Current Events in February 2014

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    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 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.”

    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...

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

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

    You'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

    Granted, 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.

    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...

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      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 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.

      Availability 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

      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.

      Getting 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.

      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...

      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 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.

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

      Quizno's close to bankruptcy once more

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

      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.

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

      Springtime is salmonella season for chicks and other baby birds

      Washington State releases health warning for anyone handling live poultry

      Pretty 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.

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

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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

      The 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.”

      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...

      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 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.

      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.

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

      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 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.

      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...

      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, 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.


      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.  

      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...

      Buying a house: good investment or bad?

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

      If 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.

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

      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 show initial applications shot up by 14,000 -- to 348,000, surprising economists surveyed by, 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.

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

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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:

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