Current Events in January 2014

Browse Current Events by year

2014

Browse Current Events by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thanks for subscribing.

    You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    TeleCheck to pay $3.5 million for credit reporting violations

    Certegy paid a similar fine last year; both companies agree to clean up their procedures

    The check authorization companies that consumers love to complain about may be doing some complaining of their own these days. TeleCheck has agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

    That's the same amount its primary competitor, Certegy Check Services, agreed to pay last August. Both companies have also agreed to clean up their consumer protection practices. 

    TeleCheck, based in Houston, is a consumer reporting agency (CRA) that compiles consumers’ personal information and uses it to help retail merchants throughout the United States determine whether to accept consumers’ checks.

    Correct inaccuracies

    Consumers rate Telecheck

    Under the FCRA, consumers whose checks are denied based on information TeleCheck provided to the merchant have the right to dispute that information and have TeleCheck investigate and correct any inaccuracies.

    But as recent ConsumerAffairs stories have shown, many consumers say they are not advised of their right to dispute the information and say they are simply told there is nothing they can do about it.

    “We were denied a check at Walgreens (where we have an account) due to TeleCheck's profile. We went to the bank and they called TeleCheck to tell them we had plenty of money in our account," said an Illinois consumer named Larry in a posting to ConsumerAffairs last month. "TeleCheck said it didn't matter how much money we had in the bank, their statistical profile found something else. ... The fact that the bank said there was money in the bank meant nothing to them. They said we shouldn't write checks for seven days (it's Christmas season!).”

    The FTC’s complaint alleges, among other things, that TeleCheck did not follow proper dispute procedures, including refusing to investigate disputes. The complaint also alleges that TeleCheck failed to follow reasonable procedures to assure the maximum possible accuracy of the information it provided to its merchant clients as required by the FCRA, and failed to promptly correct errors on consumers’ reports.

    In addition, the complaint alleges that an affiliated debt-collection entity, TRS Recovery Services, Inc., which handles consumer debt taken on by TeleCheck and furnishes information about consumers to TeleCheck, violated the requirements of the FTC’s Furnisher Rule, which requires entities furnishing information to CRAs to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the information provided.

    Crackdown on data brokers

    “If CRAs like TeleCheck provide merchants with inaccurate information, those merchants may wrongly deny consumers the ability to buy even the most essential items, like food and medicine. The FCRA gives consumers the right to dispute and correct inaccurate information,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The Commission takes violations of these rights seriously.”

    The order settling the FTC’s charges requires TeleCheck and TRS to alter their business practices to comply with the requirements of the FCRA and the Furnisher Rule in the future.

    The case is part of a broader FTC initiative to target the practices of data brokers, which often compile, maintain, and sell sensitive consumer information. Consumer reporting agencies like TeleCheck are data brokers that sell information to companies making important decisions about consumers, such as their ability to get credit or pay for goods and services by check.

    The check authorization companies that consumers love to complain about may be doing some complaining of their own these days. TeleCheck has agreed to pay...

    Headed for college? Student loan mistakes to avoid

    It starts with how you spend your student loan

    The rising total of student loan debt has been well documented. At last count it is more than $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

    Once used mostly to offset the high costs of medical and law school, student loans have now become a routine tool used to finance many undergraduate degrees. Students who don't carefully plan their financing and follow a strict budget can end up with tens of thousands of dollars in loan liabilities, limiting what they can spend on other things as they begin their careers.

    Set priorities

    One area where students make a mistake, early in their college careers, is in the way they use the money they have borrowed. Eric Adamowsky, co-founder of CreditCardInsider.com, says students should only spend borrowed money on things directly related to education.

    “A lot of students end up taking out additional loans for room and board, so they can live in a nicer place or to have spending money,” he said. “But the basics -- tuition, room and board and books -- that's where student loans should be used.

    It's also a good idea to set a “ceiling” for student loans. Most experts recommend borrowing no more than you expect to make in your first year on the job after graduation.

    Cost effective option

    Another mistake sometimes occurs before students even arrive on campus. They simply select a school they can't really afford. Sometimes students eager for “the college experience” pass up their most cost-effective option.

    “I know the community college route isn't terribly sexy but coming from someone who has spent the last 22 years in the corporate world I can tell you the no employer cares where you took English 101,” Adamowsky said. “Taking it at Dekalb Community College is going to be considerably cheaper than taking it at Duke.”

    As long as the school where you want to end up accepts the credits, a community college or in-state university can be an ideal place to take your required courses, at a much lower cost per credit hour. Averaged over four years, it lowers the cost of a college education.

    Also, you're more likely to get into the college of your choice if you wait and transfer in for the last year or two. Some states even guarantee that in-state students who complete two years of community college can attend the state university of their choice for the last two years.

    January is an important month

    Because schools have different deadlines for financial aid and processing takes time, completing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a crucial first step when you need to borrow for college. Adamowsky says it should be done in January, the earlier the better.

    “Many schools have different deadlines but more importantly, there are actually a number of states that serve FAFSA applicants on a first-come, first-served basis, so the faster you can complete and submit the application, the better,” he said.

    Adamowsky says federal-backed student loans are the best you’ll find in terms of interest rate, grace period, and flexible repayment plans. Because who qualifies and how doesn't can be a complicated matter, he says everyone should apply, rather than just assuming their family makes too much money.

    Serious business

    Finally, students err by underestimating the longterm effects of student loan debt. Borrowing over a four-year period, it is easy to lose sight of your total debt, leaving you with a debt the size of a small mortgage at graduation.

    “Guidance counselors and parents can be more proactive in helping students understand what it means to run up a large student loan debt and how that debt will measure up against what potential jobs pay,” Adamowsky said.

    Before beginning the student loan process students should determine the total amount they will need to obtain a degree. Your repayment plan for student loans should be as strategic and aggressive as for any debt you carry—especially if you have income left at the end of the month to put towards it.

    The rising total of student loan debt has been well documented. At last count it is more than $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection...

    Masschusetts children suffocate inside antique hope chest

    Not until 1987 were hope chests made that open from inside

    When you're browsing in a secondhand shop or antique store, or brushing dust off the heirlooms in Grandma's attic, chances are you'd never think to ask yourself, “Has there been a safety recall on this lovely vintage pre-World War Two antique?”

    But a young brother and sister suffocated to death in Franklin, Massachusetts this week, when they climbed inside an antique hope chest and were unable to open the lid after it slammed shut on top of them. The Boston Globe reported on Jan. 14 that:

    During an apparent game of hide-and-seek, 7-year-old Sean Munroe and his 8-year-old sister Lexi climbed inside a wooden storage chest that automatically latched shut when closed and could not be opened from the inside. The chest, determined by investigators to have been made in 1939, was part of a 1996 recall of 12 million such chests made by Lane Furniture of Virginia after reports of at least six children suffocating inside.

    On Tuesday, District Attorney Michael Morrissey urged those who own Lane hope chests and similar models to check the lock to prevent similar tragedies.

    “It’s not just Lane hope chests,” he said. “This is something that was very popular.”

    Lane chests were recalled in 1996 and again in 2000, specifically in order to replace the old-fashioned latches with models that can be opened by anybody inside.

    The problem, again, is that even people who know to check recall lists for modern mass-produced products rarely think to do so for their antiques. (And it's not only the Lane company, nor is it only hope chests, parents should worry about; we just inspected a small antique “dry sink” in our living room and discovered its floor cabinet, when closed, automatically latches shut from the outside: not a problem for us, but it would be if we had a toddler or crawling infant small enough to fit inside the cabinet.)

    Recall list only a start

    Parents: Checking your furniture against various recall lists is a good start, but only a start. You must also inspect your vintage cedar chests, hutches and cabinets, wardrobes, iceboxes … anything with an enclosed space large enough to hold a curled-up child.

    Specifically, inspect the lock, latch or whatever holds its doors shut, to see if it can be easily opened from the inside. Older pieces of furniture are actually more likely to have dangerous latches, as they were made before the idea of designing latches to reduce the possibility of suffocation even occurred to anybody.

    For example: If you're an American of a Certain Age – or talk to people who are – you probably have heard horror stories of children climbing into old discarded refrigerators and then suffocating inside. This really is a problem—for refrigerators built before 1958, the year the Refrigerator Safety Act came into force and required all new refrigerators sold in the United States to have doors capable of being opened with only 15 pounds of force pushing from inside.

    Yet refrigerator deaths remained a problem for many years after 1958 because, of course, it took a long time for all the pre-1958 refrigerators in use to be replaced and destroyed.

    Similar regulations regarding cedar chest latches were not put into place until 1987 — so be especially vigilant when inspecting latches on furniture older than that. Especially since hope chests, unlike refrigerators, are usually bought as heirlooms to be passed down through the generations, not appliances to be replaced as soon as they wear out.

    When you're browsing in a secondhand shop or antique store, or brushing dust off the heirlooms in Grandma's attic, chances are you'd never think to ask you...

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thanks for subscribing.

      You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      Why it may be important to improve your financial skills in retirement

      Managing retirement funds may be more challenging than saving them

      Sometime in the early 1990s there was a change in the American workplace. Companies began phasing out their defined pension plans for employees and began phasing in employee-directed retirement savings plans, most notably the 401(k).

      The change had advantages and drawbacks. The advantage is that financially-savvy employees could decide how their retirement funds were managed and choose how much risk they were willing to tolerate. The downside was that not all employees were financially-savvy.

      Instead of receiving a set benefit check from their employer's pension fund for the rest of their lives, most retirees now have to figure out how to make their retirement savings last. Some, admittedly, have a much more challenging task as surveys show an alarming number of near-retirees have put away far too little for their golden years.

      Not enough savings

      A 2011 survey by Wells Fargo found a majority of middle class Americans – 53% -- say they “need to significantly cut back on spending today to save for retirement.” Americans have saved, on average, only seven percent of their desired retirement nest egg– a median of $25,000 in retirement savings vs. a median retirement goal of $350,000. Three in ten people in their 60s have saved less than $25,000 for retirement, possibly indicating they will rely heavily on Social Security.

      For those who have managed to save a retirement nest egg, the challenge of managing it in retirement may be much greater than the challenge of saving. To produce income the funds need to be put to work. But investing – anything beyond bank CDs – involves risk. As people reach retirement they tend to be less tolerant of risk.

      "Generating retirement income is comparable to that of a NASA engineer trying to land a spaceship on Pluto," said Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. "Everything may be optimized and perfectly calculated to give the highest probability of success, but without mid-course corrections along the way, the likelihood of achieving the goal – of landing the ship or generating enough income to live on during retirement – is very low."

      Tough questions

      Blayney says there are a number of questions retirees and near-retirees need to be asking themselves. For example, do you have a retirement spending plan? It's not just what you save – but the amount you spend, and the types of those expenses – that will determine whether you will have enough to live on in retirement.

      The questions get harder from there. Next, you have to decide how to invest your savings and how to spread those investments around and here you have to be both smart and careful. Blayney says just because you need income in retirement does not mean it's time to load up on fixed income or high-yield securities. A sizeable allocation to growth assets is as important as ever, she maintains.

      Once the funds are allocated, you can't just forget it. When you are invested you must pay attention to the economy as well as the market and be ready to make course corrections when conditions dictate.

      If that weren't enough retirees have to decide how and when to withdraw funds from a tax-deferred savings account when the law says you must start making withdrawals and paying taxes.

      On-going decision making

      "The reality is that generating retirement income requires ongoing decision-making over the life of the retiree and there is no one solution or product that will be good for the duration," Blayney said.

      If you are short of your savings goal the important thing is not to panic because that's usually when people make mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes is to plunge into a questionable investment – or outright scam – because it's promoter promises big returns.

      The risk-to-reward ratio is very real. An investment with a high reward always carries a higher risk. The reason a CD is about the lowest return one can get is there is no risk.

      The move from defined benefit pensions to self-managed retirement accounts essentially told employees, “you're on your own when it comes to your retirement planning.” For some that has worked out just fine. But it's a simple fact that not everyone has the ability or the willingness to take on that task.

      It's best, then, for those people making a retirement plan to seek the advice and assistance of a trusted financial advisor, not just to maximize retirement saving during their working years but devising a plan for making the money last.

      Sometime in the early 1990s there was a change in the American workplace. Companies began phasing out their defined pension plans for employees and began p...

      Bad buzzword classics: hunks of rock verified GMO-free

      Himalania pink salt: GMO-free since last May (plus the entire history of salt before that)

      In the world of buzzword marketing, sometimes “cynical genius” and “jaw-dropping stupidity” look exactly alike. And we have wasted the better part of an afternoon trying and failing to figure out which description applies to whoever decided to slap the “verified non-GMO” label on jars of their Himalania brand pink salt.

      We don't mean to insult your intelligence when we point out that “GMO” stands for “genetically modified organisms,” and “organisms” means “living or formerly living things.” Most of the food we eat either consists of organisms — plants, animals, a little fungus consumption among mushroom and truffle fans; or was produced by organisms — milk and honey and similar things.

      Other random facts: rocks are not alive. Salt is rock. The rockiness of salt is especially evident in Himalania brand rock pink salt, whose several-thousand-percent markup over regular salt is based on two things: it's pink, due to traces of iron and other minerals; and, they actually sell it in rock form, a jarful of pebbles the size of kiwifruits packaged with a little metal grater for shaving off pieces of rock onto your food.

      The ridiculous labeling has been around at least since last May, though we only learned of it recently, presumably because we've been patronizing the wrong (or right) salt vendors. Last year, an irate blogger for Mother Nature News wrote about the Himalania labeling, and pointed out:

      Salt is not living. Salt cannot, by definition, be genetically modified. There is no G to M because salt is not an O.

      This makes both Himalania and the Non-GMO Project look pretty bad. Himalania could reasonably be accused of deceitful marketing here while the Non-GMO Project appears to have very, very lax standards on how their label is used.

      There's grounds for a semantic debate: is it actually “deceitful” to brag that salt is not genetically modified? After all, it isn't a false statement so much as a thoroughly irrelevant one.

      Or is it? Maybe there are people who only know “GMO = something to do with food” and “GMO = something supposedly bad,” and are genuinely worried about the possible health ramifications of eating genetically modified NaCl.

      So the folks at Himalania perhaps thought, “Well, if we want to sell salt for a higher price per pound than filet mignon, I bet people who worry about alterations to their salt's DNA would go for it” …. which goes back to what we said earlier, how in the world of buzzword marketing, “cynical genius” and “jaw-dropping stupidity” often look exactly alike.

      In the world of buzzword marketing, sometimes “cynical genius” and “jaw-dropping stupidity” look exactly alike....

      AAA lists consumer rights for owners of "connected cars"

      Drivers will be giving up lots of sensitive data, AAA tells the Federal Trade Commission

      The way things have worked the last 20 years or so is that geeks and entrepreneurs dream up ideas and implement them, leaving others to follow along behind and clean up the problems and disruptions, the blithe disregard for the privacy implications of social media and behavioral tracking being perhaps the two most obvious examples.

      We're now on the verge of a similar explosion of potentially invasive technology in the home -- with "smart" thermostats, smoke detectors and so forth -- and in the cars we use to get around the physical world each day.

      AAA thinks now is the time to think through the consequences and agree on some guidelines. Noting that about one in five new cars sold this year will collect and transmit data outside the vehicle, AAA is urging companies to protect drivers by adopting its new “Consumer Rights for Car Data.” AAA formally addressed this issue as part of public comments to the Federal Trade Commission last week.

      “Many connected car features are made possible through the collection of large amounts of potentially sensitive data from drivers,” said Bob Darbelnet, President and CEO of AAA. “Companies collecting, using and sharing data from cars should do everything possible to protect consumer rights as they offer these technologies.”

      AAA’s suggestions

      1. Transparency – Consumers have a right to clearly understand what information is being collected from their vehicle and how it is being used. Businesses and the government should be transparent about the collection and use of vehicle data.

      2. Choice – Consumers have a right to decide with whom to share their data and for what purpose. This includes ongoing monitoring of vehicle systems, repair and any data of the vehicle owner’s choice. Customers should not be forced to relinquish control as a condition of purchasing or leasing a vehicle or of receiving a connected-vehicle service.

      3. Security – Consumers have a right to expect that connected-vehicle manufacturers and service providers will use reasonable measures to protect vehicle data systems and services against unauthorized access and misuse.

      “Connected cars can dramatically improve the driving experience, but companies must be responsible in their use of consumer information,” continued Darbelnet. “The data that today can be routinely collected by cars includes some of the most sensitive data that can be collected about a person, including information about their precise location and driving habits.”

      AAA last week provided specific recommendations to the FTC in response to the commission’s request for public comments, which followed up on the agency’s “Internet of Things” workshop. The workshop examined the consumer privacy and security issues posed by the growing connectivity of consumer devices, such as cars, appliances and medical devices.

      “New car technologies are changing the way we drive by making the experience both easier and safer than ever before,” said Darbelnet. “Within a decade the majority of cars on the road will be able to identify problems before breakdowns occur, reduce crashes and help drivers save time and money.”

      The way things have worked the last 20 years or so is that geeks and entrepreneurs dream up ideas and implement them, leaving others to follow along behind...

      Teens ditch Facebook as the 55+ crowd flocks to it

      Kids are drawn to sites like Snapchat, where postings don't live forever

      Maybe AARP should buy Facebook. The venerable seniors' group keeps looking for ways to lure the newly-old -- you know, the 50 and up crowd for whom seeing an AARP envelope in the mail is like seeing a draft notice back in the day.

      Although we don't know this for sure, since statistics are hard to come by, we get the impression that AARP is not attracting nearly as many younger seniors as it would like. quite possibly because it's a little too obvious about it.

      The same may be true of Facebook when it comes to the younger crowd. Like LinkedIn, Google and all those other gee-whiz companies headed by guys who are starting to look a litle too old to be wearing tee shirts and jeans, Facebook may be trying just a little too hard to be, pardon the term, young and hip.

      Whatever the reason, teens are ditching Facebook while their parents and grandparents can't seem to get enough of it, according to a study by iStrategy Labs, a market research firm, which found, among other things, that:

      1) Teens (13-17) on Facebook have declined 25.3%over the last 3 years.

      2) Over the same period of time, 55+ users have exploded with 80.4%growth.

      Consumers rate Facebook

      Facebook executives have claimed that traffic is relatively stable but the iStrategy study found that Facebook has 4,292,080 fewer high-school aged users and 6,948,848 college-aged users than it did in 2011.

      This is not exactly news. Other studies have found teens cooling to Facebook, partly because, with their parents and grandparents "friending" them, there's a little too much adult supervision. Also, many teens -- just like their older counterparts -- have gotten burned out by oversharing.

      So where have all the kids gone? Twitter, for one, and a bunch of smaller social sites their parents haven't heard about yet, including WhatsUp and Snapchat.

      Disappearing ink

      The big advantage of Snapchat, of course, is that postings disappear after the recipient has viewed them for a preset amount of time, thus ensuring that your son's imitation of his English teacher does not live on forever online.

      Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took note of Snapchat yesterday in an appearance at Stanford, calling it "super interesting."

      "I think Snapchat is a super interesting privacy phenomenon because it creates a new kind of space to communicate which makes it so that things that people previously would not have been able to share, you now feel like you have place to do so," he said.

      "And I think that’s really important and that’s a big kind of innovation that we’re going to keep pushing on and keep trying to do more on and I think a lot of other companies will, too," Zuckerberg added. No translation of his remarks is available.

      How's Snapchat work? This video tells the tale:

      http://istrategylabs.com/2014/01/3-million-teens-leave-facebook-in-3-years-the-2014-facebook-demographic-report/3 years ago, we published a report on 201...

      Winners and losers in the American Airlines shuffle

      The merged carrier is dropping many flights, adding others

      It's not quite true that you can't get there from here if "there" is San Diego and "here" is Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. But to do it, you'll have to change planes somewhere -- something no self-respecting Congressman likes to do.

      But Congressmen and everyone else will need to keep track of the many changes in the new American flight schedules, which are the result of restrictions imposed by the feds when American and US Airways merged. 

      National takes one of the biggest hits, losing 17 direct fights to Detroit, Montreal, Minneapolis and, as noted earlier, San Diego.

      New York's LaGuardia is losing nonstops to Atlanta, Cleveland and, oops, Minneapolis again. In exchange, it's adding nonstops from LGA to Richmond, Roanoke and Norfolk, all in Virginia.

      Washington Reagan

      Communities no longer receiving year-round, daily service from DCA include:

      • Augusta, Ga. 
      • Little Rock, Ark. 
      • Pensacola, Fla.
      • Detroit, Mich. 
      • Minneapolis, Minn. 
      • San Diego, Calif.
      • Fayetteville, N.C. 
      • Montreal 
      • Savannah, Ga.
      • Fort Walton Beach, Fla. 
      • Myrtle Beach, S.C. 
      • Tallahassee, Fla.
      • Islip, N.Y. 
      • Nassau, Bahamas 
      • Wilmington, N.C.
      • Jacksonville, N.C. 
      • Omaha, Neb.

      Effective dates for the changes at DCA will be announced after the sale of slots and related assets is finalized in the coming weeks.

      American said it will soon add a second daily nonstop between DCA and Los Angeles by shifting US Airways' current San Diego flight to Los Angeles.

      In addition, American will adjust its service to Fort Myers, Fla., moving from year-round service to a seasonal schedule.

      New York LaGuardia

      American will no longer operate nonstop service to Atlanta, Cleveland and Minneapolis. New service from LGA includes:

      • Charlottesville, Va. 
      • Little Rock, Ark. 
      • Roanoke, Va.
      • Dayton, Ohio 
      • Louisville, Ky. 
      • Wilmington, N.C.
      • Greensboro, N.C. 
      • Norfolk, Va.
      • Knoxville, Tenn. 
      • Richmond, Va.

      Customers can begin booking tickets for these new routes Sunday, Jan. 26 for travel beginning April 1.

      "We are excited about moving forward as the new American Airlines, which will fly more customers to more places than ever before," said Andrew Nocella, senior vice president and chief marketing officer – American Airlines.

      "Washington Reagan and LaGuardia will continue to be a key part of the new American's network. In an effort to minimize any impact that our DOJ-required slot divestitures would have on small- and medium-size communities, we felt it was important to make this announcement now. We know how important this service is to the people and the communities affected, and we hope that our competitors who acquire our slots and gates will maintain service to the impacted cities. While these divestitures were necessary, we remain excited about offering new service between LaGuardia and these key communities."

      It's not quite true that you can't get there from here if "there" is San Diego and "here" is Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport. But to do it, you...

      Expiring Windows XP support may mean many more Target-sized data breaches

      No one knows how many computers and point-of-sale systems are still running XP

      There's a lot of sound and fury being generated over the Target data breach that may have exposed the credit and debit card data of more than 100 million Americans. But the list of potential villains includes not just the hackers who broke into Target's system but also the millions of consumers, businesses and institutions that are still running Windows XP.

      Microsoft is officially ending support for the legendary operating system soon, meaning that it will no longer issue updates to fix security problems.

      This is bad news for everyone. Even if you are running the very latest version of Windows, OS X or Linux, it's a near certainty that some of your most personal and valuable data is stored on or passes through systems still running XP.

      That's because the relatively light, simple and reliable OS has for years been the first choice for point-of-sale terminals, medical devices and back-office systems of every size and description. These tend to be install-and-forget applications that are easily overlooked as IT people come and go.

      Zombie recruits

      When Microsoft support ends, all these devices and systems will be even more vulnerable than they are now -- vulnerable not only to data theft but also to being taken over and used as zombie computers that send out malware, infecting other computers and smartphones, possibly including yours.

      Don't believe it? Read any story about Windows 8 and scroll down to the comments. You'll find hordes of consumers proudly reporting that they would never think of upgrading their system because they continue to use XP with no problems.

      It's sort of like Typhoid Mary. She lived a long and healthy life. Too bad about all those others.

      Making matters worse is that the criminal underworld knows this is happening and has already written code to take advantage of it. After all, crime is big business and these days, the Internet is the path of least resistance for criminal enterprises, thanks in no small part to the individuals and businesses that don't take computer security seriously.

      What to do

      What can you do to make sure your computer is not part of the problem? The most obvious answer is, if you're still running Windows XP, it's time to bid it farewell. It is long past its prime and simply is not equipped to handle the security risks that today's Internet presents.

      A perfectly acceptable replacement is Windows 7 -- a stable OS that is easy to set up and easy to manage. You can buy Windows 7 for as little as $65 and find instructions for upgrading on Microsoft.com.

      Don't want a new version of Windows? Well, if your needs center mostly around email, web surfing and so forth, you can pick up a Google Chromebook for around $200. It's very secure and very easy to use but you can't install programs; you can only run apps through the Chrome browser.

      Obviously you could buy a Mac but chances are anyone still running XP is not likely to shell out the bucks required for an Apple product. They are high-end, top-quality and quite secure but a bit on the pricey side.

      You could also download a free copy of Linux Mint, an excellent lightweight OS that is secure and easy to use. It's very similar to Windows 7 in appearance and includes a complete package of office software, including word processing and spreadsheet programs.

      We have all of these systems running in our office and try to use each of them daily, just to keep up with what's what. (Unfortunately, we also have Windows 8.1, a powerful OS with a horrible interface that is a source of endless frustration.) Any of them will be a perfectly adequate replacement for Windows XP and will upgrade your security to 21st Century levels.

      It's not something to put off. Yes, Target and other retailers will be pilloried, sued, boycotted and generally reviled. But anyone using XP or any system that is not kept up to date is a big part of the problem as well.

      There's a lot of sound and fury being generated over the Target data breach that may have exposed the credit and debit card data of more than 100 million A...

      We may get a break at the pump this winter

      The recent pattern of surging winter gasoline prices may be broken

      The national average price of regular gasoline began 2014 at a record high for January 1 – around $3.30 a gallon, according to AAA. A bad omen to be sure for motorists now accustomed to a once-unusual spike in winter-time gasoline prices.

      But there may be hope that the recent past does not repeat itself this year. If oil prices actually fall in the weeks ahead, as some analysts expect, prices at the pump may well fall too.

      Today U.S.-produced oil sells in the $92 range while foreign-produced Brent crude sells for around $106. In an interview with CNBC this week, Neil Atkinson of Lloyd's List Intelligence predicted the price of oil could face “serious downward pressure” when the Iranian nuclear deal is finalized.

      Iranian oil

      Once the ink dries on that document Iran will be able to sell more of its oil on the world market – sales that are now blocked by a set of international sanctions. Once Iranian oil is competing with other countries' petroleum, the price of all oil should soften a bit.

      At the same time analysts at Deutsche Bank AG expect a growing glut of U.S.-produced oil to further reduce oil prices. The bank says U.S. oil supplies could rise this year by one million barrels a day, just as they did in 2012 and 2013.

      If that weren't enough, a new survey by Platts shows OPEC boosted its oil production late in 2013. The report says OPEC production increased from 20,000 barrels per day in November to nearly 30,000 barrels in December. It offset a drop in Iraqi oil output.

      'Goldilocks time'

      "It's Goldilocks time – not too hot, not too cold -- for the oil market," said John Kingston, global director of news for Platts, a provider of energy, petrochemicals and metals information.

      He says that the current level is high enough to keep producers satisfied and low enough to keep consumers happy, noting that in the U.S. sales of full size cars are on the rise.

      The result may be a break from the recent unpleasant winters for consumers. In 2010 oil and gasoline prices spiked on expectations the economy was improving. In 2011, the cause was said to be civil unrest in Egypt. In 2012 the catalyst for surging prices was said to be trouble in Libya.

      These issues promoted a Wall Street narrative of increased risk to oil supplies and created momentum in the oil futures market that had the result of pushing prices higher. The annual maintenance and switch-over to summer grade gasoline at the nation's refineries was blamed for supply bottlenecks that pushed gasoline prices ever higher.

      Painful pattern

      For consumers, this made for a painful pattern. For example, in early January 2012 the national average price of gasoline in the AAA survey was $3.29 a gallon. By early March it had shot up to $3.75 a gallon.

      If there is a break from the recent past this winter, it may be because the narrative has changed. U.S. oil production has become a bigger factor. The Middle East is running out of crises and is pumping more oil. Going long in the oil market no longer looks like a sure bet.

      If consumers are lucky, it will result in stable, if not lower gasoline prices in the weeks ahead.

      The national average price of regular gasoline began 2014 at a record high for January 1 – around $3.30 a gallon, according to AAA. A bad omen to be ...

      Class-action lawsuit alleges email harvesting at LinkedIn

      The latest social-media site to face similar claims

      Although we have no personal experience in the matter, we'd always figured “product endorsement spokesperson” must be a pretty sweet gig if you can land it. After all, saying “Hi there! I'm me, and I think this-here product is great” (or variants thereof) is surely easier than the more traditional “Make money via finding a job and working at it five days a week” route.

      But that assumes you actually get paid for your product endorsements. But if you have an Internet connection (and you wouldn't be reading this if you didn't) there is, apparently, an ever-growing chance you might be in the product-endorsement biz after all — without your knowledge or consent, and certainly without any resulting increase in your personal net worth.

      Facebook has recently been subjected to various lawsuits from users who allege that Facebook falsely claimed they “like” various products or pages, for advertising purposes. Meanwhile, LinkedIn has faced a similar class-action suit since at least last September.

      Siphons email contacts

      Courthouse News Service reported an update to that story on Jan. 14, first with background explaining the allegations that LinkedIn has been harvesting users' email addresses without permission:

      LinkedIn faces a federal class action in San Francisco claiming it siphons email contacts from users' external email accounts and then spams them with "endorsement emails." Users want LinkedIn to pay them for using their identities to sell premium memberships, grow its member base and save money on acquiring new members.... in [the plaintiffs'] brief opposing LinkedIn's motion to dismiss, they say "a few cryptic disclosures on a website" do not give LinkedIn the right "to harvest users' email addresses and broadcast users' persona to hundreds of people."

      The brief also gives the following example: “LinkedIn attempts to access a user's Gmail account if the user has Gmail open in another browser window or has not logged out of Gmail. If an email account is open, LinkedIn accesses the account by using the open email session. LinkedIn does not prompt members for a password. Instead, LinkedIn sweeps the external email account for every email address a user has been emailed by, CCed, or emailed. For many users this is thousands of addresses."

      The actual class-action suit dates back to last September; the Jan. 14 update focuses on the plaintiff's rebuttals to LinkedIn's earlier defense claims; for example, LinkedIn representatives tried arguing its actions regarding email addresses lack standing because the emails do not “injure or enrich anyone,” when in fact, LinkedIn charges members $10 to send messages to members they're not linked to — thus implying LinkedIn values each of those promotional emails at $10.

      Although we have no personal experience in the matter, we'd always figured “product endorsement spokesperson” must be a pretty sweet gig if you can land it...

      Unintentional humor in BrandIndex brand rankings

      Data quickly turns obsolete in the Internet era

      In the fast-paced world of the Internet – where, when something newsworthy happens on the opposite side of the planet, you can know about it less than five seconds later – it's hard not to feel sorry, sometimes, for media professionals who took on complicated, long-term projects doomed to be outdated before they were even published.

      Consider, for example, whoever compiled the YouGov BrandIndex 2013 “Annual Global Brand Rankings” year in review – a list of the most and least popular brands throughout the world last year.

      Since it's year-2013 data not published until a couple weeks into 2014, it was probably inevitable that some of those rankings would be ironically funny by the time they came out. For example, Target made the BrandIndex top-25 brands list, which MediaPost duly reported on Jan. 14 — the exact same day we noted “Target's brand engagement off 85% after cyber stick-up” (summary: Target has lost much popularity with consumers these past couple of weeks, ever since people discovered that customer PIN numbers, credit card data and other super-important financial information is now in the hands of hackers).

      Smaller playing field

      Where the much smaller playing field of Internet social media companies are concerned, the top five brands (in descending order) were YouTube, Pinterest, Google+, Facebook and LinkedIn — and the last three mentioned on that list have all been the subject of lawsuits (or at least extremely unflattering media coverage) this past week — Google+ criticized by Consumer Watchdog for alleged privacy violations, Facebook facing lawsuits alleging user data was fudged for advertising purposes, and LinkedIn dealing with a class-action suit alleging email harvesting for promotional purposes.

      Much as we love to poke fun at the concept of brand loyalty — and make frequent good-faith reminders never to let brand loyalty blind you to when you're getting a bad deal — brand identity remains a real thing, and marketers trying to sell their companies' products need to be aware of it.

      The 2013 BrandIndex is supposed to help them with that — though we hope they know enough to search online for any recent articles before using the BrandIndex listings to craft a marketing campaign; Target had a good reputation last year, but right now isn't the time to roll out a slogan like “Target: the name you can trust.” (Though if they did, we'd surely have a fantastically good time writing about that.)

      In the fast-paced world of the Internet – where, when something newsworthy happens on the opposite side of the planet, you can know about it less tha...

      Feds warn many "Canadian pharmacy" websites are bogus

      Consumers could get counterfeit or outdated drugs and be victims of identity theft

      Consumers who turn to websites that claim to be operated by Canadian pharmacies are taking a big risk, federal health officials warn. They say many if not most of the supposed Canadian pharmacy sites are bogus and the drugs they sell are frequently counterfeit, stolen, outdated and dangerous.

      The Food and Drug Administration last year seized hundreds of rogue websites. Special Agent Daniel Burke, senior operations manager in FDA's Cybercrimes Investigations Unit, said unsuspecting consumers may be buying medicines that do not have the active ingredients that make them effective, or may have undisclosed ingredients that could endanger their health or even be life-threatening.

      "Consumers are able to buy prescription drugs, unapproved drugs and potentially counterfeit drugs without a full understanding of the risks that they take when they do that," said John Roth, director of the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, in a press release. "What worries me is that people naively believe that these medicines are safe."

      Criminal network

      In June 2013, the FDA and other state and federal agencies seized and shut down 1,677 illegal pharmacy websites. Many of the websites appeared to be operated by a criminal network that represented itself as various Canadian pharmacies.

      The medicines sold on these websites were described as "brand name" or "FDA-approved" when they were neither. Products purchased by federal agents bypassed safety controls required by FDA, including that they be used with a valid prescription and under the supervision of a licensed health care provider.

      Some of the illegal sites used the names of well-known U.S. retailers to trick consumers into believing that there was an affiliation with those stores. Examples include www.walgreens-store.com and www.c-v-s-pharmacy.com.

      The banner of FDA's Cybercrimes Investigation Unit is now displayed on the seized sites to identify them as illegal.

      Burke says it was dogged online detective work by federal investigators who monitored site traffic, "followed the money trail," and tracked the bogus sites back to an operation based overseas. An estimated 10,000 such sites are believed to be part of this network, he said. The U.S. investigators turned over their findings to local authorities via the international police organization Interpol.

      Burke estimates that there are 40,000 to 60,000 domain names that could be tied to illegal online pharmacies at any given time, and that this number is in a constant state of flux.

      He and other operatives have gone undercover in other countries, with the cooperation of foreign law enforcement, to lure out the suppliers of these illegal medicines and to track down the site operators.

      The drugs that these rogue pharmacies sell typically come from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and South and Central America. The site operators are in the U.S. and all over the world.

      Other threats

      Websites that illegally sell prescription drugs also potentially present non-health related risks, such as identity theft, computer viruses or credit card fraud. FDA asks consumers to report suspected criminal activity at www.fda.gov/oci.

      "Consumers should also beware of offers that some sites make to attract customers, such as offering a commission or a referral bonus for bringing in new customers. They might offer 'bonus pills' with a purchase," says Burke. "They're unscrupulous."

      Consumers who turn to websites that claim to be operated by Canadian pharmacies are taking a big risk, federal health officials warn. They say many if not ...

      Some phthalates exposure has fallen since federal ban took effect

      But exposure to some forms of the chemicals continues to rise sharply

      It's still not clear how much is too much but the good news is that Americans are being exposed to significantly lower levels of some phthalates -- specifically the ones that were banned from children's articles in 2008.

      But a study by researchers at UC San Francisco finds that exposures to other forms of these chemicals are rising steeply.

      Phthalates, which are used to soften plastic, can be found in nail polish, fragrances, plastics and building materials, as well as the food supply. An accumulating body of scientific evidence suggests they can disrupt the endocrine system, which secretes hormones, and may have serious long-term health consequences.

      Phthalate exposures to adult men have been linked to DNA damage in sperm and lower sperm quality, while exposures to pregnant women have been linked to alterations in the genital development of their male children, as well as cognitive and behavioral problems in boys and girls.

      Trends seen

      The paper, published today in Environmental Health Perspectives, is the first to examine how phthalate exposures have changed over time in a large, representative sample of the U.S. population. It delineates trends in a decade's worth of data — from 2001 to 2010 — in exposure to eight phthalates among 11,000 people included in the study.

      "We were excited to see that exposure to some of the phthalates that are of public health concern actually went down," said Ami Zota, ScD, MS, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, who did the research when she was a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment. "Unfortunately, our data also suggest that these are being replaced by other phthalates with potential adverse health effects."

      Like previous studies, this one found that nearly all of the study participants had been exposed to at least some of the phthalates that were measured, including those that have been partially banned.

      Six of the phthalates have been banned from use in children's articles, such as toys. Three were permanently banned, and three were subject to an interim ban, pending further study, from use in toys that can be placed in a child's mouth. The law took effect in January of 2009.

      The federal ban is not the only force at work in determining phthalate exposures. Both consumers and industry have changed their behavior in response to advocacy by groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Since 2004, more than 1,000 companies have agreed to remove certain chemicals from personal care products and report more clearly what chemicals they are using.

      "Our study shows the power of monitoring exposures to chemicals so we can identify where we have made progress and where more information is needed," said Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, who directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF. "It also indicates that actions by government and consumer groups can make a difference in exposures in all Americans."

      It's still not clear how much is too much but the good news is that Americans are being exposed to significantly lower levels of some phthalates -- specifi...

      Credit card thief gets 15-year sentence

      California man was caught with 100,000 counterfeit cards from China and elsewhere

      There are all kinds of ways to steal credit cards. There's the high-tech way, used by the bandits who made off with information on as many as 110 million Target customers.

      Then there's the low-tech way, where you just print up a bunch of cards or pay others to do so. That was the path chosen by Jose Rolando Renderos, 39, of Montbello, Calif., and El Salvador, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday.

      He was arrested last February after a high-speed chase through California's San Gabriel Valley. Police said he had just picked up a box of 3,000 counterfeit cards from China. All told, prosecutors said they confiscated more than 100,000 cards that Rolando Renderos either made at his L.A. factory or purchased from suppliers in China.

      The scheme cost consumers more than $100,000, the U.S. Attorney's office said in testimony at his October 2013 jury trial, which ended in conviction.

      "The ill-gotten gains paid for cosmetic surgery for himself and his girlfriend, VIP tickets to Lakers and Clippers games, and designer handbags and shoes," prosecutors said, according to Courthouse News Service.

      Rolando Renderos got the numbers he used on the counterfeit cards by installing skimmers on gas station pumps across Southern California, according to testimony in his trial. 

      There are all kinds of ways to steal credit cards. There's the high-tech way, used by the bandits who made off with information on as many as 110 million T...

      Omaha Steaks Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo recalled

      The product contains a know allergen that is not declared on the label

      Intevation Food Group, LLC, a Plover, Wis., establishment, is recalling approximately 156,924 pounds of frozen chicken fettuccine alfredo products because of misbranding and an undeclared allergen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today. The products contain egg, a known allergen, which is not declared on the product label.

      The products subject to recall include: 

      • 18-oz. trays of “OMAHA STEAKS, 2367 Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo,” bearing the establishment number “P-39949” inside the USDA mark of inspection. 

      The products were packaged and produced on various dates from May 11, 2012, through  October 8, 2013, and were shipped to distributors in Nebraska for further distribution through retail and internet/catalog sales. The products may also be identified by the case codes 9502367 or 9802367.

      The problem was discovered by the company during an internal label review. FSIS and the company have received no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about a reaction should contact a healthcare provider.

      Consumers and media with questions about the recall should contact the Customer Care Hotline at (877) 789-7117.

      Intevation Food Group, LLC, a Plover, Wis., establishment, is recalling approximately 156,924 pounds of frozen chicken fettuccine alfredo products because ...

      Retailers pushing for more secure credit card technology

      There's growing pressure to adopt safer standards in wake of Target breach

      The credit card data breach at Target last month – and now revelations that hackers intercepted some Neiman Marcus data – has top executives in the retail industry looking for answers. One answer may be a different kind of credit card technology. 

      In an interview with CNBC, Target Chairman and CEO Gregg Steinhafel threw his support behind a switch to a chip and PIN-number system that would replace the current credit and debit cards that contain information on a magnetic strip. This system is not exactly a new, revolutionary breakthrough. Much of the rest of the world have been using it for years.

      Chip cards

      The system is known as EMV, which stands for Europay MasterCard and Visa. It is the world-wide standard for so-called “chip” cards used to make purchases at stores and transactions at ATMs. Instead of loading the customer's billing information on the strip, the data is encrypted on a tiny chip.

      Security experts say it's better and more secure that card technology now in use in the U.S. Here's why: the use of a PIN and encrypted data provides authentication to the processing terminal and the bank or lender that issued the card. The chip creates a new code for each transaction. While the system is not foolproof – it is possible to intercept the data – it's of little use to the hacker. They are unable to create a duplicate chip card to use the stolen data.

      However, they can create one of the old fashioned magnetic strip cards now used in the U.S. If the U.S. were to adopt the chip system, some security experts believe the European system would be even more secure.

      It'll take money

      So why hasn't the U.S. switched to the chip card technology? The short answer is “money.” It would require a huge infrastructure investment, replacing technology throughout the system. It would, of course, also mean replacing every credit, debit and charge card currently in use in the U.S.

      But the planets may be aligning for such a move. While the credit card industry would be writing some very large checks, it might come out ahead in the long run.

      Under the current system, the card issuer assumes liability for fraudulent transactions if the consumer reports it in a timely manner. In Europe, the chip card technology has resulted in something of a "liability shift," with the cardholder being liable unless they can prove they were not present during the transaction or did not somehow authorize it. There's no guarantee such a switch would be attempted in the U.S. but consumers should remain aware of the possibility.

      Retailers' incentive

      Retailers like Target may also have a strong incentive to embrace new credit card technology, even at considerable added cost. Target became a defendant in class action lawsuits almost as soon as the data breach was announced last month. Also, it has lost a big chunk of its "engagement" with customers, something that can be measured directly in lost sales. 

      Also interviewed by CNBC, Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren stopped short of endorsing the EMV system, but signaled his openness to changes.

      "The retailers, the banking industry, and the credit card industry should be working very closely together to figure out what is the right technology to protect the consumers,” he said.

      The credit card companies, meanwhile, already have the technology to make the switch since they have to produce cards for use by European consumers. MasterCard has already signaled that it is on board.

      “There is also great demand from issuers, acquirers, merchants and consumers for stronger safeguards to secure card transactions,” the company says on it's website. “An upgrade to the EMV standard enables safer, smarter and more secure transactions across cards, contactless, mobile, and remote payment channels. It also enables us to offer consumers the next generation of digital payment innovations.”

      The credit card data breach at Target last month – and now revelations that hackers intercepted some Neiman Marcus data – has top executives in...