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Consumers pay more for new cars but enjoy them less

Could longer finance terms have something to do with it?

For yet another month, the new car market has apparently been booming. J.D. Power and LMC Automotive are forecasting August new car sales to hit the highes...

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© kichigin19 - Fotolia.com
For yet another month, the new car market has been booming. J.D. Power and LMC Automotive are forecasting August new car sales to hit the highest level of the year.

Light-vehicle sales are projected to hit 1.3 million units and total light-vehicle sales are expected to reach nearly 1.5 million in August. That would be a 3% increase over August 2013.

But other recent trends are giving some industry analysts pause. Just this week the American Customer Satisfaction Index showed that overall consumer satisfaction with their new cars has fallen for the second straight year.

Before you write that off as fallout from GM's high-profile recall issues this year, consider this. The only brands that actually improved customer satisfaction were GM nameplates – Chevrolet and Buick.

Claes Fornell, ACSI Chairman and founder, says it's notable that imports from Asia and Europe have begun to lose the allegiance of American consumers.

“The other notable finding is that several of the luxury brands do poorly,” he said. “That didn’t use to be the case, and suggests that consumers now expect more for their money when they pay a premium price.”

Less bang for the buck

Could declining satisfaction be linked to the fact that consumers who buy a luxury car must pay more than what their parents once paid for a house?

In July, Kelley Blue Book reported the average transaction price (ATP) for light cars and trucks in June was $32,343. That's average, not just luxury models. New car prices were up by $454 since June 2013.

It seems odd that car sales keep going up, and prices keep going up, while consumer's incomes have been mostly stagnant over the last 5 years. How are we affording these increasingly expensive cars?

Expanding payment terms

In years past people took out a new car loan for 3 to 4 years. Today, trying to pay off a car in that length of time might give you a monthly payment the size of a mortgage.

Increasingly, consumers are opting for a 5-year loan and, in some cases, automakers are offering terms as long as 7 years. Longer loans carry higher interest rates and the consumer pays down the principal at a slower rate.

With a minimal down payment and a 7-year term, the value of the car can easily fall below what the consumer still owes before the loan is paid off. Sound familiar?

That's what happened during the housing bubble, when creative financing was the only way some consumers could afford an increasingly expensive home. If the loan was in the subprime category, the odds against the consumer were even greater.

Subprime bubble?

Subprime auto loans are most often used to finance used cars but have been used to purchase new vehicles as well. The Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) notes that investigations into the subprime underwriting standards and securitization at large lenders have raised concerns that the subprime credit bubble is repeating itself, only this time with car loans.

Probably not, says Dennis Carlson, deputy chief economist at Equifax.

"The lending landscape today is not the same as it was in 2007, both because lenders generally have a reduced appetite for risk and because regulatory scrutiny has increased," Carlson said. “We believe that while the subprime lending segment needs to be monitored carefully, the evidence at this time does not suggest there is a bubble forming."

Still, consumers considering an auto purchase would be advised to keep affordability in mind when shopping for a car. If the monthly payment is only affordable if it is stretched over 7 years, the car probably costs too much.

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JP Morgan Chase hacked, plus unnamed other banks

Why don't companies let customers know when their information has been stolen?

Add JP Morgan Chase and “at least four other [still-unidentified] banks” to the ever-growing list of businesses and financial institutions whose customers ...

PhotoAdd JP Morgan Chase and “at least four other [still-unidentified] banks” to the ever-growing list of businesses and financial institutions whose customers are now at high risk of fraud and identity theft, since hackers broke into their database and stole the confidential information therein.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek first broke the news of this latest hacking. So far, all that customers can know for sure is “JP Morgan Chase and some other banks were hacked some time ago, possibly by Russians” – and we only know that much thanks to the anonymous sources who tipped off the Bloomberg reporters.

A lot of company database breaches come to public notice that way. When you first discover such a hacking has put your credit card or other personal financial information at risk, chances are you didn't learn this because the company contacted you about the security breach; you only know because you read about it yourself, here or on some other news site or security blog, which in turn only learned about it thanks to an anonymous tipster.

Notorious example

Perhaps the most notorious recent example of this is the massive security breach at credit-reporting data broker Experian, which made the records of up to five out of six American adults available to a Vietnamese identity thief.

Chase Bank Aug. 29, 2014, 7:10 p.m.
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Security blogger Brian Krebs first discovered (and announced) the Experian breach in October 2013. The following April, after various state attorneys general opened a multi-state investigation into the Experian case, Experian released a set of talking points to discuss what it called “an unfortunate and isolated issue – one that we take very seriously and continue to address,” which inspired Krebs to publish a point-by-point rebuttal of Experian's misleading claims — once again, the best information customers could find about the Experian problem came not from Experian but from an outside security expert chatting with anonymous sources.

Another thing many company database breaches have in common is this: a disturbingly long time passes between “the moment the company first discovers its customers are at risk” and “the moment the customers themselves learn of this, and can take steps to protect themselves.”

In May 2014, when we first told you that PayPal and eBay had been hacked, we also told you this: “The break-in was detected about two weeks ago, the company said.”

When we told you about the AT&T hacking in June 2014, this was the article's subtitle: “Hacked two months ago, discovered one month ago, now announced.”

Or the August 2014 database breach at SuperValu grocery and liquor stores: “Breach discovered four weeks ago, announced yesterday.”

Why wait?

Why do businesses and financial institutions sit on such information for so long, knowing their customers are at risk yet not bothering to inform them? The Washington Post's technology-and-policy blog, writing about the JP Morgan Chase breach this week, asked the same thing, and noted:

This reticence is both deeply rooted within corporate America and, to some consumer advocates, deeply infuriating. Had a family's precious jewelry been stolen from a safe deposit box, any bank would have quickly notified the affected customer. Yet loss of personal information, especially when it happens on a mass scale, is treated differently, both by the law and by industry custom.

There are plenty of laws and regulations regarding what businesses or financial institutions are supposed to tell you after they let your confidential information fall into a hacker's hands, so very many laws that in some cases it might genuinely be difficult for the companies to comply with them all: various states have their own customer-disclosure laws, any of which can be overruled by federal laws specific to banks and financial institution, which are distinct from the state or federal laws specific to publicly traded companies … and, since hacking and identity theft are criminal matters, there's always the possibility that state or federal law-enforcement authorities might want to keep the hacking out of the news for awhile, to help with their own investigations.

None of which helps you, the ordinary person who has no idea your account passwords and Social Security numbers might be in some identity thief's hands right now. And, of course, if you do find out your information got lost in the latest hacking du jour, you might have to spend hours or days straightening out the mess – and you won't be compensated for your time, either.

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Google X testing delivery drones

Third major company to do so, after Domino's and Amazon

Google X, the secret tech-research division of Google, is developing and testing a series of autonomous aerial vehicles (better known as “drones”), with th...

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© V&P Photo Studio - Fotolia.com
Google X, the secret tech-research division of Google, is developing and testing a series of autonomous aerial vehicles (better known as “drones”), with the stated hope of eventually using them to make deliveries in places conventional vehicles can't reach.

Google X's “Project Wing” has been successfully tested in remote farm regions of Queensland, Australia; BBC News said the project was originally conceived as a way to deliver defibrillators to heart-attack victims more quickly than regular ambulances could.

Google also says the drones could be used to deliver small, lightweight items, such as batteries or medicines, to disaster-stricken areas land-based vehicles won't be able to reach.

Of course, Google is hardly the first private company to experiment with delivery drones; last year Domino's announced it had developed a drone capable of delivering pizzas, and this year Amazon started testing drones it hopes can one day deliver items to customers' homes.

Of course, none of this means you'll see delivery drones flying to American suburbs anytime soon. FAA regulations currently ban most commercial drone use although, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “The Federal Aviation Administration is considering regulations to change that and in June approved the first commercial drone flight over land — for energy giant BP in Alaska.”

Then again, the fact that the FAA would allow an oil company to fly a single exploratory drone over some remote Alaskan wilderness doesn't necessarily mean it will change its mind about the prospect of however-many delivery drones regularly flying through heavily populated commercial or residential areas.

Last June, Amazon formally asked the FAA for permission to test its drones in American airspace, saying it hoped to one day offer 30-minute order delivery (at last in certain areas). Of course, as the Journal said, “Amazon has acknowledged that regulatory approval could take several years.”

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When is a service dog not a service dog?

The simplest answer: when it doesn't act like one

We have all seen the service dogs waking in a grocery store or a mall, maybe even a restaurant. You look and they look back and then the cute little dog wa...

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ReWalk may have many in wheelchairs walking again

Exoskeleton suit is designed for victims of spinal cord injury

It's been a dream of health researchers for decades – to help victims of spinal cord injury, confined to wheelchairs, to one day get up and walk again. So ...

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Photo credit: ReWalk
It's been a dream of health researchers for decades – to help victims of spinal cord injury, confined to wheelchairs, to one day get up and walk again. So far, it's been an elusive goal.

But in June the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its approval to a medical device that has the potential to allow thousands of people with spinal cord injuries to walk again. The device, called ReWalk, doesn't heal them. In a way, it makes them bionic.

ReWalk is a motorized device worn over the legs and part of the upper body that helps an individual sit, stand, and walk with assistance from a trained helper. The company calls it an exoskeleton.

Life-changing impact

“This revolutionary product will have an immediate, life-changing impact on individuals with spinal cord injuries,” said Larry Jasinski, CEO of ReWalk Robotics. “For the first time individuals with paraplegia will be able to take home this exoskeleton technology, use it every day and maximize on the physiological and psychological benefits we have observed in clinical trials. This is truly the beginning of ‘ReWalking’ as a daily reality in the U.S.”

It won't work for all spinal cord injury victims. The FDA has cleared it for those with paraplegia due to spinal cord injuries at the seventh thoracic vertebra to fifth lumbar vertebra. The agency also approved a version of the device for use in rehabilitation settings, where the victim has suffered injuries at the fourth thoracic vertebra to the sixth thoracic vertebra.

Those using ReWalk will be somewhat limited in their motion. They can't climb stairs and they will need the use of crutches and the support of another human being. Still, that might be considered a small trade-off when you consider they will no longer be confined to a wheel chair.

How it works

ReWalk is a system of braces, computers and motors the provides user-initiated mobility. The motors supply movement at the hips, knees, and ankles. A backpack contains the computer and power supply.

Crutches provide the user with extra stability when walking, standing, and getting out of a chair. Using a wireless remote control worn on the wrist, a user operates the device, telling it to stand up, sit down or walk. The company says it allows independent, controlled walking while mimicking the natural gait patterns of the legs, similar to that of an able-bodied person.

In announcing its approval for the marketing of ReWalk, the FDA struck a hopeful tone.

“Innovative devices such as ReWalk go a long way towards helping individuals with spinal cord injuries gain some mobility,” said Christy Foreman, director of the Office of Device Evaluation, at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “Along with physical therapy, training and assistance from a caregiver, these individuals may be able to use these devices to walk again in their homes and in their communities.”

Thousands of potential beneficiaries

The FDA says there are about 200,000 people in the United States living with a spinal cord injury, many of whom have complete or partial paraplegia. It's not known how many will qualify for use of ReWalk but it isn't unrealistic to expect the number to be in the tens of thousands.

U.S. Marine Corps Captain Derek Herrera will be one of the first to get ReWalk. Herrera, a paraplegic, trained on the ReWalk Personal System as part of the trial.

“I see this as a milestone for people in my same situation who will now have access to this technology – to experience walking again, and all of the health benefits that come with ReWalking,” Herrera said.

The trial data shows that the ReWalk system has other benefits besides helping a paraplegic to walk again. Because it gets them up and walking, study subjects showed improvements in cardiovascular health, loss of fat tissue, building of lean muscle mass, and improved bowel function.

Rewalk is now available for purchase by rehabilitation hospitals. The company has not published price information on it's website.

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BloomNation sees itself as the budding Uber of the flower business

Start-up claims to come to the aid of consumers and local florists

There are plenty of ways to send flowers to someone in another city. You can use national distributors like 1800flowers, or search Google for a florist in ...

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Source: BloomNation

There are plenty of ways to send flowers to someone in another city. You can use national distributors like 1800flowers, or search Google for a florist in the city where you want the delivery to happen.

Both methods can turn out well sometimes but they can also go awry, as we're reminded every Valentine's Day when consumers complain that the flowers that were delivered looked nothing like the arrangement featured on the company's website. 

Contacting a local florist directly can be OK too, although the drawback is that the local florist may put your into their database and bombard you with email messages about specials and promotions that are of no interest to you. After all, many times when we send flowers it's a onetime thing -- flowers sent to a distant city where a co-worker's parent died, for example.

BloomNation.com sees itself as the answer to these and other problems. The venture-backed start-up is, as we say, disintermediating the flower business; just as Uber has taken cab dispatchers and taxi fleet owners out of the local ride business so BloomNation says it puts consumers directly in touch with local florists while relieving them of the chore of finding a florist and negotiating the details from faraway, without giving up sensitive personal information and credit card numbers to the local florist.

"BloomNation sends you photos of your completed arrangement before anything’s sent out the door, only features florists’ actual designs (no stock photos permitted) and is bringing business back to the heart of the flower industry (giving florists 90% of all sales where other sites only give 50%)," the company says..

But whereas Uber, Lyft & Co. are often accused of putting local cabbies out of business, BloomNation says it will be helping local florists survive, and claims that larger flower sites have been putting local flower shops out of business for years.

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Can "organic" food be verified?

A new study suggests yes, at least where the fertilizer's concerned

The good news, for consumers who want to buy organic food but don't know if the “organic” label can be trusted, is that the American Chemical Society put o...

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(c) natalyka,_Fotolia.com
The good news, for consumers who want to buy organic food but don't know if the “organic” label can be trusted, is that the American Chemical Society put out a press release announcing “How to prevent organic food fraud,” which strongly suggests that this can, in fact, be done.

The bad news is that doing so requires a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which has been used to analyze tomatoes grown in either conventional or organic fertilizer and determine the differences among them. This is not something your average supermarket shopper can do while choosing among offerings in the produce section.

The ACS' Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published a study by researchers from Germany's Wuerzburg University and the Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority indicating some success with the nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy technique. If adopted, this technique would presumably be used to test organic status when the food is labeled, to ensure it actually deserves the organic designation.

Studies suggest that organic food is no healthier than its conventional equivalents, and that preference for organic foods might reflect hype more than health matters.

Still: if someone wants and is willing to pay more for food fertilized with (for example) natural animal manure rather than artificially produced chemical fertilizers, they should be able to do so rather than be defrauded into paying increased “organic” prices for “non-organic” food.

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Sea to Ski Vacations ordered to pay $7 million in penalties, restitution

"Free airline ticket" offers were used to rope in customers

Travel club memberships can be great when they work. But when they don't, they can be a major source of frustration and monetary distress. Take Sea to Ski...

PhotoTravel club memberships can be great when they work. But when they don't, they can be a major source of frustration and monetary distress.

Take Sea to Ski Vacations. It's been ordered to pay $7 million in fines and consumer restitution for violating the Colorado Consumer Protection Act. 

Denver District Court Judge Robert McGahey also prohibited the club's owners from owning, managing, or operating travel-related businesses again because of their deceptive business practices.

“Consumers complained that they were told membership in the travel club would entitle them to deep discounts on condos and cruises,” said Attorney General John Suthers. “Yet, after paying as much as $9,000 for a membership, the Sea to Ski ‘deals’ were no better than what the consumer could purchase on popular internet travel sites."

According to testimony from ex-employee witnesses, Sea to Ski employees regularly used Expedia and Priceline to book travel while pretending to be working with an exclusive provider of travel services. 

Sea to Ski attracted its customers by mailing postcards claiming that the recipient had won two free airline tickets. The “free airline ticket” offers often require substantial up-front fees, and such onerous travel restrictions that consumers are unable to redeem the travel vouchers. American Airlines sued the club for copyright infringement for the unlawful use of their logo.

The Colorado Attorney General warns that similar postcards using the Southwest, United, and Delta logos have also been used to attract consumers to other travel club presentations. Consumers should carefully read any fine print or conditions attached to “free” offers received by mail or email. Anyone who believes they may have been scammed is encouraged to file a complaint by calling the Colorado Consumer Protection Hotline at 800-222-4444.

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Despite rising incomes, consumers tightened their belts in July

Personal consumption spending fell as the savings rate rose

Personal incomes rose in July, but it was only about half the advance posted the month before. Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show pe...

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© kentoh – Fotolia.com

Personal incomes rose in July, but it was only about half the advance posted the month before.

Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show personal incomes inched ahead just 0.2% last month, which translates to $28.6 billion.

At the same time, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) fell $13.6 billion, or 0.1%. Disposable

personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- increased $17.7 billion.

Wages and salaries

Private wages and salaries were up $12.9 billion in July, well short of the $25.6 billion gain posted in June. Goods-producing industries' payrolls advanced $0.7 billion after increasing $8.8 billion the month before. Manufacturing payrolls, which rose $5.1 billion in June, were unchanged last month

Services-producing industries' payrolls added $12.3 billion, while government wages and salaries increased $1.7 billion.

Outlays and personal savings

Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- fell $12.0 billion in July, after climbing $51.2 billion in June.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $739.1 billion in July, versus $709.4 billion in June. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of DPI -- rose 0.3% in July to 5.7% the highest rate since December 2012. 

The full report is available on the Cemmerce Department website.

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Dole-branded spinach recalled

The spinach may have been contaminated by walnuts, a known allergen

Dole Fresh Vegetables is recalling spinach products that mayhave been contaminated by walnuts, a known allergen, which fell from a tree into spinach bins b...

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Photo source: FDA
Dole Fresh Vegetables is recalling the following products:

PRODUCT NAMEBAG CODEBEST-BY DATE
DOLE Baby Spinach 6 oz bag
UPC 071430009642
B23110209/4/2014
B23110219/4/2014
B23110229/4/2014
B23110239/4/2014
DOLE Spinach 8 oz bag
UPC 071430009765
B23110209/4/2014
B23110219/4/2014
B23110229/4/2014
B23110239/4/2014
B23110249/4/2014
B23110259/4/2014

The product may be contaminated by walnuts, a known allergen, which fell from a tree into spinach bins being delivered from a field.

No illnesses or allergic reactions have been reported.

The recall is for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, for Dole Baby Spinach 6-oz bags and Dole Spinach 8-oz bags with the specific Bag Codes and Best-by dates listed above. The bag code and best-by date are on the top right-hand corner of the front of the bag.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled products should not consume them.

Consumers may call the Dole consumer center toll-free at 1-800-356-3111 from 8am to 3 pm PT, Monday through Friday, for a refund.

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Ford recalls Focus and C-Max vehicles

Steering gears may have been assembled incorrectly

Ford Motor Company is recalling 508 model year 2014 Focus and C-Max vehicles manufactured August 8, 2014, to August 15, 2014. The affected vehicles may h...

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Photo source: Ford
Ford Motor Company is recalling 508 model year 2014 Focus and C-Max vehicles manufactured August 8, 2014, to August 15, 2014.

The affected vehicles may have steering gears that were incorrectly assembled. The incorrectly manufactured steering gears may cause impaired steering, including the loss of steering control, increasing the risk of a crash.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the steering gears, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on September 8, 2014.

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-800-392-3673. Ford's number for this recall is 14S18.

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PEDIGREE Brand Adult Complete Nutrition dog food recalled

The product may contain a foreign material

Mars Petcare is recalling 22 bags of PEDIGREE Adult Complete Nutrition dry dog food products. The product may contain a foreign material. The company h...

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Photo source: FDA

Mars Petcare is recalling 22 bags of PEDIGREE Adult Complete Nutrition dry dog food products.

The product may contain a foreign material.

The company has not received any reports of injury or illness associated with the affected product.

The recalled bags, which were sold between August 18 and August 25 in 12 Dollar General stores in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, may contain small metal fragments, which could have entered the packages during the production process.

Consumers who have purchased affected product to discard the food or return it to the retailer for a full refund or exchange. We have not received any reports of injury or illness associated with the affected product. The lot codes indicated below should not be consumed.

Only 15-pound bags of the product with the production code shown below are included in this recall. Each product will have a lot code printed on the back of the bag near the UPC code that reads 432C1KKM03 and a Best Before date of 8/5/15.

UPCDESCRIPTION
23100 10944PEDIGREE® Brand Adult Complete Nutrition dry dog food in 15 pound bags

The recalled product would have been sold in Dollar General Stores in these cities:

  • Arkansas:
    • Perryville
    • Cabot
  • Louisiana
    • Baton Rouge
    • Calhoun
    • Hineston
    • Jonesville
    • Pineville
    • Slaughter
  • Mississippi
    • Magnolia
    • Vicksburg
  • Tennessee
    • Memphis

 Pet owners who have questions about the recall may call 1-800-305-5206.

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American Woodcrafters recalls bunk beds

The bed’s side mattress support rails can break

American Woodcrafters of High Point, N.C., is recalling about 1,900 bunk beds. The bed’s side mattress support rails can break, posing a fall hazard. The...

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Photo source: CPSC

American Woodcrafters of High Point, N.C., is recalling about 1,900 bunk beds.

The bed’s side mattress support rails can break, posing a fall hazard.

The company has received two reports of bed support rails breaking, in which children fell from the bed and sustained bruising.

This recall involves Cottage Retreat II bunk beds with a side ladder. The white finish beds were sold in twin over twin, and twin over full combinations. American Woodcrafters, Made in Indonesia and SKU number 6310-9771 are printed on a label attached to the inside of one of the four rails.

The bunk beds, manufactured in Indonesia, were sold exclusively at Havertys stores nationwide and online at havertys.com from September 2011, through March 2014, for between $600 and $1,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the beds and contact Havertys to arrange for the free installation of free replacement rails. American Woodcrafters and Havertys are contacting their customers directly.

Consumers may contact Havertys toll-free at (888) HAVERTY(428-3789), from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET Monday through Saturday.

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HD audio, video calling coming to Verizon Wireless

Advanced Calling 1.0 rolls out later this year

Telephone connections have never been known for great audio quality. Traveling over copper wire, telephone audio has always operated on very narrow bandwid...

PhotoTelephone connections have never been known for great audio quality. Traveling over copper wire, telephone audio has always operated on very narrow bandwidth.

Cell phones haven't improved audio quality but, if anything, have made it worse. Does “can you hear me now” ring a bell?

But with digital technology, telecom providers are in the process of replacing scratchy, thin voice quality with HD audio. The transformation will eventually come to landlines but it's already arriving in the mobile world.

Verizon Wireless is in the process of rolling out what it calls Voice over LTE, or VoLTE. While it has its limitations, VoLTE should provide noticeable improvement in audio clarity.

Limitation

The limitation has to do with how you'll notice it. First, the call must be placed using an HD-capable Verizon phone using the 4G LTE network.

If the call is placed to a landline or someone on another carrier, or someone using a 3G phone, you won't get the HD quality. And once you've heard both, you'll be able to tell the difference.

Verizon Wireless says VoLTE vastly improves the quality of the call by enhancing clarity of the person who is speaking. At the same time, the technology reduces the background noise.

Here's an example. If you've listened to a talk radio program, you know there is a distinct difference in the audio quality of the host and that of the caller. HD audio will produce telephone quality closer to the sound of the radio host, who is sitting in a studio speaking into a microphone.

Video calls

What may be more important to some mobile customers is the video component of VoLTE. Verizon Wireless says video calling is simplified when using VoLTE technology.

The contact list in the user's phone will clearly indicate, with a video camera icon next to the name, who can receive a video call. By tapping on the phone the user initiates the call.

Suppose you don't want to receive a video call. Recipients of these calls can easily switch back and forth from video to voice only.

Again, the video side of VoLTE works exactly like the voice feature – both parties to the call must be on Verizon's 4G LTE network and be using phones enabled for VoLTE.

Advanced Calling 1.0

The VoLTE package will be a service upgrade when it is offered in the coming weeks. The package is called Advanced Calling 1.0. Verizon Wireless says HD Voice will be billed according to your existing calling plan.

AT&T also have HD audio plans in the works and may roll them out before the end of the year. Earlier this year T-Mobile said HD was available on some of its phones.

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Feds take aim at undocumented watermelons

Supermarkets throughout the land are displaying watermelons without nutrition labels

Some people spend all their time inveighing against the ever-encroaching federal government getting its nose into every aspect of modern life. Somedays it'...

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© Grafvision - Fotolia.com

Some people spend all their time inveighing against the ever-encroaching federal government getting its nose into every aspect of modern life. Somedays it's pretty hard to argue with that notion.

Take the case of the rogue watermelons. The feds are concerned because watermelons don't come with nutrition labels and are working on rules that would correct this oversight.

Perhaps genetic modification will someday enable watermelons to produce their own nutrition labels but for now, it looks like we'll be stuck with the stick-on variety.

Blame Obamacare

As far as we've been able to determine, it's only sliced watermelons that are currently being considered as outlaws. Apparently, a provision in the Affordable Care Act -- yes, that's right, Obamacare -- stipulates that as soon as a watermelon is sliced open, it becomes a potential restaurant serving and must be labeled with calorie information.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is, with a straight face, working on a rule to implement this provision, according to information harvested by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a food industry trade group.

Besides watermelons bound for restaurants, melons arrayed in supermarkets may also need labels, as the act of slicing them open makes them "food on display," which would require calorie information "directly affixed to or adjacent to the item, not just on a menu or menu board, which is the required method for restaurant food," as FMI puts it. 

This might all seem rather absurd but it gets worse as one considers the practicality of the matter. After all, the caloric content of a given slice of watermelon varies with a number of factors -- like, uh, weight and degree of ripeness. Estimating could spell trouble. Stores that get it wrong could be subject to a penalty.

Exploratory slicing

Jennifer Hatcher, who is FMI's Senior Vice President, Government and Public Affairs and a self-described watermelon fan, says that leaving watermelons unmolested doesn't do the trick either.

"The first thing a grocery store produce manager does to expose his customers to the two best attributes of that watermelon – color and smell – is to cut it open," she notes, a practice that would be imperiled by the FDA's rules. 

"Both our senses and the way food retailers do business are being threatened," Hatcher laments. And, just like those obsessed with ongoing federal power grabs, she warns that government's overreach won't stop with wastermelons.

Birthday cakes displayed in bakery departments and olives left exposed in olive bars could be next, she warns. Much as Paul Revere did in his day, Hatcher is sounding the alarm and rounding up supermarket managers and, presumably, watermelon farmers to descend on Washington seeking redress.

Maybe they'll throw watermelons into the Potomac?

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Samsung's new Gear S may be the smartest smartwatch, at least for now

It's basically a smartphone that wraps around your wrist. It even tells time.

How smart is your watch? Chances are, it can't do much more than tell you the date and time. But that's about to change, as the computer world begins crank...

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Samsung's Gear S (Photo credit: Samsung)
How smart is your watch? Chances are, it can't do much more than tell you the date and time. But that's about to change, as the computer world begins cranking out smartwatches -- expected to be this year's Big New Thing.

What's so smart about a smartwatch? Well, basically, it's like the difference between a dumb old cell phone -- you know, the kind that just makes phone calls -- and the smartphones that are really miniature personal computers that do nearly everything a desktop does but are so small you can put them in your hip pocket. 

And, just as the first smartphones weren't all that smart, the first smartwatches have been a little on the slow side but that's expected to change over the next few months as Samsung, Google, Apple and the other usual suspects bring their new models to market.

Samsung opened the bidding this week with the intro of its Galaxy Gear S, which the company says "redefines the idea of the smart wearable and the culture of mobile communication. It will let consumers live a truly connected life anywhere, anytime.”

Wearable experience

Burbling on happily, Samsung assures us the Gear S "delivers an up-to-date smart wearable experience with 3G connectivity and wearable optimized features to meet the evolving needs of consumers."

The Gear S, which has a rather startling curved screen, includes 3G as well as Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, keeping us plugged into social networks, calendars and mobile apps even when the smartphone has slipped out of our hip pocket and gone astray. 

It's worth noting that the Gear S is a standalone device. It doesn't have to be tethered to a smartphone or other device, which was the curse of many earlier wearables

And, yes, Gear S users can make and receive calls directly from their wrist, or get calls forwarded from their smartphones. It will even tell you where to go, providing turn-by-turn pedestrian navigation and keep track of how many calories you burn en route with apps like Nike+ Running.

Snicker if you must but anyone who's managed to get lost while running -- come on, you know who you are -- qualifies as an ideal Gear S purchaser.  

The Gear S goes on sale in October. 

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As costs rise, alternative health care options emerge

Walk-in clinics and online diagnostics may be all you need in some cases

While health care costs have skyrocketed, more low-cost alternatives have emerged to help consumers manage their health. They might not replace your doctor...

 

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While health care costs have skyrocketed, more low-cost alternatives have emerged to help consumers manage their health. They might not replace your doctor, but could reduce the number of times you need to see her – and the money you'll spend doing so.

 

Walk-in health clinics are springing up all over the U.S. in high-traffic retail stores. Drug chain CVS operates Minute Clinic, which is one of the largest and best-known of these health care providers.

It's not a place you would go with a serious ailment, like symptoms of a heart attack or an extremely high fever. But CVS says its practitioners can diagnose, treat and write prescriptions for common family illnesses such as strep throat, bladder infections, pink eye, and infections of the ears, nose and throat.

They can also treat minor wounds, run basic lab tests and conduct sports physicals.

Online diagnosis

The University of Alabama Birmingham Medical School (UAB Medicine) has just launched an online service for the diagnosis and treatment of common conditions, such as colds, allergies, bladder infections and pink eye.

Patients pay a $25 fee, but only if the clinician can diagnose their condition through the service (ask your doctor if you can get that kind of deal). If symptoms are too complex or advanced, patients will be be referred to a doctor for additional care.

“eMedicine is an urgent care service that enables patients to use their desktop or mobile devices to interact with our providers,” said Stuart Cohen, M.D., medical director of primary care in UAB’s School of Medicine. “This will add to patient convenience for those who are suffering from upper respiratory infections, flu, allergies and other things very common in an urgent-care setting. It’s really a novel way to extend the physician-patient relationship.”

House call

Using the online service means not having to leave the comfort of a home, which may be important during weather extremes. UAB says the online visit takes approximately five minutes to complete, with the patient responding to a number of questions.

The system uses a diagnosis and treatment software system, Zipnosis, to collect a patient’s symptoms, soliciting the same information a clinician would in a face-to-face meeting. The responses are reviewed by a UAB clinician who provides a diagnosis and personalized treatment plan.

While this particular service is limited to consumers in Alabama, UAB officials believe it could be a model for highly flexible and inexpensive treatment options everywhere.

24/7

It's available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and a diagnosis will be provided within an hour if the case is submitted during normal eMedicine hours of operation.

“The patient can go online at 2 a.m. if they aren’t feeling well and complete the questionnaire, and when they wake up in the morning, everything will be rendered and taken care of,” Cohen said.

Patients get a text or email when their diagnosis is ready. Any prescriptions are sent to the pharmacy of their choice.

Relieving the ER

Currently, many consumers lacking health insurance or a family doctor often show up at hospital emergency rooms (ER) for treatment of minor ailments that might be more effectively treated through one of these low-cost alternatives.

And it isn't just the uninsured who use the ER for non-urgent healthcare. According to a recent study from Truven Health Analytics, 71% of ER visits made by patients with private insurance coverage are for conditions that don't require emergency treatment.

“Inappropriate use of emergency department services has become a major source of healthcare system aste,” said John Azzolini, director of practice leadership at Truven Health Analytics. “Conventional wisdom has previously suggested that this issue was confined to the Medicaid, Medicare and uninsured populations, but our new research shows that the privately-insured population’s use of the ER is avoidable approximately three quarters of the time. This is important data to consider as we start to evaluate the effective use of healthcare resources under the Affordable Care Act.”  

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Hackers break into Dairy Queen's database

How many customers and which Dairy Queen stores were hit still isn't known

Bad news for Dairy Queen lovers: a company spokesman confirmed today that yes, hackers have breached their customer database, stealing numbers and making f...

PhotoBad news for Dairy Queen lovers: a company spokesman confirmed today that yes, hackers have breached their customer database, stealing numbers and making fraudulent purchases with the accounts of an unknown number of customers from an unspecified number of DQ locations.

More specifically, Dairy Queen confirmed that the U.S. Secret Service had contacted them about “card-stealing malware.”

Security blogger Brian Krebs first reported on Aug. 26 that his sources in the financial industry were seeing signs indicating a Dairy Queen database breach. Banks, credit unions and other debit- or credit-card-issuing institutions from around the country were getting huge numbers of fraudulent-charge reports from customers who all had one thing in common: they'd recently used their cards at various Dairy Queen locations.

But Krebs updated his story today to report that a Dairy Queen spokesman confirmed that the Secret Service had recently contacted the company about “suspicious activity” involving malware that had been used to steal card information from “hundreds” of other retailers.

So far, that's all anybody knows: some customers, who “recently” visited some Dairy Queen locations, are at risk. As for how many customers, which specific locations in which states, and what actual time frame counts as “recently” … right now, chances are even Dairy Queen and the U.S. Secret Service don't know for sure.

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Keurig competitors crack company's DRM code

This is why your old K-cups won't work in new Keurig machines

Last March, when we first reported that Keurig planned to require RFID-limited K-cup pods for its upcoming version 2.0 machines, we rhetorically asked “Wil...

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Americans more satisfied with U.S. schools, survey finds

48% of Americans are "completely" or "somewhat satisfied" with the education their children receive

Kids seldom celebrate the end of summer vacation but parents are more satisfied with the quality of their children's education than at anytime in the last ...

PhotoKids seldom celebrate the end of summer vacation but parents are more satisfied with the quality of their children's education than at anytime in the last 10 years.

Gallup finds 48% of Americans are "completely" or "somewhat satisfied" with the quality of kindergarten through high school education in the country, the highest Gallup has measured since 2004. For the first time since 2007, Americans are now about as likely to say they are satisfied as dissatisfied.

Gallup has asked U.S. adults about their satisfaction with education since 1999, including each August since 2001, as part of its annual Work and Education poll.

The high of 53% satisfaction was reached in 2004, the only year more Americans were satisfied with education than dissatisfied. Americans were most negative about the state of education in 2000, when education was a major presidential campaign issue and more than six in 10 said they were dissatisfied.

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Satisfaction has largely been stable in recent years, ranging from 43% to 46% from 2005-2013. However, satisfaction ticked up this year, and is now similar to what was seen in the early 2000s.

Americans who have children in grades K-12 are generally more satisfied than U.S. adults as a whole. A majority of these parents (57%) are satisfied with education in the country. Parents may be basing their evaluations at least partly on their own child's education, not just on what they hear in the news.

Optimism gap

For as long as Gallup has measured it, U.S. parents of school-aged children are more likely to be satisfied with the quality of their child's education than Americans are with the quality of education in the country. Most parents are satisfied with their child's education, while historically the majority of Americans have been dissatisfied with the quality of U.S. education.

This long-evident "optimism gap" may result from Americans focusing on press reports of inadequate schooling in problem school districts when they are asked about education nationally, but focusing on what they perceive as a much more positive local situation when asked about the education of their own children.

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US economy shows some resilience

The consumer is helping make the picture a bit brighter

The numbers-crunchers at the Commerce Department have taken a second look at economic performance for the second quarter and things are a little better tha...

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The numbers-crunchers at the Commerce Department have taken a second look at economic performance for the second quarter and things are a little better than they appeared at first glance.

Real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services in the U. S. -- increased at an annual rate of 4.2%.

This latest number is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate issued last month, which put the increase in real GDP at 4.0%. Although the second estimate for the quarter looks a bit better, the government says the general picture of economic growth remains the same.

Positives and negatives

The increase in real GDP in the April-June period primarily reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), private inventory investment, exports, nonresidential fixed investment, state and local government spending, and residential fixed investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

Eye on inflation

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

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Initial claims

In a separate report, the Labor Department (DOL) says initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell by 1,000 in the week ending August 23 -- to 298,000. However, it's something of a wash, given that the claims from the previous week were revised higher -- from 298,000 to 299,000.

Economists at Briefing.com were calling for claims to total 302,000.

During the past several weeks, the initial claims level has dropped below 300,000, which would suggest the economy is running at, or very near, full employment.

The 4-week moving average, which is considered a more accurate gauge of the economy because it smooths out the weekly volatility, was 299,750 -- down 1,250 from the previous week.

The full report can be found on the DOL website.

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A rebound in pending home sales

Most regions of the U.S. saw an increase

Pending home sales bounced back in July from their June decline and now up for 4 of the last 5 months. The National Association of Realtors (NRA) says it...

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Pending home sales bounced back in July from their June decline and are now up for 4 of the last 5 months.

The National Association of Realtors (NRA) says its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) climbed 3.3% to 105.9 last month from 102.5 in June, but is still 2.1% below its year-ago level (108.2).

The index, a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, is at its highest level since August 2013 (107.1) and is above 100 -- considered an average level of contract activity -- for the third consecutive month.

NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun credits favorable housing conditions. “Interest rates are lower than they were a year ago, price growth continues to moderate and total housing inventory is at its highest level since August 2012,” he said. “The increase in the number of new and existing homes for sale is creating less competition and is giving prospective buyers more time to review their options before submitting an offer.”

Yun also notes that “steady job additions to the economy are helping family finances and giving them added confidence to enter the market.”

Most regions post healthy gains

  • The PHSI in the Northeast jumped 6.2% to 89.2 in July, and is 8.3% above a year ago.
  • Pending home sales in the South increased 4.2% to an index of 119.0, and but remains 1.0% below a year ago.
  • The index in the West rose 4.0% in to 99.5, but is still 6.0% percent below July 2013.
  • In the Midwest -- the only exception -- the index dipped 0.4% to 104.6 in July, and is 6.4% below July 2013.

The forecast

Yun expects existing-homes sales to be down 2.1%t this year to 4.98 million, compared with 5.09 million sales of existing homes in 2013.

The national median existing-home price is projected to grow between 5% to 6% this year, with the increase slowing to 4% to 5% next year.

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TNUVA USA recalls breaded chicken product

The product may be contaminated with Listeria

TNUVA USA of Fairfield, N.J., is recalling approximately 8,316 pounds of Mom’s Chicken Extra Thin Cutlets. The product may be contaminated with Listeria m...

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Photo source: USDA

TNUVA USA of Fairfield, N.J., is recalling approximately 8,316 pounds of Mom’s Chicken Extra Thin Cutlets.

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

There are no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products

The following recalled product was produced on August 18, 2013, and shipped to the company’s distributor in New Jersey:

  • 28.8-oz. (1.8 lb.) bags containing “MOM’S CHICKEN EXTRA THIN CUTLETS, THIN-CUT BREADED CUTLET SHAPED CHICKEN BREAST PATTIES.”

Bags bear the Israeli establishment number “209” within the Israeli mark of inspection. The product’s expiration date is February 18, 2015, and bears the following UPC number on the packaging: 843426005866.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact customer service at 1-844- GOTNUVA (1-844-468-6882).

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GM recalls vehicles with a roof rail air bags issues

Roof carrier hardware could tear the air bags

General Motors is recalling 22 model year 2015 Chevrolet Suburban, Suburban LTZ, Tahoe, Tahoe LTZ, GMC Yukon, and Yukon XL Denali vehicles manufactured on ...

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Photo source: Chevrolet

General Motors is recalling 22 model year 2015 Chevrolet Suburban, Suburban LTZ, Tahoe, Tahoe LTZ, GMC Yukon, and Yukon XL Denali vehicles manufactured on May 13, 2014.

The vehicles were assembled with a roof rail air bags (RRAB) that were not reinforced at the points were the bags contact the hardware used to attach the roof carrier. During deployment, the RRAB may be punctured or torn by the roof carrier hardware, reducing its performance and increasing the risk of occupant injury in the event of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the roof carrier attaching hardware, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early September 2014.

Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet) or 1-800-462-8782 (GMC). GM's number for this recall is 14359.

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It's getting harder to know the true cost of traveling

Hotels now charge as many fees as airlines

A New York University (NYU) professor's study of hotel fees has gotten a lot of attention this week. Bjorn Hanson, clinical professor at the NYU School of ...

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A New York University (NYU) professor's study of hotel fees has gotten a lot of attention this week. Bjorn Hanson, clinical professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies, reported what a lot of travelers already know – hotels have gotten into the fee game.

Just like airlines, Hanson says hotels have begun to charge a fee for things that were once considered part of the nightly room rate. By Hanson's tally, the hotel industry collected $2.1 billion in fees and surcharges last year and is on track to surpass that this year.

Travelers now face routine fees like resort or amenity fees, early departure fees, early reservation cancellation fees, and sometimes even a charge for an in-room safe, even if it isn't used. One hotel charges $75 for receiving a Federal Express or UPS delivery at the front desk.

Why not just charge what it costs?

Though hotels have always tacked on fees for things like restocking the mini-bar, the airline industry is generally credited with laying on the fees in order to stay profitable. But if hotels and airlines just raised rates and fares to reflect the market value, the fees wouldn't be necessary.

Consider an air fare that cost $250 in 1978, when the industry was still regulated. Just adjusting for inflation, that fare should be $913.54 today. But it isn't. At the most, it might be $500. By adding fees, the airline gets it closer to the inflation adjusted number.

Hanson says there are a number of reasons airlines and hotels don't just charge the real price.

“Most guests are highly rate sensitive - $2.00 causes a shift in market share,” he told ConsumerAffairs. “Room revenue is subject to municipal occupancy tax, fees and surcharges are not. Most guests do not like to be charged for services or amenities they do not consume.”

Economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa., agrees that the travel industry would much rather offer a low fare or rate, then regain the revenue through fees. A lot fewer consumers are going to book a $900 fare, even though they may end up paying close to that when all is said and done.

“Doesn’t matter what the bottom line is, for advertising purposes, it is the top line,” Naroff told ConsumerAffairs. “That is why the government made the airlines add in taxes to their posted prices, not simply post the airlines price.”

Promoting transparency

In May the Department of Transportation (DOT) published proposed new rule making to increase transparency of airline fees. It would require that airlines and ticket agents disclose at all points of sale the fee information for basic ancillary services such as a passenger’s first checked bag, second checked bag, carry-on item and advance seat selection.

Still, the airlines will continue to advertise fares that seem low and hotels will offer what might appear to be bargains on an overnight stay. And while Spirit Airlines is often accused of being over-the-top when it comes to fees, the airline defends its practice as giving consumers who don't need any extra services a very low fare. The fact that its planes are usually full might indicate there are plenty of consumers who agree with it.

So consumers must carefully read between the lines when considering what airline to fly and what hotel to book. It's more work for you because Naroff says hotels and airlines are highly unlikely to just give you a single price.

“Remember, it is not what you pay but what you think you are paying that matters to people selling goods,” he said. “Once they have you, they then can make you pay through the nose, but they need to get you there first!”

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California kill-switch bill worries civil-liberty advocates

Owners can remotely disable their smartphones, but so can hackers and the police

The new California law mandating a “kill switch” option on all smartphones made or sold in the state is intended to cut down on smartphone theft...

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The new California law mandating a “kill switch” option on all smartphones made or sold in the state is intended to cut down on smartphone theft, by giving owners the option to remotely disable, or “kill,” their phones. The idea, of course, is that thieves will be less likely to steal phones which they know will soon be rendered useless.

But privacy and civil-liberty advocates worry the kill switch mandate could lead to more nefarious outcomes: instead of phone owners killing their phones to render them useless to thieves, hackers could kill the phones remotely, whether as a prank or, more ominously, to prevent an intended victim from calling 911. There's even greater concern that the police or other government-backed authority might use the kill switch to shut down protests, or prevent protesters from having any contact with the outside world.

The California bill, SB 962, says in part: “Any request by a government agency to interrupt communications service utilizing a technological solution required by this section is subject to Section 7908 of the Public Utilities Code.”

And what does that mean? Last June, shortly after SB 962 was first proposed, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) sent a letter opposing it on two grounds, which it described as “'lock in' and legitimizing a technical means.”

The EFF said that “Lock in describes when a particular technology is frozen in place due to a technological mandate, so other technologies — perhaps better technologies — have no chance of competing.” In other words, perhaps the mandate for this particular kill-switch phone-security measure might discourage the development of other, better security measures.

BART protests

But EFF's more serious concern is the “potential for abuse. We were especially concerned with giving government actors any more ability to shut off cell phones after wireless service was shut off during the 2011 BART protests.”

In 2011, after learning that people in the San Francisco area planned to protest the then-most-recent fatal police shooting, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police shut down underground cell phone service, intending to halt the protest. An attorney for the ACLU said at the time “All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to stop them … It's outrageous that in San Francisco, BART is doing the same thing.”

In response to the shutdown, California passed Public Utilities Code § 7908 which, according to the EFF, “took great steps to prevent law enforcement from cutting off communications services, though it sunsets [expires] at the end of this decade. PUC § 7908, however, also legitimized a legal process for law enforcement to interrupt communications. SB 962, by mandating kill switches in every phone, would legitimize a technical means.”

EFF had hoped that, at the very least, if the kill switch mandate became law, it would explicitly limit this power to the phone's rightful owner. But this did not happen.

Hanni Fakhoury, an EFF attorney, discussed other scenarios in an interview with Wired, saying that the kill switch mandate “invites a lot of mischief. You can imagine a domestic violence situation or a stalking context where someone kills [a victim's] phone and prevents them from calling the police or reporting abuse. It will not be a surprise when you see it being used this way.”

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Loyal to your insurance company? It may be a mistake

Report finds insurers use "price optimization" to raise rates for their best customers

Insurance experts at the Consumer Federation of America say consumers need to be more aggressive in ensuring they're getting the lowest possible price from...

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© Michael Brown - Fotolia.com
Insurance experts at the Consumer Federation of America say consumers need to be more aggressive in ensuring they're getting the lowest possible price from their car insurance company.

J. Robert Hunter, Director of Insurance at CFA and former Texas Insurance Commissioner, says it's never been more important to shop around for insurance.

“You may have been with your auto insurance company for many years. You may even receive a loyalty discount of five or ten percent on your bill. You have filed few or even no claims during your years with the insurer. You are a great customer and it may seem that there’s no reason to complain about your auto insurance," Hunter said, warning that it's just such customers who are targeted by rate increases.

“Watch out! Your insurer may be increasing your premium by far more than your loyalty discount, precisely because you have been so loyal. Even if you have a perfect driving record, many insurance companies are raising rates on people just like you – people who do not shop around," he said. "Newly revealed insurance practices show that reasons you might be vulnerable to price increases are such things as staying with one insurer for many years, never calling the company with complaints or simply buying your insurance through an agent rather than online.”

Are you being PO-ed?

The name insurers use for such practice is “Price Optimization,” referred to as “PO.”

The industry uses personal consumer data and statistical models to measure how likely each customer is to shop around and how much of a price increase he or she will tolerate, Hunter said. After determining what economists call the “price elasticity of demand,” insurers push up premiums based on how unlikely it is that a customer will shop around for a better price, even if the driver has never caused an accident or been issued a ticket.

Many insurance companies, including about half of the larger ones, raise a driver’s premium if they conclude that the driver is not likely to leave their company, the CFA reported. This means millions of drivers are possibly being charged a premium that is higher than the amount considered appropriate and fair for their risk profile.

What should a consumer do?

The best defense against being PO-ed is to shop around, according to Hunter. 

“Even before the advent of price optimization it was very important to shop for insurance since prices vary so widely. But now, to avoid being POed, shopping is critical,” Hunter said.

Hunter said consumers should also call their state’s Insurance Commissioner and tell her or him to stop insurance companies from using this Price Optimization scheme to unfairly raise rates on customers.

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American, US Airways pull listings from Orbitz

The companies are again sparring over revenue splits

American Airlines and Orbitz are at it again. Just as it did three years ago, American has pulled its flights from Orbitz and says it will remove US Airway...

PhotoAmerican Airlines and Orbitz are at it again. Just as it did three years ago, American has pulled its flights from Orbitz and says it will remove US Airways listings next week.

It's all part of an attempt to reach a new contract, something American officials say they have been trying to do for months. 

"We have worked tirelessly with Orbitz to reach a deal with the economics that allow us to keep costs low and compete with low-cost carriers," said Scott Kirby, President – American Airlines. "While our fares are no longer on Orbitz, there are a multitude of other options available for our customers, including brick and mortar agencies, online travel agencies, and our own websites."

Orbitz echoed the "other options" line in a brief statement:

"Our sites offer hundreds of airlines which are eager to capture the revenue American is choosing to forego and we will continue to show our customers a broad range of flight options to thousands of destinations in the U.S. and worldwide."

Tickets already purchased through Orbitz websites remain valid for travel, but changes to reservations must be made through each airline's reservations department.

The dispute affects not only Orbitz but also several other sites it owns, including ebookers.com and CheapTickets.com. 

Orbitz for Business is not affected by the dispute.

The dispute arises from American's efforts to reduce the percentage of each booking it pays to Orbitz, as American and other legacy carriers compete with low-cost carriers like Southwest, which are often not listed in Orbitz and other online travel sites.

In December 2010, American yanked its listings from Orbitz and Travelport in a dispute that wound up in court.

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Good health really does save money

Researchers working with diabetes patients say they can prove it

It's often said that maintaining your health will result in spending less money on doctor's visits, tests and prescription medicine. It would make sense t...

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© tolstnev - Fotolia.com
It's often said that maintaining your health will result in spending less money on doctor's visits, tests and prescription medicine.

It would make sense that is true, but can anyone really back it up? Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center say they can.

In a study, they found that overweight people who have diabetes can save, on average, $500 per year by shedding pounds through proper diet and exercise.

"Lifestyle interventions promoting weight loss and physical activity are recommended for overweight and obese people with type 2 diabetes to improve their health," said Mark A. Espeland, lead author of the study. "This is the first study to show that weight loss can also save money for these individuals by reducing their health care needs and costs."

In the study, subjects with type 2 diabetes, a condition largely the result of obesity and other lifestyle factors, were put on an intensive lifestyle intervention program, supplemented with diabetes support and education. Others in the study maintained their normal lifestyle and managed their diabetes solely through medication.

Results

The researchers say at the end of the study, those who lost weight and adopted a healthier lifestyle had 11% fewer hospitalizations. Those who were admitted to hospitals were discharged 15% earlier. They also had to purchase fewer medications.

The researchers were able to put a dollar amount on those differences. The group that lost weight saved an average $5,280 over 10 years – or $528 per year.

Espeland said the people who lost weight and increased physical activity improved their overall health because they had better control of their diabetes, blood pressure, sleep quality, physical function and symptoms of depression. The cost savings appeared to be consistent regardless of age, initial weight, gender or ethnicity.

"Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease that is affecting more and more adults, increasing their health care needs and costs," Espeland said. "This study shows that by losing weight and being physically active, individuals can reduce these costs."

Boost for corporate wellness programs

The findings may provide additional support for corporate wellness programs, that provide incentives for employees to get regular exercise and adopt a healthy lifestyle. According to Kiplinger, more than 40% of large employers surveyed by the National Business Group currently offer their employees some kind of incentive for participating in a wellness programs.

The average incentive is just under $400. The corporations hope to recoup the cost of those incentives through lower health insurance premiums, as well as increased worker productivity and fewer sick days.

According to Kiplinger, some employers may add $75 to an employee's health savings account if they participate in an exercise program.

The U.S. military is grappling with the effects poor lifestyle choices have on health, not just in dealing with rising health care costs but in filling out its ranks.

According to Army Magazine, about 1 in 4 possible recruits is eligible to enlist. Some of the other 75% might be ineligible, have weight or medical issues that keep them out of uniform.

It quotes Army officials as say the declining pool of recruits is a problem, so the urgency for better health and lifestyle choices is no longer simply a national health issue, nor just an economic one -- it's a matter of national security.  

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Exercise may shape up your kid's brain

A bicycle may be more helpful than a tutor

Exercise may actually get your kid's brain in shape, a new study finds. It doesn't prove it will make your kids smarter but it hints at it....

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Exercise may actually get your kid's brain in shape, a new study finds.  It doesn't prove it will make your kids smarter but it hints at it.

The study was conducted  by Laura Chaddock-Heyman, a postdoctoral researcher in the psychology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Our work suggests that aerobically fit and physically fit children have improved brain health and superior cognitive [thinking] skills than their less-fit peers," she said. The hope is that these findings will reinforce the importance of fitness during development.

According to a review of 14 studies published in 2012 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, there is a clear connection between physical fitness and academic performance: Students who were physically active were more likely to get better grades, score higher on cognitive tests, or both.

The latest research  on fitness and brainpower, published in 2014 in the journal Brain and Cognition, adds to those discoveries. Results showed that kids who were more aerobically fit had better language skills than kids who weren't as fit.

They found that the kids who were more in shape — those who were better at taking up oxygen during exercise — tended to have faster neuroelectric responses associated with understanding context and grammar while reading. These kids also performed better on tests that included the language skills they need for school.

So instead of getting a tutor for your kids this year you may want to get them a bike and a ball and tell them to go play outside. 

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World Health Organization declares e-cigarettes "promise and threat"

More regulations needed to silence unproven health claims, WHO argues

The World Health Organization (WHO) is weighing in on electronic cigarettes, declaring that they represent an “evolving frontier filled with promise and th...

 

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© stryjek, Fotolia.com.png

The World Health Organization (WHO) is weighing in on electronic cigarettes, declaring that they represent an “evolving frontier filled with promise and threat for tobacco control.” 

 

In a report prepared for an upcoming conference in Moscow, WHO questions whether e-cigs actually help smokers quit the habit, calls for bans on advertising and restrictions on using the devices indoors. It also suggests regulations are needed to:

  • Impede e-cigarette promotion to non-smokers and young people;
  • Minimize potential health risks to e-cigarette users and nonusers;
  • Prohibit unproven health claims about e-cigarettes; and
  • Protect existing tobacco control efforts from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.

The suggested regulations outlined in the report include a ban on e-cigarettes with fruit, candy-like and alcohol-drink flavours until it can be proved they are not attractive to children and adolescents.

E-cigarettes have been marketed in almost 8,000 different flavours, and there is concern they will serve as a gateway to nicotine addiction and, ultimately, smoking, particularly for young people, the report warns.

Experimentation with e-cigarettes is increasing rapidly among adolescents, with e-cigarette use in this group doubling from 2008 to 2012, the report says.

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Tomato-rich diet can fight prostate cancer

It's the second most common cancer among men worldwide

Gentlemen, you may not be too fond of tomatoes but it might be a good idea to load up on them anyway. A new study finds that men who eat over 10 portions a...

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Gentlemen, you may not be too fond of tomatoes but it might be a good idea to load up on them anyway. A new study finds that men who eat over 10 portions a week of tomatoes have an 18% lower risk of developing prostate cancer, the second-most common cancer among men.

You can thank lycopene, an antioxidant which fights off toxins that can cause DNA and cell damage, according to Vanessa Er, from the School of Social and Community Medicine at the University of Bristol, England.

"Our findings suggest that tomatoes may be important in prostate cancer prevention. However, further studies need to be conducted to confirm our findings, especially through human trials. Men should still eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, maintain a healthy weight and stay active," she said.

Prostate cancer rates are higher in developed countries, which some experts believe is linked to a Westernized diet and lifestyle.

To assess if following dietary and lifestyle recommendations reduces risk of prostate cancer, researchers at the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford looked at the diets and lifestyle of 1,806 men aged between 50 and 69 with prostate cancer and compared with 12,005 cancer-free men.

The study, published in the medical journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, is the first of its kind to develop a prostate cancer "dietary index" which consists of dietary components – selenium, calcium and foods rich in lycopene – that have been linked to prostate cancer.

Men who had optimal intake of these three dietary components had a lower risk of prostate cancer.

Tomatoes and its products – such as tomato juice and baked beans - were shown to be most beneficial, with an 18% reduction in risk found in men eating over 10 portions a week.

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Nestlé goes a little easier on animals

New rules require suppliers to adopt more humane policies

Nestlé is breaking the rules but for a good reason. It announced an industry-leading animal welfare program that will eliminate several controversial yet s...

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© janecat - Fotolia.com
Nestlé is breaking the rules but for a good reason. It announced an industry-leading animal welfare program that will eliminate several controversial yet standard practices within its global supply system.

Their new policy will eliminate confining pigs in gestation crates. No more calves placed in veal crates. No longer will they force rapid growth for chickens. They will not cut genitals, horns and tails without administering a pain killer first.

Nestlé has some 7,300 suppliers from whom it buys animal-derived products directly. Each of these suppliers, in turn, buys from others, meaning that Nestlé’s new program will apply to literally hundreds of thousands of farms around the world.

An independent auditor, SGS, will carry out checks to ensure the new standards are met on Nestlé's supplying farms. Some of these checks are also attended, unannounced, by World Animal Protection representatives, according to the guidelines.

When a violation is found and a supplier does not show improvement after guidance from the company, it can no longer supply Nestlé, the company added.

Nestlé is also encouraging food sustainability by promoting the global Meatless Monday movement via on-package messaging for some of its products. 

The Humane Society International says it's very pleased with the changes.  

Consumers will applaud this policy as well. They have made it clear that being abusive to animals in breeding farms or for that matter at any time is not acceptable.

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Mortgage applications rise again

It's the second increase in as many weeks

Mortgage applications posted their second straight advance during the week ending August 22. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mor...

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© emiliezhang - Fotolia.com

Mortgage applications posted their second straight advance during the week ending August 22.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications increased 2.8% from the previous week.

The Refinance Index rose 3%, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity up 1% -- to 56% of total applications, the highest level since March 2014. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity held steady 8.0% 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) dipped to 4.28% from 4.29%, with points decreasing to 0.25 from 0.26 (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) increased rose 4 basis points, from 4.18% to 4.22%, with points increasing to 0.28 from 0.23 (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 slipped to 3.98%, the lowest since June 2013, from 3.99%, with points increasing to 0.13 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 moved to 3.47% from 3.44%, with points rising to 0.34 from 0.30 (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 was unchanged at 3.10%, with points increasing to 0.52 from 0.44 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

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Suzuki recalls Kizashi vehicles

The fuel tank may have an excessive amount of negative pressure

Suzuki Motor Of America is recalling 19,249 model year 2010-2013 Kizashi vehicles manufactured October 2009 through July 2012. In the affected vehicles, ...

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Photo source: Wikipedia

Suzuki Motor Of America is recalling 19,249 model year 2010-2013 Kizashi vehicles manufactured October 2009 through July 2012.

In the affected vehicles, spiders may weave a web in the evaporative canister vent hose, blocking it and causing the fuel tank to have an excessive amount of negative pressure. That could cause the fuel tank to crack, resulting in a fuel leak, increasing the risk of a fire.

Suzuki is in the process of notifying owners, and dealers will replace the evaporative canister vent line on the affected vehicles with a vent line that has a filter on the end. If the canister vent line is found to be obstructed by a spider web, the fuel tank will also be replaced. These repairs will be performed free of charge. The recall began on August 12, 2014.

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

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Safety group seeks recalls of Chrysler products with power system problems

Consumers complain their cars stall without warning, display a wide range of problems

A consumer group wants federal safety regulators to open a formal investigation into power system failures in Chrysler vehicles that have been blamed for s...

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A 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee (Photo credit: Chrysler Group)

A consumer group wants federal safety regulators to open a formal investigation into power system failures in Chrysler vehicles that have been blamed for sudden stalls and other problems.

"Chrysler's TIPM (Totally Integrated Power Module) is a computer run amuck," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "Owners report that their vehicles act as if possessed and leave them in dangerous situations -- stalled vehicles stranded without warning on the highway, fuel pumps that won't shut off, windows that open and shut ..." 

Ditlow's group filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asking it to open a formal investigation into the problem. Chrysler said it is investigating the allegations.

"Chrysler Group vehicles meet or exceed all applicable safety standards. However, in keeping with sound engineering practice, the Company is actively investigating customer complaints and retrieving components from the field for closer analysis," Chrysler Group said in a statement.

Ditlow said thousands of owners have reported incidents to NHTSA as well as to consumer websites.

"Death trap"

Among them is Carol of Martinez, Calif., who said in a ConsumerAffairs posting that her 2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee had become a "death trap, stalling while driving or stopped in traffic or at a light."

She said the dealer was unable to diagnose the problem and replaced the spark plugs. 

"The next day it stalled driving down the street. Today the vehicle stalled in traffic. The malfunction light came on and will not turn off. ... It seems Jeep dealership service centers, independent shops and technicians are familiar with this problem plaguing but are not equipped with a firm fix."

In an Aug. 1 entry, NHTSA recounted a consumer complaint about a 2010 Chrysler Town and Country:

THE CONTACT OWNS A 2010 CHRYSLER TOWN AND COUNTRY. THE CONTACT STATED WHILE DRIVING APPROXIMATELY 55 MPH, THE ENGINE STALLED WITH THE ILLUMINATION OF THE ENGINE AND ELECTRONIC CONTROL MODULE WARNING INDICATORS. THE VEHICLE FAILED TO RESTART AND WAS TOWED TO AN AUTHORIZED DEALER FOR DIAGNOSIS. THE DEALER WAS UNABLE TO LOCATE A PROBLEM. THE MANUFACTURER WAS NOT NOTIFIED OF THE ISSUE. THE APPROXIMATE FAILURE MILEAGE WAS 52,000.

Millions affected

Ditlow says the problem affects millions of Chrysler products.

"The TIPM is in millions of 2007-2014 Chrysler vehicles and fails at such high frequency that Chrysler has run out of replacement parts," Ditlow said. "Consumers are faced with a terrible dilemma -- park the vehicle until parts are available or ride at risk of being in deadly crash."

Ditlow's petition seeks a recall of all Chrysler vehicles with defective TIPMs and replacement with a redesigned module that provides safe and reliable vehicle control.

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Tiny house movement could be huge

Young people, especially, find tiny homes fit their lifestyle and budget

The U.S. housing market appears to have cooled a bit in recent months but one small segment – you might say tiny segment – is enjoying enthusiastic growth....

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Facebook finally cracks down on clickbait

Too much clickbait crowds out posts you actually want to see

You'll never guess what Facebook is doing to make its user experience less obnoxious!...

PhotoYou'll never guess what Facebook is doing to make its user experience less obnoxious!

Luckily you don't have to guess, because we'll come right out and tell you: Facebook's cracking down on obnoxious “click-bait” headlines of the “You'll never guess what so-and-so is doing!” or “You'll be amazed to hear what happened!” variety.

Facebook defines “click-baiting” as being when “a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see.”

The lack of information is what makes it clickbait. After all: anyone who posts a link hopes people will click on it (otherwise, what's the point?), but legitimate headlines are supposed to give at least some indication of what the story's actually about — hence, the difference between posting a link titled “Facebook finally cracks down on clickbait” versus “You'll never guess what Facebook is doing to make its user experience less obnoxious!” The former is a legitimate headline; the latter is clickbait.

Bottom feeders

CNN Money referred to “a whole ecosystem of bottom-feeder Web sites that specialize in these kinds of stories.” Facebook's main motivation for the crackdown against that ecosystem is that clickbait can lead to a vicious cycle for the typical Facebook user: the more you're tricked into clicking on links which (it turns out) you don't actually care about, the more likely it is that your Facebook “feed” will include lots more links you don't care about, crowding out the ones you do and increasing the likelihood you'll spend less time on Facebook.

But a clickbait crackdown might have other advantages as well. Some clickbait is relatively innocuous, in that whoever put it up is only trying to get more clicks. But clickbait is also very popular with hackers and scam artists, who will use it to trick people into downloading malware.

Do you remember last March, when a Malaysia Airlines flight mysteriously vanished? On April Fools' Day the Better Business Bureau had to put out a serious, no-joke scam warning to let Facebook users know that malware writers were using the missing airline as clickbait: Facebook posts promised (for example) exclusive, never-before-seen video of the missing flight, or even said that the flight had been found, but anyone who clicked the link soon found their computers infected with malware.

With luck, Facebook's crackdown on “legitimate” clickbait (legitimate in the sense that it's only trying to inflate its click-numbers, rather than try to install malware or worse) will make life more difficult for clickbait scammers too.

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Bitcoin ATMs bring cryptocurrency to the uninitiated

A Bitcoin ATM takes deposits but if you want cash, look elsewhere

If you're like most of us, you've heard of Bitcoin but may be a bit hazy about just what it is and where you might get some. Well, what it is isn't easily...

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Bitcoin ATMs (Source: Coin ATM Radar)
If you're like most of us, you've heard of Bitcoin but may be a bit hazy about just what it is and where you might get some.

Well, what it is isn't easily explained but it's basically what's called cryptocurrency -- virtual money generated, distributed and stored completely outside government channels.

The non-digerati among us have been a bit slow to pick up on the whole virtual currency idea but it's about to get a little bit easier, as Bitcoin ATMs begin to appear here and there.

Unlike your typical ATM, these machines will take your cash but they won't dispense $40 from your checking account to cover your cabfare home. Instead, you insert your cash and the machine generates your digital currency at the current exchange rate, which changes constantly.

The thing that's a little hard to grasp with digital currency is that you can't physically grasp it. It exists -- if you will -- in the cloud. It's a notch or two above an idea or a dream but it's not anything you can put in your pocket.

Heavy lifting

What is "is" -- if it is anything at all -- is a "key," a highly secure series of digits that are generated when your purchase is processed. The ATM machine does the heavy lifting for you and records the purchase in your account.

Frankly, the odds are this information won't be of much use to you just yet, since there are only 204 Bitcoin ATMs operating worldwide -- 38 in North America -- at the moment, according to Coin ATM Radar, which keeps track of such things. So it's not as though one is coming to your neighborhood 7-11 anytime soon.

This isn't bad news for the average consumer, as there is really no compelling reason to begin adopting virtual currency just yet. It comes in handy for criminals, of course, but then so does cash.

If you're feeling adventurous, keep in mind that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies aren't backed by any government, which may or may not be a good thing. Also, the exchanges that generate and store Bitcoin currency aren't insured by anything resembling the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, so there is a bit of risk inherent in the whole affair.

On the other hand, only a certain number of Bitcoins will ever be generated so -- just like gold and other physical commodities -- they should increase in value over time.

How much time is anyone's guess and will be the subject of future stories. 

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More tools for teaching kids about managing money

Parents urged to start teaching money lessons before kindergarten

Financial literacy is a hot topic in the financial industry. Polls show Americans aren't very good at it....

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Source: smckids.com
Financial literacy is a hot topic in the financial industry. Polls show Americans aren't very good at it.

Statistics tend to back that up. Millions of Americans over-extended themselves during the housing bubble. College students have racked up more than $1 trillion in college loans. The average household credit card debt in 2014 is more than $15,000.

The youngest generation of current consumers, Millennials, came of age during the darkest of economic times, which has informed many of their financial habits.

Yet, when FINRA Investor Education Foundation surveyed young adults earlier this year, it found Millennial financial knowledge lacking. Among adults 18 to 26, only 18% were able to answer 4 or 5 questions correctly.

“Many Millennials began their adult lives in the midst of the worst economic downturn in generations, and our survey reveals just how deeply and broadly the Great Recession has marked the financial lives of this generation of Americans, said FINRA Foundation President Gerri Walsh. Unfortunately, far too many millennials trying to cope with these economic conditions have low levels of financial literacy and are wrestling with concerns about their debt.”

Start early

Personal finance educators say starting financial literacy when a child is pre-school age will go a long way to grounding them in financial literacy principals that will stay with them throughout life. Beth Kobliner, author of “Get a Financial Life,” suggests these lessons should begin as early as age 3.

She says the first lesson for a pre-school child should be delayed gratification – waiting to buy something you want until you have the money to pay for it. One tool she recommends is establishing 3 money jars.

Label one “saving,” one “spending” and one “sharing.” Any time the child receives money they decide how to divide it among the three categories. It establishes basic budgeting discipline and the “sharing” jar reinforces the idea of using money to help others.

“I think parents need to start teaching kids about the importance of managing money at an early age,” said billionaire Warren Buffett, in an interview with CNBC. “Sometimes parents wait until their kids are in their teens before they start talking about managing money when they could be starting when their kids are in preschool.”

Secret Millionaires Club

Buffet is supporting a financial literacy effort aimed at children in elementary school. The Secret Millionaires Club is a cartoon web series featuring a group of money savvy adolescents and an animated version on Buffet. Each webisode dwells on sound financial and business principals that children can relate to.

The animated series has 26 online short webisodes and TV specials featured on the HUB cable network.

As children get older the financial literacy tools need to be more detailed and sophisticated. The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) provides a financial planning program for high schools.

Teaching decision-making

The group supports teachers and community organizations in their effort to teach pre-teens, teens and young adults the financial skills they'll need for financial independence and decision-making.

The plans are organized into 6 topics – planning, borrowing, learning capability, investing, financial services and insurance. It includes 6 topical student guides and lesson plans.

By the time students finish high school they ideally should understand budgeting, credit scores and their impact, how to manage a checkbook and the right way to manage debt. But there appears to be a long way to go.

The Council for Economic Education recently surveyed all 50 states and reported only 6 require testing students on their financial knowledge. The Council also said it found nearly half of Florida's graduating seniors lack understanding the financial principals they'll need to help them avoid the mistakes of their elders.

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How much food do you waste, discarding after the best-by date?

And what do the dates on your food packages actually mean? Answer: less than you think

Where food is concerned, basic self-preservation pretty much requires you to develop a Goldilocks-type of attitude....

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Staff photo

Where food is concerned, basic self-preservation pretty much requires you to develop a Goldilocks-type of attitude. After all: too much [salt/fat/sugar/whatever else] is bad for your health, and too little [salt/fat/sugar/whatever else] is bad for you too; in order to be healthy, you must eat an amount that's Just Right.

There's a related problem surrounding the issue of food storage: on the one hand, you don't want to risk getting sick by keeping food around too long, after it's gone bad; on the other hand, you don't want to waste money by throwing away perfectly good food too soon, because you falsely believe it has gone bad.

And in recent months, even organizations whose primary focus is keeping bad and gone-bad food out of people's diets have started giving more notice to the issue of food waste caused by erroneous fear of bad food.

For example: earlier this month, when the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) held its annual Food Safety Conference in Indianapolis, conference attendees including Emily Broad Lieb, director of Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic, agreed that America's food-dating system (more specifically, its lack of a standard one) might be part of the problem.

Oregon Live reported that the IAFP conference panel on food dating was standing-room only, and said that “The panelists, including leaders from industry, consumer advocacy groups, academia and government, agreed that the lack of a food dating system is a problem and not only for shoppers. Some manufacturers are confused about what to do.”

Lieb said “We talked to small companies [about dating] … They said: 'We don't know what we're doing.'”

A reporter for Food Safety News later interviewed Lieb about food waste and “expiration dates” on food packaging (though the interview is only available in video form; no text transcript). Lieb suggested that Americans might waste up to 50 percent of all food they buy (which in turn corresponds to a huge chunk of a typical American's grocery budget).

Best-by date

Check any packaged foods in your kitchen – canned goods, boxed goods, frozen foods – and most of them will have a “best-by” date printed on them. Many people believe that's the day the food suddenly goes bad, or ceases to be edible: if a can of beans is stamped “Best by Jul 14” then you must throw it away now.

Of course, as Food Safety News suggested in its headline, many people also call it the “expiration date,” and then presumably think, “Ah, so that's the date this food expires — or, worse, the date it'll make me expire, if I try to eat it.”

Except that's almost never true. On August 19, two safety inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture published an article called “SAVE money by knowing when food is safe” on the USDA blog:

Stop! Don’t throw that food away! It might be safe to use, and that will save you money. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, each American wastes more than 20 pounds of food every month. That’s about $115 billion worth of good food thrown away every year at the consumer level in the U.S. … While the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline would never advise you to eat unsafe food, we don’t want you to throw away safe food and lose money.

A lot of perfectly good canned food is thrown away solely because of the date. “Dates on cans indicate peak quality as determined by the manufacturer. So don’t automatically pitch a can with an expired date,” said the USDA.

Different formula for formula

However, there is one very important exception to the “don't worry about canned-food dates” rule: infant formula. The USDA said “Unlike other foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that infant formula be dated. Do not feed a baby formula after the use-by date expires due to concern about adequate nutritive value.”

The USDA also discussed what (if anything) dates on other types of food mean: frozen food that never thaws will avoid going bad indefinitely, so you hardly need worry about the dates at all – although over time, frozen “foods do lose some quality: flavor, color, and texture.”

The USDA also offers safety guidelines for all sorts of shelf-stable (no freesing or refrigeration required) foods, plus safety guidelines for storing food in a refrigerator.

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Does your cat have food issues?

Cats can be just as neurotic as people

Does your cat seem like it just can't get enough food? Is it eating its own bowl of food and then going after perhaps your other cat's bowl of food and the...

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© sonsedskaya - Fotolia.com

Does your cat seem like it just can't get enough food? Is it eating its own bowl of food and then going after perhaps your other cat's bowl of food and then jumping on the table for your food? It could be suffering from psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior.  

It's real and it's a problem. "Psychogenic" means the disorder has a root cause that is emotional or psychological rather than physical. Who says cats can't have mental illness?  Thankfully we aren't looking at sending it to rehab just yet.  Researchers at the Università degli Studi di Padova in Italy  published a case study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior that concludes certain cats with ravenous appetites may have something called "psychogenic abnormal feeding behavior."

The researchers in Italy, a team of eight veterinarians, studied the case of Otto, an 8 month-old Siamese cat. Otto's owners reported the cat had an obsession with food. (Don't worry TLC has not turned Otto into a reality show - yet.)

Since possible triggers for his odd behavior included neurogenic and endocrine problems, Otto was given a complete medical workup. His laboratory findings were normal aside from high blood sugar.

Modification therapy

Basically, they got Otto into a modification therapy program. No, it wasn't group therapy they modified his behavioral responses to food. They had the owner implement the plan. 

Eating disorders in animals are rarely mentioned in scientific literature, but Otto's researchers theorize that stress experienced early in a pet's life may be linked to abnormal food-related behaviors. It all goes back to your mother even in cats! 

Much like humans if they are craving something and can't get enough it could be that they are lacking a specific nutrient and their bodies are literally craving it.

It took about 5 months of intense behavioral therapy dolled out by the owners and Otto was over his food obsession. 

If you suspect your cat has a food obsession that is significantly disruptive to daily life (your cat's and your own) a visit to the vet is in order just to make sure there are no underlying issues.

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California passes smartphone "kill switch" law

That makes two states. When will the rest of the U.S. follow suit?

The smartphone “kill switch,” which California just passed into law, is one of those technological innovations whose benefit is so obvious, it's hard to im...

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© stockfoto - Fotolia.com
The smartphone “kill switch,” which California just passed into law, is one of those technological innovations whose benefit is so obvious, it's hard to imagine why anyone would be opposed to its implementation.

A kill switch allows smartphone owners to remotely disable or “kill” their phones, in the event that they are stolen. The ultimate intent, of course, is to discourage such thefts: thieves won't bother stealing phones which they know will be rendered useless.

Samsung developed a kill switch app in 2013, though smartphone companies initially resisted it; that December, New York's attorney general demanded to know why.

A cynic might speculate: “It's because the phone companies figure 'Hey, if you can't get your stolen phone back you'll have to buy a new one, which means more money for us. Whoopee!'” Or perhaps there's a useful valid consumer-protection rationale, only the phone companies forgot to issue the press release explaining it.

Congress dawdles

In February 2014, Congress proposed a bill that would require kill switch options on all smartphones sold in the U.S.; this proposal has not made it into law.

But California is unwilling to wait for a national bill. This week the state passed a law mandating kill-switch options on all smartphones manufactured and sold in the state after July 1, 2015.

California is the second state to pass such a kill-switch law; Minnesota passed a similar one in May.

Even if your phone does have a kill switch option (or you buy a phone that does), remember: the mere fact that your phone has this option won't help you unless you actually activate it. It's like any other anti-theft device: the best and strongest lock in the world won't protect your stuff if you forget to shut the door.

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Buick, Chevrolet are only brands to improve in satisfaction survey

Domestic brands do better than European & Asians

General Motors has been taking its lumps this year over its handling of ignition-switch defects but you wouldn't know it to read the latest consumer satisf...

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GM Photo

General Motors has been taking its lumps this year over its handling of ignition-switch defects but you wouldn't know it to read the latest consumer satisfaction survey, which finds Buick and Chevrolet outpacing other brands both foreign and domestic.

In the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) survey, automobiles and light vehicles fell 1.2 0percent to 82 on a 100-point scale, as 16 of 21 measured nameplates exhibit declines in customer satisfaction.

The decline is pervasive across both domestics and imports, but the gap between the two actually narrows slightly as customer satisfaction with both Asian and European cars retreats more.

The only brands to improve are domestic: Chevrolet (+4%) and Buick (+1%). Nevertheless, imports retain a significant advantage in driver satisfaction: six of the top seven ACSI cars are imports.

Down but not out

Mercedes-Benz is down 2% but still leads the industry with an ACSI score of 86, followed by Subaru at 85 (-1%). Lexus slips 3% to tie Volkswagen (unchanged) at 84, while Toyota and Honda each fall 3% to 83. Buick also scores 83 and is the only domestic nameplate to exceed the industry average.

“There are two aspects of these findings that are somewhat unusual,” said Claes Fornell, ACSI Chairman and founder. “The first is that although the domestic car industry has deteriorated in customer satisfaction over the past couple of years, the gap to imports has narrowed due to a weakening of the latter’s customer satisfaction. The other notable finding is that several of the luxury brands do poorly. That didn’t use to be the case, and suggests that consumers now expect more for their money when they pay a premium price.”

Meanwhile, Chevrolet jumps to an ACSI score of 82, matching GMC (down 4%) and Kia (unchanged). Ford, Nissan, Hyundai and Chrysler are all tied at 81, just below industry average. Cadillac plummets 6% to an ACSI score of 80, neck and neck with Mazda and BMW (both down 2%).

At the bottom of the rankings are two domestic brands and two imports. Chrysler’s Jeep and Dodge both dip 1% to 79 and 78, respectively. Audi, which is included in the Index for the first time this year, posts a score of 79. In last place, Acura plunges 7% to 77.

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Consumers wary of changes that make products greener

They apparently fear the changes will have a negative impact on product quality

Consumers will respond positively if a company changes its products to make them "greener," right? Not necessarily, a new study in the Journal of Consumer ...

PhotoConsumers will respond positively if a company changes its products to make them "greener," right? Not necessarily, a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research finds.

"When a company makes a product that is better for the environment, consumers are actually less likely to purchase it if the environmental benefit is perceived as intentional rather than the result of some other effort," write authors George E. Newman, Margarita Gorlin, and Ravi Dhar, all of Yale University. "If a company intentionally made a product better for the environment, consumers believe the product's quality must have suffered because the company diverted resources away from product quality."

In a series of studies, consumers learned about a company that manufactures household cleaning products and were told that the company either intended to make the product better for the environment or that the environmental gain was the result of another improvement.

Unintended wins

Consumers thought the products were higher in quality and were more likely to purchase the cleaning products when the improvement was unintended.

Even when the company's intentions were not disclosed, consumers thought the products suffered from a quality control problem, suggesting that consumers automatically perceive green products as being lower quality even when a company does not specify its intentions.

"Companies improving a basic product feature (making something more environmentally friendly or better tasting) should either position the improvement as unintended or emphasize that the primary goal is improving the quality of the product. On the other hand, companies looking to advertise their fair trade or sustainable production practices or their donations to charity can advertise those actions without worrying that it will affect perceptions of their products," the authors conclude.

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Another boost in consumer confidence

It's the fourth straight monthly increase

The bullish attitude among the nation's consumers continues. The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index rose more than 2 points in August ...

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© Maksym Yemelyanov - Fotolia.com

The bullish attitude among the nation's consumers continues.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index rose more than 2 points in August -- to 92.4. While the Present Situation Index increased to 94.6 from 87.9, the Expectations Index edged lower -- to 90.9 from 91.9 in July.

“Consumer confidence increased for the fourth consecutive month as improving business conditions and robust job growth helped boost consumers’ spirits,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “Looking ahead, consumers were marginally less optimistic about the short-term outlook compared to July, primarily due to concerns about their earnings. Overall, however, they remain quite positive about the short-term outlooks for the economy and labor market.”

The consumers' view

Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions continued to improve through August. Those who believe business conditions are “good” edged up to 23.9% from 23.3 percent, while those who see business conditions are “bad” declined to 21.5% from 22.8%.

Consumers’ assessment of the job market was also more positive. Those saying jobs are “plentiful” increased to 18.2% from 15.6%, while those who think jobs are “hard to get” declined marginally to 30.6% from 30.9%.

Consumers were slightly less optimistic in August about the short-term outlook. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months held steady at 20.4%, while those expecting business conditions to worsen fell to 10.2% from 12.1%.

However, they were somewhat mixed about the outlook for the labor market. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead fell to 17.0% from 18.7%, although those anticipating fewer jobs also declined to 15.8% from 16.6%.

Fewer consumers expect their incomes to grow -- 15.5% in August versus 17.7% in July, while those expecting a drop in their incomes rose inched higher to --11.9% from 11.1%.

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

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Home prices rise in June, but at a slower pace

The weakening is seen across the board

Prices of homes across the U.S., rose in June but are showing what the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices calls a “sustained slowdown in price increases.”...

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Prices of homes across the U.S. rose in June but are showing what the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices calls a “sustained slowdown in price increases.”

The National Index gained 6.2% in the 12 months ending June while the 10-City and 20-City Composites gained 8.1%. However, all three indices saw their rates slow considerably from last month, and every city saw its year-over-year return worsen.

The monthly gain for the National Index was 0.9% in June, while the 10- and 20-City Composites increased 1.0%. New York led the cities with a return of 1.6% and recorded its largest increase since June 2013. Chicago, Detroit and Las Vegas followed at +1.4%, with Las Vegas posting its largest monthly gain since last summer.

“Home price gains continue to ease as they have since last fall,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “For the first time since February 2008, all cities showed lower annual rates than the previous month. Other housing indicators -- starts, existing home sales and builders’ sentiment -- are positive. Taken together, these point to a more normal housing sector.”

The gains are there, but...

All 20 cities saw their year-over-year rates weaken in June. For the second consecutive month, San Francisco saw its rate decelerate by almost three percentage points. Phoenix showed its smallest year-over-year gain (6.9%) since March 2012. Cleveland showed a marginal increase of 0.8% over the last 12 months while Las Vegas led with a gain of 15.2%.

All cities reported price increases for the third consecutive month; it would have been a fourth had New York not declined 0.4% in March. San Francisco posted its eighth consecutive price increase but showed its smallest gain (0.3%) since February.

Five cities -- Detroit, Las Vegas, New York, Phoenix and San Diego -- posted larger gains in June than in May. Dallas and Denver continue to set new peaks while Detroit remains the only city below its January 2000 value.

Twelve quarters of growth

Separately, The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports an 0.8% increase in U.S. house prices during the second quarter of this year. It's the twelfth consecutive quarterly price increase in the House Price Index (HPI).

The FHFA HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Year-over year prices rose were up 5.2% for the quarter. For a month-over-month comparison, FHFA’s seasonally adjusted index for June was up 0.4% from May, marking seven consecutive monthly increases.

“The extraordinary price appreciation observed over the last few spring seasons was not evident in the second quarter of this year. However, house price appreciation for the nation as a whole remained positive,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “FHFA’s data indicate that house price appreciation in the quarter was near or below the baseline rate of inflation in most states.”

Report highlights

  • The seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI rose in 40 states during the second quarter of 2014, compared with from 42 states and the District of Columbia during the first quarter. The top annual appreciation was in: 1) Nevada, 2) California, 3) District of Columbia, 4) North Dakota, and 5) Arizona.
  • Of the 9 census divisions, the Pacific division experienced the strongest increase in the second quarter, posting a 1.3% quarterly increase and a 9.8% increase since last year. House prices were weakest in the East South Central division, where prices fell 0.1% from the prior quarter.
  • As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., second quarter price increases were greatest in the Winston-Salem, N.C., Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) where prices were up 4.6%. Prices were weakest in the Birmingham-Hoover, Ala., MSA, where they fell 4.9%. Quarterly appreciation was recorded in 74 of the 100 MSAs.
  • The monthly seasonally adjusted, purchase-only index for the U.S. has increased for 7 consecutive months and 23 of the last 24 months (it fell in November 2013).
  • The Pacific and Mountain census divisions -- the 2 divisions that saw the greatest price increases last quarter -- continued to decelerate.
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Consumers show renewed confidence in retirement savings

A new Deloitte survey chalks it up to economic stability

The economic uptick over the past year has led to renewed More people are showing interest in retirement savings, and, according to Deloitte’s 13th Annua...

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More people are showing interest in retirement savings, and, according to Deloitte’s 13th Annual Defined Contribution Benchmarking Survey, a lot of it's due to the economic uptick over the past year.

The survey found that average account balances hit an all-time high of more than $95,000 in 2013, up nearly 10 grand from the year before, and that more employees are participating in defined contribution plans -- 6% (77% in 2013 versus 71% in 2012).

More faith in the economy

Among key findings the No. 1 reason for lack of employee participation in defined contribution plans is no longer due to an “uncertain economy/job market” (14% in 2013 compared with 24% in 2012), but instead a “lack of awareness and understanding” (30% in 2013 vs. 21% in 2012).

“Defined contribution plans, both 401(k) and 403(b), now represent the main source of future retirement income for a wide and growing majority of the workforce,” said Stacy Sandler, principal, Human Capital, Deloitte Consulting LLP. “It is imperative that employers and plan sponsors continue to encourage the growing trend in saving for retirement and focus on developing the right tools to educate and engage the workforce. Eighty one percent of respondents identified improving participation education as a top-of-mind issue for a majority of employees.”

Taking it mobile

This year’s survey, conducted with the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) and the International Society of Certified Employee Benefit Specialists (ISCEBS), revealed that transaction processing is supported on mobile devices for just over half (53%) of plans, and only one-in-five (20%) of plans utilize the latest communication methods (smartphones and tablets) to educate employees on retirement readiness.

However, employee satisfaction with hand-held connectivity tools continues to climb, jumping to 61% from 53% in 2012 and 28% 2011, underscoring the point that plan sponsors should continue to evaluate the effectiveness of supplementing traditional communications with going mobile.

Education a key

Plan sponsors are also aware of this reality and consistently rate the No. 1 barrier to a more effective plan as lack of employee understanding (30 %), an unchanged finding from year-to-year. When looking at the top areas of confusion, the study found that employees don’t know what funds to invest in (55%) followed by not knowing how much to save for retirement (35%). “When it comes to education, more is not necessarily better,” said Sandler. “Employers should consider pursuing a simplification strategy designed to deliver the right mix of educational resources to employees based on the demographics of their workforce.”

Making it attractive

According to the survey, companies are also showing renewed confidence in the economy and taking steps to make defined contribution plans more accessible and attractive to employees.

For example, immediate eligibility for matching contributions increased to 62% in 2013 -- up 6 percentage points from 2012. At the same time, 43% of employees cited taking advantage of the company match as the top reason for participation, unseating a personal desire to save for retirement (39%).

“While immediate eligibility for match and automatic enrollment continue to drive employee interest, there is still work to be done,” said Sandler. “Many employees perceive available education tools as too complex and intimidating. Retirement planning is unique for every individual, but many tools are created with a one-size-fits-all approach. Having the ability to recognize the gaps within the system is a solid first step in implementing effective remedies and reaching employees through their preferred channels.”

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Robot-assisted prostate surgery on the rise in the U.S.

The cost of the surgery is on the way down

A new study reveals there has been widespread adoption in the U.S. of robot-assisted prostate removal surgery to treat prostate cancer in recent years. A...

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A new study reveals there has been widespread adoption in the U.S. of robot-assisted prostate removal surgery to treat prostate cancer in recent years.

At the same time, the study by BJU International found that while such surgeries are more expensive than traditional surgeries, their costs are decreasing over time.

Surgeons began using robotic technologies in operations to remove the prostate in 2001. To examine trends in the use of such robotic-assisted radical prostatectomy (RARP) procedures for prostate cancer patients, Steven Chang, MD, MS, of Harvard Medical School, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Brigham and Women's Hospital, led a team that analyzed 489,369 men who underwent non-RARP (i.e., open or laparoscopic radical prostatectomy) or RARP in the U. S. from 2003 to 2010.

During the study period, RARP adoption (defined as performing more than 50% of annual radical prostatectomies with the robotic approach) increased from 0.7% to 42% of surgeons performing radical prostatectomies. Surgeons who performed at least 25 radical prostatectomies each year were more likely to adopt RARP.

Declining costs

Also, from 2005 to 2007, adoption was more common among surgeons at teaching hospitals and at intermediate and large-sized hospitals. After 2007, adoption was more common among surgeons at urban hospitals. RARP was more costly, disproportionally contributing to the 40% increase in annual prostate cancer surgery expenditures; however, RARP costs generally decreased and plateaued at slightly over $10,000 while non-RARP costs increased to nearly $9,000 by the end of the study.

"Our findings give insights on the adoption of not just robotic technology but future surgical innovations in terms of the general pattern of early diffusion, the potential impact on costs of new and competing treatments, and the alternations in practices patterns such as centralization of care to higher volume providers," said Dr. Chang.

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Debt collection processor to pay $6 million in consumer relief

Global Client Solutions processed illegal debt-settlement fees, feds charged

Global Client Solutions, a leading debt-settlement payment processor, has agreed to pay $6 million in consumer relief plus a $1 million penalty for alleged...

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Richard Cordray
Global Client Solutions, a leading debt-settlement payment processor, has agreed to pay $6 million in consumer relief plus a $1 million penalty for allegedly helping other companies to collect tens of millions of dollars in illegal upfront fees from consumers.

“Global Client Solutions made it possible for debt-settlement companies across the country to charge consumers illegal fees,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Consumers struggling to pay off a debt are among the most at risk and deserve better. We will continue to crack down on illegal debt-settlement firms and the companies that help these operations collect illegal fees from consumers.”

The Oklahoma-based company is one of the largest payment processors for the debt-settlement industry. Debt-settlement companies generally offer to help consumers reduce or eliminate their credit card or other debt by negotiating settlements with creditors.

In many cases, when consumers enroll in a debt-settlement program, the company instructs them to stop paying their debts and to instead make monthly payments to a payment processor account while the debts are negotiated. The CFPB has found that many consumers who use these services end up paying hundreds or even thousands in unlawful advance fees.

Consumers may also end up without their debts settled and fall even deeper in debt.

Illegal upfront fees

According to the CFPB’s complaint, since October 2010, Global Client Solutions processed tens of millions of dollars in illegal advance fees from tens of thousands of consumers. Global Client Solutions processed these unlawful fees on behalf of hundreds of debt relief companies across the country.

The proposed order bans Global Client Solutions from enabling other companies to collect illegal fees from consumers. The defendants will be subject to monitoring by the CFPB and will be required to make reports to the CFPB to ensure their compliance. The defendants will also pay over $6 million in consumer relief in addition to paying a civil money penalty of $1 million.

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General Motors recalls vehicles with steering issues

The vehicles could suffer a loss of steering, increasing the risk of a crash

General Motors is recalling 106 model year 2014 Buick Regal, Cadillac XTS, Chevrolet Camaro and Chevrolet Impala vehicles. Improperly torqued fasteners m...

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Photo source: General Motors

General Motors is recalling 106 model year 2014 Buick Regal, Cadillac XTS, Chevrolet Camaro and Chevrolet Impala vehicles.

Improperly torqued fasteners may cause the steering intermediate shaft and the steering gear and/or the lower control arm and the lower ball joint to separate. If any of the components separate, the vehicle may have a loss of steering, increasing the risk of a crash.

GM began to notify owners on June 27, 2014, and dealers will inspect the fasteners for correct torque, correcting them as necessary, free of charge.

Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-521-7300 (Buick), 1-800-458-8006 (Cadillac) or 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet). GM's number for this recall is 14378.

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Consumers' incomes finally starting to rise

But survey shows we've got a lot of ground to make up

Some good news and bad news about consumer income in America. Real median household income has fallen 3.1% since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, an...

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Some good news and some bad news about consumer income in America. Real median household income has fallen 3.1% since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, and is now 4.8% lower since the start of the recession in December 2007.

But in a hopeful note, real median household income has slowly started to rise from 2011 to 2014.

The data is contained on the latest Current Population Survey, compiled by Sentier Research. It comes on the heels of a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors that graphically illustrates how Americans have taken a giant pay cut.

That study showed that the average annual wage of all the jobs lost between 2008 and 2009 – when most of the recession's job cuts occurred – was $61,637 a year.

The jobs added since the end of the recession, through the second quarter of this year, paid an average wage of $47,171 a year, a gap of 23%.

Similar picture

The Sentier study paints a similar picture. After adjusting for changes in consumer prices, median annual household income fell during the officially-defined recession from $56,604 in December 2007 to $55,589 in June 2009, a fall-off of 1.8%.

During the first two years of the economic recovery, while the unemployment rate and the time spent jobless remained high, median annual household income continued to fall, to $51,913 in June 2011, a decline of 6.6%.

But lately, the researchers find the trend has turned positive. Between June 2011 and June 2014, when the economy was in a state of slow recovery, real median household income rose 3.8%, from $51,913 to $53,891.

The numbers show the average consumer has lost a lot of economic ground since January 2000, at the end of the tech bubble but before the housing bubble. Median income is now nearly 6% lower than it was then.

“Real median household income is up by 3.8% overall since June 2011, but gains have not been shared equally by all groups, said Gordon Green, a spokesman for Sentier Research. “In terms of percentage increases in median household income over the past 3 years: families have fared better than nonfamilies, the employed have obviously fared better than the unemployed.”

Midwest households have recovered most

Blacks and whites have both fared better than Hispanics, and households in the Midwest region have fared better than households in the other three regions.”

The numbers also show that it has paid to own your own business in the last few years. The self-employed have fared better than private or government wage or salary workers.

Younger Americans have struggled more than their older counterparts to recover from the recession. Householders under age 25 have seen almost no income growth since the end of the recession in 2009. Those 25 to 54 have seen incomes decline, between 3.1% and 5.2%.

Retirees doing okay

But just as it has paid to work for yourself over the last 3 years, it has also paid to be at retirement age. Households with people 65 years old and over were the only groups examined in this study that had a statistically significant increase in median income between June 2009 and June 2014.

For households with a householder between 65 and 74 years old, median income increased by 6.2%, from $41,718 to $44,307. Among households with a householder 75 years old and over, median income increased by 5.4%.

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Remind me again: Who wants GMO labeling?

Science surrendering to superstition, pro-GMO activist argues

Organic activists claim 92% of consumers want genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) labeled. It turns out the overwhelming majorityof consumers support the...

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E-cigarettes may be OK as last-gasp quit-smoking solution: American Heart Association

The association says physicians shouldn't discourage e-cigs when all else has failed

Everybody knows that smoking is bad. Vaping? It's worse than not smoking at all but the American Heart Association says it may be worthwhile as a last-chan...

PhotoEverybody knows that smoking is bad. Vaping? It's worse than not smoking at all but the American Heart Association says it may be worthwhile as a last-chance effort for smokers who have tried everything to quit smoking and failed.

In a policy statement released today, the AHA said physicians shouldn’t routinely discourage e-cigarette use as a last resort to stop smoking.

“If someone refuses to quit, we’re not opposed to them switching from conventional to e-cigarettes,” said Aruni Bhatnagar, lead writer of the policy statement from the Dallas-based nonprofit group and a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. 

“Don’t use them indefinitely. Set a quit date for quitting conventional, e-cigarettes and everything else. We don’t think that will be the long-term or useful way to look at it because e-cigarettes may continue and fuel nicotine addiction. Nicotine is not innocuous — it’s known to be harmful and have cardiovascular effects,” Bhatnagar said.

Studies show that nicotine causes a short-term increase in blood pressure, heart rate and blood flow from the heart. It also causes the arteries to narrow.

“We consider exposure to nicotine as part of smoking. We don’t want separate definitions for combustible and e-cigarettes,” he said.

"Re-normalize tobacco use"

Despite the concession that e-cigarettes may be worth trying when all else fails, the AHA made it clear it is steadfastly opposed to letting the devices sneak in under the wire. 

E-cigarettes are dangerous because they target young people, can keep people hooked on nicotine, and threaten to “re-normalize” tobacco use, the AHA said, insisting that e-cigs are tobacco products and should be subject to all laws that apply to these products.

The association also calls for strong new regulations to prevent access, sales and marketing of e-cigarettes to youth, and for more research into the product’s health impact.

“Over the last 50 years, 20 million Americans died because of tobacco. We are fiercely committed to preventing the tobacco industry from addicting another generation of smokers,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. “Recent studies raise concerns that e-cigarettes may be a gateway to traditional tobacco products for the nation’s youth, and could renormalize smoking in our society.”

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TiVo launches a DVR to capture Aereo customers

TiVo Roamio records over-the-air content as well as streaming Internet video

Aereo was a good idea. It offered over-the-air TV -- you know, ABC, CBS, NBC -- over the Internet for as little as $8 a month, thus allowing customers to c...

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Photo: TiVo

Aereo was a good idea. It offered over-the-air TV -- you know, ABC, CBS, NBC -- over the Internet for as little as $8 a month, thus allowing customers to cut their cable and pocket huge savings.

Only problem is the Supreme Court ruled it was illegal because it was reselling and retransmitting broadcasters' signals without their permission. 

Now, along comes TiVo with a similar product that it thinks will pass legal muster. It's called TiVo Roamio OTA and it's a digital video recorder (DVR) that comes equipped with its own antenna, to pull in the over-the-air TV signals. Hook it up to your Internet connection and you can also watch and record Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, etc.

Rural dwellers, take note: The Roamio pulls in over-the-air signals. This means that if you live outside the range of local TV stations, it won't work for you. (Self-evident but always good to mention).

The Roamio costs $49.99 upfront plus $14.99 per month on a one-year contract. It can record up to 6 HD shows at once, has up to 3,000 hours of recording capacity and works with digital cable, Verizon FiOS and an HD antenna.

"Many top TV shows in America are available with a simple HD antenna," said TiVo CMO Ira Bahr. "TiVo Roamio OTA makes sure that they too can get a best in class DVR experience through an antenna, including our world renowned interface and industry defining recording capability at our most affordable price point ever."

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Burger King eyes Tim Horton takeover to reduce U.S. tax burden

"Inversions" -- are they really unpatriotic?

Burger King is flirting with Tim Horton, the Canadian coffee-and-doughnuts giant. It's a lust-driven relationship, egged on by Burger King's hunger to redu...

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© Andrzej Tokarski - Fotolia.com
Burger King Aug. 25, 2014, 3:59 p.m.
Consumers rate Burger King

Burger King is flirting with Tim Horton, the Canadian coffee-and-doughnuts giant. It's a lust-driven relationship, egged on by Burger King's hunger to reduce its American tax burden.

The two are talking about an "inversion," in which Burger King would basically acquire Tim Horton and become a Canadian company, thereby cutting the taxes it pays to Uncle Sam each year.

This has become rather controversial lately. President Obama recently called companies that abandon their U.S. headquarters "corporate deserters" and some large companies, most notably Walgreen, have backed off plans to sail away from their American roots.

Consumers don't like the idea either. In fact, some of the most vocal consumers on social media think that corporate tax rates aren't high enough and should be boosted.

A modest proposal

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N. Gregory Mankiw (Photo credit: Harvard.edu)

But many economists take a different view. Writing in the New York Times recently, Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw noted that the American corporate tax rate is much higher than other countries -- and, even more significantly, taxes all earnings of U.S.-based companies, even when the earnings come from overseas. No other advanced country does this.

Going a bit further, Mankiw proposes what at first sounds like a radical solution but is in fact one that has been talked about for decades as the answer to many of the tax inequities currently plaguing the U.S. economy: a consumption tax.

The first steps: repeal the corporate income tax entirely and scale back the personal tax rate.

Mankiw says it's important "to acknowledge that corporations are more like tax collectors than taxpayers. The burden of the corporate tax is ultimately borne by people — some combination of the companies’ employees, customers and shareholders."

A consumer tax is basically just what it sounds like -- a tax that's applied every time money changes hands. When you buy a car, order a grande triple latte or pay your divorce lawyer, the consumption tax kicks in. It's similar to the value-added tax (VAT) common throughout Western Europe.

Income is not taxed, so if you leave your money in the stock market, in corporate bonds or a savings account -- where it is available to support business expansion and jobs creation -- you pay no tax on the interest and dividends. 

Whenever this is proposed, critics say it would amount to a tax on the poor. The answer to this, says Mankiw, is "to use some revenue from the consumption tax to fund universal fixed rebates — sometimes called demogrants" for those whose income falls below a certain amount.

The chief benefit of such a system is, obviously, it encourages savings and investment. By eliminating the corporate tax, it's logical to assume it would also create jobs by encouraging U.S. corporations to keep their headquarters -- and the home-office executive staff -- in the United States, paying hefty salaries that would in turn produce lots of VAT revenue.

Mankiw admits, as have others who've floated similar proposals, that the likelihood of any such thing happening is close to zero. But it never hurts to float a good idea, in hopes that one may plant a seed that eventually germinates.

Or, as Mankiw conlcudes: "A better tax system is within reach, and ... only politics stands in the way." 

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A leg up on renting with your pet

Pets are becoming more welcome in rental properties

One of the top stressors in life is moving. Moving with a pet can just compound that stress, because it's an added expense. It's a jungle out there finding...

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© sergiibobliakh - Fotolia.com

One of the top stressors in life is moving. Moving with a pet can just compound that stress, because it's an added expense. It's a jungle out there finding a dog house.

Apartments.com did the math in its 2014 Pet-Friendly Renting Trends Survey and revealed the high price pet owners pay to take in a furry companion. They surveyed about 3,000 people and found that close to 80% of renters were required to pay a deposit for a pet with half of those shelling out more than $200 per year.

That's provided renters were able to find a pet-friendly spot to call home in the first place. Most people said finding a place that will rent to you with pets is difficult. The easiest way to get in is with a goldfish -- no deposit. It's the quietest as well.

Cats seem to be the pet du jour among renters, next is the little dog and then medium to large dogs. No surprise the bigger the dog the harder the door shuts. The good news is most neighbors who don't own pets seem to like yours! The survey revealed that the neighbors like living in a pet-friendly building.

More expensive

Pe- friendly buildings are more expensive to live in. Why? Because the building isn't run by mom-and-pop landlords. These are institutional towers that tend to be stocked with amenities.

If you find a place you like but they don't accept pets talk to the landlord, introduce your pet then start begging just like your dog does for treats -- but don't drool. Gather proof that you are responsible. The more documentation that you can show that says you are a responsible pet owner the better.

Have these items available:

  • A letter of reference from your current landlord or condominium association verifying that you are a responsible pet owner.
  • Written proof that your adult dog has completed a training class, or that your puppy is enrolled in one.
  • A letter from your veterinarian stating that you have been diligent in your pet’s medical care. Supply documentation that your pet has been spayed or neutered and vaccinated against rabies. (Sterilized pets are healthier, calmer, and far less likely to be a nuisance to neighbors.) Most veterinarians routinely fulfill such requests for their clients.

You understand the level of stress this creates. It's worth it though in the end if you can make it happen.

Once you get the"Good boy" OK, make sure you look online for a pet rider to add on to your rental agreement. Go over it together with your landlord. This gives you a leg up so to speak and will provide a legal framework for having your pet on the rental property.

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New home sales down again in July

Both prices and inventories posted gains, though

Sales of new single-family houses posted their second straight decline in July. Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urba...

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© RFsole – Fotolia.com

Sales of new single-family houses posted their second straight decline in July.

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show sales last month came in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 412,000. While that's 2.4% below the revised June rate of 422,000, it's 12.3% above the same month last year.

The consensus estimate of economists at Briefing.com was for an increase to a rate of 427,000.

Analysts note that since the beginning of the year, the 12-month moving average has averaged 426,000 new homes sold per month. The July sales decline brings the moving average to exactly 426,000. This, they say, suggests there is no indication of an increase in demand for new homes.

Prices and inventories

While sales declined, both prices and inventories were on the rise.

The median sales price -- the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower -- was $269,800, up $7,600 from July 2013. The average sales price was $339,100, compared with $329,900 a year earlier.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of July was 205,000, which translates to a supply of 6.0 months at the current sales rate.

The complete report on new home sales for July is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Feds call for shutdown of bogus debt relief and credit repair scheme

The program claims to have the endorsement of President Obama

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants a federal court to drop the hammer on a debt relief scam that claims to have the endorsement of President Obama . ...

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© John Takai - Fotolia.com

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) wants a federal court to drop the hammer on a debt relief scam that claims to have the endorsement of President Obama .

According to the FTC, two websites promoting what is called the “Bill Payment Government Assistance Program,” are full of misrepresentations about the fake program.

The sites claim the program was governed by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, a government agency formed to oversee projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

In addition, YouTube videos created by the scam’s operators included a purported personal endorsement from the president with an audio recording of him saying, “I approve this message.”

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Via YouTube

Cleaning up your credit

The FTC's complaint alleges that the defendants purported to offer up to $75,000 in debt relief to consumers, along with promises that consumers’ credit scores would “increase within 30 days.”

Consumers contacting the scammers, according to the complaint, were told that in exchange for an advance “service charge” of $900 to $1,100, the defendants would pay off the consumers’ debts.

According to the complaint, scammers would ask consumers for details of their outstanding debt, including account numbers, and then arrange bogus electronic payments that gave consumers the impression their debts were in fact being paid.

The scammers would then tell consumers to pay the “service charge,” typically through money transfer services such as Western Union or MoneyGram. Once consumers paid the charge, the scammers would then reverse the payments made to consumers’ bills, leaving consumers without the promised debt relief or improvements to their credit scores or limits.

The unnamed defendants are charged with two counts of violating the FTC Act’s prohibition on deceptive acts or practices, as well as two counts of violating the Credit Repair Organizations Act’s prohibitions on collecting advance fees before providing credit repair services and making untrue or misleading representations about their services.

The complaint asks the court to take steps to halt the scam immediately, as well as for a permanent order stopping the defendants’ activities and requiring them to give up their ill-gotten gains.

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Start saving now for holiday shopping

If you can accumulate some cash you can give your credit card a rest

Once upon a time, before banks started charging fees to keep customers' money for them, many banks offered “Christmas Club” accounts....

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© hin255 - Fotolia.com

Once upon a time, before banks started charging fees to keep customers' money for them, many banks offered “Christmas Club” accounts.

Customers would put a small amount of money in them each week. By the time the holiday season arrived, they had enough money to cover their holiday expenses.

Some banks still offer the old fashioned Christmas Club accounts, but these days consumers are more likely to put their holiday spending on a credit card and worry about paying for it later. That's how many consumers rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Save now

To avoid going into debt, why not start saving for the holidays now? It's an expense that isn't coming as any kind of surprise so it's one you should start planning for now, right.

But where is the extra money going to come from? That's the hard part.

First, decide where you are going to keep your savings. If it goes back into your checking account, it will be easy to spend it. If, on the other hand, you take the money you save and put it in a safe place at home, it stays separate from the money you need to live on.

The easiest way to find extra money is to examine what you are now spending and where, seeing if there are places you can cut back. If you are spending $100 a week on groceries, how much can you save by making a concerted effort to use coupons, for example?

Take a look at your household budget if you haven't done so in a while. Are there regular, small expenses you can get rid of, at least temporarily? If so, that money can go into the holiday cookie jar.

Clean house

Have a yard sale. You not only clean our your closets and eliminate the clutter of unwanted items, you can easily raise $200 or more on a weekend. Books, CDs, children's toys and clothing are always in demand. Pieces of furniture you no longer need will bring you the most money.

If you don't have enough items for a yard sale, you can always sell things on Craigslist. If you live in a rural area not covered by Craiglist, buy-sell-trade Facebook pages are popping up, connecting local buyers and sellers.

Consumers spent an average of $800 each year on the holidays. It's a big expense if faced all at once. If you have the money in hand when the holidays arrive, it's a lot more manageable.

Avoid January debt

It can reduce some of the stress of the holidays, but more importantly it keeps consumers out of debt in January. Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Federation of Credit Counseling (NFCC) points out if a shopper runs up $1,000 in holiday credit card bills and makes only the minimum monthly payment of 2% of the balance at an Annual Percentage Rate of 18%, it will take 12 years to pay off the debt.

You could be paying on Christmas 2014 until Christmas 2026. Worse still, that $1,000 in Christmas goodies will have ended up costing you $2,353.

"If you're still paying for holiday spending 2013, consider rethinking your gift giving for this year," Cunningham, said. "It makes no financial sense to pile new debt on top of old. Kindness and experiences are meaningful substitutes for purchased gifts, and are remembered long after the wrapping paper and bows have been discarded."

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Security warning: apps might be riskier than you think

Researchers discover weakness in Android, Windows, iOS mobile operating systems

One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch — and it look like one bad app can, too. Security researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of...

PhotoOne bad apple can spoil the whole bunch — and it look like one bad app can, too. Security researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California/Riverside have discovered that certain types of mobile devices are riskier than previously believed.

Zhiyun Qian of UC Riverside's Computer Science and Engineering Department, Z. Morley Mao from the University of Michigan, and Mao's Ph. D. student Qi Alfred Chen all co-wrote a paper titled “Peeking into your app without really seeing it: UI state interference and novel Android attacks.”

To put the paper's results into layman's terms: the researchers believe they've discovered a previously unknown security weakness in Android, Windows and iOS mobile operating systems. There's a widespread belief that apps are self-contained – in other words, one app on your phone can't interfere with other apps.

But this might not be true. Qian said, “The assumption has always been that these apps can’t interfere with each other easily …. We show that assumption is not correct and one app can in fact significantly impact another and result in harmful consequences for the user.”

App malware

It's basically the app equivalent of malware: hackers convince you to download a seemingly harmless app, perhaps offering pretty new background wallpaper for your phone. But the app is actually malicious, and once it's installed, according to UC/Riverside, “the researchers are able to exploit a newly discovered public side channel — the shared memory statistics of a process, which can be accessed without any privileges. (Shared memory is a common operating system feature to efficiently allow processes share data.)”

The researchers made and posted some videos showing in detail exactly how the process works; they were successful in attacking Gmail and H&R Block apps 92 percent of the time. Amazon, however, seems to have the best security of the seven companies they tested; only 48 percent of attempts against Amazon were successful.

The researchers are presenting their findings before the Usenix Security Symposium in San Diego today.

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Hydrogen fuel cell refueling stations gathering momentum

New refueling stations planned for California next year

A lot of people are excited about the concept of the hydrogen fuel cell car. It basically runs on water....

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Hyundai fuel-cell crossovers began arriving in California earlier this year. (Hyundai photo)
A lot of people are excited about the concept of the hydrogen fuel cell car. It basically runs on water.

Carmakers are among the enthusiasts. Hyundai introduced a hydrogen car this summer in Southern California. Toyota is on track to introduce one in the U.S. next year.

The big question, of course, is how will motorists driving these zero-emission hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles refuel? Motorists driving electric vehicles (EV) can plug in their cars at home each night. Drivers of hydrogen cars can't.

Building refueling stations

But one possible answer emerged this month when Linde AG, a German gases and engineering company, announced it will start small-series production of hydrogen fueling stations. Some stations will open in California next year, coinciding with the introduction of the Toyota fuel-cell vehicle.

Linde has been deeply involved in developing hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure in other parts of the world. Its entry into the U.S. market may speed up consumer acceptance of these new vehicles, if it proves easy to refuel them.

"The successful commercialization of fuel-cell cars hinges on a sufficiently widespread hydrogen infrastructure," said Dr. Aldo Belloni, member of the Executive Board of Linde AG. "The development of small-series production capabilities is a key milestone on this journey. It gives us the flexibility we need to meet rising demand in different markets.”

Toyota has been making efforts to improve the technology as well. It says the Highlander FCEV can travel 5 times farther than currently available electric vehicles before recharging, refuels in minutes and emits only heat and water vapor — not fossil-fuel emissions.

Getting real

Joan Ogden, a professor at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, believes a threshold of seriousness has been crossed in the concept of a practical Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV). She believes that FCVs are on track to be cost competitive with gasoline powered vehicles.

In that light, she says the Linde announcement of the fueling stations is a very big deal, helping to resolve the “chicken or egg” question that has held the industry back.

“The good news is that it might not take that much investment to build up infrastructure to the point where new investments are profitable and less risky for infrastructure providers,” she writes. “In our study, we calculated that a targeted regional investment of $100-$200 million in support of 100 stations for about 50,000 FCVs could be enough to make hydrogen cost-competitive with gasoline on a cost-per-mile basis.”

Besides California, she said she believes that level of investment in hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure will also occur in Germany and Japan.

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Sprint and T-Mobile want each other's customers

Is this a good time for consumers to snag sweet smartphone deals for themselves?

The current rivalry between Sprint and T-Mobile provides more evidence that a saturated market is a wonderful thing for consumers: last January, we told yo...

PhotoThe current rivalry between Sprint and T-Mobile provides more evidence that a saturated market is a wonderful thing for consumers: last January, we told you how smartphone-industry analysts were saying that the technology has been around long enough to thoroughly saturate the market — with the exception of kids whose parents think they're too young, pretty much everybody who wants a smartphone has one by now.

Sprint PCS  Aug. 22, 2014, 4:03 p.m.
Consumers rate Sprint PCS

Thus, with so few “new” potential smartphone customers out there, companies looking to expand their base must try “poaching” pre-existing smartphone users from other companies — say, by offering better prices or services than their competitors.

And The Wall Street Journal reports that Sprint and T-Mobile, two companies which had talked about merging together into one mega-company earlier this summer, are now engaging in a fierce battle to steal each other's customers (with the result that, as of Aug. 22, both of them saw slight drops in their stock values):

Sprint unveiled this week a new pricing strategy for individual and family plans that offer more data and come with incentives to grab customers from rivals. T-Mobile is firing back with a referral program aimed at doing the same.

Signing bonus

So if you're with one company, there's a good chance you can save money and get a better deal by swiching to the other. Such competition is nothing new. Earlier this year, for example, T-Mobile offered to pay cancellation fees for new customers who canceled old phone contracts to sign on with them.

Consumers rate T-Mobile Billing Disputes

At the time, T-Mobile's chief competitor was AT&T, whereas Sprint's chief rival was Verizon. Sprint and T-Mobile generally didn't try “poaching” each other's customers, because the two companies used technologies different enough that switching a user from one network to another was very difficult.

Indeed, earlier critics of the proposed Sprint and T-Mobile merger were quick to point that out. In January, when the proposal was new news, a tech writer for FierceWireless.com published a list of “6 reasons the Sprint/T-Mobile merger is a terrible idea.” Reason number 4 was “It would be immensely complicated to combine the two networks,” and rhetorically asked:

Seven months after shutting down the Nextel network, does Sprint really need to worry about integrating T-Mobile's GSM/HSPA+/LTE network with its CDMA/LTE network?

Moreover, the only major spectrum band that Sprint and T-Mobile have in common is 1900 MHz, which Sprint uses for CDMA and LTE and T-Mobile uses for HSPA+ service. Not to mention that T-Mobile is busy migrating MetroPCS customers from CDMA to HSPA+ and LTE-capable phones.

So would the companies keep CDMA or GSM? Would they deploy LTE across AWS like T-Mobile is doing or across 1900 MHz/800 MHz/2.5 GHz like Sprint? These questions would be mind-bogglingly complicated to sort it out....

Indeed, for a non-tech professional, it's mind-bogglingly complicated just to figure out what those questions mean, let alone what the answers should be. But for now, with T-Mobile and Sprint remaining separate and fiercely competitive companies for the time being, it appears that both companies have either figured something out (or are making it up as they go along).

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Date me, date my dog

The latest wrinkle in dating sites

Date me, date my dog. I think the phrase originally started out as "date me, date my kids" but with so many single people getting pets as a companion it's ...

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Date me, date my dog. I think the phrase originally started out as "date me, date my kids" but with so many single people getting pets as a companion it's no wonder the phrase has changed.

Date me, date my dog. I think the phrase originally started out as "date me, date my kids" but with so many single people getting pets as a companion it's no wonder the phrase has changed.

Dating sites are catching on to that as well.

Petsdating.com is a site where, on the home page, you see pet profiles instead of humans. Its a purrfect idea -- only problem when we went to check it out, when you click on the animals profile it said page not found. Perhaps just a bad day for computer problems. Just when you think you found the pet that your pet will get along with! (It appeared to be working later).

"By becoming a member you will be able to show off your pet to the rest of the pet owners, while having access to a variety of resources," the site promises. 

Youmustlovedogsdating.com is set up more like a Match.com or a traditional dating site. What sets them apart? According to their website, "We know that you have other choices when it comes to dating sites, but ours offers one thing that others do not take into consideration. We respect and understand that you already have one love in your life, and encourage you to find someone equally as special to fill the other half of your heart. Everything about Must Love Dogs is meant to accommodate both you and your dog."

Most dating sites cater to religious beliefs and cultural preferences and even political beliefs, so having a site where you care and share the same canine passion is a good start. I am sure many single people can tell you horror stories of things that went wrong where one person was an animal lover and the other not so much.

Not everyone likes dogs that are inside or sleep on the bed. That could end a potential relationship right there.

Bringing a pet on a first date can be an ice breaker and make everyone more comfortable as long as it isn't a python, although I'm sure that if you look hard enough there is a site for snake lovers too.

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Laser device may end pin pricks for diabetics

It could mean a big improvement in quality of life for diabetes sufferers

Princeton University researchers have developed a way to use a laser to measure people's blood sugar, and, with more work to shrink the laser system to a p...

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Researchers Sabbir Liakat, Claire Gmachl, Kevin Bors  (Photo credit: Frank Wojciechowski, Princeton University)
Princeton University researchers have developed a way to use a laser to measure people's blood sugar, and, with more work to shrink the laser system to a portable size, the technique could allow diabetics to check their condition without pricking themselves to draw blood.

"We are working hard to turn engineering solutions into useful tools for people to use in their daily lives," said Claire Gmachl, the project's senior researcher. "With this work we hope to improve the lives of many diabetes sufferers who depend on frequent blood glucose monitoring."

In an article published June 23 in the journal Biomedical Optics Express, the researchers describe how they measured blood sugar by directing their specialized laser at a person's palm. The laser passes through the skin cells, without causing damage, and is partially absorbed by the sugar molecules in the patient's body. The researchers use the amount of absorption to measure the level of blood sugar.

Sabbir Liakat, the paper's lead author, said the team was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy of the method. Glucose monitors are required to produce a blood-sugar reading within 20% of the patient's actual level; even an early version of the system met that standard. The current version is 84% accurate, Liakat said.

"It works now but we are still trying to improve it," said Liakat, a graduate student in electrical engineering.

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Honda Fit earns IIHS Top Safety Pick designation

The vehicle overcame a setback in the small overlap test

The redesigned 2015 Honda Fit, showing a significant improvement over the 2009-13 model, has qualified for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS...

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Photo source: IIHS

The redesigned 2015 Honda Fit, showing a significant improvement over the 2009-13 model, has qualified for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick award.

After the earlier model was rated “poor” in the institute's challenging small overlap test, the new edition of the minicar earned an “acceptable” rating and earned “good” ratings in four other crash tests.

Second time's the charm

IIHS conducted two small overlap tests of the new Fit. In the first, the bumper beam -- a steel bar located behind the plastic bumper cover -- broke free of the frame rail on the passenger side early in the crash. This caused much more of the crash energy to be absorbed by the driver side of the car, resulting in extensive intrusion into the occupant compartment and excessive upward movement of the steering column.

In response to that initial test, Honda engineers improved the strength of the bumper beam welds, and the company asked to have the the car tested again. With the improved welds, the bumper beam stayed attached to the frame rail. Intrusion into the occupant compartment was reduced, and the steering column was much more stable, resulting in an acceptable rating. The rating applies to vehicles built after June 2014.

Mass replacement planned

Honda will initiate a "product update" to replace the bumper beams on approximately 12,000 2015 Fits that were sold earlier this year, prior to the change to the bumper welds. Owners will be notified by mail, and dealers will do the work free of charge. This modification will significantly improve protection in small overlap crashes.

Only cars with the replacement bumper beam earn the acceptable rating in the small overlap test and qualify for the Top Safety Pick designation.

"We commend Honda for its quick response to the test and for taking the additional step of replacing the bumper beams on early-production vehicles," said IIHS President Adrian Lund. "People who bought cars produced earlier in the year should take advantage of this free replacement to improve protection in small overlap crashes."

In the the small overlap test, which is more challenging than either the head-on crashes conducted by the government or the IIHS moderate overlap test, 25% of a vehicle's front end on the driver side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph. The crash replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or a utility pole.

To qualify for Top Safety Pick, a vehicle must earn a “good” or “acceptable” rating for small overlap protection and “good” ratings in the Institute's moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests.

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Deaths prompt recall of Ace Bayou bean bag chairs

The chairs pose suffocation and choking hazards

Ace Bayou of New Orleans, La., is recalling about 2.2 million bean bag chairs following the deaths of two children. The zippers on the bean bag chairs ca...

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Photo source: CPSC

Ace Bayou of New Orleans, La., is recalling about 2.2 million bean bag chairs following the deaths of two children.

The zippers on the bean bag chairs can be opened and children can then crawl inside, get trapped and suffocate or choke on the bean bag chair’s foam beads. The voluntary standard requires non-refillable bean bag chairs to have closed and permanently disabled zippers.

A 13-year old boy from McKinney, Texas, died and a 3-year-old girl from Lexington, Ky., died after suffocating from lack of air and inhaling the chair’s foam beads. Both children were found inside the chairs.

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Photo source: CPSC

The recalled bean bag chairs have two zippers that can be unzipped and opened, including one of the exterior cover and other directly underneath that zipper.

The recalled chairs with zippers that open were sold in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and fabrics. They include round or L-shaped, vinyl or fabric, and are filled with polystyrene foam beads. They were sold in a variety of colors, including purple, violet, blue, red, pink, yellow, Kelly green, black, port, navy, lime, royal blue, turquoise, tangerine and multi-color.

The round bean bag chairs were sold in three sizes, 30, 32 and 40 inches in diameter. The L-shaped bean bag chair measures 18 inches wide by 30 inches deep by 30 inches high. “ACE BAYOU CORP” is printed on a tag sewn into the bean bag chair’s cover seam.

The recalled bean bag chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at Bon-Ton, Meijer, Pamida, School Specialty, Wayfair and Walmart stores and online at Amazon.com, Meijer.com and Walmart.com before July 2013 for between $30 and $100.

Consumers should check their bean bag chairs for any zippers that can open, take those that can open away from children immediately and contact Ace Bayou for a free repair kit to permanently disable the zippers so that they cannot be opened.

Consumers may contact Ace Bayou toll-free at (855) 751-8151 from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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APPA Fine Foods recalls chicken Caesar Salad kits

The kits may be contaminated with Listeria

APPA Fine Foods of Corona, Calif., is recalling approximately 92,657 pounds of fully cooked chicken Caesar salad kit products. The kits may be contaminate...

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© vichie81 - Fotolia.com

APPA Fine Foods of Corona, Calif., is recalling approximately 92,657 pounds of fully cooked chicken Caesar salad kit products.

The kits may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Rhere are no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of these products.

The salad kits were shipped nationwide to the Sam's Club bulk warehouse chain for retail sale in its in-store cafés. The following productt is subject to recall:

  • 11oz. clear plastic containers and 6.5-lb. boxes labeled, “APPA Fine Foods/Sam’s Club Daily Chef CHICKEN CAESAR SALAD KIT” with case codes 141851, 141922, 141951, 141991, 142021, 142201 or 142131 with use by dates of 8/14/14, 8/21/14, 8/27/14, 9/1/14, 9/3/14 or 9/17/14.

The kits were produced on July 4, July 11, July 14, July 18, July 21, July 25, Aug. 1 and Aug. 8, 2014.

Box labels bear the establishment number “P-21030” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Thom Rindt of APPA Fine Foods at 951-547-8111.

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The robots among us

The technology revolution is already happening

Robots are generally thought of as something to look forward to in the future. But loosely defined, robots are not only here now, but have been around for ...

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Photo source: myjibo.com
Robots are generally thought of as something to look forward to in the future. But loosely defined, robots are not only here now, but have been around for quite a while.

Been to a supermarket lately? Chances are, you've used the self check-out, with the help of a robot. Admittedly, these robots don't fit our vision of what a human-helping machine is supposed to look like. We expect something more like C3PO from Star Wars, or Rosie from the Jetsons.

But the self checkout kiosks at your neighborhood Kroger scan your groceries, accept your cash or credit card, and thank you for being a valued customer in a soothing, pleasant voice. More importantly, they replace a human worker, which is what most robots are all about.

If we expect our robots to have a personality, then maybe your iPhone can be considered a robot. The 2013 film “Her” told the story of a man who developed deep, if weird, emotional relationship with his phone's operating system. Then again, Apple's Siri doesn't sound anything like Scarlett Johansson.

Friends and robots

But personality seems to be key to our idea of robots. It's not enough for our robots to help us with a task, we seem to want them to be our friends too. And some actually are.

Automata is a company that builds social robots for health care, focusing on challenges where behavior change is key to success. The company's first robot is Autom, a pint-sized weight loss coach the company says has helped dieters reach their goals.

Autom engages the user, creates a relationship which it develops over time, just as a friend would. Just as a friend would, Autom provides encouragement and positive feedback.

Another company, Romotive, has developed a technology allowing users to turn their smartphone into a robot. The robot part of the device is a dock, set on tracks, much like a toy tank.

Once the programmed smartphone is slipped into the dock, Romo can play games as it moves around the house.

Helping with housework

IRobot also makes robots. These machines are short on personality but long on usefulness around the house, helping with the vacuuming.

The company says the iRobot Roomba removes up to 50% more dirt, dust, hair and debris than a typical vacuum. Only it does so without a human operating it.

More to come

The pace of robot development appears to be accelerating and 2015 could, in many ways, be the year of the robot. It's not that there are that many new breakthroughs in robot technology – those were made years ago. It's that this technology is now being priced for the consumer market.

Developer Cynthia Breazeal has produced Jibo, which she calls “the first family robot.” It's expected to hit the consumer market in December 2015.

Jibo can see with two high-resolution cameras and learn faces. It can hear and speak, reminding you of important meetings or your dental appointment.

It can also learn. Artificial Intelligence algorithms learn your preferences to adapt and fit into your life.

Other robots are scheduled for release next year as well. And while they are intended for the consumer market, some cost as much as a new car. As the price comes down, it may be good news for America's aging population.

Japan is a leading developer of robots for that very reason. Because of that country's rapidly aging population, it has invested in development of robots that can care for people in their homes. While they're expensive, they're less than institutional care.

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FCC and states, Democrats and Republicans, butt heads over municipal broadband regulations

Can states ban municipal networks, or can the FCC override state bans?

The question of whether or not to allow municipal broadband networks in states that have banned them is raising heated partisan debates among national...

PhotoEarlier this month, the FCC suggested changing its current broadband standards: if the proposed changes go through, the minimum downloading speed required for an Internet connection to call itself “broadband” would rise to 10 Mbps (megabytes per second), more than double the current minimum broadband standard of only 4 Mbps. Even at the current low standard, almost 20 percent of Americans live in places without access to broadband.

But minimum speed is not the only broadband issue the FCC's currently considering. The question of whether or not to allow municipal broadband networks in states that have banned them is also raising heated partisan debates among national lawmakers.

Chairman Tom Wheeler has long said that the FCC has, or should have, the authority to override any state law banning municipalities from establishing public broadband networks (20 states already have such laws, thanks to legislation supported by cable companies and the ISP lobby in general).

So on August 19, two Democratic lawmakers – Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania – published an open letter/press release urging Wheeler to do just that.

The press release on Markey's website says, in part:

The June 27 Doyle-Markey letter – which was also signed by Senators Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal, and Corey A. Booker, along with Representatives Henry A. Waxman and Anna G. Eshoo – urged the FCC to use all of its authority to promote affordable, high quality broadband service in communities across the country:


“We are pleased by your recent comments about community broadband, particularly your assertion that municipal governments should not be inhibited if they wish to pursue the creation of their own networks…. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.” 

A number of municipalities across the country have undertaken efforts to address their residents’ unmet broadband needs through a number of means, including creation of their own broadband networks. In recent years, however, a number of state governments have enacted laws prohibiting municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure. As a result, many communities across the country still don’t have adequate access to fast, reliable, and affordable broadband networks.

Republicans, by contrast, think states should have the right to ban municipal broadband networks, and the FCC should not have authority to override those states.

Matthew Berry, chief of staff to FCC Republican Ajit Pai, gave an Aug. 20 speech before the National Conference of State Legislatures in which he said that states should have the right to ban public municipal broadband, and also warned the current Democratic-led Congress and FCC against imposing partisan policies likely to be overturned by future Republican-led ones (or, depending on how you'd interpret it, a warning for one party not to use power in ways it wouldn't like once the other party gets into power):

So those who are potential supporters of the current FCC interpreting Section 706 to give the Commission the authority to preempt state laws about municipal broadband should think long and hard about what a future FCC might do with that power.

“Section 706” refers to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 – indeed, you could say this entire argument stems from disagreement over exactly what it means.

That section starts out by saying that:

(a) IN GENERAL-The Commission and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms) by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.

In other words ...

So here's the debate: the FCC is supposed to encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans, and in today's Internet-dependent world, that definitely includes improving America's dismal broadband infrastructure. The current global average broadband speed is 17.9 Mbps, whereas America's current minimum broadband speed is only 4 Mbps, and almost 20 percent of Americans don't even have access to that.

What is the best way to make fast and reliable broadband service available to all Americans -- public, tax-funded municipal networks, or privately owned networks such as those run by Cox, Comcast, Time-Warner and other ISPs? If cities do develop public broadband networks, will that discourage private investment in those cities?

In general, it appears that the current batch of Democratic lawmakers and FCC members believe public municipal broadband is a good way to bring fast connections to areas where they doesn't exist, whereas the Republican lawmakers and FCC members support states' rights to ban public networks on the grounds that private ISPs can better provide broadband service without facing unfair tax-funded competition.

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Hacker hits The UPS Store in 24 states

Security breach at some locations stretches as far back as January

Bad news for certain customers of The UPS Store: the company's customer-information databases have been hacked....

PhotoBad news for certain customers of The UPS Store: the company's customer-information databases have been hacked.

The company website released information on Wednesday, discussing what it calls a “Data Security Incident”:

The UPS Store, Inc. recently received a government bulletin regarding a broad-based malware intrusion targeting retailers in the United States. … An assessment by The UPS Store and the IT security firm revealed the presence of this malware on computer systems at 51 locations in 24 states (about 1%) of 4,470 franchised center locations throughout the United States. Based on the current assessment, the earliest evidence of the presence of this malware at any location is January 20, 2014. For most The UPS Store locations, based on our current assessment, the period of exposure to this malware began after March 26, 2014. This malware was eliminated as of August 11, 2014 and customers can shop securely at The UPS Store.

The website also lists the exact store locations affected, as well as the “Malware Intrusion Date” and “Secure Transaction Date” for each one. If you have bought goods or services at any UPS Store earlier this year, you should definitely check the list to see if “your” store was hacked. If so, what should you do?

The UPS Store is offering credit monitoring and identity-protection services at https://theupsstore.allclearid.com  and advises customers seeking assistance to call 1-855-731-6016.

Company president Tim Davis also posted a letter on the same webpage, admitting that “The UPS Store customers who made credit and debit card purchases at the impacted franchised center locations between January 20, 2014 and August 11, 2014 may have been exposed. … includ[ing] customers’ names, postal addresses, email addresses and payment card information.”

If you've bought anything at one of the affected locations during the listed time frames, you need to carefully monitor activity on all of your accounts as well as your credit report.

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Escalators are no place for a dog

Injuries can be severe and may require amputation

An escalator can be a dangerous place for your dog. So dangerous, the San Francisco SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) has put out a w...

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Delaware law lets heirs inherit your email and social media accounts

But privacy advocates worry about the implications

Delaware made history last week by becoming the first U.S. state to give a person's digital assets the same status as tangible assets where inheritance law...

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© Robert Hoetink - Fotolia.com
Delaware made history last week by becoming the first U.S. state to give a person's digital assets the same status as tangible assets where inheritance laws are concerned.

House Bill 345, the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act, gives executors and heirs the same legal rights over digital assets (such as email or social-media accounts) as they have over physical assets.

However, this law only applies to Delaware residents, not to social media companies (including Facebook, Google and Twitter) which happen to be incorporated there.

Ars Technica noted that “people creating family trusts could conceivably use this Delaware law to their advantage, even without residing in Delaware.”

Presumably, various companies will have to change their policies or terms of service (at least for Delaware residents) to comply with this new law. For example, Facebook's current “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” says this:

You will not share your password (or in the case of developers, your secret key), let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.
You will not transfer your account (including any Page or application you administer) to anyone without first getting our written permission.

So even if you wanted to, for example, leave your Facebook login and password information to someone in your will (or just write it down and keep it in your safe deposit box where your executor will find it), this officially violates Facebook policy: your heir or executor couldn't even log in to your Facebook page to let your “Friends” know that you are gone.

Privacy concerns

Some privacy advocates have expressed concern over the Delaware law. Ars Technica printed a statement from Jim Halpert, director of the State Privacy and Security Coalition, who said he opposed the law because it “takes no account of minimizing intrusions into the privacy of third parties who communicated with the deceased … This would include highly confidential communications to decedents from third parties who are still alive — patients of deceased doctors, psychiatrists, and clergy, for example — who would be very surprised that an executor is reviewing the communications.”

An initial layman's glance at the text of the Delaware law suggests that it does not make any distinctions between personal and professional digital assets: for example, the personal email accounts physicians use for off-duty chats with friends, versus the professional email accounts they might use to discuss patient treatments with staff and colleagues.

Then again, Halpert went on to say that Delaware's new law “may well create a lot of confusion and false expectations because, as the law itself acknowledges, federal law may prohibit disclosing contents of communications.”

That's in reference to this bit from the text of the bill:

§ 5004. Control of digital accounts and digital assets by a fiduciary.

Except as otherwise provided by a governing instrument or court order, a fiduciary may exercise control over any and all rights in digital assets and digital accounts of an account holder, to the extent permitted under applicable state or federal law or regulations or any end user license agreement.

In that case, it appears that such digital assets as a physician's professonal email or password-protected access to a patient-records database are already exempt from Delaware's law, since federal confidentiality laws override it. Still, over the days and weeks to come it'll be worth watching to see how the tech and legal communities respond to the new law in Delaware.

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Bank fees can sometimes be a game of hide and seek

Wallethub study finds mixed performance when it comes to disclosing fees

It's no secret that banks – like airlines – charge fees for many things that, in the past, were free. Things customers once took for granted as part of the...

PhotoIt's no secret that banks – like airlines – charge fees for many things that, in the past, were free. Things customers once took for granted as part of the service now come with a price.

It's one reason so many consumers have been fleeing banks in recent years. One of ConsumerAffairs' readers, Penny from Fallon, Nev., wrote to say that her bank recently initiated a number of new fees.

“I just got a list of new fees that my current bank will begin charging as of September 15th,” she wrote in an email. “It will cost some customers $15 a month, just for the privilege of having an account at their bank! Actually, I am one customer who WON’T have to pay fees, because I am on automatic deposit, and only live on Social Security. But getting a printout? $5.00! And if I overdraft by one cent, fees begin – $39.50 for the first day, and $5.00 every day after that until my account is showing a ‘balance’ again.”

At least Penny is aware of her bank's fees. Far too many consumers get blindsided by them.

The personal finance website Wallethub.com has just conducted a study to determine how transparent banks make their fees on their websites, where consumers tend to shop for a bank. If customers are going to be charged a monthly service charge or a fee for talking to a teller, it's reasonable to expect those fees to be disclosed up front.

The study found that the average checking account has approximately 30 fees associated with it. But that isn't a certainty.

Hard to tell

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Source: M&T Bank

“Once again, the variance in disclosure policies made it hard for us to determine the precise number of fees associated with each checking account, but most banks fell in the 20 to 40 total fee range, with some reaching almost 50,” the authors write. “The sheer number of different fees associated with checking accounts prevents effective product comparison and decreases the likelihood that consumers will find the best checking accounts for their needs.”

The study also names names. It said 2 banks out of 25 in the survey – USAA and M&T Bank, don't provide a fee schedule to consumers on the checking account product pages of their websites.

A check by ConsumerAffairs shows the USAA Secure Checking Account pagedoes clearly state “no monthly fees, free nationwide ATMs.” But if there are fees for other services, they don't appear to be listed.

On the M&T Bank checking account page, there is a list of different types of checking accounts, along with the monthly service charge for each. Under the “Free Checking” heading, the reader is directed to this footnote at the bottom of the page:

“Regardless of whether a monthly maintenance charge applies, M&T checking accounts (including Free Checking) are subject to transaction and service fees, including insufficient funds and overdraft fees, as noted in the Specific Features and Terms for each account and, also the Additional Fees and Fees for Use of Electronic Banking Card for Consumer Checking Accounts, which are available on request at any M&T banking office or through the M&T Telephone Banking Center.”

Some fees might be disclosed, some not

M&T Bank Aug. 21, 2014, 1:55 a.m.
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It's important to remember, the report authors conclude, that only a few disclosed fees on a bank website doesn't actually mean fewer actual fees. When banks do disclose fees, the number may vary from 20 to 40.

The fees might actually be disclosed on the website, but Wallethub says they may not be where you would expect to find them.

“Consumers should be aware that there are banks that disclose only a part of their full list of fees initially, another part during the application process and the rest after the consumer has signed up for the account,” the authors conclude.

They also advise to watch out for language like “A full/complete fee schedule will be provided after sign-up.”

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FTC warns retailers about their claims that mouthguards can prevent concussions

The agency questions whether there is evidence to support the claims

Do athletic mouthguards really prevent concussions? The Federal Trade Commission is warning five retailers to be sure they have evidence to back up their c...

Do athletic mouthguards really prevent concussions? The Federal Trade Commission is warning five retailers to be sure they have evidence to back up their claims for the mouthguards sold on their websites.

It's a little hard to see how a mouthguard would protect the brain, and in an article in the British Medical Journal, researchers say flatly there's not much evidence it does:

"One of the most commonly held myths in sports medicine is the premise that wearing a mouthguard will prevent concussion," wrote lead author Paul McCrory, a sportsmedicie physician in Australia. "The ability of mouthguards to protect against head and spinal injuries in sport falls into the realm of 'neuromythology' rather than hard science."

In letters to the five retailers, who were not publicly identified, the FTC noted that making an objective claim for a product without a reasonable basis to support the claim is deceptive, and “competent and reliable” scientific evidence is generally needed to substantiate health-related claims.
 
The letters point out that retailers, as well as product manufacturers, can be liable for legal action if they disseminate false or unsubstantiated claims.

“Given all of the news reports in the past few years about concussions, retailers should be vigilant in reviewing claims made for products they are selling for young athletes,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Each letter identifies a mouthguard on the retailer’s website for which a concussion protection claim is made. The letter then discusses the FTC’s 2012 case against mouthguard manufacturer Brain-Pad Inc., and recommends that the retailer review its website to ensure that it is not making unsupported concussion protection claims.

This is the third set of warning letters the FTC has sent regarding concussion protection claims. In November 2012, after the order in the Brain-Pad case became final, agency staff sent out warning letters to 18 other manufacturers of sports equipment, advising them of the Brain-Pad settlement and warning them that they might be making deceptive concussion protection claims for their products. Letters to almost a dozen additional manufacturers were subsequently sent out over the next 18 months.

The FTC also testified before a Congressional subcommittee last May, noting that as awareness of the danger of concussions has grown, manufacturers have started making concussion-protection claims for an increasing array of sports-related products.

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Sales of existing homes climb in July

Affordability in the years ahead has the experts concerned

Sales of previously owned homes are now at their highest level of the year. Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show total exis...

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Sales of previously owned homes are now at their highest level of the year.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show total existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- rose 2.4% in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.15 million.

That's the fourth straight monthly increase and puts sales at the highest pace of 2014. Nonetheless, sales are still 4.3% below the 5.38 million-unit level from last July, which was the peak of 2013.

Momentum building

Stronger job growth and improving inventory conditions are given some of the credit.

“The number of houses for sale is higher than a year ago and tamer price increases are giving prospective buyers less hesitation about entering the market,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “More people are buying homes compared to earlier in the year and this trend should continue with interest rates remaining low and apartment rents on the rise.”

However, Yun does warn that affordability is likely to decline in upcoming years. “Although interest rates have fallen in recent months, median family incomes are still lagging behind price gains, and mortgage rates will inevitably rise with the upcoming changes in monetary policy,” he said.

Prices and inventory rising

The median existing-home price for all housing types in July was $222,900 -- which is 4.9% above a year earlier and the 29th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains.

Total housing inventory at the end of last month was up 3.5% -- to 2.37 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 5.5-month supply at the current sales pace. Unsold inventory is 5.8% higher than a year ago, when there were 2.24 million existing homes available for sale.

Healing the wounds

Distressed homes -- foreclosures and short sales -- accounted for 9% of July sales, compared with 15% a year ago and the first time in the single-digits since NAR started tracking the category in October 2008. Six percent of July sales were foreclosures and 3% were short sales. Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 20% below market value in July, while short sales were discounted 14%.

Yun says the deepest housing wounds suffered during the Great Recession are beginning to fully heal. “To put it in perspective, distressed sales represented an average of 36% of sales during all of 2009,” he said. “Fast-forward to today and rising home values are helping owners recover equity and strong job creation are assisting those who may have fallen behind on their mortgage due to unemployment or underemployment.”

Regional breakout

  • July existing-home sales in the Northeast were at an annual rate of 640,000 for the second consecutive month and are now 9.9% below a year ago. The median price in the Northeast was $273,600 -- up 2.4% from July 2013.
  • In the Midwest, existing-home sales increased 1.7% to an annual level of 1.22 million, but are still 4.7% below the same time last year. The median price $175,200, a gain of 4.1% from the year before.
  • Existing-home sales in the South jumped 3.4% to an annual rate of 2.12 million, and are now up slightly (0.5%) tear-over-year. The median price rose 5.0% from a year ago to $192,000.
  • Sales of previously-owned homes in the West climbed 2.6% last month to an annual rate of 1.17 million, are 8.6% July 2013. The median price was $304,100 -- 6.3% above the same month a year ago.
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Back-to-school shopping isn't over yet

Students and families seem to be holding out for better deals

You would think that with kids returning to school in less that 2 weeks (or in some cases already back in the classroom), most folks would have wrapped up ...

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You would think that with kids returning to school in less that 2 weeks (or in some cases already back in the classroom), most folks would have wrapped up their back-to-school shopping.

Think again.

According to the National Retail federations (NRF) latest Back-to-School/College Surveys, conducted by Prosper Insights, the average family with children in grades K-12 completed just half (49.9%) of their shopping by mid-August -- down slightly from last year (52.1%).

And why, you might ask, would that be? The prospect of bargains.

“As the shopping season draws to a close, budget-conscious parents are likely hoping that end-of-summer sales and promotions will be just what they need to wrap up their school lists,” said NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay. “Much of the delay this summer could also stem from families holding out for a sales tax holiday in their state, as well as from influential teenagers who want to first see what their friends are buying before they ask mom and dad to commit to their fall needs.”

According to the survey, as of August 12, fewer families had taken advantage of retailers’ special school savings opportunities. Specifically, one-quarter (23.6%) had not started shopping yet, compared with 20.9% last year. However, there were some who were eager to get started as they looked to spread out their spending: 15.7% say they have wrapped things up, about the same as last year.

College families on the other hand, got a good jump on retailers’ sales and promotions this summer. More than 23% say they are completely finished with their lists, versus 20% last year. Additionally, slightly fewer families this year say they haven’t started shopping (26.2% vs. 28.8% last year.)

Cost cutting

Hoping to trim the costs where they can, some back-to-school shoppers made it a point to look for coupons and sales while scouring for new footwear, supplies, electronic items and apparel. And, according to the most recent survey, 15.2% of back-to-school shoppers said all of their purchases were influenced by coupons, sales and promotions -- the most since 2011; 14.8% of college students and their families say 76-99% of their shopping was influenced by coupons, also the highest for that range in the survey’s history.

In July, NRF found eight in 10 (81.1%) families with children in grades K-12 said the state of the economy would affect their school spending in some way; seven out of 10 (77.2%) college students and their families agreed.

Shopping habits

When asked what payment method back-to-school families used most often to purchase school necessities, 44.9% say they have or will use their debit cards more than cash (24.9%) and credit cards (27.9%). College students and their families have or will use debit cards (43.4%), followed by credit cards (33.7%) and cash (18.9%).

To wrap up their lists, most back-to-school shoppers will shop at discount (54%), department (47.7%) and clothing stores (35%), and online (24.8%). One-third (33.7%) will visit an office supply store and 10 percent will shop local and support small business.

Back-to-college shoppers will finish their shopping at discount (47.4%), department (40.3%) and clothing stores (26.8%). The most in the survey’s history -- 37.4% -- will fill their lists online.

School requirements

To gauge the level of influence a school may have on both back-to-school and college shoppers’ intentions to buy supplies and/or electronics, NRF asked parents this year about specific course/school requirements.

According to the survey, nearly one in five parents (18.2%) say that 100% of their back-to-college electronics purchases were influenced by course/school requirements.

For back-to-school families, whose lists often include supplies needed for the classroom, 21% of parents say that all of the supplies they buy are influenced by classroom and school requirements. When it comes to electronics, 16.4% said that every electronic item they buy is influenced by classroom lists and school requirements.

“As schools looks to parents more and more to help fund classroom needs, parents are looking for as many ways as they can to cut costs, and that could very well be why we’re seeing more people seek out coupons and sales this summer,” said Prosper Insights Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow. “Low prices at the end of the season will definitely drive more college and school families to shop last minute, especially for those with specific items they need in order to start the school year.”

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Jobless claims fall following the previous week's gain

It's the third time in five weeks they've been below 300k

Initial applications for jobless claims have fallen below 300,000 for the third time in 5 weeks. Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) put first-...

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Initial applications for jobless claims have fallen below 300,000 for the third time in 5 weeks.

Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) put first-time requests for state unemployment benefits during the week ending August 16 at a seasonally adjusted 298,000 -- a drop of 14,000 from the previous week's revised level of 312,000. The consensus estimated in Briefing.com's survey was for a decline to 308,000.

While the DOL says there were no “special factors” affecting this week's number, analysts point out that the auto industry did shut down for retooling during the summer months the way it has in the past.

When production trends return to their historical averages, they speculate, the initial claims level will bounce back toward its previous range of 310,000 - 320,000.

The 4-week moving average, which smooths out the volatility of the weekly number and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was up 4,750 to 300,750.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Chrysler recalls Jeep Cherokee, Ram 1500 and Chrysler 200 vehicles

The rear shocks may detach from the vehicle at one end

Chrysler Group is recalling 15,956 model year 2014 Jeep Cherokee and Ram 1500 and 2015 Chrysler 200 vehicles. Due to an insufficient weld, the rear shocks ...

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Photo source: Chrysler.com

Chrysler Group is recalling 15,956 model year 2014 Jeep Cherokee and Ram 1500 and 2015 Chrysler 200 vehicles. Due to an insufficient weld, the rear shocks may detach from the vehicle at one end and possibly damage other chassis components, the tire or result in reduced braking. Damage to the tire or reduced braking increases the risk of a vehicle crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the rear shocks and replace any affected ones, 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 P37.

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Google to offer supervised accounts to kids under 13

Promises parental oversight and protection of children's privacy

Big changes are coming to Google: the company intends to officially make its accounts available to children under 13, with parental permission and control....

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Are you addicted to work?

It may not be the benign condition it might seem

Some people are constant clock-watchers on the job, eager for the end to the work day. Others are usually the last to leave the office, losing track of tim...

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Some people are constant clock-watchers on the job, eager for the end to the work day. Others are usually the last to leave the office, losing track of time as they delve deeper into whatever they're working on.

Members of the latter group are usually called workaholics, unable or unwilling to shift their focus from their work to other parts of their lives. What's behind this obsession?

That's what Cecilie Schou Andreassen and colleagues at the University of Bergen, in Norway, wanted to find out. It's not like work addiction is a new phenomenon – it's been the object of study for at least 4 decades.

Schou Andreassen wanted to find out how many true workaholics are among us and in that area, the research is thin. The field primarily relies on limited measures used in small non-representative samples from the U.S.

7 signs

For her study, which appears in the journal PLOS One, Schou Andreassen and her research team have identified 7 criteria to measure work addiction – 7 ways you can tell if you are a workaholic.

First, you think of ways you can free up time so you can work more. This is the exact opposite of most people, who look for ways to increase leisure or family time.

You put in more hours than you expected. For example, you plan to stop off at the office on a Saturday to pick up a folder but don't leave until hours later, unable to walk away from an unfinished project.

You find work is a great outlet. When you are working, you feel less guilt, anxiety or depression.

People are always commenting on your great work habits, expressing admiration but telling you to take more time for yourself. You always ignore their advice.

You get upset if something prevents your from working. You might be working at home on the weekend when a power outage stops your work, making your feel stressed.

You give up hobbies and leisure activities you once enjoyed because you now consider them an intrusion into your work time.

Finally, your commitment to work begins to affect your health. You don't get enough exercise or eat right, because you are always grabbing something from the vending machine and eating at your desk.

“If you reply ‘often’ or ‘always’ to at least 4 of these 7 criteria, there is some indication that you may be a workaholic,” Schou Andreassen said. “This is the first scale to use core symptoms of addiction found in other more traditional addictions.”

In a completely unrelated survey, TripAdvisor has released a survey of workers and found that 77% said they had worked while on vacation in the last year. Five percent said they really enjoyed it, suggesting that group might be defined as workaholic.

Young adults most affected

The Norwegian study found, as a whole, 8.3% of its subjects appear to be addicted to work. Both men and women tend to equally compulsively overwork. But there was one distinction.

“We did find that younger adults were affected to a greater extent than older workers,” said Schou Andreassen. “However, workaholism seems unrelated to gender, education level, marital status or part-time versus full-time employment.”

Another distinction was people with children living at home were more likely to be workaholics than those without children.

Why study it?

One possible reason work addiction doesn't get the attention of, say, meth addiction, is that being addicted to work isn't always viewed as such a negative thing. But like other addictions, it can interfere with relationships.

But the workaholic is essentially being more productive. Isn't that a good thing? Ebeneezer Scrooge was a workaholic, and that didn't work out too well for the people around him.

Dr. Barbara Killinger, writing in Psychology Today, sees the dark side of work addiction. Most workaholics are displaying an ambition, she believes, rooted in the search for power.

“Power is the seductive mistress that lures workaholics whose obsessive and compulsive focus is increasingly on work related goals that take them away from personal and professional responsibilities to family, friends, colleagues and staff,” she writes. “The acquisition of money and worldly goods can be a showcase of power and influence, or the individual may chose a more private lifestyle to avoid the envy or resentment of others.”

Schou Andreassen points out that workaholism may have contradictory psychological, physiological, and social outcomes. She would like to see more awareness of it among employers and health professionals.

“As workaholism is not a formal diagnosis the development of treatment models and real treatment offers has been lacking,” she said.

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Burning iPhone battery forces airplane evacuation

Lithium-ion devices can be dangerous, especially with third-party batteries

An airplane in Tel Aviv had to be evacuated earlier this week after the lithium-ion battery powering a passenger's iPhone 5 caught on fire, filling the cab...

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An airplane in Tel Aviv had to be evacuated earlier this week after the lithium-ion battery powering a passenger's iPhone 5 caught on fire, filling the cabin with smoke.

Gizmodo India reports that “It is well within the realms of possibility that it could be a third party or unauthorized battery in the device that may have caused the incident.”

Using third-party (as opposed to manufacturer-approved) batteries or chargers in smartphones and other lithium-battery-powered devices is indeed dangerous. As early as 2005, the feds were issuing warnings about the fire hazards of lithium batteries, and advised consumers to never use incompatible cell phone batteries and chargers.

In 2004, a California teenager suffered second-degree burns when her cell phone caught on fire without warning; a local fire investigator said the phone suddenly burst into “fist-sized flames,” and suspected that an overheating lithium battery was to blame.

Danger goes unheeded

Unfortunately, even nine years later, many people remain completely unaware of such dangers. Just last month, a 13-year-old in Texas had her bedding catch on fire after the third-party battery in her smartphone overheated and started smoldering. Luckily, she wasn't hurt and, while the fire did destroy her bed and bedding, it was extinguished before it could spread to the rest of the house.

The problem is not limited to smartphones, with or without manufacturer-approved batteries. Bulk shipments of any lithium batteries on passenger flights have been banned since 2004, because when bulk piles of such batteries catch on fire, that fire is very difficult to put out (especially on an in-flight airplane).

In 2007, the feds considered new restrictions for transporting lithium batteries on airplanes, but said at the time it had no plans to prohibit passengers from carrying battery-operated devices with them; only checked baggage and cargo would be affected.

Other hazards

Other lithium-ion battery products have proved to be fire hazards over the past few months. Last February, Bombardier Recreational Products recalled over 1,600 pairs of heated gloves and their rechargeable batteries, because the batteries could overheat and cause a fire hazard. A week earlier, Lucent Ace recalled some of its LED flashlights because their lithium batteries could short out, rupturing their canisters and burning their owners.

Certain brands of e-cigarette batteries have also either caught fire or exploded. In March, fire marshals in Oregon blamed e-cigs for two nighttime fires: the batteries overheated while recharging. That's why anyone who uses e-cigarettes (or any other rechargeable electronic device, for that matter) should never leave their devices plugged in overnight, or when nobody is home.

So what can you do to keep yourself and your house safe from such fire hazards? The three most important pieces of advice are: always use manufacturer-approved batteries and chargers for your smartphone, laptop, tablet or any other device; never leave the devices plugged in overnight or while you're away; and, especially while the devices are turned on, do not cover them with blankets, pillows or anything else capable of restricting airflow and preventing heat from dissipating.

(That's why the teenager in Texas had her phone catch fire last month: not only was it powered by a third-party battery, but the girl took it to bed with her and over the course of the night, it somehow ended up under her pillow.)

You should also keep an eye out for recalls of any other lithium-battery products, to make sure none of them apply to things you've bought.

And remember that, as of last month, all flyers in American airspace are required to have their smartphones, laptops and other battery-operated devices fully charged and capable of being turned on, because if any such device has a dead battery, TSA will assume it is a bomb.

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Yoga found to improve older adults' health

University of Illinois study finds yoga helps improve memory function

In case you haven't noticed, nearly everyone is going to a yoga class. The breathing, stretching and relaxation regimen has always been popular among “New ...

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In case you haven't noticed, nearly everyone is going to a yoga class. The breathing, stretching and relaxation regimen has always been popular among “New Age” adherents, but lately has gone mainstream in a big way.

A 2012 study by Yoga Journal counted 20.4 million Americans among those practicing yoga, compared to 15.8 million in the 2008 study. Demographically, yoga practitioners tend to be young and female, but that may be changing.

Physicians in recent years have begun recommending yoga for male and female patients of all ages. The Mayo Clinic says it can not only reduce stress, but lower blood pressure and improve heart function.

“Hatha yoga, in particular, may be a good choice for stress management,” Mayo Clinic physicians advise on the Clinic's website. “Hatha is one of the most common styles of yoga, and beginners may like its slower pace and easier movements.”

Yoga for seniors

Hatha yoga may, in fact, be a good choice for older adults. Researchers at the University of Illinois found practicing hatha yoga 3 times a week for as few as 8 weeks helped older, sedentary adults think more clearly.

The researchers tested two groups of seniors – one which engaged in hatha yoga classes and one which took part in simple stretching exercises.

After 8 weeks the yoga group was noticeably faster and more accurate on tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task-switching than it had been before the classes. The stretching-and-toning group was about the same at the end as it was at the beginning.

The two groups were balanced in age, gender, social status and other demographic factors so that played no part in the results.

Good for beginners

Hatha yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that involves meditation and focused breathing while an individual moves through a series of stylized postures. Neha Gothe, who led the study, says that makes it well-suited to beginners.

"Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate," Gothe said. "It is possible that this focus on one's body, mind and breath during yoga practice may have generalized to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention."

The Mayo Clinic also sees attributes to yoga that make it a helpful exercise for older adults. It can lead to better balance, flexibility, range of motion and strength. That means a senior regularly practicing yoga might be less likely to fall or be injured during other daily activities.

The Yoga Health Foundation cites studies suggesting yoga can even help patients manage diabetes. The studies showed that practicing yoga improved nerve function in patents' hands.

Before you start

It's a good idea talk to your doctor before starting a yoga program if you are over 50 and have any of the following conditions:

  • A herniated disk
  • A risk of blood clots
  • Deconditioned state
  • Eye conditions, including glaucoma
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Pregnancy
  • Severe balance problems
  • Severe osteoporosis
  • Uncontrolled blood pressure

There are plenty of books, videos and TV programs that can guide you through the process. However, most people find it more helpful to start with a class led by a qualified instructor.

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Feds fine auto finance company

First Investors Financial Services Group mostly lent to subprime borrowers

An auto finance company that mostly lends to subprime borrowers is being fined $2.75 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Texas-base...

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An auto finance company that mostly lends to subprime borrowers is being fined $2.75 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Texas-based First Investors Financial Services Group Inc., distorted consumer credit records for years.  

The CFPB said First Investors failed to fix known flaws in a computer system that was providing inaccurate information to credit reporting agencies. This potentially harmed tens of thousands of its customers. 

“First Investors showed careless disregard for its customers’ financial lives by knowingly distorting their credit profiles for years,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Companies cannot pass the buck by blaming a computer system or vendor for their mistakes. Today’s action sends a signal that the CFPB will hold companies accountable for sending inaccurate information to credit reporting agencies.”

First Investors is one of many thousands of voluntary data furnishers that provide information to the credit reporting agencies. Furnishers are required by law to have reasonable policies and procedures regarding the accuracy and integrity of the information they provide.

Credit reporting agencies track a consumer’s credit history and other consumer transactions based on information supplied by the furnishers. The reports that they sell are used in determining everything from consumer eligibility for credit to employment decisions.

The CFPB investigation found that First Investors furnished inaccurate information about its customers to credit reporting agencies for at least three years. When First Investors discovered the problem in April 2011, it notified the vendor but did nothing more.

The company did not replace the system or take any steps to correct the inaccurate information it had supplied. It continued for years to use a system that it knew was flawed. Tens of thousands of consumers were likely subject to these systemic reporting problems.

Enforcement action

The CFPB’s order requires First Investors to take the following actions:

· Correct errors on credit reports: First Investors must identify all consumer accounts affected by its reporting errors and fix any inaccuracies. The company must either provide the correct information, or, in cases where accurate information is not available, First Investors must delete references to the loan altogether.

· Help consumers obtain free copies of their credit reports: First Investors will identify and inform all affected consumers about this action. It will also help all affected consumers receive free copies of their credit reports so consumers can check the reports’ accuracy for themselves.

· Establish consumer safeguards: First Investors must change how it does business and establish safeguards to ensure that it reports only accurate information about its customers to credit reporting agencies. In addition, it must ensure it has the staffing, facilities, systems, and information necessary to timely and completely respond to consumer disputes. And, it must establish an audit program to identify any systemic inaccuracies.

· Pay a fine: First Investors will pay a $2.75 million fine for the illegal actions.

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Macy's agrees to end racial profiling in its New York stores

The state had received more than a dozen complaints of profiling and false detentions

Macy's has agreed to stop racial profiling and false detentions at its 42 New York State stores, following a state investigation of more than a dozen compl...

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Macy's has agreed to stop racial profiling and false detentions at its 42 New York State stores, following a state investigation of more than a dozen complaints from customers of Macy’s flagship store in Manhattan’s Herald Square.

“It is absolutely unacceptable -- and it’s illegal -- for anyone in New York to be treated like a criminal simply because of the color of their skin,” Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said. “This agreement will help ensure that no one is unfairly singled out as a suspected criminal when they shop in New York and that all New Yorkers enjoy full and equal access to our retail establishments.”

Macy's Aug. 20, 2014, 2:21 p.m.
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The settlement, which requires that Macy’s pay $650,000, is the second agreement reached this month by Schneiderman’s Civil Rights Bureau with a retail establishment in New York City -- and comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Schneiderman recently reached a similar agreement with Barneys New York. That agreement required Barneys to, among other things, retain an anti-profiling consultant, establish new recordkeeping requirements, adopt new loss prevention policies and procedures, and pay $525,000 in costs, fees and penalties.

Macy's will pay $650,000 and establish similar procedures.

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Falling interest rates help boost mortgage applications

Applications for government mortgages were lower, though

Mortgage applications increased in the week ending thanks to falling interest rates and concern about international turmoil. Data from the Mortgage Banker...

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Mortgage applications increased in the week ending thanks to falling interest rates and concern about international turmoil.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show total applications were up 1.4% from the week before. The Refinance Index increased 3%, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 55% of total applications from 54% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 7.8% of total applications.

“Interest rates dropped last week as a result of the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine and other international concerns, which in turn pushed mortgage rates lower,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “Overall application volume for conventional mortgages increased.”

However, there was a 5.9% drop in the number of applications for government mortgages, with both purchase and refinance applications dipping. The decline was led by an 8% slide in unadjusted Department of Veterans Affairs applications, while Federal Housing Administration and Rural Housing Service unadjusted applications fell by 5% and 3%, respectively.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 6 basis points -- from 4.35% to 4.29% -- with points increasing to 0.26 from 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dipped to 4.18% from 4.24%, with points rising to 0.23 from 0.19 (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 decreased 5 basis points to 3.99%, while points were unchanged at 0.03 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs fell to 3.44% from 3.48%, while points remained the same at 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs plunged 14 basis points -- to 3.10%, with points dropping to 0.44 from 0.45 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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Louisiana sues State Farm

Suit charges the insurer uses unfair and fraudulent business practices

Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is suing State Farm Insurance, alleging the nationwide insurer has engaged in a pattern of unfair and fraudulent ...

PhotoLouisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell is suing State Farm Insurance, alleging the nationwide insurer has engaged in a pattern of unfair and fraudulent business practices aimed at controlling the auto repair industry and forcing unsafe repairs on vehicles without the knowledge or consent of consumers.

“State Farm has created a culture of unsafe business practices in which consumer vehicle repairs are performed with cost-savings as the primary goal rather than safety and reliability,” Caldwell said.

The suit alleges State Farm violated Louisiana’s Unfair Trade Practices Act and Monopolies Law by using scare tactics to steer Louisiana consumers to State Farm’s preferred repair shops and forcing shops to perform vehicle repairs cheaply and quickly, rather than in accordance with consumer safety and vehicle manufacturer performance standards.

The lawsuit also charges that State Farm steers consumers to direct repair providers that have signed agreements with the insurance company. As part of the terms of the agreement, those repair shops must comply with the standards for repair laid out by State Farm.

The insurance company, not the repair shop, dictates how long the repair should take, what types of repairs are made and the quality of replacement parts. In many cases, the repairs are completed with sub-standard parts without the consent of the policy holder, the suit charges.

“In some cases, we’ve found that these parts are nothing more than used junk yard parts. In others, we’ve found them to be foreign knock-off parts of questionable quality,” said Caldwell. “Auto repair is not an industry where you can cut corners to save a little money,” he said. “It could be a matter of life and death.”

State Farm Auto Insurance  Aug. 20, 2014, 1:07 p.m.
Consumers rate State Farm Auto Insurance
Caldwell says the suit aims to change the culture of unsafe business practices led by State Farm in the auto insurance and repair industry. State Farm currently holds the largest share of auto insurance policies in Louisiana. In 2012, State Farm wrote one third of all auto insurance policies in the state totaling over $1 billion in premiums.

“Each month Louisiana consumers give their hard earned money to State Farm under the assumption that the insurer will take care of them if an accident occurs. This simply isn’t happening. Quite frankly, State Farm has been there for State Farm, not the Louisiana consumer,” Caldwell stated.

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A "Top Safety Pick+" rating for Subaru

The 2015 Legacy and Outback performed well in the small overlap test

Top marks in every measurement category of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front crash test helped the redesigned Subaru ...

Photo
Photo source: IIHS

Top marks in every measurement category of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front crash test helped the redesigned Subaru Legacy and Outback earn a "Top Safety Pick+" designation. The midsize vehicles' optional front crash prevention system was also a factor.

The previous generation Legacy also was a Top Safety Pick+ winner, earning an acceptable rating overall in the small overlap front test. Structural performance improved to good for the 2015 Legacy, compared with a marginal score for the outgoing model.

Impressive showing

The driver space was maintained well, with the safety cage preventing excessive intrusion into the occupant compartment. The dummy's movement was well-controlled, and the frontal and side curtain airbags worked together to protect the head from contact with interior structures. Ratings for restraints, dummy kinematics, and injury measures for the head and neck, chest, pelvis, and legs and feet are all good.

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

The Legacy and Outback, which is the station wagon version of the Legacy, earn superior ratings for front crash prevention when equipped with EyeSight, their optional forward collision warning system with autobrake. In track evaluations, the system completely stopped the vehicle in the Institute's 12 and 25 mph front crash avoidance tests.

Strong track record

Subaru has the most 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK awards of any brand. Its other winners include the BRZ, Impreza, Forester, WRX and XV Crosstrek.

To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK, a vehicle must earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection, as well as good ratings in the Institute's moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests.

Top Safety Pick+ winners must meet those same criteria and also earn a basic, advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

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nSPIRED Natural Foods recalls various products due to possible health risk

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

nSpired Natural Foods is voluntarily recalling certain retail lots of Arrowhead Mills Peanut Butters, MaraNatha Almond Butters and Peanut Butters and speci...

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© uckyo - Fotolia.com

nSpired Natural Foods is voluntarily recalling certain retail lots of Arrowhead Mills Peanut Butters, MaraNatha Almond Butters and Peanut Butters and specific private label nut butters packaged in glass and plastic jars.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

The company has received reports of four illnesses that may be associated with these specific products.

The following products are being recalled:

Recalled Retail Lots
Item DescriptionUnit UPCBest By Date Range
Arrowhead Mills Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter 16 oz.07433347032831DEC14 thru 14MAY15
Arrowhead Mills Organic Creamy Peanut Butter 16 oz.07433347052631DEC14 thru 14MAY15
MaraNatha Roasted Creamy Almond Butter 16 oz.05165106032524DEC14 thru 17JUN15
MaraNatha Roasted Crunchy Almond Butter 16 oz.05165109201226DEC14 thru 06JUN15
MaraNatha Organic Roasted Creamy Almond Butter 16 oz.05165106021923DEC14 thru 04JUN15
MaraNatha Organic Roasted Crunchy Almond Butter 16 oz.05165109203604JUN15
MaraNatha Organic Raw Crunchy Almond Butter 16 oz.05165109212822DEC14 thru 01JUL15
MaraNatha Organic Raw Creamy Almond Butter 16 oz.05165109217314APR15 thru 01JUL15
MaraNatha Raw Almond Butter 16 oz.05165109218005APR15 thru 02JUL15
MaraNatha Organic Creamy Peanut Butter 16 oz.05165109219707APR15
MaraNatha Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter 16 oz.05165109220306APR15 thru 07APR15
MaraNatha No Stir Creamy Peanut Butter with Salt 16 oz.05165109221006JAN15 thru 20MAY15
MaraNatha Organic Creamy Peanut Butter with Salt 16 oz.05165109232603JAN15 thru 25JUN15
MaraNatha Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter with Salt 16 oz.05165109233302JAN15 thru 15MAY15
MaraNatha Organic No Stir Creamy Peanut Butter with Salt 16 oz.05165109235704JAN15 thru 27JUN15
MaraNatha Organic No Stir Crunchy Peanut Butter with Salt 16 oz.05165109236405JAN15 thru 28JUN15
MaraNatha Organic Raw Almond Butter 8 oz.05165109263013APR15 thru 30JUN15
MaraNatha Roasted Creamy Almond Butter 26 oz.05165109289004DEC14 thru 21APR15
MMaraNatha Organic Creamy Peanut Butter with Salt 26 oz.05165109291303JAN15 thru 25JUN15
MaraNatha Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter with Salt 26 oz.05165109292002JAN15 thru 25JUN15
MaraNatha No Stir Creamy Almond Butter 12 oz.05165109368212DEC14 thru 21JUL15
MaraNatha No Stir Crunchy Almond Butter 12 oz.05165109369917DEC14 thru 20JUL15
MaraNatha Organic No Stir Creamy Peanut Butter with Salt 16 oz.05165109375004JAN15 thru 10APR15
MaraNatha Organic No Stir Crunchy Peanut Butter with Salt 16 oz.05165109376705JAN15 thru 19MAY15
MaraNatha No Stir Creamy Almond Butter 12 oz.05165109368214DEC14 thru 14JUL15
MaraNatha No Stir Crunchy Almond Butter 12 oz.05165109369917DEC14 thru 18JUL15
MaraNatha Creamy Maple Almond Butter 12 oz.05165109386630MAY15 thru 31MAY15
MaraNatha Creamy Roasted Almond Butter 340 grams05165109305711DEC14 thru 02JUN15
MaraNatha Creamy Raw Almond Butter 340 grams05165109306407MAY15 thru 05JUN15
MaraNatha Organic Creamy Peanut Butter with Salt 500 grams05165109330903JAN15 thru 24JUN15
MaraNatha Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter with Salt 500 grams05165109331631DEC14 thru 15MAY15
MaraNatha No Stir Creamy Peanut Butter with Salt 500 grams05165109340820MAY15
MaraNatha No Stir Crunchy Peanut Butter with Salt 500 grams05165109341513MAR15 thru 28JUN15
MaraNatha Creamy Almond Butter No Salt 340 grams05165109345316DEC14 thru 11MAY15
MaraNatha Crunchy Almond Butter No Salt 340 grams05165109346016DEC14 thru 14MAY15
MaraNatha Creamy Almond Butter 737 grams05165109286908DEC14 thru 03JUL15
Kroger No Stir Creamy Almond Butter 12 oz.01111079121411DEC14 thru 05JUL15
Safeway Open Nature Almond Butter 12 oz.07989311374611DEC14 thru 03JUL15
Trader Joe's Crunchy Raw Almond Butter 16 oz.0091989028DEC14 thru 18JUN15
Trader Joe's Creamy Raw Almond Butter 16 oz.0056995827DEC14 thru 18JUL15
Whole Foods 365 Creamy Roasted Almond Butter 16 oz.09948240657823DEC14 thru 24DEC14
Whole Foods 365 Crunchy Roasted Almond Butter 16 oz.09948240656124DEC14 thru 26DEC14
Whole Foods 365 Organic Creamy Roasted Almond Butter 16 oz.09948240596023DEC14

The use-by date can be found on the top of the jar lid.

The company is currently working with customers and retailers to remove and destroy products with the above use-by dates from store shelves and warehouses.

Products were distributed across the U.S.,, Canada, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, and Dominican Republic, and also were available for purchase on the Internet.

Consumers need not return the product to the store where it was purchased. Instead, they should dispose of it and the container.

Consumers may contact the Company at 1-800-937-7008 between 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM CST for a replacement or refund, and with general inquiries.

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Bexco recalls Franklin & Ben Mason 4-in-1 Convertible Cribs

The crib front can separate from the side panels and create a hazardous gap

Bexco Enterprises Inc., of Montebello, Calif., is recalling about 1,100 Franklin & Ben Mason 4-in-1 Convertible Cribs in the U.S. and Canada. The crib fro...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Bexco Enterprises of Montebello, Calif., is recalling about 1,100 Franklin & Ben Mason 4-in-1 Convertible Cribs in the U.S. and Canada.

The crib front can separate from the side panels and create a hazardous gap that can allow a child to fall out or become entrapped between the front and side panels.

The firm has received 14 reports of the front separating from the side panels of the crib. No injuries have been reported.

This recall includes Franklin & Ben Mason style 4-in-1 style cribs model number 5601 that were manufactured from January 2012 through August 2012. The model number and the date of manufacture are printed on a label on the inside of a side panel of the crib.

Listed on the label as a “serial number,” the following purchase order numbers are included in the recall: H004522, H004546, H004548 or H004777.

The cribs have solid wood sideboards and wood rails on the front and back of the crib in varying heights and can convert to a daybed, toddler bed or full-sized bed. There is a storage drawer at the base of the crib with two metal knobs. The recalled cribs were sold in weathered gray and rustic brown, and measure 57 inches long by 33 inches wide by 51 inches high.

The cribs, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at juvenile products specialty retailers nationwide from January 2012 through June 2014 for between $600 and $700.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cribs and contact the firm for a free repair kit. In the meantime, parents are urged to find an alternate, safe sleeping environment for the child, such as a bassinet, play yard or toddler bed depending on the child’s age.

Consumers may Contact Franklin & Ben, a division of Bexco, toll-free at (888) 673-6652 8:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Despite new study, don't load up on salt

Study linking low-sodium consumption to death may not tell the whole story

Results of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week made a lot of waves. It suggested that a low-salt diet might be harmful to yo...

PhotoResults of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week made a lot of waves. It suggested that a low-salt diet might be harmful to your health. At least, that was the way it was interpreted in most media reports.

Researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) studied people who consumed varied amounts of sodium in their daily diet. Not surprisingly, it found that people who consumed 6 or more grams of sodium each day had a higher risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

But it also found that people who consumed 1.5 grams or less each day had a higher risk of heart-related death. So the headline on the study concluded that consuming too little sodium could be harmful, just as consuming too much.

Misleading?

But is that really what the study says? Read how Suzanne Oparil, director of the vascular biology and hypertension program in UAB’s School of Medicine, put it.

“Importantly, the very large PURE study provides evidence that both high and low levels of sodium intake may be associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease outcomes,” she said.

Notice what she didn't say. She didn't say the research had found a causation link – only a correlation. The media was quick to conclude that consuming less than 1.5 grams of sodium daily was harmful but that's not what the study says. It says only that people on a low-sodium diet are more likely to die from heart disease than people who consume 3 to 6 grams.

Ask yourself – who exactly is on a low-sodium diet, one in which they consume 1.5 grams or less of sodium daily? Wouldn't it mostly be people with a history of heart disease, or people at higher risk of cardiovascular disease? Maybe they were people who once consumed 6 grams or more of sodium, until they developed heart disease and their doctor put them on a low-sodium diet.

And might not people with existing heart disease, or high risk of heart disease, be the people most likely to die of heart disease?

Controversial

The interpretation of the study is somewhat controversial, since the U.S. government, in 2010, lowered its recommended sodium intake for children and adults to no more than 2.3 grams daily. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends even less sodium – below 1.5 grams daily.

The AHA was quick to criticize the PURE study, saying it contained several substantial “methodological issues” that limit its usefulness for developing guidelines for healthy sodium consumption.

“The AHA has been concerned about the quality of these studies and strongly believes that other types of evidence, particularly the well-documented clinical trial relationship of sodium intake and blood pressure, provide the best scientific basis to guide policy,” said AHA President Elliott Antman.

AHA is joined in its critique by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer group that has long advocated reduced sodium consumption in the American diet. CSPI Nutrition Director Bonnie F. Liebman notes that many low-sodium consumers in the study may have already been sick, a “serious shortcoming” in the study.

Liebman also notes that the same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine contained articles about 2 other sodium studies, one of which she says quantifies the massive toll caused by high-sodium diets. Consumers are eating too much sodium, she says, not too little.

“Americans are consuming about 4,000 mg of sodium per day—twice as high as those researchers recommend,” she says. “As a result, tens of thousands of Americans die prematurely every year due to cardiovascular disease.”

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Gap and Banana Republic sued over outlet-store offerings

Plaintiff claims lower-quality outlet items constitute false advertising, violate consumer-protection laws

It's been an open secret for years now that the items you find for sale in most brand-name “outlet” stores are not necessarily identical to the brand-name ...

More

Feds unveil new car recall database

Surprise! It duplicates existing free searches provided by Carfax, et al

It's hard to describe just how clunky the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's database is. Trying to ferret out information about a particular...

PhotoIt's hard to describe just how clunky the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's database is. Trying to ferret out information about a particular car is about as simple as navigating the FiOS TV menu. 

But NHTSA's about to change all that, or some of it anyway. It's announcing a new database intended for use by consumers that, it's said, will make it quick and easy to check whether your car, or one you've thinking of buying, or maybe stealing, has been the subject of a recall.

All you will have to do is enter the 17-digit VIN number. You do know your car's VIN, don't you? It's located in several spots on newer cars, most prominently on the driver's side dashboard facing out. You can see it through the windshield.

For checking out cars you're considering buying, you will need to have a specific car -- not just a year and model -- in mind. It won't be any good if you're thinking of buying just any old 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, let's say. No, you'll need to have already picked out the exact Cobalt you plan to drive off the lot, assuming the ignition switch doesn't fall out into your lap.

Of course, like most things federal, this is hardly a new idea. There are numerous services, Carfax being the most prominent, that will give you not only a car's recall status but also its title history and other assorted facts for a small fee.

Photo
NHTSA's current recall maze

If it's only recall information you're interested in, Carfax provides that for free at http://www.carfax.com/recall_check.cfx. How -- or if -- NHTSA's system will be any better remains to be seen.

Photo
Carfax' recall database

This is, of course, sort of par for the course. Government at all levels is blundering into the publishing business these days, competing with private businesses that have been operating successfully for years. Usually the net result is a big expenditure of funds with very little measurable effect.

Whether NHTSA manages to get it right will become clear when it finally unveils its latest effort, something we're told may happen later today.

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Study: Tougher academic standards raising school drop-out rate

Researchers say raising standards isn't helping everyone

For years educators have fretted about America's declining academic performance in science and technology. The result has been a new emphasis on training y...

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© Phimchanok - Fotolia.com
This is a story about unintended consequences. How the best of intentions don't always provide the intended results.

For years educators have fretted about America's declining academic performance in science and technology. The result has been a new emphasis on training young people in these more rigorous fields.

Curricula in high school now stresses the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math. The goal is a graduate better prepared to participate in these competitive and much sough-after labor markets.

But researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have found that more rigorous academics have had another result. They have driven some students to drop out.

Playing catch-up

“There’s been a movement to make education in the United States compare more favorably to education in the rest of the world, and part of that has involved increasing math and science graduation requirements,” said first author Andrew D. Plunk, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine.

The study suggests this may be more of an indictment of today's students than the new, more rigorous standards. Or maybe an indictment of previous standards that were too lenient, not preparing students for the reality of global competition.

“There was an expectation that this was going to be good for students, but the evidence from our analyses suggests that many students ended up dropping out when school was made harder for them,” Plunk said.

The research team reported their findings in the journal Educational Researcher. They studied census data going back to 1990 to reach the conclusion that higher standards are dooming some students.

Correlation

The census data shows the U.S. dropout rate rose to a high of 11.4 percent when students were required to take six math and science courses, compared with 8.6 percent for students who needed fewer math and science courses to graduate.

“As graduation requirements were strengthened, high school dropout rates increased across the whole population,” Plunk said. “But African-Americans and Hispanics were especially affected. I think our findings highlight the need to anticipate there may be unintended consequences, especially when there are broad mandates that, in effect, make high school coursework harder.”

Co-author William F. Tate, dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences says it is clear that when school systems added math and science courses to requirements for high school graduation they did little to prepare students for the new requirements.

“Many students were ill-prepared for the tougher standards,” said Tate. “Going forward, state policymakers must understand that students can’t take more math and science courses if they quit school.”

Common Core backlash

The study comes amid a growing revolt by parents over the Common Core academic standards adopted in most states over the last two years. Core is an educational initiative specifying what students in kindergarten through high school should learn, not just about math and science but English as well.

It was launched with financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in an effort to standardize learning in the U.S., eliminating disparities in standards between states. It caused controversy almost from the start.

As The New York Times recently noted, Common Core has critics all along the political spectrum. The right was the first to attack the standards as an intrusion by Washington into local education. But left of center groups have also voiced their opposition.

The New York teachers union has withdrawn its support for Common Core and Carol Burris, a highly respected Long Island principal, has called Common Core “a disaster.”

Is it a case of students being unable to meet a higher standard of learning? One prominent parent, comedian Louis C. K., has been very public in his criticism of Common Core – not because it's harder but because he says a lot of what it teaches doesn't make sense.

On the David Letterman Show, C.K said Common Core tests are written by unknown people.

“They've decided there is a new way kids need to think and we're going to improve their thinking by having them pass these tests,” he said. “Then I look at the problems, and it's like Bill has 3 goldfish, he buys 2 more, how many dogs live in London?”

In a subsequent Tweet, C.K wrote “My kids used to love math, now it makes them cry.”

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The best paying jobs for workers with a high school education

Even if you don't have a college degree, you do have options

You've graduated from high school and decided college isn't for you. But what kind of job will a high school diploma get you? Unfortunately, it's a tough ...

Photo
© Ljupco Smokovski - Fotolia.com

You've graduated from high school and decided college isn't for you. But what kind of job will a high school diploma get you?

Unfortunately, it's a tough world out there. People with only a high school diploma face an unemployment rate nearly twice that of college educated workers (6.1 to 3.1) and earn significantly less on average. Still, workers without college degrees do have options for lucrative careers.

A new analysis from CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. (EMSI) takes a look at the best paying occupations for workers with high school diplomas, and the type of training it takes to get the job.

The jobs are out there

As of this year, there are 115 occupations that require a high school diploma and pay $20 per hour or more on average. Of those, 70% typically require moderate to long-term on-the-job training or apprenticeships, while 30% typically require short-term or no on-the-job training.

In several of these jobs, workers may need to attend vocational school or other non-college-level training programs to achieve licensure or certification. Additionally, entry-level requirements will vary by state, locality and employer.

“While the pursuit of higher education is the best bet for gainful employment, it is a myth that only good jobs go to college graduates and that workers with high school degrees are destined to low-wage careers,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources for CareerBuilder. “It’s important to note, however, that most high-paying jobs available to high school grads involve skill sets that require extensive post-secondary training or several-years’ worth of prior experience, and are often in fields that have seen declining employment in recent years.”

Haefner added that the slack labor market following the recession caused many employers to recruit college-educated workers for jobs previously performed by high school grads, as detailed in a recent CareerBuilder survey.

The ten highest-paying jobs for high school graduates: short-term or no training

High-paying occupations for high school graduates aren’t necessarily entry-level jobs. For instance, first-line supervisors, regardless of discipline, typically require 1-5 years of prior work experience. The following are the ten highest-paying, non-farm jobs that require a high school diploma for minimum entry and require short-term or no on-the-job training:

Occupation

Med. Hourly Earnings

2014 Jobs

2010 - 2014 Growth

On-The-Job Training

Transportation, Storage, and Distribution Managers

$39.27

104,095

7%

None

First-Line Supervisors of Non-Retail Sales Workers

$34.27

252,593

6%

None

Gaming Managers

$31.99

5,131

1%

None

Real Estate Brokers

$29.48

51,154

6%

None

First-Line Supervisors of Construction Trades and Extraction Workers

$29.20

496,262

9%

None

First-Line Supervisors of Mechanics, Installers, and Repairers

$29.13

442,191

6%

None

Legal Support Workers, All Other***

$26.97

52,754

-1%

Short-term

Postal Service Mail Carriers

$26.75

283,715

-10%

Short-term

Transit and Railroad Police

$26.71

4,439

1%

Short-term

Property, Real Estate, and Community Association Managers

$26.00

170,463

7%

None

The ten highest-paying jobs for high school graduates: moderate or long-term training

The following table shows the ten highest paying, non-farm jobs that require a high school diploma for minimum entry and require an apprenticeship or moderate-to-long-term training.

Occupations that require longer periods of on-the-job training typically pay more than jobs with shorter ramp-up times.

However, five of the ten highest paying occupations for high school graduates in these categories have lost jobs since 2010. Nuclear Power Reactor Operators, Elevator Installers and Repairers and Transportation Inspectors have all seen healthy growth.

Occupation

Med. Hourly Earnings

2014 Jobs

2010 - 2014 Growth

On-The-Job Training

First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives

$39.16

100,913

-2%

Moderate-term

Elevator Installers and Repairers

$36.51

21,300

4%

Apprenticeship

Detectives and Criminal Investigators

$36.33

113,897

-3%

Moderate-term

Nuclear Power Reactor Operators

$36.18

7,209

4%

Long-term

Commercial Pilots

$35.73

34,578

-1%

Moderate-term

Power Distributors and Dispatchers

$34.57

11,467

1%

Long-term

Power Plant Operators

$32.13

40,024

-3%

Long-term

Electrical Power-Line Installers and Repairers

$30.92

116,184

6%

Long-term

Transportation Inspectors

$30.21

26,059

6%

Moderate-term

Postmasters and Mail Superintendents

$30.17

22,285

-9%

Moderate-term

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Planning to be elderly someday? Have daughters while you can

Study: Daughters do as much as they can for elderly parents, sons do as little as possible

Hoping your children will care for you in your old age? Better plan on having daughters. A new study finds that women appear to provide as much elderly p...

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© highwaystarz - Fotolia.com
Hoping your children will care for you in your old age? Better plan on having daughters. 

A new study finds that women appear to provide as much elderly parent care as they can, while men contribute as little as possible.

"Whereas the amount of elderly parent care daughters provide is associated with constraints they face, such as employment or childcare, sons' caregiving is associated only with the presence or absence of other helpers, such as sisters or a parent's spouse," said study author Angelina Grigoryeva, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Princeton University.

According to the study, daughters provide an average of 12.3 hours of elderly parent care per month as compared to sons' 5.6 hours. "In other words, daughters spend twice as much time, or almost seven more hours each month, providing care to elderly parents than sons," said Grigoryeva, who will present her research at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

The study also indicates that in the division of elderly parent care among siblings in mixed-sex sibling groups, gender is the single most important factor in the amount of assistance each sibling provides.

"Sons reduce their relative caregiving efforts when they have a sister, while daughters increase theirs when they have a brother," Grigoryeva said. "This suggests that sons pass on parent caregiving responsibilities to their sisters."

A significant sacrifice

The findings are significant not just for seniors but also for caregivers, who pay a heavy price for their efforts.

"Numerous empirical studies report negative mental and physical health consequences, including a higher mortality rate, for people who provide care for elderly family members," Grigoryeva said. "In addition, these caregivers often have to balance elder care with employment, potentially resulting in career sacrifices and lower earnings. Providing care for elderly relatives can also impose significant financial burdens on caregivers in the form of direct expenses, as they often pay for goods and services for their care recipients."

Considering that caregiving for elderly parents is disproportionately the responsibility of daughters, and previous research has shown women suffer from higher negative consequences associated with caregiving than men, the detrimental side-effects of caregiving for elderly parents could have "potentially intensifying effects on a series of gender inequalities pertaining to health and economic well-being," Grigoryeva said.

Although, "the U.S. has been gradually becoming a more gender egalitarian society since the 1970s, my study shows gender inequality remains acute when it comes to elderly parent care," Grigoryeva said.

Grigoryeva's paper relies on data from the 2004 wave of the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal panel study that surveys a nationally representative sample of more than 26,000 Americans over the age of 50 every two years.

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Starbucks joins the food truck revolution

Now college students can spend big bucks on coffee without too many extra steps

If you're already wondering how you're going to pay off those student loans you (or your offspring) are racking up, this may not be good news: Starbucks is...

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Photo credit: Starbucks

If you're already wondering how you're going to pay off those student loans you (or your offspring) are racking up, this may not be good news: Starbucks is merging into the food truck lane, starting with college campuses.

The ubiquitous purveyor of high-priced drinks, snacks and condiments rolled its first truck onto the campus of Arizona State University this week and plans to expand to two additional schools soon.

To hear Starbucks tell it, the trucks are creating quite a buzz -- above and beyond the buzz a couple of grande triple lattes will provide.

“People are surprised to see it, and then they’re excited,” said Ike Van Skike, district manager for Starbucks licensed stores in a press release hand-crafted by the Starbucks publicity baristas. “ASU faculty and staff tell me this is great for them because it’s an area of the campus that doesn’t have a lot of food service.”

The truck offers a menu of drinks and food nearly identical to what customers would find in their neighborhood Starbucks stores, thus making it easier to eat and drink the same thing all day every day.

As one would expect, the truck can move to various locations on campus throughout the day. The mobile truck, as Starbucks refers to it -- apparently hoping to differentiate it from stationary trucks -- is operated through Aramark, a giant food service company.

In addition to ASU, Starbucks trucks will roll onto the James Madison University campus in Virginia on August 25 and Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina on September 18.

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Retirement savings leave a lot to be desired

Those who are saving are starting earlier

Here's some disturbing -- and depressing -- news about retirement saving. A new report from Bankrate.com shows that more than a third of the people it sur...

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Here's some disturbing -- and depressing -- news about retirement saving.

A new report from Bankrate.com shows that more than a third of the people it surveyed (36%) have not saved any money for retirement. Additionally, 69% of 18-29 year-olds haven't saved anything, along with 33% of 30-49 year-olds, 26% of 50-64 year-old and 14% of people 65 and older.

The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

But hold on, the news isn't all bad.

Those who are saving are starting earlier. Twice as many 30-49 year-olds started saving in their 20s as opposed to their 30s. But 50-64 year-olds were only slightly more likely to have started saving in their 20s than their 30s, and people 65 and older were almost evenly split between starting in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

"Regardless of age, there is no better time than the present to start saving for retirement," said Bankrate.com chief financial analyst Greg McBride, CFA. "The key to a successful retirement is to save early and aggressively, but even those on the cusp of their golden years should have some money allocated toward equities as opposed to all cash and bonds."

A little optimism

Consumers' feelings of financial security were unchanged from one month ago, indicating a slight improvement in their financial security compared to one year ago. Bankrate.com's August Financial Security Index registered at 100.1. Any number above 100 illustrates improved financial security compared to one year ago, while any number below 100 reflects deteriorating financial security.

The survey also found:

  • Despite their lack of retirement savings, millennials feel more financially secure than any other age group. They feel more secure in their jobs and more optimistic about their current financial situation than any other age group.
  • Job security, net worth and overall financial situation are all areas in which survey respondents note improvement over one year ago.
  • There are twice as many people who less comfortable with their savings (compared with one year ago) as those that are more comfortable.
  • Men's feelings of financial security slipped, while women noted improved financial security since last month. However, men still note improved financial security compared with a year ago while women still feel a slight deterioration.
  • Comfort level with debt remains mixed. Sentiment slipped slightly this month, as those less comfortable with debt versus last year edged out those more comfortable. At present, 24% are less comfortable while 23% are more comfortable than one year ago.
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Consumer prices inch upward in July

Falling energy costs offset increases for food and shelter

Consumer prices edged up 0.1% in July, the smallest increase since February. According to government figures, increases in the cost of food and shelter we...

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Consumer prices edged up 0.1% in July, the smallest increase since February.

According to government figures, increases in the cost of food and shelter were partially offset by declining energy costs. Over the last 12 months, the consumer price index (CPI) is up 2.0%.

Energy costs

After rising in each of the last 3 months, energy prices fell 0.3% in July. Gasoline and electricity costs were down 0.3%., while fuel fell 0.7% and natural gas was off 0.4% -- its third decline in a row. Despite the July declines, all the major energy categories have increased over the past 12 months.

Food prices

Food costs posted their fifth increase in the last 6 months, rising 0.4% in July. Prices for for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs rose 0.3%, as did the dairy and related products. The only major grocery store food group that did not increase in July was fruits and vegetables, which was unchanged.

Core rate

The “core rate” of inflation, which excludes the volatile food and energy categories, increased 0.1% in

July, the same as in June. Along with shelter, prices for medical care, new vehicles, personal care and apparel all increased. For the last 12 months, the core rate is up 1.9%, the same for the 12 months ending June. The energy prices are up 2.6% and food costs have risen risen 2.5% over the past year.

The complete report is available on the Labor Department website.

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New home construction soars in July

The outlook for future home building is brighter as well

After falling in both June and May, new home construction shot up 15.7% in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,093,000. The consensus of analyst...

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© alisonhancock - Fotolia.com

After falling in both June and May, new home construction shot up 15.7% in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,093,000. The consensus of analysts surveyed by Briefing.com was for a rate of 964,000.

Figures released by the Census Bureau show the advance was led by an 8.3% surge in single-family housing starts to a rate of 656,000.

Analysts note that because single-family construction trends are generally stable, the-two month decline suggests housing construction may have peaked. It gives hope, they say, that the overall housing outlook may be on stronger footing then once thought.

The rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 423,000.

Building permits

The outlook for new-home construct in months ahead also took a turn for the better.

Housing units authorized by building permits jumped 8.1% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,052,000.

Authorizations for single-family homes rose 0.9% to a rate of 640,000, with authorizations of units in buildings with five units at a rate of 382,000 in July.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Recaro recalls child restraints

The child's head may move excessively, increasing the risk of injury

Recaro Child Safety is recalling 39,181 Recaro ProSport model 385 child restraints, manufactured from June 16, 2010, through January 31, 2013. When the a...

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Photo source: Recaropromotion.com

Recaro Child Safety is recalling 39,181 Recaro ProSport model 385 child restraints, manufactured from June 16, 2010, through January 31, 2013.

When the affected child seats are installed with the LATCH lower anchors only (without the top tether), the child's head can move excessively, increasing the risk of injury. In the event of a crash, the child restraint could fail to protect the child from contacting interior surfaces of the vehicle, increasing the risk of injury.

Recaro will notify registered owners and will provide, at no cost, a label to affix over the existing information label and a complete set of new instructions informing owners to discontinue use of the LATCH system when the weight of the child reaches 40 pounds. The campaign is expected to begin during August 2014.

Owners may contact Recaro at 1-888-973-2276.

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GM recalls vehicles with electrical issues

The insulation on the engine block heater cord can become damaged

General Motors is recalling 2,990 model year 2013-2014 Buick Encore all-wheel-drive vehicles manufactured August 23, 2012, to September 9, 2013; Verano veh...

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Photo source: Buick.com

General Motors is recalling 2,990 model year 2013-2014 Buick Encore all-wheel-drive vehicles manufactured August 23, 2012, to September 9, 2013; Verano vehicles manufactured August 8, 2012, to June 20, 2013; Chevrolet Cruze vehicles manufactured August 7, 2012, to August 16, 2013, and 2012-2014 Chevrolet Sonic vehicles manufactured May 10, 2011, to August 16, 2012 equipped with a Calix oil pan/block heater.

In cold temperatures, the insulation on the engine block heater cord can become damaged, allowing the wires to be exposed. This can increase the risk of electrical shock and personal injury if the cord is handled while it is plugged in.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the engine oil pan/block heater cord with a new cord that is rated for temperatures of minus 40 degree Celsius. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Buick customer service at 1-800-521-7300 or Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 14257.

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FAA cracks down on AirPooler and airborne "sharing economy"

One loophole remains, but wriggling through it might prove difficult

The FAA's recent ruling against AirPooler suggests the “sharing economy” won't make it into American airspace anytime soon....

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The FAA's recent ruling against AirPooler suggests the “sharing economy” won't make it into American airspace anytime soon.

If you pay any attention to economic news you've surely seen frequent mention of the “sharing economy” these past couple of years. But what is it? The People Who Share blog defines “sharing economy” as “a socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human and physical resources. It includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organisations.”

More casually, you could describe it as the current, Internet-enabled phenomenon whereinordinary people provide services which traditionally have only been available from strictly regulated businesses.

For example: everyday drivers using Uber or Lyft get in touch with people who need a ride and are willing to pay for it — people who otherwise would've been limited to buying a ride from a licensed taxi.

Ordinary homeowners or apartment-dwellers use AirBnB to rent rooms to travelers who otherwise would've had to stay in a motel, hotel or bed-and-breakfast. Private pilots used AirPooler and FlyteNow to find passengers willing to pay fuel and other expenses in exchange for a seat on their flight.

Governments oppose it

It's mostly accurate to say that government regulators thus far have been opposed to the “sharing economy,” for reasons ranging from consumer-protection concerns and tax-collection issues to protecting licensed businesses from unlicensed competition.

So the state of New York cracked down on people who used AirBnB to rent their homes out to travelers, the taxi industries and local regulators in states from California to Virginia cracked down on drivers offering rides through Uber and Lyft, and last week the Federal Aviation Administration announced that flight-sharing arrangements of the sort facilitated by AirPooler and FlyteNow violate FAA regulations.

The FAA sent AirPooler's attorneys a letter dated Aug. 13 (and available in .pdf form here), saying that flight-sharing violates regulations concerning the difference between private and commercial pilots:

A person who holds an airline transport pilot certificate or a commercial pilot certificate may act as pilot in command of an aircraft for compensation or hire and may carry persons or property for compensation or hire provided the pilot is qualified in accordance with [various FAA regulations].

Conversely, private pilots as a general rule may not act as pilot in command of an aircraft that is carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire nor, for compensation or hire, may they act as pilot in command of an aircraft.

Save on fuel

AirPooler maintains that its service simply offers private pilots a chance to save on fuel costs by splitting them with passengers who wanted to make that same flight anyway, akin to carpoolers doubling up to save on fuel costs. AirPooler CEO Steve Lewis told Bloomberg News that “There’s a really deep underlying economic basis [behind this and similar companies]. It’s much more than a fad for the shared economy because you have all these assets around that are being underutilized.”

AirPooler and FlyteNow say they plan to continue negotiations with the FAA so pilots and passengers can resume using their services. The FAA's letter does leave open a possibility for this to happen (though proving it might be a bureaucratic-paperwork nightmare for the actual pilots and passengers involved). The FAA said that regulation “61.113(c) contains an expense-sharing exception to the general prohibition against private pilots acting as pilot in command for compensation or hire” — in other words, it is indeed legal for private pilots to split gas costs and airport fees with their passengers, provided that's all they're doing.

However, the FAA continued, “a private pilot may not rely on that narrow exception to avoid the compensation component of common carriage. For this reason, the FAA has required a private pilot to have a common purpose with his or her passengers and must have his or her own reason for travelling [sic] to the destination.”

Presumably, this is okay if pilot and passenger connect through word of mouth — if you're a pilot wishing to fly to a distant beach and your next-door neighbor also wants to visit that beach, you can fly together and share costs without incurring FAA penalties.

However, according to the FAA letter, this doesn't apply to announcements on AirPooler because:

....by posting specific flights to the AirPooler website, a pilot … would be holding out to transport persons or property from place to place for compensation or hire. Although the pilots ... have chosen the destination, they are holding out to the public to transport passengers for compensation in the form of a reduction of the operating expenses they would have paid for the flight.

So sharing a flight with your friend or neighbor to reduce your expenses is okay, but sharing a flight with someone you found on AirPooler to reduce your expenses is not. Sound confusing? That's why AirPooler and other start-up businesses need lawyers.

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Nutella spread thin as hazelnut shortage worsens

Bad weather has damaged this year's hazelnut crop

It might seem nutty to you but there is a global shortage of hazelnuts and it's affecting Nutella lovers....

PhotoIt might seem nutty to you but there is a global shortage of hazelnuts and it's affecting Nutella lovers.

There are more than 50 hazelnuts per 13-ounce jar of Nutella, and with 180 million kilograms of the chocolaty spread produced each year, that adds up to an insane number of hazelnuts. Right now, many confectioners are, well, going nutty trying to secure hazelnuts.

The reason is that hail storms and frost in March damaged the crop in Turkey, which is where the majority of hazelnuts for the world are grown . The result is prices are climbing by as much as 60% this year.

Nutella maker Ferro Group has less reason for concern. It bought Turkish hazelnut supplier Oltan Group in July.

Ferrero is already the largest consumer of hazelnuts, consuming 25% of the world’s supply. According to a press release “Oltan Group is the worldwide leading operator in the procurement, processing and marketing of hazelnuts,” Oltan has five production facilities exporting to the European Union and the world’s other major markets. Doesn't seem like peanuts to me.

Nutella is a global phenomenon. Sales of the spread increased 6.4%, to $2.46 billion, in 2013, according to data from market researcher Euromonitor. In the U.S., Nutella sales were up 5.9%.

When Nutella entered the market it was a niche product. Nobody was very familiar with a chocolate spread and hazelnuts but it's become quite the spread representing nearly 70% of U.S. chocolate spread sales.

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Aspirin may help protect obese breast cancer patients

Texas researchers find it reduces cancer recurrence by 52% in some patients

Doctors have known for some time that obesity is linked to a higher risk of a recurrence of breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute says studies have ...

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© Kadmy - Fotolia.com

Doctors have known for some time that obesity is linked to a higher risk of a recurrence of breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute says studies have suggestedthat extra body fat can cause hormonal changes and inflammation that may cause breast cancer to spread, even if the patient is receiving treatment.

But new research suggests something as simple and inexpensive as taking aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may cut this recurrence of hormone-related breast cancer in half.

"Our studies suggest that limiting inflammatory signaling may be an effective, less toxic approach to altering the cancer-promoting effects of obesity and improving patient response to hormone therapy," said Linda deGraffenried, associate professor of nutritional sciences at The University of Texas in Austin.

NSAIDs may improve treatment

DeGraffenried participated in a study, published in Cancer Research, that found women whose body mass index (BMI) was greater than 30 and had estrogen receptor alpha (ER?)-positive breast cancer were 52% less likely to have a recurrence and a 28-month delay in time to recurrence if they were taking aspirin or other NSAIDs.

The research team says this is important because it suggests NSAIDS may improve the response to hormone therapy. If so, it would allow more women to continue with hormone therapy instead of switching to a more aggressive approach, such as chemotherapy.

"However, these results are preliminary and patients should never undertake any treatment without consulting with their physician," deGraffenried said.

DeGraffenried and others at the University of Texas worked with researchers at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center at The University of Texas Health Science Center (CTRC) at San Antonio to develop the theory. They began by examining blood serum from CTRC breast cancer patients.

The first part of the experiment yielded few surprises. The researchers placed the serum in a culture of fat cells that make estrogen, and then placed the serum on breast cancer cells.

Cancer cell growth

The serum obtained from overweight and obese patients caused the cancer cells to grow much more aggressively than the serum from patients who were not overweight.

"It looks like the mechanism is prostaglandins, which have a role in inflammation, and there's more of it in the obese patient serum," said CTRC oncologist Andrew Brenner.

Next, the researchers studied patients from the CTRC and the START Center for Cancer Care. They were divided into 2 groups – those taking aspirin or ibuprofen and those who did not.

The researchers say it appeared as though aspirin and other NSAIDs provided some protection, even after controlling for statins and omega-3 fatty acid use, which also have anti-inflammatory effects.

Inflammation is the key

"These studies show that the greatest benefit from aspirin and other NSAIDs will be in those with a disease driven by inflammation, and not just obesity," deGraffenried said.

While the findings may be good news for overweight and obese breast cancer patients, they also underscore the severity of the disease, and the heightened risk these patients face. DeGraffemried says they face a worse prognosis than normal-weight women.

"We believe that obese women are facing a different disease,” she said. “There are changes at the molecular level. We want to reduce the disease-promoting effects of obesity."

With the study's results in hand, the CTRC has kicked off a pilot anti-inflammatory trial in a joint venture with UT Austin, in hopes of conducting a larger study.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), breast cancer is the second most deadly cancer for women, right behind lung cancer. ACS projected 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer in 2013, with an expected 40,000 deaths from the disease.

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Hospital-network hacking affects 4.5 million patients in 29 states

Chinese hackers gained access to five years' worth of Community Health Systems data

Community Health Systems, a for-profit network that owns and operates 206 hospitals in 29 states, admitted on Monday that Chinese hackers managed to break ...

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Photo credit: Community Health Systems

Community Health Systems, a for-profit network that owns and operates 206 hospitals in 29 states, admitted on Mondaythat Chinese hackers managed to break into their network sometime in April and June of this year, stealing data from more than 4.5 million patients: names, Social Security numbers, telephone numbers, birthdays and physical addresses. However, the company says patient medical records were not included in the breach.

Though the breach only lasted a couple of months, the hackers had access to the previous five years' worth of records. People at risk include anybody who received treatment from a Community Health Systems hospital in the past five years, as well as anyone who was merely referred to such a hospital by an outside doctor.

If you're one of the millions of people whose information was stolen in the hacking, there probably isn't anything you can do to protect yourself and your data now, other than such usual things as keeping a close eye on your bank and credit card accounts, checking your credit report frequently and so on.

Community Health Systems' website has a map showing the locations of all its hospitals in the United States. You might want to check the map to see if any medical center you've visited or been referred to in the past five years is on it.

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Hatha yoga: It could be good for your head

A new study found improved brain function in older adults

A new study finds that sedentary older adults who practiced hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks showed improvement when it came to performance on...

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Photo credit: Neha Gothe

A new study finds that sedentary older adults who practiced hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks showed improvement when it came to performance on cognitive tasks that are relevant to everyday life.

The study involved 108 adults between the ages of 55 and 79 years of age, 61 of whom attended hatha yoga classes. The rest met for the same number and length of sessions and engaged in stretching and toning exercises instead of yoga.

At the end of the eight weeks, the researchers say, the yoga group was speedier and more accurate on tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task-switching than it had been before the intervention. The stretching-and-toning group saw no significant change in cognitive performance over time.

The differences seen between the groups were not the result of differences in age, gender, social status or other demographic factors, according to the research team.

Improving focus

Hatha yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that involves meditation and focused breathing while an individual moves through a series of stylized postures, said Neha Gothe, who led the study with University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Edward McAuley. Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer also contributed to the study.

"Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate," Gothe said. "It is possible that this focus on one's body, mind and breath during yoga practice may have generalized to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention."

"Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information," McAuley said. "They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted. These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities."

Previous studies have found that yoga can have immediate positive psychological effects by decreasing anxiety, depression and stress, Gothe said.

"These studies suggest that yoga has an immediate quieting effect on the sympathetic nervous system and on the body's response to stress," she said. "Since we know that stress and anxiety can affect cognitive performance, the eight-week yoga intervention may have boosted participants' performance by reducing their stress."

The results of the study are only preliminary and involve a fairly short-term intervention, the researchers said. Further research is needed to confirm the results and reveal the underlying brain mechanisms at play.

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Builder confidence posts third straight gain

Sustained job growth and low mortgage rates are credited

Optimism among builders in the market for newly built, single-family homes continues to grow, The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housin...

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© iQoncept - Fotolia.com

Optimism among builders in the market for newly built, single-family homes continues to grow,

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) rose two points -- to 55 -- in August, the third consecutive monthly gain and the highest level for the index since January.

“As the employment picture brightens, builders are seeing a noticeable increase in the number of serious buyers entering the market,” said NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly, a home builder and developer from Wilmington, Del. “However, builders still face a number of challenges, including tight credit conditions for borrowers and shortages of finished lots and labor.”

The HMI gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next 6 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.

Across-the-board improvement

All three HMI components rose in August. The indices gauging current sales conditions and expectations for future sales each advanced 2 points -- to 58 and 65 -- respectively. The index gauging traffic of prospective buyers jumped 3 three points to 42.

“Each of the 3 components of the HMI registered consecutive gains for the past 3 months, which is a positive sign that builder confidence appears to be firming following an uneven spring,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “Factors contributing to this rise include sustained job growth, historically low mortgage rates and affordable home prices, which are helping to unleash pent-up demand.”

Every region saw a gain in its 3-month moving average HMI score in August. The Midwest posted a 7-point increase to 55 and the West registered a 4-point gain to 56. The Northeast rose 2 points to 38 and the South was up 1 point to 52.

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Gluten-free doesn't necessarily mean problem-free

Be careful of lupin, especially if you have peanut allergies

Okay, you've ridded your diet of gluten, but what about lupin? What's lupin, you say? It's a legume (sometimes called “lupine”) belonging to the same plan...

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Photo source: FDA

Okay, you've rid your diet of gluten, but what about lupin? What's lupin, you say? Well, it's a legume (sometimes called “lupine”) belonging to the same plant family as peanuts.

“For many people, eating lupin or a lupin-derived ingredient, such as a flour, is safe,” says Stefano Luccioli, M.D., a senior medical advisor at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “But there are reports in the medical literature of allergic reactions to lupin, some of which can be severe.”

Reactions can include anaphylaxis (a severe response to an allergen that can include shock), which is life-threatening and can occur very quickly.

As with most food allergens, people can develop an allergy to lupin over time. However, for people who have an existing legume allergy, eating lupin could cause an allergic reaction on first exposure.

We may see more of it

Studies show that people who are allergic to peanuts, in particular, appear to have a greater chance of being allergic to lupin. “While many parents know to look for and avoid peanut ingredients in the diet of their peanut-allergic child, they may have no idea what lupin is or whether it is an ingredient that could cause their child harm,” Luccioli says.

Although lupin is a food staple for many Europeans -- who may be more aware of its allergenic properties and are accustomed to seeing it listed as a food ingredient -- it is relatively new to the U.S. market. Some Americans may not have heard of this legume, which can be found in the form of lupini beans at Italian and other ethnic specialty stores, as well as in packaged food products.

Lupin is likely to become more popular, especially because lupin-derived ingredients are good substitutes for gluten-containing flours and are frequently being used in gluten-free products.

“We’re seeing more gluten-free products on the grocery aisles these days,” Luccioli says, and increasingly, consumers are more aware of gluten and are buying these products. Therefore, it’s increasingly important that they recognize that lupin is a potential allergen.

What to do

The law requires food labels to list the product’s ingredients. When lupin is present in a food, it is required to be listed on the label. So, consumers who want to avoid lupin -- and those with peanut allergies, who need to be particularly careful -- can identify its presence by looking for “lupin” or “lupine” on the label.

What should you do if you believe you are having an allergic reaction caused by lupin or a lupin-derived ingredient? (Symptoms of a possible allergic reaction include hives, swelling of the lips, vomiting and breathing difficulties). “Stop eating the product and seek immediate medical care or advice,” Luccioli says.

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One more time: Watch out for IRS phone scams

They're still out there calling, telling you to pay up -- or else

Last April, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) put out a warning about scammers claiming to be from the tax agency, demanding payment of some back taxes or...

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© aihumnoi – Fotolia.com

Last April, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) put out a warningabout scammers claiming to be from the tax agency, demanding payment of some back taxes or penalties they claimed you owe. Well, the hustlers are still at it.

The IRS and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) continue to hear from people who have received such calls.

Based on the 90,000 complaints received through its telephone hotline to date, TIGTA has identified approximately 1,100 victims who have lost an estimated $5 million from these scams.

"There are clear warning signs about these scams, which continue at high levels throughout the nation,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Taxpayers should remember their first contact with the IRS will not be a call from out of the blue, but through official correspondence sent through the mail. A big red flag for these scams are angry, threatening calls from people who say they are from the IRS and urging immediate payment. This is not how we operate. People should hang up immediately and contact TIGTA or the IRS.”

What you need to know

Additionally, it is important for taxpayers to know that the IRS:

  • Never asks for credit card, debit card or prepaid card information over the telephone.
  • Never insists that taxpayers use a specific payment method to pay tax obligations
  • Never requests immediate payment over the telephone and will not take enforcement action immediately following a phone conversation. Taxpayers usually receive prior notification of IRS enforcement action involving IRS tax liens or levies.

Potential phone scam victims may be told that they owe money that must be paid immediately to the IRS or that they are entitled to big refunds. When unsuccessful the first time, sometimes phone scammers call back trying a new strategy.

Other characteristics of these scams include:

  • Scammers use fake names and IRS badge numbers. They generally use common names and surnames to identify themselves.
  • Scammers may be able to recite the last four digits of a victim’s Social Security number.
  • Scammers spoof the IRS toll-free number on caller ID to make it appear that it’s the IRS calling.
  • Scammers sometimes send bogus IRS emails to some victims to support their bogus calls.
  • Victims hear background noise of other calls being conducted to mimic a call site.
  • After threatening victims with jail time or driver’s license revocation, scammers hang up and others soon call back pretending to be from the local police or DMV, and the caller ID supports their claim.

What to do

If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, here’s what you should do:

  • If you know you owe taxes or you think you might owe taxes, call the IRS at 1.800.829.1040. The IRS employees at that line can help you with a payment issue, if there really is such an issue.
  • If you know you don’t owe taxes or have no reason to think that you owe any taxes (for example, you’ve never received a bill or the caller made some bogus threats as described above), then call and report the incident to TIGTA at 1.800.366.4484.
  • If you’ve been targeted by this scam, you should also contact the Federal Trade Commission and use their “FTC Complaint Assistant” at FTC.gov. Add "IRS Telephone Scam" to the comments of your complaint.
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Depression is common among Parkinson's patients but often goes untreated

Friends blame the recent suicide of actor Robin Williams on his Parkinson's diagnosis

Friends of Robin Williams say the popular actor and comedian had been depressed over his struggles with Parkinson's disease, a progressive nervous system d...

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Robin Williams (Photo via Wikipedia)
Friends of Robin Williams say the popular actor and comedian had been depressed over his struggles with Parkinson's disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement and causes stiffnes and memory problems.

Parkinson's is closely linked to depression, yet a new study finds that depression often goes untreated.

“We confirmed suspicion that depression is a very common symptom in Parkinson’s disease. Nearly a quarter of the people in the study reported symptoms consistent with depression,” said Danny Bega, MD, a Northwestern University physician who was the lead author of the study. “This is important because previous research has determined that depression is a major determinant of overall quality of life.”

The investigators looked at records of more than 7,000 people with Parkinson’s disease. Among those with high levels of depressive symptoms, only one-third had been prescribed antidepressants before the study began, and even fewer saw social workers or mental health professionals for counseling.

Less than 10%

The investigators then focused their analysis on the remaining two-thirds of patients with depressive symptoms who were not receiving treatment at the start of the study.

Throughout a year of observation, less than 10% of them received prescriptions for antidepressants or referrals to counseling. Physicians were most likely to identify depression and advocate treatment for patients with the severest depression scores.

The findings were published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease.

“The majority of these patients remained untreated,” said Dr. Bega. “Still, the physician recognition of depression in this population was actually better than previous reports had suggested.”

“Physicians must be more vigilant about screening patients for depression as part of a routine assessment of Parkinson's disease, and the effectiveness of different treatments for depression in this population need to be assessed,” said Dr. Bega.

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Oil glut leads to falling gasoline prices

Consumers' price break could last well into 2015

Consumers likely have noticed that gasoline prices are falling in most areas. Maybe they haven't wanted to think about it very much since as soon as motori...

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© ellisia - Fotolia.com

Consumers likely have noticed that gasoline prices are falling in most areas. Maybe they haven't wanted to think about it very much since as soon as motorists are lulled into thinking they're finally getting a break, prices take off again.

This time might be different – at least for a while. The International Energy Agency (IEA) this week lowered its 2014 forecast for world oil demand, predicting a growth of only 1 million barrels per day. It doesn't see demand picking up again until sometime in 2015.

Pump prices falling

That's already leading to sharply lower prices at the pump. The AAA Fuel Gauge Survey finds the national average price of self-serve regular has fallen to $3.47 a gallon.

That's probably still higher than it should be but is 14 cents a gallon lower than just a month ago. It's about 7 cents a gallon less than motorists were paying this time last year.

It's not just that demand is slowing. The supply is also increasing. OPEC, for example, upped its output by 300,000 barrels per day in July, the highest level in 5 months.

This increase occurred despite falling output in Iran, Iraq and Nigeria. Saudi Arabia and Libya more than made up for it, however.

Going back to June the IEA found industry stocks building for the sixth straight month. The second quarter stockpile increase was the largest quarterly build since the third quarter of 2006.

Little effect from geopolitical turmoil

The falling prices and rising stockpiles might seem counter-intuitive, considering the high level of geopolitical turmoil that's occurring.

But it should be noted that the decline in the oil market is advancing Western interests in Russia's standoff with Ukraine, precisely because Russia is highly dependent on oil revenue. Low oil prices hurt Russia's economy, already beset by Western sanctions.

Whether the sharp drop in oil prices is just a coincidence or not, consumers are clearly the beneficiaries. The price of a 20-gallon fill-up has dropped, on average, by $2.80 – giving cash-strapped consumers a bit of breathing room.

$4 a gallon in only 2 states

The average price of gas is below $4 a gallon in all but two states – Hawaii and Alaska. Even in California the average has dropped to $3.90. A month ago it was $4.10.

Drivers in San Francisco are paying around $4.05 a gallon but in Los Angeles the average price is $3.89. Stockton has the lowest average in the state, at $3.83.

Over the past 2 weeks average retail prices have declined in 42 states and Washington D.C. However, the average prices has gone up in 8 Midwestern and Central states. The average is up 13 cents in Ohio and 11 cents in Indiana and Michigan.

According to AAA these gas prices increases have nothing to do with the global supply and demand picture. Rather, refineries serving this region are operating at lower capacity due to maintenance issues.

This week the highest gasoline prices in the nation were clustered in the West, in states like California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho and Utah. The cheapest prices are in the Southeast, in states like South Carolina – where the average price is $3.17 – Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.

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Hackers broke into Supervalu customer database two months ago

Breach discovered four weeks ago, announced yesterday

Bad news for the customers of Supervalu grocery or liquor stores who paid with anything other than cash...

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Photo: Wikipedia

Bad news for the customers of Supervalu grocery or liquor stores who paid with anything other than cash: the company just announced that due to a previously unannounced breach, hackers had access to the company's customer payment-card database between June 22 and July 17.

So if your credit, debit or other card informaiton was on the Supervalu database during that time, your confidential financial information is at risk.

Suprevalu announced the breach in a statement released Aug. 14, admitting that 180 food and liquor stores were affected.

The chain is only the latest entry on the list of businesses, bureaucracies and networks whose hacked databases put customer security at risk; an incomplete list of such incidents from just the past year would include P.F. Chang's restaurants; Target stores; Sally Beauty stores; Neiman Marcus; Goodwill thrift stores; the online connections for Playstation 4 and Xbox One; eBay and PayPal; Splash Car Washes; Walmart Money Cards; the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the Experian credit-monitoring agency (the Experian breach alone put the financial data of up to five out of six American adults at risk).

However, Supervalu's statement included this quote from CEO Sam Duncan: “We have had no evidence of any misuse of any customer data … I regret any inconvenience that this may cause our customers, but want to assure them that it is safe to shop in our stores.”

The statement made no mention of why, if the company discovered the breach on July 17, it waited almost a month to tell customers about it.

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August still a good time to buy a new car

Slowing sales increase dealers' motivation to deal

August has traditionally been thought of as the optimum time to buy a new car. Next year's models are rolling off the assembly line and dealers are in the ...

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Capitol Fiat, San Jose, Calif.
August has traditionally been thought of as the optimum time to buy a new car. Next year's models are rolling off the assembly line and dealers are in the mood to strike a bargain.

But in recent years manufacturers have often introduced next year's models throughout the year, lessening the August crush. Has that changed August's reputation as the time to buy?

Even though it might not be the hot month it once was, automotive site TrueCar.com says August is  still a month of good deals. In fact, it finds August's average transaction price of $29,296 is the lowest of the year, with July second at $29,465.

In particular, August appears to be an ideal time to buy a large SUV, with the average savings totaling $474. The best month for a midsize car, however, is June.

Hot deals

Kelley Blue Book (KBB), another automotive publication, lists what it says are August's hottest deals, led by the Fiat 500. KBB says the car can be leased for $99 a month for 24 months, with $2,389 due at signing.

"Compact and midsize sedans are among the most popular segments in the United States, and this month consumers will be able to find red-hot deals on the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Cruze," said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for KBB. "As a new-model year nears, car shoppers will also discover great values in luxury cars, SUVs and pickups."

According to KBB, the Cruze may be leased this month for $159 a month for 36 months, with $1,849 due at signing. If you've thought about moving up to a luxury car, the Cadillac ATS carries a lease payment of $299 a month for 36 months and $1,689 due at signing.

KBB notes some attractive cash-back deals this month as well. Ford is offering $6,000 back on the Expedition and Fiat is offering $3,000 back on the 500.

Toyota will give back $1,000 on the Camry and offer 0% financing for qualified buyers. Mazda offers the same deal on the CX-9.

$199 leases

Edmunds.com, another automotive site, finds August's lease deals particularly attractive. It highlights a handful of models that can be leased this month for $199 a month.

They include the Buick Encore, GM's small crossover SUV. Edmunds notes the lease might not be suitable for all drivers – its term is 39 months and it allows about 800 miles per month of driving. The $4,269 or $3,769 due at signing for current non-GM lessees is for the two-wheel-drive, base Encore but differs according to state and location.

The Ford Escape is Ford's popular small SUV. Its $199 lease payment is for 24 months and requires $2,769 at signing, $80 less than last month's offer. The front-drive, four-cylinder Escape is an all-around family car but hardly up for off-road romping – or extended road trips for that matter, since the mileage allowance is less than 1000 miles a month.

The Honda Accord LX Sedan can also be leased for $199 a month, with a 36 month term. The lease terms are best for those in 23 states, where a relatively low $1,999 is due at signing. Elsewhere, the drive-away cost is $2,499.

Motivated dealers

One reason dealers may be willing to strike attractive deals this month is a troubling trend in auto sales. Sales have been red hot for most of the year but have noticeably cooled over the summer.

This week the government reported July's retail sales were slower than expected, in part because of weaker car sales. Figures released by the Census Bureau show sales by auto and other motor vehicle dealers were down 0.2%. If that sector is excluded, overall sales inched up 0.1% for the month.  

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Samsung, T-Mobile, MetroPCS sued over 911 service

FCC guidelines require wireless carriers to provide 911 location information

wo years ago, in September 2012, the family of a murdered woman named Deanna Cook filed suit against the city of Dallas and its police department....

PhotoTwo years ago, in September 2012, the family of a murdered woman named Deanna Cook filed suit against the city of Dallas and its police department.

The lawsuit claims that when Cook called 911 to report that her estranged husband broke into her house and was attacking her, dispatchers waited 10 minutes before sending any officers to Cook's house, and furthermore than the officers took 50 minutes to arrive, after stopping at a 7/11 to make “personal purchases” and at another home to inspect a burglar alarm.

This week, Cook's family also sued Samsung and the cell-phone service providers MetroPCS and T-Mobile over their handling of Cook's ill-fated 911 call and location information.

The family filed the new suit on Aug. 13. Two days later, Courthouse News Service  reported that, according to the new lawsuit, “Cook died as the 911 operator and police dispatcher were unable to timely obtain Ms. Cook's home address, leading to a delay in responding to her life-threatening 911 call. This delay prohibited police and first responders from timely providing police protection and/or medical attention to Ms. Cook, thus allowing her to die.”

The suit says that during the 911 call, while Cook was “screaming at the top of her lungs in fear,” an operator told her “MetroPCS doesn't always have addresses.”

Since 2006, FCC guidelines for wireless carriers have required that mobile phone companies provide 911 operators with longitude and latitude coordinates (to within 300 meters) for any mobile 911 callers.

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Consumers prefer human to online financial advisors

44% report having a personal financial advisor

Online financial advice is more available than ever but U.S. consumers are more likely to have a dedicated financial adviser than to use a financial websit...

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© vitanovski - Fotolia.com

Online financial advice is more available than ever but U.S. consumers are more likely to have a dedicated financial adviser than to use a financial website for obtaining advice on investing or planning for their retirement, 44% vs. 20%, a new survey finds.

More investors also report using either a financial advisory firm that gives them access to live advice through a call center (35%) or a friend or family member (29%) to advise them than using a financial website.

These findings are based on a Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism Index survey conducted in late June and early July. The survey is based on a nationally representative sample of U.S. investors with $10,000 or more in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or in a self-directed IRA or 401(k).

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Among U.S. investors, retirees and investors with $100,000 or more in invested assets are significantly more likely than their counterparts to use a dedicated financial adviser. Nonretirees are more likely than retirees to use financial websites or to rely on friends and family.

Overall, 79% of investors report using at least one of the four financial advice resources tested, while 21% don't use any of the four. The largest percentage of investors -- 40% -- rely on just one source, but almost a third (30%) rely on two, 7% on three, and 2% on all four.

Part of what may be suppressing investors' use of online financial resources is that less than a third of investors -- 30% -- say they are "very comfortable" using online or mobile technology for their investing or financial advice needs. While another 27% are somewhat comfortable, 43% say they are not comfortable with this.

There is a strong generational skew in these attitudes, with 66% of nonretirees indicating at least some level of comfort with online financial advice tools, compared with 35% of retirees. Additionally, men have a higher comfort level than women. 

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State fair foods vary widely but they're mostly fried

You can have almost anything you want at the fair, as long as it's fried

Anything is fair game when it comes to food at the state fairs and this is fair season for most of the country....

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We don't know quite what this is but we're pretty certain it's fried. (Source: bigtex.com)
Anything is fair game when it comes to food at the state fairs and this is fair season for most of the country.

Some fair food trends of recent years include deep-fried everything, bacon-wrapped meat, foods on a stick, gourmet versions of comfort food (think “mac-and-cheese croquette”), and new takes on old favorites, like Pepsi-infused funnel cakes. Any remake on a stick seems to have been a big hit.

Some of the many decadent, over-the-top new foods that debuted at state fairs in 2013 include:

  • Deep-fried brownie on-a-stick
  • Bacon-wrapped riblet on-a-stick
  • Funnel cake sundae
  • Fried pickles ’n’ chocolate
  • Candied bacon cannoli

So what has 2014 rocked our guts with?

At the 2014 Florida State Fair, one of the first state fairs of the year, The trends were set with burgers that seemed to be the new food to reinvent. The Iowa state fair and Minnesota state fair followed suit. Here are some things on the try-it-at-least-once list:

  • Ramen noodle burger (burger on bun made of ramen noodles)
  • Tornado dog (hot dog wrapped in spiral-cut potatoes and deep fried)
  • Bacon maple funnel cake
  • Healthier burger (soy burger on whole wheat bagel thin)
  • Cotton candy funnel cake

What about gluten-free?

Celiac support groups in Iowa got together and made a virtual spreadsheet for fair-goers to sort through gluten-free choices like a jumbo marshmallow on a stick.

Iowa's not the only state to put gluten on a stick. Minnesota had a local group that whipped up a gluten-free beer-battered brat. Gluten or not that fried stuff slides down the same ole way.

We suggest avoiding any fair rides until you digest your fried whatever it is you just ate.

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Watch out for fraudulent Ebola treatment products

The hustlers are pushing something that doesn't exist``

It was bound to happen. As soon as consumers became concerned about the Ebola outbreak, the scam artists, con men and other lowlifes would start coming out...

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© MacX - Fotolia.com

It was bound to happen. As soon as consumers became concerned about the Ebola outbreak, the scam artists, con men and other lowlifes would start coming out of the woodwork.

To that end, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising consumers to be aware of products sold online claiming to prevent or treat the Ebola virus.

Since the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa, the FDA has seen and received consumer complaints about a variety of products claiming to either prevent the Ebola virus or treat the infection.

It's a lie

There are currently no FDA-approved vaccines or drugs to prevent or treat Ebola. Although there are experimental Ebola vaccines and treatments under development, these investigational products are in the early stages of product development, have not yet been fully tested for safety or effectiveness, and the supply is very limited.

There are no approved vaccines, drugs, or investigational products specifically for Ebola available for purchase on the Internet. By law, dietary supplements cannot claim to prevent or cure disease.

The FDA is warning those individuals promoting these unapproved and fraudulent products to take immediate action to correct or remove these claims or face punitive action.

CDC: No U.S. risk

It is important to note that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola does not pose a significant risk to the U.S. public. Unfortunately, during outbreak situations, fraudulent products that claim to prevent, treat, or cure a disease all too often appear on the market. The FDA monitors for these fraudulent products and false claims and takes appropriate action to protect consumers.

Ebola is the cause of a viral hemorrhagic fever disease. Symptoms include fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, lack of appetite, and abnormal bleeding. Symptoms of the virus can appear anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure, but is most commonly seen on days eight to10.

In the U.S., Ebola is not a water-borne or food-borne illness and is not transmitted through the air. It is spread through direct contact with the body fluids of an infected person, or with objects like needles that have been contaminated with the virus. People who do not show symptoms are not contagious.

If you have seen these fraudulent products or false claims, report them to the FDA.

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McCormick Ground Oregano recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

McCormick & Company is recalling McCormick Ground Oregano, 0.75-oz. bottle, UPC 0-523561-6 with code dates BEST BY AUG 21 16 H and AUG 22 16 H. The produc...

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Photo source: McCormick.com

McCormick & Company is recalling McCormick Ground Oregano, 0.75-oz. bottle, UPC 0-523561-6 with code dates BEST BY AUG 21 16 H and AUG 22 16 H.

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No other McCormick Ground, Whole or Oregano Leaves products are affected.

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

The product subject to this recall is:

  • McCormick Ground Oregano 0.75-oz bottle, UPC NUMBER: 52100003566 (as seen on label: 0-523561-6), MCCORMICK ITEM NUMBER: 900356, AFFECTED DATE CODES: BEST BY AUG 21 16 H, BEST BY AUG 22 16 H, SHIPPING DATES: April 4, 2014, to August 5, 2014

The product was shipped domestically to Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Internationally, the product was shipped to Aruba, Bahamas, Bermuda, Indonesia, Jamaica, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Thailand and the Virgin Islands.

The recall affects 1,032 cases that were shipped on the affected date codes.

Consumers do not need to return the product to the store where it was purchased. Instead, they should dispose of the product and its container.

Consumers may contact McCormick consumer affairs at 1-800-632-5847, weekdays from 9:30 AM to 8:00 PM (ET, for a replacement or full refund, and with general inquires.

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Whole Foods Market recalls ground beef products

The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

Whole Foods Market locations in South Weymouth, Mass., and Newton, Mass., are recalling 368 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E....

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© Joe Gough - Fotolia.com

Whole Foods Market locations in South Weymouth, Mass., and Newton, Mass., are recalling 368 pounds of ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

Three case-patients have been identified in Massachusetts with illness onset dates ranging from June 13, 2014 ,to June 25, 2014. While the onset of illnesses was in June, on August 13, 2014, additional laboratory results provided linkages between the 3 Massachusetts case-patients and ground beef purchased from Whole Foods. Traceback investigation indicated that all 3 case-patients consumed ground beef purchased from 2 Whole Foods Market prior to illness onset.

125 lbs. of the following ground beef products produced on June 8, 2014 at the Newton, Mass., location are subject to recall:

  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93% LEAN 7% FAT” with SKU 90013
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93% LEAN 7% FAT FAMILY PACK” with SKU 90247
  • “BEEF SIRLOIN Patty 93% LEAN / 7% Fat” with SKU 90088
  • “BEEF GROUND 93% LEAN / 7% FAT” with SKU 90035
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93% LEAN 7% FAT patty FAMILY PACK” with SKU 52179
  • “BEEF GROUND 85% LEAN 15% FAT” with SKU 90004
  • “BEEF GROUND 85% LEAN 15% FAT FAMILY PACK” with SKU 90037
  • “BEEF GROUND PATTY 90% LEAN GRASS FED” with SKU 96363
  • “BEEF GROUND PATTY 90% LEAN GRASS FED, Value Pack” with SKU 52162
  • “BEEF GROUND 90% LEAN GRASS FED” with SKU 95997
  • “BEEF GROUND 90% LEAN GRASS FED, Value pack” with SKU 52190
  • “BEEF GROUND 85 15 GRASS FED” with SKU 95195
  • “BEEF GROUND 85 15 PATTIES GRASS FED” with SKU 95196
  • “BEEF BURGER GRASS FED GOURMET FEATURED” with SKU 52871

170 lbs. of the following ground beef products produced on June 10, 2014 at the Newton, Mass., location are subject to recall:

  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93% LEAN 7% FAT” with SKU 90013
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93% LEAN 7% FAT FAMILY PACK” with SKU 90247
  • “BEEF SIRLOIN Patty 93% LEAN / 7% Fat” with SKU 90088
  • “BEEF GROUND 93% LEAN / 7% FAT” with SKU 90035
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93% LEAN 7% FAT patty FAMILY PACK” with SKU 52179
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93/7 PATTIES NE” with SKU 90199
  • “BEEF GROUNDSIRLOIN 93/7 NE” with SKU 95051
  • “BEEF GROUND 85% LEAN 15% FAT” with SKU 90004
  • “BEEF GROUND 85% LEAN 15% FAT FAMILY PACK” with SKU 90037
  • “BEEF GROUND PATTY 90% LEAN GRASS FED” with SKU 96363
  • “BEEF GROUND PATTY 90% LEAN GRASS FED, Value Pack” with SKU 52162
  • “BEEF GROUND 90% LEAN GRASS FED” with SKU 95997
  • “BEEF GROUND 90% LEAN GRASS FED, Value pack” with SKU 52190
  • “BEEF GROUND 85 15 GRASS FED” with SKU 95195
  • “BEEF GROUND 85 15 PATTIES GRASS FED” with SKU 95196
  • “BEEF BURGER GRASS FED GOURMET FEATURED” with SKU 52871

73 lbs. of the following ground beef products produced on June 21, 2014, at the South Weymouth, Mass., location are subject to recall:

  • “BEEF GROUND PATTY 90% LEAN GRASS FED” with SKU 96363
  • “BEEF GROUND PATTY 90% LEAN GRASS FED, Value Pack” with SKU 52162
  • “BEEF GROUND 90% LEAN GRASS FED” with SKU 95997
  • “BEEF GROUND 90% LEAN GRASS FED, Value pack” with SKU 52190
  • “BEEF GROUND 85 15 GRASS FED” with SKU 95195
  • “BEEF GROUND 85 15 PATTIES GRASS FED” with SKU 95196
  • “BEEF BURGER GRASS FED GOURMET FEATURED” with SKU 52871
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93% Lean 7% fat” with SKU 90013
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93% LEAN 7% FAT FAMILY PACK” with SKU 90247
  • “BEEF SIRLOIN Patty 93% LEAN / 7% Fat” with SKU 90088
  • “BEEF GROUND 93% LEAN / 7% FAT” with SKU 90035
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93% LEAN 7% FAT patty FAMILY PACK” with SKU 52179
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93/7 PATTIES NE” with SKU 90199
  • “BEEF GROUND SIRLOIN 93/7 NE” with SKU 95051

Consumers are urged to prepare their raw meat products safely, including fresh and frozen, and consume only ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160 ° F. The only way to confirm that ground beef is cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria is to use a food thermometer that measures internal temperature.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may call (512) 477-5566 ext. 20060.

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Gulf States Toyota recalls Tundras

The lug nuts to loosen

Gulf States Toyota (GST) is recalling 16,249 model year 2013-2014 Toyota Tundras modified by GST as part of certain vehicle packages to be equipped with a ...

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Photo source: Toyota.com

Gulf States Toyota (GST) is recalling 16,249 model year 2013-2014 Toyota Tundras modified by GST as part of certain vehicle packages to be equipped with a combination of non-Toyota-brand 20-inch alloy wheels and chrome plated lug nuts.

The coating on the lug nuts may give, causing the lug nuts to loosen or the wheel studs to fracture. The wheel could separate from the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

GST will notify owners, and dealers will replace 20 lug nuts and torque them to specification, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in August 2014.

Owners may contact GST customer service at 1-800-444-1074.

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Fuel leak prompts recall of Arctic Cat snowmobiles

Leaking fuel poses a fire hazard

Arctic Cat of Thief River Falls, Minn., is recalling about 3,260 Arctic Cat snowmobiles. Fuel can leak from the fuel line assembly, posing a fire hazard. ...

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Photo source: CPSC

Arctic Cat of Thief River Falls, Minn., is recalling about 3,260 Arctic Cat snowmobiles.

Fuel can leak from the fuel line assembly, posing a fire hazard.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves model year 2014 Arctic Cat XF 7000 and ZR 7000 and model year 2015 XF 7000 and ZR 7000 snowmobiles. They were sold in a variety of green, black, orange and white color combinations. All XF and ZR 2014 models are included in this recall.

Recalled 2015 model vehicles have the last six digits of the vehicle identification number (VIN) in the following ranges: 100920 through 100993 for the XF 7000 models and 100792 through 100919 for the ZR 7000.

The fourth and fifth digit of the VIN, “14” or “15,” correspond to the model year. The VIN appears on a sticker attached to the chassis near the rider’s right foot rest. The model name appears on the front sides of the snowmobile.

The snowmobiles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold exclusively at Arctic Cat dealers nationwide from June 2013, to August 2014, for between $12,000 and $14,500.

Consumers should stop using the recalled snowmobiles immediately and contact an Arctic Cat dealer to schedule a free repair. Arctic Cat is contacting its customers directly.

Consumers may contact Arctic Cat at (800) 279-6851 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Vornado Air recalls electric space heaters

The heater can overheat and cause the units to melt

Vornado Air of Andover, Kan., is recalling about 79,000 electric space heaters. The heater can overheat and cause the units to melt, catch fire and ignite...

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Photo source: CPSC

Vornado Air of Andover, Kan., is recalling about 79,000 electric space heaters.

The heater can overheat and cause the units to melt, catch fire and ignite nearby items, posing a fire and burn hazard to consumers.

The company has received 29 reports of units overheating and melting, including 7 reports of heaters catching fire, resulting in 1 report of smoke inhalation and 1 report of property damage caused by soot and smoke.

This recall involves Vornado VH110 Whole Room Vortex electric space heaters sold in two colors -- black and white. The heaters measure about 10.5 inches high, 9 inches deep and 10.5 inches at the base growing narrower at the top.

The on/off switch and the high/low heat settings are located on top of the unit. The Vornado logo appears with a gray “V” on the front of the unit. Recalled heaters have the numbers 1 and 3 as the fourth and fifth digits of the serial number. The model and serial numbers appear on a silver decal located on the bottom of the unit.

The space heaters, manufactured in China, were sold at Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot, Menards, Orchard Supply, Target and other retailers nationwide and online at Vornado.com and Amazon.com from June 2013, through May 2014, for about $60.

Owners should immediately turn off and unplug the electric space heater and contact Vornado for instructions on how to receive a free replacement unit, including free shipping.

Consumers may contact Vornado toll-free at (844) 205-7978 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Experts disagree over how you should brush your teeth

Researchers say dental profession should get on the same page

Your parents probably taught you how to brush your teeth when you were just a toddler. Chances are, your method hasn't changed much over the years....

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© Rasulov - Fotolia.com

Your parents probably taught you how to brush your teeth when you were just a toddler. Chances are, your method hasn't changed much over the years.

But is it the correct way? You might be surprised to learn that hardly anyone agrees.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) have consulted all the authorities, from dentists to dental associations. They even asked toothpaste companies what is the correct way to brush teeth.

The answers were not consistent. In fact, the researchers say they were “unacceptably inconsistent.”

The researchers say they even consulted dental textbooks and found no clear consensus between the various sources about how to brush and how long to brush. It's not a trivial matter, they insist.

Confusion

"The public needs to have sound information on the best method to brush their teeth," said Aubrey Sheiham, senior author of the study. "If people hear one thing from a dental association, another from a toothbrush company and something else from their dentist, no wonder they are confused about how to brush.”

In the U.S., the American Dental Association (ADA) offers these guidelines:

  • Place your toothbrush at a 45-degree angle to the gums.
  • Gently move the brush back and forth in short (tooth-wide) strokes.
  • Brush the outer surfaces, the inner surfaces, and the chewing surfaces of the teeth.
  • To clean the inside surfaces of the front teeth, tilt the brush vertically and make several up-and-down strokes.
  • Brush your tongue to remove bacteria and keep your breath fresh.

Twice a day

Britain's National Health Service says you should brush twice a day for 2 minutes at a time. As for when you should brush, NHS recommends just before bedtime and any other time during the day – just not right after a meal.

“Never brush your teeth straight after a meal as it can damage your teeth. This is especially important if you've had fruit, fizzy drinks, wine or any other food that contains acid because tooth enamel is softened by the acid and can be worn away by brushing,” NHS advises.

Crest toothpaste echoes the NHS advice but goes into less detail. It also urges twice daily brushing, spending 30 seconds on each quadrant.

"Dental associations need to be consistent about what method to recommend, based on how effective the method is,” Sheiham said. “Most worryingly, the methods recommended by dental associations are not the same as the best ones mentioned in dental textbooks. There is no evidence to suggest that complicated techniques are any better than a simple gentle scrub."

Narrowing it down

What method to the researchers favor? They point to what they say is the most commonly-recommended technique – gently jiggling the brush back and forth in small motions, with the intention of shaking loose any food particles, plaque and bacteria. However, they note that no large-scale study has ever shown this method to be any more effective than basic scrubbing.

Sheiham, meanwhile, favors the brushing method advocated by the ADA.

"To avoid brushing too hard, hold the brush with a pencil grip rather than a fist,” Sheiham said. “This simple method is perfectly effective at keeping your gums healthy.”

Sheiham also says there is little use in brushing after eating sweets or sugary drinks because it won't prevent tooth decay. It takes bacteria from food about two minutes to start producing acid, so if you brush your teeth a few minutes after eating sugary foods, the acid will have already damaged the enamel.

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The small fortune hiding in your loose change

Your nickels and old pennies might be too valuable to spend

The “Instantly Double Your Money With Hardly Any Effort At All Plan” lets you double your cash value without even having to work too hard...

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New Jersey sues "As Seen on TV" promoter

Our own readers' complaints about Telebrands sound suspiciously similar

If you watch any television at all, you're probably familiar with those commercials hawking amazing “As Seen on TV” products, almost always sold by the New...

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Best checking accounts for students

Some banks offer incentives for teens to open accounts

Having a checking account can help a teenager develop good financial habits and improve their ability to manage their money. Personal finance experts belie...

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© fotopak - Fotolia.com

Having a checking account can help a teenager develop good financial habits and improve their ability to manage their money. Personal finance experts believe it can be a helpful tool in teaching financial literacy.

But the banking landscape today is far different than it was a generation ago. Even many working adults find a checking account is unaffordable because of the growing number of fees.

For that reason a teen must be careful about selecting both a bank and an account. Otherwise, the financial lesson won't be positive but painful.

The personal finance website WalletHub has prepared a study of what it calls the Best Student Checking Accounts for 2014. Accounts were chosen for a lack of fees and a generous amount of services and features.

Best overall

AmericaNet Rewards Checking and Evantage Bank Rewards Checking tied in the Best Overall category. Both won points for not charging a monthly fee and giving account holders the potential to earn 1.5% APY on all balances up to $10,000.

To earn interest on the account consumers must post and clear 10 debit card sales transactions and enroll electronically. If they meet that condition they aren't charged out-of-network ATM fees and can get a $25 monthly refund for surcharge assessed by an ATM owner.

Students with little money may have a problem because many banks now require a minimum balance in a checking account, or they impose a monthly fee. Earning honors for Best Account for Cash-Strapped Students is Simple Checking, offered by Bancorp Bank.

It has no initial deposit requirement and no monthly fee. As an added bonus it has free ATM withdrawals at thousands of Allpoint locations and no fees for overdrafts or having insufficient funds.

Getting rewarded

Students who would like a rewards checking account might think they're out of luck. Those accounts seem like they would be hard to come by for teens. But they aren't.

The Bofi Federal Bank Rewards Checking Account has no fees and free ATM withdrawals. It pays 1.25% APY on the account balance.

The rewards kick in when you receive at least $1,000 in direct deposits each month and make at least 10 debit card purchases. At that point your money earns an extra 0.4166%.

Even better, American Airlines Federal Credit Union Priority Checking pays 2.27% APY on all balances up to $5,000, as long as membership requirements are met. It has no monthly fee and airline staff, their families and permanent household members are eligible.

The First Merchants Bank National Association Student Checking Account gives 1 point for every $3 spent in signature transactions. Users get 0.28% cash back when when they redeem in the form of gift cards. It takes $100 to open an account and there are no monthly fees. The first 5 non-bank ATM charges free.

Parents can help

Parents play a major role in helping a teen establish a checking account. For starters, it's usually the parent who suggests it.

According to Bankrate.com, most banks require a parent to be the co-owner of a teen's checking account. It cites Wells Fargo's Teen Checking accounts as an example. Parents have full access to alerts, parental controls and their child's accounts.

A checking account can also be a useful tool to teach the principals of financial literacy. And a little help may be in order.

Results of an international financial literacy test, released in June, show U.S. teens rank between their Latvian and Russian counterparts when it comes to knowledge about money. The test measured the knowledge of 29,000 15 year-olds in 18 countries.

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Beef inspection procedures streamlined

Finding and removing contaminated products faster is the goal

The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) plans to implement procedures that it says will help it trace contaminated ground beef back to its so...

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The federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) plans to implement procedures that it says will help it trace contaminated ground beef back to its source more quickly, get it out of stores and prevent a recurrence.

“A critical component of preventing foodborne illness is quickly identifying sources of contamination and removing unsafe products from store shelves,” said Brian Ronholm, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. The expedited traceback procedures, he said, “will allow FSIS to take action more quickly, which will make a significant difference in food safety investigations and in preventing foodborne illnesses.”

Springing into action

Under the new traceback procedures, FSIS will conduct immediate investigations at businesses whose ground beef tests positive for E. coli O157:H7 during initial testing and at suppliers that provided source materials. These traceback investigations will begin as soon as FSIS receives a presumptive positive result and the grinding facility can provide supplier information.

Previously, FSIS began investigations at the grinding facility only after a presumptive positive test result was confirmed, which can take two days. A similar investigation of the grinding facility’s suppliers would have taken place 30 days later, and more intensive investigations of suppliers will now also begin immediately. Beginning investigations at the point of a presumptive positive test result can save FSIS valuable time.

As part of the traceback investigation, FSIS will review establishment records to determine whether the grinding or supplying establishment’s food safety system experienced a breakdown. The agency will also determine whether the supplying establishment shipped product that may be contaminated to other grinding facilities or further processors. If so, FSIS will take steps to have that product removed from commerce.

FSIS estimates that dozens more recalls may occur once these new protections are in place.  

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Feds approve new type of sleep drug

Risks include driving and having sex while not fully awake

People who have a hard time falling and staying asleep (insomnia) have a new option. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Belsomra (suvorexant), ...

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People who have a hard time falling and staying asleep (insomnia) have a new option.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved Belsomra (suvorexant), an orexin receptor antagonist -- the first approved drug of its kind. Orexins are chemicals that are involved in regulating the sleep-wake cycle, and play a role in keeping people awake. Belsomra alters the signaling action of orexin in the brain.

“To assist health care professionals and patients in finding the best dose to treat each individual patient’s sleeplessness, the FDA has approved Belsomra in four different strengths – 5, 10, 15, and 20 milligrams,” said Ellis Unger, M.D., director of the Office of Drug Evaluation I in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Using the lowest effective dose can reduce the risk of side effects, such as next-morning drowsiness.”

Belsomra should be taken no more than once per night, within 30 minutes of going to bed, with at least seven hours remaining before the planned time of waking. The total dose should not exceed 20 mg once daily.

Impairment possible

The most commonly reported adverse reaction reported by people taking the drug in clinical trials was drowsiness. Medications that treat insomnia can cause next-day drowsiness and impair driving and other activities that require alertness. People can be impaired even when they feel fully awake.

The FDA asked the drug manufacturer, Merck, Sharpe & Dohme Corp., to study next-day driving performance in people who had taken Belsomra. The testing showed impaired driving performance in both men and women when the 20 mg strength was taken.

As a result, the FDA recommends that patients using the 20 mg strength be cautioned against next-day driving or activities requiring full mental alertness. Patients taking lower doses should also be made aware of the potential for next-day driving impairment, because there is individual variation in sensitivity to the drug.

Like other sleep medicines, there is a risk from Belsomra of sleep-driving and other complex behaviors while not being fully awake, such as preparing and eating food, making phone calls, or having sex.

Chances of such activity increase if a person has consumed alcohol or taken other medicines that make them sleepy. Patients or their families should call the prescribing health care professional if this type of activity occurs.

Effective use

The effectiveness of Belsomra was studied in three clinical trials involving more than 500 participants. In the studies, patients taking the drug fell asleep faster and spent less time awake during the remainder of the night compared to people taking an inactive pill (placebo).

Belsomra was not compared with other drugs approved to treat insomnia, so it is not known if there are differences in safety or effectiveness between Belsomra and other insomnia medications.

Belsomra will be dispensed with an FDA-approved patient Medication Guide that provides instructions for its use and important safety information.  

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Jobless claims tick higher

Analysts are wondering if this was an aberration

After averaging below the 300,000 mark for the last few weeks, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits have jumped higher. The Labor Depar...

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After averaging below the 300,000 mark for the last few weeks, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits have jumped higher.

The Labor Department (DOL) reports initial claims totaled a seasonally adjusted 311,000 during the week ending August 9 -- up 21,000 from the previous week. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for a total of 305,000.

During the weeks the total was below 300,000, the DOL said there were no special factors involved. Withe the return to a figure above that level, DOL continues to maintain there nothing unusual going on.

Analysts say if claims remain at their current level, the summer-time drop was likely due to poor seasonal adjustments. If however, they drop back to the lower level, it may be that the labor market is truly repaired.

The 4-week moving average, which smooths out the volatility of the weekly number and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, rose 2,000 to 295,750.

The full report may be found on the DOL website.

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New Jersey sues puppy dealer

Prada Puppies sold sick dogs to consumers, state charges

New Jersey has sued Prada Puppies and its owner, Jessica Durkin, charging that they sold sick puppies to consumers without providing the veterinary exams t...

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© aleksandr - Fotolia.com
New Jersey has sued Prada Puppies and its owner, Jessica Durkin, charging that they sold sick puppies to consumers without providing the veterinary exams that are required by state law.

The Salem, N.J., company also allegedly failed to provide the animal history state law calls for and refused to pay refunds or reimburse consumers for the cost of caring for the sick puppies.

“Families who bring a new puppy into their home will bond with that pet very quickly,” Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said. “Those who purchased sick puppies from this defendant – including the family that had to have their new pet euthanized – suffered on behalf of their animals and because of the defendant’s alleged failure to disclose health information or provide reimbursement for purchase and veterinary costs. We are pursuing full restitution for those consumers.”

The state alleges that Durkin charged between $300 and $450 for the sale of Jack Russell terriers, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Yorkshire terrier/poodle mixes, and Maltese/poodle mixes. She advertised the puppies on the Prada Puppies website, www.pradapuppies.com, as well as on various dog breeder and dealer websites and in the South Jersey Times newspaper.

Examples cited

On at least four occasions between November 2012 and January 2013, Durkin violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act and Pet Regulations in connection with the sale of puppies that turned out to be sick and in need of expensive veterinary treatment.

For example, on December 19, 2012, a family purchased a Yorkshire terrier/poodle mix puppy from Durkin. The animal quickly became ill with hypoglycemia, severe diarrhea and anemia, and was nearly comatose when the family brought it to a veterinary clinic five days later, the lawsuit said. On December 27, 2012, eight days after its purchase, the family decided to euthanize the extremely ill puppy.

In November 2012, a Jack Russell puppy developed a severe cough four days after a family purchased it from Durkin. The family brought the animal to a veterinarian who diagnosed and treated it for bacterial bronchopneumonia.

In January 2013, a family took a Cavalier King Charles puppy for a veterinary exam one day after purchasing it from Durkin. The veterinarian found that the animal was suffering from ear mites, yeast infection of the ears, giardia (a parasite that invades the small intestines) and an upper respiratory infection.

In January 2013, a family brought a Maltese-poodle mix puppy to a veterinarian three days after purchasing it from Durkin, because the puppy exhibited vomiting, diarrhea and extreme head-shaking. The vet determined that the puppy suffered from giardia, coccidia (another parasite that invades the intestines) and ear mites.

Durkin refused to provide refunds on these and other occasions, despite the fact that in each case a veterinarian determined within 14 days of purchase that the animals had been unfit for sale, the lawsuit alleges.

In such cases, the seller must honor the customer’s choice to either return the pet for a full refund plus the payment of veterinary costs, or to keep the pet and receive reimbursement for past and future veterinary costs up to the original purchase price.

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Back-to-school: it adds up

Families will spend an average of $670 on school supplies this year

Sharpen your pencil, we are going to talk back to school and how it all adds up. You might want to sit at your desk as we go through these numbers....

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Sharpen your pencil, we are going to talk back to school and how it all adds up. You might want to sit at your desk as we go through these numbers.

The National Retail Federation predicts that families will spend an average of $670 on back-to-school shopping (including clothes, school supplies and electronics), up 5% from last year. Total spending on back-to-school-shopping is predicted to reach nearly $75 billion, 3% higher than last year.

Not only are kids supposed to bring crayons but there is a whole new list and it starts with a T: Technology. In that big backpack that makes kids walk funny are USB drives and things like that. Let's face it -- they aren't even teaching cursive writing in some schools anymore because most things are done on computers and it's becoming obsolete. 

Budgets are tight in school districts and that throws more of a burden on parents to supply cleaning supplies, tissues for all the runny noses. copy paper and printer ink. It's tough for families that are already struggling financially and are worrying about new clothes and shoes let alone staples for school.

Ways to save

The good news is there are ways to save, whether it's magic markers or ipads.
Walmart, Staples and Target offer the best deals for the paper and paste list . You just may have to buy in bulk or buy generic -- meaning, go with the colors of red, black or blue ,no commercial covers for binders. Not always the most popular choice but gets the basic requirements out of the way. Tell your kids they can put stickers on them!

Book covers can be done with the good ole paper bag that is making a resurgence in the grocery stores.

As for technology, resellers like Amazon and Best Buy often have deals on big-brand computers and tablets.

Other tips include sticking closely to the list provided by your child’s teacher and scoping out your local dollar store for supplies like scissors and pencil boxes. Be inventive -- host a back-to-school swap and shop. Get parents together and recycle those scientific calculators they HAVE to have.

Retro is in and thrift stores can be a blast if you sell them the right way to your kids -- twice as many clothes at half the price.

Of course everyone needs a new do for school and beauty colleges are always looking for someone to do a makeover on, again much less expensive then the commercial salons. All this saving and you might have enough left over for Christmas!

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Perdue recalls chicken nugget product

The product may be contaminated with extraneous materials

Perdue of Gainesville, Ga., is recalling approximately 15,306 pounds of frozen, fully cooked chicken nugget product. The product may be contaminated with ...

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Photo source: USDA

Perdue of Gainesville, Ga., is recalling approximately 15,306 pounds of frozen, fully cooked chicken nugget product.

The product may be contaminated with extraneous materials. The firm received consumer complaints that small pieces of plastic were found in the product.

There are no reports of injury or illness from consumption of the product.

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 8-oz. box of “APPLEGATE naturals CHICKEN NUGGETS” bearing the establishment number “P2617” and the “BEST BEFORE” date of “02/05/15”.

The product was produced on Feb. 5, 2014, with a sell by date of Feb. 5, 2015 and bear, the establishment number “P2617” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. It was shipped to retail outlets nationwide.

Consumers with questions may contact Gerry Clarkson of Applegate Consumer Relations at (800) 587-5858.  

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When you "Like" everything on Facebook, there's nothing left to like about it

Wired writer likes every Facebook post he sees for 48 hours

There've been plenty of warnings about how something as apparently innocuous as clicking “Like” on a Facebook post can lead to bad consequences: that new p...

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Source: Facebook

There've been plenty of warnings about how something as apparently innocuous as clicking “Like” on a Facebook post can lead to bad consequences: that new page dedicated to a recent tragedy in the news might actually be the bait hackers useto steal your identity or plant malware on your computer.

And what about those pages you see solely to tug at your heartstrings? “This poor little bald girl has cancer and lost her hair to chemotherapy. Click 'like' to cheer her up and let her know she's still beautiful!” There's a good chance that page is simply “like farming,” and once the page gets enough likes to qualify for a high Facebook ranking (and thus be more likely to be seen by other Facebook users), its heart-wrenching content will be erased, and the page will be used to promote anything from spammy pharmaceutical products to dangerous malware infections.

Still, for all the “like” warnings we've passed along, we've concentrated on the anti-scam aspects, with no consideration of the social implications of indiscriminate like-ing.

The thing about Facebook is that your own personal experience there tends to be self-feeding: any post you “like” will result in “related” posts appearing in your feed. Thus, if you “like” a news story about Congressman X's statement regarding Issue Y, you'll see a lot more news stories, opinion pieces (and some outright falsehoods) about Congressman X as well as Issue Y.

Very likeable

Facebook Aug. 13, 2014, 12:06 a.m.
Consumers rate Facebook

If you “like” the news that your friend had a baby, you'll see more baby pictures, news stories about babies, blog posts about babies, and ads for baby products. If you “like” the knitting pattern your aunt just posted, you'll see other knitting patterns, knitting-related articles and ads for needles and yarn, among other things.

And also: if you “like” anything on Facebook, any of your Facebook friends might see this in their own respective Facebook feeds. The more stuff you “like” on Facebook, the more likely it is your friends will see at least some of it.

So Mat Honan, a writer for Wired, decided to try an experiment: what would happen if he indiscriminately “liked” every single thing he saw on his Facebook feed – even the things he actually hated?

The like and the favorite are the new metrics of success—very literally. Not only are they ego-feeders for the stuff we put online as individuals, but advertisers track their campaigns on Facebook by how often they are liked. A recent New York Times story on a krill oil ad campaign lays bare how much the like matters to advertisers. Liking is an economic act.

I like everything. Or at least I did, for 48 hours. Literally everything Facebook sent my way, I liked—even if I hated it. I decided to embark on a campaign of conscious liking, to see how it would affect what Facebook showed me. I know this sounds like a stunt (and it was) but it was also genuinely just an open-ended experiment. I wasn’t sure how long I’d keep it up (48 hours was all I could stand) or what I’d learn (possibly nothing.)

He liked everything

It started out easily enough: he “liked” Facebook's “Living Social” online marketplace (which appeared on Honan's feed because one of his friends had already “liked” it in turn). He “liked” a couple updates from his friends. Less pleasantly, he also “liked” a joke he thought very bad, or very dumb.

But his plan to like everything without fail soon ran into a problem, thanks to Facebook's habit of promoting “related” posts:

Relateds quickly became a problem, because as soon as you like one, Facebook replaces it with another. So as soon as I liked the four relateds below a story, it immediately gave me four more. And then four more. And then four more. And then four more. I quickly realized I’d be stuck in a related loop for eternity if I kept this up. So I settled on a new rule: I would like the first four relateds Facebook shows me, but no more.

He also refused to “like” a friend's announcement of a death in her family — “It was a bridge I wasn’t going to cross” — but he liked everything else: department stores, mail-order companies, online coupon offers, politicians and their pet causes (regardless of his actual opinions of them). It took less than an hour for the results to show on his News Feed:

After checking in and liking a bunch of stuff over the course of an hour, there were no human beings in my feed anymore. It became about brands and messaging, rather than humans with messages.

Likewise, content mills rose to the top. Nearly my entire feed was given over to Upworthy and the Huffington Post. As I went to bed that first night and scrolled through my News Feed, the updates I saw were (in order): Huffington Post, Upworthy, Huffington Post, Upworthy, a Levi’s ad, Space.com, Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Verge, Huffington Post, Space.com, Upworthy, Space.com.

He had also “liked” a political post with a pro-Israel theme, and “By the next morning, the items in my News Feed had moved very, very far to the right.” He continued to “like” it all, and after awhile the very-right-wing content was soon accompanied by very-left-wing content — nothing from the moderate middle.

But maybe worse than the fractious political tones my feed took on was how deeply stupid it became. I’m given the chance to like a Buzzfeed post of some guy dancing, and another that asks Which Titanic Character Are You? A third Buzzfeed post informs me that “Katy Perry’s Backup Dancer is the Mancandy You Deserve.” According to New York magazine, I am “officially old” because Malia Obama went to Lollapalooza (like!) and CNN tells me “Husband Explores His Man-ternal Instincts” alongside a photo of a shirtless man cupping his nipples. A cloud that looks like a penis. Stop what you’re doing and look at this baby that looks exactly like Jay-Z. My feed was showing almost only the worst kind of tripe that all of us in the media are complicit in churning out yet should also be deeply ashamed of. Sensational garbage. I liked it all.

Meanwhile, Honan's Facebook friends had their own feeds cluttered by constant updates about all of Honan's “likes.” One friend warned Honan that maybe his account had been hacked; another mentioned that her own Facebook feed had become almost 100% announcments about what Mat Honan most recently liked.

By the time Honan quit his experiment, he'd added more than 1,000 likes to his Facebook activity history. As for how many friends and "friends" he's lost, no one knows.

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More people have jobs but are earning less

For most consumers, today's economy is 1 step forward, 2 steps back

There's a very simple reason that if you ask many consumers about the economy, they'll tell you the recession that began in late 2007 has never ended....

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© zimmytws, Fotolia.com
There's a very simple reason that if you ask many consumers about the economy, they'll tell you the recession that began in late 2007 has never ended.

In the latest Gallup Poll of consumers' confidence in the economy, 38% said the economy is getting better while 56% said it is getting worse.

Officially the Great Recession is ancient history. It ended in June 2009. Since that time the economy has added the 8.7 million jobs wiped out by the recession. Employment has finally surpassed its pre-recession peak, reached in 2008.

So what are people complaining about? The answer is in black and white, in a new report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

National pay cut

The report finds that the average annual wage of all the jobs lost between 2008 and 2009 – when most of the recession's job cuts occurred – was $61,637 a year.

The jobs added since the end of the recession, through the second quarter of this year, paid an average wage of $47,171 a year. That's a gap of 23%, meaning a lot of people took really big pay cuts. Since prices haven't gone down that's required them to significantly lower their standard of living.

“This wage gap of 23% is significantly larger than that of the earlier recession and recovery (2000-2006), and implies $93 billion in lower wage income,” the authors write.

How about the population as a whole, not just the people working in a newly-created job? Those results are disappointing as well.

Back to the 1990s

In 2012, 3 years after the official end of the recession, the median household income was $51,017 – the lowest since 1995. In other words, the median household income in the U.S. is back where it was about 17 years ago.

The report also shows the much talked-about income gap has gotten bigger. In 1975 the top 20% of income-earning households earned 43.6% of all income. By 2012 it was 51%. Most of the gain was among the top 5%.

There do not appear to be any big raises in the near future either. The mayors' report forecasts the median household income will increase by 2.5% in 2014, barely keeping pace with inflation.

Cause for sleepless nights

So it's no wonder many a consumer is up pacing the floor at night. A poll conducted for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) in July found 79% said personal finances kept them awake at night. The next most common reason for a sleepless night was job insecurity, at a distant 4%.

“There are two pieces of good news that can be gleaned from the poll,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. “First of all, the respondents were able to identify the source of their distress, and secondly, they went to a reliable and trusted resource, www.DebtAdvice.org, for help. Their next step should be to reach out to an NFCC member agency for customized and solution-oriented assistance.”

That might help in managing finances but it is unlikely to put more money in consumers' pockets. A robust economy will be needed for that, and no one is predicting one any time soon.

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Pot for your pet

Low-THC supplements are made from hemp, not marijuana

Well it's happened -- you can now buy pot for your animals....

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Well it's happened -- you can now buy pot for your animals.

Cannabis Therapy Corp., a development stage company which has developed what it says are safe, all-natural, ultra-low THC, cannabinoid-based medicinal therapies and supplements, is now offering a pet product called Canna-Pet.

Canna-Pet products, which are made from hemp rather than marijuana, are all available over-the-counter, without a prescription or authorization. Originally available only in capsule form, they now include Canna-Biscuits treats for dogs, and the company aims to make Canna-Pet Max CBD -- containing cannabidiol, which is said to provide medicinal benefits without the high of THC available as a nutraceutical additive for pet foods in late 2014.

The company recommends these products as a daily food additive for all pets, but especially for those with inflammation, allergies, anxiety or behavior issues, compromised immune systems, digestive issues, nausea, chronic pain, cancer, seizures, and palliative care.

According to the company's website, there is almost zero THC and your pet will not get "high" or get in trouble with the law.

To date, the products are only sold online and through referrals. It's covered by Trupanion pet insurance, the company says.

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Retail sales stuck in neutral

Sluggish auto sales provided a drag

Retail sales were unchanged during July, ending a string of 5 monthly increases. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were anticipating an increase of 0.2% ...

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Retail sales were unchanged during July, ending a string of 5 monthly increases. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were anticipating an increase of 0.2%

Figures released by the Census Bureau show sales by auto and other motor vehicle dealers were down 0.2%. If that sector is excluded, overall sales inched up 0.1% for the month.

Other categories posting declines include department stores (-0.7%), electronics and appliance stores (-0.1%) and furniture and home furnishing stores (-0.1%). Among the sales gainers were clothing and clothing accessory stores (+0.4%), health and personal care stores (+0.4%) and grocery stores (+0.2%).

A slowing trend

Analysts note that since March, headline sales have continuously lost momentum -- slowing for the fourth consecutive month after a 1.5% monthly increase at the end of the first quarter.

Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza points out that since a short-lived rebound in sales in February and March, the consumer has continuously slowed consumption. “Sales dropped throughout the second quarter to a 0.2% pace in June and have now fallen flat. If the consumer is not out spending, the economy will struggle to maintain the average 2% pace of the recovery, let alone an elevated +3% pace.

“It all comes down to jobs and income growth,” she concludes. “While headline job creation has been impressive as of late, top-line job growth has not been sufficient to translate into wage pressures, without which the consumer will remain constrained.”

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It's not pet-cloning but it's close

Facial recognition software can find near-duplicates of your pet

Remember how they cloned Dolly the sheep? Some people have cloned their dogs as well. Now there's a new app that does almost the same thing. It won't actua...

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Source: Facebook
Remember how they cloned Dolly the sheep? Some people have cloned their dogs as well. Now there's a new app that does almost the same thing. It won't actually clone your dog but it will be a very close second, at least in terms of looks.

It's called PetMatch and it lets you upload a picture of a dog or cat, or use one from its gallery. It then tries to find you a pet available for adoption that is the closest possible match to the one you posted, using patented image recognition technology.

PetMatch scans your photo, registering details like the shape of an animal's mouth, the distance between its eyes, its coloring and its general size and shape. Then it looks on Petfinder.com and finds the closest matches in your area. The app is from a start up company called Superfish.

It hasn't mastered the craft of duplicating the exact look. If your picture you upload is blurry or shot at a weird angle there is no telling what it will say is a match. Tech news site The Verge claims a photo of Lady Gaga produced a "matching" image of a hamster.

So maybe it still needs a little fine tuning. So do lots of other things.

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Neck manipulation may be linked to stroke

A small tear in a neck artery can trigger stroke

American Heart Association experts are warning that the neck manipulations often used by chiropractors and physicians may be associated with stroke....

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© Shakzu - Fotolia.com
American Heart Association experts are warning that the neck manipulations often used by chiropractors and physicians may be associated with stroke.

The association can't be proven but a small tear in a neck artery, called a cervical dissection, is among the most common causes of strokes in young and middle-aged adults. A dissection can lead to a blood clot that travels to the brain and triggers a stroke.

In a statement published in the heart association's journal Stroke, Dr. Jose Biller of Loyola University Medical Center said that while the association isn't proven, it is grounds for concern.

"Most dissections involve some trauma, stretch or mechanical stress," Biller said. "Sudden movements that can hyperextend or rotate the neck -- such as whiplash, certain sports movements, or even violent coughing or vomiting -- can result in a cervical dissection, even if they are deemed inconsequential by the patient."

Although techniques for cervical manipulative therapy vary, some maneuvers used by health practitioners also extend and rotate the neck, and sometimes involve a forceful thrust.

"Although a cause-and-effect relationship between these therapies and cervical dissection has not been established and the risk is probably low, a dissection can result in serious neurological injury," Biller said. "Patients should be informed of this association before undergoing neck manipulation."

Biller is chair of the Department of Neurology of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. He is an internationally known expert on strokes, especially strokes in children and young adults.

The association between cervical artery dissection and cervical manipulative therapies was identified in case control studies, which aren't designed to prove cause and effect. Thus, it's not clear whether other factors could account for the apparent association between manipulative therapy of the neck and a greater incidence of cervical dissection/stroke. The relationship is difficult to evaluate because patients who are beginning to have a cervical artery dissection may seek treatment to relieve neck pain.

What to do

You should seek emergency medical evaluation if you develop neurological symptoms after neck manipulation or trauma, such as:

  • Pain in the back of your neck or in your head
  • Dizziness/vertigo
  • Double vision
  • Unsteadiness when walking
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Jerky eye movements or other eye movement disorders
  • Limb weakness on one or both sides
  • Disorientation, memory loss or altered level of consciousness

"Tell the physician if you have recently had a neck trauma or neck manipulation," Biller said. "Some symptoms, such as dizziness or vertigo, are very common and can be due to minor conditions rather than stroke. But giving the information about recent neck manipulation can raise a red flag that you may have a cervical dissection rather than a less serious problem, particularly in the presence of neck pain."

Neck manipulation is widely used to treat a variety of musculoskeletal complaints, with nearly 85 percent involving adjustment or manipulation of the spine. With cervical manipulative therapy, a force is applied to the spine.

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Little distractions can mean big trouble

Study confirms that frequent interruptions result in lower-quality output

Anyone who has to write -- whether for work, school or pleasure -- knows that interruptions take a toll. Now a couple of academic studies show just how ste...

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Dean Deborah Boehm-Davis, right, meets with doctoral students Cyrus Foroughi and Nicole Werner to discuss their research on how distractions affect work production and quality. (Photo by Alexis Glenn, George Mason University)
Anyone who has to write -- whether for work, school or pleasure -- knows that interruptions take a toll. Now a couple of academic studies show just how steep that toll can be.

Researchers at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., conducted two stsudies in which participants were asked to write independently graded essays.

While the control group in each worked unfettered and uninterrupted, the experimental groups were interrupted with one minute of basic math problems during their outlining and writing stages (though all groups had the same total amount of time to write).

The results were pronounced: fewer words written and lower quality essays, up to a half-point drop on a six-point scale, for those who were sidetracked. Even when the amount of writing time for all groups increased, the results were almost identical.

No noise

“There was no noise on the other side,” doctoral student Cyrus Foroughi said; no one who was interrupted wrote a better essay than those free from distraction.

Foroughi points out two trends in the research that highlight how disruptive even an interruption perceived as minor can be: Either participants’ writing tended to wander away from their thesis entirely, or they moved on from their previous train of thought without finishing it.

Deborah Boehm-Davis, dean of George Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, says she was unsurprised by the findings. “Earlier work hinted this might be true,” she said.

Still, aside from the study’s results and its popularity (it’s been cited in a number of articles and radio spots), Boehm-Davis finds the research significant for another reason: “Cyrus is the only student I’ve mentored who has published a paper as a first author in the first year of doctoral studies.”

Foroughi says he has taken the findings to heart. When he needs to write something he now makes sure to turn his phone notifications off and place the screen face down so even the flashing light won’t distract him.

The study was published in the journal Human Factors.

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Mortgage applications on the downside

Contract interest rates were mixed

Mortgage applications were down 2.7% the week ending August 8. In addition, the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows t...

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© emiliezhang - Fotolia.com

Mortgage applications were down 2.7% the week ending August 8.

In addition, the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows the Refinance Index dropped 4% from the previous week to the lowest level since May 2014. That took the refinance share of mortgage activity down 1% -- to 54% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 8% of total applications.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was unchanged at 4.35%, with points unchanged at 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dipped 2 basis points from 4.26% to 4.24%, with points dropping to 0.19 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA slipped to 4.04% from 4.06%, with points increasing to 0.03 from 0.02 (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 down 3 basis points -- to 3.48%, with points rising to 0.30 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dropped to 3.24% from 3.32%, with points increasing to 0.45 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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Chrysler 200 passes small overlap front crash test with flying colors

The results helped the vehicle earn the IIHS top safety award

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has awarded the redesigned 2015 Chrysler the top rating of good in its small overlap front crash test -- ...

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Photo source: IIHS

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has awarded the redesigned 2015 Chrysler the top rating of good in its small overlap front crash test -- a step up from the previous generation's rating of acceptable.

The midsize moderately priced car received good ratings in all five of the IIHS crashworthiness evaluations. That, plus an available front crash prevention system that earns a superior rating, qualifies the 200 for the IIHS "TOP SAFETY PICK+" award.

'Low risk' of significant injuries

In the small overlap test, the driver's space was maintained well, and injury measures recorded on the dummy indicated a low risk of any significant injuries in a real-world crash of this severity, IIHS said. The dummy's head was well controlled by the frontal airbag, which stayed in position during the crash. The side curtain airbag deployed and had sufficient forward coverage to protect the head from contact with side structures.

The 200 earned a good rating in every measurement category for small overlap protection including structure, restraints and dummy kinematics, and injury measures for the head and neck, chest, pelvis, and legs and feet.

The small overlap evaluation was add to the IIHS testing lineup in 2012. In the crash, 25% of a vehicle's front end on the driver side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph. It replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle strikes another vehicle or an object such as a tree or a utility pole.

The 200 earns a superior rating for front crash prevention when equipped with its optional forward collision warning system with auto brake, part of a package called Safety.

In track evaluations, the system completely stopped the vehicle in the Institute's 12 mph test and significantly reduced the vehicle's speed in the 25 mph test.

To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK+, a vehicle must earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection, good ratings in the Institute's moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, plus a basic, advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

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Sunfood recalls Organic Carob Powder

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Sunfood of El Cajon, Calif., is recalling Organic Carob Powder, because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses have been re...

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Photo source: Sunfood.com

Sunfood of El Cajon, Calif., is recalling Organic Carob Powder, because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

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

The recalled product, which was distributed nationwide in retail stores and through mail orders, comes in 1-lb, 20-lb & 55-lb white poly bags.

The following lot numbers were affected: 140321,140416,140509,140516,140609,140616 & 140623.

Expiration date is 6/5/2015 and UPC Code 803813-04429 8.

Consumers who have purchased the affected Organic Carob Powder should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Sunfood at 1-888-RAWFOOD between 8am and 5pm PDT.

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3 password tools that can make you more secure

Staying ahead of the hackers may require professional help

The news in early August that Russian hackers had stolen over 1 billion user names and passwords has created more anxiety around the security of log-in cre...

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Source: lastpass.com
The news in early August that Russian hackers had stolen over 1 billion user names and passwords has created more anxiety around the security of log-in credentials consumers use for everything from online shopping to banking.

Security experts have long advised that every account should have a unique password. But who can remember all those different passwords – much less remember which accounts they are for?

One option for consumers who want to beef up their online security is to employ a “password manager” software. They all work in different ways but what they have in common is you don't have to remember all those passwords – the program does it for you.

LastPass

One of the most popular of these apps is LastPass, which promotes itself by saying you only have to remember one password – the one to get into the LastPass system. The software integrates with the major browsers – Explorer, Safari, Chrome and Firefox.

Since you are no longer required to remember your passwords, they can be as complicated as you want. Instead of using the name of your dog or youngest child, one of your passwords can look something like this: 8rZ!k4g9”3$.

To test the strength of your password, run the software's “Security Check.” It identifies any weak or duplicate passwords, tells you if any sites were affected by Heartbleed, and gives you an overall “security score” so you can understand how you’re progressing with your password security.

Multifactor authentication provides another layer of security by requiring that you confirm “something you have” – like a Google Authenticator code -- after submitting “something you know” --your LastPass email address and master password. LastPass supports 10 multifactor authentication options, giving you the flexibility to choose one that suits your work flow best.

LastPass is free, with ads, but also offers an ad-free premium version for $12.

1Password

1Password is another password manager that runs on Windows, Mac OS X, iOS and Android. It provides a place for consumers to store their various passwords, licenses for software and other vital information is what amounts to a virtual vault. It requires one master password to get in.

You only have to install 1Password on one device. It can sync to all your other devices using Dropbox. Once you complete the sync process, you'll be able to open the password vault on any device.

Like LastPass, 1Password also offers a password generator. It also provides a way to store a master password hint, in case you forget your master password.

iVault

iVault is a password manager for both mobile and desktop devices. The company says it protects all your private information in a secured online electronic vault.

The online web editor runs only on your browser so no unencrypted data goes through the Internet. It's designed for faster, smoother editing and updating. After a simple restore, your vault is updated directly on your smartphone.

Why do you need a password manager? Because almost all of us are using passwords that just aren't strong enough to stand up to the increasingly sophisticated methods even an average hacker employs. If you need convincing, try one of your passwords – or one similar to one of your real passwords – at the testing site, How Secure Is My Password?

Encryption experts say we all tend to be a bit predictable in the way we construct our passwords. Using a password generator probably won't make you bulletproof, but you'll be a lot more secure than you are now.

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Amazon stops pre-ordering Disney DVDs; streaming orders still accepted

Do recent Amazon contract disputes stem from an unsustainable business model?

The book publisher Hachette isn't the only media company whose physical offerings cannot be pre-ordered on Amazon.com; as of last week, Walt Disney Home Vi...

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Source: Amazon.com
EDITOR'S NOTE: An Amazon spokesperson wrote to ask we make some “corrections” to this article. Amazon's "corrections" are listed at the end of the article.

--- 

The book publisher Hachette isn't the only media company whose physical offerings cannot be pre-ordered on Amazon.com; as of last week, Walt Disney Home Video can't either. Maybe Amazon is selflessly trying to get lower prices for the benefit of home-media consumers everywhere (as its executives have previously argued) … or, perhaps, Amazon's very survival as a business requires it to get lower wholesale prices from its vendors.

Here's some background: Amazon's feud with the publishers at Hachette has been ongoing for at least three months now. In early May, Amazon started delaying shipments of Hachette titles for no stated reason — a book that Barnes and Noble shipped within 24 hours would take several weeks to arrive if you ordered it on Amazon. But why? Not until May 27 did Amazon admit, in an announcement posted in its Kindle Forum, that it was having a contract dispute with Hachette over what prices to charge for books.

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Source: Walmart.com

Now it appears Amazon is giving Disney properties the same treatment. HomeMedia Magazine first noticed late last week that the pre-order option for almost every upcoming Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment DVD or Blu-Ray title (such as Captain America: the Winter Soldier and Maleficent) vanished from Amazon.

Amazon customers can still pre-order these movies in streaming video form; they just can't pre-order a DVD, Blu-Ray or any other physical copy of the movie. You can also order or pre-order just about any Disney movie at Walmart.com and plenty of other outlets.  

Hachette job

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), that sounds very similar to an earlier ploy Amazon attempted in its Hachette feud: in mid-July, several weeks after it stopped selling certain Hachette titles, Amazon offered to resume selling Hachette books again — but only in e-book form, and with 100% of the money going to the authors themselves (meaning no money going to Hachette to cover operating costs, let alone potential profits).

So, to recap: Amazon is having contract disputes with various media companies — books from Hachette, movies and videos from Disney. In both instances, Amazon expressed willingness to sell non-physical copies of artistic or literary works – e-copies of books, streaming video access to movies – but is playing hardball where physical media such as paper books or plastic movie discs are concerned. Why?

Nobody other than a few highly placed Amazon executives can say for sure. But here's a possibility: perhaps Amazon is discovering its current business model can't handle physical media.

Big but not very profitable

Amazon.com Aug. 12, 2014, 5:55 p.m.
Consumers rate Amazon.com

Paradoxically, for all Amazon's size it still isn't a particularly profitable company. The excuse so far has been that the company is re-investing any potential profits to further develop the company. In December 2013, for example, an analyst for International Business Times noted that, despite having been in business for almost 20 years, Amazon still isn't making money — yet investors keep pouring theirs into it:

The company barely ekes out a profit, spends a fortune on expansion and free shipping and is famously opaque about its business operations.

Yet, investors continue to pour into the stock, pushing up the company’s share price to $388, a nearly 400 percent rise since the end of the company’s third quarter in September 2008.

At that time, Amazon’s net profit margin was 2.8 percent. By September 2011, that number fell to 0.6 percent. A year later, it was losing $274 million on net sales of $13.8 billion. And in the latest quarter, ended Sept. 30, the massive e-tailer reported a $41 million loss on $17 billion in sales. 

The rest of the analysis went on to explain that essentially, Amazon stockholders were investing in the company's potential future earnings (as opposed to buying a share of whatever money the company is earning right now).

That's not necessarily a bad strategy. Even start-up businesses destined for great success usually operate at a loss at first: if you spend money to start a company, you obviously can't make any profit until after you make back your initial start-up money plus ongoing operating costs.

So, yes, you will operate at a loss for awhile. But how long is that “while” supposed to last, anyway? In Amazon's case, it's already been longer than the time it takes for a typical child to be conceived, born, and raised to full legal adulthood. How long before a reasonable investor should think, “Either I start showing some profit here, or I consider the possibility this wasn't such a good investment after all?” And is it possible that Amazon investors are approaching that point?

A charitable organization?

In September 2013, an econ blogger writing for Slate called Amazon “a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers. The shareholders put up the equity, and instead of owning a claim on a steady stream of fat profits, they get a claim on a mighty engine of consumer surplus. Amazon sells things to people at prices that seem impossible because it actually is impossible to make money that way.”

What's so impossible about Amazon's business model? All that free shipping, for starters. International Business Times pointed out the especial problems caused by the immensely popular Amazon Prime program:

[It] offers customers free two-day shipping for a one-time annual fee of $79 and is another loss leader affecting fourth-quarter estimates. Amazon is characteristically hush-hush about its profits (or lack of them) from this program and won’t even disclose how many customers are signed up for the service.

But the number of Amazon Prime customers is growing.

In business terms, a loss leader is something a company sells at a loss in order to win customers; in this case, Amazon (as of the end of 2013) was willing to lose money shipping items to Prime customers, presumably in the hope that those customers would buy enough additional Amazon items to make up the difference.

Shipping costs

PhotoOn the other hand: in March 2014, we told you about two then-new lawsuits filed by Amazon Prime members against the company. The lawsuits alleged that, in order to get around its free shipping offer, Amazon charged Prime members higher prices for items, to cover the shipping costs: “[I]f the price of an item is advertised for $10 with $3.99 shipping and the [vendor] wishes to match or top their price, the [vendor] would charge $13.99 or higher.”

In other words, an ordinary non-Prime customer buying that item and nothing else from Amazon would pay a total of $14: $10 for the item and $4 for shipping. But if that customer bought at least $35 worth of items at once, thus qualifying for free shipping, the total cost of the item would only be $10. Yet an Amazon Prime member, who paid a fee for “free” shipping this year, is charged a base price of $13.99 for the item no matter what.

Two months after those lawsuits first made the news, Amazon started its feud with Hachette, which has since expanded to include Disney. And in both cases, Amazon is offering to sell ethereal copies of digital media, but refusing to sell physical copies.

Incidentally, if you're selling e-books or streaming video access, there are no shipping or postage costs involved: your customers use their Internet connections to receive the media they paid for, rather than rely on the post office or FedEx. But paper books and plastic movie discs can't be delivered through the Internet: you have to actually mail those things and pay postage costs, too.

So if, hypothetically, you're a mail-order company who offers free shipping on everything yet can't afford to cover these shipping costs, urging your customers away from physical media in lieu of e-books and streaming videos is a strategy you might want to try. But it's not known whether this explains any of Amazon's motivations surrounding its Hachette and Disney disputes.

---

UPDATE: 8/13 A few hours after this article went live, an Amazon spokesperson wrote us to say “I saw your article 'Amazon Stops Pre-Ordering Disney DVDs; Streaming Orders Still Accepted' on ConsumerAffairs, and wanted to note some corrections that need to be made.” What follows is three quotes from our article, coupled with Amazon's commentary about them.

We wrote:

Here's some background: Amazon's feud with the publishers at Hachette has been ongoing for at least three months now. In early May, Amazon started delaying shipments of Hachette titles for no stated reason — a book that Barnes and Noble shipped within 24 hours would take several weeks to arrive if you ordered it on Amazon. But why? Not until May 27 did Amazon admit, in an announcement posted in its Kindle Forum, that it was having a contract dispute with Hachette over what prices to charge for books.

Amazon's response:

We aren’t delaying shipments. As noted in our May 27 post, we are currently buying less (print) inventory and "safety stock" on titles from the publisher, Hachette, than we ordinarily do. Can you update this point?

We wrote:

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), that sounds very similar to an earlier ploy Amazon attempted in its Hachette feud: in mid-July, several weeks after it stopped selling certain Hachette titles

Amazon's response:

This is incorrect—we have never stopped selling any Hachette titles.

We wrote:

Amazon offered to resume selling Hachette books again — but only in e-book form, and with 100% of the money going to the authors themselves (meaning no money going to Hachette to cover operating costs, let alone potential profits).

Amazon's response:

This is incorrect. The offer was as follows, which can also be found here:

• If Hachette agrees, for as long as this dispute lasts, Hachette authors would get 100% of the sales price of every Hachette e-book we sell. Both Amazon and Hachette would forego all revenue and profit from the sale of every e-book until an agreement is reached.

• Amazon would also return to normal levels of on-hand print inventory, return to normal pricing in all formats, and for books that haven’t gone on sale yet, reinstate pre-orders.

 

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Don't overlook these back-to-school dangers

Threats lurk online and in the lunchroom

Kids starting a new school year often get plenty of safety advice before they head out the door. Don't talk to strangers, look both ways before crossing th...

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© Monkey Business, Fotolia.com
Kids starting a new school year often get plenty of safety advice before they head out the door. Don't talk to strangers, look both ways before crossing the street, steer clear of the class bully.

But Jamie Varner, an instructor with the Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension Service Center for Technology Outreach, says parents shouldn't forget about digital dangers.

“The No. 1 thing parents can do is communicate with their children about what they should and should not do when they are online,” Varner said. “The Internet can be a good source of information, but it poses some risks. Innocent searches can bring up websites with harmful malware, software, viruses or inappropriate content.”

To help monitor kids while they are online, Varner suggests setting up the child's computer in a family area – perhaps near the kitchen – and not in their room. Other steps to help control content when children aren't supervised are Internet filters and passwords.

Filters

Internet filters reduce the possibility children can access material that isn't appropriate for them. Filters are usually customizable to meet individual needs.

Some filters can also manage instant messaging software and social media sites. They let parents know if their children are being bullied or subjected to potential dangerous activities. These filters can be purchased or downloaded for free from the Internet, Varner said.

“Keeping kids safe on smartphones and tablets can be a bit more difficult, but it’s not impossible,” Morgan said.

Features on both the Apple and Android operating systems allow parents to limit online activity and app purchases on mobile devices. A parent can set content filters in both the Google Play and iTunes stores to prevent app purchases.

Free apps may also be unwelcome. Parents can block these by installing a password or personal identification number. App downloads from websites can be disabled in the settings menu.

Traditional viruses are a threat too

Besides digital safety, parents can also take steps to look out for a child's physical health, by confronting germs in an unlikely place – a lunch box. Unlike a virus that disables a computer, these viruses can disable a child for a few days.

Natasha Haynes, a family and consumer sciences agent for the MSU Extension Service, warns that lunch boxes and bags can be fertile ground for bacteria.

“Kids don’t always wash their hands before handling their lunch boxes and food,” Haynes said. “Since most lunches include finger foods, it’s easy to see how germs and bacteria can make kids sick.”

It's also a good idea to discuss with children how germs get transmitted. Stress the importance of hand-washing and provide a small container of antibacterial gel for times when they don't get the chance to wash. Also, remind them that in a crowded, public place like school, germs can lurk everywhere.

Germ awareness

“Once in the cafeteria, kids should avoid setting down their food on the table,” she said. “Include a paper towel, a piece of wax paper, or even a small fabric place mat that can be washed at home to help children keep their food off surfaces that may have been used by multiple people.”

Haynes says getting children involved in packing their own lunches will help them learn and follow good hygiene and safety practices. Letting them choose what they want to eat, she says, can lead to less food waste.

Regardless of who does the packing, a lunch box needs to be washed after every use. If they aren't, crumbs and spills can accumulate and result in a build-up of bacteria.

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Consumer Reports having second thoughts about Tesla

The magazine says its test car has had "more than its share of problems"

The automobile world was in shock last year when Consumer Reports gave top marks to the Tesla S, awarding the pricey electric sedan a customer-satisfaction...

PhotoThe automobile world was in shock last year when Consumer Reports gave top marks to the Tesla S, awarding the pricey electric sedan a customer-satisfaction score of 99 out of 100.

But the shine seems to be wearing off.

The magazine now says its 2013 Model S test car has had "more than its share of problems," including a total shutdown of the electronics that control the car.

"Just before the car went in for its annual service, at a little over 12,000 miles, the center screen went blank, eliminating access to just about every function of the car," the magazine said in a statement.

The problem was fixed with a "hard reset" but other problems and glitches have popped up during the nearly 16,000 miles the magazine's staffers have driven the test car.

Most are minor but could be vexing. They include:

  • A broken seat belt in the back seat. It was replaced at no charge.
  • The front trunk lid stopped responding to the virtual button on the center screen.
  • A charger adapter came apart.

The car has also gone in for one routine service visit at about 12,000 miles. That included fluids, the cabin air filter, key fob batteries and tire rotation. The tab: $636.

Still love it

CR insists that most of its staff members still love the car despite the problems.

"Car nut or not, EV fan or not, everyone has raved about this car, impressed with its smoothness, effortless glide, and clever, elegant simplicity," it said in its statement.

In last year's reliability survey, the Tesla got an average score but that may not hold up this year.

"Given the number of bits and pieces Tesla has replaced on our car, it might be tempting to guess that its reliability score will go down. The reality is, it might—depending on the frequency and severity of problems reported by our subscribers and whether they show that reliability is below average," said CR staffer Gabe Shenhar.

Edmunds.com has also noted some issues with its Model S, including a frozen touchscreen. It also said it has had to replace the main battery pack after incidents in which the car stalled, Automotive News reported.

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Free apps prove to be a disruptive force for satellite radio

Many consumers find they can get plenty of stations for free

Satellite radio was a novel concept when it debuted in 1990. You could get hundreds of stations, reflecting all types of programming, and no matter how far...

PhotoSatellite radio was a novel concept when it debuted in 1990. You could get hundreds of stations, reflecting all types of programming, and no matter how far you drove, you would never go out of range.

Even so, as a business model satellite radio has struggled. In the U.S. the two competing providers, Sirius and XM, merged into one company in 2007. Selling subscriptions starting at around $8 a month, the company has faced continued strong competition from terrestrial radio stations, which are free.

Now technology has served up even more competition – smartphone apps.

Bluetooth is a game-changer

Most new cars now provide Bluetooth connectivity between mobile devices and the vehicle's entertainment system. The primary purpose is safety – when a call comes in on a connected smartphone, it plays through the entertainment system speakers, providing hands free capability.

But that same connectivity provides some entertainment options. Free smartphone apps like I Heart Radio and TuneIn allow users to play hundreds of radio stations on their phones.

If the programming can be played on a phone, it can also be played through the vehicle's entertainment system. Someone driving on I-95 in North Carolina can listen to their favorite jazz station in Los Angeles if they want.

Abundant programming

Besides the hundreds of terrestrial radio stations available through both apps, both offer access to Internet radio stations that have few, or no commercials, just like many of the satellite stations. They may not have Howard Stern, the big draw for Sirius, but these apps have hundreds of podcasts from up and coming comedians or an archive of public radio programming, like This American Life.

Unlike satellite radio, access to this content costs nothing, except for the data you consume through your wireless plan. If you have T-Mobile as a carrier, that's not even an issue since T-Mobile now has a policy that the music you stream doesn't count against your monthly data allowance.

Satellite radio does provide traffic reports for major markets, which is fine if you happen to be driving in one of those cities. But more than likely you're on an Interstate highway when you need to know if there is an accident a few miles ahead.

Waze

Fortunately, there's an app for that. Waze is a community-based traffic and navigation smartphone app. Its content – information about road conditions – comes from other users who happen to be on the same road at the same time.

After typing in their destination address, users just drive with the app open on their phone to passively contribute traffic and other road data, but they can also take a more active role by sharing road reports on accidents, police traps, or any other hazards along the way, helping to give other users in the area a 'heads-up' about what's to come.

This doesn't help solo drivers, because as we all know drivers should not be looking at their phones while behind the wheel. But a passenger looking at the Waze screen can track the movement of the vehicle on the road and be aware of upcoming hazards, like accidents or broken down vehicles on the shoulder.

The map also shows rest stops and other travel landmarks as they approach on your route. The interface tells you how many other users – they're called Wazers – are in the vicinity. A chat feature lets you communicate directly with them or ask a question.

Waze even offers advice on where to fill up. Users can post the location of the cheapest gas they've encountered.

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States want tighter regulation of e-cigarettes

The devices threaten to create a new generation of nicotine addicts, FDA is told

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mulls new regulations of electronic cigarettes, the attorneys general of 29 states are urging the agency to ad...

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© stryjek, Fotolia.com

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mulls new regulations of electronic cigarettes, the attorneys general of 29 states are urging the agency to adopt even tougher rules than it has already proposed.

“E-cigarettes have all the addictive qualities of regular, combustible cigarettes, yet they are completely unregulated by the FDA,” said New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, one of the author of a letter to the FDA signed by the 29 AGs. “While we applaud the FDA’s proposal to start regulating these tobacco products, it falls far short of what is needed to protect our youth.

Among other recommendations, the attorneys general pressed the FDA to prohibit flavors in e-cigarettes, and to restrict advertising and marketing for e-cigarettes in the same manner as for cigarettes.

"Each year, electronic cigarette companies spend millions of dollars advertising their product – often on prime-time television -- glamorizing smoking in the same way combustible cigarettes did before those commercials were banned. And each year, more and more youth try electronic cigarettes, exposing themselves to the proven dangers of nicotine,” the AGs argue.

While some claim that e-cigarettes may have the potential to help smokers quit using combustible cigarettes, the FDA has not approved them as smoking cessation devices, the AGs note, and they say they're concerned that e-cigs will cause teens to become addicted to nicotine and ultimately to start using cancer-causing combustible products that do contain tobacco.

In 2013, e-cigarette advertisements on television reached over 14 million teens, and magazine advertisements reached 9.5 million teens. In just one year, the five largest e-cigarette companies increased their marketing expenditures by 164%.

Over 35 years ago, tobacco companies recognized that flavored cigarettes were attractive to younger smokers, leading the FDA to ban flavored cigarettes.

“Today, we urge the FDA to do the right thing and protect our youth from yet another tobacco epidemic,” the letter continues. “We don’t need these e-cigarettes aimed at our youth. What we need are strong FDA regulations that protect the public health and protect our youth from a lifetime of nicotine addiction. The FDA should ban all flavored electronic cigarettes and should prohibit e-cigarette advertising on television, radio and youth-oriented magazines.”

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Feds seek to shut down Michigan cheese maker

The government claims the product could pose a life-threatening health hazard

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to shut down a Michigan cheese-maker that it claims poses a hazard to public health. At the request of the FD...

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Photo source: © bit24 - Fotolia.com

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to shut down a Michigan cheese-maker that it claims poses a hazard to public health.

At the request of the FDA, the Justice Department (DOJ) has filed a complaint for permanent injunction against S. Serra Cheese Company, of Clinton Township, Mich., and its owners, Stefano Serra and Fina Serra.

The complaint requests, among other things, that the court issue an order for permanent injunction prohibiting Serra Cheese from receiving, preparing, processing, packing, holding or distributing food until the company brings its operations into compliance with the law.

Unsanitary conditions alleged

According to the complaint, FDA laboratory testing found non-pathogenic E. coli in S. Serra Cheese’s finished cheese products and Listeria innocua in the company’s facility. The presence of L. innocua indicates unsanitary conditions and an environment that could support the growth of L. monocytogenes, an organism that poses a life-threatening health hazard because it is the causal agent for the disease listeriosis.

The complaint also contends that FDA inspections since 2013 documented the failure to implement effective monitoring and sanitation controls in accordance with the current “Good Manufacturing Practice” requirements for food. In June 2013, the FDA issued a warning letter to the company.

No illnesses have been reported to date associated with S. Serra Cheese products.

“When a company ignores warnings or refuses to address food safety issues that put consumers at risk, the FDA must take action,” said Melinda K. Plaisier, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “The FDA protects public health by enforcing regulations that require companies to handle and prepare food products in accordance with good manufacturing procedures.”

The company manufactures and distributes a variety of pasteurized cheeses including ricotta, provolone, mozzarella and primo sale cheeses in Michigan, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania.

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New colorectal cancer screening test approved

The non-invasive procedure detects the presence of red blood cells and DNA mutations

Cologuard, the first stool-based colorectal screening test that detects the presence of red blood cells and DNA mutations that may indicate the presence of...

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© aihumnoi - Fotolia.com

Cologuard, the first stool-based colorectal screening test that detects the presence of red blood cells and DNA mutations that may indicate the presence of certain kinds of abnormal growths that may be cancers such as colon cancer or precursors to cancer, has won approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Colorectal cancer primarily affects people age 50 and older, and among cancers that affect both men and women, it is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Colorectal cancer screening is effective at reducing illness and death related to colon cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that if everyone age 50 or older had regular screening tests as recommended, at least 60% of colorectal cancer deaths could be avoided.

Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon (large intestine) or rectum (the passageway that connects the colon to the anus). Most colorectal cancers start as abnormal raised or flat tissue growths on the wall of the large intestine or rectum (polyps). Some very large polyps are called advanced adenomas and are more likely than smaller polyps to progress to cancer.

How it works

Using a stool sample, Cologuard detects hemoglobin, a protein molecule that is a component of blood. Cologuard also detects certain mutations associated with colorectal cancer in the DNA of cells shed by advanced adenomas as stool moves through the large intestine and rectum. Patients with positive test results are advised to undergo a diagnostic colonoscopy.

“This approval offers patients and physicians another option to screen for colorectal cancer,” said Alberto Gutierrez, Ph.D., director of the Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “Fecal blood testing is a well-established screening tool and the clinical data showed that the test detected more cancers than a commonly used fecal occult test.”

Approval of the Cologuard does not change current practice guidelines for colorectal cancer screening. Stool DNA testing (also called “fecal DNA testing”) is not currently recommended as a method to screen for colorectal cancer by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

Among other guidelines, the USPSTF recommends adults age 50 to 75, at average risk for colon cancer, be screened using fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy.

Medicare coverage possible

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has issued a proposed national coverage determination for Cologuard.

The test would be covered once every three years for Medicare beneficiaries who meet all of the following criteria:

  • age 50 to 85 years,
  • asymptomatic (no signs or symptoms of colorectal disease including but not limited to lower gastrointestinal pain, blood in stool, positive guaiac fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test), and
  • average risk of developing colorectal cancer (no personal history of adenomatous polyps, of colorectal cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis; no family history of colorectal cancers or an adenomatous polyp, familial adenomatous polyposis, or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer).

Cologuard is manufactured by Exact Sciences in Madison, Wis.

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Feds warn of Bitcoin dangers

Unclear costs, volatile exchange rates and scams are among the hazards

Virtual currencies such as Bitcoin can be a convenience, but they are also filled with risks. According to an advisory issued by the Consumer Financial Pr...

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© kulyk - Fotolia.com

Virtual currencies such as Bitcoin can be a convenience, but they are also filled with risks.

According to an advisory issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the risks include unclear costs, volatile exchange rates, the threat of hacking and scams. In addition, companies may not offer help or refunds for lost or stolen funds.

“Virtual currencies may have potential benefits, but consumers need to be cautious and they need to be asking the right questions,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Virtual currencies are not backed by any government or central bank, and at this point consumers are stepping into the Wild West when they engage in the market.”

You could get burned

Virtual currencies are designed to be an alternative to current payment systems. Better-known virtual currencies include Bitcoin, XRP, and Dogecoin. Often referred to in the industry as “digital currencies,” they are a way for people to track, store, and send payments over the Internet, and they may have the potential to make payment processing cheaper or faster.

But they are not backed by any government or central bank. In addition, because virtual currency accounts are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund, if a virtual currency company fails -- and many have -- the government will not cover the loss.

Virtual currency companies are springing up around the world to offer products and services to consumers. There are virtual currency exchanges, which are companies that help consumers buy or sell virtual currencies.

There are also online “digital wallet providers,” which are companies that allow consumers to create accounts with them to store and manage their virtual currencies. Many virtual currency exchanges are also wallet providers, and vice versa.

Be on your guard

According to the CFPB advisory:

  • Exchange rates are volatile and costs unclear: The exchange rate of Bitcoins to U.S. dollars in 2013 fell as much as 61% in a single day. So far this year, the value of Bitcoins has dropped by as much as 80% in a single day. The advisory explains that consumers who buy virtual currencies should be prepared to weather this kind of volatility. Consumers should also consider whether there are mark-ups or other fees when using an exchange or digital wallet provider. Companies may be charging consumers to buy, spend, or accept virtual currencies.
  • Hackers and scammers pose serious security threats: Virtual currencies are targets for highly sophisticated hackers and scammers. Individuals, digital wallet providers, and exchanges are all at risk. For example, if a hacker gains access to a consumer’s Bitcoin “private keys,” which are 64-character codes that unlock the consumer’s funds, consumers can lose all their virtual currency. Fraudsters are also taking advantage of the hype surrounding virtual currencies to pose as Bitcoin exchanges, Bitcoin intermediaries, and Bitcoin traders in an effort to lure consumers to send money, which is then stolen.
  • Companies may not offer help or refunds for lost or stolen funds: Some virtual currency companies do not identify their owners, provide phone numbers and addresses, or even specify the country in which they are located. Before using a company’s products or services, consumers should carefully consider if they know how to contact the company in question, and if they know their contractual rights. If a consumer trusts a company to hold their virtual currencies and something goes wrong, the company may not offer the kind of help the consumer would expect from a bank, debit card, or credit card provider. In fact, some virtual currency companies disclaim responsibility for consumer losses if funds are lost or stolen.

What to do

Consumers who encounter a problem with virtual currency products and services – including exchange services or online digital wallets -- can now submit a complaint with the CFPB.

The agency will send the complaint to the appropriate company, and work to get a response. If the complaint is about an issue outside the CFPB’s jurisdiction, it will forward the complaint to the appropriate federal or state regulator.

Importantly, the CFPB will use all complaints to better understand the virtual currency market and its effect on consumers. Complaints will also be used to help enforce federal consumer financial laws and, if appropriate, take consumer protection policy steps.

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Counterfeit-wine seller sentenced to 10 years in prison

Blended cheap wines until they tasted like million-dollar vintages

A celebrity wineseller (who, for all his faults, presumably has a truly amazing sense of taste and smell) was sentenced to 10 years in prison for defraudin...

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© Gresei, Fotolia.com

A celebrity wineseller (who, for all his faults, presumably has a truly amazing sense of taste and smell) was sentenced to 10 years in prison for defrauding rich oenophiles by making and selling high-priced counterfeit wine.

Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced in U.S. District Court in New York on Aug. 7 for “carrying out an elaborate scheme in which he manufactured and sold counterfeit bottles of purportedly rare and expensive wine for millions of dollars, and for fraudulently obtaining a $3 million loan from a financing company.”

Kurniawan made counterfeit versions of rare and expensive wine vintages by blending various lower-cost wines until their flavors mimicked those of the expensive wines, then pouring the wine blend into an authentic empty expensive-vintage bottle before slapping a counterfeit label on it.

He sold most of the fraudulent wines to collectors, but also used some of his fake vintages as collateral for a $3 million loan.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Kurniawan is an Indonesian citizen who has been in this country illegally for the last 10 years, after being denied a bid for political asylum. After finishing his prison sentence, he faces deportation.

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Continental announces motorcycle tire recall

Tread and/or belt issues may lead to separation and possible pressure loss

Continental is recalling approximately 9,000 Continental 120/70 ZR 17 and 120/70 R 17 motorcycle tires sold in the U.S. and Canada. Some of these tires ...

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Photo source: Conti-online.com

Continental is recalling approximately 9,000 Continental 120/70 ZR 17 and 120/70 R 17 motorcycle tires sold in the U.S. and Canada.

Some of these tires have a condition in the tread and/or belt which may lead to separation and possible air loss.

The company says it has not received any reports of accidents or injuries in connection with this condition.

The affected tires were sold to original equipment and replacement customers worldwide between 2007 and 2014.

The Continental 120/70 ZR 17 and 120/70 R 17 tires are identified as follows:

Product lines:

DOT serial numbers:

      

120/70ZR17 M/C (58W) TL ContiSportAttack

CP8B

B5MV

1008

to

2614

120/70ZR17 M/C (58W) TL ContiSportAttack 2

CP8B

B5M4

4811

to

2614

120/70R17 M/C 58H TL ContiAttack SM

CP8B

BXM9

1011

to

2614

120/70ZR17 M/C 58W TL ContiRaceAttack Comp. Soft

CP8B

B5M1

1907

to

2614

120/70ZR17 M/C 58W TL ContiRaceAttack Comp. Medium

CP8B

B5M1

2307

to

2614

120/70ZR17 M/C (58W) TL ContiRaceAttack Comp. Endurance

CP8B

918B

3011

to

2614

120/70ZR17 M/C (58W) TL ContiRoadAttack 2  GTW

CP8B

91E9

2513

to

2614

The last four digits of the DOT serial numbers indicate the production period (week/year). Tires between 1907 (19th week of 2007) and 2614 (26th week of 2014) are covered by this voluntary safety recall.

No other tire sizes, production periods or product lines are affected.   

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Neiman Marcus sued over Last Call

Lawsuit claims items were never sold in genuine Neiman Marcus stores

You probably know that the various name-brand “outlet” or “factory” stores of the sort you find in tourist-trap outlet malls rarely offer true bargain...

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Is your cat being stalked?

New website tracks 1 million cats worldwide

Did you ever think of this -- someone might be stalking your cat? It's not so far-fetched, that cute photo of your cat hanging upside down in your tree jus...

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Source: whereyourcatlives.com
Did you ever think of this -- someone might be stalking your cat? It's not so far-fetched, that cute photo of your cat hanging upside down in your tree just might be on I KnowWhereYourCatLives.com.

If you're not a cat lover it's probably as exciting as a big hairball in your living room. But keep in mind there are millions of cats worldwide, 1 million of them catalogued on IKnow etc., a quarter million of them in the U.S.

The cat photos are pinned to a street-level satellite image of the earth where the photo was taken. The site plots the location coordinates from each photo (which are automatically added when an image is taken) against a map to show where each cat lives.

According to their website, it's just a big data experiment that visualizes a sample of 1 million public pics of cats on a world map, locating them by the latitude and longitude coordinates embedded in their metadata. The cats were accessed via publicly available APIs provided by popular photo sharing websites.

The photos were then run through various clustering algorithms using a supercomputer at Florida State University in order to represent the enormity of the data source.The whole project was put together by Florida State University professor Owen Mundy. He collected the photos by searching the internet for images tagged "cat" on popular photo-hosting sites.

It's a great deal of work to see where your cat lives, but the scary thing is that this technology could be used to create IKnowWhereYour KidLives.com or any number of combinations. It's a reminder that not only is that independent cat not safe roaming the streets but you and those you love could be vulnerable as well.

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Choosing an apartment based on your lifestyle

RentalRoost adds another element to the search

It stands to reason that with more consumers renting homes instead of purchasing, more people are looking for apartments to rent. So where do you turn?...

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Source: rentalroost.com

It stands to reason that with more consumers renting homes instead of purchasing, more people are looking for apartments to rent. So where do you turn?

Craiglist, the local newspaper classifieds, the bulletin board at work? Back in 2011, 3 young friends in the technology field ran into this issue at roughly the same time.

“We were finding it really difficult to use just Craigslist or the existing platforms because the only search criteria they had was number of bedrooms, bathrooms and the price,” Harini Venkatesan, one of the 3 co-founders of RentalRoost told ConsumerAffairs.

So she, Vikram Raghavan and Nitin Shingate founded RentalRoost, a site specifically to match Millennials with the right property in the right neighborhood.

Listing context

“What we realized early on is the rental market is just completely broken and disjointed,” Raghavan said in an interview. “It's not because listings aren't available, it's because you don't know the context for the listing.”

RentalRoost started out in the San Francisco Bay area but recently went nationwide. Its database of properties draws from the major listings platforms, but individual landlords can also post listings at no charge.

A user starts by entering the city where they are seeking a home. Next, they provide lifestyle features that they would like.

A walkable neighborhood, for example. Plenty of restaurants and public transportation options. The site then directs them to listings that meet their criteria.

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“Apart from things that are searchable, like restaurants, we've also created algorithms for things that are a little more abstract, like pet friendliness, and kid friendliness, based on things like schools and dog parks,” Venkatesan said. “It's a way to find a rental that fits your lifestyle instead of the other way around.”

RentalRoost’s School-Based Search allows home searchers to select a school and then see which properties fall within the true boundary. Parents can also pick a property and then check to see which school district it belongs.

School ratings provided by GreatSchools even allow home finders to search by school quality.

For college students, RentalRoost’s Off Campus Living tool allows students to research properties by proximity to over 9,000 public and private college campuses.

Reality check

Raghavan says RentalRoost can also provide a reality check. In many cases someone's ideal apartment is out of their price range.

“If you pick a place like San Francisco and inventory is tight, and you say I really need it to be centrally located, I need to have 2 bedrooms, well guess what, you're looking at $4,500,” he said.

When that happens, people start making compromises. He recalls a search he recently observed in which the renter was looking for a lot of space because he had two kids.

The renter also wanted to be near the center of restaurants and cultural attractions. But as he was confronted with the price of apartments that met those specifications he started moving farther out because it was more important to him to have the larger space.

Over 1 million rentals

Raghavan said Rental Roost has over 1 million rental listings in the U.S. and its database also contains 1.5 million homes for sale. It's betting that Millennials, who tend to be the most migratory of generations, will start using it instead of Craigslist when it's time to move.

“When people move to new cities, they may not know the neighborhoods well, but they know their priorities,” said Shingate, the company's CEO. “We provide all the data and search options they need to search by the criteria that matter most.”

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Are accelerated degree programs an answer to rising college costs?

More colleges are allowing a faster path to a degree

For a generation the cost of a college education has been rising much faster than the rate of inflation....

PhotoFor a generation the cost of a college education has been rising much faster than the rate of inflation.

As a result, student loan balances are getting bigger and bigger, to the point that the total amount owed on student loans in the U.S. is well over $1 trillion. The search is on for a solution to out of control spending on higher education.

One possible solution might be speed. Instead of spending 4 or 5 years earning a bachelor's degree, running up thousands of dollars in debt each year, what if you could get that degree in a shorter period of time – maybe 18 months?

Sounds too good to be true, and you know what they say about things that sound like that. But a lot of serious people are giving this idea serious consideration.

In a speech on education President Obama said some colleges are already embracing new ways to provide education for less money.

Presidential example

“Southern New Hampshire University gives course credit based on how well the students master the material, not just on how many hours they spend in the classroom,” Obama said. “If you're learning the material faster you can finish faster, which means you pay less.”

Since Obama's speech a number of schools have begun offering accelerated undergraduate and graduate degree programs that can be taken online. And more of a student's previous work may count toward the degree.

In these accelerated program, schools are being more liberal about accepting credit from another school or educational program. That, in itself, can get them closer to their degree in a shorter period of time.

Credit where credit is due

Accelerate Degree, a Charlottesville, Va.-based organization, says if students bring something to the table before applying to a program – whether it be previous credit, work experience, or another way to receive transfer credit – they will likely find that any level degree can be completed in as little as one year.

While it may be difficult to finish a bachelor's degree in one year, there are a number of graduate degrees that may be obtained in that time.

Fast Track Program

Northeastern University, in Boston, calls it the “Fast Track Program.” It offers accelerated learning in select programs, allowing students to transfer credits and complete their undergraduate degree in 18 months.

Bellevue University, a private non-profit college in Nebraska, offers an accelerated bachelor's degree to students who have an associate's degree or close to 60 college credit hours. The school says students can complete their degrees in as little as 16 months.

“If you have fewer than 60 credits, we have many ways to earn credit beyond the classroom, including credit for training on the job or in the military,” the school advises.

Not right for everyone

An accelerated degree program is obviously aimed at adults who have completed some college but are now in the working world. In their present form these programs may be less suitable for incoming freshmen with no credits.

Beyond that, these programs might not work for everyone. It will take someone with a lot of discipline and willingness to put in the intense work to reach their goals.

That isn't exactly a description of today's college student. A 2011 survey found that most students at traditional colleges are taking longer to graduate – only 40% were completing the work within the traditional 4 years.

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FCC chair grills more wireless carriers about throttling

Verizon was first in the interrogation room; now it's the others' turn

Al Gore was laughed at when he and his lawyers debated the meaning of "is" in a legal brief. Now Verizon and other wireless carriers have gotten themselves...

PhotoAl Gore was laughed at when he and his lawyers debated the meaning of "is" in a legal brief. Now Verizon and other wireless carriers have gotten themselves ensnared in a debate about the meaning of "unlimited." Except no one's laughing this time.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, in particular, is not amused. Last month Wheeler worked over Verizon when it revealed that it was planning to "throttle" the top 5% of its data users who are on unlimited data plans beginning in October -- meaning it would slow down their data connection to discourage them from using the service they're paying for.

But how, Wheeler and millions of others asked, can you penalize someone for using too much of something that is sold as unlimited? Admittedly, the whole unlimited thing put any number of all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants out of business but most of them went gracefully; they didn't walk around snatching drumsticks out of their patrons' hands.

Wheeler found it "deeply troubling," and Verizon snapped back that it was deeply disturbed at his attitude, saying basically that everybody else is doing the same thing, calling it a "widely accepted" practice. This, of course, is not always a good defense. Just try it next time you're hauled into traffic court.

Wheeler isn't accusing Verizon of lying but he'd like to find out if the other carriers really are throttling their customers and has asked AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile to outline their policies.

Truth in advertising

You don't have to look back very far to see how this all came about. A few years ago, Verizon and the others wanted to find a way to charge a little bit more for essentially the same thing, so they came up with the "unlimited" label. Customers who agreed to pay a fixed amount per month wouldn't have to worry about going over their data limits because they would be, well, unlimited. 

But like hungry athletes at an after-game picnic, consumers who paid extra for their unlimited service began packing it in -- watching movies, TV shows, making Skype calls and doing who knows what else.

So now Verizon has simply turned the world inside out: if you want to use more data, you need to buy a limited-data plan which is, paradoxically, more expensive than the unlimited plan.

Verizon argues it is within its rights to do this because its contracts contain a clause saying Verizon can change the terms whenever it feels like it. 

It will be interesting to see whether the FCC allows this truly remarkable inside-the-looking-glass reasoning to stand. Just don't stay online too long waiting for the answer. Verizon may throttle you.

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First sentence handed down in AT&T call-center identity theft case

Call-center employee stole customer data

The main problem with trying to protect yourself from identity theft is that even if you personally do everything right, you're still at risk ...

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© Terrance Emerson, Fotolia.com
The main problem with trying to protect yourself from identity theft is that even if you personally do everything right — say, you're a professional IT- and financial-security genius whose home computer and personal documents are 100% hackproof, theft-proof and malware-proof — you're still at risk from every company, corporation, financier, lender, service provider or governmental organization you ever do business with.

So you can do everything right and still be at risk because you used a credit card at Target or Sally Beauty Supply or P.F. Chang's or any other business that went on to lose customer data to a hacker.

Or maybe you're at risk because you're a legal, licensed driver, and identity thieves broke into your state DMV database.

Or it could simply be that you're an American citizen or resident with any credit history at all, and that's how information about you ended up on the Experian database that became available to an identity thief way the heck over in Vietnam.

Call center

You can also be at risk if ever you contacted the call center of a given company. Last June, AT&T announced that some of its customer Social Security numbers and call histories had been stolen. The hack occurred in April and was discovered in May, yet not until June did AT&T publicly announce it.

That said: AT&T's records weren't actually “hacked” in the sense that an unauthorized outsider managed to sneak into the database somehow. Instead, it was an internal security breach: employees of a call center took advantage of their position to steal information out of customer records.

On April 4, the U.S. Attorney's office for Florida's Southern District announced that it had charged eight people in an identity-theft scheme using information stolen from AT&T's customer files. None of the defendants actually worked for AT&T, though; instead, AT&T had hired Interactive Response Technologies, Inc. (IRT) to handle call-center duties, and one of the eight defendants worked for IRT.

This week, the U.S. Attorney's office announced that the first of those eight defendants, former IRT employee Chouman Emily Syrilien, was sentenced: 34 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release.

Four additional defendants have pleaded guilty but not been sentenced yet.

The whole package

Exactly what customer data did IRT employees have access to, anyway? According to the indictment, pretty much everything an identity thief needs to operate: name, address, e-mail, telephone number, Social Security number, date of birth, credit and debit card account and verification numbers, personal identity numbers and passwords.

Once they had your bank, credit or debit card information, they added themselves as additional “authorized users” without your consent or knowledge, and went on to make unauthorized charges or cash withdrawals in your name.

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Employers say lying on resumes appears to be on the rise

And we've got some beauties

OK, chalk it up to the pressure to stand out in a sea of applicants. Whatever the cause, it appears job-seekers are tempted to be less than honest (transla...

Photo
© kantver - Fotolia.com

OK, chalk it up to the pressure to stand out in a sea of applicants. Whatever the cause, it appears job-seekers are tempted to be less than honest (translation: lie) on their resumes. But is it worth the risk?

More than half (58%) of hiring managers responding to a CareerBuilder survey say they’ve caught a lie on a resume, and 33% of these have seen an increase in resume padding since the recession.

Out the door

And they don't like what they're seeing

Fifty-one percent said that they would automatically dismiss a candidate if they caught a lie on his/her resume, while 40% said that it would depend on what the candidate lied about. Seven percent said they’d be willing to overlook a lie if they liked the candidate.

“Trust is very important in professional relationships, and by lying on your resume, you breach that trust from the very outset,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. “If you want to enhance your resume, it’s better to focus on playing up tangible examples from your actual experience. Your resume doesn’t necessarily have to be the perfect fit for an organization, but it needs to be relevant and accurate.”

The whoppers

There are certain fabrications job seekers may try to slip past employers more frequently than others. Employers say the most common lies they catch on resumes relate to:

  • Embellished skill set – 57%
  • Embellished responsibilities – 55%
  • Dates of employment – 42%
  • Job title – 34%
  • Academic degree – 33%
  • Companies worked for – 26%
  • Accolades/awards – 18%

The stunners

When asked about the most unusual lie they’ve ever caught on a resume, employers recalled:

  • Applicant included job experience that was actually his father’s. Both father and son had the same name (one was Sr., one was Jr.).
  • Applicant claimed to be the assistant to the prime minister of a foreign country that doesn’t have a prime minister.
  • Applicant claimed to have been a high school basketball free throw champion. He admitted it was a lie in the interview.
  • Applicant claimed to have been an Olympic medalist.
  • Applicant claimed to have been a construction supervisor. The interviewer learned the bulk of his experience was in the completion of a doghouse some years prior.
  • Applicant claimed to have 25 years of experience at age 32.
  • Applicant claimed to have worked for 20 years as the babysitter of known celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Madonna, etc.
  • Applicant listed three jobs over the past several years. Upon contacting the employers, the interviewer learned that the applicant had worked at one for two days, another for one day, and not at all for the third.
  • Applicant applied for a position with a company that had just fired him. He listed the company under previous employment and indicated on his resume that he had quit.
  • Applicant applied twice for the same position and provided different work history on each application.

Who they lie to

While employers have caught lies on resumes submitted for jobs of all types, levels and industries, some report a higher rate of fibbing than others. The survey found that employers in the following industries catch resume lies more frequently than average:

  • Financial Services – 73%
  • Leisure and Hospitality – 71%
  • Information Technology – 63%
  • Health Care (More than 50 employees) – 63%
  • Retail – 59%

Gotcha!

Employers may be taking more time looking over individual resumes. Forty-two percent said they currently spend more than 2 minutes reviewing each resume, compared with 33% in December.

Additionally, most employers (86% typically have more than 1 employee review candidates’ resumes, with 65% saying 2 or 3 people go over each resume. Twenty-one percent say resumes are reviewed by 4 or more employees before a decision is made.

The nationwide survey, which was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder from May 13 to June 6, 2014, included a representative sample of 2,188 hiring managers and human resource professionals across industries and company sizes.

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Checks enroute to folks allegedly scammed by Precision Law Center

More than 1300 consumers will split $800,000

Checks totaling approximately $800,000 are in the mail to some 1,305 consumers allegedly scammed in two related mortgage relief schemes. In one scheme, us...

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© John Takai - Fotolia.com

Checks totaling approximately $800,000 are in the mail to some 1,305 consumers allegedly scammed in two related mortgage relief schemes.

In one scheme, using the name Precision Law Center, the defendants allegedly made false promises to consumers that if they sued their lenders along with other homeowners in so-called “mass joinder” lawsuits, they could obtain favorable mortgage concessions from their lenders or stop the foreclosure process.

In the other, using names such as FreeFedLoanMod.org, HouseHoldRelief.org, and MyHomeSupport.org, the defendants charged consumers for “forensic loan audits,” and allegedly misrepresented that they could use the results to force lenders to give them better mortgage terms.

The checks being sent out by the Federal Trade Commission, through an administrator, must be cashed on or before October 7, 2014. The amount consumers will receive varies depending on how much they lost.

Consumers with questions may call 1-855-294-0136 or visit www.FTC.gov/refunds.  

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Study: Antibacterial compounds dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn children

The FDA is currently studying whether to regulate the compounds more tightly

Makers of antibacterial soaps and other products are gearing up to fight tighter regulation even as scientists find new evidence the compounds pose a dange...

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Source: Walgreens.com
Makers of antibacterial soaps and other products are gearing up to fight tighter regulation even as scientists find new evidence the compounds pose a danger to pregnant women and their unborn children.

"We looked at the exposure of pregnant women and their fetuses to triclosan and triclocarban, two of the most commonly used germ-killers in soaps and other everyday products," says Benny Pycke, Ph.D., in a study to be presented this week at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world's largest scientific society.

"We found triclosan in all of the urine samples from the pregnant women that we screened. We also detected it in about half of the umbilical cord blood samples we took, which means it transfers to fetuses. Triclocarban was also in many of the samples."

The problem with this, explains Pycke, a research scientist at Arizona State University (ASU), is that there is a growing body of evidence showing that the compounds can lead to developmental and reproductive problems in animals and potentially in humans. Also, some research suggests that the additives could contribute to antibiotic resistance, a growing public health problem.

Constant exposure

Although the human body is efficient at flushing out triclosan and triclocarban, a person's exposure to them can potentially be constant.

"If you cut off the source of exposure, eventually triclosan and triclocarban would quickly be diluted out, but the truth is that we have universal use of these chemicals, and therefore also universal exposure," says Rolf Halden, Ph.D., the lead investigator of the study at ASU.

The compounds are used in more than 2,000 everyday products marketed as antimicrobial, including toothpastes, soaps, detergents, carpets, paints, school supplies and toys, the researchers say.

In June, the Food and Drug Administratio (FDA) warned manufacturers that it would consider new regulations, adding that it had found no evidence over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soap products are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.

"New data suggest that the risks associated with long-term, daily use of antibacterial soaps may outweigh the benefits," said Colleen Rogers, Ph.D., a lead microbiologist at FDA. Among the risks, says Rogers, are indications that certain chemicals in antibacterial soaps may contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and may have unanticipated hormonal effects.

Minnesota became the first state to pass a ban on the antimicrobial's use in certain products, and it will take effect in January 2017. Some companies, such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, have announced that they are phasing out the compound from some products. 

Shorter babies

Showing what effect antimicrobials have on people is a challenge. But Laura Geer, Ph.D., of the State University of New York, found at least one interesting result.

Geer says the study yielded a link between women with higher levels of another ubiquitous antimicrobial, butyl paraben, which is commonly used in cosmetics, and shorter newborn lengths.

The long-term consequences of this are not clear, but Geer adds that, if this finding is confirmed in larger studies, it could mean that widespread exposure to these compounds could cause a subtle but large-scale shift in birth sizes.

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What's really in that coffee you're drinking?

Would you believe wheat, barley, soybeans or starch?

This isn't a story about whether that double soy latte you ordered really has an extra squirt of espresso. It's about how much filler is in your cup. And w...

PhotoThis isn't a story about whether that double soy latte you ordered really has an extra squirt of espresso. It's about how much filler is in your cup. And we're not talking about chicory.

Coffee is becoming a scarce commodity, thanks to climate change and other factors, which makes it more expensive, which in turn gives coffee marketers an economic incentive to do whatever they can to stretch the supply with fillers.

Chicory, widely used in New Orleans and the Acadian parishes of Louisiana, was perhaps the original filler in the U.S. But the locals decided they liked the slight peppery taste it added to coffee and it's now looked upon as a condiment rather than a money-saver.

But for the rest of us, we'd like our coffee straight, thanks -- without corn, barley, wheat or other common fillers. This may be getting a little easier thanks to a new test that's being outlined this week at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in San Francisco.

95% accurate

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A new test could detect unwanted fillers like wheat, corn and soybeans that might be lurking in your cup of coffee. (Credit: American Chemical Society)
"With our test, it is now possible to know with 95% accuracy if coffee is pure or has been tampered with, either with corn, barley, wheat, soybeans, rice, beans, acai seed, brown sugar or starch syrup," said research team leader Suzana Lucy Nixdorf, Ph.D., of the State University of Londrina in Brazil

The problem, she explains, is that "after roasting and grinding the raw material, it becomes impossible to see any difference between grains of lower cost incorporated into the coffee, especially because of the dark color and oily texture of coffee."

Currently, tests to detect these unwanted additives require scientists to check the coffee, and those tests are subjective –– not quantitative, she says. With these tests, the scientists look at the coffee under a microscope or identify various additives by simply tasting the coffee.

In contrast, the new test uses liquid chromatography and statistical tools. This gives her team a much closer look at the ingredients in an unbiased way, according to Nixdorf. Chromatography is a powerful analytical technique that is very sensitive and highly selective.

Because much of the coffee is composed of carbohydrates, researchers could develop a "characteristic fingerprint" when using chromatography that separates out the real coffee compounds, says Nixdorf. The added, unwanted grain fillers generate different levels of sugars than the natural ingredients, so they are easy to identify, she explains.

The task is somewhat urgent, given the coffee crisis that is about to spring itself upon a somnolent world. A study from the U.K.'s Royal Botanic Gardens and the Environment found  that 70% of the world's coffee supply might disappear by 2080 because of conditions caused by climate change.

But shortages due to more immediate issues already are occurring. The coffee-rich country of Brazil typically produces 55 million bags of coffee each year. But according to some reports, the projected amount for 2014 will likely only reach 45 million bags after this January's extensive drought. That's about 42 billion fewer cups of coffee for this year.

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Touring models of Chrysler 200 recalled

The wiring harnesses may not handle certain electrical loads

Chrysler Group is recalling an estimated 89 Touring models of the 2015 Chrysler 200, 8 of which are in the U.S, and the rest in Canada. An investigation ...

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Photo source: Chrysler.com

Chrysler Group is recalling an estimated 89 Touring models of the 2015 Chrysler 200, 8 of which are in the U.S, and the rest in Canada.

An investigation has found some vehicles built during a five-week production window were equipped with wiring harnesses that may not accommodate certain electrical loads, and may overheat.

The company says it is unaware of any related injuries, accidents or complaints.

Owners will be advised by mail when they may schedule service, which will be performed at no cost to them.

Owners with questions may call Chrysler's customer information center at 1-800-853-1403.

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Oberto’s recalls chicken strip products

Questions have been raised about product quality

Oberto’s Brands of Kent, Wash., is recalling approximately 57,578 pounds of chicken strip products. Bloated packages were discovered and further investiga...

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Photo source: USDA

Oberto’s Brands of Kent, Wash., is recalling approximately 57,578 pounds of chicken strip products.

Bloated packages were discovered and further investigation determined that “an undetected process deviation” was responsible for the increased water activity, and that the product met all critical limits during production. The company says it has determined that this a quality control issue and that there are no food safety hazards.

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

The products subject to recall include:

  • 3, 5.75 and 16 oz. film bags of “Smokey Sweet BBQ Style Chicken Strips”
  • 2.75, 3, 5.75, 9 and 16 oz. film bags of “Spicy Buffalo Style Chicken Strips”

The Smokey Sweet BBQ Style Chicken Strips were first produced on May 14, 2014, and last packaged on July 28, 2014. The Spicy Buffalo Style Chicken Strips were first produced on May 16, 2014 and last packaged on August 6, 2014.

The product, which bears the establishment number “P4837” on the package, was sent to retail establishments nationwide as well as Internet sales.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Lisa Austin, vice president of sales, at (253) 437-6308.  

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VW recalls Tiguans to fix fuel system problem

Bubbles may form in the fuel system, which could cause stalling

Volkswagen is recalling certain model year 2009-2014 Tiguan vehicles manufactured from July 2007 to June 2014. When using winterized fuel, in certain condi...

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Wikipedia photo
Volkswagen is recalling certain model year 2009-2014 Tiguan vehicles manufactured from July 2007 to June 2014. When using winterized fuel, in certain conditions bubbles may form in the fuel system which could result in the vehicle stalling.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will update the vehicle's software to increase the fuel pump pressure, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin August 19, 2014.

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-822-8987. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 24AV/2W.

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GM recalls Saturn VUE, Cadillac ATS, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Impala, Aveo and Spark models

Various problems including ignition switch, seat belts, brake fluid and glove compartment doors

General Motors announced the following recalls: 202,115 model year 2002-2004 Saturn VUEs because the ignition key can possibly be removed when the vehicle...

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Wikipedia photo

General Motors announced the following recalls:

202,115 model year 2002-2004 Saturn VUEs because the ignition key can possibly be removed when the vehicle is not in the off position. GM is aware of two crashes and one injury potentially related to the issue.

Dealers will inspect for key pullout or key binding, and, if necessary, replace the ignition cylinder and key set at no charge to customers.

Until recall repairs have been performed, it is very important before exiting the vehicle for customers to make sure the vehicle is in “Park” or in the case of a manual transmission to put the transmission into reverse gear and set the parking brake.

48,059 model year 2013 Cadillac ATS four-door sedans and 2013 Buick Encore vehicles in the U.S. In some of these vehicles, the front outboard lapbelt pretensioner cables will retract upon deployment to pull in seat belt webbing, but may not lock, allowing the cable and the retracted webbing to return to their original length under occupant loading.

As a result, there may be a potential of increased occupant movement in certain accidents. Dealers will replace both front outboard lap belt pretensioners. GM is not aware of any crashes or injuries as a result of this issue, which was discovered during frontal crash testing. A stop sale is in effect for unsold models at dealerships until repairs have been made,

14,940 model year 2014-2015 Chevrolet Impala sedans in the U.S. On some LT and LTZ models equipped with a front console storage compartment, the inertia latch on the compartment door may not engage in the event of a rear collision and the front console compartment door may open. Dealers will replace the console door storage compartment door inertia latch. Because this is a non-compliance with a federal motor vehicle safety standard, GM has ordered dealers to hold unsold models of these vehicles until the repair can be made. GM knows of no crashes or injuries related to this condition.

1,968 model year 2009-2010 Chevrolet Aveo and 2009 model year Pontiac G3 vehicles for a brake fluid issue that could lead to longer brake pedal travel and/or reduced braking performance. This was originally a Customer Satisfaction Program issued in 2012 and has been reclassified as a safety recall. GM knows of no crashes or injuries associated with the condition.

1,919 model year 2014 Chevrolet Spark models for left and right lower control arm attaching bolts that may not be tightened to specification. GM has informed owners to have their vehicles transported to Chevrolet dealerships, where they will be inspect the attaching bolts to be sure they are tightened to specification. GM knows of no crashes or injuries related to this issue.

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Dos and don'ts when shopping for a new car

The more information you have the better the deal you're likely to get

Buying a new car can be an intimidating experience and most consumers approach it with a measure of anxiety. They don't want to appear foolish and they cer...

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© Gajus - Fotolia.com

Buying a new car can be an intimidating experience and most consumers approach it with a measure of anxiety. They don't want to appear foolish and they certainly don't want to overpay. In the past a consumer and salesman might haggle for an hour or two over the price and the consumer still drives away feeling they got the short end of the deal.

Everyone knows you shouldn't pay the sticker price and car dealers don't expect to get it. But the dealer intends to make a profit on the sale, so there's a limit to how low they will go.

How then, do you know what to offer for the vehicle of your choice? Karl Brauer, Senior Analyst at Kelley Blue Book (KBB), says the consumer needs to find the market value of the vehicle.

Market value

“When I say market value, that means what people are paying for that particular make and model,” Brauer told ConsumerAffairs. “Not the invoice price, which is what the dealer paid, not the MSRP, which is what the dealer wants to ask for the car but what the car is actually selling for in their local market.”

Fortunately, getting that information is a bit easier than it once was. Online tools can help, with data showing what models with the same option packages are currently selling for. KBB, for example, has a pricing tool on its website.

“You'll get a price range that, if you're operating within that range, you can be confident you're getting a fair deal,” Brauer said.

But the market price for the same car will probably be different in Los Angeles than it is in St. Louis. Not only that, the market value in the same market may fluctuate. The price range in March might be different in May.

“A car might be featured in a popular movie and suddenly that can increase demand faster than manufacturers can deliver them,” Brauer said.

So the information you collect needs to be current. If you've spent a month researching cars, check it again right before you go to the dealership.

Negotiating position

Think of this research as the building blocks of your negotiating position. The more research at your fingertips, the stronger your position.

“If you come in and make it clear you're an educated buyer, I think the dealership immediately treats those buyers in a different manner because they know they can't play any games,” Brauer said. “They know that you know what you should pay for the car.”

On the other hand, the one thing you want to avoid is falling in love with the car.

“The dealers can sense this,” Brauer said. “They've been doing this long enough that they can sense when someone decides they are leaving with that car because they have to have it.”

Remember, there is almost always another dealer who can sell you the same car. If the dealer has overpriced the vehicle, they won't want you to visit another dealer.

Be willing to walk

If, on the other hand, they've given you their best offer – one they're confident a competitor can't beat – they may let you walk. But letting them know you're willing to postpone your purchase a day or two while you shop around can be strong incentive to come to terms.

“The dealer will see you as a serious buyer about to spend money and you can spend it there or you can spend it somewhere else,” Brauer said. “Once they get that impression they'll work hard to make sure you spend it there.”

Once you've negotiated the purchase price, your work isn't over. Brauer says consumers should stay alert through the rest of the process, when fees and extras can bump up the price.

“Watch out for things like documentation fees they're going to pay when a car is processed. registration fees – those are all things you should know about before the final contract is written up,” he said.

But car buying isn't the unpleasant chore it once was. Brauer says the Internet has forced dealers to change the way they do business, becoming more savvy with educated consumers.

It's up to consumers to take advantage of it.

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Fed: Most U.S. families doing 'okay'

A lot of others, though, are struggling to hang in there

What the Federal Reserve survey wanted to know boils down to, “how ya doing?” What U.S. families told the Fed is somewhat disturbing. While over 60% of p...

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© Pei Ling Hoo - Fotolia.com

What the Federal Reserve survey wanted to know boils down to, “how ya doing?”

What U.S. families told the Fed is somewhat disturbing.

While over 60% of people responding said their families were either "doing okay" or "living comfortably" financially, one-fourth said that they were "just getting by" and another 13% said they were struggling to do so.

The report also found the effects of the recession continued to be felt by many households, with 34% reporting that they were somewhat worse off or much worse off financially than they had been five years earlier in 2008 and 34% reporting that they were about the same.

The American Dream

The outlook for the housing market among homeowners appeared generally positive. Many homeowners said they expect home prices in their neighborhoods to increase over the 12 months following the survey, with 26% expecting an increase in values of 5% or less and 14% expecting an increase in values of greater than 5%. Fewer than 10% of homeowners expected house prices in their neighborhoods to decline over the 12 months following the survey.

Many renters seemed to express an implied interest in home ownership The most common reasons cited by renters for renting rather than owning a home were an inability to afford the necessary down payment (45%) and an inability to qualify for a mortgage (29%). Ten percent of renters said they were currently looking to buy a home.

Retirement readiness

The survey results suggest that many households are not adequately prepared for retirement. Thirty-one percent of non-retired respondents reported having no retirement savings or pension, including 19% of those ages 55 to 64. Additionally, almost half of adults were not actively thinking about financial planning for retirement, with 24% saying they had given only a little thought to financial planning for their retirement and another 25% saying they had done no planning at all.

Of those who have given at least some thought to retirement planning and plan to retire at some point, 25% didn't know how they will pay their expenses in retirement.

The Great Recession pushed back the planned date of retirement for two-fifths of those ages 45 and over who had not yet retired, and 15% of those who had retired since 2008 reported that they retired earlier than planned due to the recession.

Among those ages 55 to 64 who had not yet retired, only 18% plan to follow the traditional retirement model of working full time until a set date and then stop working altogether, while 24% expected to keep working as long as possible, 18% expected to retire and then work a part-time job, and 9% expected to retire and then become self-employed.

The full Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households is available on the Federal reserve website.

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Ebola outbreak demands an "extraordinary" response, WHO declares

The disease is not a "significant risk" to the U.S. at this point, CDC advises

Photo: World Health Organization The World Health Organization (WHO) today declared the Ebola outbreakin West Africa an international public health emer...

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Photo: World Health Organization
The World Health Organization (WHO) today declared the Ebola outbreakin West Africa an international public health emergency demanding an "extraordinary" response.

With more than 1,000 known fatalities in West Africa, the WHO said the outbreak -- the worst in modern history -- is uncontained and spreading rapidly, and warned that:

  • the Ebola outbreak constitutes an ‘extraordinary event’ and a public health risk to other states;
  • the possible consequences of further international spread are particularly serious in view of the virulence of the virus, the intensive community and health facility transmission patterns, and the weak health systems in the currently affected and most at-risk countries.
  • a coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop and reverse the international spread of Ebola.

The WHO recommended against a general travel ban but said all nations should maintain border surveillance to try to prevent the virus from spreading into their territories.

U.S. measures

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for hospitals and other healthcare organizations but emphasized that the disease does not yet represent a "significant risk" to the U.S.

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Source: CDC

Questions & Answers

The CDC issues these questions and answers about Ebola:

 What is Ebola?

Ebola virus is the cause of a viral hemorrhagic fever disease. Symptoms include: fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, lack of appetite, and abnormal bleeding. Symptoms may appear anywhere from 2 to 21 days after exposure to ebolavirus though 8-10 days is most common.

How is Ebola transmitted?

Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected symptomatic person or through exposure to objects (such as needles) that have been contaminated with infected secretions.

Can Ebola be transmitted through the air?

No. Ebola is not a respiratory disease like the flu, so it is not transmitted through the air.

Can I get Ebola from contaminated food or water?

No. Ebola is not a food-borne illness.  It is not a water-borne illness.

Can I get Ebola from a person who is infected but doesn’t have any symptoms?

No. Individuals who are not symptomatic are not contagious. In order for the virus to be transmitted, an individual would have to have direct contact with an individual who is experiencing symptoms.

Q: Are there any cases of individuals contracting Ebola in the U.S.?

No.

What is being done to prevent ill passengers in West Africa from getting on a plane?

CDC is assisting with active screening and education efforts on the ground in West Africa to prevent sick travelers from getting on planes. In addition, airports in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are screening all outbound passengers for Ebola symptoms, including fever, and passengers are required to respond to a healthcare questionnaire.  CDC is also surging support in the region by deploying 50 additional workers to help build capacity on the ground.

What is CDC doing in the U.S.?

On the remote possibility that an ill passenger enters the U.S., CDC has protocols in place to protect against further spread of disease. These include notification to CDC of ill passengers on a plane before arrival, investigation of ill travelers, and, if necessary, isolation. CDC has also provided guidance to airlines for managing ill passengers and crew and for disinfecting aircraft. CDC has issued a Health Alert Notice reminding U.S. healthcare workers of the importance of taking steps to prevent the spread of this virus, how to test and isolate suspected patients and how they can protect themselves from infection.

What about ill Americans with Ebola who are being brought to the U.S. for treatment? How is CDC protecting the American public?

CDC has very well-established protocols in place to ensure the safe transport and care of patients with infectious diseases back to the United States. These procedures cover the entire process -- from patients leaving their bedside in a foreign country to their transport to an airport and boarding a non-commercial airplane equipped with a special transport isolation unit, to their arrival at a medical facility in the United States that is appropriately equipped and staffed to handle such cases. CDC’s role is to ensure that travel and hospitalization is done to minimize risk of spread of infection and to ensure that the American public is protected. Patients were evacuated in similar ways during SARS. 

What does the CDC’s Travel Alert Level 3 mean to U.S. travelers?

On July 31, the CDC elevated their warning to U.S. citizens encouraging them to defer unnecessary travel to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone over concerns that travelers may not have access to health care facilities and personnel should they need them in country.

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Some PC users still holding onto Windows XP

IT firm creates work-around it says gives XP new life

In a way, perhaps Microsoft should take it as a compliment. Its Windows XP operating system, introduced a dozen years ago, is well-liked by enough users th...

PhotoIn a way, perhaps Microsoft should take it as a compliment. Its Windows XP operating system, introduced a dozen years ago, is well-liked by enough users that they haven't upgraded. They didn't upgrade to Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 8.1.

But software companies don't make money if they don't keep improving technology and turning out new products. So back in April, after having extended the deadline once, Microsoft said it's done with XP, even if it sounds a little defensive about it.

“We support our older operating systems much longer than most other businesses in this industry, but we can’t keep supporting old operating systems and still move forward creating new and better products,” the company says on its website.

Move on

In other words, move on. Only a lot of people haven't. The most recent report from NetMarketShare, a technology analytics firm, shows Windows XP still commands nearly 25% of the PC operating system (OS) market.

That share has fallen sharply in the last year, and 3 months after Microsoft finally ended XP support, is only half of the Windows 7 market, but more than twice the number of those using Windows 8 and 8.1 combined. So who are these hold outs?

At the end of last month Adaptiva, a company providing software products, surveyed 100 attendees of the TechEd North America conference. Amazingly, 53% of the businesses that responded said they were still running XP in their organization.

New life for XP?

That's creating an opportunity for entrepreneurs to step in and offer potential solutions so users can keep XP running on their PCs. One such company is Prairie IT, a Colorado-based firm that is introducing a new product it says turns existing XP PCs into web-based cloud computers.

In a press release, the company says that some existing PCs are still working fine but can't be upgraded to run Windows 7 or higher. To continue to use them without Microsoft support, however, puts them at risk to viruses and hackers.

Since most PC usage is now web-based, whether accessing company portals, Google docs and apps, or other web-based apps, Prairie IT has created PrairieConnect, which takes an existing XP computer and runs it on the cloud.

"There are some 500 million XP computers still in use around the world,” said company founder Mark Oman. “They all have to be upgraded to a new solution or face the ever growing onslaught of hackers and viruses. PrairieConnect is that solution, transforming those aging computers into useful, productive tools for your business or organization."

Free trial

Oman said Prairie IT created the product for its internal use before realizing it might have appeal to other XP holdouts. A free trial download is available at the company's website. The cost is $10/seat with no requirement for a seat license.

You can probably expect others to jump in with additional products and services designed to extend the useful life of Windows XP. Meanwhile, Microsoft is doing its best to encourage consumers to let go of the past.

“In the past 12 years you’ve probably gotten a new phone, maybe a new TV, and possibly even a new car. Maybe it’s time for a new PC too, so you can make sure you have more memory and storage, faster processing speeds, and a higher-quality display (some even come with touch),” its website pleads. “And they’re less expensive than you might think.”

But it's very possible that money is the sticking point, not a particular love of Windows XP. In a tight economy, consumers as well as businesses may be tightening their belts, getting every last ounce of usage out of the products they buy.

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Your FICO score might rise this fall

Revised FICO formula to discount medical debt, ignore paid-off bills

Fair Isaac is about to get a little less unfair to consumers, as the formula used to calculate people's FICO scores is being revamped...

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© Michael Brown - Fotolia.com
Fair Isaac is about to get a little less unfair, as the formula used to calculate people's FICO scores is being revamped to reduce the impact of medical debt and old bills which have been paid off.

FICO stands for Fair Isaac and Company, a financial/analytical company whose primary customers are banks, credit-card companies and other financial entities.

Your personal FICO score is supposed to help lenders know how likely you are to actually pay back any money you might borrow. The higher your FICO score, the greater your perceived creditworthiness and (in general) the lower the interest rate you'll be charged for any loans or financial services you take out, anything from credit cards to wireless-phone plans to your home mortgage.

It's not too much of an oversimplification to say “The way FICO works is, if you don't pay your bills your score goes down, especially if those unpaid bills make it to a collection agency.”

Glaring problems

In many cases this makes perfect sense. If, for example, someone has the regular habit of maxing out credit cards, buying things on store credit and rarely paying those bills on time, chances are that someone isn't very good at handling money, and is a poor risk to repay any funds you might lend them.

But, critics of FICO said, there were two glaring problems with this measurement scheme, with medical debt being the biggest one. The current FICO system makes no distinction between, for example, discretionary debt purchases versus medical emergencies not covered by insurance: it figures debt is debt, so where your personal creditworthiness (read: trustworthiness) is concerned, it doesn't matter if you're $50,000 over your head because you or your spouse had an expensive medical emergency, or $50,000 in the hole because you keep putting luxury vacations on your credit card — the same stigma of financial recklessness clings to you either way, and you'll still be charged higher interest rates as a result.

Under the new plan, medical debt still counts against your FICO score, but will have less weight – if unpaid medical debt is the only black mark against your credit rating, your FICO score could rise by as much as 25 points.

The second problem involves any sort of debt (medical or otherwise) that goes unpaid long enough to go to a collection agency, but is then paid off in full. Under the current FICO system, that debt still drags your credit score down for seven full years after it's been paid off, but once the new calculations come into play, those paid-off debts will no longer count against your score.

The new revised FICO scores are expected to come into use sometime this fall. If you're thinking of applying for a car loan or home mortgage, signing up for a new cell phone plan, or engaging in any other financial transaction where you must pay interest, and your FICO score currently has black marks due to already-paid-off debt or currently unpaid medical bills, try holding off on that loan for another couple of months, until the new FICO scores come into use: you might qualify for a higher score and a better interest rate then.

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Gmail changes: Google makes it easier to unsubscribe from unwanted emails

But wading through Google's ever-changing posted policies remains as difficult as ever

Mildly good news for Gmail users trying to reduce the number of spam messages: Google is moving any “Unsubscribe” links to the top of email...

PhotoThere's mildly good news for Gmail users trying to reduce the number of spam messages they get: Google is moving any “Unsubscribe” links from the bottom of email messages to the top.

Google announced this change in a publicly available Google+ post on Aug. 6:

Email is a handy way to get updates from your favorite brands, social networks, discussion boards and more. But sometimes you end up subscribed to lists that are no longer relevant to you, and combing through an entire message looking for a way to unsubscribe is no fun.

Both statements are completely true: email genuinely is a handy way to get updates from your favorite brands, etc., and combing through an entire message looking for a way to unsubscribe is no fun. Google is 100% correct about that.

Needle in a bitstack

Come to think of it, combing through entire messages looking for anything is no fun. For example: do you remember last April, when Google changed its service and privacy policies for the nth time, this time to explicitly say that yeah, if you use Gmail your writings will be scanned for various purposes, including advertising?

In order to discover these changes, all the average Gmail user (or consumer-journalist investigating Google's policy change du jour) had to do was visit Google's Privacy Policy page (which, you'd think, is where they'd discuss such privacy-related issues as “Are we or aren't we scanning your email content”), read through all 2,049 words there (according to my word processor's word-count function) in order to determine that none of those words say anything about scanning or analyzing email content one way or the other, then click the link to Google's Terms of Service page and scroll down or read though the first 849 words written there until you finally get to the part where it says “Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

Nope, combing through an entire enormous eye-glazing pile of unwanted words in search of the one small bit you actually want is no fun at all. It's nice to know that Google empathizes with this, though.

Anyway, Google's Gmail-change announcement goes on to say:

Now when a sender includes an “Unsubscribe” link in a Promotions, Social or Forums message, Gmail will surface it to the top, right next to the sender address. If you’re interested in the message’s content, it won’t get in the way, and if not, it’ll make it easier to keep your inbox clutter-free.

That's great! (By the way: if you use any other email service where the unsubscribe links remain hidden down at the very bottom of your messages, you can make use of your browser's “Find” function: click on “Find,” type in the word “unsubscribe,” and if the word does appear anywhere in your email, you'll immediately be taken to the first appearance of it.)

Google ended its Google+ announcement by saying:

Making the unsubscribe option easy to find is a win for everyone. For email senders, their mail is less likely to be marked as spam and for you, you can now say goodbye to sifting through an entire message for that one pesky link.

Goodbye, sifting through an entire message for that one pesky link (provided of course the message is in Gmail, rather than about Gmail and lurking somewhere in the dense word thickets of Google's posted online policies, terms and conditions)! 'Twas nice knowing you.

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2.6 million Americans still subscribe to AOL dialup

Is an ancient, long-forgotten dialup auto-payment still draining money from your account?

AOL released it quarterly earnings report on Wednesday of the same week the FCC considered raising the national bar for broadband...

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Hyundai hit with $17 million penalty for delays in reporting brake defect

Hyundai knew in 2012 about problems with corrosion in Genesis brakes

Hyundai will pay $17 million for being slow to report a brake defect to federal regulators. The defect in 2009-2012 Hyundai Genesis vehicles involves corro...

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Photo: Hyundai USA

Hyundai will pay $17 million for being slow to report a brake defect to federal regulators. The defect in 2009-2012 Hyundai Genesis vehicles involves corrosion in critical brake system components that can result in reduced braking effectiveness and increase the risk of a crash.

"Safety is our top priority, and all automakers should understand that there is no excuse for failing to report a safety-related defect, as required by law," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "This Administration will act aggressively and hold automakers accountable when they put the American public at risk."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that Hyundai had been aware in 2012 that brake fluids used in the Genesis did not sufficiently inhibit corrosion in key components of the vehicle’s brake system.

“Hyundai remains committed to making safety our top priority, and is dedicated to ensuring immediate action in response to potential safety concerns including the prompt reporting of safety defects,” David Zuchowski, CEO of Hyundai Motor America, said in a prepared statement.  

Service bulletin

Hyundai  Aug. 8, 2014, 4:07 p.m.
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Rather than issue a recall, Hyundai instructed dealers to change the brake fluid in affected vehicles without explaining the consequences of failing to change the brake fluid. Hyundai also did not inform Genesis owners of the potential safety consequences. Hyundai finally issued a recall of the affected vehicles in October 2013 as a result of a NHTSA investigation.

While there have been no fatalities relating to this safety defect, six consumers reported collisions, including two reports of injuries, NHTSA said. As of January 14, 2014, Hyundai had received 87 consumer complaints about Genesis vehicles, most of which suggest increased difficulty in braking.

"Federal law requires automakers to report safety-related defects to NHTSA within five days, and neither NHTSA nor the American public will accept anything less," said NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman. "Hyundai failed to act to protect their customers and others that were harmed in an accident, and must change the way they deal with all safety related defects."

As part of a consent order, Hyundai has agreed to make improvements to its processes for identifying, reporting, and communicating safety-related defects in a timely manner. 

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Airlines find clear runways in June

But, on-time performance slipped a bit

After struggling with tarmac delays, flight cancellations and late arrivals in May, air travelers enjoyed a pretty good June. There were NO reported tarma...

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© John Takai - Fotolia.com

After struggling with tarmac delays, flight cancellations and late arrivals in May, air travelers enjoyed a pretty good June.

There were NO reported tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights and only one of more than four hours on an international flight that month, according to the Transportation Department's (DOT) latest Air Travel Consumer Report.

During May, 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.

Also during June, the 14 airlines that file their on-time performance data with DOT reported that 71.8% of their flights arrived on time in June, virtually the same as for June 2013 but worse than the 76.9% mark in May 2014.

The consumer report also includes information on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, as well as data on airline bumping, mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers with the carriers, and consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints. Reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air, are also included.

The full report is available on the DOT website.

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RegeneSlim appetite control capsules recalled

The product contains DMAA, which can cause a rise in blood pressure

Regeneca Worldwide of Las Vegas, Nev., is recalling its RegeneSlim appetite control dietary supplement from lot # EX0616R15814 and lot #11414RE5516. FDA a...

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Photo source: Regenica.net

Regeneca Worldwide of Las Vegas, Nev., is recalling its RegeneSlim appetite control dietary supplement from lot # EX0616R15814 and lot #11414RE5516.

FDA analysis has confirmed the presence of DMAA, which can narrow blood vessels and arteries, which can cause a rise in blood pressure or other cardiovascular problems such as shortness of breath, arrhythmias, tightening in the chest, and heart attack.

There have been no illnesses reported to date.

RegeneSlim is packaged in approximately 3 ½” by 3” green and white sachets that contain 2 capsules, with the name RegeneSlim displayed prominently on the front of the sachet. The product is purchased by and distributed through a direct sales force within the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and through online sales, for both personal consumption and retail sales.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled product should immediately stop using it and return it to the place of purchase for a full exchange.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-949-281-2600 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. PDT.   

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Volkswagen recalls Routans

The ignition switch may move out of the run position, turning off the engine

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 18,526 model year 2009 Routan vehicles. Road conditions or some other jarring event may cause the ignition switc...

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Photo source: Wikipedia

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 18,526 model year 2009 Routan vehicles.

Road conditions or some other jarring event may cause the ignition switch to move out of the run position, turning off the engine.

If the ignition key inadvertently moves into the OFF or ACCESSORY position, the engine will turn off, which will then depower various key safety systems including, but not limited to air bags, power steering and power braking. Loss of functionality of these systems may increase the risk of crash and/or increase the risk of injury in the event of a crash.

This defect also can affect the safe operation of the airbag system. Until this recall is performed, customers should remove all items from their key rings, leaving only the ignition key. The key fob (if applicable), should also be removed from the key ring.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will modify the ignition switch, free of charge. The recall was expected to begin in August.

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1- 800-822-8987. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 28G1/U8.  

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Things to consider before buying a house

Going slowly is usually a good idea

© Iriana Shiyan - Fotolia.comAs previously noted, the housing market has cooled in recent months as Millennials have been slow to jump into home o...

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© Iriana Shiyan - Fotolia.com

As previously noted, the housing market has cooled in recent months as Millennials have been slow to jump into home ownership. Young people usually make up the lion's share of first-time buyers but that category has been getting older lately. And maybe a slower approach is not a bad thing.

Like many things today, buying real estate is more complicated and more costly than it used to be. The purchase price is not the only cost – it's only the start. So knowing exactly what you're getting into by purchasing a home is not a bad idea.

The purchase price is a good starting point, however. It helps you to begin to narrow down your choices.

How much can you afford?

The U.S. Census Bureau suggests that consumers should not pay more than 30% of household income on housing costs. If your household earns $4,500 a month, your housing costs should not go over $1,350.

What if the house you want to buy costs $175,000 – can you swing that on $4,500 a month and still stay within the 30% rule? Let's see.

First, how much will you be putting up as a down payment? This is critical to your monthly payment.

Most lenders of conventional mortgages would like to see 20% down, which would come to $35,000. Many first time buyers, especially those just starting families, don't have that kind of cash lying around. But for the moment, let's assume they do.

Figuring the payment

Financing $140,000 at a fixed rate at today's prevailing rates over 30 years gives you a principal and interest payment of around $675 a month. Not bad. But we're not done.

The lender is going to require a homeowner's insurance policy on the property to protect its investment. It will also make sure that you pay local real estate taxes so that your property isn't seized at a tax auction.

Depending on where the property is located that can add around $150 to the monthly payment, pushing it up to $825 a month. To make sure it's paid each month, the lender will maintain an escrow account, paying the taxes and insurance premium for you.

The principal, interest, tax and insurance that make up your monthly payment are referred to as PITI, and it's the basic cost of homeownership. But there will likely be other costs.

Mortgage insurance

If you are unable to make a down payment of at least 20%, the lender will probably require you to take out private mortgage insurance (PMI), to protect them in case you default. That premium is added to your monthly payment.

If you take out an FHA loan and make a down payment of 3.5%, your down payment is much lower – $6,125 – but your principal and interest is higher each month, $806.

Using a PMI calculator, you determine that the monthly PMI payment will be $162. Add in the $150 for taxes and insurance and your monthly payment is now around $1118.

If the home is a townhouse or condo, it will likely have a home owners association (HOA) fee, anywhere from $125 a month on up. Assuming it's on the low end, our payment is now approaching $1250 a month, just within our 30% cut-off.

Closing costs

Of course, we haven't talked about closing costs. When a buyer and seller come together to transfer ownership of property, there are costs involved.

These costs vary from state to state but an analysis by Bankrate.com finds these costs are going up, just about everywhere. They rose 6% over the past year and now average $2,539 on a $200,000 loan. Origination fees increased 9% to $1,877 and third-party fees rose one percent to $662.

"New mortgage regulations are the biggest reasons why closing costs went up over the past year," said Holden Lewis, senior mortgage analyst, Bankrate.com. "The good news is that some lenders have not increased fees. To get the best deal, consumers should compare good faith estimates from at least three different lenders."

More importantly, take closing costs into consideration when deciding how much you can afford to pay for a home. Unless you can persuade the seller to pay all closing costs, you will need to come up with that money – in addition to the down payment – at settlement.

With rising rents, buying a home can be a smart move. But it's also a big commitment. You probably won't be able to sell and move on in a couple of years, unlike during the recent housing boom when prices quickly escalated.

The bottom line -- don't buy until you're ready and you can afford it.

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Motherhood and man-hunting: the only two occasions for Nine West shoes

That's not my opinion; that's according to Nine West's own website

According to some presumptive-genius ad executive at Nine West I can go barefooted the rest of my life, since I'm married and...

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Photo source: ninewest.com

According to some presumptive-genius ad executive at Nine West I can go barefooted the rest of my life, since I'm married and don't have kids.

Seriously. Nine West (a shoes-and-accessories company whose slogan is not “High heels at high prices,” but it should be), revamped its website to appeal to the modern American shoe-buying woman and the two “Shoe Occasions” in her lifetime: “Starter husband hunting” and “First day of kindergarten.”

That's the complete list. Starter husband hunting and the first day of kindergarten are the two occasions for which Nine West thinks your typical contemporary American woman might buy their shoes. Graduation? Job interview? Landing that promotion? Any of the thousand and one other reasons a woman might want (or even need) a decorative new pair of shoes?

Nope, because according to the deep thinkers at Nine West there aren't 1,001 reasons for a woman to buy their shoes, only two: one pair of do-me pumps to snag yourself a Man and then, at least five years and nine months later, a second pair of shoes to wave Junior off to his first day of kindergarten.

Husband-hunting tip, courtesy of Nine West: “Go get em' [sic] tiger. Whether you're looking for Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now … we got a shoe for that.” If the term “Mr. Right” is all-encompassing, that suggests you should also consider Nine West once you're ready to trade in your “starter” husband for a more deluxe model.

(Note to the ladies: if you want to snag a husband who's also a hot-n-sexy grammarian, the way Barbara Stanwyck did in the 1941 comedy Ball of Fire, [admittedly old-fashioned by circa-2014 standards, but right up Nine West's alley], bear in mind that last bit of encouragement should have read “Go get 'em tiger” with the apostrophe in front of the “em” to indicate the replacement of missing letters: 'em in lieu of them. You should also know this if you want to be a grammarian yourself, or any other type of college professor or professional-type person ... but in that case you lack "Shoe Occasion" and there's no need for you to patronize Nine West, no matter how much they patronize you.)

Dry those tears

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Photo source: ninewest.com

And what about “First Day of Kindergarten?” Nine West says: “The bus arrives and so do the waterworks. Then it hits you: Mommy now has the weeks off. Wipe those happy-sad tears … we got a shoe for that.”

My neighbor is going to be ecstatic when she finds out that after her kid starts kindergarten next month, she'll have the weeks off and nothing to do but prance around in Nine West stilettos all day. I almost stopped typing this long enough to run next door and give her the good news, but then I remembered: she's not home now, and won't be for several hours yet because she's at work, tending to the job she holds to earn money, pay off her college loans and support her family. Does Nine West “got a shoe for that?” None that I could find on their website.

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The Chevrolet Volt: bad news for pedestrians and gas stations

It's dangerously quiet and remarkably allergic to gasoline

The first person to walk out in front of my Chevrolet Volt today was a gentleman cutting quickly through a parki...

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A fifth seat will go where? (Staff photo)

The first person to walk out in front of my Chevrolet Volt today was a gentleman cutting quickly through a parking lot behind a medical building. The second was a fellow spraying weeds along the road.

The fellow in the parking lot was never aware of my presence, as far as I could tell. I had been creeping along looking for a parking place, which prevented his becoming embedded in the windshield. 

The gent with the weed sprayer panicked as I came upon him after rounding a blind curve. He spun around and doused the front of the Volt with Roundup before diving into the weeds -- a nice gesture but not really necessary as I had already stopped.

After eight months or so behind the wheel, I have become acutely aware of the Volt's propensity for sneaking up on pedestrians and bicyclists. There is a special horn -- it makes an ooga-ooga sound -- intended to alert pedestrians but I find the the brakes a more foolproof method of avoiding accidents.

Another drawback I've found with the Volt is that it only seats four passengers, thanks to the space taken up by the 435-pound battery pack. Admittedly this is two more than the Porsche 911 that was my previous daily driver but it still comes up short on occasion.

This failing, however, will apparently be remedied in the next generation Volt, scheduled to creep silently into showrooms in late 2015, according to GM marketing officer Tim Mahoney, quoted in today's Automotive News

Mahoney said the next-generation Volts will have a fifth seat in the rear, though if so, the rear-seat passenger will either have to be very short or the design of the rear hatchback will need some major revision. Someone is already looking into this, no doubt.

The current luggage area is hardly worth discussing. It looks to be about the right size for a small dog. But when we put our pug Tater there for a short ride, the sunlight pouring in through the large rear window threatened to melt him down into his base elements. 

A gas-free year

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80 mpg -- mostly around-town driving

The two areas in which the Volt excels are fuel economy and performance. I buy gas so seldom that I have a hard time remembering where the gas cap release button is. In warm weather, a full battery charge is good for 40 miles or more, which means I can go for weeks without ever burning a drop of fuel. I have gassed up only nine times in about nine months.

On a few trips from Northern Virginia to New York and New Jersey, the Volt averaged about 35 miles per gallon when running on the gas engine. These are hard miles on I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike -- high speeds, sudden stops and last-minute maneuvers. Not for timid drivers or wimpy cars. 

Lifetime fuel economy so far, according to the onboard computer and my calculations is about 81 miles per gallon. This doesn't count the electricity consumed, of course, but our household electricity usage continues to be less than it was the previous year so the Volt is hardly putting us in the poor house. Incremental Volt usage is undetectable using the 220-volt Bosch charger, which puts the mojo back into the battery in four hours or less.

PhotoThe car's performance is outstanding. It has excellent acceleration, accurate handling and braking that has saved the day on more than one occasion. Unlike other hybrids I've road-tested, it's actually fun to drive.

Unplugged in Jersey

Of course, there are some consumers who routinely drive long distances and spend nights away from home. The Volt might not be for them, simply because there aren't all that many places to plug it in.

It's surprising that hotels that have no shame charging $15 or more for parking make no accommodation for electric cars that would use less than $1 worth of kilowatt hours to charge up each night. 

Last time I was at the Hilton Doubletree in Jersey City, the bellman was speechless when I asked if there was a place to plug in the Volt. In fairness, there was something of a language barrier in the mix. 

But for a daily commute of 40 miles or less, the Volt is ideal. The Bosch charger that GM recommends is easy to use and costs just a few hundred dollars. Installation requires a professional electrician and dealing with Bosch requires extreme patience. The company may be technologically adept but their sales and service is back in the buggy-whip era. 

Sales still slow

PhotoSales of the Volt have been disappointing -- with only 65,000 sold since it went on sale in December 2010 -- and GM is hoping the forthcoming changes will put some tiger in the Volt's tank.

Besides the third seat, the next Volt will have a smaller gas engine -- a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder version instead of the current 1.4-liter four-cylinder plant, Automotive News quotes sources as saying.

Is this a good thing? Hard to say. Remember that the car always runs on electricity. When the battery is charged, it provides the juice. When it's depleted, the gas engine kicks in and acts as a generator. There is no discernable difference in performance between the two modes.

I seldom hear my gas engine rev up, meaning that it generates ample electricity at relatively low engine speeds. It may be that there won't be a substantial performance difference with the smaller engine. There's no tachometer so it's not possible to measure how fast the gas engine is turning over.

In an interesting aside, GM says that nearly 70% of buyers who trade in another vehicle for a Volt are coming out of non-GM brands, the majority of them Toyota Prius hybrids.

Having driven a Prius, I can understand this. The Volt feels like a big, powerful sports sedan while the Prius feels like an underpowered hybrid with numb steering and brain-dead handling. The Tesla no doubt leaves the Volt in its dust but otherwise, GM's entry is the clear leader in the electric car derby.

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Teens say parents text, talk on phone and drive recklessly

It's not just teens who are often reckless behind the wheel, study finds

It will soon be back-to-school time and teens will be exhorted to practice safe driving habits -- to hang up the phone, ...

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© HaywireMedia - Fotolia.com

It will soon be back-to-school time and teens will be exhorted to practice safe driving habits -- to hang up the phone, forget about texting, wear seat belts and so forth.

But a new survey by Liberty Mutual Insurance Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) finds that parents are often the biggest offenders -- and says that teens speak up about their parents’ risky driving behaviors but parents don’t always listen.

“While parents may think they’re setting a good example for their teens, these findings suggest that some parents engage in unsafe driving habits more often than they might admit,” said Dave Melton, driving safety expert with Liberty Mutual Insurance and managing director of global safety. “Research shows that teens often replicate their parents’ poor driving behaviors, so it’s critical for the safety of everyone on the road that parents be a model for responsible driving whenever they are behind the wheel.”

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Parents’ behavior

According to the survey, parents actually admit to engaging in many of the same dangerous -- and in some cases, illegal -- driving behaviors that they warn their own children against, often at alarmingly high rates:

  • Talking on cell phone while driving: 86%
  • Speeding: 80%
  • Texting and driving: 40%
  • Driving after consuming alcohol: 34%
  • Driving without a seat belt: 21%

The data also reveals that the majority (83%) of teens say their parents engage in unsafe driving behaviors with them in the car, sometimes at higher rates than their parents like to admit. For example, 58% of teens say they have witnessed their parents texting and driving, and 41% have observed their parents driving without a seat belt.

Teens speak up

Teens are not only taking note of their parents’ risky driving behaviors, they are making concerted efforts to change them. Of the teens surveyed, 60% report they have asked their parents to put an end to dangerous driving habits, with texting and driving being the most common concern among teens (42%).

Similarly, the majority of parents admit that their teens are speaking up:

  • 40% say their teen has asked them to stop driving without a seat belt;
  • 33% say their teen has asked them to stop texting and driving;
  • 26% say their teen has asked them to stop speeding; and
  • 23% say their teen has asked them to stop posting social media updates while driving.

According to the survey data, parents may not be taking these requests to heart. While the majority (84%) of parents say they change their driving behaviors when asked, nearly half (41%) of teens report that parents do not.

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Facial recognition technology may help find your lost dog

Finding Rover puts lost dogs and their owners back together

The Jetsons started it. The culture of flying cars and facial recognition to open doors. Now we have facial recognition for dogs. Act...

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Photo: Finding Rover

The Jetsons started it. The culture of flying cars and facial recognition to open doors. Now we have facial recognition for dogs. Actually the process of facial recognition is to aid in finding lost dogs. Finding Roveris an app that will help expedite the process if you should lose track of your dog.

Here's how it works: With a smartphone, you take a front-facing image of your dog that has a clear shot of its eyes and nose -- the two most important features the facial recognition technology uses to identify the animal.

Once the photo is approved, Finding Rover keeps the pet's file in its system. When a lost dog is located, the person who found it can then use the app to snap a photo, and Finding Rover scans its database to see if a match is made.

So far San Diego is the first to use the technology in the shelter intake process. Every dog that comes in gets its picture taken and it's then matched up in the Finding Rover database.

Happy endings

Finding Rover founder John Polimeno wants to expand the photo database to improve the odds of more happy endings, More shelters across the country are soon signing on. He's also showing it to rescue groups, veterinarians and dog groups and is visiting other countries.

The technology powering Finding Rover was built by Steven Callahan and John Schreiner of the University of Utah's software development center. They found the eight markers on dogs are far fewer than the 128 points on the human facial recognition program.

According to Callahan, dogs' eyes and snouts are in different places. People though, he said are sort of uniform -- the shape of their faces, skin tones, all their eyes, noses and mouths are in the same general place.

This is one of many apps to help find a lost pet. There are also alarms, microchips, scanning on a collar and of course the old fashioned way of putting up signs in the neighborhood, but if it's one more way to bring back your 4 legged best friend its worth a try.

You can register on your iPhone or Android. 

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Health-conscious consumers buying more enzyme supplements

Mayo clinic doctor says jury still out on their usefulness

Photo source: return2health.netSupplement sales are booming in the U.S. as consumers become more health conscious. Supplements been around since the ea...

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Photo source: return2health.net

Supplement sales are booming in the U.S. as consumers become more health conscious. Supplements been around since the early 1940s, when drug makers started marketing multivitamin/mineral supplements (MVM). Vitamins are still big sellers but consumers now have a wider choice of supplements. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. supplement salestotaled $30 billion in 2011.

Among the latest supplements competing for consumer dollars are enzyme supplements, marketed to aid digestion. Your body naturally produces enzymes, whose job it is to break down food so that it can be digested.

Some enzymes called amylases break down starches into sugar molecules. Others, called proteases, convert proteins into amino acids. The enzymes known as lipases break down fat.

Digestive problems

Consumers who have digestive problems, or don't think their bodies produce a sufficient amount of enzymes, are providing a huge market for enzyme supplements. And these products are not cheap.

According to Berkley Wellness, a publication of the University of California Medical School, one best-selling supplement called Vitalzym, a combination of enzymes, costs about $40 a month. Are these pills worth it?

Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, says it's hard to really know.

Lack of testing

“A huge challenge with dietary supplements is that most haven’t been tested as most drugs are,” Bauer said. “We have a lot of information, but we don’t have definitive information. So our patients hear a lot of positive things, but they do not always hear the negatives or the side effects.”

Bauer says the Mayo Clinic is taking a closer look at enzyme supplements, taking a very evidence-based approach.

“We don’t want to say no, there’s no reason to ever take an over-the-counter enzyme,” he said. “By the same token, we don’t want to just rush out and buy it because we heard somebody say something positive on TV.”

Medical needs

Some people may actually need more enzymes. If a patient’s pancreas isn’t working, for example, that patient may need to take a medically prescribed enzyme supplement.

“That’s a little different story from a healthy person who wants to use over-the-counter bromelain, or papain — the enzymes that come from the pineapple and the papaya — or trypsin, or chymotrypsin,” Bauer said.

Older consumers appear to be the biggest users of enzyme supplements. They value them to help with many of the effects of getting holder – more indigestion, bloating and even inflammation.

Years ago enzyme supplements were touted for their supposed anti-cancer properties. These claims are sometimes still made today, though Bauer says there simply isn't enough evidence to prove or disprove the claims.

Side effects not an issue

And what about side effects? Unless you are taking hand fulls of pills at a time, there aren't very many.

“Some people get gastrointestinal upset or some irritation,” Bauer said. “So I’ll have that conversation with my patients: If they want to try enzymes, I want them to understand the risks, the potential benefits, the limited amount of evidence.”

He also urges his patients who want to try enzymes to do so for a short trial period of 2 to 3 weeks. If it's not working, he says, they should stop taking it.

There are cases where a consumer should not take an enzyme. For example, bromelain, the enzyme from the pineapple, may have anti-platelet activity.

“So for people taking blood thinners or who have anti-platelet activity, theoretically there could be increased risk of bleeding” Bauer said. “For children with cystic fibrosis, there have been a couple of bad adverse reactions where those taking prescription enzymes can get a bad colon disorder called fibrosing colonopathy.”

And what are consumers to make of the advertising claims about these products? Take them with a grain of salt, Bauer advises. Remember that there is no scientific research to back them up.

If you are thinking about an enzyme supplement, it's best to discuss it with your doctor first.

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Eating out -- anywhere -- leads to more calories, poorer nutrition

It's not just fast food that contributes to weight gain

© Goran Bogicevic - Fotolia.comFast-food restaurants take a lot of blame for the U.S. obesity epidemic but a new study weighs in with the news tha...

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© Goran Bogicevic - Fotolia.com

Fast-food restaurants take a lot of blame for the U.S. obesity epidemic but a new study weighs in with the news that eating out -- period -- piles on the calories, sugar, saturated fat and sodium.

The study, appearing online in Public Health Nutrition, finds that on days when adults ate at a restaurant -- fast-food or full-service -- they consumed about 200 additional total daily calories.

"The United States is one of the most obese nations in the world, with more than one in three adult men and women in defined as obese," said Dr. Binh Nguyen of the American Cancer Society. "Just as obesity rates rise, there's been a marked increase in total energy consumption consumed away from home, with about one in four calories coming from fast food or full service restaurants in 2007. Our study confirms that adults' fast-food and full-service restaurant consumption was associated with higher daily total energy intake and poorer dietary indicators."

For the current study, Nguyen and Lisa M. Powell of the University of Illinois at Chicago used recent data from more than 12,000 respondents between the ages of 20 and 64 taking part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003 (NHANES). Participants were asked about visits to fast-food and full-service restaurants on two successive days.

The study found on days when eating at a fast-food restaurant, there was a net increase of total energy intake (194.49 kcal), saturated fat (3.48 g), sugar (3.95 g) and sodium (296.38 mg). Eating at a full-service restaurant was also associated with an energy intake (205.21 kcal), and with higher intake of saturated fat (2.52 g) and sodium (451.06 mg).

Individual characteristics moderated the impact of restaurant food consumption. Net energy intake was larger for black adults compared with their white and Hispanic counterparts and greater for middle-income v. high-income adults.

The researchers say the larger adverse effect they measured on energy intake for some lower socio-economic and minority populations has policy implications. They say efforts to improve diet and reduce energy intake from restaurant sources could actually help to reduce racial and socio-economic disparities in Americans' diets.

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Mortgage rates show little change

Rates generally remained near their year's lows over the past month

Mortgage rates, as reported by Freddie Mac and Bankrate.com pretty much held their own in the past week. According to Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Marke...

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© aihumnoi - Fotolia.com

Mortgage rates, as reported by Freddie Mac and Bankrate.com pretty much held their own in the past week.

According to Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) rose 2 basis points to 4.14% with an average 0.7 point for the week ending August 7, from last week when it averaged 4.12%. A year ago at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.40 percent.

The 15-year FRM averaged 3.27% with an average 0.6 point, compared with last week's average of 3.23%. At this time last year, it stood at 3.43%.

Five-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) fell 3 basis points to 2.98% with an average 0.5 point. The 5-year ARM averaged 3.19% during the same week in 2013.

The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged fell to 2.35% this week with an average 0.5 point, from last week when it averaged 2.38%. At this time a year ago, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.62%.

Bankrate

The Bankrate.com tracking of mortgage rates indicates there was little change this week, an extension of the weekly trend.

  • The benchmark 30-year FRM inched up 1 basis point to 4.29%, with an average of 0.29 discount and origination points.
  • The average 15-year FRM held steady at 3.40%, while jumbo 30-year FRM also was unchanged at 4.39%.
  • Adjustable-rate mortgages were lower, with the 5-year ARM slipping 4 basis points to 3.34% percent and the 10-year ARM down to 3.82%.

As 2013 came to a close, the average 30-year FRM was 4.69%, meaning a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $1,036.07. With the average rate now 4.29%, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $988.57 -- a savings of $48 per month for anyone who waited.

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Jobless claims fall below 300K

The 4-week moving average hit an 8-year low

The number of people standing in the unemployment line for the first time continues to drop. Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show initial a...

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia.com

The number of people standing in the unemployment line for the first time continues to drop.

Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show initial applications for state unemployment benefits plunged by 14,000 in the week ending August 2 -- to 289,000. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for a total of 308,000.

Analysts note that the average initial claims level has dropped below 300,000 to 293,500 over the last four weeks which would imply payroll growth in the neighborhood of 300,000 new jobs per month. Yet, the DOL reported that the economy created just 200,000 positions last month.

Thus they say, if there is not a surge in job growth in August, we could see the initial claims level jump above the 300,000 mark again.

The 4-week moving average, which is not as volatile as the weekly number and therefore considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, fell by 4,000 to 293,500. That's the lowest level for the average since February 25, 2006.

The full report is available on the DOL website.

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Sears Canada recalls Joe Boxer Boys Pajama Sets

The garments fail to meet flammability testing standards

Sears Canada is recalling Joe Boxer licensed boys 3-piece Eat Sleep Play Pajama Sets. The PJ Sets do not meet flammability testing standards for sleepwear...

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Photo source: Sears.ca

Sears Canada is recalling Joe Boxer licensed boys 3-piece Eat Sleep Play Pajama Sets.

The PJ Sets do not meet flammability testing standards for sleepwear.

The company says it has received no reports of incidents to date.

The PJ Sets were sold in boys' sizes: small, medium, large and extra-large at Sears Canada retail stores between January 2014, and July 2014, for $29.99.

The affected manufacturer numbers and corresponding Sears item numbers are:

Item

Description

MFG #

56027

3pc Eat Sleep Play PJ Set

BS14-JB55-9842

Te, Short Pant

26114

3pc Eat Sleep Play PJ Set

BS14-JB55-9842

Te, Short Pant

 

Consumers who have the recalled PJ sets should stop children from wearing them, and return the sets to their nearest Sears department store for a full refund if accompanied by a receipt of sale or Sears Card statement, or for the lowest selling price without a receipt.  

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Zemco Industries recalls sausage product

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

Zemco Industries of Buffalo, N.Y., is recalling approximately 106,800 pounds of smoked sausage. The product contains soy, an allergen that is not declared ...

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Photo source: USDA

Zemco Industries of Buffalo, N.Y., is recalling approximately 106,800 pounds of smoked sausage.

The product contains soy, an allergen that is not declared on the label of the product.

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

The product subject to recall includes:

  • 2.5-lb. packages of “CAVANAUGH SMOKED SAUSAGE”

The products were produced on June 11, 2014; June 13, 2014; June 19, 2014; July 10, 2014; July 19, 2014; and Aug. 1, 2014, and has Use By dates of Sept. 9, 2014; Sept. 11, 2014; Sept. 17, 2014; Oct. 8, 2014; Oct. 17, 2014; and Oct. 30, 2014.

The product bears the establishment number “Est. 5222” on the package, and was sent to distribution centers for resale, as well as retail establishments nationwide.

The problem was discovered by the company. The problem occurred when the company reformulated the product and updated packaging and labeling but the employees utilized the old formulation containing soy that was not declared on the updated packaging and labels. FSIS and the company have received no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about a reaction should contact a healthcare provider.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact consumer relations at (866) 328-3156.  

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Choripdong Chocolate Almond Richmond Ice Bars recalled

The products may contain eggs, an allergen not listed on the label

Seoul Shik Poom of Englewood, N.J., is recalling Choripdong Chocolate Almond Richmond Ice Bars. The products may contain eggs, an allergen not listed on t...

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Photo source: FDA

Seoul Shik Poom of Englewood, N.J., is recalling Choripdong Chocolate Almond Richmond Ice Bars.

The products may contain eggs, an allergen not listed on the label.

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

The recalled Choripdong Chocolate Almond Richmond Ice Bar (4bars/432 ml) was distributed nationwide through retail stores.

The product was sold in a silver plastic cooling bag marked with code # IC1006 and UPC CODE: 761898632925, and has an expiration date of 03/20/2015 stamped on the package.

Consumers who posses the recalled product and are allergic to eggs should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 201-567-7780 - ext 140, Monday through Friday between 9:00am - 5:00pm (ET).

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Hacker warning: change your passwords -- all of them

Over 40 percent of Internet users at risk worldwide

If you're reading this, there's a very good chance you need to change your password because a 20-something computer hacker in Russia already knows it....

PhotoBad news: if you're reading this, there's a very good chance you need to change your password because a 20-something computer hacker in Russia already knows it.

Of course, you've already read countless variations of that story: “Hackers break into database. If your information was on it, you must protect yourself.”

So when you hear about the hack attack du jour, you immediately want to know the specifics: which one of my passwords am I supposed to change this time? Which company or organization got its database hacked? What was the time frame?

And you expect an answer along these lines: “If you made any credit- or debit-card purchases at an XYZ store, or online at XYZstore.com, between January 13 and February 10, your information is at risk.” That also implies a comforting corollary: “If you've never shopped at XYZ, or at least didn't shop there between those two listed dates, you have nothing to worry about.”

Unfortunately, such information is not available for this latest hacking. Even if it were available, it would be too much to summarize here in a single news article, because it's not just one company or website that's been attacked; it's at least 420,000 different websites ranging from obscure little sites to major household-name companies.

Largest known collection

The New York Times reported yesterday that researchers from Hold Security discovered a Russian cyber-criminal gang had “the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion [unique] user name and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses …. [and] confidential material gathered from 420,000 websites, including household names, and small Internet sites.”

Hold Security wouldn't release the names of any affected companies or sites, due to non-disclosure agreements and also a desire to avoid identifying companies whose sites remain vulnerable. Therefore, there's no way for ordinary computer-users like you to know which of your passwords were compromised, if any.

Thus far there's no evidence that the Russian hackers have been using stolen passwords to open false credit card accounts or commit other forms of identity theft; the hackers are primarily using this information to send spam to various social media accounts.

Whether you need to change your passwords or not, this latest hacker discovery serves as another reminder of this important online-security rule: don't use the same password across multiple sites.

Last month, for example, the online ticket-seller StubHub had over 1,000 customer accounts hacked into, yet the hackers never actually managed to breach the StubHub database.

Instead, they hacked into various other databases, or even installed malware on individual computers, in order to steal people's passwords from one account – email, online banking, social media sites, even small online discussion forums – and then test those stolen passwords to see if they'd work in customers' other accounts. And in the case of over 1,000 StubHub customers, it did.

Still: a thousand customers of a ticket-resale site is extremely small potatoes compared to 1.2 billion people. Consider: it's estimated that, as of 2014, there are 2.9 billion Internet users on the entire planet Earth. And of those 2.9 billion Earthling web-surfers, over 40% have their passwords in the hands of a small Russian hacker-ring.

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U.S. beer drinkers shifting to 'craft' brands

Artisan brewers have doubled their sales in last 5 years

JoshuaRainey (c) Fotolia.com.pngDuring the prohibition era in America, people resorted to “bathtub gin” for their supply of spirits and moo...

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JoshuaRainey (c) Fotolia.com.png

During the prohibition era in America, people resorted to “bathtub gin” for their supply of spirits and moonshiners did a thriving business. But more often than not, Americans thirsty for an alcoholic beverage brewed their own beer at home. It wasn't difficult, the ingredients were readily available and weren't very expensive.

You might say those home brews of the 1920s gave birth to today's craft beer industry, which is rapidly gaining marketshare from the mass market giants.

What exactly constitutes a craft beer is hard to pin down. The term typically applies to the size of the brewery making it, as much as to the artistry that goes into the product.

Craft brewers are generally small, independently owned breweries in which the end product is a work of art, not to be influenced by cost. Many of these breweries started in someone's basement, with a compelling back story adding to the market appeal.

Premium-priced

Because the beers are brewed in small batches and don't scrimp on production costs, craft beers are not cheap, selling for the same price or more as a premium German import.

But despite the cost and despite a lackluster economy going on 5 years, sales of craft beer are booming. A new report by consumer research firm Mintel finds that 23% of beer drinkers choose a craft beer.

The survey found that consumers who never drink craft beer – who only buy Budweiser or Coors, for example – make up only 30% of the beer-drinking population. Clearly, brand loyalties are shifting.

Most craft beer drinkers cite taste as the main reason for selecting a particular brand, but their affinity shares characteristics with consumers who value certain types of food, because of the way it is produced or the fact that it is local.

Small is beautiful

There may be certain political/cultural/lifestyle significance at work as well. Whether they know it or not, many craft beer aficionados are embracing the philosophy of British economist E.F. Schumacher, who developed the theory that “small is beautiful,” because it is more empowering to people.

The Mintel survey found that among beer-drinking Millennials, the segment's heaviest users, 70% say that the brand of beer says a lot about who they are. In other words, you are what you drink.

"There is a strong sense of community in the craft beer world," said Mintel food and drink analyst Beth Bloom. "Consumers like to share knowledge with one another and are highly invested in the products that they choose.”

Lifestyle choice

PhotoSo drinking a craft beer is a lot like savoring a fine wine. There is information to be absorbed and the uniqueness of the product lends itself to social activities.

“Craft brands share exposure through collaboration, a practice almost wholly unique to the craft beer market,” Bloom said. “As such, t