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Is political peace possible on Facebook?

Researcher suggests listening to, not tuning out, opposing views

The 2012 election seems like ancient history now but some of the friendships damaged by political posturing on Facebook linger on.Bob, a retired military...

PhotoThe 2012 election seems like ancient history now but some of the friendships damaged by political posturing on Facebook linger on.

Bob, a retired military officer in Washington, D.C., who voted for Obama, said it remains hard to read some of the posts by Facebook friends who supported Romney. He says the Facebook experience has begun to color his real-life relationships.

“It got nasty,” he said. “Instead of enabling relationships Facebook is destroying them.”

Carla Naumburg, a Massachusetts blogger, posted a plea last Election Day for peace on both sides of the Facebook political divide.

“I started getting concerned when I noticed friends announcing that they will unfriend people on Facebook who are voting for the other guy,” she wrote. “I saw the same trend on Twitter, and on the news. And I realized that relationships are falling apart all over the country, not just in my community.”

Disturbing trend

It's not just consumers and bloggers who have noted this disturbing trend. A new study from Georgia Tech examines how politics divides people on social media. People who think their friends have opposing opinions engage less on Facebook, they discovered.

For those who stay logged in and express their political views, the researchers found they tend to stick to their own circles, ignore those on the other side and become more polarized.

In an effort to be helpful, the researchers came up with a few suggestions for Facebook. They say that by displaying shared interests between friends during their politically heated encounters, Facebook could help defuse possible arguments and alleviate tension. In other words, people need to be reminded of what they have in common, despite political differences. They say increasing exposure and engagement to weak ties could make people more resilient in the face of political argument.

Echo chamber

“People are mainly friends with those who share similar values and interests. They tend to interact with them the most, a phenomenon called homophily,” said Catherine Grevet, the Georgia Tech Ph.D. student who led the study. “But that means they rarely interact with the few friends with differing opinions. As a result, they aren’t exposed to opposing viewpoints.”

The researchers fault Facebook’s algorithms. Newsfeeds are filled with the friends a person most often interacts with, typically those with strong ties. Grevet would like to see Facebook sprinkle in a few status updates on both sides of political issues. That, she says, would expose people to different opinions, which are typically held by weak ties.

“Designing social media toward nudging users to strengthen relationships with weak ties with different viewpoints could have beneficial consequences for the platform, users and society,” said Grevet.

The study

Facebook Jan. 31, 2014, 2:28 p.m.
Consumers rate Facebook

Grevet's study examined more than 100 politically active Facebook users in the spring of 2013 amid debates about budget cuts, gay marriage and gun control regulations. The majority of participants were liberal, female and under the age of 40, reflecting the traditional Facebook user.

More than 70% of participants said they don’t talk about politics with their friends with different opinions. When they were presented with a post they didn’t agree with, 60% said they ignored it and didn’t comment. When they did, sometimes it made the person question the relationship and drop the friend.

“Even though people could simply unfriend someone with different opinions, and there were certainly those who did that, there were many relationships that were able to be maintained,” said Grevet. “Through a combination of behaviors on Facebook like hiding, tuning out, logging off or avoiding certain conversations, people negotiated around those differences to stay connected.”

But Grevet thinks Facebook users should embrace their differences and that the social media site could make that happen if it would remind friends of their shared interests.

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PHH accused in mortgage insurance kickback scheme

Feds say the company collected hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks

An alleged a mortgage insurance kickback scheme is at the heart of an administrative proceeding brought against PHH Corporation and its affiliates by th...

PhotoAn alleged a mortgage insurance kickback scheme is at the heart of an administrative proceeding brought against PHH Corporation and its affiliates by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

CFPB claims consumers were harmed by the scheme that started as early as 1995, and is seeking a civil fine, a permanent injunction to prevent future violations, and victim restitution.

The filing is against New Jersey-based PHH Corporation and its residential mortgage origination subsidiaries, PHH Mortgage Corporation and PHH Home Loans LLC, and PHH’s wholly-owned subsidiaries, Atrium Insurance Corporation and Atrium Reinsurance Corporation.

Mortgage insurance

Mortgage insurance is typically required on loans when homeowners borrow more than 80% of the value of their home. It protects the lender against the risk of default. Generally, the lender -- not the borrower -- selects the mortgage insurer. The borrower pays the insurance premium every month in addition to the mortgage payment.

While mortgage insurance can help borrowers get a loan when they cannot make a 20% down payment, it also adds to the cost of monthly payments for borrowers who have little equity in their homes.

Ken of Puyallup, Wash., had an experience with PHH that left him shaking his head. "Got a runaround for a year and a half, lied to, ripped off, forcing me to use their insurance," he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "After all this time hassling back and forth, they gave me a 2% discount on my loan. (Big deal.) Crooks and scammers. My principal has not gone down since I started this loan and I'm current on my payment. Where did this money go that was supposed to go toward my loan? Payments-- where did my payment go?"

Doing damage

Mortgage insurance can be harmful when illegal kickbacks inflate its cost. Increasing the burden on borrowers who already have little equity increases the risk that they will default on their mortgages. The Real Estate Settlements Procedures Act (RESPA) protects consumers by banning kickbacks that tend to unnecessarily increase the cost of mortgage settlement services. It also helps promote a level playing field by ensuring companies compete for business on fair and transparent terms.

CFPB says its investigation showed that when PHH originated mortgages, it referred consumers to mortgage insurers with which it partnered. In exchange for this referral, these insurers purchased “reinsurance” from PHH’s subsidiaries. Reinsurance is supposed to transfer risk to help mortgage insurers cover their own risk of unexpectedly high losses.

According to the Notice of Charges, PHH took the reinsurance fees as kickbacks, in violation of RESPA. The CFPB alleges that because of PHH’s scheme, consumers ended up paying more in mortgage insurance premiums.

Enforcement action

The Notice contends that PHH used mortgage reinsurance arrangements to solicit and collect illegal kickback payments and unearned fees -- through its affiliates Atrium Insurance Corporation and Atrium Reinsurance Corporation -- in exchange for the referral of private mortgage insurance business. The bureau believes that from the start of the arrangements, and continuing into at least 2009, PHH manipulated its allocation of mortgage insurance business to maximize kickback reinsurance payments for itself.

PHH Corporation and its affiliates are specifically accused of:

  • Kickbacks: Over approximately 15 years, the CFPB alleges that PHH set up a system whereby it received as much as 40% of the premiums that consumers paid to mortgage insurers, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks;
  • Overcharging Loans: In some cases, PHH charged more money for loans to consumers wPhotoho did not buy mortgage insurance from one of its kickback partners. In general, they charged these consumers additional percentage points on their loans; and
  • Creating Higher-Priced Insurance: PHH pressured mortgage insurers to “purchase” its reinsurance with the understanding or agreement that the insurers would then receive borrower referrals from PHH. PHH continued to steer business to its mortgage insurance partners even when it knew the prices its partners charged were higher than competitors’ prices.

This case will be tried by an Administrative Law Judge from the CFPBs Office of Administrative Adjudication, an independent adjudicatory office within the bureau. The Administrative Law Judge will hold hearings and make a recommended decision regarding the charges, which may be appealed to the director of the CFPB for a final decision.

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Change your Yahoo passwords! There's been another security breach

No, not the Yahoo security breach you already know about; this is a new one

If you have a Yahoo email account, you'll definitely want to change your password, in case yours was one of the countless millions stolen by hackers...

PhotoIf you have a Yahoo email account, you'll definitely want to change your password, in case yours was one of the countless millions stolen by hackers in the latest bad-Yahoo-security story.

Yahoo announced the problem on its blog, in an “Important Security Update For Yahoo Mail Users.” The important update started out with an understatement: “Security attacks are unfortunately becoming a more regular occurrence.”

Indeed. This end-of-January Yahoo email breach is not to be confused with the earlier Yahoo malware attack from the beginning-of-January (actually, it started on New Year's Eve). And, so far as we know, neither the end-of-January nor the beginning-of-January security breaches are connected to the middle-of-January problem wherein emails sent through the Yahoo system simply vanished for some unknown mystery reason.

At any rate, where this most recent security problem is concerned, Yahoo's blog says “Recently, we identified a coordinated effort to gain unauthorized access to Yahoo Mail accounts.... The information sought in the attack seems to be names and email addresses from the affected accounts’ most recent sent emails.”

As an end user, the only thing you can do is change your Yahoo password. Hopefully, you're not in the habit of using the same password for multiple sites, but if you are: don't just change your Yahoo password, change your password on every account that shared it.

And this time, make sure you have a separate password for each account; that way, a hacker who gains access to one of your accounts at least won't gain access to all of them.

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10 Luxury cars under $40,000

Kelly Blue Book finds a handful that don't break the bank

Luxury cars, by their very nature, are expensive and many can easily set you back $50,000 or more. But there are cars in this class that can be had for les...

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Facebook and SecondSync team up to analyze your TV discussion data

Unrelated to recent class action suits charging Facebook with data manipulation

On Jan. 30, Facebook proudly announced on its blog that it is teaming up with a “social TV analytics specialist” called SecondSync in order to ...

PhotoOn Jan. 30, Facebook proudly announced on its blog that it is teaming up with a “social TV analytics specialist” called SecondSync in order to “help clients understand how people are using Facebook to talk about topics such as TV,” according to the blog post.

We don't know who these clients are or what specific understanding they lack, and we especially don't know why SecondSync thinks this partnership with Facebook is a good idea.

After all: Facebook is already facing multiple class action lawsuits charging that it has not only been reading the contents of allegedly “private” messages sent on its site, but also using links to massage “like” counts.

In other words, if you and your friend both think Congressman Dungheap is an idiot, and occasionally private-message each other with a link to his Facebook page alongside commentary like “Wow, the congressman is being extra-stupid today, even for him” – that bit of political analysis there actually increases the congressman's “like” count on Facebook, if the lawsuit allegations are correct.

(And they very well might be; as early as October 2012, The Next Web tech blog reported “Facebook confirms it is scanning your private messages for links to increase Like counters.”)

Inflated feelgood data

Granted, if Congressman Dungheap is 14 years old and really, really wants his Facebook page to have more Likes than the Facebook pages of his classmates down at the middle school, then having Facebook portray him as more popular than he is probably counts as a good thing, from Dungheap's perspective.

But if Dungheap is, hypothetically, a grownup politician trying to figure out what the voters actually think about him, so as to determine what campaign strategies might best increase his chance of re-election – in that case, we can't help wondering if maybe falsely inflated feelgood data is worse than no data at all.

Does Facebook do the same with TV shows? If you and five of your Facebook friends all agree “I hate this stupid TV show, which insults both my intelligence and my basic baseline humanity,” will Facebook conclude “Whoa, there's six people who really hate that stupid TV show,” or will the stupid TV show's Facebook page get six more Likes added to its counter?

Since SecondSync is supposed to help Facebook analyze whatever TV data it gleans from its users, we'll guess/hope the answer to both questions is “No.”

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Hope on the horizon for peanut allergy sufferers?

Brtish researchers reduce severity of peanut allergies via controlled exposure

There's possible good news for peanut allergy sufferers, though it definitely falls under the “Don't try this at home” category...

PhotoThere's possible good news for peanut allergy sufferers, though it definitely falls under the “Don't try this at home” category: British medical researchers have reported success in a strategy wherein they treated allergy sufferers by regularly exposing them to small amounts of peanut protein (under strict doctor supervision and other controlled conditions, of course, so don't try this at home).

The Independent, summarizing a study published in the Lancet medical journal, reported that “Out of 99 children who were given the new form of immunotherapy, 84 per cent of one group and 91 per cent of a second group could safely eat five peanuts a day after six months – 25 times what they would normally be able to tolerate and more than they would be likely to encounter in everyday foods.”

If you have an allergy – to peanuts or anything else – this means that for some reason, your immune system treats a generally innocuous substance as though it were an actual infectious threat. Nobody knows exactly why the number and percentage of allergy sufferers has increased in recent decades – in America, those “May contain peanuts” warnings you see on various non-peanut foods didn't start appearing until the mid-1990s or so.

But there are various competing theories: perhaps the increase in allergies is due to modern, sterile living environments – with no microbes to fight, the immune system goes after something else. Maybe it's due to changes in the industrial processes used to prepare these foods. Or maybe there aren't actually more allergic kids than before; maybe we're just doing a better job of identifying and treating them.

Can be deadly

PhotoWhatever the cause ultimately proves to be, peanut allergies appear to be among the deadliest; for children with particularly bad allergies, exposure to even trace amounts of peanut protein can lead to anaphylactic shock that can be fatal without immediate medical treatment — which is why an immunotherapy granting people the ability to safely eat a mere “five peanuts a day” after six months is such a potentially important breakthrough: not enough to let allergy sufferers nosh on peanut-butter candies, but at least sufficient to let them safely sit in the vicinity of those who do or nibble on cookies or other foods that may contain the merest trace of peanut protein.

Despite the promising first step offered by this study, additional years of clinical trials will almost certainly be required before this therapy is widely offered to people with allergies.

And again: don't try this at home. Anyone with food allergies should consult a board-certified allergist or immunologist for treatment and advice.

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Amazon Prime looks at raising its Prime membership fee

Free shipping, free videos, it's almost too good to be true

If you're an Amazon Prime member, you're in good company. So are 25 million or so other consumers. For $79 per year, you enjoy free two-day shipping on man...

PhotoIf you're an Amazon Prime member, you're in good company. So are 25 million or so other consumers. For $79 per year, you enjoy free two-day shipping on many purchases and a growing library of free streaming videos. 

Back when Prime started, it sounded a little too good to be true, which raised our suspicions, so we ordered a lawn mower just to see what would happen. What happened was that two days later, a large box containing a lawn mower showed up on our front step. And yes, the price was lower than nearby stores.

So Prime is a pretty good deal, maybe a little too good. Which is why Amazon is finally starting to talk about raising the fee by as much as 50 percent, a move that would add about $500 million to Amazon's bottom line.

Kind of odd

PhotoAmazon is, to say the least, unusual. It has for years put growth and customer service ahead of profit. It's a strategy that has paid off, sort of. It has produced stellar growth and unprecedented loyalty -- revenue growth of 22 percent last year, 10 times greater than Walmart's 2.2 percent growth rate and greater than the worldwide average ecommerce growth rate of 18 percent.

All that is great, but the company is still not consistently profitable, and Prime is part of the reason. It's estimated Amazon loses $1 to $2 billion on Prime each year.

All of this might be OK if Amazon was a private company that didn't have to answer to investors, but it's not, and Wall Street would like to see a bottom line that has a lot of zeros after the quarterly profit.

So if you were planning to order, let's say, a snow blower or some other big bulky item without getting stuck for the shipping cost, this might be the time to do it. 

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Consumer spending rises in December as incomes remain flat

Do the math: That means people were saving less

While personal incomes pretty much stayed the course in December -- rising less than 0.1% -- personal consumption expenditures (PCE), or consumer spending,...

PhotoWhile personal incomes pretty much stayed the course in December -- rising less than 0.1% -- personal consumption expenditures (PCE), or consumer spending, jumped 0.4%.

In dollar terms, that works out to an income increase of $2.3 billion and a PCE rise of $44.1 billion.

Disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- decreased $3.8 billion, or less than 0.1 percent.

Wages and salaries

Private wages and salaries increased $0.7 billion in December, after surging $35.0 billion in November. Payrolls of goods producing industries' increased $4.2 billion last month, with manufacturing payrolls accounting for $2.7 billion of that.

Services-producing industries' payrolls fell $3.6 billion, while government wages and salaries increased $0.9 billion.

Personal spending and savings

Personal outlays, which are made up of PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments, were up $42.0 billion in December. PCE increased $44.1 billion.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- took a hit last month , falling to 3.9% from 4.3% in November. Put another way, consumers salted away $495.2 billion in December, compared with

$541.0 billion in the month before.

The complete report can be found on the Bureau of Economic Analysis website.

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Watch out for third-hand smoke, the goop that second-hand smoke leaves on surfaces

It gets more toxic with time and can cause serious health problems, researchers find

Third-hand smoke shown to cause health problemsUC Riverside-led study shows third-hand smoke causes hyperactivity and significant damage in liver, lung; ...

PhotoEverybody knows smoking is bad for smokers, and any bartender will tell you second-hand smoke is annoying and harmful. But third-hand smoke? Who even knew there was such a thing?

Well, there is and it's as dangerous as second-hand smoke. Third-hand smoke is defined as the second-hand smoke that gets left on the surfaces of objects, ages over time and becomes progressively more toxic, according to a scientist at the University of California, Riverside who, along with colleagues, conducted the first animal study of the effects of third-hand smoke.

"We studied, on mice, the effects of third-hand smoke on several organ systems under conditions that simulated third-hand smoke exposure of humans," said Manuela Martins-Green, a professor of cell biology who led the study. "We found significant damage occurs in the liver and lung. Wounds in these mice took longer to heal. Further, these mice displayed hyperactivity."

The study, which was published in PLOS One, provides a basis for further studies on the toxic effects of third-hand smoke in humans and serves to inform potential regulatory policies aimed at preventing involuntary exposure to third-hand smoke, Martins-Green said.

Threat to children

Third-hand smoke is a potential health threat to children, spouses of smokers and workers in environments where smoking is, or has been, allowed. Contamination of the homes of smokers by third-hand smoke is high, both on surfaces and in dust, including children's bedrooms.

Re-emission of nicotine from contaminated indoor surfaces in these households can lead to nicotine exposure levels similar to that of smoking. Third-hand smoke, which contains strong carcinogens, has been found to persist in houses, apartments and hotel rooms after smokers move out, the researchers said.

The team led by Martins-Green found that the mice exposed to third-hand smoke in the lab showed alterations in multiple organ systems and excreted levels of a tobacco-specific carcinogen similar to those found in children exposed to second-hand smoke.

In behavioral tests the mice exposed to third-hand smoke showed hyperactivity.

"The latter data, combined with emerging associated behavioral problems in children exposed to second- and third-hand smoke suggests that with prolonged exposure, they may be at significant risk for developing more severe neurological disorders," Martins-Green said.

Previously unknown

Although the potential risks attributed to third-hand smoke exposure are increasing, virtually nothing was known about the specific health implications of acute or cumulative exposure — until now.

"There is a critical need for animal experiments to evaluate biological effects of exposure to third-hand smoke that will inform subsequent human epidemiological and clinical trials," Martins-Green said. "Such studies can determine potential human health risks, design of clinical trials and potentially can contribute to policies that lead to reduction in both exposure and disease."

Her research team was surprised to find that the damage caused by third-hand smoke extends to several organs in the body.

"More recently we have found that exposure to third-hand smoke results in changes that can lead to type II diabetes even when the person is not obese," Martins-Green said. "There is still much to learn about the specific mechanisms by which cigarette smoke residues harm nonsmokers, but that there is such an effect is now clear. Children in environments where smoking is, or has been allowed, are at significant risk for suffering from multiple short-term and longer health problems, many of which may not manifest fully until later in life."

Research has shown that children living with one or two adults who smoke in the home, where second- and third-hand smoke are abundant, are absent 40 percent more days from school due to illness than children who did not live with smokers.

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Britax recalls strollers

The hinge on the stroller’s folding mechanism can partially amputate consumers’ fingertips

Britax Child Safety of Fort Mill, S.C., is recalling about 224,800 B-Agile, B-Agile Double and BOB Motion strollers. The hinge on the stroller’s folding m...

PhotoBritax Child Safety of Fort Mill, S.C., is recalling about 224,800 B-Agile, B-Agile Double and BOB Motion strollers.

The hinge on the stroller’s folding mechanism can partially amputate consumers’ fingertips, break their fingers or cause severe lacerations, among other injuries, when they press the release button while pulling on the release strap.

The company has received eight incident reports. Incidents include one partial fingertip amputation, one broken finger and severe finger lacerations.

This recall involves Britax B-Agile, B-Agile Double and BOB Motion strollers. The single and double strollers were sold in various color schemes, including black, red, kiwi, sandstone, navy and orange. They were manufactured between March 2011 and June 2013 and have the following model numbers:

  • U341763, U341764, U341782 and U341783 for the B-Agile strollers;
  • U361818 or U361819 for the B-Agile Double strollers; 
  • U391820, U391821 andU391822 for the BOB Motion strollers.

The model number and the manufacture date in YYYY/MM/DD format can be found on label located on the inside of the stroller’s metal frame near the right rear wheel.

The strollers, manufactured in China, were sold at major retailers and juvenile products stores nationwide, and online at Amazon.com, albeebaby.com, buybuybaby.com, diapers.com, ToysRUs.com and other online retailers from May 2011, through June 2013, for between $250 and $450.

Consumers should stop using the recalled strollers immediately and contact Britax to receive a free repair kit.

Consumers may contact Britax; toll-free at (866) 204-1665 from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday and 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Friday, or by e-mail at strollerrecall@britax.com.

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Cloth seats may lead to Toyota recall

Some sets with electric heaters may not meet flammability standards

Toyota has halted sales of the Camry and several other cars that are equipped with fabric seats and seat heaters, because of fears that the fabric may not ...

PhotoToyota has halted sales of the Camry and several other cars that are equipped with fabric seats and seat heaters, because of fears that the fabric may not meet federal flammability standards.

Affected models are the Camry, Camry hybrid, Avalon sedan, Avalon hybrid, Corolla subcompact, Sienna minivan, Tundra and Tacoma trucks sold since August 2012, the date when a new fabric supplier began providing the seat coverings.

Toyota said it is discussing the situation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about a possible recall of cars that have already been sold.

No accidents or injuries have been reported, the automaker said.

 

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FTC: Medical transcription service failed to protect consumers' private information

Patients' medical histories and examination notes were displayed on the open Internet

A medical transcription service company's inadequate data security measures unfairly exposed the personal information of thousands of consumers on the open...

PhotoA medical transcription service company's inadequate data security measures unfairly exposed the personal information of thousands of consumers on the open Internet, in some instances including consumers’ medical histories and examination notes, the Federal Trade Commission charged.

In its complaint against California-based GMR Transcription Services, Inc., the FTC alleges that GMR hired contractors to transcribe audio files received from the company’s customers. The contractors downloaded the files from the company’s network, transcribed them, and then uploaded transcripts back to the network. GMR then made the transcripts available to customers either directly or by e-mail.

Because of inadequate security, the complaint alleges, medical transcript files prepared between March 2011 and October 2011 by Fedtrans, GMR’s service provider, were indexed by a major internet search engine and were publicly available to anyone using the search engine. Some of the files contained notes from medical examinations of children and other highly sensitive medical information, such as information about psychiatric disorders, alcohol use, drug abuse, and pregnancy loss.

The files handled by the company included sensitive information about consumers, including their driver’s license numbers, tax information, medical histories, notes from children’s medical examinations, medications and psychiatric notes, according to the FTC’s complaint.

According to the complaint, GMR’s privacy statements and policies promised that “materials going through our system are highly secure and are never divulged to anyone.” However, the company never required the individual typists it hired as contractors to implement security measures, such as installing anti-virus software.

In addition, an independent service provider GMR hired to transcribe medical files stored and transmitted the files in clear and readable text on a server that was configured so that they could be accessed online by anyone without authentication.

The FTC’s consent order with GMR marks the 50th data security case the Commission has settled since undertaking its data security program 12 years ago.

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West Marine recalls folding bicycles

The frame can break causing a rider to fall

West Marine Products of Watsonville, Calif., is recalling about 4,600 folding bicycles. The bike’s frame can break during use, posing a fall hazard to the...

PhotoWest Marine Products of Watsonville, Calif., is recalling about 4,600 folding bicycles.

The bike’s frame can break during use, posing a fall hazard to the rider.

The company has received three reports of the bicycle’s frame breaking, resulting in bruises and scrapes to a rider.

This recall involves two models of folding bicycles: the Jetty Express 2 and the Port Runner 2, which are designed for use in and around docks and marinas. The Jetty Express 2 has a blue and white frame and folds at a hinge in the middle. Jetty Express 2 is printed on the bike’s frame. The Port Runner 2 has a red frame and folds at a hinge in the middle. Port Runner 2 is printed on the bike’s frame.

The bicycles, manufactured in China, were sold at West Marine stores nationwide, online at www.westmarine.com and in the West Marine catalog from March 2010, through July 2013, for between $300 and $400.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and return them to West Marine for a free replacement.

Consumers may contact West Marine at (800) 262-8464 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Walker’s Food Products recalls chicken salad products

The products contain soy, an allergen, not listed on the labels

Walker’s Food Products of North Kansas City, Mo., is recalling approximately 2,200 pounds of chicken salad products. The products are formulated with a so...

PhotoWalker’s Food Products of North Kansas City, Mo., is recalling approximately 2,200 pounds of chicken salad products.

The products are formulated with a soy protein concentrate, an allergen not properly declared on the labels.

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

The products subject to recall include:

  • 5-lb. plastic tubs of “Walker’s All White Chunky Chicken Salad” with packaging dates between June 6, 2013 and Jan. 23, 2014 and use by/sell by dates between July 26, 2013 and March 14, 2014 and sold to wholesale locations in Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
  • 1-lb. plastic tubs of “Walker’s All White Chunky Chicken Salad” with packaging dates between June 6, 2013 and Jan. 23, 2014 and use by/sell by dates between July 26, 2013 and March 14, 2014 and sold to retail locations in Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
  • 5-lb. tubs of “Walker’s White Chicken Salad Florentine” with packaging dates between June 6, 2013 and Jan. 27, 2014 and use by/sell by dates between July 14, 2013 and March 6, 2014 and sold to wholesale locations for distribution in Kansas and Missouri.

The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-13335” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact James Daskaleas at (816) 472-8121, ext. 15.  

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Home inspectors: who are they working for?

Author claims it's Realtors who are running the show

If you've purchased a home in the last 30 years or so, you know the drill. Prior to settlement a home inspector gives the property the once-over and report...

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Another look at the Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

President's proposed MyRA would likely be a far different product

In his State of the Union speech President Obama offered up a proposal for a new retirement savings vehicle for workers at companies that do not offer a 40...

PhotoIn his State of the Union speech President Obama offered up a proposal for a new retirement savings vehicle for workers at companies that do not offer a 401(k) plan. Called “MyRA,” the President described it as a new type of savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg.

“MyRA guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in,” Obama said. “Offer every American access to an automatic IRA on the job, so they can save at work just like everyone in this chamber can.”

Short on details

The President's speech was short on details about how MyRA would work, but his assessment that it would carry no risk suggests it would be more of a bond than an equity-based investment vehicle. Right now, the return on bonds is very low -- less than 2%.

Currently nearly all employees have access to a retirement savings account, whether their employer offers one or not and it is not yet clear whether the President's proposed MyRA would be an improvement over that. The current vehicle is called an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) and has been around since 1975.

The traditional IRA is an account that can be invested in many different types of assets, including stocks, bonds – even certificates of deposit. Besides serving as a retirement nest egg, it is also a tax shelter. Unlike a savings bond, it can lose value when asset values fall.

Tax shelter

Money deposited into an IRA is exempt from taxation the year it is deposited. But the government eventually gets its money, as all withdrawals are taxed as income. However, as the investments grow over the years, those earnings are not subject to taxation. That has the advantage of allowing your money to grow faster.

But there are strict rules governing IRAs, including how much you can contribute in a given year. First, you can contribute no more than you earn. For example, if you are a student working part time and earn $3,500 during the year, you could contribute no more than that to your Traditional IRA.

Otherwise, the limits are a bit higher. For 2013 and 2014 the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has set the contribution limit at $5,500 per taxable year, or $6,500 for those age 50 and over. That money is deducted from your gross income and can be invested for your future. Any transactions in the account, including interest, dividends, and capital gains, are not subject to tax while still in the account.

You're in control

Photo
Obama explains his plan
How the money is invested is up to you. Most people put their money in mutual funds. If you open your account with an online brokerage, for example, you could invest in mutual funds, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), individual stocks, bonds, or certificates of deposit – whatever products the brokerage offers. If you know little about investing you would either need to educate yourself of find a trusted, objective financial adviser to help you.

When you withdraw money from an IRA the full amount of the withdrawal is taxed as though it is earned income. For example, if you have an effective tax rate of 17% and withdraw $5,000 from your IRA in a given year, you would have to pay $850 of that to the IRS in taxes.

If you make a withdrawal before you are 58 and a half years old you not only have to pay tax on the withdrawal but a 10% penalty as well.

Required withdrawals

At age 70 and a half you must begin making regular withdrawals – and paying the tax – from your traditional IRA, called required minimum distributions. Like anything involving the tax code, it can be complicated figuring out what that is.

According to the IRS the required minimum distribution for any year is the account balance as of the end of the immediately preceding calendar year divided by a distribution period from the IRS’s “Uniform Lifetime Table.” A separate table is used if the sole beneficiary is the owner’s spouse who is ten or more years younger than the owner.

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Amazon working on a retail check-out system that uses the Kindle

Everybody is trying to capture point-of-sale transactions

There are two or three lines of business that all the big technology companies want a piece of, and perhaps the one with the most potential is retail check...

Photo There are two or three lines of business that all the big technology companies want a piece of, and perhaps the one with the most potential is retail check-out -- or point-of-sale payment processing, as it's sometimes called.

Back when everyone paid cash or wrote checks, a dumb old cash register was all that was needed. Then credit cards came along and everyone added a card reader. Now most retailers have integrated systems that combine payment, some form of backroom inventory control and perhaps a loyalty program.

Big retailers have big complicated systems like, uh, Target and Neiman Marcus. It's going to be awhile before they're scrapped, which may or may not be a good thing.

Smaller systems

Ah, but small and medium-sized retailers -- they tend to have small standalone systms that at the most consist of a handful of check-out stations. That's what PayPal, Google, Apple, Samsung and everyone else would like to take over.  

The latest reported entrant in the race is Amazon, which already has just about the slickest online payment and inventory control system of anyone. A report in the Wall Street Journal today says Amazon has dreamed up a way of using the Kindle as a point-of-sale device.

Just how it would work isn't quite clear at this point but early reports say retailers would use the Kindle to record sales and, if necessary, a credit card reader to swipe the card of customers not already in the system. Amazon, we would remind you, has 230 million customers in its database, which gives it a big headstart.

It could also offer retailers economical website development, data analysis and other perks that smaller merchants often can't afford.

Why is everybody so eager to get into bricks-and-mortar retail, which is supposedly dead on its feet? It's pretty simple: bricks-and-mortar still accounts for 90% of retail sales and a big chunk of that comes from small merchants, the very ones Amazon is said to have in mind.

All of this is still in the research and development stage and may never happen, but it's a plan that sounds a lot simpler than some of the other daydreams that are floating around in the clouds these days.

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Teenagers: skip breakfast today, get a metabolic disorder when you're middle-aged

Although cause and effect aren't as clear as all that

Swedish university researchers have reported that teenagers with poor breakfast-eating habits are 68 percent more likely to become adults who suffer from m...

PhotoSwedish university researchers have reported that teenagers with poor breakfast-eating habits are 68 percent more likely to become adults who suffer from metabolic syndrome.

Clinical Endocrinology Newsreported on Jan. 30 that Maria Wennberg and her colleagues at Umea University published their analysis of results from the Northern Swedish Cohort, a long-term 27-year study of over 1,000 individuals, starting when they were 16; they had additional medical exams and interviews when they were 18, 21, 30 and 43. The periodic examinations checked not just physical or biological factors, but also asked about the participants' lifestyle.

The 16-year-olds were asked what they ate for breakfast; some skipped breakfast altogether, some ate dessert-style breakfasts (such as cookies or sticky buns), and, as CEN put it: “The others reported consuming something that at least approached healthy: eggs, meat, or fish; milk products; cereal or dark bread; fruit or vegetables.”

Drastic difference

When these people reached age 43, they again submitted to a detailed medical exam and lifestyle interview. Results varied dramatically between the three types of breakfast-eaters: compared to those who ate healthy breakfasts in their teens, the breakfast-skippers or junk-food-eaters were more likely to use alcohol or tobacco, less likely to exercise, and more likely to suffer from obesity, high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, and a variety of other problems.

The analysis controlled for variables including gender, then-current exercise and lifestyle habits, family medical history and others; even with all those factors weighed in, the former breakfast-skippers still proved more likely to suffer from adult metabolic syndrome in adulthood.

However, it's not known if the one factor causes the other, or if both are symptoms of the same cause. In other words, does going without breakfast make a teenager grow up to drink and smoke, or is it more that the kind of person who likes to smoke and drink in adulthood also happens to be the type who'd want to skip breakfast as a teen?

Regardless of which proves to be the case, the good news is that the study results indicate even middle-aged former breakfast-skippers who currently suffer from metabolic disorders can significantly improve their health by adopting a more healthy diet and lifestyle.

So it's still not too late for ex-teenage breakfast-skippers to get healthy -- though, presumably, it would be a lot easier to fix things now if they'd eaten better breakfasts over a quarter-century ago.

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"Don't let the bedbugs bite" gets harder every year

DNA tests confirm one pregnant bedbug can spawn an entire colony

The “insects vs. humans” battle has been ongoing for as long as humans have existed, yet the bugs keep winning because they outbreed us...

PhotoThe “insects vs. humans” battle has been ongoing for as long as humans have existed, yet despite humanity's superior intellect, toolmaking ability and other advantages, the bugs keep winning because they outbreed us -- a typical human woman can, at most, have one or two offspring per year, whereas your average insect mom can produce hundreds of thousands of children in a single day.

So if you have ever wondered, “Why is it so hard to stamp out this insect infestation? I keep killing them all, yet they keep coming back,” chances are the answer is: “Actually, you didn't 'kill them all.' You killed almost all of them, but a lone pregnant female managed to survive, then spawned a brand new infestation all by herself.”

Thus, it's not surprising to read that recent genetic tests on bedbugs confirmed that prolific bedbug breeding explains much of the recent renaissance in world bedbug populations.

On Jan. 29, the BBC reported that researchers at the University of Sheffield (UK) confirmed that entire bedbug colonies of the sort that infest houses or hotels are usually descended from only a small number of bedbug females—sometimes, only one.

Bedbug renaissance

For awhile, it seemed bedbugs infestations were a thing of the past. In fact, if you are a Baby Boomer or member of Generation X, chances are high that throughout your childhood, you wouldn't have known bedbugs even existed if not for parents who still recited the old rhyme “Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite.” In mid-20th-century London, bedbugs had almost been eradicated — until their population started expanding in the 1980s.

It's believed the worldwide bedbug renaissance is due to a combination of factors. Increased human travel is likely a major factor — bedbugs are flightless, and the only way they can move large distances is if they hitch a ride with a human. Evolution also plays a role — traditional insecticides grow less effective as succeeding bug populations evolve resistance to them.

And, paradoxically, the stigma people have against bedbugs might also help them proliferate: there is a widely held, though incorrect, belief that bedbugs are attracted to filth or dirt — in other words, that bedbug infestations only affect people with poor housekeeping or hygiene standards. So people suffering through bedbug infestations might want to keep it secret, which makes solving the problem even more difficult.

What are the little critters attracted to? Well, like lots of insects, they find human blood irresistible.  

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FCC considers taking first step towards scrapping old telephone lines

The "regulated monopoly" model is broken; the question is how to replace it

One way or another, the old copper-based telephone networks will be going away. Critics say it's already happening, as telephone carriers fail to maintain ...

PhotoOne way or another, the old copper-based telephone networks will be going away. Critics say it's already happening, as telephone carriers fail to maintain the networks and fail to adequately repair damage caused by storms and accidents.

Consumers have made it pretty clear they're ready to switch to digital networks, both Internet-based services like Skype and Vonage and the wireless networks that power their smartphones.

Now the Federal Communications Commission is weighing in. It's expected to vote today to authorize trials around the country in which phone companies would switch customers to new Internet-based networks to gather data on what, if any, problems occur.

Rural concerns

Verizon Local Service  Jan. 30, 2014, 4 p.m.
Consumers rate Verizon Local Service

Rural areas and small businesses are the primary concerns at the moment. Rural areas tend to lack the higher-speed broadband services available in large metropolitan areas and many consumers have found that Skype and similar services just don't work very well for them.

Likewise, small businesses have a lot of equipment hooked up to the copper network -- things like credit card readers, burglar and fire alarms and automated phone trees. Many of these systems are made to work on analog systems and may have to be replaced or upgraded if the telephone network switches to a digital architecture.

Many consumers are already on digital systems without realizing. Most of the telephone services offered by cable systems are digital, as are FiOS and AT&T's Uverse. 

The plan being considered today would allow phone companies to convert the phones of volunteers in specified service areas to digital. New customers in the test areas would be required to go digital from the start.

Regulatory questions

PhotoThe question here is not so much technical as regulatory. Everyone knows digital technology works; you're reading this, aren't you? But POTS -- the term old-line telephone types use to refer to Plain Old Telephone Service -- has for the better part of a century been heavily regulated to promote the basic concepts of:

  • universal service,
  • rate equity, and
  • service reliability.

Rand Paul and other Libertarians may not like this, but telephone and electricity service, along with natural gas in some areas, have long been considered "utilities." Companies were allowed to have a monopoly in a region in exchange for agreeing to provide service everyone in their region, to charge everyone the same amount for the same grade of service and to maintain a reasonable reliability standard.

The rapid growth of the Internet and wireless service has broken the regulated monopoly model but the FCC wants to be sure that a conversion to a digital network doesn't leave anyone behind.

This is not a theoretical argument if you are a rancher living 20 miles from your nearest neighbor. Currently, the phone company has to run a line to your house and provide you with service for the same price as someone who lives across the street from the telephone company office in the nearest town.

FCC officials quoted over the last few days have said that the commission will not be rushing into a mass conversion and insist the tests being contemplated today are just the beginning of the process.  

The Wichita lineman may still be on the line, but it might be time for him to have a backup plan.

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Google offloading Motorola to Lenovo

It was one of those acquisitions that looked and sounded good but didn't quite work out

Well, that didn't last long. It was just last May that Google made a lot of noise about its plan to manufacture a smartphone in the USA, saying the Moto X ...

Photo
The Moto X
Well, that didn't last long. It was just last May that Google made a lot of noise about its plan to manufacture a smartphone in the USA, saying the Moto X would be slapped together down home in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Google had purchased Motorola Mobility in hopes of gaining a foothold in the highly competitive smartphone business. Its Android software is already the world's leading smartphone operating system but, apparently, Google was envious of the way Apple had built such fanatical loyalty with its integrated hardware/software system.

So much for that idea.

Mouths dropped yesterday as Google announced it was selling Motorola Mobility to the Chinese computer maker Lenovo, the fast-growing firm that bought IBM's personal computer business a few years ago.

Google paid $12.5 billion for Motorola less than two years ago and is selling it for a little less than $3 billion. That doesn't sound so good but Google is getting a big consolation prize in the form of lots of patents that it got with the Motorola purchase.

Lenovo Jan. 30, 2014, 2:49 p.m.
Consumers rate Lenovo
So where does this leave consumers who bought Motorola phones? Presumably, they'll have to look to Lenovo for warranty and tech support, which may not be a bad thing. Consumers complain about Lenovo, as they do about all brands, but the company has a huge worldwide hardware support operation, something Google, for all its charisma, lacks. 

There's sensitivity about Chinese companie buying high-tech American businesses but the betting today is that the deal gets done. 

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Staying safe in cold weather

Seniors are particularly at risk for hypothermia

There's no getting around it: This has been one cold winter in many areas of the U.S., with temperatures sinking in areas where folks don't even own a coat...

PhotoThere's no getting around it: This has been one cold winter in many areas of the U.S., with temperatures sinking in areas where folks don't even own a coat.

While nobody likes to be cold, frigid weather can pose special risks to older adults. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) has some advice for helping older people avoid hypothermia -- when the body gets too cold -- during cold weather.

Hypothermia -- what it is

Hypothermia is generally defined as having a core body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or lower and can occur when the outside environment gets too cold or the body's heat production decreases.

Older adults are especially vulnerable to hypothermia because their bodies’ response to cold can be diminished by underlying medical conditions such as diabetes and by use of some medicines, including over-the-counter cold remedies.

Hypothermia can develop in older adults after relatively short exposure to cold weather or even a small drop in temperature.

Someone may suffer from hypothermia if he or she has been exposed to cold temperatures and shows one or more of the following signs: slowed or slurred speech; sleepiness or confusion; shivering or stiffness in the arms and legs; poor control over body movements; slow reactions, or a weak pulse.

What to do

Here are some tips to help older people avoid hypothermia:

  • Make sure your home is warm enough. Set the thermostat to at least 68 to 70 degrees. Even mildly cool homes with temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees can lead to hypothermia in older people.
  • To stay warm at home, wear long underwear under your clothes, along with socks and slippers. Use a blanket or afghan to keep your legs and shoulders warm and wear a hat or cap indoors.
  • When going outside in the cold, it is important to wear a hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens to prevent loss of body heat through your head and hands. A hat is particularly important because a large portion of body heat can be lost through the head. Wear several layers of warm loose clothing to help trap warm air between the layers.
  • Check with your doctor to see if any prescription or over-the-counter medications you are taking may increase your risk for hypothermia.
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How NOT to get that job you really want

The first five minutes of an interview can be make or break

With the labor market apparently opening up (depending on which month you're looking at) a bit, people who are out of work are putting their resumes in ord...

PhotoWith the labor market apparently opening up (depending on which month you're looking at) a bit, people who are out of work are putting their resumes in order and preparing for that all important interview.

One important fact to keep in mind is that the first few minutes of the interview may be the most crucial. A new survey from CareerBuilder finds that nearly half (49%) of employers say they know within the first five minutes whether a candidate is a good fit for the position. Another 87% know within the first 15 minutes.

That said, there are a lot of things you should NOT do when talking with a hiring manager.

Most memorable mistakes

When asked about the most outrageous mistakes candidates made during a job interview, employers gave the following real-life examples:

  • Applicant warned the interviewer that she “took too much Valium” and didn’t think her interview was indicative of her personality
  • Applicant acted out a Star Trek role
  • Applicant answered a phone call for an interview with a competitor
  • Applicant arrived in a jogging suit because he was going running after the interview
  • Applicant asked for a hug
  • Applicant attempted to secretly record the interview
  • Applicant brought personal photo albums
  • Applicant called himself his own personal hero
  • Applicant checked Facebook during the interview
  • Applicant crashed her car into the building
  • Applicant popped out his teeth when discussing dental benefits
  • Applicant kept her iPod headphones on during the interview
  • Applicant set fire to the interviewer’s newspaper while reading it when the interviewer said “impress me”
  • Applicant said that he questioned his daughter’s paternity
  • Applicant wanted to know the name and phone number of the receptionist because he really liked her

Common mistakes

The top most detrimental blunders candidates make in interviews are often the most common:

  • Appearing disinterested – 55%
  • Dressing inappropriately – 53%
  • Appearing arrogant – 53%
  • Talking negatively about current or previous employers – 50%
  • Answering a cell phone or texting during the interview – 49%
  • Appearing uninformed about the company or role – 39%
  • Not providing specific examples – 33%
  • Not asking good questions – 32%
  • Providing too much personal information – 20%
  • Asking the hiring manager personal questions – 17%

Proper communication

Communication involves much more than simply words, and forgetting that during an interview could harm your chances. These are the worst body language mistakes candidates make in job interviews:

  • Failure to make eye contact – 70%
  • Failure to smile – 44%
  • Bad posture – 35%
  • Fidgeting too much in one’s seat – 35%
  • Playing with something on the table – 29%
  • Handshake that is too weak – 27%
  • Crossing one’s arms over one’s chest – 24%
  • Playing with one’s hair or touching one’s face – 24%
  • Using too many hand gestures – 10%
  • Handshake that is too strong – 5%

“Employers want to see confidence and genuine interest in the position. The interview is not only an opportunity to showcase your skills, but also to demonstrate that you’re the type of person people will want to work with,” said Rosemary Haefner, Vice President of Human Resources at CareerBuilder. “Going over common interview questions, researching the company, and practicing with a friend or family member can help you feel more prepared, give you a boost in confidence, and help calm your nerves.”

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Pending home sales fall in December

The cold snap likely was a factor

A bump in the road for home sales. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contrac...

PhotoA bump in the road for home sales.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, fell 8.7% In December to 92.4 from 101.2 in November. That puts the index 8.8% below its level of a year ago, and at the lowest level since October 2011

The data reflect contracts but not closings.

Weather among the factors

Several factors were working against buyers. “Unusually disruptive weather across large stretches of the country in December forced people indoors and prevented some buyers from looking at homes or making offers,” he said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “Home prices rising faster than income is also giving pause to some potential buyers, while at the same time a lack of inventory means insufficient choice. Although it could take several months for us to get a clearer read on market momentum, job growth and pent-up demand are positive factors.”

Widespread declines

  • The PHSI in the Northeast dropped 10.3% to 74.1 in December, and is 5.5% below a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index declined 6.8% to 93.6, and is 6.9 % lower than December 2012.
  • Pending home sales in the South fell 8.8% to an index of 104.9, and are 6.9% below a year ago.
  • The index in the West, which is most affected by constrained inventory, dropped 9.8% to 85.7, and is 16.0% below December 2012.

NAR expects total sales of existing homes should hold close to 5.1 million this year -- essentially the same as 2013, but inventory remains limited in much of the country. The national median existing-home price is projected to rise about 5.4%.

PhotoMortgage rates

Average fixed mortgage rates (FMRs) moved lower this week following the release of weaker housing data.

Freddie Mac reports the 30-year FRM averaged 4.32% with an average 0.7 point for the week ending January 30, down 7 basis points from last week when it averaged 4.39%. A year ago at this time, it averaged 3.53% percent.

The average this week for the 15-year FRM was 3.40% with an average 0.6 point, compared with last week's average of 3.44%. The 15-year FRM averaged 2.81% last year at this time.

The 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged was down 3 basis points to 3.12% with an average 0.5 point. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.70%.

The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.55% this week with an average 0.4 point, up 1 basis point from last week when it averaged 2.54%. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.59%.

Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac, says much of the drop can be attributed to the weaker housing data this week.

"Mortgage rates eased somewhat as new home sales fell 7% in December to a seasonally adjusted pace of 414,000 units, below the consensus,” he pointed out, adding, “The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city composite house price index declined 0.1 percent for the month of November -- the first decrease since November 2012."

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Economic growth backs off

Fourth-quarter GDP fell short of its performance in the third quarter

The robust economic growth reported for the third quarter was apparently a fluke. After expanding at an annual rate of 4.1% in the July-September period, ...

PhotoThe robust economic growth reported for the third quarter was apparently a fluke.

After expanding at an annual rate of 4.1% in the July-September period, the gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 3.2% in the fourth quarter. That brought the performance of GDP

-- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S. -- to an annual rate of 1.9% for all of 2013.

Positive factors

The fourth-quarter increase reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), exports, nonresidential fixed investment, private inventory investment, and state and local government spending. They were partly offset by drops in federal government spending and residential fixed investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

The deceleration in the fourth quarter reflected a slowdown in private inventory investment, a larger decrease in federal government spending, a downturn in residential fixed investment, and decelerations in state and local government spending and in nonresidential fixed investment that were partly offset by accelerations in exports and in PCE and a deceleration in imports.

The complete GDP report is available on the Commerce Department website.

Jobless claims

PhotoA surprising spike in first-time jobless claims last week.

The government reports initial applications for state unemployment benefits jumped by 19,000 in the week ending January 25 -- to seasonally adjusted 348,000. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were forecasting a drop to 325,000.

While the Department of Labor (DOL) says there were no unusual factors in the claims data, analysts believe extreme cold over the past couple of weeks coupled with the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday may have contributed to some of the gain. They look for the claim level to fall back to around 330,000 over the next few weeks

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and seen as a more accurate gauge of the labor market, inched up 750 to 333,000.

More information can be found on the DOL website.

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Consumers to get refunds in car-service contract settlement, but only in Missouri

Missouri reaches agreement with Certus, Dealer Warranty Services

Consumers to get refunds in auto service contract settlementJefferson City, Mo. – Attorney General Chris Koster said today his office has...

PhotoMissouri Attorney General Chris Koster says his office has reached a settlement with the owners of a former vehicle extended-service-contract seller, Dealer Warranty Services, LLC, which also did business nationwide under the name "Certus" and "Certus Assurance Group." 

The settlement establishes a restitution fund of $55,000 to provide refunds to Missouri consumers who were sold this additive coverage. Nothing is provided for consumers in other states.

Under the terms of the settlement, the company and its vice president and president, Theodore Conrad and Jeff Zykan, are ordered to pay $60,000 to settle claims of deception, unfair practices, and unlawful insurance practices. The men are permanently prohibited from selling unlawful vehicle service contracts in Missouri.

According to Koster, Dealership Warranty Services marketed throughout the United States primarily through direct mail advertisements, urging consumers to call for a limited-time extended warranty program to save thousands of dollars on repair bills.

Once on the phone, salespeople would sell vehicle breakdown coverage with a generalized and often misleading description of the coverage. Many customers later discovered their contracts were actually provided by a third party, and did not contain the coverage promised. Consumers who asked for refunds faced numerous objections and delays.

 

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Gree once again expands dehumidifier recall

GE brand dehumidifiers are now included

Gree Electric Appliances is expanding an earlier recall of dehumidifiers to include 352,700 in the U.S. and Canada with the GE brand name. The company pre...

PhotoGree Electric Appliances is expanding an earlier recall of dehumidifiers to include 352,700 in the U.S. and Canada with the GE brand name. The company previously recalled 2.2 million dehumidifiers under 12 other brand names.

The dehumidifiers can overheat, smoke and catch fire, posing fire and burn hazards to consumers.

The firm has received 16 reports of incidents with the recalled GE-brand dehumidifiers, including 11 reports of overheating with no property damage beyond the units, and 5 reports of fires beyond the units which were associated with about $430,000 reported in property damage. This is in addition to more than 71 fires and $2,725,000 in property damage reported with other brands of Gree-manufactured dehumidifiers in the previous recall. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 30, 40, 50, 65-pint dehumidifiers with the GE brand name. The brand name, model number, pint capacity and manufacture date are printed on the nameplate sticker on the back of the dehumidifier. The dehumidifiers are light gray plastic and measure between 19 and 23 inches tall, 13 and 15 inches wide, and 9 and 11 inches deep.

Recalled model numbers are listed below. 

Model Number

Capacity

Manufacture Date

ADER30LN

30 pint

 

 

1/08 through 12/10 

 

(for January 2008 through December 2010)

ADEW30LN

30 pint 

AHR30LL

30 pint 

AHR30LM

30 pint 

AHW30LM

30 pint 

ADER40LN 

40 pint

AHH40LL 

40 pint 

AHR40LL 

40 pint 

AHR40LM 

40 pint 

ADEH50LN 

50 pint

ADER50LN 

50 pint 

ADEW50LN 

50 pint 

AHH50LM 

50 pint 

AHR50LL 

50 pint 

AHR50LM

50 pint 

AHW50LM

50 pint 

ADER65LN

65 pint

ADEW65LN

65 pint 

AHR65LL

65 pint 

AHR65LM

65 pint 

AHW65LM

65 pint

The dehumidifiers, manufactured in China, were sold at Sam’s Club, Walmart and other stores nationwide and in Canada, and online at Amazon.com and Ebay.com, from April 2008, through December 2011, for between $180 and $270.

Consumers should immediately turn off and unplug the dehumidifiers and contact Gree to receive a refund.

Consumers may contact Gree toll-free at (866) 853-2802 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET.

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It's cold out there, but housing prices are hot

Prices are up for 2013 as a whole, despite a dip in November

Much of the nation may be shivering through this winter, but home prices are showing no signs of cooling. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price In...

PhotoMuch of the nation may be shivering through this winter, but home prices are showing no signs of cooling.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, the 10-City and 20-City Composites increased 13.8% and 13.7% year-over-year through November.

Dallas posted its highest annual return of 9.9% since 2000, while Chicago boasted an annual rate of 11.0% -- its highest since December 1988.

For the month of November, the two Composites dipped 0.1%, the first decrease since November 2012. Nine out of 20 cities recorded positive monthly returns. Of these nine, Boston and Cleveland were the only cities not in the Sun Belt. Minneapolis and San Diego remained relatively flat. After declining last month, Dallas edged up to set a new index high, while Denver was 0.6% off of its highest level due to two consecutive months of declines.

A good month nonetheless

“November was a good month for home prices,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Despite the slight decline, the 10-City and 20-City Composites showed their best November performance since 2005. Prices typically weaken as we move closer to the winter. Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix stand out as they have posted 20 or more consecutive monthly gains.

November continued a steady rise in year-over-year increases that started in June 2012, even though the rate of increase slowed. Looking at the year-over-year returns, the Sun Belt continued to push ahead with Atlanta, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Tampa taking eight of the top nine spots. Detroit continued to recover but remains the only city with prices below its 2000 level.

Home prices continue to rise despite last May’s jump in mortgage interest rates,” said Blitzer. “Mortgage applications for purchase were up in recent weeks confirming home builders’ optimism shown by the NAHB survey. Combined with low inflation -- 1.5% in 2013 – home owners are enjoying real appreciation and rising equity values. While housing will make further contributions to the economy in 2014, the pace of price gains is likely to slow during the year.”

Increases vs. declines

Nine cities showed price increases from October to November. Miami took the lead with a gain of 1.4% and Las Vegas, the previous leader, followed at +0.6%. Chicago experienced the largest decline -- 1.2%. Nine Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) showed acceleration as measured by their monthly returns – Boston, Cleveland and San Francisco showed returns that were over 50 basis points higher in November compared with October.

After experiencing its first decline in 19 months, San Francisco rebounded to positive territory with a 0.4% gain in November. Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix and Tampa are the only cities that recorded positive gains for 12 or more consecutive months.

Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, Tampa and Washington were the nine cities to accelerate on an annual basis. Boston showed an annual rate of 9.8%, an improvement of 1.2 percentage points from last month. Cleveland and New York followed with November year-over-year returns of 6.0% compared to 4.9% for October. Despite the improvement, Cleveland and New York remain the two lowest ranked cities. 

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Some outside-the-box thinking at the Postal Service

Watchdog report urges move into financial services to stem the flow of red ink

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has some severe financial problems, defaulting on a $5.6 billion retiree benefits payment last October. Besides its huge pen...

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has some severe financial problems, defaulting on a $5.6 billion retiree benefits payment last October. Besides its huge advance pension liability the USPS is losing money on first class mail, with email cutting deeply into its revenue.

What's the answer? Perhaps some bold, outside-the-box thinking. At least that's what has emerged from a USPS Inspector General's Office report.

If the USPS can't make money selling stamps, the report concludes, maybe it needs to sell something else. Looking around, the watchdog came up with a short list of services it says are needed and could be profitable.

Debit cards and small loans

For example, why not sell financial services, such as debit cards, check-cashing services, and even make small dollar loans, without the triple-digit interest rates charged by the corner payday loan store?

With millions of consumers dropping out of the banking system because of high fees, the Inspector General's report suggests there is a huge market for these services.

"While banks are closing branches all over the country, mostly in low-income areas like rural communities and inner cities, the physical postal network is ubiquitous," the inspector general's office said in its paper. "The Postal Service also is among the most trusted companies in America and trust is a critical element for implementing financial services."

The report points out that more than a quarter of Americans live partially or completely without access to mainstream financial services and are often forced to rely on costly services like payday loans or check cashing stores to cover their everyday expenses.

Potential $89 billion market

“These households spent $89 billion in 2012 just on fees and interest – an average of almost 10 percent of their income,” the authors write.

But what does the USPS know about banking? Admittedly, not a lot. However, the reports suggests the agency could partner with banks and other organizations to develop financial services. It could be a way for banks to reconnect with disillusioned consumers and turn into a win-win.

The report points out the Postal Service already provides non-bank financial services like money orders and international money transfers, and it says many American families could benefit if the Postal Service expanded its offerings.

Intriguing numbers

The numbers are intriguing. Today, millions of Americans do not have a bank account. The use of costly services like payday loans and check cashing exchanges, just to make ends meet, is well documented and is a source of concern among many consumer groups.

When it comes to financial services, the underserved population comprises more than a quarter of all U.S. households — some 68 million adults. They are an economically diverse mix of working and middle class families, poor and unemployed people hurt by the recent economic crisis, young people, immigrants, and others who are trying to make it paycheck to paycheck. Add it all up and it's a pretty big market, the report says.

This bold idea is not original, the Inspector General admits. Post offices in other countries have been involved in providing financial services to their customers for years. Because the infrastructure is mostly there, it's a move that just makes sense, the report's authors contend.

Physical link to cashless society

“As society becomes increasingly cashless, the Postal Service’s ability to provide a physical link to the new digital economy will become more and more vital,” the report said.

As a first step the Inspector General's Office said the Postal Service could explore services similar to those it is already authorized to provide, such as money orders and international money transfers. In addition, it proposes small market tests in key geographic areas to demonstrate new products’ viability.

Although some financial services may have a longer development period before they are producing strong revenue, the report contends others have the potential to be a big hit right away.

“There is a clear market need for innovative financial products, and millions of families would benefit from more affordable solutions,” the report concludes. “The Postal Service could be exactly what they are looking for.”

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Obama's no-risk retirement savings plan: Is it for you?

It's a modest but safe program for workers who currently have no savings

President Obama's guaranteed retirement savings plan got only a few lines in his State of the Union speech last night and isn't being much remarked upon to...

PhotoPresident Obama's guaranteed retirement savings plan got only a few lines in his State of the Union speech last night and isn't being much remarked upon today, but it could give vulnerable Americans a shot at beginning to save at least a few dollars for their retirement.

"Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement," Obama said. "Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401ks." 

The plan -- called MyRA, as in "My IRA" -- is basically very simple: It's a savings bond that pays a little bit more than a regular Treasury bill. Technically, it's a Roth IRA, a savings vehicle that lets you invest after-tax funds and withdraw them after retirement without paying tax on the interest you've earned.

As Obama put it: "It’s a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg. MyRA guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in." 

Professional investment advisors are skeptical of the plan's prospects for success, however.

“It's not going to go anywhere. It adds to the alphabet soup of all the different kinds of IRAs,” George Papadopoulos, the head of a financial advisory firm that bears his name, said. He predicted that workers will procrastinate, according to the trade journal Investment News.

John Hauserman, president of RetirementQuest Wealth Management, called it "silly," saying it deprived working people of the much higher gains they could achieve in the stock market. 

Decent though modest

Obama, in introducing the plan, had compared it favorably to the stock market, saying that not everyone could enjoy the high returns the market has returned over the last year, though he didn't say why not.

Earnings from MyRA would be, Obama said, decent though modest -- about 1.4% at current rates. But earning a little bit of interest and saving the principal is a lot better than saving nothing. 

Obama's plan is indeed modest. It would only allow savings up to $15,000, at which point the money would have to be rolled over into a regular, privately-administered Roth IRA. 

MyRA is also simple, and is intended to encourage workers to start saving right now, rather than putting it off until someday in the dim and distant future, a day that all too often never comes. 

Contributions could come through regular payroll deductions of as little as $5. And although employers would collect the money, they would not be in control of the fund -- therefore, the employee's money wouldn't wind up being invested in company stock that might conveniently turn out to be worthless down the road.

The program is similar to the Thrift Savings Plan that's now available to federal employees.  Obama is implementing the program through executive order, basically directing the Treasury Department to go ahead and do it.

By itself, MyRA won't solve the critical problem of Americans approaching retirement with virtually no assets but it could help older Americans squirrel away a few dollars. And, more importantly, it could help younger Americans get into the habit of investing and would demonstrate the power of compound interest over time, setting an example for future generations.

But will it match the stock market? Not likely, most financial professionals seem to agree.

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Breaking out of the long-term unemployed isn't easy

Thirty percent of long-term unemployed haven't had a single job interview

The nation's unemployment rate is finally beginning to fall but economists generally agree that's due in large part to discouraged job seekers dropping out...

PhotoThe nation's unemployment rate is finally beginning to fall but economists generally agree that's due in large part to discouraged job seekers dropping out of the labor force. The unemployment rate only counts those looking for work.

A sizable portion of those who have dropped out are the long-term unemployed. In a national study by the employment site CareerBuilder.com, 30% of workers who were previously employed full time and who have been out of work for 12 months or longer said they haven't had a single job interview since they became unemployed.

Some of these long-term unemployed also reported losing their homes, struggling to feed their families and having to turn to their parents to supplement income.

"There are many talented people in the U.S. who are having a tough time finding a job – not because of a lack of ability, but because of ongoing challenges in the economy," said Rosemary Haefner, Vice President of Human Resources at CareerBuilder. "While our study explores the struggles they are facing, it also brings to light the resilience of these workers who remain optimistic, look for jobs every day and take measures to learn new skill sets to open the doors to new opportunities."

Grinding effect

Being out of work for a long period of time can have a grinding effect. A quarter of those surveyed said they don't always have enough money for food. Another 25% said the situation has caused strained relationships with family and friends.

Significantly, 66% of the long-term unemployed said they believed their age or experience had been an obstacle to getting a job. The number jumped to 92% among those 55 and older.

While older workers may feel the deck is stacked against them in the labor market, there are plenty of employers who value maturity and experience. AARP, which tracks employment trends for those 55 and older, reported some progress in late 2013 for job seekers in that age group.

Better news for older job seekers

At the end of the year the jobless rate for 55-plus workers was 5.1%, significantly lower than the population at large. It was a nine-tenths of a percent improvement over the previous 12 months. In another piece of good news for this group, the average duration of unemployment for older job seekers fell to 45.8 weeks from 50.7 weeks between November and December. Even so, many older job seekers believe they are over-represented among the long-term unemployed.

In a Catch-22, 63% questioned in the CareerBuilder survey said the longer they are without a job, the more leery prospective employers are perceived to be.

Staying proactive

Despite the discouragement, however, 20% of those questioned said they are working to expand their professional contacts and learn new skills. Twelve percent have taken a class and five percent have gone back to school full time.

And despite the discouragement, they are still trying. Forty-four percent of the long-term unemployed said they look for jobs every day; 43% look every week.

Even though three in ten long-term unemployed said they haven't had any interviews since they lost their jobs, the same number said they have had five or more interviews. Only one in ten said they have turned down a job while being out of work.

A 2013 report by the Urban Institute concluded that “even if the economy returns to full employment, there are likely to remain many workers facing long-term unemployment challenges.” The reasons why are not so clear cut.

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Wheelchair-accessible minivans recalled after New Jersey investigation

Kansas company agrees to modifications after NJ consumer complaints

Photo: El Dorado National A Kansas company has agreed to make changes in the procedure it uses to make minivans accessible to wheelchair users after an...

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Photo: El Dorado National

A Kansas company has agreed to make changes in the procedure it uses to make minivans accessible to wheelchair users after an investigation by the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.

The potential fire and explosion hazards were discovered by the New Jersey agency during its investigation into complaints by a consumer who was concerned about a check engine light in her modified minivan.

The defect was found in Toyota Siena minivans that had been modified for wheelchair accessibility by ElDorado National (Kansas), Inc. The New Jersey consumer had purchased her vehicle from a New Jersey Toyota dealership; it was then shipped to ElDorado for wheelchair accessibility modification.

The Division’s investigation found the same defect and various stages of damage in a total of six ElDorado-modified Toyota Siena minivans in New Jersey. ElDorado said that a total of 82 minivans nationwide were affected.

In response to the Division’s investigation and findings, ElDorado issued a nationwide recall of all affected Toyota Siena minivans that it had modified, and has corrected all defects at no cost to consumers. The company also provided free loaner vehicles to the six affected New Jersey consumers. ElDorado says that it has changed the way it modifies Toyota Siena minivans, in order to prevent similar defects. No injuries were reported as a result of the defects.

"Saved lives"

“Our investigation and swift action potentially saved lives, plain and simple,” Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said. “I am very proud of the Division of Consumer Affairs investigators who acted with alacrity to help this consumer, found a potentially deadly problem, and worked with the company to get these vehicles off the roads in New Jersey and across America.”

Division of Consumer Affairs investigators, and an expert mechanic and vehicle inspector contracted by the Division, inspected ElDorado’s correction of the defects. The Division representatives inspected each replacement part, attended the training of ElDorado technicians who would perform the correction, and watched the technicians perform several vehicle corrections.

In the settlement announced today, ElDorado agreed, among other things, to provide consumers with clear and prominent notification about the weight limits of its wheelchair-modified vehicles, as well as the dangers of exceeding those limits. Wheelchair-modified vehicles contain heavy equipment that significantly reduces the total occupant and cargo weight they can safely carry. This safety information will be conspicuously placed in owner’s manuals and hang tags placed on the vehicles.

ElDorado also will develop reporting requirements for its dealerships when they receive complaints from consumers. The dealerships will be required to report all complaints and related information to ElDorado in a timely manner. ElDorado also has paid $10,000 to reimburse the state’s attorney’s fees and investigative costs.

The safety defects came to light after a consumer residing in Monroe Township filed a complaint with the Division of Consumer Affairs about concerns regarding her Toyota Siena minivan, following its modification by ElDorado.

Fuel filler neck

An independent mechanic and vehicle inspector, contracted by the Division of Consumer Affairs, examined the vehicle and was alarmed to find that its fuel filler neck was coming into contact with the left rear shock absorber, allegedly as a result of ElDorado’s modification.

The fuel filler neck was visibly worn. Damage to a vehicle’s fuel filler neck can allow gasoline or gasoline vapors to escape, potentially resulting in a fire or explosion that could cause injury or death.

In its settlement, ElDorado also agreed that it will continue to comply with all National Highway Transportation Safety Administration laws and regulations, particularly those that pertain to reporting known safety defects and responding to safety concerns.

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Should the War on Drugs include coffee?

Caffeine is the most widely-used drug in the world, but overuse is seldom treated

It's common to hear people say things like, "I'm a zombie without my morning coffee" but in fact, many people are dependent on caffeine to the po...

PhotoIt's common to hear people say things like, "I'm a zombie without my morning coffee" but in fact, many people are dependent on caffeine to the point that they suffer withdrawal symptoms and are unable to reduce caffeine consumption even if they have another condition that may be impacted by caffeine—such as a pregnancy, a heart condition, or a bleeding disorder.

These symptoms combined are a condition called "Caffeine Use Disorder," and according to a recent study coauthored by American University psychology professor Laura Juliano, health professionals have been slow to characterize problematic caffeine use and acknowledge that some cases may call for treatment.

Caffeine, she notes, is the most commonly used drug in the world — and is found in everything from coffee, tea, and soda, to OTC pain relievers, chocolate, and now a whole host of food and beverage products branded with some form of the word "energy."

"The negative effects of caffeine are often not recognized as such because it is a socially acceptable and widely consumed drug that is well integrated into our customs and routines," Juliano said. "And while many people can consume caffeine without harm, for some it produces negative effects, physical dependence, interferes with daily functioning, and can be difficult to give up, which are signs of problematic use."

"Caffeine Use Disorder: A Comprehensive Review and Research Agenda," which Juliano coauthored with Steven Meredith and Roland Griffiths of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and John Hughes from the University of Vermont, was published in the Journal of Caffeine Research.

Grounds for more research

PhotoThe study summarizes the results of previously published caffeine research to present the biological evidence for caffeine dependence, data that shows how widespread dependence is, and the significant physical and psychological symptoms experienced by habitual caffeine users. Juliano and her coauthors also address the diagnostic criteria for Caffeine Use Disorder and outline an agenda to help direct future caffeine dependence research.

In so far as heeding the call for more research, the scientific community is beginning to wake up and smell the coffee. Last spring, the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized Caffeine Use Disorder as a health concern in need of additional research in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders — the standard classification of mental disorders, now in its fifth edition (DSM-5), used by mental health professionals in the United States.

"There is misconception among professionals and lay people alike that caffeine is not difficult to give up. However, in population-based studies, more than 50 percent of regular caffeine consumers report that they have had difficulty quitting or reducing caffeine use," said Juliano, who served as an appointed advisor to the DSM-5 Substance Use Disorders work group and helped outline the symptoms for the Caffeine Use Disorder inclusion.

Lack of labelling

Based on current research, Juliano advises that healthy adults should limit caffeine consumption to no more than 400 mg per day — the equivalent of about two to three 8-oz cups of coffee. Pregnant women should consume less than 200 mg per day and people who regularly experience anxiety or insomnia — as well as those with high blood pressure, heart problems, or urinary incontinence — should also limit caffeine.

But limiting one's caffeine intake is often easier said than done as most people don't know how much caffeine they consume daily.

"At this time, manufacturers are not required to label caffeine amounts and some products such as energy drinks do not have regulated limits on caffeine," Juliano said, adding that if this changed, people could perhaps better limit their consumption and ideally, avoid caffeine's possible negative effects.

But in a nation where a stop at Starbucks is a daily ritual for many people, is there really a market for caffeine cessation? Juliano says yes.

"Through our research, we have observed that people who have been unable to quit or cut back on caffeine on their own would be interested in receiving formal treatment—similar to the outside assistance people can turn to if they want to quit smoking or tobacco use."

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Fiat + Chrysler = Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV

Fiat changes its name after completing acquisition of Chrysler Group LLC

It's official -- Fiat S.p.A. has completed its acquisition of Chrysler Group LLC, creating a new company that from now on will be known as Fiat Chrysler ...

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It's official -- Fiat S.p.A. has completed its acquisition of Chrysler Group LLC, creating a new company that from now on will be known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

Fiat directors approved the change today at a meeting in Turin, Italy. The company will be organized in the Netherlands and will be listed on the New York and Milan stock exchanges.

“Today is one of the most important days in my career at Fiat and Chrysler," said Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat and Chairman/CEO of Chrysler Group. "Five years ago we began to cultivate a vision that went beyond industrial cooperation to include full cultural integration at all levels. We have worked tenaciously and single-mindedly to transform differences into strengths and break down barriers of nationalistic or cultural resistance."

"Solid foundations"

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A Fiat 500

Marchionne said today's action creates "solid foundations for a global automaker with a mix of experience and know-how on a level with the best of our competitors."

What all this means for consumers, of course, remains to be seen. Chrysler has lurched from crisis to crisis and been through multiple ownerships and reorganizations in recent years, most notably its failed marriage to Mercedes Benz. Its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands have been holding their own in recent years. 

Fiat, which makes everything from tiny Fiat 500s to Maseratis and Ferraris, has been virtually invisible in the United States for decades and trails competitors including Toyota, Volkswagen and Hyundai in Europen and Asian markets.

The new company will maintain assembly plants in Europe and North America, a touchy political point. Fiat is the largest employer in Italy and Chrysler was bailed out by U.S. taxpayers after its 2009 bankruptcy.

Engines, transmissions and other components are already being shared among the company's brands, but a few of Fiat's crown jewels, like Alfa Romeo and Maserati, will continue to be built exclusively in Italy.

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How to protect your account following recent payment card data breaches

The CFPB offers tips and information on where to get help

We've all heard about the recent breaches of payment card and other data at Target and other merchants and banks. In an effort to help you if you were amo...

PhotoWe've all heard about the recent breaches of payment card and other data at Target and other merchants and banks.

In an effort to help you if you were among those bitten -- or even if you weren't -- the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has put out a consumer advisory  to help you protect yourself. Included is information on where to get help if you suspect your information has been compromised.

“Consumer financial products often involve significant amounts of consumer data,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “In light of recent data breaches, we want to be sure that consumers know how to protect themselves and where to turn if they do suspect fraud.”

Credit, debit, and prepaid cards

PhotoPayment cards such as credit, debit, and prepaid cards are among the most commonly used consumer financial products. Over 70% of U.S. consumers have at least one credit card. Debit cards are now used for more consumer purchases than credit cards, and prepaid card use is continuing to grow.

In recent months, data breaches have apparently exposed millions of payment card accounts to potential fraud. In addition, millions of consumers’ names, phone numbers, emails, and addresses also appear to have been stolen separately from card information.

What to do

Here are some of the steps you can take to protect your data:

  • Monitor accounts for unauthorized charges or debits: Consumers should regularly review their accounts online if possible, and at a minimum examine their monthly statements closely. Consumers should report even small problems immediately as some thieves may process a small charge or debit just to see if the account is live, or whether the consumer notices. Fraudulent charges may occur many months after information is stolen. Even if consumers think the PIN on their debit card was not stolen, they should consider changing the PIN in order to be on the safe side.
  • Alert bank or card provider immediately if fraud is suspected: Consumers should alert their bank or card provider immediately if they suspect an unauthorized debit or charge. If fraudulent charges appear, the consumer should ask the card provider to close access to the account and issue a new card before more transactions come through. Under federal law and other applicable rules, consumers are generally not responsible for unauthorized debits or charges to credit or debit card accounts, as long as they report them quickly to their bank or card providers.
  • Follow up with the bank or card provider and maintain records: If consumers find a fraudulent transaction, they should call the bank or card provider’s toll-free customer service number immediately, and also ask how they can follow up with a written communication. When consumers communicate in writing, they should be sure to keep a copy for their own records. Consumers should write down the dates on which they make follow-up calls and keep this information together in a file.
  • Avoid scams that ask for personal information over email or by phone: A common scheme, known as “phishing,” involves a scammer contacting a consumer over email or phone and asking to verify account information. Banks and credit unions never ask for account information through email. If consumers receive this type of email, they should immediately contact their card provider and report it. If consumers receive this type of phone call, they can ask for a call-back number to verify the requestor is actually their financial institution.

Following up

If you are dissatisfied with how your bank or card provider responds when you report fraudulent charges, you can submit a complaint to the CFPB. Card providers should investigate charges and respond quickly. You have a right to see the results of the bank’s or card company’s investigations.

You can submit a complaint by:

  • Going online at consumerfinance.gov/complaint
  • Calling the toll-free phone number at (855) 411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD phone number at (855) 729-CFPB (2372)
  • Faxing the CFPB at (855) 237-2392
  • Mailing a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244
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Little change in mortgage applications

The refinance share of mortgage activity is down, though

A bit of a slowdown in mortgage activity last week. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, mortgage ap...

PhotoA bit of a slowdown in mortgage activity last week.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, mortgage applications dipped 0.2% during the week ending January 24. The results include an adjustment to account for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Refinancings were down 2% from the previous week, bringing the refinance share of mortgage activity down 2% from the previous week -- to 62 percent of total applications, the lowest level since late September. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity held steady at 7% of total applications.

Contract interest rates

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) decreased 5 basis points from 4.57% to 4.52%, the lowest rate since the week ending November 29, 2013, with points increasing to 0.40 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) fell to 4.47%, the lowest rate since the week ending November 15, 2013, from 4.57%, with points increasing to 0.27 from 0.18 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was down 6 basis points -- to 4.18 percent, the lowest rate since the week ending November 29, 2013, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.23 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs fell to 3.59%, the lowest rate since the week ending November 29, 2013, from 3.68%, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose 2 basis points -- to 3.25%, with points decreasing to 0.33 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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IKEA expands recall of junior beds

The metal rod connecting the guard rail to the bed frame can break

IKEA North America Services LLC, of Conshohocken, Pa., is expanding an earlier recall of 40,000 KRITTER and SNIGLAR junior beds. Another 3,500 beds have be...

PhotoIKEA North America Services LLC, of Conshohocken, Pa., is expanding an earlier recall of 40,000 KRITTER and SNIGLAR junior beds. Another 3,500 beds have been added.

The metal rod connecting the guard rail to the bed frame can break in use, posing a laceration hazard.

IKEA has received one additional report from the UK of a metal rod on a SNIGLAR bed breaking. A child received a small scratch to the arm from the broken metal rod. In the earlier recall, there were two reports of the metal rod on the beds breaking, but no injuries have been reported.

Recalled IKEA junior beds include the KRITTER and SNIGLAR models with a guard rail on one side. The pine wood KRITTER beds have animal cut-outs, such as a dog and cat on the headboard. A label on the headboard or underside of the KRITTER bed has a date stamp of 1114 to 1322 representing the year and week of production (YYWW), a 600.904.70 model number, and 19740 supplier number. The SNIGLAR natural beech wood beds have a white painted fiberboard insert on the headboard and footboard of the bed. A label on the headboard or underside of the SNIGLAR bed has a date stamp of 1114 to 1318 (YYWW), a 500.871.66 model number, and 18157 supplier number. This recall expands the date code for SNIGLAR beds to 1049 to 1318. The beds measure about 65 inches long by 30 inches wide with a 22 to 26 inch high headboard.

The beds, Manufactured in Poland, Bosnia Herzegovina, Romania and China, were sold exclusively at

IKEA stores nationwide and online at www.ikea-usa.com from July 2005, through May 2013, for between $60 and $90.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled KRITTER and SNIGLAR junior beds and contact IKEA to receive a free repair kit.

Consumers may contact IKEA toll-free at (888) 966-4532 anytime.  

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2014 may be a good time to buy a used car

Just so happens there's a flood of vehicles coming off lease

Used car dealers will often say the first quarter of the year is their busiest time. That's when consumers have received income tax refunds and, if they ne...

PhotoUsed car dealers will often say the first quarter of the year is their busiest time. That's when consumers have received income tax refunds and, if they need to buy a car or truck, they have the money to do so.

If that's the case there is some good news for these car shoppers – they should find some pretty good deals on the used car lots. Editors at the NADA Used Car Guide say a rise in the number of late-model used cars and light trucks is expected to reverse a five-year run of price increases.

One reason is the growing popularity of auto leases. In the last few years leases have become a better deal, thanks in large part to the fact that new cars hold more of their value longer.

A glut of lease vehicles

This year the number of vehicle leases expiring is up 18%. In many cases those off-lease vehicles are sold at auction and end up on used car lots. So if you are looking for a three-year old vehicle you might find a pretty good deal.

Palmen Auto Stores, a chain of dealerships in Wisconsin, reports that strong December clearance sales has also resulted in a big jump in its inventory of used vehicles. The dealership says it has lowered prices on some to clear them out.

If you are looking for an older vehicle, deals might be harder to come by. NADA says the supply of units six to eight years in age should continue to fall as a byproduct of the new vehicle sales decline from 2006 to 2009, when the economy was sliding into recession.

"These diverging trends will result in late-model used vehicle prices dropping more substantially than their older counterparts," said Jonathan Banks, executive automotive analyst for the NADA Used Car Guide.

Better deals on newer vehicles

That means you might consider a newer model than you would otherwise. NADA predicts prices of used vehicles up to four years old will fall by an average of 2.5% on an annual basis in 2014. At the same time, prices of units from five to eight years in age will essentially remain flat.

On average NADA expects the average price of used vehicles up to eight model years in age will drop by 0.5% to 1% this year. That would be a reversal from 2013, when prices grew by a slight 0.4%. Used car prices have risen 18% since 2007.

"Although availability of off-lease units will be better this year, it's important to place volume levels into historical context," Banks said. "Despite the increase, lease volume will still be 11% below 2009 levels."

New car sales still strong

Meanwhile, plenty of consumers are choosing new cars over used ones. According to Kelly Blue Book (KBB) new vehicle sales for January should be 1.6% higher than January 2013, giving dealers their best January since 2007, at the start of the Great Recession.

"January is typically the weakest sales month of the year as many consumers take advantage of holiday deals in December, said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. However, winter storms also could impact new-vehicle sales this month, as much of the country deals with historically cold weather and snowstorms,". "Early estimates indicate fleet sales will be down as well."

January's leaders

What are consumers buying? KBB predicts Chrysler will post a respectable gain in January with strength from its Jeep and RAM brands. Following the recent launch of the Cherokee crossover, Jeep sales surged 34% in December, while the overall industry was flat. At the same time, RAM sales finished the year 22% higher than the previous year. Nissan is also coming on strong.

"We expect Nissan to record a solid sales month in January from its top products, the Altima and the all-new Rogue," said Gutierrez. "Both set record sales in 2013, and the Rogue has become an integral part of Nissan's portfolio with compact crossover sales booming among consumers."

Compact crossovers will also likely remain hot, reporting double-digit growth for the fifteenth month in a row. Look for entry-level luxury cars to also post positive numbers, thanks to the recently launched BMW 4 Series and all-new Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class.

What's not so hot? Gutierrez thinks that, after a huge 2013, full-size pickup trucks should see slower 2014 sales. Despite the slower sales, he does not expect to see carmakers pony up significant incentives.

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Angry Birds blame third party advertising platforms for NSA spying

Third-party companies often get blamed for database breaches

The latest news story on the theme “Ways the NSA uses Americans' technology to spy on them”...

PhotoThe latest news story on the theme “Ways the NSA uses Americans' technology to spy on them” involves Google Maps and Angry Birds --specifically, the smartphone-app versions.

But Rovio, the company behind “Angry Birds,” responded to the news by blaming unnamed “third-party advertising networks” for supposedly letting “leaky data” escape for the NSA to collect.

Blaming a third party is a common technique among companies who have been embarrassed by revelations that hackers managed to breach their customer databases. For example: in 2011, when eHarmony got hacked, the Register (UK) noted that “[eHarmony’s chief technology officer Joseph] Essas blamed third party libraries that eHarmony used for content management.”

A 2012 post from the Destructoid tech blog discussing hacking problems with Xbox Live summarized various complaints before noting “Microsoft has indeed tried to blame a variety of third-party services.” Of course, the “hackers” in the latest Angry Birds/Google Maps security breaches also happen to be official U.S. government agents, so it probably makes good protective sense for Rovio to blame NSA spying on third-party advertising networks rather than, say, the NSA itself.

In the pre-Internet pre-smartphone days, if anybody complained “The feds are monitoring my communications and tracking my every move,” advising the complainant to line his hat with tinfoil usually did the trick. Unfortunately, wrapping your smartphone in tinfoil won't work and can actually damage the phone.

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Google Glass getting into the prescription visionwear biz

Prescription eyeglass frames plus Google Glass will cost you $1,725, plus lenses

If you're a corrective-lenses wearer who thinks, "The problem with my life is, not enough of it is online in hackable form," great news!...

PhotoIf you're a corrective-lenses wearer who thinks, "The problem with my life is, not enough of it is online in hackable form," great news! Google is expanding its business model to include prescription eyeglass frames designed to be worn with Google Glass. Frames in the “Titanium Collection” will cost $225, plus the cost of Google Glass ($1,500) and the cost of the lenses themselves.

However, if you do need corrective lenses and decide to splurge on a pair of Google Glass frames, make sure you have a second pair of ordinary, low-tech prescription glasses to wear on those occasions when Google Glass is inappropriate, including those situations where wearing Glass is legal but you'll still get in trouble because your local authorities don't know this.

For example: last October, California resident Cecelia Abadie was ticketed for driving while wearing Google Glass (believed to be the first such ticket of its kind ever issued). But the charges against her were thrown out earlier this month, since there was no evidence Abadie actually had the device turned on. (In most states, it's legal to drive while wearing Google Glass so long as it's turned off.)

Bad night at the movies

An Ohio moviegoer and Google Glass wearer had an even scarier experience two weekends ago; he went to his local AMC Theatre for a Saturday-night showing of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” when, about an hour into the movie, an agent working for the Department of Homeland Security suddenly yanked off the glasses and spent the next couple of hours interrogating him and his wife on suspicion of illegally recording the movie. (He wasn't; he had the device turned off, but it took a couple of hours before authorities bothered to confirm this for themselves and return his glasses to him. Meanwhile, the man faced interrogation by intimidating federal agents, plus the additional handicap of dealing with whatever vision problems his prescription lenses were supposed to correct.)

The unnamed Glass-wearer first shared his story with The Gadgeteer tech blog on Jan. 20, but his story (or at least the broad outline of it) has since been confirmed by both DHS and AMC management.

That user also had prescription lenses in his Google Glass frames, which presumably were ordinary Google glasses rather than premium Titanium frames.

Gone nuclear

Incidentally, if you're one of the dozen or so Americans who still watches The Simpsons, you know that last Sunday's episode featured evil Scrooge-like boss Mr. Burns giving his employees the apparently generous gift of “Oogle Goggles,” the amazing high-tech computerized Internet-connected glasses. The catch was that evil Mr. Burns could then use the Oogle Goggles to spy on everything his employees did.

Of course, that is fiction. In real life, C. Montgomery Burns the nuclear plant operator could never use modern Internet-connected devices to spy on you; only members of the NSA, DHS, FBI and night-shift employees of your local movie theater can do that. And they won't give you the device for free: it'll cost you $1,725 for the Titanium frames with Google Glass hookup.

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The Super Bowl: a merchandising bonanza

NRF projects consumers will spend $12 billion on the Broncos-Seahawks match-up

Let's call it what it is: the National Couch Potatoes Convention – because that's pretty much what it boils down to. The National Retail Federation is pr...

PhotoLet's call it what it is: the National Couch Potatoes Convention -- because that's pretty much what it boils down to.

The National Retail Federation is projecting 181 million people will tune in this coming Sunday when the Denver Broncos take on the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. It's the most watched professional sporting event in America, drawing more than 75% of all U.S. TV viewers.

And, according to NRF’s Super Bowl Spending survey conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, those viewers will spend an average $68.27 on gameday grub, athletic wear, decorations and TVs -- about the same as last year. Total spending is expected to hit $12.3 billion.

“As football fans gear up for the most anticipated game of the season, retailers are making sure they have an ample assortment of accessories, decor, athletic apparel items and even new televisions,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

What we buy

According to the survey, more than three-quarters (77%) will purchase food and beverages, 8.1% will purchase team apparel or accessories, and 7.2% are planning on buying a new TV to watch the game with friends and family.

This year, nearly 39 million viewers plan to throw a party and they can expect a high guest turn out, with 62 million eager viewers planning to attend a party. Restaurants and bars will see their share of fans; the survey found 10 million fans will enjoy the game from their favorite local establishment.

While the game itself is the most important part of the big day for millions of fans, the survey found that, of those planning to watch the game, seeing friends and commercials also carry some weight: nearly half (47.5%) said the game is the most important part, and 17.3% said getting together with friends mattered most. And, while on average one-quarter of adults (24.9%) say the commercials are the most important, 45-54-year-olds are the ones who rank commercials highest when it comes to the most important part of the game (21.4%), higher than any other age group.

The commercials

For those who have opinions about the commercials, 78.4% agree they are entertaining. Viewers also say commercials make them aware of the advertiser’s brand (16.9%). But not everyone has favorable opinions: 17.8% believe advertisers should save their money and pass on savings to their customers, and 9.3% say they make the game last too long.

“The Super Bowl is one of the most beloved events for sports fans, and those celebrating this year will look to make the most of the big day while also keeping in line with their budgets,” said Prosper’s Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow.

Consumers of all ages enjoy the Super Bowl for different reasons. While young adults are more likely to attend a party than throw a party (38.2% vs. 26.7%), 18-24-year-olds will spend an average of $92.83 on Super Bowl-related celebrations; their slightly older counterparts (ages 25-34) will spend the most ($101.51).  

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How to select a tax preparer

If possible find someone who will be there year after year

If you normally pay someone to prepare your federal and state tax returns, you should have someone lined up by now. But if you haven't gotten around to tha...

Photo If you normally pay someone to prepare your federal and state tax returns, you should have someone lined up by now. But if you haven't gotten around to that yet, you can still find a competent, thorough professional – if you know where to look and what questions to ask.

It's probably not a good idea to walk into the closest franchise storefront tax operation and simply hand over your tax records to whoever happens to be on duty. In some cases they aren't even full-time employees and might not be working there next tax season. Continuity, building a long-term relationship with your tax preparer, is a crucial first step.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also suggests that you choose carefully when hiring an individual or firm to prepare your return. Most return preparers are professional, honest and provide excellent service to their clients, the agency says, but there are always exceptions.

Preparer Tax Identification Numbers

This year, the IRS is reminding taxpayers that they should use only preparers who sign the returns they prepare and enter their Preparer Tax Identification Numbers (PTINs). But regardless of who you choose, remember that you, the taxpayer, are legally responsible for what’s on their tax return even if it is prepared by someone else.

After establishing that your tax preparer is going to be there next season and the season after that, check the individual's qualifications. New regulations require all paid tax return preparers to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN).

In addition to making sure they have a PTIN, ask if the preparer is affiliated with a professional organization and attends continuing education classes. It's worth noting the IRS is also phasing in a new test requirement to make sure those who are not an enrolled agent, CPA, or attorney have met minimal competency requirements. Those subject to the test will become a Registered Tax Return Preparer once they pass it.

Sleuthing

Once you are satisfied with the tax preparer's qualification, check into their history. Googling their name, along with “tax preparer” or “accountant” might turn up both flattering and unflattering information. Check their licensure status through the state boards of accountancy for certified public accountants; the state bar associations for attorneys; and the IRS Office of Enrollment for enrolled agents.

Next, find out what it's going to cost. This is going to depend on the complexity of your tax return. The fewer forms that are required to go along with your Form 1040, the cheaper it should be. The IRS suggests avoiding preparers who base their fee on a percentage of your refund or those who claim they can obtain larger refunds than other preparers.

Also, always make sure any refund due is sent to you or deposited into an account in your name. Under no circumstances, the IRS says, should all or part of your refund be directly deposited into a preparer’s bank account.

E-filing

A good tax preparer will offer electronic filing. In fact, any paid preparer who prepares and files more than 10 returns for clients must file the returns electronically, unless the client opts to file a paper return. The IRS strongly encourages electronic returns, along with direct deposit for refunds. The process will go faster and more smoothly if you file electronically.

If the IRS has a question about your return once it is file, will your preparer still be around to help you deal with it? Don't just assume – ask.

Once the return is complete, review it carefully. A paid preparer must sign the return and include his or her PTIN as required by law.

Do you really need a tax preparer? If your tax situation is simple, you might not. The IRS can even help many taxpayers prepare their own returns without the assistance of a paid preparer. Before seeking a paid preparer, taxpayers might consider how much information is available directly from the IRS through the IRS Web site.

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Consumers feeling their oats

The increase in the January confidence index is the second in a row

Ordinarily a fickle bunch, consumers have been happy with the economy for two straight months. The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index...

PhotoOrdinarily a fickle bunch, consumers have been happy with the economy for two straight months.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index was up more than three points in January -- to 80.7. In addition, the Present Situation Index shot to 79.1 from 75.3, and the Expectations Index rose to 81.8 from 79.0 last month.

Confidence back on track

“Consumers’ assessment of the present situation continues to improve, with both business conditions and the job market rated more favorably,” said Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Looking ahead six months, consumers expect the economy and their earnings to improve, but were somewhat mixed regarding the outlook for jobs. All in all, confidence appears to be back on track and rising expectations suggest the economy may pick up some momentum in the months ahead.”

Consumers’ assessment of overall present-day conditions continues to improve. Those claiming business conditions are “good” increased to 21.5% from 20.2%, while those who think conditions are “bad” edged down to 22.8%t from 23.2%.

Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market was also more positive. Those saying jobs are “plentiful” ticked up to 12.7% from 11.9%%, while those who believe jobs are “hard to get” decreased slightly to 32.6% from 32.9%.

Rising expectations

Consumers’ expectations, which had improved sharply in December, were up again in January. Those who expect business conditions to improve over the next six months was unchanged at 17.4%, while those anticipating business conditions to worsen decreased to 12.1% from 13.9%.

The outlook for the labor market was mixed. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead declined to 15.4% from 17.1%. However, those anticipating fewer jobs decreased to 18.3% from 19.4%. The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase rose to 15.8% from 13.9%t, while see a decrease in their incomes declined to 13.6% from 14.3%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was January 16.

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Simply natural? No, PepsiCo says from now on, it's just "Simply"

After lawsuits, the snack and drink giant takes a simple step to avoid future problems

The word "natural" doesn't really mean much of anything but food and beverage companies have had a lot of luck using it as a sort of substitute for "organi...

PhotoThe word "natural" doesn't really mean much of anything but food and beverage companies have had a lot of luck using it as a sort of substitute for "organic" or, perhaps, "healthy."

But after legal challenges and complaints from consumer groups, Pepsi has decided to jettison the "natural" tag on its food and drink products. Instead, it will simply call them "Simply"

How's that again? Well, instead of "Natural Quaker Granola," you'll be seeing "Simply Quaker Granola" on the shelves.

It's simple, really. No one can complain about the word "simple," which means even less than "natural." The ingredients will, naturally, remain the same, so it's simply a change of a few letters.

What's natural?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't have a hard and fast definition of "natural" so it doesn't tightly regulate its use, but in general it frowns on companies using the term if their products contain added color, artificial flavors and other additives.

Perhaps more significantly, consumer groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) have been filing lawsuits against food manufacturers including Ben & Jerry's, Nature Valley, Kraft, 7Up and others, challenging their use of the "natural" label.

Last year, Pepsi agreed to remove the words "all natural" from its Naked juices and dropped its Gatorade Natural line of energy drinks.

But even "simply" may not be sufficiently vague. In 2010, CSPI sued General Mills over its "Simply Fruit" products, saying they contained more than simply fruit. 

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Rising wages help send consumer spending high in December

Retailers stand to cash in on the willingness to buy

Consumers were a little freer with their budgets in December. The Deloitte Consumer Spending Index, made up of four components -- tax burden, initial une...

PhotoConsumers were a little freer with their budgets in December.

The Deloitte Consumer Spending Index, made up of four components -- tax burden, initial unemployment claims, real wages and real home prices -- increased to 4.3 from 3.9 in November.

“Economic fundamentals that influence consumer spending moved in a positive direction in the latest Index,” said Daniel Bachman, Deloitte’s senior U.S. economist. “Median home prices increased, while initial unemployment claims continued to fall. Real wages, which have remained stubbornly flat, increased slightly as well.”

Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and Retail & Distribution sector leader, says Retailers need to keep their foot on the gas in light of the positive signals that suggest improved consumer confidence and spending levels in the months ahead.

“The holiday season underscored that consumers are not only willing to shop, but expect to do so on their time and on their terms,” said Paul. “Retailers can keep up the momentum by targeting consumers across different channels and geographies with more personalized, high-touch connections through mobile and online points of contact that reach a broader swath of shoppers with greater precision.”

Paul says retailers should also consider how to reign in shoppers’ dependence on discounts, through new products, assortment and service that entice shoppers to spend at full price points, to not only drive sales but preserve margins.

Index highlights

  • Tax burden: The tax rate is up now at 11.8%, a 0.6% increase from last month. Believe it or not, that's a positive sign. A rising tax rate is associated with increasing incomes.
  • Initial unemployment claims: Claims were down 14% from the same period last year, falling to 324,000.
  • Real wages: Real hourly wages rose 1.3% from this time a year ago -- to $8.83, showing a second month of accelerated increases.
  • Real new home prices: New home prices climbed to $116,000, an increase of more than 5% from the same time last year.
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Watch out for "Order Canceled" scam

It's a ruse to get your personal information or infect your computer, or both

Consumers are being warned to keep an eye out for a post-holiday email scam carrying malicious malware disguised as a link to a helpful “change of ad...

PhotoConsumers are being warned to keep an eye out for a post-holiday email scam carrying malicious malware disguised as a link to a helpful “change of address” form. 

In Washington State, consumers have reported receiving emails containing names and logos of legitimate companies such as Costco and Walmart, notifying the recipient that their “order has been cancelled.” Scams that employ the names and logos of trusted businesses are a favorite of con artists.

The emails imply the retailer was unable to deliver an order due to an incorrect shipping address. The message attempts to entice recipients into clicking on a link in order to correct the shipping address.

Clicking on the link in the email prompts the recipient to download a change of address form. However, instead of downloading a form, consumers download malware that infects their computer.

What to do

The first question to ask yourself is whether you actually ordered anything from the merchant supposedly emailing you. If not, the email is obviously a scam. 

The rule for dealing with scam emails is always the same: delete it and don't click on any attachments. 

If you do have outstanding orders, the safer method is to go to the retailer's website and log in using your account ID. You should never provide personal information in response to an email.

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George's recalls frozen chicken products

The products are formulated with wheat, an allergen not listed on the labels

George’s Inc., of Springdale, Ark., is recalling approximately 1.25 million pounds of frozen par-fried chicken tender products. The products are formula...

PhotoGeorge’s Inc., of Springdale, Ark., is recalling approximately 1.25 million pounds of frozen par-fried chicken tender products.

The products are formulated with wheat, an allergen not properly declared on the labels.

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

The products subject to recall include:

  • 10-lb. cases of “George’s Uncooked Breaded Chicken Breast Tenderloins” with Case Code 4831 and packaging dates between Feb. 21, 2013 and Dec. 19, 2013.
  • 10-lb. cases of “George’s Uncooked Chicken Tenderloin Fritters” with Case Code 4861 and packaging dates between Feb. 21, 2013 and Jan. 4, 2014.
  • 10-lb. cases of “George’s Uncooked Chicken Tenderloin Fritters” with Case Code 4880 and packaging dates between Feb. 21, 2013 and Jul. 19, 2013.

The products  bear the establishment number “P-13584” under the USDA Mark of Inspection and were sold to wholesale locations for distribution to institutional users nationwide.

Consumers with questions may contact Ali Perry at (479) 927-7256.  

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Red Flannel cat food recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

PMI Nutrition of Arden Hills, Minn., is recalling its 20 lb. bags of Red Flannel Cat Formula cat food for possible Salmonella contamination. There have b...

PhotoPMI Nutrition of Arden Hills, Minn., is recalling its 20 lb. bags of Red Flannel Cat Formula cat food for possible Salmonella contamination.

There have been no reports of illness related to this product to date.

Red Flannel Cat Food was sold through dealers to customers in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

The lot number is printed on the lower back side of the bag in a white box on the right-hand side. The lot number will be preceded by a time stamp that will be unique to each bag. (Example 14:32) The lot number and best-by date impacted by this recall are as follows:

  • Best by 05 06 14 096 13 SM L2 1A (lot number)
  • UPC code is 7 42869 00058 5.

No other products/lot numbers are affected by this recall.

Customers should immediately discontinue use of and return the product to their dealer for a full refund or replacement.

For more information, customers can contact the customer service line for PMI products at 1-800-332-4738 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CST.

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Is anyone to blame for the obesity epidemic?

In a survey, consumers suggest we all look in the mirror

There is no debate that the U.S. – and the world – is struggling with rising obesity that poses a threat to long-term health. The debate is ove...

PhotoThere is no debate that the U.S. – and the world – is struggling with rising obesity that poses a threat to long-term health. The debate is over who is to blame – or if anyone is.

Because the rising rate of obesity coincided with rapid growth of fast food restaurants, they get a lot of the blame. Because the rise in obesity also coincided with the increasing use of high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetner in food, the food industry gets a lot of the blame as well.

In the debate over what to do about obesity, fingers have been pointed at grocery stores and even government policy makers. However, researchers say that if you ask consumers, they are likely to say individuals are to blame for their own obesity.

Not that effective

University of Illinois researcher Brenna Ellison and her colleague, Jayson Lusk at Oklahoma State University, say their research leads them to conclude that creating and enforcing public policies to help reduce obesity and/or encourage healthier food choices may not be as effective as policy makers think.

For example, to give consumers better information about the food they are consuming policymakers have required some restaurants to post calorie information on menus. In some jurisdictions they are taxing sugar sweetened beverages.

Ellison and Lusk asked why aren't these policies working? Why aren't consumers responding to increased soda prices or calorie information on menus?

"Obesity is in the news every day so it would be hard to say that people are unaware of the policy initiatives in place to reduce U.S. obesity rates," Ellison said. "Based on our study results, the more likely conclusion is that consumers' beliefs about who is to blame for obesity don't necessarily align with the beliefs of policy makers and public health advocates. In the United States, we're known for being an individualistic-based society, so it's not exceptionally surprising that we would put this responsibility for obesity on ourselves."

Survey results

PhotoThe survey was conducted by Clear Voice Research, which asked 774 consumers to assign blame for the rise in obesity, with seven choices: individuals, parents, farmers, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants and government policies.

The results were unambiguous. They showed that 94% of people surveyed believed individuals are primarily or somewhat to blame for the rise in obesity, with parents coming in second at 91% primarily or somewhat to blame.

On the other hand, survey respondents felt farmers and grocery stores were relatively blameless for the rise in obesity. And there was at least one surprise.

"We learned that farmers and people who received food stamps were more likely to blame government and farm policy," Ellison said. "That seems off. You wouldn't expect that opinion from people who are benefiting from those policies; however, these individuals could be in the best position to observe the potential harm that some government policies create."

Why is it important?

Why assign blame? Because until you can find out what's causing the problem, it's hard to address it effectively. For example, if individuals are indeed to blame for their expanding waistlines, giving them information about calories may not change their behavior if they simply don't care. They have to want to process the information and order a salad instead of a triple bacon cheeseburger.

There are many reasons to avoid obesity, most having to do with health. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Carrying extra weight places stress on knee and hip joints.

Whether individuals are to blame for their own obesity or whether other factors are at work is a matter for debate. After all, the rise in obesity has been relatively sudden, coinciding with more sedentary lifestyles and changes in diet. But what consumers in the survey seem to be suggesting is the solution lies, at the heart of the matter, with individuals. Solutions, the researchers suggest, need to focus on individuals.

"Unquestionably, U.S. obesity and overweight rates are much higher than they were 20 or 30 years ago so it is not surprising that policy makers and public health officials are looking for potential solutions,” Ellison said. "That being said, if individuals view obesity as a personal problem, how confident can we be that these solutions will work? We need to be realistic about the solutions we're proposing and implementing, and if people are not buying into them, they may need to be re-evaluated."  

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Impulsive behavior may be linked to food addiction

Georgia researchers hope to develop treatments and interventions

People who are prone to impulsive behavior are known to be more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs. And now a new study says they may also be more sus...

PhotoPeople who are prone to impulsive behavior are known to be more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs. And now a new study says they may also be more susceptible to food addiction.

In a paper published recently in the journal Appetite, University of Georgia researchers found that people with impulsive personalities were more likely to report higher levels of food addiction — a compulsive pattern of eating that is similar to drug addiction — and this in turn was associated with obesity.

"The notion of food addiction is a very new one, and one that has generated a lot of interest," said James MacKillop, the study's principal investigator and associate professor of psychology in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "My lab generally studies alcohol, nicotine and other forms of drug addiction, but we think it's possible to think about impulsivity, food addiction and obesity using some of the same techniques."

It's not an idle question. With more than one-third of U.S. adults not being categorized as obese by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a huge portion of the population has a heightened risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. The estimated annual medical cost of obesity was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars, and obese people pay an average of $1,429 more in medical expenses than those of normal weight.

Treatments and interventions

MacKillop said he and his team hope their research will ultimately help physicians and other experts plan treatments and interventions for obese people who have developed an addiction to food, paving the way for a healthier lifestyle.

The contemporary food industry has created a wide array of eating options, and foods that are high in fat, sodium, sugar and other flavorful additives and appear to produce cravings much like illicit drugs, MacKillop said. Now they will work to see how those intense cravings might play a role in the development of obesity.

"Modern neuroscience has helped us understand how substances like drugs and alcohol co-opt areas of the brain that evolved to release dopamine and create a sense of happiness or satisfaction," he said. "And now we realize that certain types of food also hijack these brain circuits and lay the foundation for compulsive eating habits that are similar to drug addiction."

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Is Google outing transgender people?

Since the New Year, Google+ privacy violation accusations have become downright commonplace

If we were prone to believing conspiracy theories, we'd think at least one high-ranking Google executive is actually a deep-cover secret agent working for ...

PhotoIf we were prone to believing conspiracy theories, we'd think at least one high-ranking Google executive is actually a deep-cover secret agent working for the competition, with the mission “Make everybody hate Google and especially hate the Google+ social-media platform.” What else can explain the proliferation of Google+ bad-guy stories since the start of the new year?

First there was Massachusetts resident Thomas Gagnon, arrested because the Google+ invite he'd sent his ex-girlfriend violated the restraining order she'd taken out against him. Except Gagnon and his attorney say Google+ sent the invite automatically, without Gagnon's knowledge or consent.

Then, the Consumer Watchdog group criticized Google in an open letter charging serious privacy flaws in its Google+ system: basically, that anyone on Google+ can add anyone else on Google+ to their “Circle” of friends, without their knowledge or consent.

Meanwhile, Google changed the settings of Gmail and Google+ so that, once again, anybody with one such account can contact anybody else with such an account, without their knowledge or consent. (Notice how that phrase “without their knowledge or consent” keeps appearing here? You'd almost think it a recurring theme, regarding Google's attitudes toward its users.)

Integration mania

Many of these problems can be blamed on Google's mania for “integration” – the company (or the secret-agent executive working to bring about the company's downfall, if you prefer) somehow manages to completely ignore the possibility “Maybe people don't want all of their online activities and accounts consolidated into a single mass. Maybe some people prefer, for example, one account for their professional business life, another account for when they're interacting with young children and need to Set A Good Example, a different account for when they're discussing R-rated movies with their grownup friends and Not Setting A Good Example At All …. no no no, here at Google that's just lunacy talking.”

This unwilling integration is behind yet another Google+ privacy complaint, this one plaguing Android phone users who recently upgraded to the KitKat version. On ZDNet, sex-and-technology blogger Violet Blue explained how Google outed a transgender friend of hers without her knowledge or consent (look, it's that phrase again!).

A woman was using her old (male) name at work, and when her Android phone updated to KitKat - with Google+ integrating chat and SMS into "hangouts" - this is what happened when she texted a coworker:

(ICYMI earlier: KitKat did indeed out me to a coworker. I am freaking out.)
— Erika Sorensen (@eiridescent) January 3, 2014
Somehow I didn't think through the potential consequences of Google+ embedding itself ever deeper into stock Android stuff
— Erika Sorensen (@eiridescent) January 3, 2014

Google's response was that her outing was "user error" - Google blamed her, the user for not understanding the new, confusing integration. …. The issue with identity and Google+ Hangouts overwriting people's Gmail and SMS contacts has been trans-unfriendly since its rollout. One woman worried about the privacy of her transgender sister's identity wrote in Google's Forums (Gmail),

My sister is transgendered and has yet to legally switch to female, and because of this has yet to change her name on her Google+ since she has professional contacts on her page.
(...) Now that I have used the video chat option on Hangouts, everything is reverting back to her old name.

She did not receive a response.

Violet Blue went on to list and link to several additional examples of Google taking a cavalier attitude toward users' privacy concerns, before she wistfully said:

On some level, I want to imagine that Google will fix this.

I don't want to think that controlling our own identities doesn't matter to Google; or it's as if to Google we are the faulty parts of its machine. Or we are Google Plus with a body vaguely attached. Or to Google, the problems are our own faults, and any calls for respect or privacy in a painful world are just annoying to Google, which has better things to do, like terrify us with the privacy nightmare of Google Glass and making bulk data consolidators' jobs of cataloging our personally identifying information easier.

Can't blame Ms. Blue for not wanting to think this, as these are depressing thoughts indeed. That's why we kinda favor the “at least one high-ranking Google executive is actually a deep-cover secret agent working for the competition” theory. Granted, this theory sounds unnecessarily complicated and highly implausible, but it's a lot less depressing than Ms. Blue's.

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Kansas sperm donor found legally liable for fatherhood

Judge rules that a physician is required to be a sperm donor rather than a dad

Legally, there is a difference between being a “sperm donor” and being a “father”...

PhotoLegally, there is a difference between being a “sperm donor” and being a “father,” and a Kansas man learned the hard way that if you want to be the former without taking on the responsibilities of the latter, you should not make your sperm-donor arrangements over Craigslist.

The Topeka Capital-Journal first broke the news on Jan. 23, although the story has since made headlines throughout the world:

District Court Judge Mary Mattivi said that because William Marotta and the same-sex couple failed to secure the services of a physician during the artificial insemination process, he wasn’t entitled to the same protections given other sperm donors under Kansas law.

“Kansas law is clear that a 'donor of semen provided to a licensed physician for use in artificial insemination of a woman other than the donor’s wife is treated in law as if he were not the birth father of a child thereby conceived, unless agreed to in writing by the donor and the woman,' ” Mattivi wrote....Marotta contended he was only a sperm donor to a same-sex couple seeking a child, but the Kansas Department for Children and Families argued he is a father who owes child support to his daughter. The girl is 4 years old.

The lack of a physician was the main factor in deciding the case; it certainly does not mean that all American sperm donors (in Kansas or any other state) need worry that they will eventually be asked to write child-support checks.

Indeed, previous attempts to hold sperm donors financially liable for their biological offspring have failed; in 2009, judges in Massachusetts rejected an unnamed woman's attempt to seek financial assistance from the anonymous donor who'd fathered her children (who were nine or ten years old at the time). The sperm donor in that case went through “traditional” sperm-donation channels, which presumably protected him from financial fatherhood obligations.

But in Kansas last week, Marotta's attorney, Benoit Swinnen, argued (unsuccessfully) that the Kansas statute severing sperm donors from fathers does not specifically require sperm-donor conceptions to be carried out by a physician.

Marotta plans to appeal the ruling, though as of press time it is not known when that appeal will move forward.

The state of Kansas wants Marotta to pay child support for the rest of his biological daughters' childhood, and also repay approximately $6,000 in public assistance benefits the child has received thus far.

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New home sales drop in December

Total homes sold last year is sharply above the 2012 figure

Sales of new single-family houses fell in December for the second straight month. The decline of 7.0% to -- a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 414,000 ...

PhotoSales of new single-family houses fell in December for the second straight month.

The decline of 7.0% to -- a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 414,000 -- follows a drop of about 2% in November, but is still 4.5% above the December 2012 total of 396,000.

For all of 2013, an estimated 428,000 new homes were sold --16.4% more than the 368,000 sold the previous year, and the most since 485,000 in 2008. While that's a big improvement, keep in mind that than a million new homes were sold each year from 2003 to 2006.

Home prices

The median sales price of new houses sold in December was $270,200. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower. The average sales price was $311,400.

An estimated 171,000 new houses were for sale at the end of December. At the current sales rate, that represents a 5-month supply.

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

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Congress declares war on stink bugs

The nasty little brown bugs are heading west

This may not strike fear into the hearts of stink bugs but it may provide some encouragement to homeowners and farmers who are thoroughly sick of the pests...

PhotoThis may not strike fear into the hearts of stink bugs but it may provide some encouragement to homeowners and farmers who are thoroughly sick of the pests ... or soon will be.

Congress today directed the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency to ramp up their efforts to deal with the nasty pests.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) has championed efforts to find a way to deal with stink bugs not only because of their stench but because of the havoc they wreak on crops – including apples, peaches and grapes. He said there is language in the recently approved 2014 Omnibus spending bill to continue to prioritize stink bug control research at USDA.

Wolf has worked to include similar language in past spending bills.  The new language is part of a five-year plan to find a solution to the problem.  He said the bill requires USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to help states implement biological control technology to minimize the pests once it is developed and directs EPA to quickly approve any recommendation so products can be sold on the open market.   

“Whether you have a home herb garden or acres of farm land, we can all agree that the pervasive problem of stink bug infestation needs to be tackled head-on,” Wolf said.  “These pests are an annoyance that not only affect everyday life in people’s homes, but also vital American industries that have a broader impact on the economy. 

Native to China, the stink bug was first discovered in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1998.

The pest has no natural predator in the United States and is reproducing at an increasingly rapid pace.  It has already spread to 40 states, the District of Columbia and Ontario, Canada, which is 15 more states than when the committee first addressed this issue in 2011, Wolf said.

USDA estimates that roughly $21 billion of crops could be at risk.

While many efforts have been made to combat this pest, it is estimated that this year's bug cycle will be 60 percent stronger than last year’s. The stink bug has been called the number one economic threat to cotton in Alabama and Georgia, and is now causing significant damage to crops in Oregon and Washington. 

Earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Board Patrol reported that a new kind of  stink bug was discovered on a shipment of Mexican basil at San Francisco International Airport - the first time this species has been found in the Bay Area.

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Bags fly free to the Caribbean this summer

Southwest flights from Atlanta, Baltimore/Washington and Orlando start July 1

Southwest Airlines today began selling seats on its first-ever international flights. The discount carrier begins service to Aruba, the Bahamas and Jamaica...

PhotoSouthwest Airlines today began selling seats on its first-ever international flights. The discount carrier begins service to Aruba, the Bahamas and Jamaica July 1.

Beginning July 1, 2014, Southwest Airlines will operate daily, nonstop flights between:

  • Atlanta and Aruba, and Montego Bay
  • Baltimore/Washington and Aruba, Nassau, and (twice daily) Montego Bay
  • Orlando and (Saturday only) Aruba, and Montego Bay.

Southwest subsidiary AirTran Airways will continue service between Atlanta and Nassau, between Chicago Midway and Montego Bay, as well as flights to/from Cancun, Los Cabos, and Mexico City, Mexico, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

"Southwest Airlines democratized the sky from our first flights more than four decades ago," said CEO Gary Kelly. "Today's milestone enables us to reach new territory, new customers, and build upon a four decade foundation of doing right by the travelers who trust our value and our people."

Southwest is the nation's largest carrier in terms of originating domestic passengers boarded and operates the largest fleet of Boeing aircraft in the world to serve 96 destinations in 41 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and five near-international countries via its wholly-owned subsidiary, AirTran Airways.

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Uber feels backlash from taxi industry, local regulators

The car-dispatch service is popular but its critics are becoming legion

Uber is sort of the Airbnb of the taxi and limousine business. It's basically an app that lets you order a ride via your smartphone. In theory, you punch i...

PhotoUber is sort of the Airbnb of the taxi and limousine business. It's basically an app that lets you order a ride via your smartphone. In theory, you punch in your location and a car comes zipping along in no time to pick you up. You can choose from an economy car, a regular taxi, a "black car" or several other categories, with pricing to match.

And, just like Airbnb, Uber conveniently overlooks all kinds of local regulations that cover its more traditional competitors. But after several years of rapid growth, Uber is now beginning to run into the problems that accompany fielding thousands of cars in more than 60 big cities. 

What kind of problems? Well, running over pedestrians for starters. A wrongful death suit is expected to be filed today in San Francisco, where an Uber driver hit a family in a crosswalk, killing a 6-year-old girl. Uber, of course, says the drivers are free lancers and disclaims any responsibility.

The San Francisco Cab Drivers Association is using the incident to demand tighter regulation of Uber, saying it unfairly competes with better-insured taxis.

Price-gouging?

Then there's pricing. Uber's prices vary with demand. When lots of people want rides, the price goes up. This annoys passengers and also irks some drivers, who say it sometimes cuts into demand. In East Coast cities, fares were raised during the recent snow storms, sparking complaints of price-gouging. 

Drivers sued Uber last August, saying the company told consumers that tips were covered in the fare but then failed to reimburse them. The case is making its way through the courts. 

Then there's the little matter of insurance. Most insurance policies specify that they cover you and your car only for personal, non-commercial use. If you are carrying passengers or freight -- operating a for-hire service -- your policy may not be valid. 

The same applies to driver's licenses and state vehicle registration. In most states, you need a commercial driver's license to carry passengers for hire -- and also a commercial license plate.

Uber says it helps its drivers comply with local laws but, significantly, compares itself to eBay, saying it only brings passengers and drivers together and isn't responsible for happens after that.

That's an argument that is not finding much traction, however, as local and state regulators begin to take notice of Uber and its competitors and they're not showing a lot of sympathy so far.

"Matter of public safety"

PhotoThe California Public Utilities Commission has had its eye on Uber and simlar companies for several years and recently ruled that Uber is a transportation company and thus subject to regulation, though it has so far applied standards that are more lenient than those applied to traditional taxis. Uber says it will appeal.

“This is a matter of public safety,” said Brigadier General Jack Hagan, Director of the CPUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division in a statement issued after the commission fined Uber and two of its competitor $20,000 each in November 2012. “If something happens to a passenger while in transport with Lyft, SideCar, or Uber, it is the responsibility of the CPUC to have done everything in its power to ensure that the company was operating safely according to state law.

"That means that the company has insurance to cover an accident and that its employees are protected and are suitable drivers. I look forward to working with these companies to bring them into compliance with our safety laws.” 

Could be, but cities that don't yet have Uber-style transit are feeling left out. A move to bring Uber into Miami was blocked by political maneuving on the Dade County Commission, to the chagrin of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, an Uber proponent who has been trying to market the county as a high-tech innovation hub. He called the delay “an embarrassment to the city.”

“We’re trying to position ourselves as technology leaders and entrepreneurs,” he told the Miami Herald. “If it doesn’t go through, it’s a black eye on Miami-Dade County.”

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Computer screens may be distracting doctors

Study finds doctors may miss nonverbal cues, fail to communicate with patients

When physicians spend too much time looking at the computer screen in the exam room, nonverbal cues may get overlooked and affect doctors’ ability to...

PhotoIt's a fairly common experience these days: you're sitting there in front of your doctor, perhaps wearing one of those charming paper gowns, while your doctor's eyes remain fixated on her computer screen.

Healthcare professionals were slow to adopt computers in the exam room but they're making up for lost time now, so much so that a new study finds they may be overlooking nonverbal cues that could help them better understand and diagnose their patients' problems.

“When doctors spend that much time looking at the computer, it can be difficult for patients to get their attention,” said Enid Montague, an assistant proessor at Northwestern University's medical school. “It’s likely that the ability to listen, problem-solve and think creatively is not optimal when physicians’ eyes are glued to the screen.”

Eye-gaze patterns

Using video cameras, Northwestern scientists recorded 100 doctor-patient visits in which doctors used computers to access electronic health records. The videos were used to analyze eye-gaze patterns and how they affected communication behavior between patients and clinicians.

Published online in the International Journal of Medical Informatics, the study found that doctors who use electronic health records in the exam room spend about a third of their visits looking at a computer screen.

“We found that physician–patient eye-gaze patterns are different during a visit in which electronic health records versus a paper-chart visit are used,” Montague said. “Not only does the doctor spend less time looking at the patient, the patient also almost always looks at the computer screen, whether or not the patient can see or understand what is on the screen.”

Understanding physicians’ eye-gaze patterns and their effects on patients can contribute to more effective training guidelines and better-designed technology. Future systems, for example, could include more interactive screen sharing between physicians and patients, Montague said.

“The purpose of electronic health records is to enable health care workers to provide more effective, efficient, coordinated care,” Montague said. “By understanding the dynamic nature of eye-gaze patterns and how technology impacts these patterns, we can contribute to future designs that foster more effective doctor–patient interaction.”

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All sizes of businesses are vulnerable to data breaches

Meanwhile, Michaels may have been hit again

The credit card data breaches at Target, Neiman Marcus and – undoubtedly – more stores to come has shaken major retailers. But the fear isn't c...

PhotoThe credit card data breaches at Target, Neiman Marcus and – undoubtedly – more stores to come has shaken major retailers. But the fear isn't confined to the national retailers that operate stores across the country.

Plenty of “mom and pops” are worried too, according to Milton Security Group, a network security provider that serves mostly small and medium-sized businesses.

Fear and uncertainty

"Over the past few weeks we have seen a definite increase in the amount of fear, uncertainty, and doubt among a lot of small growing businesses relating to the recent security attacks against major retailers like Target and Neiman Marcus, said Milton CEO Jim McMurry.

While these smaller companies face the same type of problem their resources are much less than the Targets of the retail world. McMurry says his firm is focusing on security systems that can meet the current threat but don't cost as much as the ones used by the big guys.

Michaels again?

Meanwhile, over the weekend arts and crafts retailer Michaels said it is investigating whether its network suffered a breach.

"We are concerned there may have been a data security attack on Michaels that may have affected our customers' payment card information," Chief Executive Chuck Rubin said in the statement. "We are taking aggressive action to determine the nature and scope of the issue."

If Michaels has indeed been hit, it would be the second time. In 2011 the retailer notified customers that credit cards used at 80 of its stores had been compromised. Since that data breach, hackers have gotten even more sophisticated.

Deconstructing the attack

Security experts at Sophos have deconstructed the methods use in the Target breach. Sophos' Paul Ducklin reports the attackers used a malware that was loaded into point-of-sale terminals. The software was able to capture the data on each transaction.

The captured data was automatically bundled and transmitted to brokers, who sold it on the black market to criminals who used it to create thousands of phony credit cards.

According to Ducklin, the malware is called a “RAM scraper,” which exploits a flaw in the system.

“RAM scraping works because payment card data is often also unencrypted in memory (RAM) in the POS register, albeit briefly,” Duck writes in his blog.

Sophos reports RAM scrapers go back at least to 2009 but the latest versions are more sophisticated and, for retailers and their customers, more dangerous. That means both retailers and consumers will have to be more careful.

The FBI emphasized that point last week as it warned, in a confidential report to retailers, that they should prepare themselves for more cyber attacks in the months ahead.

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Shopping cart accidents on the rise

Researchers say current voluntary safety standards aren't getting it done

Parents who grocery shop with young children often use the shopping carts as a stroller as well, putting the child in the cart along with the food.But ar...

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Sweaty breasts? That's what towels are for

The guys trying to sell you boob deodorant think you're an idiot. Don't prove them right.

The beauty industry is based on contempt for its would-be customers, who must be convinced “You're not good enough, unless you buy our products."...

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Love and marriage: both leave you vulnerable to online scams

Con artists use online dating sites to ensnare new victims

The worst con artists prey not on people's sense of greed but their nobler emotions and instincts...

PhotoOf all types of scammers and con artists out there, probably the worst are those who prey not on people's sense of greed (“Hey, gimme your bank info and I'll share the zillions of dollars I'm smuggling out of a foreign country”), but on people's nobler emotions and instincts.

There are the notorious “Grandma scams,” when scammers contact people and pretend to be a friend or relative who is in deep trouble and needs money to get out of it.

And particularly heartbreaking are the love scams, where con artists pretend a romantic interest in their victims before clearing out their bank accounts.

Last week, a 66-year-old divorcee in San Jose, Calif., who was looking for love on Christian Mingle wound up bilked out of half a million dollars—although, luckily for her, authorities in Turkey were able to recover $200,000 of it. Even that was a longshot, though — authorities put the chances of recovering the remaining $300,000 at less than 1 percent.

The following week, a 50-something widow in Winder, Georgia was taken in by a similar scam (though for many orders of magnitude less money): she met a man on an unnamed “Christian dating site” and he eventually asked her to lend him $8,000 for a new generator. She was luckily too skeptical (or broke) to send him the full amount — but she did wire him $500.

She is unlikely to get any of her money back — and until her next disability check comes in, she'll have difficulty paying her bills in the meantime.

Winder is a small town – a quick online search says its population in 2012 was less than 14,300 people – and yet, when its local news reported the story of a local woman cheated out of $500 through a dating site, the last line of that news story said this: “Winder police said they frequently get reports like this and there often is not much that can be done when money is transferred to a foreign bank account.”

Nothing to be done

PhotoUnfortunately, the police are right; there usually isn't anything they can do to recover money in such situations. But if police even in a tiny town like Winder “frequently” get such scam reports, think what that implies about the appalling frequency of such scam attempts overall!

Of course, such scams aren't limited to Christian dating sites, nor even to American ones; on the other side of the Atlantic, the Mirfield Reporter (UK) noted on Jan. 10 that “Honeytrap bride” Sidra Fatima, who used an Asian dating site to bilk British would-be suitors out of £35,000 (roughly $52,500), managed to avoid jailtime for her role in the scam.

Fatima's scam was more elaborate than the other two mentioned here: she actually met her would-be victims in person, pretending to be interested in marriage (even though she was already married, to her scam partner).

We can't offer any advice on how to find true love, let alone how long it takes before you should relax enough to say “I know, love and can trust this person.” Furthermore, other than “Don't mix business with pleasure” we have no idea how romantic couples ought to handle the tricky subject of one making a personal or business loan to the other. However, we will say this: if you've never so much as been in the same room with someone, you do not know them well enough to lend them money.

Following this rule wouldn't necessarily have been enough to save Fatima's victims from being cheated, but it would've helped the widow and the divorcee whose hearts and bank accounts were both stolen by some thieving date-site scammers last week.

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Western Sky will stop trying to collect interest on NY payday loans

Consumers who paid back excessive interest will get refunds under NY settlement

New Yorkers who took out payday loans from Western Sky and its affiliates will be getting some relief under a settlement announced today by New York A...

PhotoNew Yorkers who took out payday loans from Western Sky and its affiliates will be getting some relief under a settlement announced today by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

Western Sky Financial, LLC, CashCall, Inc., WS Funding, LLC, and their owners, Martin Webb and J. Paul Reddam, agreed to settle charges that they violated New York’s usury and licensed lender laws in connection with personal loans they made over the Internet.

Under the terms of the settlement, the companies and their owners will cease collecting interest on outstanding loans made by Western Sky to New York consumers, provide refunds to New York borrowers who have paid back more than the principal of their loan plus the legal interest rate of 16%, and pay $1.5 million in penalties.

The companies charged New Yorkers annual rates of interest ranging from 89% to more than 355%. These interest rates far exceed the maximum rate allowed under New York law, which is limited to 16% for most lenders not licensed by the state. None of the companies that were sued were licensed in New York.

Since 2010, the companies have made more than 18,000 loans to New York consumers, lending nearly $40 million in principal.

What to do

Consumers who are eligible for a refund will be contacted by the fund administrator within 90 days of the court’s approval of the settlement and asked to submit a claim. 

New York consumers that have questions about the agreement can call the Attorney General’s Consumer Helpline at: (800) 771-7755.

The settlement applies only to consumers in New York. 

Tough times

"With this agreement, thousands of New Yorkers exploited by Western Sky and CashCall will get the relief they are owed,” said Schneiderman. “As individuals in New York and across the country continue to face tough economic times, we must keep up the fight against those who exploit and scam them. Illegal collectors and lenders, in particular, must pay a price for their behavior and pay back the New Yorkers they harmed.”

Under the terms of the settlement, Western Sky, CashCall, and related companies will modify all outstanding loans Western Sky made to New York consumers. The companies will cease all collections from New York consumers who have paid more than the principal of the loan, and cease all collections of interest from all other New York consumers.

In all, the settlement could provide more than $35 million in debt relief to New Yorkers. A proposed order and judgment reflecting the terms of the settlement has been submitted to the court.

The companies, located in South Dakota and California, targeted vulnerable New Yorkers through television and internet advertising that promised "fast cash" to consumers in urgent need of money. The companies took advantage of these customers by charging extremely high interest rates that were above New York State’s usury caps.

For example, consumers who received loans of $1,000 were charged an interest rate of more than 234%, and had to repay as much as $4,942 in interest and principal over just two years.

New York borrowers who questioned the legality of these loans were falsely told by the companies that New York law did not apply. Some consumers were also targeted with deceptive debt collection calls in further violation of New York law.

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Another study suggests sitting is the new smoking

Modern life may be putting more of us at risk

The modern lifestyle, with less physical labor and other activity and more time sitting in front of a screen, is detrimental to health, according to a grow...

PhotoThe modern lifestyle, with less physical labor and other activity and more time sitting in front of a screen, is detrimental to health, according to a growing body of research.

The latest to raise the warning is a study by health care provider Kaiser Permanente which shows that prolonged sedentary behavior in men significantly increases the risk of heart attack.

The researchers in this project looked at the electronic health records of more than 82,000 men aged 45 years and older who were part of the California Men's Health Study and who were enrolled in Kaiser Permanente health plans in the state.

2.2 times the risk

The men who reported spending several hours a day in sedentary inactivity had 2.2 times the risk of developing heart failure as compared with men who reported high physical activity and low sedentary time.

"Though traditionally we know quite a bit about the positive impact that physical activity has on cardiovascular disease, we know significantly less about the relationship between physical activity and heart failure," said Deborah Rohm Young, PhD, study lead author and researcher at the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation. "The results of this large study of a racially and ethnically diverse population reinforce the importance of a physically active and, importantly, a non-sedentary lifestyle for reducing the risk of heart failure."

Researchers are learning more about the negative health effects of sedentary behavior all the time. A 2011 study by the American College of Cardilogists was one of the first to raise the warning about too much sitting. Researchers, in fact, grabbed headlines by concluding that too much sitting could be as harmful as smoking cigarettes.

Specifically, the researchers found increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and early death. The researchers pointed out your body doesn't burn as many calories when you are seated. Your body goes into storage mode and stops working at peak efficiency. Standing up, even if you aren't moving about, helps.

Exercise might not help

PhotoA year later researchers in Sydney, Australia concluded that prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all causes of death, regardless of how much activity you might get when you aren't sitting. Researchers at the Sydney School of Public Health in Sydney reached their conclusions after studying 222,000 individuals 45 years of age and older. 

Later in 2012 two British studies underscored the risk of prolonged sitting, agreeing that compensating physical exercise does little to counteract the negative effects of sitting. 

The studies looked at people who spend long hours sitting at a desk, mostly for work activities. Some of the people led very sedentary lives but others maintained a moderate to high level of physical activity during their non-sitting time. The researchers were surprised to find that the health results were not all that different.

Scientists have determined that after just an hour of sitting, the body's production of enzymes that burn fat plunges dramatically. Sitting for extended periods of time can slow your metabolism rate and reduce levels of “good” cholesterol in the blood. That could be a precursor to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

What to do

What it you have a job that requires long hours in front of a computer screen? Maybe a change in furniture could help.

Office furniture designers and manufacturers have begun turning out a wide array of “upright” workstations, where an employee stands before an elevated work surface containing the computer monitor, keyboard and mouse. Most are adjustable so they can be modified to the height of the individual user.

Many businesses have begun offering stand-up workstations to their employees and some even sit astride a slow-moving treadmill. A worker standing at a desk can slowly walk several miles during an average workday.

The business sees it as an investment in employee health, resulting in fewer sick days and expensive medical treatment later on. For the employee, it may be an easy way to help with weight control while on the job.

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Revenge porn king Hunter Moore arrested

Moore and accomplice allegedly stole photos for IsAnyoneUp?

File this under the “Couldn't happen to a more deserving person” category...

PhotoFile this under the “Couldn't happen to a more [allegedly] deserving person” category.

On Jan. 23, “revenge porn” pioneer Hunter Moore (plus another man, Charles Evens) was arrested in California and charged with 15 counts: one count of conspiracy, and seven counts each of unauthorized access to a protected computer and aggravated identity theft. Moore allegedly paid Evens to hack into email accounts in order to steal photos.

“Revenge porn” is the practice of going online to publish explicit photos or videos of a person (usually along with their personal identifying information) in order to humiliate them.

Moore became both famous and notorious (in 2012, Rolling Stone dubbed him the “most hated man on the Internet”) for running a now-defunct revenge-porn website called IsAnyoneUp?, where vengeful ex-lovers or anyone else in possession of somebody's nude images could anonymously publish them.

Illegal in California

Last October, California became the first state to make revenge porn illegal – specifically, illegal to publish an identifiable nude photo or video of someone without their permission. That law specifically applied to videos or photos achieved by legal means — your ex may have freely given you that undressed photo, but you still can't publish it. However, if you got those images illegally — whether through spying on someone, or stealing the images from their rightful owner — that of course is illegal regardless of whether the images show any nudity.

And the anti-revenge porn law had nothing to do with the charges against Moore and Evens; if the allegations are true, Moore and IsAnyoneUp? stole at least some of the published photos by breaking into people's email accounts.

Conspiracy and computer hacking are felonies punishable by up to five years in federal prison. Aggravated identity theft has a mandatory two-year sentence, but that would most likely be served concurrently with any others.

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As tax-filing season approaches so do the scam artists

Be careful of anything you receive purporting to be from the IRS

You can almost set your clock by it. As the 2014 tax season approaches, the crooks, con men and various other low-lifes who want to separate you from your ...

PhotoYou can almost set your clock by it. As the 2014 tax season approaches, the crooks, con men and various other low-lifes who want to separate you from your money will begin slithering out from under their rocks.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is warning taxpayers to be particularly watchful for tax-related scams using the IRS name.

They're everywhere

These scams can take many forms, with perpetrators posing as the IRS in everything from e-mail refund schemes to phone impersonators.

You need to know that the IRS does NOT initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information. This includes any type of electronic communication, such as text messages and social media channels. It also does not ask for personal identification numbers (PINs), passwords or similar confidential access information for credit card, bank or other financial accounts. Should you receive such communications, do NOT open any attachments or click on any links contained therein. Instead, forward the e-mail to phishing@irs.gov.

Additional information on how to report phishing scams involving the IRS is available on the IRS website.

In addition, the IRS continues to aggressively expand its efforts to protect and prevent refund fraud involving identity theft as well as work with federal, state and local officials to pursue the perpetrators of this fraud.

Protecting yourself: what to do

  • Refrain from carrying your Social Security card or any documents that include your Social Security number (SSN) or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).
  • Don’t give a business your SSN or ITIN just because they ask. Give it only when required.
  • Protect your financial information.
  • Check your credit report every 12 months.
  • Secure personal information in your home.
  • Protect your personal computers by using firewalls and anti-spam/virus software, updating security patches and changing passwords for Internet accounts.
  • Don’t give personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you have initiated the contact and are sure of the recipient.

Check 'em out

You also should be very careful when choosing a tax preparer. While most preparers provide excellent service to their clients, a few unscrupulous return preparers file false and fraudulent tax returns and ultimately defraud their clients. It is important to know that even if someone else prepares your return, you are ultimately responsible for all the information on the tax return.

Tips to help you choose a tax preparer are available on the IRS website.

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Head lice: Every parent’s nightmare

Here are some tips for prevention and treatment

“Cooties.” That's what we called them back in the day. But head lice is no laughing matter. A year-round problem, the number of cases seems to peak when ...

Photo“Cooties.” That's what we called them back in the day.

But head lice is no laughing matter. A year-round problem, the number of cases seems to peak when kids go back to school in the fall and again in January, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dermatologist Patricia Brown, M.D.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show there are an estimated 6 to 12 million cases of head lice infestation each year in the U.S., affecting children 3 to 11 years of age. Outbreaks are are most common among preschool children attending child care, elementary school children, and household members of children who have lice.

Myth-busting

Contrary to myth, head lice are not caused by poor hygiene, Brown says. They are spread mainly by direct head-to-head contact with a person who already has head lice. You cannot get head lice from your pets; lice feed only on humans.

They don’t fly or jump; they move by crawling. But because kids play so closely together and often in large groups, lice can easily travel from child to child, especially when they touch heads during playing or talking.

Blood-suckers

Head lice are blood-sucking insects about the size of a sesame seed and tan to grayish-white in color. They attach themselves to the skin on the head and lay eggs (nits) in the hair.

Brown says you can check for head lice or nits by parting the hair in several spots. Using a magnifying glass and a bright light can help spot them. Because head lice can move fast it may be easier to spot the nits. Nits can look like dandruff, but you can identify them by picking up a strand of hair close to the scalp and pulling your fingernail across the area where you suspect a nit. Dandruff will come off easily, but nits will stay firmly attached to the hair.

Treatment

FDA-approved treatments for head lice include both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs, such as Nix and Rid, in the form of shampoos, creams and lotions. “Many head lice products are not for use in children under the age of 2, so read the label carefully before using a product to make sure it is safe to use on your child,” Brown says.

Although OTC drugs are available for treatment of head lice, Brown says your health care professional may prescribe drugs recently approved by the FDA, such as Ulesfia (approved in 2009), Natroba (approved in 2011) or Sklice (approved in 2012).

Follow these steps to use any head lice treatment safely and appropriately:

  • After rinsing the product from the hair and scalp, use a fine-toothed comb or special “nit comb” to remove dead lice and nits.
  • Apply the product only to the scalp and the hair attached to the scalp—not to other body hair.
  • Before treating young children, talk with the child’s doctor or your pharmacist for recommended treatments based on a child’s age and weight.
  • Use medication exactly as directed on the label and never more often than directed unless advised by your health care professional.
  • Use treatments on children only under the direct supervision of an adult.

How to prevent

  • Teach children to avoid head-to-head contact during play and other activities at home, school, and elsewhere (sports activities, playgrounds, slumber parties, and camps).
  • Teach children not to share clothing and supplies, such as hats, scarves, helmets, sports uniforms, towels, combs, brushes, bandanas, hair ties, and headphones.
  • Disinfest combs and brushes used by a person with head lice by soaking them in hot water (at least 130°F) for 5–10 minutes.
  • Do not lie on beds, couches, pillows, carpets, or stuffed animals that have recently been in contact with a person with head lice.
  • Clean items that have been in contact with the head of a person with lice in the 48 hours before treatment. Machine wash and dry clothing, bed linens, and other items using hot water (130°F) and a high heat drying cycle. Clothing and items that are not washable can be dry-cleaned or sealed in a plastic bag and stored for two weeks.
  • Vacuum the floor and furniture, particularly where the person with lice sat or lay. Head lice survive less than one or two days if they fall off the scalp and cannot feed.
  • Do not use insecticide sprays or fogs; they are not necessary to control head lice and can be toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
  • After finishing treatment with lice medication, check everyone in your family for lice after one week. If live lice are found, contact your health care professional.
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Email spammer tricked consumers with Obamacare threats, FTC charges

Emails claimed consumers would be breaking the law if they didn't buy insurance immediately

The Federal Trade Commission is taking action against a website that allegedly tricked consumers – in advance of the roll-out of the Affordable Care ...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission is taking action against a website that allegedly tricked consumers – in advance of the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – with spam emails that falsely claimed consumers would be breaking the law if they did not immediately click a link to enroll in health insurance.

The case against Kobeni Inc. and its president, Yair Shalev, is the first the agency has brought alleging ACA-related fraud. According to the FTC’s complaint, from at least May 2013 through August 2013, the defendants sent consumers email with statements such as:

Today is the deadline to make your election or be in violation of federal law

Must Receive Your Election Or You Will Be In Violation of Federal Law.

Effective Monday (08-05-13) health coverage is REQUIRED BY LAW.

Why is this mandatory? New Federal Law signed by the President made it mandatory for all U.S. residents to have active coverage. You will be in violation and face penalties if you do not elect.

You Must Select One of These 5 Options

As stated in the complaint, links in the email messages led to websites with advertisements for insurance. The websites’ operators paid the defendants when consumers clicked links contained in the ads. Insurance companies whose ads appeared on the websites did not authorize the email messages.

The FTC charges the defendants with violating the FTC Act by falsely representing that consumers would violate federal law if they did not select health insurance by the dates that appeared in their email messages.

The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the CAN-SPAM Act by not providing consumers who received the spam email messages with a clear and conspicuous notice that they had the right to opt out of receiving future commercial email messages from the defendants, and by sending commercial email messages that did not include the sender’s physical postal address.

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Trident pool gate latches recalled

The latch may not secure the gate properly

Nationwide Industries of Tampa, Fla., is recalling about 2,500 Trident pool gate latches. The magnet contained in the striker portion of the latch assembl...

PhotoNationwide Industries of Tampa, Fla., is recalling about 2,500 Trident pool gate latches.

The magnet contained in the striker portion of the latch assembly can come loose, preventing the latch from securing a gate.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recalled magnetic gate latches are 10” or 20” models in black or white, and are marked with the “Trident” name and image on the face of the latch body below the key hole. The latch body, which is typically attached to a fence post, contains a knob and a key cylinder on the uppermost portion and a recessed area on the bottom portion designed to engage and retain the striker. The striker, which contains the magnet, is typically attached to the active gate portion of a fence gate assembly, and moves with the gate as it is opened and closed. The Trident latches are frequently used to secure gates for pools.

The latches, manufactured in China, were sold nationwide from February to October of 2013 to professional fence contractors, dealers and gate manufacturers for between $50 to $60.

Consumers should contact Nationwide Industries for a replacement striker kit that can be installed with a Phillips head screwdriver.

Consumers may contact Nationwide Industries at (800) 409-3901 from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 pm ET Monday through Friday, use after-hours voicemail, or by e-mail at Striker@NationwideIndustries.com.

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In tough economy, thrift stores get new respect

Why pay retail when you can often pay "resale"?

If you have ever looked at Pinterest, Craigslist or Etsy for furniture, household items or clothing, you know that it's easy to get lost in the pages marke...

PhotoIf you have ever looked at Pinterest, Craigslist or Etsy for furniture, household items or clothing, you know that it's easy to get lost in the pages marked "vintage" or "shabby chic." Ever wonder where all the “before” items come from? A safe bet would be one of your local thrift stores.

It wasn't too long ago that thrift stores (a/k/a second hand stores) had a bad rap. They were known as dirty, smelly places with items that you would not want to touch with your bare hands, much less take into your home. Maybe you knew them just as Goodwill or the Salvation Army, but in today's world of recycling, reusing and re-purposing, the thrift store has taken its place as the alternative retail shopping experience.

Non-profit

Today's thrift stores are mostly run by churches, hospital groups, community organizations and even animal shelters, with profits being funneled back into the community to help with food banks, women's shelters, animal care and scholarships. And the profits are large, since all of the items come from donations and the stores are run primarily by volunteers.

Of the many reasons to shop at thrift stores, the first, of course, would be price. But exactly how much can you save? The answer is going to depend on the area in which the shop is located.

A shop in an urban area frequented by young bargain-conscious consumers will find it can charge more than stores in sparsely populated areas. But our survey of shops around the country has found clothing, household items, books, linens, baby and children's toys cost a fraction of what you would pay in the department or discount store – usually 10 to 20 cents on the dollar.

Where else could you find wine glasses for 50 cents or hardback books for $1.00? My wife, a lifetime thrift store shopper, recently found a “gently used” Armani jacket for $10 that immediately attended an art exhibit, a cocktail party and a Christmas event with no one the wiser.

Anyone raising children knows how quickly they grow out of clothing and accessories, many times only using an item once or twice. Many times a quick spin in your washing machine will make that “almost new” sleeper actually good as new.

Consumer test lab

A thrift store can also be a consumer test lab when it comes to previewing an appliance or product. If you were thinking about shelling out $19.95 for that "as seen on TV" wonder, check out how many are now sitting on the thrift store shelf for a $1.00 in the kitchen section. They either didn’t work or just took up too much space in someone’s kitchen.

If you are furnishing a dorm room or a new apartment, by far the most economical place to shop is a thrift store. From chairs to tables to dishes and lamps, it's all there and really cheap. When the school year is over or the lease is up, its sometimes cheaper and a whole lot easier to just donate the items back to the thrift store. In many cases the store will send a truck and a couple of strong volunteers to your home and pick up the items – no rental truck, no begging your friends to spend their Saturday helping you move, plus you get a donation slip that comes in handy when you figure your taxes next year.

They don't make it like they used to

PhotoBeyond pricing, there's also the issue of quality. “They don't make things like they used to” is not just a saying, but a fact. Instead of buying a bookcase that comes flat in a box and is made out of pressed sawdust with some assembly required, you can have a beautiful maple bookcase with sturdy shelves for about the same price or less that could last you a lifetime. Things that used to be made from wood or metal are mostly made of plastic these days, so if you want something that can "stand the test of time," it needs to have a little age on it.

The National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (NARTS), the trade group representing thrift stores, says the number of thrift store locations has grown seven percent per year over the last two years.

According to the retail data firm First Research, thrift stores produce $13 billion in annual revenues, with Goodwill Industries alone generating $2.69 billion. When you consider many of those sales were for a dollar or two, that's a lot of sales.

Anecdotal evidence suggests frugal young people, who entered adulthood during and after the Great Recession, have become recent thrift store enthusiasts. Not only are they saving money, the non-profit nature of these stores fits nicely with their political and cultural beliefs. They like the idea of recycling and re-purposing – keeping fewer items out of the nation's landfills while saving a buck or two.

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Chicken nuggets from China? Petition signers don't think so

Change.org petition calls for ban on Chinese chicken entering U.S. food supply

Reports that Chinese chicken could soon find its way onto U.S. tables has sparked a fast-growing petition campaign on Change.org, where more than 190,000 c...

PhotoReports that Chinese chicken could soon find its way onto U.S. tables has sparked a fast-growing petition campaign on Change.org, where more than 190,000 consumers have signed up so far.

The organizers call themselves "three concerned moms and food safety advocates" and say they're hoping the petition will motivate Congress and the USDA to ban chicken processed in China from U.S. school menus and to keep chicken raised and slaughtered in China from being imported into the U.S. 

“I know first-hand the devastating impact of a breakdown in the food safety system," said Dr. Barbara Kowalyck, one of the petition organizers."China has had numerous problems with food safety, and it is clear that, as of now, they do not have a robust food safety system. Importing poultry that has been processed in China is risky, and it’s a risk we don't have to take and should not be forced to take. Food safety should never be taken for granted -- especially when our children are involved.”

Kowalyck's 2 1/2-year-old son, Kevin, died in 2001 from complications of an E. coli infection. A faculty member at North Carolina State University, she has volunteered in various food safety efforts and co-founded the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention in 2006. In addition, Ms. Kowalcyk has served on USDA’s National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF) since 2005 and serves on the Advisory Board for Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute’s Produce Safety Project as well as two National Academies of Science committees. 

The other organizers are:

  • Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray blog, who successfully campaigned in 2012 to have lean, finely textured beef ("LFTB," also known as "pink slime") removed from the USDA’s School Lunch Program; and
  • National food policy consultant Nancy Huehnergarth.

No response so far

PhotoTheir petition followed reports that U.S. raised chicken exported for processing in China has been approved for import back into the United States where it can be sold without country of origin labeling, and reports that the USDA may also soon allow the importation of chicken raised and slaughtered in China.

Their petition calls for a ban on Chinese-processed chicken in school meals, as well as for steps to be taken so birds raised and slaughtered in China cannot be sold in the United States in the future.

It has taken off just as news spreads that the Philippines has banned chicken from China over concerns of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), and follows evidence of China's food safety failures, including dangerous levels of mercury in Chinese baby formula, thousands of diseased pig carcasses dumped in the Huangpu River, and mislabeled rat meat sold as lamb.

New signatures on the Change.org petition are sent via email to Representatives Robert Aderholt and Sam Farr, Senators Roy Blunt and Mark Pryor, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and President Barack Obama.

While those key decision makers have not yet responded to the petition, fourteen members of Congress previously signed an open letter supporting the campaign’s goals, and Siegel, Kowalyck and Huehnergarth plan to deliver their petition signatures to members of Congress and the USDA if they do not receive a response to the petition.

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Lawsuit against Lift Vapor e-cig company

The stuff is free -- but the shipping costs are allegedly through the roof

Beware those wonderful-sounding advertisements offering you something either for free or a ridiculously low price—plus “shipping and handling"...

PhotoBeware those wonderful-sounding advertisements offering you something either for free or a ridiculously low price — plus unspecified charges for “shipping and handling.”

There are millions of anecdotes we could show you in support of this advice, but we'll focus only on the most recent: Courthouse News Service reported on Jan. 23 that Connecticut-based e-cig company Lift Vapor is being sued over an allegedly “free” offer resulting in customers' credit cards being charged $99 to $149 per month.

This is not to be confused with last November's class-action suit filed against e-cig companies Vapor Corp. and Global Vapor Partners but making similar claims.

E-cigs are hardly unique in this regard; pretty much any company that has your credit card number has the ability to post charges on it. That's why we always advise you to avoid any allegedly “free” offer (such as the opportunity to see your credit report) that nonetheless demands your credit or debit card information first.

Yet we admit: this rule doesn't work with businesses that openly charge money for subscriptions and are offering free samples to potential new customers. If, for example, a magazine offers you a free month's subscription in hope of enticing you to sign on for a whole year, it likely will request your billing information up front — and if you decide not to get the subscription after all, it will fall on you to actively let the magazine know “Thanks, but no thanks.”

10 days

However, such an example is quite different from what various plaintiffs claim the e-cig companies are doing. The court complaint against Lift Vapor says, in part, that:

Lift Vapor fails to clearly and conspicuously disclose to consumers-who are eager to receive their free trial of e-cigarettes-that 10 days following the transaction it will charge consumers' credit and debit cards between $99 and $149 …. Lift Vapor is careful to bury mention of the initial trial charge or the monthly charges in the Terms and Conditions, which never appear on the same page as the free trial offer … Lift Vapor also obscures mention of these fees through the use of flashy graphics and misleading statements that tell consumers that they only pay shipping and handling and that the 'Total' price for the starter kit is "'$0.00.'"

Thomas Jefferson reputedly said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. He lived 200 years too early to know that eternal vigilance is also the price of having a credit card: when your bill comes in every month, you must do more than merely look at the total balance — check each individual line-item charge to ensure you recognize and authorized every one.

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Is Facebook like a disease?

Research paper compares it to an infectious disease outbreak

Facebook is like a disease. So says a research paper that exploded onto the scene yesterday. Written by two Princeton PhD students, the paper basically say...

PhotoFacebook is like a disease. So says a research paper that exploded onto the scene yesterday. Written by two Princeton PhD students, the paper basically says that social media sites follow the same outbreak, growth and decline patterns as epidemics.

Most of them have a life cycle that extends for only about three years after they reach their peak, which would mean that Facebook is on its way out and will be mostly a memory in a year or two.

Sound outrageous? Perhaps, but Joshua Spechler and John Cannarella point to MySpace as a prime example, It peaked in 2008 and then rapidly dwindled to nearly nothing by 2011.

Rapid decline

Using Google search data as their basis, the reserchers say that Facebook reached its peak in 2012 and has already started to decline.

"Extrapolating the best fit model into the future suggests that Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017," they said, adding that the site has "already reached the peak of its popularity and has entered a decline phase."

A Facebook spokesman said the paper was "nonsense" but others have noted that younger teens have been abandoning Facebook in droves recently, with older users replacing them. While not necessarily a bad thing, it's nevertheless a trend that raises questions about Facebook's future.

Overall, Facebook's numbers are up, the company notes, with nearly 1.2 billion users in a given month. Advertising revenue is also up.

The students aren't saying anything publicly while they wait for their paper to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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A more affordable alternative to for-profit colleges

Non-profits offer online convenience at lower cost

For profit colleges that advertise heavily and conduct most of their course offerings online have been the center of growing regulatory concern about stude...

PhotoFor-profit colleges that advertise heavily and conduct most of their course offerings online have been the center of growing concern about student loan debt.

According to recent regulatory filings, some of these for-profit institutions are coming under closer scrutiny by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and various state attorneys general. In a December filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, ITT Educational Services Inc., disclosed that the CFPB is investigating whether lenders making student loans “are engaging in unlawful acts or practices relating to the advertising, marketing, or origination of private student loans.”

These mostly online institutions have grown in popularity as people try to improve their marketable skills in a tough economy. While traditional colleges tend to be highly selective in admissions, requiring minimum GPAs and test scores, most online institutions have an open admissions policy. Students, most of whom take out loans, spend thousands of dollars more in tuition than they would at a state university or community college in their home state.

Standing out

But it is worth noting not all institutions offering online degrees fall into this category. One, in fact, stands out.

Southern New Hampshire University is conducting a national TV advertising campaign promoting its online undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Unlike ITT, University of Phoenix, DeVry and other for-profit colleges, SNHU is a non-profit,  private, university near Manchester, N.H.

It offers more than 80 online, accredited undergraduate majors in business and liberal arts, as well as graduate degree programs. Never heard of it? That's probably because before 2003, it was a sleepy little college on a 300-acre campus.

That year Paul LeBlanc took over as president and, with an entrepreneur's vision, transformed the university's small online degree program. In less than a decade it made Fast Company's list of the World's 50 Most Innovative Companies, taking its place with such names as Google, Apple and Facebook

What it costs

Because it is non-profit its tuition costs are much less than what you'd pay at a for-profit school. For online degrees and certificates, it costs $960 per course, or $320 per credit hour, making it less than in-state tuition at many state-supported universities.

The college was founded in 1932 as an accounting school and today is much like any other small college. Its on-campus enrollment is around 3,000, it competes in Division II men's and women's athletic programs – its men's soccer team won its second straight national title last month – and it has the full complement of fraternities and sororities. Its innovative approach earned a shout-out from President Obama last August as the president, in the video below, made a speech promoting higher education reform.

Today SNHU's online degree programs serve more than 11,000 students – much larger than the on-campus population. Its Center for Online and Continuing Education is the largest online degree provider in New England and, according to Fast Company, brings in more than $74 million a year.

But unlike for-profit colleges, that money is plowed back into SNHU's operations, helping to subsidize the main campus. As a result, when other colleges or universities have to raise tuition or make cuts, SNHU can keep adding course offerings while keeping tuition costs stable.

Other options

Other traditional colleges have begun increasing their online offerings as well, perhaps viewing it as a way to get a handle on rising education costs. The University of Maryland University College – part of the University System of Maryland system since 1947 – has become a virtual university meeting the needs of adult students at public college costs. It boasts an online enrollment of 95,000.

Central Michigan University's Global Campus is another growing public school presence now competing with for-profit universities. It offers graduate and undergraduate degree programs with undergraduate tuition of $370 per credit hour.

If you're looking for a degree or just a few hours of college credit, don't overlook these institutions and others like them. Chances are, you'll get a lot more for your money than you would at a for-profit college.

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FTC takes issue with Nissan's "Hill Climb" ad for the Frontier pickup

The ad is deceptive, the feds charged, because the truck can't do what the ad shows it doing

You may have seen the ads showing a Nissan Frontier pickup truck pushing a dune buggy up a steep hill. Pretty cool, no? Only problem is, the truck can...

PhotoYou may have seen the ads showing a Nissan Frontier pickup truck pushing a dune buggy up a steep hill. Pretty cool, no? Only problem is, the truck can't actually do that. 

As a result, Nissan North America, Inc., and TBWA Worldwide, Inc., the advertising agency that dreamed up the ad have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges of deceptive advertising.

Under the proposed settlements, Nissan and TBWA Worldwide, Inc. are prohibited from using deceptive demonstrations in advertisements for pickup trucks.

According to the FTC complaints, Nissan  and TBWA promoted the Frontier pickup truck with a “Hill Climb” advertisement that showed the vehicle rescuing a dune buggy trapped in sand on a steep hill, while onlookers observe the feat in amazement.   It was produced in a realistic “YouTube” style, as if it were shot on a mobile phone video camera.

 Nissan Jan. 23, 2014, 5:56 p.m.
Consumers rate Nissan

The FTC charged that Nissan and TBWA violated the FTC Act by representing that the ad accurately showed the performance of an unaltered Nissan Frontier under the conditions that were depicted.  

In fact, the truck is not capable of pushing the dune buggy up and over the hill, and both the truck and the dune buggy were dragged to the top of the hill by cables, according to the complaints.  The complaints also allege that the hill was made to look significantly steeper than it actually was.

“Special effects in ads can be entertaining, but advertisers can’t use them to misrepresent what a product can do,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.  “This ad made the Nissan Frontier appear capable of doing something it can’t do.”

Under the proposed settlements, Nissan and TBWA cannot misrepresent any material quality or feature of a pickup truck through the depiction of a test, experiment, or demonstration. The orders do not prohibit the use of special effects and other production techniques as long as they do not misrepresent a material quality or feature of the pickup truck.

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Home sales and prices on the rise

The year just ended was the strongest since 2006 for existing-home sales

It wouldn't be a surprise if they're popping champagne corks at the National Association of Realtors (NAR) today. The real estate trade group reports say...

PhotoIt wouldn't be a surprise if they're popping champagne corks at the National Association of Realtors (NAR) today.

The real estate trade group reports says sales of existing-home sales inched higher in December, making 2013 the strongest for sales seven years. At the same time, median prices continued their strong pattern of growth.

Figures released by NAR show total sales of previously-owned homes -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- rose 1.0% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.87 million.

For all of 2013, there were 5.09 million sales -- 9.1% more than in 2012 -- for the best performance since 2006, when sales reached 6.48 million at the close of the housing boom.

“Existing-home sales have risen nearly 20 percent since 2011, with job growth, record low mortgage interest rates and a large pent-up demand driving the market,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “We lost some momentum toward the end of 2013 from disappointing job growth and limited inventory, but we ended with a year that was close to normal given the size of our population.”

Prices on the rise

The national median existing-home price for all of 2013 was $197,100, which is 11.5% above the 2012 median of $176,800, and the strongest gain since 2005 when it rose 12.4%.

The median existing-home price for all housing types in December was $198,000, up 9.9% from December 2012. Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 14 % of December sales, unchanged from November. The shrinking share of distressed sales accounts for some of the price growth.

Where they sold

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast slipped 1.5% to an annual rate of 640,000 in December, but are 3.2% higher than December 2012.
  • In the Midwest, sales fell 4.3% to a pace of 1.11 million, and are 0.9% below a year ago.
  • The South saw an increase in sales of 3.0% to an annual level of 2.03 million in December, and are 4.6% above December 2012.
  • Sales of existing home rose 4.8% in the West rose to a pace of 1.09 million in December, but are 10.7% below a year ago. Inventory is tightest in the West, which is holding down sales in many markets.

PhotoNovember prices

Prices of all types of houses showed signs of slowing in November, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) monthly House Price Index (HPI), with a slight increase of 0.1% on a seasonally adjusted basis from October.

Still, the November HPI change marks the twenty-second consecutive monthly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index. The previously reported 0.5% increase in October was unchanged.

For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from October to November ranged from -1.4% in the East South Central division to +0.5% in the Mountain, West North Central, and East North Central divisions. The 12-month changes ranged from +3.2% in the Middle Atlantic division to +15.4% in the Pacific division.

The FHFA HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages either sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. From November 2012 to November 2013, house prices were up 7.6%. The U.S. index is 8.9% below its April 2007 peak -- roughly the same as the April 2005 index level.

The full report can be found on the FHFA website.

Jobless claims

PhotoA slight uptick last week in the number of people filing initial applications for unemployment benefits.

According to the government, there were 326,000 first-time filings in the week ending January 18, up 1,000 from the week before.

Analysts at Briefing.com say the seasonal effects of the holiday period have ended, and -- as they had predicted -- claims have settled around 330,000. The numbers, they add, suggest that there have been no notable changes in labor conditions over the last couple of months.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a better gauge of the labor market, was down 3,750 from the previous week -- to 331,500.

The complete report is available on the Labor Department website.

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AOL buys Gravity, a "personalization" start-up

The software creates a "fingerprint" for each visitor, then tailors content to them

Internet portal AOL has agreed to pay about $90 million to acquire Gravity, a software startup that tracks users to show them personalized ads and content....

PhotoInternet portal AOL has agreed to pay about $90 million to acquire Gravity, a software startup that tracks users to show them personalized ads and content.

"The web is moving to the era of personal, and a personal web filter will reshape how consumers get information and services," said AOL Chairman and CEO Tim Armstrong. "Gravity is joining AOL to lead the personalization transformation of AOL's brands and platform partners."

Gravity already works with a group of publishers and advertisers, including Sony, Intel, USA Today and GAP. Since the launch of the Gravity API last year, there have been more than one billion personalized page views per month on some of the biggest publisher sites on the web, and its technology has increased engagement by 240% compared to sites that do not have personalization, AOL said in a prepared statement.

Overwhelming amount

"Every day we're presented with an overwhelming amount of information to consume on our favorite websites and apps," said Gravity CEO Amit Kapur. "It's time to move beyond searching for the best content to having the best content search for you. We believe that by combining AOL's vast brand, publisher and advertiser network with Gravity's interest graph technology, we can do just that."

Gravity "personalizes the Internet beyond search and social by applying a personal and real-time filter to the ever-growing volume of digital information available for consumption," the company said.

Gravity's patented technology creates "Interest Graphs" based on individuals' interests, preferences and habits and allows publishers to offer a tailored and relevant selection of editorial and advertising content to readers.

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FDA studies caramel coloring in soda

Consumer Reports magazine study found potentially carcinogenic chemicals in some sodas

Under pressure from consumer groups, the Food and Drug Administration says it is taking another look at the safety of caramel coloring in soft drinks and f...

PhotoUnder pressure from consumer groups, the Food and Drug Administration says it is taking another look at the safety of caramel coloring in soft drinks and food.

The FDA's announcement follows a Consumer Reports magazine study that found some types of caramel coloring contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI). Under California’s Proposition 65 law, any food or beverage sold in the state that exposes consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI per day is supposed to carry a health-warning label.

Both Pepsi One and Malta Goya contained more than 29 micrograms of the substance in a recent test and the magazine said it has asked the California Attorney General to investigate.

"Unnecessary risk"

“There’s no reason why consumers should be exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary risk that can stem from coloring food brown,” said Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., toxicologist and executive director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety & Sustainability Center. “Manufacturers have lower 4-MeI alternatives available to them. Ideally there would be no 4-MeI in food.”

There are no federal limits on 4-Mel and the FDA has previously studied the use of caramel coloring without finding any reason to believe it is unsafe, an FDA spokeswoman said.

The Consumer Reports study urged the FDA to set a maximum level, to require labeling when it is added to drinks and food and to bar products from being labeled as "natural" when they contain artificial caramel coloring.

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How men can reduce their risk of heart failure

Exercising more and sitting less goes a long way

Hey, guys. Want to cut your risk of heart failure? Get off your duff. New research published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Heart ...

PhotoHey, guys. Want to cut your risk of heart failure? Get off your duff.

New research published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Heart Failure shows sitting for long periods increases heart failure risk in men -- even if they exercise regularly.

The researchers found that preventing heart failure requires a two-part behavioral approach: high levels of physical activity plus low levels of sedentary time. This is the first study to examine the link between heart failure risk and sedentary time.

"Be more active and sit less. That's the message here," said Deborah Rohm Young, Ph.D., lead researcher and a senior scientist at Kaiser Permanente in Pasadena, Calif.

What they found

Researchers followed a racially diverse group of 84,170 men ages 45 to 69 without heart failure. Exercise levels were calculated in METs, or metabolic equivalent of task, a measure of the body's energy use. Sedentary levels were measured in hours. After an average of nearly eight years of follow-up, researchers found:

Men with low levels of physical activity were 52% more likely to develop heart failure than men with high physical activity levels -- even after adjusting for differences in sedentary time.

Outside of work, men who spent five or more hours a day sitting were 34% more likely to develop heart failure than men who spent no more than two hours a day sitting, regardless of how much they exercised.

Heart failure risk more than doubled in men who sat for at least five hours a day and got little exercise compared with men who were very physically active and sat for two hours or less a day.

Study limitations

  • Since no women were studied the results may not apply to them.
  • Results were self-reported, which could mean physical activity was over reported.
  • Results were based only on time outside of work and can't be applied to overall sedentary activity.
  • Participants were members of comprehensive health plans, so results may not apply to men lacking health insurance.

The study supports the American Heart Association recommendation that people get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity to reduce their risk for heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases, Young said.

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Ray LaHood adds another post-DOT title

He and his former chief of staff join DLA Piper as "policy advisors"

DLA Piper announced today that former US Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has joined the firm as a senior policy advisor in the Washington...

Photo
Ray LaHood

Ex-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has added another line to his resume. He's now a "senior policy advisor" in the Washington, D.C., and Chicago offices of DLA Piper, which modestly calls itself a "global law firm" positioned to "help companies with their legal needs anywhere in the world."

Shortly before resigning his post, LaHood presided over a secret meeting at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with Chrysler officials to craft a much-criticized deal to recall some Jeep SUVs that safety advocates say are dangerously prone to burst into flames when hit from the rear.

Making the move with LaHood is Joan DeBoer, who was his chief of staff at the Transportation Department. She also will be a policy advisor at DLA Piper.

Earlier, LaHood was named co-chair of Building America’s Future, an "educational" organization that is pushing for more bridge, highway, transit and aviation construction.

David Strickland who, under LaHood, headed up the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency that regulates automobile safety, is joining the powerhouse Washington lobbying and law firm Venable LLP.

“There is no substitute for hands-on experience and that is what Secretary LaHood and Joan bring to DLA Piper,” said Ignacio Sanchez, co-chair of the Regulatory and Government Affairs practice. “We look forward to utilizing their talents on a variety of projects involving the intersection of government and business.”

With much ballyhoo, the Obama Administration announced at its outset that it would put a stop to the much-despised Washington revolving door, through which government officials step down, weary from their years of "public service" to take up lucrative new careers lobbying and influencing government on behalf of the industries they previously regulated.

So wouldn't this apply to LaHood, Strickland and DeBoer? Why no, of course not. They are not, after all, going to be lobbyists -- merely lawyers and policy advisors. You can, in other words, make a big show of closing the front door but it doesn't do much good if the side door remains wide open.

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Toyota again takes No. 1 title

GM in second, VW third

Toyota is once again the world's top-selling automaker, beating General Motors and Volkswagen for the second year in a row in 2013, fighting back from the ...

PhotoToyota is once again the world's top-selling automaker, beating General Motors and Volkswagen for the second year in a row in 2013, fighting back from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that damaged much of its manufacturing capacity.

Toyota outsold GM by about 270,000 vehicles last year, and said its target for this year is 10 million. That would be a first, as no automaker has ever sold more than 10 million vehicles in a single year.

Toyota sold 9.98 million last year, up 2 percent from the previous year. GM sold 9.71 million, VW 9.5 million.

The Japanese automaker was typically understated about the accomplishment, saying it prefers to concentrate on building one car at a time.

"Toyota has come close to nearly 10 million units a year," said President Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, Automotive News reported. "But at today's Toyota, we are not pursuing volume.
 Going on the offensive means making ever-better cars and changing the way in which we produce cars."

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Midwest-CBK recalls baby rattles

The head on the rattle can detach

Midwest-CBK of Cannon Falls, Minn., is recalling about 1,900 baby rattles. The head on the rattle can detach, posing a choking hazard to young children. ...

PhotoMidwest-CBK of Cannon Falls, Minn., is recalling about 1,900 baby rattles.

The head on the rattle can detach, posing a choking hazard to young children.

The firm has received one report of the head on a rattle detaching. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves donut-shaped polyester knit fabric baby rattles with heads and arms to resemble a bear, monkey and a lion. They measure about 7 inches in diameter by 2 inches thick. Sweet-ums and Midwest-CBK are printed on a hang tag on the rattles. A label sewn into the rattles has Midwest-CBK, the production date 04/2013 and the batch #:00001281 printed on it.

The rattles, manufactured in China, were sold at small gift stores from July 2013, through December 2013, for about $10.

Consumers should take the recalled rattles away from young children immediately and contact Midwest-CBK for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Midwest-CBK at (800) 394-4225 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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St. Mary’s River Smokehouses Oven Smoked Salmon Stix recalled

The product be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Lochiel Enterprises Limited of Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia, is recalling 56 lbs of St. Mary’s River Smokehouses Oven Smoked Salmon Stix, Chili Mango Flavor. T...

PhotoLochiel Enterprises Limited of Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia, is recalling 56 lbs of St. Mary’s River Smokehouses Oven Smoked Salmon Stix, Chili Mango Flavor.

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The product, distributed in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and New York through retail stores, comes in a 4-oz, black styrofoam tray with an outer sleeve bearing the UPC Code 6 2642510092 9. The recall is specific to product marked with the production code 347 31## on a sticker on the end of the styrofoam tray.

Consumers who have purchased the product are urged to return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1 902 522-2005.

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Flat Creek Farm & Dairy corrects information on previous cheese recalls

The lot number in the previous recall announcement was incorrect

Flat Creek Farm & Dairy of Swainsboro, Ga., is correcting information contained in an earlier recall of its Heavenly Blue Cheese and Aztec Cheddar cheese. ...


Flat Creek Farm & Dairy of Swainsboro, Ga., is correcting information contained in an earlier recall of its Heavenly Blue Cheese and Aztec Cheddar cheese.

PhotoThe lot number that appears on the Aztec Cheddar cheese is 130823XCAZ, not 130823XAZ as previously reported. As of December 24, 2013, all customers that purchased the product had been notified and all products have been either recovered or destroyed.

The 90 pounds of Heavenly Blue and 78 pounds of Aztec Cheddar cheese, were recalled because of potential contamination by Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The cheeses were distributed in certain parts of Georgia and Florida and (6) online orders (www.flatcreekdairy.com), which have all been notified. The product was packed in clear plastic and ranged in sizes from ½ pound to whole wheels. T

he recall was specific to product marked with the lot codes 130916XHB (Heavenly Blue) and 130823XCAZ (Aztec Cheddar), which can be found on the front of the package.

The recall was the result of a routine sampling program conducted by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which revealed that the finished products were potentially contaminated.

Consumers with concerns about this recall may call Flat Creek Dairy & Farm at 478-237-0123 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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Don't let identity thieves steal your tax refund

It's easy money for a hacker, a big headache for you

Identity theft is already a growing consumer problem. When a hacker assumes your identity they can open up lines of credit in your name and even clean our ...

PhotoIdentity theft is already a growing consumer problem. When a hacker assumes your identity they can open up lines of credit in your name and even clean our your bank account.

To add insult to injury, they can even steal your federal income tax refund. In fact, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reports this is happening with alarming frequency.

All a hacker needs is your Social Security number. With it, they can file a phony tax return with a made-up W-2 form that shows you are getting a big refund. When the IRS gets the return it processes it, sending out the refund check to the bad guy. The theft isn't discovered until you get around to filing your real return.

Easy money

To the hacker it's easy money. If he has somehow gotten his hands on your actual W-2, you may have a very difficult time getting your money back. In any case, the U.S. taxpayers end up getting victimized as well.

The IRS has stepped up efforts in recent years on finding and prosecuting these specialized identity thieves. In Fiscal Year 2013 the agency began nearly 1,500 criminal investigations related to tax return identity theft, a 66% increase over the previous year. It's better, of course, to stop identity theft before it happens.

“The IRS has taken numerous steps to combat identity theft and protect taxpayers,” the agency said in a statement. “We are continually looking at ways to increase data security and protect taxpayers' identities with assistance from our Identity Protection Specialized Unit. Identity theft cases are among the most complex ones we handle.”

Take action

If you have reason to believe that someone has stolen your personal information you need to take action. For example, you may receive a letter from the IRS stating or learn from a tax professional that you filed more than one tax return, or that someone has already filed a return using your information. You may also learn that you have a balance due, refund offset or have had collection actions taken against you for a year you did not file.

Your identity may also have been stolen if you receive a notification of wages form an employer you have not worked for. If you receive such a letter from the IRS and you suspect your identity has been stolen, respond immediately to the name, address, phone number or fax listed on the IRS letter. Better yet, contact the IRS to determine if the letter is a legitimate IRS letter.

Another tip-off is when you learn that someone is using your Social Security number to seek employment, or for some other purpose not connected to your activities.

People to call

When you find out you have been a victim of identity theft, or suspect that you have been, there is a long list of people to call. First, contact the three credit reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on your credit files. Next, cancel all your credit cards. If someone is using your Social Security number, contact the Social Security Administration.

The IRS asks that you also place it on the list of people to call. Once you do it will place a hold on your account so that the thief will be unable to file a bogus return.

For other identity theft protection tips, check out the IRS video below:

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NHTSA proposes changes for child safety testing

Child restraint systems to be tested against side-impact crashes

We're huge fans of secondhand shopping as a way to save money, but there are some things you should not buy secondhand and child safety seats are one ...

PhotoWe're huge fans of secondhand shopping as a way to save money, but there are some things you should not buy secondhand and child safety seats are one of them, especially since safety standards are evolving all the time.  Consider this Jan. 22 announcement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, proposing the “first-ever side impact test for child restraint systems.”

This does not mean that changes to seats currently on the market are imminent, though it could well prove the first step on a road that eventually leads to new standards for child safety seats.

For now, safety seats are tested for front and back impact crashes, but have not yet been tested in so-called “T-bone” crashes, where the front of one vehicle hits the side of another. This is what NHTSA proposes to change.

NHTSA also posted its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (in .pdf form), and any members of the public wishing to comment on the proposal will have 90 days to do so. NHTSA even has a free app available for parents seeking recall information about child-safety seats — though this app is only available for Apple-enabled devices through the Apple App Store.

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Now's the time to stockpile "Forever" stamps

First-class stamp prices to rise three cents on Sunday

Now's the time to visit the post office and lay in a stockpile of first-class “Forever” stamps, before the price rises again this Sunday. Today...

PhotoNow's the time to visit the post office and lay in a stockpile of first-class “Forever” stamps, before the price rises again this Sunday.

Today stamps will cost you 46 cents apiece, but that price rises to 49 cents on Jan. 26. This hardly counts as a surprise, though; the postmaster general requested the three-cent increase last September.

If you don't have time to visit the post office yet want to stockpile stamps anyway, the post office also sells them online.

There is perhaps a slight bit of irony there, as analysts agree the rise of the Internet and subsequent decline of the old-fashioned mailed letter as the most affordable means of communication between people separated by distance is the main reason the modern U.S. postal service is having such financial troubles in the first place.

That three extra cents per letter probably isn't enough to cover the loss — but it's bound to be better than nothing.

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Beware of lifetime gym memberships

The gym company's lifetime might be considerably shorter than your own

For all the undeniable health benefits from exercise and working out, we admit to taking a pretty dim view of long-term gym memberships. This is partly due...

PhotoFor all the undeniable health benefits of exercise and working out, we admit to taking a pretty dim view of long-term gym memberships. This is partly due to a flaw in human nature – rare indeed is the person with enough free time and willpower to visit the gym often enough to make the membership fees worthwhile (and if you have that much determination you probably don't need a gym membership to stay fit, anyway).

Furthermore, there's no way of knowing what the future will hold — that great deal on the gym down the street isn't so great when you have to move to a new state and are still stuck paying monthly membership fees. And a lifetime membership to a bankrupt gym is pretty much identical to no gym membership at all, except the latter option is free whereas the former can cost you a lot of money.

To pick an example at random: We recently heard complaints from two different people whose lifetime memberships to Bally Total Fitness proved useless after Bally closed. Lynn in Maryland kept an old out-of-state membership active just in case she needed it later, but by the time she did it proved useless:

“After having a lifetime membership that started back in the late 80's in Willow Grove, PA, and [paying] a small fortune for it, it was finally paid off and after moving to another state, I would receive a $5 yearly bill to keep it going.”

For several years, she paid that small annual fee without ever setting foot in the gym. Then what? “I just found out in December through a friend that Bally was sold ... I never got anything in the mail to me! I decided to go to the local LA Fitness and was told my membership had expired!”

Dismayed in Ohio

Bally Total Fitness Jan. 22, 2014, 7:59 p.m.
Consumers rate Bally Total Fitness

Glenn in Ohio was similarly dismayed when his local Bally was bought out by Red Fitness 24/7, which did not want to honor the old Bally lifetime memberships. “If you were paying $1 to $50 they want you to pay $79 plus 10% tax plus a $20.99 CIF so the new annual fee is $109. If you are between 50 and 100 they want $99 plus [tax and fees] so you will pay $130. They now have very upset members and will probably file a class action lawsuit for this also.”

If filed, such a class-action attempt would not be the first; in January 2012 some plaintiffs in northern Illinois filed suit (.pdf) against Bally and LA Fitness alleging violation of various state-level anti-fraud acts, specifically after Bally sold lifetime memberships to people just before selling the company to LA Fitness, which did not honor the old Bally contracts; instead, Bally lifetime membership holders were allegedly told their memberships were only valid at the nearest Bally some three hours away.

But that Illinois lawsuit wouldn't likely help people with complaints in Ohio, Maryland or Pennsylvania. Oddly enough, in December 2011, one month before the Illinois plantiffs filed that class action suit against Bally and LA Fitness, the Norristown Patch in Pennsylvania reported that, due to similar complaints from former Bally members, LA Fitness has henceforth decided to honor all former Bally membership agreements.

As of presstime, there exists a Facebook page dedicated to “Bally /LA Fitness Class Action Lawsuit.” But the most recent post, dated December 11, 2013, says this: “UPDATE: Page will be closing down soon” and includes more detail:

As you may recall, there were initially a number of different lawsuits against Bally’s Total Fitness and LA Fitness, including the federal action which we began in the Pennsylvania courts. A number of those lawsuits have been dismissed or withdrawn — including our case (Tobia, et al. v. Bally’s Total Fitness, et al). However, you are all still protected. You may choose to be included in one of the remaining lawsuits, and you always retain your right to proceed on your own, in your own lawsuit.

The remaining federal lawsuits, which we are aware of, are Grabianski v. Bally Total Fitness Holding Corporation, Case No. 12-C-284, pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and Piegaro v. Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp., Case No. 3:12-cv-04595, pending in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. …. Neither case has been certified as a class action lawsuit. Likewise, the federal courts have not seen fit to consolidate the cases for handling in one single location.... If either of these cases ever becomes a class action, you may be automatically included among the Plaintiffs who were damaged by Bally’s misconduct.”

Remember: this refers specifically to former Bally locations bought by LA Fitness. Thus far we've not found attempts at actual class-action suits against Red Fitness 24/7 – though a brief search of Pissedconsumer.com netted other Ohio residents and former Bally members with complaints similat to Glenn's.

We tried calling the specific Red Fitness gym that Glenn complained about, to ask what if any policy they had regarding former Bally  members, but nobody answered the phone.

If something like this happens to you, what can you do? The first step should be to complain to your state's Attorney General. Many AGs have taken action against gyms in recent years and may do so again if they get enough complaints.

You can find the AG in your state by typing "[your state] Attorney General" in your favorite search engine and then locating the site's complaint-submission page. 

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IIHS: Don't count on minicars for front crash protection

Fiat 500, Honda Fit fare the worst, Chevrolet Spark the best

It was not a good showing for minicars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says only one of the 11 vehicles it achieved an acceptable ratin...

PhotoIt was not a good showing for minicars.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says only one of the 11 minicars it tested achieved an acceptable rating in the institute's small overlap front crash test. That makes them the worst performing group of any evaluated so far.

The Chevrolet Spark earned a 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK award after achieving an acceptable rating in the test, along with good ratings in four other IIHS crashworthiness evaluations. The Spark was among the initial award winners announced in December. The small overlap test results for the rest of the minicar group mean that no other models in this size category join the Spark in the winner's circle yet.

Difficult test

The small overlap test, which was introduced in 2012, replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole. In the test, 25% of a vehicle's front end on the driver's side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph.

The test is more difficult than the head-on crashes conducted by the government or the longstanding IIHS moderate overlap test because most of the vehicle's front-end crush zone is bypassed. That makes it hard for the vehicle to manage crash energy, and the occupant compartment can collapse as a result. Nevertheless, in many size categories, manufacturers have found ways to improve vehicle structures to meet this challenge.

"Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage. That’s why it’s even more important to choose one with the best occupant protection," says Joe Nolan, IIHS senior vice president for vehicle research. "Unfortunately, as a group, minicars aren’t performing as well as other vehicle categories in the small overlap crash.”

In contrast to the minicar group’s performance, most models in the small car category -- which are a little larger -- have done much better in the test. There are five good ratings and five acceptable ratings among 17 small cars that have been evaluated so far.

Low marks all around

Looking at the component ratings that make up the overall marks, every minicar -- including the Spark -- rates marginal or poor for structure, the most fundamental element of occupant protection. When a vehicle’s structure doesn’t hold up, injury risk is high. Collapsing structures can knock frontal airbags and seats out of position, making things worse. The Chevrolet Spark is the only minicar tested to earn an acceptable rating in the small overlap front test.

All the vehicles except the Spark and the Mazda 2 also earn low ratings for restraints and kinematics. Seven of the 11 were downgraded for allowing too much occupant forward motion during the crash. In these cases, either the safety belt didn't do a good enough job holding the dummy in place, or the dummy's head missed or slid off the frontal airbag.

The side curtain airbag, which has an important role to play in small overlap frontal crashes, provided insufficient forward coverage in eight of the minicars and didn’t deploy at all in the Toyota Yaris. In many models, the steering column moved sideways, and in three cars the seat tipped.

PhotoFit and Fiat flunk

The two worst performers are the Honda Fit and the Fiat 500. In both cases, intruding structure seriously compromised the driver’s space, and the steering column was pushed back toward the driver.

In the case of the Fit, the dummy’s head barely contacted the frontal airbag before sliding off and hitting the instrument panel. During the test of the 500, the driver door opened after the hinges tore. An open door creates a risk that the driver could be partially or completely ejected.

Injury measures on the dummy’s left legs are marginal or poor for many models. In most cases, potential injuries involved the lower leg, but the Fit, 500 and Hyundai Accent were downgraded for left thigh or hip injury. The Fit and 500 were the only vehicles to record elevated injury risk to the right leg as well.

Despite its marginal structure, the Spark achieves an acceptable overall rating because the dummy’s movement was fairly well controlled and its injury measures were low. The Spark is the only vehicle with good injury measures for all body regions, including the lower leg and foot, generally a problematic area in the small overlap test. This may be related to the fact that the structure around the lower part of the occupant compartment held up better than other minicars, despite intrusion in the upper part.

What to do

Consumers should remember that the Spark, while offering more small overlap protection than other minicars, weighs less than 2,500 pounds and doesn't protect as well as a larger and heavier vehicle with a comparable rating. Frontal crash test results can't be compared across weight classes.

In addition, neither the Spark nor the other minicars in the test group offer front crash prevention, an increasingly common safety feature that can prevent or mitigate some kinds of frontal crashes. For 2014, vehicles must be available with front crash prevention to qualify for the highest safety award from IIHS -- TOP SAFETY PICK+.  

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Could reality TV be a force for good?

Researchers think two shows may have helped reduce teen pregnancy

There's general agreement that unmarried teen-age girls should not be encouraged to have babies. So when MTV came up with reality TV shows like “16 a...

PhotoThere's general agreement that unmarried teen-age girls should not be encouraged to have babies. So when MTV came up with reality TV shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom,” social critics went ballistic.

They warned that the shows glamorized teen motherhood and thousands of young girls would think they, too could land a reality show if they just got pregnant. While the concern is understandable, there is some evidence to suggest the shows had just the opposite effect.

Research by Wellesley College economist Phillip B. Levine and University of Maryland economist Melissa Schettini Kearney finds that since the shows began, there has been a 5.7% drop in births to teen-age mothers.

Could there be a link?

Whether there is any direct link has yet to be proven. After all, the teen birth rate was already in decline. But the economists say the introduction of the series does in fact coincide with a significant drop in the pregnancy rate. They say the critics may have been right that the media holds enormous influence over young viewers. They may have just been wrong about what the young female viewers would take away from the programs.

"In some circles, the idea that teenagers respond to media content is a foregone conclusion, but determining whether the media images themselves cause the behavior is a very difficult empirical task," Kearney said.

Negative reinforcement

And maybe the images of being up all night with a crying baby and not being able to go out with friends send a sobering message. The researchers believe there may be something to this and theorize that the timing of the shows and the rather significant drop in pregnancies do in fact have a link.

Kearney and Levine reached that conclusion after conducting an in-depth empirical study, analyzing Nielsen ratings data and metrics from Google and Twitter. The researchers then examined the impact on teen birth rates using Vital Statistics Natality microdata.

"Our use of data from Google Trends and Twitter enable us to provide some gauge of what viewers are thinking about when they watch the show,” Levine said. “We conclude that exposure to '16 and Pregnant' and 'Teen Mom' was high and that it had an influence on teens' thinking regarding birth control and abortion."

Abortions down too

While teen births were down, so were teen abortions, leading Kearney and Levine to conclude the drop in the teen birth rate is attributable to a reduction in pregnancies, not in an increase in abortion.

They further suggest that "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom" drew in female viewers who were most at risk of an early pregnancy. What they saw as the programs unfolded was akin to the drivers education films of yester-year, which showed graphic footage from real auto accidents. In other words, after seeing what it was like to be a mother, not that many teens were all that keen on trying it.

Kearney and Levine have advanced the contrarian notion that not all reality TV is worthless trash. Some may, in fact, have redeeming social value. The researchers, in fact, would like to see more.

"This approach has the potential to yield large results with important social consequences," they conclude. "Typically, the public concern addresses potential negative influences of media exposure, but this study finds it may have positive influences as well."

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A love song to Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck

The Sears catalog was once a sort of analog Amazon

Robert Passikoff is president of Brand Keys, a retailing consultancy.--Robert PassikoffFor nearly 100 years Sears, Roebuck & Co. was Ameri...

Robert Passikoff is president of Brand Keys, a retailing consultancy.

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Photo
Robert Passikoff

For nearly 100 years Sears, Roebuck & Co. was America's greatest retailer and consumers loved them. Hard to believe today? Well here's a bit from a 1949 song by Ray Gilbert, William Okie, and Al Gannay. The first verse went like this:

Dear Mister Sears and Roebuck:
I been sittin' here a-thumbin' through your book.
Page a hundred ninety-nine
Shows a stove that's mighty fine
And a feller in an apron like a cook.
Dear Mister Sears and Roebuck:
That electric stove's away above my class.
It's a beauty, yes indeed,
But the thing I really need
Is that man to teach me how to cook with gas.

It ended as follows:

Don't mean to fuss, poor Roebuck,
But you'll never fill my order, it appears.
If the shortage is acute,
I'm an easy girl to suit.
I'll shut up if you send me Mister Sears.

The "book" the song referred to was the Sears catalog, first published in 1888. It eventually came to be known as "the Consumers' Bible," offering catalogs as large as 500 pages long, featuring everything from phonographs to bicycles, milk pails to automobiles, even headstones and ready-to-assemble house kits.

Two years later, in 1896, you could order toys and groceries. It was a kind of 19th century paperback Amazon.com. In 1933, Sears issued the first of its famous Christmas catalogs, the "Sears Wishbook."

Based on actual market results, along with some actual market research à la our annual Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, it's apparent that there aren't a lot of consumers singing love songs to Sears today, and that Sears Holdings is wishing for happier days. Sears Holdings just announced they plan to close its flagship Loop location in Chicago this April, and will begin liquidating merchandise at the store next week.

Less Space, Fewer Stores Serves Better?

CEO Edward Lampert indicated that he believes Sears can better serve customers with less space and fewer stores. When you figure that one out, let us know. Sears ranked 4th (of 5) national Department Stores we track in the annual survey. The stores' own customers do the brand evaluations, but alas, for Sears this is becoming a smaller and smaller segment of the buying public.

Brands like Sears end up at the bottom of their respective lists because they fail to meet expectations consumers hold for what drives loyalty in their category. You've got to watch those expectations because they almost always move up and brands have a hard time keeping up in the best of circumstances.

Engagement and loyalty metrics prove it out: meet those expectations and you do well. Don't, and it always shows up on the bottom line because emotional engagement and loyalty metrics are leading-indicators of consumer behavior. And it's axiomatic that it consumers don't behave well toward a brand, it's not likely that the brand is going to do well.

How is Sears doing? Well, the struggling department store reported same-store sales declines of 7.4% earlier this month, with year-to-date sales down 3.9%. The closure shouldn't come as a surprise, though. Sears has been selling off stores and leases to raise desperately needed cash for a financial infusion to stem declining revenues.

Co-Founder Richard Sears was once quoted as saying, "If you buy a good watch you will always be satisfied, and at our prices a good watch will influence the sale of another good watch; and that's our motto: "Make a Watch Sell a Watch." Today a better motto for Sears Holdings would be: "Watch Those Expectations, Sell A Lot of Product."

 

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Most Members of Congress are now millionaires

They may not get much done but at least they're staying solvent ... and then some

For the first time in history, most members of Congress are millionaires, according to a new analysis of personal financial disclosure databy the Cent...

PhotoYou might say that what Congress does or doesn't do isn't really a consumer issue. Ah, but think again; to put it in the crudest possible terms, we are all consumers of government services and every few years we get a chance to decide which group of candidates we want to employ to manage those services for us.

If you look at it that way, we didn't get much for our money the last year or two -- not much legislation was passed and the entire enterprise was shut down for 16 days through the failure of our employees to manage it properly.

Given that rather dismal record, it may be irksome to learn that for the first time in the history of our fair land, most members of Congress are millionaires, according to a new analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Of 534 current members of Congress, at least 268 had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012, according to disclosures filed last year by all members of Congress and candidates. The median net worth for the 530 current lawmakers who were in Congress as of the May filing deadline was $1,008,767 -- an increase from the previous year when it was $966,000.

Last year only 257 members, or about 48 percent of lawmakers, had a median net worth of at least $1 million.

It's not so much that Representatives and Senators are getting rich on their annual salaries of $174,000 but rather that they were rich when they got there. After all, it takes a lot of money to run for Congress.

So it's not surprising that Members of Congress have for a long time been far wealthier than the typical American, but the fact that now a majority of members -- just a hair over 50 percent -- are millionaires represents what CRP called "a watershed moment at a time when lawmakers are debating issues like unemployment benefits, food stamps and the minimum wage, which affect people with far fewer resources, as well as considering an overhaul of the tax code."

"Despite the fact that polls show how dissatisfied Americans are with Congress overall, there's been no change in our appetite to elect affluent politicians to represent our concerns in Washington," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center. "Of course, it's undeniable that in our electoral system, candidates need access to wealth to run financially viable campaigns, and the most successful fundraisers are politicians who swim in those circles to begin with."

Champions of the poor

Well, but at least the Democrats -- champions of the downtrodden -- come from humbler roots, you say? Not really. The latest figures find that congressional Democrats had a median net worth of $1.04 million, while congressional Republicans had a median net worth of almost exactly $1 million, both up from last year.

Republicans are actually the party of economic diversity, at least relatively speaking, taking both the top and bottom steps on the ladder.

The poorest member of Congress in 2012, at least on paper, was Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) -- who reported an average net worth of negative $12.1 million in 2012, thanks to huge debts incurred by his family dairy farm.

The richest member of Congress was, once again, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) chairman of the House Oversight Committee. Issa, who made his fortune in the car alarm business, had an average net worth of $464 million in 2012.

So next time you're feeling bad about the state of the nation, you may perhaps find comfort in the fact that least your Congresspersons aren't suffering unduly.

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Exercise while sitting down? Study finds it's better than nothing

Penn State researchers try out a small elliptical device

Penn State photoSpend a lot of time sitting? That doesn't mean you can't get any exercise, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers who ...

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Penn State photo

Spend a lot of time sitting? That doesn't mean you can't get any exercise, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers who experimented with a small elliptical device.

"Adults in the United States spend more than 11 hours per day sitting while doing things like watching television and working on a computer," said Liza Rovniak, assistant professor of medicine and public health sciences. "Evidence suggests that this sedentary lifestyle has contributed to average weight gains of one to two pounds per year among U.S. adults over the last 20 years."

While moderate and vigorous physical activity are usually emphasized in exercise programs, low-intensity physical activity may also help with weight control. Combining low-intensity physical activity with things like watching television could also help eliminate the time barrier that prevents regular physical activity.

Exercise while seated

The researchers looked at using a compact elliptical device to increase physical activity while sitting. They chose this device because it is lower in cost than other options like treadmill desks, is quiet and requires only a small floor area.

Scientists selected 32 participants who used the elliptical device while sitting in a standard office chair. The researchers monitored their energy use, heart rate and other biometrics. They were also asked how much interest they had in using the device while watching television, using a computer, reading, in a meeting and in general.

The results suggest a majority -- 86 percent -- of participants could expend enough energy in one hour a day to prevent weight gain. The other 14 percent would have had the same result if they increased the pace of pedaling slightly.

"Assuming participants held other components of energy balance constant, daily use of the elliptical device for one hour might result in a weight loss of 5.2 pounds per year and help prevent the one-to-two pound annual weight gain among U.S. adults," Rovniak said.

Not good for meetings

Participants also reported a high interest in using an elliptical device while watching television and using a computer, but not while in office meetings.

"Since watching television and using a computer are among the most common reasons people sit, the compact elliptical device might hold potential as a way to increase people's daily caloric expenditure," Rovniak said.

Because of its compact design, it can be placed in areas that are close to where a person sits, giving visual prompts to use the device.

The researchers still need to study whether compact elliptical devices can sustain increases in the amount of energy expended over longer periods of time and whether the devices improve health.

"By continuing to explore how best to use elliptical devices and other energy expenditure strategies across diverse settings, it may ultimately be possible to reach enough people to alter rates of chronic diseases associated with inactive lifestyles," Rovniak said.

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A surge in tarmac delays in November

But don't blame the airlines

The nation's airlines reported 11 tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and four delays of more than four hours on international flig...

PhotoThe nation's airlines reported 11 tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and four delays of more than four hours on international flights in November. But you can't blame the carriers this time.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division says all of the reported tarmac delays involved flights that arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 1. The delays, which are under investigation by DOT, were due to a shooting at the airport.

A drop in complaints

DOT also says airline consumer complaints that same month were down 23.6% from a year earlier, and posted a decline of 11.9% from October 2013. There were 755 complaints in November 2013, compared with the 988 complaints filed in November 2012 and the 857 received in October 2013.

The consumer report, which can be found on the DOT website, 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.

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Chrysler now officially a subsidiary of Fiat

Fiat has acquired the remaining Chrysler stock it didn't already own

Chrysler is now officially a subsidiary of Fiat, the Italian automaker that cranks out everything from Fiat econocars to sleek Ferrari and Maserati racers....

Photo
The Fiat 500

Chrysler is now officially a subsidiary of Fiat, the Italian automaker that cranks out everything from Fiat econocars to sleek Ferrari and Maserati racers.

Fiat picked up the remaining 41% stake in Chrysler that it didn't already own from a retiree healthcare trust affiliated with the United Auto Workers, completing Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne's year-long effort to complete the deal.

The company says that Marchionne, 61, will remain as CEO through at least 2016. With the addition of Chrysler, Fiat is thought to be the seventh-largest carmaker worldwide, selling about 4.4 million vehicles last year.

That's less than half the output of Volkswagen, General Motors and Toyota, Automotive News reported.

Lots of details remain to be worked out, including the new company's name, its headquaters and stock listing. That may all be decided at a board meeting Jan 29.

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When is a Tesla recall not a Tesla recall?

When Elon Musk says it isn't, apparently

David StricklandDavid Strickland hasn't even officially started his job as a lobbyist and already he's sounding like an auto industry mouthpiece.Wide...

Photo
David Strickland

David Strickland hasn't even officially started his job as a lobbyist and already he's sounding like an auto industry mouthpiece.

Widely criticized for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's failure to take decisive action on allegations that older Jeep SUVs are dangerously prone to burst into flames in rear-end collisions, outgoing NHTSA Administrator Strickland is now chiming in to support billionaire Elon Musk, impresario of the $90,000 Tesla S.

Musk, you see, is feeling miffed that NHTSA used the word "recall" to describe fixes to the Tesla S software and adapter used to recharge the car's battery. The fix is being made through an over-the-air software update and Musk has complained that since the cars don't have to be taken to the dealer, the fix shouldn't be called a recall. Tesla has also mailed new adapters to Tesla S owners, but that's also not a recall, apparently.

Revolving door

Strickland, who is leaving NHTSA through the revolving door that leads to Washington's lobbying and influence-brokering community to join Venable LLP, told Bloomberg News he thinks Musk is partly right.

"As much as Tesla disagrees and Elon disagrees with the characterization of a recall, I would have to say he's partially right there," Bloomberg quoted Strickland as saying. "What people think of in terms of a recall is you get a letter from the manufacturer to bring your car in to the dealership."

PhotoMusk's followers, who are starting to resemble Mac acolytes at the height of the Mac Conquers All era, have taken up Musk's cudgel, emailing and writing ConsumerAffairs and other media outlets to complain about the recall notice, many of them characterizing it as a dastardly plot by the oil industry to besmirch the Tesla image.

"You are another writer who is falling for the agency's error in citing this as a recall. There is no recall. Tesla has replaced 30,000 adapter plugs (by mail) to save the owner from errors due to faulty wiring in their home," said David Clifford of Bonita Springs, Fla., who described himself as a "happy Tesla owner for 15 months," apparently thinking this adds to his credibility as an unbiased observer.

"How is this a vehicle recall if Tesla recognizes the problem, immediately sends out a software upgrade that reduces the power draw by 25% if the car recognizes a flow variance, informs the NHTSA of their correction, then sends out replacement adapters to every owner," Clifford asked, going on to answer his own question: "It sounds like someone from the oil or auto industry has a connection with the agency and is involved in destroying Tesla's reputation."

Clifford actually describes the recall process perfectly, leaving out the last step, which is NHTSA's approval of the manufacturer's proposed fix. Tesla recognized the problem, proposed a solution and NHTSA accepted it. End of story.

Another Teslian, Tony Shakesby, drove even farther into Fantasyland, accusing us of plotting to destroy Tesla: "Why would you twist this information to make it seem there is a problem with Tesla, when in fact, this is just another safety improvement to the safest car on the road today?"

Technically, of course, all recalls are safety improvements. That's why they're conducted. And, not to belabor the obvious, but an improvement would not be necessary were it not for a defect or potential problem. 

Such an outpouring of emotion and adrenalin hardly seems in order given the routine nature of safety recalls, a daily occurrence involving everything from frozen pork to high-end automobiles. A quick review of our Recall Section reveals recalls involving Porsche, Maserati, Lotus, Rolls Royce and other high-end brands over the last year as well as a steady stream of recalls for such lesser vehicles as Fords, Hondas and Subarus, among others. None of these brands has been destroyed by any of their recalls, as far as we've been able to determine.

To suggest that a simple 18-line recall notice is evidence of a dastardly plot financed by the global oil cartel should perhaps be taken as a sign that the accusers need to take themselves -- and their cars -- a little less seriously. And maybe cut back on the coffee.

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FTC nabs 12 companies for misrepresenting privacy protections

U.S.-European Union Safe Harbor rules weren't followed

Twelve U.S. businesses have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they falsely claimed they were abiding by an international privacy frame...

PhotoTwelve U.S. businesses have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they falsely claimed they were abiding by an international privacy framework known as the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor that enables U.S. companies to transfer consumer data from the European Union to the United States in compliance with EU law.

The companies settling with the FTC represent a cross-section of industries, including retail, professional sports, laboratory science, data broker, debt collection, and information security. The companies handle a variety of consumer information, including in some instances sensitive data about health and employment. The twelve companies are:

Apperian, Inc.: Company specializing in mobile applications for business enterprises and security;
Atlanta Falcons Football Club, LLC: National Football League team;
Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP: Accounting firm;
BitTorrent, Inc.: Provider of peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing protocol;
Charles River Laboratories International, Inc.: Global developer of early-stage drug discovery processes;
DataMotion, Inc.: Provider of platform for encrypted email and secure file transport;
DDC Laboratories, Inc.: DNA testing lab and the world’s largest paternity testing company;
Level 3 Communications, LLC: One of the six largest ISPs in the world;
PDB Sports, Ltd., d/b/a Denver Broncos Football Club: National Football League team;
Reynolds Consumer Products Inc.: Maker of foil and other consumer products;
Receivable Management Services Corporation: Global provider of accounts receivable, third-party recovery, bankruptcy and other services; and
Tennessee Football, Inc.: National Football League team.

“Enforcement of the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework is a Commission priority. These twelve cases help ensure the integrity of the Safe Harbor Framework and send the signal to companies that they cannot falsely claim participation in the program,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.

According to the twelve complaints filed by the FTC, the companies deceptively claimed they held current certifications under the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor framework and, in three of the complaints, also deceptively claimed certifications under the U.S.-Swiss Safe Harbor framework.

The U.S.-EU and U.S.-Swiss Safe Harbor frameworks are voluntary programs administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce in consultation with the European Commission and Switzerland, respectively.

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Mortgage applications on the rise

Interest rates, meanwhile, were falling

Interest in buying a home climbed a bit last week. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show mortgage ap...

PhotoInterest in buying a home climbed a bit last week.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show mortgage applications increased 4.7% during the week ending January 17.

The Refinance Index was up 10% from the previous week, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity up 2% -- to 64 percent of total applications, the highest level in a month. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity decreased, however, to 7% of total applications.

Contract interest rates

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) decreased to 4.57%, the lowest level since November 2013, from 4.66%, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) fell one basis point, from 4.58% to 4.57%, the lowest level since November 2013, with points decreasing to 0.18 from 0.24 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages backed by the FHA stood at 4.24%, a drop of 5 basis points -- the lowest level since November 2013, with points increasing to 0.23 from 0.17 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 3.68 percent, the lowest level since December 2013, from 3.72 percent, with points decreasing to 0.29 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dipped to 3.23%, the lowest level since December 2013, from 3.28%, with points decreasing to 0.37 from 0.47 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications. Respondents include mortgage bankers, commercial banks and thrifts.   

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Stemvida International recalls StemAlive 90 Capsules

The capsules contain milk, an allergen not declared on the label

Stemvida International Corporation of Ontario, Calif., is recalling StemAlive 90 Capsules. The capsules contain milk, an allergen not declared on the labe...

PhotoStemvida International Corporation of Ontario, Calif., is recalling StemAlive 90 Capsules.

The capsules contain milk, an allergen not declared on the label.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The capsules come in a white plastic bottle with white lid, the brand is StemVida International with a white and gold label. The lot numbers and expiration dates are:

  • 8419 (Exp.05/2015 and 06/2015);
  • 8486 (Exp.07/2015);
  • 8535 (Exp. 08/2015);
  • 8598 (Exp. 10/2015);
  • 8652 (Exp. 12/2015);
  • 8863 (Exp. 01/2016 and 02/2016);
  • 8872 (Exp. 03/2016);
  • 8873 (Exp. 04/2016 and 05/2016);
  • 9040 (Exp. 08/2016 and 09/2016);
  • 9258 (Exp. 10/2016); and
  • 9314 (Exp. 11/2016).

The lot number and expiration date is printed in black ink at the bottom of the label.

StemAlive was distributed in the following states:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Nevada
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • Utah

Consumers who have purchased StemAlive 90 Capsules are urged to return the product to the company for replacement or refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 888-950-8432 between 9:00am and 8:30pm PST.

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Arctic Cat recalls snowmobiles

Fuel can leak from the fuel tank

Arctic Cat is recalling about 264 Arctic Cat snowmobiles Fuel can leak from the fuel tank, posing a fire hazard. No incidents or injuries have been repor...

PhotoArctic Cat is recalling about 264 Arctic Cat snowmobiles

Fuel can leak from the fuel tank, posing a fire hazard.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves model year 2014 Arctic Cat 500 Sno Pro snowmobiles with model numbers S2014ACCPRUSG and S2014ACCPRPVG. The snowmobiles are green with SNO PRO, TEAM ARCTIC, and 500 printed on the front sides of the snowmobile. The name ARCTIC CAT is printed on the rear sides of the snowmobile. The model number is located in the owner’s manual.

The snowmobiles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Arctic Cat dealers nationwide from September 2013, to January 2014, for between $7,800 and $9,000.

Consumers should stop using the recalled snowmobiles immediately and contact an Arctic Cat dealer to schedule a free repair. Arctic Cat is contacting its customers directly.

Consumers may contact Arctic Cat at (800) 279-6851 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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American Honda recalls lawnmowers

The engine stop switch can malfunction allowing the blade to continue to rotate

American Honda Motor Company of Torrance, Calif., is recalling about 24,000 walk-behind 21” lawnmowers in the U.S. and Canada. The engine stop switch can ...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Company of Torrance, Calif., is recalling about 24,000 walk-behind 21” lawnmowers in the U.S. and Canada.

The engine stop switch can malfunction allowing the blade to continue to rotate after the handlebar blade control lever is released, posing a laceration hazard.

Honda has received 11 reports of the lawnmower’s blade continuing to rotate after the handlebar control lever was released. No injuries were reported.

This recall involves two Honda models and one Columbia brand electric start lawnmowers with Honda engines and 21” cutting blades. The Honda lawnmowers are red and silver (HRR) and red and gray (HRX). Both have “Honda” on the engine cover. The model and serial numbers are located on the certification label that is affixed to the cutter housing deck behind the engine. Honda recalled lawnmowers are: 

Honda Models

Serial Number Range

HRR2169VLA

MZCG-8764914  ~  MZCG-8824353

HRX2174VLA

MAGA-2255148  ~  MAGA-2260227

The Columbia brand lawnmower, model number 12ALD33Q897, comes in orange and black. “Honda” is printed on the engine cover. The Honda engine serial number is located on a label on the back of the engine. It is also stamped into the engine block adjacent to the oil filler cap/dipstick. A range of affected Honda engines installed in Columbia brand lawnmowers sold in the U.S. follows:

Columbia Model

Honda Engine Serial Number Range

1A313KC0835

GJARA 3641724  through  GJARA 3642215

The Honda brand lawnmowers were sold at Honda Power Equipment dealers and Home Depot stores nationwide from January 2013, through December 2013, for between $580 and $780.

Columbia brand lawnmowers were sold at Beaver Valley Supply, Denver, Colo; Lawn Equipment Parts Co, Inc., Marietta, Penn. and at Smiths South-Central Sales Co., Spring Hill, La. from January 2013, through December 2013, for $500.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled lawnmowers. Honda model owners should contact a Honda Power Equipment dealer to schedule a free repair. Columbia model owners should contact a Honda Engine dealer to schedule a free repair. American Honda is contacting all registered customers directly.

Consumers may contact American Honda toll-free at (888) 888-3139 from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET Monday through Friday. For Columbia brand lawnmowers see www.engines.honda.com and click on Recalls/Updates.

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Eager to file your tax return? Get a head start

You can prepare your return using Free File right now

Millions of taxpayers don't dread filing their income tax returns. They might if they owe extra tax, but in most cases taxpayers have over-paid and are due...

PhotoMillions of taxpayers don't dread filing their income tax returns. They might if they owe extra tax, but in most cases taxpayers have over-paid and are due a refund. The sooner they get it, the better.

While the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) isn't in a position to accept your return before January 31, the agency says there is something you can do now to get ready and perhaps speed your refund – select one of 14 free brand-name tax-filing software products at IRS.gov/freefile.

You can then go ahead and complete your tax return online. The Free File companies will hold it until January 31, when they will file it with the IRS.

Tax preparers also getting started

“Many tax preparers and tax software companies are now open for return preparation, including Free File,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “If you plan to get a head start on your taxes, remember to e-file. If you want to save money and time, just use Free File to prepare and e-file your federal return at no charge.”

January 31 is the earliest the IRS can accept a return because the agency is conducting a number of system checks. As that date approaches Koskinen said taxpayers should use the time to get prepared. He says the IRS is a good source of helpful information.

“Free File is just one of the many services available through IRS.gov to help people with their taxes,” Koskinen said. “Additional services include Where’s My Refund for timely updates on refunds, YouTube videos with quick tax tips, and many other ways of getting information. We encourage taxpayers to explore IRS.gov as tax season approaches.”

Video tutorials

Among the YouTube videos on the site is this one, offering tips for choosing a tax preparer.

For those who normally do their taxes themselves, Free File is a no-cost way to do your federal tax returns either by using brand-name software or tax forms you can fill out online. The Free File software is available now to more than 100 million individuals and families that earn $58,000 or less. That's about 70% of taxpayers.

The IRS says nearly 40 million taxpayers have used Free File since it was introduced in 2003. The agency estimates these taxpayers have saved more than an estimated $1.2 billion by using the free tool.

How to use it

According to the IRS, it's simple to use. At IRS.gov/freefile, select the “Free File Software” button. Your choices of software will be determined in large part by your income, state residency and age. If your income is $58,000 or less, there should be at least one software you can use.

Want to see some reviews before selecting one? Simply select the “Help Me Find Free File Software” tool. After making your selection you'll be directed to the software company's website to begin preparing your return.

Fillable forms

What if your income is over $58,000? You can still file electronically using the IRS' online fillable forms. Instead of filling out the paper forms you can call up the appropriate tax forms on your screen, using your keyboard to fill in the data.

This service is available starting January 31. Once you complete and review your forms, you can then submit them electronically to the IRS.

This option also helps with math but not with step-by-step assistance that the commercial software programs provide. Instructions for filling out the form can be found on the IRS website. State tax return preparation is not available using this option.

Filing electronically will help speed up your refund but so will using direct deposit. Doing both will put you near the head of the line. Once the IRS begins processing returns, it expects to issue more than 90% of refunds in fewer than 21 days.

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Amazon's latest patent takes speedy delivery up a notch or two

"Anticipatory delivery" forecasts purchases and gets them into the pipeline

Amazon lets no grass grow under its customers' feet. Its one-click shopping eliminates the tedious shopping-cart procedure that most other e-commerce sites...

PhotoAmazon lets no grass grow under its customers' feet. Its one-click shopping eliminates the tedious shopping-cart procedure that most other e-commerce sites cling to and its delivery times continue to shrink towards same-day.

But that's not quite fast enough, as Amazon sees it. Next up is "anticipatory shipping" -- newly-patented by Amazon. The patent application was filed in 2012 and granted on Dec. 24 last year.

Amazon hasn't said much publicly about it but the idea is that its software already has a pretty good idea of your interests, shopping patterns and most recent browsing behavior. It's not too much of a leap from there to predict what you may be buying in the next day or two.

Been staring at that Acer Ultrabook? Amazon wants to start it rolling so that it's as close as possible to -- and maybe even on -- your doorstep when you finally get the nerve to hit the "buy" button.  

It goes a bit beyond that, actually. The patent also speaks of refinements to Amazon's inventory system. It doesn't just want to speed up delivery, it wants to be sure it doesn't run out of the items its customers appear just about ready to buy.

This is not really so unusual.

After all, retailers already engage in trying to read the minds of their customers. You think Walmart stocks all those beer coolers just before football season because it thinks they're attractive and will make their stores look more festive? 

Obviously, there are pitfalls in this but there are also pitfalls in not being able to fulfill customers' wishes quickly. So it may just be that Amazon is once again several steps ahead of its competitors, with or without those drones everyone was droning on about a few weeks ago.

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Dr. Dre's Beats Music goes toe-to-toe against Spotify

More competition in the streamng music field

Even if you're not a fan of Dr. Dre the hip-hop artist, be glad Dr. Dre the businessman introduced Beats Music ...

PhotoStockholders and CEOs may not like it when their businesses face competition, but consumers almost always benefit. So even if you're not a fan of Dr. Dre the hip-hop artist, you should be glad that Dr. Dre the businessman introduced Beats Music to the online streaming music streaming field.

Beats by Dre started out as a company offering physical merchandise, mostly headphones, earbuds and other personal audio paraphernalia. Only on Jan. 21 did Beats Music branch out into the more ethereal realm of selling online streaming music subscriptions.

Meanwhile, companies like Spotify are doing the exact opposite: as of Jan. 20, Spotify expanded its offerings beyond music streaming to offer T-shirts, vinyl records and other physical merchandise related to its various artists.

Unlike most online streaming services, Beats offers no ad-supported free-to-the-end-user option; a Beats subscription will cost you $9.95 per month. Spotify promptly responded by offering unlimited, free (though ad-supported) mobile streaming.

Genres

PhotoA word, here, about the various types of online streaming music options. Spotify and Beats let you play music on demand — they have songs available, you pick which ones you want to listen to, and when. Services like iTunes radio and Pandora have more in common with traditional non-satellite broadcast radio: you can choose from a variety of stations (“playlists”) dedicated to the genre of your choice – rock and roll; rhythm and blues; country/western, Top 40 – but you have no say over which specific songs a given station plays when you listen to it.

However, the iTunes radio and Pandora differ from traditional radio because the latter is not personalized – when you're listening to your local Top 40 station, for example, you hear the exact same songs as everyone else tuned in to that station at that time.

And, of course, even personalized on-demand services do more than merely play back the songs of your choice; they also have algorithms to suggest other forms of music you might like, based on your previous choices.

The various music services do share one problem more in common with old-school cable or broadcast TV networks rather than radio stations: in some cases, the works of various artists can only be had through a given company.

Going back to the traditional radio analogy: if you want to hear the latest song by your favorite Top 40 singer, her music is probably on the playlist of every Top 40 radio station in the country. But if you want to watch the latest episode of your favorite TV show, usually only one network has the right to air it — so if you don't get that network, you're out of luck.

When a USAToday tech blogger did a pros-and-cons rundown of current streaming services, for example, he noted that Spotify is the only platform offering on-demand streaming of Led Zeppelin's music library.

(This illustrates yet another way streaming radio differs from the old-fashioned variety: any rock fan old enough to remember pre-Internet radio knows that not only did every rock station in America keep the complete works of Zeppelin in its library; each one played Stairway to Heaven at least 40 times a day. It wasn't an FCC requirement or anything; they all just did it. Nobody knows why.)

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The eBay watch dispute resolved

And there's no watch monopoly, either

When eBay asks “Buying more items from this seller?” it's not trying to confirm what you've already done; it's urging you to buy more....

PhotoThis article is to correct a huge mistake/misunderstanding I printed in a previous piece — and never have I been so glad to report myself wrong.

At Christmas I told you how I tried buying my young niece a necklace-watch on eBay and had a bad time of it. Short version is: the seller initially sent the wrong timepiece — a man's wristwatch that wouldn't possibly work as a little girl's present — and when I tried arranging either an exchange or a refund, the seller spent a week attempting to convince me to settle for the man's bracelet I received in lieu of the girl's necklace I actually wanted.

I found these attempts even more infuriating after discovering that the wristwatch could be had elsewhere on eBay for less than one-fourth what I paid for the necklace. And to top it all off, when I tried buying similar-or-identical necklaces from various different sellers, I repeatedly got a pop-up message I'd never before seen in the ten-plus years I've had an eBay account. “Buying more items from this seller?” it asked, before telling me I had to add the items to my “cart” if I wanted to combine the order for discount purposes.

What the heck? I thought. The disputed necklace watch I'd already paid for was the only eBay activity I had going on, and I wasn't trying to buy an “additional” necklace from that seller, but a new watch from a completely different seller — or are they different sellers, all these Chinese eBay stores selling the same mass-produced watches?

So I used both my private-customer and my professional-journalist emails to ask eBay about this — are all these sellers the same? And how long should I (or any other customer) keep repeating my request for a refund or exchange before filing an official formal complaint?

No response from eBay or the seller before presstime, and no gift-worthy watch received in time for Christmas, either.

The next chapter ...

But here's what happened after I wrote the story: a day or so later, after I'd made a couple more repetitions of “I want the necklace or a full refund, nothing else,” the seller refunded my money through PayPal. More importantly, several readers who regularly used eBay emailed to let me know I'd misread the “Buy it Now” message, which (they say) is a fairly recent innovation that appears anytime a customer tries to “Buy [whatever] Now.”

(Personal note: I'll buy something off eBay only a handful of times every year, and I got no such pop-up the last time I got something via “Buy It Now”-- but I have no idea how long ago that was, either.)

At any rate, once I got my refund I had no other eBay auctions active, and thus went several days without bothering to check the private email account I use solely for eBay purposes. When I did I found two messages: one from the watch seller apologizing for my bad experience and assuring me that she was an independent seller not connected with any other eBay watch vendors, and one from eBay's office of the president expressing deep concern over my “disappointing experience.”

Point is, my previous article mentioned “How the secret eBay watch monopoly ruined Christmas,” when it should have read “How one eBay seller plus bad timing ruined Christmas,” because there is (thankfully, for fans of inexpensive steampunk timepieces) no eBay watch monopoly, secret or otherwise – when eBay asks “Buying more items from this seller?” it's not trying to confirm what you've already done; it's urging you to buy more.

Not all one

So I owe an apology to all eBay sellers, named and unnamed, who are based in China and sell mass-produced watches: no, despite my misreading of eBay's pop-up, you most assuredly are not all different faces of the same company, and I'm genuinely sorry for my mistake in saying otherwise.

Granted, there's lots of overlap in the merchandise offered by each respective seller, for the same reason there's overlap in the merchandise sold in most brick-and-mortar American grocery chains, or anything else: multiple businesses buy their products from the same manufacturers or middlemen.

Definitely a relief, for those of us who may have given up selling on eBay for various reasons, but still like buying oddball things there once in awhile.  (This is not meant to be an endorsement of buying oddball things, especially not windup mechanical watches in an era when chances are you already have vastly more accurate timekeepers on your cell phone and computer anyway.)

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Study: post-accident neck pain is common

But researchers find few of the injured sue

In the typical car accident that doesn't produce an apparent injury, the insurance companies for both drivers settle up, usually without much, if any, mone...

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Caution: Infrastructure improvements ahead

"Infrastructure bank" would raise money from companies in return for tax breaks

Is your infrastructure struggling? It must be, judging from the bipartisan chorus now tuning up in Congress to support what's being called an "infrastructu...

PhotoIs your infrastructure struggling? It must be, judging from the bipartisan chorus now tuning up in Congress to support what's being called an "infrastructure bank" -- a fund to build and repair roads, bridges and so forth.

Out-of-work politicos like former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, ex-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and onetime Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell are all co-chairs of something called Building America's Future, which is lobbying -- oops, make that advocating -- for a sounder footing for the nation's cars, trains and airplanes. 

Concrete and asphalt are something every public figure gets to know a lot about, after all. It's not like this complicated climate change, immigration policy or NSA snooping. And voters tend to be in favor of road, rail and airport improvements, as long as they're not in their backyard and someone else pays for them.

Big leap forward

In the Senate, Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) are introducing a bill that they say would "jumpstart our nation’s capability to build and repair roads, bridges, highways, ports, schools, and other infrastructure projects."

"Without spending overstretched federal dollars, the Partnership to Build America Act will help put people back to work building projects across the country, while helping to improve U.S. competitiveness in the 21st century global economy," a release from Warner's office said. "It establishes a $50 billion infrastructure fund that can potentially support hundreds of billions in loan guarantees and financing authority for state and local governments."

This is one of those "public-private" bills that are presented as saving taxpayer dollars. It would encourage U.S. companies buy bonds to fund transportation projects and would let them "exclude a certain portion of their overseas earnings from taxation." Cut their taxes, in other words, while supposedly not increasing the taxes paid by the rest of us. 

The fund would make low-cost loans to state and local governments to help them keep their bridges above water, their roads paved and so forth -- all the dreary pothole stuff that sounds a lot spiffier if you call it "infrastructure."

The American Society of Civil Engineers -- a group of people who make their living engineering infrastructure projects -- gave America’s infrastructure a D+ on its 2013 report card. Estimates of how much investment is needed to repair and rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure reach as high as $2 trillion over the next two decades.

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Connecticut moves to shut down Doc Hurley Scholarship Fund

No money left in fund established by 91-year-old former educator

Walter "Doc" HurleyThe days of the Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation are drawing to a close, as Connecticut prepares to file for dissolution of the c...

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Walter "Doc" Hurley
The days of the Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation are drawing to a close, as Connecticut prepares to file for dissolution of the charitable fund that has provided scholarships for at least 500 needy students since it was established nearly 40 years ago by Walter "Doc" Hurley Sr., a longtime educator.

The investigation leading to today's announcement was prompted by a Nov. 3 article in The Courant, Hartford's daily newspaper, revealing that the foundation had awarded few if any new scholarships since 2008 and had lost its tax-exempt status and board of trustees.

The Courant subsequently reported that at least 15 scholarship winners said that they had received only a portion — or none — of the money they were promised.

“There’s a long list of people whose lives were transformed because of the higher education opportunities that the Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation has provided over the years,” Gov. Daniel P. Malloy said. “The man whose name the foundation bears cares deeply about the Hartford community and has made such a positive impact on this city."

According to The Courant, the fund had more than $1 million in assets just seven years ago but now appears to have little or no money left. Authorities are filing a civil complaint against the fund's executive director, Muriel Hurley-Carter, Walter Hurley's daughter.

Hurley, 91, a former administrator at Hartford's Weaver High School, began handing out scholarships in 1975 and has helped nearly 500 needy students attend college.

"Simply unacceptable"

Photo“The fact that funds intended to benefit needy scholarship recipients were apparently used to support someone’s personal lifestyle is simply unacceptable,” said Attorney General George Jepsen. “We will be looking to hold Muriel Hurley-Carter accountable for those actions.”

The state’s civil complaint against Hurley-Carter alleges that she misused significant charitable funds for her own personal gain, including cash withdrawals, payments to at least one personal credit card account and to pay for personal expenses including dog daycare and grooming services, retail purchases and a personal trainer.

The state is seeking civil penalties against Hurley-Carter for each individual violation and forfeiture of any misappropriated funds. The state’s suit also seeks a permanent injunction against Hurley-Carter holding any office, directorship or position of employment or any other association with a charitable organization in Connecticut where she will have control of the funds of the organization or authorization over the disbursement of funds.

The state is also seeking a court order that would dissolve the current Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation as its assets have been improperly depleted, which has resulted in the cessation of its core corporate mission.

“I know we all share great disappointment when learning that a worthy and admirable cause such as the Doc Hurley Foundation appears to have been improperly exploited, and my office and that of the Attorney General are mutually resolved to seek appropriate redress,” Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) Commissioner William M. Rubenstein said.

The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving has informed the Attorney General that it will establish a new Doc Hurley Scholarship Fund for Greater Hartford, providing a vehicle for members of the community to honor Walter “Doc” Hurley’s name and legacy. The new fund will seek to continue the core mission of the scholarship program created by Doc Hurley.

“We should not let this unfortunate episode tarnish the good work Doc Hurley provided to our community,” Gov. Malloy said. “I commend the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving for creating this vehicle to continue his legacy.”

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Ford recalls commercial vehicles with windshield problems

Some of the windshields may form bubbles

Ford Motor Company is recalling 4,532 model year 2011 Ford E-150, E-250, E-350, and E-450 vehicles built from May 12, 2011, through May 26, 2011. Due to...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 4,532 model year 2011 Ford E-150, E-250, E-350, and E-450 vehicles built from May 12, 2011, through May 26, 2011.

Due to improper manufacturing conditions, some of the windshields may form bubbles after an extended time in hot temperatures. The presence of bubbles may hinder driver's visibility thereby increasing the risk of a crash.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the windshield if bubbles are present, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on, or about, January 27, 2014.

Owners may contact the Ford customer relationship center at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's recall campaign number is 11C20.

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European Meat Products recalls beef and pork

The products contain wheat, an allergen not declared on the labels

European Meat Products of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling approximately 130,000 pounds of fresh and ready-to-eat beef and pork products. The products contain...

PhotoEuropean Meat Products of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling approximately 130,000 pounds of fresh and ready-to-eat beef and pork products. The products contain wheat, an allergen which is not declared on the labels.

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

The products subject to recall include:

  • 16 oz. - vacuum pack plastic bags of “Bo Vien, Huong Duyen – Cooked Beef Meat Balls”
  • 100 oz. - vacuum pack plastic bags of “Bo Vien, Huong Duyen – Cooked Beef Meat Balls”
  • 16 oz. – vacuum pack plastic bags of “Cha Chien, Huong Duyen – Pork Meat Roll Browned in Soy Bean Oil”
  • 16 oz. - plastic tubs of “Moc TUOi, Huong Duyen– Fresh Pork Paste”
  • 16 oz. - vacuum pack plastic bags of “Gio-Lua, Huong Duyen – Pork Meat Roll”
  • 32 oz. - vacuum pack plastic bags of “Gio-Lua, Huong Duyen – Pork Meat Roll”

The products bear the establishment number “EST. 7725” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. The recalled products were produced prior to January 17, 2014, and were shipped to distributors, restaurants and retail establishments in California, Colorado and Illinois.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Phong Tong, a company executive, at (303) 233-3111.

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Nissan recalls Titan King Cab and Crew Cab pick-up trucks

The Tire and Loading Information label overstates the maximum load and passenger carrying capacity

Nissan North America is recalling 183 2014 model year Titan King Cab and Crew Cab pick-up trucks manufactured August 27, 2013, through November 13, 2013. ...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 183 2014 model year Titan King Cab and Crew Cab pick-up trucks manufactured August 27, 2013, through November 13, 2013.

In the affected vehicles, the Tire and Loading Information label overstates the maximum load and passenger carrying capacity of the vehicle. If the vehicle is loaded to the capacity stated on the incorrect label, and the tire load capacity is exceeded, the vehicle may experience structural damage to the tire. If this occurs, this may lead to tire failure which could increase the risk of a crash.

Nissan will notify owners and will provide owners with a correct label to install, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on January 21, 2014.

Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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Cloverdale Foods recalls beef franks

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

Cloverdale Foods of Mandan, N.D., is recalling approximately 2,664 pounds of beef franks. The products were formulated with milk, a known allergen that i...

PhotoCloverdale Foods of Mandan, N.D., is recalling approximately 2,664 pounds of beef franks. The products were formulated with milk, a known allergen that is not declared on the product label.

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

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 16-oz. packages of Cloverdale Meats “Seattle Mariners Beef Franks.”
  • 12 lb. cases containing 12 packages of individual 16-oz. packages of Cloverdale Meats “Seattle Mariners Beef Franks.”

The products were produced on November 23 and December 13, 2013, with use-by dates of February 21 and March 13, 2014 respectively. These products, bearing the package code Use by 2-21-14 or Use by 3-13-14 and the establishment number “Est. 7603” inside the mark of inspection, were sold to retail establishments in Montana, North Dakota and Washington State.

Consumers with questions may contact Scott Russell at (701) 663-9511, extension 224.

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Internet continues to level the playing field for consumers

Businesses now scramble to provide better service and competitive prices

There has always been a certain tension between businesses and consumers. What has been good for one has not always been particularly good for the other....

PhotoThere has always been a certain tension between businesses and consumers. What has been good for one has not always been particularly good for the other.

For example, if a business can preserve and expand its profit margin on the things it sells it is usually more profitable, a good thing for the company and its stockholders. But high margins mean fewer sales and discounts – bad for consumers.

For a long time it seems businesses have maintained the upper hand in this relationship but the tables appear to be turning in favor of the consumer, and the Internet – which has emerged as a powerful tool for communication and commerce – may be the reason. The latest evidence may be found in the most recent holiday sales.

More online shopping

A report by the Wall Street Journal found in-store traffic during November and December was down sharply from the 2010 holiday shopping season – about 50% lower. Since the economy was much stronger in 2013 than 2010, a year after the end of the Great Recession, that shouldn't be. 

Consumers were still spending money, however. They just weren't spending it in retail stores.

Economists saw the same thing happen in 2012. On Black Friday in-store sales dipped slightly. However Black Friday online sales jumped 26%. In 2013 that trend continued.

CardinalCommerce, a payment system for retailers, says there was a record number of online transactions during the 2013 holiday shopping season, an increase of 46% over 2012. On Cyber Monday, consumers spent $2.29 billion, making it the biggest sales day in e-commerce history, according to the Custora Pulse, an annual holiday benchmark report.

New records

PhotoCyber Monday's overall online shopping numbers marked a 16% increase from 2012. Online sales broke all-time records each of the five days from Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday in 2013.

With so many transactions occurring online, fewer were taking place in stores. Retailers like Target and Walmart, with a strong online presence, were able to make up for their lost in-store revenue. Stores without a strong web presence were the big holiday losers.

The real winners, one can argue, are consumers who can quickly shop for the best price on a particular item and then buy it, without ever leaving the house. In the past shoppers had to go from store to store to find what they wanted, and didn't always get the best price.

UPS meltdown

Lest anyone doubt the shift from in-store sales to e-commerce, just look at what happened to United Parcel Service (UPS) in the last week before Christmas. 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 deliver. One driver quoted by USA Today said it had been the "worst Christmas ever."

Worst Christmas for UPS, perhaps, but the best Christmas yet for online retailers. And undelivered presents aside, a win for consumers who were able to get more bang for their Christmas buck, thanks to the Internet.

The Internet has given consumers an advantage in other ways as well. In the last few years – especially since the explosion in mobile devices – deal and coupon sites have grown in popularity. These sites direct consumers to stores in their areas that have discounts on all kinds of products and services.

The trade publication eMarketer estimates more than 92.5 million people in the U.S. redeemed a digital coupon in 2012. This year, the company predicts U.S. adult digital coupon users will surpass 100 million.

Posting experiences

Finally, the Internet gives consumers a way to communicate, sharing information about experiences, good and bad. ConsumerAffairs has given consumers a place to communicate with each other since 1998. There have been many other sites since then.

Businesses taking advantage of consumers, or providing poor service, have been called to account. The smart operators have adapted, using the Internet to respond to consumer complaints and make things right.

Now, when you make a significant purchase, such as a car or major appliance, you are likely to get an email from the company you did business with, wanting to know about your experience. It's a proactive way to identify product and service problems before they get posted online.

The bottom line is that all of this is returning power to consumers, who now have more leverage in the marketplace than they once did. In many cases, it's resulting in better deals and better service.

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The cost of having a baby can vary widely

Researchers call it an "appalling state of affairs"

You may know that it is very expensive to have a baby these days, but how expensive can vary widely, pending on the hospital you use.Researchers at the U...

PhotoYou may know that it is very expensive to have a baby these days, but just how expensive can vary widely, depending on the hospital you use.

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) conducted a wide-ranging study of hospitals in the state, finding that patients could be charged as little as $3,296 or as much as $37,227 for an uncomplicated vaginal delivery. It all depended on the hospital they chose. 

For a C-section, the costs were much higher, ranging anywhere from $8,312 to nearly $71,000. And these were uncomplicated births – few of the women in the study had serious health issues and most were discharged within six days of admission.

Impossible to predict

Based on their findings, the researchers conclude that it is almost impossible for a woman to predict how much it will cost to have a baby.

"Unlike other industries, the way health care is priced and paid for is notoriously opaque, making it difficult for patients to act as educated, price-comparing consumers," the authors write.

The researchers looked at data on nearly 110,000 cases in California during 2011 that involved women who had private medical insurance. Of the cases they studied, 76,766 involved uncomplicated vaginal deliveries, and 32,660 involved uncomplicated Caesarean section births. They expressed surprise at the wide variation in prices for essentially the same services.

'Appalling state of affairs'

Photo"This is unfortunately the appalling state of affairs of health care in the United States," said lead author Renee Y. Hsia, MD, an associate professor of emergency medicine at UCSF. "Childbirth is the most common reason for hospitalization, and even for an uncomplicated childbirth, we see a staggering difference in what hospitals charge, even for the same, average patient."

The charges, Hsia notes, affect not only the uninsured but also the fee-for-service reimbursements by some private insurers, which can translate to significant out-of-pocket costs for patients.

The researchers not only analyzed the billed charges but also tried to place an estimate on what hospitals were reimbursed for births. On average, the study found the estimated discounted prices insurers paid out added up to about 37% of the bill. The researchers also found that hospitals billed $1.3 billion in "excess charges" among the women studied -- the difference between charges and reimbursements.

In the country at large

Not only do hospital costs vary in California, they do in the rest of the country as well. According to the Transforming Maternity Care website, the amount of a hospital bill for pregnancy depends on a lot of factors, including the part of the country in which you live, whether your hospital is publicly or privately owned, how big your hospital is, and whether you have a vaginal delivery or a C-section.

Longer hospital stays, usually for complications, significantly increase the bill. Smaller hospitals tend to charge less than larger hospitals, and government-owned public hospitals are typically less expensive than privately owned hospitals, the site advises.

Even if you have a pretty good health benefits package, you are likely to face some out of pocket expense when you have a baby in a hospital. First, you have to meet your deductible and co-pay costs. The average out-of-pocket cost for a vaginal delivery for privately insured patients was $463 in 2007, while patients who had a C-section had average out-of-pocket expenses of $523, according to the March of Dimes.

Fundamental problems

The UCSF researchers say there are fundamental problems with the way U.S. hospitals price health care. They blame outdated pricing and payment structure, with medical charges poorly reflecting actual costs. Given a lack of regulation affecting medical charges, they say variation in hospital prices is not really surprising.

"At a time when out-of-pocket payments for health care are increasing, and the growing number of 'consumer-directed' high deductible health plans put more pressure on patients to make cost-efficient health care decisions, the opacity of health care pricing is increasingly concerning," the authors conclude.

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Verizon's Edge upgrade lets you increase annual smartphone expenses up to six times

It sounds like a great way to rid yourself of excess cash

A couple weeks ago, we mentioned how smartphone industry analysts believe that industry is entering a far more competitive phase of its history, basically ...

PhotoA couple weeks ago, we mentioned how smartphone industry analysts believe that industry is entering a far more competitive phase of its history, basically because smartphone technology has been around long enough to thoroughly saturate the market: with the exception of children whose parents deem them not yet old enough, pretty much everybody who wants a smartphone has one by now.

Therefore, smartphone companies seeking to expand their profit margins must either “poach” customers from competing businesses, or convince the customers they've already got to shell out additional money.

Which explains Verizon's “theoretically exciting, but actually quite snooze-worthy” announcement that it's made some changes -- "upgrades," it calls them -- to the “Edge” program it rolled out last July. Here's what Verizon's press release said about Edge Upgrade at the time:

“... the new Verizon Edge device payment plan offers an affordable way to upgrade to the newest device and satisfy your love of technology. Verizon Edge is a flexible equipment payment plan that spreads the retail price of a phone over 24 months. You can also upgrade to a new phone after six months if 50 percent of the retail cost has been paid.

“Here's how it works: Choose the phone you want and sign up for a month-to-month service plan, it's as easy as that. The full retail price of the phone will be divided over 24 months and you'll pay the first month at the time of purchase. If you want to upgrade after 6 months, just pay off 50% of the full retail price of the phone and you can choose a new phone and start all over again.”

Money to burn?

Side note: As consumer advocates, we're compelled to point out that paying for a brand-new latest-gen smartphone every six months (or even paying for half of a brand-new latest-gen smartphone every six months) has the same effect on your net worth as does keeping one smartphone and periodically setting fire to large piles of $20 bills (assuming you do so in a manner cognizant of local safety codes).

And unless you're in an extremely good financial position – say, well-paid, debt-free and a year's living expenses in the bank, at minimum – we'd strongly advise smartphone buyers to pick a phone they'll want to keep for a good long length of time, no matter how tempted they are by the latest smartphone upgrades announced each week.

However, if you choose to ignore this, Verizon's updated Edge Upgrade program now offers consumers the ability to give up paying for half of a new-gen smartphone every half-year, in lieu of paying for half of a new-gen smartphone every month. Yes! CNet broke the news on Jan. 19:

“In the latest tit-for-tat in the escalating jockeying between carriers, Verizon has modified its Edge payment and early upgrade plan. Until now, customers had to wait six months to upgrade. Now they can do it after 30 days. …. Verizon said that eligibility will require news customers to pass credit checks. What's more, it said that prepaid accounts are not eligible for Verizon Edge. A spokesman for Verizon said "this is currently a promotion but we have not set an end date.”

PhotoA thoroughly unimpressed tech blogger for Engadget noted that “the tweak was technically a promotion, but it's not actually much of a deal. Although the wait-time has been reduced by a factor of six, the amount due hasn't changed a penny.... While it's always good to have options, maybe it's a better idea to sort out your buyer's remorse during your carrier's return window.”

And if you're the type of person who's genuinely interested in the opportunity to switch smartphones every month, it's a good idea to sort out your finances: write down the numbers, see where your money's going every month and decide whether you can really afford to keep replacing high-end technology more frequently than most people replace their socks.

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Wells Fargo, US Bank discontinue payday loans in California under consumer pressure

Regions Bank also backed out of the payday loan business last week

Source: Wells FargoConsumer groups have been putting pressure on big banks that make ultra-high-interest payday loans and they're starting to get resul...

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Source: Wells Fargo

Consumer groups have been putting pressure on big banks that make ultra-high-interest payday loans and they're starting to get results.

Last week, Regions Bank said it would phase out its Ready Advance product and that was closely followed by the news that Wells Fargo and US Bank would stop making payday loans in California.

“For too long, Wells Fargo and US Bank have offered these abusive, high-interest loans with no regard for the financial heartaches they create for their customers," said Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition. "Bank regulators are no longer allowing banks to profit from abusive practices that harm their customers. We are optimistic regulators will soon consider addressing the $32 billion in overdraft fees paid by customers every year.”

Annette Smith, a Wells Fargo customer who helped shine a national spotlight on the product after paying $3,000 in fees for renewing a $500 advance, was excited to hear the news.

“When I was asked to testify in Washington, D.C., about my experience using Wells Fargo’s Direct Deposit Advance, I was honestly a little bit scared. But, I knew I wasn’t the only Wells Fargo customer who found themselves stuck renewing the loan repeatedly because of the short repayment period and high interest charges."

Wells Fargo Jan. 20, 2014, 1:14 a.m.
Consumers rate Wells Fargo

“This week’s announcement adds to the growing momentum for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to end abusive practices when it designs its rules for payday lenders and for the California legislature to protect consumers from storefront payday lenders,” said Liana Molina, CRC's Payday Campaign Organizer.

Besides pressure from conosumer groups, banks are feeling the heat from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which have made it clear in recent months that they are not happy to see large, respected banks engaging in predatory lending.

“We were glad to see the new bank regulations from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation recognized the call for Wall Street Reform, that making bad loans and relying on excessive fees is not only unethical, it’s bad business," said Andrea Luquetta, CRC Policy Advocate.

"We will monitor both banks closely to see how they plan to assist their customers who already have these high-interest loans. We suggest they provide customers longer repayment periods, and lower the interest rates to 36%, a consumer rate cap already in place and that is effectively protecting our active duty military,” Luquetta added.

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Feds issue new safety standard for bedside cribs

Twenty-six safety incidents reported since 2001

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a new safety standard for bedside cribs, devices that are similar to bassinets attached to an adult bed...

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The Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a new safety standard for bedside cribs, devices that are similar to bassinets attached to an adult bed. They're used in cramped quarters and by parents who want to keep their sleeping infant as close as possible.

The bedside sleepers are intended for infants up to approximately five months of age or when a child begins to push up on his or her hands and knees.

But although they're increasingly popular, the CPSC says there've been 26 documented safety incidents with the sleepers since 2001. The incidents included four fatalities, which were associated with fabric-sided openings on the products.

Most of the incidents grew either from a manufacturing defect or potential design flaw, the CPSC said.

The new safety standards are based on a standard developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials, with minor changes.
The bedside sleepers will be tested with the same safety standards used for bassinets, which were updated in October 2013.

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Sunlight may help reduce blood pressure, heart attack risk

British researchers say limiting sunlight exposure because of cancer fears may be counterproductive

Any fair-skinned person hears it all the time from their dermatologist and family physician: too much sunlight can cause skin cancer. But now British derma...

PhotoAny fair-skinned person hears it all the time from their dermatologist and family physician: too much sunlight can cause skin cancer. But now British dermatologists say that while that's true, too little sunlight isn't good either.

In fact, exposing the skin to sunlight may help to reduce blood pressure and thus cut the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to the study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

The research, carried out at the Universities of Southampton and Edinburgh, found that sunlight alters levels of nitric oxide in the skin and blood, reducing blood pressure.

"Nitric oxide, along with its breakdown products, known to be abundant in skin, is involved in the regulation of blood pressure. When exposed to sunlight, small amounts of nitric oxide are transferred from the skin to the circulation, lowering blood vessel tone; as blood pressure drops, so does the risk of heart attack and stroke," said Martin Feelisch, Professor of Experimental Medicine and Integrative Biology at the University of Southampton.

Good and bad effects

While limiting sunlight exposure is important to prevent skin cancer, the authors of the study, including Dr. Richard Weller of the University of Edinburgh, suggest that minimizing exposure may be disadvantageous by increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Cardiovascular disease, often associated with high blood pressure, accounts for 30 per cent of deaths globally each year. Blood pressure and cardiovascular disease are known to vary according to season and latitude, with higher levels observed in winter and in countries further from the equator, where ultraviolet radiation from the sun is lower.

During the study, the skin of 24 healthy individuals was exposed to ultraviolet (UVA) light from tanning lamps for two sessions of 20 minutes each. In one session, the volunteers were exposed to both the UVA rays and the heat of the lamps. In another, the UV rays were blocked so that only the heat of the lamps affected the skin.

Dilates blood vessels

The results suggest that UVA exposure dilates blood vessels, significantly lowers blood pressure, and alters nitric oxide metabolite levels in the circulation, without changing vitamin D levels. Further experiments indicate that pre-formed stores of nitric oxide in the upper skin layers are involved in mediating these effects. The data are consistent with the seasonal variation of blood pressure and cardiovascular risk at temperate latitudes.

"These results are significant to the ongoing debate about potential health benefits of sunlight and the role of Vitamin D in this process. It may be an opportune time to reassess the risks and benefits of sunlight for human health and to take a fresh look at current public health advice," Professor Feelisch said. "Avoiding excess sunlight exposure is critical to prevent skin cancer, but not being exposed to it at all, out of fear or as a result of a certain lifestyle, could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Perhaps with the exception of bone health, the effects of oral vitamin D supplementation have been disappointing.

"We believe that nitric oxide from the skin is an important, so far overlooked contributor to cardiovascular health. In future studies we intend to test whether the effects hold true in a more chronic setting and identify new nutritional strategies targeted at maximizing the skin's ability to store nitric oxide and deliver it to the circulation more efficiently."

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Chocolate, tea, berries may guard against diabetes, study finds

Obesity, heart disease and cancer may also be affected, researchers say

A British study finds that eating high levels of flavonoids found in berries, tea and chocolate could offer protection from type 2 diabetes. Find...

PhotoA British study finds that eating high levels of flavonoids found in berries, tea and chocolate could offer protection from type 2 diabetes. Findings published today in the Journal of Nutrition reveal that high intakes of these dietary compounds are associated with lower insulin resistance and better blood glucose regulation.

A study of almost 2,000 people by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and King's College London also found that these food groups lower inflammation which, when chronic, is associated with diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

"Our research looked at the benefits of eating certain sub-groups of flavanoids," said Prof. Aedin Cassidy from UEA's Norwich Medical School led the research. "We focused on flavones, which are found in herbs and vegetables such as parsley, thyme, and celery, and anthocyanins, found in berries, red grapes, wine and other red or blue-coloured fruits and vegetables."

"This is one of the first large-scale human studies to look at how these powerful bioactive compounds might reduce the risk of diabetes," Cassidy said. "Laboratory studies have shown these types of foods might modulate blood glucose regulation – affecting the risk of type 2 diabetes. But until now little has been know about how habitual intakes might affect insulin resistance, blood glucose regulation and inflammation in humans."

2,000 women studied

Researchers studied almost 2,000 healthy women volunteers who had completed a food questionnaire designed to estimate total dietary flavonoid intake as well as intakes from six flavonoid subclasses. Blood samples were analyzed for evidence of both glucose regulation and inflammation. Insulin resistance, a hallmark of type 2 diabetes, was assessed using an equation that considered both fasting insulin and glucose levels.

"We found that those who consumed plenty of anthocyanins and flavones had lower insulin resistance. High insulin resistance is associated with Type 2 diabetes, so what we are seeing is that people who eat foods rich in these two compounds – such as berries, herbs, red grapes, wine– are less likely to develop the disease.

"We also found that those who ate the most anthocyanins were least likely to suffer chronic inflammation – which is associated with many of today's most pressing health concerns including diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

"And those who consumed the most flavone compounds had improved levels of a protein (adiponectin) which helps regulate a number of metabolic processes including glucose levels.

"What we don't yet know is exactly how much of these compounds are necessary to potentially reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes," she added.

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Chevrolet Silverados and GMC Sierras recalled

The exhaust components can overheat

General Motors is recalling 300,000 2014 model year Chevrolet Silverados and GMC Sierras equipped with 4.3L or 5.3L engines. When the vehicle is idling i...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 300,000 2014 model year Chevrolet Silverados and GMC Sierras equipped with 4.3L or 5.3L engines.

When the vehicle is idling in cold temperatures, the exhaust components can overheat. The overheated exhaust components may melt nearby plastic parts and may result in an engine fire.

General Motors will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the engine control module, free of charge. The recall began on January 16, 2014.

Owners may contact Chevrolet at 1-800-222-1020 and GMC at 1-800-462-8782. General Motors' number for this recall is 14008.

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Missouri lender fined for mortgage kickback scheme

Fidelity Mortgage and its president will cough up $81k

Fidelity Mortgage Corporation and its former owner and current president, Mark Figert, have been hit with an $81,076 penalty for funneling illegal kickback...

Fidelity Mortgage Corporation and its former owner and current president, Mark Figert, have been hit with an $81,076 penalty for funneling illegal kickbacks to a bank in exchange for real estate referrals.

“Kickbacks harm consumers by hampering fair market competition and by unnecessarily increasing the costs of getting a mortgage,” said Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Richard Cordray. The bureau, he added, “will continue to take action against schemes that steer consumers to lenders through unscrupulous and illegal business practices.”

Kickbacks in disguise

The St. Louis-based non-depository mortgage lender is accused of entering into an agreement with a bank in which the bank referred potential borrowers to Fidelity in exchange for kickbacks. The kickbacks were disguised as inflated lease payments for renting office space within the bank. The Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) prohibits giving and receiving kickbacks for referrals of settlement-service business involving federally-related mortgages.

When companies pay kickbacks in exchange for referrals, it can hurt competition and inflate real estate settlement costs for consumers, while creating an uneven playing field that puts law-abiding businesses at a disadvantage.

Under the terms of the consent order, Fidelity and Figert are required to pay back all of the company’s proceeds from the unlawfully referred business -- a total of $27,076 that will be deposited in the United States Treasury. Additionally, the CFPB is ordering Fidelity and Figert to pay a $54,000 civil penalty.

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Truitt Brothers recalls Cheeseburger Mac products

The products contain allergens, which are not declared on some labels

Truitt Brothers Inc. of East Bernstadt, Ky., is recalling approximately 1.77 million pounds of shelf-stable pasta and ground beef products because of misbr...

PhotoTruitt Brothers Inc. of East Bernstadt, Ky., is recalling approximately 1.77 million pounds of shelf-stable pasta and ground beef products because of misbranding and an undeclared allergen.

The products are formulated with hydrolyzed soy protein and dried soy sauce, known allergens that are not declared on some labels.

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

The products subject to recall include:

  • 3.3-pound cases containing six, 9-ounce microwaveable containers of “Kraft Velveeta Cheesy Skillets SINGLES – ULTIMATE CHEESEBURGER MAC” [a macaroni & cheese product] with a Used By/Sell By date code of “02 MARCH 2014 – 23 OCT 2014.” Identifying case codes are: 00210000432900, 00210000432910, 00210000432925, 00210000464000 and 00210000465100.

The products were produced between May 6, 2013 and Jan. 16, 2014 and shipped to Kraft Foods distribution centers and retail locations nationwide.

No other Velveeta or Kraft products are affected by this recall.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact the Kraft Foods Consumer Relations Center at 1-800-396-5512.

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Gusto Packing recalls sliced spiral hams

The hams may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Gusto Packing of Montgomery, Ill., is recalling approximately 67,113 pounds of sliced, spiral ham products. The hams may be contaminated with Listeria mo...

PhotoGusto Packing of Montgomery, Ill., is recalling approximately 67,113 pounds of sliced, spiral ham products.

The hams may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

There have been no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

The hams were shipped to wholesalers for further distribution in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, while some were exported to Canada. The following products are subject to recall:

  • 45.5-lb. cases, with six individual sized hams each labeled “Centrella Signature, Hardwood Hickory Smoked, Spiral Sliced Ham with Natural Juices” with the case code “71292603304,” packaged on Nov. 29, 2013, having a Use or Freeze by date of “02/06/14.”
  • 45.8-lb. cases, with six individual sized hams each labeled “AMISH VALLEY, Fully Cooked, Hickory Smoked Spiral Sliced Ham” with the case code “71292645104,” packaged on Nov. 29, 2013, having a Use or Freeze by date of “02/06/14.”
  • 45.8-lb. cases, with six individual sized hams each labeled “AMISH VALLEY, Fully Cooked, Hickory Smoked Spiral Sliced Ham” with the case code “71292645104,” packaged on Nov. 30, 2013, having a Use or Freeze by date of “02/06/14.”
  • 31.6-lb. cases, with four individual sized hams each labeled “Ripple Creek Farms, Fully Cooked, Ready To Eat, Hickory Smoked, Spiral Sliced Ham” with the case code “71292603312,” packaged on Nov. 30, 2013, having a Best Before date of “2014 FE 13.”

Packaging labels bear the establishment number “EST. 2516” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall can contact the Gusto Packing customer service hotline toll free at 877-984-8786.  

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Midwest Wholesale recalls various 'male enhancement' products

The products contain drug ingredients not listed on the label

Midwest Wholesale is recalling the following products and Lot numbers: Boost Ultra 12 pill bottle, Lot#B70130, Exp 03/15 3 pill bottle, Lot#B70130, Exp 3/...

PhotoMidwest Wholesale is recalling the following products and Lot numbers:

Boost Ultra

  • 12 pill bottle, Lot#B70130, Exp 03/15
  • 3 pill bottle, Lot#B70130, Exp 3/2015
  • 1 pill pack, Lot#06012011, Exp 6/2014

XZone Gold

  • 1 pill pack, Lot#130710GL, Exp 7/31/18

Sexy Monkey

  • 1 pill pack, Exp 12/31/14

Triple MiracleZen Platinum

  • 1 pill pack, Lot# OAWF1027, Exp 1/31/15 and Lot# OAWF1003, Exp 1/31/15

Magic for Men

  • 12 pill bottle, Lot# GP808, Exp 10/16
  • 1 pill pack, Lot#BN030613, Exp 2/6/15

"New" Extenze

  • 30 pill box, Lot# 0512058, Exp 05/16

New XZen Platinum

  • 1 pill pack, Lot#130520PL, Exp 5/31/17

These products are labeled and intended to be used as dietary supplements for sexual enhancement. The products are packaged in 1-capsule blister packs, 3-pill bottles, 6-pill bottles, 12-pill bottles and 30-tablet boxes. They were distributed to 20 selected retail locations in several states by Midwest Wholesale from August 1, 2013, to October 22, 2013.

Analysis by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found these products to contain undeclared Sildenafil and/or Tadalafil, the active ingredients in FDA-approved prescription drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction (ED). These undeclared ingredients may interact with nitrates found in some prescription drugs, such as nitroglycerin, and may lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Men with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease often take nitrates.

Consumers should stop using this product immediately and throw it away.

Midwest Wholesale is notifying its retailers and customers by telephone and recall letter and is arranging for return of all recalled products. Consumers and retailers who have these recalled products should stop consumption or further distribution and return them to place of purchase or directly to Midwest Wholesale, 617 N Althea Ave, Nixa, MO 65714.

Consumers are requested to have their order number or proof of purchase.

Consumers with questions can contact Midwest Wholesale by phone (888-514-7110), Monday-Friday, 09:00am-5:00pm, Central Time.  

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Rancho Feeding recalls various meat products

The products were not full inspected

Rancho Feeding Corporation of Petaluma, Calif., is recalling approximately 41,683 pounds of various meat products because they were produced without the be...

PhotoRancho Feeding Corporation of Petaluma, Calif., is recalling approximately 41,683 pounds of various meat products because they were produced without the benefit of full federal inspection, making them unfit for human food.

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

The following products are subject to recall:

  • “Beef Carcasses”
  • 50-lb. boxes of “Beef Feet”
  • 20-lb. boxes of “Beef Oxtail”
  • 50-lb. boxes of “Beef Hearts”
  • 60 and 30-lb. boxes of “Beef Liver”
  • 30-lb. boxes of “Beef Cheeks”
  • 60-lb. boxes of “Beef Tripe”
  • 30-lb. boxes of “Beef Tongue”

Beef carcasses and boxes bear the establishment number "EST. 527" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each box bears the case code number “ON9O4.” The products were produced Jan. 8, 2014, and shipped to distribution centers and retail establishments in California.

Consumers with questions about the recall can contact the plant’s Quality Control manager, Scott Parks, at (707) 762-6651.

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Feds close inquiry into Jeep SUV fires, Chrysler agrees to a controversial "fix"

A last-minute phone call with a "retiring" regulator seems to have sealed the deal

The long-simmering controversy over the risk of fast-spreading fires in older Jeep SUVs is officially history, although safety advocates and personal injur...

Photo
The trailer hitch-equipped Jeep in which Cassidy Jarmon, 4, was killed. (Photo credit: Center for Auto Safety)

The long-simmering controversy over the risk of fast-spreading fires in older Jeep SUVs is officially history, although safety advocates and personal injury lawyers aren't likely to go away quietly.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Thursday formally closed its long-running investigation into fire risks in 2.7 million 1994-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys, and accepted the company's proposed fix -- a trailer hitch intended to provide additional protection for the gas tank, which is mounted between the rear axle and the bumper -- for 1.6 million of the vehicles.

Safety advocates say the location of the fuel tank creates a greater risk of fire in rear-end collisions and question whether the trailer hitch is an adequate fix. They say at least 270 people have died in such fires. Chrysler and NHTSA dispute that and cite a number in the 50s.

"It is tragic that NHTSA approved Chrysler’s sham trailer hitch recall for Jeeps that explode in rear impacts," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "NHTSA Administrator David Strickland will be remembered as the Administrator who took a job with one of Chrysler’s law firms rather than save more children like Cassidy Jarmon from burning to deaths in Jeeps with trailer hitches. 

"In strong contrast former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook is remembered for saving lives by standing up to Ford and demanding crash tests and an improved remedy when Ford tried to foist off an inadequate remedy for the Pinto which exploded in rear impacts just like the Jeep.”

Ditlow cited a photo of the trailer hitch-equipped Jeep in which Cassidy Jarmon, 4, died when her family's Grand Cherokee was rear-ended.

"I'm so sad," said Jenelle Embrey, a Virginia woman who organized a petition campaign seeking a recall of the Jeeps after she was rear-ended by a Jeep Grand Cherokee, which in turn was rear-ended by another vehicle and burst into flames, killing two occupants. She gathered nearly 128,000 signatures and arranged a meeting with NHTSA officials to press for a recall but won no commitments.

The NHTSA inquiries began in 2009 when Ditlow filed a 69-page complaint with the agency, arguing that the 1993-04 Grand Cherokee has a fatal crash fire occurrence rate that is about four times higher than SUVs made by other companies, an assertion Chrysler disputes.

NHTSA last spring asked Chrysler -- Jeep's parent company -- to recall the SUVs and, in an almost unprecedented response, Chrysler refused, saying the vehicles had a safety record roughly comparable to other SUVs.

Airport meeting

Photo
Ray LaHood

A few weeks later, after a secret meeting between then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland and top Chrysler executives at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, Chrysler informally agreed to the trailer-hitch fix.

A short time later, LaHood stepped down and now is a co-chair of a non-profit organization seeking more tax funds to support transportation infrastructure. Critics at the time blasted the secret meeting, saying that NHTSA is supposed to be a science-based agency that arrives at decisions through study and testing, not backroom deals.

They insisted that NHTSA should not accept Chrysler's plan without crash testing to determine whether it is adequate. 

"We call on NHTSA to do crash tests of Chrysler's proposed remedy, just as it did with Ford's proposed remedy for the Pinto in 1978, to determine that the modified Jeeps meet the present Safety Standard just as the Pinto's had to the meet the new Safety Standard in 1978," said Ditlow in a June 2013 statement. "If the modified Jeeps do not pass, we call on NHTSA to require Chrysler to develop a more effective remedy just as NHTSA did with the Pinto when it failed the first round of tests."

It won't be known whether NHTSA actually conducted any crash tests until formal reports are released over the next few months.

Ditlow noted that the Pinto -- which also had a gas tank mounted behind the rear axle -- was required by NHTSA to be brought up to current safety standards, not the standards that were in effect at the time the cars were built. In the Jeep case, Chrysler is arguing that it should only have to meet standards that were in effect when the Jeeps were built. 

In 2011, consumer crusader Ralph Nader, who ignited the crusade that ended in the 1978 Pinto recall, called on Chrysler to recall the Jeeps, calling them "a modern day Pinto for soccer moms with a fuel tank located dangerously behind the rear axle in the crush zone of an impact."

A call sealed the deal

Photo
David Strickland

Chrysler's agreement to go ahead with the trailer hitch fix and NHTSA's agreement to close the investigation also appear to be the result of an extracurricular conversation, according to The New York Times. The newspaper reported in today's editions that outgoing NHTSA head Strickland talked by telephone with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne last Monday and sealed the deal.

Strickland is leaving NHTSA to join the Washington lobbying and law firm Venable LLP, which public records show has billed Chrysler $1.1 million for lobbying activities over the last five years. Strickland is joining the firm's Regulatory and Legislative practices group as a partner.

As part of the Strickland-Marchionne deal, Chrysler reportedly agreed to install the trailer hitches if NHTSA would agree to stop describing the vehicles as defective -- a description that puts Chrysler at a disadvantage in court cases brought by victims of rear-end-related fires and their survivors.

Both sides are now congratulating themselves on the settlement.

"Chrysler Group commends the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the diligence demonstrated over the course of this investigation," Chrysler said in a statement. "We share NHTSA's commitment to safety."

"Throughout this process, the agency has been in close communication with Chrysler and has no reservations at this time with their announced actions to move forward," NHTSA said in a prepared statement. "Consumers should have their vehicles serviced promptly once they receive final notification from Chrysler. NHTSA will continue to monitor consumer outreach as the recall process continues."

 

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Facing foreclosure? The 'forensic audit' is no easy fix

Many may be useless, some are outright scams

The foreclosure wave has subsided a bit but homeowners are still losing their homes. The rate of foreclosure is still much higher than it was in 2007, not...

Photo
A typical forensic audit ad

The foreclosure wave has subsided a bit but homeowners are still losing their homes. The rate of foreclosure is still much higher than it was in 2007, not because of subprime mortgages so much as a weak economy with fewer jobs.

While there may be some legal avenues consumers can take to forestall the loss of their homes, it is important to know that not every solution someone offers is going to make the slightest difference. You can spend thousands of dollars up front and still lose your home.

Many states have clamped down on fraudulent foreclosure rescue professionals who claimed to be able to negotiate with the lender for leniency. A relatively new wrinkle to foreclosure rescue is the forensic audit – or securitization audit.

Upfront fee

If you pay an upfront fee of several hundred dollars, so-called forensic loan auditors will review your mortgage loan documents to determine whether your lender complied with state and federal mortgage lending laws. These auditors say you can use their report to avoid foreclosure, accelerate the loan modification process, reduce your loan principal, or even cancel your loan.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it almost never happens that way. The FTC says there is no evidence that loan audits will help you get a loan modification or any other kind of relief, even if they’re conducted by a licensed, legitimate and trained auditor, mortgage professional or lawyer.

Not always admissible

Sometimes these audits – assuming they find a serious breach – are not even admissible in a court of law. Attorney Gregory Bryl, who practices in Florida and Virginia, says most of the securitization audits he has reviewed fall into that category.

“They contain a mere opinion of a layman without personal knowledge as to what happened with a particular mortgage note after closing,” he said.

It is true that federal law allows you to sue your lender based on errors in your loan documents. But that means hiring a lawyer and even if you sue and win, your lender is not required to modify your loan simply to make your payments more affordable.

If you were able to find enough errors and mistakes to cancel your loan, stop and think about what that means. It doesn't mean you walk away with your home free and clear. It means the loan you originally negotiated with your lender is cancelled, requiring you to pay off the balance right away. Unless you can quickly refinance your loan – and if you're in foreclosure you probably can't – you're going to lose your home.

Spotting a scam

PhotoTo spot a forensic audit scam look out for anyone who guarantees they can stop the foreclosure process. There are no guarantees in this arena.

Be leery of anyone who tells you not to contact your lender, lawyer or housing counselor. If they say their services require an upfront fee, hang up the phone or close the door.

What to do

What should you do if you find yourself facing possible foreclosure? The FTC's housing experts say that when you’re behind on your mortgage payments, maintaining communication with your lender is the most important thing you can do.

That means you should contact your lender or servicer immediately if you’re having trouble paying your mortgage or you have received a foreclosure notice. You may be able to negotiate a new repayment schedule, although it is by no means a certainty.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development maintains a hotline for free personalized advice at 1-888-995-HOPE, available around the clock. Free online help is available at www.hopenow.com and www.makinghomesaffordable.com.

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The Grandma Scam: not just for grandmothers anymore

Do email scammers think you're stupid? No, but they sure hope so

Most would-be scammers try to profit from people's sense of greed. Worse are the scammers who prey on people's sense of compassion...

PhotoMost would-be scammers try to profit from people's sense of greed: “Hi! I'm the Crown Prince of Nigeria, I want to smuggle $100 million worth of oil money out of my country, and I'll split the proceeds with you if you help me. Also, I'm requesting assistance from total strangers over the Internet because, despite my being royalty with a hundred million bucks, I'm not acquainted with any rich-financier types.”

Sleazy, yes, but even worse are the scammers who prey on people's sense of compassion, or concern for their family members. That's the root of the so-called “Grandma scam,” where hackers manage to get hold of a [usually elderly] person's contact information – whether by breaking into someone else's email address book or cell phone number list, or scanning Facebook and other social media to mine personal data.

The scammers then contact the would-be victim, usually with a realistic-sounding phone call or email, telling some terrible tale of woe: “Grandma, I'm in desperate trouble and need money to get out of it. Maybe I'm in jail, or stranded in a small town with a broken-down car and no money to repair it, or even stuck in a foreign country after a thief stole my wallet and passport....”

Equal opportunity scammers

Despite the name “Grandma scam,” these would-be scammers don't limit themselves to grandparents. Indeed, this week we were the attempted targets of what we'll dub the “Real estate agent with whom you have an extremely slight acquaintance scam,” even though we know that label doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Here is an email our editor received, allegedly from “Brandi,” a real estate agent who lives and works in New Jersey:

I know this may sound odd but it all happened very fast. I made a trip to Italy and I misplaced my luggage containing my passport and credit cards. I've contacted my bank and the embassy, the embassy is willing to assist me but my funds are depleted to pay for a new passport fees and other miscellaneous expenses.

I don't have access to my account over and My bank said it would take 5 working days to access funds from my account. Please can you lend me some funds? I'll pay back, as soon as I return home.

I await your response,

A tenuous link

We confirmed that our editor never actually tried buying a house from Brandi or her colleagues, though the two of them are connected on LinkedIn. Presumably the scammer got our editor's email by hacking into Brandi's account. 

Brandi is hardly the only Realtor who's had this problem; a few months ago we personally got a similar-sounding email, allegedly from a rental agent we'd met 18 months before, when we'd moved to a new area and needed a place to live. Though we hadn't had any contact with that agent for over a year and a half, our email address was presumably still in her contact list when a would-be scammer hacked into it.

Maybe you've been rolling your eyes the whole time you've read this. “Who actually falls for these scams?” you wonder. “Who believes a wealthy prince must beg help from total strangers, or a realty agent in a jam would forget about family and friends, and seek a loan from a would-be client she'd last met two years ago?”

But if you have such thoughts, you're not in the scammers' target demographic. In the summer of 2012, Microsoft commissioned a study (available in .pdf form) titled “Why do Nigerian scammers say they are from Nigeria?”

Not too smart

The conclusion was that the scammers deliberately make their emails look and sound as scammy as possible, to weed out anybody who's too smart to fall for it. After all: the scammer doesn't want to waste time stringing along a potential “mark” likely to wise up and back out at the last minute.

This is why there also exist websites like 419hell.com (motto: “It's good to be a jerk — to those who deserve it”), dedicated to stories of people who decided to scam the scammers by stringing them along.

Confession: We've tried doing this ourselves — responding to scam emails and pretending to fall for them — yet we never could get anybody to respond to us more than twice. So for this story, we didn't even try contacting Brandi's money-seeking doppelganger (though we did contact the real Brandi, to warn her about the hacker in her email).

Our editor reports that while working on this story, he got a call from a friendly fellow who said he understood our editor was "interested in making extra money by working from home."

"Nope, got too much money already. I'm trying to get rid of some of it," our editor replied, thinking this would stir the soul of any reputable scammer. Instead, the caller gasped and hung up, apparently not being smart enough to come up with a quick response -- proving that sometimes it's the scammer that's not so quick-witted.

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Regions Bank exits payday loan business

Center for Responsible Lending hails the move

Consumer groups – the Center for Responsible Lending in particular – have been hammering big banks for getting into the payday loan business. T...

PhotoConsumer groups – the Center for Responsible Lending in particular – have been hammering big banks for getting into the payday loan business. The banks don't call them payday loans but CRL and other groups do, saying they work the same way – small short-term loans at sky-high interest rates.

Now Regions Bank is getting out of the business of making these types of loans. The bank has announced that it is phasing out its Ready Advance product.

Ready Advance loans are small dollar loans made to Regions' customers, allowing them to take an advance against their next direct deposit. The fee for the loan varies, but is in the neighborhood of $1 for every $10 borrowed. If you borrowed $100, the cost would be $10. It doesn't sound like much but when you consider it is payment for the use of $100 for just two weeks, the annual interest rate (APR) is in the triple digits – on par with your neighborhood payday lender.

January 22 cut-off

Regions said it will no longer make Ready Advance loans after January 22. Instead the bank has introduced new products it hopes will take the place of its discontinued loan. It will now offer what it calls the Regions Savings Secured Loan, which is secured against a savings account. Regions describes its new product as “a low fixed interest rate personal installment loan” that can be used to borrow as little as $250.

Regions said it is also developing other credit alternatives this year, including an expanded, unsecured line of credit product that will meet the needs of many of the same customers who used Ready Advance.

"It's clear that consumers have a need for small-dollar loans, and we believe banks have a responsibility to meet that need," said John Owen, head of Business Groups for Regions Bank. "To that end, we have introduced a new savings secured loan product and we are developing other credit products in 2014 that will appeal to a broad group of current and potentially new Regions customers to assist them in meeting their financial needs."

Greeted as good news

Regions Bank Jan. 17, 2014, 6:07 p.m.
Consumers rate Regions Bank
The announcement that Ready Advance is being phased out was greeted as good news at CRL.

“Data have consistently shown that payday loans made by banks, like those made by payday stores, lead to a cycle of repeat loans, making a borrower’s financial situation worse instead of better,” the group said in a statement. “In recent months, both federal and state regulators have increased scrutiny around all types of payday lending, whether by banks, storefronts or online. Guidance from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is addressing payday loans made by the institutions under their supervision. Regions is regulated by the Federal Reserve, but appears to be responding to broader market and regulatory trends.”

Calls out another bank

CRL said it would like other banks to follow Regions' example. It said Fifth Third Bank continues to offer a product it calls a payday loan and stepped up the pressure on that institution to end the practice.

Meanwhile, Regions says it is developing a transition plan for current Ready Advance customers, and that qualified current customers with an active Ready Advance line of credit will have access to future advances until this transition plan is completed.  

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Google testing a "smart" contact lens for diabetics

The lens contains a miniature glucose sensor, which can take a reading once per second

Saying that having diabetes is "like having a part-time job," Google researchers are working on a "smart" contact lens that could sample the glucose level ...

PhotoSaying that having diabetes is "like having a part-time job," Google researchers are working on a "smart" contact lens that could sample the glucose level in tears as often as once every second.

That would relieve diabetics of the nagging task of measuring their blood glucose level, a process that involves pricking their finger several times per day.

The company's secretive Google[X] lab is using a wireless chip and miniature glucose sensor embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material to measure the glucose levels in tears.

Noting that diabetes affects one in every 19 people on the planet, Google researchers Brian Otis and Babak Parviz said they're hoping to make it easier for people with diabetes to keep their blood sugar levels under control.

LED lights

They're investigating the potential for the device to serve as an early warning for the wearer, by integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds.

"Many people ... say managing their diabetes is like having a part-time job. Glucose levels change frequently with normal activity like exercising or eating or even sweating," the two said in a blog posting. "Sudden spikes or precipitous drops are dangerous and not uncommon, requiring round-the-clock monitoring. Although some people wear glucose monitors with a glucose sensor embedded under their skin, all people with diabetes must still prick their finger and test drops of blood throughout the day. It’s disruptive, and it’s painful. And, as a result, many people with diabetes check their blood glucose less often than they should."

Uncontrolled blood sugar can lead to dangerous complications, including damages to the eyes, kidneys and heart. 

"We hope this could someday lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage their disease," Otis and Parviz said, adding that they were in early discussions with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"We’ve always said that we’d seek out projects that seem a bit speculative or strange, and at a time when the International Diabetes Federation (PDF) is declaring that the world is 'losing the battle' against diabetes, we thought this project was worth a shot," they said.

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Pennsylvania house might or might not be haunted

Full disclosure or TMI? Sometimes it's hard to tell

Any dwelling larger than a kid's plastic playhouse comes with its own soundtrack that gets steadily louder as the house grows older...

PhotoIf you visit the rented townhouse where I live, and walk through the hallway leading to various bedroom doors, you'll see a small cloth dishmat lying in an apparently random location in the middle of the wall-to-wall beige carpeting.

But it's not random; that dishmat marks the spot where, if anything heavier than a mouse steps on it, the floor makes an annoyingly loud creaking noise guaranteed to awaken anybody sleeping in the nearby bedroom (and, in open-window weather, is even audible to the next-door neighbors living on the opposite side of the firewall).

I say this to remind you that any dwelling larger than a kid's plastic playhouse comes with its own soundtrack that gets steadily louder as the house grows older. Even when nobody's moving around and no water's flowing through faucets, there's still the sounds of foundations settling, boards or doors expanding in hot weather or contracting in cold – or, I suppose, you could blame all the ruckus on ghosts.

Gregory and Sandi Leeson are leaving toward the “ghost” theory to explain the sounds of their 113-year-old Victorian house in Dunmore, Penn. As Philly.com reports:

Between the mysteriously banging doors, the odd noises coming from the basement, and the persistent feeling that someone is standing behind them, homeowners Gregory and Sandi Leeson are thoroughly creeped out by their 113-year-old Victorian.

So when they put the house in northeastern Pennsylvania up for sale last month, they advertised it as "slightly haunted."

Then things got REALLY weird.

Unsurprisingly, their haunted real-estate listing resulted in plenty of calls from ghost-hunters and curiosity-seekers (as opposed to calls from actual potential buyers).

To be fair, though, Gregory Leeson was surely being tongue-in-cheek when he wrote a Zillow listing describing the house as “"Slightly haunted. Nothing serious, though"; alleged symptoms of haunting include seeing an “occasionally ghastly visage” in a mirror — which could be a ghost reference, but could also be a bit of self-deprecating humor.

A cynic might think the Leesons' “haunted” real-estate listing a deliberate attempt to drum up interest in an otherwise uninspiring home for sale, a theory strengthened by noting that Philly.com reports “If [the house] doesn't sell, Leeson said they might consider renting it out - by the night - to folks looking for spooky thrills.”

Yet it's equally possible that the Leesons were prudently protecting themselves from future lawsuits — specifically, from irate buyers who might sue them on the grounds that, “This house is haunted! Why didn't the sellers disclose that?”

Spooky but true

No joke. There have been actual American legal cases where home sellers were successfully sued for not disclosing a house's allegedly paranormal infestation — and I'm not talking about some old Colonial-era witch-hunt laws, either.

In 1991, the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled in Stambovsky v. Ackley that defendant Helen Ackley, who not only believed in ghosts but thought poltergeists might be infesting her home in the city of Nyack, should have disclosed this to Jeffrey Stambovsky when the latter bought her house.

And in 2009, a tourist from Taiwan tried suing the Venetian casino on the grounds that “feng shui sabotage” was responsible for his gambling losses.

Given that “feng shui home consultant” is an actual people-make-money-at-it job these days, you have to figure it's only a matter of time before some disgruntled mortgage-holder with buyer's remorse tries suing on the grounds of bad feng shui, too. So maybe home-sellers should disclose any quasi-mystic ghostly concerns they have, alongside more tangible disclosures like “The hot water heater needs replacement” or “sometimes the bathtub leaks.”

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Fewer smokers than 50 years ago but the risks are higher

At the current rate, 5.6 million U.S. children will die prematurely, Surgeon General says

Surgeon General report says 5.6 million U.S. children will die prematurely unless current smoking rates dropReport also finds cigarette smoking causes diab...

PhotoIt's been 50 years since the Surgeon General's report on smoking led millions of Americans to quit or never take up the habit. But even fewer Americans are smoking today, the risk of dying for those who die smoke is higher than ever, said Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, M.D., M.P.H. 

“Smokers today have a greater risk of developing lung cancer than they did when the first Surgeon General’s report was released in 1964, even though they smoke fewer cigarettes,” said Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, M.D., M.P.H. “How cigarettes are made and the chemicals they contain have changed over the years, and some of those changes may be a factor in higher lung cancer risks. Of all forms of tobacco, cigarettes are the most deadly – and cause medical and financial burdens for millions of Americans.”

The report also says that about 5.6 million American children alive today – or one out of every 13 children under age 18 – will die prematurely from smoking-related diseases unless current smoking rates drop.

20 million dead

Over the last 50 years, more than 20 million Americans have died from smoking. The new report concludes that cigarette smoking kills nearly half a million Americans a year, with an additional 16 million suffering from smoking-related conditions. It puts the price tag of smoking in this country at more than $289 billion a year in direct medical care and other economic costs.

Today’s report comes a half century after the historic 1964 Surgeon General’s report, which concluded that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. Since that time, smoking has been identified as a cause of serious diseases of nearly all the body’s organs.

PhotoToday, scientists add diabetes, colorectal and liver cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, erectile dysfunction, age-related macular degeneration, and other conditions to the list of diseases that cigarette smoking causes. In addition, the report concludes that secondhand smoke exposure is now known to cause strokes in nonsmokers.

Twenty years ago male smokers were about twice as likely as female smokers to die early from smoking-related disease. The new report finds that women are now dying at rates as high as men from many of these diseases, including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and heart disease. In fact, death from COPD is now greater in women than in men.

Although youth smoking rates declined by half between 1997 and 2011, each day another 3,200 children under age 18 smoke their first cigarette, and another 2,100 youth and young adults become daily smokers. Every adult who dies prematurely from smoking is replaced by two youth and young adult smokers.

The report concludes that the tobacco industry started and sustained this epidemic using aggressive marketing strategies to deliberately mislead the public about the harms of smoking. The evidence in the report emphasizes the need to accelerate and sustain successful tobacco control efforts that have been underway for decades.

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FDA approves new blood test to detect intellectual disability in newborns

A quick blood test performs as well as more complex testing, the agency found

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today authorized the marketing of a new test that can detect chromosomal variations in newborns that are associated w...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration today authorized the marketing of a new test that can detect chromosomal variations in newborns that are associated with intellectual disability and development delay.

Based on a blood samples, the Affymetrix CytoScan Dx Assay can analyze the entire genome at one time and detect large and small chromosomal changes.

“The Affymetrix CytoScan Dx Assay will likely speed the diagnosis of the underlying cause of developmental  disabilities for some children already known to have developmental problems," said Annemarie Stroustrup, MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Newborn Medicine at the Kravis Children’s Hospital at Mount Sinai. "A faster diagnosis can mean earlier access to targeted treatments and earlier identification of co-existing medical problems, as well as a more accurate prognosis of future abilities."

Stroustrup said it's important to note that this test should be used for children with identified developmental disabilities – not for screening of healthy newborns. 

"This is not a blood test for predicting how a child will do from a neurodevelopmental standpoint.  This is a diagnostic test that adds to our genetic testing repertoire for use in children with recognized developmental delay," she said. 

2-3% 

According to the National Institutes of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics, two to three percent of children in the United States have some form of intellectual disability. Many intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome and DiGeorge syndrome, are associated with chromosomal variations.

“This new tool may help in the identification of possible causes of a child’s developmental delay or intellectual disability, allowing health care providers and parents to intervene with appropriate care and support for the child,” said Alberto Gutierrez, Ph.D., director of the Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “The FDA’s review of the test provides clinical laboratories with information about the expected performance of the device and the quality of the results.”

The FDA reviewed the Affymetrix CytoScan Dx Assay through its de novo classification process, a regulatory pathway for some novel low-moderate-risk medical devices.

In its testing, the FDA found that the CytoScan Dx Assay could analyze a patient’s entire genome and adequately detect chromosome variations in regions of the genome associated with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Additionally, the agency’s review included a study that compared the performance of the CytoScan Dx Assay to tests that are commonly used for detecting chromosomal variations associated with a developmental delay or intellectual disability. A comparison of test results from 960 blood specimens showed the CytoScan Dx had improved ability over commonly used tests.

The agency said, however, that the device should not be used for stand-alone diagnostic purposes, pre-implantation or prenatal testing or screening, population screening, or for the detection of, or screening for acquired or genetic aberrations occurring after birth, such as cancer.

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Broccoli salad kits recalled

The kits may have been exposed to Listeria

Taylor Farms Maryland, Inc. in Jessup, Md. and Taylor Farms Texas Inc. in Dallas are recalling approximately 22,849 pounds of broccoli salad kit products d...

PhotoTaylor Farms Maryland, Inc. in Jessup, Md. and Taylor Farms Texas Inc. in Dallas are recalling approximately 22,849 pounds of broccoli salad kit products due to concerns about possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination in the salad dressing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

The salad dressing in the packets is the subject of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recall.

The salad kits were shipped to distributors and retail locations (delis) for consumer purchase in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. The company is recalling these products in addition to the 5,084 pounds of similar products that were recalled on Oct. 25, 2013.

The products listed below are being recalled as part of this expansion:

  • 6.06-lb. boxes labeled “TAYLOR FARMS BROCCOLI CRUNCH WITH BACON AND DRESSING” with the case code 310151, produced on Oct. 14 through Oct. 24, 2013.
  • 12.13-lb. boxes labeled “TAYLOR FARMS BROCCOLI CRUNCH WITH BACON AND DRESSING” with the case code 310153, produced Oct. 14 through Oct. 24, 2013.
  • 6.33-lb boxes labeled “Kit, Broc PPC” with case code 5900067, produced Oct. 15 through Oct. 20, 2013.

The products listed below were announced as part of the recall on
Oct. 25, 2013:

  • 6.06-lb. boxes labeled “TAYLOR FARMS BROCCOLI CRUNCH WITH BACON AND DRESSING” with the case code 310151, produced on Oct. 21 and Oct. 22, 2013.
  • 12.13-lb. boxes labeled “TAYLOR FARMS BROCCOLI CRUNCH WITH BACON AND DRESSING” with the case code 310153, produced Oct. 21 through Oct. 23, 2013.

Taylor Farms informed FSIS that salad dressing subject to an FDA recall was contained in the salad kits produced on the dates listed above.  FSIS, FDA and the company have received no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.  Anyone concerned about an illness should contact a healthcare provider.

Consumption of food contaminated with L. monocytogenes can cause listeriosis, a serious infection that primarily affects older adults, persons with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women and their newborns. Less commonly, persons outside these risk groups are affected.

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TeleCheck to pay $3.5 million for credit reporting violations

Certegy paid a similar fine last year; both companies agree to clean up their procedures

The check authorization companies that consumers love to complain about may be doing some complaining of their own these days. TeleCheck has agreed to pay...

PhotoThe check authorization companies that consumers love to complain about may be doing some complaining of their own these days. TeleCheck has agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated the  Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

That's the same amount its primary competitor, Certegy Check Services, agreed to pay last August. Both companies have also agreed to clean up their consumer protection practices. 

TeleCheck, based in Houston, is a consumer reporting agency (CRA) that compiles consumers’ personal information and uses it to help retail merchants throughout the United States determine whether to accept consumers’ checks.

Correct inaccuracies

Telecheck Jan. 16, 2014, 8:28 p.m.
Consumers rate Telecheck

Under the FCRA, consumers whose checks are denied based on information TeleCheck provided to the merchant have the right to dispute that information and have TeleCheck investigate and correct any inaccuracies.

But as recent ConsumerAffairs stories have shown, many consumers say they are not advised of their right to dispute the information and say they are simply told there is nothing they can do about it.

“We were denied a check at Walgreens (where we have an account) due to TeleCheck's profile. We went to the bank and they called TeleCheck to tell them we had plenty of money in our account," said an Illinois consumer named Larry in a posting to ConsumerAffairs last month. "TeleCheck said it didn't matter how much money we had in the bank, their statistical profile found something else. ... The fact that the bank said there was money in the bank meant nothing to them. They said we shouldn't write checks for seven days (it's Christmas season!).”

The FTC’s complaint alleges, among other things, that TeleCheck did not follow proper dispute procedures, including refusing to investigate disputes. The complaint also alleges that TeleCheck failed to follow reasonable procedures to assure the maximum possible accuracy of the information it provided to its merchant clients as required by the FCRA, and failed to promptly correct errors on consumers’ reports.

In addition, the complaint alleges that an affiliated debt-collection entity, TRS Recovery Services, Inc., which handles consumer debt taken on by TeleCheck and furnishes information about consumers to TeleCheck, violated the requirements of the FTC’s Furnisher Rule, which requires entities furnishing information to CRAs to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the information provided.

Crackdown on data brokers

Photo“If CRAs like TeleCheck provide merchants with inaccurate information, those merchants may wrongly deny consumers the ability to buy even the most essential items, like food and medicine. The FCRA gives consumers the right to dispute and correct inaccurate information,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The Commission takes violations of these rights seriously.”

The order settling the FTC’s charges requires TeleCheck and TRS to alter their business practices to comply with the requirements of the FCRA and the Furnisher Rule in the future.

The case is part of a broader FTC initiative to target the practices of data brokers, which often compile, maintain, and sell sensitive consumer information. Consumer reporting agencies like TeleCheck are data brokers that sell information to companies making important decisions about consumers, such as their ability to get credit or pay for goods and services by check.

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Headed for college? Student loan mistakes to avoid

It starts with how you spend your student loan

The rising total of student loan debt has been well documented. At last count it is more than $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection...

PhotoThe rising total of student loan debt has been well documented. At last count it is more than $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Once used mostly to offset the high costs of medical and law school, student loans have now become a routine tool used to finance many undergraduate degrees. Students who don't carefully plan their financing and follow a strict budget can end up with tens of thousands of dollars in loan liabilities, limiting what they can spend on other things as they begin their careers.

Set priorities

One area where students make a mistake, early in their college careers, is in the way they use the money they have borrowed. Eric Adamowsky, co-founder of CreditCardInsider.com, says students should only spend borrowed money on things directly related to education.

“A lot of students end up taking out additional loans for room and board, so they can live in a nicer place or to have spending money,” he said. “But the basics -- tuition, room and board and books -- that's where student loans should be used.

It's also a good idea to set a “ceiling” for student loans. Most experts recommend borrowing no more than you expect to make in your first year on the job after graduation.

Cost effective option

PhotoAnother mistake sometimes occurs before students even arrive on campus. They simply select a school they can't really afford. Sometimes students eager for “the college experience” pass up their most cost-effective option.

“I know the community college route isn't terribly sexy but coming from someone who has spent the last 22 years in the corporate world I can tell you the no employer cares where you took English 101,” Adamowsky said. “Taking it at Dekalb Community College is going to be considerably cheaper than taking it at Duke.”

As long as the school where you want to end up accepts the credits, a community college or in-state university can be an ideal place to take your required courses, at a much lower cost per credit hour. Averaged over four years, it lowers the cost of a college education.

Also, you're more likely to get into the college of your choice if you wait and transfer in for the last year or two. Some states even guarantee that in-state students who complete two years of community college can attend the state university of their choice for the last two years.

January is an important month

Because schools have different deadlines for financial aid and processing takes time, completing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a crucial first step when you need to borrow for college. Adamowsky says it should be done in January, the earlier the better.

“Many schools have different deadlines but more importantly, there are actually a number of states that serve FAFSA applicants on a first-come, first-served basis, so the faster you can complete and submit the application, the better,” he said.

Adamowsky says federal-backed student loans are the best you’ll find in terms of interest rate, grace period, and flexible repayment plans. Because who qualifies and how doesn't can be a complicated matter, he says everyone should apply, rather than just assuming their family makes too much money.

Serious business

Finally, students err by underestimating the longterm effects of student loan debt. Borrowing over a four-year period, it is easy to lose sight of your total debt, leaving you with a debt the size of a small mortgage at graduation.

“Guidance counselors and parents can be more proactive in helping students understand what it means to run up a large student loan debt and how that debt will measure up against what potential jobs pay,” Adamowsky said.

Before beginning the student loan process students should determine the total amount they will need to obtain a degree. Your repayment plan for student loans should be as strategic and aggressive as for any debt you carry—especially if you have income left at the end of the month to put towards it.

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Masschusetts children suffocate inside antique hope chest

Not until 1987 were hope chests made that open from inside

When you're browsing in a secondhand shop or antique store, or brushing dust off the heirlooms in Grandma's attic, chances are you'd never think to ask you...

PhotoWhen you're browsing in a secondhand shop or antique store, or brushing dust off the heirlooms in Grandma's attic, chances are you'd never think to ask yourself, “Has there been a safety recall on this lovely vintage pre-World War Two antique?”

But a young brother and sister suffocated to death in Franklin, Massachusetts this week, when they climbed inside an antique hope chest and were unable to open the lid after it slammed shut on top of them. The Boston Globe reported on Jan. 14 that:

During an apparent game of hide-and-seek, 7-year-old Sean Munroe and his 8-year-old sister Lexi climbed inside a wooden storage chest that automatically latched shut when closed and could not be opened from the inside. The chest, determined by investigators to have been made in 1939, was part of a 1996 recall of 12 million such chests made by Lane Furniture of Virginia after reports of at least six children suffocating inside.

On Tuesday, District Attorney Michael Morrissey urged those who own Lane hope chests and similar models to check the lock to prevent similar tragedies.

“It’s not just Lane hope chests,” he said. “This is something that was very popular.”

Lane chests were recalled in 1996 and again in 2000, specifically in order to replace the old-fashioned latches with models that can be opened by anybody inside.

The problem, again, is that even people who know to check recall lists for modern mass-produced products rarely think to do so for their antiques. (And it's not only the Lane company, nor is it only hope chests, parents should worry about; we just inspected a small antique “dry sink” in our living room and discovered its floor cabinet, when closed, automatically latches shut from the outside: not a problem for us, but it would be if we had a toddler or crawling infant small enough to fit inside the cabinet.)

Recall list only a start

PhotoParents: Checking your furniture against various recall lists is a good start, but only a start. You must also inspect your vintage cedar chests, hutches and cabinets, wardrobes, iceboxes … anything with an enclosed space large enough to hold a curled-up child.

Specifically, inspect the lock, latch or whatever holds its doors shut, to see if it can be easily opened from the inside. Older pieces of furniture are actually more likely to have dangerous latches, as they were made before the idea of designing latches to reduce the possibility of suffocation even occurred to anybody.

For example: If you're an American of a Certain Age – or talk to people who are – you probably have heard horror stories of children climbing into old discarded refrigerators and then suffocating inside. This really is a problem—for refrigerators built before 1958, the year the Refrigerator Safety Act came into force and required all new refrigerators sold in the United States to have doors capable of being opened with only 15 pounds of force pushing from inside.

Yet refrigerator deaths remained a problem for many years after 1958 because, of course, it took a long time for all the pre-1958 refrigerators in use to be replaced and destroyed.

Similar regulations regarding cedar chest latches were not put into place until 1987 — so be especially vigilant when inspecting latches on furniture older than that. Especially since hope chests, unlike refrigerators, are usually bought as heirlooms to be passed down through the generations, not appliances to be replaced as soon as they wear out.

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Sperm donor nightmare in Salt Lake City

How can fertility clinic patients protect themselves?

There's no knowing exactly how many families from the Salt Lake City area have been personally rocked by the revelation that in the late 1980s and early 19...

PhotoThere's no knowing exactly how many families from the Salt Lake City area have been personally rocked by the revelation that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a fertility clinic at the University of Utah had on staff a convicted felon who, for whatever reason, replaced donor samples with his own sperm; as of Jan. 13, a university hotline had fielded calls from 17 sets of parents concerned about their children's paternity.

The fertility clinic shut down in 1992 and Thomas Ray Lippert, the felonious former clinic worker, died in 1999, two factors which make clarifying the mess now even harder than it already would be.

The news broke when Pamela Branum, a former fertility clinic patient with a now 21-year-old daughter, had just-for-fun genetic testing done on her family, to satisfy curiosity about their ancestry and similar matters. To the shock of everyone in the Branum family, the DNA tests showed that Branum's husband was not her daughter's biological father; Lippert was.

When Branum recounted her story to various media outlets, she shared this particularly ominous-in-hindsight detail with KDVR in Colorado:

Pam Branum says a genetic test revealed Lippert to be the father of her daughter Annie. She said she remembered him from the clinic because he had a collection of baby photos at his desk.

“I commented on the dozens of baby pictures up there,” Branum said. “He smiled and looked at those and said those are all the babies that I’ve helped couples have.”

Few statistics

Hard statistics on infertility and treatments for it are hard to come by. The CDC estimates that approximately 6 percent of American married women aged 15-44 are unable to get pregnant after a year of regular unprotected sex. (Of course, lumping all these women together into a single group surely warps the statistics a bit: just how many married 15-year-olds who have been trying to get pregnant since 14 are there, anyway?)

In contrast, a Stanford University report estimates that 10 to 20 percent of American couples experience infertility, with no breakdown for age or marital status.

All else being equal, women's fertility tends to decrease with age, and much of the rise in fertility treatments is surely due to the phenomenon of women delaying motherhood, for economic or other reasons: a woman who could have effortlessly conceived in her 20s might need help in her late 30s or beyond.

What to do

How can potential fertility patients avoid the nightmare of Pamela Branum — and spare their children the identity crisis Branum's daughter must surely be suffering?

We spoke to Kelly Cinelli, owner of CWR and Partners, which handles publicity for various GLBT-friendly fertility clinics, and the first thing she advised is to check with the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology or Resolve: the National Infertility Association, to find reputable clinics in your area.

If you find one you like, visit it in person, and talk to them about what protocols and procedures they use to prevent donor mix-ups.

“You'll also want to know how many other times the sperm donor has donated,” Cinelli said. Some parents who go with a donor will choose to buy up all of the donor's sperm, to reduce the chance of their child having numerous unknown half-siblings out there.

Here's a potential problem, though: by definition, fertility clinic patients are people who deeply desire to have a child. And when you're emotionally invested in something, it's all-too-easy to let your emotions override your good sense. As Cinelli put it: “Someone who really wants a child might not ask the right questions.”

Of course, questions about clinic protocols and similar matters are intended to prevent (or at least reduce) the possibility of honest mistakes. The late Thomas Lippert does not appear to have switched donor sperm with his own by accident. For parents who discover their children are actually Lippert's, it's cold comfort to hear that such bizarre crimes as his are extremely rare, compared to the vast number of fertility treatments done every year.

“Is it common? No,” said Cinelli. “But the emotional implications are devastating.”

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Why it may be important to improve your financial skills in retirement

Managing retirement funds may be more challenging than saving them

Sometime in the early 1990s there was a change in the American workplace. Companies began phasing out their defined pension plans for employees and began p...

PhotoSometime in the early 1990s there was a change in the American workplace. Companies began phasing out their defined pension plans for employees and began phasing in employee-directed retirement savings plans, most notably the 401(k).

The change had advantages and drawbacks. The advantage is that financially-savvy employees could decide how their retirement funds were managed and choose how much risk they were willing to tolerate. The downside was that not all employees were financially-savvy.

Instead of receiving a set benefit check from their employer's pension fund for the rest of their lives, most retirees now have to figure out how to make their retirement savings last. Some, admittedly, have a much more challenging task as surveys show an alarming number of near-retirees have put away far too little for their golden years.

Not enough savings

A 2011 survey by Wells Fargo found a majority of middle class Americans – 53% -- say they “need to significantly cut back on spending today to save for retirement.” Americans have saved, on average, only seven percent of their desired retirement nest egg– a median of $25,000 in retirement savings vs. a median retirement goal of $350,000. Three in ten people in their 60s have saved less than $25,000 for retirement, possibly indicating they will rely heavily on Social Security.

For those who have managed to save a retirement nest egg, the challenge of managing it in retirement may be much greater than the challenge of saving. To produce income the funds need to be put to work. But investing – anything beyond bank CDs – involves risk. As people reach retirement they tend to be less tolerant of risk.

"Generating retirement income is comparable to that of a NASA engineer trying to land a spaceship on Pluto," said Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. "Everything may be optimized and perfectly calculated to give the highest probability of success, but without mid-course corrections along the way, the likelihood of achieving the goal – of landing the ship or generating enough income to live on during retirement – is very low."

Tough questions

PhotoBlayney says there are a number of questions retirees and near-retirees need to be asking themselves. For example, do you have a retirement spending plan? It's not just what you save – but the amount you spend, and the types of those expenses – that will determine whether you will have enough to live on in retirement.

The questions get harder from there. Next, you have to decide how to invest your savings and how to spread those investments around and here you have to be both smart and careful. Blayney says just because you need income in retirement does not mean it's time to load up on fixed income or high-yield securities. A sizeable allocation to growth assets is as important as ever, she maintains.

Once the funds are allocated, you can't just forget it. When you are invested you must pay attention to the economy as well as the market and be ready to make course corrections when conditions dictate.

If that weren't enough retirees have to decide how and when to withdraw funds from a tax-deferred savings account when the law says you must start making withdrawals and paying taxes.

On-going decision making

"The reality is that generating retirement income requires ongoing decision-making over the life of the retiree and there is no one solution or product that will be good for the duration," Blayney said.

If you are short of your savings goal the important thing is not to panic because that's usually when people make mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes is to plunge into a questionable investment – or outright scam – because it's promoter promises big returns.

The risk-to-reward ratio is very real. An investment with a high reward always carries a higher risk. The reason a CD is about the lowest return one can get is there is no risk.

The move from defined benefit pensions to self-managed retirement accounts essentially told employees, “you're on your own when it comes to your retirement planning.” For some that has worked out just fine. But it's a simple fact that not everyone has the ability or the willingness to take on that task.

It's best, then, for those people making a retirement plan to seek the advice and assistance of a trusted financial advisor, not just to maximize retirement saving during their working years but devising a plan for making the money last.

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"Blood type diet" debunked

Blood type had "absolutely nothing" to do with how test subjects responded to the diet

Popular blood type diet debunkedResearchers from the University of Toronto (U of T) have found that the theory behind the popular blood type diet--which...

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Bad buzzword classics: hunks of rock verified GMO-free

Himalania pink salt: GMO-free since last May (plus the entire history of salt before that)

In the world of buzzword marketing, sometimes “cynical genius” and “jaw-dropping stupidity” look exactly alike....

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GMO- and gluten-free

In the world of buzzword marketing, sometimes “cynical genius” and “jaw-dropping stupidity” look exactly alike. And we have wasted the better part of an afternoon trying and failing to figure out which description applies to whoever decided to slap the “verified non-GMO” label on jars of their Himalania brand pink salt.

We don't mean to insult your intelligence when we point out that “GMO” stands for “genetically modified organisms,” and “organisms” means “living or formerly living things.” Most of the food we eat either consists of organisms — plants, animals, a little fungus consumption among mushroom and truffle fans; or was produced by organisms — milk and honey and similar things.

Other random facts: rocks are not alive. Salt is rock. The rockiness of salt is especially evident in Himalania brand rock pink salt, whose several-thousand-percent markup over regular salt is based on two things: it's pink, due to traces of iron and other minerals; and, they actually sell it in rock form, a jarful of pebbles the size of kiwifruits packaged with a little metal grater for shaving off pieces of rock onto your food.

The ridiculous labeling has been around at least since last May, though we only learned of it recently, presumably because we've been patronizing the wrong (or right) salt vendors. Last year, an irate blogger for Mother Nature News wrote about the Himalania labeling, and pointed out:

Salt is not living. Salt cannot, by definition, be genetically modified. There is no G to M because salt is not an O.

This makes both Himalania and the Non-GMO Project look pretty bad. Himalania could reasonably be accused of deceitful marketing here while the Non-GMO Project appears to have very, very lax standards on how their label is used.

There's grounds for a semantic debate: is it actually “deceitful” to brag that salt is not genetically modified? After all, it isn't a false statement so much as a thoroughly irrelevant one.

Or is it? Maybe there are people who only know “GMO = something to do with food” and “GMO = something supposedly bad,” and are genuinely worried about the possible health ramifications of eating genetically modified NaCl.

So the folks at Himalania perhaps thought, “Well, if we want to sell salt for a higher price per pound than filet mignon, I bet people who worry about alterations to their salt's DNA would go for it” …. which goes back to what we said earlier, how in the world of buzzword marketing, “cynical genius” and “jaw-dropping stupidity” often look exactly alike.

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AAA lists consumer rights for owners of "connected cars"

Drivers will be giving up lots of sensitive data, AAA tells the Federal Trade Commission

The way things have worked the last 20 years or so is that geeks and entrepreneurs dream up ideas and implement them, leaving others to follow along behind...

PhotoThe way things have worked the last 20 years or so is that geeks and entrepreneurs dream up ideas and implement them, leaving others to follow along behind and clean up the problems and disruptions, the blithe disregard for the privacy implications of social media and behavioral tracking being perhaps the two most obvious examples.

We're now on the verge of a similar explosion of potentially invasive technology in the home -- with "smart" thermostats, smoke detectors and so forth -- and in the cars we use to get around the physical world each day.

AAA thinks now is the time to think through the consequences and agree on some guidelines. Noting that about one in five new cars sold this year will collect and transmit data outside the vehicle, AAA is urging companies to protect drivers by adopting its new “Consumer Rights for Car Data.” AAA formally addressed this issue as part of public comments to the Federal Trade Commission last week.

“Many connected car features are made possible through the collection of large amounts of potentially sensitive data from drivers,” said Bob Darbelnet, President and CEO of AAA. “Companies collecting, using and sharing data from cars should do everything possible to protect consumer rights as they offer these technologies.”

AAA’s suggestions

1. Transparency – Consumers have a right to clearly understand what information is being collected from their vehicle and how it is being used. Businesses and the government should be transparent about the collection and use of vehicle data.

2. Choice – Consumers have a right to decide with whom to share their data and for what purpose. This includes ongoing monitoring of vehicle systems, repair and any data of the vehicle owner’s choice. Customers should not be forced to relinquish control as a condition of purchasing or leasing a vehicle or of receiving a connected-vehicle service.

3. Security – Consumers have a right to expect that connected-vehicle manufacturers and service providers will use reasonable measures to protect vehicle data systems and services against unauthorized access and misuse.

“Connected cars can dramatically improve the driving experience, but companies must be responsible in their use of consumer information,” continued Darbelnet. “The data that today can be routinely collected by cars includes some of the most sensitive data that can be collected about a person, including information about their precise location and driving habits.”

AAA last week provided specific recommendations to the FTC in response to the commission’s request for public comments, which followed up on the agency’s “Internet of Things” workshop. The workshop examined the consumer privacy and security issues posed by the growing connectivity of consumer devices, such as cars, appliances and medical devices.

“New car technologies are changing the way we drive by making the experience both easier and safer than ever before,” said Darbelnet. “Within a decade the majority of cars on the road will be able to identify problems before breakdowns occur, reduce crashes and help drivers save time and money.”

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Teens ditch Facebook as the 55+ crowd flocks to it

Kids are drawn to sites like Snapchat, where postings don't live forever

http://istrategylabs.com/2014/01/3-million-teens-leave-facebook-in-3-years-the-2014-facebook-demographic-report/3 years ago, we published a report on 201...

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Snapchat

Maybe AARP should buy Facebook. The venerable seniors' group keeps looking for ways to lure the newly-old -- you know, the 50 and up crowd for whom seeing an AARP envelope in the mail is like seeing a draft notice back in the day.

Although we don't know this for sure, since statistics are hard to come by, we get the impression that AARP is not attracting nearly as many younger seniors as it would like. quite possibly because it's a little too obvious about it.

The same may be true of Facebook when it comes to the younger crowd. Like LinkedIn, Google and all those other gee-whiz companies headed by guys who are starting to look a litle too old to be wearing tee shirts and jeans, Facebook may be trying just a little too hard to be, pardon the term, young and hip.

Whatever the reason, teens are ditching Facebook while their parents and grandparents can't seem to get enough of it, according to a study by iStrategy Labs, a market research firm, which found, among other things, that:

1) Teens (13-17) on Facebook have declined 25.3% over the last 3 years.

2) Over the same period of time, 55+ users have exploded with 80.4% growth.

Facebook Jan. 16, 2014, 5:29 p.m.
Consumers rate Facebook

Facebook executives have claimed that traffic is relatively stable but the iStrategy study found that Facebook has 4,292,080 fewer high-school aged users and 6,948,848 college-aged users than it did in 2011.

This is not exactly news. Other studies have found teens cooling to Facebook, partly because, with their parents and grandparents "friending" them, there's a little too much adult supervision. Also, many teens -- just like their older counterparts -- have gotten burned out by oversharing.

So where have all the kids gone? Twitter, for one, and a bunch of smaller social sites their parents haven't heard about yet, including WhatsUp and Snapchat.

Disappearing ink

The big advantage of Snapchat, of course, is that postings disappear after the recipient has viewed them for a preset amount of time, thus ensuring that your son's imitation of his English teacher does not live on forever online.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took note of Snapchat yesterday in an appearance at Stanford, calling it "super interesting."

"I think Snapchat is a super interesting privacy phenomenon because it creates a new kind of space to communicate which makes it so that things that people previously would not have been able to share, you now feel like you have place to do so," he said.

"And I think that’s really important and that’s a big kind of innovation that we’re going to keep pushing on and keep trying to do more on and I think a lot of other companies will, too," Zuckerberg added. No translation of his remarks is available.

How's Snapchat work? This video tells the tale:

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Winners and losers in the American Airlines shuffle

The merged carrier is dropping many flights, adding others

It's not quite true that you can't get there from here if "there" is San Diego and "here" is Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. But to do it, you...

PhotoIt's not quite true that you can't get there from here if "there" is San Diego and "here" is Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. But to do it, you'll have to change planes somewhere -- something no self-respecting Congressman likes to do.

But Congressmen and everyone else will need to keep track of the many changes in the new American flight schedules, which are the result of restrictions imposed by the feds when American and US Airways merged. 

National takes one of the biggest hits, losing 17 direct fights to Detroit, Montreal, Minneapolis and, as noted earlier, San Diego.

New York's LaGuardia is losing nonstops to Atlanta, Cleveland and, oops, Minneapolis again. In exchange, it's adding nonstops from LGA to Richmond, Roanoke and Norfolk, all in Virginia.

Washington Reagan

Photo
Reagan National

Communities no longer receiving year-round, daily service from DCA include:

  • Augusta, Ga. 
  • Little Rock, Ark. 
  • Pensacola, Fla.
  • Detroit, Mich. 
  • Minneapolis, Minn. 
  • San Diego, Calif.
  • Fayetteville, N.C. 
  • Montreal 
  • Savannah, Ga.
  • Fort Walton Beach, Fla. 
  • Myrtle Beach, S.C. 
  • Tallahassee, Fla.
  • Islip, N.Y. 
  • Nassau, Bahamas 
  • Wilmington, N.C.
  • Jacksonville, N.C. 
  • Omaha, Neb.

Effective dates for the changes at DCA will be announced after the sale of slots and related assets is finalized in the coming weeks.

American said it will soon add a second daily nonstop between DCA and Los Angeles by shifting US Airways' current San Diego flight to Los Angeles.

In addition, American will adjust its service to Fort Myers, Fla., moving from year-round service to a seasonal schedule.

New York LaGuardia

PhotoAmerican will no longer operate nonstop service to Atlanta, Cleveland and Minneapolis. New service from LGA includes:

  • Charlottesville, Va. 
  • Little Rock, Ark. 
  • Roanoke, Va.
  • Dayton, Ohio 
  • Louisville, Ky. 
  • Wilmington, N.C.
  • Greensboro, N.C. 
  • Norfolk, Va.
  • Knoxville, Tenn. 
  • Richmond, Va.

Customers can begin booking tickets for these new routes Sunday, Jan. 26 for travel beginning April 1.

"We are excited about moving forward as the new American Airlines, which will fly more customers to more places than ever before," said Andrew Nocella, senior vice president and chief marketing officer – American Airlines.

"Washington Reagan and LaGuardia will continue to be a key part of the new American's network. In an effort to minimize any impact that our DOJ-required slot divestitures would have on small- and medium-size communities, we felt it was important to make this announcement now. We know how important this service is to the people and the communities affected, and we hope that our competitors who acquire our slots and gates will maintain service to the impacted cities. While these divestitures were necessary, we remain excited about offering new service between LaGuardia and these key communities."

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Heroin invades U.S. suburbs

Middle class families increasingly affected by this "hard core" drug

Vermont is a largely rural state noted for quaint B&Bs and rolling countryside. Yet when Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin stepped before the state legislatur...

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Expiring Windows XP support may mean many more Target-sized data breaches

No one knows how many computers and point-of-sale systems are still running XP

There's a lot of sound and fury being generated over the Target data breach that may have exposed the credit and debit card data of more than 100 million A...

PhotoThere's a lot of sound and fury being generated over the Target data breach that may have exposed the credit and debit card data of more than 100 million Americans. But the list of potential villains includes not just the hackers who broke into Target's system but also the millions of consumers, businesses and institutions that are still running Windows XP.

Microsoft is officially ending support for the legendary operating system soon, meaning that it will no longer issue updates to fix security problems.

This is bad news for everyone. Even if you are running the very latest version of Windows, OS X or Linux, it's a near certainty that some of your most personal and valuable data is stored on or passes through systems still running XP.

That's because the relatively light, simple and reliable OS has for years been the first choice for point-of-sale terminals, medical devices and back-office systems of every size and description. These tend to be install-and-forget applications that are easily overlooked as IT people come and go.

Zombie recruits

Photo
Google Chromebook -- simple, inexpensive, secure

When Microsoft support ends, all these devices and systems will be even more vulnerable than they are now -- vulnerable not only to data theft but also to being taken over and used as zombie computers that send out malware, infecting other computers and smartphones, possibly including yours.

Don't believe it? Read any story about Windows 8 and scroll down to the comments. You'll find hordes of consumers proudly reporting that they would never think of upgrading their system because they continue to use XP with no problems.

It's sort of like Typhoid Mary. She lived a long and healthy life. Too bad about all those others.

Making matters worse is that the criminal underworld knows this is happening and has already written code to take advantage of it. After all, crime is big business and these days, the Internet is the path of least resistance for criminal enterprises, thanks in no small part to the individuals and businesses that don't take computer security seriously.

What to do

Photo
Macbook Pro -- svelte, secure, expensive

What can you do to make sure your computer is not part of the problem? The most obvious answer is, if you're still running Windows XP, it's time to bid it farewell. It is long past its prime and simply is not equipped to handle the security risks that today's Internet presents.

A perfectly acceptable replacement is Windows 7 -- a stable OS that is easy to set up and easy to manage. You can buy Windows 7 for as little as $65 and find instructions for upgrading on Microsoft.com.

Don't want a new version of Windows? Well, if your needs center mostly around email, web surfing and so forth, you can pick up a Google Chromebook for around $200. It's very secure and very easy to use but you can't install programs; you can only run apps through the Chrome browser.

Obviously you could buy a Mac but chances are anyone still running XP is not likely to shell out the bucks required for an Apple product. They are high-end, top-quality and quite secure but a bit on the pricey side.

You could also download a free copy of Linux Mint, an excellent lightweight OS that is secure and easy to use. It's very similar to Windows 7 in appearance and includes a complete package of office software, including word processing and spreadsheet programs.

We have all of these systems running in our office and try to use each of them daily, just to keep up with what's what. (Unfortunately, we also have Windows 8.1, a powerful OS with a horrible interface that is a source of endless frustration.) Any of them will be a perfectly adequate replacement for Windows XP and will upgrade your security to 21st Century levels.

It's not something to put off. Yes, Target and other retailers will be pilloried, sued, boycotted and generally reviled. But anyone using XP or any system that is not kept up to date is a big part of the problem as well.

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We may get a break at the pump this winter

The recent pattern of surging winter gasoline prices may be broken

The national average price of regular gasoline began 2014 at a record high for January 1 – around $3.30 a gallon, according to AAA. A bad omen to be ...

PhotoThe national average price of regular gasoline began 2014 at a record high for January 1 – around $3.30 a gallon, according to AAA. A bad omen to be sure for motorists now accustomed to a once-unusual spike in winter-time gasoline prices.

But there may be hope that the recent past does not repeat itself this year. If oil prices actually fall in the weeks ahead, as some analysts expect, prices at the pump may well fall too.

Today U.S.-produced oil sells in the $92 range while foreign-produced Brent crude sells for around $106. In an interview with CNBC this week, Neil Atkinson of Lloyd's List Intelligence predicted the price of oil could face “serious downward pressure” when the Iranian nuclear deal is finalized.

Iranian oil

Once the ink dries on that document Iran will be able to sell more of its oil on the world market – sales that are now blocked by a set of international sanctions. Once Iranian oil is competing with other countries' petroleum, the price of all oil should soften a bit.

At the same time analysts at Deutsche Bank AG expect a growing glut of U.S.-produced oil to further reduce oil prices. The bank says U.S. oil supplies could rise this year by one million barrels a day, just as they did in 2012 and 2013.

If that weren't enough, a new survey by Platts shows OPEC boosted its oil production late in 2013. The report says OPEC production increased from 20,000 barrels per day in November to nearly 30,000 barrels in December. It offset a drop in Iraqi oil output.

'Goldilocks time'

Photo"It's Goldilocks time – not too hot, not too cold -- for the oil market," said John Kingston, global director of news for Platts, a provider of energy, petrochemicals and metals information.

He says that the current level is high enough to keep producers satisfied and low enough to keep consumers happy, noting that in the U.S. sales of full size cars are on the rise.

The result may be a break from the recent unpleasant winters for consumers. In 2010 oil and gasoline prices spiked on expectations the economy was improving. In 2011, the cause was said to be civil unrest in Egypt. In 2012 the catalyst for surging prices was said to be trouble in Libya.

These issues promoted a Wall Street narrative of increased risk to oil supplies and created momentum in the oil futures market that had the result of pushing prices higher. The annual maintenance and switch-over to summer grade gasoline at the nation's refineries was blamed for supply bottlenecks that pushed gasoline prices ever higher.

Painful pattern

For consumers, this made for a painful pattern. For example, in early January 2012 the national average price of gasoline in the AAA survey was $3.29 a gallon. By early March it had shot up to $3.75 a gallon.

If there is a break from the recent past this winter, it may be because the narrative has changed. U.S. oil production has become a bigger factor. The Middle East is running out of crises and is pumping more oil. Going long in the oil market no longer looks like a sure bet.

If consumers are lucky, it will result in stable, if not lower gasoline prices in the weeks ahead.

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Class-action lawsuit alleges email harvesting at LinkedIn

The latest social-media site to face similar claims

Although we have no personal experience in the matter, we'd always figured “product endorsement spokesperson” must be a pretty sweet gig if you can land it...

PhotoAlthough we have no personal experience in the matter, we'd always figured “product endorsement spokesperson” must be a pretty sweet gig if you can land it. After all, saying “Hi there! I'm me, and I think this-here product is great” (or variants thereof) is surely easier than the more traditional “Make money via finding a job and working at it five days a week” route.

But that assumes you actually get paid for your product endorsements. But if you have an Internet connection (and you wouldn't be reading this if you didn't) there is, apparently, an ever-growing chance you might be in the product-endorsement biz after all — without your knowledge or consent, and certainly without any resulting increase in your personal net worth.

Facebook has recently been subjected to various lawsuits from users who allege that Facebook falsely claimed they “like” various products or pages, for advertising purposes. Meanwhile, LinkedIn has faced a similar class-action suit since at least last September.

Siphons email contacts

Courthouse News Service reported an update to that story on Jan. 14, first with background explaining the allegations that LinkedIn has been harvesting users' email addresses without permission:

LinkedIn faces a federal class action in San Francisco claiming it siphons email contacts from users' external email accounts and then spams them with "endorsement emails." Users want LinkedIn to pay them for using their identities to sell premium memberships, grow its member base and save money on acquiring new members.... in [the plaintiffs'] brief opposing LinkedIn's motion to dismiss, they say "a few cryptic disclosures on a website" do not give LinkedIn the right "to harvest users' email addresses and broadcast users' persona to hundreds of people."

The brief also gives the following example: “LinkedIn attempts to access a user's Gmail account if the user has Gmail open in another browser window or has not logged out of Gmail. If an email account is open, LinkedIn accesses the account by using the open email session. LinkedIn does not prompt members for a password. Instead, LinkedIn sweeps the external email account for every email address a user has been emailed by, CCed, or emailed. For many users this is thousands of addresses."

The actual class-action suit dates back to last September; the Jan. 14 update focuses on the plaintiff's rebuttals to LinkedIn's earlier defense claims; for example, LinkedIn representatives tried arguing its actions regarding email addresses lack standing because the emails do not “injure or enrich anyone,” when in fact, LinkedIn charges members $10 to send messages to members they're not linked to — thus implying LinkedIn values each of those promotional emails at $10.

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Study: Childhood obesity begins at home

Fast food is a factor but is only one part of a bigger problem, researchers report

Just yesterday, University of Illinois researchers reported that fast food is not one of the primary causes of obesity in children. And now a University of...

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Unintentional humor in BrandIndex brand rankings

Data quickly turns obsolete in the Internet era

In the fast-paced world of the Internet – where, when something newsworthy happens on the opposite side of the planet, you can know about it less tha...

PhotoIn the fast-paced world of the Internet – where, when something newsworthy happens on the opposite side of the planet, you can know about it less than five seconds later – it's hard not to feel sorry, sometimes, for media professionals who took on complicated, long-term projects doomed to be outdated before they were even published.

Consider, for example, whoever compiled the YouGov BrandIndex 2013 “Annual Global Brand Rankings” year in review – a list of the most and least popular brands throughout the world last year.

Since it's year-2013 data not published until a couple weeks into 2014, it was probably inevitable that some of those rankings would be ironically funny by the time they came out. For example, Target made the BrandIndex top-25 brands list, which MediaPost duly reported on Jan. 14 — the exact same day we noted “Target's brand engagement off 85% after cyber stick-up” (summary: Target has lost much popularity with consumers these past couple of weeks, ever since people discovered that customer PIN numbers, credit card data and other super-important financial information is now in the hands of hackers).

Smaller playing field

Where the much smaller playing field of Internet social media companies are concerned, the top five brands (in descending order) were YouTube, Pinterest, Google+, Facebook and LinkedIn — and the last three mentioned on that list have all been the subject of lawsuits (or at least extremely unflattering media coverage) this past week — Google+ criticized by Consumer Watchdog for alleged privacy violations, Facebook facing lawsuits alleging user data was fudged for advertising purposes, and LinkedIn dealing with a class-action suit alleging email harvesting for promotional purposes.

Much as we love to poke fun at the concept of brand loyalty — and make frequent good-faith reminders never to let brand loyalty blind you to when you're getting a bad deal — brand identity remains a real thing, and marketers trying to sell their companies' products need to be aware of it.

The 2013 BrandIndex is supposed to help them with that — though we hope they know enough to search online for any recent articles before using the BrandIndex listings to craft a marketing campaign; Target had a good reputation last year, but right now isn't the time to roll out a slogan like “Target: the name you can trust.” (Though if they did, we'd surely have a fantastically good time writing about that.)

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Feds warn many "Canadian pharmacy" websites are bogus

Consumers could get counterfeit or outdated drugs and be victims of identity theft

Consumers who turn to websites that claim to be operated by Canadian pharmacies are taking a big risk, federal health officials warn. They say many if not ...

PhotoConsumers who turn to websites that claim to be operated by Canadian pharmacies are taking a big risk, federal health officials warn. They say many if not most of the supposed Canadian pharmacy sites are bogus and the drugs they sell are frequently counterfeit, stolen, outdated and dangerous.

The Food and Drug Administration last year seized hundreds of rogue websites. Special Agent Daniel Burke, senior operations manager in FDA's Cybercrimes Investigations Unit, said unsuspecting consumers may be buying medicines that do not have the active ingredients that make them effective, or may have undisclosed ingredients that could endanger their health or even be life-threatening.

"Consumers are able to buy prescription drugs, unapproved drugs and potentially counterfeit drugs without a full understanding of the risks that they take when they do that," said John Roth, director of the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, in a press release. "What worries me is that people naively believe that these medicines are safe."

Criminal network

In June 2013, the FDA and other state and federal agencies seized and shut down 1,677 illegal pharmacy websites. Many of the websites appeared to be operated by a criminal network that represented itself as various Canadian pharmacies.

The medicines sold on these websites were described as "brand name" or "FDA-approved" when they were neither. Products purchased by federal agents bypassed safety controls required by FDA, including that they be used with a valid prescription and under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.

Some of the illegal sites used the names of well-known U.S. retailers to trick consumers into believing that there was an affiliation with those stores. Examples include www.walgreens-store.com and www.c-v-s-pharmacy.com.

The banner of FDA's Cybercrimes Investigation Unit is now displayed on the seized sites to identify them as illegal.

Burke says it was dogged online detective work by federal investigators who monitored site traffic, "followed the money trail," and tracked the bogus sites back to an operation based overseas. An estimated 10,000 such sites are believed to be part of this network, he said. The U.S. investigators turned over their findings to local authorities via the international police organization Interpol.

Burke estimates that there are 40,000 to 60,000 domain names that could be tied to illegal online pharmacies at any given time, and that this number is in a constant state of flux.

He and other operatives have gone undercover in other countries, with the cooperation of foreign law enforcement, to lure out the suppliers of these illegal medicines and to track down the site operators.

The drugs that these rogue pharmacies sell typically come from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and South and Central America. The site operators are in the U.S. and all over the world.

Other threats

Websites that illegally sell prescription drugs also potentially present non-health related risks, such as identity theft, computer viruses or credit card fraud. FDA asks consumers to report suspected criminal activity at www.fda.gov/oci.

"Consumers should also beware of offers that some sites make to attract customers, such as offering a commission or a referral bonus for bringing in new customers. They might offer 'bonus pills' with a purchase," says Burke. "They're unscrupulous."

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Some phthalates exposure has fallen since federal ban took effect

But exposure to some forms of the chemicals continues to rise sharply

It's still not clear how much is too much but the good news is that Americans are being exposed to significantly lower levels of some phthalates -- specifi...

PhotoIt's still not clear how much is too much but the good news is that Americans are being exposed to significantly lower levels of some phthalates -- specifically the ones that were banned from children's articles in 2008.

But a study by researchers at UC San Francisco finds that exposures to other forms of these chemicals are rising steeply.

Phthalates, which are used to soften plastic, can be found in nail polish, fragrances, plastics and building materials, as well as the food supply. An accumulating body of scientific evidence suggests they can disrupt the endocrine system, which secretes hormones, and may have serious long-term health consequences.

Phthalate exposures to adult men have been linked to DNA damage in sperm and lower sperm quality, while exposures to pregnant women have been linked to alterations in the genital development of their male children, as well as cognitive and behavioral problems in boys and girls.

Trends seen

The paper, published today in Environmental Health Perspectives, is the first to examine how phthalate exposures have changed over time in a large, representative sample of the U.S. population. It delineates trends in a decade's worth of data — from 2001 to 2010 — in exposure to eight phthalates among 11,000 people included in the study.

"We were excited to see that exposure to some of the phthalates that are of public health concern actually went down," said Ami Zota, ScD, MS, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, who did the research when she was a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. "Unfortunately, our data also suggest that these are being replaced by other phthalates with potential adverse health effects."

Like previous studies, this one found that nearly all of the study participants had been exposed to at least some of the phthalates that were measured, including those that have been partially banned.

Six of the phthalates have been banned from use in children's articles, such as toys. Three were permanently banned, and three were subject to an interim ban, pending further study, from use in toys that can be placed in a child's mouth. The law took effect in January of 2009.

The federal ban is not the only force at work in determining phthalate exposures. Both consumers and industry have changed their behavior in response to advocacy by groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Since 2004, more than 1,000 companies have agreed to remove certain chemicals from personal care products and report more clearly what chemicals they are using.

"Our study shows the power of monitoring exposures to chemicals so we can identify where we have made progress and where more information is needed," said Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, who directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF. "It also indicates that actions by government and consumer groups can make a difference in exposures in all Americans."

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Credit card thief gets 15-year sentence

California man was caught with 100,000 counterfeit cards from China and elsewhere

There are all kinds of ways to steal credit cards. There's the high-tech way, used by the bandits who made off with information on as many as 110 million T...

PhotoThere are all kinds of ways to steal credit cards. There's the high-tech way, used by the bandits who made off with information on as many as 110 million Target customers.

Then there's the low-tech way, where you just print up a bunch of cards or pay others to do so. That was the path chosen by Jose Rolando Renderos, 39, of Montbello, Calif., and El Salvador, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday.

He was arrested last February after a high-speed chase through California's San Gabriel Valley. Police said he had just picked up a box of 3,000 counterfeit cards from China. All told, prosecutors said they confiscated more than 100,000 cards that Rolando Renderos either made at his L.A. factory or purchased from suppliers in China.

The scheme cost consumers more than $100,000, the U.S. Attorney's office said in testimony at his October 2013 jury trial, which ended in conviction.

"The ill-gotten gains paid for cosmetic surgery for himself and his girlfriend, VIP tickets to Lakers and Clippers games, and designer handbags and shoes," prosecutors said, according to Courthouse News Service.

Rolando Renderos got the numbers he used on the counterfeit cards by installing skimmers on gas station pumps across Southern California, according to testimony in his trial. 

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Omaha Steaks Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo recalled

The product contains a know allergen that is not declared on the label

Intevation Food Group, LLC, a Plover, Wis., establishment, is recalling approximately 156,924 pounds of frozen chicken fettuccine alfredo products because ...

PhotoIntevation Food Group, LLC, a Plover, Wis., establishment, is recalling approximately 156,924 pounds of frozen chicken fettuccine alfredo products because of misbranding and an undeclared allergen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today. The products contain egg, a known allergen, which is not declared on the product label.

The products subject to recall include: 

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

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

The problem was discovered by the company during an internal label review. FSIS and the company have received no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about a reaction should contact a healthcare provider.

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

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Retailers pushing for more secure credit card technology

There's growing pressure to adopt safer standards in wake of Target breach

The credit card data breach at Target last month – and now revelations that hackers intercepted some Neiman Marcus data – has top executives in...

PhotoThe credit card data breach at Target last month – and now revelations that hackers intercepted some Neiman Marcus data – has top executives in the retail industry looking for answers. One answer may be a different kind of credit card technology. 

In an interview with CNBC, Target Chairman and CEO Gregg Steinhafel threw his support behind a switch to a chip and PIN-number system that would replace the current credit and debit cards that contain information on a magnetic strip. This system is not exactly a new, revolutionary breakthrough. Much of the rest of the world have been using it for years.

Chip cards

The system is known as EMV, which stands for Europay MasterCard and Visa. It is the world-wide standard for so-called “chip” cards used to make purchases at stores and transactions at ATMs. Instead of loading the customer's billing information on the strip, the data is encrypted on a tiny chip.

Security experts say it's better and more secure that card technology now in use in the U.S. Here's why: the use of a PIN and encrypted data provides authentication to the processing terminal and the bank or lender that issued the card. The chip creates a new code for each transaction. While the system is not foolproof – it is possible to intercept the data – it's of little use to the hacker. They are unable to create a duplicate chip card to use the stolen data.

However, they can create one of the old fashioned magnetic strip cards now used in the U.S. If the U.S. were to adopt the chip system, some security experts believe the European system would be even more secure.

It'll take money

PhotoSo why hasn't the U.S. switched to the chip card technology? The short answer is “money.” It would require a huge infrastructure investment, replacing technology throughout the system. It would, of course, also mean replacing every credit, debit and charge card currently in use in the U.S.

But the planets may be aligning for such a move. While the credit card industry would be writing some very large checks, it might come out ahead in the long run.

Under the current system, the card issuer assumes liability for fraudulent transactions if the consumer reports it in a timely manner. In Europe, the chip card technology has resulted in something of a "liability shift," with the cardholder being liable unless they can prove they were not present during the transaction or did not somehow authorize it. There's no guarantee such a switch would be attempted in the U.S. but consumers should remain aware of the possibility.

Retailers' incentive

Retailers like Target may also have a strong incentive to embrace new credit card technology, even at considerable added cost. Target became a defendant in class action lawsuits almost as soon as the data breach was announced last month. Also, it has lost a big chunk of its "engagement" with customers, something that can be measured directly in lost sales. 

Also interviewed by CNBC, Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren stopped short of endorsing the EMV system, but signaled his openness to changes.

"The retailers, the banking industry, and the credit card industry should be working very closely together to figure out what is the right technology to protect the consumers,” he said.

The credit card companies, meanwhile, already have the technology to make the switch since they have to produce cards for use by European consumers. MasterCard has already signaled that it is on board.

“There is also great demand from issuers, acquirers, merchants and consumers for stronger safeguards to secure card transactions,” the company says on it's website. “An upgrade to the EMV standard enables safer, smarter and more secure transactions across cards, contactless, mobile, and remote payment channels. It also enables us to offer consumers the next generation of digital payment innovations.”

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Target's brand engagement off 85% after cyber stick-up

"Trust and security" is the third-most-important engagement driver

Robert Passikoff is President of Brand Keys. a retail consultancy.---We figure that one in three of you are pretty concerned about this because, as it ...

Robert Passikoff is President of Brand Keys. a retail consultancy.

---

PhotoWe figure that one in three of you are pretty concerned about this because, as it turns out, the cyber attack on personal and credit/debit card information previously reported to have included 40 million consumers, turns out to be closer to 110 million. So about one-third of the U.S. population.

Neiman Marcus, working with the U.S. Secret Service and a forensics team, is investigating a similar, mid-December breach of yet-undetermined size, but the term "millions" is being bandied about. Neiman Marcus tweeted last Friday that they "are taking steps, where possible, to notify customers whose cards we know were use fraudulently after purchasing in our stores."

Target ran full-page newspaper ads yesterday apologizing for not protecting the consumer information they gather when you shop with them, indicating what "next steps" they were taking to "earn back your trust and confidence and ensure that (they) deliver the Target experience you know and love," which we're pretty sure didn't include turning all your personal and financial information over to cyber criminals.

A nice sentiment but ...

OK, so a nice sentiment and an interesting turn of phrase. Apologies and contrition are always the first steps in trying to turn around a brand debacle of any magnitude, let alone one that touches a third of the population. But to avoid a real disaster you need to understand the degree to which and in what specific ways values –-- in this case – those of trust and security--– affect brand engagement.

Looking at the Discount Retail category, "Trust and Security" (defined precisely as related to this specific set of circumstances) is the third most-important engagement driver and makes a 28% contribution to consumer engagement and loyalty. That's based off what consumers expect from the category Ideal. (BTW, it makes an even bigger contribution for Online Retailers).

Before the breach the Target brand met consumer expectations for those values about as well as Walmart and Kmart. None of those three brands actually met expectations consumers held for those values for the Ideal. Consumers expect a lot these days, almost always more than brands deliver, but in this case all three retail brands fell within acceptable ranges, which is important even if we're not talking about personal and financial information. Brands that better meet expectations for specific values or on an overall category basis always do better than brands that don't.

The engagement is off with Target

PhotoAnyway, as you might have guessed, Target isn't meeting trust and security expectations in that acceptable range anymore, having lost nearly 85% of their brand equity on those values.

In fact, according to assessments from the Brand Keys 2014 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, Target's current brand engagement level --– the degree to which the brand is seen by customers to be able to meet their expectations for those values –-- is currently assessed at about 6%. So not doing too well and, based on metrics that correlate very highly with consumer behavior, not likely to in the near-term.

Target has already seen impacts to consumer behavior, or, more precisely, the lack thereof, and has already reported sales as being "meaningfully weaker" after the cyber-hack was disclosed. They expect same-store sales to fall in the quarter through January. Based on these engagement measures, so do we.

This has not, of course, been the first time retailers have been hit this way, but Target may turn out to be the biggest. In times past retailers had days to reach out to customers quietly to try and deal with breaches and mend brand fences. But with the kind of mobile and social networks in place, news of such attacks goes viral in hours.

W. Edwards Demming, American statistician and professor, who made significant contributions to Japan's reputation for innovative, high-quality products by creating design and quality standards that exceeded customer expectations said, "In God we trust; all others bring data."

But under the circumstances, perhaps satirist Jean Shepard's version is a better catchphrase for Target: "In God we trust; all others pay cash!"

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Extra headaches for underwater mortgages in the military

Active-duty military status complicates financial matters -- but help is available

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and other laws might help...

PhotoLast month, underwater mortgage holders whose loans are held by Ocwen Financial got some possible good news: as part of a consent order with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), authorities in 49 states, and the District of Columbia, Ocwen must offer $2 billion in principal reductions to underwater homeowners, and refund $125 million to the nearly 185,000 homeowners who have already been through foreclosure.

When we reported this, we also shared stories from unhappy homeowners who reported bad experiences with Ocwen. And recently, we heard from yet another underwater homeowner whose situation is even more precarious than most: he is in the military and on the verge of being transferred to a new duty station — so he has to move regardless of whether or not he manages to clean up his mortgage mess. Here's what he wrote us last Friday:

“I am unfortunately one of those whose policy was sold to Ocwen without my consent. Now I'm in over my head and have to deal with this extremely subpar company. I am not getting any help from Ocwen themselves in determining if I am eligible for the principal reductions and loan modifications. Do you happen to know if there is any other way or someone else to contact? I don't really know where to turn and now in the middle of a PCS move cross country and can't sell my house because it costs more than what it's worth.”

The standard answer to that question is that borrowers seeking information about loan modification programs can contact Ocwen at 1-800-337-6695 or ConsumerRelief@Ocwen.com.But active duty military status adds a few complications.

If you have a security clearance, for example, your security manager must be informed of your financial difficulties. As a retired military friend of ours put it, “His security manager needs to know every time there may or may not be a hit on his credit rating.”

Active duty personnel might find help through the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which “covers issues such as rental agreements, security deposits, prepaid rent, eviction, installment contracts, credit card interest rates, mortgage interest rates, mortgage foreclosure, civil judicial proceedings, automobile leases, life insurance, health insurance and income tax payments” for active duty military personnel and their dependents.

Legal assistance officers

PhotoThe justice department's SCRA page urges military personnel to “contact your nearest Armed Forces Legal Assistance Program office to see if the SCRA applies.... Please consult the military legal assistance office locator for each branch of the armed forces.”

But the military's Legal Assistance program might not be enough. We spoke to a source who worked as a civilian attorney attached to various Judge Advocate General's (JAG) offices, and he told us the range of services provided by Legal Assistance is very limited in scope, and it is highly unlikely one would get the level of expertise available from the private bar.

Despite this, the SCRA requires that any servicemember wishing to have his or her case reviewed by the Department of Justice must “must first seek the assistance of your military legal assistance office. ”

Attorneys have one thing in common with doctors: in situations where there's a lot at stake, it often pays to get a second opinion. Military personnel facing foreclosure or loan-modification problems should definitely seek help through official Legal Assistance channels — but it wouldn't hurt to seek the advice of a private attorney, too.

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False "like" allegations lead to Facebook lawsuits

Is Facebook monetizing opinions you don't actually hold?

Like all social media companies, Facebook uses proprietary algorithms to determine everything from what advertisements you see on your "feed" t...

PhotoLike all social media companies, Facebook uses proprietary algorithms to determine everything from what advertisements you see on your “feed” to which of your friends' posts get priority over others. Because they're proprietary, nobody (save for a few high-ranking Facebook executives) can say exactly what they are, and such confusion might be the foundation for some odd lawsuits Facebook's been facing recently.

Colorado resident Anthony DiTorro is suing Facebook for misrepresentation, claiming that he (DiTorro) has never visited the USA Today website, let alone “liked” it, yet a perusal of DiTorro's online Facebook activity allegedly shows that DiTorro “liked” USA Today, and Facebook even went so far as to mention this in sponsored posts pushing USA Today in the personal feeds of his friends.

Know who your friends are

A brief pause to explain Facebook terminology: if you have a Facebook account, you can choose exactly which people can see it or post on it; these people are your Facebook “friends.” The place where you actually do things – your virtual online hangout, if you will – is your Facebook “Wall.” You can post comments, pictures and links on your own Wall, or your friends' Walls. Your “Feed” is where you see various posts and comments your Friends made on their Walls or others'. Your Feed will also include “sponsored posts,” which are basically advertisements. And, finally: if you want, you can click a little button indicating that you “like” any given post or comment.

So it's hard to discuss a Facebook lawsuit without sounding rather middle-schoolish, debating such questions as, “Do you or do you not 'like' this?” or “Are you or are you not his 'friend'?” But DiTorro's lawsuit ultimately is based on the allegation that DiTorro never made any Facebook posts or clicked any “Like” buttons in favor of USA Today, yet Facebook falsely let DiTorro's Friends think he did.

It's tempting to chuckle over DiTorro's umbrage here (“USA Today? How dare you accuse me of reading a Gannett publication! Them's fightin' words”), but in all seriousness: imagine how you'd feel if your friends and family thought you supported something you actually found downright abhorrent: a politician whose policies you firmly oppose, say.

DiTorro's is hardly the only lawsuit making such allegations against Facebook. Last month, just before the New Year turned, two Facebook users in California alleged that Facebook has been scanning the contents of private messages in order to boost various “like” counts.

Awful politician

Going back to the earlier example of the politician you despise: imagine you and a Facebook friend are having a discussion over the Facebook private message system, specifically discussing how much you dislike that politico. You send a link to his page, along with the comment “Look at this incredibly stupid new policy he's promoting now!” and your friend responds, “Terrible! He really is an awful politician, isn't he?”

According to the lawsuit, your little discussion there ends up increasing said politician's “like” count, thus making him appear more popular than he actually is.

But that lawsuit makes far more serious allegations: that such scans of private messages violate anti-wiretapping laws. The lawsuit alleges “Facebook misleads users into believing that they have a secure, private mechanism for communication -- Facebook’s private messaging function -- when, in fact, Facebook intercepts and scans the content and treats portions of that content no differently than a public 'Like' or post, broadcast openly across the Internet.”

If you're worried that Facebook is using your own name to push products or causes you don't actually like, you might try posting a request on your own Facebook Wall, asking your friends to give you a heads-up if they see any announcements that you “liked” something. (But make sure you word your request very carefully, lest you find yourself inundated with messages saying “Hey, Facebook says you 'like' the fact that your friend just had a healthy baby!” Trust us on this.)

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DirecTV gives the Weather Channel the boot

It's the latest fee dispute among the giants of the TV world

If you like to sit around and watch The Weather Channel, you'll have to do it somewhere other than on DirecTV, which has ousted the Weather Channel from it...

PhotoIf you like to sit around and watch The Weather Channel, you'll have to do it somewhere other than on DirecTV, which has ousted the Weather Channel from its line-up, replacing it with a start-up called WeatherNation.

Both sides, as usual, accuse the other of being greedy and unreasonable, though in slightly more polite language.

“This is unprecedented for The Weather Channel. In our 32 years, we have never had a significant disruption due to a failure to reach a carriage agreement. We offered DirecTV the best rate for our programming, and I am shocked they have put corporate profits ahead of keeping a trusted channel that subscribers rely on every day," said David Kenny, chairman and CEO of The Weather Company.

"We are not looking for a large fee increase. We are simply looking for a fair deal that allows our company to continue to invest in the science and technology that enables us to keep people safe, deliver the world’s best weather, and tell weather stories to help people be prepared and informed," Kenny insisted.

"Cheap start-up"

DirecTV Jan. 14, 2014, 4:13 p.m.
Consumers rate DirecTV

Kenny accused DirecTV of putting finances before safety, claiming that WeatherNation is a “cheap start-up that does weather forecasting on a three-hour taped loop, has no field coverage, no weather experts.”

Not content to just gaze out the window, WeatherNation is beefing up its operations. It announced yesterday the deployment of sophisticated weather visualization tools from Baron Services, Inc., that will include tools for real-time weather forecasting software and 3D mapping.

"We're pleased to bring aboard additional services from a premier weather technology company like Baron Services," said Michael Norton, President of WeatherNation. "With the addition of Omni Weather Systems, our WeatherNation meteorologists can provide viewers with a more accurate and realistic illustration of what the weather will be."

DirecTV has not been too forthcoming about the dispute but told CNN that TV viewers have plenty of other options for weather information nowadays. “When information is readily available everywhere, it’s no longer necessary for people to have to pay a premium.” 

DirecTV's chief content officer, Dan York, also said he's hopeful the dispute will be worked out. 

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Google buys wi-fi thermostat, smoke alarm company

You can sleep well at night. Google is watching.

We're always being told that the "Internet of Things" is the next big thing, and it must be true because Google has just agreed to pay $3.2 billion to buy ...

PhotoWe're always being told that the "Internet of Things" is the next big thing, and it must be true because Google has just agreed to pay $3.2 billion to buy Nest Labs, which makes Internet-connected devices for our nests a/k/a homes.

The timing couldn't be better, since it was just a few weeks ago that I installed a Nest smoke and carbon monoxide alarm in the ConsumerAffairs Test Hallway -- you know, the upstairs hallway in my apartment.

A regular smoke alarm goes for about $12 and is as simple to use as inserting the battery and attaching it to the ceiling. Of course, after a year or so the battery starts to die and it begins making that annoying beeping sound.

Even worse, when the blackened redfish starts to smoke, the alarm can go off and drive your dogs crazy.

Soothing voice

The Nest smoke alarm -- price about $120 -- does none of these things. Instead, once you have gone through the rather simple but quite boring procedure of getting it initialized and jammed onto the ceiling, the Nest alarm talks to you in a soothing voice.

It will tell you when its battery gets low. It will also murmur at you when the skillet starts to smoke, saying something like "Smoke in the hallway." The thing sort of sounds like the operating system in "Her," you know, the role voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Of course, it does more than just speak. It will send a text to your smartphone to tell you that your house is on fire.

Not content merely to be alerted to fires and deadly carbon monoxide, I also added an Internet-connected thermostat -- not a Nest but something similar called Ecobee. Same idea: You can change the temperature setting in your Los Angeles apartment from Barbados or wherever you happen to be.

It cost about $220 plus installation and it took a full two days to get it working properly, including plenty of time on the phone with the installer, the installer's supervisor and the folks at Ecobee, who are somewhere in Canada, where thermostats are very important.

Kind of silly

PhotoThis stuff is great all right, but you know what? I personally find it kind of silly. And in a time when everyone claims to be worried sick -- sick, I tell you! -- about inequality, I have a hard time seeing how a $120 smoke alarm is of much benefit to anybody. It's sort of like the hedge fund manager who buys a Tesla because he wants to save the earth.

Why would Google pay so much for a company that makes what could be considered over-the-top gadgets? 

Well, the race to dominate the Internet of Things is underway and no one wants to get left at the gate. After all, someone -- someone other than you, that is -- is going to be controlling your "smart home" pretty soon. Will it be Google, Amazon, Microsoft, GE or the NSA?

This is not easy for small minds to grasp, apparently. Nest CEO Tony Fadell recalled in a blog post that back in 2011 he showed Google co-founder Sergey Brin an early model of the thermostat. "He instantly got what we were doing," Mr. Fadell wrote. 

Other connected gadgets now in the design stage include

  • Refrigerators that, like hotel room minibars, can keep a running inventory and order Greek yogurt, prosciutto and Pinot Grigio when your supplies run low;
  • Security alarms that, like the Nest, will text you if someone is breaking into your home to murder you;
  • Dog collars that keep track of what your hound is up to and whether he or she is eating and voiding properly;
  • Cars that text you when it's time to visit the gas station or, more likely, plug them in to recharge the battery; 
  • Medicine cabinets that keep track of your prescriptions, reminding you to take your medicine and ordering refills when needed; and
  • Bathroom scales that post your daily weight to Facebook, assigning "Likes" when appropriate.

Maybe there will also be a device we can put in the marijuana stash to alert us and our dealer (or approved medicinal marijuana retailer) when we're getting down to sticks and seeds. You think?

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This flu season is hitting the young and healthy

Hospitalizations are up sharply over last year

The flu virus is widespread in at least 35 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says the illness is hitting the...

PhotoThe flu virus is widespread in at least 35 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says the illness is hitting the young and healthy particularly hard.

In flu cases severe enough to admit the patient to the hospital, 61.5% of the patients are between 18 and 64, ages considered young enough to withstand the worst of the flu's symptoms. That's nearly double the number from last year, the agency said.

The CDC reports that, in a typical year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized due to flu-related complications. While younger patients appear to be bearing the brunt of this flu season, the young and old are at special risk. For people who are especially susceptible to developing complications, such as children under the age of five, adults age 65 or older and women who are pregnant, coming down with the flu can result in serious complications that may even be fatal.

A lot of swine flu this year

Doctors at Northwestern Medicine, at Northwestern University, report a spike in flu cases in the last weeks of 2013 and the first weeks of this year. The hospital recorded a total of 101 confirmed cases as of January 4. At least 75% of those cases were caused by the H1N1, or “swine flu” strain, which first surfaced in humans in 2009.

"Vaccination is the most important way to keep yourself from getting sick with influenza" said Dr. Gary A. Noskin, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "Patients who are reluctant to get the flu shot often believe that it is unnecessary for them. We know that between five to 20% of the population contracts the flu each year, and the majority of them have not been vaccinated."

Flu myths

PhotoIt turns out there is a lot of misinformation about the flu. For example, many people believe that risk of coming down with the virus is greatest when it's cold in the winter. Staying warm and bundled up when they venture outside, they reason, will keep them safe.

Actually, you can get sick with the flu during any time of the year. The CDC says that the peak of flu season can occur anywhere from late November through March. It isn't too late to get a flu shot in January, but it is usually best to get it earlier in the season.

Some people who are healthy see no reason to get a flu shot. Again, that's something of a mistaken assumption. Being healthy, with a strong immune system, can help prevent someone from getting the flu, but no one is immune. As this year's large number of cases among the young and healthy shows, anyone can get sick if exposed to the virus.

Another myth that Noskin said he would like to shoot down is the idea you can get the flu by getting the flu shot. You can't, he says.

"The vaccination cannot give someone the flu,” Noskin said. “Every flu shot contains a form of the virus that is inactive and no longer infectious."

Keep it clean

While getting a seasonal flu shot can help prevent the flu, there are other things you should be doing to stay healthy. The simplest step is to wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Germs most often travel between people by way of their hands.

"Everyday interactions and routines cause us to come in contact with surfaces that are frequently used by others, such as keyboards, phones and doorknobs,” Noskin said. “Because soap and water isn't always easily available, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can offer a quick and simple solution that is just as effective."

Supermarkets and department stores often have hand sanitizer wipes available at entrances and exits. Making a habit of using them may reduce the chances of picking up flu germs from the handle of your shopping cart.

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Appeals Court nixes net neutrality

Court rules FCC doesn't have the authority to police Internet service providers

Net neutrality is not one of those issues that makes consumers' blood boil, although maybe it should. Basically, it's the principle that Internet service p...

PhotoNet neutrality is not one of those issues that makes consumers' blood boil, although maybe it should. Basically, it's the principle that Internet service providers should treat all traffic equally -- whether it's a movie from Netflix, Google search results or streaming music from Spotify. 

Who wouldn't agree with that, right? Well, the big carriers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, among others. They would like to be able to give favored treatment to companies that pay for the bandwidth they use.

Unfortunately, among those who don't agree with the principle is a federal appeals court in Washington, which today ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to bar Internet carriers from favoring one type of traffic over another.

In a prepared statement, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, “I am committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products, and channels for all forms of speech protected by the First Amendment. We will consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.”

No change?

In a prepared statement, Verizon said nothing would in the ruling will change the way consumers access the Internet.

"The court's decision will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the Internet," the company said.

Also weighing in was Michael Beckerman, President and CEO of The Internet Association, who said the ruling could endanger the continued success of the Internet in creating jobs and new services for consumers.

"The Internet creates new jobs, new technologies, and new ways of communicating around the globe," Beckerman said. "Its innovation without permission ecosystem flows from a decentralized, open architecture that has few barriers to entry. Yet, the continued success of this amazing platform should not be taken for granted.

"The Internet Association supports enforceable rules that ensure an open Internet, free from government control or discriminatory, anticompetitive actions by gatekeepers. We look forward to studying the D.C. Circuit’s opinion and working with the FCC and policymakers on the Hill to protect Internet freedom, foster innovation and economic growth, and empower users," he said.

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Top three risk factors for child obesity

Illinois study looks at 22 variables, finds top three risk factors

Most people think they know what causes kids to be overweight. They'll often name over-eating, fast food and lack of exercise as the primary villains.But...

PhotoMost people think they know what causes kids to be overweight. They'll often name over-eating, fast food and lack of exercise as the primary villains.

But a new study from the University of Illinois, published in Childhood Obesity, looked at 22 variables and found three that emerged as the strongest predictors:

  1. inadequate sleep,
  2. a parental BMI that classifies the mom or dad as overweight or obese, and
  3. parental restriction of a child's eating in order to control his weight.

"What's exciting here is that these risk factors are malleable and provide a road map for developing interventions that can lead to a possible reduction in children's weight status," said Brent McBride, a U of I professor of human development and director of the university's Child Development Laboratory. "We should focus on convincing parents to improve their own health status, to change the food environment of the home so that healthy foods are readily available and unhealthy foods are not, and to encourage an early bedtime." 

The researchers reached their conclusions after compiling the results from an extensive survey distributed to 329 parent-child dyads recruited from child-care programs in east-central Illinois.

The survey yielded wide-ranging information on demographics, health histories of both child and parent, and pertinent feeding practices. Research assistants also did home visits with each participant, checking height and weight and taking further information about the parents' history. The data was then subjected to statistical analysis.

What to do

As a result of that analysis, McBride and U of I nutritional sciences graduate student Dipti A. Dev offer some recommendations for families.

Parents should recognize that their food preferences are being passed along to their children and that these tastes are established in the preschool years, Dev said.

"If you, as an adult, live in a food environment that allows you to maintain an elevated weight, remember that your child lives in that environment too. Similarly, if you are a sedentary adult, you may be passing on a preference for television watching and computer games instead of playing chasing games with your preschooler or playing in the park," she added.

Consider too that restricting your children's access to certain foods will only make them want those foods more, she said.

"If kids have never had a chance to eat potato chips regularly, they may overeat them when the food appears at a friend's picnic," McBride said.

Instead, work on changing the food environment in your home so that a wide variety of healthy choices such as fruits and vegetables are available while unhealthy options are not, he added.

"And remember that it takes a certain number of exposures to a food before a child will try it, let alone like it, so you have to offer it to them over and over and over again. And they have to see you eat it over and over," McBride noted.

Don't use food to comfort your children when they are hurt or disappointed, do allow your preschoolers to select their foods as bowls are passed at family-style meals (no pre-plating at the counter — it discourages self-regulation), and encourage all your children to be thoughtful about what they are eating, the researcher said.

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Mortgage relief scammers will pay $3.6 million to settle FTC charges

The defendants charged troubled homeowners hundreds of dollars but failed to help them

A group of South Florida defendants will pay nearly $3.6 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they operated a mortgage relief scam...

PhotoA group of South Florida defendants will pay nearly $3.6 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they operated a mortgage relief scam that took advantage of financially troubled homeowners.

It's the FTC's largest judgment to date against supposed mortgage assistance providers.

The settlement follows charges brought in 2012 by the FTC against 11 companies and five individuals who operated under various names, including Prime Legal Plans.

Using Reaching U Network, which the FTC called a sham non-profit front, and a maze of other companies, the scheme reeled in consumers with promises that enrollment would save their homes from foreclosure or result in lower mortgage payments.  The FTC obtained a court order shutting down the operation and freezing the defendants’ corporate and personal assets pending settlement of the case.

“Rather than make good on their promise to offer people relief from mortgage trouble, these schemers put their targets even further behind financially,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.  “They broke the law by taking money upfront and making false promises.”

The FTC charged that the defendants promised consumers that they would prevent foreclosure or significantly lower their mortgage payments by conducting audits of consumers’ loans and providing access to full-service, expert legal representation to fight their lenders. 

The defendants, who marketed their programs in English and Spanish through a national outbound telemarketing campaign, allegedly told consumers that “80 percent of mortgages contain some fraud” and, in some cases, that even a small error in their loan documents could nullify the mortgage. 

The defendants also allegedly told consumers that they would be assigned an expert mortgage foreclosure defense attorney in their state who would “halt the foreclosure process” and save their homes. 

But instead of helping consumers, the defendants charged them illegal advance fees ranging from $595 to $750 per month, while delivering little or no help and driving them deeper into debt.  

Under the settlements announced today, the defendants are banned from participating in the mortgage relief and debt relief industries, and are prohibited from misrepresenting various features of any product or service or making advertising claims that are unsupported by competent and reliable evidence.  They also are prohibited from placing unsolicited calls both to numbers listed on the Do Not Call Registry and to any number in an area code for which they have not paid the fee to access the list of numbers on the Do Not Call Registry. 

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SRAM recalls hydraulic bicycle brakes

The brakes can fail, posing a crash and injury hazard

SRAM is recalling SRAM Hydraulic Road Rim Brakes and Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes for bicycles. The brake systems can fail, posing a crash and injury ha...

PhotoSRAM is recalling SRAM Hydraulic Road Rim Brakes and Hydraulic Road Disc Brakes for bicycles. The brake systems can fail, posing a crash and injury hazard.

The recalled bicycle brake models include SB Red Hydraulic Road Disc, SB Red Hydraulic Road Rim, SB 700 Hydraulic Road Disc and SB 700 Hydraulic Road Rim, used as   either front or rear brakes. The SB RED brake lever is labeled “RED” on the body of the lever assembly.  The SB 700 brake lever is labeled “S-Series” on the body of the lever assembly.  The serial numbers for the recalled brakes have the digit “3” as the fourth digit of the serial number.  The serial number can be found on the bottom of the caliper body. 

The firm received 95 reports of brakes failing in the U.S. One minor injury was reported in the U.S. and another in Australia

Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles equipped with the recalled SRAM brake systems and contact any SRAM dealer to arrange for a free replacement product to be installed and to receive a $200 product voucher or cash per customer.

Specialty bicycle retailers nationwide from May 2013 to December 2013 for between $285 and $581 for the disc or rim brakes. Bicycles sold with the SRAM disc or rim range from $2,500 to $7,500. 

 

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Australian study debunks extrasensory perception

Researchers say they can prove that what seems like ESP really isn't

Source: University of MelbourneMany consumers willingly pay for the services of people who claim to be psychics, who supposedly use extrasensory percep...

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Source: University of Melbourne

Many consumers willingly pay for the services of people who claim to be psychics, who supposedly use extrasensory perception to learn things that can't be detected through sight, sound, smell or touch. Some of us even think we have this ability ourselves.

But researchers at the University of Melbourne say it's just not so. And furthermore, they say they an prove it that what sometimes seems like ESP isn't.

Their study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, found that people could reliably sense when a change had occurred, even when they could not see exactly what had changed.

For example, a person might notice a general change in someone’s appearance but not be able to identify that the person had had a haircut.

Lead researcher Dr. Piers Howe, from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, said the research is the first to show in a scientific study that people can reliably sense changes that they cannot visually identify.

Common belief

“There is a common belief that observers can experience changes directly with their mind, without needing to rely on the traditional physical senses such as vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch to identify it. This alleged ability is sometimes referred to as a sixth sense or ESP.

“We were able to show that while observers could reliably sense changes that they could not visually identify, this ability was not due to extrasensory perception or a sixth sense,” he said.

In the study, observers were presented with pairs of color photographs, both of the same female. In some cases, her appearance would be different in the two photographs. For example, the individual might have a different hairstyle.

Each photograph was presented for 1.5 seconds with a 1-second break between them. After the last photograph, the observer was asked whether a change had occurred and, if so, to identify the change from a list of nine possible changes. 


The results showed that study participants could generally detect when a change had occurred even when they could not identify exactly what had changed. For example, they might notice that the two photographs had different amounts of red or green but not be able to use this information to determine that the person had changed the color of their hat.

This resulted in the observer “feeling” or “sensing” that a change had occurred without being able to visually identify the change. Thus, the result that observers can reliably feel or sense when a change has occurred without being able to visually identify the change could be explained without invoking an extrasensory mechanism.

The research was led by Senior Lecturer Dr. Piers Howe in collaboration with researcher Margaret Webb at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne.

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The plot thickens: Neiman Marcus admits security breach, three others implicated

Congressional action seems likely as confidence in credit cards is shaken

The Target security breach may have been the biggest but it wasn't the only holiday-season incident that exposed millions of customers' credit and debit ca...

PhotoThe Target security breach may have been the biggest but it wasn't the only holiday-season incident that exposed millions of customers' credit and debit card information to thieves.

Neiman Marcus says some of its customers' data was also intercepted by hackers. And reports say at least three other major retailers have discovered similar incidents but have not yet gone public with the news.

Banks and retailers are beginning to worry that the seemingly endless stream of thefts will erode consumers' confidence in credit cards and cut into retail sales.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is calling for a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation of the Target breach, which reports now say may have affected more than 70 million customers.

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Sen. Blumenthal

“Disclosures about Target's even broader breaches of customer information will rightly add alarm and anger," said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Banking Committee. "Now, more than ever, an FTC investigation is necessary – and should be publicly confirmed – so that consumers know their rights and interests are protected."

Blumenthal said new laws may  be needed to ensure that retailers do more to protect customers endangered by data breaches.

"I am pleased that Target already heeded my calls to provide credit monitoring and identity theft protection for the shoppers who were notified earlier of the breech. They should do the same for all affected consumers. I will pursue legislation to deter, punish, and prevent failures to properly protect confidential consumer information,” he said.

Luxury thefts

PhotoIn the Neiman Marcus case, the retailer said late Friday that it had been notified of fraudulent charges on some of its customers' cards but had not yet determined the extent of the problem.

In a prepared statement, the luxury retailer said a forensics firm it had hired to investigate "discovered evidence that the company was the victim of a criminal cyber-security intrusion and that some customers’ cards were possibly compromised as a result."

"We have begun to contain the intrusion and have taken significant steps to further enhance information security," the company said. "We are taking steps, where possible, to notify customers whose cards we know were used fraudulently after making a purchase at our store.”

Neiman Marcus said there is no indication the breach is related to the Target theft that exposed the data of an estimated 70 million consumers to thieves.

Answer: Unequivocal "maybe"

PhotoWhether related or not, the incidents all left consumers wondering whether their cards were among those compromised and whether they would face credit difficulties as a result.

The answer is an unequivocal "maybe."

In theory, consumers are not responsible for fraudulent charges to their credit cards but it is generally up to consumers to discover and report the fraud. Debit cards, on the other hand, do not offer such protection and consumers may be out of luck.

The advice retailers generally offer is to monitor your account closely. Target is offering one year of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection.

But the surest way for consumers to avoid problems is to immediately cancel the card and ask the bank or retailer to issue a new one. Businesses don't like to do this and often charge the consumer a fee. No one has yet heard Target offering to reimburse consumers the cost of a replacement card.

In fact, retailers generally follow the path chosen by Target -- meaning they do little more than offer platitudes and credit-monitoring, which does nothing to prevent fraudulent charges and may or may not detect them retroactively.

Banks and credit unions are a bit more willing to replace cards in some cases. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., for example, says it has issued more than two million new debit cards to its customers whose cards were exposed in the Target case.

As Blumenthal's battle cry makes clear, Congress may soon wade into all of this. You can expect to hear a lot of sympathetic chatter from Capitol Hill about protecting consumers, although the real action will revolve more around protecting banks, who have long pressed for legislation that would forced retailers like Target to reimburse banks and credit unions for the costs they incur from retailers' security lapses.

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Consumer journalism awards announced

The top award honors Martin H. Bosworth, ConsumerAffairs' late managing editor

Martin Bosworth (staff photo)A new series of awards recognizing outstanding reporting of consumer issues launches this year, a joint project of the Med...

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Martin Bosworth (staff photo)

A new series of awards recognizing outstanding reporting of consumer issues launches this year, a joint project of the Media Policy Center, ConsumerAffairs, and Woodbury University.

Awards will be given for the best reporting in five major categories: print, the internet, radio, television and magazines.

The overall winner will also receive the Martin H. Bosworth Award for Outstanding Consumer Reporting. The award is named for the late managing editor of ConsumerAffairs, a consumer news and information center now in its 16th year. Bosworth was 35 when he died at his Los Angeles home in 2010 of a circulatory disorder.

“Martin was a tireless and fearless crusader for the everyday consumer. His outstanding work benefited millions of individuals and lives on to this day in ConsumerAffairs’ reporting and consumer empowerment efforts,” said James R. Hood, the site’s founder and editor. “He was a big guy with a big voice and consumers lost a real champion when he was taken from us long before his time.”

One of the first peer review sites on the Web, ConsumerAffairs, founded in 1998, publishes consumer reviews that empower consumers to collaboratively find the products and services that best suit their needs and helps them identify shoddy practices and outright scams. Its news reports deal with automotive, personal finance, health, travel and other consumer issues.

The Media Policy Center addresses issues of social welfare, public policy, education, the environment, and health care. Its primary goal, through media, is to inform, challenge, and ultimately engage a responsive citizenry and to encourage full and meaningful debate and participation across the political, social, and economic spectrum.

Dr. Edward Clift, Dean of the School of Media Culture & Design will be representing Woodbury in this new enterprise. “We are excited to be working with Jim Hood and the team at MPC,” said Dean Clift.

This is the second project to come from Woodbury’s new alliance with the Media Policy Center. The School of Media Culture & Design is also partnering with MPC in a new Masters graduate program, Media for Social Justice set to begin in September 2014.

The University seeks to transform its students into liberally educated professionals and socially responsible citizens by integrating transdisciplinarity, design thinking, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement into all programs. Woodbury achieves academic excellence by creating external partnerships, implementing effective internal processes, and ensuring quality in all programs and services.

Award competition entries must be submitted by April 15. An entry form is available at www.mpcawards.org.

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Why it's never been safer to fly

In the last decade, fatal accidents have become a rarity

One can make the case that commercial air travel has never been a bigger hassle. There are security bottlenecks, crowded planes and fewer direct flights....

PhotoOne can make the case that commercial air travel has never been a bigger hassle. There are security bottlenecks, crowded planes and fewer direct flights.

On the other hand, the chance of arriving at your destination alive has never been greater if you travel on a U.S. commercial jetliner.

On July 6, 2013 Asiana Airlines Flight 361, a Boeing 777, crashed short of the runway at San Francisco International Airport, killing three of the 307 people on board. The three fatalities were the only U.S. commercial jet aviation deaths in 2013, but what's remarkable about that is not the low number, but that there were any fatalities at all.

Previous fatal accident

In 2007 through 2012 there we no airline fatalities in the U.S. To find a fatal U.S. airline accident before that you have to go back to 2006 when 49 people died on a Comair commuter jet that took off on the wrong runway at Lexington, Ky., and crashed.

As recently as the 1980s U.S. airlines routinely suffered two or three fatal crashes each year, sometimes resulting in the loss of all on board. As recently as the early 1990s, however, the fatal accident rate began to fall.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing compiles an annual report on airline safety. In its latest report it shows the annual fatal accident rate for North American airlines has been approximately 0.3 per million departures, meaning one fatal accident per 10 million departures. In the early 1960s the rate was one death per one million departures – 10 times higher.

Equipment and training

What's behind the dramatic and relatively recent increase in jet airline safety in the U.S.? For answers we turned to Michael Braasch, director of the Ohio University Avionics Engineering Center. Braasch says that today a variety of factors, including better equipment in the air and on the ground – along with better training – have made air travel the safest it's been since commercial jet service was introduced in the 1950s.

“The very first commercial jet aircraft was the de Havilland Comet,” Braasch said. “In the first half of 1954, two Comets, operated by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) broke up in flight over the Mediterranean. An intensive investigation determined that metal fatigue was the culprit.”

Investigators soon learned that pressurized cabins for extended time at high altitude caused enough stress that the metal couldn't stand up to it. Over the years, lessons gained from other accidents went into improved systems and safety protocols.

Wind shear

PhotoIn the past, weather was a major cause of fatal accidents. In particular wind shear – a sudden change of wind direction during a thunderstorm – could cause an airliner on final approach to suddenly lose all lift and plunge to the ground. Wind shear still exists but U.S. crashes caused by the phenomenon have largely disappeared. The reason is fairly simple; planes don't try to land when wind shear conditions exist.

“The weather radars, both on the ground and in the airplanes themselves, are excellent and the computer prediction models are too,” Braasch said. “The bottom line is that air traffic control – and the pilots -- both have much better pictures of the kinds of weather that are dangerous, thunderstorms and wind-shear causing storms, in particular.”

On April 4, 1977 a Southern Airways DC-9 encountered a heavy thunderstorm over Georgia. Hail from the storm knocked out both engines, forcing the pilots to try to crash land on a two-lane highway, resulting in 72 deaths. Such an occurrence today would be highly unlikely because pilots in the skies have better information about the weather.

“We don't fly into bad storms anymore,” Braasch said.

Avoiding disaster

Even though fatal accidents are rare there are still mishaps in the air and on the ground, some of which cause injury. On April 1, 2011 a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 was forced to make an emergency landing in Arizona after a rupture caused a hole to open in the fuselage at 37,000 feet. Two people on board suffered minor injuries.

Perhaps the most memorable recent non-fatal accident occurred January 15, 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320, ingested a flock of geese in its engines on take off from New York's LaGuardia Airport. The plane's captain, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, glided the jet to a landing on the Hudson River, evacuating the passengers and crew safely. Braasch says the “miracle on the Hudson” does say something about improved aircraft design and pilot training, but also about luck.

“The USAir flight was essentially a situation in which, after the initial geese ingestion, everything went right,” Braasch said. “The skies were completely clear, the Hudson river was not too busy, the plane was close enough to get there, and the pilot was one of USAir's safety trainers, an expert in handling aircraft in hazardous situations.”

International air travel not as safe

Today, most fatal jet airline accidents occur outside the U.S. In 2013, for example, there were 10 additional fatal airline crashes around the world. Braasch says the safety discrepancy is primarily due to lesser quality maintenance and pilot training and not-as-capable air traffic control infrastructure. The safer skies, he says, are made possible by all the lessons learned from previous crashes.

“Every time a pilot made a fatal error, the cause was investigated and the lessons learned were passed on to current and future pilots,” he said.  

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Supreme Court agrees to hear arguments in Aereo-broadcasters dispute

TV broadcasters say online TV distribution violates their rights

Network-approved antennaIf you can put an antenna on your roof to pull in television signals, why can't you let Aereo put an antenna in its equipment r...

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Network-approved antenna

If you can put an antenna on your roof to pull in television signals, why can't you let Aereo put an antenna in its equipment rack and send you the signal via the Internet?

That's the David vs. Goliath question the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to answer. David in this case is Aereo, a start-up company that has been growing rapidly since it began its $8 per month service in New York City less than two years ago.

The broadcasters -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- have sued Aereo, claiming it is upsetting their business model, which by itself isn't exactly the strongest legal argument ever. So, the broadcasters are also claiming that Aereo is violating their intellectual property rights.

No one argues that if you record a TV program and redistribute it for profit later, you're violating the broadcaster's copyright. But the Aereo argument is that it's just an antenna, not a redistributor.

Juicy fees

The broadcasters currently get juicy carriage fees from the cable systems that many consumers use as their source of over-the-air television. They presumably want Aereo to pay up or go away. But paying those big fat fees would force Aereo to charge a lot more than $8 a month, which would upset its business plan.

The broadcasters -- who are used to getting their way -- have been flummoxed to find that the courts have not immediately run Aereo out of town. After a U.S. District Court judge refused to issue an injunction cutting off Aereo's feed, the broadcasters appealed to the 2nd Circuit Appeals Court, only to be turned down there.

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Network-disapproved antenna

The pattern was repeated elsewhere and, in desperation, the broadcasters appealed to the Supreme Court, which has now agreed to hear the case.

What if the broadcasters lose? It could happen, after all. To hear the networks tell it, a loss before the Supremes would be the end of the TV world as we know it.

Last May, broadcasters issued the Ultimate Threat -- they said they would take themselves off the air and, in essence, become cable channels if Aereo and similar services didn't bow to their wishes. 

There is an old saying about cutting off your nose to spite your face, which seems like it might apply here, but it looks like we won't know about that until the next thrilling episode. 

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Lame lawsuit alleges weaponized Nikes

Kicking people in the face: bad idea no matter what brand of shoe you wear

Nike-brand sneakers tend to be considerably more expensive than other-brand sneakers, so if ever you hear us say “Buying Nike is a bad idea,” we m...

PhotoNike-brand sneakers tend to be considerably more expensive than other-brand sneakers, so if ever you hear us say “Buying Nikes is a bad idea,” we mean that specifically from a financial-prudence angle: if you need new sneakers, there's better uses for your money than paying a high premium markup for a shoe with a trademarked swoosh logo on it.

That swoosh makes the sneakers pricier than most but surely does nothing to make the sneakers more dangerous, despite the claims of Sirgiorgio Clardy, currently serving a 100-year prison sentence for various brutal violent crimes, including repeatedly jumping on a man's face.

Clardy wore Nike Air Jordans at the time – a detail not mentioned in original news accounts of Clardy's trial and conviction, due to its utter irrelevance – but Clardy, while serving as his own attorney, has also produced a handwritten lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages from Nike because their sneakers don't come with labels warning that they might be a deadly weapon.

As Clardy wrote: “Under product liability there is a certain standard of care that is required to be upheld by potentially dangerous product … Do (sic) to the fact that these defendants named in this Tort claim failed to warn of risk or to provide an adequate warning or instruction it has caused personal injury in the likes of mental suffering.”

Nike was quoted as saying it had not seen the suit and had no comment.

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Vermont goes after VerMints

Vermont products need to be made in Vermont

Disclaimer: during a trip to Vermont a couple years ago, we vaguely recall a tourist trap offering “VerMints” for sale. Specifically, we recall...

PhotoDisclaimer: during a trip to Vermont a couple years ago, we vaguely recall a tourist trap offering “VerMints” for sale. Specifically, we recall wrinkling our nose and saying, “Vermin? Who names candy after vermin?” although we soon realized the mints were supposed to evoke thoughts of “the Green Mountain State” rather than “rats spreading the Black Death throughout Europe.”

We were not impressed by the name but Vermont's attorney general was, impressed enough to file a lawsuit against the company — not over possible association with vermin and varmints, but because, as the AG's office said in this January 13 press release:

VerMints, Inc., violated the law by labeling its flavored mints as “Vermont” products when in fact they were made in Canada largely from out-of-state ingredients. The settlement requires VerMints and its President, Gary Rinkus of Braintree, Massachusetts, to donate $35,000 to the Vermont Foodbank, pay the State of Vermont $30,000, and add corrective labeling to its products for 18 months. …. VerMints’ products come in metal tins, and from 2006 to 2011, they were prominently labeled as “Vermont’s All-Natural Mints.” …. The corrective advertising provision of the settlement requires VerMints to add the words “Produced in Canada” to the front of tins sold to states in the northeast United States, to counter the impression that the products come from Vermont.

Vermont has a proven track record of taking its image (and that of its locally made products) very seriously. In January 2011, for example, McDonald's then-new offering of “Fruit and Maple Oatmeal” drew the ire of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, because the state's maple laws forbid adding the word “maple” to a food product unless the food contains actual maple syrup, not just maple “flavoring.”

Genuine maple syrup and maple sugar are considerably more expensive than ordinary cane and beet sugars and syrups because in order to harvest syrup, it's not enough to merely have a healthy sugar maple tree of the right age; you also need a sustained period of time each year when temperatures drop below freezing every night yet rise above freezing every day.

In the continental US, sugar maples are fairly common, and can grow as far south as Texas — though local temperatures usually make maple sugar production impossible. Canada produces the majority of the world's maple syrup, though a good percentage of domestic U.S. production comes from Vermont.

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Unlicensed movers caught in sting operation

Many advertised on Craigslist, Angie's List and other online venues

An undercover sting operation in New Jersey caught 26 unlicensed moving companies, including two that were solicting interstate business. The 26 companies ...

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New lung cancer cases are declining

But prostate cancer remains a serious threat for men

It's been a half century since the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on January 11, 1964 linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Since then there has...

PhotoIt's been a half century since the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on January 11, 1964 linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Since then there has been an ongoing campaign against tobacco as lung cancer cases rose.

Now, health officials say that relentless campaign is beginning to yield tangible results. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has documented a significant drop in lung cancer among U.S. adults from 2005 to 2009. The sharpest decline was among those aged 34-44.

The study found that lung cancer rates went down 2.6% per year among men, from 87 to 78 cases per 100,000 men and 1.1% per year among women, from 57 to 54 cases per 100,000 women. Rates fell 6.5% for adults aged 35-44.

Landmark 1964 report

The Surgeon General's 1964 report declared that cigarette smoking was responsible for a 70% increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers. It estimated that average smokers had a nine- to ten-times greater risk of developing lung cancer compared to non-smokers. The more you smoked, the report found, the greater the risk. It also found that the risk diminished if people stopped smoking. Since then health advocates have repeatedly urged Americans to kick the habit.

"These dramatic declines in the number of young adults with lung cancer show that tobacco prevention and control programs work – when they are applied," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.

PhotoStill, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among both men and women in the U.S. Health officials say most lung cancers are attributable to cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke. Now that smoking behaviors among women are similar to those among men, women are now experiencing the same risk of lung cancer as men.

"While it is encouraging that lung cancer incidence rates are dropping in the United States, one preventable cancer is one too many," Frieden said. "Implementation of tobacco control strategies is needed to reduce smoking prevalence and the lung cancer it causes among men and women."

The Tobacco Master Settlement of 1998 provided billions of dollars from tobacco companies to the states, but the CDC notes that little of that money is actually being used to combat smoking. The agency cites research showing that, in 2010, states only appropriated 2.4% of their tobacco revenues for tobacco control. An earlier CDC study showed that states meet with widely varying results in their efforts to control tobacco and reduce new cases of lung cancer.

Prostate cancer

While lung cancer cases are in decline, health officials say prostate cancer continues to be the most common cancer in men. According to recently published data in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, it accounts for about 25% of new cancer cases in male patients.

However, researchers say prostate cancer is not increasing, with estimated new cases and death expected to fall three percent and one percent respectively. Still, prostate cancer remains a major health threat.

"Every week I talk with at least one family man in his 40s who has prostate cancer," said Jamie Bearse, CEO of ZERO, a prostate cancer awareness organization. "Men are dying. Families are suffering. We need to stand together and make fighting prostate cancer a national priority in order to see a real change in the number of lives being saved from the disease."

The group says prostate cancer continues to be the second most deadly cancer in men, accounting for 10% of estimated new cancer deaths in 2014. The report estimates that 233,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year, and 29,480 will die from the disease.

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Taxpayer advocate calls for Taxpayer Bill of Rights

Taxpayers might be more willing to pay if they were treated more fairly

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) needs to adopt a comprehensive Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR). So says National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson in her...

PhotoThe Internal Revenue Service (IRS) needs to adopt a comprehensive Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

So says National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson in her 2013 annual report to Congress. The report also says the tax agency -- go figure -- needs more money.

“A Taxpayer Bill of Rights would serve as an organizing principle for tax administrators in establishing agency goals and performance measures, provide foundational principles to guide IRS employees in their dealings with taxpayers, and provide information to taxpayers to assist them in their dealings with the IRS,” the report says.

The advocate has long recommended adoption of the guidelines. In a prior report, Olson analyzed the IRS’s processing of applications for tax-exempt status and concluded its procedures violated eight of the ten taxpayer rights she has proposed. The 2013 report argues that the rationale for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights is much broader.

“Taxpayer rights are central to voluntary compliance,” the report says. “If taxpayers believe they are treated, or can be treated, in an arbitrary and capricious manner, they will mistrust the tax system and be less likely to comply with the laws voluntarily. If taxpayers have confidence in the fairness and integrity of the system, they will be more likely to comply.”

The report calls on the IRS to take the taxpayer rights that already exist and group them into ten broad categories, modeled on the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The report says the “simplicity and clarity” of a thematic, principle-based Taxpayer Bill of Rights would help taxpayers understand their rights in general terms.

Mo money

Olson also expressed deep concern that the IRS is not adequately funded to serve taxpayers, pointing out that the agency annually receives more than 100 million telephone calls from taxpayers and that -- in fiscal year 2013 -- it could answer just 61% of calls from taxpayers seeking to speak with an IRS customer service representative.

“The year 2013 was a very challenging one for the IRS. Because of sequestration, the IRS’s funding was substantially cut, which translated into a reduction in taxpayer service,” Olson said in releasing the report. “And because of the 16-day government shutdown, the agency could not complete preparations for the upcoming tax filing season on time, delaying the date on which taxpayers can first file returns and claim refunds.”

The report reiterates the advocate’s longstanding recommendation that the relevant congressional committees work together to develop new procedures to fund the IRS, with the goal of maximizing tax compliance, particularly voluntary compliance, with due regard for protecting taxpayer rights and minimizing taxpayer burden.

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Further integration for Gmail and Google+

Google likes the proposed changes. Nobody else seems to.

This past week has been a bad one for Google+ public relations. On Wednesday, Americans learned the story of Massachusetts resident Thomas Gagnon, arrested...

PhotoThis past week has been a bad one for Google+ public relations. On Wednesday, Americans learned the story of Massachusetts resident Thomas Gagnon, arrested for sending his ex-girlfriend a Google+ invite in violation of a restraining order she'd taken out against him — except Gagnon's attorney says Google sent the invite automatically, without Gagnon's knowledge or consent.

The next day, Consumer Watchdog released a letter highlighting a serious privacy/security problem with Google +: if you have a Google+ account, pretty much any other Google+ user can add you to their “Circle” of friends without your approval, and once your name is in their “Circle,” there's pretty much nothing you can do about it.

Coincidentally, on the same day the watchdog group released this complaint, Google announced some proposed changes to its Gmail system (by the way: if you have a Gmail account, you have Google+ whether you do anything with it or not).

Henceforth, anybody with a Google+ account will be able to send an email to any other user with a Google+ account. As Google asked in its Gmail blog post promoting the change: “Have you ever started typing an email to someone only to realize halfway through the draft that you haven't actually exchanged email addresses?” [Personal anecdote: No.] “If you are nodding your head 'yes' and already have a Google+ profile, then you’re in luck....”

Have to opt-out

If, however, you're shaking your head “no,” you'll need to change the settings on your account, to block Google+-generated emails from strangers. Critics charge that Google's new policy should be “opt-in” (meaning, the changes don't go through unless you-the-user personally allow it) rather than “opt-out” (wherein the changes go through automatically, unless you-the-user choose to block them).

Nick Hide, writing for CNET, noted of the new change: “By default, it's set to 'Anyone on Google+', although I'm seeing reports that if you have a large number of followers the default may be 'Circles'. If someone emails you via Google+ in this way, they don't see your email address, however. I haven't had the change roll out to my profile, either work or personal, but  Google says it will send you an email when it happens -- although some users who contacted me after reading this story earlier did not receive this email.”

Thus far, the only people who seem to like Google's changes are the ones announcing them on behalf of Google, More typical is this complaint/headline in The Next Web blog: “Google, this is the wrong way to build brand loyalty for Google+.”

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Single digit danger: why cold weather raises heart risks

Frigid temperatures makes your high blood pressure even worse

When temperatures plunge your chance of having a heart attack goes up if you already have a higher risk of heart trouble.Here's why: cold temperatures ca...

PhotoWhen temperatures plunge your chance of having a heart attack goes up if you already have a higher risk of heart trouble.

Here's why: cold temperatures can constrict arteries and raise blood pressure, causing the heart to work harder or triggering tears or clots in the arteries. Compared to the summer months, people are 26% to 36% more likely to die in winter heart-related health issues, according to research cited by AARP.

"Cold weather can play havoc on older people's hearts, blood pressure and lungs," said Beth Finkel, State Director for AARP in New York State. "By taking some simple steps, people can stay safe and healthy.”

Health experts at the Mayo Clinic say blood pressure is generally higher in the winter than it is the summer, so that if you suffer from hypertension, the condition is worse in winter months. 

Weather sensitivity

But in addition to the cold weather they say a sudden change in weather patterns – such as the recent polar vortex – may also cause your blood vessels to constrict, increasing blood pressure. They say these weather-related variations in blood pressure are more common in people age 65 and older.

Getting too cold – a condition known as hypothermia – places enormous stress on the heart. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), it's heart failure that is normally the cause of death in cases of hypothermia, officially classified as when the body's temperature falls before 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Symptoms include lack of coordination, mental confusion, slowed reactions, shivering and sleepiness. Children, the elderly and those with heart disease are at special risk. Older people often find it harder to maintain a normal internal body temperature in cold conditions. Sometimes they can suffer hypothermia without being aware of it.

Wind chill dangers

And it's not just cold temperatures that pose a threat. High winds, snow and rain also can take away body heat. Wind can be especially dangerous since it removes the layer of heated air from around your body.

To avoid increasing a winter heart risk, go easy on the snow shoveling. People who aren't accustomed to exercise can easily suffer a heart attack through over-exertion in the cold. A study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital found that an average of 11,500 snow shoveling-related medical emergencies required hospital treatment each year from 1990 to 2006.

Sleep later than you normally do. Research shows heart attacks are more likely to occur in the morning. If you normally take a morning walk, postpone it to the afternoon when temperatures are a bit warmer.

When you go outside, always dress warmly. Wear a hat, gloves, scarf and layers of clothing, especially if you have high blood pressure. Remember that when you start to shiver if makes your heart beat harder, raising blood pressure.

Don't over-indulge. Eating and drinking too much leads to weight gain, putting added stress on your heart.

If you've made a New Years resolution to get more exercise, that's great. But talk to your doctor first and start slowly. Short intervals of activity alternating with periods of indoor rest are best.

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More employees looking for new jobs in 2014

Survey suggests growing dissatisfaction is prime motivator

With employment prospects improving over the last few months more people are beginning to think about changing jobs. When the unemployment rate hovered aro...

PhotoWith employment prospects improving over the last few months more people are beginning to think about changing jobs. When the unemployment rate hovered around eight percent, most people with jobs simply considered themselves lucky.

But with growing confidence in their prospects some 21% of fulltime employees plan to change jobs in 2014, according to a Harris Interactive survey commissioned by jobs site CareerBuilder.com. It's the largest percentage in the post-recession era.

However, it isn't just an increase in confidence that is leading to the rise. When the survey drills deeper it finds that a significant drop in satisfaction with their current job is a big reason for seeking greener pastures. The survey found 59% said they were satisfied in their current job, down from 66% in the 2013 survey.

Reasons for dissatisfaction

Those reasons for dissatisfaction might sound familiar to some: 66% have concerns over what they are paid, 65% say they don't feel appreciated. Those are things employment experts say can be addressed to retained valued employees.

"Offering frequent recognition, merit bonuses, training programs and clearly defined career paths are important ways to show workers what they mean to the company," said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources for CareerBuilder. "In general, however, when more workers change jobs it's usually a sign the labor market is warming up. During the recession and in its aftermath fewer people voluntarily left jobs because the chances of finding a new or better one were low compared to a healthier economic cycle."

Don't be a job hopper

Finding a better opportunity is usually a good reason to move on, but another study serves as a cautionary tale; too much moving around can be bad for your career.

A Robert Half survey of Human Resources managers shows HR managers sometimes see frequent job changes as a red flag when considering a job application. What does it take to be viewed as a job hopper? When the HR managers in the survey were asked how many job changes in a 10 year period would put an applicant in the job hopper category, the average response was five.

"The job market has been unpredictable in recent years, and employers understand job candidates may have had short stints in some positions," said Paul McDonald, Robert Half senior executive director. "However, businesses look for people who will be committed to the organization, can contribute to the company, and help it reach its short- and long-term goals. Too much voluntary job hopping can be a red flag."

How to decide

How do you decide whether you should take a new job? Employment experts say it is important to focus on the reason why you are considering a new opportunity. Some good reasons for moving on include:

  • Greater challenge
  • More money
  • Shorter commute
  • More flexible hours
  • Better relationship with management

If one or some of those reasons are among your reasons, these experts suggest making sure any new job you accept addresses the ones that are most important to you.

Meanwhile, the CareerBuilder survey suggests the biggest reason people will look for new jobs in 2014 is job dissatisfaction. Fifty-eight percent of the employees in the survey who said they were dissatisfied in their current positions said they hoped to land a new job in the new year.

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Smartphone companies scramble for each others' subscribers

More competition between companies usually means better deals for consumers

Smartphones have now entered what you might call the “cannibalism” phase of market growth—which is considerably less disgusting than it s...

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A T-Mobile ad, aimed at AT&T's customers

Smartphones have now entered what you might call the “cannibalism” phase of market growth — which is considerably less disgusting than it sounds, and might even prove to have some advantages for consumers.

MediaPost's marketing blog noted that the “Next wave of [the] Telecom wars [is] to focus on switchers.” In other words: smartphones aren't exactly a “new” thing anymore; pretty much every adult who wants a smartphone has one already.

So if a wireless company wants to increase its subscriber base, there aren't many potential “new” customers out there (“new” meaning, someone who has never owned a smartphone before); instead, it has to convince “old” smartphone users to switch away from their current providers and go with someone else.

Which is not to say that the smartphone industry is on the verge of any huge changes, from consumers' perspective. Indeed, there's some inherent limits to how much competition can exist between various smartphone companies, anyway.

For example: AT&T and T-Mobile have both been targeting each others' subscribers — because the two companies use the same technology, so switching between the two is easy. But companies like Sprint and Verizon Wireless use different technology.

But regardless of what smartphone plan you have or which company you go with, it's always worth periodically comparing your subscription to other available offers. In many cases, merely letting your provider know you're switching to a cheaper service can inspire your current provider to make a better counteroffer.

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Facebook's "Sponsored Stories" ads will be going away

But that doesn't mean there won't be ads with users' pictures and "likes"

Facebook in early spring will shut down a controversial ad feature that got the company in legal trouble over privacy, the social network said Thursday.I...

PhotoFacebook has taken a lot of heat over its "Sponsored Stories" -- advertisements that basically hijacked users' names, photos and profiles for commercial gain. Now the Big F is dumping the program and says the ads will disappear after April 9.

Facebook recently settled a class action lawsuit that charged the ads were an invasion of privacy, agreeing to pay $20 million, which works out to about $15 for each person whose profile was used in one of the ads.

The program started in 2011 with little fanfare, so many users were taken by surprise when their photos showed up in ads hawking one product or another. Some didn't mind but privacy advocates said it didn't matter -- Facebook had not properly obtained their permission.

Complicating the matter was the fact that many of those featured in the ads were minors -- children, in other words, who are protected by more stringent regulations than adults.

But if this kind of thing irks you, don't relax just yet. Sponsored Stories may be gone but its spirit lives on. Facebook has changed its privacy policy and says that all users' data is fair game, meaning that photos, "likes" and so forth can still be used in ads.

The only apparent difference is that individual users can't be the focus of an ad.

How's that again?

Well, as Facebook explains it in a blog post, "[S]ocial context — stories about social actions your friends have taken, such as liking a page or checking in to a restaurant — is now eligible to appear next to all ads shown to friends on Facebook."

So, your face, likes, etc., can still pop up in ads but the ad can't be designed to showcase your individual likes. If that seems a little vague, Facebook goes on to explain it this way:

"As before, you are in control of who sees what you post on Facebook, whether it appears in News Feed, next to ads, or elsewhere on Facebook. You can visit your Activity Log to see who can see stories about your social actions and change the audience or unlike or delete the content at any time. 

"In addition, you can visit your Ads and Friends setting to limit when stories about your social actions are paired with ads shown to friends."

Perfectly clear, right?

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Unemployment dips below 7% in December

But the decline was accompanied by tepid job creation

The unemployment rate fell below 7% in December, but it's not because of a robust labor market. Government figures show the decline -- to 6.7% -- was due ...

PhotoThe unemployment rate fell below 7% in December, but it's not because of a robust labor market.

Government figures show the decline -- to 6.7% -- was due to fewer people looking for work, thus not being counted in the survey.

The economy created a paltry 74,000 payroll positions last month after two months in which than 200,000 jobs were added. The report follows by just two days a report from ADP that December saw 238,000 jobs cranked out.

Job creation

Employment in retail trade rose by 55,000 in December, including 12,000 each in food and beverage stores clothing and accessories stores, 8,000 in general merchandise stores and 7,000 in motor vehicle and parts dealers. For the year, retail trade added an average of 32,000 jobs per month.

Wholesale trade added 15,000 jobs -- most of it (9,000) in electronic markets and agents and brokers (+9,000). The sector added an average of 8,000 jobs per month in 2013.

Manufacturing employment rose by 9,000 jobs last month, as primary metals added 4,000 positions and petroleum and coal products hired 2,000. people. Electronic instruments, however, lost 4,000 jobs. It was not a particularly good year for manufacturing, which added 77,000 jobs compared with an increase of 154,000 the year before.

The losers

Construction employment fell by 16,000 in December, although the industry added an average of 10,000 jobs per month during the year. Employment in nonresidential specialty trade contractors was down 13,000 last month, possibly reflecting unusually cold weather in parts of the country.

Employment in information fell by 12,000 in December, driven by a decline in the motion picture and sound recording industry (-14,000). Employment in information was essentially unchanged over the year.

In December, the civilian labor force participation rate was 62.8% -- down 0.2% from November. For the year as a whole, the labor force participation rate was down 0.8%.

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

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Target now says data on 70 million consumers was stolen, up from 40 million

The retailer says it wasn't just credit and debit card information that was taken

It was pretty bad when Target announced before the holidays that credit and debit card data for 40 million customers had been stolen. Now it's even worse -...

PhotoIt was pretty bad when Target announced before the holidays that credit and debit card data for 40 million customers had been stolen. Now it's even worse -- Target has upped the number to 70 million and says the information stolen also includes customers' names, addresses, phone numbers and emails.

PIN data and three-digit security codes were also taken in the breach, which occurred between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15.

"I know that it is frustrating for our guests to learn that this information was taken and we are truly sorry they are having to endure this," said Gregg Steinhafel, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Target. "I also want our guests to know that understanding and sharing the facts related to this incident is important to me and the entire Target team."

Target insisted in a press release that customers would have "zero liability" for the cost of any fraudulent charges arising from the breach.

"To provide further peace of mind, Target is offering one year of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection to all guests who shopped our U.S. stores. Guests will have three months to enroll in the program," the company said, promising that additional details will be released next week.

Target said that it will try to contact affected customers for whom it has an email address. Others are on their own, apparently.

Target said Friday that sales for the last quarter were "meaningfully weaker-than-expected," thanks to the data breach, but have shown improvement in recent days.

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Flat Creek Farm & Dairy recalls cheese

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Flat Creek Farm & Dairy of Swainsboro, Ga., is recalling 90 pounds of Heavenly Blue and 78 pounds of Aztec Cheddar cheese. The products may be contaminate...

PhotoFlat Creek Farm & Dairy of Swainsboro, Ga., is recalling 90 pounds of Heavenly Blue and 78 pounds of Aztec Cheddar cheese.

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The cheeses were distributed in certain parts of Georgia and Florida and (6) online orders (www.flatcreekdairy.com). Customers are in the process of being notified.

The product is packed in clear plastic and ranges in sizes from ½ pound to whole wheels. The recall is specific to product marked with the lot codes 130916XHB (Heavenly Blue) and 130823XAZ (Aztec Cheddar), which can be found on the front of the package.

Consumers are urged to return the product to the place of purchase.

Consumers may call Flat Creek Dairy & Farm at 478-237-0123 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. EST.

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Avoid trouble and save money during winter travel

Travel experts offer some advice

Not everyone takes vacations in the summer. Winter vacations – both to cold and warm weather destinations – are especially popular as a couple'...

PhotoNot everyone takes vacations in the summer. Winter vacations – both to cold and warm weather destinations – are especially popular as a couple's getaway or a long holiday weekend for the family.

But travel during winter months can present complications not found during the summer, whether you are traveling by air or by car. As the recent invasion of the “polar vortex” shows, winter weather can be highly unpredictable – and limiting.

When traveling by car, AAA suggests keeping the emphasis on safety. For example, make sure tires are properly inflated during cold weather and don't mix radial tires with other types, such as snow tires. If you're driving on a wet, slippery surface don't use your cruise control.

Timely car service

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) suggests having your car in for service and a check-up before leaving on a winter road trip. The last thing you want to worry about is some mechanical malfunction, leaving you stranded away from home.

Also, be ready to change course if conditions change. Before departure, make sure you know your route. You need to be ready for anything on the road that could require a detour, including construction, road closings and traffic back-ups. Keep the directions as well as appropriate state maps handy, in case you need to reroute your trip.

Every car should have a roadside safety kit before departure on a winter road trip. You should have a cell phone with car charger; ice scraper; tow rope and jumper cables; sand or cat litter to aid with traction; blankets; flashlights, matches and emergency candles; first aid kit; portable radio; and a good book, in case you do get stuck.

Watch out for driver fatigue. Winter driving is much more tiring than in the summer, so make it a point to stop and stretch your legs. Just a few minutes off the road will make a big difference in driver alertness.

Air travel

PhotoAir travel can also be a little trickier in the winter than in summer. While it is true that summer thunderstorms can throw schedules into chaos, it is more likely to happen when there are ice and snow conditions. Just this week, when the polar vortex had much of the country in its grasp, JetBlue cancelled more than 1,800 of its flights because of weather-related conditions.

Because everything seems to slow down in cold weather, ATSA suggests giving yourself an extra hour to get to the airport to meet your flight. That said, be prepared for delays once you get there. In cities with snow or ice, arrival delays can exceed two to three hours and de-icing procedures can take an hour before takeoff.

Another hazard of winter air travel is germs, which seem to be more present in the winter. Most germs will spread by contact, so having hand sanitizer available is a good idea.

Whether you are headed for a beach or the ski slopes during the winter months, most travelers would like to save money. Online travel company Getaroom.com says there are some great, lesser-known ski resorts in Colorado and New England that don't cost nearly as much as Aspen or Vail and are less crowded too.

Money-saving tips

When you book your flight, pick flights that have layovers at southern airports, even if it increases the cost of the ticket slightly. In the winter, the risk of bad weather cancelling a flight is much less in Atlanta than it is in Detroit.

When you travel can also save money. For example, Getaroom.com suggests checking in on Sunday. Traditionally a "check-out" day, Sunday is an ideal day to start your trip because rates are often lower than the typical Friday or Saturday check-in rates.

Finally, stay alert and informed throughout your trip. Not long ago travelers had very few sources of information. Today, nearly everything they need to know is as close as their smartphone. Use your phone to check flight statuses and weather alerts. If your flight is canceled you are often better off using the phone to make new arrangements instead of waiting in a long service desk line.

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Ex-auto safety regulators settling into their new lobbying and advocacy jobs

LaHood and Strickland now see the "Dangerous Jeeps" issue only in their rear-view mirrors

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been named a co-chairman of Building America’s Future, the group announced.LaHood will join for...

Photo
Ray LaHood

The Obama administration, like most of those that have preceded it, said with great hoopla that it was going to nail shut the revolving door through which high-ranking political appointees move into high-paying jobs as corporate lobbyists and, sometimes, move back into government when a client industry's ox is being gored.

Of course, political promises rank somewhere below weather forecasts and weight-loss ads on the credibility scale, so perhaps it's not surprising to see where two high-ranking auto safety officials have ended up. 

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been named a co-chairman of Building America’s Future, which is pushing for more bridge, highway, transit and aviation construction, known to cynics as the Concrete Lobby. And David Strickland who, under LaHood, headed up the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency that regulates automobile safety, is joining the powerhouse Washington lobbying and law firm Venable LLP.

Both left office under a cloud following a highly unusual secret meeting with Chrysler officials at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where a partial recall of allegedly fire-prone Jeep Cherokee SUVs was discussed. 

Chrysler and NHTSA have been under fire from Janelle Embrey, a Virginia woman who was involved in a multiple-vehicle pile-up in which two people burned to death when their Jeep was rear-ended and the gas tank -- mounted in the car's crush zone between the rear bumper and axle -- ruptured and started a fast-spreading fire.

Embrey started a campaign called Dangerous Jeeps and gathered thousands of signatures on an online petition calling on NHTSA and Chrysler to recall the Jeeps. She erected billboards and generated press coverage but after the O'Hare meeting, nothing more was done by NHTSA and the recall effort stalled.

LaHood's "Delighted"

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Source: DangerousJeeps.com

LaHood, a former Republican Congressman from Illinois, says he's "delighted" with his new position. He joins former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) as co-chairmen of Building America's Future, which advocates for increased infrastructure spending.

LaHood is taking the seat formerly occupied by former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is departing to head the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy.

LaHood says he'll be free to say things now that he couldn't say during his time in the Obama administration and hinted at a recent roundtable that he may have other opportunities to "really talk about the things that really make a difference,” Politico reported.

One of the things he's already talking up is the idea of higher gas taxes. LaHood, who didn't want to ask Chrysler to spend millions of dollars to recall and rebuild those troublesome Jeeps, has said in public remarks lately that he no longer has to answer to the voters and is thus free to call for tax increases that favor the interests he has adopted.

LaHood has also been quick to slip into the outsider role favored by Washington insiders.

“While there is widespread agreement that our nation’s aging roads, bridges, transit and aviation systems are woefully inadequate, Washington has failed to show leadership in making the tough decisions to increase revenue to fund these critical investments," he said in a prepared statement. 

$1.1 million in lobbing

Photo
David Strickland

Strickland, meanwhile, will be joining Venable's Regulatory and Legislative practices group as a partner later this month, the firm said. Venable has billed $1.1 million for its services to Chrysler over the last five years, according to public records.

"With federal regulations impacting our daily lives in more ways than most people can imagine, Venable knows how to navigate through and how to get things done," Strickland said. "I’m looking forward to this new challenge and bringing my experience to one of the top teams in the country.” 

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Consumer Watchdog says Google+ Circles admit just anyone, friend or not

But it also thanks Google for taking steps against online predators

Fairly or not, people often judge you by the company you keep. And the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog says this can cause huge problems for people with ...

PhotoFairly or not, people often judge you by the company you keep. And the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog says this can cause huge problems for people with Google+ accounts, who might not be able to control who does or does not associate with their virtual online personae.

In December, Consumer Watchdog criticized Google for allowing Google+ to become “a virtual playground for online predators and explicit sexual content” (according to this .pdf letter CW sent to Google).

To back its claims, CW also sent Google a detailed, 27-page study (which is also available in .pdf form, but be warned: due to sexually explicit content it might not be suitable to download or read on your workplace computer).

On January 9, Consumer Watchdog thanked Google for clearing out some of the more predatory Google+ accounts but brought another problem to the company's attention: pretty much any Google+ user can add people to their “Circles” whether they want to be there or now.

In social media terminology, Facebook users have “friend lists,” whereas Google+ users have people in their “Circles.” In theory they're pretty much the same thing, only on different social media platforms, so that saying “Let's be Facebook friends” or “Let me add you to my Google+ circle” are more or less synonymous.

Except they're not. There's a big distinction between becoming somebody's Facebook friend and joining their Google+ Circle, as Consumer Watchdog said:

[On Facebook] a person receiving a request from an individual to be their “friend” must approve that request first. If the person chooses not to accept, he or she is in no way associated with the individual.

On Google+ any individual can add a user to his Circles. If the user does not appreciate the posts he sends to them, they can block the individual. However, if anyone visits the person’s profile and he has opted to display publicly who is in his Circles, the user’s name and picture will still appear there. The user cannot remove himself from the sender’s Circles, no matter what, once that person has placed them in their Circle's. A user is forced to be publicly associated with someone with whom they do not wish to be associated.... This is a fundamental privacy flaw and must be fixed. People must have the right to choose with whom they are associated.

Friends and Circles

In other words: on Facebook, I can't add you to my “friends” list (or vice-versa) unless we both agree to it. But on Google+, I can add you to my “circle” whether you want me to or not — so anyone looking through the list of people in my Circle will see your name there, and naturally assume that you chose to associate with me.

Google has already been under fire for accusations that it's going too far in its attempts to expand the size of its Google+ user base (or at least increase the number of people who have Google+ accounts, whether or not they actually use them).

Just this week, we learned the story of Thomas Gagnon, who was arrested after sending a Google+ invite to an ex-girlfriend who had taken out a restraining order against him — except Gagnon's attorney says Google sent the invite automatically, without his client's knowledge or approval. (Gagnon was arrested in late December; as this story is published, Google has not yet released any records related to the invitation or who exactly sent it.)

There's an acronym you'll often see used in online forums: IRL, which stands for “In Real Life” (as opposed to the “virtual” life on the Internet). It usually appears in such contexts as, “I only talk to him online; we've never met IRL.” But as Gagnon's story shows, and Consumer Watchdog's concerns further underscore, “Internet vs. real life” is probably a false distinction — nowadays, the Internet is part of real life, and what you do on the Internet can have real-life consequences … even if you had no idea you did it, because Google's auto-bots did it for you.

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Feds round up car dealers in crackdown on sales and financing abuses

Ads falsely led consumers to think they could buy cars for low monthly payments

We've all seen the ads promising great deals on new cars -- low monthly loan payments, leases with no money down and other extravagant claims. The Federal ...

PhotoWe've all seen the ads promising great deals on new cars -- low monthly loan payments, leases with no money down and other extravagant claims. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) saw the ads too and didn't like them.

“Buying or leasing a car is a big deal, and car ads are an important source of information for serious shoppers,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Dealers’ ads need to spell out costs and other important terms customers can count on. If they don’t, dealers can count on the FTC to take action.”

Rich made the comment as the FTC announced that nine auto dealers have agreed to settle deceptive advertising charges, and the agency is taking action against a 10th dealer, in a nationwide sweep focusing on the sale, financing, and leasing of motor vehicles.

According to the complaints, the dealers made a variety of misrepresentations in print, Internet, and video advertisements that falsely led consumers to believe they could purchase vehicles for low prices, finance vehicles with low monthly payments, and/or make no upfront payment to lease vehicles. One dealer even misrepresented that consumers had won prizes they could collect at the dealership.

The dealerships that settled are: 

California

Casino Auto Sales of La Puente, Calif., and Rainbow Auto Sales, of South Gate, Calif., allegedly violated the FTC Act by deceptively advertising that consumers could purchase vehicles at specific low prices when, in fact, the price was $5,000 higher. Both dealers’ ads involved a mix of English and Spanish. 

Honda of Hollywood, Los Angeles, and Norm Reeves Honda of Cerritos, Calif., violated the FTC Act by deceptively advertising that consumers could pay $0 up-front to lease a vehicle when, in fact, the advertised amounts excluded substantial fees and other amounts. 

Georgia

Nissan of South Atlanta of Morrow, Ga., allegedly violated the FTC Act by deceptively advertising that consumers could finance a vehicle purchase with low monthly payments when, in fact, the payments were temporary “teasers” after which consumers would owe a different amount. 

Illinois

Infiniti of Clarendon Hills of Clarendon Hills, Ill., allegedly violated the FTC Act by deceptively advertising that consumers could pay $0 up-front to lease a vehicle when, in fact, the advertised amounts excluded substantial fees and other amounts. 

North Carolina

Paramount Kia of Hickory, N.C., allegedly violated the FTC Act by deceptively advertising that consumers could finance a purchase with low monthly payments when, in fact, the payments were temporary “teasers” after which the consumer would owe a much higher amount, by several hundred dollars. 

Michigan

Fowlerville Ford of Fowlerville, Mich., allegedly violated the FTC Act by sending mailers that deceptively claimed consumers had won a sweepstakes prize, when, in fact, they had not. 

Texas

Southwest Kia companies, including New World Auto Imports, Dallas, Texas, New World Auto Imports of Rockwall, Rockwall, Texas, and Hampton Two Auto Corporations, Mesquite, Texas, allegedly violated the FTC Act by deceptively advertising that consumers could purchase a vehicle for specific low monthly payments when, in fact, consumers would owe a final balloon payment of over $10,000. The companies also allegedly deceptively advertised that consumers could drive home a vehicle for specific low up-front amounts and low monthly payments when, in fact, the deal was a lease and they would owe substantially more up-front. 

The proposed consent orders settling the FTC’s charges in the nine cases are designed to prevent the dealerships from engaging in similar deceptive advertising practices in the future.

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New mortgage rules called 'back to basics'

Lending reforms take effect Friday but most consumers shouldn't notice

The long-awaited Qualified Mortgage (QM) Rule, drafted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to prevent another housing meltdown, take effect...

PhotoThe long-awaited Qualified Mortgage (QM) Rule, drafted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to prevent another housing meltdown, takes effect January 10 and most prospective borrowers shouldn't experience much of a change.

Most lenders have already adopted many of the rule's provisions, which have been called a “back to basics” approach to lending by the consumer advocates who pushed for it. Among the new provisions now codified into law, lenders must determine that the borrower has the means to repay the loan before granting a mortgage.

“Lenders must now consider whether a borrower has the ability to repay a mortgage,” the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) said in a statement. “This change means an end to 'no-doc' loans. Lenders also have incentives to originate a new category of loans called Qualified Mortgages.”

Blocking risky loans

Under the rule, only QM loans can be sold for packaging as securities. These QM loans restrict risky product features like excessive fees and teaser rates, which were common during the housing bubble. Other reforms include new servicing standards, appraisal, escrow and loan originator compensation rules.

In truth, the mortgage industry has been meeting – and in some cases exceeding – these provisions since the housing crisis. That has made it more difficult for some borderline first-time homebuyers to get credit. In the past these borrowers might get the benefit of the doubt. In the post-2008 environment, lenders' new caution usually ended in a rejection.

Now, instead of having to guess, lenders know what they can and can't do when making a loan. Under the new Ability-to-Repay Rule, mortgage lenders must look at customers’ income, assets, savings, and debt, and weigh those against the monthly payments over the long term – not just a teaser or introductory rate period. As long as they check the numbers and the numbers check out, lenders can offer any mortgage they reasonably believe a consumer can afford.

'Common sense practices'

“These are common sense practices that most lenders already follow,” CFPB said in a statement.

However, it should be noted that not all mortgages are required to be Qualified Mortgages. Lenders can still make riskier loans to people with less than stellar credit, just as long as they make a good-faith determination that the borrower can repay the loan.

To be a Qualified Mortgage, the loan:

  • Cannot have excessive upfront points and fees
  • Cannot be longer than 30 years
  • Cannot have certain risky features, such as paying only interest and not principal, or paying less than the full amount of interest so that the total debt grows each month

A Qualified Mortgage must also meet a couple of other standards. For example, the monthly loan payment, plus the borrower’s other debt payments, cannot not exceed 43 percent of the borrower’s monthly income. The loan must also meet guidelines for purchase or guarantee by a government sponsored enterprise (Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac), or is insured or guaranteed by a federal housing agency or is made by a small lender that keeps the loan in its portfolio.

Protecting consumers

PhotoAccording to CFPB the Ability-to-Repay rule is intended to prevent consumers from getting trapped in mortgages that they cannot afford, and to prevent lenders from making loans that consumers do not have the ability to repay.

Again, consumers will likely see little disruption in the process. If anything, it might be slightly easier to get a mortgage with the new rules in place, since some lenders will likely find a niche providing loans that fall outside the QM guidelines. But these loans will not end up being packaged into securities and risking another credit crisis.

The CFPB estimates that roughly 92 percent of mortgages in the current marketplace meet the Qualified Mortgage requirements, and reports by independent economists have confirmed the Bureau’s calculations.

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Your social media connections might determine your borrowing ability

Data mining agencies don't ignore your online activity

If you watch TV crime dramas, you know that when people get arrested the police are supposed to read them their rights, so at some point the cops will reci...

PhotoIf you watch TV crime dramas, you know that when people get arrested the police are supposed to read them their rights, so at some point the cops will recite the following phrase: “Anything you say can and will be used against you.”

And we're only half-joking when we suggest maybe a similar rule applies to your personal finances in the electronic era: anything you do can and will be used against you.

For example, your Facebook and Twitter accounts might be used to determine your perceived creditworthiness. The Wall Street Journal discussed this practice on Jan. 8, in its article “Borrowers hit social media hurdles: regulators have concerns about lenders' use of Facebook, other sites.” Journal writer Stephanie Armour noted:

More lending companies are mining Facebook, Twitter and other social-media data to help determine a borrower's creditworthiness or identity, a trend that is raising concerns among consumer groups and Google Ventures, the venture-capital arm of Google Inc., and Accel Partners, an early Facebook Inc. investor—are looking at potential problems such as whether applicants put the same job information on their loan application as they posted on LinkedIn, or if they shared on Facebook that they had been let go by an employer. A small business that draws negative reviews on eBay also could undermine its chances of getting more credit, lending companies say.

So far, this practice appears mostly limited to small start-up loan companies dealing with small amounts of money — the Journal piece mentioned a typical example of a woman who'd borrowed a mere $200 from a company called LendUp.

Secret algorithms

But the practice of small lenders using social media to gauge creditworthiness is not new, though its presence in America arguably is. In 2011, a Hong Kong-based microlender called Lenddo opened for business in the Philippines; it made loans based on secret proprietary algorithms that had something to do with your Twitter followers and Facebook friends. (A writer for New York'sBetabeat blog tried applying for such a loan and was rejected — her own personal score was high enough to qualify for a Lenddo loan, but she had too many Facebook and Twitter connections who did not.)

Microlenders perusing social media sites aren't the only financial institutions willing to judge your creditworthiness according tot he company you keep—or even the places where you shop. As early as 2008, American Express started lowering the credit limits of cardholders in good standing—presumably because the cardholders patronized low-end businesses like Walmart.

An American Express spokeman defended the practice by saying “We’re just doing this to manage risk … customers who make transactions with certain merchants tend to have a higher proportion of credit issues or a higher probability of default.”

Uh-oh. In the past, we have (in good faith) advised people to save money by, for example, shopping in thrift stores and secondhand markets for certain items. We've even engaged in reverse-bragging on our own Facebook and other social media accounts: “Check out this unbelievably gorgeous coat I found for only five bucks!”

We thought we were demonstrating financial prudence — reducing our expenditures, increasing our savings, all the things professional financial advisers urge you to do — but maybe the lending agencies see things differently?

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Job-cutting pace slows

Fewer jobs were eliminated in both December and the year as a whole

Employers continued to cut jobs in 2013, but not as many as the year before. Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that job cuts f...

PhotoEmployers continued to cut jobs in 2013, but not as many as the year before.

Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that job cuts for the year were down about 3.0% from 2012. The total of 509,051 planned job cuts in 2013 is the lowest annual total since 434,350 terminations were announced in 1997.

For December, employers announced plans to reduce payrolls by 30,623 -- down 32% from a November total of 45,314 and the lowest level of the year. In fact, it was the lowest job-cut month in more than 13 years. The last time employers announced fewer job cuts was June, 2000, when 17,241 planned cuts were recorded.

“Employers seem less and less inclined to make dramatic staffing decisions in the final month of the year,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “We have had several years, when it was among the largest job-cut months of the year, if not the largest. Over the last five years, however, December job cuts have come in well below the annual average.”

Where the cuts are

Four of the top five job-cutting industries experienced significant increases in downsizing last year. The financial sector led all other industries with 60,962 job cuts, 49% more than the 41,008 in 2012. The second-ranked health care sector announced 52,638 job cuts in 2013 -- up 45% from the 36,212 a year earlier. Job cuts announced within the industrial goods sector nearly doubled from 26,103 in 2012 to 51,864.

The heavy job-cutting industries were affected by several factors in 2013, most of which were unrelated to the health of the economic recovery. “In fact,” explained Challenger, “in the case of the financial sector, the ongoing recovery was, ironically, a contributing factor to increased layoffs, as these institutions shed the thousands of extra workers brought on to handle foreclosures as well as the refinancing of troubled mortgages. As the economy improved, the number of foreclosures and troubled mortgages decline. At the same time, mortgage rates and home prices increased, which lowered demand for mortgage bankers.”

Opportunities ahead

He also points out that job cuts in the health care sector were not driven by lower demand. In fact, he notes, demand for health care is on the rise. “However, cuts in Medicare reimbursements and Medicaid funding forced hospitals and other health care providers to adjust their staffing levels, as that source of income declines.”

Challenger says despite the rise in job cuts, health care workers remain highly sought-after. Occupations in the health care sector that are expected to see strong hiring include physician’s assistants; nurses, particularly those in specialty areas, such as oncology; physical therapists; and medical technicians. There will also be high demand for researchers, engineers, designers, chemists and other high-skill areas in bio-technology, medical equipment manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.

Another area poised for strong growth in 2014 is technology, according to Challenger. While the computer industry saw the fifth highest number of job cuts last year, the pace of downsizing in the sector was actually down 24% from 2012. The industry ranked third in terms of hiring announcements, with firms announcing plans to add more than 26,000 workers.

Weekly jobless claims

PhotoFirst-time applications for state unemployment benefits dropped by 15,000 during the week ending January 4 to a seasonally adjusted total of 330,000.

While noting that none of the drop was the result of the winter storm activity that began at the end of last week (those will likely be seen over the next week or two), the Labor Department (DOL) stressed that the post-holiday period tends to be volatile as businesses reduce their temporary work staffs. Once the volatility is gone, analysts expect initial claims level to stabilize at roughly its current level of 330,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly tally and is considered a better barometer of the labor market, totaled 349,000 -- a drop of of 9,750 from the previous week.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Caution urged in use of certain laxatives

The cure could be worse than the problem

Constipation may not be a subject for polite conversation, although its hard to avoid hearing about it if you watch any TV. Still, it is a condition that b...

PhotoConstipation may not be a subject for polite conversation, although its hard to avoid hearing about it if you watch any TV. Still, it is a condition that bothers many people on occasion.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says some of the over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives consumers may turn to for relief are potentially dangerous if dosing instructions or warnings on the Drug Facts label are not properly followed or when there are certain coexisting health conditions. In fact, there have been dozens of reports of serious side effects -- including 13 deaths -- associated with the use of sodium phosphate laxatives.

Read the label

The label of sodium phosphate laxatives states that they should be used as a single dose taken once a day, and should not be used for more than three days. Equally important, consumers who do not have a bowel movement after taking an oral or rectal dose should not take another dose.

In addition, labeling instructs adults and children to ask health care professionals before using these products if they have kidney disease, heart problems or dehydration.

New warnings

FDA is now warning that adults older than 55 and adults and children with certain health conditions should ask a health care professional before using these products because they may be at increased risk for harmful side effects.

These new warnings are not currently in the Drug Facts label and apply to both adults and children:

  • who are taking certain drugs that affect how the kidneys work, such as diuretics or fluid medicines; angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors used to lower blood pressure; angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) used to treat high blood pressure, heart, or kidney failure; and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.
  • with inflammation of the colon.

Dealing with constipation

Constipation is marked by infrequent bowel movements or difficulty in passing stools.

Laxatives -- taken both orally and rectally -- come in different forms, with different ingredients. The sodium phosphate used in some products is in a class of medications called saline laxatives. This class of laxatives helps promote a bowel movement by drawing water into the bowel, which softens the stool and makes it easier to pass.

Laxative products containing sodium phosphates are marketed under the brand name "Fleet" and also as store brands and generic products. All of them are potentially associated with serious side effects, such as dehydration and/or abnormal levels of electrolytes in the blood that can lead to serious complications, such as kidney damage and sometimes death.

People at risk

According to Mona Khurana, M.D., a medical officer in FDA's Division of Nonprescription Regulation Development and a pediatric nephrologist (a doctor who specializes in children's kidney diseases), the most serious harm in recent reports occurred after consumers overdosed by taking a single dose that was higher than recommended on the drug label or took more than one dose in a day because they had a poor laxative effect from the first dose.

"The bottom line is that these products are safe for otherwise healthy adults and older children for whom dosing instructions are provided on the Drug Facts label as long as they follow these dosing instructions and don't take the product more often, or in greater amounts, than the label instructs," Khurana says.

In recent reviews of harmful side effects reported by consumers and health care professionals, FDA has identified 54 cases of serious side effects associated with the oral or rectal use of OTC sodium phosphate products for the treatment of constipation in adults and children. Thirteen cases were fatal, including one child and 12 adults.

"It is not possible to determine the precise rate of these events as no one knows how many individuals who take these medications may experience side effects," says Khurana, adding, "Not everybody who develops problems in association with sodium phosphate use reports to the FDA."

Caregivers should not give these products orally to children under age 5 years without first asking a health care professional. “Both caregivers and health care professionals should avoid the rectal use of these drug products in children under age 2 years," Khurana cautions. "These warnings against use in young children are listed on product labeling."

What to do

Consumers taking these laxatives should watch for warning signs of a bad reaction. For example, a rectal dose that is retained and does not produce a bowel movement may cause dehydration and/or serious changes in blood electrolyte levels. Symptoms of dehydration include dry mouth, thirst, reduced urine output, and lightheadedness, especially with changes in position. If the rectal dose is retained in the body longer than 30 minutes, a health care professional should be contacted right away.

The symptoms of kidney injury include drowsiness, sluggishness, a decreased amount of urine, or swelling of the ankles, feet and legs. If you experience any of these symptoms after using laxatives containing sodium phosphates, you should seek medical attention immediately.

If you have any concerns about using the products, particularly for use with young children, talk to your health care professional first, Khurana says.

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The continuing rise in home prices

Year over year increase for November totals nearly 12%

For the 21st month in a row, home prices posted a year-over-year increase during November. Residential property information, analytics and services provid...

PhotoFor the 21st month in a row, home prices posted a year-over-year increase during November.

Residential property information, analytics and services provider CoreLogic reports its Home Price Index shows home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales – were up 11.8 % in November 2013 from the same month a year earlier. This marks the 21st consecutive monthly year-over-year increase in home prices nationally.

On a month-over-month basis, home prices nationwide increased a more modest 0.1%

"The housing market paused as expected in November for the holiday season with very low month-over-month appreciation,” said Dr. Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. “Year-over-year home prices are up an impressive 11.8%. Our pending HPI projects that home prices will grow by 11.5% for the full year 2013. That will make 2013 the best year for home-price appreciation since 2005."

Home price highlights

According to the November HPI:

  • Including distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were Nevada (+25.3%), California (+21.3%), Michigan (+14.4%), Arizona (+13.5%) and Georgia (+13.3%). The only state to show depreciation was Arkansas (-1.1%).
  • Excluding distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were Nevada (+21%), California (+17.6%), Idaho (+12.4%), Florida (+12.4%) and Arizona (+11.7%). No states posted home price depreciation in November.
  • Including distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the national HPI (from April 2006 to November 2013) was -17.6%. Excluding distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the HPI for the same period was -13.3%.
  • The five states with the largest peak-to-current declines -- including distressed transactions -- were Nevada (-40.5%), Florida (-37.3%), Arizona (-31.4%), Rhode Island (-29.4%) and Illinois (-24.5%).
  • Ninety-six of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) measured by population showed year-over-year increases in November 2013.

Looking ahead

The CoreLogic Pending HPI indicates that December 2013 home prices -- including distressed sales -- are expected to dip 0.1% month over month from November to December 2013, with a projected increase of 11.5% on a year-over-year basis from December 2012.

"On a year-over-year basis, home prices have appreciated every month in 2013. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia are now at or within 10% of their peaks," said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. "The outlook for 2014 looks a bit less robust as regulatory complexities and tight credit can be expected to cool the housing market."

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Online fitness tools offer a low-cost way to health

For the highly motivated, these apps could replace a health club

Too much computer use can lead to weight gain and poor overall health. But there are tools you can access with your computer or mobile device that might he...

PhotoToo much computer use can lead to weight gain and poor overall health. But there are tools you can access with your computer or mobile device that might help you get in shape and improve your health, without the expense of a health club.

Even before the mobile explosion, some people were finding online tools for logging exercise and improving dietary habits. Since 2005, when the Agriculture Department (USDA) replaced its food pyramid with My Plate, the government-run website has provided consumers a way to monitor diet and activity.

Today, MyPlate.gov provides SuperTracker, a free tool to get personalized nutrition information and a physical activity plan. Using the tool consumers can also track their foods and physical activities, to see how they stack up against recommendations. The tool also provides tips and support to help users make healthier choices.

SuperTracker

Within SuperTracker, there are also tools for managing your weight, looking up nutritional values of 8,000 different foods, setting goals and exploring recipes.

When smartphones came along, many of these online tools were developed into apps, designed for use on the go. Some apps are free and some you pay for. As you might expect, the ones you pay for tend to have more features.

My Fitness Pal

PhotoMy Fitness Pal is among the apps that can turn your phone into a fitness training tool. In large part, My Fitness Pal is an food diary and activity log. The idea i