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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 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+.”

    This past week has been a bad one for Google+ public relations. On Wednesday, Americans learned the story of Massachusetts resident Thomas Gagnon, arrested...

    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 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.

    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...

    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 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.

    With employment prospects improving over the last few months more people are beginning to think about changing jobs. When the unemployment rate hovered aro...

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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 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.

      Smartphones have now entered what you might call the “cannibalism” phase of market growth—which is considerably less disgusting than it s...

      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 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?

      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...

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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 -- 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.

      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 -...

      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 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.

      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...

      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'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

      Air 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.

      Not everyone takes vacations in the summer. Winter vacations – both to cold and warm weather destinations – are especially popular as a couple'...

      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

      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"

      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

      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.” 

      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...

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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, 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

      According 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.

      The long-awaited Qualified Mortgage (QM) Rule, drafted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to prevent another housing meltdown, take effect...

      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 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's  Betabeat 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?

      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...

      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 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

      First-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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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."

      For the 21st month in a row, home prices posted a year-over-year increase during November. Residential property information, analytics and services provid...

      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 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

      My 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 is, if you can keep track of the calories you consume and those you burn you'll have more success at managing a healthy weight. It has a searchable food database of more than three million food items. It's a free download for iPhone and Android.

      Couch to 5K, also known as C25K, is a fitness app designed for novices. It is geared toward literally taking someone from the couch and getting them ready to take part in a 5K race in eight weeks.

      The app's developers say the program will allow users to slowly build strength and stamina by alternating between walking and running, and only 3 days a week. One feature is that you can listen to music while you work out and follow the program’s audio alerts that tell you when to warm up, walk, run, and when one minute is left to give it your all.

      Digifit works with a heart monitor to record workouts with real-time heart rate and calories displayed on the screen. Users can track weight, blood pressure, sleep, and more to see the connection between health and fitness.

      Getting social

      Endomondo Sports Tracker is another fitness app, with a key difference. It's also a social app. It tracks duration, distance, calories and more in real-time, offers audio feedback and brings in your friends to deliver a peptalk while you’re exercising. Once you set a time, distance or calorie goal you get more advanced audio coaching.

      You can also set a previous workout or a friend's performance as your target for additional motivation. The app keeps a full log of your training.

      Digital fitness

      In addition to converting your smartphone to a fitness device, there are also devices specifically designed to promote health a fitness. A number of these new devices are making a debut at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Show officials say nearly 10% of companies showing their wares have products in the health and fitness niche.

      For example, Casio has rolled out the STB-1000, a sports watch using Bluetooth to enable wearers to check personal fitness data from popular mobile apps, operate a music player on a smartphone.

      "This is an ideal sports watch for countless recreational runners who exercise with their iPhones," said Shigenori Itoh, CEO of Casio America Inc. "In addition to the compatibility with several apps, it has a battery life up to two years and a versatile, water-proof design that makes it easy to use and wear before, during and after any workout."

      The watch itself, without an iPhone, also has other sports watch functions including recording up to 120 lap times.

      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...