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    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.

    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. 

    Colorado has sued several companies for allegedly orchestrating a magazine telemarketing scam that has victimized thousands of consumers, many elderly.Th...

    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.

    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.   

    Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 2.0% for the week ending February 7. ...

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      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:

      • 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.  

      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:...

      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 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

      Brown 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."

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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

      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.

      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 ...

      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 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.

      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...

      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,” 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.

      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...

      Does social media make you smarter or stupider?

      Answer: both.

      An 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

      Here'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.”

      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. ...

      What causes obesity? Cars, TVs, computers

      It's not just fast food and big portions that are to blame for those extra pounds

      The 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.

      Cars, computers, TVs spark obesity in developing countriesThe spread of obesity and type-2 diabetes could become epidemic in low-income countries, as mor...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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, 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.

      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...

      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 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."

      A broad coalition of construction employers and associations has collectively pledged to hire 100,000 military veterans over the next five years. The anno...

      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 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

      Wolfe 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."

      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...

      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 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

      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.”

      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...

      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 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. 

      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 ...

      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 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

      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.  

      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...