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Years late, feds issue backup-camera rule

Obama Administration finally implements rule one day before it is due to appear in court

Six years after Congress ordered it to do so, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today issued new rules that will require new cars and light truck...

PhotoSix years after Congress ordered it to do so, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today issued a rule that will require new cars and light trucks to have backup cameras to help prevent accidents in which drivers accidentally back over pedestrians, most often children.

Continuing the plodding pace for which the government is famous, the rule won't go fully into effect until 2018. The rule was issued just one day before the Obama Administration was scheduled to defend itself in federal court against a lawsuit brought by Public Citizen on behalf of safety advocates who were outraged over the delay.

The law, named after Cameron Gulbransen, who was killed in such a crash at age 2, was passed in 2008 and instructed DOT to implement it by 2010. DOT proposed regulations on time but the Obama Administration unaccountably delayed implenting them.

"While the administration delayed the rule, more children died in backover accidents. The cost of regulatory delay, in human lives, could hardly be more clear than it is today. It's absurd that the government had to be sued before it would comply with the law," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said.

A long fight

Photo
Cameron Gulbransen

“It’s been a long fight, and this rule took too long, but we’re thrilled this day has finally come," said Dr. Greg Gulbransen, Cameron's father. "It’s a bittersweet day, because this rule should have been in place three years ago at the latest. But this rule will save lives. Though his own life was short, Cameron inspired a regulation that will save the lives of countless others.”

Each year, according to DOT, more than 200 individuals are killed and 15,000 injured in “backover” crashes. Drivers using all three mirrors cannot see anything in a blind zone 10-40 feet long directly behind their vehicles.

Over half of those killed in backover accidents are children under 5 or adults 70 or older, DOT’s analysis shows. The new rule will set a standard for rear visibility that effectively requires rearview cameras in new vehicles under 10,000 pounds (excluding motorcycles) by 2018. 

"This is the first federal regulation of rear visibility in our nation's history," said Janette Fennell, president of KidsAndCars.org. "It's about time the motoring public will finally be able to see what's behind their vehicles while backing up. This measure will most definitely save children's lives."

All deliberate speed

Backup cameras are hardly new, unproven technology. They are already included in many luxury cars and high-end trim packages. Even the Honda Civic, an economy car, includes a backup cameras as standard equipment.

Using the double talk that passes as dialogue in Washington, automakers said they think the cameras are great but don't think they should be required.

“These are exciting new innovations, but we know our customers have their own preferences among new technologies,” said the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in a prepared statement. “It is one of our core beliefs that consumers should be in the driver’s seat when choosing which technologies they want to purchase.”

Of course, that doesn't stop automakers from bundling backup cameras with navigation systems, high-end audio systems, mirror warmers and other geegaws that force consumers to spend hundreds or thousands more than they would if accessories were offered a la carte. 

Two-thirds of 50 top-selling vehicles in the U.S. already offered backup cameras, the manufacturers said proudly.

DOT has estimated that a full backup system -- camera, display screen and a few feet of wire -- will cost about $132 to $142 per car by 2018. For cars that already have a suitable display screen, the additional cost per vehicle would be $43 to $45, the agency said.

 

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Studies suggests we might not need all that medication

Lifestyle changes may improve both blood pressure and erectile dysfunction

Consumers spend billions of dollars a year on prescription medication to treat all sorts of conditions. But are some of us taking pills – and spendin...

PhotoConsumers spend billions of dollars a year on prescription medication to treat all sorts of conditions. But are some of us taking pills – and spending money – needlessly?

A couple of recent studies suggest we may be. The separate research projects, released late last week, studied prescription medications for high blood pressure and those treating erectile dysfunction. They may cause some heartburn at drug companies.

For example, researchers at Duke University say 5.8 million U.S. adults may no longer need to take medication to treat high blood pressure. The reason?

In February the Eighth Joint National Committee voted to relax the blood pressure goal in adults 60 years and older to 150/90, instead of the previous goal of 140/90.

The Duke researchers analyzed a number of previous studies of hypertension patients and their blood pressure readings to reach the conclusion that many who are now taking medication don't need it. But that doesn't mean you should throw away your pills. The researchers make clear they aren't advocating that.

Admittedly controversial

“Raising the target in older adults is controversial, and not all experts agree with this new recommendation,” said lead author Ann Marie Navar-Boggan, a cardiology fellow at Duke University School of Medicine. “In this study, we wanted to determine the number of adults affected by these changes.”

The Duke study, in collaboration with McGill University, reviewed a database with more than 16,000 participants whose blood pressure measurements were listed. Based on the sample, the researchers conclude the proportion of U.S. adults who should be treated for high blood pressure would decrease from 40.6% under the old guidelines to 31.7% under the new recommendations.

“The new guidelines do not address whether these adults should still be considered as having hypertension,” Navar-Boggan said. “But they would no longer need medication to lower their blood pressure.”

Discuss it with your doctor

Whether a patient needs to continue taking medication is a decision to be made only after discussing it with a doctor. But if millions of people now paying for prescription medication no longer had to, that could be very bad news for the pharmaceutical industry, not to mention very good news for consumers.

The news may be equally as bad for the makers of drugs to treat erectile dysfunction. A new report in the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests men can reverse their erectile dysfunction by lifestyle changes without relying completely on medication.

Gary Wittert, head of the Discipline of Medicine at the University of Adelaide, in Australia, says his research team found a large number of men in their study were naturally overcoming erectile dysfunction issues without taking medication.

“The remission rate of those with erectile dysfunction was 29%, which is very high,” he said. “This shows that many of these factors affecting men are modifiable, offering them an opportunity to do something about their condition."

The researchers found that even in cases where medication was required to treat erectile dysfunction, it was more effective if the men adopted improved lifestyle behavior.

Simple steps

Lifestyle changes include losing weight, getting more exercise, drinking less alcohol, eating a more nutritious diet and getting a good night's sleep.

Treating both high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction are profitable businesses. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Americans spent $20.4 billion in 2010 to treat high blood pressure.

According to government statistics, worldwide sales of the three most popular drugs to treat erectile dysfunction total $1 billion per year.

It bears repeating that no one who is currently taking prescription medication should stop on their own. But it might be a question to raise with your health care provider.

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Court upholds new meat-labeling guidelines

Meatpackers will be required to disclose their products' country of origin

You might soon notice some changes in the labels of whatever meat products you buy, now that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District if Columbia has rej...

PhotoYou might soon notice some changes in the labels of whatever meat products you buy, now that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District if Columbia has rejected the American Meat Institute's attempt to overturn new federal country-of-origin requirements for meat labels.

At the moment, it's still possible to visit an American supermarket and buy meat whose label reads “Product of Canada, the U.S. or Mexico,” but — barring the unlikely event of last-minute intervention by Congress or a still-higher court — those catch-all labels will soon disappear and be replaced by more specific country-of-origin information.

This most recent court battle started last November, when large American meat-packing firms asked Congress to overturn new federal guidelines requiring more-precise identification of where a meat animal was born, raised and slaughtered — instead of “Product of Canada, the U.S. or Mexico,” for example, the new guidelines would make labels specify “Born and raised in Mexico, packaged in the U.S.” or whatever the specifics may be.

Not just a whim

Those new federal guidelines, by the way, do not merely reflect federal whims, but were implemented to meet the standards of the World Trade Organization, and other international requirements necessary if America wishes to keep trading with the rest of the world.

Consumer groups supported the new origin guidelines because they granted more information to consumers. American beef ranchers also supported the guidelines, presumably from the belief that if their products were labeled 100% American, that would give them a competitive advantage with consumers who, for example, might prefer all-American food over imports.

But the meatpacking industry, represented by the American Meat Institute, opposed the new guidelines on the grounds that they would be too burdensome, and would also violate the meatpackers' First Amendment free-speech rights by requiring them to print information which, they say, is of no value to the end consumer.

But the Court of Appeals in D.C. clearly was not swayed by these arguments, and refused to overturn a lower-court ruling requiring the guidelines. The court released its decision on March 28 (available in .pdf form here); the 15-page ruling discussed and dismissed the AMI's arguments and concluded:

"There is, moreover, a public interest factor that we did not consider in our constitutional analysis, that of allowing the United States’s effort to comply with the WTO ruling to take effect. We are clearly in a poor position to assess the effects of any noncompliance. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court is Affirmed.”

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Taxpayers warned about new phishing scam

IRS continues the battle against fraudulent returns using stolen identities

Taxpayers eagerly awaiting their federal income tax refund should remain vigilant against a new scheme to steal their identities.The Internal Revenue Ser...

Taxpayers eagerly awaiting their federal income tax refund should remain vigilant against a new scheme to steal their identities.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued a warning about an email phishing scam that has been reported with increasing frequency during this tax season. The scam's objective is to steal the taxpayer's Social Security number and other sensitive information.

A number of people have reported receiving an email that appears to come from the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service – a real agency. The email carries disturbing news.

“Your reported 2013 income is flagged for review due to a document processing error,” some of the messages read. “Your case has been forwarded to the Taxpayer Advocate Service for resolution assistance. To avoid delays processing your 2013 filing contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service for resolution assistance.”

Below the message is a link and instructions to click on it. Those who do are taken to a site that appears to be a page on the Taxpayer Advocate's website, but is really a dummy site constructed by the scammer.

Profitable scam

There they are instructed to enter all sorts of personal information. The IRS says this scheme is especially dangerous because stealing taxpayers' identities and filing bogus tax returns in their names has become a huge and profitable business.

In the most recent fiscal year the tax agency initiated 1,492 identity theft related criminal investigations. That amounts to a 66% increase over the previous year.

What's even more telling, perhaps, is the number of identity theft attempts the IRS says it has thwarted. The agency says that from 2011 through November 2013, the IRS has stopped 14.6 million suspicious returns, and prevented over $50 billion in fraudulent refunds from going out.

Refunds – not legitimate ones but bogus ones – are what the scammers are after. Armed with a victim's name and Social Security number, the thief produces a fake W-2 form and files a fake return that shows a sizable refund is due.

The scam is made easier by the IRS' preference for sending out refunds through direct deposit. In the past, in order to receive a paper check, the scammer would need an address – increasing their exposure and risk. They would also need a way to cash the check.

But with direct deposit, all the scammer need do is request a direct deposit for the refund onto a reloadable money card. After collecting the refund, the scammer disappears. The scam doesn't come to light until the victim gets around to filing their real tax return.

Drain on resources

The IRS is diverting more and more of its resources to dealing with taxpayer identity theft. In January the agency assigned 3,000 people to work on identity theft-related issues.

When criminals steal a taxpayer's identity and file phony returns with big refunds, it creates problems for both the government and the victim. The government gets scammed out of millions of dollars in bogus refunds that most likely can't be retrieved.

The taxpayer has to jump through numerous hoops to straighten out the mess and prove they are who they say they are. In the meantime, any legitimate tax refund to which they are entitled gets held up, usually for several months.

The IRS produced the video below to offer taxpayers some tips for protecting their identities and avoiding becoming victims.

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New York sues FedEx for cigarette shipments

Shinnecock Nation cigarettes: legal to buy, illegal to ship

Last December, New York City discovered a creative new interpretation of the RICO anti-racketeering statutes originally written for use against the Mafia a...

PhotoLast December, New York City discovered a creative new interpretation of the RICO anti-racketeering statutes originally written for use against the Mafia and other organized-crime gangs: using it to sue FedEx for shipping merchandise from the Shinnecock [Indian] Nation cigarette shops to non-Shinnecock New Yorkers.

Today, New York's state attorney general filed a $70 million lawsuit against FedEx because “FedEx’s blatant disregard for its long-standing agreement with New York, as well as federal and state law, enabled tens of millions of cheap, untaxed cigarettes to be shipped to New Yorkers.”

The Shinnecock Nation is not included in either lawsuit because it is perfectly legal for them to sell untaxed cigarettes; however, New York Public Health Law 1399-ll bans the direct shipment of cigarettes to customers in the state, ostensibly for public-health rather than tax-collection reasons.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said FedEx has shipped nearly 80 million contraband cigarettes to consumers across New York State, amounting to a direct tax loss to the state of over $10 million.

 

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Required Minimum Distribution clock is running for retirees

Those who turned 70½ last year have to hurry to pull money from their retirement plans

You're almost too late if you turned 70½ during 2013 and haven't yet received a required minimum distribution (RMD) from your IRAs and workplace retirement...

PhotoYou're almost too late if you turned 70½ during 2013 and haven't yet received a required minimum distribution (RMD) from your IRAs and workplace retirement plans. The deadline is almost here: Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

That deadline applies to owners of traditional IRAs but not Roth IRAs. Normally, it also applies to participants in various workplace retirement plans, including 401(k), 403(b) and 457 plans.

And, the April 1 deadline applies to the required distribution only for the first year. For all subsequent years, the RMD must be made by Dec. 31. For example, a taxpayer who turned 70½ in 2013 and receives the first required payment on April 1, 2014 must still receive the second RMD by Dec. 31 of this year.

Determining your required distribution

Affected taxpayers who turned 70½ during 2013 must figure the RMD for the first year using their life expectancy on Dec. 31, 2013 and their account balance on Dec. 31, 2012.

The trustee reports the year-end account value to the IRA owner on Form 5498 in Box 5. Worksheets and life expectancy tables for making this computation can be found in the Appendices to Publication 590.

Most taxpayers use Table III (Uniform Lifetime) to figure their RMD. For a taxpayer who turned 71 in 2013, for example, the first required distribution would be based on a life expectancy of 26.5 years. A separate table, Table II, applies to a taxpayer married to a spouse who is more than 10 years younger and is the taxpayer’s only beneficiary.

Some exceptions

Though the April 1 deadline is mandatory for all owners of traditional IRAs and most participants in workplace retirement plans, some people with workplace plans can wait longer to receive their RMD. Usually, employees who are still working can, if their plan allows, wait until April 1 of the year after they retire to start receiving these distributions (See Tax on Excess Accumulations in Publication 575) .

Employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations with 403(b) plan accruals before 1987 should check with their employer, plan administrator or provider to see how to treat these accruals.

Start planning now

The IRS encourages taxpayers to begin planning now for any distributions required during 2014. An IRA trustee must either report the amount of the RMD to the IRA owner or offer to calculate it for the owner.

Often, the trustee shows the RMD amount in Box 12b on Form 5498. For a 2014 RMD, this amount would be on the 2013 Form 5498 that is normally issued in January 2014.

More information on RMDs, including answers to frequently asked questions, can be found on IRS.gov.

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Changes coming for liquid laundry packets

New packaging and warning labels are being added

About a year and a half ago, The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) put out a warning about dangers connected to single-load liquid laundry packets,...

PhotoAbout a year and a half ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) put out a warning about dangers connected to single-load liquid laundry packets, which are filled with highly concentrated, toxic chemicals. A 7-month-old in Florida died from swallowing the soap.

CPSC has received about 1,230 reports of children unintentionally injuring themselves with packets. Injuries include swallowing the detergent and getting the chemical in their eyes or on their skin. The Poison Help Line reports even more -- nearly 17,500.

Changes in the works

Several companies that make these packets -- Cot ‘n Wash, Dial, Procter & Gamble, and Sun Products -- have agreed to make some changes to begin addressing these safety concerns.

Here are some of the changes so far:

  • Safety standards: Makers and sellers of laundry packets have come together, along with consumer advocates and CPSC staff, to start the process of creating a voluntary consensus standard. ASTM International, a standards setting organization, is overseeing this process. The goal is for all of the members to work together, as quickly as possible, to craft a strong safety standard that meaningfully protects children from these products.
  • Opaque packaging: Part of the allure of these packets for young children is that they can look like familiar items such as candy, toys and teething products. Companies have changed the containers that hold the packets to be opaque.
  • Labels and Warnings: “Keep Out of Reach of Children” and “Keep Contents Out of Eyes” safety warning stickers and graphics have been placed in multiple places on the containers. Also, look for posters and other warnings near laundry packets in stores. Warning labels alone are not the answer, but are part of a larger system of safety.

In addition, companies are researching a switch to containers that are more difficult for children to open. Safety latches -- both on containers and on cabinets -- can be a deterrent to children getting access to these packets. As with all household cleaning products, make sure to keep these packets tightly closed in the original containers and out of sight and out of reach of young children.

These companies also report that they are researching chemical formulations of the laundry detergent in the packets, with the goal to find formulations that remain effective, but are less toxic.

What to do

Follow these safety tips if you use these products in your home:

  • Do not let children handle laundry packets
  • Do not puncture or take packets apart
  • Do not leave loose packets around – keep them stored securely in the container
  • Store out of a child’s sight and reach in their original containers
  • Keep containers closed and dry
  • Read and follow package warnings and instructions
  • Remember, these packets can quickly dissolve upon contact with water, wet hands and saliva. They can also rupture, releasing the chemicals into eyes. If you or your child swallows or is exposed to these chemicals, call Poison Help immediately at (800) 222-1222.
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Diet drinks linked to heart attacks, strokes in older women

Women who drink two or more diet drinks a day more likely to have a heart attack or stroke

Diet drinks may help keep the pounds off but a new study finds they may be dangerous for older women, raising the chance of heart attack and strokes for th...

PhotoDiet drinks may help keep the pounds off but a new study finds they may be dangerous for older women, raising the chance of heart attack and strokes for those who drink two or more a day.

In fact, compared to women who never or only rarely consume diet drinks, those who consumed two or more a day were 30% more likely to suffer a cardiovascular event and 50% more likely to die from related disease, according to, according to research prepared for the American College of Cardiology's 63rd Annual Scientific Session.

Researchers analyzed diet drink intake and cardiovascular risk factors from 59,614 participants in the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study, making this the largest study to look at the relationship between diet drink consumption, cardiac events and death.

"Our findings are in line with and extend data from previous studies showing an association between diet drinks and metabolic syndrome," said Ankur Vyas, M.D., University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and the lead investigator of the study. "We were interested in this research because there was a relative lack of data about diet drinks and cardiovascular outcomes and mortality."

Raises questions

Vyas says the association between diet drinks and cardiovascular problems raises more questions than it answers, and should stimulate further research.

"We only found an association, so we can't say that diet drinks cause these problems," Vyas said, adding that there may be other factors about people who drink more diet drinks that could explain the connection.

"It's too soon to tell people to change their behavior based on this study; however, based on these and other findings we have a responsibility to do more research to see what is going on and further define the relationship, if one truly exists," he adds. "This could have major public health implications."

Information on women's consumption of diet drinks was obtained through a questionnaire that asked them to report their diet drink consumption habits over the previous three months. This information was assessed at follow-up year three of the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study.

Previous studies have found artificially sweetened drinks to be associated with weight gain in adults and teens, and seem to increase the risk of metabolic syndrome, which makes both diabetes and heart disease more likely.

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Daylight saving time affects timing of lots of things, including heart attacks

Setting the clocks ahead accelerates cardiac events in some consumers, a large study finds

Moving the clock back or ahead just one hour doesn't sound so bad. How much difference could it make, after all? The answer may surprise you.The largest ...

PhotoMoving the clock back or ahead just one hour doesn't sound so bad. How much difference could it make, after all? The answer may surprise you.

The largest study of its kind finds that that hour of sleep that's lost or gained may play a bigger, perhaps more dangerous role in our body's natural rhythm than we think.

In fact, moving the clock forward or backward may alter the timing of when heart attacks occur in the week following these time changes, according to research prepared for presentation at the American College of Cardiology's 63rd Annual Scientific Session.

Data from the largest study of its kind in the U.S. reveal a 25% jump in the number of heart attacks occurring the Monday after we "spring forward" compared to other Mondays during the year – a trend that remained even after accounting for seasonal variations in these events.

But the study showed the opposite effect is also true. Researchers found a 21% drop in the number of heart attacks on the Tuesday after returning to standard time in the fall when we gain an hour back.

"What's interesting is that the total number of heart attacks didn't change the week after daylight saving time," said Amneet Sandhu, M.D., cardiology fellow, University of Colorado in Denver, and lead investigator of the study. "But these events were much more frequent the Monday after the spring time change and then tapered off over the other days of the week. It may mean that people who are already vulnerable to heart disease may be at greater risk right after sudden time changes."

Monday morning is dangerous

Heart attacks historically occur most often on Monday mornings. Sandhu explains that in looking at other "normal" Mondays, there is some variation in events, but it is not significant.

However, when Sandhu and his team compared admissions from a database of non-federal Michigan hospitals the Monday before the start of daylight saving time and the Monday immediately after for four consecutive years, they found a consistent 34% increase in heart attacks from one week to the next (93 heart attacks the Monday before compared to 125 the week after the start of daylight saving time for the duration of the study.).

Although researchers cannot say what might be driving the shift in heart attack timing after the start of daylight saving time, they have a theory.

"Perhaps the reason we see more heart attacks on Monday mornings is a combination of factors, including the stress of starting a new work week and inherent changes in our sleep-wake cycle," Sandhu said. "With daylight saving time, all of this is compounded by one less hour of sleep. Whatever the reason, he said, the findings may indicate a need to better staff hospitals the Monday after setting our clocks forward.

"If we can identify days when there may be surges in heart attacks, we can be ready to better care for our patients," said Sandhu. Gaining an hour in the fall may have the opposite effect, though authors don't know why there were fewer heart attacks on Tuesday rather than Monday.

The hospitals included in this study admit an average of 32 patients having a heart attack on any given Monday. But on the Monday immediately after springing ahead there were on average an additional eight heart attacks. 

This study comes amid ongoing debate about whether daylight saving time is actually needed anymore. Widely implemented during World War I, it was primarily adopted to save energy. But some experts question whether it really saves energy and if it has negative health effects beyond just leaving us feeling groggy and out of sorts.

"We go through daylight saving time periods twice yearly," Sandhu said. "We may want to look more closely at whether the shift in the timing of heart attacks seen after daylight saving time leads to any negative health outcomes."

There are limitations to the study. For example, it was restricted to one state and heart attacks necessitating percutaneous coronary intervention, therefore excluding patients who died prior to hospital admission or intervention.

Sandhu said it would be interesting to compare these findings against heart attack trends in Hawaii and Arizona, which do not have daylight saving time. Future research is also needed to better understand the role of our circadian rhythms on heart health.

"We know from previous studies that a lack of sleep can trigger heart attacks, but we don't have a good understanding of why people are so sensitive to changes in sleep-wake cycles. Our study suggests that sudden, even small changes in sleep could have detrimental effects," he said.

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Don't fall for "overdue tax balance" scam

Demanding, aggressive callers tell consumers they'll be arrested

“Your driver’s license has been suspended. You will be arrested. You will be deported. We are on our way to your home right now.” These a...

Photo“Your driver’s license has been suspended. You will be arrested. You will be deported. We are on our way to your home right now.” These are just a few of the threats that scammers are making against hundreds of Fairfax County, Va., residents over the past several weeks.

Police warn consumers not to fall prey to these scammers and to notify police of these criminal incidents.

These telephone scammers are described as demanding, aggressive, threatening, and easily angered when callers don’t immediately agree to their demands of “overdue tax balances.” Some complainants have described the suspects as having a heavy accent.

Typically, callers demand between $4,000-$6,000 in immediate payment of unpaid tax bills. These scams are sophisticated and involve false names, numbers and “IRS” badge numbers. Suspects often continue to call and harass the recipient.

What to do

Police urge residents to:

  • Contact IRS is you feel there is any discrepancy with your tax bills.
  • Use these numbers to contact IRS if you feel you are being scammed: 
  • Be skeptical if someone demands you pay overdue with a Green Dot Moneypack;
  • Report suspicious or harassing calls to your local police.

Remember, once money has been wired, it is impossible to recover.

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Fresh Express recalls Italian Salad

The salad may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Fresh Express of Salinas, Calif., is recalling a limited number of cases of 10-oz. and 6-oz. Italian Salad with the already expired Use-by Date of March 26...

PhotoFresh Express of Salinas, Calif., is recalling a limited number of cases of 10-oz. and 6-oz. Italian Salad with the already expired Use-by Date of March 26 and a Product Code of H071A11A.

The salad may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported in association with the recall and no other Fresh Express products are affected.

The following recalled salad was distributed in limited quantities to predominantly Eastern and Mid-Atlantic states.

BRANDPRODUCT NAMESIZEUPCProduction CodeBest If Used By DatePOSSIBLE DISTRIBUTION STATES
Fresh ExpressItalian10 oz.0 71279-21100 8H071A11A26-MarCT, DE, MA, MD, ME, NC, NH, NY, NJ, OH, PA, RI, VA, VT, WV, DC

Consumers who have the recalled product should not eat it but rather discard it.

Consumers with questions may call Fresh Express at (800) 242-5472 during the hours of 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. EDT.

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Honda recalls Civic LX vehicles

Tires on the vehicles may be damaged

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 9,816 model year 2014 Honda Civic LX vehicles manufactured November 26, 2013, through January 21, 2014. In the aff...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Co. is recalling 9,816 model year 2014 Honda Civic LX vehicles manufactured November 26, 2013, through January 21, 2014.

In the affected vehicles, during mounting of the tires, the tire bead may have gotten pinched between the assembly equipment and the steel wheel rims, resulting in damage to the tire. The tire damage could cause the tire to lose air, increasing the risk of a crash.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace any damaged tire, free of charge. The recall was expected to begin on March 28, 2014.

Owners may contact Honda at 1-800-999-1009. Honda's number for this recall is JD8.

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Toyota recalls Avalons with faulty restraint systems

Airbgs could deploy inadvertantly

Toyota is recalling119,140 model year 2003-2004 Avalon vehicles manufactured June 5, 2002, through December 20, 2004. In these vehicles, the supplemental...

PhotoToyota is recalling119,140 model year 2003-2004 Avalon vehicles manufactured June 5, 2002, through December 20, 2004.

In these vehicles, the supplemental restraint system (SRS) circuits are susceptible to internal shorting. The electrical short may create an abnormal current flow and increased heat which can damage the circuits. This could result in an inadvertent deployment of the front air bags and/or seat belt pretensioners, increasing the risk of an injury or crash.

Toyota will notify owners and dealers will install a noise filter between the air bag control module and the wire harness, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

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GM again expands ignition switch-related recall

Another 824,000 models are being added

General Motors is recalling an additional 824,000 to replace the ignition switches. That means all model years of its Chevrolet Cobalt, HHR, Pontiac G5, S...

General Motors is recalling an additional 824,000 to replace the ignition switches. That means all model years of its Chevrolet Cobalt, HHR, Pontiac G5, Solstice and Saturn Ion and Sky in the U.S. will get new switches because faulty switches may have been used to repair the vehicles.

The parts are at the center of the company’s recently announced ignition switch recall, which originally extended through the 2007 model year. About 95,000 faulty switches were sold to dealers and aftermarket wholesalers. Of those, about 90,000 were used to repair older vehicles that were repaired before they were recalled in February.

Recalling everything

Because it is not feasible to track down all the parts, the company is recalling 824,000 more vehicles in the U.S. to ensure that every car has a current ignition switch. GM says it is unaware of any reports of fatalities with this group of vehicles where a frontal impact occurred, the front air bags did not deploy and the ignition is in the “accessory” or “off” position.

As with the earlier recalls, if the torque performance is not to GM specification, the ignition switch may unintentionally move from the “run” position to the “accessory” or “off” positions, leading to a loss of power. The risk may be increased if the key ring is carrying added weight or if the vehicle goes off road or experiences some jarring event.

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

Until the recall has been performed, GM is urging customers to remove all items -- including the key fob -- from their key rings, leaving only the vehicle key.

“We are taking no chances with safety,” said GM CEO Mary Barra. “Trying to locate several thousand switches in a population of 2.2 million vehicles and distributed to thousands of retailers isn’t practical. Out of an abundance of caution, we are recalling the rest of the model years.

“We are going to provide our customers with the peace of mind they deserve and expect by getting the new switches into all the vehicles,” Barra said.

Affected models

GM records indicate the service parts may have been used for ignition repairs in:

  • 2008-2010 Chevrolet Cobalts
  • 2008-2011 Chevrolet HHRs
  • 2008-2010 Pontiac Solstice
  • 2008-2010 Pontiac G5 and
  • 2008-2010 Saturn Sky

Owners who may have had a suspect part installed will receive a letter the week of April 21. GM dealers will replace their ignition switch free of charge as parts become available.

Customers who paid to have their ignition switches replaced will be eligible for reimbursement.

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Researchers say alcohol is an under-reported cause of death

Study finds it is rarely listed on a death certificate

The U.S. has made dramatic strides in recent years in reducing highway deaths caused by drunk drivers. Tougher enforcement and numerous awareness campaigns...

PhotoThe U.S. has made dramatic strides in recent years in reducing highway deaths caused by drunk drivers. Tougher enforcement and numerous awareness campaigns, including strong emphasis on designated drivers, are getting a lot of the credit.

For example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) cites National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data showing the number of drunk driving deaths in the U.S. has been reduced by 50% since MADD was founded in 1980.

But researchers writing in the March issue of theJournal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs suggest a lot of highway deaths – and other accidents in which alcohol was a factor – might not make it into the alcohol-related statistics.

Between 1999 and 2009, more than 450,000 Americans were killed in a traffic crashes. The researchers maintain that in cases where alcohol was involved, death certificates very often failed to list alcohol as a cause of death.

A leading killer

Since accident trauma is the leading cause of death for people under age 45, the researchers say alcohol's role bears exploring.

"We need to have a handle on what's contributing to the leading cause of death among young people," said Ralph Hingson, of the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and one of the researchers.

Not only that, Hingson argues that researchers need reliable data to study the effects of policies that are supposed to reduce alcohol-related deaths. Without reliable numbers, he says, its hard to know what's working and what isn't.

Two sets of data

The disconnect appears to stem from two sets of data. First, about half the states in the U.S. require fatally injured drivers to be tested for blood alcohol levels. Nationwide, about 70% of those drivers are tested.

This information goes into a NHTSA database called Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which contains the blood alcohol levels of Americans killed in traffic crashes.

MADD's claims of a huge drop in drunk driving deaths is accurate since it is based on that data, but what about deaths from other kinds of accidents? There is no such database of blood alcohol levels for people who die after falling off a ladder or stepping in front of a bus.

All researchers have to go on is the death certificate, and here the researchers found a notable discrepancy. When they looked at the FARS figures, they found 21% of driver fatalities were over the legal alcohol limit. Yet when they examined these drivers' death certificates, only 3% listed alcohol as a contributor to the death.

There could be any number of reasons for the discrepancy. One reason could be the time it takes to get blood-alcohol test results back.

Coroners or medical examiners usually have to file a death certificate within three to five days, Hingson's team points out, but toxicology results might take longer to obtain.

Other accidents

Whatever the reasons, Hingson believes the role of alcohol in injury deaths may be seriously underestimated on death certificates nationwide – not just highway accidents but all types of accidental deaths, for which there is no system of reporting blood alcohol levels.

Other countries may be doing a better job than the U.S. in tracking alcohol's role in accidental injury and death.

According to a British public interest group, DrinkAware, alcohol is the single biggest cause of accidents at home. Of the 4,000 fatal accidents that happen in homes in the UK every year, it says 400 are alcohol-related.

In 2008, it says the London Fire Brigade estimated that almost a third of accidental fire deaths in the capital were alcohol related.

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Homeowners get some relief from big flood insurance rate hikes

Premium increases capped at 18% for grandfathered properties

Homeowners in coastal and flood-prone areas are getting at least some relief from huge spikes in flood insurance costs, although many will still face premi...

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A Long Island home is rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy (staff photo)

Homeowners in coastal and flood-prone areas are getting at least some relief from huge spikes in flood insurance costs, although many will still face premium increases of 18% per year.

President Obama earlier this month signed legislation that modifies the more horrifying provisions of a 2012 rewrite of the National Flood Insurance Program, which covers 5.5 million homeowners and is currently drowing in a $24 billion sea of red ink that threatens to lap even higher as future storms come roaring ashore.

“At a time when ordinary families are frustrated because government doesn’t seem to listen, I heard you loud and clear and thankfully both sides of the aisle came together to fix this problem so middle class families can afford flood insurance and stay in their homes, businesses can stay open, and property values won’t plummet," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who co-sponsored the bill in the Senate. "This fight isn’t just about insurance-rate-tables and actuarial risk rates – it’s all about hardworking people.  People who played by the rules their whole lives." 

Shore it up

The 2012 rewrite was intended to shore up the program by making property owners pay insurance rates that would have driven many middle-class taxpayers from their homes.

Congress acted to modify the program after lawmakers from both parties were haranged for months by homeowners who said there was no way they could afford to pay increases of 100% or more. Critics say the relief measure simply will simply shift costs to taxpayers the next time a hurricane strikes.

"That's fine," said a property owner on New York's Long Island. "But if we're not going to insure taxpayers who live in flood plains, people that live in tornado or earthquake zones should be on their own too."

Most homeowners in flood-prone areas have no choice but to buy the federal flood program, since private insurers have largely abandoned coastal areas. Even simple homeowner's policies are barely affordable and, in some areas, can't be found at any price.

Grandfathered properties

Those who stand to benefit the most from the revision are those whose properties were originally built to code but subsequently were found to be at greater flood risk.

Such “grandfathered” homeowners currently benefit from below-market rates that are subsidized by other policyholders, and the new legislation preserves that status and caps premium increases at 18 percent a year. The 2012 overhaul required premiums to increase to actuarially sound rates over five years and required extensive remapping.

“Today, draconian flood insurance rate increases have been stopped, and we have returned affordability as a centerpiece of the National Flood Insurance Program,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said in a statement.

In another provision intended to provide relief to middle-class voters, sellers of older homes -- those built before flood insurance risk maps were drafted -- will be able to pass their subsidized policies on to buyers of their homes. 

However, homeowners whose homes have flooded repeatedly and those whose second home is in a flood zone will still see premiums go up by 25% a year until they reach a point that's deemed consistent with the risk of flooding.

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Tesla adds titanium shield to reduce Model S fire danger

Feds close safety investigation upon hearing the news

Tesla says it will add a titanium underbody shield to its $90,000 Model S sports sedans, hoping to prevent battery fires like the two that destroyed two of...

PhotoTesla says it will add a titanium underbody shield to its $90,000 Model S sports sedans, hoping to prevent battery fires like the two that destroyed two of the cars last year when they struck road debris.

That was good enough for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which promptly closed its three-month investigation of the fires.

Tesla says the shield will be built into all cars manufactured after March 5. Owners of cars built before that may have the shield added on request, the company said.

Writing on the Tesla.com site, ever-churlish CEO Elon Musk called the 2013 fires the result of "extremely unusual" collisions. NHTSA documents, however, note that hitting road debris is inevitable but say the shield and a software upgrade that raised the car's riding height should minimize the risk of future fires.

Musk still miffed

PhotoMusk, never satisfied, still thinks he was needlessly beaten up over the 2013 fires.

"These incidents, unfortunately, received more national headlines than the other [sic] 200,000 gasoline car fires that happened last year in North America alone," he wrote. "In both cases, the occupants walked away unharmed, thanks to the car’s safety features."

Musk notes that, so far, no Model S occupants have been killed in collisions and he claimed the latest change will bring the risk of serious injury or death "down to virtually zero."  

Musk said the changes will help prevent fires even in accidents that occur at very high speeds, "like the other Model S impact fire, which occurred last year in Mexico."

"This happened after the vehicle impacted a roundabout at 110 mph, shearing off 15 feet of concrete curbwall and tearing off the left front wheel, then smashing through an eight foot tall buttressed concrete wall on the other side of the road and tearing off the right front wheel, before crashing into a tree," Musk said. "The driver stepped out and walked away with no permanent injuries and a fire, again limited to the front section of the vehicle, started several minutes later. The underbody shields will help prevent a fire even in such a scenario."

NHTSA agreed.

“In this case, Tesla's revision of vehicle ride height and addition of increased underbody protection should reduce both the frequency of underbody strikes and the resultant fire risk. A defect trend has not been identified. Accordingly, the investigation is closed,” the agency said in a statement on its website, adding: "The closing of the investigation does not constitute a finding by NHTSA that a safety-related defect does not exist, and the agency reserves the right to take further action if warranted by new circumstances."

 

 

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Big Apple may impose dime fee on plastic and paper bags

Several states are considering a similar action

New York City is the latest U.S. municipality poised to place a fee on every plastic and paper bag supermarkets and other retailers provide consumers to ca...

PhotoNew York City is the latest U.S. municipality poised to place a fee on every plastic and paper bag supermarkets and other retailers provide consumers to carry their purchases.

The fee, of course, would be passed along to consumers.

The New York City Council this week received a proposal from two of its members to impose a 10-cent fee on each bag. City officials said the ordinance stops short of an outright ban on bags for merchandise but is designed to encourage consumers to bring reusable bags with them when they shop.

The proposed ordinance exempts bags provided for medication, take-out food from restaurants and alcoholic beverages. The measure appears to have wide support on the council.

DC has banned the bag

If enacted, New York would join Washington, D.C., which in 2009 banned the distribution of disposable, non-recyclable plastic carry-out bags and set a fee of 5 cents for distribution of all other disposable bags.

That same year North Carolina banned plastic bags in its Outer Banks region, a popular beach resort area. The ban was temporarily lifted in 2011 and has yet to be reimposed.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports more states are beginning to look for ways to reduce the number of disposable bags used in retail commerce. The objective is to reduce pressure on landfills and reduce the amount of plastic finding its way into oceans, lakes and rivers.

Hawaii's de-facto ban

NCSL says no state has yet enacted a statewide ban, fee or tax. However, Hawaii has come close. The state now has a de facto statewide ban, as all four counties in the state now ban non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout as well as paper bags that are not at least 40% recycled. Honolulu County was the last to approve the ban and retailers there have until July 1, 2015, to make the change.

As of now 3 states -- California, Massachusetts and Washington, along with Puerto Rico -- are considering legislation that would ban single-use bags, according to NCLS.

California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Washington are all considering a fee or tax on the distribution of bags which a shopper will have to pay, either directly or indirectly. Depending on the state, the revenue would go to state parks, school districts, community improvement trusts or other public programs.

Industry response

The plastic bag industry isn't taking all of this lying down. Lee Califf, Chair of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an organization representing the United States' plastic bag manufacturing and recycling sector, says the New York council members supporting the bag fee are misleading consumers.

"Denying that this legislation is a tax is disingenuous to the hardworking residents of New York City,” he said. “This proposed ordinance will drive up the cost of already expensive groceries for New Yorkers while failing to achieve any environmental goals."

Califf says his organization “promotes the responsible use, reuse, recycling and disposal of plastic bags and advocates for American-made plastic products as the best environmental choice at check out—for both retailers and consumers.”

Reusable bags

Without plastic or paper bags to carry their purchases consumers are being encouraged to bring their own reusable bags with them when they shop. But a word of caution to consumers; these bags need to be washed after each trip to the supermarket.

An April 2012 survey by the the Home Food Safety Program, a collaboration between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) and ConAgra Foods, found only 15% of Americans regularly wash their bags, creating a breeding zone for harmful bacteria.

"Cross-contamination occurs when juices from raw meats or germs from unclean objects come in contact with cooked or ready-to-eat foods like breads or produce," registered dietitian and Academy spokesperson Ruth Frechman said at the time. "Unwashed grocery bags are lingering with bacteria which can easily contaminate your foods."

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Self magazine confuses catty fashion critiques with health and fitness advice

Backfires when the "lame" marathon runner they insult turns out to have brain cancer. Oops!

I don't know if Self magazine editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger is the most famously catty middle-school student in America...

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Tara Baize (left) and Monika Allen (Facebook photo)

Since I haven't read her biography, I don't know if Selfmagazine editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger is the most famously catty middle-school student in America, or a grown woman who still thinks like one.

I do know that if I had a daughter and wanted her to grow up kind, confident and with a healthy self-image, I'd buy her a Playboy subscription before letting her read any so-called “women's” magazines, and the recent debacle with Danziger and Self  underscores why: the main theme of any such publication is “You there, Double-X-Chromosome Reader, just aren't good enough. Your body's the wrong shape, your face needs major cosmetic assistance, your wardrobe's hopelessly out of date, and now lemme offset my concern-trolling by mumbling some hypocritical half-assed platitude in favor of gender equality and women's empowerment. Girl power, yay!”

Brain cancer

Danziger and Self are currently taking heat after they published a photo essay insulting women who failed to meet proper fashion standards while running in long-distance marathons, then backpedaled after learning one of those unfashionables was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for brain cancer at the time.

Here's what happened: San Diego residents Monika Allen and Taramae Baize are co-owners and founders of a company called Glam Runners, which makes just-for-fun tutus to wear over regular running outfits, with a portion of the proceeds donated to local girls' athletic charities.

Allen was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year, and still undergoing chemotherapy when she and Baize ran in the LA Marathon. Unsurprisingly, they also wore superhero-themed Glam Runners tutus over their jogging clothes – Baize dressed like Superman (Supergirl?), and Allen like Wonder Woman.

Classified as lame

Sometime after the marathon, Allen was understandably excited to get an email from Self, requesting permission to print a picture of her as Wonder Woman in an upcoming photo essay. But when the April issue of Self came out, either Allen or Baize posted this dismayed update on the Glam Runners Facebook page (ellipses lifted from the original):

“Excited to see our tutus in SELF Magazine ... but shocked to see that running tutus are classified as lame. Especially considering the fact that this picture is from last year's LA Marathon when Glam Runner founders Tara and Monika ran together as superheroes ... because Monika was recently diagnosed with brain cancer and was running a marathon in the middle of a year of chemo.”

Self published the photo of Baize and Allen as part of a feature called “The BS Meter,” dubbed the photo “lame” and gave it a caption reading: “A racing tutu epidemic has struck NYC's Central Park, and it's all because people think these froufrou skirts make you run faster. Now, if you told us they made people run from you faster, maybe we would believe it."

[Speaking of BS: the LA Marathon where Allen dressed as Wonder Woman is roughly 3,000 miles away from New York's Central Park. And nobody ever claimed tutus make you run faster.]

The Glam Runners Facebook post soon came to the attention of NBC's San Diego affiliate, which ran a story about Monika Allen's encounter with Self. Allen told NBC that “The reason we were wearing those outfits is because this was my first marathon running with brain cancer,” and that “I feel like we were misled in providing the picture. Had I known how the picture was going to be used, I wouldn't have wanted to send it.” She also said she'd emailed Self magazine on Tuesday, asking for an explanation, and had not heard any response as of Wednesday night.

Self apology

But Self did send NBC a statement apologizing “for the association of her picture in any way other than to support her efforts to be healthy," and added, “Of course if tutus make you run with a smile on your face or with a sense of purpose or community, then they are indeed worth wearing, for any race.”

Of course. Even a middle school student behaving like a misogynist's parody of a shallow, catty, fashion-obsessed Mean Girl knows enough to backpedal when someone else points out “You do realize that the unfashionable kid you're bullying has brain cancer, right?”

Still, cynics detected a lack of sincerity in Self's newfound appreciation for tutu wearers. As one commenter noted on the Glam Runners Facebook page:

“What is point in even having a BS meter feature? Why do we feel that we have to shame others to get readership? I personally don't subscribe to SELF but have picked it up here and there. I had always thought the magazine was about wellness promotion, would have never thought it was another entity using negativity and mockery to add to our epidemic of low self esteem and body image disturbance.”

Another commenter said the same thing with fewer words:

“SELF, a magazine meant to motivate & inspire yet ok's the "BS METER"? Then insults numerous people that are just doing good. WOW. Epic fail SELF. Just epic.”

Self's editor-in-chief eventually posted the following apology on Self's Facebook page:

“On behalf of SELF, we sincerely apologize for our inadvertent insensitivity. I have personally reached out to Monika and her supporters online to apologize for the misstep and tell them we are trying to remedy the situation. At SELF we support women such as Monika; she is an inspiration and embodies the qualities we admire. We have donated to her charity and have offered to cover her good work in a future issue. We wish her all the best on her road to good health.

Most sincerely,

Lucy Danziger”

Minor quibbles

Minor semantic quibbles: one, there was nothing “inadvertent” about Self's insensitivity; when you publish a photo of a woman and deem her clothes something that “made people run from you faster,” you intend to be insulting. Even middle school kids know that much.

Two: you were not “insensitive”; you were insulting, belittling and outright rude.

Three: in light of points one and two, "sincere" probably isn't le mot juste to describe your apology.

Four: which specific “qualities” of Ms. Allen does Self “admire”? Danziger did not say, but it clearly isn't the quality of wearing cheerful, silly costumes while running marathons, because if Danziger and Self admired people who did such things, they wouldn't have looked at Allen's photo and thought “Hey, let's run this in our BS Meter section without so much as blurring out their faces or marathon-runner ID signs; we admire these lame tutu-wearing runners so much, we want everyone to know exactly who they are.”

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Switching fonts could save U.S. taxpayers up to $400 million per year

Or: another reason to hate Comic Sans

A brilliant sixth-grader analyzed ink use in various fonts; learned how to cut printing costs by 24%...

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Comic sans font

A clever sixth-grader in Pennsylvania has figured out that the U.S. government could cut its annual printing costs by up to $400 million simply by switching to less ink-intensive fonts — and smaller organizations or individuals could cut their printer-ink costs by as much as 24 percent.

CNN Money shares the story of Suvir Mirchandani, who originally was looking for ways his schoolteachers might reduce their printing costs. So he made a careful study of various handouts and worksheets the school gave him — or, more specifically, he studied and compared the different fonts and typefaces used to print them.

Computer-printer manufacturers make far more money selling ink than printers; as Mirchandani noted, “Ink is two times more expensive than French perfume by volume.”

By making precise measurements of the size (and ink coverage) of identical letters printed in Times New Roman, Garamond, Century Gothic and Comic Sans, he determined that if all staff in his school district switched to the thin-stroked Garamond font for official school or classroom printouts, its annual cost for printer ink would drop by 24%, an annual savings of about $21,000 for the school.

Mirchandani's teachers encouraged him to submit his results to the Journal of Emerging Investigators (a scientific journal for teenaged students), and the JEI in turn encouraged Mirchandani to apply his investigative methods to a much larger organization — the federal government.

On that much larger scale, he found, the simple act of switching from thick, heavy-ink fonts to thin-stroked ones like Garamond could cut federal printing costs by $400 million per year -- or about $1.26 per year for each of the estimated 317 million of us.

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One-third of middle-schoolers have high cholesterol

Study finds TV watching leads to excessive snacking by kids

You might think of cholesterol as a concern of the middle-aged but a new study finds that roughly one-third of American middle-schoolers -- ages 9-11 -- ha...

PhotoYou might think of cholesterol as a concern of the middle-aged but a new study finds that roughly one-third of American middle-schoolers -- ages 9-11 -- have borderline or high cholesterol, potentially placing them at greater risk for future cardiovascular disease. 

A separate study finds that excessive TV watching is more likely to lead to uncontrolled snacking than time spent on the computer or playing video games. 

In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers examined the medical records of 12,712 children who had screening for cholesterol levels at the Texas Children's Pediatrics Associates clinics, the nation's largest pediatric primary care organization.

Of these, 4,709, or 30%, had borderline or elevated total cholesterol as defined by the National Cholesterol Education Program.

"The sheer number of kids with abnormal lipid profiles provides further evidence that this is a population that needs attention and could potentially benefit from treatment," said Thomas Seery, M.D., pediatric cardiologist at Texas Children's Hospital. "But we can only intervene if we diagnose the problem."

While cardiovascular disease in children is rare, the presence of certain risk factors in childhood can increase the chances of developing heart disease as an adult. Previous studies have demonstrated that atherosclerosis – a hardening and narrowing of the arteries – can begin in childhood.

"If we can identify and work to lower cholesterol in children, we can potentially make a positive impact by stalling vascular changes and reducing the chances of future disease," Seery said.

He said that this is especially important amid the growing obesity epidemic. The study is being presented at the American College of Cardiology's 63rd Annual Scientific Session. 

Blame the TV

Another study found that middle school kids who park themselves in front of the TV for two hours or more each day are more likely to consume junk food and have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, even compared to those who spend an equal amount of time on the computer or playing video games.

"While too much of both types of screen time encourages sedentary behavior, our study suggests high TV time in particular is associated with poorer food choices and increased cardiovascular risk," said Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., a University of Michigan professor.

In fact, sixth-graders who reported watching between two and six hours of TV a day were more likely to have higher body mass index, elevated systolic and diastolic blood pressure and slower recovery heart rate compared with those reporting low screen time or kids who had comparable computer/video game use.

This is the first time researchers have looked at the impact of different kinds of screen time kids get in relation to snacking habits and physiological measures associated with heart health, according to the authors.

The study included 1,003 sixth-graders from 24 middle schools participating in Project Healthy Schools across five diverse communities in Southeast Michigan.

The research found that kids who spent more time in front of a screen – regardless of the type – snack more frequently and are more likely to choose less healthy snacks. High TV viewers and computer/video game users both reported eating roughly 3.5 snacks a day – one full snack more than kids who had minimal exposure to these technologies.

But children who watched two to six hours a day of TV were more likely than the high computer/video game group to eat high-fat foods such as French fries and chips.

Jackson said this is likely because these kids are bombarded by TV commercials that tend to reinforce less healthy foods – often higher in sugar, salt and fats. In addition, kids tend to have free hands while watching TV as opposed to when they are on the computer or playing video games, which provides more opportunity for mindless snacking. 

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Watch out for mudslide relief scams

Scam artists are profiting on others' misfortunes

When disaster strikes, you can be sure that scam artists will be close behind. The latest example is the massive mudslide in Washington State. Every...

PhotoWhen disaster strikes, you can be sure that scam artists will be close behind. The latest example is the massive mudslide in Washington State. 

Everyone would like to help but Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson warns that rip-off artists are already out in force.

“All of us in Washington and around the country have deep sympathy for the victims and their loved ones and friends at this tragic time,” Ferguson said.

“It is a natural instinct to want to provide assistance right away, but ... I advise potential donors to exercise caution and make sure their hard-earned dollars go for the purpose intended, not to line the pockets of scam artists.”

Secretary of State Kim Wyman added: “Our hearts go out to everyone affected by this horrific mudslide. So much was lost by so many. I’m heartened that many Washingtonians have a strong impulse to be a part of the relief effort, at least financially, and to help the victims of this tragedy. I support that, obviously.

“But as the Attorney General and I continue to emphasize in times like these, sadly there always seem to be rip-off artists who take advantage of people. It is shameful, but some so-called charities take advantage of our generous nature. I want people to donate to charities they know and trust, if that’s their desire, and I want no one’s money used to simply line some con-artist’s pocket.”

Here are some tips to help you avoid being taken in by phony appeals:

• Be suspicious of solicitors requesting immediate donations. Don’t rush decisions and consider contributing at give.org, a website run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
• Make sure that charities are qualified to provide the type of disaster relief that is necessary.
• Avoid cash donations. Write a check directly to the charity, not the fundraiser.
• Never give out credit card numbers over the phone.
• Be wary of “new” charities with unverifiable background information.
• Watch out for solicitations from fake “victim” or memorial social media accounts.
• Don’t be fooled by a name. Be watchful of charities that use sympathetic sounding names or names similar to well-known legitimate charities.

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Pending home sales slide again

Sales in all regions are below a year ago

For the eighth time in as many months, pending home sales have taken a hit. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the Pending Home Sale...

PhotoFor the eighth time in as many months, pending home sales have taken a hit.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) -- a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, dipped 0.8% in February -- to 93.9. That's 10.5% below a year earlier and the lowest since October 2011.

“Contract signings for the past three months have been little changed, implying the market appears to be stabilizing,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Moreover, buyer traffic information from our monthly Realtor survey shows a modest turnaround, and some weather delayed transactions should close in the spring.”

Sales regionally

Modest increases in the Midwest and West were offset by declines in the Northeast and South

  • The PHSI in the Northeast declined 2.4% to -- 77.1 in February, and is 7.4% below a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index was up 2.8%t to 95.3, but is 8.5% lower than February 2013.
  • Pending home sales fell in the South by 4.0% to a reading of 106.3 -- 9.3% below a year ago.
  • The index in the West rose 2.3% in February to 86.1, but remains 16.5% below February 2013.

The forecast

Total existing-home sales are expected to reach 5.0 million this year, according to the NAR, compared with nearly 5.1 million in 2013. Housing starts are projected to rise almost 19%, and reach about 1.1 million -- closer to the underlying demand of 1.5 million.

Analysts believe the gain in new home construction will reduce some of the pressure on home prices, with the national median existing-home price expected to rise in the range of 5.5 to 6% this year, compared with an 11.5% jump in 2013.

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Incomes and spending head higher in February

Consumers also managed to tuck away more money for a rainy day

Both personal incomes and consumer spending posted gains in February, as did the savings rate of consumers, Government figures show overall income edged u...

PhotoBoth personal incomes and consumer spending posted gains in February, as did the savings rate of consumers,

Government figures show overall income edged up 0.3%, or $47.7 billion. Disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- also was up 0.3%, or $42.3 billion.

Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) rose by $30.8 billion -- or 0.3%.

Wages and salaries

Private wages and salaries posted a smaller increase last month than in January -- $13.0 billion versus $17.2 billion. Payrolls of goods producing industries were up $5.2 billion in February, while manufacturing payrolls were down by $0.3 billion. Services-producing industries' payrolls jumped $7.8 billion, and government wages and salaries increased $2.0 billion.

Spending and saving

Personal outlays, which includes PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments, increased by $33.8 billion in February.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $544.5 billion in February, compared with $535.9 billion in January. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 4.3% in February, up 0.1% from January.

The complete incomes and savings report for February is available on the Commerce Department website,

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GM recalls Cadillac ELRs

The vehicles may have electronic stability control software problems

General Motors is recalling 656 model year 2014 Cadillac ELR vehicles not equipped with adaptive cruise control and manufactured September 26, 2013, throu...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 656 model year 2014 Cadillac ELR vehicles not equipped with adaptive cruise control and manufactured September 26, 2013, through February 14, 2014.

In these vehicles, the electronic stability control (ESC) system software may inhibit certain ESC diagnostics, preventing the system from alerting the driver that the ESC system is partially or fully disabled.

A driver who is not alerted to an ESC malfunction may continue driving with a disabled ESC system, possibly resulting in loss of directional control, increasing the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will recalibrate the Electronic Brake Control Module (EBCM), free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on April 17, 2014.

Owners may contact Cadillac at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is 14087.

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Excel recalls BigDog and Hustler mowers

The mower may to continue to move without an operator present

Excel Industries of Hesston, Kan., is recalling about 3,700 Hustler and BigDog riding mowers. The seat switch can fail to detect that the rider has left t...

PhotoExcel Industries of Hesston, Kan., is recalling about 3,700 Hustler and BigDog riding mowers.

The seat switch can fail to detect that the rider has left the seat, allowing the mower to continue to operate, posing a risk of injury.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves the BigDog and Hustler brand riding mowers. The BigDog mower is red with a grey seat and a black roll bar. The words BigDog Diablo are printed below the front of the seat and on the sides of the mower.

The Hustler mowers are yellow with grey seats, have “Hustler” on the front of the footrest and say FastTrak, FastTrakSD or RaptorSD in red on the yellow bar below the front of the seat. The FastTrak and FastTrakSD mowers have a black roll bar. All mowers have right and left steering handles.

The recalled mowers have serial numbers between 13082168 and 14012774 for the BigDog R Diablo, between 13081106 and 14013675 for FastTrak, between 13081129 and 14013689 for FasTrakSD and between 13081376 and 14013882 for Hustler RaptorSD. The serial number appears on a tag located on the left side of the seat platform in front of the fender.

The mowers, manufactured in Kansas, were sold at BigDog and Hustler dealers nationwide from August 2013, to January 2014, for about $4,600 to $8,050.

Consumers should stop using the mower immediately and contact their dealers to schedule an appointment to receive a free seat repair.

Consumers may contact Excel Industries collect at (316) 327-1345 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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ThinkPad notebook computer battery packs recalled

The battery packs can overheat, posing a fire hazard

Lenovo of Morrisville, N.C., is recalling about 37,000 ThinkPad notebook computer battery packs in the U.S. and Canada. The battery packs can overheat, po...

PhotoLenovo of Morrisville, N.C., is recalling about 37,000 ThinkPad notebook computer battery packs in the U.S. and Canada.

The battery packs can overheat, posing a fire hazard.

The company has received two reports of the battery packs overheating, resulting in damage to the computer, battery pack and nearby property. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves Lenovo battery packs sold with the following ThinkPad notebook computers: the Edge 11, 13 and 14 series, the T410, T420, T510 and W510 series, and the X100e, X120e, X200, X201 and X201s series. The battery packs were also sold separately.

The black battery packs measure between 8 to 11 inches long, 1 to 3 inches wide and about 1 inch high.

Recalled battery packs have one of the following part numbers starting with the fourth digit in a long series of numbers and letters printed on a white sticker below the bar code on the battery pack: 42T4695, 42T4711, 42T4798, 42T4804, 42T4812, 42T4822, 42T4828, 42T4834, 42T4840 and 42T4890.

The battery packs, manufactured in China, were sold at computer and electronics stores, authorized dealers and online at www.lenovo.com nationwide from October 2010, through April 2011, for between $350 and $3,000 when sold as part of ThinkPad notebook computers. The battery packs were also sold separately for between $80 and $150.

Consumers should immediately turn off their ThinkPad notebook computer, remove the battery pack and contact Lenovo for a free replacement battery pack. Consumers can continue to use their ThinkPad notebook without the battery pack by plugging in the AC adapter and power cord.

Consumers may contact Lenovo at (800) 426-7378 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.  

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Retirement account fees getting increased scrutiny

New web tool tells you if you are paying too much

With so many Baby Boomers retiring, or getting ready to retire, retirement savings has been been a hot button topic. Right along with it – especially...

PhotoWith so many Baby Boomers retiring, or getting ready to retire, retirement savings has been been a hot button topic. Right along with it – especially lately – concern about fees paid on retirement accounts is getting some discussion.

If you have a retirement-related investment account, you are paying something for it. Do you know how much?

Chances are you don't, because the companies managing these accounts don't always put that information front and center. But a new web-based tool – FeeX – is designed to help you find out what you are paying and whether it is too much.

Tech heavyweight

One of the people behind FeeX is Uri Levine, a heavyweight in the entrepreneurial tech world who sold map software provider Waze to Google last year for a cool $1.1 billion. FeeX's position is that some of these fees aren't fair, especially if they aren't readily apparent to the account-holder.

A free sign-up at FeeX.com shows users in graphic terms how much they’re paying for their investments, providing an estimate of the damage those fees will inflict by the time they retire. The tool then enlists help from others in the community to demonstrate how to reduce those fees before they eat too deeply into retirement savings.

“If you don’t know how much you’re paying in fees, you’re probably paying too much,” said Yoav Zurel, CEO of FeeX in this video:

How much is too much?

But since it's reasonable to assume that you're going to pay something, how much is too much? Many financial experts suggest paying more than 1% of your portfolio is over the limit.

This video from the U.S. Department of Labor explains the different kinds of fees you may be paying and how they impact your savings.

Compares your portfolio to others

To help savers avoid excessive fees, FeeX compares portfolios to a practical ideal, based on what other anonymous users are doing. It's a way of grading on the curve, so to speak.

FeeX says this crowdsourcing element allows it to remain objective while helping users rescue their retirements – without sacrificing performance or taking on more risk.

“Again and again we’re seeing that the power of community trumps other more traditional, individual approaches,” Levine said. “Why hold only one piece when together, we can see the whole puzzle?”

The 2013 Investment Company Factbook reports there is $5.4 trillion retirement dollars invested in IRAs, accounting for 27 percent, the lion’s share of U.S. national retirement savings. As a result, Levine says Americans paid $43 billion in fees in their IRA accounts last year alone.

Losers

Who stands to lose if FeeX and other critics of large fees are successful in persuading consumers to be more vigilant? Most likely it's the big brokerage firms that manage these accounts and the large mutual funds, which make up a significant portion of retirement account assets.

CNBC host Jim Cramer recently went on a tirade against the typical company sponsored 401 (k) account, saying “most of them stink,” adding it sometimes feels like the whole system was set up to benefit the financial services industry, not consumers.

"They have high management fees and administrative costs that eat into your returns, and worst of all, they typically offer you lousy choices for your investments and not nearly enough control over them," Cramer added. "The 401(k) business is a racket for the managers who get to charge you these fees.”

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Homeopathic medicines recalled for presence of genuine medicine

Or, you can't end world hunger with homeopathic beef stew

A batch of homeopathic medicine is being recalled because it might be contaminated by traces of genuinely effective medicine, specifically the antibiotic p...

PhotoA batch of homeopathic medicine is being recalled because it might be contaminated by traces of genuinely effective medicine, specifically the antibiotic penicillin.

Homeopathic remedies aren't supposed to contain actual active ingredients; instead, homeopathy is based on the erroneous belief that water can not only hold or “remember” the qualities of anything diluted in it, but actually intensify those qualities, so that the more you water something down, the more potent it becomes.

(At least, that is the belief about homeopathic medicine; thus far, no homeopathic practitioners have tried applying their stated principles to food and ending world hunger by, for example, using a lone soybean, cabbage leaf and bouillon cube to transform the Nile River into a 4,000-mile-long trough of homeopathic beef stew.)

Might contain penicillin

But last week the FDA noted in a press release that the Terra-Medica company is voluntarily recalling various batches of homeopathic liquids, capsules, tablets, ointments and suppositories which might contain penicillin or penicillin derivatives.

The release went largely unnoticed until Wired UK reported it a week later, explaining to its mostly British readership that America's FDA regulates homeopathic medicines only for packaging and purity standards (i.e., making sure there's no penicillin contaminating what's supposed to be an antibiotic-free substance). However, homeopathic drugs are not expected to meet FDA effectiveness standards — in other words, unlike regular drugs and medicines, homeopathic remedies may legally be sold without proving that they actually work.

Indeed, if effectiveness tests were required for homeopathic remedies, most probably wouldn't be sold at all; as the National Institute of Health notes on its website, there is “little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition,” most likely because “several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics.”

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CDC finds more cases of Heartland virus

It's another good reason to be wary of ticks

Not long ago, we reported on a newly-discovered food allergy that's spread by ticks. And now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)...

PhotoNot long ago, we reported on a newly-discovered food allergy that's spread by ticks. And now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it has found 6 new cases of people sick with Heartland virus, also thought to be spread by ticks.

Of the latest cases, 5 are in Missouri and 1 in Tennessee.

Heartland virus was first reported in two northwestern Missouri farmers who were hospitalized in 2009 with what was thought to be ehrlichiosis, a tick-borne disease. However, the patients failed to improve with treatment and testing failed to confirm ehlrlichiosis.

Working with state and local partners, CDC eventually identified the cause of the men’s illness: a previously unknown virus now dubbed Heartland virus.

So far, all of the patients have been white men over the age of 50. Their symptoms started in May to September and included fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, headache, nausea, or muscle pain. Of the 6 new cases, 4 were hospitalized and 1 died.

Of the 6 new cases, 5 reported tick bites in the days or weeks before they fell ill.

Lone Star ticks

The CDC says its studies indicate the Heartland virus is carried by Lone Star ticks, which are primarily found in the southeastern and eastern United States. Additional studies seek to confirm whether ticks can spread the virus to people and to learn what other insects or animals may be involved in the transmission cycle. CDC is also looking for Heartland virus in other parts of the country.

So far, there is no specific treatment, vaccine or drug for Heartland virus disease. Because it is caused by a virus, the disease also does not respond to antibiotics used to treat tickborne bacterial infections such as Lyme disease. However, supportive therapies such as IV fluids and fever reducers can relieve some Heartland disease symptoms.

To reduce the risk of Heartland and other vector-borne diseases, CDC recommends that people:

  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter;
  • Use insect repellent when outdoors;
  • Use products that contain permethrin on clothing;
  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you;
  • Conduct a full-body tick check after spending time outdoors; and
  • Examine gear and pets, as ticks can “ride” into the home and attach to a person later.
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Microsoft Office for iPads: smart move or too little, too late?

Keyboards vs. touchscreens is another debate

It's said that one of the hallmarks of “great art” is its ability to be interpreted different ways by different people. If so, then Microsoft's...

PhotoIt's said that one of the hallmarks of “great art” is its ability to be interpreted different ways by different people.

If so, then Microsoft's decision to finally create an Office software suite for the iPad is “great art” -- either a brilliant move to rejuvenate Microsoft's sagging business model, or too little, too late to halt the company's seemingly inevitable decline.

For example: Business Insider's tech coverage headlined the news by saying “Microsoft is about to release its most important product in years,” whereas The New York Times had the more restrained headline “Microsoft's Office suite finally coming to iPad, maybe too late.”

Optimists and pessimists both agree that the current version of Microsoft Office works very well on a laptop or desktop computer, but not for tablets (the market for which is currently dominated by the iPad).

And over the past few years, as more and more portable-computer users have switched from laptops to tablets, they grew accustomed to using their tablets without Microsoft Office, producing and sharing documents via Google Docs or other alternatives.

Fight or switch?

PhotoSo the question is: will iPad users eagerly switch to Office, or continue doing without it? That's where the different interpretations come in.

It also depends on how Microsoft sells the iPad-compatible Office — will it be a one-time software purchase, or a subscription with regular payments?

Another variable to consider is the inherent difference between touchscreen tablets and keyboard-controlled laptops or desktops — touchscreen typing works well enough for sending brief text messages, but most people find typing lengthier documents (or news articles, even relatively short ones such as you're reading now) much easier on a tactile keyboard.

InformationWeek alluded to this difference in its analysis of the Office-for-iPad suite, noting that “Given that tablet productivity is unlikely to fully replace mouse-and-keyboard productivity in the first place, it's unclear how many iWork or Google Docs users will revert back to Office on their tablets, especially if subscription costs are involved.”

Personally, I find tactile keyboard typing vastly easier than touchscreen, and a brief informal survey of friends and colleagues suggests this is a commonplace idea — at least among people who are adults in the year 2014, and presumably came of age typing on QWERTY keyboards. Touchscreen tablets, by contrast, haven't existed long enough for there to be adult professionals who can say “I've been using touchscreens ever since childhood.”

So this idea that keyboards are better than touchscreens (at least for producing text rather than graphics) -- will that remain the status quo, or is it the future equivalent of “Sure, automobiles have some nice features, but I can't see them completely replacing the horse?”

The question of whether Office for iPad proves successful should be decided long before the keyboard-vs.-touchscreen debate is resolved.

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Insurance study: car recalls make a difference

Study shows importance of responding promptly to recall notices

How seriously should a vehicle owner take a recall notice? A new study by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) shows that at least one type of recall cor...

PhotoGeneral Motors is taking a lot of criticism for being slow to issue recall notices for models with defective ignition switches. But in many other cases, it's consumers who are slow to respond to recalls, perhaps thinking they're not really important.

But a new study from the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) shows that at least one type of recall corresponds to higher insurance losses -- and finds that the risk goes down after consumers are notified about the need for repairs.

HLDI analysts studied losses from noncrash fires from 2007 to 2012 for vehicles up to 8 years old. They compared the rate of noncrash fire claims for vehicles with a known fire-related defect for which a recall was issued with the rate of claims for vehicles without such defects. Defects that can cause fires include such things as electrical problems or fuel system defects.

They found that in the years prior to a recall, the claim frequency for vehicles with fire-related defects was 23% higher than for other vehicles. After the recall, claim frequency was only 12% higher.

Photo

"As one would hope, recalls mitigate the effect of fire-related defects," says HLDI Vice President Matt Moore. "However, even after recalls are issued, these vehicles continue to have higher claim rates. This may be a result of people not following up after receiving a recall notice."

"This study shows that recalls are issued for a reason and they are effective at reducing risk," Moore says. "When you get a recall notice, don't put off the repairs."

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New York cracks down on Hollywood Tans' health claims

The tanning chain agrees to stop claiming health benefits for tanning sessions

It's no secret that getting too much sun -- real or otherwise -- is bad for you, but that doesn't stop tanning salons from hinting or just outright claimin...

PhotoIt's no secret that getting too much sun -- real or otherwise -- is bad for you, but that doesn't stop tanning salons from hinting or even outright claiming that tanning is healthy.

But coming clean about tanning is no longer an option for Hollywood Tans salons in New York, where Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has reached an agreement with the salon chain requiring them to stop making health-related representations to promote tanning services.

The chain has six franchises in New York State and more than 100 franchises across the country. The agreement prohibits all Hollywood Tans and Hollywood Tans NYC franchises in New York from making health claims, from offering “unlimited” tanning packages, and from targeting high school students.

Misleading claims

Concerned with the cancer risks associated with indoor tanning, particularly for young people, Schneiderman launched an investigation last year and found that Hollywood Tans NYC made numerous misleading and false representations about the safety and health benefits associated with UV tanning.

These included health benefits associated with increased vitamin D production, such as: “Tanning booths can be therapeutic. It can help your body create vitamin D to prevent cancer,” and, “More Sun Means Less Cancer: New Study.”

“There is a clear consensus in the medical and scientific communities on the harms associated with indoor or UV tanning – including significant increases in the likelihood of skin cancer – and especially for young people,” Schneiderman said. “It is important that consumers know the risks of indoor tanning, and that the science isn’t distorted by any advertising or marketing that uses false, misleading, or unsubstantiated health-related representations to confuse consumers.”

Distorted by advertising

Hollywood Tans NYC's website, blog and social media outlets advertised using misleading representations including: “The American Cancer Society doesn’t want you to know the truth about tanning booths,” “Sunlight prevents skin cancer and other cancers. It’s absolutely true,” and “Vitamin D prevents brain cancer, bone cancer, liver cancer and other types of cancer.”

While vitamin D production is frequently promoted as a benefit of UV tanning, research shows that indoor tanning is neither a reliable nor an advisable source, Schneiderman said. Sufficient vitamin D levels can be maintained through diet and supplements without the risks posted by indoor tanning.

Dr. Sophie J. Balk, attending pediatrician at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore, Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement on UV radiation, said, “This is a pediatric issue because first exposures to tanning beds usually occur during the teen years. We need to protect children from false claims that are likely to mislead them into believing indoor tanning is safe because, in reality, it’s harming them."

Dr. David Fisher, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Dermatology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, said, “Indoor tanning is not a legitimate means of maintaining vitamin D because we do not recommend a cancer-causing agent to obtain a vitamin that can be taken easily as a pill. Additionally, indoor tanning appears to have addictive features, which are deleterious to health in multiple ways.”

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Mediterranean diet linked to lower risk of diabetes

The diet is beneficial among all groups, especially those at high risk of heart disease

You've heard that adopting a Mediterranean diet is good for your heart. Now a study shows it is also linked to a lower risk of diabetes, especially among p...

PhotoYou've heard that adopting a Mediterranean diet is good for your heart. Now a study shows it is also linked to a lower risk of diabetes, especially among people at high risk for cardiovascular disease.

"Adherence to the Mediterranean diet may prevent the development of diabetes irrespective of age, sex, race or culture," said Demosthenes Panagiotakos, Ph.D., professor at Harokopio University, Athens, Greece, and lead investigator of this meta-analysis to be presented at the American College of Cardiology's 63rd Annual Scientific Session.

"This diet has a beneficial effect, even in high risk groups, and speaks to the fact that it is never too late to start eating a healthy diet."

Reduces diabetes risk

The study found that adherence to this diet was associated with a 21% reduced risk of diabetes, compared to the control dietary groups. This reduced risk was even more pronounced among people at high risk for cardiovascular disease – among whom diabetes prevention is especially critical. 

"A meta-analysis captures the limitations of individual studies, and this type of study is important to help inform guidelines and evidence-based care," Panagiotakos said.

"Diabetes is an ongoing epidemic and its relation to obesity, especially in the Westernized populations. We have to do something to prevent diabetes and changing our diet may be an effective treatment."

The researchers found that regardless of the study population – European or non-European or high or low risk of cardiovascular disease – the association between the Mediterranean diet and lower risk of diabetes remained.

While there is no set Mediterranean diet, it commonly emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, olive oil and even a glass of red wine.

The number of diabetes cases has doubled worldwide in the past 30 years and has been linked to the growing obesity epidemic. People with diabetes have trouble controlling their blood sugar because they either do not produce the hormone insulin or do not use it properly. If uncontrolled, diabetes can lead to complications including blindness, kidney failure, cardiovascular disease and amputations.

Panagiotakos said he believes the Mediterranean diet, in particular, lowers the risk of diabetes by helping to guard against obesity. Earlier research has shown that following the traditional Mediterranean diet is also linked to weight loss, reduced risk of heart disease and related death, as well as lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.

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Southerners more likely to die of heart attack

Lifestyle may play a significant role, study suggests

If you're looking to live a long life, the South may not be the place to settle. A study of nearly 13 million people finds a higher rate of heart attack de...

PhotoIf you're looking to live a long life, the South may not be the place to settle. A study of nearly 13 million people finds a higher rate of heart attack deaths in the South.

Heart attack deaths have been declining across the United States but remain proportionately higher in the South, the study found.

In the study, to be presented at the American College of Cardiology's 63rd Annual Scientific Session, researchers looked at 12.9 million heart attack cases from 2000 to 2010.

They found the overall in-hospital death rate per 100,000 cases was highest in the South followed by the Midwest and Northeast, with the least occurring in the West.

There was a significant discrepancy in heart attack deaths among African-Americans and Hispanics in the South compared to whites in the region (a 50% and 15% higher risk, respectively).

While the study was not intended to establish cause-and-effect, it did show a "significantly higher occurrence" of risk factors including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking in the southern states compared to other regions. Median household income was also much lower in this area.

"We've made great strides in the way we treat our heart disease patients in this country, especially with [advances in] new medication, technologies and treatment protocols, but a gap of this size is unacceptable," said Sadip Pant, M.D., an internist with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and lead investigator of the study.

"Lower household income in the region may play a role by affecting the type of care people receive, how well they are able to manage their risk factors, how often they see their doctors, and whether they have access to the proper medications," he said.

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Four Loko agrees to clean up its marketing

The company will pay $400,000 as part of a settlement with 19 states

Four Loko has agreed to pay $400,000 and clean up its marketing practices.It's part of a multistate settlement of allegations that the company unlawfully...

PhotoFour Loko has agreed to pay $400,000 and clean up its marketing practices.

It's part of a multistate settlement of allegations that the company unlawfully marketed its flavored malt beverages, promoted the misuse of alcohol by underage individuals, and failed to disclose the effects of drinking alcoholic beverages combined with caffeine.

Four Loko has also agreed to change how it markets and promotes its flavored malt beverages and other alcoholic products, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said.

Public health concerns

“Binge drinking and underage drinking are public health concerns, and it is essential that companies market their products responsibly, particularly when they are selling alcoholic products that may appeal to minors,” Coakley said. “We are pleased that the company will improve the marketing and promotion of its flavored malt beverages to prevent dangerous drinking behaviors.”

Coakley joined 19 other attorneys general and the City Attorney of San Francisco in pursuing changes to the marketing and sales practices of Phusion Products LLC, Four Loko's parent compay.

The settlement specifically addresses Phusion’s practice of manufacturing, marketing, and selling unsafe and adulterated caffeinated alcoholic beverages prior to the FDA’s November 2010 letter warning Phusion that caffeinated Four Loko is an unsafe product.

As a result, Phusion ceased producing caffeinated alcoholic beverages, marketed as energy drinks, and removed its caffeinated Four Loko products from retail store shelves. Phusion later reintroduced the malt beverage without caffeine and other ingredients.

As part of the settlement, Phusion has agreed to reform how it markets and promotes its flavored malt beverages, including Four Loko, and to stop promoting the use of alcohol by minors.

States joining the settlement include Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington, along with the City Attorney of San Francisco.

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A bit of oomph in the economic growth rate

But the pace doesn't even come close to what we saw three months earlier

Government numbers crunchers have finished their work computing the rate of growth for the final 3 months of 2013. And while the third estimate is up a bit...

PhotoGovernment numbers crunchers have finished their work computing the rate of growth for the final 3 months of 2013. And while the third estimate is up a bit -- 0.2% -- from the second estimate, it's nothing to write home about.

The Commerce Department has real gross domestic product -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S. -- increasing at an annual rate of 2.6% in the fourth quarter. In the third quarter, it expanded at an 4.1% annual rate.

Ups and downs

The increase in real GDP in the fourth quarter primarily reflects positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), exports, and nonresidential fixed investment. Those were partly offset by declines in federal government spending and residential fixed investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, rose.

The drop from the earlier quarter is due to a downturn in private inventory investment, a larger decrease in federal government spending, a downturn in residential fixed investment, and a deceleration in state and local government spending. Those were partly offset by accelerations in PCE and in exports, a deceleration in imports, and an acceleration in nonresidential fixed investment.

Stern Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza notes that while we saw a slowdown from the third quarter, the U.S. economy did grow at a faster pace than previously reported at the end of 2013 as consumer spending rose by the most in three years. The spending rise itself, Piegza adds, reflected “a hearty increase in service spending -- particularly in health care services.”

The full report may be found on the Bureau of Economic Analysis website.

PhotoJobless claims

Meanwhile, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits came in well below analysts expectations.

The government says initial jobless claims were down by 10,000 in the week ending March 22 -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 311,000. The consensus of economist surveyed by Briefing.com was for a total of 330,000.

Analysts say numbers like this would normally suggest an acceleration in payroll growth and that monthly payroll gains above 200,000 over the next couple of months would not be surprising.

The 4-week moving average, considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market because it lacks the weekly report's volatility was 317,750 -- down 9,500 from the previous week.

The complete jobless claims report is available on the Labor Department website.

 

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Pure Edge Nutrition recalls Bella Vi brand products

The weight-loss dietary supplements contain unapproved new drugs

Pure Edge Nutrition of Toms River, N.J., is recalling one lot each of: Bella Vi Insane Bee Pollen Capsules Bella Vi BTrim Ultimate Boost Bella Vi BTrim...

PhotoPure Edge Nutrition of Toms River, N.J., is recalling one lot each of:

  • Bella Vi Insane Bee Pollen Capsules
  • Bella Vi BTrim Ultimate Boost
  • Bella Vi BTrim Max
  • Bella Vi Extreme Accelerator
  • Bella Vi Insane Amp’d, and
  • two lots of Bella Vi Amp’d Up

The products have been found to contain undeclared Sibutramine or a combination of both Sibutramine and Phenolphthalein. Sibutramine a previously approved controlled substance. Phenophthalein is used medicinally as a laxative. Therefore, these products are unapproved new drugs.

All affected products are marketed as dietary supplements for weight loss and were packaged and distributed as follows:

  • Bella Vi Insane Bee Pollen Capsules is packaged in bottles of 60 capsules with lot # 201303 EXP: 14/03/07. Bella Vi Insane was distributed to consumers and distributors nationwide from March 1, 2013 – August 31, 2013.
  • Bella Vi BTrim Max is packaged in bottles of 60 capsules with lot # BTX13 EXP: 2015/08/15. Bella Vi Btrim Max was distributed to consumers and distributors nationwide from August 31, 2013 – September 31, 2013.
  • Bella Vi BTrim Ultimate Boost is packaged in bottles of 30 capsules with lot # BTRM3452 EXP: 2015/07/03. Bella Vi Btrim was distributed to consumers and distributors nationwide from July 1, 2013 – September 31, 2013.
  • Bella Vi Extreme Accelerator is packaged in bottles of 30 capsules with lot # BTRX7654 EXP: 2015/07/08. Bella Vi Extreme was distributed to consumers and distributors nationwide from July 1, 2013 – September 31, 2013.
  • Bella Vi Insane Amp’d is packaged in bottles of 60 capsules with lot # VINA2013 EXP: 2015/06/12. Bella Vi Insane Amp’d was distributed to consumers and distributors nationwide from June 1, 2013 – September 31, 2013.
  • Bella Vi Amp’d Up is packaged in bottles of 60 capsules with lot # AU2013AB EXP: 2015/05/20 and lot #BVAU813 EXP: 2015/08/12. Bella Vi Amp’d Up was distributed to consumers and distributors nationwide from May 1, 2013 – September 31, 2013.

Pure Edge Nutrition is notifying its distributors and customers by email and arranging for return of all recalled products. Consumers and distributors who have the recalled product should stop using and return them to Pure Edge Nutrition.

Consumers with questions regarding this recall may contact Pure Edge Nutrition at (888) 417-3613 Monday – Friday 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. EST or by email at info@pureedgenutrition.com.

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Feds issue public health alert for processed egg products

The action follows a company's refusal to expand an earlier recall

The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is taking matters into its own hands. The agency is issuing a public health alert because Nutriom LL...

PhotoThe federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is taking matters into its own hands.

The agency is issuing a public health alert because Nutriom LLC of Lacey, Wash., has declined to expand a recall issued in February to include an additional 118,541 pounds of processed egg products. FSIS says there is reason to conclude that they are unfit for human consumption.

The request for expansion was based on evidence collected during an investigation conducted by FSIS. The company, according to the agency, has refused to recall the additional processed egg products. As a consequence, FSIS intends to take appropriate action to remove the products from commerce.

Phony test results alleged

FSIS issued the original recall because the company allegedly recorded false laboratory results. The company also allegedly produced negative laboratory results for Salmonella when the results were actually positive, or reported that sampling had occurred when, in fact, no microbial testing was performed.

FSIS asked the company to include additional products, but it declined. Because the product was not produced in accordance with FSIS requirements, it has been declared unfit for human consumption.

The following products were shipped to co-packers for incorporation into consumer-size packages:

  • 3,884-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the lot code “H0613-B”
  • 1,031-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the lot code “I0413-A”
  • 958-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the lot code “I0413-A”
  • 4,422-lb. super sack of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the lot code “L1713-A”

The following products were packaged in consumer-sized packages:

  • 1.75-lb. packs of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian dates “0374,” “0384,” “2683” and “2693”
  • 66-gram spray bottles of “Bak-Klene Egg Wash” with the lot code “L1013A”
  • 1.17-lb. packs of “OvaEasy UGRA, Reduced Cholesterol” with the Julian dates “3129,” “3228,” “3229,” “3230,” “3231,” “3281,” “3282,” “3283,” “3284,” “3337,” “3338,” “3339” and “3340”
  • 4.5-oz. cans of “OvaEasy Whole Plain Egg” with the Julian date “2883”
  • 571-gram packs of “Vitovo Low Fat” with the Julian date “3193”
  • 1.1-lb. bags of “OvaEasy Boil-in-Bag UGR, Heat & Serve (HS)” with the Julian dates “3161,” “3162,” “3182,” “3183,” “3188,” “3201,” “3202,” “3203,” “3204,” “3205,” “3208,” “3209,” “3210,” “3211,” “3212,” “3213,” “3220,” “3221” and “3222”
  • 2-oz. packs of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian dates “0074,” “0084,” “0094,” “0354,” “0364,” “0374,” “2243,” “2253,” “2953,” “2963,” “3463,” “3473” and “3483”
  • 66-gram spray bottles of “Panera Egg Wash” with the Julian dates “0104,” “0154,” “0164,” “0174,” “0214,” “0224,” “0234,” “0244,” “0284,” “0294,” “0304” and “0314”
  • 2-oz. pack of “Wise Company, Wise Blend” with the Julian date “0943”

The dried egg products were produced from May 2013, through January 2014, and bear the establishment number “INSPECTED EGG PRODUCTS PLANT 21493G” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. They were shipped nationwide and to U.S. military installations in the U.S. and abroad, and to Mexico.

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Oscar’s Smokehouse recalls Cheese Spreads

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Oscars Smokehouse of Warrensburg, N.Y., is recalling 11 7-oz. cheese spreads varieties marked with 3-digit lot numbers ranging from” 719-959” because they ...

PhotoOscars Smokehouse of Warrensburg, N.Y., is recalling the following 7-oz. cheese spreads varieties marked with 3-digit lot numbers ranging from” 719-959” because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes:

  • JALAPENO PEPPER CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • CHEDDAR SPREAD & BLUE CHEESE, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • CHAMPAGNE CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • GARLIC CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • PORT WINE CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • TANGY HORSERADISH CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • PLAIN CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • “MORE THAN” CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • HICKORY SMOKED CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • BACON & HORSERADISH CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.
  • BACON CHEDDAR SPREAD, NET WT 7 OZS.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

The recalled products were distributed nationwide through mail order sales, wholesale sales and one retail store from 3/21/2013, to 3/21/2014.

The product comes in a 7-oz., clear plastic container marked with lot numbers 719-959 on the bottom of the container or on the cheese spread label itself.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled products should to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Oscar’s Smokehouse at 1-800-627-3431, Monday-Sunday 8am-6pm, EST.

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Super Fat Burner, Maxi Gold and Esmeralda dietary supplements recalled

The products contain unapproved and undeclared ingredients

New Life Nutritional Center is recalling all lots of Super Fat Burner capsules, Maxi Gold capsules and Esmeralda softgels. Laboratory analysis has reveale...

PhotoNew Life Nutritional Center is recalling all lots of Super Fat Burner capsules, Maxi Gold capsules and Esmeralda softgels.

Laboratory analysis has revealed the products contain undeclared active pharmaceutical ingredients including sibutramine, phenolphthalein or a combination of both.

Sibutramine is an appetite suppressant that was withdrawn due to increased risk of seizures, heart attacks, arrhythmia and strokes. Phenolphthalein is an ingredient previously used in over-the-counter laxatives, but because of concerns of carcinogenicity, it is not currently approved for marketing in the United States.

These undeclared ingredients make these products unapproved new drugs for which safety and efficacy have not been established. At this time no illnesses or injuries have been reported to New Life Nutritional Center in connection with these products.

These products are used as weight loss aids and are packaged in 30 capsule bottles. They were distributed to customers via retail stores in New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts, and Internet sales through at www.newlifenutritional.com.

New Life Nutritional Center is notifying customers by letter that they should immediately discontinue use of these products and return them for a refund to New Life Nutritional Center 714 West 181st Street New York, N.Y. 10033.

Consumers with questions may contact Nilson Rosado at 646-209-9846 Monday – Friday 8am to 6 pm ET or by e-mail at rosadohow@aol.com.

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Chrysler recalls Dodge Chargers with headlight problems

Sub-harness for the headlights may overheat and cause the low beam headlights to go out

Chrysler Group is recalling 43,452 model year 2011-2012 Dodge Charger vehicles manufactured May 20, 2010, through November 8, 2011, and equipped with halog...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 43,452 model year 2011-2012 Dodge Charger vehicles manufactured May 20, 2010, through November 8, 2011, and equipped with halogen headlamps.

In the affected vehicles, a sub-harness for the headlights may overheat and cause the low beam headlights to go out. Loss of headlights reduces the driver's visibility, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the headlamp jumper harnesses and bulbs, or the headlamp assemblies, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in April 2014.

Owners may contract Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number associated with this recall is P08.

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Dermatologist links surge in skin allergies to sanitary wipes

Some are allergic to common preservative used in these products

Those pre-moistened wipes are everywhere, especially in supermarkets. A dispenser usually greets shoppers as they walk through the door, inviting them to w...

PhotoThose pre-moistened wipes are everywhere, especially in supermarkets. A dispenser usually greets shoppers as they walk through the door, inviting them to wipe their hands and avoid germs often found on shopping carts.

While keeping clean is a good thing and may in fact reduce cases of cold and flu, these wipes may also be having a negative effect – a dramatic rise in skin allergies. At least that's what one dermatologist believes.

“In the last two or three years, we’ve suddenly seen a big increase in people with this type of allergy,” said Dr. Matthew Zirwas, director of the contact dermatitis center at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center. “For some patients, their rash has been unexplained and going on for years.”

Common preservative

Zirwas has linked the rise in allergic reactions to a chemical preservative known as MI (methylisothiazolinone). MI is nothing new, having been around for years in a host of water-based products like liquid soaps, hair products, sunscreen, cosmetics, laundry products and cleaners as well as pre-moistened personal hygiene products and baby wipes.

What may be new, however, is the amount of MI that is being used in these products.

“Concentrations of the preservative have increased dramatically in some products in the last few years, as manufacturers stopped using other preservatives like paraben and formaldehyde,” Zirwas said.

The symptoms are very similar to those of poison ivy. The skin exposed to the allergen is usually red, raised and itchy.

The outbreak is most often found on areas around the face, from using soaps and shampoos, and the fingers and hands, from using sanitary wipes.

Treating symptoms

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, contact dermatitis is best treated with daily bathing with soap and water.

Soak a clean washcloth briefly in cool water, mixed with a couple of tablespoons of baking soda. Wring out the cloth and place it for several minutes on the rash.

Over-the-counter remedies include medicated lotion, ointment or cream, such as calamine or Burrow's solution.

For serious outbreaks, see an allergist for prescription cortisone cream to relieve the itching. An antihistamine may also help.

Toilet paper substitute

Besides at the supermarket and other high-traffic retail locations, disposable wipes have been showing up in an increasing number of homes. Once primarily used to wipe babies' bottoms, a growing number of adults have adopted them as a substitute for toilet paper, not always with good results.

According to the Environmental Working Group, MI is found in more than 2,800 products sold in the U.S. In addition to being a potential skin irritant, the group says “lab studies on the brain cells of mammals also suggest that methylisothiazolinone may be neurotoxic.”

Not everyone is allergic to methylisothiazolinone but many who are find they are very allergic. Some of them have set up a Facebook group to trade information.

Zirwas says it isn’t clear how many Americans might have a sensitivity to MI, but he says manufacturers are aware of the growing allergy problem and are working on alternatives.

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How much do you spend on ATM fees?

Report finds California state benefit recipients spend about $19 million

If you look at your bank statement each month and wonder where the money went, take a hard look at the bank fees – particularly the ATM fees.While ...

PhotoIf you look at your bank statement each month and wonder where the money went, take a hard look at the bank fees – particularly the ATM fees.

While it usually costs you nothing to use your bank's ATM, if you get money from a bank not in your network the fees quickly add up. The bank that operates the ATM charges you a fee and usually, so does your bank.

In 2013 the General Accountability Office released a report that found the prevalence and amount of ATM surcharge fees consumers paid to banks and other financial institutions have increased since 2007, with the estimated average surcharge fee for financial institutions that charged a fee increasing from $1.75 in 2007 to $2.10 in 2012, in 2012 dollars.

A consumer withdrawing just $20 from an out-of-network ATM would pay more than 10% of that amount as a fee.

Eating into benefits

While this is a drain on the average consumer's bank account, it's worse for consumers who don't have a bank account but receive government benefits through an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which works like a debit card. Anytime they use an ATM to get cash, financial institutions take a bite of the taxpayer money intended for assistance.

Just how much? Andrea Luquetta, Policy Advocate at the California Reinvestment Coalition, is author of a report that found $19 million of California tax dollars meant for various public assistance programs went instead to ATM fees, charged to access that aid.

“For families trying to escape poverty, these fees siphon away money that could be used for school supplies, transportation or medicine,” Luquetta said. “The current system leads too many people to pay fees just to access the very benefits they need to survive.”

The California Reinvestment Coalition is calling on the state and the financial services industry to find a solution so that aid dollars aren't eaten up by ATM fees.

Unbanked population

Part of the problem is the fact that fewer people – low-income consumers in particular – have bank accounts these days. The growing “unbanked” population has been well documented, with bank fees on checking and savings accounts driving more people to a cash economy.

Among the report's recommendations is for banks to offer inexpensive bank accounts so recipients can receive benefits by way of direct deposit, avoiding fees. In 2011, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) found that 1 in 12 U.S. households did not have a bank account, which would give them free access to an ATM.

What to do

What can consumers do to reduce their ATM costs? Planning their use of ATMs may help. A few merchants – primarily a few convenience store chains – offer access to ATMs that don't charge fees. Finding these locations and using them when you need cash can help reduce ATM expenses.

Getting cash back at the grocery store or other retail transaction is another way to cut down on ATM fees. Also, finding a bank that charges fewer and lower fees can also help.

FindABetterBank.com provides a search platform for consumers to seeking a particular benefit – such as low ATM fees – and matches them up with banks in their area. Believe it or not a couple dozen banks offer plans that reimburse all ATM fees.

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GM-style delayed recall can't happen again, Senators vow

Senator warns that GM may try to escape responsibility under terms of its 2009 bankruptcy

Last February, General Motors took the rare step of issuing a public apology, after news broke that the company had known for years about potentially fatal...

Photo
Blumenthal
GM's long-delayed recall of Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars with defective ignition switches may lead to an overhaul of the nation's auto safety system, long derided by safety advocates and slow, secretive and too often ineffective.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, have introduced legislation that would require auto manufacturers to promptly provide the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) with more information regarding fatalities.

The bill would also require the NHTSA to make this information available to the public. 

In February, General Motors took the rare step of issuing a public apology, after news broke that the company had known for years about potentially fatal problems with its ignition switches yet did not recall the affected vehicles, while dealers shrugged off complaints from customers plagued by the faulty switches.

The company also admitted it knew of at least 13 people who died after their ignition switches (and thus their air bags, brakes and power steering) cut off without warning.

GM should not escape responsibility

Besides the legislation, Blumenthal has written to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the Department of Justice intervene on behalf of those injured and killed and all who suffered damages as a result of the faulty ignition switches.

"I was appalled and astonished by GM’s recent admission that it knew of these disabling defects and their disastrous effects well before the 2009 reorganization," Blumenthal said in his letter. "Their deliberate concealment caused continuing death and damage, and it constituted a fraud on the bankruptcy court that approved its reorganization. It also criminally deceived the United States government and the public."

Blumenthal wants GM to be required to set up a fund to compensate all victims and wants the Justice Department to intervene in pending civil actions to oppose any effort by GM to evade responsibility for consumer damages.

As Connecticut's Attorney General in 2009, Blumenthal led seven other state attorneys general in fighting against a bankruptcy court restructuring that shielded the “new GM” of any liability for defects in vehicles built prior to its 2009 bankruptcy.

Blumenthal’s petition was declined, meaning that the new GM may now avoid liability for the deaths — by some counts over 300.

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Judge asked to order GM to send a "park it now" warning to owners of recalled cars

But GM CEO Barra says the cars are safe to drive

Plaintiffs in a class action against General Motors want the judge hearing the case to order GM to warn owners of 1.6 million recalled cars that they shoul...

PhotoPlaintiffs in a class action against General Motors want the judge hearing the case to order GM to warn owners of 1.6 million recalled cars that they should park their cars until defective ignition switched are replaced.

Charles and Grace Silvas are suing GM not because they or a loved one was injured or killed in one of the recalled cars. Rather, they say they and others who own one of the recalled vehicles have suffered a drop in the value of their car.

But GM CEO Mary Barra says it's just not so. In a prepared statement and a video, she said the recalled Chevrolet, Saturn and other vehicles are safe to drive as long as drivers don't apply excessive weight to the ignition switch. GM recommends having only the ignition key on their key ring and to avoid bumping the swith with their knee.

"GM engineers have done extensive analysis to make sure if only you have the key or only the key on a ring, the vehicle is safe to drive. In fact, when they presented this to me, the very first question I asked is would you let your family, your spouse, your children drive these vehicles in this condition and they said yes," Barra said.

The Silvas filed their request with U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi, where their suit is pending.

Regulators, lawyers and Congress have been pressing Barra for answers on why it too nearly 10 years for GM to recall the cars with the switches, which have been blamed for at least 12 deaths. 

Barra has been making a series of carefully controlled appearances and issuing statements and videos, while avoiding public venues where she might face unscripted questions and comments. She is due to appear before the U.S. Senate consumer protection subcommittee next week.

GM has asked dealers to offer free loaner cars to customers who don't want to drive their recalled vehicles.

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Senate report says Target ignored chances to prevent data breach

A little due diligence from Target could've avoided the whole mess

The more information that comes out about the massive security breach that compromised the data (and finances) of at least 40 million Target customers last...

PhotoThe more information that comes out about the massive security breach that compromised the data (and finances) of at least 40 million Target customers last December, the worse things look for Target.

This week, just before holding hearings on cybersecurity issues, the U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee released a report titled "A 'Kill Chain' Analysis of the 2013 Target Data Breach." The report concluded that Target had multiple chances to stop the hackers, but ignored or overlooked them all.

The executive summary noted that “Although the complete story of how this breach took place may not be known until Target completes its forensic examination,” analysis of the facts currently available “suggests that Target missed a number of opportunities along the kill chain to stop the attackers and prevent the massive data breach.”

Missed opportunities

Target's missed opportunities include, but are not limited to:

  • granting network access to a third-party vendor (a local HVAC repair company) with weak security protocols;
  • maintaining a network that did not properly segregate customer data from less-sensitive parts of the network (i.e., a hacker with only an HVAC repairman's credential shouldn't have access to sensitive Target customer data anyway); and
  • ignoring multiple automated warnings from its own security software, warnings indicating both the hackers' attempts to install malware on the system and the “escape routes” the hackers used to move stolen data outside the network.

Target currently faces multiple potential class action suits from banks and consumers seeking reimbursement for their losses; the Senate committee report seems unlikely to help Target's case.

Reuters reported that Target representatives have refused to comment on the report, in light of upcoming testimony before the Senate committee.

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Audi A3 earns Insurance Institute's highest safety rating

The midsize luxury car performed well in crashworthiness tests

Good performance in five crashworthiness tests and an advanced rating for front crash prevention has won the 2015 Audi A3 the Insurance Institute for Highw...

PhotoGood performance in five crashworthiness tests and an advanced rating for front crash prevention has won the 2015 Audi A3 the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) "Top Safety Pick+" rating.

The midsize luxury car was completely redesigned for 2015 and is now a sedan instead of a wagon like its predecessor. It's the first Audi model to earn either the 2014 "Top Safety Pick" or "Top Safety Pick+" award and the first ever to earn a good or acceptable rating in the challenging small overlap front crash test.

The small overlap evaluation, which was introduced in 2012, is more challenging than either the head-on crashes conducted by the government or the IIHS moderate overlap test.

In the test, 25% of a vehicle's front end on the driver's side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph. The crash replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole.

Good protection provided

In the small overlap test of the A3, the structure held up well, with a minimal amount of intrusion into the driver's space. The dummy's movement was well-controlled, and injury measures taken from the dummy indicated a low risk of injury.

The A3 is available with an optional front crash prevention system that qualifies for an advanced rating from IIHS. The system has automatic braking technology that avoided a crash in the Institute's 12 mph test.

To qualify for 2014 "Top Safety Pick+" a vehicle must earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection, a good rating in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, and a rating of basic, advanced or superior for front crash prevention.

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Study: Don't shop for leisure travel while working

Travelers were happier when they paid in advance and planned travel from home

Planning your next vacation? Great, but don't do it from your desk. That's the advice from researchers who studied the quality of the hotel consumers chose...

PhotoPlanning your next vacation? Great, but don't do it from your desk. That's the advice from researchers who studied the quality of the hotel consumers chose and how satisfied they were with their stay.

Using data from a major hotel reservation site, researchers at Rice University and Iowa State University found that consumers who traveled farther and made reservations during business hours were more likely to select higher quality hotels but were less satisfied after their stay. More than 35 percent of those studied made purchases during business hours.

“We were interested in understanding when people make more expensive purchases and their satisfaction afterward,” said Ajay Kalra, a marketing professor at Rice. He co-authored the paper with Wei Zhang at Iowa Sate. The paper will be published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

The researchers looked at three major factors:

  • the time between purchase and the hotel stay;
  • the distance between the city from where the reservation was made and the city where the hotel is located; and
  • time of purchase (business or nonbusiness hours).

They found that consumers who traveled farther and made reservations during business hours were more likely to select higher quality hotels but were less satisfied than those people who stayed at the same hotel, but traveled less, and people who booked during nonbusiness hours.

“We speculate that occurs because people are either more fatigued at work and tend to buy more expensive items or that vacations seem more appealing while people are at work,” Kalra said. “This kind of preliminary data indicates that people should not be making purchases when they are working.”

The authors also found that consumers who book and pay earlier are more likely to select higher quality hotels and are more satisfied than those who wait til the last minute.

“So the reasoning, not originally ours, is that if you pay earlier, the ‘pain-of-paying’ — which is the pain you feel when paying for something — diminishes with time, leaving people happier during their vacation,” Kalra said. “This tells us that people will enjoy the vacation more if they pay before.”

In addition, if the service in the hotel is bad, then the pain felt at the point of purchasing probably comes back, making people less satisfied, the authors found.

The study consisted of a random sample of 4,582 consumers who made hotel reservations between January 2008 and October 2009. All the consumers who were studied paid for their hotel stay at the time of reservation.

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What not to do in the pool this summer

Have you ever wondered if it's safe to pee in the pool? Here's the answer

Despite the tardy arrival of springlike weather in much of the country, thoughts invariably turn towards such summer pleasures as backyard barbecues and af...

PhotoDespite the tardy arrival of springlike weather in much of the country, thoughts invariably turn towards such summer pleasures as backyard barbecues and afternoons in the pool. 

Pool safety is important, and so is etiquette. Your mother probably told you not to pee in the pool. And you know what? She was right.

Even though everyday swimmers and Olympians alike admit to the practice, researchers now say that there's scientific evidence that argues against pool peeing.

They report that when mixed, urine and chlorine can form substances that can cause potential health problems. Their study appears in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Jing Li, Ernest Blatchley, III, and colleagues note that adding chlorine to pool water is the most common way to kill disease-causing microbes and prevent swimmers from getting sick.

But as people swim, splash, play — and pee — in the pool, chlorine mixes with sweat and urine and makes other substances. Two of these compounds, including trichloramine (NCl3) and cyanogen chloride (CNCl), are ubiquitous in swimming pools.

The first one is associated with lung problems, and the second one can also affect the lungs, as well as the heart and central nervous system. But scientists have not yet identified all of the specific ingredients in sweat and urine that could cause these potentially harmful compounds to form.

So Li's team looked at how chlorine interacts with uric acid, a component of sweat and urine.

They mixed uric acid and chlorine, and within an hour, both NCl3 and CNCl formed. Though some uric acid comes from sweat, the scientists calculated that more than 90 percent of the compound in pools comes from urine.

They conclude that swimmers can improve pool conditions by simply urinating where they're supposed to — in the bathrooms.

The study was funded by the Chinese Universities Scientific Fund, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the National Swimming Pool Foundation.

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Beer marinade could make grilled meat safer

Don't drink all the beer -- save some for the meat

Nothing says summer like the smell of meat cooking on the backyard grill. It's an aroma best enjoyed with a cold brew in hand. But now researchers say it...

PhotoNothing says summer like the smell of meat cooking on the backyard grill. It's an aroma best enjoyed with a cold brew in hand.

But now researchers say it would be a good idea to save a little of that beer and use it to marinate the meat. That could help reduce the formation of harmful substances in grilled meat that have been linked to colorectal cancer.

The substances in question are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -- or PAHs, for short. They form when meats are cooked at very high temperatures, like on a backyard grill. And high levels of PAHs, which are also in cigarette smoke and car exhaust, are associated with cancers in laboratory animals, although it's uncertain if that's true for people.

Black beer is best

It has been known that beer, wine or tea marinades can reduce the levels of some potential carcinogens in cooked meat, but little was known about how different beer marinades affect PAH levels, until now.

European researchers grilled samples of pork marinated for four hours in Pilsner beer, non-alcoholic Pilsner beer or a black beer ale, to well-done on a charcoal grill.

Black beer had the strongest effect, reducing the levels of eight major PAHs by more than half compared with unmarinated pork. "Thus, the intake of beer-marinated meat can be a suitable mitigation strategy," the researchers.

The study appears in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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"Sodabriety" campaign helps teens cut back on sugary drinks

Ohio State University study uses peer pressure to help teens cut down on sugar

What happens if you get teens to cut back on sugary drinks? Well, among other things, their water consumption goes up.That's among the findings of an Ohi...

PhotoWhat happens if you get teens to cut back on sugary drinks? Well, among other things, their water consumption goes up.

That's among the findings of an Ohio State University study that used peer pressure at two rural Appalachian high schools. The program, called "Sodabriety," consisted of a 30-day challenge to teens to reduce their intake of sugar-sweetened drinks.

Participants lowered their overall sugar intake substantially and increased by two-thirds the number of students who shunned sugary drinks altogether.

In an unexpected result, water consumption among participants increased significantly by 60 days after the start of the program, even without any promotion of water as a substitute for sugar-sweetened drinks.

“The students’ water consumption before the intervention was lousy. I don’t know how else to say it. But we saw a big improvement in that,” said Laureen Smith, associate professor of nursing at Ohio State and lead author of the study. “And there was a huge reduction in sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. The kids were consuming them fewer days per week and when they were consuming these drinks, they had fewer servings.”

Largest source

Sugar-sweetened soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, and flavored milk and coffee are by far the largest source of added sugar in the U.S. diet and are a major contributor to obesity and the diabetes, heart disease and other diseases that accompany it.

The "Sodabriety" intervention was led by student advisory councils. They designed marketing campaigns, planned school assemblies and shared a fact per day about sugar-sweetened drinks over the morning announcements.

The primary message to their peers: Try to cut back on sugar-sweetened beverages for 30 days. Students opted not to promote eliminating these drinks entirely during the challenge.

Overall, participating teens did lower their intake of sugary drinks, and the percentage of youths who abstained from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages increased from 7.2 percent to 11.8 percent of the participants. That percentage was sustained for 30 days after the intervention ended.

Smith co-authored the study with Christopher Holloman, associate professor of statistics at Ohio State. The research is published in a recent issue of the Journal of School Health.

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Mortgage applications head lower

However, a revision turned the previous week's decline into an advance

Mortgage applications fell in the week ending March 21, but a revision of figures from the previous week prevented back-to-back declines. Data from the Mo...

PhotoMortgage applications fell in the week ending March 21, but a revision of figures from the previous week prevented back-to-back declines.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 3.5% , but that the previous week's decline of 1.2% was revised to an increase of 0.2%.

The Refinance Index plunged 8% from the previous week. That includes an 8.1% plummet in conventional refinance applications and a 5.8% slide in government refinance applications, putting the latter at its lowest level since July 2011.

The refinance share of mortgage activity was down 3% -- to 54% of total applications, and is at the lowest level since April 2010. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 8% of total applications.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 6 basis points to 4.56% from 4.50% and is now at the highest level since January 2014. Points increasing to 0.29 from 0.26 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) increased to 4.45% from 4.39%, with points increasing to 0.27 from 0.19 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was up 3 basis points to 4.16%, with points increasing to 0.23 from 0.18 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages went to 3.62% -- the highest level since January 2014 -- from 3.52 percent, with points decreasing to 0.24 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs shot up 13 basis points to 3.22%, the highest level since January 2014, with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.38 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

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Home prices continue to rise, but at a slower pace

Some broader measures of home prices are actually falling

Some mixed news today from the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. The leading measure of U.S. home prices reported that the 10-City and 20-City Compos...

PhotoSome mixed news today from the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

The leading measure of U.S. home prices reported that the 10-City and 20-City Composites rose 13.5% and 13.2% year-over-year through January, while 12 cities and the 20-City Composite saw their annual rates worsen.

The 10-City Composite showed a slight uptick in its index level but remained relatively unchanged. At the same time, the 20-City Composite -- a broader measure of home prices -- posted its third consecutive monthly decline of 0.1%. Twelve cities declined in January with Chicago decreasing 1.2%.

Las Vegas led at +1.1% and posted its 22nd consecutive monthly gain. Despite recent advances, Las Vegas is still the farthest from its high set in August 2006 with a peak-to-current decline of 45%. Dallas and Denver are now less than 1% away from their recent all-time index highs.

“The housing recovery may have taken a breather due to the cold weather,” says David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Twelve cities reported declining prices in January vs. December; 8 of those were worse than the month before. From the bottom in 2012, prices are up 23% and the housing market is showing signs of moving forward with more normal price increases.

The bright spot

The Sun Belt showed the five highest monthly returns.

Las Vegas was the leader with an increase of 1.1% followed by Miami at +0.7%. San Diego showed its best January performance of 0.6% since 2004. San Francisco and Tampa trailed closely at +0.5% and +0.4%.

Elsewhere, New York and Washington D.C. stood out as they continued to improve and posted their highest year-over-year returns since 2006. Dallas and Denver are the only cities to have reached new record peaks while Detroit remains the only city with home prices below those of 14 years ago.

“Expectations and recent data point to continued home price gains for 2014,” Blitzer noted. “Although most analysts do not expect the same rapid increases we saw last year, the consensus is for moderating gains. Existing home sales declined slightly in February and are at their lowest level since July 2012.”

Strong performers

Las Vegas and San Francisco remain the only two cities posting annual gains of over 20%. San Diego showed the most improvement with a year-over-year return of 19.4% in January from 18.0% in December. Phoenix saw its annual rate decelerate the most. Its return peaked last January when it led all 20 cities by a wide margin.

Only 7 cities -- Las Vegas, Miami, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Tampa and Washington -- showed positive monthly returns in January.

Chicago and Seattle declined the most and posted their fourth consecutive drop in average home prices. Although Cleveland continued its decline, it showed the most improvement with -1.5% in December to -0.3% in January.  

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Nissan recalls nearly a million vehicles with airbag software problems

The software may incorrectly classify the passenger seat as empty when it is occupied

Nissan North America is recalling 989,701 model year 2013-2014 Altima, LEAF, Pathfinder, and Sentra, model year 2013 NV200 (aka Taxi) and Infiniti JX35 and...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 989,701 model year 2013-2014 Altima, LEAF, Pathfinder, and Sentra, model year 2013 NV200 (aka Taxi) and Infiniti JX35 and model year 2014 Infiniti Q50 and QX60 vehicles.

In the affected vehicles, the occupant classification system (OCS) software may incorrectly classify the passenger seat as empty when it is occupied by an adult. If the OCS does not detect an adult occupant in the passenger seat, the passenger airbag would be deactivated.

Failure of the passenger airbag to deploy during a crash (where deployment is warranted) could increase the risk of injury to the passenger.

Nissan says it has not received any reports of accidents related to the problem, and that the recall affects only vehicles sold in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will update the OCS software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in mid-April 2014.

Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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Wal-Mart recalls dolls due to burn hazard

The circuit board in the doll's chest can overheat

Wal-Mart Stores of Bentonville, Ark., is recalling about 174,000 My Sweet Love / My Sweet Baby cuddle care baby dolls. The circuit board in the doll's che...

PhotoWal-Mart Stores of Bentonville, Ark., is recalling about 174,000 My Sweet Love / My Sweet Baby cuddle care baby dolls.

The circuit board in the doll's chest can overheat, causing the surface of the doll to get hot, posing a burn hazard to the consumer.

The retailer has received 12 reports of incidents, including two reports of burns or blisters to the thumb.

The My Sweet Love / My Sweet Baby electronic baby doll comes in pink floral clothing and matching knit hat. The 16-inch doll is packaged with a toy medical check-up kit including a stethoscope, feeding spoon, thermometer and syringe.

The doll’s electronics cause her to babble when she gets “sick,” her cheeks turn red and she starts coughing. Using the medical kit pieces cause the symptoms to stop. “My Sweet Baby” is printed on the front of the clear plastic and cardboard packaging.

The doll is identified by UPC 6-04576-16800-5 and a date code which begins with WM. The date code is printed on the stuffed article label sewn into the bottom of the doll.

The dolls, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Walmart stores nationwide from August 2012, through March 2014, for $20.

Consumers should immediately take the dolls from children, remove the batteries and return the doll to any Walmart store for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Wal-Mart Stores at (800) 925-6278 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. CT on Saturday, and from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. CT on Sunday.

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Report: Data theft increasingly linked to Russia

Cyber security expert worries there is little the U.S. can do about it

Russia's meddling in Ukraine political matters isn't the biggest threat to the world. Providing a home base for hackers stealing credit card data just migh...

PhotoRussia's meddling in Ukraine political matters isn't the biggest threat to the world. Providing a home base for hackers stealing credit card data just might be, however.

That's the conclusion of a new report from Thomas Holt, a Michigan State University cyber security expert. Holt's report for the National Institute of Justice found many hackers and data thieves are operating in Russia or on websites where users communicate in Russian.

That presents huge problems for U.S. law enforcement, which is trying to track down and bring to justice those who break into credit card data bases.

The Wall Street Journal  recently reported that the Target data breach, which compromised 40 million credit and debit card accounts during the 2013 holiday shopping season, may have originated in Russia.

Research from two security firms also showed that the purloined Target data was transmitted to servers in Russia.

Russian connection

Holt's research, conducted along with Olga Smirnova from Eastern Carolina University, suggests that there may indeed have been a strong Russian connection. The 2 researchers analyzed 13 Internet forums through which stolen credit data was advertised. Specifically, they found:

  • Ten of the forums were in Russian and 3 were in English, though the forums were hosted across the world.
  • Visa and MasterCard were the most common cards for sale.
  • The average advertised price for a stolen credit or bank card number was about $102.
  • The average price for access to a hacked eBay or PayPal account was about $27.

Perishable commodity

PhotoStealing credit card data is big business, but it's sort of like selling seafood – it has to be done quickly. Hackers use Internet forums as a marketplace to hawk their ill-gotten wares.

Someone who buys stolen credit card data has little time to act, since many card holders will simply cancel their cards and get new ones, once the data breach is exposed.

Still, someone with a stolen card can quickly run up thousands of dollars in purchases or take a large cash advance before the card is cancelled.

“This is a truly global problem, one that we cannot solve domestically and that has to involve multiple nations and rigorous investigation through various channels,” said Holt, an associate professor of criminal justice.

Unilateral steps

However, Holt and Smirnova argue that there are some unilateral steps the U.S. can take. Hiring more Russian-speaking analysts and employing new technology at American law enforcement agencies, they say, will allow them to more effectively fight cybercrime.

Holt also argues for tougher state and federal cybercrime laws to improve security and increase corporate responsibility whenever hackers strike.

Currently 46 states require companies to report any loss of sensitive personal information after a security breach but Holt says the laws generally don’t go far enough to protect consumers.

“Greater transparency is needed on part of both corporations and banks to disclose the true number of customers affected and to what degree as quickly as possible in order to reduce the risk of customer loss and economic harm,” he said.

Consumers need to stay alert

In the meantime, he says consumers have to stay on their toes and be better informed about the cyber threats, which continue to evolve at a dizzying pace.

“There is a big need for public awareness campaigns to promote basic computer security principals and vigilance against identity theft,” Holt said. “Consumers need to understand the potential harm from responding to unsolicited email and clicking on suspicious web links as well as the need to run anti-virus and security tools on their computers.”

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Looking for the best weight-loss program? Here are some guidelines

Weight loss expert JJ Virgin helps you find the weight-loss plan that's best for you

Just about everybody wants to lose weight, it seems. And there's no shortage of advice about how to do it. But for those looking for a safe, effective and ...

PhotoJust about everybody wants to lose weight, it seems. And there's no shortage of advice about how to do it. But for those looking for a safe, effective and affordable plan, it can be difficult to work through all the competing claims.

ConsumerAffairs contributing editor and weight loss expert JJ Virgin cuts through the confusion with her new buyer's guide that outlines the different kinds of weight loss programs, their features and the types of consumers most likely to benefit from them. 

Perhaps the most important feature of any plan is the food, Virgin says: "Ask yourself: Realistically, could you eat the foods on this plan more or less for the rest of your life?"

Besides taste, consumers should consider the cost and availability of competing food plans, as well as the potential for allergic reactions and sugar and sodium content. 

Crucial factors

Then there's the matter of meal plans. "If you prefer home-cooked meals, packaged shakes and shakes aren't going to work for you; likewise, if a plan demands elaborate meals and you need convenience, you'll probably struggle with the plan," says Virgin, author of the New York Times best-seller "The Virgin Diet: Drop 7 Foods, Lose 7 Pounds, Just 7 Days."

Long-term sustainability is another crucial factor.

"Maintaining fat loss is just as important as losing it. Does a plan provide the tools and strategies you need to stay lean for the long haul?" Virgin says, noting that many plans will produce a dramatic short-term loss while doing little to help keep pounds off over time.

No single plan is best for everyone, Virgin notes, discussing the varying needs of busy adults, college students, seniors, new moms and former athletes, among others.

She rates well-known plans for each type of consumer. For example, Virgin finds that Nutrisystem is best for college students, busy adults and new moms but no so good for dieters with food sensitivities and those on a budget. 

See the weight-loss buyers guide here.

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GPS: a useful tool, but don't become dependent on it

Paper maps are a good backup to glowing-screen ones

There's no denying that GPS is a wonderfully useful tool, but any tool can malfunction, break or simply be misused. And of all the “new” (read:...

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Payday Loans: The road to continuing debt

Research shows most payday loans are rolled over or renewed

Very often we hear something described as, 'the gift that keeps on giving.” Well, here's something that keeps on taking. According to a report from the Co...

PhotoVery often we hear something described as, 'the gift that keeps on giving.” Well, here's something that keeps on taking.

According to a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), four out of five payday loans are rolled over or renewed within 14 days. Additionally, the majority of all payday loans are made to borrowers who renew their loans so many times that they end up paying more in fees than the amount of money they originally borrowed.

Debra of Marrero, La. can relate to that. She says she had an account with Payday-Loan-Yes.com several years ago. "When I attempted to pay the last payment, I notified them that my bank account had changed. I sent them the correct account number before payment was done," she writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Guess what?? They attempted to draft the wrong account. I notified them verbally and via fax a second time of the new account. Never heard anything from them. Now, 6 plus years later, a law firm has my account and they want $1890.00 for a $300.00 dollar loan. They must be out of their minds. I will pay the $300 but the rest, they can stick it!!"

“We are concerned that too many borrowers slide into the debt traps that payday loans can become,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “As we work to bring needed reforms to the payday market, we want to ensure consumers have access to small-dollar loans that help them get ahead, not push them farther behind.”

Payday loans are typically described as a way to bridge a cash flow shortage between paychecks or other income. Also known as “cash advances” or “check loans,” they are usually expensive, small-dollar loans, of generally $500 or less. They can offer quick and easy accessibility, especially for consumers who may not qualify for other credit.

A million loans per month

The report, based on data from a 12-month period with more than 12 million storefront payday loans, is a continuation of the work in last year’s CFPB report on Payday Loans and Deposit Advance Products -- one of the most comprehensive studies ever undertaken on the market. That report raised questions about the loose lending standards, high costs, and risky loan structures that may contribute to the sustained use of these products.

This latest report provides a deeper analysis of the data, focusing on repeated borrowing by consumers after they take out an initial payday loan. A primary driver of the cost of payday loans is that consumers may roll over the loans or engage in re-borrowing within a short window of time after repaying their first loan. The study, the most in-depth analysis of this pattern to date, looks at not only the initial loans but also loans taken out within 14 days of paying off the old loans; it considers these subsequent loans to be renewals and part of the same “loan sequence.”

Revolving doors of debt

By focusing on payday loan renewals, the study found that a large share of consumers end up in cycles of repeated borrowing and incur significant costs over time. Specifically, the study found:

  • Four out of 5 payday loans are rolled over or renewed: More than 80% of them are rolled over or renewed within two weeks. The study found that when looking at 14-day windows in the states that have cooling-off periods that reduce the level of same-day renewals, the renewal rates are nearly identical to states without these limitations.
  • Three out of 5 payday loans are made to borrowers whose fee expenses exceed amount borrowed: Over 60% of loans are made to borrowers in the course of loan sequences lasting 7 or more loans in a row. Roughly half of all loans are made to borrowers in the course of loan sequences lasting 19 or more loans in a row.
  • One out of 5 new payday loans end up costing the borrower more than the amount borrowed: For 48% of all initial payday loans -- those that are not taken out within 14 days of a prior loan -- borrowers are able to repay the loan with no more than 1 renewal. But for 22% of new loans, borrowers end up renewing their loans 6 times or more. With a typical payday fee of 15%, consumers who take out an initial loan and 6 renewals will have paid more in fees than the original loan amount.
  • Four out of 5 payday borrowers either default or renew a payday loan over the course of a year: Only 15% of borrowers repay all of their payday debts when due without re-borrowing within 14 days; 20% default on a loan at some point; and 64% renew at least 1 loan 1 or more times. Defaulting on a payday loan may cause the consumer to incur bank fees. Renewing loans repeatedly can put consumers on a slippery slope toward a debt trap where they cannot get ahead of the money they owe.
  • Four out of 5 payday borrowers who renew end up borrowing the same amount or more: Specifically, more than 80% of borrowers who rolled over loans owed as much or more on the last loan in a loan sequence than the amount they borrowed initially. These consumers are having trouble getting ahead of the debt. The study also found that as the number of rollovers increases, so too does the percentage of borrowers who increase their borrowing.
  • One out of 5 payday borrowers on monthly benefits trapped in debt: The study also looked at payday borrowers who are paid on a monthly basis and found 1 out of 5 remained in debt the entire year of the CFPB study. Payday borrowers who fall into this category include elderly Americans or disability recipients receiving Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability.

The CFPB has authority to oversee the payday loan market. In November 2013, it began accepting complaints from borrowers encountering problems with payday loans.

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e-Book publishers dish out $166 million to readers in antitrust settlement

Five of six publishers have settled; Apple is still fighting the allegations

Now and then, struggling writers manage to get a few bucks for their efforts. But this week, it's readers who'll be getting paid. That's because fiv...

PhotoNow and then, struggling writers manage to get a few bucks for their efforts. But this week, it's readers who'll be getting paid. 

That's because five of the six biggest publishers of e-books will be sending more than $166 million to consumers, as either checks or a credit to their account. It's part of a settlement involving the publishers and 33 states.

 The states sued publishers Hachette Book Group Inc., HarperCollins Publishers LLC, Simon & Schuster Inc., Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC, d/b/a Macmillan, and Penguin Group (USA) Inc., alleging anticompetitive activity. The publishers agreed to settle the suit by making the payments that will be going out this week.

A sixth publisher, Apple, Inc., refused to settle and went to trial. A court found that the publishers and Apple had engaged in an illegal conspiracy that restricted price competition and raised the retail prices of e-books. Apple has appealed and that case is still pending.

“Illegal actions by these publishers forced consumers in New York and across the nation to pay artificially inflated prices for e-books,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “Companies engaging in such anticompetitive conduct will be punished — and starting today, those injured by their actions will start to receive full and fair compensation.”

Under the settlements, consumers in the 33 states who purchased e-books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo or Apple will automatically receive a credit on their e-book accounts. Purchasers of e-books from Sony will automatically receive refund checks in the mail.

Consumers who purchased e-books from other retailers, and who filed a timely claim form with the Settlement Administrator, will receive refund checks in the mail.

For more information on the settlements, visit www.ebookagsettlements.com.

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Potholes more than just a nuisance

They cause real damage to your car

Yes, the winter of 2013-14 was a tough one, with ice and snow covering wide swaths of the nation for weeks on end. But now that spring has officially arriv...

PhotoYes, the winter of 2013-14 was a tough one, with ice and snow covering wide swaths of the nation for weeks on end. But now that spring has officially arrived, don't expect winter to go quietly. It's leaving behind a jarring reminder of its presence.

Potholes.

Anyone who drives is familiar with the pothole. It forms in an asphalt roadway, especially after a harsh winter. The combination of moisture in the soil underneath and the constant pressure of traffic above causes asphalt to weaken and open holes.

A proliferation of potholes can be a challenge, not only for motorists but for states and municipalities that must budget for street repair. In Hoboken, N.J., the Jersey Journal reports there are so many potholes on city streets that residents are besieging City Hall with complaints.

The city, for its part, says it's doing the best it can. A city spokesman says the city has already filled more than 1,000 potholes this year.

Other cities, especially in the northeast, are also coping with a rising number of potholes. The Boston Globe reports the City of Boston has filled more than 8,800 potholes so far this year, but not in time to prevent damage to cars and trucks that hit them. Car repair shops report damage, not just to tires but also to suspensions and axles.

Serious threat

The Rubber Manufacturers Association, the national trade association for tire manufacturers that produce tires in the U.S., warns drivers that potholes comprise a serious threat.

"Potholes are a driving hazard that can cause significant damage to your vehicle and ruin a tire," said Dan Zielinski, RMA senior vice president, public affairs. "Motorists should be extra careful to avoid potholes but if you hit one, you need to have your vehicle and tires checked for damage."

When you hit a pothole you may immediately realize you have suffered damage. Hitting a pothole can actually puncture the tire or otherwise cause it to deflate. But sometimes you may not notice a problem until later, when you realize the car isn't handling quite the same way.

"If you notice a change in your vehicle after hitting a pothole, have it inspected immediately," Zielinski said. "Hitting a pothole can affect wheel alignment. Failure to address faulty alignment could cause uneven and premature tire wear."

Eight signs you have a problem

Car repair shops see a lot of tire and wheel damage during especially severe pothole seasons. Tuffy Tire & Auto Service, an automotive service franchise, has published a list of 8 signs that the pothole you hit has caused damage to your vehicle. They are:

  • The vehicle rolls or sways on turns.
  • The vehicle’s front-end dives when braking.
  • The vehicle’s rear end squats when accelerating.
  • The vehicle bounces or slides sideways on a winding, rough road.
  • The vehicle “bottoms out” or thumps on bumps.
  • The vehicle sits lower in the front or rear.
  • The vehicle is leaking or has signs of physical damage, such as rusting or dents.
  • There’s a loss of directional control during sudden stops of the vehicle.

“No matter where you drive these days, there’s a pothole epidemic and as winter turns to spring, it’s only going to get worse,” said Rich White, executive director, Car Care Council. “Drivers know immediately when they hit a pothole, but what they don’t know is if their vehicle has been damaged in the process. While tires and wheels can be visually checked, potholes can also cause considerable damage to the steering, suspension and alignment systems that you just can’t see.”

Meanwhile, avoiding potholes is your best defense against vehicle damage. While that may not be as simple as it sounds, the Weather Channel has come up with a list of tips that might help.

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Ray-Ban, Oakley will frame Google Glass

Can Italian design turn nerdy into neoclassic?

Let's be honest -- Google Glass is generally regarded as pretty nerdy and anybody wearing the face-moun...

Photo
The Luxottica Monument (Photo credit: Luxottica)

Let's be honest -- Google Glass is generally regarded as pretty nerdy and anybody wearing the face-mounted gadget risks ridicule, at least in some quarters.

But that may change, now that Google has brought Italian eyewear maker Luxottica, owner of the Ray-Ban and Oakley sunglass brands, into the mix. Luxottica has agreed to design, develop and distribute new versions of Google's Web-connected eyewear.

“We are thrilled to announce our partnership with Google, and are proud to be once again setting the pace in the eyewear industry, as we have been, with more than 50 years of excellence,” said Andrea Guerra, Chief Executive Officer of Luxottica Group.

It's not just Luxottica that sees Google Glass as a potential savior of the somewhat moribund eyewear business; VSP Global agreed in January to offer prescription lenses and frames for use with Glass.

Give up their contacts?

After all, with the possible exception of sunglasses and designer frames, eyeglasses are not exactly a sexy product, so it's not surprising that the eyewear biz is hoping Glass can brighten things up a bit. Who knows? Techies may even forsake their contacts in favor of a snazzy Google Glass/Ray-Ban look.

"Google has opened up a new potential opportunity of use of glasses," said Guerra, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal

Google executives have admitted that they have a long way to go in persuading masses of consumers to wear their computer on their face. Technically, Glass is fine but from a fashion standpoint, it has a long way to go.

Luxottica notes in a press release, however, that it "has a 10-year heritage in wearable technology that has evolved from MP3 to HUD devices" whatever they may be. 

"We have come to a point where we now have both a technology push and a consumer pull for wearable technology products and applications," Guerra said. "Seeing such a future, over the last years, Luxottica invested heavily in building-out our technology platforms and digital solutions to combine with our products excellence. 

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A consumer confidence rebound

There's a sense of optimism about what lies ahead

While consumers don't much like what they are seeing now, they are optimistic about the future. The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index...

PhotoWhile consumers don't much like what they are seeing now, they are optimistic about the future.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, which had decreased in February, rose 4 points in March -- to 82.3. This occurred even as the Present Situation Index dipped a fraction to 80.4 from 81.0, while the Expectations Index shot up 7 points to 83.5.

The improvement came as expectations for the short-term outlook bounced back from February’s decline. “While consumers were moderately more upbeat about future job prospects and the overall economy, they were less optimistic about income growth,” said Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “The Present Situation index, which had been on an upward trend for the past four months, was relatively unchanged in March. Overall, consumers expect the economy to continue improving and believe it may even pick up a little steam in the months ahead.”

A closer look at consumer attitudes

Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was little-changed in March.

  • Those saying business conditions are “good” increased to 22.9%t from 21.2%; however, those who think business conditions are “bad” also rose, to 23.2% from 22.0%. Consumers’ appraisal of the labor market also was relatively unchanged.
  • Those who think jobs are “plentiful” decreased 0.3% -- to 13.1%, while those who believe jobs are “hard to get” increased slightly to 33.0% from 32.4%.

Consumers’ expectations, which fell last month, rebounded in March.

  • The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months increased to 18.1% from 17.3%, while those worsening conditions fell 3.4% -- to 10.2 percent%.  

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was also moderately more optimistic.  

  • Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead edged up to 13.9% from 13.7%, while those expecting fewer jobs fell to 18.0% from 20.9%.
  • The proportion expecting their incomes to grow declined to 14.9% 15.8%, but those anticipating a decline in their incomes also dropped by 1.3% to 12.1%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was March 14.

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Connecticut Supreme Court to hear Bank of America appeal

Bank says it is not liable in Catholic school embezzlement scheme

The state Supreme Court of Connecticut is currently hearing an appeal from Bank of America, which seeks to overthrow a lower court verdict requiring the ba...

PhotoThe state Supreme Court of Connecticut is currently hearing an appeal from Bank of America, which seeks to overthrow a lower court verdict requiring the bank pay $800,000 to a Catholic school that sued BoA for negligence.

These facts are not in dispute: between 2002 and 2006, a man named Salvatore Licitra Jr. embezzled more than $840,000 from his employer, the St. Bernard School in Uncasville, Connecticut. Licitra was convicted of first-degree larceny in 2008, and is now in prison.

In 2002, St. Bernard had an account with Fleet Bank, later acquired by Bank of America in 2004. Also in 2002, Licitra opened a new account named “Saint Bernard's High School Norwich Diocese Camp Sunshine, c/o Sal Licitra.”

Licitra then told various third parties owing money to the school to make checks out to the Camp Sunshine account. He also found other ways to transfer funds from the St. Bernard to the Camp Sunshine account, even though the school says he never had access to the legitimate account in the first place.

Not liable

In 2008, St. Bernard sued Bank of America to regain the embezzled funds. Bank of America argued that it was not liable for the money, because the original circa-2002 contracts from Fleet excused the bank from liability.

But in December 2012 a jury ruled in the school's favor, finding that Bank of America breached its contract with the school and was negligent in allowing Licitra to open the “Camp Sunshine” account and transfer St. Bernard funds into it.

The Day, daily newspaper for New London, noted at the time that “Court records show the jury found the school had proved a contract existed between the parties and that the bank breached the contract. The jury found the bank's negligence caused 95 percent of the loss and that the school's negligence accounted for 5 percent of the loss.”

But Bank of America vowed to appeal, and the state Supreme Court is hearing it. The Norwich Bulletin says the appeal alleges that the lower court judge gave improper instructions to the jury:

In its trial defense, Bank of America said St. Bernard waited too long under the terms of its deposit agreement to make a claim.
Trial Judge James Devine ruled that the deposit agreement time limit violated a state law that says banks have a responsibility to keep their customers' money safe.
Devine also told jurors that the time limit could be waived if they found that the bank's later conduct was related to its first actions or if Bank of America had a “special relationship” of continuing trust and duty toward St. Bernard.
The bank's appeal says the judge's instruction to the jury was improper, and the time limit should be applied.

The Supreme Court started hearing oral arguments in the case Monday morning, It is not yet known when a verdict will be announced.

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New home sales drop in February

Some blame the weather, but...

After posting a gain in January, sales of new single-family homes tapered off last month. Figures released by the government show sales were down 3.3% to ...

PhotoAfter posting a gain in January, sales of new single-family homes tapered off last month.

Figures released by the government show sales were down 3.3% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 440,000. That's also 1.1% lower than the rate of 445,000 posted a year ago.

Some analysts are blaming fierce winter weather, yet in the frigid Midwest sales were up 36.7%, while falling 15.9% in the West, where temperatures were a little more moderate.

Prices down

Prices, meanwhile, were down 1.2% in February, with the median (half higher and half lower) at $261,800, and the average price at $317,500.

The estimate of new houses for sale at the end of last month, representing a supply of 5.2 months at the current sales rate.

The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.

PhotoFHFA house price index

A separate government report shows housing prices were on the rise earlier in the year.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports prices in January rose 0.5%. The increase in the agency's monthly House Price Index (HPI) means prices have gone up in 23 of the last 24 months, beginning with February 2012. The decline of 0.1% in the November 2013 HPI was the only exception.

For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from December 2013 to

January 2014 ranged from -0.3% in the West South Central division to +1.3%% in the Middle Atlantic division. The 12-month changes were all positive ranging from +3.2% in the Middle Atlantic division to +14.0% inn the Pacific division.  

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Outlet mall shopping: don't bother

The merchandise you find often doesn't measure up to the goods sold in "real" stores

The Federal Trade Commission, backed by all the power and majesty of the United States Federal Government, has released for public consumption an informati...

Photo
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Federal Trade Commission, backed by all the power and majesty of the United States Federal Government, has released for public consumption an informative document titled “Outlet Shopping: getting your money's worth.”

It isn't a bad piece except it neglected the single most important outlet-shopping money-saving tip of all: “Invent a time machine and travel back maybe 20 years or so, when 'outlet stores' were still relatively rare businesses rather than national-chain tourist traps.”

I exaggerate, of course; traveling back in time is impossible. But it's no joke that outlet stores were better in the Good Old Days. The FTC's consumer blogger alluded to the reason why when she said, “Even though I write about consumer issues every day, I have to admit that I was clueless that much of the merchandise sold at outlet stores is manufactured exclusively for them, and may be of lesser quality than the merchandise sold at non-outlet retail locations.”

By contrast: as a longtime thrift shopper, I knew that long before I started writing about consumer issues every day. Since most of my clothes were bought secondhand, the labels in my wardrobe run the gamut from “ludicrously overpriced designer brands” to “average mainstream stuff” and everything in between.

In the back of my closet hang a few older pieces with labels from a company I won't mention by name, since I'm not in the habit of making endorsements, but it's a geopolitical reference to a corrupt form of fruit-based government I'll call “Kumquat Oligarchy.”

Anyway, in grad school I often wore Kumquat Oligarchy clothes, because my local thrift shops just happened to sell lots of KO donations in my size. Then the labels started changing. It's been years since I personally recall making a Kumquat Oligarchy thrift-shop purchase — but I do have a few pullover tops whose labels read “Kumquat Oligarchy Outlet Store” and, yeah: even taking secondhand wear and tear into consideration, the KO outlet clothes just don't have the same quality as the old KO Classic pieces had. Nor is Kumquat Oligarchy the only company to do this — my dresser drawers are full of clothes whose labels read “[More-expensive-than-average clothing brand] Outlet Store.”

A place to unload

In the Good Old Days, you'd never see specific “outlet store” labels; if a manufacturer did run its own brand-specific outlet store, it was simply a place to unload stock it couldn't sell elsewhere, either due to a manufacturing flaw, because the item's discontinued or because the company simply produced more than its retail middlemen could sell.

Now manufacturers are more likely to view outlet stores as the junior-varsity version of their regular offerings. Or, as the FTC blogger put it: “The industry says it’s responding to customer demand for merchandise that’s similar to what’s sold in the regular retail stores, but at a lower price point.”

Which is a diplomatic way of saying they manufacture cheaper knock-offs of the more expensive originals. The FTC even offers examples of how that's done: “plastic might replace leather trim on a jacket, or a t-shirt may have less stitching and a lighter weight fabric.”

If you want to do true “outlet shopping” as was practiced a generation or so ago, your best bet is to ignore the outlet-mall chains entirely and instead look for discount/overstock stores, which tend to have different names in different regions of the country: depending where you live, you might look for “job lot,” “odd lot,” “overstock,” “bargain outlet” or “markdown” stores. (This list is not remotely meant to be all-inclusive.)

Such stores usually still have a business model similar to what outlet stores used to be, selling the discontinued, imperfect or overstock items which manufacturers can't or won't sell in regular retail stores.

However, whether you shop at a job lot or a modern chain “outlet mall” it's still worth keeping the FTC blogger's advice in mind: “It pays to be familiar with the retail prices of items you want to buy so you'll know whether you're really getting a bargain.”

In other words: just because a store has words like “outlet” or “bargain” in its name, that's still no guarantee it actually offers the best price.

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Should airline 'black boxes' be in the cloud?

If they were, the disappearance of MH370 might be less of a mystery

The mystery of the disappearance of Flight MH370 is fueled, in large part, because we just don't know what happened to the Malaysia Airlines jet in the min...

PhotoThe mystery of the disappearance of Flight MH370 is fueled, in large part, because we just don't know what happened to the Malaysia Airlines jet in the minutes after communication with ground controllers broke off.

Was the plane hijacked or did it suffer some catastrophic event? We won't know unless or until investigators can recover the “black boxes,” devices that are aboard every commercial airplane.

There are two black boxes, which are actually orange. One, the Flight Data Recorder, records the activity of aircraft systems. The other, the Cockpit Voice Recorder, records conversation among the flight crew in the cockpit. Located in the tail of the aircraft, these boxes can help investigators piece together the events that lead to a crash.

No black boxes

Photo
Photo credit: Australian Transportation Safety Board

But MH370, along with its black boxes, is nowhere to be found, leaving investigators completely in the dark about what happened to the aircraft, and why. Some aviation experts have argued for some time that technology now allows this data to be available to investigators instantly, long before crews arrive at the scene of an air disaster.

"It's time to move the black box to 'the cloud' at least for essential limited flight recorder data for long flights over areas like the Indian Ocean, or other remote areas across large land masses like across the Brazilian Amazon," said Oliver McGee, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Technology Policy in the Clinton Administration.

The idea of remote flight data collection began to get serious discussion following the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, which plunged into the South Atlantic on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. It took two years to located the wreckage and retrieve the black boxes.

Time to enter 21st century

Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, told Reuters the MH370 disappearance is all the more reason to find a way to record at least some of each aircraft's data in the cloud. It's time, he says, to bring accident investigation into the 21st century.

Some aviation experts say the technology to stream aircraft data to the cloud for real-time access already exists. Others say it's too costly for the industry to justify. But Peter Stewart, senior vice president for strategy and partnerships at technology firm PGi, says it should be a priority.

"We need to dig deeper into the technical details of retrieval and storage of cloud data systems, as well as, observe how other industries and firms have transformed how they store and transmit data," he said.

These technology experts concede the enormous bandwidth requirements to transmit constant, real-time data from an aircraft. But they argue limited data retrieval is possible, and is better than no data.

In fact, planes currently have the capability to transmit limited data about engine performance to remote storage servers. In the case of the missing Malaysia jetliner, there is no evidence any such data was sent or retrieved.

So, until the black boxes can be located and examined, what happened to MH370 remains a mystery.

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GM's handling of ignition-switch redesign raises eyebrows

Changes were made so secretly that even GM insiders didn't know about them

General Motors' handling of the faulty ignition switches that caused cars to stall without warning is looking murkier all the time. Automotive News ...

PhotoGeneral Motors' handling of the faulty ignition switches that caused cars to stall without warning is looking murkier all the time. 

Automotive News reports today that GM redesigned the switch in 2006, eight years before the recall, without issuing a new part number. Because there was no new part number, engineers investigating reports of cars stalling didn't know about the change, which could have helped them identify the problem earlier.

The faulty part has been linked to at least 34 crashes and 12 deaths over the past decade, many of them in the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion.

Failing to assign a new part number would be highly unusual, according to three GM engineers quoted by the industry trade journal.   

"Changing the fit, form or function of a part without making a part number change is a cardinal sin," said one of the engineers quoted by Automotive News. "It would have been an extraordinary violation of internal processes."

"Old GM"

There's a lot at stake for both consumers and GM, because today's GM is not the General Motors that made the changes to the ignition switch. GM, you'll recall, declared bankruptcy in 2009 and today's GM is a different corporate entity.

GM's lawyers are expected to argue that today's GM bears no responsibility for what "Old GM" did. 

But consumer lawyers and safety advocates say that if GM intentionally withheld information about the ignition switch problem during the bankruptcy proceeding, the New GM/Old GM legal shield might be vulnerable.

GM CEO Mary Barra has apologized and ordered an inquiry by an outside investigator and the company has said it will cooperate fully with regulators and government agencies investigating the matter.

GM has recalled 1.6 million vehicles globally, including 2005-07 Cobalts and 2003-07 Saturn Ions, Pontiac G5s, Pontiac Solstices and Chevrolet HHRs.

Until the recalled cars are fixed, drivers should put their ignition key on a separate key ring to reduce weight and should also be careful not to bump the switch while driving.

The faulty ignition switches can switch to the "ACC" position, causing the engine to stop and cutting power to air bags, power steering and power brakes.

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Always broke? Bad financial habits may be partly to blame

Here are some habits you should probably avoid

Let's concede from the start that it is very difficult to save money in this economy. Prices keep rising, despite what the official inflation figures say, ...

PhotoLet's concede from the start that it is very difficult to save money in this economy. Prices keep rising, despite what the official inflation figures say, and incomes have become stagnant.

But that's all the more reason to maintain best practices when it comes to personal finance. Bad habits with money not only make it harder to save but can keep you in a constant state of being broke.

Cameron Huddleston, who writes for Kiplinger, recently compiled a list of behaviors that tend to keep consumers' bank accounts empty. While not all apply to everyone who finds themselves always short of cash, just one or two can provide a financial headwind that is difficult to overcome. The first on her list is not finishing school.

Some might take issue with that since millions of young people graduate from college with staggering debt and no job. But while they may struggle in the short term they often make up for it over the long run.

“The fact is, according to the Census Bureau, a worker with a bachelor's degree will earn $1 million more over a 40-year career than a worker with just a high school diploma,” Huddleston told ConsumerAffairs.

Avoid peer pressure

Keeping up with the Joneses is another route to staying broke. In fact, marketers often rely on peer pressure to boost sales.

“You see a colleague with a new car and you think, 'Hey, if he can buy a new car I should be able to buy one too,' or a neighbor leaves your neighborhood and buys a very large home – you see people around you with something and you feel entitled to it too,” Huddleston said.

But what if that colleague is simply trying to keep up with someone else? It's possible they can't really afford it either and if you follow them without determining whether what you are buying is affordable, you'll both end up broke.

Hardly working

While it is true that pay raises are harder to come by now, advancing in your career is more important to your financial health than most people realize. Huddleston says it requires your best effort every time you report for work.

“If you take the attitude that you aren't going to do something if it isn't in your job description you're not going to get ahead,” she said. "You aren't going to get a raise or advance.”

Not only that, you could be first in line if the company decides it must reduce its workforce.

Expensive habits

Another place where consumers run into financial trouble is when they spend too much money on their vices – things like lottery tickets, cigarettes and booze. It may not seem like much money but it adds up quickly.

“A pack of cigarettes costs, on average, about $6,” Huddleston said. “If you are smoking a pack a day you're spending about $2,000 a year.”

Even hanging out with the “wrong crowd” can keep you financially deficient. Good habits tend to rub off on others, but by the same token so do bad habits. Associating with people who have their financial act together can help you keep your resolve to meet your financial goals.

Not having financial goals, on the other hand, makes it harder to save money. Huddleston said having a reason to save, and not spend, makes it more likely that you'll actually be able to put a few dollars away.

“Why would it matter to you if you were spending $100 a week on lottery tickets if you don't have a better use of your money?” she asked.

Improving your financial well-being, it turns out, isn't all that different from losing weight or improving your health. It doesn't magically happen by itself. Huddleston says it takes an honest look at all the things you might be doing to contribute to your money woes.

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LifeLock sued by former security officer/whistleblower

Alleges company turned off customer alerts to reduce service-center calls

Michael Peters, a former chief information security officer for the identity-theft security firm LifeLock, is suing the company under whistleblower-protect...

Michael Peters, a former chief information security officer for the identity-theft security firm LifeLock, is suing the company under whistleblower-protection statutes, claiming he was unjustly fired for objecting after the company deliberately turned off or reduced the number of alerts it sent to customers, in order to reduce the number of calls to its customer support center.

Courthouse News Service broke the story on March 24, noting also that, according to its own archives, LifeLock has been sued more than 80 times in recent years, including a securities fraud class action brought by shareholders this month who claim the company failed to comply with a 2010 Federal Trade Commission settlement order.

The FTC settlement stated that LifeLock has misled customers to believe they were receiving services that they were not. As part of that 2010 settlement, LifeLock was supposed to pay refunds to almost a million of its customers.

Peters claims he started an initial risk assessment for the company and uncovered "many instances of illegal and incompetent practices that constituted fraud against LifeLock's shareholders'."

Similar complaints

PhotoThe charges in Peters' suit are similar to reviews posted by ConsumerAffairs readers. 

Last August, Brenda in California noted she wasn't getting as many alerts as she expected. Brenda had a LifeLock subscription, then applied for a loan with a certain financial institution; she thought this attempt to get money via her account would result in a LifeLock alert, and it did – the next day.

This surprised Brenda because, “I thought they would alert you right away the same day that your credit was being pulled and put a stop to it until they get a response back.”

Brenda said that anytime she did anything against her account, the LifeLock alert came late enough that, had Brenda actually been an identity thief, she could've cleaned out the account in question before LifeLock got around to sending any alerts.

But at least Brenda did receive alerts, albeit in a less timely fashion than she'd have preferred.

Jeffrey in Tennessee says he didn't even get that much; when he wrote last July he said, “We got Lifelock three months ago, thought we might need it. So we called and they told us all the good things that they do …. [they said] anytime we applied for any kind of credit, within 5 minutes we would be texted to see if it was us or someone trying to use our credit.”

So what happened next? “In the last 3 months we have opened up a credit account and have been using it. They haven't texted or called us to let us know. This week we bought a $10,000 ATV and there have been no texts to our phone or no emails. That could have been anyone doing that. We canceled our membership today.”

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Catching a liar may mean trusting your instincts

The unconscious mind appears to have the edge

You know when a politician is lying, according to the old joke, when his lips are moving. But really, how can you tell when someone is not being truthful?...

PhotoYou know when a politician is lying, according to the old joke, when his lips are moving.

But really, how can you tell when someone is not being truthful? According to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, your automatic associations may be more accurate than conscious thought in pegging truth-tellers and liars.

This seems to suggest that conscious awareness may hinder our ability to detect whether someone is lying, perhaps because we tend to seek out behaviors that are supposedly stereotypical of liars -- like averted eyes or fidgeting. But those behaviors may not be all that indicative of an untrustworthy person.

“Our research was prompted by the puzzling but consistent finding that humans are very poor lie detectors, performing at only about 54% accuracy in traditional lie detection tasks,” explains psychological scientist and study author Leanne ten Brinke, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

That’s hardly better than chance, as if participants were simply guessing whether the person was lying. And it’s a finding that seems at odds with the fact that humans are typically sensitive to how others are feeling, what they’re thinking, and what their personalities are like.

To catch a liar

Along with UC Berkeley colleague Dayna Stimson and Berkeley-Haas Asst. Prof. Dana Carney, ten Brinke hypothesized that these seemingly paradoxical findings may be accounted for by unconscious processes: “We set out to test whether the unconscious mind could catch a liar -- even when the conscious mind failed,” she says.

The researchers first had 72 participants watch videos of “suspects” in a mock-crime interview. Some of the suspects in the videos had actually stolen a $100 bill from a bookshelf, whereas others had not. However, all of the suspects were instructed to tell the interviewer they had not stolen the money. In doing so, one group of suspects must have been lying, whereas the other group must have been telling the truth.

When the 72 participants were asked to say which suspects they thought were lying and which were telling the truth, they were pretty inaccurate: They were only able to detect liars 43% of the time, and truth-tellers only 48% of the time.

But the researchers also employed widely-used behavioral reaction time tests (one of which is called the Implicit Association Test or IAT) to probe participants’ more automatic instincts towards the suspects.

Results showed that participants were more likely to unconsciously associate deception-related words (e.g. “untruthful,” dishonest,” and “deceitful”) with the suspects who were actually lying. At the same time, participants were more likely to associate truthful words (e.g. “honest” or “valid”) with the suspects who were actually telling the truth.

A second experiment confirmed these findings, providing evidence that people may have some intuitive sense, outside of conscious awareness, that detects when someone is lying.

“These results provide a new lens through which to examine social perception, and suggest that -- at least in terms of detection of lies -- unconscious measures may provide additional insight into interpersonal accuracy,” says ten Brinke.

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Minorities beware: skin cancer strikes people of all skin tones

Minority patients are often diagnosed at a more advanced stage because of over-confidence

It may be understandable if minorities with dark skin think they're less likely to get skin cancer, but it's a misunderstanding that can prove fatal, a der...

PhotoIt may be understandable if minorities with darker skin think they're less likely to get skin cancer, but it's a misunderstanding that can prove fatal, a dermatologist warns.

"Our minority populations have this perception that they are at low risk and little can be done to prevent it. The reality is that skin cancer is a significant health concern for minorities. With early detection and treatment, though, skin cancer is highly curable," said Diane Jackson-Richards, M.D., director of Henry Ford Hospital's Multicultural Dermatology Clinic in Detroit.

Photo
Diane Jackson-Richards, M.D.

Research has shown that minorities are diagnosed at a more advanced stage of skin cancer and have lower chances of survival than Caucasians. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common skin cancer among African Americans and Asian Indians, and the second most common skin cancer in Hispanics, East Asians and Caucasians, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

"We need to intensify our awareness efforts for minorities so they fully understand the dangers of sun exposure and what they can do to reduce their risk of skin cancer," said Jackson-Richards, 

In Hispanic communities, fewer sunscreen products are available than in non-Hispanic communities, she says in remarks prepared for a presentation today at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology in Denver.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, the Skin Cancer Foundation says, and more new cases are diagnosed each year than the combined incidence of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers.

Common risk factors for skin cancer include a personal or family history, 50 or more moles, history of excessive sun exposure, diseases that suppress the immune system and a past history of skin cancer.

What to do

People can reduce their risk of developing skin cancer by:

  • Avoiding sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are the strongest.
  • Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher generously. Re-apply every 2 hours.
  • Wear protective clothing – long-sleeved shirt and pants, wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
  • Avoiding tanning beds and tanning.
  • Seeing your physician for a skin exam every year.
  • Water, snow and sand increase your cancer of sunburn.
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Study: bariatric surgery can decrease risk of uterine cancer

Fat tissue raises levels of estrogen, which is linked to tumor creation

A study by researchers at the University of California-San Diego finds that bariatric surgery in severely obese women may reduce the risk of uterine cancer...

PhotoA study by researchers at the University of California-San Diego finds that bariatric surgery in severely obese women may reduce the risk of uterine cancer by as much as 81 percent in those who maintain normal weight after surgery.

The study is based on more than 7.4 million patient records.

"Estimating from various studies that looked at increasing BMI and endometrial cancer risk, a woman with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 40 would have approximately eight times greater risk of endometrial cancer than someone with a BMI of 25," said first author Kristy Ward, MD, the senior gynecologic oncology fellow in the Department of Reproductive Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. "This risk likely continues to go up as BMI goes up."

Bariatric surgery involves reducing the size of the stomach using a gastric band, removing a portion of the stomach or resecting and re-routing the small intestines to a small stomach pouch. In all cases, the surgery must be followed by lifestyle changes to ensure long-term weight loss success.

Last resort

Bariatric surgery is often the last resort for obese patients after all other non-surgical weight loss efforts have failed. To qualify, patients must be an acceptable surgical risk and be defined as either severely obese with a BMI of 40 or greater or have a BMI of 35 or greater with at least one related condition: diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity-related cardiomyopathy or heart muscle disease or severe joint disease.

What links obesity to uterine -- or endometrial -- cancer? 

The researchers say that excessive fat tissue raises the levels of estrogen, which is associated with tumor creation. Obesity also causes chronic inflammation, boosting insulin resistance and increased estrogen levels.

"The majority of endometrial cancers are estrogen-driven," said Ward. "A woman with excess adipose tissue has an increased level of estrogen because the fat tissue converts steroid hormones into a form of estrogen.

"So there is too much estrogen, causing the endometrium to build up, but not enough progesterone to stabilize it. The endometrium continues to grow and can undergo changes into abnormal tissue, leading to cancer."

Big problem

Obesity is a widespread public health problem in the United States, with an estimated two-thirds of the U.S. adult population considered to be overweight or obese. The condition is strongly linked to a host of health risks, among them heart disease, diabetes and cancer, in particular endometrial cancer.

Bariatric surgery has been shown to reduce the impact of these factors: hormone levels become normal; inflammation decreases; insulin resistance drops; weight loss allows for increased physical activity and improved overall health.

The study was published in the April issue of Gynecologic Oncology, the official publication of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology.

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Tax returns are rolling in

For individuals who have business income, there's help from the IRS

If you haven't filed your federal income tax return yet, you're behind the curve. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it has received more than half o...

PhotoIf you haven't filed your federal income tax return yet, you're behind the curve.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it has received more than half of all the returns it expects to get during 2014. As of March 14, the agency had received more than 75 million individual tax returns and projects that it will receive a total of roughly 149 million by the end of the year.

Help for businesses

Millions of individual tax filers have business income either as sole proprietors or as sub contractors, and also have unreimbursed business expenses. The IRS recently issued Publication 535, Business Expenses, which provides valuable information for these filers. It also contains useful hints for Tax Year 2013, for which many taxpayers are still completing returns and for Tax Year 2014, for which taxpayers are tracking expenses and making financial decisions.

For tax year 2013

Optional safe harbor method. Beginning in 2013, taxpayers can use the optional safe harbor method to determine the deduction for the business use of a home.

Standard mileage rate. Beginning in 2013, the standard mileage rate for the cost of operating a car, van, pickup, or panel truck for each mile of business use is 56.5 cents per mile.

Additional Medicare Tax. Beginning in 2013, a 0.9% Additional Medicare Tax applies to Medicare wages, railroad retirement (RRTA) compensation, and self-employment income that are more than:

  • $125,000 if married filing separately,
  • $250,000 if married filing jointly, or
  • $200,000 if single, head of household, or qualifying widow(er) with dependent child.

Medicare wages and self-employment income are combined to determine if a taxpayer’s income exceeds the threshold. RRTA compensation should be separately compared to the threshold.

For Tax Year 2014

Standard mileage rate. Beginning in 2014, the standard mileage rate for the cost of operating a car, van, pickup, or panel truck for each mile of business use is 56 cents per mile.

Filing season statistics

2014 FILING SEASON STATISTICS

Cumulative statistics comparing 3/15/13 and 3/14/14

Individual Income Tax Returns:

2013

2014

% Change

Total Receipts

74,882,000

75,100,000

0.3

Total Processed

69,153,000

73,157,000

5.8

 

 

 

 

E-filing Receipts:

 

 

 

TOTAL           

68,029,000

68,966,000

1.4

Tax Professionals

40,117,000

39,413,000

-1.8

Self-prepared

27,912,000

29,553,000

5.9

 

 

 

 

Web Usage:

 

 

 

Visits to IRS.gov

218,469,657

195,637,190

-10.4

 

 

 

 

Total Refunds:

 

 

 

Number

60,243,000

61,645,000

2.3

Amount

$172.494

Billion

$179.793

Billion

4.2

Average refund

$2,863

$2,917

1.9

 

 

 

 

Direct Deposit Refunds:

 

 

 

Number

52,414,000

52,770,000

0.7

Amount

$157.786

Billion

$158.983

Billion

0.8

Average refund

$3,010

$3,013

0.08

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You may have money waiting for you -- and not know it

$760 million in tax refunds is there for the taking

Go figure. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it has refunds totaling almost $760 million for an estimated 918,600 taxpayers who didn't even bother ...

PhotoGo figure.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it has refunds totaling almost $760 million for an estimated 918,600 taxpayers who didn't even bother to file a federal income tax return for 2010.

There's a catch though: In order to collect the money, your have to file a return for 2010 with the IRS no later than Tuesday, April 15, 2014.

"The window is quickly closing for people who are owed refunds from 2010 who haven't filed a tax return," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. "We encourage students, part-time workers and others who haven't filed for 2010 to look into this before time runs out on April 15."

Why not file?

Some people may not have filed because they had too little income to require filing a tax return even though they had taxes withheld from their wages or made quarterly estimated payments. In cases where a return was not filed, the law provides most taxpayers with a three-year window of opportunity for claiming a refund. If no return is filed to claim a refund within three years, the money becomes property of the U.S. Treasury.

For 2010 returns, the window closes on April 15, 2014. The law requires that the return be properly addressed, mailed and postmarked by that date. There is no penalty for filing a late return qualifying for a refund.

The IRS reminds taxpayers seeking a 2010 refund that their checks may be held if they have not filed tax returns for 2011 and 2012. In addition, the refund will be applied to any amounts still owed to the IRS or their state tax agency, and may be used to offset unpaid child support or past due federal debts such as student loans.

Why you should file

By failing to file a return, people stand to lose more than just their refund of taxes withheld or paid during 2010. In addition, many low-and-moderate income workers may not have claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). For 2010, the credit is worth as much as $5,666. The EITC helps individuals and families whose incomes are below certain thresholds. The thresholds for 2010 were:

  • $43,352 ($48,362 if married filing jointly) for those with three or more qualifying children,
  • $40,363 ($45,373 if married filing jointly) for people with two qualifying children,
  • $35,535 ($40,545 if married filing jointly) for those with one qualifying child, and
  • $13,460 ($18,470 if married filing jointly) for people without qualifying children.

Current and prior year tax forms and instructions are available on the Forms and Publications page of IRS.gov or by calling toll-free 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676). Taxpayers who are missing Forms W-2, 1098, 1099 or 5498 for 2010, 2011 or 2012 should request copies from their employer, bank or other payer.

If these efforts are unsuccessful, taxpayers can get a free transcript showing information from these year-end documents by going to IRS.gov. Taxpayers can also file Form 4506-T to request a transcript of their tax return.

Your money?

Individuals who did not file a 2010 return with a potential refund:

State or District

Estimated

Number of

Individuals

Median

Potential

Refund

Total

Potential

Refunds*

 

   

 

Alabama

15,700

$574

$12,473,000

Alaska

4,700

$649

$4,810,000

Arizona

23,800

$508

$17,517,000

Arkansas

8,400

$562

$6,667,000

California

86,500

$519

$69,752,000

Colorado

17,100

$567

$14,061,000

Connecticut

11,700

$620

$10,304,000

Delaware

3,800

$573

$3,126,000

District of Columbia

3,500

$604

$3,080,000

Florida

56,800

$593

$48,407,000

Georgia

28,400

$539

$22,504,000

Hawaii

6,200

$586

$5,413,000

Idaho

3,500

$490

$2,604,000

Illinois

37,900

$626

$32,696,000

Indiana

19,600

$570

$15,478,000

Iowa

9,200

$576

$7,050,000

Kansas

9,300

$522

$6,986,000

Kentucky

11,500

$576

$8,975,000

Louisiana

17,500

$603

$15,579,000

Maine

3,500

$502

$2,373,000

Maryland

20,700

$575

$18,002,000

Massachusetts

21,000

$560

$17,856,000

Michigan

29,200

$597

$24,259,000

Minnesota

12,700

$516

$9,582,000

Mississippi

8,500

$556

$6,769,000

Missouri

17,900

$514

$13,153,000

Montana

2,900

$534

$2,338,000

Nebraska

4,500

$528

$3,368,000

Nevada

11,400

$570

$9,156,000

New Hampshire

3,800

$602

$3,245,000

New Jersey

29,500

$639

$26,712,000

New Mexico

7,200

$572

$5,915,000

New York

57,400

$623

$50,543,000

North Carolina

24,300

$494

$17,538,000

North Dakota

1,900

$600

$1,551,000

Ohio

32,100

$560

$24,508,000

Oklahoma

15,100

$585

$12,246,000

Oregon

14,300

$519

$10,359,000

Pennsylvania

37,400

$614

$31,009,000

Rhode Island

3,000

$598

$2,472,000

South Carolina

10,200

$532

$7,756,000

South Dakota

2,100

$558

$1,605,000

Tennessee

16,300

$559

$12,839,000

Texas

80,600

$588

$71,998,000

Utah

6,100

$518

$4,705,000

Vermont

1,600

$519

$1,136,000

Virginia

26,300

$568

$22,376,000

Washington

24,800

$640

$23,033,000

West Virginia

4,100

$626

$3,534,000

Wisconsin

10,900

$516

$8,423,000

Wyoming

2,200

$648

$2,045,000

Totals

918,600

$571

$759,889,000

   * Excluding the Earned Income Tax Credit and other credits.

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New hope for adults with severe high-frequency hearing loss

The FDA has approved the first implantable hearing device to treat the condition

An implantable device is now available for people 18 and older with severe or profound sensorineural hearing loss of high-frequency sounds in both ears, bu...

PhotoAn implantable device is now available for people 18 and older with severe or profound sensorineural hearing loss of high-frequency sounds in both ears, but who can still hear low-frequency sounds with or without a hearing aid.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given its approval to the Nucleus Hybrid L24 Cochlear Implant System, which may help those with this specific kind of hearing loss who do not benefit from conventional hearing aids.

A common ailment

Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common form of hearing loss and occurs when there is damage to the inner ear (cochlea). It may be caused by aging, heredity, exposure to loud noise, drugs that are toxic to the inner ear (e.g., antibiotics), and certain other illnesses.

People with severe or profound sensorineural hearing loss of high-frequency sounds may have difficulty hearing faint sounds, understanding people with higher-pitched voices, hearing certain speech sounds, and, in some cases, hearing high-pitched emergency vehicle sirens or common safety alarms, such as smoke detectors.

“Hearing loss greatly impacts the education, employment, and well-being of many Americans,” said Christy Foreman, director of the Office of Device Evaluation at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “This device may provide improved speech recognition for people with this kind of hearing loss, who have limited treatment options.”

The Nucleus Hybrid L24 Cochlear Implant System combines the functions of a cochlear implant and a hearing aid. This electronic device consists of an external microphone and speech processor that picks up sounds from the environment and converts them into electrical impulses.

The impulses are transmitted to the cochlea through a small bundle of implanted electrodes, creating a sense of sound that the user learns to associate with the mid- and high-frequency sounds they remember. The hearing aid portion of the device is inserted into the outer ear canal like a conventional hearing aid, and can amplify sounds in the low-frequency range.

Positive results

The agency evaluated a clinical study involving 50 individuals with severe to profound high-frequency hearing loss who still had significant levels of low-frequency hearing. The individuals were tested before and after being implanted with the device.

A majority of the patients reported statistically significant improvements in word and sentence recognition at six months after activation of the device compared to their baseline pre-implant performance using a conventional hearing aid. The device also underwent non-clinical testing, which included the electrical components, biocompatibility and durability of the device.

Side effects possible

Of the 50 individuals participating in the study, 68% experienced one or more anticipated adverse events, such as low-frequency hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ear), electrode malfunction and dizziness. Twenty-two developed profound or total low-frequency hearing loss in the implanted ear, six of whom underwent an additional surgery to replace the Nucleus Hybrid L24 Cochlear Implant System with a standard cochlear implant.

While the risk of low-frequency hearing loss is of concern, the FDA determined that the overall benefits of the device outweigh this risk for those who do not benefit from traditional hearing aids. Prospective patients should carefully discuss all benefits and risks of this new device with their physicians. The device is intended for use on one ear only.

The Nucleus Hybrid L24 Cochlear Implant System is manufactured by Cochlear Ltd., headquartered in New South Wales, Australia.

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Use caution when dieting and exercising 'like a man'

It may be trendy but sports medicine expert isn't sure it's safe for everyone

Lately, it seems, women have discovered something about men that just doesn't seem fair. While the ladies sweat for endless hours at the gym and agonize ov...

PhotoLately, it seems, women have discovered something about men that just doesn't seem fair. While the ladies sweat for endless hours at the gym and agonize over every food morsel they consume, the gentlemen seem to be able to drop weight at will, and with very little effort.

Nutritionists have come up with a name for it – “dieting like a man,” and suddenly the concept pervades popular culture, as evidenced by this feature on ABC's Good Morning America.

More muscle mass

Men tend to have more muscle mass, making for faster metabolism and a more rapid rate of calorie burn. But they also seem to have a different approach to diet and exercise. While women tend to avoid entire food groups, men will give up a single food item or two for a given period in order to shed unwanted pounds.

Here's one reason it may work; a guy knows he's eating too much of one thing, like pizza. If he decides to give up all pizza for a while, he reduces calorie intake by a large amount, assuming he doesn't replace pizza with chocolate cake.

Men also tend to get exercise differently from women. While women may exercise over a long period, a man might go through a more intense series of exercises in a shorter period. For some metabolic reason, that tends to burn the calories faster.

Sports medicine expert weighs in

Dr. Derek Ochiai, board certified orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine expert in Arlington, Va., isn't convinced that dieting like a man really works but is concerned about people taking on a new diet and exercise regimen without first making sure it's safe.

Among the potential problems he recognizes is over-enthusiasm. He worries that people will push themselves hard and fast at the start, increasing their risk of tendinitis – which could bring their new exercise program to a screeching halt.

A second danger is suddenly adopting intense workouts – Ochiai calls it cramming. He advises not to try to cram in extra weight/intensity if you're pressed for time. Instead, build in a warm-up time, such as on a bike, before starting the rest of your work out.

A third danger is setting expectations too high and not noticing improvement. Ochiai says people often get discouraged when starting an exercise routine because they don't immediately drop a dress size or 10 pounds.

Avoiding great expectations

“Exercise has many benefits, including better sleep and better concentration and an overall feeling of well-being,” he said. “Remember to look for these changes for positive reinforcement initially.”

Finally, Ochiai cautions women about copying a man's free-weight program to build muscle mass. Using Nautilus-type weight machines is safer, he says, since spotters are not necessary. But be careful about adding weight. Increasing weight resistance too quickly can cause injury, providing a significant setback to your exercise program.

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Enterprise zone benefits include: a $55,000 residential sewer bill

What happens when Massachusetts residents have enterprise zone benefits inflicted upon them?

Today's scary, yet valuable, lesson for wannabe home buyers and potential small-business owners alike is: Never buy property in an “enterprise zone" ...

Photo
Wayland Town Center (Photo: KGI Properties)
Today's scary, yet valuable, lesson for wannabe home buyers and potential small-business owners alike is: Never, ever, ever buy property in an “enterprise zone.” At least not in the Boston suburb of Wayland, Massachusetts, where a few dozen families and small businesses learned they personally face sewer bills of up to $55,000 due to their homes' being located in an enterprise zone.

First question: what is an enterprise zone, anyway? Here's the complete, unedited definition given by Investopedia:

A specific geographical area that has been designated by a governmental authority (usually federal). Businesses within the enterprise zone are entitled to receive various types of financial aid. These include tax benefits, special financing and other incentives designed to encourage businesses to establish and maintain a presence within the specified zone.

 

And on March 18, CBS Boston first broke the story of exactly how this encouragement works in Wayland. Homeowners and business owners alike got sewer bills, due by July, for such exorbitant amounts as $23,000 or $55,000. At first they figured this must be a computer or typographical error, but discovered instead that no: it's one of the “encourage you to maintain a presence here” benefits that come being in an enterprise zone.

[A]bout three dozen homeowners and just as many businesses are facing astronomical sewer bills. It all has to do with the new development on Route 20 in Wayland known as “Town Center.” Behind the beautiful stores and modern condominiums is a $5.5 million waste water treatment facility. Since it was built on what’s known as an “enterprise zone” just those people hooked up to it must pay for it all. And these people claim the developer and the town never explained that.... Here is part of the problem. Wayland homeowners all have individual septic systems. They have no need for a new expensive sewer system. So the whole cost of this facility falls to about 75 users.

In November 2011, the Wayland town board of selectmen (basically equivalent to city council) put out a two-page press release (via .pdf) titled “Town Center – At Last!” which said:

it is understood that an increase in commercial tax receipts will eventually result in lower residential taxes. When complete in fiscal year 2015 or 2016, commercial taxes from Town Center will generate over $500,000 in new taxes per year. This will be a welcome increase to our town’s revenues and help decrease the tax burden on residents.”

No mention of “sewer bills” which, technically, are totally distinct from “taxes,” even if both in this instance boil down to “The government says pay up or you lose your house.”

Everyone benefits

The few dozen Wayland residents and business owners stuck paying for the new water treatment plant thanks to enterprise zone incentives say that, since everyone in town allegedly benefits from having the Town Center there, everyone in town should help pay the costs associated with its presence, including the new water-treatment plant.

CBS quoted small-business owner Jonathan Buchman as saying all town residents should bear the cost of the new water treatment plant because it won't be used only by those 75 home and business owners getting five-figure sewer bills. “Their building, their police station, their fire station is on the system. The main town hall with all the offices is on the system,” Buchman said.

According to property management company KGI Properties, LLC, which lists Wayland Town Center as a “featured” property on its website, the Wayland Town Center includes “Approximately 177,000 square feet of retail and office space,” which businesses can lease in chunks ranging from 1,500 to 15,000 square feet.

The first business to open there, in 2012, was a Stop and Shop supermarket. In August 2013, the Wayland Patchran a local-news story asking “What's still to come at Wayland Town Center?' and noted that, in addition to the Stop and Shop, it also has national-chain restaurants and retail stores including Bertucci's, Subway, Panera Bread, and Unleashed by Petco.

Incidentally, if you do a Google search for “enterprise zone definition” you'll get a different result than what the business-oriented Investopedia says; according to Google, an enterprise zone is “an impoverished area in which incentives such as tax concessions are offered to encourage business investment and provide jobs for the residents.”

Impoverished because ...

So if residents are feeling impoverished, maybe because they just learned they have to cough up $55,000 by midsummer to pay their sewer bill, a quick search for jobs in Wayland, Massachusetts shows that, as of March 20, the Panera Bread in the Town Center is looking to hire a night shift baker (working hours 10 pm through 6 am, must be 18 or older with two year's baker or bakery experience), and an unspecified number of full- or part-time bakery cafe associates (must be 16 or older and know basic food safety, working hours variable).

Also as of March 20 – early afternoon Eastern Daylight Time, to be specific, since the value might change by the time you read this – the price of one share of stock in the Panera Bread company is a bit over $190.

It is not known how much of that value is buoyed up by the value of enterprise zone tax incentives meant to benefit the impoverished.

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Hacker drones put your smartphone and tablet data at risk

But protecting yourself should be pretty easy

Free wifi has become almost a standard feature in coffee shops, fast-food outlets and similar businesses, because a hangout whose customers can't use their...

PhotoFree wi-fi has become almost a standard feature in coffee shops, fast-food outlets and similar businesses, because a hangout whose customers can't use their smartphones or tablets is a hangout likely to lose customers after awhile.

Of course hackers have figured out ways to use this to their advantage. The latest, which CNN Money reported this week, involves using drones capable of stealing everything on your smartphone — passwords, photographs and more.

More specifically, the technology to strip the data from your smartphone already existed, just not in super-mobile hard-to-avoid drone form.

Fortunately, the hackers who created the drone (named “Snoopy”) are actually security researchers with Senseport Research Labs who intend to present Snoopy to a cybersecurity conference next month. As CNN Money explained:

Snoopy takes advantage of a feature built into all smartphones and tablets: When mobile devices try to connect to the Internet, they look for networks they've accessed in the past.

"Their phone will very noisily be shouting out the name of every network its ever connected to," Sensepost security researcher Glenn Wilkinson said. "They'll be shouting out, 'Starbucks, are you there?...McDonald's Free Wi-Fi, are you there?"

So Snoopy basically poses as Starbucks or McDonald's wifi and shouts back “Here I am,” your phone or tablet makes the connection, and Snoopy (and the hackers controlling him) can read everything you do. CNN opened new accounts with Amazon, PayPal and Yahoo, specifically to see if Snoopy could steal the usernames and passwords; yes, easily.

Fortunately, protecting yourself is almost as easy: shut off the wi-fi connections on your mobile devices when you're not using them, and set it so that it must ask before joining a mobile network

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Appeals court reinstates "swipe fee" rules for debit card transactions

Skirmishing between banks and retailers enters a new phase, while consumers get stuck with the bill

Here's the latest chapter in the never-ending battle over debit card "swipe fees" -- the fees that banks charge retailers for processing purchases: a feder...

PhotoHere's the latest chapter in the never-ending battle over debit card "swipe fees" -- the fees that banks charge retailers for processing purchases: a federal appeals court in Washington has reversed a lower-court judge and reinstated a 2011 Federal Reserve rule that governs the fees.

That sounds like it would be good news for retailers and, by extension, consumers. But in fact, retailers say the Fed's rule is too weak and doesn't do enough to curb the fees, which get passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

The Dodd-Frank Law requires the Fed to ensure that the swipe fees reflect the actual cost of processing debit-card transactions. Before the Fed capped fees at 21 cents in most instances, banks had been charging 44 cents per transaction.

Retailers have said the fees are still too high and are especially harmful to businesses that sell lower-priced items, like fast food and convenience store outlets.

Banks say the lower fees have forced them to raise the costs of checking accounts and other services to make up for the losses they claim to incur in servicing debit cards.

Today's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is likely to set off another round of skirmishes and dueling claims. 

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Community college grads face obstacles in transferring credits

Study links transferred credits to graduation rates

As college tuition costs continue to escalate and four-year universities raise entrance requirements, more students are turning to community colleges to co...

PhotoAs college tuition costs continue to escalate and four-year universities raise entrance requirements, more students are turning to community colleges to continue their education.

Some do so reluctantly, as though attending a community college is not something to value. But increasingly educators have begun to cite community colleges as a way for more students to get an education without running up a college loan tab the size of a small mortgage.

President Obama has been a strong booster of community colleges as a way to address many of the education issues facing the country.

"In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience,” Obama said in a speech on education. “We will not fill those jobs – or keep those jobs on our shores – without the training offered by community colleges.”

Obama is not alone. Scholarships.com, a company that helps students find money for school, says community colleges don't deserve a second-rate reputation. It cites figures from the College Board showing tuition and fees for public two-year colleges averaged just $2,544 during the 2009-2010 academic year, a fraction of what pricer four-year schools cost.

Path to a four-year degree?

True enough, but does attending a two-year school help or hinder your efforts to complete a college education? A new study by researchers at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) found that students who start out at a community college and successfully transfer to a four-year college have graduation rates equal to those who start out at a four-year school.

The key qualifier, however, is “successfully transfer.” When the researchers looked at the total number of students who enrolled at a community college they found a lower percentage – less than those who enrolled at a four-year school – ended up getting a bachelor's degree.

Then again, many likely enrolled at a community college only to pursue a two-year associate's degree, never having any intention of transferring to a four year college. In fact, early community colleges – called “junior colleges” – emphasized vocational training and two-year degree programs.

Big draw-back

But one of the criticisms of community colleges today is the difficulty in transferring credits to a four-year institution. Some community college courses may seem exactly the same as the course taught at a four-year institution, but the four-year institution may not accept it.

As a result, many community college students are frustrated when the courses they have taken don't transfer. The CUNY researchers say this remains an issue that needs to be addressed to make community colleges more attractive to more students.

“Loss of credits is a tax on transfer students,” said David Monaghan, one of the CUNY researchers. “Policymakers should be pushing both community colleges and four-year institutions to address it.”

One solution, he says, is for community colleges to invest more in transfer counseling services. And four-year institutions should develop processes for facilitating, not hindering, credit transfer for academically qualified students.

Scope of problem

The study found that only 58% of community college transfers were able to move at least 90% of their credits to a four-year college. Nearly 14% of would-be transferees, the study found, lost 90% or more of their credits when they tried to enroll in a four-year institution. Success or failure in transferring credits, the study says, is directly related to the success in obtaining a four-year degree.

Students who have all or almost all their credits transferred are 2.5 times more likely to earn a BA than students with fewer than half their credits transferred. The researchers found that students who get between half and 89 percent of their credits accepted have a 74 percent higher chance of earning a BA.

Some states have begun to address this issue by requiring state universities to get in sync with state community colleges. New Jersey, for example, requires that all for-credit courses earned in state community colleges must count toward BA graduation after transfer to a state four-year college. If more states adopted the model, the researchers say, it would vastly improve the transition form a two-year to a four-year degree.

The impact could be huge. Citing figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in 2012 45% of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to students who had transferred from a community college.

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Too much sun may lower chances of becoming pregnant

Study finds UV exposure lowers folate levels in young women

Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant while taking a folic acid supplement should take note of a new Australian study. It found that exposure...

PhotoWomen who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant while taking a folic acid supplement should take note of a new Australian study. It found that exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun may reduce their folate levels.

The study of 45 young healthy women in Brisbane aged 18 to 47, showed high rates of sun exposure accounted up to a 20 per cent reduction in folate levels.

"This is concerning as the benefits of folic acid are well-known, with health professionals urging young women to take a folic acid supplement prior to and during pregnancy," Prof. Michael Kimlin of Queensland University said.

Folate has been found to reduce miscarriage and neural tube defects such as spina bifida in unborn babies. Health agencies recommend pregnant women or those planning a pregnancy take 500 micrograms a day, he noted.

High levels of exposure

Kimlin said the study, which was the first to investigate the effects of sun exposure on folate levels in women of childbearing age, found women who had high levels of sun exposure had folate levels below those recommended for women considering pregnancy.

"The women at risk were those who were outside during the most UV intense time of the day, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., with little sun protection," Kimlin said.

Dr. David Borradale, co-author of the study, said further research including a controlled clinical trial is needed.

"We are not telling women to stop taking folate supplements, but rather urging women to talk to their doctor about their folate levels and the importance of folate in their diet, especially those who are planning a pregnancy," Borradale said. "The results of this study reinforce the need for adequate folate levels prior to and during pregnancy."

What to do

Folic acid is a B vitamin that is very important for pregnant women and those planning a baby. Folate is found in foods such as green leafy vegetables like spinach, citrus fruits, legumes, whole grains and vegemite.

Folic acid is also added to many foods such as breads, flours and pastas. Folic acid can also be taken as a pill.

Women planning a pregnancy or those who are already pregnant should seek prenatal care that includes nutrition counseling.

The research was published in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology.

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Online Entrepreneur promoters hit with $2.9 million settlement

Consumers were promised a lucrative work-from-home opportunity

Such a deal The Online Entrepreneur offered -- for just $27 you could become an affiliate marketer for websites operated by such major brands as Prada, Son...

PhotoSuch a deal The Online Entrepreneur offered -- for just $27 you could become an affiliate marketer for websites operated by such major brands as Prada, Sony, Vuitton and Verizon.

The "Six Figure Program" was quite a success for its promoters but few consumers made even three figures off of it. The Federal Trade Commission sued the promoters in 2012 as part of a crackdown on "be your own boss" offers.

The settlement order permanently prohibits The Online Entrepreneur Inc., Ben and Dave’s Consulting Associates, Inc., and David Clabeaux from selling business and work-at-home opportunities, misrepresenting that consumers are likely to earn money and misrepresenting any material fact about a product or service.

The order imposes a judgment of more than $2.9 million, which will be suspended when Clabeaux has surrendered real estate, personal property, and bank and investment accounts. Litigation continues against the remaining defendant, Benjamin Moskel.

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Another 13 million of us may be eligible for statins

Most new users would be over age 60

Nearly two decades ago Prozac Nation, chronicling the use of the drug to treat depression, became a best-seller. Can Statin Nation be far behind? Accordin...

PhotoNearly two decades ago Prozac Nation, chronicling the use of the drug to treat depression, became a best-seller. Can Statin Nation be far behind?

According to a research team led by Duke Medicine scientists, new guidelines for using statins to treat high cholesterol and prevent cardiovascular disease are projected to result in 12.8 million more U.S. adults taking the drugs.

These findings quantify the impact of the American Heart Association's new guidelines, which were issued in November and generated both controversy and speculation about who should be given a prescription for statins.

A 'senior' drug?

In an analysis of health data published online in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team led by researchers at the Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI) found that most of the additional statin users under the new guidelines would be people older than age 60.

"We sought to do a principled, scientific study to try to answer how the new guidelines might affect statin use, particularly as they focused eligibility on patients with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease," said lead author Michael J. Pencina, Ph.D., professor of biostatistics at DCRI. "By our estimate, there might be an uptake in usage as a result of the guidelines, from 43.2 million people to 56 million, which is nearly half of the U.S. population between the ages of 40 and 75."

Pencina and colleagues from McGill University and Boston University used the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) for their analysis, focusing on 3,773 participants between the ages of 40-75 who had provided detailed medical information, including fasting cholesterol levels from blood tests.

Soaring statin use

The new guidelines expand the criteria for statin use to include people whose 10-year risk of developing cardiovascular disease, including stroke, is elevated based on a risk-assessment score.

The DCRI-led research team determined that the new guidelines could result in 49% of U.S. adults ages 40-75 being recommended for statin therapy, an increase from 38%.

The increase is much more pronounced among adults free of cardiovascular disease who are over age 60, with 77% recommended for statin use under the new guidelines vs. 48% under the previous standards. This contrasts with a modest increase from 27% to 30% among U.S. adults between the ages of 40 and 60.

Those most affected by the new recommendations are older men who are not on statins and do not have cardiovascular disease. Under the earlier guidelines, about 30.4% of this group of men between the ages of 60-75 were recommended for statin use. With the new guidelines, 87.4% of these men would be candidates for the therapy. Similarly for healthy women in this age group, those recommended for preventive statin use are projected to rise from 21.2% to 53.6%.

Surprising results

"The biggest surprise of the research was the age-dependent split for those affected by the new guidelines," Pencina said. "We anticipated that the impact would be age-dependent, but not to the degree observed. The changes for both men and women in the older age groups where huge compared to those between the ages of 40 and 60."

Overall, of the 12.8 million additional U.S. adults recommended for statin use under the new guidelines, 10.4 million are people who would be prescribed the drugs for preventive care. Of those preventive users, 8.3 million would be people over the age of 60.

The analysis also projects that an estimated 1.6 million adults previously eligible for statins under the old guidelines would no longer be candidates under the new standards. This group included primarily younger adults with elevated cholesterol but low 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease.

Pencina said an important limitation of the study is the necessary assumption that the new guidelines would be followed to the letter; in real life, people may be recommended for statins but decline to start the therapy.

"Recommendations are just that -- recommendations," Pencina said. "These guidelines correctly call for a thorough discussion between the doctor and patient about the risks and benefits of statins. It's not like everybody who meets the guidelines should all of a sudden go on statins."

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Nissan Rogue earns IIHS top safety award

The redesigned SUV performed well in the small overlap test

The Nissan Rogue has earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) TOP SAFETY PICK+ award for good performance in each of the Institute's five...

PhotoThe Nissan Rogue has earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) TOP SAFETY PICK+ award for good performance in each of the Institute's five crashworthiness evaluations -- plus a basic rating for front crash prevention.

To qualify for the Institute's highest designation, vehicles must earn good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint evaluations, as well as a good or acceptable rating in the small overlap front test.

A new requirement for 2014 is that vehicles also must earn a basic, advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention. The Rogue's optional forward collision warning system is rated basic for meeting performance criteria established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The small overlap test

In the small overlap test, the driver's space was maintained reasonably well. Injury measures recorded on the dummy indicated low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of this severity. The dummy's head made good contact with the front airbag, which stayed in position during the crash, and the side curtain airbag deployed to protect the head from contact with side structures.

The small overlap test was added to the IIHS lineup of vehicle safety evaluations in 2012. It replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle strikes another vehicle or an object like a tree or a utility pole. In the test, 25% of a vehicle's front end on the driver side strikes a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph. A 50th percentile male Hybrid III dummy is belted in the driver seat.

The new Rogue, a small SUV redesigned for the 2014 model year, is an improvement over the previous generation, which was rated marginal in the small overlap test and acceptable in the roof strength evaluation. It offers an optional forward collision warning system, a first for the model.

The old Rogue, manufactured since 2008, is still in production and sells as the Nissan Rogue Select.

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Taxpayers targeted by “largest ever” phone fraud scam

Scammers demanding money claim to be calling from the IRS

If you get a phone call from someone from the IRS demanding that you pay up, or else -- hang up! According to the Treasury Inspector General for Taxpayer ...

PhotoIf you get a phone call from someone from the IRS demanding that you pay up, or else -- hang up!

According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) these individuals are out to cheat you.

“This is the largest scam of its kind that we have ever seen,” said J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. TIGTA, he says, has received reports of over 20,000 contacts and has become aware of thousands of victims who have collectively paid over $1 million as a result of the scam, in which individuals make unsolicited calls to taxpayers fraudulently claiming to be IRS officials.

“The increasing number of people receiving these unsolicited calls from individuals who fraudulently claim to represent the IRS is alarming,” he said. “At all times, and particularly during the tax filing season, we want to make sure that innocent taxpayers are alert to this scam so they are not harmed by these criminals,” George said, adding, “Do not become a victim.”

The sophisticated phone scam has hit taxpayers in nearly every state in the country. Callers claiming to be from the IRS tell intended victims they owe taxes and must pay using a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer. They often threaten those who refuse to pay with arrest, deportation or loss of a business or driver’s license.

The truth is the IRS usually first contacts people by mail -- not by phone -- about unpaid taxes. And the agency won’t ask for payment using a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer, and it won’t ask for a credit card number over the phone.

“If someone unexpectedly calls claiming to be from the IRS and uses threatening language if you don’t pay immediately, that is a sign that it really isn’t the IRS calling,” George said.

How they operate

The callers who commit this fraud often:

  • Use common names and fake IRS badge numbers.
  • Know the last four digits of the victim’s Social Security Number.
  • Make caller ID information appear as if the IRS is calling.
  • Send bogus IRS e-mails to support their scam.
  • Call a second time claiming to be the police or department of motor vehicles, and the caller ID again supports their claim.

What to do

If you get a call from someone claiming to be with the IRS asking for a payment, here’s what to do:

  • If you owe Federal taxes, or think you might owe taxes, hang up and call the IRS at 800-829-1040. IRS workers can help you with your payment questions.
  • If you don’t owe taxes, call and report the incident to TIGTA at 800-366-4484.
  • You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.FTC.gov. Add “IRS Telephone Scam" to the comments in your complaint.

TIGTA and the IRS encourage taxpayers to be alert for phone and e-mail scams that use the IRS name. The IRS will never request personal or financial information by e-mail, texting or any social media. You should forward scam e-mails to phishing@irs.gov. Don’t open any attachments or click on any links in those e-mails.

Taxpayers should be aware that there are other unrelated scams (such as a lottery sweepstakes winner) and solicitations (such as debt relief) that fraudulently claim to be from the IRS.

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General Motors recalls various vehicles with transmission problems

The transmission shift cable adjuster may disengage from the transmission shift lever

General Motors is recalling 355 model year 2014 Buick Regal, LaCrosse, Verano, and Enclave, and Chevrolet Impala, Malibu, Cruze, and Traverse, and GMC Aca...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 355 model year 2014 Buick Regal, LaCrosse, Verano, and Enclave, and Chevrolet Impala, Malibu, Cruze, and Traverse, and GMC Acadia vehicles equipped with automatic transmissions.

In the affected vehicles, the transmission shift cable adjuster may disengage from the transmission shift lever. Should that happen, a driver may be unable to shift gear positions and the indicated shift position may not represent the gear position the vehicle is in. Should a disengagement occur while the vehicle is being driven, when the driver attempts to stop and park the vehicle, he may be able to shift the lever to the "PARK" position, but the vehicle transmission may not be in the "PARK" gear position. If the vehicle is not in the "PARK" position there is a risk the vehicle will roll away as the driver and other occupants exit the vehicle or anytime thereafter. A vehicle rollaway increases the risk of injury to exiting occupants and bystanders.

General Motors will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace any affected transmission shift cable adjusters, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in late March 2014.

Chevrolet owners may contact General Motors at 1-800-222-1020, Buick owners at 1-800-521-7300, and GMC owners at 1-800-462-8782. General Motors' number associated with this recall is 14048.

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Bedz King recalls bunk beds with side ladder

A protruding corner post poses an entrapment hazard

Bedz King of Arlington, Texas, is recalling about 2,900 Bedz King bunk beds with side ladder. A protruding corner post on the bunk beds exceeds the 5mm al...

PhotoBedz King of Arlington, Texas, is recalling about 2,900 Bedz King bunk beds with side ladder.

A protruding corner post on the bunk beds exceeds the 5mm allowed by industry standard, posing an entrapment hazard.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves Bedz King bunk beds with a side ladder. The beds were sold in twin over twin, twin over full and full over full combinations and four colors; white, espresso, honey and cappuccino. Affected models include BK 150SL, BK 151SL, BK 950SL, BK 951SL and BK 975SL. Model information and “Bedz King” are printed on labels attached to the top headboard.

The beds, manufactured in Brazil, were sold exclusively at BunkBedKing.com from July 2011, to October 2013, for between $350 and $750.

Consumers should immediately check to see if they have the recalled bunk bed and contact Bedz King for a free repair kit and to confirm a physical address for delivery of the kit. Bedz King is contacting known consumers directly by email.

Consumers may contact Bedz King toll-free at (855) 649-9911 anytime.

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The warning signs of a scam

Remember these rules to protect yourself and your finances

The world is full of untrustworthy people, both on and off the Internet, so you need to protect yourself and your finances from them....

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Consumers being hounded for debts they don't owe

Feds have received 30,000 complaints about the problem

Nobody likes debt collectors but it's even more annoying when the debt in question is bogus. Yet, it's a common practices and the Consumer Financial P...

PhotoNobody likes debt collectors but it's even more annoying when the debt in question is bogus. Yet, it's a common practice and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) says it often involves aggressive communication tactics and threats of illegal actions.

The CFPB today issued a report on the more than 30,000 consumer complaints it has received about the debt collection market. 

“Consumers should never be hounded about debts they do not owe,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We will not tolerate companies harassing consumers or threatening illegal actions in the debt collection market. We will continue to work hard to ensure that consumers are treated with dignity and fairness.”

Debt collection is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is estimated that there are more than 4,500 debt collection firms nationwide. Banks and other original creditors may collect their own debts or hire third-party debt collectors. Original creditors and other debt owners also may sell their debts to debt buyers. Debt buyers may sell the debt, collect the debt themselves, or hire third-party debt collectors to do so.

Consumer complaints

The Bureau began accepting debt collection complaints in July 2013. These complaints quickly became the largest source of complaints each month. The Bureau received 30,300 debt collection complaints between July and December 2013. Companies have already responded to about 82 percent of the complaints the Bureau has sent to them for a response in that time frame. The top three complaints were about:

· Collectors hounding consumers about a debt they do not owe: More than one-third of the complaints the CFPB handled were about a debt collector continually attempting to collect a debt that the consumer does not believe is owed. 

· Aggressive communication tactics: Nearly a quarter of the complaints received by the Bureau were about debt collectors using inappropriate communication tactics. 

· Taking or threatening an illegal action: About 14 percent of consumers report that a company is taking or threatening an illegal action. Most of these complaints are about threats to arrest or jail consumers if they do not pay.

$1,400 each

Approximately 30 million Americans had, on average, $1,400 of debt subject to collection in 2013. The main law that governs the industry and protects consumers is the 1977 Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank) revised the FDCPA, making the Bureau the first agency with the power to issue substantive rules under the statute. Today’s annual report to Congress highlights the Bureau’s efforts to carry out the FDCPA.

What to do

The Bureau has issued sample letters consumers can use in dealing with debt collectors. These letters may help consumers obtain valuable information about claims being made against them or may help consumers protect themselves from inappropriate or unwanted collection activities. And the Bureau’s interactive online tool,

The sample letters and more information about debt collection are available at Ask CFPB.

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How to pick a moving company

And not get taken for a ride

Moving is stressful as well as expensive. Dealing with a less-than-professional moving company just makes it worse.When consumers choose a moving company...

PhotoMoving is stressful as well as expensive. Dealing with a less-than-professional moving company just makes it worse.

When consumers choose a moving company often they look for the lowest price. That may not always be the wisest move. Remember that the price you are given up front is an estimate. The actual cost can be – and usually is – higher.

Federal law limits the spread between the mover's estimate and the actual price to no more than 110% of the estimate. But that is for moves between states; if you are moving across town, or to another town in your state, then state laws apply and these laws vary, state to state.

For moves between states a federal agency, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), part of the Department of Transportation (DOT), is the regulating agency. For in-state moves, your state attorney general enforces laws and regulations pertaining to moving companies.

Florida lawsuit

In Florida, Attorney General Pam Bondi has filed a lawsuit against Storage & Moving Services, Inc. d/b/a Ryder Moving and Storage and its owners in response to what Bondi says are more than 100 consumer complaints.

According to the lawsuit, Ryder Moving and Storage picked up customer’s belongings but never delivered them, collected money for services never provided, and refused to pay for damage to customers property.

The suit also claims that Ryder Moving and Storage marketed its moving services by leading consumers to believe the Hollywood, Florida company was affiliated with the national moving company, Ryder System, Inc. According to Bondi, there is no connection between the two companies. As a result of the deception, she says, many consumers expected one thing and got another.

“These customers entrusted their clothing, furniture and family heirlooms to this company, only to have them broken and, in many cases, lost,” Bondi said. “We will continue to shut down intrastate moving companies within the state of Florida that prey on our consumers.”

'Rogue' movers

Some legitimate moving companies are simply poorly run and under capitalized, resulting in a bad experience. Others can be out and out scams. No matter where you live and where you happen to be going, it is very easy to fall prey to a “rogue” mover. According to FMCSA there are a number of red flags, tell-tale signs that the company you are dealing with isn't quite on the up and up.

The first red flag has to do with the estimate. If the company representative provides an estimate of the cost over the phone without inspecting your household goods, it's a bad sign. Chances are the estimate will be so low it will sound too good to be true. In fact, that's exactly what it will turn out to be.

If the company requires payment up front or a large deposit before it will pick up your stuff, that's another red flag. Standard practice is to make payment once the furnishings arrive at their destination.

In this day and age every company has a website. If your moving company doesn't have one, or has one with no local address or contact information or any other useful information, that could be another red flag.

Is it a real moving company or just a couple of guys with a truck? According to FMCSA, if the movers show up in a rental truck, you should take that as another red flag.

To make a move go smoothly you need to have a level of trust with the company you are dealing with. In most cases you must vacate a property by a certain date. You may need to arrive at your new home in time to begin a new job or get the kids in school. Often there is a very narrow window of time. Once you select a company you are depending on it to come through as promised.

Tips for a smooth move

To help your move go smoothly, get referrals from trusted sources and take the time to get a written estimate from more than one mover. The estimate should be based on an on-site inspection of the things to be moved.

Make sure the mover has proper insurance and is licensed. For moves from one state to another, a U.S. DOT number is issued by FMCSA.

Don't always go for the lowest estimate. Some movers will estimate very low just to get the business. The actual cost will be higher. If one company has strong referrals and appears very professional, it may be worth paying a little more.

Finally, read “Your Rights and Responsibilities When You Move," a booklet from the U.S. government that your mover is required to give you if you are moving from one state to another. This booklet also has information you'll need if your goods are lost or damaged during the move.

If you have had a bad experience moving within your state, you should let your state attorney general know about it. If it was a move between states, you can file a complaint here.

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Study: lose the gut and live longer

Mayo Clinic study suggests belly fat cuts years from life expectancy

Pardon us for asking, but how fat are you? Do you have any idea? If you have been measuring your health, when it comes to weight, by your body mass index (...

PhotoPardon us for asking, but how fat are you? Do you have any idea? If you have been measuring your health, when it comes to weight, by your body mass index (BMI), you may be in for a rude surprise.

A growing body of research suggests the size of your belly is a much better indicator of whether you are carrying excess weight. A new international collaborative study led by a Mayo Clinic researcher found that men and women with large waist circumferences were more likely to die younger, and were more likely to die from illnesses like heart disease, respiratory problems, and cancer.

The study, which looked at results from 11 other studies, concluded that men with waists 43 inches or greater in circumference had a 50 percent higher mortality risk than men with waists less than 35 inches. That translates to about a three-year lower life expectancy after age 40.

Women whose waists measured 37 inches or greater had about an 80 percent higher mortality risk than women with a waist circumference of 27 inches or less. That translated to about a five-year lower life expectancy after age 40.

Where to put the tape measure

Where you measure your waist is important. As we reported back in February, you don't measure your waist where your belt goes, but rather across your belly button. Dr. Martha Gulati, director of preventive cardiology and women’s cardiovascular health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says physicians should be measuring the belly on a more regular basis but concedes it's rarely done.

“What we're doing is measuring for central obesity,” Gulati told ConsumerAffairs. “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.”

This latest Mayo Clinic study appears to confirm that. It found that the risk jumped in linear fashion when waist size – belly size, really – increased beyond the safe point. For example, for every two inches over the limit, the risk of death went up about seven percent in men and about nine percent in women.

BMI could be misleading

The study also found that an increased risk of early death with expanding waist size was seen at all levels of BMI, even among people who had normal BMI levels.

BMI, currently the prevailing standard of healthy weight, is calculated with a somewhat complicated equation; you multiply your weight in pounds by 703, then divide that by your height in inches, squared. Besides being overly complicated, Dr. James Cerhan, a Mayo Clinic epidemiologist and lead author of the study, says BMI may not tell the whole story.

“BMI is not a perfect measure,” Cerhan said. “It doesn’t discriminate lean mass from fat mass, and it also doesn’t say anything about where your weight is located.”

Why belly fat is bad

When the fat is located in the belly, that's bad. Cerhan says that's cause for concern because extra fat in your belly has a metabolic profile that is associated with diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

“The primary goal should be preventing both a high BMI and a large waist circumference,” Cerhan said. “For those patients who have a large waist, trimming down even a few inches — through exercise and diet — could have important health benefits.”

What to do

If you've stretched a tape measure around your belly and found the number a lot higher than your belt size, your first step should be to consult with your physician. Get some advice for a diet and exercise regimen that will help you lose the gut.

Once you are cleared for an exercise program, find one that targets fat in the mid-section. You don't need six-pack abs to achieve a healthy weight, but consuming fewer six-packs might just help you get there.

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Researchers find allergy-cancer link that could lead to new therapies

Antihistamines may someday be used to fight certain cancers

This is the time of year when many of us are stocking up on antihistamines and other allergy treatments, and a new study finds that those antihistamines ma...

PhotoThis is the time of year when many of us are stocking up on antihistamines and other allergy treatments, and a new study finds that those antihistamines may also be useful in fighting cancer.

The study by researchers and Virginia Commonwealth University demonstrated that histamine, a component of the immune system that responds to allergens and foreign pathogens and is also linked to inflammation, plays a role in protecting tumors from the immune system.

By blocking the production of histamine in animal models, the researchers were able to interrupt a process that promotes melanoma growth.

"This research is very exciting as it draws a connection between two diseases that aren't commonly linked: allergy and cancer," said VCU School of Medicine professor Daniel H. Conrad, Ph.D. "However, it's important to realize that this connection is very novel and further research is needed before we know if antihistamines can be used effectively in cancer therapies."

Histamine is produced by mast cells, which are especially numerous in the nose, mouth and blood vessels to help defend against pathogens and aid in wound healing. The researchers found that histamine induces proliferation of cells called MDSCs, which help promote tumor growth by suppressing the immune system. They also discovered that MDSCs tend to migrate toward mast cells, which help traffic the MDSCs to sites of inflammation such as the liver and tumors.

Through their experiments, the researchers showed that MDSCs can be decreased by over-the-counter antihistamines such as cetirizine (Zyrtec) and cimetidine (Tagamet).

In addition, the researchers found that patients experiencing allergic symptoms have more MDSCs circulating in their bloodstream than non-allergic patients.

"MDSCs have generated a great deal of interest in recent years because they limit the effects of the immune response against cancer," says study collaborator Harry D. Bear, M.D., Ph.D. "Now that we have shown that antihistamines can interfere with the production of MDSCs, we are hopeful that we may be able to use them to restore the immune system's ability to fight off tumors."

The study was recently published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology.

 

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Judge nixes class action in Google data-mining case

Too many claims wrapped up in one omnibus suit, the court rules

When Google changed its privacy policy in 2012 to expand its data-mining, there was an outcry from consumers and privacy groups who were certain that an ou...

PhotoWhen Google changed its privacy policy in 2012 to expand its data-mining, there was an outcry from consumers and privacy groups who were certain that an outrage was being committed. A blizzard of class action lawsuits followed.

But judges have shown little sympathy for the claims. In the latest act of judicial rejection, U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh held that a class action is not the right way to resolve the matter, even though she had previously refused Google's motion to dismiss the case.

"The court finds that individual issues regarding consent are likely to overwhelmingly predominate over common issues," Koh said in her 41-page ruling, Courthouse News Service reported.

PhotoAt issue is Google's claim that it is within its rights to electronically scan emails to and from Gmail users for the purpose of displaying ads based on the emails' content.

Google contends that such activities are within the normal range of business activities. Privacy advocates say they're not.

Where it starts to get complicated is the point at which millions of individuals, each with slightly different situations and grievances, are lumped into one gigantic class action lawsuit.

Koh's ruling doesn't mean individuals could not, at least in theory, pursue a successful case against Google. It doesn't even mean that aggrieved consumers are wrong to claim their rights have been trampled. It just means that there are too many differing claims wrapped up in one enormous class action.

The other issue facing privacy advocates is the matter of damages, around which all lawsuits revolve. It's difficult for an individual to show that he has been damaged by Google displaying an ad for snow blowers when the individual has penned an email complaining about the weather.

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Existing-home sales fall in February as prices rise

Wicked winter weather gets the blame

Another down month for sales of previously-owned homes, although prices continued to rise. Figures released by the National Association of Realtors show t...

PhotoAnother down month for sales of previously-owned homes, although prices continued to rise.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors show total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, dipped 0.4% in February -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.60 million. That's the second straight decline and is 71.% below the same month last year and the lowest pace of sales since July 2012.

As was the case in January, winter weather is being blamed for the February drop.

“We had ongoing unusual weather disruptions across much of the country last month, with the continuing frictions of constrained inventory, restrictive mortgage lending standards and housing affordability less favorable than a year ago,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “Some transactions are simply being delayed, so there should be some improvement in the months ahead. With an expected pickup in job creation, home sales should trend up modestly over the course of the year.”

Prices head upward

The median existing-home price for all housing types in February was $189,000 -- 9.1% more than in February 2013. “Price gains have translated into an additional $4 trillion of housing wealth recovery over the past three years,” Yun noted.

Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 16% of February sales, compared with 15% in January and 25% in February 2013.

Eleven percent of February sales were foreclosures, and 5% were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 16% below market value in February, while short sales were discounted 11%.

Total housing inventory at the end of last month was up 6.4% -- to 2.00 million existing homes available for sale. That represents a 5.2-month supply at the current sales pace

Regional break-out

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast fell 11.3% to an annual rate of 550,000 in February, and are 12.7% below February 2013. The median price in the Northeast was $237,800 -- up 1.5% from a year ago.
  • In the Midwest, sales were off 3.8% to a pace of 1.00 million, and are 12.3% below a year ago. The median price in was $140,900 -- is 8.6% higher than February 2013.
  • The South saw sales of previously owned homes rise 1.5% to an annual level of 1.98 million. However, that's down 0.5% year-over-year. The median price of $163,400 is up 8.3% from the same time last year.
  • Sales had their best showing in the West with a gain of 5.9% to a pace of 1.07 million, but remain 10.1% below a year ago. The median price was up 18.0% -- to $279,400.

PhotoJobless claims

First time applications for state jobless benefits crept higher last week, but the advance wasn't as strong as analysts had projected.

The government reports 320,000 people filed initial claims in the week ending March 15, 5,000 more than during the week before, but far fewer that the 330,000 economists surveyed by Briefing.com were expecting.

The latest data show a slight downward move from the previous range of 330,00-340,000, leading some analysts to speculate that we could be on the verge of an improvement in labor market conditions.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and seen as a better indicator of the labor market, fell by 3,500 -- to 327,000.

The full report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Airline on-time performance declines in January

It was also a rough month for tarmac delays

If you traveled by air in January, there's a good chance it took longer to get where you were going. The Transportation Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel...

Photo If you traveled by air in January, there's a good chance it took longer to get where you were going.

The Transportation Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report says the nation’s largest airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 67.7% in January -- down 13.3% from the 81.0% posted a year earlier and down 1.2% from December's on-time rate of 68.9%.

In addition, carrier reported 18 tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights -- 16 of them involving Southwest Airlines flights that arrived at Chicago Midway Airport on Jan. 2. Due to a snowstorm, those flights were delayed in receiving an open gate. There were also three tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights.

The report, which can be found on the DOT website, also includes data on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays. In addition, there is information on mishandled baggage, reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air.

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Minga Fair Trade Imports recalls wooden flipping acrobat toys

The paint on the toys contains excessive levels of lead

Minga Fair Trade Imports of Lake Geneva, Wis., is recalling about 135 wooden flipping acrobat toys. The paint on the contains excessive levels of lead, wh...

PhotoMinga Fair Trade Imports of Lake Geneva, Wis., is recalling about 135 wooden flipping acrobat toys.

The paint on the contains excessive levels of lead, which is prohibited under federal law.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recalled flipping acrobat toys are made of painted wood and are 8.5 inches tall. The toys consist of two rectangular wooden sticks connected by a wood crosspiece near one end and a coyote, super hero, woodpecker or yellow bird wooden cartoon character suspended by nylon string at the other end.

The toys, manufactured in Peru, were sold at independent children’s stores and gift shops nationwide from September 2008, through May 2013, for about $6.

Consumers should immediately take the recalled flipping acrobat toys away from children and return them to Minga Fair Trade Imports for a full refund or credit towards a replacement product.

Consumers may contact Minga Fair Trade Imports toll-free at (855) 738-5260 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or by email at recall@mingaimports.com.

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Helados La Tapatia recalls various cold snack products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Helados La Tapatia of Fresno, Calif., is recalling all ice cream products, popsicles, fruit bars/cups and bolis. The products may be contaminated with Lis...

PhotoHelados La Tapatia of Fresno, Calif., is recalling all ice cream products, popsicles, fruit bars/cups and bolis.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The products were sold in retail stores in Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Guam and Canada under the brand names of Helados La Tapatia and Icesations.

No illnesses have been reported to date. The recall was the result of a routine inspection program by the U.S. FDA which revealed the presence of the bacteria on certain food processing equipment.

Consumers who purchased the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-559-441-1105, toll free at1-855-893-1171 Monday through Friday, 6:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m. (PDT); Saturday, 9:00a.m.- 5:00p.m. (PDT), or by email at helatapatia@sbcglobal.net.

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Grumpy Cat stuffed animal toys recalled

The stuffed animals’ eyes can detach, posing a choking hazard

Ganz USA Marietta, Ga., is recalling about 8,200 plush Grumpy Cat stuffed animal toys. The stuffed animals’ eyes can detach, posing a choking hazard to yo...

PhotoGanz USA Marietta, Ga., is recalling about 8,200 plush Grumpy Cat stuffed animal toys.

The stuffed animals’ eyes can detach, posing a choking hazard to young children.

The firm has received six reports of the eyes detaching from the Grumpy Cat toys. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves three styles of plush Grumpy Cat stuffed animal toys by Ganz. They include an 8-inch Grumpy Cat in lying position, a 5-inch long sitting Grumpy Cat and a 4-inch Grumpy Cat key clip. The toys are multi-colored in white with dark brown, light brown and gray fur material. Grumpy Cat toys have blue crystal eyes with the eye lids half closed, a down-turned mouth and white whiskers. This toy is labeled for ages 3 and older. The Grumpy Cat key chain has a black plastic key clip at the top of the cat’s head. The recalled toys have batch numbers 86754 or 224861, and model numbers printed on the sewn-in label located near the tail of the cat.

The recalled toys model and batch numbers are: 

Description

Model

Batch 1

Batch 2

Grumpy Cat 8" Laying

HGC12974

86754

224861

Grumpy Cat 5" Sitting

HGC12982

86754

224861

Grumpy Cat Key Clip

HGC12983

86754

224861

The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at gift, drug and toy stores including hospitals, museums and gift shops nationwide from December 2013, through January 2014, for about $8 to $10.

Consumers should immediately take the recalled toys away from children and contact Ganz for a free replacement Grumpy Cat product of equivalent value or a full refund.

Consumers may contact Ganz at (800) 724-5902 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday.

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Beware this Google Docs phishing scam

Security experts at Symantec discover "sophisticated" attempt

There's a dangerous new scam that seeks to steal the passwords and other confidential information of any Google account holder...

PhotoThere's a dangerous new phishing scam, first discovered by security experts at Symantec, that seeks to steal the passwords and other confidential information of any Google account holder.

It's quite sophisticated compared to most phishing attempts, but even so: you should be able to protect yourself provided you pay extra-close attention to details, and also remember the phishing-protection rule “Don't call us; we'll call you.”

Here's how the newest scam works: you, the would-be victim, get an email with the subject heading “Documents”; the body of the email includes a link to an “important” Google Docs document.

Hopefully, if you'd received such an email you'd already know to ignore it, since it's neither personally addressed to you nor from any sender you actually know and recognize. But suppose you decided to click on this unknown link from an unknown sender anyway — what would you have found?

Looks convincing

Here's where the sophistication of this new scam comes in. In most phishing attempts, if you clicked on such a link (and did not immediately infect your computer with all sorts of malware as a result), you'd usually be taken to a page whose address, visible in your browser bar, is obviously not that of the company the scamsters are pretending to be – as in, you get a fake email allegedly from Google, but the link leads to a page with an unfamiliar (and distinctly not Google) web address.

However, as the official Symantec security blogger warned on March 13, if you click on this new Google-based phishing link:

“[T]he link doesn't go to Google Docs, but it does go to Google, where a very convincing fake Google Docs login page is shown. The fake page is actually hosted on Google's servers and is served over SSL, making the page even more convincing. The scammers have simply created a folder inside a Google Drive account, marked it as public, uploaded a file there, and then used Google Drive's preview feature to get a publicly-accessible URL to include in their messages.”

In other words, you think you're logging in to your actual Google account, so you type your email address and password as usual, not realizing that your password is not being read by the real Google to verify your identity, but by phishing scammers to steal your identity.

Still not too late

However, even if you were caught off-guard enough to click on the unsolicited Google Docs link that some unknown sender e-mailed you, it's still not too late to detect certain details indicating a scam. Remember two sentences ago, when we said “you type your email address and password as usual”? That's the detail which sharp-eyed Google account holders should recognize as scammy: usually, when logging into legitimate Google accounts from your own computer, you don't have to type your email address at all, only your password.

As Gizmodo writer Adam Clark Estes pointed out: “if you show up at the log-in screen, you should notice that it doesn't recognize you as a Google user (if you are a Google user).”

Note to non-Google users who don't understand what Estes is talking about here: if you have a Google account, or more than one, anytime you visit a genuine Google page it will recognize you, and you'll see your name, avatar and other personal features as applicable — although you still won't be allowed access to your Gmail or any other personalized, password-protected Google things until you actually type in your password and only your password — your actual you@gmail.com email address is already there.

But with this fake Google phishing scam, you only get a generic login page requiring you to type not just your password, but your email address itself; the genuine Google login pages only require this if you're accessing your account from a public computer, or a brand-new one you've never used to sign in to Google before.

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Toyota to pay $1.2 billion penalty in “sticky accelerator” case

In exchange the government will defer prosecution against the automaker

The Justice Department (DOJ) is charging Toyota with defrauding consumers in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 by issuing misleading statements about safety ...

PhotoThe Justice Department (DOJ) is charging Toyota with defrauding consumers in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 by issuing misleading statements about safety issues in Toyota and Lexus vehicles. At the same time, in exchange for an admission of wrongdoing and payment of a $1.2 billion financial penalty, DOJ is deferring prosecution against the company.

In addition to the penalty -- the largest of its kind ever imposed on an automotive company -- the agreement imposes on Toyota an independent monitor to review and assess policies, practices and procedures relating to the company's safety-related public statements and reporting obligations.

If Toyota abides by all of the terms of the agreement, the government will defer prosecution on the information for three years and then seek to dismiss the charge.

Misleading statements

“Rather than promptly disclosing and correcting safety issues about which they were aware, Toyota made misleading public statements to consumers and gave inaccurate facts to Members of Congress,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “When car owners get behind the wheel, they have a right to expect that their vehicle is safe. If any part of the automobile turns out to have safety issues, the car company has a duty to be upfront about them, to fix them quickly, and to immediately tell the truth about the problem and its scope. Toyota violated that basic compact.”

“Entering this agreement, while difficult, is a major step toward putting this unfortunate chapter behind us,” said Christopher P. Reynolds, chief legal officer, Toyota Motor North America. “We remain extremely grateful to our customers who have continued to stand by Toyota. Moving forward, they can be confident that we continue to take our responsibilities to them seriously,”

According to the allegations, Toyota deceived consumers and its U.S. regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), in the fall of 2009, by claiming that it had “addressed” the “root cause” of unintended acceleration in its vehicles through a limited safety recall of eight models for floor-mat entrapment, a dangerous condition in which an improperly secured or incompatible all-weather floor mat can “trap” a depressed gas pedal causing the car to accelerate to a high speed.

Such public assurances deceived customers and NHTSA in two ways, according to the allegation: First, at the time the statements were made, Toyota knew that it had not recalled some cars with design features that made them just as susceptible to floor-mat entrapment as some of the recalled cars.

Second, only weeks before these statements were made, Toyota had taken steps to hide from NHTSA another type of unintended acceleration in its vehicles, separate and apart from floor-mat entrapment: a problem with accelerators getting stuck at partially depressed levels, known as “sticky pedal.”  

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Home security: a service or do-it-yourself?

There are pros and cons to each

In towns and cities, urban areas and rural, an increasing number of homeowners are installing some form of home security system. The reason is a persistent...

PhotoIn towns and cities, urban areas and rural, an increasing number of homeowners are installing some form of home security system. The reason is a persistent rise in the number of burglaries and home invasions.

In the years between 2003 and 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics says there were an average of 3.7 million annual burglaries. In about 28% of these burglaries, someone in the household was present during the burglary, making it a home invasion. In some seven percent of all burglaries a household member experienced some form of violence.

Fear of assault and theft are among the strongest reasons consumers install security systems. ADT and a few other national firms were among the first to begin marketing whole house systems that monitored whether a door or window was open when it shouldn't be. Depending on the options selected, a system can then place a call to an operator to verify that everything is all right in the dwelling. If there is any doubt, the operator then dispatches first responders.

Technology can both raise and lower the cost

With increases in technology, home security systems have become more sophisticated – and more expensive. But technology has also produced some simple yet capable systems that don't cost that much because they utilize existing resources, like the Internet.

One example is the Insteon Home Monitoring and Control Kit, available at Costco for $199.99, a do-it-yourself security kit in a box. It's designed to let you control and monitor your home while you are away, using a smartphone or tablet.

According to the marketing material, it provides centralized control, an open/close sensor for monitoring doors and windows, a motion sensor, a wireless IP camera with full pan and tilt capability and two dimmer modules.

Pros and cons

ADT Security Systems  March 18, 2014, 10:52 p.m.
Consumers rate ADT Security Systems

A do-it-yourself system may have advantages and disadvantages. You can tailor the system to your specific needs and avoid a monthly contract. On the other hand, you may not feel you are up to putting together and maintaining a system yourself. You might also feel more comfortable having access to an operator, provided by the commercial home security services.

Retailers like the Home Security Store cater to do-it-yourselfers. It sells alarm systems, back-up power supplies, keypads and voice-activated dialers. You design your own system and just buy what you need. If you want a third-party monitoring service, the company says it can set customers up with a partner that provides that service for as low as $10 a month.

Having a home security company under contract is kind of like having a permanent house guest – one that you pay each month. If you don't close a door fast enough or forget a pass code you are likely to get a call, or even a visit from the police. Farrukh, an ADT customer from Philadelphia, says the newer systems relying on cellular technology tend to be buggy.

“We are experiencing false alarms due to 103 Check LngRng Radio getting disconnected from the cell tower,” he wrote in a recent ConsumerAffairs post.

Avoid scams

When purchasing any home security product or service, make sure you are working with a reputable provider. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned that door-to-door home security sales have been a problem in recent years.

“During the spring and summer months, home security or alarm companies hire traveling sales agents to go door-to-door, making unsolicited cold calls on homeowners,” the agency says on its website. “In some cases, the salespeople use high-pressure or deceptive sales tactics to get potential customers to buy expensive, and sometimes substandard, systems or equipment they don't need.”

The FTC says some sales agents may look for a sign on your home that you currently have a home security system. They may say or imply that they are from your existing security company and that they're there to "upgrade" or "replace" your current security system. Once inside your home, however, they may install a new security system and have you sign papers that include a costly contract for the monitoring service.

There may be many good reasons to get a home security system-- a break on homeowners insurance, for example – but if you don't think you can afford it, at least make would-be burglars think you have one. The Burglary Prevention Council suggests placing a sign on your property warning that your property is under surveillance and protected by alarm home security systems.

“This is often enough to press a burglar to search for a more vulnerable target,” the group says.

Learn more about home alarm systems

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Hyundai Elantra, Subaru Impreza head Consumer Reports list of best used cars

Cars to avoid include the BMW X5, Ford Fiesta, VW Beetle

2012 Hyundai Elantra (Photo credit: Hyundai)Cars are lasting longer than ever, which is good. But as consumers drive their cars longer, it creates a sh...

Photo
2012 Hyundai Elantra (Photo credit: Hyundai)

Cars are lasting longer than ever, which is good. But as consumers drive their cars longer, it creates a shortage of used cars, which drives up prices and narrows the selection.

To help consumers find the best used cars, Consumer Reports has compiled a "Best & Worst" list for model years 2004 through 2013.

“When shopping for a used car, it’s really important to find a car that drives well and will hold up down the road. Our guide makes it easy for shoppers to choose a great used car by highlighting the best small cars, sedans, and SUVs in four different price ranges,” said Rik Paul, auto editor, Consumer Reports.

Best buys

In the $15,000-$20,000 price range the following cars made Consumer Reports’ list of best used cars:

SMALL CARS: 2012-13 Hyundai Elantra and 2011-13 Subaru Impreza
The magazine's experts said these two are as roomy and  comfortable as larger, more expensive cars. 

SEDANS: 2011-12 Toyota Camry, 2010-11 Toyota Camry Hybrid, and 2008 Acura TL

Both the four- and six-cylinder Camry deliver impressive fuel economy along with a comfortable ride, a roomy cabin, and superb reliability. For even better gas mileage, the Camry Hybrid gets 34 mpg overall and 41 on the highway. A sportier alternative is the Acura TL.

SUVs: 2006-07 Lexus RX and 2009-10 Subaru Forester (nonturbo)

The Lexus RX is comfortable, nicely finished, and extremely reliable. The Forester is more utilitarian but handles well and has an excellent ride, CR said. Access is easy, and the view out is the best among SUVs.

Cars to avoid

Unfortunately, some cars have much worse than average reliability. Among the more than twenty models that made the "cars to avoid" list are the BMW X5 (6-cyl.), Chrysler Town & Country, Ford Fiesta, and Volkswagen Beetle.

For more information on used cars pick up a copy of Consumer Reports’ April Annual Auto Issue, which is available on newsstands now wherever magazines are sold, or visit the 2014 Autos Spotlight page on ConsumerReports.org.

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States want pharmacies to stop selling cigarettes

New York and Ohio leading effort to get tobacco products out of pharmacy chains

When CVS announced in February that it would stop selling cigarettes, it became just a matter of time until other chains followed suit or were pressured to...

PhotoWhen CVS announced in February that it would stop selling cigarettes, it became just a matter of time until other chains followed suit or were pressured to do so by health advocates.

And, sure enough, a coalition of state attorneys general is now calling on Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, Safeway and Kroger to remove all tobacco products from their shelves. 

“Pharmacies and drug stores, which increasingly market themselves as a source for community health care, send a mixed message by continuing to sell deadly tobacco products,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “The fact that these stores profit from the sale of cigarettes and tobacco must take a backseat to the health of New Yorkers and customers across the country. I urge these companies to do the right thing and remove tobacco products from store shelves.”

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is joining Schneiderman in the effort, saying in a letter to CEOs of the chains that, "The health of our kids is just too important” to be sacrificed for profits from tobacco sales.

Tobacco-related disease is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, causing more than 480,000 deaths in the last year alone – more than AIDS, alcohol, illegal drug use, car accidents and firearm-related deaths combined, the AGs noted in their letter.

Furthermore, health care costs and productivity losses attributable to smoking cost the nation at least $289 billion each year. Almost 90% of all adult smokers start smoking by 18 years of age. “Big Tobacco” relies on getting young people addicted to cigarettes and keeping them as life-long smokers, they said.

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A second straight decline for mortgage applications

Contract interest rates were lower as well

Another drop -- the second in a row -- in applications for mortgages Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Surve...

PhotoAnother drop -- the second in a row -- in applications for mortgages

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows applications slipped 1.2% in the week ending March 14, 2014.

The Refinance Index also fell -- 1% percent -- from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down for a sixth straight week -- to 56.5%. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 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) was down 2 basis points -- from 4.52% to 4.50%, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) fell to 4.39% from 4.41%, with points decreasing to 0.19 from 0.20 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages backed by the FHA dropped 5 basis points to 4.13%, with points decreasing to 0.18 from 0.21 (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 dipped from 3.53% to 3.52%, 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 9 basis points to 3.09%, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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Arctic Cat recalls off-highway utility vehicles

Fuel can leak from the fuel fitting at the throttle body of the vehicle

Arctic Cat is recalling about 2,300 Prowler 500 HDX off-highway utility vehicles. Fuel can leak from the fuel fitting at the throttle body of the vehicle,...

PhotoArctic Cat is recalling about 2,300 Prowler 500 HDX off-highway utility vehicles.

Fuel can leak from the fuel fitting at the throttle body of the vehicle, posing a fire hazard.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall includes Model Year 2014 Arctic Cat Prowler 500 HDX Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle (ROV). The two-seat vehicles come in four colors: green, red, vibrant red metallic or emerald green metallic. The vehicles have “Arctic Cat” printed on each side of the hood and on the cargo box tail gate, “500” printed on each side of the front fenders and “HDX” printed on each side of the rear cargo box.

The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Arctic Cat dealers nationwide from August 2013, to January 2014, for between about $11,000 and $12,400.

Consumers should stop using the recalled Prowlers immediately and contact an Arctic Cat dealer to schedule a free repair. Arctic Cat is contacting all known owners of the Prowlers directly.

Consumers may contact Arctic Cat at (800) 279-6851 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.  

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Vera Bradley recalls Bear Ring Rattles and Bunny stuffed toys

The pom-pom tail can detach from the body of the bear rattle and the bunny, posing a choking hazard

Vera Bradley Designs of Fort Wayne, Ind., is recalling about 98,000 Bear Ring Rattles and Bunny stuffed toys. The pom-pom tail can detach from the body o...

PhotoVera Bradley Designs of Fort Wayne, Ind., is recalling about 98,000 Bear Ring Rattles and Bunny stuffed toys.

The pom-pom tail can detach from the body of the bear rattle and the bunny, posing a choking hazard to young children.

The company has received two reports that the pom-pom tail detached from the product. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves all Vera Bradley Bear Ring Rattles and Bunny stuffed animal toys. The products are made of cotton and fleece. The bear ring rattle has a white teddy bear head, arms attached to an O-shaped body with a green, blue, brown and pink crisscross pattern design rattle. The bear ring rattle measures about 4.25 inches in diameter.

The bunny is 10 inches tall from the top of its head to the bottom of its foot and was sold in three printed patterns. The “Bunny in Lilli Bell” has green vines with pink and orange flowers on the body, limbs and the back of the ears. The “Bunny in Lola” has a crisscross geometric pattern on the arms, legs and ears of the white headed bunny with a floral print body. The “Bunny in Tutti Frutti” has a green with a pink and yellow floral printed pattern fabric covering whole body.

All of the recalled rattles and bunnies have a white pom-pom tail on the back of the item.

The name Vera Bradley is marked on a tag attached to each item along with the following serial numbers: 

Item

Pattern

Serial No.

Bunny

Lola

007590013357145

Bunny

Lillie Bell

0000630012803140

Bunny

Tutti Frutti

0000630012803142

Bear Ring Rattle

Lola

007590013234135

 

The stuffed toys, manufactured in China were sold at Vera Bradley retail stores, department stores and specialty gift shops and online at www.verabradley.com and other online stores from September 2012, to January 2014, for between $12 and $19.

Consumers should immediately take them away from young children and stop using these recalled products and return them to Vera Bradley for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Vera Bradley toll-free at (888) 855-8372 from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET Monday through Friday and 8:30 am to 5 pm ET Saturday and Sunday.

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Kevin Trudeau sentenced to 10 years in prison

Judge calls him "deceitful to the core"

For years, Kevin Trudeau has promised to reveal the "secrets they don't want you to know" about everything from weight loss to cancer cures, all for just y...

PhotoFor years, Kevin Trudeau has promised to reveal the "secrets they don't want you to know" about everything from weight loss to cancer cures, all for just your credit card number.

Kevin Trudeau March 18, 2014, 4:16 a.m.
Consumers rate Kevin Trudeau

Trudeau has defied the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Justice Department and has sued critics and news outlets that questioned the truth about his "secrets." 

But in a federal courtroom in Chicago yesterday (Monday), it was a penitent Kevin Trudeau who appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Guzman. Fresh from four months in jail for contempt of court, Trudeau wasn't looking like the well-coiffed, expensively-tailored infomercial king. He was looking more like a rumpled jailbird awaiting sentencing at the bar of justice, the Chicago Tribune reported.

“If I ever write a book again, if I ever do another infomercial again, I promise no embellishment, no puffery and absolutely no lies,” Trudeau said. “I know going forward I will be a better person.”

It wasn't a sales pitch the judge was buying. He sentenced Trudeau to ten years in prison, calling him “deceitful to the core.”

Lengthy sentence

Ten years is an unusually lengthy sentence for a contempt of court conviction but Guzman said Trudeau had "treated federal court orders as if they were mere suggestions...or at most impediments to be sidestepped, outmaneuvered or just ignored.”

Trudeau has been in jail since last November when he was found in contempt of court for statements he made in infomercials about the contents of his book, “The Weight Loss Cure 'They' Don't Want You to Know About.” He has also been found in civil contempt for failing to pay a $37.6 million fine imposed by the Federal Trade Commission.

Assistant U.S. Attorney April Perry called Trudeau "a habitual liar and a fraudster.” Prosecutors argued for a harsher prison sentence but Trudeau's lawyers said none of the consumers who bought his book suffered irreparable financial harm.

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Stevia: the latest "miracle" sugar substitute

Sugar and stevia aren't the only sweeteners on the market

Is sugar bad for you or good for you? The answer, of course, is: “It depends; some sugar is an absolute biological/nutritional necessity for human bo...

PhotoIs sugar bad for you or good for you? The answer, of course, is: “It depends; some sugar is an absolute biological/nutritional necessity for human bodies to function (which is why we evolved the tendency to crave it in the first place), but if you live in a modern Westernized technological society, there's a very good chance your own diet contains far more sugar than is healthy.”

So in the past few generations there have been countless attempts to discover some type of sugar substitute that will deliver all the delicious sweetness of sugar with none of the health risks too much sugar can cause.

And there's still debate in scientific circles over just how useful these sugar substitutes actually are; to offer just one example, a study out of Yale last autumn suggested that dieters (or anyone seeking to either lose weight, or avoid gaining any) who use artificial sweeteners might actually be worse off than dieters who eat regular sugar, basically because the sugar cravings generated in your brain will not go away unless the brain receives certain chemicals which your body only makes after breaking down genuine sugar.

In other words, artificial sweeteners might do nothing to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Sweet tooth

Bear this is mind next time you read articles touting the alleged miracle attributes of stevia, a plant extract reputed to be from 250 to 300 times sweeter than sugar (though even stevia fans admit it tends to leave an unpleasant, licorice-type aftertaste).

Like this article, which the UK's Daily Mail published on March 17 to specifically discuss stevia and other sweeteners' potential to reduce the high levels of sugar consumption commonly found in the British diet.

Evan assuming stevia really is as wonderful as its most fervent advocates say — no health effects compared to sugar, no ill effects at all except for the bitter aftertaste (which is easy to mask with oher ingredients)  it's still important to remember that too much emphasis on sugar levels in your diet can blind you to other potential problems.

There's an actual name for this – “over-compromising” – the best example of which is found in the old joke about the self-defeating guy who drinks a diet soda in lieu of a regular one, then rewards himself by eating a few donuts: calories are calories, and if you consume too many overall, reducing your consumption in one area won't matter if you increase it in another.

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Amazon video-streamer just about ready to ship, report says

This might not be the time to cancel your Prime membership after all

Wait! Don't cancel that Amazon Prime membership just yet. Amazon is said to be ready to start shipping its long-rumored video-streaming device early next m...

PhotoWait! Don't cancel that Amazon Prime membership just yet. Amazon is said to be ready to start shipping its long-rumored video-streaming device early next month.

The Amazon device will be similar to Roku, Google Chromecast and Apple's set-top boxes and will give consumers access to popular video services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and, of course, Amazon. 

The Wall Street Journal says the device will be sold at Best Buy and Staples, as well as online at Amazon.com. 

PhotoPricing isn't yet known but it's likely that some kind of incentive will be offered to Amazon Prime members. Beyond a discount of some kind, the obvious question is: why would you buy this if you weren't a Prime member since Prime includes access to original Amazon production and hundreds of other TV series and movies?

Pricing remains unclear, though the people familiar with the company's plans said the device likely would come with incentives available to members of Amazon's Prime streaming video and shipping program. Last week Amazon said it is increasing the price of Prime by $20 to $99 annually, in part because of the rising cost of acquiring video.

Most of the existing set-top boxes are relative inexpensive and also -- refreshingly -- relatively simple. Amazon's device is expected to similar. It will run on a version of Google's Android operating system, as do Amazon's Kindles.

Besides producing more original TV shows like poitical comedy "Alpha House," Amazon is said to be in talks with music publishers, apparently hoping to create an on-demand music-streaming service.

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Looking for a job? Watch your language!

It's especially important when writing your resume'

If you put a lot of time polishing your resume', you'll likely be crushed to know that one in six (17%) hiring managers spend 30 seconds or less -- on aver...

PhotoIf you spend a lot of time polishing your resumé, you'll likely be crushed to know that one in six (17%) hiring managers spend 30 seconds or less -- on average -- reviewing resumés. In addition, a new survey by CareerBuilder finds most (68%) spend less than two minutes.

With so little time to catch the attention of the person who may hold your future, word choice can make a difference. The nationwide sample of employers identified which commonly-used resume' terms are overused or cliche' and which are strong additions.

“Hiring managers prefer strong action words that define specific experience, skills and accomplishments,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. “Subjective terms and cliche's are seen as negative because they don’t convey real information. For instance, don’t say you are ‘results-driven’; show the employer your actual results.”

The worst resumé terms

The following terms are résumé turn-offs as selected by respondents:

  1. Best of breed: 38%
  2. Go-getter: 27%
  3. Think outside of the box: 26%
  4. Synergy: 22%
  5. Go-to person: 22%
  6. Thought leadership: 16%
  7. Value add: 16%
  8. Results-driven: 16%
  9. Team player: 15%
  10. Bottom-line: 14%
  11. Hard worker: 13%
  12. Strategic thinker: 12%
  13. Dynamic: 12%
  14. Self-motivated: 12%
  15. Detail-oriented: 11%
  16. Proactively: 11%
  17. Track record: 10%

The best resumé terms

There are, however, several strong verbs and terms candidates can use to help describe their experience. The following are terms employers would like to see on a resumé:

  1. Achieved: 52%
  2. Improved: 48%
  3. Trained/Mentored:%
  4. Managed: 44%
  5. Created: 43%
  6. Resolved: 40%
  7. Volunteered: 35%
  8. Influenced: 29%
  9. Increased/Decreased: 28%
  10. Ideas: 27%
  11. Negotiated: 25%
  12. Launched: 24%
  13. Revenue/Profits: 23%
  14. Under budget: 16%
  15. Won: 13%

The national survey was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder from November 6 to December 2, 2013, and included a representative sample of 2,201 hiring managers and human resource professionals across industries and company sizes.

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Rising food prices produce slight uptick in consumer prices

Falling gasoline prices helped hold inflation in check

Consumer prices were up in February -- but not by much. The government reports the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inched up just 0.1% last month, bring the r...

PhotoConsumer prices were up in February -- but not by much.

The government reports the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inched up just 0.1% last month, bringing the rate of inflation for the past year to a moderate 1.1%.

The cost of food was a major factor, accounting for more than half the increase, with a gain of 0.4% -- the largest since September 2011. Within that category, meats, poultry, fish, and eggs rose 1.2%, while dairy and related products saw a more modest increase of 0.7%. Prices for fruits and vegetables rose 1.1 % after five consecutive declines. On the other hand, the cost of cereals and bakery products was down 0.4%, and the nonalcoholic beverage prices dipped 0.3%. Overall, food prices are up 1.4% over the past year.

Energy prices dip

Energy prices were down index declined 0.5% as a drop in gasoline prices offset sharp increases the cost of fuel oil and natural gas. Gasoline prices were down 1.7%, while the costs of fuel oil and natural gas rose 4.1% and 3.6%, respectively. Electricity, meanwhile, dipped 0.2% after an unusually large increase in January. Over the last 12 months, energy costs have fallen 2.5%, due to an 8.1% drop in gasoline prices.

Core rate remains tame

The cost all items excluding the volatile food and energy sectors rose 0.1% in February. Withing that category, shelter rose 0.2%, medical care was up 0.3% and airline fares jumped 1.3%. Decliners included household furnishings and operations (-0.4%), apparel (-0.3%) percent and used cars and trucks (-0.1%).

The full February CPI report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Another drop in new-home construction

Building permit applications, though, headed higher

Home builders didn't break ground on nay new houses in last month, but they were thinking about it. The government reports housing starts were down in Feb...

PhotoHome builders didn't break ground on nay new houses in last month, but they were thinking about it.

The government reports housing starts were down in February for a third straight month, while applications for building permits shot upward.

Privately-owned starts dipped 0.2% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 907,000. That rate 6.4% below the same time a year ago. Single-family homes were being built at a rate of 583,000 -- 0.3 percent above the January figure of 581,000. The rate for buildings with five units or more was 312,000.

Applications for building permits jumped 7.7% to a adjusted annual rate of 1,018,000 -- 6.9% above February 2013. Permits for single-family homes rose 1.8%.

The rate of construction in the Northeast plunged 37.5% in February after a 46.3% surge the month before. Starts in the Midwest were up 34.5%, while construction in the South rose 7.3% and fell 5.5% in the West.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Is your portfolio ready for retirement?

Risk management, diversification and discipline may help get you through the night

Baby Boomers nearing retirement may lie awake at night worrying about their assets. Will they be substantial enough, they may wonder, to see them through r...

PhotoBaby Boomers nearing retirement may lie awake at night worrying about their assets. Will they be substantial enough, they may wonder, to see them through retirement?

The question may take on more urgency in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. A wave of subprime foreclosures and the collapse of the housing market turned an ordinary, garden-type recession into the Great Recession.

In just a few months time -- by March 2009 -- the stock market had plunged, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling below the 7,000 mark. While the stock market has recovered nicely in the last five years the fear and trepidation, for many, remains.

Stay diversified

Are there things the retired and near-retired need to do to make sure their portfolios are ready for retirement? Financial advisers have always counseled clients to maintain diversified portfolios and that remains good advice. But Curt Whipple, CEO of C. Curtis Financial Group, points out that few saw the 2008 financial crisis coming and any similar event is also likely to take investors by surprise. So keeping risk under control is paramount.

“Regardless, there are eight indicators that you can focus on that will help you identify whether or not you’re taking too much risk in your portfolio and if your retirement plan is in danger.”

Risk comes with investing. An investment with no risk is either a scam or provides very little return. But for those nearing or in retirement, maintaining a reasonable level of risk may reduce your exposure and allow you to get a good night's sleep.

Too much risk?

According to Whipple, if you lost more than 15% to 20% of your investments' value in 2008-2009 you had too many risky investments. Some self-assessment may be necessary here because each individual needs to be aware of how much risk they are willing to take on.

Generally speaking, the younger you are, the riskier you can be. However, risk is also a personal decision. Whipple says you should make sure you and your adviser are on the same page regarding risk tolerance. That will require your adviser taking the time to explain your investments and how they’re diversified.

When Whipple talks about diversification, he doesn't mean owning stocks in diversified sectors. He says if your portfolio is mostly tied to Wall Street, like stocks and bonds, you aren't truly diversified.

4% withdrawal rate

Financial experts at Fidelity also advise diversification, but also discipline in how asserts are withdrawn from the portfolio during retirement. In a hypothetical example, Fidelity analysts found a 10% per year withdrawal rate drained a balanced portfolio in 10 years. However, withdrawing just 4% per year provided income for 36 years.

“Our analysis clearly shows that the amount of the annual withdrawal rate dramatically raised or lowered the chances of a portfolio lasting for a longer period of time,” the Fidelity analysts concluded. “And the risk of running out of money is a real one. Americans are living longer these days, so it's entirely possible that your retirement could last for 30 or more years.”

Gone before you are

Regardless of how much money is in your retirement portfolio, the rate at which you withdraw it is likely to determine whether it's gone before you are.

Christine Benz, of Morningstar.com, says she polled retired readers about what helped them sleep at night. Thrift was the overriding message, as was discipline in the withdrawal rate. Many of her readers also said they continued to work part-time in retirement, both for the social stimulation and the income generation. As long as they had a job to go to the next morning, they said it was easier to sleep at night.

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Falls a hidden health issue for seniors

Low-cost preventive program produces 17% reduction in falls

The physical ravages of aging are well-known. The older you get it seems the more vulnerable you are to heart disease, cancer and other infirmities. But on...

PhotoThe physical ravages of aging are well-known. The older you get it seems the more vulnerable you are to heart disease, cancer and other infirmities. But one of the biggest threats doesn't get a lot of attention – simply falling down.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) keeps track of falls by seniors and estimates that one out of three adults age 65 or over has fallen at least once in the last 12 months. When you are young falling happens a lot, but in most cases little or no harm is done. Youthful bodies are pretty resilient.

But it's a problem for those who are advancing in age, especially if they have not remained physically active. The result of a fall can be a shattered hip, a broken arm or a concussion. In one year the CDC says 95% of broken hips were found to be the result of falls.

Treatment and recovery

Not only does the injury require treatment but the recovery can be slow and painful, often leading to other health problems. According to the CDC there were 2.3 million fall-related injuries to older adults in 2010. Nearly a quarter had to be admitted to a hospital.

As you might expect, treating these injuries can get expensive. The CDC says direct medical costs for falls in 2010, adjusted for inflation, was about $30 billion.

Preventive steps

There are things older adults can do to make a fall less likely. The first is to get plenty of exercise. Staying active will help maintain balance and agility. The CDC also recommends exercises that improve leg strength.

Perhaps you medication is making you more vulnerable. Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review your prescriptions for combinations that may cause dizziness or drowsiness.

Older people often find they don't see as well as they once did. An annual eye exam and update to eyeglasses can maximize vision. Consider getting a pair with single-vision distance lenses for some activities such as walking outside.

Homes can also be made more senior-friendly by reducing tripping hazards and adding grab bars inside and outside the tub or shower and next to the toilet, adding railings on both sides of stairways, and improving the lighting. A state program in Pennsylvania to do just that has yielded some positive results.

17% reduction in falls

A study, funded by CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that this low-cost approach reduced falls by seniors by 17% throughout the state.

"There is a high prevalence of falls among people 65 and older that increases with age, as does the inability to get up after a fall," said lead author Steven Albert, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences at Pitt Public Health. "A challenge for public health officials is to decrease the risk of falls without encouraging reduced physical activity. Our research shows that the Healthy Steps for Older Adults program is a successful tool to help reduce falls."

Prevention efforts

The program is run by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging and offers risk screening for falls and educational information regarding fall prevention, for adults 50 years and older. It identifies seniors who are at high risk for falls are refers them to primary care providers. They are then encouraged to complete home safety assessments, which identify modification — including banisters and grab bars — to reduce hazards in their homes that might put them at greater risk for falls.

"Though further analyses will be necessary to understand specifically how these actions translated into a 17% reduction in falls, it appears that referrals for physician care and home safety assessments, along with informing older adults of their high-risk status and heightening their sensitivity to situations involving a risk of falling, may lead to reductions in falls," Albert said.

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Infinite Herbs recalls organic basil

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Infinite Herbs of Miami, Fla., is recalling one lot of its 2.5-ounce packages of Organic Basil because of potential contamination with Salmonella. No ill...

PhotoInfinite Herbs of Miami, Fla., is recalling one lot of its 2.5-ounce packages of Organic Basil because of potential contamination with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The recall affects one specific lot of Infinite Herbs brand Organic Basil packaged in 2.5-ounce clamshell bearing the "Date Packed 02/21 20422". The "Date Packed" information can be found on the back side label below the country of origin statement.

The product was distributed to Trader Joe's stores in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Southern Virginia and Tennessee.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled product are urged not to eat the product, and to dispose of it or return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 305-599-9255 or via email at customer_service@infiniteherbs.com.

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GM recalls another 1.7 million vehicles for three different defects

The latest recalls are not related to the ignition switch problem

GM CEO Mary BarraGeneral Motors is recalling more than 1.76 million additional vehicles for three separate defects not related to the ignition switch rec...

Photo
GM CEO Mary Barra

General Motors is recalling more than 1.76 million additional vehicles for three separate defects not related to the ignition switch recall that has the company in hot water with consumers, Congress and just about everyone else.

"Today's announcement underscores the focus we're putting on the safety and peace of mind of our customers," GM's new CEO, Mary Barra, said in a statement and a video.

In the statement, Barra said the latest updates resulted partly because she asked her executives to give added attention to their pending reviews of GM products, "bring them forward and resolve them quickly."

Story continues after video

According to Automotive News, the latest GM U.S. recalls affect:

303,000 2009-2014 Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana full-size vans. GM says it will rework the material used in their instrument panels to satisfy U.S. crash standards meant to protect unbelted passengers. 

63,900 2013-2014 Cadillac XTS full-size luxury sedans. GM says it needs to fix a problem with brake booster corrosion that can lead to overheating. Two fires have been reported.

1.18 million 2008-2013 Buick Enclaves, 2008-2013 GMC Acadias, 2009-2013 Chevrolet Traverses and 2008-2010 Saturn Outlooks. The wiring harness for the seat-mounted side airbags can get pinched, turning on a warning light in the instrument panel. Ignoring the warning “will eventually result in the non-deployment of the side impact restraints,” including side airbags.

Ignition production

PhotoBarra said replacement ignition switches are being produced as fast as possible. She said the supplier making the switches has added a second production line to speed up the process. The switches are expected to be available to dealers starting April 7.

She said GM is “completely focused on the problem at the highest levels of the company” and would be changing its system for deciding and managing recalls.

“Something went wrong with our process in this instance,” she said in the video, “and terrible things happened.”

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Should parents provide financial support to adult children?

One financial adviser says it can sometimes be the right thing to do

Ever since a Pew Research Center report found a growing number of parents – 48% – had provided financial assistance to an adult child within th...

PhotoEver since a Pew Research Center report found a growing number of parents – 48% – had provided financial assistance to an adult child within the previous 12 months, financial planners have almost universally expressed alarm.

The parents, the argument goes, need to be planning for their retirement, not giving money to children who, at this point, should be living on their own. It's worse, they say, when parents who have already retired are writing the checks.

But Howard Hook, a CPA and certified financial planner with EKS Associates in Princeton, N.J., thinks the stereotype of the mooching offspring taking advantage of an aging parent tends to be overblown. Each situation is different, he says, and parents have to use their best judgment in deciding whether or not to provide a financial helping hand. Sometimes it can be the right thing to do.

“I think clearly a case can be made that helping someone at a younger age, to get them through a rough patch, many times is better than leaving them an inheritance when they are in middle age or later,” Hook told ConsumerAffairs.

Get on the same page

PhotoThe key, he says is for both parents and child to have a clear understanding of what is being offered. Is it a loan or a gift?

Other questions that need to be asked and answered are what effect will the aid have on the parents' financial condition? If it is a loan, what expectations are there of getting repaid? What does it mean if you don't get repaid – is that going to affect your relationship with your child? If you have more than one child how does it affect the other children in the family who see Mom and Dad lending money to a sibling? That last question is often overlooked.

“The family dynamic can get thrown up in the air,” Hook said.

Two possible outcomes

Hook concedes the whole issue is highly emotional. Parents usually feel protective of their children and hope to make a difference in their lives. But he says it's important to realize that there are two possible outcomes.

“The good outcome is the child being able to say, 'When things were tough I had someone who was able to help me out and assist me financially. I didn't take advantage and it got me over the hump,'” Hook said. “Where it goes bad is when you have a child who continues to need to borrow, isn't responsible enough to pay it back or takes advantage of a parent's emotional feelings.”

There may be more children asking parents for support in the wake of the Great Recession. The country has not fully recovered and the job market only now seems to be tentatively recovering. The financial need – whether perceived or real – seems to be greater now.

“Some of these young people are unable to get jobs,” Hook said. “They're also coming out of college with huge student loan debt that puts a huge financial burden on someone at a very young age.”

Written agreement

If the money is being offered as a gift, there should be a clear understanding of what the money is to be used for. The same is true when the money is extended as a loan. But in the case of a loan, Hook recommends parents and child formalize the process with a written agreement that clearly states the terms.

“What that does is make it real to everybody,” Hook said. “By making it real, at a minimum, it gives everyone a sense of responsibility.”

In his practice Hook says he often sees the other side of the coin – parents who have been asked for help but who refuse, usually he says, out of a fear that they will run out of money in retirement. Hook says in those cases as well, parents should understand that every situation is different.

“If someone wants to loan money to their children and can financially afford it I would never suggest they shouldn't do it,” he said. “We may lay out the pros and cons but ultimately it's their decision.”

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Survey: Prime price increase hurts Amazon's brand

Rivals, notably ShopRunner.com, rush to recruit Amazon deserters

Amazon may have underestimated the negative blowback from its decision to raise the price of its Prime memebership to $99, according to a survey conducted ...

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ShopRunner goes after defecting Amazon customers

Amazon may have underestimated the negative blowback from its decision to raise the price of its Prime memebership to $99, according to a survey conducted over the last few days by Brand Keys, a leading retail research consultancy.

"Consumer expectations are always on the increase, and when it comes to online retail, they operate in a 'what-have-you-done-for-me-recently?' paradigm. Price increases weren't what Prime Members were expecting," said Robert Passikoff, found and president of Brand Keys.

Amazon announced the 25% price increase a week ago following rumors that it would raise the rate by as much as 50%.

In a survey conducted by Brand Keys March 14-16 among 1,050 Amazon Prime members, metrics– showed that the Amazon brand took a blow to its normally high overall brand engagement and loyalty evaluations.

Loyalty evaluations among Prime members were down 10%, from 93% to 83%. Customers also took to the web and social media to vent their frustrations.

"I've been a Prime member for a couple of years but I am reconsidering it now," said Karen Hesse, a California notary public in a Facebook posting. "Now that Prime membership is taxed as well, I have to see if Prime saves me more than $110 a year. I like the free videos and the lending library that come with the membership but I don't think my use is that great."

Engagement takes a hit

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Robert Passikoff

Brand diagnostics showed that the price increase resulted in significantly negative effects to two important emotional engagement drivers for the Online Retail category: 'Brand Reputation' and 'Brand Value.'

"When a brand misses the mark when it comes to consumers' expectations, 'expectation' quickly becomes 'disenchantment,' and based on these assessments. Prime members seem really disenchanted with the Amazon brand right now," said Passikoff.

"Hard as it is to believe, there was time when consumers ordered a product, they paid for shipping and if they weren't happy, they paid to return it. It worked exactly like consumers expected it would," noted Passikoff, "but today that seems like a distant era?"

Zapposification

In 2003 Brand Keys called it the 'Zappos-ification of America,' brand differentiation and consumer engagement à la free shipping and returns and speed of delivery. Zappos, the innovative online shoe retailer, told consumers they'd receive their order in five days, but delivered in two. Consumers were pretty happy.

"'Delighted' you might say," said Passikoff. "And in order for other brands not to look as though they were lagging, they too offered free shipping and returns. This took various forms and offers, but in short order, consumers came to expect it, which is precisely the nature of delight, expectations, and brand engagement."

Amazon has been the No. 1 brand in Brand Keys' Customer Loyalty Engagement Index for as long as the category has existed.

For $79 a year members received free two-day shipping and access to a raft of free streaming videos, exclusive content, and added values like free e-book borrowing.

Tolerably happy

Photo"If people weren't precisely delighted to pay, they were tolerably happy to get things fast and not pay extra. Estimates vary from category-to-category, but membership programs like these tend to attract consumers who spend more, sometimes significantly so. So it should work out for everyone, right?" said Passikoff.

Passikoff said there appear to be business justifications for Amazon's decision -- chiefly higher shipping costs -- but he said that consumer decision-making is more emotional than rational and explanations about higher costs don't placate customers anymore.

He noted that an online rival, ShopRunner.com, a site that guarantees two
-day delivery from many of the retailers on their site, has already offered to waive its $79 annual fee to anyone "disgruntled" by the Amazon price hike.

"Amazon should have expected that," said Passikoff.

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How to convince your boss to buy a treadmill workstation

Researchers say it can be good for the bottom line

You've tried to lose weight but you have a desk job that keeps you in your chair eight or more hours a day. Lately, you've read about studies suggesting pr...

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Photo: Lifespan Fitness

You've tried to lose weight but you have a desk job that keeps you in your chair eight or more hours a day. Lately, you've read about studies suggesting prolonged sitting is as bad for you as smoking.

Outside of a career change, is there anything you can do to reduce your chair time and increase your activity level? You might talk to your boss about installing a treadmill workstation, allowing you to do your work standing on a slow-moving treadmill.

These workstations have been shown to help employees increase their activity level and burn more calories. But on your company's tight budget, how can you convince your supervisor that this workstation is worth the investment?

How the company benefits

You might start by telling them about a new study by researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota. The researchers suggest that employees who use these workstations not only benefit from improved health but the company benefits from improved productivity.

Desk-bound employees at a financial services company were enlisted for the study. Their workstations were outfitted with a treadmill desk. The surface could be raised or lowered with the touch of a button. Whether the employees worked sitting down or standing up and walking was entirely up to them. However, all were wired with an accelerometer that kept track of their daily calories burned.

At the end of 52 weeks, the employees averaged burning 74 more calories per day than before the workstations were installed. That's all well and good, but is it enough reason for an employer to go to the expense of installing these more treadmill workstations?

Productivity boost

“What’s great about that is that employees who had the treadmill workstations became more productive in addition to becoming more active,” said researcher Darla Hamann, an assistant professor in the UT Arlington School of Urban and Public Affairs. “Walking on the treadmill didn’t come at the expense of being a productive worker. Walking seemed to augment productivity.”

In addition to productivity gains, Hamann says the treadmill desks also improved employee fitness and wellbeing, which she said provides benefits to the company too. She thinks adding the treadmills to the office environment could easily be justified under a corporate wellness program. Employees, she says, might even be more likely to be active when not at work.

“It’s like the treadmill workstation served as a reminder for future physical activity,” Hamann said. “It reinforced the idea to exercise.”

New trend?

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An Amazon.com offering

There are already a number of stand-up desks available and they have become more popular in the wake of recent research that suggests spending hours in a chair is bad for your health. Most recently researchers at Kaiser Permanente found prolonged sitting is especially harmful to men, increasing the risk of heart attack.

The men who reported spending several hours a day in sedentary inactivity had 2.2 times the risk of developing heart failure as compared with men who reported high physical activity and low sedentary time.

"Though traditionally we know quite a bit about the positive impact that physical activity has on cardiovascular disease, we know significantly less about the relationship between physical activity and heart failure," said Deborah Rohm Young, PhD, study lead author and researcher at the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation. "The results of this large study of a racially and ethnically diverse population reinforce the importance of a physically active and, importantly, a non-sedentary lifestyle for reducing the risk of heart failure."

The Mayo Clinic was an early advocate of getting employees up and moving around during the workday. We reported back in 2005 that Mayo Clinic was developing an early treadmill desk.

At the time Mayo Clinic predicted a treadmill desk would cost around $1,000. However, we found one on Amazon.com that cost less than $500 (not including treadmill). You might consider showing it, or one like it, to your boss.

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Study identifies another reason to eat oats

Oats may possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-itch and anti-cancer properties

It's long been known that oatmeal helps lower total and LDL cholesterol, which can help promote heart health. Now a team of scientists say they've found an...

PhotoIt's long been known that oatmeal helps lower total and LDL cholesterol, which can help promote heart health. Now a team of scientists say they've found another reason to eat oats: a phenolic compount called AVE that may possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-itch and anti-cancer properties.

"While the data to support the importance of oat beta-glucan remains, these studies reveal that the heart health benefit of eating oats may go beyond fiber," said Dr. Shengmin Sang of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. "As the scientific investigators dig deeper, we have discovered that the bioactive compounds found in oats – AVEs – may provide additional cardio-protective benefits."

New research shows that oat AVEs may be partly responsible for the positive association between oats and heart health. Oliver Chen, Ph.D., of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, presented mechanistic data that demonstrated that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of AVEs likely contribute to oats' protective effects.

Similarly, Mohsen Meydani, Ph.D., from the Vascular Biology Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, provided evidence that oat AVEs suppress the production of inflammatory cytokines associated with fatty streak formation in the arteries.

In addition, oat AVEs appear to repress the process associated with the development of atherosclerosis.

The findings were presented at the 247th Annual Conference of the American Chemical Society in Dallas.

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Hyundai apologizes for overstating fuel economy estimates for the Sonata

Preliminary figure was off by about one mile per gallon

Hyundai is apologizing for overstating the fuel efficiency of its new Sonata sedan by about one mile per gallon.On March 4, the company introduced the la...

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Interior of the 2015 Sonata (Hyundai photo)

Hyundai is apologizing for overstating the fuel efficiency of its new Sonata sedan by about one mile per gallon.

Hyundai  March 17, 2014, 5:19 p.m.
Consumers rate Hyundai
On March 4, the company introduced the latest version of its flagship luxury sedan and estimated its fuel efficiency at 29.6 miles per gallon. But last week, the Korean government said it achieved only 28.4 mpg in its tests.

"We gave out a tentative figure we got from an internal test. The mistake resulted from our effort to emphasize the improved fuel economy of the new Sonata, even though it was heavier than the previous model," Hyundai said in a statement.

"We deeply regret our imprudence. We once again ask for your understanding and promise to do our best to provide correct information going forward," Hyundai said.

The company was embarrassed in November 2012 when it admitted overstating the fuel efficiency figures for 2011-13 model year Hyundai and Kia cars sold in the U.S. It agreed to reimburse consumers $395 million.

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Exterior view of the 2015 Sonata (Hyundai photo)

The new Sonata is expected to go on sale outside Korea in the second half of the year. The U.S. Sonata will be shown for the first time in April during the New York International Auto Show.

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Arkansas car dealer charged with not displaying ‘buyers guides’

Failure to comply could cost thousands in penalties

The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Used Car Rule requires dealers to display a “Buyers Guide” on used vehicles offered for sale. An Arkansas auto dealer,...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Used Car Rule requires dealers to display a “Buyers Guide” on used vehicles offered for sale. An Arkansas auto dealer, Abernathy Motor Company, and its two principals, are charged with failing to do so and could be facing civil penalties of up to $16,000.

“Used car dealers are required to post a Buyers Guide providing warranty and other important information on the cars they offer for sale. That’s the law,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Consumers have a right to receive this information up-front to help them make an informed buying decision.”

The rule -- which took effect in 1985 -- specifically requires used car dealers to disclose whether the car comes with a dealer’s warranty or is being sold “as is.” If the car is sold with a dealer’s warranty, the Buyers Guide must list its basic terms and conditions, including the duration of coverage, the percentage of total repair costs to be paid by the dealer, and the exact systems covered by the warranty.

Warnings issued and not heeded

In January 2013, the FTC announced that its Southwest Region Office had warned 11 used car dealerships in Jonesboro, Arkansas, that their sales practices violated the Used Car Rule. All but Abernathy Motor Company subsequently came into compliance.

Abernathy has four used car sales locations in Arkansas: two in Blytheville, one in West Memphis, and one in Jonesboro. The FTC’s complaint also names the company’s owners, Wesley Abernathy and David Abernathy, and an affiliated dealership, Ab’s Best Buys AMC Inc., as defendants.

Failure to display

According to the complaint, the FTC visited the Abernathy dealership in Jonesboro in November 2012, and found that none of the vehicles offered for sale displayed a Buyers Guide. The agency informed the dealership of that fact, and sent the dealership a copy of the Guide and the FTC publication, A Dealer’s Guide to the Used Car Rule.

In May 2013, the FTC re-visited the Abernathy dealership, and visited Ab’s Best Buys AMC Inc., and found both dealerships were offering used vehicles for sale that did not display a Buyers Guide.

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Fiat 500Ls recalled to fix transmission glitch

Moving the shift lever may have no effect on the transmission

Chrysler Group LLC is recalling selected 2014 Fiat 500L vehicles. The company said that "moving the transmission shift lever may have a delayed effect or n...

PhotoChrysler Group LLC is recalling selected 2014 Fiat 500L vehicles. The company said that "moving the transmission shift lever may have a delayed effect or no effect on selecting a transmission gear."

This could keep the car from shifting out of Park or cause it to move in an unintended direction. Chrysler said it had received more than 100 complaints about the problem but doesn't know of any accidents of injuries.
Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the shifter module or update the shifter software, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in April 2014.
Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number associated with this recall is P06.
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SNI National recalls various dietary supplements

The products contain an ingredient that could produce dangerous side effects

SNI National is recalling all Kratom products,including Kratom XL 4 Pack, Maeng Da Kratom 10 Pack, Max Kratom 20 Pack, and Bali Kratom 40 Pack, from distri...

PhotoSNI National is recalling all Kratom products,including Kratom XL 4 Pack, Maeng Da Kratom 10 Pack, Max Kratom 20 Pack, and Bali Kratom 40 Pack, from distributors and retail locations.

These products contain Kratom (Mitragyna Speciosa), a botanical that qualifies as a dietary ingredient under section 201(ff)(1) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act . When marketed as a dietary ingredient, FDA considers kratom to be a new dietary ingredient for which there is inadequate information to provide reasonable assurance that such ingredient does not present a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury.

Furthermore, scientific literature discloses serious concerns regarding the toxicity of Kratom in multiple organ systems. Consumption of Kratom can lead to a number of health impacts, including respiratory depression, nervousness, agitation, aggression, sleeplessness, hallucinations, delusions, tremors, loss of libido, constipation, skin hyperpigmentation, nausea, vomiting, and severe withdrawal signs and symptoms.

The company says it has not received any complaints or been made aware of any illness or adverse effects stemming from the sale of these products.

The products are packaged in clamshell, zip sealed packets and green pill bottles, 4, 10, 20, and 40 count, and can be identified by their bright green packaging and label which states that it contains Kratom.

The products were sold to wholesale distributors in Alabama, California, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Florida, Oklahoma, Idaho, Colorado, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Ohio, and were further distributed by those entities. SNI National has terminated distribution.

The company is notifying its distributors and customers by phone or email, and is arranging for immediate return of all recalled products.

Consumers, distributors and retailers who have purchased or are selling these products should discontinue use or distributing them and return them to place of purchase, or discard them.

Consumers with questions regarding this recall may contact SNI National at (1-801-388-4690) or -Kratomrecall@gmail.com Monday-Friday 10:00 am to 2:00 pm MST.

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Chrysler recalls Dodge Durangos and Jeep Grand Cherokees

The driver may experience a hard brake pedal feel

Chrysler Group is recalling 18,690 model year 2012-2013 Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured October 11, 2011, through October 1, 2...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 18,690 model year 2012-2013 Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured October 11, 2011, through October 1, 2012.

Under certain braking events, the Ready Alert Braking System (RAB) may result in the driver experiencing a hard brake pedal feel. If the driver experiences a hard brake pedal, the driver may not push the pedal as intended, lengthening the distance needed to stop the vehicle and increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will update the ABS module software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in March 2014.

Owners may contact Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number associated with this recall is P05.

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Dole Fresh Vegetables recalls bagged salads

The salads may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Dole Fresh Vegetables is recalling a limited number of cases of bagged salads due to a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes. No illnesses hav...

PhotoDole Fresh Vegetables is recalling a limited number of cases of bagged salads due to a possible health risk from Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported in association with the recall.

The products being recalled are:

  • Dole Italian Blend (UPC 7143000819)
  • Fresh Selections Italian Style Blend (UPC 1111091045)
  • Little Salad Bar Italian Salad (UPC 4149811014)
  • Marketside Italian Style Salad (UPC 8113102780)

The recalled salads are coded A058201A or B, with Use-by date of March 12, 2014. The product code and Use-by date are in the upper right-hand corner of the package. The UPC code is on the back of the package, below the barcode.

The salads were distributed in 15 states (Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia) and 3 Canadian provinces (New Brunswick, Ontario & Quebec).

No other salads are included in the recall

Consumers who have the recalled product should not consume it, but rather discard it.

Consumers with questions may call the Dole Food Company Consumer Response Center at (800) 356-3111, from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm (PT) Monday - Friday.

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Could the missing Malaysia Airlines jet have been hacked?

Technology consultant issued a warning nearly a year ago

At the moment, there are more theories than known facts in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing for a week on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Be...

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Boeing 777 cockpit (Boeing photo)
At the moment, there are more theories than known facts in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing for a week on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. What's known is the plane disappeared from civilian radar shortly after leaving Malaysia ground control, on a course taking it over the Gulf of Thailand and Vietnam. It has vanished without a trace.

But numerous reports, including one from Reuters Friday citing unnamed sources, have begun to suggest the plane didn't crash in the Gulf of Thailand but made a deliberate course change and flew for hours to the west, taking it back across the Malaysia mainland. What the purpose was – and what happened to the plane -- remains unknown.

In light of this theory, a blog posting by Darlene Storm, published 11 months ago on ComputerWorld.com, makes for chilling reading. It's an article about a security conference in Amsterdam where HugoTeso, a security consultant in Germany, gave a presentation on how easy it would be to hack into the onboard computer running a modern airliner.

In the demonstration Teso set up a simulator to carry out the simulated hijacking remotely, without needing physical access to the target aircraft at any time. He explained that hacking into an actualcjet's computer was both dangerous and unethical.

Equipment from eBay

According to Storm, Teso purchased hardware from eBay that provided the actual flight code software for training. He was able to gain access to the plane's computer by exploiting vulnerabilities in one of the systems transmitting data back and forth between the plane and the ground. Here's the really chilling part of Storm's account:

Once he was into the airplane’s computer, he was able to manipulate the steering of a Boeing jet while the aircraft was in autopilot mode,” Storm wrote. “The only countermeasure available to pilots, if they even realized they were being hacked, would be to turn off autopilot. Yet many planes no longer have old analog instruments for manual flying. Teso said he could take control of most all airplane systems; he could even cause the plane to crash by setting it on a collision course with another plane.”

Teso's claims, which didn't receive wide coverage at the time outside the technology press, did not go unchallenged by aviation regulators and companies. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a statement quickly shooting it down.

FAA says it's not possible

“The FAA has determined that the hacking technique described during a recent computer security conference does not pose a flight safety concern because it does not work on certified flight hardware,” the statement said. “The described technique cannot engage or control the aircraft’s autopilot system using the FMS or prevent a pilot from overriding the autopilot. Therefore, a hacker cannot obtain 'full control of an aircraft' as the technology consultant has claimed.”

Avionics equipment manufacturers Honeywell and Rockwell Collins also dismissed Teso's claims. Airline passengers can only hope they are right, because the German engineer has raised a nightmare scenario. If it were true, terrorists might no longer have to get suicidal hijackers past heightened security to take over an airliner, but from the safety of a hideout might turn a plane into a surface-to-air guided missile.

Could MH370 have simply been a trial run for a future, more diabolical event? If so, we'll know soon enough.

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Auto safety group: Deaths understated in GM ignition problem

And how about those free loaners GM offered?

How many deaths have there actually been in connection with an ignition problem in certain General Motors vehicles that resulted in the failure of airbags ...

PhotoHow many deaths have there actually been in connection with an ignition problem in certain General Motors vehicles that resulted in the failure of airbags to deploy?

The automaker at first said there were 13 and then downgraded that to 12. But an auto safety group claims that figure dramatically understates the number of fatalities.

Deaths in the hundreds

The Center for Auto Safety says an examination of of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Fatal Analysis Reporting System shows 303 deaths of front seat occupants in the recalled 2005-07 Cobalts and 2003-07 Ions where the airbag failed to deploy in non-rear impact crashes. Further, it says, that does not include the other five models recalled or the number of deaths without airbag deployment would have been higher.

According to the non-profit safety advocacy group, the NHTSA data show front seat occupants were being killed in crashes where the airbags did not deploy as soon as the recalled vehicles hit the road. It points to three deaths in Saturn Ions during 2003 and 6 deaths in Chevrolet Cobalts in 2005. The number of front seat occupant deaths steadily climbed, the auto safety group maintains, as more Cobalts and Ions were sold, with 43 deaths in 2009 and 47 in 2010, all in cases where the airbags did not deploy.

GM disputes

CNNMONEY reports that GM is disputing the claim that all those deaths are connected to the ignition problems, although that report is apparently based on nothing more than a statement from GM.

"Without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions. In contrast, research is underway at GM and the investigation of the ignition switch recall and the impact of the defective switch is ongoing," CNN quoted GM as saying. 

The charge by the Center for Auto Safety is just the latest development in the case of the GM ignition recall. Multiple investigations have been launched including probes by NHTSA and Congress.

About those loaners ...

GM has been trying to manage the public relations fall-out from the massive recall. Earlier this week, the automaker offered the 1.37 million owners of the recalled cars a $500 bonus towards the purchase of any new GM vehicle.

It also asked dealers to provide free loaner cars to any customer who felt uncomfortable driving the recalled vehicles until they are repaired. The key word here is "asked:" GM's request seems to be falling on deaf ears at some dealerships, even those in Detroit, according to consumers who've contacted ConsumerAffairs.

Brenjeana of Detroit took her 2007 Chevy Cobalt to James Martin Chevrolet on Woodward Avenue and was told she could not have a loaner.

"It is not my problem that this recall exists ... and it is not my problem that the parts are not available for another month and I feel angered," Brenjeana said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. "I fear for my life driving this car not knowing if I hit a pothole or when and where my car may stall out on me."

---

James R. Hood contributed reporting to this story.

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Starbucks testing advance-order app, introducing digital tips next week

Don't want to wait in line to place your order? New app may let you call it in

Starbucks has so many ways to order, pay for and customize coffee that actually brewing the stuff almost seems like an afterthought sometimes....

PhotoStarbucks has so many ways to order, pay for and customize coffee that actually brewing the stuff almost seems like an afterthought sometimes.

One innovation currently in the works isn't all that revolutionary but could save a lot of time if it works properly. The company is working on an app that would let customers order -- and, presumably, pay -- before they reach the store.

Our first reaction on reading about this was that somebody had better make sure the baristas are able to handle the added workload, but Bloomberg News reports that Starbucks has gone a step further and is doubling the number of Internet-connected coffee machines, which can take orders from apps and whip up whatever the customer has ordered.

A company executive was quoted as saying Starbucks wants to make life "easier" for baristas. 

PhotoDigital tin cup

Well, we don't know about easier, but a new app that debuts next week could make baristas at least a little richer -- it lets customers tip the barista directly from their iPhone.

"Beginning March 19, customers using Starbucks App for iPhone in the U.S., U.K. and Canada will experience a streamlined design and easy access to their account and My Starbucks Rewards information," the company said. In addition, customers using the app will have the option to leave a tip at more than 7,000 company-operated Starbucks stores in the U.S.

“With more than 11 percent of transactions a week now happening with a mobile device in our stores, and nearly 10 million customers currently using our mobile app, we’re thrilled to make the digital experience even easier and more rewarding for our customers and partners,” said Adam Brotman, chief digital officer for Starbucks. “This update to the Starbucks App for iPhone is an important next step in digital innovation at Starbucks and one of the many ways we’ll expand and improve our digital experience in the months to come.”

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Not all uninsured drivers are bad drivers

Consumer group says some good drivers are being unfairly punished

What's worse than having your auto insurance rates go up? Not being able to get insurance in the first place. When that happens you end up in the “as...

PhotoWhat's worse than having your auto insurance rates go up? Not being able to get insurance in the first place. When that happens you end up in the “assigned risk pool,” an expensive place to be.

Often a driver becomes uninsured when no insurance company will touch them. They have either had too many accidents or too many traffic tickets – or both. Insurance companies, which are all based on acceptable risk, have determined these drivers are way too risky.

But sometimes drivers can't get insurance through no fault of their own. If you live in what is considered a bad neighborhood, with a lot of crime and vandalism, you might not be able to get coverage. Credit scores and zip codes often play a big role in your insurance rate, and whether you can even buy it.

In the pool

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Bob Hunter (CFA photo)
Because states won't let people drive without insurance the state usually steps in. In many states, uninsured drivers are placed in the assigned risk pool. The state then requires insurance companies operating in the state to insure them, usually at the companies' highest rates. Unfortunately, the people who tend to be placed in the “uninsured” category are the consumers least able to pay the high premiums.

A report by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) shows that most uninsured drivers have low incomes and cannot afford to purchase high-priced minimum liability coverage required by all states, except New Hampshire. Making matters worse, the report found, these low-income drivers are increasingly adversely impacted by state and local governments that have mandated higher liability requirements – driving up premiums -- more rigorous enforcement, and stiffer penalties including large fees, vehicle impoundment, and even jail time.

Jobs at stake

As is often said, “driving is a privilege, not a right.” Some drivers who lose their insurance do so because they are either bad drivers or use poor judgment behind the wheel. While that may be true, the report points out that environmental and social factors also play a role, suggesting it is a complex issue. The bottom line is most uninsured drivers have jobs – but they might not if they could no longer drive.

“Most uninsured drivers are responsible citizens; they just can’t afford auto insurance premiums that represent their largest driving expense,” said CFA’s executive director, Stephen Brobeck. “Tough enforcement of punitive insured driver laws target many low-income workers who are struggling to survive financially. And increases in required liability coverage just force more of them to drive without insurance.”

Uninsured motorist rules differ by state but some things are consistent. According to CarsDirect.com, there is a limit to how long drivers spend in the "pool." While state requirements vary, usually a driver will only be allowed to buy the absolute minimum coverage. Once you enter the pool, you remain there for about three years.

Any solutions?

Recognizing there isn't an obvious or easy solution to this problem, CFA nonetheless has come up with a few ideas for local and state governments that it says might help. For one, it suggests following California's example by allowing the uninsured drivers with good driving records to purchase inexpensive liability coverage, for $350 or less.

Again, for uninsured drivers with good driving records, CFA suggests lowering liability minimums. Finally, the group calls for restrictions on the way insurance companies rate consumers, using occupation, income, credit rating, marital status, and homeownership that CFA says, tends to discriminate against low income drivers, even if they don't get into accidents or get tickets.

“State legislators and insurance regulators need to recognize that the uninsured motorist problem is much more about affordability than about irresponsibility,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s Director of Insurance and former Texas Insurance Commissioner. “These officials need to take steps, such as eliminating insurer use of discriminatory rating factors and creating programs for safe lower-income drivers, that allow these drivers to afford required liability coverage.”

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Avoiding buyer's remorse

The law provides only limited remedy

Buyer's remorse can be a terrible thing. At the time, the purchase of something – a sailboat or a new top of the line vacuum cleaner – seemed l...

PhotoBuyer's remorse can be a terrible thing. At the time, the purchase of something – a sailboat or a new top of the line vacuum cleaner – seemed like a wonderful idea. But after a day goes by, you have a “what was I thinking?” moment.

Buyer's remorse often results after making a hasty decision, and sometimes with some added sales pressure. Usually there are ways to rectify the situation. In the most common example, you buy something at a store and, by the time you get it home, realize it was a mistake.

If you haven't opened the packaging you can probably return it and get a full refund. Most stores have policies allowing customers to return items that are the wrong size or color, or if the consumer just has a case of buyer's remorse.

Scientific approach

Psychologists have looked at buyer's remorse scientifically, hoping to find ways consumers can avoid it. Researchers writing in the Journal of Consumer Research suggest there is a reason that consumers tend to suffer buyer's remorse more for expensive items than for cheaper ones – and it really doesn't have that much to do with the money spent. Rather, for an expensive, complex item – like a feature-laden big-screen TV – we perceive more value than there really is.

"We propose that when making an immediate decision between complexity and convenience, consumers believe that products with more features and functions represent higher value, even if the complex product might lead to more confusion over time," write authors Kelly Kiyeon Lee, of Washington University in St. Louis, and Min Zhao, of the University of Toronto.

Example

Lee and Zhao use the example of two versions of photo-editing software, purchased for the specific purpose of creating a photo album two months from now. The choices include a more expensive program with a full range of image-editing features that is difficult to learn and use and a cheaper program that features a simple user-interface and easy installation but has fewer image-editing features.

The researchers argue that because the software will be used in the future, the consumer focuses on the features and not the steep learning curve. But when the time comes to start work, the consumer begins second-guessing the decision.

Lee and Zhao spent four years on the study, conducting a range of experiments that involved the trade-offs between complex and convenient products. They found that in almost all cases, consumers chose products with more features and options, even though they were more expensive and might be hard to use – a situation often leading to a bad case of buyer's remorse.

Think before you buy

To avoid buyer's remorse, keep the research done by Lee and Zhao in mind. Ask yourself how practical the purchase is to your need and whether the expense is justified.

There are legal provisions for some purchases that give consumers a “cooling off” period to change their mind when they realize they've made a mistake. These laws are usually limited to situations where there is typically a lot of sales pressure.

Timeshares

Timeshare sales provide a perfect example. That situation has generated plenty of buyer's remorse over the years. Fortunately, states have passed laws giving consumers time to rescind their buying decision. States have different cooling off periods but they typically run between three and 15 days.

Health club memberships provide another example where consumers sometimes get talked into an expensive membership before they have given it adequate thought. Most states have now passed consumer protection laws specific to health club memberships, giving consumers three to 15 days to change their mind.

The Federal Trade Commission Rule applies to purchases made by door-to-door salesmen, another situation that produces a lot of buyer's remorse. Passed in 1972, the rule gives consumers the right to cancel a sale made in their home if they do so within three days.

Currently, the Rule provides that it is unfair and deceptive for sellers engaged in door-to-door sales valued at more than $25 – the amount is being increased to $130 -- to fail to provide consumers with disclosures regarding their right to cancel the sales contract within three business days of the transaction.

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DIY filers turn to home computers

You may be able to use Free File

Using a home computer to file your tax return appears to be catching on. According to the Internal revenue Service (IRS) more than 27 million taxpayers ha...

PhotoUsing a home computer to file your tax return appears to be catching on.

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) more than 27 million taxpayers have filed their tax returns from home computers so far this year -- up almost 6% from last year.

While these taxpayers used a variety of software products to prepare and e-file their own returns, there are other options. The IRS says you can also prepare and e-file your federal tax return online for free through Free File at IRS.gov. Free File has an option for almost everyone, either through brand-name software or online fillable forms.

The Free File program is a public-private partnership between the IRS and the Free File Alliance, LLC. The Alliance is a consortium of 14 leading tax software providers who make their products available exclusively at www.irs.gov/freefile. All Free File members meet security requirements and use the latest in encryption technology to protect taxpayer information.

Income restrictions

Seventy percent of taxpayers are eligible for easy-to-use Free File software because their income was $58,000 or less in 2013. People who made more than $58,000 and who are comfortable preparing their own returns can use Free File Fillable Forms, the electronic version of IRS paper forms.

Each Free File software provider sets its own criteria for eligibility, generally based on income, age, state residency or military service. However, taxpayers can quickly find a match by using the “help me find Free File software” tool. Or, taxpayers can review all providers and their offers. Some software providers also offer state tax software and display on their landing pages whether it is free or if there is a fee.

Free File Fillable Forms is more basic, similar to completing a paper Form 1040. The program performs some math calculations and provides links to some IRS publications. It also can be filed electronically for free. However, it does not support any state tax returns.

The total number of individual income tax returns e-filed so far this year is 62.2 million. E-file includes both returns filed from home computers and those e-filed by professional tax return preparers.   

                             2014 FILING SEASON STATISTICS

                  Cumulative statistics comparing 3/08/13 and 3/07/14

Individual Income Tax Returns:

2013

2014

% Change

Total Receipts

67,143,000

67,183,000

0.1

Total Processed

60,944,000

65,662,000

7.7

 

 

 

 

E-filing Receipts:

 

 

 

TOTAL          

61,488,000

62,213,000

1.2

Tax Professionals

35,585,000

34,816,000

-2.2

Self-prepared

25,903,000

27,397,000

5.8

 

 

 

 

Web Usage:

 

 

 

Visits to IRS.gov

197,651,780

181,196,235

-8.3

 

 

 

 

Total Refunds:

 

 

 

Number

53,447,000

55,434,000

3.7

Amount

$154.696

Billion

$164.586

Billion

6.4

Average refund

$2,894

$2,969

2.6

 

 

 

 

Direct Deposit Refunds:

 

 

 

Number

47,177,000

47,976,000

1.7

Amount

$142.861

Billion

$146.305

Billion

2.4

Average refund

$3,028

$3,050

0.7

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More muscle mass translates to longer life

"Muscle mass index" may be a better guide than body mass index

Want to live a long time? Get into the gym and start pumping iron. Boiled down to its essence, that's the takeaway message from new UCLA research. It sugge...

PhotoWant to live a long time? Get into the gym and start pumping iron. Boiled down to its essence, that's the takeaway message from new UCLA research. It suggests that the more muscle mass older Americans have, the less likely they are to die prematurely.

The findings add to the growing evidence that overall body composition — and not the widely used body mass index, or BMI — is a better predictor of all-cause mortality.

"So many studies on the mortality impact of obesity focus on BMI. Our study indicates that clinicians need to be focusing on ways to improve body composition, rather than on BMI alone, when counseling older adults on preventative health behaviors," said Dr. Preethi Srikanthan, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. The study, published in the American Journal of Medicine, is the culmination of previous UCLA research led by Dr. Srikanthan.

The researchers analyzed data ona group of 3,659 individuals that included men who were 55 or older and women who were 65 or older at the time of the survey. The authors then determined how many of those individuals had died from natural causes based on a follow-up survey done in 2004.

Muscle mass index

The body composition of the study subjects was measured using bioelectrical impedance, which involves running an electrical current through the body. Muscle allows the current to pass more easily than fat does, due to muscle's water content. In this way, the researchers could determine a "muscle mass index" — the amount of muscle relative to height — similar to a body mass index. They looked at how this muscle mass index was related to the risk of death.

They found that all-cause mortality was significantly lower in the fourth quartile of muscle mass index compared with the first quartile.

"In other words, the greater your muscle mass, the lower your risk of death," said Dr. Arun Karlamangla, the study's co-author. "Thus, rather than worrying about weight or body mass index, we should be trying to maximize and maintain muscle mass."

"Future research should determine the type and duration of exercise interventions that improve muscle mass and potentially increase survival in (healthy), older adults," the researchers wrote.

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Many seniors taking drugs that work against each other

"Therapeutic competition" can cause lots of problems, some of them major

It's no secret that as we age, we tend to develop chronic conditions, leading to multiple prescriptions for drugs to keep those conditions under control. I...

PhotoIt's no secret that as we age, we tend to develop chronic conditions, leading to multiple prescriptions for drugs to keep those conditions under control. In fact, three out of four older Americans have chronic health conditions, and a new study finds that 20 percent of them are being treated with drugs that work at odds with each other – the medication being used for one condition can actually make the other condition worse.

This approach of treating conditions “one at a time” even if the treatments might conflict with one another is common in medicine, experts say, in part because little information exists to guide practitioners in how to consider this problem, weigh alternatives and identify different options.

One of the first studies to the problem found that 22.6 percent of study participants received at least one medication that could worsen a coexisting condition. The work was done by researchers in Connecticut and Oregon, and published in PLOS One.

“Many physicians are aware of these concerns but there isn’t much information available on what to do about it,” said David Lee, an assistant professor in the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy.

One at a time

“Drugs tend to focus on one disease at a time, and most physicians treat patients the same way,” Lee said. “As a result, right now we’re probably treating too many conditions with too many medications. There may be times it’s best to just focus on the most serious health problem, rather than use a drug to treat a different condition that could make the more serious health problem even worse.”

The study calls for more research, to find solutions to the problem. For example, it may be possible to make better value judgments about which health issue is of most concern, whether all the conditions should be treated, or whether this “competition” between drug treatments means one concern should go untreated. It may also be possible in some cases to identify ways to treat both conditions in ways that don’t conflict with one another.

A common issue, for example, is patients who have both coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Beta blockers are often prescribed to treat the heart disease, but those same drugs can cause airway resistance that worsens the COPD.

“There are several types of beta blocker that don’t cause this negative interaction, but many of the other types are still prescribed anyway,” Lee said. “It’s this type of information that would be of value in addressing these issues if it were more widely known and used.”

The chronic conditions in which competing therapies come into play include many common health concerns – coronary artery disease, diabetes, COPD, dementia, heart failure, hypertension, high cholesterol, osteoarthritis and others.

This study was done by researchers from OSU and the Yale University School of Medicine, with 5,815 community-living adults between the years 2007-09. The lead author of the study was Dr. Mary E. Tinetti at Yale University, and it was supported by the National Institutes of Health. The analysis included a nationally representative sample of older adults, and both men and women.

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$6.2 million tax penalty for Bristol-Myers and Lantheus Medical Imaging

New York State's Fraud Claims Act pays off for tax collectors and whistleblowers alike

The New York attorney general announced a $6.2 million payout to the state and city (minus a $1.1 million payout to an unnamed whistleblower) in a settleme...

PhotoThe New York attorney general announced a $6.2 million payout to the state and city (minus a $1.1 million payout to an unnamed whistleblower) in a settlement with Bristol-Myers Squibb and Lantheus Medical Imaging over unpaid state and city taxes.

A press release from AG Eric T. Schneiderman's office said that from 2002 to 2006 Lantheus, and by extension its former parent company Bristol-Myers, did not pay the applicable state business franchise taxes, New York City corporation taxes or MTA surcharges. The government first learned of this in May 2012, when a professional tax preparer noticed Lantheus' non-payment and notified the authorities.

However, the bulk of the attorney general's press release focused on the state of New York's False Claims Act (authored by then-state senator, now-state attorney general E.T. Schneiderman), calling the Act “one of the state's most powerful civil fraud enforcement tools because it allows whistleblowers and prosecutors to take legal action against companies or individuals that defraud the government. … Under the False Claims Act, whistleblowers may be eligible to receive up to 30 percent of any money recovered by the government as a result of information they provide. The whistleblower in this action will receive $1,137,814.80 from the settlement proceeds. The City of New York will receive $693,143.04.”

There's no denying that people's honest impulses will become much stronger when they have financial incentives to be honest, so it's no surprise that the False Claims Act (including its whistleblower-reward provisions) has proven so successful thus far.

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Mortgage rates up slightly

Despite the movement, rates remain in a familiar range

Fixed mortgage rates moved higher during the week ended March 13, according to a pair of closely watched surveys. According to Freddie Mac's Primary Mortg...

PhotoFixed mortgage rates moved higher during the week ended March 13, according to a pair of closely watched surveys.

According to Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey:

  • 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) averaged 4.37% with an average 0.6 point, up 9 basis points from a week earlier when it averaged 4.28 percent. A year ago at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 3.63%.
  • 15-year FRMs rose from 3.32% to 3.38%, with an average 0.6 point. The 15-year FRM averaged 2.79% a year ago.
  • 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) were up 6 basis points from the previous week to 3.09%, with an average 0.4 point. At this time last year, it averaged 2.61%.
  • 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM fell from 2.52% to 2.48% this week, with an average 0.4 point. The average was 2.64% at this time last year.

The slight increase in rates came after a week of light economic reports. “Of the few releases, the economy added 175,000 jobs in February, which was above the market consensus forecast and followed an upward revision of 25,000 jobs for the prior two months,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist at Freddie Mac. “Meanwhile, the unemployment rate nudged up to 6.7 percent, the first rate increase in over a year."

Bankrate's tally

Separately, Bankrate.com's weekly national survey showed mortgage rates were slightly higher this week, but remain well within the familiar range of recent weeks.

  • The benchmark 30-year FRM inched lower for a second consecutive week -- to 4.50% from 4.45%
  • The average 15-year FRM rose 6 basis points to to 3.51%
  • The jumbo 30-year FRM stepped up to 4.54%.
  • Adjustable rate mortgages were also higher, with the popular 5-year adjustable climbing 4 basis points to 3.30%.

Analysts at Bankrate say a respectable jobs report removed some angst about the economy, but the persistent cold weather has still taken an apparent toll. With the Federal Open Market Committee meeting next week, the Fed will likely stay the course on tapering their bond purchases, keeping bond yields and mortgage rates from any wild fluctuations. Mortgage rates are closely related to yields on long-term government bonds.

On May 1, 2013, the average 30-year FRM was 3.52%. At that time, a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $900.32. With the current average rate of 4.50%, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $1,013.37 -- a difference of $113 per month.

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Kirkland Signature Real Sliced Fruit recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Oregon Freeze Dry of Albany, Ore., is recalling 59,780 cases of Kirkland Signature Real Sliced Fruit, produced exclusively for Costco Wholesale Stores. Th...

PhotoOregon Freeze Dry of Albany, Ore., is recalling 59,780 cases of Kirkland Signature Real Sliced Fruit, produced exclusively for Costco Wholesale Stores.

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

No confirmed cases of Salmonella poisoning from consumption of this product have been reported at this time.

Consumers who may have purchased the product were contacted by phone and U.S. mail, and a letter was posted on the Costco website. Furthermore, the affected product was removed from Costco floors.

No other products made by Oregon Freeze Dry, Inc. are affected.

Kirkland Signature Real Sliced Fruit is sold in a red and white case containing 20 pouches of freeze-dried snacks. Consumers who have purchased Kirkland Signature Real Sliced Fruit with the following “Best Before Dates,” which are listed on the upper left corner of the front panel of the case, should return the product to the place of purchase for a full refund.

  • Best Before Date: FEB 14 2015 - MAR 11 2015 (which reads FEB142015 - MAR112015)

Cases of the potentially contaminated Kirkland Signature Real Sliced Fruit were distributed to Costco Wholesale stores in the following locations: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Puerto Rico.

Customers with questions may contact the company at recall@ofd.com. or 1-888-641-2933 Monday through Friday, 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM PDT.

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Mold can be a spring time scourge

Here's how to identify, and get rid of it

As part of any spring cleaning routine a homeowner should pay attention for signs of mold. Mold is a fungus that usually forms in areas where moisture beco...

PhotoAs part of any spring cleaning routine a homeowner should pay attention for signs of mold. Mold is a fungus that usually forms in areas where moisture becomes trapped.

After a winter of heavy snow and ice, mold can be a particular problem. Rapidly melting snow and ice can saturate the ground and make flooding more likely. If water floods your home, not only does it damage possessions, it can form the conditions for rapid mold growth.

“To avoid problems from microbial growth, remove standing water as soon as it is safe to do so,” said Chris Heller, spokesman for FastMoldRemoval.com. “Any standing water and water logged possessions and building materials are potential breeding grounds for mold and other micro-organisms. For many porous materials that are wet and cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried within 24-48 hours, they often need be discarded as mold can begin to grow this quickly.”

Health issues

For people with allergies, mold can be a health issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) exposure to molds can cause symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing, or skin irritation in people with sensitivity. Some people, such as those with serious allergies to molds, may have more severe reactions.

These severe reactions can occur among workers exposed to large amounts of molds in the course of their work, such as farmers working around moldy hay. Severe reactions may include fever and shortness of breath. Some people with chronic lung illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, can even develop mold infections in their lungs.

The CDC says sufficient evidence has been found to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people. For people with asthma, it's likely to set off symptoms. It has even been linked to hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition.

Identifying mold

How do you know if you have a mold problem? According to the New York Department of Health, you can usually detect it with you eyes or your nose. Mold growth might appear as slightly furry, discolored, or slimy patches that increase in size as they grow. They also produce a musty odor that may be the first indication of a problem.

To find mold examine areas for visible signs of mold growth or water staining. If that fails, follow your nose to the source of the odor. If you can see or smell mold, you can assume you have a mold problem.

Look for water damage

Other clues may include excess moisture and water damage. It may be necessary to look behind and underneath surfaces, such as carpets, wallpaper, cabinets, and walls.

Some areas of your home seem to be mold magnets. For example, you can often find mold on the seal of the refrigerator door, on shower curtains or on window moldings. Surfaces on and around air conditioners are also favorite mold locations.

Getting rid of it

According to the CDC mold growth can be removed from hard surfaces with commercial products, soap and water, or a bleach solution of no more than 1 cup of bleach in 1 gallon of water. If you choose to use bleach to clean up mold, never mix bleach with ammonia or other household cleaners. Mixing bleach with ammonia or other cleaning products will produce dangerous, toxic fumes.

Commercial mold testing and remediation services can be pricey so shop carefully and get estimates and referrals. It may or may not be necessary. Keeping problem areas in your home clean and dry can prevent mold and keep it from coming back once it has been removed.

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More states allowing ATVs on public roads despite safety hazards

ATVs aren't designed for use on roads, Consumer Federation warns

Kawasaki Brute Force (Photo: Kawasaki)Despite warnings from safety advocates and a rising accident rate, a growing number of states are allowing all-te...

Photo
Kawasaki Brute Force (Photo: Kawasaki)

Despite warnings from safety advocates and a rising accident rate, a growing number of states are allowing all-terrain vehicles on public roads, where a majority of ATV deaths occur, according to a report released today by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

“ATVs should not be operated on roads," said Rachel Weintraub, CFA Legislative Director and Senior Counsel. "Yet, an increasing number of states ignore evidence from consumer advocates, doctors, law enforcement officials and the ATV industry and pass laws increasing ATV access on roads. These conflicting messages are leading to consumer confusion about what constitutes safe riding practices.”

“This trend is going in the wrong direction,” Weintraub said.

Photo

In the report, CFA evaluated laws from all fifty states and the District of Columbia and found that in spite of warnings from manufacturers, federal agencies, and consumer and safety advocates that ATVs are unsafe on roadways, for several years an increasing number of states have passed laws allowing ATVs on public roads. 

Information from ATV manufacturer manuals, required warning labels and consistent messages from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) unambiguously warn against the operation of ATVs on public roads.

The design of ATVs makes them incompatible with operation on roads. ATVs have high centers of gravity, and narrow wheel bases, which increase the likelihood of tipping when negotiating turns. The low pressure knobby tires on ATVs are explicitly designed for off-road use and may not interact properly with road surfaces.

ATV deaths

Data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) documents that a majority of ATV deaths take place on roads.

  • According to the CPSC’s most recent complete data from 2007, as analyzed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 492 of 758 deaths, or 65% of ATV fatalities occurred on roads.
  • According to CPSC’s data, ATV on-road deaths have increased more than ATV off-road deaths.
  • According to NHTSA’s FARS database, 74% of ATV deaths occur on paved roads.

“The vast majority of ATV fatalities in the nations are occurring on roads,” stated Rachel Weintraub. “This is incredibly strong evidence supporting that ATV on-road operation is hazardous and should be prohibited.”

And yet, said CFA, 35 states -- 69% -- allow ATVs on certain roads under certain conditions.

Photo

While not a complete list, CFA documented at least 18 state or local current efforts to increase ATV access on roads.

CFA’s report calls for immediate action at the municipal, county, state, and federal level to prohibit ATVs on roadways.

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Amazon confirms it: Prime membership going up to $99

It's the first increase in five years, the company notes

Amazon has made it official: its popular Prime membership program will set you back $99, a $20 per year increase. In its defense, Amazon notes it's the fir...

PhotoAmazon has made it official: its popular Prime membership program will set you back $99, a $20 per year increase. In its defense, Amazon notes it's the first price increase in five years and says it reflects rising delivery costs and a widely expanded menu of services.

Amazon.com March 13, 2014, 1:25 p.m.
Consumers rate Amazon.com

"Since 2005, the number of items eligible for unlimited free Two-Day Shipping has grown from one million to over 20 million," Amazon said in an email to its Prime customers today. "We also added unlimited access to over 40,000 movies and TV episodes with Prime Instant Video and a selection of over 500,000 books to borrow from the Kindle Owners' Lending Library." 

The annual fee gets users free two-day shipping and access to Amazon's Prime video streaming service, which includes thousands of movies and TV shows as well as a growing list of original productions, and a free book-lending program.

There are rumors Prime members will also soon include a streaming music service, similar to Spotify.

There had been earlier reports that the price would be going up by as much as $40. The increase becomes effective on each customer's renewal date. 

 

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Who can be claimed as a dependent on your tax return?

More people than you might think

Claiming yourself as a dependent provides a nice tax benefit when you fill out your federal return but being able to claim others just makes it nicer. For ...

PhotoClaiming yourself as a dependent provides a nice tax benefit when you fill out your federal return but being able to claim others just makes it nicer. For a typical family there can be a claim for both spouses and claims for each of the children.

Even if you got married on December 31, or had a child on that date, you can still claim the deduction for the entire year. For the 2013 tax year the personal exemption for a dependent is $3,900, up $100 from 2012. Since the total exemptions are deducted from your taxable income, being able to claim someone as a dependent is highly advantageous.

Two types

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) there are two types of dependents – a qualifying child and a qualifying relative. The person you are claiming must be a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, a U.S. resident, or a resident of Canada or Mexico.

But wait, can you claim a non-related foreign-exchange student who is living with you temporarily? If they fit into any of the above categories, you might.

It's also important that no one else be able to claim them as a dependent. For example, if you contribute more than 50% of Aunt Janet's support, you might be able to claim her as a dependent. But if Aunt Janet is claiming herself as a dependent on her own tax return, you can't. So some coordination among tax preparers is necessary.

Qualifying child

To qualify as a dependent, a child must meet a set of requirements. First, they must be legally related to you, either as your biological son or daughter, or stepchild, eligible foster child or adopted child. If the child is your brother, sister, half brother, half sister, stepbrother, stepsister, or the child of any of them, they may also qualify.

There is also an age requirement. A dependent child must be under age 19 in most cases. If a full time student, they must be under 24. If they are permanently disabled, there is no age limit.

A qualifying child must live with you for more than half the year and, if they have a job it cannot pay more than what you contribute. In other words, what they get from you must be at least 50% of their support.

Qualifying relative

To be a qualifying relative the person must generally live with you at your residence all year round. There are, however, a number of exceptions, which the IRS outlines in Publication 501.

There is also an income limit for a qualifying relative. For the 2013 tax year they cannot earn more than $3,900 in income. As with children, you must be the only one claiming them and you must contribute more than 50% of their support.

Tax credit

In addition to the dependent exemptions, you may be able to claim the child and dependent care tax credit if you paid work-related expenses for the care of a qualifying individual. The credit is usually a percentage of the amount of work-related expenses you paid to a care provider for the care of a qualifying individual.

The percentage depends on your adjusted gross income. Work-related expenses qualifying for the credit are those paid for the care of a qualifying individual to enable you to work or actively look for work.

The total expenses that may be used to calculate the credit are capped at $3,000 for one qualifying individual or at $6,000 for two or more qualifying individuals. A tax credit is a much more advantageous tax break than a deduction, since the credit is subtracted from the taxes you owe, not the income used to determine the taxes owed.

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Study finds no evidence of widespread side effects in statin users

Side effects reported in similar numbers by those taking a placebo

With the use of statins to control cholesterol continuing to rise, there are increasing concerns about longterm use of the drugs but a new analysis of more...

PhotoWith the use of statins to control cholesterol continuing to rise, there are increasing concerns about longterm use of the drugs but a new analysis of more than 80,000 patient records finds little evidence of widespread side effects, while noting that when asked about side effects, patients in randomized trials often report them, whether they are actually taking a statin or a placebo. 

The researchers said their analysis of placebo-controlled trials of statins found that only a small minority of side effects reported by those taking the cholesterol-lowering drugs were actually attributable to them. Almost all the side effects reported in these trials "occurred anyway when patients were administered placebo," say the investigators.

The study was reported today in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

Among a long list of side effects assessed -- which included nausea, renal disorder, myopathy and muscle breakdown, muscle ache, insomnia, fatigue, and gastrointestinal disturbance -- only the risk of new onset diabetes mellitus was increased by statin therapy.

Explaining the need for their study, the authors noted that the efficacy of statins and other drugs -- whether they work as intended -- is always based on rigorous trials but that the evaluation of side effects is not.

"Patients and doctors need clear reliable information about benefits and risks to make informed decisions," they write, adding that those reporting symptomatic side effects during statin therapy need reliable confirmation that a symptom is truly caused by the drug.

The study found that statins rather than placebo significantly increased the prevalence of diabetes by 0.5% and similarly reduced the mortality rate by 0.5%. 

Despite the study's findings, of course, many patients on statins report side effects when questioned by researchers. 

"Most people in the general population, if you repeatedly ask them a detailed questionnaire, will not feel perfectly well in every way on every day. Why should they suddenly feel well when taking a tablet after being warned of possible adverse effects?" said Dr. Judith Finegold of the National Heart and Lung Institute in London.

"We believe that patients should be empowered to make their own decisions, but we must first make sure they have top quality unbiased information. This is why we call on drug regulators to highlight in the long lists of side effects those few whose rate is incrementally greater than that experienced with a dummy tablet," Finegold said.

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A rebound for retail sales

New cars and building materials were among the contributors

Retail sales bounced back in February after posting declines the two previous months. Government figures show sales were up 0.3% last month, rebounding fr...

PhotoRetail sales bounced back in February after posting declines the two previous months.

Government figures show sales were up 0.3% last month, rebounding from a revised January decline of 0.6%. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were looking for an advance of 0.2%.

Areas of growth included new cars and building materials, both showing gains of 0.3%, and furniture and home furnishings -- up 0.4%. Decliners included electronics and appliance stores, and food and beverage stores, which were down 0.2%.

Lindsey M. Piegza, chief economist and market tech at Sterne Agee, calls the February report a "welcomed reprieve," but notes it's too early to conclude a continued, sizable rebound in spending because of pent up demand during months of winter storms. "Sure consumers have been somewhat constrained -- nobody likes shopping during an ice storm," Piegza added, "but consumers were spending elsewhere particularly on a heightened energy bill with both prices and usage on the rise."

The complete February report is available on the Census Bureau website.

PhotoJobless claims

A surprising drop in initial jobless claims last week is leading some analysts to speculate that labor conditions are improving.

The Labor Department (DOL) reports 315,000 people applied for state unemployment benefits for the first time during the week ending March 8, a drop of 9,000 from the previous week and the lowest level in about 3 months.

DOL says there were no special factors driving the initial claims level to its lowest point since November 2013 -- that it was probably due to normal volatility.

The 4-week moving, which is not as volatile and contsidered more accurate gauge of the labor market, fell 6,250 -- to 330,500.

The full report is available on the DOL website.

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Herbalife vows cooperation with FTC probe

The company says it's done nothing wrong

Nutritional supplement maker Herbalife says it “will cooperate fully,” with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has launched an investigation into th...

PhotoNutritional supplement maker Herbalife says it “will cooperate fully,” with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has launched an investigation into the firm.

Confirming that it received a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) from the FTC, the company says it welcomes the inquiry, “given the tremendous amount of misinformation in the marketplace.” A statement posted on the Herbalife website says, “We are confident that Herbalife is in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations,” and that it will "cooperate fully with the FTC.”

Pyramid scheme alleged

While Herbalife did not reveal anything about the investigation, The Wall Street Journal reports the company has been accused of running a pyramid scheme -- charges the firm has repeatedly denied.

The company uses a network of independent distributors to sell weight management, energy and fitness, and nutritional products.

The Journal reports that an FTC representative confirmed investigation is underway, but would not go beyond that. Herbalife says it won't have any further comments until there are “material developments."

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Stromer electric bicycles recalled

The bicycle fork can break, posing a crash and injury hazard

BMC-USA of Boston, Mass., is recalling about 1,311 Stromer ST1 electric bicycles in the U.S. and Canada. The bicycle fork can break, posing a crash and in...

PhotoBMC-USA of Boston, Mass., is recalling about 1,311 Stromer ST1 electric bicycles in the U.S. and Canada.

The bicycle fork can break, posing a crash and injury hazard to the rider.

The company has received one report of a fork breaking, resulting in minor scrapes and bruises to the rider.

This recall involves all 2013 Stromer ST1 women’s and men’s pedal-assist electric bicycles, models M33 Elite and P48 Platinum. The bikes were sold in three colors; black, red and white. They have an integrated lithium battery located inside the down tube, motor on the rear hub and a three-button LCD system display on the handlebars. “Stromer” is printed on the top tube of the bicycle frame and on the seat and chain guard. The fork’s serial numbers for the recalled bikes start with: ST1S2F, ST1S2G, ST1S2H, ST1S2I, ST1S2J, ST1S3A, ST1S3B, ST1S3C, ST1S3D and ST1S3E. The serial number is etched at the bottom of the rear fork.

The bicycles, manufactured in Switzerland, were sold through authorized Stromer dealers nationwide and online from January 2012 to May 2013 for between $3,500 and $4,000.

Consumers should immediately stop riding the bicycle and take it to an authorized Stromer dealer. Consumers with a recalled bicycle will receive a free replacement fork and have it installed at no cost.

Consumers may contact BMC-USA at (800) 819-4262 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by e-mail at andrew.gelles@bmc-switzerland.com.

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BMW recalls various motorcycles

The vehicles have potential ignition problems

BMW of North America is recalling 4,453 model year 2013 C 600 Sport, C 650 GT, F 700 GS, F 800 GS, F 800 GS Adventure, F 800 GT, R 1200 R and R1200 GS moto...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 4,453 model year 2013 C 600 Sport, C 650 GT, F 700 GS, F 800 GS, F 800 GS Adventure, F 800 GT, R 1200 R and R1200 GS motorcycles.

Water may enter the side-stand switch preventing the motorcycle from starting or potentially shutting off the motorcycle while it is being ridden. An unexpected shutdown increases the risk of a crash.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the side-stand switch, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in April 2014.

Owners may contact BMW at 1-800-831-1117.

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Graco expands child safety seat recall

The company will notify registered owners in April

In early February, Graco Children's Products announced the recall of millions of model year 2009 through 2013 toddler and booster child restraints. The de...

PhotoIn early February, Graco Children's Products announced the recall of millions of model year 2009 through 2013 toddler and booster child restraints.

The 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. It may be 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 company is now including an additional 403,222 seats in this recall, bringing the total to more than 4.1 million. The following model year 2006 through 2014 seats are included:

  • Argos 70 Elite
  • Ready Ride
  • Step 2
  • My Ride 65 with Safety Surround
  • My Size 70
  • Head Wise 70 with Safety Surround
  • Nautilus 3-in-1
  • Nautilus Plus
  • Smart Seat with Safety Surround

Graco is offering to replace the buckle with a new design, free of charge. Registered owners will be notified beginning around early April 2014, and offered the free replacement buckle.

All other owners may contact Graco at 1-800-345-4109 (toll-free) or 1-330-869-7225.

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GM offers $500 cash allowance to owners of 1.3 million recalled cars

Safety advocates say GM may try to use its 2009 bankruptcy to escape liability for deaths and injuries

Hoping to mollify customers outraged by the news that their ignition switch could kill them, General Motors is offering a $500 cash allowance towards the p...

PhotoHoping to mollify customers outraged by the news that their ignition switch could kill them, General Motors is offering a $500 cash allowance towards the purchase or lease of a new GM car to 1.37 million consumers whose cars have been recalled.

The automaker also advised its dealers to offer loaners to any customers who say they are afraid to drive their cars until repairs have been made, something that may not happen for a month or more. GM also said it would pay to have recalled cars towed in for any customer who requests it. 

Chevy Cobalt  March 12, 2014, 8:32 p.m.
Consumers rate Chevy Cobalt

Customers are also cautioned to put their ignition key on a key ring by itself, to lessen the weight placed on the defective ignition switch. 

GM cautioned dealers not to use the $500 to wheedle customers into buying a new car.  "This allowance is not a sales tool; it is to be used to help customers in need of assistance," the company said.

The $500 cash offer is good towards the purchase of any 2013-2015 model year Chevrolet, Buick, GMC or Cadillac.

The recall is not expected to begin until about April 7, allowing time for GM to distribute new parts to dealers. The recalled vehicles include 2005-07 Chevy Cobalts; 2007 Pontiac G5s; 2003-07 Saturn Ions; 2006-07 Chevy HHRs; and the 2007 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky.

Bankruptcy issues

No one disputes that there have been injuries and fatalities associated with the defective ignition switches, which can slip into the "off" or "accessory" position when the car is in motion, shutting down the engine and cutting power to the airbags as well as power steering and brakes.

But what is likely to become an issue is the question of how GM's 2009 bankruptcy will affect lawsuits growing out of the faulty switches. GM initially said it knew of 13 deaths but now says the correct number is 12.

However, the likelihood is that, in retrospect, many accident victims and their survivors will consider the possibility that the ignition switch was at fault in accidents where it was initially overlooked. GM could claim that many of the accidents occurred prior to its bankruptcy and therefore are the responsibility of General Motors Corp., the "old" GM, rather than General Motors LLC, the "new" (and current) GM.

Tip of the iceberg

Photo
A Chevy Cobalt (Facebook photo)

Saying that the 12 known deaths are "just the tip of the iceberg," the Center for Auto Safetytoday raised the possibility that GM was slow to initiate a recall in order to escape legal liability for at least some of the accidents.

"By concealing the ignition key defect for at least 10 years, GM created more victims and then robbed them of their legal rights through the passage of time. Justice delayed is justice denied," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the organization, and Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a letter to Mary Barra, GM's new president.

They called on GM to create a $1 billion trust fund to benefit victims of safety defects in GM vehicles.

"A teenager who is rendered a quadriplegic in a crash because the airbag fails to deploy can face lifetime medical costs of $30 million or more. What will the Cobalt recall cost -- perhaps $100/vehicle and total recall costs of no more $100 million in the US. Present known fatal victim costs will exceed the cost of the recall," Ditlow and Claybrook said.

Besides the expected avalanche of personal injury lawsuits, GM faces a Congressional probe and a U.S. Justice Department investigation into its handling of the situation.  

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What's your favorite consumer news source?

Consumers asked to nominate the news outlets they rely on

Who better to judge consumer journalism than consumers? That's the thinking behind a new series of awards recognizing outstanding reporting of consumer iss...

PhotoWho better to judge consumer journalism than consumers? That's the thinking behind a new series of awards recognizing outstanding reporting of consumer issues that launches this year, a joint project of the Media Policy Center, Woodbury University and ConsumerAffairs.

Beginning today, consumers are being asked to nominate the television, radio, newspaper, magazine and online sources that they rely on for news about consumer products, quality rankings, customer service, safety recalls and other information that helps them choose the best products for them and their families.

"There are nearly as many journalism awards as there are journalists but very few allow consumers to have a voice in the process," said ConsumerAffairs CEO Zac Carman. "That may make sense if you're talking about international affairs or business reporting but consumers should have a voice in consumer journalism awards."

The deadline for nominations is April 15. The online nomination form for consumers is available online and can be completed in less than two minutes. There is no charge and consumers may submit as many nominations as they wish.

Journalism professionals are also invited to submit nominations. Instructions and the entry form are online.   

The sponsoring entities and their employees and contributors are not eligible for awards.

Photo

Judges will decide 

The judges, drawn from the three sponsoring organizations, will sift the nominations submitted by journalism professionals and consumers and will make the final decision in each category.

Awards will be given for the best reporting in five major categories: print, the internet, radio, television and magazines.

The overall winner will receive the Martin H. Bosworth Award for Outstanding Consumer Reporting. The award is named for the late managing editor of ConsumerAffairs, a consumer news and information center now in its 16th year. Bosworth was 35 when he died at his Los Angeles home in 2010 of a circulatory disorder.

One of the first peer review sites on the Web, ConsumerAffairs , founded in 1998, publishes consumer reviews that empower consumers to collaboratively find the products and services that best suit their needs and helps them identify shoddy practices and outright scams. Its news reports deal with automotive, personal finance, health, travel and other consumer issues.

The Media Policy Center addresses issues of social welfare, public policy, education, the environment, and health care. Its primary goal, through media, is to inform, challenge, and ultimately engage a responsive citizenry and to encourage full and meaningful debate and participation across the political, social, and economic spectrum.

Woodbury University seeks to transform its students into liberally educated professionals and socially responsible citizens by integrating transdisciplinarity, design thinking, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement into all programs. Woodbury achieves academic excellence by creating external partnerships, implementing effective internal processes, and ensuring quality in all programs and services

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Spring lawn care tips

Despite climate differences, diverse regions of the country get uniform results

Now that we're are well into March you may be giving thought to your home's lawn. Coaxing it back to life after a hard winter is important, but don't over ...

PhotoNow that we're are well into March you may be giving thought to your home's lawn. Coaxing it back to life after a hard winter is important, but don't overdo it.

Makers of commercial lawn care products would like you to go all-in with spring lawn feeding and fertilizing but many experts recommend doing the bulk of that work in the fall. Still, your lawn needs some attention in the early spring.

Snow mold

Scotts, a maker of lawn care products, suggests checking your lawn for signs of snow mold, which it says can occur where the grass is long and snow hung around for extended periods of time. It's a type of turf disease that kills grass – mostly Kentucky bluegrass and fescue. You'll recognize it by its circular shape, anywhere from three to 12 inches in diameter.

After a particularly snowy winter in much of the country many homeowners may find they have quite a bit of snow mold. Fortunately, the grass will likely bounce back on its own without any treatment. However, the video below, produced by an organic lawn care company, shows how you can help the healing process along.

Local conditions

Much of the lawn care advice you'll find online is for specific geographic areas, having to do with specific climate conditions. But some advice is universal, such as proper mowing techniques. Most experts recommend letting the grass grow tall in early spring.

"Most people mow their lawns way too short, which stresses out the grass," said Paul James, who hosts “Gardening by the Yard” on HGTV.

It's much better, he says, to do less, not more. “I'm a great believer in benign neglect," he said.

The reasons tall grass is better aren't complicated. Tall grass promotes healthy roots. It shades the ground so it doesn't dry out as fast. It may keep down weeds, since weed seeds require a lot of sunlight to germinate.

It's also important to sharpen your mower's blade before the first time you cut your lawn. A sharp blade will not tug on the roots as much as it takes off the top of the grass.

Photo

Wait until lawn dries out

Even though you may be eager to start working in the yard on the first nice early spring day, make sure your lawn is ready. Many experts say your lawn should be dry before you start walking around on it. If the ground is wet you'll pack down the soil, making it harder for the grass roots to get sufficient air.

In fact, you should consider aerating your lawn if you didn't do it in the fall. If you find bare spots put out some new grass seed.

Remarkable uniformity

Despite the climate differences in the U.S., a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that homeowners are able to make their lawns look remarkably similar. The study tried to determine whether homeowners across the country utilized the same lawn management techniques.

Some 79% of surveyed residents reported watering their lawns and 64% applied fertilizer – two practices increasingly frowned upon by environmentalists. In some parts of the country there is growing concern about possible water shortages. Fertilizer is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus which stimulates lawn growth, but can degrade waterways by causing algal blooms that rob oxygen from fish and other aquatic life.

"These numbers are important when we bear in mind that lawns cover more land in the United States than any other irrigated crop,” said Peter Groffman, a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and one of the paper's authors. “What we do in our suburban and urban yards has a big impact, for better or worse, on the environment."

Among the survey's findings, residents of Boston and Miami – cities with very different climates – had similar fertilization rates. Not surprisingly, in the study's two driest cities – Phoenix and Los Angeles – heavy watering correlated with affluence. Overall, the study found local climate and social factors led to the biggest differences in lawn care variability.

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Tesla gets the Bum's Rush in New Jersey

High-end electric-car manufacturer ordered to shut down its Garden State showrooms

New Jersey has become a bridge too far for Tesla, the fast-growing electric-car manufacturer that has been challenging the cozy relationship between car de...

PhotoNew Jersey has become a bridge too far for Tesla, the fast-growing electric-car manufacturer that has been challenging the cozy relationship between car dealers and state regulators around the country and insisting it should be treated differently.

Besides building an electric car that's fast, fun, efficient and expensive, Tesla has been disrupting the auto industry by selling directly to consumers from company-owned showrooms -- something that's illegal in many states.

What's that, you say? Illegal to sell a car without a dealer?

That's right. While individuals can sell cars to each other, a manufacturer can't just rent a showroom and start selling cars to consumers. Tesla knew that going in but what it didn't realize was what a tangled web it would have to negotiate in state after state to crack the cozy relationship between car dealers and state politicians.

The progress had been slow but somewhat steady until this week, when Tesla ran afoul of New Jersey, already famous for practically imprisoning its own citizens by closing traffic lanes on the nation's busiest bridge to teach a local politico a lesson.

Blogging isn't politicking

Photo
Elon Musk

When the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission approved a resolution this week explicity banning direct auto-manufacturer sales to consumers, Tesla cried foul and began emitting piteous bleeps through its blogs and press releases, saying it had been "attacked" by the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers.

This is the same Tesla that scheduled a recall to update the software on its cars and then whined and whimpered when the press accurately called it -- what else? -- a recall.

Tesla and its I-know-more-than-everybody CEO Elon Musk are now getting a taste of real politics, not the Silicon Valley variety, which consists mostly of fervent admiration of and capitulation to tech wizards. In the Garden State, they take the gloves off when the bell rings and start slugging.

So far, Tesla has not landed a punch while the car dealers have landed 696,749 of them -- in the form of dollars contributed through various dealer PACs to politicians over the last year, according to the National Institute of Money In Politics. Tesla has not parted with a dime.

Guess what, Tesla. It takes more than endless motormouth verbiage to grease the wheels and get things rolling. Campaign contributions aren't bribes -- they're fight tickets. If you want to be ringside, you need to pony up.

As they say, Elon, all politics is local. Or, to put it another way: you don't play the game, you don't get to make the rules. 

You know what I'm sayin'?

 

  

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Buying, treating effects of illegal drugs skyrocketing

Americans may have spent $1 trillion on illegal drugs in 10 years

The economy may still be shaky and unemployment still high, but Americans are somehow finding the resources to purchase marijuana, cocaine, meth and other ...

PhotoThe economy may still be shaky and unemployment still high, but Americans are somehow finding the resources to purchase marijuana, cocaine, meth and other illicit drugs.

A report compiled for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy by researchers affiliated with the RAND Drug Policy Research Center says Americans likely spent more than $1 trillion on illegal drugs between 2000 and 2010.

America the stoned

Studying illegal drug use over that period, researchers found Americans consumed 30% more marijuana from 2006 to 2010, while cocaine consumption fell by about half. Meanwhile, heroin use was fairly stable throughout the decade. Methamphetamine consumption dramatically increased during the first half of the decade and then declined.

Citing 2012 statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 8.9% of people in the U.S., age 12 or older, had used an illicit drug in the past month. A large percentage of them reported using marijuana.

"Having credible estimates of the number of heavy drug users and how much they spend is critical for evaluating policies, making decisions about treatment funding and understanding the drug revenues going to criminal organizations," said Beau Kilmer, the study's lead author and co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. "This work synthesizes information from many sources to present the best estimates to date for illicit drug consumption and spending in the United States."

Legal sales not included

The report's data stops at 2010 so researchers say it does not cover the recent spike in heroin use, or take into consideration the consequences of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington.

The study provides estimates of the amount of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine used each year from 2000 to 2010. It includes estimates of retail spending on illicit drugs and the number of chronic users, who researchers say account for a majority of drug consumption.

Prevention and treatment

Besides the money consumers spend on illegal drugs, billions more is spent trying to prevent those purchases and treating the effects of drug abuse. The Drug Policy Alliance reports the U.S. spends $51 billion a year on the war on drugs. In 2012 1.55 million people in the U.S. were arrested on nonviolent drug charges.

In 2012 749,825 people in the U.S. were arrested for violating marijuana laws – 88% of them for possession. The number of Americans incarcerated in 2012 in federal, state and local prisons and jails rose to 2.2 million, or one in every 108 adults, the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse keeps track of the costs of substance abuse. By its accounting the abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs is costly, amounting to over $600 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and healthcare.

Costs of drug use

It says the health care costs related to illicit drug use is $11 billion a year. Drug use overall, it says, costs $193 billion. Compared to alcohol, which is legal, the health care costs are $30 billion and overall costs $235 billion.

The large uptick in marijuana use appears to be related to an increase in the number of people described as heavy users, who reported using the drug on a daily or near-daily basis. Those estimates are based on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which surveys nearly 70,000 people each year.

Estimates for cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are largely based on information from the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program, or ADAM, which was recently defunded by the U.S. government.

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Are medical marijuana commercials coming to TV?

Probably not, despite last week's hoax

American marijuana laws have been in flux for the past few years...

PhotoAmerican marijuana laws have been in flux for the past few years: at the federal level, marijuana is thoroughly illegal and officially lacking all medicinal value (unless it's sold in synthetic form as “Marinol,” which is available only via prescription). At the state level, things change: some states ban marijuana as thoroughly as do the feds, other states allow marijuana to be sold as a prescription drug, and in two states, Colorado and Washington, it is legal as a recreational drug — like alcohol, only far more restricted.

But there's one particular type of marijuana ban that hasn't changed anywhere in the U.S., and is unlikely to do so: TV watchers won't see ads for marijuana airing during commercial breaks.

It's worth mentioning, however, that marijuana is by no means exclusive in that regard; radio and TV ads for tobacco cigarettes have been banned in the U.S. since 1970. On the other hand, American TV viewers routinely see advertisements for prescription pharmaceuticals, which makes us an outlier by world standards; New Zealand is the only other country where “direct to consumer pharmaceutical advertising” is legal.

Therefore, even assuming a near-future America where all federal and state marijuana-criminalization laws are rescinded, and marijuana became, presumably, the legal equivalent of alcohol where sale, use and possession are concerned — what would its legal status be regarding TV commercials? Banned completely, like tobacco cigarettes, or allowed in certain low-potency circumstances a la beer commercials? [He's the Most Interesting Man in the World, and he says: “I don't always get stoned, but when I do, I prefer San Diego Stinkweed. Stay profound, my friends.”]

And even if recreational marijuana ads were banned, that still leaves open the question of pharmaceutical/medicinal marijuana ads.

Non-existent non-issue

The non-issue of non-existent marijuana ads nonetheless became a short-lived media sensation last week (if you missed it, that's probably because you blinked) after MarijuanaDoctors.com issued a March 7 press release announcing its intention to air the first-ever medical marijuana TV commercials on various Comcast channels. Respected media outlets ranging from CNN and TIME to Comcast subsidiary NBC News reported the story as though the ads actually aired — except they never did (although they are visible on YouTube).

Story continues below video

So it brought free publicity to MarijuanaDoctors.com (exhibits A and B: this article exists, and you are reading it), yet it's worth asking: might this little stunt have somehow harmed the pro-marijuana-legalization cause?

When MediaPost explored the topic on March 11, it noted: “the question remains, can pot ads ever air nationally? Or is the only way for medical marijuana to receive national coverage to engage in this type of trickery?”

Of course, the wide availability of Internet access might render the question moot — content forbidden to broadcast over the airwaves is still easy to find on YouTube, and the very act of “watching TV,” let alone subscribing to cable, is in decline compared to obtaining content through computers or over handheld devices.

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Target's embarrassing Photoshop failure

It is physically and biologically impossible for any human to look like that

The Target corporation has had multiple problems lately but its latest bit of bad publicity is entirely its own fault — no hacker malfeasance to blame....

PhotoThe Target corporation has had multiple problems lately, what with hackers wreaking all sorts of havoc, but its latest bit of bad publicity is entirely its own fault — no hacker malfeasance to blame, but actual Target employees (or subcontractors) doing their actual jobs.

This week, blogger Rebecca Rose from Jezebel discovered a photo on Target's website (which has since been taken down, although it's archived on Jezebel and countless other places across the Internet) showing a young girl modeling a two-piece swimsuit the company sells. Yet an unknown somebody in Target's graphics department used Photoshop to alter the appearance of the girl's body and swimsuit — specifically, changing the size and shape of her thighs and crotch, and slimming her waist and hips — so that the girl in the photo not only appears noticeably thinner than she actually is, she is thinner (and of different shapes and proportions) than is biologically possible.

She's also missing a triangle-shaped chunk of flesh from her hips, and it's safe to presume her image was altered in other ways which aren't as obvious because the Photoshopper at least remembered to stay within normal human biological guidelines.

As Rose said in Jezebel:

The worst, most horrible part of this (aside from the horrible Photoshopping skills of whatever poor graphic design intern got assigned to do this) is that this product is for their junior's line. This is what is being marketed and pushed on young girls—this absurd image of a crotch that absolutely does not and cannot happen naturally. This what young girls have to look at and try to reconcile with their own, normally shaped bodies.... I really don't know what the hell the purpose of this is, even from a purely superficial, swimsuit marketing standpoint. What was the issue with this model's original appearance that offended them so much that they thought this would be better?

Not unique

In all fairness to Target, it is in no way unique in its tendency to alter the appearance of the female body in ways that completely contradict the laws of biology, physics and common sense. “Photoshop Fail” in advertising is common enough to have entire blogs dedicated to it (and at least one magazine attempting to stamp it out).

Just last week, the Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood urged the Girl Scouts to end its Barbie-themed partnership with Mattel, partially due to the unseemliness of using the Scouts to advertise toys to children, but mainly because of the unrealistic (and arguably unhealthy) self-image Barbie can create in young girls advertising to a basically because Barbie offers: an actual human being with Barbie-sized proportions would be unable to survive. For example, the neck-to-head circumference ratio would leave a Barbie-sized neck too narrow to support a Barbie-sized head.

Nor could Barbie stand, let alone walk, given ther proportions: her calves and ankles are too thin to support her body weight, even if her too-small feet were actually capable of holding her balance.

Point is, if you are a woman or girl of any age, and you're unhappy with your appearance because “I don't look as good as that model in this ad I see here,” don't take it personally. Even the model in the ad doesn't look like the model in the ad, at least not without heavy Photoshopping, airbrushing, and outright CGI fantasy invention.

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FDA approves "tingling" headband to relieve migraines

The device may be effective for patients not helped by medication

For a significant segment of the population, migraine headaches are a real, well, headache. For many sufferers, migraines are not only frequent but also qu...

PhotoFor a significant segment of the population, migraine headaches are a real, well, headache. For many sufferers, migraines are not only frequent but also quite severe, including visual disturbances, vomiting and extreme pain that can last for days.

There are medications but they're not effective for everyone. Now, at long last, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first device intended to prevent migraines.

It's called Cefaly and it is technically known as a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) device.

“Cefaly provides an alternative to medication for migraine prevention,” said Christy Foreman, director of the Office of Device Evaluation at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “This may help patients who cannot tolerate current migraine medications for preventing migraines or treating attacks.”

Cefaly is a small, portable, battery-powered, prescription device that resembles a plastic headband worn across the forehead and atop the ears. The user positions the device in the center of the forehead, just above the eyes, using a self-adhesive electrode.

The device applies an electric current to the skin and underlying body tissues to stimulate branches of the trigeminal nerve, which has been associated with migraine headaches. The user may feel a tingling or massaging sensation where the electrode is applied. Cefaly is indicated for patients 18 years of age and older and should only be used once per day for 20 minutes.

Less pain

The FDA reviewed the data for Cefaly through a process used for low- to moderate-risk medical devices. It evaluated the safety and effectiveness of the device based on data from a clinical study conducted in Belgium involving 67 individuals who experienced more than two migraine headache attacks a month and who had not taken any medications to prevent migraines for three months prior to using Cefaly, as well as a patient satisfaction study of 2,313 Cefaly users in France and Belgium.

The 67-person study showed that those who used Cefaly experienced significantly fewer days with migraines per month and used less migraine attack medication than those who used a placebo device. The device did not completely prevent migraines and did not reduce the intensity of migraines that did occur.

The patient satisfaction study showed that a little more than 53 percent of patients were satisfied with Cefaly treatment and willing to buy the device for continued use. The most commonly reported complaints were dislike of the feeling and not wanting to continue using the device, sleepiness during the treatment session, and headache after the treatment session.

No serious adverse events occurred during either study.

Cefaly is manufactured by STX-Med in Herstal, Liege, Belgium.

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A negative turnaround for mortgage applications

They just can't get any positive traction

After posting their first increase in more than a month last week, applications for mortgages are down again. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s...

PhotoAfter posting their first increase in more than a month last week, applications for mortgages are down again.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications dropped 2.1% during the week ending March 7.

In addition, after a 10% surge the week before, the Refinance Index was down 3%, dropping the refinance share of mortgage activity to 57% of total applications -- the lowest level since April 2011, from 58 percent the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity held stead at 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) jumped 5 basis points -- from 4.47% to 4.52%, with points increasing to 0.29 from 0.28 (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) rose to 4.41% from 4.37%, with points unchanged at 0.20 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRM backed by the FHA was up 5 basis points -- to 4.18%, with points increasing to 0.21 from 0.13 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs inched up to 3.53% from 3.52%, with points increasing to 0.28 from 0.18 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs shot up 9 basis points -- to 3.18%, with points decreasing to 0.36 from 0.38 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

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Home security company fined for "Do Not Call" violations

Millions of calls were made that should not have been

A Massachusetts-based home security company that illegally called millions of consumers on the FTC’s National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry to pitch home secu...

PhotoA Massachusetts-based home security company that illegally called millions of consumers on the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry to pitch home security systems will pay for its transgressions.

According to the FTC, Versatile Marketing Solutions (VMS), under the guidance of its owner, Jasjit Gotra, called millions of consumers whose names and phone numbers VMS bought from lead generators.

The lead generators claimed that those consumers had given VMS permission to contact them about the installation of a free home security system; but in reality, they had not. The FTC's complaint alleges that the defendants’ tactics violated the the Telemarketing Sales Rule.

The sales leads were obtained by illegal means through rampant use of robocalls from “Tom with Home Protection,” fake survey calls, and calls to phone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry. According to the complaint, VMS subsequently called these consumers without first checking to see if they had registered their telephone numbers on the DNC Registry.

Warning signs ignored

In addition, the complaint contends VMS ignored warning signs that the lead generators were engaged in illegal telemarketing practices. For example, many consumers contacted by VMS complained that they had not given the company permission to call, nor had they given permission to receive a robocall. Despite mounting complaints, VMS continued buying leads from the same lead generators, and calling consumers using those leads.

“Companies that use lead generators must exercise due diligence when they buy lists of phone numbers,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, “or else they can be on the hook for illegal telemarketing. Relying on a say-so that the numbers were obtained legally, or that the consumers have agreed to be called, even if their numbers are on the Do Not Call Registry, isn’t enough.”

The complaint says that between November 2011, and July 2012, VMS made more than two million calls to consumers to try to sell home security goods and services. Of those calls, at least one million were to phone numbers listed on the DNC Registry, and more than 100,000 were to consumers who had previously told VMS not to call them again -- another violation of the DNC rules.

No more calls

The stipulated final court order settling the charges prohibits VMS and Gotra from making abusive telemarketing calls and from calling any consumer whose number is on the DNC Registry, unless they can prove that they have received written permission to make the call or that they have an established business relationship with that consumer.

It further bars them from calling any consumer who has previously told VMS not to call them again, and places restrictions on how defendants can obtain and use lead-generated phone numbers in the future.

Finally, the order imposes a $3.4 million penalty judgment against the defendants, with all but $320,700 suspended due to their inability to pay. The entire amount will become due if the defendants are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

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Lawsuit alleges Google unfairly sells in-app purchases to young children

Kids can ring up enormous fees without even realizing it

If you have young children and let them play “free” game apps on their handheld devices, watch out...

PhotoIf you have young children and let them play “free” game apps on their handheld devices, watch out: the kids might be ringing up hundreds of dollars' worth of bills without even realizing it — until you get the bill at the end of the month.

The mother of two preschoolers in New York is suing Google after she downloaded the 99-cent children's game app “Run Jump Smash” to her Samsung tablet. Within the first 30 minutes of playing the game, however, the kids bought $66 worth of in-game currency.

This is actually a common feature of many free or low-cost games: you can indeed play for free, but you're very limited in what you can do unless you pay for certain upgrades. Imagine being invited to play the old-fashioned Monopoly board game: it costs you nothing to join the game and use Monopoly money to buy Monopoly properties, but if you want to put houses and hotels on your properties you must spend real-world cash money first.

You, of course, are too savvy to do this, but critics say it's unreasonable to expect preschool kids to have the same financial wisdom (or even recognize the difference between “This link is free” and “That link costs money every time you click on it”).

Doesn't tell parents

Imber-Gluck's complaint is that when Google lets parents download free or inexpensive apps for kids, it does not tell the parents that for the first 30 minutes, anyone playing the app can automatically purchase in-game currency.

Media Post reports that Imber-Gluck alleges “Google offers many games that use the same bait-and-switch business scheme as Run Jump Smash … Google entices the child with a free or inexpensive (e.g., $0.99) download of a gaming platform that then offers the sale of irresistible game currency in order to enjoy the game as it was designed to be played.”

Imber-Gluck is bringing a class action suit which, among other things, demands that Google give parents to void any in-app purchases made by their children. Meanwhile, you should keep a sharp eye on your children's Google game-playing activities — at least for the first 30 minutes.

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Experian identity theft: subsidiaries sold information to Vietnamese data thieves

Not known how many millions of Americans had their data compromised

Where news headlines are concerned, “Hackers gain access to company database steal customer info” has become almost as common as “Local woman gives birth”...

PhotoWhere news headlines are concerned, “Hackers gain access to company database and steal customer info” has become almost as common as “Local woman gives birth.” It happens all the time, so unless you're personally involved with one or more of the actors it probably doesn't concern you.

So anytime you read such a news article – whether about Target, Sally Beauty or any other company in existence – there's always a part which says “If you are a recent customer of this company, here's certain steps you must take to protect yourself from identity thieves.” These steps often include contacting one of the big credit-reporting data broker agencies, like Experian, to warn them against possibly fraudulent activities on your account.

But the latest security breach, which KrebsOnSecurity reported on March 14, might be tougher to protect yourself against, since the identity thieves gained access to the files of Experian itself. More specifically: Vietnamese national Hieu Minh Ngo tricked Experian subsidiaries US Info Search and Court Ventures into believing he was a legitimate private investigator with legitimate (read: non-criminal) reasons to access data brokers' files.

As Krebs noted:

Posing as a private investigator operating out of Singapore, Ngo contracted with Court Ventures, paying for his access to consumer records via regular cash wire transfers from a bank in Singapore. Through that contract, Ngo was able to make available to his clients [identity thieves] access to the US Info Search database containing Social Security, date of birth and other records on more than 200 million Americans.

Experian came into the picture in March 2012, when it purchased Court Ventures (along with all of its customers — including Mr. Ngo). For almost ten months after Experian completed that acquisition, Ngo continued siphoning consumer data and making his wire transfers.

Full extent not clear

News of the Experian breach first came to light last October, but until recently, the full extent of the security damage was not made clear. Last week, finally, new information came to light. The Secret Service (which arrested Hieu last year) claims that Hieu's clients used their fraudulently obtained information for a wide variety of identity-theft schemes: opening credit lines and running up debt in other people's names, filing false tax returns and so forth.

Krebs noted (italics from the original): “The transcript shows government investigators found that over an 18-month period ending Feb. 2013, Ngo’s customers made approximately 3.1 million queries on Americans.”

It gets worse. As Krebs explained, each individual query would bring up records on multiple people — a query for “Brian Krebs” in Virginia brought back results for at least 10 different individuals, 10 people who'd be at extreme risk of identity theft after a data broker handed their confidential account information over to a fake private investigator in Singapore.

It is not known exactly how many Americans' personal information was compromised, though the government has promised to release more information “in the near future.” In the meanwhile, it might not be possible to conclusively determine whether or not your personal information is now in the hands of Hieu or his clients. All you can do is remember all the “protect yourself from identity theft” advice you've ever heard, and be doubly vigilant about it.

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House panel to probe response to GM consumer complaints

Lawmakers will look into the handling of the matter by the automaker and federal regulators

The House Energy and Commerce Committee wants some answers The panel, chaired by Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI), is opening an investigation into the way ...

PhotoThe House Energy and Commerce Committee wants some answers

The panel, chaired by Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI), is opening an investigation into the way General Motors (GM) and National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) responded to consumer complaints related to problems with ignition switches in certain vehicles.

Ignoring the problem?

General Motors has announced the recalls of six vehicle models to correct the problems, saying the defects may have been linked to 31 frontal crashes and 13 fatalities.

NHTSA is also investigating the situation, but now the investigators are being investigated.

While the recalls were first announced last month, a recent New York Times report claims NHTSA has received a large number of complaints expressing safety concerns and describing these problems spanning over the past 10 years.

TREAD Act

Photo
2005 Chevy Cobalt

It has been over a decade since the enactment of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act, which was passed by Congress to enhance the federal government’s ability to protect against auto safety defects.

The legislation, which came in the wake of the Ford-Firestone tire malfunctions, was intended to improve communication between auto manufacturers and the federal government and increase NHTSA’s ability to collect and analyze information about potential threats.

In light of GM’s safety problems, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will seek a progress report on the TREAD Act’s implementation and pursue answers relating to the complaints filed with NHTSA, the response, and the eventual recalls.

Significant questions about implementation of the TREAD Act need to be answered, said Upton. “Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner? If the answer is yes, we must learn how and why this happened, and then determine whether this system of reporting and analyzing complaints that Congress created to save lives is being implemented and working as the law intended. Americans deserve to have the peace of mind that they are safe behind the wheel.”

Upton says the panel will “seek detailed information from both NHTSA and GM and will hold a hearing in the coming weeks.”

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Consumer complaints pay off for servicemembers, veterans, and their families

Some get cash, others get justice

It pays to gripe. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), servicemembers, veterans, and their families who complained the about fina...

PhotoIt pays to gripe.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), servicemembers, veterans, and their families who complained the about financial products or services have recovered more than $1 million.

The CFPB’s second snapshot of complaints from military consumers, covers more than 14,000 complaints from servicemembers, veterans, and their families received by the CFPB from July 21, 2011, through February 1, 2014.

“Military families make enormous sacrifices for our nation and deserve to be protected,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “I am pleased that the Bureau has assisted thousands in cutting through red tape when dealing with their financial institutions. However, the complaints show that many servicemembers, veterans, and their families are not getting the protections accorded to them by federal laws and that raises concern.”

Similar to civilian complaints

By and large, the complaints submitted by the military track with those of the population at large. In the last fiscal quarter, the CFPB handled on average more than 250 complaints per week from military families. Complaints have come from every state, and every rank and branch of the Armed Services.

While servicemembers, veterans, and their families who complained to the CFPB have received more than $1 million in relief since July 2011, not all who submitted complaints received money. Some received non-monetary relief -- such as cleaning up their credit reports, stopping harassment from debt collectors, and correcting account information -- while others had their complaints closed without relief.

Monetary relief

But the CFPB has seen monetary relief returned to military consumers across all products. Among companies that reported monetary relief, this includes:

  • A median amount of $470 for mortgages;
  • A median amount of $143 for credit cards; and
  • A median amount of $125 for bank account or service.

According to the report, the top three complaints by servicemembers, veterans, and their families are mortgages, debt collection, and credit cards.

Servicemember protection concerns

While servicemembers have all the protections that everyday consumers have, they may also have additional protections based on their military service. The CFPB says it is particularly concerned about when servicemembers are not seeing the unique protections accorded to them by federal laws.

Specifically, the bureau is concerned with:

  • Debt collection: Since the CFPB began taking debt collection complaints in July 2013, it has quickly become the top complaint category for servicemembers. Specifically, the agency is concerned about aggressive and deceptive tactics used by debt collectors against military members. These tactics often involve contacting a servicemember’s military chain of command, threatening punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, threatening to have a servicemember reduced in rank, or threatening to have a servicemember’s security clearance revoked.
  • Student loans: The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) provides financial protections so that members of the Armed Forces can undertake military duties without adverse financial consequences. But military consumers have reported problems obtaining correct and consistent information on available SCRA protections for their student loans. Some report being incorrectly told by their loan servicer that protections apply only when they are deployed or that the loan must be in deferment. Consumers also report they are repeatedly and incorrectly asked to submit additional documentation such as paperwork showing recertification of active duty status.
  • Payday loans: The Military Lending Act (MLA) prohibits interest rates above 36% on some types of loans, including certain payday loans, auto title, and tax refund anticipation loans, to active-duty military, their spouses, and dependents. While the number of payday loan complaints received from servicemembers has been relatively small, the CFPB is concerned that lenders are skirting the MLA by lending just outside its narrow parameters.
  • Mortgages: Military consumers have complained about mortgage servicers’ lack of knowledge about military-specific programs. They report that servicers are unaware of the guidance offered by the CFPB and the other prudential regulators that servicers must provide accurate and timely information about available assistance options when a military family gets Permanent Change of Station (PCS) orders. Military consumers have also complained that servicers do not know about the short-sale guidelines aimed at assisting servicemembers with PCS orders, or that a PCS move may be considered a qualifying hardship for various foreclosure-prevention programs.
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Dead brands walking: Blackberry, Quiznos, Kmart

Marketing guru picks the least engaging brands of 2014

A Quiznos in downtown Tulsa, Okla. (Staff photo)Blackberry, Quiznos and Kmart head the list of dying brands compiled by a New York marketing guru."A ...

Photo
A Quiznos in downtown Tulsa, Okla. (Staff photo)

Blackberry, Quiznos and Kmart head the list of dying brands compiled by a New York marketing guru.

"A brand can't do well in today's marketplace if it can't engage consumers, no matter how many ads are run, and no matter how much social networking one does," said Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys"Brand engagement correlates very highly with positive consumer behavior, sales, and profits. All you have to do is look and see how the brand is doing in the marketplace to confirm customer assessments."

Passikoff said that brand engagement,– defined as the degree to which a brand is seen to meet the expectations consumers hold for the ideal in the category,– is a leading indicator of positive consumer behavior and brand loyalty.

They are the ultimate measure for the brand, "which should always be the beneficiary of any marketing or advertising effort," said Passikoff. "People can be engaged with a show or a social network or an event or an experience, but those are methods of engagement. Brand engagement is the ultimate goal."

By examining how well 64 brands did at meeting those expectations for their Ideal, Brand Keys identified the 10 least engaging brands for 2014. From the lowest level of engagement, brands ranked as follows:

1. Blackberry 52%
2. Quiznos 57%
3. Kmart 59%
4. Sony (e-readers) 60%
5. WOW search engine 60%
6. Sears (64%)
7. American Apparel 65%
8. Budweiser (regular) 70%
9. Coty Cosmetics (71%)
10. Volkswagen (79%)

"Brands compete in specific categories," noted Passikoff. "By seeing how well customers think a brand measures up to meeting their ideal retailer, or beer, or smartphone, allows for cross-category rankings like these."

"Where engagement is high consumers behave better toward a brand and the brand sees more sales and, along with that, should also see increased share and profits. Where engagement is low, the reverse happens," noted Passikoff. "Always."

For the Brand Keys 2014 survey, 32,000 consumers, 18 to 65 years of age, drawn from the nine U.S. Census regions, self-selected the categories in which they are consumers, and the brands for which they are customers (top-20%). Seventy percent (70%) were interviewed by phone, twenty-five percent (25%) via face-to-face interviews (to include cell phone-only households), and 5% participated online.

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Study: Glucosamine doesn't protect knee cartilage

An earlier study found similar results for hip pain

Lots of people swear by glucosamine, saying it helps relieve arthritis pain and, in particular, reduces knee pain. But a new study finds that glucosam...

PhotoLots of people swear by glucosamine, saying it helps relieve arthritis pain and, in particular, reduces knee pain. But a new study finds that glucosamine supplements are not associated with a lessening of knee cartilage deterioration among individuals with chronic knee pain.

The findings, published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, a journal of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) journal, indicate that glucosamine does not decrease pain or improve knee bone marrow lesions — more commonly known as bone bruises and thought to be a source of pain in those with osteoarthritis.

Nor is it what the doctor ordered for hip pain. A study in 2008 found that glucosamine had no apparent effect on hip arthritis. Those with very mild arthritis noted some slight improvement when taking the glucosamine, but the improvement was very small 

$2 billion in sales

At least 27 million Americans over 25 years of age have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis — the most common form of arthritis and a leading cause of disability in the elderly. Many patients seek alternative therapies, with glucosamine ranking as the second most commonly-used natural product.

In fact, a 2007 Gallup poll reports that 10% of individuals in the U.S. over the age of 18 use glucosamine, with more than $2 billion in global sales of the supplement.

The study is the first to investigate whether the supplement prevents the worsening of cartilage damage or bone marrow lesions.

"Our study found no evidence that drinking a glucosamine supplement reduced knee cartilage damage, relieved pain, or improved function in individuals with chronic knee pain," said Dr. C. Kent Kwoh from the University of Arizona in Tucson, who led the study.

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Judge rules FAA lacks authority over commercial drones

A Virginia photographer had been fined $10,000 for using a drone to shoot advertising photos

Back in 2011, the University of Virginia wanted dramatic aerial shots of its medical school, so it hired photographer Raphael Pirker, who used an unmanned ...

PhotoBack in 2011, the University of Virginia wanted dramatic aerial shots of its medical school, so it hired photographer Raphael Pirker, who used an unmanned model glider aircraft around the university's campus in Charlottesville.

The photos came out fine but the Federal Aviation Administration was not amused and fined Pirker $10,000, claiming he had violated a ban on commercial drones enacted by the FAA in 2007.

But Judge Patrick Geraghty of the National Transportation Safety Board dismissed the FAA's suit against Pirker, Courthouse News Service reported.

Geraghty said the FAA Modernization Re-Authorization and Reform Act, which Congress passed in 2012, reflects that no effective laws on drones were in place at the time.

The ruling was stayed, however, pending an appeal by the FAA and commercial drone flights will still be subject to fines while the stay is in effect.

"The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground," the FAA said in a statement.

Amazon has said it is working on a plan to use unmanned drones to deliver packages and police departments around the country have been formulating plans to use drones for "routine surveillance," a prospect that has brought a strong response from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.  

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NTSB chief quits to head National Safety Council

Deborah Hersman has been a frequent critic of the auto industry

The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board is quitting to become the president of CEO of the National Safety Council. Deborah Hersman has bee...

PhotoThe chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board is quitting to become the president of CEO of the National Safety Council. Deborah Hersman has been a vocal and frequent critic of the automobile industry and has pushed for tougher laws covering drunken driving, driver distraction and other safety issues.

"We have got to dispel the myth of multitasking," Hersman, 43, said in early 2012 of the proliferation of electronic devices and communication services in light vehicles, Automotive News reported. "We are still learning what the human brain can handle. What is the price of our desire to be mobile and connected at the same time?"

She has called for the use of technology, including collision warning systems, to make cars safer and has criticized automakers for loading up cars with complex entertainment, communications and navigation systems.

"Too many people are texting, talking and driving at the same time," Hersman told a Washington hearing in December 2011. "It's time to put a stop to distraction. No call, no text, no update is worth a human life."

The 100-year-old National Safety Council was chartered by Congress to prevent unintentional injury and death. It is headquartered in suburban Chicago.

“Debbie is a recognized leader in safety, with a frontline understanding of the value of protecting human life through thoughtful attention and management of risk,” said Jeff Woodbury, chairman of NSC board of directors.

At NTSB, Hersman has been on-scene for more than 20 major transportation accidents, chaired scores of NTSB hearings, forums and events, and testified before Congress.

Hersman was first appointed as a NTSB board member by President Bush in 2004 and was reappointed to two additional five-year terms by President Obama in 2009 and 2013. She was appointed chairman by President Obama in 2009, 2011 and 2013, with unanimous Senate confirmation votes. 

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FTC finds small minority of funeral homes violating price disclosure requirements

Undercover investigations were conducted in 8 states last year

Most funeral homes checked last year by Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigators working undercover are following the rules when it comes to disclose p...

PhotoMost funeral homes checked last year by Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigators working undercover are following the rules when it comes to disclose pricing information to consumers.

But, in the eight states they visited, the investigators found 32 of the 124 funeral homes they checked failed to disclose the information as required by the FTC's Funeral Rule.

The agency conducts undercover inspections every year to make sure that funeral homes are complying with the rule, which was issued in 1984 and gives consumers important rights when making funeral arrangements.

The rule's provisions

Key provisions of the rule require funeral homes to provide consumers with an itemized general price list at the start of an in-person discussion of funeral arrangements, as well as a casket price list before consumers view any caskets and an outer burial container price list before they view grave liners or vaults.

It also prohibits funeral homes from requiring consumers to buy any item, such as a casket, as a condition of obtaining any other funeral good or service. By requiring itemized prices, the Funeral Rule enables consumers to compare prices and buy only the goods and services they want.

What they found

The results of the FTC inspections for price list disclosures by region are as follows:

  • In Palm Springs, California, 1 of 8 funeral homes inspected failed to make a price list disclosure as required;
  • In Southern Connecticut and Northern New Jersey, 2 of 19 funeral homes inspected failed to make a price list disclosure as required;
  • In Monroe, Louisiana, 8 of 17 funeral homes inspected failed to make a price list disclosure as required.
  • In Baltimore, Maryland, 2 of 19 funeral homes inspected failed to make a price list disclosure as required.
  • In Dayton, Ohio, 5 of 15 funeral homes inspected failed to make a price list disclosure as required.
  • In Portland, Oregon, 2 of 14 funeral homes inspected failed to make a price list disclosure as required.
  • In Amarillo, Texas, 6 of 19 funeral homes inspected failed to make a price list disclosure as required.
  • In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 4 of 18 funeral homes inspected failed to make a price list disclosure as required.

Remedial action

Funeral homes with price list disclosure violations can enter a training program designed to increase compliance with the Funeral Rule. The three-year program is known as the Funeral Rule Offenders Program (FROP), and is an alternative to an FTC lawsuit that could lead to a federal court order and civil penalties of up to $16,000 per violation.

It is run by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and provides participants with a legal review of the price disclosures required by the Funeral Rule, and on-going training, testing and monitoring for compliance with the Rule. In addition, funeral homes that participate in the program make a voluntary payment to the U.S. Treasury in place of a civil penalty, and pay annual administrative fees to the Association.

All but two of the funeral homes with violations have agreed to enter the NFDA’s FROP program. The names of homes that have entered FROP are not released under the terms of the FROP program, and the FTC does not identify businesses under investigation.

In addition, the FTC identified a number of funeral homes within the eight states with only minor compliance deficiencies. In such cases, the FTC contacts the funeral home and requires it to provide evidence that it has corrected the problems. Since the FROP program began in 1996, the FTC has inspected over 2,800 funeral homes, 459 of which have agreed to enter the FROP program.

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Three ways to reduce childhood obesity

Getting rid of the TV in the bedroom just might make a difference

Parents concerned that their children may be putting on too much weight have reason to be concerned. Not only are more children overweight but obesity is a...

PhotoParents concerned that their children may be putting on too much weight have reason to be concerned. Not only are more children overweight but obesity is a growing phenomenon with longterm health implications.

The rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 1980 only seven percent of U.S. children between the ages of six and 11 were obese. By 2012 the percentage had surged to 18%.

The record for adolescents is even more distressing. The obesity rate rose from five percent in 1980 to 21% in 2012.

In most cases being overweight or obese is caused by consuming more calories than are expended. To reduce or prevent these conditions, doctors say efforts should focus on reducing consumption and increasing activity.

Healthy diet

Experts point out that it starts with a healthy diet. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a nutritious meal for a child includes plenty of fruits and vegetables. NIH suggests fruits and vegetables should cover half the plate at a typical meal.

Children should also get plenty of healthy forms of protein, such as lean meat, nuts and eggs. When preparing food, broil, steam or grill instead of frying. Avoid fast food as a regular source of meals. When you do eat out, take advantage of fast food restaurants' recent addition of healthier fare to their menus.

It's also important to keep an eye on beverage consumption. Encourage your children to drink plenty of water and go easy on sugary beverages. Fruit juice may be healthy but should be consumed in moderation, since juices tend to be loaded with calories.

Get moving

A second step is to keep kids active, and here, sports participation appears to significantly diminish obesity risk. The Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition says children who participate in sports have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who are not active in sports.

To maintain healthy weight, encourage your child to find a sport or activity he or she enjoys — basketball, softball, soccer, martial arts, swimming or running. The Academy says it doesn’t matter as long as it gets them moving.

Lose the bedroom TV

A third step may be just as important as a healthy diet and regular exercise – limiting time spent in front of a computer or TV screen. A recent study by researchers at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center found that having a bedroom television was a significant predictor of adolescent weight gain.

“This study suggests that removing bedroom TVs is an important step in our nation’s fight against child obesity,” said study first author Diane Gilbert-Diamond. “We found that adolescents with a TV in their bedroom gained about one extra pound a year, compared to those without one, even after accounting for hours of TV watched each day and socioeconomic factors.”

Kids having a TV in their bedroom is a lot more common than you might think. According to the researchers, over half of adolescents in the U.S. have one.

Gilbert-Diamond says this obesity risk factor accounts for over 15 million pounds of excess weight gain per year among U.S. adolescents. She points out that unlike other parenting strategies that require persistent effort and vigilance, parents can make a difference by simply keeping televisions out of their children’s bedrooms.

“Get rid of the TV while children are still in elementary school,” says James Sargent, a pediatrician and collaborator on the study. “You will all go through a couple of weeks of complaining and misery, and then everyone will forget that it was there in the first place.”

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Mandatory liability insurance must be affordable, report finds

Consumer Federation urges states to recognize that many motorists struggle to afford insurance

Many low-income Americans are caught in a Catch-22 situation: they can't afford mandatory minimum liability coverage on the car they need to get to and fro...

PhotoMany low-income Americans are caught in a Catch-22 situation: they can't afford mandatory minimum liability coverage on the car they need to get to and from work. And a new report from the Consumer Federation of America says state and local crackdowns on uninsured drivers and steadily rising premiums are making matters worse.

Most of these drivers with good driving records must pay at least $500 annually for mandatory coverage while many must spend at least $1,000, an amount they're often not able to raise. Stiffer penalties for violators, including large fines, vehicle impoundment and jailtime, aren't helping the situation, the report finds.

“Most uninsured drivers are responsible citizens; they just can’t afford auto insurance premiums that represent their largest driving expense,” said CFA’s executive director, Stephen Brobeck. “Tough enforcement of punitive insured driver laws target many low-income workers who are struggling to survive financially. And increases in required liability coverage just force more of them to drive without insurance.”

No easy solutions

Saying it recognizes there are no easy or perfect solutions, CFA recommends that state and local officials should: 

  • Establish state programs, like California’s, in which low- and moderate-income residents with good driving records can purchase liability coverage for $350 or less.
  • For a start, lower liability minimums for those lower income drivers with good driving records.
  • Restrict insurer use of rating factors – such as occupation, income, credit rating, marital status, and homeownership – that are highly correlated with income and discriminate against lower income drivers.
  • Focus laws and enforcement efforts on drivers who have demonstrated that they do not drive safely.

“State legislators and insurance regulators need to recognize that the uninsured motorist problem is much more about affordability than about irresponsibility,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s Director of Insurance and former Texas Insurance Commissioner. “These officials need to take steps, such as eliminating insurer use of discriminatory rating factors and creating programs for safe lower-income drivers, that allow these drivers to afford required liability coverage.”

Some are unsafe

The CFA report recommends that state and local officials redirect their efforts from punishing safe uninsured drivers to helping them afford mandatory liability coverage. It does, however, distinguish between safe, responsible drivers and those who drive unsafely and irresponsibly, urging government officials to crack down only on the latter.

“Some uninsured drivers simply don’t want to pay for auto insurance, even if they can afford it, and some drivers have caused so many accidents, and been ticketed so often for speeding and other moving violations, that their premiums are huge,” said CFA’s Brobeck.

“Governments should focus on these uninsured drivers, not the majority who take special pains to drive safely and responsibly so they are not stopped by the police. But they don’t need expensive new state verification systems to do so. They already have access to adequate information about moving violations and reckless driving.” 

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Auto leasing picking up speed

Industry report shows increase in number of fourth-quarter leases

When financing a new car, consumers have the option of a purchase or a lease. In the past a lease was usually reserved for very expensive cars or those use...

PhotoWhen financing a new car, consumers have the option of a purchase or a lease. In the past a lease was usually reserved for very expensive cars or those used in businesses, where the payments could be a tax write-off.

But increasingly, new car shoppers are choosing a lease over a purchase, no doubt in large part to some attractive lease terms being offered on all types of vehicles. As a car dealer finance manager told me when I recently leased a vehicle, “manufacturers have figured out leases are great for business. In three years you'll be back for another vehicle.”

Perhaps, although I do have the option of purchasing my leased vehicle if I want. But he's right about the attractiveness to carmakers. Market data shows that people who purchase a car drive it an average of six years.

Having a low monthly lease payment and being able to trade-in for a new car in three years without much adjustment to the payment is attractive. And it turns out I'm not the only one thinking that way.

Leasing at all-time high

Experian Automotive reports more consumers are choosing to lease vehicles than ever before. In fact, the percentage of consumers choosing a lease over a purchase in the fourth quarter of 2013 was the highest since the company began reporting the data in 2006.

According to its latest State of the Automotive Finance Market report, Experian found 28.4 percent of financed vehicles in the fourth quarter were leased. That's up from 24.8% a year earlier.

The reason for the increase isn't really a mystery. A modest, mid-size sedan might have a lease payment of $189 a month with $2,000 due at signing. To purchase the same vehicle might require a larger down payment and a monthly payment of $500, if financed over the same three-year period. Longer finance periods would lower the payment but not anything close to the lease payment.

Lower payments a big draw

"Leasing continues to grow in popularity among car shoppers, especially those hoping to stay within a strict monthly budget," said Melinda Zabritski, senior director of automotive credit for Experian Automotive. "Our analysis this quarter showed that the average monthly lease payment was $51 lower than the average loan payment, which can make a big difference to consumers trying to stretch their dollar."

The average monthly payment on a new car purchase was $471 while the lease payment was $420. The latter may be higher because more expensive luxury cars tend to be the ones that are leased. But there are also plenty of vehicles that can be leased for $200 or less a month.

Rising prices

Car values have also changed, making a lease look a bit more attractive. The Experian Automotive reports shows the average new car financed in the fourth quarter cost $27,430. Amortized over four, five or even six years, that's a hefty payment, even with a low interest rate.

A lease, on the other hand, charges the buyer only for the depreciation on the car while they drive it. The monthly payment is based on the purchase price of the car and the residual value – what the car is worth – at the end of the lease. Because today's cars hold their value better, the cars are worth more after three years than they used to be.

For those buying a new car in the fourth quarter, it was a little easier to obtain financing. The Experian data shows the average credit scores for both new leases and loans were lower than the previous year.

The average credit score for a lease dropped the most, 16 points to 719 in the fourth quarter of 2013. The average credit score for new vehicle loans experienced a smaller drop, falling from 724 in 2012 to 715 in 2013.

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New blood test identifies risk of Alzheimer's and other dementias

Early warning creates opportunity for effective new therapies

This may not prove to be a very popular test, but researchers at Georgetown University say they have developed a blood test that can predict with more than...

PhotoThis may not be a test that anyone is very eager to take, but researchers at Georgetown University say they have developed a blood test that can predict with more than 90% accuracy whether a healthy person will develop Alzheimer's disease or other dementias within three years.

It's the first known test that can identify blood markers for Alzheimer's before symptoms begin to appear.

Although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's, the Georgetown team says their test would give patients, their physicians and researchers a headstart at battling the disease.

"Our novel blood test offers the potential to identify people at risk for progressive cognitive decline and can change how patients, their families and treating physicians plan for and manage the disorder," said Howard J. Federoff, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and executive vice president for health sciences at Georgetown University Medical Center. 

Described in Nature Medicinethe test identifies 10 lipids, or fats, in the blood that predict disease onset. It could be ready for use in clinical studies in as few as two years.

Federoff said the test offers "a window of opportunity for timely disease-modifying intervention" by giving an early warning that would allow new drugs and therapies, once they are developed, to slow or stop further development of the invariably fatal disease, which robs victims of their memory and intellectual faculties. 

"Biomarkers such as ours that define this asymptomatic period are critical for successful development and application of these therapeutics," he said.

A growing epidemic

There is no cure or effective treatment for Alzheimer's. Worldwide, about 35.6 million individuals have the disease and, according to the World Health Organization, the number will double every 20 years to 115 million by 2050.

"We consider our results a major step toward the commercialization of a preclinical disease biomarker test that could be useful for large-scale screening to identify at-risk individuals," Federoff said. "We're designing a clinical trial where we'll use this panel to identify people at high risk for Alzheimer's to test a therapeutic agent that might delay or prevent the emergence of the disease."

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American, JetBlue end their partnership, as mergers contribute to perk erosion

A Southwest fan grieves over a hard-nosed approach to bereavement fares

Now that American Airlines has tied the knot with US Airways, it is saying good-bye to JetBlue, ending interline sales and axing programs that let passenge...

PhotoNow that American Airlines has tied the knot with US Airways, it is saying good-bye to JetBlue, ending interline sales and axing programs that let passengers earn points from trips taken on either airline.

American Airlines March 10, 2014, 9:09 p.m.
Consumers rate American Airlines
The carriers said that, starting Monday, they will stop accepting new interline sales while on April 1, mile- and point-sharing programs will end. Already-accrued miles and points won't be affected.

American earlier jettisoned routes to win regulatory approval of its merger and since then has been trimming other perks to bring its policies into line with US Airways. Most recently, American ended bereavement fares, an endangered species on U.S. carriers.

Bereavement fares pass away

Even Southwest, generally regarded as more pro-consumer than its old-line competitors, has turned downright hard-nosed on the subject of bereavement fares.

While shuttling from Baltimore-Washington Airport to Houston Hobby yesterday, I sat next to a tearful Houston woman who was holding two wilted red roses.

"Romantic weekend?" I asked stupidly. Far from it, it turned out. My seatmate said that one day earlier she had caught a flight from Houston to Baltimore, where her brother-in-law had unexpectedly dropped dead while visiting his ailing father.

As she sought to comfort her Baltimore relatives, she got an urgent call from Houston saying her husband's father had just died. She called Southwest to get an earlier return to Houston, hoping to get a break on the fare.

But, she said, Southwest wouldn't budge, telling her, in effect, that it wasn't the airline's fault her family members were dying in droves.

"It's not the money, really," she said. "I guess that like a lot of Texans, I just always thought Southwest was special somehow. So much for that." 

JetBlue beefs up

The end of the American-JetBlue partnership is also seen as a sign of JetBlue's enhanced competitive powers. When the partnership was established in 2010, JetBlue was a low-cost domestic carrier that posed little threat to American, serving instead to feed domestic passengers into American's international network.

But the American-US Airways merger now fills much of the role once filled by JetBlue, while JetBlue has added more routes and become a more robust competitor to American. It has also picked up some of the airport "slots" at Washington National Airport that American was forced to give up, giving it an even stronger position in one of American's key markets.

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"House of Cards" comes to Comcast

More Sony titles headed for Comcast's Xfinity Store

Syndication has always been a big deal in the TV business. Once aired on their primary network, shows go on to live forever in syndication, and the advent ...

PhotoSyndication has always been a big deal in the TV business. Once aired on their primary network, shows go on to live forever in syndication, and the advent of streaming video is doing nothing to change that.

The difference this time around is that "House of Cards" is going from Netflix streaming video to Comcast's Xfinity Store, skipping the over-the-air TV route entirely.

Netflix is retaining exclusive streaming rights to the series but Comcast will be selling episodes from the first season, as Amazon and Walmart’s Vudu are already doing. Individual episodes are priced at $1.99, which could be a tough gtsell, considering you can subscribe to all of Netflix for $7.99 a month.

Comcast is adding other titles to its Xfinity Store, including ”American Hustle,” to be available for rent or purchase starting tomorrow (Tuesday). 

In May, anther popular Netflix drama original, “Orange Is the New Black,” will be hitting the Comcast Xfinity Store on May 13.

The Xfinity Store titles come out before traditional video-on-demand and don't require the use of a laptop or smartphone to order. They can be called up right from the TV set-top box. 

It's similar to Verizon’s FiOS Flex View, which has offered movies for purchase and viewable on multiple devices since late 2010.

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Can you become allergic to electrical signals?

A handful of people settling in the Radio Quiet Zone think so

In most of the modern world, the air around you is filled with invisible communication signals...

PhotoIn most of the modern world, the air around you is filled with invisible communication signals: radio waves, television broadcasts, cell phone transmissions, CB or police radio chats, wireless Internet and more.

Depending on where exactly you live, these communications have filled the air around you for over a century now -- unless you're in a certain part of West Virginia known as the National Radio Quiet Zone.

The federal government established the Quiet Zone in the 1950s, in a radius surrounding the gigantic radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The radio telescopes pick up the faint traces of radiation falling on Earth from outer space, traces faint enough to easily be overwhelmed by even a low-powered transmitter nearby. So Quiet Zone residents live under unusual restrictions most Americans needn't worry about: not only are commercial TV or radio stations banned within the zone, but ordinary residents are limited to dial-up Internet, and cannot have cordless telephones or other commonplace technologies whose electromagnetic pollution interferes with radio telescope readings. Smartphones and cell phones are useless in the zone, since there are no signals for them to pick up.

This ban is considered a blessing by the small number of people who have diagnosed themselves with “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” or EHS --people who believe they're basically allergic to electrical waves, certain radio frequencies, or other electromagnetic forces which appear harmless to the majority of people.

All in their heads?

The medical community has found no evidence EHS is an actual physical illness, though it might be an actual psychosomatic one; double-blind tests have shown EHS is triggered not by the presence of electrical signals, but by the belief that electrical signals are present -- basically, if you believe the signals from wireless routers make you sick, then seeing a wireless router will make you sick provided you think it's turned on -- even when it's actually powered down.

As early as 2004 -- roughly the same time cell phones and the Internet changed from “exotic new technologies” to “commonplace everyday things”-- Wired magazine wrote a story about the Quiet Zone, focusing specifically on the radio astronomers' concerns that the growing use of cell phones and wireless Internet might destroy the Quiet Zone's status as a haven from electromagnetic pollution.

Ten years later, such fears have proven unfounded -- the Quiet Zone remains quiet except for a mini-population boom (roughly two or three dozen people) of self-diagnosed EHS sufferers who moved to the Quiet Zone seeking refuge from whichever electromagnetic frequencies they blame for their health problems.

The media check it out

In April 2013, Joseph Stromberg (writing for Slate) visited Green Bank, West Virginia, in the middle of the Quiet Zone, to chat with some EHS refugees. There is friction in town between the newcomers and the old-timers; Stromberg mentioned one EHS sufferer who complained of “intense discrimination” from the townspeople after she asked them to turn off the fluorescent lights in the town community center. Another says she was banned from the radio observatory for “bringing up radiation issues” there.

News of the EHS community in the Quiet Zone has proven especially popular on the other side of the Atlantic; if you read non-American news sources you're likely familiar with that subgenre of foreign news with the theme “America: a crazy country filled with crazy people, amirite?”

For example: the Daily Mail (in the UK) wrote about Green Bank just after Slate did in April 2013, discussed it again that August, reprinted an AP story about it in December, then revisited it again this week, helpfully noting that “Dozens of Americans who claim to be allergic to electromagnetic signals settle in small West Virginia town where WiFi is banned.”

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Study finds widespread discrimination against stammerers

Job applicants told they should look for "more suitable" work, like gardening

There are many things that can weigh against job-seekers, include stammering, according to a new study conducted in England and Wales.Researchers studied...

PhotoThere are many things that can weigh against job-seekers, include stammering, according to a new study conducted in England and Wales.

Researchers studied 36 men aged 21 to 65 with a stammering condition and found that every one of them had been rejected by potential employers, sometimes in the very first interview.

Some of the men said the only jobs they could find were ones for which they were clearly over-qualified. 

"Many participants were told not only of their mismatch for the specifics of the job or the likelihood of a detrimental impact on customers, but also of the possible negative impact on team dynamics if they were appointed," said Dr. Clare Butler of Newcastle University Business School.

"Something more suitable"

One man in his 20s who applied for an administrative post described to her how his interviewer told him "to go and look for something more suitable. He said that office work was definitely not for me because I wouldn't be able to get on with people in the office because they work hard but they also have a laugh and I wouldn't be able to join in.

"He said I could do the job mostly. He said he'd have to warn the customers about me and that most would probably understand – but he said I should look for something more suitable. When I asked 'like what?' he said outside work like gardening or something where I was on my own. I mean, can you imagine how I felt?"

Even men who managed to find work said they still faced discrimination o the job. A civil servant in his mid-40s reported that his manager asked him to stay away from key partnership meetings because his speech "upset the flow of the meeting."

The study was published in Work, Employment and Society, published by the British Sociological Association and SAGE.

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Toyota recalls Highlanders

A seat belt assembly might not be properly secured to the vehicle floor anchorage

Toyota is recalling 7,067 model year 2014 Highlander vehicles manufactured November 20, 2013, through January 18, 2014. The third row middle seat belt as...

PhotoToyota is recalling 7,067 model year 2014 Highlander vehicles manufactured November 20, 2013, through January 18, 2014.

The third row middle seat belt assembly might not have been properly secured to the vehicle floor anchorage during vehicle assembly, which could increase the risk of injury to an occupant in the event of a crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the third row middle seat belt anchor, and, if necessary, properly secure it to the vehicle floor anchorage, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in March 2014.

Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

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George's Inc., recalls chicken products

The products contain soy protein, an allergen, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) not listed on the label

George’s Inc. of Springdale, Ark., is recalling approximately 29,200 pounds of seasoned raw, chicken breast strips. The products are formulated with soy ...

PhotoGeorge’s Inc., of Springdale, Ark., is recalling approximately 29,200 pounds of seasoned raw, chicken breast strips.

The products are formulated with soy protein, a known allergen, and monosodium glutamate (MSG), but released with a label that does list them among the ingredients.

There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products

The products subject to recall bear the label:

  • 40 lb. bulk cartons of “GEORGE’S BONELESS SKINLESS BREAST PIECES W/RIB MEAT” with case code 4790.

They bear the establishment number “P-13584” below the USDA Mark of Inspection and “Packed on” date in the format of “mm/dd/yy” on the carton label.

The products were produced and packaged from Dec. 21 through Dec. 23, 2013, and were sold to distributors in Tennessee and Iowa for further distribution.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Ali Perry at (479) 927-7256.  

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A growing trend: food from your backyard

Consumers seeking cheaper, healthier produce

When winter finally ends and the spring thaw begins, a growing number of consumers will take hoe and rake in hand and head for the back yard. In communitie...

PhotoWhen winter finally ends and the spring thaw begins, a growing number of consumers will take hoe and rake in hand and head for the back yard. In communities large and small, more people have begun to grow at least some of their own food.

Gardening has always been a pleasurable, relaxing pasttime for some. In recent years doomsday preppers – people anticipating the collapse of civilization – have taken up the practice. For economic reasons, others have embraced small-scale gardening as a way to save money and eat fresher, healthier food.

First Garden

One of the most famous backyard gardens is at the White House, where First Lady Michelle Obama broke ground not long after moving in. Heidi Godman, Executive Editor of the Harvard Health Letter, says Obama inspired her to give gardening a try, even though she admits to being all thumbs, none of them green.

Godman says students at Harvard have also created a campus garden as a large collaborative project, donating the crop to Boston-area food pantries.

Theresa Martz, author of the book “Organic Gardening: Cutting Through the Hype to the 3 Keys to Successful Gardening” and the popular organic gardening blog, TendingMyGarden.com, has been gardening organically in Virginia for more than 35 years. She says growing food in your back yard isn't overly complicated.

Keeping it simple

“There are three things you need to do, and there are only three,” Martz told ConsumerAffairs. “Number one is you have to prepare your soil deeply. Number two is you have to add organic materials. Number three is cover your ground. That's it, you'll be successful if you do those things.”

Martz recommends loosening soil in your garden plot to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. That will be difficult or easy, depending on soil conditions where you live. Remove the topsoil and set it aside. Work in organic materials, such as leaves, straw or small, ground-up twigs. Next, recover the garden area with the removed top soil and cover with more organic material.

“If you do that correctly you never, ever have to do it again,” she promised.

Site selection

Site selection is also important. Choose an area away from trees, both to avoid the shade and the trees' roots. The best location will offer morning sun exposure. The garden plot doesn't have to be that large, especially if you follow Martz's advice about soil preparation.

“After you improve your soil like that you can grow a lot more things in the same space than conventional gardeners can grow and you can grow it closer together,” she said.

And it may surprise some would-be gardeners that Martz says that once planted, watering the garden isn't really necessary.

Save the water

“It (not watering) is not promoted now because irrigation systems are big business,” she said. “That's why you hear that everybody has to water. But I never have and I do fine in drought. No one likes a drought but when things are done like nature does things, you can make it through the drought and still have something.”

Martz grows all her food from seeds and lately has become disturbed by a consolidation in the seed business, especially what she views as the growing presence of chemical companies. Martz produces her own seeds but suggests that consumers who purchase seeds try to buy them from a small, “mom and pop” company – and not just stick with the most popular breeds.

“Every year there are thousands of wonderful seeds that have been developed over thousands of years, that are for certain areas, to grow in every condition you can think of,” Martz said. “Many are being dropped and if someone doesn't grow them, you can't have viable seeds.”

For consumers who not only want to eat healthier but also save money, Martz's brand of backyard gardening seems to have a lot to offer; it costs nothing to prepare the ground, you don't need a lot of space, you don't run up your water bill, and once you start producing seeds, your crop costs nothing.

“People think organic gardening is hard, but it's a lot easier than people make it out to be,” she said.

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What food label information matters most?

Survey shows consumers respond to some data more than others

The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recent announcement that it is making changes to the required Nutrition Facts label on food products has focused a...

Photo
Current nutrition label (left) and proposed label (right)
The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recent announcement that it is making changes to the required Nutrition Facts label on food products has focused a lot of new attention on food labels and how they communicate information.

The FDA said the changes would make it easier for consumers to understand how many calories they are consuming and what kind of nutrients the product is delivering. For one thing, the label updates serving size requirements to reflect how much people really eat.

“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.”

Voluntary label

While generally supportive of the FDA update, the food industry nonetheless is promoting its own nutrition label. A week after the FDA announcement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) announced a promotional campaign to build awareness of its voluntary label on the front of food products. The Facts Up Front label shows what the manufacturer believes to be the key nutrient information, which is also found on the back.

Photo
Sample Facts Up Front label

In addition, manufacturers usually put information on their packaging as part of their marketing. If a product is “fat-free,” for example, it will say so on the label. Is this information overload or do consumers find this to be helpful when they select food items? A recent poll of consumers suggests some information is helpful and some not so much.

A mid-February survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that the nutrition claims that must meet the highest levels of regulatory scrutiny seem to be the ones valued most by consumers. One or two of those claims, however, may be resulting in some confusion, the survey found.

Fresh

Consumers appear to find the word “fresh” on a food package particularly helpful when shopping. Seventy-three percent mentioned that as an important factor and “fresh,” as it turns out, is a pretty reliable claim. Only products that have never been frozen or warmed and which contain no preservatives can qualify as “fresh.”

A majority of consumers in the survey also put stock in products claiming to be “low” in something – like sodium or cholesterol. The word “free,” when attached to words like “fat” and “cholesterol,” also resonates.

Respondents in the poll were more skeptical of the “healthy” claim, with 47% saying it wasn't helpful. In fact, to use “healthy” on a label the food inside has to meet strict nutritional standards. Also, products displaying this claim need to have at least 10% of the recommended daily value for a range of nutrients.

Misleading

A large majority – 76% – find the description “made with,” such as whole grains or real fruit, to be a helpful selection guide, but here the majority of consumers are also mistaken. Under current regulations that description can go on products that contain only small amounts of the advertised substance. 

Similarly, consumers in the survey said they found the description “natural” to be helpful. But “natural” doesn't tell you a lot about the product either, because the FDA has never established an official definition of what that is, exactly.

The question remains, however, about how much influence any of these labels or descriptions have on what consumers put in their shopping carts. When the survey gets to the bottom line, it's all about the bottom line.

What does it cost?

When asked to select the overriding consideration when deciding between food products at the grocery store, roughly half of those questioned – 49% – said the price of the product is the ultimate deciding factor.

Nutrition shows up as the second consideration, with 29% saying they reach for a low-fat or fat-free item. The percentages of those most concerned about calories, sodium and sugar are in the single digits.

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Safer credit cards might finally come to America

MasterCard, Visa announce upgrades after recent mass hacking events

Scarcely a week goes by without various news media publishing stories on the theme “Hackers break into corporate database, steal customers' account info" ...

PhotoScarcely a week goes by without various news media publishing stories on the theme “Hackers break into corporate database, steal account info from scads of customers.” Same story every time, differing only in the details: which particular company got hacked, what exact number of customers were affected, and which specific white-hat hacker or security blogger first exposed the breach.

Also, these stories usually end by saying “If you, American Consumer, bought anything from the hacked company recently, you need to call your bank and cancel your account and re-organize any automatic payment plans attached to it, and if you do everything right this shouldn't cost any actual money from your pocket, but 'doing everything right' will still be a hugely time-consuming pain in the butt for you. No, of course you won't be compensated for any of your lost time.”

American consumers are more likely to suffer from such hacking incidents than credit or debit-card holders almost anywhere else — not because American computers are easier to hack into than their counterparts in other countries, not even because American credit or debit-card account numbers are easier to steal, but because American account numbers, once stolen, are much easier for thieves to use. However, credit-card heavyweights MasterCard and Visa might finally be taking steps to change that.

EMV chip

MasterCard and Visa announced today that they had formed a “new cross-industry group focused on enhancing payment system security.” The initial phase of this enhancement will be adopting what's known as “EMV chip technology,” which is already ubiquitous in most of the world but absent in the United States (hence the relative ease with which thieves can make use of stolen American account numbers).

EMV stands for “Europay, MasterCard and Visa,” the three companies that first developed the technology. It's been around since the early 1990s and has been in common use throughout the world (except the U.S.) for roughly a decade now.

At first glance, an EMV credit card looks like any other. The difference is that an EMV stores information on an encrypted microchip, rather than a non-encrypted (and relatively easy to counterfeit) magnetic strip.

EMV cards also tend to require a personal identification number (PIN) at point of sale.

These features do not make it impossible for hackers to steal money from accounts, but they definitely make theives' lives vastly more difficult.

Why so slow?

So why haven't EMV cards already become commonplace in America? Answer: the short-term cost of implementation; Reuters mentioned unnamed experts who estimate conversion costs of up to $10 billion.

But the increasing frequency of data breaches in America (and the increasing costs to the credit-card issuers, who usually have to eat the cost of whatever an identity thief buys with his stolen account numbers) has finally persuaded the major card companies that maybe they ought to upgrade their anti-theft systems.

Unsurprisingly, the National Retail Federation supports the proposed security upgrades, and promptly issued a press release saying so. NRF's senior vice president, Mallory Duncan, said of the current American security status quo: “Easy-to-forge signatures are a virtually worthless form of authentication. Insisting on chip-and-signature cards is like installing an alarm on the front door of a home while leaving the back door wide open.  It doesn't make sense when the technology exists to secure the entire house.”

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Promoters of bogus diabetes "cure" ordered to pay $2.2 million

The money will be used to reimburse consumers who fell for the pitch

Acting on a complaint by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a federal court has ordered marketers of bogus diabetes remedies to pay nearly $2.2 million. T...

PhotoActing on a complaint by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a federal court has ordered marketers of bogus diabetes remedies to pay nearly $2.2 million. The FTC will use the funds it recovers to reimburse consumers.

The court has prohibited the company – Wellness Support Network Inc. – and its two principals, Robert Held and his daughter Robyn Held, from claiming without rigorous scientific proof that their supplements would treat and prevent diabetes, and from making other deceptive claims.

“Giving false hope to those who struggle with a serious illness is disgraceful, and the FTC is determined to ensure that deceptive marketers face the consequences,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC’s October 2010 case challenged claims for the defendants’ Diabetic Pack and Insulin Resistance Pack – which contained identical blends of vitamins, minerals, and plant extracts. The defendants touted the Diabetic Pack as a treatment for diabetes, and the Insulin Resistance Pack as a means of purportedly reducing insulin resistance and preventing diabetes.

The defendants advertised primarily online, relying heavily on consumer testimonials and running ads that claimed a “Diabetes Breakthrough” and a “clinically proven natural solution to diabetes with a 90% success rate.” The defendants sold the products for $76.70 for a 30-supply supply.

The court ruled in favor of the FTC’s motion for summary judgment and found that the claims made by the marketers were false and unsupported by scientific evidence.

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February job creation exceeds expectations

But that didn't keep the jobless rate from inching higher

The wicked winter weather has been blamed for a lot of things, but it apparently did not have a negative effect on the employment situation in February. G...

PhotoThe wicked winter weather has been blamed for a lot of things, but it apparently did not have a negative effect on the employment situation in February.

Government figures show the economy created 175,000 jobs last month, topping the consensus estimate of 163,000 of economists surveyed by Briefing.com. At the sale time, the Labor Department (DOL) revised the job creation totals higher for both December and January.

The change in employment for December was revised from +75,000 to +84,000, while January was revised from +113,000 to +129,000. With these revisions, employment gains in both months were 25,000 higher than previously reported.

Nonetheless, the unemployment rate for February rose 0.1% -- to 6.7%. While there's been little movement in the jobless rate since December, over the year the number of unemployed people and the unemployment rate were down by 1.6 million and 1.0%, respectively.

Who's hiring and firing

Job gains last month occurred in professional and business services (+79,000), wholesale trade (+15,000), food services and drinking places (+21,000), construction (+15,000) and health care (+10,000).

Losses were registered in retail trade (-4,000) and information (-16,000). Employment in other major industries, including mining and logging, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, financial activities and government, changed little over the month.

Who's working and who's not

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (6.4%), adult women (5.9%), teenagers (21.4%), whites (5.8%), blacks (12.0%), Hispanics (8.1%) and Asians (6.0%) showed little

or no change in February.

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) increased by 203,000 in February to 3.8 million, and accounted for 37.0% of the unemployed. The number of long-term unemployed was down by 901,000 over the year.

Both the civilian labor force participation rate (63.0%) and the employment-population ratio (58.8%) were unchanged in February. The labor force participation rate was down 0.5% from a year ago, while the employment-population ratio was little changed over the year.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Even small amounts of alcohol may be dangerous for older drivers

Study finds alcohol hits older drivers harder than younger ones

A glass of wine with dinner sounds harmless enough, and it certainly won't produce an alcohol blood level anywhere near the legal intoxication limit. But i...

PhotoA glass of wine with dinner sounds harmless enough, and it certainly won't produce an alcohol blood level anywhere near the legal intoxication limit. But it could very well make older drivers a danger to themselves and others, a new study finds.

Sara Jo Nixon, Ph.D., a professor in the departments of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Florida and doctoral candidate Alfredo Sklar tested how drinking legally non-intoxicating levels of alcohol affect the driving skills of two age groups: 36 people ages 25 to 35 and 36 people ages 55 to 70.

They found that although neither age group imbibed enough alcohol to put them over the legal driving limit, a blood alcohol level of 0.08, just one drink can affect the driving abilities of older drivers. Based on the study findings published in the journal Psychopharmacology in February, the researchers say it could be time to reassess legal blood alcohol levels for all drivers.

“These simulations have been used a lot in looking at older adults, and they have been used at looking how alcohol affects the driving of younger adults, but no one’s ever looked at the combination of aging drivers and alcohol,” Sklar said Alfredo Sklar.

The study is the latest in a body of work by Nixon and her team that looks at how even moderate doses of alcohol affect aging adults.

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New federal safety standard for carriages and strollers

It affects issues including parking brakes and locking mechanisms

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has signed off on a new federal mandatory standard intended to improve the safety of infant’s and children’s ...

PhotoThe Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has signed off on a new federal mandatory standard intended to improve the safety of infant’s and children’s carriages and strollers.

In case you didn't know, there are official differences between strollers and carriages:

  • A stroller is a wheeled vehicle used to transport children, usually from infancy to 36 months old. Children are transported generally sitting up or in a semi-reclined position by a person pushing on a handle attached to the stroller.
  • Carriages are wheeled vehicles made to transport an infant, usually in a position lying down.

Carriages and strollers within the scope of the new standard include full-size 2D strollers that fold in front-to-back (or back-to-front) and 3D strollers that fold in front-to-back (or back-to-front), as well as side-to-side directions, travel systems (including car seats), tandem, side-by-side, multi-occupant and jogging strollers.

What's covered

The new standard incorporates by reference the most recent voluntary standard developed by ASTM International (ASTM F833-13b), Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Carriages and Strollers, with a modification to address head entrapment hazards associated with multi-positional/adjustable grab bars.

In addition, the new safety standard addresses hazards associated with strollers reported to the agency, including:

  • Hinge issues that have resulted in pinched, cut, or amputated fingers or arms;
  • Broken and detached wheels;
  • Parking brake failures;
  • Locking mechanism problems;
  • Restraint issues, such as a child unbuckling the restraint and restraint breakage or detachment;
  • Structural integrity; and
  • Stability.

Consumer complaints

CPSC has received about 1,300 incident reports related to strollers reported from January 1, 2008 through June 30, 2013. Four of those incidents involved a fatality.

ConsumerAffairs has also heard from consumers unhappy with the strollers they purchased.

"I purchased an Evenflo Discovery Travel System for my daughter for ease of use taking her from the car and placing it on the stroller," writes Linda of Waco, Texas. "The wheels are constantly falling off whether I am putting the stroller away, or taking it out. The wheels also fall off if I am lifting the stroller up to put on the curb."

Kasey of Rutland, Vt., says she was pushing her 10-month-old daughter in a Cosco stroller and "out of nowhere the stroller broke. When this happened," she continues in a ConsumerAffairs post, "my daughter was sitting in it and her hand got caught in it, her hand got cut and it was twice its size so I took pictures of it and brought her to the doctor. Luckily its not broken and no serious damage."

The effective date for the mandatory carriage and stroller standard is 18 months after the final rule is published in the Federal Register.

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Don't forget to change batteries when setting your clock ahead this weekend

Smoke and CO alarms need to be updated as well

Even though its cold, snowy,and just plain nasty in some parts of the U.S., there are signs all around that spring is on the way. For one thing, it's stay...

PhotoEven though its cold, snowy, and just plain nasty in some parts of the U.S., there are signs all around that spring is on the way.

For one thing, it's staying light later, robins are starting to show up on snow-covered decks and lawns and -- this weekend -- we go to Daylight Saving Time. Don't forget: spring ahead. In other words, set your clock one hour ahead before you crawl into the sack Saturday night.

Something else you don't want to forget is to take a few minutes to replace batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Make it a semi-annual habit (do it when we “fall back” to standard time. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says it's a habit that could save your life.

Make sure they work

Working smoke and CO alarms, which means having fresh batteries, adds an important layer of safety to your home. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), two-thirds of fire deaths occur in homes without working smoke alarms. There are more than 362,000 home fires every year and, according to CPSC’s latest Residential Fire Loss Estimates report, more than 2,200 people die in them.

Batteries in battery-powered alarms need to be replaced regularly. In addition, CPSC recommends that consumers test their alarms every month to make sure they are working. Smoke alarms should be placed on every level of the home, inside each bedroom, and outside sleeping areas.

Don't forget the CO alarm

Although more than 90% of U.S. homes report having at least one working smoke alarm, only 42% report having a working CO alarm, based on 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data. CO alarms can alert you and your family to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide inside your home.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 400 people die in the U.S. each year from CO poisoning.

Carbon monoxide is called the invisible killer, because you cannot see or smell it. This poisonous gas can come from many sources, including cars, furnaces and portable generators, and can quickly incapacitate and kill its victims.

Put CO alarms on every level of the home and outside sleeping areas. Like smoke alarms, CO alarms need fresh batteries regularly. CO alarms also should be tested once a month to make sure they are working.

So do yourself a favor: change those batteries. Now that you've made it through the winter, it would be nice to be around to enjoy the nice weather -- when it finally arrives.

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Researchers learn teenage motherhood is the optimal choice -- for elephants

This knowledge might help increase Asian elephant populations

If you own Asian elephants and have been struggling with the issues of urging them to breed in captivity (and who can't relate to that problem, nowadays?),...

PhotoIf you own Asian elephants and have been struggling with the issues of urging them to breed in captivity (and who can't relate to that problem, nowadays?), you'll want to take note of this interesting little study out of the University of Sheffield in the UK: researchers investigating birth and longevity data for elephants dating back to the 1940s have discovered that among elephants, teenage mothers are likely to have bigger families, but also die younger, compared to elephants who postpone motherhood into their 20s or beyond.

Although elephants can live into their 70s, the same as humans, they have a much smaller fertility window — for an Asian elephant, pregnancy is possible as early as age five, yet fertility peaks around age 19 and declines thereafter. Older elephants can still have offspring, of course, but the older the mother is, the greater the chance her offspring will be unhealthy.

The researchers determined that: “elephants that gave birth twice in their teenage years had calves three times more likely to survive to independence than those born to mothers who had their first young after the age of 19. Therefore, although having calves as a teenager reduced a mother's lifespan, early reproduction was favoured by natural selection because those mothers raised the largest families in their lifetime.”

(In strictly evolutionary terms, it doesn't matter how long you live or how much enjoyment you derive out of life; all that matters is “How many healthy surviving offspring do you leave behind when you do finally die?”)

In all seriousness, the study of elephant reproductive strategies is important because, like all megafauna, elephants find it ever-harder to live in the wild, as human developments encroach on their former territories. So if we want to prevent the species from going extinct, we need to increase the healthy birthrate among captive elephants, since their cousins in the wild probably can't maintain their population by themselves.

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Design Ideas recalls magnets

The small magnets can easily detach from the product, posing a swallowing hazard

Design Ideas Ltd., of Springfield, Ill., is recalling about 21,000 Design Ideas and Neatlife Rubber Ducky Magnets, 3,200 Design Ideas Blowfish, and 2,000Sp...

PhotoDesign Ideas Ltd., of Springfield, Ill., is recalling about 21,000 Design Ideas and Neatlife Rubber Ducky Magnets, 3,200 Design Ideas Blowfish, and 2,000 Splat Magnets.

The small magnets can easily detach from the product. If swallowed, magnets can link together inside a child's intestines and clamp onto body tissues, causing intestinal obstructions, perforations, sepsis and death. Internal injury from magnets can pose serious lifelong health effects.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves miniature office and refrigerator magnets sold in the shape of a duck, blowfish and a splat. A small magnet is affixed to the underside of the brightly colored plastic objects which were sold in sets of four or six. Model number 3205121 (duck), 993205114 (duck), 3205122 (blowfish) or 3205078 (splat) is printed on the bottom of the packaging. “Magnets” and the Design Ideas’ logo are printed on the front of the package.

All the magnets were manufactured in China. Rubber ducky magnets were sold at Nordstrom’s Rack stores, novelty and gift stores, book stores and art stores nationwide from March 2007, through September 2013, for about $10. Blowfish magnets were sold at novelty and gift stores, book stores and art stores nationwide from March 2007, through March 2011, for about $10. Splat magnets were sold at CB2 stores, novelty and gift stores, office supply stores and art stores nationwide from November 2012, to February 2014, for about $10.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled magnets place them out of reach of children and contact Design Ideas for a refund.

Consumers may contact Design Ideas at (800) 426-6394 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Tektro USA and TRP recall bicycle mechanical disc brake calipers

The brake cable actuator arm can over-rotate, causing the brake calipers to fail

Tektro USA/TRP of Ogden, Utah, are recalling about 2,000 Spyre and Spyre SLC dual-piston mechanical disc brake calipers. The brake cable actuator arm can ...

PhotoTektro USA/TRP of Ogden, Utah, are recalling about 2,000 Spyre and Spyre SLC dual-piston mechanical disc brake calipers.

The brake cable actuator arm can over-rotate, dislocating parts, causing the brake calipers to fail. Lack of brakes results in loss of control and a crash hazard, posing a risk of injury to the rider and others.

The company has received one report of a brake caliper failing in this manner. There have been no reports of injuries or property damage.

This recall includes Spyre and Spyre SLC dual-piston mechanical disc brake calipers sold as original and aftermarket equipment in 2013. Spyre calipers have a black anodized caliper body and a silver actuator arm with “Spyre” on it. Spyre SLC calipers have a polished aluminum caliper body and a black composite actuator arm with “Spyre SLC” on it.

Recalled calipers have a fastening screw with a hollow six-pointed star-shaped head with no markings on it and a 3 millimeter pad adjust screw on the outward side. The recalled calipers were also sold as original equipment on bicycles manufactured or distributed by BTI, Diamond Back Bicycles, Giant Bicycles, Hans Johnson Co (HJC), Kona, Marin Bikes, Quality Bicycle Products, Raleigh America

The calipers, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at retail bicycle shops nationwide and online at universalcycles.com, tektro-usa.com and trpbrakes.com from April 2013, to December 2013, for about $90 for the Spyre caliper and about $110 for the Spyre SLC caliper.

Consumers should immediately stop riding bikes equipped with the recalled brake calipers and return the calipers to the original place of purchase or Tektro USA/TRP for a free replacement with an improved version.

Consumers may contact Tektro USA or TRP customer service toll free at (877) 807-4162 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. MT Monday through Friday, or by e-mail at info@trpbrakes.com.

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Want to buy a foreclosure? You may have to compete with a hedge fund

Consumer groups call for halt of bulk sale of homes

In the last two years the housing market has begun to recover from the wave of foreclosures that kicked off the financial crisis. With prices up, there are...

PhotoIn the last two years the housing market has begun to recover from the wave of foreclosures that kicked off the financial crisis. With prices up, there are fewer bargains left, except for distress sales that continue to sell below market values.

But for the first-time buyer hoping to find a place to live, purchasing a foreclosed property isn't that easy. Large investment entities, including hedge funds, are buying up properties in bulk in many markets, leaving would-be owner-occupants on the sidelines.

A recent report by the Center for American Progress says that since the housing crash institutional investors have purchased more than 200,000 foreclosed single-family homes and converted them to rental properties or sold them for an immediate profit.

“There are very sophisticated entities that are deciding where they want to invest, what strategy they want to employ, whether they want to hold onto the property for the long-haul or flip it,” Maeve Elise Brown, Executive Director of Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA), a California consumer group, told ConsumerAffairs.

Appeal to regulators

HERA and 77 other wide-ranging groups have signed a letter to federal regulators, asking them to address the issue of first-time homebuyers being outbid, tenants being displaced, and neighborhoods undergoing dramatic changes as private equity and investor cash continues pouring into local housing markets, buying up homes.

While a foreclosure is a traumatic, disruptive event in a housing market, a new owner purchasing the property and moving in can be a healing action. But all too often, Brown says, the property sits vacant for years.

"One problem has been the withholding of properties from the market," Brown said. “After the properties have been foreclosed upon, the banks, servicers and investors are not promptly turning those properties around. This has been going on for years. And what they've done is artificially shrunk the market.”

That, she says, is one of the reasons home values have risen rapidly over the last couple of years. Declining inventories of homes for sale has given buyers fewer homes to choose from and sellers more leverage to get a higher price.

The upside

Economists will tell you there is a definite upside to a rise in home values since so many homeowners are still “under water,” owing more than the home is worth. But Brown and her colleagues are concerned that this artificial shortage is hurting people trying to become homeowners and that the business model of mega-investors buying properties and securitizing those assets is fraught with economic danger. One portfolio of single-family rental homes was securitized last fall, though both Fitch Ratings and Standard and Poors refused to grant AAA ratings to the product, citing numerous uncertainties with this new business model.

“With the securitization of rental streams we're concerned that there will be some unintended consequences,” Brown said. “The return on this investment is dependent upon your tenants paying a certain amount of rent. One of our concerns is there will be pressure to push rents higher and higher in order to increase the return on the investment.”

And when one landlord owns a large percentage of the rental property in a given market, it gives that operator enormous power to set the prevailing rent, which could have huge repercussions for the market as a whole.

Regulatory intervention

In the letter to regulators, Brown and her colleagues are calling for a number of steps to provide stability to the market and to assist individual buyers. In a challenge to Wall Street the groups say government housing entities like FHFA and HUD should suspend their bulk sales of homes and mortgages until they can carefully analyze potential fair housing issued created by bulk sales.

The groups say FHA should consider preferences for selling distressed loans to nonprofits who will prioritize homeownership; Banks should be incentivized to sell distressed loan pools and REOs to nonprofit organizations, thus prioritizing homeownership and stability.

Government agencies, the groups contend, are contributing to the problem by conducting bulk sales of properties and mortgages, a practice that favors large investors to the detriment of homeownership, long-term tenancy, and stabilized communities. Brown concedes the answer isn't a simple one.

“Our market is divided into different components,” she said. “Our regulators cover different sectors. And yet I think it's going to take a concerted effort to come up with some intelligent solutions.”

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University of California study: e-cigs "new route" to nicotine addiction

Study found adolescents who use e-cigs are less likely to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes

Here's the latest chapter in the continuing debate over whether e-cigarettes are a cure or an affliction: a study from the University of California San Fra...

PhotoHere's the latest chapter in the continuing debate over whether e-cigarettes are a cure or an affliction: a study from the University of California San Francisco that finds e-cigs may in fact be a new route to conventional smoking and nicotine addiction.

In what is said to be the first analysis of the relationship between e-cigarette use and smoking among adolescents in the United States, UCSF researchers found that adolescents who used the devices were more likely to smoke cigarettes and less likely to quit smoking. The study of nearly 40,000 youth around the country also found that e-cigarette use among middle and high school students doubled between 2011 and 2012, from 3.1 percent to 6.5 percent.

Photo
Lauren Dutra (UCSF Photo)

“Despite claims that e-cigarettes are helping people quit smoking, we found that e-cigarettes were associated with more, not less, cigarette smoking among adolescents,” said lead author Lauren Dutra, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.

“E-cigarettes are likely to be gateway devices for nicotine addiction among youth, opening up a whole new market for tobacco,” she said. The study was published online on March 6 in JAMA Pediatrics.

A trade group took issue with the study, saying it "is implying conclusions that simply aren't borne out by the data."

In a prepared statement, Cynthia Cabrera, Executive Director, Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA), said: "As the survey summary itself states, it wasn't designed to derive any insight about motivation or a possible causal relationship between use of e-cigarettes and combustible cigarettes. What the survey data does show is that cigarette smoking among teens has decreased." 

FDA action expected

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been considering regulations that could restrict advertising and sales of the popular battery-powered devices, which look like cigarettes and deliver an aerosol of nicotine and other chemicals.

Several states and cities, inc