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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

    I 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

    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.

    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.

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

    Could 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. 

    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.

    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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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.

      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

      The 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

      American 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

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

      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 ...
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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 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. 

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.   

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.  

      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...
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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 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.

      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.

      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...
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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 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. 

      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...
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      Unloading unwanted gifts: the traditonal post-Christmas hangover

      Still, it IS the thought that counts

      Let’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.

      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...
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      Stores with the best, and worst, return policies

      Website rates Costco the best, Sears the worst

      Now that Christmas is over consumers who were in a rush the last few weeks to buy presents will be lining up at stores' customer service departments to return some of the gifts they received. The process is easy at some stores but not so easy at others.

      Personal finance website GoBankingRates.com has rated major retailers' return policies, choosing the best and the worst. While we all have our own ideas about what makes a good return policy, the website's editors went about it methodically.

      “The factors we considered were things like the length of time you have to return something, whether you get cash back or only store credit and whether the product has been used or not,” said Casey Bond, managing editor at GoBankingRates.com.

      Costco judged the best

      Winning the top spot as the store with the best return policy was Costco.

      “They have just about everything you could ever want to buy in one place and that makes them a great retailer,” Bond said. “Their return policy is very generous. Generally there is no specific time frame for returning something.”

      Costco's full refunds take the form of cash or check.

      Number two on the list of stores with the best return policies is Nordstrom. No formal return policy exists; returns handled on a case-to-case basis as long as Nordstrom carries the product. There is no specific time limit. Bond said Nordstrom's place on the list should come as no surprise.

      “This is a company that has a really long history of excellent customer service and their return policy is part of that,” she said.

      Coming in at number three is Zappos, a shoe retailer that mostly sells its products online. Returns are accepted up to one year after purchase and include free shipping.

      Sears earns dubious honor

      Consumers trying to return gifts to these stores are in luck. But not so lucky, according to Bond, if your gift was purchased at Sears, which tops the list of retailers with the worst return policy.

      “They have the most complicated policy ever,” Bond said. “It's a tiered system tied to what is purchased and the return time window is very short.”

      The retailer with the second-worst return policy is Best Buy. It too is somewhat complicated.

      “The most interesting thing about Best Buy is the time frame for returning something depends on how much that customer has spent with the store over the last year. People who spend $3,500 or more get the longest time frame.”

      Consumers who haven't spent anything with Best Buy previously get the shortest return window – 15 days.

      The third retailer on the list of worst return policies is American Apparel. Bond says it made the list primarily because of the hoops consumers have to jump through to return an item. Returns aren't accepted at stores, they have to be shipped.

      In the past, Target has generated numerous complaints from ConsumerAffairs readers frustrated by the return process but apparently there have been changes. Bond says Target very nearly made the top three of best return policies. 

      “They came in number six among the best, right around the middle,” she said. “I personally have had very good experiences with Target returns.”

      It's very likely that in the days and weeks ahead, millions of consumers will have some kind of experience – good or bad – trying to return a gift. The National Retail Federation reports nearly $60 billion worth of holiday merchandise was returned last January.

      Now that Christmas is over consumers who were in a rush the last few weeks to buy presents will be lining up at stores' customer service departments to ret...
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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 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

      Separately, 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

      The 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.  

      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...
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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 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

      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.
      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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