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    FTC: consumers need more control over information collected by data brokers

    The agency calls on Congress to make data brokers more transparent and accountable

    It's no exaggeration to say that in some ways data brokers know us better than we know ourselves. The Federal Trade Commission, after an extensive study, says it's time for Congress to impose some transparency and accountability to the system.

    “The extent of consumer profiling today means that data brokers often know as much – or even more – about us than our family and friends, including our online and in-store purchases, our political and religious affiliations, our income and socioeconomic status, and more,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “It’s time to bring transparency and accountability to bear on this industry on behalf of consumers, many of whom are unaware that data brokers even exist.”

    The FTC studied nine data brokers, representing a cross-section of the industry, and found that just one of the data brokers studied holds information on more than 1.4 billion consumer transactions and 700 billion data elements and another adds more than 3 billion new data points to its database each month.

    The Consumer Federation of America "strongly supports the FTC’s legislative recommendations," said Susan Grant, CFA's Director of Consumer Protection. "Individuals must have the right and the means to know which data brokers have information about them for marketing purposes, see what the data is and how it is categorized, correct the data if necessary, and exercise reasonable control over its collection and use."

    Anything & everything

    Among the report’s findings:

    • Data brokers collect consumer data from extensive online and offline sources, largely without consumers’ knowledge, ranging from consumer purchase data, social media activity, warranty registrations, magazine subscriptions, religious and political affiliations, and other details of consumers’ everyday lives.
    • Consumer data often passes through multiple layers of data brokers sharing data with each other. In fact, seven of the nine data brokers in the Commission study had shared information with another data broker in the study.
    • Data brokers combine online and offline data to market to consumers online.
    • Data brokers combine and analyze data about consumers to make inferences about them, including potentially sensitive inferences such as those related to ethnicity, income, religion, political leanings, age, and health conditions.
    • Potentially sensitive categories from the study are “Urban Scramble” and “Mobile Mixers,” both of which include a high concentration of Latinos and African-Americans with low incomes. The category “Rural Everlasting” includes single men and women over age 66 with “low educational attainment and low net worths.” Other potentially sensitive categories include health-related topics or conditions, such as pregnancy, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

    Invisible & incomplete

    The study found that, to the extent data brokers currently offer consumers choices about their data, the choices are largely invisible and incomplete.

    To help rectify a lack of transparency about data broker industry practices, the Commission encourages Congress to consider enacting legislation that would enable consumers to learn of the existence and activities of data brokers and provide consumers with reasonable access to information about them held by these entities.

    FTC's recommendations

    For data brokers that provide marketing products, the FTC recommends that Congress should consider legislation to establish a centralized Web portal, where data brokers can identify themselves, describe their information collection and use practices, and provide links to access tools and opt- outs.

    Other recommendations include:

    • Access. Require data brokers to give consumers access to their data, including any sensitive data, at a reasonable level of detail;
    • Opt-Outs. Require opt-out tools, that is, a way for consumers to suppress the use of their data;
    • Inferences. Require data brokers to tell consumers that they derive certain inferences from from raw data;
    • Data Sources. Require data brokers to disclose the names and/or categories of their data sources, to enable consumers to correct wrong information with an original source;
    • Notice and Choice. Require consumer-facing entities – such as retailers – to provide prominent notice to consumers when they share information with data brokers, along with the ability to opt-out of such sharing; and
    • Sensitive Data. Further protect sensitive information, including health information, by requiring retailers and other consumer-facing entities to obtain affirmative express consent from consumers before such information is collected and shared with data brokers.

    Risk mitigation

    The agency also recommended legislation for brokers that provide “risk mitigation” products -- like check-approval services. 

    When a company uses a data broker’s risk mitigation product to limit a consumers’ ability to complete a transaction, legislation should require the consumer-facing company to tell consumers which data broker’s information the company relied on.

    For brokers that provide “people search” products, the FTC said legislation should require the brokers to allow consumers to access their own information, opt-out of having the information included in a people search product, disclose the original sources of the information so consumers can correct it, and disclose any limitations of an opt-out feature.

    The nine data brokers in the study are Acxiom, CoreLogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf and Recorded Future.

    It's no exaggeration to say that in some ways data brokers know us better than we know ourselves. The Federal Trade Commission, after an extensive study, s...
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    Automakers asked to help get recalled rentals off the road

    The auto industry has been working to defeat a bill requiring safer rental cars

    Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is asking the auto industry to get behind legislation that would outlaw renting cars with outstanding safety recalls. Consumer advocates and major car rental companies support the measure but the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers -- the lobbying organization for major carmakers -- has been actively opposing it. 

    Boxer last week sent letters to the CEOs of BMW Group, Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Company, Jaguar-Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Cars North America urging them to support the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Act, which would keep recalled rental cars off the road until they are repaired.

    Boxer recently grilled General Motors CEO Mary Barra about her position on the measure, noting that GM was offering to pay for rental cars for owners of recalled cars with defective ignition switches, even though there is no guarantee the rental cars will be safe.

    Story continues below video

    One year later ...

    In her letter, Boxer noted that the alliance made a commitment more than a year ago to work with the Senate Commerce Committee to resolve its concerns about the legislation.

    “Now, an entire year has passed since the Alliance made that commitment. I would like to know – will your company commit to supporting this legislation that would prohibit rental cars under safety recall from being rented or sold to consumers until the defect has been repaired?” Boxer asked the CEOs. 

    Current law prohibits car dealerships from selling new vehicles under recall to consumers, but no law bans rental car companies selling or renting such cars to unsuspecting consumers. Boxer's bill -- the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act – would keep unsafe rental cars that have been recalled off the road.  

    The bipartisan bill is named in honor of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, two sisters from Santa Cruz, who were killed in 2004 while driving a rented Chrysler PT Cruiser that had been recalled for a power steering hose defect but had not been repaired. The car caught fire because of the defect while traveling on Highway 101 in Monterey County, causing a loss of steering and a head-on collision with a semi-trailer truck.  

    In 2012, Hertz, Enterprise, Avis Budget, Dollar Thrifty, and National agreed to voluntarily stop the renting or selling of vehicles that have been recalled by their manufacturer and endorsed the legislation but the auto manufacturers have continued to work against the measure, Boxer said.

    An unfixed recall caused this fire. (PRNewsFoto/Carfax)Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is asking the auto industry to get behind legislation that would o...
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    4 ways to boost your credit score

    And a good credit score will save you money

    When you apply for a loan – such as a mortgage or auto financing – the lender runs a credit check and is required to give you a copy of your credit score.

    A few consumers are pleasantly surprised at how high it is. Most, however, are shocked at how low it is. Fortunately there are things you can do to raise your score.

    1. On-time payments

    The most important step is actually the easiest, although it does require a measure of discipline. It's paying your bills on time. All of them, all of the time.

    Nothing impresses the credit agencies more than timely payments and nothing will drag your credit score lower than consistently being late on payments. Sometimes it is just a matter of getting organized, knowing when bills come due and making payments before the due date.

    Sometimes it's a matter of having enough money available to pay your bills on time. If that's the case you need to create a household budget and eliminate some expenses. No, it isn't easy but it's a necessary step to having a stable cash flow, which will enable you to make on-time payments.

    2. Pay down credit card balances

    The second step is to pay down credit card balances. Too many consumers carry too much debt.

    Credit agencies look at how much available credit you have and how much of it you have used. If you have a $10,000 credit limit and the balance is only $2,500 that looks pretty good. If the balance is $8,500 it looks a lot worse.

    But paying down an $8,500 credit card balance isn't easy, especially with an interest rate of around 20%. That's why you need to consider transferring the balance to a credit card that charges no interest.

    Does such a thing exist? Yes, but only for a limited time. A number of credit cards charge 0% interest for an introductory period, as long as 21 months.

    You'll pay a balance transfer fee, usually 3%, but you'll quickly compensate for that. If you could make monthly payments for more than a year and have 100% of the payment go toward what you owe, you'll make significant progress in reducing the balance.

    If you only make the minimum payment and are charged 20% interest, most of your payment will just pay interest.

    3. Avoid unnecessary new accounts

    Even though we've just suggested you open another credit account, the third step is to avoid opening unnecessary credit accounts. When you're shopping at a retailer and the clerk says you can save $20 if you open a store charge card, politely decline.

    Credit agencies do, in fact, want to see a few credit accounts in your credit history but they don't want to see too many. They also want to see a variety – not just credit and charge cards but an auto loan and a mortgage.

    4. Use credit responsibly

    Finally, it is important to use credit responsibly. What does that mean exactly? In short, it means not adding to existing balances if you can help it.

    Before using a credit card, ask yourself if you will be able to pay for the purchase, in full, when the bill arrives, or over a couple of billing cycles. If you can't, don't buy it.

    Credit agencies are impressed if they see you can make a large credit purchase one month and pay off the balance the next.

    What's a good credit score, you ask? The highest possible score is 850, but 720 on up is considered excellent credit. If your score is between 689 and 630 you have average credit. Below 630 lands you in the bad credit camp.

    Your score makes a difference when you apply for a loan or even when you try to buy car insurance, in some states. Lenders give the best terms to consumers with the best credit. Being in that category can save you $100 or more a month on a mortgage.

    When you apply for a loan – such as a mortgage or auto financing – the lender runs a credit check and is required to give you a copy of your cr...
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      Is the sun setting on tanning salons?

      They remain popular but states are cracking down

      Actor George Hamilton is famous for a deep tan but these days, few others are. The practice of lying in the sun to darken skin has fallen out of favor over concerns about skin cancer.

      Instead, when people head to the beach they're more likely to wear large brimmed hats and slather on layers of sunscreen. But not everyone.

      There are still plenty of sun worshipers who continue to soak up the rays in the summer and go to tanning salons in the off season. While it's not against the law to go to the beach, more states are cracking down on tanning salons.

      Eight states ban minors

      In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton has signed a new law that prohibits minors from engaging in indoor tanning. Minnesota joins Vermont, California, Illinois, Oregon, Nevada, Texas and Washington, which have similar laws.

      While not everyone is happy about the trend, doctors appear to be.

      “The American Academy of Dermatology Association commends the state of Minnesota for joining the fight against skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer,” said Dr. Brett M. Coldiron, president of the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA). “It is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime and more than 1,030 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in Minnesota in 2014. Since 2.3 million teens tan indoors in the United States annually, restricting teens’ access to indoor tanning is critical to preventing skin cancer.”

      Tanning is normally done on a regular basis. A review of a number of tanning salon websites shows tanning is often sold by membership, much like health clubs, meaning you can go as often as you like. None of the sites we reviewed carried any disclaimer or warning about potential skin cancer.

      Cancer links

      According to AADA, doctors diagnose more than 3.5 million skin cancers in more than 2 million people every year. Many of the cases are linked to over-exposure to the sun but dermatologists contend the risk for developing melanoma increases by 59% in people who use indoor tanning devices, and the risks increase with each subsequent use.

      Indoor tanning booths are still legal, but then so are cigarettes. Government health experts say neither are healthy.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says indoor tanning has been linked to skin cancers, including the deadliest type – melanoma. It has also been linked to basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as cancers of the eye.

      “Indoor tanning exposes users to two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays, UV-A and UV-B, which damage the skin and can lead to cancer,” the agency says in a warning to consumers. “Indoor tanning is particularly dangerous for younger users; people who begin indoor tanning during adolescence or early adulthood have a higher risk of getting melanoma, likely because of increased lifetime UV exposure.”

      Long term, not a good look

      Young people are often drawn to indoor tanning in the belief it improves their appearance and tanning salon marketing encourages that belief. Over time, the CDC says it can have the opposite effect.

      It can cause premature skin aging, such as wrinkles and age spots. It can alter skin texture and increase the risk of blindness.

      According to the CDC, indoor tanning is thought to cause about 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. every year. In comparison, smoking is thought to cause about 226,000 annual cases of lung cancer.

      FDA warning

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) joins in the warning, saying over-exposure to UV rays, whether from natural or artificial sources, damages the skin. In fact, the FDA goes farther, saying there is no such thing as a “safe tan.”

      According to the agency the increase in skin pigment, called melanin, which causes the tan color change in your skin, is a sign of damage.

      Once skin is exposed to UV radiation, it increases the production of melanin in an attempt to protect the skin from even more damage. Melanin is the same pigment that colors your hair, eyes, and skin.

      Tanning tax

      While indoor tanning is still legal, government policymakers are doing all they can to discourage it. The Affordable Care Act imposed a 10% surtax on tanning salons, which is expected to generate $2.7 billion over 10 years.

      But a growing number of states would like it to produce much less, prompting them to pass laws keeping minors out of tanning beds. But for now, indoor tanning remains popular as well as dangerous.

      According to the Rockefeller Cancer Institute, on an average day, of the one million people using tanning beds in the United States, 71% are girls and women between the ages of 16 and 29.  

      Actor George Hamilton is famous for a deep tan but these days, few others are. The practice of lying in sun to darken skin has fallen out of favor over con...
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      Hyundai-Kia dethrones Honda as "greenest automaker"

      Scientists' group says all eight major automakers have reduced their emissions

      Hyundai-Kia has unseated Honda the become the "greenest automaker," according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) latest Automaker Rankings report.

      Using the adjusted, most up-to-date information on Hyundai-Kia’s vehicles after the automaker had to revise its performance data with the U.S. EPA, the findings show that the automaker came out in first place thanks to a concerted effort to improve the green performance of its fleet by turbocharging and downsizing engines in a number of its models while also introducing hybrid-electric versions of two of its top-selling vehicles, the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima.

      This report marks the first time another company has bested Honda, which came in second this year but has earned every “Greenest Automaker” previous accolade from UCS since 1998.

      “Honda continues to lead the way in many vehicle classes, but it’s started to lag the industry average in its midsize fleet—which includes its best-selling Accord, and accounts for a quarter of the company’s sales,” said Dave Cooke, a vehicles analyst in the Clean Vehicles Program and the author of the report. “As Hyundai-Kia works to further improve fuel economy and electrify its fleet, Honda will need to step up its game if it wants to take back the crown.”

      Tied for third

      It was a three-way tie for third place, with Toyota, Nissan, and Volkswagen too close to call. While all the international automakers in the ranking scored better than the national average, the Detroit Three – Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler – continue to bring up the rear, as they have in every automaker ranking. However, some domestic automakers are making greater strides than others 

      Ford led the Detroit automakers while achieving the greatest percent reduction in smog-forming emissions of any manufacturer evaluated. The company also enjoyed strong improvements in global warming emissions due to its increased use of hybrids and its focus on smaller, turbocharged engines in vehicles ranging from the Ford Focus sedan to its iconic, best-selling large pick-up, the F-150, demonstrating that fuel-economy gains are possible across an automaker’s entire fleet.

      All eight bestselling automakers are improving their environmental performance thanks to new technologies and stronger standards for fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions, the group said. It's the first time that's happened since the group began issuing its annual report in 1998.

      The report, the sixth evaluation of its kind by UCS, examined the emissions of both global warming and smog-forming pollution from 2013 model year vehicles of the automakers. 

      Not just cupholders

      “For too many years, clean car standards were stagnant and automakers were more likely to promote extra cup holders instead of fuel economy,” Cooke said. “Now, consumers are demanding cars that go further on a gallon of gas and new standards are pushing the automakers to deliver. The big lesson here is that the smog and global warming standards are working and there is much more to be gained as these standards progress.”

      Stronger tailpipe emissions standards have led to an 87 percent reduction in smog-forming tailpipe emissions from the average car or truck since 2000, while global warming emissions from the average vehicle have decreased by nearly 20 percent since 1998. 

      Technology will be crucial to achieving continued reductions in both global warming and smog-forming emissions from the U.S. fleet, the report projects, as more stringent emissions standards continue to take effect. Diverse strategies to improve fuel economy and global warming emissions—from improvements in conventional engines to plug-in-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles—all present opportunities for automakers to continue and accelerate the trend of reducing emissions across all types of vehicles.

      “Automakers have a lot of clean technology ready to roll, and they are only just beginning to deploy it,” said Don Anair, research director of the UCS Clean Vehicles program. “Continued investments by automakers coupled with strong performance standards will ensure new models further reduce fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions  while offering the cleanest, most fuel-efficient vehicle choices for their customers.”

      Hyundai-Kia has unseated Honda the become the "greenest automaker," according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) latest Automaker ...
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      Justice department investigating auto-parts price-fixing

      “Largest criminal antitrust probe ever” is still ongoing; cost U.S. drivers “millions”

      The Justice Department is currently investigating what reports say is the largest criminal antitrust probe in history, alleging bid-fixing and price-rigging in the auto parts industry that resulted in U.S. drivers collectively paying millions of dollars in higher costs.

      Though the investigation first became public four years ago, when the FBI raided various offices in the Detroit area, the conspiracy is alleged to have covered four continents, and the FBI is working with authorities from other countries, including Australia and Japan. Last week, an executive from a Japanese company was charged with conspiring to fix the prices of certain parts sold to Toyota, and convincing his workers to destroy evidence of his actions.

      Last September, as part of the investigation, nine automotive suppliers in Japan, including Hitachi Automotive Systems and Mitsubishi Electric, pleaded guilty to price-fixing and paid $740 million in criminal fines; at the time, the total fines collected since 2011 amounted to $1.6 billion.

      Spencer Weber Waller, director of the Institute for Consumer Antitrust Studies at Loyola University, told The New York Times that “Twenty years ago, a case of this size would have been inconceivable …. We often fought with these countries against the application of U.S. antitrust laws, but now they themselves are more stringent in applying their own antitrust laws.”

      The full size and scope of the price-fixing has yet to be determined. Despite claims that it significantly raised the prices of cars and parts for U.S. consumers, it's not known when or if drivers can expect the prices to actually drop now that the conspiracy is being broken.

      The Justice Department is currently investigating what the Associated Press has dubbed the “largest criminal antitrust probe ever,” alleging bi...
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      iJackers hit Australian Apple devices with ransom demands

      Passwords may have been compromised

      "Ransomware" has hit Australia, where Apple users woke this morning to find their devices locked, with the culprits demanding a payment of US$100 through PayPal.

      The exact method by which hackers took control of the devices isn't yet known; some security experts suggested the hackers may simply have obtained a list of user IDs and passwords but others said it was more likely Apple's Australia and New Zealand servers had been compromised.

      Apple support forums are flooded with complaints but at last word, the company hadn't offered much in the way of solutions. 

      The attacks are affecting iPhones, iPads, Macs and possibly other devices.

      The ransom demands claim to be coming from Oleg Pliss. The somewhat unusual name appears to be a front chosen by the hackers for reasons known only to them at this point.

      "There was a message on the screen ... saying that my device(s) had been hacked by Oleg Pliss," A Melbourne consumer told Australian Associated Press.

      "Ransomware" has hit Australia, where Apple users woke this morning to find their devices locked, with the culprits demanding a payment of US$100 through P...
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      Does your financial advisor listen to you?

      It's what any financial advisor should do

      You seek out and pay a financial advisor for their expertise. It stands to reason then that you would be ready to follow their advice.

      But that doesn't mean the information flow should be a one-way street. It's important that the person you consult about investing your money not only understands your financial objectives but listens closely when you raise questions or make suggestions.

      That doesn't always happen.

      “Often, wealth management firms listen only to financial advisors when they seek to understand client preferences and the important trends, issues and challenges facing their industry,” said Juan Carlos Lopez, Executive Director, Wealth Management at Ernst & Young LLP. “Unfortunately, this provides an incomplete view of the needs and desires of wealth management clients.”

      Ernst & Young has just completed a wealth management survey in which it gathered in-depth feedback from both advisors and their clients to compare views on the most important trends occurring in the industry.

      The survey identified three areas where financial advisors can improve their relationship with clients. Among them – financial advisors tend to over-estimate the importance of their role.

      Show me the money

      In the past a long-standing relationship between an advisor and client went a long way toward satisfying the client. According to the survey, not so much these days.

      The fear generated by the 2008 financial crisis led to lower expectations. Clients were happy just to stay liquid and preserve their capital. That now seems to have changed.

      The survey shows that today, portfolio performance has regained the top spot on clients’ minds, ranking well above the relationship with their advisor among the factors keeping clients with their wealth managers.

      In other words, clients tend to judge their financial advisors by how well their portfolio is doing. They're also sensitive to fees and the firm's overall reputation.

      Furthermore, clients value a firm’s reputation over that of the individual advisor when choosing a new wealth manager. They now tend to look at the company as well as the individual advisor.

      Finding a financial advisor

      If you need a new financial advisor, you may want to start your search for a financial advisor here – the website for the Financial Planning Association. It can provide a list of candidates in your area for you to consider.

      To find an advisor who will listen and respond to you, ask for referrals. The people recommending an advisor should be in a similar phase of their investment life as you. It goes without saying they should also be fairly successful at building wealth.

      Among the many questions you should ask a potential financial advisor is how much contact they expect to have with you and in what form that contact will be. An advisor with hundreds of clients can't be expected to hold regular face-to-face meetings with everyone.

      Staying in touch

      But they should be available by phone or email on a regular basis. The investment landscape is constantly changing and your advisor can't listen to your questions and concerns if there is little or no regular contact.

      How much contact is reasonable? A recent survey by J.D. Power and Associates found that clients who had 12 or more contacts a year with their financial advisors had the highest rate of satisfaction with the service they received.

      What other questions should you ask a potential financial advisor? The Securities and Exchange Commission offers this advice.

      You seek out and pay a financial advisor for their expertise. It stands to reason then that you would be ready to follow their advice.But that doesn't me...
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      Calorie restriction may improve breast cancer outcomes

      Tests in mice find restricted diet lessens chance certain types of breast cancer will spread

      Severely restricting calories has been suggested as a way of lengthening lifespans, and now a study finds that a very-low-calorie diet may also improve outcomes for women with breast cancer.

      According to a study published May 26th in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, the triple negative subtype of breast cancer – one of the most aggressive forms – is less likely to spread, or metastasize, to new sites in the body when mice were fed a restricted diet.

      "The diet turned on a epigenetic program that protected mice from metastatic disease," says senior author Nicole Simone, M.D., an associate professor in the department of Radiation Oncology at Thomas Jefferson University.

      Breast cancer patients are often treated with hormonal therapy to block tumor growth, and steroids to counteract the side effects of chemotherapy. However, both treatments can cause a patient to have altered metabolism which can lead to weight gain. In fact, women gain an average of 10 pounds in their first year of treatment.

      Recent studies have shown that too much weight makes standard treatments for breast cancer less effective, and those who gain weight during treatment have worse cancer outcomes.

      "That's why it's important to look at metabolism when treating women with cancer," says Dr. Simone.

      In earlier studies, Dr. Simone and colleagues had shown that calorie restriction boosted the tumor-killing effects of radiation therapy.

      In order to test the effects of a restricted diet in humans, Dr. Simone is currently enrolling patients in the CaReFOR (Calorie Restriction for Oncology Research) trial. As the first trial like it in the country, women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer receive nutritional counseling and are guided through their weight loss plan as they undergo their treatment for breast cancer.

      Severely restricting calories has been suggested as a way of lengthening lifespans, and now a study finds that a very-low-calorie diet may also improve out...
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      Samsung's forthcoming smartwatch may not need to sync to a smartphone

      Apple is also working on a standalone smartwatch that may be released later this year

      There are all kinds of smartwatches already on the market. Some are fairly crude, some are pretty sophisticated but nearly all of them rely on a smartphone for at least some of their functions.

      This may be about to change, however. Samsung is reported to be about to release a smartwatch that can send texts and make calls without having to sync with a smartphone.

      There's no official word from the company but published reports say the watch, which is so far unnamed, will be released within the next month or two.

      Besides telling the time, the smartwatch will supposedly be able to take photos, use GPS tracking, measure the wearer's heart rate and send emails.

      Apple and Google are also working on new smartwatches as major manufacturers rush to get in on what's expected to be a land-office business. The market research firm IDC is predicting that sales of wearables will triple over the next year to more than 19 million units -- more than 10 times the predicted sales of smartphones.

      Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatchThere are all kinds of smartwatches already on the market. Some are fairly crude, some are pretty sophisticated but nea...
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      Consumer confidence rebounds in May

      There's growing optimism about rising incomes

      The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rebounded from its April decline.

      After dipping to 81.7 last month, the Index now stands at 83.0. Both the Present Situation Index and the Expectations Index posted increases.

      “Consumer confidence improved slightly in May, as consumers assessed current conditions, in particular the labor market, more favorably,” said Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Expectations regarding the short-term outlook for the economy, jobs, and personal finances were also more upbeat. In fact, the percentage of consumers expecting their incomes to grow over the next six months is the highest since December 2007 (20.2%). Thus, despite last month’s decline, consumers’ confidence appears to be growing.”

      The situation now

      Consumers’ assessment of present-day conditions improved in May. Those who said business conditions are “good” dropped to 21.1% from 22.2%, while those who think they are “bad” declined to 24.1% from 24.8%.

      Consumers’ assessment of the labor market was more favorable. Those saying jobs are “plentiful” rose to 14.1% from 13.0%, while those who believe jobs are “hard to get” dipped to 32.3% from 32.8%.

      Looking ahead

      Consumers’ expectations increased slightly in May.

      The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months edged up to 17.5% from 17.2%, while those looking for business conditions to worsen slipped to 10.2% from 10.5%.

      Consumers were more positive about the outlook for the labor market.

      Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 15.4% from 14.7%, while those anticipating fewer jobs edged up to 18.3% from 18.0%.

      The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to grow increased to 18.3% from 16.8%, but those expecting a drop in their incomes also increased -- to 14.5% from 12.9%.

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

      The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rebounded from its April decline. After dipping to 81.7 last month, the Index now stands at 83.0. Both th...
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      Home prices on the rise in March

      However, the rate of increase is slowing

      March was another good month for homeowners looking for the prices of their houses to rise in value.

      Data by S&P Dow Jones Indices for its S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices show the 10-City and 20-City Composite Indices were up 0.8% and 0.9%, respectively, from February.

      During the first three months of the year, the National Index gained 0.2%. Nineteen of the 20 cities showed positive returns in March, with New York was the only one to decline. Dallas and Denver reached new index peaks.

      Significant slowdown

      The National and Composite Indices saw their annual rates of gain slow significantly in March. Chicago showed its highest year-over-year return -- 11.5% - since December 1988. Las Vegas and San Francisco, the cities with the highest returns, saw their rates of gain slow to approximately 21%; their post-meltdown peak returns were 29.2% and 25.7%. At the lower end was Cleveland with a gain of 3.9% in the 12 months ending March 2014.

      “The year-over-year changes suggest that prices are rising more slowly,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Annual price increases for the 2 Composites have slowed in the last 4 months and 13 cities saw annual price changes moderate in March.”

      The National Index also showed decelerating gains in the last quarter. Among those markets seeing substantial slowdowns in price gains were some of the leading boom-bust markets including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco and Tampa.

      Despite signs of decelerating prices, all cities were higher than a year ago, and all but New York were higher in March than in February. However, only Denver and Dallas have set new post-meltdown highs and they experienced relatively lower peak levels than other cities. Four locations are fairly close to their previous highs: Boston (8%), Charlotte (9%), Portland (13%) and San Francisco (15%).

      Positive returns

      All 20 cities continued to record positive year-over-year returns. Thirteen of the 20 MSAs showed lower annual increases in March. Tampa showed the most deceleration, posting +13.4% year-over-year in February and +10.7% in March. Las Vegas and San Francisco, the only two cities to post annual gains of over 20%, also saw their rates decelerate; they gained 21.2% and 20.9%, respectively.

      The only six cities to show higher year-over-year returns in March were Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Minneapolis and New York.

      Quarterly price hikes

      A separate measure of home prices -- the Federal Housing Finance Agency's (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI) -- found that prices rose 1.3% in the first quarter of the year, the eleventh consecutive quarterly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index.

      "Although the first quarter saw relatively weak real estate transaction activity -- in part due to seasonal factors -- home prices continued to push higher in the first quarter," said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. "Modest inventories of homes available for sale likely played a significant role in driving the price increase, which was similar to appreciation in the preceding quarter."

      As a way of comparison, house prices rose 6.6% from the first quarter of 2013. FHFA's seasonally adjusted monthly index for March was up 0.7 percent from February.

      Other findings

      • The seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI rose in 42 states and the District of Columbia during the first quarter of 2014 (four more than in the fourth quarter of 2013). The top annual appreciation came in: 1) Nevada, 2) District of Columbia, 3) California, 4) Arizona, and 5) Florida.
      • Of the nine census divisions, the Pacific division experienced the strongest increase in the first quarter -- a 2.1% increase and a 13.2% increase since last year. House prices were weakest in the Middle Atlantic division, where prices inched up 0.1% percent from the prior quarter.
      • As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., first quarter price increases were greatest in the Charleston-North Charleston, S.C., Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) where prices increased by 10.7%. Prices were weakest in the New Orleans-Metairie, La., MSA, where they fell 2.6%. Appreciation was recorded in 71 of the 100 MSAs.
      • The monthly seasonally adjusted purchase-only index for the U.S. has increased for 23 of the last 24 months (November 2013 showed a decrease).
      • The Pacific and Mountain census divisions -- the two divisions that saw the greatest price increases between March 2012 and March 2013 -- saw substantive decelerations over the latest 12 months. Price appreciation was 12.4% between March 2013 and March 2014 in the Pacific Division, more than three percentage points below the rate for the preceding 12 months. At 9.8%, the last 12-month appreciation in the Mountain division was more than four percentage points below the rate in the preceding 12 months.
      March was another good month for homeowners looking for the prices of their houses to rise in value. Data by S&P Dow Jones Indices for its S&P/Case-Shille...
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      Chaparros Mexican Foods recalls beef products

      The products contain milk, an allergen not listed on the label

      Chaparros Mexican Foods of Vista, Calif., is recalling approximately 568,503 pounds of beef products.

      The products were formulated with hydrolyzed milk protein, an allergen not declared on the product label.

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

      The following products are subject to recall:

      • 100 lb. cases containing 20lb. bags, five per case, diced beef for broiling labeled “Alberto’s Meat Shop”
      • 100 lb. cases containing 20lb. bags, five per case, sliced beef for broiling labeled “Alberto’s Meat Shop”
      • 60 lb. cases containing beef trim labeled “Alberto’s Meat Shop”
      • 100 lb. cases containing 20lb. bags, five per case, beef chorizo labeled “Alberto’s Meat Shop”

      The products were produced between November 1, 2013, and May 15, 2014, and sold to restaurants in Southern California and a federally inspected processing facility. The production date is stamped in black ink on the outer case label.

      Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Julia Silva, office manager, Chaparros Mexican Foods Inc., (760) 631-6080.

      Chaparros Mexican Foods of Vista, Calif., is recalling approximately 568,503 pounds of beef products. The products were formulated with hydrolyzed milk p...
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      Fayette Creamery brand Jalapeno Pepper Raw Milk Cheddar Cold Pack Cheese Spread recalled

      The product may contain soy, an allergen not listed on the label

      Brunkow Cheese of Darlington, Wis., is recalling its 8-ounce tubs of Fayette Creamery brand Jalapeno Pepper Raw Milk Cheddar Cold Pack Cheese Spread.

      The product may contain soy, an allergen not listed on the label.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The recalled was distributed nationwide in retail stores and through direct sales on premise at Brunkow Cheese and at farmers markets.

      The product comes in 8-ounce, clear plastic tubs marked with one of the following Sell By Dates and codes on the bottom:

      • 05211411
      • 04051408
      • 06191415
      • 06191416
      • 06191417
      • 06261411
      • 06261412
      • 07071413
      • 07071414
      • 08061410
      • 08121406
      • 08121407
      • 08281413
      • 08281414
      • 08281415
      • 08281416
      • 09201411
      • 10031410
      • 10111404
      • 10171408
      • 10171409
      • 10251413
      • 11011406
      • 11151409

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

      Consumers with questions may contact Brunkow Cheese at 608-776-3716 Monday through Friday, 8am - 4pm.

      http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm398726.htm

      Brunkow Cheese of Darlington, Wis., is recalling its 8-ounce tubs of Fayette Creamery brand Jalapeno Pepper Raw Milk Cheddar Cold Pack Cheese Spread. The ...
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      General Motors recalls Cadillac CTS vehicles

      A wiper issue could kill the vehicle battery

      General Motors is recalling 19,225 model year 2014 Cadillac CTS vehicles manufactured June 10, 2013, through February 26, 2014.

      If the vehicle is turned off with wiper functionality left on and the wipers then become restricted, such as when covered in ice or snow, and the vehicle's battery goes dead and needs to be jump started, upon being jump started, the wipers will be inoperative.

      An inoperative windshield wiper system may decrease the driver's visibility, increasing the risk of a crash.

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front wiper module, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is 14157.

      General Motors is recalling 19,225 model year 2014 Cadillac CTS vehicles manufactured June 10, 2013, through February 26, 2014. If the vehicle is turned ...
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      Money-saving tips for that Memorial Day road trip

      Don't cram too much into three days

      As the legendary baseball player Yogi Berra once said about a super-popular night spot: “Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.”

      A similar principle applies to road trips on Memorial Day weekend: “Nobody drives anymore, because the roads are too crowded.” Still, even with today's high gas prices you'll find a handful of plucky people willing to brave the traffic for a mini-vacation, whether to avoid touchy-feely TSA airport agents in the airports or because, even with those gas prices, transporting multiple people in a single vehicle often remains cheaper than buying individual plane or train tickets for everybody (in addition to saving the cost and hassle of renting a car once you reach your destination).

      If saving money is your main motivation, you know that mere “driving,” on its own, isn't enough to save money. Indeed, with either bad luck or bad planning, your road trip vacation might end up casting more than a first-class flying one. Yet a few obvious though easy-to-overlook tips can significantly cut the costs of your mini-vacation — leaving more money for bigger and better trips later.

      Take the road less traveled

      If you watch science-fiction disaster movies, you're familiar with the scene where everybody flees the coastlines and the big cities, to escape the alien invaders or asteroid strike or whatever threat the movie is about. You should consider doing the same thing, not for catastrophe-avoidance reasons but because, as Berra noted, “Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.” (Spending several hours sitting in traffic is annoying enough on any occasion, far worse when those hours are eating away at your brief 72-hour vacation.)

      That's not to say beaches, big cities or other super-popular tourist attractions are never worth visiting, of course, just that a 72-hour vacation weekend isn't the best time to try.

      Take some food with you

      To cite another quote from Yogi Berra (or was it Yogi Bear?): “Let's get us a pic-a-nic basket.” More specifically, bring one with you. Better yet, bring a 12-volt travel refrigerator that can either plug into a regular electrical outlet or into your car's dashboard power adapter (while your engine is running, of course, so you don't drain the car battery).

      Of course, most people consider restaurant dining one of the vital vacation experiences. As do I, but I don't want to fritter away my vacation-restaurant budget on the same fast food I can get at home.

      The winter-emergency blanket you keep in your car in case you find yourself stranded in cold weather does double-duty as a picnic blanket in summertime.

      Take advantage of freebies

      Despite the old saying “The best things in life are free,” it's a sad truth that on vacation, many of the best attractions charge entry fees. Even so, most areas have fun free things to do, though they might not be as well-advertised as the for-profit stuff.

      Do an ahead-of-time online search for any interesting state parks in the area you're visiting (national parks are even nicer, of course, but not only do most of them charge entry fees; on holiday weekends they fall into the “Nobody goes there/too crowded” category).

      If your destination region has a “visitor center,” whether run by a local tourism bureau or the state-government centers attached to certain highway rest stops, you definitely want to stop there not just to stretch your legs, but also because there's a good chance you'll find discounted coupons to attractions you'd hoped to visit. (I've found that visitor centers run by actual tourism bureaus tend to offer more and better discounts — understandable, since such centers are established specifically to cater to tourists, rather than motorists in general.)

      As the legendary baseball player Yogi Berra once said about a super-popular night spot: “Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.”...
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      What makes hydrogen cars go?

      Water -- but it's a bit more complicated than that

      As gasoline mileage continues to improve and all-electric cars become more common on U.S. roadways, it's hard to see how fuel economy can get much better.

      But Hyundai raised hopes this week, beginning U.S. imports of the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell CUV. The first load of vehicles arrived in Los Angeles and should go on sale during the summer in Southern California.

      Toyota will be right behind. At this years Consumer Electronics Show, Toyota announced its first fuel cell vehicles will be sold in the U.S. in 2015.

      How do they work? To simplify, the engines are powered by water, not petroleum-based fuel. Sounds like a motorist's dream, right?

      In a radical departure from the internal combustion engine, fuel cell engines contain a fuel cell stack that converts hydrogen gas stored on board with oxygen from the air into electricity to drive an electric motor that propels the car.

      Hyundai UK produced a video to show how the propulsion system works.

      Lengthy evolution

      A mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has been a long time in the making but scientists say there is still plenty of work ahead to make these systems a full part of the U.S. energy and transportation system.

      However, a new report in the ACS journal Chemistry of Materials suggests a new solid, stable material can pack in a large amount of hydrogen, making fuel cells even more efficient.

      A research team led by Umit B. Demirci has experimented with the recent discovery that hydrogen can be stored in solid material. The team concludes that using solids is something of a breakthrough, which could allow the wider use of hydrogen energy.

      Since the 1970s energy researchers have dreamed of powering engines from water, but hydrogen has always posed a number of technological challenges. One of the biggest is storage.

      Previous research has focused on developing hydrogen-containing liquids or compressing it in gas form. Now, Demirci and his team say solid storage is showing potential for holding hydrogen in a safe, stable and efficient way.

      As gasoline mileage continues to improve and all-electric cars become more common on U.S. roadways, it's hard to see how fuel economy can get much better....
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      Amazon stops selling Hachette book titles

      Is this in retaliation for Hachette publishing an unflattering account of the company?

      What does Amazon.com have against the Hachette Book Group? Nobody outside of Amazon's inner circle knows for sure (more on that later), but as The New York Times reported on Friday, the Internet retail giant has decided to escalate matters.

      Two weeks ago we told you that Amazon, alone among online booksellers, was delaying its shipments of Hachette books — which includes such authors as Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger, and the latest novel by superstar author J. K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame). Now it appears Amazon has stopped selling Hachette books altogether. Though the company has not said why, it's possible that maybe Amazon is upset with Hachette for publishing an unflattering account of the company. As The Times said:

      The retailer began refusing orders late Thursday [May 22] for coming Hachette books, including J.K. Rowling’s new novel. The paperback edition of Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” — a book Amazon disliked so much it denounced it — is suddenly listed as “unavailable.”

      In some cases, even the pages promoting the books have disappeared. Anne Rivers Siddons’s new novel, “The Girls of August,” coming in July, no longer has a page for the physical book or even the Kindle edition. Only the audio edition is still being sold (for more than $60). Otherwise it is as if it did not exist.

      The confrontation with Hachette has turned into the biggest display of Amazon’s dominance since it briefly stripped another publisher, Macmillan, of its “buy” buttons in 2010 …. Amazon has millions of members in its Prime club, who get fast shipping. This, as Internet wits quickly called it, was the “UnPrime” approach.

      Amazon is reportedly using the same tactics in Germany, squeezing the publisher Bonnier by delaying shipment of its books.

      Given that remark about “Prime” and “un-Prime” shipping, it's worth recalling that, as of March, there are at least two lawsuits against Amazon, alleging that the company actually charges Prime members for “free” shipping by raising the base price of items Prime members buy: an ordinary customer might see a certain item listed for $10 plus $4 shipping, with the shipping cost waived if the total purchase exceeds $35, whereas a Prime member with “free” shipping sees the same item offered for $14.

      But it looks like Prime and non-Prime Amazon shoppers at least get the same low low price for certain Hachette books: zero dollars, because the books aren't being sold at all.

      What does Amazon.com have against the Hachette Book Group? Nobody outside of Amazon's inner circle knows for sure (more on that later), but as The New York...
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      One reason the economy is stuck in neutral

      Two economists suggest policymakers have attacked the wrong problem

      As the credit crisis of 2008 recedes further and further into the rear view mirror the effects seem to still be with us.

      Unemployment is only now starting to drop and yet remains well above normal levels. It might be higher except that millions of people have simply dropped out of the labor force and are no longer counted in the monthly statistics.

      The Federal Reserve is only now “tapering” its massive stimulus program that seems to have saved the banks and pumped up the stock market but done little for Main Street. Historically low interest rates haven't done much since banks aren't lending money.

      During the Great Recession more than 8 million people lost their jobs and more than 4 million homes were lost to foreclosure. Conventional wisdom has it that an inflated housing market finally collapsed and resulting foreclosures nearly caused an economic collapse.

      Another view

      But is that really how it happened? In their book “House of Debt,” authors Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Atif Mian of Princeton University suggest there was another, less complicated cause.

      They point out that in the years just before the recession, which started at the end of 2007, Americans doubled their household debt to $14 trillion. They argue the dramatic rise in debt, followed by a huge drop in household spending, were key – and overlooked -- factors leading to the economic crash.

      "Excessive household debt leads to foreclosures, causing people to spend less and save more," Sufi said. "Less spending means less demand for goods followed by declines in production and huge job losses. The only way to break that cycle is directly attacking debt."

      The record household debt is significant, in that it explains how the economy continued to grow at a rapid pace in the late 1990s and early 2000s. People weren't earning more money, they were borrowing more.

      Houses became ATMs

      And it wasn't all credit card debt. As home prices skyrocketed homeowners continued to refinance their mortgages, taking out massive amounts of equity that they spent mostly on perishable goods.

      It created demand for goods and services in the economy but it just wasn't sustainable. In 2008 rapidly rising gasoline prices surged to record highs by the middle of the year. With consumers tapped out and real estate values starting to slide gasoline prices may have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

      The banking crisis? How did that affect the average consumer? It may have played a role, providing the catalyst for massive job cuts, but Sufi and Mian use actual data to argue the policy it created is too heavily biased toward protecting banks and creditors.

      Increasing the flow of credit, through rock bottom interest rates they argue, is counterproductive when people and organizations already have too much debt.

      Student loan debt

      With foreclosures no longer rising, Sufi argues that student debt may now be a bigger concern than housing debt. Students who entered college in 2006 were blissfully unaware that, when they graduated in 2010, they probably wouldn't find a job.

      Had they known they might not have run up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

      If the cause of the economic dislocation isn't what we thought it was, it helps to explain why remedial action has been less than successful. Sufi and Mian suggest changing strategy to deal with reality.

      How to fix it

      Their prescription? For starters, they suggest putting more flexibility into consumer debt contracts. For example, they suggest recent college grads should be protected if they face a dismal job market upon graduation by gearing their loan payments to the job market.

      And while it has been pointed out countless times before, the authors make the point again; banks got bailed out but their customers – the people who historically have driven the economy – were left to fend for themselves.

      Lender flexibility is key in avoiding future financial meltdowns. Borrowers in bad situations, the authors conclude, require more options, not fewer.

      As the credit crisis of 2008 recedes further and further into the rear view mirror the effects seem to still be with us.Unemployment is only now starting...
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