Browse by year
 | 

You shouldn't try to separate love and money

In fact, they're the twin pillars of a successful relationship

Married or unmarried, when a couple moves in together there is more to the arrangement than who takes out the trash. Money is woven throughout the fabric o...

PhotoMarried or unmarried, when a couple moves in together there is more to the arrangement than who takes out the trash. Money is woven throughout the fabric of modern relationships and it's important to the relationship for both parties to be on the same page, right from the start.

Andrea Browne, channel editor for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, says it starts with a clear understanding of who has a right to live there. It's especially important for unmarried couples.

“When you have a shared lease you definitely want to make sure that both names are listed,” Browne told ConsumerAffairs. “If a break-up occurs, and only your significant other's name is on the lease, you run the risk of being thrown out.”

Break up? Us?

Of course, couples rarely think about that while in the full bloom of their relationship. But things can change and that's why Browne suggests unmarried couples take the additional step of drawing up a cohabitation agreement – something like a prenup for singles.

“It's a good idea because it clearly states the living arrangements the couple has agreed to, including who pays for what,” Browne said.

She says the agreement should also address banking issues. If there is a joint bank account it should spell out how much each couple contributes to that bank account. Couples don't necessarily have to consult a lawyer to draw up a cohabitation agreement. Browne says an informal document, signed and notarized, will do just fine.

“If you do break up you have a piece of paper that says 'this is what we've agreed to,' and it takes the emotion out of the situation when it really should just be about the finances.”

Wedding bells

Once a couple decides to get married, it's doubly important to have “the money talk.” If you don't already know your partner's financial standing, you'd better learn before the I do's.

“You don't want to get surprised after the fact,” said Browne. “For example, if your spouse has a low credit score and you both are trying to qualify for a mortgage or car loan, that's not the news you want to hear when you're doing those types of things.”

For example, a recent survey commissioned by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) found couples view debt as a highly undesirable characteristic for a potential mate. According to the survey, 37% of respondents would not marry someone until their debt was repaid. Ten percent would marry but not help pay the debt while seven percent would take the somewhat extreme action of breaking off the relationship.

Two bookkeepers

When two individuals decide to become a couple, they often combine their financial resources. But a mistake many couples make, says Browne, is assigning just one person to keep the books.

“The person who has been tasked with being the family money manager may feel burdened by a thankless job,” Browne said. “The other person may feel they are completely out of the loop.”

Browne recommends each partner take turns each month managing the bank account and paying bills. That way both parties are well acquainted with the couple's financial situation – what's coming in each month and what's going out.

Once married, Browne says couples should immediately start planning for their retirement. In fact, she says that planning should actually start before the wedding. Once marriage is a real possibility she suggests both parties discuss retirement and how they plan to fund it.

Keep talking

In other words, money should be an ongoing theme of what couples talk about right from the start.

“Just to make sure everyone is on the same page and there aren't any unanswered questions,” Browne said. “You just put it all out there.”

More

Can't make more money? Then make your money go further

Here's some of the frugality tricks that've helped me

Depending on your tax bracket, a penny saved from your take-home pay can equal more than one and a half pre-tax pennies earned...

PhotoYou've surely heard the saying “A penny saved is a penny earned,” a maxim so old is actually predates the political entity known as “the United States of America.” This means it also predates income taxes, Social Security withholding taxes, and phrases like “pre-tax income” and “take-home pay.”

Nowadays, depending on your tax bracket, a penny saved from your take-home pay can equal more than one and a half pre-tax pennies earned. Yet too many of my fellow Americans can't be bothered to save that penny because they think it's only a penny, and a penny buys nothing these days anyway so why bother?

Because — at the risk of channeling Captain Obvious — those pennies add up more quickly than you think. Maybe people take the maxim “time is money” a little too literally? Time isn't fungible, but money is. Suppose, for example, I tell you a way you can easily cut a minute off your daily morning get-ready-for-work routine. Would you do it?

Frankly, I wouldn't blame you for saying “Eh, why bother? It's only a minute, and sixty seconds more or less makes no difference to me.” Besides, even if you do cut a minute off your morning routine, it's not as though you can set those minutes aside, cash them in at the end of the year and enjoy a 365-minute block of free time to do whatever you please. Nope; time isn't fungible that way.

But money is. And if I tell you how to cut a dollar from your daily expenses, you might have the same response: “Why bother? It's only a dollar, and one dollar more or less makes no difference.” But those dollars add up and if you set one aside every day then at the end of the year, that's an extra $365 for you.

Those pennies and dollars especially matter to me, a former English major whose postgraduate career has consisted entirely of English-major jobs. I'm not going to complain about my nano-income or anything, I'm only going to point out that there are good and cogent reasons why you never hear sane and sober people say, “If you want to be rich, you should either marry a journalist or become one yourself.”

So I can't tell you how to get rich, because hellafino. But I do know some tricks to help you be not-poor, or at least less-poor — and since average American wages haven't been keeping pace with inflation these past many years, saving your pennies might be your only chance of earning more.

Here's a few of the more helpful tricks I've used to raise my own bottom line over the years:

Learn to cook

When I first set up housekeeping (well, “slummy college apartmentkeeping”) on my own, my cooking skills were limited to boiling Ramen noodles and microwaving frozen entrees. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was a no-joke revelation for me, the day I figured out, “Hey, I can make my own spaghetti at home by merely boiling dried pasta and adding sauce from a jar.”

In my college days the Internet was still a pay-by-the-minute luxury, so I couldn't search online for “easy recipes” or “basic cooking skills” or anything else. Luckily for me, some unknown benefactor had a collection of old cookbooks with titles like “Cooking for Beginners” or “Simple Recipes for Incompetent Cooks,” then donated them to a nearby thrift store, where I bought them for 50 cents apiece. Which brings me to my second trick.

Learn to love thrift stores

PhotoGranted, your success in this strategy depends partially on where you live – you can't shop at a good thrift store if there aren't any near you. Even the best thrift stores won't always have good offerings — sometimes I leave my favorite store with a bagful of bargains, other times I walk out empty-handed.

With the exception of socks, shoes, swimwear and undergarments, almost all of my clothes come from thrift stores, and most of my furnishings, home décor, cookware, dishes and books, too. You can find especially good bargains if you shop during the off-season — a warm, heavy winter coat often sells for a song in the middle of a July heat wave (I once paid $20 for a gorgeous, warm, full-length artificial mink coat that retailed at Nordstrom's for $980).

The main problem with secondhand stores is that you can't always find what you need when you need it. Like that warm winter coat: if you visit your local thrift store regularly, I can almost guarantee that at some point in the next few months, you'll find a nice, warm, good-condition coat in your size. But right now – I'm typing this at the end of February, with daytime temperatures below freezing – well, maybe you'll find a nice coat today but the odds are against you, since you're not the only one wanting a coat now (and the fashion plates who donate their old clothes at the end of every season aren't donating their coats yet, either).

Which brings me to my next bit of advice (which, I admit, might sound counterproductive at first).

Buy stuff before you need it

Specifically, buy stuff that won't go bad before you use it. Next-season clothing for yourself (or too-big clothing for your growing kids) is the most obvious example, but it also applies to certain consumable goods. My home-supply closet, for example, is full of soap, toothpaste, detergent, dental floss and other non-perishable goods I use on a regular basis, but only ever buy on sale.

Unless I do something stupid. Like last year, when I went on vacation and, upon reaching my destination at some ridiculous hour of late night or early morning, realized that I'd forgotten to pack any toothpaste. I had no choice but to visit a 24-hour drugstore that sold my brand for something like $3.79 per tube. Meanwhile, in my home storage closet, I had multiple tubes that cost me only a dollar apiece — same brand, same size, but I stockpiled when they were on sale, rather than wait until I was out of toothpaste and had to pay whatever price I could find.

The same principle applies to canned or dried foods you can store for a long time without spoilage — if you like a certain brand of canned beans and your supermarket is offering a “buy one get one free” sale, don't just buy your usual two cans of beans; buy several and store the extras in your cabinet. With luck, the beans will go on sale again before your current supply runs out. (In my house, I follow the “rule of three”: if I'm down to three unopened tubes of toothpaste, bars of soap, cans of beans or whatever, that's when I know to keep my eye open for sales to replenish my stock.)

That said, the mere fact that something is “on sale” doesn't necessarily mean it's a good bargain. That's why you also need to ...

Check the unit prices

It sounds obvious but it's easy to forget that the lowest price or sale price isn't always the best price.

That toothpaste price comparison I mentioned sounds like a no-brainer — of course paying a dollar is cheaper than paying $3.79, right? Not always; remember, I specifically mentioned same brand and same size. And size does matter, at least when you're looking for bargains.

Here's a quickie math quiz: assuming two items of equal quality, which is the better deal — paying $1.00 for one ounce, or $3.79 for six?

The dollar option certainly takes less money out of your pocket — at least for now. But what is the actual unit cost? You can pay a dollar an ounce for the first option — or pay only 64 cents an ounce, if you shell out $3.79 all at once. In the long term, the more expensive purchase actually offers the better deal — assuming you're going to buy and use the whole six ounces anyway. For things like soap and toothpaste, you definitely will.

On a related note: if you need new appliances, furniture or anything else which you can't get secondhand, do a little research to find the retail store with the best price — and don't even think of patronizing a “rent-to own” or “lease-to-buy” store.

I've written to warn you about that before — even in the best-case scenarios, customers of such places pay at least twice as much as they would in a regular retail store. Similarly, stay away from “buy now, pay later” businesses where, again, those small individual payments add up to a total cost much higher than what regular pay-when-you-buy stores charge.

A penny here and a dollar there may not seem like much, but those pennies and dollars add up faster than you think.

More

Feds: Consumer credit scores should be more readily available

Consumer credit complaints are topped by inaccuracy of information issues

Consumers shouldn't have to fight to get access to their credit scores and related content. That's the thinking behind a call by the Consumer Financial Pro...

PhotoConsumers shouldn't have to fight to get access to their credit scores and related content. That's the thinking behind a call by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for the nation’s top credit card companies to make such information freely available to their customers.

At the same time, a report released by the CFPB found accuracy issues top the list of credit reporting complaints the it gets from consumers.

“Credit reports and scores can determine the terms of people’s mortgages, whether they qualify for auto loans, or if they are eligible for different credit cards,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Making consumers’ credit scores freely available on their monthly statement or online makes it easier for them to spot problems with their credit report.”

Everybody has one

Most Americans have a credit file. Credit reports and scores can determine everything from consumer eligibility for credit to the rates consumers pay for credit. Because of the significance of these reports, consumer reporting agencies have been a major focus for the CFPB.

The three biggest credit reporting companies each maintain files on over 200 million consumers. These files are based on information supplied by thousands of providers, also known as data furnishers. As it issued its report, the CFPB warned these furnishers not to avoid investigating consumer disputes.

PhotoAvailability of information

Fewer than one in five consumers check their credit report in any given year. Without a regular review of their credit report, they may not notice errors in the data or even identity theft. Recently, some credit card companies have made credit scoring information freely and regularly available to their customers on monthly statements or through online access.

CFPB Director Cordray recently sent letters to the nation’s top credit card companies urging them to follow suit by making credit scores and related content freely available to their customers. A regularly available credit score may prompt more Americans to review their credit standing and pull their free annual credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com.

Credit inaccuracy

Between October 22, 2012, and February 1, 2014, the The CFPB handled roughly 31,000 complaints from consumers frustrated with credit reporting companies. The majority of those complaints have been about the accuracy and completeness of credit reports.

The top three concerns include:

  • Incorrect information on a credit report: Almost three-quarters of the credit reporting complaints the CFPB received related to consumers believing that their credit reports contained incorrect information. Over one-third of these complaints were about incorrect account statuses -- such as a debt being reported as delinquent when it was already paid. Other consumers reported having information in their credit report that did not belong to them. One consumer reported having a mortgage placed in his credit report when he was only a sophomore in high school. Other consumers found that their date of birth was listed incorrectly or a bankruptcy filing was misreported.

Colene of Stayton, Ore., had a problem with accuracy. "Travelocity put my old Capital One/MasterCard number on my trip charges, so it does not show up on my monthly statement, "she writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Two and a half months later, it went to Sears/Citi with that number on it. They put a Sears number on it and began billing me. I do not have a Sears account. They have billed me for 15 months. I told them that I would pay them directly - the airlines, hotels, etc. But when I called, they were already paid by Capital One using that number. It never did get on my now credit card number. I get letters full of lies from Citi. They always talk about my Sears credit cards that I don't have. They sent it to a collection agency and to credit reports. I have never had bad credit. Capital One can't find the charges. Now what?"

  • Frustration with the credit reporting company’s investigation: When consumers find this incorrect information, they can file a dispute directly with the credit reporting company. About 11% of complainants were frustrated with how the company handled a dispute they filed. Consumers expressed concern about the depth and validity of dispute investigations. Other consumers felt that the documentation they provided to dispute an item was not used in the company’s investigation. The CFPB heard from consumers who were reported as deceased by a credit reporting company, and even after they filed a dispute, the company did not fix the report.
  • Difficulty obtaining a credit report or score: About 9% of credit reporting complaints were about consumers who said they were unable to obtain their free annual credit report or another copy of their credit report or score. Consumers say they feel as if they have reached “dead ends” when trying to obtain their credit reports. For example, one consumer claimed that she twice tried and failed to obtain her credit report from the three nationwide credit reporting companies.

PhotoGetting satisfaction

Consumers can file a dispute with a credit reporting company if they believe an item on their credit report is inaccurate. When they do, the company generally must inform the data furnisher and forward all relevant dispute information. The furnisher must then review that information, conduct an investigation, and respond to the credit reporting company. The company should then amend the credit report as appropriate.

If a consumer is not satisfied with the result of a dispute, he may submit a complaint to the CFPB. The agency processes complaints and sends them to the credit reporting company. The CFPB then expects the company to respond within 15 days with the steps they have taken or plan to take. Consumers can dispute the company’s response if they remain dissatisfied.

Do not ignore

The Bureau has published a supervisory bulletin warning companies that provide information to credit reporting agencies not to avoid investigating consumer disputes. The Bureau has observed that data furnishers sometimes respond to a dispute by simply deleting the disputed accounts from the information they pass along to the credit reporting company.

This practice can be detrimental to consumers. Once a consumer has filed a dispute -- if the furnisher finds that there is an error with the data it provided to a credit reporting company -- it must notify all companies that received that information. If the furnisher simply deleted that data without notifying those companies, the companies might not know that the information was wrong and that could lead to an inaccurate credit report. In addition, investigations may uncover broader problems in the furnisher’s system or process, like software flaws, that impact the accuracy of the information furnishers provide to credit reporting companies.

More

Is the foreclosure crisis over? Not quite

Foreclosures still running much higher than before the housing crisis

The headline is comforting – “foreclosure inventory down 33% from a year ago.” It suggests a housing market that is healing from the wors...

PhotoThe headline is comforting – “foreclosure inventory down 33% from a year ago.” It suggests a housing market that is healing from the worst collapse since the Great Depression.

The reality, however, may not be so reassuring.

First, the good news. In January there were 48,000 completed foreclosures in the U.S., down from 59,000 in January 2013, according to CoreLogic, an analytics services provider. That's a year-over-year improvement of 19% and certainly worth celebrating.

Long way to go

But the foreclosure process has a long way to go before it's back to normal. Consider this; between 2000 and 2006, before the housing market went over a cliff, foreclosures averaged only 21,000 per month. So foreclosures are still running more than 125% higher than they were before the start of the recession. CoreLogic tells us that, since the beginning of the financial crisis in September 2008, there have been nearly 4.9 million completed foreclosures.

When you consider homes that are in some stage of foreclosure – not just those repossessed by the bank – you also see some improvement but it's also hard not to see the difficulty as well. In January 2.0% of all U.S. homes with a mortgage were in some stage of foreclosure. It leaves analysts wondering if the glass is half-empty or half-full.

“We are recovering, but we’re not there yet,” said Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. “For every completed foreclosure, there are 954 mortgaged homes in non-judicial foreclosure states and 896 mortgaged homes in judicial foreclosure states. Although this is a big improvement relative to the height of the foreclosure crisis, a healthier ratio would be one for every 2,000.”

Foreclosures in New York and New Jersey

Because real estate economies vary market to market, an improvement in one area is not always matched by a similar improvement elsewhere. A report last week by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) showed that in the fourth quarter of last year the robust housing markets of New York and New Jersey continued to show rising foreclosure rates. In fact, while Florida continues to lead the nation in the percentage of loans in foreclosure, New Jersey and New York are numbers two and three.

Michael Fratantoni, MBA’s chief economist and Senior Vice President of Research and Industry Technology, notes that states with judicial foreclosure systems, meaning foreclosures must pass muster with the courts, have the highest foreclosure rates, suggesting many of these foreclosures have been in the pipeline for years.

“While the percentage of loans in foreclosure dropped in both judicial and nonjudicial states, the average rate for judicial states was 4.92% compared to the average rate of 1.52% for nonjudicial states,” Fratantoni said.

Civil rights issue?

Foreclosures have also increased sharply in Maryland, prompting Casa de Maryland and other civil rights groups to recently take their case to members of the state legislature, asking the government to impose a moratorium on foreclosures the groups contend are falling hardest on low-income homeowners.

If reckless and abusive practices in the subprime mortgage market led to the wave of foreclosures, what is causing them now? Most of the subprime foreclosures have already worked their way through the system and laws are in place to prevent them from reoccurring.

Loss of income

Today's foreclosures are more likely the result of an anemic job market. Unemployment remains high and many people that want full time jobs are only working part time. In a household requiring two incomes to pay the mortgage, one person losing their income can be enough to tip a household into foreclosure.

The consumer group Center for Responsible Lending says it would like to see stronger foreclosure prevention efforts at both the federal and state levels. Making it easier for middle class buyers to obtain a mortgage, so that when a family in economic distress must sell their home there will be buyers – would also help, the group says.

On cue, at least one major bank this month indicated that it is broadening its criteria for making mortgage loans with an eye toward making more consumers eligible. The idea is to making loans available to people who, in the wake of the financial crisis, have been virtually shut out of the housing market.

No one is using the term “subprime lending.” At least, not yet.

More

Quizno's close to bankruptcy once more

High debts and a franchisee exodus hit the company on two fronts

Quizno's offers an unusually bad deal to its franchise owners, compared to most restaurant franchises...

Bad news for Quizno's fans: the company's close to bankruptcy again.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the problem is twofold: one, despite recent restructuring deals, the company remains $600 million in debt which it cannot handle; and two, its franchisees are failing because – according to pretty much every industry analyst – Quizno's offers an unusually bad deal to its franchise owners, compared to most restaurant franchises, charging higher royalty percentages, higher advertising costs and considerably higher food prices.

Jonathan Maze, writing abut the company's woes in Restaurant Food Monitor, said this:

“Like all franchises, Quiznos gets its revenue from franchisee royalties. But its bigger business involved the sale of food and other products to operators.

But Quiznos charged franchisees too much for food—operators had been complaining about them for years. When sales began falling, franchisees began closing. To get sales up, Quiznos discounted and couponed, which only made profit matters worse, and store closures accelerated.

We know one operator who once owned a dozen stores, closed them all and went on food stamps for a time.”


Since Maze is sharing personal stories of Quizno's franchisees, I'll do the same: every Quizno's I've lived near and patronized – whether in the Northeast or the Southland – ended up going out of business despite my not-infrequent patronage. However, the store owner also routinely posted signs saying he could not honor national Quizno's coupons; I asked the manager about it once, and he said that honoring the coupons would require him to sell his sandwiches at a loss.

The Wall Street Journal quoted another industry professional who said that Quiznos charges franchisees 7 percent royalties and 4 percent for advertising, compared to the industry average of 6 percent royalties and 2% for fees—and, of course, all of that is in addition to Quizno's unusually high supply prices as well.

More

Springtime is salmonella season for chicks and other baby birds

Washington State releases health warning for anyone handling live poultry

EVen clean and healthy-looking birds might shed salmonella bacteria...

PhotoPretty much all babies are cute and cuddly-looking, and baby ducks and chickens are no exception. So if you have children who in turn have access to live chicks or ducklings — whether as an early Easter or Mardi Gras gift, via your at-home chicken flock, or the duckpond in your local park — it's almost certain your kids will want to pick them up and play with them, because why not? They're just like adorable little plush-animal toys, except they're actually alive!

Unfortunately, live birds are far more likely than their toy counterparts to host disease-carrying microorganisms, especially salmonella. That's why the Washington State Department of Health released a Feb. 25 announcement warning that “Salmonella risks rise as raising chickens becomes popular family activity.”

Usually, when most people worry about getting salmonella from chicken, they're talking about chicken as a food source. But even handling a live chicken puts you at risk of catching salmonella, if the chicken is also infected.

As the DOH said: “Spring has become a time when people become infected with Salmonella after buying chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry and handling them without properly washing their hands.... Spring is the season when many people who keep chickens or ducks in backyard flocks order baby birds. Children should be supervised carefully, making sure they wash their hands right away after touching these animals or their environments. Adults should make sure kids don’t nuzzle or kiss animals.”

The DOH offers additional safety tips for handling poultry here. Even clean and healthy-looking chicks can have salmonella bacteria on their bodies, which in turn can contaminate everything they touch, including their cages. Children younger than five, elderly people and anyone with a weakened immune system should not handle live poultry at all.

More

Asthma drug helps relieve food allergies, study finds

It provides a much faster way of desensitizing patients

An asthma drug helps desensitize patients who have allergies to several foods, a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and...

PhotoAn asthma drug helps desensitize patients who have allergies to several foods, a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford shows.

The findings come on the heels of a recent study by the same team showing that people with multiple food allergies can be desensitized to several foods at once. The two studies provide the first scientific evidence that a promising new method for treating people for multiple food allergies works.

Patients who took the asthma drug omalizumab became desensitized to multiple food allergens at a median of 18 weeks; those who did not take the drug became desensitized at a median of 85 weeks, the researchers found. The results of the new study will be published online Feb. 27 in the journal Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology.

In oral immunotherapy, the desensitization method used in both studies, allergic patients build up tolerance to a food by ingesting it in tiny, gradually increasing doses under a doctor's supervision in a hospital setting. Over time, the body stops reacting, and the patient is able to eat the food safely.

Several researchers have shown that this therapy works on a single food allergen, but it had not been tested on multiple food allergens. The Stanford team tried the new technique because nearly 4 million Americans are allergic to more than one food.

"Parents came up to me and said things like, 'It's great that you're desensitizing children to their peanut or milk allergies, but my daughter is allergic to wheat, cashews, eggs and almonds. What can you do about that?'" said Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at the medical school and an immunologist at Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. Nadeau is the senior author of the new study.

More

Child-deaths spur renewed search for cedar chests

CPSC, Lane Home Furniture are making an urgent request

Following the recent deaths of a Franklin, Mass., brother and sister, Lane Home Furniture is calling for a renewed search for cedar chests with lids that a...

PhotoFollowing the recent deaths of a Franklin, Mass., brother and sister, Lane Home Furniture is calling for a renewed search for cedar chests with lids that automatically latch shut when closed, locking children inside. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says the children, ages seven and eight, suffocated inside one of the chests.

To prevent a similar tragedy, CPSC and Lane are urging consumers to check their "Lane" and "Virginia Maid" brand cedar chests. An investigation by the CPSC's has determined that the lid on the 75-year-old Lane cedar chest closed and automatically latched shut, locking the children inside. The second-hand Lane cedar chest was bought from a local resale store about 13 years ago.

Original recall

In 1996, the Lane Company, Inc. recalled 12 million chests with latch/locks that automatically secure the lid when closed, and began offering new latch/locks free of charge that prevent children from being trapped inside the chest. The new latch/locks, which Lane continues to make available to consumers, do not automatically latch and trap children inside the chest when the lid is closed.

The original recall included reports of six children suffocating to death inside these chests. A seventh suffocation death and two near fatalities occurred between 1996 and 2000.

The old style latches on all "Lane" and "Virginia Maid" brand cedar chests manufactured between 1912 and 1987 need to be replaced. Chests can be identified by the brand name "Lane" or "Virginia Maid" located inside the cedar chest. These chests are often handed down through families or purchased second-hand.

What to do

Consumers should immediately remove the latch from Lane/Virginia Maid cedar chests and contact Lane to receive new replacement hardware. This new hardware is easy to install by consumers in their homes and does not automatically latch shut.

For certain chests made between 1912 and 1940, consumers will receive hardware that does not latch. For chests made from 1940 to present, consumers will receive hardware that does not automatically latch when closed and requires a person outside the chest to latch and lock the lid. If you own a similar hope chest or cedar chest that is not part of the recall, disable or remove the latch/lock.

Consumers may contact Lane toll-free at (800) 327-6944, Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT, or access their web site at www.lanefurniture.com to order the free replacement hardware.

Consumers should have the chest's serial and style numbers, which are branded on the outside bottom or back of the chest, available when contacting Lane.

More

Economic growth winds down

Slower than expected consumer spending is among the reasons

If you're a “glass is half empty-half full” type of person, here's one for you too chew on: The economy grew in the final three months of last year just n...

PhotoIf you're a “glass is half empty-half full” type of person, here's one for you too chew on: The economy grew in the final three months of last year just not as robustly as first reported.

According to the second estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, real gross domestic product -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S. -- increased at an annual rate of 2.4% in the fourth quarter of 2013. The consensus of economists surveyed by Briefing.com was for a number that was a bit stronger -- 2.6%.

In its advance estimate, the government put the increase at 3.2%.

Why the change?

The latest GDP estimate is based on more complete source data than were a month ago.

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

The deceleration in growth reflected a slow-down in private inventory investment, a larger decrease in federal government spending, and downturns in residential fixed investment and in state and local government spending. These were partly offset by accelerations in exports, and in nonresidential fixed investment a smaller increase in PCE than first estimated, and a deceleration in imports.

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

More

Pending home sales stuck in neutral

Weather and inventory kept a lid on sales

Not a lot of action in January as far as the real estate game is concerned. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports pending home sales were ess...

PhotoNot a lot of action in January as far as the real estate game is concerned.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports pending home sales were essentially unchanged last month as gains in the South and Northeast were offset by declines in the West and Midwest.

NAR's Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, inched ahead a measly 0.1% -- to 95.0, but is 9.0% below its level of a year earlier, and at the lowest point since November 2011.

The same factors that dampened activity in December were at play in January. “Ongoing disruptive weather patterns in much of the U.S. inhibited home shopping,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Limited inventory also is playing a role, especially in the West, while credit remains tight and affordability isn’t as favorable as it was a year ago.”

Where they sold

The PHSI in the Northeast rose 2.3% to 79.0 in January, but is 5.3% below a year ago.

In the Midwest the index declined 2.5% to 92.9, and is 9.3% lower than January 2013.

Pending home sales in the South were up 3.5% to an index reading of 111.2 last month, and is 5.5% below a year ago.

The index in the West dropped 4.8% to 84.2, and is 17.5% below January 2013.

Looking ahead

Sales of existing homes are expected to be weak in the first quarter, while prices continue to rise from limited inventory. “Increasing new home construction can quickly solve two problems -- producing more inventory and taming price growth,” Yun said.

NAR also expects the pace of sales will pick up in the middle part of the year. Total existing-home sales are projected at just over 5.0 million in 2014 -- slightly below the volume recorded last year. And the national median existing-home price is forecast to grow in the range of 5 to 6% this year.

More

Another bogus gift card case settled

Affiliate marketers bamboozled consumers with promises of "free" merchandise

Consumers who fell for text messages promising $1,000 Walmart gift cards and other freebies instead found themselves taken to websites that tried to sign t...

PhotoConsumers who fell for text messages promising $1,000 Walmart gift cards and other freebies instead found themselves taken to websites that tried to sign them up for magazine subscriptions or all kinds of other stuff they didn't want.

Another batch of the people behind these messages has just settled up with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The settlement imposes a $200,000 judgment against the defendants, most of which is suspended, due to their inability to pay. It does, however, require them to turn over $30,000 in cash plus the proceeds from the sale of a 2007 Bentley automobile and a 2006 Range Rover.

The Chicago-based defendants did business through two companies called CPA Tank, Inc. and Eagle Web Assets, Inc.

“Sending illegal text messages will get you in hot water with the FTC,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “You can’t avoid responsibility by hiring a third-party to send them for you.”

Earlier this month, the operators behind one of the websites agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle FTC charges. Another website operator was sued by the FTC in July 2013. In addition, the FTC sued a number of affiliates responsible for many of the underlying text messages in a sweep of enforcement cases in March 2013.

More

New nutrition labels would update serving size, calories

Will make "a big difference," Michelle Obama promises

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has come up with a proposed new "Nutrition Facts" label for packaged foods, hoping to emphasize the link betwee...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has come up with a proposed new "Nutrition Facts" label for packaged foods, hoping to emphasize the link between diet and chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease.

The proposed new label (on the right in the above graphic) would also update serving size requirements to better reflect align with how much people really eat, and it features a fresh design to highlight key parts of the label such as calories and serving sizes.

“Our guiding principle here is very simple: that you as a parent and a consumer should be able to walk into your local grocery store, pick up an item off the shelf, and be able to tell whether it’s good for your family,” said First Lady Michelle Obama, who has also crusaded for revised marketing guidelines for processed foods. “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.”

Story continues below video

“For 20 years consumers have come to rely on the iconic nutrition label to help them make healthier food choices,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “To remain relevant, the FDA’s newly proposed Nutrition Facts label incorporates the latest in nutrition science as more has been learned about the connection between what we eat and the development of serious chronic diseases impacting millions of Americans.”

Critics respond

PhotoThe proposed changes got mostly high marks from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, a frequent critic of the FDA. CSPI especially welcomed the proposed new emphasis on calories, revision of certain foods' serving sizes, and new line for added sugars. But the group says the agency should revise its proposal to include a Daily Value for added sugars and to further lower the Daily Value for sodium to 1,500 milligrams.

"Nutrition Facts labels have helped millions of Americans select healthier diets and have spurred food companies to compete more on the basis of nutrition," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "But industry practices and understanding about nutrition have changed since the labels first appeared on packages 20 years ago. While the FDA is off to a strong start, the agency must do more to ensure that these labels communicate better advice on sugar and salt."

“This is good news for consumers,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “Updating the Nutrition Facts Panel will provide consumers with more relevant and useful information about the foods they consume.”

The changes are expected to cost the food industry about $2 billion but the Grocery Manufacturers Association was relatively muted in its response, calling the proposal a "thoughtful review."

GMA President Pamela Bailey said it was important to ensure the labels "ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers."

Major changes

Some of the changes to the label the FDA proposed today would:

  • Require information about the amount of “added sugars” in a food product. Update serving size requirements to reflect the amounts people currently eat. Present “dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrition information for larger packages that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings.
  • Require the declaration of potassium and vitamin D, nutrients that some in the U.S. population are not getting enough of, which puts them at higher risk for chronic disease. 
  • Revise the Daily Values for a variety of nutrients such as sodium, dietary fiber and Vitamin D. 
  • While continuing to require “Total Fat,” “Saturated Fat,” and “Trans Fat” on the label, “Calories from Fat” would be removed because research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.
  • Refresh the format to emphasize certain elements, such as calories, serving sizes and Percent Daily Value, which are important in addressing current public health problems like obesity and heart disease.

“By revamping the Nutrition Facts label, FDA wants to make it easier than ever for consumers to make better informed food choices that will support a healthy diet.” said Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “To help address obesity, one of the most important public health problems facing our country, the proposed label would drive attention to calories and serving sizes.”

More

American Airlines, seeking "consistency," cancels bereavement fares

Consumers complain its previous policy wasn't a model of consistency and compassion

As it continues cementing its takover of US Airways, American Airlines has eliminated its bereavement fares -- the discounted fares sometimes offered to co...

PhotoAs it continues cementing its takover of US Airways, American Airlines has eliminated its bereavement fares -- the discounted fares sometimes offered to consumers traveling to the funeral of a loved one.

Why? Well, US Airways didn't offer a bereavement fare and American said it was just trying make its policy consistent with its new partner's.

This is getting quite a bit of attention today but it's not as though American's bereavement fares ever displayed much consistency or compassion, judging from the experiences of consumers sharing their views on ConsumerAffairs.

American Airlines Feb. 27, 2014, 8:21 p.m.
Consumers rate American Airlines

"My uncle found my aunt dead at her home in Houston," Rebeca of Boston wrote, saying she immediately called her mother in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and began trying to make a reservation for her to fly to Houston.

"Given it was a death in the home, the police had to come and the medical examiners had to take her body for investigation," Rebeca said. When she got an AA representative on the phone, she was told that no bereavement fare would be granted unless I had the funeral home info.

"I repeatedly told the lady that no arrangements could be made until the body was released. She said that that wasn't sufficient information and end of conversation."

Who's more bereaved?

Nor did things turn out much better for Andrea of Niagara Falls, Ontario: "I recently found out that American Airlines does not give bereavement flights to someone going to the Caribbean. I would like to know why is it that someone flying from Canada to Chicago to attend a funeral is entitled to a bereavement flight, as opposed to someone flying to the Caribbean."

"Are they grieving any more then I am?" she asked.

Not all of the aggrieved passengers were flying internationally. Marilyn of Edenton, N.C., had flown to San Diego where her prematurely-born grandchild had been barely clinging to life for six weeks. The infant died just a few days before Marilyn's previously-booked return flight. 

"As mother to the dead baby's grieving mom, I was asked to stay and prepare for the cremation and funeral," she said. American charged her $175 to change her reservation and an additional unexplained $250 at check-in.

"Your preoccupation with squeezing as much money as possible from other people's tragedy does not qualify as a warm fuzzy feeling," she said in comments directed at American.

American Airlines says its new policy is that it will waive change fees for consumers who already have a ticket and want to use it to attend the funeral of an immediate family member.

More

BPA can cause fetal abnormalities in primates: study

The abnormalities occurred when pregnant females were exposed to small, daily concentrations of BPA

U.S. regulators have been slow to restrict the use of Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical widely used in consumer products including food packaging, store receip...

PhotoU.S. regulators have been slow to restrict the use of Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical widely used in consumer products including food packaging, store receipts and dental composites. 

Although many countries, including Canada, consider BPA a toxin, the U.S. has held out for more studies of its effects on primates -- the category of animal that includes humans -- instead of tests on mice and rats.

Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have obliged, with tests that determined that daily exposure to very low concentrations of BPA by pregnant females can indeed cause fetal abnormalities in primates, just as they have been shown to do in rodents.

“BPA is an endocrine disrupting chemical that has been demonstrated to alter signaling mechanisms involving estrogen, androgen and thyroid hormones,” said Frederick vom Saal, Curators Professor of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science at MU. “Previous studies in rodents have demonstrated that maternal exposure to very low doses of BPA can significantly alter fetal development, resulting in a variety of adverse outcomes in the fetus. Our study is one of the first to show this also happens in primates.”

With funding provided by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a research institute of the National Institutes of Health, vom Saal and his colleagues studied the chemical’s blood levels in pregnant female rhesus monkeys and their fetuses, which are considered to be very similar to human fetuses.

"Significant adverse effects"

After collecting tissue samples, other researchers analyzed the tissues to determine if BPA exposure was harmful to fetal development. Researchers found evidence of significant adverse effects in mammary glands, ovaries, brain, uterus, lung and heart tissues in BPA exposed fetus when compared to fetuses not exposed to BPA.

The abnormalities were caused by levels of BPA in the monkey fetuses that were very similar to levels reported in previous studies of BPA in human fetuses.

“The very low-level exposure to BPA we delivered once a day to the rhesus monkeys is far less than the BPA levels humans are exposed to each day, which reflects multiple exposures,” vom Saal said. “Our findings suggest that traditional toxicological studies likely underestimate actual human exposure and show, unequivocally, that biologically active BPA passes from the mother to the fetus. Additionally, our latest study shows that BPA causes damage to developing systems of monkey fetuses, and this is of great concern for human fetuses.”

The study was published in Reproductive Toxicology.

More

Knowing these five sets of numbers may reduce heart risk

You don't have to like math to help your heart

Numbers are a big part of health. Height, weight, pulse, heart rate – doctors can tell a lot about how we are doing physically by the numbers assigne...

PhotoNumbers are a big part of health. Height, weight, pulse, blood pressure – doctors can tell a lot about how we are doing physically by the numbers assigned to these properties and functions. And at least one doctor thinks you should know these numbers too.

Dr. Martha Gulati, director of preventive cardiology and women’s cardiovascular health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says five sets of numbers in particular can help individuals know if they are in danger of developing heart disease.

Body mass index

The first number is your body mass index, or BMI. When the Wexner Medical Center commissioned a survey, it found nearly two thirds of the public not only didn't know their number, but didn't know what BMI was. So, what is it?

“Basically, it's calculating the amount of weight you're carrying for your body surface area,” Gulati told ConsumerAffairs.

In simple terms, it's a number that tells you how fat you are. When you enter your weight and height into a calculator like this one, you arrive at a number. A number below 25 is considered normal weight. Twenty-five to 30 is overweight and a BMI of 30 or above is considered obese. Gulati says a BMI is just a way to get a difficult conversation started.

“A lot of women don't like to talk about their weight and believe it or not, a lot of doctors don't talk about weight because they don't want to embarrass their patient,” Gulati said. “But if you can't talk about it in a doctor's office, where can you talk about it?”

Blood pressure

The second number is blood pressure, measured using two numbers. The systolic pressure – the pressure when you heart is pushing blood through your veins – and the diastolic pressure, when your heart is at rest, is displayed as 120/80, which is considered a normal blood pressure.

Readings up to 140/90 are considered pre-hypertension and are usually addressed through diet and exercise. Readings over 140/90 usually are treated with medication.

Cholesterol

The third number is your cholesterol. It's a natural substance produced in your body. Unfortunately, you can get too much cholesterol from food. Some people actually produce too much cholesterol on their own and getting it from food just adds to the problem.

Over time cholesterol can clog arteries, bringing on heart disease and sometimes a heart attack. High cholesterol can be treated with medication but Gulati says it’s important to know your total cholesterol number and your low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, number – the so-called “bad cholesterol” that can cause problems. A healthy cholesterol number is below 200. A healthy LDL number is below 100.

Blood sugar

People with diabetes have to constantly keep up with their blood sugar number. That's an indicator of how much glucose is in the blood and too much causes diabetes.

But even if you don't have diabetes you need to be aware of this number, especially if you are overweight. But it's not an easy number to access.

“A lot of times physicians are checking these numbers but not always telling their patients what they are,” Gulati said. “They may say 'your blood work is normal,' but it's not enough to know it's normal, you really need to know what the numbers are.”

A healthy fasting blood sugar number is under 100 after not eating for eight hours.

Waist circumference

Finally, you should know the number of inches around your waist. But not the area where your belt goes. No, a more accurate measure of your gut is putting the tape measure across your belly button. Gulati says physicians should be measuring it on a more regular basis but concedes it's rarely done.

“What we're doing is measuring for central obesity,” she said. “If you carry your weight in the center of your abdomen instead of your hips, being an apple shape instead of a pear shape, that tells me you are pre-disposed to developing diabetes and heart disease.”

Knowing these numbers, of course, is only half the battle. Then you have to do something about it. Fortunately, there's a lot you can do.

A careful diet, keeping track of calories – numbers again – and getting regular exercise will help maintain a healthy weight and cardiovascular system.  

More

Buying a house: good investment or bad?

Trick question: depends which kind of investment you're talking about

Your home is a major investment, but not the kind you might think...

PhotoIf you've ever bought a home or even looked into the possibility, chances are you've encountered realty agents who insist “Your home is an investment!” (often while encouraging you to spend considerably more than can comfortably fit into your budget).

They're semi-right — your home is a major investment, but not the kind you might think. And I've long suspected that people's confusion over different investment types was one of the primary overlooked causes of last decade's housing bubble — and is helping to inflate the new housing bubble that appears to be expanding now.

Here's the problem: the English language has only one word — “investment”  — to describe two completely different financial activities, which I'll call “income generation” and “expense reduction.”

Income-generating investments include stocks, bonds, even real estate in the form of rental or business properties — anything where the idea is to, as investment advisers like to say, “Make your money work for you.” (Of course, any investment has the possibility of going bad; if you buy stock in a company that later goes bankrupt, you'll lose money rather than make it.)

By contrast, expense-reduction investments are, as the name suggests, meant to reduce (if not eliminate) various expenses of ordinary living.

Saving quarters

The first major expense-reduction investment I ever made was when I bought my first washer and dryer, to avoid the bother and expense of hauling dirty clothes plus multiple handfuls of quarters to the coin-op laundromat. Considering what I paid for the machines, how many loads of laundry they washed over the years I owned them, and what it would've cost to wash and dry that same laundry at a coin-op — yes, that washer-dryer combo was an excellent expense-reducing investment, saving me hundreds of dollars in laundry costs over the years.

A house — specifically, your primary residence — is also supposed to be an expense-reducing investment: you'll always have to pay something in exchange for a place to live, but if you buy a house and pay off the debt then, in the long run, your living expenses should be less than if you'd rented all the while.

Case in point: my next-door neighbor lives in a townhouse pretty much identical to mine, except he bought his in the late 1990s whereas I started renting mine a couple summers ago. Yet his monthly housing expenses — fixed-rate mortgage payment, property taxes and insurance — are less than half what I pay in rent (and mine is a cheap rent by local standards, too).

Your house only truly becomes an income-generating investment if you intend to rent it out, or at least take in paying roommates. Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that borrowing against the equity in your house counts as a form of income — a home equity line of credit is not income but the exact opposite: debt. Money isn't “income” if you have to pay it back, with or without interest.

And if you're a current renter thinking of buying a house “because a house is a good investment,” that's only true for you if the numbers fit traditional pre-housing bubble mortgage-lending criteria: get a fixed-rate mortgage after making a down payment of at least 20 percent, and your total monthly cost for mortgage, taxes and insurance payments should be less than or equal to what you now pay in rent. (Based on your income tax bracket, the size of your mortgage and other factors, there are also mortgage interest tax-deduction factors to consider, though for simplicity's sake we're focusing on the more "fixed" costs, here.)

Buying up

Of course, you can certainly “buy up” and move into a nicer house where your monthly housing costs actually increase in the short term, and that's fine provided you can actually afford to pay the mortgage. But don't make the mistake of buying more than you can afford on the theory, “It's okay, since housing is an investment!”

What about buying a house on the theory that its value is certain to go up? Any first-time home buyer hears such stories from the older generation: “I bought this house in 1980 for $100,000, and today it's worth $250,000!”

Wow! Sounds like a nice profit indeed — until you check the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' online inflation calculator and learn that $100,000 in 1980 had the same buying power as $283,878.64 in February 2014.

That particular house was a bad income-generating investment — but probably still a good expense-reducing investment, compared to what its owner otherwise would've paid in rent between 1980 and today.

Even if the value of your home genuinely does rise when inflation is factored in — maybe you paid $100,000 in 1980 for a house now worth $325,000 — the only way to realize that profit is to sell the house you live in, at which point you need to either buy or rent a new place to live. And if your house now costs $325,000, comparable houses in the area are certain to cost about the same.

So if you're a renter thinking of buying a house “because it's a good investment,” make sure you understand what kind of investment it actually is.

More

Initial jobless claims post unexpected surge

Holiday shortened weeks and seasonal adjustment factors may be an issue

The ranks of workers applying for for unemployment benefits for the first time swelled unexpectedly during week ending February 22. Government figures sh...

PhotoThe ranks of workers applying for for unemployment benefits for the first time swelled unexpectedly during week ending February 22.

Government figures show initial applications shot up by 14,000 -- to 348,000, surprising economists surveyed by Briefing.com, who were looking for the total to be close to last weeks revised figure of 334,000.

The Department of Labor (DOL) says there was nothing out of the ordinary in the claims data, but analysts note the agency has had a lot of trouble accounting for holiday shortened weeks with their seasonal adjustment factors. The Presidents Day holiday, they says, likely had a negative effect on seasonal adjustments last week.

Given all of that, analysts say they expect to see the claims range settle back into the 330,000-340,00 range over the near term.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was unchanged at 338,250.

The full report is available on the DOL website.

More

Ordinary conditioner removes head lice eggs as well as more expensive products

The eggs are much harder to get rid of than the lice themselves

Head lice can be hard to get rid of. Even worse are their eggs, commonly called nits. Female lice lay eggs directly onto strands of hair, and they cem...

PhotoHead lice can be hard to get rid of. Even worse are their eggs, commonly called nits. Female lice lay eggs directly onto strands of hair, and they cement them in place with a glue-like substance, making them hard to get rid of.

In fact, the eggs are glued down so strongly that they will stay in place even after the lice themselves have been killed. 

Some shampoos and conditioners that contain chemicals or special oils are marketed as nit-removal products, but new research finds plain old hair conditioner works just as well.

In a study just published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, scientists from Belgium gathered 605 hairs from six different children. Each hair had a single nit attached to it. Approximately 14% of the eggshells contained a dead egg, while the rest were empty.

They then tried to remove the eggs and tested the amount of force needed to do so. They found that nits on the hairs that were left completely untreated were the most difficult to remove. Eggs on hairs that had been soaked in deionized water were much easier to remove, as were the eggs on hairs that had been treated with ordinary hair conditioner and with products specifically marketed for the purpose of nit removal.

No significant difference

However, they found no significant differences between the ordinary conditioners and the special nit-removal products. In all cases, less force was required to remove the nits after the hair had been treated, but the effectiveness of the products was essentially the same.

"There were no significant differences in measured forces between the ordinary conditioner and the commercial nit removal product," the authors write. "The commercial nit removal products tested in the current study do not seem to have an additional effect."

The authors hypothesize that the deionized water was effective because it acts as a lubricant, so less friction is needed to remove the nits from the hairs. The same goes for the conditioners.

"Treatment with conditioner reduces the coefficient of friction of undamaged and damaged hair," they write. "As a consequence, conditioners will facilitate nit removal."

More

Consumers pull back on spending in January

However, they may loosen up when warmer weather finally arrives

How cold was it in January? Apparently so cold a lot of consumers didn't want to take their hands out of their pockets. That's one possible explanation fo...

PhotoHow cold was it in January? Apparently so cold a lot of consumers didn't want to take their hands out of their pockets.

That's one possible explanation for the decline in the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index last month. Even with the drop of 0.3 -- to 4.0 -- the index, which tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of future consumer spending, remained in positive territory.

"All components of the index this month declined slightly, though such volatility is consistent with a recovering economy," said Daniel Bachman, Deloitte's senior U.S. economist. "The index still indicates a positive environment for consumers, which may help sustain current spending levels."

"Despite a colder than usual winter, retailers may benefit from 'spring fever' once the chilly temperatures subside," said Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and Retail & Distribution sector leader. "Consumers may feel like they're coming out of hibernation after many frigid, stormy weeks and quickly warm up to the idea of shopping for spring apparel, gardening supplies or outdoor gear. Retailers should be ready to capitalize on that excitement, starting with mobile and online awareness efforts now, so that their brands are top of mind when consumers venture out."

Index highlights

Here is how the four major components of the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index performed last month:

  • Tax burden: The tax rate remains at approximately 11.8%, with only a 0.3% increase from the month prior.
  • Initial unemployment claims: The four-week moving average of initial unemployment claims rose to 359,000, a rise of nearly 11% from the previous month.
  • Real wages: Real hourly wages ticked down 0.2% to $8.81 in December, but remain among the highest levels seen over the past year.
  • Real new home prices: New home prices dipped 0.6% to $115,000 from $116,000 in the previous month.
More

California arrests 7 in $6.2 million mortgage fraud case

The seven took advantage of desperate homeowners, state charges

Seven suspects have been arrested in a mortgage fraud scheme that defrauded more than California 1,550 homeowners seeking loan modification services d...

PhotoSeven suspects have been arrested in a mortgage fraud scheme that defrauded more than California 1,550 homeowners seeking loan modification services during the foreclosure crisis.

The felony complaint alleges that Nehad “Nick” Ayyoub Ayyoub, 57, of San Bernardino and president of The Firm Loans, Insurance and Investments Inc. and First Choice Debt Solutions Inc., along with his six colleagues, Ghydan Ayyoub Rabadi, 38, of Los Angeles, Zaid Rabadi, 49, of Los Angeles, James Clemons, 55, of Riverside County, Wissam Ismail, 32, of Riverside County, Eddie Mercado, 57, of San Bernardino, and Majid Safaie, 60, of Orange County, deceived homeowners by illegally charging upfront payments for loan modification services and lying about the services they provided.

“These individuals profited from the fear and desperation of hard working Californians who were simply fighting to keep their homes during the height of our state’s foreclosure crisis,” California Attorney General Kamala Harris said. “This kind of predatory activity is reprehensible.”

The suspects are charged in a 24-count complaint of felony grand theft, personal and corporate income tax evasion and conspiracy. Ayyoub is facing a maximum exposure of 12 years in prison while his colleagues are facing a maximum exposure of 8 years.

Desperate homeowners

According to court filings, Ayyoub and his colleagues took advantage of homeowners who were desperate to lower their mortgage payments by selling them home loan modification services and requiring payment of upfront fees.

Homeowners were falsely told that attorneys would be negotiating their loan modifications, that they would get a loan modification with no risk of failure, that they would receive a refund if they were dissatisfied and that the suspects had special contacts with lenders, which would give them an advantage in obtaining lowered monthly payments.

Homeowners were instructed to stop paying their mortgage and to instead give the money to Ayyoub and his colleagues to ensure that they would obtain a loan modification, causing many victims to default on their home loans without obtaining a modification, according to court filings.

The suspects operated this scam from January 2007 to March 2010, according to court filings.

Attorney General Harris’ Mortgage Fraud Strike Force began investigating this case in 2010 yet business records were immediately sealed until September 2012 when Safaie’s claim of attorney client privilege was overruled.

Homeowners who feel they may have been victimized should file an online complaint with the California Attorney General’s Office: http://oag.ca.gov/consumers.

More

Cork block stacking toys recalled

Small pieces of cork can break off the blocks, posing a choking hazard

A Harvest Company of Huntley, Ill., is recalling about 720 sets of Cork Stacker block sets. Small pieces of cork can break off the blocks, posing a chokin...

PhotoA Harvest Company of Huntley, Ill., is recalling about 720 sets of Cork Stacker block sets.

Small pieces of cork can break off the blocks, posing a choking hazard to young children.

The firm has received seven reports of cork pieces breaking off of the blocks, including two reports of children putting the pieces in their mouths. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves a three-piece cork block stacking toy. Each of the square cork blocks is a different size: 2 7/8 inch by 2 7/8 inch, 2 3/8 inch by 2 3/8 inch and 2 inch by 2 inch. All of the blocks are 1 ½ inches tall and have black dots on the top. The packaging is labeled “6mo+” for use by children six months and older.

The stacking toys, manufactured in the U.S., were sold exclusively online by StorkStack.com during January 2014, as part of the January Stork Stack subscription for about $30 for a total of five products.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cork block toys and contact A Harvest Company for instructions to return the block sets for a merchandise credit.

Consumers may contact A Harvest Company toll-free at (877) 394-7774 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

More

Are your digital devices driving up your electric bill?

Consumer group says they take a bigger bite than you think

If you've checked your monthly electricity bill and been surprised at how much it is, you may have more to blame than an overly cold winter. Researchers at...

PhotoIf you've checked your monthly electricity bill and been surprised at how much it is, you may have more to blame than an overly cold winter. Researchers at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) analyzed electric bills for California and other U.S. households and concluded that digital devices are driving bills higher.

Look around your home. How many things are plugged into a wall outlet, sucking up kilowatts? If you find you must use power strips at many outlets to accommodate all your devices, you can begin to appreciate the demand.

It's not just computers and big screen TVs, but monitors, notebooks, game consoles, routers and other devices that seem to be proliferating. All need electricity to do their jobs. But is it over-the-top demand?

Energy guzzlers

“Digital devices are energy guzzlers sapping consumer pocketbooks,” said Mark Cooper, CFA’s Director of Research and author of the report. “Improving the energy efficiency of household digital devices by a third or more would save consumers a lot of money because the reduction in electricity bills would be much larger than the increase in the upfront cost of putting more new more energy efficient technologies in the devices.”

There's already a program in place to encourage that. Since 1992 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has administered the Energy Star program, setting efficiency standards and sponsoring research. While many manufacturers have embraced Energy Star, its standards are voluntary.

Energy Star has made refrigerators, stoves and other large appliances more efficient than they might otherwise be, but these appliances aren't proliferating in the average home at the rapid rate digital devices are, and the latter's toll is adding up.

500% increase

The CFA researchers found that between 2000 and 2013, digital devices increased their killowatt consumption by 500% in the U.S. They estimate the average U.S. household now consumes 800 killowatt hours (kWh) per year.

Putting that in perspective, CFA says digital devices consume half as much electricity as your air conditioner and two-thirds of what your refrigerator uses. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that electricity use by digital devices is highest in California, where computer and Internet usage is highest.

Photo

Manufacturers disagree

The consumer electronics industry takes issue with the suggestion that their products are running up Americans' electric bills. Earlier this month Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro complained of “conflicting and costly” energy efficiency requirements adopted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico, saying they are what are really costing consumers.

“Specifically, the mishmash of Canadian, Mexican and U.S. energy efficiency policies is confusing and costly for businesses and could force consumers to pay higher prices,” Shapiro said in a statement.

As for higher electricity bills for consumers, electricity rates have jumped in recent months, due in part to a spike in natural gas prices. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), average U.S. electric bills have been in decline since 2010. But the EIA says the ratio of annual peak-hour electric demand to average hourly demand has been rising over the last 20 years, with the increase especially noticeable in New England.

For its part, CFA maintains that substantial, cost-effective improvements in the energy efficiency of consumer digital devices can be achieved through strong performance standards. And considering many of these devices didn't exist 20 years ago, it's reasonable to assume that the average home will have even more yet-to-be-invented digital devices in the years to come.

More

Senate bill would restrict e-cigarette marketing to children and teens

E-cigs "a gateway to tobacco use," say the bill's sponsors

For years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been trying to decide what to do about e-cigarettes -- the electronic gadgets that vaporize nico...

PhotoFor years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been trying to decide what to do about e-cigarettes -- the electronic gadgets that vaporize nicotine, a process promoters say produces a healthier way of ingesting nicotine.

Apparently tired of waiting on the FDA, five U.S. Senators today introduced the "Protecting Children from Electronic Cigarette Advertising Act" to prohibit the marketing of e-cigs to children and teens. 

“We cannot risk undoing decades of progress in reducing youth smoking by allowing e-cigarette makers to target our kids,” Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said. “This bill will help protect our children from an industry that profits from addiction.”

State and local jusidictions have also been stepping into the void left by the lack of action by the FDA. Earlier this week, a committee of the Los Angeles city council passed a measure that would treat e-cigs like tobacco cigarettes and subject them to the same restrictions. Before leaving office last year, ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a bill outlawing e-cigs and plastic plates. 

Mass marketing techniques

Photo

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another sponsor of the Senate measure, said e-cig makers are increasingly adopting mass marketing techniques previously used by tobacco companies to target children and teens.

"With fruit and candy flavors and glossy celebrity ads, e-cigarettes makers are undeniably targeting young people. Unfortunately, it’s working. We must take action now to prevent a new generation from walking down the dangerous path towards nicotine addiction,” Durbin said.

“When it comes to the marketing of e-cigarettes to children and teens, it’s ‘Joe Camel’ all over again," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. "It is troubling that manufacturers of e-cigarettes – some of whom also make traditional cigarettes – are attempting to establish a new generation of nicotine addicts through aggressive marketing that often uses cartoons and sponsorship of music festivals and sporting events.” 

The other senators sponsoring the bill are Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

The Protecting Children from Electronic Cigarette Advertising Act would permit the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to determine what constitutes marketing to children, and would authorize the FTC to work with state attorneys general to enforce the ban.

The health implications of using electronic cigarettes are not yet clear, and the FDA has warned that consumers of e-cigarette products “currently have no way of knowing” if e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use, or how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use.

Gateway to tobacco

“E-cigarettes are a gateway to tobacco use by children and teens and should not be marketed to youth, period,” Sen. Markey said. “We’ve made great strides educating young people about the dangers of smoking, and we cannot allow e-cigarettes to snuff out the progress we’ve made preventing nicotine addiction and its deadly consequences."

According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, 1.8 million middle and high school students said they tried e-cigarettes in 2012, and a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the percentage of high school students who had tried them had more than doubled in just one year – indicating that e-cigarette companies could be targeting youth through advertisements.

More than 76 percent of those users said they also smoked conventional cigarettes, suggesting that for many young people, e-cigarettes could be a gateway to nicotine addiction and smoking of conventional cigarettes, the senators noted.

The bill has been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

In December, Senators Boxer, Blumenthal, Durbin, Harkin, Markey, and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) sent a letter urging the FTC to investigate the marketing practices of e-cigarette manufacturers.

More

GM expands ignition switch recall

Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice, and Saturn Ion and Sky included

Saying that it is “deeply sorry,” General Motors is expanding an earlier recall of 619,122 model year 2003-2007 vehicles to correct a condition with the ig...

PhotoSaying that it is “deeply sorry,” General Motors is expanding an earlier recall of 619,122 model year 2003-2007 vehicles to correct a condition with the ignition switch that may allow the key to unintentionally move or switch to the “accessory” or “off” position, turning off the engine and most of the electrical components on the vehicle.

In addition to the Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5 and Pontiac Pursuit sold in Canada only, GM is separately recalling 2003-2007 Saturn Ions, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHRs, and 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky models.

Surging total

The number of affected U.S. vehicles -- including those in the earlier recall -- totals 1,367,146.

This expanded vehicle population raises the number of reported incidents involving frontal crashes, in which the recall condition may have caused or contributed to the non-deployment of the frontal airbags, to 31 involving 13 front-seat fatalities.

As part of the recall, GM is taking steps to address customer concerns and working with its suppliers to increase parts production and accelerate availability.

GM will notify all affected customers that in addition to recalling their vehicles and performing repairs at no charge to them, GM and its dealers will work with customers on an individual, case-by-case basis to minimize inconvenience associated with the recall.

“Ensuring our customers’ safety is our first order of business,” said GM North America President Alan Batey. “We are deeply sorry and we are working to address this issue as quickly as we can.”

Fixing the problem

In the affected vehicles, the ignition switch torque performance may not meet GM specifications. If the torque performance is not to specification, and the key ring is carrying added weight or the vehicle goes off road or experiences some other jarring event, the ignition switch may inadvertently be moved out of the “run” position.

The timing of the key movement out of the “run” position, relative to the activation of the sensing algorithm of the crash event, may result in the airbags not deploying, increasing the potential for occupant injury in certain kinds of crashes.

Dealers will replace the ignition switch to prevent the unintentional or inadvertent key movement. Until this correction is performed, customers should use only the ignition key with nothing else on the key ring.  

More

Delta Air Lines to award frequent-flyer miles based on price, not distance

Most SkyMiles customers are spectacularly unimpressed

Frequent customers of Delta Air Lines be warned: the company is changing the equation it uses to calculate frequent-flyer miles...

PhotoFrequent customers of Delta Air Lines be warned: the company is changing the equation it uses to calculate frequent-flyer miles — instead of free miles being based on how many miles you fly, they'll be based on how much money you spend.

Delta announced the change to its SkyMiles program on its website. “What's new with how you earn miles?” it asked, and then answered: “Miles for Delta flights will be earned based on ticket price instead of distance flown. So when you pay a higher price, you’ll be rewarded with more miles — up to 75,000 per ticket. This update will take effect for flights flown on or after January 1, 2015.”

On its Facebook page, meanwhile, Delta said the change “will make Award redemption easier and better reward your loyalty.” But the actual Delta customers who posted on Facebook mostly took a different point of view — and remained unpersuaded by the arguments of whatever Delta employee is tasked with chatting on Facebook. Consider this Facebook exchange between a Delta representative and a customer named Derek:

DEREK : So now I earn half the miles I use to - thanks Delta, time to look elsewhere. [45 “likes” for this comment, as of presstime.]

DELTA: Derek, thank you for voicing your concerns. We encourage you to reference our Mileage Comparison Calculator by clicking here http://oak.ctx.ly/r/que1 to see how these changes impact you. Also, now the Miles you earn are now easier to redeem. We appreciate your feedback. Thank you. [0 "likes" as of presstime.]

DEREK: I did compare - my usual destination presently earns me 8340 miles (as the crow flies, not counting the connection I must take). The new system will have me earning 4500 miles based on the average price. Just a tad over half what I earned before.

DELTA: Derek, please remember that you can continue to earn up to an additional 2 miles on Delta spend with the SkyMiles Credit Card. That is 40% more miles on Delta flights as a General SkyMiles Member in the new 2015 program in addition to the miles you earn on every day spend with the Card. I hope this helps, thank you.

DEREK: Still 2000 miles less than present for the route I used as an example, assuming I don't already have a card - which I do. If you were giving me two more miles than present you'd have something to brag about.

Tough duty

As a side note, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for the poor Delta schlub on Facebook duty. It's almost certain he or she is not allowed to admit to any customer, “Yeah, the changes leave you worse off than before” regardless of how much direct evidence customers post to prove it — and plenty of customers did.

While Derek and Delta went back and forth, other customers chimed in with specifics regarding just how badly the new SkyMiles program would hurt them:

“Comparison Calculator confirms 50% less miles, especially since the calculator only accounts for one-way miles for the old method vs full dollar amount of the new method.”

“I just checked the mileage calculator on my end - 6,187 MILES* down to 2,240 MILES. How is this better? I have the card as well.”

“Better to reward loyalty? What a joke. My flights from Asia to the US are now nearly worthless- and that's after the continual devaluation over the years since the NWA/Delta merger!! Time to cancel the Delta Amex cards! The miles are worthless!”

A press release published in the Wall Street Journal spells out the details of how the new SkyMiles program will be calculated:

Customers will be able to earn between five and 11 miles per dollar spent based on their SkyMiles status, and continue to earn up to an additional two miles per dollar when using their Delta SkyMiles Credit Card, for a total of up to 13 miles per dollar. The updated program will better reward the customers who spend more with Delta and give them improved mileage-earning opportunities.... The updated mileage-earning plan, for travel beginning Jan. 1, 2015, will better recognize frequent business travelers and those less frequent leisure customers who purchase premium fares. The move is consistent with a trend in the travel industry of rewarding customer behavior based on price. Customers will continue to earn additional miles for purchases with a Delta SkyMiles Credit Card.

More

Feds sue for-profit college ITT, accusing it of predatory lending

The school exploited its students and pushed them into high-cost student loans, the CFPB alleges

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today sued ITT Educational Services, Inc., accusing the for-profit college chain of predatory student lendi...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today sued ITT Educational Services, Inc., accusing the for-profit college chain of predatory student lending.

The CFPB alleges that ITT exploited its students and pushed them into high-cost private student loans that were very likely to end in default. The CFPB is seeking restitution for victims, a civil fine, and an injunction against the company.

Consumers rate ITT

“ITT marketed itself as improving consumers’ lives but it was really just improving its bottom line,” said CFPB Director Richard Corday. “We believe ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many consumers into expensive loans destined to default. Today’s action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics.”

 The CFPB said that, like the mortgage market in the lead-up to the financial crisis, the for-profit college industry may be experiencing misaligned incentives. These colleges benefit when students take out large amounts of loans, regardless of the students’ long-term success.

That may describe the situation Aaron of Orange Park, Fla., faces. He wrote to ConsumerAffairs earlier this month said that, although he attended ITT Tech for two years, he did not learn anything. 

"The way it was set up, if you go to school you will pass," he said. "I wish to God I never went there, but now I'm $43,000 in debt."

Mark of Cincinnati described a similar experience, He also said he completed an Associate degree in two years but after being unable to find a steady job in his chosen field, he now works in a window factory.

"I'm paying on a degree I have never used. I'm paying for technology I learned all those years ago that is now obsolete and I wouldn't stand a chance of getting a job in this field now. I feel I was lied to and cheated," Mark said. "Three of the loans I am paying on are College Advantage loans. These loans are not eligible for any income based repayment and I am paying almost $360 on these loans now. My government loans would be $280. If the government loans were not on deferment, I would be in the hole over $600 every month." 

Coaxing students into debt

The CFPB said it is concerned that some of these corporations may be employing practices to coax consumers into taking out more federal and private student loans. Today’s announcement is the Bureau’s first public enforcement action against a company in the for-profit college industry.

Most of ITT’s students borrow large sums to pay the high tuition costs and the majority of this money is borrowed from federal student loan programs, CFPB said, adding that private student loans also provide critical revenue for ITT. Because most ITT students’ federal aid does not cover the full cost of an ITT program, most students -- like Mark of Cincinnati -- face a “tuition gap” requiring them to find other sources of funding.

The CFPB’s lawsuit alleges that ITT encouraged new students to enroll at ITT by providing them funding for this tuition gap with a zero-interest loan called “Temporary Credit.” This loan typically had to be paid in full at the end of the student’s first academic year. But ITT knew from the outset that many students would not be able to repay their Temporary Credit balances or fund their next year’s tuition gap, the lawsuit alleges.

What to do 

Consumer advocates recommended that students seeking training in technical fields attend a local community college. The tuition is a fraction of that charged by for-profit colleges and the curriculum is often more relevant and up-to-date.

To assist student loan borrowers who may be in delinquency or default, the CFPB recently launched an updated version of the Repay Student Debt interactive tool.

CFPB also takes complaints about student loans. To submit a complaint, consumers can:

  • Go online at www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint
  • Call the toll-free phone number at 1-855-411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD phone number at 1-855-729-CFPB (2372)
  • Fax the CFPB at 1-855-237-2392
  • Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244
More

Study: pregnant employees still subject to discrimination

Researchers find 40% of gender-based complaints involve pregnancy

In 1978 Congress added to the nation's workplace protections by passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which made it illegal to terminate or otherwise d...

PhotoIn 1978 Congress added to the nation's workplace protections by passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which made it illegal to terminate or otherwise discriminate against an employee just because she is pregnant.

Thirty-five years later, however, complaints from pregnant women in the workforce continue. Two researchers who have looked into these complaints conclude that, even though pregnancy discrimination is against the law, it's still going on.

In their study, Reginald Byron, assistant professor of sociology at Southwestern University and Vincent Roscigno, professor of sociology at Ohio State University, said today's discrimination is a bit more subtle. Byron says pregnant employees are more likely to be singled out as poor performers and held strictly accountable for tardiness.

Double standard?

Byron and Roscigno concede performance and tardiness are very legitimate business concerns. The problem, they say, is the appearance that not all non-pregnant employees are being held to the same standards.

“This strategy of portraying pregnant workers as undependable and costly seems to legitimize their terminations to external audiences,” Byron said. “Such a strategy adds to existing employer-employee power disparities like employers’ ability to hire a lawyer in discrimination suits.”

The research will no doubt strike a chord with the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), which has continued to highlight problems encountered in the workplace by pregnant employees.

The group's blog recounts the example of a Pennsylvania woman allegedly subjected to ridicule by fellow employees and indifference by her boss when she asked for private space to pump breast milk each day for her child. NWLC says the woman's boss responded to her complaints by placing her on a rotating shift.

Examples cited in the study

Byron and Roscigno say they analyzed 70 verified cases of pregnancy-based firing discrimination that were handled by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission between 1986 and 2003. They also looked at another 15 cases processed between 2007 and 2011.

Among their findings they said 40% of gender-related complaints involved a pregnant woman. In 30% of the terminations, poor performance was cited as the reason. In 10% of the firings employers cited “business needs, profit and efficiency.”

In citing specific examples the researchers highlighted the case of an assistant restaurant manager who happened to be pregnant, and who was terminated from her job. The reason? Not her performance, the researchers say. The restaurant downsized its management, reducing the assistant managers from three to two, not an unusual occurrence in this economy.

But not long after the downsizing, Byron says the restaurant expanded, hiring a man to fill the position that earlier was no longer needed. Byron says some managers may discriminate unconsciously.

“Some employers think pregnant women will be distracted both in the present and in the future,” Byron said.

What the law says

Employers might argue there are two sides to every dismissal story, and in fact there may be. But the law is quite specific about a pregnant woman's rights in the workplace.

According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), an employer can't refuse to hire a pregnant woman because of her pregnancy, because of a pregnancy-related condition, or because of the prejudices of co-workers, clients, or customers.

Neither may an employer single out pregnancy-related conditions for special procedures to determine an employee's ability to work. If an employee is temporarily unable to perform her job because of her pregnancy, she must be treated as any other temporarily disabled employee. A leave for pregnancy must be treated the same as any leave of absence for all employees on sick or disability leave.

More

Blood pressure should be measured in both arms: study

Different pressure between arms may foretell cardiovascular problems

New study presents evidence that blood pressure should be measured in both armsDifference in interarm blood pressure linked to greater risk of future car...

PhotoMost of us have two arms, so why is it that blood pressure is generally measured in only one arm? It's a good question and, in fact, a new study finds that it would be better to measure the pressure in both arms.

Why? Research published in the March issue of The American Journal of Medicine suggests that there is an association between a difference in interarm systolic blood pressure and a significant increased risk for future cardiovascular events -- heart attacks and the like.

A link between interarm blood pressure differences and cardiovascular risk has been long suspected, but little data existed to support the hypothesis until now.

This new study examined 3,390 participants aged 40 years and older from the Framingham Heart Study. All subjects were free of cardiovascular disease at baseline, but investigators found that participants with higher interarm systolic blood pressure differences were at a much higher risk for future cardiovascular events than those with less than a 10 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) difference between arms.

"In this large prospective, community-based cohort of middle-age men and women free of cardiovascular disease, an increased interarm systolic blood pressure difference was found to be present in nearly 10% of individuals and is associated with increased levels of traditional cardiovascular risk factors," explains lead investigator Ido Weinberg, MD, Institute for Heart Vascular and Stroke Care, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. 

Researchers also found that participants with elevated interarm blood pressure difference were older, had a greater prevalence of diabetes mellitus, higher systolic blood pressure, and a higher total cholesterol level.

According to these findings, investigators suggest practitioners should consider including blood pressure readings in both arms in order to get the most accurate readings possible and detect any differences in interarm blood pressure.

"Even modest differences in clinically-measured systolic blood pressures in the upper extremities reflect an increase in cardiovascular risk," says Weinberg. "This study supports the potential value of identifying the interarm systolic blood pressure difference as a simple clinical indicator of increased cardiovascular risk."

More

A rebound in sales of new homes

On the other hand, mortgage applications posted their third weekly decline

After falling for two months in a row, sales of new single-family homes shot higher in January, Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the...

PhotoAfter falling for two months in a row, sales of new single-family homes shot higher in January,

Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show sales jumped 9.6% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 468,000.That's also 2.2% above the year-ago rate of 458,000.

Home prices

Prices for homes sold during January were mixed.

The median price -- the point at which half of those sold was higher and half was lower -- was $260,100, down $10,100 from December. The average sales price was $322,800 -- a gain of $11,400.

The estimate of new houses for sale at the end last month was 184,000, representing a supply of 4.7 months at the current sales rate.

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

PhotoMortgage applications

Applications for mortgages have posted their third straight weekly decline.

The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows applications were down 8.5% in the week ending February 21.

The Refinance Index plunged 11% from the previous week, sending the refinance share of mortgage activity down 3% -- to 58 percent of total applications, the lowest level since September 2013. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 8% of total applications.

“This is the time of a year we would expect a significant pickup in purchase activity, and we are not yet seeing it,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s chief economist.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 3 basis points -- from 4.50% to 4.53%, the highest rate since week ending January 17, 2014, with points increasing to 0.31 from 0.26 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) increased to 4.47%, the highest rate since week ending January 24, 2014, from 4.45%, with points increasing to 0.13 from 0.11 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was up 1 basis point -- to 4.17%, the highest rate since week ending January 24, 2014,, with points increasing to 0.20 from 0.14 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs rose from 3.55% to 3.56%, the highest rate since week ending January 24, 2014, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dipped 3 basis points to 3.17%t, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.38 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

More

Americans continue to pack on the pounds

A new study says the prevalence of obesity remains high

We're still a nation of tubbies. A national survey study in the February 26 issue of JAMA found that about one-third of adults and 17% of children and tee...

PhotoWe're still a nation of tubbies.

A national survey study in the February 26 issue of JAMA found that about one-third of adults and 17% of children and teens were obese in 2011-2012.

Obesity and childhood obesity, in particular, are the focus of many preventive health efforts in the United States. These include new regulations implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for food packages; funding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of state- and community-level interventions; and numerous reports and recommendations issued by the Institute of Medicine, the U.S. Surgeon General, and the White House.

Two articles published by the authors in JAMA in 2012 demonstrated that the prevalence of obesity leveled off between 2003-2004 and 2009-2010, but "given the focus of public health efforts on obesity, surveillance of trends in obesity remains important."

Taking the measure

Cynthia L. Ogden, Ph.D., led a team from the CDC examining trends for childhood and adult obesity among 9,120 persons with measured weights and heights (or recumbent length) in the 2011-2012 nationally representative National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The prevalence of high weight for recumbent length -- a standard measure of weight among infants and toddlers from birth to age 2 years -- was 8.1 percent in 2011-2012, with a difference between boys (5%) and girls (11.4%). For youth (2- to 19-years of age), 31.8% were either overweight or obese, and 16.9% were obese.

Among adults, more than two-thirds (68.5%) were either overweight or obese, 34.9% were obese (body mass index [BMI] 30 or greater), and 6.4% were extremely obese (BMI 40 or greater).

Little change seen

Overall, there was no change from 2003-2004 through 2011-2012 in high weight for recumbent length among infants and toddlers or in obesity in 2- to 19-year-olds or adults. The prevalence of obesity among children 2 to 5 years of age decreased from 14% in 2003-2004 to just over 8% in 2011-2012, and increased in women age 60 years and older, from 31.5% to more than 38%.

The authors conclude that "obesity prevalence remains high and thus it is important to continue surveillance."

More

Feds fine Asiana $500,000 for failing to help families of crash victims

It's the first time an airline has been fined for violating family assistance rules

Asiana Airlines has been fined $500,000 for failing to offer adequate aid to families after the crash of Asiana flight 214 at San Francisco International A...

PhotoAsiana Airlines has been fined $500,000 for failing to offer adequate aid to families after the crash of Asiana flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport.

It's the first time the U.S. Department of Transportation has fined a carrier for not providing adequate support to families of crash victims. 

“In the very rare event of a crash, airlines have a responsibility to provide their full support to help passengers and their families by following all the elements of their family assistance plans,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “The last thing families and passengers should have to worry about at such a stressful time is how to get information from their carrier.”

Family assistance plan

The Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997 requires that foreign air carriers assure the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board that they will provide various services to passengers and their families by adhering to a “family assistance plan” in the event of aircraft accidents resulting in a major loss of life.

Foreign air carriers must, among other requirements, publicize and staff a reliable, toll-free telephone number to take calls from families of passengers involved in an aircraft accident; notify the families of passengers involved in an aircraft accident as soon as practicable after the foreign air carrier has verified the identity of a passenger on the foreign aircraft, whether or not the names of all of the passengers have been verified; and commit sufficient resources to carry out the family assistance plan.

On July 6, 2013, Asiana flight 214, operating from Seoul Incheon International Airport to San Francisco International Airport, crashed while landing. For approximately one day following the crash, Asiana failed to widely publicize any telephone number for family members of those onboard, and the only number generally available to the public that family members could call was Asiana’s toll-free reservations line.

Locating this phone number on Asiana’s website required significant effort. The reservations line did not include a separate menu option for calls related to the crash and callers were required to navigate through cumbersome automated menus before being connected to an Asiana employee.

In addition, Asiana took two full days to successfully contact the families of just three-quarters of the passengers. The families of several passengers were not contacted until five days following the crash.

Asiana’s response to the crash of flight 214 indicates that the carrier failed to commit sufficient resources to carry out its family assistance plan. Asiana also took two days to send a sufficient number of trained personnel to San Francisco, initially lacked an adequate number of staff able to communicate in the languages spoken by the flight’s passengers, and had no pre-existing contract for the cleaning and returning of passenger property.

Not until five days following the crash did Asiana possess the resources necessary to carry out all of the air carrier’s responsibilities under the Act, the DOT said.

More

Polaris recalls Ranger recreational off-highway vehicles

The vehicles' throttle cable can melt on the exhaust pipe and fail to operate properly

Polaris Industries of Medina, Minn., is recalling about 16,550 Ranger recreational off-highway vehicles. The vehicles’ throttle cable can melt on the exha...

PhotoPolaris Industries of Medina, Minn., is recalling about 16,550 Ranger recreational off-highway vehicles.

The vehicles’ throttle cable can melt on the exhaust pipe and fail to operate properly. This could cause the rider to lose control, posing a crash hazard.

The company has received one report of a vehicle’s throttle failing to return to idle after accelerating, causing the operator to lose control of the vehicle and be thrown from it, resulting in a scraped shin.

This recall involves 2013 Polaris Ranger 500 EFI and Ranger Crew 500 EFI recreational off-highway vehicles. Model names are on the right and left side of the hood. “Polaris” is stamped on the front of the vehicles above the front grill and “Polaris Ranger 4x4” is printed on the side of the rear bed box.

The Ranger has a bench seat and a rear cargo box. Ranger model colors are black, camouflage, green, and red. Model numbers for the Ranger are R13RH50AG, R13RH50AH, R13RH50AM and R13RH50AR.

The Ranger Crew has a front and a rear bench seat and a rear cargo box. Model numbers for the Ranger Crew are R13WH50AG, R13WH50AH, R13WH50AR and R13WH50AX. Ranger Crew model colors are camouflage, green, red and tan.

Recalled vehicles have a VIN between 4XA******DE210149 and 4XA******DE791730 stamped on the front lower frame rail of the vehicle on the driver’s side. Not all VINs in the range are included in this recall.

The vehicles, manufactured in Mexico, were sold at Polaris dealers nationwide from June 2012, through February 2014, from between $9,300 and $11,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled Polaris Ranger vehicles and contact a Polaris dealer to schedule a free inspection and repair. Consumers will also be given inspection instructions if they wish to perform their own inspection. Polaris is contacting its customers directly.

Consumers may contact Polaris toll-free at (888) 704-5290 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.  

More

Tick bite could turn you into a near-vegetarian

Doctors warn the lone star tick can cause severe red meat allergy

Food allergies are becoming a more common occurrence, a result perhaps of new types of processes, substances and additives in the modern diet. But at least...

PhotoFood allergies are becoming a more common occurrence, a result perhaps of new types of processes, substances and additives in the modern diet. But at least one type of increasingly common food allergy appears to have a very natural cause.

There is a growing body of research suggesting that consumers stricken by a sudden allergy to red meat may have developed a sudden sensitivity because of a tick bite. In particular, the lone star tick may be causing thousands of new allergy cases, doctors say.

Food allergies are reactions of the body's immune system to the introduction of a certain food, according to the Mayo Clinic. The immune system detects something in the food that isn't supposed to be there and goes to war. The result can be something as mild as digestive distress to hives, swelling and a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.

One of the most common food allergies is to peanuts, which can cause immediate severe and sometimes fatal reactions. For the most part, a peanut allergy begins in childhood.

How it's different

What is different about many cases of red meat allergy is that the symptoms occur later in life without warnings. One minute you're eating a hamburger and a couple of hours later you're headed for the emergency room.

A 2012 study led by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University linked the lone star tick to red meat allergies, causing a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction. The cases were predominantly in the southeastern U.S. The study focused on antibodies in the blood to a substance called an alpha-gal found in the tick bite.

That substance is also found in red meat so, when the body's immune system detects it following a nice steak dinner, it goes to war once again.

"Where ticks are endemic, for example in the southeastern United States, clinicians should be aware of this new syndrome when presented with a case of anaphylaxis,” the authors wrote. “Current guidance is to counsel patients to avoid all mammalian meat -- beef, pork, lamb and venison."

Cases on the rise

At Vanderbilt University’s Asthma, Sinus and Allergy Program (A.S.A.P.) clinic in Nashville, Tenn., doctors are seeing one or more new red meat allergy cases each week.

“It is not completely understood exactly how the allergy starts,” said Dr. Robert Valet said, assistant professor of medicine at Vanderbilt. “The thought is that the tick has the alpha-gal sugar in its gut and introduces it as part of the allergic bite and that causes the production of the allergy antibody that then cross-reacts to the meat.”

Valet said the allergy's symptoms have included hives and swelling, as well as broader symptoms of anaphylaxis, such as vomiting, diarrhea, trouble breathing, and a drop in blood pressure.

Among most important food allergies

“I think it is something that certainly belongs among the most important food allergies, particularly in the Southeast,” he said. “Certainly these patients can present with every bit as severe of an allergy as someone who is allergic to peanuts.”

Adding to the danger is the fact that someone can develop this food allergy literally overnight, with no warning they could have a problem. Valet recounts the case of September Norman, vacationing with her husband in Tennessee’s Fall Creek Falls State Park. After a steak dinner she was awakened in the middle of the night with a severe allergic reaction and had to be driven several miles to find cell coverage to call 911. Treatment included an epinephrine injection, Benadryl, an IV, and steroids.

Developing this allergy is bad news for a carnivore because Valet says there is no good way to desensitize people once they develop this allergy. While chicken can remain in your diet, red meats and, in some cases, milk are off-limits.

More

California man attempts e-cig lawsuit

Do they or don't they help tobacco smokers quit?

A California man named Eric McGovern is attempting to bring a class action suit against e-cig maker Njoy...

PhotoA California man named Eric McGovern is attempting to bring a class action suit against e-cig maker Njoy, on the grounds that e-cigs are allegedly not as harmless as they claim to be, and also that it is inconsistent regarding whether it does or does not help smokers give up the habit.

Courthouse News Service reports that McGovern's suit claims that e-cig vapor contains the “same impurities and the same cancer-causing agents as traditional cigarettes” (though the levels of such substances in tobacco smoke vs. e-cig vapor are not specified).

E-cigs are marketed as the less-harmful alternative to cigarette smoking, though this has not prevented criticism from those opposed to any use of nicotine, regardless of form. For example: last November, researchers at UC San Francisco released a report criticizing e-cigs for being “the new phase of the nicotine epidemic” and claiming that, instead of reducing the number of nicotine addicts (read: smokers of tobacco) in the world, e-cigs actually increase the number of nicotine addicts (read: inhalers of e-cig vapor).

However, traditional opposition to tobacco smoking was based not on opposition to nicotine use per se, but to the very real health risks that come from regularly inhaling pure tobacco smoke into your lungs. So the debate on whether e-cigs are good, bad or neutral could also be reframed as a debate over what, exactly, is bad about traditional cigarette smoking: is it bad only because of the harmfulness of the smoke? Or should we assume any use of nicotine is bad, even if smoke damage is removed from the equation?

The Courthouse News article about McGovern's lawsuit also reports this apparent non-sequitur:

Njoy touts e-cigarettes as a safe alternative by implying that its product is as safe as vegetables and plants that contain nicotine, McGovern says.

"In reality, a typical consumer would need to ingest, as an example, 244 grams of tomatoes to equal the amount of nicotine a passive smoker would absorb in about three hours in a room with a minimal amount of tobacco smoke," the 25-page lawsuit states.

Assuming this is accurate, it still conflates two different things: the question of whether nicotine-containing plants can safely be ingested is entirely different from the question of how many plants one must ingest specifically to get a certain dose of nicotine. (If cigarette addicts jonesing for a nicotine fix are in the habit of eating tomatoes instead, this trend has not yet received mainstream media coverage.)

And, of course, neither question addresses how much nicotine one might expect from a typical e-cig dose, let alone how much if any nicotine passive non-e-cig users could expect if they sat in a room with an e-cig user.

McGovern is being represented by Brian Chase, a personal injury lawyer out of Newport Beach.

More

Facebook mercifully killing off Facebook email

Facebook email was "not popular" in the same sense that the Hindenburg was "not fireproof"

Facebook has finally succumbed to reality and is doing away with its wildly unpopular Facebook email system...

PhotoGood news for Facebook users: Facebook has finally succumbed to reality and will soon be phasing out its wildly unpopular Facebook email system.

For those of you unfamiliar with Facebook, here's how things worked before the advent of Facebook email (and hopefully/presumably how things will work again): when you register for Facebook, you use an already-existing email address to do so — say, JaneDoe@email.com.

Then, people who see you on Facebook and wish to contact you privately (as opposed to posting a publicly visible note on your “Wall”) have two options: they can send you a message over Facebook's private messaging system, or through your regular email.

Then Facebook decided to introduce its email system: instead of emails landing in your JaneDoe@email.com inbox, they were shunted into the brand-new email account JaneDoe@Facebook.com, and any emails landed in your Facebook private-messaging system.

Really annoying

From Jane Doe's perspective, this was annoying on two levels: one, if she wants to read all of her emails, she has to log in to Facebook in addition to checking her email.com account.

Even worse, Facebook's messaging system has two layers, and most Facebook users only know about one: your official “Messages” box contains private messages (or Facebook.com emails) sent by your official “Facebook friends.” But messages from anyone else were shunted into a different folder, called “Other.”

(Relevant personal anecdote: my own Facebook account was a couple years old before I knew about the “Other” folder, and I might still be unaware of it had I not read this circa-2011 article in Slate, from a writer furious to discover that some extremely important personal messages had languished unread in her “Other” folder. A worse horror story unfolded in Georgia last year, when a mother in Clayton County went a whole month without knowing her missing son had been murdered – police used Facebook to let her know, and the message sat unread in her “Other” folder.)

Such little kinks still exist in Facebook's private messaging system, but this week, finally, the company announced that it was ending its ill-fated @Facebook.com email experiment: by March, Jane Doe's default email address will once again be JaneDoe@email.com, not JaneDoe@Facebook.com

The blog InsideFacebook.com reported on Feb. 24 that Facebook was doing away with its “unpopular” email service due to “lack of participation.”

Oddly enough, the mainstream media news reports about the closing were often more tongue-in-cheek than the commentary from the blogosphere. For example, when North Carolina TV station and website MyFox8.com shared the news with its readers, the story started by asking “Check your Facebook mail lately? Didn’t think so. Apparently not many others did, either.”

If your tastes run more toward understatement, you'll prefer this quote from the Venture Capital Post: “There probably won't be any lost tears over this change for many users.”

More

Don't overlook Earned Income Tax Credit

You could receive this benefit even if you pay no taxes

Not everyone qualifies for it. In fact, it's specifically designed for low-income wage earners, which these days includes a lot of people. But if you quali...

PhotoNot everyone qualifies for it. In fact, it's specifically designed for low-income wage earners, which these days includes a lot of people. But if you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), it could put more money in your pocket at tax time than you would ordinarily receive.

“One-third of the population eligible for EITC changes each year as their personal circumstances change,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “We want workers who may qualify for EITC for the first time to have all the information they need to get the EITC and get it right.”

Making work more attractive

Congress passed the EITC in 1975 but it has grown over the years into one of the government's largest tools to fight poverty. Its purpose is to make work – especially low-wage work – more attractive.

A lot of factors go into determining the size of of a tax credit, including income, family size and filing status. The IRS has an online tool that can help you find out if you qualify.

As you will quickly see the EITC is designed specifically to help families with children. To qualify this tax year the taxpayer's Adjusted Gross Income for a family with three or more qualifying children must be less than $46,997 – or $52,427 if married and filing a joint return. But for taxpayers with no children, the income limit is $14,590 – or $20,020 if married and filing jointly.

80% are eligible

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) estimates that four out of five workers and their families get the credit. At the same time, the tax agency says millions miss it because they either don't claim it or they don't file a tax return at all.

To use the IRS' online tool just answer a few questions. The EITC Assistant does the math, helping you both determine whether or not you are eligible and, if you are, how much the tax credit works out to be. If you don't qualify, the Assistant will tell you why.

For the 2013 tax year Treasury Department and IRS have ruled that same-sex couples, legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriages, will be treated as married for federal tax purposes, including eligibility for the EITC.

Last year, the IRS says 27 million people were eligible and received more than $63 billion total in EITC, with an average EITC amount of $2,300. Qualifying families with children receive the most. The EITC for them maxes out at $6,044.

But even couples with no children can get a maximum of $487. What makes this tax break unique it is available to people who owe no taxes. That's why even if you are not required to file a return, because your income is so low, you should anyway.

Professional help

Tax preparers are very familiar with the EITC and competent professionals will be quick to take advantage of it if you qualify. But the IRS urges taxpayers to use only trusted tax preparers, as it as seen a number of false claims in recent years.

For example, scams that create fictitious qualifying children or inflate income levels to get the maximum EITC could land you – not just the tax preparer – in trouble. Besides paying a penalty, you might be prevented from claiming the EITC in the future.

Under the law if you have a claim denied for any reason other than an honest mistake, future claims must be accompanied by Form 8862, insuring your claim will get extra scrutiny.

More

Netflix in talks with Verizon, AT&T

Online entertainment service dips into its cash drawer to keep the video streaming

Verizon CEO: We Expect A Deal With Netflix (CNBC)Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam said Monday that he expects to reach an agreement with Netflix th...

PhotoIt was just yesterday that Netflix agreed to pay an undisclosed fee to Comcast to ransom its video streams and now Verizon and AT&T have their hands out.

The big telecom and cable companies have been keeping their fingers on the spigot lately, throttling Netflix as part of a scheme to create a new revenue source.

Carriers have not previously charged content creators for what would once have been called "trunk" traffic, being content merely to charge for last-mile connections. But with Netflix accounting for more than half of overall traffic on the Internet at peak viewing times, the temptation is just too great.

Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam and AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel both say that their companies are talking with Netflix to, as Siegel put it, "establish a more direct connection between our networks," Reuters reported.

Netflix didn't directly confirm that talks but said it talks to major ISPs all the time "to make sure Netflix users get the best possible experience."

A dangerous precedent

It sounds harmless to slap a surcharge on Netflix which is without question one of the biggest if not the biggest user of broadband capacity but it also establishes a precedent for charging content providers based on how much bandwidth they consume.

What does this sound like?

If you said "long distance," you're right. The legacy telephone companies -- Verizon and AT&T -- have nightly dreams in which they magically find a way to reimpose time- and distance-based charges on everyone who uses the Internet.

It's not much of a stretch to say that all content providers should pay for the bandwidth they burn up each day, which would pretty much be the end of the Internet free-for-all, many analysts think.

More

Los Angeles may be next to restrict e-cigs

A proposed ordinance would treat them like traditional tobacco cigarettes

There doesn't seem to be much middle ground on electronic cigarettes; people either love them or hate them. And those who hate them tend to be in positions...

PhotoThere doesn't seem to be much middle ground on electronic cigarettes; people either love them or hate them. And those who hate them tend to be in positions of power.

The Los Angeles city council is the latest to consider outlawing the gadgets. A pending ordinance would basically treat e-cigs as though they were traditional, tobacco-burning cigarettes, outlawing them in public places.

The proposed ordinance made it through a committee on Monday and is now headed to the full city council. The committee acted after hearing from Los Angeles County's public health director, Jonathan Fielding, who said the e-cigs tend to make smoking socially acceptable, encouraging young people to take up smoking.

"We don't want to risk e-cigarettes undermining a half century of successful tobacco control," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Opponents of the measure say it would simply drive smokers back to tobacco.

Promoters of e-cigs argue that they are much safer than traditional cigarettes, which release nicotine as a byproduct of burning tobacco, a process that releases deadly tars into the lungs of smokers and those nearby. 

E-cigarettes electrically heat nicotine, releasing it as vapor, giving users their nicotine fix without the dangerous tars and minus the fire hazards of traditional cigarettes.

But a study released late last year disputed the contention that e-cigs are an effective way to keep teens from taking up the smoking habit.

UC San Francisco researchers said last November that the youths they studied using e-cigarettes were more likely to be trying to quit, but also were less likely to have stopped smoking and were smoking more, not less.

"We are witnessing the beginning of a new phase of the nicotine epidemic and a new route to nicotine addiction for kids," according to senior author Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, UCSF professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the majority of adolescent e-cigarette users also smoke regular cigarettes, and that the percentage of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012. An estimated 1.78 million U.S. students had used the devices as of 2012, said the CDC.

More

Younger people particularly hard-hit by the flu

The good news: flu shots made a big difference this season

Younger- and middle-age adults took a particularly hard hit from the flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity an...

PhotoYounger- and middle-age adults took a particularly hard hit from the flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’sMorbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR ).

People age 18-64 represented 61 percent of all hospitalizations from influenza compared with the previous three seasons when this age group represented only about 35% of all such hospitalizations. Flu deaths followed the same pattern with more deaths than usual occurring in this younger age group.

A second MMWR report showed that influenza vaccination offered substantial protection this season, reducing a vaccinated person’s risk of having to go to the doctor for flu illness by about 60% across all ages.

“Flu hospitalizations and deaths in people younger- and middle-aged adults is a sad and difficult reminder that flu can be serious for anyone, not just the very young and old; and that everyone should be vaccinated,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “The good news is that this season's vaccine is doing its job, protecting people across all age groups."

Ain't over til it's over

U.S. flu surveillance data suggest flu activity is likely to continue for several weeks, especially in places where activity started later in the season. Some states that saw earlier increases in flu are now seeing decreases. Other states are still seeing high levels of flu activity or continued increases.

While flu is responsible for serious illness and death every season, the people who are most affected can vary by season and by the predominant influenza virus. The currently circulating H1N1 virus triggered a pandemic in 2009, in which there were high rates of hospitalization and death in younger- and middle-aged people. While H1N1 viruses have continued to circulate since the pandemic, this is the first season since then that they have been predominant in the U.S. Once again, the virus is causing severe illness in younger- and middle-aged people.

High hospitalization rates

Approximately 61% of flu hospitalizations so far this season have occurred among persons aged 18-64 years. Last season, when influenza A (H3N2) viruses were the predominant circulating viruses, people 18 to 64 years accounted for only 35% of hospitalizations. During the pandemic season of 2009-2010, people 18 to 64 years old accounted for about 56% of hospitalizations.

Hospitalization rates have also been affected. While rates are still highest among people 65 and older (50.9 per 100,000), people 50 to 64 years now have the second-highest hospitalization rate (38.7 per 100,000), followed by children 0-4 years old (35.9 per 100,000). During the pandemic, people 50 to 64 years also had the second-highest hospitalization rate. Note that hospitalization rates are cumulative and thus will continue to increase this season.

Flu deaths this season are following a pattern a similar to the pandemic. People 25 years to 64 years of age have accounted for about 60% of flu deaths this season compared with 18%, 30%, and 47% for the three previous seasons, respectively. During 2009-2010, people 25 years to 64 years accounted for an estimated 63% of deaths.

Not invincible

"Younger people may feel that influenza is not a threat to them, but this season underscores that flu can be a serious disease for anyone," said Dr. Frieden. "It's important that everyone get vaccinated. It's also important to remember that some people who get vaccinated may still get sick, and we need to use our second line of defense against flu: antiviral drugs to treat flu illness. People at high risk of complications should seek treatment if they get a flu-like illness. Their doctors may prescribe antiviral drugs if it looks like they have influenza."

People at high risk for flu complications include pregnant women, people with asthma, diabetes or heart disease, people who are morbidly obese and people older than 65 or children younger than 5 years, but especially those younger than 2 years.

The value of flu shots

PhotoIn the flu vaccine effectiveness (VE) study, CDC looked at data from 2,319 children and adults enrolled in the U.S. Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness (Flu VE) Network from December 2, 2013, to January 23, 2014. They found that flu vaccine reduced the risk of having to go to the doctor for flu illness by an estimated 61% across all ages. The study also looked at VE by age group and found that the vaccine provided similar levels of protection against influenza infection across all ages.

VE point estimates against influenza A and B viruses by age group ranged from 52% for people 65 and older to 67% for children 6 months to 17 years. Protection against the predominant H1N1 virus was even slightly better for older people; VE against H1N1 was estimated to be 56% in people 65 and older and 62% in people 50 to 64 years of age. All findings were statistically significant.

The interim VE estimates this season are comparable to results from studies during other seasons when the viruses in the vaccine have been well-matched with circulating influenza viruses and are similar to interim estimates from Canada for 2013-14 published recently.

While flu vaccine can vary in how well it works, vaccination offers the best protection currently available against influenza infection. CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu vaccine.

“We are committed to the development of better flu vaccines, but existing flu vaccines are the best preventive tool available now,” said Dr. Frieden. “This season vaccinated people were substantially better off than people who did not get vaccinated. The season is still ongoing. If you haven’t yet, you should still get vaccinated."  

More

It's refund season

More refunds have been issued so far than were a year ago

Feeling a little more flush this year? If you've already filed your 2013 federal income tax return, there may be a good reason. Tax filing statistics for ...

PhotoFeeling a little more flush this year? If you've already filed your 2013 federal income tax return, there may be a good reason.

Tax filing statistics for the 2014 season showing 15% more refunds have been issued this year than during the same period in 2013. Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says the average federal refund is $3,211 -- up $190 from the same period a year ago.

The statistics, covering the period through Feb. 14, show that while the overall number of tax returns filed this year is down slightly )less than a percentage point), nearly 95% of all returns received were filed electronically.

The following table of statistics provides a complete picture

Cumulative statistics comparing 2/15/13 and 2/14/14

Individual Income Tax Returns:

2013

2014

% Change

Total Receipts

39,531,000

39,224,000

-0.8%

Total Processed

30,762,000

38,385,000

24.8%

E-filing Receipts:

Total           

37,112,000

37,165,000

0.1%

Tax Professionals

20,028,000

18,953,000

-5.4%

Self-prepared

17,084,000

18,212,000

6.6%

Web Usage:

Visits to IRS.gov

123,945,553

122,140,734

-1.5%

Total Refunds:

Number

27,100,000

31,308,000

15.5%

Amount

$81.861

billion

$100.541

billion

22.8%

Average refund

$3,021

$3,211

6.3%

Direct Deposit Refunds:

Number

24,957,000

27,748,000

11.2%

Amount

$77.888

billion

$89.593

billion

15.0%

Average refund

$3,121

$3,229

3.5%

For more information on tax credits available for this filing season and other tax questions, try the Interactive Tax Assistant online tool on the IRS website. Up-to-date refund information can be found by using the Where’s My Refund? tool.    

More

Attempted class-action suit addresses "excessively high" parking fines

The constitution bans "excessive" fines, but how much is excessive?

There's potential good news for Los Angeles car owners – and possibly car owners elsewhere throughout America...

PhotoThere's potential good news for Los Angeles car owners due to an attempted federal class-action suit claiming that, while fines for people parked at expired parking meters might pass constitutional muster, “excessively” high fines do not.

Lead plaintiff Jesus Pimentel ran up a $63 expired parking meter fine, which is bad enough, but the city gave him only two weeks to pay before doubling the fine. Then there was a $28 "delinquent" fee and a $21 "collection" fee. Add it all up and Pimentel was out $175, which he thinks is so excessive it's downright unconstitutional, Courthouse News Service reported. 

Besides the money, Pimentel was miffed when the DMV threatened to withhold his car's registration if he didn't pay up, the city threatened to boot and impound his car while also holding out the possibility of civil litigation, damage to his credit rating and garnishing of his state tax refund. This, says Pimentel, violated the Due Process clause.

What's excessive?

Excessive fines are forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Due process is covered in Amendments Five and Fourteen.

Of course, banning “excessive” bail leaves room to debate: just how much is “excessive,” anyway? Here's how Courthouse News Service reporter Robert Kahn summed it up:

Hauling out his calculator, Pimentel's learned counsel Donald G. Norris, with Norris & Galanter, points out that Pimentel's ultimate fine was nearly 175 percent the daily median per capita income of an Angeleno (using 2009 figures from City-Data.com).
     The median per capita income in L.A. that year as $26,096; given 160 work days a year, the daily wage comes to $100.37. Pimentel's $175 fine, then, constitutes 174.4 percent of an Angeleno's median daily wage.
     And with the median per capita income for Latino Angelenos in 2009 $13,542 - or $52.08 a day for 260 work days - Pimentel's fines come to 336 percent of the daily median income for a Latino Angeleno.

More

Feds probe braking problems in Mazda CX-9

Consumers say the braking power-assist fails, making it hard to stop

2010 Mazda CX-9 (Photo: Wikipedia)Federal safety regulators are looking into reports of problems with the power-assisted braking system in 2010 through...

More

A winter chill for consumer confidence

The outlook is “iffy,” according to consumers

A drop in consumer expectations pushed the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index lower in February. After rising to 79.4 In January, the Index drop...

PhotoA drop in consumer expectations pushed the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index lower in February.

After rising to 79.4 In January, the Index dropped to 78.1, due according to Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board, “concern over the short-term outlook for business conditions, jobs, and earnings.”

Franco says while expectations have fluctuated over recent months, current conditions have continued to trend upward and the Present Situation Index is now at its highest level in almost six years. “This,” she adds, “suggests that consumers believe the economy has improved, but they do not foresee it gaining considerable momentum in the months ahead.”

How things stand

Consumers had a positive view current conditions for the fourth consecutive month in February. Those claiming business conditions are “good” increased to 21.5% from 20.8%, while those saying business conditions are “bad” declined to 22.6% from 23.4%.

Consumers’ assessment of the labor market also improved. Those who see jobs as “plentiful” rose to 13.9% from 12.5%, while those who believe jobs are “hard to get” dipped to 32.5% from 32.7%.

Looking ahead

Consumers’ expectations, which had been improving over the past two months, retreated in February. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months decreased to 16.3% from 17.0%, while those anticipating business conditions to worsen increased to 13.3% from 12.2%.

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was also more pessimistic. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead declined to 13.3% from 15.1%, while those anticipating fewer jobs increased to 20.6% from 19.0%.

The proportion of consumers who see their incomes increasing fell from 16.6% to 15.4%, while those anticipating a drop in their incomes also fell -- from 13.9% to 13.1%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was February 13.

More

Home prices rise, but not as fast

The best may be behind us

Home prices across the U.S. rose during 2013, but the rate of increase seems to be slowing. Data released by S&P Dow Jones Indices for its S&P/Case-Shille...

PhotoHome prices across the U.S. rose during 2013, but the rate of increase seems to be slowing.

Data released by S&P Dow Jones Indices for its S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices show prices were up up 11.3% for all of last year, compared with an increase of 11.2% in 2012. For the fourth quarter of 2013, the National Index actually dipped 0.3%.

The 10-City Composite remained relatively unchanged in December while the 20-City Composite showed its second consecutive monthly decline of 0.1%. Year-over-year, the 10-City and 20-City

Composites posted gains of 13.6% and 13.4% -- approximately 30 basis points lower than their November rates. Chicago showed its highest year-over-year return since December 1988. Dallas peaked, posting its largest annual gain since 2000. Denver declined 0.1% and is now 0.7% below its all-time index level high set last September.

“The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index ended its best year since 2005,” says David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “However, gains are slowing from month-to-month and the strongest part of the recovery in home values may be over.”

Ending the streak

After 26 months of consecutive gains, Phoenix was down 0.3% in December, its largest decline since March 2011. Phoenix once led the recovery from the bottom in 2012, but Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco were the top three performing cities of 2013 with gains of over 20%.

The Sun Belt, with the exception of Dallas, Miami and Tampa, saw lower annual rates in December when compared with their November numbers. The six cities with the highest year-over-year figures saw their rates decline (Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Diego and Detroit) and most cities ranked at the bottom improved (Denver, Washington and New York). Charlotte and Cleveland were the two exceptions.

A bleaker picture

Recent economic reports suggest a bleaker picture for housing. “Existing home sales fell 5.1% in January from December to the slowest pace in over a year,” Blitzer noted. “Permits for new residential construction and housing starts were both down and below expectations. Some of the weakness reflects the cold weather in much of the country. However, higher home prices and mortgage rates are taking a toll on affordability. Mortgage default rates, as shown by the S&P/Experian Consumer Credit Default Index, are back to their pre-crisis levels but bank lending standards remain strict.”

FHFA house price index

Separately, the Federal Housing Finance Agency  (FHFA) reports house prices rose 1.2% in the fourth quarter of 2013 -- the tenth consecutive quarterly price increase.

“Home price appreciation in the fourth quarter was considerable, but more modest than in recent periods,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “It is too early to know whether the lower quarterly growth rate represents the beginning of more normalized price appreciation patterns or a more significant slowdown.”

The agency's House Price Index (HPI) is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Report highlights

  • The seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI rose in 38 states during the fourth quarter of 2013 (10 fewer than during the third quarter). The top five states in annual appreciation were Nevada, California, Arizona, Oregon and Florida.
  • Of the nine census divisions, the Mountain division experienced the strongest increase in the fourth quarter, posting a 2.4% increase and an 11.7% gain since last year. House prices were weakest in the New England division, where prices inched up just 0.1% from the prior quarter.
  • As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., fourth quarter price increases were greatest in the Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach-Deerfield Beach, Fla., Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) where prices increased by 7.2%. Prices were weakest in the
  • Charleston-North Charleston, S.C., MSA, where they fell 6.5%.
  • Fifteen of the 20 MSAs with the highest annual appreciation rates were in California.
  • The monthly seasonally adjusted purchase-only index for the U.S. has increased for 22 of the last 24 months (November 2013 and January 2012 had decreases).

The complete report is available on the FHFA website.

More

What's the attraction of tanning?

With young consumers ignoring the warnings, researchers hope to find out

For years health policymakers have undertaken a campaign to discourage people from using tanning salons to get a tan. A number of states have regulated the...

PhotoFor years health policymakers have undertaken a campaign to discourage people from using tanning salons. A number of states have regulated the industry to either prevent or discourage young people from using ultraviolet light to darken their skin.

The regulations are in response to growing evidence that ultraviolet exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer. Currently California, Illinois, Nevada, Texas and Vermont ban the use of tanning beds for all minors under 18, and at least 33 states and the District of Columbia regulate the use of tanning facilities by minors.

Despite these regulations and repeated warnings, consumers – young white women in particular – continue to flock to tanning salons each winter to keep that fresh-from-the-beach look. Jerod L. Stapleton, a behavioral scientist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, has just received a nearly $700,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute to try and learn why.

An addiction?

The answer might appear obvious and arrived at without the aid of a $700,000 study. Isn't it likely that young people tan because they think it makes them look more attractive? Perhaps the answer isn't quite that simple.

Researchers at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) have looked into the phenomenon and concluded that some who engage in excessive tanning may also be suffering from obsessive-compulsive (OCD) and body dysmorphic disorders (BDD). They too were intrigued by the question “why?”

When confronted with warnings that tanning increases their cancer risk, why do some consumers continue to frequent tanning salons? Could it be an addiction?

“While more research is needed regarding to idea of tanning as an addiction, this study suggests that some people who tan also experience mental health symptoms that warrant further assessment,” said Dr. Erin Bonar, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Addiction Research Center and a BGSU alumna. “Although tanning behavior could be separate and distinct from these concerns, it’s possible that the symptoms of OCD or BDD are contributing to the tanning in some way. For these people, prevention messages and public health campaigns may not be as helpful, but further assessment and treatment could be.”

Next phase of research

Stapleton plans to dig deeper into the question. While previous research suggests improving mood and appearance as reasons to go tanning, Stapleton plans to explore why frequent indoor tanners view this behavior as meaningful, socially important, and useful. The study will focus on understanding just exactly how a user perceives the benefits and consequences of indoor tanning, as well as identifying the types of personal or social events that serve to promote it.

“It is clear that tanning is seen as attractive and desirable among many young women and that having a tan can provide a self-esteem boost. However, when it comes to frequent users, going tanning is likely to take on a significant importance at personal, social, and even emotional levels,” said Stapleton.

By better understanding the motivation, he says, a more effective intervention strategy can be designed.

According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 77,000 cases of melanoma -- the deadliest of skin cancers -- were reported in 2013 in the United States with 9,400 deaths from the disease. Previous research has shown an association between the use of ultraviolet indoor tanning beds and melanoma risk, with more frequent users at the highest risk.

Despite these findings, approximately 30 percent of Caucasian women aged 18 to 25 years old engaged in indoor tanning in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More

Netflix blinks, agrees to pay Comcast extra for faster connection

In the absence of regulation, the guy with his hand on the spigot is in control

There's this long-standing theory that the Internet is a miracle of free enterprise, a parallel universe in which the most innovative products and services...

PhotoThere's this long-standing theory that the Internet is a miracle of free enterprise, a parallel universe in which the most innovative products and services just naturally rise to the top.

No one likes this theory better than the cable and telecommunications company, since they own the "pipes" through which flow the bits and bites that make up the Internet. For years, they have been enjoyed a steady geyser of cash from home and business customers signing up for "last-mile" Internet access as well as telephone and cable TV service.

Their only frustration has been that they have not been able to get their mitts fully into the pockets of what for lack of a better term are called the "content providers" of the Web -- Google, Netflix, Amazon and so forth. 

In another parallel universe, of course, it works just the opposite. The cable and telephone companies pay the TV stations and cable channels for their programming. After all, the reason people subscribe to cable is so they can watch "Breaking Bad" and other classics of Western civilization, no?

So why wouldn't Verizon and Comcast pay Google and Netflix for putting up all that great content that people are willing to pony up for? After all, without content, who would want a broadband Internet connection?

Hand on the spigot

Ah, but the telecom giants don't see it that way -- and the reason is that they have their hand on the spigot that controls the flow of products. Turn the spigot counterclockwise a few cranks and things start to slow down. Instead of watching "House of Cards" unfold, we watch it freeze while the little "Loading" box grabs the screen. (There is a more vulgar way of expressing what the telecom companies have their hands on but we'll stick with the spigot analogy for now).

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to its credit, has been trying to codify the "Net Neutrality" principle, which roughly holds that products flow freely across the Web, with the end user picking up the delivery tab and the producer paying the cost of uploading ("shipping") to the Web. The "peering" -- as it's called -- that goes on in the guts of the Internet, as companies hand off online traffic to one another, has typically not involved payment from one carrier to another.

That's all changing as the telecoms and cable companies see their dreams of becoming content titans dashed on the shores of their ineptitude. So if they can't be Rolex-wearing Hollywood executives, a suitable consolation prize is squeezing content providers and consumers to the maximum extent possible.

Besides reflecting the human propensity for greedy behavior, this reflects the reality of consolidation, exemplified most recently by the proposed Comcast acquisition of Time-Warner Cable.

Netflix pays up

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it was shotguns across the table for a few minutes as each side tried to stare down the other. But as Comcast twisted the spigot a few more turns, Netflix blinked and agreed to ransom its content.

No one is saying how much Netflix is paying but you can be sure there are several zeroes involved.

It's always possible the FCC will manage to get a handle on all of this and impose some regulations that would retain the free exchange of bits that have made the Internet the hotbed of innovation it has become. But big bucks are involved and lobbyists are out in force, circling the wagons and working to keep the telecom and cable companies living the good life to which they've become oh so accustomed.

More

Restaurant death illustrates need for carbon monoxide detectors

A basement flue pipe malfunctioned in a Long Island restaurant, sickening two dozen

The carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning death of a restaurant manager on Long Island points up the need for carbon monoxide detectors in homes and businesses....

PhotoThe carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning death of a restaurant manager on Long Island points up the need for carbon monoxide detectors in homes and businesses.

Steven Nelson, 55, died and more than two dozen others were sickened when a faulty flue pipe in the heating system of a Legal Sea Foods restaurant in Huntington Station, N.Y. malfunctioned Saturday evening.

Fire department officials said the lethal, odorless gas built up when a flue pipe from a gas water heater in the basement became clogged. Gas levels were "extremely high" by the time rescue workers arrived, Huntington Manor Fire Department Chief Fred Steenson Jr. said. 

Zero is normal

"Normal levels should be at zero. There shouldn't be any carbon monoxide anywhere," Steenson said, according to Newsday. "On a scale from one to 10, it was probably nine and a half." At that level, it could take as little as five minutes for a person to pass out.

Nelson's body was found in the restaurant's basement. An assistant general manager was found collapsed in the basement, where she had apparently gone to look for Nelson.

More than 20 rescue workers and customers were treated on the scene and at local hospitals.

There are annual campaigns to encourage homeowners to install and maintain smoke detectors but carbon monoxide detectors don't receive as much attention.

A simple carbon monoxide detector costs as little as $15. Combination smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are available; newer Internet-connected devices like the Nest smoke alarm cost a bit more but will also call your smartphone if they detect problems. 

Because carbon monoxide generally builds up slowly and is odorless and colorless, it often goes undetected until it is too late. Early symptoms of CO poisoning include lightheadedness, confusion, headachesvertigo, and flu-like effects.

More

Tobacco companies shift more advertising to e-cigarettes

Health researcher calls for more research on these cigarette substitutes

With fewer new smokers and more people kicking the habit – along with restrictions on advertising and marketing – cigarette sales are in declin...

PhotoWith fewer new smokers and more people kicking the habit – along with restrictions on advertising and marketing – cigarette sales are in decline. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported a 10% decline in U.S. cigarette sales in 2009, following a 62-cent increase in the federal cigarette tax.

In 2012 Lorillard, the nation's third-largest tobacco company, acquired Blu, a brand of e-cigarettes that has experienced rapid growth from former smokers, who say e-cigarettes give them many of the pleasures of smoking, including a nicotine kick. The move was followed last year by Altria Group's release of its own e-cigarette brand, Mark Ten.

A new study in the journal Tobacco Control looks at tobacco company advertising on the Internet and finds that their campaigns now focus for the most part on e-cigarettes, snus and cigars. 

$2 billion in sales

According to the public health foundation Legacy, which conducted the study, annual sales of smokeless tobacco products now exceed $2.93 billion globally and sales of e-cigarettes continue to grow, reaching $2 billion globally in 2011. For now, e-cigarettes are unregulated in the U.S., though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is said to be preparing regulations.

Public health and anti-tobacco groups have expressed alarm at the growing popularity of e-cigarettes and have pushed for tight controls. But are e-cigarettes as harmful as tobacco cigarettes have been shown to be? One medical researcher, at least, thinks the jury is still out.

In an editorial in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine entitled “The Promise and Problems of E-cigarettes, Jerome S. Brody, of the Department of Medicine and Pulmonary Center at Boston University, calls for more study. 

Though research is in its infancy, he notes the known problems with e-cigarettes, which deliver the nicotine without many of the other harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke. He notes that nicotine itself is problematic; it's addictive and has been implicated in a number of cancers.

Ingredients list needed

“There is sufficient evidence about the toxicity of nicotine and other components that have been found in e-cigarettes, including tobacco itself, for regulatory agencies to require a list, with concentrations, of all e-cigarette ingredients,” Brody writes.

On the other hand, he doesn't rule out that e-cigarettes might be a preferable alternative to smoking cigarettes. He notes there have been a few studies that have suggested that very thing. It's time, he says, to find out.

“There clearly is a need for a multicenter clinical trial of the value of e-cigarettes in smoking cessation programs,” he writes.

Legacy says its study shows that not only is e-cigarette advertising widespread on the Internet the ads were placed on websites with the highest average percentage of a youth audience, with some websites having a youth audience as high as 35%.

Pushing the product, not smoking cessation

The study also found that e-cigarette ads were most likely to feature themes of harm reduction; use as an aide to quit smoking; being more environmentally-friendly alternative to cigarettes; or as an alternative to cigarettes when someone cannot smoke. However, Legacy says, when you click on the ad, you typically go to a site that tells you about the product but nothing about how to quit smoking.

Legacy's concern, says CEO Robin Kovel, is e-cigarettes are not being used solely by people who want to quit smoking. Rather, she says they're hooking a whole new generation of consumers on nicotine.

"Any encouragement to use their first tobacco products and initiate a nicotine addiction could potentially lead to them becoming lifelong tobacco users and undermine our efforts to achieve a 'Generation Free' of tobacco use," Koval said.

More

Polio-like illness strikes five California children

The syndrome, which tends to follow a respiratory infection, is very rare

Polio has been eradicated but something very similar to it has afflicted five California children over the last year and researchers are trying to identify...

Photo
An "iron lung." The devices were used i the 1950s to help polio victims breathe.
Polio has been eradicated but something very similar to it has afflicted five California children over the last year and researchers are trying to identify it.

"Although poliovirus has been eradicated from most of the globe, other viruses can also injure the spine, leading to a polio-like syndrome," said case report author Keith Van Haren, MD, with Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. "In the past decade, newly identified strains of enterovirus have been linked to polio-like outbreaks among children in Asia and Australia. These five new cases highlight the possibility of an emerging infectious polio-like syndrome in California."

Van Haren said he and his colleagues noticed several of these cases at their medical centers and decided to look for similar cases in California. They reviewed all polio-like cases among children who had samples referred to California's Neurologic and Surveillance Testing program from August 2012 to July 2013.

Cases were included in the analysis if the children had paralysis affecting one or more limbs with abnormal MRI scans of the spinal cord that explained the paralysis. They did not include children who met criteria for Guillain-Barré syndrome and botulism, which can cause similar symptoms.

"Our findings have important implications for disease surveillance, testing and treatment," said Van Haren. "We would like to stress that this syndrome appears to be very, very rare. Any time a parent sees symptoms of paralysis in a child, the child should be seen by a doctor right away."

The five children experienced paralysis of one or more arms or legs that came on suddenly and reached the height of its severity within two days of onset. Three of the children had a respiratory illness before the symptoms began. All of the children had been previously vaccinated against poliovirus.

The children were treated but their symptoms did not improve and they still had poor limb function after six months. Two children tested positive for enterovirus-68, a rare virus previously associated with polio-like symptoms. No cause was identified in the remaining three children.

Polio is a contagious disease that sometimes caused paralysis. The United States experienced a polio epidemic in the 1950s, until a vaccine was introduced.

More

Feds block work-at-home scheme that promised big bucks for little work

Sites "conned millions of dollars from consumers," the FTC charges

A federal court has entered a restaining order halting what the Federal Trade Commission says it a deceptive work-from-home scheme that conned million...

PhotoA federal court has entered a restaining order halting what the Federal Trade Commission says it a deceptive work-from-home scheme that conned millions of dollars from consumers by falsely telling them they could easily earn thousands of dollars a month by purchasing bogus business coaching services and establishing their own Internet businesses.

According to the FTC, consumers who bought into the scheme lost thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of dollars each, most of it through racking up huge credit card charges at the defendants’ urging.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Utah froze the assets of the defendants, who did business under a variety of names, including Essent Media, LLC, Net Training, LLC, YES International, Coaching Department, and Apply Knowledge, and appointed a temporary receiver while the FTC seeks to put a permanent stop to the operations and return money to consumers.

“This case halts a massive scam that bilked consumers out of millions for useless work-at-home kits and business coaching services,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The defendants duped consumers into thinking they could earn thousands working from home. Protecting consumers from such pernicious schemes remains a top priority.”

Rags to riches

According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants’ websites told numerous false “rags to riches” stories, using photos – obtained from stock photo agencies – of supposed users of the defendants’ services, and made false and unsubstantiated claims about how much money consumers could earn.

The defendants’ scheme had three inter-connected phases. In the first phase, the defendants used deceptive emails and websites to induce consumers to purchase relatively inexpensive work-at-home kits. They sold these kits, which typically cost from $37 to $99, with claims such as:

If You Can Spare 60 Minutes A Day, We Can Offer You a Certified, Proven And Guaranteed Home Job To Make $379/Day From Home!

“Important: Read my full report now as only 15 people are accepted into this program per city at any given time . . . because of the personal support given to each new member to ensure everyone’s quick financial success. Don’t hesitate . . . this page is taken down (literally) when the limit is reached, so read on . . .

But instead of showing consumers how to earn this income, the websites tried to sell them more products or services.

In the second phase of their scheme, the defendants promised consumers that they would earn thousands of dollars a month using defendants’ coaching program to assist them in establishing their own online businesses. The defendants also encouraged consumers to put the entire cost of the program, generally from $3,000 to $12,000, on their credit card, claiming they would be able to pay it off within a few months.

In the third phase of their scheme, the defendants pretended to provide consumers with the promised “coaching” services, while pitching yet additional costly add-on services such as business formation, website design, website development, accounting and tax filing services, and drop-shipping services, none of which proved helpful.

According to the FTC, most people who bought the defendants’ services did not get a functional online business, earned little or no money, and ended up heavily in debt.

More

Retail clinics "inappropriate" source of care for children, pediatricians' group declares

The growing us of clinics in drugstores, supermarkets makes pediatricians nervous

Voltaire is credited with first noting that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” ...

PhotoThe French philosopher Voltaire is credited with first noting that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” In other words: insisting on perfection (which is usually impossible, humanity and human nature being what they are) can often prevent any sort of improvement at all.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 24, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its 2006 policy statement regarding retail-based health clinics (RBCs), calling them “an inappropriate source of primary care for pediatric patients, as they fragment medical care and are detrimental to the medical home concept of longitudinal and coordinated care.”

But representatives of the Convenient Care Association, the trade group representing the clinics, told USA Today that RBCs are “a more convenient option for parents with sick children rather than the alternative, which is often waiting for an appointment while the child is sick or spending hours in a high-cost emergency room for a minor pediatric complaint.”

If all other factors including cost and convenience were equal, chances are good that everybody (with the possible exception of paid spokespeople working for the Convenience Care Association) would agree: Having all of your child's medical issues handled by a dedicated pediatrician personally acquainted with your child is much better than parceling out various medical treatments among whichever nurse practitioners happen to be on duty at the CVS MinuteClinic or Walgreens Healthcare Clinic that day.

But of course all factors are not equal, and the reality is that for a lot of parents, especially the ones with not-particularly-good insurance coverage, RBCs offer the only regular pediatric care they can reasonably afford, or the only care they can fit around their work schedules.

In fairness to the American Academy of Pediatrics, its policy update does address this issue — or at least nod in its direction — when it notes that “pediatricians and other primary care physicians [must] receive adequate compensation for the continuous, coordinated, and comprehensive health care that they provide.”

This is true. Unfortunately, it's also true that sometimes, “adequate compensation” for a full-fledged physician's services costs more than parents can afford — which explains why lower-cost retail-based clinics are gaining in popularity.

More

Nissan recalling Frontier trucks to fix fire risk

Circuit breaker could be improperly installed, possibly causing a short

Nissan is recalling about 13,000 Frontier pickup trucks from the 2012 through 2014 models year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) announce...

PhotoNissan is recalling about 13,000 Frontier pickup trucks from the 2012 through 2014 models year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) announced.

The agency said it's possible a circuit breaker was improperly installed, which could lead to a short circuit that could cause a fire. 

The problem came to light after a consumer in Mexico reported smoke in the cabin of his truck.

Nissan said it doesn't know of any accidents resulting from the problem. 

Owners will be notified when the recall begins in March.

More

Uninsured young people more likely to be diagnosed with advanced cancer

Insuring more young people would save money and lives, study finds

The Obama Administration has been doing its best to persuade young people to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. That's because younger peo...

PhotoThe Obama Administration has been doing its best to persuade young people to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. That's because younger people are less likely to get sick, thereby helping to hold down the price of healthcare coverage if they can be persuaded to sign up.

But there's another reason, perhaps more compelling, for adolescents and young adults to have health insurance -- and that is that they are far more likely than other age groups to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer, which is more deadly, more expensive and much harder to treat than cancer that's detected earlier.

So says a new American Cancer Society study, published early online, that will appear in the March issue of the journal CANCER.

The study's authors says their data suggest a way forward for cancer control efforts in the adolescent and young adult population, a group that has benefited the least from recent progress in cancer.

"The findings suggest that policies such as the Affordable Care Act that increase the number of people in America with health coverage will result in fewer late-stage cancer diagnoses and save lives," the researchers say in their report.

260,000 patients studied

For their study, researchers led by Anthony Robbins, M.D., Ph.D., American Cancer Society director of health services research, analyzed data from nearly 260,000 cancer patients ages 15 to 39 in the National Cancer Database.

After adjusting for age, race/ethnicity, facility type, ZIP code-based income and education levels, and U.S. Census region, it was found that uninsured males were 1.51 times more likely to be diagnosed at a distant stage of disease compared with patients with private insurance. Among females, the effect of insurance was even stronger, with uninsured patients found to be 1.86 times more likely to be diagnosed at a distant stage.

Uninsured patients were younger, more likely to be male, more likely to be black or Hispanic, more likely to reside in the South, more likely to be treated in teaching/research facilities, and less likely to be treated in NCI-designated facilities. Uninsured patients were also more likely to reside in ZIP codes with the lowest median income, as well as in ZIP codes with the highest percentage of residents without a high school diploma.

More

Feds: Plastic lumber not all that green

Evolve, Trimax plastic lumber manufacturer made false claims, FTC charges

A Wisconsin-based manufacturer of plastic lumber products has agreed to stop making allegedly unsubstantiated claims about the recycled content and recycla...

PhotoA Wisconsin-based manufacturer of plastic lumber products has agreed to stop making allegedly unsubstantiated claims about the recycled content and recyclability of , Evolve and Trimax, two of its brands of plastic lumber.

Under the FTC settlement, the company, N.E.W. Plastics Corp., must have credible evidence to support any recycling-related claims it makes, and is required to tell its distributors to remove any marketing material for the two products provided by the company before December 2013.

“Consumers deserve to know the truth about the products they are buying,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Many of them want to buy products that are environmentally friendly, but they can’t do that if they get information that’s wrong or unsupported.”

N.E.W. Plastics Corp., which also does business as Renew Plastics, is based in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, and makes plastic lumber products, which are used to make items such as outdoor decking and furniture. It sells the products to consumers through distributors.

The FTC alleges that between September 2012 and March 2013, N.E.W. made false and misleading claims while promoting Evolve and Trimax, including:

  • that Evolve products are made from 90 percent or more recycled content;
  • that Trimax products are made from mostly post-consumer recycled content; and
  • that both Evolve and Trimax are recyclable.

The proposed consent order prohibits N.E.W. from making any statements about the recycled content, post-consumer recycled content, or environmental benefits of any product or package unless they are true, not misleading, and are substantiated by competent and reliable evidence, which for some claims must be scientific evidence.

More

Roos Foods recalls variety of cheeses

The cheeses may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Roos Foods of Kenton, Del., is recalling all lots of the following cheeses because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes:...

PhotoRoos Foods of Kenton, Del., is recalling all lots of the following cheeses because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes:

Mexicana

  • Cuajada En Terron
  • Cuajada/Cuajadita Cacera
  • Cuajada Fresca
  • Queso Fresca Round
  • Queso Dura Viejo Hard Cheeses

Amigo

  • Cuajada En Terron
  • Cuajada/Cuajadita Cacera
  • Cuajada Fresca
  • Queso Fresca Round
  • Queso Dura Viejo Hard Cheeses

Santa Rosa De Lima

  • Cuajada En Terron
  • Cuajada/Cuajadita Cacera
  • Cuajada Fresca
  • Queso Fresca Round
  • Queso Dura Viejo Hard Cheeses

Anita

  • Queso Fresco

The products were distributed through retail stores in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.

The products are packaged in flexible plastic bags and rigid plastic clam shell packages in 12 oz. and 16 oz. sizes under the brand names: Mexicana, Amigo, Santa Rosa De Lima, and Anita.

The company has ceased production and distribution of the products as an investigation into the cause of the problem continues.

Customers should destroy all lots of the above listed products. For any refund, please return products to store.

Consumers with questions may contact Virginia Mejia at 302 653 8458. Monday thru Friday from 9 am to 3 pm.

More

Winter's double whammy: frigid weather and the flu

Flu deaths in early February at "epidemic levels"

The winter of 2013-14 has been particularly tough. Not only have people in wide areas of the country been blasted with deep snows and frigid temperatures, ...

PhotoThe winter of 2013-14 has been particularly tough. Not only have people in wide areas of the country been blasted with deep snows and frigid temperatures, the flu season has been particularly nasty.

The first week of 2014 brought Winter Storm Hercules, with at least 16 deaths in the Midwest and Northeast blamed on either extreme temperatures or treacherous conditions.

While the weather has gotten a lot of attention, the flu has been quietly killing people. In late December the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a resurgence of the H1N1 strain, also known as swine flu, which claimed over more than 1,000 lives in 2009.

Flu deaths occur each year, usually affecting the very old and very young and, in particular, those in fragile health to begin with. In the 2012-13 influenza season, CDC estimates that there were approximately 380,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations . In a marked difference this season, the young and healthy appear to be falling victim in greater numbers.

Picking up momentum

Since the beginning of the year officials say the flu – and swine flu in particular – has picked up frightening momentum. As a result, health officials have seen what they describe as a dramatic rise in flu deaths among young and middle-aged adults. The CDC describes the flu death rate as epidemic levels, with most of the mortality occurring in the last five weeks.

Some states are getting hit harder than others. California has recorded more than 240 death of people under age 65, well ahead of last year's rate. In San Diego County, eight people died from the flu in a single week. 

Nationwide, infections appear to be subsiding a bit. In its latest flu report, covering the first week of February, the CDC said influenza activity decreased from the previous week but remains high.

Rough week

For that week 7,562 specimens were tested with 1,268 – 16.8% – testing positive for influenza. Of those positives, 61% were of the swine flu variety. That's made worse by the fact the CDC found high levels of resistance to primary anti-viral medications among that strain. Deaths from flu for the week were above the “epidemic threshold” for the first time during the season.

Another troubling statistic comes from the hospitalization rate. More than 6,600 people were admitted to hospitals for treatment of the flu and 60% of them were between the ages of 18 and 64. This pattern of more hospitalizations among younger people was also seen during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

The fact that cold weather and flu season overlap does not mean the two are related. The flu season normally begins in October and runs through May. Being exposed to the wet and cold may lower your resistance and make you more vulnerable to flu germs but the best way to avoid the flu is avoid the germs in the first place – and get a flu shot.

What to do

Is it too late to get a flu shot this season? Probably not, though it takes two weeks for the vaccine to kick in and provide protection against infection. With eight or more weeks remaining in flu season, a vaccination at this point is still a good idea.

After all, you can't do anything about the winter weather. At least you can improve your odds against winter's other scourge, the flu.

More

Marijuana safety: drugs vs. food

Federal food-safety laws don't apply to marijuana edibles

Future historians will build entire specialized careers out of parsing the contradictory American marijuana laws in the early 21st century...

PhotoFuture historians will be able to build entire specialized careers out of parsing the contradictory American laws regarding marijuana in the second decade of the 21st century.

At the federal level, marijuana is still officially classified as a Schedule 1 drug — meaning that there is absolutely zero medicinal benefit, according to federal regulators. (However, while genuine marijuana officially has no medical use, artificial marijuana in the form of the prescription drug Marinol does.)

So that's the federal view of marijuana, but at the state level things change depending on where you live: marijuana is legal for recreational purposes in Colorado and Washington State, legal via prescription for medicinal purposes in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and a medically worthless felony-offense drug everywhere else (as of presstime).

A considerable paradox

But in those states where marijuana is less than completely illegal, there's a new legal wrinkle to consider: as an op-ed writer for Food Safety Newswondered, “What About Marijuana Food Safety?” and noted: “A considerable paradox exists in U.S. food policy. Although the federal government has named food safety as a top priority, an entire pocket of the food industry remains largely unregulated by, or at least largely under the radar of, most federal agencies. That pocket is marijuana-infused food.”

Here's the problem: for the most part, food safety is overseen by the feds (though states do have the option of adding additional regulations if they wish). Meanwhile, where marijuana at the state level is concerned, the federal government has a sort of “don't ask, don't tell” policy in place: still completely illegal at the federal level, but if a state government chooses to take a different view, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other anti-marijuana federal agencies more or less ignore it.

So — for those who view marijuana as something to eat rather than something to smoke — what policies are the feds implementing to ensure the marijuana-food supply is safe? Thus far, the answer appears to be “no policy at all.”

The Coloradoannoted on Feb. 6 that in Colorado, ever since retail marijuana sales became legal on Jan. 1, foods infused with marijuana have gained in popularity among people who want to enjoy the effects of marijuana without subjecting themselves to clouds of pungent (okay, stinky) pot smoke.

But the only safety issues mentioned in that article are those involving people who confuse marijuana-infused treats with ordinary ones — say, mistaking a marijuana brownie for a regular non-intoxicating chocolate treat. And what state-level rules have been or will be implemented focus mainly on how potent a given batch of marijuana is — an entirely different matter from, say, making sure a given crop is free of E. coli or other contaminants.

We suspect that when future historians write their doctoral dissertations on the evolution of American marijuana laws, they will note that federal food-safety standards did not apply to marijuana crops until after the feds abandoned their “Schedule 1” insistence and officially treated marijuana as akin to alcohol—taxed and regulated far more strictly than ordinary consumer consumables, in some places available only through a state-run monopoly, but completely legal for any adult to possess or ingest.

More

Feds order Sutra Bidis cigarettes off the market

The Indian smokes are the first to be banned by the FDA

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered Sutra Bidis cigarettes off the market in the United States. The order outlaws the importation and sale of...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered Sutra Bidis cigarettes off the market in the United States. The order outlaws the importation and sale of the thin, hand-rolled cigarettes, which are produced in India.

“Historically, tobacco companies controlled which products came on and off the market without any oversight,” said Mitch Zeller, J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “But the Tobacco Control Act gave the FDA, a science-based regulatory agency, the authority to review applications and determine which new tobacco products may be sold and distributed under the law in order to protect public health.”

Bidis are thin, hand-rolled cigarettes filled with tobacco and wrapped in leaves from a tendu tree that are tied with string. The manufacturer, Jash International, did not meet the requirements of the Tobacco Control Act to be able to continue selling these products, the FDA said.

Company didn't provide evidence

The products – Sutra Bidis Red, Sutra Bidis Menthol, Sutra Bidis Red Cone, and Sutra Bidis Menthol Cone – were found to be not substantially equivalent to tobacco products commercially marketed as of February 15, 2007, also known as "predicate products." 

The Tobacco Control Act requires the FDA to review product applications so the agency can decide whether the products are substantially equivalent to valid predicate products. If a company fails to provide the necessary information to show that their product is SE to a predicate product, the FDA has the authority to declare a product not substantially equivalent, which means that it can no longer be sold or distributed in interstate commerce.

In this case, Jash International did not provide the information necessary for the FDA to make a decision, the agency said. 

“Companies have an obligation to comply with the law – in this case, by providing evidence to support an SE application,” said Zeller. “Because the company failed to meet the requirement of the Tobacco Control Act, the FDA’s decision means that, regardless of when the products were manufactured, these four products can no longer be legally imported or sold or distributed through interstate commerce in the United States.”

The FDA said it would give retailers 30 days to sell or dispose of Sutra Bidis now in their inventory but would take enforcement action after that.

More

Three steps to starting a savings program

Despite improving economy savings rate dropped at end of 2013

The economy may be improving and unemployment is down from its stubborn highs, but household finances could still use some attention, according to the late...

PhotoThe economy may be improving and unemployment is down from its stubborn highs, but household finances could still use some attention, according to the latest statistics.

Consumer spending is up, which helps stimulate the economy, but the savings rate is not. After rising sharply in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the savings rate has begun to fall. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American consumers have decreased overall savings from 5.0% in September of 2013 to 3.9 in December, a drop of 1.1% in just three months.

Saving money doesn't necessarily help the economy, but it helps you. First, savings provide an emergency fund. When an unexpected car repair looms savings can keep you from going into debt.

Second, saving money gets you started on the path to building wealth. Accumulating savings can provide a down payment on a house or allow you to invest in a business.

February 24 – March 1 is America Saves Week, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and other consumer organizations, so to get back on the savings track, here are three steps that can help pump up a savings account:

Find wasted money

Don't try to carve out savings from a single source. That's a recipe for frustration. Rather, small savings should come from a variety of areas and it all starts with having a budget.

Look at three months income and spending. Look at where you are spending money now and whether that spending was absolutely necessary. Restaurant meals may jump out at you if you eat out a lot.

By eating out less, and perhaps taking your lunch to work instead of going out, those brown bag lunches and home-cooked meals will add up to monthly savings.

Get an insurance quote

The airwaves are full of insurance company commercials claiming just a few minutes of your time can save you money on your car insurance. The insurance industry is highly competitive, so if you haven't shopped around for a lower quote, you should.

Just make sure that when you do, you're comparing apples to apples – comparing the prices of the same coverages you now have. And while you are looking at your insurance, check to see how much your deductible – the amount you pay in a claim – is. If it is less than $1,000 you should raise it to at least that level.

The reason is simple. The higher deductible will lower your premium a bit. Beyond that, it makes no sense to file a claim on a fender-bender repair costing less than $1,000. Filing that claim is almost certain to result in an increase in your premium.

When checking for a car insurance quote, also get a quote for your homeowners policy. Often, when you bundle the two with the same insurance carrier you get a discount.

Eliminate unnecessary services

Are you paying for things you don't use or need? Many of us do and getting rid of those expenses can free up a few dollars each month for your savings account.

These days a prime candidate for elimination is your telephone land line. If you have a cellphone with decent coverage in your home, then you may be able to get rid of the land line.

Keep track of how much you actually use that line in a given week and whether you think you could live without it. That's a savings of $25 to $30 a month.

Look for more ways to save

There are many more ways to save money but these three are a good start. And once you start saving money on insurance, phone bills and lunch, make sure you put that saved money aside on payday, so there won't be a temptation to spend it.

If you have the discipline, keeping your savings in your checking account could even save you more money. Interest on passbook savings accounts is almost non-existent, but keeping the money in your checking account – even though it isn't earning interest – might protect you from costly service or overdraft fees. Just be aware at all times of the line between your disposable income in the account and your savings.

If you feel deficient in the savings department, you are far from alone. According to America Saves only 54% of Americans say they have a savings plan with specific goals. Only 43% of Americans say they have a spending plan that all ows them to save enough money to achieve the goals of their savings plan.Only 66% of Americans have sufficient emergency funds for unexpected expenses like car repairs or a doctor’s visit.

More

Making makeup last longer (if you use it at all)

This article is certified at least 25 percent hypocrisy-free

I've had a love-hate relationship with cosmetics ever since that long-ago day my mother deemed me old enough to wear makeup....

PhotoConfession: I've had a love-hate relationship with cosmetics ever since that long-ago day my mother deemed me old enough to wear makeup. And, although it's embarrassing to admit now, I remember thinking how lucky I was to be a girl rather than a boy — after all, if a boy looks hideous, poor thing, it's not socially acceptable for him to camouflage his hideousness beneath layers of colored powders and goop.

It took me a few years to suspect maybe I should reverse that thought process: why is it socially acceptable for a boy to go out in bareface, but not a girl? What kind of stupid sexist double standard is that?

The kind I still fall for, apparently, because if you look at my byline photo it's spectacularly obvious I dolled up for it: no, my lips aren't really that dark, my eyelids aren't that shimmery and I don't naturally have that brown/black barrier line delineating my eyeballs from the rest of my face (which isn't really that smooth and shine-free).

Beauty 911

All this flashed through my mind in a millisecond as I checked out this press release produced by my colleagues at Consumer Reports: “Money-saving fixes to make makeup last longer.”

Five things on the list. Five perfectly cromulent pieces of advice: for example, if you suffer a “BEAUTY 911: Broken lipstick” (bold-print lettering lifted from the original), it tells you how to weld the broken pieces back into a single solid lipstick, which is undeniably less expensive than throwing the lipstick away and buying a new replacement.

As for tip number five — using hot water and your thumbnail to remove dried-hairspray clogs from a hairspray nozzle — not to brag or anything, but I figured that out before I was even old enough to drive. There's also advice on how to repair a cracked eyeshadow palette, rejuvenate a bottle of congealing nail polish and, for false-eyelash wearers, how to make single-use lashes last for multiple wearings.

Excellent money-saving tips, all of them. But you know what would save even more money? Not bothering with such cosmetics at all! At least not for everyday use — I still keep a stash of emergency coverup on hand, for those days when the God of Pimples bestows His unwanted blessings upon my face, and on special occasions I still like to doll up in fancy clothes and accessories (including cosmetics) -- but when we will dispense with the idea that (for example) my bare, ordinary eyelids are just not acceptable for public view unless they're coated with shimmery powders that cost more per ounce than pure silver bullion?

I don't know. Until then, however, I'm still going to wear makeup before allowing myself to be photographed in a professional context. And I'm still kind of annoyed with myself for this.

More

Consumer group opposes delaying flood insurance rate hikes

Delaying rate hikes "asks America to stick its head in the mud," says Consumer Federation

Few government programs lose as much money as the National Flood Insurance Program, currently $24 billion in debt and likely to sink even further below the...

Photo
Hurricane Irene comes ashore on Long Island (Photo: Tom Thorson)
Few government programs lose as much money as the National Flood Insurance Program, currently $24 billion in debt and likely to sink even further below the waterline as a new summer storm season approaches. 

The problem is pretty simple: subsidized flood insurance encourages people to live in flood-prone areas. Congress addressed the issue in 2012 with the Biggert-Waters Law that would begin raising premiums to more realistic levels this year.

But a measure passed by the Senate last month would delay implementation of the premium increases, ostensibly to give low- and middle-income homeowners more time to prepare for the sharply higher insurance rates.

The Consumer Federation of America thinks this is a bad idea, saying it would mislead homeowners about their vulnerability to flooding, undermine the flood program’s financial viability and increase costs to taxpayers.

Risking lives

“The Senate proposal for reforming flood insurance asks America to stick its head in the mud, rather than address the problem of a flood program that is encouraging people to live in high-risk flood plains, unnecessarily risking people’s lives and possessions,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s Director of Insurance and former Administrator of the flood insurance program and Texas Insurance Commissioner. “You cannot lower prices by ignoring the real risk of flood; real reform requires transparency and honesty about the true cost of living in flood zones for homeowners, developers and taxpayers.

In a letter to Congress, CFA urges the House to reject the Senate bill and let the higher rates go into effect.

“It is much worse for consumers to be misled by inadequate rates from their own government than to have high rates that signal the real risk and informs the consumer to be careful,” CFA wrote in its letter to Congress. “Homeowners who buy new homes in areas that they think are safe from floods are harmed when old maps underestimate risk. ... These homebuyers and their families are at risk of being killed or injured if a storm hits, or of having their homes or treasured possessions destroyed. Paying a little more and being truly aware of the risk is a blessing, not a curse, for consumers.”

More

Lifelong exposure to food packaging may be harmful

Current testing protocols may not be adequate to protect health, scientists warn

Eating is sort of like smoking. A single instance isn't likely to be harmful but over a lifetime, the effects can add up. The same is true of food packagin...

PhotoEating is sort of like smoking. A single instance isn't likely to be harmful but over a lifetime, the effects can add up. The same is true of food packaging, according to a commentary in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

The synthetic chemicals used in the packaging, storage, and processing of food might be harmful to human health over the long term, environmental scientists warn in the commentary. This is because most of these substances are not inert and can leach into the foods we eat, they say.

Despite the fact that some of these chemicals are regulated, people who eat packaged or processed foods are likely to be chronically exposed to low levels of these substances throughout their lives, say the authors. And they say far too little is known about their long term impact, including at crucial stages of human development, such as in the womb.

Entire population

"Since most foods are packaged, and the entire population is likely to be exposed, it is of utmost importance that gaps in knowledge are reliably and rapidly filled," they urge.

They point out that lifelong exposure to food contact materials or FCMs -- substances used in packaging, storage, processing, or preparation equipment -- "is a cause for concern for several reasons."

These include the fact that known toxicants, such as formaldehyde, a cancer causing substance, are legally used in these materials. Formaldehyde is widely present at low levels in plastic bottles used for fizzy drinks and melamine tableware.

Secondly, other chemicals known to disrupt hormone production also crop up in FCMs, including bisphenol A, tributyltin, triclosan, and phthalates.

"Whereas the science for some of these substances is being debated and policy makers struggle to satisfy the needs of stakeholders, consumers remain exposed to these chemicals daily, mostly unknowingly," the authors point out.

Furthermore, potential cellular changes caused by FCMs, and in particular, those with the capacity to disrupt hormones, are not even being considered in routine toxicology analysis, which prompts the authors to suggest that this "casts serious doubts on the adequacy of chemical regulatory procedures."

More

Existing-home sales drop in January

Prices, however, continued their move upward

Last month's bout of nasty winter weather is being blamed for a drop in existing-home sales to the lowest level in a year-and-a-half. According to the Nat...

PhotoLast month's bout of nasty winter weather is being blamed for a drop in existing-home sales to the lowest level in a year-and-a-half.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), sales of previously-owned homes -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- dropped 5.1% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.62 million, the lowest since 4.59 million in July 2012. The January pace was also 5.1% below the year-ago level of 4.87 million.

The harsh winter weather was a major factor. “Disruptive and prolonged winter weather patterns across the country are impacting a wide range of economic activity, and housing is no exception,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “Some housing activity will be delayed until spring. At the same time, we can’t ignore the ongoing headwinds of tight credit, limited inventory, higher prices and higher mortgage interest rates. These issues will hinder home sales activity until the positive factors of job growth and new supply from higher housing starts begin to make an impact.”

Prices on the rise

Continuing inventory shortages continue to lift prices in much of the nation. The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $188,900 -- up 10.7% from January 2013.

Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 15% of January sales, compared with 14% in December and 24% in January 2013. The median is the point at which half of the prices were higher and half lower.

Where they're selling

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast fell 3.1% percent to an annual rate of 620,000 in January, and are also 3.1% below January 2013. The median price was $241,100, up 6.6% from a year ago.
  • Sales in the Midwest dropped 7.1%% to a pace of 1.04 million, and are 8.8% below a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $140,300 -- 7.6% higher than January 2013.
  • In the South, existing-home sales were off 3.5% to an annual level of 1.95 million, but are 1.6% higher than the same time last year. The median price rose 9.4% from a year ago -- to $161,500.
  • Sales of existing homes in the West were at a pace of 1.01 million in January -- down 7.3% from the month before, and 13.7% below a year ago. Sales in the West are attenuated by tight inventory in many areas, pushing the median price to $273,500 -- up 14.6% year-over-year.
More

Falafel King recalls Hatch Green Chile hummus and wraps

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Falafel King of Boulder, Colo., is recalling 10-ounce containers of Hatch Green Chile Hummus and 8.5-ounce Hatch Green Chile Wraps. The products have the ...

PhotoFalafel King of Boulder, Colo., is recalling 10-ounce containers of Hatch Green Chile Hummus and 8.5-ounce Hatch Green Chile Wraps.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with the recalled product.

The products in question were distributed to retail stores in certain areas of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Nebraska.

The Hatch Green Chile Hummus comes in a 10 ounce clear plastic container with a black-rimmed lid, the UPC #822986-10305-2 printed on the back label and a “Sell By” date beginning 02/14/2014 through 03/16/2014 printed just above the back label where the UPC / bar code is located.

The Hatch Green Chile Wraps are individually wrapped in clear plastic wrap, the UPC #822986-70205-7 printed on the front label and a sticker printed with “Sell By” 02/28 through 02/27 on the back of the package.

Consumers who have purchased the products with the “Sell By” dates noted in this recall are urged to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Falafel King at 303-443-1346 Monday-Friday, 9:00a.m.–5:00p.m. MST.

More

Coleman Runestone children’s shoes recalled

The metal rivets surrounding the shoestring holes can have sharp edges

The Eastman Footwear Group of New York, N.Y., is recalling about 12,200 pairs of Coleman Runestone style children’s shoes. The metal rivets surrounding th...

PhotoThe Eastman Footwear Group of New York, N.Y., is recalling about 12,200 pairs of Coleman Runestone style children’s shoes.

The metal rivets surrounding the holes where the shoestring is secured can have sharp edges, posing a laceration hazard.

The firm has received one report of an adult who scratched or cut his finger. No medical attention was required.

The Runestone children’s shoes are black with gray mesh fabric panels on the side of the shoe with a green “Coleman” logo name and lantern graphic on the tongue. The black shoestrings on the shoes are threaded through green fabric tabs on the top of the shoe. A label located on the inside of tongue of the shoes identifies the style as Runestone.

The shoes, manufactured in China, were sold at Big 5 Sporting Goods retail stores nationally from January 2013, through December 2013, for about $39.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled shoes and return them to a Big 5 Sporting Goods store for a full refund, or contact Eastman Footwear for instructions on returning the shoes for a refund.

Consumers may contact Eastman Footwear at (800)786-0282 ext. 301 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

More

Infantino recalls teething toys

The tail of the monkey can pose a choking hazard

Infantino LLC, of San Diego, Calif., is recalling about 191,000 Go Gaga Squeeze & Teethe Coco the Monkey teething toys. The tail of the monkey can pose a ...

PhotoInfantino LLC, of San Diego, Calif., is recalling about 191,000 Go Gaga Squeeze & Teethe Coco the Monkey teething toys.

The tail of the monkey can pose a choking hazard to young children.

The firm has received seven reports of infants choking or gagging on the monkey’s tail. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves the Go Gaga Squeeze & Teethe Coco the Monkey teething toys. This squeaking toy is made of soft orange rubber and is shaped like a monkey. The toy measures 4.5 inches tall by 5 inches long and is intended for ages newborn and up. “Infantino” is marked on the back toward the rear and model number 206-647 is marked on the inside of the rear left leg

The teething toys, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Target stores nationwide and online from December 2012, through January 2014, for about $13.

Consumers should immediately take the recalled products away from infants and contact Infantino to receive a free replacement toy.

Consumers may contact Infantino toll-free at (888) 808-3111 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

More

Facebook buys WhatsApp for $19 billion

WhatsApp users don't sound too happy

Facebook's own reputation might be damaging it, if reactions to the company's planned $19 billion ($4 billion in cash, plus $15 billion in Facebook shares ...

PhotoFacebook's own reputation might be damaging it, if reactions to the company's planned $19 billion ($4 billion in cash, plus $15 billion in Facebook shares and stock units) acquisition of the WhatsApp cross-platform messaging service is any indication.

While industry analysts initially agreed the move was a smart one from Facebook's perspective — the Reuters headline “Wall Street sees sense in Facebook's $19 billion WhatsApp purchase” is a typical example — the Wall Street Journalnoted that actual Facebook stockholders are slightly less enthused, as the collective value of Facebook shares fell by $1.5 billion by midday Thursday, the day after the announcement broke.

And current WhatsApp users appear even less enthused. Facebook's announcement of the planned acquisition almost immediately inspired the development of a new Facebook page called “Please Don't Ruin WhatsApp” (which collected over 200 “likes” in only the first 20 hours of its existence), and, as Los Angeles Times reporter Jessica Guynn noted, many WhatsApp users reponded to the news by either canceling their accounts, or threatening to.

The main concern cited by most WhatsApp users was the fear that Facebook would clutter WhatsApp with ads. (WhatsApp is –or at least, was – ad-free; its income stream derives from its annual 99-cent subscrption fees.)

However, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg said that “WhatsApp will continue to operate independently within Facebook. The product roadmap will remain unchanged.”

More

Judge orders Aereo to shut down in Denver, Salt Lake City

It's the first win for broadcasters in their battle with Aereo

Television broadcasters have finally managed to eke out a small victory against Aereo, the rogue cable-like service that has been sucking money out of thei...

Photo
A bank of Aereo antennas.

Television broadcasters have finally managed to eke out a small victory against Aereo, the rogue cable-like service that has been sucking money out of their cash drawers.

A federal appeals court judge in Denver said Aereo was violating broadcasters' copyrights. Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Dale Kimball ordered the service shut down in Denver and Salt Lake City and blocked it from starting in Idaho, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

The victory may be short-lived, however. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in the case, which pits the fast-growing start-up against broadcast giants including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

The case revolves around the royalty payments that cable systems pay to broadcasters for redistributing their programming. Aereo claims it is not a cable system; it says it simply operates a bank of miniature antennas in each city it serves -- one antenna per customer.

Aereo thus argues that it is not redistributing the broadcasters' programs for profit but is merely acting as a remote antenna for each of its customers.

Objections dismissed

Federal district and appellate judges elsewhere have dismissed the broadcasters' objections, leaving the broadcasters in a state approaching hysteria.

Some network executives have gone so far as to argue that they will pull the plug on themselves and take their stations off the air if Aereo is victorious in court. The stations would then be available only on cable.

Of course, this would shut off service to millions of consumers who have their own antennas but consumers have been an afterthought in this as in so many other debates that pitch supposed Davids and Goliaths against each other.

While the seemingly noble warriors grunt, strut and smack each other, playing to the cheering crowds in the stands, it's worth remembering that the prize they're fighting for is not peace, love and freedom. Instead, it's the lowly consumer, who will be taken out back and stripped of his worldly goods as soon as the main event is over.

 

More

What's holding back the economy?

Author suggests the global economy simply produces too much stuff

Since the financial crisis of 2008, which turned a regular recession into the Great Recession, the economy has struggled to recover. More than five years l...

PhotoSince the financial crisis of 2008, which turned a regular recession into the Great Recession, the economy has struggled to recover. More than five years later economic growth is anemic, despite the Federal Reserve's massive and relentless stimulus efforts.

Unemployment only recently dropped below seven percent and huge numbers of Americans are working part time or have dropped out of the labor force altogether.

What's responsible for this? In the political world there is a lot of finger-pointing. Republicans blame the Obama administration's policies. The administration blames the Republicans in Congress for being obstructionists. But is there a bigger picture, something we're missing?

Too much supply, not enough demand

Investment banker Daniel Alpert argues the cause of our endless slump lies in the fact that, in today's global economy there is simply too much supply and not enough demand. The economic principle of supply and demand is, after all, tried and true. Prosperity usually results when the two are more or less in balance.

Today, Alpert argues, in his book “The Age of Oversupply,” the global economy has inundated the world with supply. While Americans are dropping out of the labor force because they can't find a job, many of those jobs are going to people who can perform the tasks and happen to live in other countries.

Retail businesses that once required consumers to come to their stores, look at available merchandise on display and either pay the posted price or drive to another store to find a better deal, no longer have that kind of leverage. The Internet allows consumers to shop from home, searching for not only the best product but also the best price. Not only is Target competing with Amazon but, to a lesser extent, Etsy and hundreds of other similar niche businesses that are competing for consumer dollars. There seems to be an endless supply of product and businesses providing it.

Inflation?

When the Fed began printing billions of dollars to try to stimulate the economy, many economists warned of massive inflation because of all that extra money. But inflation hasn't occurred, in part, says Alpert, because supply of everything continues to outstrip demand.

Not only is there little or no inflation, policymakers are more worried about deflation, which they see as a bigger problem. When there is more supply than demand, businesses lose pricing power and must cut prices. Eventually the value of everything – including assets – goes down.

For consumers, such a situation is a double-edged sword. Having an abundance of choices and supply at ever-lower prices is a consumer's dream. But most consumers are also employees, and if the company that employs you goes out of business because it can't sell enough of its goods and services at a profitable price, you have no money to shop that abundant supply.

Is there a fix?

So, if the economy is so out of whack, how does it get fixed? Not, Alpert maintains, by the Fed's stimulus efforts, which has focused mainly on the banking system.

Rather, he advocates massive spending on infrastructure improvements as a way to kickstart economic growth. He also suggests large writedowns of private debt and further bank reforms, two steps not likely to be popular with his fellow investment bankers.

More

Kansas researchers looking for ways to stem spread of tularemia in cats

Cats in parts of the Midwest are more likely to come down with the disease

Kansas State University veterinarians perform a feline exam. (KSU photo)A Kansas State University epidemiologist is helping cats, pet owners and soldiers...

Photo
Kansas State University veterinarians perform a feline exam. (KSU photo)

A Kansas State University epidemiologist is helping cats, pet owners and soldiers stay healthy by studying feline tularemia, a serious problem for cats and their human friends in parts of the Midwest. 

Ram Raghavan and his research team say that a certain combination of climate, physical environment and socio-ecologic conditions are behind tularemia infections among cats in the region. More than 50 percent of all tularemia cases in the U.S. occur in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas, Raghavan said.

Ticks, rabbits and rodents help spread the disease, which can also spread to humans through ticks and insect bites as well as through cat bites and scratches. If left untreated, tularemia can be fatal both to humans and animals.

If cats hunt outdoors or come into contact with an infected rabbit, insect or animal, they can bring tularemia back to their owners.

Raghavan's research so far has found that tularemia is more likely to appear:

  • In newly urbanized areas.
  • In residential locations surrounded by grassland.
  • In high-humidity environments. Raghavan found that locations where tularemia was confirmed had high-humidity conditions about eight weeks before the disease appeared.

Warm weather

While tularemia is more common in young children and men, people also can get the disease when mowing lawns in a contaminated area, Raghavan said. Both human and feline tularemia cases peak through late spring and summer -- when the weather is warmer, more ticks are present and more people are outside. Tularemia cases decrease at summer's end.

"Climate plays such a huge role in zoonotic diseases," Raghavan said. "With all the talk about climate change, we need to know if there are any significant climate effects that are causing tularemia cases to increase."

A problem for the military

Tularemia also poses concerns for the military and soldiers during training exercises, whether they are training in U.S. bases or bases around the world. During training, soldiers are actively engaged in the environment and that increases the risk of tularemia infection.

"They could be crawling on the ground and may come in contact with a dead animal or rabbit that was infected with tularemia," Raghavan said. "The soldiers also can be bitten by ticks. All it takes is a few bacteria to cause infection."

Because of the low infection dose of organisms, it is even more important to understand tularemia because of its potential as a bioterrorism tool, Raghavan said.

"If a little of the bacteria was present in the form of an aerosol, it could be released in a crowded area and potentially infect a lot of people very quickly," Raghavan said. "Because it is such a rare disease, not everyone is prepared for it, even though the treatments are very simple. Untreated infections can cause death."

Symptoms of tularemia in humans may include fever, swelling of lymph nodes, skin ulcers near tick bites, or cough, chest pain and difficulty breathing in more serious cases. Clinical signs in cats include lethargy, anorexia and fever. People should contact their doctor or their veterinarian if they observe tularemia symptoms, Raghavan said.

More

Connecticut photographer's use of a drone irks local cops, leads to lawsuit

Police allegedly get journalist suspended for videotaping fatal car crash

A Connecticut photojournalist is suing the Hartford police department for lost wages, civil rights violations and other damages...

PhotoA Connecticut photojournalist is suing the Hartford police department for lost wages, civil rights violations and other damages, alleging that police got the man suspended from his job (though he was neither arrested nor charged with anything).

Pedro Rivera used a remote-controlled model aircraft (commonly known as a "drone," at least when used in military contexts) flying at a height of 150 feet to get video of a fatal car crash. Rivera worked as a photographer and editor for a local TV station, but was not on the clock when he filmed the accident.

Private use of remote-controlled model aircraft is legal, Rivera's lawsuit says, and indeed, Rivera was not charged with any crime. But the Hartford Courantreports that “Rivera was suspended for a week without pay after Lt. Brian Foley, commander of the department's major crimes division, informed Rivera's employer of the incident and requested that he be disciplined, the lawsuit alleges.”

Rivera said, “It’s absolutely ridiculous. I wasn’t charged, I didn’t violate anything. They went after my job …. I think what happened to me falls in the category of the war on cameras by the police. Whenever the police are videotaped, they try to detain people and confiscate the camera.” 

Rivera is being represented by attorney Norm Pattis, who wrote in the lawsuit that “Defendant Foley complained that the plaintiff had interfered with the police department's investigation of the accident, and had compromised the crime scene's 'integrity.' Upon information and belief, defendant Foley either requested that discipline be imposed upon the plaintiff by his employer, or suggested that the employer could maintain its goodwill with the employer by disciplining the plaintiff …. Defendant Foley intended to chill, and did chill, the plaintiff in his First Amendment right to freedom of speech [and] was inspired by improper motive: to wit, to prevent the public at large to have video reports of what police officers do in the investigation of a crime."

More

New hope in treating Alzheimer's agitation

Relief may come in the use of antidepressants

A generic antidepressant drug -- citalopram – has been found to relieve agitation significantly in a group of patients with Alzheimer's disease. In lower ...

PhotoA generic antidepressant drug -- citalopram – has been found to relieve agitation significantly in a group of patients with Alzheimer's disease.

In lower doses than those tested, the drug -- sold under the brand names Celexa and Cipramil -- might be safer than antipsychotic drugs currently used to treat the condition, according to results of a clinical trial led by Johns Hopkins researchers that included seven other academic medical centers in the U. S. and Canada.

For the study, reported in the Feb. 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Constantine Lyketsos, M.D., M.H.S., and his colleagues recruited 186 Alzheimer's patients who showed a collection of symptoms including emotional distress, excessive movement, aggression, disruptive irritability and disinhibition.

None experienced adequate symptom relief with non-medical therapies, and some experienced failed treatment with antipsychotic drugs. Though antipsychotics are often used as first-line medications for Alzheimer's-related agitation, they significantly increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks and death, Lyketsos says.

At the start of the study, patients also underwent tests to define the extent of their agitation, memory and other cognitive skills, and their caregivers' stress levels, a factor strongly linked to the well-being of those with Alzheimer's.

The patients were then separated into two groups. For the next nine weeks, about half took increasing doses of citalopram that peaked at 30 milligrams per day, and the rest took an identical-looking placebo.

At the end of the study period, the same set of tests was given, along with electrocardiograms. The study drug is linked to adverse effects on heart function, including irregular heartbeat, a harbinger of a heart attack.

“Significant relief"

Results showed that patients on the drug had significant relief from their agitation symptoms, Lyketsos says. In one measure of agitation, about 40% of patients who took citalopram had "considerable relief," compared to 26% of patients who took the placebo. The caregivers for these patients reported less stress.

However, patients on the drug were also more likely to have slightly decreased cognitive function. "It was not huge, but measurable," says Lyketsos, director of the Johns Hopkins Memory and Alzheimer's Treatment Center and director of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. "That introduces a tradeoff."

Not without risk

More concerning, he adds, is that patients on citalopram had longer QTc intervals, a measure of abnormal heart function that increases the risk of heart attacks. However, Lyketsos says, antipsychotic medications also used to treat agitation increase heart attack risk as well, perhaps even more substantially.

Lyketsos and his colleagues hope to test if a lower dose of citalopram might be just as effective in treating Alzheimer's-related agitation with less risk for cognition and heart function. In the meantime, he says, the drug offers an alternative to antipsychotics.

"If the agitation is not responding to non-medication treatments and your patient's agitation isn't improving, there are no great options," Lyketsos says. "But here's another medication choice that might be safer than other medications and seems to be just as effective."

More

Sen. Markey proposes personalized guns

Only the registered owner would be able to fire the weapons

Just about everything is personalized these days. Your Facebook page, your Pandora stations, your car and many other consumer products and services are ref...

PhotoJust about everything is personalized these days. Your Facebook page, your Pandora stations, your smartphone apps, your car and many other consumer products and services are reflections of your tastes, habits and quirks.

So why not your guns?

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) thinks guns should be manufactured with an interlock that lets only the registered owner fire them. He says this would reduce crimes committed with stolen guns, keep children from shooting themselves and others with their parents' guns and, in general, curb the incidence of gun violence and accidents.

At a news conference yesterday, Markey outlined his "Handgun Trigger Safety Act” and noted that Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) introduced the same legislation in the House last year.

“No one wants children to get access to a handgun and hurt themselves or others,” said Markey. “In the 21st century, we should use advances in technology to our own advantage and save lives, and the Handgun Trigger Safety Act will help ensure that only authorized users can operate handguns. This is the type of gun safety legislation that everyone – regardless of political party or affiliation – should be able to support.”

More research

Markey also called for allocating $10 million to finance studies of gun violence from a public health perspective.

“We need to study gun violence like the public health crisis it is,” he said. “Funding for a federal gun violence research agenda should be a permanent priority so that we no longer look back and say that we didn’t commit any resources to a cause of death that took more people last year than leukemia.”

In 2013, President Obama lifted a 17-year ban on federal gun violence research but there has been no funding specifically appropriated for the effort.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who joined Markey at the Boston news confrerence, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a research plan in place but needs funding to implement the plan.

“Gun violence costs our country an estimated $174 billion every year," said Maloney. “All we're asking for is six one-hundredths of a percent of that amount to help figure out why and prevent future tragedies."

Responding to Markey's proposal, the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action said it is not opposed to the development of smart guns but would oppose government attempts to require fingerprint-reading technology on gun grips.

"[The] NRA recognizes that the "smart guns" issue clearly has the potential to mesh with the anti-gunner's agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology," the group said.

More

Inflation barely visible at the start of 2014

Energy accounts for most of the rise in the CPI for January

With apologies to Carl Sandburg, inflation crept in to 2014 on little cat feet. According to the government, the consumer price index (CPI) inched up 0.1%...

PhotoWith apologies to Carl Sandburg, inflation crept in to 2014 on little cat feet.

According to the government, the consumer price index (CPI) inched up 0.1% in January, putting the inflation rate for the last 12 months at a modest 1.6%.

Energy and food

Most of last months increase was the result of a 0.6% rise in energy prices. Electricity costs rose 1.8% -- for the largest increase in almost 4 years, while natural gas prices surged 3.6%, and fuel oil was up 3.7%. Gasoline prices were down 1.0% after rising in December. Over the last year, energy prices have increased 2.1%, with all major components rising.

Food costs rose 0.1% in January, with the major grocery store food group indexes mixed. Three of the six were higher, cereals and bakery products, and dairy and related products both up 0.5%. Prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs also increased -- rising 0.4%. In contrast, costs for fruits and vegetables fell 0.3%, while nonalcoholic beverage prices fell 0.2%. The index for other food at home was unchanged in January. Food prices were up 1.1% over the past year.

Core rate

The “core rate” of inflation, which excludes the volatile energy and food categories, rose just 0.1% in January. A major contributor was the the cost of shelter, which was up 0.3%. Other increases were posted in the prices for medical care, recreation, personal care and tobacco. Declines were posted in the costs of airline fares, used cars and trucks, new vehicles and apparel.

The complete January CPI report is available on the Labor Department website.

PhotoJobless claims

The Labor Department is also reporting a small decline in the number of initial claims for unemployment benefits last week.

The number of first-time applications dropped by 3,000 in the week ending February 15 to a seasonally adjusted total of 336,000, stabilizing at what some analysts are calling a relatively low rate.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, rose 1,750 to 338,500.

The full report can be found on the Employment and Training Administration website.

More

Business opportunity scam shut down

The unemployed and underemployed were targeted

The Federal Trade Commission has reached settlements with a handful of companies and individuals that bans them from selling business or work-at-home oppor...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has reached settlements with a handful of companies and individuals that bans them from selling business or work-at-home opportunities. The parties are also required to surrender assets to the FTC.

As part of its crackdown on scams that falsely promise business opportunities targeting unemployed or underemployed people, the FTC filed a complaint against Shopper Systems LLC, Revenue Works LLC (also doing business as Surplus Supplier), EMZ Ventures LLC, The Veracity Group LP, Brett Brosseau, Michael Moysich and Keith R. Powell.

Consumers deceived

The complaint charged the defendants with misleading consumers who were seeking to run their own business providing mystery shopping services to retailers, and tricking them into paying money to join programs with recurring monthly charges.

Along with the settlement, a federal court has approved the filing of an amended complaint adding Concept Rocket LLC and Shopper Select LLC as defendants, and Georgia Farm House Land Holdings LLC, PKP Holdings, Stephanie Powell, and Sportsmen of North America LP as relief defendants who profited from the scheme but did not participate in it.

Settlement details

The settlement order against Moysich, Concept Rocket, Revenue Works, Shopper Select and Shopper Systems, bans them from selling business or work-at-home opportunities, sending unauthorized text messages, and selling products or services with negative-option features. The settlement order against Brosseau and EMZ Ventures bans them from selling business or work-at-home opportunities and sending unauthorized text messages.

The orders also impose a judgment of more than $40.5 million against these defendants, which will be suspended when the Moysich defendants have surrendered $55,000 in frozen assets, and the Brosseau defendants have surrendered $88,000 in frozen assets and nearly $270,000 from the sale of property in Georgia, Vermont.

The settlement order against Powell and The Veracity Group bans them from selling business or work-at-home opportunities. It also imposes a judgment of more than $14.8 million, which will be suspended when Powell has surrendered his assets, including more than $115,000, to the FTC, and the Veracity Group has surrendered telecommunication equipment to a court-appointed receiver for liquidation.

As stipulated in all three orders, the full monetary judgments will become due immediately if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their respective financial conditions.

More

Is college worth it? Pew survey says it is

Finds college grads earn much more than those with only a high school diploma

With rising tuition and student loan debt, there has been growing debate over the value of a college degree. Is it worth the cost?Former Education Secret...

PhotoWith rising tuition and student loan debt, there has been growing debate over the value of a college degree. Is it worth the cost?

Former Education Secretary William Bennett is on the side of those who say it isn't. His 2013 book “Is College Worth It?” argues that only 150 out of 3,500 U.S. colleges and universities provide an education that is worth the investment it requires. He points out that nearly half of those who start a four-year education drop out. 

But a new survey of young adults, members of the Millennial generation, suggests that the expense and time investment is worthwhile. The Pew researchers surveyed 2,000 young adults and supplemented it with an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau economic data.

Across the board

“On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment — from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed fulltime — young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education,” the researchers conclude.

The survey also compared today’s young adults with previous generations at the same age. It found the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era.

For example, the economic analysis finds that Millennial college graduates ages 25 to 32, who are working fulltime, earn more annually — about $17,500 more — than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma. The pay gap was significantly smaller in previous generations.

Better shot at fulltime job

College-educated Millennials are also more likely to be employed fulltime than their less-educated counterparts, but only slightly more – 89% vs. 82%. But are college-educated Millennials really that much better off? Another Pew study, from 2012, may cast some doubt.

That study found an increasing number of young adults living at home with their parents. According to the analysis of Census data, a record 21.6 million, or 36%, of 18- to 31-year-olds were living at home. That figure was the highest percentage recorded in at least four decades, and represents a slow but steady increase from the 32% share living at home before the Great Recession.

Maybe the Millennials living with Mom and Dad are the ones who didn't go to college. No doubt some are, but the Pew research doesn't specifically address that question. It does note that, of the 21.6 million Millennials living in their parents’ home in 2012, at least a third and perhaps as many as half are college students.

Graduates think it was worth it

The latest Pew study finds that among employed Millennials, college graduates are significantly more likely than those without any college experience to say that their education has been “very useful” in preparing them for work and a career. Better educated young adults are more likely to say they have the necessary education and training to advance in their careers.

Millennials, age 25 to 32, believe by an overwhelming majority that their college degree has already paid off. Even those who had to borrow money to attend school feel that way.

The point of the study confirms it is still a very difficult time to be entering adulthood, with fewer jobs and greater competition to get them. But the researchers conclude it may not be that a college degree today is worth so much more, but that a high school diploma is worth so much less.

For example, in 1979 when the first wave of Baby Boomers were the same age that Millennials are today, the typical high school graduate earned about three-quarters of what a college graduate made. Today, Millennials with only a high school diploma earn 62% of what the typical college graduate earns. They may be worse off than their college-educated peers, but neither is doing all that well.

“To be sure, the Great Recession and the subsequent slow recovery hit the Millennial generation particularly hard,” the researchers conclude. “Neither college graduates nor those with less education were spared.”

More

Verizon, Netflix at odds over Internet traffic jam

Lots of consumers watch Netflix, which Verizon thinks entitles it to more money

You could see this coming. Like a, well, house of cards, the Internet is a complex structure that works surprisingly well, considering how many players are...

PhotoYou could see this coming. Like a, well, house of cards, the Internet is a complex structure that works surprisingly well, considering how many players are involved in stitching the whole mess together from one millisecond to the next.

There's been this little issue called "net neutrality" that's been around forever but of interest only to the technocentric. It's about to become a lot more interesting to everybody.

Here's why: Irked by the success of Netflix and the amount of traffic it pours onto the net each day, Verizon and other carriers are demanding that Netflix pay them a premiuim for transmitting that traffic. A report in today's Wall Street Journal quotes Netflix as saying its average prime-time speeds dropped by 14% last month, just as the hit series "House of Cards" returned for its second season on Netflix.

Being throttled?

Verizon Fios Feb. 19, 2014, 11:56 a.m.
Consumers rate Verizon Fios

Verizon customers who pay $70 or more for "unlimited" FiOS broadband Internet service are becoming very familiar with the little "loading" graphic that appears much more frequently lately, when the video and audio pause because of network congestion -- or, as conspiracy theorists suggest -- purposeful throttling.

One longtime FiOS customer in the Washington, D.C., area said he had never seen the "loading" graphic on Netflix until this month. 

Why now? One potential explanation is that a federal appeals court ruled last month that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to impose net neutrality rules requiring that Verizon and other carriers treat all traffic equally.

The idea behind the Internet when it was founded was that everyone could transmit and receive data on an equal basis, limited only by the speed of their local connection to the Internet. 

Disappointed Dilberts

Telephone and cable companies -- who once imagined that they would be the movie and entertainment titans of the future -- find this irksome and have been arguing that major content distributors like Netflix should pay more for using so much bandwidth.

The content distributors reply that they pay millions of dollars for their Internet connections, while consumers collectively pay millions for their local connections through Verizon and other companies and that the "backbone" costs are the responsibility of the carriers. (This is vastly oversimplified but a more detailed explanation quickly becomes yawn-inducing).

An argument conveniently overlooked by the carriers is that if Netflix suddenly went away, most of its subscribers would likely switch to Hulu, Amazon Prime and other video distributors, generating just as much traffic as currently exists but perhaps spreading it out over more distributors.

While technically, backbone issues aren't covered by net neutrality -- which formally applies only to "last mile" service -- the debate over who pays for heavy video usage is only likely to get worse and seems certain to play a role in the Comcast-Time Warner merger, which would create a broadband collossus with a great deal of power over what consumers are able to see ... and how many "loading" graphics they have to endure in the process. 

More

Study: retirees not tapping their IRAs

Seniors appear to be taking full advantage of tax shelter

If you talk to someone at or near retirement age about their finances, you'll likely hear a lot of angst about whether or not they have saved enough money....

PhotoIf you talk to someone at or near retirement age about their finances, you'll likely hear a lot of angst about whether or not they have saved enough money. Indeed, studies show a large number of Americans are approaching their "golden years" with little or no savings.

But despite that worry, retirees who have socked money away in an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) appear highly reluctant to spend that money.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has just completed a study of IRAs for the year 2011. It counted 20.3 million accounts containing $1.456 trillion in assets. Most of the IRAs were classified as traditional IRAs or Roth IRAs.

Required withdrawals

What the EBRI researchers found remarkable is that just over 16% of traditional and Roth IRA accounts had a withdrawal in 2011, including 20.5 percent of traditional accounts. The only reason the percentage was that high, they say, is the law requires individuals ages 70½ or older to make a minimum withdrawal each year.

This percentage was largely driven by activity among traditional IRAs where the individual owners were required to make withdrawals from their tax-qualified accounts.

The IRA has become a major portion of the U.S. retirement system and by EBRI's accounting, makes up about 25% of all U.S. retirement assets. In many cases these IRAs were funded by rolling over an employer-based retirement plan assets after a job change or retirement. Regardless of how the money got there, it doesn't appear to be going anywhere as the account holders appear in no hurry to spend it.

While almost three-fourths of the accounts examined in the EBRI IRA Database were classified as traditional IRAs, over 90% of the accounts with a withdrawal were in that category. Of accounts that had a withdrawal in 2011, 65.1% were owned by those ages 60 or older and 43.8% by those ages 70 or older, while just 10% were owned by those ages 25–44.

Traditional and Roth IRAs

PhotoWith a traditional IRA, contributions are tax deductible in the tax year they are made. Once deposited, these funds provide another tax break – they can earn income or achieve capital gains without being taxed. Only when the owner of the account withdraws money from the account is there any sort of tax payment. Withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income in the tax year they are made.

A Roth IRA is different because contributions are not tax deductible. However, the earnings – income from dividends or capital gains – are not taxed. Best of all, withdrawals are not taxed and there is no requirement to start making withdrawals at age 70 ½.

That last fact shows up when the EBRI researchers analyzed who was making IRA withdrawals in 2011. A full 90% came from traditional IRAs that have the mandatory withdrawal requirement. Only 6.4% came from Roth IRAs. It's easy to conclude that if traditional IRA account owners weren't required to make a withdrawal, many wouldn't.

Taking advantage of tax break

There aren't many places that your investments can work and grow tax-free, but an IRA is one place they can. Retirees who own IRAs are likely using them as a way to build wealth and – at this point at least – don't need the money to cover living expenses in their retirement.

When the researchers looked at the median withdrawal rate for those taking a withdrawal from their accounts, they found a big difference between those with a traditional IRA and those with a Roth. The rate for traditional IRAs was 6.9%, compared with 40.0% for those taking a withdrawal from Roth IRAs. Remember, Roth distributions aren't taxed while traditional distributions are.

While the median withdrawal rates suggest that many individuals are highly likely to maintain the IRA as a source of income throughout retirement, the researchers say further study is needed to see if these people are keeping their withdrawal rates at these levels as they get older. But at this point, retirees who have saved apparently don't feel the need to tap those savings.

More

Google asks Glass users: don't be a Glasshole

Good luck with that.

Back when horses were people's primary mode of transportation, there was a common saying about people who locked the barn door after the horse was stolen....

PhotoBack when horses were still people's primary mode of transportation, there was a common saying about people who “locked the barn door after the horse has been stolen.” In other words: trying to prevent a problem after it's already happened.

Meanwhile, Google has published a list of dos-and-don'ts etiquette suggestions for wearers and users of Google Glass, saving the best piece of advice for last: don't “Be creepy or rude (aka, a “Glasshole”).

One way to avoid being a Glasshole is to follow the third suggestion on the “Do” list: “ask for permission” before using Glass to take videos or photographs of others.

Problems ahead

For all the snark possibilities about “Glassholes,” one needn't be a Luddite to worry about the anti-privacy implications of Google Glass. Last October, for example, a tech blogger for the Huffington Post (bearing in mind that Luddites, by definition, are not the sort of people who get jobs as tech bloggers) warned that “People aren't seeing the legal problems ahead with Google Glass.”

Even in preliminary testing phases, Google Glass has opened a Pandora's Box of legal concerns. If it does become the next big thing in wearable technology, what are the ramifications for intellectual property and personal privacy when somebody can secretly film or take a picture of you with, literally, the wink of an eye?... blogger Robert Scoble is so gaga for Google Glass he says he wears them everywhere, and posted this supposed picture of himself wearing them in the shower to prove it. But this is exactly the type of thing that should get privacy advocates all lathered up -- where does privacy end when everybody has access to wearable technology? This could go far beyond sexting and sex scandals when nobody knows whether or not they are being watched, no matter what they are doing.

Search online for complaints about Google Glass, and you'll find many that make use of the word “Orwellian”-- a reference to George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984.

But, to be fair, Google Glass (and smartphone cameras and sundry other cheap, ubiquitous recording devices) are distinctly non-Orwellian in a very important way: in Orwell's world of 1984, spy technology was a one-way street. The totalitarian government could spy on and record everybody, but nobody could spy on or record the government.

But a world where everybody can spy on everybody else … well, Orwell never foresaw that and humanity is still trying to figure out how to deal with it, but meanwhile it's worth repeating: Don't be a Glasshole. Or any rhyming variant thereof.

More

Tinder app security breach pinpoints users' locations

Not the first such problem, merely the most recent

If you've been using the popular dating app Tinder, which is supposed to help you find potential partners in your own neighborhood (rather than hundreds or...

PhotoIf you've been using the popular dating app Tinder, which is supposed to help you find potential partners in your own neighborhood (rather than hundreds or thousands of miles away) be warned: a hacker with the most rudimentary of hacking skills can use the device to pinpoint your exact physical location to within 100 feet.

Or could use the device for this — the security flaw has allegedly been fixed. But Tinder isn't offering any details about it, not even to say how long the security breach existed — outsider estimates suggest a range of anywhere from 40 to 165 days.

This news didn't come out because Tinder warned its users about the security risk, but because a “white hat hacking” company called Include Security discovered the flaw.

As BusinessWeekreported on Feb. 19, Include discovered the Tinder security flaw and told Tinder about it on Oct. 23, yet did not get a “meaningful response” from the company until Dec. 2, when a Tinder employee requested more time to fix the problem. The security flaw was (so far as anybody knows) fixed on or by Jan. 1 of this year — though, once again, Tinder never informed its users about it.

The hundred-foot location hack is not the first Tinder security breach, nor the first time the company kept silent about it: last July, when Quartz.com discovered and asked Tinder about a similar security breach, Tinder claimed it only lasted for “a few hours” when in reality it lasted up to two weeks. In November, a Dutch web developer discovered yet another security loophole that exposed users' email addresses to strangers.

As of presstime, we don't know of any currently existing flaws in Tinder security protections — but then again, history suggests that if any such flaws do exist, Tinder's not likely to admit it anyway.

More

Ticks carry newly recognized human pathogen in San Francisco area

Lyme disease isn't enough, now ticks carry a new pathogen as well

An adult deer tick (Source: Wikipedia)Look out, San Francisco. As springtime approaches and Golden Gate Park beckons, scientists say the ticks that inf...

Photo
An adult deer tick (Source: Wikipedia)

Look out, San Francisco. As springtime approaches and Golden Gate Park beckons, scientists say the ticks that infest much of Northern California are carrying not only Lyme disease but also a new, previously unknown pathogen.

A study to be published in the March issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Disease details how researchers including Dan Salkeld, a research associate at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, found the bacterium, Borrelia miyamotoi, as well as Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, in ticks they sampled throughout the area.

The researchers were surprised to find ticks infected with one or both bacteria in nearly every park they examined. The findings raise the question of whether B. miyamotoi has gone undetected in California residents. They also represent "an important step toward dispelling the perception that you cannot acquire Lyme disease in California," said Ana Thompson, executive director of the Bay Area Lyme Foundation.

Known for some time to infect ticks, the first known human case of B. miyamotoi infection in the U.S. was discovered in 2013. Beyond Lyme-like symptoms such as fever and headache, little is known about its potential health impacts. In the Bay Area, low awareness of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme could heighten the risk of infection with B. miyamotoi for users of the region's extensive natural areas and trails.

"People who have difficulty getting diagnoses – maybe this is involved, " Salkeld said.

Lyme disease

Lyme disease, named for Lyme, Conn., where the illness was first identified in 1975, is transmitted to humans via the bite of a tick infected with B. burgdorferi. In California, the culprit is the Western black-legged tick and the primary carrier is the western gray squirrel. On the East Coast, it's the black-legged tick and the white-footed mouse is the main carrier.

Lyme can be difficult to diagnose, but its early symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and sometimes a telltale rash that looks like a bull's-eye centered on the tick bite. If left untreated, the infection can cause a range of health problems from arthritis and joint pain to immune deficiencies and a persistent cognitive fog.

Most people recover with antibiotic treatment, but, for unknown reasons, some patients who suffer from a variety of Lyme-like symptoms find no relief from the normally proscribed therapy.

Although the majority of U.S. Lyme infections occur in the Northeast, incidence of the disease is growing across the country. Changes in climate and the movement of infected animals may be partly to blame. 

When someone is infected, it can take weeks before blood tests detect antibodies. Adding to the diagnostic headache, tests have been known to return false positives and false negatives. Current testing capabilities also have a hard time determining whether the infection has been cured.

More

Look out, Google: Case Western develops a new cyber-search method

New search tool finds relevant results faster, researchers say

AltaVista in 1999 (Source: Wikipedia)It wasn't all that long ago that Alta Vista was the hands-down favorite search engine. Then something called Googl...

Photo
AltaVista in 1999 (Source: Wikipedia)

It wasn't all that long ago that Alta Vista was the hands-down favorite search engine. Then something called Google came along. Now computer scientists at Case Western Reserve University think they may have something even better than Google, although they're still lacking a catchy name.

Would you believe it's called the Conjunctive Exploratory Navigation Interface (CENI)? OK, but other than that, the researchers say their creation saves users time by more quickly identifying and retrieving the most relevant information on their computers and hand-held devices.

"Most people have an iPhone or laptop that stores a wide variety of information and, often, you can't find it when you need it, even though you know it's there," said GQ Zhang, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, division chief of Medical Informatics at Case Western Reserve and an author of the study.

"Or, you go to a website where the content has been divided under different areas, and what you're looking for fits several. If you choose one area but whoever filed the data chose another area, you may not find that information," Zhang said.

Crowdsourced testing

Anonymous testers recruited through crowdsourcing preferred the new search tool nearly two-to-one over a keyword-based lookup interface and the most commonly available lookup search interface using Google, according to the study, published in the open-access Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Side-by-side comparisons showed CENI, which combines two search modes and a more comprehensive way to organize and tag data, is more effective than looking up items by matched keywords alone.

They describe CENI as an on-screen portal where users access data by browsing through menus of topics and typing in keywords and say it provides a more focused search and retrieves the most pertinent information.

In one test, for example, a keyword search came up with 89 responses to a question: "What are the typical vision problems associated with diabetes?" CENI came up with the most applicable 13 by selecting appropriate menus.

CENI overcomes this limitation by allowing data to be tagged into as many areas as relevant, and provides an interface and system that leverages multiple tags for each single data item.

Prototype site

Zhang and Licong Cui, a PhD student in Zhang's lab, have a working prototype designed specifically for the health resource website, NetWellness. This not-for-profit site allowed the public to ask health professionals at Case Western Reserve, Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati health-related questions. More than 60,000 questions and answers are searchable using CENI. The interface is currently not available to the public.

Health information is highly sought after. A Pew Foundation survey found that 80 percent of Internet users have searched for health information, and 60 percent used that information to help make health-care decisions.

But a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that accessing health information using simple terms on such search engines as Google and Yahoo was inefficient. Less than a quarter of the searches led to relevant information, the study found.

This kind of search, called "lookup," can overwhelm the user with a long list of document links the user must then sift through, Zhang said. "If results do not show up in the first couple of pages, they are lost because the user is not going to go through millions of links manually."

CENI combines lookup and another search method, called "exploratory navigation." The exploratory mode enables users who lack a specific target or have trouble forming descriptive lookup terms to use menus of topics to navigate and explore information.

More

Housing hits the skids in January

Both new home construction and building permit applications were down sharply

New home construction plunged in January for the second time in as many months. Government figures show housing starts were down 16% last month -- to a s...

PhotoNew home construction plunged in January for the second time in as many months.

Government figures show housing starts were down 16% last month -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 880,000 following a drop to 1.05 million in December. The decline was led by a drop of 15.9% -- to 573,000 in the construction of single-family homes.

Many analysts believe the drop was due to the severe winter weather in much of the nation last month, with new home construction plunging 67.7% in the Midwest. Other analysts, however, disagree, noting that construction in the Northeast surged 61.9%

Building permits

The outlook for the near term isn't particularly encouraging. Applications for building permits, a gauge of builders' intentions over the next few months, were down 5.4%.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

PhotoMortgage applications

Separately, data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 4.1% in the week ending February 14.

At the same time, the Refinance Index decreased 3%, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity down 1% -- to 61% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 8% of total applications.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 5 basis points -- to 4.50% from 4.45%, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) increased from 4.40% to 4.45%, with points decreasing to 0.11 from 0.14 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA inched up 3 basis points to 4.16%, with points increasing to 0.14 from 0.10 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs increased to 3.55% from 3.49%, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs jumped 9 basis points -- to 3.20%, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The survey covers over 75% of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.   

More

Western consumers urged to check for recalled frozen ground beef patties

The advisory is a response to a recall by Rancho Feeding Corp.

Fry's Foods, Food 4 Less (West), Ralphs and Smith's Food & Drug are calling on customers to check their refrigerators and freezers for a limited selection...

PhotoFry's Foods, Food 4 Less (West), Ralphs and Smith's Food & Drug are calling on customers to check their refrigerators and freezers for a limited selection of nine recalled Pre-Packaged, Frozen Kroger Ground Beef products with a "use by" date of no later than July 13, 2014.

Customers may return the product to stores for a full refund.

The advisory follows Rancho Feeding's recent recall of ground beef that may have been manufactured under unsanitary conditions and without the benefit of full federal inspection.

There have been no illnesses reported to date in connection with this product.

No other Kroger family of stores banner, including Food 4 Less stores in the Chicago area, is affected by this recall at this time.

Item descriptions

All affected products were sold with a "use by" date of no later than July 13, 2014, and can be identified by the following description and UPC Codes:

  • 6-lb. Kroger Frozen Ground Beef Patties Family Pack – 80% Lean: 11110-97147;
  • 3-lb. Kroger Frozen Ground Beef Patties – 93% Lean: 11110-97944;
  • 3-lb. Kroger Frozen Ground Beef Patties -73% Lean: 11110-97981;
  • 3-lb. Kroger Frozen Ground Beef Patties – 80% Lean: 11110-97983;
  • 3-lb. Kroger Frozen Ground Beef Patties – 85% Lean: 11110-97984;
  • 5-lb. Kroger Frozen Ground Beef Patties, Family Pack – 80% Lean: 11110-96878;
  • 5-lb. Kroger Frozen Ground Beef Patties, Family Pack – 73% Lean: 11110-96879;
  • 2.5-lb. Kroger Frozen Ground Beef Mini Sliders – 85% Lean: 11110-97312; and
  • 6 lb. Kroger Ground Beef Patties, Family Pack – 73% Lean: 11110-97988

What to do

Customers are asked to check their refrigerators and freezers carefully for the recalled product. Any opened or unopened products included in this recall should not be consumed and should be returned to their local store for a full refund.

Customers who have questions about the recall may contact the product supplier, Jensen Meat Co., at 855-558-6400.

More

A new dating site for people in recovery

Lovesober.com reflects the trend towards more specialized matches

Online dating is nothing new. Almost since the Internet came into being people have been using it to hook up.What's new is a trend toward specialization...

More

Former raw-milk advocates plead: don't feed raw milk to young children

E. coli from raw milk destroyed a two-year-old's kidneys

A dairy farmer and a former raw-milk aficionado have joined forces to remind parents: please, don't feed raw milk to young children....

PhotoA dairy farmer and a former raw-milk aficionado have joined forces to remind parents: please, don't feed raw milk to young children.

Oregon mother Jill Brown thought she was doing a good thing when she gave raw, unpasteurized milk to her then-23-month-old daughter Kylee. Unfortunately, that milk proved to be contaminated with a particularly virulent strain of E.coli — bad enough for healthy adults with mature immune systems, but for young children whose immune systems are still in development it can prove fatal.

In Kylee's case, it led to complete kidney failure that would have killed her, had her mother not donated a kidney for transplant. Kylee Brown will still have to deal with painful and expensive kidney problems for the rest of her life.

“There might be some benefits of raw milk, but there are huge risks,” Jill Brown, Kylee’s mother, told Food Safety News. “There needs to be more public awareness that this is a high-risk food. If I had known what I know now, I would never have fed it to my daughter.”

Armchair Science

Pasteurization, named after French scientist Louis Pasteur, is the process of heating milk to a temperature high enough to kill most (though not all) pathogens.

Raw-milk advocates usually cite one of two reasons to oppose pasteurization: one, pasteurized milk and milk products don't taste the same as raw dairy; and two, some people believe that the heat of pasteurization destroys essential nutrients in addition to pathogens. However, many of the anti-pasteurization arguments are based on outdated or incorrect data.

For example, the anti-pastuerization site Realmilk.com, in February 2014, still offers as evidence an article titled Raw Milk vs. Pasteurized Milk, originally published in the April 1938 issue of a British magazine called Armchair Science. Here are some of its anti-pasteurization criticisms:

Pasteurization’s great claim to popularity is the widespread belief, fostered by its supporters, that tuberculosis in children is caused by the harmful germs found in raw milk.... Recent figures published regarding the spread of tuberculosis by milk show, among other facts, that over a period of five years, during which time 70 children belonging to a special organization received a pint of raw milk daily. One case only of the disease occurred. During a similar period when pasteurized milk had been given, 14 cases were reported.

It's not specified where these “recent figures” came from or who the “special organization” was or any other verifiable details.

However, regardless of what British medical science might have believed about tuberculosis in the pre-World War Two era, it's now known that tuberculosis is a bacterial infection of the lungs that is spread through the air, not by drinking milk. Arguing against pasteurization on the grounds that it offers no protection from tuberculosis is like arguing against it because it does nothing to reduce gunshot fatalities — true, but a complete non-sequitur.

Some food aficionados say that, for example, cheeses made from raw milk taste richer and better than any pasteurized cheese product. This is certainly possible, but even so: Jill Brown the former raw-milk fan and Brad Salyers the former raw-milk dairyman remind all parents and childcare-givers not to give raw dairy products to kids — because even healthy young children generally have weak immune systems by adult standards.

More

FAA fails to do its part to protect musicians' instruments

Even when Congress manages to act, agencies often fail to follow orders

More than 30 members of Congress from both parties have written Secretary Foxx asking why the FAA hasn't put out a rule to protect musicians' instruments d...

Photo
Dave Schneider's vintage Gibson (Facebook photo)

It was just about a year ago that Delta Airlines destroyed musician Dave Schneider's antique Gibson guitar and then added insult to injury by refusing to pay for it. Fortunately, Gibson stepped up and gave Schneider a new one but the incident illustrates that all too often, the day the music dies is the day a musician entrusts his valuable instrument to an airline. 

Congress tried to do something about the problem in 2012 but the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to do its part, striking a sour note with many lawmakers.

More than 30 members of Congress have written to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asking why the FAA hasn't yet put out a rule to protect musicians' instruments, as a 2012 law requires it to do.

The answer? The FAA's parent agency -- the Department of Transportation -- says it doesn't have the money to implement the rule, which was supposed to have been finished by last week.

Fairly typical

This is fairly typical. In 2008, Congress passed the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act, requiring the department to implement a rule mandating backup cameras in cars. The measure, named after a child who was killed when a car backed over him, was signed into law by President George W. Bush and sent to the Transportation Department for action.

There've been lawsuits, protests, denunciations by parents, members of Congress and safety advocates, all getting the same result: none. Musicians' instruments may be next on the no-action list.

Leading the effort to build a fire under the bureaucracy is Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who represents Nashville, a town that counts music as its primary export.

"Countless stories have emerged over the years of musicians whose guitars, lutes, flutes and other musical instruments have been damaged because of a patchwork series of airline policies that put these fragile and valuable instruments in danger," Cooper and his collegues wrote. "Musicians arrive at their destination, only to learn their instruments were lost or find their instruments damaged with little if any time to replace them."

The 2012 bill expressly permitted musicians to buy a ticket for their instrument, entitling it to a seat. This is something airlines now allow only on a sporadic basis. The bill made it clear that musicians should be permitted to store their instruments in overhead bins, something that is also allowed only on a sporadic basis at present.

Why is it so hard to write a rule that permits this? 

In a statement, the Transportation Department said it "has been working to find funding to support the regulatory evaluations required before we can issue this rulemaking, since money was not provided along with the requirement in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012." 

This is a very familiar tune around Washington, where federal agencies routinely shrug off their legally required duties, claiming lack of funds. 

Cooper and collegues are not amused.

"We understand the budgetary pinch that many agencies have found themselves in," they wrote. "But the relatively modest cost of promulating this rule should not have hindered its completion."

Will the FAA change its tune? Don't count on it.

More

Smoketels: the booking website by and for smokers

Want to rent a room that allows smoking? Here's help

If you're among the 18.1 percent of American adults who smoke tobacco, you've noticed that finding hotels who allow smoking gets harder each year...

PhotoIf you're among the 18.1 percent of American adults who smoke tobacco, you've likely noticed that finding hotels where you can smoke in your own rented rooms gets more difficult every year. But a new booking website promises to make things easier for you—Smoketels.com, whose listings are limited exclusively to smoking rooms, not just in American hotels but in international cities including Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and others.

Photo
Smoketels listings for the NBC/Burbank area

Smoketels, which launched in November, is the brainchild of web developer Shaun Bradley, who spoke to the New York Times about his business on Feb. 18.  “We don’t offer nonsmoking rooms, so if you’re a nonsmoker, you’re not for us,” Bradley said of his clientele.

Of course, if you are a nonsmoker, you don't need Bradley's services, since the majority of today's American hotel rooms are already smoke-free in accordance with your preferences.

However, as Bradley and the Times point out, while hotels with no-smoking policies usually publicize this fact, those who allow smoking often do not; hence the need for Smoketels.

When Bradley mentions “smoking,” he is generally talking about cigarettes. Cigar smokers, by contrast, occupy a slightly different marketing niche. Smoketels.com does not include listings for those (usually upscale) hotels offering “cigar lounges,” but Cigar Aficionado magazine will soon be producing an app for that.

More

Tinnitus is a ringing in your ears that never stops

The good news is, there are treatments that may alleviate it

Age-related hearing impairment, injury, foreign objects and even circulatory system problems can bring on a ringing in the ear – a condition known as...

PhotoAge-related hearing impairment, injury, foreign objects and even circulatory system problems can bring on a ringing in the ear – a condition known as tinnitus.

Doctors say it isn't a dangerous condition, but it can be very annoying for people who suffer from it. People who have it may also complain of fatigue, stress, sleep problems, anxiety and difficulty concentrating.

You may be at higher risk of developing tinnitus if you are over 65 and male. Also, people exposed to loud noises for extended periods of time and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have higher rates of tinnitus.

Link between loud noise and tinnitus

In fact, a new study published this month in the medical journal Neuroscience focuses, in part, on loud noise and tinnitus. The researchers from the University of Leicester, in the UK, say their findings help to understand how damage to myelin – a protection sheet around cells - alters the transmission of auditory signals occurring during hearing loss.

"Understanding cellular mechanisms behind hearing loss and tinnitus allows for developing strategies to prevent or alleviate the symptoms of deafness or tinnitus - for example by using specific drug therapies,” said Dr. Martine Hamann, a member of the research team.

If you suffer from tinnitus there are steps you can take to alleviate it. The condition tends to improve with treatment, or treatment of the underlying condition, if it can be identified.

For example, some blood vessel disorders can cause tinnitus. So can head and neck tumors, the build-up of cholesterol in the blood vessels and high blood pressure.

Symptoms

How do you know that ringing in your ears is tinnitus? The symptoms have been described as hearing sounds when no sound is present. The ringing may not actually be ringing at all, but more of a buzzing, hissing of squealing. They may be low or high frequency sounds and interfere with your ability to concentrate.

If you think you are suffering from tinnitus you should tell your doctor. She may request a medical history, conduct an exam or run a series of tests. For starters, a doctor will likely check the ear itself, to make sure there isn't a build-up of wax or a foreign object lodged there.

Tell your doctor whether the noise you hear is constant or comes and goes. Does its frequency change or does it rise and fall? If you suspect that you have age-related hearing loss, inform your doctor, since the two conditions are often related.

The doctor may order an audiogram, which is a hearing test, or auditory brain stem response (ABR), or even an MRI. The purpose is not only to locate the cause but to rule out the presence of tumors.

Treatment

Treatment, of course, will depend on the cause. A physician may remove earwax, treat blood vessel conditions or changing medication. Unless an underlying cause can be identified, treatment options are limited.

Drugs will not reverse the condition but tricyclic antidepressants, alprazolam, and acamprosate may make the symptoms more tolerable Your physician may also suggest white noise machines, hearing aids and masking devices.

It's possible you are making the condition worse by the overuse of cotton swabs to clean your ears. Doctors say pushing ear wax against the ear drum is a significant cause of the condition.

Another is long-term exposure to loud noise. Aging Baby Boomers who are rock concert veterans may suffer tinnitus, along with hearing loss. While it might be a bit late for them, younger generations may improve their chances of avoiding tinnitus by using ear plugs when exposed to loud noise.

More

Another arrest of a "revenge porn" kingpin

Casey Meyering faces multiple felony extortion charges

If you're looking for reasons to increase your faith in the general goodness of humanity, these revenge-porn arrests actually provide one...

Photo
Kamala Harris
Looks like another alleged “revenge porn” kingpin is going down: last week, California's attorney general Kamala Harris announced that agents of the California Attorney General’s eCrime Unit, the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety and the Tulsa Police Department arrested Tulsa, Oklahoma resident Casey Meyering on five counts of felony extortion.

Meyering previously ran the revenge-porn website WinByState.

“Revenge porn” refers to the practice of people — usually spiteful ex-lovers — humiliating their exes with online postings of nude or compromising photographs. The most notorious of the “revenge porn” distributors is arguably Hunter Moore, who was also arrested last month and charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, hacking and aggravated identity theft regarding his now-defunct revenge porn site, IsAnyoneUp?

Here's the thing: website operators like Moore and Meyering originally claimed that their pornographic content came entirely from (usually anonymous) fans: “Hey, my girlfriend gave me a nude photo of herself; now that she's my ex-girlfriend, I've decided to post this photo plus her identifying information, solely to humiliate her.”  (Hence the "revenge" aspect of "revenge porn.")

Stolen by hackers

But if the various allegations against Moore and now Meyering are correct, a lot of so-called “revenge porn” is actually “stolen by hackers porn.” As news site KTVU noted about the allegations against Meyering: “The investigation into WinByState.com began when a Northern California hacking victim discovered nude photos of herself on this site that had been stolen from her computer, according to court documents.... Court documents also allege that WinbyState.com required victims to pay $250 via a Google Wallet account to remove posted photographs.”

So if you're looking for reasons to increase your faith in the general goodness of humanity, these revenge-porn arrests actually provide one.

After all: the idea that the revenge porn industry exists thanks to a relative handful of sleazy thieving computer hackers is arguably less depressing than the idea that the industry exists because so very, very many men become complete sociopaths the second they break up with their girlfriends.

More

Builder confidence sags in February

Wicked winter weather is cited as a big factor

The unusually severe weather across much of the nation took a toll on builder confidence in the market for newly-built, single-family homes The weather, a...

PhotoThe unusually severe weather across much of the nation took a toll on builder confidence in the market for newly-built, single-family homes

The weather, along with continued concerns over the cost and availability of labor and lots, produced a a 10-point drop -- to 46 -- on the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI).

“Significant weather conditions across most of the country led to a decline in buyer traffic last month,” said NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly, a home builder and developer from Wilmington, Del. “Builders also have additional concerns about meeting ongoing and future demand due to a shortage of lots and labor.”

“Clearly, constraints on the supply chain for building materials, developed lots and skilled workers are making builders worry,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “The weather also hurt retail and auto sales and this had a contributing effect on demand for new homes.”

Broad-based decline

The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index, which is derived from a monthly survey, gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.”

The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.” Scores for each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

All three of the major HMI components fell in February. The component gauging current sales conditions plunged 11 points to 51, the component gauging sales expectations in the next six months was off six points to 54 and the component measuring buyer traffic dropped nine points to 31.

Looking at three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the West was unchanged at 63 while the Midwest fell one point to 57, the South posted a three-point decline to 53 and the Northeast suffered a four-point drop to 38.

More

Cancer treatment doesn't have to be expensive

Experts say costs can be cut without risk to patients

The list of bad things about receiving a cancer diagnosis in nearly endless. Among them is the cost of treatment. But, in a review article published in Th...

PhotoThe list of bad things about receiving a cancer diagnosis in nearly endless. Among them is the cost of treatment.

But, in a review article published in The Lancet Oncology, experts at Johns Hopkins say there are three major sources of high cancer costs that doctors can likely reduce them without harm to patients. The proposals call for changes in routine clinical practice involved in end-of-life care, medical imaging and drug pricing.

"We need to find the best ways to manage costs effectively while maintaining the same, if not better, quality of life among our patients," said Thomas Smith, M.D., The Harry J. Duffey Family Professor of Palliative Medicine and professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins.

Cost inflation

Smith and co-author Ronan Kelly, M.D., say rising numbers of new cancer cases among an aging population are inflating total cancer costs -- projected to increase by nearly 40% in 2020 -- and that changing practice patterns should be a priority among oncologists to achieve affordable costs.

"Oncology professional societies, such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology, are beginning to guide oncologists on cost-saving opportunities, but change in routine clinical practice is happening slowly," says Kelly, an assistant professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

In the article, Smith and Kelly say the biggest opportunities for safe and ethical cost-cutting solutions rest in caring for patients with metastatic cancer, not on new surgical or radiation treatments, clinical trials, curative care or pediatric care.

Better decision-making

For example, the authors suggest that improving end-of-life care with better decision-making and planning could reap large cost savings by reducing hospitalizations in the last month of life. They note that 25% of total Medicare costs are spent in the last year of life, and 40% of that is spent in the last month of life.

"Most people prefer to spend their last days of life at home with family and friends rather than in a hospital, but we still see high rates of hospital utilization in the last month of life," says Smith. Medicare data show that 60% of poor-prognosis cancer patients are admitted to a hospital in the last month of life, and 30% die there.

The Hopkins team says studies show that hospice care improves symptoms, helps caregivers and costs less, with equal or better survival for patients, yet only half of cancer patients use hospice in their last month of life.

They recommend that patients with poor prognoses have better and earlier discussions with their oncologists about chemotherapy use at the end of life, as well as transitions to hospice. Decision aids spanning these topics have been developed by Smith and colleagues and are endorsed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Unnecessary procedures

Unneeded and expensive imaging poses another opportunity to limit costs of care, Smith and Kelly say. PET and other scans, for example, are often used to detect cancer recurrence in patients after initial treatments, but studies show that cure rates are just as good when recurrences are found through other examinations.

"The oncology community needs to have a greater responsibility in evaluating expensive tests, and limit their use to situations where there is strong evidence for benefit," says Kelly.

Drug costs

Finally, the authors suggest that reducing prices of new cancer drugs could help contain cancer costs.

"There are drugs that cost tens of thousands of dollars with an unbalanced relationship between cost and benefit," says Smith. "We need to determine appropriate prices for drugs and inform patients about their costs of care."

One approach, they say, could be to price drugs according to how well they prolong life.

"We need to include patients, pharmaceutical companies and legislators in our efforts to contain cancer care costs, so that we can afford to provide innovative, quality care to future generations," says Smith.

More

"Free $1,000 Gift Card" scammers ordered to pay $2.5 million

There was no gift card and consumers wound up signing up for things they didn't want

They didn't give away many "free $1,000 gift cards" but 12 defendants will soon be coughing up $2.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that...

PhotoThey didn't give away any "free $1,000 gift cards" but 12 defendants will soon be coughing up $2.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they enticed consumers with bogus gift card offers.

The FTC alleged that the South Carolina- and California-based corporate defendants hired affiliate marketers to send millions of spam text messages to consumers around the country. With links to the defendants’ sites, the messages included text such as, “Dear Walmart shopper, your purchase last month won a $1000 Walmart Gift Card, go to [website address] within 24 hours to claim.”

“This case halts a nationwide operation that took in millions of dollars by promising consumers free gift cards that it never delivered,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We’re pleased to stop these unwanted messages and protect consumers’ personal information.”

When consumers clicked on the links in the spam text messages, they were taken to landing pages operated by one group of defendants that asked them to “register” for the free prizes they had been offered. The registration process, the complaint alleges, was actually a method by which the defendants collected information about the consumers that was then sold to third parties.

Once consumers provided this information, they were taken to sites owned by another group of defendants. On these sites, consumers were told that to win the prize they had been offered, they were required to complete a number of “offers,” many of which involved either paid subscriptions to services, or applying for credit. The complaint alleges that the defendants were paid by the companies that advertised these offers.

Under the FTC settlements all the defendants will be banned from being involved in the distribution of unwanted spam text messages, as well as from misrepresenting whether a good or service is “free,” or whether a consumer has won a contest or prize. They are also banned from misleading consumers about why they are collecting consumers’ personal information, whether the information will be sold, or the extent to which they will protect consumers’ privacy. 

More

Transportation deaths rose in 2012

Highway deaths accounted for 94% of the total

Travel isn't getting any safer, especially when it's by car. Figures released by the National Transportation Safety Board show transportation fataliti...

PhotoTravel isn't getting any safer, especially when it's by car. Figures released by the National Transportation Safety Board show transportation fatalities increased to 35,331 in 2012, up three percent from the year before.

Except for the few unlucky souls who were hit by trains, drowned or killed in airplane crashes, the deaths occurred on the highways, which accounted for nearly 94 percent of all transportation fatalities. 

"We have a serious public health and safety epidemic on our highways," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman. "With our Most Wanted List, the NTSB highlights common-sense solutions to these safety issues that can improve safety and reduce the loss of life on our roads, rails, and waterways and in our skies."

Photo

The 2012 statistics show:

  • Deaths on U.S. roadways increased from 32,479 in 2011 to 33,561 in 2012. Highway fatalities increased in all categories except buses, which are down from 55 fatalities in 2011 to 39 in 2012.
  • Railroad deaths increased six percent from 757 to 803. The vast majority of these fatalities were persons struck by trains.
  • Aviation deaths decreased from 498 to 449. Nearly 96 percent of aviation fatalities occurred in general aviation accidents (432), but they still represented a decrease from the previous year (448). In 2012, air taxi fatalities dropped from 41 in 2011 to 15.
  • Marine deaths also dropped in 2012, from 803 to 706. The vast majority of the fatalities, (651), occurred in recreational boating

Aviation statistics are tracked and compiled by the NTSB. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides marine statistics, and the U.S. Department of Transportation provides statistics for all other modes.

More

Dairy Rich Chocolate Ice Cream recalled

The product may contain peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label

Ice Cream Specialties of Merrillville, Ind., is recalling Dairy Rich Chocolate Ice Cream because it may contain peanut butter, which contains a peanut alle...

PhotoIce Cream Specialties of Merrillville, Ind., is recalling Dairy Rich Chocolate Ice Cream because it may contain peanut butter, which contains a peanut allergen.

There have been no illnesses reported to date in connection with this product.

Dairy Rich Chocolate Ice Cream was distributed in Northwest Indiana, Northeast Illinois and Deer Park, N.Y., and reached consumers through grocery stores and other retail food outlets.

The affected product is packaged in 56-ounce paper cartons with the Dairy Rich graphic logo and a picture of a chocolate ice cream scoop on the front and back panels. The recall is limited to packages of Dairy Rich Chocolate Ice Cream bearing the following UPC and Best Used by Date. The Best Used by Date can be located on the left-hand end panel (the side panel) of the carton. No other Dairy Rich Ice Cream products are affected.

  • UPC: 0-71580-08103-1
  • Best used by: June 14, 2015

Consumers who have purchased Dairy Rich Chocolate Ice Cream are urged to return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at (219) 980-0800, Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. CST.

More

Nutriom recalls dried egg products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Nutriom LLC of Lacey, Wash., is recalling approximately 226,710 pounds of processed egg products that may be contaminated with Salmonella. There have bee...

PhotoNutriom LLC of Lacey, Wash., is recalling approximately 226,710 pounds of processed egg products that may be contaminated with Salmonella.

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

The following products were shipped to co-packers for incorporation into consumer-size packages:

  • 1,383-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Boil-in-Bag Egg Mix, Butter Flavor” with the lot code “C0513-A”
  • 2,540-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the lot code “B1913-A”
  • 2,409-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the lot code “B1913-B”
  • 4,712-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the lot code “E0713-A,B”
  • 1,265-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Boil-in-Bag, Heat and Serve” with the lot code “F1813-A”
  • 4,155-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the lot code “I1113-A”
  • 6,132-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg, Cage Free” with the lot code “J2913-A”
  • 9,345-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg, Cage Free” with the lot code “A1414-A”

The following products were packaged in consumer-sized packages:

  • 3.06-lb. bags of “OvaEasy Boil-in-Bag Egg Mix, Butter Flavor” with the Julian dates “3074” and “3075”
  • 2.34-lb. bags of “OvaEasy Boil-in-Bag, Reduced Cholesterol” with the Julian dates “3122,” “3123,” “3124,” “3127,” “3128” and “3129”
  • 4.5-oz. cans of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian date “2903,” “1343” and “2893”
  • 4-oz. bags of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian dates “0853” and “0863”
  • 4.5-oz. bags of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian dates “0853,” “0863” and “0873”
  • 1.75-lb. packs of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian dates “0813,” “1083,” “1093,” “1433,” “1443,” “1573,” “1723,” “2063,” “2163,” “2173,” “2183” “2243,” “2253,” “2183,” “2533,” “2543,” “2553,” “2563,” “2673,” “2683,” “2693” and “2703”
  • 3.2-oz. bags of “Wise Company, Wise Blend” with the Julian dates “0953” and “0993”
  • 2-oz. packs of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian dates “2073,” “2063,” “2163,” “2603,” “2613” “2903,” “2913,” “2953,” “2963,” “3173” and “3183”
  • 3.2-oz. packs of “Wise Company, Wise Blend” with the Julian dates “1133,” “1143,” “1153,” “1163” and “1353”
  • 1.17-lb. bags of “OvaEasy UGRA Boil-in-Bag, Reduced Cholesterol” with the Julian dates “3129,” “3130” and “3137”
  • 1.75-lb. packs of “OvaEasy” with the Julian dates “2163,” “2173,” “2183” and “2243”
  • 4.5-oz. packs of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian dates “2563,” “2623” and “2633”
  • 1.1-lb. packs of “OvaEasy UGR H&S” with the Julian dates “3173,” “3174,” “3175,” “3177,” “3178,” “3179,” “3180,” “3181,” “3182,” “3183,” “3194,” “3195,” “3196,” “3197,” “3198” and “3199”
  • 1.1-lb. packs of “G0213-A UGR H&S” with the Julian dates “3186,” “3187,” “3189,” “3190” and “3191”
  • 128-gram packs of “Egg Crystal, Sea Salt and Pepper” with the Julian date “3033”
  • 128-gram packs of “Egg Crystal, Sausage and Herb” with the Julian date “3043”
  • 1.17-lb. packs of “OvaEasy UGR-A Reduced Cholesterol” with the Julian dates “3141,” “3142,” “3148,” “3149” and “3150”
  • 3-oz. packs of “eFoods Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian dates of “3173” and “3183”

The dried egg products were produced between Feb. 28, 2013, and Feb. 8, 2014, and bear the establishment number “INSPECTED EGG PRODUCTS PLANT 21493G” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection.

These products were shipped nationwide and to U.S. military installations in the U. S. and abroad, as well as to Canada.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Julie Cuffee, customer service representative, at (360) 413-7269, ext. 101.

More

Expert warns 'financial stupidity' is part of growing older

Aging Boomers at high risk of making "stupid" investments, author says

Baby boomers saving for retirement are often confronted with a confusion array of financial choices to secure their future. That security can depend in par...

PhotoBaby boomers saving for retirement are often confronted with a confusing array of financial choices to secure their future. That security can depend in part on making smart choices.

If you haven't saved enough for your particular point in life you may feel added pressure to score higher returns. That's when it's easy to make mistakes, choosing a risky investment or, worse still, falling for a scam.

Even under the best of circumstances aging Boomers are likely to make “stupid” mistakes with their nest eggs, according to Lewis Mandell, professor emeritus of finance and managerial economics in the University at Buffalo School of Management.

When you “get stupid”

Mandell's latest book, “What to Do When I Get Stupid: A Radically Safe Approach to a Difficult Financial Era,” serves as a warning to the Baby Boom generation. It lists many of the mistakes this aging generation makes and offers the reasons why.

For the average person, says Mandell, financial reasoning usually peaks around age 53 and then declines sharply, especially after age 70. At that age people are more vulnerable to pitches for risky investment schemes and serious lapses of financial judgment.

To make things even more dicey for seniors, as they age they become more confident in their own financial judgment, even though the reverse is true. It's bad enough that markets have been so volatile over the last decade, seniors must also guard against their own poor decisions, he says.

"Radically" conservative

Mandell argues for, by his own admission, a radically conservative approach when it comes to seniors investing their assets. One of the best places to put it, he says, is in a home that is owned free and clear, unincumbered by a mortgage.

“A fully paid, age-in-place home may be the single best investment we can make,” Mandell said. “By staying at home, we can keep ourselves or our loved ones out of expensive nursing homes, which can quickly deplete our assets.”

Mandell also stresses the importance of securing a lifelong income, well before financial reasoning declines. Investments in dividend-producing blue chip stocks and bond funds are not conservative enough for Mandell.

Champion of annuities

To make investments idiot-proof, he recommends a single-premium immediate fixed annuity, even though annuities have low returns and high fees. But the money gets locked up while producing a modest income stream and won't get lost investing in the latest pyramid scheme. A little income, he argues, is better than no income.

In addition, the book re-evaluates common practices, such as retaining a financial advisor or moving to a continuing care retirement community, and casts doubt on the effectiveness of long-term care insurance. And for Boomers, the time to consider these issues is now.

“It is therefore wise of us to take future financial decision-making out of our own hands while we still have the mental capacity to do so,” Mandell writes.

A number of seniors and their financial advisors might question Mandell's emphatic and somewhat rigid advice to give in to inevitable financial incompetence. However, if his book serves only as a warning to approach late-in-life financial management with extreme care it may serve as a useful public service.

Elder abuse

A big part of the problem, of course, are the high-pressure sales pitches that are often directed at seniors. The damage these schemes and scams have done to older consumers has been well documented.

For example, a 2009 survey by AARP found that 10% of Americans over age 55 had accepted an invitation to attend a free lunch or dinner at which there would be an investment seminar or presentation. These “free lunches” are notorious for pushing risky investments.

Seniors are often victims of the so-called “affinity scam,” in which an individual in the victim's church or civic group offers a “can't miss” investment opportunity. Because the victim knows and trusts the offerer, they throw caution to the wind.

A recent study by Investor Protection Trust found 20% of Americans 65 or older had “been taken advantage of” in the purchase of an investment, either through high fees or outright fraud. 

More

Fitbit wearers itching for relief

Rash and burns afflict fitness fans wearing the activity trackers

Fitbit says it's "dedicated to helping people lead healthier, more active lives" by selling them wristbands that measure their physical activity, except wh...

More

Groupon and President Hamilton troll America for President's Day

And Groupon's CEO sold off a lot of his shares in the company

The guy responsible is either a complete ignoramus or a slyly brilliant genius...

Photo
"President" Alexander Hamilton

The Groupon marketing guy who decided to celebrate President's Day by offering a $10 off deal in honor of "President Alexander Hamilton" (whose picture graces the American ten-dollar bill) is either a complete ignoramus or a slyly brilliant genius — we can't pin it down more precisely than that.

Did you read that last sentence and say “Wait a minute — Hamilton was never the president!”? That's how many would-be Groupon customers reacted when they read the Groupon release offering ten bucks off local deals costing more than $40, and saying “The $10 bill, as everyone knows, features President Alexander Hamilton -- undeniably one of our greatest presidents and most widely recognized for establishing the country's financial system.”

Twitterer and political journalist Chris Moody concluded “Groupon is obviously trolling here,” especially since “My friend wrote to Groupon to say that Alexander Hamilton was never president. Their spokesperson responded 'We respect everyone's beliefs. You're certainly entitled to your opinion'.”

If you subscribe to the Groupon/genius/trolling theory, then this is a presumably brilliant marketing move based on the old cliché “All publicity is good publicity.” You can even say we fell for it ourselves, since we wrote this article here.

On the other hand, we don't know of any market-research surveys suggesting that publicity associating yourself with dumbassery or other negative things actually increases your bottom line — if that were the case, then the 1970s-era “Ayds” weight-loss candy wouldn't have gone out of business in the 1980s after various media reports ensured that all readers-of-news would associate “weight loss” and “AIDS.”

In other Groupon news, stock-market observers report that last week, on Feb. 13, Groupon's CEO sold 454,166 of his shares of Groupon stock. If our rudimentary knowledge of stock-market investing is correct, “selling stock” is not something millionaires do if they think the stock will be more valuable in the future than it is now.

Of course, we're just ordinary everyday working folks, not brilliant financial geniuses like former U.S. President Alexander Hamilton who, as Groupon historians will tell you, was “undeniably” the most important U.S. leader since President Morgan Freeman saved the Earth from that giant asteroid.

More

Harvard study links chemicals to autism, ADHD, dyslexia

Pesticides, flame retardants, fluoride, other chemicals implicated

Why is it that so many children are afflicted with autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other developmental disabilities? Some people speculate that it's simply that...

PhotoWhy is it that so many children are afflicted with autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other developmental disabilities? Some people speculate that it's simply that the disorders are diagnosed more often than they once were but a study by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai suggest otherwise.

The study suggests that toxic chemicals may be to blame and researchers say a new global prevention strategy to control the use of toxic substances is urgently needed. The report was published online in Lancet Neurology.

"The greatest concern is the large numbers of children who are affected by toxic damage to brain development in the absence of a formal diagnosis. They suffer reduced attention span, delayed development, and poor school performance. Industrial chemicals are now emerging as likely causes," said Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at HSPH.

The report follows up on a similar review conducted by the authors in 2006 that identified five industrial chemicals as "developmental neurotoxicants," or chemicals that can cause brain deficits. The new study offers updated findings about those chemicals and adds information on six newly recognized ones, including manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos and DDT (pesticides), tetrachloroethylene (a solvent), and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardants).

The study outlines possible links between these newly recognized neurotoxicants and negative health effects on children, including:

  • Manganese is associated with diminished intellectual function and impaired motor skills
  • Solvents are linked to hyperactivity and aggressive behavior
  • Certain types of pesticides may cause cognitive delays

Silent pandemic

Grandjean and co-author Philip Landrigan, Dean for Global Health at Mount Sinai, also forecast that many more chemicals than the known dozen or so identified as neurotoxicants contribute to a "silent pandemic" of neurobehavioral deficits that is eroding intelligence, disrupting behaviors, and damaging societies.

But controlling this pandemic is difficult because of a scarcity of data to guide prevention and the huge amount of proof needed for government regulation. "Very few chemicals have been regulated as a result of developmental neurotoxicity," they write.

The authors say it's crucial to control the use of these chemicals to protect children's brain development worldwide. They propose mandatory testing of industrial chemicals and the formation of a new international clearinghouse to evaluate industrial chemicals for potential developmental neurotoxicity.

"The problem is international in scope, and the solution must therefore also be international," said Grandjean. "We have the methods in place to test industrial chemicals for harmful effects on children's brain development—now is the time to make that testing mandatory."

More

12 top family car choices for 2014

Kelley Blue Book places more sedans than minivans on the list

Buying a family car doesn't necessarily mean buying a minivan. Not in 2014, when there are varied options for an individual family's needs.There are seda...

 

Photo
2014 Honda Accord (Photo credit: Honda)

Buying a family car doesn't necessarily mean buying a minivan. Not in 2014, when there are varied options for an individual family's needs.

 

There are sedans, crossovers and SUVs to consider as well. Kelley Blue Book (KBB) recently consulted families themselves to help compile a list of the best family vehicles from among the 2014 models.

"More than just a list, Best Family Cars 2014 is an all-new section of KBB.com that outlines in detail how well America's top family vehicles withstand their daily routines,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book's website, KBB.com. “The vehicles making the cut are winners in the areas of safety, comfort, driving performance, room for child seats, cargo space, rear-seat entertainment, and other family-friendly features."

Honda placed four models in the top 12; Nissan had three, Chevrolet had two and Ford, Subaru and Toyota had one each.

Honda

The Honda Accord is a mid-sized sedan that might not be top-of-mind when you think of a family car. Yet the families in the KBB survey say it's a popular choice. It comes standard with a four-cylinder engine but a V-6 is available as an option. The car wins praise for its drivetrain and gas mileage, delivering an estimated 27/36 mpg city/highway.

The Honda CR-V is a compact SUV that wins praise for its roomy interior and its large number of standard features that are options on many other models – a back-up camera, for example. Honda says the CR-V is one of its more popular models and the car recently was named US News' Best Compact SUV for the Money. Reviewers praise its comfortable ride in both standard front-wheel drive and optional all-wheel-drive packages.

The Honda Odyssey appears to have been designed with families in mind. The minivan's top trim level features a built in vacuum, to clean up after the smaller passengers. Otherwise, the Odyssey has received only minor exterior and interior updates from the popular 2013 model. Though it tends to be one of the more pricey minivans on the market it offers impressive fuel economy.

The Honda Pilot is a family-friendly SUV, carrying up to eight people while offering wallet-pleasing fuel economy. KBB editors says the pilot is “a near-ideal choice for reliable and efficient transportation for families and their gear.”

Nissan

The Nissan Altima is another sedan winning high praise as a family car. The 2014 model has been updated in ways that may appeal especially to younger families. A new Apps-based music and navigation system is the most tangible result of the redesign, along with premium materials used throughout the cabin. It's easy on the budget as well, with a lower entry point than most of its competitors.

The Nissan Pathfinder turned heads with its updated 2013 model. The 2014 model continues the appeal. As a softened crossover SUV, KBB finds the 7-passenger Pathfinder “one of the most competent models” in its highly competitive class.

If you like the Nissan Sentra but prefer it in a more family-friendly compact SUV package, the Nissan Rogue may deserve a look. The Rogue is powered by a fuel-stingy 4-cylinder engine, offers an available all-wheel-drive (AWD) system and starts under $24,000.

Chevrolet

The Chevrolet Impala has a long history as a family car, reaching back to a time when all sedans were “full-sized.” The 2014 Impala gets back into the family car category, not just by offering a roomy interior but budget-friendly fuel economy as well, thanks to the mild-hybrid Eco model.

The Chevy Traverse belongs in the crossover sport-utility class that many families find appealing. Since its 2009 debut, the Traverse has provided an alternative to both traditional SUVs and the minivan. Reviewers give the Traverse high marks for its eight-passenger capacity and better fuel economy than a traditional SUV.

Ford

The exterior design of the Ford Flex recalls an earlier automotive era. It looks like a boxy stationwagon from the 1970s. But it's a stylish update, winning high marks for both form and function. It offers seating for six or seven, a range of trim levels and prices, available all-wheel drive, and a turbocharged V6 EcoBoost engine.

Subaru

The Subaru Forrester has been a popular vehicle with young families for over a decade. In 2014 it gets a major redesign. All models come with all-wheel-drive standard and greater passenger/cargo space.

Toyota

The Toyota Sienna is only the second minivan on the list of 12 family vehicles, suggesting it meets a pretty high standard. According to KBB editors, it “rises above the minivan mob” by offering a nearly unbeatable combination of models, options, strong resale value and styling. It's V-6 engine offers more power than its rivals but is still a fuel efficient ride.

While there were only two minivans making the list there are three sedans. Nerad says that was a surprise, but perhaps shouldn't have been.

"Once upon a time before minivans and SUVs, sedans were the primary family car of choice, and this year's list proves the modern sedan still makes a fine family car with the 2014 Honda Accord, Chevrolet Impala and Nissan Altima all landing a spot among the best," he said.

More

The 2014 tax filing season is off and running

The filing of returns is exceeding the 2013 pace

Taxpayers aren't wasting any time filing their 2013 federal income tax returns, outpacing filings for the same time last year. The Internal Revenue Servi...

PhotoTaxpayers aren't wasting any time filing their 2013 federal income tax returns, outpacing filings for the same time last year.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says that, as of Feb. 7, it's received 27.3 million returns -- up 2.5% from the same time last year. Electronically filed returns account for almost 96% of those filed so far this year.

Taxpayers, either through tax preparers or from their home computers, have e-filed more than 26 million returns -- up almost 4% from the same time a year ago. As of Feb. 7, taxpayers have filed more than 13 million returns from home computers – a year-over-year increase of 14.7%.

Rising refunds

Refunds are up for 2014, with almost 19.5 million issued this year -- an increase of more than 18% over last year. The average refund as of Feb. 7 is $3,317, up 4.% from 2013. (Refund averages generally have higher dollar values early in the filing season than later in the year.)

Most refunds are directly deposited into taxpayer accounts. Just over 87% all refunds issued were directly deposited as of Feb. 7.

2014 FILING SEASON STATISTICS

Cumulative statistics comparing 2/8/13 and 2/7/14

Individual Income Tax Returns:

2013

2014

% Change

Total Receipts

26,589,000

27,249,000

2.5

Total Processed

18,811,000

26,945,000

43.2

 

 

 

 

E-filing Receipts:

 

 

 

TOTAL          

25,121,000

26,081,000

3.8

Tax Professionals

13,456,000

12,699,000

-5.6

Self-prepared

11,665,000

13,382,000

14.7

 

 

 

 

Web Usage:

 

 

 

Visits to IRS.gov

90,706,865

89,683,640

-1.1

 

 

 

 

Total Refunds:

 

 

 

Number

16,424,000

19,459,000

18.5

Amount

$52.059 billion

 

$64.546 billion

 

24

Average refund

$3,170

$3,317

4.6

 

 

 

 

Direct Deposit Refunds:

 

 

 

Number

15,457,000

16,976,000

9.8

Amount

$50.214 billion

 

$55.815 billion

 

11.2

Average refund

$3,249

$3,288

1.2

More

What you don't know about heart disease could kill you

Survey finds most of us are clueless about heart disease

If you ask someone which they fear more, cancer or heart disease, chances are they'll express a greater fear of cancer. But when it comes to U.S. deaths, s...

PhotoIf you ask someone which they fear more, cancer or heart disease, chances are they'll express a greater fear of cancer. But when it comes to U.S. deaths, slightly more people die each year of heart disease than cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Maybe it's because we just take our hearts for granted, we don't seem to give them much thought. The Cleveland Clinic recently commissioned a survey and found that 74% of Americans expressed no fear of dying of heart-related illness.

Doctors at the clinic say the study reveals other reasons why most people don't give heart disease a second thought. It turns out a lot of the things we think we know about our hearts and the way they function is simply wrong.

Unaware of symptoms

For example, 70% of Americans are unaware of all the symptoms of heart disease, even though two out of three of those surveyed have or know someone who has heart disease. More distressing to the doctors, only 30% correctly identified unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances and jaw pain as all being signs of heart disease – just a few of the symptoms that can occur.

“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in this country, so it’s disappointing to see that so many Americans are unaware of the severity of not taking action to prevent heart disease, or how exactly to do so,” said Steven Nissen, M.D., Chairman of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “This is a disease that can largely be prevented and managed, but you have to be educated about how to do so and then incorporate prevention into your lifestyle.”

Quiz

Here's a quiz to see what you know – and don't know – about your heart:

  1. True or False? Adding fish oil to your diet can prevent heart disease. False. Though fish oil has a number of health benefits, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic say preventing heart attacks isn't one of them.
  2. True or False? Getting the right amount of daily vitamins reduces your risk of a heart attack? False again. Studies have shown that vitamins have almost no effect on heart health, and some can be detrimental. If you got this one wrong, don't feel bad – 61% of the people in the survey did as well.
  3. Which is a bigger source of sodium in the diet, cheese or bread? The answer is bread. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed got that one wrong.
  4. True or False? Some people are genetically predisposed to develop heart disease. False. Even though 59% of those in the survey believe a heart disease gene could be the key to determining their predisposition to the condition, no such gene has been identified. Family history is an important risk factor but not for genetic reasons.

Important symptoms

PhotoIf you are at risk of heart disease, it's important to know the symptoms of a heart attack. Boston area cardiologist Dr. Larry Weinrauch says people should be sensitive to unusual pain and discomfort.

Pain caused by an inadequate supply of oxygen to the heart can occur in many different forms but its location is usually consistent. Most of the time patients describe a tightness, heaviness or constriction in the mid-chest or upper abdomen that appears to also be present in one or the other shoulder. They may also feel discomfort in the upper biceps, elbow and wrist.

The reason for the pain is the heart is not getting enough oxygen to the parts of the body that need it. The central nervous system responds by signaling discomfort. Doctors say people at risk need to be sensitive to that discomfort and seek medical attention.

“There is no single way to prevent heart disease, given that every person is different,” Nissen said. “Yet there are five things everyone should learn when it comes to their heart health because they can make an enormous difference and greatly improve your risk: eat right, exercise regularly, know your cholesterol, blood pressure, and body mass index numbers, do not use tobacco, and know your family history. Taking these steps can help lead to a healthier heart and a longer, more vibrant life.”

More

Tesla sales are red hot but so are some of its cars

The latest Tesla fire occurred in a Toronto garage, the cause so far unknown

Teslas are shown in New York after a recent cross-country road rally. (Photo credit: Tesla)Tesla is sort of the Justin Bieber of cars -- popular, youth...

Photo
Teslas are shown in New York after a recent cross-country road rally. (Photo credit: Tesla)

Tesla is sort of the Justin Bieber of cars -- popular, youthful and nice-looking but something of a troublemaker. Or perhaps we should say "disruptor" as that's the term Silicon Valley types prefer for an innovative product that shakes up existing business models.

The Tesla is wowing its fans at the same time it's getting under the skin of regulators, worrying the sober-minded and annoying the hell out of competitors.

First, the bad news. Another Tesla S caught fire, this time while parked in a garage in Toronto. Reports say the car wasn't plugged in, although it had just returned from a trip. Tesla says it doesn't yet know what started the fire but says it wasn't the battery or any of the other usual suspects.

"The Model S continues to have the best safety track record of any vehicle in the world," Tesla said in a statement, continuing to model its corporate communications on the Beatles' claim of being "more popular than Jesus." 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating a couple of earlier fires, a process that can drag on indefinitely. The Toronto fire, like an earlier one in Mexico, is out of NHTSA's jurisdiction.

More popular than ...

Photo
Tesla CEO Elon Musk

While Tesla may not yet be more popular than Jesus, its sales records are, pardon the term, blazing lately, at least in California, the nation's largest auto market and its longtime automotive trend setter.

Tesla was a solid third among luxury car brands in California in 2013, trailing only Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Electric cars sell better in California than anywhere else in the country, partly because of the state's tough clean air laws but also because of a population that attaches a lot of status to anything that's seen as green. Hybrid sales accounted for nearly ten percent of new car sales in California last year, compared to less than four percent nationwide.

In the non-luxury segment, another electrified car -- Toyota's Prius model line -- was the best selling marque in the state last year. 

Buckeye rebellion

But don't try to buy a Tesla in Ohio. Auto dealers there are getting out the lanterns and pitchforks in their drive to block Tesla's factory store model, pushing legislation that would explicitly block factory-owned stores.

Tesla recently got licenses for stores in Cincinnati and Columbus, sending dealers' mental tachometers into red-line territory. 

Tesla currently has a thin network of factory stores, where consumers can go to kick the tires and then order a car if they want, but there is no middleman involved. It's like going to an Apple store and buying a MacBook instead of going to Best Buy and buying an Asus laptop. 

Or, like a MacBook, you can just order a Tesla online. Who needs a dealer? 

This middleman rub-out is known as disintermediation and is the model most high-tech businesses pursue. Think Amazon, not Barnes & Noble. Disruption, remember?

So far, Tesla has been working state by state to get its nose under the tent, with mixed success. It's a long slog any way you look at it. Nearly every state has a dealer franchise law that needs to be modified or overturned if Tesla stores are to become ubiquitous.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, not a notably patient fellow, has shown signs of discomfort with the slow progress of the struggle and has said he may seek federal legislation jettisoning those pesky state laws. Or maybe a Supreme Court ruling, if only the courts would work a little more quickly.

That's the one drawback to disruption. The disruptees tend to drag their feet.

More

Lululemon takes a stand against secondhand sales and even higher prices

Because "Lululemon" and "dislike of elevated prices" go together like orange juice and toothpaste

If you're a fan of Lululemon workout clothes, be warned: the company does not want you selling your clothes secondhand...

PhotoIf you're a fan of Lululemon workout clothes, be warned: the company does not want you selling your clothes secondhand on eBay, and if they catch you doing it, they might ban you from making further online purchases from Lululemon.commeaning that henceforth, if you want to buy workout gear, your only choices will be to "visit a Lululemon store in person."

Or you could just patronize any of the other thousand or so workout-clothes companies in existence and pay up to 95 percent less than what Lululemon charges.

When BusinessInsider reporter Amy Lutz wrote about the phenomenon, she noted: “The policy is frustrating to customers because of Lululemon's stringent return policy, which only allows returns of unworn merchandise within 14 days of purchase, even if the item was a gift.”

A frequent Lululemonade drinker named Kristin told Lutz that she was banned from Lululemon's online store after she sold a tank top on eBay; Kristin and her husband both have closets “bursting with” Lululemon gear and love every bit of it, she gushed, but the tank top simply did not fit.

"They said we are welcome to shop in their stores, and in that case, I should have donated the item," Kristin told Lutz. "But part of the appeal of purchasing Lululemon products is that it does hold resale value."

As for Lululemon, its FAQ page now says “We do not support the re-sale of new product, especially if it is at an elevated price point.” Which surely surprises nobody, for if anyone's going to take a stand against the practice of selling ordinary clothes at absurdly elevated price points, who better than a company that charges 68 bucks for a single standard-size B-to-C-cup sports bra?

More

Stay away from chicken tartare; salmonella's still a thing

Proper cooking protects you from salmonella contamination

In an opinion piece for Food Safety News, Dr. Mel Kramer mentions a modest proposal for new USDA food-labeling guidelines: require all chicken to carry the...

PhotoIn an opinion piece for Food Safety News, Dr. Mel Kramer mentions a modest proposal for new USDA food-labeling guidelines: require all chicken to carry the warning “Caution. Improper cooking of this product may be hazardous to your health.”

The potential dangerousness of undercooked chicken is pretty well-known (in the old cartoon sitcom King of the Hill, there was a one-off joke about how very ill the Hank Hill character became, that time his not-too-intelligent wife tried making “chicken tartare”), yet this knowledge does not prevent periodic salmonella outbreaks.

For example: in October 2013, Costco had to recall a large quantity of rotisserie chicken products sold in southern California, due to salmonella contamination.

Chicken containing salmonella is still safe to eat, provided it is cooked in its entirety to a sustained temperature of 165 degrees (which is fatal to pathogens like salmonella). Presumably the rotisserie chickens had some slightly cooler internal pockets offering shelter to salmonella germs, though of course, even undercooked chicken wouldn't be a problem if there were no salmonella present in the first place.

Unfortunately, according to Kramer, up to 50 percent of all federally inspected poultry tests positive for salmonella; given current technological limits, completely eradicating salmonella from the pre-cooked chicken supply would not be possible without irradiating all of it, currently a highly controversial notion.

What to do

Unless and until this happens, however, you can protect yourself by following basic food-handling and preparation guidelines:

  • Keep all chicken refrigerated or frozen.
  • Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator or microwave.
  • Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods, to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Wash working surfaces (including cutting boards), utensils, and hands after touching raw meat or poultry.
  • Cook thoroughly to achieve an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Keep hot foods hot, and refrigerator or discard all leftovers immediately.
More

Fake funeral notices: the latest despicable online scam

Don't click on that bereavement notice

By now it's safe to say: there is no low to which Internet scammers won't sink. ...

PhotoBy now it's safe to say: there is no low to which Internet scammers won't sink. The latest proof of this theory is the latest Internet scam: hackers seeking to put malware on people's computers do so by sending out fake funeral notices to grieving friends and families.

The US government's online-scam information website, OnguardOnline.gov, warned readers of this particularly loathsome scheme on Feb. 12: “Fake funeral notice can be deadly—for your computer.”

The scam is simple: would-be victims get what appears to be a legitimate bereavement notice from a funeral home. When you click on the offered link, presumably to get information about the time and place of a given memorial service, you are instead routed to a foreign domain that installs all sorts of nasty malware onto your computer.

Unfortunately, online safety requires a level of vigilance that would be considered “unhealthy paranoia” in most offline contexts. For example: in real life, if a close friend or relative walks up to you and says “I'm in a bit of trouble; can you lend me a few bucks to tide me over?” it's unreasonable to think “This isn't really my close friend or relative; this is an impostor and master of disguise seeking to cheat me out of my money!”

But online, when a close friend or relative sends you an email asking for money, there's a very good chance it's actually a total stranger who hacked into somebody's email account and is now trying to scam everybody in the email address book. (That particular scam even has its own name – the “Grandma scam” – which in turn is merely a subset of what OnguardOnline dubs “impostor scams.”)

If you are grieving the recent loss of a loved one, protecting yourself from thieving scammers is the last thing on your mind. Unfortunately, the scammers are counting on that.

More

Facebook "sponsored stories" settlement under attack

Protections afforded children are "hollow" and "meaningless," critics argue

Last August, Facebook ponied up $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that challenged the unwitting use of consumers' names and photos in advertisin...

PhotoLast August, Facebook ponied up $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that challenged the unwitting use of consumers' names and photos in advertising and "sponsored stories."

The settlement amounted to about $15 each for members of the class and a few dollars to lawyers and non-profit groups, but a growing chorus of groups representing consumers, children, parents and privacy advocates are challenging the settlement, saying it doesn't go far enough to protect Facebook's 1.2 billion users. 

One group that was to receive $290,000 announced it was rejecting the money because the protections under the settlement were "hollow" and "meaningless."

In a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, several parents, on behalf of their teenaged children, called on the court to vacate the settlement, which permits Facebook to use kids’ pictures in ads without the consent of their parents, a practice that is illegal in seven states.

“This settlement authorizes Facebook to continue doing what California and six other states specifically prohibit by law: use children’s images for advertising without their parents’ consent,” said Scott Michelman, an attorney with Public Citizen, which is representing the parents in challenging the settlement. The other states are Florida, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Teens are unprepared

Margaret Becker of Brooklyn, N.Y., is one of the parents Public Citizen represents. She explained, “I’m fighting this settlement because Facebook shouldn’t be permitted to use my teenage daughter’s image for profit without my consent. The Internet compromises children's privacy in many ways that we parents must grapple with. But this settlement lets Facebook make my daughter a shill and leaves me powerless to stop it.”

“Teens are unprepared to address the consequences of Facebook’s practice of creating ads with profile information but without their knowledge," said Hudson Kingston, legal director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which is filing an amicus brief supporting the challenge to the settlement. "If this settlement stands, teens face a serious loss of their privacy and a damaged reputation continuing into adulthood. Research proves teens are not ready for this kind of exposure, and parents’ consent for commercial appropriation is a necessary protection.”

Money rejected

Meanwhile, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) announced that it was rejecting $290,000 it was to receive under the settlement.

“While we always understood the ... agreement as a compromise, we came to understand that it’s worse than no settlement,” said CCFC Director Susan Linn, “Its purported protections are largely illusory, and it will undermine future efforts to protect minors on Facebook. We could do a lot of good with $290,000, but we cannot benefit from a settlement that we now realize conflicts with our mission to protect children from harmful marketing.”

The case began with a lawsuit filed in 2011 by some Facebook users over the use of their images in ads without their consent and the use of their children’s images without parental consent.

If a user “likes” a company that advertises on Facebook, or if she “checks in” (identifies her location) at a restaurant, or uses an application associated with that company, her image may appear next to an ad for the business on Facebook, with text suggesting that she endorses that business. It is unlikely the children or the parents will know it’s going to happen until after it has occurred.

Under a settlement that a federal district court approved in August, Facebook will include new language in its terms of service stating that users under age 18 “represent” that their parents consented to the use of the children’s names and images in advertising. The settlement does not require Facebook to obtain consent from the parents.

“The capture and republication of teen postings by Facebook is a pernicious assault on their rights to decide where their messages should go,” said Professor Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, which is representing another challenger to the settlement.

More

Air pollution can be deadly for the unborn

Florida study finds stepping outside may be as bad as inhaling cigarette smoke

Everybody knows by now that cigarette smoke is bad news for pregnant women and their unborn child. But a new University of Florida study finds that steppin...

PhotoEverybody knows by now that cigarette smoke is bad news for pregnant women and their unborn child. But a new University of Florida study finds that stepping outside for a breath of fresh air may not be the answer.

The UF researchers found that outside air may be just as toxic to pregnant women —if not more so — as cigarette smoke, increasing a mother-to-be’s risk of developing deadly complications such as preeclampsia.

“Fetal development is very sensitive to environmental factors,” said Xiaohui Xu, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology in the colleges of Public Health and Health Professions and Medicine. “That is why we wanted to do this research. Hypertension (high blood pressure), in particular, is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, causing a lot of problems for the mother and fetus, including preterm delivery.”

Increased risk

The researchers compared birth data with Environmental Protection Agency estimates of air pollution, finding that heavy exposure to four air pollutants led to a significantly increased risk for developing a high blood pressure disorder during pregnancy. The research was published in the January issue of the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

The pollutants include two specific types of fine and coarse particulate matter, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. According to the EPA, particulate matter includes acids, dust, metals and soil particles. These inhalable particles are released from industries and forest fires and can form when gases react with each other in the air. Sulfur dioxide is emitted from power plants and industries. Most carbon monoxide is produced by car exhaust.

To gain a better understanding of how environmental factors may play a role in increasing the risk of developing hypertension during pregnancy, the researchers examined data from women who gave birth in Jacksonville, Fla., between 2004 and 2005 and environmental data from their communities. The sample included more than 22,000 pregnant women.

They gauged how much pollution the women were exposed to throughout their pregnancies using data the EPA gathered daily to measure the levels of several pollutants.

Among the sample, 4.7 percent developed a hypertensive disorder during pregnancy. Exposure to air pollutants throughout the first two trimesters of pregnancy increased women’s risk of developing one of these conditions, Xu said. 

On the basis of these findings, the researchers say more air pollution control is necessary to prevent dangerous complications in pregnant women and babies. Although more studies are needed, the researchers hypothesize that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy may affect a woman’s normal pattern of blood pressure.

More

Tough states have fewer teen tanners using indoor salons

The stronger the law, the less likely teens are to tan indoors

Concerns that indoor tanning may be partially responsible for the continued increase in melanoma, the most fatal of skin cancers, has led some states to pl...

PhotoConcern that indoor tanning may be partially responsible for the continued increase in melanoma, the most fatal of skin cancers, has led some states to place multiple restrictions on youth access. It appears to be working.

A according to a study published online by the American Journal of Public Health, female high school students in states with indoor tanning laws -- particularly those with parental permission laws and age restrictions -- were less likely to engage in indoor tanning compared than students in states without any laws.

A close look at the laws

Researchers led by Dr. Gery Guy at CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, analyzed results of the 2009 and 2011 National Youth Risk Behavior Surveys of U.S. high school students in grades 9-12. Among high school students, 23.4% of girls and 6.5% of boys engaged in indoor tanning.

Dr. Guy and his colleagues looked at state indoor tanning laws, and the relationship between teens’ tanning behaviors and state laws. System access laws included warning statements and signs, limited advertising about the benefits of tanning, mandatory protective eyewear, operator-required incident reports, and penalties for violations. Youth access laws included parental permission for minors and age restrictions.

The odds of teen-age girls engaging in indoor tanning in states with any indoor tanning laws were 30% less than those in states without any indoor tanning laws. The odds of female students in states with systems access, parental permission, and age restriction laws engaging in indoor tanning were 42% less than those in states without any laws. Laws were not associated with the prevalence of indoor tanning for teen-age boys.

States with laws that included systems access, parental permission, and age restrictions had the lowest rates of indoor tanning among teen girls. This is the first study to look at the impact of such laws on indoor tanning rates.

“State indoor tanning laws, especially age restrictions, may be effective in reducing indoor tanning among our nation’s youth,” said Dr. Guy. “We need to address the harms of indoor tanning, especially among children. Indoor tanning laws can be part of a comprehensive effort to prevent skin cancers and change social norms around tanned skin.”

More laws in the works

The numbers of states implementing new laws -- particularly age restrictions -- have increased substantially in recent years. Currently, six states (California, Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Vermont), restrict indoor tanning among people under 18 years of age. A number of states are either considering new youth access legislation or strengthening existing laws.

The World Health Organization recommends that no one under the age of 18 years use indoor tanning, and the Food and Drug Administration has proposed reclassifying indoor tanning devices from low- to moderate-risk devices. The proposed order advises against the use of indoor tanning among minors aged younger than 18 years.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Approximately 3.5 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancers are treated annually, and over 60,000 melanomas are diagnosed annually.

While most cancers have been on the decline since the 1990s, melanomas have been on the rise, especially among young women.  

More

Government's auto parts price-fixing probe expands

Bridgestone faces $425 million fine

Though consumers may have been unaware of it, the prices they paid for cars and some after-market parts may have been higher than necessary. A Justice Depa...

PhotoThough consumers may have been unaware of it, the prices they paid for cars and some after-market parts may have been higher than necessary. A Justice Department investigation now stretching into its third year has ensnared another auto parts manufacturer.

Tokyo-based Bridgestone Corp. has entered a guilty plea and agreed to pay a $425 million criminal fine for its role in a conspiracy to fix prices of automotive anti-vibration rubber parts installed in cars sold in the United States and overseas.

The parts were sold to Toyota, Nissan, Fuji Heavy Industries, Suzuki, and Isuzu, possibly increasing the cost to consumers who purchased those vehicles.

Spreading investigation

In addition to the criminal fine, Bridgestone also has agreed to cooperate with the department’s ongoing auto parts investigations which, at this point, has quietly spread throughout the industry.

Back in October 2011 – early in the probe -- Bridgestone pleaded guilty and paid a $28 million fine for price-fixing and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations in the marine hose industry, but did not disclose at the time of the plea that it had also participated in the anti-vibration rubber parts conspiracy. Bridgestone’s failure to disclose this conspiracy was a factor in determining the $425 million fine, Justice Department officials said.

The investigation of the auto parts industry first came to public attention in September 2011, when the U.S. disclosed a $200 million fine and jail sentences for a number of Japanese executives at companies that produced automotive wire harnesses. Since that time the investigation has continued, with the FBI looking into reports of illegal price fixing for original automotive parts – what is referred to as the OEM market – as well as after-market parts, which consumers buy at retail automotive stores.

Overpriced parts

The investigation concludes sales of wire harnesses, anti-vibration rubber parts, electronic control units, fuel senders, heater control panels, instrument panel clusters, speed sensor wire assemblies, and seatbelts.

So far, Bridgestone and 25 other companies have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty in the department’s ongoing auto parts investigation. The companies have agreed to pay a total of more than $2 billion in criminal fines, with charges filed against 28 people.

“The Antitrust Division will take a hard line when repeat offenders fail to disclose additional anticompetitive behavior,” said Brent Snyder, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division’s criminal enforcement program. “Today’s significant fine reaffirms the division’s commitment to holding companies accountable for conduct that harms U.S. consumers.”

Dividing up the pie

The government maintains Bridgestone and its co-conspirators held meetings and conversations in which they talked about what they would bid on contracts, where they would set prices and even which companies would bid on which contracts.

After this exchange of information, the government says Bridgestone submitted bids and prices that reflected those agreements and sold and accepted payments for automotive anti-vibration rubber parts at prices higher than justified – in the words of investigators, “collusive and noncompetitive.” The collusion took place for eight years, from at least January 2001 until at least December 2008.

More

Toyota recalls Tacoma, Lexus RX350 and Rav4 vehicles

An electrical glitch could result in the illumination of various warning lights

Toyota is recalling 261,114 model year 2012 and 2013 Toyota Tacoma, Lexus RX350, and model year 2012 Toyota Rav4 vehicles. In the affected vehicles, the...

PhotoToyota is recalling 261,114 model year 2012 and 2013 Toyota Tacoma, Lexus RX350, and model year 2012 Toyota Rav4 vehicles.

In the affected vehicles, the brake system contains a brake actuator that adjusts the fluid pressure of each wheel cylinder. An electrical component within the actuator may experience an increased resistance resulting in the illumination of various warning lights, including those for the Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system, Antilock Brake System (ABS), and Traction Control system.

If this occurs, these systems could become inoperative, reducing the directional control assistance, increasing the risk of a crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and Toyota and Lexus dealers will update the software for the Skid Control electronic control unit, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

More

Toyota announces massive recall of Prius vehicles

Transistors in the inverter module may become damaged from high operating temperatures

Earlier this week, ConsumerAffairs reported that Toyota was preparing to recall 700,00 model year 2010 through 2014 Prius vehicles. In the affected vehicl...

PhotoEarlier this week, ConsumerAffairs reported that Toyota was preparing to recall 700,00 model year 2010 through 2014 Prius vehicles.

In the affected vehicles, the Intelligent Power Module (IPM) inside the inverter module (a component of the hybrid system) contains transistors that may become damaged from high operating temperatures.

That recall has now been announced.

Toyota will notify owners and dealers will update the software for both the motor/generator control electronic control unit (ECU) and the hybrid control ECU, free of charge.

If an owner experiences a failure of the inverter before the vehicle receives updated software, the dealer will replace the inverter assembly with a new one at no charge. The recall is expected to begin in late February 2014.

Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

More

Need tax help fast? Here's how

You don't have to put up with heavy call volume

Heading into the Presidents Day weekend, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding taxpayers that this holiday period typically marks one of the busi...

PhotoHeading into the Presidents Day weekend, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding taxpayers that this holiday period typically marks one of the busiest weeks of the tax filing season for its phone lines.

But you don't have to worry about getting through. There are alternatives to help find answers to commonly asked tax questions.

The agency has several easy-to-use, online tools where you can check the status of your refund, request a copy of a tax transcript or get an answer to tax questions around the clock.

“The entire week of the Presidents Day holiday marks a peak time in the number of calls to the IRS,” said Commissioner John Koskinen, “and we encourage taxpayers to visit IRS.gov as the best place to get quick help.”

Due to limited resources, the IRS has changed the services provided at the toll-free telephone number and IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers. To save time and find answers faster, a good place to start is 1040 Central for a quick overview. The IRS Services Guide also provides a list of resources.

What to do

Here are some of the most common reasons people call the IRS over Presidents Day holiday week and the faster and easier ways to get answers:

Find your refund

More than 90% of refunds are issued in less than 21 days. IRS representatives will not provide individual refund information before then. Taxpayers can easily find information about their refund by using the Where’s My Refund? tool. It’s available on IRS.gov and on the Smartphone app, IRS2Go. Where’s My Refund? provides taxpayers with the most up-to-date information available. Taxpayers must have information from their current, pending tax return to access their refund information. Refund information is updated just once a day, generally overnight, so there’s no need to check more than once a day.

Getting a W-2

Employers are required to send to their employees a Form W-2, Statement of Earnings, by January 31. Employees should allow enough time for their form to be mailed to their address of record. If form W-2 is not received by mid-February, employees should first contact their employer to ensure they have the correct address on file.

After exhausting all options with the employer, employees may contact the IRS and we will send a letter to the employer. However, it's a good idea to call after Presidents Day week to avoid long wait times.

Need a copy of your tax return or transcript?

Taxpayers can easily order a return or transcript on the IRS.gov website, the IRS2Go Smartphone app or by mailing a completed Form 4506-T. More information on these options is available at IRS.gov.

Ordering a tax return or tax transcript does not mean a taxpayer will get a refund faster. The two are not connected in any way. IRS transcripts are often used to validate income and tax filing status for mortgage, student and small business loan applications and to help with tax preparation.

Answers to tax law questions

Questions about what filing status means, whether to file a tax return or who can be claimed as a dependent? Simply do a keyword search on IRS.gov; use Publication 17, the annual, searchable income tax guide; or the IRS Tax Map, which allows search by topic or keyword for single-point access to tax law information by subject. Taxpayers can even call TeleTax at 1-800-829-4477 for recorded information on a variety of general and business tax topics.

Can’t pay a tax bill?

For taxpayers whose concern isn’t a refund, but rather, a tax bill they can’t pay, the Online Payment Agreement tool can help them determine in a matter of minutes whether they qualify for an installment agreement with the IRS. And those whose tax obligation is even more serious, the Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier can help them determine if they qualify for an offer in compromise, an agreement with the IRS that settles their tax liability for less than the full amount owed.

Tax-preparation help

Free tax return help is available nationwide from volunteers and on IRS.gov with Free File. Local community partners operate roughly 13,000 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) sites nationwide. Find a location nearby by searching “Free Tax Help” on IRS.gov.

IRS Free File is offered by 14 tax software companies that make their brand-name products available for free to the 70 percent of taxpayers who earned $58,000 or less last year. Free File Fillable Forms is available for households whose earnings are more than $58,000 and are comfortable preparing their taxes.

More

MyNicKnaxs recalls Reduce Weight Fruta Planta

The products contain an active pharmaceutical ingredient not listed on the label

MyNicKnaxs is recalling all lots of Reduce Weight Fruta Planta, which contain contain 10.2 mg of Phenolphthalein, an active pharmaceutical ingredient not d...

PhotoMyNicKnaxs is recalling all lots of Reduce Weight Fruta Planta, which contain contain 10.2 mg of Phenolphthalein, an active pharmaceutical ingredient not declared on the label.

No illnesses or injuries have been reported to the company in connection with these products.

Phenolphthalein was once an ingredient used in over-the-counter laxatives but, because of concerns of carcinogenicity, is not currently approved for marketing in the U. S., making Reduce Weight Fruta Planta an unapproved new drug.

Customers should immediately discontinue use.

Consumers with questions should contact MyNicKnaxs at 386-337-8142 Monday - Friday, 2pm - 7:00 pm, EDT, or by email at nicnaxs@yahoo.com.

More

Where's your refund? You can check online

IRS would like you to use their tool instead of calling

Taxpayers eager to receive their tax refund are no doubt busy preparing their returns and many have already filed. Now, when does that refund arrive?It d...

PhotoTaxpayers eager to receive their tax refund are no doubt busy preparing their returns and many have already filed. Now, when does that refund arrive?

It depends. If you filed electronically, you have taken the first step in speeding up your refund. If you have set up direct deposit to receive your money you have taken a second important step. You should get your money within three weeks.

Where's My Refund?

For those who want to track the progress of their refund the IRS offers an online tool called Where's My Refund? You can access it from your desktop or three the free mobile app IRS2GO. 

According to the IRS, Where's My Refund will provide the most up to date information available about your refund. The tool is updated once a day, usually overnight, so you don’t need to check more often.

The IRS says nine out of 10 refunds are issued within 21 days of receiving it electronically. However, it's possible your tax return may require additional review and take longer. If so, the tool will help you stay in touch with your progress.

Almost immediately

You can use Where's My Refund to start checking on the status of your return within 24 hours after the tax agency has received your e-filed return or four weeks after you mail a paper return. Where’s My Refund has a tracker that displays progress through three stages:

  • Return Received
  • Refund Approved and
  • Refund Sent

Trying to talk with an IRS representative about your refund will be difficult. For starters, the agency doesn't make representatives available if it has been fewer than 21 days since you filed electronically or less than six weeks since mailing a paper return.

Personalized information

The information you receive through Where's My Refund is personalized, based on the processing of your return. The tool will provide an actual refund date as soon as the IRS processes your tax return and approves your refund. The IRS produced the video below to walk you through the process of using the tool.

Speed estimates are just that – estimates. Sometimes your status may change from “return received” to “refund approved” in just a few days, but it could take longer and a date will not be provided until your refund has gotten a gree light. However, if the tool shows that your return is in the “received” stage, then it is currently being processed.

There are factors that could cause your process to slow down. According to the IRS, mistakes in returns, returns that are incomplete or ones flagged for further review – usually not a good sign – are common reasons your refund could be slow in coming to you.

More

Federal court agrees First Amendment applies to online expert advice

The case involves a Texas licensing body's attempt to silence a veterinarian

Dr. Ron Hines & friendsA federal judge in Texas has ruled in favor of Dr. Ron Hines, a veterinarian whose license was suspended for giving pet ow...

Photo
Dr. Ron Hines & friends

A federal judge in Texas has ruled in favor of Dr. Ron Hines, a veterinarian whose license was suspended for giving pet owners online advice about their pets. The ruling potentially clears the way for professionals around the country to provide information and advice -- free or for a fee -- via the Internet. 

“It shouldn’t be illegal for a veterinarian to give veterinary advice,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes, who represented Hines. “That includes advice given over the Internet.  This case will help ensure that the Internet can be used to communicate expert advice better, faster and more cheaply than has ever been possible.”

In her ruling, Senior Judge Hilda Tagle wrote that, “In sum, the Court finds that the First Amendment applies to the professional regulations at issue in this case, and that the regulations, as applied to Hines’s professional speech, are subject to heightened scrutiny[.]” 

Hines, 69, has used the Internet since 2002 to help pet owners, often for free. On his website, 2ndChance.info, he has helped people who received conflicting diagnoses from their local vets, who lived in parts of the world without access to trustworthy veterinarians, and who could not afford traditional veterinary care.

As far as is known, no one has complained about his advice. But in 2013,  the Texas Veterinary Board shut Hines down, suspended his license, fined him and made him retake portions of the veterinary licensing exam.

Why? It turns out that in Texas, as in a majority of states, it is a crime for a veterinarian to give advice over the Internet without having first physically examined the animal.   

Limits on state power 

PhotoHines’ case raises a First Amendment conflict that has never been clearly resolved -- namely, does the government's power to license occupations trump free speech? 

Although it will take a Supreme Court decision to settle the question once and for all, the Texas ruling is, for now, precedent-setting.

“The court’s ruling sets a very high bar for Texas to justify its blanket ban on online veterinary advice,” said Institute for Justice-Texas Executive Director Matt Miller.  “The court squarely rejected the government’s argument that these are merely restrictions on conduct, and recognized the law for what it is:  a content-based restriction on speech.  People don’t check their First Amendment rights at the door when they enter a licensed occupation.”

A victory in this lawsuit could unleash a revolution in the way information is shared across the U.S. and around the world.  Dr. Hines’ challenge has implications for all speaking professions across the country, as well as the countless people worldwide who benefit from them, an Institute for Justice spokesman said.

The Institute for Justice is a libertarian public-interest law firm headquartered in Arlington, Va.

More

PayPal president upset that PayPal employees don't use PayPal

David Marcus tells workers to use the app, or quit

What is it about tech-company executives and their tendency to conflate “nagging” with “producing a product that people actually want to use?”...

PhotoWhat is it about tech-company executives and their tendency to conflate “nagging” with “producing a product that people actually want to use?”

Last November, for example, a couple of high-ranking Yahoos embarrassed themselves by criticizing rank-and-file Yahoo employees who agreed with the countless Yahoo customers who've said Yahoo's “new and allegedly improved Gmail-knockoff” email system is absolutely awful.

(Disclaimer: we always thought that if you're a business whose customers hate your new product offering, changing that one product might be easier than changing all your customers' minds. This might explain why we've never been hired as a high-ranking tech executive.)

David Marcus, president of PayPal, takes his nagging farther than any Yahoo exec dreamed of doing. Marcus discovered that PayPal employees haven't been using the new PayPal app to pay for purchases, which upset him so much he suggested they find new jobs. Here's what he wrote in an employee-wide email sent on Feb. 10:

“It’s been brought to my attention that when testing paying with mobile at Cafe 17 last week, some of you refused to install the PayPal app (!!?!?!!), and others didn’t even remember their PayPal password. That’s unacceptable to me, and the rest of my team, everyone at PayPal should use our products where available. That’s the only way we can make them better, and better.”

PhotoThe “only” way? Listening to actual customer feedback somehow isn't an option? Maybe not, since PayPal customers aren't likely to be as enthusiastic about PayPal as Marcus would prefer. A properly enthusiastic PayPal employee is one who violates various federal and state-level anti-hacking laws to force companies to accept PayPal (and give PayPal a cut of the proceeds), whether said companies want to or not:

“Employees in other offices hack into Coke machines to make them accept PayPal because they feel passionately about using PayPal everywhere. I don’t see these behaviors here in San Jose.”

Lazy bums. Sounds like the San Jose PayPallers' collective work ethic is almost as dismal as that of our own colleagues: we're all allegedly passionate about consumer journalism here, yet none of us hack into other websites to make them accept our articles. Apparently this is a character flaw.

“In closing, if you are one of the folks who refused to install the PayPal app or if you can’t remember your PayPal password, do yourself a favor, go find something that will connect with your heart and mind elsewhere.”

So if you want to work for PayPal, it's not enough that you complete your assigned tasks in an effective and timely manner, nor is it even enough that you use PayPal for your everyday non-business purchases.

No.

You must set aside any notion that PayPal is merely a “job,” or even your “career”; PayPal is, like joining the priesthood or a nunnery, a calling which must “connect with your heart and mind” in addition to your smartphone app sending three percent of all purchases to expand the profit margin of the PayPal company.

More

Researchers: pornography addiction isn't real

Though self-identified porn addicts are probably sincere

Two studies released on Feb. 12 seem to confirm what cynics have long suspected—while most healthy adults have a sex drive, which in turn inspires some to...

More

Comcast buying Time Warner Cable, will cut 3 million customers loose

Lengthy regulatory review is likely to slow completion of the deal

Like the very hungry caterpillar, Comcast appears determined to eat everything in its path. Already the nation's largest cable operator, Comcast now says i...

PhotoLike the very hungry caterpillar, Comcast appears determined to eat everything in its path. Already the nation's largest cable operator, Comcast now says it will buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion.

This comes just a few months after it completed its purchase of television network and movie studio NBCUniversal.

Comcast Cable Service Feb. 13, 2014, 8:35 p.m.
Consumers rate Comcast Cable Service

What this means for consumers in general is that an already dominant company will now have an even firmer grasp on TV and cable shows and movies and the distribution networks that deliver them.

For 8 million Time Warner Cable customers, it means they're about to become Comcast-- a/k/a XFINITY -- customers. This may be a good thing, as Comcast is generally regarded as maintaining high-quality Internet and TV services while Time Warner Cable is not on anyone's list of greatest companies ever. 

Another 3 million Time Warner Cable customers will be cast adrift, landing in the welcoming arms of Cablevision, Cox or Charter, which had made its own run at Time Warner.

The 8 million new customers will bring Comcast's total customer base to about 30 million. But the company insists consumers -- and, more significantly, regulators -- shouldn't worry. It will still have less than 30 percent of the market for pay TV subscribers, it insists.

Time Warner Feb. 13, 2014, 8:35 p.m.
Consumers rate Time Warner

"The combination of Time Warner Cable and Comcast creates an exciting opportunity for our company, for our customers, and for our shareholders," said Brian L. Roberts, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Comcast Corporation. 

Subscribers shouldn't worry unduly just yet. The acquisition faces a lengthy regulatory review before much of anything actually happens.

More

HOA faces wrongful-death suit over Dumpster fatality

Alleges lack of basic safety guidelines regarding automatic trash compactor

The widow of the Illinois man accidentally crushed to death in a trash compactor last summer is now suing the homeowners' association...

PhotoThe widow of an suburban Chicago man accidentally crushed to death in a trash compactor last summer is now suing the homeowners' association of her condominium complex for wrongful death, pain and suffering.

Roger Mirro, who was legally blind, sought the key to his condominium's Dumpster last summer, hoping to retrieve a cell phone he thought he might have thrown down a garbage chute in his apartment building. 

According to the complaint filed by his widow, Donna, on the last day of his life, Mirro asked one of the condo association's board members for the key to the Dumpster. The board member handed over the keys, but “failed to warn Roger of the extreme danger that he would face it he accessed the Dumpster and triggered the electronic eye that activates the stationary industrial compactor which was attached to the Dumpster.”

Hence the problem: this was no ordinary passive Dumpster, but one outfitted with an automatic trash compactor. Even worse, according to the lawsuit, “Once activated, there was no control or safety device within the loading chamber of the compactor which would enable Roger to halt the progress of the hydraulic ram.”

Donna Mirro's lawsuit alleges that the condominium association failed to warn anybody about the dangers of the compactor, and especially its automatic-trigger electric eye.

More

New label makes it easier to identify auto recall notices

It's the latest attempt to improve recall effectiveness

Federal safety regulators want car owners to pay attention to recall notices that arrive in the mail. They say too many of the notices are being ignored ...

Photo

Federal safety regulators want car owners to pay attention to recall notices that arrive in the mail. They say too many of the notices are being ignored when they arrive in piles of other mail.

So the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has decreed that starting February 18, all manufacturers must use a distinctive label on the required mailings that notify owners of recalled vehicles or equipment.

"Recalls only work if consumers are aware of them," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "This new label will allow consumers to quickly recognize recall notices mailed to their homes so they can act quickly to get their vehicles, child restraints, tires, or other motor vehicle equipment fixed."

The use of the new label is strictly limited to only the recalling manufacturers. This measure will help protect consumers from misleading sales and marketing materials that mimic, in their wording and presentation, legitimate safety recall alerts from manufacturers that can lead owners to purchase costly products and services that have no connection to a legitimate safety recall.

As always, NHTSA will monitor for inappropriate materials and will work closely with state and other federal authorities, including the FTC, to address enforcement issues.

The new label on safety recall notices is one of many new tools designed to improve recall notification for consumers.

New Android app

NHTSA also launched an app for Android devices that will provide users free access to key safety information, including recalls and safety performance. The new Android SaferCar app, which joins the iOS app for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch released last year, helps consumers find recall information and up-to-date vehicle safety information, search the agency's 5-Star Safety Ratings for vehicles by make and model, and subscribe to automatic notices about vehicle recalls, among other features.

The app also makes it simple to submit complaints to NHTSA regarding possible safety problems with a particular vehicle. App users receive important news and information from NHTSA on tire and child seat recalls as well.

More

Well child visits may make child unwell

Study finds 700,000 flu-like illnesses following doctor visits

Routine children's visits to the doctor for check-ups and vaccinations -- so-called well-child visits -- are important but a study finds they're also the s...

PhotoRoutine children's visits to the doctor for check-ups and vaccinations -- so-called well-child visits -- are important but a study finds they're also the source of hundreds of thousands of flu-like infections each year.

"Well child visits are critically important. However, our results demonstrate that healthcare professionals should devote more attention to reducing the risk of spreading infections in waiting rooms and clinics," said Phil Polgreen, MD, MPH, lead author of the study. Polgreen noted that infection control guidelines already exist.

"To increase patient safety in outpatient settings, more attention should be paid to these guidelines by healthcare professionals, patients, and their families," he said. 

In the study, researchers from the University of Iowa used data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's (AHRQ) Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to examine the healthcare trends of 84,595 families collected from 1996-2008. 

They found an increased risk of flu-like illnesses in children and family members within two weeks of the visits. This risk translates to more than 700,000 potentially avoidable illnesses each year, costing more than $490 million annually. The study was published in the March issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, the journal of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

The authors found that well-child visits for children younger than six years old increased the probability of a flu-like illness in these children or their families during the subsequent two weeks by 3.2 percentage points.

In a commentary accompanying the study, Lisa Saiman, MD, notes, "The true cost of flu-like illnesses are much higher since only a fraction result in ambulatory visits and many more cases are likely to result in missed work or school days. Furthermore, these flu-like illness visits are associated with inappropriate antimicrobial use."

The authors stress the importance of infection prevention and control in ambulatory settings, suggesting pediatric clinics follow recommended guidelines that include improving environmental cleaning, cough etiquette, and hand hygiene compliance.

"Even with interventions, such as the restricted use of communal toys or separate sick and well-child waiting areas, if hand-hygiene compliance is poor, and potentially infectious patients are not wearing masks, preventable infections will continue to occur," said Polgreen.

More

Dogs used to encourage seniors to exercise

In Florida study, dogs take part in exercise classes

Pet therapy isn't new. For years aging specialists have known that having a dog, or spending time with a dog on a regular basis, is good for a senior's ove...

PhotoPet therapy isn't new. For years aging specialists have known that having a dog, or spending time with a dog on a regular basis, is good for a senior's overall mental and physical health.

So when it came to an effort to encourage seniors to take part in daily exercise, a group of graduate students at Florida State University asked themselves -- would elderly residents of a retirement home be more inclined to exercise if dogs worked out along with them?

Doctoral students Ashley Artese and Brandon Grubbs enlisted residents of the Westminster Oaks Retirement Community in Tallahassee to take part in their experiment. They designed an exercise program that included dogs, recruited from the ranks of therapy pets.

“Between each exercise, we try to leave a little bit of time so people can pet the dogs and talk to the handlers,” said Artese, a first-year doctoral student in exercise science.

Is canine contact helpful?

The senior volunteers were split into two groups of seven. One exercised with dogs trained by Tallahassee Memorial Hospital’s pet therapy program. The other group exercised without them. The researchers hope to learn whether the contact with the animals was of any value.

They're measuring that value by looking at blood pressure, mood, physical ability and whether participants stick with the program. Three times a week, Artese and Grubbs take both groups through an exercise program. Walking around the room, biceps curls with light dumb bells and resistance band stretching are all a part of the routine.

The dogs are not just spectators. When the group lifts their dumbbells, one of the dogs – Bogey – picks up a plastic one. When the human participants walk around the room, the dogs walk along with them.

“Exercise classes are not something I call fun, but with the dogs, it is fun,” said Mary Stevenson, a Westminster Oaks resident who is participating in the study.

In fact, Stevenson admitted she was not all that interested in taking part in the exercise class until she heard about her canine workout partners. That, she said, prompted her and her husband to sign up.

Long history

Pet therapy is now a well-established practice, used mostly with children and the elderly. The earliest reported use of the concept occurred in the late 18th century in England at a facility for the mentally ill. The presence of the animals was believed to be an effective tool for socialization.

Sigmund Freud is reported to have had a number of dogs, including one that was always present during in ground-breaking sessions of psychoanalysis. He is said to have noted the presence of the animal helped his subjects to relax.

According to the Mayo Clinic, animal-assisted therapy is a growing field in health care. Dogs and other animals are increasingly being enlisted to help patients recover from serious health problems, such as cancer or heart disease.

More commonly, however, animals are employed to provide comfort and enjoyment for nursing home residents. An organization called Pet Therapy combines puppies and children for visits to retirement homes and says it has recorded positive effects on residents' physical, emotional and social interactions. The groups says the presence of pets has been shown to reduce blood pressure, increase sensory stimulation and inspire a sense of purpose.

Logical next step

To the Florida State researchers, having dogs become workout partners for seniors is a logical next step. At the end of this program, the professors and doctoral students will review the data to see how it might translate into a large-scale study.

“This will inform some larger studies we’re going to pursue,” Schmitt said.

If it proves effective the researchers say dogs may also be prove to be good gym companions for people struggling with obesity.

More

Victims in DVD vending scam get justice

The FTC is returning an additional $1.8 million to consumers

More than 400 consumers who fell victim to a scam that promoted video rental machines as a business opportunity will be finding something in the mail. Th...

PhotoMore than 400 consumers who fell victim to a scam that promoted video rental machines as a business opportunity will be finding something in the mail.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is sending out refund checks totaling more than $1.8 million, which -- combined with checks mailed by on two prior occasions -- will increase the total funds returned to consumers to more than $5.7 million. The funds now being returned to consumers came from the sale of property obtained by the FTC in its victory over the last remaining defendant in the case.

“People often pour everything they have into building a business,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, “and the FTC is pleased that the scammers who deceived these investors have been held accountable to the tune of more than $5.7 million.”

The scam

According to the FTC American Entertainment Distributors -- five companies and five individuals -- deceived consumers into paying $28,000 to $37,500 each for video rental vending machines by telling them they could expect to earn as much as $80,000 a year. In fact, the FTC says, the defendants had no reasonable basis for their claims and all investors lost money.

The checks must be cashed on or before April 14, 2014. The amount of the refunds will vary depending on the amount lost by each consumer; more than 90% of the checks will be for more than $2,000.

Consumers who have questions, or who have not yet filed a complaint with the FTC and wish to do so, should call the Redress Administrator, Gilardi & Co. LLC, toll free, at 1-866-271-9147.  

More

Winter weather whacks retail sales

Car sales hit the skids while gasoline sales rise

Consumers it appears were reluctant to venture out into the cold in January, sending retail sales skidding 0.4%. It's the second straight drop following ...

PhotoConsumers -- it appears -- were reluctant to venture out into the cold in January, sending retail sales skidding 0.4%. It's the second straight drop following the revised decline of 0.1% the month before. Still, sales were up 2.6% from January 2013.

Among the big losers was car sales, which dropped 2.1% last month. Excluding that volatile category, overall retain sales were flat. Other losers included sporting goods -1.4%, clothing -0.9% and personal care items -0.6%.

Among sectors enjoying sales increases were gasoline stations +1.1%, building materials +1.4%, electronics +0.4% and food and beverage +0.2%.

The complete January report is available on the Census Bureau website.

PhotoJobless claims

In a separate report, the government says first-time applications for unemployment benefits rose by 8,000 during the week ended February 8 -- to a seasonally adjusted total of 339,000. That's 4,000 more than the consensus estimate of economists surveyed by Briefing.com.

While the extreme winter weather may have played a role in the volatility seen in the past few weeks, analysts there hasn't been much deviation from the trend of 330,000-340,000, which normally support payroll growth in the 190,000 jobs per month range.

The 4-week moving average came in at 336,750 -- up 3,500 on the week. The moving average is considered a more reliable indicator of the labor market.

The full report can be found on the Labor Department website.

More

Roth Farms recalls "Curly Parsley"

The parsley has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella

Roth Farms of Belle Glade, Fla., is recalling its “ bunched Curly Parsley” because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism whi...

PhotoRoth Farms of Belle Glade, Fla., is recalling its “ bunched Curly Parsley” because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

The recalled product, which was distributed in South Florida, comes in a 3 Wire Wooden Crate with the lot # AG01GN on the outside tag.

Production of the product has been suspended pending an investigation into the source of the problem.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-561-996-2991

More

General Motors recalls Chevy Cobalts and 2007 Pontiac G5s

The ignition switch could move out of the run position

General Motors is recalling 619,122 model year 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt, and 2007 Pontiac G5 vehicles. In the affected vehicles, the weight on the key...

Photo
2005 Chevrolet Cobalt

General Motors is recalling 619,122 model year 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt, and 2007 Pontiac G5 vehicles.

In the affected vehicles, the weight on the key ring and/or road conditions or some other jarring event may cause the ignition switch to move out of the run position, turning off the engine. If the key is not in the run position, the air bags may not deploy if the vehicle is involved in a crash, increasing the risk of injury.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the ignition switch, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Chevrolet at 1-800-222-1020 or Pontiac at 1-800-762-2737. GM's number for this recall is 13454.

More

Toyota readies big Prius recall

Software update will correct a glitch that can cause a transistor to overheat

Tesla fanboys became incoherent when a software update was described as a recall but guess what? Toyota is preparing to recall nearly two million of its fl...

Photo
Photo credit: Toyota

Tesla fanboys became incoherent when a software update was described as a recallbut guess what? Toyota is preparing to recall nearly two million of its flagship Prius hybrids worldwide to correct a software glitch and no one is arguing with the terminology.

The software’s current settings could result in higher thermal stress in certain transistors, possibly damaging them. If this happens, various warning lights will illuminate and the vehicle can enter a failsafe mode, Toyota said, adding that "in rare circumstances, the hybrid system might shut down while the vehicle is being driven, resulting in the loss of power and the vehicle coming to a stop."

In the United States, the recall will affect about 700,000 model year 2010-2014 Prius vehicles and, combined, approximately 260,000 model Year 2012 Toyota RAV4, 2012-2013 Toyota Tacoma, and 2012-2013 Lexus RX 350.

Skid control

Toyota will update the motor/generator control ECU and hybrid control ECU software on certain model year 2010-2014 Prius vehicles.

Toyota will also update the skid control ECU software on certain 2012 Toyota RAV4, 2012-2013 Toyota Tacoma, and 2012-2013 Lexus RX 350 models in order to address an electronic circuit condition that can cause the Vehicle Stability Control, Anti-lock Brake, and Traction Control functions to intermittently turn off. If these systems are off, standard braking operation remains fully functional, the company said.

Toyota said it has received no reports of accidents or injuries associated with either condition.

As part of these recalls, owners of affected vehicles will receive a software update free of charge. Owners will be notified by first class mail when the software updates are available at their dealers.

What to do

Customers can get more informatio at www.toyota.com/recall or by calling the Toyota Customer Experience Center at 1-800-331-4331. Lexus customers can visit www.lexus.com/recall or call the Lexus Customer Satisfaction Center at 1-800-25-LEXUS (1-800-255-3987).

As always, customers should either use the contact information above or wait to receive their recall notice by mail. Dealers will not have specific information until the recall campaign begins. 

More

New Gmail plug-in tells stalkers where you live

"Streak" informs Gmail users when and where their emails were opened

Many consumers have complained about Google's practice of "reading" emails to select appropriate advertisements and a new plug-in may make those complaints...

Photo
Streak's home page

Many consumers have complained about Google's practice of "reading" emails to select appropriate advertisements and a new plug-in may make those complaints more intense.

The new Gmail plug-in called Streak informs Gmail users exactly when emails they sent were opened  — and where the recipients were when they opened them. Meanwhile, the lucky recipients of these Gmail emails aren't informed of how much personal information they're broadcasting to the email sender.

Streak did not immediately respond to ConsumerAffairs' request for comment. But in fairness, it should be noted that Streak bills itself as a business app -- saying it provides "CRM (customer relationship management) in your inbox."  As the Streak site puts it:

You already live in your inbox; shouldn't your CRM?

Streak lets you keep track of all your deals right from your inbox. We let you group emails from the same customer together into one view and push that customer through your pipeline. When a new email comes in, you'll have all the context you need.

That's fine but the Streak application would also be fantastically useful for stalkers or stalker wannabes — if you don't know where your ex is now living, sending her a Gmail message and waiting to see where she opened it is much easier and cheaper than, say, hiring a private detective or getting a job with the NSA.

When "On The Media" blogger PJ Vogt tested the Streak application, here's what he found:

I sent Alex, my colleague, an email, and Streak was able to get me within about five minutes of our workplace. 

It's not hard to imagine a situation where this could be badly abused. People who've been stalked, threatened, or harassed, for instance, should be able to open an email without unwittingly giving away their location.

So what can you do if you don't want to be tracked? Well, you can start by not allowing images to autoload in your email client. Also, in my (very rudimentary) tests I found that Gmail, for whatever reason, offered better protection than my office's Exchange email client. (With Gmail, I only found out when Alex had opened up my email. It was the Exchange client that gave away his neighborhood.)

Of course, the fact that Gmail seems to offer its own account-holders some protection against this is scant comfort to people who do not have Gmail accounts, yet can now be effortlessly be stalked by anyone who does.

Google's unofficial corporate motto is “Don't be evil.” This is excellent advice, though maybe they should take it a step further – “Don't help others be evil, either.” Abolishing stalker apps would be a good start.

More

Flappy Bird followup: Trojan apps, eBay cancellations and more

Flappy Bird is gone, yet keeps laying problematic eggs

Sequels are almost never as good as the originals. This story is no exception...

PhotoSequels are almost always worse than the originals, so maybe it's not surprising that so far, the various followups to the Flappy Bird story have proven vastly less inspiring than the first tale.

The capsule summary of the original story is this: the immensely popular game app Flappy Bird disappeared from app stores last weekend. Game developer Dong Nguyen said he pulled the plug on it because the game proved too addictive. So he chose to walk away from up to $50,000 per day in ad revenue rather than keep his addictive app out there.

However, Flappy Bird addicts desperate for a fix could still get one via various Flappy knockoffs, including Flappy Whale, Flappy Plane, Flappy Angry Birds, and others.

Not so nice

That was a nice story. Here are the less-nice followups: first, the TrendLabs security blog discovered that the void left by the real Flappy Bird takedown is being filled by malicious Flappy Bird clones that are “Premium Service Abusers” — programs that send automatic messages to “premium” numbers, resulting in unwanted charges on your phone bill. (And, as always, many of these programs also steal whatever personal information is in your phone, too.)

Second, claims that Dong Nguyen has given up $50K in daily ad revenue aren't quite accurate, either — though Flappy Bird is no longer available for new players to download, the 50 million or so people who've downloaded it already are still playing and still generating ad revenue. (In fairness to Nguyen, though, he is not the one who claimed to be giving up $50K per day in ad revenue; that number was an estimate produced by outside observers.)

Smartphone owners with the legitimate Flappy Bird app on their phones tried cashing in by selling their phones on eBay, and received bids as high as $99,000 — until eBay pulled the plug on all such auctions, claiming that smartphones may not be sold on eBay unless they're restored to their original factory settings.

More

Too much debt can kill a romance

Couples today have a sharp eye on the bottom line

In recent years couples – young couples in particular – have begun to put more stock in financial responsibility as a relationship criteria. A...

PhotoIn recent years couples – young couples in particular – have begun to put more stock in financial responsibility as a relationship criteria. A low credit score, it turns out, can be a deal breaker.

A 2013 survey by a division of Experian found 96% of women listed “financial responsibility” as an important trait in a mate. Ninety-one percent of men found it important. 

Now, a new survey commissioned by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) has found that large amounts of debt can be toxic for romance. According to the survey, 37% of respondents would not marry someone until their debt was repaid. Ten percent would marry but not help pay the debt while seven percent would take the somewhat extreme action of breaking off the relationship.

While love and romance have long been grounded in physical attraction, money is beginning to hold greater sway. Undoubtedly the tough economic times that have prevailed since the 2008 financial crisis have played a big role. But it isn't just about money.

Indicator of other problems

“When considering the negative ramifications of debt, people may not realize that the associated problems can go beyond credit scores and interest rates. Debt can also have serious, long-lasting personal implications,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. “It appears that debt overrides love, at least temporarily, when deciding to move forward in a relationship. It’s money over marriage.”

The increasing role of debt in the decision to take a casual relationship to the next level may be particularly true with young adults who emerge from college with tens of thousands of dollars in credit card and student loan debt. If two young people start their working lives, each with credit card and student loan debt, the total could easily be six figures. It's like paying a mortgage but not getting a house.

Since nearly half of all marriages in America now end in divorce, it's easy to conclude that financial strain is at least a contributing factor. Cunningham says it's no surprise that people are reluctant to start off on the wrong financial foot.

Negative consequences

PhotoHaving too much debt can make it harder to qualify for loans. Having a low credit score – perhaps because of late payment on that debt and other bills – just compounds the problem. With a low credit score it can be difficult to qualify for a home mortgage or buy a car, rent an apartment, obtain insurance or land a job.

It's true that both people in a couple have individual credit scores. Your mate's score doesn't affect yours, except in one important respect.

At some point both of you, as a couple, may need to pool your financial resources in order to take out a loan for a major purchase. In this case, one person’s low credit score may torpedo the approval, or if the lender extends credit, it may be at a higher interest rate.

However, there is a way to improve the credit of one party in the couple. If the person with good credit opens an individual account, then adds the person with a low credit score, that low score will rise, as long as the account is kept current and the debt balance is not excessive.

Love and money

In the end, says Cunningham, love and money cannot be separated. Daily life is all about making financial decisions. If one party makes good decisions on a regular basis while the other makes bad decisions, discord is certain to follow.

Talking about money early in the relationship is one way to make sure it goes to the next level, if that's what both people want. That means sharing all sources of income, existing debt obligations, credit reports and scores, along with personal preferences about decisions involving loaning money to family and friends, or attitudes toward spending and saving.

More

Experts say TSA scanners extra-vulnerable to security flaws

Bypassing the login screen and inserting false images very easy to do

Anything controlled by a computer can be hijacked by a hacker—some more than others...

PhotoAnything controlled by a computer can be hijacked by a hacker, so it's no surprise that the various scanners which the Transportation Security Administration uses to inspect the luggage and bodies of would-be flyers have this same vulnerability — though it is surprising to learn just how vulnerable they are.

On Feb. 11, Dark Reading digital magazine, covering the Kaspersky Security Analyst Summit in Costa Rica, noted that the “Rapiscan” machines deployed in various American airports can easily be manipulated by outside attackers or TSA insiders in order to display false images. From a security perspective, this focused more on the possibility that terrorists might doctor images to make dangerous items appear innocuous.

However, in light of TSA's frequent history of false positives — to date, TSA agents have confiscated everything from a GI Joe doll's four-inch plastic rifle to a toddler's toy Star Wars lightsaber for presumptive national security reasons— it is perhaps of equal concern that TSA scanners could be manipulated to make innocuous items appear dangerous.

Though all computers are at risk of manipulation, the Rapiscan machines are designed to be more vulnerable than most. At the Kaspersky summit, Billy Rios, who is Qualys' director of threat intelligence, said that “The worst-case scenario is someone manipulates this in a way that the operator doesn't know a threat is in the bag ... by design, the [Rapiscan] software allows you to manipulate the image for training [purposes] … The TSA requires this super-dangerous feature on all of these baggage scanners.”

Rios reported some other embarrassing vulnerabilities he and other security experts discovered in various TSA systems -- for example, they could bypass login screens by merely typing a user name with a special character, which was then read as an error and resulted in an automatic login.

As Rios said: “These bugs are actually embarrassing. It was embarrassing to report them to DHS -- the ability to bypass the login screen. These are really lame bugs.”

More

Researchers unlock the secrets of earwax. Yes, earwax

Where have you been, who are you, what have you eaten? Your earwax knows

You might not think that earwax is very interesting but researchers at the Monell Center in Philadelphia would disagree. They've found that plain old earwa...

PhotoYou might not think that earwax is very interesting but researchers at the Monell Center in Philadelphia would disagree. They've found that plain old earwax just may be an overlooked source of significant personal information, just like -- you know -- underarm odors.

"Our previous research has shown that underarm odors can convey a great deal of information about an individual, including personal identity, gender, sexual orientation, and health status," said study lead author George Preti, PhD, an organic chemist at Monell. "We think it possible that earwax may contain similar information."

Preti's interest in earwax was piqued by the finding that a small change in a gene known as ABCC11 is related both to underarm odor production and also to whether a person has wet or dry earwax.

It turns out that individuals of East Asian (e.g., Chinese, Korean and Japanese) and Native American descent have a form of the ABCC11 gene that codes both for dry-type earwax and also for reduced underarm body odor compared to other ethnic types, who typically produce a wet-type ear wax and greater body odor.

Sweat glands

You may not have thought much about this but earwax, scientifically known as cerumen, is a mixture of secretions from specialized sweat glands with fatty materials secreted from sebaceous glands.

To explore whether earwax has a characteristic odor, the researchers collected earwax from 16 healthy men: eight Caucasian and eight of East Asian descent. Each sample was placed into a vial, which was gently heated for 30 minutes to promote release of airborne molecules known as volatile organic compounds ( VOCs), many of which are odorous.

The analysis revealed 12 VOCs were consistently present in the earwax of all the men. However, the amount of VOCs varied as a function of the subject's ethnic background, with Caucasians having greater amounts of 11 of the 12 VOCs than East Asians.

"In essence, we could obtain information about a person's ethnicity simply by looking in his ears. While the types of odorants were similar, the amounts were very different," said study lead author Katharine Prokop-Prigge, a Monell chemist.

The researchers suspect that the fatty nature of earwax makes it a likely repository for lipid-soluble odorants produced by certain diseases and the environment.

Prokop-Prigge points out that at least two odor-producing metabolic diseases (maple syrup urine disease and alkaptonuria) can be identified in earwax before they can be diagnosed using traditional techniques such as blood and urine analysis.

"Odors in earwax may be able to tell us what a person has eaten and where they have been," said Preti. "Earwax is a neglected body secretion whose potential as an information source has yet to be explored."

The study is being published in the Journal of Chromatography B.

More

Colorado sues magazine telemarketers

Seniors allegedly wound up owing thousands of dollars for magazines they didn't want

Colorado has sued several companies for allegedly orchestrating a magazine telemarketing scam that has victimized thousands of consumers, many elderly.Th...

PhotoColorado has sued several companies for allegedly orchestrating a magazine telemarketing scam that has victimized thousands of consumers, many elderly.

The suit filed by Attorney General John Suthers' office names Rocio Trujillo and her husband, Anthony Trujillo and several companies they operate. A Denver District Court judge has entered a temporary injunction shutting down the businesses and freezing their bank accounts.   

“The Trujillos preyed on thousands of consumers, many of whom are senior citizens, for nearly $1,200 per victim,” said Suthers. “Because consumers filed complaints with our office, we had the documentation needed to interrupt this illegal telemarketing scheme,” Suthers explained. 

From 2002 to the present, the Trujillos ran several interrelated companies, RNA Direct Marketing, LLC; America’s Elite Media, Inc.; America’s Elite Magazines; Patriotic Readers Club; AA Publishers, LLC; and All American Publishers. Also named in the complaint are Subscription Data Processing, LLC and Fulfillment Data Processing, Inc., companies the Attorney General alleges acted with full knowledge of the deceptive telemarketing scheme and facilitated its success.

The complaint filed in Denver District Court alleges that the defendants orchestrated a three-pronged business model to complete their deception.

First, the Trujillos placed harassing sales calls to magazine subscribers trying to get them to "verify" their subscription status. The "verification" turned out to be an oral contract that supposedly provided the consumer with five magazine subscriptions each of which ran from one to five years, and cost $1,200. In actuality, some consumers were billed up to $100 per month and have “contractual obligations” in excess of $2,000.

“One elderly woman received 46 magazine orders including seven orders for Redbook, five for Woman’s Day and three for the TV Guide,” said Suthers. “Some of the 46 orders were submitted by the Trujillos while others were from other telemarketers, however, all were handled by Subscription Data Processing.” 

In addition, the Trujillos are accused of engaging in other deceptive trade practices including threats to send consumers to collection agencies to bully them into participating in the “verification.”

Assuming a consumer could even get in touch with the Trujillos to try to cancel their subscriptions, the Trujillos claimed their sham “verification” process entitled them to charge consumers a $400 cancellation fee for the first year of the “contract” and $200 for cancelling in the “contract’s” second year. Sometimes, the Trujillos failed to even order the magazines. 

More

A drop in mortgage applications

Refinancings hold steady as ARMs increase

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 2.0% for the week ending February 7. ...

PhotoData from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 2.0% for the week ending February 7.

The Refinance Index decreased 0.2%, leaving the refinance share of mortgage activity unchanged at 62% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 8% of total applications.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) dipped 2 basis points -- to 4.45% from 4.47%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dropped from from 4.42% to 4.40%, with points increasing to 0.14 from 0.11 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose 1 basis point to 4.13%, with points decreasing to 0.10 from 0.15 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages was 3.49% -- down 4 basis points, with points decreasing to 0.25 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs fell to 3.11% from 3.15%, with points declining to 0.31 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications, and has been conducted weekly since 1990. Respondents include mortgage bankers, commercial banks and thrifts.   

More

Airline consumer complaints down sharply in 2013

December, however, was not a particularly good month

Airline passengers apparently didn't have as much to gripe about last year as they did in 2012. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Aviation Con...

PhotoAirline passengers apparently didn't have as much to gripe about last year as they did in 2012.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Aviation Consumer Protection Division reports consumer complaints filed during 2013 were down 14.1% -- to 13,168 -- from the 15,338 complaints filed in the year before.

December, however, was a different story. DOT says it received 1,114 complaints about airline service -- up 23.5% from the 902 complaints received in December 2012, and up a whopping 47.5% from the total of 755 filed in November 2013.

Tarmac delays

December was a good month for getting where you wanted to go on time, either.

Airlines reported 10 tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and four tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights. Most of those involved flights that arrived at or departed from Chicago O’Hare Airport on Dec. 8 that were delayed due to a snowstorm. DOT is investigating all of the reported delays.

The consumer report, which can be found on the DOT website, also includes data on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, along with consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints received. Also included are reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air.

More

Prime Snax recalls various beef jerky products

The products contain soy lecithin, an allergen not listed on the label

Prime Snax of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling approximately 90,000 pounds of beef jerky products. The products were processed with a releasing agent co...

PhotoPrime Snax of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling approximately 90,000 pounds of beef jerky products.

The products were processed with a releasing agent containing soy lecithin, a known allergen that is not declared on the label.

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

The products subject to recall were produced prior to Feb. 2, 2014, and were shipped to retail locations nationwide. They include:

Arizona Jacks Brand:

  • 8 oz./24 count packages of “Original”
  • 3.5 oz./24 count packages of “Peppered Rippled Cut” and “Original Rippled Cut”
  • 6 oz./80 count packages of “Frontier Cuts – Hot,” “Frontier Cuts – Pepper,” and “Frontier Cuts– Original”
  • 3.25 oz./12 count packages of “Super Giga Hot,” “Super Giga Original,” and “Super Giga Peppered”
  • 6 oz./30 count packages of “Premium Peppered,” “Premium Original Strip,” and “Premium Teriyaki”
  • 3.5 oz./30 count packages of “Peppered Thin Cut” and “Original Thin Cut”
  • 7 oz./24 count packages of “Peppered Thin Cut,” “Thin Cut,” “Original Chunky,” and “Peppered Chunky”

Desert Star Brand:

  • 12 oz./18 count packages of “Desert Star Peppered” and “Desert Star Original”
  • 3 oz. - 3 packages/case with 8 pieces/package of “Desert Star Original” and “Desert Star Peppered”

Southwest Trail Brand:

  • 1 oz. – 6 packages/case with 12 pieces/package of “Southwest Trail Original,” “Southwest Trail Peppered,” “Southwest Trail Red Chile,” and “Southwest Trail Green Chile”
  • 3 oz. – 4 packages/case with 12 pieces/package of “Southwest Trail Original,” “Southwest Trail Peppered,” “Southwest Trail Red Chile,” and “Southwest Trail Green Chile”

Terrell Brand:

  • 3.5 oz. “Terrell’s Original,” “Terrell’s Honey BBQ,” and “Terrell’s Pepper”

Kettle Creek Brand:

  • 3.5 oz./12 count packages of “Kettle Creek Original” and “Kettle Creek Peppered”

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “EST. 18951” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection and a date on the packages prior to August 11, 2015, in the format of “mm dd yy.”

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Jackie Pappas at (801) 977-0742.  

More

Graco recalls millions of child restraints

Consumers have reported difficulty in unlatching the harness buckle

Graco Children's Products is recalling 3,773,379 model year 2009 through 2013 toddler and booster child restraints. The models subject to recall include:...

PhotoGraco Children's Products is recalling 3,773,379 model year 2009 through 2013 toddler and booster child restraints. The models subject to recall include:

  • Cozy Cline
  • Comfort Sport
  • Classic Ride 50
  • My Ride 65
  • My Ride with Safety Surround
  • My Ride 70
  • Size 4 Me 70
  • Smartseat Nautilus
  • Nautilus Elite
  • Argos 70

The alleged defect involves difficulty in unlatching the harness buckle. In some cases, the buckle becomes stuck in a latched condition so that it cannot be opened by depressing the buckle's release button.

The problems could make it difficult to remove the child from the restraint, increasing the risk of injury in the event of a vehicle crash, fire, or other emergency, in which a prompt exit from the vehicle is required.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) opened an investigation into the problem based on 25 reports from consumers that alleged difficulty in unlatching the harness buckle on their subject child seat.

Since opening the investigation ODI has received 55 additional reports. Consumers state that excessive force and/or effort is required to push the button to unlatch the harness. Some reported not being able to unlatch the buckle at all and were forced to remove their children by pulling them through the still buckled harness, or in some cases, by cutting the harness straps.

The subject child seats utilize two different types (designs) of harness buckles, the "Signature" and the "QT" types, both of which are subject to the investigation. Each buckle type operates differently and has dissimilar latching and actuating mechanisms. The Signature buckle has a sliding release button that must be pushed downward to release the harness, while the QT buckle has a button that must be pushed inward to be released.

Graco acknowledges that food and dried liquids that can make some harness buckles progressively more difficult to open over time or become stuck in the latched position. But, the company says, this does not in any way affect the performance of the car seat or the effectiveness of the buckle to restrain the child.

The company is offering what it says is a new and improved replacement harness buckle to affected consumers at no cost. Graco says if cleaning has not improved the performance of the buckle, consumers may contact customer service 800-345-4109 (Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.) or by email at consumerservices@gracobaby.com.  

More

The Farm Bill: what's in it for consumers?

Food stamps take a hit but remain the overwhelming recipient of revenue

President Obama recently signed into law the long-delayed Farm Bill, a massive $956 billion piece of legislation that governs agriculture policy. But it do...

PhotoPresident Obama recently signed into law the long-delayed Farm Bill, a massive $956 billion piece of legislation that governs agriculture policy. But it does a lot more than that – it doles out tax dollars in lots of different directions.

In the three-year battle over this piece of legislation, food stamp recipients were among the biggest losers. The new legislation trims the amount of money alloted to SNAP – otherwise known as the food stamp program – by more than $8 billion. Even so, spending on food stamps still makes up more than 80% of the total spending.

“Any funding reduction to this program, which supports nutrition and food access, will make it more difficult for some of the most vulnerable Americans, including seniors and low-income families with children, to afford a healthy diet,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association.

Food banks worried

Margarette Purvis, President and CEO of the Food Banks of New York, has also expressed concern about the food stamp cuts, warning that food banks will be unable to take up the slack.

“In New York City, we’ve already seen what happens when SNAP benefits are cut: 85 percent of the food pantries and soup kitchens in Food Bank for New York City’s network saw more people on their lines after across-the-board cuts to SNAP went into effect this past November than they saw in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and roughly half reported food shortages in that first month alone,” Purvis wrote in a letter to The New York Times

Brown is also unhappy about another provision of the landmark legislation. The new law creates alters a fresh fruit and vegetable program to include – at least on a temporary basis – canned, frozen and dried fruit and vegetable products.

“While the association believes that all whole fruits and vegetables regardless of their form are important for kids to eat, the current program plays a unique role by providing the poorest children in our country with much-needed exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Brown said. “We will closely monitor this pilot effort to ensure that it does not undermine the impact and integrity of this nutrition education program.”

Things to like

PhotoBrown did find a few things she thinks will be helpful for consumers, even among the reduced food stamp program. For example, it expands the program to include physical activity education, which she says plays an important role in helping Americans maintain their health.

“In addition, the bill authorizes the Healthy Food Financing Program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Brown said. “This program, which establishes grocery stores in underserved communities where none exist, will provide access to healthier foods and help boost local economies.”

Much of the money in the bill not spent on food stamps goes to farmers to subsidize certain crops. The bulk of the subsidies go for production of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. The subsides have the effect of helping to stabilize prices farmers receive, and ultimately, consumers pay. Since corn and soy beans are used largely for animal feed, meat prices – which have spiked in recent months – may return to more stable levels.

Dairy policy changes

The bill makes major changes in the way dairy farmers are supported by the government. A number of long-time dairy support programs, such as the Dairy Product Price Support Program and the Dairy Export Incentive Program, are giving way to a new margin insurance program. Dairy processors waged a lengthy battle to prevent inclusion of a new dairy price support system they claimed would significantly boost the price of milk.

While various groups may belong to the winners or losers in this measure the American Farmland Trust (AFT) says the environment is a big winner because the Farm Bill makes the biggest reform in agriculture policy in years.

"The new Farm Bill requires farmers who receive crop insurance premium assistance to have a conservation plan which helps protect erodible soil and wetlands," said Andrew McElwaine,” President and CEO of AFT. "Conservation compliance in past has been applied to over 140 million acres helping farmers save 295 million tons of soil per year. An estimated 1.5 million to 3.3 million acres of vulnerable wetlands have not been drained as a result of this compliance provision."

More

Rice recall may be the result of too much niacin

Vitamin supplementation can be OK but too much can cause problems

It was a little puzzling to read the recall notice for Uncle Ben's Infused Rice yesterday. "Consumers have experienced mild flushing and rash after ea...

PhotoIt was a little puzzling to read the recall notice for Uncle Ben's Infused Rice yesterday. "Consumers have experienced mild flushing and rash after eating the Mexican flavor product," the notice said but did not offer any other explanation.

It didn't seem logical that everyone had suddenly developed a rice allergy but Food Safety News dug around and came up with a more logical explanation: too much niacin, also known as vitamin B3.

Mars Foodservices, which long ago supplanted Uncle Ben in the rice business, says that federal standards require the enrichment of rice with niacin. That's because getting too little niacin can cause pellagra, a condition marked by skin, digestive and mental problems.

More isn't always better

But getting too much niacin isn't good either. It can cause liver damage and other problems. Even regular doses can cause the "flushing" that led to the current recall. Flushing is a mild condition characterized mostly by a reddish flush to the skin and a feeling of being hot and tingly. It's not serious and generally goes away in an hour or so.

The rice recalls follow several episodes in which school students and teachers reported feeling bad after eating Uncle Ben's rice. The latest incident occurred in Katy, Texas, where 34 students and four teachers came down with flushing symptoms after lunch. Similar incidents occurred earlier in Illinois and North Dakota.

Writing in the Boston Globe today, Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, says the episodes show that, while consumers tend to think adding vitamins to food is a good thing, it's not always so.

"The best, safest and healthiest way to get vitamins is from the foods that naturally contain them. For niacin, the best sources are meats, legumes and nuts. Basically, if you eat a varied diet, including meat, seafood, dairy, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, you will get the vitamins and minerals you need (you can get what you need without animal products, but it takes a bit more work)," she said. 

For that matter, vitamin pills can cause problems too, McCarthy noted.

"More isn't always better. In 2012, vitamins were the fifth most common poison exposure for children less than 6. Overdosing on iron can be especially dangerous. And since children's multivitamins are generally designed to look and taste good, it's not uncommon for kids to think of them as candy--and eat way too many," she cautioned.

McCarthy also noted that studies have shown that taking multivitamins doesn't prevent chronic illness in adults. At best, they're a waste of money, she said.

There are, of course, some people who have special dietary needs. Always check with your physician before making major changes in your diet.

More

Smart health department shuts down Dumb Starbucks

Yeah, 'twas some comic's TV stunt

Be glad you never invested in the Dumb Starbucks franchise, for it is no more: health officials shut down the coffeehouse-qua-performance art installation ...

PhotoBe glad you never invested in the Dumb Starbucks franchise, for it is no more: health officials shut down the coffeehouse-qua-performance art installation on its fourth day of operation, due to its lack of health permits.

Dumb Starbucks opened its doors in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz last Saturday -- a little coffeehouse that looks exactly like every Starbucks franchise you've seen, only with the word “Dumb” affixed to everything. And everything was handed out for free, despite the Dumb prices listed next to the Dumb offerings on its Dumb menus.

Although spokesmen and legal representatives for “classic” Starbucks promised to look into possible trademark violations by Dumb Starbucks, ultimately it was the Los Angeles County Health Department who brought the enterprise to a halt. (No big loss, apparently; people who actually sampled Dumb Starbucks offerings said the coffee was “bitter” and the hot chocolate tasted like “water”.)

Dumb idea

Photo
Nathan Fielder (Facebook photo)
Not until Monday afternoon did the brains behind the stunt announce himself — Dumb Starbucks was the creation of a Canadian comic named Nathan Fielder, who filmed antics inside Dumb Starbucks for an upcoming TV show. (What's that – you say you've never heard of Nathan Fielder before? Well, then, his publicity stunt worked.)

Despite Fielders' initial claims that Dumb Starbucks was a fair use parody rather than a trademark violation, legal experts agree this wouldn't actually hold up in court — no, you may not open a burger joint called “Stupid McDonald's” or “Five Dumb Guys” and thus avoid paying franchise fees to the original hamburger restaurants.

However, since Fielder never actually charged money for his Dumb coffee products, and furthermore since the Dumb stunt is over except for the upcoming Dumb TV show about it, he might well avoid facing a Starbucks trademark-infringement suit after all.

Even so, we sincerely advise you: don't try a Dumb stunt like this at home, or even in a nearby low-rent strip mall storefront.

More

Home office deductions carry strict rules

IRS adds new "simplified option" for claiming this deduction

There was a time when to claim a home office deduction on your federal income tax return was to invite extra close scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Servi...

PhotoThere was a time when to claim a home office deduction on your federal income tax return was to invite extra close scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). With the explosion in home-based businesses and entrepreneurial start-ups, these deductions are now a lot more common.

Still, the IRS has very strict rules about what constitutes the business use of your home and what doesn't. To avoid running afoul of the tax law make sure you understand and abide by the rules. 

The first, and most important criteria, for the write-off of part of your home is how you use it. It must be used “exclusively and regularly as your principal place of business for your trade or business.”

What that means

Exclusively means just what you think it does. The space cannot also have other uses, such as room where the family watches TV or the kids play video games. Regular means it has an ongoing business use.

A spare bedroom that is only used for your seasonal part-time business doing tax returns for people, three and a half months out of the year, might meet the “exclusive” test but not the “regular” test.

Other cases where your home may qualify for a tax deduction include:

  • A separate structure used exclusively and regularly in connection with your trade or business that is not attached to your home
  • On a regular basis for certain storage use
  • For rental use
  • As a daycare facility

Tests

Under the principal place of business test, you must make sure that your home is the principal place of your trade or business after considering where your most important activities are performed and most of your time is spent. If you have no other office location, for example, you may be able to deduct part of your home. However, if you do have an office outside the home, you can't.

Deductions may also be taken for business storage purposes when the house is the sole fixed location of the business or for regular use of a residence for the provision of day care services. In these cases exclusive use is not required.

If you qualify for a business use deduction, what exactly do you get to deduct? Deductible expenses include a portion of real estate taxes, mortgage interest, rent, casualty losses, utilities, insurance, depreciation, maintenance, and repairs. You can't deduct expenses for lawn care, even if you think it is important to present a pleasing image to clients who may visit the premises.

New Simplified Option

Beginning with the 2013 tax year the IRS offers a Simplified Option for Home Office Deduction that provides a standard deduction of $5 per square foot, capped at 300 square feet. However, this simplified option does not alter any eligibility requirements. 

According to the IRS the business use of home deduction has been computed by allocating the total expenses of the home to the percentage of the home used for business. Typically, this is done by floor space – exclusive and regular business use of 500 square feet of a 2,000 square foot home would allow a 25% write-off. Qualified daycare providers who do not use their home exclusively for business purposes must also figure the percentage based on the amount of time the applicable portion of the home is used for business.

If you are self-employed you claim the business use of your home deduction on Schedule C, Profit or Loss From Business. The deduction itself is first computed on Form 8829

Employees can sometimes do it

In rare cases employees of businesses are able to claim the business use deduction, but again, there are strict rules.

The business use of your home must be for the convenience of your employer, not you. For example, if you employer needs you to perform the work off site, the deduction may apply.

You cannot receive any kind of rent from your employer for space in your home in which you do the work.

If maintaining an office at home is merely helpful in the performance of your work, but not required by your employer, the IRS will disallow all claims for the deduction.

More

Flappy Bird creator pulls the plug on his "addictive" game

Dong Nguyen walks away from $50K per day in ad revenue

There exists an unflattering stereotype to the effect of “Businessmen are greedy people who care only about personal profit no matter who it harms,&r...

PhotoThere exists an unflattering stereotype to the effect of “Businessmen are greedy people who care only about personal profit no matter who it harms,” and there also exist plenty of genuine real-world examples of businessmen who do, unfortunately, live down to that image.

But there are also those who run exactly counter to that stereotype, and it sounds like Dong Nguyen, the Vietnamese programmer who created the popular (but now-defunct) Flappy Bird game might be one of them.

Fans of Flappy Bird were dismayed last weekend to discover that the popular app game is gone. Why did Nguyen pull the plug on it?

According to Forbes writer Lan Anh Nguyen, to whom he gave an exclusive interview, it's because the game was too addictive. “Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed,” he told Forbes. “But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”

Dong Nguyen was reportedly making up to $50,000 a day from the game.

Granted, there are some odd aspects to Flappy Bird's demise. Lan Anh Nguyen mentioned the particular requirements Dong Nguyen laid down for the interview:

The circumstances surrounding the interview, conducted in Vietnamese, were as much of a soap opera as his public ruminations about whether to take down the app. The interview with Forbes took place in a hotel in Hanoi, with a strict condition that Forbes not reveal Nguyen’s face. It was delayed several hours, in part because Nguyen had a sudden meeting with Vietnam’s deputy prime minister Vu Duc Dam – a remarkable turn of events for someone unknown a week ago. Nguyen says his parents didn’t even know that Flappy Bird existed, much less his role in it, until media coverage spun out of control in the past few days.

Flappy Bird addicts unhappy with Nguyen's act of tough love can find solace in many non-Nguyen Flappy Bird knockoffs, including Flappy Whale, Flappy Penguin, Flappy Angry Bird and Flappy Plane. Dong Nguyen has said he won't sue any of the copycat creators.

More

Does social media make you smarter or stupider?

Answer: both.

An old joking proverb notes that a pessimist will say a glass is half-empty, whereas an optimist will say the glass is half-full. ...

PhotoAn old proverb notes that a pessimist will say a glass is half-empty, whereas an optimist will say the glass is half-full. Another proverb observes that “every cloud has a silver lining,” which inspires wags to retort “Yup, and every silver lining has its cloud” or “all silver's destined to tarnish” or something similarly cynical.

Which are all ways of saying that modern life is full of trade-offs, with good and bad aspects to most things. Meanwhile, this whole “Internet/social media/instant worldwide communication for all” business is still brand-new by world historical standards – as of 2014, the majority of people alive can personally remember life before the Internet – and there's still huge disagreement regarding whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, overall.

The latest entry in the “maybe bad thing” category is discussed in this MediaPost blog entry titled “Social Media Makes Us Dumb, But Think We're Smart.” It summarizes a study which researchers at the University of Oregon published in the journal of the Royal Society. Super-short version: the more you rely on social connections for problem-solving, the more your own personal cognitive abilities suffer.

Or so the study results might indicate. Researchers divided 100 test subjects into five groups of 20-member “social networks” with various levels of connectivity. The subjects were then asked to solve some rather difficult “cognitive reflection tests.”

Turns out subjects scored much higher on the tests when they were allowed to ask their social-network connections for the answers – the more connected you are to your network, the more likely you are to get the right answer – but then, after using social connections to help them take the tests, the subjects tended to score more poorly once they had to take the tests by themselves.

Brain not engaged

PhotoHere's how the researchers summarized their results:

“When people make false intuitive conclusions and are exposed to the analytic output of their peers, they recognize and adopt this correct output. But they fail to engage analytical reasoning in similar subsequent tasks. Thus, humans exhibit an ‘unreflective copying bias,’ which limits their social learning to the output, rather than the process, of their peers’ reasoning.”

Interesting. But set that aside for a moment, and check out this September 2013 article from Slate, which asked, “Are search engines and the Internet hurting human memory?” and answered “Nope. It's much, much weirder than that.” (The “article” in question is actually an excerpt from Clive Thompson's book "Smarter than you think: How technology is changing our minds for the better.")

Here's a stripped-down and somewhat oversimplified summary: the critics and worrywarts who fret, “Oh dear, people are starting to rely on looking up facts online rather than committing them to memory” are absolutely correct — so far as that goes.

Does it matter?

Yet it doesn't really matter, because supplementing our memories with whatever facts we find online is just an expanded technological version of what people have done for as long as there have been people: rather than try storing the sum total of all human knowledge and ability in our own personal individual brain, we rely on our social networks (family, friends, neighbors, even civilization writ large) to share that burden with us.

If you are half of an “old married couple”—or know people who are—you've seen or participated in this yourself. Read this bit from Thompson's book and see if it doesn't sound familiar:

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner—and his colleagues Ralph Erber and Paula Raymond—first began to systematically explore “transactive memory” back in the ’80s. Wegner noticed that spouses often divide up memory tasks. The husband knows the in-laws' birthdays and where the spare light bulbs are kept; the wife knows the bank account numbers and how to program the TiVo. If you ask the husband for his bank account number, he'll shrug. If you ask the wife for her sister-in-law's birthday, she can never remember it. Together, they know a lot. Separately, less so. ...

The same thing occurs on a bigger scale with colleagues at work.

[Y]ou each begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to the other, treating one’s partners like a notepad or encyclopedia, and they do the reverse. In many respects, Wegner noted, people are superior to notepads and encyclopedias, because we’re much quicker to query: Just yell a fuzzily phrased question across to the next cubicle (where do we keep the thing that we use for that thing?) and you’ll get an answer in seconds. We share the work of remembering, Wegner argued, because it makes us collectively smarter.

Of course, remembering and retrieving facts — whether by yourself or with others — isn't quite the same thing as using applied knowledge, skill or intelligence to solve challenging cognitive puzzles. Yet they do seem to share one trait in common: “You do much better with others than you do by yourself.” That's the glass-half-full interpretation, anyway; you could also say “I do much worse by myself than when I get help from others.”

More

What causes obesity? Cars, TVs, computers

It's not just fast food and big portions that are to blame for those extra pounds

Cars, computers, TVs spark obesity in developing countriesThe spread of obesity and type-2 diabetes could become epidemic in low-income countries, as mor...

PhotoThe cause of the obesity epidemic is a favorite topic of pundits, scientists and just about everyone else. Some blame fast food, others zoom in on sugary soft drinks while still others go on and on about lack of exercise.

A group of Canadian researchers have taken a different approach. Looking at data from 150,000 adults in 17 countries, they found that the primary villains are cars, computers and TVs. The study, led by Simon Fraser University health sciences professor Scott Lear, is published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

It warns that the spread of obesity and type-2 diabetes could become epidemic in low-income countries, as more individuals are able to own higher priced items such as TVs, computers and cars. 

Researchers, who questioned participants about ownership as well as physical activity and diet, found a 400 per cent increase in obesity and a 250 per cent increase in diabetes among owners of these items in low-income countries.

The study also showed that owning all three devices was associated with a 31 per cent decrease in physical activity, 21 per cent increase in sitting and a 3.5-inch increase in waist size compared with those who owned no devices.

Comparatively, researchers found no association in high-income countries, suggesting that the effects of owning items linked to sedimentary lifestyles has already occurred, and is reflected in current high rates of these conditions.

"With increasing uptake of modern-day conveniences–TVs, cars, computers–low- and middle-income countries could see the same obesity and diabetes rates as in high-income countries that are the result of too much sitting, less physical activity and increased consumption of calories," says Lear.

The results can lead to "potentially devastating societal health care consequences" in these countries, Lear said.

More

Study finds regular aspirin use may reduce risk of ovarian cancer

But aspirin carries certain risks

For years, we have heard that taking aspirin daily is good for your heart. Turns out that may not be the only benefit. A study by scientists at the Nation...

PhotoFor years, we have heard that taking aspirin daily is good for your heart. Turns out that may not be the only benefit.

A study by scientists at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) finds that women who take a daily dose of aspirin may reduce their risk of ovarian cancer by 20%. However, further research is needed before clinical recommendations can be made.

For the study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Britton Trabert, Ph.D., and Nicolas Wentzensen, M.D., Ph.D., of NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, and their colleagues, analyzed data pooled from 12 large epidemiological studies to investigate whether women who used aspirin, non-aspirin NSAIDs, or acetaminophen have a lower risk of ovarian cancer.

These 12 studies (nine from the United States) were part of the Ovarian Cancer Association Consortium. The scientists evaluated the benefit of these drugs in nearly 8,000 women with ovarian cancer and close to 12,000 women who did not have the disease.

Aspirin leads the way

Among study participants who reported whether they used aspirin regularly: 18% used aspirin, 24% used non-aspirin NSAIDs, and 16% used acetaminophen. The researchers determined that participants who reported daily aspirin use had a 20% lower risk of ovarian cancer than those who used aspirin less than once per week. For non-aspirin NSAIDs, which include a wide variety of drugs, the picture was less clear: the scientists observed a 10% lower ovarian cancer risk among women who used NSAIDs at least once per week compared with those who used NSAIDs less frequently.

However, this finding did not fall in a range that was significant statistically. In contrast to the findings for aspirin and NSAIDs, use of acetaminophen, which is not an anti-inflammatory agent, was not associated with reduced ovarian cancer risk.

This study adds to a growing list of malignancies, such as colorectal and other cancers, that appear to be potentially preventable by aspirin usage. “Our study suggests that aspirin regimens, proven to protect against heart attack, may reduce the risk of ovarian cancer as well” said Trabert. “However intriguing our results are, they should not influence current clinical practice. Additional studies are needed to explore the delicate balance of risk-benefit for this potential chemopreventive agent, as well as studies to identify the mechanism by which aspirin may reduce ovarian cancer risk.”

Aspirin risks

Adverse side effects of daily aspirin use include upper gastrointestinal bleeding and hemorrhagic stroke. Therefore, a daily aspirin regimen should only be undertaken with a doctor’s approval, caution the scientists.

Chronic or persistent inflammation has been shown to increase the risk of cancer and other diseases. Previous studies have suggested that the anti-inflammatory properties of aspirin and non-aspirin NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), may reduce cancer risk overall.

However, studies examining whether use of these agents may influence ovarian cancer risk have been largely inconclusive. This is the largest study to date to assess the relationship between these drugs and ovarian cancer risk.

It is estimated that over 20,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014, and more than 14,000 will die from the disease. Early stage ovarian cancer may be successfully treated.

However, symptoms associated with this disease can mimic more common conditions, such as digestive and bladder disorders, so for this reason and others, it is often not diagnosed until it has reached advanced stages. Late stage ovarian cancer leaves women with limited treatment options and poor prognoses, making preventive strategies potentially important for controlling this disease.

More

Feds charge Fantage misled consumers about its privacy provisions

The children's game company allowed its privacy certification to lapse

Fantage.com, a children’s online game company, has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it falsely claimed it was abiding by an int...

PhotoFantage.com, a children’s online game company, has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it falsely claimed it was abiding by an international privacy framework known as the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor that enables U.S. companies to transfer consumer data from the European Union to the U.S. in compliance with EU law.

Fantage.com makes a popular multiplayer online role-playing game directed at children ages 6-16. 

According to the FTC, the company deceptively claimed, through statements in its privacy policy, that it held current certifications under the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor framework. 

To participate, a company must self-certify annually that it complies with the seven privacy principles required to meet the EU’s adequacy standard: notice, choice, onward transfer, security, data integrity, access, and enforcement. A participant in the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor framework may also highlight for consumers its compliance with the Safe Harbor by displaying the Safe Harbor certification mark on its website.

The FTC complaint charges Fantage.com with representing that it held a current Safe Harbor certification, even though the company had allowed its certification to lapse.

The FTC said, however, that the company did not necessarily commit any substantive violations of the privacy principles of the Safe Harbor framework or other privacy laws.

More

If you'd like a nice fat pay raise, here's where to look

If you have the tech skills, you may be able to get it

Looking to make more money? It's out there. According to the recently released 2014 Salary Guides from Robert Half Technology and The Creative Group, tren...

PhotoLooking to make more money? It's out there.

According to the recently released 2014 Salary Guides from Robert Half Technology and The Creative Group, trends like big data and mobile media are translating into growing paychecks for some professionals.

In fact, employers are prepared to offer increased compensation this year to skilled information technology (IT) and digital professionals who can help organizations Keep information and networks secure, turn data into business intelligence and seize new opportunities in the mobile space.

"It's becoming imperative for companies to build their online presence and connect with customers through mobile channels, but finding the specialized talent to design and develop for this fast-evolving space can be difficult," said John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology and The Creative Group. "Similar recruiting challenges exist around business intelligence. Companies want to use their information more strategically, but they struggle to find skilled professionals who can analyze raw data."

The big 6

Following are six roles that are among those expected to see the most substantial increases in average starting compensation this year, according to the Robert Half Salary Guides:

  • Mobile applications developer: As companies expand their mobile initiatives to connect with consumers anytime, anywhere, they need professionals who can develop for smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. Experienced mobile applications developers can expect to see the largest increase (7.8%) in starting compensation of any tech position listed in this year's Salary Guide, with salaries ranging from $100,000 to $144,000.
  • Business intelligence analyst: Organizations of all types want to derive more value from the data they generate, collect and store by turning it into actionable intelligence. Skilled business intelligence analysts can anticipate a 7.4% boost in starting compensation in 2014, with salaries ranging from $101,250 to $142,250.
  • Information systems security manager: Keeping data secure and protecting users and the network from cyber threats is a priority for any modern business. Information systems security managers who can assess and remediate vulnerabilities, threats and intrusions are in demand, and are projected to see a 6.8% bump in base compensation this year, with average starting salaries between $115,250 and $160,000.
  • User experience designer: Designing engaging user experiences is essential to the success of any mobile or web initiative -- and requires specialized talent. User experience designers can expect to see average starting salaries between $78,000 and $120,000 -- up 7.5% from 2013.
  • Mobile designer: Compelling content and functionality are vital to delivering a satisfying interactive mobile experience. Skilled mobile designers can anticipate average starting salaries to increase 6.3% in 2014, to the range of $66,000 to $103,000 .
  • User experience specialist: Developing innovative, interactive user experiences for web and mobile applications requires creativity and technical expertise. User experience specialists can expect to receive base compensation in the range of $79,000 to $118,000, a gain of 5.9% over last year.
More

Construction industry pledges to hire more veterans

First Lady calls it “patriotic” and "the smart thing to do”

A broad coalition of construction employers and associations has collectively pledged to hire 100,000 military veterans over the next five years. The anno...

PhotoA broad coalition of construction employers and associations has collectively pledged to hire 100,000 military veterans over the next five years.

The announcement came at a national symposium: Veterans' Employment in Construction, hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Joining Forces.

Representatives of the construction companies making these hiring commitments, veterans who have completed apprenticeships in the construction industry, and other leaders in the field were in attendance.

Official endorsement

"More than 100 American construction companies came together to announce that they plan to hire more than 100,000 veterans within the next five years,” wrote First Lady Michelle Obama in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “not just because it's the patriotic thing to do, and not just because they want to repay our veterans for their service to our country, but because they know that it's the smart thing to do for their business,"

Labor Thomas E. Perez said he is “inspired by the commitment,” adding, “all men and women who have sacrificed for our country in our armed services deserve opportunities for good jobs worthy of their character and their achievements." Perez promised that the Labor Department “will do whatever it takes to help our veterans translate their skills and leadership into jobs.”

Construction growth expected

The construction industry is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years -- outpacing the growth of the economy as a whole. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that construction is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation, with job growth of more than 1.5 million jobs between now and 2022 -- an annual growth rate of 2.6%.

Construction companies large and small -- from national firms like Jacobs and Bechtel, to regional firms like Cianbro Construction, to local contractors and subcontractors across America -- are stepping up to ensure their industry welcomes veterans home with good-paying jobs. More than 80 additional companies are committing their existing training and employment programs to fill new construction jobs with veterans.

"Veterans are invaluable to the construction industry,” said Larry L. Melton, project executive for Bechtel and a Marine Corps veteran. “Men and women who serve in the military often have the traits that are so critical to our success: agility, discipline, integrity, and the drive to get the job done right."

Lori Sundberg, senior vice president of human resources at Jacobs, said her company is pleased to support programs that provide career opportunities for veterans. “Many of the skills and abilities gained during military training and service are highly transferable to the skills we require to successfully serve our clients around the world,” she said. “We are proud of the veterans working at Jacobs and appreciate their military service, their dedication, and the value they add to our company."

More

Falling prices, rising crime?

The crime rate fell in the 1990s -- but not so much in counties with a Walmart, study finds

Crime rates fell across the United States in the 1990s. But in counties where Wal-Mart built stores, the decline was slower, a new study finds. "The...

PhotoCrime rates fell across the United States in the 1990s. But in counties where Wal-Mart built stores, the decline was slower, a new study finds. 

"The crime decline was stunted in counties where Wal-Mart expanded in the 1990s," says Scott Wolfe, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina and lead author of a new study. "If the corporation built a new store, there were 17 additional property crimes and 2 additional violent crimes for every 10,000 persons in a county."

The study, released last month in the British Journal of Criminology, was co-authored with David Pyrooz, assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State University.

The study was not intended to criticize Wal-Mart, he says. Instead, it attempted to answer the unexplored question of whether Wal-Mart could equate with either more or less crime.

"There have been dozens of studies on the 'Wal-Mart effect' showing the company impacts numerous outcomes closely related to crime. Our objective was to determine if the Wal-Mart effect extended to understanding crime rates during arguably one of the most pivotal historical periods in the study of crime," Wolfe says.

The "Wal-Mart effect" is a catch phrase for a wide range of effects -- some good, some bad -- when the company opens a new store. It includes the suburbanization of the local shopping experience and lower prices for everyday items, as well as eroding local retailers and driving down local wages.

3,109 counties 

PhotoWolfe and Pyrooz based the study on 3,109 U.S. counties. They focused on Wal-Mart's expansion in the 1990s, a time of dynamic growth for the company and falling crime rates nationally. During that decade Wal-Mart expanded in 767 of those counties.

The researchers suggest that there may not be a direct cause-and-effect relationship between Wal-Mart's presence and crime rates.

"They are very strategic about where they build stores," Wolfe said. "There is something unique about the counties that Wal-Mart selects."

He said that during the period studied, Wal-Mart tended to expand in counties with higher than average crime rates. These counties were more likely see Wal-Mart build even after accounting for crime-related predicators, such as poverty, unemployment, immigration, population structure and residential turnover.

The researchers speculate that much of this relationship occurred because Wal-Mart finds better success building in communities that are less likely to protest the company's arrival.

"Counties with more social capital — citizens able and willing to speak up about the best interests of the community — tend to have lower crime rates," Pyrooz said. "Counties with more crime may have less social capital and, therefore, less ability to prevent Wal-Mart from building."

Wolfe and Pyrooz say the reason why Wal-Mart lessens a decline in crime is a complex question not easily answered by data typically available. Their findings didn't reveal that Wal-Mart growth corresponded with increases in poverty, economic disadvantage or other factors associated with crime.

"More research is needed to uncover why the Wal-Mart effect extends to crime," Wolfe says. "Does it reduce community social cohesion or simply increase opportunities for theft and other crimes in specific store locations that are great enough to influence county crime rates? These are questions that remain."

More

Dumb Starbucks: fair parody or copyright violation?

Is it business or performance art? Too early to tell.

It's said there is a fine line separating genius and stupidity; you can decide for yourself on which side of that line “Dumb Starbucks” resides....

PhotoIt's said there is a fine line separating genius and stupidity; you can decide for yourself on which side of that line “Dumb Starbucks” resides.

Dumb Starbucks is a coffeehouse that opened for business in Los Feliz, Calif., last Saturday. Its logo, cups and all other paraphernalia look exactly like that of “classic” Starbucks, only with the word “Dumb” in front of everything. According to the unnamed people behind Dumb Starbucks, adding “Dumb” to everything makes Dumb Starbucks a fair-use parody rather than a trademark violation.

Technically, it's not strictly accurate to say that Dumb Starbucks opened “for business” last weekend. Business, after all, implies some sort of money-making venture, and on Saturday and Sunday, all Dumb Starbucks offerings were free.

On the other hand, Dumb Starbucks is happy to use the phrase. A letter asking and answering various questions, including “So is this a real business?” Answer: “Yes, it is. Although we are a fully functioning coffee shop, for legal reasons Dumb Starbucks needs to be categorized as a work of parody art. So, in the eyes of the law, our 'coffee shop' is actually an art gallery and the 'coffee' you're buying is considered the art.”

DumbStarbucks has a Twittter account which, as of presstime, had only four tweets, all urging people to come by for coffee.

Photo

When Southern California Public Radio's KPCC sent reporters to Dumb Starbucks on Saturday, one of the customers-qua-free coffee recipients speculated that it was either a prank or possibly a setup for a reality show.

It's not yet known who is behind Dumb Starbucks, nor who shelled out the money to rent and furnish the storefront space, and buy all the coffee and paraphernalia which was handed out for free. On Sunday, at 2:42 pm (Pacific time), KPCC updated its story to show that a Starbucks spokeswoman was “looking into: the Dumb Starbucks matter, but had no comment other than to confirm Dumb Starbucks is not connected to regular Starbucks.

It's also not known if Dumb Starbucks coffee tastes as scorched as the real thing.

As of Monday afternoon, Starbucks reports that its legal team is trying to identify or contact the Dumb Starbucks owner. 

More

Students at for-profit colleges less selective

Study finds many aren't even aware of school's for-profit status

Students who seek degrees at for-profit colleges are more likely to enroll without shopping price and course offerings at other for-profit and non-profit i...

PhotoStudents who seek degrees at for-profit colleges are more likely to enroll without shopping price and course offerings at other for-profit and non-profit institutions. That's one of the principal findings of a new study by Public Agenda, a non-profit group that studies complex and divisive issues.

The survey found that only four in ten undergraduate students at for-profit colleges said they seriously considered other schools before enrolling at their current institutions. An intriguing question, which the survey does not specifically address, is why.

The survey does, however, reveal that a large number of students at for-profit schools don't really understand what a for-profit school is, or how it is different from a public, non-profit school. The pollsters found most are unsure whether their schools are for-profit or not.

Advertising is effective

When you ask students what led them to consider a particular for-profit school, you learn – especially from the adult students – that they are more likely than others to say they learned about colleges from advertisements. State-supported non-profit colleges rarely advertise while for-profits advertise a lot.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has taken a keen interest in the marketing of for-profit schools, whose tuitions are much higher than most non-profits but whose students often take on loans and seek government grants to pay for their education.

In a New York Times op-ed in 2011, CFPB's Holly Petraeus accused some non-profit schools of focusing on members of the armed services and veterans with “aggressive and misleading marketing,” then failing to provide the academic support that was promised.

“Vast sums are involved.” she wrote. “Between 2006 and 2010, the money received in military education benefits by just 20 for-profit companies soared to an estimated $521.2 million from $66.6 million.

Alumni not dissatisfied

The Public Agenda survey shows students and graduates from for-profit schools are not completely dissatisfied. Their main complaint is the high cost of their education and their sizable student loan balance.

What they like about their for-profit schools – particularly adult students who have jobs – is that these schools tend to offer online classes, accelerated degrees, personal guidance from career counselors, financial aid advisers and tutors, and credit for practical, work-related experience.

Carolin Hagelskamp, director of research at Public Agenda and lead author of the report, says for-profit school graduates who have jobs are much more likely than unemployed alumni to say the experience was worth it.

"It is certainly the case in this study that many graduates from for-profit schools put some blame on their schools for not adequately preparing them for the job market," she said.

What employers think

Photo
Southern New Hampshire University

Another important question is how employers view applicants with degrees from for-profit schools. According to the survey, about half the surveyed employers don't perceive any difference between a degree from a for-profit school and one from a state university.

However, the other half who do see a big difference. Among this group those who see a difference view public schools as superior on a number of counts. In focus groups conducted along with the survey research, employers tended to favor traditional institutions, with many saying that they'd prefer to hire a candidate from a reputable state school versus a for-profit college.

For-profit schools have their supporters. They point out that these schools have been a source of innovation in higher education, being an early leader in the expansion of online education. The for-profit sector has also increased access to higher education for older students with substantial family responsibilities.

Non-profits catching up

The fact is, non-profit schools are quickly catching up, as evidenced by the recent emergence of Southern New Hampshire University – a private, non-profit university – becoming a leader in online education and advertising heavily.

For the survey's authors, the question gets back to why students aren't considering a wider range of schools?

“More needs to be done to help future students understand the value of comparing different schools,” the authors write. “Prospective students want and need better opportunities, online and in person, to engage with and evaluate quality indicators and other information about colleges and programs, including information on how different schools are governed and funded.”

More

Toyota may pay $1 billion to settle criminal investigation into acceleration cases

The automaker is said to be negotiating a settlement with U.S. prosecutors

Millions of recalls later, the unintended acceleration issue continues to haunt Toyota. The automaker is now trying to negotiate its way out of a criminal ...

PhotoMillions of recalls later, the unintended acceleration issue continues to haunt Toyota. The automaker is now trying to negotiate its way out of a criminal prosecution by the U.S. Attorney in New York City and the Wall Street Journal says the price tag may hit $1 billion. 

The issue is whether Toyota reported the acceleration problems to U.S. safety regulators in a timely manner, as the law requires.

A Toyota spokeswoman said the company was cooperating in the probe and said the company has made "fundamental changes to become more responsive and customer focused, and we're committed to continue to improve," Automotive News reported.

Meanwhile, Toyota is still facing hundreds of lawsuits over the unintended acceleration issue. It recalled millions of vehicles starting in 2009, prompted in part by a high-profile accident that killed a California Highway Patrol officer and his family when their Lexus went out of control because of an apparent acceleration problem.

The company faces more than 200 proposed class action and 500 individual lawsuits alleging personal injuries or property damage caused by the alleged acceleration problems.

The company has maintained the electronic throttle control system was not at fault, blaming ill-fitting floor mats and sticky gas pedals.

There had been allegations that the incidents were caused by Toyota's electornic throttle system but a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA found no indication of that. 

More

Advocacy groups step up pressure on Herbalife

Groups find unusual ally on Wall Street

Herbalife Ltd., is a consumer products company that uses a multi-level marketing (MLM), or direct sales method, to move merchandise. Instead of selling its...

PhotoHerbalife Ltd., is a consumer products company that uses a multi-level marketing (MLM), or direct sales method, to move merchandise. Instead of selling its line of products in retail stores it relies on its cadre of distributors to make sales.

Like many MLM companies Herbalife has come under criticism for allegedly pushing distributorships over products. Each distributor who signs up another distributor receives a portion of that distributor's profits.

The latest to criticize the company is a coalition of consumer advocates that is putting pressure on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to launch an investigation of Herbalife. The coalition, which includes the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), accuses the company of running an illegal pyramid scheme that uses deceptive business practices to target low-income communities, particularly Latinos, with false promises of wealth and success. The groups say the vast majority of Herbalife distributors earn no income from the company and most end up losing money.

Denies the charges

The company, for its part, has consistently denied these accusations. In a statement emailed to Bloomberg News last week, a company spokesman said the latest charges were based on “misinformation and misperceptions” and said Herbalife would welcome the opportunity to “educate” the coalition. But Brent Wilkes, LULAC National Executive Director, doesn't think he's been misinformed.

“I have spoken directly to a number of Herbalife’s Latino distributors and have listened to their stories about the aggressive recruitment techniques used to lure them into investing their savings,” he said. “Herbalife is a pyramid scheme that takes advantage of Latinos in our community.”

Wilkes said he would like to see Congress and federal regulators investigate Herbalife's business practices and he and other critics already have the ear of some influential lawmakers. Late last month Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) wrote to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the FTC to obtain more information about the company.

Unusual ally

Herbalife Feb. 10, 2014, 1:21 a.m.
Consumers rate Herbalife

Interestingly, the accusation that Herbalife is a pyramid scheme did not originate with consumer groups but with a Wall Street hedge fund manager.

In December, 2012, Bill Ackman, chairman of Pershing Square, announced he was “shorting” Herbalife stock to the tune of $1 billion. In simple terms, Ackman's “short” was his bet that the company's stock price would go down.

At the time, Ackman said he based his bet on his belief that Herbalife's business model was not only flawed, but that it was an illegal pyramid scheme. Carl Ichan, a major Herbalife stockholder, challenged Ackman's charges, leading to a bitter and personal televised debate on CNBC a month later.

Not backing down

Ackman, for his part, has not backed down from his charges. Ackman lately has been pointing fingers at specific Herbalife distributors he says have helped build the pyramid. He has also accused the company of violating its own rules.

The consumer groups, meanwhile, continue to ramp up the pressure and their numbers have grown in recent months. They include the National Consumers League and a large number of Hispanic community groups.

“More than 60% of Herbalife’s U.S. distributors are Latino – that’s more than three times the proportion of the Latino population of the country,” said Jose Calderón, President of the Hispanic Federation. “We have serious concerns about this company’s deceptive practices and we are calling on Washington now to protect our communities.”

Losing bet

So far, Ackman is losing his bet. When he shorted Herbalife in December 2012 the stock was selling for around $45. It sold last week for around $67.

Herbalife markets nutritional and weight-loss products. The company was founded in 1980 and is based in George Town, Cayman Islands.  

More

New York takes down largest cockfighting ring in state history

"Operation Angry Birds" rescues 3,000 roosters in three counties

New York's Organized Crime Task Force made nine felony arrests last weekend, as part of what state attorney general A.G. Schneiderman's office called &ldqu...

PhotoNew York's Organized Crime Task Force made nine felony arrests last weekend, as part of what state attorney general A.G. Schneiderman's office called “the largest cockfighting takedown in New York State history. “

Cockfighting is the illegal practice of forcing roosters to fight to the death, usually by replacing their natural fighting spurs with razors.

The OCTF executed “Operation Angry Birds” in Queens, Kings and Ulster counties, collecting up to 3,000 birds plus fighting paraphernalia.

In New York, cockfighting, or possession of a fighting bird at a fighting event, is a felony punishable by up to four years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Paying to attend a cockfighting event is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a jail and a $1,000 fine.

The SPCA has established a temporary shelter to house the rescued birds.

More

Sales up for brands that best meet customers' expectations

Amazon, Victoria's Secret, Macy's among brands that best promote customer engagement

The interaction of mobile and socially networked consumer empowerment, along with perpetual price promotions, have finally reached saturation levels, produ...

PhotoThe interaction of mobile and socially networked consumer empowerment, along with perpetual price promotions, have finally reached saturation levels, producing the highest levels of emotional consumer expectations for products and services in two decades, a new report by Brand Keys finds, adding that those expectations have direct effects on consumer loyalty and brand profitability.

In the Retail category expectations are up nearly 19% while the retail brands have only grown by 4% -- one of the critical findings in the 18th annual 2014 Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI), conducted by Brand Keys, a New York-based brand and customer loyalty and engagement research consultancy.

For all 45 brands tracked in the Retail category, emotional engagement expectations related to "brand buzz," "shopping experience" and "value-for-dollar" exerted the strongest influence on consumer decision-making and engagement with brands. While emotional engagement levels vary by category, brands in the Retail category that best met expectations consumers held for the Category-specific Ideal (100%) were:

• Victoria's Secret (apparel) (81%)
• Nike (athletic footwear) (91%)
• Macy's (department) (80%)
• Walmart (discount) (93%)
• Home Depot (home improvement) (87%)
• Whole Foods (natural foods) (90%)
• Amazon.com (online) (93%)
• Sam's (price clubs) (94%)
• Dick's (sporting goods) (83%)

"Congratulations to the companies that continue to create meaningful differentiation and engagement," said Robert Passikoff, President, Brand Keys. "Our validated and predictive metrics prove that brands able to better meet consumer expectations act as surrogates for added-value, engendering engagement and loyalty than those based on the primacy of product and a coupon!"

Category rankings

Emotional loyalty and engagement rankings for the 2014 Retail category are:

Apparel

1. Victoria's Secret
2. GAP
3. Abercrombie & Fitch
4. Banana Republic/Old Navy (tie)
5. American Eagle Outfitters
6. Aeropostale
7. J. Crew/H&M (tie)
8. Express
9. L.L. Bean
10. PacSun
11. American Apparel

Athletic Footwear

1. Nike
2. New Balance
3. Mizuno
4. Fila
5. Asics
6. Skechers/Adidas (tie)
7. Reebok
8. Brooks

Department Stores

1. Macy's
2. Dillard's
3. Kohl's
4. Marshalls
5. T.J. Maxx
6. Sears
7. JCPenney

Discount

1. Wal-Mart
2. Target
2. Kmart

Home Improvement

1. Home Depot
2. Ace
3. Lowe's
4. True Value

Natural Food Stores

1. Whole Foods
2. The Fresh Market
3. Trader Joe's
4. Sprouts Farmers Market

Online Retailers

1. Amazon.com
2. Ebay.com
3. Overstock.com
4. Zappos
5. Buy.com

Price Clubs

1. Sam's
2. Costco
3. BJ's

Sporting Goods

1. Dick's
2. Cabela's
3. REI
4. Big 5 Sporting Goods
5. Sports Authority/Modell's (tie)

"Meeting expectations for the Category Ideal always correlate highly with brand engagement, purchase, loyalty, and sales," said Passikoff. "The difficult part, of course, is accurately measuring consumer expectations. Most brands don't do that very well."

Categories that are more emotionally-driven are likely to have higher expectations that grow faster. More rational categories have lower expectations and move more slowly, he said.

More

Consumer Federation of America: higher fuel standards mean lower prices

CFA supports fuel-standard initiative oulined in the State of the Union address

In the 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned various “green” initiatives, including high fuel-economy standards for heavy ...

PhotoIn the 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama mentioned various “green” initiatives, including high fuel-economy standards for heavy trucks.

Some environmentalists criticized this for not going far enough. A writer for AutoblogGreen noted “The green car rhetoric of President Obama's State Of The Union speech last night was much, much softer than it was three years ago …. It was even less vociferous than last year.”

But the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) is taking a more optimistic view, releasing a report claiming that, if implemented, the proposed fuel standards will save American households a collective $29.5 billion — averaging $250 per household per year.

The full report, Paying the Freight, is available in .pdf form here. It concluded that American households currently pay about $1,100 per year in fuel costs for medium and heavy trucks. This number is not immediately visible to ordinary consumers, of course, because when you buy something in a store, you're not told how much of the price reflects the cost of shipping the item from factory to store.

The CFA also said lower fuel costs would surely result in lower retail prices for consumers “[b]ecause the transportation sector is very competitive, [so] the related cost savings in fuel will be passed through to consumers.” 

Though the bulk of the report focused on dollar-and-cent matters, it did also mention the environmental benefits that would accrue from reduced fossil-fuel use, as well as the national security benefit of reducing American dependence on oil imported from countries which don't necessarily like us.

More

Chrysler recalls Ram ProMasters

The accelerator pedal may get stuck

Chrysler Group is recalling 7,935 model year 2014 Ram ProMaster vehicles manufactured July 1, 2013, through December 10, 2013. If the accelerator pedal i...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 7,935 model year 2014 Ram ProMaster vehicles manufactured July 1, 2013, through December 10, 2013.

If the accelerator pedal in the affected vehicles is pushed downward at a certain angle, it may get stuck in the wide open throttle position due to interference with the accelerator pedal stopper. A stuck accelerator pedal can result in uncontrolled acceleration, increasing the risk of a crash.

These vehicles are equipped with a brake override system. In the event a pedal is trapped, pushing on the brake pedal will brake the vehicle and enable the driver to slow and stop and turn off the vehicle.

Chrysler will notify owners and dealers will replace the accelerator pedal stopper with a larger one, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in March 2014.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P02.  

More

Rancho Feeding recalls unwholesome meat products

The company processed diseased and unsound animals

Rancho Feeding Corporation of Petaluma, Calif., is recalling approximately 8,742,700 pounds of meat products. The firm processed diseased and unsound anim...

PhotoRancho Feeding Corporation of Petaluma, Calif., is recalling approximately 8,742,700 pounds of meat products.

The firm processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection. The products are adulterated, because they are unsound, unwholesome or otherwise are unfit for human food and must be removed from commerce.

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

The following Rancho Feeding Corporation products are subject to recall:

  • "Beef Carcasses” (wholesale and custom sales only)
  • 2 per box "Beef (Market) Heads" (retail only)
  • 4-gallons per box "Beef Blood" (wholesale only)
  • 20-lb. boxes of “Beef Oxtail”
  • 30-lb. boxes of “Beef Cheeks”
  • 30-lb. boxes of " Beef Lips"
  • 30-lb. boxes of "Beef Omasum"
  • 30-lb. boxes of "Beef Tripas"
  • 30-lb. boxes of "Mountain Oysters"
  • 30-lb. boxes of "Sweet Breads”
  • 30- and 60-lb. boxes of “Beef Liver”
  • 30- and 60-lb. boxes of “Beef Tripe”
  • 30- and 60-lb. boxes of “Beef Tongue”
  • 30- and 60-lb. boxes of "Veal Cuts"
  • 40-lb. boxes of "Veal Bones"
  • 50-lb. boxes of “Beef Feet”
  • 50-lb. boxes of “Beef Hearts”
  • 60-lb. boxes of "Veal Trim"

Beef carcasses and boxes bear the establishment number "EST. 527" inside the USDA mark of inspection. Each box bears the case code number ending in “3” or “4.”

The products were produced Jan. 1, 2013, through Jan. 7, 2014, and shipped to distribution centers and retail establishments nationwide.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the plant’s Quality Control manager, Scott Parks, at (707) 762-6651.

More

Big Red Tomato Packers recalls fresh tomatoes

The tomatoes may be contaminated with Salmonella

Big Red Tomato Packers of Fort Pierce, Fla., is recalling 790 - 20 and 25-lb. boxes of fresh tomatoes of lot 1106. The tomatoes have the potential to be c...

PhotoBig Red Tomato Packers of Fort Pierce, Fla., is recalling 790 - 20 and 25-lb. boxes of fresh tomatoes of lot 1106.

The tomatoes have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

There are no known illnesses associated with this lot number.

Tomatoes from the lot were distributed to a limited number of receivers in Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. All receivers have been notified.

The potential for contamination was discovered as the result of a routine random lot sample taken on January 28, 2014. All currently existing product associated with this lot number is subject to this recall.

Consumers with questions may contact Erin Cox at 772-466-0700 or erin@bigredtomatopackers.com.

More

Wyoming Authentic recalls beef jerky products

The products were processed improperly

Wyoming Authentic Products of Cody, Wyo., is recalling approximately 365 pounds of beef jerky products due to a processing deviation. There have been no r...

PhotoWyoming Authentic Products of Cody, Wyo., is recalling approximately 365 pounds of beef jerky products due to a processing deviation.

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

The following products, produced on various dates between November 4 and December 18, 2013, are subject to recall:

  • 3.5-oz. (CRYOVACED) packages of “ALL NATURAL ANGUS ORIGINAL FLAVOR JERKY” with case code “05AE30811”
  • 3.5-oz. (CRYOVACED) packages of “ALL NATURAL ANGUS PEPPERED FLAVOR JERKY” with case codes “06AE30821” , “05AE31021” , “05AE31711” or “05EIJ32511”
  • 3.5-oz. (CRYOVACED) packages of “ALL NATURAL ANGUS HONEY FLAVOR JERKY” with case code “04AE30921”

The recalled products bear the establishment number “EST. 44972” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were sold at retail locations in Colorado, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, as well as Internet sales to individuals.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact David Fales, president, at (307) 587-9841.

More

IRS updates smartphone tax aid app

You don't have to be at your desktop to keep up with the status of your return

No matter where you happen to be and working on your taxes, information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is as close as your smartphone or mobile de...

PhotoNo matter where you happen to be while working on your taxes, information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is as close as your smartphone or mobile device. The IRS has just released IRS2Go 4.0, an update to its app with new features, in both English and Spanish.

What taxpayers might find especially useful is a new refund status tracker. It provides taxpayers an easy-to-use feature that allows them to follow their tax return throughout the process. If you're shopping, for example, and wondering when you can expect that refund to hit your bank account, the app can tell you.

Around the clock help

“The new version of IRS2Go provides taxpayers another way to quickly get information and help around the clock,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “The IRS is focused on providing taxpayers with convenient self-service tools like IRS2Go, which provides details on everything from tax refunds to free tax assistance.”

IRS2GO debuted during the 2011 tax season and since then the IRS says there have been approximately 3.5 million downloads. iPhone and iPod Touch users can update or download the free IRS2Go application by visiting the iTunes App Store. Android users can visit Google Play to download the free IRS2Go app.

The IRS says its newest version of the free mobile app offers a safe way to check on your refund status. You simply enter a Social Security number, which will be masked and encrypted for security purposes. Then you select a filing status and enter the amount of the anticipated refund.

The new refund status tracker has been added so that taxpayers can check their refund status 24 hours after the IRS acknowledges receipt of an e-filed return, or four weeks after mailing a paper return. The IRS says the tool is updated just once a day, usually overnight, so there is no reason to check more than once a day.

Free tax help

The app can also put you in touch with free tax prep providers. The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) Programs offer free tax help for taxpayers who qualify.

This is a new feature of IRS2Go, which will direct taxpayers to the nearest VITA site by simply entering their zip code and selecting a mileage range. By clicking on the directions button within the results, the maps application on the device will load with the address, making it easy to navigate to your desired location.

Taxpayers can also use the app to request their tax account or tax return transcript. The transcript will be delivered via the U.S. Postal Service to their address of record.

More

Does LinkedIn know about your Google searches?

I'm getting some disquieting “People You Might Know” recommendations

For several months now, LinkedIn has faced various class-action lawsuits alleging that it's siphoning users' email contacts without permission...

More

Feb. 9, 1964: the day Beatlemania arrived in America

It was 50 years ago today, Ed Sullivan told the band to play...

Today, 50 years later, young people probably wonder what all the fuss was about. But on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and ...





Photo
The Beatles arrive at JFK (Photo credit: Library of Congress)
Today, 50 years later, young people probably wonder what all the fuss was about. But on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and entertainment, popular culture, perhaps even the world was never the same.

“Now yesterday and today our theater has been jammed with newspapermen and photographers from all over the nation and these veterans agree with me that the city has never witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool,” Sullivan said as he introduced John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to a massive U.S. audience.

Polished image

But America was a bit late to Beatlemania, which had been in full bloom for months in the group's native England. After playing small clubs in and around Liverpool, the group hired Brian Epstein as its manager. Epstein quickly and cleverly gave the Beatles a polished, professional image. Their music did the rest.

Teenagers, young women especially, screamed their approval at appearances and mobbed the four musicians if they happened to see them in public. Sullivan is said to have been at Heathrow Airport in London in the fall of 1963, where he witnessed throngs of screaming girls as the Beatles disembarked from a plane.

There is an alternate version of how the group came to Sullivan's attention. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite aired a lengthy feature story about Beatlemania in late 1963, which can be seen below.

Overnight sensation

Following the Ed Sullivan appearance the Beatles, almost overnight, became the most popular pop music group in America. Capital Records released one Beatles hit after another.

“I Want To Hold Your Hand” shot to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 immediately. By the time the group quit performing in 1970 it had held the number one spot on that chart for a total of 59 weeks while topping the LP charts for 116 weeks.

Perhaps more significantly, something about the Beatles captured the imagination of young people, not just in the U.S. but around the world. The group seemed to possess an authenticity that helped launch a social revolution. Some commentators mark the start of the decade of the 1960s on that cold Sunday night in February 1964.

Huge consumer product

Before they were finished as a group the Beatles had become a huge consumer product as well. In addition to their records there were books, movies and cartoon shows and their likeness appeared on hundreds of products, including lunchboxes and bed sheets.

Today these products are collectors' items. On eBay, a Beatles lunchbox has a price tag of $349. A set of Beatles bobble-head dolls has a "buy it now" price of $500.

Debra Hess Norris, a University of Delaware professor and expert on photographic preservation, says she still has a few treasured artifacts from her days as a Beatles fan which she carefully preserves. For those buying aging memorabilia, she urges careful treatment.

"Protect these materials from high and fluctuating temperatures and humidity," she said. "Do not store memorabilia in attics or basements. House them in a stable, low-humidity environment, such as an interior closet." 

Lasting legacy

After the Beatles broke up the four individual members continued solo musical careers. Today only two members of the group survive and one, Paul McCartney, has been knighted by the Queen of England.

Every few years their music is remastered and released, not just for nostalgic former teenagers with gray hair but also a new generation of fans, who find something to relate to in their music.

More

Bank of America doesn't always put its best foot forward

Once again, data brokers make asses of themselves and their clients

If we were just a tad more cynical, we'd be tempted to say “American data brokers aren't even trying anymore.” For example: if you can't cash v...

PhotoIf we were just a tad more cynical, we'd be tempted to say “American data brokers aren't even trying anymore.” For example: if you can't cash valid checks in various stores because a verification service falsely labeled you a poor credit risk, too bad; you have no recourse except to find other methods of payment.

Or think of last month, when a Chicago man named Mike Seay, still grieving the loss of his teenage daughter who'd died in a car crash the year before, was appalled to get a form letter from Office Max, addressed to “Mike Seay/Daughter Killed in Car Crash or Current Business.”

Office Max originally dubbed Seay's claim “impossible,” then relented enough to admit the envelope was real, but blamed it on “a mailing list rented through a third-party provider.”

(Blaming “third parties” for business screwups is SOP these days. Last month, the developers of the popular Angry Birds game blamed “third party advertising platforms” for allowing the NSA to spy on its customers; Target recently blamed a third-party refrigerator repairman for its massive security breach affecting the data and personal information of over 40 million customers.)

Bank of America  Feb. 7, 2014, 8:06 p.m.
Consumers rate Bank of America

And now, Bank of America is blaming third-party data brokers for an insulting credit card offer mailed to a California writer named Lisa McIntire. Offhand, we do not know Ms. McIntire's middle name (if she even has one), but her credit card offer was addressed to “Lisa Is A Slut McIntire.”

Once again, a third-party data source is apparently to blame; Bank of America got McIntire's name off a mailing list of members of the Golden Key International Honor Society, and a Golden Key executive determined that Ms. McIntire's insulting middle name was added to the Golden Key list sometime between 2004 and 2008, presumably by someone with database access and a grudge against Ms. McIntire.

What to do

There's not much you can do to avoid similar situations.

But here's one piece of advice we can offer: if ever you find yourself the recipient of such an obnoxious mailing and want to post images of it to share with the world, remember that blacking out your street or mailing address is not enough to protect your privacy; you must also black out the last four digits of a nine-digit zip code. For those who know how to read the numbers, those four digits either lead directly to your address, or within a few steps of it.

More

Frittering away the day

A new survey finds Internet surfing and socializing are the biggest time-wasters at work

How many times have you heard people say, “I just couldn't get anything accomplished at work today?” Goofing off at work may be why. A new survey of chie...

PhotoHow many times have you heard people say, “I just couldn't get anything accomplished at work today?”

Goofing off at work may be why.

A new survey of chief financial officers (CFOs) from Robert Half Management Resources find that water cooler chatter and Web surfing are the top time thieves at work. Nearly one-third (29%) of executives interviewed said chatting with coworkers is the greatest time-waster. Non-business related Internet use -- including social media -- ranked a not-too-distant second, garnering 25% cent of the response.

"Building relationships with coworkers and colleagues is important for office morale, so socializing is acceptable within reason," said David King, Canadian president of Robert Half Management Resources "That said, too many distractions at work can affect productivity so it's best to keep a balance between non-work tasks during business hours and professional obligations."

Death by meeting

One in 10 financial executives polled said meetings drain significant time, with the data suggesting this is most pronounced at larger companies. At companies with 1,000 or more employees, meetings received 26% of the response, versus just 9% at firms with 20 to 49 workers.

CFOs were asked, "Which one of the following is the greatest time-waster at work for employees?" Their responses:

Employees chatting and socializing29%
Non-business related Internet use (including social media)25%
Personal calls or emails15%
Work-related email14%
Meetings 10%
Other/don't know7%
 100%

King said that if there's a noticeable amount of time spent on non-work tasks, executives should try to find out why. “It could be a matter of too much or too little on employees' plates, or a dip in staff engagement,” he said, adding that bosses need to “monitor the distribution of projects to ensure the right amount of challenge and engagement across the board."

The Canadian survey was developed by Robert Half Management Resources, and was conducted by an independent research firm based on interviews with more than 270 CFOs from a random sample of Canadian companies.

More

Guidelines developed for preventing stroke in women

Low-dose aspirin and blood pressure meds recommended for some

Noting that more women have strokes than men and have a higher death rate, American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association have issued a sci...

PhotoNoting that more women have strokes than men and have a higher death rate, American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association have issued a scientific statement designed to reduce the risk of stroke in women.

"If you are a woman, you share many of the same risk factors for stroke with men, but your risk is also influenced by hormones, reproductive health, pregnancy, childbirth and other sex-related factors," said Cheryl Bushnell, M.D., M.H.S., author of the new scientific statement published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke.

The guidelines, geared to primary care providers, including OBGYNs, outline stroke risks unique to women.

What to do

Here are some of the experts' scientifically-based recommendations for treatment, including:

  • Women with a history of high blood pressure before pregnancy should be considered for low-dose aspirin and/or calcium supplement therapy to lower preeclampsia risks.
  • Women who have preeclampsia have twice the risk of stroke and a four-fold risk of high blood pressure later in life. Therefore, preeclampsia should be recognized as a risk factor well after pregnancy, and other risk factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, and obesity in these women should be treated early.
  • Pregnant women with moderately high blood pressure (150-159 mmHg/100-109 mmHg) may be considered for blood pressure medication, whereas expectant mothers with severe high blood pressure (160/110 mmHg or above) should be treated.
  • Women should be screened for high blood pressure before taking birth control pills because the combination raises stroke risks.
  • Women who have migraine headaches with aura should stop smoking to avoid higher stroke risks.
  • Women over age 75 should be screened for atrial fibrillation risks due to its link to higher stroke risk.

Preeclampsia and eclampsia are blood pressure disorders during pregnancy that cause major complications, including stroke during or after delivery, premature birth, and risk for stroke well after child-bearing. Preeclampsia is characterized by high blood pressure and high protein levels in the urine, and when seizure also occurs, this is called eclampsia.

High blood pressure, migraine with aura, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, depression and emotional stress are stroke risk factors that tend to be stronger or more common in women than in men. More studies need to be done to develop a female-specific score to identify women at risk for stroke, said Bushnell, associate professor of neurology and director of the Stroke Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.

More

Retailers foresee a better 2014

Online sales are projected to grow as much As 12%

People in the retail game are predicting that this will be a better year for sales than 2013 -- not a whole lot better -- but better . The National Retail...

PhotoPeople in the retail game are predicting that this will be a better year for sales than 2013 -- not a whole lot better -- but better .

The National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2014 economic forecast projects retail industry sales (which exclude automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants) will increase 4.1% percent. Online sales this year projected to grow between 9 and 12%.

Preliminary figures for 2013 put sales growth at 3.7%.

“Measured improvements in economic growth combined with positive expectations for continued consumer spending will put the retail industry in a relatively good place in 2014,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Though headwinds in the form of the looming debt ceiling debates, increased health care costs, and regulatory concerns still pose risks for both consumers and retailers, we are cautiously optimistic and hopeful that the economic tides will change in 2014.

Growth factors

A number of factors contribute to NRF’s 2014 economic forecast, including:

  • Economic growth is expected to be above its long-term historical average. Early estimates for growth in the economy as measured by real GDP could fall between 2.6 and 3%, a noticeable improvement from the estimated 1.9% rate for 2013, and the fastest pace in the past three years.
  • The labor market is expected to continue its modest recovery averaging approximately 185,000 jobs per month, helping drop the unemployment rate to near 6.5% or lower by year's end.
  • Inflation as measured by the consumer price index is predicted to inch higher to as much as 1.7% in 2014.
  • The housing sector is expected to continue to improve in 2014, with stronger household and business confidence spurring more consumer spending overall.

“The economy remains susceptible to buffets as we are already witnessing in the New Year, thanks to harsh winter weather, domestic and global financial issues,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. “While we are careful not to ignore the challenges, we are optimistic and hopeful that future disruptions will be limited, allowing employment and business investment to grow all the while giving retailers and their customers the confidence in the economy they need.”

More

Unemployment rate inches lower amid weaker-than-expected job creation

Construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, and mining showed the best gains

It wasn't much of a performance, but it was better that December. The government reports the economy created 113,000 jobs in January, more than the 75,000...

PhotoIt wasn't much of a performance, but it was better that December.

The government reports the economy created 113,000 jobs in January, more than the 75,000 the month before, but well short of the 175,000 forecast by economists surveyed by Briefing.com and the 175,000 reported by ADP.

Even so, the jobless rate dipped 0.1% -- to 6.6%.

Analysts say the last two months of disappointing job creation suggest the labor market is in something of a funk.

Where the jobs are

It was a good month for the construction, which added 48,000 jobs -- more than offsetting a decline of 22,000 in December. Employment in manufacturing rose by 21,000 in January, while wholesale trade added 14,000 jobs, and mining reported 7,000 new hires.

Among the losers were retail trade with a loss of 13,000 jobs and the federal government, where employment decreased by 12,000 with the U.S. Postal Service accounted for most of it (-9,000).

Employment in transportation and warehousing, information, and financial activities showed little or no change over the month.

Who's working and who's not

The unemployment rates for adult men (6.2%), adult women (5.9%), teenagers (20.7%), whites (5.7%), blacks (12.1%) and Hispanics (8.4%) showed little change in January. The jobless rate for Asians was 4.8% -- down by 1.7% over the year.

The complete January employment report is available on the Labor Department website.

More

Singles sound off on dating, sex and marriage

Dating landscape has changed in some ways, not so much in others

Have attitudes about romance and dating changed in recent years? Has the new generation of singles – people in their 20s and 30s – reshaped the...

PhotoHave attitudes about romance and dating changed in recent years? Has the new generation of singles – people in their 20s and 30s – reshaped the whole idea of love?

Pertinent questions as Valentines Day approaches and issues explored in a new survey of singles from online dating site Match.com. The annual survey, now in its fourth year, suggests singles of all ages are leading the way toward more intimate partnerships and dramatically altering traditional beliefs about sex, love and attachment.

New to this year's survey were questions designed to explore the impact of singles on the economy and how much they spend on their dating lives.

“It's thrilling for me, as an anthropologist, to dig deep into singles' collective psyche with this annual survey, and watch singles of all ages lead the way toward a less prejudiced society,” said Dr. Helen Fisher, Match.com's science advisor.

What's new?

What did Fisher learn from the responses to this year's survey? That men are far more loving -- and committed -- than most believe. That women are eagerly embracing self-expression and independence. That older people are still ‘hip’ and that new sexual and social taboos are emerging. And something else that might surprise you.

“Both sexes are entering new relationships slowly -- with the aim to make them last,” Fisher said.

Whether the two parties want the relationship to end in marriage or not, they seem to want it to be long-term, providing some of the perceived benefits of relationships from earlier generations.

Valuable information

PhotoHere are some things that singles should know:

That first date may be more important than you think. You might be going into it as a one-time thing but your partner may have other ideas. The survey shows that 51% of singles on a first date have “imagined a future together.” It might surprise you to learn that slightly more men than women admit to this.

You may expect to be judged by your date, but how will you be judged? If you're a man, you are more likely to judge a woman by her tattoos. You are not likely to even look at her shoes.

Women, on the other hand, don't put much stock in the kind of car you're driving. On the other hand, she will pay close attention to your clothes.

Change the subject

Are there topics of conversation you should avoid on a first date? You betcha. The survey found both men and women would prefer not to hear about your past relationships, your political views, or your belief – or lack of belief – in a deity.

What about sex on a first date? The survey shows only eight percent of women are okay with it but – no surprise here – 37% of men think it's a fine idea. Both sexes generally agree that kissing is okay.

Tried and true

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Seventy-nine percent of singles in their twenties and 62% of singles in their thirties say they want to get married. Overall, 50% of men and 55% of women are eager to walk down the aisle.

Another thing that hasn't changed much is tolerance for tardiness. Thirty-five percent of men and 39% of women believe you only can be up to 15 minutes late for a date, while 11% of singles think being late is always unacceptable.

In the end, dating does more than stimulate your social life. It also stimulates the economy. They survey found that singles spend nearly $61.53 per month on dating-related activities, totaling approximately $738.36 each year per individual. With 111 million singles in the U.S., adds up to some $82 billion a year.

More

Feds beef up infant formula standards

New rules aim to ensure formula is safe and nutritious

Breastfeeding is one of those things that everybody -- well, mothers anyway -- say they're going to do. But for various reasons it often doesn't happen, le...

PhotoBreastfeeding is one of those things that everybody -- well, mothers anyway -- say they're going to do. But for various reasons it often doesn't happen, leaving about 25 percent of newborns to start out in life as consumers of formula.

By the time they're three months old, two-thirds of U.S. infants rely on formula for at least some of their daily bread, so to speak. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, taking note of this, is publishing a new rule that's intended to make sure that formula is both safe and nutritious.

“Many families rely on infant formula as either the sole source of nutrition or an integral part of an infant’s diet through 12 months of age,” said Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. “The FDA sets high quality standards for infant formulas because nutritional deficiencies during this critical time of development can have a significant impact on a child’s long-term health and well-being. This rule will help to prevent adulteration in infant formula and ensure infant formula supports normal, physical growth.” 

Formula, of course, is supposed to be roughly similar to mother's milk but similar isn't the same as identical.

Byproducts

PhotoThe formula produced in the United States basically uses byproducts of milk -- whey and casein for protein, along with vegetable oils for fat, lactose as a carbohydrate and assorted vitamins and minerals. Exact formulas vary from one manufacturer to another. Some use soy in place of milk. 

Like all packaged foods, there are safety issues to worry about -- spoilage, contamination, etc. And since most families buy powdered rather than liquid formula, safe preparation also becomes an issue.

Improper preparation and the use of contaminated water can cause serious health problems, including death. Consumer groups routinely demonize formula manufacturers for promoting their products in underdeveloped nations where sanitation standards make it hard to ensure the safe preparation of formula. 

Severe health consequences are rare in the U.S. but there are many critics who argue that not enough is done to encourage mothers to breast feed.

In 2008, some formula was found to contain melamine,  a chemical approved for use in production of some plastics in the U.S., but not approved for use in food. It had earlier shown up in food products imported from China, causing numerous pet injuries and deaths in 2007, and prompting recalls of some milk products. A number of Chinese babies were killed or injured after drinking infant formula containing melamine.

The FDA later said the amounts of melamine found in formula were safe.

"Interim final rule"

Today's FDA document is called an "interim final rule." Yes, it sounds contradictory but that's how they talk in Washington.

The agency says the rule amends its quality control procedures, notification, and record and reporting requirements for manufacturers of applicable infant formula products. The rule, in part, will ensure that infant formula contains all federally required nutrients. It also establishes current good manufacturing practices specifically designed for infant formula, including required testing for microbial contamination.

More

Cheese prices are rising; will pizza prices rise too?

Bad year for dairy farmers means bad news for cheese lovers

Bad news for thrifty pizza lovers: the price of cheese is creeping upwards and sooner or later is likely to hit pizza's bottom line.Bloomberg BusinessWee...

PhotoBad news for thrifty pizza lovers: the price of cheese is creeping upwards and sooner or later is likely to hit pizza's bottom line.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that since the beginning of December, cheese prices have risen approximately 16 percent for mozzarella and 25 percent for cheddar. Dairy farmers worldwide had a pretty bad year in 2013, what with poor weather and high feed costs. The milk producers' higher costs led to the higher cheese prices, which have not resulted in noticeable price increases at various pizza chains—at least, not yet.

But Bloomberg pointed out that last month, at an investors' meeting for Domino's Pizza, Domino's chief financial officer said “In the last couple of days, I’ve had a lot of questions about cheese because it spiked up, and cheese is the biggest commodity. Even taking that into account when you look at the whole basket, and you look at the projections on cheese for the year, we are still projecting that we would be down in the range of 0 percent to 2 percent.”

If cheese prices continue rising, there's a definite limit to how long pizza makers and sellers would absorb those costs without passing them along to consumers in the form of higher prices.

So what's a consumer to do? Some types of food-price rises can be dealt with by stockpiling — if this year's peanut crop is bad, it's a good idea to buy a couple extra jars of your favorite peanut butter before the price goes up.

Laying in a twelve-month supply of peanut butter to tide you over until next year's (hopefully better) crop comes in is easy; however, unless you have industrial-grade deep-freeze storage facilities, you can't stockpile a year's worth of mozzarella without it soon turning into a moldy inedible mess. 

So maybe the best advice is to get familiar with pasta. 

More

Subway to change recipe, remove potentially dangerous chemical from bread

The "FoodBabe" blogger may or may not deserve credit for this

The Subway sandwich chain is changing the recipe of its sandwich bread, to cease use of a chemical additive called azodicarbonamide. Subway, along with var...

PhotoThe Subway sandwich chain is changing the recipe for its sandwich bread, to eliminate a chemical additive called azodicarbonamide, a bleaching agent that can make flour appear whiter. It also gives bread additional elasticity, and works as a preservative to let fresh bread last considerably longer before going stale.

So why not bake bread with this miracle chemical?

Well, according to various governments in Europe and Australia, azodicarbonamide is a “respiratory sensitizer” that can trigger asthmatic reactions. In Singapore, using azodicarbonamide in food warrants high fines and lengthy prison sentences.

In most of the world, azodicarbonamide is primarily used in the manufacture of rubber and plastics.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration takes a slightly different view: azodicarbonamide is “Generally Recognized As Safe” in food — but may only be present in densities no greater than 45 parts per million.

Pressure from the Blogosphere

Just why Subway made its decision is open to discussion. It may have been in response to a petition started by Vani Hari, the blogger behind FoodBabe.com.

Last September, FoodBabe warned her readers about azodicarbonamide in a post that asked, “Are you eating this ingredient banned all over the world?”

This week, on Feb. 4, she urged her readers to sign a petition asking Subway to remove the chemical from its breads.

Story continues below video

Today, the Associated Press reported that Subway is in the process of removing the chemical from its recipes, quoting an unnamed Subway representative who said the change was underway before FoodBabe's petition came to their attention.

More

Coca-Cola in a K-cup? Coffee makers expand at-home offerings

Hot coffee, hot soup and cold soda, all from one company

Last September came news that Campbell's soup company was joining forces with Keurig coffee makers, presumably in hope of tapping the lucrative “cust...

PhotoLast September came news that Campbell's soup company was joining forces with Keurig coffee makers, presumably in hopes of tapping the lucrative “customers who want their dried soup mix with coffee-flavored water added” market.

And now, Coca-Cola is making its own forays into the coffee market, having bought a 10 percent stake in Green Mountain Coffee Roasters -- which makes the Keurig machine -- in hopes of selling its beverages through an at-home system Green Mountain is devising. (Or maybe we should reverse that order: Last September, Keurig coffee joined forces with Campbell's to enter the instant-soup market, and now it's going after chilled carbonated beverages, too.) Either way, it's a big deal for Green Mountain.

"This global relationship combines The Coca-Cola Company's unparalleled brand, distribution and marketing strengths with GMCR's innovative technology and beverage system expertise," said Brian P. Kelley, President and CEO of Green Mountain.

Coke would have you think it's doing all this to make your life immeasurably better.

"Importantly, this partnership provides our consumers with a convenient way to enjoy the brands they love through in-home preparation," said said Muhtar Kent, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, The Coca-Cola Company.

Stop the slide

It may also help Coke reverse a decade-long slide in soda consumption and put a stake through the heart of Sodastream as well. 

Some of that decline in soda consumption is doubtless due to the rise in concerns over diabetes and weight gain, but blame also belongs to the rise in at-home soda fountains such as SodaStream. (Indeed, while some people might roll their eyes at the thought of an at-home soda fountain – once upon a time, the thought of people brewing their own coffee at home inspired just as much eye-rolling.)

For Keurig/Green Mountain, working Coke into its business operations will be more complicated than Campbell's. The Campbell's Soup offerings work on the same basic principle as the coffee K-cups: open the cup and add hot water. Soda-making is a completely different process, requiring a steady source of cold carbonated water.

Green Mountain says its Coke-based home drink offerings should be available by September 2015.

More

Feds open investigation of Evenflo car seats

Consumers complain the harness buckle would not unlatch

An Evenflo seat (file photo)Federal safety regulators are looking into reports from parents who say the harness buckles on their Evenflo car seats are ...

Photo
An Evenflo seat (file photo)

Federal safety regulators are looking into reports from parents who say the harness buckles on their Evenflo car seats are difficult or, in some cases, impossible to unlatch.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has received 18 complaints from consumers, including three who said they had to cut the harness straps to free their child from the seat.

At least one person had to call for help because of the problem.

"I buckled my daughter into her carseat and took off to our destination. When we arrived, I could not unbuckle her," the complainant said. "I called the police and they helped me to get her out safely by cutting the straps."

Another parent who could not manage to unbuckle her daughter's strap noted the situation poses a critical hazard in the event of a fire: "If there had been an accident with fire, the only way to get the baby out would be to remove the whole car seat from the vehicle. Her father had told me a week ago to carry scissors in case something happened so I could cut her out."

One person said it took more than two hours to free their child frp, tje seat: "Several adults tried with the father trying for two hours."

NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation said a preliminary check of the database indicated that Evenflo may have manufactured some of its car seats with buckles made by AmSafe Commercial Products, which had been investigated earlier. 

The current investigation, formally known as a "preliminary evaluation" is the first step in the process that can eventually lead to a recall.

More

Got your flu shot yet? It's not too late

The flu season isn't over by a long shot

Okay it's February and you still haven't got around to getting your flu shot. That doesn't mean you're cooked. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say...

PhotoOkay it's February and you still haven't got around to getting your flu shot. That doesn't mean you're cooked.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says vaccinations can be protective as long as flu viruses are circulating. And while seasonal flu outbreaks can happen as early as October, flu activity usually peaks in January or February, and can last well into May. So -- get with it.

Why a new vaccine

Marion Gruber, Ph.D., director of FDA’s Office of Vaccine Research and Review points out that there are several reasons that new vaccines must be manufactured each year. “Influenza viruses can change from year to year, due to different subtypes and strains that circulate each year,” she explains. “A vaccine is needed that includes virus strains that most closely match those in circulation, and the protection provided by the previous year’s vaccine will diminish over time.

Each February, before that year’s flu season ends, FDA, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health experts collaborate on collecting and reviewing data from around the world to identify the flu viruses likely to cause the most illnesses in the next flu season. Based on that information and the recommendations of an FDA advisory committee, the agency selects the virus strains for FDA-licensed manufacturers to include in their vaccines for use in the United States.

“The closer the match between the circulating strains causing disease and the virus strains in the vaccine, the better the protection against influenza,” Gruber says.

The most affected

CDC tracks flu activity year round in the U.S. and typically children and seniors are most at risk for influenza, but occasionally a flu virus will circulate that disproportionately affects young and middle-aged adults. So far, data reported by CDC suggest that 2013-2014 could be such a flu season.

CDC received an unusually high number of reports of severe respiratory illness among young and middle-aged adults in the last two months of 2013. Many of the cases were associated with the H1N1 strain of influenza that affected children and young adults compared to older adults during the 2009 influenza pandemic.

The 2009 H1N1 virus has circulated each year since the pandemic. It is not known if those most severely affected received a vaccine, but this particular strain is included in this year’s vaccine and will help provide protection.

“Influenza seasons and severity are often unpredictable. Annual influenza vaccination is the best way to prevent influenza among people 6 months of age and older,” says Gruber. “However, taking such practical measures as washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home when sick can also help to decrease the spread and minimize the effects of flu.”

In addition, while antiviral drugs are not a substitute for vaccine, they can help to treat influenza. Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) and Relenza (zanamivir) are the two FDA-approved influenza antiviral drugs recommended by CDC for use against recently circulating influenza viruses.

More

Mediterranean-style diets are the most heart-healthy, study finds

Strictly low-fat diets may lower cholesterol but aren't shown to reduce cardiac deaths

Losing weight is one thing. Reducing the risk of coronary disease is another. And a study published in The American Journal of Medicine finds that when it ...

PhotoLosing weight is one thing. Reducing the risk of coronary disease is another. And a study published in The American Journal of Medicine finds that when it comes to heart health, a whole diet approach, which focuses on increased intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish, has more evidence for reducing cardiovascular risk than strategies that focus exclusively on reduced dietary fat.

This new study explains that while strictly low-fat diets have the ability to lower cholesterol, they are not as conclusive in reducing cardiac deaths. By analyzing major diet and heart disease studies conducted over the last several decades, investigators found that participants directed to adopt a whole diet approach instead of limiting fat intake had a greater reduction in cardiovascular death and non-fatal myocardial infarction.

Early investigations of the relationship between food and heart disease linked high levels of serum cholesterol to increased intake of saturated fat, and subsequently, an increased rate of coronary heart disease. This led to the American Heart Association's recommendation to limit fat intake to less than 30% of daily calories, saturated fat to 10%, and cholesterol to less than 300 mg per day.

"Nearly all clinical trials in the 1960s, 70s and 80s compared usual diets to those characterized by low total fat, low saturated fat, low dietary cholesterol, and increased polyunsaturated fats," says study co-author James E. Dalen, MD, MPH, Weil Foundation, and University of Arizona College of Medicine. "These diets did reduce cholesterol levels. However they did not reduce the incidence of myocardial infarction or coronary heart disease deaths."

Carefully analyzing studies and trials from 1957 to the present, investigators found that the whole diet approach, and specifically Mediterranean-style diets, are effective in preventing heart disease, even though they may not lower total serum or LDL cholesterol.

The Mediterranean-style diet is low in animal products and saturated fat, and encourages intake of monounsaturated fats found in nuts and olive oil. In particular, the diet emphasizes consumption of vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, and fish.

More

Survey shows consumers still worry about food safety

New food safety law, meanwhile, has yet to be fully implemented

A new Harris Poll shows consumers appear to be growing increasingly concerned about the safety of food they put on the table. The poll shows 86% of consume...

PhotoA new Harris Poll shows consumers appear to be growing increasingly concerned about the safety of food they put on the table. The poll shows 86% of consumers are at least “somewhat concerned” about the number of food recalls that occur in the U.S.

For example, in February alone ConsumerAffairs has reported at least six food recalls in the first five days of the month. Not surprisingly, the Harris Poll finds 73% of consumers say they would like to see more government oversight in regard to food safety.

Drilling down through the data, the survey finds women more likely than men to be concerned about food safety and more supportive of government oversight. Consumers in households with annual income less than $35,000 are more concerned than higher income consumers about the integrity of the food supply.

Political breakdown

Politically, the breakdown is where you would expect it. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to characterize food recalls as a serious concern, with 86% of Democrats calling for more government oversight to 70% for Independents and 60% for Republicans.

Currently, most of the food safety oversight in the U.S. is divided up among three agencies – the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There have been a number of efforts in Congress to consolidate these responsibilities under one agency.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most sweeping reform of U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years, was signed into law in early 2011. It shifts the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.

Not fully implemented

The law, however, is still not fully implemented. FDA is continuing to propose new regulations and finalize rules called for under the new law. The end result, however, should be more oversight responsibility resting with FDA.

A significant aspect of the law is the requirement placed on food processing facilities to evaluate the hazards in their operations, implement and monitor effective measures to prevent contamination, and have a plan in place to take any corrective actions that are necessary.

It also requires FDA to establish science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables to minimize the risk of serious illnesses or death. According to the FDA this new ability to hold food companies accountable for preventing contamination is a significant milestone in the efforts to modernize the food safety system.

Industry attitude

The U.S. food industry has been generally supportive of some of the provisions, expressing the most enthusiasm for the part of the law giving FDA greater authority to oversee food imports. In a global economy an estimated 15% of the U.S. food supply now comes from other countries, including 60% of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80% of seafood.

The law requires importers to perform supplier verification activities to ensure imported food is safe. It also authorizes FDA to refuse admission to imported food if the foreign facility or country refuses to allow an FDA inspection.

Perhaps most significantly, the FSMA, for the first time, gives FDA authority to recall all food products. Currently food companies issue recalls voluntarily.

Maybe because of the piecemeal implementation of the new law consumers continue to express concern about food safety. When there is a high-profile food recall, the survey suggests the company at issue takes a short-term hit but that consumers, over time, are pretty forgiving. Over half the consumers in the survey said that if a brand they usually purchase is involved with a recall or safety concern issue, they'll temporarily switch to another brand and then return to the recalled brand once it's safe.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that one in six Americans – 48 million people – got sick from a foodborne illness. It estimates 128,000 were hospitalized and 3,000 died.

More

Disappointing holiday sales send job cuts surging

Retailers took the heaviest hit in January

U.S.-based employers announced plans to reduce their payrolls by 45,107 in January -- up nearly 50% from the month before. Outplacement consultancy Challe...

PhotoU.S.-based employers announced plans to reduce their payrolls by 45,107 in January -- up nearly 50% from the month before.

Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which tracks labor developments, says the increase follows the eliminated of 30,623 positions -- the lowest one-month total since 17,241 cuts were announced in June 2000.

Most of the downsizing occurred in retail, where poor earnings led to a wave of job cut announcements from several national chains, including Macy’s, Sam’s Club, JC Penney, Sears, Best Buy and Target. Overall, retailers cut 11,394 job cuts in January -- up 71% from the 6,676 retail cuts tracked in January 2013. It was the heaviest for the sector since last March, when 16,445 positions were eliminated.

Weaker holiday sales blamed

“Holiday sales gains were relatively weak and many retailers achieved the gains by slashing prices on their products, which adversely impacted their year-end earnings,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The post-holiday job-letting in the sector was inevitable.”

Challenger believes this is only the beginning. “Starting in January, retailers started shedding the tens of thousands of temporary seasonal workers hired to help handle the holiday rush,” he pointed out. “The announced job cuts, on the other hand, will impact full-time, permanent workers in the stores and at the corporate offices of these struggling chains.”

J.C. Penney Co., for example, announced that it would be cutting 2,000 workers from its payrolls as it closes 33 stores. Meanwhile, reports indicate that Macy’s will rely on a combination of store closings, job cuts among front-end store personnel, as well as a reduction in some merchandise planning positions and central office roles to reduce its headcount by 2,500 jobs.

Technology cuts

Not every sector announcing job cuts is struggling. Several significant job-cut announcements came from companies in the technology sector. The computer industry ranked second among January job cutters, announcing plans to eliminate 6,456 positions during the month -- up 146% from a year earlier when firms announced 2,626 job cuts.

“Perhaps the most notable cuts in the tech sector came from Intel and EMC Corp..” said Challenger. “In both cases, the cuts were due to shifts in business strategies. In these situations, it is not uncommon for job cuts to occur in one area while hiring occurs in another. In fact, EMC indicated in its announcement that it expects to end 2014 with the same number of employees it had to begin the year.”

The financial sector, which finished 2013 as the top job-cutting sector of the year with 60,962, started 2014 as the third largest. Employers in financial services reported 4,817 planned terminations in January -- down 44% from the 8,578 financial job cuts these firms announced to begin 2013.

Challenger wars that this could be another year of significant downsizing in the banking industry. While the housing market is bouncing back, many banks had ballooned their staffing in mortgage lending area to deal with foreclosures and troubled assets,” he noted. “As the number of foreclosures, refinancings, and troubled mortgages continue to decline, so will the need for these extra workers. The remaining mortgage bankers should be busy with increased home lending, but right now the staffs are larger than demand warrants.”

Initial jobless claims

PhotoSeparately, fewer workers found themselves in the unemployment line last week.

The government reports 331,000 people filed first-time claims for jobless benefits during the week ending February 1 -- a drop of 20,000 from the week before. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for a total of 335,000 filings.

Analysts say the upward spike to 351,000 the week before was likely due to the extreme cold experience in many areas of the country.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and, thus considered a more reliable indicator of the labor market, rose 250 -- to 334,000.

The complete report is available on the Labor Department website.

More

Cervelo Bicycles with Aduro aero handlebars recalled

The forward extension mounts can detach from the base bar

3T Design of Hong Kong is recalling about 1,525 Cervelo P5 bicycles with 3T Aduro aero handlebars in the U.S. and Canada. The forward extension mounts ca...

Photo3T Design of Hong Kong is recalling about 1,525 Cervelo P5 bicycles with 3T Aduro aero handlebars in the U.S. and Canada.

The forward extension mounts can detach from the base bar causing the rider to lose control, posing a risk of injury.

The company has received 28 reports of incidents, including one report of a broken collar bone and four reports of abrasions.

The recall includes 2012 and 2013 Cervelo P5 bicycles equipped with 3T Aduro aero handlebars. The bicycles are black with red and white stripes. “P5” is on the seat tube, "Cervelo" is on the top tube and a large “é” is on the down tube in white lettering. The handlebars consist of four major components: a base bar, which attaches to the bike; a forward extension mount, which attaches to the base bar; forearm rests and forward extension bars, which attach to the forward extension mount. The base bar is black with red and white stripes and has “3T” on the top and rear. The handlebars come with both a high and a low forward extension mount, one of which will be installed based on customer fit. Consumers can purchase an ultra-low forward extension mount separately.

The words “Ultimate Performance” are on the forward extensions. The handlebars were manufactured between January 2012 and July 2012. Serial numbers for the handlebars are on a label inside the base bar under the stem cap on the rear wall. The serial number is the seven-digit number following “FM78-Basebar-.” The manufacture date code is the first four digits of the serial number in the MMYY format. Date codes for the defective handlebars range from 1201 to 1207. P5 bicycles which have already been inspected and passed at retailers are distinguished by a green sticker with an “é” on the underside of the Aduro base bar.

The bicycles, manufactured in China, were sold at Cervelo retailers nationwide from May 2012, to August 2013, for between $7,000 and $10,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and contact 3T Design to have the recalled handlebars replaced free of charge with a modified set of Aduro aero handlebars installed with the high or low mount. Consumers who also purchased the ultra-low mount can receive a full refund for the ultra-low mount and a free modified Aduro aero base bar for use with the originally purchased low mount, or replacement of the Aduro aero handlebars with 3T Mistral aero handlebars with a low-position mount, which places a rider in a position similar to the Aduro ultra-low position mount.

Consumers may contact the Aduro Recall Hotline toll-free at (855) 225-7226 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

More

Don't overlook college tuition tax deductions

Qualified taxpayers may deduct up to $4,000

Now that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has turned on the “open” sign taxpayers may begin filing their returns. As you start to work on you...

PhotoNow that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has turned on the “open” sign taxpayers may begin filing their returns. As you start to work on your taxes, don't overlook some very attractive deductions.

For example, if you or a dependent attended a college, university or other qualifying educational institution last year you may be able to deduct some of the costs, significantly lowering your tax liability.

Limitations

You may qualify if, at any time during 2013 you paid qualified education expenses for yourself, your spouse, or your dependents. There are some limitations. You cannot claim the deduction if your filing status is married filing separately or if another person can claim an exemption for you as a dependent on his or her tax return. The qualified expenses must be for higher education, such as tuition, fees and books – as long as they are required for attendance – and not living expenses.

There is also a limit on income. If you're an individual taxpayer whose Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is more than $80,000 or a married taxpayer with a MAGI over $160,000, you are not eligible.

However, if you can qualify for this deduction you can reduce the amount of your income subject to tax by up to $4,000.

You don't have to itemize

The nice thing about this particular deduction is that it doesn't go on IRS form Schedule A (Form 1040), which is for itemized deductions. Unless you have a lot of deductions, it usually makes sense not to itemize but take the Standard Deduction, which is $6,100 for a single taxpayer in 2013.

Since the education deduction is actually an adjustment to income, you can claim this deduction even if you do not itemize deductions on Schedule A. This deduction may also be beneficial to you if you do not qualify for the American opportunity or lifetime learning credits.

What expenses qualify

According to the IRS, the tuition and fees deduction is based on qualified education expenses you pay for yourself, your spouse, or a dependent for whom you claim an exemption on your tax return. Generally, the deduction is allowed for qualified education expenses paid in 2013 in connection with enrollment at an institution of higher education during 2013 or for an academic period beginning in 2013 or in the first 3 months of 2014.

For example, if you paid $1,500 in December 2013 for qualified tuition for the spring 2014 semester beginning in January 2014, you may be able to use that $1,500 in figuring your 2013 deduction. An academic period includes a semester, trimester, quarter, or other period of study, such as a summer school session, as reasonably determined by an educational institution. In the case of an educational institution that uses credit hours or clock hours and does not have academic terms, each payment period can be treated as an academic period.

If you have taken out loans to pay for school, you can claim a tuition and fees deduction for qualified education expenses you paid with the proceeds of the loan. Use the expenses to figure the deduction for the year in which the expenses are paid, not the year in which the loan is repaid. Treat loan disbursements sent directly to the educational institution as paid on the date the institution credits the student's account.

If a student withdraws from a class and receives a refund, that refund must be subtracted from the amount you are claiming as a deduction. However, if the qualified expenses are not refunded, you can still claim them, even though the student has withdrawn from the class.

Not all expenses qualify

Sorting out what qualifies for a deduction and what doesn't can be tricky. For example, you can't deduct the cost of insurance, medical expenses – including student health fees – room and board or transportation costs.

These costs are not eligible, even if the institution requires them as a condition of enrollment.

More

CVS to stop selling smokes, Obama calls it "a powerful message"

The drugstore chain says the tobacco ban is the "right thing to do"

If you have gotten used to buying a pack of cigarettes or a pouch of pipe tobacco when you pick up your prescription at CVS, be prepared to change your rou...

PhotoIf you have gotten used to buying a pack of cigarettes or a pouch of pipe tobacco when you pick up your prescription at your local CVS drug store, be prepared to change your routine.

The parent company -- CVS Caremark -- says it will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products at its more than 7,600 CVS/pharmacy stores across the U.S. by October 1, 2014. That would make it the first national pharmacy chain to do so.

"Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health," said Larry J. Merlo, President and CEO, CVS Caremark. "Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose."

President Obama said CVS' decision sends "a powerful message."

“As one of the largest retailers and pharmacies in America, CVS Caremark sets a powerful example,” Obama said. “Today’s decision will help advance my Administration’s efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as bring down health care costs.”

CVS' action also won praise from Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who called it "an unprecedented step in the retail industry."

"We also commend CVS Caremark on their new national smoking cessation program. With more than 7,600 CVS/pharmacy locations, this private sector health leader’s new policy will have considerable impact," Sibelius said.

The move is expected to cost CVS $2 billion in annual revenue but the company says removing tobacco will help grow its business of "working with doctors, hospitals and other care providers to improve customers' health."

Reducing the risk

Smoking is the leading cause of premature disease and death in the U.S. with more than 480,000 deaths annually. While the prevalence of cigarette smoking has decreased from approximately 42 percent of adults in 1965 to 18 percent today, the rate of reduction in smoking prevalence has stalled in the past decade.

"CVS Caremark is continually looking for ways to promote health and reduce the burden of disease," said CVS Caremark Chief Medical Officer Troyen A. Brennan, M.D., M.P.H. "Stopping the sale of cigarettes and tobacco will make a significant difference in reducing the chronic illnesses associated with tobacco use."

The American Cancer Society calls the decision "an important new development" in the fight to save lives from the devastating effects of tobacco use. "We applaud CVS Caremark for its leadership," said John R. Seffrin, Ph.D., CEO of the American Cancer Society, "and strongly encourage other industry leaders to follow suit."

Harold Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, applauds CVS Caremark "for boldly acting" to remove tobacco products at all its locations across the U.S. "We urge more retailers to take note of CVS Caremark's actions," he said, "and join in efforts to help reduce access to tobacco and tobacco use, and eliminate tobacco-caused deaths and disease."

Springtime launch

Meanwhile, CVS is launching a quit-smoking program this spring. It's expected to include information and treatment on smoking cessation both in stores and online. 

The program will be available broadly across all CVS/pharmacy and MinuteClinic locations and will offer additional comprehensive programs for CVS Caremark pharmacy benefit management plan members to help them to quit smoking.  

More

Who doesn't like car-sharing? Car dealers, that's who

Each Zipcar means 32 lost car sales, a report finds

Like Airbnb and Uber, Zipcar and other car-sharing services are winning the hearts and loyalties of Millennials and other younger consumers. Despite occasi...

PhotoLike Airbnb and Uber, Zipcar and other car-sharing services are winning the hearts and loyalties of Millennials and other younger consumers. Despite occasional hiccups, these Internet-driven services can save time, money and hassles.

But that doesn't mean everyone likes them. Obviously, hotels and taxi companies are not thrilled with Airbnb and Uber. And in the case of car-sharing, it's car dealers who are becoming alarmed by what they see as a threat to their business. 

It's not just resistance to new ideas that's creating the blowback, it's cold, hard data, including a new report from consulting firm AlixPartners that finds each Zipcar means 32 cars left unsold on dealers' lots.

The report estimates that consumers would have bought half a million new or used cars since 2006 if it weren't for car-sharing, a total that could reach 1.2 million by 2020.

"Lower costs and lower hassle is driving adoption, not environmentalism or fads," said Mark Wakefield, AlixPartners managing partnerAutomotive News reported. "So this should not be seen as a fad."

Self-drivers

At the moment, car-sharing is limited to relatively dense urban areas and to the immediate vicinity of college campuses. But coming up fast is a development that could put the car-sharing trend on steroids: the self-driving car.

When cars are able to drive themselves, there's no need to have the thing sitting around all day in a parking lot near the office, or taking up space in the garage. It's expected that we'll join car-sharing services and simply summon a car on our smartphone when we need one.

To stretch an analogy a little, owning a car will be like buying a DVD. Why bother when you can summon the car via Zipcar or the movie via Netflix whenever you want it?

Currently, the average car-sharing service has 66 members for each car in its fleet, a number that's expected to grow to 81 members per car by 2020. Significantly, the report found that roughly half of car-sharing consumers don't bother buying a car of their own.  

When self-driving cars are available at the touch of a screen, the car-sharing business is widely expected to explode. What happens to car dealers? Implode may be too strong a word but then again ...

 

 

More

Feds probe misbehaving airbags in 2008 Honda Accords

Side airbags deploy for no reason, Honda refuses to help its customers

Federal safety regulators are looking into consumer complaints about side airbags deploying for no reason on 2008 Honda Accords.Two of the 28 complaints ...

PhotoFederal safety regulators are looking into consumer complaints about side airbags deploying for no reason on 2008 Honda Accords. Two of the 28 complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) involved injuries. 

Consumers say the curtain airbags and side torso bags deployed when the door was closed, for no apparent reason.

In one incident, on July 3, 2013, a consumer reported that he, his wife and 29-year-old son had just gotten into their 2008 Accord.

"When we my closed the passenger door, the side curtain airbag deployed from the headline and front passenger seat, causing an abrasion to [his] right forearm."

Since the incident was not caused by a collision, the insurance company refused to pay for the repairs. And since the car had 57,300 miles on it, Honda said the warranty had expired and also refused to pay for the repairs, which came to $2,500. 

Honda was not immediately available for comment.

Honda stiffs consumers

Honda Accord Feb. 5, 2014, 4:38 p.m.
Consumers rate Honda Accord

Consumers complaining to NHTSA are irate not just about the airbag deployment but by Honda's refusal to take responsibility for the problem.

"Honda is giving me the royal runaround and will not take responsibility," said a consumer whose driver's side airbags deployed in 2011, when it had 22,000 miles on it. "Their customer service department in California were very rude and advised if there is a recall in four or five years, then I can be reimbursed." 

"It is time Honda recalls their 2008 Accord and fixed this issue now, before it deploys and someone gets killed," he concluded.

Another consumer said his Accord's airbag deployed on March 21, 2012 and he also found that neither Honda nor his insurance company would pay for repairs.

"Those with this airbag problem are now driving around with deployed airbags due to a manufacturer defect that Honda refuses to fix," he said. "I am hoping to join a class action."

The NHTSA investigation at this stage is technically a "preliminary evaluation," which could eventually lead to a recall.

More

Report: high blood pressure rivals HIV as health threat

Response is too little, too late researchers say

British researchers have sounded an alarm over the growing threat of hypertension, or high blood pressure, comparing it to the HIV epidemic that exploded t...

PhotoBritish researchers have sounded an alarm over the growing threat of hypertension, or high blood pressure, comparing it to the HIV epidemic that exploded two decades ago.

Their report, in the International Journal of Epidemiology, suggests high blood pressure could be as devastating to global health as HIV. Peter Lloyd-Sherlock of the University of East Anglia, Shah Ebrahim and Heiner Grosskurth of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), find another similarity. They say the response of most governments to high blood pressure is little better than the reaction to HIV/AIDS 20 years ago – too little, too late.

Similarities

High blood pressure is not an infectious disease – you don't get it from human contact. But like HIV, the researchers say, it can lead to fatal and disabling illness. They estimate that the number of world-wide deaths attributable to hypertension over the next 20 years may substantially exceed the number resulting from HIV/AIDS.

Despite those numbers, the three researchers say there is “denial” and misunderstanding about the impact of hypertension, despite the two conditions having a number of things in common. Though they have different origins, both diseases can be treated and managed as chronic conditions through a combination of drug treatment and lifestyle changes.

“It has been suggested that valuable lessons for hypertension could be taken from HIV/AIDS policies,” the researchers write. “Yet there is little indication that these are being taken on board. Our response to the global epidemic of hypertension seems little better than our response to HIV/AIDS two decades ago: too little too late. Can we not wake up earlier this time, before millions have died?”

The condition

High blood pressure is a condition in which the heart uses excess force to pump blood through the circulatory system. It can lead to coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure and other health conditions.

The excessive pressure of the blood moving through the system can weaken artery walls, leading to a rupture and causing a stroke.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, about one in three adults in the U.S. suffers from high blood pressure. Since there are no signs or symptoms, you can have it for years without knowing it.

Blood pressure is measured using a cuff device that records the higher systolic pressure – when the heart is pushing blood through the body – and lower diastolic pressure – when the heart is at rest between beats. A reading of 120/80 or lower is considered normal.

Hypertension causes

High blood pressure is often caused by lifestyle factors. Smoking, unhealthy foods, being overweight or obese, too little exercise and too much alcohol are all factors that can raise blood pressure. Stress is another factor that can significantly raise risks.

Because high blood pressure is largely behavior-influenced, the researchers speculate government officials are reluctant to spend taxpayer funds to help people “who eat and drink too much.”

“HIV was faced with political denial and public misunderstanding in the early years of the pandemic, especially in some poorer countries,” the researchers write. “There is a similar pattern of denial with hypertension.”

The denial, they claim, is misguided, especially the view that hypertension does not affect poorer social groups. They say there is substantial evidence that hypertension is highly prevalent among poorer groups and that they are less likely to have access to effective treatment.

More

Child passenger deaths down sharply

Black and Hispanic children are at higher risk

The years 2002-2011 saw a big decline in the number of children age 12 and younger who died in motor vehicle crashes. According to a new Vital Signs repo...

PhotoThe years 2002-2011 saw a big decline in the number of children age 12 and younger who died in motor vehicle crashes.

According to a new Vital Signs report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths in that age group plunged 43%. However, more than 9,000 children died in crashes during that period.

Research has shown that using age- and size-appropriate child restraints (car seats, booster seats, and seat belts) is the best way to save lives and reduce injuries in a crash. Yet the report found that almost half of all black (45%) and Hispanic (46%) children who died in crashes were not buckled up, compared with 26% of white children (2009-2010).

“No child should die in a motor vehicle crash because they were not properly buckled up and yet, sadly, it happens hundreds of times each year in the U.S.,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Many of these tragedies are preventable when parents use age-and size-appropriate child restraints every time their child rides in a motor vehicle.”

Key findings

CDC analyzed 2002–2011 data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to determine the number and rate of motor-vehicle occupant deaths, and the percentage of child deaths among children age 12 and younger who were not buckled up.

The Vital Signs report also found that:

  • One in three children who died in crashes in 2011 was not buckled up.
  • Only 2 out of every 100 children live in states that require car seat or booster seat use for children age 8 and under.
  • Child passenger restraint laws result in more children being buckled up. A recent study by Eichelberger et al, showed that among 5 states that increased the required car seat or booster seat age to 7 or 8 years, car seat and booster seat use tripled, and deaths and serious injuries decreased by 17%.

“Parents and caregivers play an important role in keeping children safe in the car,” said Daniel M. Sosin, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.P., acting director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “Children often imitate their parents; so it’s important that parents model safe behavior and buckle up on every trip. Parents also should always buckle children in age- and size-appropriate car seats, booster seats and, seat belts.”

What to do

PhotoTo help keep children safe on the road, parents and caregivers can:

  • Use car seats, booster seats, and seat belts in the back seat on every trip, no matter how short.
  • Use rear-facing car seats from birth up to age 2
  • Buckle children in a rear-facing seat until age 2 or when they reach the upper weight or height limit of that seat.
  • Use forward-facing car seats from age 2 up to at least age 5. Make sure than when children outgrow their rear-facing seat, they are buckled in a forward-facing car seat until at least age 5 or when they reach the upper weight or height limit of that seat.
  • Use booster seats from age 5 up until seat belt fits properly. Once children outgrow their forward-facing seat, they should be buckled in a booster seat until seat belts fit properly. The recommended height for proper seat belt fit is 57 inches tall.
  • Use a seat belt once it fits properly without a booster seat. Children no longer need to use a booster seat once seat belts fit them properly. Seat belts fit properly when the lap belt lays across the upper thighs (not the stomach) and the shoulder belt lays across the chest (not the neck).
  • Install and use car seats according to the owner’s manual or get help installing them from a certified Child Passenger Safety Technician.
  • Buckle children age 12 and under in the back seat.
More

Tesla, Subaru moving into top brand rankings, Consumer Reports survey finds

Toyota, Ford, Honda, Chevrolet are still the leading brands overall

The old favorites -- Toyota, Ford, Honda and Chevrolet -- are still the leading car brands but Tesla is the one to watch, according to Consumer Report...

PhotoThe old favorites -- Toyota, Ford, Honda and Chevrolet -- are still the leading car brands but Tesla is the one to watch, according to Consumer Reports’ annual Car-Brand Perception Survey.

Telsa Motors, which jumped from 47 points last year, to fifth position with 88 points this year, had a strong year, with soaring stock prices, magazine awards, and exceptional crash-test performance.

Innovation, performance, and sleek styling are clearly gaining attention and making a positive impression. By gaining points in several categories, Tesla was able to raise its overall score. This highlights the value of being good at multiple things, rather than relying on a single facet.

Consumer perception of Subaru’s safety is a key factor in that brand’s ascension into the top 10. This modest-scale automaker has made big news over the past year with its “good” crash-test performance, among other accomplishments. All its models, except for the aged Tribeca, have earned coveted Top Safety Pick+ status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The survey results suggest consumers are paying attention.

Among the tried-and-true brands, Toyota has a 25-point advantage over second-place Ford, reflecting a five-point gain over the year prior for Toyota and a three-point improvement for Ford. It could be interpreted that the safety concerns that saw the Toyota score stumble a few years ago have faded, returning the brand to its position as the perceived industry leader.

Consumer Reports brand perception scores reflect how consumers perceive each brand in seven important buying factors, ranked here in order of the importance to consumers: quality, safety, performance, value, fuel economy, design/style, and technology/innovation. Combining those factors produces the total brand-perception score. While the scores reflect a brand’s image, they do not reflect the actual qualities of any brand’s vehicles.

“The key word is ‘perception’. Consumers are influenced by word of mouth, marketing, and hands-on experience. Often, perception can be a trailing indicator, reflecting years of good or bad performance in a category, and it can also be influenced by headlines in the media,” said Jeff Bartlett, Consumer Reports deputy automotive editor.

That the remainder of the Top 10 all score 73 or higher is notable, for last year, there was a wider spread. Many brands impress consumers, creating a challenge for brands to distinguish themselves in the fast-moving marketplace. Likewise, consumers need to determine where to spend their money.

More

Economy added 175k jobs in January, says ADP

However, manufacturing employment was down for the first time in six months

January was a decent month for job creation, according to the ADP National Employment Report. The report, which is produced in collaboration with Moody’s ...

PhotoJanuary was a decent month for job creation, according to the ADP National Employment Report.

The report, which is produced in collaboration with Moody’s Analytics, is derived from ADP’s actual payroll data and measures the change in total nonfarm private employment each month on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

During the past month, ADP says, private sector employment rose by 175,000 jobs from December.

"Cold and stormy winter weather continued to weigh on the job numbers, said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. “Underlying job growth, abstracting from the weather, remains sturdy. Gains are broad based across industries and company sizes.”

Services and goods

Most of the growth came in the service-providing industries, which added 160,000 jobs. Professional/ business services contributed the most -- 49,000 jobs, but was well below the average gain of the prior two months of 65,000. Trade/transportation/utilities growth slowed to a gain of 30,000 jobs, while financial activities employment was flat following two consecutive months of gains of 6,000 apiece.

Goods-producing employment rose by just 16,000 jobs in January, after adding 50,000 in December. Nearly all of i growth came from the construction industry which added 25,000 jobs over the month, following increases of 30,000 and 32,000 in the prior two months.

Manufacturing lost 12,000 jobs in January after a gain of 16,000 in the prior month. It's the first decline in manufacturing payrolls since July 2013.

Small and medium lead the way

Payroll growth for businesses with 49 or fewer employees decelerated in January, adding 75,000 jobs -- the slowest pace of small business job growth since August 2013. Among medium-sized companies with 50-499, there was an increase of 66,000, while employment at large companies -- those with 500 or more employees – was up by 34,000. While this represented an acceleration in job growth for mid-size firms, growth at large firms was nearly half of what it was in December.

The Labor Department is scheduled to release it January employmnt report at the end of the week.