Current Events in September 2014

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    High marks for the Volkswagen Jetta in small overlap protection

    That helped the vehicle qualify for the IIHS “Top Safety Pick+” award

    A structural upgrade to improve small overlap protection and the addition of an optional front crash prevention system led the 2015 Volkswagen Jetta earning the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest award -- "Top Safety Pick+."

    Although the midsize sedan didn't get a full redesign, the A-pillars and door sills were strengthened for the 2015 model year. As a result, the Jetta's small overlap rating improved to good from the marginal rating of earlier models.

    In the test, the driver's space was maintained well, and measures taken from the dummy in the driver seat indicated a low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of the same severity.

    The side airbag deployed and had sufficient forward coverage to protect the head from striking side structure and outside objects. However, the dummy's head slid off the frontal airbag after hitting it, and the safety belt allowed the dummy's head and torso to move too far forward.

    Other areas perform well

    In addition to the good small overlap rating, the Jetta earns good ratings in the Institute's four other crashworthiness evaluations. An optional forward collision warning system earns the car a basic rating for front crash prevention. When equipped with the system, the Jetta qualifies for the Top Safety Pick+ award.

    IIHS introduced the small overlap evaluation in 2012. In the test, which is more challenging than either the head-on crashes conducted by the government or the Institute's 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. Top Safety Pick+ winners must meet those same criteria and also earn a basic, advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention.

    A structural upgrade to improve small overlap protection and the addition of an optional front crash prevention system led the 2015 Volkswagen Jetta earnin...

    Ford recalls Lincoln MKC vehicles

    The windshield glass may have air bubbles

    Ford Motor Company is recalling 1,139 model year 2015 Lincoln MKC vehicles manufactured August 20, 2013, to June 6, 2014.

    The affected vehicles may have visible air bubbles in the windshield glass. Air bubbles in the windshield could affect the driver's visibility, increasing the risk of a crash.

    Ford will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the windshields for air bubbles, replacing them as necessary, free of charge. The recall began in August 2014.

    Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-800-392-3673. Ford's number for this recall is 14C07.

    Ford Motor Company is recalling 1,139 model year 2015 Lincoln MKC vehicles manufactured August 20, 2013, to June 6, 2014. The affected vehicles may have v...

    Parents struggling to save for children's education

    Survey shows many are still paying off their own college loans

    Wage stagnation appears to be making another problem worse. Families are saving less money for their children's college education, increasing the likelihood that college loan debt will increase in the years ahead.

    A survey commissioned by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board) finds that an increasing number of households are struggling just to meet everyday expenses. A third of parents in the survey are still repaying their own college debt.

    Of those who haven't started saving, nearly 70% say that everyday living expenses eat up all of their income, leaving nothing left over for savings. 

    Difficult balancing act

    "As we continue to debate the value and cost of higher education, we must acknowledge the difficult balancing act many parents face when repaying their own debt and saving for their children," said Eleanor Blayney, Consumer Advocate for CFP Board. "Managing expenses from the past and present is crowding out planning and saving for the future, including children's higher education, retirement, and even essential emergency funds."

    Some parents are putting money aside for their children's education, but not that much. Of those who say they are saving for college, 53% admit that it's less than $10,000 – and that's for the oldest child. With each additional child, parents are more likely to have not started saving.

    But as every parent knows, $10,000 doesn't go very far in covering college costs. The College Board tracks higher education costs and currently estimates the average undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board for the 2013-2014 academic year was $18,391for public, four-year institutions for in-state students and $31,701 for out-of-state students, and $40,917 for private, nonprofit colleges and universities.

    Sobering finding

    One sobering finding in the survey is how escalating college costs in the last 2 decades is still having an economic impact today. Nearly half the parents in the survey reported borrowing money to pay for their own college education.

    Of those parents, nearly half say they are still paying off the loans, cutting into their ability to meet current living expenses – not to mention setting aside money for their children's college.

    "With tuition rates rising year after year, financing a child's higher education may very well be a more expensive investment than buying a home, and a lot harder to finance," Blayney said. "Finding the funding for college may require careful planning and several sources, especially when parents are paying down their own remaining student debt and dealing with other financial priorities."

    Unrealistic

    In addition to tight budgets with little room for savings, Blayney says many parents are unaware of the more effective ways to set up college savings plans that provide tax benefits. Some, she says, just aren't being realistic about where the money is going to come from.

    The results of this survey seem to suggest that the next wave of college students is going to be more dependent than ever on student loans to get a college education. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) sounded the alarm more than a year ago over the rising level of student debt, which is now well over $1 trillion.

    CFPB estimates 67% of undergraduate students in 2010 had taken out student loans. The agency says it is important to take out the right kind of loan so that interest payments don't eventually overwhelm the borrowers.

    In this guide, CFPB explains that federal loans are almost always better than private loans because the interest rate is fixed, while for private loans it usually floats.  

    Wage stagnation appears to be making another problem worse. Families are saving less money for their children's college education, increasing the likelihoo...

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      Amazon updates the Kindle line-up

      Latest model is thinner, faster, etc.

      In a world hammered by a constant flow of new gadgets, the challenge sometimes is keeping yesterday's jaw-dropper from turning into today's yawner.

      This may be the situation that confronts Amazon's line of Kindle products. No, we're not talking about the Kindle Fire, the Fire Phone or any of those other devices that sound like they are something you'd use around the campfire.

      We're talking about the plain old Kindle -- a rather modest, even humdrum product that was sort of revolutionary when it was introduced but that is starting to look a little shopworn now that it is into its seventh generation.

      After all, it is competing for attention with watches that act like smartphones and electrocardiogram machines, with cars that are on the verge of driving themselves and with, oh, you know, all that other stuff everybody is always yammering about.

      Turns reimagined

      Amazon even seems to be getting a little bored with the whole idea. All it can find to say about its new Kindle Voyage is that it the "most advanced e-reader ever,"  which might be what it said about the preceding model. We're told it's faster, slimmer and smarter than its six predecessors.

      Smarter how exactly? Well, it has "reimagined page turns," which appears to mean it turns the page when you're ready. You know, like the kid who sits next to the concert pianist and flips the sheet music to the next page. I hope this is true because, as a Kindle addict, I find that one has to keep his fingers nice and warm if he wants to see what's on the next page. This can get annoying on cold days or when reading a particularly steamy passage.

      If nothing else, the Voyage is certainly the most expensive Kindle. It goes for $199 -- that's for wi-fi only, not 3g. If you want a power adapter -- and who doesn't? -- that's an extra $14.99. A leather cover? $59.99. A screen protector? $29.99.

      In other words, it's $300.

      Of course, that's still a lot cheaper than an iPad, which will set you back $499 for the most basic model but will let you watch movies, read spam and waste time on Facebook. Amazon makes a Kindle that will do that too.

      The Voyage and its less expensive cousins, however, are sort of stripped down -- no video, no email, no color. Amazon spins this as a virtue, using the tag line "The best devices for reading, period." This is like Southwest Airlines saying its free-for-all seating policy is pro-choice.

      However, none of this is meant to disparage the Kindle. Personally, I spend many hours daily on mine, devouring novels, newspapers and weird tracts of all kinds. It's a digital device that helps you escape the digital world, which is pretty awesome when you think about it.

      Makes it disappear

      Perhaps Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says it a little better: “Our mission with Kindle is to make the device disappear, so you can lose yourself in the author’s world,” as he put it in today's announcement.

      “Kindle Voyage is the next big step in this mission," he continued. "With the thinnest design, highest resolution and highest contrast display, reimagined page turns, and all of the features that readers love about Kindle—books in seconds, no eyestrain or glare, readability in bright sunlight, and battery life measured in weeks, not hours—Kindle Voyage is crafted from the ground up for readers.”

      Other updated models announced today for delivery after Oct. 21 include the plain vanilla Kindle, described as ideal for beginners. It's $79. That's even a version of the Kindle HD (its iPad-like tablet) designed for kids. It's made for tough handling and includes software aimed at kids. 

      In a world hammered by a constant flow of new gadgets, the challenge sometimes is keeping yesterday's jaw-dropper from turning into today's yawner....

      Verizon's customizable TV service could really shake things up

      But could there be some industry push-back?

      Consumers are probably cheering the news last week that Verizon, rather than trying to stop the revolution, is actually trying to lead it.

      Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam revealed his company is preparing a 2015 roll-out of a customizable TV service delivered to digital devices. As McAdam pointed out, the channels would have to be offered a la carte because who, he asked rhetorically, wants 300 channels on their smartphone?

      Who indeed? But what McAdam sees as logical – and many consumers would heartily agree – is in fact revolutionary, because that is definitely not how cable TV is packaged and sold. It would appear to open the door to changing the way television services are marketed.

      If a consumer can customize their TV service on their phone, they are soon going to ask why can't they customize it in their living room.

      Music industry lesson

      The music industry has already been down this road. For decades artists released albums of perhaps 12 songs. Consumers might purchase the album because they liked 2 or 3 of them. To get those songs, however, they had to purchase the complete album.

      Digital music services like iTunes changed all that. Individual songs can be downloaded for 99 cents. That's great for consumers but has not been so great for artists or music companies.

      Just since the introduction of iTunes in 2003, music sales in the U.S. have dropped sharply. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, inflation-adjusted sales revenue fell more than $4.5 billion over a 10 year period.

      At the same time, more people were buying music. They just weren't buying as much of it, for as much money. If the music industry had it to do over, it would probably try a different approach to digital.

      Protecting the status quo

      Content providers can be expected to be leery of any changes to the status quo, especially if these changes may systematically alter revenue models. Netflix learned this the hard way a few years ago.

      In 2011 Starz Entertainment, a major supplier of feature film content, abruptly broke off contract renewal talks with Netflix, announcing it would no longer provide movies to Netflix.

      The reason was not completely financial. Netflix was reportedly agreeable to terms and willing to pay a reported $300 million to continue its access to Starz's content. The loss had more to do with Netflix's business model.

      “This decision is a result of our strategy to protect the premium nature of our brand by preserving the appropriate pricing and packaging of our exclusive and highly valuable content,” Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said at the time. “With our current studio rights and growing original programming presence, the network is in an excellent position to evaluate new opportunities and expand its overall business."

      In other words, Starz was concerned that Netflix's $8 a month price to consumers was too cheap, threatening its other customers – cable TV networks that charge a lot more.

      Netflix has been able to adapt nicely, producing original content and loading up on TV series that have fundamentally altered viewing habits, with consumers now “binge watching” an entire season of shows over a short period of time. It didn't hurt Netflix that a lot of TV series are of higher quality than the movies Hollywood turns out.

      The lesson may be that it's hard to stop a revolution. The landscape has changed significantly since 2011 and content providers may now be more willing to adapt to, rather than fight, radical changes.

      Verizon's new customizable TV service, which McAdam says could be rolled out in mid 2015, may be the next test.

      Consumers are probably cheering the news last week that Verizon, rather than trying to stop the revolution, is actually trying to lead it....

      Meijer pays $2 million civil penalty for selling recalled products

      Sold 1,700 recalled items, mainly children's toys, between April 2010 and April 2011

      If you've shopped at Meijer stores between April 2010 and April 2011, especially if you bought children's toys there, be aware that the company had to pay a $2 million civil penalty for selling at least 12 different consumer products after they'd already been recalled.

      The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the penalty on Sept. 17, saying that:

      Staff charged that Meijer distributed recalled products through a system Meijer operated with a third party contractor.  Staff further charged that Meijer received information about products handled by the contractor, but Meijer failed to take action to prevent distribution of recalled products. … approximately 1,700 units of recalled consumer products were resold to consumers.

      According to the CPSU, these are the recalled products Meijer sold during that year:

      • Discovery Kids Animated Marine and Safari Lamps, imported by Innovage LLC;
      • SlingRider Baby Slings manufactured by Infantino;
      • Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Bagless Upright Vacuum Cleaners with Cord Rewind Feature, imported by Hoover Inc;
      • Fisher-Price Trikes and Tough Trikes toddler tricycles manufactured by Fisher-Price;
      • Little People Wheelies Stand ‘n Play Rampways imported by Fisher Price;
      • Ocean Wonders Kick & Crawl Aquariums imported by Fisher-Price;
      • Bathtub Subs imported by Munchkin, Inc.;
      • Refreshing Rings Infant Teethers/Rattles imported by Sassy;
      • Touch Point Oscillating Ceramic Heater;
      • Harmony High Chair manufactured by Graco Children’s Products;
      • Random Orbit Sander manufactured by Black & Decker;
      • Box Fans manufactured by Lasko.

      If you've shopped at Meijer stores between April 2010 and April 2011, especially if you bought children's toys there, be aware that the company had to pay ...

      Apple says even the government can't get your private data with iOS8

      But protections only apply to information on your device, not in the cloud

      Apple updated its privacy policy this week and released a letter from company CEO Tim Cook, both expressing the company's overall commitment to customer privacy protection, and the iOS8's security features in particular.

      Apple says its new privacy protections are so stringent, some of your stored data is thoroughly inaccessible even to Apple itself — and even if the police or other government agents have a warrant for it.

      Apple updated its Privacy Policy on Sept. 17, saying that “The changes were made predominantly to cover new features in iOS 8, or to provide additional information on current use of data such as your date of birth or information you’ve provided about others (for example, when sending products or gift certificates to another person). None of these changes are retroactive.”

      After several reassurances about protecting users' privacy and/or personal information, the new privacy policy also says this:

      “It may be necessary − by law, legal process, litigation, and/or requests from public and governmental authorities within or outside your country of residence − for Apple to disclose your personal information. We may also disclose information about you if we determine that for purposes of national security, law enforcement, or other issues of public importance, disclosure is necessary or appropriate.”

      Post-Snowden

      That's pretty standard corporate-boilerplate language from any company that has your personal information (even dating back to the pre-Internet, pre-computer era): we'll keep everything we have on you private, unless we are legally ordered to do otherwise.

      Yet such assurances take on a slightly different meaning in a post-Edward Snowden world, where it's old news that the National Security Agency routinely tracks Americans' whereabouts and monitors our electronic communications en masse, without warrants, probable cause or other things required by the constitution. The government has even ordered tech companies to hand over private data about its users — then made it illegal for the tech companies to admit what they were doing.

      But Apple went even further in its newly updated “Privacy/Government Information Requests” page, saying:

      On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.

      In addition to these assurances, written by anonymous Apple employees, Apple's CEO Tim Cook also posted a letter on Apple's Privacy page, saying:

      “Finally, I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”

      (Hopefully, Cook's statement is true. If, however, it's one day discovered otherwise, remember not to judge him or other technology executives too harshly; if they're lying, it is only to comply with current American law, which makes it illegal for Apple, Yahoo or other tech companies to inform their customers if the NSA or other arms of government are collecting data on them, with or without a warrant.)

      Apple updated its privacy policy this week and released a letter from company CEO Tim Cook, both expressing the company's overall commitment to customer pr...

      Now may be a good time to buy a new refrigerator

      New energy standards should mean big savings in electricity usage

      If you've been looking with distaste at your refrigerator, now may be the time to replace it. New rules have gone into effect that require greater energy savings, which could go a long way towards making up for the cost of replacing your current model.

      According to the Department of Energy (DOE), the new efficiency standards will reduce energy use by as much as 25% on new refrigerator models that are manufactured. That's enough energy savings to power a quarter of all the homes in the U.S. for one year.

      It's been quite a few years since the standards were updated. The last set of regs came out in 2001 so that leaves many millions of refrigerators that are candidates for an update.

      The DOE estimates these rules will save consumers $36 billion over the next 30 years, even after factoring in the higher upfront costs of buying these new refrigerators. 

      Elizabeth Noll of the Natural Resources Defense Council says the new rules will save consumers $215 to $270 per year on their electricity bills, compared to 1978, when the agency began regulating refrigerators. 

      Green groups say that by enacting these standards  over the next 30 years it will be as if they took 70 million cars off the road and will cut carbon emissions immensely.

      If you've been looking with distaste at your refrigerator, now may be the time to replace it. New rules have gone into effect that require greater energy s...

      Nonbank auto finance companies may get federal scrutiny

      The CPFB says new powers would help it “root out discrimination”

      The long arm of Uncle Sam may soon encompass larger nonbank auto finance companies for the first time.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has issued a proposal that would give the agency oversight of these companies, which, according to CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “extend hundreds of billions of dollars in credit to American consumers, yet they have never been supervised at the federal level.” The proposal, he said, “would extend our oversight, allowing us to root out discrimination and ensure consumers are being treated fairly across this market.”

      The world of auto financing

      Auto loans are financed by both banks and nonbanks. Consumers can either get a loan through direct financing where they seek credit directly from a lender or through indirect financing where an auto dealer typically facilitates a loan from a third party. Banks, credit unions, and nonbank auto finance companies provide credit to consumers both directly and indirectly. Some nonbank finance companies are “captive” nonbanks, meaning finance companies owned by auto manufacturers who generally do only indirect lending.

      Currently, the CFPB supervises large banks making auto loans, but not nonbank auto finance companies. It’s now proposing to extend its supervision authority to the larger participants of the nonbank auto finance market.

      New powers sought

      The proposed rule would generally allow the agency to supervise nonbank auto finance companies that make, acquire, or refinance 10,000 or more loans or leases in a year. It would be supervising them to ensure they are complying with federal consumer financial law. The CFPB estimates that about 38 auto finance companies would be subject to this new oversight. These companies originate around 90% of nonbank auto loans and leases, and in 2013 provided financing to approximately 6.8 million consumers.

      The CFPB says it wants to make sure that auto lenders -- including auto finance companies -- are treating consumers fairly throughout the life of loan by:

      • Fairly marketing and disclosing auto financing

      • Providing accurate information to credit bureaus

      • Treating consumers fairly when collecting debts

      Plan draws praise

      The proposal won kudos from Chris Kukla, senior vice president at the Center for Responsible lending.

      “For too long, a huge portion of the auto lending market has operated with few rules and few consumer protections,” he said. ”We are hopeful that extending oversight to the largest nonbank auto lenders will lead to increased transparency and a fairer market by bringing public scrutiny to bear on the lenders involved in abusive practices and highlighting the lenders that that act in the best interest of all consumers, especially those with blemished credit or thin credit files.”

      The long arm of Uncle Sam may soon encompass larger nonbank auto finance companies for the first time. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has ...

      Checks are in the mail to AmeriDebt scam victims

      The company allegedly lied to consumers about fees, among other things

      Consumers allegedly taken for a ride by a credit counseling/debt management scam run by Andris Pukke and his companies -- AmeriDebt Inc. and DebtWorks, Inc.  -- will soon be getting something in the mail.

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is mailing $1,792,759 in refund checks to 60,813 consumers that the agency says were deceived about their fees, believed that AmeriDebt was a non-profit, and were falsely promised they’d be taught how to handle their credit and finances.

      Craig of Kemp, Texas, is among those who turned to AmeriDebt for help.

      “I was laid off work for a while, and my finances were in trouble, so I contacted AmeriDebt to help me to get them back in order,” he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Within about 3-4 months, I was receiving late charges on all my credit cards, and things weren't getting taken care of in the way I was assured they would be, I tried contacting AmeriDebt on numerous occasions, and I left several messages, but to no avail. My credit was ruined because of all of this.”

      The FTC previously returned about $15 million  to AmeriDebt consumers. Those affected in this latest announcement will receive checks for between $12.70 and $725.10. The amount will vary based upon the amount of each consumer’s loss, less the previous refund received.

      Those who receive checks from the FTC’s refund administrator should cash them within 60 days of the mailing date. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or to provide information before refund checks can be cashed.

      Consumers with questions should call the refund administrator, Gilardi & Co., LLC, at 1-888-283-7985.

      Consumers allegedly taken for a ride by a credit counseling/debt management scam run by Andris Pukke and his companies -- AmeriDebt Inc. and DebtWorks, Inc...

      Man up and ask for a flexible schedule

      Study finds women are still more likely to get a raw deal when they need time off to handle parenting

      You've come a long way, baby but maybe it hasn't helped you too much. Women tend to get a raw deal when it comes to asking for time off at work to handle parenting issues compared to men when they ask for the same thing, a new study finds. It's called flexibility bias.

      Flexibility bias is a systematic prejudice in favor of full-time workers who work standard hours, on-site and against workers who work part-time or work full-time but work non-standard hours or a portion of their hours at an off-site location.

      The study by Furman University sociology Prof. Christin Munsch revealed that our cultural biases often don’t fit very well with our workplace policies. 

      The study looked at 646 people, aged 18-65. They were asked to read a transcript of a conversation between an employee and a human resource manager in which the employee asks to work from home two days a week or come in early and leave early three days a week. Responses were then tallied based on the gender of the employee.

      It turns out that men who asked to have a flexible schedule at work due to childcare were most likely get their requests granted, such men being looked at as admirable fellows. Women who asked for the same thing were less likely to get their requests granted and were looked at as not very committed to their jobs.

      Today we think of women’s responsibilities as including paid labor and working at home as a parent, but we still regard breadwinning as men’s primary responsibility and we feel grateful if men contribute in the realm of childcare or other household tasks. In an arrangement where both partners contribute equally at home and in terms of paid labor – men, but not women, would reap workplace advantages.

      So how can women change this perception? Well, Gloria Steinem has been working on it for quite a while but there's still quite a ways to go, as the Furman study shows. The onus really falls back on employers and organizations as well as supervisors who need to be more objective in granting flexwork requests.

      You've come a long way, baby but maybe it hasn't helped you too much. Women tend to get a raw deal when it comes to asking for time off at work to handle p...

      Some give and take in housing construction

      Both housing starts and building permit applications tanked in August

      The new home construction industry provided a good example last month of the old saw that “what goes up must come down.”

      After surging nearly 16% in in July, housing starts plunged 14.4% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 956,000. Still, the construction rate is 8.0% above the same period last year.

      Construction of single-family homes fell 2.4% in August to a rate of 643,000, while the rate for apartment buildings dropped to 304,000 from 423,000 in July.

      Building permits

      It appears the construction slump may continue for a while. The government also reports applications for building permits dropped  5.6 %, but are 5.3% above the August 2013 rate. Permits for single-family homes were down 0.8%, while permit applications for apartment construction came in at a rate of 343,000 compared with 382,000 in July.

      The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Jobless claims

      Separately, the Labor Department (DOL) reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits tumbled by 36,000 In the week ending September 13 -- to a seasonally adjusted total of 280,000, the lowest level since July. The previous week's level was revised up by 1,000 to 316,000.

      DOL says there were no special factors affecting this week's filings.

      Analysts at Briefing.com say the initial claims number leads them to believe that there will be an upward revision of the weak August payroll number. The say they also expect strong job gains when the September nonfarm payrolls report comes out.

      The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly figure and considered to be a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 299,500 -- a drop of 4,750 from the previous week.

      The complete report may be found on the DOL website.

      The new home construction industry provided a good example last month of the old saw that “what goes up must come down.” After surging nearly 16% in in Ju...

      Builder confidence up again

      It’s the fourth increase in a row

      Builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes rose for a fourth straight month in September.

      The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) Index climbed 4 points to a level of 59 -- its highest reading since November of 2005.

      “Since early summer, builders in many markets across the nation have been reporting that buyer interest and traffic have picked up, which is a positive sign that the housing market is moving in the right direction,” said NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly.

      Derived from a monthly survey that NAHB has been conducting for 30 years, the Index gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.” The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.”

      Scores from each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

      “While a firming job market is helping to unleash pent-up demand for new homes and contributing to a gradual, upward trend in builder confidence, we are still not seeing much activity from first-time home buyers,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “Other factors impeding the pace of the housing recovery include persistently tight credit conditions for consumers and rising costs for materials, lots and labor.”

      Across the board gains

      All three HMI components advanced in September. The indices gauging current sales conditions and traffic of prospective buyers each rose 5 points -- to 63 and 47, respectively. The index gauging expectations for future sales increased 2 points to 67.

      Builder confidence also rose across every region of the country in September. Looking at the three-month moving average for each region, the Midwest registered a 5-point gain to 59, the South posted a 4-point increase to 56, the Northeast rose 3 points -- to 41, and the West was up 2 points to 58.

      Builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes rose for a fourth straight month in September. The National Association of Home Buil...

      Ebola outbreak in Africa goes from bad to worse

      Despite past assurances, it's clear this outbreak is very different from those in the past

      There is a new urgency in the words now being used to describe the spreading Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa.

      Last month Americans were reassured that the virus, while a terrible calamity for the people in the 5 African nations where it has appeared, poses little threat in the U.S. There have been no domestic cases reported and doctors took pains to point out that the virus is not easily spread.

      To get the Ebola virus, they said, one must come in contact with the bodily fluid of an infected person. But events on the ground are making those reassuring words less assuring.

      But since the end of August the virus has quickly spread in the countries where it has appeared, infecting more than 5,000 and killing more than half. At a news conference in Geneva, the World Health Organization's (WHO) Bruce Aylward warned the virus could balloon into a humanitarian catastrophe at the rate it is going.

      Aylward said holding cases to the tens of thousands is now almost a best case scenario. Things will get a lot worse than that, he warns, unless the international community takes a more active role in treating and preventing the virus.

      Past model useless

      Dr. Thomas House, of Britain's University of Warwick Mathematics Institute, developed a model that incorporated data from past outbreaks that successfully replicated their eventual scale. But in the current outbreak, House says his model can't keep up.

      "Out of all proportion and on an unprecedented scale when compared to previous outbreaks" is how House describes the current epidemic.

      "If we analyze the data from past outbreaks we are able to design a model that works for the recorded cases of the virus spreading and can successfully replicate their eventual size,” House said. “The current outbreak does not fit this previous pattern and, as a result, we are not in a position to provide an accurate prediction of the current outbreak.”

      Is the virus mutating?

      What is making this outbreak so different and deadly? House sees a number of possibilities, including one that is chilling: a mutating virus. He says he doesn't know the reason, but does know this outbreak is different from ones that have gone before.

      While health officials have taken pains to tamp down Ebola fears among the U.S. population, there is a new seriousness about it this week. This seriousness was on display in President Obama's trip to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta for a first-hand briefing, and his decision to dispatch 3,000 U.S. troops to impacted countries to help build and manage treatment facilities.

      Question no one wants to ask

      And Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, got everyone's attention with an Op-Ed in The New York Times in which he wrote what he contends many of his colleagues are loath to say in public – that the virus might have mutated and is being spread through the air, not just bodily fluids.

      “The current Ebola virus’s hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1,000 years,” he writes. “Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice.”

      Health officials are understandably reluctant to openly discuss this possibility, House says, because they don't want to set off panic.

      “But the risk is real, and until we consider it, the world will not be prepared to do what is necessary to end the epidemic,” he concludes.

      Perhaps not coincidentally, the CDC has issued guidelines to U.S. health care facilities on the need to be prepared for managing patients with infectious diseases such as the Ebola virus. Just in case.

      There is a new urgency in the words now being used to describe the spreading Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa....

      Feds halt payday loan scheme they say stole tens of millions from consumers

      Network of web sites trapped consumers in "loans" they never asked for, then raided their bank accounts, FTC charges

      Federal regulators say a web of companies conspired to get their hands on consumers' private financial data, then used that data to extract nearly $50 million from their bank accounts in payment for payday loans the consumers had never agreed to.

      A U.S. district court in Missouri issued a restraining order and appointed a receiver to take over the operation.

      “These defendants bought consumers’ personal information, made unauthorized payday loans, and then helped themselves to consumers’ bank accounts without their authorization,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “This egregious misuse of consumers’ financial information has caused significant injury, especially for consumers already struggling to make ends meet.”

      Over one eleven-month period between 2012 and 2013, the defendants issued $28 million in payday “loans” to consumers, and, in return, extracted more than $46.5 million from their bank accounts, the FTC alleged.

      Lead generators

      In its complaint, the FTC alleges that Timothy Coppinger, Frampton (Ted) Rowland III, and a web of companies they owned or operated, used personal financial information bought from third-party lead generators or data brokers to make unauthorized deposits of between $200 and $300 into consumers’ bank accounts.

      Often, the scheme targeted consumers who had previously submitted their personal financial information – including their bank account numbers –to a website that offered payday loans.

      After depositing money into consumers’ accounts without their permission, the defendants withdrew bi-weekly recurring “finance charges” of up to $90, without any of the payments going toward reducing the loan’s principal, the FTC alleged.

      The defendants then contacted the consumers by phone and email, telling them that they had agreed to, and were obligated to pay for, the “loan” they never requested and misrepresented the true costs of the purported loans. In doing so, the agency alleged, they often provided consumers with fake applications, electronic transfer authorizations, or other loan documents purporting to show the consumers had authorized the loan.

      In many instances, if consumers closed their bank accounts to make the unauthorized debits stop, the defendants sold the supposed “loan” to debt buyers who then harassed consumers for payment, the FTC contends.

      This case alleges that the defendants violated the FTC Act, the Truth in Lending Act (TILA), and the Electronic Funds Transfer Act (EFTA). The FTC is seeking a court order to permanently stop the defendants’ unlawful practices.

      Companies named

      Companies and individuals named in the complaint include:

      1) CWB Services, LLC; 2) Orion Services, LLC; 3) Sand Point Capital, LLC; 4) Sandpoint, LLC; 5) Basseterre Capital, LLC (based in both Nevis and Delaware); 6) Namakan Capital, LLC; 7) Vandelier Group, LLC; 8) St. Armands Group, LLC; 9) Anasazi Group, LLC; 10) Anasazi Services, LLC; 11) Longboat Group, LLC, also doing business as (d/b/a) Cutter Group; 12) Oread Group, LLC, also d/b/a Mass Street Group; 13) Timothy A. Coppinger, individually and as a principal of one or more of the corporate defendants; and 14) Frampton T. Rowland, III, individually and as a principal of one or more of the corporate defendants.

      Federal regulators say a web of companies conspired to get their hands on consumers' private financial data, then used that data to extract nearly $50 mill...

      Security flaw in Android Browser is a “privacy disaster”

      Disable your Browser app if you have it installed

      Up to half of all Android users might be at risk from a security flaw, first discovered at the end of August by software security researcher Rafay Baloch but only attracting widespread notice now.

      This week, the IT security firm Rapid7 called the bug “a privacy disaster” and said that one of its researchers had developed a working exploit of the security flaw — meaning that the flaw could be used to steal data.

      A Sept. 15 post on the Rapid7 security blog says that the vulnerability would allow a hacker to “load javascript into any arbitrary frame or window,” and that “By malforming a javascript: URL handler with a prepended null byte, an attacker can avoid the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP) Browser's Same-Origin Policy (SOP) browser security control.”

      The Same-Origin Policy in browsers is what usually prevents one website you visit from being able to access content from other sites; basically, it says that a given website can only see or control scripts originating from itself, and no other websites.

      But Rapid7 says that the bug discovered in Android browsers would allow the controllers of one website you visit to see (or even control) what you're doing elsewhere on the web: “Any arbitrary website (say, one controlled by a spammer or a spy) can peek into the contents of any other web page. Imagine you went to an attacker's site while you had your webmail open in another window -- the attacker could scrape your e-mail data and see what your browser sees. Worse, he could snag a copy of your session cookie and hijack your session completely, and read and write webmail on your behalf.”

      Flaw is widespread

      Ars Technica estimates that roughly 40 to 50% of all Android users have the flawed browser on their devices, and that the “Android Browser is likely to be embedded in third-party products, too, and some Android users have even installed it on their Android 4.4 phones because for one reason or another they prefer it to Chrome.”

      Sophos' NakedSecurity blog recommends that anyone with Browser installed on their Android device stop using it immediately. “You almost certainly can't uninstall it, because it's usually part of the operating system build itself, meaning it doesn't show up under 'Settings | Apps | Downloaded.' But if you tap on 'Browser' from the 'All apps' page, you should see a [Disable] button where you'd usually see [Uninstall].

      Disabling the app will prevent you from using the flawed browser so long as it remains a security risk.

      Up to half of all Android users might be at risk from a security flaw, first discovered at the end of August by software security researcher Rafay Baloch b...

      Medicare Open Enrollment may bring more policy changes

      If you have an Advantage Plan, you can make changes starting Oct. 15

      For consumers with Medicare Advantage, the 2015 open enrollment period starts October 15 and extends through December 7, 2014. If you want to make changes to your plan, that's your window of opportunity.

      Medicare Advantage is a type of Medicare health plan purchased through a private company that contracts with Medicare to provide Part A and Part B benefits. Medicare Advantage Plans include Health Maintenance Organizations, Preferred Provider Organizations, Private Fee-for-Service Plans, Special Needs Plans, and Medicare Medical Savings Account Plans.

      Being enrolled in a Medicare Advantage Plan means your Medicare services are covered and paid for outside of Original Medicare. Most Medicare Advantage Plans also offer prescription drug coverage.

      Shopping season

      Just before open enrollment the companies that operate the various Medicare prescription drug and Advantage plans will inform you of any changes for the coming year. You can decide to stick with the plan you have or shop around for another.

      What should you be on the lookout for? If you have a prescription drug plan, the premiums and co-pays you pay can change. That information should be contained in the Annual Notification of Change you will receive by the end of September.

      Medicare Advantage plans themselves can also be subject to change. You might see an increase in co-pays for doctor's visits and outpatient services. There could also be an increase in out of pocket maximum payments.

      Besides changes in costs, there could be changes that require you to go looking for a new health care provider if you keep your current plan.

      Doctors pulling out

      “In the last few years more doctors, and even some hospitals, have been dropping some of the Medicare Advantage plans that they accept,” Brandon Ritchey, an owner of Medicare Health Plans, a health insurance company in Overland Park, Kan., told ConsumerAffairs.

      Ritchey's company sells Medicare Advantage policies in Kansas and Missouri and Medigap supplemental policies nationwide online.

      “If you are planning to change Advantage policies it's best to work with an agent face to face,” he said. “Changing policies can be relatively simple or complicated. But you should work with someone who can explain the process and answer questions.”

      Year of change?

      Ritchey says Medicare recipients should be prepared for changes in their policies this year. His company advises that, due to shrinking doctor reimbursement rates, the pool of doctors who accept Medicare is also shrinking in many areas.

      Early indications suggest that in many areas plans are increasing their premium and copays and some of the zero premium plans may have to begin charging a monthly premium. Living in an area with fewer Medicare eligible consumers may produce the most drastic changes, including the removal of some plans altogether.  

      For consumers with Medicare Advantage, the 2015 open enrollment period starts October 15 and extends through December 7 2014. If you want to make changes t...

      Study: Why do consumers pay more for "ethical" products?

      The answer will not surprise you

      Even things which seem self-evident need to be verified. In a study called “Marketplace Sentiments,” forthcoming in the December 2014 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, Ahir Gopaldas of Fordham University's business school wondered why certain consumers are willing to spend more money on what they deem “ethical products” (such as fair-trade coffee, or non-sweatshop clothing), and reached an unsurprising conclusion: consumers who make such purchases do so because they want to turn their “emotions” into “actions.”

      The study's abstract explains:

      “From outrage at corporations to excitement about innovations, marketplace sentiments are powerful forces in consumer culture that transform markets. This article develops a preliminary theory of marketplace sentiments. Defined as collectively shared emotional dispositions, sentiments can be grouped into three function-based categories: contempt for villains, concern for victims, and celebration of heroes.”

      Godalpas conducted his study by analyzing the websites of dozens of different advocacy groups, and companies run according to “ethical” mission statements, and also interviewed ordinary individuals who self-identified as ethical consumers.

      So how do those these function-based categories of sentiment play out?

      Contempt happens when ethical consumers feel anger and disgust toward the corporations and governments they consider responsible for environmental pollution and labor exploitation. Concern stems from a concern for the victims of rampant consumerism, including workers, animals, ecosystems, and future generations. Celebration occurs when ethical consumers experience joy from making responsible choices and hope from thinking about the collective impact of their individual choices.

      Even things which seem self-evident need to be verified. In a study called “Marketplace Sentiments,” forthcoming in the December 2014 edition of the Journa...