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Toyota recalls Sienna Minivans

A curtain shield air bag could malfunction during deployment

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Is recalling approximately 30,000 model year 2015 Sienna Minivans. The recalled vehicles are equipped with left and right sid...

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Photo source: Toyota

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Is recalling approximately 30,000 model year 2015 Sienna Minivans.

The recalled vehicles are equipped with left and right side second row overhead assist grips mounted to the roof rails. In the event of a collision that results in deployment of a curtain shield air bag (CSA), an assist grip could detach from the mounting bracket under some conditions.

If an assist grip completely detaches, it may contact an occupant, increasing the risk of injury in a crash.

Toyota says it is not aware of any injuries or fatalities caused by this condition.

Owners of the recalled vehicles will receive a notification by first class mail. Toyota dealers will modify the headliner under the second row overhead assist grips at no charge to the customer.

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

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Holiday spending hangover can last months

Here are some good reasons to stay on a budget this season

There is always a certain tension between the interests of businesses and those of consumers. Businesses need to post record sales. Consumers need to stay ...

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Photo © Lisa F. Young - Fotolia

There is always a certain tension between the interests of businesses and those of consumers. Businesses need to post record sales. Consumers need to stay within their budget.

During the holiday season, those competing interests often collide and when consumers lose, they can end up paying for it well into the following year.

This year the shopping has started early, with most major retailers rolling out pre-Black Friday sales in October and November. If consumers have already been shopping, they may have lost track of what has been spent so far.

If they get caught up in Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday madness, they can easily go deep into debt without realizing it.

“If there’s one time of the year when people shop with their heart, not their head, it’s the holiday season,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). “Emotional spending during the holidays is often the tipping point that pushes people over the edge financially, as common sense can take a backseat during this time of the year.”  

Starting with a big balance

The problem is made worse because so many consumers already have large credit card balances that they may be struggling to pay. Maybe they've made some progress over the last few months in paying down the balance. Adding to it in a burst of holiday spending can have a demoralizing effect as well as a financial one.

The financial effect is bad enough. Piling new debt onto an existing debt load that can't be paid off when the bill arrives means paying more money each month in interest. That means you're starting the new year with an increase in monthly expense.

Some of the drawbacks

Remember that an increased level of debt reduces the amount of credit available to you in the future and might even cause lenders to reject applications for new lines of credit or loans. If you are unable to tap into credit in the future, your financial position becomes weaker.

Increasing your debt level – especially credit card debt – can lower your credit score. Unmanageable debt can lead to late payment of bills, skipping payments, and utilizing too high a percentage of open credit, all of which could lower the all-important credit score.

And if you apply for new lines of credit simply to save money on today’s purchase, it will not only increase the temptation to spend, but will show as an inquiry on the credit report, potentially lowering your score.

Tips for staying on a budget

Here are some tips to keep from overspending this holiday season:

First, determine how much you've already spent. Subtract that from what you plan to spend and that's how much money you can spend on gifts and festivities for the rest of the season.

Second, try to do as much of your spending as possible with cash. Cash is a great accounting tool because when it's gone, you're done. In this era of cyber crime, it's also safer.

Third, look for the best deals. There are a number of apps and technology tools that can help, including ShopItToMe, which analyzes your shopping list and tells you where to buy everything on it for the best price.

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OPEC: No cut in world oil production

That means U.S. gasoline prices will fall even lower

When you pull up to the gasoline pumps over the next few months, thank Saudi Arabia. That country has almost single-handedly forced down the price of oil a...

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Photo © Rawpixel - Fotolia

When you pull up to the gasoline pumps over the next few months, thank Saudi Arabia. That country has almost single-handedly forced down the price of oil and with it, the price of gasoline, which could fall even more in the days ahead.

While Americans were eating turkey and watching football, OPEC oil ministers gave them something to be thankful for. At the insistence of the Saudis, OPEC voted not to cut back oil production to reduce worldwide supplies, even though members like Venezuela and Iran are desperate for higher oil revenue.

As a result, oil prices are plunging, hitting a nearly 5 year low Friday. As oil prices continue to fall, so should retail gasoline prices.

Relief at the pump

The national average price of self-serve regular gasoline has fallen below $2.80 a gallon, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. It was $3.28 a gallon a year ago.

Motorists are accidental beneficiaries of oil producers' attempts to regain control of the oil market. And those benefits – lower prices at the pump – should last well into 2015.

Right now the world is producing more oil than it is consuming and the goal of producers, of course, is to restore a balance so that prices go up. They've hovered around $100 a barrel for the last 3 years and producing nations have become reliant on that money.

The traditional way to restore the balance between supply and demand is to reduce production. But the Saudis, in particular, didn't want to go down that road this time. They are worried about losing market share to U.S. oil producers – particularly shale oil producers.

Squeezing shale producers

The U.S. now produces nearly as much oil each day as the Saudis, but with one big difference. Extracting oil from shale is an expensive process – profitable at $80 or more a barrel but much less profitable when prices fall below that.

The oil in the Persian Gulf is much more accessible and much easier and cheaper to extract. The Saudis are likely hoping that driving down the price of oil temporarily will cause American producers to slow down and produce less.

Once the supply balances out – sometime next year – OPEC can ease off on production and the price of oil – along with gasoline prices – will begin to rise once again. At least that's the theory.

The question remains, is this a long-term strategy or is OPEC simply kicking the can down the road? It has to be assumed that the best minds in the petroleum engineering field are at work on making shale production more efficient, and more profitable at lower prices.

Economic benefits

In the meantime, U.S. consumers can look forward to more reasonably priced gasoline. The benefits for the individual consumer and for the economy can be significant.

“If oil prices stay between $75 and $95 a barrel, we would see the kind of stimulus package that the Federal Reserve or Congress could never do,” Douglas R. Oberhelman, the chief executive of Caterpillar, told The New York Times.

Middle to lower income consumers will likely benefit the most, since gasoline is a requirement for most workers to get to and from their jobs. Spending 50 cents a gallon less for fuel gives these consumers a little breathing room in their monthly budgets, which have been constrained in recent years by stagnant wages.

How long will it last? No one seems to know. OPEC and U.S. shale producers appear to be engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken. But until someone blinks, gasoline prices should remain at present levels.

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Disney’s “Frozen” takes the toy crown from Barbie

The doll’s 11-year run has come to an end

Barbie has learned -- as we all do -- that all good things come to an end. According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) latest Holiday Top Toys Surv...

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Photo source: Mattel

Barbie has learned -- as we all do -- that all good things come to an end.

According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) latest Holiday Top Toys Survey, one in five parents (20%) plan to buy Disney’s Frozen merchandise for the little girls in their life this holiday season , beating out the top reigning Barbie (16.8%) for the first time in the survey’s 11-year history.

LEGO toys are number one again for boys this year (14.2%).

“Parents will not have to go far to find good deals on the toys their children have put at the top of their lists,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Retailers have spent weeks preparing for the holiday rush to make sure that the season’s hottest toys are both easy to find in stores and online, and competitively priced.”

Toys on top

According to NRF’s 2014 holiday consumer survey, 42% of shoppers plan to buy toys as gifts this holiday season. For girls, dolls hold the top spots at #2 (Barbie), #3 (generic), #4 (Monster High Dolls) and #5 (American Girl), while boys have made it clear they still want cars and trucks #2.

Boys and girls alike have requested tablets/Apple iPads from mom and dad this holiday season (girls #7 and boys #10). Other familiar items will be awaiting children, including My Little Pony (#8 for girls) and Hot Wheels and Xbox One (#5 and #6 for boys.)

“Barbie has been the top girls’ toy for over a decade, but it is no surprise that Disney’s Frozen has taken the top seat as children have had it on the mind as far back as Halloween,” said Prosper’s Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow.

2014 Top Toys for Boys

  1. LEGO
  2. Cars & Trucks
  3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  4. Video Games
  5. Hot Wheels
  6. Xbox One
  7. PlayStation 4
  8. Transformers
  9. Remote Controlled Vehicles
  10. Marvel Action Figures (T)/Tablet/Apple iPad(T)

2014 Top Toys for Girls

  1. Disney Frozen
  2. Barbie
  3. Dolls (generic)
  4. Monster High Dolls
  5. American Girl
  6. LEGO
  7. Tablet/Apple iPad
  8. My Little Pony
  9. Disney Doc McStuffins
  10. Apparel

 

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Ford bets on the future with aluminum F-150 truck

Truck's improved gas mileage might not be the only payoff

Admittedly, the timing could have been better. If you are going to announce a new, full-sized pick-up truck that gets great gasoline mileage, it's probably...

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2015 Ford F-150 (Ford photo)

Admittedly, the timing could have been better. If you are going to announce a new, full-sized pick-up truck that gets great gasoline mileage, it's probably best to do it when gasoline prices are sky-high.

Still, Ford's recent announcement that its aluminum body F-150 pick-up will get up to 26 miles per gallon (MGP) on the highway has gotten a lot of attention. In one bold stroke it is catapulting the F-150 into the mileage lead among full-sized pick-ups, edging out the gasoline-powered Dodge Ram.

In designing an aluminum truck Ford engineers believed they had nailed down a key selling point, even in a time of declining gas prices. Reducing the vehicle's weights by 700 pounds would make it more attractive for consumers who passed on this class of truck because they use too much fuel. But even with fuel well below $3 a gallon Ford is betting the new F-150s enhanced MPG will spur sales.

Impressive

Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book (KBB), is impressed.

“Depending on if model F-150 fuel economy is 5% to 22% better than similar versions of the previous generation truck, the highest fuel-economy version gets 22 mpg combined,” he said. “This compares well with the gasoline versions of the GM and Chrysler pickup trucks. At the same time it is important to note that, depending on version, the F-150 also claims best-in-class payload and towing.”

KBB's Akshay Anand says it may not matter all that much if a driver saves money on fuel by driving one of the new F-150s. It's all a matter of perception.

“At this point, fuel economy numbers are as much of a marketing game than anything,” he said. “The 'best truck mpg' claim probably matters more than the cost savings from a one or two mpg difference over competitors, especially if gas prices remain low for the foreseeable future. We know some of the import trucks will be released in the next year or 2, and you can bet those will have solid mpg numbers, especially as diesel looks to gain more traction in the truck segment.”

Even though expectations for fuel economy were significantly higher, the automotive press has generally been generous in its praise of the new truck, which will start coming off the assembly line next month. Improved gasoline mileage isn't the only thing reviewers like.

Other features

Bret Kenwell of the Motley Fool financial website likes the park assist feature, to aid drivers getting into a tight space. He notes the new truck comes with over 100 new patents, a record for a new Ford model.

Taking a slightly contrarian view is Richard Truett of Automotive News. He thinks Ford probably spent too much money to achieve too little improvement in fuel economy.

“GM, on the other hand, has developed a low-cost aluminum welding system that joins sheets of aluminum together on the same production equipment already in use in its plants,” he writes. “GM’s cost to switch to aluminum compared with Ford’s: pennies on the dollar.”

But that doesn't mean Truett isn't impressed with what Ford has done. He says Ford has done something auto companies rarely do – make a major investment that won't pay off until about 15 years in the future. By then he predicts Ford trucks will be a lot more fuel efficient than the company's first aluminum F-150.

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Bunny ban pending in NYC

Enough already with the rabbits, New York City exclaims

First it was smoking. Then it was jaywalking. Then big sugary drinks. Now New York City wants a bunny ban -- specifically, a ban on selling baby rabbits in...

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Staff photo

First it was smoking. Then it was jaywalking. Then big sugary drinks. Now New York City wants a bunny ban -- specifically, a ban on selling baby rabbits in pet stores.

The reason is pretty obvious: rabbits have a very big sexual appetite and they multiply pretty quickly.

A bill currently before the City Council would make it illegal for pet shops to “display, offer for sale, deliver, barter, auction, give away, transfer or sell” rabbits.

“They’re frequently dumped in city parks and brought to city shelters. There’s simply not enough room," said Christine Mott, who heads the city Bar Association’s Committee on Animal LawFollowing dogs and cats, rabbits are the third most common animals left at shelters.

Most abandoned rabbits don't get rescued and when they are dumped into the parks they are eaten by raccoons, dogs, cats and wildlife.

This is all part of the bill that prohibits pet shops from buying dogs from "puppy mills." It gives the city a stronger hand and puts more restrictions on pet stores. The rabbit addendum was added two weeks ago. 

For some reason when people buy rabbits they don't buy just one. That means that pretty soon they have lots of bunnies, and lots of problems.

Three large cities -- Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago -- have banned the selling of rabbits in pet stores already. Petco no longer sells rabbits in their stores and other pet stores may soon follow.

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Court-ordered shutdown and another privacy bombshell hit Uber this week

Uber suspends Nevada operations and "look[s] into" ghost-text messages

The past couple of weeks have been turbulent for ride-sharing company Uber. In the legal arena, Uber was ordered to suspend all operations in the state of ...

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Photo © jscphoto - Fotolia

The past couple of weeks have been turbulent for ride-sharing company Uber. In the legal arena, Uber was ordered to suspend all operationsin the state of Nevada, after a district court judge in Washoe County granted the state's request for a court order shutting Uber down for noncompliance with state laws regulating commercial motor carriers and transportation services.

An Uber representative on Thanksgiving Day criticized the Nevada ruling, saying that “nearly 1,000 jobs just disappeared overnight, and those residents lost their ability to earn a living.” The company said it is in compliance with the order, but intends to continue fighting it in the courts.

That legal ruling came after the company spent a couple weeks collecting negative PR, mainly regarding its allegedly cavalier attitudes toward people's privacy. A BuzzFeed reporter learned that company executive Emil Michael had discussed the possibility of dealing with criticism of the company by digging up dirt on any journalists who dare to criticize it. That same week came another unflattering story about Uber's “God View” program, which offers a real-time (or “god's-eye”) view of all current Uber users, including their identities, current locations and trip itineraries.

Ghost texts

And early on Thanksgiving week, Newsweek reported on Uber's disturbing tendency to advertise via sending “ghost texts” — messages which Uber drivers allegedly sent to their friends, except the drivers didn't actually send them and may not even know they exist:

Several days ago, an Uber driver in a major city received a curious text from his girlfriend. “Do you want me to be an Uber driver?” she asked. No, he replied, confused. A text message she had received implied otherwise:

"USER MSG: Congratulations! Your friend [name redacted] wants you to be an Uber partner. Both of you can make money when you APPLY HERE: [link redacted]"

The driver contacted Uber about that text message, asking how Uber had his girlfriend's phone number in the first place, and asking if Uber had access to his phone's contact list. Uber replied with what sounds like a generic auto-reply:

Thank you so much for reaching out. I have passed this request to an Operations Manager to ensure it is handled appropriately.

We appreciate your patience as we work to resolve this matter.

Thanks for your partnership!

Tip: if you have different questions or issues unrelated to this ticket, please do not reply to this email. For faster responses, please send a separate, new email.

All the best,

Uber later assured reporters that it is “looking into how these messages may have been sent.”

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Adobe issues critical new Flash security update

Whether you use Windows, Mac or Linux, you need this patch right away

Time to update your Adobe Flash Player, right now: Adobe has issued new patches, the second this month, to fix critical security errors in Flash for Window...

PhotoTime to update your Adobe Flash Player, right now: Adobe has issued new patches, the second this month, to fix critical security errors in Flash for Windows, Mac and Linux. This patch is being released outside of Adobe's usual security update cycle, since the previous patch didn't quite fix the problem — or, rather, since hackers were able to quickly develop new ways to work around the patch.

Sophos' Naked Security blog referred to this latest security patch update as a “booster dose” for the previous one. Sophos also went so far as to advise its readers to “Try uninstalling Flash to see if you can live without it. As this incident reveals, Flash is popular with crooks, who put plenty of effort into working out how to exploit it.”

But if you keep Flash installed, try changing your browser settings to require the “click-to-play” or “Ask-to-activate” option, which requires your permission every time before Flash runs on your computer.

And definitely check to make sure you get this patch, although most Adobe users have Flash set to update automatically.

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Touchless faucets becoming affordable for home use

They're more sanitary and can be big energy-savers. Installation is no snap though

It makes sense in a public restroom to have a faucet that you don't have to touch. After all, just think of all those icky germs from people we don't know ...

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A Moen touchless faucet

It makes sense in a public restroom to have a faucet that you don't have to touch. After all, just think of all those icky germs from people we don't know who just used the restroom. Well, now you can have that same luxury in your home.

Think about the possibilities of not having to turn your faucet on and, instead, just having the water appear when you need it. You can wash vegetables or fruit all in one swift splash. It's also an advantage for people who are disabled.

Many manufacturers are opting for this new concept -- Kohler, Hansgrohe and Moen to name drop a few.

One of the great things about a touchless faucet is the way you can save on water. The other side of the sink is that they do come with an energy cost. Most touchless faucets operate on battery or A.C. power and require sensors to work. This can be costly and inconvenient when the batteries run out and need to be replaced. There are newer models coming out that feature rechargeable batteries. These models are generally more expensive, but can end up paying for themselves in the long run because you don’t have to keep buying batteries.

Not too hot

They aren't as hot as you might think though. Most traditional faucets come with a hot and cold side. Touchless faucets usually have a control under the sink and it's set at lukewarm.

Thinking of saving yourself a few bucks and installing it yourself? You might want to think again. They are more than tricky to install. Not only does the touchless faucet require power in the form of electricity, and sensors, but it is installed differently than a traditional faucet. Getting the pipes and tubes spaced correctly so that the faucet is able to receive warm water quickly is often the biggest challenge.

Cost can also be a factor. Most touchless faucets are more expensive than your traditional faucets but manufacturers are creating ways to bring the cost down. They currently range in price from $260 to about $615, but usually have a warranty, althouogh there are lesser-known brands that are available for less than $100 online.

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PETA wants to ground Rudolph

The animal rights group want to ban the use of live reindeer in public appearances

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is trying to keep Rudolph and the rest of Santa's crew from making any public appearances in the UK. Nob...

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Photo © Cairngorm Reindeer Herd

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is trying to keep Rudolph and the rest of Santa's crew from making any public appearances in the UK. Nobody is complaining about the elves, although when you think about it some of those guys are pretty small and they could be stepped on, but no it's just Santa's reindeer that appear to be the target.

Last year in Dillon, Colorado, a reindeer got loose while it was being used in a holiday display and PETA got in on that event as well, asking the mayor to not let any reindeer be used for holiday displays. But the owner just got a tighter grip on the leash and on went the festivities.

Tilly Smith, who is in charge of the herd in the UK, which has been touring every Christmas since 1990, said: “Last year we received some hassle from an organisation called Captive Animal Protection Society and this year it’s been PETA."

PETA has contacted many of the venues hosting the reindeer, urging them to cancel the events and claiming the safety of the animals and the public is at risk.

A message from staff at the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, in the Scottish Highlands, home to the UK’s only free-roaming reindeer, says:

“We know our reindeer are very happy and comfortable in their work -- otherwise we wouldn't take them to the parades -- as we are the ones who work with them day in, day out and know them all extremely well.”

Not tied up

Tilly said the reindeer are put in specially made boxes when they're being transported them and are not tied up. They usually stay on farms when they aren't at home and are away for 10-14 days.

Tilly explained that without the money they make doing this at this time of year they wouldn't be able to care for the reindeer or pay their staff.

“We feel worn out by it all, to be honest. The reindeer bring a huge amount of joy, but there’s a blackness in the background just now because of it,” Tilly said.

But PETA spokesman Ben Williamson said: “We should not be supporting such unethical displays. Children should not grow up thinking animals exist merely for our entertainment."

The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd was established in 1952 by Swedish reindeer herder Mikel Utsi.

We'll see how this flies with Santa.

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Imported Acme Smoked Nova Salmon recalled

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Acme Smoked Fish Corporation of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling 564 pounds of its Imported Acme 4-oz. (113g) vacuum packs of Smoked Nova Salmon. The product m...

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Photo source: FDA

UPDATE: Acme Smoked Fish Corp. reports that it has recovered all of the smoked salmon recalled by it earlier this month and says the recall notice below has been "terminated." ConsumerAffairs has not received any confirmation of that claim from the FDA.

 "We were able to recall all product and all consumers who purchased the product at Giant were contacted. This is old news and there is no need to make people think that this is breaking news," said Gabriel Viteri, VP of Strategy and Business Development, Acme Smoked Fish Corporation.

Viteri complained that the recall was an inconvenience to his company. "I am having to put a hot line to answer questions to consumers who are calling confused based on your recent alert," he said.

The recall notice was dated Nov. 18 but did not appear on the FDA's recall site, which ConsumerAffairs uses as its source for food and drug recalls, until Nov. 25, Tuesday. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday it was not posted on our site until today, thus leading to Viteri's unhappiness.  

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Acme Smoked Fish Corporation of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling 564 pounds of its Imported Acme 4-oz. (113g) vacuum packs of Smoked Nova Salmon.

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

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

This product was distributed to Giant Food of Landover, Md., which operates supermarkets in Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Consumers who have purchased 4-oz. Smoked Salmon with lot code L.05122014 should return it to the store or discard it, and contact Acme for further details and full refunds.

Consumers with questions may contact the quality assurance department at Acme Smoked Fish Corporation at 718-383-8585. 

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Consumers may be more choosy on Black Friday

With all the bargains so far, it may pay to take a wait-and-see approach

Even though the nation's retailers have rolled out sales promotions all month long, most still expect a robust turnout for Black Friday, which increasingly...

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© Retro sellingpix - Fotolia

Even though the nation's retailers have rolled out sales promotions all month long, most still expect a robust turnout for Black Friday, which increasingly starts on Thanksgiving day. But they might have to work harder for shoppers.

A survey conducted for the National Retail Federation (NRF) finds 61% of consumers may or will shop either Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. That equates to about 140 million consumers – roughly the same as last year.

Why no growth in the numbers? It may be because there have already been plenty of deals. It could also mean more bargain-conscious consumers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Consumers today want more than just the discounts they’ve been showered with since the start of the recession; they want exclusive offerings and a good reason to spend their discretionary budgets,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

Major shift

In fact, Shay believes there could be a major shift this year as shoppers become more picky. The Internet gives consumers multiple tools to compare prices and the difference of just a couple of dollars – or the inclusion of free shopping – could influence a buying decision.

While there has been criticism of retailers launching their Black Friday promotions on Thanksgiving, there appear to be significant demographic differences in those attitudes. The survey suggests much of the criticism is confined to older generations.

Millennials, on the other hand, are much more willing to including shopping as part of their Thanksgiving Day activities. Nearly one-quarter of 18 to 24 year olds said they plan to shop on the holiday.

“For younger shoppers, shopping on Thanksgiving and Black Friday is as much a social experience as it is a buying mission,” said polling firm Prosper Insights & Analytics Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow. “While these shoppers may not have the biggest holiday budgets or the longest shopping lists, they still enjoy the ‘tradition’ of heading out with friends and family on two of retail’s most exciting shopping days.”

Last year for old credit cards?

Shay, meanwhile, says this could be the last holiday shopping season in which consumers use the current magnetic strip credit and debit cards that are more prone to fraud. He says these cards haven't been updated since the 1960s, despite 21st-century cyber threats and criminals who use the Internet to steal money from half a world away.

“The good news is that the card industry plans to roll out new cards in 2015 that will replace the easy-to-copy magnetic stripe with a sophisticated computer microchip that is far more difficult to counterfeit,” Shay writes in an op-ed. “Chip-based EMV cards are used in 80 countries and have reduced fraud as much as 75%.”

However, Shay also notes that U.S. banks don’t plan to replace the signature with a personal identification number the way banks have in the rest of the world. Rather than “chip-and-PIN,” U.S. banks are calling their new cards “chip and choice.”

Retailers are expressing disappointment. Shay says the PIN is a critical element of fraud reduction and that where it has been implemented, it has worked. He says the chip ensures that the card is real, but the PIN is needed to prove that the person trying to use it is the legitimate cardholder.

“In today’s world of high-tech criminal hacking, an easily forged, illegible scrawl at the bottom of a receipt is no longer good enough,” Shay says.

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Money- and sanity-saving Black Friday strategy: skip it

Don't believe the hype: successful gift-giving doesn't have to break the bank. Or you, either

An old maxim says that it's better to give than to receive but – true fact – historians agree that statement was first written at least 1,500 years before ...

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Walmart workers protesting in D.C. the day before Thanksgiving (Photo: Our Walmart)

An old maxim says that it's better to give than to receive but – true fact – historians agree that statement was first written at least1,500 years before the invention of the consumerist faux-holiday called “Black Friday.”

Legend has it the name came about because the day after Thanksgiving (and semi-official start of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/etc. holiday-shopping season) is when most retailers would finally break even and start showing a profit for that fiscal year – the day their accounts finally switched from red ink to black. But if you have or ever held a retail job, you know Black Friday earns its name by being the worst workday of the year – unless, perhaps, you work for a store forcing you to come in on Thanksgiving (without even earning extra holiday pay, likely as not).

From a customer's perspective, Black Friday offers you the chance to wake up insanely early on a day off, or even camp out overnight in a parking lot during the cold season in the northern hemisphere, and fight enormous mob-style crowds (who trample the occasional person to death, whoopsie) in hope of saving a few dollars off the price of whatever “door-busters” the stores are trying to sell this year.

Go Ortho

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Christ Pantocrator Mosaic (Photo via Wikipedia)

Of course, the single easiest way to save money, if you mustcelebrate a gift-giving holiday called “Christmas,” is to go by the Eastern Orthodox calendar, which does not observe the holiday until January 6. You'll find lower prices and smaller crowds for your holiday shopping, if you delay the official start of shopping season from “Black Friday” to December 26.

You might also consider joining the Amish or some other group with actual religious – not just financial – objections to buying cutting-edge latest-gen electronics costing hundreds of dollars.

In all seriousness: cutting-edge electronics and other high-price appliances make poor holiday gifts anyway, for several reasons. The first is that any major appliance-type item makes for a poor surprise gift.

Suppose, for example, you're thinking of getting “a computer” for somebody. Nowadays, “computers” are almost like “clothes” – a single word encompassing too many options to easily count them all, but plenty of opportunities to give a gift the recipient doesn't want or need. What will she use the computer for — is it primarily a tool or a toy? Is a tactile keyboard necessary, or are touchscreen controls sufficient? A student or journalist who primarily reads and writes text documents will have different computing needs than a graphic designer, and someone who primarily wants Internet access might be better off ignoring “computers” altogether in favor of a smartphone or tablet or other device, especially depending on where they live and what ISP bandwidth options are available in their area, and ….

You get the picture: some items work better as carefully researched and personally chosen purchases, not as surprise gifts picked by someone else.

Of course, it's quite possible someone has carefully researched and personally chosen what they want – especially if you're buying for children who have given you and/or Santa extremely specific wish lists, including catalog numbers and links to make purchases online. When it comes to buying the latest electronics, or whatever is the current season's high-demand item, the bald truth is: there probably isn't any legal, scam-free way to find a good bargain price on that — not if you are determined to get it before this Dec. 25.

iThings

PhotoOf course, the latest-gen game systems and iThings that are super-expensive this month are pretty much guaranteed to significantly drop in price once the “holiday season” is officially over (although, despite previous cracks about postponing Christmas until the first week of January, the serious price declines on today's hot new techno-whatever probably won't kick in until February or March).

So that's how you save money (or don't) on electronic gifts. But chances are you still have to buy plenty of less-extravagant (though still potentially expensive) gifts for various people in your life — how do you do that without breaking the bank or putting yourself into debt?

Plenty of thrifty-living blogs will advise you to save money on presents by ignoring the mass-produced corporate whatever in favor of giving something more personal, perhaps something you made yourself. That's great advice – if you have the talent, skill and time required to produce handmade gifts anyone would actually want. I personally do not.

But I do have a knack for secondhand and other forms of bargain shopping, and I genuinely enjoy browsing flea markets, thrift stores and other cheapo-discount stores anyway. So I keep an eye open all year long, for any oddball gift-worthy item to store in my gift closet (actually a couple large boxes on a single closet shelf, but never mind that).

China pattern

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A Galileo thermometer (Photo via Wikipedia)

Of course, the better you know someone, the easier it is to find just the right present for them, and at a bargain price, too. (My personal favorite amazing-find gift story is this: a friend of mine inherited her grandmother's china – which had much sentimental value to her, though that pattern is not actually valuableon the open antiques market. The china set wasn't complete, though; a few pieces had gone missing or broken over the years, including the sugar bowl and a couple of salad plates. Yet one weekend, while browsing at a local church's rummage sale, danged if I didn't find a sugar bowl, salad plates and a few other pieces in my friend's grandmother's china pattern – and I only paid $3 for all of it!)

Unfortunately, such perfect-find stories are rare — and it really isn't practical to go around buying and holding any mismatched china pieces you see, just in case you one day meet someone looking to finish that set. But I also keep my gift closet supplied with more “generic”-style gifts, bought throughout the year and appropriate for workplace Secret Santa programs, local-club gift exchanges and any other situations where you're expected to give a present to someone you might not know too well. One year, around March or so, an overstock store near me had a stockpile of colorful brass Galileo thermometers selling for only $5 each — guess what my colleagues, mailman and similar people all got for Christmas that year?

I hope their pleased exclamations were all sincere, and that they all genuinely enjoy having a Galileo thermometer on display in their homes or offices — but if they don't, at least those thermometers let me affordably meet my socially expected grownup gift-giving obligations for another year. (And their recipients can always turn around and give the thermometers to someone else, provided they're familiar with the ins and outs of successful re-gifting.)

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Making sense of calorie information

Knowing how many calories are in a candy bar is only half the battle

Now that the Food and Drug Administration is moving forward on new rules requiring chain restaurants, vending machines and coffee shops to post calorie inf...

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Photo © Michael Flippo - Fotolia

Now that the Food and Drug Administration is moving forward on new rules requiring chain restaurants, vending machines and coffee shops to post calorie information on food products, consumers will have an easier time keeping up with the calories they consume.

But will it make any difference? The question is, what will consumers do with this information? The answer is, probably not much – at least not right away.

Fast food restaurants have been posting calorie information on their menus for some time now and it hasn't reduced the number of triple bacon cheeseburgers they sell. In 2012 researchers at Columbia University studied the calorie counts for 200 food items on menu boards in fast-food chain restaurants in an area of New York, which began the menu posting requirement in 2006.

“Although most postings were legally compliant, they did not demonstrate utility,” the researchers wrote.

In other words, consumers weren't always able to make sense of the information, especially when they combined food and beverage items and added toppings. A total meal might contain 1,100 calories – but so what?

How to use the information

To use this data consumers need to know how many calories are too many. Eleven-hundred might well be too many calories for the average person but it might not be for someone who just ran a marathon.

While most people have no idea how many calories they consume on a daily basis, they are even more in the dark about how many calories they burn each day. Depending on a long list of factors, that number is going to vary from person to person.

Calorie calculator

To arrive at that number most consumers will need to use a calculator, like this one. For a man 45 years old, weighing 190 pounds, 6 feet tall and with a “somewhat active” lifestyle, the calculator show he would need no more than 2,884 calories a day. Any more than that and he starts packing on the pounds.

An 1,100 calorie meal would take up 38% of his daily calorie needs. That would leave just 1,700 calories for the remaining two meals – and any between-meals snacks.

It should also be noted that not all calories are created equal. Loading up on "empty" calories, found in candy, sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol, doesn't provide much in the way of nutrients. Getting calories from fruits and vegetables promotes health while managing weight.

Fast food

In 2003 filmmaker Morgan Spurlock focused attention on fast food calories when, for 30 days, he ate every meal at McDonald's and turned the results into a documentary, “Supersize Me.” Since then, fast food restaurants have added healthier and lower-calorie menu items so that it might be possible today to eat fast food for 30 days and lose weight.

It all depends on what the consumer chooses to order when they step up to the counter.

Perhaps consumers will make healthier choices if they have more information but don't count on it happening overnight.

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Feeling bad about leaving your dog?

A few days in a pet spa or with a sitter at home won't hurt your hound

Everyone's packed up, you're ready to go but one family member isn't heading out with you -- your dog. Grandma has had enough and the dog isn't coming this...

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Photo © Margit Power - Fotolia

Everyone's packed up, you're ready to go but one family member isn't heading out with you -- your dog. Grandma has had enough and the dog isn't coming this year. So you are freaking out about leaving it.

Stop stressing -- there are a few options that can leave you less uptight if you do your homework beforehand.

First, investigate and make sure that the company you are leaving your pet with hasn't ruffled too many feathers. Check them out online and ask friends about their experiences. 

If you have a dog that tends to bolt, ask about the kennel's steps to keep it escape-proof.

Do they let your dog be social with other dogs or are they kept apart at all times? You want to make sure everyone has had their shots and that they check for that and you have to show proof.

Inquire about what time you can drop off and pick up because it could affect the billing. Just like a hotel, if you stay past check-out time, you may be charged an extra day.

Let him stay home

Another option is to let your dog stay in the comfort of familiar surroundings and have a pet sitter come to your home. There are many ways to find one and a really great way to start, is to ask your friends. Your vet may have some recommendations as well. You can also contact the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (856-439-0324) or Pet Sitters International (336-983-9222). Or check out online services like Rover.com. 

One thing with a pet sitter in your home is -- you want to make sure they are licensed and bonded. Breaking an antique vase can be expensive, same thing with having your coin collection mysteriously disappear.

Is back-up available? What happens if the sitter gets sick? Do they have people who can come at a moment's notice?

Is this sitter familiar with emergency services if your dog starts choking or getting sick? Make sure no one shares their raisins with them.
What kind of training does the sitter have?

Even if you like what you hear from the pet sitter and from her references, it's important to have the prospective pet sitter come to your home to meet your pet before actually hiring her for a pet-sitting job. Watch how they interact; does your pet seem comfortable with the person?

You can find more tips in our recent story, Airbnb for dogs.

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Personal income and spending on the rise in October

First-time jobless claims shoot higher

Consumers saw both their personal incomes and disposable personal income (DPI) head higher last month, with personal spending also posting a gain. Figures...

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© kentoh – Fotolia.com

Consumers saw both their personal incomes and disposable personal income (DPI) head higher last month, with personal spending also posting a gain.

Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show personal income was up $32.9 billion, or 0.2%, and disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- rose $23.4 billion, or 0.2%, in October.

Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased $27.3 billion, or 0.2 percent.

Wages and salaries

Private wages and salaries advanced $18.8 billion last month, compared with an increase of $13.9 billion in September. Payrolls of goods-producing industries rose $7.2 billion, with manufacturing payrolls up $4.4 billion.

Services-producing industries' payrolls increased $11.6 billion, and government wages and salaries added $1.4 billion.

Personal outlays and saving

Personal outlays, which include PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments, rose $26.3 billion in October, after increasing just $8.7 billion the month before.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $651.2 billion, down nearly $3 billion from September. Still, the personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.0% in October, the same as in September.

The complete incomes and spending report for October is available on the Commerce Department website.

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia
Initial jobless claims

Separately, the government reports first-time applications surged by 21,000 in the week ending November 22 to a seasonally adjusted initial claims was 313,000. The previous week's level was revised up by 1,000 -- from 291,000 to 292,000.

The consensus estimate of economists surveyed by Briefing.com was for a total of 288,000.

Analysts say the surge above 300,000 for the first time since early September was likely the result of a one-time episode of volatility and that the previous weeks lead them to believe claims are in the range that suggest full employment.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly tally and considered a more accurate reading of labor conditions, rose by 6,250 from the previous week to 294,000.

The full report may be found on the Labor Department website.

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FHFA House Price Index up again

Home prices have been on the rise for 13th consecutive quarters

It's lucky 13 for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI). According to the agency, U.S. house prices were up 0.9% in the third...

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© teena137 – Fotolia.com

It's lucky 13 for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI).

According to the agency, U.S. house prices were up 0.9% in the third quarter of 2014 -- the 13th straight quarterly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index.

The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Compared with last year, house prices rose 4.5% from the third quarter of 2013. FHFA’s seasonally adjusted monthly index for September was unchanged from August.

“Easing interest rates and modestly improving labor market conditions helped to drive up prices in the third quarter,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “The price increases were relatively small in most areas, however, and are consistent with the type of market deceleration that other housing market statistics have shown in recent periods.”

Report highlights

  • The seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI rose in 40 states during this year's third quarter. The top five states in annual appreciation: 1) Nevada 2) Hawaii 3) California 4) North Dakota 5) Florida.
  • Of the 9 census divisions, the West South Central division experienced the strongest increase in the third quarter, posting a 1.8% advance for the quarter and a gain of 5.8% since last year. House prices were weakest in the Middle Atlantic division, where prices inched up 0.1% from the prior quarter.
  • As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., third quarter price increases were greatest in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California, Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) where prices increased by 6.6%. Prices were weakest in the Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina, MSA, where they fell 4.4%.
  • Eleven of the 20 metropolitan areas with the highest annual appreciation rates were in California.
  • The monthly seasonally adjusted purchase-only index for the U.S. showed no change between August and September. The last time prices did not change on a month-over-month basis was in November 2013.
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Mortgage applications head lower again

Applications have fallen in 4 of the last 5 weeks

After posting their first gain in 4 weeks, mortgage applications are down again. The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its Mortgage Applications ...

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© emiliezhang -Fotolia.com

After posting their first gain in 4 weeks, mortgage applications are down again.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending November 21 shows applications were down 4.3% from the previous week.

The Refinance Index also posted a decline -- 4% from the previous week -- with the refinance share of mortgage activity rising to 63% of total applications from 61 percent the week before.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 7.0% of total applications, the FHA share fell to 9.4%, the VA share dropped to 10.3%, and the USDA share was unchanged at 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) fell 3 basis points -- from 4.18% to 4.15%, with points rising to 0.25 from 0.24 (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) was unchanged at 4.10%, with points increasing to 0.25 from 0.16 (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 5 basis points to 3.90%, with points dipping to 0.13 from 0.18 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was up from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs slipped to 3.35% from 3.38%, with points decreasing to 0.25 from 0.27 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dropped from 3.09% to 3.06%, with points rising to 0.41 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.

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

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Another slim gain for new home sales

On the other hand, the near-term sales outlook for existing homes isn't encouraging

Sales of new single-family rose in October for a second straight month. A report released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and U...

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© Brian Jackson – Fotolia

Sales of new single-family rose in October for a second straight month.

A report released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development put sales at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 458,000 -- up 0.7% from the previous month and 1.8% higher than a year ago.

Prices and inventory

The median sales price of new houses sold during the month was $305,000 -- up $40,700 from October 2013. The median is the point at which half of the prices are higher and half are lower. The average sales price was $401,100, a year-over-year gain of $65,400.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of October was 212,000, which translates to a supply of 5.6 months at the current sales rate.

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

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© karelnoppe - Fotolia.com
Pending home sales

On the other hand, the National Association of Realtors (NRA) reports pending home sales declined in October, but are still at what it calls “a healthy level of activity,” and are above year-over-year levels for the second straight month.

The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, fell 1.1% last month to 104.1, but is 2.2% higher than October 2013. The index is above 100 -- considered an average level of contract activity -- for the sixth consecutive month.

Still at a healthy pace

"In addition to low interest rates, buyers entering the market this autumn are being lured by the increase in homes for sale and less competition from investors paying in cash," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "Demand is holding steady but would be more robust if it weren't for lagging wage growth and tight credit conditions that continue to hamper those individuals looking for relief from rising rents."

The median existing-home price for all housing types in October was $208,300 -- 5.5% above October 2013. Monthly median price growth has averaged 5.8% so far this year after averaging 11.5 % in 2013.

"The increase in median prices for existing-homes has leveled off, representing a healthier pace that has kept affordability in-check for buyers in many parts of the country while giving more previously stuck homeowners with little or no equity the ability to sell," said Yun.

Regional breakdown

  • The PHSI in the Northeast inched up 0.5% to 87.9 in October, and is now 3.4% percent above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index dipped 0.6% to 100.6, and is now 3.0% below October 2013.
  • Pending home sales in the South decreased 1.0% to an index of 118.3, but is still 3.9% above the same time last year.
  • The index in the West plunged 3.2% to 98.1, but stands 4.1% above a year ago.

Crystal gazing

NAR also recently released its economic and housing forecast for 2015 and 2016.

Yun projects existing-home sales this year to fall slightly below 2013 (5.1 million) to 4.9 million, and then increase to 5.3 million next year and 5.4 million in 2016.

He also sees the national median existing-home price rising 4% both next year and in 2016.

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ITG Voma recalls Capitol Precision Trac II tires

The tires may experience a tread separation

ITG Voma Corporation is recalling 94,890 Capitol Precision Trac II tires, sizes 245/70R17, 235/70R16, 235/75R15, 245/70R16, 245/75R16, 255/70R16, and 265/7...

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Photo source: ITG Voma

ITG Voma Corporation is recalling 94,890 Capitol Precision Trac II tires, sizes 245/70R17, 235/70R16, 235/75R15, 245/70R16, 245/75R16, 255/70R16, and 265/75R16.

The recalled tires may experience a tread separation resulting in sudden air loss, which could increase the risk of a vehicle crash.

ITG Voma will notify the distributor, American Tire Distributors, and dealers will replace the affected tires, free of charge. The recall began in October 2014.

Owners may contact American Tire Distributors at 1-704-992-2000.

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Group blasts most yogurt as "junk food"

Cornucopia Institute says a lot of yogurt marketing is misleading

A war is brewing over yogurt. Call it a culture war. In fact, that's exactly what the Cornucopia Institute, a group supporting “family-scale” farming, cal...

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Photo © Brent Hofacker - Fotolia

A war is brewing over yogurt. Call it a culture war.

In fact, that's exactly what the Cornucopia Institute, a group supporting “family-scale” farming, calls it in a new report that has some rather harsh things to say about major yogurt manufacturers.

In its report, the group accuses food marketers of misleading parents with their marketing approach, capitalizing on yogurt's reputation as a healthy product while “simultaneously adulterating the product, sometimes illegally, to gain competitive advantage and popular appeal.”

“What is most egregious about our findings,” said Mark A. Kastel, Co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, “is the marketing employed by many of the largest agribusinesses selling junk food masquerading as health food, mostly aimed at moms, who are hoping to provide their children an alternative, a more nutritious snack. In some cases, they might as well be serving their children soda pop or a candy bar with a glass of milk on the side.”

ConsumerAffairs reached out to the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents dairy manufacturers, for a comment but did not get a response by publication time.

Two major complaints

Cornucopia, based in the heart of Wisconsin dairy country, has 2 major complaints about most mass-marketed yogurt. It claims the fruit flavored kinds don't actually contain real fruit. Second, it has a beef with the way the yogurt is sweetened.

If it isn't loaded with sugar, the group says, it is sweetened with artificial sweeteners like aspartame.

The report quotes Yale professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology Qing Yang as linking the use of artificial sweeteners with the rise of obesity. The group also links artificial sweeteners to tumors and neurological diseases in laboratory animals.

The Cornucopia Institute doesn't want consumers to abandon yogurt, just stick to organic brands. It says it tested yogurt purchased directly from supermarkets and measured it against top-rate organic brands. It says the organic yogurt contained higher levels of beneficial bacteria than some of the most popular brands displaying the dairy industry's Live and Active Cultures seal.

FDA complaint

PhotoThe group is pressing its case among regulators, filing a formal complaint with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), asking the agency to investigate whether or not certain yogurt on the market, manufactured by such companies as Yoplait, Dannon, and store brands including Walmart’s Great Value, violate the legal standard of identity for products labeled as yogurt.

The group says the legal definition of “yogurt” should be enforced for product labeling, just as it is for products labeled as “cheese.”

At present federal health officials make no distinction between mass-marketed and organic yogurts. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Health and Sustainability Guidelines for Federal Concessions and Vending Operations, issued in June, includes “low-fat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese.”

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Honda admits it under-reported safety defects to feds

The automaker, already under fire for airbag problems, could face a $35 million fine

Honda has admitted it failed to tell federal safety regulators about more than 1,700 deaths or injuries involving possible safety defects in its cars. The...

PhotoHonda has admitted it failed to tell federal safety regulators about more than 1,700 deaths or injuries involving possible safety defects in its cars. The admission more than doubles the actual number of deaths and injuries involving Honda vehicles, bringing the total to 2,843, more than twice as many as the 1,114 it initially reported.

Under the TREAD Act, which went into effect in 2003, automakers must submit quarterly reports of all incidents potentially involving safety defects. TREAD -- the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act -- was enacted after more than 250 people were killed and hundreds more injured in accidents involving tread separation on tires produced by Bridgestone/Firestone. Most of those accidents involved Ford Explorers.

Penalties for violating TREAD are stiff and Honda could face a $35 million fine, plus untold damage to its reputation. Safety advocate Clarence Ditlow, who heads the nonprofit watchdog group, the Center for Auto Safety, is urging the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to impose the maximum fine.

“It strains credulity that a sophisticated company like Honda could make so many data-entry errors, coding errors and narrow interpretations of what’s a written claim,” Ditlow said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator told Bloomberg: “It’s quite shocking Honda would behave this way. They’ve put their company reputation at risk.”

Unreported incidents

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Photo © marcello malgari - Fotolia

The unreported Honda incidents include a variety of issues, including eight linked to the defective Takata airbag inflators that potentially could affect millions of vehicles.

The company is blaming data entry and computer programming errors for the omission.

The TREAD Act requires manufacturers to report, by number, the warranty and property damage claims received from customers. In an internal audit, Honda said it found determined that regular warranty claims were properly reported to the NHTSA. However, certain special warranty claims, including “good will” warranty, and extended warranties for certified pre-owned vehicles and under third-party service contracts were not properly reported.

Further, instead of reporting all property damage claims, as required, Honda was reporting only property damage claims that it had denied, while those claims that it accepted and paid to customers were improperly included in the count of warranty claims, the company said in a prepared statement. The net result is that Honda over-reported these as warranty claims and under-reported property damage claims.

"Honda takes these findings extremely seriously. We are taking immediate corrective action, and we continue to fully cooperate with NHTSA to resolve this matter," said Rick Schostek, executive vice president, Honda North America, Inc.

Honda has already been the target of criticism from safety advocates for its slow response to the Takata airbag problem, which so far has been found to affect about 5 million Honda and Acura vehicles.

The company is already facing a blizzard of lawsuits alleging deaths and injuries from Takata airbags that exploded and sent deadly shrapnel flying into the passenger compartment.

The largest fine NHTSA has levied for lack of compliance with its early-warning reporting system was a $3.5 million penalty last month against Ferrari S.p.A. for failing to file information on alleged defects and three deaths, according to Automotive News.

Corrective actions

Honda said it has begun to take a number of steps to prevent future reporting errors. In a fact sheet on its website, it listed these corrective measures:

  • Honda has already corrected the computer programming issue and mapped the complete universe of Honda's codes to corresponding NHTSA component codes.
  • Honda will voluntarily include both written and oral claims of injuries or death in all future Early Warning Reports.
  • Honda will implement full training regarding the data entry process, including refresher training with detailed written guidelines.
  • Honda is in the process of enhancing its oversight of the Early Warning reporting process.
  • Honda will make organizational and staffing level changes in the functional areas responsible for its Early Warning reporting.
  • Honda will reprogram warranty and property claims to the EWR reporting system so that all warranty claims are included, and property damage reports will be included whether they are paid or denied.
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Look out, Angie! Amazon's getting into home services

Amazon will not just sell you a flat-screen TV; it will have someone come and mount it on your wall

Amazon isn't invading Uber's find-a-ride turf yet but it's big-footing it into another fast-growing niche -- the home handyman field. Not actually doing th...

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Photo © Rido - Fotolia

Amazon isn't invading Uber's find-a-ride turf yet but it's big-footing it into another fast-growing niche -- the home handyman field. Not actually doing the work, you understand, just putting homeowners together with jacks of all trades.

This domain has so far been dominated by companies like Angie's List and HomeAdvisor. Yelp, of course, is the go-to review source for such things but doesn't (yet) actually book the job for you.

Amazon, on the other hand, will do anything from air duct cleaning to wireless printer set-up, all as part of a beta program called Amazon Local Services, currently operating in parts of nine states.

So, let's say you want to buy a 60-inch flat-screen TV for the holidays. Amazon will happily sell you the TV and the mounting bracket and send someone out to drill a few holes and fasten it to your wall.

If you're in an area where home services are offered, when you're looking at products that need installation, Amazon will display a button offering to install your TV. Click the button and you get a list of local service providers, along with links to their Yelp reviews.

Amazon says it will check out its handymen, making sure they're licensed, insured and so forth. It will also offer a moneyback guarantee, something that's rare in the handyman field.

Eventually, Amazon reportedly hopes to expand the listings to include such things as fitness coaches and music teachers. Maybe, someday, psychiatrists? 

These are the states and cities where the services is currently being offered, according to its website

California

  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim Area
  • Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario Area
  • San Diego-Carlsbad Area
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward Area
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara Area

Florida

  • Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach Area

Georgia

  • Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell Area
  • Macon Area

Kansas

  • Wichita Area

Kentucky

  • Lexington-Fayette Area

New York

  • New York City Area

Texas

  • Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land Area
  • San Antonio-New Braunfels Area

Washington

  • Seattle Area

Wisconsin

  • Green Bay Area
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Giving and getting gift cards may be a win-win

But survey finds some feel guilty about asking for one

The gift card is perhaps the easiest gift to buy. It's essentially handing someone cash, except it's dressed up in an attractive plastic card, held in a ma...

PhotoThe gift card is perhaps the easiest gift to buy. It's essentially handing someone cash, except it's dressed up in an attractive plastic card, held in a matching holiday themed folder.

What could be easier? And while a shopper may feel they are copping out, a survey suggests many people would actually rather get a gift card than another sweater that they'll probably return anyway.

The National Retail Federation's 2014 survey found 60% of both shoppers and recipients say they would rather receive a gift card than anything else on their list. But a study by e-gifting firm CashStar has found that many consumers feel guilty asking for a gift card instead of a nicely wrapped gift.

According to the survey 60% of consumers – and 70% age 35-44 – prefer to receive a gift card but 30% say they feel guilty asking for one, with most saying it feels like “asking for cash.”

Shoppers like them too

But the survey also shows that the people doing the shopping are delighted when they see a gift card on someone's wish list. Seventy-eight percent said their reaction would be, “great, that’s an easy gift to buy and check off my list.”

CashStar says the number jumps to 87% among grandparents. Just 9% of all respondents said they would feel awkward buying a gift with a clear monetary value associated with it.

There's another advantage. You don't have to fight the crowds on Black Friday for a door-buster deal. A gift card can be purchased anytime and the price is going to more or less be the same – though there may be some advantages to buying them at one retailer over another.

Incentives

For example, Kroger, which sells a wide variety of gift cards from popular retailers, is offering 4 times the value of gift card purchases in fuel points, redeemed by customers when they buy gas at Kroger gas pumps.

Retailers have also picked up on the popularity of gift cards and have worked them into their holiday promotions. In its pre-Black Friday sale, Walmart offered a $100 Walmart gift card with the purchase of an iPad Air 2.

Precautions

While buying gift cards is easy and consumers apparently like to receive them, there are still some precautions shoppers should take.

First, it's usually better all the way around to buy a gift card for a specific retailer, even though a general card issued by Visa or American Express is more flexible. If the recipient loves to shop at Target and you give her a Target gift card, it shows you put a little thought into the purchase – its a little less like handing her 50 bucks.

Second, a retailer-specific gift card has been shown to hold its value better. Research by Bankrate.com last year found only 1 in 9 brand-specific gift cards charge purchase fees, compared to 100% of general-purpose gift cards.

The researchers checked out 55 popular brand-specific cards and found only 3 charged a purchase fee to all customers, and 3 others charge a purchase fee in some cases.

The 7 general-purpose cards in the survey all charge purchase fees, eroding the value of the gift.

Improved safety

Gift Cards are also a safer gift than they once were. The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act, passed in 2009, provides that gift cards cannot expire within five years from the date they were activated and generally limits inactivity fee on gift cards except in certain circumstances, such as if there has been no transaction for at least 12 months.

In addition, the Bankrate survey found 69% of gift card issuers will replace the card and/or funds in the event of loss or theft.  

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The ins and outs of your fireplace

Yes, a nice fire is cozy but keep these tips in mind

There is nothing cozier than a nice warm fireplace beautifully lit with a big hot cup of cocoa. But there is one sure way to ruin the ambiance and that's w...

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There is nothing cozier than a nice warm fireplace beautifully lit with a big hot cup of cocoa. But there is one sure way to ruin the ambiance and that's when your fireplace smoke fills the room and your smoke detector goes off. Take it from one who knows. It's a good idea to have a little knowledge about fireplaces.

First off, the experts say you shouldn't be burning the flames for more than 5 hours tops. It's not a furnace or a wood-burning stove -- it's there for ambiance.

It's a good idea to leave a window open a little bit when you have a fire going. It will help the fireplace -- and you -- "breathe" a bit better. The colder air coming in from the window will go up the chimney.

You can check to make sure the smoke will go up the chimney properly by lighting a match, quickly blowing it out and watching the smoke to see whether it's going up and out or just hanging around in the room.

Sparks have a tendency to fly. That's why it's a good idea to get a nonflammable rug at a fireplace supply store and put it in front of the fireplace. That way if something does spark and fly out your whole carpet won't have a meltdown.

They have pokers for a reason -- to move the logs around. Your hand and arm as well as your fingers have a tendency to burn and you know if you even burn yourself slightly with an a iron or something, it hurts! So keep hands and extremities out of the fireplace.

Also avoid sticking your head in the fireplace. Besides getting covered with soot, you're likely to bonk it badly.

The world of wood

You might need a little basic knowledge of the world of wood. It's measured by cords. A cord of wood is defined as a stack of cut firewood that measures 4 feet tall by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long, or any other arrangement that equals 128 cubic feet. The individual pieces must be stacked side by side rather than the looser crisscross style.

Who would have thought that wood holds water? Well, it does, and the more water the worse the wood is for burning. Freshly cut wood is composed largely of water. Not only is this “green” wood difficult to ignite, but burning it can lead to a dangerous buildup of creosote, the cause of chimney fires.

Properly “seasoned” firewood is wood that has been cut to length, split, and allowed to air dry for at least six months, or until the moisture content dips to around 20%. Dry wood will appear grayish in color and the pieces will begin to exhibit splits and cracks on the ends. Compared to freshly cut wood, seasoned wood feels light for its size.

Dr. John Ball, Professor of Forestry at South Dakota State University, says it’s a common misconception that burning soft woods, such as pine and cedar, leads to dangerous creosote buildup. As long as the firewood is properly seasoned, it can safely be burned in a fireplace or stove regardless of species.

Fireplace coals can stay hot for up to 3 days so you want to wait at least that long before you decide to clean them up. Don't use a vacuum. Just the tinest spark can cause a fire.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends that chimneys be swept at least once a year at the beginning of the winter to remove soot and debris. Find a certified sweep in your area via the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

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'Tis the season for in-law issues

Family visits can be maddening but they only last a few days

While everyone is out hustling and bustling trying to get the best deals on gifts, some people are just trying to deal period, knowing they are facing thei...

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While everyone is out hustling and bustling trying to get the best deals on gifts, some people are just trying to deal period, knowing they are facing their in-laws. The thought of it just makes them tense and sort of brings out the worst in everyone. My best friend calls her mother-in-law Monster-in-Law.

To keep things from spiraling out of control, start by realizing what you are really dealing with, and that's a control issue. Keep this little mantra for yourself -- your in-laws’ comments aren't about you, they're a reflection of them. They don’t like to acknowledge that they are getting older and some of that parental power is losing its luster. Once you recognize this, you can let them know, gently, that this is the way you like to manage your child or feeding schedule or whatever the issue may be. Try to be open, though, to listening to what worked for them.

Here are some additional suggestions:

Be discreet. Boundaries are so important, especially emotional ones. Limit your opinions about things and don't spill your guts about your life. Keep your private life private. Establish some limits as to how much you are willing to reveal and how much you are willing to accommodate others.

Try to listen. Let the in-law have the stage. Don't yawn a lot. You might learn a new joke or if you decide to play golf, how to putt better. Be gracious.

Do volunteer work. If you volunteer for a job like folding napkins or taking the dishes out, or keeping the kids entertained, it takes you out of the line of fire and keeps you busy.

Team up. Get your partner to go in as a united front. Your partner might have to talk to the in-laws alone or come to your rescue when you’re in their company. This may not be easy for them, and try to avoid putting your spouse in the middle but if you do see where conflict can arise, it would be good for your partner to step in and balance it out because parents tend to push our buttons.

Be realistic. Movies are fantasy and Norman Rockwell pics, as lovely as they are to look at, are outdated. Times have changed and you have to deal with what is real, so if your father-in-law eats all the nuts before everyone else every year, and it drives you nuts, plan ahead and buy more. Just remember we all are human and you can't change anyone so try and find one thing you like about them and focus on it for the duration of the visit.

Holidays are about creating traditions and memories and that's what you are there to do. Keep the good from your past and focus on the now and what memories you are making for the future. Just keep your cool -- it's only for a limited amount of time and then it's over.

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Sony agrees to partial refunds for Play Station Vita buyers

Feds said Sony exaggerated the "game changing" features of the device

Sony has agreed to cough up partial refunds for consumers who bought the PlayStation Vita handheld gaming console during its U.S. launch campaign in late 2...

PhotoSony has agreed to cough up partial refunds for consumers who bought the PlayStation Vita handheld gaming console during its U.S. launch campaign in late 2011 and early 2012, after the Federal Trade Commission charged that it deceived consumers with false advertising claims about the “game changing” technological features of the handheld gaming console.

Sony will provide consumers who bought a PS Vita gaming console before June 1, 2012, either a $25 cash or credit refund, or a $50 merchandise voucher for select video games and services. Sony will provide notice via email to consumers who are eligible for redress after the settlement is finalized by the Commission.

“As we enter the year’s biggest shopping period, companies need to be reminded that if they make product promises to consumers -- as Sony did with the “game changing” features of its PS Vita -- they must deliver on those pledges,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC will not hesitate to act on behalf of consumers when companies or advertisers make false product claims.”

As part of its launch campaign for the PS Vita, Sony claimed that the pocket-sized console would revolutionize gaming mobility by enabling consumers to play their PlayStation 3 games via “remote play,” and that they could engage in “cross platform” play by starting a game on a PS3 and then continuing it on the go, right where they left off, on a PS Vita. The FTC alleges that each of these claims was misleading.

Misleading claims

In a related action, the Commission charged that Deutsch LA, Sony’s advertising agency for the PS Vita launch, knew or should have known that the advertisements it produced contained misleading claims about the console’s cross platform and 3G capabilities.

The FTC also alleges that Deutsch LA further misled consumers by urging its employees to create awareness and excitement about the PS Vita on Twitter, without instructing employees to disclose their connection to the advertising agency or its then-client Sony. Under a separate settlement order, Deutsch LA is barred from such conduct in the future.

The PS Vita is a handheld gaming console that Sony first sold in the United States in February 2012 for about $250. Unlike the PS3, which allows consumers to play video games on a television, the PS Vita is a portable device that enables gamers to play “on the go,” untethered to a television screen.

The FTC said Sony made false claims about the PS Vita’s “cross platform gaming” or “cross-save” feature. Sony claimed, for example, that PS Vita users could pause any PS3 game at any time and continue to play the game on their PS Vita from where they left off. This feature, however, was only available for a few PS3 games, and the pause-and-save capability described in the ads varied significantly from game to game.

The FTC’s complaint also alleges that Sony’s PS Vita ads falsely implied that consumers who owned the 3G version of the device (which cost an extra $50 plus monthly fees) could engage in live, multi-player gaming through a 3G network. In fact, consumers could not engage in live, multiplayer gaming.

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Feds issue menu rules for fast-food restaurants

The rules also cover movie theatre and vending machine products

When you step up to the counter at your favorite fast-food restaurant and order a bacon double-cheeseburger, do you REALLY care how many calories it contai...

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When you step up to the counter at your favorite fast-food restaurant and order a bacon double-cheeseburger, do you REALLY care how many calories it contains? How about that Snickers bar you get from a vending machine?

Well, the folks in the federal government seem to think you do and -- as a result -- the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued two final rules requiring that calories be listed on certain menus in chain restaurants and other places selling restaurant-type food, and on certain vending machines.

“Americans eat and drink about one-third of their calories away from home,” says FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “These final rules will give consumers more information when they are dining out and help them lead healthier lives.”

The goal, according to FDA, is “to provide consumers with more information in a consistent, easy-to-understand way.”

What’s covered

The menu labeling rules, which take effect in 1 year for restaurants, apply to restaurants and similar retail food establishments that are part of a chain with 20 or more locations and doing business under the same name; offer basically the same menu items; and sell “restaurant-type” food.

Specifically, they cover:

  • Sit-down and fast-food restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and restaurant-type foods in certain grocery and convenience stores.
  • Take-out and delivery foods, such as pizza.
  • Foods purchased at drive-through windows.
  • Foods that you serve yourself from a salad or hot-food bar.
  • Alcoholic drinks such as cocktails when they appear on menus.
  • Foods at places of entertainment, such as movie theaters.

The vending machine rules take effect in 2 years, and cover vending machines if their operator owns or operates 20 or more of them. Currently, calorie information is not always visible before items are purchased and removed from vending machines. Under the new rule, the calories will be listed on the front of the package or on a sign or sticker near the food or selection button.

What’s not covered?

Examples of food items that are not covered under the rule include:

  • Foods sold at deli counters and typically intended for more than one person.
  • Bottles of liquor displayed behind a bar.
  • Food in transportation vehicles, such as food trucks, airplanes and trains.
  • Food on menus in elementary, middle and high schools that are part of U.S. Department of Agriculture school feeding programs (although vending machines in such locations are covered).

What you will see

Calorie information on menus and menu boards will need to be clearly displayed. The calorie count cannot be in smaller type than the name or price of the menu item (whichever is smaller). For salad bars and buffets, the calorie information must be displayed on signs near the foods.

To help consumers put the calorie information in the context of their total daily diet, the rule calls for the following reminder to be included on menus and menu boards: “2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice, but calorie needs vary.”

Menus and menu boards will tell consumers that they may ask for additional written nutrition information, which will include total calories, calories from fat, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, sugars, fiber and protein. The information may come from nutrient databases, cookbooks, laboratory analyses, the Nutrition Facts label, and other sources.

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Consumer confidence yo-yoing continues in November

Optimism faded after the October rebound

Consumers appear to be a little skittish heading into the Christmas shopping season. The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, which had...

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Consumers appear to be a little skittish heading into the Christmas shopping season.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, which had rebounded in October from a September decline,fell again in November.

The Index now stands at 88.7 down 5.4 points from October. The Present Situation Index dropped from 94.4 to 91.3, while the Expectations Index posted a 6.8-point plunge -- to 87.0.

A dip in optimism

“Consumers were somewhat less positive about current business conditions and the present state of the job market; moreover, their optimism in the short-term outlook in both areas has waned,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “However, income expectations were virtually unchanged and gas prices remain low, which should help boost holiday sales.”

Consumers’ assessment of present-day conditions was moderately less favorable this month than in October. The proportion saying business conditions are “good” slipped from 24.7% to 24.0%, while those who think business conditions are “bad” increased from 21.3% to 22.4%.

Consumers also saw the job market as slightly less favorable, with the proportion stating jobs are “plentiful” falling from 16.5% to 16.0%, and those who believe jobs are “hard to get” edging up from 29.0% to 29.2%.

Consumer optimism, which had improved last month, retreated in November. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months dropped from 19.4% to 17.6%, while those looking for a worsening jumped from 8.9% to 10.7%.

The outlook for the labor market was also less optimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead dropped 1% -- to 15.0%, while those who see fewer jobs rose from 14.1% to 16.4%. The proportion of consumers expecting growth in their incomes slipped from 16.7% to 16.3%, while the proportion expecting a drop in income was virtually unchanged at 11.4% versus 11.3% in October.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was November 13.

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Economy flexes its muscles

A second look at third-quarter economic growth indicates a little strengthening

A further look at the economic growth numbers for the third quarter suggests things were a little better than first reported. According to the "second" es...

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A further look at the economic growth numbers for the third quarter suggests things were a little better than first reported.

According to the "second" estimate from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, 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 3.9% in the during July, August and September. The "advance" estimate issued last month put the increase at 3.5%.

When combined with the 4.6% expansion in GDP in the second quarter, the result is the best six-month period of growth in 11 years.

It's important to remember, though, that the third-quarter figures are subject to another estimate, due out in December.

More information available

This latest estimate is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate. With the second estimate, private inventory investment decreased less than previously estimated, and both personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and nonresidential fixed investment increased more. In contrast, exports increased less than previously estimated (see

The increase in real GDP in the third quarter reflected positive contributions from PCE, nonresidential fixed investment, federal government spending, exports, residential fixed investment, and state and local government spending. These were partly offset by a decline in private inventory investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, decreased.

GDP inflation

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, increased 1.4% -- up 0.1% from the advance estimate; it increased 2.0% in the second quarter.

Excluding food and energy prices, the price index for gross domestic purchases -- the core rate -- increased 1.6% in the third quarter, compared with an increase of 1.7% in the second.

The complete GDP report is available on the Commerce department website.

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Natura Pet recalls dry cat and ferret food

The products contain insufficient levels of vitamins and excess minerals

Natura Pet Products is recalling certain lots of dry cat and dry ferret food produced in its Fremont, Nebraska facility. Due to a formulation error, the ...

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Photo source: FDA

Natura Pet Products is recalling certain lots of dry cat and dry ferret food produced in its Fremont, Nebraska facility.

Due to a formulation error, the products contain insufficient levels of vitamins and excess minerals.

There have been no reports of animal health concerns to date,

The affected product and lot codes are:

PRODUCTSIZEUPCEXP DATELOT CODE
EVO® Grain Free Turkey & Chicken Formula dry cat & kitten food15.4 LB5148 54140002/19/20164300A700D2
EVO® Grain Free Turkey & Chicken Formula dry cat & kitten food2.2 LB5148 54140202/20/20164301A700A4
EVO® Grain Free Turkey & Chicken Formula dry cat & kitten food2.2 LB5148 54140202/20/20164301A700B4
EVO® Grain Free Turkey & Chicken Formula dry cat & kitten food2.2 LB5148 54140202/20/20164301A700C4
EVO® Grain Free Ferret Food6.6 LB5148 54210102/19/20164300A700D3

The recalled products were were distributed through independent retailers in California, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont and Canada, as well as online. No other Natura products are affected.

Consumers who purchased the product should discontinue feeding the product immediately and discard as normal household waste.

Consumers may contact Natura consumer relations at 1-855-206-8297, Monday through Friday 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM EST.

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Kroger recalls Private Selection Denali Extreme Moose Tracks Ice Cream

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

The Kroger Co. is recalling select containers of Private Selection Denali Extreme Moose Tracks Ice Cream. The product may contain peanuts, an allergen not...

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Photo source: Kroger

The Kroger Co. is recalling select containers of Private Selection Denali Extreme Moose Tracks Ice Cream.

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

The following product is subject to recall:

  • Private Selection Denali Extreme Moose Tracks Ice Cream sold in 48-ounce containers with a "sell by" date of April 16, 2015 under UPC Code 11110-00456.

No customer illnesses have been reported to date.

People who are allergic to peanuts should return the product to stores for a full refund or replacement.

Stores in the following states are included in this recall:

  • Bakers stores in Nebraska;
  • Dillons stores located in Kansas and Missouri;
  • Gerbes stores located in Missouri;
  • Fred Meyer stores located in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington;
  • Food 4 Less stores located in California and Nevada;
  • King Soopers and City Market stores located in Colorado and Wyoming;
  • Ralphs stores located in California;
  • Smith's stores located in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming and
  • QFC stores located in Oregon and Washington.

Kroger, Food 4 Less (Chicago), Fry's stores and Smith's stores located in Arizona and New Mexico are not included in the recall.

Customers with questions may contact Kroger toll-free at 800-KROGERS (800-576-4377).  

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CNN, other Turner channels are back on Dish ... for now

CBS-owned stations in 17 markets are next on the chopping block

CNN and other Turner Broadcasting channels have returned to the Dish satellite TV network after a one-month absence while the companies haggled over a new...

PhotoCNN and other Turner Broadcasting channels have returned to the Dish satellite TV network after a one-month absence while the companies haggled over a new licensing agreement. The deal extends only through the end of March, however, so consumers who count on CNN, TCM and other Turner channels may want to re-examine their plans.

The CBS-owned stations in 17 markets are in the same boat, with contracts expiring in March and both sides beginning to rattle their sabers, threatening to throw consumers overboard as they jockey for advantage. 

Fourteen million consumers were left without CNN coverage of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., the rape allegations against Bill Cosby, President Obama's speech on immigration reform and other topics covered at greater length on CNN than on entertainment-oriented channels during the black-out -- and they were not happy about it. 

"In all my years with cable I have never sat down to watch something and couldn't because the network didn't renew their contract," said Tamira of Los Angeles in a ConsumerAffairs review submitted yesterday. "It's been over a month now and Corporate Chairman Mr. Ergen says he's 'not concerned his customers won't be able to watch CNN.'"

"After reading the article reading Mr Ergen's quotes, I'm convinced I need to change networks. I'll probably go back to [AT&T Uverse]," Tamira said. "My advice, Dish has poor customer service and they appeal to the lower income with lower prices deals that attract you but give extremely poor customer service and could care less about providing a good service for what consumers want."

Used as pawns

Consumers are routinely used as pawns when program producers and cable/satellite channels go to war over splitting the pie. As usual, top executives were blasé about it and didn't bother to offer even a token of remorse for consumers' inconvenience. Dish CEO Charlie Ergen went so far as to call it a "non-event."

“Things like CNN are not quite the product that they used to be,” Ergen said on Nov. 4, TV Newser reported. Ergen told financial analysts CNN was "no longer a must-have" channel, according to Variety

The Turner and CBS disputes aren't really about money -- at least not the money that is paid directly to the channels by Dish. Rather, the argument involves who retains what rights for distribution elsewhere -- like, ahem, streaming on the Internet.

CBSNews.com recently started a streaming news service on the Web and program producers are increasingly looking to go "over the top" -- taking their shows directly to consumers and cutting out the satellite and cable companies, which are themselves planning over the top services.

Dish has said it is piecing together a streaming service that will be less expensive than its full-bore satellite line-up.

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Lexus fires preceded recent recall

Consumers dispute company's statement it knew of no fires

In October, Toyota recalled 423,000 Lexus cars and SUVs to fix a fuel line problem that the company said could start a fire. This came as no surprise to a...

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Redbox has big plans ... for price increases

Rental rates for DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, videogames headed skyward

You've got to hand it to Redbox. It thinks big. And right now it's thinking of big price increases in the DVDs, Blu-ray Discs and videogames it rents from ...

PhotoYou've got to hand it to Redbox. It thinks big. And right now it's thinking of big price increases in the DVDs, Blu-ray Discs and videogames it rents from its familiar big red boxes.

On Dec. 2, the daily price of a DVD rental will go from $1.20 to $1.50 and a Blu-ray Disc will from from $1.50 to $2. In January, daily rental rates for videogames will go from $2 to $3. 

“With new-release movies for $1.50 a day, Redbox remains the best value in new-release home entertainment,” CEO Scott Di Valerio said in a statement. “The pricing adjustments announced today will allow Redbox to continue to offer consumers high quality movies and games while making investments to enhance the customer experience.”

The company said it has conducted extensive market testing over the last few months and is confident the increased revenue will exceed any losses in market share. However, Redbox caters to lower-income customers who can't afford cable or satellite hook-ups, so it's always possible the big red box may hit a big red wall if it gets too aggressive with its pricing. 

Redbox operates vending kiosks at more than 35,000 locations, including gas stations and grocery stores, as well as at some Walgreens, Walmart and McDonald’s locations.

The company says that besides raising prices, it is starting a new "recommendation engine" that will help customers find movies that they're likely to enjoy. It's said to be similar to the algorithms used by Netflix, Amazon and other companies that offer suggestions based on past buying habits. 

 

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When does heavy drinking become alcoholism?

Health officials say there is a difference

Alcohol consumption in the U.S. has been steadily rising since the end of prohibition in 1933, peaking in the early 1990s. Not surprisingly, more Americans...

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Alcohol consumption in the U.S. has been steadily rising since the end of Prohibition in 1933, peaking in the early 1990s. Not surprisingly, more Americans over the years have been treated for alcoholism.

But where is the line between heavy drinking and clinical alcoholism? A study in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) journal Preventing Chronic Disease says it isn't where you think it is.

The researchers found a distinction between drinking too much and being alcohol dependent. They say 9 in 10 Americans who drink too much shouldn't be classified as alcoholics.

“This study shows that, contrary to popular opinion, most people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics,” said Dr. Robert Brewer, Alcohol Program Lead at CDC and one of the report’s authors. “It also emphasizes the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to reducing excessive drinking that includes evidence-based community strategies, screening and counseling in healthcare settings, and high-quality substance abuse treatment for those who need it.”

But heavy drinking is a problem

But just because someone isn't classified as “alcoholic” doesn't mean they aren't doing real damage physically and socially. In recent years binge drinking has been a growing concern, especially among young adults.

Binge drinking is defined as 4 or more drinks on an occasion for women, 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men. Consuming 8 or more drinks a week for women or 15 or more drinks a week for men also falls within the binge drinking definition.

And it turns out millions fall into that category. The study found that nearly 1 in 3 adults is an excessive drinker, and most of them binge drink, usually on multiple occasions. That, in itself, is a big problem.

Death toll

The researchers say excessive drinking is responsible for 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year and only 3,700 of those deaths are linked to alcohol dependence. Putting a dollar figure on all this imbibing, the tab came to $223.5 billion in 2006.

The alcohol-related deaths tracked by the study were due to health effects from drinking too much over time, such as breast cancer, liver disease, and heart disease. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that 48% of all cirrhosis deaths in 2009 were alcohol related.

There were also serious health effects from drinking too much in a short period of time, such as violence, alcohol poisoning, and car accidents.

What to do

This may be timely information, coming at the beginning of the holiday season when alcohol flows with abandon. To get through the next few weeks without over indulging, specialists at the University of California Davis Health Center offer these tips:

  • Think about how much alcohol you will consume before arriving at a party, then stick to your budget
  • Don't pressure anyone to have another drink
  • If you're the host, offer a wide selection of non-alcohol beverages
  • If someone is intoxicated, don't serve them another drink and, by all means, don't let them drive home

Are there ways to reduce the growing tendency to drink to excess? The Community Preventive Services Task Force has recommended increasing alcohol taxes, regulating alcohol outlet density, and holding alcohol retailers liable for harms resulting from illegal sales to minors or intoxicated patrons.  

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Will Uber's new privacy policy overcome Uber's previous attitudes about it?

Updated privacy policy might not eliminate earlier privacy-violation scandals

Though the ride-sharing service Uber has been controversial almost since its start, most of the previous controversies centered on reasons which ultimately...

PhotoThough the ride-sharing service Uber has been controversial almost since its start, most of the previous controversies centered on reasons which ultimately were downright flattering to Uber: stodgy old-school hyper-regulated taxi cartels felt threatened by the innovative 21st-century business model harnessing bold new communications technologies to yadda yadda generate controversy.

But the latest Uber-centric controversy is considerably less flattering to the company. Last week, BuzzFeed reported that company executive Emil Michael floated the idea of dealing with any criticism of his company by digging up dirt on journalists who dared to criticize it:

Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily .... recently accused Uber of “sexism and misogyny.” She wrote that she was deleting her Uber app after BuzzFeed News reported that Uber appeared to be working with a French escort service. ...

At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.

Michael at no point suggested that Uber has actually hired opposition researchers, or that it plans to. He cast it as something that would make sense, that the company would be justified in doing.

They know where you go

Such an attitude arguably sounds bad when expressed by anyone, but are especially damaging coming from the executive of a tech company like Uber which, by its very nature, has access to lots of information of the sort its customers might prefer to keep private — in Uber's case, the company's very business model ensures that it knows where its customers live, what sorts of places they travel to, and when. (Indeed, with such information, you could prove lots of particular and specific claims about various people's personal lives, no?)

BuzzFeed reported this on Nov. 17. The next day, it reported that an Uber executive had used a program called “God View” to track a journalist's location and movements. Not that “God View” itself was breaking news by then; in early October, Forbes magazine reported that Uber used “God View” as a form of entertainment at company launch parties, letting staffers watch real-time views of who was using Uber at that moment, and where they were going.

Perhaps coincidentally, Uber updated its blog on Nov. 20 later to trumpet its new “privacy practices” which boil down to – nothing specific, though they sound good:

Our business depends on the trust of the millions of riders and drivers who use Uber. The trip history of our riders is important information and we understand that we must treat it carefully and with respect, protecting it from unauthorized access.

Ensuring that we have strong policies and practices in this fast-paced world of technology must be a constant quest. We have engaged Harriet Pearson, one of the most respected data privacy experts in the world and her colleagues at Hogan Lovells, to work with Uber’s privacy team. Hogan Lovells will conduct an in-depth review and assessment of our existing data privacy program and recommend any needed enhancements so that Uber can ensure that we are a leader in the area of privacy and data protection.

We’ve learned a lot in four and a half years and want to continue to improve on the innovative tools that help us deliver on our mission of providing safe, reliable, affordable transportation to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

That's Uber's new privacy-practices statement, in its entirety. However, critics might suggest that “unauthorized” access to Uber's customer data – say, hackers breaking into databases – is arguably less of a concern than what Uber's own executives might authorize.

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Attorneys general urge feds to toughen telemarketing rules

Existing rules don't go far enough to protect consumers in today's environment, they argue

State attorneys general from around the country are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to better protect consumers from unscrupulous telemarketers. ...

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Photo © Aleksandar Mijatovic - Fotolia

State attorneys general from around the country are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to better protect consumers from unscrupulous telemarketers. 

“The consumer protection offices of the State Attorneys General are often at the ‘front line’ in fielding consumer complaints, taking up investigations, and pursuing legal actions against those who prey on victims through telemarketing and negative option scams,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and 37 other attorneys general said in a letter to the FTC.

Specifically, the AGs want the FTC to update the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which they said no longer reflects the "realities of today’s marketplace."

In their comments, submitted by the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), the attorneys general support the existing Telemarketing Sales Rule but contend that the following are areas of concern:

  • An increase in the number of fraud complaints from consumers who are contacted by telephone;
  • The pervasiveness of general media solicitations and advertisements that have resulted in the growth of inbound telemarketing;
  • The use of certain payment methods that allow retrieval of funds with little meaningful scrutiny of the recipient’s identity; and
  • The pervasiveness of preacquired account marketing.

At home and away

Telemarketing and its abuses occur when consumers are engaged in phone calls with businesses in the privacy of their homes or on their personal cellular telephones, the AGs said.

According to recent statistics by the FTC, more than 3.7 million telemarketing complaints were filed with the Commission in fiscal year 2013. Telemarketing complaints also rank among the top five complaint categories received from citizens in many states.

In 2013, Do Not Call violations were the third most common category of complaints filed with the Ohio Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Section.

The states and territories that signed today’s letter are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, and Washington.

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New fish tank claims to keep fish alive without water changes

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Thanksgiving poisons for pets

It's a dangerous time to be a dog

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Ranchers Legacy recalls ground beef products

The meat may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

Ranchers Legacy Meat Co., of Vadnais Heights, Minn., is recalling 1,200 pounds of ground beef products. The meat may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7....

Photo
Photo source: USDA

Ranchers Legacy Meat Co., of Vadnais Heights, Minn., is recalling 1,200 pounds of ground beef products.

The meat may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

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

The recalled products, produced on Nov. 19, 2014, are packaged in plastic cryovac sealed packets, and contain various weights of ground beef.

All of the following products have a Package Code (use by) 12/10/2014 and bear the establishment number “Est. 40264” inside the USDA mark of inspection:

  • Ranchers Legacy Ground Beef Patties 77/23
  • Ranchers Legacy Ground Chuck Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy USDA Choice Ground Beef 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy USDA Choice WD Beef Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy RD Beef Patties 80/20
  • OTG Manufacturing Chuck/Brisket RD Patties
  • Ranchers Legacy Chuck Blend Oval Beef Patties
  • Ranchers Legacy WD Chuck Blend Patties
  • Ranchers Legacy USDA Choice NAT Beef Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy NAT Beef Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy USDA Choice NAT Beef Patties 80/20
  • Ranchers Legacy Ground Chuck Blend
  • Ranchers Legacy Chuck Blend Bulk Pack NAT Patties
  • Ranchers Legacy Chuck Blend NAT Beef Patties

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may call Jeremy Turnquis at (651) 366-6575.

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Fabrique Delices recalls sausage products

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

Fabrique Delices of Hayward, Calif., is recalling approximately 14 pounds of sausage products. The products contain nonfat dry milk, an allergen not decla...

Photo
Photo source: USDA

Fabrique Delices of Hayward, Calif., is recalling approximately 14 pounds of sausage products.

The products contain nonfat dry milk, an allergen not declared on the label.

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

The products subject to recall are:

  • Pieces of “Fabrique Delices, Saucisson A L’ail Garlic Sausage -- Nonfat Dry Milk Added,” each approximately .83-lb each, with product code 5511. The products bear the label of another product, “Fabrique Delices, Saucisson Sec”

The recalled products, produced on November 6, 2014, bears the establishment number “EST 6206” inside the USDA mark of inspection. They were sold through distribution centers in California, Pennsylvania and Texas to institutional and retail outlets.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Antonio Pinheiro at (510) 441-9500.   

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Bob-Cat recalls Zero Turn mowers

The steering control arm component can break under normal use

Bob-Cat is recalling about 4,900 Zero Turn riding mowers. The steering control arm component can break under normal use, causing driver to lose control an...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Bob-Cat is recalling about 4,900 Zero Turn riding mowers.

The steering control arm component can break under normal use, causing driver to lose control and crash.

There have been 22 reports of control arm failure, including failure during use and initial set-up. There have been no reports of injuries.

The CRZ and XRZ model riding mowers have a chassis with an adjustable10-gauge green steel mower deck. The frame, fuel tank, engine compartment and side discharge chute are made of black metal and plastic components.

The mowers have four black wheels, two user-operated lever-arm controls and a gray adjustable high-back seat. The mowers range in size from 76 inches to 79 inches long and 45 inches high. The words “Bob Cat” appear in red lettering on the front of the mower and on top of the mower deck, and in a red and white designed logo on the sides of the mower. The words “TufDeck” and “Professional Cut” appear in white lettering on the front face of the mower deck.

The recalled mowers are: 

CRZ 48-inchmodel number 942699serial numbers 94260000070-94260001236
CZR 52-inchmodel number 942601serial numbers 94260100070-94260101722
CZR 61-inchmodel number 942602serial numbers 94260200070-94260200545
XRZ 48-inchmodel number 942610serial numbers 94261000070-94261000390
XRZ 52-inchmodel number 942611serial numbers 94261100070-94261100709
XRZ 61-inchmodel number 942612serial numbers 94261200070-94261200342

The plate containing the serial and model number is located under the seat on the frame cross-member.

The mowers, manufactured in the U.S, were sold at Bob-Cat dealerships nationwide from January 2013, to April 2014, for $4,500 to $5,200.

The mowers should be returned to the dealer where purchased for free repairs with a newly designed control arm component. Consumers who completed the warranty registration card were contacted directly by Schiller Grounds Care, Inc, with instructions for obtaining the repair.

Consumers may contact Bob-Cat toll free at (866) 469-1242 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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Pressure building on retailers as Black Friday looms

Walmart gets burned on its price match policy

Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, is coming up next week. But observant consumers have already seen plenty of deals from ...

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© niroworld - Fotolia

Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, is coming up next week. But observant consumers have already seen plenty of deals from major retailers, who are outdoing one another in rolling out early bargains.

This week Walmartannounced it is lowering prices of the season's hottest gifts to beat the Black Friday offers its competitors have revealed so far. The announcement coiincides with Walmart's Pre-Black Friday Event that starts today, a week ahead of the big day.

“The retail environment is incredibly competitive and we know that our customers are looking to us for the lowest prices and great deals all season long,” said Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising officer, Walmart U.S. “That’s why we’ve more than doubled the amount of items included in our Pre-Black Friday Event.

Motivation

PhotoRetailers like Walmart are pushing up holiday sales promotions for two main reasons. Just like last year, Black Friday falls very late in November, reducing the number of shopping days before Christmas.

But beyond the calendar concerns, retailers are trying to get as many consumer dollars as possible and win over consumers before Black Friday itself. For its part, Walmart said it will match competitors' Black Friday prices on these items:

  • 40-inch LED HDTV
  • 60-inch TVs from LG and Sony
  • A PlayStation 4 offer
  • Canon Wireless Printer
  • Keurig K-40
  • KitchenAid Stand Mixer
  • Select Lego sets

On sale now

PhotoAs part of its pre-Black Friday event, Walmart said it will sell a Samsung 58-inch Class Smart LED HDTV for $698; an iPad Air 2 16 GB WiFi for $489 and throw in a $100 Walmart gift card; an iPhone 6 for $179 with a 2-year service plan on Sprint, AT&T or Verizon; and a Black & Decker 18v 2-Battery NiCad Drill for $69.88 and among other things.

Walmart this week had to confront the downside of a price match offer when it discovered people were making up fake ads for Playstation game consoles at ridiculously low prices. It's amended its policy to exclude matching ads from Amazon.com.

CNBC.com reported that Amazon members with a registered selling account can create a product sale listing. Pulling off the the fraud only required a screen capture of the listing that could be printed out and used to request a Walmart price match.

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Jeep owners urged to get recalled vehicles fixed

Chrysler says it has plenty of repair parts available

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is calling on owners of recalled 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty and 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicl...

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Graphic: Dangerousjeeps.com

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is calling on owners of recalled 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty and 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles to contact their local dealer to arrange a service appointment to receive the free remedy repair for their vehicles.

Chrysler’s recall remedy addresses fuel tank ruptures and fires that can occur if the vehicle is struck from behind in a low to medium speed crash. NHTSA took the step of testing the remedy and has closed its safety defect investigation because it believes the risk of fuel tank ruptures and fires in lower to medium speed rear end crashes will be reduced by the remedy now offered by Chrysler.

However, NHTSA says it will continue to monitor the remedy and Chrysler’s efforts to notify vehicle owners and its effort to remedy vehicles.

Plenty of parts

Chrysler reports it currently has nearly 400,000 parts available to repair vehicles covered by this recall and will continue to produce parts to ensure they are able to meet consumer demand for the repair. Owners who have concerns regarding their ability to receive parts should contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-247-9753.

Owners can confirm whether their individual vehicle is part of the recall by using NHTSA’s free VIN look up tool on safercar.gov or by contacting Chrysler customer service at 1-800-247-9753.

Chrysler gets a push

NHTSA has also issued a letter to Chrysler expressing concerns with the manufacturer’s current efforts to repair the recalled vehicles. In its most recent update, Chrysler reports that the company has remedied only approximately 3% of affected vehicles of a population of more than 1.5 million.

The agency is pushing the manufacturer to accelerate efforts to repair the recalled vehicles by proactively reaching out to affected owners with accurate information on the safety defect and the availability of the free remedy repair.

NHTSA is also asking for details on what Chrysler is doing to correct any inaccuracies or delays in dealer communications and actions regarding these issues.

Owners should make sure their vehicles are registered with up-to-date contact information to ensure they receive notices of safety defect recalls from manufacturers. Further, the agency strongly urges all consumers to utilize any of NHTSA’s many alert tools to learn about recalls on www.safercar.gov.

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Military allotment reforms aim to protect service members

Some types of payments will no longer be deducted from paychecks

The Pentagon today announced new protections for service members using the military discretionary allotment system. The changes are intended to eliminate t...

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Photo © William Alexander - Fotolia

The Pentagon today announced new protections for service members using the military discretionary allotment system. The changes are intended to eliminate the aspects that are most frequently abused by businesses targeting service members.

The military discretionary allotment system allows service members to automatically direct a portion of their paycheck to financial institutions or people of their choosing. However, military personnel using the allotment system instead of other automatic payment options like ACH (Automated Clearing House) can end up losing out on certain legal protections.

In one recent case, a lender almost always used allotments to collect payments for financing contracts to purchase electronics and other consumer goods at inflated prices and with high add-on fees.  In 2010, then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo sued a lender for inflating the purchase price of consumer goods and requiring repayment by allotment.

Much-needed change

“This is an important and much-needed change to DoD policies and one that will protect servicemembers from abusive lending practices,” said Tom Feltner, director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.  “Allotments were designed to make it easy to send money home, save and pay a mortgage, not serve as security for credit transactions.”

Under the regulations announced today, new allotments to purchase, lease or rent personal property will be prohibited. Personal property includes vehicles, appliances and consumer electronics. Allotments made for the purpose of savings, insurance premiums, mortgage or rent payments, support for dependents, or investments will not be affected. The changes do not apply to military retirees or Department of Defense civilian employees.

“I applaud Secretary Hagel’s decision to update the military discretionary allotment system to provide critical new protections to service members," said Holly Petraeus of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "In recent years, the allotment system has been used by unscrupulous companies that prey on service members as a quick and secure way to get paid. Many of them have even required payment by allotment."

"While CFPB enforcement actions have recovered millions of dollars for thousands of service members harmed by companies using the allotment system, today’s announcement will help prevent future abuses by addressing the problem at its source," Petraeus said. 

Working group

In 2013, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel convened an interagency working group to improve the allotment system following a CFPB enforcement action that recovered 

“I want to thank the CFPB for their partnership in helping to protect those who protect this nation and for their ongoing efforts to increase the financial literacy and readiness of our service members,” Hagel said in June 2013. “However, I remain concerned about the potential misuse of the allotment system by lenders.” Today’s announcement comes after the interagency working group’s review, and will help curb further abuses of the allotment system.

“These new protections are an important step forward and will ensure that allotments are a convenience for servicemembers and not a substitute for determining a servicemember’s ability to repay a loan,” said Feltner.  “However, it is critical that regulators closely monitor the marketplace and put a stop to potential evasions of this new policy.”

The Department of Defense earlier prohibited payday lenders and auto title lenders from using the allotment system to collect payments, andrecently proposed a sweeping expansion of this prohibition to cover longer-term payday installment loans and expensive lines of credit marketed to servicemembers. 

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Hacker-avoidance tip: pay attention to those malware warnings!

Yet BYU researchers learn even security-conscious people don't always do this

Here's a useful tip if you want to avoid getting your computer hacked: whenever you see one of those “this website is not safe” or “this website will harm ...

PhotoHere's a useful tip if you want to avoid getting your computer hacked: whenever you see one of those “this website is not safe” or “this website will harm your computer” warnings, stay away from that website.

Such advice sounds almost too obvious to mention, yet psychology researchers at Brigham Young University recently determined that it is worth mentioning — more specifically, that even presumably computer-savvy people who “ought to know better” will nonetheless ignore those security warnings.

BYU researchers Bonnie Anderson, Brock Kirwan and Anthony Vance tried a little experiment wherein it appeared that they'd hacked into study participants' personal laptops and caused major damage. That didn't really happen, of course; what happened was, study participants were surveyed about their own attitudes toward computer security.

Then, in an apparently unrelated task, they were asked to use their own computers to log on to a website filled with pictures of Batman, and divide the pictures into two categories: photography or animation.

Damage warnings

The researchers loaded the website with links, many of which had damage-warnings attached to them. Students who ignored too many “warnings” and clicked on links anyway eventually saw a terrifying (though completely fake) message on their screen: a laughing skull and crossbones, a 10-second countdown timer and the words “Say goodbye to your computer,” all courtesy of an alleged “Algerian hacker.” And even those students whose survey answers suggested they took computer security very seriously would often click on those “dangerous” links.

Brock Kirwan, an assistant professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, said that “A lot of people don’t realize that they are the weakest link in their computer security …. The operating systems we use have a lot of built-in security and the way for a hacker to get control of your computer is to get you to do something.”

Or to not do something: consider, for example, how many people don't even bother changing the default passwords on their IP cameras, leaving everything from their baby monitors to their home-security camera feeds accessible to anyone who knows the default code.

Some personal-security matters are beyond your control: if you have and use a credit card, you're at risk if that credit card or any of the stores where you used it get hacked. But as the recent Brigham Young study and the IP camera-password fiasco conclude, many of the worst hackings result from things you can control, yet don't.

In real life, if you visit a compromised website, you won't see a skull-and-crossbones logo or anything else letting you know you made a mistake.

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Banks criticized for actions in commodities markets

Senate report looks at banks' influence on consumer prices

The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has issued a report asking the serious questions about major banks consumer advocates have been as...

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Photo © ellisia - Fotolia

The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has issued a reportasking the serious questions about major banks that consumer advocates have been asking for years.

Have banks purposefully driven up the price of commodities – oil in particular – to the detriment of consumers?

In advance of hearings the subcommittee released its massive report laying out new details about what it says is “the breakdown of the traditional barrier between commercial activities and banking.” The report focuses specifically on the activities of three of the largest banks – Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.

These banks, it turns out, didn't just trade in commodities options. In many cases they actually purchased the physical commodities for resale.

Senate investigators said the way they managed some of those physical assets caused their prices to rise, allowing the banks to sell the commodities at a higher profit than might have been possible otherwise.

Consumers lose

While that was good for the banks' shareholders, it was not good for consumers since many of the commodities were used in products consumers more or less have to buy.

For example, the subcommittee report says Goldman Sachs purchased huge quantities of aluminum and stored them in warehouses. Goldman bought the company that manages the warehouses and after it took control, the subcommittee says the average time it took to deliver aluminum that had been purchased by end users rose from about 40 days to 600 days.

That delay had the effect of removing aluminum from the market, making the price of the metal more expensive.

“Wall Street’s massive involvement in physical commodities puts our economy, our manufacturers and the integrity of our markets at risk,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the subcommittee’s chairman. “It’s time to restore the separation between banking and commerce and to prevent Wall Street from using nonpublic information to profit at the expense of industry and consumers.”

What about oil?

If buying up aluminum and withholding it from the market could drive up prices for the metal, would it be possible to do the same thing with other commodities – like oil for instance? When consumers suggested that 2008's surge in oil and gasoline prices was due in part to speculators, the notion was laughed off on Wall Street.

But the subcommittee report discloses that, until recently, Morgan Stanley controlled 55 million barrels of oil storage capacity, 100 oil tankers, and 6,000 miles of pipeline. That's not to say that it engaged in any activity that would have caused the price of oil to rise – but it couldn't have been disappointed when oil prices did, in fact, surge.

“Banks have been involved in the trade and ownership of physical commodities for a number of years, but have recently increased their participation in new ways,” said Sen. John McCain, (R-AZ).

McCain and others are expressing concern that the concentration of commodities in the hands of the largest banks will lead to systemic financial risks, like when the collapse of mortgage backed securities triggered the financial crisis.

That's a real concern but the consumer issue may be equally as large. If the price of a vital commodity such as oil were somehow manipulated in a way that caused consumers to spend more money on gasoline – hardly a luxury – then consumers would have less money to spend on other things. That, it would seem, poses an equally large risk to the economy.

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Barbie's computer engineer book withdrawn from online sales

Mattel promises empowering messages on Barbie's Facebook page

If any little girls in your life want to be computer engineers when they grow up and you're looking for corporate-branded role models to inspire them, you'...

Photo
Via Facebook

If any little girls in your life want to be computer engineers when they grow up and you're looking for corporate-branded role models to inspire them, you'll have to look elsewhere than Barbie. This week Mattel withdrew from circulation its book Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer, after blogger Pamela Ribon discovered and called attention to its bafflingly sexist content.

In the story, Barbie not only gives no indication of being a competent computer engineer, she's actually a bit of a menace: infects her sister's computer and destroys her files with a virus-riddled flash drive pendant she wears around her neck, and is completely incapable of accomplishing even the most basic computer-related task without help from her friends Steve and Brian.

“Hi, guys,” says Barbie. “I tried to send you my designs, but I ended up crashing my laptop — and Skipper’s too! I need to get back the lost files and repair both of our laptops.”

“It will go faster if Brian and I help,” offers Steven.

“Great!” says Barbie.

That's some weapons-grade empowerment messaging, there. This week, Mattel released a statement on Barbie's official Facebook page (cover-photo text: Designed To Inspire #BarbieInspired):

The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl's imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.

Regrets? A few

PhotoSusan Marenco, the unfortunate author-for-hire who wrote the original story, said she regretted letting some stereotypes slip in to her writing. “Maybe I should have made one of those programmers a female – I wish I did.” Still, Marenco added, her assignment was to write about Barbie as a computer-game designer, not a computer engineer. (Anyone who's ever worked in a corporate hierarchy knows such miscommunications aren't rare at all.)

Even if Stephanie and Brianna replaced Steve and Brian, Barbie the computer designer would still be an absolute menace to any company's IT security department. Although, to be fair: writing convincing stories about Barbie as a healthy role model for little girls can't be an easy job. If I tried it, I'd probably fail spectacularly and be fired before the end of my first shift:

“What's wrong, Barbie?” Skipper asked. “Why aren't you designing and implementing systems algorithms, or whatever it is that computer engineers actually do?”

“Because I'd have to sit at a computer to do that,” said Barbie, “and if you take the ratio of my measurements and expand them to fit a typical woman of adult height you'll see it is not physically or biologically possible for a waistline as tiny as mine to hold a living adult torso upright. And most of my internal organs are missing, too. I need an ambulance.”

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50 shades of gray for 2015

Gray might seem drab but maybe "understated" is a better term

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REFA Enterprises recalls Forever Beautiful products

The products contain ingredients which can be harmful to a consumer's health

REFA Enterprises is recalling one lot each of Forever Beautiful Bee Pollen (UPC # 6333090804632) and Forever Beautiful Infinity UPC # 633090804649), which...

Photo
Photo source: FDA

REFA Enterprises is recalling one lot each of Forever Beautiful Bee Pollen (UPC # 6333090804632) and Forever Beautiful Infinity UPC # 633090804649), which were marketed as dietary supplements for weight loss.

The products have been found to contain undeclared Sibutramine or a combination of both Sibutramine and Phenolphthalein.

The appetite suppressant, sibutramine, was withdrawm due to increased risk of seizures, heart attacks, arrhythmia and strokes. Phenolphthalein is an ingredient previously used in over-the-counter laxatives, but because of concerns of carcinogenicity, it is not currently approved. The undeclared ingredients make these products unapproved new drugs for which safety and efficacy have not been established.

Sibutramine can increase blood pressure and/or pulse rate in some patients and may present a risk for those with a history of coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhymias or stroke. The products may also interact in life threatening ways with other medications a consumer may be taking.

Health risks associated with phenolphthalein could include potentially serious gastrointestinal disturbances, irregular heartbeat, and cancer with long-term use.

The company has not received any reports of adverse events related to this recall.

Both recalled products were packaged in bottles of 60 capsules and was distributed via the Internet to consumers nationwide from July 7, 2014 – November 3, 2014.

Consumers who have the recalled product should stop it and return it to REFA Enterprises.

Consumers with questions may contact REFA Enterprises at (757) 420-1122 Monday – Friday 12:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. EST or by email at support@fbbpshop.com

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Leatherman recalls children’s multi-tool

The lock mechanism on the optional knife blade can inadvertently release the blade

Leatherman Tool Group of Portland, Ore., is recalling about 8,400 Leatherman Leap multi-tools in the U.S. and Canada. The lock mechanism on the optional k...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Leatherman Tool Group of Portland, Ore., is recalling about 8,400 Leatherman Leap multi-tools in the U.S. and Canada.

The lock mechanism on the optional knife blade can inadvertently release the blade, posing a laceration hazard.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves the Leatherman Leap multi-purpose tool that was designed for users age 9 and up. The multi-tool has a green, blue or red plastic casing with two screws, one on each handle of the tool. It consists of combination needlenose and regular pliers, wire cutters, wood saw, ruler, tweezers, soda bottle opener, optional 420HC (high carbon stainless steel) knife blade, scissors, phillips screwdriver, and small and medium slotted screwdrivers. The words Leatherman and Leap appear on one side of the multi-tool.

The multi-purpose tool, manufactured in the U.S., was sold at Bass Pro Shop, Cabela’s and retailers nationwide, including knife and sporting goods online stores, from August 2014, through September 2014, for about $54.

Consumers should not install the optional knife blade or should immediately stop using the multi-tool with the installed optional knife. Consumers should contact Leatherman for a free replacement multi-tool, including shipping.

Consumers may contact Leatherman toll-free at (888) 212-2438 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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K. Heeps recalls pork products

The products contain soy lecithin, an allergen not listed on the label

K. Heeps of Allentown, Pa., is recalling approximately 2,902 pounds of bratwurst and bangers sausage products. The products contain soy lecithin; a releas...

Photo
Photo source: USDA

K. Heeps of Allentown, Pa., is recalling approximately 2,902 pounds of bratwurst and bangers sausage products.

The products contain soy lecithin; a releasing agent used on contact surfaces during production and an allergen not listed on the label.

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

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 1-lb. retail packages or 20-lb. bulk packages containing “ALL NATURAL ARTISAN PORK RECIPE STRYKER FARM IRISH STYLE BANGERS.”
  • 1-lb. retail packages or 20-lb. bulk packages containing “ALL NATURAL ARTISAN PORK RECIPE STRYKER FARM BEER BRATWURST.”

The products were packaged on various dates from May 21, 2014, through Nov. 5, 2014, bear the establishment number “EST. 9379A” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were sold to a single vendor, who further distributed them to restaurants and retailers in Pennsylvania.

The problem was discovered during a periodic label review by FSIS inspection personnel. This was not disclosed on the product label. FSIS and the company have received no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products. Anyone concerned about an injury or illness should contact a healthcare provider.

FSIS routinely conducts recall effectiveness checks to verify that recalling firms have notified customers and taken steps to make certain that products are no longer available to customers.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Beau Heeps, at qa@heeps.com or at 1-610-530-5564.

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Cadillac Escalades recalled

Passenger air bags may deploy inconsistently

General Motors is recalling 1,022 model year 2015 Cadillac Escalade and Escalade ESV vehicles. The passenger side instrument panel top cover on the affec...

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Photo source: Cadillac

General Motors is recalling 1,022 model year 2015 Cadillac Escalade and Escalade ESV vehicles.

The passenger side instrument panel top cover on the affected vehicles may have been manufactured using an incorrect spacer fabric, causing a reduction of adhesion between the spacer fabric and the vinyl show surface. This reduced adhesion may result in inconsistent passenger air bag deployment, increasing the risk of personal injury in the event of a crash necessitating air bag deployment.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the instrument panel top cover, 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 14686.

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Graco recalls 11 models of strollers

The folding hinge on the sides of the stroller can pinch a child’s finger

Graco Children’s Products of Atlanta, Ga., is recalling nearly 5 million children's strollers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The folding hinge on the sid...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

Graco Children’s Products of Atlanta, Ga., is recalling nearly 5 million children's strollers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The folding hinge on the sides of the stroller can pinch a child’s finger, posing a laceration or amputation hazard.

The company has received 11 reports of finger injuries including 6 reports of fingertip amputation, 4 reports of partial-fingertip amputation and 1 finger laceration.

This recall includes eleven Graco and Century-branded strollers. All models are a single-occupant stroller with an external sliding fold-lock hinge on each side and a one-hand fold release mechanism on the handle.

Strollers with a manufacture date from August 1, 2000 to September 25, 2014 are included in the recall. Model numbers and the date of manufacture are printed on the white label located at the bottom of the stroller leg just above the rear wheel.

The model names and numbers included in the recall are:

Aspen

      

6947MAN

6954AMB

7403ANM

7414BKL

7453UVB

7454WNN

 
       

Breeze

      

34950

6904N8

6904TN8

6907JUN

7404M7

7404TM7

7433BER

6904BUG

6904NV

6904YL

6907ZOU

7404NCB

7431PUR

7464CEL

6904LAZ

6904TLQ

6907CYP

6932AR

7404P8

7432PUR

7464KSB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Capri - Century Branded Literider

    

6901DZ

6901FRN

6901MP

    
       

Cirrus

      

35233

6956COR

6956MLL

7426CUB

7438JET

7456NGS

 

6919MV

6956MAC

7416HX

7435WNN

7456GKG

7463CUB

 

6919TMP

6956MIC

7416THX

7438GIN

7456MON

  
       

Glider

      

35206

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6S00MRG3

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7446STA

7S00SBN3

1755545

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6987FMT3

6S01JAV3

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7448WLS2

7S00WAV3

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6S02SFS3

7441SPT

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6937N6

6984SAR

6999TRI

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7445UNN

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Kite

      

6837COE

      
       

Literider 

      

1759206

1834721

6712NPB

6903RG

6927HE

6942MP

7304TOP2

1759753

1834725

6712PWC3

6912GMP

6927HK

6955G9

7305ALB2

1760521

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6712SFT

6916BLW

6927LV

6989N2

7320UVB

1761301

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6712SNY

6916BRN

6927TMJ

6989Y2

7321UVB

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6916D5

6927TXB

6M01TAN3

7340SSR

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1853477

6712SUP3

6916F3

6929B7

6M02SFR3

7340SSR2

1790492

1876823

6720THE

6916HBH

6929HX

7003CHP

7350DOH

1794240

34855

6730BEB

6916MEL

6929KY

7300MAK

7350DOH2

1801006

34939

6730DRM

6916P8

6929WN

7303BRL

7360NGS

1804095

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6936HAV

7303BRL2

7436GIN

1809351

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6903JJJ

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6940A4

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Literider - Century Branded

    

1804730

      
       

Sierra

 

 

  

7487GP

7487VA

     
       

Solara - Century Branded Literider

    

6965ZOL

6985CNC

   

 

 
       

Sterling

      

6988KER

7425CLE

7425OAK

7428RAC

7429VL

7437N5

7447PAS

7423RAC

7425CLE2

7427AD

7429HX

7429WZ

7447M7

 
       

TravelMate

      

6958HAV

6958TDT

     
The strollers, manufactured in China, were sold at Target, Toys R Us, Walmart and other retail stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and other online retailers from August 2000, through November 2014, for about $40-70 for the stroller and about $140-$170 for the Travel System.

Consumers should contact Graco immediately for a free repair kit. Repair kits will be available from the firm at the beginning of December 2014. While waiting for a repair kit, caregivers should exercise extreme care when unfolding the stroller to be certain that the hinges are firmly locked before placing a child in the stroller. Caregivers are advised to immediately remove the child from a stroller that begins to fold to keep their fingers from the side hinge area.

Consumers may contact Graco Children’s Products at (800) 345-4109 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.  

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Holiday shopping increases identity theft threats

It's not just online activity you have to worry about

It was about this time last year that hackers were tunneling into Target's point-of-sale network system. Their prize was more than 40 million consumers' cr...

Photo
© Rob Hyrons - Fotolia

It was about this time last year that hackers were tunneling into Target'spoint-of-sale network system. Their prize was more than 40 million consumers' credit and debit card information.

That episode – and those that followed – should remain in consumers' minds as they jump into another holiday shopping season. They are vulnerable both in brick and mortar stores and in the online marketplace when they pay with plastic.

Larry Bridwell is the global security strategist at password management software provider Sticky Password. For more than 18 years he has been intimately involved with electronic security issues, including computer viruses, malware, Internet security threats, network protection, endpoint security, and cybercrime.

These days, he says consumers can face just as big a threat when they used a credit card at the mall as when they shop online.

Targeting retailers' networks

“What we've seen over the last 18 months to 2 years has been the larger loss of personal and financial data hasn't come from the individual being tricked into doing things like clicking on links or providing information like we used to see,” Bridwell told ConsumerAffairs. “It's because there's been a security breach at the point-of-sale services.”

And many of these breaches have occurred in same ways individual consumers were victimized in the past. A hacker was able to penetrate a network and download malware to steal sensitive data.

In some of the earliest breaches, Bridwell says very important security protocols simply fell through the cracks.

Didn't change the password

“You have a network server somewhere for the point-of-sale and what we've seen in some of these attacks is that the retailer still had the administrative password that was in place when the system came in,” he said. “For many network routers that come from the factory the login might be 'admin' and the password might be 1-2-3-4.”

If a simple login-password combination like that were left in place, even a novice hacker could quickly figure it out. Sometimes the retailer might not even manage the point-of-sale network, subbing that out to the vendor that sold them the equipment.

Today nearly all major retailers have taken a lesson from recent breaches and beefed up network security. Just like a burglar who will keep walking past a house with lights on and a barking dog, hackers will keep looking for unprotected networks.

So how can consumers make sure they don't appear as low-hanging fruit in the eyes of a hacker?

“First of all consumers need to make sure that the computers they're using are kept up to date with the latest patches that are available for their operating system and browsers,” Bridwell said. “There has been some testing by Microsoft which shows that machines kept up to date were up to 70% less susceptible to malware.”

It's also important to have a good quality antivirus or antimalware security suite installed on all computers. Having strong passwords is also important, which is the business Bridwell is in – password management.

“We need to have good, unique and secure passwords for each place we go online, especially for credit cards and other financial sites, yet how many of us can remember all those different passwords?” Bridwell asked.

Sticky Password is a system that generates passwords for all of a consumer's accounts. A master password – the only one a consumer needs to remember – is then used to access all accounts.

Common sense

Beyond that, Bridwell says staying secure during the holiday season and after is often just a matter of common sense.

“Just try to make sure you go to legitimate websites and don't click on links that come to you in an email,” he cautioned. “If it's your bank and there truly is a problem, don't click the link in an email, just log into your bank account they way you normally do so you don't end up on a false location.”

When shopping, it's usually best to use a credit card instead of a debit card, whether in a store or online. If a hacker steals your information, there are more consumer protections with a credit card.

It's also important to check bank and credit card statements carefully. If you spot an unauthorized change, notify the issuer immediately to limit liability.

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Minivans show major flaw in IIHS safety test

Three models earned poor ratings in the small overlap test

Three out of four minivans recently tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) came up woefully short, with only one vehicle performing ac...

Photo
Photo source: IIHS

Three out of four minivans recently tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) came up woefully short, with only one vehicle performing acceptably.

The Nissan Quest, the Chrysler Town & Country and its twin, the Dodge Grand Caravan, all earn poor ratings. The only exception is the 2015 Toyota Sienna, which earned an acceptable rating, joining the Honda Odyssey, which last year earned a good rating in the small overlap crash test, in the ranks of TOP SAFETY PICK+ award winners.

“Minivans are popular among parents, a group that tends to be safety conscious,” said David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer, “but we've only seen two so far that offer decent protection in small overlap crashes.”

The small overlap test replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or a utility pole. The crash forces bypass the vehicle's main energy-absorbing structure. These crashes may be especially difficult for minivans to handle because minivans are typically built on car platforms, but are wider than cars. As a result, more of the vehicle is located outside the main structure. Minivans also are heavier than cars.

Sienna the exception

In the case of the Sienna, Toyota modified the front structure of the 2015 model to improve small overlap protection. Still, it didn't hold up that well in the test, with intrusion measuring as much as 5½ inches at the upper door hinge pillar and instrument panel. The dummy's head contacted the front airbag but immediately slid off the left side. The safety belt also allowed the dummy to move too far forward.

On the plus side, the side curtain airbag deployed and had sufficient forward coverage to protect the head from intruding structure. Measures taken from the dummy showed that the risk of any injuries would be low in a crash of this severity.

Quest

While the Sienna managed an acceptable rating despite subpar structural performance, all bets were off for the Quest. The structure was pushed in nearly 2 feet at the lower hinge pillar, and the parking brake pedal moved 16 inches toward the driver. The dummy's left leg was trapped between the seat and instrument panel, and its right foot was caught between the brake pedal and toe pan. Following the tests, technicians had to cut the entire seat out and then use a crowbar to free the right foot.

The Quest receives a good subrating for restraints and kinematics, but that is deceiving. This component of the rating measures how well the safety belt and airbags work to control the dummy's movement. In the Quest, the dummy was held in place by the intruding structure, and the airbag was shoved into its face.

"That kept the measured risk of head injury low, but that's about the extent of what can be expected from the restraint system when the basic structure collapses so completely," said Zuby.

The forces measured all along the dummy's left leg, from the thigh to the foot, were very high, in some cases exceeding the limits of the sensors.

"A real person experiencing this would be lucky to ever walk normally again," Zuby points out. A broken right femur also would be possible. The Quest's poor rating applies to 2011-15 models.

Town & Country

The Town & Country's structure also collapsed around the dummy. Intrusion measured 15 inches at the lower hinge pillar and the instrument panel. The skin on the dummy's left lower leg was gouged by the intruding parking brake pedal, and its left knee skin was torn by a steel brace under the instrument panel.

The head barely contacted the front airbag before sliding off and hitting the instrument panel, as the steering column moved to the right. The door sill and the steering column both moved in toward the driver. The side curtain airbag deployed but lacked sufficient forward coverage.

Measures taken from the dummy indicate that injuries to the left hip, left knee and left lower leg would be likely in a crash of this severity. As with the Quest, some of the forces were off the scale.

These results apply to the 2008-15 Town & Country and the 2008-15 Grand Caravan. (They also apply to another, discontinued twin, the 2009-12 Volkswagen Routan.)

The only minivan sold in the U.S. not rated by the Institute is the Kia Sedona. The manufacturer has told IIHS it plans to make a change to the vehicle in the coming weeks to improve small overlap protection, so it will be tested shortly.

Ratings criteria

The IIHS introduced the small overlap front test in 2012. In the test, which is more challenging than either the head-on crashes conducted by the government or the Institute's moderate overlap front test, 25% of a vehicle's front end on the driver side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph.

Vehicles with a good or acceptable small overlap rating, along with good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, qualify for the 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK award. Vehicles that meet those criteria and also earn a basic or higher rating for front crash prevention qualify for the TOP SAFETY PICK+ award.

The Sienna earns its "plus" on the basis of an advanced front crash prevention rating. Its optional system includes forward collision warning and an automatic braking function that reduced impact speeds by an average of 9 mph in the Institute's 12 mph test and by 7 mph in the 25 mph test.

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Obama nominates fatigue-psychology specialist to head NHTSA

Will Senate confirm Mark Rosekind's nomination?

President Obama has nominated a candidate to fill the vacancy at the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): Dr. Mark R. Roseki...

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Mark R. Rosekind (NTSB Photo)

President Obama has nominated a candidateto fill the vacancy at the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): Dr. Mark R. Rosekind, a psychologist who specializes in the study of human fatigue and its effects on people's ability to perform various intellectual or mechanical tasks.

Rosekind is currently one of five members of the National Transportation Safety Board. Last year, when the NTSB recommended that the blood alcohol standard for drunk driving be cut down to .05 from the current .08, Rosekind was credited with leading the scientific work leading to that recommendation.

However, critics including Mothers Against Drunk Driving have suggested that Rosekind's .05 recommendation is too harsh; even a single glass of wine with dinner could put a small-framed woman over that limit.

Rosekind's nomination for NHTSA head might also face opposition because, for all that human psychology and behavior (especially behind the wheel) remains a significant factor in many car accidents, the NHTSA's focus lately has been on technological issues: for example, overseeing recalls of vehicles with dangerously flawed electronic-ignition or airbag systems.

Critics of NHTSA have charged that the agency hasn't keep pace with technological changes in the vehicles it's supposed to oversee, in which case the agency might arguably be better served by a leader with more technological expertise than Rosekind, with his doctorate in psychology.

Even if the Senate does confirm Rosekind's nomination, this might not happen before it adjourns in December, meaning Rosekind wouldn't take over as head of the NHTSA until sometime in 2015.

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Arizona sues GM for $3 billion, says it concealed safety defects

It's the first state to sue GM over its rash of recalls

In a harshly worded complaint, Arizona has sued General Motors for $3 billion, accusing it of deliberately concealing serious safety defects, most notably ...

PhotoIn a harshly worded complaint, Arizona has sued General Motors for $3 billion, accusing it of deliberately concealing serious safety defects, most notably the faulty ignition switches that have led to 2.6 million recalls and more than 30 deaths but also including dozens of other defects that have led to recalls in recent years.

“Under Arizona law, companies have a basic responsibility not to deceive and mislead, but instead to act honestly and in good faith. As this lawsuit illustrates, General Motors failed to do that, endangering too many Arizonans,” said state Attorney General Tom Horne.

It's the first lawsuit filed against GM by a state alleging that the safety defects amount to consumer fraud. Last May, GM agreed to pay a $35 million fine imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency. It also faces a mounting stack of class action and individual lawsuits.

The Arizona suit claims that by concealing known defects, GM enticed Arizona consumers to purchase vehicles under the false pretense that they were safe and reliable.

Besides alleging that GM products were sold under deceptive conditions, the suit charges that owners of GM vehicles have suffered financial damages because their cars and trucks have lost market value owing to the large number of recalls and the resulting damage to GM's reputation.

Concealed important facts 

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Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne (Photo credit: Arizona AG's office)

The lawsuit, which runs to more than 100 pages, lays out the allegations supporting the claim that GM misrepresented and concealed important facts in its efforts to sell cars, thereby violating the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.

The maximum penalty for each violation of that law is $10,000. 

“GM manufactured and sold unsafe vehicles in Arizona and knowingly concealed information about safety hazards from the driving public, and its own customers,” said Horne. “As a result, hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting owners and lessees in Arizona continued driving unsafe vehicles, posing a danger to themselves, their passengers and loved ones, other drivers, and pedestrians — all while GM knew the truth about the defects.”

The complaint alleges a consistent pattern of delay that followed every defect discovery by GM and seeks to hold GM liable for its actions and alleged omissions after July 10, 2009, which is the date New GM acquired virtually all of the assets and selected liabilities of the previous, bankrupt GM.

In the complaint, Horne makes short work of the claim that New GM should not be held responsible for actions taken -- or not taken -- by its predecessor company.

"New GM was not born innocent," the suit asserts.

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Use caution when searching Internet for weight-loss advice

Don't just click on the first link

When 2015 arrives in a few weeks millions of Americans will resolve to lose weight. What will be their first step in planning a strategy?...

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© tashatuvango - Fotolia

When 2015 arrives in a few weeks millions of Americans will resolve to lose weight. What will be their first step in planning a strategy?

For many it will be sitting down at their computer and using a search engine to find the best weight loss programs. But it may surprise them to learn that to get the best advice, they need to go beyond the first few results that pop up.

A study appearing in the American Journal of Public Health shows that when using a common search engine like Google, the first page of results on the subject of diet and exercise is likely to display what the authors call “less reliable sites,” instead of more comprehensive one. Further, the results may contain sponsored content that makes unrealistic weight loss promises.

The research started from a personal observation. François Modave, chair of the Department of Computer Science at Jackson State University, led the study after hearing friends and family spout information they got from the Internet – information he knew to be hokum.

It didn't take long to put 2 and 2 together, since he knew the first links that appear in an Internet search, no matter what the topic, get nearly 90% of all clicks.

Putting it to the test

We decided to put Modave's observation to the test. Using Google, we entered “weight loss programs” in the search field.

The first three results were clearly marked as advertisements. The first non-sponsored link was for Dr. Oz's 2-Week Rapid Weight-Loss Plan Instructions, perhaps not the most authoritative source. Next was an article in US News about The Best Weight-Loss Diets. That was followed by Nutrisystem's corporate website.

The fourth entry was Healthy Weight Loss, a page on the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) website.

When we conducted the same search using Bing, there were no government health websites or independent medical authorities among the first page of search results.

Note to government webmasters

The researchers say federal agencies, academic institutions and medical organizations need to work a lot harder at search engine optimization (SEO) to get their links on top of searches.

Until that happens, Modave says it's up to consumers to be more critical when doing online searches for important health information.

In 2012, Modave and his team looked at 103 websites for questions about weight loss and rated the content based on available evidence-based guidelines for weight loss.

They found medical, government and university sites ranked highest, along with blogs. They also found a lot of dubious information. Most of the websites couldn't manage a score above 50%.

Additional research

And it's not just weight loss where an Internet search can present you with some less-than-objective information. As we reported earlier this year, researchers at the University of Florida (UF) found overall health information obtained online was not only lacking in quality, but could be hazardous.

The UF researchers made an interesting discovery. The broader the search topic, the more reliable the web sites in the search chain. For example, “ear infections” linked to reputable sources higher in the list than a highly specific topic, such as “vaccines for newborns.”

The takeaway? It's similar to what the Jackson State study concludes.

“Based on these results, health consumers and patients may feel assured that they can find some high-quality health information when using a search engine,” said study co-author Christopher A. Harle. “However, consumers and patients should know that searches for some health topics, such as nutrition or fitness, may result in more information that is potentially lower quality.”

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FTC shuts down two more tech-support scammers

Your computer is fine. Ignore the strangers who offer to fix it anyway

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission shut down an alleged “tech support” scam operating out of New York. This week, the FTC announced a similar shutdow...

PhotoLast month, the Federal Trade Commission shut down an alleged “tech support” scam operating out of New York. This week, the FTC announced a similar shutdown of two more supposed tech-support companies, this time out of Florida.

Here's what the FTC had to say about the companies' standard operating procedure:

"Your computer is damaged ... we'll help you fix it." It’s the latest twist on tech support scams: Scammers sell software online that claims to increase your computer’s performance. They lure you to their websites with pop-up ads or web searches. Then, they tell you to call a phone number to activate or register the software. On the phone, they ask for remote access to your computer and then tell you that your computer has many errors that need to be fixed immediately.

It’s all part of their plan to sell you bogus "security" or "technical support" products or services. Really, your computer is fine. They want to charge you – possibly hundreds of dollars – for software and services that you don’t need and that doesn’t help.

In October, the feds went after New York-based company Pairsys. This week, they went after Inbound Call Experts (ICE) and Vast Tech Support, both based in Florida.

Unfortunately, there are still plenty of similarly scammy tech-support services out there, ready to sell services which are useless at best, and harmful to your computer at worst. Perhaps the best way to protect yourself is simply to never give any strangers remote access to your computer — even if those strangers say they'll help fix whatever ails it.

Or, as the FTC says: “Don’t give control of your computer to someone who says they need to activate software. Instead, look carefully at the software instructions to learn how to activate the software yourself.”

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Feds file to shut down multimillion-dollar "psychics"

Letters from supposed psychics offer millions of dollars ... for a small fee

What if you got a letter from a world-renowned psychic telling you that you should play a certain number in the lottery? All you have to do to become a mul...

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Photo © Scott Griessel - Fotolia

What if you got a letter from a world-renowned psychic telling you that you should play a certain number in the lottery? All you have to do to become a multimillionaire is fill out a form and send a few dollars to the supposed psychic.

Well, unlikely as it sounds, many consumers fall for this and rush to the post office to send in their money so they can learn which number is about to hit it big.

The U.S. Justice Department today filed civil complaints in a New York City federal court seeking to shut down two operations that run similar schemes.

“The complaints filed today charge that the companies and individuals made blatant misrepresentations in order to reap financial gain by scamming thousands of Americans, many of whom were elderly and in a vulnerable financial condition,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Joyce R. Branda for the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “Our job at the Justice Department is to put a stop to fraud schemes that seek to take advantage of vulnerable Americans.”

The court action also seeks a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to immediately put a stop to the ongoing schemes.

Mail fraud

According to the complaints, the defendants operate two mail fraud schemes in which they send solicitation letters purportedly written by world-renowned psychics to consumers through the U.S. mail.

The first scheme, operated by Destiny Research Center and the Canadian company Infogest Direct Marketing, sends direct mail solicitations allegedly written by psychics Maria Duval and Patrick Guerin. The second scheme, operated by Christine Moussu through New York companies CLGE Inc. and I.D. Marketing Solutions Inc., sends direct mail solicitations allegedly written by psychics David Phild, Sandra Rochefort, Antonia Donera and Nicholas Chakan.

The complaints allege that in the letters, the purported psychics state that they are contacting the recipient based on a specific vision or psychic reading revealing that the recipient has the opportunity to make millions fast.

The solicitation letters appear personalized, repeatedly referring to the recipient by first name and often containing portions that appear handwritten. Many victims not only sent money but also wrote personal, handwritten letters back to the purported psychics, which were never opened, and received worthless, mass-produced trinkets and further solicitations after sending these payments.

“Relying on superstition and fear, the defendants defrauded tens of millions of dollars from thousands of vulnerable citizens,” said U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch for the Eastern District of New York. “We have, and will continue to, use all means at our disposal to protect our citizens from such schemes to defraud.”

“These mass solicitations containing purportedly personalized messages to unsuspecting victims were blatant fraud,” said Acting Inspector in Charge Troy Raper of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's Criminal Investigation Group. “Postal Inspectors aggressively investigate any operations that use the U.S. mail to fleece unsuspecting victims.”

Caging service

Metro Data Management Inc., doing business as Data Marketing Group Ltd., a company on Long Island, New York, along with its president, Keitha Rocco, performed “caging” services on behalf of both mail fraud schemes. According to the complaint, these services consisted of processing victim payments and maintaining databases of consumers who responded to the fraudulent solicitations.

The government alleges that Data Marketing Group processed as much as $500,000 in victim payments in a given two-week period for the Destiny Research Center scheme, resulting in annual gross receipts of at least $13 million.

The CLGE scheme brought in annual revenue of $1.5 to $2 million. Evidence presented by the United States in support of its motion indicates that victims of the mail fraud schemes were elderly, ill and in perilous financial condition.

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Martha Stewart unleashes a new pet product

She's already into pet clothes, beds and grooming supplies

Martha Stewart has gone from cakes and towels to pets. She already has a line of pet products in PetSmart called "Martha Stewart Pets." That line has cloth...

Photo
Photo credit: Petsmart

Martha Stewart has gone from cakes and towels to pets. She already has a line of pet products in PetSmart called "Martha Stewart Pets." That line has clothes, dog and cat beds, grooming supplies and other items. But wait! There's more to come.

At a trade show earlier this week, Stewart said that pet products were one of the fastest-growing parts of her business and said she will be launching another line called "Best of Show," again teaming up with PetSmart. You can be sure it won't be linens. My guess is food. It's just a guess, though. It could be a number of things.

No word what will differentiate the two lines but the new line "Best of Show" will launch in May of 2015.

Stewart herself does have dogs that have shown and that have won in the Westminster Dog Show. In 2012 her dog, Genghis Khan II, won the blue ribbon for Best in Breed.

I guess it really doesn't matter what it is that she is launching since there seems to be no limit on what consumers will spend for their pets. So whatever it is, people will buy it.

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Paws on ice, not so good. Paws on icemelt, even worse

Ingredients in icemelt can be ingested when they lick their paws

Paws on ice. It's not a new Disney show at the coliseum. It's something you really need to watch out for now that we have seen the snow fall from the sky a...

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Photo © Gianfranco Bella - Fotolia

Paws on ice. It's not a new Disney show at the coliseum. It's something you really need to watch out for now that we have seen the snow fall from the sky and blanket the streets and sidewalks in many parts of the country.

That first snow is beautiful, but here is the reality -- and you know it all too well -- it turns into ice and when there is a great deal of ice, out comes the salt.

The main ingredient in most icemelt products is either sodium chloride or calcium chloride. Both sodium and calcium chloride can irritate a dog's paws or be harmful to the animal if ingested.

Once you take your dog outside be sure to clean their paws right away. Even if you don't see the salt or the topical product they put on the ice it is most likely there and if your dog licks its paws it could get very sick and start vomiting or get diarrhea.

Everything melts and puddles may contain the salt also -- it's just not yellow snow you want to stay away from. Any snow could have the salt in it. So don't let them drink from the puddles or eat the snow.

It's just not something you want to mess with. A dog that ingests 4 grams (less than 1 oz.) of sodium chloride per 1kg (2.3 lbs.) of body weight could die. That would mean a dog that weighs only 4 lbs. would only need to eat about 2 ounces of icemelt containing sodium chloride before getting fatally ill. 

You can try the dog boots if you want. Your dog may walk a little funny at first but they do get used to them and the boots can protect their feet from getting ice burn as well.

If you are salting your driveway or sidewalk use a safe non-toxic product such as Safe Paws or Morton Safe-T-Pet. These products do not contain salt or chloride

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Changes coming to Firefox: Yahoo search, and Do Not Track

Google to lose ten-year-old default search status next month

Starting next month, Mozilla and Yahoo will both be implementing some changes to their respective business models: Mozilla will abandon Google in favor of ...

PhotoStarting next month, Mozilla and Yahoo will both be implementing some changes to their respective business models: Mozilla will abandon Google in favor of making Yahoo the default search engine on its Firefox browser, and Yahoo will start honoring some of its customers' Do Not Track requests for a change.

Mozilla first made this announcement in a Nov. 19 post on the Mozilla Blog, noting that “Search is a core part of the online experience for everyone — Firefox users alone search the Web more than 100 billion times per year. … Google has been the Firefox global search default since 2004. Our agreement came up for renewal this year, and we took this as an opportunity to review our competitive strategy and explore our options.”

For now, any Firefox browser comes equipped with a Google search window (usually in the upper-right corner of the toolbar). Of course, any Firefox user is free to that setting, so that the search window instead goes to Bing, DuckDuckGo, or other options. Starting sometime in December, the default will change from Google to Yahoo Search, powered by Bing – though, again, Firefox users will have the option to change those default settings if they wish.

Mozilla added that “Under this partnership, Yahoo will also support Do Not Track (DNT) in Firefox.”

That is a significant change from Yahoo's previous policy. Last April, Yahoo made a point of announcing that it wouldn't even allow Do Not Track requests to be made — which, arguably, was a better (or at least more honest) policy than what it had before: allowing Do Not Track requests, then ignoring them.

Not that Yahoo was or is unique in that regard: most browsers that accept “Do Not Track” requests tend to ignore them. Google Chrome's Do Not Track Page, last updated in October 2012, says this:

Does Chrome provide details of which websites and web services respect Do Not Track requests and how they interpret them?

No. At this time, most web services, including Google's, do not alter their behavior or change their services upon receiving Do Not Track requests.

"Personalized experience"

So in April, when the “Yahoo Privacy Team” updated Yahoo's policy blog, it boasted about making “a personalized experience” for users: “As of today, web browser Do Not Track settings will no longer be enabled on Yahoo. As the first major tech company to implement Do Not Track, we’ve been at the heart of conversations surrounding how to develop the most user-friendly standard. However, we have yet to see a single standard emerge that is effective, easy to use and has been adopted by the broader tech industry. … The privacy of our users is and will continue to be a top priority for us.”

So what happened to change Yahoo's mind about Do Not Track since then? The Do Not Track initiative thus far has (unsurprisingly) proven spectacularly unpopular with advertisers, presumably because they figure that the more data they have on you, the greater their chances of making money thereby.

Last June, an ad-industry trade group called the Digital Advertising Alliance urged a web-standards group to abandon their Do Not Track efforts, for fear that ordinary web users like you and me might be tricked into inadvertently having our online activities not-tracked when we'd actually prefer everything we do be tracked non-stop, or something:

Microsoft, for one, now turns on the do-not-track signal automatically for some Internet Explorer users.

The ad industry says that do-not-track signals set by default don't reflect a user's preference to avoid tracking across Web sites. But the industry also says there's no good way to distinguish between a signal set by a user and one set by a developer.

So, as of last summer, Microsoft's policy set it apart from such companies as Google and Yahoo: they wouldn't honor Do Not Track requests even when they received them, whereas Microsoft made Do Not Track a default setting.

Fast-forward to this month and Mozilla's upcoming changes to its Firefox browser: the Yahoo Search function coming to Firefox is powered by Microsoft Bing. Will Yahoo henceforth honor Do Not Track thanks to a newfound appreciation for user privacy, because they can't avoid it with Microsoft, or for some other reason?

She's inspired

Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer didn't say one way or other, in her blog post trumpeting the new arrangement between Yahoo and Mozilla, Meyer made no mention of privacy or Do Not Track, but discussed how the new arrangement was sure to be wonderful for Mozilla, Yahoo and all customers thereof, and added:

Our teams worked closely with Mozilla to build a clean, modern, and immersive search experience that will launch first to Firefox’s U.S. users in December and then to all Yahoo users in early 2015. The interactive and integrated experience also better leverages our world-class content and personalization technologies.

Search inspires us because we think it’s something that will change and improve dramatically, and because fundamentally, search is about human curiosity — and that is something that will never be finished.

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Holding the line on inflation

Another drop in gasoline costs helps keep consumer prices in check

Consumer prices were unchanged in October, thanks largely to declining energy costs which offset increases in other prices. According to the Bureau of Lab...

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© mybaitshop – Fotolia

Consumer prices were unchanged in October, thanks largely to declining energy costs which offset increases in other prices.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was steady last month, holding the increase over the last 12 months to just 1.7%.

Energy and food costs

Gasoline prices fell 2.0% in October, the fourth decline in as many months, while natural gas prices dropped 2.7% and fuel oil plunged 4.0%. Electricity, on the other hand, inched up 0.5%. Overall, energy prices declined 1.9% for the month and are down 1.6% over the past year.

Food prices rose edged up 0.1% in October, the smallest increase since June. Fruits and vegetables were up 0.9%, nonalcoholic beverages jumped rose 0.6%, dairy and related products posted an 0.5% increase, and cereals and bakery products rose 0.3%. In contrast prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs -- which had been rising sharply in recent months, declined 0.4 percent. The cost of food at home is up 3.3% over the last 12 months -- the largest 12-month increase since April 2012.

Core rate

The core rate of inflation, which excludes the volatile food and energy categories, increased 0.2 percent in October. Contributing factors were higher prices for shelter, airline fares, household furnishings and operations, medical care, recreation, personal care, tobacco, and new vehicles. Costs for used cars and trucks and for apparel declined.

The core rate for the last 12 months is up 1.8%

The complete CPI report is available on the Labor Department website.

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia
Jobless claims

After taking into account the revisions to the previous week's reports, initial applications for state unemployment benefits were lower in the week ending November 15.

First-time applications totaled a seasonally adjusted 291,000, a drop of of 2,000. The previous week's level was revised upward by 3,000 -- to 293,000. The consensus of analysts surveyed by Briefing.com was for the claims level to drop to 285,000.

Even with the upward revision, the claims level continues to remain below 300,000 which is normally associated with full employment.

The 4-week moving average, which removes the volatility found in the weekly numbers, rose by 1,750 to 287,500.

The complete report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Existing-home sales up in October

It's the second consecutive advance

Sales of previously owned homes rose in October for the second straight month and are now above year-over-year levels for the first time in a year Figures...

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© Brian Jackson - Fotolia.com

Sales of previously owned homes rose in October for the second straight month and are now above year-over-year levels for the first time in a year

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show total existing-home sales -- which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, rose 1.5% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.26 million.

Sales are now at their highest annual pace since September 2013 and are above year-over-year levels for the first time since last October.

“Sales activity in October reached its highest annual pace of the year as buyers continue to be encouraged by interest rates at lows not seen since last summer, improving levels of inventory and stabilizing price growth,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Furthermore, the job market has shown continued strength in the past six months. This bodes well for solid demand to close out the year and the likelihood of additional months of year-over-year sales increases.”

Prices and inventories

The median existing-home price for all housing types in October was $208,300, up 5.5% from a year ago -- marking the 32nd consecutive month of year-over-year price gains. The median is the point at which half the homes were priced higher and half lower.

Total housing inventory at the end of October fell 2.6% to 2.22 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 5.1-month supply at the current sales pace -- the lowest since March. Unsold inventory is now 5.2% higher than a year ago, when there were 2.11 million existing homes available for sale.

“The growth in housing supply this year will likely prevent the drastic sales slowdown and coinciding spike in home prices we saw last winter due to low inventory,” said Yun. “However, more housing starts are needed to increase supply, meet current demand and keep price growth in check.”

Sales regionally

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast climbed 2.9% last month to an annual rate of 710,000, and are 4.4% above a year ago. The median price was $246,900 -- 1.2% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest, jumped 5.1% to an annual level of 1.24 million, and are 2.5% higher than October 2013. The median price in the Midwest surged 6.8% from a year ago to $164,100.
  • Sales of previously-owned homes in the South increased 2.8% to an annual rate of 2.17 million, and are now 5.3% above their year-ago level. The median price was $178,000 -- up 5.1% from a year ago.
  • In the West, though, sales fell 5.0% to an annual rate of 1.14 million, and remain 3.4% below a year ago. The median price rose 5.0% year-over-year -- to $296,800.
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Do Not Resuscitate and other end-of-life paperwork -- it's important

Your wishes won't be respected if they're not known. My mother-in-law's weren't.

“Be a smart consumer. A frugal life is a comfortable life.” When discussing such themes the usual emphasis is on life, and how to make a better one for you...

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Staff photo

“Be a smart consumer. A frugal life is a comfortable life.” When discussing such themes the usual emphasis is on life, and how to make a better one for yourself and the people you love.

But life eventually has to end, even for yourself and the people you love. It ended last week, for my mother-in-law. Hers wasn't entirely a bad death, by the miserable yardstick that measures such things — but she didn't have the death she'd wanted or planned for, either. A mistake here, an oversight there, and all her carefully made arrangements unraveled at the end, making things worse for her and for those of us she left behind.

Sandra -- “Sandee” to her friends and family -- spent her childhood and working adult life in New England before she and her late husband eventually retired to an “active adult” community outside of Myrtle Beach. Her health had been in decline for the past couple of years; generally active living punctuated by evermore-frequent hospital stays. She actually went into hospice last Christmas, though she recovered well enough that the doctors released her a week or so later. My brother-in-law Dave lived with and helped care for her, though he and my husband Jeff both knew that sooner or later, she'd probably have to leave her “active adult” community and move into an assisted-living facility.

That was the status quo until the weekend before Veterans' Day.

The phone rang while Jeff and I were making Sunday dinner; the nurse/social worker who helped care for his mother called to say she'd had a major setback and needed a full-time live-in assistant. Her insurance should eventually cover that, except paperwork problems prevented that coverage from kicking in immediately; long story short, Jeff called a sort of medical babysitting service down there and arranged for someone to stay with Mom overnight (at $18 per hour) so Dave could get some badly needed rest. Hopefully, by Monday morning the insurance paperwork would go through and she could get a permanent full-time assistant.

Cardiac arrest

Dave called back a few minutes later to cancel the babysitter – Mom had gone into cardiac arrest and was en route to the hospital. She'd filled out a Do Not Resuscitate form, but Dave couldn't immediately find it, so of course the EMTs went to work on her. By the time he found the DNR six minutes later, she had a pulse again. (A doctor later apologized to him, saying that the EMTs “should have” respected his medical power of attorney without seeing the actual DNR. Still, you truly can't fault the EMTs here.)

When I first heard this story, I dared hope the DNR snafu would turn out for the best — she'd wake up, walk out of there and have another decade or so of rip-roarin' ahead of her. She'd beaten the odds before: how many ex-hospice patients do you see walking around, anyway? Jeff thought the same thing; some time that night he smiled wryly and said, “She's going to be really pissed to wake up in a hospital again.”

But she wasn't. She never regained consciousness.

Dave called Monday afternoon to say the doctors were taking her off the respirator; she'd shown no response except occasional finger-twitching. The next morning, Jeff and I drove down from our home in northern Virginia. While we were still an hour outside of Myrtle Beach, his brother called to say the doctors were doing something to her pacemaker with magnets, something to help ease her passage out.

Piteous moans

But she still held on. She was alive – technically, at least – when Jeff and I got to the hospital around six that night. The second we saw her, we abandoned our previous hopes that the DNR mixup would have a happy ending. She remained unconscious, and thoroughly unresponsive except for the piteous moaning sounds she made with almost every exhalation.

“She sounds like she's in pain,” I said.

“She probably is,” the nurse replied. “I'll give her more morphine.” She spoke again, in a louder voice: “Mrs. P, I'm going to give you some pain medicine, okay?” No response. The morphine dampened the moans but didn't make them stop.

They moved her out of the ICU into a regular room an hour or so later. No change.

“The doctors don't know how long she'll stay like this,” Dave said. “They're amazed she's lasted this long.”

We three took turns holding her hands or smoothing her hair, in case any part of her still craved human contact. We said comforting things, in case any part of her could still hear them. We have no idea if this made any difference at all.

Finally, around ten, we all wished her good-night, and left for my mother-in-law's house. The night nurse promised to call us if anything changed. Just after one o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, November 12, it did.

Reverse mortgage

We mourned as well as we could, but our grief almost immediately had to take a backseat to more practical matters. As soon as she passed, a clock started ticking – she had a reverse mortgage on the house, which had to be entirely emptied out in . . .  how long did we have, exactly? Hard to say when we couldn't find where she kept the paperwork.

For homeowners of a certain age contemplating a reverse mortgage, there are many factors to consider: should you get one, are they a good deal for you, what are the financial downsides, and what about your eventual heirs? But here's two additional factors: how much stuff does your house actually contain, and how organized is that stuff — do you keep important paperwork (like your reverse-mortgage deed or Do Not Resuscitate form) where it's easy to find when needed?

Unfortunately, my mother-in-law did not. Her house by the end contained far too much stuff, hardly organized at all. She'd filled out a Do Not Resuscitate form specifically to avoid lingering in unconscious pain — yet still did so for more than two days, since nobody could find the DNR when it mattered.

Nor could we easily find anything else that mattered. Where'd she keep the key to her safe-deposit box? We looked in jewelry boxes and junk drawers, through countless envelopes and files she'd kept stacked in plastic bins — but eventually, purely by good luck, I found it at the bottom of one of four department-store shopping bags she'd had overflowing with half-used arts and craft supplies. Important documents from her life-insurance and pension companies were mixed in with files full of crossword puzzles she'd cut out of magazines. So we couldn't just throw away any boxes of junk, but had to go through every individual piece of it first.

We've all heard the jokes about evil or at least hyper-critical mothers-in-law, but none of those applied to me — my MIL and I had always got along spectacularly well. Until after she died, and I spent several days and collected several bruises helping to clear out the enormous piles of magazine articles, junk mail and loose beads interspersed with the very occasional important-or-valuable keepsake she'd stashed in there.

So, yeah: first I'd get annoyed with her, for leaving such a godawful mess behind. Then I'd get mad at myself for having such mean thoughts about a sweet old lady at this of all times, and likely as not I'd tear up again to remember anew just why I was here emptying out her house in the first place.

I take comfort in her son Jeff's observation: “If she knew you were writing an article with her as a Cautionary Example, or what a pain in the ass it was to handle her affairs afterward, you know she'd laugh and print out copies for all her friends.” He didn't exaggerate — I found the purple plastic file labeled Jennifer Articles in her handwriting.

Rest in peace, Sandee.

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Feds issue national recall of defective Takata driver-side air bags

NHTSA demands new, additional details on air bags from Takata and automakers

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is calling for a national recall of vehicles with certain driver’s-side frontal air bags made by...

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© Brad Thompson - Fotolia

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is calling for a national recall of vehicles with certain driver’s-side frontal air bags made by Takata.

The agency says it's basing the decision on its evaluation of a recent driver’s-side air bag failure in a vehicle outside the current regional recall area and its relationship to 5 previous driver’s side air bag ruptures -- all of which are covered by existing regional recalls.

“By demanding this national recall, NHTSA has demonstrated once again that it will follow data and evidence to protect the lives of Americans on the road and to hold manufacturers accountable,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

NHTSA contacted Takata and the vehicle manufacturers this week to call for the national recall of these vehicles after evaluating a recent incident that involved a failure in a driver’s side air bag inflator outside an area of high absolute humidity. Based on this new information, unless Takata and the manufacturers quickly agree to this recall, NHTSA will use the full extent of its statutory powers to ensure vehicles that use the same or similar air bag inflator are recalled.

More information demanded

The agency also issued a General Order to Takata and all ten of the vehicle manufacturers that use Takata air bag inflators -- BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota -- requiring each manufacturer to file, under oath, a detailed report and produce all related documents about completed, ongoing or planned testing of Takata inflators outside the current regional recall areas.

The agency is demanding this information to compel Takata and the affected industry to be frank with not only NHTSA, but the American public, as to what testing and additional steps they have done and plan to do to control and mitigate the risk associated with Takata’s defective inflators.

Additionally, NHTSA issued a Special Order to Takata -- the second it has issued to the manufacturer regarding this defect -- compelling it to provide, under oath, documents and detailed information on the propellant used in Takata’s inflators. In recent days, Takata has publicly conceded that it changed the chemical mix of its air bag inflator propellant in newly designed inflators. As part of the investigation, the agency will analyze the information received to determine if the chemical composition of Takata’s propellant mix may be a cause and/or contributing factor in the air bag inflator ruptures.

“We now know that millions of vehicles must be recalled to address defective Takata air bags and our aggressive investigation is far from over,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman. “We’re pushing Takata and all affected manufacturers to issue the recall and to ensure the recalls capture the full scope of the problems.”

More testing needed

While NHTSA is not aware of either field incidents or test data suggesting that the problem affecting passenger-side air bags in the areas of persistently high humidity extends beyond those areas, the agency has been pushing the industry to perform testing to ensure that current recalls effectively cover vehicles with air bags that could be potentially affected by this defect.

The information the agency receives from Takata and the auto manufacturers will provide further information and details needed to continue its investigation into this complex issue. Responses to the General Order and Special Order are due to NHTSA by December 5.

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Consumers can expect crowded airports and planes to get worse

Study says soon, every day will be like the day before Thanksgiving

We're coming up on the busiest air travel day of the year. On the day before Thanksgiving, more people take a flight than any other day of the year, result...

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Photo © adisa - Fotolia

We're coming up on the busiest air travel day of the year. On the day before Thanksgiving, more people take a flight than any other day of the year, resulting in long lines and cramped cabins.

What if every day was like that? The U.S. Travel Association says it soon will be.

The group partnered with Cambridge Analytics for an annual study of the U.S. air travel system, assessing the adequacy of air travel infrastructure and the amount of airport congestion.

“The already bad news about our overwhelmed air travel system has gotten worse since last year,” said association president Roger Dow, in a conference call with reporters.

Nightmare scenario

The study tried to answer this question. When will we get to the point that the congestion of the day before Thanksgiving is found at every U.S. airport every day of the year?

“Compared to last year 26 of our top 30 airports will reach Thanksgiving levels in terms of congestion on a daily basis sooner than expected,” Dow said.

Dow says the only good news wasn't really very good. The airports that registered a slight improvement are already the busiest facilities operating at capacity, like JFK and San Francisco.

“Everywhere else the news is pretty horrible,” he said. “Some places like Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Newark, Reagan Airport in DC will now get to the Thanksgiving level tipping point decades sooner than we projected last year.”

Demand still growing

The problem is getting worse because of the steady increase in passenger demand for air travel. But instead of improving airports and systems to keep up with demand, Dow says the can is getting kicked down the road.

“The point of doing all of this is to demonstrate to our political leaders the urgent need for action,” Dow said.

And it's more than a matter of inconvenience for the traveling public. Dow says jobs and economic growth are at stake because the U.S. system is losing ground as the rest of the world has improved.

“Today not a single U.S. airport is ranked in the Top 25 world wide,” he said.

Airlines not helping

At a time when airport infrastructure is in a holding pattern, it should be noted that the airlines are not doing a lot to make flying more pleasant. As demand has increased, airlines have trimmed capacity to try and more exactly meet demand by limiting flights and destinations.

The same day Dow briefed reporters on the state of U.S. airports, United Continental CEO Jeff Smisek, in an interview with CNBC, was unapologetic about crowded planes.

“It would be great to get on an airplane and be the only passenger. You'd have a huge spacious cabin to yourself. But nobody could make money with that,” Smisek said. “What we're doing is turning this into a business. Now I understand that people would like to have an empty middle seat and we'd be happy to sell them that empty middle seat if they'd be willing to pay for it. Although they value it, they're not willing to pay for it.”

His comments add to the gloomy outlook for consumers when it comes to air travel. While the Air Travel Association study sees a rather small increase in air travel demand in the next year – around 2% – Dow says that increase will present huge problems for the system.

“It's dire because we're already at capacity at so many airports,” he said. “You begin looking at the delays that work their way across the country every day, passengers tell us right now, with zero growth, the cancellations, the delayed flights are a nightmare.”

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Our 5 favorite web hosting services for WordPress

Because no one wants their website to crash and burn

It wasn't long ago that having a website was considered an option, if not a luxury, for small businesses, professional practices and local organizations. T...

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Image: © Fotolia

It wasn't long ago that having a website was considered an option, if not a luxury, for small businesses, professional practices and local organizations. Those days are long gone. Today a robust, reliable and responsive website is a necessity.

Fortunately, it's easier and less expensive than ever. Web-hosting services have become more affordable while content management systems like WordPress now make it easy for anyone to build an attractive site and keep it up to date.

A word about WordPress

Before you get around to picking a web-hosting provider, it's important to decide how you will build and maintain your site. There are numerous site-building "kits" and platforms on the market, some free, some pretty pricey. By far the most popular is WordPress, an open-source database-driven platform that relieves you of having to learn HTML, CSS, PHP and all those other mysterious programs and languages.

Since it was originally designed as a blogging platform, WordPress just instinctively makes it easy for you to add the new content that's essential to keeping your name in front of whatever slice of the universe is your market. After all, the websites that attract the most visits are the ones that are updated most often. 

WordPress itself is free and there are professionally designed "templates" -- many of them free or modestly priced -- that will give you the exact look and feel you're looking for.

Just because it's free doesn't mean it's third-rate. Some notable brands using WordPress include the New Yorker, TechCrunch, BBC America, Variety, Sony Music and Best Buy, to name just a few.

Why choosing the right hosting company matters

WordPress’ highly intuitive interface makes it easy to work with, but choosing the wrong hosting company can negate the benefits. The dependability of the site is determined largely by the hosting company. Choosing the wrong host could lead to frequent and extended downtimes and could make your site slow to load. 

There are thousands of web-hosting companies out there, many of them quite small. While small is sometimes good, in web-hosting, it's the larger players who have the sophisticated automation and highly redundant infrastructure that make it easy for you to keep things running smoothly with little need for tinkering or help from tech support.

What kind of automation? Well, one-click WordPress installation for one thing. Intalling WordPress yourself is fairly simple but make one mistake and you can spend the rest of the day getting things straightened out. 

There are many other ways large hosts can make your life simpler and save you time and money. Most provide one-stop shopping for domain names, hosting plans, email services, regular backups and other essentials. What you want to avoid are companies that make extravagant promises, rock-bottom prices and soaring rhetoric that sounds too good to be true because you know what we say about things that sound too good to be true.

In fact, many smaller hosting companies that claim to be "boutique" firms that tailore their services to you are really just reselling the services of larger companies and often doing so in a way that ends up degrading performance and decreasing reliability.

Size matters

Everyone knows that if you need major surgery, you want to find the surgeon and hospital who perform the operation more than anyone else. The same is true of web-hosting; you want a massive globe-girdling operation that has the facilities, staff and sheer scale to keep your site running responsively under the most adverse conditions. 

Looking at the vast array of sites out there and drawing on our experience of more than 20 years of buiding and running web sites, we've picked our five favorite hosting companies for WordPress -- GoDaddy, HostGator, FatCow, MochaHost and 1&1 Hosting.

Although there are subtle differences, each of these companies offers a wide range of hosting plans, realistic pricing, 24/7 tech support and highly evolved management tools to make the process as easy as possible.

In putting our recommendations together, we compared mid-range business-class hosting plans. In each case, we went for a plan that has room for growth without being wasteful. While it's always possible to transition from beginner to intermediate level, why bother? For a few dollars per month, you can have the extra capacity in reserve when you need it. The last thing you want is for your website to be unable to keep up with your customers' demands when things get busy.

Keep in mind that prices and features are changing constantly and each company has many more plans than we review here. Frankly, it would be hard to go wrong with any of these companies but each has its own flavor and style. While the inner workings may be similar, you're more likely to be happy with a provider that sees the world as you do -- maybe with a touch or irony, some light barnyard humor or simply a clean and elegant look, the choice is yours. Happy hunting.

GoDaddy

PhotoGoDaddy is perhaps best known to the world at large for its sponsorship of auto racing superstar Danica Patrick. To the rest of us, it's known for its domain registration services. It has for years been the largest domain registrar and has steadily expanded into web-hosting and related services.

GoDaddy is one of those companies that has gotten so big that at times, it has been difficult to navigate its various menus. But a recent top-to-bottom redesign has put everything in its logical place and usability is now about as simple as anyone could ask for a provider with such a wide range of products and service levels.  

For a growing business or organization looking for WordPress hosting, we'd choose the WordPress Pro package. For $29.99 per month, you can host up to 25 websites handling millions of visitors per month.

The price includes one free domain name, "unlimited" storage and a one-click migration service that makes it easy to move your site from another host to GoDaddy. If, by the way, you have ever tried to do this, it is one of those things that's not really difficult but it requires careful planning and very close attention to detail. Successfully automating it is a neat trick, assuming it works. We haven't had a chance to try it as of this writing but will do so soon and post an update when we do.

The $29.99 also includes a number of items that will become very familiar as you look at hosting packages  -- 24/7 tech support, automatic backups, thousands of WordPress themes and plugins, 99.9% uptime and so forth. They'll become familiar because just about everybody offers them.

GoDaddy and most other big hosting companies also keep your WordPress installation up to date, automatically updating WordPress each time a new version is issued. It's a small thing but it's also easy to forget, so it's great to not have to worry about it.

HostGator

PhotoHostGator claims to be the world's largest hosting company, with about 8.5 million domains on its servers. HostGator's size allows it to offer significant savings to accounts of all sizes. 

HostGator's Business WordPress plan goes for $10.36 per month and includes "unlimited" domains, disk space and bandwidth, a free SSL certificate and a free 800 number.

FatCow

PhotoFatCow entered the web-hosting business in 1998 and has built a loyal following. Its WP Essential package sells for $6.95 per month, which includes "unlimited" disk space and bandwidth, free domain registration, "unlimited" email accounts, 24/7 support and a wide variety of pre-installed WordPress themes and plug-ins. A perhaps unique FatCow attribute is that it claims to be 100% wind-powered. No bull.

MochaHost

MochaHost is one of the few big hosting companies headquartered in Silicon Valley. Most of the others are in Texas. And, come to think of it, MochaHost's primary data centers are located in Dallas and Houston. 

This privately-owned company hosts more than 1 million domains and has been growing rapidly. 

MochaHost's WP Advanced plan goes for $6.48 per month and includes "unlimited" disk space and domains, one free domain name and thousands of WordPress themes and plug-ins.  

1&1 Hosting

1&1 Hosting, although not as well known to the outside world as GoDaddy, is a huge company with nearly 14 million customers worldwide and a long track record of growth and stability.  

Photo1&1's Performance plan sells for $14.99 per month and includes "unlimited" disk space, bandwidth and domains, a free domain name and SSL. It also includes 1&1's content delivery network -- a system that deploys your content on multiple servers in widely separated geographic areas, thus speeding delivery to users in those areas. 1&1 is the only host reviewed here that offers CDN service at such a reasonable price.  

So how do you choose?

It would be hard to make a wrong decision by picking any of these five companies. All are excellent -- literally world leaders. Prices are similar and the included feature lists are nearly identical. Perhaps the harder decision is picking the right package. 

Assuming you plan to use WordPress, any of the mid- to high-range packages mentioned here should be more than adequate, assuming you don't become an overnight sensation attracting millions of daily visitors, in which case your first step should be hiring a world-class IT department to handle your web development.

It's always best to buy more capacity than you need. Things grow. Especially anything related to the web and digital data. You will soon be "hitting the overhead" -- a painful experience -- if you cheap out on your hosting plan.

What's "unlimited" mean?

You may have noted that in describing the various plans, we are careful to put the word "unlimited" in quotation marks. That's because, very simply, no one is going to offer truly unlimited bandwidth, storage or anything else. If you have enough endurance to read the terms of service of each hosting plan, you will find words like "customary" and "reasonable," meaning that your plan is unlimited as long as you don't abuse it. Common sense, really.

There was a time when states like Nevada and Arizona had no speed limits. But they had laws that said drivers should operate at "safe and reasonable" speeds, meaning that blazing along at 110 mph was an invitation to visit the local judiciary.

That pretty much describes where the web-hosting business is today. For nearly nothing, you can set up an attractive, responsive and reliable website and cruise smoothly along the Internet's highways and byways while being alert for occasional bumps and potholes. Run your site safely and reasonably and you should enjoy unlimited success.   

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JetBlue adding bag fees, more seats

Wall Street has been unhappy with the airline's earnings for years

JetBlue likes to say its core mission is "to inspire humanity" and insists that its "differentiated model of serving underserved customers remain[s] unchan...

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File photo

JetBlue likes to say its core mission is "to inspire humanity" and insists that its "differentiated model of serving underserved customers remain[s] unchanged."

Perhaps so but meanwhile it's jamming in more seats and imposing a checked-bag charge, insisting all the while that the changes will benefit its "three key stakeholders." As Robin HayesJetBlue's president, put it: "It delivers improved, sustainable profitability for our investors, the best travel experience for our customers and ensures a strong, healthy company for our crew members." 

Hayes, by the way, is succeeding longtime CEO Dave Barger, who was widely seen as clinging to JetBlue's customers-first way of doing things.  

Jetblue Nov. 19, 2014, 6:58 p.m.
Consumers rate Jetblue

Investors have had it with this approach. They have long been restive about what they see as passengers living it up at their expense -- crunching away on blue potato chips and enjoying free wi-fi while stretched out with all that legroom as their bags loaf around down below. 

But no more.

"Today we announced actions that we've been working for some time to enhance JetBlue's revenue performance, control costs and reduce capital commitments through 2017," said Mark PowersJetBlue's chief financial officer. "As we execute this plan and continue to grow, we also seek to drive significantly improved returns for our shareholders. We believe our strategy, in combination with the additional initiatives discussed today, keep us on a path to enhance long-term shareholder value."

Buckle up

In other words, buckle up, keep your credit card handy and bring a book with you.

JetBlue said it will add 15 seats to its Airbus A320 aircraft, bringing the total to 165 and reducing legroom by about 5%. On the cost side, adding those 15 seats will require a fourth flight attendant, since federal regulations require one attendant for every 50 seats.

The company said it will introduce three new fares in the first half of 2015 to help in its mission of extracting more money from each customer. It described the new fare structure this way:

"The first of these will be designed for customers who do not plan to check a bag, while the latter two will offer one and two free checked bags, respectively, along with other attractive benefits, including additionalTrueBlue points and increased flexibility. This new merchandising platform will enableJetBlue to tailor its offering to individual customers' needs in a way that is simple and transparent."

The airline is also deferring the purchase of 18 new airplanes. Instead, it says it will "refresh" its A320 cabins.

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Barbie can "be a computer engineer" .... but only with help from the boys

The Barbie "I can be" series isn't winning too many women friends

When gift-giving time rolls around I always avoid buying Barbie-themed stuff for any of the little girls in my life, and this latest facepalmer from Mattel...

PhotoWhen gift-giving time rolls around I always avoid buying Barbie-themed stuff for any of the little girls in my life, and this latest facepalmer from Mattel explains why.

Barbie's book I Can Be A Computer Engineer, one of many offerings in the I Can Be … series, teaches little girls that they can indeed work with computers when they grow up – provided there's boys around to help them handle the hard stuff:

At breakfast one morning, Barbie is already hard at work on her laptop.

“What are you doing, Barbie?” asks Skipper.

“I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work,” explains Barbie. “You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks!”

“Your robot puppy is so sweet,” says Skipper. “Can I play your game?”

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

Tee hee. It gets worse: read on, and discover that Barbie the supposed computer expert can't so much as reboot a computer by herself and doesn't even seem to know what a virus is, let alone why computers need to be protected from them.

Barbie infects Skipper's computer, causing Skipper to lose her homework assignment and all of her music files, which astonishes Barbie the computer expert because who could've guessed that viruses even exist, let alone lurk in the heart-shaped flash drive (seriously) Barbie wears around her neck?

And even after she learns these things, she still needs Steven and Brian's help to fix her virus problems, because that's how stupid Barbie is according to the Mattel corporation's own officially sanctioned and ostensibly pro-Barbie propaganda.

Pamela Ribon, a writer at Walt Disney animation studios, first discovered the book's awfulness while visiting a friend with two Barbie-loving young daughters.

Flip the book and you can read “Barbie: I can be an Actress,” where Barbie saves the day by filling in for the princess in Skipper’s school production of “Princess and the Pea.” She ad-libs and smiles her way through her lines, and charms the entire audience. Standing ovation, plenty of praise. At no point did she need anybody’s help. She didn’t even need lines! Just standing there being Barbie was enough for everyone in attendance. See, actors? It’s not that hard. Even Barbie can do it.

When you hold the book in your hands to read a story, the opposite book is upside down, facing out. So the final insult to this entire literary disaster is that when you read “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer,” it appears that you are so fucking dumb, you’re reading “Barbie: I Can Be an Actress” upside down.

Nicely condensed

PhotoThe reviewers on Amazon were no happier with the book. One man called it “generations of damaging stereotypes nicely condensed into one short children's story,” and said: “While it used to take years of negative messaging to teach women and girls that they are second-class citizens in technology fields, this little gem can give you a great head start at a tender young age. As a computer scientist, and as the father of a little girl (named "Ada"), I am viscerally nauseated to encounter a children's book so utterly inappropriate in the modern era.”

Though the book did collect a handful of glowing five-star reviews, as well, A woman named Misty wished she'd had access to such quality literature in her own girlhood:

WHY WHY WHY didn't I have this jem of a book before I went to school to be a software engineer!!! After almost 20 years in the field, working my behind off, I had no idea I just had to flick my long blonde locks and have Steve and Brian do all the work for me. What the heck have I been thinking all these years! I can't believe all of the long hours I have put in and all the hard work. I could have had life on easy street this whole time.

That's it. For the rest of my career I'm putting on pink glasses and having the men do the work for me and sweetly letting me take the credit! Now I can get that huge raise I have been wanting, all thanks to guys like Steve and Brian. Thank you, Barbie, thank you for showing me that it's A-OK for women to sit back and let men take care of everything. Now I can eat my bon bons in peace.

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Booking a flight for you and your pet

Airlines will be packed to the rivets this year; it's important to act fast

It's shaping up as a very busy holiday travel season, with more than 24 million passengers expected to fly on U.S. airlines domestically and internationall...

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Photo © grafikplusfoto - Fotolia

It's shaping up as a very busy holiday travel season, with more than 24 million passengers expected to fly on U.S. airlines domestically and internationally between Nov. 21 and Dec. 2. That's a 1.5% jump last Thanksgiving -- or 31,000 more passengers per day.

So if you are planning on going anywhere you'd better book your flights ASAP and if you are planning on taking Ralph the dog make no bones about it -- you might need a few tips.

Book online. It's much easier to compare fares by booking online, but even if you do go that route call your carrier and make sure that there is room for your pet in the cabin or cargo hold of that flight. Then call back and make the reservation for your pet.

Direct flights are the best bet. Only do a layover if there is no direct flight. Keep your layover to 2 hours. I know some of this is out of your control but in an almost perfect flight pattern this is what you are after. Do not change airlines if you are traveling with a pet. You will have to claim and re-check your pet. Changing planes is OK (but not great); changing airlines is not even close to OK.

Don't fly to the big one. Sometimes it's easier and cheaper to book to the smaller airport near your destination and then rent a car to drive the rest of the way. It might be easier on Ralph as well. He can stick his head out the window and let the fresh air blow on his whiskers. Plus it's better than those bumpy rides in the little airplanes -- the ones where your head hits the overhead storage bins when you sit down.

Traveling on the weekend? Book it on a Tuesday by 3:00 PM. This is when the airlines have re-priced their seats on flights for the following weekend. ALWAYS make sure they tell you if there is room for your pet in the cabin or cargo area.

Best day to fly. Wednesday is usually the best flying day, since most people tend to fly on Mondays and Fridays. This year, the airline trade group Airlines For America says the busiest day to fly will be Sunday Nov. 30, followed by Monday Dec. 1, and the day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday Nov. 26. The least congested travel days will be Thanksgiving Day and Friday Nov. 28.

A red eye is OK. A red eye flight or first flight out in the morning will get you the best ticket prices. Be aware though if you are flying internationally, you want your flight to be during the day and during the week so you don't have to pay extra for a veterinarian to clear your pet.

Flexibility is the key. If you are willing and able to be a little flexible you will have a better chance of getting a cheaper fare and if you have a large dog traveling with them can really be expensive. So being creative with your schedule may save you some bucks.

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Change the default passwords on your IP cameras

Othwerwise, you baby monitors, home security and other systems are ridiculously easy to hack

It's an undeniable fact of modern life: any Internet connection can be hacked. Therefore, anything you wirelessly and remotely control over the Internet is...

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Toys to get the lion's share of spending this holiday season

Online purchasing continues to increase

With all the emphasis on kids and Santa Claus, it should come as no surprise that there's a lot of toy shopping at this time of year. According to The Ha...

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© rvika - Fotolia

With all the emphasis on kids and Santa Claus, it should come as no surprise that there's a lot of toy shopping at this time of year.

According to The Harris Poll, just over half of all shoppers (51%) plan to buy toys as gifts this year -- nearly consistent with last year's intent (50%). And, as you might expect, parents of a child under the age of 18 are twice as likely to purchase toys as those without children under the age of 18 (82% vs. 41%, respectively).

Those with young children (age 9 or under) or tweens (ages 10-12) are more likely than those with teens (ages 13-17) to plan to purchase toys this holiday season (90% & 88% vs. 67%, respectively).

The state of spending

Just 18% of those who will purchase toys intend to spend more than they did in the previous year. This number has decreased steadily over the past three years (23% in 2012, 20% in 2013, & 18% in 2014). While nearly half of all toy purchasers (48%) plan to spend the same amount on toys as they did last year, nearly one-third (31%) plan to spend less.

Looking specifically at parents who plan to purchase toys, one-quarter (25%) intend to spend more on toys compared with last year; however, one-third (33%) intend to spend less.

What's under the tree?

So what can kids expect to unwrap this year? Many can anticipate the gift of the written word, with half of parents planning to purchase children's books. Games for consoles are a close second at 47%, and 42% will pick up some arts and crafts supplies. Among the least popular toys are sports equipment and handheld electronic games, with only about one-quarter of parents purchasing these (24% & 25%, respectively).

Those without children under the age of 18 are more diverse in their purchase intentions; however, children's books remain the most popular with 34% planning to purchase. Just 9% plan to purchase the big ticket item of game consoles, while parents are 3 times more likely to pick up this item (27%).

Where to shop

Large discount stores remain the most popular supplier for toys, with 45% of shoppers planning to buy at these locations. However, their popularity has decreased slightly from 2013 (47%), with a cumulative 6-point drop since 2012 (51%). With 37% of purchasers planning to do their shopping online, this outlet continues to increase year over year, seeing a jump of 4 points since 2013 (33%) and a cumulative 10-point jump since 2012 (27%).

National toy store retail chains and local, privately owned specialty toy stores are likely to be the least popular toy merchants this holiday season, with just 11% and 4% of purchasers planning to utilize these outlets, respectively.

Other “family” members

Six-in-10 people are pet owners, with a large majority owning either a dog or a cat (65% & 53% of pet owners, respectively). Many pet owners don't plan on forgetting their furry friends this holiday season. 37% of consumers -- and over half of pet owners (52%) -- are planning to purchase toys, treats or other products as gifts for a pet this year.

In fact, 13% of those who do not have a pet still plan to purchase toys for one this season.

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As cases rise, doctors try to better understand depression

Latest theory suggests there may be a physical cause

What makes someone depressed? The question becomes more urgent as the number of cases of clinical depression increases....

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Photo © Stepan Popov - Fotolia

What makes someone depressed? The question becomes more urgent as the number of cases of clinical depression increases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates depression at some point affects about 9% of U.S. adults, leaving them with feelings of hopelessness, despondency, and sometimes guilt. The agency says major depression is the leading cause of disability for Americans between the ages of 15 and 44.

Researchers have turned out study after study trying to better understand the condition. At the University of Washington a recent study suggested stress is a major trigger.

A recent British study found over-achievers are more at risk of depression, becaise they become addicted to the Internet. Companies fail to notice the depression, the researchers conclude, because the sufferers are all successful.

Since many of the cases of depression have appeared in the wake of the financial crisis, some researchers looked for – and found – a link to long-term unemployment. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans who have been unemployed for a year or more say they currently have or are being treated for depression.

Physical illness

Here's a new theory. Major depressive disorder (MDD) is actually an infectious disease and not always caused by external influences.

Turhan Canli, a psychology professor at Stony Brook University, suggests that major depression may result from parasitic, bacterial, or viral infection. He thinks depression needs to be reclassified from a mental illness to a physical one while research continues into its causes.

“Future research should conduct a concerted effort search of parasites, bacteria, or viruses that may play a causal role in the etiology of MDD,” he said.

Canli offers 3 arguments why reconceptualizing MDD as an infectious disease may pay off.

For starters, patients with MDD exhibit physical symptoms like a loss of energy. Beyond that, inflammatory biomarkers associated with depression also suggest an illness-related origin.

Viruses can alter behavior

Canli says there is plenty of evidence that parasites, bacteria and viruses that infect humans can alter their emotional behavior. Finally, he cites the concept of the human body as an ecosystem for microorganisms and the role of genetics.

There's enough there, says Canli, to justify large-scale studies with depressed patients to see if there actually is a causal relationship between infectious disease and depression. A Northwestern University study, published in September, just might provide some ammunition.

Researchers developed a blood test that measures the levels of 9 RNA blood markers which seem to be different in patients diagnosed with clinical depression, suggesting some kind of physical link.

Depression symptoms

The CDC says symptoms of depression can range from a sad mood and diminished interest in activities to dramatic weight gain or loss, fatigue and excessive and unjustified feelings of guilt.

The condition also poses a substantial burden to the sufferer and friends and family. Interpersonal relationships are particularly likely to suffer when someone is depressed and the CDC says data suggest that few families or networks of friends are likely to remain unaffected.

When major depression goes unrecognized and untreated the results can turn tragic. Consequences can range from ruined marriages to damaged careers to suicide.

The CDC says this disorder is still misconstrued as a sign of weakness rather than being recognized as an illness.

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A slump in construction of new homes

Mortgage applications, meanwhile, were on the rise

After posting a healthy advance during September, construction of new homes fell 2.8% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,009,000. Still, ...

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© alisonhancock – Fotolia.com

After posting a healthy advance during September, construction of new homes fell 2.8% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,009,000. Still, figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show that's 7.8% ahead of the 936,000 rate posted a year earlier.

Starts of single-family homes were up 4.2% from September -- to 696,000, while the rate for construction multi-family buildings was 300,000. Noting that the NAHB homebuilder sentiment indicator rose to 58 from 54 in October, analysts at Briefing.com say this suggests single-family starts should continue to rise next month.

Building permit activity during October would seem to bear this out. Authorization for construction of privately-owned housing units were up 4.8%, with single-family authorizations showing a gain of 1.4%. Permits for multi-family construction were at a rate of 406,000.

The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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© emiliezhang -Fotolia.com
Mortgage applications

Applications for mortgages rose last week for the first time in four weeks.

According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications jumped 4.9% during the week ending November 14.

The calculations included an adjustment for the Veterans Day holiday.

The Refinance Index was up 1%, with the refinance share of mortgage activity falling 2 % -- to 61% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity decreased to 6.9% of total applications.

The FHA share of total applications was to 9.9%, the VA share was 11.5%, and the USDA share at 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) dipped to 4.18% from 4.19%, with points decreasing to 0.24 from 0.26 (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) was down 3 basis points -- from 4.13% to to 4.10%, with points increasing to 0.16 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 decreased to 3.85% from 3.90%, with points increasing to 0.18 from 0.14 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was unchanged from 3.38 percent, with points increasing to 0.27 from 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose 4 basis points to 3.09%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

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Builder confidence rebounds in November

Low interest rates and affordable prices get the credit

After falling 5 points in October, builder confidence in the market for newly built single-family homes rose 4 points -- to a level of 58 -- on the Nationa...

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Volkswagen recalls Jettas and Beetles

The durability of rear trailing arms involved in a crash may be reduced

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 442,000 model year 2011-2013 Jetta vehicles manufactured March 1, 2010, to November 30, 2012, and 2012-2013 Beetle...

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Photo source: Volkswagen

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 442,000 model year 2011-2013 Jettas manufactured March 1, 2010, to November 30, 2012, and 2012-2013 Beetles manufactured March 1, 2011, to July 31, 2013.

The durability of the rear trailing arms may be reduced in vehicles whose rear trailing arms have been previously deformed, such as a result of a rear or side-rear impact crash. This could result in the sudden fracture of the trailing, possibly causing loss of vehicle control and increasing the risk of a crash.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will install a sheet metal inlay on the rear axle trailing arms designed to prevent a sudden loss of control in the event of trailing arm sudden fracture, free of charge.

Owners will be mailed an interim notification in November 2014 and will be mailed a second letter when remedy parts are available.

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298.

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Are stores making a mistake opening on Thanksgiving?

Some suggest "Black Friday Creep" has gone too far

In the last couple of years major retailers have begun opening their doors on Thanksgiving in an effort to get a jump on Black Friday sales. It's worked we...

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© freshidea - Fotolia
In the last couple of years major retailers have begun opening their doors on Thanksgiving in an effort to get a jump on Black Friday sales. It's worked well enough that more of them are doing it, and opening earlier in the day.

But is there a growing consumer backlash? The New York Times has called it “the war on Thanksgiving” and a recent poll suggests that many consumers have decided “Black Friday creep” has gone too far.

According to new research conducted for Eventbrite, 62% of Americans think Black Friday sales that start on Thanksgiving Day will detract from the family Thanksgiving experience. The takeaway, say company officials, is Americans aren’t happy with retailers’ decision to open on a day meant to be spent with friends and family.

Bad policy

A retail expert agrees. Arun Jain, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo (UB), says retailers who keep pushing the Black Friday start time deeper into Thanksgiving Day are making a strategic error.

“It’s a pity that in the richest country in the world, we cannot reserve even a single day for family, and there is a good chance it could backfire with consumer boycotts,” he said.

A better strategy, says Jain, would be opening early Black Friday morning – the way retailers did in the not-too-distant past – and offer spectacular doorbuster bargains. He believes consumers would still show up and still spend money but have a better shopping experience.

“Shoppers will be greeted by happy employees who were able to celebrate the holiday with their loved ones instead of being forced to work,” Jain said. “Happier sales people are more helpful sales people, which leads to higher sales and a more positive evaluation of the store by consumers.”

Make being closed a virtue

Instead of pressuring their tenants to open on Thanksgiving, Jain says shopping malls should make a virtue of preserving the holiday. He recommends making it part of a marketing campaign, advertising the fact stores will be closed so employees can spend time with their families.

“This is an opportunity for retailers to say what they stand for and that they respect workers, their families and this uniquely American tradition,” Jain said.

Walmart pioneered the open-on-Thanksgiving approach but Sears, Best Buy, Macy's, Target, J.C. Penney and others have joined the party in the last few years. This year Kmart is opening at 6:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day and plans to remain open for 41 consecutive hours.

Empathy for employees

As the Times points out, customers will show up on Thanksgiving if a store is open. That, after all, is why stores are doing it.

The issue is the people who work at the stores. They are the ones who have to work on a holiday when everyone else is eating turkey, watching football, and now, shopping.

As Jain points out, these employees usually have families – who are also consumers – and they would like to have everyone around the table on Thanksgiving Day.

Jain says stores that allow that to happen just might benefit in the long run.

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Honda offers to replace airbags even in non-recalled cars

But the automaker insists it's not running a "secret recall" campaign

We're all accustomed to reading stories about automakers being reluctant to recall cars and trucks but Honda is taking the opposite approach in response to...

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Photo © Dmitry Vereshchagin - Fotolia
We're all accustomed to reading stories about automakers being reluctant to recall cars and trucks but Honda is taking the opposite approach in response to consumer concerns about the Takata airbags that have led to the recall of 7.6 million vehicles in the U.S.

The recalls apply only to cars in humid parts of the country, since it's high humidity that can cause the airbag inflators to malfunction and spew shrapnel at drivers and passengers. But Honda says on its website (.pdf) that it "will make arrangements for, as appropriate, the replacement of airbag inflators and the provision of or reimbursement for temporary alternative transportation” at customers’ requests even when they do not live in humid areas.

For anyone who owns one of our vehicles and is concerned, we encourage them to visit recalls.honda.com or call 1-800-999-1009, option 4, and recalls.acura.com or call 1-800-382-2238, option 4.

We encourage customers with an affected vehicle to take immediate action to have their vehicle serviced at their authorized dealership.

 The recalls affect not only Honda and Acura but also some vehicles made by Toyota, Mazda, BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.

It's no secret

Honda is emphasizing that its action does not amount to a "secret recall" but said it is simply trying to relieve the concerns of some consumers. 

It may also be trying to relieve the growing pressure from government and consumer advocates. A Senate committee is holding a hearing on the matter later this week. 

“It is a part of our ongoing efforts to work with our customers individually to resolve their concerns, even if their vehicle is not technically part of one of those actions,” a Honda spokesman told Automotive News, which reported earlier this month that Honda was making replacement airbags available to owners of non-recalled cars.

So far, Congressional critics have singled out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), rather than automakers, for being slow to recognize the problem. 

Sen. Ed Markey, (D-Mass.), said NHTSA, “not Honda, should have been the first to call for this nationwide replacement of deadly air bags. NHTSA should require a nationwide recall, and should require Honda and other affected car companies to immediately announce mandatory nationwide recalls to protect American drivers,” the Detroit News reported.

Honda said its dealers will not disconnect airbags and said dealers are required to check used cars to be certain that the recall has been performed before the cars can be sold. 

A complete list of recalled vehicles with Takata airbags is available here. 

 

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Mixed news about Americans' heart health

High blood pressure is falling but irregular heartbeats increasing

According to the cardiac researchers presenting at last weekend's American Heart Association Scientific Sessions, we're making progress in some areas of he...

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Graphic © hakandogu - Fotolia

According to the cardiac researchers presenting at last weekend's American Heart Association Scientific Sessions, we're making progress in some areas of heart health but stepping back in others.

First, the good news. Since the Baby Boom population first entered middle-age and obesity has become more common, hypertension – or high blood pressure – has been a growing problem. But those dangerous blood pressure readings appear to be coming down.

Dropping blood pressure

Findings presented over the weekend show that more than half of those diagnosed with hypertension are now getting readings below 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), which is considered safe.

A reading of 120/80 is considered optimal and the findings show that between 2003 and 2012, the percentage of hypertension patients able to achieve that rose from 13% to 27%.

"This is definitely good news," the researchers conclude.

That's because hypertension is linked to heart attack and stroke. As fewer people have high blood pressure, that risk has declined.

But the percentage of patients with high blood pressure that remains uncontrolled remains high, at 48%. The federal Healthy People 2020 initiative has a goal of reducing that to 38%. High blood pressure affects about 1 in 3 adults in the United States.

Irregular heart beats jump

While there was good news on the blood pressure front, doctors report emergency room visits for irregular heartbeat surged in recent years and are currently creating a major health care burden.

Atrial fibrillation (AF), the most common kind of arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat, can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.

When they studied the data, researchers found that 65% of those making a trip to the ER for an irregular heartbeat ended up in the hospital. It has increased in later years, rising from 62.5% in 2006 to 67% in 2011.

Getting worse

The rate of AF emergency room visits steadily increased 24%, from 133 visits per 100,000 persons in 2006 to 165 visits per 100,000 persons in 2011.

When you add it all up, more than 2.7 million Americans were admitted for AF between 2006 and 2011.

The one bright spot was the decrease in in-hospital death rates after a patient was admitted with AF.

There were some common characteristics of patients who were admitted with AF. They tended to be elderly, female, had Medicare or Medicaid insurance and lived in areas with low median income.

According to the American Heart Association an irregular heartbeat can produce a wide range of symptoms. They include fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, chest pain, shortness of breath and a rapid heartbeat.

The Association says that while most cases are harmless, some arrhythmias are extremely dangerous and require treatment and management.  

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Feds remind lenders not to discriminate against disabled consumers

Some disabled consumers complain they have been grilled excessively

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is reminding lenders not to impose illegal burdens on mortgage applicants who receive Social Security disab...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is reminding lenders not to impose illegal burdens on mortgage applicants who receive Social Security disability income.

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to qualify for a mortgage that they can afford,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Consumers should not be put at a disadvantage just because they receive Social Security disability income. Lenders should continue to make fair and responsibly underwritten mortgages without imposing unnecessary requirements on consumers who receive these benefits.”

A bulletin issued to lenders (.pdf) today calls attention to standards and guidelines that may help lenders comply with the law, and help ensure that recipients of Social Security disability income receive fair and equal access to credit.

More than 15 million people receive Social Security disability income every year, including many who are veterans of the U.S. armed forces. For those relying on this income, qualifying for a mortgage can be a challenge when lenders ask for proof of how long they will receive their benefits.

The Social Security Administration generally will not provide documentation regarding how long benefits will last. Some applicants have reported being asked for information about their disabilities or even for doctors’ notes about the likely duration of their disabilities.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits creditors from discriminating against an applicant because some or all of the applicant’s income is from a public assistance program, which includes Social Security disability income. 

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Teen invents a webcam for your dog

iCPooch lets you talk and dispense treats remotely

Vanna White has nothing on Brooke Martin. She is a poised 14-year-old who pitches a product that is all her own. Brooke is a teenage inventor and she has c...

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TRUSTe settles FTC deception charges

The company facilitated misrepresentation as non-profit

TRUSTe, which provides of privacy certifications for online businesses, will settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it deceived consumers about...

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Photo source: TRUSTe

TRUSTe, which provides of privacy certifications for online businesses, will settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it deceived consumers about its re-certification program for company’s privacy practices, as well as perpetuated its misrepresentation as a non-profit entity.

The company provides seals to businesses that meet specific requirements for consumer privacy programs that it administers. The seals assure consumers that businesses’ privacy practices are in compliance with specific privacy standards like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework.

“TRUSTe promised to hold companies accountable for protecting consumer privacy, but it fell short of that pledge,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “Self-regulation plays an important role in helping to protect consumers. But when companies fail to live up to their promises to consumers, the FTC will not hesitate to take action."

Massive deception

The FTC’s complaint contends that from 2006 until January 2013, TRUSTe failed to conduct annual re-certifications of companies holding TRUSTe privacy seals in over 1,000 incidences, despite claiming on its website that companies holding TRUSTe Certified Privacy Seals receive re-certification every year.

In addition, the FTC says that since TRUSTe became a for-profit corporation in 2008, it has failed to require companies using TRUSTe seals to update references to the organization’s non-profit status. Before converting from a non-profit to a for-profit, TRUSTe provided clients model language describing TRUSTe as a non-profit for use in their privacy policies.

Under a microscope

The proposed order, according to the FTC, will help ensure that TRUSTe maintains a high standard of consumer protection in the future. Under the terms of its settlement, TRUSTe will be prohibited from making misrepresentations about its certification process or time line, as well as being barred from misrepresenting its corporate status or whether an entity participates in its program.

In addition, TRUSTe must not provide other companies or entities the means to make misrepresentations about these facts, such as through incorrect or inaccurate model language.

The settlement also requires the company in its role as a COPPA safe harbor to provide detailed information about its COPPA-related activities in its annual filing to the FTC, as well as maintaining comprehensive records about its COPPA safe harbor activities for 10 years.

Each of these provisions represents an increase in the reporting requirements laid out under the COPPA rule for safe harbor programs.

The company must also pay $200,000 as part of the settlement.

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New school meals aren't necessarily all that great

Study finds lots of sugar, processed foods in school cafeterias

Good intentions aren't always enough to produce the desired outcome. And that may be the case with new federal regulations intended to make school meals he...

PhotoGood intentions aren't always enough to produce the desired outcome. And that may be the case with new federal regulations intended to make school meals healthier. 

The new federal regulations requiring school meals to contain more whole grains, less saturated fat and more fruits and vegetables may be improving some aspects of the food being served at schools across the United States but they may also be perpetuating eating habits linked to obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases, an analysis by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers has found.

The reasons: Based on analysis of school meals and the new requirements, the whole grains served are mostly processed, which means they are converted into sugar when digested, and many of the required foods, like fruit and milk, contain added sugar because many schools opt to serve canned fruit, fruit juice, and flavored milk.

The new requirements do not limit the amount of added sugar in school meals. The researchers are recommending that the requirements be expanded to limit added sugars and processed foods and to ensure carbohydrate quality.

Low-fat craze

"The low-fat craze in the last two decades has caused Americans to transition to a high carb, low fat diet," notes Sadie Barr, a student in a joint MPH-MBA program at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Carey Business School. "This has been strongly linked to obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases, in large part because the majority of the carbs we have been eating are processed. School lunches, even with these new regulations, still largely reflect this diet."

Congress passed the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010. It requires school meals (breakfast and lunch) to consist of 51% whole grains, increases the amount of fruits and vegetables offered to students, restricts saturated fats to less than 10% of meal calories, imposes calorie restrictions and only allows skim or 1% milk to be served (only skim milk is allowed to be flavored). The goal was to provide nutritious food that promoted healthful eating.

"The one thing I found shocking," notes Barr, "is that the HHFKA regulation requirements make no mention of carbohydrates. The word 'fat' is mentioned perhaps hundreds of times. But the word 'carbohydrate' is not mentioned once. They didn't recognize that primary macronutrient. Requiring grains served to be at least 51% whole is a step in the right direction, but isn't enough to ensure that the meals served will be more whole and less processed, which would be more advantageous to health."

The researchers, in addition to recommending that HHFKA be expanded to limit added sugars, curtail the amount of processed carbohydrates and increase whole grain and whole food products, are recommending that an independent panel of experts be convened to reevaluate the saturated fat and calorie restriction. This would help insure that processed carbohydrates are not replacing saturated fats, Barr says.

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Ford recalls various Fusions

The key can be removed even if the transmission is not in Par

Ford is recalling approximately 65,000 2014-15 Fusions manufactured from July 27, 2013, to Oct. 31, 2014; 2015 Fusion Energi vehicles manufactured from Ju...

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Photo source: Ford

Ford is recalling approximately 65,000 2014-15 Fusions manufactured from July 27, 2013, to Oct. 31, 2014; 2015 Fusion Energi vehicles manufactured from July 14, 2014, to Oct. 31, 2014; and 2015 Fusion Hybrid vehicles manufactured from Feb. 24, 2014, to Oct. 31, 2014.

A programming issue in the instrument cluster allows the key to be removed 30 minutes after the ignition is turned off, even if the transmission is not in Park. This is a compliance issue with a regulation involving theft protection and rollaway prevention.

Ford says it is not aware of any accidents or injuries related to this condition.

Dealers will reprogram the instrument cluster at no cost to the customer.

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BMW recalls MINI Cooper Hardtops

The spare wheel could separate from the vehicle

BMW of North America is recalling 5,805 model year 2014 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2-door vehicles manufactured January 7, 2014, to July 21, 2014. The spare whe...

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Photo source: MiniUSA

BMW of North America is recalling 5,805 model year 2014 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2-door vehicles manufactured January 7, 2014, to July 21, 2014.

The spare wheel may have been attached under the car with a nut that is not self-locking. Vibrations from driving may cause the nut to loosen, allowing the wheel to separate from the car. If the spare wheel separates from the vehicle, it could become a road hazard and increase the risk of a crash.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the spare wheel securing nut with a self-locking nut, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in November 2014.

Owners may contact MINI customer service at 1-866-275-6464.

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Chaotic Labz recalls Mayhem dietary supplement

The product contains dexamethasone and cyproheptadine

Chaotic Labz of Atkins, Ark., is recalling Mayhem dietary supplement capsules, Lot #CLM061114 with an expiration date of 06/2016. Mayhem, which is intende...

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Photo source: Chaotic Labz

Chaotic Labz of Atkins, Ark., is recalling Mayhem dietary supplement capsules, Lot #CLM061114 with an expiration date of 06/2016.

Mayhem, which is intended for use as a bodybuilding supplement, contains undeclared dexamethasone, a prescription corticosteroid commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions, and cyproheptadine, a prescription antihistamine used for seasonal allergy treatment, making this an unapproved drug.

The company says it has not received reports of these adverse effects related to this recall

The recalled product is packaged in a clear bottle with yellow capsules associated with Lot #CLM061114 with an expiration date of 06/2016. It can be identified by the brand known as Chaotic Labz and product name Mayhem, Appetite for Construction.

The product was distributed nationwide to various nutritional supplement retail outlets and via the Internet.

Consumers, distributors and retailers who have the recalled product should stop using it and return the product immediately to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Cordy Hooten at (479) 223-2677, Monday - Friday from 9am-5pm (CT) or by email at contact.chaoticlabz@gmail.com.

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Social responsibility can influence what you buy -- but should it?

Consumers can be manipulated by a company's good works

Should you buy a product just because the company selling it is donating a portion of the sale to a good cause?...

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Photo via Facebook

Should you buy a product just because the company selling it is donating a portion of the sale to a good cause?

You certainly have plenty of opportunities to do so as more companies see linking to a popular cause as a way to do good and just maybe, boost sales and mollify their critics. For example, during October's breast cancer awareness campaign, 5-Hour Energy packaged products in pink, donating a portion of the sale to breast cancer research.

While corporate philanthropy is to be applauded, it's worth noting that a company's use of corporate responsibility for marketing can have a manipulative effect on you.

Michelle Andrews and Xueming Luo of Temple University, Zheng Fang of Sichuan University and Jaakko Aspara of Hanken Swedish School of Economics, found that when a company offers to make charitable donations tied to consumer purchases, consumers tend to purchase more. A lot more.

Big boost in sales

"The mere presence of a charitable donation opportunity can generate significantly more sales," the authors write. "Offering the donation nearly doubled the number of purchases."

To prove their point the researchers sent two text messages to consumers. The first advertised tickets for a new film at a nearby IMAX theater, and the second advertised the tickets with a note saying that part of the proceeds would go to help low income students pay for college.

The results were significant. Those people believing their purchase would help others were far more inclined to make a purchase.

Buying a warm glow

The researchers said triggering a “warm glow” feeling in consumers makes them more likely to buy whatever is being sold, whether or not they want it or really need it.

We reported last week on another study that found food manufacturers that supported good causes enjoyed a “health halo,” with consumers assuming the companies' products are healthier than they are.

The authors found that this "health halo" encouraged overconsumption and underestimation of calories consumed, adding that the current study could lead to important changes in advertising regulations -- for example, limiting how much information about its social programs a company may include on its food packaging.

Corporations have commissioned their own socially responsible marketing studies for years, which may be why you see so many of these campaigns. However, business consultants generally advise companies to make their support meaningful and genuine so that they don't appear self-serving.

For consumers, that means giving purchases a little more thought when a product is tied to a cause. If you really want to support the cause, maybe it's okay to be swayed. If it's something you need and you can also support a good cause, so much the better.

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CEO ordered to testify in Jeep fire lawsuit

Older Jeep Grand Cherokee fuel tank fire controversy continues to smolder

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has been ordered to testify in a lawsuit filed by the family of a four-year-old Georgia boy who died when his family's ...

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1999-2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee (Photo via Wikipedia)

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has been ordered to testify in a lawsuit filed by the family of a four-year-old Georgia boy who died when his family's Jeep burst into flames after being rear-ended.

The company had tried to exclude Marchionne from testifying but Decatur County, Ga., Superior Court Judge J. Kevin Chason ordered him to be available for a videotaped deposition, the Wall Street Journal reported.

According to the lawsuit, Remington Cole Walden, 4, was sitting in the back seat of his family's 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee -- strapped into a safety seat -- when the SUV was rear-ended, causing the gas tank to rupture and spill gasoline. The ensuing fire engulfed the rear of the car.

Familiar scenario

The scenario is a familiar one. The Center for Auto Safety has counted 58 fatalities (pdf) in similar accidents and has repeatedly called for a recall of all affected models.

Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked Chrysler to recall about 2.7 million older Jeeps that have their fuel tank mounted behind the rear bumper. The company refused but eventually -- in a deal brokered at a secret, unannounced meeting at a Chicago airport -- agreed to a voluntary fix involving about 1.5 million Jeeps while continuing to insist they were safe.

Dealers were instructed to examine the recalled Jeeps and install a trailer hitch on vehicles that did not already have one, the theory being that the trailer hitch would provide additional protection for the fuel tank, a theory critics say has not been scientifically tested.

The Walden family's Jeep was not included in the recall but was part of the 2.7 million Jeeps NHTSA asked Fiat Chrysler to recall.

Fiat Chrysler says the older Jeeps met federal safety standards at the time they were built and says that most of the fatal accidents have been high-speed catastrophic incidents that left little chance of survival.

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GM extends deadline for ignition-related death claims

At least one family had not been notified that the faulty switch was to blame for their relative's fatal crash

General Motors is extending by one month the deadline for submitting a claim for death or injury linked to defective ignition switches. The extension follo...

PhotoGeneral Motors is extending by one month the deadline for submitting a claim for death or injury linked to defective ignition switches. The extension follows the revelation that at least one family had not heard of the victim compensation program and did not know that the ignition switch had been blamed for the death of their relative.

Jean P. Averill, 81, was killed in 2003 when her Saturn Ion crashed, making her the earliest fatality so far connected with the ignition switches that have led to millions of recalls.

The New York Times broke the news of Averill's death last week, leading to the decision to extend the claims deadline to Jan. 31, 2015. The Times reported that the Averill family did not know it was eligible to receive a minimum of $1 million from the compensation fund being administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg.

Feinberg said the extension was not directly related to the failure to notify the Averill family. He said hundreds of thousands of consumers who owned affected cars are only now receiving letters informing them of the compensation program and explaining the application process.

At least 33 death claims have been approved so far, the Times reported. The defective ignition switches, which were found in Saturn Ions, Chevrolet Cobalts and other small sedans, had a tendency to slip into the "Accessory" position, cutting power to the engine, power steering, power brakes and airbags.

Information about the claims program and application forms are available online.

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Cost of treating skin cancer is skyrocketing

Government study sheds little light on reasons for dramatic increase

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States and in the past few years has become a growing public health problem. Not only is th...

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Photo © Vasily Merkushev - Fotolia

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States and in the past few years has become a growing public health problem. Not only is the number of skin cancer cases growing, the cost of treating the diseaseis surging.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now says skin cancer treatment costs increased 5 times faster than treatments for other cancers between 2002 and 2011.

The average annual cost of skin cancer treatment was $3.6 billion during 2002-2006. But that number grew to $8.1 billion in the years 2007 through 2011, an increase 126%.

During that same time the average annual cost for treating all other cancers increased by just 25%.

Alarming

“The findings raise the alarm that not only is skin cancer a growing problem in the United States, but the costs for treating it are skyrocketing relative to other cancers, said the lead author of the report, Gery Guy, of the CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. “This also underscores the importance of skin cancer prevention efforts.”

According to the CDC about 5 million people in the U.S. are treated for skin cancer every year. Most cases of melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer, are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light.

While most consumers might think the dangers of skin cancer go away during the winter months, that's not the case. The Skin Cancer Foundation says people who spend time outdoors in the winter – especially winter sports enthusiasts – are at increased risk for overexposure to the sun's UV radiation.

Winter hazards

Skiers and snowboarders may be at increased risk because of the combination of higher altitude and snow's reflective power.

"It's easy to associate winter with frostbite and windburn, but most people are unaware that UV rays can be every bit as damaging on the slopes as on the beach," said Perry Robins, M.D., president of the Skin Cancer Foundation. "With the winter sports season ahead of us, it's more important than ever to take proper precautions on the slopes."

Here's how playing in the snow at higher altitude increases risk. UV radiation exposure increases 4% to 5% with every 1,000 feet above sea level. At an altitude of 9,000 to 10,000 feet, UV radiation may be 35% to 45% more intense than at sea level.

Snow's reflective power

Meanwhile, snow reflects up to 80% of the UV light from the sun. That means you can be exposed twice to the same UV rays, increasing your risk of skin damage.

The CDC says people spending time outdoors need to take precautions to protect themselves from overexposure to the sun, regardless of the season. While less of the body is exposed during the winter, the CDC recommends using sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher and both UVA and UVB protection on skin that is exposed.

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Secondhand marijuana smoke may be just as bad for you as tobacco

Increasing legalization of marijuana becoming a public health concern

Marijuana is often regarded as a non-starter when it comes to physical effects on the body, but new research finds that secondhand marijuana smoke may dama...

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Photo © Monkey Business - Fotolia.jpg

Marijuana is often regarded as a non-starter when it comes to physical effects on the body, but new research finds that secondhand marijuana smoke may damage blood vessels as much as tobacco smoke.

This shouldn't be too surprising since marijuana and tobacco smoke are chemically and physically alike, aside from their active ingredients -- nicotine in the cases of cigarettes, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana.

"Most people know secondhand cigarette smoke is bad for you, but many don't realize that secondhand marijuana smoke may also be harmful," said Matthew Springer, Ph.D., senior author of the study and cardiovascular researcher and associate professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco's Cardiology Division.

The research is being presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2014.

Growing concern

Now that marijuana is becoming increasingly legalized in the United States, its effect on others is a growing public health concern, Springer said.

"If you're hanging out in a room where people are smoking a lot of marijuana, you may be harming your blood vessels," he said. "There's no reason to think marijuana smoke is better than tobacco smoke. Avoid them both."

Secondhand tobacco smoke causes about 34,000 premature deaths from heart disease each year in the United States among nonsmokers according to the U.S. Surgeon General's 2014 report on the consequences of smoking.

More research is needed to determine if secondhand marijuana smoke has other similar effects to secondhand cigarette smoke in humans.

In the study, blood vessel function in lab rats dropped 70% after 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke. Even when the marijuana contained no THC, blood vessel function was still impaired.

Reduced blood vessel function may raise the chances of developing atherosclerosis and could lead to a heart attack. Atherosclerosis is the disease process that causes plaque build-up in the arteries which narrows them and restricts blood flow.

The drop in blood vessel function from THC-free marijuana suggests that the compound isn't responsible for the effect. Similarly, this study confirms that nicotine is not required for smoke to interfere with blood vessel function.

Smoking machine

In the study, researchers used a modified cigarette smoking machine to expose rats to marijuana smoke. A high-resolution ultrasound machine measured how well the main leg artery functioned. Researchers recorded blood vessel dilation before smoke exposure and 10 minutes and 40 minutes after smoke exposure.

They also conducted separate tests with THC-free marijuana and plain air. There was no difference in blood vessel function when the rats were exposed to plain air.

In previous tobacco studies, blood vessel function tended to go back to normal within 30 minutes of exposure. However, in the marijuana study, blood vessel function didn't return to normal when measured 40 minutes after exposure.

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Let your kids cook Thanksgiving dinner

They have to learn to cook sometime -- might as well be now

Wouldn't it be great if you could sit back while your kids cooked the Thanksgiving dinner for you? Well, why not? Thanksgiving is a great time to create a ...

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Photo © michaeljung - Fotolia
Wouldn't it be great if you could sit back while your kids cooked the Thanksgiving dinner for you? Well, why not? Thanksgiving is a great time to create a new tradition and also spark interest in learning to cook.

Studies have shown that kids who help cook are more likely to try new foods --usually healthier ones. Letting children be in control of part of the meal, even by allowing them to choose whether you eat carrots or peas for dinner, can help reduce the anxiety of eating a new food or one that may not look great but tastes all right.

Like anything new, be prepared for lots of spills but the good news is the more they do it the better they get. If you teach them about healthy food and how fun it is to create recipes they will grow up knowing that food tastes better at home as opposed to eating out. It is a very good way to cut down on obesity.

First things first -- make sure they wash their hands, since as far as we know mud isn't an ingredient anyone is really fond of eating.

Safety first

Safety is important as the stove is hot and liquids can be hit and spilled. Turn all pot and pan handles toward the back of the stove to help prevent a child's arm or head from knocking it over.

Oven mitts are a kitchen essential. A handle might not feel very hot to you but can burn a small child.

Make sure you walk through how to use kitchen appliances like a blender or can opener and be sure to supervise younger children.

This is also a wonderful opportunity to increase your kids' vocabulary. Teach them what words like sear or sauté mean.

Clean-up is just as important as prep time and they need to know how to be sanitary. Teach them that cleaning is just as important as measuring how much flour to use in a cake.

Having their own tools also helps give kids a sense of ownership and independence. Some suggestions:

  • A set of measuring cups and spoons (good for math skills);
  • Mixing bowls that are slip-proof and easy to pour;
  • Growingcooks.com has mini-utensils for little hands;
  • Curiouschef.com has a whole assortment including kid-friendly knives; and
  • Forsmallhands.com has chef hats and an apron.

Keep the atmosphere fun and engaging. If you are tense or worried they will pick up on it. Going from start to finish gives them a sense of accomplishment. This can be a fabulous self esteem builder as they are creating something and finishing it. Remember we want them to do this on their own someday.

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New York cracking down on puppy mills

New state law gives cities and counties more power to regulate pet stores, breeders

New York is trying to make itself less hospitable to puppy mills and retail pet stores that sell dogs raised in inhumane conditions. A new state law gives ...

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Photo © sommai - Fotolia

New York is trying to make itself less hospitable to puppy mills and retail pet stores that sell dogs raised in inhumane conditions. A new state law gives municipalities more power to regulate retail pet stores and the breeders that supply them and state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is offering guidance to get cities and towns interested.

“The legal backup we are offering will aid local officials who are seeking to protect vulnerable animals from abuse, and assure that pets sold to New Yorkers are healthy and free from mistreatment,” Schneiderman said. “New Yorkers value their pets as companions and are entitled to know that they came from sources that treated them in a safe and healthy manner. By working with municipalities, we will help ensure that New Yorkers can be confident that their cats and dogs are healthy when they purchase them and that they were raised in a safe place.”

Puppy mills are large-scale breeding operations where pets are raised in squalid conditions and frequently mistreated, leaving them susceptible to illness, hereditary defects and other health problems. The substandard conditions contribute to overcrowding at animal shelters, disease, exorbitant veterinary bills, and even falsified pedigree information. 

Retailers' role

Schneiderman's guidance is also focused on pet stores. Pet retailers are of concern because of substandard conditions at some stores, and because many pet stores get puppies and kittens from large-scale puppy mill operations – making retail stores the main link between unscrupulous puppy mill operations and consumers.

The new state law ended a preemption that barred municipal and local governments from regulating pet dealers at the local level, and it allows them to impose tougher standards than the state requires.

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The holiday children's exchange

It's not fun for anyone but there are steps you can take to make it bearable

It's sort of like a cookie exchange -- the way children get passed around by their divorced parents during the holidays. It can be hard especially if it's ...

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Photo © vvvita - Fotolia
It's sort of like a cookie exchange -- the way children get passed around by their divorced parents during the holidays. It can be hard especially if it's the first year that you are doing this exercise. Here are a few guidelines that can help everyone out with this troublesome ritual.

Create some new traditions. Perhaps it's a new approach to gift-giving or maybe visiting friends, attending a play or concert, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or enjoying a special meal prepared by all of you. Hold onto traditions and activities from the past that worked for you and your kids.The aim is to help your kids bookmark memories of your time together.

Be prepared emotionally. It's not easy not being without your kids on Christmas Eve if they have to be with the other parent. But you don't want to make them feel bad or worry about you. So prepare ahead of time for yourself so that they know you are OK. Make plans with a friend or your family to be with people who can support you and will help you create your own new traditions.

Attitude is everything. Get in a positive mode. Remember that spending time with your kids doing enjoyable activities is the best part of this busy season. Bake cookies together. If you are apart on Thanksgiving do Thanksgiving another day at your house so they can help cook and participate. It's only a day on the calendar.

Validate your kids' feelings. This might be very hard for them, having to be trekked around to two different families. Let them know you understand. Don't throw out any guilt about being away from you. This was not their doing. You and your spouse need to keep it between the two of you.

Don't ask, don't tell. Don't interrogate them with what is happening at the other parent's home. No questions about the new boyfriend or girlfriend. Do not put them through the 20 questions. You ask about them and their time if you want to know. Keep your thoughts of exorcism to yourself.

Laugh. There is nothing like a good laugh to change a mood. Try to keep it light. Do things you enjoy like listening to music or working on a puzzle together. Just be together and value the time that you have -- there is no better time than the present. Stay there. It might be hard but it's the greatest gift you can give to yourself and your family.

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Researchers confirm health benefits of walnuts

They slow prostate cancer in mice and reduce cholesterol in humans

Too much fat is bad for your but some fat is better than others. Take walnuts. Researchers at UC Davis have found that diets rich in whole walnuts or walnu...

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Photo © Dionisvera - Fotolia

Too much fat is bad for your but some fat is better than others. Take walnuts. Researchers at UC Davis have found that diets rich in whole walnuts or walnut oil slowed prostate cancer growth in mice.

Walnuts also reduced cholesterol and increased insulin sensitivity, as well as reducing levels of the hormone IGF-1, which had been previously implicated in both prostate and breast cancer. The study was published online in the Journal of Medicinal Food.

“For years, the United States government has been on a crusade against fat, and I think it’s been to our detriment,” said lead scientist and research nutritionist Paul Davis. “Walnuts are a perfect example. While they are high in fat, their fat does not drive prostate cancer growth. In fact, walnuts do just the opposite when fed to mice.”

Davis and colleagues have been investigating the impact of walnuts on health for some time. A previous study found that walnuts reduced prostate tumor size in mice; however, there were questions about which parts of the nuts generated these benefits.

Was it the meat, the oil or the omega-3 fatty acids? If it was the omega-3 fats, the benefit might not be unique to walnuts. Since the fatty acid profile for the soybean oil used as a control was similar, but not identical, to walnuts, more work had to be done.

Results replicated

In the current study, researchers used a mixture of fats with virtually the same fatty acid content as walnuts as their control diet. The mice were fed whole walnuts, walnut oil or the walnut-like fat for 18 weeks. The results replicated those from the previous study. While the walnuts and walnut oil reduced cholesterol and slowed prostate cancer growth, in contrast, the walnut-like fat did not have these effects, confirming that other nut components caused the improvements – not the omega-3s.

“We showed that it’s not the omega-3s by themselves, though, it could be a combination of the omega-3s with whatever else is in the walnut oil,” Davis said. “It’s becoming increasingly clear in nutrition that it’s never going to be just one thing; it’s always a combination.”

While the study does not pinpoint which combination of compounds in walnuts slows cancer growth, it did rule out fiber, zinc, magnesium and selenium. In addition, the research demonstrated that walnuts modulate several mechanisms associated with cancer growth.

“The energy effects from decreasing IGF-1 seem to muck up the works so the cancer can’t grow as fast as it normally would,” Davis said. “Also, reducing cholesterol means cancer cells may not get enough of it to allow these cells to grow quickly.”

Still, Davis recommends caution in diet modification.

“In our study the mice were eating the equivalent of 2.6 ounces of walnuts,” he said. “You need to realize that 2.6 ounces of walnuts is about 482 calories. That’s not insignificant, but it’s better than eating a serving of supersized fries, which has 610 calories. In addition to the cancer benefit, we think you also get cardiovascular benefits that other walnut research has demonstrated.

“It’s the holiday season, and walnuts are part of any number of holiday dishes. Feel free to consume them in moderation.”

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Eco-Farmed and Organic Brown Rice Flour recalled

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Lundberg Family Farms is recalling specific bags of Brown Rice Flour. The products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. No serious illn...

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Photo source: FDA

Lundberg Family Farms is recalling specific bags of Brown Rice Flour.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

No serious illnesses have been reported to date from the consumption of the product.

The recalled Eco-Farmed Brown Rice Flour (UPC# 0 73416 00550 1) and Organic Brown Rice Flour (UPC # 073416 00500 6) were distributed in retail store bulk bins, and 25-lb bulk bags, between November 4 and November 12, 2014- in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Arizona, Nevada, and by mail order.

The affected 25-lb bulk bags contain the lot numbers 141027, 141028, 141029, 141030 located on the bottom seam of the bag.

Distributors and retailers have been notified and requested to discard the affected products in stock.

Customers who have purchased the recalled product should discard it and contact the place of purchase for a refund.

Consumers may call the firm's customer service representatives at 530-538-3555 Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT, or by email at recall@lundberg.com.

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Hyvee Mozzarella Cheese Sticks recalled

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

Great American Appetizers of Nampa, Idaho, is recalling 662 cases of HyVee Mozzarella Cheese Sticks. The product may contain soy flour, yellow #5 and yell...

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Photo source: USDA

Great American Appetizers of Nampa, Idaho, is recalling 662 cases of HyVee Mozzarella Cheese Sticks.

The product may contain soy flour, yellow #5 and yellow #6, allergens not listed on the label.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The HyVee Mozzarella Sticks were distributed to retailers in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The recalled product is in an 8-oz. (227 g) carton (UPC #075450149913). The following product date codes are printed on the end of the carton: 14290402 (BEST IF USED BY 4/17/2016) and 14295402 (BEST IF USED BY 4/22/2016).

No other date codes are affected by this recall.

Consumers who have purchased HyVee Mozzarella Cheese Sticks may return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-800-282-4834 from 8AM – 5PM Mountain Time, or by email at KalaT@appetizer.com.

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Used car shoppers must pay attention to recalls

Airbag recall underscores the danger of some safety issues

The ongoing series of recalls involving cars equipped with Takata airbags simply underscores the importance of recalls when you buy a used car. If the vehi...

PhotoThe ongoing series of recalls involving cars equipped with Takata airbags simply underscores the importance of recalls when you buy a used car. If the vehicle in question has been subject to a safety recall, you need to make sure the issue has been addressed.

The Takata recalls are particularly serious. Honda has widened its recall of cars equipped with Takata airbags by another 170,000 vehicles after learning that a Malaysian consumer died in July after being hit by shrapnel from a deployed airbag. Four previous confirmed deaths occurred in the U.S.

So far this year more than 52 million vehicles have been recalled in the U.S., increasing the odds a U.S. consumer could drive home with a car with a serious safety issue. Used car website iSeeCars.com has studied the 35 most widely available used cars from the 2007 to 2013 model years to see which ones had the most recalls.

Time is money

The survey looked at the average number of recalls a particular model experienced and how much time a vehicle owner had to spend getting the problem fixed.

“Recalls are of course detrimental to the safety of the driver and the car's occupants, but they also represent a huge headache for consumers," said iSeeCars.com CEO Phong Ly. "You need to call to make an appointment with the dealer, then there's the driving to the dealership, waiting in line and waiting for the repair to be performed or for them to provide you a loaner car. Then you repeat the process again in reverse when the repair is complete."

At an estimated average of three hours per recall, the lost hours quickly add up. The iSeeCars.com survey found the Chevrolet Cruz had the most average recalls, at 4.8, barely edging out the Toyota RAV4 with 4.7. The Cruz recalls were also the most costly in terms of time lost, at 14.4 hours, compared the the RAV4's 14.0.

Number three on the list is the Jeep Grand Cherokee with 4.4 recalls and 13.2 lost hours. The Dodge/Ram 1500 is fourth with 4.3 recalls and 12.9 lost hours and the Jeep Wrangler is fifth, with 4.2 recalls and 12.6 hours lost. That gives Chrysler the dubious distinction of placing 3 models in the top 5 of iSeeCars.com's most-recalled list.

What to do

Ly points out the list covers a wide time span and the cars high on the list might not have had a recall in the model year you're considering. But there's an easy way to find out if any used car you are thinking about buying has not only been recalled, but had the recall issue addressed.

PhotoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website has a searchable database where you can enter the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and it will tell you if there is an open recall. If there is, and you still want the vehicle, you can then have the dealer get the issue repaired before you buy the car.

The NHTSA database has proven somewhat unreliable, often crashing during times of peak usage. A similar but more robust database is available on the Carfax site. Each manufacturer also has its own VIN database.

It is particularly important to run the VIN through the database if you are buying a car in a private sale, such as a car you found on Craigslist.

Beyond whether the recall issue has been addressed, Ly says the frequency a model is subject to recall is a legitimate consideration when a consumer goes used car shopping.

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WSJ: Feds mimic cell towers in massive airborne dragnet

"Dirtboxes" connect to and track cell phones to find criminals, fugitives

The Wall Street Journal today lifts the lid on a hitherto-secret government program that uses airborne devices to collect, analyze and track millions of ce...

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Photo © sas - Fotolia
The Wall Street Journal today lifts the lid on a hitherto-secret government program that uses airborne devices to collect, analyze and track millions of cellphone calls, searching for criminals, fugitives and terrorists.

The devices -- called "dirtbags" -- are mounted in small Cessna aircraft and are essentially flying cell towers. Cell phones are "pinged," identify themselves and log onto the device; those of interest to the U.S. Marshals Service are then tracked while others are disconnected.

The Journal says it learned of the program through individuals who are closely associated with it but did not identify any of them. It compares the program to the National Security Administration's (NSA) massive surveillance of landline telephones and Internet traffic.

The airborne interception program became operational in 2007 and operates at regular intervals from bases around the country, the newspaper said. The Justice Department would not confirm or deny the existence of the surveillance program.

The device can cause brief interruptions of calls when it identifies itself to nearby cell phones and connects to them. The sources quoted by the newspaper said the devices are designed to minimize such interruptions, especially 911 calls.

A major advantage of the device is that it eliminates the necessity of interacting with cell phone carriers to identify and track calls, since the dirtbag device connects directly to wireless phones within range, cutting out the phone company.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union called the program "inexcusable."

The Journal's complete story is available online

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Cadillac picks space for its new headquarters in midtown Manhattan

GM hopes that getting out of Detroit will help Cadillac iron out its rough spots

You sort of have to feel bad for Cadillac. Its cars get top marks from reviewers and as luxury brands go, most models are a bargain, selling for tens of th...

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Photo © chamillew - Fotolia

You sort of have to feel bad for Cadillac. Its cars get top marks from reviewers and as luxury brands go, most models are a bargain, selling for tens of thousands of dollars less than comparable European or Japanese brands.

But somehow, the Caddies just don't have that certain, oh you know, je ne sais quoi -- snob appeal, for lack of a better term. A midtown Manhattanite might say they're something that would appeal to the "bridge and tunnel crowd." You know, those people. 

They don't sell all that well either. Sales have been off 5% through October at 141,000 vehicles, which puts Caddy in fifth place behind luxury competitors Mercedes, BMW, Lexus and Audi.

So, what's a simple Midwestern automaker to do? How can a comparative brute from Detroit possibly get it together sufficiently to appeal to the oh-so-svelte Manhattan hipster crowd? (Actually, the hipsters aren't exactly svelte. Plus they're mostly in Brooklyn and Hoboken but that's another story.)

Why, move to New York City, of course. After all, it you can make it there you'll make it anywhere, we're told. 

Never sleeps

So GM is helping Cadillac pack up and get ready to move to its exciting new digs in the City That Never Sleeps. It'll be at 330 Hudson St., it was reported today, in the neighborhood known as Midtown South. Neighbors in the building include Penguin Books and TripAdvisor, so maybe they'll take the gawky Midwesterner under their wing and knock some of the hayseeds off.

Seriously, though, GM insists it really thinks that putting its division headquarters -- meaning, mostly, its marketing and sales people -- in NYC will help it move up a notch or two and start hanging out with a better class of customer.

Photo“There is no better atmosphere in which to better immerse ourselves into luxury consumer and brand expertise,” Johan de Nysschen, Cadillac president, said in a statement, according to Automotive News“We look forward to being a good neighbour there,” the statement added, using British spelling for some reason. See, getting sophisticated already.

GM CEO Mary Barra has defended the move, saying she wants her team "thinking about Cadillac day in and day out.” And where better to think about Cadillac than in a town where most people don't even drive themselves around, jumping instead onto the subway and into filthy cabs or overworked Lincoln Town Cars?

“New York is where luxury is defined. It’s trend-setting. It’s much broader than the auto industry in terms of setting trends in luxury,” she said.

Well, OK. Hey, here's a suggestion from a former Noo Yawka: Tone down that emblem a little. I mean, Jeez ... whatya tryna say, anyhow?

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Fighting obesity is most effective when started early

Obese fifth-graders highly likely to be obese teenagers

Research continues to shed new light on childhood obesity, its consequences, and how best to prevent it. The latest findings underscore the importance of p...

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Photo © Hugo Félix - Fotolia

Research continues to shed new light on childhood obesity, its consequences, and how best to prevent it. The latest findings underscore the importance of parental influence.

For example, pediatrics researchers at the University at Buffalo (UB) have made this correlation: preschoolers whose parents have rules about what they can and cannot eat don't seem to have a problem with obesity.

“Parents can make a difference here by training young children to self-regulate and also by setting food rules in the home,” says Xiaozhong Wen, senior author on the research. “We found that the combination of parental rules and young children’s ability to self-regulate their behaviors works best in teaching young children to eat healthy.”

The ability to self-regulate appears to be the wild card here. The researchers noticed that some children whose parents did not enforce strict food rules still managed to have healthy weights. The researchers noticed that these kids also seemed to be better able to control their emotions, which they say may be a controlling factor in food consumption.

Hard to change after fifth grade

It's important for preschoolers to maintain a healthy weight because researchers in Boston have found that if they are overweight or obese by fifth grade they have a high risk of becoming or remaining obese in their teen years.

The collaborative study by several universities highlights several risk factors, including too much screen time, having a parent who is obese, living in a lower education household and having a negative body image.

"We know from prior studies that obesity in children is correlated with their likelihood of being obese when they are older," said study lead author Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of General Pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital and a Harvard professor. "But the pattern of change over time, of entry to and exit from obesity, hasn't generally been studied."

Overcoming the odds

While it is important to intervene with young children before they become overweight, Schuster says it is also important not to give up on kids who have become obese by fifth grade or later. While the odds may be against them, several interventions can help these kids.

"We as clinicians need to do more to educate families and encourage them to have healthier foods at home and especially when they eat outside the home,” Schuster said. “We also need to encourage them to increase exercise and reduce screen time."

Schools can play a role as well, such as improving school meals, removing sugar sweetened beverages and strengthening or restoring physical education programs. While there is hope, the present numbers are not encouraging.

The researchers found 65% of obese fifth-graders remained obese in tenth grade; 23% were no longer obese but were still overweight. Only 12% became normal weight.

On the other side of the coin, 87% of the children who were normal weight in fifth grade were still normal weight in 10th grade.

Helping or hurting?

Previous studies have suggested teens who are obese are almost certain to be obese as adults, leading to serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Besides the health consequences, many of these adults spend millions of dollars on weight loss programs, drugs and even surgery.

A study by researchers at 3 universities suggests some of these obesity remedies are actually contributing to the problem.

"Weight management remedies that promise to reduce the risks of being overweight may undermine consumer motivation to engage in health-supportive behaviors," write authors Lisa E. Bolton of Penn State, Amit Bhattacharjee of Dartmouth, and Americus Reed, II of Penn. "Put simply, why put effort into living a healthy lifestyle when a weight management remedy can take care of the problem?"

The study warned that the very people who need to reduce weight the most and are desperately reaching for weight loss pills are unfortunately the ones most likely to then dangerously increase their consumption of unhealthy foods.

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There's little doubt about it -- gift cards rule this Christmas season

A new survey says shoppers will spend more than $31 billion on them

Wondering what to get that certain someone this holiday season? You can;t really go wrong with a gift card. According to a National Retail Federation (NRF...

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Wondering what to get that certain someone this holiday season? You can't really go wrong with a gift card.

According to a National Retail Federation (NRF) survey taken in October, 62% of of those asked said they would like to receive a gift card, making gift cards the most requested gift item for 8 years running.

A new NRF survey projects spending on gift cards will top all previous records -- $31.74 billion, with the average shopper spending $172.74 on them, compared with $163.16 last year.

“No longer impersonal or only about convenience, gift cards have become the perfect, practical gift item for millions of holiday shoppers,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “And, as the most requested gift item for 8 years in a row, we’re sure there will be plenty of happy individuals this holiday season who can look forward to treating themselves to something shiny and new come January when retailers start to offer promotions on fresh new merchandise.”

The universal gift

According to the survey, conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, shoppers will spend an average of $47.87 per card, up $2.71 from last year. Total spending on gift cards has increased 83% since NRF began tracking consumers’ intentions to buy gift cards as holiday gifts in 2003.

Gift cards are a go-to gift for consumers of all ages; the survey found adults 65+ will spend the most on gift cards -- an average of $204.59. Young adults between 18-24 years old will spend the least at an average of $113.75. Additionally, men plan to spend significantly more than women on gift cards ($180.81 vs. $165.09 respectively).

When asked why they are planning to buy gift cards this holiday season, more than half (51.8%) of shoppers said that gift cards allow the recipient to select their own gift -- the highest since NRF started asking the question in 2010. Additionally, one-quarter (25.6%) said gift cards are easier and faster to buy, and 3.8% said this helps them stick to their holiday budget.

“These days, shoppers simply love the idea of gifting someone they care about with a little ‘free money’ in the form of a gift card,” said Prosper’s Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow. “Consumers young and old want to find the best way possible to create a happy holiday experience for their loved ones, and gift cards are a great option every time.”

Plenty of choices

There are numerous options for shoppers when it comes to what type of card to get, and it is clear department stores, restaurants and coffee shops are among the most popular choice for gift givers.

According to the survey 37.7% of gift card buyers will give their recipients a gift card from a department store, and 34% will give the gift of a meal at a restaurant. One in five (20.6%) will pick up coffee shop gift cards, 18.1% will give the gift of entertainment, such as a movie theatre gift card, and 18.9% will give gift cards to electronics stores.

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For the cat that has everything -- a robotic mouse

It's a little expensive but you won't find a smarter mouse anywhere unless you get a real one

I know it's a little early to be pushing Christmas presents, but the retail stores had Christmas items up before Halloween and Black Friday is almost passé...

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Photo (c) Petronics

I know it's a little early to be pushing Christmas presents, but the retail stores had Christmas items up before Halloween and Black Friday is almost passé. 

Anyway, I have a gift for your favorite feline. It could be one that goes into Saks Fifth Avenue's Christmas catalog simply because of the price. What is it already you are asking?

It's simply a mouse. Now, mice are a dime a dozen -- actually most are free, but this mouse is a robot and it has the option of two different tails. You won't find that on your everyday mouse.

It's called the Mousr from Petronics on Kickstarter and it is a sensor-laden bot built for high-tech cat entertainment. It's a little bot that looks kinda like a mouse it's actually a little rounder than your average street mouse but it can detect your cat's approach from any direction and it reacts just like a real mouse by scurrying away from the cat. It also has sound with it. There is a hidden speaker just to make the chase that much more fun.

The Petronics team behind Mousr is working on developing a full-on AI system for the gadget so it can learn and adapt to your cat's style of play.

What would a robot be if it didn't have a phone -- a bluetooth connection no less? Don't be silly, it won't be calling you or your friends. The phone is one way you can control it by using the app. The other option is you can set it on the floor and let it roam around.

Just like dog people, cat people are happy when they buy their beloved pet a little toy to play with. The only issue is that this toy is a $140 pledge price right now, and that's a lot of catnip running around your apartment. But you would do anything for your beloved, right? Details are on Kickstarter.

Mousr has raised over $41,000 in pledges toward a $100,000 goal so far. That gray field mouse is looking pretty good about now.

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Improper contact lens habits could send you to the ER

Nearly a million people require medical care each year

Contact lenses are wonderful. No glasses to carry around and the ability to wear the most stylish shades are just a couple of the advantages. But they can...

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© barneyboogles - Fotolia

Contact lenses are wonderful. No glasses to carry around and the ability to wear the most stylish shades are just a couple of the advantages. But they can also present a serious problem if used improperly.

In a first-of-its-kind study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates U.S. residents make nearly a million doctor visits for eye infections each year, resulting in $175 million in direct health care costs.

Keratitis, an infection of the cornea, causes pain and inflammation and can lead to blindness in severe cases. Wearing contact lenses is the largest single risk factor for developing the infection.

In-depth analysis

CDC analyzed national databases of outpatient care centers and emergency rooms to develop the first national estimates of how much keratitis occurs in the US. Experts found there were an estimated 930,000 visits to doctor’s offices and outpatient clinics and 58,000 emergency room visits annually due to eye infections. Women were slightly more likely to be affected than men, accounting for 63% of office visits and about 55% of emergency room visits. The condition was spread relatively evenly across age groups. The report was published in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Keratitis occurs when germs invade the cornea, the clear dome that covers the colored part of the eye. The infection is most likely to occur when contact lenses are worn too long or are not cared for correctly. Wearing contact lenses overnight, not cleaning and replacing storage cases frequently and exposing contact lenses to water are some of the key behaviors that increased the risk for keratitis.

“Being able to see well is vitally important to performing everyday activities for most people,” said CDC Medical Epidemiologist Jennifer Cope, M.D., M.P.H. “Contact lenses can provide many benefits, but they are not risk-free -- especially if contact lens wearers take shortcuts and don’t take care of their contact lenses and supplies. Healthy habits mean healthy eyes.”

When patients seek care quickly, most complications of keratitis can be easily treated by an eye doctor. More serious infections can cause pain and lead to vision loss, depending on what germs caused the infection and how long the patient waits to go to the doctor.

What to do

To prevent eye infections, contact lens wearers should:

  • Wash hands with soap and water and dry well before touching contact lenses;
  • Take contacts out before bed, showering or swimming;
  • Rub and rinse contacts in disinfecting solution each time they remove them;
  • Rub and rinse the case with contact lens solution, dry with a clean tissue and store upside down with the caps off after each use;
  • Replace contact lens cases at least once every three months;
  • Do not “top off” solution in lens case; and
  • Carry a backup pair of glasses in case contact lenses have to be taken out.
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Debt sellers posted consumers' personal info online, FTC charges

Court orders the companies to notify consumers and help them protect themselves

There are people called "debt brokers" who buy and sell portfolios of past-due debts. The purchasers pay pennies on the dollar for the debts and keep whate...

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There are people called "debt brokers" who buy and sell portfolios of past-due debts. The purchasers pay pennies on the dollar for the debts and keep whatever they collect.

It's a seamy-sounding business and just to make it a bit seamier, two companies are accused of putting their debt-for-sale portfolios online, posting the sensitive personal information of more than 70,000 consumers on public websites.

The information included consumers’ bank account and credit card numbers, birth dates, contact information, employers’ names, and information about debts the consumers allegedly owed. 

At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a federal court has now ordered the two debt sellers to notify the consumers whose data they exposed and explain how they can protect themselves against identity theft and other fraud.

No encryption

According to the complaint, the defendants posted their portfolios, in the form of Excel spreadsheets, on the website without encryption, appropriate redaction, or any other protection, meaning any visitor to the website could access and download the spreadsheets, and use the information to exploit consumers.

The website where the information was posted caters to the debt collection industry but was open to public viewing. The FTC alleges that the portfolios have been accessed more than 500 times.

“Debt brokers and collectors who play fast and loose with people’s sensitive personal and financial information are causing tremendous harm,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies must treat sensitive consumer information with appropriate care and security, and the FTC will take action when they fail to do so."

In its complaints, the FTC alleges the disclosures violated the consumers’ privacy, put them at risk of identity theft, and exposed them to “phantom” debt collection, a practice in which unscrupulous debt collectors try to extract payments from consumers when they do not have authority to collect the debts. The FTC noted that the disclosures also publicly branded the consumers as debtors, putting them at risk of other damage, including possible loss of employment or employment opportunities.

The defendants in the two cases include Cornerstone and Company, LLC, of Riverside, Calif., and its owner, Brandon Lambert; and Bayview Solutions, LLC, of St. Petersburg, Fla., and its owner, Aron Tomko.

The FTC’s complaints allege the defendants violated the FTC Act by unfairly exposing consumers’ personal information without their knowledge or consent. The agency is asking the court to stop the defendants from repeating these actions in the future and to require the defendants to provide redress to consumers injured by their actions.

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These home invaders are ladybugs

They're not harmful but they can be pests; it's best to keep them out if you can

This is the time of year when that little nursery rhyme "Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home" is said more than once. In fact, ladybugs are probably hanging i...

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Photo © Chepko Danil - Fotolia

This is the time of year when that little nursery rhyme "Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home" is said more than once.  In fact, ladybugs are probably hanging in your home already. It's getting cold out and they need a place to hibernate. Your house is nice and warm.

Wouldn't you know it -- ladybugs are into the pheromone thing. Ladybugs release pheromones, sort of like "perfume" to attract other ladybugs. Thats why you won't see just one. If you see one you can be sure there are at least 101 that are following it.

Ladybugs use pheromones as a means of communication during mating and hibernation. Insect pheromones are very powerful. They can be detected by others up to a quarter of a mile away. This helps ladybugs find each other and it lets future generations know of a good place to vacation for the winter.

Sure, they look kinda cute with their red and black shell or yellow and black but if you have had them around they are a mess. The chemical "scent" can remain year after year, and not only on the outside of a structure, but also within the walls, where ladybugs tend to hide before taking over your home.

These are not bugs that just go away with a little bug spray. They are tough to get rid of.

According to Tracie Jenkins, a retired entomologist and insect genetics professor at the University of Georgia you can suck them up in your vacuum and release them into the woods. A nylon stocking can be stuffed down the vacuum’s hose and secured to the opening with a rubber band to catch them.

Or you can call an exterminator. That would be my first choice. The vacuum idea would be my last, if I was on a deserted island with the vacuum being the only thing I could bring with me.

Easier than trying to get rid of them is keeping them out to begin with. To do this, secure the fort. Don't leave any cracks open around the doors or windows --everything needs to be sealed up tight and you can get some extermination companies to help you with this. It's called inclusion. It's a little pricey but well worth it.

The bad news is that ladybugs are annoying the good news is they won't bite you or actually do anything to you. They do bleed yellow and it's a pretty raunchy smell. It's what attracts the relatives to come over. But they are more of an annoyance as opposed to an insect that leaves welts all over your body or bores holes in your walls.

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Retail sales inch higher in October

The advance follows the first decline in 8 months

Retail sales bounced back in October from September's decline -- the first in 8 months. The Census Bureau reports sales were up a seasonally adjusted $444...

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© Stuart Miles – Fotolia

Retail sales bounced back in October from September's decline -- the first in 8 months.

The Census Bureau reports sales were up a seasonally adjusted $444.5 billion or 0.3% from the

previous month, and were 4.1% above October the same period a year ago.

Contributing to the advance were sales at Sporting goods, hobby, book & music stores (+1.2), food services and drinking places (+0.9%) and health and personal care stores (+0.7%). Auto sales rose 0.5% after falling 1.1% in September.

Keeping a lid on the increase were sales at electronics and appliance stores (-1.6%) and gas stations (-1.5%).

Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza notes that while the weakness in October was dominated by a few categories, there was insufficient demand elsewhere to compensate. "Consumers continue to spend," she noted, "but at a modest level with no sign of further momentum in sight."

The complete retail sales report for October is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Volkswagen recalls Jettas and Passats

The driver's seatback may move unexpectedly

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 393 model year 2015 Volkswagen Jetta and Passat vehicles manufactured September 23, 2014, to October 9, 2014, and ...

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Photo source: Volkswagen

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 393 model year 2015 Volkswagen Jetta and Passat vehicles manufactured September 23, 2014, to October 9, 2014, and equipped with manual front seatback recliners.

The seatback recliner retaining bracket may not engage correctly, resulting in unexpected movement of the seatback. Unexpected movement of the driver's seatback may distract the driver, increasing the risk of a crash.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the assembly of the seatback recliner retaining bracket, correcting it as necessary, free of charge. The recall began in October 2014.

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 72F1.

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Black Friday no longer just a day

Walmart is the latest retailer to stretch it out

As retailers in recent years have jockeyed for Black Friday dollars, the lines between the traditional kick-off to holiday shopping and any other day have ...

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Image: blackfriday.com

As retailers in recent years have jockeyed for Black Friday dollars, the lines between the traditional kick-off to holiday shopping and any other day have become blurred. So blurred that perhaps Black Friday, the day, has become almost meaningless in the whole scheme of things.

Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, states the obvious when it says Black Friday is not just one day, but a lot of days.

“Black Friday is no longer about waking up at the crack of dawn to stand in long lines and hope for the best. At Walmart, it has become a family shopping tradition where everyone shops at some point throughout the weekend,” said Duncan Mac Naughton, chief merchandising officer at Walmart U.S.

The day itself is still important

Make no mistake, Mac Naughton and everyone else at Walmart is hoping you show up when the doors open Thanksgiving night. They know that Black Friday has become an event in which many consumers want to participate.

But increasingly retailers like Walmart have been spreading out their deals in the days before and after the day itself in an effort to grab market share. Target this week announced a number of deals that will be available through its mobile app from November 23 through 29. Walmart's “new Black Friday” concept is now a nearly week-long promotion, extending through Cyber Monday.

“This year, we’re blowing it out with five days of deals in store and online,” Mac Naughton said. “We’ll have crazy low prices on the gifts our customers want.”

Fight for customers intensifying

Eric Jones of Jones-Dengler Marketing and operator of the BestBlackFriday.com web site, sees Walmart's move asjust another attempt to further increase sales in a market that may be becoming diluted.

“When retailers used to all open up early Friday morning, they had to fight for shoppers,” Jones told ConsumerAffairs. “Now, they're simply opening for longer times, so if a shopper happens to be at a different store at the beginning of the sale, they can still make that same sale later in the night, or even a completely different day.”

Compared to last year Walmart says it has lowered prices on popular Black Friday items. Last year a Vizio 60” Smart TV sold for $688. This year a 65” Vizio Smart TV will be available for $648 as part of Walmart’s 1-Hour Guarantee, meaning consumers in a certain area of the store at a certain hour are guaranteed the purchase at the sale price.

The Xbox One, available last year for $499, is going this year as a bundle for $329 with a $30 Walmart Gift Card. It too, is a 1-Hour Guarantee item.

The retailer has also beefed up its inventory, promising three times the number of PlayStation 4 and other gaming consoles available to shoppers. It says it will have 30% more smartphones, mobile accessories and other wireless offerings than last year.

New trend

Walmart is also joining other retailers not waiting for Black Friday, for fear of losing consumer dollars to a rival. Jones says it has been an accelerating trend in 2014.

“This year especially retailers seem to be offering Black Friday prices for special pre-Black Friday events that last one day,” Jones said. “We've already seen this with a number of retailers such as Sam's Club, Best Buy, Target and now Walmart.”

In fact, Jones says Sam's Club has released a Holiday Savings sale ad for this Saturday, November 15,, for a one day event with prices that are matching or beating many Black Friday ads that have already leaked.

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New protections for prepaid credit cards proposed

Loss limitations and risk disclosure are part of the plan

New federal consumer protections for the prepaid credit card market, which include that an issuing company limit consumers’ losses when funds are stolen or...

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© NatUlrich - Fotolia

New federal consumer protections for the prepaid credit card market, which include that an issuing company limit consumers’ losses when funds are stolen or cards are lost, are being proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

In addition, the issuing companies would be required to investigate and resolve errors, provide easy and free access to account information, and adhere to credit card protections if a credit product is offered in connection with a prepaid account.

New “Know Before You Owe” prepaid disclosures that would provide consumers with clear information about the costs and risks of prepaid products upfront are also being proposed.

“Consumers are increasingly relying on prepaid products to make purchases and access funds, but they are not guaranteed the same protections or disclosures as traditional bank accounts,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Our proposal would close the loopholes in this market and ensure prepaid consumers are protected whether they are swiping a card, scanning their smartphone, or sending a payment.”

Prepaid products: What are they?

Prepaid products are consumer accounts typically loaded with funds by a consumer or by a third party, such as an employer. Consumers can use these products to make payments, store funds, get cash at ATMs, receive direct deposits, and send funds to other consumers.

Prepaid products are often bought at retail stores or online and are among the fastest growing types of consumer financial products in the United States. For example, the amount of money consumers loaded onto “general purpose reloadable” prepaid cards grew from less than $1 billion in 2003 to nearly $65 billion in 2012. The total dollar value loaded onto general purpose reloadable cards is expected to continue to grow to nearly $100 billion through 2014.

This proposal would apply a number of specific federal consumer protections to broad swaths of the prepaid market for the first time. The proposal would cover traditional plastic prepaid cards, many of which are general purpose reloadable cards. In addition, the proposal would cover mobile and other electronic prepaid accounts that can store funds.

The prepaid products covered by the proposal also include: payroll cards; certain federal, state, and local government benefit cards such as those used to distribute unemployment insurance, child support, and pension payments; student financial aid disbursement cards; tax refund cards; and peer-to-peer payment products.

Prepaid protections

Many consumers use prepaid products as an alternative to traditional checking accounts. Currently, however, there are limited federal consumer protections for most prepaid accounts. The proposal would ensure that most prepaid account consumers would have important protections under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act after registering their account.

The protections are generally similar to those checking account consumers already receive and include:

  • Easy and free access to account information: Under the CFPB proposal, financial institutions would be required to either provide periodic statements or make account information easily accessible online and for free. The proposal would ensure that consumers are able see their account balances and a history of their transactions and fees.
  • Error resolution rights: This proposal would require financial institutions to investigate errors that consumers report on registered accounts and to resolve those errors in a timely manner. If the financial institution cannot resolve an alleged error within a certain period of time, it would be required to temporarily credit the disputed amount to the consumer to use while the institution finishes its investigation.
  • Fraud and lost-card protection: The proposal would protect consumers against unauthorized, erroneous, or fraudulent withdrawals or purchases, including when registered cards are lost or stolen. If consumers lose their prepaid card or find erroneous or fraudulent charges on their prepaid account, the rule would limit their responsibility for transactions they did not authorize and create a timely method for them to get their money back. As long as the consumer promptly notifies his financial institution, the consumer’s responsibility for unauthorized charges would be limited to $50.

Know before you owe: prepaid fees

The proposal also includes new “Know Before You Owe” prepaid disclosures that would provide consumers with standard, easy-to-understand information about the prepaid account. Under the proposal, prepaid consumers would have access to:

  • Standard, easy-to-understand information upfront: The CFPB’s proposal includes two required forms, one short and one long, with easy-to-understand disclosures.
  • Publicly available card agreements: To facilitate comparison shopping, this proposal would require that prepaid account issuers post their account agreements on their websites. Additionally, issuers would be required to submit those agreements to the Bureau for posting on a public, Bureau-maintained website.

Credit protections

The proposal also includes strong protections in connection with credit products that allow consumers to pay to spend more money than they have deposited into the prepaid account. Under the proposed rule, if consumers choose to use a credit product related to their prepaid account, they would be entitled to the same protections that credit card consumers receive today. The protections that would also apply to prepaid credit products include:

  • Ability to pay: Like credit card issuers, prepaid companies would be required to first make sure consumers have the ability to repay the debt before offering credit. For consumers under 21, the companies would be required to assess these consumers’ independent ability to repay the credit.
  • Monthly credit billing statement: Prepaid companies would be required to give consumers the same monthly periodic statement that credit card consumers receive. This statement would detail consumers’ fees, and if applicable, interest rate, what they have borrowed, how much they owe, and other key information about repaying the debt.
  • Reasonable time to pay and limits on late fees: Prepaid companies, like credit card issuers, would be required to give consumers at least 21 days to repay their debt before they are charged a late fee. Additionally, late fees must be “reasonable and proportional” to the violation of the account terms in question.
  • Limited fee and interest charges: During the first year a credit account is open, the total fees for prepaid credit products would not be allowed to exceed 25% of the credit limit. Card issuers generally are prohibited from increasing the interest rate on an existing balance unless the cardholder has missed two consecutive payments. Card issuers may increase the interest rate prospectively on new purchases, but must generally give the consumer 45 days advance notice -- during which time the consumer may cancel the credit account.

The CFPB’s proposal also includes some additional protections to ensure that the prepaid account and the credit product are distinct, such as:

  • Thirty-day waiting period: The CFPB’s proposal would require companies to wait thirty days after a consumer registers the prepaid account before they could formally offer credit to the consumer.
  • Wall between prepaid funds and credit repayment: Prepaid companies could not automatically demand and take credit repayment whenever a prepaid account is next loaded with funds. Further, prepaid companies could not take funds loaded into the prepaid account to repay the credit when the bill is due unless the consumer has affirmatively opted in to allow such a repayment. Even then, companies cannot take funds more frequently than once per calendar month. Payment also cannot be required sooner than 21 days after the mailing of the periodic statement.
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Mercedes-Benz, MINI top J.D. Power sales satisfaction index for fifth year

"Product specialists" help consumers navigate the maze of technology in new cars

Buying a car isn't as simple as it used to be. Consumers face more choices than ever and the array of technology options can be daunting. But Mercedes-Benz...

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Photo © Gajus - Fotolia
Buying a car isn't as simple as it used to be. Consumers face more choices than ever and the array of technology options can be daunting. But Mercedes-Benz and MINI seem to have found the key.

For the fifth straight year, the two brands have topped the J.D. Power sales satisfaction index, thanks partly to their skillful use of dedicated "product specialists" to help consumers understand what they're buying.

Among luxury brands, Infiniti placed second, up from fourth place last year. Jaguar slipped to third, followed by Lexus and Porsche. Below average were Cadillac, BMW, Audi, Volvo, Lincoln, Land Rover and Acura.

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Buick was second in mass-market brands, followed by Chevrolet, GMC, Fiat, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, Hyundai and Ford, all scoring above average. Below average were Nissan, Chrysler, Subaru, Mazda, Scion, Kia, Jeep, Dodge, Ram and Mitsubishi.

PhotoTech-heavy vehicles 

The key to sales satisfaction seems to be providing plenty of assistance to consumers as they try to understand all the technology that's packed into today's cars.

“With such tech-heavy vehicles today, introducing product specialists into the sales process helps improve the delivery process and customer understanding of how to operate key features,” said Chris Sutton, vice president of the automotive retail practice at J.D. Power.

“Dealerships need to be mindful when dividing a customer’s time between a salesperson, product specialist, and the finance and insurance representative. That’s a lot of customer touch points. Adding more time to the sales process usually has a negative effect on sales satisfaction; thus, dealers need to ensure an integrated approach that respects a customer’s time,” Sutton said.

Besides using product specialists to enhance the new-vehicle sales process, many dealers may also conduct second or follow-up sessions with buyers to reinforce feature understanding. Industrywide, 15 percent of customers indicate they worked with both a salesperson and a separate product specialist when shopping for their vehicle. This percentage is slightly higher among buyers of premium vehicles (19%) than among those purchasing non-premium vehicles (15%).

Regardless of segment, overall sales satisfaction is slightly higher among buyers who work with a product specialist than among those who work only with a salesperson (856 vs. 853, respectively, for premium; 809 vs. 806, respectively, for non-premium).

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Staying on your diet at Thanksgiving

Here are 10 ways to avoid putting on holiday pounds

If you've been on a weight control plan the last few weeks, good for you. But here's a warning – the holidays are dead ahead....

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Photo © evgenyb - Fotolia
If you've been on a weight control plan the last few weeks, good for you. But here's a warning – the holidays are dead ahead.

The problem starts with Thanksgiving Day. That's when the strongest willpower can run off the rails, leading to weight gain over the next few weeks as one party and family dinner follows another.

Kristen Kizer, a registered dietitian at Houston Methodist Hospital, says Thanksgiving can be especially dangerous for a dieter because it's a big, traditional feast. There are so many dishes associated with this traditional meal that it's hard not to load up your plate.

“Remind yourself how it feels to over-eat,” she said. “Remember there will always be leftovers, so you don’t need to overindulge in one sitting.”

Kizer has offered up 10 pieces of advice that can help everyone avoid getting the holidays off to an unhealthy start.

1. Get some exercise

There will be plenty of time in the afternoon and evening for sitting on the couch. Start the day with some exercise, whether its a 5k road race or a brisk walk. Burn some calories before sitting down to dinner.

2. Eat breakfast

You might be tempted to skip breakfast to save room for your Thanksgiving meal. Not a good idea, Kizer says. Eat a satisfying, healthy breakfast so you won't be overly hungry when they start passing around all those tempting delicacies.

3. Pass on the casserole

Every family has a couple of casseroles that are part of Thanksgiving tradition but there are good reasons to pass them on without taking a serving. Yes, you may love the green bean casserole but between the fried onion strings, condensed soup, and canned beans, it lacks nutritional value.

Kizer has a recipe to try instead; fresh steamed green beans with some low-fat cheese sprinkled on top or roasted green beans with a little olive oil and fresh garlic.

4. Nix the sugar

Come on, how sweet do the sweet potatoes have to be? Kizer says the Pilgrims didn't top them off with marshmallows and neither should you. A sweet potato is plenty sweet on its own.

5. Don't get stuffed on stuffing

How about giving the classic Thanksgiving side dish a makeover by adding more vegetables like celery, onions and carrots and eliminating fatty meat like sausage?

6. Add something healthy to the line-up

Tradition is one thing but that doesn't mean you can't branch out. Take advantage of some non-traditional fall foods like Brussels sprouts and butternut squash, or try a roasted starchy vegetable medley with baby red potatoes, carrots, onions and acorn squash.

7. Limit your carbs

For some reason Thanksgiving meals are heavy in carbohydrates. If you have stuffing, do you really need mashed potatoes too?

8. Add healthy desserts

No one is suggesting that you do away with the apple pie but consider a guilt-free dessert or two, providing something sweet but with fewer calories. Get creative with your recipes, using natural applesauce instead of oil or butter in your desserts. Kizer says this simple ingredient swap not only adds moisture and flavor to baked goods, but fiber and nutrients.

9. Alcohol or dessert

If you have a couple of drinks before sitting down to Thanksgiving diner, you've already consumed 200 calories or more before taking a bite. Then at the end of dinner, that slice of pecan pie has ended the meal with no telling how many calories – all empty.

Kizer suggests choosing one or the other. If you choose alcohol, pick a drink with lower calories, such as a wine spritzer instead of creamy holiday drinks that can easily pack 500 calories.

10. Portion control

No doubt all the food looks good but that doesn't mean you have to try it all and fill up every spot on your plate. Hosts can help but cutting back on the amount of food they prepare.

Remember, if you go overboard at Thanksgiving there may be no turning back. The end -of-the-year holidays all seem to involving eating and drinking, putting you back to square 1 in your weight management quest in January.

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Franklin Loan to pay $730,000 for illegal bonus program

Feds say the company rewarded employees for steering consumers into more expensive loans

A California mortgage lender, Franklin Loan Corporation, has been ordered to pay $730,000 for giving its employees illegal bonuses for steering consumers i...

PhotoA California mortgage lender, Franklin Loan Corporation, has been ordered to pay $730,000 for giving its employees illegal bonuses for steering consumers into loans with higher interest rates.

“Today’s action will put $730,000 back in the pockets of consumers who may have never suspected that they had been harmed,” said Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray. “Paying bonuses for steering borrowers into more expensive loans violates their trust and is against the law.”

Franklin Loan is a residential mortgage lender with 18 locations across Southern California and one in Chicago.

The CFPB said that Franklin Loan originated approximately $887 million in loans between 2011 and 2013. From June 2011 to October 2013, it paid at least $730,000 in quarterly bonuses to 32 loan officers based in part on the interest rates on the loans they provided to borrowers; the higher the interest rate of the loans closed during the quarter, the higher the loan officer’s quarterly bonus.

The CFPB found that these bonus payments violated the Federal Reserve Board’s Loan Originator Compensation Rule, which the Bureau has enforced since July 21, 2011. The rule prohibits mortgage lenders from paying loan officers based on loan terms such as interest rate. 

Today’s consent order will ensure that all affected consumers are repaid and that no more consumers are harmed by the illegal compensation system. Franklin Loan has agreed to end its practice of incentivizing loan officers to upcharge consumers by paying quarterly bonuses based, in part, on the interest rates of loans they originated. Franklin Loan will also pay $730,000 in redress to affected consumers. The CFPB did not seek a civil penalty based on Franklin’s financial condition and the Bureau’s desire to maximize relief directly from Franklin Loan to affected consumers.

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Christmas disappears from some Maryland schools

Montgomery County tries to finesse request for Muslim school holidays

Christmas has vanished from the Washington, D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland. Christmas isn't alone though -- so have Easter, Yom Kippur and Rosh...

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Blessings for Eid al-Adha via Wikipedia

Christmas has vanished from the Washington, D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland. Christmas isn't alone though -- so have Easter, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. They have been taken off the school calendar for next year.

The county's school board voted 7-1 to eliminate references to all religious holidays on the published calendar for the 2015-2016 school year. It came about due to Muslim community leaders asking that the board give equal billing to the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.

The day commemorates Ibrahim (Abraham)'s willingness to sacrifice his young first-born and only son in obedience to a command from God.

Muslims in the affluent county -- home to the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health -- have been asking for years that the schools close for at least one of the two major Muslim holidays. Instead, the school board decided to remove all references to any religious holiday.

Glaring error?

Muslim leaders did not intend for things to turn out as they did. They say the decision was a surprise — and a glaring mistake.

“By stripping the names Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they have alienated other communities now, and we are no closer to equality,” said Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and co-chair of the Equality for Eid Coalition. “It’s a pretty drastic step, and they did it without any public notification.”

Board members used the neighboring Fairfax County, Va. school system’s calendar as an example; it is the largest school district in Virginia and it doesn't call out the holidays by name.

There isn't a change in terms of days off. The Montgomery schools will still be closed for the Christian and Jewish holidays, as before. The Muslim community will be able to take the time off and not be penalized but it will not be a day that the school is closed.

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Amazon, Hachette settle their dispute

"Great win for readers and authors," Kindle proclaims

Amazon and Hachette Book Group have settled their feud over pricing and the imprint's titles will be fully available on Amazon once again. The two have bee...

PhotoAmazon and Hachette Book Group have settled their feud over pricing and the imprint's titles will be fully available on Amazon once again. The two have been squabbling since spring and some Hachette titles have been unavailable or have encountered shipping delays.

Amazon had wanted Hachette to price all of its e-books at $9.99 and give it a bigger cut of each sale. Hachette balked and many well-known authors denounced Amazon, claiming its business practices were endangering literature.

The new agreement doesn't set a $9.99 price for every title but gives the publisher incentives to offer lower prices on some books.

Although the dispute received quite a bit of publicity, it was not a flash point for consumers, generating few complaints.

In a joint press release, both companies proclaimed the new agreement as beneficial for all.

Michael Pietsch, Hachette Book Group CEO said, "This is great news for writers. The new agreement will benefit Hachette authors for years to come. It gives Hachette enormous marketing capability with one of our most important bookselling partners.”

Amazon.com Nov. 13, 2014, 5:51 p.m.
Consumers rate Amazon.com

"We are pleased with this new agreement as it includes specific financial incentives for Hachette to deliver lower prices, which we believe will be a great win for readers and authors alike," said David Naggar, Vice President, Kindle.

The new ebook terms will take effect early in 2015. Hachette will have responsibility for setting consumer prices of its ebooks, and will also benefit from better terms when it delivers lower prices for readers. Amazon and Hachette will immediately resume normal trading, and Hachette books will be prominently featured in promotions, the companies said.

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It's a snap to get to your vet

New app makes vet visits virtual

There are many new apps that have been launched so you can talk to your doctor remotely. It's just another way for busy docs to communicate with patients. ...

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Image credit: snapvet.com
There are many new apps that have been launched so you can talk to your doctor remotely. It's just another way for busy docs to communicate with patients. Now the insurance company UnitedHealth Group is bringing the same interconnectivity to your veterinarian.

Have an issue with your dog or cat? It's simple -- snap a picture. The new venture is called SnapVet.

You can report any symptoms that you might see in your pet like limping, melancholy or even much food they have eaten. You send the picture via your mobile phone or through the Internet. It is also another way for the vet to send your pet's medical records to you so you can actually keep a file on your phone.

The catch is your vet has to opt in to the app. It is considered a consultation so a fee applies. It is another way to generate revenue for a vet so be aware of that, but perhaps the app will be the only communication you need and you won't need to be seen.

Extension of the office

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Image credit: snapvet.com
The vet is the one to set the fees for usage according to their website. You also may have to refer your vet for this usage as when I went on the site I didn't see many vets yet in my area. The vet sets the guidelines for usage of the app in terms of writing prescriptions and whether you need to be seen in the office or not. It really is an extension of the office and how quickly they respond will be at the discretion of your vet.

In 2013, UnitedHealth Group's chief consumer officer, Tom Paul, told FierceHealthPayer that insurers would only succeed if they developed products that fit the lives of consumers, rather than making consumers conform to what payers need. Developing new digital products has been a big part of United's consumer-engagement strategy.

At the moment the app is only available for dogs and cats but the company plans on expanding it to large animals.

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Weather the storm this winter

It's the same thing every year -- might as well get used to it

You can weather those winter storms by not being caught off guard and being prepared....

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Photo © chiyacat - Fotolia

You can weather those winter storms by not being caught off guard and being prepared.

One of the biggest seasonal hazards of winter is that darn ice that can have you on your bottom in seconds flat, not to mention slipping on the steps and breaking an arm or cracking your head open.

Many big storms force power outages and you're stuck with not only freezing temps outside, but your home is lacking that warm cozy feeling as well. Losing power isn't just about the inside temperature. Your fridge can be knocked out and then you have food that is gone in no time. Having a generator is pretty important. If you have one already make sure it's in working order. If you don't have one, the big home improvement stores carry them.

Two of the main considerations when selecting a portable generator are the running watts, also known as Output Watts, and starting watts, or Maximum Output Watts.

Output Watts is the power needed to run a given device at normal functionality. Many devices need more power to start up (Maximum Output Watts) and then require less power (Rated Watts) to run continually. For example, a refrigerator requires 2200 starting wattage with a 700 running wattage, so you would need a generator with at least 2200 watt maximum output. Never run a generator inside enclosed spaces. Carbon monoxide can build up quickly and kill you and your family and pets.

Slip sliding away
It's embarrassing falling on your steps and nobody does it gracefully so make sure you have rock salt on hand to melt ice. If you have a pet use non-toxic brands, such as Safe Paws or Morton Safe-T-Pet. These products do not contain salt or chloride.

Shoveling can kill you
The task sends on average of more than 11,000 adults and children to the hospital every year.

A 17-year study was reported by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine in 2011 and it explained the most common health hazards associated with shoveling snow. Snow shoveling can sometimes lead to bad backs, broken bones, head injuries, and even deadly heart attacks.

So don't wait to shovel when you have 10 inches of snow or there is enough to ski downhill on. Or, better yet, hire someone to do it for you or get a snowblower.

Food and diapers
One thing you don't want to be without is diapers. There is no substitute -- think about it. Your child may grow from now until the end of winter. Stock up in a bigger size if need be. Food is pretty important as well because as soon as the weather report says arctic snow storm everyone is going to the grocery store at once so be prepared.

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Orlando robocallers that bilked seniors shut down

Pre-recorded calls offered a "free" medical alert system to seniors

The Federal Trade Commission and the Florida Attorney General have won a settlement that permanently shuts down an Orlando-based operation that bilked seni...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission and the Florida Attorney General have reached a settlement that permanently shuts down an Orlando-based operation that bilked seniors by using pre-recorded robocalls to sell them supposedly free medical alert systems.

The settlement order bans the defendants from making robocalls, prohibits other telemarketing activities, and bars them from making misrepresentations related to the sale of any product or service. The order includes a judgment of nearly $23 million, most of which will be suspended after the defendants surrender assets including cash, cars, and a boat.

”This case is a great example of how federal and state law enforcement can work together to stop fraudulent telemarketing targeting older consumers,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. 

“We must do everything within our power to protect Florida’s consumers. The scheme we have stopped allegedly targeted Florida’s senior citizens, and we, along with our Federal Trade Commission partners, have held these individuals accountable,” said Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Medical alert

According to the complaint, the defendants blasted robocalls to senior citizens falsely stating that they were eligible to receive a free medical alert system that was bought for them by a friend, family member, or acquaintance. Many of the consumers who received the defendants’ calls were elderly, live alone, and have limited or fixed incomes.

Consumers who pressed 1 on their phones for more information were transferred to a live representative who continued the deception by falsely saying that their medical alert systems are recommended by the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the National Institute on Aging.

In addition, the telemarketers falsely said that the $34.95 monthly monitoring fee would be charged only after the system has been installed and activated. In reality, consumers were charged immediately, regardless of whether the system was activated or not.

The court order settling the agencies’ charges also imposes a judgment of $22,989,609, the total amount consumers paid for monthly monitoring services for their medical alert devices. The judgment will be suspended as to all of the settling defendants once the individual defendants turn over cash and other assets valued at about $79,000, including $24,000 that was transferred in violation of a court-ordered asset freeze.

Assets that will be sold include a 2008 BMW, a 1984 Hans Christian sailboat, a 2004 Mercedes, and a 2008 Lincoln Navigator. In addition, defendant Joseph Settecase is subject to a second judgment of $39,300, which will not be suspended. This judgment reflects the funds that Settecase retained after selling his Ferrari in violation of the asset freeze and transferring a portion of the proceeds to another defendant.

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Jobless claims head higher

Economists continue to look for an acceleration in hiring

Despite an increase this past week, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits continue to trend below the 300,000 level, considered by many e...

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Despite an increase this past week, first-time applications for state unemployment benefits continue to trend below the 300,000 level, considered by many economists to be at or near full employment.

Figures from the Labor Department (DOL) show initial jobless claims jumped 12,000 in the week ending November 8 to a seasonally adjusted 290,000. DOL says there were no special factors affecting the claim numbers.

Analysts at Briefing.com, who were expecting the claims level to come in at 280,000, say that while businesses clearly have reduced layoffs, there has been no clear acceleration in hiring -- that companies seem to be content with their current labor needs.

The 4-week moving average, which strips out the volatility found in the weekly numbers and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was 285,000, up 6,000 from the previous week -- a 3-week high.

The full report is available on the DOL website.

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Target unveils Black Friday plans

Deals include iPads, game consoles and HDTVs

Target is the latest major retailer to lay its Black Friday cards on the table. After starting this week with some one-day specials, Target has announced i...

PhotoTarget is the latest major retailer to lay its Black Friday cards on the table. After starting this week with some one-day specials, Target has announced its sale plans through the rest of November.

Target will begin Black Friday at 6:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving, with a special gift for the first several hundred customers waiting in line at each store. Once inside the store, shoppers will find sale items that include:

  • New iPad Air 2 16GB, $499.00, and a free $140 Target GiftCard
  • Beats by Dre Solo HD Headphones, $97.00, which regularly sells for $169.99
  • Element 40” 1080p LED HDTV, $119.00
  • Xbox One, $329.99, and a free $50 Target GiftCard and two free digital download games
  • Nikon L330 20.2MP High Zoom Camera, $99.00, which regularly sells for $229.99
  • Westinghouse 55” 1080p LED HDTV, $395.00
  • Fitbit Charge Wireless Activity + Sleep Wristband, $99.99, a $129.99 value
  • GoPro HERO3+ Silver edition, $249.99, and a free $50 Target GiftCard
  • Sony PlayStation 4, $399.00 bundled with two free games
  • Buy one, get one 50 percent off toys from select top brands
  • 40 percent off select LEGO sets
  • 40 percent off apparel for women, men and kids
  • 50 percent off all picture frames
  • Dyson DC50 Allergy vacuum, $279.00, which regularly sells for $449.99
  • $300 gift cards

On Black Friday itself, doors will open at 6:00 a.m. From then until noon, customers can purchase up to $300 in Target GiftCards at 10 percent off at Target stores and at Target.com. It's the first time Target has ever offered a discount on Target GiftCard purchases.

Some Black Friday sales will spill over into Saturday, November 29. They include 40% off Philips string lights and BOGO free all single-roll wrapping paper.

Like many retailers, Target is offering Black Friday deals well in advance of the official kick-off to the holiday shopping season. Throughout the holiday season, Cartwheel – Target’s mobile app – is offering 50% off a different toy every day.

Pre-Black Friday

From November 23 through 29, Cartwheel will feature a number of exclusive deals, including at least 25% off more than 100 products. Deals include:

  • 60% off select movie titles
  • 40% off select multi-piece bakeware sets
  • 30% off board gamed like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders

On November 26 both Target stores and Target.com will offer limited yet-to-be-announced deals, all designed to draw in shoppers before some other retailer does.

“We know our guests are pulled in a million different directions as the holidays get underway, so we’re helping them save time and money by offering more access to Black Friday deals,” said Kathee Tesija, chief merchandising and supply chain officer, at Target.

Free shipping

As a final incentive, Tesija says all Target.com orders ship for free until December 20.

At the same time, Cyber Monday is being expanded to Cyber Week. Target says it plans to put more than 100,000 items on sale throughout the week.

The store promises steep discounts on apparel, toys, housewares and major brands such as LeapFrog, Dyson, LG, Kitchen-Aid, and Canon.

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Study links childhood obesity to tobacco smoke and air pollution

Another study finds sugary drinks may not be so bad after all

It sounds outlandish at first but evidence is mounting that tobacco smoke -- yes, including secondhand tobacco smoke -- contributes to obesity. So does air...

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Photo © fantasticrabbit - Fotolia

It sounds outlandish at first but evidence is mounting that tobacco smoke -- yes, including secondhand tobacco smoke -- contributes to obesity. So does air pollution from nearby streets and highways.

The latest study, this one from Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), shows increased weight gain during adolescence in children exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke or near-roadway air pollution, compared to children with no exposure to either of these air pollutants.

To add another teaspoon of doubt to commonly held beliefs, a new University of Missouri study finds that sugary drinks have little effect on adolescents' metabolic health. 

"These beverages may not be as unhealthy for adolescents as previously thought, provided that kids stay active,” said Jill Kanaley, professor and associate chair in the MU Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology. “That physical activity component is really critical in protecting against some of the negative effects of drinking large amounts of sugar-sweetened drinks demonstrated in previous studies.”

Earlier this month, a study found that tobacco smoke caused changes in the mitochondria of cells, inhibiting the cells' response to insulin, paving the way for the metabolic problems that can cause obesity, type 2 diabetes and other serious health issues. 

The latest tobacco study, being published in Environmental Health Perspectives, is one of the first to look at the combined effects on body mass index of exposure to both near-roadway air pollution and tobacco smoke. The effects were substantially greater in children exposed to both air pollutant mixtures than to either alone.

"Vehicle miles traveled, exposure to some components of the near-roadway air pollutant mixture, and near roadway residential development have increased across the United States over the last several decades corresponding to the epidemic of childhood obesity," said Rob McConnell, M.D., professor of preventive medicine, Keck School of Medicine of USC and lead author on the study. "The potential for near-roadway air pollution to be among several factors contributing to the epidemic of obesity merits further investigation."

The research builds on previous studies showing that exposure to secondhand smoke and particulate air pollution cause heart and lung disease.

Incidence has quadrupled

Childhood obesity has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Obese youth are more likely to suffer from health challenges, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, bone and joint problems, social stigmatization and self-esteem problems. Obesity for children is defined by the CDC as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex.

The USC study examined exposure of more than 3,000 children to tobacco smoke during their mothers' pregnancy and to secondhand smoke, as well as air pollution effects from busy roadways, and looked for associations with body mass index. 

The researchers estimated near-roadway pollution exposure, taking into account traffic volume, how close the children lived to roadways and predominant wind direction. At study entry, a parent-completed questionnaire was used to determine lifetime tobacco smoke exposure.

Sugary drinks

The Missouri study measured several aspects of metabolic health, including insulin sensitivity and cholesterol levels, after participants had consumed moderate amounts of either high-glucose or high-fructose beverages every day for two weeks.

The high-glucose drink contained 50 grams of glucose and 15 grams of fructose; the high-fructose drink contained 50 grams of fructose and 15 grams of glucose. In comparison, two 12-ounce cans of white soda contain about 50 grams of fructose, although the amount of sugar found in soft drinks varies by brand and type.

The researchers used armbands with electronic sensors to monitor physical activity of the participants, all of whom were healthy male and female adolescents ages 15-20.

Although some research has shown that consuming sugary drinks can have detrimental metabolic effects, Kanaley said that the results of these studies have been inconsistent. Previous research often has excluded adolescents and did not measure participants’ levels of physical activity. In one of her previous studies, Kanaley found that increased physical activity diminished negative effects associated with high-fructose diets.

“Many parents of adolescents worry about their children’s consumption of sweetened beverages,” Kanaley said. “I certainly would recommend that they work to reduce their children’s intake of sugary drinks, but it also is important for kids to remain active, especially if they are drinking a lot of sugary beverages. In our study, the female adolescents averaged around 8,000 steps per day, and the males averaged about 10,000 steps per day. These children weren’t athletes, but they had active lifestyles.”

Kanaley’s article was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was partially funded by a grant from the JR Albert Foundation, which provides support to nonprofit organizations promoting healthy living and wellness. Other MU researchers on the study included Ying Liu, Young-Min Park and Nathan Winn. Timothy Heden, who recently completed his doctorate at MU and currently is a postdoctoral fellow at East Carolina University, was listed as first author on the study.

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App lets parents monitor their teen drivers

Technology continues to give parents an upper hand

Being the parents of a teenager can be a harrowing experience, especially these days. Even if you aren't a “helicopter” parent, one who hovers around their...

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Photo credit: Hyundai

Being the parents of a teenager can be a harrowing experience, especially these days. Even if you aren't a “helicopter” parent, one who hovers around their child, it's more and more difficult to keep an eye on the kids.

Or at least, it has been until very recently, when technology started tipping the balance of power back to parents.

Earlier this year a Houston mom named Sharon Standifird got tired of her kids ignoring her calls to their cellphones. She created an app called Ignore No More. The clever app disables the kid's phone if they fail to take a call from Mom.

But when teens are in the car, you don't want them answering a cellphone call. Still, parents want to be assured that they are behaving in a safe manner.

Monitoring teen drivers

Hyundai is stepping up with an app that allows parents to monitor how their teen drivers are operating the vehicle – in particular, how fast they're going.

The Hyundai Blue Link Vehicle Safeguards Alerts In-Vehicle App can be downloaded into the multimedia systems of the 2015 Azera and will be coming soon on Genesis and Sonata models equipped with the navigation package. The app allows parents to monitor and set limits on their Hyundai's speed, hours of operation and movements using text message, e-mail or both.

Teens are likely to look at this as a gross invasion of privacy. But Hyundai says it simply helps parents reinforce safe driving habits for their children.

Data

The company has data to back it up. It says teens in vehicles with monitoring devices took fewer risks while driving than unsupervised teens, citing a 2009 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study of 16 and 17 year-old drivers.

What makes the app even more effective, Hyundai says, is that when a teen driver misbehaves behind the wheel, they see the alert that is being sent to their parents.

The driver will see a notification on the vehicle's multimedia screen while the parent will get a text message alerting them of the violation. Hyundai says the alerts are designed to get the attention of the teen driver and refocus them on driving safely.

A lot of parental control

How much oversight does the app give parents? A lot.

It allows them to pre-set a speed limit. It can set a time limit, triggering an alert if the vehicle is in operation after curfew.

The car's GPS feature allows parents to set what Hyundai calls a “Geo-Fence,” a boundary that can't be crossed without triggering an alert.

"We've listened to our Blue Link subscribers and given them exactly what they want," said Michael Deitz, senior group manager of Connected Care, Hyundai Motor America.

Hyundai is betting that the ability to monitor what's going on in the car will help them sell more cars to parents of teens. Teens, on the other hand, will likely lobby hard for another brand.

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Chrysler expects to begin replacing faulty airbag inflators in December

The replacements are being made in high-humidity states

It's one thing to issue a vehicle recall. It's another to actually carry it out, as the Takata airbag saga shows. Chrysler now says it's nearly ready to st...

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It's one thing to issue a vehicle recall. It's another to actually carry it out, as the Takata airbag saga shows. Chrysler now says it's nearly ready to start replacing potentially defective airbags in about 370,000 cars and trucks in early December.

That's a fairly small percentage of the estimated 4.2 million vehicles included in a series of regional recalls announced by Chrysler and other manufacturers back in June. The problem is that the airbag inflators made by Takata Corp. may not inflate properly when exposed to high humidity.

This is a problem for people who live in places like Florida, where the atmosphere is ofen somewhat soupy. And so it is that Florida is where Chrysler will start replacing the devices in December.

Chrysler and Takata argue that there is no firm evidence of a safety defect in the inflators but will start replacing them anyway, under pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 

NHTSA has been investigating reports that the airbag inflators can explode and send shrapnel into the passener compartment. The issue has been linked to at least four deaths and 160 injuries. More than 11 million U.S. cars with Takata airbags have been recalled since 2008. 

The Chrysler vehicles involved are from model years 2003-2007 and include the Dodge Ram, Durango, Dakota, Charger and Magnum, and Chrysler Aspen and 300.

Other manufacturers involved in the recalls include Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Ford , General Motors, BMW, Mitsubishi and Subaru.

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Who's fat? Most of us can't recognize obesity

Even doctors aren't good at visually estimating weight, study finds

Am I overweight? Are you? Who can tell? Researchers at the University of Liverpool say most of us -- even healthcare professionals -- are unable to visuall...

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Holding out for hot holiday deals

A new survey finds bargain-hunters may be holding back a bit

Despite all the TV commercials pushing holiday merchandise, it appears that not everybody is hitting the malls early. The new Holiday Consumer Spending Su...

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Despite all the TV commercials pushing holiday merchandise, it appears that not everybody is hitting the malls early.

The new Holiday Consumer Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics for the National Retail Federation (NRF) finds 45.6% of those asked say they haven’t started shopping yet -- relatively flat with last years’ 46.2%. Still, it's the lowest in the survey’s 7-year history.

“Many consumers are going to wait and see how great the promotions will be later this season before making any commitments,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Retailers have reacted to this ‘wait and see’ mentality with fewer October deals and a much quieter entry into November, when we’ll start to see retailers ramp up with offers for exclusive merchandise, deep discounts and unique online savings opportunities.”

Procrastinators and early birds

The survey found that while slightly fewer people haven’t started shopping yet, 20.6% have finished 10 % or less of their shopping, while 12.4% have completed about one-quarter of their lists; 2.2% are saying they can sit back and relax as they have already finished their shopping for friends and family.

Unsurprisingly, apparel, toys and video games will be popular gift items this year. The survey found 6 in 10 (60.9%) will buy clothing and accessories, 46.3% will buy books, CDs, DVDs and video games, and two in five (42%) will buy toys.

Likely having loaded up on wearable technology items and new smartphones throughout the year, slightly fewer people will buy electronic items as gifts (30.7% vs. 33%). Some people are in for a real treat: 24% of shoppers will buy jewelry for a friend or family member -- the highest percent since 2006.

Gift cards continue as a favorite for both shoppers and recipients as 60% will buy gift cards, similar to the 59.2% who planned to do so last year. In an October NRF survey, 60% of shoppers also said they’d like to receive gift cards, marking gift cards the most requested gift item for 8 years in a row.

What to buy

Shoppers look for inspiration for gifts from every corner, and with the innovative creation of retailers’ wish lists, many consumers this season will take to the web to point loved ones to specific, perfect gift ideas. The survey found 32.1% say they will look for inspiration on wish lists, compared with 28.8% last year. Others will conduct online searches (47.7%), discuss options with family and friends (41.7%), check out advertising circulars (34.3%) and email ads (20.1%), and even search Facebook (10.6%).

"Retailers make holiday shoppers’ job easy with so many options to find the perfect gift, and with little room to waste on gifts that don't make sense, consumers today want to be sure what they buy is used and enjoyed by their loved ones," said Prosper's Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow. "On the hunt for bargains, quality merchandise that is unique and even exclusive, gift givers this holiday season will seek out both practical and indulgent gift items, though being sure not to break the bank."

When it comes to how shoppers will pay for their gifts, nearly four in 10 (38%) will use their credit card, the most in the survey’s history and up nearly 10% from last year; one in five (21.6%) will use cash and 38.4% will use their debit or check card. Just 2.1% will use a check -- the lowest in the survey’s history.

When broken down by age group, young adults (18-24) are the least likely to use credit to pay for gifts at just 17.7%, and 65+ are the most likely to use credit cards at 56%. Nearly half of 18-24 year olds (48.9%) plan to use their debit or check card to buy gift items.  

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Privacy is dead, Americans fear

Pew survey finds consumers feel their privacy is threatened on all sides

Not surprisingly, Americans feel that their privacy is being threatened on all sides, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center that found consu...

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Not surprisingly, Americans feel that their privacy is being threatened on all sides, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center that found consumers fearing for the security of their personal information and their ability to retain confidentiality.

Perhaps most striking is Americans’ lack of confidence that they have control over their personal information. That pervasive concern applies to everyday communications channels and to the collectors of their information — both in the government and in corporations. For example:

  • 91% of adults in the survey “agree” or “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.
  • 88% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about them online.
  • 80% of those who use social networking sites say they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites.
  • 70% of social networking site users say that they are at least somewhat concerned about the government accessing some of the information they share on social networking sites without their knowledge.

Yet, even as Americans express concern about government access to their data, they feel that government could do more to regulate what advertisers do with their personal information:

  • 80% of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and internet communications. Just 18% “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with that notion.
  • 64% believe the government should do more to regulate advertisers, compared with 34% who think the government should not get more involved.
  • Only 36% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “It is a good thing for society if people believe that someone is keeping an eye on the things that they do online.”

Online services

When it comes to more commercial considerations, consumers are skeptical about the supposed benefits of personal data sharing, but are willing to make tradeoffs in certain circumstances when their sharing of information provides access to free services.

  • 61% of adults “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement: “I appreciate that online services are more efficient because of the increased access they have to my personal data.”
  • At the same time, 55% “agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement: “I am willing to share some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free.”

The public feels most secure using landline phones, least secure on social media.

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Across the board, there is a universal lack of confidence among adults in the security of everyday communications channels — particularly when it comes to the use of online tools. 

  • 81% feel “not very” or “not at all secure” using social media sites when they want to share private information with another trusted person or organization.
  • 68% feel insecure using chat or instant messages to share private information.
  • 58% feel insecure sending private info via text messages.
  • 57% feel insecure sending private information via email.
  • 46% feel “not very” or “not at all secure” calling on their cell phone when they want to share private information.
  • 31% feel “not very” or “not at all secure” using a landline phone when they want to share private information.

Americans’ lack of confidence in core communications channels tracks closely with how much they have heard about government surveillance programs. For five out of the six communications channels we asked about, those who have heard “a lot” about government surveillance are significantly more likely than those who have heard just “a little” or “nothing at all” to consider the method to be “not at all secure” for sharing private information with another trusted person or organization.

Most say they want to do more to protect their privacy, but many believe it is not possible to be anonymous online.

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Winter check-up for your garden

Fall was cut short in many areas but there are still steps you can take

For the Midwest fall got thrown to the compost pile and winter walked right in. You may need a few ideas for protecting your garden since it came so quickl...

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For the Midwest fall got thrown to the compost pile and winter walked right in. You may need a few ideas for protecting your garden since it came so quickly.

If you had already put on protective tree wraps, check them to see that they haven't come loose, and check the perennial beds for frost heaving. You can add wood chips or straw that will help protect the shallow roots.

With a heavy wet snow you will want to swipe it off of ornamental trees and bushes so you don't end up with limb and branch damage.

Try to keep that compost pile as active as possible. Turn it from time to time. Try to keep it moist -- not soaked, just a light moisture to it so you can feel the dampness. Unfinished compost generates its own heat (up to 160 degrees) as soil bacteria break down organic matter. Your compost pile can protect bulbs and perennial plants from frost.

Things spoil in the snow and when they get all soaked. If you have squash and pumpkins check them out to make sure they aren't starting to mold. Potatoes will start to shrivel up and become soft. Toss them -- you can't get much use out of them.

You may have been adding fertilizer before we got bopped with this winter storm and left things open. Go around the yard and the garage to make sure nothing is opened like fertilizer or insecticides. Also check rooting hormones for leaks, crystallization or spoilage.

In colder areas, you can extend the growing season with greenhouses, cloches (a transparent plant cover used outdoors especially for protection against cold) or a cold frame. A cold frame is wonderful -- it is a simple structure that utilizes solar energy and insulation to create a microclimate within your garden.

If you have ever eaten a salad of fresh greens that were housed in a cold frame in February or have flowers blooming well past frost, you know the attraction of using cold frames. Mobile planters work too -- they allow you to move plants indoors on especially cold days.

Planting season is over for now but you do have the luxury of thinking what you would like to grow as things thaw out in the spring.

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New life event: uncoupling ceremony

Zombified marriage lives on after the flame dies

Gwyneth Paltrow was the one to really educate the world on the phrase “consciously uncouple."...

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Gwyneth Paltrow was the one to really educate the world on the phrase “consciously uncouple."

She and her husband Coldplay frontman Chris Martin decided to “consciously uncouple” earlier this year. Everyone was talking about it. What is uncoupling? What is she talking about?

At the time of Gwyneth's media blitz about this new aspect of their relationship she shared an article by husband-and-wife doctor and dentist Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami that explained what uncoupling is and the history behind it.

"The idea of being married to one person for life is too much pressure for anyone. In fact, it would be interesting to see how much easier couples might commit to each other by thinking of their relationship in terms of daily renewal instead of a lifetime investment," Sadeghi and Sami write. "This is probably the reason why so many people say their long-term relationships changed overnight, once they got married. The people didn’t change, but the expectation did."

Uncoupling is relatively new and now it has a ceremony to accompany the uncoupling. It's done with invited guests and your children watching. It's a New Age ritual where you exchange rings. I know, sounds familiar -- like marriage -- only this time you get the rings back that you originally gave. No throwing them at each other is allowed.

Not a divorce

This is not a divorce -- it is a ending of a romantic partnership but you stay in the same house and raise your family. It is something that is there to aid the kids and ease the trauma. Separate bedrooms are most likely. It becomes an open marriage. The couple is free to date and they set rules and boundaries due to the young children in the home. The ceremony supports the values behind the uncoupling.

Obviously it is something both parties have to be willing to contribute to and that means a great deal of communication.

Worried about an uncoupling gift? It could be awkward being invited to a ceremony. As of now there are no uncoupling gifts that you register for at Macy's but maybe a set of sheets might be a good gift? Somebody is going to need them.

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Three declines in a row for mortgage applications

Refinancings also posted a drop

Mortgage applications inched lower last week, posting their third consecutive decline. decreased 0.9 percent from one week earlier, according to Data fr...

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© emiliezhang -Fotolia.com

Mortgage applications inched lower last week, posting their third consecutive decline.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 0.9% in the week ending November 7, 2014.

The Refinance Index fell 2%, with the refinance share of mortgage activity holding steady at 63% of total applications The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity dropped to 7.1% of total applications -- the lowest level since January.

The FHA share of total applications, on the other hand, rose 9.6%, the VA share was up to 11.0% and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged this week at 0.9%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 2 basis points -- from 4.17% to 4.19%, with points increasing to 0.26 from 0.22 (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) remained at 4.13%, with points rising to 0.15 from 0.11 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent% loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA increased to 3.90% from 3.84%, with points falling to 0.14 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was unchanged at 3.38%, with points decreasing to 0.22 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs fell 3 basis points to 3.05%, with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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Toyota recalls Camrys with steering issues

Damage during the manufacturing process could result in a loss of control

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., is recalling of 56 Model Year 2011 Camrys distributed to the U.S. Territories of Guam and Saipan. Globally, the company is reca...

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Photo source: Toyota

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., is recalling of 56 Model Year 2011 Camrys distributed to the U.S. Territories of Guam and Saipan. Globally, the company is recalling approximately 170,000 vehicles.

The front suspension system in the involved vehicles contains a lower ball joint which connects the front suspension lower arm to the knuckle arm. In the assembly process, the rubber boot on the ball joint could have been damaged by insufficiently maintained equipment.

If the rubber boot is damaged, lubricant grease inside the ball joint could leak from the damaged boot, causing the ball joint to wear and loosen prematurely. If the vehicle is continuously operated in this condition, the lower ball joint may separate from the knuckle and could cause a loss of vehicle control.

Toyota says it is unaware of any crashes, injuries or fatalities related to this condition.

Owners of the recalled vehicles will receive a notification by first class mail. Toyota dealers will inspect the rubber boots, and if necessary, replace the ball joint with a new one.

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

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Is your trust in mutual fund managers misplaced?

Study suggests they aren't any better stock pickers than you are

If you ask most people saving for retirement where their money is invested, chances are they'll say it is in mutual funds....

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If you ask most people saving for retirement where their money is invested, chances are they'll say it is in mutual funds.

These funds, made up of a variety of different assets, are popular because the average saver doesn't have to think that much about them. The stocks within the individual funds are selected by professional money managers, who are paid to know which stocks to buy and which to sell.

Earlier this year stock-picking guru Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's "Mad Money," ruffled feathers among professional money managers when he told his audience that “most company 401 (k) plans stink.”

"They have high management fees and administrative costs that eat into your returns, and worst of all, they typically offer you lousy choices for your investments and not nearly enough control over them," Cramer told his audience. "The 401(k) business is a racket for the managers who get to charge you these fees.”

He went on to recommend that people instead consider investing in a carefully-selected portfolio of about 10 diversified stocks.

It perhaps should be noted that the whole premise of Cramer's show is to instruct viewers on how to select individual stocks, so his advice might be considered in that light. But the fact remains that millions of individual investors would rather trust their stock picks to the experts.

How good are the experts?

But how good are the experts at picking their own investments – not the stocks they pick for the funds they manage but those in their personal retirement savings? A couple of finance professors took up the question and say you may be surprised at what they found.

"We asked the question whether financial experts make better investment decisions than ordinary investors," said Andriy Bodnaruk, an assistant finance professor at the University of Notre Dame.

He and colleague Andrei Simonov from Michigan State University selected two groups of investors. One was made up of people who have been trained in finance and had day-to-day experience with financial markets as mutual fund managers.

The second group of investors shared a number of socioeconomic characteristics but lacked financial training. In other words, they were amateurs. The researchers compared how the two groups fared in the market.

No difference

"We found that financial experts are no different from peer investors: they do not have ability to pick outperforming stocks, they do not manage risk of their portfolios in better ways, and they trade as often as other investors," Bodmaruk said. "The only time experts do better than non-experts is when they have access to better information stemming from their workplace."

And of course, that information counts for something. One of the hallmarks of a well-managed fund is it is usually supported by extensive research. But even Bodnaruk and Simonov concede that picking stocks can be an inexact science.

"Outperforming the stock market is very difficult and the overwhelming majority of investors, including experts, do not have the skill to do it," Bodnaruk said. "Markets by and large are efficient to the degree that very few investors can consistently perform better than a fair reward for the risk assumed.”

Role of financial advisors

Bodnaruk says investors should not chase "expert talent," but he's really talking about fund managers, not financial advisors. Financial advisors who are not trying to sell a product but simply offer investment guidance, can be a valuable resource as you build a next egg.

If nothing else, a good financial advisor can be a sounding board to discuss investment ideas and their questions and advice can keep you from making costly mistakes. Should you invest in mutual funds or index funds and ETFs as the researchers suggest? Or individual stocks as Cramer recommends?

If you have a qualified and trusted financial advisor to talk to, you don't have to make that decision alone.

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Veterans make excellent employees but companies have trouble finding them

Report finds that challenges remain for both veterans and employers looking to hire them

There's a disconnect somewhere between companies that want to hire veterans and veterans looking for work. A new RAND Corporation report finds that while v...

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There's a disconnect somewhere between companies that want to hire veterans and veterans looking for work. A new RAND Corporation report finds that while veterans make excellent employees, companies still experience challenges locating and hiring them.

Studying a group of companies that have made a major commitment to hire veterans, researchers concluded that challenges remain for veterans seeking civilian jobs and employers hoping to hire them, including continuing difficulty understanding the match between military skills and civilian job requirements.

Too often veterans believe their talents apply only in the security or defense arenas and employers struggle to understand how military experience translates to the skills needed for civilian jobs, according to researchers.

"Military members need to know that defense contractors and similar businesses are not the only place they should look for work," said Kimberly Hall, lead author of the study and a senior project associate at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Veterans should consider the financial sector and other types of businesses. They contribute valuable skills and experience across the spectrum of American industry."

While the federal government has instituted programs to help veterans gain civilian employment, the RAND report suggests several improvements.

"Although we acknowledge the considerable effort by federal agencies to improve the transition from military service to the civilian workforce, and especially to improve the Transition Assistance Program, opportunities remain for improvement," said Margaret Harrell, co-author of the study and a senior social scientist at RAND.

The RAND report suggests that the Transition Assistance Program, which helps military members prepare for civilian life, should include the participation of civilian employers. The U.S. Department of Defense should continue to facilitate on-base access to recruiting events with civilian employers.

The Department of Defense also should extend SkillBridge, which helps military members train and intern with private employers, to include more participants, according to the report. Military members who are leaving service should be encouraged to enroll early with the Veterans Employment Center, an online employment tool with a registry of veterans and employers. Likewise, employers should consider participating in both SkillBridge and the Veterans Employment Center.

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Consumers stepping up their use of credit

Auto financing and student loans growing the fastest

Consumers were on a shopping spree in September and in large part were using credit to pay for it....

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Consumers were on a shopping spree in September and in large part were using credit to pay for it.

The Federal Reserve reports consumer credit increased at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.5% during the third quarter. Revolving credit – things like credit cards -- increased at an annual rate of 3% while non-revolving credit, such as car payments, increased at an annual rate of 8%.

Much of the increase came late in the quarter. In September, consumer credit increased at an annual rate of 6%.

Consumers have steadily increased their use of credit since the Great Recession, when credit totals actually started falling.

Cars and college

While some growth in credit use is good for the economy, where the credit is used is also important. It can either be helpful or harmful. The Fed report shows two of the biggest areas of credit spending were auto financing and student loans.

Car loans surged, along with rising new car sales. Cheap financing continues to draw consumers to new car showrooms month after month and can have a stimulative effect on the economy.

College loans, meanwhile, continue to be an area of concern. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has warned that the $1.2 trillion student loan balance is placing a heavy burden on students and the economy as a whole.

It found that in 2010, 67% of bachelor's degree recipients used loans to pay for their education.

“If you have to take out student loans, comparing your options can help you find the student loan best suited for your needs,” CFPB advises.

Double-digit interest rates

Meanwhile, consumers carrying balances on their credit cards paid an average of 15.09% in early November, according to CreditCards.com's weekly rate report. The company's average is made up of 100 of the most-used credit cards in the U.S., but does not include introductory “teaser” rates.

The Fed report shows outstanding credit balances of all types – excluding those secured by real estate – increased by more than $15 billion from August to September. But the relatively small increase in credit card balances suggests consumers aren't stepping up their spending heading into the holidays. At least, they aren't using plastic.

Reluctant spending

A recent survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) suggests that increases in consumer credit – particularly credit cards – have been reluctant, with consumers increasing their worries about their finances since the Great Recession.

The survey found that 92% of those polled expressed a fear of running out of money. Sixty-four percent said they were worried they wouldn't have enough money to pay each month's bills.

“The focus on immediate needs, as opposed to future ones such as retirement, reflects the uncomfortable financial situation in which many Americans live month after month,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. “Entering the holiday shopping season already struggling to meet existing debt obligations will only add more pressure on the family.”

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How to deal with that 20-something on your couch

It's taking longer for kids to grow up, not to mention find a job

Perhaps you have a 20-something sitting on your couch and you are starting to think they blend in with the pillows. They don't move a lot because they are ...

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Perhaps you have a 20-something sitting on your couch and you are starting to think they blend in with the pillows. They don't move a lot because they are glued to the TV or they are stuck at a level in their video game. Yep, in their 20's and still playing the video games. Well guess what? You just might be part of the problem.

On that same note, also be aware it’s happening everywhere in all sorts of families, and it appears young people are taking longer to reach adulthood overall.

The 20's are really a time for growth. One-third of people in their 20's move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20's, more job changes than in any other stretch.

Adam Price, a psychologist who has offices in New Yorkand New Jersey has tailored his practice to young adults."We can de-motivate our kids when we rescue them from consequences," says Price, "We learn when we make choices and face consequences. When parents soften the blow, we're not helping our kids learn."

Some examples of this are writing a final paper for a student. Cleaning their room. Doing laundry, paying for their car insurance. Calling in sick for work or school. Not letting them bounce and feel a bruise.

Be consistent

As a parent you have to be consistent even into early adulthood if they haven't started flying by themselves yet. If you have made a decision about something -- for instance a curfew at your home even if they are older -- you have to stick to it. Letting the curfew slide is a symbol of everything else that will slide and you will skid into a situation of never getting that young adult off the couch because you are holding them back by not holding them accountable.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, co-author of "Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years," Has some suggestions that may help.

Manage your expectations. Understand your child's limits. With college-age kids, if consequences continually aren't working, look at what has happened in the past. Perhaps your child has a learning disability that has been undiagnosed. They could be suffering from substance abuse, or simply just not be the best student and have trouble studying and taking tests.

Open lines of communication. Engage in productive dialogue so they know you're on their side. With college-age kids, "be an asker, not a talker," Price says. "Listen for answers, long before you give opinions. The more they say, and the less you lecture, the better. You don't have to agree for them to know you hear them."

Don't be too generous. There is a line between supporting your children and enabling them says Christine Hassler, a life coach, author and professional speaker with an expertise in Gen Y. Money is often the problem, she says: "Just because you have the money to help them out, it does not mean that you should. As long as you continue to do so, you are impacting their ability to self-generate and possibly putting your own retirement plans at risk."

Create age-appropriate agreements. "If your 20-something is still living at home, have them pay rent. Draft a lease agreement that outlines the terms and conditions of this tenant arrangement," Hassler said.

Accept that as a parent of a young adult your power has diminished. Not everyone grows at the same pace -- it make take more time for some than others. If you commit to yourself and your ability to create a change, you will see that your child will be better able to commit to themselves and eventually you may get a seat back on that couch for yourself.

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Snake-snack stunt draws hisses from animal lovers

Filmmaker plans to feed himself to an anaconda, hopes to be regurgitated

Would you lather yourself up in pig's blood and then let an anaconda swallow you and regurgitate you? I can think of things I would rather do but there is ...

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Photo via Change.org

Would you lather yourself up in pig's blood, hoping to persuade an anaconda to swallow you and regurgitate you? I can think of things I would rather do but there is always that one person who wants to be the first.

Of course it's happening on TV. The Discovery Channel's "Eaten Alive" show, which claims it will show a man being eaten alive by an anaconda, will not only torment the snake. It is also getting under PETA's skin.

"Anacondas go days without eating and expend the energy needed to do so selectively. Making this snake use up energy by swallowing this fool and then possibly regurgitating him would have left the poor animal exhausted and deprived of the energy that he or she needs," the animal rights group said in a statement.

Paul Rosolie who is an author, environmentalist and -- you guessed it -- wildlife filmmaker is the planned snake snack. Rosolie will be wearing a tether that can pull him back out should he go too deep, along with a custom-built snake suit. (Custom built because this is just not the type of outfit one can pick up at Target.)

He will lather himself up with pig's blood so he becomes enticing for this huge powerful snake. An adult anaconda can weigh up to 550 pounds and grow to be 29 feet long.

And although Rosolie sent a message on Twitter on Nov. 4 saying he would "never hurt a living thing," he's not very popular with animal lovers right at the moment.

Around 20,000 people have already signed a petition on Change.org saying they will boycott the show and calling on Discovery to cancel its scheduled Dec. 7 airing.

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Food manufacturers' supposed good deeds create a "health halo"

Good deeds don't mean the food is any healthier than the other guy's

Gee, isn't it great that some companies donate some of their profits to charity, help find homes for lost dogs, support recycling efforts and use energy-sa...

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© tang90246 - Fotolia

Gee, isn't it great that some companies donate some of their profits to charity, help find homes for lost dogs, support recycling efforts and use energy-saving LED light bulbs in their factories?

Sure it is, but a new study confirms that such socially responsible activities can create a "health halo" over foods that are really no healthier than competing products. 

"Research demonstrates that consumers frequently engage in inference making when evaluating food products. These inferences can be highly inaccurate, leading to unintended, unhealthy consumer choices," say the authors of a study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

The authors asked study participants to make assumptions about the healthfulness of a future granola bar product. The people who were told that the granola bar company had won many awards for its public service predicted that the granola bar would therefore be extremely healthy.

The authors found that this "health halo" encouraged overconsumption and underestimation of calories consumed, adding that the current study could lead to important changes in advertising regulations -- for example, limiting how much information about its social programs a company may include on its food packaging.

The authors say they believe that this and other studies may help raise awareness among those consumers who genuinely want a healthy product, and who don't want their emotions manipulated in ways that lead them to make unhealthy as¬sumptions about food quality.

The study concludes with a warning: "If consumers seeking a healthy diet inaccurately estimate nutritional content of products marketed by firms with strong reputations for corporate social responsibility, it can lead to serious health consequences for both individuals and society."

The authors of the study are John Peloza (University of Kentucky), Christine Ye (Westminster College) and William J. Montford (Florida State University).

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Ferrari fined for foot-dragging on warning reports

The automaker failed to submit information for 3 years

Ferrari has found that putting off until tomorrow what you should do today is an expensive policy. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHT...

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Photo source: Ferrari

Ferrari has found that putting off until tomorrow what you should do today is an expensive policy.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is fining the automaker $3.5 million for failing to submit early warning reports (EWR reports) identifying potential or actual safety issues. In addition, the company has been ordered to comply with NHTSA oversight requirements as set forth in a consent order.

Violations admitted

Federal law requires large manufacturers and affiliates of large manufacturers to submit comprehensive EWR reports on a quarterly basis, in order to provide notice to the Transportation Department of potential safety concerns.

Ferrari, an affiliate of Chrysler, admitted that it violated the law when it failed to submit required reports to NHTSA over a 3-year period, and failed to report 3 fatal incidents. Until Fiat (which includes Ferrari since 2011) acquired Chrysler, Ferrari qualified as a small volume manufacturer and was not required to file quarterly EWR reports. However, while Ferrari was not required to file quarterly reports, it must report fatal incidents nonetheless.

"There is no excuse for failing to follow laws created to keep drivers safe,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “All automakers will be held accountable if they fail to do their part in our mission to keep Americans safe on the road."

Remedial actions ordered

In addition to the civil penalty, the consent order requires the Ferrari to improve its processes for EWR reporting, to train personnel on the EWR requirements, to communicate these improvements to NHTSA, and to retroactively submit all EWR reports. The consent order is immediately enforceable in federal court if any terms are violated.

"The information included in early warning reports is an essential tool in tracking down dangerous defects in vehicles," added NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman. "Early warning reports are like NHTSA's radar, helping us to find unsafe vehicles and make sure they are fixed. Companies that violate the law and fail to comply will be subject to comparable swift NHTSA enforcement action."

EWR reports are required under the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act of 2000. The law requires quarterly reporting of: production information; incidents involving death or injury; aggregate data on property damage claims, consumer complaints, warranty claims, and field reports; and, copies of field reports involving specified vehicle components, a fire, or a rollover.

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AT&T cancels in-flight wireless plans

Someone finally told the telecom giant it arrived too late at the party

AT&T sometimes seems to live in a world of its own. Take last April, when it breathlessly announced that it would enter the in-flight broadband wireless bu...

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File photo

AT&T sometimes seems to live in a world of its own. Take last April, when it breathlessly announcedthat it would enter the in-flight broadband wireless business. competing with Gogo.

Gogo shrugged it off. AT&T's bid was "too little, too late," said Gogo CEO Michael Small who, it turns out, was right. Now, having heard the busy signal, AT&T says it will put its energies elsewhere. 

At the time of its announcement, AT&T quoted a survey showing that 9 out of 10 customers were unhappy with the speed and reliability of in-flight wireless and said its 4G LTE service would be markedly better.

But yesterday, AT&T said it will instead go after international wireless opportunities, including the purchase of a Mexican company. It is also, of course, trying to complete its $48 billion purchase of DirecTV.

Wall Street analysts greeted the news with a shrug, saying the in-flight wireless market was already "mature" -- meaning it has all the service providers it needs, primarily Gogo and Row 44, which have most North American airlines locked into long-term contracts.

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Falling behind in credit card payments can cost a bundle

But it isn't as bad as it was a couple of years ago

There are many things you should not do with a credit card. Among them -- falling behind on payments. Consider a cardholder who carries a $4,000 balance o...

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© Andy Dean - Fotolia

There are many things you should not do with a credit card. Among them -- falling behind on payments.

Consider a cardholder who carries a $4,000 balance on a card charging 11.82%. That's the average rate for those carrying a balance, according to the Federal Reserve. At the 28.45% average penalty rate, the cardholder would have to pay an extra $665.20 in interest a year, according to CreditCards.com's survey of 100 U.S. credit cards. In 2012, it would have been worse. The average APR then was 28.60%.

Penalty rates are the often-stratospheric APRs that a bank charges a cardholder for making a major mistake, typically being 60 days or more late with a payment.

Staying current is a must

“This drives home, once again, just how incredibly important it is to pay your bills on time every time,” said Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com’s senior industry analyst. “Debt can grow quickly even with an average interest rate. But when you’re hit with a penalty rate, things can get out of control in a hurry.”

Fortunately for cardholders who carry a balance, the number of issuers using penalty interest rates has decreased dramatically since the passage of the 2009 Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act. In 2010, 91% of issuers imposed penalty rates. By 2012, the number had fallen to 69%. This year, it was just 60%.

Among card issuers charging a penalty rate, the lowest -- 17.99% -- is assessed by Pentagon Federal Credit Union's Cash Rewards Visa Standard card. 

Survey highlights

  • Sixty of 100 surveyed cards have a penalty interest rate of some kind:  28 have penalty APRs based on the prime rate plus a specified percent. Rates based on the prime rate can move up automatically when that index rises, as it is expected to in 2015; 32 calculate a cardholder's penalty APR based on creditworthiness.
  • Only 23 cards disclose penalty rate information in the card terms and conditions; 77 cards required follow-up phone calls or review of cardholder agreements to confirm penalty rate details.
  • The CARD Act required lenders to revoke the penalty rate if consumers make 6 consecutive on-time payments after the penalty rate is applied, but just 38 of the 60 cards make that clear in their publicly available documents.
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McDonald’s recalls “Hello Kitty”-themed whistles

Components inside the whistle can detach

McDonald’s Corp., of Oakbrook, Ill., is recalling about 2.5 million “Hello Kitty Birthday Lollipop” whistles. Components inside the whistle can detach, po...

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Photo source: CPSC

McDonald’s Corp., of Oakbrook, Ill., is recalling about 2.5 million “Hello Kitty Birthday Lollipop” whistles.

Components inside the whistle can detach, posing choking and aspiration hazards to young children.

The company has received 2 reports of children who coughed out pieces of the whistle that they had sucked into their mouths, including 1 child who received medical attention.

The recalled whistles are red and were included in a plastic “Hello Kitty” figurine holding a pink heart-shaped lollipop. The whistle can be removed and used to make sounds by inhaling or exhaling through the mouthpiece. When closed, the figurine measures about 3 inches in height and width and 1 3/4 inches in depth.

The whistle measures about 1 3/4 inches in height and width and 3/4 inches in depth. A picture of “Hello Kitty” appears on both sides of the whistle. The text “©1976, 2014 SANRIO CO., LTD.” appears above “Hello Kitty’s” face on the whistle, and “Made for McDonald’s China CCW Chine” appears below “Hello Kitty’s” face on the whistle. The bag in which the toy is packaged includes the text “Hello Kitty Birthday Lollipop” and the number “6” in the upper right corner.

The whistles, manufactured in China, were distributed exclusively at McDonald’s restaurants nationwide from October 2014, through the first week of November 2014, with Happy Meals and Mighty Kids Meals.

Consumers should immediately take the whistle away from children and return it to any McDonald’s for a free replacement toy and either a yogurt tube or a bag of apple slices.

Consumers may contact McDonald’s at (800) 244-6227 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. CT, 7 days a week.

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Review of community colleges finds mixed results

Short term certificate programs may not provide much value

Public policy makers, from President Obama to education leaders, have stressed the value of a community college education....

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© andrewgenn - Fotolia
Public policy makers, from President Obama to education leaders, have stressed the value of a community college education.

Students can earn a 2-year degree or complete the first 2 years or work on a bachelor's degree for a significantly lower cost than a public or private 4-year institution.

But what about value? Getting a job after graduation is what it's all about. How valuable is the education you get at a community college?

The answer is, it depends.

Major study

Researchers in Washington state have completed a major study of students who enrolled in either certificate or degree programs at the 34 community colleges in the state in the early 2000s. Next, it followed their career progress over the next 7 years.

First, the good news. The study found that students who enrolled in a 2-year degree program got their moneys worth and more.

But those who enrolled in short-term certificate programs – usually less than a year – got little value when they returned to the labor market.

The findings are significant because lately, short-term certificate programs have been rapidly growing. They're popular with students because they don't take long to complete. Colleges like them because they're a growing revenue source.

The researchers say between 2000 and 2010, the number of students receiving short-term certificates grew by 151% nationally. In that time they went from being 16% of credentials issued by community colleges to 24%.

The extra time will pay off

But the researchers say if you are thinking about investing a year in a certificate program, it will likely be more advantageous to invest an extra year to get a 2-year degree.

“While we find that earning associate degrees or long-term certificates is associated with increased wages, an increased likelihood of being employed, and increased hours worked, we find minimal or no positive effects for short-term certificates,” the authors write.

Madeline Trimble of the Community College Research Center says the bulk of the evidence suggests that short-term certificates lead to lower returns, on average, than longer-term credentials.

“Even in those states where their returns are positive, the average increase in earnings is unlikely to be greater than $300 per quarter,” she said.

Study co-author Mina Dadgar discusses key findings in the video below.

Time to take another look

Dadgar and Trimble are calling for a critical examination of short-term certificates. They say states should be concerned with the recent dramatic increases in short-term certificates and whether that is money well-spent.

They say students considering a degree program at a community college should know that getting a long-term certificate like an associate's degree was linked with a 11% increase in the chances of getting a job for women and an 8% increase for men.

Community colleges are a proven way to get started on a college education without running up huge levels of debt. In 2010-11, average tuition and fees for a full-time student enrolled in a public two-year college were $2,713, compared to $7,605 at public four-year institutions and significantly higher levels at private for-profit and nonprofit institutions, according to the College Board.

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Report: GM ordered replacement ignition switches prior to recall

The company says it acted properly

What did General Motors know and when did it know it? Those are the questions likely to arise in damage suits and continuing governmental investigations of...

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A GM ignition switch is displayed at a Congressional heading (file photo)

What did General Motors know and when did it know it? Those are the questions likely to arise in damage suits and continuing governmental investigations of the massive GM ignition switch recall. 

The Wall Street Journal reports today that GM ordered half a million replacement ignition switches for Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars nearly two months before it informed federal safety regulators of the problem.

The newspaper says that email exchanges between a GM contract worker and ignition-switch supplier Delphi Automotive show that GM placed an "urgent" order for 500,000 switches on Dec. 18, 2013, nearly two months prior to Feb. 7, when it notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the problem that would eventually lead to 2.5 million recalls and that has been linked to at least 30 deaths.

The emails came to light as part of a court case in New York that's headed for trial in January 2016. The emails had been designated as confidential but a lawyer for the plaintiffs challenged that designation and the court ordered them unsealed.

A spokesman for GM said the company, which has been fined $35 million, acted properly and wasn't required to report the huge order for switches. Federal law requires automakers to notify NHTSA promptly when a safety defect is discovered.

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"Darkhotel:" new hacker threat targets traveling executives for corporate espionage

"Nuclear-themed" and U.S. defense-industry executives of particular interest

Security researchers at Kaspersky Labs announced today that for at least the past four years, a group of hacker/spies have been engaged in a campaign of wi...

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© lolloj - Fotolia

Security researchers at Kaspersky Labs announced todaythat for at least the past four years, a group of hacker/spies have been engaged in a campaign of widespread corporate espionage which Kaspersky calls “Darkhotel.”

It's not known exactly who or how many people are behind this, though Kaspersky says that, “The attackers left a footprint in a string within their malicious code pointing to a Korean-speaking actor.”

The hackers attack and intercept the wi-fi networks at luxury hotels of the sort where big-company CEO-types stay while on business trips, and plant malware disguised as a legitimate software update (usually Google Toolbar, Windows Messenger or Adobe Flash).

When the unwary executives allow the “update,” it plants keylogging software that allows the hackers to remotely see everything the executive later types on that device – including, potentially, the passcodes those executives use to log on to their companies' restricted corporate networks, where the super-sensitive and valuable information is kept.

In the shadows

As Kaspersky said in its initial announcement, the Darkhotel espionage campaign:

…. has lurked in the shadows for at least four years while stealing sensitive data from selected corporate executives travelling abroad.“Darkhotel” hits its targets while they are staying inluxury hotels. The crew never goes after the same target twice; they perform operations with surgical precision, getting all the valuable data they can from the first contact, deleting traces of their work and melting into the background to await the next high profile individual.  The most recent travelling targets include top executivesfrom the US and Asia doing business and investing in the APAC [Asia-Pacific] region: CEOs, senior vice presidents, sales and marketing directors and top R&D staff have all been targeted. Who will be next? This threat actor is still active, Kaspersky Lab warns.

Even worse, Darkhotel's targets and the hotels whose networks were attacked might not even know about it:

These tools collect data about the system and the anti-malware software installed on it, steal all keystrokes, and hunt for cached passwords in Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer; Gmail Notifier, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo! and Google login credentials; and other private information. Victims lose sensitive information - likely the intellectual property of the business entities they represent. After the operation, the attackers carefully delete their tools from the hotel network and go back into hiding.

More valuable payoff

From a company's perspective, corporate espionage is a far worse threat than any hacker-caused loss of money or financial data — and from a thief's perspective, corporate espionage can have a far more valuable payoff.

Imagine a thief seeking to enrich himself at the Coca-Cola company's expense. Under the right circumstances he could perhaps hack into Coke's corporate bank account and take whatever money is there, or steal the credit-card numbers issued to Coke executives, buy things and charge them to Coke's corporate accounts — but if that thief wants to get seriously rich (or seriously hurt the Coca-Cola company, which is not the same thing), his best bet is to try stealing the actual secret recipe for Coke. Same thing if someone wants to get dishonestly rich off of Kentucky Fried Chicken – the real treasure isn't KFC's current cash reserves or credit lines, but Colonel Sanders' top-secret chicken recipe.

But so far, the evidence suggests that the Darkhotel spies aren't going after fast-food recipes or other consumer-based trade secrets; they appear more interested in gaining power rather than mere money. Kaspersky manager Costin Raiu said that, “Their targeting is nuclear themed, but they also target the defense industry base in the U.S. and important executives from around the world in all sectors having to do with economic development and investments.”

Kaspersky's tips on “How to outsmart Darkhotel's tricks” include a reminder that “When traveling, any network, even semi-private ones in hotels, should be viewed as potentially dangerous.”

Even if you're not a wealthy executive with access to weapons-grade secrets, you still should be wary and take extra precautions when using any public wi-fi hotspot, not just those at hotels (luxurious or not).

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Hackers suspected of Chinese government connections breach USPS database

Definite bad news for USPS employees; possible bad news for USPS customers

The United States Postal Service admitts that hackers broke into the USPS database, which is bad news for more than 800,000 employees and might possibly ca...

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© Nicola_Del_Mutolo - Fotolia

The United States Postal Service admitts that hackers broke into the USPS database, which is bad news for more than 800,000 employees and might possibly cause problems for ordinary mail-receiing or mail-sending USPS customers, too.

The USPS said it discovered the intrusion sometime in mid-September and has been working with the FBI since then, but declined to speculate on who might be responsible.

However, the Washington Post said that “individuals familiar with the investigations” think the USPS hackers are connected with or working for the Chinese government, and are likely the same people who hacked the federal Office of Personnel Management last July, stealing data on up to 5 million government employees and contractors holding security clearances.

China's government, for its part, denies any role in American hacking activities and points out that hacking is illegal under Chinese law.

Regardless of who is responsible for the USPS data breach, it's believed the hackers made away with the names, addresses, Social Security numbers, emergency contacts and similar information for all post office employees.

Customers maybe not affected

A postal spokesman, David Partenheimer, said that customers who visited their local post offices or used USPS.com were likely not affected, but it is possible that some customers of the USPS call center had their telephone numbers, email addresses and similar information compromised.

However, analysts who spoke to the Washington Post said it's possible the hackers were also interested in other types of data — for example, the USPS photographs and keeps records of the address information on all envelopes and packages sent through the mail, on behalf of American law enforcement.

Thus, if you've sent or received any “snail mail” since approximately 2001 (when the photography program apparently first started), your own government definitely keeps that information about you on file, and now it's possible that China's government might have this information too.

That said: Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe, referring specifically to the theft of USPS employee information, said in a statement that “we have seen no evidence of malicious use of the compromised data and we are taking steps to help our employees protect against any potential misuse of their data.”

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Behind the employment numbers: slow wage growth

Women are regaining jobs at a faster rate than men

On the surface at least, the October employment report, released on Friday, looked pretty good. Job creation for the month was a respectable 214,000. The ...

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Photo © Ljupco Smokovski - Fotolia

On the surface at least, the October employment report, released on Friday, looked pretty good. Job creation for the month was a respectable 214,000. The unemployment rate fell to 5.8%, the lowest it has been since before the financial crisis.

When you look at what these jobs pay, however, the results are not all that impressive. Economists have worried that, while the economy is growing, wages are not. If consumers can't afford to increase their purchasing power, there's less fuel to grow the economy.

The job growth in October occurred largely in traditionally low-wage sectors. Food services and drinking places added 42,000 jobs while retail added 27,000. Higher-paying jobs like manufacturing added 15,000 jobs.

Familiar pattern

In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Dan Alpert, Managing Director of Westwood Capital, says we've seen this before.

“When you go back to 2013, some 58% of all the jobs that we’ve created are in the very low wage sector,” he said. “Those low wage sectors are retail, temp work, social assistance and leisure and hospitality. And combined those sectors do just a little more than 50% of all the other sector in terms of wages.”

Women rebound faster

But when it comes to regaining lost jobs, women appear to be doing better than men. The Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) has analyzed Friday's employment report and has found that the total number of jobs lost in the recession has now been recovered.

However, it says men are down 71,000 jobs from the number they held at the start of the recession. In October, men gained 87,000 jobs while women gained 127,000. Women now hold 50% more jobs than they did at the start of the economic downturn.

The unemployment rate is based on the percentage of the population actively looking for work. If you aren't looking you aren't counted. Increasingly, economists have worried about the number of people no longer participating in the work force.

In October, the overall labor force participation rate increased slightly to 62.8% from 62.7% in September. Here again, that's largely due to women.

Fewer men participating

More women joined the labor force last month while more men dropped out. While women's participation rose slightly, men saw a rather dramatic drop of 4 percentage points from the start of the Great Recession.

"The economy is consistently adding over 200,000 jobs each month, but the recovery for men has remained painfully slow," said IWPR President Heidi Hartmann. "Working women continue to be the engine behind the economic recovery."

IWPR found that without women's strong presence in a few growing industries, women would have fared much worse in comparison to men than they did in the recovery. Men added more jobs in more sectors but where women were in the lead – sectors like education and health care – they lead by a lot.

The analysis also takes a close look at wages. It finds growth is not just limited to traditional low wage jobs but says most of the growth has come in what it calls mid-level wages, such as professional and business services.

It agrees, however, that job growth has been much slower in higher paying sectorsm such as information technology, financial services and government.

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Google Express chief defects to Uber

Is Uber planning to get into the home-delivery business?

Uber is starting to resemble one of those start-ups that grows like kudzu. Or something. While expanding into new global markets at near-light speed it is ...

PhotoUber is starting to resemble one of those start-ups that grows like kudzu. Or something. While expanding into new global markets at near-light speed it is also starting to get its tentacles into neighboring businesses. Like home delivery.

Or so it appears anyway, with the news that Tom Fallows, the head of Google's same-day delivery business, has abandoned Google for Uber. Don't feel bad for Google though. It holds a major investment position in Uber so what's good for Uber is good for Google. It's sort of an Uber uber alles situation.

The obvious implication in all of this is that Uber now has its eye on the home delivery business -- something everybody has been scheming to enter lately, although few have done so on any major scale with any major degree of success.

Lots of cars

An Uber entry makes a lot of sense, however. After all, it has what Amazon, Google, et al, don't -- namely, cars and drivers, lots of them. 

Amazon, which seemingly has everything imaginable in stock, is still largely reliant on third-party carriers -- everyone from UPS to USPS and points in between.

Google has indexed everything but the actual items for its home-shopping service, Google Express, come from retailers like Walgreens, Costco and Staples. Google doesn't have its own cars, unless you count those cute little self-driving ones. It does have a collection of independent contractors who run around buying whatever customers order and then delivering it to them. Not exactly state of the art, but a start anyway.

While neither company is saying much about Fallows' delivering himself from Google to Uber, he dropped a hint that his loyalties had not necessarily been much changed by the move.

“Even though the next stage of my career takes me outside Google, I’m really excited to watch Google Express continue to thrive and expand,” Fallows said in a statement Google emailed to The Wall Street Journal.

Speaking of the WSJ, the news of Fallows' move was delivered earlier today by Re/code, the technology news website started by a couple of Wall Street Journal defectors.

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Military cutbacks at the vet's office

Budget cuts catch up with veterinary care for vets' pets

Military veterinary clinics all over the world are having to cut back services that they offer to privately owned pets so they can save some money....

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© kudrashka - Fotolia
Military veterinary clinics all over the world are having to cut back services that they offer to privately owned pets so they can save some money.

The cutbacks took effect in mid-October, according to the U.S. Army Public Health Command, which oversees veterinary treatment facilities at all military installations. Lt. Col. Matt Takara, the command’s program manager for animal medicine said that they are temporarily suspending almost all procedures that involve anesthesia for privately owned animals at most of the 150 locations around the world.

What's happened is the command has hired more civilians -- who are more expensive than military members -- and so they need to cut back staffing in some areas to save money. Veterinary facilities will still perform emergency procedures for pets and will continue to operate on military animals, Takara said.

The cost of examinations has increased $10 to $35, and the price of some items sold by the clinics rose slightly.

The military had been charging less than the actual cost of the procedures. So there was no way to win on that.

Despite the cutbacks, Takara said pets will still receive good preventive care. "The goal is to increase access to care and provide more wellness and sick call appointments to our military families’ pets,” he said.

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Obama urges FCC to adopt strict net neutrality rules

He calls for no fast lane, no throttling, no blocking

As the Federal Communications Commission begins considering rules to ensure free and equal access to the Internet, President Obama is weighing in with his ...

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White House photo

As the Federal Communications Commission begins considering rules to ensure free and equal access to the Internet, President Obama is weighing in with his suggestions.

"An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life," Obama said in a statement. "By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known."

Obama suggests the FCC "should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online." He listed these priorities:

  • No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.
  • No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
  • Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
  • No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

Obama noted that more than 4 million consumers have submitted public comments urging the adoption of net neutrality rules but conceded that a federal court had struck down the FCC's previous attempt to impose new regulations "not because it disagreed with the need to protect net neutrality, but because it believed the FCC had taken the wrong legal approach."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said that he does not expect to have a final draft of proposed new rules before early next year.

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Cat cafes -- where cat lovers go to hang out with adoptable cats

It's a way to help high-risk cats find new homes

Cat got your tongue? It just might, at the brand new Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, Calif. It's a first for cats. The two people who created this unique cafe ar...

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Photo © Cattown.com

Cat got your tongue? It just might, at the brand new Cat Town Cafein Oakland, Calif. It's a first for cats. The two people who created this unique cafe are Adam Myatt who goes by the moniker "Cat Man of West Oakland" and Ann Dunn who founded a local cat rescue organization.

They describe it as "an elaborate play area" where customers can order drinks and spend quality time with up to 12 adoptable cats. The cafe has two areas -- one a food prep area and counter where you can order the usual cafe items like coffee, tea, sandwiches and pastries.

Then there is a play area for the fabulous felines, with cat-sized replicas of city icons and murals featuring famous cats of pop culture. A limited number of people can be in the lounge area at one time to interact with the cats.

Least adoptable

All of the cats at the cafe are from Oakland shelters and they have been labeled as the least adoptable cats. The funding came via IndieGogo, which raised $40,695 and $20,000 was donated by Pet Food Express.

"The Cafe allows us to not only empty more cages, but allow the cats who remain at the Oakland shelter to get more attention from volunteers, stay healthier, and have more opportunity for sooner adoption with fewer cats and kittens competing for attention," the cafe's website says.

Similar businesses are set to open soon in San Francisco (KitTea), Portland (Purringtons), Los Angeles (Catfe), Denver, (Catco) San Diego and Seattle (Meowtropolitan).

Don't think you can take a cat nap and then get in to the Cat Town Cafe. You need to make reservations as there is a waiting list to visit.

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Happy holidays for consumers and retailers?

A new Deloitte survey suggests shoppers are optimistic this year

Consumers are showing more optimism about the economy and that, according to Deloitte’s 29th annual holiday survey ,is kindling holiday cheer with shoppers...

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© Syda Productions - Fotolia

Consumers are showing more optimism about the economy and that, according to Deloitte’s 29th annual holiday survey, is kindling holiday cheer with shoppers planning to spend more.

Among the survey's findings:

Holiday spending to increase

  • Total holiday spending is predicted to increase by 13% -- to $1,299 per household, and includes gifts, socializing away from home, entertaining at home, non-gift clothing for family or self, home/holiday furnishings, and any other holiday-related spending not in the other categories.
  • Spending on just gifts is expected to rise by 9% -- to $458 this year, from $421 last year.
  • Consumers who shop across store, mobile and online channels are expected to spend 66% more on gifts than those shopping stores only: $592 versus $357.
  • The number of gifts consumers expect to purchase increased to 13.4, compared with 12.9 in 2013, but nearly 10 gifts less than the high of 23.1 in 2007.

The Internet and discount/value stores rule

  • The Internet and discount/value stores once again rank as the top shopping venues this year, with the Internet No. 1 for the second straight year. Nearly half (45%) plan to shop online, followed closely by 44% at discount/value stores.
  • In-store purchases are expected to account for 52% of the holiday budget.
  • Consumers expect to make an average of five (4.6) trips to traditional “brick-and-mortar” stores during the shopping season.
  • Clothing remains the top item consumers plan to purchase as a gift, cited by 45% of respondents; gift cards (43%) continue to hold the No. 2 position, but are down from a high of 69% in 2007.
  • The top two gifts people would like to receive are gift cards (37%) followed by cash (35%).
  • More than two-thirds (68%) plan to “shop local” this year, with the No. 1 reason, “To support the local economy”; and the No. 2 reason, “To find one-of-a-kind gifts.” In the survey, “local retail stores” are defined as small businesses, independent retailers or boutique shops which are not part of national chains.

Data breach concerns

  • More than half (55%) indicate they are concerned about the protection of their personal data when shopping online and 42% have the same concerns in-store.
  • Though there is concern for personal data when shopping both online and in-store, 56% indicated they will continue to shop at retailers that have experienced a data breach.
  • Nearly four in 10 (36%) percent said, “I am more likely to shop at a retailer who provides me education surrounding the security of my personal data.”

A busy December in the works

  • Forty-three percent of respondents will do a majority of their shopping in December or later -- an increase of 6% from 2013.
  • Almost seven in 10 (68%) indicated they will go online to look at an item, then go to a store to see it and buy it in the store (“webrooming”).
  • Nearly half (49 percent) indicated they will go to a store to look at an item, then search online for the best price and then purchase online (“showrooming”).
  • Roughly three-quarters (74%) of shoppers say they will be influenced by coupons/promotions.
  • Consumers plan to take advantage of a number of retailer offerings this year, including free shipping (68%), free returns (52%), price matching (45%), extended holiday hours (35%), order online for pick up in-store (34%) and free layaway (16%).
  • Nearly half (47%) of shoppers say they do not rely on Black Friday as much as they used to for holiday shopping.

“With the short, 27-day shopping stretch between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, retailers need to be sharp with their promotional timing, inventory management and distribution capabilities,” said According to Alison Paul, vice chairman and retail sector leader at Deloitte. “Retailers that can fulfill orders from both online distribution centers and store inventories, for example, may be more nimble and poised to respond quickly to pockets of high demand for certain gifts -- and ensure timely holiday deliveries.”

Paul also notes that despite concerns about the security of personal information, shoppers also appear resilient to reported data breaches and desire to still shop with affected retailers. “Retailers should benefit from this optimism and expression of loyalty,” she notes, “but need to stay vigilant as a spike in transactional activity around the holiday season comes with increased vulnerability.”

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San Francisco students learning about gardening and the produce business

Kids learn about business as well as farming

High School students in San Francisco are taking green to a whole new level. The food and garden class at San Francisco’s June Jordan School for Equity tea...

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High School students in San Francisco are taking green to a whole new level. The food and garden class at San Francisco’s June Jordan School for Equity teaches kids how to care for plants, replant them, harvest them, cook them and, adding a whole new element, they are learning how to sell and market them.
High School students in San Francisco are taking green to a whole new level. The food and garden class at San Francisco’s June Jordan School for Equity teaches kids how to care for plants, replant them, harvest them, cook them and, adding a whole new element, they are learning how to sell and market them.

“This program is especially unique — it’s really able to take that into a new realm, which is commerce. It’s super-empowering, They're the farmer. They're feeding the people, they’re nourishing the people,” Marcy Coburn, executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, said.

On Thursdays you will see the students at Mission Community Market selling fruits and vegetables as well as flowers. Saturdays they are up and at it at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. They offer gardening advice on planting and produce as well as replanting. They make a subsidized $10 an hour.

School garden nonprofit Urban Sprouts supports the project and the Schoolyard to Market program at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, covers the topics like health, nutrition and science topics associated with school gardens with entrepreneurship.

Adding the business element to the program gives kids the chance to gain work experience. They learn how to deal with people in a customer relationship. They have to manage money and develop the responsibility that comes with owning a business or working for an employer. All of the aspects are important -- being on time, knowledge of your product and a passion for what you are doing.

It's turning the green in the garden to the green in their pockets. So many lessons to be gained from the experience. Let's face it it's gotta be more fun than math class.

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Kulana Foods recalls frozen pork products

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

Kulana Foods of Hilo, Hawaii, is recalling approximately 4,465 pounds of frozen, fully cooked pork products. The products are formulated with a soy sauce...

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Photo source: Taste of the Hawaiian Range

Kulana Foods of Hilo, Hawaii, is recalling approximately 4,465 pounds of frozen, fully cooked pork products.

The products are formulated with a soy sauce that contains wheat, a known allergen, which is not declared on the label.

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

The products subject to recall include:

  • Various weight (approximately .75 – .90 lb.) packages of “MOUNTAIN APPLE BRAND Teri Smoked Pork” with identifying case codes: 03414, 07214, 12814, 16914, 21114, 28114, 03713, 05113, 06513, 23313, or 34513.
  • 5-pound packages of “MOUNTAIN APPLE BRAND Teri Smoked Pork” with identifying case code: 09214.

The products bear the establishment number “EST. 12445” inside the USDA mark of inspection on the label. They were produced on various dates between Feb. 6, 2013, and Oct. 8, 2014, and shipped to retail locations and for foodservice use on the islands of Hawaii and Oahu.

Consumers with questions may contact Sheryl Taka, company office manager, at 808-959-9144.

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Nissan recalls vehicles with air bag issue

Excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture

Nissan North America is recalling 52,738 model year 2003-2004 Nissan Pathfinder, 2004-2006 Nissan Sentra, 2003-2005 Infiniti FX35 and FX45, 2003-2004 Infin...

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© Brad Thompson - Fotolia

Nissan North America is recalling 52,738 model year 2003-2004 Nissan Pathfinder, 2004-2006 Nissan Sentra, 2003-2005 Infiniti FX35 and FX45, 2003-2004 Infiniti I35, and 2006 Infiniti M35 and M45 vehicles originally sold, or currently registered, in geographic locations associated with high absolute humidity. Specifically, vehicles sold, or currently registered, in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Florida and adjacent counties in southern Georgia, as well as the coastal areas of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Upon deployment of the passenger side frontal air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture. In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger side frontal air bag, the inflator could rupture with metal fragments striking and potentially seriously injuring the vehicle occupants.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger air bag inflator, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

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

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Large school or small: which will best protected your teen from a clique?

Schools with stronger academic emphasis seemed to discourage harmful alliances

"Mean girls" -- we all grew up with them and Hollywood even made a movie about them. They are part of the adolescent social structure. These girls -- and b...

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Photo via Wikipedia

"Mean girls" -- we all grew up with them and Hollywood even made a movie about them. They are part of the adolescent social structure. These girls -- and boys too -- segregate themselves by race, age, gender, and social status and make life difficult for everyone else.

Sociologists have studied this and tried to understand why we tend to form exclusionary groups. The reasons seem to be the desire to relate to people that are familiar, people that are predictable. It is a form of control and dominance and it offers security as well as support.

Cliques and hierarchies are more prominent in some schools. Schools that offer students more choices like a variety of elective courses, are flexible with how to complete requirements, offer a bigger range of potential friends,a not so rigid seating assignment structure are more likely to be rank-ordered and cliquish.

Smaller schools obviously have less of everything. The social circle comes with a small group. Since picking friends is from a smaller group the "cost" of excluding people from a social group is higher. Either way you tear it down it still has the opportunity to become a clique.

Beyond reach

These are some of the findings of a new study being published in the December edition of the American Sociological Review

"Educators often suspect that the social world of adolescents is beyond their reach and out of their control, but that's not really so. They have leverage, because the schools are indirectly shaping conditions in these societies," said Stanford professor Daniel A. McFarland, lead author of the study.

The study looked at two datasets about friendships, one looked at friendships at the classroom level and the other at the school level. The school-level data came from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The classroom study was compiled by McFarland at two very different high schools over a two-semester period.

In schools with a strong focus on academics, where teachers pretty much set the pace, things were a little more rigid. The teens were less likely to form friendships based on influences from outside the school. Instead they bonded more with their peers that tended to be engaged in similar school activities and had similar intellectual interests. The researchers summed it up by saying a positive educational climate strengthens the school's "system membrane" and makes it more impervious to "external" criteria for friendship such as race or social status.

"The main goal of this study was to shed light on how a school's environment affects the shape of adolescent social networks," McFarland said. "The truth is that we are not sure which kind of adolescent society is best for youth social development, let alone what position in them is best."

For now the study appears to be a reflection of our society. If you look at any group of people they have a tendency to pair off with what they are familiar with. Breaking down those barriers in adolescents may be the key to breaking down some of the barriers in our life as adults.

McFarland said his groups plans to do further studies to look at which kinds of social networks and social networking positions will best help teens prepare for adulthood.

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Doctors worry about growing number of older drivers

Injuries and deaths from traffic accidents are climbing

The aging Baby Boom population has policy makers worried about what their impact will be on the health care system. Will it create a surge in Alzheimer's d...

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Photo © forestpath - Fotolia

The aging Baby Boom population has policy makers worried about what their impact will be on the health care system. Will it create a surge in Alzheimer's disease, for example?

But researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have another concern. What will millions more elderly drivers mean for traffic safety?

The researchers are currently training police officers in ways to recognize warning signs of impaired driving skills and to take appropriate action. They also urge doctors to think more about their patients’ ability to drive safely as they age.

Injuries and deaths up 16% in a year

In 2012, there were 5,560 people 65 and older killed and 214,000 injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They comprised 17% of all traffic fatalities and 9% of all people injured in traffic crashes during the year. Compared to 2011, fatalities among people 65 and older killed and injured people in this age group increased by 16%.

That's not to say all older drivers are accidents waiting to happen. But for some, aging brings with it conditions that are not conducive to spending long periods behind the wheel. The medical school's program, known as Training, Research and Education for Driving Safety (TREDS) tries to identify those drivers.

“Our goal is to reduce the number of fatalities involving older drivers and to prolong the time that seniors can drive safely,” said Linda Hill, professor of family and preventive medicine and TREDS program director.

Since 2006, UC San Diego researchers have trained more than 9,000 doctors and 3,000 police officers.

Doctors are being trained to assess their patients for age-related driving impairments – issues with vision, loss of mobility, fragility and dementia, for example.

Reasons to keep seniors driving

They are also trained to consider medication side effects that are prescribed for seniors and how they might affect driving. But doctors are urged to let older drivers stay behind the wheel as long as it is safe for them to drive.

“We know that taking the keys away from a senior driver reduces doctor visits, reduces their social and recreational outings and is associated with worsening of depressive symptoms,” Hill said. “This is the reason we don’t set a specific age for driving retirement, but rather base it on ability.”

Senior advocacy groups are also sensitive to the issue. AARP encourages its members to take a driver safety course, pointing out that even the most experienced drivers can benefit from brushing up on their driving skills.

The group points out that the highway is probably a very different place than it was when a senior first started driving. Road conditions are increasingly challenging.

Cars that fit

Seniors should also choose the right car – a vehicle that fits them and is safe, according to AAA's Senior Driving program. CarFit is an educational program that gives seniors the opportunity to check how well their personal vehicles "fit" them. It also provides information that could enhance seniors' safety behind the wheel.

Expect this issue to get more attention as Boomers get older. By some estimates 1 in 5 drivers will be 65 or older by 2030. That would be a doubling in the number of seniors, from 35 million in 2010 to an estimated 70 million in 2030.

As it now stands, highway accidents make up the second leading cause of injury-related death among those 65 and older. Hill says gently easing people out of their cars when they can no longer drive safely will be key to keep those numbers from going higher.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to identify and assist a mentally impaired driver,” she said.

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Home Depot: Hackers stole 53 million email addresses in addition to credit card data

It was already the largest data theft on record; now that record will be even harder to break

It's over two months now since the initial discovery that hackers had somehow managed to lift massive amounts of confidential customer data from Home Depot...

PhotoIt keeps getting worse. Two months ago, Home Depot revealed that hackers had stolen 56 million credit- and debit-card numbers. And now, the company says the thieves also made off with at least 53 million customer email addresses. 

It's been over two months now since the initial discovery that hackers had somehow managed to lift massive amounts of confidential customer data from Home Depot. Though Home Depot only announced it in mid-September, the hackers had actually been lifting data for several months by then (although it turned out nobody actually “hacked” into Home Depot's database; instead, somebody somehow managed to plant malware onto the checkout systems in various Home Depot stores).

So far as anyone knows, that malware has since been scrubbed from all Home Depot systems, and the months-long hacking is finally “over” — yet the full extent of the damage probably still isn't known.

Not until late September did the financial consequences of the breach start making themselves felt, as banks and credit unions across the U.S. and Canada starting receiving large numbers of fraudulent charges related to the breach. As of late October, American credit unions report combined losses of at least $60 million to replace all compromised cards, cover fraudulent charges or withdrawals and pay additional staff to oversee the whole mess.

Another shoe drops

And now the next installment. Late last night, Home Depot disclosed new information about the months-old hack: in addition to raw credit- and debit-card numbers, the thieves managed to steal at least 53 million customer email addresses.

The hacking shares many details in common with earlier mass hackings, especially the notorious Target hack from 2013: same type of malware used in both cases, and also, in both cases, the hackers managed to breach the stores' security by attacking a third-party vendor – in Target's case, an HVAC repairman; for Home Depot, a still-unidentified third-party vendor whose user name and password were presumably stolen sometime in April, just before the hackers first used those credentials to log on to Home Depot's network and start stealing data.

Home Depot is still offering free identity-theft protection services for any customer who used a payment card in any store since early April.

If you are such a customer, you have hopefully taken advantage of this free service already; this can help protect your financial data, but unfortunately won't do much to keep hackers from sending spam to your stolen email address.

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Manufacturers increasingly getting in on Black Friday

Companies that make the products are competing with the companies that sell them

You can be sure that Samsung, as well as every other manufacturer, hopes you'll pick up one of their products when you go shopping on Black Friday. The mor...

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Image source: Samsung.com

You can be sure that Samsung, as well as every other manufacturer, hopes you'll pick up one of their products when you go shopping on Black Friday. The more units sold, the better.

But in the case of Samsung, what the company would really like consumers to do is buy the product directly from Samsung. It means a higher profit margin for the manufacturer.

Samsung has sent out emails to past customers providing a sneak peak at its Black Friday deals. Consumers are urged to register so that they can reserve the products they want at the Black Friday sale price.

Deals

Deals include a NX300 Smart Camera with 18-55mm lens for $650, $100 off the regular price. Or a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 with Wi-Fi connection for $330, a savings of $70.

Cellular phones, cellular connected tablets, cell phone accessories and home appliances are not part of the Black Friday reserve program. Consumers are limited to 2 units of any sale product and orders are subject to available inventory.

If you reserve a product using Samsung's promotion, then decide you want to cancel, you can but must do so by November 22.

Gadgets and appliances

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Image source: LGPromotions.com

LG Electronics is also promoting Black Friday dealson its website, encouraging customers to register so they can be notified by email as soon as the deals are posted. The manufacturer will offer savings on both appliances and home entertainment products.

Sony is another electronics manufacturers that also sells its products directly to consumers. Sony has not yet rolled out any specific Black Friday promotion but has already put items on sale as it touts the benefits of buying direct. They include free shipping on orders over $25, a 30-day price-match policy and the ability to pre-order a product before it is available in stores.

Apple pioneered direct electronics sales to consumers and operates both brick-and-mortar stores in shopping malls as well as an online marketplace. Apple is currently offering free 2-day shipping on all in-stock items.

Advantages?

Is there an advantage from buying directly from the manufacturer? Probably not so much when it comes to price. Yes, you'll likely find some good sale prices, but probably not any better than you might find in a retail store. The manufacturer, after all, has to protect its relationship with its retailers.

The advantage might be when it comes to availability of a popular item. The manufacturer is a lot less likely to run out of supply than a retail store.

Active retailers

Retailers, for their part, are out in front with pre-Black Friday specials. Home Depot is one of the latest to launch Black Friday specials well in advance of the big day. The retailer is pushing deals on its appliances through December 3.

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FTC reaches settlement with notorious patent troll

No, you don't owe licensing fees for scanning items into emails

This week the Federal Trade Commission settled a case with one of the most notorious “patent trolls” in the country, which used “deceptive sales claims and...

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© Jane Kelly - Fotolia

This week the Federal Trade Commission settled a casewith one of the most notorious “patent trolls” in the country, which used “deceptive sales claims and phony legal threats” in an attempt to collect unnecessary licensing fees from businesses.

As part of the settlement, MPHJ Technology Investments is forbidden from “making deceptive representations when asserting patent rights,” according to the FTC's press release.

“Patent troll” is the colloquial term for what's formally known as a “patent assertion entity,” or PAE, which the FTC defines as “companies that obtain patent rights and try to generate revenue by licensing to or litigating against those who are or may be using patented technology.”

In America, patent trolling is widespread enough that there's even some fairly common jokes about it: “Here's a get-rich-quick idea — I'm going to patent 'the wheel,' so I charge licensing fees to every car, bike and wagon-maker in the world!”

“Oh, yeah? Well, I'm going to patent ones and zeroes, and charge money to everyone who writes, sells or uses computer software!”

“Too late — I just patented the alphabet plus the very concepts of reading and writing, so you can't so much as fill out a patent application without paying me for the privilege.”

Licensing fees

The actual examples of MPHJ's patent trolling are almost as ridiculous. New York's attorney general made a similar settlement (applicable only in that state) with MPHJ last January; back in 2012, the company paid one dollar to buy five seemingly obscure patents related to computer processes, then sent letters to over 1,000 businesses in New York State alone, accusing them of “likely” patent infringement, demanding licensing fees and even threatening patent-infringement lawsuits in some instances.

What sort of patent-infringing activities would MPHJ accuse businesses of actually doing? Among other things, MPHJ said it held a patent on the process of scanning items directly into emails, and demanded licensing fees of up to $1,000 per worker.

The letters were also filled with false statements, such as claims that other businesses had already paid the demanded licensing fees, or threaten to file lawsuits which MPHJ had no actual intention of filing (since it surely knew it would lose).

As part of the FTC settlement, if MPHJ sends any more such letters out, it can be fined $16,000 for each one.

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Organize your life, organize your fridge

With the holidays coming, it's time to open up some space

Just as in spring when you want to the house cleaned up and aired out, November should be refrigerator clean-up month because you need to get organized for...

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Staff photo

Just as in spring when you want to the house cleaned up and aired out, November should be refrigerator clean-up month because you need to get organized for the holidays. Whether you are stuffing a turkey at your house or baking a ton of holiday cookies, let's face it -- you need space.

Open the door
Open it up and clean out the fridge to know exactly what's in there. Check the dates. What is in the back that has an expiration date for 2011? Trash the stuff that is carrying an odor. Keep the rest and get some cleaner so you can wipe down the shelves. Many refrigerators have removeable shelves and you may be able to organize them better for your needs.

Create specific areas
For example, eggs do well on the middle shelf where temperature tends to be most consistent. Fruit, on the other hand, thrives in a low humidity drawer, whereas you'll want to keep veggies in higher humidity. And ketchup, mustard and salad dressing do just fine hanging on the door.

Snack it and wrap it
Keep snacks like cut-up veggies in a container on a shelf. Leftover pizza -- put it all in containers that you can store so it is all neat and can make room for other things. Its also more visible then wrapping something in foil and letting it drift to the back of the fridge. You can even put little jello and fruit snacks in one container so the individual servings aren't thrown all over the fridge.

Try to freeze things so they lay flat
You don't normally think of soups and stews as laying flat but you can put them in freezer bags and flatten them.Try to remove as much air as possible to create even more space.

Give it a name
Keep a Sharpie marker on your fridge or in your junk drawer and immediately label anything that goes in with the name of the dish and the date it was made.

Create a space
Section off the freezer with little bins and label them. You can buy plastic bins at the discount stores and section cookies holiday gifts. A section for vegetables and meats. Just like you would organize any shelf in a cupboard you can do the same in the freezer.

Depending on how organized you want to become you can even do a spreadsheet and put in dates when specific items will expire. If you are doing that you are REALLY organized but it just might help you keep track of things if the refrigerator is a place that just seems to get away from you. You will see the more you organize it the more space you will find you have.

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Carnival faces suit over passenger's death

Crew members allegedly failed to summon help when the passenger suffered a cardiac arrest

Although cruises are popular with elderly consumers, they're not the best place to be when a medical emergency occurs. Many have only spotty medical facili...

PhotoAlthough cruises are popular with elderly consumers, they're not the best place to be when a medical emergency occurs. Many have only spotty medical facilities and there is often no doctor available.

That was the case when Violet Butler collapsed of cardiac arrest in April 2013 on board the Carnival Conquest. Her husband, Ermon, filed suit, claiming the Carnival crew failed to administer aid and also failed to summon medical assistance.

A nurse eventually resuscitated Butler's wife and she was flown to a Miami hospital, where she died 16 days later.  

U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz agreed with a Carnival motion that it had no duty to provide its passengers with medical care but said the cruise line might be liable for the crew's alleged failure to seek immediate medical assistance, Courthouse News Service reported. Butler has since filed an amended complaint.

More emergencies

With millions of tourists taking cruises from U.S. ports each year, it's inevitable that the number of medical emergencies is increasing, raising concern among American physicians. An American Medical Association study several years ago found glaring inadequacies in shipboard care.

For example, the study found that 27% of shipboard doctors and nurses lacked advanced training in treating heart attacks, the leading cause of death on ships. More than half the doctors and 72% of the nurses lacked advanced training in dealing with trauma.

While most passengers recover from shipboard illness, about 20 die each year. Heart attacks are the most common cause of death.

What can travelers do to protect themselves? The first step is to check with your physician before sailing. Be certain you have an ample supply of prescription medications and a copy of your medical history. Check with the cruise line to see if it complies with the ACEP recommendations.

It's also a good idea to check you medical insurance and credit card plans. Some may provide emergency evacuation if you become sick in foreign lands or on the high seas. Most, however, do not.

There are numerous other dangers that can befall cruise passengers, everything from onboard fires and epidemics to bad weather and mechanical failure. For an eye-opening look at what is and isn't regulated by U.S. authorities, see the Coast Guard's cruise fact sheet.

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Air travel and kids: a volatile combination

Keeping kids quiet and busy isn't easy but it can be done

The busiest travel season is upon us and if you have younger kids and are planning on going over the river and through the woods you just might be getting...

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Photo © nadezhda1906 - Fotolia

The busiest travel season is upon us and if you have younger kids and are planning on going over the river and through the woods you just might be getting a little stressed out coordinating the trip and how you will handle those rambunctious youngins.

Car travel and air travel are a little different. You can stop a car and let everyone run around for 5 minutes. That doesn't work so well in flight. 

So how can you make a flight as stress-free as possible for you and those around you if you have kids in tow?

The key with smaller kids is novelty. You need a trick bag -- things you can whip out that will hold their attention for a while.

Find things around the house that you can wrap up like a present so they won't know what you are pulling out. Every second counts so opening them up takes a few minutes and it's exciting. Some things to wrap up are little play doh jars, magnetic checkers, a few crayons, books, cars, anything to distract.

Backpacks are great for little toddlers and older kids. They can stuff them with a blankie or favorite toys. They love carrying them around and it gives them a sense of independence. Older kids can put books and electronic games in them.

Don't forget snacks

Snack it up! Bring snacks in your own bag. This might be the time for a treat that they don't normally eat. Those Rice Krispie treats can be a nice bargaining tool to keep kids in their seat. Maybe a sucker that lasts a while so they sit still to eat it.

If you have a real baby -- the kind that are under 20 pounds -- request bulkhead seats and a bassinet, a folding crib that attaches to the front wall in some airliners. (Take advantage of this free amenity while you can, because babies grow out of them once they're over 20 pounds.)

Brightly colored clothes are a good idea as it is a busy season and if you happen to have a child that sprints you can quickly spot him or her in a crowd of people eager to get to their destination. Also keep in mind that airplanes have fluctuating temps so layer up so you don't have to carry a sweater. It will already be on and if it's too hot you just pull it off and stuff it in the backpack the child is carrying.

Instead of drugging your kids, (giving them cough syrup or whatever) fly at a time that they normally nap or at their bedtime.

There is always that descent that is an ear killer for adults and kids. You can purchase Earplanes ear plugs, available for kids 1-10 and adults 11 and up. These earplugs are designed to relieve air pressure discomfort. You can get them on Amazon.com.

Just remember the key is to smile no matter what. The lady in the next row may be giving you that furrowed eyebrow and the man in front may keep turning around because your 4-year-old daughter is singing the soundtrack to the Disney hit "Frozen," but you -- you just smile and you will be there soon enough!

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Airline consumer complaints post year-over-year gain

But September was a good month for leaving and arriving on time

People may be flying more, but they're apparently enjoying it less. The latest Air Travel Consumer Report released by the Department of Transportation (DO...

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© John Takai - Fotolia.com

People may be flying more, but they're apparently enjoying it less.

The latest Air Travel Consumer Report released by the Department of Transportation (DOT) shows consumer complaints were up 18.2% during the first 9 months of this year compared with the same period of 2013.

From January to September, DOT received 12,350 consumer complaints; there were 10,444 filed during the same time the year before. In September alone, there were 1,157 complaints -- up 14.2% from September 2013, but down 27.8% from August 2014.

Tarmac Delays

In September, airlines reported one tarmac delay of more than three hours on a domestic flight and no tarmac delays of more than four hours on international flights -- the same as in August. The September tarmac delay is under investigation.

The consumer report also includes data on on-time performance, cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays by the reporting carriers. In addition, there's information on airline bumping, mishandled baggage reports filed with the carriers, and disability and discrimination complaints received. Reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air are also included

The complete report is available on the Dot website.

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Job creation up, unemployment down in October

The report also contains upward revisions for the 2 previous months

October was another strong month for job creation. Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show nonfarm payrolls surged by 214,000, while the u...

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© vinnstock - Fotolia.com

October was another strong month for job creation.

Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show nonfarm payrolls surged by 214,000, while the unemployment rate dipped 0.1% to 5.8%.

And that's not the end of the good news. The change in payroll creation for August was revised from +180,000 to +203,000, and the change for September was revised from +248,000 to +256,000. That means there were 31,000 more new jobs in those 2 months than previously reported.

Over the past 12 months, monthly employment gains have averaged 222,000, and the jobless rate has fallen 0.8%, with the number of unemployed persons down 1.2 million. The civilian labor force was little-changed in October at 62.8% and has been essentially flat since April. The employment-population ratio increased for the first time in 5 months, rising 0.2% -- to 59.2%.

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for whites declined to 4.8% last month. The rates for adult men (5.1%), adult women (5.4%), teenagers (18.6%), blacks (10.9%), Hispanics (6.8% and Asians (5.0%) were little changed.

Who's hiring

Job growth in October occurred in food services and drinking places (42,000), retail trade (27,000) and health care (25,000). Other sectors showing a higher trend include professional and business services (37,000), temporary help services (15,000) and computer systems design and related services (7,000).

Manufacturing added 15,000 jobs, with contributions from machinery (+5,000), furniture and related products (+4,000) and semiconductors and electronic components (+2,000). Over the year, manufacturing has added 170,000 jobs, largely in durable goods.

Employment in other major industries, including mining and logging, wholesale trade, information, financial activities, and government, showed little change.

The complete October employment report is available on the Labor Department website.

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CS Best Food recalls pork products

The products contain wheat and soy, allergens not listed on the label

CS Best Food of Panorama City, Calif., is recalling approximately 6,560 pounds of pork products. The products contain wheat and soy, allergens not declar...

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Photo source: USDA
CS Best Food of Panorama City, Calif., is recalling approximately 6,560 pounds of pork products.

The products contain wheat and soy, allergens not declared on the product label.

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

The following recalled products were produced between Aug. 28 and Oct. 17, 2014:

  • 1-lb. vacuum-packed packages containing 2 sausage link pieces of “A Pork Snout, Beef Blood, Rice & Noodle Link”.
  • 5-lb. vacuum-packed packages containing multiple sausage link pieces of “A Pork Snout, Beef Blood, Rice & Noodle Link”.

The products bearing the establishment number “EST. 40119” inside the USDA mark of inspection were shipped to retail locations in California and Washington.

The problem was discovered by FSIS during a routine label review.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Woosung America at 510-265-0808.

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4Seasons recalls folding lounge chairs

The chair can tip or recline too quickly

4Seasons Global of Chicago, Ill., is recalling about 3,200 folding lounge chairs The chair can tip or recline too quickly, posing a fall hazard. The comp...

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Photo source: CPSC

4Seasons Global of Chicago, Ill., is recalling about 3,200 folding lounge chairs

The chair can tip or recline too quickly, posing a fall hazard.

The company has received 5 reports of falls occurring in Ross Stores, 3 of which resulted in minor injuries.

This recall involves 3 colors of 4Seasons folding lounge chairs, which are made of steel tube frames and textilene fabric with attached head cushion in orange, turquoise or brown. The chairs are approximately 3 feet, 6 inches tall.

The affected product SKU numbers are 400085136029 (bronze fabric and frame), 400085136036 (turquoise fabric and a white frame), and 400085136043 (orange fabric and a white frame). SKU numbers can be found on the retailer’s hang tag attached to one of the arms of the chair.

There’s a separate manufacturer’s tag sewn on the back of the chair that says “Weight limit – 250 lbs.” and “Made in China.”

The lounge chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Ross Stores nationwide between April and June 2013, for about $40.

Consumers should stop using the chairs and destroy them by carefully cutting out a 5 inch by 5 inch piece of the fabric on the seat of the chair, rendering the chairs unusable, and removing the manufacturer’s tag from the back of the chair. 4Seasons will provide a full refund to all consumers who present the cut-out fabric and tag.

Consumers may contact: 4Seasons toll-free at (888) 529-6524 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (CT), Monday through Friday.

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Holiday travel likely to be even more challenging this year

More consumers will compete for declining number of airline seats

An improving economy and lower fuel prices may mean more Americans will be traveling over the holidays, making it all the more important to book flights no...

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Photo © dmitrimaruta - Fotolia
An improving economy and lower fuel prices may mean more Americans will be traveling over the holidays, making it all the more important to book flights now, if you haven't already.

While the day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday, the day before is usually known as the busiest travel day of the year.

Travel volumes have been strong all year, leading experts to predict an even busier than usual holiday travel season. Don't expect airlines to pass on much of their savings from lower fuel costs in the form of discount fares. In fact, consumers may find that ticket prices are higher and seats are harder to find.

Even less pleasant

Delta Airlines Nov. 6, 2014, 1:14 p.m.
Consumers rate Delta Airlines
In addition to the higher fare prices, Dean Headley, Airline Quality Rating co-author and associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University, says holiday travel may prove even less pleasant than usual.

"During the past several years, the holiday travel period has continued to be a challenging time for travelers, and with industrywide seat capacity reduction, it will remain a stressful travel experience," Headley said.

He notes that December typically has one of the worst industry performance scores of any month. December 2013 was the worst performance score for the entire year.

“The best bet for the consumer is to travel as early before the actual holiday or as late as possible afterward, and always leave room for schedule changes," Headley said.

Fewer seats available

In recent years airlines have cut capacity in an effort to improve profit margins. The effort has largely been successful – for the airlines. But consumers are finding fewer seats to fewer destinations.

It's a brave new world for travel, and if you haven't been on an airliner in the last few years, you could be in for a shock.

"We are settling in to a reduced-capacity system that challenges travelers to be more savvy,” Headley said. “With strong demand for fewer seats, it also presents an opportunity for the airlines to perform better, but also charge more for a ticket."

What could make holiday travel even worse? How about the weather? It is winter, after all. Delays and cancellations at a major cold weather airport like Chicago's O'hare will ripple through an airline's entire system.

Travel tips

United Airlines Nov. 6, 2014, 1:14 p.m.
Consumers rate United Airlines
If you still plan to travel over the holidays, The Go Group, a transportation consulting group, says there some important things consumers can do to make their holiday trip go more smoothly.

It starts with booking your flight. Try not to choose a flight at the busiest times of the day, such as morning and evening rush hour.

Don't leave for the airport without first checking to make sure the flight hasn't been cancelled and is departing on time.

Get there early. Domestic and international passengers should arrive at the airport at least two hours before departure during the holidays when crowds and security are greatest.

Skip the boarding pass line. If possible, print your boarding pass before you get to the airport. Even better, store your boarding pass in your phone which can be scanned at the airport.

If you're bearing gifts, make sure they're unwrapped. TSA will not allow wrapped packages past security.

And finally, when selecting a flight, don't just rely on the published fares to pick a flight. Headley says if you plan to check a bag, eat a bag of peanuts or sip a soft drink, you'll pay for it.

"Ticket prices may appear to be reasonable to slightly higher, but when the fees hit you, you truly feel that the overall cost of travel has gone up," he said.

The published fare may look attractive, but that's simply because the airlines know the difference of just a few dollars may cause consumers to choose one airline over another.

Just another complication to traveling over the holidays.

Is it worth it?

"At some point, consumers will simply say that the holiday visit is not worth the price and the hassle," Headley said.

Or, with gasoline prices lower than they have been in years, that could mean the nation's highways could be considerably more crowded during the holidays.

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Where have you been? Your smartphone wi-fi can tell anyone who asks

ArsTechnica discovers another threat to mobile-device security

You've known for a long while now that anything with an Internet or wi-fi connection has the potential to be hacked, and the more you connect, the more you...

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Photo © pab_map - Fotolia
You've known for a long while now that anything with an Internet or wi-fi connection has the potential to be hacked, and the more you connect, the more you're at risk. The same problem exists with mobile devices' geolocation services: they can tell you where you are, and they can tell a clever hacker too.

However, a recent experiment at ArsTechnica illustrates another risk from public wi-fi hotspots: anytime you use Apple or Google mobile location services, you're also broadcasting a disturbingly large amount of data about your recent (and not-so-recent) whereabouts — with all the security and privacy issues that implies.

Every time you use Google or Apple mobile location services, you’re not just telling the services where you are. You’re also shouting many of the places you’ve been to anyone who happens to be listening around you—at least if you follow Google’s and Apple’s advice and turn on Wi-Fi for improved accuracy.

Wi-Fi is everywhere. And because of its ubiquity, Wi-Fi access points have become the navigational beacons of the 21st century, allowing location-based services on mobile devices to know exactly where you are. But thanks to the way Wi-Fi protocols work, mapping using Wi-Fi is a two-way street—just as your phone listens for information about networks around it to help you find your way, it is shouting out the name of every network it remembers you connecting to as long as it remains unconnected.

Not really new

This isn't exactly a new problem. In June, ArsTechnica discovered that public wi-fi could be dangerous for Xfinity or AT&T customers, because hackers could easily offer their own wi-fi disguised as an Xfinity or AT&T hotspot, then gain access to any device that connects to it.

This time, to test possible vulnerabilities in phones using Google or Apple mobile location, they used a low-power wi-fi adapter in monitor mode and a packet capture utility to try probing the smartphones of various volunteers. What did they discover?

We were able to match specific devices with recent (and some not really recent) movements of the owners of the phones—where they worked, where their homes were, and in some cases where they had shopped recently—using publicly available Wi-Fi base station mapping data.

Already visible

“Publicly” available. That's arguably the most disturbing implication of all: the experimenters were able to get all of this location data without technically “hacking” anything – they didn't hack or break into some database that is otherwise supposed to be secure. Instead, they simply used readily available equipment to look at information that's already visible to anyone who knows how to look.

So how can you protect yourself while still using your mobile devices in public? The most important thing to do is shut off the wi-fi connections on your mobile devices when you're not using them. (Indeed, that's similar to the advice given to reduce your chances of inadvertently connecting to a hacker-run wi-fi hotspot: turn off your automatic and set it so that it must ask before joining a mobile network, rather than automatically latch on to any network available.)

Turning off your wi-fi will lower your risk but not eliminate it completely, as ArsTechnica pointed out:

For most people, the best bet may be simply turning off Wi-Fi in transit. That won't keep you from being stalked whenever you arrive somewhere and turn on Wi-Fi, but it will stop your phone from shouting network names along the way.

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Borgata price dispute: does “thirty-seven fifty” mean $37.50 or $3,750?

Man says waitress cited misleading price for wine at Bobby Flay Steak restaurant

Here's a riddle: how much money is “thirty-seven fifty?”...

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Photo credit: WineSearcher.com

Here's a riddle: how much money is “thirty-seven fifty?”

Sounds like an easy answer – in contemporary colloquial American English, “thirty-seven fifty” is usually understood to mean “37 dollars and 50 cents,” or $37.50 for short. But a New Jersey man says that a waitress at the Borgata in Atlantic City recommended a bottle of wine costing “thirty-seven fifty,” and only after the wine was drunk and the bill presented did he discover he actually owed $3,750.

NJ.com's “Bamboozled” column first told the story of Joe Lentini, who last week attended a business dinner at Bobby Flay Steak at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Lentini said that he and two of the 10 people at the party decided to share a bottle of wine, and the host, who was paying for the dinner, told him to pick a bottle.

Lentini said, “I asked the waitress if she could recommend something decent because I don't have experience with wine. She pointed to a bottle on the menu. I didn't have my glasses. I asked how much and she said, 'Thirty-seven fifty.'”

Even without his glasses, however, Lentini might have noticed that the wine in question is the last one on the Bobby Flay Steak wine list (at least as published on their website) -- and prices do go up as one goes down the list. 

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Bobby Flay Steak wine list

Big gulp

The other two agreed to the price and drank the wine, a bottle of Screaming Eagle 2011, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and when the bill arrived, Lentini said, only then did he realize that the bottle of wine actually cost close to four thousand dollars.

Lentini's fellow diners who overheard the initial price discussion agreed that the waitress had indeed uttered the words “thirty seven fifty” rather than “Three thousand, seven hundred and fifty.” But the waitress disagreed, and when the manager was called over, he said the best the restaurant could do was lower the cost from $3,750 to $2,200. (An online search for the vintage suggests the price is usually somewhere in the $1,500 to $1,800 per bottle range.)

The Borgata, meanwhile, says it investigated the incident and determined that proper practices were followed. Executive vice president Joseph Lupo said “[W]e consistently serve as many, if not more high-end wine and spirits without incident …. In this isolated case, both the server and sommelier verified the bottle requested with the patron.”

The Borgata has surveillance footage (video only, no audio) showing the transaction, but has declined to release it.

In defense of the Borgata, Screaming Eagle has acquired something of a cult following in some circles. It's "a contender for the finest Cabernet Sauvignon produced in California," says the Wine Cellar Insider. "Screaming Eagle is not about power, it’s about elegant, refined, pure fruit and rich, silky, velvet drenched textures."

If it does anything to relieve Lentini's hangover, at least he didn't order the 1992 vintage. It's going for $2,200 or so at wholesale auctions and would probably have run him close to "forty-five" tableside. $4,500, in other words. 

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CBS News launches streaming video news channel

The move brings live network-quality news to the Web for the first time

There's no shortage of news on the Internet but until now, there's been no live streaming news feed, no Internet equivalent of CNN or Fox News. CBS News is...

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Sears, Kmart and JC Penney announce Black Friday hours

Kmart will be open 42 hours straight

Three more retailers have announced their Black Friday store hours, in all three cases cutting deeper into Thanksgiving from last year's official holiday s...

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Image source: jcpenney.com

Three more retailers have announced their Black Friday store hours, in all three cases cutting deeper into Thanksgiving from last year's official holiday shopping kick-off.

In a Tweet, JC Penney announced it would open its doors on Thanksgiving day at 5:00 p.m. That's 3 hours earlier than it opened last year.

Sears Holdings, which operates both Sears and Kmart stores, says both retailers will be opening on Thanksgiving Day.

Earlier start

Sears will be offering its Black Friday deals starting at 6:00 p.m. Thanksgiving Day through close of business on Black Friday. Kmart will open its doors at 6:00 a.m. Thanksgiving Day and remain open 42 straight hours – until midnight on Black Friday. The stores will also provide perks for members of their rewards programs.

"This holiday season is all about giving more to our members and because many like to start shopping well before Black Friday, we're excited to open our doors early on Thanksgiving and offer other early access opportunities for them to shop and save,” said Leena Munjal, senior vice president, Sears Holdings.

Pre-Black Friday event

Sears also announced a special pre-Black Friday sales event for Sunday, November 9. Select items, including apparel, appliances, tools and footwear, will go on sale at Black Friday pricing. In addition, Sears will tack on a 5% to 15% discount. Additional Black Friday and Sears Family & Friends discount items will be available online at Sears.com from Saturday, Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. CT until Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 9 a.m. CT.

Kmart, meanwhile, is bringing back its No Money Down Layaway service. It's available now through Nov. 15, both in stores and online. The company says shoppers will be able to put almost anything on layaway with no minimum purchase required. Plus, members who put toys, sporting goods, jewelry and home items on layaway will get 5% off.

Shorter shopping season

Retailers' early start to Black Friday competition is happening for some of the same reasons as last year. Like last year, Black Friday falls near the end of November, making for a shorter holiday shopping season.

But there may be another reason as well. Unlike recent holiday shopping seasons, consumers may be in a mood to spend a little more and, with steep declines in gasoline prices putting more money in their pockets, may start spending a little earlier.

The competition for these early shoppers is intense and winning could make a difference in a retailer's bottom line. The National Retail Federation has projected a 4.1% increase in holiday spending over last year.

That said, the federation's president Matthew Shay believes most shoppers will still be in search of bargains, another reason for putting things on sale well ahead of Black Friday.

“Recognizing the need to keep household budgets in line, we expect shoppers will be extremely price sensitive as they have been for quite some time,” Shay said. “Retailers will respond by differentiating themselves and touting price, value and exclusivity.”  

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Wirelurker malware threatens iPhones and iPads

The world is facing its first serious iVirus

Bad news for iPhone and iPad users who previously thought themselves safe from malware and similar threats: security researchers at Palo Alto Networks have...

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iPhone 6 (Photo credit: Apple)
Bad news for iPhone and iPad users who previously thought themselves safe from malware and similar threats: security researchers at Palo Alto Networks have discovered an iPhone virus dubbed Wirelurker, which might have already infected hundreds of thousands of phones or tablets. Wirelurker is the first serious malware threat to iOS devices.

So far the virus appears limited to iPhones in China, but it could spread to the rest of the world very easily. Most phones currently infected with Wirelurker probably caught it from a third-party app store called Maiyada, whose customers are primarily Chinese.

Still, Palo Alto Networks suggests that iPhone users, in order to protect themselves from the virus, avoid downloading any third-party apps, not just those from Maiyada, and also avoid using third-party USB chargers, which have the potential to spread malware.

Third parties

Of course, where your phone, tablet or other electronic devices are concerned, it's generally a good idea to avoid all third-party accessories, not just software and not just for malware-avoidance reasons.

Back in 2005, shortly after cell phones had first evolved from “rare and expensive new technology” to “commonplace everyday appliances,” the Feds warned that cell phones' rechargeable batteries could be dangerous fire hazards, and one way to protect yourself was to avoid using third-party batteries or chargers, which might prove incompatible with the manufacturers' guidelines.

Since 2005, there have been plenty of incidents of cell phones catching fire (last August, an airplane in Tel Aviv even had to be evacuated after a passenger's iPhone battery caught fire) — and in almost all of those cases, it turned out that what actually caught on fire was not the phone itself, but a third-party battery or some other non-manufacturer-approved accessory.

Modern electronics, especially those powered by rechargeable batteries or operated by software, are one of the few areas of consumer life where brand loyalty actually makes good financial sense.

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Researchers developing cyberwearables for dogs

The electronic harnesses can monitor the dog's condition and help with search and rescue

You wouldn't want your dog wasting time on an iWatch everyday but cyberwearables are definitely in the works for dogs. A new harness has been developed tha...

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David Roberts with one of his research associates. Photo credit: North Carolina State University.

You wouldn't want your dog wasting time on an iWatch everyday but cyberwearables are definitely in the works for dogs. A new harness has been developed that is fitted with sensors that can monitor your dog's vital signs and its posture and then pass that info back to you.

The device comes equipped with small motors that vibrate so you can communicate with your dog even if you two are out of sight of each other. It's a great tool for a dog in training or a search and rescue dog. The main function is to improve the communication between dogs and humans.

“Dogs communicate primarily through body language, and one of our challenges was to develop sensors that tell us about their behavior by observing their posture remotely so we can determine when they’re sitting, standing, running, etc., even when they’re out of sight – a harness-mounted computer the size of a deck of cards transmits those data wirelessly," said Dr. David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State University who helped develop the prototype.

If you have an older dog this could be a way to keep tabs on it to make sure its not overly stressed by monitoring its heart rate and body temperature via the sensors. 

Rescue & guide dogs

Guide dogs could also benefit from this technology. Sean Mealin, a Ph.D. student at NC State, who has worked on the project said: "Guide dogs are bred and trained not to display signs of stress in their behavior." The electronic sensors could change that.

The harnesses can also be equipped with motors that can nudge a dog to reinforce a spoken command or prompt a dog to take action if it is a long way away.

Don't think a camera hasn't been thought of. Cameras and environmental sensors for things like gas leaks could be fitted on harnesses used by dogs that go into disaster zones.

It's likely the harnesses will also find a place in shelters and animal hospitals so that dogs can be monitored while they are in care or recovering from a procedure.

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Seniors struggling with debt, debt collectors

Feds issue tips to help older consumers deal with harassment

Older Americans are increasingly hamstrung by debt and, as a result, debt collectors, according to a report issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bur...

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Photo © michaeljung - Fotolia

Older Americans are increasingly hamstrung by debt and, as a result, debt collectors, according to a report issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

The debt collection issues older Americans complain about include collectors hounding them about medical debt, attempting to collect on debts of deceased family members and illegally threatening to garnish federal benefits. 

“It is increasingly common for older Americans to carry debts into their retirement years, and consumers living on fixed incomes often struggle to pay off these debts,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Older Americans deserve to be treated with the respect they have earned.”

Some older consumers say they are unable to afford debt payments especially when they are retired and live on a small fixed income. They also express concern that the distress of being harassed by a debt collector aggravates existing medical conditions.

The CFPB said it has recently noted that older adults with cognitive impairments are particularly vulnerable to harassment and scams, especially when seniors have memory problems or cannot keep track of finances. 

Medical debt

Older Americans describe being confused and frustrated because collectors attempt to collect medical expenses while the consumer is simultaneously attempting to correct billing mistakes or waiting for providers and insurers to resolve the medical disputes, the report said.

For example, older consumers report frequent and repeated attempts to collect medical bills already covered by insurance. Another common complaint from older consumers is first learning about an overdue bill from checking their credit report.

Deceased family members

Seniors and their survivors also report being hounded about the debts of deceased family members.

Many of the consumers complained that debt collectors continue to call or send collection letters after they have informed debt collectors that they are not personally responsible for the debt, or that there is no money left in the deceased borrower’s estate. 

One consumer reported to ConsumerAffairs recently that a debt collector had first implied that the consumer was responsible for his mother's credit card debt. When told that he was not, the collector then said that the consumer surely wanted to protect his dead mother's credit rating.

Some of the complaints to CFPB describe collection attempts made years after probate is concluded. The closing of probate is the last chance for settlement of debts and other obligations. 

Illegal garnishment threats

Older consumers also report that debt collectors sometimes threaten to garnish Social Security, Supplemental Security Income or Veterans’ benefits, even though these funds ordinarily are not subject to garnishment by collectors.

According to the complaints, these threats cause older consumers significant distress, especially when they rely on federal benefits to pay essential living costs.

What to do

To help older consumers, the CFPB issued an advisory highlighting things they can do to help deal with debt collectors:

Protect federal benefits. Consumers need to know that most federal benefits are protected in debt collection. Also, when a consumer receives federal benefits by direct deposit to a checking account, the bank or credit union is required automatically to protect up to two months of these benefits. If the consumer receives benefits on a government issued prepaid card, they usually are protected too.

Get more information to identify the debt. Older consumers report that collectors often reject or ignore their attempts to correct instances of mistaken identification. Today’s advisory tells consumers how they can obtain more information to identify the debt. It also includes the CFPB sample letter that consumers can use to find out information about the claims being made against them.

Dispute inaccurate debts. Many consumers complain that they often inform collectors that they do not owe the debt, do not recognize it, or believe the amount that debt collectors demand is wrong. The CFPB advisory tells consumers how to dispute the debt. It provides a sample letter to contact the debt collector.

Stop the harassment. Older consumers complain that debt collectors make successive calls using profanity, condescension, indignation, or rage. The advisory includes a sample letter that consumers can send to request that debt collectors cease collection communications.

See the full text of the advisory for more information. 

 

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Job cuts soar in October

Still the year-to-date total is below the 2013 level

What a difference a month makes! Monthly job cuts surged 68% in October to the second highest total this year, after falling to a 14-year low in Septembe...

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© Tom Wang - Fotolia

What a difference a month makes!

Monthly job cuts surged 68% in October to the second highest total this year, after falling to a 14-year low in September.

According to outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, U.S.-based employers announced they were cutting 51,183 job cuts last month, following a reduction of 30,477 in September -- the lowest monthly total since June, 2000. October job cuts were up 12% from the same month a year ago.

The October total is not only the second highest of the year behind May’s 52,961, but it marks only the fourth time in the last 22 months that job cuts topped 50,000. Employers have now announced 414,591 job cuts so far this year -- down 4.3% from last year, when 433,114 job cuts were reported from January through October.

A trend in the making?

“While it is too early to say for certain, the October figure may mark the kick-off to a fourth-quarter surge in job cuts,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “It is not unusual to see the pace of downsizing accelerate in the final months of the year, as employers take measures to meet year-end earnings and profit goals.”

In recent years, since the end of the recession, the fourth quarter surge in job cuts has been somewhat subdued, with much of the increase occurring in October and November. In fact, in the previous two years, December was one of the lowest job-cut months.”

Retailers take the hardest hit

Job cuts in October were led by the retail industry, which announced 6,874 planned firings during the month. That is nearly 3.5 times more than the cuts announced by retailers in September. To date, retailers have announced 38,948 reductions in force in 2014 -- second only to the computer industry.

Computer firms announced another 6,509 job cuts in October, bringing the year-to-date total for the industry to 55,511, making it the leading job-cut industry by a wide margin.

“If there is any good news in the October job-cut surge, it is that the leading job cuts are not indicative of overall weakness in the economy,” said Challenger. “The heaviest cuts came from companies that are struggling to find their footing in this recovery. In several cases, downsizing organizations are in industries that are going through fundamental changes and these companies are taking steps to catch up to these changes.”

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia
Jobless claims

From the government, meanwhile, word that first-time applications for unemployment benefits fell by 10,000 in the week ending November 1 to a seasonally adjusted 278,000. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were looking for a total of 285,000 initial claims.

Noting that initial claims have held steady at levels below 300,000 over the past several weeks, analysts point out that businesses have clearly reduced layoff activities, which should stimulate significant job growth.

We'll get an idea of whether that's happening on Friday when the October payroll figures and unemployment report are released. ADP reported yesterday that 230,000 jobs were created last month, and the Briefing.com consensus forecast is for 235,000 new positions.

The 4-week moving average, which is considered a better gauge of the labor market because of its lack of volatility, came in at 279,000 -- down 2,250 from the previous week.

The complete initial claims report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Oasis Brands recalls Lacteos Santa Martha products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Oasis Brands of Miami, Fla., is recalling select lots of various Lacteos Santa Martha products. The products have the potential to be contaminated with Li...

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Photo source: FDA

Oasis Brands of Miami, Fla., is recalling select lots of various Lacteos Santa Martha products.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The recalled products were distributed to distributors and retail stores in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina from April 1st thought October 14, 2014. 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

The company has stopped producing and distributing the products pending the outcome of an investigation into the cause of the problem.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled products should 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.

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Nissan recalls various Infiniti hybrids with throttle issue

The vehicle may gradual accelerate unexpectedly

Nissan North America is recalling 6,562 model year 2013-2014 Infiniti M35 hybrids manufactured April 7, 2012, to September 9, 2013; 2014 Infiniti Q50 hybri...

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Photo source: Infiniti

Nissan North America is recalling 6,562 model year 2013-2014 Infiniti M35 hybrids manufactured April 7, 2012, to September 9, 2013; 2014 Infiniti Q50 hybrids manufactured December 10, 2012, to July 15, 2014; and 2014-2015 Infiniti Q70 hybrids manufactured April 9, 2010, to May 7, 2014.

Due to a software error, the signal could be lost from one of the two throttle position sensors (TPS), sending the engine control module (ECM) into a fail-safe mode, partially closing the throttle chamber.

Should the lost signal be restored, the throttle chamber may open, regardless of the position signal from the TPS, causing the vehicle to accelerate gradually. This unexpected acceleration may increase the risk of a crash.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the ECM, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by mid-November 2014.

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

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Audi A4s, S4s and Allroads recalled

The front air bags may not deploy properly

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 101,938 model year 2013-2015 Audi A4 and S4 vehicles manufactured February 16, 2012, to October 21, 2014, and 2013...

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Photo source: Audi

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 101,938 model year 2013-2015 Audi A4 and S4 vehicles manufactured February 16, 2012, to October 21, 2014, and 2013-2015 Audi Allroad vehicles manufactured March 12, 2012, to October 21, 2014.

Due to an improper algorithm in the air bag control module, if a crash necessitates deployment of the side air bags, a second impact to the front of the vehicle may not command the front air bags to also deploy. Improper air bag deployment could increase the risk of occupant injury.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and Audi dealers will update the air bag control unit software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on November 11, 2014.

Owners may contact Audi customer service at 1-800-822-2834. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 69K5.

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Readjusting to standard time takes some effort

After last weekend's switch, time is not on your side

Over the weekend the U.S. returned to standard time. Clocks turned back one hour. It's something we do every year. But if you find you are having a hard t...

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Over the weekend the U.S. returned to standard time. Clocks turned back one hour. It's something we do every year.

But if you find you are having a hard time readjusting to standard time, you aren't alone. Millions of us are dealing with changes to our sleep pattern. Experts say the readjustment may require some effort.

These problems are not unusual. Our bodies -- our circadian rhythms, actually — need a little time to adjust. These daily cycles are run by a network of tiny, coordinated biological clocks.

Vanderbilt Sleep Disorders Center specialist Kelly Brown says part of the problem is that the time change always falls on a weekend. In many cases, we tend to alter our sleep patterns on weekends, time change or no time change.

“A lot of people like to stay up late on the weekend and then sleep in, but it’s important to stick to your regular schedule,” Brown said. “Mondays are already hard when you shift your sleep schedule on the weekends, and the time change makes it even harder.”

Let there be light

The key to adjustment may be light. Brown says light is the most powerful way to control the internal clock.

“Getting sun exposure in the morning helps us feel more awake, and avoiding light at night, especially blue light from electronics, helps us fall asleep,” Brown said.

So a walk first thing in the morning might be a good way to promote adjustment to the new time. Brown says light travels a direct pathway through the eye’s retina and regulates the hormone melatonin, which controls the sleep-wake cycle, among other functions.

When you are exposed to light, your body produces less melatonin. Melatonin, a natural substance in your body, makes you feel sleepy. Exposure to darkness usually leads to more melatonin.

This may explain why we often feel more tired or groggy in the fall and winter months, when days are shorter and there are fewer hours of sunlight.

Don't ignore sleep problems

It’s very important to note that if you are feeling sleepy during the day or having difficulty falling or staying asleep, you should talk to your primary care provider and consider an evaluation by a sleep physician. Sleep disorders are highly treatable and their treatment can make a dramatic change in your health and daytime functioning,” Brown said.

Mike Sesma of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) tracks circadian rhythm research being conducted in labs across the country. He says knowing more about your biological clock make help you adjust to that extra hour in the day.

The good news is, while they might get temporarily thrown off by changes in light or temperature, our internal clocks can usually reset themselves.

Internal control

Sesma says our internal clocks will affect our alertness, hunger, metabolism, fertility, mood and other physiological conditions. So it's not surprising that clock dysfunction can be associated with various disorders, including insomnia, diabetes and depression. Sesma says even drug efficacy has been linked to our clocks: Studies have shown that some drugs might be more effective if given earlier in the day.

For that reason Brown says you should establish a relaxing pre-sleep ritual, such as taking a bath, reading or listening to calm music. Your bedroom should be quiet, dark and at a comfortable temperature.

In the morning you don't want to produce melatonin, but at night you do. So avoid he bright lights and stimulation of TVs, computers and other electronics before bed.

Other common sense practices may also promote a good nights sleep. Don't eat a big meal before bedtime, or drive alcohol or coffee. Exercise in the morning, not the late afternoon or evening. And try to keep the same bedtime, even on weekends.

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Today's scam email du jour: introducing Betty Mason, clerk of the court

The more you study it, the more obviously scammy it looks

The bad thing about scam attempts is that they're a constant in today's world: if you have a phone number or an email address, you will hear from scammers ...

PhotoThe bad thing about scam attempts is that they're a constant in today's world: if you have a phone number or an email address, you will hear from scammers seeking to make you their next victim.

The good thing about scam attempts is that most of them – not all of them, but the vast majority – are very easy to identify and avoid, provided you know what to look for.

For example: check out this “Notice to Appear” email I got from someone trying to pull an online variant of the old “jury duty scam.”

In the classic jury duty scam, the scammers contact you (usually but not always over the phone) to say that you're going to be arrested and thrown in jail, right away, for skipping out on jury duty — but if you pay a “fine” with a prepaid money card or some other untraceable payment method, you'll stay out of prison.

Sounds scary

This threat can sound especially scary because “jury duty” genuinely does exist, and skipping out on jury duty really will get you in trouble with legal authorities. And even if you know you haven't received, let alone ignored, any jury summonses lately — well, what if your summons got lost in the mail?

But if you call your local courthouse to confirm this threat, you'll find out it's a fake, because no legitimate sheriff, court clerk or police officer will send out legitimate legal notices (or issue fines) through email or over the phone. And even in the event that you genuinely do owe some sort of legal fine, that fine is never due within 30 minutes of you first hearing about it, nor before end-of-business that day, and no genuine legal fine is ever required to be paid through a wire transfer, in cash, or via any other untraceable method.

That said, “my” scammer is trying something slightly different; instead of a fake threat for missing jury duty, I got an unidentified (but vaguely ominous) “Notice to Appear”:

Notice to Appear,

The copy of the court notice is attached to this letter.
Please, read it thoroughly.

Truly yours,
Clerk to the Court,
Betty Mason

The email included two zip file attachments, which of course I did not open or click on because I know to never trust a zip file in an email, especially an unsolicited one.

And when I, out of curiosity, typed Betty Mason's name into Google, I got “Betty Mason clerk of the court” as a suggested search term. Unsurprisingly, that search brings up over 749,000 results associating alleged court clerk Betty Mason with a scammy email attempt to plant malware on people's computers.

Obvious signs

Of course, even if you've never heard about the jury duty scam, don't know the dangers of unsolicited zip files, and don't even realize that genuine American legal authorities still communicate via old-fashioned U.S. Mail rather than email, there's still some obvious signs indicating that e-mailed “Notice to Appear” is a fraud.

For starters, look at the sender's return address: no mention of any city, county or state government, let alone the feds (i.e., the various levels of government authority who might actually send legal notices my way); instead it's from somebody called “Lawyers Tax Solutions.” And the address ends in .com, whereas legitimate government websites in the United States end in .gov.

Also note the generic wording: no mention of my name, home address or any other personally identifying details found on actual legal notices.

Coincidentally, just last month I did receive a genuine jury duty summons from my county courthouse (though when the time came, I didn't actually have to serve), and that notice, which was printed on paper and landed in my regular postal mailbox rather than an electronic missive in my free web-based email account, did mention my full legal name and home address, along with the genuine mailing address of the county courthouse nearest me. Nothing of the kind appears in that emailed note from “Betty Mason.” Anytime an alleged legal notice or government warning lands in your email inbox, your safest course of action is to assume it's a fake, and delete it.

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No link seen between violent video games, movies and real-world violence

Increased consumption of violent games and entertainment coincides with a decline in youth violence

Violence has been a part of entertainment since cavepersons began drawing on walls. In Beowolf, circa AD 700, the monster Grendel went crashing around mead...

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Cesar-sa mort - Vincenzo Camuccini via Wikipedia

Violence has been a part of entertainment since cavepersons began drawing on walls. In Beowolf, circa AD 700, the monster Grendel went crashing around mead halls, killing and eating anyone he could get his hands on. Later, Emperor Julius Caesar was assassinated in broad daylight by his trusted friend, Marcus Brutus, a crime memorialized to sensational reviews by no less a light than William Shakespeare.

For just as long, these and other fictional accounts of violence and mayhem have been roundly denounced by scholars, politicians and commentators who at various times have blamed graffiti artists, epic poems, the theater, movies, novels and video games for contributing to rising violence in society.

The mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and at Sandy Hook Elementary School set off a new round of condemnation and calls for action to restrict fictional violence despite studies that have found no correlation between imaginary and real violence.

The latest is a study published in the Journal of Communication by Christopher Ferguson, a researcher at Stetson University.

Ferguson conducted two studies that raised the question if whether the incidence of violence in media correlates with actual violence rates in society. The first study looked at movie violence and homicide rates between 1920 and 2005. The second study looked at videogame violence consumption and its relationship to youth violence rates from 1996-2011.

Not predictive

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Grendel - J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf via Wikipedia

He found that societal consumption of media violence is not predictive of increased violence rates in society.

"Society has a limited amount of resources and attention to devote to the problem of reducing crime. There is a risk that identifying the wrong problem, such as media violence, may distract society from more pressing concerns such as poverty, education and vocational disparities and mental health," Ferguson said. "This research may help society focus on issues that really matter and avoid devoting unnecessary resources to the pursuit of moral agendas with little practical value."

For the first study, independent raters evaluated the frequency and graphic nature of violence in popular movies from 1920-2005. These were correlated to homicide rates for the same years. Overall, movie violence and homicide rates were not correlated.

However, during the mid-20th century, movie violence and homicide rates did appear to correlate slightly, which may have led some to believe a larger trend was at play. That correlation reversed after 1990 so that movie violence became correlated with fewer homicides. Prior to the 1940s, movie violence was similarly related to fewer homicides, not more.

Youth violence declined

In the second study on video game violence, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) ratings were used to estimate the violent content of the most popular video games for the years 1996-2011.

These estimates of societal video game violence consumption were correlated against federal data on youth violence rates during the same years. Violent video game consumption was strongly correlated with declines in youth violence. However, it was concluded that such a correlation is most likely due to chance and does not indicate video games caused the decline in youth violence.

Previous studies have focused on laboratory experiments and aggression as a response to movie and videogame violence, but this does not match well with real-life exposure. Other studies have indicated that, in the short term, the release of violent movies or video games is associated with declines in societal violence. However, no one has examined these trends long-term.

Some scholars have argued that movies are becoming more violent, but none have examined whether this phenomenon is a concern for society. This study is the first to suggest that movie violence and video game violence consumption probably are increasing over time, but that there is little evidence that this has caused a problem for society.

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Is Wall Street's love affair with oil finally over?

If so, the break-up will be good news for consumers and the economy

The national average price of a gallon of gas, as measured by AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey, fell below $3 a gallon this week, a milestone not seen since 2010....

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© freshidea - Fotolia

The national average price of a gallon of gas, as measured by AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey, fell below $3 a gallon this week, a milestone not seen since 2010.

In fact, gasoline prices have not fallen this far, this fast, since exactly 6 years ago. Then, the national average price was $2.16 a gallon in November, after reaching an all-time high of $4.17 the previous July.

In November 2008 the world was in the midst of a catastrophic credit crisis and there were very real worries about a potential economic collapse. No one is suggesting today's conditions are anything close to that.

Fewer speculators

On the other hand, one of the factors at play in 2008 may now be pushing oil prices – and prices at the pump – significantly lower. Now, as then, hedge funds are much less active in the oil futures market.

When oil prices cratered in 2008 it was generally attributed to the gloomy economic outlook. With economic growth going into reverse the world would need much less oil and therefore the price fell. At least that was the theory.

But the speed and depth of the price collapse suggests something else was at work. On July 11, 2008 world oil prices hit a record $147.27 a barrel. In November, just 4 months later, the price had fallen to $54 a barrel. A month later prices hit a low of $41.

It's hard to believe that the world suddenly shut down, parked its cars and turned off the lights, just because the financial markets had gone into a spiral. The world was still using oil – it was just paying a lot less for it.

One big change was speculators had bailed out of the oil market. With the belief that oil demand would fall, traders were not willing to buy oil futures, leaving the oil market to airlines, wholesalers, refiners and companies that, you know, actually use oil.

It wasn't until oil prices hit bottom, almost selling for less than what it cost to produce, that traders decided to get back in. Since then, gasoline prices have remained well north of $3 a gallon. Until now.

Today's environment

Over the summer, several factors coincided to discourage Wall Street investments in oil. The U.S. dollar surged in value, and since oil is priced in dollars, oil got cheaper. The outlook for growth in the rest of the world began to dim – and it didn't look all that great in the U.S.

Finally, oil supplies continued to grow. U.S. producers continued their prolific output and OPEC kept on pumping, even when prices started to decline. When Saudi Arabia announced Monday that it is cutting the price of the oil sold to the U.S. – hoping to take market share from U.S. producers – oil prices fell even more.

In this environment, investors who are normally in the oil futures market have decided to put money elsewhere. With fewer dollars competing for oil, the price goes down, not up.

This week Bloomberg News reported that hedge fund money managers reduced their net-long positions in West Texas crude by 2.3% in one week. Long positions – holding oil to sell in the future – fell to the lowest level in 17 months.

Bizarro World

Business and consumers are often adversaries when it comes to economic matters, but when it comes to the current oil plunge, it's been an absolute Bizarro World. In October, as consumers rejoiced at the gas pump, talking heads on business TV channels worried about the effect of falling oil prices on stocks.

But at least one market analyst, Jay Bowen of Bowen, Hanes & Co., stated the obvious this week. Lower energy prices are good for both consumers and businesses.

"The market has basically been able to accomplish what the policymakers couldn't or would not do, and that is a multibillion dollar tax cut for consumers and individuals," Bowen told CNBC. "If we hang around here at $80, $85 a barrel, we're talking about in excess of $100 billion to the consumer. And it's also very meaningful for business in terms of lowering their input costs."

In other words, a few extra dollars in the hands of consumers and businesses might be able to accomplish what trillions of dollars in stimulus and Quantitative Easing couldn't – jump start the economy.

Consumers can only hope that hedge funds continue to look at oil as a bad investment.

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Democratic and unemployed: jobless rolls skyrocket in D.C.

Defeated politicians and their staffers are plunged into a high-stakes musical chairs game

We're always being told that elections have consequences. Yes, they certainly do and no one knows it better today than the Democratic officeholders thrown ...

PhotoWe're always being told that elections have consequences. Yes, they certainly do and no one knows it better today than the Democratic officeholders thrown out of work by a fed-up electorate yesterday. 

But oh, the humanity. It's not just Sen. Mark Udall, Gov. Dan Quinn and the like who find themselves jobless in D.C., Springfield and wherever but also their loyal staffers, campaign aides and other hangers-on.

Leaving aside the Statehouse and City Hall denizens who will soon by looking for work, Washington's K Street is suddenly awash in Democratic job-seekers. While a few may swallow hard and go the academic route or slink home with tail between legs, most will try to find a slot that keeps them in the game -- which means finding a lobbying job toot de suite.

Of course, not all lobbyists work on K St. just as not all movies are made in Hollywood and not all financial shenanigans occur on Wall Street, but it's useful shorthand born of necessity. After all, just as by most calculations there are more dead people than living people, there are more ex-officeholders and bootlickers in Washington than current ones. They all have to pay the mortgage on their McLean digs and K Street is the place to do it -- the inner circle that knows which oxes can be gored, which interests must be protected and which resources can be plundered.  

Who needs baristas?

The wrinkle right now, of course, is that it's mostly Democrats who are out of work. And the reason they're out of work is that the Republicans have won control of both the House and Senate. Think of what would happen if everyone suddenly switched from coffee to tea. Tea houses would be besieged by unemployed baristas.

While baristas may be hard-working and entertaining, they are not necessarily all that attractive to tea shoppes. Such is the predicament in which unemployed Democrats find themselves today. 

When Congress is divided, K Street firms like to say they are bipartisan. But with business-oriented Republicans now in charge on Capitol Hill, the most attractive influence peddlers will be the ones who can grab onto the coattails of those who wield the power in the GOP ranks. By definition, these are not Democrats.

What does this mean to the disgruntled voters who have presumably been hoping to send a message that they want Washington get to work and do something? It means that they will get what they asked for. And history tells us that does not always turn out well.

In the short term, at least, a Republican Congress may be expected to begin cranking out pro-business legislation and assuring us that this will create more jobs, a more robust economy, improved climate change and so forth. Of course, with the Democrats continuing to hold the White House, it's questionable how much of this legislation will be signed into law and how much will be vetoed but rest assured that numerous camels will get their noses into tents that have hitherto been closed to them.

Little people

The one consolation for out-of-work Dems may be that the sting of defeat will be such that Democrats will even further intensify their already strenuous efforts for 2016, which should mean more jobs organizing campaigns, fund-raising and generally agitating on behalf of Democratic causes and candidates. This does not pay as well as dividing up the swag from an office on the Hill but it beats teaching, flipping burgers or greeting Walmart shoppers.

So rest well, America. All is well in Washington. We're open for business. The bars are busy, the steak houses are packed and the Little People are running back and forth parking cars and keeping the white wine chilled. We'll get through this. Maybe you will too. 

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Picking apart the picky eater

Picky eaters are often "grazers" -- they eat small portions throughout the day

Food has been around forever. Kids that won't eat they have been around forever as well. It just comes with the territory of being a parent. One thing you ...

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Photo © HaywireMedia - Fotolia

Food has been around forever. Kids that won't eat have been around forever as well. It just comes with the territory of being a parent. One thing you don't want to do is take it personally. It has nothing to do with your cooking. It's just part of being a kid.

Obviously, this isn't true of all children. Some kids will eat everything in sight and you need a deadbolt on the fridge, but for the sake of this article we are going to focus on the ones that you have to play games with if you want them to eat. I've been there.

Doctors say that most often picky eaters are "grazers" – that is, kids who eat small amounts of food throughout the day. Making sure your child has set meal and snack times will help ensure she's eating when she's hungry and lessen the chance she'll snack too much.

Jennifer Tyler Lee devoted a whole book on the subject, titled "The 52 New Foods Challenge" -- a family cooking adventure for each week of the year, she has your back with 150 recipes. She says she wanted to get her kids to be a little more adventurous and get past the plain pasta and peas.

"What I discovered was that the journey wasn't about getting my kids to change," Lee said. "It was about creating a change in me."

Dinners transformed

The book takes you on a journey with her and her family and how she was able to transform family dinners. It will help you change your perspective and it's packed like a well-stocked refrigerator with tips for stressed-out parents of reluctant eaters.

“When it comes to food, one of the pillars of parenting is to protect the home environment. If you don't want your child to eat it then don't bring it home. Be picky what you bring into the house,” says Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and the author of “Ending the Food Fight.”

The Mayo clinic weighs in with a few ideas and says that you should serve small portions -- don't overwhelm your child with a huge plate of lasagna and peas. Serve small amounts like 3 peas and a teeny slice of lasagna. Give them the chance to ask for more.

Be patient with foods that are new to them. They might smell them and play with the texture of them.

Encourage your child by talking about a food's color, shape, aroma and texture — not whether it tastes good. By all means serve it with something they really like.

Serve breakfast for dinner. Change it up a little and make it fun.

Participation can be a real food additive. If your kids help pick things out at the grocery they take ownership. Then letting them help prepare the meal is all the better. Think about it -- anytime you participate in something it adds value to it.

The New York Times "Mother Lode" section's Picky Eater project suggests that you not label your child a "picky eater." If your child doesn't eat carrots, don’t stop serving them, or when your child is a guest at someone else’s table, don’t say, "My child doesn't like carrots." If you define them, it makes it that much harder for them to change.

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California Highway Patrolman charged with stealing nude photos from arrestees' phones

Another reason to keep your phone password-protected

Here's another reason why your smartphone should always be password-protected: former California Highway Patrolman Sam Harrington resigned his position las...

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Photo via Wikipedia

Here's another reason why your smartphone should always be password-protected: former California Highway Patrolman Sam Harrington resigned his positionlast week, and is facing felony charges for stealing personal (and often explicit) photos from the phones of women whom he arrested.

However, his fellow officers Robert Hazelwood and Dion Simmons, who allegedly received stolen photos from Harrington, are not facing any charges at this time.

The Contra Costa Times says that, according to court documents, Harrington told investigators he and his fellow officers had been collecting and trading such images for years, and that police viewed it as a “game.”

Harrington's activities first came to light in late August, when he arrested a woman on suspicion of drunk driving (though the charges against her have since been dismissed, due to the investigation into Harrington's on-the-job actions). The woman later discovered that certain photos had been emailed from her phone, while she was in custody and the phone in police possession.

Horse face

Contra Costa's district attorney obtained a search warrant for the officers' phones, and found that Harrington and Hazelwood had the following discussions about the photos (explicit language replaced with dashes, as necessary):

-- Aug. 29, 2014 after at least one explicit photo of a DUI suspect, identified as Jane Doe #1, was sent:

CHP officer Robert Hazelwood -- 2:33 a.m. -- "Nudes are always better with the face"

CHP officer Sean Harrington -- 2:34 a.m. -- "Maybe she knows she has a jacked up horse face?!?!?"

Hazelwood -- 2:34 a.m. -- "Let's see the dl"

Harrington -- 2:44 a.m. -- "When we get back to the office. And we'll have MDF mug shot, too"

Hazelwood -- 2:45 a.m. "Haha ok."

Harrington -- 2:45 a.m. "But trust me. She's like a 5 or a 6 at best"

Hazelwood -- 2:46 a.m. "Her body is rocking though"

Harrington -- 2:46 a.m. "Small (breasts)"

Hazelwood -- 2:47 a.m. "Still looks good to me"

Going further back, the district attorney found the police would complain if the photos found on an arrestees' phone were not explicit enough:

-- Aug. 7, 2014, exchange after Harrington said he took two photos of a DUI suspect in a bikini from the 19-year-old's phone while she received X-rays following a car accident. He forwarded the images to a CHP colleague:

CHP officer Sean Harrington -- 2:46 p.m. -- "Taken from the phone of my 10-15x while she's in X-rays. Enjoy buddy!!!"

CHP officer Robert Hazelwood -- 2:48 a.m. -- "No f---ing nudes?"

Harrington -- 2:49 a.m. -- "Nope. Gotta work with what's there"

After first learning about this behavior from members of the California Highway patrol, Contra Costa Times reporter Matthias Gafni investigated and discovered similar cases throughout the country: police officers without warrants going through arrestees' phones, not even to search for evidence of a crime, but for salacious photographs and other sources of personal police amusement.

Of course, in most states it is illegal for police to go through people's phones unless they first obtain a search warrant — but then, if everybody could be trusted to obey the law, we wouldn't have to worry about data theft or password protection in the first place. And there wouldn't be any police officers. 

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The jobs keep coming

ADP says the economy added 230k private sector workers last month

Another 230,000 people found work in the private sector during October, according to the ADP National Employment Report. Positions at companies with 50-49...

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© vinnstock - Fotolia.com

Another 230,000 people found work in the private sector during October, according to the ADP National Employment Report.

Positions at companies with 50-499 employees rose by 122,000 last month -- well over twice September’s increase of 47,000. Job creation at large companies -- those with 500 or more employees -- saw a big drop from 85,000 the previous month to only 5,000 jobs added in October.

Companies with 500-999 employees added 14,000 jobs, although this was offset by the loss of 8,000 jobs by companies with over 1,000 employees.

"Employment continues to trend upward as we begin the last quarter of 2014, driven mostly by small to mid-sized companies,” said Carlos Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of ADP. “October’s job growth is the highest since June and the second highest gain of 2014.”

Sector performance

Employment in goods-producing companies by 48,000 in October, down 2,000 from September, while the construction industry added 28,000 jobs, more than double the 13,000 hires in September.

Manufacturing, meanwhile, added 15,000 jobs in October, down by over half from September’s 33,000 -- the highest total in that sector since March 2011.

Service-providing employment rose by 5,000 jobs from September -- to 181,000 jobs in October, with professional/business services contributing 53,000. Employment in trade/transportation/utilities grew by 47,000, while financial activities added 4,000 positions -- less than half of the previous month’s number.

“The job market is steadily picking up pace. Job growth is strong and broad-based across industries and company sizes,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. “At this pace of job growth unemployment and underemployment is quickly declining. The job market will soon be tight enough to support a meaningful acceleration in wage growth.”

The ADP National Employment Report is produced by ADP in collaboration with Moody’s Analytics.

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Mortgage applications down for second consecutive week

Applications for refinancings were down as well

Another drop in applications for mortgages -- the second in as many weeks. According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage...

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© emiliezhang -Fotolia.com

Another drop in applications for mortgages -- the second in as many weeks.

According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications fell 2.6% from one week earlier during the week ending October 31.

The Refinance Index was down 6% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity to 63% of total applications from 65% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity decreased to 7.4% of total applications.

Meanwhile, the FHA share of total applications jumped to 9.5% from 8.9% a week earlier, the VA share of total applications was unchanged at 10.7% and the USDA share of total applications remained at 0.9%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 4 basis points -- to 4.17% from 4.13%, with points increasing to 0.22 from 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) was unchanged at 4.13%, with points decreasing to 0.11 from 0.13 (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 remained held steady at 3.84%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.16 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs rose to to 3.38% from 3.28%, with points increasing to 0.31 from 0.24 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs jumped 14 basis points -- to 3.08%, with points decreasing to 0.33 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

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Ford Flex and F-150 vehicles recalled

The passenger airbag may not deploy in certain frontal crashes

Ford is recalling approximately 135,000 2014 Ford Flex vehicles manufactured between March 1, 2014, and May 31, 2014; and F-150 vehicles built from March 1...

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Photo source: Ford

Ford is recalling approximately 135,000 2014 Ford Flex vehicles manufactured between March 1, 2014, and May 31, 2014; and F-150 vehicles built from March 1, 2014, to May 31, 2014; and F-150 vehicles serviced with a suspect seat track assembly repaired Feb. 17, 2014, through Oct. 31, 2014.

A passenger seat sensing issue could result in non-deployment of the passenger airbag in certain frontal crashes, if an adult is in the passenger seat. This may increase the risk of injury in certain frontal crashes.

Ford says it is unaware of any accidents or injuries related to this condition.

Dealers will widen the gap between the manual seat frame and seat track assembly, then calibrate the seat occupant classification system at no cost to the customer.