Browse by year
 | 

Gerber charged with falsely advertising its formula

The company is accused of making unsubstantiated health claims

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is accusing Gerber Products of deceptively advertising that feeding its Good Start Gentle formula to infants with a fam...

Photo
Photo source: FTC

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is accusing Gerber Products of deceptively advertising that feeding its Good Start Gentle formula to infants with a family history of allergies prevents or reduces the risk that they will develop allergies.

Gerber also -- according to the agency -- has falsely advertised Good Start Gentle’s health claims as FDA-approved. The commission is seeking, through a federal court enforcement action, to prohibit the company from making the alleged false and unsubstantiated allergy-prevention claims.

“Parents trusted Gerber to tell the truth about the health benefits of its formula, and the company’s ads failed to live up to that trust,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Gerber didn’t have evidence to back up its claim that Good Start Gentle formula reduces the risk of babies developing their parents’ allergies.”

Questionable marketing

In its complaint, the FTC alleges that since 2011, Gerber has marketed its Good Start Gentle formula through ads that ran on TV in magazines, at point-of-sale displays, online, and in other promotional material. Good Start Gentle sells for about $24 for a 23.2-ounce package of powdered formula.

The product is made with partially hydrolyzed whey proteins (PHWP). Gerber claims that feeding babies this formula, instead of formula made with intact cow’s milk proteins, will prevent or reduce the risk that they will develop allergies. In its ads, Gerber promotes Good Start Gentle by saying, for example:

• “You want your baby to have your imagination…Your smile…Your eyes…Not your allergies.”

Also, a sticker on the package states that Good Start Gentle Formula is the:

• “1st & ONLY Routine Formula TO REDUCE THE RISK OF DEVELOPING ALLERGIES.”

The agency contends that Gerber lacked the scientific substantiation to make these general allergy-prevention claims, in violation of the FTC Act.

Bogus approval claims

In addition, according to the FTC, Gerber’s ads also misrepresent that Good Start Gentle has qualified or received approval for a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) health claim. For example, some ads prominently featured a gold badge stating that Good Start Gentle is the “1st and Only” formula that “Meets FDA Qualified Health Claim.”

Gerber petitioned the FDA in 2009 for permission to make a claim connecting PWHP with the reduced risk of one type of allergy, atopic dermatitis, in infants. The FDA allowed Gerber to make the narrow claim but only if Gerber carefully qualified its statement to make it clear that there is “little scientific evidence” for the relationship.

More

Should you consider an adjustable rate mortgage?

Maybe, but do so carefully

The adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) got a nasty reputation at the height of the housing meltdown, largely because they were associated with subprime mortgag...

Photo
© Rob Hyrons - Fotolia
The adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) got a nasty reputation at the height of the housing meltdown, largely because they were associated with subprime mortgages.

Unlike a fixed rate mortgage, the interest rate on an ARM fluctuates on the basis of prevailing interest rates and other factors. Subprime lenders used ARMs so that more consumers could afford mortgage payments, at least at first.

The rate was set very low for the first couple of years. After that, it reset to a much higher rate – sometimes twice the rate of a prime mortgage.

That's where subprime borrowers ran into trouble. The mortgage payments, which they could barely afford to begin with, suddenly became unaffordable. When home values plunged, they were unable to sell or refinance, so many defaulted.

Not all ARMs are bad

But not all ARMs are associated with subprime mortgages and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says some ARMs might be useful to consumers in some circumstances.

Typically the initial interest rate of an ARM is lower than that of a fixed rate mortgage. It's true that fixed rate mortgages rates are near historic lows, but the opening rate on an ARM is even lower.

HUD says an ARM may be a good option if you plan to own your home for only a few years, you expect an increase in future earnings or the prevailing interest rate for a fixed rate mortgage is too high.

ARM rates are calculated using an index, a margin, an interest rate cap structure and an initial rate period. Since the index is often keyed to government bonds, ARM rates over the last 5 years have been remarkably stable because bond yields have remained low.

However, there is no guarantee they'll stay that way, especially since the Federal Reserve has just announced an end to its bond-purchase program and many market analysts expect the Fed to begin tightening interest rates next year.

Yellow flag

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has urged caution when it comes to ARMs, noting that borrowers might get the benefit of lower initial payments but could face some disadvantages later. Payments could up, sometimes by a lot, even if rates don't go up. Your payments could go down, but might not.

“You could end up owing more money than you borrowed, even if you make all your payments on time,” CFPB warns.

Benefits

But researchers at the University of Chicago say the lower initial payment an ARM provides can give individual consumers and the economy as a whole a significant boost.

In their study they found a reduction in mortgage payments of as little as $150 a month led to a reduction in mortgage defaults and an increase in consumer spending, particularly the financing of vehicle purchases, while improving household credit ratings.

In their study they found households that refinanced with an ARM applied more than 70% of the savings to paying down credit card debt. As a result both mortgage defaults and credit card delinquencies declined.

In the end, whether an ARM is a good choice will depend on a lot of factors inherent in the loan. Among the most important are the interest rate caps and how long the initial interest rate period lasts.

If interest rates begin to rise, as many analysts fully expect, having a fixed rate mortgage might help you sleep a little better at night. The rate doesn't change over the life of the loan and over time, might cost the same or less than an ARM.

More

Office Depot starting Black Friday deals Sunday

Amazon.com starting its Black Friday promotions this weekend as well

Office Depot and OfficeMax, which merged last year, are the latest retailers to jump on the early Black Friday bandwagon....

Photo
© Marek - Fotolia.jpg

Office Depot and OfficeMax, which merged last year, are the latest retailers to jump on the early Black Friday bandwagon.

The company has announced a campaign it calls "Your Holiday Workshop," offering Early Black Friday and "Every Monday is Cyber Monday" deals, starting on November 2. The deals will be available both in-store and online.

Early Black Friday deals will be available November 2-15 while "Every Monday is Cyber Monday" online deals will be posted on November 3, 10, 17, and 24.

In recent years office and business supply retailers have competed with electronics retailers, selling not just pens and notebooks but all manner of gadgets, from desktop computers and printers to smartphones.

Laptop deals

For the Early Black Friday specials November 2 - 8 Office Depot and OfficeMax will feature an HP laptop computer that normally sells for $299.99 for $229.99. They've also marked down a Dell Inspiron 15 series 3000 touchscreen laptop from $549.99 to $369.99.

From November 9 - 15 the deals include a Dell laptop that normally sells for $479.99 on sale for $279.99 and a Toshiba Satellite L55t touchscreen laptop with 6GB of memory for $399.99. The computer normally sells for $659.99.

A company spokeswoman says other Black Friday deals, along with store hours, will be announced closer to Thanksgiving Day. She says consumers may sign up online to receive alerts about deals and events.

Office Depot and OfficeMax have a 90-day return policy but it is being extended during the holidays. The company says anything purchased between now and December 24, 2014 can be returned until Jan. 14, 2015 or as the policy allows, whichever is later. Items purchased online can be returned in store.

Amazon.com

Amazon.com is also getting a jump on Black Friday starting this weekend. Its Countdown to Black Friday event starts Saturday, with deals throughout November.

“Starting in November, millions of holiday shoppers come to Amazon hunting for the best deals and that one perfect gift,” said Steve Shure, Amazon Vice President Worldwide Marketing. “This year, we will have more than 15,000 hand-selected, limited time promotions on hot products, including new early access deals for Prime members on many Lightning Deals from Amazon.com and daily sales events on MyHabit.”

In the weeks ahead Amazon says it will be offering savings of 40% or more on select Star Wars toys, Mickey and Minnie, Crayola and Disney Princess toys and discounts up to 70% on Cuisinart cookware sets.

Other deals will include 50% off the SodaStream Fountain Jet Home Soda Maker Starter Kit and $150 off on the Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR.

More

Morris the cat relaunches his career

In his latest incarnation, Morris is "charmingly choosy," not finicky

A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers spend more “when feeling a sense of nostalgia-evoked social connectedness.” That's ...

PhotoA recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers spend more “when feeling a sense of nostalgia-evoked social connectedness.” That's the theory for 9Lives cat food.

And guess who is making a comeback? Morris! The finicky cat has represented the 9Livesbrand of cat food since his creation in 1969 by the Leo Burnett agency. Morris has lasted through 8 presidencies and 40 Super Bowls.

It was a group effort to bring Morris back into the claws of the advertising world. Several agencies got involved in the rebranding and they say that this time Morris will be appealing to the millennials and he will sport a whole different attitude. He no longer will be presented as finicky. He will now become “charmingly choosy."

There is a little issue with that as research shows that "charmingly choosy" could ultimately turn off consumers. (How many agencies does it take to change a lightbulb?) But it should make sense to let Morris loose on social media considering it's a haven for cat videos.

But finicky or not, Morris will be a pretty hip cat in his new life, we're told. He will be trying out wearable technology and offering his approval to the world around him.

It appears that Morris is really using the 9 lives we hear so much about, as this isn't Morris' first reboot in his life.

When he reappeared in television advertising in 2004 he was rendered less finicky, willing to turn somersaults for a steady supply of 9Lives. So this cat has had a makeover before.

Comfort marketing

Apparently Madison Avenue has been embracing a trend known as comfort marketing, which has been popular following the turmoil with the market in 2008. It's the idea of conjuring up the past with old slogans, mascots and jingles to stimulate positive memories when the present seems uncertain.

Not to worry, though. There'll be plenty of Morris to go around. Patrick Maravilla, group creative director at one of the agencies managing the new Morris, assures us that “every single piece of content is designed to be shareable.”

He said that "Morris will be looking at a fishbowl -- if you click on the fishbowl it plays a 1980s 9Lives commercial with Morris and a fishbowl."

The verdict is out whether Morris has one more life left in him, but it seems that launching into the world of social media makes a lot of sense, “charmingly choosy" or not.

More

Security camera catches UPS driver repeatedly kicking package marked "fragile"

Unknown if $12,000 piece of equipment sustained any damage

This week's kid glove award goes to a UPS driver, who was caught on video using a package clearly marked “fragile” as a kickball....

Photo
File photo
This week's kid glove award goes to a UPS driver, who was caught on video using a package clearly marked “fragile” as a kickball.

The driver had to deliver a package to East Hills Instruments in Westbury, New York. But East Hills couldn't accept the $12,000 package – containing a delicate nitrogen calibration system – because it had been sent cash on delivery; presumably the company doesn't keep that much money in its office.

Apparently, the driver didn't like the idea of hauling the heavy box to the truck, so rather than carry the box, or load it onto a wheeled handtruck, he chose to kick the box hard enough to make it flip onto another side, and continued flip-kicking it back to the truck. He did this in full view of other East Hills employees — and also in full view of the East Hills security camera.

“He did it in plain sight,” East Hills' Ray Martel told CBS News. “He does it right in front of the camera. I mean, who does that? We have a hand truck he could have used. He has one. I know they all have one in their truck. But I guess laziness got to him.”

Martel also said that the UPS driver had been warned that the package contained delicate equipment – as of press time, it's not known how much, if any, damage the equipment received.

A spokesperson for UPS said that “UPS does not condone this specific driver’s behavior” and is “investigating the issue and will take corrective action with this driver.”

Meanwhile, East Hills says that UPS makes deliveries to its company almost every day, and they've never had a problem before.

More

Bad week for mobile wallets: Apple Pay loses retailers and CurrentC gets hacked

Still some bugs to work out of non-cash electronic payment systems

It's far too early to predict who if anyone will be the eventual winner of the mobile-payment wars, especially since Apple Pay and its upcoming rival Curre...

PhotoIt's far too early to predict who if anyone will be the eventual winner of the mobile-payment wars, especially since Apple Pay and its upcoming rival CurrentC both faced major setbacks this week.

Less than seven days after it was first made available, Apple Pay encountered its first roadblock when the pharmacy chains CVS and Rite-Aid stopped accepting it. Although neither chain officially explained why, most observers agree it's because they decided instead to work with a retailer-owned group called the Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX) to develop a competing mobile-payments app called CurrentC, scheduled to be widely released next year.

Mobile payment systems are being touted as far more secure than traditional credit and debit cards, which did not stop CurrentC from getting hacked this week (though full release won't be until next year, the app is currently being tested in a limited pilot program).

On Wednesday, participants in CurrentC's pilot program received a warning from the MCX: at some point in the previous 36 hours, hackers had managed to grab the email addresses of all participants.

Granted: by hacking-damage standards, hackers gaining access to a mere list of email addresses (without even getting the passwords to control them) is very mild indeed, and there's no evidence to suggest the hackers managed to get any other information MCX keeps on its users, such as their name, home address, phone number and actual physical location (or at least their phone's physical location). At least not this time.

More

Don't throw it out -- grow it out

It's fairly easy to grow vegetables inside -- try it this winter

Recycling is all the rage, so why not do it with your food?...

Photo
Photo © Jose Hernaiz - Fotolia
Recycling is all the rage, so why not do it with your food?

You can actually regrow some of your food and do it inside and become pretty impressive to your kids! Just make sure you use veggies that are slightly fresh and remember to pay attention to your future plant, making sure it has the water and light it needs.

If your romaine head of lettuce is getting weak just get rid of the leaves and keep the stalk. This is pretty amazing. If the bottom of the stump is saved and placed in water, regeneration and new growth will occur. Place each piece in a half-inch of water, check the water level daily, and marvel as the stump starts to sprout and grow. No dirt needed just a cool environment and a lot of sun.

Nobody likes the end of a carrot except maybe a horse but they are pretty good for creating carrot tops. You won’t be able to grow carrots from the tops but they are good in salads or cooked. More people tend to use them cooked, especially in soups, than raw. Get carrots that have a little bit of green on the top. Cut off the top 2 inches from the crown of one or more carrots.
Place the in a shallow saucer cut side down. Add water so that half of the top is submerged in water.

Place it near light and add water daily. In a couple weeks you will have green tops.

Celery is similar to the romaine lettuce, cut off the bottom of the stalk and place the chunk in a bowl of water and in a few days marvel as little stalks start to form. After 5 days you should transfer it to a planter with dirt. Cover it completely with a mixture of dirt and potting soil. Three to four weeks and you have a nice celery plant with little stalks. Never need to buy celery at the store again.

As long as you aren't kissing anyone onions are great and easy to grow. Start off with the bottom of an onion and chop it off at the roots. The more roots the better. Allow to dry for a few hours to a couple days in a shaded, well-ventilated area to allow for callousing. Get a little starter flower pot and fill it 2/3 with soil. Make sure you make it very compacted. Create an indentation in the center to cradle the onion bottom and allow for good soil contact. Cover with 1-2" of soil. Water as needed.

Avocado tree

How about growing an avocado tree from its pit? This one is a long-term project. It actually takes a little longer than watching water boil. Really long term -- 10-13 years -- but heck, it's worth a shot.

Wash the seed. Using three toothpicks, suspend it broad end down over a water-filled glass to cover about an inch of the seed. Put it in a warm place. You don't want direct sun on it. Add water as it's needed. You will probably see roots and stems in about 2-6 weeks. When it is 6-7 inches long cut it back to three inches.

When the roots are thick and the stem has leafed out again, plant it in a rich humus soil in a 10-1/2" diameter pot, leaving the seed half exposed. Light water with a deep soak once in a while. Lots of sun at this point. Once it is 12 inches high cut it back to 6. A plant grown from seed will take anywhere from 5 to 13 years to flower and bear fruit.

The moral of this story is don't throw it out, grow it out!

More

Incomes creep higher in September, while spending dips

Consumers tucked away more money for that rainy day

Personal income rose last month, while consumers tightened their grip on their pocket books. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, incomes were up...

Photo
© kentoh – Fotolia.com

Personal income rose last month, while consumers tightened their grip on their pocket books.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, incomes were up $22.7 billion, or 0.2%, and personal consumption expenditures (PCE) dipped $19.0 billion, or 0.2%.

By way of comparison, personal income increased $50.7 billion, or 0.3% in August and PCE jumped $58.7 billion, or 0.5%, based on revised estimates.

Disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes increased $15.7 billion, or 0.1%, in September, versus an advance of $37.5 billion, or 0.3%, the month before.

Wages and salaries

The September increase in private wages and salaries was about a third of it was the previous month: $12.6 billion vs. $36.3 billion.

Goods-producing industries' payrolls inched up just $0.7 billion, following $4.8 billion increase in August. Within that sector, manufacturing payrolls fell 0.3 billion, after adding $2.2 billion a month earlier.

Payrolls of services-producing industries rose $11.9 billion, compared with an increase of $31.4 billion in August, while government wages and salaries increased were up $1.4 billion, following a $0.9+ billion gain the previous month.

Personal outlays and personal saving

Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- decreased $14.5 billion in September, in contrast to a $63.4 billion surge in August.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $732.2 billion in September, compared with $702.0 billion in August. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.6% in September, compared with 5.4% in August.

The rate was 4.9% at the start of the year.

The complete incomes and expenditures report is available on the Commerce Department website.

More

Nissan recalls Infinitis with air bag issues

The driver's frontal air bag inflator may have been manufactured with an incorrect part

Nissan North America is recalling 1,848 model year 2013 Infiniti QX56 vehicles manufactured September 1, 2012, to April 26, 2013, and 2014 Infiniti QX80 ve...

Photo
Photo source: Infiniti

Nissan North America is recalling 1,848 model year 2013 Infiniti QX56 vehicles manufactured September 1, 2012, to April 26, 2013, and 2014 Infiniti QX80 vehicles manufactured June 18, 2013, to February 11, 2014.

The driver's frontal air bag inflator in the affected vehicles may have been manufactured with an incorrect part. In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the driver's air bag, the incorrect part may block the flow of propellant to the air bag and the air bag's inflator may rupture. The rupture could cause metal fragments to strike and potentially seriously injure the vehicle occupants.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front driver air bag inflator, free of charge. The recall will begin by late December 2014.

Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

More

Fuel issue prompts recall of various Toyota vehicles

Fuel may leak from the one of the fuel delivery pipes in the engine compartment

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 20,000 model year 2014 Toyota Avalon, Camry, Sienna, and Highlander and model year 2015 Lexus RX350 ...

Photo
Photo source: Toyota

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 20,000 model year 2014 Toyota Avalon, Camry, Sienna, and Highlander and model year 2015 Lexus RX350 vehicles.

Fuel may leak from the one of the fuel delivery pipes in the engine compartment. A fuel leak in the presence of an ignition source increases the risk of a fire.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace any of the suspect fuel delivery pipes free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on November 3, 2014.

Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331.

More

Most U.S. adults don't get enough nutrition

If you have a disability you are even more likely to be malnourished

People need a certain amount of calories each day to survive. But they need to be the right kind of calories and many U.S. adults apparently aren't getting...

Photo
Photo © larcobasso - Fotolia

People need a certain number of calories each day to survive. But they need to be the right kind of calories and many U.S. adults apparently aren't getting them.

And it turns out that Americans with some kind of physical disability are even more likely to be malnourished.

An estimated 10% to 25% of U.S. adults fit into one or more category of disability, from those who have difficulties with activities of daily living, such as dressing, bathing and eating, to those who cannot use their legs or have difficulty carrying out routine tasks, such as money management or household chores.

To get a getting understanding of how these difficulties can affect nutrition, University of Illinois researchers analyzed two sets of self reported food and supplement consumption data from 11,811 adults, more than 4,200 of whom met the guidelines of being disabled.

The data came from the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.

"We conducted statistical analyses to compare people with and without disabilities in terms of nutrient intake," said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Ruopeng An, who guided the study.

He and his colleagues wrote up their findings in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.

Not even close

"We found that American people consume much lower amounts of nutrients than are recommended," An said. "For example, only 11.3% of people meet the daily recommended intake of fiber. Only 4.7 percent of adults consume recommended amounts of potassium."

Vitamins are another area of deficiency. Consumers don't get enough vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium and iron, An said. Making matters worse, they eat more saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium than recommended.

Consumers who are disabled tend to get even less nutrition. Disabled consumers were less likely to meet recommended dietary levels of saturated fat, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and potassium, the researchers report.

"In general, people with disabilities are also disadvantaged nutritionally compared with people without disabilities, even though the bar is already so low," An said.

Disabilities a big complication

As it turns out, those with the most severe physical and mental disabilities were also the least likely to eat enough of the right food.

"Physically, financially and mentally, they have different barriers to accessing healthy food," he said.

If you think about it a trip to the grocery store can be a challenge for anyone who uses a cane, walker or wheelchair to get around. Some who are disabled cannot grasp small items, open cans or jars, or stand at a countertop to prepare foods.

Supplements help

Dietary supplement use moderately improved vitamin C, vitamin D and calcium intakes. But that usually required the intervention of a health care provider to suggest it. The findings may shift the focus of how best to improve the overall health of disabled consumers.

"Policymakers and activists for the disabled traditionally have focused primarily on improving transportation options and the physical accessibility of buildings, roads, paths and parking lots," An said. "Now it's time for them to turn their attention to the nutritional challenges that confront people with disabilities."

Even consumers who are not disabled might be surprised at how little of the daily recommended nutrients they consume. To help you determine that number, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has produced this online calculator.

More

Your kid's best holiday could be your dog's worst

Halloween can be a dangerous, nerve-wracking time for pets

Make sure your dog is safe this Halloween. There are many elements that can actually spook you and your dog if you don't watch out....

Photo
Photo © Willee Cole - Fotolia

Make sure your dog is safe this Halloween. There are many elements that can actually spook you and your dog if you don't watch out.

Candy is the biggest problem. Grab a handful for yourself then put the rest where your dog or cat can't reach for a treat on his own. Hershey's kisses are not good for your pets -- any chocolate is downright dangerous. Chocolate is toxic to cats and dogs, can trigger vomiting, diarrhea and — if eaten in larger amounts — seizures and even death.

Its not just what's on the inside of that candy, the outside can be a real problem too. A dog's nose works pretty well and just the smell of candy can get them going, but ingestion of foil and cellophane wrappers can cause a life-threatening bowel obstruction requiring surgery. It’s very important to stress to your kids to keep all candy wrappers out of the reach of pets.

Sugar-free candy doesn't mean worry-free, it means you could have some serious problems. Xylitol is a sugar substitute that's in sugar-free candy, gum, mints, and baked goods. A small amount of xylitol can cause a rapid and dangerous blood sugar drop in dogs, as well as acute liver failure. Xylitol's effect on cats is not known but why risk it?

You might think raisins are healthy. Well, they are healthy for humans but not a good choice for pets. They are toxic to dogs and cats and can potentially cause kidney failure in very small amounts. Chocolate-covered raisins pose an even bigger risk.

Freaked-out dog

Photo
Staff photo

Costume selection for people could freak out your dog. We know zombies aren't real right? Maybe they aren't but even Minnie Mouse can spook a dog and cause them to bark and then bolt, turning a night of trick or treating into tricking.

Make sure your pet has an ID tag and is wearing it.

Your dog's costume should fit well. Don't let them chew a part of it off or smother themselves.

You really don't want your dog to glow in the dark. The glow sticks that kids use so they are visible can disappear inside a dog as soon as they bite into it. They usually are non-toxic but ASPCA Poison Control commonly gets calls about pets puncturing the sticks. They taste really nasty; you can give your dog a treat or a sip of milk to stop the taste reaction.

You know how your dog goes crazy when the doorbell rings when UPS drops off a package. Well, multiply that by 50 times and you have a really stressed-out dog. Keep your dog away from the door in a separate bedroom so the doorbell doesn't create a ton of anxiety.

Just keep a close watch on your pet and have a safe and Happy Halloween.

More

Do you know what payments impact your credit score?

Survey finds a lot of confusion

You probably have heard that being late in paying your bills can whittle away at your credit score. But which bills have the most impact?...

Photo
© hywards - Fotolia

You probably have heard that being late in paying your bills can whittle away at your credit score. But which bills have the most impact?

When credit bureau TransUnion conducted a survey of consumers asking that very question, it found a lot of confusion. The fact is that not all of your monthly payments are routinely reported to credit agencies. But some are.

Nearly half of consumers who rent their homes mistakenly believe rental payments are automatically reported to credit bureaus and therefore affect their credit scores.

"Most consumers report paying rent on-time, but many don't realize that until now these payments are not boosting their credit histories," said Ken Chaplin, senior vice president of TransUnion.

Rental payments are starting to count

But that appears to be changing. Chaplin says more property managers are starting to report payments to credit bureaus and renters should be consistently monitoring what is being registered on their individual report.

More than 50% of consumers in the survey mistakenly believe payments for cable and Internet fees, utility bills and cell phone bills are regularly reported to credit bureaus. They aren't, unless of course you fall so far behind that it gets turned over to collections.

Paying your mortgage on time is regularly reported to credit agencies but fewer than 29% of consumers knew that.

The trend of property managers reporting rental payments to credit agencies is one TransUnion says will benefit renters in the long run. That's because, to build up a credit rating you need credit.

If rent is counted as reportable credit, then renters have the same opportunity to build their credit score as homeowners who pay a mortgage.

"Expanding the share of property managers who report rental payments will produce more accurate information that truly reflects how consistently consumers meet their financial obligations," said Chaplin. "It will benefit renters who want to help their credit scores and landlords who want to attract renters who pay rent on-time."

Renters appear to welcome the monitoring. More than half of renters in the survey said they would be more likely to choose a property to rent if they knew their landlord would report their rental payments to credit bureaus.

Check your credit report

There are other ways consumers can improve their credit scores. It starts with checking your credit report once a year, using www.annualcreditreport.com. Your credit report contains the data used to calculate your score and it may contain errors. Additionally consumers can hire a credit repair company - these companies provide consumers legal services to address credit report issues.

It's important to check to make sure that there are no late payments incorrectly listed for any of your accounts and that the amounts owed for each of your open accounts is accurate. If you find errors on any of your reports, dispute them with the credit bureau and reporting agency.

Be on time

The best way to improve you credit score is to pay all your bills on time, whether they are reported to credit agencies or not. Take advantage of your bank's payment reminders. They can send you a reminder by text or email when a payment is due.

You could also consider enrolling in automatic payments through your credit card and loan providers to have payments automatically debited from your bank account. However, this tool usually makes only the minimum payment on your credit cards and does not help instill a sense of money management.

If you are having trouble paying bills contact your creditors or see a legitimate credit counselor.

This won't rebuild your credit score over night but if you can begin to manage your credit and pay on time, your score should increase over time. Seeking assistance from a credit counseling service will not hurt your FICO score.

More

Time change ritual may be dangerous to diabetics

It's crucial to be sure insulin pumps are properly adjusted

The daylight time ritual is coming around again, when most of us will get an extra hour of sleep before getting up Sunday morning. But for some of us, ther...

Photo
Photo © Africa Studio - Fotolia
The daylight time ritual is coming around again, when most of us will get an extra hour of sleep before getting up Sunday morning. But for some of us, there's more than sleep at stake in the switch back to standard time.

Diabetics who use insulin pumps should be sure to remember to change the timer on their pump, according to Saleh Aldasouqi, associate professor of medicine at Michigan State University.

“Some diabetes patients who use insulin pumps may forget to change the clock that is found in these devices,” said diabetes expert Aldasouqi. “Forgetting to change the time can result in insulin dosing errors that can be harmful.”

Dosing errors could cause too little or too much insulin being delivered at the right time for these patients.

Too much insulin produces hypoglycemia, which could be severe and trigger seizures, fainting spells or coma. Hyperglycemia is a result of too little insulin being delivered and in the short term isn’t as harmful as hypoglycemia. Early effects of hyperglycemia may include tiredness and frequent urination, yet longer-term effects could cause the body to become acidic, known as diabetic ketoacidosis, and could also produce life-threatening complications.

Aldasouqi said he’s had a number of patients come into his office who have forgotten to make the time change or in other cases, haven’t adjusted the clock after changing the pump battery. He’s also come across additional issues in his research such as health providers finding incorrect a.m. and p.m. settings.

“At this point, I haven’t seen a fatal error occur, but why wait?” he said. “That’s why it’s important to raise awareness about this issue now and encourage physicians and patients alike to make sure these clocks are set up correctly at all times.”

Old technology

Currently, insulin pump technology lags behind and doesn’t have clocks that automatically adjust. GPS technology could be used to help solve this problem, but is considered controversial due to privacy concerns.

For now, Aldasouqi said the responsibility is on the patient and also on the medical community to educate patients and make sure pumps are set correctly.

“The implications of remembering to change the clock in these devices means so much more than just remembering to adjust the alarm clock for that extra hour of sleep,” he said. “As a physician, I’m going to do what I can to make sure patients are safe.”

His article can be found in the November issue of the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.

More

Home Depot security breach cost credit unions at least $60 million

Re-issuing a single stolen card number costs over $8

It's been less than two months since Home Depot first admitted (on Sept. 2) that it was “looking into some unusual activity” which everyone now knows was t...

PhotoIt's been less than two months since Home Depot first admitted (on Sept. 2) that it was “looking into some unusual activity” which everyone now knows was the largest retailer data theft to date, with at least 56 million debit and credit card numbers stolen. Home Depot formally admitted the breach on Sept. 18.

At the time, the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) urged its member credit unions to take part in a survey assessing the damages caused by the breach, including:

• Number of debit and credit cards affected;
• Costs incurred for card reissuance;
• Costs related to additional staffing, member notification, account monitoring, etc.;
• Changes in call volume;
• Changes in staffing; and
• Any specifically identifiable fraud-related losses.

By the end of September, two credit unions in Pennsylvania and New York had already filed federal lawsuits against Home Depot, seeking class action status on behalf of all financial institutions similarly affected by the breach.

And the financial fallout continues to be felt. Today CUNA released the results of its member survey and announced that Home Depot's security breach has cost U.S. credit unions nearly $60 million so far.

Still costs money

From the perspective of credit unions and other card issuers, one major problem with stolen credit card and similar account numbers is that even in a best-case scenario, where the theft is discovered and cards cancelled before the thief can make any fraudulent purchases with them, it still costs money just to issue new cards and set up new accounts. And of course, the Home Depot security breach was far from a best-case scenario for the credit unions and banks.

CUNA said that, according to a survey of member credit unions, 7.2 million of their debit and credit cards were affected, and had to be re-issued. The average cost per card was $8.02, which includes re-issuing the card itself, paying for fraudulent charges, and paying additional staff costs for account monitoring, member notification and similar costs.

CUNA economist Bill Hampel said that fraud accounted for 60% of the total cost, averaging $4.89 per card. But that means that even had this been a best-case security breach, with all 7.2 million of those cards cancelled before being put to any fraudulent use, it still would've cost roughly $3.13 to re-issue each card, and pay staff to notify members and monitor accounts to ensure no fraudulent activity; the best-case scenario still would've cost credit unions over $22.5 million.

Who pays?

How much of that cost is likely to be borne by Home Depot? Despite the pending lawsuits, chances are the credit unions and their members will be stuck with the bulk of it.

CUNA president and CEO Jim Nussle said “The cost to credit unions of data breaches — which seem to be occurring with increasing regularity — is rising, as the CUNA surveys clearly demonstrate …. The bottom line is that credit union members end up paying the costs — despite the fact that the credit unions they own had nothing to do with causing the breach in the first place.”

More

Staying safe on the road this Halloween

Here are some tips to keep drivers and pedestrians alike out of harm's way

With the arrival of Halloween and the end of Daylight Saving Time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is reminding everyone to driv...

Photo
© igor - Fotolia

With the arrival of Halloween and the end of Daylight Saving Time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is reminding everyone to drive safely, keep an eye out for trick-or-treaters, and never drink and drive if you’ve celebrated with alcohol.

As the clocks turn back on November 2, drivers and pedestrians need to be aware of the safety challenges that occur during the shorter days of fall and winter.

A dangerous combination

Drinking and increased pedestrian traffic on Halloween night has historically been a dangerous combination. On Halloween night in 2012, 54 people died, and nearly half of those deaths (26) involved a crash with a drunk driver, as opposed to one-third on an average day.

More than one-quarter (28%) of Halloween crash fatalities were pedestrians, versus 14% on an average day. From 2008-2012, 21% of pedestrian fatalities on Halloween night involved a drunk driver.

Generally, evening hours are the deadliest time on the road, so drivers and pedestrians should be on guard with the end of Daylight Saving Time. In 2012, a pedestrian was killed every two hours and injured every seven minutes in traffic crashes. Most of these pedestrian deaths occur in urban environments, and the majority of pedestrian fatalities occur when it is dark, with 24 percent occurring from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and 32 percent occurring from 8:00 p.m. to midnight.

Halloween safety tips

For motorists

  • Use caution while behind the wheel.
  • Slow down and be alert in residential areas.
  • Enter and exit driveways and alleys carefully.
  • Eliminate distractions so you can concentrate on the road and your surroundings.
  • Drive sober or get pulled over.
  • Always designate a sober driver and plan a way to safely get home at the end of the night if you plan on celebrating Halloween with alcohol.
  • Use your community’s sober ride program or take a taxi, call a sober friend or family member, or use public transportation.
  • If you see a drunk driver on the road, contact local law enforcement.
  • If you know someone who is about to drive or ride while impaired, take their keys and help them make safe travel arrangements to where they are going.

For pedestrians

  • Walking impaired can be just as dangerous as drunk driving. Designate a sober friend to walk you home.
  • Help keep kids safe.
  • Children out at night and under the age of 12 should have adult supervision.
  • Kids should stick to familiar areas that are well lit and trick-or-treat in groups.
  • Choose face paint when possible instead of masks, which can obstruct a child’s vision.
  • Decorate costumes with reflective tape and have kids carry glow sticks or flashlights.
  • Always cross the street at corners, using traffic signals and crosswalks, and look left, right and left again when crossing and keep looking as you cross.

Time-change safety tips

For motorists

  • Slow down. During the evening hours, you need more time to see a pedestrian in your path.
  • Keep in mind that pedestrians who are wearing headphones, hats or earmuffs may not hear your vehicle as it approaches.
  • Keep your windshield, windows, and mirrors clean. Make sure your defrosters and windshield wipers are working properly and that washer fluid is replaced as needed.

For pedestrians

  • Carry a flashlight or attach reflective materials -- such as fluorescent tape -- to clothing, backpacks, purses and briefcases.
  • Don't depend on the traffic signal to protect you. Motorists may be distracted, especially when adjusting to the nighttime travel environment.
  • Use crosswalks. Avoid jaywalking and crossing between parked vehicles.
  • Walk on sidewalks whenever possible. If you must walk on the street, face traffic.
  • When crossing the street, look left-right-left for cars from the curb.
  • Do not cross the street if a car is coming and use a crosswalk if available.
  • Watch out for cars at every driveway and intersection.
  • Pay attention to what is happening on the road and avoid distractions.
More

Who needs towels? Body dryer offers hands-free drying

The inventors are still raising money to get into production so it may be awhile

Nothing feels better on a warm summer day then a nice breeze against your neck and the wind gently blowing through your hair. How would you like to have th...

Photo
Photo credit: Bodydryer.com

Nothing feels better on a warm summer day then a nice breeze against your neck and the wind gently blowing through your hair. How would you like to have that same effect when you step out of the shower?

Enter the body dryer.

It's a full-blown dryer that dries off your whole body. No towel is needed. In fact thats the point. It's a larger version of the hand dryers you see in the airport bathrooms. The body dryer is designed out of a need to “replace bacteria filled and environmentally harmful bathroom towels,” said designer Tyler Overk.

It just might feel good as well! It was designed in the U.S. and as long as you are 325 pounds or less you should be able to get blown away! You can monitor your weight with the built-in scale. It only takes 30 seconds and you will be drip dry via compressed, ionized air.

Personalized breeze

How do you like your air? Full force or just a light breeze? You can adjust the way the air stream is delivered through different shaped nozzles on the footplate that develop a cylindrical tunnel of air around your damp little body. Sounds like fun doesn't it? Might be something to do as a couple. Who knows?

It's not in stores yet. The team has been raising money through Crowdfunding.com and Indiegogo. If it makes it into stores it should sell for around $250.00.

The body dryer should be great for company as well, there is no washing all of those dirty towels. Think about it -- kids will no longer leave towels on the floor. This thing could make your life a breeze!

More

Economic growth continues through the summer

However, the rate is a bit slower than in the spring

The nation's economy continued to chug along during the third quarter, although not as robustly at it did in the spring. The "advance" estimate released b...

Photo
© z_amir - Fotolia.com

The nation's economy continued to chug along during the third quarter, although not as robustly at it did in the spring.

The "advance" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S., adjusted for price changes -- increased at an annual rate of 3.5% in July, August and September. Real GDP surged 4.6% in the second quarter.

Keep in mind that this advance estimate is based on data that are incomplete or subject to further revision. The "second" estimate -- based on more complete data -- will be released in a month.

Consumers lend a hand

The third-quarter increase reflects positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), exports, nonresidential fixed investment, federal government spending, and state and local government spending. These were partly offset by a drop in private inventory investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, decreased.

The deceleration in the percent change in real GDP reflected a downturn in private inventory investment and decelerations in PCE, in nonresidential fixed investment, in exports, in state and local government spending, and in residential fixed investment that were partly offset by a downturn in imports and an upturn in federal government spending.

GDP inflation

The price index for gross domestic purchases -- which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, rose 1.3% in the third quarter, following a 2.0% increase in the second three months of the year. The “core rate,” which excludes the volatile food and energy categories, increased 1.5%, versus a 1.7% advance in the second quarter.

The full GDP report is available on the Commerce Department website.

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia
Initial jobless claims

From the Labor Department (DOL), word that first-time applications for state unemployment benefits rose by 3,000 in the week ending October 25, to a seasonally adjusted total of 287,000.

It's now been several weeks that the claims level has been below 300,000, leading many economists to suggest that the economy is at, or near, full employment.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly report and considered a better gauge of the labor market, cam in at 281,000 -- down 250 from the previous week.

The complete initial claims report may be found on the DOL website,

More

Another year-over-year decline in home foreclosures

However, they were up a bit on a month-over-month basis

There's continued progress on the foreclosure front. According to CoreLogic, a provider of property information and analytics, there were 46,000 completed...

Photo
© tang90246 - Fotolia

There's continued progress on the foreclosure front.

According to CoreLogic, a provider of property information and analytics, there were 46,000 completed foreclosures nationally during September, down from 68,000 a earlier -- a year-over-year decrease of 32.6% and down 61% from the peak in 2010.

On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures in September were up by 4.7% from the 44,000 reported in the month before. As a basis of comparison, before the decline in the housing market in 2007, completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month nationwide between 2000 and 2006.

“The number of completed foreclosures ticked up a bit in September from the prior month and is still running above historic norms,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “Although the foreclosure inventory and rates of seriously delinquent loans remain elevated in many states, progress is being made and this bodes well for a better housing market in 2015 and beyond.”

Completed foreclosures are an indication of the total number of homes actually lost to foreclosure. Since the financial meltdown began in September 2008, there have been approximately 5.2 million completed foreclosures across the country; since home ownership rates peaked in the second quarter of 2004, there have been approximately 7 million homes lost to foreclosure.

As of September 2014, approximately 607,000 homes nationally were in some stage of foreclosure, known as the foreclosure inventory, compared to 924,000 in September 2013, a year-over-year decrease of 34.3%.

The foreclosure inventory as of September 2014 made up 1.6% of all homes with a mortgage, compared with 2.3% in September 2013. The foreclosure inventory was down 2.8% from August 2014, representing 35 consecutive months of year-over-year declines.

“The level of serious delinquencies has rapidly declined over the last few years, but the pace of improvement is beginning to recede,” said Sam Khater, deputy chief economist at CoreLogic. “As of June, serious delinquencies were 26% lower than the prior year, but as of September serious delinquencies were 21% lower.”

Report highlights

  • September represents 20 consecutive months of at least 20% year-over-year declines in the national inventory of foreclosed homes.
  • All states posted double-digit declines in foreclosures year over year. The District of Columbia experienced a 7.1% increase.
  • Twenty-nine states showed declines in year-over-year foreclosure inventory of greater than 30%, with Arizona (-47.6%) and Utah (-47.1%) experiencing the largest declines.
  • The five states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in September 2014 were: Florida (120,000), Texas (36,000), California (31,000), Michigan (29,000) and Georgia (27,000). These 5 states accounted for almost half of all completed foreclosures nationally.
  • Four states and the District of Columbia experienced the lowest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in September 2014: South Dakota (63), District of Columbia (68), North Dakota (286), West Virginia (458) and Wyoming (628).
  • The 5 states with the highest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes were: New Jersey (5.7%), Florida (4.4%), New York (4.1%), Hawaii (2.9%) and Maine (2.7%).
  • The 5 states with the lowest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes were: Nebraska (0.4%), Alaska (0.4%), Arizona (0.5%), North Dakota (0.5%) and Wyoming (0.5%).
More

Cane Creek recalls bicycle shock absorbers

The shock contains incorrect adjustment directions for High Speed Rebound damping

Cane Creek Cycling Components of Fletcher, N.C., is recalling about 5,500 shock absorbers in the U.S. and Canada. The shock absorber is marked with graph...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Cane Creek Cycling Components of Fletcher, N.C., is recalling about 5,500 shock absorbers in the U.S. and Canada.

The shock absorber is marked with graphics that incorrectly identify the adjustment directions for High Speed Rebound (HSR) damping. Following these directions will cause unexpected behavior by a bike’s suspension and pose a fall hazard to a rider.

The company has received four complaints from customers, one of which involved a report of injury with bruises in the midsection.

This recall involves Cane Creek Cycling Components DBINLINE bicycle rear shock absorbers marked with graphics that incorrectly identify the adjustment directions for High Speed Rebound (HSR) damping.

The shocks come in black anodized aluminum with the words “INLINE” marked on the air can portion of the shock and are attached to a full-suspension mountain bike frame. Recalled products have a serial number on the underside of the top valve body in the following ranges: AA00002 – AA07304 and SA00077 – SA03926.

The shocks were sold separately and with the following mountain bikes:

  • 2015 Alutech - Tofane
  • 2015 Banshee - Phantom and Spitfire
  • 2015 Bianchi - Methanol 29
  • 2015 Canyon - Spectral 140 – 27.5 and 29; and Strive CF
  • 2015 Ghost - AMR Riot 130
  • 2015 Guerilla - Gravity Megatrail
  • 2015 Ibis - Ripley 29
  • 2015 Intense - Tracer, Carbine 29 and Spyder 29 Comp
  • 2015 Knolly - Warden
  • 2015 Nicolai - Helius
  • 2015 Norco - Sight Carbon 7.1
  • 2015 Nukeproof - Mega TR
  • 2015 Orange - Five and Five 29
  • 2015 Specialized - Enduro 650B and 29

The shocks, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at distributors and retailers globally from May 2014, through September 2014, for about $495 each or included in the price of the bike.

Consumers should immediately stop using the product and contact Cane Creek for a repair decal kit to correct the HSR adjustment markings on affected product.

Consumers may contact Cane Creek at (844) 490-3663 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

More

Takata air bag recall becoming a witches' brew for White House

A miasma of lawsuits, Congressional rumblings and political fallout

The recall of millions of cars with potentially defective airbags is conjuring up a witches' brew of class action lawsuits, Congressional incantations and ...

Photo
Photo © Brad Thompson - Fotolia.com

The recall of millions of cars with potentially defective airbags is conjuring up a witches' brew of class action lawsuits, Congressional incantations and rumblings of White House plans to clean house at the federal car safety agency.

Class actions have been filed in Los Angeles and Miami, accusing Japanese airbag manufacturer Takata and numerous automakers of concealing potentially fatal defects in airbag deflators. The suits charge that the airbags can explode violently, showering occupants with shrapnel. At least one death has already been blamed on the devices, which are in at least 6 million cars.

BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota are recalling cars equipped with the devices but, in most cases, the recalls are regional in nature. That's based on the oft-challenged claim that weather conditions can influence the likelihood that the devices will malfunction, and on the claim that all of the known incidents -- so far totalling 6 -- occurred in Florida and Puerto Rico. 

The regional recalls are clustered in Florida, Puerto Rico, limited areas near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, as well as Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

Regional recalls are usually concentrated in cold-weather states, where salt is used on icy roads in the winter. But there's such a thing as too much nice weather too, apparently.

Cauldron bubbles

Photo
NHTSA's nemesis

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is already taking a lot of flak over other long-simmering problems and, with a crucial midterm election just days away, a Congressional witch hunt looks increasingly likely. 

The White House is said to be looking at potential replacements for David Friedman, who has been the acting NHTSA chief since his predecessor decamped for a D.C. lobbying firm.

Friedman recently issued an unusual statement urging consumers to heed the recalls and have their cars fixed as soon as possible. 

"Responding to these recalls, whether old or new, is essential to personal safety and it will help aid our ongoing investigation into Takata airbags and what appears to be a problem related to extended exposure to consistently high humidity and temperatures,” said Friedman. “However, we’re leaving no stone unturned in our aggressive pursuit to track down the full geographic scope of this issue."

But one stone the agency apparently overlooked was making sure its website was up to the task of helping consumers find out whether their car was among those recalled. NHTSA recently introduced a page that is supposed to let consumers type in their vehicle identification number (VIN) and find out if there are any open recalls.

Taking its cue, perhaps, from the early Obamacare site, NHTSA's VIN look-up page has been largely down for the count, forcing car owners to look elsewhere. Individual automakers have their own VIN look-up pages as does auto history site Carfax, whose page has been up and running each time we've checked it.   

White House haunted by fall-out

None of this is good news for Friedman.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees NHTSA, an agency that he says needs to hold itself to a higher standard, something its critics have been saying for years.

Photo
David Friedman (NHTSA photo)

"This can begin with the naming of a new NHTSA chief -- a critically important safety post that remains vacant to this day," Upton said in a statement.

Over the weekend, it was reported that the Obama Administration -- vexed at yet another crisis -- was beginning to vet possible candidates to succeed Friedman. But naming anyone to anything becomes more difficult each day as time runs down for Obama. 

That's not to say action isn't needed. Even by Washington standards, NHTSA has had an embarrassing series of perceived slip-ups in recent years, including the odd non-recall of allegedly fire-prone Jeeps and the botched oversight of faulty ignition switches in GM cars. 

More

Signs still point to early Black Friday

More retailers announcing their plans early

As Black Friday ads leak onto the Internet, some retailers are getting a jump on the leakers – and the competition – by making early announcements of their...

Photo
A leaked ad from BlackFriday.com
As Black Friday ads leak onto the Internet, some retailers are getting a jump on the leakers – and the competition – by making early announcements of their Black Friday plans.

One of the latest to do so is Bon-Ton, a regional department store chain with 270 stores in 27 states. The company has announced it will open its stores at 6:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving, dangling 600 door busters, special coupons and deals to draw in customers.

For example, the first 200 customers in line when the doors open Thanksgiving night will receive gift cards, with values ranging from $5 to $250. Those who download the Bon-Ton app will receive special Black Friday deals.

The company will begin previewing all of its After Thanksgiving Sale and door buster items on its Website beginning November 16.

"After Thanksgiving is the traditional kick-off for the holiday shopping season," said Steve Byers, a Bon-Ton vice president. "Customers will find exceptional deals and unique gifts for the entire family at Bon-Ton.”

In a sneak peak at its Black Friday specials, Bon-Ton said it will sell its entire stock of Keurig and Cuisinart coffee makers and accessories at 40% to 60% off. Its entire stock of Mattel and Fischer Price toys and games, including Disney Frozen toys and décor, will be marked down 50%.

Best Buy

Best Buy has already started pre-Black Friday promotions, with a 4 Day Kick Off sale running through Monday, Nov. 3. Without getting into specifics, the retailer says it's Black Friday deals and door busters will include select laptops, HDTVs, Blu-ray players, appliances, digital cameras and video games.

Xbox One

Some Black Friday preview websites have posted a scan of a Black Friday Kmart ad for the Xbox One without Kinect console on sale for $349.99, beginning November 9, 2014.

If it turns out to be legitimate, that would be about a $50 discount and might be matched by other retailers – something to keep in mind if the popular game console is on your list.

Toys R Us

BlackFriday.com, a website that publishes leaked ads, has posted what it says is the Toys R Us Great Big Christmas Book, an 80-page catalog with discounts on toys. But you'll have to wait until November 2 to find how deep the discounts are. That's when actual prices will be posted, the site says.

As they did last year retailers are slowly marking down items in advance of Black Friday, hoping to snag more of the early shoppers. And shopping early usually pays off.

A 2012 survey by Shop Advisor famously found that the two best days to holiday shop – where deals were greatest – came before and after Black Friday. It found the best day was November 13. Second best was December 1.

For shoppers who want to save money, it would be wise to stay alert for deals now. Retailers are offering plenty of them.

More

FCC may begin process of unbundling cable

Why can't Aereo and other streamers be treated like cable systems?.

You say you never watch Azteca America? How about truTV? We're not sure exactly what these are but they're among the more than 80 channels included in Comc...

Photo
Azteca America
You say you never watch Azteca America? How about truTV? We're not sure exactly what these are but they're among the more than 80 channels included in Comcast's "Digital Starter" bundle, meaning you get them -- and pay for them -- whether you want them or not.

Cable has sold programming this way nearly since its inception -- putting together packages, or bundles, of often-unrelated content. Want football? You'll also get bowling. It's sort of the way cars are sold. Want a backup camera? Hah! You'll need to pay for a navigation package too. Oh, and heated mirrors.

Let's be fair. Not everybody hates this system -- only consumers. Program producers love it because they get paid whether you watch their stuff or not. And cable systems like it because it's a way to jack up your cable bill far beyond what it would be if you could order a la carte.

Photo
Comcast channel line-up
But it's becoming pretty obvious that it's not going to stay this way much longer. The established TV-Cable Monopoly has about as much chance of holding back the tide as the taxi industry has of stopping Uber in its tracks.

Especially now that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has apparently seen the writing on the wall.

"Consumers have long complained about how their cable service forces them to buy channels they never watch.  The move of video onto the Internet can do something about that frustration – but first Internet video services need access to the programs," Wheeler said in his blog yesterday. "Today the FCC takes the first step to open access to cable programs as well as local television.  The result should be to give consumers more alternatives from which to choose so they can buy the programs they want." 

Wheeler says he is asking the commission to include Internet-only TV services -- presumably like the recently-banished Aereo -- to be treated as though they were cable systems.

Future Aereos

This would mean that future Aereos could carry network and local TV signals, just as the cable systems do. They would presumably have to pay but having the rights to the signals would make Internet-based video distribution a much more viable business. 

PhotoNo one was too much concerned about this back when Aereo was trying to get off the ground but with HBO and CBS saying they will soon offer streaming video service for customers who don't have cable, joining Netflix, Amazon, et al, regulators and politicians are starting to take the idea more seriously.

Wheeler says he is asking the commission to start a rulemaking procedure that will modify the FCC's definition of a "multichannel video programming distributor,” or MVPD. That's the technical term for cable TV systems like Comcast.

"A key component of rules that spur competition is assuring the FCC’s rules are technology-neutral.  That’s why the definition of an MVPD should turn on the services that a provider offers, not on how those services reach viewers.  Twenty-first century consumers shouldn’t be shackled to rules that only recognize 20th century technology," Wheeler said.

Wheeler said that besides providing more competition in programming and pricing, expanding the number of streaming video suppliers will encourage the deployment of more and faster broadband.

"Those seeking to deploy new competitive broadband networks tell us that it’s hard to provide new high-speed Internet access without also being able to offer a competitive video package as well.  An updated definition of MVPD would permit a new broadband competitor to offer customers the ability to reach a variety of OTT video packages without necessarily having to enter the video business itself," he said.

So hang onto that cable channel guide for now, but don't bother having it embossed.

More

Study finds different online consumers get different prices

Algorithms produce search results based on users' profiles and past activity

What you pay for an online purchase may be different – higher or lower – than what someone else pays, according to researchers at Northeastern University....

Photo
Image from Hotels.com

What you pay for an online purchase may be different – higher or lower – than what someone else pays, according to researchersat Northeastern University.

The reason, they say, is the complex set of algorithms that produce search results based on users' profiles and past activity. That means one consumer searching for a product may be quoted a price that's different from the one a second consumer receives.

While the consumer believes she is simply looking for the best price on a laptop computer, for example, her online profile is being used by the e-commerce site to determine exactly what her price should be.

It would be like walking into a jewelry store where you frequently shop and asking the price of a ring. The sales clerk, before telling you the price, consults a file about you that includes your income, the neighborhood where you live and what products you've purchased in the past. Then the clerk gives you a price, which may not be the same as the price the next customer receives.

The research team, made up of computer science and information technology professors, studied 16 popular e-commerce sites. Ten of the sites were general retailers and 6 were hotel and car rental sites.

Price discrimination and steering

The objective was to measure two specific forms of personalization; price discrimination, in which a product's price is customized to the user; and price steering, in which the order of search results is customized to the user.

The practice of customizing prices does not appear to be uncommon.

"Overall, we find numerous instances of price steering and discrimination on a variety of top e-commerce sites," the authors wrote.

For example, the study found evidence of price customization on 4 of the general retailers and 5 of the travel sites. The price disparity, the researchers say, was often hundreds of dollars.

It was most common on travel sites, which isn't surprising since hotel rates and airline fares tend to fluctuate anyway. But travel prices generally vary, depending on supply and demand, not who is making the purchase.

Right about now you're probably wondering what websites were part of the study. The researchers did say which sites were not included. Popular sites like Amazon and eBay were excluded because they serve as online marketplaces. Apple, and companies like it, were left out because they only sell their own products.

Members get lower prices

The researchers say Cheaptickets and Orbitz used price discrimination by serving up reduced prices on hotels to "members." They say Expedia and Hotels.com steered a subset of users toward more expensive hotels.

Home Depot and Travelocity personalized search results if the user was using a mobile device.

Priceline personalized search results based on a user's history of clicks and purchases, but the researchers determined this wasn't price steering.

In fact, the study didn't turn up evidence of widespread price steering, but the authors say where they found it, the price swings were significant.

Not judging

While all of this might sound unfair to consumers, Christo Wilson, one of the researchers, says neither he nor his colleagues are making a judgment about whether the practice is good or bad.

They stress that price discrimination – especially when part of a membership or loyalty program -- isn't necessarily a sinister plot to take advantage of consumers.

The issue, they say, is transparency. Discounts for members and preferred customers are an accepted practice in marketing. But the Northeastern researchers said this system is much harder to detect on e-commerce sites.

"I get this question from people all the time: 'How do I get the best price?' The truth is I don't have a good answer," Wilson said. "It changes depending on the site, and the algorithms they use change regularly.”

So good advice today might not be good advice tomorrow. Wilson says that when you buy online, you're at a disadvantage unless it's transparent.

Your safest policy is to do lots of price comparisons and not settle for the first price in the search string.

More

The frugal American: modern version vs. circa-1844 model

Money-saving tips from history don't always work today

What would Lydia Maria Child's “American Frugal Housewife” think of modern thrift and spending habits?...

Photo“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

My childhood and adolescence overlapped the sunset years of most people who'd grown up during the Great Depression and fought in World War Two, which might be how I first came across that saying. Or maybe not — the phrase is still in fairly common use today, enough that if you're the type who likes either reading about history or learning new thrifty-living tricks (and I enjoy both), you're bound to come across it sooner or later.

Some of that attitude is also found in the modern emphasis on “re-use, recycle, conserve resources:” for every person who cites climate change, pollution or other environmental concerns to explain, for example, why they're trying to reduce their electricity use, there's someone else whose primary motivation is to save money by reducing their high electric bills.

And, of course, all throughout history there have been careless or wasteful people, offset by those advising caution, economy and thrift. “Waste not, want not,” as Ben Franklin said.

Problem is, not all of the thriftiness advice from history still works today, so ideas that were perfectly sensible and helpful before the Industrial Revolution (and even during the Depression and other hard times afterwards) can be downright counterproductive in 21st-century America.

Make it do

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do.” That doesn't always work with electronics. A few years ago my old DVD player broke, and getting it repaired would've cost $57 for shipping and labor costs, plus I'd've gone up to six weeks before getting the player back. Meanwhile, a new DVD player of the exact same make and model cost only $60. So I threw away what could've been a perfectly useful DVD player, capable of providing entertainment for years to come after a rather minor repair — which simply wasn't worth making.

And the further back in time you go, the more now-useless advice you encounter. Last weekend I read The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Child, a 19th-century writer whose best-known work today is probably “The New England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day,” a poem whose first lines are “Over the river and through the wood, to grandfather's house we go....”

But in pre-Civil War days, The American Frugal Housewife was Child's best-known work, a book almost every American bride received as a wedding present. My copy is a modern print reproduction of the 29th edition, copyrighted in 1844; Project Gutenberg offers free downloads of the 12th edition, from 1832.

Some of Child's advice still holds true today (some things never change): in modern times, despite a generally poor economy, low rates of personal savings and high rates of personal debt, the ideas of being frugal, thrifty and careful with money nonetheless have unsavory connotations somehow, especially among those who can't see the distinction between a frugal person and a stingy miser — “the general implication is that you can be frugal, or you can have a reasonably comfortable life (plus friends), but it's an either-or option.”

Sounds like the same held true when Child published her book of frugal household hints over 170 years ago:

Economy is generally despised as a low virtue, tending to make people ungenerous and selfish. This is true of avarice; but it is not so of economy. The man who is economical, is laying up for himself the permanent power of being useful and generous. He who thoughtlessly gives away ten dollars, when he owes a hundred more than he can pay, deserves no praise,—he obeys a sudden impulse, more like instinct than reason: it would be real charity to check this feeling; because the good he does may be doubtful, while the injury he does his family and creditors is certain. True economy is a careful treasurer in the service of benevolence; and where they are united respectability, prosperity and peace will follow.

Sprinkle salt

PhotoWhile the value of economy (or thrift) is just as high today as it was in Child's time, the actual everyday details of thrifty, economical living have changed considerably. Being frugal today is vastly easier: for starters, thanks to modern food packaging and your refrigerator/freezer, you probably don't share Child's concerns here:

It is necessary to be very careful of fresh meat in the summer season. The moment it is brought into the house, it should be carefully covered from the flies, and put in the coldest place in the cellar. ... If you are not to cook it soon, it is well to sprinkle salt on it.

And in order to meet modern respectability standards, you genuinely need to ignore other bits of advice she offers. For example: when you need vinegar, where do you get it? Not that you're likely to think much about it, ordinarily, but: all the vinegar in my American household came from various grocery stores. We've got relatively small quart bottles of “specialty” vinegars, which have words like “balsamic” or “malt” on their labels, but for plain everyday use we take the cheaper option of buying white store-brand vinegar by the gallon.

Here's what Lydia Child has to say about it:

It is poor economy to buy vinegar by the gallon. Buy a barrel, or half a barrel, of really strong vinegar, when you begin house-keeping. As you use it, fill the barrel with old cider, sour beer, or wine-settlings, &c., left in pitchers, decanters or tumblers; weak tea is likewise said to be good: nothing is hurtful, which has a tolerable portion of spirit, or acidity. Care must be taken not to add these things in too large quantities, or too often: if the vinegar once goes weak, it is difficult to restore it ….

Much poorer

Serious advice: even if you like the idea of making your own craft vinegar at home (and Child does offer a recipe involving molasses and sour beer), don't keep a slop barrel full of souring beverage leftovers in your kitchen. Not in 2014 or beyond.

But Child lived and wrote at a time when the world and everybody in it was much, much poorer than today — and also before anybody really understood the germ theory of disease.

A gallon of plain white vinegar today can be had for well under three dollars. So even if you only make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, you can “earn” a gallon of clean, strong vinegar in less than half an hour. You also have enough basic knowledge of bacteria and other germs to understand “A barrel of souring food in my kitchen wouldn't just stink; if I'm not careful it'll become a bacterial breeding ground and an actual health hazard.”

But store-bought vinegar (along with everything else) was expensive in Child's day, far more expensive that a mere half-hour's work, and nobody knew about germs either. Saving old cider, sour beer and wine dregs genuinely was a better alternative than buying expensive vinegar, for many people.

And for all the very real problems modern Americans face from high medical or health-insurance costs, at least we don't have to rely on helpful home remedies from the 1840s:

EAR-WAX.—Nothing is better than ear-wax to prevent the painful effects resulting from a wound by a nail, skewer &c. It should be put on as soon as possible. Those who are troubled with cracked lips have found this remedy successful where others have failed. It is one of those sorts of cures, which are very likely to be laughed at; but I know of its having produced very beneficial results.

Modern version: Do not save your earwax, or anything else that comes out of your body (except children, of course). If you suffer a minor puncture wound, the Mayo Clinic recommends that you stop the bleeding, clean the wound, apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment or cream (a modern medical marvel which of course did not exist in the 19th century), cover the wound with a clean bandage, and contact your doctor if you see redness, swelling or other signs of infection.

As for chapped lips, the Mayo Clinic recommends that you apply a lubricating lip balm with sunscreen (another product that didn't exist in Child's day), stay hydrated, keep your lips out of the wind and avoid licking them.

"Rage for travelling"

PhotoIn today's America, antibiotic ointment and lip balm can both be bought for less than an hour's minimum wage (with a little money left over). Of course, everybody knows this already, which is why if Lydia Maria Child were alive and writing frugal-living tips now, she'd briefly advise you to keep a supply of cotton balls, rubbing alcohol, antibiotic cream and other basic first-aid items on hand to treat minor wounds, before writing a chapter about avoiding credit card and rent-to-own debt and another one reminding people not to spend money on vacations and other frivolities until their debt is paid off, an updated version of her advice from 1844:

There is one kind of extravagance rapidly increasing in this country, which, in its effects on our purses and our habits, is one of the worst kinds of extravagance; I mean the rage for travelling, and for public amusements. … Look at our steamboats, and stages, and taverns! There you will find mechanics, who have left debts … while they go take a peep at the great canal, or the opera-dancers. There you will find domestics all agog for their wages-worth of travelling; why should they look out for 'a rainy day?' …. People of moderate fortune have just as good a right to travel as the wealthy; but is it not unwise? Do they not injure themselves and their families? You say travelling is cheap. So is staying at home.

Modern translation: “Instead of a vacation, this year try a stay-cation!”

More

FTC reaches settlement with online dating network

Must stop luring customers with fake profiles, among other things

A dating site based in England has agreed to stop using computer-generated fake profiles to fool members into paying for membership upgrades. In a settleme...

PhotoA dating site based in England has agreed to stop using computer-generated fake profiles to fool members into paying for membership upgrades. In a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, JDI Dating also agreed to stop billing people's credit cards for subscription fees without their consent.

Of course, any dating site is bound to have some fraudulent profiles on it somewhere, thanks to dishonest people who sign on hoping to ensnare a victim into a dating scam.

That's why, even if you're registered with a reputable dating site, you must always be wary of potential scammers (and never agree to send money to anyone you meet online, no matter how compelling a sob story they have to tell).

But that's not what happened with JDI (which operates a variety of dating or hookup sites under different names, including CupidsWand, FlirtCrowd and FindMeLove). Apparently, registering with and building a profile at a JDI-owned site is free — but seeing or responding to any messages you get from other members requires a paid membership. According to the FTC:

As soon as a new user set up a free profile, he or she began to receive messages that appeared to be from other members living nearby, expressing romantic interest or a desire to meet. However, users were unable to respond to these messages without upgrading to a paid membership. … The messages were almost always from fake, computer-generated profiles – “Virtual Cupids” – created by the defendants, with photos and information designed to closely mimic the profiles of real people. A small “v” encircled by a “C” on the profile page was the only indication that the profiles were fake. Users were not likely to see – much less understand – this icon. The fake profiles and messages caused many users to upgrade to paid subscriptions.

JustHookUp

An Oct. 29 online search for JDI Dating and “Virtual cupids” brought up the terms-and-conditions page of a JDI-owned site called JustHookUp.com, which promises to help members “Hook up with local sex partners” (sex partners is italicized, underlined and set off by quotation marks in the original).

The total “terms and conditions” document is 9,343 words long, and after you, the potential new member, read through the first 1,308 words you'll find the first mention of Virtual Cupids: “We reserve the right to create Accounts for quality control, administrative purposes and the use of our Virtual Cupid program as described below. Such accounts may be publicly viewable.”

Then, if you stay conscious long enough to read through the next 1,419 words' worth of eye-glazing prose, you'll finally find this:

VIRTUAL CUPIDS: THIS SITE UTILIZES VIRTUAL PROFILES THAT DO NOT CORRESPOND TO OTHER MEMBERS: JDI Dating Ltd encourages Account development and promotes user, Member and/or Subscriber communications through our Virtual Cupid (VC) services. By accepting these Terms, all users, Members and/or Subscribers fully understand, accept and agree to the deployment of this service, and acknowledge that some of the profiles and Members displayed to them, and related communications sent to Members from VC's, are not associated with any other user of the site, but included in an effort to promote broader user, Member and/or Subscriber activity and fuller participation in all the Services. The VC services may include the posting of information, pictures and communication directed to the user, Member and/or Subscriber's Account. Such messages may take the form of any communication currently permitted on the Website ….

In other words, JDI did/does bury deep within its “Terms and Conditions” the admission that, in order to encourage [paid] Member and/or Subscriber activity, it will set up fake profiles that do everything a real profile can do – except lead to a romantic (or even a purely sexual) connection with another human being, which presumably is what potential members signed up for in the first place.

But this fine-print loophole wasn't enough for JDI to wriggle out of its settlement with the FTC. The company has to pay $616,165 in redress; its various websites are still in operation but henceforth, according to the FTC press release: “The settlement order prohibits the defendants from misrepresenting material facts about any product or service and, from failing to disclose clearly to potential members that they will receive communications from virtual profiles who are not real people.”

JDI also has to stop billing members without their consent, make subscriptons as easy to cancel as they are to start, and actually honor any subscription cancellations they get.

More

Shuddle could make a parent's life easier

It's sort of Uber for kids -- an app that moves kids on demand

Part of being a parent is shuttling your kids back and forth from school to basketball practice, maybe dance lessons and then back home, throwing something...

Photo
Photo © Martinan - Fotolia

Part of being a parent is shuttling your kids back and forth from school to basketball practice, maybe dance lessons and then back home, throwing something quick together for dinner. It's crazy enough with one kid but add another one or two and your life is instant insanity. Throw homework in there and all of a sudden life has gotten away from you and a glass of wine starts to sound really good.

There is help and it's new and I almost cringe saying it but it's an app. It's similar to Lift or Uber and it's called Shuddle.

The website says they are more than just a car or a driver: "We are a group of moms, dads and technologists who have developed a way for you to get some of that time back. As technologists, we believe in creating a smart, safe and transparent service that adds convenience to everyday lives."

No matter how you say it, it's still like a chauffeur service. Here is how it works.

Schedule a time
You need to do it a day in advance and you can pre-plan up to a week in advance.

Be ready.
No sleeping in and forgetting your lunch money or basketball T shirt. In fact your kid has to be ready 5 minutes ahead of schedule. Don't worry, the headquarters will send you a text to remind you.

Get in.
Pretty self explanatory. Driver confirms your family’s Shuddle Pass, (A secret word chosen by your family that the driver will say to confirm his or her identity.) Your kid then climbs into the backseat.

Meet and greet.
Driver says hi and small talks -- no personal information is shared.

In car entertainment.
If your child would like something special on the radio the driver will play it. Otherwise, headphones are on your kids' ears and they are bopping to their own tunes or texting their BFFS.

Are we there yet?
Your loved one has arrived and a message is sent to you to confirm that they have landed safely. You are able to track the ride in real time thanks to GPS.

Parents or caregivers are the only ones who can book a ride. Your child will need to have a cellphone in order to hop on board. Children must have aged out of their booster seat. 

Shuddle says it has plenty of insurance.

"Shuddle is the only rideshare service insured to transport kids. Our coverage is dependent on regular, in-depth inspections of our safety procedures by the insurance agency. And that’s in addition to our standard coverage of up to one million dollars for vehicles, drivers and passengers," the site says.

Drivers undergo a criminal background and DMV check. 

What's it cost?

There is a $9 membership fee billed monthly. The fee covers the insurance and the driver screening. The first month is free and you can cancel at any time.
Fares are based on mileage and time. An estimate is given at the time you order.

Payments are made with a credit card through the app so no cash is exchanged between your child and the driver and you don't have to worry about all of a sudden your son can't find the money or loses the change.

Right now it's only available in San Francisco and nearby areas including the East Bay and the Peninsula. See shuddle.us for more info.

More

Mortgage Applications post first drop in 4 weeks

Interest rate sensitivity was a major factor

Mortgage applications ended their string of increases at 3 during the week of October 24. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mort...

Photo
© emiliezhang - Fotolia.com

Mortgage applications ended their string of increases at 3 during the week of October 24.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 6.6% from the week before.

“Borrowers with jumbo loans tend to be most sensitive to changes in rates, and that sensitivity has been clearly apparent in the past few weeks with double and even triple-digit percentage changes in refinance application volume for jumbo loans,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “The average loan size for refinance applications decreased to $263,600 in the most recent week from a survey high of $306,400 the previous week. The decrease was driven by a 41% drop in refinance applications for loans greater than $729,000, which had surged almost 130 percent the week before.”

Refinance applications plunged 7% from the previous week, holding the refinance share of mortgage activity steady at 65% of total applications from the previous week.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity decreased to 8.2% of total applications.

The FHA share of total applications rose to 8.9% this week, while the VA share of total applications jumped from from 9.6% to 10.7% and the USDA share inched up to 0.9% from 0.8%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 3 basis points -- from 4.10% to to 4.13%, with points unchanged at 0.21 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) jumped to 4.13% from% percent, with points falling to 0.13 from 0.20 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose 3 basis points to 3.84%, with points up to 0.16 from 0.07 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was unchanged at 3.28%, with points increasing to 0.24 from 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was the same as last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs remained at 2.94%, with points increasing to 0.43 from 0.37 (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.

More

Ram 2500, 3500, 4500, and 5500 trucks recalled

The electrical connectors of the diesel fuel heater may overheat

Chrysler Group is recalling 314,704 model year 2010-2014 Ram 2500, 3500, 4500, and 5500 trucks manufactured March 27, 2009, to September 5, 2013. The ele...

Photo
Photo source: Ramtrucks

Chrysler Group is recalling 314,704 model year 2010-2014 Ram 2500, 3500, 4500, and 5500 trucks manufactured March 27, 2009, to September 5, 2013.

The electrical connectors of the diesel fuel heater in the affected vehicles may overheat causing the fuel heater to leak, increasing the risk of a fire.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the harness side connector with a silver plated beryllium copper terminal service kit, and inspect the fuel heater for leaks, replacing it as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin December 5, 2014.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P65.

More

Two recalls issued for Dodge Durangos and Jeep Grand Cherokees

The problems involve air bags, steering and stability

Chrysler Group has issued two separate recalls for Dodge Durangos and Jeep Grand Cherokees. In the first,126,772 model year 2014 Durangos manufactured Jun...

Photo
Photo source: Dodge

Chrysler Group has issued two separate recalls for Dodge Durangos and Jeep Grand Cherokees.

In the first,126,772 model year 2014 Durangos manufactured June 2, 2013, to June 28, 2014, and 2014 Grand Cherokees manufactured October 30, 2012, to April 30, 2014, are being recalled.

Due to a fault within the Occupant Restraint Control (OCR) module, the frontal air bags, seat belt pretensioners, and side air bags may be disabled. The malfunction indicator light “MIL” should illuminate to initially warn drivers of a failure.

If these elements are disabled, there is an increased risk of injury to the vehicle occupants in the event of a crash that necessitates use of the passive restraint system.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the ORC module, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on December 8, 2014.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P67.

Photo
Photo source: Jeep

The second recall is for 132,223 model year 2014 Dodge Durango, and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured October 3, 2013, to April 11, 2014.

Due to an issue with the software for the Steering Column Control Module (SCCM), the Electronic Stability Control (ESC) may be disabled. If the ESC is disabled during certain driving situations, the driver may not be able to control the vehicle adequately, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will update the SCCM software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on December 5, 2014.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P64.

More

Feds sue AT&T for throttling customers with "unlimited" data plans

"Unlimited means unlimited," Federal Trade Commission argues

What if you went to an all-you-can-eat buffet and were told that you had to eat very slowly, using only one hand and pausing for 10 seconds between each bi...

PhotoWhat if you went to an "all-you-can-eat" buffet and were told that you had to eat very slowly, using only one hand and pausing for 10 seconds between each bite?

Chances are, you'd think you'd been cheated. And that's just how many consumers feel when their wireless carrier offers them "unlimited" data service, then slows down -- or "throttles" -- their service if they start gobbling up too much of that data.

The Federal Trade Commission also takes a dim view of throttling. It filed a federal court complaint against AT&T Mobility, LLC, today charging that the company has misled millions of its smartphone customers by charging them for “unlimited” data plans while reducing their data speeds, in some cases by nearly 90%.

“AT&T promised its customers ‘unlimited’ data, and in many instances, it has failed to deliver on that promise,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited’ means unlimited.”

Consumers, like Avinash of Latrobe, Pa., say even customers who seldom use much of their "unlimited" data can still find themselves being throttled.

"I have been with ATT for 5 years now, having unlimited data plan. I had been using max of 0.4 GB every month. This month while travelling I used up 3 GB (for looking up restaurants and using Google maps). My data speed was reduced," Avinash said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs, including a screen grab of his chat with an AT&T rep:

Photo

Clark, of Santa Clara, Calif., said in June that he had a similar experience with his "unlimited" plan. 

"AT&T sent me a warning that I have now reached 3 gig use on my 'unlimited' data plan and if I continue to abuse my use of data, my slow data speed will be throttled back further," something he had hoped to avoid by signing up for the "unlimited" option years ago.

"I can't imagine myself as a heavy user, up until 6 months ago I hardly used any data at all and only recently began using a Netflix service to watch video at the local greasy spoon when having breakfast, something AT&T advertises a customer should do when enjoying their service," he said. "On contacting AT&T customer service I was told this was their new policy, too bad, pound salt and I was refused any further resolution."

Clark said he must have "missed AT&T's semi-secret announcement of their unilateral decision to impose new terms and conditions on my cell phone agreement."

Inadequate disclosure

The FTC’s complaint alleges that the company didn't adequately disclose to its customers on unlimited data plans that, if they reach a certain amount of data use in a given billing cycle, AT&T reduces – or “throttles” – their data speeds to the point that many common mobile phone applications – like web browsing, GPS navigation and watching streaming video – become difficult or nearly impossible to use.

According to the FTC’s complaint, AT&T’s marketing materials emphasized the “unlimited” amount of data that would be available to consumers who signed up for its unlimited plans. The complaint alleges that, even as unlimited plan consumers renewed their contracts, the company still failed to inform them of the throttling program.

When customers canceled their contracts after being throttled, AT&T charged those customers early termination fees, which typically amount to hundreds of dollars.

The FTC alleges that AT&T began throttling data speeds in 2011 for its unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2 gigabytes of data in a billing period. According to the complaint, the throttling program has been severe, often resulting in speed reductions of 80 to 90% for affected users.

Thus far, according to the FTC, AT&T has throttled at least 3.5 million unique customers a total of more than 25 million times.

Verizon and other carriers have also faced questions about their data management practices. 

Consumers object

According to the FTC’s complaint, consumers in AT&T focus groups strongly objected to the idea of a throttling program and felt “unlimited should mean unlimited.” AT&T documents also showed that the company received thousands of complaints about the slow data speeds under the throttling program.

Some consumers quoted the definition of the word “unlimited,” while others called AT&T’s throttling program a “bait and switch.” Many consumers also complained about the effect the throttling program had on their ability to use GPS navigation, watch streaming videos, listen to streaming music and browse the web.

The complaint charges that AT&T violated the FTC Act by changing the terms of customers’ unlimited data plans while those customers were still under contract, and by failing to adequately disclose the nature of the throttling program to consumers who renewed their unlimited data plans.

More

Online tool helps nail down real cost of college

The Estimated Family Contribution number from the government is often inaccurate

Selecting a college really is a little like buying a car. There's the sticker price, but that really isn't what the car – or the college – costs....

More

Do you really have to brush your dog's teeth?

Brushing is the best although chew toys can help

Are you brushing twice a day? For most people the answer is probably yes. How about if we change up the question and ask if you are brushing your dog's tee...

More

Data suggests danger of new housing bubble has passed

Home values have grown at a slower rate every month since April

For a while housing experts were worried that the U.S. was in the midst of another housing bubble. After home prices finally hit bottom following the credi...

Photo
© Sergio Martínez - Fotolia

For a while housing experts were worried that the U.S. was in the midst of another housing bubble. After home prices finally hit bottom following the credit crisis, they took off like a rocket. Today, they look more like a glider.

A report by real estate site Zillow.com shows appreciation in home values has slowed after 2 years of robust year-over-year growth. The rate of home value appreciation peaked in April at 8.1% and has fallen every month since.

Zillow estimates U.S. home values were up 6.5% year-over-year at the end of the third quarter, to $176,500. Zillow forecasts home values will grow at only 3% through most of next year.

Rapid turnaround

"What a difference a year makes,” said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Stan Humphries. “At this time last year, we were worrying about a number of frothy markets that looked like they could be on the edge of another housing bubble, places where homes were appreciating at more than 20% per year and where buyers' heads were spinning just trying to keep up."

Humphries says the housing slowdown is not really bad news. The last thing the market needs, he says, is to get over-heated again. A 3% growth rate is more normal and indicates the right balance between buyers and sellers.

"Home values should continue to grow, but that growth will increasingly be driven by traditional market fundamentals like household formation and job growth, and less by artificial stimulants like decreased supply and widespread investor demand," he said.

Disappearing investors

In fact, fewer investors are in the housing market these days, perhaps because there are fewer foreclosures and distressed properties. For a couple of years investors made up about a third of the monthly home sales.

RealtyTrac, a foreclosure marketing company, reports the number of U.S. homes under water – with owners owing more in mortgage than the home is worth – totaled 8.1 million units in the third quarter. That's about 15% of all homes that have a mortgage.

While that sounds like a significant number, RealtyTrac says it's the lowest level since it began tracking negative equity in the first quarter of 2012. It's also a sizable drop from the second quarter.

Drawing a conclusion

What does that say about the housing market? It may suggest that stability is slowly returning. But unless more first time buyers step up to replace the investors who have moved to the sidelines, the market could soften considerably in the months ahead.

That means if you are selling your home you had better be prepared for a longer listing period. Homes will likely take longer to sell.

If you have been thinking about buying a home, the momentum will probably swing your way. There may be more inventory to choose from and prices may soften. At the same time, mortgage rates remain near historic lows.

If that's not enough to bring in the buyers, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) has advanced rules that would make it easier for consumers to buy homes with smaller down payments, or in some cases no down payment at all.

Sound familiar? Critics say its a road we've been down before.

More

Bats: they want to drive you batty

Don't like bugs? Meet your new best bat friends forever

This might drive you batty, but thats really the goal. Monday kicked off National Bat Week led by the Organization for Bat Conservation, with close collabo...

Photo
Photo (c) belizar - Fotolia.jpg

This might drive you batty, but thats really the goal. Monday kicked off National Bat Week led by the Organization for Bat Conservation, with close collaboration from Bat Conservation International and the U.S. Forest Service.

If you don't like bugs then bats are your new BFFS (you know, bat friends forever).

While you are resting in the comfort of your nice warm cozy bed, bats are out there chomping down on insects by the dozens. They pollinate flowers and spread seeds that grow new plants and trees. Do mosquitoes irritate you? Bats have your back or your arms and legs. They love them as well as moths, beetles, crickets and many other little flying pests.

They save us a ton of money on pest control by eating all these insects and many of these insects can be fatal to livestock as well as our forests.

Full of it

Bats are full of it. They have poop that is as good as gold to farmers. You might think about this for your garden at home. Besides devouring insects and pollinating plants, bat poop -- or "guano" -- is actually a fertilizer that is in demand. It is so strong that people who collect it have to wear gas masks and protective clothing. Farmers benefit greatly as guano is the best fertilizer.

Hollywood would have us think that vampires suck the life out of you, but it's really the opposite. Vampire bats contain a blood thinning chemical that can help stroke victims and others that need it.

There is a population decline with bats because of a rather new disease. It started in the U.S. where it was found in 2006 and has spread to Canada . It's called White-Nose Syndrome and it has killed more than 6 million bats in just the last 6 years. The condition is named for a distinctive fungal growth that is found around the muzzles and on the wings of hibernating bats. The fungus has been found in caves and mines throughout the Northeastern U.S. and as far south as Mississippi and west to Missouri and into five Canadian provinces.

“You don’t need extraordinary powers or a lot of money to help protect bats there are many actions both great and small that can help conserve bats and the places where they live," said Brandon Hartleben, a Forest Service wildlife biologist for the Eastern Region. 

Celebrating all things bat related this week is a great way to educate yourself and your family about these night flying superheroes. The USDA has a list of events that you can partake in on their blog.

More

Wisconsin charges Everest College used deception to attract students

It's the latest in a series of problems for Everest parent Corinthian

Wisconsin is the latest to sue for-profit Corinthian Colleges, Inc., charging that it used misleading and deceptive trade practices to attract students to ...

Photo
Photo via Wikipedia

Wisconsin is the latest to sue for-profit Corinthian Colleges, Inc., charging that it used misleading and deceptive trade practices to attract students to its Everest College in Milwaukee.

“Our office will prosecute post-secondary schools that use deceptive recruiting tactics to increase enrollments, leaving vulnerable, unemployed graduates with excessive federal student loan debt, underwritten by the taxpayer,” said Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

Van Hollen said Corinthian made false representations about critical facts such as the school’s job placement rates for its graduates and the availability of externships the school offered.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) sued Corinthian last month for what it called an illegal predatory lending scheme.

The CFPB alleges that Corinthian lured tens of thousands of students to take out private loans to cover expensive tuition costs by advertising bogus job prospects and career services. Corinthian then used illegal debt collection tactics to strong-arm students into paying back those loans while still in school, the agency said.

The Wisconsin complaint alleges that Corinthian fraudulently inflated its graduation rates by including in its placement numbers unemployed graduates and graduates employed outside of their field of study. It also charges that Corinthian’s recruiters represented to prospective students a 80-90% national job placement, when in fact its job placement rates were far lower, dipping as low as 5% at the Milwaukee campus.

The complaint also alleges that Corinthian recruited new students regardless of their qualifications, including many who were unlikely to complete or benefit from Corinthian’s accelerated allied health programs. For example, Corinthian’s admission representatives enrolled students who struggled with basic reading comprehension into accelerated allied health programs, which required quick mastery of complex medical terms, Van Hollen's suit charges.

The school allegedly also enrolled students in health career programs, even though such students would be virtually unemployable due to their criminal backgrounds.

The complaint also alleges that Corinthian’s recruitment tactics created a false sense of urgency to pressure prospective students to enroll immediately. Corinthian sent mailings to prospective students stating they had “priority status” and that it was “Urgent” that they “call in the next seven days.”

There was no urgency or priority. In fact, any prospective student who walked in the door at Everest College Milwaukee would be eligible for enrollment within the next month, provided they had a high school diploma or a General Education Diploma (GED), the state charges, saying that Corinthian’s misrepresentations induced many Milwaukee-area students to spend (or most commonly borrow) up to $20,000 for a course of study.

The Milwaukee school closed its doors in August of 2013 and the school provided some refunds to students who did not graduate. The complaint seeks restitution to affected students and graduates, as well as forfeitures and fees.

More

The rate of increase in home prices continues to slow

Still, home prices are up for an eighth consecutive month

The deceleration in home price gains continued in August. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices,the 10-City Composite gained 5.5% year-ove...

Photo
© teena137 - Fotolia.com

The deceleration in home price gains continued in August.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices,the 10-City Composite gained 5.5% year-over-year and the 20-City 5.6%, compared with the July advance of 6.7% . The National Index gained 5.1% annually in August, versus a rise of 5.6% in July.

On a monthly basis, the National Index and Composite Indices showed a slight increase of 0.2% during August. Detroit led the cities with the gain of 0.8%, followed by Dallas, Denver and Las Vegas at 0.5%. Gains in those cities were offset by a decline of 0.4% in San Francisco followed by declines of 0.1% in Charlotte and San Diego.

A lagging Sun Belt

“The deceleration in home prices continues,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The Sun Belt region reported its worst annual returns since 2012, led by weakness in all three California cities -- Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Despite the weaker year-over-year numbers, home prices are still showing an overall increase, as the National Index increased for its eighth consecutive month.

The large extent of slower increases is seen in the annual figures with all 20 cities, the two composites and the national index all revealing lower numbers than last month. The 10- and 20-City Composites gained 5.5% and 5.6% annually with prices nationally rising at a slower pace of 5.1%.

Las Vegas continued to see a sharp deceleration in annual home prices with a 10.1% annual return, down just below three% from the previous month. Miami is now leading the cities with a 10.5% year-over-year return. San Francisco, which has shown double-digit annual gains since November 2012, posted an annual return of 9.0% in August.

“Despite softer price data, other housing data perked up. September figures for housing starts, permits and sales of existing homes were all up. New home sales and builders’ confidence were weaker. Continued labor market gains, low interest rates and slower increases in home prices should support further improvements in housing.

Cleveland the exception

All cities except Cleveland saw their annual gains decelerate. Las Vegas showed the most weakness in its year-over-year return; it went from 12.8% in July to 10.1% in August. As a result, Las Vegas lost its leadership position as it moved to second place behind Miami with a 10.5% year-over-year gain. San Francisco posted 9.0% in August,compared with a double-digit return of 10.5% in July.

All cities except Boston and Detroit posted lower monthly returns in August compared their returns reported for July. San Francisco showed its largest decline since February 2012; it was the only city that showed a negative monthly return two months in a row from -0.3% in July to -0.4% in August.

More

A rebound in consumer confidence

Business conditions and the job market appear brighter

After posting a decline in September. The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index jumped 6.5 this month to stand at 94.5. Of particular note were inc...

Photo
© Web Buttons Inc - Fotolia

After posting a decline in September, the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index jumped 6.5 this month to stand at 94.5.

Of particular note were increases in the Present Situation Index, which edged up from 93.0 to 93.7, and the Expectations Index which posted a sharp gain from 8.6.4 to 95.0.

Brighter prospects

“A more favorable assessment of the current job market and business conditions contributed to the improvement in consumers’ view of the present situation,” said Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Looking ahead, consumers have regained confidence in the short-term outlook for the economy and labor market, and are more optimistic about their future earnings potential. With the holiday season around the corner, this boost in confidence should be a welcome sign for retailers.”

Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions was moderately more favorable in October than in September. While the proportion saying conditions are “good” inched up from 24.2% to 24.5%, those claiming business conditions are “bad” also increased slightly, from 21.2% to 21.7%.

Consumers’ assessment of the job market improved moderately, with those saying jobs are “plentiful” increasing from 16.3% to 16.5%, and those who think jobs are “hard to get” declining slightly from 29.4% to 29.1%.

Rising optimism

Consumers’ optimism, which had declined considerably in September, improved in October. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months increased from 19.0% to 19.6%, while those expecting them to worsen fell from 11.4% to 9.3%.

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market also improved markedly. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 16.8% from 16.0%, while those anticipating fewer jobs fell from 16.9% to 13.9%.

The proportion of consumers looking for growth in their incomes rose from 16.9% in September to 17.7% in October, while those saying incomes will drop fell from 13.4% to 11.6%.

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 October 16.

More

Chetak New York recalls Deep Raw Cashew Pieces

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Chetak New York of Edison, N.J., is recalling its 5,560 packages of Deep Raw Cashew Pieces. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses...

Photo
Photo source: Chetak New York

Chetak New York of Edison, N.J., is recalling its 5,560 packages of Deep Raw Cashew Pieces.

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

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

The recalled product was distributed nationwide in retail stores from March 12, 2014, to October 21,2014. It comes in 7-oz., 14-oz., & 28-oz. clear plastic packages marked with the following UPC numbers on the rear of the package:

  • UPC number for 7oz. is 011433133104
  • UPC number for 14oz. is 011433133111
  • UPC number for 28oz. is 011433133128

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

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-973-835-1906 from 9 am- 5 pm EST.

More

Z Natural Foods recalls Lightly Roasted Organic Carob Powder

The product may be contanimated with Salmonella

Z Natural Foods of West Palm Beach, Fla., is recalling 55 lbs of Lightly Roasted Organic Carob Powder. The product may be contanimated with Salmonella. N...

Photo
Photo source: Z Natural Foods

Z Natural Foods of West Palm Beach, Fla., is recalling 55 lbs of Lightly Roasted Organic Carob Powder.

The product may be contanimated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date

The recalled product was available for sale in a 1-lb and 5-lb standup resealable foil pouches either bronze (1-lb) or silver in color (5-lb) and marked with Lot # ZNCARB39513 and a Best By Date of 12/5/2016 at the bottom of the label.

It was sold directly through Z Natural Foods website at www.ZNaturalFoods.com. It was not available in retail stores.

Consumers who purchased the recalled product may contact Z Natural Foods to arrange return of the product and for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-888-963-6637 between 9am – 6pm (EST, Monday - Friday.

More

CVS and Rite-Aid stop accepting Apple Pay

What made them jump off the bandwagon after less than a week?

This past week has been a bad one for boosters of the Apple Pay mobile-payment system, which only launched last Monday....

Photo
Photo credit: Apple

This past week has been a bad one for boosters of the Apple Pay mobile-payment system, which only launched last Monday.

First, due to a glitch somewhere in Bank of America's software, Apple Pay customers with Bank of America  accounts found themselves double-charged for everything they bought, and Apple Pay ended up collecting quite a bit of bad publicity over it even though fault for the mess did lay entirely with BoA.

And now the major pharmacy chains Rite-Aid and CVS have announced that they would stop accepting Apple Pay (with more companies likely to follow their example).

When Apple unveiled its then-new iWatch and iPhone 6 on Sept. 9, the devices' Apple Pay capability was trumpeted as a major selling point. And that same day, CVS was quick to announce that it would accept Apple Pay at its stores.

So what happened since then to make CVS change its mind? The company hasn't publicly said, but chances are it's because CVS decided instead to work with a retailer-owned group called the Merchant Customer Exchange to develop a competing mobile payment option, CurrentC, due to be released sometime next year.

Giving away data

Here's the problem: from the perspective of a customer who wants a non-cash payment system, Apple Pay offers two advantages over the current status quo of credit or debit cards. The first advantage benefits merchant and customer alike: Apple Pay's use of tokenization is supposed to make it far more secure against hacking and identity theft than today's easy-to-fake and easy-to-steal American credit cards.

But the second advantage, which benefits consumers, arguably works against the merchants' best interests: current credit and debit card payment systems grant sellers alike the ability to collect lots of potentially useful marketing data about individual buyers and their shopping habits – where do you shop, what do you buy, how much do you pay for it.

However, Apple Pay promises customer anonymity: the company itself can't collect this information about you, and neither can the merchants who accept Apple Pay.

How much data will the upcoming merchant-owned CurrentC mobile payment system collect about its customers? Information about CurrentC and just how it'll work has not yet been made available.

More

How to make grocery shopping with kids healthier and less stressful

For starters, stores could get tempting treats out of kids' sight

In a perfect world you would never set foot in a grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow....

Photo
Photo © danr13 - Fotolia

In a perfect world you would never set foot in a grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow.

You could buy what you need and check out without telling your child, over and over, that no, they can't have the candy, cookies, chips and junk food they beg for.

While it isn't a perfect world, experts at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health say it could definitely be improved, but it will require help from supermarkets.

The biggest problem, they contend, is that grocery stores seem to stock these unhealthy treats on shelves that are eye-level to most children. As they walk down the grocery aisle with their parent they are literally kids in a candy store. So one solution is simply stocking these items in a less conspicuous place.

Caving in

The study started out as a pilot project designed to encourage healthy food choices in a low-income neighborhood in Baltimore. That study found that many caregivers simply couldn't stand up to the relentless nagging of their children. They ended up buying lots of things they had no intention of buying when they walked into the store.

To get around this problem, the experts suggested three possible solutions; different food placement, allowing children to sample healthy food at the store and even offering cooking classes to older children.

The authors believe that the study has broken new ground in consumer behavior, examining both the influence of a store's display strategy on children and children’s influence on grocery shopping. The bottom line – if you leave the kids at home you are more likely to come home with healthier food.

“Our study suggests that grocery shopping with children often can have negative consequences on the healthfulness of grocery purchases, but has the potential to have a positive influence instead,” said Pamela J. Surkan, assistant professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School.

The consumers who were questioned said they often caved in to their children’s demands – even though they initially resisted. They sometimes used strategies to counter their children’s clamoring for unplanned, unhealthy food choices, starting with flat-out refusals, redirecting to healthier foods and setting aside the demanded item when the child wasn't looking.

Stores aren't helping

As for the store environment, study participants noted the quantity and advertising of junk food options, versus healthy options.

The study also suggested there are ways grocery stores can reduce children's whining for candy and chips. Besides getting these tempting treats out of the line of sight, the researchers said the shopping experience is the perfect opportunity to introduce kids to healthier foods.

Why not have sampling stations, the asked, where children could sample fruits and other healthy snacks? One mother interviewed for the study recounted a shopping trip with her son, who wanted to taste the blueberries. But she didn't want to buy an entire container of blueberries until she was sure her son liked them.

Other ideas

Until supermarkets decide to change where they display the Ho Hos and bags of candy, experts say there are a few things you can do to reduce the nagging and the unhealthy food purchases.

Just as adults should never go grocery shopping when they are hungry, neither should children. Hunger in a grocery store inevitably leads to unintended impulse buys – often unhealthy ones. So snack up the kids just before leaving for the shopping trip.

Make a grocery list and stick to it. Be organized in your approach. The idea is to spend as little time in the store as possible. A shorter shopping trip is less taxing on a child's limited patience and gives them less time to beg.  

More

Deadly cat virus hits Indianapolis animal shelter

About 100 cats are being euthanized

A deadly cat virus has hit Indianapolis Animal Care and Control (IACC)and it is forcing it to close its doors to cats for the next two weeks....

Photo
Photo © jengit - Fotolia

A deadly cat virus has hit Indianapolis Animal Care and Control (IACC) and is forcing it to close its doors to cats for the next two weeks.

The virus has a name that sounds more like a psychological condition: panleukopenia. Shelter employees say it's highly contagious - similar to the parvovirus in dogs - and almost always deadly. That's why the city shelter is closing its doors to any more cats for the next two weeks.

Dawn Contos, the shelter's community outreach coordinator, said: "Everybody who's been exposed is a potential risk, and the only way we're going to get it controlled is if we euthanize those cats, decontaminate the rooms and move forward." Very scary and sad as 20 cats have already been put down, and about 80 more are on the list to be next.

The signs of panleukopenia vary. They include loss of appetite, hemorrhagic diarrhea and death. Asymptomatic carriers can have no visible signs yet, still be a source of infection for other cats. The only thing that can be done is supportive care -- there is no method of treatment.

The incubation period is two weeks so it makes sense to lock the shelter down for that time and treat the ones that are asymptomatic and remove the ones that are still healthy. It will give the shelter time to get it under control if they don't take in any cats for the next two weeks.

Critics have complained that this could have been prevented but there is currently not a director or veterinarian on staff. Both positions have been empty since early spring and so far have not been filled.

IACC takes in approximately 16,000 animals annually and is the largest animal shelter in the state of Indiana.

More

Mom has lots of pull at Toys R Us

Petition drive gets "Breaking Bad" action figures pulled from the shelves

Some mothers have all the pull! One mother was able to get some toys pulled right off the shelf. Susan Schrivjer of Fort Myers, Fla., was upset when she we...

PhotoSome mothers have all the pull! One mother was able to get some toys pulled right off the shelf. Susan Schrivjer of Fort Myers, Fla., was upset when she went into Toys R Us and saw action figures from the TV show "Breaking Bad."

"Breaking Bad" is, of course, a crime drama about a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who finds out his has inoperable lung cancer. He starts cooking and dealing meth to leave some money behind for his family when he dies -- no part-time tutoring for him. He needs a little help and recruits a former student, Jesse Pinkman.

Schrivjer doesn't think this is fit subject matter for kids, so she took to the internet and created a petition at change .org using the name Susan Myers and got over 9,000 signatures demanding the toys be taken off Toys R Us shelves.

In the petition she stated, "While the show may be compelling viewing for adults, its violent content and celebration of the drug trade make this collection unsuitable to be sold alongside Barbie dolls and Disney characters."

Toys R Us said in a statement, "Let's just say, the action figures have taken an 'indefinite sabbatical."

Not everyone wanted to see them go to the stockroom. Action figure collectables are a huge business. Just go to any comic convention and you will see the collectors and how pricey some of these action figures can be.

Daniel Pickett of Manhattan Beach, Calif., launched his own change.org petition in favor of keeping the dolls. He was able to get over 3,000 signatures.

“I'm a parent of a school aged child myself, but I’m an informed, responsible parent and I closely monitor the toys, TV, music, movies and games that my daughter sees,” he said.

Responsible or not Toys R Us went the route of mom knows best.

More

Pending home sales post slight gain in September

Prices and inventory are factors

Pending home sales have risen above year-over-year levels for the first time in 11 months. The National Association of Realtors reports its Pending Home S...

Photo
© karelnoppe - Fotolia.com

Pending home sales have risen above year-over-year levels for the first time in 11 months.

The National Association of Realtors reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) inched up 0.3% to 105.0 in September from 104.7 in August, and is now 1.0% higher than September 2013 (104.0).

The forward-looking indicator, which is based on contract signings, is above 100 for the fifth consecutive month and is at the second-highest level since last September.

A buyers market, but...

Moderating price growth and sustained inventory levels are keeping conditions favorable for buyers. “Housing supply for existing homes was up in September 6% from a year ago, which is preventing prices from rising at the accelerated clip seen earlier this year,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “Additionally, the current spectacularly low mortgage rates should help more buyers reach the market.”

Despite improved housing conditions and low interest rates, tight credit conditions continue to be a barrier for some buyers. Of the reasons for not closing a sale, about 15% of Realtors reported having clients who could not get financing as the reason for not closing.

Yun says the final rule on Qualified Residential Mortgages should improve access to credit once it goes into effect next year. “The rule provides clarity for lenders and is a win for creditworthy consumers by ensuring they continue to have access to safe and affordable loan products without overly burdensome down payment requirements,” he said.

Regional sales

  • The PHSI in the Northeast increased 1.2% to 87.5 in September, and is now 2.9% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index fell 1.2% to 101.2, and is now 4.0% below September 2013.
  • Pending home sales in the South were up 1.4% to an index of 118.5 and 1.7% above last September.
  • The index in the West slipped 0.8% in September to 101.3, but is 3.6% above a year ago.
More

Taylor Farms recalls salad with chicken

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

Taylor Farms of Swedesboro, N.J., is recalling approximately 377 pounds of Signature Cafe Broccoli Kale Salad with Chicken. The product contains walnuts, ...

Photo
Photo source: Taylor Farms

Taylor Farms of Swedesboro, N.J., is recalling approximately 377 pounds of Signature Cafe Broccoli Kale Salad with Chicken.

The product contains walnuts, a tree nut, which is a known allergen and not declared on the product label. The walnuts are packaged in a cupped packet inside the salad container.

There are no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of this product.

The product subject to recall includes:

  • 9.75-oz. plastic clam shell packages of “Signature Cafe Broccoli Kale Salad with Chicken” with Use by dates of “10/23/14,” “10/25/14,” and “10/27/14” on the lid of the product.

The recalled product bears “P-34513” inside the USDA mark of inspection on the label. The salads, which were produced on 10/17/14, 10/19/14 and 10/21/14, were sent to retail stores in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Jim Bryan, director of operations, at 856-294-4211.  

More

Murry’s recalls chicken products

The products may be contaminated with Staphylococcal enterotoxin

Murry’s Inc., of Lebanon, Pa., is recalling approximately 31,689 pounds of gluten free breaded chicken products. The products may be contaminated with St...

Photo
Photo source: USDA

Murry’s Inc., of Lebanon, Pa., is recalling approximately 31,689 pounds of gluten free breaded chicken products.

The products may be contaminated with Staphylococcal enterotoxin.

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

The products have a best by date of August 9, 2015.

The following products are subject to recall: 

  • 12-oz. boxes of “Bell & Evans Gluten Free Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets.”
  • 10.5-oz. boxes of “Bell & Evans Gluten Free Breaded Chicken Breast.”

The recalled bear the establishment number “P-516” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations nationwide.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Murry’s customer service, at (717) 273-9361.

More

Rome Packing recalls fresh and frozen crab meat

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Rome Packing Company is recalling Ocean’s Catch brand All Natural Jonah Crab Leg Meat. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. No...

Photo
Photo source: FDA

Rome Packing Company is recalling Ocean’s Catch brand All Natural Jonah Crab Leg Meat.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The list of recalled products includes fresh and frozen products.

The fresh recalled products are packaged in round plastic containers (tub with snap-on lid), sold as refrigerated, include:

5-ounce Ocean’s Catch All Natural Fresh Jonah Crab Leg Meat: lot number 0104804 with a sell by date before 10/15/14;

  • 6-ounce Ocean’s Catch All Natural Jonah Crab Combo Meat: lot number 0104791 with a sell by date before 10/13/14;lot number 0104666 with a sell by date before 10/15/14;
  • 8-ounce Ocean’s Catch All Natural Fresh Jonah Crab Leg Meat: lot number 0104665 with a sell by date before 10/13/14; lot number 0104665 with a sell by date before 10/14/14; lot number 0104804 with a sell by date before 10/14/14; lot number 0104842 with a sell by date before 10/16/14;
  • 8-ounce Ocean’s Catch All Natural Jonah Crab Combo Meat: lot number 0104787 with a sell by date before 10/14/14;
  • 16-ounce Ocean’s Catch All Natural Fresh Jonah Crab Leg Meat: lot number 0104659 with a sell by date before 10/13/14; lot number 0104665 with a sell by date before 10/14/14; lot number 0104842 with a sell by date before 10/16/14;
  • 16-ounce Ocean’s Catch All Natural Jonah Crab Combo Meat: lot number 0104806 with a sell by date before 10/14/14; lot number 0104845 with a sell by date before 10/16/14

The frozen recalled products packaged in plastic bags, include:

  • 5-pound bags of Ocean’s Catch All Natural Frozen Jonah Crab Leg Meat: lot number 0104842 with a sell by date before 4/16/16

The products were distributed in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois and California to retail stores including -- but not limited to - Shaw’s Supermarkets, Legal Sea Foods, and Harbor Fish Market.

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

Consumers with questions may contact John F. Whiteside, Jr. at (508)991-3333.

More

Aspen Foods recalls chicken products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

The Aspen Foods division of Koch Meats of Chicago, Ill., is recalling 28,980 pounds of chicken products that may be contaminated with a particular strain o...

Photo
Photo source: Koch Foods

The Aspen Foods division of Koch Meats of Chicago, Ill., is recalling 28,980 pounds of chicken products that may be contaminated with a particular strain of Salmonella Enteritidis.

Based on epidemiologic investigation, 6 case-patients have been identified in Minnesota with illness onset dates ranging from August, 17, 2014 to September, 27, 2014.

The recalled product includes partially prepared chicken products sold by retailers under the Antioch Farms brand name, with “sell by” dates of October 1, 2015 and October 7, 2015. The productsbear the establishment number “P-1358” inside the USDA mark of inspections, were produced on July 2,and July 8, 2014, and shipped to retail stores and distribution centers in Minnesota.

The product is identified as:

  • Single 5-once plastic packets of Raw Stuffed Chicken Breast Breaded, Boneless Breast of Chicken with Rib Meat “A La Kiev”

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact the company’s consumer affairs hotline at (844) 765-7463 and on weekends (601) 732-3366.   

More

Retailers not waiting for Black Friday to offer deals

Shoppers can already find significant savings ahead of the official kick-off

The official start to the holiday shopping season is still a month away but U.S. retailers are already in the giving spirit. Just like last year shoppers m...

Photo
© Marek - Fotolia
The official start to the holiday shopping season is still a month away but U.S. retailers are already in the giving spirit. Just like last year shoppers might not have to wait for Black Friday to get great deals.

Target has announced a package of holiday promotions that include free shipping starting now through December 20. That constitutes automatic savings for the growing number of consumers who prefer to do their shopping online. The retailer also rolled out a package of new shopping apps and other digital tools.

“We’ve been building capabilities that put us in a strong starting position, including the right digital tools and a broad assortment of unique, on-trend merchandise,” said Brian Cornell, Target's chairman and CEO.

Exclusive deals

Cornell also promises bigger values and promotions than anyone else. He says Target stores will have weekly sales, weekend promotions and exclusive deals on Target.com and Cartwheel, the Target app. For example, Cartwheel will offer daily 50% off toy deals to its users from November 2 to December 24.

For a third year, Target will extend the time frame of its price match policy for the holiday season beyond the typical 7 day window. If customers buy a qualifying item at Target between November 1 and December 24, and then find it at a lower price at Target.com, a local competitor’s printed ad or at select online retailers, Target will match that price.

In a note to investors, retail analyst Adrienne Tih-Tennant of Janney Capital Markets said this past weekend was an especially heavily promoted sales event as stores are eager to get to consumers' wallets first.

October deals

"While October should typically be sequentially deeper, as it is a clearance month, we are more concerned with an increase in 'deeper' promos year-over-year, especially given that inventory levels entering the quarter were in quite good shape for the softlines sector," she wrote.

A case in point is Gap, which is currently running a promotion offering up to 75% off on select apparel. Old Navy is running its 20th Birthday Sale, with discounts up to 50%.

In part these sales are getting a jump on Black Friday action but part are normal seasonal clearance activity. For the consumer, however, savings are savings.

Tablet prices dropping

The website BestBlackFriday.com predicts the steepest discounts on popular gifts this year will be for tablets. Apple has just introduced its latest iPad and the rest of the manufacturers are fighting for market share as smartphones now offer many of the features of a tablet.

While tablets are strong candidates for Black Friday “doorbuster” promotions many retailers are already discounting the devices, especially lesser-known models.

At Amazon.com the Chromo 7-inch tablet featuring touchscreen, camera and 1024 x 600 screen resolution has been marked down from $169.99 to $48.95. The Microsoft Surface 7ZR-00001 RT Tablet 64GB – not its most recent model – is on sale for $235.13, down from $499. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 is marked down from $349 to $259.

Walmart has also started putting popular gift items on sale ahead of the Black Friday official kick-off. They include a refurbished Google Nexus 7 tablet for $99, marked down from $159, and Beats by Dr. Dre Drenched Solo On-Ear Headphones for $169.95.

More

Yoga training has gone to the dogs

It might sound odd but both dogs and their "parents" seem to enjoy it

If you were to peek into most yoga classes you would probably see the classes are attended by a majority of fit, flexible females in tight clothes. But, co...

Photo
Photo © Dogadog.com

If you were to peek into most yoga classes you would probably see the classes are attended by a majority of fit, flexible females in tight clothes. But, contrary to what you might think, it’s not just a sport for ladies that are in awesome shape and can bend in every direction.

Yoga has gone to the dogs! It's becoming quite popular in the canine kingdom and actually has it's own name -- Doga. I think you understand why.

Suzi Teitelman, of Jacksonville, Fla., is a Doga instructor and also trains new instructers. She says Doga was born when she was living in New York. After the 9/11 terror attacks, she decided to get a dog, something she always had wanted.

She got a puppy and brought it to the yoga class that she was teaching at Crunch Fitness. She liked always having the dog with her and pretty soon incorporated it into the classes. She then started a separate class which at its conception was called Ruff Yoga but has since morphed into Doga.

"Dogs are naturally content, peaceful and compassionate -- we learn a lot from them," Teitelman told ConsumerAffairs. "It's a lot more then postures. It's meditation, chanting and being in the present. Dogs come to a blissful moment at the end. There is a lot of touching, including massages and helping them get into a pose themselves."

Hyper dogs

You have to wonder, though, about those dogs that just can't sit still -- that see a squirrel or something and are totally thrown off course. In other words, the easily distracted type.

"Dogs who run around are the dogs whose parent isn't into it. You are sharing your energy and connecting with the dog's energy," Teitelman said See -- it always comes back to the parent!

Teitelman says dogs should have their own Doga mat but if not, they can share with their parent. Classes are 30 minutes and can run from $10-$15 for a group lesson and up to $150 for a private lesson depending on location.

Teitelman has travelled all over the country and even as far away as Hong Kong to teach doga. You can see videos of Doga on her site or get a DVD and try it at home with your pups. 

More

Good news for consumers: U.S. is swimming in oil

Oil stockpiles surge, sending prices still lower

Motorists who have been watching gasoline prices fall might think the news can't get any better. But it has....

Photo
Photo © Ded Pixto - Fotolia
Motorists who have been watching gasoline prices fall might think the news can't get any better. But it has.

In its weekly petroleum status report the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says U.S. oil stockpiles increased by 7.1 million barrels last week. It's a huge jump.

“At 377.7 million barrels, U.S. crude oil inventories are near the upper limit of the average range for this time of year,” the report notes.

As the same time stockpiles of gasoline fell by 1.3 million barrels last week. Gasoline production increased last week, averaging over 9.3 million barrels per day, but the government report shows U.S. oil refineries operated at less than 87% of capacity. When prices are higher, they operate at around 95% of capacity.

The report, issued around midday Wednesday, had the effect of depressing oil prices even more. Prices had begun to stabilize the previous day but news of the growing glut of oil sent U.S. oil prices back down to the $80 a barrel level.

Oil demand falls but supply doesn't

Worldwide demand for oil has slowed in recent months as economies in some of the developing countries – and in Europe – have begun to cool. But OPEC has not cut production as it has in the past, in part because Saudi Arabia is believed to be putting pressure on U.S. producers, who have become a growing threat to the cartel.

The net result of all this is a bonanza for U.S. motorists who now are spending less money for each fill-up. While there are many factors that go into the retail price of gasoline, the price of oil is a big one.

As a result, prices at the pump are well below $3 a gallon in at least 17 states. The national average price for self-serve regular is $3.08 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. Only Hawaii, with high taxes and transportation costs, has an average price above $4 a gallon.

In California, which routinely has the highest gasoline prices in the lower 48 states, the statewide average price is $3.48 a gallon. A month ago California motorists were paying, on average, $3.75 a gallon for gas.

Missouri has the lowest gasoline prices in the nation, with the statewide average at $2.78 a gallon. South Carolina and Tennessee are both averaging $2.85 a gallon.

Down 62 cents from this year's high

According to AAA the national average consumers are paying for gasoline is at its lowest point since early 2011. Drivers are saving about 62 cents a gallon from the April 28 high of $3.70. The price of fuel is down 10% since Labor Day.

Economists note that gasoline prices act as a regressive tax on consumers. Since nearly everyone buys gasoline, an increase in the price takes more spending power away from consumers.

But when the price goes down, it acts as a tax cut, putting more money in consumers' pockets. How much?

According to AAA, for every penny the price falls, more than $1 billion per year in additional consumer spending freed up. That's money that can be used to pay down debt and stimulate the economy.

More

Your shower curtain could be ruining your sex life

Phthalates are everywhere, and may affect women's libido

Hide the shower curtain -- it could be ruining your sex life! In fact a lot of things you have around the house could be detrimental to a woman's libido....

Photo
© sababa66 - Fotolia

Hide the shower curtain -- it could be ruining your sex life! In fact a lot of things you have around the house could be detrimental to a woman's libido.

A study presented to the American Society for Reproductive Medicines annual conference in Honolulu found that phthalates, a common chemical used to increase plastic’s flexibility, could be to blame for low libido in women.

Phthalates are found in just about everything -- including toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing, and personal care products, such as nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes and other fragrance preparations. Yes, even in sex toys so thats the last thing you want to grab to try and get things going again.

The study was conducted by Dr. Emily Barrett of the University of Rochester and included 360 pregnant women. Researchers measured the levels of phthalates in their urine. They were also interviewed on how they felt about sex in the months before they became pregnant.

The women who had a more phthalates in their system were two and half times more likely to say that they weren't that interested in having sex. Barrett said that she thinks that phthalates could interfere with the production of estrogen and testosterone – both of which are linked to the female libido.

What to do

How can this marriage be saved?

  • First off, avoid plastics with recycling code #3.
  • Choose phthalate-free toys. Toymakers Early Start, Brio, Chicco, Evenflo, Gerber, Lego and Sassy have pledged to stop using phthalates. Look for toys made from polypropylene or polyethylene or avoid plastic toys altogether.
  • Purchase phthalate-free beauty products. Ingredients are listed on make-up.
  • Install a glass shower door.
  • Up your iTunes list with mood music and dim the lights.
More

Detergent manufacturers wish you'd waste more detergent

Efficient machines and savvy consumers depress detergent companies' bottom lines

Pity the poor detergent makers: Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that the rise in efficient washing machines requiring far less water to launder clothes than...

More

Feds shut down “tech support” scammers in New York

Remember: Microsoft, Facebook and other tech companies will never, ever call you at home

There's moderately good news coming out of New York today, as the Federal Trade Commission announced that the courts, complying with an FTC request, have s...

Photo
Photo © japolia - Fotolia.com
There's moderately good news coming out of New York today, as the Federal Trade Commission announced that the courts, complying with an FTC request, have shut down a company whose entire business model relied on versions of the old tech-support scam.

The FTC's complaint, available here in .pdf form, says that Pairsys, Inc. and its two officers Uttam Saha and Tiya Bhattacharya made cold calls to consumers while pretending to be tech-support staff from Facebook or Microsoft. They also took out deceptive ads which led customers to believe they were calling the tech-support numbers of legitimate companies.

The FTC said that if you called one of those fake numbers, or accepted cold calls from fake “Microsoft” or “Facebook” tech-support personnel, the scammers would try convincing you to give them remote access to your computer. And if you agreed, here's what happened next, according to the FTC press release:

the scammers would lead the consumer to believe that benign portions of the computer’s operating system were in fact signs of viruses and malware infecting the consumer’s computer. In many cases, they implied that the computer was severely compromised and had to be “repaired” immediately.

At that point, consumers were pressured into paying for bogus warranty programs and software that was freely available, usually at a cost of $149 to $249, though in some cases, the defendants charged as much as $600 for the supposed products. The FTC’s filings in the case allege that the company made nearly $2.5 million since early 2012.

The sad thing is that Pairsys' victims were relatively lucky, by tech-support-scam-victim standards; at most, each one “only” lost a few hundred dollars of their money. Other tech-support scammers are far more vicious. In September, we told you the story of a Wisconsin woman who received a cold call, allegedly from Microsoft tech support; when she gave the scammer access to her computer, he deleted various important files of hers, and demanded $200 if she wanted to get them back.

Her story had a relatively happy ending, though: the scammers were never caught or even identified, but a computer-savvy police officer was able to restore her lost files.

Malware plants

Other tech-support scammers will try planting malware on your computer, anything from keylogging software that records everything you type (including account passwords and other sensitive information), to malware that remotely activates your computer's webcam, to zombie software that uses your computer to bombard other people with virus-laden spam.

The single most important rule to remember, in order to protect yourself from tech-support scammers, is this: “Don't call me; I'll call you.”

In other words, if you detect a possible problem with your Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix or other tech accounts, and want to contact the company, go right ahead. But if you get an out-of-the-blue phone call or email, allegedly offering to help fix a problem you never even knew you had — don't believe it.

Of course, in light of the FTC reports that Pairsys also took out misleading ads complete with fake tech-support numbers, there's something else you need to bear in mind: when you're online searching for corporate contact information — such as the phone number to call if you're having issues with Microsoft, Facebook or anyone else — keep an extra-sharp eye on the search-engine results, and website addresses.

If you see a phone number supposedly for Microsoft tech support — did you find it on Microsoft's own page, or on CompanyINeverHeardOfBefore.com? If it's the latter, don't even think of calling it.

More

Golden Gate Bridge considers a pedestrian toll

Cars and trucks have to pay, so why shouldn't walkers and runners?

Californians never cease to express their amazement and disdain at the high tolls East Coast drivers pay to cross bridges and crawl along congested highway...

Photo
Photo © thekaikoro - Fotolia

Californians never cease to express their amazement and disdain at the high tolls East Coast drivers pay to cross bridges and crawl along congested highways.

But at least nobody pays a toll to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, as San Franciscans may soon have to do if they want to trudge across the Golden Gate.

The bureaucrats who run the bridge are trying to close a $33 million deficit and have come up with the bright idea of charging pedestrians and bicyclists. 

It's estimated that about 6,000 cyclists and 10,000 pedestrians cross the bridge each day when the weather's good. The view is pleasant although the exhaust fumes can get a bit annoying when the wind is just right but, aside from the ferry it's the only way to get from Marin County to San Francisco and back without a helicopter, so the bridge czars pretty much have the market to themselves.

Not so new

It turns out that, like most new ideas, this isn't really so new. Pedestrians paid a 5-cent toll when the span opened in 1937. It was doubled a few years later and remained at 10 cents until it was discontinued in 1970.

Now you might think that it's unfair to charge pedestrians, who don't contribute much wear and tear to a bridge. But the Golden Gate has a long and tragic history of being one of the nation's leading jumping-off points for those bent on suicide.

About one person a week takes the plunge and the bridge is currently spending $76 million to build new suicide barriers. The toll would help recover some of that expense and perhaps provide money for other suicide prevention efforts.

The idea is still "preliminary," a bridge authority spokesman says, but so far nobody has come forward with $33 million, so if you're planning a jog, stroll or sprint across the bridge next time you're in the Bay Area, wear something with pockets so you can bring your wallet along.

More

How to get an "A" in math

Smartphone app does the work for you

There used to be a time where if you didn't understand your math homework you called a friend and they would try patiently to explain how to multiply somet...

Photo
Photo via Photomath.net
There used to be a time where if you didn't understand your math homework you called a friend and they would try patiently to explain how to multiply something to the 10th power over the phone. That might seem barbaric to kids these days. If they only knew what doing homework was like without a smartphone!

Now there is a smartphone app that can do their math homework for them and this isn't just the times tables, although it can do that too.

It knows what 23 is and can calculate the root of 246. It's called PhotoMath by Microblink and it uses your phone's camera to solve equations. Sounds horrible if you are a math teacher or a parent for that matter. You're thinking how are they ever going to learn?

Well the brighter side of this is the app then teaches you step by step how to solve the problem yourself. It's almost like a tutor. That's pretty hard to say no to.

It does all the basic math like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division as well as the more complicated problems. It works from printed text only, anything the phone's camera can see.

Schools haven't quite figured out how to deal with all of this smartphone technology just yet.

If they wait long enough though, I am sure there will be an app for that.
The PhotoMath app is available for iPhones and Windows phones and is coming to Android phones in 2015.

More

Thirsty? Drink your garden

"Tea garden" isn't just an expression, you know

Coffee has gotten a boost from all sorts of flavors of late. This month of course it's pumpkin! But tea can also be spiced up and you can do it right in yo...

Photo
 Photo © ddsign - Fotolia

Coffee has gotten a boost from all sorts of flavors of late. This month of course it's pumpkin! But tea can also be spiced up and you can do it right in your own garden. You can add ingredients to store-bought tea or you can grow your own.

The great thing about tea gardens is they come in all shapes and sizes and they don't even have to be in the ground. You can plant right inside the house or start a tea garden outside if weather permits. Inside can work just fine. Just buy a plastic indoor sun garden at Lowe's or Home Depot -- all you really need is dirt, water and some seeds.

If you are planting inside keep the plants in an area that gets at least six hours of sunlight each day, rotate them often and monitor how much moisture is needed. Your seed packet is the best guide.

For starters

If this is your first try at reading the tea leaves, some of the easier to grow plants are mint, lavender or chamomile.

Herbs create a deep earthy flavor. Some other home-grown teas are bergamot, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemongrass, mint, rosemary, sage,and stevia to sweeten the kettle . Be careful with the stevia because if you add too much the taste can go from sweet to bitter. You can also use savory, thyme and edible daylilies to get that sweet flavor.

There is no better place than Boston to study the history of tea. After the Boston Tea Party in 1773 they used Bergamot as a tea substitute in the colonies.

Bergamot, also known as bee balm, has a scent very similar to Italian bergamot orange. You can steep it for about 10 minutes alone or you can use it fresh, even dry if you wish and add it to a little black tea.

When herb plants are in bud, you will get the best scent from them so that's a good time to harvest, although you can certainly take cuttings here and there during the growing season. When it comes to tea, you can use the stems, leaves and petals in your brew.

As in anything you are only limited by your imagination when making homemade tea. Herbs have so many healthful properties to them. Nothing is better than a nice crisp fall day with a cup of warm, fresh-brewed tea right from the garden.

More

Leading Economic Index portends continued growth

The index was higher for the second time in 3 months

After taking August off, the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI) is on the move again. The advance of 0.8% in September to 104.4 follows no ch...

Photo
© Melpomene - Fotolia

After taking August off, the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI) is on the move again.

The advance of 0.8% in September to 104.4 follows no change in August, and an advance of 1.1% in July.

“The LEI picked up in September, after no change in August, and the strengths among its components have been very widespread over the past six months,” said Conference Board Economist Ataman Ozyildirim. “The outlook for improving employment and further income growth are expected to support the moderate expansion in the U.S economy for the remainder of the year.”

While the financial markets are reflecting turmoil and unease, Ken Goldstein, also an economist at The Conference Board, says the data on the leading indicators, “continue to suggest moderate growth in the short-term. Meanwhile, the weak advances in the housing market remain a bigger risk to the outlook than short-term financial gyrations.”

Other indexes

The Conference Board Coincident Economic Index (CEI) rose 0.4% to 110.2 following a 0.1% increase in August, and a 0.3% gain in July.

The Conference Board Lagging Economic Index (LAG) inched up 0.1% in September to 125.1. It rose 0.3% in August and 0.2% in July.

The composite economic indexes are the key elements in an analytic system designed to signal peaks and troughs in the business cycle. The leading, coincident, and lagging economic indexes are essentially composite averages of several individual leading, coincident, or lagging indicators. They are constructed to summarize and reveal common turning point patterns in economic data in a clearer and more convincing manner than any individual component -- primarily because they smooth out some of the volatility of individual components.

The 10 LEI components include:

  • Average weekly hours, manufacturing
  • Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance
  • Manufacturers’ new orders, consumer goods and materials
  • ISM Index of New Orders
  • Manufacturers' new orders, nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft orders
  • Building permits, new private housing units
  • Stock prices, 500 common stocks
  • Leading Credit Index
  • Interest rate spread, 10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds
  • Average consumer expectations for business conditions
More

Food allergens -- where are they?

If they're in a food, but not listed on the label, you could be in trouble

Those of us allergic to a food or some of the ingredients (full disclosure: shellfish) are pretty conscientious about scouring a food product’s label to ma...

Photo
© intheskies - Fotolia

Those of us allergic to a food or some of the ingredients (full disclosure: shellfish) are pretty conscientious about scouring a food product’s label to make sure we don;t get bit.

But some labels may not be as reliable as they should be. In fact, those not listed on the label -- referred to as “undeclared allergens” -- are the leading cause of food recalls requested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The agency is working on three fronts to reduce the number of such recalls:

  • by researching the causes of these errors;
  • working with industry on best practices; and
  • developing new ways to test for the presence of allergens.

Following the law

Federal law requires that labels of FDA-regulated foods marketed in the U.S. identify major food allergens. In some people, these allergens -- milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans -- can cause potentially life-threatening reactions.

A food product with a label that omits required allergen information is misbranded and can be seized by FDA. However, firms generally recall such food products from the marketplace voluntarily.

Reporting food-allergic reactions

Consumers can be a big help to FDA by reporting food-allergic reactions to the agency's consumer complaint coordinator in their district.

“We look at every complaint to determine the appropriate course of action,” said Steven Gendel, Ph.D., FDA food allergen coordinator. “What we’re trying to learn is what foods are most affected, what allergens are most involved, and how labeling errors might have happened. Those answers will help us to reduce the number of recalls for undeclared allergens.”

In an effort to find these answers, Gendel has sifted through FDA-collected recall data and found some clear trends.

For example, from September 2009, to September 2012, about one-third of foods reported to FDA as serious health risks involved undeclared allergens. The five food types most often involved in food allergen recalls were bakery products, snack foods, candy, dairy products and dressings (such as salad dressings, sauces and gravies).

The allergens most often involved in recalls were milk, wheat and soy. Consumers can find out what products have been recalled recently at FDA’s website and at the Food Allergy and Research and Education (FARE) website, as well as from the companies that make the products.

In addition, ConsumerAffairs tracks recalls issued by FDA as well as toe companies involved.

Within the candy category, there were many reports of undeclared milk in products containing dark chocolate. For example undeclared milk led to several recalls for chocolate-coated snack bars with labels that the products were “dairy-free” or “vegan.” “This represented a significant risk for milk-allergic consumers,” says Gendel.

Source of the problem

Recall data show that such labeling errors occur most commonly because of the use of the wrong label. This may happen when similar products made with different ingredients, including allergens, are sold in look-alike packages.

Gendel also found mistakes associated with the use of new technologies, such as computerization and the ability to print labels directly on packaging. This can save costs but also create new opportunities for errors.

The data suggest that food allergen recalls can be reduced through improved industry awareness and simple changes in the way packages, labels and ingredients are handled and tracked within production facilities.

To encourage improvements, FDA shares its findings with industry at conferences and cooperates with the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance (FSPCA). FSPCA’s mission is to enhance safe food production by developing training and outreach programs that support preventive controls described in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

New tests for allergens

Keeping unwanted allergens out of food requires good methods for detecting them. The most common test used worldwide is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), which uses antibodies (parts of the immune system that help neutralize viruses and bacteria) and spectroscopic detection to test for allergens.

Mark Ross, Ph.D., an FDA chemist, says ELISA is the standard test because it is easy to use, relatively low-cost, and has been improved by scientists over time. But ELISA, like similar tests used in medicine, can produce false positive results, so backup methods are needed. In addition, some allergens are so similar that scientists need another test besides ELISA to tell them apart.

Ross is working with other FDA researchers to develop methods for analyzing allergens based on mass spectrometry, a technology that more effectively determines the allergen protein content of a complex mixture of proteins, fats, sugars, and chemicals in a food.

“If someone wants us to analyze a food for peanut allergen, with mass spectrometry we can detect and differentiate among the 11 different allergenic proteins in a peanut,” he says.

More

A tiny gain for new home sales in September

Prices of new homes sold moved lower

The pace of new home sales cooled in September, but still managed to post a gain. The U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Developme...

Photo
© Brian Jackson - Fotolia

The pace of new home sales cooled in September, but still managed to post a gain.

The U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development report sales of new single-family houses were up 0.2% last month -- to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 467,000. The increases, as tiny as it was, put the sales rate 17.0% above the year-ago pace of 399,000.

Prices and inventory

The median sales price of new houses sold in September 2014 was $259,000, compared with $269,800 in September 2013. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower. The average sales price was $313,200, versus $321,500.

Inventory swelled during the month. The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of September was 207,000, representing a supply of 5.3 months at the current sales rate. The supply in August was 4.8 months.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

More

RevZilla recalls various motorcycle helmets

The helmet labels may contain incorrect size information

RevZilla Motorsports is recalling 87 model LaZer Monaco Pure Glass, Roadster PG, and Window PG motorcycle helmets, models MLD035010-D00L, MLD035010-M10L, M...

Photo
Photo source: RevZilla

RevZilla Motorsports is recalling 87 model LaZer Monaco Pure Glass, Roadster PG, and Window PG motorcycle helmets, models MLD035010-D00L, MLD035010-M10L, MLD035010-S00L, MLD035010-T10L, MLD035020-OD0L, and MLD035040-2C0L -- size large only.

The helmets may not be adequately labeled with the correct size information. Thus, they may not fit the occupant properly, reducing the protection offered in the event of a crash.

RevZilla will notify owners, and replace the helmet liner with one that has a permanent discrete size label attached, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by mid-November 2014.

Owners may contact RevZilla customer service at 1-877-792-9455.

More

General Motors issues 2 recalls for Corvettes

The recalls involve air bag and braking issues

General Motors has issued 2 recalls for its Corvette vehicles. The first involves 89 model year 2015 vehicles manufactured August 20, 2014, to August 27, ...

Photo
Photo source: Chevrolet

General Motors has issued 2 recalls for its Corvette vehicles.

The first involves 89 model year 2015 vehicles manufactured August 20, 2014, to August 27, 2014.

In the event of a driver frontal air bag deployment, the module back plate may fracture, allowing the driver air bag to separate from the steering wheel. An air bag that separates from the steering wheel may increase the risk of injury to the driver in the event of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver side air bag, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 14594.

The second recall is for 783 model year 2015 Chevrolet Corvettes manufactured August 20, 2014, to September 4, 2014.

In these vehicles, only one of the rear parking brake cables may be fully seated and engaged, resulting in the parking brake operating on just one of the rear park brake drums. Without the parking brake working on both rear wheels, the vehicle may roll away if parked on a steep gradient. The vehicle may roll away if parked on a steep gradient, increasing the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and correct the park brake cable installation, as necessary, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 14620.

More

Can walnuts protect against Alzheimer's disease?

New research suggests that they can

Walnuts are a natural food and play a prominent role in the popular Mediterranean diet. Over the years health advocates have extolled their many health ben...

Photo
Photo © aleksandra 1981 - Fotolia

Walnuts are a natural food and play a prominent role in the popular Mediterranean diet. Over the years health advocates have extolled their many health benefits.

Now, scientists in New York have completed an animal study that suggests another health benefit – reducing the risk, delaying the onset, slowing the progression of, or preventing Alzheimer's disease.

The research carried out by the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities (IBR) found significant improvement in learning skills, memory, reducing anxiety, and motor development in mice fed a walnut-enriched diet.

The researchers think that might have something to do with the high antioxidant content found in walnuts. They speculate these antioxidants provided protection to the mouse brain, preventing the degeneration typically seen in Alzheimer's disease. Oxidative stress and inflammation are prominent features in this disease, which affects more than 5 million Americans.

Promising results

"These findings are very promising and help lay the groundwork for future human studies on walnuts and Alzheimer's disease – a disease for which there is no known cure," said lead researcher Dr. Abha Chauhan. "Our study adds to the growing body of research that demonstrates the protective effects of walnuts on cognitive functioning."

For the study the mice were fed dietary supplements with 6% to 9% walnuts, which is the equivalent of a human eating 1 to 1.5 ounces each day.

It's estimated that someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer's disease every 67 seconds, and that number is expected to escalate rapidly as the Baby Boom generation ages. By 2050, health experts say the number of people 65 and older with Alzheimer's disease may nearly triple, from 5 million to as many as 16 million, creating new urgency to find treatments or a cure.

Walnuts and cancer

Walnuts are said to have other health and nutritional benefits, including reducing the risk of prostate and breast cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) says there are a few dozen studies investigating cancer and whole walnuts, with many more on the compounds they contain.

However, AICR says the current evidence is too limited to draw any conclusions about walnuts – or any nuts – and cancer risk.

Walnut's healthy effect on the heart is better documented. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says in the last 2 decades a number of clinical studies have evaluated the effects of walnut consumption on cardio-vascular disease (CVD) risk factors.

According to NIH, walnuts can reduce low density lipoprotein cholesterol and blood pressure, both major risk factors for CVD.

Part of a healthy diet

“The effect of walnuts on multiple CVD targets over relatively short periods of time supports recommendations for their inclusion in a heart-healthy diet,” NIH says.

Walnuts have also been shown to be effective in weight control. They are a good source of fiber and make you feel full.

At the same time, you need to be prudent with your walnut consumption because they are loaded with calories. A tablespoon of chopped walnuts contains about 50 calories.

More

Auto safety agency not much help in airbag crisis

NHTSA's VIN number look-up site works about as well as the first Obamacare site

First it was the Obamacare website, now it's Safercar.gov. Consumers trying to find out if their car is part of the Takata airbag recall are having a tough...

Photo
NHTSA's Safercar.gov

First it was the Obamacare website, now it's Safercar.gov. Consumers trying to find out if their car is part of the Takata airbag recall are having a tough time getting the Safercar.gov site's VIN number look-upto work. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) introduced the VIN look-up page a few months ago and, like a lot of things, it was fine until thousands of people tried to use it. Now the agency has a static page with links to auto manufacturers' VIN look-up pages while it tries to get its look-up hooked up properly.

A much better VIN look-up site -- one that actually works -- was set up recently by Carfax. http://recall.carfax.com is free and has worked each time we've tested it. All you have to do is enter your car's VIN number and it will tell you whether there are any open recalls.

Carfax also has an app -- www.mycarfax.com -- that will notify you whenever new recalls are issued for your car.

Photo
Carfax's VIN look-up

8 million cars

You can thank Takata for all the confusion. The company makes airbags that are used by many if not most auto manufacturers. It's thought that nearly 8 million cars, most of them older, are equipped with Takata airbags that can explode with such force that they spray passengers with potentially deadly shrapnel.

Safety advocates and some lawmakers say Takata should recall all the airbags, something it is understandably reluctant to do. What's more galling is that NHTSA has so far displayed the same reluctance and has allowed the company to get by with recalling a limited number of cars sold in hot weather states, on the theory that hot weather worsens the problem.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a frequent NHTSA critic, says the current situation "is the worst of all worlds,” producing lots of confusion but not much else.

“The law requires a safety recall but they’re letting the manufacturers do service campaigns,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. He said NHTSA should immediately order a nationwide recall of all the Takata airbags. 

More

Bank of America double-bills accounts for Apple Pay users

Promises to repay double charges; fix the glitch responsible

Poor Apple. On Monday, the company officially launched Apple Pay, its long-awaited mobile-payment system promising greater security than credit or debit-ca...

Photo
Photo credit: Apple

Poor Apple. On Monday, the company officially launchedApple Pay, its long-awaited mobile-payment system promising greater security than credit or debit-card payment systems thanks to the process of “tokenization” (which basically means that even if a hacker does successfully break into a retailer's database, or plant malware on a store's cash registers, he won't be able to steal anything useful, only a now-worthless authentication token).

So Apple launched its new era of secure reliable mobile payment on Monday, and the very next day it started getting bad publicity over a serious glitch that wasn't even Apple's fault but Bank of America's, which double-charged certain customers for anything they bought with Aple Pay.

“Problems with #ApplePay - it looks like my @bankofamerica account was double charged by @Walgreens” one man Tweeted on the morning of Oct. 21.

The next morning, CNN Money published a story by tech reporter Samuel Burke, who mentioned being “among the first people to try out Apple Pay the moment it came available on Monday” and said he was double-charged for every purchase he made with Apple Pay.

Since his Apple Pay account was tied to a debit account through Bank of America, he called BoA “and they assured me it was a problem on Apple Pay's end. That seemed feasible, because all of the purchases I made without Apple Pay were only charged one time.”

Sounded feasible but turned out to be false; later that morning, a Bank of America spokesperson publicly admitted and apologized for an unspecifid glitch in Bank of America's software that resulted in double-billed charges for about 1,000 account-holders.

But Bank of America also promised to refund all double charges, so by the standards of contemporary problems with non-cash payment systems, this Apple Pay double-billing business proved to be only a minor inconvenience.

That said: if your mobile wallet is tied to your Bank of America account, you might want to hold off on using Apple Pay until this glitch is fixed.

More

Four reasons to get a flu shot

Besides preventing the flu it might reduce heart disease risks

Getting a flu shot is your best chance of avoiding the flu, according to the Mayo Clinic. Each year the vaccine is engineered to counter the expected strai...

Photo
Photo © Halfpoint - Fotolia

Getting a flu shot is your best chance of avoiding the flu, according to the Mayo Clinic. Each year the vaccine is engineered to counter the expected strains of the flu virus, so getting a shot doesn't make you bullet-proof.

In past years unexpected strains have cropped up and people that got the shot got sick. However, these tend to be the exception, not the rule. Getting the vaccine simply improves your odds.

If you choose not to get a flu shot, your other option is to constantly wash your hands and avoid public places where you might pick up the germ from an infected person.

Serious business

The flu can kill. It's a serious illness – more so for some people – the very old and very young – than others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 31 flu seasons between 1976 and 2007, as many as 49,000 people in the U.S. died of flu-related complications.

According to the CDC, about 90% of flu deaths during a regular flu season occur in people 65 years old and older.

Getting a flu shot can also make flu season less dangerous for others. People get the flu, after all, from other people. If more people get flu shots and fewer of them get the flu, there are fewer flu germs in circulation.

Reduced risk of heart disease

A final reason for getting a flu shot has nothing to do with the flu. Previous research has suggested that flu vaccines have proved effective against heart disease – even reducing the risk of a heart attack.

A new study this month reveals why. The scientists who conducted it say the information could be used to prevent heart disease directly.

Heart disease is known to be the leading cause of death worldwide. The risk can be reduced by eating healthily, exercising and stopping smoking. However, right now there is no vaccine against heart disease.

Over the years clinical studies have shown that people who receive the seasonal flu vaccine get the added benefit of its protective effect against heart disease. The risk of heart attack in the year following vaccination is 50% lower than people who did not receive the vaccination. Until now, scientists haven't understood why.

The latest study shows that the flu vaccine stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies that activate important processes in cells. These processes, in turn, lead to the production of molecules that protect the heart.

Potential heart vaccine

Because of this discovery, the researchers say it may be possible to develop a new vaccine against heart disease.

"Even though the protective effect of the flu vaccine against heart disease has been known for some time, there is very little research out there looking at what causes it,” said Dr. Veljko Veljkovic, Institute Vinca, Belgrade, the lead author of the study.

Veljkovic and his colleagues propose more research, including ways the components of the flu vaccine might be used to create a vaccine against heart disease.

More

Sourcebooks shopping-cart security breach hits over 5,000 customers

Are attacks against online stores the shape of security threats to come?

The Illinois-based Sourcebooks publishing company admitted this week that a security breach in its website's shopping-cart software from April 16 to June 1...

Photo
Sourcebooks.com

The Illinois-based Sourcebooks publishing company admitted this weekthat a security breach in its website's shopping-cart software from April 16 to June 19 of this year put the payment information of 5,204 customers at risk. However, the company said it sent notification letters to roughly 9,000 people, as a precautionary measure.

The disclosure and sample letter (available here in .pdf form) which Sourcebooks filed with the Califrnia attorney general's office said that the potentially stolen information falls into various categories:

The credit card information included card number, expiration date, cardholder name and card verification value (CVV2). The billing account information included first name, last name, email address, phone number, and address. In some cases, shipping information was included as first name, last name, phone number, and address. In some cases, account password was obtained too. To our knowledge, the data accessed did not include any Track Data, PIN Number, Printed Card Verification Data (CVD). We are currently in the process of having a third-party forensic audit done to determine the extent of this breach.

Ironically, the authors whose works Sourcebooks publishes include security blogger Brian Krebs, who is notable for being the first to discover and report such massive data-security breaches as those at Experian and Home Depot.

As American credit card companies eventually move away from easy-to-counterfeit magnetic-strip credit cards in favor of the more secure EMV chip technology, identity thieves will switch their focus away from brick-and-mortar store databases, in favor of attacking small online stores (and their shopping cart software) instead.

That's already the case in Europe, where EMV-chip credit cards have already been standard for more than a decade, and as EMV cards replace magnetic-strip models in America, the regular weekly news articles about the latest retail hacking du jour will be replaced by regular weekly news articles about data theft from online shopping carts. Welcome to the future!

More

"Anti-Facebook" promises to be virtuous forever. Really.

Ello says it will always be "simple, beautiful & ad-free"

You remember Facebook. It used to be really popular but now it has 1.23 billion monthly users and nobody likes it anymore. It has too many ads and doesn't ...

Photo
Photo credit: Ello.co

You remember Facebook. It used to be really popular but now it has 1.23 billion monthly users and nobody likes it anymore. It has too many ads and doesn't respect people's privacy. That's why nobody goes there anymore. Well, except those 1.23 billion people.

Obviously, the situation cries out for a new social network -- one that won't have so many ads, will respect everyone's privacy and so forth and so on. This is where something called Ello fits in, at least as its founders see it.

It's not just vaporware. Ello says it already has 1 million members and a few million more just waiting to join. Oh, and it's also raised a little over $5.5 million from investors who say they are willing to take a long-term view and be very patient about seeing a return on their money.

And so?

What's so great about Ello? Well, it says it will never have advertising and will never sell information about its users to any of those greedy marketers who are always stalking everyone around the Web. It has organized itself as a Public Benefit Corp., which is sort of like a charity that's allowed to make money -- to do well while doing good, as they like to say. 

Of course, if you don't charge advertisers, you have to charge somebody else. In this case, that somebody else will be the users of the site. Ello says it will use "micro-payments," which is a cute little way of saying the charge won't be too high.

The micro-payments will be for extra services that Ello will offer. It doesn't know what those services will be yet, apparently, but says it's confident it will dream something up as time goes by. Sort of the way smartphone apps just sprout up the moment they're needed.

And besides, Ello says it won't need to make as much money as the big greedy sites because it won't be doing as much. It won't be tracking members, selling data to marketers or doing any of those other things that eat up so much staff time. And generate the revenue that keeps the lights on.

A small universe

Of course, a social network is only as good as its members, who generally join up to interact with their friends and acquaintances, not with strangers. If one social network has 1.23 billion members and another one has a million or two, it's kind of likely the bigger one will have more of your friends and acquaintances. Which could make it a little hard for Ello to gain traction.

Once you join up, of course, you can try to get your friends to join too. You can send them those annoying little notices everybody is always getting about LinkedIn, Google+ and all the other social networks that are clogging up the interpipes.

It may be a little harder, though, to convince your friends to join a network that they have to pay for, although perhaps Ello will let you pick up the tab for your friends. Hmmm ... life online gets more like an evening at the pub all the time. 

 

More

Feds shut down debt collector that allegedly defrauded Spanish-speaking consumers

Consumers were bilked out of $2 million they didn't really owe, FTC charges

Collecting a debt is one thing. Collecting a non-existent debt is something else. And according to the Federal Trade Commission, a South Florida debt colle...

Photo
© Barneyboogles - Fotolia.com.png

Collecting a debt is one thing. Collecting a non-existent debt is something else. And according to the Federal Trade Commission, a South Florida debt collection operation has been doing just that -- hounding Spanish-speaking consumers for debts they don't owe. 

A U.S. district court judge in Miami has temporarily shut down Centro Natural Corp. and Sumore LLC pending the FTC's request to permanently put them out of business. 

“These defendants deserve a shameful Triple Crown for fraud. They posed as government officials, used abusive debt collection practices, and ignored the National Do Not Call Registry,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We’re shining a light on fraud affecting every community, and we’re pleased that this scheme targeting Latinos has been stopped.”

Bogus debts

In its complaint, the FTC charged that the defendants cold-called consumers and threatened them with harsh consequences, such as arrest, legal actions, and immigration status investigations, if they failed to make large payments on bogus debts. The defendants’ telemarketers also pressured and deceived consumers into paying for unwanted products by telling consumers it would “settle” their debt.

According to the FTC’s complaint, since at least 2011, the defendants have held themselves out as court or government officials or lawyers. They demanded that consumers pay them to “settle” phantom debts that typically ranged between $3,000 and $9,000.

The FTC alleges that the defendants often told consumers that they could settle their debts by paying defendants hundreds of dollars. If consumers refused to pay, the defendants often continued to call and threaten them, sometimes using profane language. The defendants also kept calling consumers who asked them not to call again, regularly cold-called consumers whose phone numbers are on the Do Not Call Registry, and failed to pay fees for the Do Not Call Registry.

The complaint charges the defendants with violating the FTC Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, and failing to pay for, or abide by, the rules of the Do Not Call Registry.

More

Eat up, dogs! Winter is coming

"Thrifty gene" prepares your dog for harsh winter weather

Your dog has the thrifty gene and, no, it doesn't mean he knows how to find the best deals on dog food with his nose. The "thrifty gene" prepares the dog f...

More

More for your 401(k) next year

The IRS is increasing the amount you can contribute to your pension plan

From the Internal Revenue Service -- word that you'll be able to sock more money away for retirement next year. Because the increase in the cost-of-living...

Photo
© MaryPerry - Fotolia

From the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) -- word that you'll be able to sock more money away for retirement next year.

Because the increase in the cost-of-living index met the statutory thresholds that trigger their adjustment, many of the pension plan limitations will change for 2015. However, other limitations will remain unchanged because the increase in the index did not meet the statutory thresholds that trigger their adjustment.

What it means

  • The contribution (elective deferral) limit for employees who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan is increased from $17,500 to $18,000.
  • The catch-up contribution limit for employees aged 50 and over who participate in these plans is increased from $5,500 to $6,000.
  • The limit on annual contributions to an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) remains at $5,500. The additional catch-up contribution limit for individuals aged 50 and over is not subject to an annual cost-of-living adjustment and remains $1,000.
  • The deduction for taxpayers making contributions to a traditional IRA is phased out for singles and heads of household who are covered by a workplace retirement plan and have modified adjusted gross incomes (AGI) between $61,000 and $71,000 -- up from $60,000 and $70,000 in 2014. For married couples filing jointly, in which the spouse who makes the IRA contribution is covered by a workplace retirement plan, the income phase-out range is $98,000 to $118,000 -- up from $96,000 to $116,000. For an IRA contributor who is not covered by a workplace retirement plan and is married to someone who is covered, the deduction is phased out if the couple’s income is between $183,000 and $193,000 -- up from $181,000 and $191,000. For a married individual filing a separate return who is covered by a workplace retirement plan, the phase-out range is not subject to an annual cost-of-living adjustment and remains $0 to $10,000.
  • The AGI phase-out range for taxpayers making contributions to a Roth IRA is $183,000 to $193,000 for married couples filing jointly -- up from $181,000 to $191,000 in 2014. For singles and heads of household, the income phase-out range is $116,000 to $131,000 -- up from $114,000 to $129,000. For a married individual filing a separate return, the phase-out range is not subject to an annual cost-of-living adjustment and remains $0 to $10,000.
  • The AGI limit for the saver’s credit (also known as the retirement savings contribution credit) for low- and moderate-income workers is $61,000 for married couples filing jointly -- up from $60,000 in 2014; $45,750 for heads of household -- up from $45,000; and $30,500 for married individuals filing separately and for singles -- up from $30,000.
More

A little bit more for Social Security recipients next year

But no change in the Medicare Part B premium

People who receive monthly Social Security benefits will find a little more in their checks in 2015. The Social Security Administration says monthly Socia...

Photo
© zimmytws - Fotolia

People who receive monthly Social Security benefits will find a little more in their checks in 2015.

The Social Security Administration says monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for nearly 64 million people will increase by 1.7% in 2015 the coming year.

The cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which works out to about $22 per month, will begin with benefits that more than 58 million Social Security beneficiaries receive in January 2015. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin on December 31, 2014.

The Social Security Act ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More changes

Some other changes that take effect in January of each year are based on the increase in average wages. Based on that increase, the maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $118,500 from $117,000.

Of the estimated 168 million workers who will pay Social Security taxes in 2015, about 10 million will pay higher taxes because of the increase in the taxable maximum.

Medicare premium

The bump in benefits is not the only good news for seniors.

The premium of $104.90 that most people pay each month for Medicare Part B won’t change in 2015. Nor will the Part B deductible of $147 per year.

At the same time, the government says that if your modified adjusted gross income as reported on your IRS tax return from 2 years ago is above a certain amount, you may pay more.

More

Home prices up in August for a ninth straight month

In addition, the July increased was higher than first reported

It's now 9 increases in a row for the Federal Housing Finance Agency's (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI). According to the agency, house prices across the U....

Photo
© teena137 – Fotolia.com

It's now 9 increases in a row for the Federal Housing Finance Agency's (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI).

According to the agency, house prices across the U.S. were up 0.5% on a seasonally adjusted basis. And the good news doesn't stop there. July's previously reported 0.1% gain was revised show the increase was actually 0.2%.

For the 9 census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from July 2014 to

August 2014 ranged from -0.6% in the New England and South Atlantic divisions to +1.2% in the Mountain division.

The 12-month changes were all positive ranging from +1.9% in the Middle Atlantic division to +7.8% in the Pacific division.

The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. From August 2013 to August 2014, house prices were up 4.8%.

Still, the U.S. index is 5.8% below its April 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the August 2005 index level.

Photo
© teena137 – Fotolia
Jobless claims

In a separate report, the government says first-time applications for state unemployment benefits rose

17,000 in the week ending October 18, to a seasonally adjusted 283,000. The increase comes a week after the total number of initial claims fell to 14-year low. The previous week's level was revised up by 2,000 -- from 264,000 to 266,000.

Even with that sizable increase, the total was 2,000 below the consensus estimate of economist surveyed by Briefing.com. And, analysts say, the recent trend is a sign that the economy is near, or at, full employment.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a better gauge of the labor market, came in at 281,000 -- a drop of 3,000 from the previous week.

The full report is available on the Labor Department website.  

More

Arctic Cat Recalls single-rider and 2UP ATVs

Components in the front gear case can fail

Arctic Cat of Thief River Falls, Minn., is recalling about 40,000 single-rider and 2 UP style all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). Components in the front gear c...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Arctic Cat of Thief River Falls, Minn., is recalling about 40,000 single-rider and 2 UP style all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

Components in the front gear case can fail, posing a risk of loss of control and crash hazard.

The company has received 44 reports of components in the front gear case failing, including 10 reports of the vehicle stopping abruptly or the operator losing of control of the ATV. There have been 4 reports of injury, including 1 involving a consumer sustaining broken ribs and injuries to a knee and back.

This recall involves model year 2008 and 2009 Arctic Cat single-rider and 2 UP style ATVs. Single-rider ATVs have one seat and one set of footrests for the operator. 2 UP ATVs have an elongated seat designed to hold one passenger behind the operator, a set of hand-holds mounted to the rear frame for the passenger and two sets of footrests. The recalled ATVs came in a variety of colors and have the name Arctic Cat on each side of the fuel tank and on the front above the grill opening.

All model year 2008 Arctic Cat ATVs with 400 cubic centimeter (cc) and larger engines are being recalled.

Model year 2009 Arctic Cat ATVs with 400 cubic centimeter (cc) and larger engines and with production numbers within the following ranges are being recalled: 200001 through 203861, 808001 through 808137, and X25082 through X30243.

The engine size is printed on the back of the instrument cluster between the handle bars.

The vehicle identification number (VIN) in the format 4UF09******XXXXXX is on the frame tube near the driver’s side rear wheel and contains the model year and production number of the vehicle.

The model year is the fourth and fifth characters of the VIN in the YY format. The production number is the last six characters of the VIN.

The ATVs. Manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Arctic Cat dealers nationwide from May 2007, to October 2014, for between $5,500 and $12,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled ATVs and contact an Arctic Cat dealer to schedule a free repair.

Consumers may contact Arctic Cat at (800) 279-6851 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

More

Bailey Farms recalls Fresh Serrano Chile Peppers

The peppers may be contaminated with Salmonella

Bailey Farms of Oxford, N.C., is recalling 6,215 pounds of Fresh Serrano Chile Peppers. The peppers may be contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses hav...

Photo
Photo source: FDA

Bailey Farms of Oxford, N.C., is recalling 6,215 pounds of Fresh Serrano Chile Peppers.

The peppers may be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The recalled product was distributed to Meijer, Inc. and customers may have purchased this product from October 14th to October 19th at Meijer stores in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

The product was distributed to Publix Super Markets Inc., Merchants Distributors, Inc., Walmart, Food Lion, Flavor 1st Growers and Packers, US Foods, Military Produce Group, LLC.,C&S Wholesalers, John Vena, Inc. and Harris Teeter.

Consumers who purchased Fresh Serrano Chile Peppers from the above listed companies between the dates of October 2, 2014, to October 21, 2014, should check with the above listed companies to verify if the product was subject to recall.

Consumers with questions may contact Bailey Farms Monday – Friday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm EST at 1-888-820-2545.

More

Colleges getting better at cost transparency

Students now have tools that can calculate the cost of their education

You wouldn't agree to buy a new car without knowing what it was going to cost to drive it off the lot. Yet when it comes to selecting a college, many stude...

Photo
The Stanford Quad (Photo © dimah - Fotolia)

You wouldn't agree to buy a new car without knowing what it was going to cost to drive it off the lot. Yet when it comes to selecting a college, many students enroll without knowing what a degree will ultimately cost.

It's no surprise that millions of students end their 4 years with delayed sticker shock and thousands of dollars in student loans.

Fortunately, colleges in recent years have become more transparent when it comes to letting prospective students know how much their education will cost. But it took a little prodding from the federal government.

Know before you owe

In 2011 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) introduced its “Know Before You Owe” campaign for student loans.

In a joint venture with the U.S. Department of Education, the CFPB produced a financial aid shopping sheet for use by colleges to help prospective students better understand the financial aid they might qualify for. Students can also use it to compare aid packages offered by different schools. By April 2014, thousands of schools were using it.

The Department of Education has an online tool to help students select a college or university based on cost. Using the tool a student can generate a report on the highest and lowest cost per academic year, focusing either on tuition or net costs.

Tuition reports include tuition and required fees. Net price is cost of attendance minus grant and scholarship aid. Data are reported by institutions and are for full-time beginning students.

Where costs are accelerating

The tool will also select the schools whose costs are rising at the fastest rate. That can be important if a student is a year or two away from enrolling. It lets them know that costs might be higher when they actually enroll and go up significantly over the 4 years they are in school.

Individual colleges are also now required to provide online tools that increase cost transparency. Wellesley College has a cost estimator called My inTuition.

The tool asks just 6 basic questions before generating a personalized estimate of an student's cost to attend Wellesley. The recently-updated version provides a breakdown of the cost paid by the family, work-study, and loan estimates, in addition to grant assistance provided by the college.

"We got a highly positive response when we released the cost estimator last year, and with the provision of more detailed information, we hope to continue and expand on that," said Wellesley economics professor Phillip B. Levine, who invented My inTuition.

Alleviating worry

Levine says the new detailed breakdown provided by the tool may help alleviate some of the concerns around student debt.

"Many families worry that their children will need to take out tens of thousands in loans to cover what they aren't paying out of pocket,” he said. “My inTuition helps them understand that is not the case at Wellesley."

The Department of Education calculator is especially helpful for students trying to narrow their school choices to private non-profit, private for-profit or a state-supported college or university.

For example, when searching for the lowest tuition, it shows the average tuition of the lowest state-supported public colleges is $7,407 per academic year. But among the lowest-cost for-profit schools, the average tuition is more than $15,000.

More

Owners of vehicles with defective airbags: Act now

Feds say more than 6 million vehicles are affected

Owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors vehicles are being urged to act immediately on r...

Photo
© Dmitry Vereshchagin - Fotolia

Owners of certain Toyota, Honda, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors vehicles are being urged to act immediately on recall notices to replace defective Takata airbags.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says over 6 million vehicles are involved in these recalls, which have occurred as far back as 18 months ago and as recently as Monday.

The message comes with urgency, especially for owners of vehicles affected by regional recalls in the following areas: Florida, Puerto Rico, limited areas near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, as well as Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

"Responding to these recalls, whether old or new, is essential to personal safety and it will help aid our ongoing investigation into Takata airbags and what appears to be a problem related to extended exposure to consistently high humidity and temperatures,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman. “However, we’re leaving no stone unturned in our aggressive pursuit to track down the full geographic scope of this issue."

What to do

Consumers uncertain whether their vehicle is impacted by the Takata recalls -- or any other recall -- can contact their manufacturer’s website to search, by their vehicle identification number (VIN) to confirm whether their individual vehicle has an open recall that needs to be addressed.

Owners who have been contacted by their manufacturer should contact their dealer’s service department and make arrangements for the repair. In addition, consumers can sign up for NHTSA recall alerts, which go out before recall letters are mailed by the manufacturers to the affected owners.

Affected vehicles

BMW: 627,615 total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2000 – 2005 3 Series Sedan
  • 2000 – 2006 3 Series Coupe
  • 2000 – 2005 3 Series Sports Wagon
  • 2000 – 2006 3 Series Convertible
  • 2001 – 2006 M3 Coupe
  • 2001 – 2006 M3 Convertible

Chrysler: 371,309 total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2003 – 2008 Dodge Ram 1500
  • 2008 Dodge Ram 2500
  • 2008 Dodge Ram 3500
  • 2006 – 2008 Dodge Ram 4500
  • 2008 – Dodge Ram 5500
  • 2005 – 2008 Dodge Durango
  • 2005 – 2008 Dodge Dakota
  • 2005 – 2008 Chrysler 300
  • 2007 – 2008 Chrysler Aspen

Ford: 58,669 total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2004 – Ranger
  • 2005 – 2006 GT
  • 2005 – 2007 Mustang

General Motors: undetermined total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2003 – 2005 Pontiac Vibe
  • 2005 – Saab 9-2X

Honda: 5,051,364 total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2001 – 2007 Honda Accord)
  • 2001 – 2002 Honda Accord
  • 2001 – 2005 Honda Civic
  • 2002 – 2006 Honda CR-V
  • 2003 – 2011 Honda Element
  • 2002 – 2004 Honda Odyssey
  • 2003 – 2007 Honda Pilot
  • 2006 – Honda Ridgeline
  • 2003 – 2006 Acura MDX
  • 2002 – 2003 Acura TL/CL
  • 2005 – Acura RL

Mazda: 64,872 total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2003 – 2007 Mazda6
  • 2006 – 2007 MazdaSpeed6
  • 2004 – 2008 Mazda RX-8
  • 2004 – 2005 MPV
  • 2004 – B-Series Truck

Mitsubishi: 11,985 total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2004 – 2005 Lancer
  • 2006 – 2007 Raider

Nissan: 694,626 total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2001 – 2003 Nissan Maxima
  • 2001 – 2004 Nissan Pathfinder
  • 2002 – 2004 Nissan Sentra
  • 2001 – 2004 Infiniti I30/I35
  • 2002 – 2003 Infiniti QX4
  • 2003 – 2005 Infiniti FX35/FX45

Subaru: 17,516 total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2003 – 2005 Baja
  • 2003 – 2005 Legacy
  • 2003 – 2005 Outback
  • 2003 – 2005 Baja
  • 2004 – 2005 Impreza

Toyota: 877,000 total number of potentially affected vehicles

  • 2002 – 2005 Lexus SC
  • 2002 – 2005 Toyota Corolla
  • 2003 – 2005 Toyota Corolla Matrix
  • 2002 – 2005 Toyota Sequoia
  • 2003 – 2005 Toyota Tundra
More

Retail database security breaches: just how commonplace are they, anyway?

And how much does this help ordinary American consumers?

You can't go a week anymore without hearing another news report on the theme “Another bank, business or organization got hacked; millions of customers' con...

Photo
Photo © Shjmyra - Fotolia

You can't go a week anymore without hearing another news report on the theme “Another bank, business or organization got hacked; millions of customers' confidential financial data at risk.” As a result, chances are good that at some point recently you've also heard (or even said) the exasperated joke: “You know, it would be quicker and easier to just tell me who hasn'tbeen breached lately.”

Yet Bloomberg BusinessNews, after looking at data-breach records maintained by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, suggests that the joke doesn't really work:

At a time when it may seem like there are few safe places to shop, the threat may not be as out-of-control as it appears. … eight of the ten biggest public U.S. retailers, when ranked by revenue, have not disclosed major consumer breaches this decade. And we're not counting those instances when a few hundred customers were affected or a crook accessed a customer's account using a password stolen from another site.

It's true that, of the 10 largest retailers in America, only two of them – Target and Home Depot – have reported mass breaches.

Yet from the perspective of an ordinary card-using American with typical mainstream shopping habits, it doesn't really matter: the number of actual businesses breached might be a minority, yet the number of Americans whose credit card or other financial data was compromised in a breach is probably a majority.

Not just retailers

Then, too, there's the fact that retailers and restaurants aren't the only way Americans are put at risk; there's also banks, hospitals and medical centers, motor vehicle departments and other state- or federal-level government bureaucracies, and mass data brokers like Experian, all of whom have (inadvertently) managed to put Americans' personal data in the hands of identity thieves at some point in the past couple years.

Bloomberg does realize this, and also pointed out that “there is an important caveat here: Just because a company hasn't announced a breach doesn't mean it hasn't been hacked.”

Indeed, and when companies do announce breaches, they usually only do so after an independent security researcher or blogger has already discovered and announced it; for the most part, a disturbingly long time passes between “moment a company realizes it's been breached” and “moment company lets its customers know they're at risk.”

For example, 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 reported the AT&T hacking in June 2014, the article had this 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.”

Still at risk

And even companies officially on the “not-breached” list – such as Walmart, which topped Bloomberg's list of the 10 largest American retailers – might still have plenty of individual customers at risk anyway.

Earlier this month, for example, we reported that, ever since September 2013, ConsumerAffairs has received frequent complaints from people all over the country, reporting that their Walmart MoneyCards were hacked and the accounts drained at a Target store in New York City or its suburbs. Granted, the (still-unknown) guilty parties probably didn't “hack into the database” – if they did, you'd expect to hear complaints from millions of cardholders, not merely a dozen or so – but this offers scant comfort to those people whose money was stolen.

You've surely heard the old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A similar maxim applies to information security today: your information is only as secure as the least-secure cash register or database handling it.

So if you've used your credit card to pay at 100 different places recently, and 99% of them haven't been hacked — it doesn't matter, because that remaining 1% compromised your card as much as if you'd personally posted your information in some Russian hackers' forum.

More

Work-at-home promoters ordered to pay $25 million in refunds

99.8% of 110,000 consumers who took the bait made exactly nothing

"Quicksell" sounded good, at least to the unpracticed ear. It promised consumers that they could make big bucks by working at home in their spare time. But...

Photo
Tiran Zaken (Photo via Flickr.com)

"Quicksell" sounded good, at least to the unpracticed ear. It promised consumers that they could make big bucks by working at home in their spare time. But a federal court found that 99.8% of those who paid the $148 fee made nothing. 

Today, the court ordered the promoters of Quicksell to pay more than $25 million in refunds to 110,000 consumers who took the bait. 

“The court’s order shows there are serious consequences for business opportunity marketers who invent earnings claims and fabricate stories about eager customers,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “As long as scammers keep making false claims, we’ll be working with our law enforcement partners to stop them.”

QuickSell claimed it would help consumers find businesses with excess inventory to sell, would find a buyer for the inventory and pay consumers half the sales price. They also falsely claimed consumers would earn at least $4,000 or more in the first 30 days and, on average, $4,280 per deal.

Once consumers bought the program, they were inundated with ads to buy more business “tools” that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Consumers were encouraged to spend an extra $2,300 if they were serious about making money. Those who made the additional investment received only a directory of defunct companies’ telephone numbers.

Today, the court granted the Federal Trade Commission's request for summary judgment, ordering Zaken Corp. and Tiran Zaken to repay the ill-gotten gains, finding that they had violated the FTC Act and the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, which requires business opportunity sellers to provide specific information to help consumers evaluate a business opportunity.

More

Is your pet on pins and needles?

Acupuncture may help with chronic conditions that are dogging your pet

Let's get right to the point. Is acupuncture something you might want to consider for your pet?...

Photo
Photo © Roland Gruenewald - Fotolia
Let's get right to the point. Is acupuncture something you might want to consider for your pet?

Acupuncture uses very fine needles inserted into specific parts of the body to stimulate the release of pain-relieving endorphins, intended to help things like chronic pain and skin, musculoskeletal and nervous disorders. The goal of acupuncture is to stimulate the body to heal itself.

Most pets’ health problems are diagnosed once they already have symptoms and usually their condition has advanced.So this could possibly be a way to prevent disease from occurring.

Lexie Hanna is a veterinarian and acupuncturist in Wilmington, Delaware, says pets can get relief from conditions like arthritis, chronic pain from disc disease, seizure disorders, lick granulomas, nerve injuries and dry eye. It also is sometimes effective with some behavioral problems in cats.

"The needles start the release of hormones from the central nervous system and regulate blood flow, promoting healing," Hanna said.

Fewer side effects

What's good about acupuncture is that there are fewer side effects than with prescription and over-the-counter drugs, according to Hanna.

"The downside is that you have to make more frequent visits to the office and they can take up to 30 minutes, It's easier to have a vet give you a pill for your pet, but that is only treating the symptoms. With acupuncture you are promoting the healing of their bodies," she said.

Although an ancient practice, acupuncture is new to the veterinary world in the West. It was only in the 1990's that the American Veterinary Medical Association admitted the acupuncture group as an allied veterinary organization.

If your pet has chronic pain and you are open-minded it might be something to consider. Talk it over with your veterinarian.

More

Ebola scams proliferating at pandemic pace

Consumers must protect themselves against bogus fund-raisers, "preparedness kits" and medications

Political pontificating aside, Ebola is not much of a threat to the American populace despite raging out of control in parts of West Africa. Bigger threats...

Photo
Ebola workers suit up (Photo credit: European Commission DG ECHO)
Political pontificating aside, Ebola is not much of a threat to the American populace despite raging out of control in parts of West Africa. Bigger threats include the flu and scams that prey on consumers' fears about Ebola.

State attorneys general around the country are warning of a fast-spreading outbreak of Ebola scams.

Scammers commonly use moments of heightened public fear to perpetuate frauds, and reports have surfaced of fundraising scams claiming to benefit victims of Ebola. There have also been dubious offers by companies selling bogus Ebola preparedness kits and preventative medications while there is not an FDA-approved vaccine for Ebola, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman noted.

“Scammers are shamefully exploiting this moment of heightened concern about public health to defraud good people. These frauds detract from the positive work of the brave medical professionals fighting this disease and the charitable spirit of New Yorkers looking to help out,” Schneiderman said.

What to do

If you receive solicitations about Ebola, consider the following tips:

Do your homework on the disease. With scammers selling bogus emergency preparedness kits and medical treatments, be sure to know the facts. There are no FDA-approved vaccines, medications, or dietary supplements to prevent or treat Ebola, so be wary of offers promising otherwise.

Stay informed about the disease, the latest emergency preparedness measures, and the most medically accurate information by visiting the Ebola update page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Be wary of supposed remedies. Consumer Reports published an article referencing a bogus e-mail solicitation offering a $29 “surplus protection kit” supposedly designed for emergency response teams and law enforcement agencies. There are no FDA-approved medical treatments for Ebola.

Donate to reputable charities. Fraudulent solicitations have been received claiming to pay funds to families of Ebola patients and promising to fight the disease. Charity Navigator offers a listing of reputable charities responding to the Ebola outbreak.

Do not click on unsolicited links in e-mail or online. Scammers sometimes utilize a technique called phishing, in which victims are baited into clicking on harmful links or entering personal information under false pretenses. Such links are often linked to malware and identity-theft rackets.

More

Spam text scammers to pay $10 million in penalties

They bombarded consumers with bogus offers of "free" items

Sending the messages was cheap but now a group of defendants who flooded consumers with phony text messages has been ordered to pay $10 million in penaltie...

Photo
© Fotolia

Sending the messages was cheap but now a group of defendants who flooded consumers with phony text messages has been ordered to pay $10 million in penalties. 

The settlement marks the completion of a major effort by the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on the senders of unwanted text messages offering consumers “free” gift cards to retailers such as Best Buy, Walmart and Target.

The messages contained links to websites that led consumers through a process that the FTC alleges was designed to get consumers’ personal information for sale to marketers, their mobile phone numbers to cram unwanted charges on their bill, and to drive them to paid subscriptions for which the scammers received affiliate referral fees.

Many of the consumers later received illegal robocalls, phony “free” merchandise offers, and unauthorized charges crammed on their mobile phone bills.

“The operators of this scam bombarded consumers for months with deceptive text messages offering ‘free’ items, but the costs to consumers were very real – including the misuse of their personal information to cram unwanted charges on their phone bills,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “I am pleased that these scammers will be forced to turn over millions of the dollars they took from consumers and banned from repeating these actions in the future.”

A complete list of defendants and penalties is available here

More

A surge in mortgage applications

Applications for refinancing were also sharply higher

A drop in interest rates helped send mortgage applications higher in the week ending October 17. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Wee...

Photo

© emiliezhang - Fotolia.com

A drop in interest rates helped send mortgage applications higher in the week ending October 17.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications jumped 11.6% -- the third consecutive weekly increase. There was no adjustment for the Columbus Day holiday.

“Continuing concerns about weak economic growth in Europe and a few U.S. economic indicators that came in below expectations caused a flight to quality into US Treasuries last week, leading to sharp drops in interest rates,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s chief economist. “Mortgage rates have fallen close to 30 basis points over the last 4 weeks.”

The Refinance Index shot up 23% from the previous week to the highest level since November 2013. At the same time, the average loan balance for refinance applications increased to $306,400 -- the highest level in the survey’s history. The sure pushed refinance share of mortgage activity to 65 percent of total applications -- the highest level since last December -- from 59% the previous week.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased 1.4% -- to 9.4% of total applications, the highest level since June 2008.

The FHA share of total applications decreased from 9.5% last week to 8.3% this week. The VA share of total applications rose to 9.6% from 8.8%, and the USDA share of total applications fell from 1.0% last week to 0.8% this week.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 10 basis points -- from 4.20% to 4.10%, the lowest level since May 2013, with points increasing to 0.21 from 0.17 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) decreased to 4.03%, the lowest level since May 2013, from 4.14%, with points increasing to 0.20 from 0.10 (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 was down 9 basis points to 3.81%, the lowest level since June 2013, with points decreasing to 0.07 from 0.08 (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 from 3.41% to 3.28%, the lowest level since May 2013, with points down to 0.22 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs slipped to 2.94%, the lowest level since June 2013, from 3.05%, with points decreasing to 0.37 from 0.38 (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.

More

Consumer prices inch higher in September

A drop in energy costs negated a rise in the price of food

Declining energy costs helped keep consumer prices in Check during September, with the consumer price index (CPI) inching up just 0.1%. Figures from the La...

Photo
© mybaitshop - Fotolia

Declining energy costs helped keep consumer prices in Check during September, with the consumer price index (CPI) inching up just 0.1%.

Figures from the Labor Department (DOL) show that over the last 12 months, the CPI is up 1.7%.

Energy and food costs

Energy costs fell for a third consecutive month, declining 0.7% in September. Three of the 4 components were lower, with gasoline off 1.0%, electricity down 0.7% and fuel oil dropping 2.1%. In contrast, natural gas rose 1.6% after falling in each of the 4 previous months. Over the past 12 months, energy costs are down 0.6%.

The price of food was up 0.3% last month on top of a 0.2% increase in August. Meats, poultry, fish, and eggs rose 0.7%, with beef and veal prices up 2.0% for a gain of 16.7% since January. Dairy and related products increased 0.5% for the tenth advance in the last 11 months, while fruits and vegetables posted a gain of 0.1% percent after declining in August. Food at home costs are up 3.2% over the past year, while food away from home has risen 2.7% over the last 12 months.

Core rate

The core rate of inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy categories, was up 0.1% In September. Within that, rising costs were seen for shelter (0.3%), medical care (0.2%), alcoholic beverages (0.1%) and personal care (0.1%), while declines were posted for airline fares (0.5%) and used car and truck prices (0.1%).

The full September CPI report is available on the DOL website.

More

Credit default rates tick higher in September

However, 80% of cities saw rates decline

Consumer credit default rates are on the rise. According to the S&P/Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices the national composite posted 1.04% in Septem...

Photo
© guru3d - Fotolia

Consumer credit default rates are on the rise.

According to the S&P/Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices the national composite posted 1.04% in September -- up 3 basis points from July 2014’s historical low.

The first mortgage default rate rose to 0.93% -- the second consecutive monthly increase, while the second mortgage default rate rose 1 basis point -- to 0.52%, the first increase since April. The bank card rate decreased for the third consecutive month, declining by 10 basis points -- to 2.63%.

“Default rates for bank cards reversed an increase seen in the first half of 2014 while defaults on first mortgages and auto loans appear to have bottomed out over the summer,” said David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee for S&P Dow Jones Indices. “However, none of these movements are very large. Despite their slight increase, default rates are still near the lows seen before the 2007-2009 recession and financial crisis”

Default rates drop in cities

Chicago, Dallas, New York and Miami all reported rate decreases, with Miami posting a default rate of 1.21% -- its lowest rate since June 2006 and New York posting a default rate of 1.05%, its lowest since September 2005.

Los Angeles for the second consecutive month posted a rate increase of 0.77%, up 11 basis points from its historical low in July 2014. All 5 cities -- Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York -- remain below default rates seen a year ago.”

More

What renting says about your financial status

If you rent you are more likely to be struggling

Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, fewer people have become homeowners. For starters, it has been harder to get a mortgage. Down p...

Photo
Photo © Kseniya Ragozina - Fotolia
Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, fewer people have become homeowners. For starters, it has been harder to get a mortgage. Down payment requirements are higher and so are credit standards.

But there has been something else at work. The collapse of the housing market and the resulting wave of foreclosures prompted millions of people who, before 2007, might have been homeowners, to remain renters.

For some people this may have been the right move. It is obvious that many people in the past jumped into home ownership before they were adequately prepared. But a recent study suggests those who have embraced home ownership have fared better financially than those who have remained renters.

Financially fragile

The study by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation concludes that renters are a “financially fragile” population compared to homeowners. They have more debt, less emergency savings and lack the financially literacy of their home-owning peers.

They are also more likely to experience income shocks.

“Given their financial fragility and low levels of financial literacy, the findings suggest the renter population could have a difficult time responding to income shocks and the financial consequences associated with them,” the study concludes.

The study looked at data from 2012. It found that during that year 36% of the population lived in a rented home, a 2% increase from 2000. As you might expect, the renter population tended to be young and make less money than homeowners.

But over time, as they increase their earnings, renters tended to become homeowners – at least they did in the past. The FINRA study found that part of the increase in the renter population is made up of young families, who in the past purchased homes.

Income disparity

Some of the data comes from the National Financial Capability Study (NFCS), which shows that renters have significantly lower incomes than homeowners, even though in many markets monthly rents are now higher than monthly mortgage payments would be for the same property.

For example, 74% of renters have household incomes below $50,000 a year while only 41% of homeowner households do. And even though homeowners are more likely to be married, renters are more likely to be supporting dependents in their households.

Maybe it should come as no surprise then that renters have a greater problem making ends meet than homeowners. Twenty-four percent of renters indicated that they find it very difficult to cover their bills, and an additional 48% found it somewhat difficult.

For homeowners, on the other hand, only 12% found it very difficult, and 39% found it somewhat difficult.

What it means

This is not to suggest that if you are struggling financially, all you need do is buy a home and your problems will be over. What the study may be exposing is not cause but effect.

If you can qualify for a mortgage, you have manageable debt, a good credit score and stable income. If you purchased in the last few years, when both home prices and interest rates have been low, you're doing even better because your mortgage payment is lower than rent in most cases.

The takeaway from the study, the authors contend, is that renters comprise a consumer group that could benefit from targeted financial literacy education.

While the challenges renters face are steep, the authors contend that increasing the financial literacy and capability of renters “may represent one avenue to improve the overall financial wellbeing of over one-third of households in the United States.”  

More

Woman loses paid-off home due to city tax department's $95 error

City's clerical error from four years ago leads to tax auction last week

A woman in Norcross, Georgia received notice that her paid-off condo was sold at auction, and she and her 4-year-old daughter have until Nov. 25 to move ou...

Photo
Xui Lui (Photo © WSB-TV)

A woman in Norcross, Georgia received notice that her paid-off condo was sold at auction, and she and her 4-year-old daughter have until Nov. 25 to move out, because back in 2011 she didn't pay a $95 city tax bill which the city admits she never received.

WSB-TV in Atlanta reported today that Xui Lui paid cash in 2011 for her two-bedroom condo, and according to city records she has paid every tax bill since then – except one bill, for $94.85, from 2011. The certified letters the city sent warning her of the unpaid balance were returned to the city due to a “clerical error” – specifically, an incomplete address.

“No street, no name. How can I receive the letter?” Lui said.

The city had no difficulty putting Lui's proper address on all of her other tax bills that year, plus all other correspondences with her during 2012, 2013 and 2014 — everything except the vital notice about that one unpaid $95 bill.

The city also got her address right last week, when they sent word that her condo had been sold at auction for unpaid taxes, and she and her daughter had to leave two days before Thanksgiving.

Story continues below video

Norcross City Manager Rudolph Smith said that “We are going back and doing our due diligence. [The city contractor who handled the sale] will try to work something out.” However, since the property has already been sold to another buyer, it's possible that nothing can be done (presumably, having the city refund the money and void the auction on the grounds that it should never have happened in the first place is not an option).

The city did not say who bought the condo, how much it sold for, or which specific individuals were responsible for the error in the first place.

Lui said the city admitted to her that mistakes were made, and asked “Where are we going to go? I have nowhere. This is my house. Why do I need to move out? …. Someone can rob your house? Rob your property? This is not American style, right?”

More

Security breach at Staples stores; customer card data stolen

Take precautions if you paid with your card at Staples stores in the Northeast

Bad news for customers of Staples office supply, especially customers in the Northeast: looks like Staples is the latest major retailer to get hacked....

Photo
© Staples

Bad news for customers of Staplesoffice supply, especially customers in the Northeast: looks like Staples is the latest major retailer to get hacked.

Security blogger Brian Krebs reported yesterday that, according to his sources at “more than a half-dozen” banks operating on the East Coast, customer data appears to have been stolen from at least seven stores in Pennsylvania, three in New York City and one in New Jersey.

Staples Oct. 21, 2014, 4:13 p.m.
Consumers rate Staples

Given these limitations – a dozen stores hit out of the 1,800 stores Staples has nationwide – it appears that the hackers did not actually “hack” into the actual Staples database, but most likely installed some sort of malware on cash registers at the actual stores, malware enabling the thieves to steal all credit- or debit-card data used at the affected registers.

The Dairy Queen/Orange Julius security breach from earlier this month was another example: the actual DQ database remained off-limits to hackers, but close to 400 individual stores had card-stealing malware on their cash registers.

"Potential issue"

A Staples spokesman offered the standard response to the breach, admitting that the company is investigating a “potential issue involving credit card data and has contacted law enforcement.”

Furthermore, “We take the protection of customer information very seriously, and are working to resolve the situation,” and “If Staples discovers an issue, it is important to note that customers are not responsible for any fraudulent activity on their credit cards that is reported on [in] a timely basis.”

So far, Staples has not announced (or does not know) the time frame involved – when did the malware first start lifting numbers, and for how long?

Until more information is available, if you paid with a card at any Staples in Pennsylvania, New Jersey or New York City at any time in the past year or so, you should probably contact your bank and take the usual security precautions.

More

Dish Network dumps CNN, other Turner channels

Consumers are again held hostage as corporate giants tussle over license fees

It's a good thing cable TV companies aren't in the car business. If they were, they'd probably come and confiscate your car every time they got into a pric...

Photo
Photo © CNN

It's a good thing cable TV companies aren't in the car business. If they were, they'd probably come and confiscate your car every time they got into a pricing dispute with a parts supplier.

The latest to use this negotiation-by-consumer-abuse tactic is Dish Network, which has dumped CNN and other Turner Broadcasting channels from its line-up. Or if you prefer, Turner has pulled its programming from Dish. Either way, consumers lose the programming they thought Dish was obligated to provide under its contract with them. 

It's a common tactic and one that leaves consumers fuming.

"I am sick of being affected because two rich corps won't kiss and make up," said Lori of New York, N.Y., in a ConsumerAffairs review. "DISH... I pay each month for certain programming. I want it. Fix this."

Judy of Carlsbad, N.M., echoed Lori's comments: "I will have to get rid of Dish if these chanels are not back. I have been with Dish several years and love it, in fact have referred several people, but this will end it."

Not just news

DISH Network  Oct. 21, 2014, 4:14 p.m.
Consumers rate DISH Network
Sure, news junkies are upset but Ed of New Bedford, Mass., notes that there's more at stake than the latest Ebola update. 

"I am a news and sports junky, and love old classic movies. Recently Dish took away Comcast Sports New England which I thought was a premium network. I watch pro basketball on it and other regional sports programs. It is gone. Today CNN, HLN, TCM are also gone," he said. "I have six months to go on the contract and I do not plan to renew. Dish has not lived up to the agreement I had with them and I am sure the same applies to millions of other customers."

Of course, to hear Dish tell it, it was Turner that pulled its channels.

"Monday night Turner Networks removed Boomerang, Cartoon Network, CNN, CNN en Español, HLN, truTV and Turner Classic Movies from the DISH programming lineup," the company said in a prepared statement

"In the past year, DISH has successfully renewed agreements with many large content providers," said Warren Schlichting, DISH senior vice president of Programming. "As a result, we are confident that we have offered a deal to Turner that reflects an appropriate value for our customers."

"We regret the service disruption to our customers, and remain committed to reaching an agreement that promptly returns this content to DISH's programming lineup."

Turner blames Dish, which it says broke off negotiations.

"Turner has worked diligently for months to come to a fair agreement including multiple extensions and compromises, and it’s unfortunate that Dish is once again operating in a disruptive manner that takes away networks and programming from their customers," Turner said. "We are hopeful our counterparts will return to the negotiating table, and we’ll get a deal completed."

The dispute comes at a bad time for both companies. Cable and satellite companies like Dish are losing customers are more consumers drop cable in favor of streaming video via the Internet. Program producers like Turner are experiencing weak ratings and ad sales. Turner recently announced it would lay off 10% of its workforce in an attempt to increase earnings. 

More

Why you might fall for a phishing scam

Scamming you is more a matter of psychology than technology

Information is power and, when it comes to the criminal underground, it might as well be gold. Scammers who pick up chuncks of information about you can qu...

 

Photo
© Ivelin Radkov - Fotolia

Information is power and, when it comes to the criminal underground, it might as well be gold. Scammers who pick up chuncks of information about you can quickly pick your pocket.

 

An effective phishing scam almost always involves trickery and deception. A message in your email inbox is not what it first appears.

For example, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) says scammers have been posing as officials of that agency for the last 10 years, contacting consumers at random and asking for highly sensitive personal information.

Two professors at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) have studied a wide range of phishing scams, measuring which ones are most effective and why. Their findings might help you avoid falling into one of these traps.

Finding an effective warning

“We’re trying to have people be more careful with the personal information they divulge online,” said Dr. Sandra Carpenter, a psychology professor at UAH. “The problem is what is it you can say to them that will be an effective warning?”

Carpenter, and her colleague Dr. Feng Zhu, found that scammers running a phishing operation will routinely use one or more social influencing strategies commonly used in marketing, like promising a reward. Consumer advocates often warn “if something is too good to be true, it usually is.” But that warning often gets lost when a consumer focuses on the promised reward.

Scammers also employ fear as a motivating factor. Posing as a feared authority, like the Internal Revenue Service, the scammer may use intimidation as a means to pry loose information. A frightened consumer might not think it through, realizing no government agency would demand sensitive information in an unsecure email.

The challenge, then, is to find a way to identify these bogus pitches/threats and warn consumers before they make a costly error in judgment.

The researchers are using eye trackers to pinpoint where a user’s eyes are on a screen and how long they stay at any point. They're studied the research on which warnings work in industry for toxic chemicals and other dangers.

They're using the Communication Human Information Processing (CHIP) model to discover what kind of warnings will get consumers' attention and alerting them to the danger.

“CHIP indicates the stream of processes a person goes through in order to accept a warning,” Carpenter said.

It's complicated

It can be a complicated process. The researchers say your response to a warning is based on the strength of the authority issuing it. In addition, you have to understand it, remember it, change your attitude and be motivated enough to change your behavior.

Early experiments highlighted the problem. The 2 researchers subjected groups of consumers to inquiries for information. Some were legitimate, some were phishing attacks. Some were warned about phishing attacks, some were not.

“When they are under attack with an effective warning, we find that people disclose at about the rate of those not being attacked,” Carpenter said. “We are currently trying to see which warning words work best and we are testing now to see which source is more credible and effective for the warning.”

In other words, very often a warning doesn't work. For that reason a 2009 industry study found phishing attacks to be highly effective. For example, 45% of bank customers who were redirected to a phishing site gave up their log-in information.

Carpenter and Zhu are still trying to find an effective warning, but what they have figured out is that phishing is not just a problem of technology, though fixes are normally offered only in those terms. Rather, a lot of it involves psychology.

Scammers, it seems, have always known that.

More

Customer says Comcast overcharged him and got him fired; sues in federal court

Comcast admits to bad service and billing errors, but denies role in man's firing

Of all the bad-customer-service stories Comcast customers might have, none are likely to top that of former customer Conal O'Rourke, also a former employee...

PhotoOf all the bad-customer-service stories Comcast customers might have, none is likely to top that of former customer Conal O'Rourke, also a former employee of the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (which, incidentally, does a lot of business with Comcast).

Last Thursday, O'Rourke filed suit against Comcast, alleging among other things that the cable giant violated federal privacy law when, presumably in retaliation for O'Rourke's complaints of bad customer service, someone at Comcast contacted O'Rourke's employer and had him fired.

The Consumerist first broke the story of O'Rourke's firing on Oct. 6, after he'd contacted them with his initial complaint: in early 2013, he said, he signed up with Comcast to take advantage of a nine-month promotional offer.

Problems from the start

But he had problems from the start: Comcast charged him for set-up boxes not yet activated, and misspelled his name on mailings so that some of his bills went undelivered. When the promotional period ended Comcast upped his monthly bill by $20, continued charging him for the still-unactivated set-up boxes, and also charged him for modems he never received.

Comcast Cable Service Oct. 21, 2014, 7:28 p.m.
Consumers rate Comcast Cable Service

When O'Rourke tried canceling his Comcast service in Oct. 2013, a Comcast rep talked him out of it by assuring him that his billing issues would be resolved shortly, and offered him free DVR service and a free three-month subscription to The Movie Channel as compensation for his troubles.

He accepted. Then things got worse. Comcast sent him a dozen pieces of equipment – DVRs, modems and things he didn't recognize – and billed him $1,800 for it all. O'Rourke disputed these charges, frequently contacting the company and sending them detailed spreadsheets he'd made showing all the errors in his bills.

It didn't help. Last February, Comcast sent O'Rourke's bill to collections even though it was not yet past due. So on Feb. 6, thoroughly fed up with Comcast's regular customer service, he went over their heads and contacted the office of the company Controller. And here's what happened next, according to the Consumerist:

He spoke to someone in that office who promised Conal would receive a call back to address the issues.

He describes that callback as “bizarre,” with the rep not identifying which company she was calling from, just starting out with “How can I help you?” Then she kept insisting that a technician had shown up for an appointment, but wouldn’t specify which appointment. The rep then began asking him for the color of his house.

So he tried the Controller’s office again, to let them know that the rep they’d sent his way had failed miserably at her job.

During this call, he says that he mentioned that Comcast’s billing and accounting issues should probably be investigated by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), a private-sector oversight operation. This ultimately led to two service calls where no one ever showed up and no explanations were given.

As a professional accountant who at the time worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, of course O'Rourke knew about the PCAOB, whereas your average non-accountant Comcast customer probably would not.

Ethics investigation

Some time after that call, somebody at Comcast contacted PriceWaterhouseCoopers to complain about O'Rourke, who was soon fired after an “ethics” investigation even though he'd previously received excellent reviews at his job.

In a prepared statement, PwC said: "Mr. O’Rourke was employed in one of our internal firm services offices. The firm terminated his employment after an internal investigation concluded that Mr. O’Rourke violated PwC’s ethical standards and practices, applicable to all of our people. The firm has explicit policies regarding employee conduct, we train our people in those policies, and we enforce them. Mr. O’Rourke’s violation of these policies was the sole reason for his termination." 

Comcast and O'Rourke tell slightly different versions of what happened when O'Rourke called the Controller's office; Comcast says he name-dropped his employer, whereas O'Rourke maintains he never said who he worked for, but figured that after the call, someone at Comcast looked him up online and figured out who he worked for.

Comcast has not yet released the recordings of the disputed phone call.

That was the story as of Oct. 6. Two days later, Comcast executive Charlie Herrin, whose full title is given as “Senior Vice President, Customer Experience, Comcast Cable in Customer Experience” on the Comcast corporate blog, posted “A Public Apology To Conal O'Rourke,” in which he apologized for the poor customer service and billing errors O'Rourke suffered, but denied any role in O'Rourke's loss of employment:

What happened with Mr. O’Rourke's service is completely unacceptable. Despite our attempts to address Mr. O’Rourke’s issues, we simply dropped the ball and did not make things right. Mr. O’Rourke deserves another apology from us and we’re making this one publicly. We also want to clarify that nobody at Comcast asked for him to be fired.

Then, last Thursday, O'Rourke's lawyers filed suit (available here in .pdf form) against Comcast the corporation, Lawrence Salva the individual (who also works as Comcast Controller), and unnamed “Does [as in John and Jane] 1-20,” certain Comcast employees whose names and identities O'Rourke and his attorneys do not yet know.

$30 million a year

Remember when O'Rourke called the Controller's office and suggested that the company deserved to be investigated by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board? The lawsuit says that this is what happened next:

Within an hour after this second call, Mr. Salva personally called Joe Atkinson, a principal at Mr. O'Rourke's employer, PWC. Because Comcast pays more than $30 million a year to PWC for consulting services, Mr. Atkinson took the call. Salva demanded that Mr. O'Rourke be fired from PWC, falsely claiming that Mr. O'Rourke had violated accounting ethics standards by using PWC's name as 'leverage' in his 'negotiations' with Comcast.

The lawsuit also describes what happened the day O'Rourke got fired:

"Less than an hour after Mr. O'Rourke's second call with Comcast's Controller's office, Mr. O'Rourke received a call from Mr. Atkinson. Mr. O'Rourke was shocked to receive the call -- he had never before had occasion to deal with Mr. Atkinson. An angry Atkinson informed Mr. O'Rourke that he had received a call from Comcast's Controller about Mr. O'Rourke. Mr. Atkinson told Mr. O'Rourke that the client was very angry, very valuable, was in fact the Philadelphia office's largest client with billings exceeding $30 million per year, and that Mr. O'Rourke was not to speak with anyone from Comcast."

The suit charges Comcast and the other defendants of defamation, breach of contract, infliction of emotional distress, unfair business practice, and violation of the Cable Communications Policy Act for disclosing information about him to his employer without his permission.

The Communications Act is very strict regarding ISPs and cable companies, who by the nature of their business know a lot about you (including your TV-viewing and web-surfing habits), and so the confidentiality of the information they have is protected by federal law. It would be illegal for Comcast even to reveal the seemingly harmless information that he was a Comcast customer with complaints about his service without O'Rourke's prior consent, let alone call his employer to either reveal specifics or make false claims about anything O'Rourke the Comcast customer might have said during a Comcast customer service call.

O'Rourke has, though his lawyers, repeatedly asked Comcast and PriceWaterhouseCoopers to release their recordings of the disputed phone calls and conversations. So far, neither company has done so.

More

PetSmart reaching out to homeless dogs and cats

The pet supply chain is helping to house homeless families' pets

The insecurity and the devastation homelessness represents to a family is a crushing blow and the impact on a child can last for a lifetime. The loss of se...

Photo
Photo © PetSmart

The insecurity and the devastation homelessness represents to a family is a crushing blow and the impact on a child can last for a lifetime. The loss of secure surroundings takes a toll on every family member, including pets. After all, you can't get into a homeless shelter with a pet.

The loss of a pet at such a time compounds the tragedy for children. The one thing that may have provided peace and unconditional love in a tenuous situation is taken from them through no fault of their own. With one in 50 American children homeless each year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that's a lot of unhappy kids. 

Things are starting to change though, thanks in part to PetSmart Promise, a new program that works to keep homeless families and their pets together. It's part of the company's PetSmart Gives Back series of charitable programs.

The program got started after former PetSmart president Joe O'Leary want to an event sponsored by Family Promise, which provides services to homeless families.

Need to help

"He really felt a need to help after he went to this affair and decided to get PetSmart involved," said PetSmart vice president Andy IzquierdoThe program launched not long after in Phoenix, where a local Family Promise converted a two-bedroom apartment into housing for homeless dogs and cats.

PetSmart pays for all the supplies like dog bowls, leashes and food, and also gave the local chapter of Family Promise $35,000. Additional centers have since opened in Bozeman, Mont.; Fayetteville, N.C.; Montgomery, Ala.; Wasila, Alaska; Cincinnati; Akron and later this year Morristown, N.J.

Not all of Family Promise locations are able to house the pets so they have used PetSmart PetsHotel as a back-up. That's now happening in six states with 16 more cities being added in coming months, Izquierdo said. 

"PetSmart is proud of the programs that they have stepped up to the plate to help provide solutions for," he said.

More

Gift givers to spend more this holiday season, survey finds

More than 40% of shopping is expected to be done online

With a little more than 9 weeks to go before Christmas, the nation's retailers have visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. According to the Natio...

Photo
Photo © Marek - Fotolia

With a little more than 9 weeks to go before Christmas, the nation's retailers have visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads.

According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Holiday Consumer Spending Survey, the average person celebrating Christmas, Kwanzaa and/or Hanukkah will spend $804.42 -- up nearly 5% from last year’s $767.27.

“Retailers have plenty of reasons to be optimistic this holiday season, and one of the most important pieces of evidence is the confidence holiday shoppers are exuding in their plans to spend on gifts for their loved ones,” said NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay. “While not completely throwing caution to the wind, Americans’ frugal spending habits will still be visible this holiday season as they continue to rely on discounts and sales and comparison shop. Consumers will put retailers to the test when it comes to the product mix and value companies can offer today’s shopper who is focused on much more than just price.”

Increases across the board

The survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, found consumers will spend an average of $459.87 on gifts for their family up 6.5% from $432.00 last year, and $80.00 on gifts for friends, up $5 from last year. Those celebrating the holidays will also spend more on gifts for their co-workers ($26.23 vs. $24.52 in 2013), and others like their babysitter and even their pets ($30.43 vs. $26.65).

Spending on traditional items such as decorations and food will remain flat: According to the survey, consumers will spend an average of $104.74 on food, $53.68 on decorations and $29.18 on greeting cards and $20.30 on flowers.

One of the more popular trends in recent years -- so-called self-gifting -- will decrease this year as shoppers opt to shift their budgets towards spending on others: Nearly 57% of consumers say they plan to take advantage of sales and discounts to purchase non-gift items for themselves or others, and will spend an average of $126.68, versus $134.77 last year.

A surge in online and mobile shopping

Retailers are expecting more consumers to shop online for their gifts and other needs. According to the survey, 56% plan to shop online -- up from 4.5% from last year and the most in the survey’s 13-year history. Additionally, the average person plans to do 44.4% of her shopping online -- the most since NRF first asked in 2006.

Looking for great prices and value as they shop around for holiday items, many consumers will visit discount (61.9%), department (59.7%) and grocery stores (51.2%). Others will head to clothing or accessories stores (36.7%), electronics (30.8%), drug (19.2%) and craft and fabric stores (18.8%).

As mobile grows in use and scope, consumers this holiday season will turn to their on-the-go devices for a variety of reasons. The survey found most smartphone owners (55.7%) will use their device in some fashion, compared with 53.8% last year. Specifically, 35.8% will research products/prices -- the highest amount in the 4 years NRF has been asking. Nearly one-quarter (23.9%) will redeem coupons and 19.1% will actually purchase items -- another survey high.

Almost two-thirds (63.2%) of tablet owners will use their device to research and purchase holiday items, the same as last year. Nearly half (47.4%) will research products and one-third (33%) will purchase items.

Digital payments

For the first time, NRF asked consumers about their comfort level using a smartphone or tablet to pay for merchandise at a store check-out counter. According to the survey, 27.4% said they would be somewhat or very comfortable; however, two in five (41.9%) say they are not very or not at all comfortable paying for items that way.

Broken out by age, 41.1% of 25-34 year olds are somewhat or very comfortable using their device to pay for items at the register, versus just 14.4% of those 65+. Men are much more likely to feel comfortable with the technology (32.6% vs. 22.5% of women.)

Pre-Halloween shopping

Early-bird shoppers have already been out and about this year. The survey found four in 10 (40.4%) begin their holiday shopping before Halloween -- consistent with more than 10 years of survey findings. The survey also found 40.9%l begin in November, compared with 38.8% last year, and 15.5% will begin in the first two weeks of December, little-changed from last year.

When asked why they begin shopping for the holiday season as early as September, most agree it helps them spread out their spending (61.9%). Half choose to do so to avoid holiday crowds (51.7%), and another 51.0 percent say shopping early helps them avoid the stress of last-minute shopping. Nearly 3 in 10 (29.9%) say they shop for the holiday season year-round, and more than one-quarter (27.3%) say the desire to get their hands on specific items drives them to shop early; unsurprisingly, 44.7% shop early because the deals and promotions are too good to pass up.

Why we shop where we shop

When it comes to why consumers chose to shop where they do during the holiday season, retailers should take heed: One-quarter of shoppers say easy-to-use mobile websites is an important factor in their decision to shop with a specific retailer. Those polled also say free shipping/shipping promotions (42.3%) are important factors. Consumers add that helpful, knowledgeable customer service (30.3%), convenient locations (47.9%), low prices (41.2%) and sales or price discounts (74.7%) also aid in their decision to shop at a particular retailer.

As the market becomes more competitive than ever before, retailers in recent years have begun to stress quality and selection of merchandise, and shoppers are paying attention: According to the survey, 6 in 10 say quality of merchandise (60.9%) and selection of merchandise (59.4%) are important factors in their decision to shop somewhere.

“Even with expectations for increased spending this year, smart shopping strategies will be very important to those celebrating the holidays,” said Prosper’s Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow. “Overall, consumers feel better about where they stand compared to a year ago, and as such could find themselves stretching their dollars to give their loved ones a holiday season to remember. Retailers, however, should still expect to see high demand for sales, coupons and other promotions as shoppers focus on ‘what’s in it for them’.”

Making a list, checking it twice

For the eighth year in a row gift cards are the most requested items. According to the survey, 62% say they’d most like a gift card, followed by clothing (52.5%), books, CDs, DVDs or video games (43.1%), and electronics (34.6%). One-quarter (24.8%) say they’d like to receive jewelry, up from slightly from last year.

When asked if the state of the U.S. economy would affect their holiday spending plans, 4 in 10 (41.4%) said yes, down almost 20% from last year and the lowest amount since NRF first asked in 2009. Of those who said yes, most agree they will compensate by spending less overall (75.6%). Others will shop for sales more often (49.0%), comparison shop online more often (34.4%), use coupons more often (37%), buy more practical gifts (28.4%) and use last year’s decorations (24.8%).

More

A rebound for sales of existing homes

The annual sales pace is the highest so far this year

A blip, maybe? You could draw that conclusion. After posting the first drop in 5 months during August, sales of previously-owned homes got back on track d...

Photo
© Brian Jackson - Fotolia.com

A blip, maybe? You could draw that conclusion.

After posting the first drop in 5 months during August, sales of previously-owned homes got back on track in September with all major regions except for the Midwest registering gains.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 2.4% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.17 million.

While that put sales at their highest pace of 2014, they are still 1.7% below the 5.26 million-unit level from a year earlier.

Improving demand

“Low interest rates and price gains holding steady led to September’s healthy increase, even with investor activity remaining on par with last month’s marked decline,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Traditional buyers are entering a less competitive market with fewer investors searching for available homes, but may also face a slight decline in choices due to the fact that inventory generally falls heading into the winter.”

The median existing-home price for all housing types was $209,700 -- up 5.6% from September 2013, marking the 31st consecutive month of year-over-year price gains.

Total housing inventory at the end of September dropped 1.3% to 2.30 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 5.3-month supply at the current sales pace. Despite fewer homes for sale in September, unsold inventory is still 6.0% above a year ago, when there were 2.17 million existing homes available for sale.

Regional sales tally

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast climbed 1.5% in September to an annual rate of 680,000, but are 1.4% below a year ago. The median price was $249,800 -- up 4.8% from a year ago.
  • In the Midwest, existing-home sales fell 5.6% to an annual level of 1.17 million, and are 4.9% below September 2013. The median price was up 4.9% from September 2013 -- to $165,100.
  • Sales of previously-owned home sales in the South increased rose 5.0% to an annual rate of 2.12 million last month, and are now 1.4% their level of a year ago. The median price in the South was $180,900 -- a year-over-year increase of 5.1%.
  • Sales in the West jumped 7.1% to an annual rate of 1.20 million in September, are still down 4.0% from a year ago. The median price in the West rose 4.0% from the same time last year -- to $294,200.
More

Feds red-light alleged green coffee bean scams

Defendants "used nearly every trick in the book," FTC charges

A U.S. district court judge has issued an order that temporarily stops pitches for green coffee bean extract and other Pure Simple dietary supplements. The...

More

Toyota recalls vehicles with air bag inflator issues

The inflators performed improperly during component testing

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Is conducting a supplemental safety recall of approximately 247,000 Toyota Corolla, Matrix, Sequoia, Tundra and Lexus SC vehicle...

Photo
© Dmitry Vereshchagin - Fotolia

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Is conducting a supplemental safety recall of approximately 247,000 Toyota Corolla, Matrix, Sequoia, Tundra and Lexus SC vehicles produced from 2001 to 2004 and equipped with front passenger air bag inflators supplied by Takata Corporation.

The new recall targets vehicles in consistently high absolute humidity areas, including southern Florida, along the Gulf Coast, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, U.S Virgin Islands, Guam, Saipan and American Samoa.

Recalls for affected vehicles were also issued in April 2013, and June 2014. Separately, in cooperation with NHTSA and Takata to investigate incidents of ruptured inflators, Toyota recovered inflators from recalled vehicles from areas in South Florida for evaluation by Takata.

Takata provided data to Toyota indicating that a number of the returned inflators performed improperly during component testing. The cause of the potential for ruptured inflators and the influence of high absolute humidity are under investigation.

To date, Toyota has received no reports of injuries or fatalities related to this condition.

Al known owners of the affected Toyota and Lexus vehicles will be notified by first class mail to return their vehicles to a Toyota or Lexus dealer.

The dealer will replace the front passenger air bag inflator with a newly manufactured one. If a replacement part is not available at the time of vehicle service, the dealer will follow procedures to temporarily disable the front passenger air bag assembly.

In addition, the dealer will install a glove box hang tag informing occupants that the front passenger seat should not be occupied until the inflator assembly is replaced and the airbag is fully functional.

Consumers may call Lexus Customer Service at 1-800-255-3987 or Toyota Customer Service at 1-800-331-4331 for more information.

More

Ford recalls Mustangs

The safety belt buckle tension sensor could malfunction

Ford is recalling 53 2015 Ford Mustangs built from Aug. 18, 2014 to Oct. 2, 2014. Fifty of the vehicles are in the U.S. and federalized territories, and 3 ...

Photo
Photo source: Ford

Ford is recalling 53 2015 Ford Mustangs built from Aug. 18, 2014 to Oct. 2, 2014. Fifty of the vehicles are in the U.S. and federalized territories, and 3 are in Canada.

The safety belt buckle tension sensor, included in the assembly, may not have been calibrated at the supplier and could result in misclassification of the front passenger seat occupant.

This issue may lead to improper passenger airbag deployment for the occupant, which could increase the risk of injury in a crash.

Ford says it is not aware of any accidents or injuries related to this condition.

Dealers will replace the passenger safety belt buckle assembly at no cost to the customer.

More

Doctors try to calm Ebola fears

One says there could be as many as 100 U.S. cases

Last week's grilling of federal health officials at the hands of Congress may say a lot about rising public concern and frustration over the arrival of the...

Photo
© concept w - Fotolia

Last week's grilling of federal health officials at the hands of Congress may say a lot about rising public concern and frustration over the arrival of the deadly Ebola virus on American shores.

While Republican lawmakers might be expected to take political shots at the Obama Administration over its handling of the Ebola outbreak, it's worth noting two prominent Democrats on the ballot next month – Wendy Davis of Texas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina – have broken with the White House and called for a temporary ban on flights from the 3 affected West African countries.

Is the growing fear that Ebola could become a deadly epidemic in the U.S. justified? The medical community, for the most part, continues to insist it is not.

Before the first case turned up in Dallas Ira Longini, professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida, released a study predicting a 20% chance of “isolated cases” of Ebola showing up in the U.S.

Limited outbreak

Now that the first cases have appeared, Longini is sticking to his prediction that there will be a very limited outbreak in the U.S. He also is not in favor of restricting travel.

“Very far down on the list is the control of movement of people, which on the surface looks like it's important, but it's so difficult to carry out,” he said. “I don't think that that's going to have a big impact on the spread of the epidemic.”

So far, Longini is one of the few experts willing to put a number on Americans eventually stricken with the disease. Based on containment methods available in the U.S., he said he believes the U.S. will see fewer than 100 cases of Ebola. The number of U.S. cases, he says, depends largely on the number of African cases.

“Unless the epidemic continues to be completely out of control and more countries are affected and it gets much larger, I wouldn't expect to see more than a handful of cases in the U.S,” he said.

We've been here before

Howard Markel, a doctor and medical historian at the University of Michigan, says there have been epidemics throughout history and most have been accompanied by fear. He cautions Americans against over-reacting.

“You should pay attention, certainly, but, at this point there’s no need to get into the frenzy about Ebola in the United States,” he said.” We all need to take a breath and do a reality check.”

The reality, he says, is that Ebola is hard to catch and easy to kill. It's also a reality, he says, that most of the cases to date have been in people who live or worked in West Africa.

“While there may continue to be transmissions to health care workers here in this country, the risk to most of us is quite small,” he said.

In fact, the two Americans who contracted Ebola without visiting Africa are nurses who were part of the Dallas team that treated Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola after visiting West Africa. David Weber, professor of medicine, pediatrics, and epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Schools of Medicine and Public Health, warns that health care workers are particularly vulnerable, despite the strictest precautions.

"In Africa, more than 300 healthcare workers have acquired Ebola,” he said. “More than 200 of those have died."

Weber says the emphasis now should be on training health care workers to deal with Ebola, so that more are not infected while treating patients. The training needs to be completed now, he says, before there are patients.

More

Apple Pay is available today

But how many customers and merchants will accept it?

Today, Apple finally rolled out its long-promised mobile wallet – officially known as Apple Pay....

Photo
Photo credit: Apple

Today, Apple finally rolled out its long-promised mobile wallet – officially known as Apple Pay.

When Apple released the iPhone 6 and iWatch last month, most of the buzz focused not on the gadgets themselves, but a feature made standard on both: the ability to not only make payments with your mobile device (as opposed to a credit or debit card), but to make payments that are supposedly more secure than traditional American credit card purchases, thanks to the process of “tokenization.”

Of course, for Apple Pay to prove as successful as Apple wants, two different things must happen: large numbers of customers must want to use Apple Pay when making purchases – and large numbers of merchants must be willing to accept Apple Pay. From Apple's perspective, that second hurdle might prove harder to overcome than the first.

The Wall Street Journal noted on Monday that “Many retailers — including the nation’s largest, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. — aren’t part of Apple’s network. Only a minority have machines capable of reading the near-field communication radio signal that makes Apple Pay work. And only Apple’s newest phones, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, include the technology.”

Too early to say

It's far too early yet to predict whether Apple's mobile wallet will prove to be the Next Big Thing, or fizzle out.

Even the business media is divided: on Oct. 17, Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Kyle Stock wrote an article explaining “Why retailers will love the Apple Pay era” (short version: for the same reason most retailers already accept credit cards despite the swipe fees they must pay, and most casinos require gamblers to buy chips rather than bet cash – because the common psychological phenomenon known as “decoupling” ensures that most people, regardless of how intelligent they otherwise are, simply do not view betting a $20 casino chip or putting a $20 charge on a credit card as being identical to spending $20 in actual cash, even though such actions have identical results where your net worth is concerned).

So one Businessweek analyst thinks Apple Pay will be a rousing success with retailers for the same reason they adopted other consumer “decoupling” technologies, such as credit card payments.

Then, today, another Businessweek analyst, Joshua Brustein, explained that “Apple Pay is too anonymous for some retailers” who are “are less than thrilled about Apple’s anonymous infrastructure.”

Useful data

Short version of why: thanks to credit cards and other longstanding non-cash payment options, retailers already have ways to take advantage of consumer decoupling, with the added bonus that accepting credit or debit card payments enables these retailers to collect lots of potentially useful marketing data about you and your buying habits. Apple Pay, by contrast, “won’t collect information about what people buy — and it’s designed to ensure no one else can, either.”

So from a merchant's perspective, Apple Pay might arguably be merely a less-useful version of an already-existing payment system, with the added downside that the merchant can't even take advantage of this less-useful system without first spending money to acquire the equipment for it.

Indeed, in mid-September, Walmart, Best Buy and other major retailers were quick to announce that they would not be accepting Apple Pay (though other major companies, including CVS, Walgreens, McDonald's, Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Whole Foods, said the opposite). Many of the merchants forgoing the Apple Pay options said it's because they are working with a retailer-owned group called the Merchant Customer Exchange to develop a competing mobile payment option called CurrentC, expected to be released next year.

Unlike Apple Pay, the downloadable CurrentC app will be usable on any Android or iPhone, not just the newest Apple products, and it will not require merchants to invest in specialized checkout scanners the way Apple Pay does.

One thing does seem certain: the era of widespread mobile payment options is almost here. The only question is which option will be the first to dominate the market: Apple Pay, CurrentC or something which hasn't even been developed yet?

More

Airbnb for dogs? It's as close as your keyboard

Online pet-sitting services bring pets and sitters together

We have become a society that shares. We share a family plan with our cellphone, if you need a ride there is always Uber and we share our lives on Facebook...

Photo
Pet sitters in Los Angeles (Source: Rover.com)

We have become a society that shares. We share a family plan with our cellphone, if you need a ride there is always Uber and we share our lives on Facebook.

Now there is a service where you can share your dog. Actually it's a pet sitter but you get the idea. It's an alternative to having to put your dog in a kennel while you go away on vacation.

If you are traveling for Thanksgiving and grandma says, "Please leave the dog at home, your cousin Lenny can eat the table scraps," you need to think about where your dog can stay and be safe.

Check out one of the fastest-growing solutions -- Rover.com. It's really pretty ingenious. Here's how it works.

Find a match
You first get to pick your sitter; you go to the search button and automatically a list pops up with prospective pet sitters. Each has a picture and a profile and a price. All are vying for your pal to stay with them. It's a complete profile actually more descriptive than any Internet dating site I have seen. (I have been single for a long time).

Go and meet them
You obviously want to know where your pet will be staying so you do a meet and greet at the sitter's house. You pay with Visa, Mastercard or PayPal. You can also sign up for other services -- extra walks , a bath. You two work out the details.

Peace of mind
Every pet that enrolls is covered by insurance. Vet bills are covered up to $25,000 per claim, after a $250 deductible.

A picture says a thousand words ... or barks
You also get picture updates just to make sure your pet is adjusting to his new digs.

The company definitely expresses a dog culture as they have a "Rovercam" in the office so you can see their employees who have brought their dogs to work daily.

Rover has about 30 employees in their downtown Seattle office, handing about sitters across the U.S. The company was started by venture capitalist Greg Gottesman at a Startup Weekend event in Seattle in 2011 and investors in the startup include Petco, Madrona Venture Group and Crunchfund.

More

Are consumers relying too much on YouTube?

British survey finds 7% would try to rewire their house with YouTube's help

If you need to learn how to do something, chances are you can find more than one video on YouTube to walk you through it....

Photo
Photo via YouTube

If you need to learn how to do something, chances are you can find more than one video on YouTube to walk you through it.

The Google-owned video service has nearly 3 million instructional videos – some from professional sources and some from amateurs. And therein lies the problem, say the professionals.

If the amateur is knowledgeable, experienced and knows what they are doing, chances are their instructional video will be very helpful. But if they are not, you could get into trouble by following its advice.

The problem is knowing the difference – and there is no way to really know until you follow their advice.

Lots of do-it-yourselfers in the UK

In the UK, Electrical Safety First, an electricity safety non-profit education group, conducted a survey to ask people if they would use a YouTube video to perform a home improvement project themselves. It found more than half said they would.

In the area of electrical do-it-yourself jobs, the survey found that 39% of homeowners would consult YouTube to rewire a small appliance while 34% would use a YouTube tutorial to rewire a light fixture. Incredibly it found 7% said they would try to rewire an entire house with YouTube's assistance.

All of this worries Electrical Safety First, which says the availability of online instructions may be putting people at risk. For example, fitting a new bathroom or rewiring a house are complicated tasks that should be carried out by qualified, licensed experts.

1 in 16 cause significant damage

The group claims that 1 in 16 people have caused significant damage to their property or have had to pay for costly repairs because of botched DIY after following advice found online.

“The Internet is a fantastic resource and the new generation of YouTube DIYers shows just how much we have come to rely on it,” said Emma Apter, spokeswoman for Electrical Safety First. “But there’s only so much online videos and tips can tell you and not everyone will have the knowledge or experience to carry out more complicated tasks. Ask yourself: ‘If I have to Google this, should I really be doing it?’ If in doubt, get a professional in – it could save you a lot of time and money in the long run.”

Health misinformation?

Consumers might run into the same problem if they rely too much on YouTube for information about their health. Researcher writing in the October issue of Emergency Medicine Australiasia investigated the accuracy of YouTube videos on CPR, checking them against the 2010 CPR guidelines.

It concluded that the majority of YouTube video clips purporting to be about CPR are not relevant educational material. Of those that are focused on teaching CPR, only a small minority optimally meet the 2010 guidelines, the study found.

That's not to say there isn't reliable, relevant information on the Internet. The trouble is finding it.

Medical researchers at Johns Hopkins say you will get better results if you restrict your search. Instead of searching the topic on YouTube, start your search at a reputable health data site – such as Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.

More

What's really in that dog food?

Mislabeling is prevalent, a European study finds

Our pets are no different then we are when it comes to eating -- what goes in the mouth and down the little esophagus is pretty important. This occurred to...

Photo
Staff photo

Our pets are no different then we are when it comes to eating -- what goes in the mouth and down the little esophagus is pretty important. This occurred to me when I noticed that one of my dogs has become wider than I think she should be.

Just like humans it crept up on us like weeds after a rainfall. One day I saw her waddling around and decided right then and there -- no more dog cookies we are moving in the carrot direction.

There are numerous choices when it comes to food for furry friends. Everybody has a bone to pick about which is the best but in the end, it's always about the ingredients. The first few ingredients on the label tell you what you and your dog are about to embark upon. This assumes, of course, that the label is accurate.

Someone did a recent study of just this question. It's is called "Identification of Meat Species in Pet Foods Using a Real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Assay." It means what's in the bag and how did it get there? What the study found is that there's a possibility the ingredients in pet food could be mislabeled.

“Although regulations exist for pet foods, increases in international trade and globalization of the food supply have amplified the potential for food fraud to occur,” said Rosalee Hellberg, Ph.D., who co-authored the study.

Ground horsemeat

In Europe they are using ground horsemeat for human consumption and Hellberg is worried we are going to see it coming into our pet food as well as human food in the U.S. Horsemeat was not found in any of the products they tested, however.

Not so comforting is the fact that 40% of the foods that were tested were mislabeled -- 13 were dog food and 7 were cat food. Pork got the raw end of the deal as it was the most undeclared ingredient; 16 that were tested were mystery meat -- yep just like the school cafeteria. They weren't on the product label.

Chicken was the most common meat found in pet food. Pork, beef, turkey and lamb followed goose brought up the rear. 

More studies are needed to see how much of a problem mislabeling actually is and at what point it happens, Hellberg said.

More

Congress urged to ban "virtual brothels"

Attorneys general say children being bought and sold on Backpage.com, other sites

Attorneys General from around the country are urging Congress to pass legislation that would help prevent children from being trafficked on the Internet....

Photo
Screenshot from Backpage.com
Attorneys General from around the country are urging Congress to pass legislation that would help prevent children from being trafficked on the Internet.

The letter, co-sponsored by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller and signed by 53 state and territorial attorneys general, asks the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to approve the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act.

The SAVE Act, Senate Bill 2536, would provide more oversight of websites that offer “adult services,” such as Backpage.com.

“The facts about online child sex trafficking are as shocking as they are heartbreaking,” Ferguson said. “It’s within Congress’ power to take a huge step toward ending that. I join with my fellow attorneys general in urging them to do the right thing.”

In just one week this June, police arrested 281 alleged sex traffickers and rescued 168 children from prostitution in a nationwide FBI crackdown against people who offered child victims for sale on “escort” and other “adult services” websites.

Backpage suit

Tomorrow, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether a lawsuit against Backpage.com by three victims of child sex trafficking can go forward. The children argue the site effectively helps promote the victimization of children. Ferguson filed an amicus brief in support of the children last month.

Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, generating about $150 billion each year. There are numerous cases nationally of children being used in prostitution as young as 12. The FBI estimates that nearly 300,000 American youths are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

The use of the “adult services sections” on websites such as Backpage.com has created virtual brothels where children are bought and sold using euphemistic labels such as “escorts,” Ferguson said. The SAVE Act would require these websites that are enabling trafficking through their very business model to take steps to verify the identity of individuals posting advertisements and the age of those who appear in them.

More

Cold sore virus increases Alzheimer's risk

The theory is that a weakened immune system allows the herpes virus to reach the brain

A cold sore is about as annoying as minor annoyances get. But it may be more than annoying. A new study finds that infection wih the herpes simplex virus i...

Photo
Photo © Ekaterina - Fotolia

A cold sore is about as annoying as minor annoyances get. But it may be more than annoying. A new study finds that infection wih the herpes simplex virus increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

"Our results clearly show that there is a link between infections of herpes simplex virus and the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. This also means that we have new opportunities to develop treatment forms to stop the disease," said Hugo Lövheim, a professor at Umeå University and one of the authors of the study, published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

In recent years research has increasingly indicated that there is a possible connection between infection with a common herpes virus, herpes simplex virus type 1, and Alzheimer's disease. A majority of the population carries this virus.

After the first infection the body carries the virus throughout your lifetime, and it can reactivate now and then and cause mouth ulcers. The hypothesis which links the herpes virus and Alzheimer's disease is based on the notion that a weakened immune system among the elderly creates opportunities for the virus to spread further to the brain, starting the process which results in Alzheimer's disease.

Lövheim and a colleague, Fredrik Elgh, have confirmed this link in two large epidemiological studies.

In one study, the researchers show that a reactivated herpes infection doubled the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. This study had 3,432 participants who were followed for 11.3 years on average.

In another study, 360 people with Alzheimer's disease were examined and compared to 360 others who had not developed dementia. The samples were taken on average 9.6 years before diagnosis. This study showed an approximately doubled risk of developing Alzheimer's disease if the person was a carrier of the herpes virus.

"Something which makes this hypothesis very interesting is that now herpes infection can in principle be treated with antiviral agents. Therefore within a few years we hope to be able to start studies in which we will also try treating patients to prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease," said Lövheim.

More

Growing up inside -- a plant's story

Outside -- and inside -- conditions change in the fall

It's fall and that can be scary if you are a gardner. Yes, freezing can kill everything in one fast frost if you aren't prepared. What about what's going o...

Photo
Photo © S Chawalit - Fotolia
It's fall and that can be scary if you are a gardner. Yes, freezing can kill everything in one fast frost if you aren't prepared. What about what's going on inside your house though? How do you prepare for that?

Plants thrive indoors in the spring and summer but in winter they tend to dry out and die.

Part of the problem is that indoor humidity levels drop considerably when you fire up your heaters. Dry air can be a killer to houseplants, especially if you have some that are tropical (most are, by the way). Tropical plants need humidity to thrive.

Here are some way to help keep your plants green and growing, adding a touch of spring and summer to your cold surroundings over the fall and winter months.

Wipe them down
Just like your pores nothing good comes out of them if they are clogged. Accumulated dust on the leaves clogs the pores making it hard for plants to breathe. Just wipe them down with a damp cloth as part of a routine.

Mist
Water plays a crucial role so get a spray bottle and mist them. Ideally 3 times a day but once will work. It's no wonder people talk to their plants -- it's a lot of contact. Remember these plants need humidity so if you have some type of water feature in your home (like a waterfall) that you can place them by it will help you cut back on having to constantly mist them.

Let it shine
Sun is crucial to plants' well-being.The angle of the sun changes a great deal in fall and winter. Those plants that were basking for a few months are probably living in the shadows now. Move plants that require bright light to a new location and let it shine down on them. Also it's a good idea to turn them every couple of weeks so they get light on all sides evenly.

No fertilizing
The growth process slows in the winter so just wait until spring.

The killer
Even though you need to mist them and wipe them down you don't want to soak them. Over-watering is the number one killer of household plants. Because they grow slower you don't even need to water them as much as you do in the warmer months. You may find that you can cut back on the frequency of your watering schedule by half or even two-thirds.

Be nice -- nobody likes cold water thrown on them. Use water that's slightly tepid, rather than cold,

More

Online recipe service promises to save time and cut stress

GatheredTable.com cooks up the menu and orders the groceries

Dinner -- it's what's on every mother's mind by about 3:00 PM at the latest everyday. Leave it to one busy mom and former Starbucks executive, Mary Egan,wh...

Photo
Photo credit: GatheredTable.com
Dinner -- it's what's on every mother's mind by about 3:00 PM at the latest everyday. Leave it to one busy mom and former Starbucks executive, Mary Egan,who managed to figure out an algorithm that can handle it for her according to her preferences.

She created something called GatheredTable.com. In its beta phase, customers surveyed said that they saved more than two hours a week and that GatheredTable reduced stress by over 50 per cent.

GatheredTable is everything you need all in one little online experience or on your iPhone. Here is how it works:

You sign up and set your preferences: Do you want a vegan menu or a Kosher meal, or maybe low sodium? How many people you are going to be feeding? It produces a recipe with enough ingredients that if someone is a little extra hungry there will be enough.

The website or the app will then create a customized menu for you based on your requests. They will even create recipes based on your palate. You also can use your old standby recipes. Recipes that you know will get your finicky 6-year-old to eat.

The website will then generate a smart grocery list that automatically updates (and reflects what's in your pantry and staples you replenish each week). You can edit or adjust it at anytime. 

Next here is the best part -- while you are driving to soccer practice or you are staying late at the office and someone else is doing the soccer thing. Your grocery list is being delivered right to your home. Hopefully a third person is there to answer the door and bring the groceries in.

GatheredTable just launched its first partnership with grocery-delivery service Peapod. Peapod – an Ahold USA company – is the country’s leading Internet grocer, serving 24 U.S. markets throughout Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin. By the first quarter of 2015, GatheredTable says it will offer integrated delivery in 20 of the top 25 metropolitan areas in the United States.

GatheredTable will let you try it free for 6 months -- after that it's $10 a month. Also they have partnered with the Edible Schoolyards Project, to which they donate 1% of their profits.

More

Oasis Brands recalls Lacteos Santa Martha products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Oasis Brands of Miami, Florida, is recalling select lots of various Lacteos Santa Martha products with Best by dates of 07/01/14 through 12/31/14 The prod...

Photo
Photo source: FDA

Oasis Brands of Miami, Florida, is recalling select lots of various Lacteos Santa Martha products with Best by dates of 07/01/14 through 12/31/14

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The recalled products were distributed in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina from April 1 through October 14, 2014, to distributors and retail stores.

The products can be identified by the batch ID code (best used by date) sticker on the label of the plastic bag of 07/01/14 through 12/31/14.

The following products are being recalled:

  • Queso Seco Centroamericano (Dry White Cheese) 1Lb UPC 876593 001874
  • Queso Seco Olanchano (Dry Cheese) 1Lb UPC 635349 000840
  • Queso Seco Hondureno (Dry Cheese) 12oz UPC 876593 001690
  • Quesito Casero (Fresh Curd) 12oz UPC 635349 000406
  • My Queso (Latin Flavor Cheese) 1Lb UPC 635349 000406
  • Queso Cuzcatlan (Salvadorean Flavor Cheese) 1Lb UPC 635349 000406
  • Queso para Freir (Cheese for Frying) 12oz UPC 635349 000758
  • Queso Fresco (Fresh Cheese) 12oz UPC 635349 000703
  • Cuajada en Hoja Queso Casero Hecho a Mano (Fresh Curd) 12oz UPC 635349 000895
  • Crema Centroamericana (Soft Blend Dairy Spread) 1Lb UPC 876593 001898
  • Mantequilla Hondurena (Honduran Style Cream) 1Lb UPC 635349 000772
  • Crema Nica (Grade A Cultured Cream) 1Lb UPC 635349 000468
  • HonduCrema Olanchana (Olanchana Style Soft Blend Dairy Spread) 1Lb UPC 635349 000598
  • Crema Guatemalteca (Guatemalan Style Cream) 1Lb UPC 635349 000819
  • Crema GuateLinda (Guatemalan Style Cream) 1Lb UPC 635349 000390
  • Crema Cuzcatlan (Salvadorean Style Cream) 1Lb UPC 635349 000444

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

Consumers with questions may contact the company at (305) 599-0225 Monday thru Friday 9:00 am - 4:30 pm EST.

More

Acura TLX AWD vehicles recalled

Tire failure may result from overloading

American Honda Motor Company is recalling 189 model year 2015 Acura TLX AWD vehicles manufactured August 26, 2014, to September 20, 2014. The affected ve...

Photo
Photo source: Accura

American Honda Motor Company is recalling 189 model year 2015 Acura TLX AWD vehicles manufactured August 26, 2014, to September 20, 2014.

The affected vehicles may have incorrect values for the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) and Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) front and rear printed on the safety certification label. If the vehicle is loaded to the specifications listed on the label, tire failure may result, increasing the risk of a crash.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will install a corrected certification label, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on October 21, 2014.

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-800-382-2238. Honda's number for this recall is JK6.

More

E&B’s Natural Way recalls lamb products

The products were not presented for USDA-FSIS import inspection

E&B’s Natural Way of Frederick, Md., is recalling approximately 27,948 pounds of raw lamb products because they were not presented for USDA-FSIS import ins...

Photo
Photo source: E&B’s Natural Way
E&B’s Natural Way of Frederick, Md., is recalling approximately 27,948 pounds of raw lamb products because they were not presented for USDA-FSIS import inspection.

Without the benefit of full inspection, a possibility of adverse health consequences exists.

The lamb products were packaged on October 21, 2013, September 2, 20, 21 and 22, 2014. The following products are subject to recall:

  • Lamb Packs
  • Lamb Bone-In Legs
  • Lamb Boneless Legs
  • Lamb Saddles
  • Lamb Racks
  • Lamb Loins
  • Lamb Shoulders
  • Lamb Shanks
  • Lamb Trim
  • Lamb for Stew

The products bear the establishment number “IS A022 EFTA” and include a label indicating “Product of Iceland.” These products were shipped to retail establishments in Washington and Oregon where they would have been repackaged.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Blair Gordon at (301) 471-5615.

More

Infectious disease threatens dogs; three die in Chicago

The disease is spread through the urine of infected animals

Infectious diseases are on everyone's mind right now -- and even dogs aren't safe. A disease that can be deadly for dogs (and humans) is making its way thr...

Photo
Photo © KDImages - Fotolia

Infectious diseases are on everyone's mind right now -- and even dogs aren't safe. A disease that can be deadly for dogs (and humans) is making its way through the northwest suburbs of Chicago lately. Its called Leptospirosis.

Without treatment, Leptospirosis can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which says that both humans and animals can transmit the disease, even if they themselves are not made ill by it.

In the Buffalo Grove area of suburban Chicago, three dogs have already died from it. According to Dr. Kerri Marshall, Chief Veterinary Officer of Trupanion, a company that provides pet health insurance, the disease is transmitted through urine.

"Dogs can pick it up by sniffing, drinking or stepping in a wild animal's urine like a raccoon, rat or a opossum. They then can go to a dog park and lick a healthy dog and transmit it to them just by licking them which is usually how it happens," she said. "Cattle get it a lot when wild animals urinate in streams and then the cattle drink from it."

This seems to be the time of year that it is most prevalent because it's getting colder and animals are out and about looking for food. If your dog is kept outside and you have wild critters running around your pup is at risk. The infection can take anywhere from 4-12 days to show up.

Some things to look for:

  • lethargy;
  • frequent urination;
  • not urinating;
  • vomiting;
  • lack of appetite; and 
  • fever.

"Get to the vet at once -- this is something that acts quickly and affects the kidneys. 80-90% will get sick from this," Marshall said. "It can be prevented with a vaccine. It is usually given when your puppy gets its first shots. It is so important to get the population vaccinated for it." 

The disease is expensive to treat. A single case can cost $9,000 or more. One recent case Marshall mentioned was $12,000.

Most cases  are treated with antibiotics, but if they have to do dialysis or kidney repair, the expense climbs rapidly.

More

Man bites dog? It's legal to eat dogs and cats in 44 states

The meat can't be sold commercially but feasting on Fido is perfectly legal in many locales

Would you eat them in a boat? Would you eat them with a goat? How about with a side of fries? You probably think the next line has something to do with Gre...

More

FBI director James Comey thinks FBI's own online safety tips should be illegal

Oct. 2012: FBI promotes phone encryption as defense against hackers. Oct. 2014: Comey wants to outlaw it

What does FBI director James Comey have in common with your average computer hacker?...

Photo
Photo © Mikael Damkier - Fotolia
Q: What does FBI director James Comey have in common with your average computer hacker?

A: They both really, really hate the idea of secure encrypted data.

When Apple launched its iPhone 6 in September, it bragged about the phone's strong security features, including automatic data encryption. Which made Comey, who's been the FBI director since September 2013, predict that encrypted communications could lead to a “very dark place” and criticize “companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law” — as opposed to, say, “Marketing something expressly so people know hackers can't steal photographs and other personal data off their phones.”

On the contrary. According to Comey, the people most likely to benefit by encrypted phones include kidnappers, terrorists and pedophiles: “The notion that people have devices... that with court orders, based on a showing of probable cause in a case involving kidnapping or child exploitation or terrorism, we could never open that phone? My sense is that we've gone too far when we've gone there,” Comey said in a televised interview.

Which does indeed sound terrible, except that (as CNN's Jose Pagliery pointed out) it's not true. Even with encryption, police and the FBI can still get data off your phone —they just can't do it without your knowledge:

The FBI can still get your phone data. Now, they can't do it secretly by going to Apple or Google. Agents must knock on your front door with a warrant in hand -- the way it's always been.

If you don't give the FBI access to your phone, it can ask a federal judge to force you. If you refuse, the government can throw you in jail and hold you in contempt of court.

Make it illegal

Pagliery also pointed out a rather more obvious problem: if data remains unencrypted, thus granting government the ability to remotely get it without your knowledge, that means hackers also have the ability to get your data without your knowledge.

Despite this, Comey has gone so far as to suggest Congress make data encryption illegal, via rewriting the 20-year-old Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act to make it cover apps and other technologies which didn't exist back in 1994.

Specifically: since CALEA requires telecom companies to give police access to communications, Comey thinks CALEA should also apply to, for example, the new iPhone 6 – except that, if the phone is encrypted, Apple itself can't get the data on it, and therefore can't hand it over to law enforcement. Only if the data remains unencrypted can Apple or any other phone provider (or a clever hacker) take data off it and give it to police (or an identity thief) without your knowledge.

Easier for hackers

In light of Comey's remarks, it seems safe to say “The FBI, at least under James Comey's aegis, wants all of your private communications and data to stay at risk of being hacked, since that will also make it easier for tech companies and the government to look at that data without your knowing about it.”

But the FBI didn't always have this attitude. On October 12, 2012 – almost exactly two years before Comey's ominous grumblings about the “very dark place” encryption will surely lead us – the FBI's “New E-Scams and Warnings” website published an article warning “Smartphone Users Should be Aware of Malware Targeting Mobile Devices and Safety Measures to Help Avoid Compromise,” including a bullet-pointed list of “Safety tips to protect your mobile device.” And the second tip on the list says this: “Depending on the type of phone, the operating system may have encryption available. This can be used to protect the user’s personal data in the case of loss or theft.”

But James Comey doesn't like it, because it also means that if the police, FBI, NSA or any other government authority wants to read that personal data, they'll need to visit a judge, get a search warrant and physically take possession of the phone. And so, two years after the FBI shared this anti-hacker safety technique with the American people, the FBI director wants Congress to make it illegal.

More

Facebook has a disaster plan for you

Whether it will work as intended is another question

Facebook has a disaster plan for your family and friends, assuming you're not swept away, crushed or drowned by whatever disaster befalls you....

PhotoFacebook has a disaster plan for your family and friends, assuming you're not swept away, crushed or drowned by whatever disaster befalls you.

“In times of disaster or crisis, people turn to Facebook to check on loved ones and get updates. It is in these moments that communication is most critical both for people in the affected areas and for their friends and families anxious for news,” Facebook said earlier this week.

Facebook's answer is something called Safety Check. You can use it to let everyone know you're OK next time a disaster strikes your area.

Here's how it works: When you log into Facebook from an area where there was a disaster, Facebook will send you a prompt asking if you want to let your friends know you are safe.

You then select either "I am safe" or "I'm not in the area." It will give you a list of your friends that might be in the area and will tell you if they are safe.

The tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 was what sparked this idea but Facebook thinks it has applications anytime there's a disaster, whether it's a flood, forest fire, earthquake or just about anything else.

It sounds good. Whether it will work as intended is another question. If there is a widespread power or communications failure following a disaster, Facebook users presumably won't be able to assure everyone they're safe, even if they are. This could cause a lot of unnecessary turmoil, pain and heartache for friends and relatives. 

More

Farming is moving to the Internet

Crop-related decisions are increasingly being made online

Farming is a skill that has been around for centuries. Farmers used the sun and the weather as well as some kind of digging apparatus in the very beginning...

Photo
Photo © Biletskiy Evgeniy - Fotolia

Farming is a skill that has been around for centuries. Farmers used the sun and the weather as well as some kind of digging apparatus in the very beginning. But these days, farming has become a pretty sophisticated art.

Good thing, too, as many of the issues farmers face today are attributed to climate change and the rapidly changing weather conditions that can have a big impact on farming.

The USDA's national Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has set out to help farmers get the tools they need to meet the situation. It all starts online. NIFA gave a $5 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant in 2011 to Purdue University so they could help farmers make crop-related decisions online.

It resulted in something called the Useful to Useable (U2U) project. It's helping farmers navigate around the weather and make useful decisions.

What's interesting is this science has been done for years with a tractor and some seeds and a great deal of elbow grease. Today the U2U project takes existing weather data and then provides the information in formats that farmers can use to manage their crops. It covers what, where, and when to plant, fertilizing, irrigating and more.

The U2U team consisted of Purdue, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, South Dakota State University, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, University of Missouri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and University of Wisconsin.

A dashboard of tools

Dennis Todey, South Dakota State University’s U2U program director said “The goal of U2U is to develop a dashboard of tools that people can use for decision-making, not only within the season but also when looking ahead at multiple seasons.”

The project uses many web tools one is called the Corn Growing Degree days. If you have ever gardened yourself you know that how fast your plants grow depends on the warmth they receive. The researchers developed a mathematical formula (based on daily temperatures) that determines how many units of heat the corn accumulates over the course of the growing season. Farmers can then use that data to compare how their crops are actually performing and when they my reach maturity compared to if they might freeze.

U2U’s method has proven to be helpful in both food safety and economic growth for farmers.

It's another way the internet has impacted our lives and how it is making farming a science that can be calculated with perhaps a little more accuracy than maybe the Farmers Almanac.

More

Throw away the candy -- we're going on a witch hunt

Halloween can be a destination holiday. Here are some prime spots

Perhaps you're a little tired of the regular ghosts and goblins and Snickers bars and you're looking for more of an adventure for your family this Hallowee...

Photo
Photo credit: John Kohler

Perhaps you're a little tired of the regular ghosts and goblins and Snickers bars and you're looking for more of an adventure for your family this Halloween. The ole pumpkin patch and face painting just don't have the same allure anymore? We did a little research on some of the best destinations to celebrate Halloween for a family.

Tombstone, Arizona
The name says it all. This ghost town has one of the country’s best ghost tours. You will get to see where the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral took place. Plus you can visit the graves of the three men killed in the shootout at the Boothill Graveyard as well. That'll scare the BOO out of you!

Savannah, Georgia
Savannah has the title of the most haunted city in America, and these folks live up to it on Halloween. The historic town offers ghost tours in the back of a hearse. Thats pretty creepy! Learn about the spirits that still linger in the historic town as you sit in a real hearse that saw over 15 years of funeral parlor service. 

Salem, Massachusetts
This one is a dead giveaway. The city of Salem is synonymous with witch hunts. Halloween in the historic town consists of haunted harbor cruises, cemetery walks, Halloween balls, and, of course, Salem Witch Trials attractions. Just be careful you don't have a run-in with a witch who will cast a spell on you -- it's been said there were quite a few that hung around that place.

Orlando, Florida
Orlando isn't full of rich spooky history, but it's not anything that Universal Studios and Walt Disney world couldn't muster up. Both theme parks have haunted houses and numerous scary attractions.

Transylvania, Romania
It's a little far away but if you're into some serious scary history you have to check out where Dracula was born. visit the sites of many spooky tales and the homes of famous people that are kept like museums. See the statue of Vlad the Impaler or tour Dracula's castle, complete with an English-speaking guide to give you all the bloody details.

Burkittsville, Maryland
This is where they shot the "Blair Witch Project." That low-budget cult film of 1999 reminded millions that we may have nothing to fear in a dark and gloomy forest but our own imaginations. Try running around that forest on Halloween. Perhaps camp out in order to get the full Burkittsville experience. You are really brave and a little weird if you do this!

Estes Park, Colorado
Another film that could send shivers down your spine was "The Shining." Stephen King visited the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park in 1974 and that's where the story of The Shining was born. He and his wife stayed in Room 217 and he saw fleeting images of children in the hallways of the mountain lodge, and his imagination eventually warped into the story, and psychological thriller of his most famous book and the 1980 movie that followed. Hope you can get some sleep if you stay there.

Manchac Swamp, Louisiana
Nothing like a good swamp to get your Halloween juices flowing. New Orleans has a reputation for haunted places full of voodoo, black magic and all things dark and scary. Just located outside the city is the extremely eery and haunted and very scenic Manchac Swamp. It's actually been ranked over and over again as one of the creepiest places on earth. As night approaches, it is said that you can see the red eyes of ghost alligators as they float above the dark waters. I guess wear fly-fishing boots if you go -- you don't want to mess up a good pair of shoes.

Sleepy Hollow, New York
The legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving’s fact-based tale, made this Hudson Valley village famous. How educational if one of your kids is in the middle of reading it for a book report.

Dating back to the 1640s, Sleepy Hollow is one of the most famous haunted towns in the world. The Old Dutch Burying Ground is one of the oldest cemeteries in America and houses the graves of Irving’s models for Ichabod Crane, Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel. Just FYI, there have been sightings of the Headless Horseman both at this cemetery and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Irving is buried.

Fall River, Massachusetts
The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast is a top draw. Lizzie Borden was always a popular guest at sleepovers when I was a kid so her name still evokes a response in me. Lizzie was accused of murdering her sleeping father and stepmother with an ax back in 1892. Many people believe her spirit, and those of her victims, still haunt the house she grew up in. It's now a restored B&B that embraces its spooky history. Guests sleep in the very rooms where the Bordens were murdered; search for their spirits on a ghost hunt; attend a séance to try to communicate with the deceased. Go and tell me about it. It's way too scary for me.

More

A new home-construction rebound -- sort of

Both housing starts and building permit applications posted gains in September

After posting a sharp decline in August, new home construction moved up 6.3% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,017,000. That's 7.8% abov...

Photo
© alisonhancock - Fotolia.com

After posting a sharp decline in August, new home construction moved up 6.3% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,017,000. That's 7.8% above the rate of 863,000 chalked up a year earlier.

According to figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, single-family housing starts were at a rate of 646,000 1.1% above the August rate, while the September rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 353,000 compared with 304,000 a month earlier.

Sterne Agee chief economist Lindsey Piegza points out that there's been little change from levels at the start of the year, adding that “uneven demand is likely to keep home builders cautious for some time, despite the fact that industry confidence is on the rise thanks to relative improvement in conditions compared to weakness at the start of the year.”

Building permits

Applications for building permits. An indication of developers' intentions a few months down the road, were higher as well.

Authorizations for breaking ground for privately-owned housing units rose 1.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,018,000 -- up 2.5% from September 2013993,000.

Within that sector, permits for single-family homes rose 0.5% to 624,000, while construction of apartment buildings was authorized at a rate of 369,000, versus 343,000 in August.

The full new home-construction report is available on the Commerce Department website.

More

Suzuki recalls motorcycles with shifting issues

The rear axle could move, damaging the left-side drive chain adjuster

Suzuki Motor of America is recalling 23,073 model year 2011-2014 GSX-R750 and 2009-2014 GSX-R1000 motorcycles. If a gear is missed while upshifting, the ...

Photo
Photo source: Suzuki

Suzuki Motor of America is recalling 23,073 model year 2011-2014 GSX-R750 and 2009-2014 GSX-R1000 motorcycles.

If a gear is missed while upshifting, the strain applied to the drive chain after the next shift may cause the rear axle to move, damaging the left-side drive chain adjuster. The damage could cause the drive chain to come off, removing power to the rear wheel and increasing the risk of a crash.

Suzuki will notify owners, and dealers will replace the left-side chain adjuster with an improved part. The recall is expected to begin on October 17.

Owners may contact Suzuki customer service at 1-714-572-1490. Suzuki's numbers for this recall are 2A40, 2A41, 2A42 and 2A43.

More

American Honda recalls recreational off-highway vehicles

Vegetation and debris can accumulate on the middle skid plate and cause a fire

American Honda Motor Company of Torrance, Calif., is recalling about 15,400 recreational off-highway vehicles. Vegetation and debris can accumulate on the...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

American Honda Motor Company of Torrance, Calif., is recalling about 15,400 recreational off-highway vehicles.

Vegetation and debris can accumulate on the middle skid plate and make contact with the vehicle’s exhaust system. Dried debris can ignite, resulting in smoke or fire.

The company has received reports of 10 incidents involving fires resulting from vegetation and debris accumulating on the middle skid plate and making contact with the vehicle’s exhaust system. No injuries were reported.

This recall involves all models of the 2014 Honda Pioneer 700 recreational off-highway vehicle (ROV). ROVs are motorized off-road vehicles with a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, bucket or bench seats, seat belts and an occupant protection structure.

The recalled vehicles came in two-seat and four-seat models and were black with camouflage, olive or red hood and trim pieces. “HONDA” is on the front grill and rear tail gate. “Pioneer 700” appears on a tab on the sides of the vehicle just behind the driver’s and front passenger’s seats. The model and serial numbers are on a certification label affixed to the top rear of the driver's side front wheel well.

The following model numbers and serial number ranges are being recalled: 

Model Number

Serial Number Range (All begin with 1HF)

Number of Seats

SXS 700M2 2AC

VE0225E4000006 to VE022XE4006304

2

SXS 700M2 4AC

VE0284E4000003 to VE0284E4001202

2

SXS 700M4 AC

VE0204E4000013 to VE020XE4006849

4

SXS 700M4 3AC

VE0268E4000004 to VE0269E4001503

4

The vehicles, manufactured in China, were sold at authorized Honda powersports dealers nationwide from August 2013 through September 2014.

Owners should immediately stop using the recalled vehicle and take it to an authorized Honda dealer to have the original middle skid plate removed and an updated middle skid plate installed free of charge.

Consumers may contact American Honda toll-free at (888) 888-3139 from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

More

Briggs & Stratton recalls Snapper rear engine riding mowers

The weld on the drive axle can fail resulting in loss of brake control

Briggs & Stratton Power Products Group of Milwaukee, Wis., is recalling about 8,500 Snapper rear engine riding mowers. The weld on the drive axle can fail...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Briggs & Stratton Power Products Group of Milwaukee, Wis., is recalling about 8,500 Snapper rear engine riding mowers.

The weld on the drive axle can fail resulting in loss of brake control, posing an injury hazard.

The company has received two reports of brake failure, related to failed weld. No injuries have been reported.

This recall involves 6 models of Briggs & Stratton Snapper rear engine riding mowers. The mowers are red with a black fuel tank, steering wheel and seat. The name Snapper is printed on both sides of the mower. The model and serial numbers are on a label on the engine platform under the right side of the seat.

The following models and serial number ranges are included: 

Model NumberSerial Number Range
78009182016447188 - 2016485206
78009202016443919 - 2016568930
78009322016462619 - 2016481454
78009502016611952 - 2016766052
78009512016624456 - 2016765000
78009542016603229 - 2016775752
The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Family Farm stores, Power Equipment Direct and Briggs & Stratton Snapper dealers nationwide from April 2013 through May 2014 for between $1,300 and $2,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact an authorized Snapper service dealer for a free repair.

Consumers may contact Briggs & Stratton Corporation at (800) 935-2967 from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

More

Shop Packaging recalls chicken products

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

Shop Packaging of New Bedford, Mass., is recalling approximately 115,505 pounds of chicken wing products. The products were processed with a releasing age...

Photo
© jonnysek - Fotolia

Shop Packaging of New Bedford, Mass., is recalling approximately 115,505 pounds of chicken wing products.

The products were processed with a releasing agent containing soy lecithin, a known allergen which is not declared on the product label.

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

The products were produced on various dates between August 8 and October 10, 2014. The following product is subject to recall:

  • 20-lb. bags containing “Chicken Mid-joint Wing.”

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “P-46946” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to a distribution location in New York.

Consumers with questions may contact Ron Sylvia, President, at (508) 961-7552.

More

Flu: a bigger health threat than Ebola

Doctor claims we're freaking out over the wrong virus

America's health concerns this fall are focused firmly on Ebola, a deadly virus that appears to kill half its victims....

Photo
© milanmarkovic78 - Fotolia
America's health concerns this fall are focused firmly on Ebola, a deadly virus that appears to kill half its victims.

Though largely confined to West Africa, the death in Dallas of a recent visitor to that region – and the subsequent infection of two medical personnel who cared for him – has made Ebola dominate every news cycle, even when there is nothing new to report.

Dr. Daniel Hussar, pharmacy professor at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, thinks Americans should take a breath and stop worrying about Ebola. It's the flu we should be worrying about, he says.

Flu is the killer

Ebola might kill, if it spreads in the U.S., which Hussar says is unlikely. But flu, he points out, does kill year in and year out. He says there were 131 flu-related deaths in Pennsylvania alone last flu season. Influenza remains a leading cause of death in the U.S, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“While everyone should get a flu vaccine this season, it’s especially important for infants, children, pregnant women, and seniors because they are most vulnerable to developing serious complications – like pneumonia – if they catch the flu,” he said.

According to its study of the 2012-2013 flu season, the CDC estimates that the flu vaccine prevented 79,000 hospitalizations and 6.6 million illnesses. Still, more than 381,000 Americans were hospitalized because of flu-related illness during that season.

Isolation

Dr. Charlene Chick, a family physician at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, is also strongly urging consumers to get a flu vaccine. She points out that to avoid contact with the virus you would also have to avoid going out in public during flu season. You couldn't touch things like elevator buttons, door knobs, ATM keypads and stair railings where the flu can be left behind by someone who is infected.

And that, in short, is what makes flu a bigger threat. Unlike Ebola, it can be transmitted through the air, from person to person. Germs left on objects can live for long periods of time, allowing them to infect multiple people.

The Ebola virus is spread through contact with an infected person's bodily fluid. Scientists believe that until an infected person begins having symptoms they can't spread the virus. Ebola viruses left on an inanimate object die very quickly. In short, Ebola is harder to get than the flu.

“Don't let the recent Ebola news headlines distract you from taking measures to protect yourself and your loved ones from the much greater risk of catching the flu,” Hussar said.

Misinformation

Hussar says there is a lot of misinformation about flu vaccines out there. For example, he says the vaccine is perfectly safe for pregnant women. Also, it's never too late to get a flu shot. Even late in the season the vaccine can provide protection within two weeks of receiving it.

Don't like shots? Hussar says you can still get vaccinated with the nasal spray option. This vaccine, is commonly known by its trade name, FluMist, and offers protection to healthy adults from 2 to 49 years old who are not pregnant. FluMist contains a live but weakened flu virus that cannot cause flu illness.

More

CBS jumps into video streaming

"CBS All Access" includes current and classic program; no football though

Years ago, we fidgeted through a speech by a network news executive who was appalled by the "river of video" that had been loosed on the world. He was refe...

Photo
Photo © CBS

Years ago, we fidgeted through a speech by a network news executive who was appalled by the "river of video" that had been loosed on the world. He was referring only to closed-circuit feeds of video from newly-independent news producers. 

Think how he must be feeling today as one network after another puts its precious programming out on the Internet, making it available to anyone -- even those without a cable subscription.

Just yesterday, it was HBO that announced it would go "over the top," as they say in the business. Loosely translated, that means going around (or over) cable and broadcast stations to distribute programming directly to consumers.

If HBO's decision was an unkind cut at cable systems, the CBS move announced today is a club on the head for both local television affiliates and cable systems. 

$5.99 a month

"CBS All Access," as it's been dubbed, is available for $5.99 per month beginning today at CBS.com and on mobile devices through the CBS App for iOS and Android. 

“CBS All Access is another key step in the Company’s long-standing strategy of monetizing our local and national content in the ways that viewers want it,” said Leslie Moonves, President and CEO, CBS Corporation.

All Access offers current seasons of 15 primetime shows with episodes available the day after they air, live streams of local CBS stations in 14 of the largest markets and past seasons of many popular series.

What it doesn't include, at least for now, is NFL Football, although Moonves said that may change.

CBS is also said to be developing a live streaming news feed that may begin to air as early as Oct. 28, according to industry sources -- potentially dealing a major blow to CNN and other cable news channels that are already struggling with moribund ratings and aging audiences. 

To sign up for CBS All Access, visit: http://www.cbs.com/allaccess

More

Is Airbnb legal? Depends where you live

San Francisco allows Airbnb rentals while New York State cracks down

If you're tempted to rent out your home on Airbnb and wonder whether or not that's legal, the answer is “That depends on where you live.”...

PhotoIf you're tempted to rent out your home on Airbnb and wonder whether or not that's legal, the answer is “That depends on where you live.”

Earlier this month, for example, San Francisco passed a law allowing Airbnb (more specifically, allowing residents to rent out their own homes for “short-term rentals,” provided they follow certain guidelines).

But in New York, Airbnb remains illegal enough that today, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a report (available here in .pdf form) “documenting widespread illegality across Airbnb's NYC listings; site dominated by commercial users” (according to the press release Scheniderman's office put out at the same time).

Schneiderman also announced the “formation of a joint enforcement initiative with the City of New York to investigate and shut down illegal hotels.” The enforcement will focus on three different angles: building and safety-code violations, tax regulations and the executive law.

72% illegal

The highlights of Scheiderman's report are that up to 72% of all Airbnb listings are illegal; that numerous units “appear to serve as illegal hostels;” that commercial users are running multimillion-dollar businesses; that gentrified neighborhoods account for the vast majority of this revenue (specifically, the trendy parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn get far more Airbnb tourists than the less-fashionable boroughs of Staten Island, Queens and the Bronx); and that the number of units serving as short-term rentals is reducing the availability of long-term housing options for New Yorkers.

New York State's interest in Airbnb is nothing new; last October, the state subpeonaed the company to demand the names of all New Yorkers who rented out their homes using the service. Yet earlier that same month, a court overturned an earlier fine levied against a Manhattan man who'd rented his apartment on Airbnb.

So even in New York City, there's no firm answer to the question “Is it illegal for me to rent out my apartment on Airbnb” – although it is safe to say that statistically, there's a 72% chance it is illegal, and Schneiderman and the city have formed a joint enforcement initiative to crack down on it.

More

Study: teen sexting continues to be widespread

Despite its many dangers, it's become part of the youth culture

Why would a successful Hollywood actress have nude photos of herself on her phone?...

Photo
© Dan Race - Fotolia

Why would a successful Hollywood actress have nude photos of herself on her phone?

Perhaps more than one rational person posed that question in the wake of the recent news that a hacker had broken into a cloud server and seized the racy pictures.

The answer might be – “everyone does it.” Really?

A new study from the University of Utah has found no decline in the number of teens who are sexting – sending and receiving explicit sexual images via cellphone. And the number of teens who are doing this, it turns out, is quite high.

Nearly 20% of the students in the test sample reported they had sent a nude photo of themselves to another using a cellphone and 38% had received such a picture. Of the number who had received a sext, nearly one in five had forwarded the picture to someone else.

Consistent

“The results are nearly identical to the findings from our 2013 study of high school students,” said Don Strassberg, professor of psychology at the University of Utah and lead author on both studies. “We believe the consistency reflects a valid estimate of the prevalence of teen sexting – and the numbers are considerable.”

And disturbing. As we recently reported, when anyone distributes a nude photo of someone under 18 – even if it is a picture of themselves – they are breaking a federal law prohibiting child pornography.

Children as young as 10 have been prosecuted on child porn charges because they either sent a nude photo of a minor or forwarded one to someone else. The law makes no distinction between creepy adults with a problem and clueless kids.

Technology brings risk

Strassberg says the risks of using a cellphone to send intimate pictures or messages goes well beyond sharing print photographs as a form of flirting.

“Nothing has changed in that realm – except that the technology makes it easy and thus, more vulnerable to misuse,” he said. “You lose control of the image the moment you push ‘send.’ From there the risks, which can be especially grave for teens, range from embarrassment and humiliation to unwanted sexual advances to cyberbullying and blackmail, and though rare, possibly to felony charges for pornography trafficking because they are minors.”

Strassberg says sexting is far from a rare occurrence, having become the thing to do in some high school – and even middle school – cliques. The problem, he says, is that once it's out there – it's out there.

“Because once a sext has been sent, the sender has no control over who, or how many, will eventually see that picture,” he said. “Other than the adolescent mentality that overestimates benefits over risks, we don’t yet know why teens are choosing to put themselves at risk.”

Strassberg's study sheds some interesting light on who sends and receives sexts. Equal numbers of men and women reported that they had sent a sext, but significantly more men than women said they had received a sext – 47.1 percent of males versus 32.1 percent of females.

Not surprisingly, men were significantly more likely to have forwarded the picture than were women, 24.2% versus 13%. And while women were most likely to send a sext to their boyfriend, men were much less discriminating. Twelve percent said they would sext someone they “wanted to date or hook up with” and 2.4% would sext someone they just met.

More

Planned Parenthood for pets

Spaying and neutering aren't the only options anymore

Is your dog on the pill? It might sound far-fetched because when we think of dog contraception we usually go right to being spayed or neutered but there i...

Photo
© vladimirfloyd - Fotolia

Is your dog on the pill?

It might sound far-fetched because when we think of dog contraception we usually go right to being spayed or neutered but there is a pill for dogs. The dog birth control pill is an alternative to spaying, and is effective if the pills are administered and taken properly.

The pill contains megestrol acetate and is given at the beginning of the heat cycle of the female dog. The pill should delay the cycle.

There can be side effects, some more serious than others. With that said, giving a dog birth control pills does seem like a safer alternative to putting them through a spaying procedure.

Side effects of the dog birth control pill include:

  • Frequent infections of the uterus
  • Breast cancer
  • Breast enlargement
  • Weight gain
  • Skin problems

Liquid contraceptives

Liquid contraceptives are an option and they are given orally. The drops should be given daily for 30 days prior to the time your dog goes into heat. It is tough to tell when to start the medication, and this may lead to taking it for a prolonged amount of time. The side effects are numerous and include:

  • Infertility
  • Liver damage
  • Increased chance of vaginal infections
  • Increased house wetting
  • Body odor
  • Skin problems
  • Vaginal distortion
  • Increased urge to ride other dogs
  • Personality changes, usually increased aggression
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

Chemspay tablets

Then there's Chemspay, which may be the future of canine birth control. Developed by Dr. Loretta Mayer, Chemspray tablets are designed to eliminate eggs in the ovaries, effectively sterilizing the dog. At last word, the product was still undergoing testing and has yet to be used in FDA-approved trials, so there is no info available as yet about possible side effects.

"One day, pet contraception could be as simple as taking your dog or cat to the vet for their annual shots," said Joyce Briggs, president of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs.

Scientists are also working on developing a pet contraception vaccine that would trigger an immune response against the major hormone that kicks the whole reproductive cycle into motion.

Zeuterin, which sterilizes dogs when injected into the testicles, is available in the United States and a drug called GonaCon is showing promise as a contraceptive for cats.

There are options to surgery and it is good to know what's available. Check with your vet and hopefully soon it will be as easy as getting a simple vaccination.

More

FBI director opposes data encryption, says it will lead to a "very dark place"

But if cops can get in, then hackers can too

The main problem facing Internet security researchers and tech companies seeking to protect people and businesses from hackers is that, when you get right ...

Photo
FBI Director Comey speaks at a conference in February 2014 (Photo credit: FBI)

The main problem facing Internet security researchers and tech companies seeking to protect people and businesses from hackers is that, when you get right down to it, certain powerful people with the U.S. government backing don't really want them to.

FBI director James Comey is particularly opposed to data encryption, to the point that when Apple boasted of the secure encrypted communications featured in its new iPhone 6 last month, Comey said he was “very concerned” about what he considers “companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law.”

And Comey expanded upon this theme in a speech he gave to the Brookings Institution, the text of which the FBI posted online today.

Let’s talk about court-ordered interception first, and then we’ll talk about challenges posed by different means of encryption.


In the past, conducting electronic surveillance was more straightforward. We identified a target phone being used by a bad guy, with a single carrier. We obtained a court order for a wiretap, and, under the supervision of a judge, we collected the evidence we needed for prosecution.

[Whereas today, in post-9/11 Patriot Act America, we get to skip all that “get a warrant” and “work under judicial supervision” constitutional stuff, right? Whoops: that's not where Comey's going with this.]

Today, there are countless providers, countless networks, and countless means of communicating. We have laptops, smartphones, and tablets. We take them to work and to school, from the soccer field to Starbucks, over many networks, using any number of apps. And so do those conspiring to harm us. They use the same devices, the same networks, and the same apps to make plans, to target victims, and to cover up what they’re doing. And that makes it tough for us to keep up.

Rewrite the law

Comey wants Congress to rewrite the 20-year-old Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act to cover apps and other technologies which plain didn't exist in 1994.

Specifically, since CALEA requires telecom companies to give police access to communications, Comey thinks CALEA should also apply to, for example, the new iPhone 6 – except that, since the iPhone 6 is encrypted, Apple itself can't get the data on it—and therefore can't make it accessible to law enforcement. And Comey has a problem with that.

Encryption is nothing new. But the challenge to law enforcement and national security officials is markedly worse, with recent default encryption settings and encrypted devices and networks—all designed to increase security and privacy.


With Apple’s new operating system, the information stored on many iPhones and other Apple devices will be encrypted by default. Shortly after Apple’s announcement, Google announced plans to follow suit with its Android operating system. This means the companies themselves won’t be able to unlock phones, laptops, and tablets to reveal photos, documents, e-mail, and recordings stored within.

More

Camping? Take a laptop you can cook on

Mobile kitchen uses induction to heat food in no time

If you find it hard to get excited by a new smartphone or tablet, how about this? Dragan Trenchevski, an industrial designer from Macedonia, has developed ...

Photo
Photo credit: Electrolux
If you find it hard to get excited by a new smartphone or tablet, how about this? Dragan Trenchevski, an industrial designer from Macedonia, has developed the Electrolux Mobile Kitchen -- sort of the Coleman stove of the 2000's.

It's just what the name implies -- a portable kitchen that just happens to be designed like a laptop. (This is not his first invention -- he also has something called an e-roll. It's a rollable e-reader similar to a scroll.)

The "kitchen" comes complete with a 4-tier induction cooktop, a removable cutting board and grater. That's in addition to everything else. It's a touchscreen computer, and of course it has a camera (you need that for Facebook food pics) and Internet connectivity for looking up recipes; you can watch cooking videos and yak with your friends all at the same time.

It was inspired by notebook computers. You can take it camping or cook in the luxury of your own home. The battery is pretty large so it can power quite a bit of cooking.

The Electrolux Mobile Kitchen is still in the concept stage but things are starting to cook. 

If this sounds a bit over the top to you, keep in mind that Electrolux has been making induction ranges for home use for years. It's a little counterintuitive, but these devices heat food through induction current. Instead of a hot burner, you put the food on the range top in a cast iron or stainless steel cooking pan and powerful currents make the pan heat up, thereby cooking the food.

The advantage is that induction cooking produces more heat, faster and with more control than a standard electric range. It's said to be more efficient than either gas or electricity.

 

More

Parents to go on trial for their kid's defamatory Facebook page

If parents know what their kids are doing and don't stop it, are they liable?

A court in Georgia ruled last week that parents can in certain circumstances be held liable for their minor children's defamatory Facebook pages....

Photo
© umberto leporini - Fotolia
A court in Georgia ruled last week that parents can in certain circumstances be held liable for their minor children's defamatory Facebook pages.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported the story yesterday, though it actually started back in May 2011, when Alexandria (Alex) Boston, Dustin Athearn and Melissa Snodgrass were all seventh-graders at Palmer Middle School in Cobb County.

Dustin and Melissa started a fake Facebook page allegedly made by Alex. They altered a photo of her using a “fat face” app (which digitally alters photos to make faces appear obese), and also, according to the trial documents,

After Dustin created the account, both Dustin and Melissa added information to the unauthorized profile, which indicated, inter alia, racist viewpoints and a homosexual orientation. Dustin and Melissa also caused the persona to issue invitations to become Facebook “friends” to many of Alex's classmates, teachers and extended family …. and caused the account to post status updates and comments on other users' pages. Some of these postings were graphically sexual, racist or otherwise offensive and some falsely stated that Alex was on a medication regimen for mental health disorders and that she took illegal drugs.

In-school suspension

Alex recognized the digitally altered photo on the fake Facebook page: the un-altered original was a picture Dustin had taken of her at school. So she told her parents, who told the school principal, and the school handled it as a disciplinary measure: Dustin and Melissa admitted what they'd done and served a two-day in-school suspension for their bullying harassment of Alex. The school also sent paperwork home to the parents of all students involved.

Problem was, Dustin and Melissa still didn't take Alex's fake Facebook page down, nor did their parents make them do so. The account continued accepting “friend” requests and didn't come down until April 2012, a couple weeks after Alex and her parents filed a lawsuit against Dustin, Melissa and their respective parents.

The appeals judge noted that:

During the 11 months the unauthorized profile and page could be viewed, the Athearns made no attempt to view the unauthorized page, and they took no action to determine the content of the false, profane, and ethnically offensive information that Dustin was charged with electronically distributing. They did not attempt to learn to whom Dustin had distributed the false and offensive information or whether the distribution was ongoing. They did not tell Dustin to delete the page. Furthermore, they made no attempt to determine whether the false and offensive information Dustin was charged with distributing could be corrected, deleted, or retracted.

The Boston's attorney told the Fulton County Daily Report that Melissa Snodgrass and her father did not respond to the suit, and thus were found in default. Dustin Athearn's parents asked for and received a summary judgment in their favor, but the Bostons appealed and won, so the case is now returning to a lower court for trial.

More

Toilet paper without the tube, urinals at home

There are plenty of ways to go green in your bathroom

You and your family have decided to go "green" but it seems like such a big project. Why not start small? Take one small room that you spend a great deal o...

Photo
© EPSTOCK - Fotolia
You and your family have decided to go "green" but it seems like such a big project. Why not start small? Take one small room that you spend a great deal of time in and work out from there.

What's most likely the smallest room in your house? The bathroom of course and if you are like most of us it's a good place to spend that one-on-one time with yourself. There are several ways you can make a big difference, all from this one tiny place.

Water is aplenty in the bathroom -- save some of it!
Aerators that you can put on faucets and showerheads are powerful yet they use only half the water. Cutting your water bill is not only good for the environment but good for the green in your pocket!

PhotoBuy green
Toilet paper has rolled out a new design -- tubeless.

So far Kimberly Clark -- the company that makes Scott Naturals -- is the only company we can find that makes tubeless toilet paper. According to the company it has the potential to reduce a portion of the 17 billion toilet paper tubes thrown away each year in the U.S., enough to fill the Empire State Building twice. PLUS if you add up all of those last sheets that stick on the tube you probably are giving yourself an extra 2 rolls a month!

Have you ever heard of a Tankless Water Heater?
They are awesome, again a money saver because you only heat the water that you use. A regular water heater keeps a big tank of water warm and waiting; the tankless heater heats it on the fly. It's sort of like an oven compared to an electric tea kettle.

Light your way to savings
Light bulbs nowadays last almost your entire life -- they burn nearly forever. If you use compact fluorescent bulbs they use 75% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and last 10 to 25 times longer. LEDs are even better. Your pocket is getting overloaded with all the savings from electricity.

It's all in the way you flush
You can actually save water every time you flush. Just put in a small little juice bottle or laundry soap bottle in the tank. Fill it with water, make sure the paper label is off and stick it in your toilet tank. Because you have the bottle in there you don't need as much water to fill the tank. It takes a couple of minutes to do and you can save up to two gallons on every flush. Now THATS a lot of toilet water. (Don't do this if you have a new low-flush toilet; it accomplishes the same thing automatically).

Lean, clean and green
Bathrooms are notoriously small and often poorly ventilated, so, of all the rooms in the house, this is the one that should be cleaned with green, non-toxic cleaners. Common household ingredients, like baking soda and vinegar, and a little elbow grease will do the job for most everything in the bathroom.

Urinals

Photo
A Kohler waterless urinal
Why not let everyone talk about you? Be different -- install a urinal. You might think I am kidding but they are a design concept that is taking off full stream or steam. Urinals in the home bathroom make so much sense. No more battles over the toilet seat, no more gallons of water down the pipe every time. Now urinals can be completely waterless, saving even more.

Dual flush toilet
A toilet thats twice as good! Dual-flush toilets are a brilliant concept, and Europe and Asia have had them for some time. For those of us not ready to spring for a whole new system, a Canadian company called Aquanotion is offering the TwoFlush, a retrofit kit for your existing toilet. I don't think I need to go into detail about the one flush or two. Sometimes you need a bigger flush. Sometimes you don't. All in the interest of saving water.

Kermit the frog was wrong. It's easy being green -- you just have to think about it a little.

More

Builder confidence falls in October

The drop follows September's climb to a 9-year high

The string of gains in builder confidence in the market for newly built single-family has ended at 4. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) /We...

Photo
© iQoncept - Fotolia

The string of gains in builder confidence in the market for newly built single-family has ended at 4.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) /Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) dropped 5 points to a level of 54 in October, which NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly says is “in line with the gradual pace of the housing recovery.”

While there was a dip this month, builders are still positive about the housing market. “After the HMI posted a 9-year high in September, it’s not surprising to see the number drop in October,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “However, historically low mortgage interest rates, steady job gains, and significant pent up demand all point to continued growth of the housing market.”

Surveying the builders

The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index 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.

All three HMI components declined this month. The index gauging current sales conditions fell 6 points to 57, while the index measuring expectations for future sales slipped 3 points to 64 and the index gauging traffic of prospective buyers dropped 6 points to 41.

Looking at the 3-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the Northeast and Midwest were unchanged at 41 and 59, respectively. The South rose 2 points to 58 and the West registered a 1-point loss to 57.

More

Initial jobless claims hit 14-year low

The months-long decline continues

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits have fallen to their lowest level in 14 years. According to the Labor Department (DOL), claims plu...

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits have fallen to their lowest level in 14 years.

According to the Labor Department (DOL), claims plunged 23,000 in the week ending October 11 to a seasonally 264,000. That's is the lowest level since April 15, 2000, 259,000 claims were filed.

Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were expecting an increase to 290,000.

Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza calls the decline a “welcomed improvement,” but adds that while claims have been declining for several months, “that hasn't yet translated into high-wage, full-time employment.”

Other analysts speculate that the improvement may be an indication that the slack in the labor market may be drying up.

The 4-week moving average, which is not as volatile and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was down 4,250 to 283,500 -- the lowest level for this average since June 10, 2000, when it was 283,500.

The full report is available on the DOL website.

More

Chrysler recalls Jeep Wranglers

The exterior heated power mirror electrical connector may be corroded

Chrysler is recalling 313,236 model year 2011-2013 Jeep Wrangler vehicles manufactured February 16, 2010, to July 19, 2013. Corrosion in the exterior hea...

Photo
Photo source: Jeep

Chrysler is recalling 313,236 model year 2011-2013 Jeep Wrangler vehicles manufactured February 16, 2010, to July 19, 2013.

Corrosion in the exterior heated power mirror electrical connector may result in an electrical short, increasing the risk of a fire.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will move the exterior mirror power feed to a separate connector, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin December 5, 2014.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P61.

More

GM recalls vehicles that may be susceptible to an electrical short

The chassis electronic module may be internally contaminated

General Motors is recalling 97,540 model year 2013-2014 Cadillac CTS, Escalade, Escalade ESV, Chevrolet Suburban, Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Yukon XL, and 2014 ...

Photo
Photo source: Cadillac

General Motors is recalling 97,540 model year 2013-2014 Cadillac CTS, Escalade, Escalade ESV, Chevrolet Suburban, Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Yukon XL, and 2014 Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Express, Impala, Silverado HD, Traverse, GMC Acadia, Savana, and Sierra HD vehicles.

The chassis electronic module in the affected vehicles may be internally contaminated, resulting in an electrical short. If the module experiences an electrical short, the vehicle could stall, increasing the risk of a crash.

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

Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-521-7300 (Buick), 1-800-458-8006 (Cadillac), 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet), and 1-800-462-8782 (GMC). GM's number for this recall is 14515.

More

Chrysler recalls vehicles with electrical issue

The alternator may suddenly fail

Chrysler Group is recalling 434,581 model year 2011-2014 Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Challenger, Durango, and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured Ju...

Photo
Photo source: Jeep

Chrysler Group is recalling 434,581 model year 2011-2014 Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Challenger, Durango, and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles manufactured June 17, 2010, to December 23, 2013, and equipped with a 3.6L engine and a 160 amp alternator.

The alternator may suddenly fail. If this happens the vehicle may stall without warning, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler is expected to begin notifying owners of this recall on November 28, 2014. The remedy for this recall campaign is still under development.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P60.

More

Toys R Us recalls toy toaster sets

The plastic toast can crack and break into small pieces

Toys R Us of Wayne, N.J., is recalling about 36,000 Just Like Home toy toaster sets in the U.S. and Canada. The plastic toast, under pressure, can crack a...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Toys R Us of Wayne, N.J., is recalling about 36,000 Just Like Home toy toaster sets in the U.S. and Canada.

The plastic toast, under pressure, can crack and break into small pieces creating sharp edges and posing a choking hazard.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recall includes the Just Like Home brand toy toaster sets. The teal blue plastic toy toaster has silver trim around the slice opening on top, with an orange slider handle on the side and orange 3-dimensional adjustment knob outlined with orange dots in a half moon shape on the face of the toaster in the left bottom corner. “Just like home” is printed in white on the front right bottom corner of the toaster.

The toaster measures about 4 inches high by 5-1/2 inches long by 2 inches wide. The toaster set was sold with two plastic toast slices and two plastic half bagel slice accessories. Model number 5F60589 is printed on a white label on the bottom of the toaster and above the UPC bar code in the lower right hand corner of the product packaging.

The toaster set, manufactured in China, was sold exclusively at Toys R Us stores nationwide and online at www.toysrus.com from July 2013, through August 2014, for about $10.

Consumers should immediately take this product away from children and return it to any Toys R Us to receive a full refund.

Consumers may contact Toys R Us at (800) 869-7787 anytime.

More

Why gasoline prices may stay low for a long time

Saudi Arabia reportedly signals that it is fine with lower oil prices

When the price of gasoline goes down, as it has since August, consumers typically don't question why. They just fill up and consider themselves lucky for n...

Photo
© Tomasz Zajda - Fotolia

When the price of gasoline goes down, as it has since August, consumers typically don't question why. They just fill up and consider themselves lucky for now, waiting for the inevitable price spike.

A month ago the national average price of self-serve regular was $3.40, which was down significantly from the month before. But today the average price is below $3.20 a gallon, with motorists paying well below $3 in a handful of states, according to AAA.

It provides a nice break for consumers heading into the holiday season, but can it last? It just might.

In an exclusive this week, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabian oil officials have privately told industry colleagues they would be comfortable with lower oil prices for an extended period of time.

For years the world price of oil has hovered north of $100 a barrel. The Saudis reportedly said they wouldn't mind if the price continued to fall, to between $80 and $90 a barrel.

2 year respite?

Photo
Photo via Facebook

There are many factors that affect the price of gasoline but the price of oil is a big one. If oil sold between $80 and $90 a barrel for an extended period – and the Saudis are reportedly talking about 2 years – then the price of gasoline should remain at present levels, or even drift lower.

Why would Saudi Arabia, which depends on its oil revenue for nearly all of its income, so willingly accept lower prices? Do they finally feel sorry for U.S. consumers? Hardly.

Because Saudi Arabia is so dependent on oil revenue it has become extremely worried about the shale oil revolution in the U.S., that has dramatically increased domestic production and made the U.S. less reliant on foreign sources. The Saudis see this as a significant long-term threat.

But extracting oil from shale is an expensive process. As long as the price of oil has remained over $100 a barrel, U.S. oil production has been highly profitable. If the price falls below $90, however, it cuts into shale oil profit margins.

There will be less money for research and development. In short, it's a squeeze play.

According to Reuters, the Saudis appear willing to sacrifice short-term profits for a long-term strategy to weaken a competitor. Whether it works remains to be seen but it suggests how potent a force the Saudis consider U.S. shale.

Speculators find oil less attractive

In the meantime, U.S. consumers stand to benefit. Once it becomes clear that the price of oil is on the decline, there will be less hedge fund money in the oil futures market, money that in the past has tended to drive up the price.

But won't rising global economic activity increase demand for oil and drive up the price? That was the reason we were given for oil's price surge in the mid 2000s.

It's a different story now, with economic activity slowing world-wide, especially in Europe. The supply and demand factor seems to be favoring the U.S. consumer, at least for now.

Finally, U.S. motorists are benefiting from a strong dollar. The U.S. currency rose sharply in the third quarter and is still gaining strength against other currencies. Since oil is priced in dollars, it takes fewer dollars to buy the same quantity of oil as it did a year ago.

None of these appear to be systemic changes but neither do they appear to be short-term trends. The end result is that filling up might not be quite as painful for some time to come.

More

German scientists warn Ebola outbreak is not following past patterns

New vaccines and antivirals "urgently needed," the scientists warn

A prestigious group of German scientists is warning that the Ebola virus is spreading rapidly and to an unexpected extent and they say the current outbreak...

Photo
The Ebola virus (Photo credit: © jaddingt - Fotolia)

A prestigious group of German scientists is warning that the Ebola virus is spreading rapidly and to an unexpected extent and they say the current outbreak is not following the patterns seen in the past and is showing "a new disease dynamic in regions where it has never been recorded before."

"The Ebola virus epidemic on this scale presents completely new challenges, both to the countries that are directly affected and the international community," the scientists said. "Germany, together with other industrialized countries, has an important role to play here."

In a statement issued today, the German National Academy of Sciences, the German Academy of Science and Engineering, and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, among others, said new vaccines and antivirals are urgently needed.

"Even if the pathogen should temporarily disappear again, research must continue as a precautionary measure because another outbreak is highly probable," they said. "Such precautionary measures must also include ensuring that sufficient quantities of available vaccines and antivirals are stockpiled in case of a new outbreak."

They noted that while the vast majority of cases in the current outbreak have been in Western Africa, 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."

"Entirely different"

Since its discovery in 1976, there have been repeated outbreaks of the Ebola virus, which were generally contained to remote regions of Central Africa and never amounted to more than 500 cases, the German scientists noted but said the current outbreak of the virus is entirely different from past outbreaks.

"Over 8,000 cases were registered by 5 October 2014. About half of the people infected have died. The death toll includes many doctors and nursing staff and an end to the outbreak is not in sight," they noted.

Doctors Without Borders and the European Mobile Laboratory Project were the first to come to the region in March 2014. From very early on, these organizations have repeatedly said that the outbreak will not be contained without a massive increase in medical and epidemiological aid, they said.

The Ebola virus

Ebola viruses are transmitted from animals to humans. Fruit bats are presumed to be the natural reservoir of the virus. The Zaire species of Ebola virus, responsible for the current outbreak in West Africa, causes a particularly severe form. The disease progresses primarily with massive virus proliferation and immune dysfunction. The main symptoms are fever, diarrhea, vomiting and impaired coagulation, leading to multiple organ failure and shock.

Initial examinations of the genetic material have shown that the virus is different from past strains with numerous genetic mutations, but the significance of this is not known, the scientists said.

More

Dining on bats helps spread Ebola, researchers find

The popularity of "bushmeat" plays a role in emerging infections

Cable news has been howling over the possibility that the dog owned by a Dallas nurse who contracted ebola while caring for a patient might be infected wit...

Photo
Vampire bats in a zoo (Photo credit: © belizar - Fotolia)

Cable news has been howling over the possibility that the dog owned by a Dallas nurse who contracted Ebola while caring for a patient might be infected with the disease, a possibility we reported back in September.

But although pet dogs could play a role in spreading the disease, it's bats and other wild creatures who are more likely to have been the source of the latest outbreak.

You can't blame the bats though. It's the humans who hunt and eat bats and other "bushmeat" who actually provide the pathway for the virus to move from one species to another.

Batty for bushmeat

Why would anyone eat bats? Good question and one that a team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)  set out to answer. They interviewed nearly 600 people in southern Ghana to find out what drives the popularity of "bushmeat" -- a term loosely applied to wild meat.

Knowing who eats bushmeat and why, as well as how they perceive the risks, is important for informing both disease and conservation management plans, said Cambridge professor Olivier Restif, who said the Straw-Coloured Fruit Bat is widely hunted and eaten in Ghana even though it carries a risk of infection with "zoonotic" pathogens – diseases transmitted from animal to man.

Hunting, butchering and consuming wild animals for food can potentially transmit these infections through bites, scratches, bodily fluids, tissue and excrement, Restif and his colleagues said.

Bats in particular appear to host more zoonotic viruses per species than any other group of mammals, yet very little is known about how humans and bats interact, how people perceive bats and their accompanying disease risk, or who is most at risk.

Smoked bat

The researchers found that hunters used a variety of means to capture bats, including shooting, netting and scavenging, and that all of the hunters reported handling live bats, coming into contact with bat blood and getting scratched or bitten. None of the hunters reported using protective measures, such as gloves.

Scavenged bats were collected alive, usually when a branch broke and bats fell to the ground, but this too carried risks: four interviewees explained how people would fight over the bats when a large branch fell, sometimes even lying down on top of bats to prevent others from taking them, often sustaining bites and scratches.

The bats were prepared and cooked in a number of ways, the most common methods being to smoke the bats before preparing food and using the bats in soup. At odds with reports from other countries, the survey in South East Ghana revealed few uses of bat bushmeat associated with traditional beliefs or medical practices.

In Ghana, bat bushmeat seems to function as both subsistence and luxury food. The large number of hunters who hunt for themselves or who keep some of their catch suggests that bats provide a readily available source of animal protein. At the same time, high taste ratings among consumers and relatively high prices suggest that bat meat is seen as a "luxury food" in Ghana.

More information is available online

More

Business leader calls for capping student loan debt

Mark Cuban says "easy money" creating an inflationary bubble in education

In the last decade more people have sought a college education and paid more for it. Tuition costs have skyrocketed and so has the amount of money students...

Photo
© Lucian 3D - Fotolia

In the last decade more people have sought a college education and paid more for it. Tuition costs have skyrocketed and so has the amount of money students owe for college loans.

Mark Cuban, billionaire investor and entrepreneur, says rising student loan debt is crushing the U.S. economy, preventing recent graduates from buying the things that normally stimulate the economy. Cuban has offered a rather simple fix.

In an interview with CNBC this week, Cuban called for a cap on the amount of federally-guaranteed student loan money any individual can borrow in a year. With a loan cap, he argues, colleges will have no choice but to reduce tuition.

His comments this week were, in fact, a repeat of those made over the summer at a business conference sponsored by Inc. Magazine.

Educational arms race

Cuban's comments reflect many of the same views we uncovered when we reported on skyrocketing college costs back in 2007. At the time, economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, pointed to an educational arms race, with elite private schools pushing the tuition enveloping and public universities scrambling to catch up.

"There is very little pressure of any kind to keep costs down at private schools," Naroff told ConsumerAffairs at the time. "For most of the private schools, especially the better and elite schools, the more expensive it is, the more elite it is, and the more having a degree from that school is a perceived value."

Cuban is now saying that the U.S. government can end this arms race – and perhaps help the U.S. economy – by reducing the money flow to higher education. He suggests limiting the amount of student loan debt to $10,000 per student per year.

Easy money

The current system, he argues, has created an “easy money” mentality among college administrators, who don't always use the money wisely, or in ways that benefit the economy. He uses the example of a college “building a better fitness center” to attract students.

Because there is plenty of money coming in – through higher tuition paid for with student loans – spending just increases, and so does tuition, in a classic inflationary spiral.

Anytime you create easy money, you're gonna create a bubble or inflation and that's what's happening with college tuition,” Cuban said.

Regulators are concerned

Cuban isn't the only one worried about surging college loan balances, though not everyone may agree with his prescription. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) first raised the alarm when student loan balances went over the $1 trillion mark in 2013. The total has only risen since then and is currently north of $1.2 trillion.

CFPB has launched a “Know Before You Owe” program to educated students about the dangers of too much student loan debt before they take it on.

More

"Attachment parenting" -- the latest child-rearing discipline

Its proponent say it's simply "natural" parenting

There are so many styles and labels for parenting lately. When I grew up it was just parenting period -- you either had weird parents or cool parents, ther...

Photo
Photo credit: © doble.d - Fotolia
There are so many styles and labels for parenting lately. When I grew up it was just parenting period -- you either had weird parents or cool parents, there was no in-between. Now there are “helicopter,” “Velcro,” “snowplow” parents, “tiger mom” – all titles we use to vilify styles of parenting in today's culture.

There is one more -- it's called "attachment parenting" and just FYI it's Attachment Parenting Month in October. I don't believe Hallmark has a card for it nor is there a commemorative ribbon. At least not yet.

Janet Jendron is the board president of Attachment Parenting International and she describes it like this: "Attachment parenting is natural parenting, it's what people have the instincts to do, and that's what's kept the human race going all these years. It's being close, feeding on demand and all of that."

These are, we're told, the “8 Principles of Attachment Parenting:”

Prepare for pregnancy and birth

Become emotionally and physically prepared for pregnancy and birth. Research available options for healthcare providers and birthing environments, and become informed about routine newborn care. Continuously educate yourself about developmental stages of childhood, setting realistic expectations and remaining flexible.

Feed with love & respect

Breastfeeding is the optimal way to satisfy an infant's nutritional and emotional needs. "Bottle nursing" adapts breastfeeding behaviors to bottle-feeding to help initiate a secure attachment. Follow the feeding cues for both infants and children, encouraging them to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Offer healthy food choices and model healthy eating behavior.

Respond with sensitivity

Build the foundation of trust and empathy beginning in infancy. Tune in to what your child is communicating to you, then respond consistently and appropriately. Babies cannot be expected to self-soothe, they need calm, loving, empathetic parents to help them learn to regulate their emotions. Respond sensitively to a child who is hurting or expressing strong emotion, and share in their joy.

Use nurturing touch (babywear!)

Touch meets a baby's needs for physical contact, affection, security, stimulation, and movement. Skin-to-skin contact is especially effective, such as during breastfeeding, bathing, or massage. Carrying or babywearing also meets this need while on the go. Hugs, snuggling, back rubs, massage, and physical play help meet this need in older children.

Ensure safe sleep

Babies and children have needs at night just as they do during the day -- from hunger, loneliness, and fear, to feeling too hot or too cold. They rely on parents to soothe them and help them regulate their intense emotions. Sleep training techniques can have detrimental physiological and psychological effects. Safe co-sleeping has benefits to both babies and parents.

Provide consistent, loving care

Babies and young children have an intense need for the physical presence of a consistent, loving, responsive caregiver, ideally a parent. If it becomes necessary, choose an alternate caregiver who has formed a bond with the child and who cares for him in a way that strengthens the attachment relationship. Keep schedules flexible, and minimize stress and fear during short separations.

Practice positive discipline

Positive discipline helps a child develop a conscience guided by his own internal discipline and compassion for others. Discipline that is empathetic, loving, and respectful strengthens the connection between parent and child. Rather than reacting to behavior, discover the needs leading to the behavior. Communicate and craft solutions together while keeping everyone's dignity intact.

Strive for balance 

It is easier to be emotionally responsive when you feel in balance. Create a support network, set realistic goals, put people before things, and don't be afraid to say "no." Recognize individual needs within the family and meet them to the greatest extent possible without compromising your physical and emotional health. Be creative, have fun with parenting, and take time to care for yourself.

Not everyone agrees

Jendron says her group's mission is to educate and support all parents in raising secure, joyful, and empathic children in order to strengthen families and create a more compassionate world. It's hard to argue with that but there are some details that raise hackles.

Many critics take issue with the notion of on-demand feeding. And "co-sleeping" is condemned by experts if it takes place in the same bed, primarily because of the danger of suffocation.

See the group's website to learn more. 

More

HBO plans standalone streaming service for cord-cutters

The premium pay channel is the last tie binding many consumers to cable

There's just one thing that keeps many consumers from giving their cable TV service the heave-ho. And that, of course, is HBO. But that won't be true much ...

PhotoThere's just one thing that keeps many consumers from giving their cable TV service the heave-ho. And that, of course, is HBO. But that won't be true much longer.

HBO CEO Richard Plepler said today the premium pay-TV channel will launch a standalone, online streaming service next year, aimed at the 10 million people who have broadband but don't subscribe to a cable TV service.

“That is a large and growing opportunity that should no longer be left untapped,” he said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “It is time to remove all barriers to those who want HBO. So, in 2015, we will launch a standalone, over-the-top, HBO service in the United States.”

Plepler was speaking at a Time Warner investor day meeting. He didn't offer any details about pricing.

While this will be good news to many consumers, it's likely to make the day a little more dreary over at Comcast, Charter, Cox, et al. It puts Netflix on notice that it has some serious competition. Amazon has produced a few standalone shows but Netflix has basically had the premium content field to itself until now.

More

Bogus trade association banned from selling healthcare-related products

Consumers seeking health insurance allegedly were bilked out of millions

A group of marketers who allegedly tricked consumers into buying phony health insurance has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) th...

Photo
© Balint Radu - Fotolia

A group of marketers who allegedly tricked consumers into buying phony health insurance has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that includes a permanent ban against selling healthcare-related products.

The defendants, who operated as the bogus trade association Independent Association of Businesses (IAB), were accused of preying on consumers who sought health insurance.

Under the alleged scheme, consumers who submitted their contact information to websites purportedly offering quotes from health insurance companies paid an initial fee ranging from $50 to several hundred dollars, and a monthly fee ranging from $40 to $1,000 purportedly for comprehensive health insurance coverage, but instead they were enrolled in an IAB membership.

Included in the program were purported discounts on services such as identity-theft protection, travel, and roadside assistance, as well as certain purported healthcare related benefits, including limited discounts and reimbursements on visits to certain doctors or hospitals, subject to broad exclusions and limitations.

The settlements

In 2012, the FTC charged the IAB defendants and those who ran IAB’s largest telemarketing operation with violating the FTC Act and the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR). A federal court halted the operation until the case was resolved. A settlement order announced in last year bans the telemarketing defendants from selling healthcare-related products.

This latest settlement order permanently bans the remaining defendants from selling healthcare-related products. It also prohibits them from violating the TSR, misrepresenting material facts about any goods or services, and selling or otherwise benefiting from consumers’ personal information.

The defendants include IAB Marketing Associates LP, Independent Association of Businesses, HealthCorp International Inc., JW Marketing Designs LLC, International Marketing Agencies LP, International Marketing Management LLC, Wood LLC, James C. Wood, his sons, James J. Wood and Michael J. Wood, and his brother, Gary D. Wood. It also resolves the FTC’s claims against relief defendant Tressa K. Wood, James C. Wood’s wife, who benefited from but did not participate in the alleged scheme.

The order also imposes a $125 million judgment that will be partially suspended once the defendants surrender assets valued at almost $2 million, including $502,000 in IRA funds and personal property that includes five luxury cars (a Lamborghini, two Mercedes, a Porsche, and an MG Roadster).

A separate settlement order requires relief defendant Avis. K. Wood to pay $60,000 from an IRA account that was funded by the defendants’ allegedly unlawful activities.

More

Retail sales post first decline in 8 months

Clothing and autos were among the big losers

After posting gains for seven consecutive months, retail sales slipped 0.3% in September to $442.7 billion. Figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau sho...

Photo
© Stuart Miles – Fotolia.com

After posting gains for seven consecutive months, retail sales slipped 0.3% in September to $442.7 billion.

Figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau show major factors in the decline were sagging sales at clothing stores (-1.2%) and auto dealers (-0.8%). Even with the decline, overall sales were up 4.3% from the same month a year ago.

In addition to clothing stores and auto dealers, losers during September include furniture and home furnishing stores and gas stations (both -0.8%) and building material and garden supply dealers (-1.1%).

On the other hand, electronics and appliance stores saw sales surge 3.4%, while food services and drinking place posted a gain of 0.6%.

The complete retail sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

Photo
© mybaitshop - Fotolia.com
Inflation

Separately, the Labor Department (DOL) is reporting drops in energy and food costs sent the producer price index (PPI) down 0.1% in September, the first decline since August 2013.

With both food and energy costs down 0.7% last month, the “core rate” of wholesale inflation was up just 0.2%.

The full PPI report may be found on the DOL website

More

Two gains in a row for mortgage applications

The advance came as interest rates dipped

Another rise in applications for mortgages -- the second in as many weeks. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications...

Photo
© emiliezhang - Fotolia.com

Another rise in applications for mortgages -- the second in as many weeks.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were up 5.6% in the week ending October 10.

At the same time, the Refinance Index shot up 11% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity up 3% -- to 59% of total applications, the highest level since February 2014.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 8.0% of total applications.

“Growing concerns about weak economic growth in Europe caused a flight to quality into US assets last week, leading to sharp drops in interest rates,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “Mortgage rates for most loan products fell to their lowest level since June 2013. Refinance application volume reached the highest level since June 2014 as a result, with conventional refinance volume at its highest since February 2014.”

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 10 basis points -- from 4.30% to 4.20%, the lowest since June 2013, with points decreasing to 0.17 from 0.19 (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) dropped to 4.14%, the lowest since May 2013, from 4.21%, with points falling to 0.10 from 0.29 (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 Plunged 10 basis points to 3.90%, the lowest since June 2013, with points decreasing to 0.08 from 0.15 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.41%, the lowest since July 2014, from 3.48%, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs decreased plummeted 15 basis points to 3.05%, the lowest since June 2013, with points rising to 0.38 from 0.37 (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

More

Lexus LS, GS, and IS vehicles recalled

Fuel could leak past a sealing gasket

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. is recalling approximately 423,000 Lexus vehicles including 2007 - 2010 model year LS; 2006 - 2011 model year GS; 2006 - 2011 mo...

Photo
Photo source: Lexus

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. is recalling approximately 423,000 Lexus vehicles including 2007 - 2010 model year LS; 2006 - 2011 model year GS; 2006 - 2011 model year IS; 2010 model year IS C and 2008 - 2010 model year IS-F vehicles.

The fuel delivery pipes in the engine compartment of the recalled vehicles were manufactured with a plating to protect against corrosion. Some of the pipes could have been produced with plating particles on the gasket seating surface where the fuel pressure sensor is installed.

In this condition, the sealing property of the gasket seated between the pressure sensor and the pipe could become degraded. During vehicle operation, fuel could leak past the gasket. In the presence of an ignition source, this could increase the risk of a vehicle fire.

The company says it is unaware of any fires, crashes, injuries or fatalities caused by this condition.

Owners of the vehicles involved will receive a notification by first class mail. Lexus dealers will repair the gasket seating surface of the fuel delivery pipe where the fuel pressure sensor is installed, replace the gasket with a new one, and re-install the fuel pressure sensor.

Lexus owners may obtain more information by calling customer service at 1-800-255-3987.

More

The Walmart MoneyCard hacker strikes again

Cardholders from across the U.S. see their hacked cards drained at NYC Target stores

Something criminally strange seems to be going on with Walmart MoneyCards, especially in New York City and its immediate suburbs, though any MoneyCard hold...

More

Fewer drug companies are producing antibiotics

The trend is producing shortages at a time when new bugs are showing up

Two health trends are converging and the result is likely to be bad news. More and more infectious diseases are showing up in the population. At the same t...

Photo
© Brian Jackson - Fotolia

Two health trends are converging and the result is likely to be bad news. More and more infectious diseases are showing up in the population. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies are producing fewer antibiotics to fight them.

Part of the problem is that antibiotics, discovered in the early 20th century, have been overused. Over the years bacteria have come along that have acquired an immunity and are nearly impervious to them.

These “superbugs” have emerged as a serious threat. In 2012, for example, there were about 450,000 new cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

In September, President Obama issued an Executive Order committing the U.S. government to “detecting, preventing, and controlling antibiotic resistance,” placing the issue on the front burner. In the order Obama cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing at that of the 2 million Americans sickened each year from antibiotic resistant infections, 23,000 die.

It's personal

For Michael Kinch, associate vice chancellor and director of the Center for Research Innovation in Business, it's personal. A few years ago his 12-year-old son nearly died after his appendix burst. Only 2 of the 6 antibiotics he received had any effect, and they happened to be the 2 oldest drugs.

“It’s not that my son had had extensive exposure to antibiotics,” Kinch said. “We’re all just colonized by resistant bacteria now.”

So doctors now are more careful about prescribing antibiotics – which may be a good thing. But perhaps as a result, drug companies are making fewer of them. After all, they are in business to make drugs that get prescribed.

Fewer antibiotics

Kinch says there are other factors at work. He notes that the number of antibiotics available for clinical use has dwindled to 96 from a peak of 113 in 2000.

That number will probably continue to decline. Kinch says the rate of withdrawals – antibiotics removed from the market – is double the rate of new introductions.

The reasons for the withdrawals vary. Some drugs just don't work anymore. Some are now considered too toxic or have been replaced by new versions of the same drug.

But Kinch says the trend is unmistakable. Antibiotics are declining because pharmaceutical companies are leaving the business of antibiotic discovery and development.

Getting out of the business

For example, Pfizer or its predecessors developed 40 of the 155 antibiotics ever sold in this country. Kinch says that today, Pfizer doesn't sell an antibiotic. He says Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers Squibb have all left the field.

Government health officials have already noted the shortage of new antibiotics that can be effective against these new multi-drug resistant bacteria and are concerned.

“There is an urgent need to address the lack of effective treatments to meet the increasing public health burden caused by multidrug-resistant bacteria,” a 2011 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study warned.

More

Dropbox wasn't hacked, but millions of its customers were

Another example of why you should never use the same password for multiple accounts

The good news is that, despite initial reports claiming otherwise, Dropbox was not hacked. The bad news is that apparently, up to 7 million individual Dro...

PhotoThe good news is that, despite initial reports claiming otherwise, Dropbox was not hacked.

The bad news is that apparently, up to 7 million individual Dropbox customers were. Why? Because those 7 million Dropbox users ignored (or simply didn't know) the important online safety rule “Never use the same password across multiple accounts.”

Yesterday, Anton Mityagin writing on the official Dropbox Blog announced that:

Recent news articles claiming that Dropbox was hacked aren’t true. Your stuff is safe. The usernames and passwords referenced in these articles were stolen from unrelated services, not Dropbox. Attackers then used these stolen credentials to try to log in to sites across the internet, including Dropbox.

StubHub redux

It's basically a much larger-scale version of the StubHub non-hacking from last July: over a thousand StubHub accounts were compromised and used to fraudulently buy tickets, though StubHub's own database was never breached. The hackers had broken into and stolen passwords from various other websites, discussion forums and password-protected online places, and discovered that at least some of those stolen passwords worked in the victims' StubHub accounts, too.

It does appear that when hackers successfully steal the password to one of your accounts, they'll try plugging that password into your other accounts on the off-chance it will work. Where over 1,000 StubHub customers last summer were concerned, it did. And it may have worked for up to 7 million Dropbox customers as well.

Something similar happened with Gmail last month: initial reports said that Russian hackers had stolen 5 million Gmail passwords, though it turned out that the passwords were stolen not from Gmail itself, but from various registration-required sites where people used a Gmail account to register.

So the Dropbox “hacking” appears similar to that earlier “hackings” of Gmail and StubHub: the only Dropbox users who need worry about it are those who still follow the dangerous habit of using the same password across multiple online accounts.

If you have two or more online accounts with the same password, even if none of those accounts are with Dropbox, you need to change the password for every such account you have.

More

Wallpaper to light up your life and heat things up

A wallflower no longer has to be drab and dull

In the 60's lava lamps were considered futuristic. You could stare at them all night with the lights off and say groovy! With the lava lamp came a new desi...

Photo
Image © Architects-paper.com

In the 60's lava lamps were considered futuristic. You could stare at them all night with the lights off and say groovy! With the lava lamp came a new design for lamps and before you know it we had LED lightbulbs -- the point being the light bulb has evolved.

Many things have followed into the contemporary world thanks to technology. Remember the old saying, "If these walls could talk?" Well, wallpaper has gone the way of technology. Now, as far as I know, it doesn't actually talk yet, but it does light up.

There is a new design concept and it is to make wallpaper the focal point of a room. Manufacturers are embedding LED lights into their designs to add ambiance. Some companies are using heat- and light-sensitive materials that cause changes in what you see on the wall depending on the temperature and light in the room.

If you had a night filled with drinking and can't wait to flop into bed and just stare at the walls, I can't really imagine that would be a good thing, but perhaps it would have a calming effect.

Most likely you won't be seeing these at Home Depot or Lowes just yet, but they are available online or through a designer that has an "in" with the manufacturer. Basically you need a designer with connections.

If you are interested in the LED lights that are embedded in the wallpaper try meystyle.com or Ingo Maurer's architects-paper.com.

“LED wallpaper opens up very exciting possibilities to illuminate rooms: Dimmed, enigmatic light hardly revealing where it is coming from, or a vibrant metropolitan atmosphere are just a few options. It’s magic!" Ingo Maurer said. "Another big advantage is that the LED wallpaper can be hung in any number of strips and lengths according to the architecture and furnishing of a room. Interior designers have the choice.”

Heat it up

Photo
Image © meystyle.com

If you want to heat things up what better way than with your walls? Consider Columbia Road, whose website describes it like this: "Columbia Road heat sensitive is a five-colour screen printed wallpaper. One layer of ink is printed using thermochromic ink which is affected by a temperature rise (ie heat from radiators/hot water pipes or very strong sunlight) this allows certain areas of the design to temporarily change and reveal hidden images throughout the paper, then disappear again as the paper cools to room temperature."

Wallpaper is coming into its own all right. It's not like the stuff you put into your first apartment that was full of adhesives and had that little floral pattern. Its actually gone "Green."

Wallpaper is now made out of recycled materials, organic cotton and water-based inks. Some is even made from FSC-certified paper. That means that the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council certified the paper and it comes from responsibly managed forests.

Wallpaper is a little more expensive than paint and the environmental papers are a little pricier yet, but it's an investment in a place you call home and plus think of all the extras you get with LED lights and temperature control. It might save on art for the walls and lamps.

If you are cold at night, just snuggle up with a good book and the wall.

More

Google goes after Amazon, expands its delivery service

Same-day delivery service expands offerings, adds cities

Buying stuff online is one thing. Getting your hands on it can be something else. Until now, Amazon has had the clear advantage in delivering boxes of diap...

Photo
Image source: Google

Buying stuff online is one thing. Getting your hands on it can be something else. Until now, Amazon has had the clear advantage in delivering boxes of diapers, light bulbs and just about anything else you can think of through its Prime service, which for $99 per year offers free two-day shipping on most things and same-day service on selected items.

But now Google is getting into the act, charging $10 a month -- or $95 a year -- for unlimited same-day or overnight delivery on orders over $15. Nonmembers of Google Express will pay $4.99 per order, $7.99 if the order is for less than $15. 

The key difference between the two is that Amazon stocks and sells a large percentage of the merchandise consumers order through its site, whereas Google Express -- formerly known as Google Shopping Express -- simply takes orders for merchandise from its "partner" retailers including Costco, Staples, Walgreen, PetSmart, Sports Authority and Amazon arch-rival Barnes & Noble.

Google Express has previously operated in San Francisco and parts of New York City and Los Angeles. It is expanding to Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago today, with more cities soon to follow. Fresh food and liquor deliveries are being offered in a few test markets.

"With more cities, more merchants, and more of your favorite items, Google Express is on its way toward making your life easier by helping you get even more errands out of the way," said Google Shopping executive Brian Elliott in a blog posting.

More

Hackers steal Kmart customer credit and debit card data

If you shopped at Kmart from September through Oct. 9, your card might be at risk

Late Friday afternoon, Kmart kicked off the three-day holiday weekend by announcing that, for most of September, hackers were able to steal customer credit...

PhotoLate Friday afternoon, Kmart kicked off the three-day holiday weekend by announcing that, for most of September, hackers were able to steal customer credit- and debit-card numbers from an unspecified numbers of Kmart stores across the country.

Kmart president and Chief Member Office Alasdair James posted a letter/statement dated Oct. 10 on Kmart's website:

On Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014 our IT team detected that our Kmart store payment data system had been breached …. The security experts report that beginning in early September, the payment data systems at Kmart stores were purposely infected with a new form of malware [which] resulted in debit and credit card numbers being compromised.

Bad news, though James went on to say:

Based on the forensic investigation to date, no personal information, no debit card PIN numbers, no email addresses and no social security numbers were obtained by those criminally responsible. There is also no evidence that kmart.com customers were impacted. This data breach has been contained and the malware has been removed. I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may cause our members and customers.

Kmart is offering free credit monitoring to any customer who used a debit or credit card at a Kmart store anytime from September through Oct. 9 of this year. James ended his letter by offering a Kmart-specific version of the advice everyone has to follow after hackers access some retailer they patronized:

I suggest that customers carefully review and monitor their credit and debit card account statements. If customers see any sign of suspicious activity, they should immediately contact their card issuer. More guidance is also available on our website, kmart.com and customers can contact our customer care center at 888-488-5978.

Kmart still hasn't indicated how many stores were affected, or where. We'll keep you posted as more information becomes available.

More

Southwest, Virgin mix it up as Love Field goes national

No longer restricted to short flights, Dallas' Love Field becomes hotly competitive

For decades, close-in Love Field (DAL) has felt the love of Dallas-area travelers who dreaded the long haul out to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport...

Photo
"Free at last" celebration at Love Field (Photo credit: Southwest Airlines)
For decades, close-in Love Field (DAL) has felt the love of Dallas-area travelers who dreaded the long haul out to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW).

But lovely though it may have been, Love Field had one big drawback: it was restricted to relatively short-haul flights, thanks to something called the Wright Amendment. That has finally changed; federal limits imposed by the amendment expired yesterday and low-cost carriers Southwest and Virgin America lost no time going wheels up to such once-forbidden destinations as New York and Washington.

This presents a potential headache for DFW-based American Airlines, only recently emerged from bankruptcy and still digesting its acquisition of US Airways. 

Love Field's in-town location makes it attractive to business travelers, as do the lower fares and booking policies of Southwest and Virgin. Virgin's extra-plush first class section, priced below many competitors' business class, may also be attractive to long tall Texans yearning for a little breathing space.

Made lemonade

The Wright Amendment, the brainchild of then-Rep. Jim Wright (D-Texas) was imposed in 1979 and was intended to spur development of DFW, which opened in 1974 and languished for its first years. The amendment limited Love Field flights to in-state and nearby destinations. 

Southwest made lemonade from the sour restriction, fashioning itself as an upstart giant killer, offering cheap and frequent flights from Love Field to just about anywhere for anyone willing to change planes once the eyes of Texas were no longer upon them. 

"After 34 long years, Southwest now has the right to spread our low fares, our friendly policies, our Fun-LUVing Attitudes, and Legendary Customer Service," said Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer. "Most importantly, we have the right to spread our LOVE across the United States anywhere we want to fly nonstop from our home airport, and our hometown, Dallas, Texas."

Southwest began nonstop flights from DAL to 17 new destinations yesterday:

  • Denver
  • Chicago (Midway)
  • Baltimore/Washington
  • Washington, D.C. (Reagan National)
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Orlando

Beginning November 2, 2014, Southwest Airlines will continue its rollout of new nonstop flights from Love Field to:

  • Phoenix
  • Orange County/Santa Ana
  • San Diego
  • Tampa Bay
  • Ft. Lauderdale
  • New York City (LaGuardia)
  • Atlanta
  • Nashville

Beginning January 6, 2015:

  • San Francisco (SFO)
  • Oakland (OAK)

Virgin's Texas-sized deals

Virgin America celebrated with the launch of three daily nonstop flights from DAL to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO), and starting on October 28th, four daily nonstop flights from DAL to New York's LaGuardia Airport (LGA).  

The airline will be the only carrier at Love Field to offer three classes of service in these markets – including a First Class cabin and a Main Cabin Select premium economy service – as well as fleetwide WiFi, power outlets at every seat, a full-service food menu, confirmed seating and personal seatback entertainment for every guest.  

 

More

Another increase in consumer spending

A boost in real wages gets the credit

Consumers are earning more money -- and spending it. According to the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index, which tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator o...

Photo
© intheskies - Fotolia.com

Consumers are earning more money -- and spending it.

According to the Deloitte Consumer Spending Index, which tracks consumer cash flow as an indicator of future consumer spending, consumer outlays were higher in September for a second straight month.

The index, which is made up of 4 components -- tax burden, initial unemployment claims, real wages and real home prices -- increased to 4.21 from 4.11 in August.

“A rise in real wages boosted the index this month,” said Daniel Bachman, Deloitte’s senior U.S. economist. “Although unemployment claims remain at the level of the previous month, seeing them continue to hover around the 300,000 mark is a positive sign for the labor market.

“The uptick in wages -- although only of one month’s duration -- is also consistent with the improving labor market,” he continued. “If employment and wages continue this positive trajectory, consumers are likely to respond with more confidence and higher spending.”

Index highlights

  • Tax burden: The tax rate has been effectively unchanged with a marginal increase to 11.8%.
  • Initial unemployment claims: Claims were back over the 300,000 mark to 303,000, but still were down 10.3% from the same period last year.
  • Real wages: Real hourly wages were up 0.5% from the previous month as well as the same period last year -- increasing to $8.86 in September.
  • Real median new home price: New home prices fell 1.4% from the prior month to $116,000, but prices are still 5.9% higher than the same period last year.

Looking ahead

Steady economic improvements influencing consumer spending point to a more optimistic outlook for the year-end shopping season. “With the holidays beginning, an economy on a more even keel will be a welcome sign for retailers,” said Alison Paul, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and retail and distribution sector leader. “Deloitte is forecasting a 4 to 4.5% increase in overall holiday sales this year, as consumers’ spending levels are likely to increase on the heels of personal income, job and stock market gains. Holiday cheer may be making a comeback as families look to release pent-up demand and regain confidence in the economy.”

More

SunBurst Foods recalls all SunBurst, Fresh Bites and private label products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

SunBurst Foods of Goldsboro, N.C., is recalling all of its SunBurst, Fresh Bites and private labeled products which are currently in the market. The produ...

Photo
Photo source: SunBurst Foods

SunBurst Foods of Goldsboro, N.C., is recalling all of its SunBurst, Fresh Bites and private labeled products which are currently in the market.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The company says it is unaware of any illnesses related to these products

All codes, all sell-by dates and sizes of the following brands are being recalled:

  • SunBurst
  • Fresh Bites

Private label products include the following brand names: River Edge Farms, CFW, Southern Zest, CJ’s Vending, Binford Street Deli, Middle Georgia Vendors, Roanoke Foods, Select Foods, and Jesse Jones (Double Chili Dogs)

MFG CodeDescriptionUPCWt. (oz.)
1038Bologna & Cheese7-01248-00302-93.00
1563Chicken Salad on Wheat7-01248-00809-34.00
105Chicken Salad on White7-01248-00104-94.00
638Combo Sandwich (Ham, Bologna & Cheese)7-01248-00532-04.00
117Egg Salad7-01248-00116-23.30
1035Ham & Cheese on Wheat7-01248-00827-73.00
1034Ham & Cheese on White7-01248-00301-23.00
115Pimento Cheese7-01248-00114-83.50
101Shaved Ham & Cheese7-01248-00100-14.00
258Thick Bologna & Cheese7-01248-00913-74.50
637Turkey & Swiss On Wheat7-01248-00531-34.00
111Turkey on Wheat7-01248-00110-03.40
1712Chicken, Egg and Cheese Biscuit7-01248-01003-46.10
121Country Link Sausage (on bun)7-01248-00120-93.50
652Fried Bologna & Egg on Bun7-01248-00804-85.40
607Jumbo Breakfast (Sausage, Ham, Egg & Ch. on bun)7-01248-00507-85.25
131Sausage & Egg (on bun)7-01248-00130-83.75
623Sausage, Egg & Cheese Croissant7-01248-00523-85.00
125Twin Ham Biscuits7-01248-00124-72.50
125Twin Ham Biscuits7-01248-00124-73.00
127Twin Sausage Biscuits7-01248-00126-13.50
1049Cheese Cubes with Crackers (Vac Pack)7-01248-00160-53.50
618Deli Ham and Cheese7-01248-00518-46.00
166Turkey Hoagie7-01248-00148-35.30
237Philly-Style Cheese Steak7-01248-00194-05.75
1648Two 1/2 Foot Ham & Turkey Sub7-01248-00939-711.30
1659Two 1/2 Foot Turkey & Cheese Hoagies7-01248-00950-211.50
1761Bacon Cheese Burger7-01248-01049-23.50
294Barbecue Beef7-01248-00176-64.30
162Barbecue Chicken (on bun)7-01248-00144-54.60
1037Cheeseburger7-01248-00306-73.50
168Chicken Fillet w/ Swiss Ch. (on bun)7-01248-00150-65.50
158Double Cheeseburger7-01248-00140-75.20
650Double Chili Dogs7-01248-00802-46.40
275Fried Bologna Sandwich (on bun)7-01248-00329-63.80
1758Fried Chicken Leg Quarter w/ Bone on Bread7-01248-01046-17.00
284Fried Chicken w/ Bone Sandwich7-01248-00333-39.50
1760Fried Red Hot Link w/ Cheese on Bun7-01248-01048-53.50
1048Gourmet Sub (Ham, Bologna & Cheese)7-01248-00307-44.00
1590Grilled Cheese7-01248-00883-31.65
270Grilled Ham & Cheese Sandwich7-01248-00156-83.00
1591Hamburger7-01248-00884-03.00
1762Ham and Cheese on Bun7-01248-01050-83.70
1769Hot Smoked Sausage on Bun7-01248-01057-74.00
653Pork Ribette (on Bun)7-01248-00805-56.00
1042Sausage Dog7-01248-00337-14.2
286Single All Beef Hot Dog7-01248-00172-82.50
285Single Hot Dog w/ Chili7-01248-00800-03.10
283Single Plain Hot Dog7-01248-00837-62.10
1597Skippy Peanut Butter and Grape Jelly w/ White Bread7-01248-01114-71.50
123Smoking Joe (Smoked Sausage on bread)7-01248-00122-35.25
1649Spicy Chicken Sandwich7-01248-00940-35.10
1655Deluxe Caesar Salad7-01248-00946-53.25
1653Deluxe Chef Salad7-01248-00944-15.10
1654Deluxe Garden Salad7-01248-00945-85.80
1596Deluxe Italian Salad7-01248-00927-45.50
1792BBQ Chicken on 100% Wheat Roll w/ Baby Carrots7-01248-01077-57.80
1619Chicken Finger Sub w/ Potato Wedges7-01248-00903-88.75
1632Chicken Salad Croissant7-01248-00918-25.75
1664Ham & Cheese Omelet on Toast w/ Hash Brown7-01248-00955-77.25
1630Ham & Swiss on Sourdough7-01248-00916-86.10
1666Ham & Swiss on Sourdough w/ Baby Carrots7-01248-00957-110.30
1620Jumbo Chili Cheese Burger w/Potato Wedges7-01248-00904-59.75
1636Potato Wedges7-01248-00924-35.50
1670Sausage & Egg on Croissant w/ Hash Brown Patty7-01248-00961-87.00
1740Caesar Salad7-01248-01028-73.25
1719Chicken Finger Sub w/ Honey Mustard Sauce7-01248-01015-75.35
1716Deluxe Chicken Salad on Toast7-01248-01019-55.00
1739Garden Salad7-01248-01027-05.80
1715Ham & Cheese Club7-01248-01018-86.50
1728Ham & Turkey on Multi Grain7-01248-01016-410.00
1714Turkey & Swiss on 12 Grain7-01248-01017-16.75
1821Bologna and Cheese on White7-01248-01106-24.80
1818Chicken Salad on Wheat7-01248-01102-44.30
1817Chicken Salad on White7-01248-01101-74.30
1819Egg Salad on White7-01248-01103-13.30
1811Ham and Cheese on Wheat7-01248-01095-93.80
1812Ham and Cheese on White7-01248-01096-63.80
1815Pimento Cheese on White7-01248-01099-74.30
1807Turkey and Cheese on Wheat7-01248-01091-13.80
1806Turkey and Cheese on White7-01248-01090-43.80
1803All American Hoagie w/ Turkey, Ham, Bologna & Cheese7-01248-01087-47.75
1587BBQ Pork on Bun7-01248-00880-25.35
1823Bologna and Cheese Sub7-01248-01108-66.75
1775Buffalo Chicken Salad on 100% Whole Wheat Roll7-01248-01061-45.50
1810Deli Ham and Cheese on Marble Rye7-01248-01094-25.55
1777Deluxe Chicken Salad on 100% Whole Wheat Roll7-01248-01063-84.30
1814Grilled Chicken on Croissant7-01248-01098-06.00
1822Grilled Chicken on Pretzel Roll7-01248-01107-97.50
1774Ham and Cheddar on 100% Whole Wheat Roll7-01248-01060-75.30
1813Ham and Cheese Croissant7-01248-01097-35.50
1798Ham and Cheese Pretzel Roll7-01248-01082-97.00
1824Ham and Cheese Sub7-01248-01109-36.75
1827Oven Roasted Turkey and Cheese on Wheat Sub7-01248-01112-36.50
1797Oven Roasted Turkey Breast on Pretzel Roll7-01248-01081-26.75
1773Sunrise Sandwich (French Toast, Sausage & Egg)7-01248-01059-13.60
1804Turkey and Provolone on Marble Rye7-01248-01088-14.55
1820Turkey and Provolone on Whole Wheat Sub7-01248-01104-88.00
1776Turkey and Swiss on 100% Whole Wheat7-01248-01062-15.25
1808Turkey and Swiss on Croissant7-01248-01092-85.50
1809Turkey and Swiss Sub7-01248-01093-56.75
1780Blazing Sausage Dog7-01248-01065-25.50
1825Fried Chicken Strips Hero7-01248-01110-95.80
1793Ham and Cheese Omelet on Toast7-01248-01078-25.25
1795Jumbo Bacon Cheeseburger7-01248-01080-55.20
1794Junior Bacon Cheeseburger7-01248-01079-93.40
1787Turkey Breast & Bacon on Wheat (Wedge)7-01248-01072-04.80
1729Apple Cobbler7-01248-01041-63.75
1749Blueberry Crunch Cake7-01248-01037-94.50
1750Cherry Crunch Cake7-01248-01038-64.50
1738Jello with Fruit7-01248-01026-37.50
659Peach Cobbler7-01248-00848-25.10
648Strawberry Shortcake7-01248-00549-85.25
1752Strawberry Yogurt & Granola7-01248-01040-98.50
1784Broccoli & Cauliflower with Buttermilk Ranch Dressing7-01248-01069-02.50
1785Carrots with Buttermilk Ranch Dressing7-01248-01070-62.50
1786Celery with Peanut Butter7-01248-01071-32.50
1783Grapes7-01248-01068-34.50
1789Honeydew Melon7-01248-01074-43.75
1788Pineapple7-01248-01073-73.75
1782Strawberries7-01248-01067-62.50
1790Watermelon7-01248-01075-13.75
1518Cheesy Eggs w/ Link Sausage & Dinner Roll7-01248-00619-87.50
1506French Toast w/ Sausage7-01248-00607-54.00
1582Ham Omelet w Dinner Roll7-01248-00855-05.80
1528Pancake w/ Sausage7-01248-00628-0]4.50
1508Sausage & Egg w/ Rice7-01248-00609-97.50
1551Western Omelet7-01248-00650-18.25
1522Caesar Salad7-01248-00623-53.25
1502Chef Salad7-01248-00603-75.10
280Garden Salad7-01248-00323-45.80
1651Chicken Tenders7-01248-00942-78.00
1537Chili Mac7-01248-00639-67.50
1572Lasagna7-01248-00818-510.00
1717Macaroni & Cheese w/ Smoked Sausage7-01248-01020-57.50
1560Robust Spaghetti w/ Meat Sauce7-01248-00806-28.00
1562Zesty Chicken Parmigiana w/ Spaghetti]7-01248-00808-69.50

The recalled products were sold in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.

Products not manufactured but distributed by SunBurst such as cakes, burritos, and chips are not part of this recall.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled products should destroy them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company between 8AM and 5PM EST at 1-919-778-2151.

More

Galant Food expands recall of beef products

The meat filling used in the products did not meet its cooking critical limit

Galant Food Company of San Leandro, Calif., is recalling an additional 130 pounds of beef products. The meat filling used in the products did not meet its...

Photo
Photo source: USDA

Galant Food Company of San Leandro, Calif., is recalling an additional 130 pounds of beef products.

The meat filling used in the products did not meet its cooking critical limit.

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

The original recall was issued last week

The additional products subject to the recall include:

  • 6.5-oz. Paramount Beef and Cheese Piroshki, 12 per case, with case codes 092214
  • 7-oz. Galinas Original Beef and Cheese Piroshki, 12 per case, with case codes 092314

The products, which bear the establishment number “EST. 9014,” were produced Sept. 22 through 23, 2014, and shipped to a distributor in the San Francisco Bay area.

The problem was discovered by the company when visiting its distributor and identifying that the products, as those in the initial recall, contained the same filling that did not reach lethality.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Len Galant at (510) 614-7150.   

More

Louis Garneau recalls aerodynamic bicycle helmets

In cold temperatures, the helmet can fail to protect the wearer from impact injuries

Louis Garneau USA of Derby, Vt., is recalling about 1,180 aerodynamic bicycle helmets. In cold temperatures, the helmet can fail to protect the wearer fro...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Louis Garneau USA of Derby, Vt., is recalling about 1,180 aerodynamic bicycle helmets.

In cold temperatures, the helmet can fail to protect the wearer from impact injuries.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves Louis Garneau P-09 aerodynamic bicycle helmets with model number 1405362. The helmets are shaped like tear drops with a rounded front and a short, tapered tail. The outer shells of the helmets are made of polycarbonate and have a built-in visor system, dimples on the top like those on a golf ball, a small rectangular vent in the front and a triangular vent in the rear.

The helmets came in three color schemes: black with red and white designs, white with blue and gray designs, and white with silver and white designs. The word "Garneau" is located on both sides of the helmet and the Louis Garneau logo is on the front under the vent. Recalled helmets have the manufacture date "Jan. 2014" on a sticker inside the helmet.

The helmets, manufactured in China, were sold at independent bicycle dealers nationwide and online at Louisgarneau.com from January 2014, through September 2014, for between $280 and $350.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled helmets and return them to Louis Garneau USA for a refund or replacement with a similar helmet.

Consumers may contact Louis Garneau USA at (800) 448-1984 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by email at customerserviceusa@louisgarneau.us.

More

Growing consumer confidence may fuel bigger Black Friday

One expert sees double digit sales over last year

Perhaps for the first time since the Great Recession consumers are heading into the holiday shopping season with increased optimism and fewer “bah, humbugs...

Photo
Retro © sellingpix - Fotolia

Perhaps for the first time since the Great Recession consumers are heading into the holiday shopping season with increased optimism and fewer “bah, humbugs!”

The Accenture annual holiday shopping survey shows 25% of U.S. consumers plan to spend more during the holidays than last year. According to the survey, the average consumer will spend an estimated $718 on gifts.

The survey also suggests Black Friday will be an even bigger event this year. Two-thirds of respondents say they plan to shop on the official kick-off to the shopping season, up from 55% last year.

A bigger Black Friday

Eric Jones, of Jones-Dengler Marketing, agrees. His company is tracking retailers' planning and from what he's seen so far, Black Friday 2014 will be more intense and generate more sales. It will also last a lot longer.

“Stores such as Target have already announced their 'Main Event' will run from Thursday to Saturday,”Jones told ConsumerAffairs. “Since this is just their 'Main Event' they will have deals throughout the week before and the week after for Cyber Monday as well. I would expect other major retailers to have the same strategy this year.”

Jones says you can also expect to see longer Black Friday hours and multiple rounds of “door-buster” bargains, designed to reward shoppers who choose to show up at different times.

“If there were a round of doorbusters on Saturday, that wouldn't shock us,” Jones said. “Also, expect the quantity of doorbuster items to be at an all time high this year.”

A frequent Black Friday complaint is that stores don't have an advertised special – or enough of them – to satisfy demand. Jones says retailers have heard that complaint and are reacting.

More online bargains

He also says an increasing number of consumers will choose to do their Black Friday shopping online and that stores will accommodate them.

“With the increase in mobile shopping and with people constantly glued to their phones, retailers know online deals is one surefire way to generate sales,” Jones said. “With that in mind, retailers are offering more sales online which in turn will lead to more total sales.”

Jones predicts a 20% increase in online Black Friday sales over last year but says the increase will not come completely at the expense of brick-and-mortar sales.

“From 2012 to 2013, I know comScore did a study that showed online Thanksgiving sales increased 21% and online Black Friday sales increased 15%,” he said. “Expect the same increase or more this year. I'm thinking we may even see the first Thanksgiving day with $1 Billion in sales.”

Very few retailers have announced what they plan to do but rumors are flying. Jones says one report – yet to be verified – is that Kmart and Walmart plan to open as early as 8 am on Thanksgiving Day and remain open though Friday night.

Tablets

Consumers in search of bargain electronics should find them. Jones said consumers should find especially attractive deals on tablets. Tablet manufacturers, he says, are losing ground to smartphones. Companies that make tablets, he predicts, will try to reestablish the tablet as a unique, must-have device – and drastically cut the price in the process.

“In addition to tablets, I'd expect to see some discounts on very popular video game consoles like the Xbox One and the Playstation 4,” Jones said. “Last year there were absolute no discounts on these consoles. So any discount, even as little as $20 or $50 or a gift card thrown in with a bundle, will be a real bargain for a shopper who's been waiting the entire year to get their hands on these devices.”

But the pleasant surprise for consumers, he says, will be unusually steep discounts on popular toys.

In a typical holiday shopping season the best toy deals are found the middle of December, when retailers are looking to move their overstock inventory before the new year. But Jones says he's talked to a few advertisers who to want to emphasize toys for Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

“I'm thinking this year they put their deals where their mouth is and offer us a few unbeatable toy sales this year,” Jones said.

More

Study: Talking while driving not always a distraction

Some conversations might actually improve safety

It has long been assumed that using a mobile device while driving is distracting because drivers were looking at their phones and not the road. Come up wit...

Photo
© Brian Jackson - Fotolia
It has long been assumed that using a mobile device while driving is distracting because drivers were looking at their phones and not the road. Come up with a way to keep the driver's eyes on the road, the reasoning went, and you've solved the problem.

So when manufacturers came up with various hands-free features for smartphones, it was generally thought drivers could safely drive and talk. But safety experts have pointed out all along that taking your eyes off the road isn't the only distraction.

When you carry on a conversation while driving, they point out, your mind has to divert at least some attention to what you are saying and hearing. Even if your eyes never leave the road, the data they process is at least partially degraded by the attention given to the conversation.

But if that is true, wouldn't a conversation between a driver and a passenger in the car be just as distracting?

Testing the theory

Researchers at the University of Illinois decided to find out. They used a driving simulator and videophone to assess how a driver's conversation partner influences safety on the road.

"We've done years of study on driver distraction, and previous studies suggest that passengers often aren't distracting. In fact, passengers can be helpful, especially if they're adults who have had experience and also are active drivers themselves," said University of Illinois psychology professor Arthur Kramer.

The study used 4 scenarios: a driver alone in the simulator, a driver speaking to a passenger in the simulator, a driver speaking on a hands-free cellphone to someone in a remote location, and a driver speaking on a hands-free cellphone to someone in a remote location who could see the driver and observe the driving scene out the front windshield via videophone.

Using college students as their subjects, the researchers devised a fairly challenging highway scene that involved merging and navigating around unpredictable drivers in other cars. They noted the study drivers' lateral moves, distance from other cars, speed, collisions, and ability to find and take a designated exit.

"We also recorded their speech as they talked to their partner in three out of the four conditions, and we looked at where they looked – we had an eye tracker built into the simulator," Kramer said. "So it was a pretty rich data set."

Predictable results

The results were pretty much what you would expect. Driving alone was the safest option. No distractions. While having a passenger helped here and there – they helped locate exits and road signs – overall they proved to be a negative.

As you might imagine, carrying on a cellphone conversation while driving was the most dangerous of the tests. Talking to someone who had no awareness of what was going on inside or outside the car more than tripled the likelihood of a collision, the researchers found.

The only real surprise involved the fourth driving scenario – when a driver spoke to someone who was not in the car but who could observe the driver's face and the view out the front windshield on a videophone.

"Drivers were less likely to be involved in a collision when their remote partner could see what they were seeing," said John Gaspar, one of the researchers. "And this benefit seems to be driven by changes in the way partners talked to the driver."

The findings suggest having a conversation can actually improve the safety of the driving experience, so long as the conversation partner knows what's going on in the car and sees what the driver sees.

Again, it's safest to drive alone. But having a system that provides a video feed of the roadway seems to make accidents less likely. If the conversation partner knows what's going on in the car, he or she can stop talking or draw the driver's attention to specific road conditions.

More

October offers some attractive car deals

But it's not a good deal if you get stuck with lousy financing

October tends to be an active month for new car deals and this year, it may be particularly true. Manufacturers appear unusually eager to unload this year'...

Photo
© Aleksandar Mijatovic - Fotolia
October tends to be an active month for new car deals and this year, that may be particularly true. Manufacturers appear unusually eager to unload this year's models and industry experts say there's a very good reason for that.

A number of popular models are undergoing major redesigns for the 2015 model year. While it's generally not a good idea to buy a car in its last year before an update, Kelley Blue Book's (KBB) vehicle advisors say this October's deals might just be too hard to pass up.

Dealers may be more motivated to negotiate. In addition, manufacturers have upped the ante in the incentives department, resulting in a lower net price for several outgoing models that have good reputations, making them great deals.

Different set of circumstances

"For October's list of KBB.com's 10 Best Deals of the Month, we've embraced this moment in time," said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book's KBB.com. "But don't drive off in one of these cars without first checking out the new and improved version replacing it, just to be sure you are happy with your end-result purchase."

Just how good are October's deals? How about a 2014 Cadillac CTS coupe, with an MSRP of $40,420. KBB says the car can be leased for $299 a month with $3000 due at signing.

Among the best financing deals is the 2014 Toyota Camry LE, with an MSRP of $23,695 with 0% financing and $1,000 cash back.

The best cash-back deal is the 2014 Nissan Maxima S, with an MSRP of $32,100 and $4,500 cash back. Assuming you got the car for KBB's Fair Purchase Price of $29,609, you would get an additional 15% discount in the form of the cash.

Incentives may depend on your credit

Remember that not everyone will qualify for some of these offers, since they are based on your credit rating. And in recent months, an increasing percentage of buyers haven't qualified for the best deals and have ended up with a subprime auto loan.

Reuters reported this week that government regulators are growing increasingly concerned that banks have made too many car loans and that too many of them are of the subprime variety. The worry is that what happened with subprime mortgages could happen with subprime auto loans.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is more concerned about the consumers getting those loans. It urges consumers to line up financing before visiting a car dealer. That way they don't have to rely on dealer financing and have a better chance of avoiding a subprime loan.

Nail down financing first

When you visit a bank or credit union to discuss financing, the loan officer will pull your credit and let you know how much you can afford to spend for a car. With a pre-approval letter, you will be in a better negotiating position when you visit the dealer.

According to CFPB, A bank or credit union will typically consider several factors in making a car loan:

  • Your credit score and credit history
  • The length of time you’ll be paying back the loan, called the “loan term” or “term of the loan"
  • The amount of your down payment as a percentage of the value of the car
  • Whether you are purchasing a new or used car

You should know that your annual percentage interest rate (APR) can vary as much as 10 to 15 percentage points based on your credit score and history. That can be the difference between getting a loan at 5% instead of one at 15%.

That's why you need to check your credit report for any errors before you shop for financing.  

More

Dimension Industries recalls sling cafe sets

The chairs can break due to a missing metal washer plate

Dimension Industries Company of Taiwan is recalling about 18,000 sling fabric cafe sets. The chairs can break due to a missing metal washer plate, posing ...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Dimension Industries Company of Taiwan is recalling about 18,000 sling fabric cafe sets.

The chairs can break due to a missing metal washer plate, posing a fall hazard to consumers.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The three-piece sling fabric cafe sets include two aluminum swivel chairs with medium brown-colored stretched fabric seats and backs, a round aluminum base and aluminum arm rests, and a rectangular table with a tabletop made from porcelain tile with a natural stone look.

The chairs are about 44 inches high x 26 inches long x 30 inches wide. The table is about 29 inches high x 30 inches long x 26 inches wide. Costco Item #966710 is printed on the hangtag, label and on the packaging.

The cafe sets, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Costco Wholesale stores nationwide from December 2013, through May 2014, for about $400.

Consumers should immediately stop using the chairs and contact Dimension to receive a free repair kit or a full refund.

Consumers may contact Dimension at (800) 598-6532 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

More

What's age appropriate for Halloween?

What's fun for older kids may be frightening for younger ones

I bought my 6-month-old granddaughter a Minnie Mouse costume for Halloween. Her mom wanted her to be an owl. I actually had bought three others and put the...

Photo
© altanaka - Fotolia

I bought my 6-month-old granddaughter a Minnie Mouse costume for Halloween. Her mom wanted her to be an owl. I actually had bought three others and put them back because I couldn't make up my mind which was cuter.  

It's not like she can really go trick or treating yet, we are waiting for her to crawl first. Nobody is pushing it though. But it brings up the question of what is age appropriate for Halloween.

Children less than 2 years of age: This is where kids are just learning about imagination.  Differentiating reality from fantasy is often difficult if not impossible. Parents can provide an emotional safety net during the Halloween season by reminding their children what is "pretend" and what is not.

Avoid masks (vision impairment), stress street safety (not crossing without an adult), using flashlights and removal of "treats" that may pose a choking hazard. 

3 to 5 years of age: At this age their imaginations run wild.  Perception is reality.  Clowns look kinda scary and some kids want no part of them.They perceive them to be mean and very scary.  Therefore it is best to avoid masks, as they may be both scary and dangerous by restricting vision. Similarly, it is best to stay away from extremely dark and noisy areas (for example, haunted houses).

Prior to Halloween night, let the child get used to their costume by wearing it; rehearse saying "trick or treat," and reinforce that everyone who is dressed in costume is also playing a pretend game just as they are.

5 to 8 years of age: Imaginary play is high on the scale but they start to become logical as well. Some of the  irrational fear starts to dissipate (like witches and ghosts) but more sensitivity develops to rational ones (mutilated bodies, blood and gore, and physical deformity).

Some kids like to be scared but it may have a delayed reaction and you end up with nightmares and the like. Stay away from scary TV shows and movies.

8 to 11 years of age:  Now  through adolescence we will see the fear mature into more rational form along with the development of what some psychologists call "social fear." Anxiety about "fitting in" is manifested by concerns regarding social embarrassment (for example, being kissed by a mother in public.)

Halloween provides an opportunity to wear outlandish or fear-inducing costumes. The goal is to shock adults. Which can translate into scaring younger kids. Remind them that destructive behavior  like  destroying pumpkins, "egging" cars, etc. is illegal and will not be tolerated.

Alternative entertainments

There are lots of things you can do around Halloween that don't have to focus on  the holiday of Halloween.

There are many fall and harvest festivals hosted by churches, community groups and schools that occur all throughout the month of October; generally, these festivals are as family-friendly as you can get. Other family-friendly activities include hay rides, pumpkin picking and cornfield mazes.

On the other hand there are also many other Halloween activities that are a bit scarier, like haunted houses and zombie parades. Consider the age of your children when taking them to an activity that is supposed to be frightening.

Another option is the at-home Halloween party. If you host one in your own home, research age-appropriate activities and try to control the flow of sugar by offering healthier alternatives. 

Try and make sure your evening is geared to your child's confidence level. Be patient if your preschooler has had enough after three minutes, wants to stick close by your side, or doesn't want to go outside in the costume you slaved over (or paid a small fortune for). When children can work through their fears and anxieties at their own speed, with your support, they will be better able to enjoy a lifetime of tricks and treats

More

Watch out for these Ebola-related scams

There are no Ebola cures or vaccines for sale, and the government isn't sending Ebola warning emails

Scammer morality is a bottomless pit: there's no depth limit to how low a scammer will sink while trying to make a dishonest buck....

Photo
© concept w - Fotolia
Scammer morality is a bottomless pit: there's no depth limit to how low a scammer will sink while trying to make a dishonest buck.

So it's no surprise that various scammers are using fear of the Ebola virus as bait to try ensnaring victims. In just the past two days, both the Feds and a state attorney general have issued official warnings about Ebola-related scam come-ons.

On Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission warned about scam-medicine peddlers who claim to have a cure for Ebola.

FTC blogger and “Consumer Education Specialist” Colleen Tressler wrote on Oct. 9 that:

Banking on fear, scam artists are making unsubstantiated claims that products containing everything from silver to herbal oils and snake venom can cure or prevent Ebola. Not so, says the FTC and the Food and Drug Administration. … 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 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 products specifically for Ebola available for purchase online or in stores. No dietary supplements can claim to prevent or cure Ebola … If you’ve seen companies or products touting these claims, report them to the FTC and FDA.

(Generally speaking: any supposedly miraculous medicine or drug, not just Ebola-specific stuff, that claims to work thanks to silver, colloidal silver, snake venom or herbal oils is almost certainly a scam. Other scam-medicine buzzwords you should know to look out for: “quantum,” “harmonics” or “harmony,” “vibrations,” “frequencies,” “succussion,” “homeopathic,” or anything that promises to flush dangerous yet unspecified “toxins” out of your body.)

"Pandemic update"

Then, today, the Illinois attorney general's office issued a warning about Ebola-related email scams (and, although Illinois is so far the only state to issue an official warning, there's no indication these emails are being sent only to Illinois residents).

The AG's office warned that it has seen or received several scammy Ebola-related emails, two basic scam varieties in all. Of course there are scammy emails trying to sell fake Ebola cures or Ebola protection equipment, but even more ominous are the emails presumably (but not really) from some official government authority, offering links with labels like “Ebola Pandemic update” or “civilian crisis protocol,” but of course if you click on the link you'll get all sorts of nasty malware infecting your computer.

If you see any strange email with any Ebola-related subject heading, your best bet is to delete it without opening it first. And remember: in the event that your local, state or federal government authorities issue public warnings about Ebola or any other public-health threat, these warnings will not be sent via unsolicited emails.

More

Hottest trends for pets this Halloween

Basically, pups are aping their owners when it comes to costumes

The list is out and if you're a dog you are probably waiting with baited breath to find out what kind of costume are they going to put you in this year. Th...

Photo
© Jesse Kunerth - Fotolia

The list is out and if you're a dog you are probably waiting with baited breath to find out what kind of costume are they going to put you in this year. The National Retail Federation said that Americans will spend $350 million on pet costumes and the costumes run the gamut from predictable to far-out. 

Lets start with what's new. According to Costumesupercenter.com, the Minion Pet Costume is new, along with Wonder Woman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Darth Vader, Captain America and Ghost Busters.

Some of these are old hat for humans, of course, but they fall into the latest fashions category for dogs.

Troy Eaves of Halloweencostumes.com says the trend seems to be that people will buy a pet costume to complement what the owner is wearing. So don't be surprised if you see a family of Ninja Turtles and one of them has 4 legs.

The top 10 according to The National Retail Federation

1. Pumpkin

2. Hot Dog

3. Devil

4. Bumble Bee

5. Cat

6. Batman Character

7. Superman

8. Witch

9. (T) Ghost

9. (T) Pirate

10. Star Wars Character

Eaves also said that, "People really like to dress up their dogs like food." Big sellers so far this year are the hot dog and taco. Pugs seem to be the dog of choice for these costumes.

You can't go wrong with Star Wars costumes, Eaves said. If you have a favorite sports team, let your dog be the cheerleader or star quarterback. Many team options are available but be warned they do sell quickly.

Icons of the music industry are a huge hit like the Elvis costume. Eaves said: "For some reason people like to embarrass their dog!" 

Prices can range from $4 to $28 on most commercial sites, although I did find a site called Poshpuppyboutique.com and they had a lederhosen dog costume for $40. Some of their costumes were a little more pricey but also more original.

Just be careful your dog can't swallow any part of the costume and that they can see where they are walking. Remember chocolate is a killer for dogs. Stick to dog treats. After all, your dog is still a dog, even if he's dressed like Elvis.

More

Flawed digital certificate affects older Hewlett Packard products

Company must re-issue a lot of old software packages

This week, Hewlett-Packard quietly revoked one of its digital certificates after security blogger Brian Krebs discovered it was the same certificate which ...

Photo
Photo credit: HP

This week, Hewlett-Packard quietly revoked one of its digital certificates after security blogger Brian Krebs discoveredit was the same certificate which had signed off on some malware four yars ago.

What is a digital certificate? It's basically a security attachment on electronic messages, and according to Webopedia, “The most common use of a digital certificate is to verify that a user sending a message is who he or she claims to be, and to provide the receiver with the means to encode a reply.”

The problem with Hewlett-Packard's now-revoked digital certificate is that, in addition to all the various legitimate software packages it approved over the years, four years ago it also signed off on a Trojan virus which had infected an HP developer's computer. That Trojan never infected any HP software released on the market (according to an HP executive who spoke to Krebs).

Could cause problems

So that's good news for people with Hewlett-Packard machines. But it might cause problems for people with older HP machines running on older HP software signed by the now-revoked digital certificate. Ars Technica notes that:

the revocation of the affected certificate will require HP to re-issue a large number of software packages with a new digital signature. While the certificate drop may not affect systems with the software already installed, users will be alerted to a bad certificate if they attempt to re-install software from original media.

In other words: if you have to re-install your old HP software from its original discs for whatever reason, you won't be able to, because the digital certificate's no longer any good.

More

Dairy Queen/Orange Julius confirms customer data breach

Malware lifted information from affected stores between Aug. 5 and Aug. 31

Dairy Queen confirmed yesterday what everyone has already suspected for several weeks: in early August, hackers managed to install malware on the cash regi...

Photo
Photo via Wikipedia

Dairy Queen confirmed yesterday what everyone has already suspectedfor several weeks: in early August, hackers managed to install malware on the cash registers of almost 400 Dairy Queen stores (plus one Orange Julius), which enabled them to steal the debit or credit-card information of every card-using customer at the affected locations.

Security blogger Brian Krebs, who first reported the suspected breach last summer, reported Dairy Queen's confirmation today.

Dairy Queen updated its website to provide information about what it calls the “Data Security Incident,” which occurred between Aug. 5 and Aug. 31.

In other words: if you visited a Dairy Queen or Orange Julius and paid with a card during that time frame, check Dairy Queen's website to see if yours is on the affected-stores list. If so, you have to call your bank or card issuer and take the usual precautions.

More

Preparing your garden tools for winter

Things will be ready to go in the spring if you take action now

If you want something to last a while you have to take care of it and your garden tools are no exception....

Photo
© petrle - Fotolia
If you want something to last a while you have to take care of it and your garden tools are no exception.

This is the time of year where the weather is pretty psychotic. One day it's freezing, and then it rains and perhaps even hails while the next two days bring beautiful temps and warm sunshine. It can be confusing as to when exactly winter has knocked on the door. 

Newly planted flowers, trees and shrubs should be watered thoroughly every week or so right up until the ground freezes, especially if rainfall is lacking.
As soon as those freezing temps stick around you will know it's time.

Pull out your shovels, trowels, hoes and spades and get some of that steel wool under your sink and start scrubbing. Don't forget the wood handles -- perhaps get some linseed oil and rub it all over them so the wood doesn't crack. Sharpen your tools now so when spring pops back up you will be ready to go.

Do you need any replacements for your power tools? look over all the parts like loose screws, nuts, bolts, O-rings and spark plugs. Spark plugs should be removed for the winter. Spray them all with a lubricant wherever needed. One thing people have a tendency to forget is their hand tools -- make sure the pivots and shears as well as your pruners get the proper attention.

Maintain that lawnmower -- remove its fuel by running the mower until it runs out of gas and the motor stops. Just like your car, change the oil, if your mower has a four-cycle engine. If you have a ride-on mower or tractor remove the battery and charge it completely. You might even want to charge the battery a couple of times over the winter.

Make sure you have a dry location to store everything so you don't accumulate rust. If you have been throwing everything in a corner, now is a good time to get a shelf or a rack and get yourself organized so you can find it all in the spring and start over.

More

New class of fats may be helpful in diabetes treatment, prevention

Researchers say they're "blown away" by the discovery

Researchers in Boston have identified a new class of "good" fats that they say may offer a promising new direction for type 2 diabetes prevention and treat...

Photo
© zlikovec - Fotolia
Researchers in Boston have identified a new class of "good" fats that they say may offer a promising new direction for type 2 diabetes prevention and treatment.

The new findings, made by a team of scientists from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and the Salk Institute, are described in the October 9 online issue of the journal Cell.

"We were blown away to discover this completely new class of molecules," says senior author Barbara Kahn, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor.

Named fatty acid hydroxyl fatty acids, or FAHFAs, these new molecules are in fat cells as well as other cells throughout the body. They now join a small group of fatty acids known to benefit health, which also include omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.

"Based on their biology, we can add FAHFAs to the small list of beneficial lipids," says co-senior author Alan Saghatelian, PhD, a professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. "These lipids are amazing because they can also reduce inflammation, suggesting that we might discover opportunities for these molecules in inflammatory diseases, such as Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as diabetes."

Manufactured by humans

Unlike omega-3 fatty acids, which are not made in mammals, FAHFAs are actually produced and broken down inside the human body.

"This important feature gives FAHFAs an advantage in terms of therapeutic development because we can potentially modify the rate of production and breakdown throughout the body," said Kahn. "Because we can measure FAHFA levels in blood, low levels may turn out to be an early marker for the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Consequently, if restoring FAHFA levels in insulin resistant individuals proves to be therapeutic, we may potentially be able to intervene before the development of frank diabetes."

"The discovery of FAHFAs provides important new insights underlying metabolic and inflammatory diseases, and, of critical importance, offers viable new treatment avenues that we hope to be able to test in clinical trials," Kahn said. "This is of critical importance as rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes remain at epidemic proportions worldwide."

More

Just one domestic airline tarmac delay in August -- and none for international flights

On-time arrival performance was showed improvement over the month before

When it comes to getting off the ground on time, August was a very good month. The nation’s largest airlines reported just 1 tarmac delay of more than 3 h...

Photo
© John Takai - Fotolia.com

When it comes to getting off the ground on time, August was a very good month.

The nation’s largest airlines reported just 1 tarmac delay of more than 3 hours on a domestic flight, which is under investigation, and no tarmac delays of more than 4 hours on international flights.

According to the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, the carriers also posted an on-time arrival rate of 77.7% in August, while that's down 1.1% from a year earlier, it's 2.1% above the mark posted in July.

In addition, the reporting carriers canceled 1.2% of their scheduled domestic flights, down 0.4% from the month before and up 0.4% from the cancellation rate posted in August 2013.

The consumer report also contains data on chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, along with information on mishandled baggage reports filed by consumers with the carriers and consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints.

The complete report is available on the DOT website

More

Nissan Altimas recalled

The secondary hood latch could remain in the unlatched position

Nissan North America is recalling 220,423 model year 2013 Nissan Altima vehicles manufactured March 6, 2012, to February 28, 2013. Interference between t...

Photo
Photo source: Nissan USA

Nissan North America is recalling 220,423 model year 2013 Nissan Altima vehicles manufactured March 6, 2012, to February 28, 2013.

Interference between the hood inner panel and the secondary latch lever, in combination with debris and corrosion, may cause the secondary hood latch to bind and remain in the unlatched position when the hood is closed.

If the primary latch is inadvertently released and the secondary latch is not engaged, the hood could unexpectedly open while driving, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will be instructed to modify the bend angle of the hood actuation lever to eliminate potential interference with the hood inner panel. In addition, dealers will clean and lubricate the latch joint as needed. If significant corrosion is observed, the latch assembly will be replaced. This repairs will be performed free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

More

Twitter sues U.S. government on First Amendment grounds

If the company must spy on its customers, it at least wants the legal right to say so

Twitter's new First Amendment lawsuit against the United States government serves as the most recent reminder that in 2014, it's common knowledge that the ...

Photo
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Twitter's new First Amendment lawsuit against the United States government serves as the most recent reminder that in 2014, it's common knowledge that the U.S. not only engages in mass warrantless surveillance of its citizens' electronic communications, but also requires other people and organizations (ranging from your local librarian to multinational tech companies) to spy on American citizens – and won't even let the spies tell us what they're doing.

Consider: just last month, Yahoo won what was hailed as a “major court victory” -- it finally won legal permission to admit that, starting in 2008, the government ordered Yahoo to turn over massive amounts of confidential data on its users, and if Yahoo didn't comply, the company would initially be fined $250,000 per day, with the amount set to double every week: $500,000 per day for the second week, $1 million a day for the third, then $2 million, then $4 million … enough to bankrupt the company in a matter of months.

Gagged

For over six years Yahoo was forced to do this, and not until late 2014 was it even allowed to say so.

There's also reason to suspect that Apple has been forced to comply with some warrantless information requests.

In November 2013, Apple released its first-ever Transparency Report, which discussed its policies and activities from the period spanning January through June 2013 and contained this statement, “Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.”

When Apple released that report, certain sharp-eyed observers suspected that phrase about 215 might be a “warrant canary.” A warrant canary is a statement meant to show that an organization, such as a tech company or even a public library, has not been forced to comply with a secret (and possibly warrantless) government investigation coupled with a gag order. And should the warrant canary later disappear, that suggests the opposite.

The canary died?

Apple has since released two additional Transparency Reports, neither of which repeat the “warrant canary” phrase – which strongly suggests that at some point after June 2013, Apple did receive an order to hand over massive amounts of data under section 215, but was and is forbidden to say so.

Which brings us to Twitter. On Tuesday, Twitter lawyer Ben Lee announced in a public Twitter blog post that the company was suing the government on the grounds that being forbidden to discuss its forced-surveillance activities violated its First Amendment right to free speech:

As part of our latest transparency report released in July, we described how we were being prohibited from reporting on the actual scope of surveillance of Twitter users by the U.S. government. Our ability to speak has been restricted by laws that prohibit and even criminalize a service provider like us from disclosing the exact number of national security letters (“NSLs”) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) court orders received — even if that number is zero.

It’s our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users’ concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance – including what types of legal process have not been received. We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.

You might wonder: why doesn't Twitter borrow a (presumed) page from Apple's playbook, and publish warrant canaries to disappear as necessary? Given the legally enforced information blackout surrounding the topic it's hard to say for sure, but one possibility is that Twitter wasn't even allowed to do that much.

Last April, Twitter did submit a Transparency Report to the government for approval (possible bonus irony points from the observation that a transparency report requires government approval in a country which styles itself “the land of the free”). However, as Twitter manager Jeremy Kessel explained in a July 2014 post on Twitter's blog:

… in early April, we sent a draft midyear Transparency Report to DOJ that presented relevant information about national security requests, and asked the Department to return it to us, indicating which information (if any) is classified or otherwise cannot lawfully be published. At this point, over 90 days have passed, and we still have not received a reply....

A tangled web

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, responded to news of Twitter's lawsuit by saying:

“Twitter is doing the right thing by challenging this tangled web of secrecy rules and gag orders. If these laws prohibit Twitter from disclosing basic information about government surveillance, then these laws violate the First Amendment. The Constitution doesn’t permit the government to impose so broad a prohibition on the publication of truthful speech about government conduct. We hope that other technology companies will now follow Twitter’s lead. Technology companies have an obligation to protect their customers’ sensitive information against overbroad government surveillance, and to be candid with their customers about how their information is being used and shared.”

Twitter's lawsuit, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for Northern California, can be found in .pdf form here.

More

Enhanced Ebola screening to start at 5 US airports

All people entering the U.S. from Ebola-affected countries will be tracked

A new program of entry screening gets underway this week at 5 U.S. airports that receive most travelers from the Ebola-affected nations of Guinea, Liberia ...

Photo
© MacX - Fotolia.com

A new program of entry screening gets underway this week at 5 U.S. airports that receive most travelers from the Ebola-affected nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The program, run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Customs & Border Protection (CBP), will get underway Saturday at New York's JFK International Airport. In the 12 months ending July 2014, JFK received nearly half of travelers from the three West African nations.

The enhanced entry screening will be implemented next week at Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O'Hare, and Atlanta international airports.

"We work to continuously increase the safety of Americans," said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "We believe these new measures will further protect the health of Americans, understanding that nothing we can do will get us to absolute zero risk until we end the Ebola epidemic in West Africa."

CDC is sending additional staff to each of the five airports.

How the program works

After passport review:

  • Travelers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will be escorted by CBP to an area of the airport set aside for screening.
  • Trained CBP staff will observe them for signs of illness, ask them a series of health and exposure questions and provide health information for Ebola and reminders to monitor themselves for symptoms. Trained medical staff will take their temperature with a non-contact thermometer.
  • If the travelers have fever, symptoms or the health questionnaire reveals possible Ebola exposure, they will be evaluated by a CDC quarantine station public health officer. The public health officer will again take a temperature reading and make a public health assessment. Travelers, who after this assessment, are determined to require further evaluation or monitoring will be referred to the appropriate public health authority.
  • Travelers from these countries who have neither symptoms/fever nor a known history of exposure will receive health information for self-monitoring.

Effectiveness demonstrated

Entry screening is part of a layered process that includes exit screening and standard public health practices such as patient isolation and contact tracing in countries with Ebola outbreaks. Successful containment of the recent Ebola outbreak in Nigeria demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach.

These measures complement the exit screening protocols that have already been implemented in the affected West African countries, and CDC experts have worked closely with local authorities to implement these measures.

Since the beginning of August, CDC has been working with airlines, airports, ministries of health, and other partners to provide technical assistance for the development of exit screening and travel restrictions in countries affected by Ebola. This includes:

  • Assessing the capacity to conduct exit screening at international airports;
  • Assisting countries with procuring supplies needed to conduct exit screening;
  • Supporting with development of exit screening protocols;
  • Developing tools such as posters, screening forms, and job-aids; and
  • Training staff on exit screening protocols and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)

Outbound screening

All outbound passengers are currently screened for Ebola symptoms in the affected countries. Such primary exit screening involves travelers responding to a travel health questionnaire, being visually assessed for potential illness, and having their body temperature measured.

In the last two months since exit screening began in the 3 countries, of 36,000 people screened, 77 people were denied boarding a flight because of the health screening process. None of the 77 passengers were diagnosed with Ebola and many were diagnosed as ill with malaria, a disease common in West Africa, transmitted by mosquitoes and not contagious from one person to another.

Exit screening at airports in countries affected by Ebola remains the principal means of keeping travelers from spreading Ebola to other nations. All 3 of these nations have asked for, and continue to receive, CDC assistance in strengthening exit screening.

More

Senators call for stronger warning labels on e-cigarettes

Big tobacco concocting its own health warnings that don't tell the whole story, they charge

A group of Democratic U.S. Senators are calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today to adopt stronger warning labels for e-cigarettes, charging...

 

Photo
https://mail.google.com/mail/u/1/#inbox/148f61438977181f

A group of Democratic U.S. Senators are calling on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today to adopt stronger warning labels for e-cigarettes, charging that big tobacco companies are not telling the whole story.

 

"Media reports have recently highlighted that in the absence of a clear federal standard, e-cigarette manufacturers owned by big tobacco companies are beginning to concoct their own health warnings about their products that lack uniformity and are not comprehensive in listing all of the health threats the products pose," the Senators wrote in today's letter to the FDA.

They said inadequate health warnings on e-cigarettes reinforce the need for the FDA to quickly finalize proposed deeming regulations that would expand the agency's regulatory authority over the nicotine-based products.

A recent New York Times story noted the inconsistent standard that currently exists in the unregulated e-cigarette industry, with manufacturers including warning labels on their products that fail to fully advise consumers of the well-established consequences of nicotine use.

"In FDA's proposed 'deeming regulation,' the agency includes a warning label for e-cigarettes that does not adequately warn consumers on the known dangers of nicotine use. The proposed label reads 'WARNING: This product contains nicotine derived from tobacco. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.' We support requiring a label on nicotine's addictive properties, but we ask the FDA pursue requirements for more extensive warnings that address health risks that e-cigarettes pose," the Senators continued.

Signing the letter were Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Edward Markey (D-MA).

In August, thirteen Members of Congress - including Boxer, Durbin, Blumenthal, Reed, Brown, and Markey - asked the FDA to move quickly to finalize a proposed rule on e-cigarettes within one year, and to include provisions that would limit youth access to the addictive products.

In February, Senator Boxer and her colleagues introduced the Protecting Children from Electronic Cigarette Advertising Act, a bill that would prohibit the marketing of electronic cigarettes to children and teens. The measure would permit the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to determine what constitutes marketing e-cigarettes to children and would allow the FTC to work with states attorneys general to enforce the ban.

More

FTC bars WordSmart from deceiving parents

The company used unsupported claims to sell its educational products, feds charge

WordSmart probably thinks it's pretty smart but it wasn't smart enough to avoid Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived parents of school-age chi...

Photo
Source: WordSmart.com

WordSmart probably thinks it's pretty smart but it wasn't smart enough to avoid Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived parents of school-age children.

At issue are TV infomercials featuring quiz show host Alex Trebek that deceptively marketed the company's programs to parents who wanted to improve their children's performance at school or help them get ready for standardized tests. 

A $18.7 million settlement order prohibits WordSmart and its president, David A. Kay, from misrepresenting the benefits of educational goods or services, and from violating the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR).

The FTC’s complaint alleges that the defendants targeted parents who wanted to help their children get better grades and prepare for the SAT, ACT or other standardized test. They sold the programs via telemarketing and their website, charging between $15 and $300 for each program.

The defendants’ allegedly false and unsubstantiated claims included that, by using WordSmart for a total of 20 hours, students were guaranteed to improve letter grades by at least one GPA point, SAT scores by at least 200 points, ACT scores by at least four points, GRE and GMAT scores by at least 100 points, and raise IQ scores. They also falsely claimed they would provide a full refund within 30 days if the buyer was not satisfied, the FTC said.

In addition, the defendants allegedly repeatedly called consumers whose phone numbers are listed on the National Do Not Call Registry, refused to honor requests to stop calling, and failed to connect a consumer to a sales representative within two seconds after a consumer answered the phone, as required by the TSR.

The order imposes a $18.7 million judgment that will be suspended when the defendants have paid $147,400. The full judgment will become due immediately if they are found to have misrepresented their financial condition.

More

Decaf coffee may be good for your liver

Something that's popular may actually be good for us

Drinking decaf coffee maybe good for the liver. A new study finds that the benefits to the liver of drinking coffee apply regardless of whether the coffee ...

PhotoDrinking decaf coffee may be good for the liver. A new study finds that the benefits to the liver of drinking coffee apply regardless of whether the coffee is caffeinated or decaffeinated. 

In other words, say researchers from the National Cancer Institute, there's something in coffee other than caffeine that may help protect the liver by lowering abnormal enzymes.

Previous studies found that coffee consumption may help lower the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.

 "Our findings link total and decaffeinated coffee intake to lower liver enzyme levels. These data suggest that ingredients in coffee, other than caffeine, may promote liver health. Further studies are needed to identify these components," said lead researcher Dr. Qian Xiao.

Highly prevalent

This could be one of those rare cases where something that's extremely popular actually turns out to be good for us. 

It's hard to find something more popular than coffee, with more than half of all Americans over 18 drinking on average three cups each day according to a 2010 report from the National Coffee Association.

Moreover, the International Coffee Association reports that coffee consumption has increased 1% each year since the 1980s, increasing to 2% in recent years. 

Study details

For the present study researchers used data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The study population included 27,793 participants, 20 years of age or older, who provided coffee intake in a 24-hour period. The team measured blood levels of several markers of liver function, including aminotransferase (ALT), aminotransferase (AST), alkaline phosphatase (ALP) and gamma glutamyl transaminase (GGT) to determine liver health.

Participants who reported drinking three or more cups of coffee per day had lower levels of ALT, AST, ALP and GGT compared to those not consuming any coffee. Researchers also found low levels of these liver enzymes in participants drinking only decaffeinated coffee.

More

M&T Bank slapped for ads that deceptively promoted free checking

"No strings attached" claim went a bit too far, feds charge

Despite ads that promised "no strings attached" free checking, many customers of M&T Bank wound up with checking accounts that -- strings or not -- were an...

Photo
An M&T Bank in Newburgh, N.Y. Photo © Pentagram

Despite ads that promised "no strings attached" free checking, many customers of M&T Bank wound up with checking accounts that -- strings or not -- were anything but free, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

M&T will provide $2.9 million in refunds to the approximately 59,000 consumers deceived into paying fees and it will pay a $200,000 penalty for the violations under the terms of a consent order.

“Although M&T promised people free checking, tens of thousands of consumers ended up paying for a product they had thought was free,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “This is an important reminder to all banks and credit unions that they cannot misstate to consumers whether a financial product or service is free. Today we are putting $2.9 million back in the pockets of consumers as a result.”

M&T Bank Oct. 9, 2014, 4:18 p.m.
Consumers rate M&T Bank
In its investigation, the CFPB found that M&T lured in consumers with promises of “no strings attached” free checking, without disclosing key eligibility requirements. When consumers failed to meet the requirements, M&T automatically switched them to checking accounts with fees. 

M&T Bank, headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y., has hundreds of branches in the northeastern U.S.

During a routine CFPB supervision exam, the CFPB found that M&T was advertising a “Free Checking” account, then converting many consumers into a fee-based “M&T First” account.

Banks and credit unions are prohibited from deceptively advertising deposit accounts. If an account is described as free or no cost, it cannot, for example, have any maintenance or activity fees, or any fees to deposit, withdraw, or transfer money.

More

First-time jobless claims show little change

Evidence seen of "solid improvement" in the labor market

Not much change in the past week in the number of people filing initial applications for state unemployment benefits. According to the Labor Department (D...

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia.com

Not much change in the past week in the number of people filing initial applications for state unemployment benefits.

According to the Labor Department (DOL), there were 287,000 new claims on a seasonally adjusted basis in the week ending October 4 -- down 1,000 from the week before. That week's total was revised up by 1,000 from 287,000.

The latest number came in well below the consensus estimate of 295,000 by economists surveyed by Briefing.com.

Analysts say the initial claims trends are pointing toward a solid improvement in labor market conditions and imply an economy at, or near, full employment.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 287,750, a decline of 7,250 from the previous week.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

More

Picky pup? Tricks to get your dog eating right

Human food and dog food don't mix and can cause health and behavior problems

Will your dog only eat YOUR food? You have tried everything to get him to eat food from the can or a colorful package of dry dog food, but no luck, he only...

Photo
© Okssi - Fotolia
Will your dog only eat YOUR food? You have tried everything to get him to eat food from the can or a colorful package of dry dog food, but no luck, he only wants the good stuff, and that's whatever you're eating!

There is only one person we can turn to for this. Head for the mirror because it's the owner -- yep, you and probably a few other members of your family.

It's easy when you have kids who don't want to finish their chicken and dumplings and happen to drop a few pieces under the table, letting your dog Ralph gobble it up. Problem is, those table scraps leave a taste that lingers in the dog's mind. If Ralph has a choice of what's in a can or what's under the table, table wins paws down.

Eating table scraps can cause health problems in your dog -- pancreatitis for one, and it can also give your dog diarrhea which can be messy and uncomfortable for both your dog and you. The table-scraps habit creates a dog that begs and that's not a becoming attribute for your little friend.

“Never let a dog associate your food with their food," says New York veterinarian Margaret Hoppe. “You have to keep it very separate. Otherwise they’ll start to think they can eat their food and their owner’s, too.”

Your dog should only eat food out of his bowl, and should never see food as coming from your plate or from something you’re preparing for yourself.

Too many snacks

Is your dog snacking during the day? Feeding too many treats can cause a dog to be full and not want to eat at the appropriate time, just like a human.

This next suggestion will require strength on your part. Put down the right amount of food at a certain time of the day. Leave it there for a while. If your dog doesn't eat it, pick it up and try again the next day. As long as your dog has water they will be OK without food for a day. (It's hard, I know -- you feel sorry for them.) Unless your dog has a medical condition like diabetes or some other illness, he should be fine. 

This should spark his appetite and soon he will get it that this is what he is eating and nothing else.

I'm sure you know the feeling of working out and sweating and as soon as you are done you have this appetite as big as a sumo wrestler's. Dogs work that way as well. You might want to take a stroll around the block, toss a ball and work up an appetite and then try feeding after the exercise.

If you do decide that maybe he just doesn't like this food. make sure you introduce a new food slowly -- otherwise you are back to that messy cleanup situation with diarrhea. Start off by combining the new and the old, gradually increasing the new a little bit each day. If you are going from a wet food to a dry, you can add water to the dry to make it palatable.

Above all be persistent and patient and you will win in the end if you can hold out and just give the dog his own food.

Be aware there are many illnesses that could be why your dog is refusing his food -- old age and joint pain to name a couple. Just walking to his bowl could be hard on him.Your only real method of knowing is a check with your vet if you suspect there could be a health component to the problem.

More

All those leaves can become compost; here's how

A few pallets and some rope and you have a simple compost bin

The leaves are going to start piling up soon and you need something to put them in so you can generate compost for your garden. A trash can will get the fi...

Photo
© arinahabich - Fotolia
The leaves are going to start piling up soon and you need something to put them in so you can generate compost for your garden. A trash can will get the first batch done but what about the rest and besides a trash can with a lid that closes tight won't offer enough air to circulate.

Circulation is key -- if there is no air it slows down the decomposition process. Having a large compost pile builds more heat, which speeds up decomposition.

Here is an economical and roomy compost bin. Grab some pallets. Used pallets are free. Most stores have them stacked up in the back. They come stocked with merchandise and when they are unloaded they are just hanging around in the way. Make sure that your pallets are the same size, otherwise you will be lopsided.

Some pallets are treated with a chemical called methyl bromide. It kills insects, in order to prevent the spread of invasive species. You don't want those pallets -- you want pallets that have been heat-treated in a kiln or a oven. Look for a stamp on the pallet that says "HT" for heat treated rather than "MB" for methyl bromide.

You need five pallets for this. Put one on the floor. Stand the other pallets up, they will be your walls. Tie the walls together with clothesline and voila -- a compost bin.

You can add a PVC pipe so you can get more air to circulate in your bin. Just cut one so it's long enough that the pipes will stick out through the walls of the bin. Drill some holes in the pipe. Add some leaves or twigs or any kind of plant material to your bin and put PVC pipes on top of that. Add more plant material and put some pipes on top of that have them run in the opposite direction add more plant matter. (It's like lasagna without the sauce.)

There are alternatives in the creation process. Some are more complicated, but not much. You can find plenty of plans on the Internet. One good source is Growing a Greener World.  

You are now free to let the stink begin.

More

Oasis Brands recalls Cuajada en Hoja

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Oasis Brands of Miami, Fla., is recalling 12-oz. Cuajada en Hoja with a “Best By” date of 10/01/14-10/08/14 and 10/18/14. The product may be contaminated...

Photo
Photo source: FDA

Oasis Brands of Miami, Fla., is recalling 12-oz. Cuajada en Hoja with a “Best By” date of 10/01/14-10/08/14 and 10/18/14.

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

No illnesses have been reported to date.

Cuajada en Hoja, which was distributed in South Florida through retail stores, comes in plastic bags.

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

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 305.599.0225.

More

PAB Two recalls bed bug heat treatment systems

The units could pose a fire hazard

PAB Two of Wheeling, Ill., is recalling about 1,700 bed bug heat treatment systems. The flexible, electrical conducting strip at the top of the heating el...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

PAB Two of Wheeling, Ill., is recalling about 1,700 bed bug heat treatment systems.

The flexible, electrical conducting strip at the top of the heating element can break at the corners after multiple setups, posing an electrical fire hazard.

The company has received 4 reports of the flexible, electrical conducting strip breaking, including 1 report of a fire in a unit and 3 reports of units sparking. No injuries or significant property damage were reported.

This recall involves the ThermalStrike Expedition bed bug heat treatment system. Consumers place items inside the system to kill bed bugs that may be in the items. The system is made of white, corrugated plastic and has four pieces: a base, a folding four-panel wall, a lid and a temperature sensor. The base and the walls are held together by hook and loop fasteners.

When assembled, the unit is a box 31 inches long by 18 inches wide by 24 inches tall. The rear of the base has a power cord and the female connector of a power cable attached. The insides of the wall panels have a heating element composed of black heating film connected to a white, flexible electrical conducting strip. The male connector of the power cable is attached to the conducting strip and protrudes from the rear wall panel. The system is energized when the power cables are joined and the power cord is plugged into an electrical outlet.

The words "ThermalStrike" and "Bed Bug Heat Treatment" are on the front of the unit. ThermalStrike is also printed on the heating element on the interior of the unit.

The treatment systems, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Bedbug Central, Bedbug Supply, Protect-a-bed, Univar, pest control companies and pest control product distributors nationwide and online at Amazon.com from December 2011, through May 2014, for between $189 and $199.

Consumers should immediately stop using and unplug the Expedition and register their unit online to receive an ASC Diagnostic Unit free of charge. The diagnostic unit will immediately turn off the system when it detects a break in the conducting strip.

Consumers may contact PAB Two toll-free at (866) 470-1755 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. MT Monday through Friday.

More

AT&T to pay $105 million for mobile cramming

The company billed customers hundreds of millions of dollars in bogus charges

AT&T Wireless will pay $105 million to settle federal and state charges that it billed customers hundreds of millions of dollars in bogus charges for horos...

PhotoAT&T Wireless will pay $105 million to settle federal and state charges that it billed customers hundreds of millions of dollars in bogus charges for horoscopes, love tips and other effluvia that the customers had not ordered -- a practice known as "cramming."

In its complaint, the FTC alleges that AT&T kept at least 35 percent of the charges it imposed on its customers.

The lion's share of the payment -- $80 million -- will go to the Federal Trade Commission to provide refunds to consumers. Another $20 million in penalties is being paid to the 50 states and the District of Columbia and $5 million is going to a fine imposed by the Federal Communications Commission.

“I am very pleased that this settlement will put tens of millions of dollars back in the pockets of consumers harmed by AT&T’s cramming of its mobile customers,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “This case underscores the important fact that basic consumer protections -- including that consumers should not be billed for charges they did not authorize -- are fully applicable in the mobile environment.”

In a statement, AT&T said other companies also offered third-party billing and said it had had "rigorous protections in place to guard consumers against unauthorized billing" but discontinued third-party billing last year.

"Today, we reached a broad settlement to resolve claims that some of our wireless customers were billed for charges from third-parties that the customers did not authorize," said AT&T spokesman Marty Richter. "This settlement gives our customers who believe they were wrongfully billed ... the ability to get a refund." 

What to do

Beginning today, consumers who believe they were charged by AT&T without their authorization can visit www.ftc.gov/att to submit a refund claim and find out more about the FTC’s refund program under the settlement.

If consumers are unsure about whether they are eligible for a refund, they can visit the claims website or contact the settlement administrator at 1-877-819-9692 for more information.

Under the terms of its settlement with the FTC, AT&T must notify all of its current customers who were billed for unauthorized third-party charges of the settlement and the refund program by text message, e-mail, paper bill insert and notification on an online bill. Former customers may be contacted by the FTC’s refund administrator.

In addition to the refund requirements, AT&T is also required to obtain consumers’ express, informed consent before placing any third-party charges on a consumer’s mobile phone bill. In addition, the company must clearly indicate any third-party charges on the consumers’ bill and provide consumers with the option to block third-party charges from being placed on their bill.

Many complaints

The FTC’s investigation into AT&T showed that the company received very high volumes of consumer complaints related to the unauthorized third-party charges placed on consumer’s phone bills. For some third-party content providers, complaints reached as high as 40 percent of subscriptions charged to AT&T consumers in a given month.

In 2011 alone, the FTC’s complaint states, AT&T received more than 1.3 million calls to its customer service department about the charges.

According to the complaint, in October 2011, AT&T altered its refund policy so that customer service representatives could only offer to refund two months’ worth of charges to consumers who sought a refund, no matter how long the company had been billing customers for the unauthorized charges.

Prior to that time, AT&T had offered refunds of up to three months’ worth of charges. At that time, AT&T characterized its change in policy as designed to “help lower refunds.”

In February 2012, one AT&T employee said in an e-mail that “Cramming/Spamming has increased to a new level that cannot be tolerated from an AT&T or industry perspective,” but according to the complaint, the company did not act to determine whether third parties had in fact gotten authorization from consumers for the charges placed on their bills.

In fact, the company denied refunds to many consumers, and in other cases referred the consumers to third-parties to seek refunds for the money consumers paid to AT&T.

Confusing bills

The structure of AT&T’s consumer bills compounded the problem of the unauthorized charges, according to the complaint, by making it very difficult for customers to know that third-party charges were being placed on their bills.

On both the first page of printed bills and the summary of bills viewed online, consumers saw only a total amount due and due date with no indication the amount included charges placed on their bill by a third party. The complaint alleges that within online and printed bills, the fees were listed as “AT&T Monthly Subscriptions,” leaving consumers to believe the charges were part of services provided by AT&T, as seen in this excerpt of an actual AT&T bill:

Photo

Excerpts from an actual AT&T bill showing cramming charges. (Image source: FTC) 

More

Connectivity in the car is not that safe, studies conclude

When the technology doesn't work perfectly it can be highly distracting

Carmakers have, in recent years, spent a lot of effort beefing up their entertainment systems, adding bluetooth connectivity to allow streaming from smartp...

Photo
Apple's Siri was found to be the most distracting.

Carmakers have, in recent years, spent a lot of effort beefing up their entertainment systems, adding bluetooth connectivity to allow streaming from smartphones, as well as hands-free communication.

Consumers have reacted with approval. New car sales continue to rise each month and improved in-cabin technology may be one reason. But not everyone approves.

“Even though your car may be configured to support social media, texting and phone calls, it doesn’t mean it is safe to do so,” said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer. “The primary task should be driving. Things that take your attention away make you a poor driver and make the roads less safe.”

Strayer and other researchers have studied these new systems to determine if they reduce distracted driving, or add to it.

Most distracting

One study found that using your voice to make phone calls and tune the radio with Chevrolet’s MyLink system distracted drivers the most. Mercedes’ COMMAND system, MyFord Touch and Chrysler’s UConnect were better, but all diverted attention more than a cell phone conversation, the study found.

Toyota’s Entune got the highest marks as least distracting. The researchers said using it took as much attention as listening to an audio book. Hyundai’s Blue Link was found to be a bit more distracting, but less than talking with a passenger.

In another study – both were sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety – researchers looked at how drivers use iPhone's Siri. They conclude that using voice commands to interact with the phone was more distracting than any other voice-activated technology – even when it was modified for use as a hands-free, eyes-free device so drivers kept their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

The problem, it seems, is the attention required to operate voice-activated technology, especially when it doesn't always respond correctly.

Making it worse

“We are concerned we may be making distraction problems worse by going to voice-activated technology, especially if it’s not easy to use,” Strayer said.

But Strayer harbors no illusions that automakers are about to return to a time before connectivity and voice controls. His point, however, is that these systems need to be made as safe as possible.

The studies both conclude that the most advanced technology, like Siri, can in reality be highly distracting when you drive. For example, as these systems get to be more complex, sending text messages or posting to Facebook requires more mental capacity from the user. If the user happens to be driving, it can be dangerous.

“Technologies used in the car that rely on voice communications may have unintended consequences that adversely affect road safety,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The level of distraction and the impact on safety can vary tremendously based on the task or the system the driver is using.”

Previous research classified listening to the radio as a Category 1 distraction – the lowest. Talking on a cell phone, either hand-held or hands-free, is considered a Category 2 distraction. Using a speech-to-text system, to listen to or compose emails or texts is a Category 3 distraction.

In April the National Safety Council raised similar concerns about cars' entertainment systems. David Teater, senior director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council, said at the time that the brain doesn't truly multi-task. Just as you can't read a book and talk on the phone, you can't safely operate a vehicle and talk on the phone, he says.

More

Adobe's e-reader spies on you and lets others do it, too

DRM system ignores users' privacy in the name of copyright protection

Bad news for anyone who reads e-books or e-documents (including those borrowed from public libraries) with Adobe Digital Editions e-reader: not only does t...

PhotoBad news for anyone who reads e-books or e-documents (including those borrowed from public libraries) with Adobe Digital Editions e-reader: not only does the software allow Adobe to spy on your reading habits and preferences, it sends this data over the Internet in unencrypted plaintext — which means it's ridiculously easy for almost anybody else to spy on your reading habits, too.

Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader first discovered this on Monday (and Ars Technica independently confirmed Hoffelder's claims the next day).

On Oct. 6, Hoffelder informed his readers (bold print lifted from the original) that:

A hacker acquaintance of mine has tipped me to a huge security and privacy violation on the part of Adobe. … Adobe is gathering data on the ebooks that have been opened, which pages were read, and in what order. All of this data, including the title, publisher, and other metadata for the book is being sent to Adobe’s server in clear text.

I am not joking; Adobe is not only logging what users are doing, they’re also sending those logs to their servers in such a way that anyone running one of the servers in between can listen in and know everything,

But wait, there’s more.

Adobe isn’t just tracking what users are doing in DE4; this app was also scanning my computer, gathering the metadata from all of the ebooks sitting on my hard disk, and uploading that data to Adobe’s servers.

In. Plain. Text.

Similar evidence

No need to take Hoffelder's word for it; he also linked to two files which – for anyone who knows how to read computer code – clearly show that Adobe is tracking users and indexing Hoffelder's ebook collection.

Ars Technica offered similar evidence the next day, in its independent confirmation of Hoffelder's discovery, and explained that “Digital Editions (DE) has been used by many public libraries as a recommended application for patrons wanting to borrow electronic books … because it can enforce digital rights management rules on how long a book may be read for.”

In other words, Adobe is actually using a Digital Rights Management (DRM) to spy on its users (and make it easy for non-Adobe people to spy on them, too), all in the name of copyright protection.

In Hoffelder's original report about the spyware, he said that Adobe had not responded to requests for comment. The next day he published a new post announcing that Adobe did respond – with “half-truths and misleading statements.” Here is Adobe's actual statement:

Adobe Digital Editions allows users to view and manage eBooks and other digital publications across their preferred reading devices—whether they purchase or borrow them. All information collected from the user is collected solely for purposes such as license validation and to facilitate the implementation of different licensing models by publishers. Additionally, this information is solely collected for the eBook currently being read by the user and not for any other eBook in the user’s library or read/available in any other reader. User privacy is very important to Adobe, and all data collection in Adobe Digital Editions is in line with the end user license agreement and the Adobe Privacy Policy.

As Hoffelder noted: “I don’t see how sending a user’s reading history in clear text over the web could possibly be in line with a privacy policy.”

Eyes glaze over

Adobe's online Privacy Policy does offer an answer to the question “What information does Adobe collect about me?”

The answer is 706 words long and difficult to read without your eyes glazing over, but here are some possibly relevant quotes from it:

Adobe collects information that identifies you. This may include your name, company name, email address, or payment information. We may also sometimes collect other information that does not identify you, such as your job title or industry. …. We collect information about how you use our websites and applications, including when you use a desktop product feature that takes you online …. Adobe may collect information about how you use our websites and applications by using cookies and similar technologies ….

None of those 706 words specifically say anything about e-books or e-readers, though information about how “you use our … applications” might, technically, cover such details as collecting specific data about which exact book you read via Digital Editions, which pages you read and when and for how long — but certainly nothing about your full e-book library or any non-Adobe files on your computer.

Other questions Adobe answers on its Privacy Policy page include “How does Adobe use the information it collects about me?” and “Does Adobe share my personal information?” Again, neither answer says anything about collecting a user's reading history, or sending any information in plaintext.

At 6:43 p.m. (Eastern time) on Oct. 7, Ars Technica posted an update to say:

An Adobe spokesperson now says the company is working on an update. "In terms of the transmission of the data collected, Adobe is in the process of working on an update to address this issue," the spokesperson said in an e-mail to Ars Technica. "We will notify you when a date for this update has been determined."

If you translate Adobe's words from Corporate-speak into English, that means: “We're appalled that anyone discovered what we're doing. We will notify you as soon as we determine a face-saving way to extract ourselves from this embarrassing situation.”

More

Five college options that won't break the bank

Taking courses online, from the right school, can save thousands

There really isn't a “low cost” college education. Getting an undergraduate degree takes time and money, and in recent years, it has taken increasing amoun...

Photo
© JcJg Photography - Fotolia
There really isn't a “low cost” college education. Getting an undergraduate degree takes time and money, and in recent years, it has taken increasing amounts of the latter.

Student loan debt is now over $1 trillion and rising. With growing awareness of the problems taking on too much debt early in life can cause, many students are searching for less-expensive ways to get an education.

Fortunately there are more than there used to be, thanks to online education. Taking courses online was a practice pioneered by for-profit colleges. It was convenient but expensive.

Because for-profit schools were heavy advertisers and aggressive recruiters, many students selected these schools without doing much shopping for a cheaper alternative. Maybe there weren't that many alternatives in the past, but there are now.

State-supported schools

By far the cheapest college alternative are state universities that have embraced online education, in an effort to compete with for-profit schools. But since state supported schools offer lower tuition rates only to people who live in the state, you need to live in the right state to take advantage of these bargains.

For example, the University of Florida's online tuition for Florida residents is just $129 per credit hour. Assuming it takes 120 credits to obtain a bachelor's degree, the cost would be $15,480, a relative educational bargain.

But it you don't live in Florida the rate is $500 per credit hour, making the same education cost $60,000. If you aren't a resident of Florida, your first step should be to check all the state-supported colleges where you live to find out if they offer similar low rates for in-state students.

Private, non-profit schools

If you are unable to find a state university in your state that offers low-cost online courses, there are a few private, non-profit schools that have affordable programs, no matter where you live. Many of these schools started out as what were once termed “correspondence” schools, before the Internet came along.

Bellevue University is a private, non-profit university in Nebraska, founded in 1966. It focused on adult education from the outset and continues to do so today.

For the current academic year, Bellevue's posted tuition rate for its online courses is $250 per credit hour. That puts the cost of a 4-year degree at around $30,000.

Another private non-profit school catering to adult students is California Southern, founded in 1978. Its tuition rate for online courses is also $250 per credit hour.

Southern New Hampshire University is a private, non-profit college that in recent years has wholeheartedly embraced online education. Its tuition rate is $320 per credit hour but is reduced to $225 for active duty military and their spouses.

Arizona State University is a public college that has a single online course rate, regardless of whether you live in Arizona. Its tuition for online courses is $480 to $543 per credit hour.

Other considerations

Not all schools offer all courses and programs online, so before deciding on a particular school you should check out what is offered. Another important consideration is the school's accreditation. After all, if you are going to the expense of obtaining a degree, you want to make sure it actually means something.

If a school is accredited, it means an independent agency vetted by the Department of Education has reviewed the school's programs and faculty to make sure they meet and exceed standards of excellence.

Regional accreditation is the best. The Department of Education currently recognizes 6 regional agencies within the U.S.

Another way to judge a school is by its completion rate – the percentage of students who start their education and end up with a degree. The higher the the graduation rate the more you can assume the school supports its students, guiding them to completion of their chosen degree program.

More

Google Now reminds you to pay your bills

Assuming the bills are connected to your Gmail account, of course

If you have so many bills that you just can't remember to pay them all — it's possible you have too many bills, and both your memory and your finances woul...

Photo
Photo source: Google
If you have so many bills that you just can't remember to pay them all — it's possible you have too many bills, and both your memory and your finances would improve if you found ways to cut expenses, give up pricey voluntary subscriptions, and so forth.

If not, Google is offering to keep track of your bills for you, via a Google Now feature it announced on a publicly available Google+ post yesterday:

When you can't remember whether you've paid your bills—or you simply can't remember how much money you need to pay—you can now just ask Google. Tap the mic on the Google app (g.co/googleapp) and say, “Show me my bills” or “My bills due this week.” If you have the payment due date and amount in your Gmail, you’ll see a quick summary of upcoming and past bills. Pretty handy, huh?

Of course, as the Google announcement says, this service only works for bills sent to your Gmail account, which in turn encourages any user of this service to connect more of their regular bill payments to Gmail.

So far the tech-world response has been largely positive. “Awesome new Google Now feature helps you keep track of your bills,” said GreenBot. “Killer Google Now feature ensures you'll never miss paying a bill again,” said BGR.

More neutral

In contrast, the Wall Street Journal's tech blog took a more neutral tone, listing the useful aspects of the features and how they work, but also noting “the fact that Google is reading your bills via email may unnerve some users and worry privacy advocates.

This has happened in the past when Google rolls out new features like this — and the reaction was especially strong when the company first announced its method of mining Gmail for advertising.”

On the other hand: since Google is indeed scanning the content of private (as opposed to student, government or business) emails anyway, and is certainly aware of whatever bills you have connected to your Gmail address, one could argue it may as well turn some of that scanned data into a new service useful for Gmail users in addition to advertisers pitching to same.

More

UPS plans to expand package pick-up locations

"Access Point" reduces stops, helps curb thefts in city neighborhoods

United Parcel Service is expanding a service that lets consumers pick up packages at predetermined locations rather than having them left on doorsteps....

Photo
Customer picks up package at a Chicago UPS Access Point location. (Photo credit: UPS)

United Parcel Service is expanding a service that lets consumers pick up packages at predetermined locations rather than having them left on doorsteps.

It's being promoted as a convenience for consumers who work and don't want to stay home to accept packages and as a way to cut down on theft of packages left on doorsteps.

It's also, not coincidentally, a way for UPS to save money by reducing the number of stops its drivers have to make each day.

Called "Access Point," the program has pick-up locations at convenience stores, pharmacies, dry cleaners and other spots in major cities. It's currently operating in New York and Chicago and will soon be rolled out to other cities, the company said.

UPS drivers, when unable to deliver a package at the consumer's residence, will leave a note informing them when they can expect to collect their package at a nearby UPS Access Point location. Consumers will go to www.ups.com and use the tracking number on the note to get the address. Consumers will need photo identification to receive their package. 

Advance notice

United Parcel Service (ups) Oct. 8, 2014, 3:48 p.m.
Consumers rate United Parcel Service (ups)
A similar service, UPS My Choice, lets members who sign up in advance receive advance delivery notifications informing them of the delivery timing of each UPS package. Consumers also have the ability to reroute eligible packages to another address or reschedule deliveries for a future date before a UPS driver makes a delivery.

Consumers can also activate a vacation setting to have packages held and delivered when they return home.

Unique to the UPS My Choice service, consumers only enroll one time and never need to provide additional information to retailers or UPS to begin taking control of their UPS deliveries, the company said.

In January 2015, the company plans to add all 4,400 UPS Store locations throughout the U.S. to the UPS Access Point network.

More

Holiday sales (already?) seen increasing 4% this year

People looking for seasonal employment may benefit

We're still 3 weeks from Halloween and the National Retail Federation (NRF) is out with its forecast from sales during the Christmas shopping season. The ...

Photo
© Syda Productions - Fotolia.com

We're still 3 weeks from Halloween and the National Retail Federation (NRF) is out with its forecast from sales during the Christmas shopping season.

The NRF says despite a turbulent start to 2014, it sees sales in November and December (excluding autos, gas and restaurant sales) jump 4.1% to $616.9 billion – up 1% from the 2013 increase.

Holiday sales on average have grown 2.9% over the past 10 years, including 2014’s estimates, and are expected to represent approximately 19.2 percent of the retail industry’s annual sales of $3.2 trillion. This would mark the first time since 2011 that holiday sales would be up more than 4%.

“Retailers could see a welcome boost in holiday shopping, giving some companies the shot in the arm they need after a volatile first half of the year and an uneventful summer,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “While expectations for sales growth are upbeat, it goes without saying there still remains some uneasiness and anxiety among consumers when it comes to their purchase decisions. The lagging economic recovery, though improving, is still top of mind for many Americans.

Improving confidence

While consumer confidence has been unstable much of the year, improvements over the past few months in key economic indicators will give way to increased spending power among holiday shoppers. Retail sales, jobs and housing data all point to healthy gains.

“Though we have only seen consumer income and spending moderately -- and erratically -- accelerate this year, we believe there is still room for optimism this holiday season,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. “In the grand scheme of things, consumers are in a much better place than they were this time last year, and the extra spending power could very well translate into solid holiday sales growth for retailers; however, shoppers will still be deliberate with their purchases, while hunting for hard-to-pass-up bargains.”

Seasonal hiring to rise 725,000 – 800,000

With the increase in sales, there's likely to be more hiring during the holiday shopping season.

NRF expects retailers will hire between 725,000 and 800,000 seasonal workers -- potentially more than they actually hired during the 2013 holiday season (768,000). Seasonal employment in 2013 increased 14% over 2012.

“These holiday positions offer hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to turn their seasonal position into a long-term career opportunity in retail,” said Shay.

Growth in online sales expected

Meanwhile, Shop.org says it expects sales will grow between 8 – 11% percent over last holiday season to as much as $105 billion during November and December.

That projection is based on government data including, consumer credit, disposable personal income, and previous monthly retail sales releases. Holiday non-store sales grew 8.6% last year.

More

Mortgage applications reverse course, move higher

Contract interest rates were mostly on the upside

After falling in the previous two weeks, mortgage applications are headed higher. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications S...

Photo
© emiliezhang - Fotolia.com

After falling in the previous two weeks, mortgage applications are headed higher.

The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows applications were up 3.8% during for the week ending October 3.

The Refinance Index, meanwhile, rose 5% with the refinance share of mortgage activity unchanged at 56% of total applications from the previous week.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 7.8% 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) dropped 3 basis points -- from 4.33% to 4.30%, with points decreasing to 0.19 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) fell to 4.21% from 4.28%, with points increasing to 0.29 from 0.15 (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 was down 7 basis points to 4.00%, with points increasing to 0.15 from 0.04 (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 3.48% from 3.55%, with points increasing to 0.32 from 0.26 (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 11 basis points to 3.20%, with points decreasing to 0.37 from 0.51 (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.

More

Buddy’s Kitchen recalls meat and poultry products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Buddy’s Kitchen of Burnsville, Minn., is recalling approximately 62,488 pounds of meat and poultry products. The products may be contaminated with Listeri...

Photo
Photo source: Buddy’s Kitchen

Buddy’s Kitchen of Burnsville, Minn., is recalling approximately 62,488 pounds of meat and poultry products.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

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

The meat and poultry breakfast products were produced on various dates from July 16, 2014, through Sept. 25, 2014, and shipped to distributors, retail locations and airlines nationwide.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • “Swiss Cheese and Mushroom Omelet with Seasonal Tid-Bit Potatoes & Turkey Buffet Sausage Link” trays with the production codes “07/16/14 9”, “08/08/14 9” and “08/27/14 9”.
  • “Savory Scrambled Eggs with Seasoned Red Skin Potatoes and Turkey Buffet Links” with the production codes “09/19/14 9” and “09/22/14 9”.
  • “Garden Omelet w/ Parslied Potatoes & Chicken Sausage Links” with the production codes “07/16/14 9”, “07/17/14 9”, “07/18/14 9”, “07/22/14 9”, “07/25/14 9”, “08/22/14 9”, “08/25/14 9”, “09/02/14 9”, “09/09/14 9” and “09/16/14 9”.
  • “Fiesta Scramble Bowl with Sausage Links” with the production code “10I14 9”.
  • “Breakfast Skillet Burrito with eggs, sausage and cheese” with the production codes “18G14 2”, “06I14 4”, “16G14 4”, “17G14 2”, “07H14 4”, “20H14 2”, “21H14 4”, “22H14 4” and “25H14 4”.

Case labels or packaging may bear the establishment number “EST. 4226” or “P-4226” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Tom Webber, director of food safety, at (952) 894-2540 or by email at info@buddyskitchen.com.

More

Jinga brand Pan Fried Anchovies recalled

The product is contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

HAR Maspeth Corp. of Maspeth, NY, is recalling its 2-oz and 4-oz packages of Jinga Pan Fried Anchovies The product may is with Listeria monocytogenes. On...

Photo
Photo source: FDA

HAR Maspeth Corp. of Maspeth, NY, is recalling its 2-oz and 4-oz packages of Jinga Pan Fried Anchovies

The product may is with Listeria monocytogenes.

One alleged illness has been reported to date.

The recalled product was distributed in retail stores nationwide and through mail orders. The product is marked with an expiration date of “9/28/2014” stamped on the top.

The recall was initiated after routine sampling by The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Food Inspectors and subsequent analysis of the product by Food Laboratory personnel revealed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes.

Customers who have purchased 2-and-4-oz packages of Jinga “Pan Fried Anchovies” should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-718-706-9300.

More

KYMCO recalls ATVs

The fuel cap can fail to vent properly

KYMCO of Spartanburg, S.C., is recalling about 450 All-terrain vehicles (ATVs). In hot environments or high elevations, the fuel cap can fail to vent prope...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

KYMCO of Spartanburg, S.C., is recalling about 450 All-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

In hot environments or high elevations, the fuel cap can fail to vent properly, causing the fuel to heat up and pressure to build up in the tank. The pressure can cause the fuel tank to rupture or the fuel to boil out of the tank onto the operator or hot engine, resulting in burns to the operator or a fire.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recall involves model year 2013, 2014 and 2015 KYMCO MXU 700 ATVs including standard, LE and Camo versions. The vehicles came in black, camouflage, gold, green, red and silver. The words KYMCO and MXU 700, MXU 700 LE or MXU 700 Camo are on the front of the hood and on each rear fender.

The vehicle identification number (VIN) in the format RFBLU45U*xBxxxxxx is located on the frame behind the right front wheel. The 10th digit of the VIN indicates the model year: D = 2013, E = 2014 and F = 2015.

ATVs with the last six VIN digits in the following ranges are being recalled: 

Model year

VIN RANGE (VINs begin with RFBLU45U*)

2013

DB120111 through DB130158

2014

EB120203 through EB130204

2015

FB120315 through FB320123

* represents a check digit that varies in each VIN

The ATVs, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at KYMCO dealers nationwide from April 2013, to August 2014, for about $9,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled ATVs and contact an authorized KYMCO dealer for a free repair. The original gas caps must be collected by the dealer to confirm the repair.

Consumers may contact KYMCO USA toll-free at (888) 235-3417 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or by email at info@kymcousa.com.

More

Cadillac CTS-V and STS-V vehicles recalled

The electrical terminals of the fuel pump module may overheat

General Motors is recalling 10,005 model year 2004-2007 Cadillac CTS-V vehicles manufactured October 6, 2003, to March 15, 2007, and 2006-2007 Cadillac STS...

Photo
Photo source: Cadillac

General Motors is recalling 10,005 model year 2004-2007 Cadillac CTS-V vehicles manufactured October 6, 2003, to March 15, 2007, and 2006-2007 Cadillac STS-V vehicles manufactured June 23, 2005, to March 15, 2007.

The electrical terminals of the fuel pump module in the affected vehicles may overheat resulting in the melting of the flange material.If the flange melts, a hole may be created allowing the fuel pump to leak fuel, causing the vehicle to stall, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash. Additionally, leaking fuel in the presence of an ignition source increases the risk of a fire.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel module and fuel tank jumper harness, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is 14405.

More

Could you live without a credit card?

Not surprisingly, a large number of consumers say they can't

It's a well-known fact that the U.S. government could not operate without a generous helping of credit. The national debt keeps rising each year. It turns...

Photo
© Ioana Davies (Drutu) - Fotolia

It's a well-known fact that the U.S. government could not operate without a generous helping of credit. The national debt keeps rising each year.

It turns out a lot of consumers are living that way as well. When the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) conducted an online poll, 1 in 5 respondents said they would not be able to make ends meet each month without the help of a credit card.

“Credit should be used as a convenience, not to supplement income,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. “It is a warning sign if a person is not able to manage his or her daily lifestyle without the use of credit cards, as this is a dangerous habit that could lead to serious financial distress.”

NFCC decided to dig more deeply into the living-on-credit issue when it pulled together records from last year's credit counseling activity. In 2013 the average consumer who turned to an NFCC member agency for guidance had between 5 and 6 credit cards with a total unsecured debt equal to half of their annual household income.

Danger signs

Cunningham says there are clear signs that appear when you are over-using your credit cards. One is when you find you are only paying the minimum payment on credit card bills each month. That means you are mostly paying interest, with very little going to principal.

Another is when your credit card balances keep growing. That means you aren't using your card as a convenience, but rather you are spending money you don't have.

When you find you are skipping payments, are late each month, or that your account has gone to collection your problem is getting deeper.

From bad to worse

You've moved from bad to worse when you find you are using balance transfers to keep moving debt around, but aren't paying it down. If you even think about taking out cash advances, payday loans, title loans or other non-traditional credit, warning klaxons should be sounding.

If you find yourself arguing with your significant other over money issues, it means it is long past time to get your finances in order.

Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the structural changes it brought to the economy, it's very easy to find yourself in a situation where you are unable to make ends meet. You might lose your job or have taken a job that pays less than in the past. The temptation is to use credit cards to get by.

Wealthy hand-to-mouth

A Brookings Institute study identified a group of consumers it calls the “wealthy hand-to-mouth.” They may have assets, like a house or a car, but not enough income to sustain them.

Both these groups no doubt make up the group of consumers who turn to credit cards out of desperation. While these groups may think they have no other option, Cunningham insists they do, though it may require some sacrifices and tough choices.

“People may feel as though they have no alternative to using credit to supplement their income, but that is a dangerous habit that can lead to financial ruin,” said Cunningham.

Cunningham's message is this: regardless of how you got in a deep financial hole, breaking one of the basic rules of personal finance – spending more than you make – is not likely to have a positive outcome.

More

Retail security breaches: why are they so commonplace?

Heartland CEO suggests companies aren't spending money and effort on security upgrades

There's a pretty common nostalgia trope which says that, compared to now, the Good Old Days were a simpler and more innocent time....

Photo
Photo credit: Sam's Club
There's a pretty common nostalgia trope which says that, compared to now, the Good Old Days were a simpler and more innocent time.

So let's reminisce about the Good Old Days of early 2012, when computer-security problems were simple and minor compared to now. Remember that February, when the Christian Science Monitor published a list of the “15 worst data security breaches of the 21st century”? Topping that circa-2012 list was the March 2008 breach at Heartland Payment Systems, which resulted in “134 million credit cards exposed through SQL injection to install spyware on Heartland's data systems.”

Only 134 million? Piffle: the security breach at credit-monitoring data broker Experian, first uncovered in October 2013, ultimately left the personal information of 200 million Americans – five out of every six American adults – at risk.

The Heartland breach was six and a half years ago. In an ideal world, the rest of the financial industry would've learned from Heartland's mistakes, and by now, such problems would be extremely rare, if not eradicated entirely.

Dozens of millions

Of course the exact opposite happened, and now you can barely go a week anymore without hearing of yet another massive security breach affecting dozens of millions of people: 40 million customers impacted in the Target breach. 56 million card numbers stolen in the Home Depot hacking. 76 million households compromised in the JPMorgan Chase hack — and remember, a single “household” can contain several individual “people.”

So, no, most companies did not learn from Heartland's mistake, though there's one company that did: Heartland itself. This week, the Dark Reading security blog asked Heartland's CEO Robert Carr why so many retailers (and their customers) keep suffering from security breaches, and Carr's answer was simple: because companies for whatever reason choose not to invest in security upgrades like tokenization, credit cards with EMV chips rather than magnetic strips (although MasterCard and Visa have supposedly set an Oct