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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 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.

    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 ...
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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 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    Sibutramine is an appetite suppressant that was withdrawn due to increased risk of seizures, heart attacks, arrhythmia and strokes.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.

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

    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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.  

      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...
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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 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.  

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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 Journalrecently 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

      Stealing 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.”

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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: post-1990s) technological tools we modern Americans have integrated into our lives, GPS seems most likely to be catastrophically misunderstood — or at least most likely to generate news headlines about catastrophic misunderstandings.

      You know the stories. Remember the Oregon couple last September who spent several days lost in the wilderness after their GPS led them off the Interstate onto an unpaved logging road? Or the Alaskan airport that had to put up barricades, after a flaw in Apple Maps software inspired clueless iPhone users to keep driving onto its runways?

      One of our readers, a woman named Wendy, might have inspired such a headline herself, except fortunately, she noticed her GPS' bad advice before following it through to a bad result. On March 25 she wrote to report that her new Garmin worked well when she used it around town, but when she looked into updating its maps, she learned the update would take three hours.

      When she took the time to update it, she had difficulties uploading the new map software, and eventually wound up returning the Garmin for a refund after the updated maps gave her incorrect directions. “Thank goodness I was NOT on a trip when I encountered these problems,” Wendy noted.

      She said she still has an older Garmin model which has always worked well for her, and she's never updated its maps and now never intends to, for fear of replacing correct data with incorrect.

      Not just Garmin

      Consumers rate Garmin
      Not that Garmin deserves singling out here; plenty of TomTom users have similar complaints: can't update their maps, or can't trust the maps they have.

      More importantly: it's worth remembering that even a GPS whose information is never outdated and always completely 100% accurate (a purely mythical GPS, in other words) can fail you in other ways — especially if the signal from one or more GPS satellites is blocked.

      GPS uses the principle of “triangulation” to determine where you are. (As the name suggests, triangulation only requires three satellites, though most commercial GPS systems actually take readings from four or more to ensure greater accuracy.)

      Here's an oversimplified explanation of how triangulation works: your GPS reads the signals sent from satellites orbiting the earth and then, by calculating exactly how long it takes the signals from various satellites to reach the device, figures out where it is relative to those satellites, and thus determines your latitude and longitude, usually to within a few feet of accuracy.

      Lost signals

      But if it can't access signals from any satellites, or from only one or two, then it lacks the data necessary to figure out its location. And if you're driving through tunnels, or even beneath particularly wide systems of overpasses, you can easily lose the signal just when you need it most.

      Consumers rate TomTom Portable GPS
      Something I know from personal experience: if ever you drive into Boston via the city's “Big Dig” road-and-tunnel network, there's many places where you must choose whether to turn left or right, to take an exit or stay on the main highway – and these places are underground, where no GPS or smartphone can possibly get a signal. So you need to know where you're going, because your GPS won't.

      Also, on various road trips through ultra-scenic parts of the Appalachians, there were areas where my GPS would fail, presumably because the mountains blocked signals from one or more satellites. (I'd speculate this is even worse for Western drivers in the much-taller Rockies, though I haven't tested this myself.)

      Even if your GPS has a strong signal, you still need to pay attention, not merely to the GPS but to the road itself; otherwise, you might end up like the Washington State driver who ended up in a lake after the GPS mistook a boat launch for a road, the New Jersey man who drove off the road into a house and blamed his GPS for confusing roadways with residences, or the Pennsylvania woman who ignored both road signs and prevailing traffic patterns, and blamed her GPS for the head-on crash she caused driving north in a southbound lane.

      You especially don't want to put your complete faith in GPS in cases where deadlines matter. Suppose you're going to a job interview, and you have the address but don't know how to get there. If you rely on your GPS and it loses its signal or sends you in the wrong direction, you could be late for your interview — which pretty much guarantees you won't get the job.

      What to do

      So what do you do? If you have the time, do a drive-by the day before, to ensure you know exactly how to reach the place. If not, check other maps of the area, and print or write out a hard copy of the map or directions to take with you.

      And if you're the worrywart type, as I am, check more than one online map source. Many years ago, when Internet maps were still a new thing and I lived in the Northeast, I printed an online map to a certain job-interview destination, did a drive-by the afternoon before — and that's how I discovered a certain now-defunct-and-good-riddance online map source had sent me to the Chestnut Street in one town, when I actually wanted the Chestnut Street next town over. (Side note: If you ever hear a New Englander complain “Every freaking municipality in my state uses the exact same street names,” that person is exaggerating – but not as much as you'd think.)

      Of course, test drives aren't an option for vacations and long road trips; for that, the best backup for your GPS is keeping a road atlas and a magnetic compass in your car. You can't always get a signal for your GPS or your smartphone, but reading a paper road atlas requires no technological backup at all.

      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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