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Summer energy costs present a mixed picture

Gas prices are falling but electric bills are rising

It's the dog days of summer, when in much of the U.S. air conditioners grind on, night and day, to keep occupants inside reasonably comfortable. The result...

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© RFsole - Fotolia.com

It's the dog days of summer, when in much of the U.S. air conditioners grind on, night and day, to keep occupants inside reasonably comfortable. The result is usually a hefty electric bill at the end of the month.

But this summer has been a pleasant surprise, weather-wise. According to the Weather Channel, 2014 so far has been the coolest year since 1993, including some unseasonably cool days in June and July, when the AC units got a break.

So consumers should be getting a break on those summer electric bills, right? Well, not entirely.

Yes, consumers may be using less electricity, but statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), released last week, show consumers are paying more for it. Last year consumers paid a record 13.7 cents per killowatt hour for electricity, but in June the average rate climbed to a new record high, 14.3 cents.

According to the Washington Post's analysis of the data, consumers in New York, Connecticut, Vermont and Alaska all paid more than 17 cents per killowatt hour – the highest in the nation. In a report earlier this month the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected consumers' electricity costs would rise by 3.1% this year, making it the biggest one-year increase since 2008.

The agency says the largest price increases are occurring in the Northeast. It predicts electricity costs will rise another 2.4% next year.

Gasoline prices

Gasoline prices, meanwhile, appear to be moving in the other direction, at least for now, giving motorists a slight break at the gasoline pump. The AAA Fuel Gauge Survey shows the national average price of self-serve regular has dropped 4 cents a gallon in the last week and 16 cents in the last month.

That might be small consolation to consumers who suffered through an unexpected price spike in May and an additional increase in June, attributed to geopolitical turmoil, that pushed the price to an average $3.67 a gallon and well over $4 in several states.

Michael Green, a spokesman for AAA, said this week that consumers are now paying the lowest average price at the pump since March 17. He notes that the price has dropped every day in July.

Supply and demand

What's behind the decline? It appears supply and demand is making more of an impact. The EIA reports American refineries have been working overtime in recent weeks, producing record volumes of motor fuel.

Refinery inputs – the amount of crude oil processed – hit a record high of 16.8 million barrels per day in each of the past two weeks, exceeding the previous record from summer 2005.

While supplies are increasing, demand is dropping. EIA says rising vehicle fuel economy standards are contributing to falling demand for gasoline.

So why isn't the price lower? U.S. exports of refined gasoline continue to rise. Monthly exports have more than doubled since 2010, ensuring that retail prices don't fall too far below present levels.

Some perspective

Before we start thinking that $3.50 a gallon for gas is a low price, it is worth remembering that prices are up well over 100% in the last 5 years, at a time when inflation is barely 2%. In looking back through the ConsumerAffairs archives, we found this item from April 2006, headlined “Runaway prices at the pump.”

Gasoline prices are closing in on $3 a gallon throughout the country as the national average price for regular unleaded gasoline is now $2.86 a gallon and rising. That's up 7 cents in just three days. In Wisconsin, pawn shops report brisk business as residents hock their goods to raise money for gas.

One month ago regular unleaded gasoline sold for $2.51 a gallon. One year ago, regular unleaded averaged $2.22 a gallon.

It provides a little perspective. After all, 2006 was not that long ago. If motorists were struggling to pay $2.86 for gasoline before the Great Recession, when unemployment was below 5%, you have to wonder how we're managing to pay $3.51 now.

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Bank of America ordered to pay $1.3 billion, a much larger case still pending

Feds said to be seeking $17 billion to settle "toxic mortgage" case

Bank of America has been ordered to pay nearly $1.3 billion in penalties after a jury found it guilty of selling questionable mortgage loans to Fannie Mae ...

PhotoBank of America has been ordered to pay nearly $1.3 billion in penalties after a jury found it guilty of selling questionable mortgage loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But the normally eye-popping penalty is being overshadowed by one that is said to be in the final stages of negotiation, with federal prosecutors reportedly holding out for $17 billion in cash and givebacks.

Bank of America Mortgages  July 31, 2014, 6:17 p.m.
Consumers rate Bank of America Mortgages

In the Fannie-Freddie case, New York U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff imposed the penalty in a blistering 19-page opinion that said Bank of America's Countrywide mortgage lender "cut corners" and urged loan processors to write as many mortgages as fast as they could, setting the stage for "brazen fraud."

Bank of America had turned aside an opportunity to settle the case and opted to take its chances by going to trial, a gamble that ended as most long shots do.

In the larger case, The New York Times reports that prosecutors are demanding $17 billion, about $7 billion in the form of concessions to help struggling homeowners who took on mortgages that they were unable to afford. The bank reportedly was offering $14 billion and prosecutors -- emboldened by the $1.3 billion penalty -- were said to be sticking to the $17 billion figure.

If an agreement isn't reached, the government vows to sue the bank, leaving observers to wonder if Bank of America will swallow hard and roll the dice again after coming up snake eyes on its earlier gamble.

Talking tough

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Rakoff's harsh penalty and the jury's verdict "sent a loud and clear message to Wall Street that this kind of conduct will not be tolerated."

Bharara noted that in determining the penalty amounts, the judge stated that the bank's accelerated loan process "was from start to finish the vehicle for a brazen fraud by the defendants, driven by a hunger for profits and oblivious to the harms thereby visited, not just on the immediate victims but also on the financial system as a whole."

"The jury verdict and subsequent imposition of penalties make clear that mortgage fraud cannot be viewed as simply another cost of doing business in the financial world," Bharara said.

 

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Airline industry sues TSA over passenger fees

Court petition claims agency ignores mandated caps on "Sept. 11 security fee"

This week, two airline industry trade organizations filed a court petition against the Transportation Security Administration – not to protest the ag...

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Photo credit: tsa.gov

This week, two airline industry trade organizations filed a court petition against the Transportation Security Administration – not to protest the agency's treatment of airline passengers, but the additional fees TSA is now imposing to pay for said treatment.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airlines For America (A4A) filed their petition in D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The petition, available in .pdf form here, “challenges TSA’s disregard of statutory text and clear congressional intent in improperly increasing fees for airline passengers.”

Here's a summary: ever since its creation in 2001, the TSA has offset its costs by adding a “September 11 Security Fee” to airline tickets.

The fee's amount is set by Congress. Last year, as part of a budgetary deal intended to reduce the deficit, Congress increased and simplified the TSA fee structure, with the new fees to come into force a year later, in July 2014.

Double the price

For a one-way flight, the old fee schedule charged $2.50 for a non-stop trip or $5 for a connecting flight. For round-trip tickets, the fee structure included a round-trip cap ensuring that the total TSA “Sep. 11” fee for a round-trip ticket is no more than double the price of a one-way maximum – $10, under the old system.

But as of July 21, TSA is now supposed to charge a flat fee of $5.60 per one-way trip with the round-trip cap in place; the maximum TSA fee for a round trip within the U.S. would then be $11.20.

The problem is that TSA is apparently ignoring the round-trip caps and charging that new $5.60 fee for layovers lasting four hours or more: if you take a one-way flight with two layover connections, you might be charged three times instead of only once.

As the IATA and A4A's petition says: “instead of honoring congressional intent and simply accepting the increased fees on one-way trips authorized by the Budget Act, TSA attempts to conjure up even more fees by eliminating the round-trip cap.”

The TSA is also charging these new fees on flights originating overseas, where the TSA does not operate. As the petition notes: “TSA has flouted the plain language of the statute by imposing fees on the domestic leg of trips that originate outside the United States.”

On May 6, Sen. Patty Murphy and Rep. Paul Ryan raised similar concerns in a letter (here in .pdf) they sent to TSA Administrator John Pistole; the letter expressed concern over the fact that the TSA “outlined a new collection structure that appears to omit the total fee cap currently in place for all round-trip flights.”

The TSA's own website says that the September 11 Security Fee “is now $5.60 per one-way trip in air transportation originating from an airport in the United States,”but says nothing about counting each layover as a separate trip.

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Asleep at the wheel: GM missed ignition complaints from car rental companies

The company failed to connect the dots that should have alerted it to the problem

In perhaps the most embarrassing revelation about General Motors' defective ignition-switch blunders to date, Bloomberg News reports that seven years befor...

PhotoIn perhaps the most embarrassing revelation about General Motors' defective ignition-switch blunders to date, Bloomberg News reports that seven years before GM began the biggest wave of auto recalls in history, car rental companies had alerted it to the problem.

Bloomberg reviewed documents it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and found numerous instances in which rental car drivers were involved in accidents attributed to the faulty ignition switches.

In one case, a consumer driving a Chevrolet Cobalt rented from Alamo was killed when the car went off a highway in good weather and overturned. The driver was wearing his seat belt but died when the air bags failed to deploy.

Alamo wrote to GM, as did Enterprise. Avis and Hertz both had Cobalts in their fleets that were involved in accidents as well.

There's no indication from the files whether GM followed through on the letters, Bloomberg said, but the documents add to the mounting evidence that GM failed for at least a decade to connect the dots that should have alerted it -- and federal safety regulators -- to the problem.

GM has so far recalled more than 16 million cars that may contain the faulty switches, a figure that Bloomberg notes exceeds the 9.7 million vehicles the company sold in 2013.

The complete story is available here.

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How to avoid getting smashed by a truck

With accident rates rising drivers must stay on the defensive

The June 7 fatal truck crash critically injuring comedian Tracy Morgan has served as a reminder to drivers just how dangerous the nation's highways can be....

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The June 7 fatal truck crash critically injuring comedian Tracy Morgan has served as a reminder to drivers just how dangerous the nation's highways can be. It's one thing when two cars collide. Advanced construction techniques and refined safety features have made cars safer and reduced fatal injuries.

But when a car – no matter how well built – collides with a tractor trailer truck, all bets are off.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports a total of 3,514 people died in large truck crashes in 2012. Seventeen percent of these deaths were truck occupants, 67% were occupants of cars and other passenger vehicles, and 15% were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists.

The death toll from truck accidents is rising. It was 12% higher in 2012 than in 2009, when it was lower than at any year since the collection of fatal crash data began in 1975.

Perhaps that's understandable, since 2009 was in the depths of the Great Recession, when because of the economy, fewer trucks were on the road.

In the Tracy Morgan accident the truck driver was charged in the accident, accused of violating laws against driving commercial trucks without proper rest. Morgan has since sued Walmart, which owned the truck and employed the driver.

Whose fault?

But trucking industry officials maintain that fewer than a third of truck accidents are the fault of the truck driver. They say motorists take unnecessary risks, getting too close to these behemoths or not realizing how long it takes a truck to come to a stop.

However, it can't be argued that there continue to be unsafe vehicles – and unsafe drivers behind the wheel – in the fleet of trucks and buses on the nation's highways. Just last month the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) ordered a Minnesota bus company to immediately cease all passenger transportation operations after finding that the company was endangering the traveling public by failing to ensure the safety of its vehicles and drivers.

What motorists can do

While regulators are trying to get unsafe buses and trucks off the road, motorists still need to be wary when sharing a crowded Interstate with these much larger vehicles. There are a few things drivers can do to reduce chances of a close encounter with a tractor trailer.

The first is to remember that trucks have very large blind spots. If you can't see the driver in the truck's side mirrors, then the driver can't see you either.

That means keeping a safe distance when trailing a rig. The trucking industry recommends a distance of 20 car lengths, a space that is hardly every observed.

Dangerous drafting

In fact, in recent years many motorists have purposefully tailgated large trucks in a misguided attempt to save fuel. The theory is that by staying on a truck's tail, the wind's “draft” exerts a pull on the trailing car, requiring it to use less fuel.

What these drivers don't take into account is that if the truck suddenly slows it is much harder to avoid rear-ending it, which is much more deadly than rear-ending another car.

When approaching the rear of a truck, keep a safe distance until you are able to quickly get ahead of it and achieve a safe distance before pulling back over in front of the truck. Just as you shouldn't tailgate a truck, you certainly don't want the truck tailgating you.

Remember that trucks are heavier and take longer to make a complete stop, so avoid cutting quickly in front of them. A fully loaded tractor-trailer takes a football field and both end zones to come to a complete stop when driving at highway speeds.

Then, there's always the chance that the truck you are sharing the road with has a safety issue that could jeopardize other drivers. Something could always fall from the truck or it could lose tire tread.

On busy Interstate highways, it's impossible to avoid tractor-trailer trucks. But the savvy driver will try to spend as little time close to them as possible.

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Quaker settles class action challenging its "0g trans fat" claims

The company said it "vigorously denies" the lawsuit's claims

Quaker Oats Co. has agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle a class action lawsuit that claimed its Chewy Granola Bars contained "dangerous amounts" of trans-...

PhotoQuaker Oats Co. has agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle a class action lawsuit that claimed its Chewy Granola Bars contained "dangerous amounts" of trans-fats even though they were labeled as "trans-fat free," even though the company said in a court filing that it "vigorously denies" the allegations, Courthouse News Service reported.

The settlement grows out of a case filed on behalf of Robert Chacanaca and Victor Guttmann, who said the granola bars were deceptively labeled as having "0g Trans Fat" when they in fact contain partially hydrogenated oil (PHO), which causes heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes, the plaintiffs claim.

Under the settlement, "defendant agrees to remove PHOs by December 31, 2015 from the Oatmeal to Go and Instant Quaker Oatmeal Products that currently contain PHOs, and not to reintroduce PHOs into those products for a period of ten years," the plaintiffs' motion states.

Quaker also agreed to not introduce PHOs into bars which do not already contain the oils, for the next ten years, according to the motion.

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Job cutting surges in July

Much of it is due to cutbacks at Microsoft

Job cuts shot to the second highest level of the year in July, the result of the unexpectedly large number of terminations announced by Microsoft. Outplac...

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© Marc Scott-Parkin – Fotolia.com

Job cuts shot to the second highest level of the year in July, the result of the unexpectedly large number of terminations announced by Microsoft.

Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports U.S.-based employers reported plans to reduce payrolls by 46,887 -- up 49% from June’s 31,434 job cuts, which was the fewest announced so far this year and 24% above the year-ago level.

In fact, the only month to see more job cuts so far this year was May, when 52,961 pink slips were sent out. So far this year, employers have announced 292,921 job cuts down 1.3% from the first 7 months of 2013.

Firings at Microsoft

July job-cutting was dominated by Microsoft, which announced plans to reduce its workforce by as many as 18,000 -- the largest downsizing in the company’s history. It is also the largest announcement this year, surpassing fellow tech giant Hewlett-Packard’s announced plans to shed as many as 16,000 workers from its payroll.

The combined cuts by H-P and Microsoft have helped make the computer industry the leading job-cut sector through July. Computer firms announced a total of 48,361 job cuts in the first seven months of 2014, 125% more than they recorded during the same period a year ago.

“A large portion of the Microsoft job cuts were related to its acquisition of Nokia in 2013,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “However, like Hewlett-Packard, the tech giant is attempting to streamline in order to become more nimble and competitive in an industry that is constantly changing.”

Challenger pointed out that the large job cuts in the computer industry are certainly not a sign of a stalling economy. “The fact is,” he noted, “these are companies that are trying to adjust to where the growth is occurring. The economy is on an upward trajectory, as evidenced by the fact that 18 of the 28 industries we track have seen job cuts decline this year. Even among those with increased job cuts, the year-to-date totals are relatively low by historical standards.”

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Jobless claims

In other employment news, there was a big jump last week in the number of applications filed for first-time state unemployment benefits. The consensus of economists surveyed by Briefing.com was for a total of 310,000.

Analysts say the weekly figure has fallen into a range of about 300,00 which would suggest the labor market has improved to the point where the economy will produce about 300,000 new jobs per month.

The 4-week moving average, which lacks the volatility of the weekly figure and is considered a more accurate gauge of labor conditions, fell 3,500 to 297,250 -- the lowest level for since April 2006.

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

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SW Wisc Dairy Goat Products Coop recalls Raw Goat Milk Mild Cheddar Cheese

The product may be contaminated with Shiga toxin

The product may be contaminated with Shiga toxin producing E coli (STEC) O111:H8 bacteria. The company says no illnesses have been reported to date. The...

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© Picture Partners - Fotolia.com

SW Wisc Dairy Goat Products Coop of Mt. Sterling, Wis., is recalling Raw Milk Mild Cheddar Cheese Lot Code 103-114.

The product may be contaminated with Shiga toxin producing E coli (STEC) O111:H8 bacteria.

The company says no illnesses have been reported to date.

The product sent through distributorship in Wisconsin and Georgia, and then to retail stores in the Midwest and Southwest.

The cheese, packed as an 8-oz cryovac retail size piece with the code 103-114 on a sticker attached to the side, is all white in appearance and has a front and back separate label.

The back label is a black and white nutrition and ingredient label and the front label is a yellow and blue colored label with the Mt. Sterling Coop Creamery brand name. to date."

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

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-608-734-3151.

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Hummingbird Wholesale recalls Organic Raw Carob Powder

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Hummingbird Wholesale of Eugene, Ore., is recalling Organic Raw Carob Powder. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses have been rep...

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Photo source: Hummingbirdwholesale.com

Hummingbird Wholesale of Eugene, Ore., is recalling Organic Raw Carob Powder.

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The recalled products, listed below, were sold to processors and retail outlets in Oregon, Washington and California, and to the end consumer in Oregon in 20-lb boxes and 5-lb bags from 5/22/14 - 7/24/14.

HW Item #
Lot #
Sunfood UPC Code
Exp Date
C11014069, 14059803813-04429 86/5/2015, or
11/2015
C110-5#14189, 14177,
14156, 14142
N/ANo expiration date
on these packages
Consumers who have purchased the products listed above should not consume them, but discard them or return them to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact Hummingbird Wholesale at 541-686-0921 ext 105, Monday – Friday from 8 am-4 pm PST.

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Kawasaki recalls Teryx4 recreational off-highway vehicles

The vehicle's floor boards can allow a stick or other debris to break through

Kawasaki Motors USA of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 11,000 Teryx4 recreational off-highway vehicles. The vehicle's floor boards can allow a stick or...

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Photo source: CPSC

Kawasaki Motors USA of Irvine, Calif., is recalling about 11,000 Teryx4 recreational off-highway vehicles.

The vehicle's floor boards can allow a stick or other debris to break through and protrude into the foot rest area, posing an injury hazard to the operator and front passenger.

The company has received four reports of debris breaking through floor boards, including two injuries to riders’ toes and thighs.

The recalled vehicles are 2012 and 2013 Kawasaki Teryx4 750 4x4 recreational off-highway vehicles. The four-wheel drive vehicles have automobile-style controls, side-by-side seating for four people, four doors, a roll bar with hand holds and a cargo bed.

The 2012 and 2013 models come in three different styles: non-EPS, EPS and EPS LE. The LE style has a roof and aluminum wheels. The 2012 models were sold in the colors blue, camouflage, green, red and yellow. The 2013 models were sold in the colors black, camouflage, green, red, white and yellow.

The model name "Teryx4" is on the driver's side of the hood. For all colors of the EPS model except camouflage, "EPS" appears on the driver and passenger side cowling near the top front corner of the doors.

On the EPS LE, "EPS" appears on the driver and passenger side cowling near top front corner of the doors and "LE" appears on the hood on the driver's side.

The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Kawasaki dealers nationwide from October 2011, through July 2014, for about $13,400.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled vehicles and contact an authorized Kawasaki dealer to schedule a free repair, consisting of the installation of floor board guards.

Consumers may contact Kawasaki toll-free at (866) 802-9381 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Recalled GM cars experience price cut

Suddenly, they're a bargain compared to other used cars

Just about everyone can agree that General Motors (GM) hasn't had a good 2014 – as far as public relations are concerned. But the massive recalls tha...

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Senate report: For-profit colleges eat lion's share of Post-9/11 GI Bill

Seven of the top ten schools under investigation for possible law violations

When you read about the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and other for-profit educational institutions, you might wonder how they managed to stay in busines...

 

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the G.I. Bill of Rights into law on June 22, 1944. Photo: Library of Congress

When you read about the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and other for-profit educational institutions, you might wonder how they managed to stay in business for so long anyway.

 

According to a July 30 report released by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the answer appears to be, “Because the federal government keeps them in business, especially with its Post-9/11 GI Bill program for military veterans.”

Harkin's 22-page report kicks off with this executive summary:

Almost three years ago the HELP Committee determined that eight of the top 10 recipients of veterans’ educational benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits were large, publicly traded companies that operate for-profit colleges. ... Taxpayers continue to spend twice as much on average to send a veteran to a for-profit college although HELP Committee analysis shows that up to 66% of the overall students who enrolled at these for-profit colleges in 2008-09 withdrew without a degree or diploma. Additionally, some companies operating for-profit colleges appear to be increasingly dependent on Post-9/11 GI Bill funds to comply with federal requirements intended to ensure that these companies do not become overly reliant on federal education resources.

What does “overly reliant on federal education resources” mean in this context? Harkin's report mentions the “90/10” rule: a for-profit college can have no more than 90% of its funding come from federal student aid.

However, the report also says, “federal military educational benefits including Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits are not counted as federal financial aid and in fact are counted on the '10' side of the revenue calculation.” That's one reason private for-profit schools work so hard to target veterans: such students bring with them all the benefits of federal dollars and none of the accounting downsides.

Winding down

The report also mentioned that “amongst the top recipients” of this federal aid was Corinthian Colleges – the same Corinthian which, as of last June, was under investigation by 20 different states, in addition to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Justice Department – eventualy leading to the Department of Education temporarily suspending all federal student aid to the schools. In early July, Corinthian announced its plan to sell off 85 of its campuses and wind down operations at 12 more.

But surely, Corinthian is the only distasteful entry on the top-ten list, right?

Not according to the report: “In all, seven of the eight companies are currently under investigation by state attorneys general or federal agencies for deceptive and misleading recruiting or other possible violations of federal law.”

Those “eight companies” refer to the private, for-profit educational institutions on the top-federal-aid list. Of the ten schools listed among the recipients of this federal aid, the University of Maryland was the only public college, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University the only private non-profit school.

It's not that Harkin and the HELP committee have any objections to paying for veterans' educational benefits; the problem is that the feds are spending more money on veterans' educations than ever before and getting less in exchange:

a disproportionate share of new Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits were flowing to for-profit colleges owned by large, publicly-traded corporations. This issue was of particular concern because, despite questionable outcomes for students attending these colleges, it was costing taxpayers more than twice as much to send a veteran to a for-profit college than it cost to send the same veteran to a public college.

At the same time, veteran enrollment in public colleges declined in favor of enrollment at for-profit schools.

Quite dismal

Though the federal government currently does not keep track of how well GI Bill veterans perform in school, Harkin's report suggests those statistics are quite dismal: “overall student outcomes provided by the companies to the HELP Committee for students enrolling between 2008 and 2009 give ample reason for concern. At the for-profit colleges currently receiving the most benefits, up to 66% of students withdrew without a degree or diploma.”

The report's conclusion prescribed some possible remedies for this problem:

It is critical that the federal government establish and make public how servicemembers and veterans are faring throughout the higher education system. Further, it is essential that statutory provisions like [the] 90/10 rule be strengthened to better protect our veterans and servicemembers and properly account for all the federal dollars these schools are receiving from taxpayers and that additional steps be taken to address aggressive marketing.

Meanwhile, if you are a current or future military veteran planning to use your GI Bill benefits to go to school, you're probably better off avoiding private for-profit schools in favor of private non-profits, community colleges or even good old State U.

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Caution: Wiping data from your Android phone may not work

A digital forensics team retrieved compromising data from factory-reset smartphones

You probably know that before you sell or give away your old computer, smartphone or other data-recording communications device, you're supposed to “...

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© magann - Fotolia.com
You probably know that before you sell or give away your old computer, smartphone or other data-recording communications device, you're supposed to “wipe it clean,” or get a factory reset — something to erase all of your data from it.

But this month, the security software company Avast made a disturbing discovery about Android smartphones: apparently you can't wipe them clean. Even if the phones undergo a full factory reset, data can still be retrieved form them.

A digital forensics team at Avast bought 20 used smartphones on eBay. All had been wiped clean, factory reset, or otherwise treated so that their original owners figured their data was no longer on them.

Yet, from those 20 phones, the Avast team was able to extract more than 40,000 photos (including at least 250 nude selfies), hundreds of email and text messages, a completed loan application (with all the personal financial data therein), and the identities of four of the phones' previous owners—and remember, that's four from a pool of only 20 phones.

Off the shelf

What's even more frightening is that Avast's team didn't have to invent some fancy new digital forensics tools to get all this information; Avast's mobile division president Jude McColgan said his team only used readily available, off-the-shelf data-retreival tools.

So, if you have an old Android which you want to replace, must you abandon all hope of selling or donating the old phone, and destroy it instead? Not exactly; there is a way to truly erase all your data, but it's extremely time-consuming (and not guaranteed 100 percent effective anyway).

If you have an erased or factory reset phone and want to hobble any digital forensics team seeking to retrieve your data, your best best is to overwrite it with new data: save a bunch of innocuous stock photos or videos (they don't even have to be your own) onto the phone. Override your previous personal emails and messages by filling your phone with innocuous or even meaningless messages.

To make an analogy: think of your phone or computer memory as a sheet of paper, and any saved data is like pencil-marks you made on it. You can use an eraser to wipe away your pencil-writings and make that paper “blank” again — but a person willing to take the time and effort could probably still look at that “blank” paper and reconstruct at least some of what you erased. However, reading your erased writings will be much harder, hopefully impossible, if you then write or at least scribble new pencil marks all over the site of your old erased ones.

Of course, the main problem with this analogy is that you can look at that piece of paper and see at a glance whether or not your new pencil markings obscure the old ones, but unless you're a digital forensics expert you can't necessarily know whether all your previously erased data has been completely overwritten.

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New hepatitis C treatment shows 90% cure rate

It involves FDA-approved drugs but the treatment requires an approval process

There's good news for people who have hepatitis C, a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious,...

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© CLIPAREA.com - Fotolia.com

There's good news for people who have hepatitis C, a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. Researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the Texas Liver Institute and other health institutions have identifiedwhat they say is a potent treatment that cures the disease 9 out of 10 times.

That's something of a breakthrough since current treatments have uncertain effectiveness and side effects.

Hepatitis C results from infection with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic.”

Acute or chronic

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), acute hepatitis C virus infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the Hepatitis C virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection.

Some people who are infected recover on their own, with no treatment. For others, recovery can be a long process.

Treatment is important because the virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis or liver cancer.

The Texas researchers say they have discovered the combination of the drugs sofosbuvir and simeprevir, sometimes mixed with ribavirin, cured 93% of patients in a 12 week trial. According to their study, published in the Lancet, patients were able to tolerate the treatment with few side effects.

Oblivious

The problem with hepatitis C is that many people have it but don't know it. It's estimated that it infects some 3.2 million people in the U.S. and even those who are aware of their infection face uncertainty. The researchers say cure rates for hepatitis C patients with cirrhosis have been lower than 50% and treatment carries the risk of some adverse side effects.

But the latest trials with the drug cocktail may represent something of a game-changer.

“We are now in the midst of a paradigm shift of moving away from complicated injection regimens that included interferon and often caused significant side effects with modest success rates,” said Dr. Eric Lawitz, clinical professor at the UT Health Science Center. “This trial provides a glimpse into the outcomes of sofosbuvir and simeprevir for treatment of hepatitis C.”

How quickly before this treatment become available to patients? Both drugs are already approved by the FDA but are not yet approved together for this treatment. That will require an approval process.

Important for Boomers

This new treatment may be especially important to the aging Baby Boom population. The CDC has urged Boomers to get tested because 75% of the U.S. population believed to suffer from hepatitis C are part of that generation.

The generation that experimented with drugs and pushed the boundaries of the sexual revolution, it turns out, is the one most at risk for this blood-transmitted disease.

“A one-time blood test for hepatitis C should be on every Baby Boomer’s medical checklist,” CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden said in 2012. “The new recommendations can protect the health of an entire generation of Americans and save thousands of lives.”

Previously the CDC only called for testing on individuals with certain known risk factors for hepatitis C infection. Risk-based screening will continue to be important, but is not sufficient alone, the agency said.

Worldwide, the number of people with hepatitis C is estimated to be more than 150 million. It's a major cause of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer, with 350,000 to 500,000 deaths reported annually.

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IIHS gives mixed ratings to small cars in small overlap front crash test

Only 1 model wins a good rating while 6 are marginal or poor

A dozen small cars were put through their paces by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), tests that included the small overlap front crash te....

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Photo source: IIHS

A dozen small cars were put through their paces by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) -- tests that included the small overlap front crash test.

When the smoke had cleared, only 1 -- the Mini Cooper Countryman -- had earned a good rating.

Among the others, the electric-powered Chevrolet Volt (with a gasoline engine “range extender”) was rated “acceptable,” while its battery-electric rival, the Nissan Leaf, was ranked “poor.” The Ford C-Max Hybrid, a small four-door wagon, earned an acceptable rating, and another small four-door wagon -- the gasoline-powered Mazda 5 -- was rated poor.

Five models of small cars, all 2014s, earn an acceptable rating, two were ranked marginal and four earned poor ratings for occupant protection in a small overlap crash in the latest round of evaluations. The IIHS now has evaluated 32 small cars for small overlap front crash protection. Just 19 earned a good or acceptable rating; the other 13 were marginal or poor.

A challenging test

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 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the longstanding IIHS moderate overlap test. In the 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.

A “solid performance”

“The Mini Cooper Countryman gave a solid performance,” said Joe Nolan, the Institute’s senior vice president for vehicle research. “The Countryman’s safety cage held up reasonably well. The safety belts and airbags worked together to control the test dummy’s movement, and injury measures indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a real-world crash this severe.”

The Countryman, introduced in 2011, is a larger four-door version of the two-door Mini Cooper. The small overlap rating for the Countryman doesn’t apply to the two-door model, which hasn’t been tested.

Making the grade

To earn the top rating of good, automakers need to focus on overall crash protection. That means an occupant compartment that resists intrusion, safety belts that prevent a driver from pitching too far forward and side curtain airbags that provide enough forward coverage to cushion a head at risk of hitting the dashboard or window frame or things outside the vehicle. Collapsing structures can knock front airbags and seats out of position, making the problem worse.

“Collapse of the occupant compartment is the downfall for four small cars in this group, including the Fiat 500L, Mazda 5, Nissan Juke and Nissan Leaf,” Nolan explained. “A sturdy occupant compartment allows the restraint systems to do their job, absorbing energy and controlling occupant motion.”

Volt and Leaf electrics

Back in 2011, the Volt and Leaf were the first mainstream plug-in electric models to undergo IIHS crash test evaluations. The 2011 models earned top ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, head restraint and roof-strength evaluations. That’s still the case with the 2014 versions of both cars.

“Electric vehicles have a unique challenge in the small overlap test because of their heavy batteries. The Volt performed reasonably well, earning an acceptable rating, while the Leaf struggled,” Nolan says.

Driver space in the Volt was maintained reasonably well in the test, and injury measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of any significant injuries to a person in a similar crash.

In the Leaf, the dummy seated at the steering wheel had a different experience. The Leaf chalked up as much as 16 inches of intrusion in the lower occupant compartment and 14 inches in the upper occupant compartment. The instrument panel, parking brake pedal and steering column were all pushed back toward the driver. Injuries to the left knee and left lower leg would be likely in a crash of this severity, and injuries to the left thigh would be possible.

Award winners

The Volt, which has a basic-rated optional forward collision warning system, is the only car in this test group to earn a 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK+ award. The C-Max Hybrid, Countryman, Mitsubishi Lancer and Scion FR-S and its twin the Subaru BRZ qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK, the Institute’s second-highest award. These models miss the “plus” award because they don’t have an available front crash prevention system.

To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK+, a vehicle must earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection, a good rating in the Institute's other four tests, and a basic, advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention. To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK, a vehicle must earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection and a good rating in the other four tests.

“Consumers in the market for a small car now have six models to consider on our list of 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK+ award winners, and an additional 13 that earn TOP SAFETY PICK,” said Nolan. “Consumers trading the inherent safety of a larger vehicle for the convenience or fuel economy of a small car should focus their search on these vehicles with state-of-the-art safety designs.”

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Complaints about do-not-call violations, telemarketers are a growth industry

Consumer survey finds that despite strict laws, scams and violations remain plentiful

© Stuart Miles - Fotolia.comConsumers are steamed about a lot of things old and new, but old-fashioned telemarketers and do-not-call violations were...

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© Stuart Miles - Fotolia.com

Consumers are steamed about a lot of things old and new, but old-fashioned telemarketers and do-not-call violations were the fastest-growing complaint category in 2013, according to an annual survey (pdf) of state and local consumer protection agencies conducted by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI).

“Despite the national do-not-call registry, strict rules concerning robocalls, and other protections, unwanted and fraudulent phone calls are still plaguing American consumers,” Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection at CFA.

Technology is a major factor.

“Internet phone service, Caller ID spoofing software, prepaid cell phones that scammers buy anonymously and discard, auto-dialers and other technology make it easy and inexpensive for crooks to contact U.S. consumers from anywhere in the world,” said Amber Capoun, NACPI President and a Legal Assistant in the Office of the State Banking Commission in Kansas.

CFA and the NACPI surveyed general-purpose consumer protection agencies at the city, county and state level about the top, worst, and fastest-growing complaints in 2013. Forty agencies from twenty-three states responded.

Top 10

The survey also produced this list of the top 10 complaints in 2013: 

  1. Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes
  2. Home Improvement/Construction Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job;
  3. Credit/Debt Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics;
  4. Retail Sales False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver;
  5. Services Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform;
  6. Utilities Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas service;
  7. Landlord/Tenant Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics;
  8. (tie) Home Solicitations Misrepresentations or failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations, do-not-call violations; Internet Sales misrepresentations or other deceptive practices, failure to deliver online purchases;
  9. Health Products/Services Misleading claims, unlicensed practitioners, failure to deliver; and
  10. Fraud Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, imposter scams and other common frauds.

Offshore threats

One of the biggest challenges that the agencies faced was keeping up with the evolving marketplace, especially dealing with scammers targeting U.S. consumers from other countries. The technologies that are used to mask callers’ real identities and locations make telemarketing fraud and abuse particularly challenging for state and local consumer protection agencies to deal with, especially when the culprits are overseas.

“Stepped up telemarketing enforcement and partnerships between federal, state and local agencies are crucial to investigating and prosecuting these cases,” said Capoun.

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Feds shutter $100 million cramming scheme

Defendants offer "free" gift cards to trick consumers into providing their wireless numbers

A federal court has temporary closed down six companies accused of bilking consumers out of more than $100 million through wireless phone cramming, using p...

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A federal court has temporary closed down six companies accused of bilking consumers out of more than $100 million through wireless phone cramming, using promises of free gift cards.

“This scheme demonstrates the kind of widespread harm that mobile phone cramming can inflict on American consumers,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It also shows why we’ve made it a priority to crack down on this problem.”

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a temporary restraining order against six companies and six individual defendants behind the scheme, halting the operations and freezing their assets pending litigation.

In its complaint, the FTC charged that the defendants used deceptive practices, including fake websites with bogus offers of “freebies” or gift cards, to trick consumers into providing their mobile phone numbers. The defendants then placed monthly subscription fees for a variety of “services” on consumers’ mobile phone bills without their authorization.

The practice, known as mobile cramming, relies on the fact that many consumers often don’t closely examine their monthly statements, or assume that charges are legitimate.

The “services” described in the complaint consisted of subscriptions for text messages sent to consumers’ mobile phones that contained short celebrity gossip alerts, “fun facts,” horoscopes, and other items. The subscriptions typically cost consumers $9.99 or $14.99 per month and were set to renew automatically each month.

According to the FTC’s complaint, the process of disputing the charges was frustrating and time-consuming for consumers. Some consumers were crammed for months before noticing the charges and, even after significant effort, were unable to obtain a full refund.

According to documents filed in court by the FTC, the defendants continued cramming charges on to consumers’ mobile phone bills even after wireless carriers terminated their billing privileges. For example, two mobile carriers terminated MDK’s billing privileges because of its high refund rates and its association with deceptive websites. In spite of that, MDK continued cramming through use of a fictitious business name.

The corporate defendants in the case are MDK Media Inc.; Tendenci Media LLC; Mindkontrol Industries LLC; Anacapa Media LLC; Bear Communications LLC; and Network One Commerce Inc.

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An economic bounce-back

The gross domestic product has rebounded in the second quarter

Following word just a month ago that the economy shrank in the first quarter, the government is reporting a big turnaround for the second 3 months of the y...

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Following word just a month ago that the economy shrank in the first quarter, the government is reporting a big turnaround for the second 3 months of the year.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis says the gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States -- increased at an annual rate of 4.0% in the second quarter expanded.   

At the same time, the government revised its first-quarter figure to show a decline of 2.1% instead of the 2.9% initially-reported.

It's important to realize that this second-quarter advance estimate is based on source information that is incomplete or subject to further revision. The government’s second estimate for the quarter, which will contain more complete data, will be released in about a month.

The move upward

BEA credits the increase in second quarter real GDP primarily to upturns in private inventory investment and in exports, an acceleration in personal consumption expenditures, an upturn in state and local government spending, an acceleration in nonresidential fixed investment, and an upturn in residential fixed investment that were partly offset by an acceleration in imports. Imports are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP.

Prices on the rise

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, increased 1.9% in the second quarter, compared with an increase of 1.4% in the first. Excluding food and energy prices, the index was up 1.7%, compared with an increase of 1.3% the previous quarter.

The full GDP report is available on the BEA website.

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ADP sees slowdown in job creation during July

Still, it's the fourth consecutive month of employment growth

The economy continued to create private sector jobs in July, but not at the pace we saw in June. According to the ADP National Employment Report, employme...

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The economy continued to create private sector jobs in July, but not at the pace we saw in June.

According to the ADP National Employment Report, employment increased by 218,000 jobs following the addition of 281,000 payroll positions the month before.

The report, produced by payroll processor ADP in collaboration with Moody’s Analytics, is derived from ADP’s actual payroll data, which measures the change in total nonfarm private employment each month on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

"The July employment gain was softer than June,” noted Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, adding that it “remains consistent with a steadily improving job market. At the current pace of job growth unemployment will quickly decline. Layoffs are still receding and hiring and job openings are picking up. If current trends continue, the economy will return to full employment by late 2016.”

Goods and services employment

Jobs in the goods-producing sector rose by 16,000 jobs in July, down 27,000 from the 43,000 jobs gained in June. The construction industry added 12,000 jobs over the month, less than half last month’s gain, while, manufacturing added just 3,000 positions, less than one-third the number of jobs added in June.

Service-providing employment was up by 202,000 jobs in July, well short of June's total of 238,000. Professional/ business services contributed 61,000 jobs, compared with 79,000 the month before.

Trade/transportation/utilities grew by 52,000, down 4,000 from June, and the 9,000 new jobs added in financial activities was down 25% from last month’s number.

"Although down from June, the July jobs number marks the fourth straight month of employment gains above 200,000,” said Carlos Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of ADP.

Size matters

Payrolls for businesses with 49 or fewer employees increased by 84,000 in July; the June total was 126,000. Employment among medium-sized companies with 50-499 employees rose by 92,000, down 20,000 from June.

Large companies -- those with 500 or more employees -- added 41,000 jobs, and companies with 500-999 employees hired 14,000 new workers.

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Study warns U.S. standard of living is declining

States need to do more to increase workforce productivity and participation, Accenture finds

According to Accenture (NYSE:ACN), the U.S. standard of living is in danger of declining by 9 percent by 20301 – back to the level it was in 2000 &nd...

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For the first time in history, the U.S. standard of living is poised to decline. An Accenture study predicts a 9% decline by 203o -- back to the level it was in 2000. The study identifies three major economic threats: an aging population, lower workforce participation and a flat or declining labor productivity growth rate.

The Accenture report advocates that state governments develop and execute strategies to ensure a sufficient supply of talent to meet the country’s workforce demands. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, current workforce participation rates are at their lowest since 1977. 

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“For the first time in our nation’s history, the next generation may not be better off than their parents,” said Peter Hutchinson, who leads Accenture’s public service strategy for North America state, provincial and local business. “For decades people have come to expect our economy and way of life to continue to improve, not decline. Our standard of living hinges on harnessing a skilled workforce to power our economies.”

Accenture identified three factors threatening the U.S. standard of living:

  • Population: As Baby Boomers retire, the working age population (15- to 64-years-old) is shrinking as a share of the total population. By 2030, the working age population could shrink by 9%, declining to a 1970 level.
  • Participation: There are not enough people of working-age actually working today, driven in part by youth unemployment (16- to 24-years-old).
  • Productivity: States are facing an unreliable growth rate in workforce productivity, which has fallen below 1% for five of the past 10 years and is now at one of its lowest points since 1960.

Accenture’s analysis points to several factors affecting participation and productivity growth rates: Employers are not finding the skills they need for open positions, the long-term increase in high school and college graduation rates is forecast to end and more than half of recent college graduates consider themselves either under-employed or working in positions that do not require their college degrees.

Key findings

A growing dissatisfaction with government was one of the key factors found in the survey, which included citizens, employers, jobseekers and state employment officials across the country.

The majority of citizens surveyed, 72%, said they have little or no trust in the ability of government to act quickly enough to address employment and skills issues.

Only 18% of employers surveyed said they had sufficient access to the skills they require, and only 12% of job seekers say it is easy to find the right job.
Among the job seekers, 58% cited a lack of access to job information as a major barrier to finding employment.

Both job seekers (48%) and employers (56%) say they would value better matching of skills needed by employers against available jobs.

A majority of employers (62%) do not think government is anticipating future skills demands.

“States are in a battle for talent,” added Hutchinson. “To win that battle, states need strategies and tools that can increase workforce participation and accelerate productivity growth. And they must act now.”

Recommendations 

Accenture recommends that states provide real-time, skill-based information about jobs that are in high demand and promote the workforce qualifications needed to fill those jobs.

States should also create talent supply pipelines that can provide employers, including government, with reliable access to the skills and competencies they need, Accenture said.

States should offer every job seeker a personalized road map that shows him or her how to put unique talents to work to gain the skills and competencies needed for the desired job, the report recommends.

“For most of our history, we could take talent for granted. It was plentiful,” Hutchinson said. “But in the future, it will be a scarcer resource. Strategies that worked in the past are not going to work in the future. States that act now and act decisively will have a competitive advantage in winning the battle for talent.”

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Liposuction for your dog

It's not just cosmetic, liposuction is used to treat benign fatty masses in dogs

It's not just the rich and famous getting liposuction these days. The ordinary neighborhood dog might be getting it as well, and not just so it looks good ...

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Glasses? Who needs them? Vision-correcting computer screens in the works

UC Berkeley researchers develop algorithms to compensate for user's vision

© Franky - Fotolia.comDo you have to put your glasses on to see your computer screen? You may not have to do so much longer, thanks to technology ...

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© Franky - Fotolia.com

Do you have to put your glasses on to see your computer screen? You may not have to do so much longer, thanks to technology being developed at UC Berkeley that could enable your computer to take over the task.

Researchers there are developing computer algorithms to compensate for an individual’s visual impairment, and creating vision-correcting displays that enable users to see text and images clearly without wearing eyeglasses or contact lenses.

The technology could potentially help hundreds of millions of people who currently need corrective lenses to use their smartphones, tablets and computers. One common problem, for example, is presbyopia, a type of farsightedness in which the ability to focus on nearby objects is gradually diminished as the aging eyes’ lenses lose elasticity.

More importantly, the displays could one day aid people with more complex visual problems, known as high order aberrations, which cannot be corrected by eyeglasses, said Brian Barsky, UC Berkeley professor of computer science and vision science, and affiliate professor of optometry.

“We now live in a world where displays are ubiquitous, and being able to interact with displays is taken for granted,” said Barsky, who is leading this project. “People with higher order aberrations often have irregularities in the shape of the cornea, and this irregular shape makes it very difficult to have a contact lens that will fit. In some cases, this can be a barrier to holding certain jobs because many workers need to look at a screen as part of their work. This research could transform their lives, and I am passionate about that potential.”

Pinhole screen

The UC Berkeley researchers teamed up with Gordon Wetzstein and Ramesh Raskar, colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to develop their latest prototype of a vision-correcting display. The setup adds a printed pinhole screen sandwiched between two layers of clear plastic to an iPod display to enhance image sharpness. The tiny pinholes are 75 micrometers each and spaced 390 micrometers apart.

“The significance of this project is that, instead of relying on optics to correct your vision, we use computation,” said lead author Fu-Chung Huang, who worked on this project as part of his computer science Ph.D. dissertation at UC Berkeley. “This is a very different class of correction, and it is non-intrusive.”

“Our technique distorts the image such that, when the intended user looks at the screen, the image will appear sharp to that particular viewer,” said Barsky. “But if someone else were to look at the image, it would look bad.”

The research team will present this computational light field display on Aug. 12 at the International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, or SIGGRAPH, in Vancouver, Canada.

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A drop in applications for mortgages

Contract interest rates were showed little or no change for the most part

Most of the gain posted in mortgage applications two weeks ago evaporated last week. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage...

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Most of the gain posted in mortgage applications two weeks ago evaporated last week.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications decreased 2.2% for the week ending July 25.

The Refinance Index was down 4%t from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down 1 basis point -- to 53% of total applications from 54% the week before.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity remained 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 4.33%, with points increasing to 0.24 from 0.23 (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) inched up to 4.22% from 4.21%, with points increasing to 0.23 from 0.20 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA held steady at 4.03%, with points decreasing to 0.00 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 FRMs was unchanged at 3.47%, with points decreasing to 0.25 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate remained the same as last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs surged to 3.31% from 3.21%, with points increasing to 0.40 from 0.32 (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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GM recalls Chevy Caprice and SS vehicles

The windshield wipers may quit working

General Motors is recalling 4,794 model year 2013-2014 Chevrolet Caprice vehicles manufactured June 7, 2013, to May 29, 2014, and 2014 Chevrolet SS vehicle...

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Photo source: Chevrolet.com

General Motors is recalling 4,794 model year 2013-2014 Chevrolet Caprice vehicles manufactured June 7, 2013, to May 29, 2014, and 2014 Chevrolet SS vehicles manufactured September 13, 2013, to March 4, 2014.

The windshield wiper motor gear teeth in the affected vehicles may strip causing the windshield wipers to become inoperative. The failure to clear rain or snow, could reduce the driver's visibility, increasing the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the wiper module assembly and replace any affected ones, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early August 2014.

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 14295.

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Connected cars: the next big thing

Study predicts a surge in new cars that can talk to each other

In the 1950s carmakers competed to see which cars could have the largest tail fins, as a way to attract customers. Today, on-board technology is driving sa...

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In the 1950s carmakers competed to see which cars could have the largest tail fins, as a way to attract customers. Today, onboard technology is driving sales, with navigation systems and Bluetooth connectivity, allowing motorists to play music from their mobile devices through vehicle entertainment systems. What's next? How about connectivity between cars?

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out that vehicles with sophisticated on-board computers could connect to the Internet and actually talk to one another, becoming big smartphones on wheels. But just because it's possible, it doesn't necessarily mean it will happen.

Quartz.com, an economic website, has interviewed car company representatives who aren't sure there's much money to be made in connecting cars. At this point, they doubt consumers will be willing to pay extra for it. Car companies, it reasons, have little financial incentive.

That may be true, but another economic publication, Heavy Reading Insider, is a lot more bullish on the concept. It says the market for connected cars is growing rapidly.

Explosive growth

In fact, it expects the market to surge by 41.2% between 2013 and 2018, with mobile network operators (MNOs) seizing the opportunity for new revenue streams while locking in customer loyalty.

In other words, it won't be Ford and Toyota that drive this trend – it will be AT&T and Verizon. In a report, Heavy Reading Insider projects the trend should accelerate over the next 18 to 24 months.

"Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications is closer to becoming a reality than many people realize," said Denise Culver, research analyst with Heavy Reading Insider and author of the report. "In many cases, traffic and safety boards, as well as other governmental agencies, have recognized that enabling cars to 'talk' to one another, road signs and other pieces of the transportation ecosystem can decrease the number of traffic accidents and, thus, fatalities on roadways each year."

Global trend

It's a trend, she says, that isn't just happening in the U.S., but worldwide. By 2018 she expects connected cars will account for 50% of global new car shipments.

"Various connectivity solutions, such as LTE, 3G, Wi-Fi and HSPA, are being bundled with OEM manufactured cars, apart from the existing traditional connectivity such as Bluetooth and 2G," Culver said.

In the short term, the report says allowing consumers to tether their existing smartphones to the vehicle will be the biggest driver over the next 18 months. Other analysts have agreed that enhanced technology in late model cars has helped sustain auto sales at their current pace.

As the trend develops, manufacturers will use mobile technology, by way of either traditional mobile phones and tablets or hybrid in-vehicle systems, to transfer data from the vehicle to the network.

Changing landscape

That, the report suggests, will bring about changes in the status quo, with telematics software makers, app developers and systems providers merging with larger enterprises to facilitate this highway connectivity. At the same time, MNOs will be pressured to lower costs, providing flexible and cost-effective data plans to provide the ongoing connectivity.

Who's in the lead when it comes to connecting cars? A report commissioned by Vodafone places BMW in the lead, followed by GM, Ford, Audi and Chrysler.

The report, compiled by Machina Research, also predicts rapid movement to automotive connectivity but stresses the need to get the technology right before it proceeds too quickly.

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Military-consumer lender Rome Finance forced to liquidate

Company preyed on military personnel; all consumer debts owed to it are discharged

CFPB Director Richard CordrayRome Finance was best-known for offering "easy" though overpriced credit to active-duty customers of SmartBuy electronics st...

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CFPB Director Richard Cordray

Rome Finance was best-known for offering "easy" though overpriced credit to active-duty customers of SmartBuy electronics stores. But the company is about to become extinct, following settlement of a lawsuit brought by 13 state attorneys general and the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The company has been ordered to liquidate and discharge $92 million in debt for about 17,000 U.S. service members. 

“No one who serves our country in uniform -- especially during a time of war -- should ever fall victim to predatory financial practices,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement, “and today's announcement is an important step in righting this wrong.”

Rome Finance lured consumers with the promise of no money down and instant financing, Defense Department officials said, and then masked expensive finance charges by artificially inflating the disclosed price of the consumer goods being sold.

The company also withheld information on billing statements and illegally collected on loans that were void. Rome Finance and two of its owners are permanently banned from consumer lending.

“Rome Finance’s business model was built on fleecing service members,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Rome Finance lured service members in with the promise of instant financing on expensive electronics, then masked the finance charges with inflated prices in marketing materials and later withheld key information on monthly bills. Today, their long run of picking the pockets of our military has come to an ignominious end.”

This has been a long time in the making. Back in 2010, New York's then-attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, filed suit against three different lenders and their affiliated companies, including Rome Finance.

At the time, Cuomo said, Rome and the other companies would sell items at enormous markups (three to four times their actual cost) and offer illegal financing terms; they also specifically targeted active-duty military personnel, especially those about to be deployed overseas, and the only payment option offered was direct allotment taken from the customer's U.S. government-backed paycheck.

Military customers targeted

From a seller's or lender's perspective, active-duty military make much better customers than civilians of similar income, for a number of reasons: they have that guaranteed paycheck, and if they don't pay their bills for whatever reason, the lender can complain to their commanding officers – which, Cuomo said in 2010, is what the lending companies did, often illegally.

And, of course, if you're active-duty military currently living on an undersea submarine, or in a central Asian war zone, chances are it's difficult if not impossible for you to make all the phone calls and send the email messages and whatever else is required for you to straighten out even a legitimate billing dispute, let alone a fraudulent one.

By 2011, Eric Schneiderman had become New York attorney general, and announced that August that he had secured a $3.5 million payment from Rome Finance to relieve hundreds of soldiers whose contracts were signed in New York State of their debt and to take steps to restore their credit histories.

Now, three years later, the same terms apply to all customers of Rome Finance, anywhere in the country, an estimated 17,800 U.S. servicemembers.

Other state attorneys general who'd joined in the suit made similar announcements: Beau Biden in Delaware noted that 31 Delaware residents would benefit. Iowa's AG Tom Miller announced relief for over 100 Iowans, and more than 1,300 people in the heavily military state of North Carolina will get debt relief, according to AG Roy Cooper.

Details vary

The specific details varied slightly from state to state, but the overall picture was the same. Rome Finance didn't merely charge high prices and high interest rates (sometimes higher than state laws allowed), it would attempt to collect on debts that weren't actually owed; illegally contact soldiers' commanding officers to complain about these non-existent debts; refuse to disclose basic financial information including the overall interest rate … yet Rome was never licensed to provide consumer lending in the first place.

Although Rome Finance is gone, other predatory lenders surely exist and everybody – military or not – needs to remain on guard. You already know the rule “Determine the total cost of something before you agree to buy it,” but after the fall of Rome it's worth adding: “And if the salesman won't tell you the total cost, nor even give you the numbers to figure it out yourself, leave that business at once.”

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Study: 35% of Americans have a debt in collections

Nearly half of Nevadans are in collections; upper Midwest in best shape

Thirty-five percent of adults have a debt in collections reported in their credit files, an Urban Institute study shows. The study, conducted with Encore C...

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© barneyboogles - Fotolia.com

Has the U.S. become a nation of deadbeats? Or is the economic recovery so slow that consumers in vast swatches of the country are simply unable to make ends meet? 

Those are among the conclusions one might reach after reading a new Urban Institute study that finds 35% of U.S. adults have a debt that is so delinquent it has been turned over to a collection agency. The study, conducted with Encore Capital Group's Consumer Credit Research Institute, found that the 77 million Americans in collections owed an average of $5,200 in September 2013.

"Most people wouldn't blink if told that the majority of Americans carry some debt. But they would be shocked to learn that reported debt in collections is pervasive and threads through nearly all communities," said Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "Delinquent debt can harm credit scores, which can tip employers' hiring decisions, restrict access to mortgages, and even increase insurance costs."

Nevada, hit hard by the housing crisis, tops the list of states: 47% of people with a credit file have reported debt in collections. The state also has the highest average collections debt -- $7,198.

Twelve other states (11 in the South) and the District of Columbia top 40%: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia. On the low end, the Midwest's Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota have about 20% of residents with reported debt in collections.

Nonmortgage bill

Debt in collections involves a nonmortgage bill — such as a credit card balance, child support obligation, medical or utility bill, parking ticket, or membership fee — that has been reported so far past due that the account has been closed and placed in collections. This debt can remain in a person's credit file for seven years. Some consumers become aware of collections debt only when they review their credit report.

Of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, five have at least 45% of people with collections debt: McAllen, Texas (51.7%); Las Vegas, Nevada (49.2%); Lakeland, Florida (47.3%); Columbia, South Carolina (45.2%); and Jacksonville, Florida (45.0%).

Only six metro areas, none in the South, have less than a quarter of people with collections debt: Minneapolisâ??St. Paul, Minnesota (20.1%); Honolulu, Hawaii (21.0%); Boston, Massachusetts (22.4%); Madison, Wisconsin (22.6%); San Jose, California (23.0%); and Bridgeport, Connecticut (24.5%).

About 790 of the 72,000 census tracts studied have at least 75% of adults with collections debt. Fewer than 10 have no one with such debt. Census tracts average about 4,000 residents.

Past due debt

The step before collections, of course, is being past due on a bill. About 10 million (5.3%) of Americans are in that situation, being at least 30 days late on a credit card, auto loan, student loan, or other nonmortgage payment. The average amount needed to pay to become current on that debt is $2,258.

The South again leads the way, led by Louisiana (8.7%), Texas (7.6%), and Mississippi (7.2%). Only three states have less than 4% of their credit file population with debt past due: Utah, Washington, and New Jersey.

The research was conducted by Caroline Ratcliffe, Signe-Mary McKernan, Brett Theodos, and Emma Kalish from the Urban Institute and John Chalekian, Peifang Guo, and Christopher Trepel from Encore Capital Group's Consumer Credit Research Institute (CCRI). Support for the research was provided by the CCRI, which is dedicated to understanding consumer financial decision making, especially within subprime credit and low- and moderate-income populations.

The study's analyses use a random sample of 7 million people with 2013 credit files. The roughly 9% of adults (22 million) with no credit file, generally low-income consumers, are not represented.

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Do texting-while-driving bans work?

Study suggests some do more than others

After years of car crashes where behind-the-wheel texting was cited as a cause, 31 states have now passed some type of ban on texting-while-driving. But no...

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FAA wants to fine Southwest $12 million for maintenance violations

"Extreme makeover" of 737 aircraft didn't follow proper procedures, agency alleges

Beginning in 2006, Southwest Airlines started an "extreme makeover" procedure for 44 of its Boeing 737 airliners to preve...

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Photo credit: Southwest Airlines

Beginning in 2006, Southwest Airlines started an "extreme makeover" procedure for 44 of its Boeing 737 airliners to prevent cracking of the aluminum skins on the airplanes.

But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says the contractor Southwest hired to do the job didn't follow the proper procedures and it is proposing a $12 million fine for Southwest.

The FAA conducted an investigation that included both the airline and its contractor, Aviation Technical Services, Inc., (ATS) of Everett, Wash., and said that determined ATS failed to follow proper procedures for replacing the fuselage skins on the aircraft.

FAA investigators also charged that ATS failed to follow required procedures for placing the airplanes on jacks and stabilizing them. All of the work was done under the supervision of Southwest Airlines, which was responsible for ensuring that procedures were properly followed.

Southwest returned the jetliners to service and operated them when they were not in compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations, the FAA alleges. The regulatory violations charged involve numerous flights that occurred in 2009 after the FAA put the airline on notice that the aircraft were not in compliance with either FAA Airworthiness Directives or alternate, FAA-approved methods of complying with the directives.

The FAA later approved the repairs after the airline provided proper documentation that the repairs met safety standards

“Safety is our top priority, and that means holding airlines responsible for the repairs their contractors undertake,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Everyone has a role to play and a responsibility to ensure the safety of our transportation system.”

During its investigation, the FAA found that ATS workers applied sealant beneath the new skin panels but did not install fasteners in all of the rivet holes during the timeframe for the sealant to be effective. This could have resulted in gaps between the skin and the surface to which it was being mounted. Such gaps could allow moisture to penetrate the skin and lead to corrosion.

The FAA also alleges that ATS personnel failed to follow requirements to properly place these airplanes on jacks and shore them up while the work was being performed. If a plane is shored improperly during skin replacement, the airframe could shift and lead to subsequent problems with the new skin.

In the third case, the FAA alleges that Southwest Airlines failed to properly install a ground wire on water drain masts on two of its Boeing 737s in response to an FAA Airworthiness Directive addressing lightning strikes on these components.

The airplanes were each operated on more than 20 passenger flights after Southwest Airlines became aware of the discrepancies but before the airline corrected the problem.

Southwest Airlines has 30 days from the receipt of the FAA’s Civil Penalty letter to respond to the allegations.

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Powdered pure caffeine blamed for teen's death

FDA warns the powerful substance can easily cause accidental overdose

Photo source: AllStarHealth.comThe death of an 18-year-old Ohio student is leading to warnings about the use of pure caffeine powder, a powerful stimul...

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Photo source: AllStarHealth.com

The death of an 18-year-old Ohio student is leading to warnings about the use of pure caffeine powder, a powerful stimulant that's becoming popular among weightlifters and other athletes.

The warnings follow the May 27 death of Logan Stiner, 18, a high school senior, athlete and prom king. Health officials in LaGrange, Ohio, say Stiner had 70 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter of blood in his system, about 14 times as much as a typical coffee drinker.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it is especially concerned about the sale of powdered caffeine on the Internet, making it easy for teens to make purchases without their parents' knowledge. The substance is easily found at Amazon.com and on Google Shopping.

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AllStarHealth.com offers a 200-gram container of powdered caffeine for $10.99. It recommends using a single scoop (1,000 mg) with 8 ounces of water and warns against mixing it with other caffeinated beverages.

"Pure caffeine is a powerful stimulant and very small amounts may cause accidental overdose. Parents should be aware that these products may be attractive to young people," the FDA said in a warning to consumers.

"Symptoms of caffeine overdose can include rapid or dangerously erratic heartbeat, seizures and death. Vomiting, diarrhea, stupor and disorientation are also symptoms of caffeine toxicity. These symptoms are likely to be much more severe than those resulting from drinking too much coffee, tea or other caffeinated beverages," the agency said.

People with pre-existing heart conditions should be especially careful not to use any type of powdered caffeine, the FDA cautioned.

Not enough

The FDA's warning is a step in the right direction, but doesn't go far enough, some health advocates argue.

"FDA should take whichever additional measures it can against these products, and it has much more to do if it really wants to protect the public," said Jim O'Hara, Health Promotion Policy Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest"The overuse and misuse of caffeine in the food supply is creating a wild-west marketplace, and it’s about time the sheriff noticed and did something."

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Dollar Tree buys Family Dollar, amid hard times for discount retailers

The discounters' customers have been hard hit by a sluggish economy and cuts in aid

You would think that when times get tough, discount stores would do a land-office business. But it hasn't turned out that way ...

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Photo credit: Dollar Tree

You would think that when times get tough, discount stores would do a land-office business. But it hasn't turned out that way for WalMart, Family Dollar and the other discounters whose big- and little-box stores dot the countryside; it's hard times for both the discounters and their customers.

Dollar Tree July 29, 2014, 4:43 p.m.
Consumers rate Dollar Tree

Their problem is a simple one: low-income consumers don't have much money to spend and many have been hard hit by cutbacks in Food Stamps and other financial assistance programs. Many are also struggling with burdensome healthcare costs, especially in states that have not accepted federal funds to expand their Medicaid programs.

The plight of lower-income consumers is clearly shown in a new Urban Institute study that finds more than 40% of consumers have at least one debt in collections in poorer states, mostly in the South. 

So it wasn't surprising when Family Dollar announced in April that it would close 370 stores and slash its prices in hopes of attracting more business. But what was surprising was yesterday's announcement that competitor Dollar Tree would buy Family Dollar for $8.5 billion.

"This is a transformational opportunity," said Bob Sasser, Dollar Tree's CEO. "This acquisition will extend our reach to lower-income customers and strengthen and diversify our store footprint. We plan to leverage best practices across both organizations to deliver significant synergies, while we accelerate and augment Family Dollar's recently introduced strategic initiatives."

The deal combines the nation's second- and third-largest discount retailers. The companies will maintain their separate brands between them will operate 13,000 stories in the U.S. and Canada.

Wal-Mart has recently been opening smaller stores hoping to stave off further sales declines at its big-box stores and there had been speculation that it would scoop up ailing Family Dollar. 

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Consumer confidence improves for a third straight month

And, an analyst says the trend is likely to continue

After improving in June, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index increased again in July. The index picked up 4.5 points during the month and no...

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After improving in June, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index increased again in July.

The index picked up 4.5 points during the month and now stands at 90.9. The Present Situation Index rose to 88.3 from 86.3, while the Expectations Index jumped 6.3 points -- to 92.7.

Consumer confidence increased for the third consecutive month and, according to Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board, is now at its highest level since October 2007 (95.2).

“Strong job growth helped boost consumers’ assessment of current conditions,” she said, “while brighter short-term outlooks for the economy and jobs, and to a lesser extent personal income, drove the gain in expectations. Recent improvements in consumer confidence, in particular expectations, suggest the recent strengthening in growth is likely to continue into the second half of this year.”

A mixed showing

Consumers’ assessment of current conditions improved in July. Those who said business conditions are “good” edged down to 22.7% from 23.4%, while those saying they are “bad” was virtually unchanged at 22.7%.

The appraisal of the job market was more favorable. Consumers who think jobs are “plentiful” increased to 15.9% from 14.6%, while those who believe jobs are “hard to get” was unchanged at 30.7%.

Growing optimism

Consumers’ expectations were brighter in July. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next 6 months increased to 20.2% from 18.4%, while those expecting business conditions to worsen held at 11.%.

Consumers were more positive about the outlook for the labor market. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased 2.8% -- to 19.1%, while those anticipating fewer jobs declined to 16.4% from 18.4%.

Slightly more consumers expect their incomes to grow -- 17.3% in July versus 16.7% in June, while those expecting a drop in their incomes slipped to 11.0% from 11.4%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was July 17.

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Home prices rise in May -- but at a slower pace

The gains in value were across the board

Home prices across the nation continued to increase during May, but the rate was a bit slower than during the previous month. According to the its S&P/Cas...

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Home prices across the nation continued to increase during May, but the rate was a bit slower than during the previous month.

According to the the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, the 10-City Composite gained 9.4% year-over-year, while the 20-City was up 9.3% -- down significantly from the +10.9% and +10.8% returns reported in April. All cities with the exception of Charlotte and Tampa saw their annual rates decelerate.

During May, the 10- and 20-City Composites posted gains of 1.1% over April, with all 20 cities posting gains for the second straight month. Charlotte posted its highest monthly increase -- 1.4% -- in over a year. Tampa gained 1.8%, followed by San Francisco at +1.6% and Chicago at +1.5%.

Phoenix and San Diego were the only cities to gain less than one percent with increases of 0.4% and 0.5%, respectively.

The rate of increase slows

“Home prices rose at their slowest pace since February of last year,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The 10- and 20-City Composites posted just over 9%, well below expectations. Month-to-month, all cities are posting gains before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment 14 of 20 were lower.

Year-over-year, 9 cities -- Las Vegas (16.9%), San Francisco (15.4%), Miami (13.2%), San Diego (12.4%), Los Angeles (12.3%), Detroit (11.9%), Atlanta (11.2%), Tampa (10.2%) and Portland (10.0%) -- posted double-digit increases in May 2014.

The Sun Belt continues to lead with 7 of the top 8t performing cities. Eighteen of 20 cities had lower year-over-year numbers than last month; San Francisco and San Diego saw their year-over-year figures decelerate by about 3 percentage points.

While all cities continue to post year-over-year increases, gains weakened in May. Charlotte was the only Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) to see its annual rate improve; it posted 4.7% year-over-year in May versus 4.5% in April.

Tampa held steady with a gain of 10.2%. Despite seeing their rates decrease by 2 to 3 percentage points, Las Vegas remained the top performing city with a return of +16.9%, followed by San Francisco at +15.4%.

All cities reported increases month-over-month with 9 cities -- Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York and Tampa -- showing larger increases in May than in April. Charlotte posted its largest monthly gain since April 2013 while Minneapolis, New York and Tampa showed their highest since August 2013.

New York showed the most improvement with a gain of 1.0% in May versus 0.1% in April. Boston posted +1.1% in May, down from +2.9% in April. Dallas and Denver continue to set new peaks while Detroit remains the only city below its January 2000 value.  

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CaCoCo recalls raw drinking chocolate

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

CaCoCo is recalling CaCoCo “Original” and “Global Warrior” containing said Organic Carob Powder. The products may be contaminated with Salmonella. No ill...

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Photo source: CaCoCo.com

CaCoCo is recalling CaCoCo “Original” and “Global Warrior” containing said Organic Carob Powder.

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The recalled products were sold to California distributors, retail outlets, and farmers markets in 8.14-oz. and 2-lbs. bags. The products in this recall include:

Product Name: Original and Global Warrior

Lot #UPC CodeExp. Date
OG9909113135211310/19/2014
OG10009113135211311/28/2014
OG10109113135211306/18/2015
GW9909113135207610/19/2014
GW10009113135207611/28/2014
GW10109113135207606/18/2015

No other CaCoCo products are affected by this recall.

Consumers who have purchased these products should not consume them, but discard them or return them to the place of purchase for exchange.

Consumers with questions may contact CaCoCo at (530) 362-8632, Monday – Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm PST, or by email at recall@cacoco.co.

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GoMacro recalls various MacroBars products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

GoMacro of Viola, Wis., is recalling MacroBars brand almond butter + carob lots 1634 and 1645, and sunflower butter + chocolate lot 1646 They have the pot...

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Photo source: FDA

GoMacro of Viola, Wis., is recalling MacroBars brand almond butter + carob lots 1634 and 1645, and sunflower butter + chocolate lot 1646.

They have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

These MacroBars were distributed across the country and internationally via retail stores, mail order and direct delivery.

The affected MacroBars will be clearly marked as either:

  • almond butter + carob with lot numbers 1634 (expiration 10 Mar 15) or 1645 (expiration 18 Mar 15) or
  • sunflower butter + chocolate lot 1646 (expiration 18 Mar 15) and in a foil wrapper.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

Consumers who have purchased these products are urged to return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Operations Manager, Tony Saarem at (608)-627-2310 Monday-Friday 9AM-5PM (CST), or by email at tony@gomacro.com.

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Suzuki recalls Verona vehicles

The DRL module may melt

Suzuki Motor of America is recalling 25,899 model year 2004-2006 Verona vehicles manufactured June 2003, to October 2005. In the affected vehicles, there ...



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Photo source: Wikipedia

Suzuki Motor of America is recalling 25,899 model year 2004-2006 Verona vehicles manufactured June 2003, to October 2005.

In the affected vehicles, there may be heat generated within the DRL module located in the instrument panel, which could melt the DRL module, causing a vehicle fire.

Suzuki will notify owners, and dealers will replace the DRL module in the instrument panel, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners can contact Suzuki customer service at 1-800-934-0934. Suzuki's number for this recall is XC.

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Puritan Foods recalls raw boneless turkey breasts

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

Puritan Foods of Boston, Mass., is recalling approximately 2,476 pounds of raw boneless turkey breasts. The product contains milk, an allergen not declared...

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© Sea Wave - Fotolia.com

Puritan Foods of Boston, Mass., is recalling approximately 2,476 pounds of raw boneless turkey breasts.

The product contains milk, an allergen not declared on the product label.

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

The following product is subject to recall:

  • Raw Boneless Turkey Breasts (various weights) with pack dates of June 11 and July 18, 2014

The product was produced on June 11, 2014, and July 18, 2014, and bears the establishment number “P-5933” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

It was distributed to a local distributor, which sold the product to hotels, restaurants and institutions in the New England area.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Christopher Mendez at (617) 596-4917.

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This is the summer of dangerous bugs

From mosquitoes to spiders, this season bites

Insects used to be just an annoyance. Now, it seems, they are posing increasing danger to people.For several years West Nile Virus, spread by mosquitoes,...

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© JPS - Fotolia.com

Insects used to be just an annoyance. Now, it seems, they are posing increasing danger to people. For several years West Nile Virus, spread by mosquitoes, has been a threat in the U.S. It can lead to fever or other symptoms and in rare cases, it can be fatal.

This year there's a new mosquito-borne threat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports hundreds of cases of chikungunya, a painful virus spread by mosquitoes.

The first cases showed up in Florida but the virus has since spread to 34 other states. In one of the highest profile cases, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Joel Peralta revealed last week that he believes he has been infected with the virus. The team has placed him on the disabled list.

Cause for concern

Kansas State University professor Stephen Higgs says outbreaks of chikungunya and its rapid spread is something to worry about. Higgs, one of the world's leading researchers of the virus and director of Kansas State's Biosecurity Research Institute, says because of travel, many more people are now at risk of becoming infected.

"Those travelers have come back from an infected area, most likely the Caribbean, and they've become infectious to mosquitoes because they are carrying chikungunya in their blood," Higgs said. "They have been bitten by mosquitoes in the United States and those mosquitoes have become infected. The mosquitoes go through an intrinsic incubation period and then have enough virus to transmit to new people in the United States."

Part of the problem, says Higgs, is chikungunya is transmitted by two types of mosquitoes, and both are widely found throughout the U.S. While the mosquitoes don't directly transmit the virus to one another, they indirectly spread the virus by biting people.

The way it spreads

"It transmits from person to mosquito to person to mosquito and so forth," Higgs said. "Mosquito biting can be intense and one person can be bitten by dozens of mosquitoes in just a small amount of time. One person could infect lots and lots of mosquitoes and then, unfortunately, the virus can spread from there. Each one of those mosquitoes can infect multiple people."

Symptoms of chikungunya include intense arthritis-like pain in the joints. The pain might go away after a couple of days but it might not. It could last weeks.

Higgs says the best way to avoid the virus is to avoid mosquito bites. Avoid going outside at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active. Eliminate standing water around your house and use insect repellent when you do go outside.

Spider bites

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© evegenesis - Fotolia.com

Mosquitoes aren't the only insects making this summer uncomfortable. Toxicologists at Vanderbilt University say they are seeing more patientsthis summer who have received bites from a brown recluse spider.

Dr. Donna Seger, Medical Director of the Tennessee Poison Center, says these spider bites will usually heal if left alone. But not always, especially if the victim is a child.

Sometimes the spider bites produce something called systemic loxsoscelism, triggering a fever, rash, muscle pain and potential hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells. That can be life threatening, especially in children, Seger said.

“Our recommendations are that all children under 12 with a brown recluse spider bite should have a urine test for the presence of hemoglobin in blood which indicates hemolysis,” Seger said.

It's unclear why systemic loxsoscelism occurs in some people with a brown recluse spider bite and not in others but when it does, it's life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Toxin-induced hemolysis can occur very rapidly, making it more of a threat.

The brown recluse spider is usually between 6–20 mm and light to medium brown, although it can be lighter or darker. It has six eyes instead of eight and can be identified by the violin-shaped marking on its back.  

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Protect your finances from false economies

Not all "money-saving rules" work all of the time

There's a common saying that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”: you can't just implement a system of rules and follow them blindly without paying...

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Staff photo
There's a common saying that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” – in other words, you can't just implement a system of rules and follow them blindly without paying attention. Instead, you must always be vigilant, keep an eye on things, perform maintenance tasks and adjustments as necessary, and otherwise make sure the system's still working as it should.

A similar principle applies to thrifty living. Sure, there are plenty of money-saving rules you can (and should) learn, but even so – you can't just memorize some list of rules and then live in strict, thoughtless adherence to them. Instead, you must pay attention to each individual case, to determine whether those rules actually work in a given situation. Otherwise, you might find that strict adherence to certain money-saving rules only leads to “false economy,” something that seems to save money in the short term but ends up costing you more in the long run.

Here are some false-economy rules to watch out for:

#1: Buying in bulk saves you money

There are two ways this rule can backfire on you.

First: if you're looking for the lowest unit price, it's true that bigger is usually better — we're all familiar with the phrase “giant economy size” — but “usually” doesn't mean “always.”

Just last month, for example, I bought some generic over-the-counter allergy pills at Target and discovered that a small bottle of 14 pills offered a lower unit price than a big 30-count bottle: I could buy 14 pills for $5.19 and pay just over 37 cents per pill, or buy 30 pills for $13.29 and pay 44.3 cents each.

Hence the rule “Look for the lowest unit price when you buy.” Which is a good money-saving rule most of the time — but even when the larger size (or bulk purchase) truly does offer a lower unit price, it still won't save you money unless you actually consume all of the product before it goes bad.

Once, during my poor-student days, I bought a 25-pound bag of potatoes because the price-per-pound was less than half the cost of my usual five-pound bag. Had I lived in a house with a cool, dark root cellar (or ate multiple pounds of potatoes per day, every day), that would've been a good money-saving idea. But in my small college apartment at standard rates of personal potato consumption, I wound up throwing more than half the potatoes away; they started sprouting (or worse) before I could eat them all.

Buy in bulk only when you know it'll save you money. In my case, it would've been cheaper and less disgusting had I tossed a handful of dollar bills directly into the garbage, rather than convert those dollars into several pounds of rotting potatoes first.

#2: Using coupons saves you money

Sometimes coupons do offer great deals. Other times they only encourage you to waste money. How can you tell the difference?

Coupons only save you money if you use them for something you already planned to buy anyway. If you buy extra things you didn't plan to get (and might not even use) just because you have discount coupons for them, those coupons ended up costing rather than saving money for you.

#3: The smallest payment saves you money

One of the most expensive financial mistakes people make is to buy something on the installment plan – anything from a credit-card purchase to a home mortgage – and focus only on the size of their individual payments, rather than calculate their total overall cost.

This mistake is what keeps the so-called “rent-to-own” or “lease-to-buy” stores in business. Check the typical offerings of a furniture rental store, for example: you can get a 47-inch smart TV for only $20 a week! What an amazingly low price, right?

Not at all. In fact, if you multiply that low weekly payment by the number of weeks you actually have to pay, you'll find yourself paying up to $2,100 for the same make and model of TV which regular retail stores sell for only $600. (And that's assuming you never miss a payment — otherwise, you could find yourself shelling out far more than the TV's actual $600 value and still end up with no TV at all, after the rental center repossesses it.)

Almost any form of buying on the installment plan will cost you more than paying upfront, especially when interest is being charged on the debt. This is especially true for people who make only the minimum payments on their credit card or other forms of debt. Yes, making the smaller payment means you'll have a little extra money in your pocket right now, but it also means you'll end up paying far more in the long run, once you factor in the interest on that debt.

#4: The lowest price saves you money

Checking unit prices, or determining the total cost of a payment plan, is easy, especially if you have a calculator. What's harder is determining the overall quality of an item — sometimes the more expensive option really is the better bargain in the long run.

The best-known example of this particular false economy might be the Samuel Vimes 'Boots' Theory of Economic Unfairness. However, Vimes is not an economist but a police detective, and a fictional one at that — he's a character in the Discworld series of books by the popular comic-fantasy writer Terry Pratchett:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

Luckily, we live in an era where basic consumer goods are outrageously inexpensive by world historical standards, and needn't pay anywhere close to a month and a half's pay for a good pair of boots.

Though Vimes' rule still applies to boots and other necessities as well. If you need a car, for example, spending more money upfront for a late-model vehicle in good condition costs less in the long run than buying a high-mileage old “beater” likely to need frequent costly repairs.

#5: Bargain businesses always offer bargain prices

Just because a store has words like “bargain” or “discount” in its name doesn't automatically mean that every price it offers is lower than what standard retail stores have to offer. My local dollar store, for example, sells certain cans of vegetables which sell in the nearby supermarket for only 79 cents — a store where everything costs a dollar isn't necessarily a bargain when you can find the same items elsewhere for less.

Even thrift stores aren't guaranteed to offer the lowest price for items these days; occasionally you'll find thrift stores with price tags more in line with antique shops, or at least the more upscale consignment boutiques.

Outlet malls started out as places where people could hunt for bargains on factory-direct items, but today they're more likely to offer cheaper, cut-rate versions of the manufacturers' more expensive offerings. If you do shop in outlet malls, make sure you're familiar not only with the original price of the items you want to buy, but also their original quality – does the outlet-store offering match up to that?

Whichever money-saving rule you most closely adhere to, especially one you've followed for a long time, take a look at it from time to time, to ensure that it's still working for you. Remember: eternal vigilance is the price of not wasting your money.

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Customer service issue costs add up for consumers and businesses

When consumers get frustrated waiting for service, everyone loses

We've all been there. A frustrating go-round with a business' service representatives. Or time spent waiting for the cable guy.In fact, complaints about ...

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© andrewgenn - Fotolia.com
We've all been there. A frustrating go-round with a business' service representatives. Or time spent waiting for the cable guy. In fact, complaints about customer service are among the most common we receive daily at ConsumerAffairs. Take Maria, of Miami, for instance.

Maria says she bought furniture at IKEA when she moved into a new place. A spectacular project, she says, quickly turned into a nightmare.

“The delivery was scheduled three times and I lost my time in each one,” Maria wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. “I lost 4 hours waiting for the delivery. It never came and they never called us to cancel.”

Nancy, of Silsbee, Tex., writes that she contacted American Home Shield, a home warranty company, when her water heater went out.

American Home Shield July 28, 2014, 5:44 p.m.
Consumers rate American Home Shield
“I put in the service call online and was given a confirmation number and receive an email that Sears would be contacting me within 24 hours,” Nancy wrote. After not hearing from them within the 24 hour period I called Sears and was told it would be at least 5 days before they could come.”

In Nancy's case, however, what she describes as poor service turned into pretty good service when she called American Home Shield to complain.

“Their representative was very upset with Sears and informed me that was NOT the way it was suppose to work,” Nancy wrote in her post. “She immediately contacted someone else, they called me within 2 hours and were out at my home that afternoon.”

Cutbacks

Customer services complaints have mounted since the Great Recession, when many businesses cut staff and looked for ways to tighten belts. But a study by ClickSoftware shows dealing with service issues is causing more than just frustration. It could be costing Americans $108 billion a year with an individual loss of more than $750 per person.

Ironically, it's likely that some businesses providing sub par service are themselves losing productivity because their employees are dealing with personal service issues instead of working. The study estimates the yearly productivity loss amounts to $900 per employee, who has to contend with customer service inefficiencies.

Overall, that adds up to $130 billion in annual expense to companies nationwide.

According to the study, Americans reported using 30.8 potential work hours per year waiting for service industry responses – everything from waiting on hold to waiting at home for service personnel to show up.

Adding it up

Based on the average national hourly wage of $24.45, that comes to an average $753.06 that people lose waiting instead of working. When multiplied by 144 million employed Americans the cost of frustrated wait time experienced by the U.S. population comes to about $108 billion.

"Service industry shortcomings have massive implications—both for consumers and for businesses—as revealed by this survey,” said Steve Timms, President, North America for ClickSoftware. "The findings show people want first rate service, they won't pay extra for it and more than a third will sever ties if they don't get it.”

The numbers appear to back that up. The survey found 35% of consumers have cancelled a service or stopped using a brand altogether due to a frustrating experience. A large number – 72% -- say their frustrations have caused them to take action of some sort, including voicing their complaints on social media.

Can companies do anything to improve their services? The study found a few ways.

About half those questioned said companies can provide customers more frequent and exact estimate arrival times. Around two in five Americans say companies can proactively update them on the progress of their problem.

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Lightning on the beach! It's not that unusual

Safety tips for surviving lightning strikes

The weekend lightning strike that killed one person and injured several others on Venice Beach got a lot of attention but the only thing unusual about it w...

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© yevgeniy11 - Fotolia.com

The weekend lightning strike that killed one person and injured several others on Venice Beach got a lot of attention but the only thing unusual about it was that it happened in Los Angeles, which doesn't get many thunderstorms.

In much of the country, however, thunderstorms are common and lightning strikes routinely kill and injure hundreds of people each year. The Los Angeles death was the 15th in the U.S. this year. 

Beaches, athletic fields and other flat, open spaces are particularly dangerous.

So what's the safest place to be if you're outdoors? The simplest answer, according to the National Weather Service, is that there is no completely safe place outside during a thunderstorm -- the best place to be is inside a building.

If you can't get inside, a car or truck with windows and doors closed offers the best protection from a lightning strike, since the tires offer insulation that keeps the electrical current from penetrating the car. A fully-enclosed structure, such as an outdoor restroom facility at a park or beach, also offers good protection.

Open structures such as picnic shelters and sports dug-outs are not safe and should be avoided, NWS says.

Safety inside

Inside a home or office, avoid corded phones and electronic equipment that is plugged into electrical power or your computer network. It's also a good idea to avoid plumbing fixtures, which can provide a route for the current from a lightning strike to enter a building. 

Your valuable appliances and home electronics -- computer, TV, etc. -- are vulnerable to damage from lightning and, unfortunately, there's not much you can do to protect them. Once a storm has started, it's too late to run around pulling plugs, and surge protectors aren't generally able to withstand a direct lightning strike. They're designed to protect against surges caused by nearby storms or equipment malfunctions, not direct lightning strikes.

Risk management analysts refer to lightning strikes as "low probability/high consequences calamities." In other words, they don't happen often but when they do, they cause a lot of damage. If you're unfortunate enough to suffer a direct strike to your home, the damage can be both extensive and expensive. While it should be covered by most homeowners insurance policies, you'll likely end up paying a hefty percentage out of pocket.

Just ask Dan of Muskegon, Mich., whose house was hit by lightning. 

Had Frankenmuth Insurance with 3 cars and 2 homes for about 11 years. Filed one petty claim all those years,

"Lightning damage, blown holes in my walls, blown switches out of the walls, wiring, etc.," Dan said in a June 2014 ConsumerAffairs review of Frankenmuth Insurance. "Burned up my television, computer, phone, all my cable equipment, etc."

Dan said the damage came to $3,700 but after a $500 deductible and depreciation, he received only $1,799. 

 

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Great Recession's impact lingers on

Most U.S. households haven't recovered lost net worth

If you're feeling poorer these days, maybe you are. A recent study from the Russell Sage Foundation has found a dramatic decline in the net worth of the av...

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© iQoncept - Fotolia.com
If you're feeling poorer these days, maybe you are. A recent study from the Russell Sage Foundation has found a dramatic decline in the net worth of the average American household over the last decade.

After adjusting for inflation, the average household net worth of $87,992 in 2003 had plunged to $56,335 in 2013 – a free-fall of 36%. Part of the decline might be explained by the collapse of the housing market and the wave of foreclosures that followed.

Net worth is measured by balancing the value of assets against liabilities. Households that had significant equity in real estate took a massive hit when home prices began to fall in 2007.

The researchers cite the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, showing home prices in the largest U.S. metros lost 33% of their value between 2007 and 2009. In many cases homeowners who thought they had plenty of equity suddenly discovered they had none, and in fact were under water.

Job market

But housing doesn't explain all of the decline in net worth. Massive job losses after 2008 account for a good bit of the lost ground.

The July 2013 unemployment rate was 7.4%, down significantly from the Great Recession high of 10%. However, in mid-2007 the jobless rate was 4.7%.

While the current jobless rate is well below 7% the numbers also show that millions of people have dropped out of the labor force. Millions more are working part time, or for less money than they were before.

The researchers studied the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a nationally representative survey of U.S. families conducted since 1968. And while the average net worth declined by one-third, the loss was even more dramatic for households below the average.

Falling farther behind

For example, for those in the 25th percentile of net worth – households that only had half that of the average household – net worth plunged by 68.4%. Their 2003 net worth of $10,129 had fallen to $3,200 by 2013.

Even households in the 75th percentile found their net worth had eroded in the last decade, but not nearly as much. Their net worth declined from $302,221 to $260,405, a decline of 13.8%.

Did any households improve their net worth? Those in the 90th percentile did slightly and those in the 95th percentile – the top 5% – registered a 14.4% gain.

From this, the authors conclude that through 2013 there has been little evidence of recovery from the losses of weath experienced by American families during the Great Recession. Moreover, these losses were not distributed equally.

Improvement since 2013?

Have things improved for American households in the last year? There has been no surge in the economy that would suggest major improvement, but in recent months there have been hopeful signs.

Job creation has increased, though incomes have remained stagnant. Food and gasoline prices have gone up, putting strain on family budgets.

Despite that, however, consumers have begun to spend more on things besides necessities. The Deloitte Consumer Spending Index showed an increase in June, reversing months of stagnation or declines.

"Strengthening home prices in May and a drop in unemployment claims put the Index in positive territory, showing a consumer's ability and willingness to spend," said Daniel Bachman, Deloitte's senior U.S. economist.

Is it a bankable trend for the future? Wages were down slightly in June, but the Index authors say there are enough indicators showing the labor market is back, which they think should offset the wage component's impact on household spending.

Still, American families have a lot of ground to make up.

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Smartphone under the pillow sets girl's bed on fire

Don't buy third-party batteries or take your phone to bed with you

As early as 2005, the feds were warning consumers about the fire hazards and related dangers posed by rechargeable batteries – ubiquitous in phones...

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Fox4 News photo

As early as 2005, the feds were warning consumers about the fire hazards and related dangers posed by rechargeable batteries – which are now ubiquitous in smartphones, laptopsand sundry other personal electronic devices.

For example: in March 2005, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a set of “cell phone safety tips” and the first item on the list was this: never use incompatible cell phone batteries and chargers. Whichever brand of phone you have, stick with manufacturer-approved batteries rather than buy from third-party sources, as the manufacturers can't guarantee that third-party devices are compatible with their appliances.

Last week, a family in Texas had a scary reminder of this, when a 13-year-old girl's smoldering smartphone caught her bedding on fire while she was asleep. Luckily, the girl was unhurt, and the fire put out before it destroyed anything more than her bed and bedding (plus the phone).

Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

Ariel Tolfree told the Fox News affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth that she fell asleep with her Samsung Galaxy S4 on her bed, and at some point in the night it wound up under her pillow. She woke up briefly when she thought she smelled something smoldering, but went back to sleep only to wake up again some indeterminate time later.

“I didn't think much of it, so I went back to sleep, and then I woke up again and [the smell] was more prominent,” Tolfree said.

Tolfree's father, Thomas, suspects that the smartphone overheated, which made the battery swell and start a fire. He also admitted that the phone had a third-party battery, according to the Fox4 report.

Ignored warning

A Samsung spokesman noted that the user guide for the S4 specifically states that covering one of their devices with bedding or other material could restrict airflow and cause a fire.

Samsung has agreed to replace Tolfree's damaged bed and bedding, and requested that the damaged phone be sent to them so they can investigate. Ariel Tolfree, meanwhile, said she learned that people should not sleep with their smartphones in their beds, but keep their phone on a nightstand instead.

In addition to this, you should also make sure that, whatever brand of phone you have, you only use manufacturer or carrier-recommended batteries, chargers and other accessories. And don't cover your phone, laptop or any other battery-rechargeable device with blankets, pillows or anything else that restricts airflow and traps heat.

Finally: make sure you look for and read any safety warnings in your owner's manual. Even if the manufacturers wanted to list those warnings, cigarette-style, on the boxes, there probably isn't enough room to print them all.

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FTC wants stronger protections against mobile cramming

Agency issues five recommendations to clean up scam-infested industry

Nearly everyone with a smartphone has been "crammed," including those who haven't noticed yet. What's cramming? It has nothing to do with being squeezed in...

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© Christos Georghiou - Fotolia.com

Nearly everyone with a smartphone has been "crammed," including those who haven't noticed yet. What's cramming? It has nothing to do with being squeezed into a crowded subway car or bus, it's the odious practice of slapping consumers with unauthorized third-party charges on their mobile phone bill. Mobile cramming for short.

The Federal Trade Commission says it's time to do something about it and today issued a report outlining five steps carriers -- and others -- should take to prevent consumers from being crammed.

The "others" are the third parties -- the merchants who offer goods and services that are charged directly to mobile phone bills, and the billing intermediaries known as aggregators who provide the backroom functions that get the charges onto mobile phone bills.

“Mobile cramming is an issue that has affected millions of consumers, sticking them with charges they did not authorize, and the FTC has worked hard to combat it,” said Jessica Rich, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The best practices recommended in our report build on the FTC’s active enforcement in this area and would give consumers needed protections to rein in the problems we have seen.”

Some are legitimate

While the report concedes that some third-party charges may be legitimate, many are not. It cites three cases brought last year by the FTC that led to more than $160 million in judgments. One participant in the FTC’s roundtable on mobile cramming participant called it “almost the perfect scam.”

The commission report calls for:

  • Giving consumers the right to block third-party charges. FTC staff calls on mobile phone carriers to give consumers the right to block third-party charges on their mobile bills altogether, and to inform consumers clearly and prominently of that right.
  • Ensuring that advertising, marketing, and opt-in processes for charges are not deceptive. Consumers should know how much and how often they will be charged. Mobile carriers should closely monitor the merchants placing charges through their bills to scrutinize whether they are risky or suspicious, and if so, take steps to prevent them from placing charges.
  • Getting express, informed consent before charging consumers. Carriers should closely monitor refund rates, consumer complaints and other signs of possible cramming and take action where necessary.
  • Clearly displaying third-party charges on bills. Mobile bills should clearly and conspicuously show third-party charges. Carriers should consider steps to make third-party charges more prominent, such as separate billing lines for third-party charges that make it clear to consumers which charges are directly from a carrier and which are from a third party. 
  • Creating an effective process for resolving disputes. Finally, mobile carriers should put in place an effective dispute resolution process that gives clear information to consumers about how to dispute suspicious charges and seek refunds for unauthorized charges.
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Dog butt-sniffing secrets revealed

Why do dogs smell each other's behinds?

Scientists are constantly probing for answers to the questions that have vexed humankind. Take dogs, for instance. Why are they always sniffing each other'...

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Photo via YouTube

Scientists are constantly probing for answers to the questions that have vexed humankind. Take dogs, for instance. Why are they always sniffing each other's butts?

Dogs who engage in this canine tradition are not just being rude, they're communicating in a surprisingly complex way. It's just one of many forms of chemical communications that go on everyday among animals.

Reactions, a video series affiliated with the American Chemical Society, explains:

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Dancing Star recalls various snacks

The Organic Carob Powder they contain may be contaminated with Salmonella

Dancing Star of Buckland, Mass., is recalling the following products whic may be contaminated with Salmonella: Dancing Star brand Carob Supergreens Chun...

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Photo source: FDA

Dancing Star of Buckland, Mass., is recalling the following products which may be contaminated with Salmonella:

 

Dancing Star brand

  • Carob Supergreens Chunks of Energy (10# UPC 7-69270-20005--2), production lots (0844-1, 0844-2, 0844-3, 0954-1, 0954-2, 0954-3, 0954-4, 0994-1, 0994-2, 1014, 1094-1, 1094-2, 1094-3, 1154-1, 1154-2, 1154-3, 1154-4, 1574, 1634-1,1634-2, 1634-3, 1644, 1684, 1744-1, 1744-2, 1744-3, 1824-1, 1824-2, 1924-1, 1924-2, 1994).
  • Carob Supergreens Chunks of Energy (7 oz UPC 7-69270-70008-8), production lot 1014.
  • Date Flax with Turmeric Chunks of Energy (10# UPC 7-69270-20004-5), production lots (0794-1, 0794-2, 0794-3, 0954, 1004, 1084, 1124, 1134-1, 1134-2, 1134-3, 1134-4, 1134-5, 1624-3, 1784-1, 1914, 1974).
  • Date Flax Turmeric Chunks of Energy (7 oz UPC 7-69270-70006-4), production lot 1004.

Rave Bites brand

  • Rave Bites Carob Supergreens (7oz UPC 7-69270-70008-8), Sell By Date 6/06/15.
  • Rave Bites Date Flax with Turmeric (7oz UPC 7-69270-70006-4), Sell By Dates 4/10/15 and 4/25/15.

Bulk Carob Powder

  • Bulk organic Carob powder (10# UPC 7-69270-80001-6) Julian dates (0154, 0914, 0974, 0994, 1044, 1054, 1114, 1154, 1194, 1534, 1684, 1704, 1824, 1894).

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

The recalled items are distributed nationwide and sold to retail stores, some of them in bulk for the sales of smaller quantities to their customers.

Consumers who have purchased this item should not eat it, but dispose of it or return it to the store where it was originally purchased for credit.

This precautionary action was taken because the products contain Carob Powder that was part of Ciranda Inc.’s Organic Carob powder recall.

Customers may contact 413 625-8300 between 8:00-4:30 EST, Monday through Friday, or email recall@chunksofenergy.com.

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Hyundai recalls Sonatas with brake issue

One or both of the front brake calipers may fracture

Hyundai Motor Company is recalling 5,650 model year 2015 Sonata vehicles manufactured April 25, 2014, through June 16, 2014. Due to a manufacturing error...

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Photo source: HyundaiUSA.com

Hyundai Motor Company is recalling 5,650 model year 2015 Sonata vehicles manufactured April 25, 2014, through June 16, 2014.

Due to a manufacturing error, one or both of the front brake calipers may fracture. A fracture would reduce brake effectiveness, lengthening to distance required to stop the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

Hyundai contacted the affected owners on June 19, 2014 and instructed them not to drive their vehicles. Hyundai dealers will replace the affected brake calipers, free of charge.

Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's number for this recall is 120.

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Pending home sales drop in June

An overall decline in sales is expected for 2014

After posting solid gains for three straight months -- including the largest month-over-month gain since April 2010 during May -- pending home sales were m...

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© karelnoppe - Fotolia.com

After posting solid gains for three straight months -- including the largest month-over-month gain since April 2010 during May -- pending home sales were modestly lower in June.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) dipped 1.1% last month -- to 102.7, and is 7.3% below its year-ago level.

Despite June’s decrease, the forward-looking indicator based on contract signings is above 100 -- considered an average level of contract activity -- for the second consecutive month after failing to reach the mark since November 2013 (100.7).

Still some challenges

NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun says while the housing market is stabilizing, continuing challenges are impeding full sales potential. “Activity is notably higher than earlier this year as prices have moderated and inventory levels have improved,” said Yun. “However, supply shortages still exist in parts of the country, wages are flat, and tight credit conditions are deterring a higher number of potential buyers from fully taking advantage of lower interest rates.”

Still, he ultimately expects a slight uptick in sales during the second half of the year. “The good news is that price appreciation has decreased to its slowest pace since March 20121 behind much needed increases in inventory,” Yun said. “With rents rising 4% annually, potential buyers are less likely to experience sticker shock and can make smart decisions on whether or not it makes sense to buy or continue renting.”

Sales mixed nationally

  • The PHSI in the Northeast fell 2.9% to 83.8 in June, and is 3.2% below a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index rose 1.1% to 106.6, but remains 5.5% below June 2013.
  • Pending home sales in the South dipped 2.4% to a reading of 113.8, and is 4.3% below a year ago.
  • The index in the West inched up 0.2% in June to 95.7, but remains 16.7% below June of last year.

Looking ahead

The NAR forecasts existing-homes sales to be down 2.8% this year to 4.95 million, compared with 5.1 million sales of existing homes in 2013. The national median existing-home price is projected to grow between 5 and 6% this year and in 2015.

The median existing-home price for all housing types in June was $223,300 -- is 4.3% above June 2013, and the slowest increase since 3.1% in March 2012.

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Nissan recalls vehicles with air bag defect

The inflator may rupture upon deployment of the air bag

Nissan North America is recalling 226,326 model year 2002-2003 Nissan Maxima, Pathfinder and Infiniti I35 and QX4; 2002-2004 Nissan Sentra and 2003 Infinit...

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© Brad Thompson - Fotolia.com

Nissan North America is recalling 226,326 model year 2002-2003 Nissan Maxima, Pathfinder and Infiniti I35 and QX4; 2002-2004 Nissan Sentra and 2003 Infiniti FX vehicles.

A safety defect in the passenger side frontal air bag may produce excessive internal pressure causing the inflator to rupture upon deployment of the air bag. This recall addresses both the passenger side frontal air bags that were originally installed in the vehicles, as well as replacement air bags that may have been installed as replacement service parts.

A replacement air bag may have been installed, as one example, if a vehicle had been in a crash necessitating the replacement of the passenger side frontal air bag.

In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger's frontal air bag, the inflator could rupture with metal fragments striking and potentially seriously injuring the passenger seat occupant or other occupants.

Owners of all vehicles on which a defective air bag may have been installed either as original equipment, or as a replacement, will be notified.

Dealers will inspect vehicles, and where a defective air bag inflator is identified, the inflator will be replaced, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin August 11, 2014.

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

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FSIS issues public health alert for processed breaded chicken products

There is reason to conclude the products are unfit for human consumption

The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is issuing a public health alert for breaded chicken products produced by VU Foods of Kansas City, Mo...

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© Comugnero Silvana - Fotolia.com

The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is issuing a public health alert for breaded chicken products produced by VU Foods of Kansas City, Mo.

The company has refused to issue a recall for the products that were produced without inspection. Thus, FSIS concludes there is reason to believe the products are unfit for human consumption.

There are no reports of illness due to consumption of these products.

The products bear the establishment number “P-45038” inside the USDA mark of inspection or on the label. Some labels state that the products were distributed by Tact Foodservice or US Foods. These products will not be identifiable to consumers because they were sent to distributors and labeled for “Use in Restaurant Only.”

The following products were shipped to distribution centers:

  • Select Cut – Cubed Chicken Breast Meat (product code: 10800)
  • Select Cut – Cubed Chicken Breast Meat (product code: 10810)
  • Cubed Chicken Breast Meat (product code: 10500)
  • Pre-Battered Chicken Tender (product code: 80022)
  • Boneless All Natural Chicken Breast Nuggets (product code: 8550)
  • Chicken Dark Meat Nuggets (product code: 20505)
  • KIKKA Boneless All Natural Chicken Breast Nuggets, packed exclusively for KIKKA RESTAURANTS

The state of Missouri, which discovered the problem, entered a warehouse location and observed products that were produced without the benefit of inspection. It notified FSIS on July 15, 2014, and began detaining the products.

FSIS began detaining additional products on July 17 and served a Notice of Suspension to VU Foods on July 24. The agency is continuing to detain the product in question and is conducting trace forward operations with distribution centers to request the product back from their restaurant customers.

Investigation enforcement actions are continuing and FSIS says it is prepared to take additional actions or expand the investigation based on new evidence.

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The dollars and cents of weight loss

Commercial programs and drugs are put to the cost-effectiveness test

It's true that you can lose weight on your own without spending any money. With enough careful meal planning and willpower, people can and do shed pounds....

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© Ljupco Smokovski - Fotolia.com

It's true that you can lose weight on your own without spending any money. With enough careful meal planning and willpower, people can and do shed pounds.

But some people need help, which has spawned a multi-billion dollar diet program industry, not to mention the various pharmaceutical diet aids. Which ones work best?

Everyone has their own opinion and results, judging from the reviews we receive at ConsumerAffairs. But researchers at Duke-National University of Singapore (NUS) Graduate Medical School conducted a scientific study to find the most cost-effective programs and drugs.

Their findings, published in the June issue of the journal Obesity, judged the health and effectiveness of each program and drug based on weight lost for the dollar spent.

Bang for the buck

When examined from that perspective, the researchers say the Weight Watchers program and the drug Qsymia showed the best value for the money. The Jenny Craig program generated the greatest weight loss, but was also the most expensive option tested, the researchers found.

“The obesity epidemic is raising serious health and cost consequences, so employers and third-party payers are beginning to consider how to provide some coverage for commercial weight loss programs,” said senior author Eric Finkelstein. “These results will help them make better purchasing decisions to maximize the health gains using available resources.”

The study reviewed literature of major commercial diet and lifestyle plans and medications that had met a basic standard – proven weight loss at one year or more.

Three diet/lifestyle programs and three medications met the inclusion criteria for the cost-effectiveness analysis: Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and VTrim, along with the diet pills Qsymia, Lorcaserin and Orlistat.

Left out

The study didn't include three popular meal replacement programs – Medifast, Optifast and Slimfast – not because they weren't deemed effective but because they did not meet all the criteria to be included.

Weight-loss surgery, another highly effective way to lose weight – was also excluded from the study.

Of the programs considered, Weight Watchers was the least expensive intervention, costing an average $377 per year. The expected annual cost for Vtrim users was $682. Because of the relatively high cost of Jenny Craig food, researchers said it was the most expensive intervention, with an annual cost of more than $2,500.

When it came to diet pills, projected annual cost for Lorcaserin was $1,743, $1,518 for Orlistat and $1,336 for Qsymia.

According to the results, consumers lost more weight on Jenny Craig than Weight Watchers, but paid more for each pound lost. For example, average weight loss on Weight Watchers was about 5 pounds. On Jenny Craig, it was about 16 pounds.

Consumers on Orlistat shed a little more than 6 pounds while those taking Vtrim and Lorcaserin lost the same amount – about 7 pounds.

Insurance companies

While these relative costs are obviously of interest to consumers considering a weight loss plan, the researchers say the main beneficiaries of their data may prove to be health insurance companies, which are slowly beginning to cover weight loss expenses under their group policies.

“Health policy makers do not understand value in terms of cost per kilogram lost, but if you tell them that an intervention improves QALYs (quality adjusted life year) at better than $50K per QALY saved, they recognize that as good value for money,” Finkelstein said.

The researchers made no judgments as to the effectiveness of other weight loss interventions that are commercially available. But they say these interventions' will need to match or exceed the cost-per-pound threshold established by the reviewed programs.

If you aren't sure if your health insurance covers a weight loss expense, you should ask. But don't be too disappointed if the answer is no.

Even with rising rates of obesity, Finkelstein says he expects insurance carriers will continue to be hesitant to “sink big money” into coverage of commercial weight loss programs.  

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Smart email app acts as your assistant

Inky is a free app that manages your mail

Social media may now provide the favorite way to communicate but email – boring email – remains indispensable for most people. So when someone ...

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Photo credit: Inky

Social media may now provide the favorite way to communicate but email – boring old email – remains indispensable for most people. So when someone comes along and says they've improved email, people tend to listen – albeit with some skepticism.

But Dave Baggett, who studied computational linguistics at MIT in the 1990s, has been turning heads in the tech world lately with his new email app, Inky. Baggett, co-founder of software start-up Arcode, wanted to produce an email client that did more to help consumers manage their email – especially consumers who have multiple email accounts.

The result is a free and eye-pleasing program that pulls all of your email accounts into one place.

Streamlined

“We've made it much more streamlined compared to something like Outlook,” Baggett told ConsumerAffairs. “With Outlook there's a hundred controls on the screen. We tried to boil that down to a small set of controls that are intuitive but retain all the power.”

To do that Inky has to be a little different. It has to think and make decisions.

“My background is all about trying to extract information from text,” Baggett said. “I wanted to make a mail system that would understand your mail. It knows what your mail is about, instead of being a passive observer.”

All sorts of emails come in on a daily basis. There may be a daily deal. You may be on the distribution list for a dozen newsletters. Some of these messages are more important than others.

Sorts by relevance

One of Inky's tasks is to sort through all these messages and make sure the important ones – emails from your boss or spouse – don't get overlooked.

A shipping confirmation may come in from Amazon, with a tracking number. You're busy, so Inky retrieves the tracking number and figures out the location of the package.

“That smartness is what I think is the underpinning of email 2.0,” he said. “We certainly won't be the only ones that do this, but I think we're at the leading edge of this, the way I think email is going to work.”

Inky is currently available for Windows desktop and Mac OS X. The mobile app is limited to the iPhone but an android version is planned for release before the end of the summer.

Simple set-up

To use it you simply download the app to your device and start entering your email addresses. Consumers who have multiple email addresses know that can sometimes be a cumbersome process with a smartphone.

With Inky, you just enter the email address and the password. It does the rest.

“We put a bunch of work into figuring out how to automatically connect to your account, just from your email address and password,” Baggett said. “You'll see other clients do that for the major ones, like Gmail, but not for email addresses from Godaddy. I wanted to make it so that it was 2 pieces of information, you type them in, and it connects.”

Privacy

Baggett said he built the system around privacy. He set out to make Inky different from other email apps and program, which he says store consumers' email on servers.

“That means their employees can read your mail,” he said. “They'll tell you they don't read your mail and they have safeguards, but they still can. And of course, law enforcement can get to it that way too.”

As Baggett explains it, Inky simply downloads your mail to your device. It doesn't get in the middle of the connection between your device and your mail server.

“Your mail never touches our network,” he said. “We have no ability to read it.”

Baggett thinks privacy is something consumers should care about. But even in the wake of revelations of NSA snooping, he thinks he may be a little ahead of the curve.

“I'm not sure this emphasis on privacy matters to people yet but I believe that someday it will,” Baggett said. “I don't see share moving because of privacy issues. I don't see people moving off Gmail because of privacy concerns. But I wonder if one day it'll start to shift.”

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Feds probe air bag problems in Hyundai Sonata

Seat belt pretensioners could also malfunction, reports indicate

Federal safety regulators are looking into a potential air bag problem in about 394,000 Hyundai Sonatas from the 2006 to 2008 model years.The National Hi...

PhotoFederal safety regulators are looking into a potential air bag problem in about 394,000 Hyundai Sonatas from the 2006 to 2008 model years.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says a sensor inside the seat belt buckle can fail, possibly causing the air bag to malfunction. The agency has receivfed 83 complaints about the problem.

"Problem was a sensor in the passenger seat belt," one consumer reported to the agency. "Had it replaced. Within 2 months and $600 later, the light came back on. ... Many other people have the same problem."

In the majority of the reports the airbag warning light illuminated, which acted to notify the driver that a fault was present, NHTSA said. The reports from consumers also indicate that either the front driver and/or passenger safety buckle assemblies may be affected.

Depending on the nature of the failure and the airbag deployment algorithm, the seat belt pretensioner and/or the airbag function may be affected. 

The investigation could eventually result in a recall. 

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"Psychological stigmas" don't have to be disclosed to Pennsylvania homebuyers, court rules

Selling the scene of a tragedy is just fine as long as everything else is in good order

The supposed scene of the "Amityville Horror" (Photo source: Wikipedia)Trying to sell a house with a leaky roof, a defective furnace or a crumbling found...

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The supposed scene of the "Amityville Horror" (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Trying to sell a house with a leaky roof, a defective furnace or a crumbling foundation? You need to be sure to disclose those defects or the buyers can come back to haunt you.

But what if your home was the scene of a gruesome crime?

In Pennsylvania, it's no problem, the state Supreme Court ruled in the case of Kathleen and Joseph Jacono, who sold their Delaware County house in 2007 for $610,000. 

The buyer, Janet Milliken, sued the couple for failing to disclose that a previous owner, Konstantinos Koumboulis, killed himself and his wife in the house in February 2006, something Miliken didn't learn about until she talked to her new neighbors, Courthouse News Service reported.

Miliken sued for fraud and misrepresentation but in a unanimous ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court turned a deaf ear to her plea, upholding a lower court's finding that the Jacanos had no duty to disclose the deaths and that they made no misrepresentation of material fact to support the claims.

Although murders, rapes and torture may be unpleasant, they are not defects in the structure itself, Justice J. Michael Eakin wrote. 

"The occurrence of a tragic event inside a house does not affect the quality of the real estate, which is what seller disclosure duties are intended to address," the opinion stated. "We are not prepared to set a standard under which the visceral impact an event has on the populace serves to gauge whether its occurrence constitutes a material defect in property."

And besides, it would be too much trouble to list all the possible horrors that might be considered defects, the justices agreed.

"One cannot quantify the psychological impact of different genres of murder, or suicide -- does a bloodless death by poisoning or overdose create a less significant 'defect' than a bloody one from a stabbing or shooting? How would one treat other violent crimes such as rape, assault, home invasion, or child abuse? What if the killings were elsewhere, but the sadistic serial killer lived there? What if satanic rituals were performed in the house?"

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New home sales plunge in June

Turns out the earlier months weren't all that great, either

Maybe the new home sales market isn't doing so well after all. The government reports sales of new single-family houses plummeted 8.1% in June to a seaso...

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© RFsole – Fotolia.com

Maybe the new home sales market isn't doing so well after all. The government reports sales of new single-family houses plummeted 8.1% in June to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 406,000.

That comes just a month after it was reported that sales in May had soared to an annual rate of 504,000 -- the best level in 6 years. But, as it reported the June numbers, the U.S. Census Bureau revised the May figure downward to show that only 442,000 homes were actually sold.

And, if that's not enough disappointing news, the April figure was revised from 425,000 to 408,000 and Marches number was put at 403,000 instead of the initially-reported 410,000

Prices and inventory

The median price of new homes sold in June was $273,500 down $9,100 from May but up $13,700 from June 2013. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower. The average price last month was $331,400 up $11,300 from the previous month and up $25,300 year-over-year.

The estimate of new houses for sale at the end of June was 197,000, which represents a 5.8-months supply at the current sales rate.

The full June new home sales report is available on the Census Bureau website.

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Great American Marketing recalls ready-to-eat products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Great American Marketing of Houston, Texas, is recalling approximately 475 pounds of ready-to-eat products The products may be contaminated with Listeria ...

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Photo source: FDA

Great American Marketing of Houston, Texas, is recalling approximately 475 pounds of ready-to-eat products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

There have been no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products

The sandwich and wrap products were produced on July 15, 2014, and shipped to retail locations in Texas. Case labels or packaging bear the sell by date of 07/26/14.

Products regulated by the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) bear the establishment number “EST 31680” or “P-31680” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

The following FSIS-regulated products are subject to recall:

  • 7.4-oz. plastic-covered tray packages containing Chicken Caesar Wraps.
  • 8.1-oz. plastic-covered tray packages containing Club Wraps.

Food and Drug Administration-regulated products being recalled include:

  • 10.5-oz. plastic-covered tray packages containing Ham and Cheddar Premium sandwiches.
  • 10.5 oz. plastic-covered tray packages containing Turkey & Swiss Premium sandwiches.

Consumers are advised to reheat ready-to-eat products until steaming hot.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Bill Welch at (713) 682-6471.

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Earth Circle Organics recalls Organic Carob Powder

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Earth Circle Organics, dba River Canyon Retreat) is recalling Organic Carob Powder. The company has been notified by its supplier of possible health risks...

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Photo source: Earthcircleorganics.com

Earth Circle Organics, dba River Canyon Retreat) is recalling Organic Carob Powder.

The company has been notified by its supplier of possible health risks related to Salmonella contamination.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The following products were sold to distributors and retail outlets in North America:

 Product SKU Lot #UPC Code Exp Date 
CRBP16ow3642; 3404; 3221; 3267 894932002283 6/5/2015 
CRBP5lb3405; 3262 894932002733  6/5/2015
 CBP20lb 3487; 3387; 3292813313011485 6/5/2015
 CRBP55lb 201901; 196201; 194801; 188901; 0786894932002740 6/5/2015

No other Earth Circle Organics products are affected by this recall.

Consumers who have purchased these products should not consume it, but discard it or return it to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact Earth Circle Organics at 530-273-3663 ext 216, Monday – Friday from 9 am-5 pm, PST, or by email at recall@earthcircleorganics.com .

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Whole Foods Market recalls items prepared with stone fruit

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Whole Foods Market is recalling made-in-store items prepared with organic and conventional stone fruit, including peaches, nectarines, and plums from Wawon...

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Photo source:wholefoodsmarket.com

Whole Foods Market is recalling made-in-store items prepared with organic and conventional stone fruit, including peaches, nectarines, and plums from Wawona Packing.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

No illnesses have been reported to-date.

Made-in-store items that contained one or more fruits subject to the Wawona Packing Co. recall were sold between June 1 and July 21. Not all items or all products were sold in all store locations.

Affected made-in-store items such as cakes, tarts, salsas, and prepared salads were sold in Whole Foods Market stores using Whole Foods Market scale labels in all states where Whole Foods Market stores are located except Florida, Washington and Oregon.

Additionally, Whole Foods Market pulled and destroyed the recalled stone fruit sold in all regions where it was available, which may have been labeled with a “Sweet 2 Eat” sticker. A list of recalled made-in-store items by state can be found here.

Customers who have purchased recalled product from Whole Foods Market should discard it, and may take their receipt to Whole Foods Market for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may call 512-477-5566, extension 20060, Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., CDT.

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Consumers choosing more specialty foods for themselves and their pets

Analysts say we don't mind spending more for perceived quality

One of the major food trends to emerge in the last few years is the growth of specialty foods and beverages. Natural, organic, craft, artisan, locally-grow...

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© Joshua Rainey - Fotolia.com

One of the major food trends to emerge in the last few years is the growth of specialty foods and beverages. Natural, organic, craft, artisan, locally-grown – consumers appear willing to pay more for what they perceive as enhanced quality.

And it seems every member of the household is eating better. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) has noted that the trend toward specialty food extends to pets.

According to an article in Food Technology Magazine, the premium sector accounted for 40% of the $26 billion U.S. food market in 2013. Sales of natural pet foods totaled $4.1 billion in 2012.

When questioned, 79% of pet owners said the quality of their pets' food was as important as the food they themselves ate.

The motivation for buying specialty pet food appears to be adding “excitement” to the pets’ diets with flavors, gravies, look-alike human recipes, and meal specific foods such as appetizers and breakfast.

Emphasis on health

Health is another significant driver. Half of new specialty pet foods have added vitamins, antioxidants, protein, DHA for puppies/kittens, and no fillers, artificial ingredients or byproducts.

Some of the same food fads attracting human participation are influencing pet diets. The Paleo Diet, for example, has created lines of specialty foods that mimic the food of the prehistoric diets of canines and felines.

Dogs and cats that eat too much food have created yet another niche – functional and therapeutic foods for overweight pets.

More sophisticated food experience

All of this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise since it appears to be an extension of how consumers are eating these days. According to the IFT article, 42% of adult meals and 33% of solo snacking occasions in 2013 involved “a more-sophisticated food experience characterized by gourmet flavors, compelling narratives, freshness, unique ingredient origins, and/or culinary traditions.”

Chocolate, specialty oils, and cheese were the most frequently purchased gourmet food items in 2013, picked up by more than half of specialty food shoppers. More than 40% of shoppers picked up either speciality yogurt, coffee, salty snacks, nonalcoholic beverages, frozen desserts/ice cream, meat/poultry/seafood, and specialty breads/baked goods.

While craft beers, brewed by small-batch breweries, have increasingly taken market share from mass producers like Anheuser Busch and Coors, so has craft coffee. CNBC recently reported that many of the 32 million Americans who drink coffee every day don't blink at paying more for better-tasting java.

Brett Smith, who co-founded Durham, N.C.-based specialty coffee wholesaler Counter Culture Coffee, told the business network that specialty coffee now comprises 37% of all the coffee consumed in the U.S. He said consumers don't mind paying more because they expect to receive better quality.

What's next?

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Exhibit hall at the Summer Fancy Food Expo (Photo credit: Specialty Food Association)

So what's the next specialty food trend to take consumers by storm? The Specialty Food Association of America last week issued its forecast, based on what its observers found at the Summer Fancy Food Expo in late June.

According to SFAA you can expect to see expanding lines of gourmet peanut butter, protein-packed jerky and smoke flavor in all sorts of unexpected places, like smoked cola gum drops.

Other trends making the list include modern mayonnaise, new twists on popcorn, new takes on yogurt, such as beet and sheep's milk, and a next wave of seaweed snacks.

Trends from past Fancy Food Shows with staying power include coconut, sriracha, ancient grains, healthier snack chips and – of course -- innovation in gluten-free items.  

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Study: if it's on your plate you're likely to eat it

Controlling your portions gives you a better chance at weight control

While it is important to eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise, a major key to weight loss is portion control. Modern servings tend to be too large...

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© sutsaiy - Fotolia.com

While it is important to eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise, a major key to weight loss is portion control. Modern servings tend to be too large and contain too many calories.

Start out with smaller portions, the logic goes, and you consume less food. New research tends to back that up.

A new study by researchers at Cornell University shows that when you put a plate of food in front of the average adult, they'll eat 92% of what's on it.

“If you put it on your plate, it’s going into your stomach,” said Brian Wansink, author of the forthcoming book, Slim by Design, and Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

Global phenomenon

This isn't simply an American phenomenon. Wansink and co-author Katherine Abowd Johnson studied people in 8 developed countries and found nearly identical results.

Parents will not be surprised to learn that children are the exception. Wansink and Johnson found the average child eats only 59% of what is on his or her plate.

While children have long been admonished to “clean” their plates, the prevailing dinner table philosophy today is that children should be served nutritious food but it should be left up to them how much of it to eat.

The “clean your plate” mentality may go back to a time when food was scarce and expensive. Today, calories are cheap and plentiful, one reason, perhaps, for expanding waistlines.

Portion control tips

If you want to try reducing your portions, nutritionists have come up with a number of ways to easily accomplish that, without having to resort to measuring and weighing each bite.

It might sound overly simplistic, but use a smaller plate. Not only does it hold less food but the smaller portions will look larger because the plate is relatively full.

Before dishing out the food, divide the plate in half. Use one side for fruits and vegetables. The other half should hold protein and starch. Dividing the plate ensures that your smaller portion sizes at least include balanced servings of the right foods.

Limit the different food items you prepare for a meal. One reason people tend to over-eat at Thanksgiving is the sheer number of dishes – many of which are traditional to the occasion. People tend to want to try everything.

Another way to limit portions is to avoid eating in restaurants. Because restaurants compete fiercely for customers, each tries to outdo the next by serving up huge portions.

Of course, no one wants to give up dining out completely, so when the food is served in a restaurant, immediately separate half the serving for a take-home box.

What's a portion?

And that brings up the whole question of what actually constitutes a portion. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) points out it is very different from the serving size found on a food label.

A serving size varies from product to product. A portion is how much food you choose to eat at one time, whether in a restaurant, from a package, or at home. Sometimes they're the same but sometimes they aren't.

Keep in mind that the serving size on the food label is not a suggested amount of food to eat. It's just a quick way of letting you know the calories and nutrients in a certain amount of food.

The serving size may be more or less than the amount that you should eat, depending on your age, weight, sex, and activity level.

Wansink says the Cornell findings, published in the International Journal of Obesity, can produce a positive impact an individual’s eating behavior, just by increasing their awareness of their eating habits.

“Just knowing that you’re likely to consume almost all of what you serve yourself can help you be more mindful of appropriate portion size,” he said. “Next time you grab that serving spoon, think to yourself, how much do I want to eat and serve accordingly.”

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Man removed from Southwest flight for tweet about rude gate agent

Forced to delete Twitter comment before he was allowed to fly home

A Minnesota man says he was removed from Southwest Airlines flight and forced to delete a critical tweet he'd made about a rude gate agent before being all...

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Not always this happy?

A Minnesota man says he was removed from Southwest Airlines flight and forced to delete a critical tweet he'd made about a rude gate agent before being allowed to fly home. Southwest, for its part, released a statement confirming that the man was indeed removed from the flight, with no mention of why.

Duff Watson initially told a CBS affiliate in Minneapolis that the dispute started over boarding procedures: Watson is an A-list flyer with Southwest and says he is used to boarding with his children, but this time, a gate agent in Denver wouldn't let his 6- and 9-year-old kids have priority boarding status with him.

“In leaving I said, you know, ‘Real nice way to treat an A-list. I’ll be sure to tweet about it.'” So he did. “Something to the effect of, ‘Wow, rudest agent in Denver. Kimberly S, gate C39, not happy @SWA.'”

Watson and his children eventually boarded the plane, but before it took off, they were asked to leave the flight, allegedly because the gate agent said she felt threatened by Watson's tweet. Watson also said that the agent threatened to call police unless he deleted the tweet, so he did. (Watson's entire Twitter account has since changed to “protected” status, with access limited to confirmed followers.)

Watson's daughter Lucy said she was afraid her father would be arrested. “[The gate agent] said ‘I’m going to call the cops .… I like thought something bad was going to happen, like my dad being in jail.”

Once he deleted the tweet, he and his children were allowed back on board the plane.

Southwest has since reached out to Watson and offered him a $50 voucher for future flights, which Watson says he plans to donate to charity because “I’m not going to fly them again …. I wish I didn’t back down, I wish I didn’t delete the tweet. But under that quid pro quo situation, I did it.”

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Tech support scammers ordered to pay $5.1 million

Tricked consumers into thinking their computers needed to be fixed

A U.S. District Court has ordered the operators of several international tech support scams to pay more than $5.1 million, acting on Federal Trade Commissi...

PhotoA U.S. District Court has ordered the operators of several international tech support scams to pay more than $5.1 million, acting on Federal Trade Commission charges that they masqueraded as major computer companies, tricked consumers into believing their computers were riddled with malware and then charged consumers to “fix” them.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued default judgments against fourteen corporate defendants and fourteen individual defendants that allegedly operated the tech support scams. The operations were mostly based in India and targeted English-speaking consumers in the United States and several other countries.

The FTC filed the complaints in September 2012 as part of a crackdown on tech support scammers. According to the complaints filed by the agency, the defendants claimed they were affiliated with legitimate companies, including Dell, Microsoft, McAfee, and Norton, and told consumers they had detected malware that posed an imminent threat to their computers.

The defendants then charged these consumers hundreds of dollars to remotely access and “fix” the computers.

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New Yorker convicted in bogus Israeli charity solicitations

Money raised for orphans and cancer victims went into fund-raisers' pockets, state charged

© igor - Fotolia.comA New York man, Yaakov Weingarten, has been convicted of felony tax fraud and ordered to pay a $520,000 civil judgment for ...

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© igor - Fotolia.com

A New York man, Yaakov Weingarten, has been convicted of felony tax fraud and ordered to pay a $520,000 civil judgment for soliciting donations to allegedly bogus charities.

Weingarten and his wife, Rivka, are alleged to have been the biggest beneficiaries of the scheme and are, under the judgment. About $360,000 of the funds from the judgment will go to two Israeli charitable organizations that carry out genuine programs similar to the causes for which Weingarten’s fraudulent solicitations raised donations.

“We are committed to fighting to protect everyday New Yorkers, particularly those who want to use some of their hard-earned money to support charitable causes, because there has to be one set of rules for everyone,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said. 

According to the suit filed by Schneiderman, Weingarten and his associates raised donations for 19 sham charities from Jewish donors throughout North America, ostensibly for Israeli charitable causes such as emergency medical services and programs for sick children, terror attack survivors, cancer victims, and the poor.

Money withdrawn

Large amounts of the money raised -- an estimated $2 million -- was then withdrawn from charity bank accounts. Some of that money was used to pay workers operating Weingarten’s Brooklyn telemarketing boiler room. Other funds were used by Weingarten and his family to pay for personal expenses, such as mortgages, dentist bills, car loans, and home improvements.

The complaint also detailed gross mismanagement of charitable assets by Weingarten, including extensive mixing of charitable and personal funds and of funds raised for one charitable cause with those raised for another, which is barred by law.

New York State Commissioner of Taxation and Finance Thomas H. Mattox said, “The defendant not only stole donations for charitable organizations, he also committed criminal tax fraud by failing to report income on his tax returns. Tax theft is a crime against all New Yorkers, and we will continue to work with the Attorney General and other levels of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute such perpetrators.”

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Woman loses $150,000 in online dating scam

If you've never met in person, it's not real love

You already know to be wary whenever you go online, so you don't fall prey to the various types of scammers, thieves, con artists, hackers, malware-writers...

More

International arrests and indictments in StubHub fraud case

Stolen passwords helped thieves steal over $1 million

Authorities in three countries have made seven arrests and handed down three additional indictments related to the StubHub cyber-theft case.StubHub, whic...

PhotoAuthorities in three countries have made seven arrests and handed down three additional indictments related to the StubHub cyber-theft case.

StubHub, which is owned by eBay, is an online secondhand marketplace dedicated to the resale of concert and other event tickets. On Tuesday, July 22, an unnamed law enforcement official said (and a StubHub spokesperson later confirmed) that authorities had discovered over 1,000 StubHub user accounts had been compromised, and used to fraudulently buy or sell tickets.

The thieves never actually managed to break into the StubHub database itself. Instead, they stole customers' password and login information from other sources — either hacking into less-secure retailer databases, or even installing keylogging malware on victims' personal computers.

Incidentally, this explains why “Don't use the same password across multiple accounts” is a standard online security rule; otherwise, a thief who hacks into one of your accounts also gains access to any additional accounts using the same password. That's what happened with the StubHub accounts.

6 indictments

Late on July 23, the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, working with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and police for the City of London, published a release announcing indictments against six people, in an international theft ring with members in Russia, Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. The suspects include three Russian nationals (Vadim Polyakov, Nikolay Matveychuk and Sergei Kirin) and three Americans (Daniel Petryszyn, Laurence Brinkmeyer and Bryan Caputo).

By the next morning, authorities in London, Toronto, New York State and Spain had all made arrests related to the case; as of Thursday afternoon, the number had increased to seven arrests, plus three indictments with arrests presumably forthcoming.

The total number of compromised StubHub accounts was just over 1,600. The thieves used those accounts to buy 3,500 tickets to expensive, high-demand events; DA Vance's office said these included “concerts featuring Elton John, Marc Anthony, Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z; athletic events including Yankees baseball games, Giants and Jets football games, Knicks and Nets basketball games, Rangers hockey games, and the U.S. Open; and Broadway shows, such as Book of Mormon.”

The tickets were then re-sold, with the money diverted into various PayPal accounts, or German and British bank accounts, which the thieves controlled. In all, the thieves managed to defraud StubHub customers of over $1 million.

StubHub, however, has reimbursed the affected customers rather than make them absorb the costs themselves.

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Jobless claims fall to 8-year low

Analysts see growing momentum in job creation

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits have fallen to their lowest level in more than 8 years. The Labor Department says initial jobless ...

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia.com

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits have fallen to their lowest level in more than 8 years.

The Labor Department says initial jobless claims plunged by 19,000 in the week ending July 19, to a seasonally adjusted 284,000 -- a decrease of 19,000 and the lowest level since February 18, 2006, when they totaled 283,000.

Sterne-Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza points out that despite the “impressive outsized decline,” the U.S. labor market remains under pressure. On the positive side, she notes, “initial jobless claims continue to trend down and headline job creation has gained momentum surpassing 200k for the past several months.”

The 4-week moving average, which is considered by analysts to be a more accurate gauge of the labor market because it is less volatile, fell 7,250 to 302,000 -- the lowest level since May 19, 2007, when it was 302,000.

The complete report can be found on the Labor Department website

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Volkswagen recalls Golf and GTI vehicles

A loose stabilizer link may interfere with the vehicle's steering

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 2,001 model year 2015 Golf and GTI vehicles manufactured January 27, 2014, to May 12, 2014. The stabilizer link ...

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Photo source: VW.com

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 2,001 model year 2015 Golf and GTI vehicles manufactured January 27, 2014, to May 12, 2014.

The stabilizer link fasteners in the affected vehicles may come loose and possibly interfere with the steering of the vehicle, requiring additional effort to control the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front stabilizer links, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in July 2014.

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-822-8987. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 40K9/1W.

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East Coast Cycle Supply recalls Trayl TRN mountain bikes

The brakes can fail to stop riders within the distances required by federal regulation

East Coast Cycle Supply of Farmingdale, N.Y., is recalling about 1,800 Trayl TRN hardtail mountain bikes. The brakes can fail to stop riders within the di...

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Photo source: CPSC

East Coast Cycle Supply of Farmingdale, N.Y., is recalling about 1,800 Trayl TRN hardtail mountain bikes.

The brakes can fail to stop riders within the distances required by federal regulation, posing a crash hazard.

The company has received one report of the braking system taking longer to stop than allowed by federal regulation. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves all Trayl TRN 29-inch hardtail mountain bikes. The bike has a black and green frame with a white front fork. The word “Trayl” is in white on the underside of the down tube and in green on the top side of the down tube. The Trayl logo appears as the “Y” in the word.

The bikes, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Sports Authority between November 2013, and May 2014, for $650.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and return them to Sports Authority for a free repair. East Coast Cycle Supply is contacting consumers directly.

Consumers may contact East Coast Cycle Supply toll-free at (844) 322-9253 from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by email at customerservice@eccyclesupply.com.

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Dream On Me recalls high chairs

The leg or side opening of the chair can allow a child’s body to pass through

Dream On Me of South Plainfield, N.J., is recalling about 2,800 Dream On Me Dinah high chairs. The leg or side opening of the chair can allow a child’s bo...

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Photo source: CPSC

Dream On Me of South Plainfield, N.J., is recalling about 2,800 Dream On Me Dinah high chairs.

The leg or side opening of the chair can allow a child’s body to pass through and become trapped at the neck or fall from the chair, posing a strangulation and fall hazard.

There are no reports of any incidents or injuries.

The recall includes Dream On Me Dinah high chairs made with a steel, powder coated tubing open-framed base with white plastic foot grips and black with white trim or red with white trim fabric seats. The chair has a white plastic tray, plastic footrest and a white fabric five point adjustable safety strap. “Dream On Me” is printed on a label attached to the front of the tray.

There is a color-coordinated black and white or red and white fabric storage bin attached to the bottom of the chair legs. The high chair can be folded for storage.

The high chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively online by Walmart.com and Amazon.com from November 2012, to November 2013, for about $60.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled high chairs and contact Dream On Me to receive a free repair kit.

Consumers may contact Dream On Me toll-free at (877) 201-4317 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday.

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GM announces 6 recalls for varying safety issues

Nearly 718k vehicles are affected

General Motors is recalling 717,950 recent model vehicles in the U.S., including: 414,333 2011-2012 model year Chevrolet Camaro; 2010-2012 model year Chev...

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Photo source: GM.com

General Motors is recalling 717,950 recent model vehicles in the U.S., including:

  • 414,333 2011-2012 model year Chevrolet Camaro; 2010-2012 model year Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain; 2011-2012 Buick Regal and LaCrosse; and 2010-2012 Cadillac SRX models in the U.S. equipped with power height adjustable driver or front passenger seat structures. In these vehicles, the bolt that secures the height adjuster actuator may become loose or fall out, allowing the seat to move up and down freely because it is no longer attached at the height adjuster. The vehicles are safe to drive, but customers should not use the power height adjustable feature until dealers can replace the height adjuster bolt. GM says it is aware of 1 crash and 3 injuries, but no fatalities related to this condition.
  • 124,008 model year 2014 Chevrolet Caprice, 2014 Chevrolet SS, 2014-2015 Chevrolet Silverado LD and HD, 2013-2014 Cadillac ATS, 2014 Cadillac CTS, 2014 Cadillac ELR; 2013-2014 Buick Encore; and 2014-2015 GMC Sierra LD and HD vehicles. Certain vehicles manufactured between July 2013 and January 2014 may have an incomplete weld on the seat hook bracket assembly. If the weld is sufficient, no further action is necessary. If it is insufficient, dealers will replace the lower seat track at no charge. Less than 1% of welds are expected to require seat track replacement. GM says it is unaware of any crashes or injuries as a result of this issue.
  • 120,426 2011-2013 model year Buick Regal and 2013 model year Chevrolet Malibus equipped with front turn signals that use 2 bulbs in each front turn signal. While the driver would get a rapidly flashing turn signal arrow in the instrument cluster if both bulbs in 1 turn signal were burned out; if only 1 bulb on either side burns out, there would be no signal to the driver. Dealers will reprogram the body control module to fix the condition. GM says it knows of no crashes, injuries or complaints related to this issue.
  • 57,242 2014 Chevrolet Impalas equipped with belt-drive electric power steering. On certain vehicles, customers may experience reduced or no power steering assist at start-up or while driving, due to a poor electrical ground connection to the Power Steering Control Module. If power steering is lost, a warning message is displayed on the Driver Information Center and a chime sounds. Steering control can be maintained because the vehicle will revert to manual steering mode, but would require greater driver effort particularly at low vehicle speeds. Paint may have seeped behind the nut on the power steering control module ground stud. Dealers will inspect and clean paint from behind the ground nut, re-torque the nut and update the power steering control module software at no charge. GM says it is aware of 1 crash but no injuries or fatalities related to this condition.
  • 1,919 2014-2015 Chevrolet Sparks imported from Korea that were assembled with a lower control arm bolt not fastened to specification. The condition could result in noise from the front suspension and separation of the lower control arm from the steering knuckle while driving, resulting in loss of steering control. Dealers will inspect the left and right hand lower control arm attaching bolts to assure they are tightened to specification. GM says it knows of no crashes, injuries or fatalities related to this condition.
  • 22 2015 model year Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and GMC Yukon/Yukon Denali vehicles in the U.S. In these vehicles, the roof carriers may have been attached with the wrong retaining nuts, resulting in holes or tears in the roof rail air bags if they deploy. Eight of these vehicles are in dealer stock and will be repaired before being sold.  
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Congressional bill would cap payday lender fees

Nearly all consumer groups support it, but do enough lawmakers?

Democratic members of Congress have introduced legislation in both the House and Senate to cap interest rates that could be charged on short-term consumer...

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© macrovector - Fotolia.com

Democratic members of Congress have introduced legislation in both the House and Senate to cap interest rates that could be charged on short-term consumer loans.

The Protecting Consumers from Unreasonable Credit Rates Act would cap rates at 36% APR and essentially put most payday and car title loan companies out of business.

The reason is simple. There is a huge difference between the triple-digit rates these companies charge and 36%, which is among the highest rates credit card companies charge.

Here's an illustration: many payday loan companies charge a fee of $15 per $100 borrowed. If a consumer borrowed $500, they would pay a fee of $75.

Length of term makes big difference

If the borrower had a year in which to pay back the $500, the interest rate would only be 15%. But with payday and car title loans, the consumer pays $75 to use the $500 for 2 weeks. That interest rate works out to 390% APR.

If these lenders were limited to charging 36% APR on a two week loan of $500 their fee would be $7 instead of $75. In states that have passed the 36% cap payday lenders have closed their doors and pulled out.

The problem is not so much the fees charged to borrowers but rather the short term nature of a loan. When a consumer borrows $500 from a payday lender it is usually because they have been confronted with some emergency expense and they don't have the money.

If they don't have the money on the day they borrow it, how are they going to have it in 2 weeks, when it is time to repay the loan? In nearly every case they don't, and therefore have to take out another loan – with another fee – to pay back the original loan.

Cycle of debt

Industry critics say by its very nature, a 2-week loan has the potential to trap consumers in a cycle of debt.

“A safe and sustainable loan is one that consumers can repay in full and on time without additional borrowing,” said Tom Feltner, Director of Financial Services at Consumer Federation of America (CFA). “Capping rates at 36% will protect consumers from the abusive practices common in payday loans, auto title loans and other high-cost credit products that often top 400 percent APR.”

The proposed legislation capping rates has widespread support among consumer advocates. A total of 38 organizations have endorsed the bill, saying it will go a long way toward ending predatory lending.

But the legislation's outlook is not all that promising since sponsors in the House and Senate are all Democrats. Democrats may control the Senate but Republicans control the House.

Bipartisan issue?

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA), one of the House sponsors, is hopeful the legislation can attractive bipartisan support once all the facts about it are known. He notes clamping down on predatory lending is an issue all parties have supported in the past.

“Pennsylvania recognizes that predatory lending disproportionately harms economically disadvantaged individuals – people who are already struggling financially,” he said. “My consumer-friendly legislation would provide relief from exorbitant fees for many low-income consumers across the country. Capping interest rates and fees for all consumers will not only protect working families but also enable our economic recovery.”

Cartwright also notes that in 2006, when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, Congress enacted a 36% annualized usury cap for certain credit products marketed to servicemembers and their families.

Cartwright says the bill would also encourage the creation of “responsible alternatives” to small dollar lending, by allowing initial application fees and for ongoing lender costs such as insufficient funds fees and late fees.

The small dollar loan industry will no doubt spare no expense in lobbying against the measure. But consumer groups that have lined up in support say they will make sure lawmakers hear from them too.

“High interest rates, no consideration of an ability to repay and direct access to a borrowers’ bank account sets in motion a cycle of debt that is difficult to escape.” CFA's Feltner said. “By capping interest rates, we can ensure affordable payments, better underwriting and fair repayment terms and take a big step forward toward ending the payday loan debt trap.”

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Feds, states announce round-up of foreclosure relief scam suspects

Consumers lost more than $25 million in illegal fees; many also lost their homes

Federal and state agencies today announced a sweeping round-up of alleged scam artists blamed for ripping off distressed homeowners across the country.Th...

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© tang90246 - Fotolia.com
Federal and state agencies today announced a sweeping round-up of alleged scam artists blamed for ripping off distressed homeowners across the country.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is filing three lawsuits against companies and individuals that allegedly collected more than $25 million in illegal advance fees for services that falsely promised to prevent foreclosures or renegotiate troubled mortgages.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken action against six mortgage relief operations. In each case, the FTC has sought an order stopping the illegal practices and freezing the defendants’ assets pending the outcome of the litigation.

Fifteen states working with the federal agencies have filed 32 legal actions aimed at stopping the deceptive practices and recovering fees paid by consumers.

“We are taking on schemes that prey on consumers who are struggling to pay their mortgages or facing foreclosure,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “These companies pocketed illegal fees — taking millions of hard-earned dollars from distressed consumers, and then left those consumers worse off than they began. These practices are not only illegal, they are reprehensible.”

“Mortgage relief schemes like these target people who are already having financial problems and, all too often, inflict even further harm on them,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We’re determined to stop operations that illegally charge up-front mortgage relief fees or make empty mortgage relief promises.”

Law firms named

The first CFPB lawsuit names Clausen & Cobb Management Company and its owners, as well as Stephen Siringoringo and his Siringoringo Law Firm. The second lawsuit is against The Mortgage Law Group, LLP, the Consumer First Legal Group, LLC, and attorneys Thomas Macey, Jeffrey Aleman, Jason Searns, and Harold Stafford. The third lawsuit is against the Hoffman Law Group, its operators, Michael Harper, Benn Wilcox, and attorney Marc Hoffman, and its affiliated companies, Nationwide Management Solutions, Legal Intake Solutions, File Intake Solutions, and BM Marketing Group.

The CFPB alleges that the scammers used deceptive marketing to persuade thousands of consumers to pay millions in illegal, upfront fees for promised mortgage modifications. Each of the scammers was a law firm or was associated with one.

The defendants disguised their false promises of foreclosure relief for struggling homeowners with claims that they were performing legal work. These tactics are used by foreclosure relief scams to attract victims, add credibility to their schemes, or exploit certain legal exemptions for the practice of law.

Illegal practices

The illegal practices alleged in the complaints include:

  • Collecting fees before obtaining a loan modification: Companies cannot legally accept payment for helping to obtain a mortgage modification for a consumer before the consumer has a modification agreement in place with their lender.
  • Inflating success rates and likelihood of obtaining a modification: The firms’ marketing materials misrepresented the likelihood that they would help consumers save substantial sums in mortgage payments. 
  • Duping consumers into thinking they would receive legal representation: All of these companies allegedly used their status as attorneys to dupe consumers into thinking they would receive legal representation when many consumers never spoke with an attorney or had their case reviewed by one.
  • Making false promises about loan modifications to consumers: During meetings, some consumers were misled into believing that they were eligible for a loan modification. Other consumers were promised that they would receive relief within a few months. In the end, many consumers learned that the defendants had not contacted their lenders or obtained any meaningful relief for them.

Ultimately, homeowners across the country lost thousands of dollars and suffered significant economic injury, including losing their homes.

FTC actions

Including the six cases announced today, the FTC has brought 48 actions against companies peddling fraudulent mortgage relief schemes since 2008.  The cases announced today include:  

  • Danielson Law Group. The FTC has alleged that these Utah-based defendants touted a success rate that exceeded 90% and enticed consumers to pay hefty advance fees ranging from $500 to $3,900 – falsely promising that attorneys would negotiate loan modifications with substantially reduced mortgage payments using their special relationships with lenders or mortgage analysis reports produced by a proprietary software program. The defendants also urged homeowners to stop paying their lenders, and falsely promised full refunds if they did not obtain a loan modification, according to the FTC.
  • FMC Counseling Services, IncThe FTC has alleged that from at least February 2011, this Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based operation made false claims that it was affiliated with the federal government’s Making Home Affordable assistance program, and that it would renegotiate consumers’ mortgages, reducing them by several hundred dollars. Deceptively using the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s logo and doing business as the “Federal Debt Commission,” the “Federal Mortgage Marketplace,” and the “Federal Assistance Program,” the defendants promised consumers their mortgage modifications would be completed quickly or that they could provide free mortgage refinancing.  The defendants also told consumers to cease communications with their lenders, and to turn over their mortgage payments while refinancing was pending.  Collecting more than $600,000 in payments from hundreds of consumers, the defendants did nothing for consumers and failed to apply any funds received from consumers to their existing mortgages. As a result, many consumers lost their homes as well as their mortgage payments.   
  • Lanier LawThe FTC has alleged that from at least 2011, this Jacksonville, Fla.-based operation typically told consumers that they would get a loan modification or that their chances of getting one was 85% to 100%. The defendants typically collected an upfront fee of $1,000 to $4,000, or an ongoing monthly fee of $500 or more. In some cases, according to the FTC, they also told consumers not to pay their mortgages while their supposed loan modifications were pending, and that they would conduct an audit of consumers’ mortgage documents to find errors or fraud committed by the lender.
  • Mortgage Relief AdvocatesThe FTC has alleged that from at least August 2010, this California-based operation sold fraudulent mortgage assistance services on its websites and through telemarketing. Charging an up-front fee of $1,000 to $3,200, the defendants are alleged to have rarely provided the promised mortgage relief.  
  • Home Relief FoundationThe defendants allegedly told consumers to stop paying their mortgages – without disclosing that if they did so, consumers could face bankruptcy, risk losing their homes, or damage their credit ratings.  Charging advance fees ranging from $500 to $4,000, the defendants collected more than $500,000 during the course of their operation, according to the complaint.   
  • CD Capital InvestmentsThe FTC has alleged that from mid-2011, this Southern California-based operation often promised consumers would receive mortgage relief services within two to four months, and often claimed affiliation with the Obama Administration’s “Making Home Affordable Program.” 
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California fruit recall keeps expanding

Trader Joe's, Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Ralph's, Shop Rite among the affected retailers

As food recalls go, the recent stone-fruit recall from California-based Wawona Packing Company is arguably both better and worse than most: better in that ...

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Recalled Nectarines (Photo credit: Wawona Packing)

As food recalls go, the recent stone-fruit recall from California-based Wawona Packing Company is arguably both better and worse than most: better in that there have been no confirmed reports of people getting sick from contaminated food, worse in that the scope of the recall keeps growing.

On July 19, the FDA first announced that Wawona was voluntarily recalling plums, pluots, white or yellow peaches, and white or yellow nectarines, due to fears of possible contamination by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria; Wawona released a 30-page list (in .pdf form here) of the block ID numbers of all potentially affected batches of fruit. Affected brand names include Wawona, Sweet2Eat and Harvest Sweet.

In Canada, the Food Inspection Agency posted a recall notice for that country on July 21.

Initial reports suggested Wegmans stores might have received contaminated stock, but since then the list has steadily grown to include Ralph's and Food4Less stores, ShopRite, Stop and Shop, Trader Joes', Walmart and Sams' Club, Costco, Krogers and more. (An all-inclusive list of stores is not available at this time; that list may yet grow longer.) Also, recalled products include not merely the fruits themselves, but any baked or processed goods made from it.

Anyone with fruit or food from the suspect batches should either return it for a refund, or throw it away.

Disposal isn't enough

The problem is that, due to the nature of Listeria contamination, merely disposing of recalled fruit isn't enough to protect yourself. FoodSafetyNews published a July 23 Q&A highlighting some of the nastier facts behind the Listeria recall.

Where food poisoning is concerned, Listeria has an unusually wide incubation window: an infected person might show symptoms in as little as three days, or as long as 70. It's even possible to be infected, yet show no symptoms at all.

The bacteria can migrate with relative ease, which is why you should not only throw away the contaiminated fruit, but also discard or sterilize anything it came in contact with:

Should I throw away any other fruit that has touched or been stored with the recalled fruit?

To be on the safe side, this is probably a good idea. Be sure to wash your hands with hot water and soap afterward.

Do I need to clean out my refrigerator or any other containers that have stored the recalled fruit?

This is also a good idea to be on the safe side. Clean out the refrigerator and any containers you had the recalled fruit in with a solution of 1 teaspoon bleach to one quart of water and then rinse with plain water. Also wash all food work surfaces and utensils with this solution, let it stand for a few minutes, and then either pat dry with paper towels or rinse with plain water and dry.

The Centers for Disease Control says thatListeria is found in the environment and all people are exposed to it regularly. Therefore, there is no clinical value in performing laboratory testing on asymptomatic patients.” But you should see a doctor immediately if you do show symptoms of listeria: “If you become very sick with fever and muscle aches or stiff neck, or if you develop fever and chills while pregnant, consult your doctor immediately. A blood or spinal fluid test (to look for the bacteria) will show if you have listeriosis.”

Despite all this, it's important to remember that you, personally, are at little risk of catching listeriosis from the recalled fruit: the initial recall was a voluntary recall done as a preliminary precaution (rather than a mandatory recall after people started getting sick).

Remember also that not all stone fruits, nor even all stone fruits packaged by Wawona, are at risk; only those from the batch numbers on this .pdf list.

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StubHub "hacked" -- over 1,000 customers affected

This is why you shouldn't use the same password for multiple accounts

News that over 1,000 accounts at online ticket-seller StubHub have been hacked should serve to remind you of this important online safety rule: don't use t...

PhotoNews that over 1,000 accounts at online ticket-seller StubHub have been hacked should serve to remind you of this important online safety rule: don't use the same password across multiple accounts.

The Associated Press first reported on Tuesday that “cyber thieves” managed to fraudulently access more than 1,000 StubHub accounts, and buy themselves tickets in the legitimate accountholders' names.

As hacks go, a mere thousand compromised accounts in a company as large as StubHub sounds like pretty small potatoes. Why was the damage so limited?

According to StubHub spokesman Glenn Lehrman, the thieves never broke into the StubHub customer database. Instead, they got customers' login and password information from other sources, either hacking into different retail databases or even putting keylogging software or other forms of malware on user's computer.

The thieves presumably know how commonplace is it for people to use the same passwords (and sometimes even login names) across multiple accounts, so if thieves have, for example, the password you use for your email, bank account, favorite web-discussion forum or any other password-protected thing you do, they'll also try plugging that password into your other accounts on the off-chance it will work. Where over 1,000 StubHub customers are concerned, it did.

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Hiding safety info could mean jail time for corporate execs

Legislation would close loopholes that let corporate leaders avoid criminal penalties

A Senate measure, the "Hide No Harm" bill, could mean jail time for corporate executives who knowingly conceal information ...

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GM CEO Mary Barra (GM Photo)

A Senate measure, the "Hide No Harm" bill, could mean jail time for corporate executives who knowingly conceal information about safety hazards that lead to consumer or worker deaths or injuries.

The bill is in response to the massive General Motors ignition switch recalls, in which a defective switch has been blamed for at least 13 deaths. Documents released by a congressional committee showed that some GM officials knew about problems with the device as early as 2001.

Under existing law, while the company eventually could face criminal fines, individual officers who knew about the deadly defect – but did not inform the public or federal regulators – cannot face any criminal charges.

GM was fined $35 million in May but sponsors of the Hide No Harm bill say such fines often don't deter irresponsible actions that endanger the public. 

The bill was introduced by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), with backing from a number of public interest groups that announced their support for the bill.

“Our current fines and penalties are not tough enough to ensure that every business is playing by the same rules,” said Katherine McFate, president and CEO of the Center for Effective Government. “We have to make sure that the businesses that are willing to put the health of the American people at risk face heavy sanctions. The bad actors should not have a competitive advantage over responsible businesses that adhere to health and safety standards.”

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Carfax expands online accident reporting

Its Crashdocs.org service now includes reports from police departments nationwide

Carfax is expanding its car accident report service, Crashdocs.org, drawing on information from police departments across the U.S. Insurers, la...

PhotoCarfax is expanding its car accident report service, Crashdocs.org, drawing on information from police departments across the U.S.

Insurers, lawyers and others interested parties can order accident reports from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia through an easy-to-use online site, the company said.

Carfax said it does not add convenience fees to accident reports ordered through Crashdocs.org, in many cases making them the same price that's charged at the police station.

"Before using Crashdocs.org, obtaining car accident reports involved additional time, travel expense and long waits," said Wayne Rexrode, senior claims representative at Virginia Farm Bureau Insurance, in a statement provided by Carfax. "I either had to make trips to the various police departments for crash reports or I had to write away for the reports."

People who need information about a specific crash can now order the police accident report online through Crashdocs.org instead of taking time to visit the police station. 

"We're excited to make Crashdocs.org even more valuable to people who need police crash reports," said Tom Scheffer, Crashdocs.org manager. "We're rolling out expanded nationwide coverage to help anyone get the accident information they need more quickly and conveniently. In addition, police agencies have another powerful tool that helps reduce administrative costs and make their communities safer."

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FTC: 'Made in USA' certification didn't mean much

Company allegedly licensed its seal to anyone willing to pay

A company called Made in USA Brand, LLC has had a pretty good thing going. It charges companies $250 to $2,000 per year for the right to use its "Made...

PhotoA company called Made in USA Brand, LLC has had a pretty good thing going. It charges companies $250 to $2,000 per year for the right to use its "Made in USA" seal and to be listed in its database of products supposedly made in the U.S.

But the Federal Trade Commission charged that the company did not independently evaluate the products before certifying them, and had no procedures to determine whether marketers complied with the FTC’s Made in USA standard.

In fact, the FTC charged that Made in the USA Brand has never rejected a company’s application to use its Certification Mark or terminated a company’s use of the mark. Instead, it awarded licenses to any company that self-certified that it was complying with the FTC’s standard.

The FTC’s Enforcement Policy Statement on U.S.-Origin Claims provides that products advertised or labeled as “Made in the USA” must be “all or virtually all” made in the United States. 

“Seals can be very helpful when consumers purchase products based on claims that are difficult to verify – like the Made-in-the-USA claim,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “When marketers provide seals without any verification, or without telling consumers the seal is unverified, consumers are deceived and the value of all marketers’ seals is diminished. This case makes it clear that the FTC will not let that happen.”

The FTC charged that the company deceived consumers by allowing companies to use the seal without independently verifying that their products were made in the United States.

Under an agreement with the FTC, the company agreed to stop making the deceptive claims.

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Chrysler recalling nearly 800k Jeep vehicles

The vehicles have ignition switch issues

Chrysler Group has announced the recall of an estimated 792,300 model-year 2006-2007 Jeep Commander and 2005-2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs. The automaker ...

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Photo source: Jeep.com

Chrysler Group has announced the recall of an estimated 792,300 model-year 2006-2007 Jeep Commander and 2005-2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs.

The automaker says 649,900 of those are in the U.S., 28,800 are in Canada, 12,800 are in Mexico and 100,800 are outside the NAFTA region.

Preliminary investigation, according to Chrysler, suggests an outside force -- usually attributed to contact with the driver’s knee -- may move ignition keys from the “on” position. Such an occurrence may cause engine stall, reducing braking power and making steering more difficult. Safety features such as frontal airbags also may be disabled.

The company says it is unaware of any related injuries, but notes there has been a single reported accident and a relatively small number of complaints involving 0.015% of the vehicle population.

Engineers are working to develop a remedy.

The company expects to identify affected customers and advise them by mid-September when they may schedule service, the cost of which will be borne by Chrysler.

The automaker is advising owners of the above vehicles make sure there is clearance between their knees and the keys. As a further precaution, they are advised to remove all items from their key rings, leaving only the ignition keys.

Consumers may call Chrysler's customer information center at 1-800-853-1403.

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Mortgage applications on the rise

Refinancings also were higher

Mortgage applications zigged higher in the week ending July 18 after zagging lower the week before. The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) says its Weekly...

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Photo source: © emiliezhang -Fotolia.com

Mortgage applications zigged higher in the week ending July 18 after zagging lower the week before.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) says its Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications jumped 2.4% on a seasonally adjusted basis.

The Refinance Index was up 4% from the previous week, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 54.4% of total applications -- the highest level since March 2014 -- from 53.6% the previous week.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was steady 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 4.33%, with points rising to 0.23 from 0.20 (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) fell 2 basis points -- from 4.23% to 4.21% -- the lowest level since May 2013, with points decreasing to 0.20 from 0.26 (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 4.03% from 4.04%, with points increasing to 0.15 from 0.02 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was up 6 basis points to 3.47%, with points rising to 0.28 from 0.23 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was up from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs increased to 3.21% from 3.17%, with points slipping to 0.32 from 0.34 (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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Consumer spending dips in May

Deloitte says much of the blame goes to housing prices

Consumers pulled back a little during May, according to the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index. The index, which tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of...

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© intheskies - Fotolia.com

Consumers pulled back a little during May, according to the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index.

The index, which tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of future consumer spending, and is made up of four components -- tax burden, initial unemployment claims, real wages and real home prices -- decreased to 3.65 from 3.91 in April.

“Housing prices are the primary contributor to this month’s dip in the index,” said Daniel Bachman, Deloitte’s senior U.S. economist. “Real wages also declined for the second straight month, but static unemployment claims and tax rate slightly offset the other categories. The stalled housing market may weigh on consumers, although the overall picture remains positive.”

Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and Retail & Distribution sector leader, says the sluggish pace of the economy recovery challenges retailers to think differently about what drives the most revenue.”

“Retailers should continue to pursue non-traditional methods to reach their most valuable customers, who tend to be those who use digital devices most often,” she said, adding “Deloitte’s latest research, The New Digital Divide, indicates 22% of consumers spend more as a result of using digital, and that digitally-savvy shoppers who come to your store frequently are more likely to use digital devices and do so at an increasing rate.”

Paul also noted that, with the summer now underway, certain retailers can take full advantage of the seasonal increase in traffic by digitally influencing consumers.

For example, in home improvement stores, digital devices influence 42 cents of every dollar spent in the store, higher than the average of 36 cents of every dollar across all categories, according to Deloitte’s research.

Category breakdown

  • Tax burden: The tax rate is holding consistently at 11.8% -- the sixth straight month at this level.
  • Initial unemployment claims: Applications fell 0.2% from prior month to 320,250, and show a 6.5% drop from the same period last year.
  • Real wages: Real hourly wages dropped 0.1% to $8.82 this month, but are still higher over the past year.
  • Real median new home price: New home prices took a 2.3% dip -- to $117,000 in May following a strong increase the month before, which could be directly correlated to the increase in home improvement spending in the past year.
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Buckyball and Buckycube refunds now available

The high powered magnets pose a deadly risk

If you own Buckyballs and/or Buckycubes you have a refund coming. These loose, high powered magnets pose a deadly risk to young children, tweens, and teen...

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Photo source: CPSC

If you own Buckyballs and/or Buckycubes you have a refund coming. These loose, high powered magnets pose a deadly risk to young children, tweens, and teens, if ingested.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is urging consumers to immediately stop using these loose, high powered magnets, which pose a deadly risk to young children, tweens, and teens, if ingested and visit BuckyballsRecall.com to request a refund.

The website has an online registration page to file a claim that is active and easy for consumers to use. Consumers may receive a refund no greater than the purchase price of the product, and partial refunds may be provided depending on the number of magnets returned.

Consumers have until January 17, 2015 to submit requests to the Trustee for refunds.

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Sara Lee Foodservice recalls sausage product

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

Sara Lee Foodservice of New London, Wis., is recalling approximately 82,440 pounds of smoked sausage. The product was formulated with an ingredient contai...

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Photo source: USDA

Sara Lee Foodservice of New London, Wis., is recalling approximately 82,440 pounds of smoked sausage.

The product was formulated with an ingredient containing hydrolyzed soy protein, a known allergen, which is not declared on the product label.

There are no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of the product.

The product subject to recall is:

  • Cases of “Smoked Sausage Rope” in 10-lb. cases containing two 5-lb packages with case code SKU 46218

The product, which bears the establishment number “Est. 2435” inside the USDA mark of inspection, was produced from January 1, 2014, through June 6, 2014, and sent to distribution centers for further shipment to institutional users across the United States.

The product is not available in grocery stores or sold directly to consumers.

During a routine label review, the company discovered that one of the product flavoring ingredients contains hydrolyzed soy and that the soy is not declared on the product label.

Consumers with questions may contact Eric Birkhaug, director of customer service at (312) 614-8283.  

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Oeuf recalls cribs

The slats/spindles and top rail can detach from the cribs

Oeuf LLC of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling about 14,000 Sparrow Cribs. The slats/spindles and top rail can detach from the cribs and pose an entrapment haza...

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Photo source: CPSC

Oeuf LLC of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling about 14,000 Sparrow Cribs.

The slats/spindles and top rail can detach from the cribs and pose an entrapment hazard to a child.

The company has received four reports of the slats/spindles and the top rail detaching from the crib. No injuries were reported.

The recall includes four models of Oeuf Sparrow cribs sold in birch, grey, walnut and white. The recalled cribs were manufactured between July 2007, and January 2014, and have one of the following model numbers: 1SPCR, 2SPCR, 4SPCR or 5SPCR.

The manufacture date, in the MM-YYYY format, and the model number are located on the warning label attached to the crib's mattress support.

The cribs, manufactured in Latvia, were sold at independent juvenile specialty stores nationwide and online for about $800.

Consumers should immediately stop using the cribs and contact Oeuf to receive a free repair kit.

Consumers may contact Oeuf toll-free at (844) 653-8527 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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What you should know before flipping a house

Despite what they tell you on TV, it's best if you don't have to borrow the money

In the wake of the housing crisis large institutional investors swooped into beaten down real estate markets and bought up foreclosures, turning some into ...

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Photo via aetv.com
In the wake of the housing crisis large institutional investors swooped into beaten-down real estate markets and bought up foreclosures, turning some into rental properties but “flipping” others.

Now, thanks to the popularity of cable TV reality shows like “Flip This House” the public has jumped into house flipping with both feet, hoping to make some fast money. And it's true that some people have made money flipping houses.

But like any get-rich-quick fad, there are things that can go wrong. And when they go wrong with something as expensive as a house, they can go very wrong indeed.

Entry and exit

As with any short-term investment you must know your entry and exit prices. Your entry price will be the price of the property, closing costs, repairs and improvements, taxes and insurance while you own it and closing costs on the sale.

If you plan to list it with a Realtor, closing costs will include a 6% sales commission. If you have to borrow the money to finance the flip, you'll pay interest between the purchase and sale closings.

The spread between your entry and exit prices may not be all that wide, meaning your potential profit may not be all that great, considering the risk. So it makes choosing the right property all the more important.

Location, location, location

The first consideration in a flip is where the property is located. A good location, near shopping, good schools, major transportation arteries and health facilities, will make the house more desirable and easier to sell at the best price.

But if it is all that desirable, you might have to pay too much for it. The market is pretty efficient at determining the fair market value of real estate.

If a nice home in a desirable location needs new carpet and roof, the price will take those improvements into account and discount the purchase price to reflect them. But you aren't going to get the property for much less than those discounts.

So after you buy the property and make needed repairs you might actually lose money on a sale.

Find a foreclosure

That means you need to find a property where the market has made a “mistake” in its valuation, pricing the property well below the market value. That rarely happens except in one situation – foreclosure.

In most instances of foreclosure, the loan servicer has purchased the property at auction for the loan amount in order to make the mortgage investors whole. It then lists the property with a Realtor at a heavily discounted price in order to sell it as quickly a possible, not worrying about the loss.

For a house-flipper, buying from a seller who is not too concerned about the size of their loss is the best seller of all. Considering flipping any house that is not a foreclosure is probably a waste of time.

Cash is king

If you must get financing in order to do a flip, buying a foreclosure at a bargain price will be very difficult. One reason banks discount foreclosures so heavily is they often require repairs in order to meet lender standards – repairs the lender trying to sell the property typically refuses to make.

If the foreclosure you want to buy has damage, in most cases you won't be able to finance it. If you are paying cash, on the other hand, it gives you enormous leverage because you won't be competing with other bargain hunters who must get a bank loan. That's where the real bargains are.

When you are looking for a foreclosure, don't overlook condos and townhouses. There is an advantage to flipping them.

A roof repair, for example, isn't something a condo or townhouse buyer has to worry about. Normally the homeowners association fee covers replacing a roof and other exterior maintenance. But make sure you read the HOA covenants carefully before making a purchase.

Go with a pro

Many house flippers plan to do the renovation and repair work themselves, but unless you happen to be a remodeling contractor, that isn't always advisable. There are two main reasons.

First, any work needs to be done professionally so that you can get top dollar. If you have a little experience you can probably do painting and wallpaper yourself but let the pros do the rest.

A second reason is time. Refurbishing a house takes longer than you might think, especially if you are trying to do it nights and weekends. Paying to have a home center store lay the new flooring and install the new appliances will allow you to get the house back on the market faster.

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Housing market stalls as Millennials stay put

Prime home-buyer demo still living with Mom and Dad

After recovering nicely the U.S. housing market has slowed in 2014. Sales of both new and existing homes have declined the last several months.Pending ho...

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© Volodymyr Kyrylyuk - Fotolia.com
After recovering nicely, the U.S. housing market has slowed in 2014. Sales of both new and existing homes have declined since last year.

Pending home sales got a nice boost in May, rising 6.1%. But it remains to be seen if that's a blip or a trend.

Economics may have a lot to do with it but so might demographics. The Millennial generation has reached the home buying, household formation years but has been slow to move into home ownership.

Still in the basement

Many, it seems, are still living at home. A Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data has found a record 57 million Americans, or 18.1% of the population of the United States, lived in multi-generational family households in 2012, double the number in 1980 – the previous record.

Adults between the ages of 25 and 34 are a big part of the population growth that lives with another generation. By 2012, nearly 1 in 4 of these young adults lived in multi-generational households, up from 18.7% in 2007 and 11% in 1980.

The reason isn't that hard to figure out. The Great Recession put lots of young adults in the unemployment line. No one without a house is buying a house.

But even some with jobs are finding it difficult to buy a home or their own. Saving for a down payment is difficult when raises are few and far between.

Lenders have also tightened lending standards. Not only do they want to see a very good credit score from mortgage applicants, they also want to see s stable employment history, with applicants in the same jobs for the last 2 years.

Prefer not to buy

Another study – this one from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies – suggests Millennials can afford to buy homes but are choosing not to. Using National Association of Realtors (NAR) data, the study found that median income households can afford a home in all but 7% of the nation's largest metro areas.

Given this affordability, young first-time buyers should be flocking to open houses each weekend, but they aren't. In 2013, first-time buyers comprised 38% of home purchases. But the historical norm, dating back to 1981, is 40%.

The Harvard study suggests some reasons home sales to Millennials have lagged. Even in metros where a majority of Millennials can afford to buy a house, one-third cannot. That greatly reduced the pool of potential buyers.

Even those who can swing the monthly note at today's low interest rates are challenged when it comes to raising the down payment. Finally, the study notes that 39% of 25-39 year-old households have student debt, throwing their income-to-debt ratio out of whack.

International sales

The last thing these young people want to do, the report notes, is take on more debt. Without young people buying homes in greater numbers, the market is doing as well as it is, in part, due to the influx of foreign real estate investors.

NAR reports for the period April 2013 through March 2014, total sales to non-U.S. buyers have been estimated at $92.2 billion, an increase from the previous 13 months' level of $68.2 billion. While the global economic has been a disruptive factor for many sectors, it has actually helped the U.S. housing market.

“We live in an international marketplace; so while all real estate is local, that does not mean that all property buyers are,” said NAR President Steve Brown. “Foreign buyers are being enticed to U.S. real estate because of what they recognize as attractive prices, economic stability, and an incredible opportunity for investment in their future.”

Of course, foreign buyers aren't buying property in every market. According to NAR, 4 states accounted for 55% of the total reported purchases – Florida, California, Arizona, and Texas.

Florida remains the primary choice, claiming a 23% share of all foreign purchases. California comes in second with 14%, Texas with 12% and Arizona with 6%.  

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Wall Street titan steps up his attack on Herbalife

But Wall Street yawns at Bill Ackman's latest charges

Persian Square Capital Management founder Bill Ackman once again took on the role of consumer advocate Tuesday, presenting what he called evidence that Her...

PhotoPersian Square Capital Management founder Bill Ackman once again took on the role of consumer advocate today, presenting what he called evidence that Herbalife engages in massive fraud and should be shut down.

Ackman has spent the last 18 months on the attack, claiming Herbalife – a nutritional supplement maker that sells its product through multi-level marketing – is a Ponzi scheme that preys on the poor and desperate.

In what he called “the most important presentation of my life,” Ackman introduced undercover investigator Christine Richard, a former Bloomberg News reporter whose team joined a number of Herblife's “nutrition clubs.” She presented audio, video and documents that Ackman says show the company's true purpose.

From the start Ackman, who placed a massive short bet against Herbalife in December 2012, has claimed that Herbalife is not trying to sell product so much as drive distributors to recruit more people to market the products. He said the nutrition clubs were “a mini-Herbalife pyramid.”

Selling business opportunities

"They are not selling weight loss in these clubs, they are selling a business opportunity," he said.

In particular, Ackman claims Herbalife is targeting Hispanic and other ethnic consumers. Among the slides in his presentation was a document he described as a 2008 internal Herbalife strategy document showing company sales leveling off in non-ethnic markets. However, it projected sharp growth in Hispanic and Korean markets.

“Herbalife targets affinity groups who work hard and don't complain,” Ackman said. “It’s a tragedy. They don’t realize they’re being defrauded.”

To say that Ackman has been a relentless critic of Herbalife is a serious understatement. During the presentation, a sometimes emotional Ackman revealed that he had spent $50 million visiting 140 nutritional clubs all over the world, assigning Persian Capital lawyers to provide legal oversight of the investigation.

Wall Street not impressed

Wall Street apparently wasn't impressed. Monday, when Ackman announced on national television that his presentation the next day would bring down the company, Herbalife stock dropped sharply. But by midway through Tuesday's presentation, Herbalife stock had regained what it lost and then some.

Herbalife has always denied Ackman's charges and company CFO John DeSimone was dismissive of Ackman's latest attack, telling CNBC “his bark is always worse than his bite.” DeSimone said there is nothing sinister or illegal about Herbalife's nutrition clubs, describing them as social gatherings to encourage use of the product.

Herbalife also has a number of supporters. Carl Ichan and George Soros are 2 of the largest shareholders in the company. Robert Chapman, founder of Chapman Capital, told CNBC that he believes Herbalife will get a clean bill of health from regulatory agencies and the stock – now at $60 a share – will surge to $150 in 12 months.

Government probe

Ackman's accusations may not be taken seriously on Wall Street but he seems to have gotten the attention of some lawmakers and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) earlier this year announced it would look into Herbalife's business model and take action, if appropriate.

Ackman clearly believe the FTC will find against the company. Chapman doesn't think so, which is why he says he's buying Herbalife stock at every opportunity.

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Pet hospice is alive and doing well

More pet owners choose hospice care for ailing pets

Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote the infamous book on death and dying and the different stages that we all go through in the grieving process. Saying goodbye to...

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© Barbara Helgason - Fotolia.com

Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote the infamous book on death and dying and the different stages that we all go through in the grieving process. Saying goodbye to a pet can easily put you through the exact same stages. Grief is grief and a loss is a loss.

Many times people grieve the loss of their pet alone because for some reason society is not always as generous with support in the death of a pet. Many times people are told to get over it -- it's just a dog, a cat or a bird. Yet, these animals become companions for many and fill holes in people's lives. The death of a pet can be just as traumatic as the death of a loved one.

The International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IHAAPC) is dedicated to promoting knowledge of, and developing guidelines for, comfort-oriented care to pets as they approach the end of life, just as hospice care does for humans. 

The goals of hospice are to control pain, keep the pet comfortable, and provide a decent quality of life for as long as possible. Some hospice programs involve occasional home visits by a veterinarian or a veterinary technician to assist with care and evaluations. Massage therapy is something that is widely used as a way to calm a pet down and ease tension to relieve pain. A few sites provide hospice care on-site, with owners visiting or staying for the duration.

Sparkle in the eye

Nancy Kay, DVM, a Rohnert Park, Calif., veterinarian, is the author of "Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life." She commonly recommends hospice when clients simply want a bit more time for closure with their terminally or chronically ill pet.

“They recognize the disease is not treatable (or they have chosen not to treat), but their dog or cat continues to have enough of a ‘sparkle in their eyes’ suggesting that it is not quite time to proceed with euthanasia,” she said.

This is when hospice can be valuable letting the owner have time to say goodbye in a peaceful setting.

In some cases, owners use hospice care for their pets in the same way that it’s used in human medicine: to maintain the patient until a natural death. Others use hospice until they feel that allowing the animal to continue to die at its own pace is cruel, and they have the patient humanely euthanized.

Is it time?

Determining when to "pull the plug" on a pet isn't easy. Many base their decision on the pet's quality of life. The ASPCA suggests answering these questions as part of the decision-making process:

  • Does your pet seem irritable, restless or confused?
  • Has he lost his appetite or does he drink water excessively?
  • Does he avoid his favorite activities?
  • Is your pet picked on by other animals in the home? This can happen when a sick or elderly dog becomes the weakest member of the “pack.”
  • Does he seek out unusual places to sleep or hide?

When your pet’s quality of life deteriorates due to an untreatable disease or aging, it's time to speak with your veterinarian and family members about end-of-life issues.

As veterinarian Katherine Goldberg notes, palliative care fills the gap between doing nothing and taking irreversible action: 

"Giving people options when they thought there were none. Euthanasia is always on the table and is irreversible. Palliative care is the antidote to hopelessness."

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New York immigration scam victims to split $2.2 million

Minnesota also takes action -- sues alleged scam artists

A.G. Schneiderman Announces $2.2 Million Restitution Fund For Victims Of Immigration ScamA.G. Opens Claims Process To Compensate Victims Defrauded By Int...

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© VIPDesign - Fotolia.com
Thousands of victims defrauded by two sham immigration services can begin applying for compensation from a $2.2 million restitution fund.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman sued the International Immigrants Foundation, Inc. (IIF) and the International Professional Association, Inc. (IPA), alleging they held out fraudulent promises of citizenship while engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

The process for distributing compensation, which will be administered by the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), will allow former IIF and IPA clients to submit claims for restitution for fees they paid to the organizations for immigration services that were never lawfully rendered. IIF and IPA have also been prohibited from providing immigration-related legal services in the future.

“Thousands of immigrants who had their trust abused and their money stolen by these organizations deserve to receive compensation, and now they can,” Schneiderman said. “By making more than two million dollars in restitution available for the victims of these unscrupulous organizations, we are taking an important step toward justice in this case."

Victims of IIF’s and IPA’s misconduct suffered both financial and legal consequences. In one instance, an individual was eligible to obtain a Green Card, but lost his opportunity due to the organizations’ delay and negligence, despite his paying more than $18,000 in fees and costs to them. Other clients were subject to deportation. Still others overpaid for services by thousands of dollars.

To be considered for restitution, former clients who paid for and received legal services from IIF and/or IPA must submit a claim form by October 23, 2014. Copies of the claim form, instructions for completion, and submission information are available at the claims administrator’s website, www.nylag.org/IPA.

Minnesota charges

Earlier, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson filed a lawsuit against a woman and her companies for falsely posing as an attorney and charging immigrants thousands of dollars for legal work on immigration matters that she was not legally authorized to perform.

“This is an example of someone exploiting the complexity and cost of the legal process to their own advantage and to the detriment of others,” said Swanson.

The lawsuit was filed against two companies, American Group US, Inc. and The Legacy Firm Corporation, and Ornella Hammerschmidt, a woman from Shakopee, Minnesota who runs the companies.

The defendants charged Spanish-speaking immigrants with limited English language proficiency as much as $12,000 for legal work on immigration matters, the suits charge.

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German government using typewriters to prevent U.S. electronic spying

Distrust of the NSA gives the typewriter industry a boost

The declining typewriter industry is undergoing a mini-revival, at least in high German government circles, thanks to distrust of the U.S. National Securit...

 

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A Royal Epoch portable typewriter (Photo: Amazon.com)

The declining typewriter industry is undergoing a mini-revival, at least in high German government circles, thanks to distrust of the U.S. National Security Agency's policy of spying on pretty much every form of electronic communication taking place anywhere in the world.

 

Germany in particular has taken a dim view of the NSA ever since last year, when allegations surfaced that it bugged the private phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German Bundestag member Patrick Sensburg is head of the parliamentary inquiry into NSA activities – equialent to an American senator chairing a Senate investigative committee. On Monday, July 14, Sensburg made a television appearance on a morning newsmagazine program and said his inquiry committee, in order to shield itself from NSA spying, was using typewriters in lieu of computers.

“In fact, we already have [a typewriter], and it’s even a non-electronic typewriter,” Sensburg said, after the interviewer of the Morgenmagazin show asked if he was considering the use of typewriters.

Germany isn't the first moden govenrment to acquire old-fashioned technology for security purposes; last July the Russian government reportedly bought 20 new electric typewriters for certain high-level government documentation, after learning the extent of NSA spying activities.

The Russians apparently prefer Triumph-Adler Twen-180 models to meet their typewriter needs. Those models are not easily available in America, however; a brief search of commonplace American retail sites yielded no hits (although some American websites, including Amazon, do sell generic typewriter ribbons advertised as “Triumph-compatible”).

The typewriter companies whose machines are most readily available in America include Brother, IBM and Nakajima. Of those three, Nakajima machines are the most expensive; a single mid-range Nakajima typewriter can cost more than a new laptop computer.

By contrast, an electric or electronic typewriter by Brother can be had for less than $100.

Using typewriters doesn't make you (or a foreign government) immune to spying, from the NSA or anyone else, but it does at least guarantee that a successful spy will have to make an actual effort, and perhaps even take some actual risks, in order to gain your secrets, rather than merely press some buttons on a computer keyboard, bring up the NSA file on you and monitor your communications to his heart's content. That's about the best you can hope for, these days.

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Hackers steal credit card numbers and other data from Goodwill stores

Early reports suggest stores in at least 21 states are affected

Bad news for thrift-store shoppers: though details remain sketchy, it appears certain that hackers have breached the customer credit-card database of Goodw...

PhotoBad news for thrift-store shoppers: though details remain sketchy, it appears certain that hackers have breached the customer credit-card database of Goodwill Industries.

Security blogger Brian Krebs first broke the news on Monday, after his sources reported that financial institutions have been tracking a new series of fraudulent credit-card purchases. Though the fraudulent charges have mostly been made in major supermarkets or big-box retail stores, the stolen card numbers' common point of purchase appears to be Goodwill stores in at least 21 different states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

It's not known exactly how long this breach has existed, but Krebs' sources said it might stretch as far back as the middle of 2013.

If you have, in the past year, bought anything at a Goodwill store (especially in one of those listed states) and paid with a credit, debit or money card, your account information might be in the hands of identity thieves. Even if you shopped at a store in one of the other states, you might still be at risk – it's too early to tell if the previous list is all-inclusive.

A Goodwill spokeswoman told Krebs that the company “was contacted last Friday afternoon [July 18] by a payment card industry fraud investigative unit and federal authorities informing us that select U.S. store locations may have been the victims of possible theft of payment card numbers. … Goodwill Industries International is working with industry contacts and the federal authorities on the investigation. We will remain appraised of the situation and will work proactively with any individual local Goodwill involved taking appropriate actions if a data compromise is uncovered.”

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Gasoline prices push consumer prices higher in June

A slowdown in the food cost increase helped keep in inflation in check

A sharp increase in the cost of gasoline sent the government's consumer price index (CPI) up 0.3% in June, bringing the rise in the CPI to 2.1% over the la...

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© mybaitshop - Fotolia.com

A sharp increase in the cost of gasoline sent the government's consumer price index (CPI) up 0.3% in June, bringing the rise in the CPI to 2.1% over the last 12 months.

It was the 3.3% advance in gasoline prices that drove the monthly inflation figure higher. In fact, it accounted for two-thirds of the increase. Other energy components were were mixed, with electricity up 0.2%, but natural gas and fuel oil declining 1.7% and 2.6%, respectively.

Overall, energy prices were up 1.6%, the third increase in a row and largest since December. For the past 12 months, energy has increased 3.2%.

Moderating food increases

Food prices rose a tiny 0.1% in June following an advance of 0.5% the month before, posting the smallest monthly increase since January.

Major grocery store food groups were mixed: Dairy and related products fell 0.4%, fruits and vegetables dipped 0.3% and the cost of cereals and bakery products was down 0.2% for the second month in a row.

On the other hand, prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs increased 0.2% June, but registered the smallest rise since December. The index for food at home has increased 2.4% over the past year, while the index for food away from home has risen 2.2 percent over the past 12 months.

Core rate

The cost of all items -- the “core rate” -- excluding the volatile food and energy components, was up just 0.1% following a 0.3% increase in May, and has increased 2.1% over the last 12 months

The full CPI report for June is available on the Labor Department website.

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Home prices edge higher in May

It's the second straight increase thanks to a revision of the April report

Prices of houses in the U.S. rose 0.4% in May, according to figures from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). At the same time, the agency said pr...

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© teena137 - Fotolia.com

Prices of houses in the U.S. rose 0.4% in May, according to figures from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).

At the same time, the agency said prices the month before actually rose -- a miniscule 0.1% -- revising an earlier report that there was no change.

From May 2013 to May 2014, house prices jumped 5.5%, but remain 6.5% below their April 2007 peak and are roughly the same as they were in July 2005.

The FHFA calculates its House Price Index (HPI) using home sales price information from mortgages either sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

A mixed performance

For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from April 2014 to May 2014 ranged from -0.7% in the East South Central division to +1.1% in the West South Central division.

However, the 12-month changes were all positive ranging from +2.5% in the Middle Atlantic division to +9.6% in the Pacific division.

The complete home price report is available on the FHFA website  

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Feds promote plan for retail tracking of ground meats

The record keeping plan is designed to help in the event of recalls

In an effort to make sure retailers can trace sources of ground meats, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is proposing a requirement that all ma...

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© Joe Gough - Fotolia.com

In an effort to make sure retailers can trace sources of ground meats, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is proposing a requirement that all makers of raw ground beef products keep records.

“The improved traceback capabilities that would result from this proposal will prevent foodborne illness by allowing FSIS to conduct recalls of potentially contaminated raw ground products in a timelier manner,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Brian Ronholm. “By requiring retail outlets to maintain improved records on sources for ground products, the proposal will enable FSIS to quickly identify likely sources of contaminated product linked to an outbreak.”

Retail outlets regularly make ground beef by mixing cuts of beef from various sources. This proposal, if finalized, will require them to keep clear records identifying the source, supplier, and names of all materials used in the preparation of raw ground beef products.

The need for traceback

When foodborne illness outbreaks occur, public health officials work to trace ground beef product back to its source so that any potentially unsafe product can be identified and removed from commerce.

Traceback investigations can be hindered when retail outlets produce ground beef by mixing product from various sources but fail to keep clear records that would allow investigators to determine which supplier produced the unsafe product.

FSIS has concluded that recordkeeping by retail facilities that grind raw beef to date, has not been sufficiently effective.

The agency has stressed repeatedly the importance of maintaining appropriate records to aid in the identification of FSIS-regulated products associated with foodborne illnesses during recall traceback and traceforward or other food safety incidents.

The latest effort

This new FSIS proposal is the agency’s latest effort to target its food safety prevention tools at areas that will have the most significant public health impact. In December 2013, it unveiled its Salmonella Action Plan, which details steps the agency can take to reduce Salmonella contamination in meat and poultry products.

Salmonella causes an estimated 1.4 million foodborne illnesses per year. Included in that plan are forthcoming pathogen reduction performance standards for ground poultry and poultry parts, which will reduce Salmonella, as well as Campylobacter, in popular chicken and turkey products. 

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Existing-home sales, prices head higher in June

The sales level is the best in 10 months

Sales of previously-owned homes climbed 2.6% in June, to an annual rate of 5.04 million houses -- hitting an annual pace of 5 million sales for the first t...

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© Brian Jackson - Fotolia.com

Sales of previously-owned homes climbed 2.6% in June, to an annual rate of 5.04 million houses -- hitting an annual pace of 5 million sales for the first time since October 2013.

But even with the June increase, total sales of existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- remain 2.3% below the 5.16 million-unit level a year ago.

At the same time, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports both prices and inventory were on the rise last month.

The “right direction”

Analysts say housing fundamentals are moving in the right direction. “Inventories are at their highest level in over a year and price gains have slowed to much more welcoming levels in many parts of the country, Said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “This bodes well for rising home sales in the upcoming months as consumers are provided with more choices.”

However, he says there's work to be done to return to a balanced market. “New home construction needs to rise by at least 50 percent,” said Yun, “because supply shortages -- particularly in the West -- are still putting upward pressure on prices.”

Yun also noted that stagnant wage growth is holding back what should be a stronger pace of sales.

Inventory and pricing

Total housing inventory at the end of June rose 2.2% -- to 2.30 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 5.5-month supply at the current sales pace. Unsold inventory is 6.5% higher than a year ago, when there were 2.16 million existing homes available for sale.

The median existing-home price for all housing types in June was $223,300 -- 4.3% percent above June 2013 and the 28th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains.

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 3.2% to an annual rate of 640,000 in June, but are 3.0% below a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $269,800, down 0.1%.
  • In the Midwest, existing-home sales jumped 6.2% to an annual rate of 1.20 million, but remain 2.4% below June 2013. The median price was $177,900, a gain of 4.6%.
  • Sales in the South inched 0.5% higher to an annual level of 2.06 million in June, and are up 1.0% from June 2013. The median price was $192,600, up 3.4% from a year ago.
  • Existing-home sales in the West rose 2.7% to an annual rate of 1.14 million in June, but remain 7.3% below a year ago. The median price in the West was $301,000, which is 7.2% above June 2013.
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What you reveal when you buy on eBay

Researchers say they have found a significant privacy flaw

It's obvious from some Facebook and Twitter posts that a lot of people have no reservations about sharing their most intimate thoughts and information.Bu...

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eBay home page
It's obvious from some Facebook and Twitter posts that a lot of people have no reservations about sharing their most intimate thoughts and information. But if you are a bit more circumspect and would like to keep more of your business private, researchers at New York University (NYU) suggest being careful what you order from eBay.

Their concerns are aired in a new research paper – "I Know What You're Buying: Privacy Breaches on eBay." They presented their findings at the Privacy Enhancing Technology Symposium in Amsterdam.

The researchers, from the NYU school of engineering and NYU Shanghai, said the privacy flaw allows anyone visiting eBay to view a buyer's complete purchase history.

It might be something innocuous like a piece of furniture. Or it could be something more sensitive, like gun accessories and at-home medical tests for pregnancy or HIV.

Discovered by accident

Doctoral candidate Tehila Minkus made the discovery. Minkus, a self-described eBay user, said she was browsing the feedback section of a would-be purchaser's eBay profile following a botched transaction.

These feedback features are an important part of eBay use since they allow users to leave comments on their purchase experiences to create trust and foster confidence during transactions.

It was while reviewing a particular buyer's feedback that Minkus said she noticed that, with very little effort, she was able to obtain a list of all of his previous purchases.

Doing a little more probing, she said she uncovered what she calls a substantial privacy loophole in the eBay marketplace, one that can expose highly sensitive purchases.

"This breach can be exploited on a scale ranging from a snooping spouse or an employer investigating an individual's buying habits to a large-scale, automated attack that could quickly link millions of people with their purchases," said Keith Ross, Dean of Engineering and Computer Science at NYU Shanghai and a co-author of the paper. "This is exactly the kind of information that could be very valuable to marketers, cybercriminals, or even law enforcement officials."

How it works

According to Minkus and Ross, the privacy flaw works like this: a user, who doesn't even need to be logged in, can visit someone's “feedback as a buyer” page.

Along with their comments, the seller also leaves a record of his or her own username and the time of sale. They don't disclose the item purchased but the researchers say it isn't that hard to figure out.

Simply by going to the seller's feedback page, they say it is relatively easy to match the time stamp of the sale and identify the item that was purchased.

Sometimes more than one sale matches the time stamp, especially with automated sales. But the researchers still found it fairly straightforward to identify purchase histories.

But doesn't eBay assign a pseudonym to each username listed in sales records? True, but Ross and Minkus say the pseudonym follows a formula that makes figuring out the username possible in nearly every case.

Testing the theory

To test their theory they analyzed a database of 5,580 feedback records and said they were able to match 96% of buyers' feedback records to a single seller feedback record, complete with purchase details.

Is this something consumers – regular and casual users of eBay – should worry about? It depends.

"While compiling data on purchasers of pregnancy or at-home HIV tests is useful to a fairly limited group — perhaps advertisers or pharmaceutical companies — assembling a database of those who have purchased gun accessories may have considerably more impact," said Minkus.

The researchers said they took their discovery to eBay and offered a patch to the privacy flaw. The simplest, they say, is changing the default setting of seller's feedback to buyers so that the comments would be public but the actual item sold would never be linked on either the buyer's or seller's pages.

In the meantime, they suggest that eBay users maintain two separate accounts, a private profile for buying and a public account for selling.

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GM digs in against growing criticism

Lawmakers press CEO over GM's handling of safety recalls

When the revelations that GM delayed recalls of cars with faulty ignition switches for nearly a decade first surfaced this year, many were willing to cut t...

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GM CEO Mary Bara

When the revelations that GM delayed recalls of cars with faulty ignition switches for nearly a decade first surfaced this year, many were willing to cut the carmaker some slack.

The problems occurred during the days of the “old GM,” before the carmaker declared and emerged from bankruptcy under U.S. government guidance and new corporate leadership. GM CEO Mary Bara appeared before Congress and issued a public apology.

An internal GM investigation found no evidence of a cover-up but cited examples of incompetence that allowed the ignition switch failure to remain unresolved for years, resulting in accidents that claimed at least 13 lives.

Bara's forthright willingness to accept responsibility and compensate victims' families won her praise in the media and the halls of Congress.

Changing perspectives

But the passage of time seems to have altered perspectives on both sides of the issue. The “new” GM has made it clear there is a limit to the responsibility it will assume for the old GM.

In yet another appearance before Congress last week, Bara dug in her heels on the issue of compensation, refusing to increase it beyond what has already been agreed to. GM, she said, will not waive its protection from lawsuits by virtue of its bankruptcy.

At the same time, Barra and the new GM aren't being treated nearly as gently as before.

The changing atmosphere may be due in part to a New York Times article suggesting GM's legal department stonewalled death inquiries stemming from accidents related to the ignition switch.

The Times report alleged that in at least 3 fatal crashes, GM told federal safety inspectors that it had not been able to assess the cause, when in fact GM engineers had concluded the accidents were probably caused by the cars losing power.

Chilly reception

Barra's chilly reception before a Senate committee last week was very different from her first appearance. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called her answers “unsatisfactory.” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) suggested a cover-up.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and others zeroed in on GM's top lawyer – Michael Millikin – calling for his dismissal. McCaskill said the “failure of GM's legal department is stunning” and questioned how he could keep his job.

“I do not understand how the general counsel for a litigation department that had this massive failure of responsibility, how he would be allowed to continue in that important leadership role in this company,” McCaskill said.

While Barra has thus far escaped most criticism, her strong defense of the company's legal chief drew lawmakers' ire.

“I think you’ve … handled this with courage and conviction … but for the life of me, I [can’t understand] the notion that he can say ‘I don’t know’ … the failure of this legal department is stunning,” McCaskill told Barra.

AAA weighs in

The Congressional hearing also prompted AAA to weigh in on the controversy. The auto club issued a statement calling the failure of GM executive management to adequately oversee and respond to early warning signals of potential vehicle safety problems “unacceptable.”

"AAA continues to support efforts by Congress to raise the maximum fine that NHTSA can levy on automakers, along with legislation introduced by Senators Markey and Blumenthal calling for increased transparency in the recall process,” the statement said. “These steps should be taken immediately, and Congress should further use its authority to identify additional ways to help ensure that a tragedy such as this is never allowed to occur again."

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California couple's catch-22: $500 fine if they water their lawn, $500 fine if they don't

What happens when drought restrictions and green-lawn standards collide?

A homeowning couple in drought-stricken California is facing an apparent legal Catch-22: the state will fine them $500 if they water their lawn, but their ...

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© frog-travel - Fotolia.com
A homeowning couple in drought-stricken California is facing an apparent legal Catch-22: the state will fine them $500 if they water their lawn, but their city will fine them up to $500 if they don't.

Last week, on July 15, California passed into law a set of mandatory statewide water restrictions, with high fines and penalties for violators.

On the same day, Glendora residents Laura Whitney and Michael Korte got a letter from the city, threatening to fine them for letting their lawn turn brown. Whitney and Korte told the Associated Press that their lawn had browned because, in an attempt to reduce their household water use, they had only been watering it twice a week:

They're encouraged by the state's new drought-busting, public service slogan: Brown is the new green.

The city of Glendora sees it differently.

"Despite the water conservation efforts, we wish to remind you that limited watering is still required to keep landscaping looking healthy and green," says the letter, which gives Korte and Whitney 60 days to restore their lawn.

Whitney also said: “My friends in Los Angeles got these letters warning they could be fined if they water, and I got a letter warning that I could be fined for not watering … I felt like I was in an alternate universe.”

Alternate universe

The AP story first ran on July 17. That same day, at 10:21 AM (Pacific time), the city of Glendora posted the following “Water Conservation Update/Information” on its website:

The City of Glendora takes the challenge of drought conservation seriously.  Our efforts have reduced water consumption by nearly 12% since we implemented Stage One regulations in 2008.  In extreme drought conditions, the City understands that lawns will have brown color.  Conserving does not mean property owners should allow vegetation to die or go unmaintained.   We offer financial incentives to ratepayers to undertake conservation steps like turf removal, low flow toilets and smart controllers. 

This seems to imply that the city has backed down from its previous demand that lawns look “healthy and green.” But by July 20, when Whitney and Korte's story made CBS Evening News, the couple said they weren't sure what would happen next – though the city website now admits to “brown lawns” and no longer mentions fines, they haven't heard whether the July 15 warning from the city still applies.

Whitney and Korte aren't the first Californians to face legal paradoxes as a result of the drought. In April, state legislators proposed a bill which, if passed, would ban homeowners associations from requiring water-intensive lawn conditions during a drought, or punishing residents who complied with state or local drought regulations. But that proposed bill, if passed, would only apply to HOAs in California.

When news of Whitney and Korte's plight first made headlines, state assemblywoman Cheryl Brown told the AP that she'd previously introduced a bill that would put similar restrictions on municipalities in the state, but dropped it after cities in her district promised they'd never punish residents for defying state drought restrictions. Now, though, she says she might revive the bill in 2015, and said: “It seems to me those cities aren't using common sense …. It's too bad you need a law.”

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Beware these Facebook scams based on Malaysia Airlines MH17 disaster

Clickbait and like-farming attempts appear anytime there's a tragedy

Anything that exists will be exploited by scammers out to make a profit, and the recent Malaysia Airlines MH17 disaster is no different....

PhotoAnything that exists will be exploited by scammers out to make a profit, and the recent Malaysia Airlines MH17 disaster is no different. Facebook users in particular should be suspicious of any new pages set up ostensibly to honor crash victims or show support for their families, as many of these new pages are actually the work of scammers and con artists.

The Canberra Times in Australia reported on July 21:

So-called "click fraudsters" are setting up fake Facebook pages in the names of Australian MH17 victims to profit from a lucrative internet scam. … The pages each contain a single link to a blog site, purporting to contain information on the MH17 crash.

Users are then hit with a series of pop-up ads for online gambling, get-rich-quick schemes, and other dubious products and services.

What the Australians call “click fraud” is identical to the American “clickbait.” This current Malaysia Airlines clickbait scam is very similar to a clickbait scam from last April, after Malaysia Airlines MH370 mysteriously vanished in mid-flight: people would see Facebook posts, Twitter tweets or even email messages promising video or new information about MH370, but if you clicked on the offered link, you'd infect your computer with some very nasty forms of malware.

Like farming

This latest Malaysia Airlines clickbait scam, however, seems less focused on malware installation than on “like farming,” another common form of Facebook scam.

If you spend any time on Facebook, you know how extremely common it is to see posts made solely to ask for likes. Some of them play off your sympathy: “Here's a photo of a poor little girl with cancer who lost her hair to chemotherapy. 'Like' this post to show your support and let her know she's still beautiful!”

Others play off your social or political conscience, usually by making ridiculously obvious statements: “Injustice is bad. Politicians ought to be honest. Police shouldn't abuse their authority. 'Like' if you agree!”

The scammers who set up these pages are basically taking advantage of Facebook's rank algorithms, which assign higher value to pages with more “likes.” Once the page has enough likes to get a high rank (and is more likely to appear in Facebook users' news feeds), the scammers will strip it clean and replace it with something else: that page you “liked” to show support for a cancer patient now spams Facebook users with offers to buy some product (legal or otherwise) the scammer has for sale. Even worse, the site might be sold to a “black hat forum” which can use it for anything from malware installation to identity theft.

Further traumatizing

But for friends and families who actually lost loved ones in these airlines crashes (or for families of the actual cancer patient in the photo), these scammy pages only add to their grief. As the Canberra Times noted:

The [fraudulent] sites are further traumatising already grief-stricken families, including relatives of Canberra victim Liliane Derden.

Carly Taylor, a close friend of Ms Derden, said the family had been told of the Facebook page by grieving friends. They said they had deleted Ms Derden's personal Facebook page to reduce confusion.

"We’re a little bit worried we don’t know who’s out there doing it and we’d prefer that they know the truth and people aren't giving to charities or whatever the people are proposing to be," Ms Taylor said.

To protect yourself from Facebook scams, remember the advice of Tim Senft, founder of Facecrooks, (a website dedicated to sheddng light on common forms of Facebook fraud), told CNN last January: “"If it sounds too good to be true, don't click on it. If it's something that's obviously geared toward tugging on the heartstrings, check it out first.”

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Debt collector’s operations halted, assets frozen

The outfit is accused of using lies and threats to collect bogus debts

A federal judge has brought to a halt the operations of a Buffalo, N.Y.-based debt collection operation that's accused of using lies and threats against co...

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© zetwe - Fotolia-com.jpg

A federal judge has brought to a halt the operations of a Buffalo, N.Y.-based debt collection operation that's accused of using lies and threats against consumers in violation of federal and state law.

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the New York Attorney General’s Office, the court also froze the operation’s assets, and appointed a temporary receiver to take over the defendants’ business pending trial.

The FTC and New York AG, in a joint complaint, allege that the defendants misrepresented that consumers had committed check fraud or another criminal act; falsely threatened to arrest or imprison consumers, sue them, garnish their wages, or put a lien on their property; failed to back up their claims that consumers owed the debt; charged illegal fees; and improperly revealed consumers’ debts to third parties.

The defendants have collected at least $8.7 million dollars in payments since February 2010, for purported debts, according to the complaint.

Consumer harassment charged

“These debt collectors continued to harass consumers and violate the law after the validity of the debt was called into question, and after the New York Attorney General’s office ordered them to stop,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “By working together with our state partners, we can leverage our resources to stop these illegal tactics.”

“All too often, innocent New Yorkers are relentlessly harassed by predatory, abusive debt collectors,” Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said. “My office, along with partners like the Federal Trade Commission, will keep fighting to protect hardworking consumers and put a stop to unfair financial bullying once and for all.”

The agencies have charged 3 individuals -- Joseph C. Bella, III, Diane Bella, Luis A. Shaw -- and 9 interrelated companies they control. Going by various names including National Check Registry, the operation began using another name -- eCapital Services, LLC -- to evade detection and continue its illegal behavior after signing an agreement with New York State authorities in October 2013 that prohibited it from violating federal and state debt collection laws, according to the complaint.

Lies and intimidation

Also, according to the complaint, the defendants:

  • told one consumer in Washington State that they would have the “Washington County Police” issue a warrant for her arrest, and another serving in the military that they would bring an action against him under the Uniform Code of Military Justice;
  • said the only way to avoid arrest, imprisonment, lawsuits, wage garnishments, and seized assets would be to make an immediate payment over the phone;
  • continued to accuse consumers of check fraud and other crimes even after they produced evidence showing they didn’t owe the debt in question;
  • contacted friends, family members, and co-workers of consumers whom they claimed owed a debt, and in some cases, not only revealed the supposed debt but also said the consumers had committed check fraud, and would be arrested or imprisoned if the debt was not paid;
  • added an illegal $8 “processing fee” when consumers made payments on supposed debts over the phone;
  • failed to provide consumers with debt collection notices and disclosures that are required under state and federal law, making it difficult for consumers to determine whether they owed the debt, and how they could dispute its validity; and
  • continued trying to collect a debt from a consumer who had discharged the debt in bankruptcy.

In addition to Joseph and Diane Bella, Luis A. Shaw, National Check Registry, LLC, and eCapital Services, LLC, the complaint names as defendants Check Systems, LLC, Interchex Systems, LLC, Goldberg Maxwell, LLC, Morgan Jackson, LLC, Mullins & Kane, LLC, Buffalo Staffing, Inc., and American Mutual Holdings, Inc.

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Is a business background better for governing?

Gallup finds 81% think business managers would do a better job than politicians

If you read ConsumerAffairs and other review sites, you might think Americans hate and dis...

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Barack Obama campaigns in Urbandale, Iowa (Photo via Wikipedia)

If you read ConsumerAffairs and other review sites, you might think Americans hate and distrust businesses. Perhaps they do, but a Gallup poll finds that four in five Americans (81%) say the U.S. would be better governed if more people with business and management experience were in political office.

A majority -- 63% -- say the country would be better governed with more female political leaders, up slightly from 57% in 1995 and 2000.

Americans also favor governance by those who "think it is more important to compromise to get things done" (63%) over those who "think it is more important to hold firm to their principles" (56%) -- although the overlap between the figures shows that some Americans view both types of leaders favorably.

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Nearly 6 in 10 Americans say electing more political moderates would improve the way the country is governed, while fewer say this about political conservatives (47%) and political liberals (33%). Thirty-two percent believe the country would be governed better if more people backed by the Tea Party movement were in office, while more, 48%, believe it would be governed worse.

About half of Americans think the country would be better governed if more people who are religious (51%), and more racial and ethnic minorities (48%) were in office.

More women

The 63% of Americans who believe the U.S. would be better governed if more women were in political office includes 69% of women and 55% of men.

Overall, self-identified liberals (78%), unmarried women (78%), and women aged 18 to 49 (76%) express the most optimism in female leaders.

A large majority of blacks (75%), Democrats (75%), and people aged 18 to 29 (73%) also believe having more women in office would improve the government.

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Pennsylvania sues online furniture retailers

Consumers nationwide reported their orders went unfilled

Pennsylvania has sued two online furniture companies, Furniture XO and Furniture PM, after consumers around the country complaine...

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Furniture XO home page

Pennsylvania has sued two online furniture companies, Furniture XO and Furniture PM, after consumers around the country complained their orders had gone unfilled.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said the Philadelphia-based companies allegedly took money from consumers for furniture purchased on their websites but failed to deliver. Kane's lawsuit seeks an injunction against the companies.

According to the lawsuit, Furniture XO suffered cash flow problems and, as a result, the defendants used money from new consumers to pay for orders they placed with the manufacturers and/or distributors to fulfill orders from earlier customers or to provide refunds to earlier customers, leading to "significant delays" in filling orders.

The defendants also allegedly opened Furniture PM in an attempt to fulfill outstanding orders from Furniture XO and to provide refunds to the consumers.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants never recovered from their cash flow problems and in many cases failed to submit the furniture order to the manufacturer or distributor, failed to deliver the consumers' furniture and failed to provide refunds to the consumers who paid for furniture but did not receive it.

Consumers who believe they may have been harmed by these companies' business practices are encouraged to call the Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-800-441-2555 or file a complaint at www.attorneygeneral.gov.

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Feds splinter "plastic wood" claims

FTC challenges manufacturers' claims its products are made entirely of recycled plastics

"Plastic wood" is getting to be a popular product with suburban homeowners looking for cheap, long-lasting material to use in decks, ben...

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Photo source: FTC

"Plastic wood" is getting to be a popular product with suburban homeowners looking for cheap, long-lasting material to use in decks, benches, picnic tables and so forth.

Even better, much of the plastic wood on the market claims to be made mostly -- or even entirely -- from recycled material. The only problem with this claim is that it often isn't true, the Federal Trade Commission charges. 

An Illinois firm, Engineered Plastics Systems LLC is the latest to find itself in trouble with the FTC, after allegedly making deceptive claims in its advertising and marketing material that many of its products are made entirely of recycled plastic. In reality, according to the FTC, the products were made of less than three-quarters recycled plastic.

Under a proposed FTC settlement, the company must have credible evidence to support any environmental benefit claims it makes, with scientific proof, if necessary. It also requires EPS to be able to specifically substantiate any claims it makes about the amount of recycled content in its products.

“This is the second case the FTC has brought in the last two months related to environmental claims for plastic lumber products,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies know that consumers are increasingly looking to buy products with ‘green’ attributes. But companies can’t sell products by making false environmental claims – that’s against the law.”

EPS is based in Elgin, Illinois, and makes, advertises, sells, and distributes plastic lumber products, including picnic tables and benches. According to the complaint, since at least June of 2011, the company has run ads and distributed promotional material for its plastic lumber products describing their environmental attributes. For example, the company claimed, among other things, that some of its benches and tables were:

  • “Made entirely of recycled plastic lumber”;
  • “All recycled plastic design”; and
  • “Constructed using 2x4 recycled plastic lumber profiles.”

The FTC alleges that while a reasonable consumer would likely interpret EPS’s claims to mean that its products are made from all, or virtually all, recycled plastic, in fact, between June 2011 and 2014, they contained, on average, only about 72 percent recycled plastic. The products also contained some non-recycled plastic and a mineral component.

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Wegmans recalls bakery products that may contain contaminated fruit

The fruit has been recalled by the Wegmans supplier

Wegmans Food Markets is recalling several in-store baked desserts that may contain fresh peaches, nectarines, and/or plums. The fruit was supplied by Cal...

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Photo source: Wegmans.com

Wegmans Food Markets is recalling several in-store baked desserts that may contain fresh peaches, nectarines, and/or plums.

The fruit was supplied by California-based Wawona Packing Company, which issued a recall when testing showed potential contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses associated with this recall have been reported to Wawona or to Wegmans.

The following recalled products may contain the affected Wawona-packed fruits. The products are labeled with a store-printed scale label that will identify the product and UPC.

Recalled Cakes and Pies

  • Peach Melba Whipped Cream, 34 oz. UPC 7789033104
  • Fruit-Topped Short Cake, 1/4 sheet, 49 oz. UPC 7789032772
  • Genoise Cake,1/4 sheet, 64 oz. UPC 7789027385
  • Fruit-Topped Cheese Cake, large, 54 oz. UPC 7789026438
  • Fruit-Topped Cheese Cake, small, 18 oz. UPC 7789026441
  • Fruit-Topped Cream Cheese Pie 40 oz. UPC 7789018953

Recalled Tarts and Other Pastries

  • Vanilla Trifle, 8 oz. UPC 7789080600
  • Peach Melba Tart, 26 oz. UPC 7789098553
  • Rectangular Fruit Tart, 37 oz. UPC 20823800000
  • Mixed Fruit Tart, 30 oz. UPC 20819500000
  • Square Fruit Tart, 48 oz. UPC 20823700000
  • Lg. Fruit Strip (Puff Pastry), 11 oz. UPC 20829200000
  • Sm. Fruit Strip (Puff Pastry), 3 oz. UPC 20829100000
  • Frangipane (tart), 30 oz. UPC 7789091064
  • Lg. Fruit Crostata, 21 oz. UPC 20829300000
  • Sm. Fruit Crostata, 7 oz. UPC 20829900000
  • Lg. Nectarine Crostata, 21 oz. UPC 20823100000
  • Sm. Nectarine Crostata, 6 oz. UPC 20832600000

Customers who purchased the recalled products from Wegmans between June 1 and July 20 should discard the product at home and visit the service desk and identify the product for a full refund.

Wegmans will place automated phone calls to customers who purchased the recalled products using their Shoppers club card.

Consumers with questions may contact Wegmans consumer affairs department toll free at 1-855-934-3663 Monday through Friday, between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Eastern time.

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BMW recalls vehicles with air bag issues

The air bag inflator could rupture upon deployment

BMW of North America is recalling 573,935 model year 2000 323i sedans, coupes, convertibles, and Sports Wagons; 2000 328i sedans and coupes; 2001-2005 325i...

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Photo source: BMW USA

BMW of North America is recalling 573,935 model year 2000 323i sedans, coupes, convertibles, and Sports Wagons; 2000 328i sedans and coupes; 2001-2005 325i sedans, coupes, convertibles, and Sport Wagons; 2001-2005 325xi sedans and Sports Wagons; 2006 325i coupes and convertibles; 2001-2006 330i sedans, coupes, and convertibles; 2001-2005 330xi sedans; and 2001-2006 M3 coupes and convertibles.

A safety defect in the passenger side frontal air bag may produce excessive internal pressure that could cause the air bag inflator to rupture upon deployment of the air bag.

In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger's frontal air bag, excessive internal pressure could cause rupturing of the inflator resulting in metal fragments striking and potentially seriously injuring the passenger seat occupant or other occupants.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger side frontal air bag, free of charge. An interim notice will be mailed to owners in August 2014. A second notice will be mailed when an adequate supply of parts is available, currently anticipated to be in October 2014.  

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Wawona Packing recalls fresh fruit

The fruit may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Wawona Packing Company of Cutler, Calif., is issuing a nationwide recall for certain lots of whole peaches (white and yellow), nectarines (white and yellow...

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Photo source: FDA

Wawona Packing Company of Cutler, Calif., is issuing a nationwide recall for these lots of whole peaches (white and yellow), nectarines (white and yellow), plums and pluots packed between June 1, 2014, through July 12, 2014.

The fruit has the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been linked to this recall to date.

The recalled products were shipped directly to retailers and wholesalers for resale.

Those with the recalled products in their possession should not consume them and should discard them.

Consumers with questions may contact Wawona Packing at 1-888-232-9912, M-F, 8am-5pm ET.

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GM recalls Cadillacs with transmission issues

The transmission shift cable may detach

General Motors is recalling 90,750 model year 2013-2014 Cadillac ATS vehicles manufactured April 23, 2012, to March 20, 2014, and 2014 Cadillac CTS vehicle...

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Photo source: Cadillac.com

General Motors is recalling 90,750 model year 2013-2014 Cadillac ATS vehicles manufactured April 23, 2012, to March 20, 2014, and 2014 Cadillac CTS vehicles manufactured June 10, 2013, to March 20, 2014.

The transmission shift cable in the affected vehicles may detach from either the bracket on the transmission shifter or the bracket on the transmission.

If the transmission shift cable detaches while the vehicle is being driven, the transmission gear selection may not match the indicated gear and the vehicle may move in an unintended or unexpected direction, increasing the risk of a crash.

Furthermore, when the driver goes to stop and park the vehicle, despite selecting the 'PARK' position, the transmission may not be in 'PARK.' If the vehicle is not in the 'PARK' position there is a risk the vehicle will roll away as the driver and other occupants exit the vehicle or anytime thereafter. A vehicle rollaway increases the risk of injury to exiting occupants and bystanders.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the vehicles to make sure the cable is properly seated at the transmission and shifter brackets, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early August 2014.

Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is 14179.

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B. Roberts Foods recalls grilled chicken product

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

B. Roberts Foods of Charlotte, N.C., is recalling approximately 202 pounds of individual serving grilled chicken entrees. The product contains milk, an al...

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Photo source:USDA

B. Roberts Foods of Charlotte, N.C., is recalling approximately 202 pounds of individual serving grilled chicken entrees.

The product contains milk, an allergen, which is not declared on the product label.

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

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 10 oz. (248 g) Refrigerated Packages of "Harris Teeter, Fresh Foods Market, Deli-Bakery, All Natural Grilled Chicken Strips (minimally processed, no artificial ingredients)"

The top label on the packaging incorrectly reads "All Natural Grilled Chicken Strips (minimally processed, no artificial ingredients), Net Wt 10 oz. (248g)" and the bottom label incorrectly reads "Grilled Chicken Breast with Lemon Spaghettini" when both labels should read "Grilled Chicken Breast with Sundried Tomato Pasta."

The product was produced on July 10, 2014, and bears the establishment number "Est. 19198" inside the USDA mark of inspection with package code "50223" and "Sell By" date of "07/27/14".

The product was distributed to retail stores in Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Consumers and media with questions about the recall should contact Antonio Gilges at (704) 944-5311 or via email at agilges@brobertsfoods.com.

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Salk scientists unveil diabetes breakthrough

Injection of FGF1 stops type 2 diabetes in its tracks

Can you stop type 2 diabetes with a single shot? Salk scientists, writing up their latest findings in the journal Nature, say that you can and that they ha...

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© rkris - Fotolia.com

Can you stop type 2 diabetes with a single shot? Salk scientists, writing up their latest findings in the journal Nature, say that you can and that they have.

The result could be a whole new generation of drugs that could safely and effectively stem the rising type 2 diabetes epidemic.

The magic bullet in this case is the protein FGF1. The Salk experiments discovered that a single injection could restore blood sugar levels to the safe range for several days.

More than just managing the disease

More significant, perhaps, the experiments showed that sustained treatment doesn't just act as a controlling mechanism but actually reduces insulin insensitivity, the underlying cause of the disease.

Type 2 diabetes is different from type 1, in that type 1's cause is mostly genetic while type 2 is largely caused by obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle. Not surprisingly, type 2 is now the more common form of the disease.

When you have diabetes your body causes blood glucose, or sugar levels to rise higher than normal. It's a condition known as hyperglycemia.

When you have type 2 diabetes your body does not use insulin properly, a condition known as insulin resistance. The pancreas tries to compensate for it but over time it isn't able to keep up and can't make enough insulin to keep your blood glucose at normal levels.

No cure – yet

According to the Mayo Clinic there is currently no known cure for type 2 diabetes but the disease can be managed through diet and exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. Medication and insulin therapy helps where lifestyle changes fall short.

No one is using the word “cure” just yet but the Salk scientists say the results of the FGF1 experiments may be a big step in that direction. So far they have found no side effects that might reduce the effectiveness of the treatment or prevent some patients from receiving it.

“Controlling glucose is a dominant problem in our society,” said Ronald Evans, director of Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory and corresponding author of the paper. “And FGF1 offers a new method to control glucose in a powerful and unexpected way.”

The diabetes drugs currently approved for use attempt to boost insulin levels and reverse insulin resistance by altering the expression levels of genes to lower glucose levels in the blood. But the researchers say drugs that increase the body’s insulin production can also cause glucose levels to fall too low and lead to life-threatening hypoglycemia, as well as other side effects.

Pleasant surprise

As many breakthroughs are, this one was something of a surprise. The experiment used obese mice as stand-ins for obese, diabetic humans.

Evans’ team injected doses of FGF1 into the obese mice with diabetes to see how it affected metabolism. Researchers said they were stunned by what happened: they found that with a single dose, blood sugar levels quickly dropped to normal levels in all the diabetic mice.

“Many previous studies that injected FGF1 showed no effect on healthy mice,” said Michael Downes, a senior staff scientist and co-corresponding author of the new work. “However, when we injected it into a diabetic mouse, we saw a dramatic improvement in glucose.”

More research is ahead before an FGF1 drug is submitted for FDA approval, but the scientists hope to move next to human trials. Evans says there are still many questions from the study that need to be answered. But, he says, “the avenues for investigating FGF1 in diabetes and metabolism are now wide open.”

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Military personnel often targets of financial abuse

Credit counselors offer financial literacy support

You tend to think of the U.S. armed forces as pretty self sufficient. They don't need much protection from civilians since they are busy around the world p...

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© Oleksii Nykonchuk - Fotolia.com
You tend to think of the U.S. armed forces as pretty self-sufficient. They don't need much protection from civilians since they are busy around the world protecting us.

But the men and women in the military are by and large young and vulnerable to the sinister machinations of everyone from outright scammers to less than scrupulous businesses that abuse them financially.

In years past payday loans were a big problem. Service personnel, who don't earn a lot of money, were often strapped and turned to the payday loan stores usually clustered around military bases.

Then in 2006, at the urging of the Department of Defense, Congress barred lenders from charging active duty service personnel more than 36% APR interest. While that may sound high, it effectively meant payday lenders – who typically charge fees amounting to around 400% APR – couldn't loan to the military.

That move prevented a lot of service personnel from getting tangled up in an endless cycle of debt. Yet, there are other threats.

Tracking complaints

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau keeps track of complaints it receives from consumers in uniform. By April 2013 the agency had received over 5,000 financial complaints from servicemembers, veterans and their families.

In one complaint, an active-duty army officer was informed by her student loan servicer that they were going to terminate her SCRA rights unless she provided a new set of orders that contained an end date. But because she was an officer, she did not have orders with an end date.

As a result the CFPB said the servicer terminated her interest-rate protection while she was still serving on active duty. Acting on the officer's complaint, the CFPB said it was able to communicate with the servicer and ensure the rate was reinstated.

"No one should be victimized by financial abuse, particularly the military," said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). "One way to avoid financial abuse is through financial education, as an educated consumer is always a better consumer, one more equipped to identify fraud or deception and make wise financial decisions."

Financial literacy program

NFCC, which represents non-profit credit counselors around the U.S., has announced a new financial literacy program designed for members of the armed forces. Cunningham says it is tailored to the unique financial challenges facing members of the military community.

The program presents 10 individual lesson topics ranging from the basics of banking to planning for retirement, so it is appropriate for servicemembers at any stage of their career.

But in some respects, an NFCC survey suggests service personnel are no different from consumers who aren't in uniform. In the survey, 77% admitted that they have financial stresses and concerns. Fifty-five percent said they don't feel prepared to meet a financial emergency. Sixty percent said they had to look outside of traditional institutions and utilized alternative, non-traditional lenders to meet their financial needs.

"Stressful situations can result in poor choices, with decisions often made out of desperation," Cunningham said. "To avoid this, servicemembers should take advantage of the opportunity to improve their financial skills.”

Scams

Servicemembers are also popular targets of scams. A car may be offered for sale with a “military discount,” but the money has to be paid in advance. Later, it turns out the car doesn't exist.

Sometimes apartments are rented with a discount for those in the military or veterans. But after a deposit has been paid, it turns out the person making the offer doesn't even own the property.

Adding insult to injury, online scammers have begun assuming servicemembers' identities on mainstream dating sites, striking up a relationship before asking for money. It's promoted the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CIC) to speak up.

“We cannot stress enough that people need to stop sending money to persons they meet on the Internet and claim to be in the U.S. military,” said Chris Grey, Army CID’s spokesman. “It is heartbreaking to hear these stories over and over again of people who have sent thousands of dollars to someone they have never met and sometimes have never even spoken to on the phone.”

Grey says the majority of the “romance scams,” as they have been dubbed, are being perpetrated on social media, dating-type websites where unsuspecting females are the main target.

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Bill would cut federal contracts for "corporate deserters"

Sen. Bernie Sanders: No "corporate welfare" for tax dodgers

Much attention has been focused on undocumented children entering the United States but Sen. Bernie Sanders thinks a more pressing issue is the number of c...

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Sen. Bernie Sanders marches in the July 3 Independence Day parade in Montpelier, Vermont (Photo credit: Senate.gov)

Much attention has been focused on undocumented children entering the United States but Sen. Bernie Sanders thinks a more pressing issue is the number of corporate giants leaving the country to avoid U.S. taxes.

The Vermont Independent today announced legislation to ban those businesses from receiving lucrative U.S. government contracts.

Sanders said that he will file an amendment to a Department of Defense authorization bill to prohibit the U.S. government from awarding federal contracts to companies that reincorporate overseas to avoid paying U.S. income taxes.

“I have a message for these corporate deserters: You can't be an American company only when you want corporate welfare from American taxpayers or you want lucrative contracts from the federal government. If you want the advantages of being an American company then you can’t run away from America to avoid paying taxes.”

AbbVie and Walgreen's

Walgreens July 18, 2014, 6:58 p.m.
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Sanders announced the legislation on the same day pharmaceutical giant AbbVie said it plans to take over Shire, its European rival, in a merger that would allow the Chicago-based drug maker to reincorporate in Britain and lower its effective U.S. income tax rate from 22 percent to just 13 percent by 2016.

Walgreen’s, the giant drugstore chain, recently announced that it is considering moving its corporate headquarters from the U.S. to Switzerland to avoid $4 billion in U.S. taxes over the next five years. According to a recent report from Americans for Tax Fairness, nearly a quarter of Walgreen’s $72 billion in sales last year came from Medicare and Medicaid.

At least a dozen other major companies are considering abandoning America through a loophole in the tax code known as corporate inversion. Such inversions allow U.S. companies to move their corporate headquarters overseas by merging with a foreign company in a low-tax country, even though most of their profits and sales occur in America.

“Companies that have received billions in corporate welfare and have made billions in profits should not be allowed to renounce their U.S. citizenship to avoid paying U.S. taxes,” Sanders said.

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Oregon sues 5-hour Energy drinks

The suit alleges deceptive advertising

Oregon has sued Living Essentials and Innovation Ventures, the makers of 5-hour Energy drinks, alleging deceptive advertising. The companies issued a ...

PhotoOregon has sued Living Essentials and Innovation Ventures, the makers of 5-hour Energy drinks, alleging deceptive advertising. The companies issued a combative response, saying the state is "grasping at straws."

The state takes exception to claims that the drinks contain a unique blend of ingredients that provide consumers with energy, alertness and focus. In reality, the lawsuit alleges, the only ingredient that provides any effect is the concentrated dose of caffeine.  

“This lawsuit is about requiring truth in advertising,” said Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. “Plainly and simply, in Oregon you cannot promote a product as being effective if you don’t have sufficient evidence to back up your advertising claims.”

The lawsuit also targets allegedly misleading claims that the product will not cause consumers to experience a "crash." The suit also focuses on allegedly false claims that the product has been recommended by doctors and that the product is appropriate for adolescents age 12 year and older.

5-hour and other energy drinks have been blamed for deaths and illness and have been the target of numerous lawsuits. In 2012, the Food and Drug administration (FDA) said the drinks may have caused 13 deaths and made 33 people seek hospital care.

Companies respond

Living Essentials and Innovation Ventures, seemingly energized by the lawsuit, say they won't give up without a fight.

"When companies are being bullied by someone in a position of power, these companies roll over, pay the ransom, and move on," the companies said in a prepared statement. "We're not doing that. Oregon's Attorney General, Ellen Rosenblum, is grasping at straws, and we will fight to defend ourselves against civil intimidation.

"Ms. Rosenblum alleges that the only ingredient in 5-hour Energy that has any effect is the caffeine. If so, is Ms. Rosenblum going to sue Starbucks for selling coffee? Obviously she has nothing better to do."

Living Essentials has previously said that customers should be following the instructions of how to use the product very closely and although the company advertises 5-hour Energy as a product for daily use, people shouldn’t be consuming more than two bottles in one day. And if you do drink two per day, the portions should be spaced out between several hours.

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Attention, drivers: Look at the road, not your GPS

Two more drivers learn this the hard way

© Vladimir Jovanovic - Fotolia.comToday's driving tip: Watch the road!When you are driving, it is very important to look where you're going, becau...

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© Vladimir Jovanovic - Fotolia.com

Today's driving tip: Watch the road!

When you are driving, it is very important to look where you're going, because even if you have the most reliable, advanced and up-to-date GPS mapping software in the world, it still only notices permanent landmarks and is completely incapable of seeing things like the gigantic bright-yellow parked schoolbus you're about to crash into because you ignored the “look where you're going” safety rule in lieu of gazing at your GPS instead.

No exaggeration. It actually happened in Oklahoma this week. Police in the Oklahoma City suburb of Warr Acres said that a driver distracted by his GPS drove into a middle-school parking lot, where he crashed into a parked schoolbus some time around 1:45 in the morning.

Nobody was hurt, and police say they will not give the unidentified driver a ticket, since the accident didn't happen on a public street.

Spilled its load

The other GPS driver who made the news this week doesn't even have that consolation, though. Gerald Valeanu, a semi-truck operator from Milwaukee, is now facing several charges (including driving in a prohibited area) in Dubuque County, Iowa, after an incident last month where police say he drove his vehicle onto the Heritage Springs recreation trail, after his GPS told him it was a thoroughfare of some sort.

When news station KCRG-9 reported the incident it said, in a bit of understatement, “The soft-crushed limestone that lines the Heritage Trail could not support the weight of a 53-foot semi.”

Indeed, to the untrained eye, the limestone-lined Heritage Trail looks remarkably similar to a dirt walking path, which can easily handle the weight of most pedestrians but not Valeanu's truck, which sunk into the soft earth and rolled over onto its side, spilling its load onto some Iowa farmland.

Valeanu passed a field-sobriety test at the scene, which is not surprising: there's no shortage of anecdotes involving perfectly sober drivers who still caused ridiculously stupid accidents because they paid more attention to their GPS than to actual road conditions.

Remember the Pennsylvania man who blamed GPS after he drove his car into the Susquehanna River? Or the Washington State woman who blamed GPS after she drove her SUV down a boat launch into a lake? The Oregon couple lost in the wilderness for days after they believed their GPS when it told them an unpaved logging trail was actually the Interstate? Stone-cold sober, every last one of them.

Sobrety is important while driving but it's not the only thing that matters: you also need to remember that, no matter what your GPS tells you, you must always keep an eye on the road conditions. And make sure you're actually on a road.

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Hyundai Sonata earns top IIHS safety award

The vehicle performed well in front crash tests

An acceptable rating in the small overlap front crash test and a basic rating for front crash prevention have earned the 2015 Hyundai Sonata the Insurance ...

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Photo source: IIHS

An acceptable rating in the small overlap front crash test and a basic rating for front crash prevention have earned the 2015 Hyundai Sonata the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) "Top Safety Pick+" award.

The midsize moderately priced car also earns good ratings in each of the IIHS other four tests -- moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints.

Hyundai redesigned the Sonata for the 2015 model year, improving the car's small overlap front rating from the previous generation's marginal rating.

Adequate protection

The driver's space was maintained well in the small overlap test. During the test, the safety belt allowed the dummy's upper body to move too far forward. The dummy's head hit the steering wheel through the airbag, indicating that head injuries would be possible in a real-world crash of this severity. The side curtain airbag deployed and had sufficient forward coverage to protect the head from contact with side structures.

In the small overlap test, 25% of a vehicle's front end on the driver side strikes a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier at 40 mph. It replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle strikes another vehicle or object like a tree or a utility pole.

The Sonata has an optional forward collision warning system. The IIHS rates vehicles as basic, advanced or superior for front crash prevention depending on whether they offer autobrake and, if so, how effective it is in the tests at 12 and 25 mph.

Forward collision warning systems that meet performance criteria set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and autobrake systems that provide only minimal speed reduction in IIHS tests earn a basic rating.

The Sonata is the second Hyundai model to earn the institute's highest award for 2014. To qualify for Top Safety Pick+, a vehicle must earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection, a good rating in the Institute's other four tests, and a basic, advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

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Back-to-school spending projected to be higher in 2014

Clothing and electronics are at the top of shoppers' lists

Families will spend slightly more on back-to-school items this summer than they did in 2013, according to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2014 Back-...

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© MacX - Fotolia.com

Families will spend slightly more on back-to-school items this summer than they did in 2013, according to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2014 Back-to-School Survey.

The survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, found the average family with children in grades K-12 will spend $669.28 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics -- up 5% from the $634.78 they laid out last year.

However, total spending on back to school will drop slightly to $26.5 billion as the survey found there are slightly fewer students in households this summer.

Still, combined spending for back to school and college is expected to reach $74.9 billion.

Ups and downs

“Slow improvements in the economy may have contributed to the growth in confidence among back-to-school shoppers, and while we are encouraged by the overall tone of the results and expect to see continued improvement in consumer spending through the year, we know Americans are still grappling with their purchase decisions every day,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Throughout the history of this survey, spending has fluctuated based on family needs each year, and this summer, we expect parents to continue to use caution, but also make smart decisions for their family budget that is a good balance between what their children ‘want’ and what they actually need.”

NRF this year broke out spending by grade, and according to the survey, families with high school students will spend the most. The survey found the average family shopping for high school students will spend $682.99, while spending on middle school/junior high comes in a close second at $682.13. Parents with elementary school-age children will spend an average of $580.94.

Across-the-board increases

Overall, every category will see an increase in spending, including healthy increases in average spending on supplies and electronics. According to the survey, back-to-school shoppers will spend an average $212.35 on electronic items -- up 7% from $199.05 last year, with total spend expected to reach $8.4 billion. High school students and their families specifically will spend an average $229.88 on electronic items.

Perhaps due to school districts’ growing requests for classroom supply contributions, spending on school supplies will increase 12% to an average of $101.18, versus $90.49 last year. Additionally, shoppers will spend an average of $231.30 on clothes, up from $230.85, and $124.46 on shoes, up from $114.39 in 2013.

Big year for mobile shopping

As more consumers become comfortable with the notion of using their mobile devices to shop, families this summer are planning to turn to their handhelds to aid in their shopping. The survey found 36.7% of smartphone owners shopping for school items will research products using their mobile device -- 2% more that in 2013 and the highest since NRF started asking in 2011. Another 1 in 5 (21.8%) will make a purchase via their smartphone, compared with 18.2% last year and another survey high. And while many will simply shop online directly through their smartphone, one-quarter (25.1%) will use their device to find information about a physical store.

School shoppers who own tablets will also use their device more to shop this summer; 31.4% will purchase school items via their tablet, versus 29.9% last year, and 45% will research products, compared with 41.8% last year. Specifically, 37.4% will research products, and 27% will use their tablet to purchase items.

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Cycling Sports Group recalls GT brand mountain bicycles

The wheel hubs can break and cause the brake system to fail

Cycling Sports Group of Wilton, Conn., is recalling about 153 GT downhill mountain bicycles in the U.S. and Canada. The wheel hubs can break and cause the...

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Photo source: CPSC

Cycling Sports Group of Wilton, Conn., is recalling about 153 GT downhill mountain bicycles in the U.S. and Canada.

The wheel hubs can break and cause the brake system to fail, posing crash and injury hazards to the consumer.

The company has received five reports of broken hubs. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves all 2014 GT Fury Expert and 2014 GT Fury Team downhill mountain bicycles. The recalled Fury Expert model is blue with red and white accents. The recalled Fury Team model is black with lime green and blue accents.

The bicycles have front and rear disc brakes, rear shock absorbers and front suspension forks. "Fury" is printed on the top tube and the bottom of the chainstay, the GT logo is on the down tube and the top of the chainstay.

The model names are printed in small letters on the top tube of the bicycles just above the word “Fury.”

The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at authorized GT dealers from February 2014, to June 2014, for between $4,300 and $6,000.

Consumers may contact Cycling Sports Group at (800) 726-2453 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by email at custserve@cyclingsportsgroup.com.

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Retailers vs. Customers: It's all-out psychological warfare

Learn these techniques so you can defend yourself and your wallet against them

Remember: marketing and advertising are multibillion-dollar industries for a reason....

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Photo source: Capital Grille

As a smart consumer always seeking the best value for your money, here are two words to keep in mind anytime you're shopping: “Psychological warfare.”

That's shorthand for the thousands of tricks designed to convince people like you to not merely buy things, but to buy more and spend more than you otherwise would. Remember: marketing and advertising are multibillion-dollar industries for a reason.

It's not that companies are engaged in some nefarious mind-control conspiracy which shoppers are near-helpless to resist; it's more along the lines of, “Market research consistently shows we make more money under these conditions than those conditions, so let's establish these conditions in our businesses.”

What are “these” conditions? They vary, depending on what's being sold and who it's being sold to – are you selling luxury items or practical items? How much money do your customers have to spend, and how much of it are they willing to part with? And how much can you change their mind, where that last question is concerned?

Common tactics

Here's a trick you've probably heard about before: supermarkets are always laid out so that common, perishable staple goods are kept as far apart as possible – if you only want milk, eggs, bread and vegetables you must walk the whole length of the store, to increase the chances you'll see something else you'll want to buy.

A similar principle applies in the enclosed shopping malls that dominated suburbia in the 1980s and '90s (as well as the outdoor “shopping villages” of today): the major, big-name “anchor stores” people are most likely to visit are at the ends, so you can't go from one to another without passing lots of little specialty shops offering other enticing things for sale.

The packaging of goods and their very placement on store shelves is also studied intensely and modified as necessary to increase sales. Last April, for example, researchers at Cornell University discovered that children's cereal boxes – the sort decorated with colorful trademarked cartoon characters – were all designed so that the cartoon figures made direct eye contact with the young (and short) children tagging alongside their parents in grocery aisles.

Not that there's any shortage of tricks aimed at adults. This week, Business Insider ran a listsicle about “11 psychological tricks restaurants use to make you spend more money.”

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© adisa - Fotolia.com

Don't mention money

Most of those tricks are merely restaurant-specific versions of techniques many businesses use in some form or other, especially the first item on the list:

1. They don't use dollar signs. A dollar sign is one of the top things restaurants should avoid including on a menu, because it immediately reminds the customers that they're spending money.”

“Help the customer forget they're spending their own actual money” is one of the most commonplace marketing tricks (or psychological-warfare weapons) out there. If ever you've visited a casino, or even seen a realistic one on TV, you'll notice they never allow people to gamble with actual cash money — instead, you must buy casino chips, and gamble with those.

Why is that? Because, due to a weird quirk in our psychology (perhaps a tendency to confuse the distinction between symbols and what they actually symbolize?), many people simply do not view a $10 casino chip as equivalent to a $10 bill, even if they personally spent the bill to buy the chip, so they're more likely to gamble their money away in chip form than if they could directly use actual cash.

Credit cards offer the same problem for many people who have a hard time truly grasping “Putting $10 on a credit card is just like spending a $10 bill — worse, actually, because credit card purchases rack up interest fees if you don't pay them off in full.”

Countless studies show people who pay for things with credit cards are likely to spend far more than people paying in cash. Business Insider mentioned researchers at Cornell University who discovered a related principle with restaurant menus without dollar signs:

guests given a menu without dollar signs spent significantly more than those who received a menu with them. Even if the prices were written out with words instead of numbers, such as "ten dollars," guests spent less money because it still triggered the negative feelings associated with paying.

Friendly 95

Item two on the list is a restaurant-specific twist of the old 99-cent trick, where a price is listed as $7.99 rather than $8.00 (with or without dollar signs):

Menu designers recognize that prices that end in 9, such as $9.99, tend to signify value, but not quality. In addition, prices that end in .95 instead of .99 are more effective, because they feel "friendlier" to customers. Most restaurants just leave the price without any cents at all, because it makes their menu cleaner, simpler, and to the point.

The extremely descriptive language restaurants use on their menus is no accident either:

… menu engineer Greg Rapp poses an example of Maryland Style Crab Cakes. They are described as "made by hand, with sweet jumbo crab meat, a touch of mayonnaise, our secret blend of seasonings, and golden cracker crumbs for a rich, tender crab cake." This brings the ultimate sensory experience to the reader, and the descriptive labeling will make customers more likely to be satisfied at the end of the meal.

“Ultimate sensory experience?” “More likely to be satisfied at the end?” Sounds like menu engineers and sexy-pornographic-story writers follow the same style guide: “Use explicit language to make the reader want what you're describing.” Try our hot, steamy, spicy fajitas ….

Business Insider also calls attention to the ways the order of things listed on a menu can influence what you buy (and, once again, this is something you should watch out for not only in eateries, but any place offering items or services for you to buy).

They analyze your reading patterns. Restaurants consider scanpaths, which are a series of eye fixations that can be studied to see how people read certain things.

According to a Korean research study, a third of participants are likely to order the first item to which their attention is drawn. As a result, restaurants will put the most profitable items in the upper-right corner, because it is where people's eyes go first.

This strategy is based on the primacy effect, which means people remember the items at the beginning of a list better. Another reason this works is that seeing a really expensive dish at first glance will make the rest of the menu appear reasonably priced in comparison.

The trick of showcasing an expensive item to make others look reasonably priced by comparison is similar to the “save money” price tags you'll often see in tourist-trap “outlet malls”:

RETAIL PRICE: $40

OUR PRICE: $10

YOU SAVE: $30

These retailers know that if you can think of a purchase as “I'm saving 30 dollars” rather than “I'm spending 10 dollars,” you're more likely to buy it. (Indeed, if you're not careful, you can actually buy so many low-price amazing-savings items that you come full circle and end up wasting money instead: “I don't need this thing, I might not even have any use for it, but I'm buying it anyway because it's such a fantastic bargain!”)

The full 11-item list is worth reading in its entirety, because the psychological techniques it describes aren't only used in restaurants, but in every industry. It's easier for consumers to keep hold of our money when we can recognize the tricks used to make us part with it.

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Senate committee looks at the "grandmother scam"

Meanwhile, you need to protect yourself and warn your senior friends and family members

The so-called “grandmother scam” has snared so many victims that the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a brief hearing...

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© pathdoc - Fotolia.com

The so-called “grandmother scam” has snared so many victims that the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a brief hearingon yesterday (July 16) in an attempt to find some solution to the problem – including, perhaps, increased cooperation and awareness from phone companies and various retailers.

The Grandma scam is actually a type of “imposter scam” -- the thief contacts the victim pretending to be a friend or relative in distress which can only be alleviated if the victim sends or wires money, usually in some untraceable form. Many of the victims or would-be victims are elderly people fooled into thinking the scammer is actually a beloved grandchild.

An 81-year-old Cincinnati resident named Roger W. (his full name is being withheld for fear additional con artists will seek him out) told the Senate committee his story, which is sadly typical: last December, Roger got a call from a scammer claiming to be his grandson.

Supposedly, the grandson had been arrested for speeding and drug possession, and needed bail money. Roger and his wife eventually bought and sent $7,000 worth of prepaid (and untraceable) money cards before finally speaking to their actual grandson on the phone and learning he was fine – no speeding tickets, no police encounters at all and certainly no calling his grandparents to request thousands of dollars for bail.

What to do

Realistically speaking, what can anybody do to prevent such crimes? Of course, would-be scam victims (read: pretty much everybody, these days) need to be on guard, protect themselves, know the signs of a scam – but the sad truth is: there will always be people who fall for such cons no matter how many warnings they hear.

What's worse is that, while grandmother scams are distressingly common, catching and prosecuting the scammers remains distressingly rare. The FBI's Criminal Investigative Division assistant director, Joseph Campbell, told the Senate subcommittee that in the past three years, he could only think of one federal prosecution of a grandmother scammer.

Could retailers who sell prepaid money cards help keep scams in check? It already happens, sometimes. Take this incident from last week, for example (which was not mentioned before the Senate committee):

On July 10, a CVS clerk in South Windsor, Connecticut, saved an elderly couple from falling victim to the grandmother scam. They had received a call from someone claiming to be a police officer in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, requesting prepaid money cards to bail out their just-arrested grandson. So they went to CVS intending to buy the cards, where the clerk warned them about grandmother scams.

Only then did they call Springfield police, who confirmed that no, they did not have the grandson in custody. So the couple then informed police in South Windsor, who issued the same public warning every police department does in such situations: if you ever get a call like this, call the actual police department to verify the information before handing over any money.

No money orders

Also important -- never use prepaid money orders, wire transfers or other untraceable transactions to pay for any supposed legal bill or fine; when real cops, tax collectors or any other authorities collect money as part of some actual government action, they don't mind leaving a traceable paper trail.

The Senate committee did raise the issue of wire transfers and their popularity among scammers. Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida threatened to subpoena Money Gram and Western Union, to force the companies to testify about whatever they are doing (or not doing) to stop the problem.

The July 16 hearing was short, lasting less than an hour before the senators involved had to leave for a vote. Presumably the committee will hold future hearings on the issue, and might even subpoena some wire-transfer companies to demand testimony about it. For now, though, it's up to consumers to protect themselves.

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Falling oil prices give drivers a break at the pump

One key forecast calls for prices to continue to fall for months -- but not that much

Oil traders, it seems, are giving U.S. consumers a break at the gas pump. Gasoline prices have dipped in recent days, due largely to a decline in the price...

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(c) ellisia_-_Fotolia.com

Oil traders, it seems, are giving U.S. consumers a break at the gas pump. Gasoline prices have dipped in recent days, due largely to a decline in the price of crude oil.

By midweek the national average price of regular unleaded gasoline had fallen a nickel a gallon in 7 days to $3.59 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. That's actually 4 cents lower than the price a year ago.

But gasoline prices spent the spring and early summer at above-normal levels as oil prices remained well above $100 a barrel. The recent slide in oil is, as usual, being attributed to a number of geopolitical factors.

A more peaceful world?

Analysts at AAA cite what they call a stabilizing situation in Iraq. A report last weekend by the Sydney Morning Herald credits an improved situation in Libya for the drop in oil prices.

The newspaper notes Libyan rebels have lifted their blockade of shipping lanes, clearing the way for shipment of more Libyan oil to refineries. It quotes an oil industry analyst as saying the initial drop in oil prices prompted traders to sell their futures contracts rather than buy more at the lower price.

By virtue of the way oil is bought and sold, what U.S. motorists pay at the pump is largely influenced by the whims of the futures market. If traders are filled with optimism that oil is about to become more scarce, or hard to deliver, they tend to bid higher amounts for futures contracts.

If they believe that supplies of oil are too plentiful, they refrain from investing and prices tend to fall. That appears to be what's happening now.

Too much oil

What may be pushing oil prices lower at the moment is not geopolitical tranquility – after all, Israel and Palestine are about the explode. Rather, the market sees “too much oil” for its comfort.

Last week the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) dramatically lowered its forecast for world oil consumption for the rest of the year. The July Short Term Energy Outlook also predicts 2015 U.S. oil production will reach its highest level in 42 years.

As a result, EIA believes U.S. consumers can expect lower gasoline prices in the coming year. While prices are expected to average around $3.54 a gallon throughout 2014, EIA believes the average price next year should be around $3.45.

Current prices

As usual, Hawaii leads the market with the most expensive price per gallon, followed by Alaska and California, with all three states paying well over $4 a gallon.

While prices in many states remain high, AAA reports that pump prices in 45 states and Washington D.C. have fallen over the past week with the biggest savings occurring in the Midwest.

Indiana leads the decline with a drop of 13 cents a gallon. Also scoring double digit declines were Michigan, down 12 cents, and Kentucky, with a drop of 10 cents a gallon.

States with the lowest gasoline prices this week are clustered in the southeast and Midwest. South Carolina has the lowest average price, $3.33 a gallon. Alabama is second at $3.35.

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Medical emergency? Find a really busy hospital

Your chances of survival are much better in a busy emergency room

It's fairly well known that if you have the misfortune of being shot, stabbed or otherwise traumatized, you should hope you're taken to a big-city hospital...

PhotoIt's fairly well known that if you have the misfortune of being shot, stabbed or otherwise traumatized, you should hope you're taken to a big-city hospital where such wounds are an everyday occurrence. It's called the "practice makes perfect" effect.

Now a new study suggests the same is true of other types of emergencies as well. In other words, your risk of dying from a severe medical emergency is lowest at the busiest emergency rooms. 

In fact, the analysis finds that patients admitted to a hospital after an emergency had a 10% lower chance of dying in the hospital if they initially went to one of the nation's busiest emergency departments, compared with the least busy.

The risk of dying differed even more for patients with potentially fatal, time-sensitive conditions. People with sepsis had a 26% lower death rate at the busiest emergency centers compared with the least busy, even after the researchers adjusted for a range of patient and hospital characteristics. For lung failure patients, the difference was 22%. Even heart attack death rates differed.

24,000 fewer deaths

The new findings, based on national data on 17.5 million emergency patients treated at nearly 3,000 hospitals, appear in an Annals of Emergency Medicine paper by a University of Michigan Medical School team. Using U-M Department of Emergency Medicine funding, they analyzed data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample database compiled by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The authors calculate that if all emergency patients received the kind of care that the busiest emergency centers give, 24,000 fewer people would die each year.

"It's too early to say that based on these results, patients and first responders should change their decision about which hospital to choose in an emergency," says Keith Kocher, M.D., MPH, the lead author of the new study and a U-M Health System emergency physician. "But the bottom line is that emergency departments and hospitals perform differently, there really are differences in care and they matter."

This is the first time a relationship has been shown on a national, broad-based scale between the volume of emergency patients seen at a hospital and the chance those patients will survive their hospital stay.

Time-critical conditions

Kocher and his colleagues focused on eight high-risk, time-critical conditions. They were: Pneumonia, congestive heart failure, sepsis, the type of heart attack known as an acute myocardial infarction, stroke, respiratory failure, gastrointestinal bleeding and acute respiratory failure.

All require emergency providers to use a certain level of diagnostic skill and technology, and successful treatment depends on the ability of emergency and inpatient teams to deliver specialized treatment. All carry a death risk of at least 3%, and rank among the top 25 reasons emergency patients get admitted to a hospital.

Their results don't give insights into why the differences in survival occur – but for the first time, they show that they do occur, so that further research can probe deeper.

"The take-home message for patients is that you should still call 911 or seek the closest emergency care, because you don't know exactly what you're experiencing," says Kocher, an assistant professor of emergency medicine. "What makes one hospital better than another is still a black box, and emergency medicine is still in its infancy in terms of figuring that out. For those who study and want to improve emergency care, and post-emergency care, we hope these findings will inform the way we identify conditions in the pre-hospital setting, where we send patients, and what we do once they arrive at the emergency department and we admit them to an inpatient bed."

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New home construction plunges in June

And there's some good news on the employment front

Construction of new homes was down sharply in June, the second straight month of declines. Figures released by the Census Bureau show housing starts were ...

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Construction of new homes was down sharply in June, the second straight month of declines.

Figures released by the Census Bureau show housing starts were down 9.3% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 893,000. Even with that decline, starts came in 7.5% higher than the same month a year ago.

Single-family housing starts were down 9.0% -- to a rate of 575,000, while the June rate for apartment buildings was 305,000.

Looking ahead

The outlook for the near term isn't very encouraging.

Applications for building permits, an indication of planned construction, fell 4.2% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 963,000. Withing that, single-family authorizations were at a rate of 631,000 and apartment buildings were at a rate of 301,000.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia.com
Jobless claims

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits came in lower than expected during the week ending July 12.

The government says initial applications were down by 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 302,000. The consensus of economists surveyed by Briefing.com was for an increase to 311,000.

Analysts say that if the declining trend in jobless claims that has developed over the last few months continues, they expect to see monthly job creation in the 300,000 range.

The 4-week moving average, which strips out the weekly volatility and is considered a more accurate barometer of the labor market, was down 3,000 to 309,000 -- the lowest level since June 2, 2007 when it was 307,500.

The full jobless claims report can be found on the Labor Department website.

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Statins appear to reduce heart attack, stroke deaths in diabetes patients

Diabetes patients can "live quite a few years" more by taking statins, study indicates

A new study by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center suggests that the use of cholesterol-lowering statins may help prolong the lives of people...

PhotoA new study by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center suggests that the use of cholesterol-lowering statins may help prolong the lives of people with diabetic cardiovascular disease.

Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death and disability among people with Type 2 diabetes. In fact, at least 65% of people with diabetes die from some form of heart disease or stroke, according to the American Heart Association.

"Although our study was not a clinical trial, it did show that people with diabetes and heart disease can still live quite a few years by taking statins," said Don Bowden, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study.

The research team studied data from 371 patients who had participated in the Diabetes Heart Study. At the beginning of the study, the participants received a CT scan to determine their levels of coronary artery calcium (CAC); a CAC score greater than 1,000 indicates an increased risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The team compared the baseline characteristics of 153 patients who died during an average 8.2 years of follow-up and 218 who survived. The researchers assumed that risk for mortality would be consistently high among the study participants. However, 60% were still living after more than eight years.

The use of cholesterol-lowering statins at the baseline exam was the only modifiable risk factor identified to be protective against mortality. The participants taking statins at the beginning of the study had a 50% increased chance of being alive as compared to those who didn't.

Bowden said this highlights the importance of widespread prescription of cholesterol-lowering medications among individuals with Type 2 diabetes who have existing high CVD risk, but added that in previous studies the rates of statins prescribed for diabetic patients have been low.

"These data suggest that cholesterol-lowering medications may be used less than recommended and need to be more aggressively targeted as a critical modifiable risk factor," he said.

The study is published in the current online edition of Diabetes Care.

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BMW recalling 1.6 million vehicles

Passenger airbags will be replaced in models of the 3 Series pre-predecessor generation

BMW is recalling 1.6 million vehicles in what it calls a “voluntary precautionary measure that aims at minimizing the risk of faulty airbag activation.” T...

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Photo source: BMW Group

BMW is recalling 1.6 million vehicles in what it calls a “voluntary precautionary measure that aims at minimizing the risk of faulty airbag activation.”

The recall involves the passenger airbags 3 Series vehicles (pre-predecessor generation E46) produced between 05/1999 and 8/2006.

According to the German automaker, potential problems with gas generators may rupture in vehicles produced by its competitors using similar systems from the same supplier have become evident in rare cases.

BMW says it is not aware of a case involving a BMW vehicle.

According to the company, this is an extension of last year's recall campaign in which 240 000 3 Series vehicles (E46) of the pre-predecessor generation were pulled in. Those vehicles are excluded from the current replacement campaign.

BMW says affected customers will be notified.

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New car dealers increasing July incentives

Cash back, financing and lease deals are improving

At the half-way point of the month, it's clear that July is a pretty good time to shop for a new car. Dealers are starting to think about making room for 2...

PhotoAt the halfway point of the month, it's clear that July is a pretty good time to shop for a new car. Dealers are starting to think about making room for 2015 models and are offering more attractive financing deals.

At most times during the year, there are only deals on certain makes and models – usually not the ones you want. But in July there appears to be strong incentives and lease deals on most types of vehicles, and especially attractive offers on large SUVs and full-size trucks.

"July is turning out to be a great time to buy a SUV or full-size truck," said Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for Cars.com, an automotive website. "Consumers can find some of the most generous incentives for large vehicles during the summer, which makes now the time to buy as opposed to winter when the discounts are generally not as high."

Fuel-efficient cars too

But not everyone wants a large SUV or full-sized truck at today's gasoline prices. Not to worry. Toprak says there are also some pretty good lease deals available on more fuel-efficient vehicles, such as the 2014 Toyota Prius.

How good? These Prius leases through Toyota run as low as $179 and $249 per month, depending on the state.

For the rest of the month you can lease a 2014 Nissan Altima for $189 a month for 36 months, with $1,999 down. A 2014 Volkswagen Jetta can be leased for $199 a month for 36 months, with $2.349 down.

There are also some pretty attractive financing deals this month. The 2014 Kia Forte and 2014 Cadillac SRX come with 0% financing for 60 months for qualified buyers. The Forte even gives you $500 cash back.

July cash incentives

Speaking of cash incentives, the 2014 Dodge Ram 1500 gives purchasers up to $3,500 cash allowance. The Ford F150 Supercab comes with a $3,250 cash allowance and the Lincoln Navigator gives buyers a $3,000 allowance.

When dealers and manufacturers start piling on the incentives that usually isn't a good sign for sales. And coming on the heels of a sales decline in June, it might be reasonable to conclude recent red hot car sales are cooling off.

"The industry will see lots of year-over-year and month-over-month declines, but that doesn't mean that June was a bad month for sales," said Senior Analyst Jessica Caldwell, of automotive site Edmunds.com. "It's important to remember that there were fewer sales days in June 2014 than in June last year or in May 2014. In fact, shoppers this month bought 2,700 more cars per day than they bought in June 2013. So the momentum is still very much alive."

Cash incentives on leases

Edmunds also points out that cash incentives are available on many makes and models when you lease, not just when you purchase. They're called dealer incentives, which are cash or credit provided by a manufacturer to its dealers to incentivize sales of certain models or styles.

Dealer eligibility varies based on dealer location, and is not based on consumer location. These incentives are not advertised, since dealers have the option to pass on all or a portion of incentives to consumers. That means you should always ask about it.

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Is your dog begging to go to Doggy Fat Camp?

Dogs tend to take after their owners, which isn't always a good thing

Packing up the kids for camp? How about the dog? Yes Max, Bella, Bailey and Lucy are all going, not only to summer camp... They are going to FAT CAMP!As Am...

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© Kitty - Fotolia.com
Packing up the kids for camp? How about the dog? Yes Max, Bella, Bailey and Lucy are all going, only not to summer camp, they're going to fat camp.

As America has gotten more and more overweight, our dogs are becoming overweight along with us. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, obesity is the fourth leading cause for canine deaths, and as many as 20% of dogs in North America are currently overweight.

At Indigo Ranch Doggie Fat Camp in Vernonia, Oregon, they start by having you take your dog to the vet for a health check-up. Just as with humans who need to lose weight, they want to make sure your dog is in good health before beginning a weight loss plan.

During Indigo Doggie Fat Camp, your dog stays Monday through Friday, and comes home on the weekend. During the weekend your dog packs home pre-measured food portions and specific instructions so you can keep him on his individual plan. The average weight loss program can range from four to eight weeks, depending on how much weight the dog needs to lose. It can cost up to $800 for a four-week stay.

The vets at the Morris Animal Inn in Morristown, N.J., for example, offer swimming and “canine cardio” (running on treadmills or up and down the stairs), along with daily check-ups and weigh-ins. Dogs are rewarded for their hard work with healthy snacks, like yogurt parfaits and a dip in the doggie jacuzzi if they’ve performed well.

For the last seven years, the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine has offered a fat camp for dogs, both inpatient and outpatient. But the dogs who live at the clinic tend to be more successful, said Dr. Angela Witzel, a veterinarian at the university who specializes in animal nutrition.

There is a simple solution to all of this. Put down the dog treats while you watch Animal Planet and get outside and exercise with your dog. It's a lot cheaper then shipping them off to camp. More fun too.

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Standards issued for pet safety harnesses

It's the first attempt to devise industry-wide standards for pet safety devices

There are all kinds of safety devices for pets but it's not easy for consumers to evaluate just how effective a given device really is. The Center for...

PhotoThere are all kinds of safety devices for pets but it's not easy for consumers to evaluate just how effective a given device really is. The Center for Pet Safety hopes to change that.

The Reston, Va.,-based research and consumer advocacy organization, today published its certification program, providing guidelines for pet product manufacturers.

The test protocol, which is a result of the 2013 Harness Crashworthiness Study conducted by the center, outlines a consistent test methodology and evaluation program to ensure pet safety harness restraints offer crash protection.

“The Center for Pet Safety took great care evaluating the data returned from our 2013 study to understand what safety harness products should do to protect life,” said Lindsey Wolko, the organization's founder. "Pet product manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that these safety devices protect human life and provide the best chance of survival to the pet in the case of an accident.”

More information is available on the organization's website

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States, Apple reach settlement in e-book price-fixing lawsuit

Consumers stand to get up to $400 million if the settlement is upheld

Thirty-three states today reached a settlement today in their e-book price-fixing lawsuit against Apple Inc. Consumers nationwide will receive $400 mi...

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Photo source: iTunes

Thirty-three states reached a settlement today in their e-book price-fixing lawsuit against Apple Inc. Consumers nationwide will receive $400 million if the district court’s liability holding is affirmed.

"This settlement – contingent on the outcome of Apple's appeal – represents a fair and equitable effort by all parties to resolve this litigation," said Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. "Consumers across the country have already received compensation from $166 million in settlement funds paid by the five publishers involved in this price-fixing conspiracy. Through the terms of this settlement, they will receive additional compensation from another $400 million should the states prevail in the appeal."

Last year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that evidence presented at trial showed Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing a conspiracy designed to eliminate retail price competition in order to raise e-book prices. Apple has appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  

Under the settlement announced today, if Apple loses its appeal, it has agreed pay $400 million in compensation to e-book consumers.

“The price-fixing conspiracy between Apple and the publishers caused an immediate increase in cost to these consumers. We’re pleased that additional ill-gotten profits may ultimately be returned to consumers,” saidColorado Attorney General John W. Suthers.

Apple's  appeal is currently pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The settlement is subject to approval by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

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Military consumers: steps to take before you deploy

Active duty servicemembers have important legal protections

Getting your house in order: Steps to take before you deployJuly 15, 2014by Pam Bondi, Florida Attorney GeneralSo you’ve just received orders, and yo...

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Pam Bondi

So you’ve just received orders, and you’re due to deploy. Before you go, there are a number of steps you should take to protect your family and financial future.

Know your rights

The federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides protection for active military servicemembers. The law’s purpose is to postpone or suspend certain civil obligations so active duty members of the Armed Forces can focus their full attention on their military responsibilities without adverse consequences for them or their families.

The SCRA offers the following protections:

  • Interest rates can be capped at 6% for most preexisting loans, including mortgages, credit cards and auto loans.
  • Automobile leases can be terminated without an early termination fee.
  • Cellphone service contracts can be terminated without an early termination fee.
  • Residential leases can be terminated without an early termination fee.
  • Active duty servicemembers and their dependents may not be evicted without a court order.
  • An active duty servicemember’s home may not be foreclosed upon without a court order.

Take care of your finances

Granting a trusted family member or your spouse power of attorney allows that person to handle financial matters in your absence. They’ll have the legal right to sign important documents and take other actions on your behalf. Granting a power of attorney gives that person significant authority to spend your money and take on debt in your name. If that isn’t something you are comfortable with, the power of attorney can be limited to a specific area of your financial affairs and limited to a certain period of time. It can also be revoked by you at any time.

Make sure your financial records are accurate and up-to-date. This means giving the person who will be handling your financial affairs all bank account and credit card numbers, outstanding debts, typical expenses and all phone numbers and addresses necessary for dealing with financial matters.

Before deployment, decide how your taxes will be filed and who will file them. If your spouse will be taking on tax duty, make sure he or she has all necessary documents. The IRS also allows military personnel to file for an extension by using Form 2350.

Guard your identity

The threat of identity theft can be exacerbated while you’re on active duty because watching over your credit is much more difficult. Take steps to protect your identity by placing an “active duty alert” on your credit report at no cost. An active duty alert on a credit report means businesses must take extra steps before granting credit in your name. Active duty alerts last for one year and can be renewed to match the deployment period.

To place an active duty alert, contact each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies:

Equifax: 1-800-525-6285 or www.equifax.com
Experian: 1-888-397-3742 or www.experian.com
TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289 or www.transunion.com

Watch out for high pressure lending practices and scams

While a payday loan may sound enticing if you need quick cash, these loans come at a high price. Servicemembers instead may be able to obtain financial assistance from military aid societies, such as the Army Emergency Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Air Force Aid Society or Coast Guard Mutual Aid.

The federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act governs the practices of collection agencies. Military servicemembers have the same rights under laws governing debt collection as civilians. For example, a debt collector may contact an individual’s supervisor or Commanding Officer, but only to find out where the person lives, his or her phone number and where the individual works.

Also be on guard against scammers that send you or your spouse unsolicited emails or text messages that appear to be from the military or VA. These types of phony emails mimic official entities in order to solicit money, financial information or personal data, such as social security numbers.

Military spouses should be particularly cautious while their partners are on active duty. It’s all too easy to be fooled by an official-looking document or a seemingly great deal on a major purchase or repair. Make sure your spouse is supplied with all the information and documents they’ll need while you are away. And know that if a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is.

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Pam Bondi is the Attorney General of Florida

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Checks being mailed to Ab Circle Pro customers

Consumers hoped for quick and easy weight loss but lost only money

Remember the Ab Circle Pro? Promoters of the abdominal exercise device promised consumers using the gadget for just three minutes a day would cause th...

PhotoRemember the Ab Circle Pro? Promoters of the abdominal exercise device promised consumers using the gadget for just three minutes a day would cause them to lose 10 pounds in two weeks.

Not so, said the Federal Trade Commission, which in 2012 reached a settlement with the company, providing partial refunds to customers.

An administrator working for the FTC is now mailing 196,969 checks averaging $47.51 each to consumers who purchased the Ab Circle Pro, a fiberglass disk with stationary handlebars and two knee rests that roll on the edge of the disk, allowing consumers to kneel and rotate side-to-side -- supposedly equivalent to doing 100 sit ups.

In the infomercial, pitchwoman Jennifer Nicole Lee compared the Ab Circle Pro to a gym workout, saying, “You can either do 30 minutes of abs and cardio or just three minutes a day. The choice is yours.” 

The checks, which total $9.3 million, must be cashed within 60 days after they are issued. The deadline for filing a refund request has expired. Consumers who have questions should call 1-866-402-4752. For general refund information, see www.FTC.gov/refunds. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed.

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Mortgage applications back in the red

Contract interest rates were mixed

After posting their first increase in four weeks a week ago, mortgage applications fell during the week ending July 11. According to the Mortgage Bankers ...

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© emiliezhang -Fotolia.com

After posting their first increase in four weeks a week ago, mortgage applications fell during the week ending July 11.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications were down 3.6%. Results from the week of July 4 included an adjustment for the Independence Day.

The average loan size for purchase applications was $268,500 -- the lowest amount since February 2014.

The Refinance Index inched 0.1% lower from the previous week, with the refinance share of mortgage activity increasing 2% from the week before -- to 54% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 8% of total applications. The average loan size for purchase applications was $268,500, the lowest amount since February 2014.

Contract interest rate

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) edged up 1 basis point -- from 4.32% to 4.33%, with points rising to 0.20 from 0.16 (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) decreased to 4.23% from 4.24%, with points increasing to 0.26 from 0.16 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was up from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose 2 basis points to 4.04%, with points rising to 0.02 from -0.03 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs stood at to 3.41% -- up from 3.40%, with points increasing to 0.23 from 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was higher than last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs fell 7 basis points to 3.17%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was lower than last week.

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

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Home builder confidence at 6-month high in July

Most builders now rank conditions as “good”

It's been a while coming, but July marks the first time since last January that more home builders view sales conditions as good than poor. Confidence in ...

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© iQoncept - Fotolia.com

It's been a while coming, but July marks the first time since last January that more home builders view sales conditions as good than poor.

Confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes reached rose 4 points this month to a reading of 53 on the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) /Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI). Any reading over 50 indicates that more builders view sales conditions as good than poor.

NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly, a home builder and developer from Wilmington, Del., calls topping the 50 milestone “an important sign" that the housing market is strengthening "as pent-up demand brings more buyers into the marketplace.”

Across the board gains posted

Derived from a monthly survey, 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.

All three HMI components posted gains in July. The index gauging current sales conditions increased 4 points to 57, while the index measuring expectations for future sales rose 6 points to 64 and the index gauging traffic of prospective buyers increased 3 points to 39.

The HMI three-month moving average was up in all four regions, with the Northeast and Midwest posting 1--and 2-point gains to 35 and 48, respectively. The West registered a 5-point gain to 52 while the South rose 2 points to 51.

“An improving job market goes hand-in-hand with a rise in builder confidence,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “As employment increases and those with jobs feel more secure about their own economic situation, they are more likely to feel comfortable about buying a home.”

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Direct Auto Insurance "worthless," class action charges

Company dismisses claims based on alleged misrepresentations in the application, suit charges

Direct Auto Insurance targets low-income minorities for its "worthless" car insurance policies, profiting from the premiums but refusing to honor the polic...

CORRECTION 7/22/2014: Although our story published July 16 correctly quotes the lawsuit, the lawsuit misstates the defendant. The correct defendant should have been Direct Auto Insurance Company, 330 S. Wells Street, Suite 910, Chicago, Illinois, 60606.  Direct Auto Insurance Company is not and has never been affiliated with Direct General Insurance Agency of Tennessee, Inc., d/b/a Direct Auto Insurance or any other member of the Direct General Group of Companies.

Direct Auto Insurance Agency issued the following statement:

Direct General Insurance Agency of Tennessee, Inc. and its affiliated insurance agencies, d/b/a Direct Auto Insurance, 1281 Murfreesboro Pike, Nashville, Tennessee, is proud of its reputation and the services it provides to the thousands of customers who rely on Direct Auto Insurance for their auto insurance needs. The company has spent years building its brand and creating awareness of its name, logo and advertising images.

A class-action lawsuit was filed in Cook County Chancery Court naming as the defendant “Direct General Insurance Agency of Tennessee, Inc. d/b/a Direct Auto Insurance Company.”  However, the plaintiff named the wrong party.  The actual defendant should have been Direct Auto Insurance Company, 330 S. Wells Street, Suite 910, Chicago, Illinois 60606.

Direct Auto Insurance Company is not and has never been affiliated with Direct General Insurance Agency of Tennessee, Inc. d/b/a Direct Auto Insurance or any other member of the Direct General Group of Companies. Direct General Insurance Agency of Tennessee, Inc. and its employee agents have never produced business for Direct Auto Insurance Company. The allegations in the lawsuit are not applicable to Direct General Insurance Agency of Tennessee, Inc., its employee agents or affiliates. Accordingly, Direct General has requested that plaintiff’s counsel dismiss Direct General from the lawsuit and believe that they will do so. In the event that does not occur, Direct General will be submitting a filing with the court for the company to be dismissed from the suit.

Regrettably, images of the logo and advertising associated with Direct General Insurance Agency of Tennessee, Inc. d/b/a Direct Auto Insurance have been incorrectly used by certain media outlets to illustrate news stories about the lawsuit without first consulting the company.

“There has been confusion in the past about the two companies with similar names, which translated most recently into this lawsuit that incorrectly names Direct General Insurance Agency of Tennessee, Inc. d/b/a Direct Auto Insurance as a defendant. Many media outlets then began reporting this error using our company’s logo and advertising images. Because we were not provided a chance to address the error prior to its distribution, the company must now insist on corrective action. We are in the process of having our name removed from the lawsuit, and we request that the reported misinformation be corrected as quickly as possible so there is no confusion in the minds of consumers,” said John Arena, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Direct General Group of Companies.

About Direct Auto Insurance

Direct General Corporation is an insurance holding company and through its subsidiaries, is a leading provider of personal auto insurance, life insurance, and vehicle, and accident protection plans. Direct is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, and has more than 400 local offices in 13 states primarily the Southeast with annual revenue of over $450 million. Direct markets and sells its products and services under the Direct Auto Insurance brand through its retail store outlets, by phone through its call center and via the internet.

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The original story:

A class action suit in Chicago's Cook County Court charges that Direct Auto Insurance targets low-income minorities for its "worthless" car insurance policies, profiting from the premiums but refusing to honor claims, Courthouse News Service reports.

"Direct Auto Insurance Company developed a business strategy wherein the company planned to secure customers by offering auto insurance at premiums that were substantially lower than its competitors and market rates," said lead plaintiff Norbert May in her complaint.

"Direct Auto Insurance Company intentionally targeted consumers with low to moderate incomes, including a high percentage of African-American and Hispanic individuals, who did not have the financial ability to hire legal representation to defend them against defendant's predatory practices," May alleged.

The suit charges that Direct Auto's policy of filing meritless declaratory judgment actions on the basis of misrepresentations in policy applications shows that the insurance company never intended to honor any claims on the policies it issued.

May seeks class certification and damages for fraud, breach of contract, and alleged violations of the Illinois insurance code. 

May is represented by Edward McCauley with Kelleher & Buckley in North Barrington, and Daniel Konicek with Konicke & Dillon in Geneva.

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Nantucket Distributing recalls outdoor patio set chairs

The rear legs of the chair can break

Nantucket Distributing of Middleboro, Mass., is recalling about 4,000 resin wicker outdoor patio set chairs. The rear legs of the chair can break, posing ...

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Photo source: CPSC

Nantucket Distributing of Middleboro, Mass., is recalling about 4,000 resin wicker outdoor patio set chairs.

The rear legs of the chair can break, posing a fall hazard.

The firm has received two reports of the rear chair legs breaking. No injuries have been reported.

The recall includes Nantucket Distributing resin wicker outdoor patio set chairs. The set includes two brown powder coated outdoor metal resin wicker chairs and a round table with aluminum top with brown resin wicker trim. The chairs measures about 23 inches wide by 23 inches deep by 32 inches high. The table measures about 24.75 inches in diameter. The chairs were sold with a hang tag with item number RT043SET.

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Christmas Tree Shops, andThat!, and Christmas Tree Shops andThat! stores nationwide in March 2014 for about $60 for the entire set.

Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled chairs and return the set or chairs to any Christmas Tree Shops, andThat!, or Christmas Tree Shops andThat! to receive a full refund for the set or $17.50 for each chair.

Consumers may contact Christmas Tree Shops toll-free at (888) 287-3232.

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University of Phoenix courses under review by feds

For-profit schools may be getting closer scrutiny

After the stock market closed Monday Apollo Education Group, Inc., which operates University of Phoenix (UP), disclosed that its course offerings will be r...

PhotoAfter the stock market closed Monday Apollo Education Group, Inc., which operates University of Phoenix (UP), disclosed that its course offerings will be reviewed by a federal agency.

The company's stock dropped 5% in after-hours trading.

The company's Form 8-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission said that it has been informed by the U.S. Department of Education that the government plans to conduct an ordinary course program review of University of Phoenix's administration of federal student financial aid (Title IV) programs in which the UP participates.

The review, which is scheduled to begin August 4, 2014, will focus on federal financial aid years 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, as well as compliance with other policies and regulations.

Typically, neither the government entity conducting the review nor the entity being reviewed comments or elaborates on the process. Apollo Education Group was required to issue the 8-K in order to notify shareholders of a “major event” concerning the company.

UP is one of the largest and best known of the for-profit colleges, which have been a focus of recent concern over rising student loan balances and default rates. It, like many colleges, derives a lot of its income from students who have tapped into Title IV federal aid.

Title IV

According to the Department of Education, Title IV programs are the major source of federal student aid. They include Federal Family Education Loans, direct loans and Federal Perkins Loans.

Title IV aid also comes in the form of grants, including the Federal Pell Grant, Academic Competitiveness Grant, National SMART Grant and Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant.

Default rates

The Department of Education has found that for-profit colleges continue to have the highest average 2 and 3-year cohort default rates (CDR) at 13.6% and 21.8%, respectively. By comparison, public institutions were at 9.6% for the 2-year rate and 13% for the 3-year rate. Private non-profit institutions had the lowest rates at 5.2% for the 2-year rate and 8.2% for the 3-year rate.

The 2-year CDR increased in 2013 over 2012’s 2-year rates for both the public and for-profit sectors, rising from 8.3% to 9.6% for public institutions, and from 12.9% to 13.6% for for-profit institutions. CDRs held steady for private non-profit institutions at 5.2%.

According to the Center for Responsible Lending, for-profit colleges absorb around 25% of the more than $32 billion in federal student aid. In addition to Title IV aid, military veterans may take advantage of education loans that do not fall under Title IV.

DoD education aid

Back in 2012 Holly Petraeus of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau raised warnings about the amount of DoD education aid going to for-profit institutions.

“On my trips to military communities, I’ve heard stories that raise concerns about the practices of some for-profit colleges,” Petraeus said in a speech. “Marketing is aggressive and relentless; servicemembers are urged to take out private student loans rather than seeking out quality programs whose costs would be covered in full by their military benefits; and poor service and treatment is common at some institutions once service members are enrolled.”

Petraeus said between 2006 and 2010, combined VA and DoD education benefits received by just 20 for-profit education companies increased from $66.6 million in 2006 to an estimated $521.2 million in 2010, a 683% increase.    

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Organic-farm foods: healthy or overhyped?

Is their higher cost worth it?

There's a variety of rules to follow at the supermarket (or any store) if you want to keep your grocery costs in check – keep an eye on unit prices r...

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© WavebreakMediaMicro - Fotolia.com

There's a variety of rules to follow at the supermarket if you want to keep your grocery costs in check – keep an eyeon unit prices rather than assume the lowest up-front cost must always be the best; use coupons only for discounts on things you intended to buy anyway, rather than buy things solely because you have a coupon for them – but the one rule I find most effective these days is, “Don't pay more for items just because they have the word 'organic' or 'natural' on their label somewhere.”

Granted, I personally have never been convinced that the alleged health benefits of organic foods, if they exist at all, are enough to justify their vastly higher cost. (For what it's worth: I'm in generally good health and, according to my latest checkup, suffer from no nutritional deficiencies or buildups of “toxins,” despite my non-organic diet.)

There is a fallacy some people believe, to the effect of “The more expensive option must always be the better one, just because it's more expensive.” Take the debate between fresh versus frozen or canned produce, for example.

Frozen vegetables and fruits are actually healthier and more nutritious than most “fresh” produce you find for sale, in addition to being far more convenient. That said: it's also true that a just-picked, in-season fruit or vegetable, if you can eat it right away, often tastes better than its equivalent you can buy at the supermarket. Even so, we are all very lucky to live in a time and place where our own fruit and vegetable consumption is not limited to whatever's local and in-season.

Yet I've known more than a few people who are not only convinced that fresh produce is guaranteed better/healthier than frozen, they'll even go so far as to say that frozen vegetables are mere “processed junk,” as ABC News put it in a recent report.

Expensive not always healthier

PhotoAfter all: frozen veggies are cheaper, easier and more convenient than fresh, ergo they've got to be inferior, right?

Is something similar in play regarding the idea that “organic” must always mean “healthier?” Maybe … or maybe not. In Britain last week, the Guardian reported “clear differences between organic and non-organic foods, study finds,” specifically that organic food “has more of the antioxidant compounds linked to better health than regular food, and lower levels of toxic metals and pesticides, according to the most comprehensive scientific analysis to date,” according to the headline and first paragraph.

Yet read a little further and you discover that “comperehensive scientific analysis” has some pretty serious flaws:

The findings will bring to the boil a long-simmering row over whether those differences mean organic food is better for people, with one expert calling the work sexed up.

Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition at King's College London, said the research did show some differences. "But the question is are they within natural variation? And are they nutritionally relevant? I am not convinced."

Bigger not always better

Some of the skepticism stems from the sheer size of the analysis, which looked at 343 different peer-reviewed studies from around the world. Ordinarily, this would be a good thing in a scientific analysis: all else being equal, the bigger the sample size, the better the results. But in this case, maybe not:

“The research is certain to be criticised: the inclusion of so many studies in the analysis could mean poor quality work skews the results, although the team did "sensitivity analyses" and found that excluding weaker work did not significantly change the outcome. … A further criticism is that the differences seen may result from different climate, soil types and crop varieties, and not from organic farming, though the researchers argue that combining many studies should average out these other differences.”

From a scientific-rigor perspective, you might raise an eyebrow at the notion that there's no need to exclude “weaker work” from a study since it doesn't change the outcome anyway – and, in a study specifically trying to determine whether organic farming methods result in more nutritious food, the idea that all other variables should be lumped together rather than isolated and studied separately might raise your other eyebrow.

Natural not always preferable

PhotoThat said: the “organic” food mentioned in the Guardian primarily seems to involve organic farming methods – foods raised without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers, for example. That's different from “organic” as opposed to genetically modified (GMO) food. As my colleague Mischa Popoff pointed out last month, many GMO foods are modified solely to make them more nutritious, and save people from nutritional deficiencies, yet “organic” activists promoting the “natural must always be better than artifical” fallacy oppose them anyway:

Consider Golden Rice, genetically spliced with β-carotene over 10 years ago to prevent millions in the Third World from going blind and dying. It remains in regulatory limbo thanks to organic activists who claim it will contaminate organic rice.

Since they reject genetic engineering, organic activists claim genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) represent a threat to organic crops. And they have actually gone to court and lost three times, insisting on zero tolerance for GMOs …. [although] not a single health effect has ever been observed from GMOs on the environment, animals or on humans.

In all fairness, though, the issue of rich people actively campaigning against something to help poor people is not remotely limited to organic-food activism. However: assuming you focus on “organic food” strictly to mean “food raised via organic farming methods” (whether or not the crops are genetically modified), there is another variable to consider: organic, rather than “artificial,” farming methods are probably not sufficient to feed a planet whose current human population of 7.5 billion is expected to top off at around 10 billion in a generation or so.

Remember the reason artificial fertilizers, pesticides and other farm innovations became so popular in the first place: in the late 19th century, during the so-called “Second Industrial Revolution,” the chemical industry as we know it first came into existence. The new nation of Germany was particlarly renowned for its chemists and chemical discoveries, including the first artificial fertilizers, which led to skyrocketing crop yields for the farmers who used them.

But the worldwide increase in food production spawned by the chemical/industrial revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries paled in comparison to the food increases of the so-called Green Revolution starting in the 1960s.

The late Dr. Norman Borlaug, who pioneered the use of wheat genetically modified to have increased resistance to pests and produce two or three times as much grain as unmodified wheat, is credited with saving one billion (with a “B”) people, mainly in poor countries, who otherwise would have died of starvation in the past few decades. Indeed, the world has actually reached the point where, especially in the developed nations, the main food-related health problem most people have involves too much food of some sort, rather than too little: obesity or Type 2 diabetes, rather than starvation or malnutrition.

Even so, humanity has a long way to go before everybody can afford the modern Western luxury of ignoring the past century and a half of technological advances, and paying more for foods grown without them.

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Staples abandons pilot partnership with Post Office

Postal workers' union opposes USPS cost-cutting attempts

In what is being hailed as good news for the unionized employees of the financially beleaguered Post Office (though not necessarily for the post office its...

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Photo credit: AFLCIO.org
In what is being hailed as good news for the unionized employees of the financially beleaguered Post Office (though not necessarily for the post office itself, nor for ordinary customers who want to buy stamps, mail letters or purchase other postal services), the Staples office-supply chain has agreed to abandon its trial program of offering postal services in its stores.

Most Staples customers won't even notice, as the yearlong pilot program had only been tried at select locations in California, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

The American Postal Workers Union opposed it from the start, fearing that it would cost some postal workers their jobs.

In April, for example, the APWU organized a protest of postal workers who stepped off the job to picket at various Staples stores. Dena Briscoe, head of the APWU's Washington, D.C. chapter, said at the time: "I'm a third-generation postal worker. It was very important for my family to be able to have a living wage and provide for our families … I want the next generation to be able to have opportunities, such as we had."

The same threat

In June, the Motley Fool financial blog analyzed the situation in a post explaining “Why your local postal workers hate Staples.”

Ironically, Staples, the post office and its employees' financial problems all stem from the same threat: the rise of computers, smartphones, the Internet and other inexpensive and commonplace data-storage and mass-communication technologies.

As Motley Fool explained, Staples' bottom line has been falling for years due to declining sales of its core products such as PCs, computer paper and ink (in March, Staples had to close 225 of its stores), so it's completely understandable why the company tried forming a partnership with the Post Office: perhaps revenue from the sale of postal supplies and services could help offset the massive decline of sales in paper-based office supplies.

The Internet also explains why the post office has had financial problems for so long, and why they won't go away: the rise of email, online discussion forums and other social media, 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 nowadays, you have much faster and cheaper options than writing and mailing a letter.

Declining revenues

With USPS revenues declining despite increases in the price of postage stamps, the post office has naturally explored ways to cut costs, including proposals to end Saturday service and door-to-door delivery.

But the APWU opposes any cost-cutting measure that will result in less postal-worker jobs, or lower pay for those who hold them. As the Motley Fool said last month:

It's pretty obvious why the APWU is putting so much effort into pressuring Staples to end its mini-post office pilot (known as the Retail Partner Expansion Program). Postal clerks are paid an average of $25 per hour according to the union; meanwhile, a typical Staples store employee makes less than $10 per hour.

With the USPS consistently losing money and mail volumes declining, the postal service is always looking to cut costs. If the USPS were to outsource a significant amount of mail handling to lower-paying subcontractors, it could significantly cut its costs. As a result, the APWU sees low-paid Staples employees as a serious threat to its members' jobs.

In addition to protests, the APWU also promoted a boycott against Staples. This week, the American Federation of Teachers joined in the boycott (and teachers, of course, are major customers of school supplies such as Staples sells). Shortly after the AFT announced its support for the boycott, Staples announced it would abandon the USPS pilot program after all.

However, the Wall Street Journal's Corporate Intelligence blog noted that the APWU is not yet ready to declate victory in this battle:

A statement from APWU president Mark Dimondstein called the USPS and Staples announcements a “ruse”, and said the discontinuation of the pilot program doesn’t go far enough. The company should stop offering postal services altogether, he said.

But while the union has yet to call its campaign a success, it said the boycott is getting results. “This attempt at trickery shows that the ‘Don’t Buy Staples’ movement is having an effect,” Mr. Dimondstein said. “We intend to keep up the pressure until Staples gets out of the mail business.”

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Hot weather takes a toll on your car battery

Cold weather actually takes a back seat to summer's wear and tear on your battery

When you think of a dead car battery, you probably think about it being the dead of winter. You try to start your car one frigid morning and nothing happen...

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Calling 9-1-1 on a cell phone may leave responders in the dark

Data show most wireless calls don't provide location information

With the proliferation of mobile phones in less than two decades, more consumers are deciding they don't need a traditional landline phone.The Centers fo...

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Fairfax County, Va., communications center (FHWA photo by Tracy Shelton)
With the vast proliferation of mobile phones in less than two decades, more consumers are deciding they don't need a traditional landline phone.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found in late 2013 that 2 out of 5 U.S. homes – 41% – didn't have a landline but relied only on a wireless phone. That means in case of emergency, these consumers would have to call 9-1-1 on their mobile phone and hope their location showed up on the dispatcher's screen.

Often, it doesn't. A group called The Find Me 9-1-1 Coalition used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about wireless 9-1-1 calls made in Washington, D.C.

It found that from December 2012 to July 2013, 9 out of 10 wireless 9-1-1 calls made in DC were delivered without the accurate location information needed to find callers who are lost, confused, unconscious or otherwise unable to share their location.

This location information is latitude-longitude data called “Phase II” information. Emergency 9-1-1 systems across the country have updated their systems over the last 20 years to automatically display this data when a call comes in.

But the system was designed for landline telephone systems. While they are supposed to work with some wireless devices, The Find Me 9-1-1 Coalition says the information can be useless, showing only the cell tower location nearest to the caller.

Alarming

"These results reveal an alarming public safety crisis," said Jamie Barnett, former Chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and Director of the Find Me 9-1-1 Coalition. "When 9 in 10 emergency callers in our nation's capital cannot be located on wireless phones, we know that the requirements for location accuracy must be updated immediately.”

The FCC has, in fact, proposed new rules to improve emergency call systems to more accurately pinpoint the location of wireless callers.

“This (data) should eliminate any doubt about the importance of rapid adoption of that rule," Barnett said.

The problem is the technology used by more wireless carriers, something called A-GPS. It depends on a direct line of sight to satellites, so it might work fine if you called 9-1-1 from the middle of a grassy meadow. But it often fails in indoor locations or dense urban areas like DC.

Matter of life and death

The FCC has proposed to rectify that with a new rule – Proceeding 07-114 – requiring wireless carriers to provide accurate location data for indoor calls within two years. By the FCC's own estimates, implementing the rule could save 10,000 lives each year with faster emergency response times.

"The nation's capital faces unique security issues, and it's critical that 9-1-1 callers in DC be quickly located in an emergency," Barnett said. "Unfortunately, the safety of our residents and visitors is being put at risk on an ongoing basis when 9-1-1 cannot identify their locations to send help.”

The FCC data also provides a breakdown by carrier of wireless 9-1-1 calls. There was a wide variation among carriers for delivery of accurate “Phase II” information.

Verizon and Sprint had best results

Verizon had the best record, with 24.6% of its 9-1-1 calls delivering accurate location information. Sprint was second, at 23.3%.

After that there was a significant fall-off. T-Mobile delivered only 3.2% and AT&T just 2.6%.

The Coalition says the people who answer those 9-1-1 calls also want the system improved.

It says a survey of first responder call centers found that 99% supported the FCC's proposed requirements for indoor location accuracy within two years, and another 99% said the adoption of that rule was "critically" or "very" important for public safety in their communities.

If you have the need to call 9-1-1 from your cell phone during the next 2 years, be sure to start off by telling the dispatcher your precise location. Otherwise, they might not know.

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Rich people don't shop at “rich-people stores”

Instead, you'll find them at Costco, Home Depot and Lowe's

Let's face it: thanks to inflation, being “a millionaire” just isn't what it used to be. In an America where an ordinary single-family home can...

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Here are some jobs you probably don't want to pursue

CareerCast is out with its list of the 10 most endangered jobs

If you've thought of becoming a mail carrier, meter reader, print newspaper reporter or farmer, you may want to reconsider your career path. Those are th...

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© zimmytws - Fotolia.com

If you've thought of becoming a mail carrier, meter reader, print newspaper reporter or farmer, you may want to reconsider your career path.

Those are the occupations most likely to go the way of the dodo, according to the CareerCast report on the Most Endangered Jobs

While the job landscape may be bustling with new opportunities in the information technology sector, these 21st century jobs come at the expense of other industries.

Going, going....

CareerCast, which bills itself as a “global job search portal,” says current mail carriers may have a safe career, but the profession is rapidly contracting for postman wannabes. Mail carrier is just one casualty of a tech-based job market that shares a unifying theme: paper.

Newspaper reporters face a projected 13% decline in hiring in the coming years. Layoffs and furloughs in the industry are commonplace.

Consumers haven't quit reading the news or the latest bestseller, but rather are consuming their information online and not in print. Want to catch up on the latest news? Power on your smart phone or tablet and get the latest happenings from around the globe in one place. Want to read a book? Download any title instantly.

The logging industry is feeling the impact of the move from print to digital. Dramatically lower demand for paper means much less demand for wood pulp that lumberjacks help provide. The result is a 9% decline in logging industry employment. Falling demand for paper also affects printers.

Blame technology

The use of paper isn't the only factor behind technology endangering certain fields. Sometimes, advancements render the need for certain jobs moot. Meter reader is one such field.

A growing number of gas and electric companies are installing electronic meter readers that instantly provide usage updates. The result is a 19% job decline for meter readers anticipated by 2022.

Kiss them good-by

Here are the 10 most endangered jobs, according to CareerCast's 2014 Jobs Rated report and statistics culled from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • MAIL CARRIER - Median Salary: $53,100 - Hiring Outlook: -28%
  • FARMER - Median Salary: $69,300 - Hiring Outlook: -19%
  • METER READER - Median Salary: $36,410 - Hiring Outlook: -19%
  • NEWSPAPER REPORTER - Median Salary: $37,090 - Hiring Outlook: -13%
  • TRAVEL AGENT - Median Salary: $34,600 - Hiring Outlook: -12%
  • LUMBERJACK - Median Salary: $24,340 Hiring Outlook: -9%
  • FLIGHT ATTENDANT Median Salary: $37,240 Hiring Outlook: -7%
  • DRILL-PRESS OPERATOR - Median Salary: $32,950 - Hiring Outlook: -6%
  • PRINTING WORKER - Median Salary: $34,100 - Hiring Outlook: -5%
  • TAX EXAMINER AND COLLECTOR - Median Salary: $50,440 - Hiring Outlook: -4%
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EPA wants automakers to be more realistic in their mileage estimates

The agency is preparing a proposal that would require the use of actual road tests

Just yesterday we reported that a coalition of consumer groups wants the feds to require that automakers use only the Environmental Protection Agency's off...

PhotoJust yesterday we reported that a coalition of consumer groups wants the feds to require that automakers use only the Environmental Protection Agency's official mileage estimates in their advertising.

Now the EPA has a suggestion of its own. It wants automakers to road test their cars before making fuel economy claims, according to a report in today's Wall Street Journal. Currently, some carmakers use wind tunnel tests and engineering calculations to arrive at their mileage estimates.

The suggestions follow several high-profile errors by Ford, Hyundai and Kia, which had to dial back their claims after EPA tests and consumer gripes pointed out the discrepancy.

For its part, the EPA says that the gap between manufacturers' mileage claims and consumers' real-world experience is the most frequent complaint registered with the agency.

"Some automakers already do this, but we are establishing a regulatory requirement for all auto makers," Chris Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, told the Journal.

Using actual road tests instead of wind tunnels would make it harder to manipulate the results, he said. 

The EPA revised the tests it uses to arrived at its official estimates in 2008. Since then, the EPA estimates have generally coincided closely with consumers' experiences. 

In June, Ford restated mileage estimates for several of its models, including the C-Max Hybrid.  In March, Hyundai apologized for overstating the mileage estimates for its Sonata sedan, the latest in a series of such blunders by the Korean automaker. 

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Retail sales inch higher in June

It's the fifth increase in as many months

Retail sales posted their fifth straight gain in June, edging up 0.2% following an upwardly revised advance of 0.5% in May. The increase for the previous m...

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© Stuart Miles - Fotolia.com

Retail sales posted their fifth straight gain in June, edging up 0.2% following an upwardly revised advance of 0.5% in May. The increase for the previous month was initially reported as 0.3%.

The June performance fell short of the 0.7% consensus estimate of economists surveyed by Briefing.com.

Core retail sales, which strip out auto dealers, gas stations, and building material and supply stores, increased were up 0.5% following May's 0.3% advance. Analysts point out that sales in those categories more closely reflect overall consumption trends, suggest that demand is on the increase. That's important as consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of all economic activity.

'Disappointed' in the trend

That view is not universal, though. 

Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza notes  retail sales have continuously lost momentum: up 0.6% in April followed by a 0.5% rise in May and now just +0.2% to end the quarter.

She says while positive, "monthly gains in spending have weakened to just a fraction of the gains seen in February and March, pulling the annual gain down to nearly half of the pace seen just a year or two ago."

Those hopeful warmer weather alone would spark an upward trend in consumer spending, she concludes, "have thus far been disappointed."

Winners and losers

Government figures show the overall increase in June was led by rising sales at general merchandise stores (+1.1%), health and personal care stores (+0.9%) and clothing and clothing accessory stores (+0.8%).

Declines were posted at building material and supply stores (-1.0%), food services and drinking places (-0.3%) and auto dealers (-0.2%).

Overall, retail sales were up 4.5% for the second quarter of this year, and 4.3% above June 2013.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Moderate alcohol use may increase risk for atrial fibrillation

The findings don't seem to apply to beer, though

For years, we've been told by the “experts” that a drink or two of alcohol each day may be good for our hearts. Little-by-little, though, that conventional...

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© mattz90 - Fotolia.com

For years, we've been told by the “experts” that a drink or two of alcohol each day may be good for our hearts. Little-by-little, though, that conventional wisdom may be falling by the wayside.

Just last week, ConsumerAffairs reported that a University of Pennsylvania study found no heart health benefit from alcohol.

Now, new research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology says even in moderation, consumption of wine and hard liquor may be a risk factor for atrial fibrillation, an abnormally fast heartbeat that can lead to stroke, heart failure and dementia.

It isn't just the heavy drinkers at risk

Researchers in Sweden studied 79,016 adults, ages 45 to 83, who completed an extensive questionnaire about food and alcohol consumption in 1997. After following the participants for up to 12 years through national registries in Sweden, researchers found 7,245 cases of atrial fibrillation.

Consistent with previous research, the study found an association between high alcohol consumption -- defined as more than three drinks per day -- and increased risk for atrial fibrillation and a strong association with binge drinking. Previous studies had not reported findings on moderate alcohol use.

The Swedish study showed an increase in risk for atrial fibrillation with moderate drinking of wine and liquor. Moderate drinking was defined as one to three drinks per day.

While many studies have shown that light to moderate alcohol consumption can have beneficial outcomes on the heart, such as reducing ischemic heart disease and stroke, it is important to balance these benefits against the potential risk of developing atrial fibrillation, said Susanna C. Larsson, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Unit of Nutritional Epidemiology, Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, and lead author of the study.

The study showed that binge drinking -- consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion -- was associated with an increased risk for drinkers of wine and liquor. Excluding binge drinkers from the analysis reduced the risk only slightly for heavy and moderate drinkers of wine and liquor.

Good news for beer drinkers

While the association between moderate wine and liquor consumption and increased atrial fibrillation risk was strong, the Swedish study did not find such a relationship with atrial fibrillation and moderate beer consumption or even binge drinking of beer.

"We have no explanation for the lack of association with beer consumption," Larsson said. "It is likely that beer is consumed more regularly during the week, whereas wine and liquor is more often consumed during weekends only. Adverse effects of alcohol on atrial fibrillation risk may be less pronounced if alcohol consumption is spread out over the week compared with consumption of larger amounts of alcohol during a few days per week."

The caveat

Prospective studies, which follow a group of participants over time, can identify associations, or conditions that exist together, but an association does not necessarily mean moderate alcohol use causes atrial fibrillation. There could be other reasons atrial fibrillation is seen more often in drinkers.

Still investigators identified several factors that could explain the relationship between alcohol consumption and atrial fibrillation.

Past studies have shown an association between alcohol consumption and depression of heart function, cardiac condition abnormalities, dilated cardiomyopathy with supraventricular arrhythmias and other conditions that could lead to atrial fibrillation.

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Citigroup to pay $7 billion in subprime mortgage case

It's the latest settlement hammered out by a presidential task force

Citigroup, which received $45 billion in bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis, will pay $7 billion for misleading investors about "securitized" subpri...

PhotoCitigroup, which received $45 billion in bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis, will pay $7 billion for misleading investors about "securitized" subprime mortgages. The "bundling" of the risky subprime loans into securities helped lead to the Great Recession.

Today's agreement follows weeks of negotiations that reportedly centered around the size of the penalty. Citigroup had held out for a total penalty of $4 billion, a figure that was rejected by the Justice Department.

CitiMortgage  July 14, 2014, 1:12 p.m.
Consumers rate CitiMortgage

The fines announced today include a $4 billion civil penalty, $2.5 billion in debt relief to struggling homeowners and $500 million to various state agencies and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

“The penalty is appropriate given the strength of the evidence of the wrongdoing committed by Citi,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “Despite the fact that Citigroup learned of serious and widespread defects among the increasingly risky loans they were securitizing, the bank and its employees concealed these defects.”

Holder said the task force investigation was continuing and more banks were in its sights.

“Citi is not the first financial institution to be held accountable by this Justice Department, and it will certainly not be the last,” he said.

Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat said the settlement was "in the best interests of our shareholders, and allows us to move forward and to focus on the future, not the past.”

The settlement is the largest to date to be hammered out by a task force established by President Obama in 2012 to investigate the role of big banks in the financial crisis.

States react

State attorneys general who participated in the prosecution were divvying up the spots this morning.

New York State will receive at least $182 million: $92 million in cash and a minimum of $90 million in consumer relief for struggling homeowners.  California will recover $102 million while Illinois will get $84 million.

“Since my first day in office, I have insisted that there must be accountability for the misconduct that led to the crash of the housing market and the collapse of the American economy,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “Systemic frauds harmed thousands of New York homeowners and investors, and today's result is a major victory in the fight to hold those who caused the financial crisis accountable.” 

“Citigroup misled consumers and profited by providing California’s pension funds with incomplete information about mortgage investments,” California Attorney General Kamala Harris said. “This settlement holds Citi accountable and compensates the state’s pension funds that protect the retirement savings of hardworking Californians.”

The settlement includes $44 million in relief to fully recover for losses incurred by Illinois’ pension systems and $40 million in consumer relief.

“This relief will fully restore the losses Illinois’ pension systems incurred as a result of Citigroup’s fraudulent schemes in the mortgage-backed securities market, and it will provide much-needed aid to Illinois homeowners who are still paying for Wall Street’s reckless actions,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. 

 

 

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Secondhand smoke is dangerous for everyone, including your pets

Smoke gets in their eyes ... and into their lungs and onto their fur and feathers

© K.-U. Häßler - Fotolia.comPuff the Magic Dragon may have survived living by the sea with a little smoke coming his way but your dog a...

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© K.-U. Häßler - Fotolia.com

Puff the Magic Dragon may have survived living by the sea with a little smoke coming his way but your dog and cat might not be so lucky. According to Heather Wilson-Robles, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science, studies show that dogs exposed to large amounts of secondhand smoke have changes in their lung tissue over time.

This isn't too surprising, since dogs' and cats' lungs are virtually the same as humans. 

There are some areas where dogs differ from humans though. Snouts, for example. Studies suggest that muzzle length plays a role in the type of cancer a dog is likely to develop from secondhand smoke.

According to a survey of recent research at Livescience.com, dogs with long muzzles are more likely to develop nose and sinus cancers, since their noses and sinuses have more surface area on which carcinogens can accumulate, while dogs with short and medium-length muzzles are more likely to develop lung cancer.

Cats are more prone to develop cancers of the mouth and lymph nodes because of secondhand smoke. When cats groom themselves, they lick up the toxic substances that have accumulated on their fur. That puts their mouth at risk for cancer causing carcinogens.

Dogs and cats aren't the only ones affected. Birds are extremely sensitive to air pollutants and are at risk for lung cancer and pneumonia when exposed to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke has also been found to cause heart problems in rabbits.

If you can't throw your stogies away there are a few things that can help.
Quit smoking around your pets and wash your hands after smoking before you touch your pet or anything it may come in contact with.

Nicotine in cigarettes is very toxic to pets if they ingest it so keeping cigarettes out of your house is always the best bet for everyone, pet owners included!

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Consumer groups want feds to require EPA MPG ratings in car ads

Carmakers should be allowed to use only the official EPA estimates, the groups argue

Comments filed by a diverse collection of consumer, energy efficiency, science, safety, and environmental organizations yesterday called for several change...

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Chevy Volt EPA sticker

A coalition of consumer and environmental groups is asking the Federal Traade Commission to crack down on car ads that use "unofficial" mileage estimates -- meaning any that don't come from the Environmental Protction Agency.

“In our consumer surveys, including the most recent released on June 23rd, consumers clearly want more fuel efficient vehicles. Putting accurate and fair MPG information in advertising will not only help consumers make informed market choices, but add significant competitive market pressure for continued carmaker improvements in fuel efficiency,” said Jack Gillis, CFA’s Director of Public Affairs and author of The Car Book.

The groups’ comment letter made a number of recommendations to the Federal Trade Commission, including:

  • All fuel economy claims must use only the EPA ratings, prohibiting the use of non-EPA fuel economy estimates in advertisements
  • Allow only the use of all three (city, highway, combined) EPA rating numbers or, in special circumstances, only the combined number.
  • Prohibit the use of just the ‘highway’ number in advertisements, as it is rarely achieved by consumers and can be deceptive.
  • Require posting of the fuel economy rating of the model that is expected to be most popular, rather than publishing just the numbers associated with the highest rated version of a particular model. (This prevents a deceptive situation when there are very few of the highest rated models actually available.)
  • Require MPGe conversion rating for electric vehicle advertisements.
  • “Auto advertising is a powerful market force that goes a long way to influence consumer purchase decisions. Including accurate, fair MPG rating information will serve both consumers and those manufacturers who have made significant investments in fuel efficiency improvements”, said Gillis.

The FTC groups making the request include: American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Center for Auto Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen, Safe Climate Campaign Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Keylogger warning: don't type your passwords on hotel computers

U.S. Secret Service gives security warning to hospitality industry

"Never share private information on a public computer" is a standard, longtime Internet safety rule: ideally, any password-protected activity, ...

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© kim - Fotolia.com
“Never share private information on a public computer” is a standard, longtime Internet safety rule.. Ideally, any password-protected activity, from checking your email to monitoring your online banking accounts, should only ever be done from your own personal device (outfitted with all proper security software, of course).

If you need another reminder of why you should follow this rule, the latest post from security blogger Brian Krebs provides one: “Beware keyloggers at hotel business centers.”

As the name suggests, keylogging software is a form of malware that literally logs your keyboard activity – in other words, keeps track of every button you type, so if you check your email, use a credit card, manage your bank account or anything else on a computer outfitted with keylogging software, whoever installed it now has a record of your passwords, credit card numbers and everything else you typed.

And apparently, there's a big problem with thieves secretly installing keylogging software on hotel computers, big enough that the U.S. Secret Service is, according to Krebs, “advising the hospitality industry to inspect computers made available to guests in hotel business centers, warning that crooks have been compromising hotel business center PCs with keystroke-logging malware in a bid to steal personal and financial data from guests.”

Secret Service advisory

The Secret Service issued a non-public notice about it on July 10, including tips for various ways hotels can try to keep their public computers safe.

Unfortunately, as Krebs pointed out, an ordinary hotel guest has no way of knowing which hotel computers are safe, and which are not, which is why public computers should never be used for anything more than casual web browsing. If you need to do more than that, here's what Krebs advises:

If you’re on the road and need to print something from your email account, create a free, throwaway email address at yopmail.com or 10minutemail.com and use your mobile device to forward the email or file to that throwaway address, and then access the throwaway address from the public computer.

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Illinois sues student-loan "debt relief" companies

The lawsuits are the first to target debt relief aimed at people trying to pay back student loans

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has staked out a new area of consumer protection with a pair of lawsuits against two supposed debt-relief companies ...

PhotoIllinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has staked out a new area of consumer protection with a pair of lawsuits against two supposed debt-relief companies that claim they can reduce or eliminate outstanding student loans.

Madigan filed the suits against First American Tax Defense LLC, based in Chicago, and Broadsword Student Advantage LLC, based in Frisco, Texas, alleging the unlicensed companies engaged in deceptive marketing practices and illegally charged consumers hundreds of dollars in upfront fees to reduce or eliminate their student loan debt burden.

In reality, Madigan alleges, the companies sought to scam vulnerable people into paying as much as $1,200 upfront for bogus services, including assistance enrolling in a fake “Obama forgiveness program,” or for government services that are already free of charge.

“These companies illegally charge fees for services that student loan borrowers can obtain themselves through government programs at no cost,” Madigan said. “My office will be aggressive in cracking down on scam operations that prey on student loan borrowers for profit.”

$1.2 trillion

PhotoStudent loan debt levels have grown to historic proportions, now affecting nearly 40 million Americans who have $1.2 trillion in outstanding debt. Madigan’s lawsuits allege that First American and Broadsword Student Advantage are doing an end-run around an Illinois law that she wrote to ban companies from charging people upfront fees for so-called debt settlement services.

Madigan’s lawsuits allege First American and Broadsword Student Advantage have advertised heavily on the radio in Chicago and downstate, offering consumers a myriad of options to ease their debt burden based on the companies’ alleged expertise and false affiliation with the U.S. Department of Education to consolidate or forgive their loans.

The companies are alleged to offer to cut student loan payments in half or eliminate them entirely, and specifically offer public service employees a loan debt forgiveness program for which the companies could not qualify them. The lawsuit against First American specifically advertises an “Obama forgiveness program” that is not an actual government program.

In announcing the lawsuits, Madigan urged current and former students never to pay upfront for help with student loan debt relief. For information on legitimate sources of free assistance, consumers can contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

For problems with your student loan servicer or a debt collector, consumers can also contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Loan Ombudsman at 1-877-557-2575 or www.ombudsman.ed.gov.

 

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Feds sue debt collection "lawsuit mill"

Georgia firm "churns out" lawsuits by the hundreds of thou

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has filed a lawsuit in a federal district court against a Georgia-based firm, Frederick J. Hanna & Asso...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has filed a lawsuit in a federal district court against a Georgia-based firm, Frederick J. Hanna & Associates, claiming it is running a debt collection "lawsuit mill" that uses illegal tactics to intimidate consumers into paying debts they may not owe.

The Bureau alleges that the Hanna firm churns out hundreds of thousands of lawsuits that frequently rely on deceptive court filings and faulty or unsubstantiated evidence. The CFPB is seeking compensation for victims, a civil fine, and an injunction against the company and its partners.

“The Hanna firm relies on deception and faulty evidence to drag consumers to court and collect millions,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We believe they are taking advantage of consumers’ lack of legal expertise to intimidate them into paying debts they may not even owe. Today we are taking action to put a stop to these illegal debt collection practices.”

The Hanna firm focuses exclusively on debt collection litigation, and its three principal partners, Frederick J. Hanna, Joseph Cooling, and Robert Winter, play an active role in the company’s business strategies and practices. The firm performs debt collection activities and typically files lawsuits if those efforts do not lead to collections.

"Like a factory"

The CFPB alleges that the firm operates like a factory, producing hundreds of thousands of debt collection lawsuits against consumers on behalf of its clients, which mainly include banks, debt buyers, and major credit card issuers.

Between 2009 and 2013 the firm filed more than 350,000 debt collection lawsuits in Georgia alone. The CFPB further alleges the defendants collected millions of dollars each year through these lawsuits, often from consumers who may not actually have owed the debts.

The CFPB alleges that the defendants violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Among other things, the FDCPA prohibits making misrepresentations to consumers, and specifically prohibits misrepresenting to a consumer that a communication is from an attorney. 

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Child modeling scam ringleader sentenced to prison

New Faces allegedly bilked parents out of more than $236,000

A New York man identified as the ringleader of a child modeling scam has been sentenced to up to five years in prison for scamming 100 clients of more...

PhotoA New York man identified as the ringleader of a child modeling scam has been sentenced to up to five years in prison for scamming 100 clients of more than $236,000 with promises of lucrative modeling and acting jobs that did not exist.

James Muniz, 45, of Smithtown, Long Island, and New Faces Development Center, Inc. (also known as Model Talent Development Corp.), were sentenced by Nassau County Court Judge William Donnino. Charges are still pending against other defendants.

“James Muniz used his business to prey upon proud, loving New York parents, even after the company was prosecuted civilly for committing similar offenses years earlier,” New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said. “His sentence sends the message that those who take advantage of unsuspecting New Yorkers will be held accountable. My office will continue working diligently to prosecute fraud, and seek restitution for those who have been victimized.”

New Faces July 14, 2014, 2:53 p.m.
Consumers rate New Faces

Prosecutors said that Muniz and his employees solicited parents of children and unaccompanied teens in busy shopping malls in Queens and Long Island, telling them they qualified for modeling positions which, in fact, did not exist, and signing them up for expensive headshots, placement in supposed casting websites and other services.

"My son was stopped in a mall and told he could be a model. The agency was New Faces," said David of Bethpage, N.Y., in a ConsumerAffairs review. "We spent a lot of money for a portfolio and extras. Needless to say, he did not become a model. Still wondering how to get our money back ..."

Losses ranged from $500 to $5,100.

Quick buck

“With one broken promise after another, James Muniz and his accomplices turned the hopes and dreams of parents for a better life for their children into a money-making enterprise based entirely on taking advantage of others for a quick buck,” Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said. “It is my hope that with this sentence, these families will receive solace knowing that the man who deflated those hopes will be spending significant time behind bars.”

DA investigators arrested Muniz in October 2013 in Florida, where he fled after being charged in the case. He later waived extradition and returned to New York to face charges. A Nassau County grand jury subsequently indicted Muniz and his co-defendants.

Muniz was also sentenced to six months in jail by Judge Donnino in May after pleading guilty in an unrelated case to Criminal Contempt in the 2nd Degree for violating an order of protection for his then-wife in 2011.

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Bogus payday loan brokers run afoul of the feds

The defendants promised to help consumers get loans but instead cleaned out their bank accounts

The operators of a Tampa, Florida-based payday loan broker scheme have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they falsely promised to help...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission says a Tampa group posing as payday loan brokers promised to help consumers get loans, but instead used consumers’ personal financial data to take money from their bank accounts without their consent.

Claiming to be affiliated with a network of 120 potential payday lenders, defendants Sean C. Mulrooney and Odafe Stephen Ogaga, and five companies they controlled, misrepresented that 80% of all applicants got loans within an hour, according to the FTC’s complaint.

In reality, the FTC said defendants did not lend money to consumers, and there is no evidence that they helped anyone get a loan. Instead, they allegedly used consumers' personal data to withdraw $30 from the bank accounts of tens of thousands of consumers, without authorization and without providing anything of value in return.

“These defendants deceived consumers to get their sensitive financial data and used it to take their money,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC will continue putting a stop to these kinds of illegal practices.”

No more Rolls

In a settlement with the FTC, the defendants have agreed to stop providig any credit-related products in the future. The settlement imposes a $6.2 million judgment, which is equal to the defendants’ ill-gotten gains.

The settlement requires Ogaga to surrender nearly all his assets: $50,000 in cash, and proceeds from the sale of his 2011 Rolls Royce Ghost, 2007 Lexus LS460, and 2006 Ferrari. Once he surrenders these assets, the remainder of the judgment against Ogaga will be suspended. The judgment against Mulrooney is entirely suspended, due to his inability to pay.

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Hyperthermia: How to avoid it and treat it

Here's some advice on heat-related illness for older adults

Hot enough for you? How many times have you heard that silly question and wished you had a snappy comeback? While we all make jokes about hot weather, it ...

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© Glenda Powers - Fotolia.com

Hot enough for you? How many times have you heard that silly question and wished you had a snappy comeback?

While we all make jokes about hot weather, it really is a serious matter -- especially for older adults and people with chronic medical conditions. Thus, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) has some tips to help mitigate some of the dangers of hyperthermia.

Hyperthermia is an abnormally high body temperature caused by a failure of the heat-regulating mechanisms in the body to deal with the heat coming from the environment. Heat stroke, heat syncope (sudden dizziness after prolonged exposure to the heat), heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat fatigue are common forms of hyperthermia.

People can be at increased risk for these conditions, depending on the combination of outside temperature, their general health and individual lifestyle.

Older folks at risk

Older people -- particularly those with chronic medical conditions -- should stay indoors, preferably with air conditioning or at least a fan and air circulation, on hot and humid days, especially when an air pollution alert is in effect.

Living in housing without air conditioning, not drinking enough fluids, not understanding how to respond to the weather conditions, lack of mobility and access to transportation, overdressing and visiting overcrowded places are all lifestyle factors that can increase the risk for hyperthermia.

People without air conditioners should go to places that do have air conditioning, such as senior centers, shopping malls, movie theaters and libraries. Cooling centers, which may be set up by local public health agencies, religious groups and social service organizations in many communities, are another option.

The danger signs

The risk for hyperthermia may increase from:

  • Age-related changes to the skin such as poor blood circulation and inefficient sweat glands
  • Alcohol use
  • Being substantially overweight or underweight
  • Dehydration
  • Heart, lung and kidney diseases, as well as any illness that causes general weakness or fever
  • High blood pressure or other health conditions that require changes in diet. For example, people on salt-restricted diets may be at increased risk. However, salt pills should not be used without first consulting a physician.
  • Reduced perspiration,caused by medications such as diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers and certain heart and blood pressure drugs
  • Use of multiple medications. It is important, however, to continue to take prescribed medication and discuss possible problems with a physician.

Heat stroke is a life-threatening form of hyperthermia, occurring when the body is overwhelmed by heat and is unable to control its temperature. Heat stroke occurs when someone’s body temperature increases significantly (above 104 degrees Fahrenheit) and shows symptoms of the following: strong rapid pulse, lack of sweating, dry flushed skin, mental status changes (like combativeness or confusion), staggering, faintness or coma.

Seek immediate emergency medical attention for a person with any of these symptoms, especially an older adult.

What to do

If you suspect someone is suffering from a heat-related illness:

  • Get the person out of the heat and into a shady, air-conditioned or other cool place. Urge the person to lie down.
  • If you suspect heat stroke, call 911.
  • Apply a cold, wet cloth to the wrists, neck, armpits and/or groin. These are places where blood passes close to the surface of the skin, and the cold cloths can help cool the blood.
  • Help the individual to bathe or sponge off with cool water.
  • If the person can swallow safely, offer fluids such as water or fruit and vegetable juices, but avoid alcohol and caffeine.
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Medicine on the gums of teething babies a no-no

In fact, experts say it can be downright dangerous

Few things are as heartbreaking (or nerve-wracking) as the sound of an infant crying in pain during teething. A parent's first impulse is to do something ...

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Few things are as heartbreaking (or nerve-wracking) as the sound of an infant crying in pain during teething.

A parent's first impulse is to do something to relieve the pain. But, is that a good idea? Not necessarily.

One thing doctors and other health care professionals agree on is that teething is a normal part of childhood that can be treated without prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

Too often well-meaning parents, grandparents and caregivers want to soothe a teething baby by rubbing numbing medications on the tot's gums, using potentially harmful drugs instead of safer, non-toxic alternatives.

That's why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning parents that prescription drugs such as viscous lidocaine are not safe for treating teething in infants or young children, and that they have hurt some children who used those products.

Drug-free teething

FDA has previously recommended that parents and caregivers not use benzocaine products for children younger than 2 years, except under the advice and supervision of a health care professional. Benzocaine -- which, like viscous lidocaine, is a local anesthetic -- can be found in such OTC products as Anbesol, Hurricaine, Orajel, Baby Orajel, and Orabase.

The use of benzocaine gels and liquids for mouth and gum pain can lead to a rare but serious -- and sometimes fatal -- condition called methemoglobinemia, a disorder in which the amount of oxygen carried through the blood stream is greatly reduced. And children under 2 appear to be at particular risk.

Safer alternatives

On average, children get one new tooth every month from 6 months of age to about age 3, for a total of 20 "baby teeth."

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), occasional symptoms of teething include mild irritability, a low-level fever, drooling and an urge to chew on something hard.

Because teething happens during a time of much change in a baby's life, it is often wrongly blamed for sleep disturbances, decreased appetite, congestion, coughing, vomiting and diarrhea.

If your child's gums are swollen and tender,

  • gently rub or massage the gums with your finger, and
  • give your child a cool teething ring or a clean, wet, cool washcloth to chew on.

Chill the teething ring or washcloth in the refrigerator for a short time, making sure it's cool -- not cold like an ice cube. If the object is too cold, it can hurt the gums and your child. The coolness soothes the gums by dulling the nerves, which transmit pain.

"The cool object acts like a very mild local anesthetic," says Hari Cheryl Sachs, M.D., a pediatrician at FDA. "This is a great relief for children for a short time."

Parents should supervise their children so they don't accidentally choke on the teething ring or wash cloth.

Avoiding anesthetics

For teething, avoid local anesthetics such as viscous lidocaine or benzocaine-containing teething products except under the advice and supervision of a health care professional.

Viscous lidocaine is a prescription medication, a local anesthetic in a gel-like syrup. Doctors may prescribe it for chemotherapy patients (children and adults) who are unable to eat because of mouth ulcers that can occur with chemotherapy. Dentists may use it to reduce the gag reflex in children during dental X-rays and impressions.

Parents may have viscous lidocaine on hand if it has been prescribed to treat another family member for pain relief from conditions such as mouth or throat ulcers. But it should never be used to comfort a teething baby.

A danger to babies

The Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing medication errors -- has received reports of teething babies suffering overdoses of viscous lidocaine. Symptoms include jitteriness, confusion, vision problems, vomiting, falling asleep too easily, shaking and seizures.

The drug also "can make swallowing difficult and can increase the risk of choking or breathing in food. It can lead to drug toxicity and affect the heart and nervous system," says Michael R. Cohen, RPh, MS, ISMP president.

Parents have been known to apply viscous lidocaine repeatedly if a baby keeps fussing, says Cohen. They have also been known to put liquid gel forms of a topical anesthetic into a baby's formula or even soak a pacifier or a cloth in it, then put that in their baby's mouth. How much the baby gets is not measured, so it may be too much, he says. For all these reasons, FDA recommends viscous lidocaine not be used to treat the pain associated with teething.

"Teething is a normal phenomenon; all babies teethe," says Ethan Hausman, M.D., a pediatrician and pathologist at FDA. "FDA does not recommend any sort of drug, herbal or homeopathic medication or therapy for teething in children."

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Hyundai recalls Sonatas with steering issues

There could be a reduction in power steering assist

Hyundai Motor Company is recalling 2,138 model year 2015 Sonata vehicles manufactured May 2, 2014, through May 23, 2014. A poor connection within the veh...

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Photo source: Hyundai.com

Hyundai Motor Company is recalling 2,138 model year 2015 Sonata vehicles manufactured May 2, 2014, through May 23, 2014.

A poor connection within the vehicle's wiring harness may result in a reduction of steering assist from the vehicle's motor driven power steering system or the inability to move the vehicle's shifter from the Park position. The reduction of power steering assist can increase the steering effort needed, increasing the risk of a crash.

Hyundai has notified dealers to suspend sales of affected Sonata vehicles and published recall bulletin 14-01-024 providing a service procedure to repair the affected vehicles. On June 7, 2014 Hyundai began to contact the affected retail customers.

Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's number for this recall is 119.

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Foster Farms clarifies recall of Chicken products

The company is clarifying and correcting “Use or Freeze by” and “Best by” date ranges

Foster Farms of Livingston, Calif.,is updating its earlier recall of an undetermined amount of chicken products to further clarify and correct “Use or Free...

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Photo source: Foster Farms.com

Foster Farms of Livingston, Calif.,is updating its earlier recallof an undetermined amount of chicken products to further clarify and correct “Use or Freeze by” and “Best by” date ranges.

The products may be contaminated with a particular strain of Salmonella Heidelberg.

The recalled product includes fresh and frozen chicken products sold by retailers under Foster Farms or private label brand names, with varying “use or freeze by”dates ranging from March 16 through March 31, 2014 and Aug. 29, 2015 through Sept. 2, 2015, and frozen Sunland Chicken products with “best by” dates from March 7 through March 11, 2015 and Aug. 29, 2015 through Sept. 2, 2015.

Consumers will be able to locate such dates only on fresh product retail packaging. Other dates can be found on bulk master cases of products. The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “P6137,” P6137A” or “P7632” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

The chicken products were produced from March 7 through March 13, 2014, and were shipped to Costco, Foodstuff, Kroger, Safeway and other retail stores and distribution centers in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

The list of recalled products may be accessed here.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact the company’s Consumer Affairs hotline at (800) 338-8051 or by email at buckminsterfullerene.  

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When bargain shopping becomes a waste of money

"Save money" has multiple meanings. Don't confuse one for the other

Have you heard the old saying about somebody who keeps “missing the forest for the trees?” ...

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© gabe9000c - Fotolia.com

Have you heard the old saying about somebody who keeps “missing the forest for the trees?” Perhaps you've heard it expressed as someone “not seeing the big picture,” because they're “too focused on the details.” Or, less politely, you can just say someone's “missing the point.”

However you word it, if you get careless it's easy to slip into that mindset yourself, especially where your personal finances are concerned. There's even a money-specific proverb about it: the English spoke of people who were “penny wise and pound foolish,” which in American currency becomes “penny wise and dollar foolish.”

I suspect that, at least for some people, the problem comes from tripping over the word “save:” it means different things in different contexts, and when you confuse one meaning for the other, the consequences for your household budget can be catastrophic.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary lists 14 different definitions for “save,” but these are the two most relevant here:

save

transitive verb

….

a: to put aside as a store or reserve :accumulate <saving money for emergencies>

b: to spend less by <save 25 percent>

So: when people say “I saved $100 today,” they could be using definition A to mean “I added $100 to my savings fund,” or definition B to say “I bought something, and spent $100 less than I might have.”

But sometimes people confuse B with A, somehow, so that “spending $100 less than I might've” gets mistaken for “increasing my savings/net worth by $100.” Worse, they manage to completely overlook the fact that buying something still requires you to spend your money — even if you did save $100 off the price.

Big "savings"

Have you strolled through one of those touristy national-chain “outlet malls” recently? You're not likely to find any truly good bargains there anymore, but you will see lots of price tags that look like this:

RETAIL PRICE: $40

OUR PRICE: $10

YOU SAVE: $30

Many manufacturers today actually produce lower-quality knockoffs of their own high-end merchandise specifically to sell in outlet stores. Last March, the Federal Trade Commission put out a “Consumer information” blog post about outlet mall shopping, and offered some examples of how this is done: “plastic might replace leather trim on a jacket, or a t-shirt may have less stitching and a lighter weight fabric.”

But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that identical, same-quality item actually is worth $40 in regular retail stores, and you buy it for $10. You have indeed saved $30, according to the earlier B definition — but you have also spent $10, which is the exact opposite of the A definition “to put aside as a store or reserve.” Now you have 10 fewer dollars to spend somewhere else (or you owe an additional 10 bucks on your credit card balance, plus interest charges if you don't pay off that balance in full when the bill next comes due).

Of course, if you already have a decent-sized emergency savings fund and are unburdened by debt, there's nothing remotely wrong with spending that $10 to buy whatever, even if you don't need it. And even if you are trying to pay down debt and build up your savings, of course you still need to buy things sometimes, and should definitely look for ways to find the best (lowest) price for those things: avoid rent-to-own or “buy now pay later” shopping on credit, stockpile non-perishable consumables when they're on sale so you never have to pay full price for them, shop secondhand or in overstock stores when you can, and so forth.

Just remember not to let those two definitions of “save” get mixed up. I'll admit: I was a little careless about that in my younger days, especially when I'd first discovered the truly amazing bargains to be found in local thrift stores.

Bargain finds

Longtime thrift shoppers like to brag about their super-amazing bargain finds, so let me share some of mine here: I routinely pay $2 to $8 per pair for various brands of blue jeans that sell new for $50 to $90. I have a few silk or velvet jackets and blazers in various colors, the most expensive of which cost me $7; and my single best thrift-shop clothing find was the day I paid $20 for a black, full-length fake-fur coat with brushed-metal buttons, in perfect condition except a couple of the buttons were loose (took less than 10 minutes to fix) – I don't know that specific coat's original retail price, but a few weeks later I saw a very similar one, with the same label, selling in an upscale department store for $980.

A thousand-dollar coat! And I got it for only 20 bucks! Which is a pretty good price to pay for a warm coat, such as I need to wear every winter, except – at the time, I already had something like six or seven beautiful winter coats, in addition to however-many jackets, blazers, cardigans, frock coats, spring coats, shawls, ponchos and two honest-to-Zod English capes, one of which nets me unsolicited compliments to this day (especially from steampunk fans).

Of course, I paid amazingly low, brag-worthy prices for every single one of those useful and lovely garments (my other coats and the capes all cost between $3 and $10 apiece), but the truth is: in those days I was still in debt, with an abysmally low cash reserve, and occasionally wondered why my finances were so poor when I was always so thrifty, never paying anywhere close to full price for clothes and home décor and other necessities … why, remember the time I saved 960 bucks on just one gorgeous winter coat … not until I literally ran out of closet and drawer space to hold any more garments did it finally sink in: “I'm not saving money buying all these things, even if they are great bargains and individually not-expensive; I'm spending money, and most of it on stuff  I don't need.”

So even if you consider yourself a frugal bargain shopper, take care to avoid the trap of confusing one form of saving for another.

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Groceries, gasoline taking bigger bites out of consumers' budgets

Higher costs of essentials leave less money for leisure, travel, dining out

&copy; EyeMark - Fotolia.comHardly a day goes by without an article or report pointing out that, while the economy is supposedly improving and inflatio...

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© EyeMark - Fotolia.com

Hardly a day goes by without an article or report pointing out that, while the economy is supposedly improving and inflation is officially low, no one seems to have any money.

Earlier today, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailers aren't seeing the warm-weather bounce they'd been hoping for. A Container Store executive described the mood as "retail funk."

Even Hillary Clinton feels "flat broke" sometimes. 

As our Mark Huffman pointed out a week ago, the Consumer Price Index doesn't always give a reliable picture of the economy. While the price of big-screen TVs may have gone down, the cost of food is up about 10% and the price of gas a whopping 117% over the last five years.

Essentials cost more

And now the Gallup poll finds that, while 45% of Americans say they're spending more than they did a year ago, much of that spending is on essentials -- gas, groceries, utilities and healthcare -- rather than on the leisure and discretionary items that keep the retail and travel sectors spinning. 

Roughly one-third of Americans report spending less on discretionary items such as travel (38%), dining out (38%), leisure activities (31%), consumer electronics (31%), and clothing (30%). More than half of Americans say they are spending about the same for rent or mortgage, household goods, telephone, automobile expenses other than fuel, personal care products, and the Internet.

All of this suggests that the increasing cost of essential items is further constraining family budgets already hit hard by the Great Recession and still reeling from a stagnant economy.

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Frugal travels

Gallup found similar results when it looked at travel plans: More Americans (69%) plan to travel this summer but they're not going very far and not staying very long once they get there.

"Nearly one-third plan to spend just one night or less away from home, meaning it is not much of a vacation," Gallup said.

Those who do intend to travel this summer expect to spend more in all travel categories -- transportation, food, lodging, and entertainment -- than last year, further pressuring their already-strained budgets. Most will take their own cars despite relatively high gas prices.

Because consumer spending is the lifeblood of a healthy economy, these findings suggest that discretionary spending still has a ways to go before it will fuel the kind of economic growth Americans have been hoping for, Gallup said.

 

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Watch your wallets: back-to-school season is nigh

When retailers get excited, that's when you need to be extra-cautious

It's mid-July, which means that American parents of school-aged offspring have seven weeks at most before they must send their child[ren] back to school...

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© didecs - Fotolia.com
It's mid-July, which means that American parents of school-aged offspring have seven weeks at most before they must send their children back to school, equipped with a formidable array of school supplies.

Earlier this week, when my colleague James Limbach discussed the start of this year's official back-to-school shopping season, he noted some ominous (from a parental-finances perspective) statistics: back-to-school season is second only to the Christmas/December holiday shopping season, in terms of how much attention it gets from retailers, brand marketers, and other people whose livelihoods involve convincing consumers like you to hand over as much of your money as possible to them.

Also: this year, the average supplies-list parents are expected to provide for each student is longer than ever before, covering not just traditional students' tools like notebooks, paper and pencils or pens, but supplies for the actual classroom, including things like tissue boxes, disposable hand wipes and resealable plastic bags.

Spending season

As a savvy spender you already know to be extra cautious during any time of year retailers and marketers call an important “season.” And with the back-to-school season kicking in, you also know that the best time to actually start buying school supplies was “several months ago” or, better yet, “in dribs and drabs all throughout the year, whenever you find certain supplies at a good price.”

The one advantage parents have is this: most school-supply purchases are non-perishable and completely predictable, and so (depending on how much storage space you have, how often you're likely to move and other variables) you can stockpile certain school supplies months or even years in advance, whenever you find a particularly good price.

Notebooks (the paper kind, not laptop computers), loose-leaf paper, three-ring binders, pencils and pens … today's fourth- and fifth-graders will still need such things in high school, and even in college. Today's toddlers will eventually need such things too, but first they'll need crayons and primary writing paper for a couple of years in elementary school.

Stock up

One trick you might try (it might be too late to do much before the start of this school year, but remember the years to come): stop thinking of school-supply shopping as a seasonal task, one of the first signs of approaching autumn. Instead, set aside a supply shelf, cabinet, box, or some other storage area in your home – the exact size varies based not only on how much space you have available, but how many children you have, and how many more years of school they must finish.

Of course your immediate short-term goal for now is getting your kids supplied for school in a few weeks. But in addition, you also want to keep an eye out for good prices on any sort of school supplies they're likely to need, because you're also working toward the long-term goal of maintaining a well-stocked supply shelf. The ultimate goal is that when your kids need anything for school, you can find it in your own closet rather than spend money at the store that day.

You probably recognize this idea as basically a school-specific variant of the well-known frugal tip “Buy things you'll need before you need them, when you find them at a good price, rather than wait until you actually do need it and are forced by necessity to pay whatever price you can find.”

I maintain a well-stocked school-supply cabinet at home because, due to the post-graduate career path I've followed, I never stopped needed many of these things for myself; it's just that at some point, I stopped calling them “school supplies” and started calling them “office supplies” or “work stuff” instead.

I haven't had to buy loose-leaf paper in years, not since the day I visited a “surplus” store one January, and they were selling 200-sheet packets of loose-leaf paper at three for a dollar. (Of course, whenever I'd visit that particular store anytime in August or early September – back to school season, when people are far more likely to immediately need loose-leaf paper – all they had were 100-count packets which actually cost more, per sheet of paper, than the price you'd expect at a regular non-surplus retail store.)

Granted, I didn't actually “need” any loose-leaf paper when I bought all those three-for-a-dollar packs – I still had a couple unopened packs in my supply cabinet – but I predicted (accurately, as it turned out) that when I did go through all the paper I had and actually needed more loose-leaf paper, I wasn't likely to find any as cheaply as 600 sheets for a dollar.

Off-season bargains

If you're regularly in the habit of browsing surplus, overstock, job lot or other low-price bargain stores with unpredictable inventories, chances are you will, at some point, find incredible deals on the sorts of things that appear on mandatory school-supply lists every September.

But you're not likely to find these incredible deals in September, or August, or any time comprising “back to school season.” That's why, in the long run, your best chance to save money on such things is to shop to keep your supply cabinet well-stocked at a good price, rather than shop to get your kids supplied just in time for them to start school this September.

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How to finance a fixer-upper

An FHA 203 (k) loan allows you to finance a home in need of repairs

If you've gone shopping for a home you know that houses come in all kinds of condition. Some are move-in ready. Expect to pay top dollar for those.Others...

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If you've gone shopping for a home you know that houses come in all kinds of condition. Some are move-in ready. Expect to pay top dollar for those.

Others may need some work. These houses tend to be priced below the market, reflecting the need for added expense once you move in.

Distressed properties – foreclosures in particular – tend to be in the worst shape. Sometimes the angry former owners cause some damage on their way out.

More often the homeowner has been struggling financially for some time and couldn't afford to keep the home in good repair. It might have a broken window, rotted eaves and need other essential repairs.

For buyers who have the skills and willingness to undertake these projects it presents an opportunity to save money. But there is one significant obstacle.

Can't pass inspection

Mortgage lenders will inspect the property before making a loan. If inspectors find material defects – and something as minor as a broken window qualifies – they will not approve the loan.

If the owner agrees to make necessary repairs before settlement, that's fine. But some can't, or won't.

Banks that have repossessed houses through foreclosure fall into the latter category. For some reason, lenders will not spend a few hundred dollars repairing a property. Instead, they discount the price by thousands -- maybe tens of thousands -- of dollars.

Advantage, investors

That's why investors have been so eager to move into real estate. A foreclosed property with issues preventing it from passing inspection is not only heavily discounted, it's most easily purchased by a buyer paying cash.

A cash deal is not only neater and cleaner for the bank, it is sometimes the only deal available. But it doesn't have to be.

Someone who wants to buy a fixer-upper but needs to obtain financing can do so with a renovation loan. These loans tend to be more expensive, but for owner occupants, a government renovation loan can be an efficient and affordable way to go.

The FHA 203(k) loan is guaranteed by the U.S. government, just like a regular FHA loan. But in addition to financing the purchase price, the loan can also include money to repair and remodel the property.

Regular and streamlined

There are two types of FHA 203k loans -- regular and streamlined. Regular 203k loans are for homes that need structural repairs, and streamlined loans are for those that need non-structural repairs.

In order to qualify, homeowners must plan to live in the home they are repairing. These loans are not for investors.

The cost of the rehabilitation must be at least $5,000, but the total value of the property must still fall within the FHA mortgage limit for the area. The value of the property is determined by either the value of the property before rehabilitation plus the cost of rehabilitation, or 110 percent of the appraised value of the property after rehabilitation, whichever is less.

The rehab funds can be used to address all the issues that prevent the dwelling from passing an FHA financing inspection. But they can also be used to make cosmetic improvements, such as updating a kitchen or bath.

Growing popularity

Since the 2008 housing crash and foreclosure crisis, more lenders have offered the FHA 203(k) loan.

"This loan is vastly advantageous for the individual seeking to purchase distressed properties or refinance and renovate an existing home," said Robert Briden, Vice President and Director of Loan Originations at Admirals Bank, which recently began offering the loan. "Buyers looking to acquire homes that offer everything they are looking for, such as proximity to good school systems and work, often take advantage of this loan to procure and rehabilitate desired properties. Otherwise, they might have to wait years to gain sufficient equity in market appreciation."

In 2012 the National Association of Realtors (NAR) pushed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to expand the FHA 203 (k) program. The trade group said these loans save the borrower’s time and money, and also protect lenders by allowing them to have the loan insured even before the condition and value of the property may offer adequate security.  

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LG introducing a tracking device for children

Now the pre-K crowd can become accustomed to constant surveillance too

Photo credit: LG ElectronicsWhen gangsters and other public enemies are ordered confined to their homes, they're often saddled with an electronic brace...

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Photo credit: LG Electronics

When gangsters and other public enemies are ordered confined to their homes, they're often saddled with an electronic bracelet or anklet that alerts police if the detainee starts to slip away.

Now LG Electronics has come up with a kid's version -- the KizON wristband, enabling America's children to get used to constant surveillance at an early age.

LG didn't put it quite that way in its announcement, of course. Instead, it chirped happily that its new device would "extend the wearable experience to parents with children."

"KizON is LG’s new wearable designed exclusively for pre-school and primary school children that offers parents a convenient way to keep track of their young children’s whereabouts," LG said. "Utilizing GPS and Wi-Fi, KizON provides real-time location information allowing parents to track their children’s whereabouts on a smartphone."

But wait there's more. Not only can parents track their children's every step, they can also communicate with them and the kids can press a single button and be connected with their parents.

If a child fails to answer a parent's call, KizON will automatically connect the call to let the parents listen to what their child is doing through the built-in microphone.

“Children as well as the elderly are ideal customers for wearable technologies,” said Dr. Jong-seok Park, president and CEO of LG Electronics Mobile Communications Company. “Wearables allow us to stay connected without the worry of losing a device or the inconvenience of having to carry a large item in a pocket. At LG, we’re committed to exploring more ways to incorporate wearable devices into consumers lives in line with our vision to become a leader in wearables.”

KizON will debut in South Korea on July 10 before its introduction in North America and Europe later this year. 

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Stress, hostility, depression tied to higher stroke risk

High cholesterol levels, blood pressure and smoking aren't the only risk factors

Are you torked off at people a lot, feel like you're carrying the weight of the world, and always in a funk? You could be a candidate for a stroke. New re...

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Are you torked off at people a lot, feel like you're carrying the weight of the world, and always in a funk? You could be a candidate for a stroke.

New research in the American Heart Association journal Stroke says these are some of the factors associated with significantly increased risk of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) in middle-age and older adults.

A TIA is a stroke caused by a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain.

How's your head?

Researchers investigated how psychological factors might influence risk for chronic disease, using data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), a continuing study on cardiovascular disease risk factors in participants living in six U.S. cities.

More than 6,700 adults (ages 45-84; 53 percent women) completed questionnaires assessing chronic stress, depressive symptoms, anger and hostility over two years. Participants were 38.5% white, 27.8% black, 11.8% Chinese and 21.9% Hispanic. All were free of cardiovascular disease at the start of the study.

In follow-up for an additional 8.5 to 11 years, 147 strokes and 48 TIAs occurred.

Compared with people with the lowest psychological scores, those with highest scores were:

  • 86% more likely to have a stroke or TIA for high depressive symptoms.
  • 59% more likely to have a stroke or TIA for the highest chronic stress scores.
  • More than twice as likely to have a stroke or TIA for the highest hostility scores.
  • No significant increased risk was linked to anger.

Outside the box

"There's such a focus on traditional risk factors -- cholesterol levels, blood pressure, smoking and so forth -- and those are all very important, but studies like this one show that psychological characteristics are equally important," said Susan Everson-Rose, Ph.D., M.P.H., study lead author and associate professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

These associations noted in the study were significant even when researchers accounted for age, race, sex, health behaviors and other known risk factors of stroke.

"Given our aging population, it's important to consider these other factors that might play a role in disease risk. Stroke is a disease of the elderly predominantly, and so learning more about things that can influence risk for stroke as people age is important."

A closer look

Researchers measured chronic stress in five domains: personal health problems, health problems of others close to the participant, job or ability to work, relationships and finances.

They assessed depressive symptoms with a 20-question scale, and analyzed anger with a 10-item scale that captured the extent and frequency of experiencing that emotion. Hostility, which is a negative way of viewing the world, was measured by assessing a person's cynical expectations of other people's motives.

"One thing we didn't assess is coping strategies," Everson-Rose said. "If someone is experiencing depressive symptoms or feeling a lot of stress or hostility, we don't know how they manage those, so it's possible that positive coping strategies could ameliorate some of these associations or effects," she said. "We did not inquire about coping. I would say that's one of the tasks for future studies."

Researchers didn't identify potential racial and ethnic differences or sex differences in the observed associations, but were not able to fully examine such differences due to the smaller numbers of strokes in some groups.

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Study: Extreme obesity may shorten your life span

It could take as many as 14 years away from you

There's a good chance that if you are extremely obese, you're going to die at a relatively young age. An analysis of data pooled from 20 large studies of ...

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There's a good chance that if you are extremely obese, you're going to die at a relatively young age.

An analysis of data pooled from 20 large studies of people from three countries, shows such people have increased risks of dying earlier than they might otherwise as a result of cancer and many other causes including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and kidney and liver diseases.

The study, whose findings appeared recently in PLOS Medicine, was led by researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health. It found that people with class III (or extreme) obesity had a dramatic reduction in life expectancy compared with people of normal weight.

Extreme obesity on the rise

"While once a relatively uncommon condition, the prevalence of class III, or extreme, obesity is on the rise. In the United States, for example, 6% of adults are now classified as extremely obese, which, for a person of average height, is more than 100 pounds over the recommended range for normal weight," said Cari Kitahara, Ph.D., Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, NCI, and lead author of the study. "Prior to our study, little had been known about the risk of premature death associated with extreme obesity."

In the study, researchers classified participants according to their body mass index (BMI), which is a measure of total body fat and is calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared. BMI classifications (kilogram/meter-squared) are:

  • Normal weight: 18.5-24.9
  • Overweight: 25.0- 29.9
  • Class I obesity: 30.0-34.9
  • Class II obesity: 35.0-39.9
  • Class III obesity: 40.0 or higher

The 20 studies that were analyzed included adults from the United States, Sweden and Australia. These groups form a major part of the NCI Cohort Consortium, which is a large-scale partnership that identifies risk factors for cancer death.

After excluding individuals who had ever smoked or had a history of certain diseases, the researchers evaluated the risk of premature death overall and the risk of premature death from specific causes in more than 9,500 individuals who were class III obese and 304,000 others who were classified as normal weight.

Greater risk of early death

The researchers found that the risk of dying overall and from most major health causes rose continuously with increasing BMI within the class III obesity group. Statistical analyses of the pooled data indicated that the excess numbers of deaths in the class III obesity group were mostly due to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Years of life lost ranged from 6.5 years for participants with a BMI of 40-44.9 to 13.7 years for a BMI of 55-59.9. To provide context, the researchers found that the number of years of life lost for class III obesity was equal or higher than that of current (versus never) cigarette smokers among normal-weight participants in the same study.

Study limitations

The accuracy of the study findings is limited by the use of mostly self-reported height and weight measurements and by the use of BMI as the sole measure of obesity. Nevertheless, the researchers noted, the results highlight the need to develop more effective interventions to combat the growing public health problem of extreme obesity.

"Given our findings,” said Patricia Hartge, Sc.D., Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, and senior author of the study, “it appears that class III obesity is increasing and may soon emerge as a major cause of early death in this and other countries worldwide."  

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Vaccines -- they're not just for infants

Getting their shots is an important part of older kids' back-to-school routine

If you're the parent of a preteens or teen, a major goal is keeping the kids healthy and safe during all the fun stuff they have planned for the summer Bu...

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If you're the parent of a preteens or teen, a major goal is keeping the kids healthy and safe during all the fun stuff they have planned for the summer.

But eventually, they'll be going back to school and that usually means vaccinations, which most states require before school starts again.

There are 4 vaccines recommended to help protect your preteens and teen-aged children, their friends and their family members. While your kids should get a flu vaccine every year, the 3 other preteen vaccines should be given when kids are 11- 12 years old. Teens may also need a booster of a vaccine that requires more than one dose to be protected completely.

What they need

The following vaccines are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, other medical societies and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • HPV vaccine: Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines help protect both girls and boys from HPV infection and cancers caused by HPV. HPV vaccine protects girls from the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancer. HPV vaccine also helps protect both girls and boys from anal cancer and genital warts. Girls and boys should start and finish the HPV vaccine series when they are 11 or 12 years old. Preteens and teens who have not gotten all HPV shots should ask their doctor or nurse about getting them now.
  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine: Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY) protects against some of the bacteria that can cause meningitis (swelling of the lining around the brain and spinal cord) and sepsis (an infection in the blood). Meningitis can be very serious, even fatal. Preteens need the meningococcal shot when they are 11 or 12 years old and then a booster shot at age 16. Teens who got the meningococcal shot when they were 13, 14, or 15 years old should still get a booster at 16 years. Older teens who haven't gotten any meningococcal shots should get one as soon as possible.
  • Tdap vaccine: Tdap vaccine protects against 3 serious diseases: tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (also called whooping cough). The Tdap vaccine takes the place of what used to be called the tetanus booster. Preteens should get Tdap at age 11 or 12. If your teen didn't get a Tdap shot as a preteen, ask their doctor or nurse about getting the shot now.
  • Flu vaccine: Flu vaccine protects against flu and the other health problems flu can cause, like dehydration (loss of body fluids), making asthma or diabetes worse, or even pneumonia. Preteens and teens should get the flu vaccine every year as soon as it's available, usually in the fall. It is very important for preteens and teens with chronic health conditions like asthma or diabetes to get the flu shot, but the flu can be serious for even healthy preteens and teens.

Safe and effective

The vaccines for preteens are very safe. Some kids might have some mild side effects from shots, such as redness and soreness in the arm. Some preteens and teens may faint after getting a shot or any other medical procedure. Sitting or lying down for about 15 minutes after getting shots can help prevent fainting. Most side effects from vaccines are very minor, especially compared with the serious diseases that these vaccines prevent.

Be sure to check with the doctor to make sure that your teen has received all of the vaccines recommended for them. They may need to "catch up" on vaccines they might have missed when they were younger.

Paying a problem?

Most health insurance plans cover the cost of vaccines. If you don't have insurance, or if it does not cover vaccines, the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program may be able to help.

The VFC program provides vaccines for children ages 18 years and younger, who are not insured or under-insured, Medicaid-eligible, American Indian or Alaska Native.

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New study finds no heart health benefit from alcohol

Maybe one drink per day isn't such a good idea after all

&copy; Gresei - Fotolia.comThe common wisdom is that one -- or maybe even two -- drinks per day are good for you. But a new University of Pennsylvania ...

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The common wisdom is that one -- or maybe even two -- drinks per day are good for you. But a new University of Pennsylvania study finds otherwise.

The study found that individuals who consume 17% less alcohol per week have on average a 10% reduced risk of coronary heart disease, lower blood pressure and a lower body mass index.

"These new results are critically important to our understanding of how alcohol affects heart disease. Contrary to what earlier reports have shown, it now appears that any exposure to alcohol has a negative impact upon heart health," says co-lead author Michael Holmes, MD, PhD, research assistant professor in the department of Transplant Surgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

"For some time, observational studies have suggested that only heavy drinking was detrimental to cardiovascular health, and that light consumption may actually be beneficial. This has led some people to drink moderately based on the belief that it would lower their risk of heart disease," Holmes said. "However, what we're seeing with this new study, which uses an investigative approach similar to a randomized clinical trial, is that reduced consumption of alcohol, even for light-to-moderate drinkers, may lead to improved cardiovascular health."

The new research reviewed evidence from more than 50 studies that linked drinking habits and cardiovascular health for over 260,000 people. Researchers found that individuals who carry a specific gene which typically leads to lower alcohol consumption over time have, on average, superior cardiovascular health records. 

Researchers examined the cardiovascular health of individuals who carry a genetic variant of the 'alcohol dehydrogenase 1B' gene, which is known to breakdown alcohol at a quicker pace. This rapid breakdown causes unpleasant symptoms including nausea and facial flushing, and has been found to lead to lower levels of alcohol consumption over time.

By using this genetic marker as an indicator of lower alcohol consumption, the research team was able to identify links between these individuals and improved cardiovascular health.

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Chrysler recalls Dodge Durangos and Jeep Grand Cherokees

The wiring for the vanity lamp in the sun visor may short circuit

Chrysler Group is recalling 651,130 model year 2011-2014 Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured January 5, 2010, through December 11, ...

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Photo source: Jeep.com

Chrysler Group is recalling 651,130 model year 2011-2014 Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured January 5, 2010, through December 11, 2013.

The vanity lamp in the sun visor in the affected vehicles, the wiring for may short circuit after a service repair is performed. Increasing the risk of fire.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and repair any damaged wiring, and install a new sun visor that properly routes the wire, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in August 2014.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P36.

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Feds allege Amazon has billed parents millions for charges incurred by children

Amazon's in-app system enables children to run up huge bills on their parents' accounts, the FTC charges

An Amazon "Ice Age" character (Photo credit: Amazon.com) It's easy to spend money on Amazon.com, which may be OK if you're an adult and it's your money...

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An Amazon "Ice Age" character (Photo credit: Amazon.com)

It's easy to spend money on Amazon.com, which may be OK if you're an adult and it's your money. But when children run up huge in-app bills on their parents' accounts, that's another story.

First of all, debts incurred by minors aren't collectible and even if they were, Amazon doesn't verify that the person making in-app purchases is, in fact, the account holder, according to a lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission, which says Amazon has billed parents for millions of dollars in unauthorized in-app charges incurred by children.

What's an in-app charge? It's a charge for a virtual item -- a "coin," "star" or, perhaps, "acorn" -- that kids buy when playing one of the many games sold ini Amazon's app store for use on the Kindle Fire and other devices. 

Amazon.com July 10, 2014, 5:12 p.m.
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“Amazon’s in-app system allowed children to incur unlimited charges on their parents’ accounts without permission,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “Even Amazon's own employees recognized the serious problem its process created. We are seeking refunds for affected parents and a court order to ensure that Amazon gets parents' consent for in-app purchases."

The FTC earlier sued Apple, alleging similar problems. The agency is seeking full refunds for all affected consumers, disgorgement of Amazon’s ill-gotten gains, and a court order ensuring that in the future Amazon obtains permission before imposing charges for in-app purchases. 

Apple also agreed in 2013 to pay $100 million to settle a class action lawsuit to parents whose children made in-app iTunes purchases. 

Amazon attorney Andrew DeVore said it was "deeply disappointing" that the FTC was proceeding with the action and said the company's actions have been "responsible, customer-focused, and lawful, including prominent notice of in-app purchasing, effective parental controls, real-time notice of every in-app purchase, and world-class customer service."

Consumer groups were quick to jump on Amazon nevertheless. Hudson Kingston, legal director of the Center for Digital Democracy, called Amazon's policies "irresponsible and unfair."

"Today’s FTC action shows that consumers who have been charged for their kids unauthorized in-app purchases should not have to foot the bill. Amazon’s failure to deal fairly with people who purchased its devices and use its apps suggests it places making money as quickly as possible over serving the interests of their consumers," Kingston said. "As Amazon gears up to release a new phone, and expands its impact on the mobile industry and consumers, the FTC’s complaint should serve as a wake-up call for better corporate ethics.”  

'Clearly causing problems'

The complaint alleges that when Amazon introduced in-app charges to the Amazon Appstore in November 2011, there were no password requirements of any kind on in-app charges, including in kids’ games and other apps that appeal to children. According to the complaint, this left parents to foot the bill for charges they didn’t authorize.

According to the complaint, kids’ games often encourage children to acquire virtual items in ways that blur the lines between what costs virtual currency and what costs real money.

In the app “Ice Age Village,” for example, the complaint noted that children can use “coins” and “acorns” to buy items in the game without a real-money charge. However, they can also purchase additional “coins” and “acorns” using real money on a screen that is visually similar to the one that has no real-money charge. The largest quantity purchase available in the app would cost $99.99.

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An Amazon "Fantasy Islands" character (Photo credit: Amazon.com)

The complaint highlights internal communications among Amazon employees as early as December 2011 that said allowing unlimited in-app charges without any password was “…clearly causing problems for a large percentage of our customers,” adding that the situation was a “near house on fire.”

In March 2012, according to the complaint, Amazon updated its in-app charge system to require an account owner to enter a password only for individual in-app charges over $20. As the complaint notes, Amazon continued to allow children to make an unlimited number of individual purchases of less than $20 without a parent’s approval.

'House on fire'

An Amazon employee noted at the time of the change that “it’s much easier to get upset about Amazon letting your child purchase a $99 product without any password protection than a $20 product,” according to the complaint. In July 2012, as set forth in the complaint, internal emails again described consumer complaints about in-app charges as a “house on fire” situation.

According to the complaint, thousands of parents complained to Amazon about in-app charges their children incurred without their authorization, amounting to millions of dollars of charges.

For example, one mother noted in the FTC complaint told Amazon that her daughter was able to rack up $358.42 in unauthorized charges, while others complained that even children who could not read were able to “click a lot of buttons at random” and incur several unauthorized charges.

The company’s stated policy is that all in-app charges are final and nonrefundable. According to the complaint, even parents who have sought an exception to that policy have faced a refund process that is unclear and confusing, involving statements that do not explain how to seek refunds for in-app charges or suggest consumers cannot get a refund for these charges.

Rapidly evolving

Amazon's DeVore, however, said that Amazon's procedures already meet the requirements of the consent decree that Apple entered into after it was sued by the FTC.

"In-app purchasing was and remains a new and rapidly evolving segment, and we have consistently improved the customer experience in response to data," he said in a letter to the FTC's Ramirez. "Pursuing litigation against a company whose practices were lawful from the onset and that already meet or exceed the requirements of the Apple consent order makes no sense."

The Direct Marketing Association came to Amazon's defense. 

"The Federal Trade Commission should be encouraging innovation in the growing mobile industry, which benefits consumers and competition.  Instead, the Commission seems focused on using novel legal theories and scarce enforcement resources to go after America's leading tech companies in court," said Rachel Nyswander Thomas, the DMA's vice president for government affairs. "Amazon reportedly has already done the right thing by enhancing its app market and providing consumer refunds, so consumers have nothing to gain and plenty to lose from the Commission's lawsuit.  Nothing will discourage future innovation faster than punishing good deeds."

 

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Amazon offers to sell e-books for Hachette authors

The catch: all e-book royalties go to aithors, none to Hachette

Book seller Amazon has taken another step in its ongoing contract dispute with publisher Hachette Book Group by offering to sell to sell e-books of Hachett...

PhotoBook seller Amazon has taken another step in its ongoing contract dispute with publisher Hachette Book Group by offering to sell to sell e-books of Hachette titles and give 100% of the proceeds to the authors, with nothing going to Amazon or Hachette.

Amazon made the offer to certain Hachette authors only a week after an Amazon executive publicly stated that the dispute with Hachette was intended to benefit book-buying customers, by getting lower prices for them.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal first reported Amazon's e-book offer this week: the Times described it by saying “The confrontation between Amazon and Hachette is growing louder and meaner, as the combatants drop all pretense that this is a reasonable dispute among reasonable people.

David Naggar, Amazon's vice-prsident of Kindle content, e-mailed the offer to a few Hachette authors. The letter, which Gigoam has printed in full, starts out by saying:

“Dear XX,

I wanted to ask your opinion about an idea we’ve had that would take authors out of the middle of the Hachette-Amazon dispute (actually it would be a big windfall for authors) and would motivate both Hachette and Amazon to work faster to resolve the situation.”


The next paragraph is an Amazon-friendly summary of the dispute to date, with Amazon making repeated reasonable offers to Hachette, which stubbornly and unreasonably refuses to play along. The third paragraph assures authors that Amazon sympathizes deeply with them:

We agree that authors are caught in the middle while these negotiations drag on, and we’re particularly sensitive to the effect on debut and midlist authors. But Hachette’s unresponsiveness and unwillingness to talk until we took action put us in this position, and unless Hachette dramatically changes their negotiating tempo, this is going to take a really long time.

After spelling out the details of its e-book sales plan, the letter goes on to say:

We haven’t sent this offer to Hachette yet — we’re sending this to a few authors and agents to get feedback first.

What do you think?  Would this be helpful, especially for midlist and debut authors?

Can we talk on the phone later today or tomorrow once you’ve had a chance to digest?

Thanks and look forward to talking

Hachette, for its part, responded with a public statement saying:

“Amazon has just sent us a brief proposal.  We invite Amazon to withdraw the sanctions they have unilaterally imposed, and we will continue to negotiate in good faith and with the hope of a swift conclusion. We believe that the best outcome for the writers we publish is a contract with Amazon that brings genuine marketing benefits and whose terms allow Hachette to continue to invest in writers, marketing, and innovation.  We look forward to resolving this dispute soon and to the benefit of the writers who have trusted their books to us.”

Not much interest

Yet Amazon clearly has no interest in resolving the dispute “soon;” the company responded to Hachette's statement with a new statement of its own:

We call baloney. Hachette is part of a $10 billion global conglomerate. It wouldn’t be ‘suicide.' They can afford it. What they’re really making clear is that they absolutely want their authors caught in the middle of this negotiation because they believe it increases their leverage. All the while, they are stalling and refusing to negotiate, despite the pain caused to their authors. Our offer is sincere. They should take us up on it.

Amazon's mention of “suicide” was in response to something a Hachette spokeperson said to the New York Times, that giving up all of e-book revenue from Amazon sales “would be a suicidal action” for Hachette.

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ACE Cash Express to pay $10 million for using illegal debt collection tactics

Feds charge the company used harassment to push consumers into taking on additional debt

ACE Cash Express has agreed to pay $5 million penalty and pay $5 million in refunds to consumers, after the&nbsp;Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB...

PhotoACE Cash Express has agreed to pay $5 million in penalties and $5 million in refunds to consumers, after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) charged that ACE, one of the largest payday lenders in the United States, pushed payday borrowers into a cycle of debt.

The CFPB found that ACE used illegal debt collection tactics – including harassment and false threats of lawsuits or criminal prosecution – to pressure overdue borrowers into taking out additional loans they could not afford. 

“ACE used false threats, intimidation, and harassing calls to bully payday borrowers into a cycle of debt,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “This culture of coercion drained millions of dollars from cash-strapped consumers who had few options to fight back. The CFPB was created to stand up for consumers and today we are taking action to put an end to this illegal, predatory behavior.”

Threats and harassment

Ace Cash Express July 10, 2014, 4:47 p.m.
Consumers rate Ace Cash Express

The CFPB found that ACE collectors engaged in a number of aggressive and unlawful collections practices, including:

  • Threatening to sue or criminally prosecute: ACE debt collectors led consumers to believe that they would be sued or subject to criminal prosecution if they did not make payments. Collectors would use legal jargon in calls to consumers, such as telling a consumer he could be subject to “immediate proceedings based on the law” even though ACE did not actually sue consumers or attempt to bring criminal charges against them for non-payment of debts.
  • Threatening to charge extra fees and report consumers to credit reporting agencies: As a matter of corporate policy, ACE’s debt collectors, whether in-house or third-party, cannot charge collection fees and cannot report non-payment to credit reporting agencies. The collectors, however, told consumers all of these would occur or were possible.
  • Harassing consumers with collection calls: Some ACE in-house and third-party collectors abused and harassed consumers by making an excessive number of collection calls. In some of these cases, ACE repeatedly called the consumers’ employers and relatives and shared the details of the debt.

Cycle of debt

The Bureau found that ACE used these illegal debt collection tactics to create a false sense of urgency to lure overdue borrowers into payday debt traps. ACE would encourage overdue borrowers to temporarily pay off their loans and then quickly re-borrow from ACE.

Even after consumers explained to ACE that they could not afford to repay the loan, ACE would continue to pressure them into taking on more debt. Borrowers would pay new fees each time they took out another payday loan from ACE. The Bureau found that ACE’s creation of the false sense of urgency to get delinquent borrowers to take out more payday loans is abusive.

ACE’s 2011 training manual has a graphic illustrating this cycle of debt. According to the graphic, consumers begin by applying to ACE for a loan, which ACE approves.

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Source: CFPB

Next, if the consumer “exhausts the cash and does not have the ability to pay,” ACE “contacts the customer for payment or offers the option to refinance or extend the loan.” Then, when the consumer “does not make a payment and the account enters collections,” the cycle starts all over again—with the formerly overdue borrower applying for another payday loan.

Penalties

The CFPB’s order requires ACE to: 

  • Pay $5 million in consumer refunds: ACE must provide $5 million in refunds to the overdue borrowers harmed by the illegal debt collection tactics during the period covered by the order. These borrowers will receive a refund of their payments to ACE, including fees and finance charges. ACE consumers will be contacted by a third-party settlement administrator about how to make a claim for a refund.
  • End illegal debt collection threats and harassment: The order requires ACE to ensure that it will not engage in unfair and deceptive collections practices. Those practices include, but are not limited to, disclosing debts to unauthorized third parties; directly contacting consumers who are represented by an attorney; and falsely threatening to sue consumers, report to credit bureaus, or add collection fees.
  • Stop pressuring consumers into cycles of debt: ACE’s collectors will no longer pressure delinquent borrowers to pay off a loan and then quickly take out a new loan from ACE. The Consent Order explicitly states that ACE may not use any abusive tactics.
  • Pay a $5 million fine: ACE will make a $5 million penalty payment to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.
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Consumers admit to being hooked on their smartphones

Many would give up alcohol and chocolate before parting with their mobile devices

It's not exactly news that consumers are increasingly dependent upon their mobile devices. One only has to observe people in restaurants, movie theaters an...

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© imtmphoto - Fotolia.com
It's not exactly news that consumers are increasingly dependent upon their mobile devices. One only has to observe people in restaurants, movie theaters and walking down the street to know that.

But a survey conducted by Bank of America is a bit surprising, in that nearly half the consumers questioned confessed they probably couldn't go a day without their smartphone.

Many of the respondents said their mobile device was more important than other things they probably couldn't do without, like coffee and television.

The survey found that connectivity on the go is so critical the smartphone falls below only the Internet and personal hygiene when ranked by importance to people’s daily lives. To put it in context, 91% said their mobile phone is just as important as their car and deodorant.

When asked what they would give up to regain access to their mobile phone, nearly 4 in 5 – 79% – said they would forgo alcohol or chocolate.

Sudden dependence

How did this dependence develop so quickly? Remember, these devices for the most part didn't even exist before 2007. Perhaps for that reason, the survey found that the youngest Millennials, between the ages of 18 and 24 and who don't really recall a time before smartphones, are most dependent.

Bank of America is interested in this topic because it, like all banks, is actively encouraging customers to use mobile banking services. On that point its survey did not disappoint.

“Mobile phones have changed the way we live our daily lives, and that extends to our finances,” said Marc Warshawsky, senior vice president and mobile solutions executive at Bank of America. “Bank of America now has more than 15 million active mobile banking users who access their accounts on a mobile device over 165 million times per month. We’ve seen this number continue to grow and recently the number of monthly mobile banking logins surpassed online banking logins for the first time.”

Addiction?

Not everyone sees consumers' near-obsession with their smartphones as a positive trend. Dr. Ira Hyman, a professor of psychology at Western Washington University, writes in Psychology Today that being dependent on your device is one thing, but if you are unable to control your use of it, that dependence has crossed over to addiction.

He describes an experiment in which college students were asked to imagine receiving a text from a friend, asking for a reply “when you can.” The students could immediately text back or, if they waited for a period of time before replying, they would receive a cash reward.

“Most students wanted to text now and pass on the extra money that would come with waiting,” Hyman writes. “Texting immediately was more important than extra money.”

College professors will tell you it is impossible to get students to put away their smartphones in class. When these students get jobs and join the workforce, this addiction then becomes their employers' problem.

Why fight it?

A researcher at Kansas State University suggests businesses give in to the inevitable and encourage employees to take short breaks during the day to check Facebook or play a game. Sooyeol Kim, doctoral student in psychological sciences, found that allowing employees to take smartphone microbreaks may be a benefit — rather than a disruption — for businesses.

By studying 72 full-time workers from various industries, Kim said he discovered that employees only spend an average of 22 minutes out of an eight-hour workday playing on their smartphones. He also found that employees who take smartphone breaks throughout the day are happier at the end of the workday.

"A smartphone microbreak can be beneficial for both the employee and the organization," Kim said.  

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Out-of-state tax notice may be a sign of identity theft

Consumers should take steps to protect themselves if they receive such a notice

Out of State Tax Notices May Signal Identity TheftRelease Date: July 10, 2014Media Contact: Jerad Albracht, Senior Communications Specialist, 608-224-5...

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© emiliezhang - Fotolia.com

A Wisconsin agency says it's been getting reports from consumers who've received notices from taxing agencies in other states, even though the consumers didn't earn income, own property or file tax returns in those states.

This should be a red flag, says the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

“Don’t assume the letter is just a clerical error. If a tax return was filed using your personal information, you may be the victim of identity theft,” said Sandy Chalmers, Division Administrator for Trade and Consumer Protection. “Take immediate steps to protect your identity.”

Identity thieves use personal information to file fraudulent tax returns in hopes of getting a refund. If you believe you may be the victim of identity theft, DATCP recommends these immediate first steps:

  • Contact one of the three major credit reporting bureaus to place a fraud alert;
  • Order your credit reports and review them for unexpected activities; and
  • File a police report about the incident

The Wisconsin agency has an online fact sheet about identity theft.

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Busbud hopes to ride along with Uber, Kayak and Airbnb

The Canadian start-up offers worldwide bus information and booking

Worldwide bus travel booking leader Busbud announced the closing of a $9 million Series A funding round, co-led by OMERS Ventures and Revolution Ventures. ...

PhotoGetting from point A to point B isn't always as straightforward as we might like, which is where companies like Expedia, Kayak and Uber come in. They use the Internet to put travelers together with airplanes, cars and the occasional train.

But what about the lowly bus? That turf has been staked out by Busbud.com, which helps travelers search, compare and book bus trips online at a global level.  

“It’s easy to find and book plane tickets on sites like Expedia or Kayak. Booking bus tickets online is a whole other story,” said L.P. Maurice, CEO and co-founder of Busbud. “For example, a bus ticket from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo during the World Cup can be as low as $29. That information used to be hard to find for international travelers. Now they can find it on Busbud.com and book their ticket directly, without taking that extra trip to the bus station.”

Busbud says its database includes the ground networks of nearly 1,500 bus companies around the world, providing coach scheduling information and booking options for over 10,460 cities in 89 countries.

Maurice, a Harvard Business School graduate, had the idea for Busbud while backpacking across South America in early 2011. Later that year, he co-founded Busbud with two long-time friends: Microsoft veteran Mike Gradek, now CTO, and Chief Analytics Officer Frederic Thouin.

The company recently raised $9 million in venture capital.  

“Companies like Uber, Lyft, Hailo and Sidecar are using technology to revolutionize transport for consumers locally. In a similar vein, Busbud is using technology to bring clarity and consistency to the global bus industry, which otherwise operates in a fragmented market,” said David Golden, Managing Partner at Revolution Ventures, one of the firms investing in Busbad.

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Back-to-school shopping rush is on

Parents are being asked to buy more items than ever before

Didn't school just let out for the summer? Thought so. And yet moms and dads are already stocking up for the school year ahead. The National Retail Federa...

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© MacX - Fotolia.com

Didn't school just let out for the summer? Thought so. And yet moms and dads are already stocking up for the school year ahead.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) reports approximately 52 million parents are heading to the stores this back-to-school season, with retailers and marketers are trying earlier than ever to earn their business.

And while parents have always been on the hook for traditional school supplies like notebooks and pens, they're now being asked to provide everything from tissues to hand wipes to plastic bags to keep classrooms running smoothly.

Growing shopping lists

The result? School supply lists that are longer than ever, according to the experts at the National School Supply Lists Directory, and a shopping season second only to Christmas in its attention from major retailers and brand marketers.

"The average 2014 required school supply list now contains 18 items," said Tim Sullivan, founder of TeacherLists.com, the national online platform that already hosts more than 400,000 of those supply lists. "That's a 29% increase from 2013 with almost the entire increase coming from more and more types of consumable supplies being added to lists. It's not so much more glue and notebooks -- it's glue and notebooks plus tissues and re-sealable bags and hand wipes."

For retailers this means even more spending while for parents it means more focus on sales and promotions on required items. "This has led to retailers starting promotions earlier than ever before," said Sullivan.

The NRF points out that 24% of K-12 parents were looking for early sales in 2013. Additionally, 45% of K-12 parents are planning to shop sales more often this year, according to a survey conducted by the NRF last month.

Marketing bonanza

Brand marketers, too, are getting into the mix as much as possible with coupon offers and incentives that try to make their brands the preferred brands of teachers and back-to-school shoppers. With $5 billion in spending on the line, it's no wonder.

"It's amazing how much the annual school supply list drives sales," noted Sullivan. Teachers and schools often request generic glue or paper, but if they request a brand name there's usually a reason for that preference and parents follow suit. Brands know this and work hard to earn a spot on those lists."

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Jobless claims plunge to near 7-year low

Analysts see improvement in the labor market

First time applications for state unemployment benefits plunged by 11,000 in the week ending July 5, taking the total number of initial claims to 304,000. ...

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia.com

First time applications for state unemployment benefits plunged by 11,000 in the week ending July 5, taking the total number of initial claims to 304,000. That's the fewest new claims since the end of May, and well below the Briefing.com consensus forecast of 311,000.

The government also reports the 4-week moving average was 311,500, down 3,500 the previous week, and close to levels last seen in October 2007. The moving average is less volatile than the weekly number and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor situation.

Analysts say the initial claims level is probably due to normal volatility because of the Independence Day holiday and does not signal a change in trend. Still, they add, data over the past few weeks indicate labor market conditions are improving.

The full report is available on the Labor Department website.

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May was a tough month for airline travel

On-time performance was down and tarmac delays were up

The skies weren't all that friendly during May. The nation’s largest airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 76.9% during the month -- down 3% from Ap...

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© John Takai - Fotolia.com

The skies weren't all that friendly during May.

The nation’s largest airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 76.9% during the month -- down 3% from April and 2.5% from May 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report .

In addition, the carriers canceled 1.9% of their scheduled domestic flights in May -- up 0.8% from the rates posted the month before and the previous year.

Finally, the airlines reported 4 tarmac delays of more than 3 hours on domestic flights and 1 tarmac delay of more than 4 hours on an international flight. DOT is investigating the delays.

Reporting requirements

All U.S. and foreign airlines operating at least one aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats must report lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports. The larger U.S. airlines have been required to file complete reports on their long tarmac delays for domestic flights since October 2008.

Under a rule that took effect Aug. 23, 2011, all U.S. and foreign airlines operating at least one aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats must report lengthy tarmac delays at U.S. airports.

Other areas

The consumer report also includes data on chronically delayed flights and the causes of flight delays filed with the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics by the reporting carriers. In addition, there's information on mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers with the carriers and airline service complaints.

The consumer report also includes reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air, as required to be filed by U.S. carriers.

The full report is available on the DOT website.

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Loan modification scam victims to receive refunds

The average check will top $2,000

Checks are in the mail for consumers who were duped by the Lucas Law Center. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) refund checks totaling $499,7...

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© kentoh - Fotolia.com

Checks are in the mail for consumers who were duped by the Lucas Law Center.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) refund checks totaling $499,701.84 are being sent to 229 consumers who paid an advance fee for mortgage loan modifications the company falsely claimed it would obtain for them.

The FTC accused Lucas Law Center of allegedly using a lawyer to circumvent state prohibitions against receiving a fee before providing any services; the defendants charged up to $3,995 in advance.

In addition to falsely representing that they would obtain mortgage loan modifications, the defendants told some homeowners to stop paying their mortgage in order to pay the defendants’ fee. Consumers obtained promised refunds only after repeated complaints to the Better Business Bureau, the California Attorney General, the State Bar of California, or local criminal authorities.

The court immediately barred the practices and froze the corporate defendants’ assets, pending a hearing.

Consumers will receive checks ranging from $427.62 to $8,246.90, with the average check $2,182.10. Those who receive the checks from the FTC’s refund administrator should cash them within 60 days of the mailing date.  

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Master Cutlery recalls neck knives

The sheath does not hold the knife securely

Master Cutlery of Secaucus, N.J., is recalling about 4,000 MTech USA Karambit neck knife and sheath sets. The sheath does not hold the knife securely, all...

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Photo source: CPSC

Master Cutlery of Secaucus, N.J., is recalling about 4,000 MTech USA Karambit neck knife and sheath sets.

The sheath does not hold the knife securely, allowing the knife to fall out unexpectedly. This poses a risk of laceration to the consumer.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves the Karambit neck knife and sheath. The half-moon shaped knife measures 7 inches in length and was sold in an urban camo print. “MTech USA” is laser printed on the blade. Model number MT-664UC-SO is marked on the back of the knife.

The knife fits into an unmarked molded black sheath that is about 4.5 inches in length. The sheath has a snap clip on the back and also comes with a beaded lanyard chain. Replacement sheaths have “MTech USA” laser printed on the back.

The knife and sheath sets, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Big 5 Sporting Goods stores from March 2014, through May 2014, for about $20.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled knife and sheath, store them in a safe area and contact Master Cutlery for instructions on obtaining a free replacement sheath.

Consumers may contact Master Cutlery toll-free at (888) 271-7229 from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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America is now the world's leading oil producer

What's it mean for consumers? Not what you might think

Over the Independence Day holiday, a report about energy independence may have escaped your attention. Because of fracking, the U.S. has overtaken Saudi Ar...

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© Jörg Hackemann - Fotolia.com
Over the Independence Day holiday, a report about energy independence may have escaped your attention. Because of fracking, the U.S. has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the world's leading oil producer.

A Bank of America report obtained by Bloomberg News said U.S. crude oil production, along with liquid fuel separated from natural gas, was more than 11 million barrels a day in the first quarter of 2014.

That might seem small consolation to consumers who can barely afford to fill their tanks at current prices, but the Bank of America analyst who compiled the report says it could be worse.

Bloomberg quotes Francisco Blanch, head of commodities research, as saying prices at the pump might be “unaffordable” without the glut of fuel produced from shale rock in the last few years.

Independence

The U.S. consumes about 18.5 million barrels of oil per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). With continued reduced demand – mainly due to fuel efficient cars – and the growing use of alternative energy sources, U.S. energy independence is not the far-fetched idea it once was.

But for consumers, energy independence is not going to bring a return to “low” gasoline prices. The reason?

High oil prices have actually contributed to the growth of fracking, which is an expensive technology. With oil selling at around $100 a barrel, the process is more profitable than if it sold for half that.

For that reason the Middle East isn't going to shrink from the world's economic stage anytime soon. A recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts the Middle East will always be influential because it remains the world's last source of easy-to-extract and therefore, inexpensive oil.

Because of the increased U.S. supply oil prices should have declined in recent years, not gone up. However other nations – OPEC primarily – have cut production to prevent gluts of oil from flooding the market.

Because there is no efficient way to move U.S. oil from Texas and Oklahoma to northeast refineries to be turned into gasoline, those refineries still mostly rely on more expensive, imported oil.

U.S. oil export ban

While the growing U.S. oil output helps meet domestic demand, it does nothing to reduce demand in other countries. U.S. oil isn't exported. There is a law on the books forbidding it (although refined petroleum products can be exported).

After the first oil embargo in 1973, which sent gasoline prices to the unheard of level of 50 cents a gallon, Congress passed a law preventing the export of U.S. oil. At the time the country was producing a small percentage of its energy supply.

As you might expect, pressure is now building to overturn that ban. President Obama has signed orders allowing two companies to begin exporting U.S. ultralight crude, according to The Wall Street Journal. The exports could begin as early as August.

The exports are being justified on the grounds that there simply isn't a place to store it, but there's also an economic component to the move. In its report the Journal notes that prices for ultralight oil have fallen $10 or more below the price of traditional crude oil.

Even though ultralight oil can be refined into gasoline and jet fuel, the Commerce Department is skirting the embargo by reclassifying it as “fuel,” which is not subject to the export ban.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of people in Washington who argue that it is time to lift the U.S. oil export embargo. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (D-AK), in a speech earlier this year, said allowing U.S. oil exports would lead to increased production – arguing the current curbs are limiting output.

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Researchers: exercise, not calories, is key to weight loss

The drop in Americans' physical activity has been dramatic

For people trying to lose weight, it has been the eternal question? Is exercise more important or is reducing calories?A group of health researchers appe...

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© Leonardo Franko - Fotolia.com
For people trying to lose weight, it has been the eternal question? Is exercise more important or is reducing calories?

A group of health researchers appears to come down on the side of exercise. Their new study, published in the American Journal of Medicine, searched for the primary cause of obesity.

These Stanford University researchers started with the fact that there has been a significant increase in the average body mass index (BMI) over the last 20 years. They determined there has also been a dramatic decrease in physical exercise over that same period.

Women increasingly sedentary

But the average calorie intake has remained about the same. Therefore, they conclude that a sedentary lifestyle – more than diet – is largely responsible for people being overweight or obese.

Some of the data the researchers analyzed is alarming. The number of U.S. women who reported no physical activity surged from 11.4% in 1994 to 43.5% in 2010. Average BMI increased among all groups over those 16 years, with the biggest increase among young women ages 18-39.

"These changes have occurred in the context of substantial increases in the proportion of adults reporting no leisure-time physical activity, but in the absence of any significant population-level changes in average daily caloric intake," said lead investigator Uri Ladabaum, of the Stanford University School of Medicine. "At the population level, we found a significant association between the level of leisure-time physical activity, but not daily caloric intake, and the increases in both BMI and waist circumference."

Misplaced blame

The debate over the obesity epidemic has largely focused on the food and beverage industries, with high-calorie foods and sugary beverages getting the lion's share of the blame for America's expanding waistline. But the researchers suggest the blame is misplaced.

"Our findings do not support the popular notion that the increase of obesity in the United States can be attributed primarily to sustained increase over time in the average daily caloric intake of Americans," Ladabaum said. "Although the overall trends in obesity in the United States are well appreciated and obesity prevalence may be stabilizing, our analyses highlight troublesome trends in younger adults, in women, and in abdominal obesity prevalence, as well as persistent racial/ethnic disparities."

While a healthy, nutritious diet is important to both weight control and overall health, the exercise side of the equation continues to get more attention. The Stanford researchers aren't the only ones who want to get Americans up off the couch.

Affects cardiofitness levels

Cardiologists at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas have now linked sedentary behavior with lower cardiorespiratory fitness levels. Writing in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, they claim two hours of sitting can be just as harmful as 20 minutes of exercise is beneficial.

It's just the latest research to sound an alarm about too much sitting. A 2011 Canadian study linked prolonged sitting to an elevated cancer risk. A 2012 Australian study linked sitting with an early death.

A Kaiser Permanente study earlier this year showed prolonged sedentary behavior in men led to significantly higher risk of heart attack.

Unanswered questions

But why isn't exactly clear.

“Our data suggest that sedentary behavior may increase risk through an impact on lower fitness levels, and that avoiding sedentary behavior throughout the day may represent an important companion strategy to improve fitness and health, outside of regular exercise activity,” said Dr. Jarett Berry, senior author of the UT Southwestern Medical Center study.

For people stuck at their desks 8 hours a day, this may not sound like good news. But the research team offers some tips; shift positions frequently; get up and stretch from time to time; when on the phone, stand up and pace around.

If you get short breaks during the day, use them to walk around. Use the stairs instead of the elevator.

“We also found that when sitting for prolonged periods of time, any movement is good movement, and was also associated with better fitness,” said Dr. Jacquelyn Kulinski, one of the authors.

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Volkswagen puts hold on Golf, GTIs to fix steering problems

Affefcted cars that have already been sold are likely to be recalled

Volkswagen has ordered U.S. and Canadian dealers to not sell about 800 units of its new Golf and GTI hatchbacks because a mistake in assembly could cause s...

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2015 Golf GTI (Photo credit: Volkswagen of America)
Volkswagen dealers have been told not to sell about 800 new Golf and GTI hatchbacks because of a potential steering problem.

The front stabilizer links were installed improperly, according to Automotive News. If the links come loose or detach, it could become difficult to turn the steering wheel, possibly causing a crash.

The problem reportedly affects about 2,000 vehicles in the U.S. and Canada, including roughly 800 still on dealer lots. VW said it is notifying safety regulators and affected cars that have already been sold will presumably be recalled.

So far, there have been no reports of customers experiencing the problem, VW said.

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Security warning: update your Adobe Flash, right now

Google engineer discovers major "weaponized" exploit in Flash

Adobe has released a security update which you need to apply at once, especially if you ever visit Tumblr, eBay, Instagram or pretty much any website using...

PhotoAdobe has released a security update which you need to apply at once, especially if you ever visit Tumblr, eBay, Instagram or pretty much any website using Adobe Flash.

The security patch is in response to “Rosetta Flash,” a software exploit which security blogger and Google engineer Michele Spagnuolo discovered. Spagnuolo said Rosetta Flash is “a tool for converting any SWF file to one composed of only alphanumeric characters in order to abuse JSONP endpoints, making a victim perform arbitrary requests to the domain with the vulnerable endpoint and exfiltrate potentially sensitive data, not limited to JSONP responses, to an attacker-controlled site. This is a CSRF bypassing Same Origin Policy.”

Translation, courtesy of Gizmodo: “Basically, the flaw … made it possible for hackers to steal the cookies that authenticate returning users on sites like eBay, Twitter, Tumblr, and thousands more.”

Adobe quickly responded by releasing an updated version of Flash to patch the vulnerability.

Even so, some Adobe users might not be protected unless they take active steps to ensure it. As security blogger Brian Krebs noted:

Flash has a built-in auto-updater, but you might wait days or weeks for it to prompt you to update, regardless of its settings. The most recent versions of Flash are available from the Adobe download center, but beware potentially unwanted add-ons, like McAfee Security Scan. To avoid this, uncheck the pre-checked box before downloading, or grab your OS-specific Flash download from here.

Windows users who browse the Web with anything other than Internet Explorer may need to apply this patch twice, once with IE and again using the alternative browser (Firefox, Opera, e.g.).

If you haven't updated your Adobe Flash yet, stop reading and go do it, right now.

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American Express antitrust trial gets underway

Merchants should be allowed to give discounts to consumers who use cheaper cards, government argues

A long-simmering antitrust case against American Express is getting underway this week in a New York federal district courtroom. It could result in merchan...

PhotoA long-simmering antitrust case against American Express is getting underway this week in a New York federal district courtroom. It could result in merchants being free to offer discounts to consumers who use cards other than American Express.

The government is arguing that American Express unlawfully inhibits competition by insisting that its merchants not express a preference for one card over another.

American Express Platinum Card (amex) July 9, 2014, 6:35 p.m.
Consumers rate American Express Platinum Card (amex)
Merchants pay about $50 billion a year to card companies -- usually about 2% to 3% of each transaction. American Express' fees are higher than many other cards. Critics say the higher fees are passed along to all consumers in the form of higher prices.

It's not just American Express, of course. Airline credit cards and other cards with high rewards attached charge merchants more to cover the cost of the premium programs. 

Many consumer advocates and merchants argue that consumers who use cards that carry cheaper fees deserve a discount.  

The Justice Department filed its case against Amex in 2010. In 2012,  Visa, MasterCharge and a number of big banks paid more than $6 billion to settle price-fixing claims and agreed to let merchants use discounts, rebates and other tactics to get customers to use cheaper, more generic cards. 

The trial, which is being conducted before a judge with no jury, is expected to last most of the summer. 

Held hostage

The government argues that American Express presents merchants with a "take-it-or-leave-it" attitude -- forcing them to accept American Express cards for all purchases or not accepting Amex cards at all.

AmEx argues that its customers prefer to use their American Express cards because the company offers superior service. It has a reputation of being more supportive of its cardmembers in so-called "chargeback" disputes and also offers generous perks on some of its more expensive cards.

American Express tells merchants that their cardmembers tend to make more big-dollar purchases than consumers who carry other credit cards.  It also argues that it isn't big enough to be an anticompetitive force in the marketplace. It has about 53 million members compared to the more than 400 MasterCharge and Visa cards in circulation.

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Barnes & Noble agrees to equal treatment for nursing moms

The agreement with New York authorities ensures mothers the right to breast-feed in the company's stores

Barnes &amp; Noble has agreed to make its its 42 New York bookstores more hospitable to nursing mothers. Under an agreement with New York&nbsp;Attorney Gen...

PhotoBarnes & Noble has agreed to make its its 42 New York bookstores more hospitable to nursing mothers. Under an agreement with New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, the chain will train New York store employees not to interfere with breast-feeding moms.

Schneiderman's Civil Rights Bureau opened an investigation into the national chain following a March 16 incident in which a woman was asked to cover up or leave the company’s Nanuet, New York, store while breastfeeding her infant son.

In a statement, Barnes & Noble said it welcomes breast-feeding moms nationwide. 

"We’ve provided safe environments for women to breastfeed since we opened our first store. Barnes & Noble was one of the first retailers to offer baby changing stations in both our women and men’s rooms," said company spokesperson Mary Ellen Keating. "Regrettably, a woman was asked to cover up while breastfeeding in one of our New York stores. We have addressed the situation and have taken to steps to reinforce our policies. We are committed to ensuring our stores continue to be a welcoming environment for breastfeeding mothers.”

Under New York State law, a mother may breastfeed her baby in any location, so long as she otherwise has the right to be there, regardless of whether she is covered while nursing. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the law's passage.

“All New York residents, including breastfeeding mothers, must be afforded equal protection under the law,” Schneiderman said. “No mother should endure harassment for breastfeeding her baby in public. There is one set of rules for everyone in New York, and I applaud Barnes & Noble for taking steps to ensure that moms are not harassed or discriminated against.”

Under the agreement, Barnes & Noble will strengthen its customer complaint resolution procedures with respect to the handling of complaints received from breastfeeding mothers, train all New York store employees and managers on its breastfeeding policy, which prohibits employees from interfering with a mother’s right to breastfeed at its stores, and display the international symbol for breastfeeding at the entrances to its New York stores.

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Mortgage applications post first advance in 4 weeks

The July 4 holiday figured into the results

After falling for 3 consecutive weeks, applications for mortgages rose 1.9% in the week ending July 4. According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Associa...

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© emiliezhang -Fotolia.com

After falling for 3 consecutive weeks, applications for mortgages rose 1.9% in the week ending July 4.

According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, the results included an adjustment for the Independence Day holiday.

The Refinance Index increased 0.4% from the previous week, but the refinance share of mortgage activity slipped to 52% of total applications from 53% the previous week. 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 up 4 basis points -- from 4.28% to 4.32% -- with points increasing to 0.16 from 0.14 (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) dipped to 4.24% from 4.26%, with points increasing to 0.16 from 0.06 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate rose from the previous week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was up 3 basis points to 4.02%, with points increasing to -0.03 from -0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs dropped from 3.42% to 3.40%, with points increasing to 0.22 from 0.16 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs increased to 3.24% from 3.21%, with points slipping to 0.31 from 0.33 (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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Safeway recalls various chicken products in five states

The products may have been contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg

Safeway in cooperation with the Foster Farms recall of products that may have been contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg, is recalling a limited number o...

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Photo source: Safeway.com

Safeway in cooperation with the Foster Farms recall of products that may have been contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg, is recalling a limited number of products made with chicken supplied by Foster Farms sold with "Use or Freeze By" dates ranging from March 17, 2014 through March 29, 2014.

The items were sold in March 2014 in five states from both the self-service and full-service meat cases in stores. Because the items were sold fresh, they are no longer available in stores. However, customers are asked to check their freezers for the products listed below.

The recall includes all marinated or seasoned fresh chicken products sold from the self-service or full-service counter in Northern California, Hawaii, Northern Nevada, Oregon and Western Washington State with "Use or Freeze By" dates ranging from March 17 through March 29. The marinades and season flavors include:

  • Bulgogi
  • Charmoula
  • Greek Lemon
  • Drunken
  • Yellow Curry
  • Caribbean Jerk
  • Buffalo and Chipotle Brown Sugar

In addition, the following products are part of Foster Farms' original recall and are sold from the self-serve meat counter. They were also sold in Northern California, Hawaii, Northern Nevada, Oregon and Western Washington State with "Use or Freeze By" dates ranging from March 17 through March 29:

  • Eating Right Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts
  • Eating Right Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs
  • Safeway Farms Small Tray Drumsticks
  • Safeway Farms Small Tray Split Breasts
  • Safeway Farms Small Tray Thighs
  • Safeway Farms Small Tray Wings
  • Safeway Farms Value Pack Drumsticks
  • Safeway Farms Value Pack Leg Quarters
  • Safeway Farms Value Pack Thighs
  • Safeway Farms Value Pack Wings

Foster Farms has been notified of one illness associated with its products.

Customers who purchased these products should discard them or return them for a full refund.

For more information, customers can call 1-866-SAFEWAY 24 hours a day.

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TSA thinks phones and laptops with dead batteries might be bombs

If you go to the airport, make sure your battery-operated devices are all fully charged

If you're flying in American airspace anytime soon, make sure your phone, laptop and other devices all have fully charged batteries, because as of last wee...

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© trekandphoto - Fotolia.com

If you're flying into American airspace anytime soon, make sure your phone, laptop and other devices all have fully charged batteries, because as of last weekend, you must add “any phone or laptop computer with a dead battery” to the list of “things you can't carry on an airplane, or else the Transportation Security Administration will think you're a terrorist.”

That list has been in flux since the TSA first invented it. Back in the summer of 2005, all small metal grooming tools, such as tweezers and nail clippers, were banned in carry-on luggage, then they were allowed again.

Shampoo, liquid soap and other toiletry gels were initially allowed, then briefly forbidden altogether, then re-allowed provided they were in labeled bottles or tubes each containing three ounces or less, although that limit has since increased so that today, you can have moisturizer, toothpaste and other personal-hygiene gels in bottles or tubes containing up to 3.4 ounces apiece. However, for terrorist-prevention reasons those individual bottles and tubes all must fit in a plastic resealable sandwich bag no larger than one quart.

All carry-on electronics were banned for a day or two after Christmas 2009, during which time the TSA also imposed a set of rules governing passenger behavior during the last hour of a flight: hands were to be visible at all times, nothing was to be kept in people's laps, no reaching into your pocket or carry-on bag, and no leaving your seat for any reason.

Those punitive restrictions were soon rescinded. One year later, in October 2010, the TSA started requiring fliers in American airspace to submit to what it calls “enhanced patdowns” -- the explicit genital-grabbing all-body searches which, as a TSA agent admitted at the time, were deliberately intended to intimidate fliers into walking through the TSA's then-new full-body scanners instead.

And, of course, there have been the periodic TSA warnings against everything from shoes to cupcakes, all of which might, possibly, have the potential to be a bomb, or hide a bomb, or otherwise do something dangerous.

Old is new again

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File photo

Hence the justification for the TSA's latest edict: if you are going to fly in American airspace and your cell phone has a dead battery (more specifically, if you show up with a device that cannot be turned on where a TSA agent can see it), they'll suspect the device is actually a disguised bomb, and then treat you as a suspect.

Hopefully, no terrorist or potential terrorist anywhere in the world is smart enough to disguise a bomb as an electronic device and then give it an actual working screen. But this possibility has already been considered and discarded by Jason Harrington, a former TSA agent who wrote in the Guardian that "the new airport cellphone rules wouldn't stop an iBomb" and warned that "the latest ad hoc security directive might actually make us less safe."

Those of a certain age may recall that this is actually not the first time the "turn on your devices" rule has been implemented. Long before there was a TSA -- back in the 1990s -- security guards at many U.S. airports used to ask travelers to turn on their laptops. Since this was in the Windows XP days, when a boot-up could take several minutes, it resulted in some pretty major back-ups and was eventually abandoned.

The story has generated many international headlines. For example: the U.K.'s Telegraph, on July 3, reported a “UK terror alert: body searches at British airports” with the subheading “New security regime imposed on passengers as American intelligence suggests al-Qaeda plot to use Western fanatics to bring down a US-bound plane.”

The next day, when the Express reported the news, it included warnings from a British travel agency, advising all travelers in the country to allow extra time for airport checks. The Express also said that the increased security measures were due to fears that terrorists might have an “undetectable 'stealth bomb'.”

"More like a physical assault"

Incidentally, both of those British news stories quoted an American tourist, Lisa Simeone, who was in Europe when local news reported the latest changes in American airport security rules. While Simeone and her husband were at Heathrow about to fly back home, a reporter strolling through the airport asked them what they thought about the new rules, and the Express said this:

American journalist Lisa Simeone, 57, said: “When I came through here last it was a cursory pat-down.

“This time it seems they are being a lot more aggressive and really groping people, it’s more like a physical assault.”

She said officials were swabbing belongings, clothes and shoes and even swabbed a baby’s pushchair.

No bombs or terrorists were found.

Simeone, a Baltimore resident and a frequent contributor to the TSA News Blog, is a frequent traveler who said she stopped flying in American airspace in 2010, when the TSA's “enhanced patdown” policy started.

“We used to travel a lot; it was a big part of my life,” Simeone said in a phone interview with ConsumerAffairs. The thought of never visiting Europe again made her rather depressed until she discovered that the Queen Mary 2 docks in New York and takes passengers across the Atlantic, so she and her husband got into the habit of driving from Baltimore to New York, taking the ship to Europe [it makes port calls in England and Germany], then flying back to the U.S.

“The QM2 is not expensive [compared to an airline ticket]; the problem is that it takes time,” Simeone said. A trans-Atlantic flight takes less than a day, whereas the Queen Mary 2 requires nearly a week to cross the ocean. “Not many Americans have enough time to take a vacation without flying.”

Latest American export

At any rate, Simeone and her husband said their vacation took three weeks in all, including the week they spent on the Queen Mary 2. Two and a half weeks into their vacation, Simeone learned, the TSA practices she sought to avoid in America had followed her to Europe.

“We were in Vienna, at the two and a half week mark, when the news reports started to come out: U.S. demanding other countries do this … I thought, 'Oh, my God, This is what's going on in the U.S., and now it's coming to Europe …. the U.S. makes an edict, and every other country knuckles under. They said the bomb they're looking for is 'undetectable,' but they think groping people will help them find it?”

A two-way ocean voyage from Europe to New York and back takes two weeks in all: as much vacation time as many Americans get in an entire year. “I work freelance, so I can take the time if I have to; my husband can't,” Simeone concluded glumly. She hopes the new regime in European airports proves only temporary, though fears that might be unduly optimistic: “The thing about civil liberties — once they're taken away, it's very unlikely you'll get them back.”

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Mortgage scams still plague struggling homeowners

Housing group finds struggling homeowners alarmingly vulnerable

Despite improvements in the housing market foreclosures are still a troubling fact of life. The number of homes in foreclosure each month remains well abov...

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© aleutie - Fotolia.com

Despite improvements in the housing market foreclosures are still a troubling fact of life. The number of homes in foreclosure each month remains well above the pre-housing-crash norm.

And with persistent foreclosure threats, foreclosure modification scams also remain an unpleasant fact of life.

NeighborWorks America, a non-profit affordable housing group, recently spotlighted the case of Sixto Diaz, a homeowner who was current on his mortgage but hoped to get a modification, making the payments more affordable.

When he contacted a California company in the business of “mortgage consulting,” he was told they would obtain a modification for him if he paid a fee of $3,000. The results were predictable.

Money down the drain

NeighborWorks America says a year passed with no results. Realizing he had lost the money, Diaz found a HUD-approved counseling agency that is working with him – at no charge – to obtain a mortgage modification.

While cases like this are less frequent than they once were. NeighborWorks America was concerned enough about the potential for homeowners to be victimized that the group produced a video warning featuring consumers who had no idea how these mortgage scams work.

Since the start of the housing crisis the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a regulation making it illegal for companies to request money upfront to help a homeowner avoid foreclosure. But the problem persists.

"Homeowners could be vulnerable to a scam if they seek a loan modification from a third party, whether their mortgage is current or delinquent. Loan scam artists are relentless. We tell consumers that being asked for a payment, especially upfront, is the #1 sign of a scam," said Barbara Floyd Jones, senior manager of National Homeownership Programs at NeighborWorks America. "Consumers in the video were willing to pay thousands to get help, which shows just how far homeowners will go to save their homes. We want homeowners to learn the signs of a scam and report the scam artists so they can protect themselves, friends and family when seeking a loan modification or a solution to foreclosure."

In 2012, the FTC charged 11 companies and 5 individuals with running an illegal mortgage relief scheme, which operated under various names, including Prime Legal Plans. Using Reaching U Network, what the FTC termed “a sham non-profit front,” and a maze of other companies, the scheme reeled in consumers with false promises that enrollment would save their homes from foreclosure or result in lower mortgage payments.

In cooperation with a number of states, the FTC obtained a court order shutting down the operation and freezing the defendants’ corporate and personal assets pending settlement of the case.

“Rather than make good on their promise to offer people relief from mortgage trouble, these schemers put their targets even further behind financially,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “They broke the law by taking money upfront and making false promises.”

Identifying a mortgage scam

While regulators are trying to put mortgage fraudsters out of business, they're still out there. Consumers can spot them by listening to three key parts of their bogus pitch:

  • A company/person asks for a fee in advance to work with your lender to modify, refinance or reinstate your mortgage.
  • A company/person guarantees they can stop a foreclosure or get your loan modified.
  • A company/person advises you to stop paying your mortgage company and pay them instead.

HUD-approved counseling agencies, on the other hand, can provide foreclosure avoidance help and they don't charge for it. You can find a list of approved agencies here.

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Recalled Chobani yogurt contained "highly pathogenic" mold, researchers say

A Texas casserole held the key to identifying the virulent strain

Recalled yogurt contained highly pathogenic moldLab study identifies specific strain, tests effects on miceDURHAM, N.C. -- Samples isolated from Choban...

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Last year's recall of moldy Chobani Greek yogurt turned into a marketing nightmare for the company, which tried to put the best face on it by saying that the mold was naturally occurring and not considered a food-borne pathogen.

Not so, say Duke University researchers who studied samples taken from the recalled yogurt. They say the mold was the most virulent form of a fungus called Mucor circinelloides, which is "highly pathogenic" and could cause serious infections in immune-compromised consumers.

Chobani questioned the Duke findings.

“In regards to this specific study, we were just made aware of it and want to take more time to review its methodology and assertions. To our knowledge, there is no evidence, including the assertions presented in this publication, that the strain in the recalled products causes illness in consumers when ingested," said Dr. Alejandro Mazzotta, Chobani Vice President of Global Quality, Food Safety, and Regulatory Affairs

“Chobani conducted an aggressive, statistically significant series of tests of the products voluntarily recalled in September 2013 with third party experts confirming the absence of foodborne pathogens. Chobani stands by these findings, which are consistent with regulatory agency findings and the FDA’s Class II classification of the recall on October 30th 2013,” Mazzotta said.

More serious threat

The study, which appears July 8 in the online, open access journal mBio, indicates that the particular strain of fungus found in the yogurt may pose a more serious threat to public health than previously thought, said Dr. Joseph Heitman, a senior author of the study and professor and chair of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke's School of Medicine.

Heitman said the finding also suggests specific attention should be paid to fungal pathogens in food products and the factories that manufacture them.

"Typically when people think about food-borne pathogens, they think about viruses or bacteria, they don't think of fungi," said Soo Chan Lee, a senior research associate at Duke who led the study. "Our research suggests it may be time to think about fungal pathogens and develop good regulations to test them in manufacturing facilities."

Casserole clue

The study relied on a sample provided by a Texas couple who became ill with diarrhea and vomiting after eating a casserole made with the recalled product. The couple said the casserole containing the yogurt had been cooked for more than 30 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. They both reported experiencing diarrhea and the man said he also vomited after eating the casserole a second time.

After learning of the recall, the couple contacted the Heitman laboratory -- which had previously published papers on Mucor circinelloides -- and offered the remaining portion of their yogurt for analysis. They said the tub of plain yogurt had been kept in their refrigerator at 37 degrees Fahrenheit for several days, but it showed half-inch to one-inch colonies growing on its surface.

The Heitman lab provided the couple with instructions and a kit to collect swab samples from the yogurt in Texas and then to ship both the swabs and the container cold to North Carolina. Both the swabs and the tub sample produced colonies of the pathogenic mold in the lab.

The Duke researchers isolated Mucor circinelloides from the yogurt container and applied DNA barcoding -- analyzing standardized regions of the fungal genome -- to further identify its exact subspecies. They found it belonged to the most virulent subspecies, Mucor circinelloides forma circinelloides (Mcc).

"There are three closely related species, and one of them we typically find infecting humans," Heitman said. "There was some chance that this yogurt isolate would be the human pathogenic form, and we found that it was."

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Consumers continue to spend more for new cars

Are higher prices responsible for a sales dip in June?

New car sales, which have been a constant bright spot in an otherwise lackluster economic recovery, continued to shine in the first six months of 2014. Sal...

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2015 VW Golf TSI (Photo credit: Volkswagen of America)
New car sales, which have been a constant bright spot in an otherwise lackluster economic recovery, continued to shine in the first six months of 2014. Sales took a slight breather in June, but prices moved higher during the month.

Data compiled by Kelley Blue Book (KBB) show the estimated average transaction price (ATP) for light vehicles in the U.S. last month was $32,342. New car prices have increased by $454 – 1.4% – since June 2013. Perhaps more surprising, prices jumped $113 from May to June.

"Most major automakers showed positive growth for June 2014, as the market continues to shift toward utility vehicles this year," said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "SUV and crossover share increased more than two percentage points in 2014 to comprise one-third of the market."

In June Volkswagen posted the highest ATP – $38,640. Hyundai-KIA had the lowest, at $24,438.

Despite its well-publicized recall issues, GM sales remain stable and it's prices lead the industry's price gains. GM prices are up an average 5.4% year-over-year, mainly due to strong demand for its trucks and SUVs.

"The Chevrolet Silverado's average transaction price is up 7.9%, while the new Tahoe and Suburban have climbed 10 percent from last year," said Tim Fleming, a KBB analyst.

Meanwhile, Nissan North America reported strong sales and lower transaction prices, providing shoppers with some automotive bargains during the month. KBB says it's partly due to the manufacturer's mix, as the share of its smallest cars, the Versa and Sentra, has eclipsed a quarter of Nissan's sales. The average transaction price of Nissan's biggest seller, Altima, is down 1 percent year-over-year.

Smaller cars more popular

In fact, smaller vehicle with better gasoline mileage continue to gain popularity with consumers and manufacturers are responding with new small models. Honda recently announced it will introduce the HR-V, a small crossover.

The new model isn't expected in showrooms until late this year or early next and the automaker has released limited information about the car. According to dealers, the new HR-V is expected to be smaller than the Honda CR-V, the company's popular small SUV.

Design features are expected to include no rear door handles and a sleek overall appearance. Inside it will feature expanded connectivity.

Honda's core models—Accord, Civic and CR-V were the big winners through the first half of 2014, with Civic sales up 8.7% and Accord increasing 2.1% in June. However, retail consumers appeared to take a breath last month coupled with an unusually short number of selling days, the shortest June in five years.

The CR-V, one of the industry's best-selling SUVs, posted a year-to-date gain of 6.1% for its best-ever 6-month sales performance.

"Despite an easing of the pace in June, the larger sales trend throughout the industry remains robust," said Jeff Conrad, Honda division senior vice president and general manager. "Our core products remain strong and though we're still filling its supply pipeline, the new 2015 Fit is selling very well and we expect it to add yet another strong pillar to Honda sales in the near future."

Stricker shock?

But there may be signs that rising sticker prices for new cars are turning some consumers away. A separate KBB report projects new car sales are expected to fall 2.7% year-over-year to a total of 1.36 million units.

Another automotive source, Cars.com, also projects a sales slowdown once June's numbers are tallied. It expects total June sales to come in at 1,372,168 units, down 2.1% year-over-year and down 14.7% from May.

"Despite the expected year-over-year dip, the pace of new-car sales remained healthy in June at approximately 16.4 million SAAR," said Jesse Toprak, chief analyst for Cars.com. "An attractive collection of new models as well as improved affordability due to very low interest rates and lease specials continued to bring customers into showrooms. We expect the rest of 2014 to continue to track above 16 million units."

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The nose knows: Dogs can sniff out early-stage ovarian cancer

Early detection is vital, with a 90% five-year survival rate when the cancer is found early

&copy; Igor Normann - Fotolia.comDogs can hear and smell things from miles away. That's why they may not come when you call them, but open a bag of tre...

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© Igor Normann - Fotolia.com

Dogs can hear and smell things from miles away. That's why they may not come when you call them, but open a bag of treats and somehow they are right by your feet.

Researchers are capitalizing on that with women and ovarian cancer. A group of researchers collaborated to investigate using the dog's sense of smell as well as chemical and enhanced DNA analysis as a means of detecting early-stage ovarian cancer. The dogs are taught to smell the cancer in a laboratory setting and then rewarded when they find it.

Ovarian cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in women. When diagnosed early, ovarian cancer has a 5-year survival rate of greater then 90%. However more then 80% of patients are diagnosed at a late stage when even aggressive treatment with surgery and chemotherapy are unable to stop the cancer, making early detection a vital weapon in the fight against the deadly disease.

Organic compounds

There are compounds called volatile organic compounds (VOC) -- or odorants. They are altered in the early stages of ovarian cancer. Researchers have found that trained, working alongside specialized electronic devices, are able to detect very small quantities of the odorants.

The accuracy rate of the dogs is 90%, and the hope is that the dogs will help refine the ability to detect the cancer in the early stages.

The collaboration was between the Working Dog Center of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, the physics and astronomy department of Penn's School of Arts and Science, Penn's Gynecologic Oncology division and the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

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Gallup: U.S. consumers stuck in the mud

The company's U.S. Economic Confidence Index hasn't moved since mid-June

U.S. consumers, it appears, are in the summer doldrums. Gallup says its U.S. Economic Confidence Index remained at -16 last week – the third straight week...

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Graphic source: Gallup.com

U.S. consumers, it appears, are in the summer doldrums.

Gallup says its U.S. Economic Confidence Index remained at -16 last week – the third straight week at that level. The index dropped to -13 at the start of June, them dipped to -16 in the middle of the month, and has not moved since.

Dimming outlook

Currently, one in five consumers (20%) say the economy is excellent or good, while 33% say it's poor -- resulting in a current conditions index of -13. As for the economy's future, 38% say it's getting better, while 56% say things are getting worse, for an economic outlook score of -18 -- the same as the previous week's score.

The recent slight dip in the overall index is attributable to losses in the outlook component since early June, while consumer attitudes about current economic conditions have held steady. This punctuates the pattern seen throughout 2014, with consumers' perceptions of the current state of the economy inching higher -- now up five points from -18 at the start of January -- while their outlook for the economy has gone in the other