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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 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.

    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...

    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.

    There is no polite way to say this: the women's beauty industry is based on contempt for its would-be customers, all of whom must be convinced “You're not good enough, and won't be unless you buy and use whatever ridiculously overpriced crap we're trying to sell.”

    Consider the stories you'll find splashed across the cover of a typical so-called “women's” magazine:

    FIFTEEN COMPLICATED NEW EYE-MAKEUP-APPLICATION TECHNIQUES (which you must master because, even though people say your eyes are your best feature, everything around them is just bleah)

    KICKY NEW FIGURE-ENHANCING FASHIONS (necessary because your unenhanced figure frankly looks like a cow's)

    HOW TO MAKE HIM COMMIT TO YOU (which, due to your sundry figure and personality flaws, he'd never consider doing unless you apply the manipulation techniques outlined in this-here $4.95 magazine)


    MUST-HAVE TRENDY CLOTHES THAT WILL BE HOPELESSLY OUT OF FASHION NEXT YEAR (but buy them anyway. What, you want to save your money for investment purposes? Pshaw, that Prince Charming you'll catch after doing everything we tell you is surely the only investment you'll ever need.)

    None of this is enough, of course, so the beauty industry is always inventing entire new reasons why women should feel insecure about ourselves so they can sell us even more expensive new money-wasting products to assuage that insecurity. As of January 2014, the latest thing we're supposed to worry about is a newly discovered/invented condition called “hyperhidrosis,” or “sweaty breasts,” which is incurable [alas] although its symptoms can be alleviated [hooray!] via frequent liberal applications of something called “breast deodorant.”

    "Bust Dust"

    Seriously. And there's more than one brand of breast deodorant on the market, too! Klima Deodorant claims to have the best kind, because their “Bust Dust” is more than just a deodorant; it's also an anti-perspirant. Here's what the marketing copy has to say:

    Nobody likes sweating through their bra or shirt.

    Unfortunately, due to genetics, the heat, certain types of shirts or a myriad of [sic] other factors, roughly 30% of people worldwide suffer from chest and breast sweating (Hyperhidrosis).

    While there have been many products on the market claiming to keep your chest fresh, none of them were actually an antiperspirant, they were simply baby powders with perfume. And without an antiperspirant, these will not do anything to stop wetness from leaking through your clothing.

    Bust Dust is a revolutionary product because it not only prevents odor, but also blocks sweat from exiting your skin where it is applied.

    Over in the UK, journalist Radhika Sanghani, while demanding to know “How stupid do beauty companies think women are?” wrote a face-palming summary of these new products for the Telegraph, and pointed out the following:

    “Many people do use deodorants for their underarms, but they have the most sweat glands in the body and underarm sweat can make clothes smell or stain. Breasts are not in the same sweating league, and generally only produce sweat in intense heat or post-exercise.”

    Obviously. Underarm anti-perspirants can genuinely be useful because, even when you're relaxing quietly in a cool, dry place, your armpits can still produce enough sweat to literally ruin your clothes. But for the most part, your boobs (and arms, and legs, and torso and back) don't get sweaty unless all of you gets sweaty, in which case suppressing the sweat sounds like an extremely unhealthy thing to do.

    There's a reason

    Remember the reason we evolved sweat glands in the first place: to rid ourselves of excess body heat. When our body temperature gets too high, sweat glands release water onto our skin, and as that water evaporates it takes heat with it. These are basic laws of physics and human biology.

    And here's another one: when you're in hot weather or doing intense exercise, your skin is supposed to be shiny rather than matte. If this doesn't happen – if you're exercising on a hot day, yet your skin remains non-reflective and dry to the touch – this is bad and you must drink some water immediately, and possibly seek medical attention, because such symptoms could indicate anything from “severe dehydration” to “a weird new medical syndrome wherein you're at constant risk of heat stroke because your sweat glands don't work.”

    Or maybe you just need to take a shower, scrub off the boob anti-perspirant you foolishly applied to your entire body, and resolve never to waste your money on anything as idiotic as breast deodorant ever again.

    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

      Of 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

      Unfortunately, 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.

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

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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

      A 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.

      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...

      Revenge porn king Hunter Moore arrested

      Moore and accomplice allegedly stole photos for IsAnyoneUp?

      File 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.

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

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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 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.


      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.


      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.


      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.

      “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 ...

      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 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.

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

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.


      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

      Beyond 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.

      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...

      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 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

      Their 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.

      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...

      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 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.

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

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

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

      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'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.

      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.

      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...

      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 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.

      November 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

      A 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.

      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...

      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.

      "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.

      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....

      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 food.

      The FDA's announcement follows a Consumer Reports magazine study that found some types of caramel coloring contain a potentially carcinogenic chemical called4-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.

      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...