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USPS: “American citizens aren't our customers”

Delivering unwanted junk mail: that's where the money is

We get a lot of complaints from people who've had problems with the post office. Last summer, for example, a Manhattan man and his roommates went an entire...

PhotoWe get a lot of complaints from people who've had problems with the post office. Last summer, for example, a Manhattan man and his roommates went an entire month without receiving a single piece of U.S. mail, and despite a well-documented paper trail proving that various items had been mailed but not delivered, they never succeeded in getting their month's worth of mail, and the post office went so far as to insist they had no way of knowing exactly who was responsible for delivering it anyway.

Consumers rate USPS - Lost Mail

But even if you're one of the unlucky Americans whose bills, legal notices, passports, packagesor magazine subscriptions vanish under the aegis of the United States Postal Service, you can reliably count upon a steady supply of unwanted junk mail.

There's a mathematically valid reason for that, too: in the past generation, the rise of email, free long-distance phone calls, Skype and other super-cheap and lightning-fast communication technologies have killed much of the market for first-class mail. If you want to keep in touch with out-of-state friends and relatives, you have much faster and cheaper options nowadays than writing and mailing a letter.

Junk mail pays the freight

So junk mail (or “direct mail marketing,” the preferred term of junk-mailers themselves) is of great financial importance to the post office. Back in May 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek cited this milestone to illustrate why:

[The USPS] relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining—in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.

Which explains why the post office opposes any attempt to cut down on junk-mail deliveries, including the now-defunct service formerly offered by a company called Outbox, a once-promising startup which offered to “digitize” people's physical mail — in exchange for a monthly fee.

Outbox drivers would visit subscribers' physical mailboxes three times per week, collect and make electronic copies of all mailings therein, and send e-copies of the mail to the customer. Here's how CNN described the then-new business in February 2013:

The idea is that for $4.99 a month, someone can make their pesky physical mail disappear (assuming they can resist the urge to peek in their mailbox between pickups). Using a mobile device or computer, Outbox customers can organize mail in files or forward them as e-mails, ask to be unsubscribed from junk mail, have unwanted items destroyed or request that important mail, such as a wedding invite or a postcard, be re-delivered to their home.

But the post office opposed the entire business model, and released a statement at the time which said:

“The Postal Service is focused on providing an essential service in our mission to serve the American public and does not view Outbox as supporting that mission. We do have concerns regarding the destruction of mail -- even if authorized by the receiver -- and will continue to monitor market activities to ensure protection of our brand and the value and security of the mail.”

Didn't last long

Tampering with the mail (especially without the recipient's permission) is indeed a federal offense, but Outbox founders compared their service to asking your neighbor to pick up your mail for you while you're out of town.

The experiment didn't last long. After initial operations in Austin, Texas and in San Francisco, Outbox shut down earlier this year, either because they weren't getting enough paying customers to cover their operating costs — or because they couldn't, unless the post office allowed customers to forward their mail to Outbox.

A TechCrunch reporter who wrote about the shutdown in January noted:

“That may not come as a huge surprise to the critics who found the idea impractical or downright creepy. I tried it out myself for a few months, but eventually canceled my subscription. I wasn’t bothered by Outbox employees opening my mail, it just wasn’t as useful as I’d hoped, and it was a pain for me to coordinate with a roommate who didn’t subscribe.”

On the other hand, while Outbox remained in operation, there were plenty of customers who said pretty much the opposite. In February 2013, the news blog for NPR's Austin affiliate wrote about this new business offering in the area, including some background information about Outbox co-founders Will Davis and Evan Baehr, and quoted an enthusiastic customer:

Marcia Navratil heard about Outbox from a friend, a former letter carrier for the post office.  Navratil says she hated getting the mail – especially the junk mail. "It works great," saidNavratil. "I love it.  I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t get their mail this way, unless you just really like having paper delivered to your house."

But all that love is not sitting well with the Postal Service.

Indeed not. That February 2013 NPR story continued by saying this:

Early on, Outbox’s co-founders had a meeting with U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to pitch their idea. Davis remembers the moment:"He looked at us and said we have a misunderstanding.  'You disrupt my service and we will never work with you.'"

Co-founder Evan Baehr says Outbox works with permission from the customer, and at a point where the USPS' job is done: "USPS is protective of the mail stream.  We exist at the end.  We’re doing it not on behalf of the postal service but on behalf of the user."

Who calls the shots?

So just who, exactly, is the postal service acting on behalf of? Just this week, three months after Outbox shut down and 14 months after that meeting with the postmaster general, Outbox made headlines again after InsideSources.com posted a story about Baehr and Davis, including a more detailed account of their discussion with Postmaster General Donahoe.

When they met with Donahoe they'd initally thought maybe Outbox could work together with the USPS — given the post office's constant financial woes, the USPS could save considerable money on delivery costs to Outbox subscribers. However, according to Inside Sources, here's what actually happened:

When Evan [Baehr] and Will [Davis] got called in to meet with the Postmaster General they were joined by the USPS’s General Counsel and Chief of Digital Strategy. But instead, Evan recounts that US Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe “looked at us” and said “we have a misunderstanding. ‘You disrupt my service and we will never work with you.’” Further, “‘You mentioned making the service better for our customers; but the American citizens aren’t our customers — about 400 junk mailers are our customers.  Your service hurts our ability to serve those customers.”’

Inside Sources contacted the post office for comment about Donahoe's (alleged) commentary before publishing the story, and copied the post office's response in full:

Hi Derek
Thanks for contacting us about your story. Please see our statement below—that is all we have to say on this topic at this time.
Thanks
Dave Partenheimer
Manager, Media Relations
U.S. Postal Service
The Postal Service is focused on providing an essential service in our mission to serve the American public and does not view Outbox as supporting that mission. We do have concerns regarding the destruction of mail—even if authorized by the receiver—and will continue to monitor market activities to ensure protection of our brand and the value and security of the mail.

Sound familiar? It's the same statement the post office released about Outbox in February 2013.

So for now, there's apparently some room for debate, regarding whether the post office currently serves the American public, or the direct-mail marketers who send unwanted junk mail to the American public.

Incidentally, on previous occasions when this website has published various consumer-based articles about free online search engines, email providers or social media platforms, it often mentioned a common Internet proverb: “If you're not paying them anything, you're not their customer; you're what they're selling.”

Where junk mail is concerned, you're not paying the post office for it, so maybe you're not the customer there, either.

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Home improvement in a can

A new coat of paint delivers the most bang for the buck

When you consider making improvements to your home – especially preparing it for sale – perhaps no investment yields a bigger payoff than a can...

PhotoWhen you consider making improvements to your home – especially preparing it for sale – perhaps no investment yields a bigger payoff than a can of paint.

Adding a new coat of paint, either inside or outside, makes a home seem newer, fresher and well cared-for. But not all paint is the same.

True, color is important but so is quality and texture. Skimping on quality usually costs you in the long run.

When painting an interior, first consider the room you are painting, its size and shape. Before selecting colors remember that a lighter color can make a small room seem bigger while a dark color brings in the walls of a large room.

Consider the room

Think about how the room will be used. A warm color in the living area creates a more comfortable, inviting ambiance than a cooler color.

The color on the wall should also reflect your mood and personality. However, if you are preparing your home for sale, your choice should be tasteful and neutral.

In addition to color, the finish is important. Check the paint can label for descriptions like “flat,” “low-luster,” “satin,” “eggshell,” “semi-gloss” or “gloss.”

A flat finish works best on ceilings or anywhere else that a muted low-reflecting surface is desired. A flat finish is harder to clean so it works best in low-traffic areas.

Low-luster, satin and eggshell provide a slight reflective sheen. You see this finish a lot in high-traffic areas like hallways and bedrooms.

Semigloss and gloss are ideal for areas frequently touched like hands, such as kitchens, bathrooms and woodwork. On a sliding scale, imperfections in the painting surface will show the least with a flat finish and the most with gloss.

Select a high-quality paint

When buying paint, you'll see that – like most things – higher quality costs more. If you are painting your home, spending more for a top quality paint will make sense.

A high quality paint will probably save money in the long run, often requiring fewer coats. So it saves both time and money.

A top grade of paint is usually described as “premium.” Lower quality paints are typically described as “professional” or “architectural.” A “contractor” grade of paint is usually the lowest quality.

Another simple way to tell quality of paints apart is by price. A top quality paint is going to be more expensive than other grades. That's because it contains more of the paint's principal ingredients.

Latex or oil-based?

In addition to choosing color and quality, you will also need to select between water-based latex paint and a solvent-based – often called oil-based – paint.

According to California Paints, some 75% of all the paint that is sold today is of the latex variety. Do-it-yourselfers use an even higher percentage of this type of paint for both exterior and interior projects.

Before you open a can of paint and begin applying it you need to spend some time preparing the surface. Remove as much dirt and grease as possible since it will keep any paint from properly adhering to the surface.

To improve the paint's covering capability use a primer-sealer first. Primers also prevent uneven paint absorption and will even help lesser quality paints but when used with quality paint, your finished project will retain its good looks much longer.

Realtors say freshening up your home with a coat of paint will help your home sell faster and sell for closer to an asking price. But what if you don't have time and money to paint the entire house, inside and out?

Then target your paint to where it will pay off the most. According to Realtor.com, that includes the front door and inside and outside trim.

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Gogo faces in-flight competition from AT&T

But Gogo says AT&T's bid is "too little too late"

Gogo, a small Illinois company, has had the in-flight broadband market pretty well tied up the last few years but it's about to get a very big competitor.&...

PhotoGogo, a small Illinois company, has had the in-flight broadband market pretty well tied up the last few years but it's about to get a very big competitor. 

AT&T Wireless April 30, 2014, 3:51 p.m.
Consumers rate AT&T Wireless
AT&T has announced plans to launch a high-speed 4G LTE-based in-flight connectivity service for airlines and passengers, with service beginning as soon as 2015.  AT&T says the service will be capable of providing in-flight broadband for customers including fast, reliable wi-fi and onboard entertainment.

Gogo is putting a brave face on it, noting that it has contracts to provide service to 9,000 of the 40,000 airliners operating worldwide.

"An entrant to the U.S. market at this state is too little, too late," said Gogo CEO Michael Small, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

Could be, but as any frequent business traveler will tell you, onboard broadband -- usually provided via satellite -- leaves a lot to be desired, with speeds that range from adequate to poor, often with constant fluctuations that make it difficult to get any serious work done. 

AT&T says it will build an air-to-ground network in the continental United States, based on global 4G LTE standards, to provide fast speeds and efficient utilization of spectrum that it already owns. 

“Everyone wants access to high-speed, reliable mobile Internet wherever they are, including at 35,000 feet,” said John Stankey, Chief Strategy Officer at AT&T. “We are building on AT&T’s significant strengths to develop in-flight connectivity technology unlike any other that exists today, based on 4G LTE standards. ... [W]e are truly mobilizing the sky.”

Frequent frustration

Honeywell recently issued its Wireless Connectivity Survey indicating that in-flight wi-fi currently causes frustrations for nearly 9 in 10 users worldwide, most often due to inconsistent or slow connections.

AT&T said it plans to work with Honeywell to provide hardware and service capabilities to deliver the in-flight connectivity solution.

AT&T said its in-flight connectivity also offers the potential for improved communications between the plane and the ground through transmission of real-time aircraft data for optimizing, monitoring and evolving airlines’ operations.

Analysts quoted by the Journal were skeptical that AT&T's bid would be successful despite its huge financial advantage. They said Gogo is also spending heavily to upgrade its network. Its wi-fi client list includes Aeromexico, American Airlines, Air Canada, AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Japan Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways and Virgin America.

Boeing agreement

PhotoIn April, Gogo announced that it had negotiated a technical services agreement (TSA) with Boeing to evaluate Gogo's suite of technology solutions on Boeing commercial aircraft.

"As Gogo continues to retrofit aircraft with its various connectivity solutions, it's crucial to work towards line-fit of these solutions for all new orders so each aircraft comes off the line with Gogo connectivity already installed and ready for service from day one," Small said.

"By taking care of some of the aircraft modification needs at the manufacturing level, this provisioning agreement will make the installation process much smoother after an airline takes delivery of the new aircraft," added Small. 

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Trampolines injure 1 million over 10 years

Indiana University researchers tally up the broken bones

For some reason kids like to bounce up and down. That makes jumping on beds a popular, but largely frowned-upon indoor activity.It may also explain the i...

PhotoFor some reason kids like to bounce up and down. That makes jumping on beds a popular but largely frowned-upon indoor activity.

It may also explain the increased popularity, in recent years, of trampolines. Though they are largely unregulated, trampoline sales are up and you see more of them in back yards and on playgrounds. Doctors are horrified.

“Despite previous recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraging home use of trampolines, recreational use of trampolines in the home setting continues to be a popular activity among children and adolescents,” AAP said in a recent policy statement.

New research from the Indiana University School of Medicine found trampoline-related accidents sent more than 288,000 people, mostly children, to hospital emergency rooms (ER) with broken bones from 2002 to 2011. The total bill? $400 million.

1 million injuries

If you count all the injuries – not just fractures – more than 1 million trampoline users made unscheduled trips to the ER during that time, costing just over $1 billion.

"There have not been any large-scale studies of these injuries," said Dr. Randall Loder, the study's lead author. "We wanted to document the patterns of injury. This gives us an idea of the magnitude of the problem across the country."

According to the study, what starts out as fun often ends up in serious injury. About 60% of the fractures were upper-extremity injuries, notably fingers, hands, forearms and elbows.

Lower-extremity fractures are also quite common. Things like breaks in the lower leg -- the tibia and fibula -- and ankles.

Life-threatening mishaps

A smaller percentage of the injuries are extremely serious, with fractures of the spine, head, ribs and sternum. Over 10 years nearly 3,000 people were treated for broken spines as the result of a trampoline accident.

According to the AAP policy statement, most trampoline injuries occur with multiple simultaneous users on the mat. Spine injuries may occur when someone falls off the trampoline or makes an ill-fated attempt at somersaults or flips.

"Fortunately, there were fewer spine injuries than might have been expected, but those can be catastrophic," said Meagan Sabatino, clinical research coordinator for pediatric orthopedic surgery and a study co-author.

While the average age for most of the injuries was about 9, the average age for more serious axial skeleton injuries was substantially higher at 16.6 years old.

"They're probably jumping higher, with more force," Loder said.

Risk-takers

Loder attributes part of that to the fact that teenagers tend to be risk-takers. Younger children might be unaware of the potential danger of their actions, but when then are aware they take fewer risks.

"Teenagers, they'll just push the limit," Loder said.

The study found that trampoline-related ER visits rose through the 1990s and peaked in 2004. Since then, they've declined – but not as much as doctors would like. For his part, Loder would like to see trampolines banned.

"I think trampolines should not be allowed in backyards. It's that simple," he said. "It's a significant public health problem."

Victims urged to sue

As an interim step, the Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury Prevention (FSCIP) is urging litigation as a way to discourage the use of trampolines.

“If you or a loved one has suffered a serious injury as a result of a trampoline accident, you should consult with a lawyer as soon as possible to determine your legal rights,” FSCIP says. “An accident that may appear to be no ones fault or your own fault could still result in economic recovery for you.”

The foundation says people injured in a trampoline accident may be unaware of all the factors contributing to the accident, and the liability of other parties “can be a complicated point of law.”

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Bad crops and criminal cartels lead to higher lime prices

This wasn't a good year for worldwide lime production

Good news if you're among the statistically tiny number of Americans with healthy productive lime trees growing in their backyards: the price of limes is s...

PhotoGood news if you're among the statistically tiny number of Americans with healthy productive lime trees growing in their backyards: the price of limes is so high, restaurants and bars in places like Arizona and southern California are giving “free” drinks or food to any customer who brings in a bag of home-picked limes.

Bad news for the vast majority of American (and worldwide) lime-lovers who don't and can't grow their own: the price of limes has skyrocketed, from $15 for a case of 200 last year to anywhere from $80 to $130 per case today.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that no one single factor is to blame for this, but a variety of problems added together which have drastically reduced worldwide lime output. Despite the handful of Americans with productive lime trees in their backyards, there really isn't much land in America where the climate is consistently hot and humid enough to make lime farming commercially viable.

The one exception is in Florida, which had a thriving lime industry until 2001, when a highly contagious citrus canker outbreak threatened the entire state citrus industry. So officials ordered the destruction of most lime groves, and the lime industry there has yet to recover.

Extortion and shakedowns

Then Mexico started producing a significant portion of limes consumed in the U.S. Unfortunately for Mexican lime farmers, the drug cartels in that country also engage in Mafia-style extortion and shakedowns of legitimate businesses, including lime growers.

To top it all off, storms killed the lime crop in one Mexican state, and a different plant disease threatens the crops in another.

For some recipes demanding lime juice, you can easily substitute an equal amount of lemon juice, vinegar or dry white wine. But for other recipes – including guacamole and margaritas – the lime itself is often considered essential to how the finished recipe actually tastes. (The sourness of lime works well in certain mixed drinks; the sourness of vinegar, not so much.)

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Today's USA, as seen via Facebook

"Facebook Newswire" may not be polished but there's a lot of it

// Post by Rob Wooters.A few days ago, Facebook announced with much bravado the inauguration of "Facebook Newswire," something it billed as a tool ...

A few days ago, Facebook announced with much bravado the inauguration of "Facebook Newswire," something it billed as a tool for journalists. Considerable scoffing ensued, with many journalists saying they would rather take tips from psychics than rely on Facebook.

But you know what? Facebook Newswire may be rough, but it's proving itself ready, if not for prime time then at least for the lead-in to prime time, as they say in the TV biz. 

The idea is simple: consumers -- you know, regular folk -- see something, they shoot it with their smartphone and upload it. Human editors find the most newsworthy and compelling material and post it to FB News.

You might call it first-responder journalism -- the first, fragmentary reports from the scene of a disaster, riot or particularly cute story involving pets.  

Take today's train derailment in downtown Lynchburg, Va. One of the first reports came form Adam Miller, who saw the smoke that billowed from the wreckage of the train, which later reports said had been carrying crude oil.

While heavy black smoke was billowing from that derailed train in Virginia, lighter but still dense smoke was coming from a wildfire in California, as shown in this photo from KTLA5 News.

Photo

Smoke would have been a welcome site in much of the Southeast and Midwest, where torrential rains and tornadoes inflicted heavy property damage and many deaths.

OK, it's not Pulitzer Prize material but you can't say it's not breaking news. It's also a platform that, while still just a few days old, could grow into something pretty powerful. 

It's not hard to image behind-the-lines documentaries exposing outrages and injustice in totalitarian countries or in prisons, nursing homes or other places where the powerless are too often voiceless.

The postings are curated and verified by professional editors at Storyful, which calls itself a social news-verification company, so it's not a totally wild-and-crazy gathering spot.

“Our goal is that the Newswire will be an invaluable tool for journalists, helping them to tell richer, more engaging stories using public content from Facebook,” said Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of news and global media partnerships, the Wall Street Journal reported.

While it's aimed at journalists, anyone can visit https://www.facebook.com/FBNewswire. Take a look. It's what they used to call "news as it happens." 

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New-car fuel economy hits all-time high

More than 50% of new cars get more than 23 mpg

It may seem like improvements in fuel economy are barely creeping along but in just 5 years, fuel economy has taken a big leap in the right direction, acco...

PhotoIt may seem like improvements in fuel economy are barely creeping along but in just 5 years, fuel economy has taken a big leap in the right direction, according to the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

CFA says that this year, for the first time ever, more than 50% of the current year’s vehicles get more than 23 miles per gallon (mpg) -- especially significant considering that just 5 years ago only 19% of models got 23 mpg.

“The number of models getting over an impressive 30 mpg is 11.6%, a huge jump from the 1.3% that got over 30 mpg just five years ago. And, for the first time, there are no 2014 models getting below 13 mpg,” said Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for CFA and author of "The Car Book."

Photo

CFA selected 23 mpg as a benchmark for this analysis because it is the EPA fuel economy label equivalent to the 30.6 mpg overall corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirement for 2014.

Very good year

Much of the progress came in 2010, which saw the largest single annual increase (over 50%) in the number of vehicles with a fuel economy rating of more than 23 mpg.

“The automotive industry’s shift away from gas guzzlers in the past 5 years has been stunning with the number of models getting over 23 mpg more than doubling. Automakers are well on the road to meeting the 2025 standard of 54.5 mpg,” said Mark Cooper, director of research for CFA. 

Fuel economy remained relatively stagnant from 2002 to 2008, with the first real increase coming after the passage of the Energy Security and Independence Act (EISA) in 2007 during the Bush administration.

Another jump occurred in 2009 when the “Phase 1” standard for 2012-2016 was announced. (“Phase 1” accelerated the EISA requirements and called for a CAFE average of 35.5 mpg by 2016.) Knowing these standards were coming, the car companies began to significantly improve their offerings in anticipation of the requirements. 

54.5 mpg

Gillis said the CAFE standards have been effective in getting automakers on the road to meeting the 54.5 mpg standard by 2025.

“Fully implementing the standard will protect consumers from volatile gas prices, prove profitable for automakers, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and lead to a cleaner and healthier environment,” he said.

Equally encouraging, he said, is that this year's most fuel-efficient cars are also among the top sellers. For 2014, all 25 top sellers have at least one model that meets the 2014 CAFE standard. In fact, for 16 out of the top 25 vehicles, the model expected to be the most popular meets the 2014 standard.

“This demonstrates that manufacturers are meeting the standards with popular vehicles and consumers are buying them,” said Gillis.

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Kansas City gets a drive-in supermarket

Zoomin promises convenience, competitive prices, but will it take off?

Everyone's trying to find the right formula for online grocery shopping. It's one thing to set up an attractive website with easy ordering options, but it'...

PhotoEveryone's trying to find the right formula for online grocery shopping. It's one thing to set up an attractive website with easy ordering options, but it's another matter to figure out how to get the stuff delivered to consumers.

Companies large and small have been trying a variety of approaches in selected cities.

Peapod, Amazon Fresh and Door to Door Organics deliver to your door. Relay Foods parks a truck in a convenient location several times a week. Harris Teeter has just started Express Lane Online, which lets you order online, then pull up to the curb of your local Harris Teeter and have the items loaded into your car.

The Harris Teeter approach sounds good to a new Kansas City venture called Zoomin. It's basically a drive-in supermarket, sort of a stripped-down version of the Harris Teeter approach. You place your order online, then drive over to Zoomin, where an employee helps you load up. Food is kept at the proper temperature until you arrive.

Unlike most of the others, Zoomin does not charge extra for its service and does not allow tipping its curbside helpers. 

So far, there's only one Zoomin, in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, and it's only been open a few weeks. But founder John Yerkes says he has his eye on two additional sites and, if the concept works locally, hopes to roll it out on a larger scale over the next few years.

Kansas City Star reporter Joyce Smith tried Zoomin recently and found it all worked as promised, even though she forgot to bring the print-out that contained the order number. She found the prices roughly comparable to other area markets.

Yerkes hopes his business model helps him keep prices competitive. He notes that, unlike home-delivery services, he doesn't need trucks and drivers. and unlike full-service supermarkets, he doesn't need display space and cashiers.

It's an interesting idea but will it catch on? Yerkes told Smith that it seems to resonate with shoppers who are hard-pressed to pack everything into their day. 

 

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The economy limps along in early 2014

Growth slowed considerably from the end of last year's pace

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, the economy started 2014 with a whimper, not a bang. After posting a growth rate of 2.6% in the fourth quarter of 2013, real...

PhotoWith apologies to T.S. Eliot, the economy started 2014 with a whimper, not a bang.

After posting a growth rate of 2.6% in the fourth quarter of 2013, real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States -- expanded at a miniscule annual rate of 0.1 percent in the first three months of this year.

The “advanced' estimate of expansion released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis is based on source data that are incomplete or subject to further revision. A "second" estimate for the first quarter, based on more complete data, will be released in about a month.

Businesses pull back

What little increase there was in real GDP in the first quarter, was primarily due to a rise in consumer spending that was partly offset by negative contributions from exports, private inventory investment, nonresidential fixed investment, residential fixed investment, and state and local government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, decreased.

The first quarter slowdown in growth was due largely to downturns in exports and in nonresidential fixed investment, a larger decrease in private inventory investment, a deceleration in consumer spending, and a downturn in state and local government spending that were partly offset by an upturn in federal government spending and a downturn in imports.

Inflation dips

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, increased 1.4% in the first quarter, compared with an increase of 1.5% in the final 3 months of last year.

Excluding food and energy prices, the price index for gross domestic purchases was up 1.4%, versus an increase of 1.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013.

The full GDP report is available on the Bureau of Economic Analysis website.

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Mortgage applications trend lower

The decline is the second in a row

The number of people applying for mortgages is lower for a second straight week. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage App...

PhotoThe number of people applying for mortgages is lower for a second straight week.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey applications plunged 5.9% during the week ending April 25.

The Refinance Index was even worse with a drop of 7% from the previous week, dropping the refinance share of mortgage activity by 1% -- to 50% of total applications, continuing a trend that started in May 2013. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity remained unchanged at 8% of total applications.

“Both purchase and refinance application activity fell last week, and the market composite index is at its lowest level since December 2000,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “Purchase applications decreased 4% over the week, and were 21% lower than a year ago. Refinance activity also continued to slide despite a 30-year fixed rate that was unchanged from the previous week."

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was unchanged at 4.49%, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.50 (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 4 basis points -- from 4.41% to 4.37%, with points decreasing to 0.14 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was down from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA dipped to 4.17% from 4.20%, with points dropping to 0.10 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs slipped 2 basis points to 3.53%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate fell from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose to 3.26% from 3.16%, with points decreasing to 0.35 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

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Is mom getting stiffed this Mother's Day?

A new survey indicates spending on gifts will be down this year

“We still love you mom, but we're cutting back.” That seems to be the message in National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2014 Mother’s Day Spending Survey. Con...

Photo“We still love you mom, but we're cutting back.”

That seems to be the message in National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2014 Mother’s Day Spending Survey. Conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, the survey shows consumers will spend an average of $162.94 on mom this year -- down from a survey high of $168.94 last year. Total spending is expected to total $19.9 billion.

Still, retailers are an optimistic bunch. “As one of the most universally celebrated holidays, retailers will take this opportunity to attract Mother’s Day shoppers with promotions on ladies apparel items, health and beauty products, jewelry and even restaurant options,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Now fully into spring, retailers are hoping consumer sentiment and spending intentions continue to grow as we round out one of the busiest retail seasons of the year and prepare for summer.”

When you care enough...

The survey found that most will show their appreciation of mom with a greeting card (81.3%), though it appears many will also look for special gifts. Two-thirds (66.6%) will buy mom her favorite flowers, spending a total of $2.3 billion, and 33.5% will look for spring sweaters and blouses, spending a total of $1.7 billion on apparel and accessory items.

Also high on the list are books and CDs ($480 million), housewares or gardening tools ($812 million), personal experience gifts like a day at the spa ($1.5 billion), jewelry ($3.6 billion), and special outings like brunch or dinner ($3.8 billion).

Gadgetry spending slipping

Having spent the last few years treating mom to electronic gifts like tablets, smartphones, cameras and more, consumers this year may have less of a reason to purchase those items: 13.1% say they will buy mom a consumer electronic item and will spend a total of $1.7 billion, compared with $2.3 billion last year.

However, if mom does have her eye on something special for herself, there are still good things to come in the form of gift cards: 43.3% of those shopping for a gift for mom will buy her a gift card; 41.5% did so last year. Total spending on gift cards is expected rise slightly to $2.1 billion.

Practical gift-giving

“Americans haven’t forgotten about the state of the economy and are treating their finances and gift-giving budgets in a way that keeps practicality top of mind,” said Prosper’s Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow. “But like we saw with Valentine’s Day and Easter, people this year will look for special ways to treat mom to something nice without breaking the bank, knowing it’s the thought that counts.”

Most shoppers will head to specialty stores to find gifts (33.5%), but others will shop at department stores (32.4%), discount stores (24%), and online (29%).

The survey found 18-24 year-olds are the most likely to shop at department stores among all other age groups: more than half (51.6%) will visit a department store in search for their perfect gift for mom. But it’s 25-34 year-olds who will spend the most on mom, spending an average of $216.53.

Nearly two-thirds (63.9%) of those surveyed say they will shop for their mother or stepmother, while 22.5% will shop for their wife, 9.2% will shop for their daughter and 6.6% will shop for grandma.

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GE brand dehumidifiers recalled

A component in the dehumidifier’s compressor can short circuit

GE Appliances & Lighting of Louisville, Ky., is recalling about 15,500 GE brand dehumidifiers. A component in the dehumidifier’s compressor can short circ...

PhotoGE Appliances & Lighting of Louisville, Ky., is recalling about 15,500 GE brand dehumidifiers.

A component in the dehumidifier’s compressor can short circuit, posing a fire hazard.

There4has been 1 report of a fire contained within the dehumidifier unit. No other property damage or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 30-pint portable GE brand dehumidifiers. The dehumidifiers are white plastic and measure about 19 inches tall, 13 inches wide and 9 inches deep with a front-loading water bucket.

“GE” and digital controls are located on top of the dehumidifier. Model, serial and manufacture dates are located on a label on the back of the dehumidifier. The model, serial and manufacture dates included in the recall are: 

Model Number

Serial Number Begins with:

Manufacture Date

ADKW30LN

 

AT1, DT1, FT1 or GT1

2010/01 through 2010/04

(for January 2010 through April 2010)

The dehumidifiers, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Walmart stores nationwide from March 2010, to December 2010, for about $170.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled dehumidifiers, unplug them and contact Midea for instructions on returning their recalled dehumidifier for a free repair. Consumers should not return the recalled dehumidifiers to the retailer where purchased.

Consumers may contact Midea toll-free at (855) 861-2799 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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U.S., U.K. governments advise against using Internet Explorer

At least until Microsoft fixes the zero-day exploit. But for XP users, it will never be fixed

Last Saturday, a tech security firm made the appalling discovery that ever since the 2001 release of IE6, all versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer hav...

PhotoLast Saturday, a tech security firm made the appalling discovery that ever since the 2001 release of IE6, all versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer have been plagued by a zero-day security flaw which hackers could use to easily gain remote control of your computer.

Just how bad is this security flaw? Bad enough that the governments of the United Kingdom and United States have advised everybody to stop using Internet Explorer altogether, at least until Microsoft develops and releases a patch to fix that gaping security hole.

(But remember: if your computer still runs on Windows XP, Microsoft will probably never develop a patch for you, because the company stopped supporting XP earlier this month.)

What to do

Even if you don't use XP, if your computer is one of the 55 percent (according to some estimates) worldwide using any version of IE6 through IE11 to go online, you need to stop using IE and switch to another browser right now.

Alternate browsers include Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera and, for Mac users, Safari, included in all Mac operating systems. All are excellent and all are free. 

You can download free, easy-to-install versions at these locations:

Zero-day

The security firm FireEye Research Labs announced the discovery of the zero-day exploit on Saturday, April 26. By Monday, the Department of Homeland Security's Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) updated its website to give the following warning to anyone using Internet Explorer versions 6 through 11:

“US-CERT recommends that users and administrators review Microsoft Security Advisory 2963983 for mitigation actions and workarounds. Those who cannot follow Microsoft's recommendations, such as Windows XP users, may consider employing an alternate browser.”

However, as of Tuesday morning, that Microsoft Security Advisory still had not been updated since April 26, the day FireEye first announced the IE security flaw. Presumably, when Microsoft does figure out how to fix the problem, it will update Advisory 2963983 to let everybody know. For now, it still says this:

“On completion of this investigation, Microsoft will take the appropriate action to protect our customers, which may include providing a solution through our monthly security update release process, or an out-of-cycle security update, depending on customer needs.”

Prediction: when Microsoft does finally develop a fix they'll release it right away in an out-of-cycle update, rather than wait until the next regularly scheduled monthly update. Regardless of which option Microsoft chooses, though, the security updates will only apply to those operating systems Microsoft still supports — which is another way of reminding Windows XP users, “These security updates will not apply to your computer, so you need to stop using XP.”

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How to get a job after graduation

Networking, studying a prospective employer and being persistent will pay off

No doubt next month's college graduates are feeling some pressure about now, and it has less to do with upcoming final exams than what comes after. The job...

PhotoNo doubt next month's college graduates are feeling some pressure right about now, and it has less to do with upcoming final exams than what comes after. The job hunt.

They've spent the last four or more years pursing a college degree and have spent a small fortune doing so. Chances are they'll graduate with a sizable student loan debt.

That makes finding a job all the more important. College placement officers say the biggest mistake students near graduation make is starting their job search too late. And putting off the job search until after graduation is just one of many mistakes new grads make.

Don't panic

Anne Scholl-Fiedler, Vice President for Career Services at Stevenson University, says new graduates entering the job market make other mistakes, usually out of desperation. When weeks go by without a nibble, applicants tend to act in ways that hinder, not help their job search.

Her advice? First, don't blindly apply for jobs, especially for jobs for which you are not qualified. Guess what? This small and elite group of HR professionals often communicate with one another about jobseekers in their local markets.

Don't just apply online and leave it at that. The online application process is just the first step. Actually, networking should come first. Establishing contacts within the company where you want to work will give you an edge.

Be prepared

If you go to a networking event or a job fair, go prepared. Be ready to talk about your skills, academic areas of study, strengths and interests.

Do some research about the companies that will be represented at the event. If you can talk knowledgeably with recruiters they will be more likely to take you seriously.

Don't be so choosy. If your first job isn't what you had set your sights on, maybe it's a good starting point. Can you learn something and move on? Remember, you're going to have many jobs over the course of your career.

"The key for college seniors is being deliberate, not desperate, in their job searches," Scholl-Fiedler said.

And maybe additional advice might include, “try not to display a sense of entitlement.” For some that might prove a challenge.

A study of college career development specialists compiled by the Center for Professional Excellence (CPE) at York College of Pennsylvania found college students' sense of entitlement has increased since 2009.

“Fifty-three percent of our respondents reported an increase in students showing a sense of entitlement, while only 6.3 percent noted a decrease,” said Matthew Randall, executive director of the CPE.

Some good news

Fortunately for young job-seekers, the job market appears to be improving. The nation's unemployment rate is slowly dropping and a new study from CareerBuilder and CareerRookie.com finds that 57% of employers say they plan to hire new college graduates.

That's an improvement from the 53% who were hiring last year and the 44% who were in 2010. But the survey also finds corporate recruiters have some concerns about the new crop of applicants.

In short, recruiters see it coming down to a lack of preparation. A majority of recruiters – 53% – say recent graduates often lack real world experience and perspective.

Not ready for prime time

Part of the problem, as they see it, is preparation. Thirty-five percent says students tend to specialize too much. Instead, they would like to see a blend of technical skills and soft skills gained from liberal arts.

Also, 26% of employers say on-the-job training is often impractical because entry-level jobs have become more complex. They look for people who have had prior experience, either through internships or apprenticeships.

According to employers, recent graduates are less prepared for certain business functions than others. Those roles where deficits are noted include customer service, public relations/communications, business development, sales, general office functions, and IT.

Does that mean colleges – charging $50,000 or more for a bachelors degree – aren't preparing students for today's job market?

“The vast majority of employers feel that the skills and knowledge base students gain at academic institutions are aligned with their company needs, but nearly one in four sense a disconnect,” said Brent Rasmussen, President of CareerBuilder North America. “As roles within organizations grow more complex and demand for certain degrees outpaces graduation rates, there is an opportunity for employers to work more closely with schools to help guide learning experiences for the next generation of workers.”

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Never trust a zip file in an email

and other all-purpose malware-protection rules

Another day, another countless thousands of spammy emails cluttering inboxes all over the world. Luckily, most such emails can be identified as spam...

PhotoAnother day, another countless thousands of spammy emails cluttering inboxes all over the world.

Luckily, most such emails can be easily identified as spam, if you know what to look for. Consider last March, when news of the Netflix phishing scam first broke: would-be thieves sent out a mass of emails purportedly from Netflix and warning of a problem with the recipient's Netflix subscription. Anyone who fell for the bait hard enough would eventually give the thieves full access to their computers, and any personal files therein.

But that scammy phishing email contained plenty of hints that it wasn't a genuine Netflix communique — even before you do your own independent online search for Netflix's customer service contact information and (unsurprisingly) discover a phone number entirely different from the one the phishers wanted you to call.

Another example of “spam deconstruction” can be found on the PhishMe security firm's blog, which on April 29 posted a seven-point takedown of a piece of email spam with a particularly virulent piece of malware in an attached file. (If you had to choose one of those seven points as being most important, it's most likely number three: “Zip file – It is uncommon to receive a legitimate zip file in an email. More times than not, it’s bad.” That, in turn, ties in to the well-known malware-protection rule “Never download a suspicious or unsolicited file.”)

Ask yourself ...

PhishMe pointed out some other red flags indicating possible spam, including the fact that the email, which started out with the words “Hi, there! This is your neighbor writing here. Today your attorney popped you, but you were out, so he left a message for you,” actually had a Russian sender (is your neighbor Russian?).

The alleged attorney's message was in the infected zip file (which, if opened, would give hackers the ability to steal pretty much any files in your computer). But if you read the full text of the email – and imagine it's an email which actually landed in your inbox, rather than something you're reading on a security blog — you'll notice some other indications of spamhood which are quite obvious, if you think about it for more than two seconds.

For example: even assuming you do currently have an attorney, and are expecting her to give you some files, what are the chances she would ever say “Hmm, since my client's not home, I'll just give an e-copy of these super-important files to one of the neighbors”? (Hint: close to zero, because any attorney who tried this would be disbarred for violating client confidentiality.)

Another sign which most (though not all) spam has in common is its complete lack of specific, personalized details. Suppose you, personally, had to send an unexpected note (or email) to a neighbor. Which format are you most likely to use: “Hi there, this is your neighbor,” or “Hi [neighbor's name], this is [your name]”?

If someone knows you well enough to have your email address, they should know you well enough to know your name.

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Hackers target Adobe Flash security flaw

A fix has already been released. Make sure you update your Adobe Flash Player

The bad news is, there's a zero-day flaw in Adobe Flash software which hackers are already exploiting to attack people's computers. The good news is, Adobe...

PhotoThe bad news is, there's a zero-day flaw in Adobe Flash software which hackers are already exploiting to attack people's computers. The good news is, Adobe has already released a fix for the problem.

Adobe's April 28 security bulletin said the affected versions are

Adobe Flash Player 13.0.0.182 and earlier versions for Windows

Adobe Flash Player 13.0.0.201 and earlier versions for Macintosh

Adobe Flash Player 11.2.202.350 and earlier versions for Linux

To verify the version of Adobe Flash Player installed on your system, access the About Flash Player page, or right-click on content running in Flash Player and select "About Adobe (or Macromedia) Flash Player" from the menu. If you use multiple browsers, perform the check for each browser you have installed on your system.

Adobe then offers a list of browser-specific solutions; depending on which browser type you use, you might need to allow a Flash update, or you might simply have to close out of your browser and then re-open it.

Adobe's posted list also includes specific instructions for people using IE10 or IE11. However, if you use Internet Explorer for your online browsing, it's worth remembering that, until Microsoft develops and releases a patch for the zero-day security flaw affecting all versions of Explorer beyond IE6, the governments of the United States and United Kingdom have advised people to stop using Internet Explorer altogether.

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Researchers: laughter really is the best medicine

Humor may keep you young and thinking clearly

Aging can bring with it cognitive decline. Everything from full-blown dementia to those frustrating “senior moments,” when you lose track of yo...

PhotoAging can bring with it cognitive decline. Everything from full-blown dementia to those frustrating “senior moments,” when you lose track of your thoughts.

Researchers have found that stress can be an aggravating factor. It saps both physical and mental energy as we get older.

It can contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Stress releases the hormone cortisol, which can damage brain neurons and make it harder for seniors to learn and remember.

Damaging cortisol

But researchers at Loma Linda University have looked deeper into cortisol’s relationship to memory and come up with a novel theory.

You've heard the expression “laughter is the best medicine?” The researchers take that literally.

The researchers gathered a group of healthy elderly individuals and a group of elderly people with diabetes and had them watch a 20-minute funny video. At the conclusion both groups completed a memory assessment that measured their learning, recall, and sight recognition.

Their performance was recorded and compared to a control group of elderly people who did not view the video. Cortisol concentrations for both groups were also recorded at the beginning and end of the experiment.

Results

Cortisol concentrations were sharply lower among both groups that watched the video. Perhaps not coincidentally, the senior who watched the video also showed greater improvement in all areas of the memory assessment.

The seniors with diabetes showed the most dramatic benefit in cortisol level changes. The group of healthy seniors produced the most significant changes in memory test scores.

Dr. Gurinder Singh Bains, an author of the study, says the results potentially offer an effective and inexpensive addition to wellness programs for the elderly.

“The cognitive components — learning ability and delayed recall — become more challenging as we age and are essential to older adults for an improved quality of life: mind, body, and spirit,” he said. “Although older adults have age-related memory deficits, complimentary, enjoyable, and beneficial humor therapies need to be implemented for these individuals.”

The take-away, the researchers say, is seniors can slow memory decline by reducing stress, and laughing is an easy and pleasant way to do that. Not to mention inexpensive.

History

Laughter therapy is not exactly new. In the 1970s writer Norman Cousins recovered from a debilitating arthritis, he said, by taking massive amounts of vitamin C and spending several minutes a day laughing at Marx Brothers movies.

"I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep," he wrote. "When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."

Previous research

Previous research has also indicated a link between humor and health. Keith Adams, a British laughter therapist, cites a September 2011 study from from Oxford University, demonstrating that continuous laughter significantly increases people’s pain threshold, by as much as 10%.

Berk explains it this way; the act of laughter – or simply enjoying some humor – increases the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain. That, in turn, provides a sense of pleasure and reward.

These changes make the immune system work better. There are even changes in brain wave activity towards what's called the "gamma wave band frequency", which also amp up memory and recall.

“So, indeed, laughter is turning out to be not only a good medicine, but also a memory enhancer adding to our quality of life,” Berk said.

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Stroke risk sometimes reduced when blood vessel malformation isn't treated

Study finds many patients do better with conservative treatment

A fairly common condition called AVM -- arteriovenous malformation -- affects about 1 in 2,000 people. It's a tangling of the blood vessels in the bra...

PhotoA fairly common condition called AVM -- arteriovenous malformation -- affects about 1 in 2,000 people. It's a tangling of the blood vessels in the brain and heightens the risk of a stroke. It's often treated with surgery.

But a new study finds that surgical interventions actually increases the patient's risk of stroke in some cases. Some patients have a better outcome if doctors treat their symptoms only and not the AVM, according to the study conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh.

"Many patients feel that living with AVM is like living with a time bomb in your head that could explode at any time," said Prof. Rustam Al-Shahi Salman. "Patients and their doctors face difficult choices when deciding whether or not to pursue treatment. We have found that, for most people whose AVM has not caused a bleed, the risks of treatment exceed the risks of leaving it alone over 12 years."

While the findings may have statistical significance, they do not necessarily apply to every individual with the condition. Patients should consult carefully with their physicians about the treatment that is most appropriate for them. 

No one should ever make a decision about their personal healthcare solely on the basis of news reports about medical research.

Study details

Salman and his team looked at the long-term outcome of patients with the condition, which is caused by abnormal connections between the arteries and veins in the brain.

They found that, over a 12 year period, patients who chose not to be treated for their condition were less likely to have a stroke or die from related causes. These patients were also less likely to suffer sustained disability compared with those who opted for an intervention to treat the tangles.

Of 204 patients, 103 underwent intervention. Those who underwent intervention were younger, more likely to have presented with seizure, and less likely to have large AVMs than patients managed conservatively.

During a median follow-up of 6.9 years, the rate of progression to the primary outcome was lower with conservative management during the first 4 years of follow-up, but rates were similar thereafter. 

This is the first study to compare the risks and benefits of treatment for AVM in the long term. The findings build on previous research that reported an increased risk of stroke in the first three years after treatment for AVM.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Snobbish sales staff may boost sales of luxury items

Study finds a "true" snob can impress customers, causing them to buy

True or false: a rude and snobbish retail sales staff chases away customers.Surprisingly, the answer appears to be "false," at least if we're talking abo...

PhotoTrue or false: a rude and snobbish retail sales staff chases away customers.

Surprisingly, the answer appears to be "false," at least if we're talking about luxury stores, according to a study conducted by the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

The forthcoming Journal of Consumer Research study reveals that consumers who get the brush-off at a high-end retailer can become more willing to purchase and wear pricey togs.

"It appears that snobbiness might actually be a qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci," says Sauder Marketing Professor Darren Dahl. "Our research indicates they can end up having a similar effect to an 'in-group' in high school that others aspire to join."

But the effect appears to work only in the short-term. The researchers found that the improved impressions gained by rude treatment faded over time. Customers who expressed increased desire to purchase the products reported significantly diminished desire two weeks later.

Must be a "true" snob

The effect only held true if the salesperson appeared to be an authentic representative of the brand. If they did not fit the part, the consumer was turned off. Further, researchers found that sales staff rudeness did not improve impressions of mass-market brands.

"Our study shows you've got to be the right kind of snob in the right kind of store for the effect to work," says Dahl.

For the study, participants imagined or had interactions with sales representatives – rude or not. They then rated their feelings about associated brands and their desire to own them. Participants who expressed an aspiration to be associated with high-end brands also reported an increased desire to own the luxury products after being treated poorly.

Based on the study's findings, Dahl suggests that, if consumers are being treated rudely, it's best to leave the situation and return later, or avoid the interactions altogether by shopping online.

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Home prices show little change in February

Values rose on an annual basis, but at a slower rate

Home prices were steady from January to February, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. The leading measure of U.S. home prices shows both...

PhotoHome prices were steady from January to February, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

The leading measure of U.S. home prices shows both the 10-City and 20-City Composites were relatively unchanged month-over-month, with 13 of the 20 cities declining in February.

Cleveland had the largest decline -- 1.6% -- followed by Chicago and Minneapolis at -0.9%. Las Vegas posted -0.1%, marking its first decline in almost two years. Tampa showed its largest decline -- 0.7% -- since January 2012.

Annual rates

Meanwhile, the annual rates of gain slowed for both Composites in the 12 months ending February 2014, with the 10-City Composite up 13.1% and 20-City Composite showing a gain of 12.9%.

Thirteen cities saw lower annual rates in February. Las Vegas -- the leader -- posted 23.1% year-over-year versus 24.9% in January. The only city in the Sun Belt that saw improvement in its year-over-year return was San Diego with an increase of 19.9%.

A huge cool-down

“Prices remained steady from January to February for the two Composite indices,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The annual rates cooled the most we’ve seen in some time. The three California cities and Las Vegas have the strongest increases over the last 12 months as the West continues to lead. Denver and Dallas remain the only cities which have reached new post-crisis price peaks.

“The Northeast with New York, Washington and Boston are seeing some of the slowest year-over-year gains,” he continued. “However, even there prices are above their levels of early 2013. On a month-to-month basis, there is clear weakness. Seasonally adjusted data show prices rose in 19 cities, but a majority at a slower pace than in January.”

Rising prices, weaker stats

Despite continued price gains, most other housing statistics are weak. Blitzer notes that sales of both new and existing homes are flat to down. The recovery in housing starts, now less than one million units at annual rates, is faltering.

“Moreover,” he points out, “home prices nationally have not made it back to 2005. Mortgage interest rates, which jumped in May last year and are steady since then, are blamed by some analysts for the weakness. Others cite difficulties in qualifying for loans and concerns about consumer confidence. The result is less demand and fewer homes being built.”

Little improvement

Only 5 cities saw their annual rates improve in February. After posting annual gains of over 20% for their 12th consecutive month, Las Vegas and San Francisco both showed deceleration in their annual rates. San Diego narrowed the gap with a return of 19.9%. Washington, D.C., recorded its 8th consecutive improvement with an annual rate of 9.1% -- its highest since May 2006.

Thirteen cities declined in February. Cleveland and Tampa showed their largest declines -- 1.6% and 0.7% respectively -- since January 2012. Seattle improved from a decline of 0.8% in January to an increase of 0.6% in February.

Denver posted a small decline and is less than 1% away from its peak set in September 2013. Dallas increased 0.2% and continues to reach new index highs. Detroit remains the only city below its January 2000 level.  

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Consumer confidence takes a step back

The view of current business and labor market conditions dimmed a bit

Consumers weren't quite as upbeat about the U.S. economy this month as they were in March. The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index, which ...

PhotoConsumers weren't quite as upbeat about the U.S. economy this month as they were in March.

The Conference Board says its Consumer Confidence Index, which increased last month, slipped slightly in April from 83.9 to 82.3. The Present Situation Index dropped 4.2 -- to 78.3, while the Expectations Index was virtually unchanged at 84.9.

“Consumer confidence declined slightly in April, as consumers assessed current business and labor market conditions less favorably than in March,” said Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “However, their expectations regarding the short-term outlook for the economy and labor market held steady.

But, she adds, while sentiment regarding current conditions may have slipped a bit, “consumers do not foresee the economy, or the labor market, losing the momentum that has been building up over the past several months.”

Business conditions and jobs

Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions pulled back moderately in April. Those who said business conditions are “good” edged down to 21.8% from 22.6%, while those think conditions are “bad” rose to 24.4% from 23.5%.

Consumers’ assessment of the labor market was also slightly more negative. Those who think jobs are “plentiful” declined to 12.9% from 13.8%, while those saying jobs are “hard to get” rose 1.1% to 32.5%.

Looking ahead

Consumers’ expectations held steady in April. The percentage of consumers who look for business conditions to improve over the next six months was unchanged at 17.4%, while those anticipating them to worsen inched up 0.2% to 10.3%.

People were slightly more optimistic about the outlook for the labor market. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 15.0% from 14.1%, while those expecting fewer jobs edged up to 17.9% from 17.5%.

The proportion of consumers who think their incomes will grow rose 1.8% -- to 17.1%, while those expecting a drop in their incomes also increased -- to 12.9% from 11.5%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey 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 April 17.

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BMW recalls vehicles with possible power issues

An engine stall could increase the risk of a crash

BMW of North America is recalling a total of 156,137 vehicles including model year 2010-2011: 128i Coupe, 128i Convertible, 328i Sedan, 328i xDrive Sedan...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling a total of 156,137 vehicles including model year 2010-2011:

  • 128i Coupe,
  • 128i Convertible,
  • 328i Sedan,
  • 328i xDrive Sedan,
  • 328i Coupe,
  • 328i Convertible,
  • 328i Sports Wagon and
  • Z4 sDrive 30i;

2011-2012:

  • 135i Coupe,
  • 135i Convertible,
  • 335i Sedan,
  • X5 xDrive 35i, and
  • X6 xDrive 35i;

2011:

  • 335i xDrive Sedan,
  • 335i Coupe,
  • 335i Convertible,
  • 528i Sedan,
  • 535i Sedan,
  • 535i xDrive Sedan,
  • X3 xDrive 28i, and
  • X3 xDrive 35i;

2010:

  • X3 xDrive 30i, and
  • X5 xDrive 30i;

2012

  • 640i Coupe, and
  • 640i Convertible;

2010-2012:

  • 535i Gran Turismo.

In the affected vehicles, the bolts that secure the housing for the variable camshaft timing adjustment (VANOS) unit can loosen over time and may possibly break.

If the bolts loosen or break the engine may have reduced power or stall. An engine stall increases the risk of a crash.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the four VANOS housing bolts for both VANOS units (intake and exhaust), free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in May 2014.

In addition, owners of approximately 170,172 model year 2010-2012 BMW vehicles equipped with inline 6 cylinder engines not covered by this recall, will receive an extended warranty to address this condition.

Owners may contact BMW at 1-800-525-7417.

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Ram 1500 4x4s recalled

The park pawl not properly engaging when the transmission is in the "Park" position

Chrysler Group is recalling 125 model year 2014 Ram 1500 4x4 vehicles manufactured January 24, 2014, through February 5, 2014. The transmission case in t...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 125 model year 2014 Ram 1500 4x4 vehicles manufactured January 24, 2014, through February 5, 2014.

The transmission case in the affected vehicles may have been improperly machined which can result in the park pawl not properly engaging when the transmission is in the “Park” position.

If the park pawl does not properly engage, the vehicle may roll away, increasing the risk of a crash and occupant or pedestrian injuries.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the transmission -- as necessary -- free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in May 2014.

Owners may contract Chrysler at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P13.

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Are retail jobs headed for extinction?

The trend doesn't look good for employees

Amazon.com reported quarterly earnings last week that severely disappointed Wall Street. As a result, the stock immediately lost nearly 10% of its value....

PhotoAmazon.com reported quarterly earnings last week that severely disappointed Wall Street. As a result, the stock immediately lost nearly 10% of its value.

But for those interested in the future of retail, there may be deeper meaning behind the disappointing numbers. A lot of analysts who take the long view believe Amazon has it figured out.

Writing in the Motley Fool, Brian Shaw flatly states that Amazon continues to be the most innovative retailer in the world.

“While Amazon.com is rolling out innovations like Fire TV and Dash which fundamentally change the way consumers shop for media and groceries, the brick-and-mortar competition remains several steps behind,” Shaw writes.

Amazon effect

More important, perhaps, to those who make their living in retail, Amazon is doing it with fewer employees. Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic, notes what he calls “the Amazon effect,” with average sales per employee rising from $12,000 to $25,000 over the last two decades.

“That means that even as consumers spend more, we need fewer workers to stock shelves and process orders,” he writes.

Then there is Walmart, which has both a brick-and-mortar and online presence. It, perhaps more than any other business, reflects the rise of the supercenter, which has become a highly disruptive force.

Opposition to Walmart moving into a town usually comes from the area's other merchants, who complain that Walmart's low prices and convenient hours will put them out of business. Less attention is paid to what it means for the town's retail employees.

Thompson maintains that one Walmart employee replaces about 1.4 local retail workers. In a typical county that translates into about 150 fewer jobs in the years after a Walmart opens.

Declining labor force

“Combined with the Amazon effect, this has dramatically reduced our need for retail workers to sell things, and so retail's share of the labor force, which peaked in the late 1980s, has been declining ever since,” Thompson writes.

As we reported last year machines are also moving into the workplace. One only has to visit a large supermarket to find automated check-out kiosks, where customers scan and bag their own groceries. One clerk stands by to monitor and assist customers at as many as a dozen kiosks.

Vending machines, meanwhile, dispense more than just candy and snacks. In the video below a consumer purchases a new iPhone from a machine.

Served by machines

Futurist Thomas Frey predicts that soon nearly every city will have 24-hour convenience stores, 24-hour libraries, 24-hour banks, 24-hour churches, 24-hour schools, 24-hour movie theaters, 24-hour bars and restaurants, and even 24-hour shopping centers.

These places will have few, if any employees around, since the public will be served by machines.

Efficient? Probably. Convenient for consumers? Maybe.

But this trend certainly isn't good news for service sector employees, who already deal with low and stagnant wages. Retail employees tend to be young and, for many, it is their entry into the working world.  

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Hacker hijacks baby monitor to scream at infant in the middle of the night

Had he kept quiet, who knows how long he could've gone undetected?

It's a fact of modern life: any sort of wireless connection (Internet or otherwise) has the potential to be hacked...

PhotoIt's a fact of modern life: any sort of wireless connection (Internet or otherwise) has the potential to be hacked, and the more connections you have, the more vulnerable you are. Here's a particularly creepy example out of Ohio, where an unknown man hacked into a baby monitor to yell obscenities at the child in the middle of the night.

Heather Schreck of Hebron was asleep one night when suddenly, she heard a man's voice (not her husband's) coming out of her 10-month-old daughter's bedroom. “I heard what sounded like a man's voice but I was asleep so I wasn't sure,” Schreck told Cincinnati-based news station Fox19.

She used her cell phone to check the Foscam camera in her daughter's room — the camera was moving, but she wasn't moving it. “About the time I saw it moving, I also heard a voice again start screaming at my daughter. He was screaming, ‘Wake up baby. Wake up baby.' Then just screaming at her trying to wake her up.”

When Schreck's husband ran into their daughter's room, the camera started shouting obscenities at him until the Schrecks disconnected the camera.

A wireless break-in

The unknown hacker managed to break into the system from outside the house. Bear in mind: had he not decided to amuse himself by screaming at a sleeping baby in the middle of the night, the Schrecks might never have known he was there.

Any wireless connection is vulnerable to hacking, but the Schrecks were particularly vulnerable because their Foscam camera had a known security flaw in its firmware; Foscam had released a patch, but the Schrecks did not know about it.

That's one problem with connecting any home system to wifi or the Internet: you can never just install it and forget about it. All require constant vigilance on your part: have there been any recent news stories about hackers attacking that particular system? Has the company, or any tech-security firm, announced the discovery of a security hole and/or security fix?

Just last weekend, for example, news broke that all versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer going back to IE6 contained a zero-day security flaw granting hackers the ability to take complete control of your computer. Bear in mind: IE6 was first released in 2001, and that massive security flaw remained undiscovered [except, presumably, by malicious hackers] until 2014.

Not the first time

Nor was this the first time a hacked Foscam baby monitor made the news, either. Last August, a family in Texas had almost exactly the same experience as the Schrecks: a hacker took control of their Foscam baby monitor in order to harass their infant daughter. (Were these both the same hacker, or is hijacking baby monitors to terrify small children a new fad among sociopaths? Other than the hacker[s], nobody knows.)

If you have Foscam or any other baby monitor/spy equipment in your home and wish to continue using them, you must look for and install any relevant security patches for that system in addition to your regular wifi, and of course make sure you have a strong password for both.

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Zero-day security flaw puts Internet Explorer users at risk

This is especially dangerous for those still using Windows XP

Bad news for anyone using Internet Explorer (and worse news for anyone whose computer still runs on Windows XP, even though Microsoft stopped supporting XP...

PhotoBad news for anyone using Internet Explorer (and worse news for anyone whose computer still runs on Windows XP, even though Microsoft stopped supporting XP earlier this month): hackers might be able to plant malware on your computer, without any effort from you.

Usually, when you read warning stories about the latest malware threat, they'll tell you to protect yourself by avoiding certain actions: don't click on that suspicious-looking link, don't open that spammy-looking email, don't download that unsolicited file.

What makes this latest Internet Explorer threat especially dangerous is that hackers can install malicious software on your computer without your first clicking a link, opening an email or downloading a file — merely visiting a hacked or compromised website is all it takes.

Nobody noticed

Turns out that Internet Explorer, even the versions still supported by Microsoft, has always contained a major security hole which nobody knew about until the security firm FireEye Research Labs announced, on April 26, that it had “identified a new Internet Explorer (IE) zero-day exploit used in targeted attacks.  The vulnerability affects IE6 through IE11, but the attack is targeting IE9 through IE11.”

“Zero-day” is tech-speak for any threat exploiting a previously unknown vulnerability; since nobody (other than bad-guy hackers) knew about the security hole, nobody's had time to patch it, and so zero days pass between the discovery of the vulnerability, and the first time that vulnerability is attacked. FireEye called this latest IE flaw “significant,” because the “vulnerable versions [of IE] represent about a quarter of the total browser market.

Microsoft Security responded promptly to news of FireEye's discovery, promising to find a fix for the problem and include it in the next automatic update (for supported systems; this will not help those of you still using XP). Meanwhile, “Microsoft continues to encourage customers to follow the guidance in the Microsoft Safety & Security Center of enabling a firewall, applying all software updates, and installing antimalware software.”

Complete control

But suppose you're an IE user who does none of this, and hackers manage to get into your computer. What happens then?

According to Microsoft: “An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could gain the same user rights as the current user. If the current user is logged on with administrative user rights, an attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could take complete control of an affected system. An attacker could then install programs; view, change, or delete data; or create new accounts with full user rights.”

In other words: anything you can do with your computer, a hacker can do while pretending to be you.

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Apocalypse now: products for a brave new world

Are we headin' for Armageddon? Many obviously think so

During a commercial break on CNN, Marie Osmond comes on the screen and you immediately expect it to be another weight loss product commercial. It's not.A...

PhotoDuring a commercial break on CNN, Marie Osmond comes on the screen and you immediately expect it to be another weight-loss product commercial. It's not.

A somber Osmond talks about being prepared in the event of some catastrophe, when access to food, energy and medicine is interrupted. Not just for days but months, or longer.

The commercial for Wise Company, a firm in what appears to be a rapidly-growing survival food and gear industry, is part of a major campaign. In September 2013 Osmond signed a deal to become the company's marketing spokesperson and her image and name is prevalent on the company's website and marketing material.

“Not only does Marie resonate well with our target audience — predominately women in the 25-50 range — she personally appreciates the value of being prepared for any crisis situation, and like many women juggling career and family, she also understands the need to quickly and easily provide her family with shelf-stable, great-tasting foods,” said Wise Company founder Brian Neville, when he announced the deal.

In addition to appearing in television commercials for the company Osmond also produced the infomercial below.

Ready for more than hurricanes

Wise Company notes that the U.S. experiences as many as 50 natural disasters each year, leaving residents in affected areas without access to life's necessities. While that may be true, it's unlikely that there are significantly more disasters than there have been in past decades, before the public was served by dozens of survival product companies.

In any event, when a tornado or hurricane strikes, help normally arrives from unaffected areas in a timely manner. One gets the sense that this new breed of survival products is designed to be used for more than just a few days.

For example, Wise sells a package of freeze-dried food to feed two adults for up to a year, claiming a shelf life of 25 years. That claim, however, has been challenged by some of its competitors.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks many authorities urged Americans to assemble a “survival kit” as a prudent precaution. But the instant soup, dried fruit, flashlight, radio and blankets that make up these do-it-yourself kits are only meant to tide the users over for a week or two.

The new marketing push for survival food and gear may suggest the population of “doomsday preppers,” those who believe the collapse of civilization is imminent, is growing.

End of the world on screen

The end of the world is also an idea taking hold in popular culture. Since 9/11 there have been several movies in which disease, space aliens, zombie hordes, asteroids and, coming soon, Godzilla, have threatened mankind's existence.

Photo

The near-collapse of the world financial system in 2008 may have increased this depressing trend. Companies creating survival products have been quick to respond.

For example, a company called Legacy Premium offers food storage, survival kits, water storage and fuel. A 2-person survival “bug out” bag costs $98.

“You can protect your family with a survival prepper bug-out bag, the product description says. “The necessary meals, water, first aid and hygiene items have been gathered and packed for you.”

Amazon.comoffers a wide range of survival products you can order online, including IOSAT potassium iodide tablets to protect against nuclear poisoning, an Israeli military-civilian gas mask and an KA-BAR Marine Corps fighting knife.

Or you might order the book “Ham Radio For Dummies.” Don't have a ham radio? You will.

"In the aftermath of a disaster, once other forms of communication stop working, there will be others trying to contact fellow survivors on ham radio waves,” the author writes. “Being able to operate a ham radio is an excellent skill to have, because another survivor's information could be extremely important to your current situation."

Mainstream preppers

What began in recent years as a fringe market niche appears to be moving mainstream. While being prepared to deal with any eventuality is a healthy thing – it's the Boy Scouts' motto, after all -- it is worth remembering that this kind of fear-driven marketing has occurred in the past.

In the early 60s many Americans dug up their backyards to build bomb shelters, fearful that Cold War tensions would unleash a nuclear holocaust.

In the late 1970s, a time of gasoline shortages and runaway inflation, a popular magazine called Mother Earth News urged readers to buy gold and advertised products to help consumers survive the coming collapse.

Just a couple of years ago nonstop commercials on cable TV urged viewers to buy gold since dollars would soon be worthless. At the time gold was approaching $2000 an ounce. Today it's around $1,300.

In none of these cases were the worst fears realized. But what the survival products industry will be the first to say, that doesn't mean they won't someday.

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Toyota abandoning Southern California for Plano, Texas

Toyota follows Nissan, leaving Honda, Hyundai and Kia behind

There was a time when Southern California was where car companies longed to be. The state had great freeways, pleasant weather and, most important, its dri...

PhotoThere was a time when Southern California was where car companies longed to be. The state had great freeways, pleasant weather and, most important, its drivers were quick to adopt the latest innovations in car culture, which then spread to the rest of the country. Besides, California is closer to Asian markets than Detroit. 

All of that is still true but the Golden State also scores near the top in cost of living and taxation. It has the toughest air quality laws in the nation and generally regulates and taxes businesses of all kinds much more aggressively than most other major states.

Then there's Texas. The weather's not always so great and the drivers are still heavily into pickup trucks. But there are plenty of advantages, as outlined by a Toyota executive quoted by Automotive News today as it reported Nissan's blockbuster decision to pack up and move its headquarters from the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance to Plano, Texas: 

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Plano's city seal

Zero state income tax, lower housing costs, and a relatively strong quality-of-life index. The cost of living is 39 percent lower in Plano than in Torrance. It has ranked highly in “best places” and “safest cities” ratings conducted by CNN and Forbes.

Plus, in Toyota’s favor, Forbes ranked Texas the seventh-best state for business, with the top-ranked business climate. Texas labor laws also are more favorable, with less red tape.

Rumors about Toyota's move began circulating last week, when it was thought that part of the 3,000 employees at the company's Torrance, Calif., locations would be moved. 

Jaws dropped today when the official announcement came that allof the Torrance jobs were moving to Plano, just north of Dallas, along with 1,000 engineering employees in Kentucky and an unknown number of New York workers.

One Toyota

The goal, said Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz, is to bring better coordination to all aspects of Toyota's operations:

"Currently, we’re operating as multiple affiliates in a connected-but-independent way. In other words, we still have silos, and that’s slowing our decision-making processes. Our goal is to become not a group of dedicated affiliates, but one company -- One Toyota." 

Toyota executives said the goal was to find a new location in a state that did not have any current Toyota operations, meaning that California never had a chance of keeping Toyota.

Toyota joins Nissan in bidding farewell to California's beaches. Nissan pulled up stakes and left in 2006, moving its operations to Nashville, Tenn. Honda USA, also headquartered in Torrance, has moved some of its operations from California to Ohio in recent years.

Hyundai and Kia remain in California, with headquarters and design facilities in Irvine. 

European automakers are generally clustered along the East Coast, which is, after all, closer to Europe. Volkswagen moved its U.S. headquarters to a Northern Virginia site near Dulles International Airport a few years ago.

No longer a trend-setter?

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry

One reason automakers gave for setting up shop in Southern California years ago was that they wanted their stylists to be closer to the trend-setting populace. Does today's announcement mean California is no longer America's trend-setter.

We don't know and, frankly, had expected Gov. Rick Perry to enlighten us. But while there was no statement from him by midday, Perry has not been shy in the past about tweaking California, boosting Texas pro-business climate and low cost-of-living as an enticement to West Coast employers.

"Texas has taken an approach that is as simple as it is revolutionary: put people - employers and employees alike - in the best possible position to succeed, and then get out of the way," Perry says on the state's website. "The Texas approach is based on our state's traditional belief in the powers of personal freedom, personal empowerment, and personal responsibility. It's an approach that produces results that speak for themselves."

Here's a chart from Perry's office that the state has been using to tout its business-friendly climate:

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New York Nissan dealer to pay $48,000 in restitution to 15 customers

The state charged Bay Ridge Nissan with using deceptive sales and advertising practices

A Brooklyn, N.Y., Nissan dealer will pay nearly $100,000 to settle charges that it used deceptive sales and advertising practices to sell cars and aftermar...

Photo
Recent ad from the NY Daily News
A Brooklyn, N.Y., Nissan dealer will pay nearly $100,000 to settle charges that it used deceptive sales and advertising practices to sell cars and aftermarket warranties.

“This agreement is a victory for consumers in Brooklyn and around the state. We’ll continue to aggressively monitor the business practices of dealerships in New York to ensure they comply with laws designed to keep the auto market honest, and maintain a level playing field for consumers,” Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said. “Anyone buying a car should be able to expect that when they negotiate prices and terms for vehicles, the contracts will accurately reflect those terms.”

The agreement requires the company to pay $48,341 in restitution to 15 consumers and $50,000 as a civil penalty to the state.

Bay Ridge Nissan April 28, 2014, 6:33 p.m.
Consumers rate Bay Ridge Nissan
The Attorney General conducted an investigation of the advertising and sales practices of the Brooklyn-based dealership after receiving dozens of consumer complaints. The complaints alleged a pattern of fraudulent and deceptive practices by the dealership, including conduct that led consumers to enter transactions that did not reflect the negotiated sales terms and frequently included unwanted aftermarket add-ons.

That's similar to many of the reviews posted by ConsumerAffairs readers like May of Brooklyn. 

"First, they provided a price of $23k + tax for a new car which we think is a pretty good deal. The total price including tax and fees should not be more than $26k, but it ends up at $38k," she said in a review submitted in September 2013. "When we realized the price is so high and wanted to cancel it, they refused and claimed that we signed the contract already, and we had to buy. I research online and somebody said it can be canceled if we didn't get the car. But the dealer insisted that we cannot cancel it."

May learned that part of the increased price was for an add-on warranty.

"[T]hey said the price is including a package which will cover the repair if we spilled coffee in the car or the car had been scratched. Today, when we went back there for a car scratch, and they said it is an accident, it is not covered," she said.

Restitution amounts range from $1,000 to more than $7,000 for the 15 consumers with outstanding complaints on file with Schneiderman's office.

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Farmstand -- new app helps you find farmer's markets

iOS app helps you find and review local farmer's markets

Farmer's markets can be a lot of fun but they can also be hard to find, so a new app aims to help.It's called -- what else? -- Farmstand -- &...

PhotoFarmer's markets can be a lot of fun but they can also be hard to find, so a new app aims to help.

It's called -- what else? -- Farmstand --  and it will show you the hours and locations of farmer's markets wherever you happen to be, at least whenever other users have supplied the information.

The iOS app relies on user-generated content so the accuracy and quantity of the information will depend on how many users are signed up in the area where you're looking.

Check it out and let us know what you think of it.

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Are statin users developing a false sense of security?

Study finds they're consuming more fat and calories than 10 years ago

Statins are the drugs that many millions of us take to control cholesterol, in an effort to prevent heart disease, stroke and other serious health problems...

PhotoStatins are the drugs that many millions of us take to control cholesterol, in an effort to prevent heart disease, stroke and other serious health problems.

The drugs are amazingly effective but a new study says the people taking them may be developing a false sense of security -- sort of like drivers who think their airbags and anti-lock brakes make it OK to drive recklessly.

That's the suggestions of a new study from UCLA, which suggests that people who took statins in the 2009–10 year were consuming more calories and fat than those who used statins 10 years earlier. There was no similar increase in caloric and fat intake among non–stain users during that decade, researchers said.

In 1999–2000, statin users were consuming fewer calories and less fat than individuals who didn't take these medications, but that is no longer the case, the researchers said. Increases in body mass index — a measure of obesity that considers body weight and height — were greater for statin users than for non-users.

"We believe that this is the first major study to show that people on statins eat more calories and fat than people on those medications did a decade earlier," said the study's primary investigator, Takehiro Sugiyama, who led the research while a visiting scholar in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

"Statins are used by about one-sixth of adults. We may need to reemphasize the importance of dietary modification for those who are taking these medications, now that obesity and diabetes are important problems in society."

Gluttony in the Time of Statins

"[E]ating more fat, especially saturated fat, will lead to higher cholesterol levels, which will undermine the effect of statins and may lead to unnecessary cost of medications," Sugiyama said. "Being overweight also increases the risk of diabetes and hypertension, which also are risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

"Ethical considerations should be included in the discussion. We believe that when physicians prescribe statins, the goal is to decrease patients' cardiovascular risks that cannot be achieved without medications, not to empower them to put butter on steaks."

The study, subtitled "Gluttony in the Time of Statins?", is published online in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine

Details

For the study, the researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to compare fat and caloric intake among statin users and non-users in 1999–2000 and 2009–10. They found that caloric intake among statin users had risen by 9.6 percent over that decade and that fat consumption had jumped by 14.4 percent. In contrast, caloric and fat intake by non–statin users did not change significantly during the 10-year period.

Statin-users ate roughly 180 kilogram calories less each day and 9 grams of fat less each day than non-users in 1999–2000. But as a result of increases over the decade, the researchers observed no difference in caloric and fat intake between statin users and non-users in 2009–10.

The differences may be explained by the fact that statin users simply don't feel the urgency to reduce their caloric and fat consumption or to lose weight the way statin users 10 years ago did, said Sugiyama, who is now a clinical fellow at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Japan. Also, doctors today may be more likely to prescribe statins for patients who eat and weigh more.

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Charter to buy millions of subscribers from Comcast, Time Warner

The deal is intended to smooth the way for approval of the cable giants' merger

Charter Communications Inc. (CHTR) reached an agreement to take control of 3.9 million more cable-TV customers, helping Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) ease the appr...

PhotoComcast, working to engineer approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable, has put together a complex deal under which Charter Communications would take over 3.9 million customers.

The deal would reduce Comcast's post-merger market share to less than 30% nationwide while making Charter the second-largest U.S. cable operator. 

Charter Communications April 28, 2014, 4 p.m.
Consumers rate Charter Communications

Charter would take over systems in Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana and Alabama, while divesting systems in California, New England, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Oregon, Washington and Virginia.

A new, spun-off company would take over systems that are near Charter’s existing footprint in Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin.

In the first stage of the three-part deal, Charter would buy 1.4 million Time Warner Cable customers for $7.3 billion when the Comcast-Time Warner merger is completed. 

Charter would also form a holding company that would get a one-third stake in a Comcast spin-off that would have 2.5 million customers.

Another 1.6 million Charter and Comcast customers would be swapped.

“The transactions announced today will provide Charter with greater scale, growth opportunities and improved geographical rationalization of our cable systems, which in turn will drive value for shareholders and more effective customer service,” Charter Chief Executive Officer Tom Rutledge said in a statement.

Rutledge said Charter’s new "footprint" would be easier to operate since the shuffling would put its systems closer to each other. It would also boost Charter's subscriber count to 8.2 million, nearly double its current total.

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A pending home sales rebound

The gain posted in March was the first in nine months

An eight-month string of stagnant activity has come to an end with a rise in pending home sales. The National Association of Realtors' (NAR) The Pending H...

PhotoAn eight-month string of stagnant activity has come to an end with a rise in pending home sales.

The National Association of Realtors' (NAR) The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) surged 3.4 -- to 97.4 from an upwardly revised 94.2 in February -- the first increase in 9 months. The previous month's tally had initially been reported as 93.9. Nonetheless, the forward-looking indicator, based on contract signings, is 7.9% below March 2013 when it was 105.7.

“After a dismal winter, more buyers got an opportunity to look at homes last month and are beginning to make contract offers,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Sales activity is expected to steadily pick up as more inventory reaches the market, and from ongoing job creation in the economy.”

Three of the four geographic regions surveyed by NAR posted gains last month.

The PHSI in the Northeast increased 1.4% -- to 78.8 in March, but is 5.9% below a year ago.

  • In the Midwest the index slipped 0.8% to 94.5, and is 10.1% below March 2013.
  • Pending home sales in the South rose 5.6% to a reading of 112.7, but are 5.3% below a year ago.
  • The index in the West was up 5.7% to 91.0, but is 11.1% below its year-ago level.

Looking ahead

Although home sales are expected to trend up over the course of the year and into 2015, this year began on a weak note and total sales are unlikely to match the 2013 level.

NAR expects sales of existing homes to total just over 4.9 million this year, compared with nearly 5.1 million in 2013. However, with continuing inventory shortages in much of the U.S., the national median existing-home price is expected to grow between 6 and 7% in 2014.

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Study finds marijuana use may increase heart complications

For some young and middle-aged adults, the consequences could be fatal

Now that marijuana use won't get you busted in your state, are you thinking of firing up a doobie and mellowing out? You might want to think again, dude. ...

PhotoNow that marijuana use won't get you busted in your state, are you thinking of firing up a doobie and mellowing out? You might want to think again, dude.

According to a French study reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association, smoking pot could result in cardiovascular-related complications -- even death -- among young and middle-aged adults.

"In prior research, we identified several remarkable cases of cardiovascular complications as the reasons for hospital admission of young marijuana users," said Emilie Jouanjus, Pharm.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study and a medical faculty member at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Toulouse in Toulouse, France. "This unexpected finding deserved to be further analyzed, especially given that the medicinal use of marijuana has become more prevalent and some governments are legalizing its use."

Key findings

Researchers analyzed serious cardiovascular-related complications following marijuana use that was reported to the French Addictovigilance Network in 2006-10. They identified 35 cases of cardiovascular and vascular conditions related to the heart, brain and limbs.

Among their findings:

  • Most of the patients were male, average age 34.3 years.
  • Nearly 2% (35 of the 1,979) marijuana-related complications were cardiovascular complications.
  • Of the 35 cases, 22 were heart-related, including 20 heart attacks; 10 were peripheral with diseases related to arteries in the limbs; and three were related to the brain's arteries.
  • The percentage of reported cardiovascular complications more than tripled from 2006 to 2010.
  • Nine patients, or 25.6 percent, died.

And that may not tell the whole story. researchers note that marijuana use and any resulting health complications are likely underreported.

There are 1.2 million regular users in France, and thus potentially a large amount of complications that are not detected by the French Addictovigilance System.

A harmless activity?

"The general public thinks marijuana is harmless, but information revealing the potential health dangers of marijuana use needs to be disseminated to the public, policymakers and healthcare providers," Jouanjus said.

People with pre-existing cardiovascular weaknesses appear to be more prone to the harmful effects of marijuana.

"There is now compelling evidence on the growing risk of marijuana-associated adverse cardiovascular effects, especially in young people," Jouanjus said. "It is therefore important that doctors, including cardiologists, be aware of this, and consider marijuana use as one of the potential causes in patients with cardiovascular disorders."

Surveillance of marijuana-related reports of cardiovascular disorders should continue and more research needs to look at how marijuana use might trigger cardiovascular events, she said.

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Magnum and Matrix Fitness multi-station strength training towers recalled

The plastic connectors that link the strength training stations’ towers can slide out or break

Johnson Health Tech North America is recalling about 1,100 Magnum and Matrix Fitness 900 Pro Series multi-station strength training towers. The plastic co...

PhotoJohnson Health Tech North America is recalling about 1,100 Magnum and Matrix Fitness 900 Pro Series multi-station strength training towers.

The plastic connectors that link the strength training stations’ towers can slide out or break, posing an injury hazard to consumers.

The company is aware of three incidents where the plastic connectors slid out or broke, one resulting in a laceration near the eye socket.

This recall involves all Magnum and Matrix Fitness 900 Pro Series multi-station strength training towers used at commercial fitness facilities such as health clubs, hotels, apartment complexes and rehabilitation centers; schools and municipal facilities. The machines involved in this recall were sold in various multi-station configurations.

The machines include, but are not limited to, the adjustable pulley, the dual adjustable pulley, the triceps push down and the bicep/tricep pull down. Magnum or Matrix appear on the serial number label at the base of each unit.

The towers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Magnum Fitness and Johnson Health Tech North America and their dealers nationwide. from December 2008 through July 2013 for the Magnum tower stations and from July 2013, through November 2013, for the Matrix Fitness tower stations, for between $1,800 and $3,800 depending on the type of tower station.

Owners should immediately prevent people from using the multi-station strength training towers and contact Johnson Health Tech North America to schedule a free repair.

Consumers may contact Johnson Health Tech North America toll-free at (866) 218-3674 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Knockum Hill Bar-B-Que recalls pork product

The product contains soy, an allergen not listed on the label

Knockum Hill Bar-B-Que, of Herndon, Ky., is recalling approximately 350 pounds of hickory smoked, pit cooked barbecue pork. The product is has a basting s...

PhotoKnockum Hill Bar-B-Que, of Herndon, Ky., is recalling approximately 350 pounds of hickory smoked, pit cooked barbecue pork.

The product is has a basting sauce containing margarine formulated with soy, an allergen not declared on the label.

There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

The product subject to recall bears the label:

  • 1 lb., white tubs of “KNOCKUM HILL BAR-B-QUE HICKORY SMOKED PIT COOKED BARBECUED PORK”

The product was produced on April 11, 2014, and April 18, 2014, and has an expiration date of April 25, 2014, or May 2, 2014. The product bears the establishment number “Est. 18138” inside the USDA mark of inspection and was distributed to retail establishments in Kentucky.

Consumers with questions may contact Oscar Hill at (270) 271-2957.

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Skilcor Food Products recalls baby back ribs

The product was not presented for U.S. inspection

Skilcor Food Products of Brampton, Ontario, Canada, is recalling approximately 36 pounds of fully cooked pork baby back ribs in honey garlic barbeque sauce...

PhotoSkilcor Food Products of Brampton, Ontario, Canada, is recalling approximately 36 pounds of fully cooked pork baby back ribs in honey garlic barbeque sauce.

The product was not presented at the border for U.S. inspection. Without the benefit of full inspection, There is a possibility of adverse health consequences.

There have been no reports of illness due to consumption of these products.

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 18 pound cases containing 1.5 pound packages of “Cobblestone Farms Fully Cooked Pork Baby Back Ribs in Honey Garlic Barbeque Sauce” bearing package code “Sell By 2015-AL-08” and case code “15201”

The product bears the Canadian mark of inspection with establishment number “624,” and was distributed to a retailer in New York.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Don Bernier at (905) 501-0111.

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More consumers are getting their TV from the Internet

New products and services encourage "cord-cutting"

Several years ago there was a lot of talk about media “convergence,” a time when a television screen and computer screen would be indistinguish...

PhotoSeveral years ago there was a lot of talk about media “convergence,” a time when a television screen and computer screen would be indistinguishable. You would watch the same content on both.

That day appears to have arrived – or at least to be not that far off – and it is bringing with it a disruptive force.

Because of the huge price difference between what you get from cable and what you can get from the Internet, millions of consumers have become “cord cutters,” cancelling cable and relying entirely on the Internet.

Nearly half of adults stream

Experian Marketing Services has released an analysis of how consumers are accessing video content. It found that 48% of all U.S. adults and 67% of young adults watch streaming or downloaded video during a typical week.

And they aren't always sitting at their desks when they're doing it. Mobile is the preferred screen for watching, streaming or downloading video, with 24% of all U.S. adults and 42% of smartphone owners watching downloaded video each week.

Of growing concern to cable giants like Comcast and Time Warner, more consumers are becoming cord cutters every year. According to Experian, an estimated 7.6 million U.S. homes today are considered cord-cutters, up from 5.1 million homes in 2010, a relative increase of 44%. Consumers who subscribe to Netflix and Hulu are the most likely to be cord-cutters.

Changing definition of television

"While we are seeing the way we view video drastically changing, television is likely to remain the primary device for consumer video; we just are witnessing the transition of the definition of television," said John Fetto, senior analyst, marketing and research, Experian Marketing Services.

Helping the trend along is the fact that a third of U.S. consumers live in households with Internet-connected TVs. That allows them to watch streaming content on their TV sets.

Low-cost content providers like Netflix got the balling rolling but hardware makers have helped too. Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle Fire give consumers a way to watch video content at home or on the go.

Apple also makes Apple TV, a small network device designed to play digital content from iTunes, Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and Vevo. Google developed Chromecast, a media player displaying video content on an HD TV by streaming it from the web.

Amazon recently unveiled Fire TV, a network device featuring 2 GB of RAM, dual-band Wi-Fi and a Bluetooth remote with microphone for voice search. The company says Fire TV allows faster streaming than its older competitors.

Life without cable

It's true that getting rid of cable or satellite TV will save money, but can you really exist on just what's available online? It all depends on how much TV you consume.

If you live in an urban area you can probably receive over-the-air broadcast stations – usually in HD – allowing you to receive network TV for free. That should satisfy the need for news and some live sports.

A website, CordCutterGuide.com, offers advice and support for consumers on selecting and installing a TV antenna. It also has a guide to viewing live sports online.

Sports offerings online are modest compared to cable but they do exist. ESPN3 streams some live games not available on its cable channels, for example.

Unstoppable trend?

With more people leaving cable and doing their viewing online, it's hard to imagine that, in the future, content providers won't increase their online offerings, even if they have to impose a small charge. That could set up conflict with their large cable outlets.

"While the growing trend in cord-cutting is understandably disturbing to cable and satellite companies and disruptive to the television advertising revenue model overall, the growth in online viewing creates opportunities for marketers," said Fetto.

Perhaps even a better opportunity than cable provides. Fetto says it's easier to target online video viewers and serve up advertising that is more relevant, responsive and – this is important -- measureable.

With DVRs, cable subscribers typically time-shift their viewing and fast-forward through commercials. Marketers can be more confident that their online ad is being seen given that streaming viewers typically are unable to skip ads.

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Focus on health may be 2014's biggest food trend

"You are what you eat" may have never been more true

Food is a bigger deal than it used to be. What you eat not only keeps you alive, it says a lot about who you are.In its Top Trends of 2014 the National R...

PhotoFood is a bigger deal than it used to be. What you eat not only keeps you alive, it says a lot about who you are.

In its Top Trends of 2014 the National Restaurant Association (NRA) listed vegetarian appetizers, non-wheat (gluten-free) noodles and pasta and locally-sourced produce, meats and seafood as menu items that fill seats.

“Today’s consumers are more interested than ever in what they eat and where their food comes from, and that is reflected in our menu trends research,” said NRA's Hudson Riehle. “True trends – as opposed to temporary fads – show the evolution of the wider shifts of our modern society over time, and focus on the provenance of various food and beverage items, unique aspects of how they are prepared and presented, as well as the dietary profiles of those meals.”

It may be impolite to call them fads, but enthusiasm for particular types of food – and disdain for others – ebbs and flows like the tide. Writing in Food Technology magazine, contributing editor Elizabeth Sloan recently focused on functional food trends, gathering data from a variety of industry sources.

Less reliant on supplements

In a significant shift, she says consumers who once took daily supplements are taking fewer pills and consuming for nutrient-rich food. In fact, she found nearly 9 in 10 adults made a strong effort to consume more nutrients, vitamins, minerals, herbs/botanicals and include more fish/oil/omega-3s in their diets.

When grocery shopping, consumers now seem to be more interested in the ingredients in the food they are buying. She cites research showing nearly 60% of consumers not only read labels but look for ingredients they can recognize.

Just over 50% of food shoppers seek out food made with simple, real and natural ingredients. They tend to avoid, she says, food products containing artificial ingredients.

Protein is in

While carbohydrates have fallen out of favor over the last decade or so, foods high in protein are becoming more popular. Fifty-seven percent of consumers – especially those between the ages of 18-34 and above age 65 – are big protein fans.

Protein tends to be found in unprocessed food sources, which might explain its popularity. But when questioned consumers said they were drawn to it for health reasons – to maintain healthy bones/joints, strengthen immune systems, and build muscle strength/tone while maintaining energy throughout the day.

Despite protein's appeal, a surprising 80% of households go meatless at dinner from time to time. When they do they are most likely to substitute eggs, beans and nuts as sources of protein.

Pharma-food

PhotoIf you notice an overriding theme  of associating diet with health you aren't imagining it. Sloan calls it “pharma-food,” noting that 80% of consumers are now making food choices on the belief that certain foods can help delay or prevent a whole range of disease.

In 2013, 56% of consumers bought foods or beverages that targeted a specific condition. Cholesterol-lowering foods and beverages were the most purchased condition-specific food or drink.

Consumers also appear to have changed the way they regard food in efforts to lose or control weight. Instead of simple calorie restriction more consumers say they are simply eating healthier.

Sloan found whole grains, fiber, and vitamin D were favorite ingredients for the two-thirds of consumers trying to manage their weight.

Millennials making an impact

Not surprisingly, the Millennial generation is driving many of these emerging food trends and will likely continue to have a growing impact in the future.

Millennials are more likely than the rest of the consumer population to view their food choices as healthier, more expensive, more natural/organic, less processed, better tasting and fresh.

They are also the most likely to assign medicinal power to their food, believing it can boost energy and help retain mental sharpness with aging.

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Drinking a little more coffee may reduce diabetes risk

Harvard study is the latest to indicate coffee helps fight type 2 diabetes

There have been a number of studies in recent years indicating that Increasing daily coffee consumption may reduce type 2 diabetes risk. The latest comes f...

PhotoThere have been a number of studies in recent years indicating that Increasing daily coffee consumption may reduce type 2 diabetes risk. The latest comes from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), which found that people who increased the amount of coffee they drank each day by more than one cup over a four-year period had a 11% lower risk for type 2 diabetes than those who made no changes to their coffee consumption,

In addition, the study found that those who decreased their coffee consumption by more than a cup per day increased their type 2 diabetes risk by 17%.

"Our findings confirm those of previous studies that showed that higher coffee consumption was associated with lower type 2 diabetes risk," said Shilpa Bhupathiraju, lead author and research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH. "Most importantly, they provide new evidence that changes in coffee consumption habit can affect type 2 diabetes risk in a relatively short period of time."

The study appears online in Diabetologia (the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes).

“Our findings confirm those of previous studies that showed that higher coffee consumption was associated with lower type 2 diabetes risk,” said Shilpa Bhupathiraju, lead author and research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH. “Most importantly, they provide new evidence that changes in coffee consumption habit can affect type 2 diabetes risk in a relatively short period of time.”

But a colleague noted that coffee is far from the only factor affecting diabetes risk.

"These findings further demonstrate that, for most people, coffee may have health benefits," said Frank Hu, senior author and professor of nutrition and epidemiology at HSPH. "But coffee is only one of many factors that influence diabetes risk. More importantly, individuals should watch their weight and be physically active."

Study details

The researchers analyzed data on caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, and caffeinated tea consumption from 48,464 women in the Brigham and Women's Hospital-based Nurses' Health Study (1986-2006), 47,510 women in Nurses' Health Study II (1991-2007), and 27,759 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986-2006).

Participants' diets were evaluated every four years with a questionnaire, and those who self-reported type 2 diabetes filled out additional questionnaires. A total of 7,269 cases of type 2 diabetes were documented.

Results showed that participants who increased their coffee consumption by more than one cup per day (median change=1.69 cups/day) over a four-year period had a 11% lower risk of type 2 diabetes in the subsequent four years compared to those who made no changes in consumption. (A cup of coffee was defined as eight ounces, black, or with a small amount of milk and/or sugar.)

Those who lowered their daily coffee consumption by more than one cup (median change=2 cups/day) had a 17% higher risk for diabetes. Changes in decaffeinated coffee consumption and caffeinated tea consumption were not associated with changes in risk for type 2 diabetes.

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Charles Schwab fined, backs down from forced arbitration

Financial Industry Regulatory Authority says class action suits must be allowed

Good news for anyone who lets Charles Schwab handle their investments: the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has determined that the company ...

PhotoGood news for anyone who lets Charles Schwab handle their investments: the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has determined that the company “violated FINRA rules by adding waiver provisions in customer agreements prohibiting customers from participating in class actions.”

Charles Schwab must pay a half-million-dollar fine, and can no longer force its investors/customers into arbitration should they have any complaints.

The issue of forced arbitration and customer rights made it to the forefront of public consciousness last week, after The New York Times discovered that food conglomerate General Mills had quietly altered its legal and privacy policies to state that “In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering,” you-the-customer give up any right to sue the company over a dispute, but must instead agree to let General Mills hire a professional arbitrator to settle the matter.

The outrage inspired by this news soon convinced the company to backtrack, and rescind its attempted forced-arbitration policy.

Timeline

Schwab's forced arbitration attempts go back much further. FINRA said that “In October 2011, Schwab sent amendments to its customer account agreement to more than 6.8 million investors. The amendments included waiver provisions that required customers to agree that any claims against Schwab be arbitrated solely on an individual basis and that arbitrators had no authority to consolidate more than one party's claims.”

The company presumably made this attempt as a result of an April 2011 Supreme Court ruling that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) overrides any state law banning forced arbitration or allowing class action suits in customer-service contracts.

In other words, the court ruled, it is acceptable in at least some instances for a company (AT&T, in that specific case) to put fine print in its customer service contracts requiring customers to settle disputes through arbitration, rather than as part of a class-action suit before the courts.

So if AT&T can force its customers into arbitration, why can't Charles Schwab? Because AT&T is not bound by FINRA rules, whereas securities firms like Charles Schwab are. Therefore, FINRA said, “the FAA does not preclude FINRA's enforcement of its rules.”

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HPV test for primary cervical cancer screening wins approval from feds

FDA calls it “a new option for cervical cancer screening”

An HPV (human papillomavirus) DNA test for women 25 and older that can be used alone to help assess the need to undergo additional diagnostic testing for c...

PhotoAn HPV (human papillomavirus) DNA test for women 25 and older that can be used alone to help assess the need to undergo additional diagnostic testing for cervical cancer has won federal approval.

The test, the first of its kind to win Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, also can provide information about the patient’s risk for developing cervical cancer in the future.

Using a sample of cervical cells, the cobas HPV Test detects DNA from 14 high-risk HPV types. The test specifically identifies HPV 16 and HPV 18, while concurrently detecting 12 other types of high-risk HPVs.

Based on results of the cobas HPV Test, women who test positive for HPV 16 or HPV 18 should have a colposcopy, an exam using a device that illuminates and magnifies the cervix so a physician can directly observe the cervical cells.

Women testing positive for one or more of the 12 other high-risk HPV types should have a Pap test to determine the need for a colposcopy. FDA advises health care professionals to use the cobas HPV Test results together with other information, such as the patient screening history and risk factors, and current professional guidelines.

“Today’s approval offers women and physicians a new option for cervical cancer screening,” said Alberto Gutierrez, Ph.D., director of the Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “Roche Diagnostics conducted a well-designed study that provided the FDA with a reasonable assurance of the safety and effectiveness when used as a primary screening tool for cervical cancer.”

Already in use

The FDA first approved the test, called the cobas HPV Test in 2011 for use in conjunction with or as a follow-up to a Pap test (cell cytology), which examines cervical cells for changes that might become cervical cancer.

The new approval expands the use of the test to include use as either a co-test or as a primary cervical cancer screening test, however; it does not change current medical practice guidelines for cervical cancer screening. These guidelines are developed, reviewed and modified by groups other than the FDA.

Genital HPVs are a group of more than 40 related viruses and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are the most common sexually transmitted infections. Approximately 14 “high-risk” HPV types are associated with cervical cancer.

In most cases, a high-risk HPV infection goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. However, about 10% of women infected with high-risk HPV develop a persistent infection which may put them at risk of cancer.

Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections, with just two types, HPV 16 and HPV 18, responsible for approximately 70% of cervical cancers.

Intensive study

Data supporting the use of the cobas HPV Test as a primary screening test for cervical cancer included a study of more than 40,000 women 25 years and older undergoing routine cervical exams. Women who had a positive Pap test or whose cervical cells screened positive for HPV, as well as a subset of women whose Pap and HPV tests were both negative, underwent a colposcopy and cervical tissue biopsy.

All biopsy results were compared to the Pap and cobas HPV Test results. Data from this study, which included three years of follow-up on women who went to colposcopy, showed that the cobas HPV Test is safe and effective for the new indication for use.  

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Looking for muscle mass? Soy-dairy protein mix may be the answer

Study finds the right post-workout protein can deliver more amino acids to muscles

You spend a lot of time and energy pumping iron, so you want to get as much benefit from it as possible. And that means you have to eat (or drink) the righ...

PhotoYou spend a lot of time and energy pumping iron, so you want to get as much benefit from it as possible. And that means you have to eat (or drink) the right thing after your work-out.

So a new study should be of interest. It finds that a soy-dairy protein blend increases muscle mass better than whey protein alone. 

In the study, published online in the Journal of Applied Physiology,  researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch found that using a protein blend of soy, casein and whey post-workout prolongs the delivery of select amino acids to the muscle for an hour longer than using whey alone.

It also shows a prolonged increase in amino acid net balance across the leg muscle during early post-exercise recovery, suggesting prolonged muscle building.

The study was conducted by researchers from UTMB in collaboration with DuPont Nutrition and Health.

"This study sheds new light on how unique combinations of proteins, as opposed to single protein sources, are important for muscle recovery following exercise and help extend amino acid availability, further promoting muscle growth," said Blake B. Rasmussen, chairman of UTMB's Department of Nutrition and Metabolism and lead researcher of the study.

The new research builds on an earlier publication reporting that a soy-dairy blend extends muscle protein synthesis when compared to whey alone, as only the blended protein kept synthesis rates elevated three to five hours after exercise. Together, these studies indicate that the use of soy-dairy blends can be an effective strategy for active individuals seeking products to support muscle health.

Study details

The double-blind, randomized clinical trial included 16 healthy subjects, ages 19 to 30, to assess if consumption of a blend of proteins with different digestion rates would prolong amino acid availability and lead to increases in muscle protein synthesis after exercise.

The protein beverages provided to study subjects consisted of a soy-dairy blend (25 percent isolated DuPont Danisco SUPRO soy protein, 50 percent caseinate, 25 percent whey protein isolate) or a single protein source (whey protein isolate). Muscle biopsies were taken at baseline and up to five hours after resistance exercise. The protein sources were ingested one hour after exercise in both groups.

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Nano Well-being Health recalls Super Arthgold

The product contains ingredients that make it an unapproved new drug

Nano Well-being Health is recalling 2 lots of Super Arthgold 500-mg capsules: lot L1P1-6100/Expiration date June 25, 2016, and lot L1P2-6000/Expiration dat...

PhotoNano Well-being Health is recalling 2 lots of Super Arthgold 500-mg capsules: lot L1P1-6100/Expiration date June 25, 2016, and lot L1P2-6000/Expiration date September 16, 2016.

Laboratory analysis has found the product to contain chlorzoxazone, diclofenac and indomethacin, making it an unapproved new drug.

Use of this product containing the undeclared drug ingredients listed above, has a reasonable probability of resulting in fatal adverse events in consumers and patients with underlying illnesses, including known allergy to the hidden ingredients, cardiac, gastrointestinal, hepatic, and renal conditions as well as patients who recently undergone cardiac bypass graft surgery.

Consumers would be unaware that the product contains Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) (and other ingredients), may inadvertently overdose by taking another NSAID concurrently, thus increasing the risk for NSAID associated adverse events, which include but are not limited to, myocardial infarction, stroke, congestive heart failure, renal toxicity, and bleeding, ulceration, or perforation of the stomach or intestines.

No illness or injuries have been reported to date.

The product, used as a dietary supplement for joint pain and arthritis, is packaged in bottles of 120 capsules and was distributed to wholesalers nationwide.

Nano Well-being Health Inc. is notifying its distributors and customers by letter and phone call and is arranging for replacement of all recalled products. Consumers/distributors/retailers who have the recalled product should stop using it and return it to place of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact Nano Well-being Health at 1-714-515-4600 Monday-Friday from 9:00 AM to 5 PM, PST, or by e-mail at nanowellbeingh@gmail.com.

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Felt recalls triathlon bicycles

The steer tube on the bicycle fork can break

Felt Bicycles, of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 3,500 2008 Felt S22 and S32 triathlon bicycles and 2010 Felt S32, B12, B14 and B16 triathlon bicycles ...

PhotoFelt Bicycles, of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 3,500 2008 Felt S22 and S32 triathlon bicycles and 2010 Felt S32, B12, B14 and B16 triathlon bicycles in the U.S. and Canada.

The steer tube on the bicycle fork can break and cause the rider to lose control, posing a risk of injury.

The company has received 18 reports of the bicycle forks breaking, including five reports of minor injuries.

This recall includes all 2008 Felt S22 and S32 triathlon bicycles, and 2010 S32, B12, B14 and B16 triathlon bicycles. The bicycles have aluminum frames with carbon fiber forks and aluminum steer tubes. The Felt logo is on the seat, frame and tires. The model number is printed on the frame, next to the Felt logo.

The 2008 S22 model was sold in gloss white and the 2008 S32 was sold in gloss red. The 2010 S32 model was sold in gloss black, the 2010 B12 was sold in gloss white, the 2010 B14 was sold in gloss pewter and the 2010 B16 was sold in matte black.

The bicycles, manufactured in China, were sold at bicycle specialty stores nationwide from October 2007, through February 2014, for between $1,500 and $3,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and contact their local Felt Bicycles dealer for a free inspection and steer tube replacement.

Consumers may contact Felt Bicycles toll-free at (866) 433-5887 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Deregulated energy providers: are they a good deal?

Customers of Ambit Energy decry unexpected price jumps

As a reader of consumer-journalism articles, you've surely heard a certain piece of advice repeated countless times, only with slight variations in wording...

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FDA takes on e-cigarettes, nicotine gels as it proposes to extend its authority over tobacco products

The new rules aren't as stringent as those now in place for traditional cigarettes

After years of delay, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today issued proposed new regulations for e-cigarettes, nicotine gels and and products that are...

PhotoAfter years of delay, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today issued proposed new regulations for e-cigarettes, nicotine gels and and products that aren't currently regulated.

The new rules fall short of existing regulations governing traditional cigarettes, however, and are unlikely to satisfy anti-smoking advocates who had hoped for more stringent measures. They won't outlaw advertising or Internet sales and won't ban flavors, which critics say attract younger users.

However, manufacturers will have to disclose the chemicals used in their e-cigarettes, which will be required to carry health warnings.

“This proposed rule is the latest step in our efforts to make the next generation tobacco-free,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the proposed rule is a good start but goesn't go far enough.

"Stopping the sales of these products to minors is a critical step that will help protect our children from a lifetime of nicotine addiction," Boxer said. "The FDA was also right to propose barring e-cigarette companies from making unproven health claims and requiring them to disclose the harmful ingredients in their products."

"Now it is time for the Administration to take the next important step by banning the outrageous marketing of e-cigarettes to our kids, including the use of candy flavors and cartoon advertisements that are shamelessly designed to lure and addict them," she said. 

In February, introduced legislation to prohibit the marketing of e-cigarettes to children and teens. Earlier this month, she and several other senators urged the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FDA to take enforcement action against e-cigarette manufacturers who make unsubstantiated or false claims in their advertising, including unproven assertions that their products help smokers of conventional cigarettes quit.

Products covered

Products that would fall under FDA regulation for the first time include e-cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels, waterpipe (or hookah) tobacco, and dissolvables.

Manufacturers would be required to:

  • Register with the FDA and report product and ingredient listings;
  • Only market new tobacco products after FDA review;
  • Only make direct and implied claims of reduced risk if the FDA confirms that scientific evidence supports the claim and that marketing the product will benefit public health as a whole; and
  • Not distribute free samples.

In addition, the newly regulated products would have to meet these provisions:

  • Minimum age and identification restrictions to prevent sales to underage youth;
  • Requirements to include health warnings; and
  • Prohibition of vending machine sales, unless in a facility that never admits youth.

Death and disease

“Tobacco remains the leading cause of death and disease in this country. This is an important moment for consumer protection and a significant proposal that if finalized as written would bring FDA oversight to many new tobacco products,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “Science-based product regulation is a powerful form of consumer protection that can help reduce the public health burden of tobacco use on the American public, including youth.”

The proposed rule will be available for public comment for 75 days. 

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Amazon's "Prime Pantry" delivers groceries, household goods

Get up to 45 pounds of stuff for a flat $5.99 delivery charge

The day wouldn't be complete without Amazon expanding into some new market segment. Today it's home delivery of groceries.Amazon is announcing something ...

PhotoThe day wouldn't be complete without Amazon expanding into some new market segment. Today it's home delivery of groceries.

Amazon is announcing something called Prime Pantry, which will let Amazon Prime customers order as many groceries and household items as can be stuffed into a 45-pound box. Unlike other Prime services, there will be a delivery charge -- a flat $5.99, regardless of how full the box is.

PhotoHow do you know when the box is full? A little icon shows you how full your box is as you add items. 

But, you say, you can already order all kinds of grocery and household items from Amazon. Yes, you can, and many of them qualify for free two-day shipping for Prime members.

But many other items aren't currently offered under Prime -- like soda, bottled water or canned foods, simply because they're too heavy to ship for nothing.

It's not quite clear whether Amazon has added a raft of new products or if it is simply offering a more economical way to ship bulkier items. But unless you're heavily into body-building, there's nothing wrong with letting someone else lug cartons of soft drinks, bottled water and laundry detergent from the curb to your front door.  

On the negative side, we tried to put together a test order but the selection was so limited that we couldn't find 45 pounds worth of anything we wanted. In the sorely lacking department: iced tea in big bottles, coffee beans that aren't Starbucks, big bottles of decent olive oil, snack bars from somebody other than Kashi and so on.

Maybe the selection will improve with time but for now it's very white bread, so to speak.   

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Are all-terrain vehicles safe toys for children?

American Academy of Pediatrics recommends ATV drivers be at least 16 years old

In most states (and countries) you can't legally get a driver's license until you're at least 16 or 17 years old, for reasons that boil down to “If y...

PhotoIn most states (and countries) you can't legally get a driver's license until you're at least 16 or 17 years old, for reasons that boil down to “If you're younger than that, you probably lack the physical and intellectual maturity to safely operate an automobile.” Each state has slightly different licensing requirements, but all of them have minimum legal ages in the teens.

That's not the case with ATVs (all-terrain vehicles). Each state chooses whether or not to set any requirements, and there's no single rule which all 50 U.S. states have in common.

In January 2014, the National Conference of State Legislatures compiled a list of ATV safety laws by state. Some states regulate ATV drivers almost as strictly as regular automobiles, limiting ATV driving not just to people who are above a certain age, but have an official “safety certificate” or other ATV-specific driver's-license equivalent.

Other states aren't on the NCSL list, because they have have no ATV requirements at all. Alabama has laws only regarding foster children, who must wear a seatbelt and helmet while in an ATV.

Other states only impose age restrictions for those who drive ATVs on public roads, or require only that minors must wear goggles, helmets or other safety gear not mandated for adults. Among states that do set minimum ages for ATV drivers, the youngest age is six (in New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas).

That said, certain safety and consumer groups think ATVs (at least in modern form) are too dangerous to be mere children's toys. On April 24, for example, the Consumer Federation of America put out a press release saying “ATVs Are Dangerous to Children: Must be Designed Safer.”

The release did not mention any specific design improvements to increase safety, other than to note that both the CFA and the American Association of Pediatrics recommend that the US. Consumer Product Safety Commission “reject the manufacture of a transitional, 'youth model' ATV for 14- to 16-year-olds that is capable of traveling at speeds up to 38 miles per hour.

James Perrin, president of the AAP, went a bit further, saying that “Children are not developmentally capable of operating these heavy, complex machines. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns all parents that no child under the age of 16 should drive or ride an ATV.”

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FCC tries again to adopt "net neutrality" rules for the Internet

The courts have struck down its two earlier attempts

The latest proposed "net neutrality" rules may not be exactly neutral but Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler says they're a step ...

PhotoThe latest proposed "net neutrality" rules may not be exactly neutral but Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler says they're a step in the right direction. And Wheeler says early reports about the proposed rules have been dead wrong.

"To be very direct, the proposal would establish that behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted," he said in a blog post Thursday afternoon.

The commission is proposing new rules that would let big companies -- or any company for that matter -- pay broadband providers a fee for what amounts to premium service; if Netflix doesn't want its movies and TV shows getting jammed up behind other traffic, it could pay Cablevision, Verizon and other broadband providers for a clearer channel.

This sparks outrage in advocates of the net neutrality principle, which holds that the Internet should treat everyone equally. But with Netflix and YouTube alone gobbling up half of the available bandwidth on the Internet most days, Wheeler might argue that it's unrealistic for them to get the same treatment as Al's Garage and Body Shop.

The FCC had earlier tried to enforce a more "pure" net neutrality but the rules it drafted were struck down by a federal appeals court, just as they had been a few years earlier. Wheeler is hoping this attempt will be more successful.

Some consumer advocates fear that if Netflix or Disney has to pay more to assure glitch-free transmissions, it will eventually pass those costs on to its customers. Others counter that the streaming video market is becoming so competitive that it will be a long time before anyone dares raise rates drastically.

Besides, Wheeler says, his plan will forbid Comcast and other carriers from purposely throttling transmissions from content providers who don't pay for special handling, while at the same time allowing the carriers to offer premium services to companies willing to pay for it. He insisted in his blog post that broadband carriers -- commonly known as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) -- would not be able to take actions that would harm consumers.

To be clear, this is what the Notice will propose:

  1. That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network;
  2. That no legal content may be blocked; and
  3. That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.

The proposal is being circulated at the commission today and will be voted on at its May 15 meeting. 

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Buy coffee now, before the price rises

Drought in Brazil damages major portion of world coffee crop

If you're one of those who needs a cup of coffee to kick-start your morning, you might want stockpile some now, before the price goes up: supplies are down...

PhotoIf you're one of those who needs a cup of coffee to kick-start your morning, you might want stockpile some now, before the price goes up: supplies are down due to a major drought in Brazil, which produces one-third of the world's coffee.

Actually, the price of coffee has already doubled compared to last year; it just that the full price increase hasn't trickled down to end consumers yet. That's because most coffee sellers buy and pay for their beans months or even years in advance.

For example: if you visit your local coffee shop today, there's a good chance you're still paying pre-drought prices, because that's what the shop actually paid for the beans. But that pre-drought supply is probably running low now. The next time your coffee shop orders beans it'll have to pay a lot more, and some of that increase is bound to be reflected in the price.

Still brewing

A similar rule applies to the coffee you make at home: the grocery store or coffee shop where you bought it probably paid a pre-drought price for the beans, but the next batch will cost far more.

If you are planning to lay in a supply of coffee for home use, remember that where long-term storage is concerned, whole beans are much better than pre-ground coffee because, all else being equal, whole beans stay fresh for a longer time.

Granted, you could point out, “If I were up to the task of grinding coffee beans first thing in the morning, I wouldn't need caffeine in the first place!” If necessary, you can grind the beans, load them in the filter and fill the coffeemaker with water just before you go to bed at night, so that next morning, all your semi-conscious self has to do is press the “Start” button on your coffee machine.

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Iron content of meat linked to heart disease

It's a different type of iron than that found in plants and other non-meats

Here's one reason eating a lot of red meat is a bad idea: researchers have found a strong association between heart disease and the type of iron that's fou...

PhotoHere's one reason eating a lot of red meat is a bad idea: researchers have found a strong association between heart disease and the type of iron that's found only in meat.

The iron in question is "heme iron" and a study by the Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington found that heme iron consumption increased the risk for coronary heart disease by 57%, while no association was found for nonheme iron, which is in plant and other non-meat sources. 

The body treats the two kinds of iron differently. It can better control absorption of iron from vegetable sources, including iron supplements, but not so with iron from meat sources.

"Heme iron is absorbed at a much greater rate in comparison to nonheme iron (37% vs. 5%). Once absorbed, it may contribute as a catalyst in the oxidation of LDLs (low-density lipoproteins), causing tissue-damaging inflammation, which is a potential risk factor for CHD (coronary heart disease)," the researchers wrote.

It adds up

Photo
Jacob Hunnicutt

Iron stores in the body increase over time, they noted. The only way to reduce iron in the body is by bleeding, donating blood or menstruation. Some dietary choices, such as coffee and tea, also can inhibit iron absorption.

The study was published online ahead of print in the Journal of Nutrition. Along with first author Jacob Hunnicutt, a graduate student in the school's Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, the study's co-authors are Ka He and Pengcheng Xun, faculty members in the department.

Hunnicutt said the link between iron intake, body iron stores and coronary heart disease has been debated for decades by researchers, with epidemiological studies providing inconsistent findings. The new IU research, a meta-analysis, examined 21 previously published studies and data involving 292,454 participants during an average 10.2 years of follow-up

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First-time jobless claims surge

Analysts are still looking for sustained job creation

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits shot higher last week, exceeding analysts expectations. For the week ending April 19, applications totaled...

PhotoInitial claims for state unemployment benefits shot higher last week, exceeding analysts expectations.

For the week ending April 19, applications totaled 329,000 -- up 24,000 from the week before, which had been revised higher by 1,000 to 305,000.

Economists at Briefing.com had forecast an increase to 312,000.

Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza says the latest rise mostly offset the outsized decline reported two weeks ago. Still, she says, “claims have shown noticeable improvement over the last 12 months suggesting improvement in at least the first part of the labor market equation: fewer job layoffs.” But, she adds, “we have yet to see marked improvement in the second part of the equation: meaningful and sustained job creation.”

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, rose 4,750 to 316,750.

The full report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Feds issue new guidelines for eClosing mortgage pilot project

The new process is designed to take some of the pain out of closing day

Outside of a couple of routine medical procedures that older men and women must endure, few things are more painful than going through a mortgage closing. ...

PhotoOutside of a couple of routine medical procedures that older men and women must endure, few things are more painful than going through a mortgage closing. That may be about to change.

On the heels of a report finding that many consumers are frustrated by the short amount of time they have to review a large stack of complex closing documents when completing a mortgage. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is releasing guidelines for an eClosing pilot project to assess how electronic closings can help consumers as they navigate the mortgage closing process.

“Mortgage closings are often fraught with anxiety,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We have taken action to address some of the problems consumers face, but more needs to be done. Our eClosing pilot project will provide valuable insight into how to improve the closing experience for consumers. ”

The report and guidelines are the latest components of the CFPB’s “Know Before You Owe” mortgage initiative, which is designed to improve the home-buying experience for consumers.

In November 2013, the bureau issued a rule  requiring two, new easier-to-use mortgage disclosure forms that clearly lay out the terms of a mortgage for a homebuyer. The first form is a Loan Estimate, which provides a summary of the key loan terms and estimated loan and closing costs. The second form is a clearer Closing Disclosure, which offers a detailed accounting of the transaction.

The bureau is now in the process of preparing for this rule to be implemented in August 2015.

Mortgage closing pain points

The new report is the culmination of research conducted over the past year. Three major pain points for consumers during the closing process were highlighted:

  • Not enough time to review: Many consumers are frustrated by the short amount of time they have to look over the closing documents. Often, they do not see the paperwork until they arrive at the closing table. Consumers reported feeling pressure to rush through the paperwork and sign -- even when they did not understand the terms.
  • Overwhelming stack of paperwork: When consumers close on a home, they often face stacks of paperwork. Some of the forms are intended to help consumers better understand the costs and risks of their mortgages. Other forms are included by lenders as a result of their legal risk assessments. Remaining forms may fulfill federal, state, and local government requirements. The volume of paperwork varies from lender to lender.
  • Complexity of documents and errors: Most closing documents are full of legalese and technical jargon. The terms and acronyms are unknown to most consumers. In addition to having little time to read through and understand a large stack of paperwork, consumers often complained that they had little help from the others in the room. Consumers also mentioned that they found errors in their closing documents. Those errors often led to delays as closing agents had to redo the entire closing package.

David of Bradenton, Fla., can relate to the problems homebuyers face at closing. "We refinanced our house with Ameriquest in 2004," he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "First they sent a notary that knew nothing of the actual loan documents to our house for closing. Then they never disclosed to us anything about an early payoff penalty. We are in the middle of trying to build a new home and refinanced our house to withdraw the equity to use as a down payment. Ameriquest charged us $6800 to pay off our mortgage that we were not expecting. Ameriquest never discussed this prepayment penalty in any of the original discussions in soliciting our mortgage."

A fix

The CFPB’s new Know Before You Owe mortgage rule is designed to address some of these challenges. For example, consumers will receive their new Closing Disclosure at least three business days in advance of closing, to provide more time to review the terms of the deal. However, this rule does not apply to any of the other paperwork consumers receive at the closing table.

The agency only has jurisdiction over a few forms in the closing stack. More needs to be done to improve the closing experience for consumers.

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Miravalle Foods recalls Ground Annato

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Miravalle Foods of El Monte, Calif., is recalling its 0.75-ounce packages of Miravalle brand Achiote Molido Ground Annato spice. The product has the poten...

PhotoMiravalle Foods of El Monte, Calif., is recalling its 0.75-ounce packages of Miravalle brand Achiote Molido Ground Annato spice.

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

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

The recalled packages of Ground Annato 0.75 oz. were distributed in retail stores in California, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, Washington and Oregon.

The product comes in a 0.75 ounce, clear plastic package marked with lot # 0015 & #0018 on the top of the UPC number (712810005020).

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

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 626-575-7551, Monday through Friday 8AM to 4:30PM PT.

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How secure are cloud storage services?

Johns Hopkins researchers say they have found a security flaw

To make it easier to share huge files, as well as ensure the safety of important data, businesses are making increasing use of the cloud – storing th...

PhotoTo make it easier to share huge files, as well as ensure the safety of important data, businesses are making increasing use of the cloud – storing their computer files on remote servers.

But two researchers at Johns Hopkins have questioned the security of the growing number of companies now offering cloud storage services.

Lead author Duane Wilson, a doctoral student, and his faculty adviser, Giuseppe Ateniese, an associate professor of engineering, say they have found a flaw that could allow the company storing the supposed secure data to view it.

Zero-knowledge environment

When a company stores its secure data in the cloud, they typically are promised that the information will remain in a “zero-knowledge environment,” meaning that no one except those who have permission to access the data can see it.

Encryption is supposed to protect the data. The researchers say it doesn't always work that way.

“Our research shows that as long as the data is not shared with others, its confidentiality will be preserved, as the providers claim,” Wilson said. “However, whenever data is shared with another recipient through the cloud storage service, the providers are able to access their customers’ files and other data.”

In other words, the company that is holding and protecting the data is also able to view it. This weakness, the researchers say, calls into question the privacy protection these digital warehouses claim to offer.

Trusted middleman

In cloud-based storage, a trusted third party acts as sort of a middleman to verify the identity of the parties accessing the data, making sure they are cleared for access.

After completing an authentication process, the middleman issues “keys” that can unscramble and later recode the data. But Wilson says he found that many cloud storage companies were not turning to an outside third-party, but carrying out the verification function in-house.

That might not be a problem in a perfect world, where all employees are committed to maintaining the clients' confidentiality. Unfortunately, says Wilson, it's not a perfect world.

“The storage businesses could use a phony ‘key’ to decrypt and view the private information, then re-encrypt it before sending it on to its intended recipient,” Wilson said.

Reverse engineering

The researchers say they substantiated the security flaw by reverse engineering a typical cloud storage system. They also carried out a network traffic analysis to study the type of communication that occurs between a secure cloud storage provider and its customers.

They stress that they have no evidence that any cloud storage provider is illegally accessing their customer's confidential data, but say it is important that consumers and businesses using these services understand the potential risks.

The study focused on storage providers that promise their clients complete confidentiality. File-sharing services commonly used by consumers, like Dropbox and Google Drive, don't guarantee privacy and consumers shouldn't assume they have it.

The flaw is easily fixable, Wilson says, if storage companies are required to actually use third-party companies to serve as the file-sharing middleman, instead of performing the function in-house.

Still dealing with Heartbleed

The revelations from the Johns Hopkins researchers come at a time when security experts are still scrambling to deal with the fallout from the recently-revealed Heartbleed flaw.

“Everyone should worry about Heartbleed and should change passwords,” said Guy Hembroff, associate professor and chair of the Computer Network and System Administration program at Michigan Technological University. “An average user logging into their Amazon account may be logging into a server that was compromised.”

If that happened to be the case, he says their username, password, and account information – such as address and credit-card information -- would be in the memory of the server where the vulnerability is targeted.

“Therefore changing passwords of these accounts is important,” he said.

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Dealing with retirement crisis brings challenges

It's not just retirees who are unprepared

If you don't feel like you are prepared to retire, you are hardly alone. A new study suggests most states – maybe the one where you live – aren...

PhotoIf you don't feel like you are prepared to retire, you are hardly alone. A new study suggests most states – maybe the one where you live – aren't ready for you to retire either.

The study comes from the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS), which measured all 50 states and the District of Columbia on three criteria; anticipated retirement income; major retirement costs like housing and healthcare; and labor market conditions for older workers.

“We conducted this study to drill deeper and understand better the scope of the nation’s retirement crisis on a state basis,” said Diane Oakley, NIRS executive director. “Now, policymakers can identify the most urgent priorities for addressing the looming financial security challenges of the aging populations in their state.”

Perhaps the biggest issue is the shortfall in retirement savings. But it's not just an issue for the individual retirees. Oakley says it's an issue facing states as well, since they may be forced to deal with more seniors living in poverty.

Social Security isn't enough

“We know that the largest source of retirement income for most Americans is Social Security, but this federal program typically provides only a fraction of what most people need to be self-sufficient,” she said.

States, she says, need to encourage residents to increase their retirement savings. Some have begun to do so but the study suggests a lot more effort is needed.

The data identifies key areas of trouble that affect most or all states. For example, the highest ranking state for workplace retirement plan participation in 2012 had only 54% of private employees participating in a pension or 401(k).

Other numbers are even more sobering. In the previous state-by-state analysis, 14 states had senior households that were facing an increasing cost for housing. In the latest report, 30 states were in that category.

Working longer

PhotoIf seniors aren't saving enough for retirement that necessarily means they will need to stay in the workforce longer. Many seniors actually want to keep working, at least part-time.

But here the data is also discouraging. Older workers were more likely to be unemployed or to be in low wage jobs in lower-ranked states in 2012 than they were in previous studies.

The study is provided to help policymakers identify areas where they can improve seniors' retirement prospects, and comes at a time when retirement preparedness is a growing concern.

Getting the message

Meanwhile, it appears those currently in the workforce and years away from retirement are getting the message. The latest annual report from Financial Finesse, a provider of workplace financial programs, notes a huge jump in the number of people accessing its information.

The number of employees logging in to the company's Online Financial Learning Center has increased 166% since 2010. Financial concern may be driving the increase since 42% say they are worried they won't reach their financial goals, up from 35% in 2012.

The main takeaway is that employees are becoming a lot more proactive about planning for their financial future, which according to Liz Davidson, CEO of Financial Finesse, bodes well for the long-term.

“Society as a whole is beginning to put more emphasis on financial security and financial education,” she said.

Tax questions

But we still may have a long way to go. This month's report from Bankers Life Center for a Secure Retirement found a majority of middle-income Baby Boomers and retirees lack the financial knowledge they need to navigate retirement.

The biggest gap, the study found, was in knowledge about how tax rates will affect them in retirement. More Americans understand how taxes on lottery winnings work than are aware of taxes on their retirement income.

And when it comes to filing their taxes, most middle-income Americans age 50 and older couldn't identify the main tax deductions that benefit retirees. For the record, they're listed below.

  • Blindness is cause for a higher standard deduction
  • At age 65 you receive a higher standard deduction
  • In some cases, you may claim your parents living outside the household as dependents  
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New light field camera aims to refocus photography

Lytro introduces the ILLUM

In the 21st century the camera business has been turned on its lens cap. With technology moving at the speed of light, companies – even market stalwa...

PhotoIn the 21st century, the camera business has been turned on its lens cap. With technology moving at the speed of light, companies – even market stalwarts – have struggled to keep up.

In 2012 Eastman Kodak, whose name in the previous century was synonymous with pictures, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced it was getting out of the camera business. Five years earlier, Polaroid, which pioneered instant cameras, stopped making both cameras and film.

Consider this: the Flip camera arrived on the scene in 2006, providing consumers with an inexpensive point-and-shoot digital camcorder. Technically, it isn't much different from the GoPro HD personal camcorder. They both are small cameras that take HD video pictures. But there is one big difference.

The GoPro Hero3 is designed and marketed for mounting on a car's dash, the handlebars of a bicycle, or the user's head while skydiving, or taking part in other high-action activities. The Flip was eclipsed by the video capability of smartphones.

As a result, Cisco, which bought Flip in 2009, announced two years later it would stop making it. GoPro, meanwhile, is doing quite well and is poised to become a publicly traded company on Wall Street.

Light field camera

Stepping onto this shifting commercial landscape is Lytro, which has unveiled what it says is the world's first light field camera and software platform. It's a follow up – and significant upgrade – to its first light field camera introduced two years ago.

Light field photography captures available light from more than one direction. Software in the camera determines the general direction of the rays of light.

Advantages include the ability to refocus images after they are taken. Speed is another advantage. Since the camera doesn't need to refocus it can capture a series of images faster than a standard point-and-shoot device.

Light field cameras need less light to take pictures and can provide more depth to subjects. Lytro's first camera went on sale in 2012 in 8GB and 16GB versions.

$1,599 price tag

The company's new camera, the Lytro ILLUM, creates what it calls "living pictures" by bringing the power of 3D computer graphics to photography. The new camera is also a lot more expensive, retailing for $1,599.

"With LYTRO ILLUM, creative pioneers, ranging from artistic amateurs to experienced professionals , will tap into a new wave of graphical storytelling, said Lytro CEO Jason Rosenthal. "By combining a novel hardware array with tremendous computational horsepower, this camera opens up unprecedented possibilities to push the boundaries of creativity beyond the limits inherent in digital or film photography."

Specs

To accomplish all this, Lytro ILLUM combines optics, hardware and software in a very small package. The camera offers a 40-megaray light field sensor, 8x optical zoom range, constant f/2.0 aperture and a high-speed shutter capable of freezing motion under a wide variety of conditions.

After the image has been captured, the software platform allows photographers to adjust aspects of images that were previously fixed, such as focus, tilt, perspective shift and depth of field. It gives the photographer a lot more power within the camera to edit the image.

The company likens ILLUM's technology to that used in virtual reality and 3D graphics. It's hoping the camera will serve as a catalyst for yet another transformational shift in the world of cameras.

"Light Field Photography is following the classic pattern for a transformational concept," said Lytro founder Ren Ng. "The original Lytro camera, which launched in 2012, introduced an entirely new era in photography. Lytro ILLUM will advance this movement to a new level.”

The camera is available for pre-order and starts shipping in July.

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HBO series coming to Amazon Prime

Also, HBO GO being added to Amazon's Fire TV

One thing that keeps many consumers from dumping their expensive cable TV service is HBO. Sure, you could do without ever seeing "Extreme Cheapskates" on T...

PhotoOne thing that keeps many consumers from dumping their expensive cable TV service is HBO. Sure, you could do without ever seeing "Extreme Cheapskates" on TLC again but HBO is another story.

Amazon has just solved that problem. Amazon and HBO today announced that Amazon's Prime Instant Video will be the exclusive online source of much of HBO's catalog, including award-winning shows such as "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under," "The Wire," "Big Love," "Deadwood," "Treme," early seasons of "Boardwalk Empire" and "True Blood."

Currently running series will be added to the online catalog over the course of the agreement.

The first wave of content will arrive on Prime Instant Video May 21. This is the first time that HBO programming has been licensed to an online-only subscription streaming service.

In addition, HBO GO will become available on Fire TV, targeting a launch by year-end. HBO GO is HBO’s authenticated streaming service offering subscribers instant access to over 1,700 titles online including every episode of new and classic HBO series, as well as HBO original films, miniseries, sports, documentaries, specials and a wide selection of blockbuster movies.

“HBO has produced some of the most groundbreaking, beloved and award-winning shows in television history, with more than 115 Emmys amongst the assortment of shows coming to Prime members next month,” said Brad Beale, Director of Content Acquisition for Amazon. “HBO original content is some of the most-popular across Amazon Instant Video — our customers love watching these shows. Now Prime members can enjoy a collection of great HBO shows on an unlimited basis, at no additional cost to their Prime membership.”

Amazon announced in March that it was raising the annual fee for Prime membership from $79 to $99. Prime also includes free two-day shipping of most products and access to thousands of streaming video titles, including a growing number of original content produced by Amazon.  

“Amazon has built a wonderful service—we are excited to have our programming made available to their vast customer base and believe the exposure will create new HBO subscribers,” said Charles Schreger, President of Programming Sales for HBO.

Details

Beginning May 21, Amazon Prime members will have unlimited streaming access to:

  • All seasons of classics such as "The Sopranos,""The Wire,""Deadwood,""Rome" and "Six Feet Under," and of recent favorites such as "Eastbound & Down,""Enlightened" and "Flight of the Conchords;"
  • Miniseries, including "Angels in America,""Band of Brothers,""John Adams,""The Pacific" and "Parade’s End;"
  • Select seasons of current series such as "Boardwalk Empire,""Treme" and "True Blood"
  • Hit original movies like "Game Change,""Too Big To Fail" and "You Don’t Know Jack;"
  • Documentaries including the "Autopsy" and "Iceman" series, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" and "When the Levees Broke;" and
  • Original comedy specials from Lewis Black, Ellen DeGeneres, Louis CK and Bill Maher. 

The multi-year deal will bring additional seasons of the current series named above, along with early seasons of other series like Girls, The Newsroom and Veep to Prime members over the life of the deal.

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A very profitable year for insurance companies

Consumer Federation of America says insurance companies are overcharging their customers

A few weeks ago the Consumer Federation of America, working in conjunction with the Center for Economic Justice, called on insurance regulators to stop the...

PhotoA few weeks ago the Consumer Federation of America, working in conjunction with the Center for Economic Justice, called on insurance regulators to stop the practice of “price optimization” -- basically, insurance companies charging certain customers higher premiums not to reflect higher levels of risk or rates of coverage but simply because the (usually low-income) customers didn't realize they qualified for a better price.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), on April 23 the CFA said that an analysis of year-2013 financial data for property/casualty insurers in the United States showed that last year, “insurers enjoyed extraordinarily high returns on the highest level of annual premiums ever paid by United States consumers, businesses and public agencies,” with total annual profits of $64 billion, the third-highest in history even after adjusting for inflation (dwarfed only by the years 2006 and 2007).

J. Robert Hunter, who is the CFA's Director of Insurance (and a former Texas insurance commissioner) said, “The data make it indisputably clear that insurance companies are overcharging their customers in order to rake in huge profits.”

Squeezing so much profit

Hunter later said that “It is good for the P/C industry to make fair profits, but it is unacceptable for insurance companies to be squeezing so much profit out of consumers who are required by laws and financial institutions to buy coverage. At a time when low- and moderate-income Americans are increasingly unable to afford unfairly priced auto insurance and many homeowners struggle to afford home insurance in many parts of the nation, huge profits like those realized in 2013 raise serious questions about the adequacy of state regulation of insurance.”

The CFA also said that the current $653 billion surplus held by insurance companies is the higest in history, even adjusted for inflation.

The full CFA release is available as a .pdf here.

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Dish planning a summer launch for its Internet-TV service

The service would be a cable-like subscription plan delivered over the Web

A long time ago, satellite communications was a new idea. Today it's pretty ho-hum so Dish Network, which runs what amounts to a cable service delivered vi...

PhotoA long time ago, satellite communications was a new idea. Today it's pretty ho-hum so Dish Network, which runs what amounts to a cable service delivered via satellite, is trying to get with the times.

DISH Network  April 23, 2014, 6:17 p.m.
Consumers rate DISH Network

The company is putting together an Internet-based service that would sort of duplicate cable -- offering subscribers packages from a number of program providers.

Dish has reportedly signed with the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC and several other channels, and is pursuing deals with A&E, Turner Broadcasting, CBS and others, Bloomberg News reports.

Dish is reportedly targeting the 18-34 crowd that only wants to pay $20 or $30 a month to watch TV on their smartphones and tablets instead of on a traditional TV.

Of course, you still need Internet access, which may turn out to be a stumbling block.

Not unique

This is not exactly a new idea. Several other firms are planning similar roll-outs. Perhaps more significantly, Amazon today announced it will be offering HBO programming to its Prime Instant Video members, in addition to the thousands of movies and TV series already in its catalog.

Amazon's new Fire TV box will also provide access to HBO GO, the companies said.

It's not too hard to imagine Amazon and its primary competitor, Netflix, continuing to pile up deals with program producers at a fast clip. They have the advantage of a huge base of subscribers, while Dish and others new to the streaming video field are essentially starting from scratch.

Plenty of others are trying to get their toe in the water before the pool closes to new entrants. AT&T said yesterday that it is planning a streaming-video venture called Over the Top.

Verizon bought a failed Intel Corp. venture and is said to be developing a new venture, while Sony has reportedly signed an agreement to stream Viacom programming.

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Moderate physical activity may protect against Alzheimer's

No other known treatment is as effective in those known to be at risk

A new study finds that moderate physical activity may protect brain health and help prevent Alzheimer's disease.The study of older adults at increas...

PhotoA new study finds that moderate physical activity may protect brain health and help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

The study of older adults at increased risk for Alzheimer's disease found that those who were more active had less shrinkage of the hippocampus – the brain region responsible for memory and spatial orientation that is attacked first in Alzheimer's disease.

Photo
Dr. J. Carson Smith

Dr. J. Carson Smith, a kinesiology researcher in the University of Maryland School of Public Health who conducted the study, says that while all of us will lose some brain volume as we age, those with an increased genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease typically show greater hippocampal atrophy over time. The findings are published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

Delay cognitive decline

"The good news is that being physically active may offer protection from the neurodegeneration associated with genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease," Smith said. "We found that physical activity has the potential to preserve the volume of the hippocampus in those with increased risk for Alzheimer's disease, which means we can possibly delay cognitive decline and the onset of dementia symptoms in these individuals. Physical activity interventions may be especially potent and important for this group."

Smith and colleagues, including Dr. Stephen Rao from the Cleveland Clinic, tracked four groups of healthy older adults ages 65-89, who had normal cognitive abilities, over an 18-month period and measured the volume of their hippocampus (using structural magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI) at the beginning and end of that time period.

The groups were classified both for low or high Alzheimer's risk (based on the absence or presence of the apolipoprotein E epsilon 4 allele) and for low or high physical activity levels.

No other treatments as effective

Of all four groups studied, only those at high genetic risk for Alzheimer's who did not exercise experienced a decrease in hippocampal volume (3 percent) over the 18-month period. All other groups, including those at high risk for Alzheimer's but who were physically active, maintained the volume of their hippocampus.

"This is the first study to look at how physical activity may impact the loss of hippocampal volume in people at genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease," says Dr. Kirk Erickson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. "There are no other treatments shown to preserve hippocampal volume in those that may develop Alzheimer's disease. This study has tremendous implications for how we may intervene, prior to the development of any dementia symptoms, in older adults who are at increased genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease."

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Supreme Court: pornography viewers can be held liable only for a portion of damages

Court finds that each culprit should pay a share of the damages; victim "surprised and confused"

It's perhaps easy for pornography addicts to argue that simply possessing or viewing porn hurts no one. Of course, the counter to that argument is that the...

PhotoIt's perhaps easy for pornography addicts to argue that simply possessing or viewing porn hurts no one. Of course, the counter to that argument is that the images would not be created or distributed if there was no market for them.

Also, victims have successfully argued that the damage to their reputation and mental health is itself sufficient cause for legal action, especially when the subject of the pornographic images -- i.e., the victim -- is a child.

The U.S. Supreme Court settled the argument today, holding that those convicted of possessing child pornography must pay the victim a share of the economic losses that  “comports with the defendant’s relative role” in the harm suffered by the victim."

The decision was not a decisive loss or victory for either side. It upheld a 1994 federal law that said victims are entitled to compensation but did not provide detailed guidelines for calculating the damages.

In its ruling, the high court threw out a $3.4 million verdict against Doyle Randall Paroline, who had pled guilty to possessing hundreds of pornographic images, including two of a girl identified only as "Amy."

The images show Amy being raped by an uncle when she was 8 years old. She had sought $3.4 million to cover costs of treatment and lost earnings. Her case is now remanded to a federal court in Texas, which will determine how much Paroline must pay.

Basically, the court held that individual defendants should not be forced to pay the total damages incurred by a victim but should pay their fair share.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said amounts should not be "token or nominal" but should also not be "severe" in cases where hundreds or thousands of people had viewed the images in question.

“I am surprised and confused by the Court’s decision today," Amy said in a statement posted by her lawyer, Paul Cassell. "I really don’t understand where this leaves me and other victims who now have to live with trying to get restitution probably for the rest of our lives. ... It’s crazy that people keep committing this crime year after year and now victims like me have to keep reliving it year after year."

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from the verdict, saying Congress should rewrite the law to clarify it.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in the opposite direction, saying that Paroline should have been held responsible for the full amount.

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Massachusetts joins multi-state Experian investigation

The full extent of the damage still is not known

The office of Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley has added that state to the list of those whose attorneys general are now investigating the mas...

PhotoThe office of Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley has added that state to the list of those whose attorneys general are now investigating the massive security breach at Experian, which left the confidential information of up to 200 million Americans vulnerable to a Vietnamese identity thief who'd convinced two Experian subsidiaries that he was a legitimate private investigator with legitimate reasons to access people's confidential financial information.

Experian April 23, 2014, 8:12 p.m.
Consumers rate Experian

Word of the Experian breach first came to light last October. In March, the Secret Service announced that information stolen in the breach was already being used in a variety of identity-theft schemes, including false credit cards taken out or fraudulent tax returns filed using victims' identities.

Then, in early April, Illinois and Connecticut became the first two states whose attorneys general opened a “multi-state” investigation into the matter; a week later, North Carolina and Iowa also joined the investigation.

Coakley's announcement of the investigation ended with a reminder for Massachusetts residents to do what everyone should do in light of the Experian breach, including taking extra care when monitoring your accounts (bank, credit and debit card) to look for suspicious activity, and contacting the police and relevant financial companies at once if you think you've become a victim of identity theft.

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Mortgage applications reverse course -- head lower

Average loan size applications are at all all-time high

Applications for home mortgages are down again a week after snapping a three-week string of declines. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) W...

PhotoApplications for home mortgages are down again a week after snapping a three-week string of declines.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending April 18 show applications fell 3.3% on a seasonally adjusted basis. A week earlier, they posted a 4.3% advance.

The Refinance Index was down 4% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down 1% -- to 51% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity, meanwhile, rose to 9% of total applications.

The average loan size for purchase applications is now at its highest level in the history of the survey at $280,500, coinciding with the trend in rising purchase activity for larger loan amounts.

Contract interest rate

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 2 basis points -- from 4.47% to 4.49%, with points increasing to 0.50 from 0.32 (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 4.41% from 4.39%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.18 (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 2 basis points to 4.20%, with points increasing to 0.41 from 0.06 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs went from 3.54% to 3.55%, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.24 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs inched up 1 basis point to 3.16%, with points decreasing to 0.36 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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New home sales down in March

Affordability is seen as a growing problem

Sales of new single-family houses fell in March for the second straight month. Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Ho...

PhotoSales of new single-family houses fell in March for the second straight month.

Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show sales plunged 14.5% below the previous month's rate -- to 384,000.

That's also down 13.3% from the same month last year and well shy of the increase to 455,000 that economists surveyed by Briefing.com were forecasting.

Priced out?

Analysts point out that mortgage rates have come off their lows, making financing more difficult, and that home prices are rising and income levels are stagnating. This, they say, could stall further sales.

Speaking of prices, the median sales price of new houses sold in March was $290,000 -- up $29,100 from February. The median is the point at which half are higher and half are lower. The average sales price was $334,200, a gain of $15,300 from the month before.

The housing inventory also grew last month. The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of March was 193,000, representing a supply of 6.0 months at the current sales rate.

The full report is available on the Census Bureau website.

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10 used cars for under $8,000

Improving quality of newer cars mean used cars are getting better too

Call it the trickle down effect if you like, but it's a fact; the improvement in new cars that began a few years back has now vastly improved the quality o...

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Why having a co-signer on your private student loan can be risky

You could suddenly face demands for full repayment

It is often said that co-signing someone's loan is risky business. It makes you equally liable for the repayment of the loan, and if the borrower defaults,...

PhotoIt is often said that co-signing someone's loan is risky business. It makes you equally liable for the repayment of the loan, and if the borrower defaults, the lender then looks to you for repayment.

But there is also a case in which having someone co-sign for you can be a risk to you. This risk is highlighted in a new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Student Loan Ombudsman.

Let's suppose you need a co-signer in order to get a private student loan. Maybe a grandparent volunteers. You receive the loan and start making payments.

But then your co-signer dies. Many private college lenders have a provision in their loan documents that allows them to demand full repayment if the co-signer dies, even if the borrower is making on-time payments. It's called auto-default.

“Students often rely on parents or grandparents to co-sign their private student loans to achieve the dream of higher education,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “When tragedy triggers an automatic default, responsible borrowers are thrown into financial distress with demands of immediate repayment.”

Bankruptcy will trigger it too

And it doesn't take a death to trigger an auto-default. If the co-signer declares bankruptcy, many private college lenders reserve the right to immediately call the loan, regardless of the payment history.

How often does this happen? The report cites no specific numbers, saying only that since accepting complaints about student loans, this issue has emerged.

“Some consumers assume that death of a co-signer will result in a release of the co-signer’s obligation to repay,” the report states. “Consumers describe their confusion when they receive notices to pay in full since they believed their loan to be in good standing and current.”

The Ombudsman's report says it is based on more than 2,300 private loan complaints and more than 1,300 debt collection complaints. It doesn't mention how many of those complaints come from co-signers themselves, but chances are many of them did.

Co-signers' complaints

A number of private student loan co-signers have posted complaints on the pages of ConsumerAffairs, usually for the touchy issues routinely associated with taking responsibility for someone else's debt. Dave, of Alameda, Calif., recently told us that Citibank does not give the co-signer much information about the loan.

“There may be lawyer double speak in some papers they send with the form, but the student is the only one who receives them,” Dave wrote. “The co-signer is left in the dark, for years, not even aware of the loan. Also, after sending in the application, Citi lets the student know how much they are eligible for and that figure is THEN added onto the app that the co signer has signed.”

Removing a co-signer

One way young borrowers can avoid this auto-default is removing their co-signer from the loan. However, the Ombudsman's report says that can be very difficult to do under the terms of the loan and that being allowed to release a co-signer from the loan is a frustrating process.

The report cites an example in which a student was told his co-signer would be released after he made 28 on-time payments. But after the 28th payment he was told the number was now 36. After the the 36th payment, he was told the magic number was now 48.

“Lenders should have clear and accessible processes in place to enable borrowers to release co-signers from loans,” Cordray said. “A borrower should not have to go through an obstacle course.”

Federal vs. private loans

There is a distinction here and it has to do with the difference between a federal student loan and one from a private lender. According to CFPB, a federal lender only rarely requires the borrower to have a co-signer, but the loan is not called if the co-signer dies or declares bankruptcy.

It is only some private student loan lenders that have this policy but it's not clear how you might know this, unless you ask. A better course of action might be to bypass private lenders altogether, something recommended by the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL).

In fact, CLR has proposed the CFPB require colleges to ensure that students have taken advantage of all the federal loans they are eligible for before allowing them to do business with a private lender.

“Federal loans are almost always preferable to federal loans because of more favorable repayment and forgiveness options,” the group says.

What to do

In the meantime, if you need help in removing a co-signer from a loan – or having yourself removed as a co-signer, here are some links that might prove helpful:

Cosigner Release Advisory

Sample letter on how a borrower can release a co-signer

Sample letter on how to be released as a co-signer

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AOL email spoofed; change your password if you have an account

Everyone else watch out for suspicious emails from @AOL.com addresses

Even if you're not an AOL user, you still might be affected by the recent AOL email spoofing...

PhotoEven if you're not an AOL user, you still might be affected by the recent AOL email spoofing — I say this as a non-AOL user who, in the past couple of days, has had a small avalanche of AOL-addressed spam littering my own email inbox.

If you have AOL email, there's definitely a chance your account has been spoofed — meaning, it's being used to send spammy emails to everyone in your address book. TechCrunch, which is owned by AOL, said on April 21 that “Sources close to the company believe the impact was less than 1 percent of all users and that they expect the issue to be quickly remedied.”

But for safety's sake, any AOL email users should change their passwords now, rather than wait to find out whether they were affected or not.

It's believed — so far — that customer data from other AOL accounts has not been compromised.

If you don't have AOL email, watch out for anything you get from an AOL address, especially emails with either no subject heading, or a vague and meaningless one. (My recently received AOL spoof emails had either blank subject headings, the word “Hi!” or the heading “FW:” followed by blank space.)

Ideally you should not even open such an email, but if you do, make sure you do not click on any links inside, nor open any attachments the email might have — doing so will almost certainly result in some very nasty malware infecting your computer.

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Facebook says its advertisers don't get users' personal information

How personalized are those personalized ads, anyway?

There's a common saying about social media and other free web-based services: If you're not paying them anything then you're not their customer .......

PhotoThere's a common saying about social media and other free Web-based services: “If you're not paying them anything then you're not their customer; you're what they sell to customers.”

Those customers are advertisers. You don't pay to go on Facebook or use free Web-based messaging systems; advertisers pay to place their ads where you can see them. It's similar to the principle behind TV commercials (especially in the days before cable and other forms of pay TV): you don't pay the network to watch whatever shows are broadcast; advertisers pay the network so you can see their commercials during the broadcast.

But advertising on social media raises certain privacy concerns that TV commercials do not: when you watch TV, you see the same commercials as everyone else watching that channel. Online ads are more likely to be customized, based on your actual activity.

And different companies respond to their customers' privacy concerns in different ways. Google, for example, recently changed its Gmail terms of service to outright tell you the contents of your emails will be analyzed in order to provide targeted advertising.

"Very protective"

Facebook recently tried the opposite tactic; its chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg recently spoke with the British news show BBC Breakfast to assure viewers that, despite the personalized content-specific ads, “Privacy is of the utmost concern and importance to Facebook and it's important to us that the people who use our service know that we are very protective of them. … When we are able to personalise ads, we are doing that without sharing their private data with any advertisers.”

Story continues below video

Of course, this is hardly the first time Facebook has faced customer-privacy concerns. Last December, two Californians filed suit against the company on the grounds that it violated anti-wiretapping laws by scanning the contents of private messages in order to falsely inflate various “Like” counts.

For example: suppose you and a friend share a certain strong political opinion — namely, you both think Congressman Bunghole is a fantastically awful politician. And one day the two of you use Facebook's private messaging system to discuss the extra-stupid thing Bunghole posted on his Facebook page, and your discussion is chock-full of such phrases as “I hate Congressman Bunghole” and “I hope he loses the next election” — according to the lawsuit, your discussion there actually increased the “Like” count on Bunghole's page, thus making him appear more popular than he actually is.

The courts have yet to hash out whether there's any truth behind such claims. Sandberg did not directly address such claims with the BBC, but did say that customers' privacy is not compromised despite data-sharing with advertisers, because everything is anonymized before the advertisers get it.

Off the mark

Your name and email address are encrypted from the start, and other details about you are converted into a string of numbers: advertisers don't know exactly who a given Facebook user is; they only know that one of them is, for example, a 33-year-old Daily Planet reader living in Metropolis.

Incidentally, I'm inclined to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt here, not out of any inherent trust of the company and its alleged respect for privacy, but because the ads I see on my own personal Facebook feed are so fantastically off-the-mark, it's obvious those advertisers don't have a clue who I actually am.

For example: I don't discuss politics through Facebook's private messaging system; I'll post “Congressman Bunghole is bad for America and stinks worse than the devil's own garlic breath” right on my “Wall” for all my friends to see. Meanwhile, Facebook's adbots will suggest I either “like” Bunghole's Facebook page or donate to his re-election campaign.

Also: I never bothered filling out my full Facebook profile, so there no mention of where or even if I went to school. Thus I'll get things like “an ad offering me the chance to earn a high school diploma at home in my spare time” and “an ad urging me to buy into a townhouse community where prices start 'from the low 900s'” at the same time.

Financial tip: if you can afford a $900,000+ condominium, you probably have all the educational credentials you need to get by in contemporary America.

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Netflix plans a price increase, at least for new customers

New customers will pay $1 to $2 more per month

You have to admit it -- at $7.99 or so a month for most subscribers, Netflix is a bargain. Don't believe it? Look at your cable bill and compare it to Netf...

PhotoYou have to admit it -- at $7.99 or so a month for most subscribers, Netflix is a bargain. Don't believe it? Look at your cable bill and compare it to Netflix -- $110 or so versus less than $10. 

Given the disparity, Netflix is thinking it's time to raise the rate a dollar or so, at least for new customers. After all, with 48.4 million subscribers, it has a pretty solid base of subscribers.

Those current subscribers won't see an increase for another year or two, according to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who reported higher earnings and subscriber growth for the first quarter. 

Netflix has been holding the line on prices while continuing to spend heavily licensing existing TV and movie fare and producing its own original series, including the smash hits "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black."

Three years ago, the company split its mail and streaming businesses, resulting in a large increase for customers who wanted both, generating serious pushback from consumers. 

Hastings said proceeds from the higher subscription fee will be used to help pay for more original content. 

Opposes Comcast merger

Hastings also announced his opposition to Comcast's proposed merger with Time Warner, saying it would give Comcast the ability to control broadband to a majority of American homes. He said Comcast is "already dominant enough."

Netflix and other content providers have been at war with cable and telecom companies that have sought to extort money from the program providers in exchange for not throttling their access to viewers.

“The combined company would possess even more anti-competitive leverage to charge arbitrary interconnection tolls for access to their consumers,” he said in a letter to shareholders.

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Cannabis chemistry: keeping it pure

Video shows how scientists test pot for potency, safety

With marijuana being legalized in cities and states around the country, more attention is being paid to policing the quality and purity of the popular mood...

PhotoWith marijuana being legalized in cities and states around the country, more attention is being paid to policing the quality and purity of the popular mood-alterer.

Back in the bad old days when it was illegal throughout the country, marijuana varied widely in quality and was often "cut" with other substances that made it less effective and even, in some cases, harmful.

Noting all the newfound interest, the American Chemical Society has put together a video that explains the chemistry behind marijuana's high and investigates what scientists are doing to ensure that legalized weed won't send users on a bad trip.

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AT&T plans "over the top" video services venture

Meanwhile, Netflix says AT&T's streaming speeds are pathetic

AT&T, perhaps noticing that it is once again falling behind the game, says that it and The Chernin Group plan to invest $500 million to create a new ve...

PhotoAT&T, perhaps noticing that it is once again falling behind the game, says that it and The Chernin Group plan to invest $500 million to create a new venture that will acquire, invest in and launch a new video services venture, which at least for now is going by the sobriquet of OTT -- or, Over the Top video.

The companies said the goal of the venture will be to invest in both ad-supported and subscription-based video on demand channels as well as streaming services. The idea is to launch new Internet-video services, rather than deliver a “virtual pay-TV” service that would be designed to compete with traditional cable or satellite TV, an AT&T rep was reported to have said.

AT&T did not bother to post information about the venture in its media relations section, where the last posting at 3 p.m. ET today was dated March 5, not exactly over-the-top public relations hustling.

Not much else is known about the venture, except that it will include Chernin's majority stake in Crunchyroll, a subscription VOD service focused on anime content.

Subpar streaming

The timing was ironic in that it came on the same day that Netflix called out AT&T for offering subpar video streaming, even slower in some cases than the outmoded DSL service still offered in some parts of the country.

Netflix said AT&T provided an average speed in March of 1.73 megabits a second for Netflix’s service on fiber-based connections, trailing CenturyLink Inc. and Windstream Holdings Inc., which use older DSL lines, Netflix said. 

If AT&T wanted to serve its customers better, it could do so with a free direct hook-up to Netflix, the company said.

“AT&T customers expect a good quality Netflix experience given how much they pay AT&T for their Internet service,” Netflix said in its earnings report.

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Child's autism risk rises when mother is over 30

Study quantifies differing paternal, maternal risk

Older parents are more likely to have a child who develops an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than are younger parents. A recent study from researchers from...

Photo
Autism risk grows steadily with fathers' increasing age, but accelerates with mothers' age after 30. These charts show generalized additive model estimates of the probability of ASD in the Stockholm Youth Cohort. Dashed lines show 95 percent confidence intervals.

It has been generally accepted that older parents are more likely to have a child who develops an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than are younger parents. Now a study provides insight into the role played by both paternal and maternal age.

The study, published in the February 2014 issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology, found that fathers’ and mothers' advancing ages have different impacts on a child’s risk. The rise in ASD risk with parental age was greater for older mothers as compared to older fathers.

“The open question at hand really is, what biological mechanisms underlie these age effects?” said Brian K. Lee, PhD, an assistant professor in the Drexel University School of Public Health and senior author of the study.

Complicated relationship

The risk of having a child with ASD had a more complicated relationship to age in women than in men – whose risk of fathering a child with ASD increased linearly with age across their lifespan.

Among women giving birth before the age of 30, the risk of ASD in the child showed no association with age -- it was simply very low. But for babies born to mothers aged 30 and older, the chance of developing ASD rose rapidly with the mother's age.

Lee noted that the non-linear maternal age effect that is relatively stronger than the paternal age effect on ASD risk has been observed in previous studies, but has not received much attention.

Large sample

In this study, Lee and colleagues analyzed a large population registry sample of 417,303 children born in Sweden between 1984 and 2003, adjusted for numerous possible factors that could vary with parental age and also influence risk, such as family income and each parent’s psychiatric history. The study also used a case-finding approach, to identify more ASD cases than other studies might, based on all pathways to care in a socialized health system.

A goal was to study these parental age effects in more detail by looking at possible differing risks of ASD with and without intellectual disability – one of the most serious comorbid diagnoses with ASD, with a significant impact on functional status in life. This was the first population-based study with an ASD sample large enough to study ASD risk in populations of children with and without intellectual disability.

“When considering risk factors, we can’t necessarily lump all ASD cases together, even though they fall under a broad umbrella of autism,” Lee said. “We need to keep an open mind in case intellectual disability might be a marker of a different underlying mechanism.”

The finding that ASD with intellectual disability had a stronger association with older parents, compared to ASD without intellectual disability, supports continued investigation of possible different mechanisms.

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A slip in sales of previously-owned homes

Sales volume in March was the slowest since July 2012

Sales of existing homes dipped 0.2% in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.59 million as declines in the West and South outweighed gains poste...

PhotoSales of existing homes dipped 0.2% in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.59 million as declines in the West and South outweighed gains posted in the Northeast and Midwest.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show sales during the month were 7.5% below the pace in March 2013, with volume the slowest since July 2012 when it was 4.59 million.

Current sales activity is underperforming by historical standards. “There really should be stronger levels of home sales given our population growth,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “In contrast, price growth is rising faster than historical norms because of inventory shortages.”

He said expects some improvement in the months ahead, adding “with ongoing job creation and some weather delayed shopping activity, home sales should pick up, especially if inventory continues to improve and mortgage interest rates rise only modestly.”

Prices on the rise

The median existing-home price for all housing types in March was $198,500 -- up 7.9% from March 2013. The median is the point at which half of home prices are higher and half are lower. Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 14% of March sales, down 2% from February and 7% in March 2013 year-over-year. “With rising home equity, we expect distressed homes to decline to a single-digit market share later this year,” Yun said.

Regional sales and prices

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 9.1% to an annual rate of 600,000 in March, but are 4.8% below March 2013. The median price in the Northeast was $244,700 -- up 3.2% from a year ago.
  • In the Midwest, existing-home sales were up 4.0% -- to a pace of 1.04 million, but are 10.3% below a year ago. The median price was up 5.9% from March 3013 -- to $149,600.
  • In the South, existing-home sold at an annual rate of 1.92 million -- down 3.0% from both last month and March 2013. The median price in the South was $173,000, up 6.7% from a year ago.
  • Existing-home sales in the West fell 3.7% to a pace of 1.03 million in March, and are 13.4% below a year ago. The median price in the was $289,300 -- a gain of 12.6% from March 2013.
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Home prices inched higher in February

The increase is the third in as many months

The prices of houses in the U.S. rebounded in February from January's decline. Data released by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) show its monthly...

PhotoThe prices of houses in the U.S. rebounded in February from January's decline.

Data released by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) show its monthly House Price Index (HPI) was up 0.6 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis – the third straight increase.

Despite a harsh winter, the seasonally adjusted purchase-only index has shown increases for the last three months. The 0.5% increase reported for January revised downward slightly to show a gain of 0.4%.

A decline of 0.1% last November ended a 21-month stretch of increases that had begun in February 2012.

The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages either sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Strong year-over-year gain

From February 2013 to February 2014, house prices were up 6.9 percent. Nonetheless, the index is 7.6% below its April 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the June 2005 level.

For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from January to February ranged from -2.5% in the New England division to +1.7% in the South Atlantic division. The 12-month changes were all positive ranging from +0.6% in the New England division to +14.3% in the Pacific division.

The complete HPI report is available on the FHFA website.

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Ordinary things that can harm your pets

Threats, it seems, are all around the house

Lilies, veterinarians reminded us last week, are actually poisonous for your cat."Ingesting any part of a lily plant can cause serious illness or even le...

PhotoLilies, veterinarians reminded us last week, are actually poisonous for your cat.

"Ingesting any part of a lily plant can cause serious illness or even lead to death,” said Dr. Jerry Klein, supervising veterinarian at Chicago Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Center. “Because many lilies are so highly poisonous to cats, prompt veterinary care is required."

Who knew? Many pet owners were alarmed. Commenting on our story a reader named “Suz” wrote “I am so glad I found this article - pet lovers must read.”

That got us thinking. What other kinds of things around the house could unknowningly be a threat to your dog or cat? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Dr. Kristy Conn, a veterinarian and member of the National Animal Health Emergency Response Corps, has written about other backyard plants that could pose problems for dogs and cats.

Other dangerous plants

For example, Narcissus and hyacinth bulbs, oleander, rhododendrons, cyclamen, amaryllis, yew and chrysanthemum can be toxic for dogs if chewed on or ingested.

Pesticide and insecticide can also be problematic, even if the poison is placed in areas where dogs and cats can't get to it. The problem occurs when a rodent or insect ingests the poison, then becomes a meal for your pet before the poison kills it.

Some commercial fertilizer can also be a threat to your dog because many times it seems to the dog like food. These products can expose your pet to nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, as well as insecticides and herbicides.

It's a good idea to keep your dog away from newly fertilized garden plots and anywhere you store bags of fertilizer.

Another potential garden threat is cocoa mulch. It contains ingredients that can be deadly to pets if ingested. The mulch, sold in garden supply stores, has a chocolate scent that is appetizing to some animals.

People food is a no-no

For a number of reasons it's never a good idea to feed your pet table scraps. One reason is the fact that some foods that are healthy for humans are lethal for dogs and cats, or at the very least can make them ill.

It's well-known that chocolate can be lethal for dogs, but is also harmful to cats. A lot of other food items can be pet killers too.

The City of Hollister, Calif.'s animal poison control center has posted a list of “101 things you didn't know could harm your pet.” On the list are common foods like grapes, raisins, garlic, raw yeast dough, macadamia nuts, salt and coffee.

Dangerous stereotype

You often see pictures of cats playing with a ball of yarn, but you shouldn't. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) warns that a ball of yarn can actually pose a threat to your feline friend.

It isn't poisonous but is easy to swallow. Once inside the cat it can cause intestinal blockage and strangulation. The same holds true for rubber bands and dental floss.

HSUS recommends that pet owners use all household products with caution. In fact, many of the same precautions parents of young children take to ensure their children's safety can, and should be adopted by pet owners.

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AT&T gets the message: the Internet needs big pipes

Cable and telecoms racing to upgrade their networks to meet the need for speed

It wasn't too long ago that the big telephone companies were racing to compete with cable TV companies by stringing coaxial and figer optic cable while put...

PhotoIt wasn't too long ago that the big telephone companies were racing to compete with cable TV companies by stringing coaxial and figer optic cable while putting together programming packages of movies, sports, news and over-the-air broadcasts.

The future, everyone thought, was in delivering entertainment -- movies and TV -- to U.S. homes. Telephone company bureaucrats dreamed of sitting on the beach in Malibu, cutting deals with the stars to the background of the pounding surf and the Porsches buzzing up the Pacific Coast Highway.

Cablevision April 21, 2014, 7:35 p.m.
Consumers rate Cablevision

But as it turned out, the Dilberts weren't exactly visionaries when it came to entertainment. They're pretty good at stringing cable, though, and it has suddenly dawned on everyone that the future of the telecom companies may be remarkably similar to their past -- running the networks that others use to move content.

The Cablevisions and Time Warners of the world have realized the same thing, which is why they're now racing to bulk up through mergers that will give them a bigger "footprint" for their high-speed Internet services.

Comcast, in particular, deserves credit for recognizing that it may, in the end, be little more than a pipe, though a very big and fast one. Consumers, after all, could survive very nicely if cable TV's programming packages morphed into streaming video and over-the-air broadcasters followed suit, but everybody needs Internet service, and the faster it is the better.  

Back in the game

AT&T Uverse April 21, 2014, 7:35 p.m.
Consumers rate AT&T Uverse

Having awakened to the latest challenge of its long and somewhat sordid existence, AT&T is rushing to get back into or -- depending on your point of view -- stay in the game, today expanding its planned rollout of ultra-high-speed Internet service to as many as 100 cities and towns, including such major markets as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

AT&T says some locations will be seeing speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second by later this year. The upgrade is already underway in Austin, with Dallas and several North Carolina cities said to be next.

Then there's Google, which seems to be doing a lot of everything lately. It says it's studying "dozens" of cities that want a high-speed network like the one Google built in Kansas City, Kans. 

Streaming Video Age

You can thank Netflix and Amazon for a.) figuring out how to "do content" for the Streaming Video Age and b.) being big and mean enough to scare the daylights out of everybody else in the entertainment game. 

Then there's Aereo, the startling start-up that has been selling over-the-air television programming via the Internet for about $10 a month, making it easier for consumers to cut the cable without giving up sports broadcasts, local news and whatever else anybody still watches on traditional broadcast stations.

Aereo simply picks up the broadcast signals with tiny antennas -- one per subscriber -- and forwards them to the customer. What it doesn't do that cable does is pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the TV stations in licensing fees.

Showing your age

PhotoThe Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week in a suit brought against Aereo by the broadcasters. TV networks and local stations are scared stiff, saying their basic business model is threatened.

If Aereo wins, the stations say they may shut off their transmitters and turn themselves into cable channels.

Nice threat, guys, but you're showing your age. How about doing something useful -- like transforming yourself into streaming video? You wouldn't get those fat cable fees anymore but don't I recall that you started out in the advertising business and did pretty well at it? The days of obese oligopolies eating from two troughs are drawing to a close.

Don't believe it? Ask your black car driver how he's doing against Uber these days.       

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Spring real estate market presents mixed picture

Sales remain sluggish but fewer home owners are underwater

Spring is traditionally the time people who want to sell their homes put them on the market. For young families, the moving schedule usually revolves aroun...

PhotoSpring is traditionally the time people who want to sell their homes put them on the market. For young families, the moving schedule usually revolves around school.

If you plan to move you'd ideally like to sell your house by late June and be in a new home no later than early August. For that reason “for sale” signs sprout like dandelions in April and May.

In its latest Housing Trends Report, real estate listing site Realtor.com shows the inventory of homes is growing (good for buyers) and so is average days on the market (bad for sellers).

But overall, the company says the national real estate market is healthier than it was this time last year.

More to choose from

The number of homes for sale going into the spring selling season is up 9.5% over 2013. The median price of $199,900 is up 5.3% from last year.

A growing inventory is good for buyers because it increases the competition among sellers. That usually translates into more affordable prices for both first-time and move-up home buyers.

Steve Berkowitz, CEO of Move, says the situation is a reverse from last year, when a lack of inventory made sellers more aggressive when they priced their homes. As a result, a lot of consumers who wanted to buy, couldn't.

"Bidding wars in many markets last year frequently elevated offer prices beyond the reach of first-time buyers who could scarcely save for the down payment," Berkowitz said. "While inventory is still low, the continuing annual lift in the number of homes on the market that we've seen over the first months of 2014 is an indicator that buying conditions this year may be notably improved from the frenzied pace of last spring."

These are all positive signs, but the fact remains that home sales activity remains sluggish. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) Pending Home Sales Index for February 2014 showed a 10.5% decline from February 2013, the eighth-straight monthly drop.

More heads above water

Meanwhile, there is a bit a good news for homeowners who bought near the top of the housing bubble and have found themselves “underwater” on their mortgages for the last 6 or 7 years. There are fewer of them who owe more than their homes are worth.

In its U.S. Home Equity & Underwater Report for the first quarter of 2014, foreclosure marketplace RealtyTrac says 9.1 million residential properties are “seriously underwater.” That's a big drop from last year.

The recent peak in negative equity was the second quarter of 2012, when 12.8 million U.S. residential properties representing 29 percent of all properties with a mortgage were seriously underwater.

Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, explains the implications in the video below.

Recovering equity

“U.S. homeowners are continuing to recover equity lost during the Great Recession, but the pace of that recovering equity slowed in the first quarter, corresponding to slowing home price appreciation,” Blomquist said. “Slower price appreciation means the 9 million homeowners seriously underwater could still have a long road back to positive equity.”

But for those whose heads are finally back above water, they are finally able to sell their homes, if they choose, adding to the inventory of available homes. They may also be able to refinance mortgages that have been stuck at 6% to 7% for the last few years.

More importantly, being underwater is less of a factor in foreclosure risk. RealtyTrac notes that in Orange County, Calif., of 40,000 underwater properties, only 3,000 are in a distressed sale situation.

The states with the highest percentage of underwater properties are areas where the housing market has suffered the most. Nevada leads the list at 34%, followed by Florida with 31%, Illinois with 30%, Michigan with 29% and Ohio with 27%.

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Grams: an illegal-item search engine for the Internet's evil twin

Touted as the first search engine for the Dark Net

A developer has created a search engine for illegal items—like Google, only for the black market....

PhotoNot that you'd have any use for such a service, but a developer has created a search engine for illegal items — like Google, only for the black market.

Grams is not affiliated with Google although they look similar, with the same multicolored font against a plain white background.

The other difference is that Google searches the mainstream Internet whereas Grams searches the Dark Net, which might be described as the Internet's secret evil twin — though not particularly well-known in mainstream circles, it's been around since the World Wide Web was still ARPANET, and you can't even log on to the Dark Net unless your computer's outfitted with anonymizing software.

Once you're on the Dark Net it's still hard to find anything, since the web addresses change all the time (if you're running an illegal market, you don't want to stay in one place for too long). Hence, Grams the search engine.

When the developer discussed Grams on his (or her?) blog, the sample screenshot showed search results for MDMA, the illegal drug also known as ecstasy. That was a clever PR move on behalf of Grams' developer — after all, though MDMA is undeniably illegal under U.S. law, there are many who believe “Taking MDMA (or other illicit drugs) is a victimless crime, and should therefore be legal.” From that perspective, a presumably secret search engine like Grams strikes a blow for liberty, in the “help evade unjust laws” sense of the word.

Problem is that apparently, Grams can also be used to commit crimes with genuine victims — such as, searching for stolen credit card numbers to commit identity theft.

Media outlets ranging from SFGate to Ars Technica listed stolen card numbers among the types of items Grams can help you find.

That said, it's not certain if Grams will last, as it might be illegal in two different ways: one, for helping to facilitate illegal activities and two, for using a style and color scheme that's an obvious ripoff of Google's.

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General Mills meets Major Backlash, rescinds forced-arbitration legal terms

Captain Obvious notes consumers didn't like them

Good news for fans of General Mills food products—the company has backed down from its earlier attempt to mandate arbitration...

PhotoGood news for fans of General Mills food products — the company has backed down from its earlier attempt to insist that any and all customers who use a discount coupon or sign up for a promotional offer waive their right to sue the company should their food prove to be tainted or anything.

The short-lived controversy started early in April, when General Mills quietly made some changes to its online legal and privacy policies. Between April 2 and last week, if you visited General Mill's website and read through all the privacy policies and legal disclaimers and all other fine print, you would have discovered that

These terms are a binding legal agreement (“Agreement”) between you and General Mills.  In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms. 
Of course, your decision to do any of these things (i.e., to use or join our site or online community, to subscribe to our emails, to download or print a digital coupon, to enter a sweepstakes or contest, to take advantage of a promotional offer, or otherwise participate in any other General Mills offering) is entirely voluntary.  But if you choose to do any of these things, then you agree to be bound by this Agreement.

And what, exactly, were the “terms” of this capital-A “Agreement”?

ANY DISPUTE OR CLAIM MADE BY YOU AGAINST GENERAL MILLS ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO THIS AGREEMENT OR YOUR PURCHASE OR USE OF ANY GENERAL MILLS SERVICE OR PRODUCT (INCLUDING GENERAL MILLS PRODUCTS PURCHASED AT ONLINE OR PHYSICAL STORES FOR PERSONAL OR HOUSEHOLD USE) REGARDLESS OF WHETHER SUCH DISPUTE OR CLAIM IS BASED IN CONTRACT, TORT, STATUTE, FRAUD, MISREPRESENTATION, OR ANY OTHER LEGAL THEORY (TOGETHER, A “DISPUTE”) WILL BE RESOLVED BY INFORMAL NEGOTIATIONS OR THROUGH BINDING ARBITRATION, AS DESCRIBED BELOW

Despite the bold-print all-caps underline font, this new and presumably improved legal policy General Mills decided to inflict upon its customers went largely unnoticed until Wednesday, April 16, when The New York Times first reported the changes.

"Widely misread"

That story sparked an international firestorm of outrage, enough that by Saturday, the company backtracked. On April 19, “Taste of General Mills” (the company's official blog) put up a post saying “We've listened—and we're changing our legal terms back.” What had the General Mills official blogger to say about the brouhaha?

“As has been widely reported, General Mills recently posted a revised set of Legal Terms on our websites. Those terms – and our intentions – were widely misread, causing concern among consumers.

“So we’ve listened – and we’re changing them back to what they were before.”

Hmm. The word “misread” suggests some sort of misunderstanding or false impression, among those who thought “This whole thing sounds like a fantastically bad idea for consumers.” The blogger went on to explain:

“We rarely have disputes with consumers – and arbitration would have simply streamlined how complaints are handled. Many companies do the same, and we felt it would be helpful.

“But consumers didn’t like it.”

True, “many companies” do the same, because it is indeed helpful to a company looking to reduce its liability costs. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of AT&T, basically allowing the company to put fine print in its service contracts mandating forced arbitration rather than class-action suits should customers have any complaints or disputes. An attorney for Public Citizen called the decision “a shield against corporate accountability.”

This in turn likely explains why consumers don't like it, as the General Mills blogger noted. It's also possible that consumers, when buying food for themselves and their families to consume, might for health-and-safety reasons have much, much stricter standards than when they're buying cell phone plans.

Who would have thought?

Either way, General Mills and its official blogger were surprised by the backlash:

“We’ll just add that we never imagined this reaction.”

It's possible they never expected anyone would notice. General Mills didn't exactly go out of its way to promote its new policies — a thin gray bar atop the General Mills online privacy-policy page is easy for the average person trying to download a coupon off a Betty Crocker page to overlook.

Still, at the end of the blog post, General Mills did say this:

On behalf of our company and our brands, we would also like to apologize. We’re sorry we even started down this path. And we do hope you’ll accept our apology. We also hope that you’ll continue to download product coupons, talk to us on social media, or look for recipes on our websites.

Our legal terms? You’ll find them right on our website. You’ll also find they’re back to what they always were.

That's true, and there's no longer any mention of forced arbitration. Instead, the “Choice of Law and Enforcement” section says this:

Your access to the Website as well as the terms and conditions and the agreement they create are governed and interpreted by the laws of the United States without regard for conflict of laws provisions.

A U.S. company subject to U.S. law – sounds fair. Though the legal terms also say this: “We reserve the right to change these terms and conditions at any time without notice. Please check back often to ensure you are aware of any updates or changes to these terms.”

Indeed. Last time General Mills changed its terms without notice, they tried attaching a forced-arbitration clause to it.

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Diabetes-related complications seen declining among US adults

Deaths from high blood sugar was among the areas shwing the greatest drops

There's been a turnaround of sorts in some of the complications suffered by people with diabetes. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control ...

PhotoThere's been a turnaround of sorts in some of the complications suffered by people with diabetes.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rates of five major diabetes-related complications among U.S. adult diabetics have declined substantially in the last 20 years.

The study, published in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, found that rates of lower-limb amputation, end-stage kidney failure, heart attack, stroke, and deaths due to high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) all declined.

Cardiovascular complications and deaths from high blood sugar decreased by more than 60% each, while the rates of both strokes and lower extremity amputations -- including upper and lower legs, ankles, feet, and toes -- declined by about half. Rates for end stage kidney failure fell by about 30%.

A long way to go

“These findings show that we have come a long way in preventing complications and improving quality of life for people with diabetes,” said Edward Gregg, Ph.D., a senior epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation and lead author of the study. “While the declines in complications are good news, they are still high and will stay with us unless we can make substantial progress in preventing type 2 diabetes.”

Because the number of adults reporting diabetes during this time frame more than tripled -- from 6.5 million to 20.7 million -- these major diabetes complications continue to put a heavy burden on the U.S. health care system.

Nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes and an additional 79 million have prediabetes and are at risk of developing the disease. Diabetes and its complications account for $176 billion in total medical costs each year.

CDC researchers used data from the National Health Interview Survey, National Hospital Discharge Survey, U.S. Renal Data System, and Vital Statistics, to examine trends in the occurrence of diabetes-related complications in the United States between 1990 and 2010.

Although all complications declined, the greatest declines in diabetes-related complications occurred for heart attack and stroke -- particularly among people aged 75 years and older.

The study authors attribute the declines in diabetes-related complications to increased availability of health care services, risk factor control, and increases in awareness of the potential complications of diabetes.

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Oscar Mayer hot dog products recalled

The products contain milk, an allergen not listed on the label

Kraft Foods Group of Columbia, Mo., is recalling approximately 96,000 pounds of Oscar Mayer Classic Wieners because the products may contain Classic Cheese...

PhotoKraft Foods Group of Columbia, Mo., is recalling approximately 96,000 pounds of Oscar Mayer Classic Wieners because the products may contain Classic Cheese Dogs in the Classic Wieners’ packages.

The product labels are incorrect, as they do not reflect the ingredients associated with the pasteurized cheese in the cheese dogs. The products were formulated with milk, a known allergen, which is not declared on the product label.

There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 16 oz. packages –individual consumer packages– of “Classic Wieners Made with Turkey & Chicken, Pork Added” with “USE BY 16 Jun 2014” date and product code “044700000632”
  • Cases of 16 oz. packages –distributed to retailers– of “Classic Cheese Dogs Made with Turkey & Chicken, Pork Added, and Pasteurized Cheese Product” with “USE BY 16 Jun 2014” date and case code “00447000005300”

The products were produced on March 2-3, 2014, and bear the establishment number “Est. 537H” inside the USDA mark of inspection. They were distributed nationwide.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Kraft Consumer Relations at (855) 688-4386.  

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Nissan recalls Pathfinders

The internal oil cooler hose may detach from the cooler

Nissan North America is recalling 3,065 model year 2013 Pathfinder vehicles manufactured April 18, 2012, through October 3, 2012, and equipped with a conti...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 3,065 model year 2013 Pathfinder vehicles manufactured April 18, 2012, through October 3, 2012, and equipped with a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

The internal oil cooler (ITOC) hose in the affected vehicles may detach from the cooler due to inadequate clamping force, allowing transmission fluid to leak. The loss of transmission fluid could cause the transmission to function improperly and the vehicle to stop accelerating, increasing the risk of a crash.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will install an oil hose repair kit, free of charge.

The recall will begin in May 2014. Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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Prime Pak Foods recalls chicken breast tenders products

The products contain egg and wheat, allergens are not listed on the label

Prime Pak Foods of Gainesville, Ga., is recalling approximately 24,000 pounds of fully cooked breaded chicken breast products. The products were formulate...

PhotoPrime Pak Foods of Gainesville, Ga., is recalling approximately 24,000 pounds of fully cooked breaded chicken breast products.

The products were formulated with egg and wheat, known allergens, not declared on the product label.

There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 2, 5-lb. bags in a 10-lb. box of “Sugar Lake Farms Fully Cooked Breaded Chicken Breast Tenders” with the product code 77422 printed on the box.
  • 2, 5-lb. bags in a 10-lb. box of “Sugar Lake Farms Fully Cooked Spicy Breaded Chicken Breast Chunks” with the product code 77448 printed on the box.

The products were produced from Dec. 12, 2012, to March 21, 2014. The products bear the establishment number “P-9165” inside the USDA mark of inspection. The products were distributed to hotels, restaurants and institutions nationwide.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact John Appling at (770) 536-8708, ext. 1105 or by e-mail at: jappling@primepakfoods.com.

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Worldwide recall of Thinogenics products issued

The product contained sibutramine, an appetite suppressant that's been withdrawn from the U.S. market

Nature’s Universe is recalling all lots of old Thinogenics product (product sold prior to February 6, 2014, hereinafter the “Old Product”). FDA analysis h...

PhotoNature’s Universe is recalling all lots of old Thinogenics product (product sold prior to February 6, 2014, hereinafter the “Old Product”).

FDA analysis has revealed that it contained sibutramine, an appetite suppressant that was withdrawn from the U.S. market in October 2010 (due to increased risk of seizures, heart attacks, arrhythmia and strokes).

The company is now selling a new, reformulated Thinogenics that does not contain sibutramine (hereinafter referred to as the “New Product”).

These products are used as weight loss aids and are packaged as capsules in bottles.

The Old Product contains 30 capsules per bottle, and was distributed worldwide via Internet sales through website at www.shopnaturesuniverse.com disclaimer icon and www.easy2loseweight.com disclaimer icon .

Customers are advised to discontinue use of the Thinogenics Old Product purchased prior to February 6, 2014, and return the product to Nature’s Universe, 2817 West End Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee 37203 for the new, replacement product which has been reformulated and does not contain sibutramine.

Consumers with questions regarding this recall should contact Nature’s Universe customer service at 1-800-405-7817 Monday – Friday 8am to 6pm CT or via e-mail at naturesuniverse@gmail.com.

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Millennials shaping up as the most frugal generation

Young adults have more in common with grandparents than older peers

Now that April 15 is behind us, you probably either have your federal income tax refund or will get it soon. So, what do you plan to do with it?When poll...

PhotoNow that April 15 is behind us, you probably either have your federal income tax refund or will get it soon. So, what do you plan to do with it?

When pollsters asked that question recently, they got an intriguing glimpse of America's evolving consumer culture. Instead of immediately spending their refund, a surprising number are socking it away.

The survey, commissioned by GoBankingRates.com found around 58% of those questioned were getting a tax refund. Of those, 68.7% said they were going to save at least part of it.

The trend has been growing since 2008, when the financial crisis created a wave of layoffs and changed consumer spending habits. Between then and now, the number of taxpayers saying they will save their refund has grown by more than 31%.

Most financially savvy generation

While the survey doesn't provide a demographic breakdown, older adults and younger adults may be responsible for this trend.

First, there are the Baby Boomers, newly retired or approaching retirement. This generation fueled the consumer economy for decades and many of its members, in their day, could be big spenders. Now, these senior citizens are more concerned about having enough money for a long retirement.

At the other end of the age spectrum are the Millennials, adults 18-29 years old. They came of age since the financial crisis and their financial habits appear to have been affected as a result.

A study commissioned by Northwestern Mutual surprisingly found Millennials to be among the most thrifty Americans. If anyone is going to hang onto their refunds, the survey suggests it's these folks.

Risk averse

You won't find many Millennials day-trading or engaging in other risky financial behavior either. Only 14% said they are seeking to speed up the growth of their investments.

They also demonstrate some patience, with 30% favoring “slow and steady” as their financial planning approach while another 30% saying they would prefer to be more cautious but feel they have a lot of catching up to do.

In other words, Millennials are more like their grandparents than their slightly older peers.

Retro approach

“While not quite putting money in the mattress, Gen Y definitely takes a more retro approach to how they handle their finances,” said Greg Oberland, Northwestern Mutual executive vice president. “I’m guessing they’re making a lot of grandparents very proud.”

While Boomers and Millennials seem to have their financial act together, the rest of us appear to have some catching up to do.

Financial literacy gaps

A recent Harris Poll of 2,000 U.S. adults finds the population as a whole has some sizable gaps in financial literacy.

“This year’s survey once again confirms what we already know: the need for financial education is great,” said Susan C. Keating, president and CEO of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), which commissioned the survey.

Where do Americans fall short? The survey found gaps in knowledge about budgeting, saving, and understanding credit reports and credit scores - all key areas related to successful money management.

Specifically, Americans overall appear to have done a poor job of saving money. The top two concerns among respondents were not having enough money to meet emergencies and not being able to save enough to retire.

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General Mills owns your emails "throughout the Universe"

Awfulness so vast, planet Earth simply cannot contain it all

You already know that, thanks to General Mills' new updated legal terms, you should avoid online interaction with the company (including email promotions)...

Photo
General Mills' turf

You already know that, thanks to General Mills' new updated legal terms, you should avoid online interaction with the company (including subscribing to any General Mills email-promotional offers), because those legal terms now state that if you so much as “like” the Facebook page or download a coupon for a General Mills product, you waive any right to sue the company “regardless of whether such dispute or claim is based in contract, tort, statute, fraud, misrepresentation, or any other legal theory.”

Instead, should you find yourself the victim of General Mills-based fraud, misrepresentation or what have you, your complaint “will be resolved by informal negotiations or through binding arbitration.”

So you don't want to be a General Mills email recipient, lest you find yourself subject to binding arbitration most likely via an arbitrator chosen and paid for by General Mills.

Come to find out you also don't want to send General Mills any emails, either (except, perhaps, an email opting out of its new legal terms), because if you do send any such email, General Mills says:

All comments, suggestions, ideas, notes, drawings, concepts, recipes or other information disclosed or offered to General Mills by this site or in response to solicitations in this site shall be deemed and shall remain the property of General Mills.... Without limitation, General Mills shall exclusively own all now known or hereafter existing rights to the suggestions of every kind and nature throughout the Universe and shall be entitled to unrestricted use of the comments for any purpose whatsoever, commercial or otherwise without compensation to the provider of the suggestions.

Throughout the Universe, with a capital “U”! Though perhaps this is to be expected, not only for basic legal-boilerplate-language reasons but because the sheer awfulness of ideas like “You can't sue us no matter what” and “we own your comments, can use them in ads and don't owe you a thing” is simply too vast to be confined to a lone planet as small as the Earth.

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Nissan introduces LCD rearview mirror screen

Option will give driver unobstructed view of the rear

Just last month the U.S. government finally issued a rule that will require new cars and light trucks to have backup cameras with screens in the dash to he...

PhotoJust last month the U.S. government finally issued a rule that will require new cars and light trucks to have backup cameras with screens in the dash to help prevent accidents in which drivers accidentally back over pedestrians, pets and stray items.

For years many automakers had provided the cameras as an option. Honda recently made then a standard feature.

It's an example of how technology can make a car safer to operate. Nissan is taking that concept a step further, creating what it calls its Smart Rearview Mirror.

Mirror is also an LCD screen

It looks just like a standard rearview mirror but, when the driver throws a switch, the mirror is replaced by an LCD screen that shows the same rear view, minus the heads of backseat passengers or cargo.

The concept was introduced at this week's New York International Auto Show. The video below, produced by Nissan, demonstrates how the mirror screen works.

"Smart Rearview Mirror will give our customers the best possible view no matter how tall the passengers in the back seat or how bad the road conditions," said Andy Palmer, Chief Planning Officer and Executive Vice President of Nissan. "It also offers the possibility of new and exciting designs for our upcoming models, ensuring that appearance no longer has to be compromised for visibility and functionality.”

Similar to backup camera

The technology is very similar to the back-up screen system. A high-resolution camera mounted on the rear of the vehicle transmits a clear, unobstructed view of the rear sections of the vehicle.

Gone from the view are the traditional rearview obstructions like the vehicle's C-pillars. Nissan says the camera's image is a wider and clearer view than the one provided by the standard mirror – though the driver still has that option.

A switch function, operated by a control located at the bottom of the mirror, allows the driver to access either the traditional rearview mirror system or the Smart Rearview Mirror.

The system is being installed in vehicles in Japan this spring and in Nissan race cars. However, U.S. drivers will have to wait for the global rollout, expected in 2016.

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Security breach at Michaels and Aaron Brothers craft stores

Uncertain whether customer data was actually compromised

Michaels arts and crafts stores confirmed this week that there was definitely a security breach involving certain card-payment systems used by the company ...

PhotoMichaels arts and crafts stores confirmed this week that there was definitely a security breach involving certain card-payment systems used by the company (and its subsidiary Aaron Brothers), though it is not yet known whether the breach compromised any customer data.

The Michaels breach took place between May 8, 2013 and Jan. 27, 2014, whereas the Aaron Brothers breach was between June 26, 2103 and Feb. 27 of this year.

If you used a credit, debit or prepaid card to buy things at the affected stores during the relevant time periods you'll definitely want to keep a closer-than-usual eye on your financial accounts, although it's still not certain whether any customer data was compromised at all; Michaels has said in a statement that there's no evidence of such.

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Ragwitek approved for short ragweed pollen allergies

The new pill could be an alternative to allergy shots

Does ragweed make you miserable? Help is on the way. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Ragwitek, the first allergen extract administered ...

PhotoDoes ragweed make you miserable? Help is on the way.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Ragwitek, the first allergen extract administered under the tongue (sublingually) to treat short ragweed pollen induced allergic rhinitis (hay fever) in adults 18 years through 65 years of age.

Ragwitek, which contains an extract from short ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) pollen, is a tablet that is taken once daily by placing it sublingually, where it rapidly dissolves. Treatment with Ragwitek is started 12 weeks before the start of ragweed pollen season and continued throughout the season.

The first dose is taken in a health care professional’s office where the patient is to be observed for at least 30 minutes for potential adverse reactions. After the first dose, patients can take Ragwitek at home.

“The approval of Ragwitek offers millions of adults living with ragweed pollen allergies in the United States an alternative to allergy shots to help manage their disease,” said Karen Midthun, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

A common ailment

Individuals with allergic rhinitis with or without conjunctivitis may experience a runny nose, repetitive sneezing, nasal itching, nasal congestion, and itchy and watery eyes. Short ragweed pollen is one of the most common seasonal allergens and is prevalent during the late summer and early fall months in most of the United States. Allergies induced by short ragweed pollen are generally managed by avoiding the allergen, medications to relieve symptoms, or with allergy shots.

The safety of Ragwitek was assessed in approximately 1,700 adults. The most commonly reported adverse reactions by patients treated with Ragwitek were itching in the mouth and ears and throat irritation.

Of the 1,700 adults, about 760 were evaluated to determine effectiveness. Some patients received Ragwitek; others received an inactive substitute (placebo). The patients reported their symptoms and additional medications needed to get through the allergy season.

During treatment for one ragweed pollen season, patients who received Ragwitek experienced approximately a 26% reduction in symptoms and the need for medications compared with those who received a placebo.

The Prescribing Information includes a boxed warning to inform that severe allergic reactions, some of which can be life-threatening, can occur. Ragwitek also has a Medication Guide for distribution to the patient.

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Harris Teeter intros $99 annual fee for online shopping

You still have to drive to the store to pick up your order, however

Amazon has been taking heat for raising its annual Prime membership to $99 from its previous $79. The $99 gets you free two-day shipping, access to thousan...

PhotoAmazon has been taking heat for raising its annual Prime membership to $99 from its previous $79. The $99 gets you free two-day shipping, access to thousands of video titles and e-books from its lending library.

Those who think $99 is a lot for everything Amazon offers should take a look at Harris Teeter's new Express Lane Online Shopping fee -- $99.95 per year.

And this gets you what, exactly? Groceries delivered to your home? Not quite. As we understand it, you go online and select the items you want and then, four hours later, drive to the store, where an employee plops the stuff into your car.

“Our shoppers love the convenience of [the] online shopping service. While they are running kids to and from soccer practice and managing their busy lives, we take care of the shopping," said Harris Teeter spokesperson Danna Jones. "Our Express Lane experts not only hand-select the highest quality and freshest items available but they also load the groceries into the shopper’s car and process payments curbside.”

Currently, the supermarket chain charges $4.95 per order or $16.95 per month for home delivery. The online shopping program has been around since 2000 and has gradually spread to 150 Harris-Teeter stores.

A bargain?

It may be handy, but is it a bargain? Amazon, after all, is stocking a growing number of grocery items, which are covered under the Prime umbrella.

Giant's Peapod delivers items to your door, not just to your car. It charges a sliding fee based on the size of your order; last time we checked, it was $6.95 for an order over $100.

 

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Chobani looks beyond yogurt, plans more breakfast and snack items

The company has been facing increasing competition since a problem with mold last year

Chobani is finding the Greek yogurt field a little crowded lately, as competitors flood supermarket shelves with the gooey dairy product. So, starting in J...

PhotoChobani may be finding the Greek yogurt field a little crowded lately, as competitors flood supermarket shelves with the gooey dairy product. So, starting in June, the company will roll out some new products, including:

  • Chobani Greek Yogurt Oats, strained Greek yogurt mixed with ripe fruit and whole grain steel-cut oats. In traditional flavors such as Banana Maple, Apple Cinnamon, Blueberry and Cranberry, it's Chobani's take on oatmeal.
  • Chobani Indulgent is the brand’s first dessert product, containing full-fat Greek yogurt, featuring real cream, dark chocolate and ripe fruits.
  • Chobani Kids is a high-protein, low-sugar snack that comes in flavors aimed at kids -- grape, watermelon, vanilla chocolate dust among others.
  • Chobani Seasonal is a seasonal twist to the core line. The limited flavors will refresh each season, kicking off this summer with Watermelon and Pink Grapefruit. 
  • Chobani Simply 100 Greek Yogurt in Key Lime and Pineapple Coconut will deliver new low-calorie options for weight managers looking for light yogurt.
  • The introduction of 4% whole milk Chobani Kitchen answers what Chobani says is consumers’ call for full-fat dairy products -- for recipes or a single-serve occasion, for use in toppings, on a baked potato or other dishes.

Beyond breakfast

The company said the changes will "push Greek yogurt beyond breakfast and provide better food for more people throughout the day."

“We’ve always believed that if we can’t do something better, we won’t do it at all. With our new products and innovations, we are extending the way people enjoy Greek yogurt in America and bringing better food to more people,” said Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani Founder and CEO, Chobani. “We're just getting started.”

There's still plenty of room for growth in the yogurt category, Ulukaya said.

USDA estimates per capita consumption of yogurt has leapt from roughly two pounds in 1975 to about 14 pounds today. That, however, remains well below the approximately 40 pounds consumed in countries such as Germany and France or even the 20 pounds in Canada. 

The changes aren't just innovation for its own sake. Ever since a series of incidents in 2013 that sickened consumers who complained of a "funny taste" in the yogurt, Chobani has been feeling the pressure as General Mills, Danon and others muscle into the Greek yogurt business.

The problem was eventually blamed on mold.

Whole Foods elbowed Chobani aside earlier this year, saying it wanted to make room for yogurts made with milk that had not been genetically modified. Chobani promotes its product as "natural" but many critics say the company uses milk from cows that are fed with genetically modified feed.

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Study: Internet can reduce depression, loneliness among the elderly

Researchers followed lives of thousands of seniors for 6 years

It’s estimated that as many as 10 million older Americans suffer from depression, often brought on by feelings of loneliness and isolation.However, n...

Photo
Michigan State University photo

We're always hearing that social media can cause depression, anxiety and so forth, but a new studyfinds that, at least for seniors, the Internet can be a lifeline that lifts them out of the depression and loneliness that often affect older Americans.

The research project followed the lives of thousands of retired older Americans for six years – and it found that Internet use among the elderly can reduce the chances of depression by more than 30 percent.

“That’s a very strong effect,” said Shelia Cotten, a Michigan State University professor of telecommunication, information studies and media who led the project. “And it all has to do with older persons being able to communicate, to stay in contact with their social networks, and just not feel lonely.”

Cotten and her colleagues analyzed the data collected by the Health and Retirement Survey, a survey collecting information from more than 22,000 older Americans every two years. This particular sample included more than 3,000 respondents.

Others inconclusive

Other smaller studies have been inconclusive about the role Internet use and technology, in general, play in helping people overcome depression.

One way in which this study was different is it took into consideration the subjects’ depression levels before they began using the Internet. The researchers wanted to know if past depression affected current depression.

What they found is yes, some people did remain depressed despite Internet use, although it wasn’t substantial. “Internet use continues to reduce depression, even when controlling for that prior depressive state,” Cotten said.

The researchers also confirmed what was found in other studies that for older people who live alone, Internet use had a greater impact on their levels of depression.

Cotten said it all comes down to how you choose to use your technology. As with most things in life, moderation is best.

“If you sit in front of a computer all day, ignoring the roles you have in life and the things you need to accomplish as part of your daily life, then it’s going to have a negative impact on you,” Cotten said. “But if you’re using it in moderation and you’re doing things that enhance your life, then the impacts are likely to be positive in terms of health and well-being.”
This research is published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

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Bolzano Artisan Meats recalls salami-type products

The products were produced without the benefit of federal inspection

Bolzano Artisan Meats of Milwaukee, Wis., is recalling approximately 5,723 pounds of salami products because they were produced without the benefit of fed...

PhotoBolzano Artisan Meats of Milwaukee, Wis., is recalling approximately 5,723 pounds of salami products because they were produced without the benefit of federal inspection.

Products produced under the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (WDATCP) inspection program are eligible for sale within the state of Wisconsin when they bear the Wisconsin state inspection shield on the immediate package.

The products being recalled, however, incorrectly bear the Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) program version of the USDA Mark of Inspection, which requires federal acceptance into the program.

Because the establishment is not part of the CIS program, products they produced and distributed bearing the CIS program version of the USDA Mark of Inspection cannot be sold through interstate commerce.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 6-oz. or 12-oz. packages of “Bolzano Artisan Meats All Natural Uncured, Old School Salami,” 6/6-oz. or 3/12-oz. packages per case (UPC 7935 7389 6360)
  • 6-oz. or 12-oz. packages of “Bolzano Artisan Meats All Natural Uncured, Pamplona Runner Salami,” 6/6-oz. or 3/12-oz. packages per case (UPC 7935 7389 6353)
  • 6-oz. or 12-oz. packages of “Bolzano Artisan Meats All Natural Uncured, Fin Oh Kee Oh Na Salami,” 6/6-oz. or 3/12-oz. packages per case (UPC 7935 7320 3564)
  • 6-oz. or 12-oz. packages of “Bolzano Artisan Meats All Natural Uncured, Pig Red Salami,” 6/6-oz. or 3/12-oz. packages per case (UPC 7935 7320 3571)
  • 6-oz. or 12-oz. packages of “Bolzano Artisan Meats All Natural Uncured, Pitzotl Salami,” 6/6-oz. or 3/12-oz. packages per case (UPC 7935 7322 1698)
  • 6-oz. or 12-oz. packages of “Bolzano Artisan Meats All Natural Uncured, RauchZwiebel Salami,” 6/6-oz. or 3/12-oz. packages per case (UPC 7395 7320 3588)

The recalled products were produced between Sept. 20, 2013, and March 15, 2014, include batch numbers 1208 to 1214, and bear the CIS program version of USDA Mark of Inspection with the establishment number “EST. 692SEWI.”

Cases containing these products may bear the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (WDATCP) inspection label, but the individual product packages may be misbranded with the CIS program version of the USDA Mark of Inspection.

Products bearing the Wisconsin state inspection shield on the immediate package are not subject to this recall.

The recalled products were distributed for institutional and retail sales nationwide as well as sold over the Internet.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Scott Allen Buer at (414) 238-4874.

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Georgia Boot steel-toed shoes recalled

When compressed, the steel toe cap in the shoes can fail to protect the wearer’s feet

Rocky Brands of Nelsonville, Ohio, is recalling about 6,800 pair of Georgia Boot steel-toed work shoes. When compressed, the steel toe cap in the shoes ca...

PhotoRocky Brands of Nelsonville, Ohio, is recalling about 6,800 pair of Georgia Boot steel-toed work shoes.

When compressed, the steel toe cap in the shoes can fail to protect the wearer’s feet.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recalled shoes are six-inch tall, brown leather, steel-toed shoes with dark brown padding at the ankles sold under the Georgia Boot brand name. On the outward side, the boots have a tag with the words “Met-Guard” at the stitching and the Georgia Boot logo near the heel.

A white label on inside of the tongue of the recalled boots has the Georgia Boot logo, the product number “G9075” on the left side, a date code between 01-12 and 10-13 in the MM-YY format on the right side, and the words ‘Men’s Georgia Metatarsal 6” Brown.’

The shoes, manufactured in China, were sold at Lehigh Outfitters stores, traveling ShoeMobiles, online at www.lehighoutfitters.com and www.lehighsafetyshoes.com, and through client websites nationwide from January 2012, to November 2013, for about $150.

Consumers should stop wearing the recalled shoes immediately and contact Rocky Brands for a free pair of replacement steel-toed shoes in a similar style.

Consumers may contact Rocky Brands at (866) 245-2159 from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. ET Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, or by email at clientservices@lehighoutfitters.com.

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"Like" General Mills? Doing so may void your right to sue

Company seeks to force arbitration on coupon users, Facebook fans, and more

If you “like” General Mills food products (in the Facebook sense of the word) you'd better “unlike” them right away...

PhotoIf you “like” General Mills food products (in the Facebook sense of the word) you'd better “unlike” them right away, and unsubscribe to any General Mills email promotions and terminate any online contact with the company while legal experts hash out whether General Mills' new posted legal terms will actually hold up in court.

For now, the food conglomerate (which includes Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Progresso, Old El Paso and sundry other brands) is basically saying that if you ever download a General Mills coupon, enter a General Mills sweepstakes, or have any sort of online interaction with General Mills, you have no right to sue General Mills if anything goes wrong.

The New York Times first noted this on April 16 and, lest you think “Well, maybe General Mills made a mistake when they wrote that no-sue stuff, and didn't realize their new legal terms could be interpreted thus-and-so,” bear in mind that when the Times reported the story and summarized the changes, it also said this:

“In language added on Tuesday [April 15] after The New York Times contacted it about the changes, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.”

Here are the terms General Mills wants you to agree to (in bold-print, underlined, all-capital letters):

ANY DISPUTE OR CLAIM MADE BY YOU AGAINST GENERAL MILLS ARISING OUT OF OR RELATING TO THIS AGREEMENT OR YOUR PURCHASE OR USE OF ANY GENERAL MILLS SERVICE OR PRODUCT (INCLUDING GENERAL MILLS PRODUCTS PURCHASED AT ONLINE OR PHYSICAL STORES FOR PERSONAL OR HOUSEHOLD USE) REGARDLESS OF WHETHER SUCH DISPUTE OR CLAIM IS BASED IN CONTRACT, TORT, STATUTE, FRAUD, MISREPRESENTATION, OR ANY OTHER LEGAL THEORY (TOGETHER, A “DISPUTE”) WILL BE RESOLVED BY INFORMAL NEGOTIATIONS OR THROUGH BINDING ARBITRATION, AS DESCRIBED BELOW

What happened? General Mills made some changes to its online policies in early April and then on April 15, presumably inspired by the New York Times' requests for comment (which General Mills declined to answer), someone at General Mills changed the privacy-policy page to put this in small print at the very top:

We’ve updated our Privacy Policy. Please note we also have new Legal Terms which require all disputes related to the purchase or use of any General Mills product or service to be resolved through binding arbitration.

If you click on the “Legal Terms” page and scroll down a bit, you'll find this:

These terms are a binding legal agreement (“Agreement”) between you and General Mills.  In exchange for the benefits, discounts, content, features, services, or other offerings that you receive or have access to by using our websites, joining our sites as a member, joining our online community, subscribing to our email newsletters, downloading or printing a digital coupon, entering a sweepstakes or contest, redeeming a promotional offer, or otherwise participating in any other General Mills offering, you are agreeing to these terms. 

Of course, your decision to do any of these things (i.e., to use or join our site or online community, to subscribe to our emails, to download or print a digital coupon, to enter a sweepstakes or contest, to take advantage of a promotional offer, or otherwise participate in any other General Mills offering) is entirely voluntary.  But if you choose to do any of these things, then you agree to be bound by this Agreement.

So, they're saying, you don't have to use our coupons, enter our contests or visit our websites, but if you do then you are legally bound to not-sue us.

But what if ...

Hypothetically: suppose your child has a peanut allergy severe enough that you make a point of avoiding any product with the “May contain peanuts” warning on the label. You buy a General Mills product which has no warning, so you assume it is safely peanut-free, but it actually contains enough peanut traces to cause a severe allergic reaction.

If you used a downloaded coupon to buy that product, or if you've so much as “liked” the Facebook page of a General Mills cereal then, according to the new legal terms (and assuming the courts agree to them), that means you have no right to sue the company, only settle for arbitration.

As General Mills pointed out, your decision to do anything General Mills-related online was entirely voluntary. It's also voluntary to buy General Mills products in the first place, and it might be a good idea to voluntarily forgo buying food from any seller who adopts a pre-emptive “You can't sue us if we screw up” policy.

That said, if you want to buy General Mills products without being subject to this agreement, the “Legal Terms” page does offer you this:

You may terminate this Agreement by providing us with written notice of your desire to do so by emailing us at legal.terms@genmills.com.  Please include your first and last name and the year in which you were born in the email. 

And remember to “unlike” any General Mills Facebook pages, remove yourself from any other General Mills social media groups, unsubscribe to any General Mills emails you receive, and so forth. Otherwise:

Any such termination will not be valid if you remain (at that time) a user or member or any of our sites or communities, a subscriber to any of our emails, or a participant in any sweepstakes, contest, or other General Mills offering where these terms have been presented.  You can cease to be a member of our sites and online communities at any time by following the instructions in the terms of use provided at the website where the site or online community is located.  You can cancel your subscription to any of our emails by clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of those emails and following the instructions provided.

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News flash: more Americans hate their job

Despite high unemployment, more workers ready to quit

Since the Great Recession unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and when it finally started to fall, much of the decline was attributed to people drop...

PhotoSince the Great Recession, unemployment has remained stubbornly high, and when it finally started to fall, much of the decline was attributed to people dropping out of the work force, no longer seeking a job.

The conventional wisdom has always been that people dropped out because they were discouraged about finding employment. New research, however, is putting a different spin on this odd trend.

The study, conducted on behalf of Rasmussen College, finds that nearly 20% of Americans are dissatisfied with their job. They want to quit, the researchers found, because they don't think they have an opportunity to advance.

What's new?

Okay, you say, so what? People have always wanted to fire their boss.

True, but the fact that so many people are thinking about quitting, at a time when everyone is supposedly terrified of being laid off, seems odd. So what's behind all this workplace angst?

"Having a clear career path from the very beginning is critical so you don't end up stuck in a job without the right skill set or lacking in advancement opportunities," said Tamryn Hennessy, vice president-career services at Rasmussen College.

Here is a number that drives home the point: only 24% of those surveyed say they feel they're doing what they set out to do.

"They don't pay me enough for this!"

Even though jobs are hard to come by, about two-thirds of the adults in the survey said they have considered quitting their job. When asked why, 51% said they aren't paid enough.

Other complaints include no chance to advance, too much stress and not being able to use their education or skills.

Perhaps all this has something to do with how the workplace quickly changed in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. Almost overnight businesses, large and small, slashed their payrolls to maintain profit margins.

Picking up the slack

As a result, the employees who remained often had to pick up new responsibilities while maintaining the old ones. Back in 2010, Human Resources consultant Rick Dacri wrote an article for HRTimes describing the emerging, post-recession workplace.

“As employers spring from this painful recession, they will be faced with significant workforce tests including the need to keep labor costs low, pressures to increase productivity further, a battered and disengaged employee population, and government agencies scrutinizing employers who seek cost savings at the expense of workers, while avoiding their tax obligations. Employers must prepare now for this new emerging workforce,” he wrote.

Jobs going begging

At a time when “a battered and disengaged employee population” is looking for the exit, companies large and small are facing what they see as a skills gap – they say they are unable to attract qualified employees to key positions. It's affecting the bottom line.

Last month, a study by jobs site Careerbuilder.com estimated a company loses more than $14,000 for every job that stays vacant for three months or longer. The study found that 35% of companies have positions that stay open for that length of time.

As a result, employers also reported productivity and work quality suffered, corresponding with a rise in voluntary employee turnover.

Lower morale

Forty-one percent of employers reported lower morale because remaining employees are having to take on more of the workload. More than a third also found work not getting done, missed deadlines and an overall decline in customer service.

Again, conventional wisdom may be mistaken. While it is widely assumed that employees with the right skill sets can't be found, it could be that there are simply fewer employees who want to spend 8 hours a day in the post-recession workplace.

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Judge refuses "park-it" order for recalled GM cars

Lawyers had claimed the cars were too dangerous to drive

A federal judge has turned down a request for a so-called "park it" order. That would have required General Motors to tell the owners of 2.59 million recal...

PhotoA federal judge has turned down a request for a so-called "park it" order. That would have required General Motors to tell the owners of 2.59 million recalled cars that their vehicles are too dangerous to drive and should be parked until their defective ignition switch is replaced.

The request was made by the owners of a 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt who are suing GM for what they say is the lost value of their car. They said the "park-it" order would be the only fail-safe solution to the ongoing risks drivers of the cars supposedly face.

But Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the U.S. District in Corpus Christi, Texas, said federal safety regulators are better able to manage the massive recall than the courts.

No judge has ever issued such an order.

GM is facing at least 37 lawsuits, most of them proposed group actions, over the defective ignitions and also faces a Congressional investigation and possible action by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

GM has advised drivers to put nothing on their key ring but the ignition key until their car is fixed. That reduces weight on the switch and should reduce the likelihood that the switch will turn off unexpectedly.

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Walmart launching new money transfer service, to compete with Western Union

Walmart-2-Walmart will let customers transfer money to and from 4,000 U.S. stores

One in four U.S. families are now "unbanked," meaning they don't have a checking or savings account at a bank or credit union. Most are low-income and live...

PhotoOne in four U.S. families are now "unbanked," meaning they don't have a checking or savings account at a bank or credit union. Most are low-income and live in neighborhoods with high poverty rates. They handle their finances by using expensive money transfer services and payday loans.

Did we mention they're likely to be WalMart shoppers? 

Walmart has been targeting this group for some time, with its Walmart Money Card, MoneyCenter and other products. Now it's adding something called  "Walmart-2-Walmart," a domestic money transfer service that will let consumers send money from one Walmart store to another, starting April 24.

Walmart says prices for the new service will be up to 50% less than that charged by competitors.

Clear fees

“Walmart-2-Walmart offers a clear fee structure with just two pricing tiers: customers can transfer up to $50 for $4.50 and up to $900 for $9.50,” said Daniel Eckert, senior vice president of services for Walmart, on a call to investors, analysts and press, Forbes.com reported

Besides its other services for unbanked customers, Walmart and American Express operate Bluebird, an alternative to traditional debit and checking accounts. There are no minimum balance requirements or monthly maintenance fees, although there is a $2 fee for those not enrolled in direct deposit.

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Lyft hires its first lobbyists to clear the way for its ride-sharing service

Little Lyft becomes an adolescent, starts trying to play with the big boys

A few days ago, we reported that Texas taxi operators were suing Uber and Lyft, the start-up ride-sharing services that are swiping passengers and profits ...

PhotoA few days ago, we reported that Texas taxi operators were suing Uber and Lyft, the start-up ride-sharing services that are swiping passengers and profits from traditional cabs. 

But lawsuits will only get you so far. To really get some lift under your wings, you need D.C. lobbyists -- and plenty of them.

That's apparently the thinking at Lyft, which has reached the adolescent stage of start-up life, hiring its first two Washington lobbying firms. 

Politico reports today that Jochum Shore & Trossevin and TwinLogic Strategies will be working to give Lyft a bit more pick-up on Capitol Hill and, perhaps, at the Department of Transportation.

The firms will advocate for "the removal of barriers and anticompetitive activities that inhibit ride sharing," according to filings cited by Politico.

In other words, they'll try to get Congress and/or DOT to preempt state and local laws and rules that require taxis, jitneys, limo services and so forth to go to all the bother of getting insurance, commercial drivers' licenses, medallions, permits and other impositions that licensed cabbies have to deal with.

Insurance implications

Ohio is the latest state to express dismay over the flood of unlicensed cars for hire suddenly flooding its cities' streets. Lieutenant Governor and Insurance Director Mary Taylor earlier this week issued what she called a "consumer alert" highlighting potential insurance implications of Lyft, Uber, et al. 

“Ohioans considering these types of services should weigh all factors including any coverage gaps that may exist,” Taylor said. “While the driver may have insurance, his or her policy may or may not provide all the coverage needed should an accident occur.”

Most personal auto insurance policies contain exclusions when a person uses their personal vehicle for commercial purposes; such as carrying a person for a fee, she noted. Personal automobile insurance is not intended to cover people who are using their vehicles for commercial purposes.

While the ride-sharing start-ups may provide liability insurance, they may not provide medical payments coverage, comprehensive, collision, uninsured and underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage, or other types of coverage to fully protect TNC drivers and passengers, Taylor warned.

She offered some tips for drivers considering teaming up with one of the new services:

  • Review your personal auto insurance policy and the TNC program’s insurance policy.
  • Contact your agent, broker or insurance company about potential gaps in your personal automobile or the TNCs’ policy.
  • Consider buying a commercial automobile insurance policy that includes coverage for bodily injury or property damage to you and others, and/or for damage caused by an uninsured or underinsured motorist while you are driving passengers for payment.  

Similar misgivings

PhotoOther states and cities have expressed similar misgivings. Your average taxi may not look like much and may not be driven by a professor of comparative theology but it does at least have the amount of insurance required by the locality in which it operates.

The same can't be said for ride-sharing services, a California Public Utilities Commission official warned recently.

“This is a matter of public safety,” said Brigadier General Jack Hagan, director of the CPUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division in a statement issued after the commission fined Uber, Lyft and Sidecar $20,000 each in November 2012. “If something happens to a passenger while in transport with Lyft, SideCar, or Uber, it is the responsibility of the CPUC to have done everything in its power to ensure that the company was operating safely according to state law."

"That means that the company has insurance to cover an accident and that its employees are protected and are suitable drivers," Hagan said. 

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A word of caution about relying on Dr. Internet

Researchers find health information on the web isn't always reliable

The Internet is a wonderful thing. All kinds of information is at your fingertips. Twenty years ago getting that information might have required a trip to ...

PhotoThe Internet is a wonderful thing. All kinds of information is at your fingertips. Twenty-five years ago getting that information might have required a trip to your local library.

But if you happen to consult the Internet on health issues, rather than talking them over with your doctor, you might be making a big mistake.

University of Florida (UF) researchers have surveyed the quality of health information on the Internet and found some of it lacking. In fact, depending on where you look, the information you find could be hazardous to your health.

Let's start with how you search for information. In most cases you probably go to a search engine and type in the name of what you're looking for – ear infections, for example.

The broader the topic, the better

The search results for this relatively broad topic might, in fact, provide high quality information. High quality, because it comes from respected sources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Mayo Clinic or Harvard Medical School.

But let's suppose you were interested in more specialized and esoteric topics, like vaccines for newborn. When the the UF researchers searched that term, they got links to blogs and forums that discuss delaying or refusing medically recommended vaccinations.

The opinions, for the most part, were not posted by doctors but just ordinary people. True, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but when taking advice about your health, it might be nice if the advisor at least went to medical school.

Be discriminating

“Based on these results, health consumers and patients may feel assured that they can find some high-quality health information when using a search engine,” said study co-author Christopher A. Harle. “However, consumers and patients should know that searches for some health topics, such as nutrition or fitness, may result in more information that is potentially lower quality.”

We thought we would try it ourselves, searching the relatively broad term “knee pain.” Sure enough, the second entry in the search string was from the Mayo Clinic and the fourth from NIH.

However, there were three paid search placements at the very top of the page, none of which seemed quite as credible. All three were clearly marked as advertisements and consumers seeking unbiased health information should consider them as such.

Next we searched for information about nutritional supplements. Here, the results were mixed.

The first link in the search list was for GNC, a retailer that sells supplements. However, the second entry was for the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) page on the subject.

Widely used health source

The Pew Research Center says 59% of American adults look for health information online, and 6 out of 10 people in this group report that their most recent search influenced their health-related decisions.

This troubles the UF researchers because of the way consumers tend to look at search results. Users usually focus on results listed on the first page of a search.

Because of that,the researchers say, consumers may be more likely to find erroneous information if search engines rank lower-quality websites higher.

“Inaccurate or misleading results could lead people to ignore important symptoms and delay or even refuse recommended health care,” said Brent Kitchens, the study’s lead author. “Low-quality results could also lead people to seek unnecessary health care or implement unproven or potentially harmful at-home treatments.”

The health information available on the Internet can be helpful for exploring symptoms and researching treatments. But the information gathered online shouldn't be used for self-diagnosis, the researchers say.

Rather, it should help start a conversation with your physician.

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San Francisco takes up measure to regulate Airbnb rentals

The company's hometown would legalize short-term rentals, but only in some cases

Airbnb may be a bit farther down the road than Uber, Lyft and other Internet ride-sharing services but it is also beginning to feel the iron boot of the St...

PhotoAirbnb may be a bit farther down the road than Uber, Lyft and other Internet ride-sharing services but it is also beginning to feel the iron boot of the State on its neck.

The popular room-sharing service enables homeowners and renters to make a few extra dollars by renting out their unused space a day or two at a time. Even business travelers are beginning to routinely book rooms through Airbnb and competitors like VRBO instead of staying in a hotel.

But there is a catch: in many cities, it's illegal to rent rooms a day or two at a time. And many apartment and home leases expressly forbid it. Consumers who rent out their home or apartment through Airbnb risk eviction and fines.

Sort of legal

Photo
David Chiu

Now Airbnb's home city of San Francisco is trying to make the practice at least sort of legal, although it's turning out to be more difficult than expected.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has been working on the measure for two years. In the combined city and county of San Francisco, Chiu is the equivalent of the mayor in most cities.

Current laws prohibit short-term rentals in apartment buildings with four or more units. And the planning code basically prohibits using residential properties for commercial purposes without special permits.

Chiu's bill would expand the regulation to cover apartment buildings with as few as two units but would legalize short-term rentals in most cases. Chiu admits the bill isn't perfect but says it would at least bring short-term rentals out of the shadows.

"We believe a different approach is necessary to create a distinction between reasonable behavior and bad behavior, all in the context of our scarce housing stock," he said, according to SFgate.com. "And on the other hand, (we support) the idea that working families, students and residents trying to make rent might be able to slightly supplement their income if they happen to go out of town for a weekend or go on vacation during summer break or visit family during the holidays."

Landlords -- especially those who own rent-controlled apartments -- are unhappy, fearing that their tenants will engage in profiteering. Hoping to accommodate them, Chiu's bill stipulates that the new law would not override lease agreements and rent-control provisions would still apply to short-term rentals.

Single-family homes would still be barred from turning themselves into occasional hotels. Chiu said he's open to modifying that but opposition from neighborhood groups is anticipated. 

Airbnb is one of San Francisco's 10 biggest tech employers, so the city fathers are trying to proceed delicately.

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Immigration services scammers hit with heavy fine

Defendants were ordered to stop providing “immigration services”

Operators of a Baltimore-based immigration services scam have been ordered to pay as much as $616,000 in refunds to Spanish-speaking immigrants, who were t...

PhotoOperators of a Baltimore-based immigration services scam have been ordered to pay as much as $616,000 in refunds to Spanish-speaking immigrants, who were tricked into paying for services the defendants were not qualified or authorized to provide.

The federal court order also bans Manuel and Lola Alban and their company, Loma International Business Group, from providing or promoting these services in the future.

The court found that some customers “suffered severely” for relying on the defendants. Several were deported and one was arrested and jailed for almost 11 months, according to the court.

Unauthorized providers

In March 2013, the court found the Albans and their company liable for violating the FTC Act. Targeting Spanish speakers from El Salvador and Honduras, the Albans misled immigrants to believe they were authorized to provide immigration services for a fee, according to the court.

Under federal regulations, except for attorneys, only authorized providers may accept money in exchange for preparing immigration forms on someone else’s behalf.

The court found that although the defendants were not authorized providers, they took in an estimated $479,000 to $753,000 from unsuspecting immigrants.

The Court also noted that according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services data, the agency denied or rejected more than 60 percent of the immigration applications handled by the Albans.

“Misleading people to steal their money and destroy their dreams crosses the line,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC is here to protect people from just these kinds of scams.”

Fines and bans

The court order requires the Albans to pay the refund judgment in installments totaling up to $616,000, depending on the number of victims the FTC is able to locate to receive a refund.

In addition to banning the defendants from providing immigration services, the order prohibits them, their employees, and others representing them from misrepresenting anything about goods or services they are promoting -- including that they are qualified or authorized to provide immigration or tax preparation services.

It also requires all customer information held by the defendants to be destroyed, and all customer information held by a court-ordered monitor to be turned over to the FTC.

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First-time jobless claims tick higher

The expected advance follows the previous weeks plunge

Initial applications for state unemployment benefits inched higher during the week ending April 12 after plunging the previous week to their lowest level s...

PhotoInitial applications for state unemployment benefits inched higher during the week ending April 12 after plunging the previous week to their lowest level since 2007.

Government figures show claims totaled a seasonally adjusted 304,000 -- an increase of 2,000

from the previous week, which was revised up by 2,000 to 302,000. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast an increase to 312,000.

Suspicious numbers

While the Labor Department (DOL) says there were no special factors in the initial claims number, analysts note that the government has had problems managing the seasonal adjustment factors around the Easter holiday. Thus, they say they suspect that the claims are underreporting actual layoff levels and look for the claims level to be back in the 320,000 – 330,000 range by the beginning of May.

Stern Agee Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza says the increase was expected after the "outsized decline" the week before. She also points out that "claims have been on the decline for quite some time and that hasn't yet translated into meaningful improvement on the other half of the equation, job creation, as hiring remains unimpressive."

The 4-week moving average, which is consider a better barometer of the labor market because it's less volatile than the weekly number, fell 4,750 to 312,000 -- the lowest level for this average since October 6, 2007 when it was 302,000.

The full report may be found on the DOL website.

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Volkswagen recalls vehicles with transmission problems

The O-ring seals between the oil cooler and the transmission may leak fluid

Volkswagen of America is recalling 26,452 model year 2014 Jetta, Beetle, Beetle Convertible, and Passat vehicles equipped with a 1.8T engine and torque con...

PhotoVolkswagen of America is recalling 26,452 model year 2014 Jetta, Beetle, Beetle Convertible, and Passat vehicles equipped with a 1.8T engine and torque converter automatic transmission.

The O-ring seals between the oil cooler and the transmission in the affected vehicles may leak fluid which could contact a hot surface and result in a vehicle fire.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the O-ring seals in the transmission oil cooler, free of charge. The recall was expected to begin on April 16, 2014.

Owners may contact Volkswagen at 1-800-822-8987. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 38B9/9V.

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Purina recalls poultry feeds

The products may have lower-than-expected vitamin and trace mineral levels

The Purina Animal Nutrition feed plant in Portland, Ore., is recalling certain poultry feeds due to the potential for lower-than-expected vitamin and trace...

PhotoThe Purina Animal Nutrition feed plant in Portland, Ore., is recalling certain poultry feeds due to the potential for lower-than-expected vitamin and trace mineral levels.

Inadequate vitamin and trace mineral levels can result in health problems, including mortality, in poultry.

No customer complaints have been received to date.

The products were distributed to retailers in Oregon and Washington.

The products and lot numbers involved in the recall are:

Formula No.Item Mo.UPC CodeProduct NameLot No.
54190001381804273029559PURINA GAME BIRD STARTENA CRUMBLE 50 LB4APR08RIV3
4APR09RIV2
510M0010736749394513269DEL’S POULTRY LAYER PELLET 50 LB4APR09RIV3
510T0010737749394513276DEL’S LAYER CRUMBLE 50 LB4APR08RIV1
60220015219883576010792HOME GROWN LAYER 16% CRUMBLE 50 LB4APR08RIV3
61R30052070804273038728PURINA LAYENA SUNFRESH RECIPE PELLET 40 LB4APR08RIV2
61X30057261804273029542PURINA START & GROW SUNFRESH CRUMBLES 25 LB4APR09RIV2
61V30057262804273029559PURINA START & GROW SUNFRESH MP 0.0125% MEDICATED 50 LB4APR07RIV3
4APR10RIV1
61Y30057265804273029573PURINA START & GROW SUNFRESH MP 0.0125% MEDICATED CRUMBLES 25 LB4APR08RIV2
61Z30057277804273029634PURINA LAYENA SUNFRESH RECIPE PELLET 25 LB4APR10RIV1
L55M5052155883576003237ALBERS BROILER STARTER/FINISHER CRUMBLES 50 LB4APR09RIV1
L55N5052156883576003251ALBERS CHICK STARTER/GROWER 18% AMP MEDICATED CRUMBLES 50 LB4APR09RIV2

The recalled products were packaged in typical brand-specific feed bags. Lot numbers are printed on the sewing strip of each bag. Lot numbers are interpreted as follows:

  • Example 4APR09RIV1: 4=Year / APR=Month / 09=Day of Month / RIV=Plant Code / 1=Shift code.

The problem was discovered during the investigation of an ingredient inventory discrepancy.

Retailers have been contacted and instructed to immediately withdraw from sale the recalled product and notify customers who purchased the product. Customers should discontinue feeding the product immediately. Customers who purchased this product should return remaining bags to their retailer.

Consumers may contact Purina customer service at 1-800-245-5333, Monday through Friday 7:00 AM to 4:30 PM PDT.  

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GM seeks to use bankruptcy to bar ignition-switch lawsuits

"New GM" says it should not be held responsible for actions of "Old GM"

You could see this coming from way down the road: General Motors is claiming that it should not be held responsible for injuries and deaths resulting from ...

PhotoYou could see this coming from way down the road: General Motors is claiming that it should not be held responsible for injuries and deaths resulting from the defective ignition switches in Chevy Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other models.

That's because the cars were built by GM's predecessor -- you know, General Motors. 

The argument is that "Old GM" went bankrupt and "New GM" is a separate corporation that should not be held responsible for the actions of its predecessor.

Lawyers and consumer advocates have been expecting GM to trot out that claim and there is already at least one proposed bill in Congress that would block the strategy.

PhotoThe faulty ignition switches -- which can turn off the engine, airbags and other essentials while the car is in motion -- have been linked to the deaths of at least 13 people. GM has recalled 2.6 million GM vehicles.

Most of the recalled models were built before GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009. 

GM made its argument in a filing Tuesday with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. It asked for a stay on litigation until the bankruptcy court rules on whether lawsuits arising from the recalls would violated the 2009 bankruptcy court's orders.

It also seeks a stay until a judicial panel on multidistrict litigation decides whether numerous claims around the country should be consolidated into a single action.

Senator wants parts update

Photo
Sen. Blumenthal

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), meanwhile, is calling on GM to provide the public with accurate information on the number of ignition switch and lock replacement parts shipped and a timeline of when all dealers in need will have the necessary parts.

According to an informal survey of 34 GM dealers in Connecticut, 11 of 14 dealers that responded were still having difficulty getting replacement parts, Blumenthal said. The survey was conducted by the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association.

Reports in trade papers have said that parts are begining to "trickle in" to dealers around the country. 

GM has scheduled a Web conference today to update dealers. It had said earlier that parts would start to be delivered on April 7 but the date was pushed back and GM said it started shipping parts last Friday.

“We are updating our dealers on the status of the ignition switch recall and how to provide the best customer experience as we take care of owners who have been affected by this recall. This is a private communication between GM and our dealer network,” GM spokesperson Ryndee Carney wrote in an e-mail to Automotive News.

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Gasoline prices spike ahead of summer driving season

Average price jumps 6 cents in last week

U.S. motorists, for most of the year so far, had been spared the sudden jump in gasoline prices that marked recent winters and early springs.Our luck see...

PhotoU.S. motorists, for most of the year so far, had been spared the sudden jump in gasoline prices that marked recent winters and early springs.

Our luck seems to have run out.

The national average price of self-serve regular is $3.64 a gallon, a 13-cent rise from the $3.51 average just a month ago, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. The price is up 12 cents over the average a year ago.

Crude oil prices have been relatively stable. The Middle East has been quiet. The only international tension is centered in Ukraine, not exactly a major oil producer.

Supply and demand?

Triple-A attributes the spike to domestic supply and demand issues. The latest Energy Information Agency report on domestic gasoline supplies showed a drop to the lowest level since last fall.

U.S. oil refineries have completed their seasonal maintenance and have switched over to producing summer-grade fuel blends, which tend to be somewhat more expensive than fuel produced in the winter. Beyond that, there seem to be few explanations for the sharp price spike.

As usual, the highest gasoline prices tend to be along the east and west coasts. In California, the statewide average gasoline price is $4.18 a gallon, up 22 cents from just a month ago. The average price has jumped 12 cents in just the last week.

LA blues

Southern California drivers have it the worst. According to the AAA survey, the average price for regular in the Los Angeles metro is around $4.30 a gallon and $4.25 a gallon in San Diego.

San Francisco, usually the costliest California metro in which to fill up, has an average price of $4.21.

On the other end of the scale, the cheapest gasoline is found in the Mountain West and Great Plains. Utah and Montana have average prices of $3.31. Idaho has an average price of $3.39 a gallon.

No doubt California pump prices are raising the national average but another contributor may be an increase in southeastern states, which normally log some of the lowest prices in the nation.

Southeastern drivers paying more

Not so in recent weeks. The average pump price in Georgia is $3.60. That's up 7 cents in the last week and 27 cents in the last month.

Even South Carolina, which normally has the cheapest gas in the nation because of its low tax, has seen a significant rise in the last month. Today's average price of $3.43 is up 8 cents in the last week and 22 cents in the last month.

Market manipulation?

Conspiracy theorists who see some market manipulation going on are not alone. In an interview with KGTV-TV in San Diego, Charles Langley, publisher of the energy blog FuelTracker.com, says refineries will export fuel at a loss in order to reduce supplies at home, driving up prices.

Bloomberg reported last week that refiners are actually boosting production of gasoline but quotes an energy analyst as saying an increase in exports could be leading to tighter supplies.

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Overcoming the uncanny valley to catch a pedophile

Dutch non-profit animates a 10-year-old “Sweetie” as bait

Technology is all too often used by pedophiles and those who cater to them. Now a Dutch non-profit has turned the tables ...

Photo
"Sweetie"

Technology is all too often used by pedophiles and those who cater to them. Now a Dutch non-profit has turned the tables and is putting technology to work stopping pedophila.

Computer animation experts working for the Terre des Hommes International Foundation (“For children, their rights and equitable development,” according to its website) have managed to overcome the “uncanny valley” and create a CGI avatar good enough to fool webcam-watching pedophiles.

The avatar, named Sweetie, looks like many young Filipinas recruited to the sex trade. Appearing to be just 10 years old, she spends her days online fielding offers to perform sex acts online. 

“Sweetie” had 20,000 visitors during the eight weeks she spent online last year. Luckily, she wasn't a real little girl forced to perform on camera for paying pedophiles, but a computer-generated avatar created by Terre des Hommes, and controlled by researchers in an Amsterdam warehouse.

During the initial interactions, the researchers gathered information about the predators through social media to uncover their identities. Online contact was cut off before any simulated sexual acts were performed.

Worldwide campaign

Sweetie is part of Terre Des Hommes' campaign to stop webcam child sex tourism, which it calls a “quickly spreading new form of child exploitation that has got tens of thousands victims involved in the Philippines alone.”

TdHIF's website also includes an eight-minute video discussing the child webcam sex industry and Sweetie's part in fighting it (the video contains no sexually explicit content but you might want to avoid watching it at work anyway, as certain parts of it could sound incriminating if overheard out of context).

Of course, Terre des Hommes is hardly the only group working to combat child pornography on the Internet; so is every reputable tech company out there.

Last November, for example, Google launched an anti-child porn initiative involving changes to its search algorithms (to make child pornography harder to find or share online), image-recognition technology to automatically identify potentially problematic pictures, and individual human oversight to, for example, distinguish between exploitative images and harmless photos of kids in the bathtub.

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Photographic reminder: check the unit price

A little math can save you a lot of money

If you read any consumer-tips article on the theme “Getting the most out of your budget,” at some point it'll probably tell you to “check the unit price” ...

PhotoIf you read any consumer-tips article on the theme “Getting the most out of your budget,” at some point it'll probably tell you to “check the unit price” or “calculate the total cost” or words to that effect, and the moral of such stories is usually “Paying more money upfront saves money in the long run.”

For example, here's something I wrote last February:

“It's easy to forget that the lowest price or sale price isn't always the best price. … assuming two items of equal quality, which is the better deal — paying $1.00 for one ounce, or $3.79 for six?

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

Despite how easy it is to find similar real-world examples, you still need to check the unit price every time, rather than assume “The bigger six-ounce option probably offers a better price than the little one- or two-ounce package.” To illustrate, check out this photo I snapped the other day, when my significant other and I visited the taco/burrito chain restaurant Moe's Southwest Grill.

If you want to buy queso or guacamole, you have three choices: a “side” for 99 cents, “cup“ for $3.49 or “bowl” for $5.99 (plus any applicable sales taxes).

How do those unit prices break down? It says there on the menu board: two ounces in a side, six in a cup and 12 in a bowl.

Photo

So if you want six ounces, you can pay $3.49 for a “cup,” but it's cheaper to pay $2.97 for three “sides.” If you want 12 ounces, even the “bowl” costs slightly more than six two-ounce sides: $5.99 versus $5.94.

Buying in bulk is usually cheaper than buying in smaller increments but that's not guaranteed, which is why consumer-tip writers always tell you: “Check the unit price.”

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Studies trace huge jump in e-cigarette advertising

Opponents worry young people are getting hooked on nicotine

Tobacco companies face tough restrictions when it comes to marketing cigarettes. Advertising e-cigarettes, on the other hand, face no such regulations. At ...

PhotoTobacco companies face tough restrictions when it comes to marketing cigarettes. Advertising for e-cigarettes, on the other hand, faces no such regulations. At least not yet.

Not surprisingly, e-cigarette advertising spending in the U.S. tripled in one year, according to a study by RTI International. The researchers found ad spending went from $6.4 million in 2011 to $18.3 million in 2012.

“E-cigarette advertising expenditures are focusing heavily on national markets and TV ads, which will likely increase consumer awareness and use of e-cigarettes,” said Annice Kim, Ph.D., senior social scientist at RTI and co-author of the study.

Most of the ad spending was for television and magazines. Newspapers and the Internet received the lowest share.

Gray area

At the moment, e-cigarettes fall into a regulatory gray area. A federal court has ruled that they are tobacco products, even though they contain no tobacco.

But while cigarettes are barred from television and radio advertising, and face other restrictions, e-cigarettes remain unregulated, even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is reportedly drafting proposed rules.

Many former smokers praise e-cigarettes as a means to quit. They say e-cigarettes provide many of the pleasures of smoking, with nicotine delivered through water vapor that can be inhaled.

While e-cigarettes lack many of the toxins found in tobacco smoke, some health advocates worry that e-cigarettes could have some negative health effects that aren't yet known. Meanwhile, they are being heavily advertised.

“Our results suggest that federal-level efforts are needed to track e-cigarette advertising, as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does not currently require companies to report e-cigarette ad expenditures,” Kim said. “Tobacco companies are required to report their ad expenditures annually to the FTC, but there are no comparable reporting requirements for e-cigarette companies because e-cigarettes are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

Congressional push

Eleven members of Congress released their own report this week, not only showing a spike in e-cigarette advertising but claiming the marketing efforts are aimed at young people.

“For years, federal regulations prohibiting tobacco companies from targeting young people have helped to protect a new generation of smokers from getting hooked on nicotine,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL). “Now, we must close this new gateway to addiction to protect our children.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), said he sees parallels between past cigarette marketing and e-cigarette marketing.

“E-cigarette makers are starting to prey on kids, just like the big tobacco companies,” Waxman said. “With over a million youth now using e-cigarettes, FDA needs to act without further delay to stop the companies from marketing their addictive products to children.”

States taking action

Some states have not waited for the federal government to draft rules governing e-cigarettes. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear this week signed legislation that outlaws the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

The law addresses concerns that young people will be lured into using e-cigarettes and, as a result, will become addicted to nicotine. E-cigarette makers, meanwhile, are trying not to be seen as promoting use by young consumers.

One of the main cheerleaders for the new Kentucky law was Lorrilard, a major tobacco firm and parent company of the Blu e-cigarette brand.

"Legislation that prevents the sale or distribution of electronic cigarettes to minors is the right thing to do," said Murray Kessler, Lorillard's chairman and CEO, who attended the bill signing.

Kessler said Lorillard has actively supported age of purchase legislation in other states and encourages states that have not passed similar legislation to do so.

Concerns about cigarette marketing

A new study by Dartmouth researchers, meanwhile, raises new concerns about young people's exposure to advertising for traditional cigarettes. This exposure, the study argues, leads to increased use of tobacco.

“For several years, the emphasis in the tobacco industry has been on direct marketing, especially to young people who are highly price sensitive and who may find coupons, samples, and promotions appealing,” said Samir Soneji, a Dartmouth professor and lead author of the study.

The research team said it found exposure to tobacco coupons and websites increased the chances that a young person would start to smoke. Direct marketing includes coupons and ads sent through the mail or posted on the web, as well as in-store displays and signs.

In 2010, the tobacco industry spent $236 million in cigarette coupons and $22 million in Internet marketing, the study found.

Internet marketing proved particularly effective as some of it made its way to social media, widely used by teens and young adults.

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DISH agrees to $2 million in refunds to Washington state consumers

The satellite TV company began charging an illegal line-item surcharge in 2012

DISH Network has agreed to refund about $2 million to customers in Washington state, following complaints that the company collected an unlawful monthly li...

PhotoDISH Network has agreed to refund about $2 million to customers in Washington state, following complaints that the company collected an unlawful monthly line-item surcharge beginning in May 2012.

In an agreement with Attorney General Bob Ferguson, DISH agreed to:

• Refund approximately $2 million to Washington state consumers;

• Provide additional benefits to consumers that could total up to $3 million; and
• Pay the state $569,500 for costs and fees.

Ferguson said that hundreds of thousands of Washington consumers were illegally charged a dollar per month for up to eight months. From May through December of 2012, DISH charged consumers a “WA State Surcharge” or “WA Surcharge” ranging from $1.00 to $1.09 — stopping only after Ferguson's office began an investigation.

“DISH’s actions cost hard-working Washingtonians millions of dollars, one buck at a time,” said Ferguson. “The Attorney General’s Office will prosecute any company that tries to make a buck through deceptive billing.”

Consumers to receive a full refund

DISH Network  April 16, 2014, 5:27 p.m.
Consumers rate DISH Network

Consumers will get a full refund of the surcharge they paid, regardless of whether they are still DISH customers.

Consumers do not need to do anything to get their refund — it will be issued as a bill credit for current customers or a check to former customers who paid the surcharge. DISH will contact all eligible consumers via mail or email.

In addition, residential subscribers who paid the surcharge, and who are still DISH customers, will get to choose one of the following benefits:

1. A ten dollar credit applied to their monthly bill;
2. Two free pay-per-view movies; or
3. Two months of free access to Epix movie channel (if they are not already subscribed to Epix).

Commercial subscribers, such as bars or restaurants, who paid the surcharge and are still DISH customers and who file a claim will receive a $10 bill credit.

Depending on the number of consumers who file a claim, DISH could provide about $3 million in additional benefits to Washington consumers.

The settlement applies only to consumers in Washington state.

What to do

While no action is needed to receive the refund, affected consumers must submit a claim form to choose and receive their additional benefit.

DISH is developing a web page — www.WaDISHsettlement.com — where consumers will be able to submit claims forms. The web page goes live on April 25, 2014.

Consumers wishing to claim their benefits under this settlement must submit a claim form and choose their benefit by Aug. 17, 2014.

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"Alarming" increases seen in diabetes and pre-diabetes

Blacks, Hispanics, elderly are among the hardest hit

Cases of diabetes and pre-diabetes in the United States have nearly doubled since 1988, with obesity apparently to blame, according to new research fr...

PhotoCases of diabetes and pre-diabetes in the United States have nearly doubled since 1988, with obesity apparently to blame, according to new research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The burden of the disease has not hit all groups equally, with alarming increases in diabetes in blacks, Hispanics and the elderly.

According to new research reported in the April 15, 2014 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, diabetes increased from 6% to 10% in the past two decades and pre-diabetes also doubled in prevalence over the same period. Depending on the definition used, current estimates of the prevalence of pre-diabetes range from 12% to 30% in the population.

“There is a growing need to recognize this serious issue, especially since most cases of diabetes can be prevented through weight loss and other lifestyle changes,” said lead author, Elizabeth Selvin, PhD, MPH, an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

More cases being diagnosed

“The implications of the increase in pre-diabetes and diabetes are enormous but the good news is we are doing better with screening and diagnosis,” says Selvin.

While diabetes has increased dramatically in the population, the investigators found that the proportion of undiagnosed cases has decreased. Currently, only 11% of diabetes cases in the U.S. population are undiagnosed, suggesting major improvements in screening and diagnosis of diabetes during the last two decades.

However, major challenges still exist despite improvements in screening and treatment for diabetes. The investigators found a greater prevalence of pre-diabetes and diabetes, particularly undiagnosed diabetes, in ethnic minorities compared with whites. This disparity has increased over the past 20 years.

“The substantially greater prevalence of pre-diabetes and diabetes, and poor rates of glycemic control (even among persons with medication-treated diabetes) in ethnic minority populations is particularly concerning,” Selvin said. “Especially since blacks and Mexican Americans are also at a greater risk for complications of diabetes.”

Total diabetes in blacks was nearly double the prevalence in whites (15% vs. 9%). Mexican Americans also had a greater prevalence of diabetes than whites (12% vs. 9%).

43,000 cases studied

In 2010, approximately 21 million American adults aged 20 or older had confirmed diabetes (either diagnosed or undiagnosed). The investigators analyzed data from more than 43,000 participants collected over two decades in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES), hoping to update national trends in pre-diabetes, diabetes and its treatment based on data from the NHANES.

One novel aspect of this study was to “confirm” cases of undiagnosed diabetes in the population. The investigators used a lab test that measures glucose over the past three months to confirm all cases of undiagnosed diabetes in their study to give the most realistic estimate of the burden of the condition in the population.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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Feds okay new safety standard for soft infant and toddler carriers

Infant falls and straps are among the areas covered

In an effort to prevent deaths and injuries to infants and children, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has unanimously approved a new fede...

PhotoIn an effort to prevent deaths and injuries to infants and children, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has unanimously approved a new federal mandatory standard intended to improve the safety of soft infant and toddler carriers.

A soft infant and toddler carrier is normally made of sewn fabric construction, designed to hold a full-term infant from 7 pounds to toddlers up to 45 pounds in an upright position. The carrier allows a child to be carried in close proximity to the caregiver on the front, back or hip. Slings and framed carriers are excluded from this standard and are covered by separate voluntary standards.

The new federal standard incorporates by reference the most recent voluntary standard developed by ASTM International (ASTM F2236-14), Standard Consumer Safety Specification for Soft Infant and Toddler Carriers, without modification.

Broad application

The mandatory standard becomes effective on September 29, 2014, and applies to all soft infant and toddler carriers manufactured or imported on or after that date.

The new safety standard addresses reported hazards associated with soft infant and toddler carriers, including:

  • Infant falls
  • Structure, fit and position issues
  • Strap issues
  • Stitching and seam issues.

CPSC has received about 125 incident reports related to soft infant and toddler carriers that occurred from January 1, 1999 through July 15, 2013.

Four of those incidents resulted in fatalities.

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Home water filter companies misled consumers, Massachusetts charges

Companies allegedly used deceptive advertising to sell expensive filter systems

Two Massachusetts companies allegedly violated consumer protection laws by improperly suggesting to consumers – through mailed advertisements an...

PhotoTwo Massachusetts companies allegedly violated consumer protection laws by improperly suggesting to consumers – through mailed advertisements and door-to-door flyers – that the water supplied to their homes was not safe, fit and pure to drink.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said the companies -- Basement Technologies, Inc., and McMahon Plumbing & Heating LLC -- have agreed to a settlement.

“We allege this advertising misled residents about the quality of their drinking water that our environmental and public health agencies in the Commonwealth work so hard to protect,” Coakley said. “Our office is pleased that these settlements will ensure that these companies follow our consumer laws and stop their deceptive sales tactics.”

“State and local drinking water engineers, scientists and officials work hard to ensure that drinking water in Massachusetts is pure and safe to drink,” said Commissioner David W. Cash of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). “Safe drinking water is provided to more than 6.3 million consumers every day and these types of deceptive practices erode confidence in the excellent quality of public drinking water available across the Commonwealth.”

Under the settlements, the companies must refrain from any advertising for home water filtration systems that misrepresent the fitness for human consumption of the water supplied by any public water system in the Commonwealth.

"Awareness program"

According to the AG’s investigation, Basement Technologies used a marketing campaign called the “Water Quality Awareness Program” to mislead consumers about the quality of the water supplied to their homes.

The advertising materials, which included an image nearly identical to the Massachusetts State Seal, made it appear that the testing program was a government-sanctioned effort meant to protect public health.

In its marketing campaign, McMahon Plumbing used a photograph of an infected human forearm under the caption “Are you at risk?” to market its home water filter systems, with claims that water tested nearby allegedly detected high levels of chlorine, suggesting that water being supplied to the consumer’s home was harmful.

The water filter systems cost as much as $7,000 for a residential installation.

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National credit default rates down again in March

Rates were down in all 5 survey cities

National credit default rates declined during March, with all five national indices showed a drop-off for the second consecutive month. Data released by ...

PhotoNational credit default rates declined during March, with all five national indices showed a drop-off for the second consecutive month.

Data released by S&P Dow Jones Indices and Experian for the S&P/Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices show the national composite recorded its lowest post-recession rate -- it posted 1.20%, the lowest rate since July 2006.

The first mortgage default rate was 1.13% in March -- its lowest level since September 2006. The second mortgage posted 0.60% in March, down 9 basis points from 0.69% in February. Both the auto loan and bank card recorded new historic lows in March, with the auto loan default rate at 0.99% and the bank card rate at 2.73%.

Improving economy cited

“Along with signs that the economy is improving, consumer credit default rates continue to gradually decline”, said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee for S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Across all categories, default rates improved as the auto loan and bank card sectors reached historic lows,” he added.

Economic reports confirm these improving trends. Gains were made in consumer confidence and the labor market as a result of fewer applicants filing for unemployment benefits. Retail sales also increased in March with online spending leading the way ahead of the upcoming holiday. Increasing jobs and growing income if upheld will provide a major boost to consumer spending. Consumer default rates have stabilized at levels similar to those seen before the financial crisis.

Still, there are possible areas of concern. Blitzer pointed to are reports of increases in lending for car purchases to less credit worthy borrowers as well as the continued rise in student loans.

Declines were widespread

All five of the cities surveyed saw default rate decreases.

Los Angeles continued its downward trend, recording 1.04% -- the lowest default rate seen since July 2006. Dallas recorded the largest downturn, posting 0.97% in March -- 19 basis points lower than last month’s level. Miami experienced the largest decrease year-over-year at 2.07%, a drop of 86 basis points from the 2.93% rate in March 2013. Miami continues to maintain the highest default rate while Dallas has the lowest.

All five cities -- Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York -- remain below default rates they posted a year ago, in March 2013.”

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New home construction on the upswing in March

The outlook for construction in the months ahead is dimmer

Builders broke ground on new homes last month at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 946,000 -- up 2.8% from the revised February estimate, but down 5.9%...

PhotoBuilders broke ground on new homes last month at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 946,000 -- up 2.8% from the revised February estimate, but down 5.9% from the same time a year ago.

According to government figures, single-family home construction paced the advance with a 6.0% increase to an annual rate of 635,000. Buildings with five units or more were started at an annual rate of 292,000, up 6.1% from February, but down a sharp 18.% percent from March 2013.

Building permits

However, the outlook for home construction in the months ahead is not all that good.

Building permits were down 2.4% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 990,000. Still, that's 11.2% above the March 2013 rate.

Authorizations for construction of single-family homes rose 0.5%, while permits for multi-unit buildings plunged 8.0%.

The full home construction report for March is available on the Census Bureau website.

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Mortgage applications post a gain -- finally

The increase is the first in four weeks

After falling for 3 consecutive weeks applications for mortgages were on the rise last week. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mor...

PhotoAfter falling for 3 consecutive weeks applications for mortgages were on the rise last week.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show mortgage applications rose 4.3% percent from one week earlier in the week ending April 11.

The Refinance Index shot up 7%, bringing the refinance share of mortgage activity up 1% to 52% of total applications. 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) fell 9 basis points -- from 4.56% to 4.47%, with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.33 (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) decreased to 4.39% from 4.49%, with points rising to 0.18 from 0.14 (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 dipped 5 basis points to 4.14%, with points decreasing to 0.06 from 0.16 (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 decreased to 3.54 percent from 3.62 percent, with points decreasing to 0.24 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs plunged 11 basis points -- to 3.15%, with points decreasing to 0.41 from 0.50 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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Increasingly, we're a nation of picky eaters

We avoid certain foods, and in some cases don't avoid others enough

If you are a trendy consumer, you probably spend more time these days thinking about foods you don't want to eat than foods you do want to consume.Over t...

PhotoIf you are a trendy consumer, you probably spend more time these days thinking about foods you don't want to eat than foods you do want to consume.

Over the last few years, it seems, we have become rather picky eaters. Usually there's a health-related reason.

Howard Waxman, author of the Packaged Facts report “Food Formation Trends: Ingredients Consumers Avoid,” recently told Food Production Daily that gluten has become the number one ingredient consumers try to avoid.

That's why you see so many “gluten free” products on store shelves. It's also kind of surprising, since really the only consumers who need to avoid gluten are people with Celiac disease. However Waxman says millions apparently believe they suffer from some kind of gluten intolerance.

Hard to avoid

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale, which is a cross between wheat and rye. Gluten products include breads, crackers, and a whole host of food products that contain these grains.

Last year we reported on the gluten-free trend and the fact that more and more people who did not have Celiac disease were shying away from gluten. Harry Balzer, the head industry analyst at the NPD group, suggested at the time that people who eliminate gluten from their diet without having Celiac disease do it behind a false feeling of wellness.

Food manufacturers aren't complaining, however, as gluten-free products often cost a lot more than those containing the protein.

Foods to avoid

But beyond ingredients, there are individual foods that are increasingly being avoided, and foods that health experts say you should avoid.

Joy Bauer, a Registered Dietician and frequent Today Show contributor, lists “8 foods that should be avoided at all costs.” Stick margarine tops the list, mainly because of one of its ingredients – trans fat.

Also making the “no-no list” are soda, bagels, whole milk, toaster pastries and hot dogs.

Scientists writing at HowStuffWorks.com have their own opinions about what constitutes bad food as well. Topping their list of food to avoid is bacon.

It's not just bacon's fat content that is objectionable. Three bacon slices have 435 milligrams of sodium -- about one-fifth of the average adult's daily allowance.

Usual suspects

While their do-not-eat list includes the usual suspects – soda, processed meat and artificial sweetners – there's at least one surprise – swordfish and some tuna. The concern here is mercury from increasingly polluted waters.

Health.com recently focused on food and beverage products to avoid when eating out. Starbucks' Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino Blended Creme with whipped cream was singled out for its high fat content. One 16-ounce Grande tips the scale at 510 calories, 19g fat, 11g saturated; 59g sugar and 300mg sodium.

But Smoothie King's Hulk Strawberry Smoothie has it beat. The 20-ounce drink is listed at 1,044 calories, 35g fat and 120g sugar.

What should we be eating? While fruits and vegetables are always to be recommended, nutritious food consumed in moderation usually promotes good health.

USDA's Dietary Guidelines provide a good starting point.

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Price of shrimp hits 14-year high

The last thing an ailing U.S. seafood industry needs

The seafood industry, already suffering from a drop in consumption by U.S. consumers, now faces sharply higher prices for shrimp, thanks to a disease that'...

PhotoThe seafood industry, already suffering from a drop in consumption by U.S. consumers, now faces sharply higher prices for shrimp, thanks to a disease that's taking a heavy toll on the tasty crustacean.

In March, shrimp prices jumped 61% from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, thanks to a bacterial disease known as early mortality syndrome. It doesn't affect humans but it's killing off shrimp beds in Southeast Asia, a major global supplier. 

Restaurant chains are hesitant to pass on too much of the higher cost to consumers who still haven't fully regained their appetite for dining out, Bloomberg News reports. 

The shrimp inflation crisis comes at a particularly bad time -- Lent, a season when many consumers would be expected to switch to seafood for at least a few days.

Taking a slightly longer view, the Wall Street Journal notes that U.S. consumers have been steadily turning away from seafood, even as they seek out foods they think are healthier and less likely to pack on the pounds:  

The average U.S. consumer ate 14.4 pounds of seafood in 2012, the last year for which figures are available, down from 15 pounds in 2011 and a record high 16.6 pounds consumed in 2004. That's far less than the average 82 pounds of chicken, 57 pounds of beef and 46 pounds of pork. Americans consume in a year.

That puts us way behind countries like Japan, where the average consumer eats 120 pounds of fish a year. Spain is close behind at 96.

No organization

PhotoWhy? Well, cost may be a factor. Seafood is expensive to produce -- or catch -- and therefore more expensive to buy than other protein sources. The Journal speculated that consumers are also concerned about conflicting advice on mercury and other contaminants in seafood.

Unmentioned is a lack of government and organized industry support. The American beef industry is supported by the Beef Board a semi-governmental agency that's funded by a $1-per-head "checkoff fee." In other words, each time a steer is slaughtered, a dollar gets thrown into the kitty and is "checked off" by the bean -- or in this case, beef -- counters. The money is used for "consumer education," which often translates into lobbying. Pork and other mammal meats benefit from similar organizations. 

The beef industry also has a private trade association and lobbying arm, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which doesn't take kindly to anyone who tries to rustle even a t-bone's worth of market share away from good old red-blooded beef. And chicken? It's so cheap and versatile that it doesn't need much promotion.

Seafood? Forget about it. When's the last time you saw a talking-head pontificating on behalf of the nation's fishermen? 

While the cattlemen have long since formed some pretty effective posses, it's the fishermen who are out there on the watery version of the lone prairie all by their lonesome. They're mostly loners who wholesale their catch to the local fish wholesaler, which in turn slices and dices it to restaurants, food-service companies and buyers for large packagers.

PhotoThe giant factory ships that Greenpeace loves to hate are efficient, as are the much-reviled fish farms, but costs remain much higher than mammal meats and fowl.

Of course, there's always tofu. Or beans.

 

 

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How the Heartbleed flaw works and what you should do

Open SSL codes is largely written by volunteers

Heartbleed, of course, is the latest security flaw to put consumers' personal information at risk, and from the news accounts you've read, you probably get...

PhotoHeartbleed, of course, is the latest security flaw to put consumers' personal information at risk, and from the news accounts you've read, you probably get the idea it's serious business.

It all stems from a small mistake in updated code for Open SSL, the encryption system web services like Facebook, Amazon, Google – you name it – use to protect sensitive data.

Back in late 2012 or early 2013 one of the coders working on Open SSL made a mistake. It involved the communication between a user's computer and the server using Open SSL.

The two computers talk to one another from time to time to make sure they are still connected. The user's computer gives a couple of letters of a word – “potato,” for instance – and asks the server to send it back, specifying that the word is six characters long.

Critical step left out

But the person writing the code did not put in the part of the code specifying the number of characters in the word it was looking for. Adam Allred, research technologist at the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC), says that small oversight resulted in a huge security breach.

“Someone could then say 'send me back the word potato, but it's 500 characters long.' So the server, being none the wiser, sends back the word potato in the first six characters and then sends the next 494 characters, whatever they happen to be, after the word potato,” Allred told ConsumerAffairs.

This information is almost always encrypted as it moves over the network, but then de-encrypted and set down in the server's memory, right next to the word potato. In most cases those characters make up things like user names and passwords.

The flaw went unnoticed for months. Then, a highly skilled computer technician figured it out.

“At this point, a week later, the skill level needed to exploit the Heartbleed vulnerability is much lower,” Allred said.

One in five chance

As it turns out only about 17% of Internet servers use the flawed version of Open SSL, so as a consumer you have a one in five chance that the password-protected web servers you visit are affected. Still, Allred says consumers have a right to be concerned.

“As a consumer you have to think about every website you go to that uses 'https,'” he said. “For every one of those websites you have to ask, were they vulnerable and if they were, you need to change your password for those sites. But you have to do it after those sites patch.”

That bears repeating. Don't change your password for that site until it has been patched.

How do you know which sites were affected and which ones have been patched? Fortunately, that information is readily available online. Mashable, for example, maintains this list of updated sites.

Lessons

Are there any lessons to be learned from the Heartbleed security flaw? Allred sees one big one.

“What I would like to see happen is a new awareness that an extremely important set of code that so many people in the world rely on and don't even know it, is being developed by very few people with very little money,” Allred said. “Many of the people writing code are volunteers. The Open SSL Project has one full-time employee.”

That's right. This critically important part of the Internet infrastructure is basically a volunteer operation.

Allred suggests Google, Facebook and other web giants have a vested interested in making the system more secure, and should start investing money into Open SSL, to provide the people and infrastructure to build better software.

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The tax scammers are still out there

Here's what you can do to protect yourself

Today may mark the official end of the 2014 filing income tax season, but that doesn't mean the tax scam season is over. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS...

PhotoToday may mark the official end of the 2014 filing income tax season, but that doesn't mean the tax scam season is over.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is again warning consumers to guard against sophisticated and aggressive phone scams targeting taxpayers -- including recent immigrants -- as reported incidents of this crime continue to rise nationwide.

An “aggressive” scam

People have reported a particularly aggressive phone scam in the last several months in which immigrants are frequently targeted. Potential victims are threatened with deportation, arrest, having their utilities shut off, or having their driver’s licenses revoked. Callers are frequently insulting or hostile -- apparently to scare their potential victims.

Potential victims may be told they are entitled to big refunds, or that they owe money that must be paid immediately to the IRS. When unsuccessful the first time, sometimes phone scammers call back trying a new strategy.

Other characteristics of this scam include:

  • Scammers use fake names and IRS badge numbers. They generally use common names and surnames to identify themselves.
  • Scammers may be able to recite the last four digits of a victim’s Social Security number.
  • Scammers spoof the IRS toll-free number on caller ID to make it appear that it’s the IRS calling.
  • Scammers sometimes send bogus IRS emails to some victims to support their bogus calls.
  • Victims hear background noise of other calls being conducted to mimic a call site.
  • After threatening victims with jail time or driver’s license revocation, scammers hang up and others soon call back pretending to be from the local police or DMV, and the caller ID supports their claim.

What to do

If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, here’s what you should do:

  • If you know you owe taxes or you think you might owe taxes, call the IRS at 1.800.829.1040. The IRS employees at that line can help you with a payment issue -- if there really is such an issue.
  • If you know you don’t owe taxes or have no reason to think that you owe any taxes (for example, you’ve never received a bill or the caller made some bogus threats as described above), then call and report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1.800.366.4484.
  • If you’ve been targeted by this scam, you should also contact the Federal Trade Commission and use their “FTC Complaint Assistant” at FTC.gov. Add "IRS Telephone Scam" to the comments of your complaint.

Taxpayers should be aware that there are other unrelated scams (such as a lottery sweepstakes) and solicitations (such as debt relief) that fraudulently claim to be from the IRS.

Taxpayers should be vigilant against phone and email scams that use the IRS as a lure. The agency does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information. This includes any type of electronic communication, such as text messages and social media channels.

The IRS also does not ask for PINs, passwords or similar confidential access information for credit card, bank or other financial accounts. Recipients should not open any attachments or click on any links contained in the message. Instead, forward the e-mail to phishing@irs.gov.

The IRS will always send taxpayers a written notification of any tax due via the U.S. mail, and never asks for credit card, debit card or prepaid card information over the telephone.

For more information or to report a scam, go to www.irs.gov and type "scam" in the search box.

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Lilies and cats: A deadly combination

With the approach of Easter, you'll want to be sure to keep kitty safe

Easter and lilies seem to go together like -- well -- Easter and lilies. The white, trumpet-shaped flower symbolizes Easter and spring for a lot of people...

PhotoEaster and lilies seem to go together like -- well -- Easter and lilies.

The white, trumpet-shaped flower symbolizes Easter and spring for a lot of people, making it a popular decoration in homes at this time of year.

However, if you have cats, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reminds you that these particular flowers, as well as Tiger, Asiatic, Day, and Japanese Show lilies, are a safety threat.

Don't eat the flowers

While eating small amounts of plants or grass may be normal for cats, consuming lilies can be extremely harmful. FDA Veterinarian Melanie McLean points out that the entire lily plant (leaf, pollen, and flower) is poisonous to them. And, even if they just eat a couple of leaves or lick a few pollen grains off their fur, cats can suffer acute kidney failure within a very short period of time.

McLean says that if your cat has eaten part of a lily, you’ll see vomiting soon afterward that may gradually lessen over two to four hours. Within 12 to 24 hours, the cat may start to urinate frequently.

Then, if kidney failure sets in, the cat will stop urinating because the kidneys stop being able to produce urine. Untreated, she says, a cat will die within four to seven days of eating a lily.

Young cats typically have healthy kidneys, so when a young cat shows signs of acute kidney damage, consumption of a toxic substance is one of the first things veterinarians investigate, McLean says.

Get help fast

Early veterinary treatment is critical. McLean says that even if you just suspect that your cat has eaten a lily, you should call your vet immediately or, if the office is closed, take your cat to an emergency veterinary clinic.

The vet may induce vomiting if the cat just ate the lily, and will give the cat intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and preserve kidney function.

Other lilies, like Calla and Peace lilies, don’t cause fatal kidney failure, but they can irritate your cat’s mouth and esophagus. Lilies of the Valley are toxic to the heart, causing an abnormal heart rhythm. If you think your cat has eaten any type of lily, contact your veterinarian.

Lilies are not a great danger to dogs, McLean says. Dogs may have some gastrointestinal issues if they eat a lily, but nothing considered life-threatening.

Does this mean that you can’t have lilies in your home if you have a cat? Although it’s best not to have them in your home, if you want to enjoy these pretty spring flowers, McLean says to be sure to keep the plant someplace that your high-jumping pet can’t reach.

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Google changes Terms of Service

Yes, it is analyzing your emails

If you use Gmail, bear in mind that Google has updated its terms of service to inform you that it is scanning and analyzing the contents of your emails.L...

PhotoIf you use Gmail, bear in mind that Google has updated its terms of service to inform you that it is scanning and analyzing the contents of your emails.

Last August, Google faced a class-action suit in California, based on claims that its practice of scanning emails to put up customized ads violated state and federal anti-wiretap laws. Google initially responded by saying email users had no real expectation of privacy anyway:

“Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient’s [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, ‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’"

Last month, a judge struck down the class-action suit, not on grounds that the claims were unfounded, but on the grounds that the millions of individual Google users who might take umbrage with the scanning policy should not be lumped together into a single class-action case. However, the ruling did not preclude the possibility of individuals making individual claims against Google.

Implied consent

PhotoSo this week, coincidentally or not, Google updated its terms of service to say, in effect, that if you use Gmail, you automatically consent to having Google scans its contents.

Clicking on this link takes you to Google's Terms of Service page. If you scroll down or read through the first 849 words on that page (according to the “Word Count” function on my word processor), past the “Privacy and Copyright” section (which assures you: “Google’s privacy policies explain how we treat your personal data and protect your privacy when you use our Services. By using our Services, you agree that Google can use such data in accordance with our privacy policies), you will then come to the section titled “Your Content in Our Services,” which says this:

“Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

The very next paragraph addresses another frequent anti-Google complaint: that it lumps all its services together to pump up their perceived popularity: For example, people who open Gmail accounts end up with Google+ accounts whether they want one or not – or even, whether they know it or not.

Or: you can no longer comment on YouTube unless you do so through Google+, and sundry other complaints that what happens in one part of your Google-based life can bleed over into other areas of it.

Google's updated terms of service suggest they intend to keep right on doing that:

If you have a Google Account, we may display your Profile name, Profile photo, and actions you take on Google or on third-party applications connected to your Google Account (such as +1’s, reviews you write and comments you post) in our Services, including displaying in ads and other commercial contexts. We will respect the choices you make to limit sharing or visibility settings in your Google Account. For example, you can choose your settings so your name and photo do not appear in an ad.

When PCWorld told its readers about the new changes at Google, it also noted: “The company did not immediately comment on why it had changed its terms of service again.”

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Court rules against SeaWorld in whale-training case

Courtroom sequel to the 2013 movie "Blackfish"

The issue of workplace safety—or lack thereof—at SeaWorld made headlines in 2010, when a 20-foot orca (the black-and-white aquatic mammal also ...

PhotoThe issue of workplace safety — or lack thereof — at SeaWorld made headlines in 2010, when a 20-foot orca (the black-and-white aquatic mammal also called the “killer whale”) dragged a trainer underwater and drowned her.

The story was put to film in the 2013 movie Blackfish, which the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) described as follows: “Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. Blackfish shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity.”

And just this month, a D.C. Circuit Court ruled that as a result of that 2010 drowning and other incidents, SeaWorld must pay fines and implement certain safety standards, since it exposed its human employees to “recognized hazards.”

Not surprisingly, SeaWorld took issue with the ruling.

"Following the tragic death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010, we voluntarily deployed several new safety measures, including removing trainers from the water during shows," the company said in a statement. "SeaWorld remains committed to providing a safe workplace for employees, healthy environments for the animals in our care, and inspirational and educational experiences with killer whales for our guests. We are still reviewing the opinion and no decision has been made on whether we will appeal."

Recognized hazard

Courthouse News Service reported the ruling on April 14, and noted that, after the 2010 on-the-job drowning of an orca trainer, “the Occupational Safety and Health Commission (OSHA) found that SeaWorld violated work-safety standards by exposing orca trainers to recognized hazards of drowning or injury as a result of their close contact with killer whales during performances.”

Though this presumably would not surprise anyone who's actually worked at SeaWorld. Last month, on March 19, the comedy-educational website Cracked.com published the article “6 awful realities behind the scenes at Sea World,” written by a former Sea World employee.

Some of those “awful realities” are unavoidable, given the nature of the business: if you spend all day working outdoors under the Florida sun, your skin will be sun-damaged. Spend all day working with animals, and you must also work around their [oft-disgusting] biological functions.

But some of those “awful realities” refer to the same workplace-safety issues addressed in court:

SeaWorld is an entertainment industry, and as such, hiring is every bit as soulless as casting a reality show. The fact that I screwed up the interview process (and boy, did I ever) didn't end up mattering because I looked the part, and my personality seemed marketable. One senior trainer I spoke to explained that she had never trained an animal before: She got the job not because of her expertise, but because she looked good in a wetsuit and was dating a trainer.

Don't believe me? Go look up pictures of SeaWorld right now. Spot any ugly orca trainers? No? Only beautiful people spend their lives studying oceanic sciences and marine biology?

In its court case, SeaWorld tried defending itself with an argument which basically boiled down to “Those trainers knew what they were getting into,” but Judge Judith Rogers, writing the 35-page court decision, rejected that argument: “SeaWorld's suggestion that because trainers 'formally accepted and controlled their own exposure to ... risks,' the hazard of close contact with killer whales cannot be recognized, contravenes Congress's decision to place the duty to ensure a safe and healthy workplace on the employer, not the employee.”

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Brands may benefit from negative reviews

Study finds politely negative reviews may actually help sell products

Businesses are often quick to cry foul when their products and services are reviewed negatively. Some even dispatch their lawyers and p.r. mouthpieces to d...

PhotoBusinesses are often quick to cry foul when their products and services are reviewed negatively. Some even dispatch their lawyers and p.r. mouthpieces to dispute the findings, threaten the website and otherwise overreact, despite evidence that reviews -- even negative ones -- help sell products.

The most recent survey that finds businesses can actually benefit from negative reviews is published in the Journal of Consumer Research and finds that negative reviews that are offset by a politeness-factor can actually help sell the item.

"Most of the research on consumer reviews has been on the content and volume of the message," write authors Ryan Hamilton (Emory University), Kathleen D. Vohs (University of Minnesota), and Ann L. McGill (University of Chicago Booth School of Business). "Our research looks at how the politeness with which a particular message is communicated affects consumer opinions."

In a series of five experiments, the authors examined how including a marker of politeness in a negative product review affected the image of both the reviewer and the product being reviewed.

For example, phrases like "I'll be honest," and "I don't want to be mean, but…" are ways to soften the arrival of bad news and warn a reader or listener that negative information is coming.

Luxury watch

In one experiment, participants were asked to read a page-long description of a luxury wristwatch. Two versions of the product description were used, one of which added this polite customer complaint, "I don't want to be mean, but the band pinches a bit."

Results indicated that people were willing to pay more for the wristwatch if they read the description that included the marker of politeness ($136 versus $95).

The study also asked participants to complete a survey evaluating the "personality" of the brand. Results showed that the review using the marker of politeness caused the brand to be seen as more honest, cheerful, down-to-earth, and wholesome than the same review without the polite customer complaint.

"Our research raises the intriguing possibility that brands might benefit when polite customers write reviews of their products — even when those reviews include negative opinions," the authors conclude.

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Home repair scams sprout like flowers in the spring

Trust no one who comes to your door offering a good deal

Spring may be the time of year when groundhogs emerge to resume their careers but, more importantly, it's also the time of year when door-to-door peddlars...

PhotoSpring may be the time of year when groundhogs emerge to resume their careers but, more importantly, it's also the time of year when door-to-door peddlers begin slouching through neighborhoods, ringing doorbells and waking up dogs throughout the land.

Most of them are selling the same old dreary things -- vacuum cleaners, magazine subscriptions and home repair services. 

It's admittedly an odd way to make a sale. What with online shopping and strip malls jammed in just about everywhere and merchants who have dossiers on their customers that would make the NSA blanch, it's hard to see why a legitimate business would send out agents to pound blindly on doors, knowing nothing about who's likely to answer.

Which, of course, brings us to our point: door-to-door salespeople are often up to no good or, at the very least, are so down on their luck that the only way they can think to make a buck is to slog around trying to sell something everyone either already has or doesn't need, or something they don't actually plan to deliver.

Extra asphalt

The most nefarious of these pests are the paving contractors, tree-trimmers and painters who ring the bell and innocently claim that they have some asphalt left over from a job down the street, they've been trimming the neighbors' trees and can give you a discount on work done within the next hour or they have some paint left over from the Schmackhorsts' house on the next block and could slap it on your deck for next to nothing.

Of course, none of this is true. If you fall for the pitch, you'll get a substandard job at best. At worst, well, don't go there.

The Marion, Ohio, Star recently told the story of Rodney Dutlinger. After spending $1,600 with a man who came to his door and offered to do some tree-trimming, Dutlinger found himself with a yard that looked like it had been hit by a hurricane.

After being paid, the guy did about half of the job and then took off.  

Homeowners throughout the eastern half of the country went through an especially tough winter and have lots of clean-up and repairs on their to-do list, and consumer protection agencies are already seeing an influx of complaints resulting from fly-by-night contractors.

The lesson in all this: deal only with local contractors that you find by searching consumer review sites and local business directories. Be sure the company is licensed by the city or county and insist on seeing evidence that they are insured. 

Be very wary about paying upfront. Contractors may ask you to pay in advance for material but this is something you do at your own risk. 

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane offers these additional consumer protection tips:

  • Do not let anybody rush you into a home improvement project.
  • Do not do business with contractors who appear at your door unexpectedly and point out problems with your home or offer a "good deal" on repair work.
  • Do not allow any contractor, utility company or "inspector" in your home without confirming their identity.
  • Homeowners, especially senior citizens, should rely on family, friends or neighbors for assistance in hiring a home improvement contractor.
  • Make sure you have a written contract explaining guarantees, warranties, the price of labor/materials and the contractor's registration number and contact information.
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Wedding season creates opportunities for scam artists, shoddy providers

There are ways to protect yourself against some of the most common problems

Spring is not only prime time for allergies, yard work and gardening, it's also a popular time to get married. Unfortunately, weddings offer opportunities ...

PhotoSpring is not only prime time for allergies, yard work and gardening, it's also a popular time to get married. Unfortunately, weddings offer opportunities for young couples to be taken in by unscrupulous service providers -- photographers, planners, caterers, limo services and so forth. 

“Planning a wedding should be an enjoyable and exciting experience,” New York Attorney General Schneiderman said. “Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous vendors out there eager to prey upon couples who may already be under a great deal of emotional and financial pressure. Couples planning a wedding should be armed with information that will help them recognize and avoid potential consumer scams.”

Schneiderman has these tips:

  • Avoid paying cash for products and services. Credit cards offer a dispute process that may help protect consumers.
  • Check a company's record with the Better Business Bureau and review any complaint records.
  • Insist that the company identify the individual who will be photographing your wedding.It is common for photographers to book more than one wedding on a date and send someone else to shoot the wedding. Make the identity of the photographer part of the contract.
  • Check at least three references for weddings that took place within the past three months. Up-to-date references can offer critical insight into a vendor's recent job performance.
  • Always review any contract carefully before you sign it. Do not make rushed decisions.
  • Get multiple quotes from different vendors before you sign a contract. Talking to multiple businesses will give you more options and a better understanding of the services available.
  • Do not pre-pay in full. Hold back 25 percent of the total cost until you have the products in hand. This will create a powerful incentive for service providers like photographers and videographers to complete the contract. In some instances, a photographer who has been paid in full will shoot the wedding and take months to deliver the products.
  • Make sure the contract contains due dates for each task. For example, the pre-bridal photograph should be taken by a specified date, the proof should be ready by a specified date and the photograph should be ready within seven days after the consumer makes a selection.

Those who suspect they may have been victimized by an unscrupulous wedding vendor should file a complaint with their state attorney general and with consumer review sites.

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Builder confidence holds the line in April

But improvement is expected in the months ahead

There's been very little change over the last couple of months in the way builders see the market for newly built, single-family homes. The National Assoc...

PhotoThere's been very little change over the last couple of months in the way builders see the market for newly built, single-family homes.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) rose one point to -- 47 -- in April from a downwardly revised March reading of 46. The March reading had initially been reported as 47.

“Builder confidence has been in a holding pattern the past three months,” said NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly, a home builder and developer from Wilmington, Del. “Looking ahead, as the spring home buying season gets into full swing and demand increases, builders are expecting sales prospects to improve in the months ahead.”

“Job growth is proceeding at a solid pace, mortgage interest rates remain historically low and home prices are affordable,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “While these factors point to a gradual improvement in housing demand, headwinds that are holding up a more robust recovery include ongoing tight credit conditions for home buyers and the fact that builders in many markets are facing a limited availability of lots and labor.”

How they see it

The HMI gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.” The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.”

Scores from each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

The HMI index gauging current sales conditions in April held steady at 51 while the component gauging traffic of prospective buyers also was unchanged at 32. The component measuring expectations for future sales rose four points to 57.

The HMI three-month moving average was down in all four regions. The West fell 9 points to 51 and the Midwest posted a 4-point decline to 49; the Northeast and South each dropped 2 points to 33 and 47, respectively.

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Consumer prices head higher in March

Rising food costs were a major factor

Increases in what we pay for food and shelter sent the Consumer Price Index (CPI) higher in March. Government figures show prices were up 0.2% last month,...

PhotoIncreases in what we pay for food and shelter sent the Consumer Price Index (CPI) higher in March.

Government figures show prices were up 0.2% last month, with the CPI up 1.5% over the last 12 months.

A 0.4% rise in food costs and a jump of 0.3% in what we pay for housing accounted for most of the increase.

Food prices

In the food category, several major grocery store food groups increased notably. Prices for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs posted the largest -- 1.2%, the same increase as in February. Dairy and related products were up 1.0%, the fifth consecutive increase. Fruits and vegetables, which rose 1.1% in February, added 0.9%. Over the last year, food prices are up 1.7% -- the largest 12-month increase since August 2012.

Energy costs

Energy prices were down 0.1% following a decline of 0.5% the month before. Drops were posted in the prices of gasoline (-1.7%), the same decline as in February and fuel oil (-2.9%). In contrast, the index natural gas costs shot up 7.5% -- the largest one-month increase since October 2005, and electricity rose 1.1%. Over the last 12 months, energy costs are up 0.4%.

Core rate

Prices for all items, stripping out the volatile food and energy categories, rose 0.2% in March. Besides the 0.3% increase in the cost of housing, prices for medical care, apparel, used cars and trucks, and airline fares also increased. Household furnishings and operations, and recreation costs declined in March. Over the past year, the core rate of inflation is running at 1.7%.

The full March CPI report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Baby Trend recalls child restraints

A defect makes it difficult to unlatch the harness buckle

Baby Trend, Inc. is recalling 16,655 model year 2011 and 2012 TrendZ Fastback 3-in-1 child restraints, models FB60070 (Granite) and FB60408 (Jellybean), ma...

PhotoBaby Trend, Inc. is recalling 16,655 model year 2011 and 2012 TrendZ Fastback 3-in-1 child restraints, models FB60070 (Granite) and FB60408 (Jellybean), manufactured between October 2011, and July 2013.

A defect makes it difficult to unlatch 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.

This could make it hard to remove the child from the restraint, increasing the risk of injury in the event of an emergency in which a prompt exit from the vehicle is required.

Baby Trend will notify registered owners and will provide replacement buckles when they become available. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule or buckle availability schedule.

Owners may contact Baby Trend at 1-800-328-7363.  

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Nutriom expands recall of dried egg products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Nutriom LLC of Lacey, Wash., is recalling an additional 82,884 pounds of processed egg products that may be contaminated with Salmonella. There have been ...

PhotoNutriom LLC of Lacey, Wash., is recalling an additional 82,884 pounds of processed egg products that may be contaminated with Salmonella.

There have been no reports of illnesses due to consumption of these products.

The majority of the product included in this expansion was originally identified in a public health alert issued by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in March.

The recall expansion includes the products listed below.

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”
  • 1,989-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 lot code 2814-A and 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 “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 “3188”
  • 2-oz. packs of “OvaEasy Plain Whole Egg” with the Julian dates “0074,” “0084,” “0094,” “0354,” “0364,” “0374,” “2243,” “2253,” “3463,” “3473” and “3483”
  • 66-gram spray bottles of “Panera Egg Wash” with the Julian dates “0144,” “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”

In February, the company recalled 226,710 pounds of processed egg products.

The products in the recall expansion were produced from Jan. 2013 through Jan. 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 United States and abroad, and to Mexico.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Julie Cuffee, Customer Service Representative, at (360) 413-7269, ext. 101.

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Energy drink labels seldom list caffeine, but it's there

Researchers find huge consumer misperceptions about these products

The good news is that children in the U.S. are drinking less sugar and caffeine-laden soda. The bad news is a reported rise in youthful consumption of ener...

PhotoThe good news is that children in the U.S. are drinking less sugar and caffeine-laden soda. The bad news is a reported rise in youthful consumption of energy drinks, which are loaded with caffeine.

An early 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that energy drinks are responsible for increases in caffeine consumption by children and teens.

"You might expect that caffeine intake decreased, since so much of the caffeine kids drink comes from soda," said the study's lead author, Amy Branum, a statistician at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. "But what we saw is that these decreases in soda were offset by increases in coffee and energy drinks."

The portion of the rise in caffeine consumption attributed to energy drinks isn't particularly large. But what's troubling to some public health policymakers is that just a few years ago it was almost non-existent.

Unregulated

The CDC estimates that 30% to 50% of adolescents and young adults consume energy drinks that can contain large amounts of caffeine – much more than found in soda products. Of equal concern to many public health experts is the fact that the caffeine in these products is largely unregulated.

The lack of regulation extends to the products' label. Caffeine might be listed as an ingredient but it doesn't show up on the nutrition label. Product advertising certainly doesn't mention it.

Ruth Litchfield, an associate professor and associate chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University says the result is huge consumer misperceptions about these products.

She points out that the recent CDC study found 20% of young people who consume energy drinks think they are safe and 13% believe energy drinks are a type of sports drink.

“These drinks have this connotation that they are a performance enhancer because they’re an energy drink,” Litchfield said. “Whether that performance is academic or physical, that’s the perception.”

Misperception

The misperception is not limited to young consumers. Litchfield said she has witnessed adults in the grocery store buying energy drinks – containing the caffeine equivalent of 5 cups of coffee – for their children.

Besides caffeine – which gives energy drinks their kick – many energy drinks also contain ma huang – also going by the name ephedra – and guarana. Both substances are stimulants and – like caffeine – are not required to be listed on the nutrition label.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently introduced changes to the nutrition labels on food and beverages but the revamped label still has no requirement for listing caffeine. And nutrition labels rarely appear on energy drinks anyway. Instead you'll usually find a “supplement facts” label.

Health risks

Not only are young consumers unaware of how much caffeine they are getting in an energy drink, they may not even be aware of the stimulants' health risks. Litchfield says the amount of caffeine young people increasingly consume has health implications.

“Your heart rate and blood pressure will increase and you’ll have increased risk for arrhythmias,” she said. “If you consistently consume these for a prolonged period of time, you’re increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease.”

And there may not be as many – or any – positive effects from gulping down energy drinks. According to researchers at the University of California Davis, it's just assumed that these products hold special invigorating properties because they are loaded with stimulants.

“There is limited evidence that consumption of energy drinks can significantly improve physical and mental performance, driving ability when tired, and decrease mental fatigue during long periods of concentration,” the authors write.

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Bill would require "kill switch" apps on all US smartphones

Stolen smartphones would become worthless to thieves

Last year, Samsung developed a “kill switch” app smartphone owners could use to remotely “brick” their phones (i.e., “Make th...

PhotoLast year, Samsung developed a “kill switch” app that smartphone owners could use to remotely “brick” their phones (i.e., “Make them stop working, so the phone becomes little more than a fancy-looking brick”). The idea was that if enough stolen smartphones were transformed into bricks, thieves would stop stealing them.

And yet, last December we reported that “Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, United States Cellular Corporation, and Sprint have prohibited Samsung from pre-loading the app, and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman wants to know why.”

The phone companies' motivations might remain forever a mystery, but for whatever reason, on April 4, Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón issued a joint statement announcing that Verizon and US Cellular (no mention of the other companies) had decided to allow the apps, which smartphone owners can activate for free.

Congressional action

As of now, no company is legally required to offer free kill switches, as Verizon and US Cellular intend to do. However, ever since February there's been a bill before Congress, HR 4065, which if passed into law would make kill switches mandatory on all phones sold in the US.

The full text of the bill is on the Congressional website here, and the official summary of the bill is here.

Though the summary is, of course, much shorter than the full bill, it's still written in fairly dense legalese. Here's the summary plus translations into standard everyday English.

Smartphone Theft Prevention Act - Amends the Communications Act of 1934 to require commercial mobile service providers to make available on mobile devices a function that an account holder may use remotely to: (1) delete or render inaccessible all information relating to the account holder that has been placed on the device; (2) render the device inoperable on the global networks of such service providers, even if the device is turned off or has the data storage medium removed; (3) prevent the device from being reactivated or reprogrammed without a passcode or similar authorization after the device has been rendered inoperable or has been subject to an unauthorized factory reset; and (4) reverse any such actions if the device is recovered by the account holder.

Translation: phones need to have kill switches which can render them completely useless to thieves, even if the stolen phone is stripped clean of all data.

Prohibits a mobile device from being manufactured in the United States or imported into the United States for sale or resale to the public, unless the device is configured in such a manner that a service provider may make such remote deletion and inoperability functions available on the device.

Translation: Any phones made or sold in the US will have to have a kill switch.

Allows the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to waive such requirements with respect to any low-cost mobile device that: (1) is intended primarily for voice-only mobile service, and (2) may have limited data consumption functions focused on text messaging or short message service.

Translation: the kill-switch mandate would apply only to smartphones, not to old-fashioned cell phones which can only be used to make phone calls and send text messages. [Presumably, that's because thieves don't bother stealing “dumb phones” anyway; they have little to no resale value on the black market.]

Prohibits service providers from charging a fee for making such remote deletion and inoperability functions available.

Translation: the kill switch must be free to end users.

Last week, AG Schneiderman's office put out another press release announcing that Schneiderman joined Congressman Dan Maffei (D-New York) in co-sponsoring the bill.

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Don't get snared by this water-filtration scam

Remember to follow this scam-protection rule: "Don't call us; we'll call you"

Memo to all Americans (especially residents of southwest Florida): if you get a notice claiming that your tap water might be contaminated and offering to s...

PhotoMemo to all Americans (especially residents of southwest Florida): if you get a notice claiming that your tap water might be contaminated and offering to sell you various tests and purifiers to solve this problem – that's probably from a scammer hoping to cheat you out of your money.

Andy Koebel, writing for the News-Press of Southwest Florida, warned readers away from this scam on April 13. (When you read the following paragraph, replace “Bonita Springs” and “Southwest Florida” with your own local water company and region; everything else remains the same.)

“Unscrupulous firms try to sell overpriced or useless water-treatment devices by offering to test tap water at no cost. Free offers to test your water are usually part of a sales promotion.

“If Bonita Springs Utilities or any of Southwest Florida’s municipal or county water systems provide your water, it’s very unlikely that you have water problems — but a practiced salesperson may show that you do. The salesperson uses a test kit that turns your water different colors or makes it look as if it has spider webs in it. What he won’t tell you is that the test kit would produce the same results in perfectly pure water. The goal is to scare you into buying an unneeded water-filtration system.”

Water is a biological necessity, so if someone tells you your drinking water is contaminated and dangerous, it's easy to let your fear of this threat override your common sense … but that's exactly what the scammers are counting on.

Consider: if there actually is a problem with your municipal water supply, how would you expect to learn about it? Most likely, it'll be because either your local water company or local news media told you – not a mailing from someone offering to personally test your tap water.

Red flags

Koebel listed a few other red flags indicating a water scam—and, again, these rules apply not only in Florida, but anywhere in the United States.

Ignore anyone who tells you their water-testing or water-filtering equipment is government-approved, because, “The government does not endorse water tests or water-treatment products. An Environmental Protection Agency registration number on a water-filtration system means only that the manufacturer has registered its product with the EPA.”

Don't believe anyone offering to sell a filter that requires “no maintenance;" all filtration systems require maintenance of some sort.

If you are in the market for a home water purification or filtration system, don't buy one claiming to remove all known contaminants: no water-filtering system is capable of doing that.

Koebel also said to watch out if someone tells you “You’ve won a prize, but you haven’t entered a contest — and you have to buy the filtration system to receive it.” That ties in with a scam-protection rule this website has often promoted: “Don't call us; we'll call you.”

In other words, if you think there's a problem with, say, your computer's operating system or your subscription-content service, it's okay if you contact Microsoft or Netflix or whatever company is involved, to complain about the problem. But if someone allegedly from Microsoft or Netflix or whatever contacts you about a problem — don't believe it. That's almost certainly not a legitimate Microsoft or Netflix representative; that's a scammer looking to defraud you.

On a similar note: if you are, for whatever reason, worried about the quality of water coming from your taps, you might seek to have it tested for your own peace of mind. That's fine — but you need to do a little research and find your own independent tester, rather than listen to the recommendations of anyone who contacted you out of the blue to say “Hey there, I noticed your water might be contaminated but — talk about an amazingly lucky coincidence!—it just so happens I have the ability to let you know for sure.”

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Amazon smartphone in the works, reports say

E-readers, tablets, set-top boxes ... what's next?

You don't necessarily think of Amazon as a hardware manufacturer, even though it has made and sold millions of Kindles, Kindle Fires and other e-readers an...

PhotoYou don't necessarily think of Amazon as a hardware manufacturer, even though it has made and sold millions of Kindles, Kindle Fires and other e-readers and tablets.

Not to mention the Amazon Fire TV, the company's new set-top box. And soon, if industry gossip and leaked reports are accurate, there'll be an Amazon smartphone.

The Wall Street Journal says today that the phone is expected to be publicly introduced in June and to begin shipping in late September, just in time for the holiday shopping season.

It may be a little hard to see how the world needs yet another smartphone but the Journal says Amazon is trying to get out ahead of the pack with some spiffy new features -- including a 3-D effect that's achieved with four front-facing cameras.

The cameras track the movement of your retina and adjusts the image accordingly, making it seem to hover in front of your, sort of like a hologram.

Magic wand

Amazon is also said to be developing a wand-like device that would let you scan the barcode on grocery products that you want to order. They would then show up on your doorstep in a day or two. 

The idea is that, as the peanut butter jar starts becoming transparent, you swipe the wand across the bar code. That's it -- nothing else required.

Fire TV installation

PhotoAs for Fire TV, we ordered one and hooked it up last week. As Amazon promises, our account was pre-loaded. We didn't have to type in our Amazon user ID or password and, somewhat puzzlingly, it also knew our Netflix ID. 

However, there was nothing quick about the installation. The box kept downloading updates and rebooting itself in a seemingly endless loop for about 15 minutes, which put us on edge as we were dying to get to the latest episode of "Extreme Cheapskates."

You would think that if Amazon takes the trouble to detect and load individual IDs and passwords when someone orders a Fire that it would also take a few seconds to flash the latest software updates, but apparently not.

Because of other consumerism emergencies, we didn't have much time to experiment with the voice commands but the few we tried worked perfectly. We found episodes of "True Detective" with no difficulty.

Reverse phone book

Some reviews have faulted the voice recognition for working only with Amazon titles, which may be true. But a fairer comparison would be to stack it up against the horrible Verizon FiOS DVR controls, which are about as elegant as a reverse phone directory.

True to their roots, which extend back to the telegraph days, the phone and cable companies use the oldest methodologies they can find, forcing customers to click through endless directory trees to find the program they're looking for -- a stupid system only the Dilberts could love.  

The old-school providers are also shameless in hawking their movie and on-demand rentals while customers search feverishly for the same titles that are usually available for no charge or a nominal charge on Amazon, Netflix and other new-generation networks.

Most consumers would probably be quite happy to do all of their viewing with a system as simple as those provided by Roku, Amazon, Google Chromecast and Apple TV. One of these days a major "content provider," to use the current moronic description, will tell the cable giants to get lost and cast their lot with the upstarts.

Or they can mimic daily newspapers, which sat calmly back and watched the Internet eat their business model. 

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How to book a bargain fare to Europe this summer

Book early and traveling on Wednesdays are just two ways to save

Consumers planning to visit Europe this summer are no doubt busy making their plans. One of the priorities in trip-planning should be booking airfare, whic...

PhotoConsumers planning to visit Europe this summer are no doubt busy making their plans. One of the priorities in trip-planning should be booking airfare, which most likely will be the most expensive part of the trip.

CheapAir.com, an airfare booking site, has completed an analysis of Transatlantic fares and found several ways consumers can save money.

Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, says the company looked at over 190 million fares, covering 75 origin cities and 29 destination cities across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

“Summer travel to Europe stood out as one of the few types of tickets that, the sooner you buy it the better,” Klee told ConsumerAffairs. “That differs from domestic flights, where the worst thing you can do is buy too late but the second worst thing you can do is buy too early.”

Time is money

That means if you haven't already booked a flight you shouldn't wait much longer. Klee says the company's analysis found the cheapest fares were to be found when you booked 319 days in advance.

When you visit Europe will also make a difference in the price you pay for airfare. Airlines only set aside a small number of low fares per flight. Picking a time when fewer people are traveling means you have a better chance of snagging a low fare.

“Late summer tends to be the least expensive and the early summer is close behind,” Klee said. “Right in the middle of summer is the peak of the travel season and will have the highest fares.”

Pick the right travel days

Just as on domestic flights, travel days are important. Some are more expensive than others.

In the U.S., for example, traveling on a Saturday will usually save you money. Not so if you're traveling to Europe. Weekends tend to be more expensive days.

“A lot of times, when you're planning a trip, if you want to go for a week or two, the natural thinking is to start the trip on a Saturday,” Klee said. “But if you can go Wednesday to Wednesday you can often save a good amount of money.”

That's because Tuesdays and Wednesdays generally offer the lowest Transatlantic fares.

“If you can be flexible in your travel, check a bunch of different dates,” Klee said. “It's very common that there is one day in a given week that's much cheaper than the rest, because there's a certain low fare that's sold out on most days but happens to be available on one day. You'd be surprised how much a fare could fluctuate from one day to the next.”

Cheap destinations

Finally, where you land will be important to your budget. In years past, London was the most affordable destination. Klee says that's no longer the case.

“Right now the least expensive city is Dublin,” he said. “I think Aer Lingus has a lot to do with that. They have some pretty low fares that other airlines have matched.”

The second cheapest destination is Moscow. In fact, Klee says you can fly to Moscow with stops in London or Paris and it would be cheaper than flying directly to those cities.

Jumping off place

If Dublin isn't on your itinerary, you might consider flying to Ireland, then picking up a discount fare to your destination on the Continent.

“Sometimes that does work,” Klee said. “There are a number of low-fare carriers in Europe that have incredibly low fares. They're kind of like Spirit Air in the U.S.”

Popular travel destinations aren't necessarily going to have higher air fares because that popularity means there will be more flights to choose from. But you might find an unexpected bargain to a popular country – likely Italy, for instance.

“Milan is a city where fares have really fallen this year. Milan tends to be a lot less expensive than Rome or Venice.”

If you’re going to visit multiple countries, pick where to begin and end based on the cheapest international fares. You can usually fly into one city and out of another without paying a penalty for doing so.

He who hesitates pays full fare

And if you happen to come across a killer deal, Klee advises to not hesitate for a second.

“Never assume you have time to talk it over with your family or friends,” he said. “Be ready to pull the trigger if you find something good.”

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Bad batch of ExxonMobil gas harmed engines, suit claims

The company says it is processing claims submitted by motorists

A class action lawsuit claims that ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge refinery put out 5 million gallons of "atypical" gasoline that has damaged as many as 250,000 v...

PhotoA class action lawsuit claims that ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge refinery put out 5 million gallons of "atypical" gasoline that has damaged as many as 250,000 vehicles, mostly in southern Louisiana.

Lead plaintiff James Smith says he bought the allegedly defective gas in March and soon had troubled starting his car. He said the bad gas damaged his engine and has hurt the resale value of his car.

The lawsuit claims that Exxon has admitted selling 120,000 barrels of contaminated or improperly mixed fuel and has even apologized to consumers but has not offered any compensation for damages. The company has also not released specific locations where the defective gas was sold, making it difficult for consumers to know if their cars were affected, the suit alleges, according to Courthouse News Service.

ExxonMobil says its representatives "are fully committed to working with our customers and motorists to honor all valid claims swiftly and effectively," the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported. Company spokeswoman Stephanie Cargile said Exxon has "already begun reimbursing claimants."

ExxonMobil suggests motorists with concerns or questions regarding fuel they may have purchased in the Baton Rouge area call its customer service number -- 855.300.2659.

Exxon closed its Baton Rouge terminals on in late March after reports of problems with the gas and reopened them on April 3, the newspaper said.

False advertising

Smith also claims Exxon made false promises about the quality of its "Top Tier Detergent Gasoline."

"The fuel sold by Exxon not only failed to meet the standards promised by its advertising, but the fuel actively harmed vital engine parts and rendered the engine inoperable, or in a diminished functional capacity. This diminished functional capacity includes the reduced engine performance Exxon warned could happen if customers used 'lower quality gasoline,'" according to the complaint.

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Good news and more good news on retail sales

March's increase was the biggest in 18 months

The weather may not have been spring-like, but shoppers attitudes sure were. The government reports retail sales jumped 1.1% in March, following a revised...

PhotoThe weather may not have been spring-like, but shoppers attitudes sure were.

The government reports retail sales jumped 1.1% in March, following a revised increase of 0.7% the month before. That was the sharpest increase since September 2012, and up 3.8% from the same month last year.

That's a good sign for the economy as consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of economic growth.

Car sales power ahead

A 3.1% increase in auto sales helped push overall retail sales higher. But even when that sector is stripped out, sales were up 0.7%. Other areas of strength included nonstore retailers (+1.7%), restaurants and bars (+1.1%) and clothing and clothing accessories stores (+1.0%)

Sales declines were posted in gasoline stations (-1.3%), electronics and appliance stores (-1.6%) and miscellaneous retailers (-1.3%).

Is this a trend?

Stern Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza says the March number is welcome, but that the "rebound" is not likely to continue. According to Piegza, consumers were busy spending elsewhere from December to February, most notably on healthcare services and utilities, cutting back on goods consumption for service purchases.

This, she says is "hardly a trend of across-the-board growth in consumption indicative of a strong consumer, with goods purchases on the rise, service spending is then likely to proportionately suffer on the flip side."

The full March report is available on the Census Bureau website

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Headlight problem triggers recall of Volkswagen Passats

The low beam headlight bulb may become loose and lose electrical contact

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 150,201 model year 2012-2013 Passat vehicles manufactured January 2011, through November 2012. The low beam head...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 150,201 model year 2012-2013 Passat vehicles manufactured January 2011, through November 2012.

The low beam headlight bulb in the affected vehicles may become loose and lose electrical contact.

A loss of low beam headlights may reduce the driver's visibility and increase the risk of a crash.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the bulb holder, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in May 2014.

Owners may contact Volkswagen at 1-800-822-8987. Volkswagen’s recall number associated with this campaign is 94G8/7V.

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Ford recalls vehicles with seatback problems

The back of the seats may become loose or lean while driving

Ford Motor Company is recalling 43,135 model year 2013-2014 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ vehicles manufactured August 15, 2012, through September 10, 2013; ...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 43,135 model year 2013-2014 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ vehicles manufactured August 15, 2012, through September 10, 2013; 2013-2014 Ford Escape vehicles manufactured June 5, 2012, through August 12, 2013; and 2013-2014 Ford C-Max vehicles manufactured from July 23, 2012, through May 28, 2013.

The driver and passenger seatback assemblies may have been produced with sub-standard weld joints used to attach the seat back recliner mechanism to the seat frame.

The back of the subject seats may become loose or lean while driving and potentially increase the risk of injury in certain crashes.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the seatback, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin around May 19, 2014.

Owners may contact Ford at 1-800-392-3673. Ford's number for this recall is 14C03.

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Not all owners of recalled vehicles get notified

As a result, there are lots of unsafe cars and trucks still on the road

In the next week 2.6 million owners of General Motors (GM)vehicles will start receiving their official recall notices in the mail for a faulty ignition swi...

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Study finds cancer risk in e-cig vapors

Changes in cells exposed to vapor are similar to those in cells exposed to tobacco smoke

Promoters of electronic cigarettes have been claiming that inhaling the vapor from e-cigs is less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes made from tob...

PhotoPromoters of electronic cigarettes have been claiming that inhaling the vapor from e-cigs is less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes made from tobacco.

It sounds good but is it true? Maybe not.

A new study published in the academic journal Clinical Cancer Research finds that the vapor from e-cigarettes damages human cells in much the same way as the smoke from traditional cigarettes.

Scientists at Boston University grew a batch of human bronchial cells in the presence of e-cig vapor and another batch in the presence of tobacco smoke. The result: the two batches of cells showed similar patterns of gene expression, which can cause the mutations that lead to cancer.

Lead researcher Avrum Spira, M.D., said that while e-cigs may be safer than tobacco, "our preliminary studies suggest that they may not be benign." He said more research is needed.

"New route to ... addiction"

It's hardly the study to find potential problems with e-cigs. In March, a University of California San Francisco study found that e-cigs may be a new route to conventional smoking and nicotine addiction.

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.

"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.

Poison control

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report finding a huge increase in the number of calls to poison centers involving e-cigarette liquids containing nicotine.

A CDC study published in the agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report says calls shot up from 1 per month in September 2010 to 215 per month this past February. And, the report says, the number of calls per month involving conventional cigarettes did not show a similar increase during the same time period.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called the increase in poisoning cases "alarming" and said the report "should serve as a wake-up call to the American people that it is time for the FTC and the FDA to regulate these products to help prevent more tragedies."

"I am particularly concerned that many e-cigarettes are packaged in bright colors and flavored to smell like candy or fruit, which puts children at higher risk of poisoning," Boxer said.

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Potential good news in the Heartbleed security saga

Private SSL keys might be less vulenrable than feared

Though the Heartbleed software bug remains a serious threat to online security, some tech-security experts are saying it might not be as bad as originally ...

PhotoThough the Heartbleed software bug remains a serious threat to online security, some tech-security experts are saying it might not be as bad as originally feared though, as always, other experts disagree.

The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council this week told banks and other financial institutions to make sure they and their customers are protected against the Heartbleed security hole, specifically by “incorporat[ing] patches on systems and services, applications, and appliances using OpenSSL, and upgrad[ing] systems as soon as possible to address the vulnerability.”

However, most banks responded by saying they and their accounts were never at risk in the first place, since they don't use Open SSL anyway.

American Banker reported that Bank Technology News tested the websites of various banks with a “Heartbleed bug checker” and determined that, of the tested sites, only Citigroup's was deemed “Possibly Unsafe,” due to potential use of OpenSSL encryption.

The bug has been found in routers and other Internet hardware made by Cisco and Juniper Systems, leaving open the possibility that hackers could steal any information passed along those systems; it's possible such compromised hardware will have to be replaced rather than merely patched.

Possible good news

On the other hand, there's possible good news from CloudFlare, the content-distribution network which first discovered the Heartbleed bug.

When news of Heartbleed first came out, security experts worried about a worst-case scenario wherein the bug might give hackers the private SSL keys of various websites. If that happened, those websites would remain vulnerable for months or even years after the initial Heartbleed security holes were patched.

However (as of Friday afternoon), it appears that private SSL keys are safe.

CloudFlare put up a new “Heartbleed Challenge” website (unconnected to its regular servers), deliberately designed to be vulnerable to Heartbleed. The challenge asks visitors “Can you steal the keys from this server” and as of Friday afternoon the answer remains “no.”

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Things first-time home buyers should consider

The first is, does the move make sense?

Each month thousands of consumers buy a home for the first time. In February, 28% of existing home sales were to first-time home buyers, according to the N...

PhotoEach month thousands of consumers buy a home for the first time. In February, 28% of existing home sales were to first-time home buyers, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Before taking that step from renter to homeowner, there's a lot to consider. The first is whether it actually makes sense to stop renting and start owning.

Depending on a wide set of variables, it might be more cost effective to rent than to own. But in recent years, the variables – in many housing markets at least – have swung toward ownership.

Interest rates remain near historic lows, making monthly mortgage payments more affordable. Because tougher mortgage restrictions have shut many people out of the housing market, there has been more demand for rentals, making renting expensive by comparison.

Rent vs. mortgage

But that's not a given, so some analysis of rent vs. mortgage is required.

"Your first focus, no doubt, will be on those new mortgage payments, and reworking your monthly budget to carve out the needed funds," said Eleanor Blayney, Consumer Advocate for the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (CFP Board).

It's likely that those mortgage payments – which include taxes and insurance -- will be more than what you are currently paying for rent, but these days that isn't always the case. Even if the monthly payment is lower, you have to consider other costs too.

Since the housing crash it has been fashionable to say that “your house is not an investment,” but Blayney sees it differently.

A real asset

“A home is a real asset that requires attention from you, its new owner," she said.

And that means more than attention to maintenance chores – although that's a big part of it. It also means spending the money required to keep your home up to standards.

Blayney says you should prepare for this as soon as you move in. She suggests setting up a "repair" account and funding it monthly. Once you get settled, get the names of some reputable contractors who do good work at reasonable costs.

Insurance

Insurance is another consideration. You may have had renters insurance before, which covered your personal belongings and didn't cost very much.

Homeowners insurance is more comprehensive and comes with more options, exclusions and deductibles. Policies differ with respect to the types of damage they cover, such as whether they include what's inside your home and the monetary benefit you would receive if your home is destroyed.

Things you don't need to concern yourself with are mortgage insurance and bimonthly payment plans. Blayney says some mortgage servicers will offer these as options but they seldom make sense.

She says mortgage insurance only makes sense it you cannot qualify for traditional life insurance because of health issues.

And why lock yourself into a bimonthly payment plan – which will pay down the debt faster – when you can make additional principal payments anytime your budget allows?

Financing

Financing your first home may be the trickiest issue of all. As stated earlier, mortgage restrictions have been tightened since the housing crisis.

Lenders look for good credit scores, stable employment and a sizable downpayment – usually 20%. That last requirement can be a tall order for young, first-time buyers.

That's why the FHA loan program may be the way to go. When FHA insures the loan lenders are more lenient. Credit scores don't have to be quite as high and, more importantly, buyers can put as little as 3.5% down.

On a $150,000 home that's a difference of having to come up with $30,000 (20%) or $5,250 (3.5%). You can learn about the FHA's loan requirements here.

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Four states now in Experian investigation

Meanwhile, you need to protect yourself

As of mid-Friday the number of states whose attorneys general have joined the multi-state investigation into the massive Experian data breach is four: less...

PhotoAs of mid-Friday the number of states whose attorneys general have joined the multi-state investigation into the massive Experian data breach is four: less than a week after Illinois and Connecticut started the investigation, Iowa and North Carolina signed on.

This number is likely to grow but in the meantime, pretty much all Americans (not just residents of those four states) need to give their finances a level of scrutiny which, in their grandparents' day, probably would've indicated an unhealthy level of obsessiveness.

For example: if you have a credit, debit or prepaid card, you already know to carefully scrutinize every line item on your bill at the end of each month, to detect any fraudulent charges. (Pay special attention to minor charges; many successful credit-card scammers manage to operate undetected for a long time by posting small, random-sounding amounts — $7.22, $2.97, $3.34 — which credit card holders are most likely to mistake for legitimate purchases.)

Check it daily

But in light of the Experian data breach, you should check your card balance and account activity every day, whether you've used it recently or not.

The nasty irony is that before last October, when news of the Experian breach first broke, anytime you'd read an article on the theme “Hackers entered a database with your info on it; here's how to protect yourself from identity theft,” it almost always advised you to protect yourself by contacting one of the three major credit-monitoring agencies, including Experian. So there's an undetermined number of Americans out there who, in trying to protect themselves from identity theft, wound up victims of it instead.

And there's not much you can do to protect yourself; once a company or organization puts your information into its database, you have little to no control over they do with it afterwards.

If your identity is stolen (an entirely different matter from credit card fraud), chances are you'll discover it at an extremely inconvenient time – say, when you trying filing your tax return and the IRS tells you somebody already filed your taxes (or collected your refund) for you.

Or you apply for a loan — mortgage, car, credit card — and discover that someone already took out one or more loans in your name, and hasn't repaid a single one.

Good news, bad news

The good news is that you are not expected to repay these fraudulent debts in your name. (Although you might not want to think too hard about the implications of that statement: “I never applied for any loans, I had no part in them, said loans were entirely the screwup of financial entities vastly richer and more powerful than I am—and the 'good news' is, I'm not on the hook to pay for their mistakes?”)

The bad news is that, while you need not spend money, you will have to spend a lot of time straightening out the whole mess, what with collecting paperwork, making phone calls, filing police reports and so forth. Meanwhile, the company or companies whose carelessness inflicted these problems on you is not obligated to compensate you for your time and aggravation.

“Protect yourself from identity theft” is basically another way of saying “Protect yourself from the negligence of others, for you have little recourse otherwise.”

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Texas cabbies sue Uber, Lyft

Cabbies say the upstart jitneys are skimming the cream

The taxi wars have come to Texas, and -- in the spirit of the Alamo -- cabbies in Houston and San Antonio are trying to mount a last stand. They've filed s...

PhotoThe taxi wars have come to Texas, and -- in the spirit of the Alamo -- cabbies in Houston and San Antonio are trying to mount a last stand. They've filed suit in federal court seeking an injunction against the unlicensed upstarts.

Uber and Lyft are ride-sharing apps that skirt the licensing requirements that nearly all cities impose on cabs, limos, liveries, jitneys and other commercial people-haulers.

Uber connects would-be riders with drivers who charge a fee. Lyft connects people with drivers who take "donations." Uber and Lyft get their money upfront, taking a percentage of each transaction while claiming that they are just the middleman and have no responsibility for ensuring the safety, cleanliness, courtesy, etc., of the free-lance drivers.

This sleight-of-hand has not gone over any better in Texas than anywhere else so far. Local news reports say Houston police have been ticketing the Uber and Lyft drivers when they can find them. That's not easy to do, of course, since they drive their own, unmarked cars, although some Lyft drivers put a pink mustache on their car when the spirit moves them.

Skirting the law

Hoping to drive the invaders from their turf, the cabbies are fighting back, filing for an injunction in U.S. District Court. Lead plaintiff Dawit Sahle operates Adulis Cab Co. in Houston.

Sahle's suit claims the app providers are trying to skirt licensing requirements for cab drivers by holding themselves out as "ridesharing" services, Courthouse News Service reported.

"The defendants seem to think that by self-designating their operations as
'Ridesharing' they are somehow precluded from regulation, and further, that they may convince unsuspecting consumers that they are something they are not," the complaint states. "In reality, the defendants are offering on-demand transportation services for compensation and subject to all the same regulations as the plaintiffs."

Sahle says the companies mislead consumers about the legality of their services.

"When asked directly about their approval status, Uber is dishonest towards consumers about their illegal transportation service, instead giving misleading responses like 'We're Here!'" the complaint states.

Uber and Lyft also benefit unfairly from not paying permitting fees required of licensed cab and limo drivers, Sahle says.

"By operating illegally with non-permitted vehicles, the defendants are skirting applicable regulations and paying zero dollars in permit fees to San Antonio and Houston," the complaint states.

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February was a better month for airline travel than January

Year over-year -- not so much

Consumers traveling on the nation’s largest airlines in February had a better chance of reaching their destinations on time than they did in January. Acco...

PhotoConsumers traveling on the nation’s largest airlines in February had a better chance of reaching their destinations on time than they did in January.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, carriers posted an on-time arrival rate of 70.7%. That's better than the 67.7% rate in January, but worse than the 79.6% on-time rate posted a year earlier.

Even better, you didn't have to hang around waiting for your flight to take off. Airlines reported no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and no delays of more than four hours on international flights during the month.

More information

The consumer report, which is available on the DOT website, also includes information on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays.

Data on mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers and airline service complaints including incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air are also in the report.   

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Toyota recalls vehicles with seat problems

The springs used for the seat rails may break

Toyota is recalling 472,388 model year 2006-2010 Yaris vehicles manufactured August 22, 2005, through May 12, 2010, and 2008-2010 Scion xD vehicles manufac...

PhotoToyota is recalling 472,388 model year 2006-2010 Yaris vehicles manufactured August 22, 2005, through May 12, 2010, and 2008-2010 Scion xD vehicles manufactured April 4, 2007, through May 12, 2010.

In the affected vehicles, the springs used for the seat rails on the driver's seat and the seat rails of the front passenger seat of three-door models may break, preventing the seat from locking in position. In the event of a vehicle crash, the seat could move increasing the risk of injury to the occupant.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the seat rail, and replace it with a new one, if necessary, 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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Recall issued for more than 2 million GM products with ignition problems

The key can be removed when the ignition is not in the "Off" position

General Motors is recalling 2,191,014 model year 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2006-2011 Chevrolet HHR, 2007-2010 Pontiac G5, 2006-2010 Pontiac Solstice, 20...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 2,191,014 model year 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2006-2011 Chevrolet HHR, 2007-2010 Pontiac G5, 2006-2010 Pontiac Solstice, 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, and 2007-2010 Saturn Sky vehicles.

In the affected vehicles, the key can be removed when the ignition is not in the "Off" position. If that occurs, the vehicle could roll away:

  • for an automatic transmission, if the transmission is not in the "Park" position; or
  • for a manual transmission, if the parking brake is not engaged and the transmission is not in the "Reverse" position.

This potential for roll-away increases the risk for a crash and occupant or pedestrian injuries.

Until a vehicle has been remedied, owners and operators are advised that when exiting, to be sure that the vehicle is in "Park," or in the case of a manual transmission, that the vehicle is in the "Reverse" position and the parking brake is engaged

GM will notify owners, and for vehicles that were built with the defective ignition cylinder and have not previously had the ignition cylinder replaced with the redesigned part, dealers will replace the ignition cylinder and cut and -- if necessary -- re-learn two ignition/door keys for each vehicle.

For vehicles that were built with the redesigned ignition cylinder or had the ignition cylinder replaced with the redesigned part, dealers will cut and -- if necessary -- re-learn two ignition/door keys for each vehicle.

The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Chevrolet owners may contact GM at 1-800-222-1020, Pontiac owners at 1-800-762-2737, and Saturn owners at 1-800-553-6000.

GM's number for this recall is 14113 for the ignition lock cylinder and key replacement, and 14133 for only key replacements.  

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Fernandez Chile Company recalls Chile Molido Puro and Chile Rojo

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Fernandez Chile Company Inc of Alamosa, Colo., is recalling 4-oz Chile Molido Puro UPC code 77601-10011 and 6-oz Chile Rojo UPC code 77601-10053. The pro...

PhotoFernandez Chile Company Inc of Alamosa, Colo., is recalling 4-oz Chile Molido Puro UPC code 77601-10011 and 6-oz Chile Rojo UPC code 77601-10053.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

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

The recalled products were distributed to King Soopers, Safeway, City Market and various independent grocers in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and California.

  • The 4-oz Chile Molido Puro UPC code 77601-10011 comes in a clear plastic bag marked with an expiration of 01 2017 on the back.
  • The 6-oz Chile Rojo UPC code 77601-10053 comes in a clear plastic bag marked with an expiration 02 2017 on the back.

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

Consumers with questions may contact Blair Fernandez at Fernandez Chile Company at 719-589-6043 Monday - Thursday 8:00am - 5:00pm MDT

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Swanson Health Products recalls Full Spectrum Cilantro

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Swanson Health Products of Fargo, N.D., is recalling Swanson Premium Brand Full Spectrum Cilantro (Coriander), item number SW1112. The product has the po...

PhotoSwanson Health Products of Fargo, N.D., is recalling Swanson Premium Brand Full Spectrum Cilantro (Coriander), item number SW1112.

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

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

The product was sold between November 21, 2013, and January 31, 2014, at the Swanson Health Products retail store in Fargo, shipped directly to online or mail-order consumers, or held for pick up by the consumer at Swanson Health Products headquarters.

The lot numbers of Swanson Premium Brand Full Spectrum Cilantro (Coriander) included in this recall are 203921 and 204888, with a manufacturing date of 11/2013.

The lot number and manufacturing date can be found on the label near the UPC code.

Consumers in possession of the recalled product may return it to Swanson Health Products headquarters in Fargo, North Dakota.

Consumers or media with questions may call (800) 451-9304 (Monday–Friday, 8:00 am–5:00 pm CDT).  

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Radical financial security suggestion: do more things offline

"Heartbleed" security flaw gives another lie to online security

Nary a week goes by anymore without this website (and every other news source out there) publishing yet another article on the theme “Database hacked"......

PhotoNary a week goes by anymore without this website (and every other news source out there) publishing yet another article on the theme “Hackers access database; steal umpty-million peoples' confidential information.”

Only the names change: watch out if you carry this brand of credit, debit or prepaid card, or shopped at that  store, or use this  email provider or registered with that state's DMV....

But for all these stories, at least, there are some people who can say “I needn't worry, since I don't carry this credit card, shop at that store or drive in the state over there.”

Worse are the security failures affecting – well, pretty much everybody. For example: are you one of the 200 million Americans whose personal information was on the database Experian made accessible to Vietnamese identity thieves? There's no way yet of knowing for certain, but some quick number-crunching suggests five out of six American adults potentially had their data compromised.

And if you're wondering “Am I at risk due to the recent 'heartbleed' flaw in the 'Heartbeat' software which, in theory, was supposed to make websites secure enough to handle my super-sensitive confidential information?', the answer appears to be “Not sure but probably, if you've engaged in any sort of 'secure' online activity (possibly except via Google; some experts say that 'heartbleed' isn't leaking data out of any Google servers, although others differ. Even so, it's not remotely synonymous with saying “Google is guaranteed secure, now and forever”; it only means “Google's safe for now — so far as anyone knows”).”

What to do

Meanwhile — assuming you're just an everyday computer user, rather than some brilliant IT-security computer genius — what should you do to protect yourself and your data from heartbleed, which has been dubbed “the most dangerous security flaw on the web”?

For starters, take a break from any potentially affected online activities—don't do anything requiring a sign-in through “secure” SSL/TSL encryption, until the security hole is patched.

What else? Hackers might have your passwords — should you change them now? Experts disagree; for every tech writer urging you in good faith to change your passwords right away (alongside advice on how to create a “strong” password), there's others who say “No, wait, don't change anything until after the flaw has been patched; otherwise identity thieves will just be able to get your new passwords, too.”

Face it: if you participate in modern mainstream American life, you're at risk of being hacked because it's just not possible to keep your info out of every hackable database out there. If you have email, you're at risk of it being hacked. Pay taxes, and you're listed in city, state and federal government taxpayer databases in addition to Social Security.

If you're a legally licensed driver or registered car owner, there's databases for each one. Your bank accounts, insurance policies, current or former student or mortgage loans … hackable, hackable, hackable. If you've so much as bought over-the-counter cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, you had to register with the federal government (and you'd better hope their stuffy-nose database isn't on one of the federal computers still using the old Microsoft XP operating system, no longer protected against new malware or hacker threats).

Photo

Avoid unnecessary risk

That said, while you can't keep yourself out of every database, you can avoid many unnecessary ones. For example: a couple of days ago I wrote an article offering tips on how to dig your way out of credit card debt and build up an emergency savings fund, and recommended buying things with cash rather than credit, primarily to save money on interest charges, finance fees and the like, but also because credit cards make it too easy to spend more than you'd intended.

What I didn't mention is that I personally kept right on spending cash, even after paying off my debts and piling up a security cushion, partly for temptation-avoidance reasons but mainly because I don't trust my personal financial security to the combined IT competence of every single business I patronize. That policy's paid off for me numerous times already: I've shopped at many stores mentioned in various “stolen customer credit card info” articles; I just never had to care because I always paid in cash.

Some transactions do require credit cards, though; if you need to rent a car or a hotel room, they'll likely want your credit card number first. You can't stay out of all databases.

Offline banking

On a related note, I've never signed up for online banking, partly because spending cash entails periodic bank visits to deposit rolled coins anyway (Coinstar-type machines take a percentage of your coins' total value; depositing coins in a savings account lets you keep the full 100%). But also (as I explain to the tellers every time I visit and they urge me to sign up for online banking), though I'm pretty sure my home computer is free of keylogging software and other malware infections, I'm not willing to bet my life's savings on it.

That said: I do manage my infinitesimal stock portfolio online, since I've no equally good offline options available. I also engage in online shopping —with accounts set up exclusively for that, and completely unconnected to my bank savings or any other assets.

But I'll admit: keeping out of optional databases puts you at risk of being called a Luddite, or even annoying people around you. I learned this one day in 2010, while visiting my local Target to buy some nicotine patches (don't smoke, kids; it's a stupid stinking waste of money). I paid cash, of course, but when the cashier asked to see my driver's license for proof-of-age, she tried taking the license out of my hands in order to scan it.

“No need for that,” I said, gripping the license more firmly. “My birth date's right here.”

She told me if she couldn't scan my license, she'd have to get her supervisor to punch in some special code or other, which would take time. I told her that's fine, and I understood the law required her to verify my age, but in light of all the other personal information on the license, I did not see any need for my name, age, address, legal driving restrictions, organ-donor status or whatever the hell else is on my ID to be scanned into Target's corporate database.

So she left to get her supervisor, the people waiting in line behind me made annoyed little sounds and, although I cannot swear to this, I'm pretty sure one of them mumbled the word “paranoid.”

If so, I surely do hope that guy wasn't counted among the many whose finances were compromised after the Target data breach last Christmas — and if you think I'm being insincere in my good wishes, you may very well be right.

UPDATE (3:20 p.m. ET): Well, this article turned obsolete pretty quickly! The latest available information says that yeah, Google has been affected and you will need to change your password. The good news is: some sites (including Google) have already instituted the necessary security patches, which means you can update your passwords for them. Here's a partial listing of known affected and unaffected websites to date; now if you'll excuse me, I need to go change a few passwords myself.


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Interim results: the Volt glides along at 106 mpg

Despite GM's other troubles, the Volt gets a thumbs-up after three months

Back in January, we acquired a Chevrolet Volt for long-term testing and promised quarterly reports on how it was holding up. Unfortunately, a very nasty wi...

Photo
Shiny car, messy garage

Back in January, we acquired a Chevrolet Volt for long-term testing and promised quarterly reports on how it was holding up. Unfortunately, a very nasty winter on the East Coast resulted in the car spending a lot of time in the garage, staying snugly plugged into its 240-volt charger, so we haven't yet been able to drive its wheels off, something we hope to remedy over the next few months.

However, recent trips have taken me to Los Angeles and Santa Fe, N.M., spending time in rentals -- a Volkswagen Jetta and a Toyota Camry. Both made me eager to get home to the Volt. 

VW has somehow magically transformed the Jetta, which was once a sporty and fun little car into a scaled-down version of its Passat, which in turn seems to be a German version of the Toyota Camry, surely the dullest and least interesting car currently in mass production.

Kind of jumpy

I especially pined for the Volt while jerking along the slow-moving 405 and 101 in the Jetta, a jumpy little car that seems to have only two speeds: full ahead or full astern. The Camry's numb handling and dismal acceleration made driving the mountain roads around Taos about as interesting as parking at McDonald's.

The Volt, on the other hand, handles either situation -- mountain roads or molasses-like freeways -- with aplomb. I admit to being surprised at how responsive the Volt is. It drives more like a sports sedan than an ultra-miler and running it in "Sport" mode doesn't seem to have a significant effect on efficiency. I've been averaging more than 100 miles per gallon while driving a bit aggressively when the situation calls for it. (Obviously, this counts only gas consumption. More on that in a minute).

But while the Volt is more than capable of doing the fancy stuff on curves and generally acting adolescent now and then, its most endearing characteristic in clogged-up urban traffic is that it is quite content to "float," for lack of a better term.

Take it out of Sport mode and the Volt will casually saunter along at 4 or 5 miles per hour, if that's all the Capital Beltway is up for, with none of the jerkiness of sports sedans that don't take well to creeping. Its collision avoidance alerts and lane departure warnings help you avoid up-close-and-personal meetings with other motorists, while the wide-angle back-up camera keeps you from backing over relatives, pets and UPS deliveries left on the driveway.

The car performed as well as expected on snow and ice. It was competent on streets that had been cleared. Like all hatchbacks, it tends to throw a lot of slush onto the rear window which, oddly, doesn't have a wiper/washer. 

It even does pretty well in mud. as I learned while running an errand in Loudoun County, Virginia, which we're constantly being told has the highest average household income in the country but still hasn't gotten around to paving many of its roads. I trusted my GPS to take me to a winery near Leesburg, which turned out to be 12 solid miles of mud. The Volt slugged through it, even though it is really too low-slung for such punishment. Too pretty too.

Gallons and kilowatt hours

Critics of plug-in hybrids say that while they may use less gas, they befoul the atmosphere by burning up gobs of electricity. This may be true but, far from using more electricity, our household has been using less since getting the Volt.

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In March 2014 we used 2,469 kilowatt hours, more than 1,000 less than the 3,488 we used in March 2013. The story was the same for February: 4,629 in 2014, 5,550 in 2013. Considering we have electric heat supplied by the infernal device known as a heat pump, it's surprising that year-over-year usage would actually go down during the coldest winter in recent memory.

How is this possible? Good question. We installed an Ecobee thermostat in early January and programmed it to cut back the heat overnight. We've also replaced all of our light bulbs with LEDs. So while the Volt is undeniably using some juice, we're still using a lot less electricity and burning a lot less gasoline than previously. 

Goals met?

As I see it, there are three potential reasons that someone might buy the Volt or some other plug-in hybrid.

Fuel economy. So far, I have spent next to nothing on gas. It's been 779 miles since the last time I hit the trip odometer and in that time, I've burned 7.3 gallons of gas, for an average of 106 miles per gallon. In more than three months, I have only bought gas twice. In my previous daily driver, it was more like twice a week. Electricity in our neck of the woods costs $0.0951 per kwh -- about a dime in other words. For our next quarterly report, I'll break out miles driven on electricity versus gas to determine the actual cost of the kwh used. 

Photo

Environmental protection. Hey, we all like cars but they throw a lot of bad stuff into the air and unlock a lot of carbon that would be better off staying where it is. The Volt burns very little gas and when it's running on its battery, it's using electricity that comes from plants using nuclear, coal, natural gas, wind, solar and geothermal sources. Some of these are better than others but all are better than gasoline.

Convenience, pleasure. It's a lot easier to plug your car in at night than to stand around the service station sniffing fumes while you put the tiger back in your tank. I don't care for the other plug-ins I've driven so far, but the Volt and no doubt the Tesla are fun cars, offering good acceleration and handling and an all-around pleasant driving experience. If you're into silence, nothing is quieter than an electric car gliding along a well-maintained street. 

Oh, and not to forget this -- you don't have to worry about jiggling the ignition switch. The Volt has a push button.  

 

 

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Want big bulging muscles? Green tomatoes may be the key

But don't eat too many. So far, the research has only been on mice

For Popeye, it was spinach that got the credit for his big bulging muscles. but a new study finds that green tomatoes may actually be the key to strength a...

PhotoFor Popeye, it was spinach that got the credit for his big bulging muscles. but a new study finds that green tomatoes may actually be the key to strength and endurance.

Using a screening method that previously identified a compound in apple peel as a muscle-boosting agent, a team of University of Iowa scientists has discovered that tomatidine, a compound from green tomatoes, is even more potent for building muscle and protecting against muscle atrophy.

Muscle atrophy, or wasting, is caused by aging and a variety of illnesses and injuries, including cancer, heart failure, and orthopedic injuries, to name a few. It makes people weak and fatigued, impairs physical activity and quality of life, and predisposes people to falls and fractures.

It's a big problem, affecting more than 50 million Americans annually, including 30 million people over age 60. It's often the factor that forces people into nursing homes or rehabilitation facilities.

"Muscle atrophy causes many problems for people, their families, and the health care system in general," says Christopher Adams, M.D., Ph.D., UI associate professor of internal medicine at UI. "However, we lack an effective way to prevent or treat it. Exercise certainly helps, but it's not enough and not very possible for many people who are ill or injured."

More muscle, less fat

In a new study, published online April 9 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Adams searched for a small molecule compound that might be used to treat muscle atrophy. He zeroed in on tomatidine and discovered that tomatidine generates changes in gene expression that are essentially opposite to the changes that occur in muscle cells when people are affected by muscle atrophy.

After identifying tomatidine, Adams and his team tested its effects on skeletal muscle. They first discovered that tomatidine stimulates growth of cultured muscle cells from humans.

"That result was important because we are looking for something that can help people," Adams says.

Their next step was to add tomatidine to the diet of mice. They found that healthy mice supplemented with tomatidine grew bigger muscles, became stronger and could exercise longer. And, most importantly, they found that tomatidine prevented and treated muscle atrophy.

Interestingly, although mice fed tomatidine had larger muscles, their overall body weight did not change due to a corresponding loss of fat, suggesting that the compound may also have potential for treating obesity.

Designing healthier foods

An attractive aspect of tomatidine is that it is a natural compound derived from tomatoes. It is produced when alpha-tomatine, which is found in tomato plants and in green tomatoes in particular, is digested in the gut.

"Green tomatoes are safe to eat in moderation. But we don't know how many green tomatoes a person would need to eat to get a dose of tomatidine similar to what we gave the mice. We also don't know if such a dose of tomatidine will be safe for people, or if it will have the same effect in people as it does in mice," Adams says. "We are working hard to answer these questions, hoping to find relatively simple ways that people can maintain muscle mass and function, or if necessary, regain it."

In an effort to accelerate this research and translate it to people, Adams and his colleagues have founded a biotech company called Emmyon. The company recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop strategies for preserving muscle mass and function during the aging process. The company is also using tomatidine and ursolic acid as natural leads for new medicines targeting muscle atrophy and obesity.

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Federal judge to Safeway: yes, you must tell customers if they bought tainted food

At least in the state of California.

Safeway has argued in courts of law that it has no obligation to let its customers know if they've bought tainted or recalled food...

PhotoSafeway has argued in courts of law that it has no obligation to let its customers know if they've bought tainted or recalled food, but this week a federal judge in San Francisco rejected this claim, leaving the way open for a class-action lawsuit against the chain.

Courthouse News Service reports that

Dee Hensley-McLean and Jennifer Rosen are the lead plaintiffs in a class action that alleges Safeway failed to let them know that it sold them "tainted" food subject to federal recalls. They say the store can easily contact members of its Club Card loyalty program since it has their personal information on file. “They claim that, under various California consumer protection statutes and California common law, Safeway is legally obligated to notify its Club Card members of the Class I recalls,” U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg explained Monday.

However, this might only apply to Safeway customers in California, since Seeborg's ruling focused mainly on specific aspects of that state's law. For example, Safeway's contention that it shed responsibility once certain purchases were made cuts no ice because, as Seeborg wrote, “California negligence law imposes a general duty of ordinary care and Safeway has not shown either a statutory or public policy exception justifying a post-sale, no-duty rule ….Moreover, numerous California decisions have explicitly or implicitly recognized that a seller's duty under negligence may extend beyond the point of sale.”

For those Safeway customers who are not Californians, and whose state laws might be more in lines with Safeway's interpretation, it is worth bearing in mind that if you buy food from Safeway and it's later recalled for health or safety reasons, the store figures that's your problem, not theirs. Either way, check out our frequently updated list of recalled food products here.

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A cure for the runny nose?

It may not be a lethal problem but it's certainly widespread

The world has lots of problems -- climate change, deadly viruses, struggling economies and general weirdness. But it's hard to think of anything that affec...

PhotoThe world has lots of problems -- climate change, deadly viruses, struggling economies and general weirdness. But it's hard to think of anything that affects as many people as the plain old runny nose.

Not the common cold, mind you. Just the runny nose. Millions and millions of us have it, sometimes because of allergies or an infection. But other times, our nose drips for no particular reason at all.

You can call it the sniffles or use the medical term, non-allergic rhinitis. It doesn't matter what you call it. It's about as annoying as anything and because it's relatively harmless, you get no sympathy from anybody.

A clue

But now researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine say they have figured out what may be going on, which could be the first step in doing something about it.

Thomas Finger, PhD, and his team, supported by a National Institutes of Health grant and working with a Danish colleague, report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they found cells lining the noses of mice that may be key.

These cells – called solitary chemosensory cells (SCCs) -- detect potential irritants in the air and pass along the alert to pain-sensing nerve terminals.

The nerves then release a substance that triggers the body's defenses, called an inflammatory response. The result -- among other things, a runny nose and difficulty breathing.

"Understanding how this works can help researchers try to figure out how to prevent this response," Finger says. "What if we could deaden the pathway that the body takes to fight off an attack that, in this case, is not really threatening?"

It's not yet certain that the process is identical in humans, Finger says. But if it is, and if some people are responding to substances or smells that appear to be a threat but actually are benign, then additional research could find a way to help millions of people to, literally, breathe easier.

Until then, keep that Kleenex box close by.

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Feds remind Facebook, WhatsApp of their privacy obligations

WhatsApp has made privacy promises to consumers that must be honored, FTC warns

Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion was widely hailed as a stroke of genius, a stupendously strategic move and other superlatives, but the Fede...

Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion was widely hailed as a stroke of genius, a stupendously strategic move and other superlatives, but the Federal Trade Commission is worried that consumers' privacy could be a liability of the acquisition.

The FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection is warning Facebook and WhatsApp that they are obligated to protect the privacy of their users if and when the acquisition is completed.

In a letter to the two companies, Bureau Director Jessica Rich noted that WhatsApp has made clear privacy promises to consumers, and that both companies have told consumers that after any acquisition, WhatsApp will continue its current privacy practices.

“We want to make clear that, regardless of the acquisition, WhatsApp must continue to honor these promises to consumers. Further, if the acquisition is completed and WhatsApp fails to honor these promises, both companies could be in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act and, potentially, the FTC’s order against Facebook,” the letter states.

2011 settlement

In 2011, Facebook settled FTC charges that it deceived consumers by failing to keep its privacy promises. Under terms of the settlement, Facebook must get consumers’ consent before making changes that override their privacy settings.

The letter notes that before making any changes to how they use data already collected from WhatsApp subscribers, the companies must get consumers' consent. The letter also recommends that consumers be given the opportunity to opt out of any future changes to how newly-collected data is used.

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Fewer taxpayers file on paper

E-file is definitely taking hold

Do you still trot down to the mailbox to send in your federal income tax return? If so, you are in a distinctly shrinking minority The Internal Revenue S...

PhotoDo you still trot down to the mailbox to send in your federal income tax return?

If so, you are in a distinctly shrinking minority

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says that as of March 28, it has received 82 million returns through e-file -- roughly 91% of returns filed this year. That means only 8.3 million of you, or 9%, are filing on paper.

The tax agency says it expects to receive about 148 million individual income tax returns this year and projects that only 23 million will be on paper -- down 7% from last year’s total of 25 million paper returns.

More efficient filing

IRS says e-file has accomplished many goals, including reducing the amount of paper the government must process, allows it to be more efficient and use valuable resources to address other critical work.

The agency notes that e-file is the safest, fastest and easiest way to submit individual tax returns.

Since 1990, taxpayers have e-filed more than 1 billion Form 1040 series tax returns safely and securely.

Tax facts

Following is a summary of how the 2014 tax season is shaping up.

Cumulative statistics comparing 3/29/13 and 3/28/14

Individual Income Tax Returns:

2013

2014

% Change

Total Receipts

90,244,000

90,761,000

0.6

Total Processed

85,039,000

89,127,000

4.8

 

 

 

 

E-filing Receipts:

 

 

 

TOTAL          

80,991,000

82,440,000

1.8

Tax Professionals

49,214,000

48,787,000

-0.9

Self-prepared

31,777,000

33,654,000

5.9

 

 

 

 

Web Usage:

 

 

 

Visits to IRS.gov

247,990,560

222,397,053

-10.3

 

 

 

 

Total Refunds:

 

 

 

Number

72,231,000

73,035,000

1.1

Amount

$201.502

billion

$206.785

billion

2.6

Average refund

$2,790

$2,831

1.5

 

 

 

 

Direct Deposit Refunds:

 

 

 

Number

61,133,000

61,223,000

0.1

Amount

$180.868

billion

$180.687

billion

-0.1

Average refund

$2,959

$2,951

-0.2

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Retailers hoping to cash in on the arrival of spring weather

But, it looks like Easter spending will drop this year

Consumers who are fed up with the long winter are expected to welcome the Easter Bunny with open arms this year. But, will that translate into open wallets...

PhotoConsumers who are fed up with the long winter will likely welcome the Easter Bunny with open arms this year. But, will that translate into open wallets?

Not necessarily.

According to the National Retail Federations' (NRF) Easter Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, consumers will spend an average of $137.46 on apparel, food, candy, gifts and more -- slightly less than the $145.13 spent last year. Total spending is expected to reach $15.9 billion.

“The winter doldrums left consumers with a lot of pent-up demand, and though many Americans may take a cautious approach to spending on Easter items this year, retailers are anticipating that warmer weather will easily put consumers in the mood to buy bright clothes, holiday decorations and more,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “As one of the biggest holidays of the year, retailers are looking forward to increased customer traffic in stores and online, and will roll out promotions on everything from garden supplies and patio sets to apparel and grocery items as they help their customers prepare for the holiday.”

Tradition rules

Though fewer people are expected to celebrate this year (80.3% vs. 83% last year), families are still looking forward to their traditional Sunday meals. Those who do plan to celebrate will spend the most on a grocery bill for a family dinner or Sunday brunch out. According to the survey, 85.7% of those celebrating will spend an average of $43.18 on a holiday meal -- totaling $5 billion.

Since the holiday traditionally marks the ceremonial start to spring, 42.9% will purchase new spring attire, such as bright Easter dress clothes for their children, spending an average of $22.71. Total spending on apparel is expected to reach $2.6 billion.

Additionally, nine in 10 (89.3%) of those celebrating will stock up on Easter candy, spending a total of $2.2 billion on their children’s favorite sweet treats. Families will also spend on gifts ($2.4 billion), flowers ($1.1 billion) and decorations ($1.1 billion).

“Americans are eager to dip their toes in the fresh green grass this Easter and celebrate the day with friends and family,” said Prosper Insights and Analytics Director Pam Goodfellow. “Though they are planning to trim their budgets in terms of spending on food, clothes and gifts, most will look for personal and fun items that won’t break the bank in order to enjoy the day.”

How they shop

The survey also found that many will use smartphones or tablets to check off their Easter shopping list.

Of those who own smartphones, nearly one in four (23.4%) will use their device to research products or compare prices. Just 12.2% will make an actual purchase with their smartphone.

Nearly 1 in 5 (19.2%) tablet owners will make a purchase on their device, but most will simply research holiday gifts, apparel and other items (30.2%).

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New Jersey fines 53 health clubs for consumer violations

It's time to shape up, state tells gym owners

Chris Christie is shedding pounds and getting down to fighting weight but New Jerseyans trying to follow his lead often run afoul of health clubs that don'...

PhotoChris Christie is shedding pounds and getting down to fighting weight but New Jerseyans trying to follow his lead often run afoul of health clubs that don't play by the rules.

Seeking to level the playing field, the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs has taken action against 53 health clubs, slamming them with a total of $283,500 in fines for allegedly failing to comply with consumer protection laws.

“When consumers pay for a gym membership, they need to know the gym will be held accountable for maintaining its side of the contract. That is the purpose of our registration laws and other requirements,” Acting Attorney General Hoffman said. “We are citing these health clubs for their alleged failure to comply with these consumer protection laws.”

The Division of Consumer Affairs tracked down 31 unregistered health clubs in the Garden State, where the law requires that all health clubs which devote at least 40 percent of their floor space to physical fitness services must register with the Division of Consumer Affairs and provide information about their ownership and operations.

Pressing on, the Division of Consumer Affairs issued Notices of Violation to 22 health clubs that are registered but allegedly violated state law by selling longer-term contracts to consumers without maintaining a required security bond or letter of credit.

Under state law, any health club that offers contracts for longer than three months must post a security bond or letter of credit with the Division of Consumer Affairs. This requirement assures a source for refunds to consumers, should the health club cease business or violate their contracts.

“With better weather finally approaching, many New Jerseyans may feel inspired to 'hit the gym' and get in shape. These consumers deserve the assurance that their health club is operating in compliance with the law – and that they won't lose money on a long term contract if the health club goes out of business," said New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs Acting Director Steve Lee.

More information about individual clubs caught in the round-up can be found online.

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A huge drop in jobless claims

It's the lowest level since May 2007

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits have fallen to their lowest level in nearly seven years. Figures released by the government show 3...

PhotoFirst-time applications for state unemployment benefits have fallen to their lowest level in nearly seven years.

Figures released by the government show 300,000 people filed initial claims in the week ending April 5 -- down 32,000 from the week before, the largest decline since december, 2012. The last time claims were this low was May 12, 2007 when they were 297,000.

The plunge came as a surprise to economists at Briefing.com who were expecting a total of 325,000 first-time claims. While impressed by the sizeable decline, they say poor seasonal adjustments could cause the initial claims level to spike up and down for the next couple of weeks before stabilizing back in the 320,000 – 330,000 range by the beginning of May.

Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza says the big decline suggests there could be marked improvement in the labor market in April, adding that thtoday's number "certainly raises the bar of expectations for the April NFP (nonfarm payroll) number."

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly nmumber and is consider a better gauge of the labor market, was down 4,750 from the previous week to 316,250.

The full report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Abady brand cat food recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

The Robert Abady Dog Food Co., of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is recalling its 2-lb, 5-lb and 15-lb boxes of "Abady Highest Quality Maintenance & Growth Formula fo...

PhotoThe Robert Abady Dog Food Co., of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is recalling its 2-lb, 5-lb and 15-lb boxes of "Abady Highest Quality Maintenance & Growth Formula for Cats.”

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

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

The recalled product, distributed nationwide in retail stores and through mail orders, comes in a 2-lb, 5-lb and 15-lb, corrugated boxes with plastic liners marked with lot # 14029/21 stamped on the right side top of the box.

Production has been suspended wpending an investigation into the source of the problem.

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

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-845-473-1900, Monday – Friday, 8:30am - 5:00pm, ET.

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Lisy Sweet Basil (Albahaca) recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Lisy Corporation of Miami, Fla., is recalling Lisy Sweet Basil (Albahaca), 6 oz jar, Item #1132, Lot #'s A013 0518 & A014 0518. The product has the potent...

PhotoLisy Corporation of Miami, Fla., is recalling Lisy Sweet Basil (Albahaca), 6 oz jar, Item #1132, Lot #'s A013 0518 & A014 0518.

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

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

Distribution of the recalled product began on 01/15/2014 in retail stores in New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Maryland.

Consumers who have purchased Lisy Sweet Basil (Albahaca) are urged not to eat the product, and dispose of it or return product to the place of purchase for a replacement or for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Henry Rosen at 305-836-6001 ext. 233 Monday through Friday from 8:00 am – 5:00 pm EST.

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Nissan recalls Infiniti QX80 vehicles

The vehicles are in danger of being overloaded

Nissan North America is recalling 468 model year 2014 Infiniti QX80 vehicles manufactured December 2, 2013, through January 27, 2014, and equipped with 20 ...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 468 model year 2014 Infiniti QX80 vehicles manufactured December 2, 2013, through January 27, 2014, and equipped with 20 inch wheels.

In the affected vehicles, the Certification label incorrectly lists the Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) as 4,497 lb instead of the correct 4,343 lb. An incorrect GAWR listing may result in the vehicle being overloaded which may increase the risk of a crash.

Nissan will notify owners, and will mail owners a corrected Certification label, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in April 2014.

Owners may contact Infiniti at 1-800-662-6200.

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More safety recalls from Toyota

Over a million of the vehicles are in the U.S.

Problems ranging from faulty airbags to defective windshield wipers have reportedly prompted Toyota to isse a recall of more than 6 million vehicles. Acco...

PhotoProblems ranging from faulty airbags to defective windshield wipers have reportedly prompted Toyota to issue a recall of more than 6 million vehicles worldwide.

Toyota says approximately 1.3 million vehicles are in the U.S. including certain modelyYear 2009-2010 Corolla, 2009-2010 Matrix, 2008-2010 Highlander, 2009-2010 Tacoma, 2006-2008 RAV4 and 2006-2010 Yaris vehicles.

Detailed information is available to customers at www.toyota.com/recall, the Toyota Customer Experience at 1 800-331-4331, www.lexus.com/recall and Lexus Customer Satisfaction (1 800-255-3987). 

Recall timing

Reuters quotes Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons as saying the recalls were announced simultaneously, even though they are unrelated, due to the timing of the investigations.

This latest recall comes less than a month after the automaker agreed to a pay a penalty of $1.2 billion in connection with unintended acceleration in its vehicles.

Recall breakdown

A Reuters report lists the latest recalls and their causes as follows:

  • Faulty spiral cables for driver’s air bags: 3.5 million
  • Possible locking problems on seat rails: 2.32 million
  • Failing steering column brackets: 760,000
  • Windshield wipers with drainage problems: 160,000
  • Possible fire hazard in starter motors: 20,000

In these vehicles, the driver’s airbag module is attached to a spiral cable assembly with electrical connections that could become damaged when the steering wheel is turned. If this occurs, the air bag warning lamp will illuminate. In addition, the driver’s air bag could become deactivated, causing it to not deploy in the event of a crash.

The automaker is currently preparing the remedy for this condition. For all involved vehicles, a Toyota dealer will replace the spiral cable with an improved one. Once preparations are complete, Toyota will send an owner notification letter by first class mail and the remedy will be provided at no charge.

 

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Feds fine GM for failing to respond to questions over ignition-switch recall

Feds fine automaker $7,000 per day while questions go unanswered

General Motors has suffered another setback in its attempt to limit the damage from allegations that it was too slow to recall cars with a faulty ignition ...

Photo
GM CEO Mary Barra
General Motors has suffered another setback in its attempt to limit the damage from allegations that it was too slow to recall cars with a faulty ignition switch.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wrote GM a letter yesterday (April 8) imposing a $7,000 a day fine for the company's lack of answers to a 107-question query the agency sent the company last month.

“GM did not respond to over a third of the requests in the special order by the April 3 deadline,” NHTSA Chief Counsel Kevin Vincent said in the letter, according to Automotive News. The fine now totals $28,000.

GM, which has said it is cooperating with NHTSA, issued a statement in response to the letter saying that it has worked “tirelessly from the start to be responsive to NHTSA’s special order and has fully cooperated with the agency to help it have a full understanding of the facts.”

The company said it has produced more than 271,000 pages of documentation spanning more than a decade. The documents are intended to help NHTSA trace the process by which the faulty ignition switch was designed, then later replaced when GM engineers became aware of incidents in which the switch had failed.

The problem with the switch is that it could be bumped into the "accessory" position inadvertently, cutting the engine and shutting off the air bags, power steering and power brakes. At least 13 deaths have been attributed to the problem. 

GM is recalling 2.2 million vehicles to replace the defective switches. The actual replacement of the switches is expected to begin later this month.

GM CEO Mary Barra testified before Congress last week and declined to answer many questions, saying that the company has hired an outside law firm to investigate the sequence of events. 

The company apparently took the same approach with NHTSA. The agency said that GM had claimed it needed more time to answer some of the 107 questions.

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Microsoft ends support for Windows XP

Even if your computer is safe, what about everybody else's?

Good news for identity thieves, malware/virus writers and other dishonest hacker-types, though potentially bad news for everyone else: as of April 8, Micro...

PhotoGood news for identity thieves, malware/virus writers and other dishonest hacker-types, though potentially bad news for everyone else: as of yesterday (April 8), Microsoft no longer supports its XP operating system.

What does this mean for XP users? It means that your computer today and beyond will work just as well as it did on April 7 and before — except Microsoft will no longer provide security updates, which means that the next time some hacker discovers an exploitable weakness in XP, Microsoft won't fix it.

Even that won't cause problems for you if your XP computer is a self-contained hermit entity – never connects to the Internet, never receives an email or text message, never installs new software or makes any use of its USB ports.

However: you're reading this article now, which means you're probably online. And if you're here via a computer or tablet running on XP — watch out. Henceforth, every time you click a link, open an attachment or visit a website, it's kind of like having unprotected sex with someone: if your partner is clean and virus-free, you won't catch any diseases. But if your partner (or that link, website, attachment et al) has something nasty and contagious ….

Still at risk

Only here's where the sex analogy breaks down: even if your computer/Internet browsing device is 100% updated, hackerproof and XP-free, and your own online activities 100% protected and responsible, you're still at risk if you interact with any remaining XP users still out there, including (at last estimate) between 75 to 95% of all American ATMs, 10% of all U.S. government computers, 85% of computers in the U.K.'s National Health Service, and up to half of all the computers in China.

So you could, for example, have a nice secure computer and thoroughly responsible online experience, and still have a hacker clean out your bank account after you visit an ATM, or put false charges on your credit card after you use the online option to renew your state DMV paperwork.

Why is Microsoft doing this? Its own website says:

Microsoft provided support for Windows XP for the past 12 years. But the time came for us, along with our hardware and software partners, to invest our resources toward supporting more recent technologies so that we can continue to deliver great new experiences.

As a result, technical assistance for Windows XP is no longer available, including automatic updates that help protect your PC.

Unfair criticism

Photo
Linux Mint is a free, stable, safe open source operating system that will run on nearly any machine, no matter how old. Download here

It's tempting to snark “Great new experiences? Sure, like the experience of planned obsolescence and you Microsoft guys having a greattime cashing the big checks you'll get after selling all those expensive new operating systems, right?”

But honestly, that's not a fair criticism to make, because 12 years is a looong time in software/technological terms. Computer ages are measured in dog years, only moreso: a 12-year-old human is still just a kid, whereas a 12-year-old dog is downright elderly.

This is scant comfort for those who maybe can't afford to upgrade their operating system right now — or those who interact with financial, insurance or governmental agencies which won't bother upgrading. You'll need to be not merely vigilant but hyper-vigilant: do your bank's ATMs use XP? What about your local or state-level government websites — is it safe to pay taxes or registration fees online, or is it safer to mail checks, or visit offices in person?

Expect to see a lot more “hackers breach database; steal consumer information” news articles in the near future.

Review your options: we outline a few in this article

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Websites race to fix "heartbleed" flaw that can expose sensitive information

The problem affects hundreds of thousands of web and email servers worldwide

A software flaw in a server extension called "heartbeat" is creating data leakage, dubbed "heartbleed," which in turn is causing severe heartburn for hundr...

PhotoA software flaw in a server extension called "heartbeat" is creating data leakage, dubbed "heartbleed," which in turn is causing severe heartburn for hundreds of thousands of web and email server administrators worldwide.

The flaw afflicts servers that use a package called OpenSSL, one of several extensions that enable SSL -- secure socket layers -- to encrypt data moving to and and from their sites. 

What that means for consumers is that personal information -- including passwords, account numbers and other sensitive data -- can be, and perhaps already has been, exploited by hackers.  

Sites ranging from the FBI to Yahoo and everything in between have been affected. The flaw also potentially affects ATM machines that communicate via the web. Google is not affected by the problem and data on Google servers is safe, several experts agree.

What to do

So, what's a consumer to do? Unfortunately, the answer is "not much." Experts say that this would be a good time to take a few days off from doing your banking and e-commerce chores, to avoid revealing your password and other data to anyone who hasn't already stolen it.

Unfortunately, other experts say this would be a good time to reconcile your bank and investment accounts daily. 

If you must use an ATM, it's safest to use one at your bank, rather than an out-of-network machine. While this may not eliminate web-based data transfers, it should at least minimize them.

This is not the time to change your user ID and password. It's best to wait a few days until the vulnerability has been patched. Changing your password now simply makes the new one vulnerable to thieves.

Ironically, SSL is used to secure websites, by encrypting data traveling between the user and online sites. Normally, sites that use SSL are much more secure than sites that don't. 

This is one of those times when the front door is locked tightly but the back door is open and swinging in the wind. 

Sites around the world are racing to update their server software but it's not an easy fix and it may take several days for larger sites to have everything locked down again.

Common server operating systems that may be affected by the problem include Debian, CentOS, RedHat, SUSE Linux and Ubuntu.

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Consumer debt delinquencies expected to rise

Why that may not be the bad news it sounds like

Nearly 5 years after the end of the Great Recession the economy has yet to gain much traction. Consumers who normally drive economic growth have seen their...

PhotoNearly 5 years after the end of the Great Recession the economy has yet to gain much traction. Consumers who normally drive economic growth have seen their incomes stagnate.

Even though economists are hopeful that 2014 will bring stronger growth, there is growing concern about the economic health of the consumer. The people at U.S. and Canadian banks, whose job it is to measure risk, are growing more pessimistic.

In its latest quarterly survey, FICO, an analytics software company, found 44% of the risk managers it surveyed expect delinquencies on credit cards to increase in the next six months.

More troubling, perhaps, is the 35% who expect delinquencies on car loans to increase. Auto sales have been one of the recovering economy's few bright spots.

Rising risk?

This appears to be part of a troubling trend since it's the fourth straight quarter of rising pessimism about consumers' ability to pay their auto loans and credit card bills.

"We've seen concerns about delinquencies creeping up for a few quarters," said Andrew Jennings, chief analytics officer at FICO and head of FICO Labs.

Not alarmed

But Jennings isn't ready to sound an alarm. He suggests rising delinquencies may simply mean that more consumers are now able to borrow money and that a certain percentage will always have trouble paying it back.

"This can be interpreted as a healthy sign after lenders spent much of the past five years constricting credit availability and being risk-averse,” he said.

The FICO survey also shows banks expect consumers to increase their borrowing over the next 6 months. A record 65% of respondents expected average balances on credit cards to increase. At the same time, 61% of the bankers polled said they expect the amount of new credit requested by consumers to increase.

What we can learn from debt

Economist Joel Naroff says a distinction should be made between car loans and credit card purchases. Big-ticket purchases like cars have a need requirement to them and vehicle sales are a huge driver of growth

“Credit card purchases are a good indicator of spending activity – most is paid down monthly -- but also consumer confidence,” Naroff told ConsumerAffairs. “Since growth is measured by changes in levels, it is the combination of the two that can make a major difference. Total consumer debt is growing at a pace similar to what we saw in the 2000s, which is a sign that confidence is returning.”

The Federal Reserve has also been keeping an eye on growing consumer debt. It reported last year that non-revolving debt – things like car loans – increased by 8%. Of greater concern, however, was the 61% jump in college loan debt since 2010.

In its most recent report, for February, the Fed found student loans and auto loans continued to be the main objects of consumer borrowing, with both categories rising by the largest amount in 12 months.

Total consumer borrowing for the month rose $16.5 billion, up from $13.5 billion in January. Credit card debt, meanwhile, declined.

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California bill would protect drought-stricken homeowners from HOA lawn lust

HOAs should learn to accept brown lawns in drought conditions

A proposed bill before the California legislature, if passed into law, would require HOAs to be slightly less insane and more in touch with reality, where ...

PhotoA proposed bill before the California legislature, if passed into law, would require HOAs to be slightly less insane and more in touch with reality, where things like “historic statewide droughts” and “complying with the law” are concerned.

Assembly bill 2104, available in .pdf form here, would prohibit homeowners' associations from requiring residents to maintain water-intensive lawns in drought conditions; no longer could your HOA fine you for refusing to break the law.

As CBS' Los Angeles affiliate reported, the bill would prevent HOAs from “implementing any ban on water-saving plants or prohibit[ing] their members from following local water conservation rules. … California lawmakers are also considering four other bills targeting homeowner associations that would spare homeowners from fines for letting their lawns die during a drought.”

Crazy enough

You might be wondering “Are these bills really necessary? Surely no homeowners' association would be crazy enough to fine people for having brown lawns in a drought.”

Sure they would; by HOA-behavior standards it's nothing unusual. Here are some other examples of HOA stories we've covered in just the past few months: last November, an HOA in Austin, Texas, was reminded (yet again) that it was legally obligated to remove a certain fence it had installed, preventing disabled HOA residents from accessing a nearby bus stop.

That same week, an HOA in Las Vegas lost its long and drawn-out legal battle against one of its own residents: a family with a disabled son, who required an ambulance for his frequent medical visits. The HOA tried banning the ambulance, in violation of federal laws prohibiting discrimination against the disabled.

Two weeks later, a California couple filed a lawsuit against their HOA, which did not allow children to play outside their own houses, and an HOA in Denver sought to ban “small farm animals” such as rabbits and chickens, despite a city sustainable-living ordinance allowing them in non-obtrusive numbers.

And in December, residents of a Texas neighborhood plagued by frequent burglaries were ordered by their HOA to remove the burglar bars they'd installed on their windows, presumably based on the logic “Better to see a neighbor's house burgled than see a neighbor's house with burglar bars.”

In other words: fining homeowners who let their lawns turn brown in compliance with legal water-conservation mandates is nothing unusual, by HOA-behavior standards.

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Kill switch option coming for some smartphone users

New York AG and San Francisco DA issue joint statement

Last year, Samsung developed a “kill switch” app that would allow smartphone owners whose phones had been stolen to remotely “brick” their phones...

PhotoLast year, Samsung developed a “kill switch” app that would allow smartphone owners whose phones had been stolen to remotely “brick” their phones, rendering them useless to the thief.

And yet, as we reported last December, “Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, United States Cellular Corporation, and Sprint have prohibited Samsung from pre-loading the app, and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman wants to know why.”

A cynic might speculate: “It's because the phone companies all figure 'Hey, if you can't get your stolen phone back you'll have to buy a new one, which means more money for us. Whoopee!'” Or perhaps there's a useful valid consumer-protection rationale behind it, only the phone companies forgot to issue the press release with the explanation.

Whatever the reasoning, on April 4, Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón issued a joint statement announcing that Verizon and US Cellular (no mention of the other companies) had decided to allow the apps, which smartphone owners can activate for free.

So, whatever consumer-protection benefits smartphone owners previously enjoyed via not having the kill switch option on their phones, well, those benefits are gone now, and Verizon and US Cellular users who choose to activate the app will just have to live with the knowledge “Gee, if a thief steals my smartphone now, there is something I can do about it.”

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Public interest groups oppose Comcast/Time Warner cable merger

Open letter urges FCC and attorney general to stop it

There's about 7.5 billion people currently in the world, and one of them is bound to be of the opinion “Y'know, this proposed Comcast/Time Warner cab...

PhotoThere's about 7.5 billion people currently in the world, and one of them is bound to be of the opinion “Y'know, this proposed Comcast/Time Warner cable merger sounds like it would be genuinely awesome, and I believe this even though I neither work for nor own stock in those companies.”

Unfortunately, I was unable to track down this person and request a quotable comment before I had to file this-here article about the more than 50 public interest groups who signed an open letter opposing the planned merger, on the grounds that it would be bad for consumers, free speech advocates, free press, public broadcasting, and pretty much everybody who isn't a Comcast stockholder-type.

On April 8, FreePress released the open letter (available in .pdf form here) to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, opposing the proposed merger for numerous reasons, including: it “would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure,” and “would give Comcast control over half of the nation’s next generation broadband customers and more than half of the pay TV/Internet bundled subscribers.”

Better prices?

Might those subscribers at least hope for better prices? “In the last four years, Comcast has raised its basic cable rates in some of its markets by nearly 70%.”

Ouch. Well, maybe they needed the money for infrastructure upgrades or something. Maybe. If so, why should so many public-interest groups are opposed to this merger?

Comcast has repeatedly flexed its corporate and political muscles to get what it wants, even if that has meant harming competition, consumers and communities. Around the country Comcast has fought community efforts to bridge the digital divide with municipal broadband networks. It has lobbied statehouses and local governments to undermine public, educational and government access television. It has blocked its customers’ Internet traffic. And it was fined for failing to fulfill the commitments it made to secure approval of its merger with NBCUniversal. The Comcast Time Warner Cable merger would give Comcast unthinkable gatekeeper power over our commercial, social and civic lives. . Everyone from the biggest business to the smallest startup, from elected officials to everyday people, would have to cross through Comcast’s gates.

Oh, that's why.

Incidentally, April 8 was also the day that the Consumerist (official blog of the Consumers Union and Consumer Reports) announced the results of their annual “Worst Company in America” readers' poll for 2014; Comcast beat out Monsanto to win the uncoveted award for the second time.

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Three drops in a row for mortgage applications

Refinance applications are at the lowest point since December

Applications for mortgages have posted their third straight weekly decline. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Application...

PhotoApplications for mortgages have posted their third straight weekly decline.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 1.6% on a seasonally adjusted basis in the week ending April 4.

The Refinance Index plunged 5% to its lowest level since the end of 2013. That takes the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 51% of total applications, putting it at the lowest level since July 2009.

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 unchanged at 4.56%, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose 3 basis points -- from 4.46% to 4.49%, with points decreasing to 0.14 from 0.27 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA dipped to 4.19% from 4.21%, with points increasing to 0.16 from 0.15 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages was steady at 3.62%, with points increasing to 0.31 from 0.23 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was up 1 basis point -- to 3.26%, with points increasing to 0.5 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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Forman Mills to pay civil penalty in CPSC drawstrings case

The firm was accused of selling children's upper outerwear garments with drawstrings

The settlement resolves CPSC staff’s charges that from June 2007 to February 2010, Forman Mills has agreed to settle charges that it dealt in children s ...

PhotoForman Mills has agreed to settle charges that it dealt in children s garments containing drawstrings -- violating a consensus industry voluntary standard.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says the Pennsauken, N.J., will pay a $600,000 civil penalty for knowingly failed to report to the CPSC immediately -- as required by federal law -- that it sold or held for sale to consumers about 2,100 children’s upper outerwear garments with drawstrings.

The four series of garments included in the civil penalty were sold or held for sale between June 2007 and February 2010. They were recalled in 2009 and 2010.

Notice of defect

In May 2006, the CSPC posted a letter on its website stating that staff considered children’s upper outerwear with drawstrings at the hood or neck to be defective and present a substantial risk of injury to young children.

In April 2009, the commission issued an order in which Forman Mills agreed to pay a civil penalty of $35,000 to settle staff’s charges that the firm failed to report children’s upper outerwear products with drawstrings that the firm had distributed in commerce.

Forman Mills distributed some garments in the current civil penalty matter during the same period as CPSC’s investigation and negotiation of the April 2009 civil penalty. There have been no reported injuries associated with the recalled garments.

Compliance standards ordered

In addition to paying a monetary penalty, Forman Mills has agreed to implement and maintain a compliance program designed to ensure compliance with the statutes and regulations enforced by the commission.

Forman Mills also agreed to maintain and enforce a system of internal controls and procedures designed to ensure that information required to be disclosed to is recorded, processed and reported in accordance with applicable law and that all reporting made to the commission is timely, truthful, complete and accurate.

The firm will also take steps to ensure that prompt disclosure is made to Forman Mills’ management of any significant deficiencies or material weaknesses in the design or operation of such internal controls.

Federal law requires manufacturers, distributors and retailers to report to CPSC immediately (within 24 hours) after obtaining information reasonably supporting the conclusion that a product contains a defect which could create a substantial product hazard, creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death, or violates any consumer product safety rule, or any other rule, regulation, standard, or ban enforced by the CPSC.

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Natural Grocers brand Organic Black Peppercorns recalled

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella

Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling multiple lots of Natural Grocers brand Organic Black Peppercorns. The product has th...

PhotoVitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling multiple lots of Natural Grocers brand Organic Black Peppercorns.

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

The company has received no reports of illness to date.

The recalled product is packaged in clear plastic bags with Natural Grocers label notating Julian pack on dates and pricing per pound. The lots identified by Julian packed on date include: 28-14, 13-14, 351-13, 336-13, 322-13, 305-13, 290-13, 281-13, 266-13, 252-13, 245-13.

Only packages bearing the Julian packed on dates listed above are subject to recall.

The product was distributed to Natural Grocers’ 80 stores located in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

Specific locations of the stores can be found at: http://www.naturalgrocers.com/store-locations.

Consumers with questions may call customer service at 303-986-4600, ext. 531 Monday through Friday 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. (MST).

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Trader Giotto's Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing recalled

The product contains wheat, soy, egg and anchovy, allergens not listed on the label

H Group of Framingham, Mass., is recalling 509 units of Trader Giotto's Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing (SKU 05161). The product contains wheat, soy, eg...

PhotoH Group of Framingham, Mass., is recalling 509 units of Trader Giotto's Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing (SKU 05161).

The product contains wheat, soy, egg and anchovy, allergens not listed on the label.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

These individual salads, sold in the refrigeration section, are marked with the following date codes: "Sell By 04/6/14, 04/7/14 and 04/8/14."

The product is packaged in an 8.5-oz. clear plastic clamshell container, with the “Sell By” date printed on the front of the package in the left hand corner.

The recalled product was distributed only to Trader Joe's stores in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Northern Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C.

Customers who have purchased Trader Giotto's Caesar Salad with Caesar Dressing may return it to Trader Joe's for a full refund or dispose of it.

Customers with questions may contact H Group, Inc. at (508) 361-1518 from 8:00A.M.-4:00P.M. EST, Monday-Friday.

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Fees should not be the only prepaid card consideration

Customer service is increasingly important too

Prepaid money cards have taken the place of banks for millions of consumers. They use them to receive direct deposit checks and to make debit card purchase...

PhotoPrepaid money cards have taken the place of banks for millions of consumers. They use them to receive direct deposit checks and to make debit card purchases.

These cards can have significant fees – making them more expensive than a bank – but there are many cards that now have very low fees, making them an attractive choice.

In a recent survey, Bankrate.com found that fees vary widely from card to card.

Not all the same

"Not all prepaid cards are created equal," said Greg McBride, CFA, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com. "Some have many fees, some have few; some will waive or reduce monthly fees, others won't; some permit free in-network ATM withdrawals, others don't."

The survey found that 83% of reviewed cards charged a monthly service fee but that 33% would waive the fee, depending on how much money was loaded onto it.

Fewer cards now charge you for using it to make purchases. Point of sale fees are now almost rare, with only 17% of cards charging for a PIN-based purchase.

Customer service is important

But fees are not the only consideration when it comes to selecting a prepaid card. Just as it would be when choosing a bank, customer service is also very important.

Here's why -- increasingly scammers are using prepaid cards to receive money from victims.

In the past, Western Union wire transactions were the money transmission means of choice. Once a victim wired the cash, it couldn't be traced or retrieved.

A prepaid card is almost as good. Now that consumers have become aware of the dangers of wiring cash, scammers are relying more on prepaid cards.

The companies issuing prepaid cards are well aware of this and have instituted a number of security measures designed to prevent fraud. While this is generally to be applauded, it can create problems for some consumers.

Catch-22

PhotoBack in November, Reyna of Hayward, Calif., ran into something of a Catch-22 when she lost her Upside prepaid debit card and called to request a new one. She also mentioned that she had just moved and needed the card sent to her new address.

That ended up creating all kinds of problems because Reyna did not yet have any documentary evidence showing her new address. The customer service agent told her that he could not send it to her old address – her parents' home – because she had already told him she had moved.

After several days of trying to resolve the issue, Reyna says she became frustrated and decided to start over with a new company.

“I've cancelled my direct deposit and all electronic debits,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post.

Tax refund problems

PhotoConsumers using their prepaid cards to receive their federal income tax return have reported running into problems, again for the same reason. Since scammers are using prepaid cards to receive bogus tax refunds, card issuers have tightened up security.

Bernice of Denver had her tax refund direct deposited to her Rush Card.

“Today I get a text message advising they blocked my account and I need to call immediately, which I did,” she writes. They advised me that because I recently moved my account is now under investigation!”

Of course, a new address can set off alarm bells because a scammer would obviously use a made-up address. But the result was that Bernice had to provide documentation showing she was who she said she was before her money could be released.

Chances are consumers using any prepaid card would run into these kinds of complications under similar circumstance. Some companies, however, might be better equipped to resolve the issues in a more timely matter than others.

Reputation is important

The bottom line – researching a company's customer service reputation might be just as important as finding out about its fee structure.

And while you are at it, compare the cost and ease of use with a bank. Some bank products may be surprisingly competitive. In fact, McBride thinks prepaid cards should supplement the traditional banking structure, not replace it.

"Call me old fashioned, but if you're going to build wealth and save and invest for the future, you need to be part of the traditional financial system," he said.

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More information on the Experian identity theft

Up to five out of six American adults might be affected

More information has come to light regarding the massive security breach at Experian; when we discussed the case last month, we mentioned that it was &ldqu...

PhotoMore information has come to light regarding the massive security breach at Experian; when we discussed the case last month, we mentioned that it was “not known how many millions of Americans had their data compromised.”

But new information indicates the number may be as high as 200 million.

On April 3, Reuters reported that the state attorneys general for Illinois and Connecticut have opened a “multi-state investigation” into the matter, which resulted in the Social Security numbers of millions of Americans being made accessible to the criminal clients of Vietnamese identity thieves.

Experian responded to this news by releasing a set of talking points about what they call “an unfortunate and isolated issue – one that we take very seriously and continue to address.”

Point-by-point

This in turn inspired security blogger Brian Krebs, who first discovered the Experian data breach last October, to publish a point-by-point deconstruction of Experian's response to this “unfortunate” issue. Amazingly, Krebs did not explicitly use the words “obfuscation” or “disingenuous” while refuting Experian's responses.

For example, Experian said this:

No Experian database was accessed. The data in question have at all relevant times been owned and maintained, not by Experian, but by a company called US Info Search.

So what? As Krebs pointed out, all of his stories on the issue (not to mention all government-investigation documents on the issue, and various media reports on the whole mess) explicitly mentioned this fact.

The problem is that: “US Info Search had a contractual agreement with a California company named Court Ventures, whereby customers of Court Ventures had access to the US Info Search data as well as Court Ventures’ data, and vice versa. Experian came into the picture in March 2012, when it purchased Court Ventures (along with all of its customers — including the proprietor of the identity theft service). For its part, US Info Search says Experian’s explanation of the events is based on false statements and misrepresentations, and that the proprietor of the ID theft service paid Experian for his access using large cash payments sent to Experian via wire from Singapore.”

Experian went on to say:

Further, Experian’s only involvement was that it purchased the assets of a company, Court Ventures, that provided access to US Info Search’s data to Court Ventures’ customers. Under that contract, customers of Court Ventures, including the criminal in this case, could access US Info Search’s data. This was not an Experian database, and specifically, this was not a credit database.

Due diligence

Experian, like any other business in existence, is required to exercise “due diligence” regarding any companies it wishes to buy for itself: if you buy a company that's in debt, you also buy that debt. You buy a company embroiled in various lawsuits, those lawsuits are now yours to defend against. (For that matter, ordinary people are also expected to apply due diligence to any purchases: if you want to buy a house you'd better run a title search first, because any lien on that house becomes the buyer's responsibility.)

As Krebs pointed out, “Experian wants to blame everyone else, but by its own admission, Experian didn’t conduct proper due diligence on Court Ventures before acquiring the company.”

"Entirely false"

Experian also takes umbrage with the “200 million Americans” number appearing in media reports:

Furthermore, any implication that there was a breach of 200 million records is entirely false and misleading – while the size of the database may be 200 million, that does not mean the total number of records were accessed.”

This was presumably in response to statements like this one, taken from the April 3 Reuters report on the multi-state investigation:

“Federal authorities say [identity thief Hieu Minh Ngo] obtained Social Security numbers through a U.S. firm known as Court Ventures, which provides customers with access to court records. It also offered them access to a database of Social Security numbers of some 200 million Americans through a data-share arrangement with another firm, known as U.S. Info Search.”

Notice the distinction between “accessed” and “had access to?” Experian defended itself against a claim nobody actually made.

Or, as Krebs pointed out,“prosecutors for the U.S. Justice Department stated that Ngo — by virtue of fooling Court Ventures into thinking he was a private investigator – had access to approximately 200 million consumer records. As I have stated previously, however, Ngo had to pay for the records he accessed, and he was running a service that charged customers for each records search they ran.”

Doing the math

Right now, based on the available information released by government investigators, security experts and Experian and its subsidiaries, it's not possible for ordinary Americans to know if their Social Security numbers were accessible to Ngo and his criminal clients, let alone whether your specific number was actually accessed.

But consider: that database had 200 million Social Security numbers. The total current American population is 317 million, including children and teenagers who do have Social Security numbers, but are too young to have credit cards or any sort of legitimate financial paper trail attached to their identities yet.

Meanwhile, a quick look at census data says that, as of 2012, 23.5% of all Americans were under 18 — by now, roughly 77 million. Subtracting that from the current American population leaves 240 million American adults, 200 million of whom have their Social Security numbers in that accessible-to-thieves database.

In other words: if you're an American adult with an actual financial history, there's only a 1-in-6 chance your information was not on that database accessible to the criminal clients of a Vietnamese identity thief.

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Midsize SUVs disappoint in the IIHS small overlap crash test

Just 2 models -- both from GM -- earned good ratings; Honda Pilot comes in last

Two out of nine. That's how may SUVs did well in the latest Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) small overlap front crash test. Only the Chevrol...

PhotoTwo out of nine. That's how may SUVs did well in the latest Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) small overlap front crash test.

Only the Chevrolet Equinox and its twin -- the GMC Terrain -- earned a good rating, with both qualifying for the Institute’s highest award for 2014, TOP SAFETY PICK+. The Toyota Highlander -- a midsize SUV whose acceptable small overlap rating was announced in December -- also qualifies.

The award is given to vehicles with a good or acceptable small overlap rating, good ratings in four other occupant protection tests, and a rating of basic or higher for front crash prevention.

Three other midsize SUVs in the test group rate poor for small overlap protection, and three are marginal.

Not all SUVs are equal

“SUVs have gotten much safer over the past few generations, but some are better than others at providing comprehensive front crash protection,” said David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer. “When it comes to midsize SUVs, General Motors is showing the way forward. The Equinox and Terrain score well in all components of the small overlap test -- structure, restraints and kinematics, and injury measures for four body regions.”

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

The test is more difficult than either the head-on crashes conducted by the government or the longstanding IIHS moderate overlap test. In a small overlap test, the main structures of the vehicle’s front-end crush zone are bypassed, making it hard for the vehicle to manage crash energy. The occupant compartment can collapse as a result.

PhotoRetooling makes the difference

The Equinox and Terrain were able to overcome this challenge, thanks to modifications on 2014 models to their front structure and door-hinge pillars.

In the test, which was conducted on an Equinox but applies to the Terrain as well, the driver space was well-maintained, and the dummy’s movement was well-controlled. The dummy’s head hit the frontal airbag and stayed there.

It would have been a perfect test performance if the side curtain airbag had provided more forward coverage. As it was, there was a gap in the inflated portion, which, in a slightly different crash, could leave the head vulnerable to hitting the door or intruding objects.

Honda strikes out

The Honda Pilot was the worst performer in this group. The driver’s space was seriously compromised by intruding structure. In the worst instance, the parking brake pedal moved inward 16½ inches. The dummy’s head barely contacted the frontal airbag before sliding off the left side, as the steering column moved 5½ inches to the right.

Measures taken from the dummy showed injuries to the left hip would be likely in a crash of this severity, and injuries to the left knee and both lower legs would be possible.

Poor structure ratings

A structure that can withstand a crash is the most fundamental aspect of occupant protection. In addition to the Pilot, four other midsize SUVs received a poor rating for structure.

One of them, the Mazda CX-9, saw its hinge pillar pushed in 17 inches, bringing the left front wheel even with the dummy’s knee. The side airbag didn’t deploy, and the door frame ended up so far inside the occupant compartment that the dummy’s head struck it after sliding off the frontal airbag.

In the Ford Explorer, the door hinge pillar was nearly severed from the door sill.

In five vehicles, the dummy’s head barely contacted the frontal airbag before sliding off it. Only the Equinox/Terrain and the Toyota 4Runner tests showed good engagement with the frontal airbag.

In the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the dummy’s head for the most part stayed on the airbag, but too much give in the safety belt allowed the head to move toward the intruding A-pillar.

Stricter standards

For the first time in 2014, a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection, along with good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, is a requirement for TOP SAFETY PICK.

The Equinox, Terrain and Highlander earn the higher accolade of TOP SAFETY PICK+ because each is available with an optional front crash prevention system.

The Highlander earns an advanced rating for front crash prevention. Its system includes both forward collision warning and an automatic braking function that reduced speeds by more than 5 mph in IIHS tests at 12 and 25 mph. The Equinox and the Terrain have warning systems only, and thus earn a basic rating for front crash prevention.

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Bariatric surgery seen as effective cure for type 2 diabetes

Once highly risky procedure wins new respect

With the huge increase in obesity in the U.S., there has been a spike in cases of type 2 diabetes.According to the American Diabetes Association, diabete...

PhotoWith the huge increase in obesity in the U.S., there has been a spike in cases of type 2 diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes causes blood glucose, or sugar, levels to rise to abnormally high levels. The clinical term for it is hyperglycemia. Type 2 has now become the most common form of diabetes and its rise has been linked to the rise in obesity.

People with type 2 diabetes have something called insulin resistance. The pancreas works overtime to make extra insulin but eventually can't keep up. At that point, patients have to take insulin.

Type 1 diabetes, which normally occurs in youth, is not reversible. Under certain conditions, however, doctors say type 2 can be reversed – by reducing weight, increasing exercise and eating better.

Cleveland Clinic study

Now, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic say undergoing bariatric surgery has helped some obese patients reverse type 2 diabetes. In fact, a recent trial helped most of the participating patients to be free of insulin and many to be free of all diabetic medications three years after surgery.

"We see patients whose lives are ravaged by diabetes,” said Sangeeta Kashyap, M.D., one of the lead investigators and an endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic's Endocrinology & Metabolism Institute.

Doctors say that, when examined at the three-year point, the procedure showed itself to be highly effective in reversing the effects of the disease.

90% no longer needed insulin

Photo"More than 90% of the patients who underwent bariatric surgery were able to lose 25% of their body weight and control their diabetes without the use of insulin and multiple diabetes drugs," Kashyap said.

Besides being able to drop insulin treatments, patients in the study experienced improvements in their quality of life following the surgery, which reduces the size of the stomach. They no longer needed insulin and in many cases, their blood pressure and cholesterol readings improved without relying on medications.

At the end of the study, doctors say only 5% to 10% of patients still had to use insulin.

"The three-year data confirm that bariatric surgery maintains its superiority over medical therapy for the treatment of type 2 diabetes in severely obese patients," said lead investigator Philip Schauer, M.D. "Moreover, data show that bariatric surgery is as effective in treating type 2 diabetes in patients with mild obesity. That's why Cleveland Clinic health insurance plan now covers bariatric surgery for its members with mild obesity and uncontrolled diabetes."

Early risks

Bariatric surgery hasn't always enjoyed such a reputation. According to the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, the procedure was first used in the 1960s and complications were common.

Over the intervening years the procedure has evolved and been improved, though the procedure still has risk. The National Institutes of Health now recommends bariatric surgery for obese patients with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 40.

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A daily serving of beans could help you control your cholesterol level

A new study says men appear to benefit more than women

Looking for a way -- in addition to exercise and meds -- to lower your “bad” cholesterol level? A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Jour...

PhotoLooking for a way -- in addition to exercise and meds -- to lower your “bad” cholesterol level?

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) found that eating just 1 serving daily of legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas can significantly reduce "bad cholesterol" and the risk of heart disease.

High cholesterol levels are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, yet they are modifiable through diet and other lifestyle choices. While most chronic disease prevention guidelines recommend consumption of non–oil-seed legumes (dietary pulses) such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas along with other vegetables and fruits as part of a healthy diet, they have not made specific recommendations based on direct lipid-lowering benefits.

More benefits for men

The study, conducted by researchers from many centers in Canada and the U.S., reviewed 26 randomized controlled trials that included 1037 people. Despite variation between studies, the researchers found a 5% reduction in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in people who ate 1 serving (3/4 cup) of non–oil-seed legumes a day.

Men had greater reduction in LDL cholesterol than women, perhaps because their diets are poorer and cholesterol levels are higher and benefit more markedly from a healthier diet. Some study participants reported stomach upset such as bloating, flatulence, diarrhea or constipation.

"The reduction of 5% [LDL cholesterol] in our meta-analysis suggests a potential risk reduction of 5% in major vascular events," writes Dr. John Sievenpiper of the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Centre, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, and his coauthors.

Not a burden

They note that although consumption levels of legumes is low in Western countries such as Canada and the U.S., 1 serving a day "is reasonable and is currently consumed by many cultures without reports of adverse effects that would limit consumption."

"Canadians have a lot of room in their diets to increase their pulse intake and derive cardiovascular benefits," notes Dr. Sievenpiper. "Only 13% consume pulses on any given day, and of those who do, the average intake is only about a half serving."

The authors hope this study will add to the body of evidence upon which dietary guidelines are based. Most current evidence is of low quality, and the authors call for more high-quality research.

"Because dietary pulse intake may have beneficial effects on other cardiometabolic risk factors, including body weight, blood pressure and glucose control, future systematic reviews and meta-analyses should evaluate the effects of such dietary interventions on these outcomes and others, to address factors that contribute to residual cardiovascular disease risk," the authors conclude.

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Green tea may improve memory

Add another potential benefit to the known health effects of green tea

You can boost the working memory in your computer by adding RAM. You can boost working memory in your brain by adding green tea (taken orally, please), a n...

PhotoYou can boost the working memory in your computer by adding RAM. You can boost working memory in your brain by adding green tea (taken orally, please), a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland, say they have found evidence that green tea extract enhances the cognitive functions, in particular the working memory.

The Swiss findings, published in Psychopharmacology, suggest promising clinical implications for the treatment of cognitive impairments in psychiatric disorders such as dementia. 

Cancer research

In the past the main ingredients of green tea have been thoroughly studied in cancer research. Recently, scientists have also been inquiring into the beverage's positive impact on the human brain.

Different studies were able to link green tea to beneficial effects on the cognitive performance. However, the neural mechanisms underlying this cognitive enhancing effect of green tea remained unknown.

In a new study, the researcher teams of Prof. Christoph Beglinger from the University Hospital of Basel and Prof. Stefan Borgwardt from the Psychiatric University Clinics found that green tea extract increases the brain's effective connectivity, meaning the causal influence that one brain area exerts over another.

This effect on connectivity also led to improvement in actual cognitive performance: Subjects tested significantly better for working memory tasks after the admission of green tea extract.

MRI studies

For the study healthy male volunteers received a soft drink containing several grams of green tea extract before they solved working memory tasks. The scientists then analyzed how this affected the brain activity of the men using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The MRI showed increased connectivity between the parietal and the frontal cortex of the brain. These neuronal findings correlated positively with improvement in task performance of the participants.

"Our findings suggest that green tea might increase the short-term synaptic plasticity of the brain," said Borgwardt.

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ATM machines under attack by hackers

Consumers should monitor their accounts closely to catch fraud quickly

Attorney General Lisa Madigan today alerted Illinois residents to an increased risk of unauthorized withdrawals on their accounts after banking regulators ...

PhotoIf you're not keeping a careful eye on your checking account transactions, now's the time to start. Banking regulators say hackers are finding new wants to make nearly unlimited withdrawals from ATMs before banks detect the fraud.

“This recent wave of cyber attacks reinforces how important it is to monitor your accounts for unauthorized activity because it’s not a matter of if but when your financial accounts will be targeted by a criminal,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said.

Regulators and law enforcement agencies are urging consumers to pay attention and be on the lookout for unauthorized withdrawals following the ATM warnings and the recent series of massive data breaches at major U.S. companies including Target and Neiman Marcus.

Large withdrawals

Late last week, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) reported the increase in cyber-attacks, disclosing that criminals have hacked bank websites and made large withdrawals from consumers’ accounts well before banks’ fraud alert systems recognize that anything is wrong. 

The FFIEC said hackers have learned how to delete or alter pre-programmed algorithms set up by banks to alert them of ATM withdrawals that are out of the ordinary.

The scam often starts via “phishing” attacks targeting bank employees. The scammers send phony but official-looking emails that include links to initiate a malware attack on the banks’ systems, allowing them to obtain employee login information that then enables them to access the banks’ ATM control panels.

After the hackers alter the algorithms managing the ATM controls, they create fraudulent ATM cards with account information stolen from separate attacks, either using malware or scanning programs at retail sales registers or ATMs, according to the FFIEC.

Multiple withdrawals

Hackers attempt to make several withdrawals from the same account at multiple ATMs simultaneously so that the daily withdrawal limit is not detected until the money has already been withdrawn, and the hackers often schedule the withdrawals for holidays and weekends, according to the FFIEC, when extra sums are loaded into ATMs and banks’ monitoring is less active.

In explaining the scope of the scams, the FFIEC cited a recent ATM attack that netted over $40 million in fraudulent withdrawals using only 12 debit card accounts.

Madigan offered the following tips to help detect and report unauthorized charges:

  • Monitor bank and credit card accounts daily online and billing statements every month. Contest unauthorized charges immediately over the phone and in writing.
  • Set up an alert on your account to receive notification when your credit or debit card is used over and above a certain dollar figure. Many banks offer this feature as a “transaction alert.”
  • Beware of callers who claim to be with your card issuing bank. These calls may be a scam. You should contact your bank first at the toll-free number on the back of your card before disclosing any personal information.
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Consumer agency sees surge in complaints in 2013

Mortgages and debt collection produced the most gripes

Feel like venting about a product, the service you get or the way you're being treated? You have a lot of company. The volume of complaints received ...

Photo

Feel like venting about a product, the service you get or the way you're being treated? You have a lot of company.

The volume of complaints received by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau www.consumerfinance.gov (CFPB) in 2013 nearly doubled from 2012.

“Consumer complaints have become central to the work of this agency. They enable us to listen to, and amplify, the concerns of any American who wants to be heard,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray in unveiling the Consumer Response Annual Report. “They are also our compass. They make a difference by informing our work and helping us identify and prioritize problems for potential action.”

A steady increase

The agency began consumer response operations when it opened its doors in 2011, accepting complaints about credit cards. It expanded its complaint handling in 2012 to include complaints about mortgages, bank accounts and services, private student loans, vehicle and other consumer loans, and credit reporting. Last year, it began taking complaints on money transfers, debt collection, and payday loans.

The 2013 report covers the 163,700 complaints the CFPB received from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31 -- an 80% increase over the previous year’s 91,000 complaints. To date -- including this year -- the CFPB has received more than 310,000.

2013 gripes

According to the report, the top three complaints in 2013 by consumers were:

  • Mortgages: The number one most complained about consumer product was mortgages, accounting for 37% of overall complaints. For these approximately 60,000 complaints, consumers were most concerned with problems when they were unable to pay, such as issues relating to loan modifications, collections, or foreclosures.
  • Debt collection: Debt collection was the second most complained about category, accounting for 19% of overall complaints even though the the agency did not begin accepting debt collection complaints until last July. For the approximately 31,000 debt collection complaints, consumers were most concerned with collectors attempting to collect debt not owed, communication tactics by the collectors, and collectors taking or threatening illegal action.
  • Credit reporting: The number three most complained about category was credit reporting -- accounting for about 15% of overall complaints. For the approximately 24,000 complaints about credit reporting, nearly 3 out of 4 consumers were concerned with incorrect information on their credit report.

Resolving complaints

The CFPB expects companies to respond to complaints within 15 days and to describe the steps they have taken or plan to take. Companies also are expected to close all but the most complicated complaints within 60 days. Companies have responded to more than 93% of the complaints sent to them for response, and consumers have disputed only 21% of those company responses.

Sometimes, companies respond through non-monetary relief. About 11% of complaints fall into this category; for credit reporting complaints, companies respond to about 1 out of 3 complaints this way. Through the CFPB’s complaint process, consumers have received a range of non-monetary relief in response to their complaints, such as:

  • Foreclosure alternatives: Consumers have received mortgage foreclosure alternatives that help them keep their home;
  • Protection from debt collectors: After CFPB inquiries, debt collectors have stopped engaging in excessive collection communications with consumers;
  • Restored lines of credit: Consumers have had their credit lines restored when they wanted, or removed when that was their desired outcome;
  • Corrections to credit reports: Consumers have had their credit reports cleaned up either by having correct submissions given to credit bureaus or by having credit bureaus correct inaccurate information about their consumer accounts; and
  • Customer service: Many consumer problems are related to unanswered inquiries or incorrect information. After CFPB involvement, many customers had their formerly unmet customer service issues finally resolved.

The Bureau has also seen monetary relief for consumers in about 7 percent of complaints. This includes:

  • A median amount of $460 for mortgages;
  • A median amount of $126 for credit cards; and
  • A median amount of $111 for bank accounts or services.

What to do

To submit a complaint, consumers can:

  • Go online at www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint
  • Call the toll-free phone number at 1-855-411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD phone number at 1-855-729-CFPB (2372)
  • Fax the CFPB at 1-855-237-2392
  • Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244
  • Additionally, through “Ask CFPB,” consumers can get answers to their questions at consumerfinance.gov/askcfpb or by calling 1-855-411-CFPB (2372).
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Frontier Natural Products recalls Organic Black Peppercorns

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella

Frontier Natural Products Co-op is recalling several products manufactured with organic black peppercorns that were sold under its Frontier and Simply Org...

PhotoFrontier Natural Products Co-op is recalling several products manufactured with organic black peppercorns that were sold under its Frontier and Simply Organic brands, Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday Value, and others.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The recalled products were sold in all 50 states and in some parts of Canada to distributors, retailers and consumers. Below is the list of products containing the organic black peppercorn:

Brand
Full Product Name
Size/Weight
UPC Code
Lot Code
FrontierPeppercorns Black Whole Black
Organic
2.12oz0-89836-18435-13246, 3288
FrontierPeppercorns Black Whole Black
Organic
25 lbs0-89836-82603-93226, 3288
FrontierPeppercorns Black Whole Black
Organic
16oz0-89836-02603-33256
Nature's PlaceBlack Peppercorn Whole Organic2.26oz7-25439-95273-63232
MeijerPeppercorns Black Organic2.26oz7-13733-78173-23233, 3280
SproutsPeppercorns Black Whole Organic2.12oz8-74875-00425-43246, 3287
Whole Foods 
365
365 Organic Peppercorns, Black
Whole
2.12oz0-99482-44563-83246, 3287
Whole Foods 
365
365 Peppercorns, Black Whole1.87oz0-99482-44497-63287
Whole Foods 
365
365 Value Size Peppercorns, Black
Whole
8.08oz0-99482-44511-93260, 3267
Whole Foods 
365
365 Organic Black Peppercorns2.12oz0-99482-73914-03247
Simply OrganicBlack Pepper Grinder75grams0-89836-19218-93260
Simply OrganicBlack Peppercorns Organic75grams0-89836-19210-33221, 3262,
3294
Simply OrganicBlack Pepper Whole Organic2.65oz0-89836-18524-23221, 3262
Simply OrganicDaily Grind, Certified Organic2.65oz0-89836-18263-03261

Consumers with questions may contact Frontier 1-800-669-3275 Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Central time.On foil bulk packages, the lot codes will be found on the front label directly above the UPC code. On bottled glass and plastic items, the lot codes can be found on the bottom of the bottle.

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Selling your home? It's all in the staging

A lot of show biz goes into selling a house

It's true the housing market is recovering, but in many areas of the country you still have to compete to attract buyers. And that's just half the battle....

PhotoIt's true the housing market is recovering, but in many areas of the country you still have to compete to attract buyers. And that's just half the battle.

Once you get someone interested in your house, you next need to encourage the highest possible offer. Properly staging your home will help achieve both goals.

Simply put, staging your home means showing it in the best possible light. Remember that the purchase of a home is largely driven by emotion. Staging is a way to push the right emotional buttons.

Starts online

Sterling Home Styling, a company that trains Realtors in how to stage a piece of property, says it starts with how the property is presented online. These days, most prospective buyers decide to see a house after looking at its online listing on Zillow, Trulia or any of the other real estate listing sites.

The listing should provide not just location, features and price but a number of compelling, attractive images. According to Sterling, over 55% of the impression that a home makes on a buyer is the visual effect.

Despite the strong sales of distressed properties that need extensive renovation, the average buyer isn't looking for a “project.” They're looking for what amounts to a turn-key situation – a home Realtors refer to as “in move-in condition.”

The people who buy foreclosures don't mind putting in time and money to fix them up because they are getting a much lower than market price. If you want the best price possible, it is important to attract buyers willing to pay for a home in move-in condition.

Photo

Choose pictures carefully

Photographs should not only show your home in the best possible light they should also strike an emotional chord with the target market. Bedrooms look pretty much alike. Try to find something about the home that will draw the home shopper in.

PhotoWe recently found a home listing for an older home in Richmond, Va. Along with the properties other features, like spacious entryway and updated kitchen, the agent thoughtfully include a photograph showing an old fashioned built-in telephone stand in the hallway, along with an old fashioned telephone.

Many shoppers like older homes because they perhaps remind them of where they grew up, or the house their grandparents lived in. Touching base with that emotional impulse can produce a strong response before the buyer ever sets foot on the property.

Once you have attracted an online shopper's attention, you must then draw them in once they arrive at the property. That means first having what Realtors call “curb appeal.” When the prospective buyers pull up in front, they should be able to imagine themselves living there.

Photo

Inviting entryway

A lot goes into curb appeal – a clean, well-kept exterior, nice landscaping and an inviting entryway. The experts at Better Homes and Gardens recommend brightening the front door with a blast of color. In addition, new or polished brass fixtures and hardware can make a home more inviting.

Inside, most home stagers suggest getting rid of the clutter. Especially focus on gathering up personal items – like pictures of the kids – and putting them out of sight.

The idea is for the prospective buyer to imagine this is their house. That's hard to do when your wedding pictures or drawings by your eight year old are everywhere.

Calling in a professional

There are professional home stagers you can hire who will stage your home for you. They can cost $100 an hour or more but, depending on how much you are trying to get for your home and how quickly you need to sell, it might be worth it.

The Real Estate Staging Association, the trade association for home stagers, did a study in 2012 of homes that were staged and those that weren't.

It says the unstaged homes were still on the market 166 days later. After they were staged, the first of the newly-staged homes received an offer within 32 days.

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Jumpin' Jeeps are hard to tie down

14 years of complaints about unintended acceleration go nowhere

General Motors is currently in the hot seat over charges that it should have acted sooner to replace defective ignition switches. But some chronic automobi...

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Senators urge FTC, FDA to crack down on e-cig advertising

They cite unproven assertions that e-cigs help smokers break the cigarette habit

Six U.S. Senators are calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take action against e-cigarette manufacturers...

PhotoSix U.S. Senators are calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take action against e-cigarette manufacturers who are making what th senators say are unsubstantiated claims in their advertising.

Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) say the false claims include unproven assertions that the e-cigs help smokers of conventional cigarettes quit.

In today’s letters, the senators highlighted recent studies demonstrating that claims by e-cigarette manufacturers that their products help people quit smoking are not substantiated by current science.

Potentially false claims

Photo“We urge you to review this evidence and begin to take actions against companies that are making unsubstantiated and potentially false therapeutic claims about products that have not been approved by FDA as safe and effective,” the senators wrote.

In their letter to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, the senators called on the agency to use its existing authority to investigate manufacturers who are making these false or unsubstantiated claims in their advertising.

“The FTC has not stepped in to protect consumers from the health risks posed by nicotine and other chemicals contained in electronic cigarettes,” the senators wrote. “We believe that you can and should act immediately to crack down on these false and deceptive claims by e-cigarette manufacturers.”

Today’s letters to the FTC and FDA follow up on a letter the senators sent to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in December, urging the FTC to investigate the marketing practices of e-cigarette manufacturers and to pursue enforcement action against companies that make false or misleading health claims in their advertising.

Nicotine poisonings

PhotoLast month, in response to reports of a dramatic increase in accidental nicotine poisonings among children, Sen. Boxer joined six senators in once again calling on the FDA to move quickly to regulate the rapidly evolving market of e-cigarettes and other nicotine products.

The FDA has been working on new e-cig regulations for years but the senators said the agency already has the authority to "investigate companies making unsubstantiated and potentially false therapeutic claims.”

In February, Sen. Boxer was joined by Senators Durbin, Harkin, Blumenthal, Markey and Brown in introducing the Protecting Children from Electronic Cigarette Advertising Act to prohibit the marketing of e-cigarettes to children and teens. The bill has been endorsed by the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

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Under-the-tongue pill approved for grass pollen allergies

After the first dose, the medication can be taken at home

It's a pretty safe bet that people who struggled through this winter's blizzards, Nor’easter and subfreezing temperatures are glad that spring has finally ...

PhotoIt's a pretty safe bet that people who struggled through this winter's blizzards, Nor’easter and subfreezing temperatures are glad that spring has finally arrived (at least in most parts of the nation).

But the blooming of flowers and sprouting of leaves can bring a whole different set of problems for people who suffer from allergies. But even for them, there is hope.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Oralair to treat allergic rhinitis (hay fever) with or without conjunctivitis (eye inflammation) that is induced by certain grass pollens in people ages 10 through 65 years.

Oralair is the first sublingual (under the tongue) allergen extract approved in the U.S. After administration of the first dose at the health care provider’s office, where the patient can be observed for potential adverse reactions, Oralair can be taken at home.

Broad-based nuisance

Allergic rhinitis with or without conjunctivitis are chronic diseases affecting children and adults. In fact, they affect approximately 30 million people in the U.S. and more than 500 million worldwide. These diseases are often caused by sensitivity to grass pollen and produce repetitive sneezing, nasal itching, runny nose, nasal congestion, and itchy and watery eyes.

“While there is no cure for grass pollen allergies, they can be managed through treatment and avoiding exposure to the pollen,” said Karen Midthun, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “The approval of Oralair provides an alternative to allergy shots that must be given in a health care provider’s office. Oralair can be taken at home after the first administration.”

The treatment

Oralair is a once-daily tablet that rapidly dissolves after it is placed under the tongue. It is started four months before the start of the grass pollen season and continued throughout the season. The first dose is taken at the health care provider’s office, where the patient is to be observed for at least 30 minutes for potential adverse reactions.

Oralair contains a mixture of freeze-dried extracts from the pollens of five grasses, including Kentucky Blue Grass, Orchard, Perennial Rye, Sweet Vernal and Timothy.

The safety and effectiveness of Oralair was evaluated in studies in the United States and Europe, involving approximately 2,500 people. Some patients received Oralair; others received an inactive substitute (placebo).

To assess the effectiveness, patients reported their symptoms and additional medications needed to get through the allergy season. During treatment for one grass pollen season, patients taking Oralair experienced a 16 to 30 percent reduction in symptoms and the need for medications compared to those who received a placebo.

Side effects

The prescribing information includes a boxed warning that severe allergic reactions (such as anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening) can occur. Oralair also has a medication guide for distribution to the patient.

The most common adverse reactions reported by adults were itching in the ears and mouth and of the tongue, as well as swelling of the mouth and throat irritation. In children, the most commonly reported adverse reactions were itching and swelling in the mouth and throat irritation.

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Can't file by April 15? Here's what to do

Getting more time to file your tax return is easy, but you must pay any tax you owe

Yes, it's hard to believe that it is already April. It seems like only yesterday we were shivering through the polar vortex.But the tax-filing vortex is ...

PhotoYes, it's hard to believe that it's already April. It seems like only yesterday we were shivering through the polar vortex.

But the tax-filing vortex is looming dead ahead, on April 15. If you haven't yet started on your taxes, chances are you aren't going to be ready.

Fortunately, you can get an extension, giving yourself a few more months to file. There are a few steps you need to take in order to do that, including paying the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) any additional tax you might owe.

But if you haven't done your taxes yet, how do you know whether you owe the IRS more money, and how much? Good question.

Do you owe additional tax?

First, if you haven't gotten around to preparing your tax return, chances are you will owe additional tax. The reason is simple. If you were getting a refund, it's a strong likelihood that you would have filed by now. Most people getting refunds file as soon as they can.

So, you think you'll owe additional tax, but how much?

To answer that question, check your W-2 form (what your employer withheld from your paycheck last year), 1099 form or records of quarterly estimated tax payments to see how much money you have already given to the IRS toward your 2013 tax liability.

Next you need to estimate how much tax you should have paid. This isn't always easy, especially if your income changed significantly from previous years.

If you think things are pretty much the same as previous years, review previous tax returns. Look at the total amount of tax that you paid to the IRS and see how that compares to previous years.

Ballpark it

Using that information, estimate how much more that what you have already paid that you owe. Go to the IRS website and download Form 4868, which has spaces to enter that information.

To save time you may want to file electronically by going to Free File and filling out Form 4868 online. You can use a credit card to pay the tax and, a few clicks later it's done.

The extension gives you an additional six months in which to file your 2013 tax return. If you don't think you can afford to pay all of the tax you owe, the IRS will work with you.

Payment plan

According to the tax collection agency most people who owe additional tax can set up a payment plan within a few minutes. Taxpayers who owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest can use the Online Payment Agreement to set up a monthly payment agreement for up to 72 months.

This appears to be one of the easiest options for buying more time to pay. There is no paperwork to fill out and no need to call, write or visit the IRS.

Taxpayers can also request a payment agreement by filing Form 9465. This form can be downloaded from IRS.gov and mailed along with a tax return, bill or notice.

Offer in compromise

If you are really struggling you may qualify for what the IRS calls an “offer-in-compromise,” in which the IRS agrees to accept less than what you owe.

However, be leery of so-called “tax settlement” companies that promise they can arrange this on your behalf. It's not as easy as they make it sound and you may have a better chance of arranging it on your own without having to pay someone.

Whatever you do, don't stick your head in the sand and ignore the April 15 tax-filing deadline. Not filing will be costly.

For letting the deadline pass without filing a tax return or an extension, the IRS will impose a penalty – usually about 5% per month of the unpaid amount. On top of that, the IRS will charge interest on the unpaid balance.

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Walmart changes pregnancy policies

Better than the legal minimum, but critics say it's not enough

The Washington Post's Wonkblog reported this week that Walmart, as of March 5, has changed its policies regarding the treatment of pregnant employees. The ...

PhotoThe Washington Post's Wonkblog reported this week that Walmart, as of March 5, has changed its policies regarding the treatment of pregnant employees.

The changes are inspiring much controversy because, while they are a definite improvement over previous policies, critics say they still don't go far enough. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that critics think the federal laws protecting pregnant employees don't go far enough – for all the criticim levied at Walmart, its current policy actually offers pregnant workers more protection than federal law requires.

As University of Dayton employment expert Jeanette Cox told Wonkblog, Walmart's “policy is written in such a way that complies with federal law. It's just that the federal law sucks."

What it says

Parsing out just what the law says can be fiendishly difficult even for experienced attorneys, let alone legal laymen.

For example, in 2012 courts ruled that a Walmart employee who'd miscarried twice while working for the company could not sue based on the company's failure to giver her light duty during her pregnancy, basically because the company has no exclusive light-duty positions and also because, according to the court ruling, the woman “has not identified a similarly situated employee outside her protected class - i.e., non-pregnant …. Both of the employees she identified were pregnant, and so we cannot infer pregnancy discrimination on that basis because there is no comparison between the treatment of pregnant employees versus non-pregnant employees."

Or, as Wonkblog said: “It's very difficult to prove discrimination if you have to produce a person in the exact same circumstance who got more help.”

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Dad's chubbiness may contribute to child's autism

Norwegian study finds paternal obesity outweighs maternal obesity as a risk factor

If the father is obese, are his children at risk of autism and other developmental disorders?...

PhotoIf the father is obese, are his children at risk of autism and other developmental disorders?

On the surface, it doesn't sound likely. Several studies have previously looked at the role of maternal obesity but now, Norwegian researchers say they have found that paternal obesity could be an even greater risk factor -- but caution that much more must be learned.

“We have a long way to go. We must study genetic factors in the relatio