked if they were considering changing their pay-TV packages. Nearly 7% are planning to change their cable, satellite and telco company while nearly 3% are planning to cut service altogether.

Fully 43.6% of respondents said they are paying more for TV service versus a year ago; 39.3% are paying the same, and only 17.1% are paying less. Over 21% of TV consumers are paying $151 or more per month for all TV, Internet and phone services; 16.9% are at $126 to $150; 19.4% are at $101 to $125; 19.3% are at $76 to $100; and 15.5% are at $51 to $75.

The survey results came from 3,177 consumers in the U.S. and Canada, 18 years and older.

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Delta tells Supreme Court it can boot passengers from its frequent flier program at will

Airline argues with a straight face that it has no obligation to treat passengers fairly

Rabbi GinsbergA lawyer for Delta Airlines told the Supreme Court today that airlines have the right to treat their most loyal customers badly whenever ...

Photo
Rabbi Ginsberg

A lawyer for Delta Airlines told the Supreme Court today that airlines have the right to treat their most loyal customers badly whenever they feel like it. The case involved a Minneapolis rabbi, Binyomin Ginsberg, who was booted out of the Northwest Airlines frequent flier program because he complained too much.

Ginsberg was booted out of Northwest's program even though he had achieved "platinum" status, flying hundreds of thousands of miles on Northwest as he traveled around the country as an educational consultant. Northwest subsequently merged with Delta, which today defended the action with a straight face.

Attorney Paul Clement argued that Northwest's program gave the airline "sole discretion" to decide whether or not to honor the miles earned by members of its frequent flier program. He also argued that Minnesota contract law -- which requires all parties to act fairly and good faith -- didn't apply because the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 pre-empted state laws relating to such matters.

"This happened at the time that Northwest and Delta were merging," Ginsberg told the Minneapolis City Pages earlier this year. "The suspicion was that they had too many frequent fliers at the higher status in their roll, and they were showing too much of a liability on a balance sheet for the accumulated miles by those passengers. So they had to creatively find ways of getting rid of people."

In Ginsberg's case, he got a call from Northwest in 2008 advising him that he was being booted out of the frequent-flier program. Why? Ginsberg says Northwest told him he complained too much.

A Public Citizen lawyer argued Ginsberg's case before the high court today.

“The Airline Deregulation Act does not give airlines free rein to breach the obligation to perform their contracts in good faith.” said attorney Adina Rosenbaum prior to today's hearing. “Moreover, claims that are about membership in a frequent flyer program are not sufficiently related to air travel to be pre-empted.”

A decision is expected by next June.

 

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A rebound in job creation

ADP says November showed a big improvement over the previous month

Two days in advance of the official word from the government, ADP is reporting a substantial increase in new jobs for the month of November. The firm's Na...

PhotoTwo days in advance of the official word from the government, ADP is reporting a substantial increase in new jobs for the month of November.

The firm's National Employment Report says private sector employment rose by 215,000 jobs from October to November, following October's creation of 184,000 positions.

"According to ADP National Employment Report findings, the U.S. private sector added 215,000 jobs during November making it the strongest month for job growth in 2013,” said Carlos Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of ADP. “It’s an encouraging sign as we head toward the new year."

The report, which is compiled in collaboration with Moody’s Analytics, is derived from ADP’s actual payroll data. It measures the change in total nonfarm private employment each month on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

Booming services sector

Once again, service-providing industries led the way, adding 176,000 jobs in November -- up 20,000 from in October and the largest gain in the service sector in a year. Among the service industries trade/transportation/utilities added the most jobs with 45,000 over the month. Professional/business services employment rose by 38,000, while financial activities added 5,000 jobs.

Factories crank it up

Goods-producing employment rose by 40,000 jobs in November, 11,000 more than in October. Construction and manufacturing payrolls added 18,000 jobs each, with the gain for manufacturing the largest since early 2012.

"The job market remained surprisingly resilient to the government shutdown and brinkmanship over the treasury debt limit,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. “Employers across all industries and company sizes looked through the political battle in Washington. If anything, job growth appears to be picking up.”

Businesses with 49 or fewer employees added 102,000 jobs in November, while employment levels among medium-sized companies with 50-499 employees rose by 48,000 and employment at large companies -- those with 500 or more employees -- increased by 65,000.

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New home sales soar in October

Mortgage applications, meanwhile, were lower last week

October was a banner month for new home sales. Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show...

PhotoOctober was a banner month for new home sales.

Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show sales of new single-family houses shot up 25.4% in to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 444,000. That's 21.6% above the same month a year ago when houses sold at a rate of 365,000.

Despite the sales improvement, home prices were mixed. The median sales price of new houses sold in October was $245,800 down $11,600 from September. The median price is the point at which half are higher and half are lower. The average sales price rose $7,800 from September -- to $321,700.

The estimate of new houses for sale at the end of October was 183,000, which represents a supply of 4.9 months at the current sales rate.

The full report can be found on the Census Bureau website.

Mortgage Applications

PhotoThere was a big drop in mortgage applications during the Thanksgiving holiday-shortened week of November 29.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 12.8% from the previous week. In addition, the Refinance Index decreased 18% from the previous week -- to its lowest level since the week ending September 6, 2013.

The refinance share of mortgage activity stood at 63%, a loss of 3% from 66 percent the previous week, while the adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 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 4.51% from 4.48%, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.31 (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) rose one basis point to 4.49%, with points increasing to 0.24 from 0.15 (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 4.17% from 4.16%, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.24 (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 3.56% -- up 4 basis points from 3.52%, with points increasing to 0.32 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% L