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What to expect from the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show

Smarter TVs and car sound systems without CD players

Each January the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) wows the public with the latest gadgets. The 2015 CES, which kicks off January 6, should be no exception....

PhotoEach January the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) wows the public with the latest gadgets. The 2015 CES, which kicks off January 6, should be no exception.

Companies will show off their latest tablets and smartphones as well as digital cameras. In recent years, even automotive companies have gotten in on the act.

This year Hyundai is promising to unveil a new display audio system with no CD player or embedded navigation system. Instead, its high resolution 7-inch color touch-screen display has been optimized for enhanced smartphone integrations and the latest generation Blue Link system.

Integrating smartphones

Consumers with an iPhone will be able to use Apple CarPlay to transfer the familiar features from their iPhones to the touch-screen display. Android users will find their apps can be projected directly into the system.

"Hyundai will offer more technology than ever before inside affordable Hyundai models, allowing owners not only to text message through voice commands and stream their favorite music apps, but also to make calls in a safer way, and navigate using phone-based, off-board navigation through the car's screen and controls," said Hyundai's Cason Grover. "As affordable car buyers are often younger, Hyundai aims to provide what they want most in their car – all the latest smartphone-enabled technologies at a lower price."

Not to throw cold water on Hyundai's new in-car technology, many safety experts would disagree that wireless connectivity completely removes distraction while driving. We reported in October that a University of Utah study directly contradicts the idea.

Taking exception

“Even though your car may be configured to support social media, texting and phone calls, it doesn’t mean it is safe to do so,” said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer. “The primary task should be driving. Things that take your attention away make you a poor driver and make the roads less safe.”

Video games

Meanwhile, Samsung Electronics and Sony Computer Entertainment will display the newest wrinkle in video games – the PlayStation Now game streaming service that will be available on select Samsung Smart TVs in the first half of 2015.

The joint venture means Samsung Smart TV owners in the United States and Canada will have access to hundreds of PlayStation 3 games streamed from the cloud, with no need for consoles, downloads, or trips to the store.

The service will launch as an app that can be accessed through Samsung’s Smart Hub. Visitors to CES 2015 will be able to try to system for themselves at the Samsung exhibit booth.

Television

LG Electronics (LG) said it will unveil an expanded TV lineup featuring the company’s new “webOS 2.0” Smart TV platform at CES. LG calls webOS 2.0 improves on key features found in the current generation of Smart TVs using webOS system introduced earlier this year.

The company said it is also working with content providers like Amazon and Netflix to ensure that LG 4K ULTRA HD TV owners have access to a wide range of 4K viewing options.

Though a TV set called “webOS TV” might sound complicated, LG says the upgraded product is designed to “make TV simple again” by addressing the growing consumer frustration with overly complex smart TVs.

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New NY law requires childproof packaging for liquid nicotine

The measure follows the nicotine-poisoning death of a toddler

Liquid nicotine sold in New York must be packaged in childproof containers, under terms of a new law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The measure also bans the...

PhotoLiquid nicotine sold in New York must be packaged in childproof containers under terms of a new law signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo yesterday. The measure also bans the sale of liquid nicotine to those under 21 in New York City and under 18 in the rest of the state.

New York banned the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors in 2010, but did not explicitly ban the sale of the liquid nicotine, according to a news release from the governor's office.

"This action will help combat nicotine addiction by keeping it out of the hands of minors, as well as prevent a heartbreaking accident that can occur if a child is exposed to this potentially dangerous substance,” Cuomo said. "I am proud to sign this legislation into law and thank the sponsors for their work on this much-needed initiative.” 

The measure follows the death of a one-year-old Fort Plain, N.Y., toddler who died after swallowing liquid nicotine. 

Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), who sponsored the bill, cited the boy's death as a reason why the law was needed.

"The accidental death of the one-year-old boy from Fort Plain, N.Y. as a result of liquid nicotine poisoning, the first of its kind in the nation, makes clear the need for this kind of common-sense legislation," Rosenthal said in a statement.

Highly toxic

Liquid nicotine, often known as electronic liquid or e-liquid, is a composite of nicotine and other chemicals. Concentrated liquid nicotine is highly toxic, even in small doses, and if ingested, liquid nicotine may cause tremors, vomiting, seizures, and potentially, death. For infants and children, ingesting liquid nicotine is particularly lethal.

According to a 2014 Centers for Disease Control Report, the number of calls to poison control centers involving liquid nicotine rose from one per month in September 2010 to 215 per month in February 2014. More than half of the calls (51.1%) involved children under age 5. 

 

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Cigarette smoking carries high financial cost too

U.S. taxpayers pick up the lion's share of the damages

The health costs of cigarette smoking are well known. They start with lung cancer and heart disease....

PhotoThe health costs of cigarette smoking are well known. They start with lung cancer and heart disease.

But smoking also imposes a stiff financial toll in the health care costs required to treat smoking related diseases. A team of researchers, including some from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), puts the cost at about $170 billion a year.

And if you pay taxes, you're paying a significant portion of that cost. A comprehensive study of smoking related costs puts the taxpayer share of the $170 billion at 60%, since many of the people seeking treatment are on Medicare and Medicaid.

Sixty percent of the bill

The study found that taxpayers bear 60 percent of the cost of smoking-attributable diseases through publicly funded programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The data comes from the 2006-2010 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey and 2004-2009 National Health Interview Survey.

What's discouraging to health care policymakers is the fact that smoking rates are going down, but the financial costs of smoking are going up.

Specifically, the researchers found that smoking can be blamed for $45 billion in Medicare spending each year and nearly $40 billion for Medicaid. The rest – some $24 billion – is spent on other government-sponsored insurance programs each year.

The CDC estimates that 16 million Americans suffer from a disease caused by smoking. When you add it all up the study links smoking to 8.7% of all health care spending in the U.S. each year.

Kills 480,000 Americans a year

Cigarette smoking is believed to be responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S., including as many as 41,000 from secondhand smoke exposure. This works out to about 1 in 5 deaths per year, or 1,300 per day.

On average, the CDC says smokers cut 10 years off their lives, compared to non-smokers. Even at declining smoking rates, 5.6 million of Americans younger than 18 are projected to die prematurely from a smoking-related illness. That's about 1 in every 13 Americans aged 17 or younger who are alive today.

Kicking the habit

Many smokers, or course, would like to quit and each January make a New Year's resolution to kick the habit, only to be faced with making the same resolution the following January.

The American Lung Association has offered 5 tips for quitting in 2015 and making it stick. They including using medication in some instances.

“The seven FDA-approved medications, like nicotine patches or gum, really do help smokers quit,” the association says. “Many folks don’t use them correctly or don’t use them long enough, so be sure to follow the directions.”

Statistics suggest smokers need every tool at their disposal. According to StatisticBrain.com, 70% of smokers want to quit, 40% will try to quit in the coming year and only 7% will be successful on the first try.

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Did hackers steal customer credit cards from Chick-fil-A?

Evidence suggests security breach dating back to early December 2013

Add Chick-fil-A to the always-growing list of businesses whose customers' credit and debit card numbers have apparently been stolen by malware-planting hac...

PhotoAdd Chick-fil-A to the always-growing list of businesses whose customers' credit and debit card numbers have apparently been stolen by malware-planting hackers in a security breach.

Security researcher Brian Krebs initially heard from unnamed “Sources at several U.S. financial institutions” that a recent spate of fraudulent charges all had one thing in common: the compromised cards had been used for payment at various Chick-fil-A locations around the country. Spokespeople for Chick-fil-A said they've received and are investigating similar reports.

So far, details remain scanty. Krebs' financial-industry sources first started noticing fraudulent charges possibly connected to CFA early in November, though Krebs called those initial reports “spotty at best.”

Common point of purchase

Remember that, from the perspective of both the card-issuing financial institutions and the possibly hacked companies like Chick-fil-A who accept credit cards as payment, it can be very difficult to even discover that a security breach happened, let alone when and where.

When card companies start collecting unusually high numbers of fraudulent-charge complaints from their cardholders, or when lists of stolen numbers and other account information are made available for sale on illegal black-market websites, usually the only way to find out where those numbers were stolen from is by looking through the payment histories of all such accounts for what's known as a “common point of purchase,” or CPP.

That's more difficult than it sounds, especially when it's so very easy to find false positives. For example, suppose those first few fraudulent charge complaints came from customers who, in addition to Chick-fil-A, had also all used their cards at a Walmart fairly recently and used their credit cards to pay a state car-registration bill in 2014 — which of those similarities is the real common point of purchase? Plus, the banks probably don't even know how far back they must look to find the CPP: did the breach happen in the last week? The last month? Last year? Longer than that?

So in early November, when the banks (and security researchers) first started noticing spotty reports of accounts which might have been breached at a Chick-fil-A somewhere, they had insufficient evidence to go public with any warning. But that changed just before Christmas, said Krebs, when new information came to light:

…. one of the major credit card associations issued an alert to several financial institutions about a breach at an unnamed retailer that lasted between Dec. 2, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2014.

One financial institution that received that alert said the bank had nearly 9,000 customer cards listed in that alert, and that the only common point-of-purchase were Chick-fil-A locations.

“It’s crazy because 9,000 customer cards is more than the total number of cards we had impacted in the Target breach,” the banking source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Krebs' source also said that, while potentially compromised Chick-fil-A branches can be found all over the country, the bulk of the breach seems to have happened at Chick-fil-A branches in Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

"Unusual activity"

Chick-fil-A issued a statement saying:

“Chick-fil-A recently received reports of potential unusual activity involving payment cards used at a few of our restaurants.  We take our obligation to protect customer information seriously, and we are working with leading IT security firms, law enforcement and our payment industry contacts to determine all of the facts.”
“We want to assure our customers we are working hard to investigate these events and will share additional facts as we are able to do so.  If the investigation reveals that a breach has occurred, customers will not be liable for any fraudulent charges to their accounts — any fraudulent charges will be the responsibility of either Chick-fil-A or the bank that issued the card.  If our customers are impacted, we will arrange for free identity protection services, including credit monitoring.”

In the meantime, it's always a good idea to monitor your own account activity, whether you've eaten at a Chick-fil-A this past year or not.

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2015 -- a good time to get yourself and your animals in shape

Just like their owners, most dogs and cats need to eat less and exercise more

If you have a dog or cat that's a little overweight chances are you are also. Forty percent of American adults don't participate in any leisure-time physic...

PhotoIf you have a dog or cat that's a little overweight chances are you are also. Forty percent of American adults don't participate in any leisure-time physical activity. You would think having a dog most owners would be on the thinner side since you have to walk your dog daily. Not everyone does that obviously, and not everyone eats correctly either.

If your pet is overweight, you need to talk to your vet to see how much weight your dog or cat needs to lose. They may also test your animal to make sure there is no physical reason they are overweight. Once that is done then you can work on a regime that will get your pet healthy. Just to put things in perspective take a look at this chart for overweight cats:

Here’s what a few extra pounds on a cat would equate to in a human

2 pounds is similar to 28 pounds on a 140-pound woman

3 pounds is similar to 42 pounds on a 140-pound woman

5 pounds is similar to 70 pounds on a 140-pound woman

8 pounds is similar to 112 pounds on a 140-pound woman

So for the New Year how about everybody gets in shape?  Make a workout plan that you and your pets can do. Set goals just as you would do for yourself, only you don't have to go it alone now. Provide at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise every day to facilitate weight loss. Here are a few suggestions to get you and your animals in purrfect shape. 

Change it up

Everybody loves a good game of fetch, cat or a dog.  You might want to change it up a bit by using different types of toys. It's a great agility game for your animals and it also is good for you to run after that ball a bit.

Hide and seek is fun. You hide treats (that are low calorie) and they have to find them. It's also a good mental workout for your animals. You get a little movement by having to hide things.

Hit the stairs. Every high school has a football field find the stairs to the stands. You don't have to do it in record time. Just take it slow you and your dog will get the exercise and be burning calories.

This is one you need to do in the summer -- swim at a lake or a beach. The neighbors probably don't want you doing laps in their pool but a beach or lake should work fine. Just make sure you are close by so nobody drowns in the waves. It's great for you and your dog. Your cat you might want to keep at home.

For cats to exercise, it's really all about their environment. What kind of things do you have for them to jump and climb on? Try to add a cat condo or two to your home.

Take a nice little stroll. Make it a goal for this year to at least take your dog on one walk a day. It gets you out of the house and off the couch, and it will give your dog the exercise it needs. Expand the walk each day just a little farther, so you both are getting the benefits. 

Most dogs enjoy running (humans not so much unless they are already runners). Once you get the walk mastered add a little hop skip to your step and add a short run, gradually lengthen the run and before you know it, you and your dog will be doing a 5k. 

Playdates are great for dogs. Find a friend your dog can run around with. Perhaps go to the dog park and see who your dog enjoys playing with. One step better is to get your dog or cat a friend they can play with at home. Animals love people but they really like another animal that is like themselves to understand exactly how they play.

Getting out at the dog park is good for you also. You get the socialization as well as the large area to throw a ball or frisbee.

How to tell

How do you really know if your animal is overweight? You should be able to feel your pet's ribs — not a layer of fat — beneath his or her fur. If you stand looking down at your pet, you should be able to see a waistline. From the side, the underbelly should be tucked up.

Food is love -- that's what the humans say anyway and people tend to not really overstuff their animals with their meals but treats are where they pack on the pounds. Beginning in 2015, pet food manufacturers will be required to include calorie counts on their packaging, although this regulation will not cover treats.

Just as with humans, when animals consume fewer calories than they burn, they lose weight. It's something you both can do together and for each other.

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A busy flying season means lots of bumps

Being bounced around may not be pleasant but it's better than being bumped

It's the busiest travel time of the year and if you are flying you face the possibility of being bumped from your flight. Airlines want to make sure they ...

PhotoIt's the busiest travel time of the year and if you are flying you face the possibility of being bumped from your flight.  Airlines want to make sure they make money. After all it is a business and to be sure that they don't lose money they may sometimes overbook a flight.

What the airlines do is surmise how many people will cancel or be a no-show. How can you avoid getting bumped?

Make sure that you get an advanced seat assignment. Even if you can't stand being in an aisle seat and it's the last one available by the restroom, take the seat. Airlines will usually bump you only if you are late and your seat has been released.
 
Which means get to the airport early. Some airlines reserve some of their seats so people can check in at the airport. But with most things done online the number of seats are few and far between -- or they are literally between meaning you get stuck in the middle of a mother and her kids who have runny noses and can't sit still for a 5-hour flight. You are now the inflight entertainment.

While your ticket may say "confirmed," if you do not have a seat assignment, you will be treated by the airline as a "standby" customer. 

Of course the airlines also have something called volunteer bumping -- when airline employees will look for volunteers when it appears that the flight has been oversold. If you're not in a rush to arrive at your next destination, you can give your reservation back to the airline in exchange for compensation and a later flight. 

Brett Snyder, who runs air travel assistance service Cranky Flier says voluntary bumping is "generally really good for everybody involved."

"Airlines know there will be no-shows, by selling more seats they're able to keep fares lower because otherwise they wouldn't be able to sell those extra seats at higher fares. Then for all the people that get bumped voluntarily, they get freebies," he said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. The airlines will generally compensate you if they have  to bump you from a flight.  The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay.

You can view the DOT's rules about bumping here.
 

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Pending home sales improve in November

A year-over-year gain was posted for the third month in a row

Slight gains in all major regions except for the Midwest helped push pending home sales up slightly in November. Figures released by the National Associat...

Photo
© karelnoppe – Fotolia.com

Slight gains in all major regions except for the Midwest helped push pending home sales up slightly in November.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, rose 0.8% to 104.8 last month from a slightly downwardly revised 104.0 in October. The PHSI is now 4.1% above November 2013 -- the highest year-over-year gain since August 2013. Pending home sales are above year-over-year levels for the third straight month.

Still no breakout

While signed contracts inched forward in November and have been fairly stable NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun says they haven't broken out even as the economy picked up steam this spring. "The consistent economic growth and steady hiring we've seen the second half of this year is giving buyers enough assurance to consider purchasing a home before year's end," he said. "With rents now rising at a seven-year high, historically low rates and moderating price growth are likely to entice more buyers to enter the market in upcoming months."

Yun also thinks falling gas prices will likely boost consumer confidence and allow prospective buyers the opportunity to save additional money for a down payment. NAR's 2014 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers found that the median down-payment ranged from 6% for first-time buyers to 13% for repeat buyers.

"There's still misperception out there,” he said. “that a much higher down-payment is needed, while that's not the reality,"

Sales by region

  • The PHSI in the Northeast rose 1.4% to 89.1 in November, and is now 7.0% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index dipped 0.4% to 100.0 in November, and is now 0.5% below November 2013.
  • Pending home sales in the South rose 1.3% to an index of 119.7 in November, and are 5.1% above last November.
  • The index in the West inched up 0.4% in November to 98.5, and is now 4.9% above a year ago.

Looking ahead

Total existing-homes sales this year are expected to be around 4.94 million, a decline of 3.0% from last year's 5.09 million, but are then expected to rise to 5.30 million in the coming year.

The national median existing-home price for all of this year will be close to $208,000, up 5.6% from 2013, and is likely to moderate to a pace between 4 and 5% in 2015. Existing-home prices rose 11.4% in 2013.

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Initial claims

From the government, meanwhile, word of an unexpected surge in first-time applications for state unemployment benefits.

Initial jobless claims shot up 17,000 during the week ending December 27 to a seasonally adjusted initial claims was 298,000. The total for the previous week was revised higher by 1,000 to

281,000.

Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were looking to a total of 290,000. Despite the larger increase, analysts say the total reflects an economy at or near full employment.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly tally and is seen as a more accurate indicator of the labor market, rose 250 -- to 290,750.

The full report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Happy Apples recalls caramel apples

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Happy Apples is recalling of Happy Apple brand caramel apples with a best use by date between August 25 and November 23, 2014. The products may be contami...

PhotoHappy Apples is recalling Happy Apple brand caramel apples with a best use by date between August 25 and November 23, 2014.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted 29 illnesses in 10 states linked to the outbreak and has advised consumers not to eat commercially produced, pre-packaged caramel apples until more is known.

The recalled products were sold in single pack, 3-packs, 4-packs and 8-packs. Each has a best use by date on the front of the label. They were sold at grocery, discount and club stores -- generally in the produce section -- in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

Consumers who have the products may return them to the store where purchased or dispose of them.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 800-527-7532 Monday - Friday during normal business hours or by email at customercare@happyapples.com.

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Hausman Foods recalls beef and pork products

The products contain peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label

Hausman Foods of Corpus Christi, Texas, is recalling approximately 38,400 pounds of beef and pork products. The products contain peanuts, a known allergen...

PhotoHausman Foods of Corpus Christi, Texas, is recalling approximately 38,400 pounds of beef and pork products.

The products contain peanuts, a known allergen which is not declared on the product label.

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

  • They following products were produced on various dates from September 17 - December 6, 2014:
  • 800-lb. combo corrugate boxes containing “Fully Cooked Barbacoa.”
  • 15-lb. boxes containing six 2.5 lb vacuum sealed packages of “Pork Chorizo.”

The recalled products bear establishment number “EST. 7190” or “EST. 7190A” inside the USDA mark of inspection and were shipped to processing and foodservice establishments in Texas.

Consumers with questions may contact Jerry Simpson at (361) 883-5521.  

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Cadillac SRX vehicles recalled

The driver's seat may have been built with an incorrect seat track bracket

General Motors is recalling 3,155 model year 2015 Cadillac SRX vehicles manufactured November 11, 2014, to December 3, 2014. The driver's seat may have ...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 3,155 model year 2015 Cadillac SRX vehicles manufactured November 11, 2014, to December 3, 2014.

The driver's seat may have been built with an incorrect seat track bracket. Drivers' seats with this condition may not be properly attached to the seat track. The front outboard seat bracket may become disengaged during a vehicle crash, increasing the risk of personal injury.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace affected seat track hook brackets, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-458-8006 (Cadillac). GM's number for this recall is 14863.

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California Snack Foods recalls Karm’l Dapples

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

California Snack Foods is recalling its own brand of caramel apples with a best use by date between August 15th and November 28th 2014. The product may be...

PhotoCalifornia Snack Foods is recalling its own brand of caramel apples with a best use by date between August 15th and November 28th 2014.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted 30 illnesses in 10 states linked to the outbreak and has advised consumers not to eat commercially produced, pre-packaged caramel apples until more is known.

The recalled products were sold in single packs and 3-packs, with each package having a best use by date on the front of the label. They were sold in the produce sections of grocery, discount and club stores, generally in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas and Utah.

Consumers who have the recalled product may return it to the store where purchased or dispose of it.

Consumers with questions may the company at 800-966-5501 Monday - Friday during normal business hours or by email at info@californiasnackfoods.com

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Volkswagen recalls vehicles with fuel rail sealing cap issues

Fuel could leak into the engine compartment

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 37,979 model year 2014-2015 Jettas manufactured March 28, 2014, to November 24, 2014; 2014-2015 Passats manufactur...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 37,979 model year 2014-2015 Jettas manufactured March 28, 2014, to November 24, 2014; 2014-2015 Passats manufactured April 7, 2014, to November 18, 2014; 2015 Golfs and GTIs manufactured July 1, 2014, to November 20, 2014; and 2014-2015 Beetles and Beetle Convertibles manufactured March 31, 2014, to November 27, 2014.

A sealing cap at the fuel rail may fail, allowing fuel to leak into the engine compartment. A fuel leak, in the presence of an ignition source, can result in a vehicle fire.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel rails with new parts, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-822-8987. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 24Bi.

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Farm Country Cheese House recalls Raw Milk Cheddar

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Farm Country Cheese House of Lakeview, Mich., is recalling 1136.53 pounds of Raw Milk Cheddar. The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes...

PhotoFarm Country Cheese House of Lakeview, Mich., is recalling 1136.53 pounds of Raw Milk Cheddar.

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

Raw Milk Cheddar was distributed in Michigan, specifically in the Grand Rapids metro and Detroit metro areas through retail stores and specialty shops.

The recalled product is packaged under two different labels:

  • The first label has Farm Country Cheese House logo on the far left hand side, and the product name (Raw Milk Cheddar) written on top of the label. It is sold as an 8-oz block and has has the “Use By Date” between October 28, 2015, and December 5, 2015, on the back of the cheese. This label also has Julian dates: 14301, 14302, 14308, 14309, 14324, 14325, 14332, 14336, and 14339 in the lower right hand corner. .
  • The second label has Farm Country Cheese House logo on the far left hand side, and the product name (Raw Milk Cheddar) written in white over a light blue banner. The label will has the “Use By Date” on the back, but does not have a Julian Date. The “Use By Date” dates are between October 28, 2015, and December 5th 2015. This product is packaged in 8-oz blocks and 5-lb. loaves.

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 989-352-7779, or by email at info@farmcountrycheesehouse Monday-Friday from 9:00 A.M-5:00 P.M., EST.

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Merb’s Candies recalls caramel apples

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Merb’s Candies is recalling of the Merb’s Candies brand Bionic Apples and Double Dipped Apples. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogen...

PhotoMerb’s Candies is recalling of the Merb’s Candies brand Bionic Apples and Double Dipped Apples.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted 30 illnesses in 10 states linked to the outbreak and has advised consumers not to eat commercially produced, pre-packaged caramel apples until more is known.

The recalled products were sold through local supermarkets (in the produce section) in the St. Louis area,and through mail orders nationwide. They are individually packaged in a clear, burgundy and gold cellophane bags and were available from September 8-November 25, 2014. No identifying lot codes were used.

Consumers who have any product may return it to the store where purchased or dispose of it.

Consumers with questions may contact the firm at customercare.merbscandies@gmail.com or during normal business hours Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST at (314) 832-7206.

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Dodge Dart Aeros recalled

The Tire Pressure Monitoring System warning light may fail to illuminate

FCA US, the former Chrysler Group, is recalling 1,056 model year 2015 Dodge Dart Aeros manufactured August 24, 2014, to October 28, 2014. The recalled ve...

PhotoFCA US, the former Chrysler Group, is recalling 1,056 model year 2015 Dodge Dart Aeros manufactured August 24, 2014, to October 28, 2014.

The recalled vehicles were built with a premium instrument cluster and Lowline Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS). The TPMS warning light may not illuminate when low tire pressure is detected.

A malfunctioning TPMS light will not notify an owner of an improperly inflated tire. An improperly inflated tire may experience a complete loss of tire pressure, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

FCA will notify owners, and dealers will reconfigure the vehicles from a lowline TPMS to a highline TPMS, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 13, 2015.

Owners may contact FCA customer service at 1-800-853-1403. FCA's number for this recall is P76.

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New weight-loss drug gets green light

Saxenda joins 3 other recently-approved treatments for obesity

Just in time for all those weight-loss New Year's resolutions, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved another new weight management treatment....

PhotoJust in time for all those weight-loss New Year's resolutions, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved another new weight management treatment.

Saxenda is an injection that, when combined with a reduced-calorie diet and physical activity, helps treat obesity. The drug is approved for use in adults with a body mass index (BMI) classifying them as obese. The drug may also be prescribed for adults with a BMI of 27 or greater who have at least one weight-related condition like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol.

There may be a large market for Saxenda since according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of adults in the United States are obese.

“Obesity is a public health concern and threatens the overall well-being of patients,” said James Smith, acting deputy director of the Division of Metabolism and Endocrinology Products in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Saxenda, used responsibly in combination with a healthy lifestyle that includes a reduced-calorie diet and exercise, provides an additional treatment option for chronic weight management for people who are obese or are overweight and have at least one weight-related comorbid condition.”

Three trials

The FDA evaluated the safety and effectiveness of Saxenda in 3 clinical trials that included approximately 4,800 obese and overweight patients with and without significant weight-related conditions.

Results from one trial showed that patients had an average weight loss of 4.5% in a year compared to those who got placebo. In this trial, 62% of patients treated with Saxenda lost at least 5% of their body weight compared with 34% of patients treated with placebo.

Contrave

Saxenda joins a number of new weight loss drugs recently approved by the FDA. In September, the agency gave a green light to Contrave.

The effectiveness of Contrave was evaluated in multiple clinical trials that included approximately 4,500 obese and overweight patients with and without significant weight-related conditions treated for one year. All patients received lifestyle modification that consisted of a reduced- calorie diet and regular physical activity.

Results from a clinical trial that enrolled patients without diabetes showed that patients had an average weight loss of 4.1% over treatment with placebo (inactive pill) at one year. In this trial, 42% of patients treated with Contrave lost at least 5% of their body weight compared with 17% of patients treated with placebo.

Effectiveness

Weight loss drugs, of course, are not for everyone who just wants to lose weight. According to the Mayo Clinic, these drugs are usually reserved for people who haven't been able to lose weight through natural means like diet and exercise, and who have health problems because of their weight.

In other words, they aren't for people who want to lose just a few pounds for cosmetic reasons.

Keep in mind that the drugs are just doing part of the work. The Mayo Clinic says diet and exercise are largely responsible for weight loss, with the drugs contributing to it as well. And once you stop taking the drugs and backslide on your diet, you can expect the pounds to reappear.

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Financial smarts don't disappear with age

If you were a good with money when you were young, chances are you'll remain that way

There's a theory that as people age, their financial decision-making declines, along with physical and mental abilities. But is that really the case?...

PhotoThere's a theory that as people age, their financial decision-making declines, along with physical and mental abilities. But is that really the case?

New research from the University of California, Riverside suggests it isn't.

First, the research team separated 2 types of intelligence; on one side of the ledger it placed “crystallized intelligence," which is gained through experience and accumulated knowledge.

On the other side, "fluid intelligence," the ability to think logically and process new information. Past research has clearly shown that fluid intelligence decreases with old age, a phenomenon known as "cognitive decline."

Both are important to financial decision-making, but the researchers give added weight to “crystallized intelligence.” The knowledge you have gained over a lifetime of money management, they say, more than makes up for cognitive decline, in most cases.

Staying golden

"The research shows that despite cognitive graying, older people's financial decision making may be more 'golden' than a slowing brain might otherwise suggest," said Ye Li, an assistant professor of management and marketing at the UC Riverside School of Business Administration, who is the lead author of the paper.

The study may get added attention because of the fast-growing population of older Americans. One in 5 Americans is expected to be over 65 years old by 2030. And it's not just an American phenomenon – the number of people 65 and older worldwide is expected to double by 2035.

Where the money is

This is important because older people control vast amounts of wealth. As they age they will have to make decisions about how to manage and spend it, ensuring that they don't outlive it.

Public policy changes in health care and retirement planning have transferred many complex decisions to individuals. While some worry that older consumers will be more likely to make costly mistakes with their money, the researchers looked at credit scores, which told a different story.

If an older person has made sound decisions throughout their lifetime, the researchers say that prospect tends to continue in their advancing years, and can be measured through their credit scores.

Help from pros

This may be reassuring to some aging consumers who manage their own retirement money but the fact is, a majority of seniors with significant assets seek professional guidance.

That's because for those who have managed to save a retirement nest egg, the challenge of managing it in retirement may be much greater than the challenge of saving. To produce income the funds need to be put to work. But investing – anything beyond bank CDs – involves risk. As people reach retirement they tend to be less tolerant of risk.

"Generating retirement income is comparable to that of a NASA engineer trying to land a spaceship on Pluto," Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, told us back in January. "Everything may be optimized and perfectly calculated to give the highest probability of success, but without mid-course corrections along the way, the likelihood of achieving the goal – of landing the ship or generating enough income to live on during retirement – is very low."

That may be true, but the UC Riverside research suggests older consumers should not abdicate complete control over their finances to outside sources.

While a qualified wealth manager may offer up sound advice, seniors who have gained a lifetime of experience building a portfolio should still have the gray matter to judge that advice, even when their hair turns gray.

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Binge drinking disrupts the immune system, study finds

It's a newly discovered harmful side effect of binge drinking

Planning your New Year's Eve celebration? You may want to pause a moment to review a new study that finds binge drinking in young, healthy adults significa...

PhotoPlanning your New Year's Eve celebration? You may want to pause a moment to review a new study that finds binge drinking in young, healthy adults significantly disrupts the immune system.

In the study, led by a researcher now at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, study participants drank four or five shots of vodka, depending on their weight.

Twenty minutes after reaching peak intoxication, their immune systems revved up. But when measured again, at two hours and five hours after peak intoxication, their immune systems had become less active than when sober. The study included eight women and seven men with a median age of 27.

The study led by Majid Afshar, MD, illustrates a potentially harmful effect of binge drinking that is not widely recognized, unlike the falls, burns, gunshot wounds, car accidents and other traumatic injuries generally associated with heavy drinking. One-third of trauma patients have alcohol in their systems.

In addition to increasing the risk of traumatic injuries, binge drinking impairs the body's ability to recover from such injuries. Previous studies have found, for example, that binge drinking delays wound healing, increases blood loss and makes patients more prone to pneumonia and infections from catheters. Binge drinkers also are more likely to die from traumatic injuries.

Less awareness

Drinkers generally understand how binge drinking alters behavior. "But there is less awareness of alcohol's harmful effects in other areas, such as the immune system," said Elizabeth Kovacs, PhD, a co-author of the study and director of Loyola's Alcohol Research Program.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as drinking enough to reach or exceed a blood alcohol content of .08, the legal limit for driving.

This typically occurs after four drinks for women or five drinks for men, consumed in two hours. One in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, and binge drinking is more common in young adults aged 18 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Afshar is planning a follow-up study of burn unit patients. He will compare patients who had alcohol in their system when they arrived with patients who were alcohol-free. He will measure immune system markers from each group, and compare their outcomes, including lung injury, organ failure and death.

The study is published online ahead of print in Alcohol, an international, peer-reviewed journal.

 

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Petition drive might overturn California's ban on plastic bags

Paper grocery bags mostly overlooked in the shuffle

Last autumn, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 270, a statewide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags which also makes it illegal (on pa...

PhotoLast autumn, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 270, a statewide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags which also makes it illegal (on pain of a $5,000 fine) for certain retailers to use paper shopping bags unless they charge customers 10 cents apiece for them.

Once the governor signed the bill into law, various business groups backed by the pro-plastic American Progressive Bag Alliance (web address: PlasticsIndustry.org/apba) almost immediately started a petition drive in hope of collecting enough signatures under California state law to hold a public referendum during the 2016 election, seeking to overturn SB 270.

On Monday, the APBA released a statement announcing that it had collected enough signatures to hold the referendum.

“The APBA has collected more than 800,000 signatures from California voters and will be submitting the final petitions to county registrars prior to today’s December 29th deadline. We are confident the Secretary of State’s office will verify the required 504,760 signatures to qualify the referendum for the November 2016 ballot.

Although the APBA undoubtedly has a strong financial interest in plastic shopping bags, its statement also pointed out that:

“SB 270 was never a bill about the environment. It was a back room deal between the grocers and union bosses to scam California consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees without providing any public benefit. We are pleased to have reached this important milestone in the effort to repeal a terrible piece of job-killing legislation, and look forward to giving California voters a chance to make their voice heard at the ballot box in 2016.”

Two-year reprieve

The Sacramento Bee noted on Monday that “If enough signatures are deemed valid and the referendum does go to the 2016 ballot, the law will be suspended until the electorate weighs in. That effectively buys the plastics industry a two-year reprieve regardless of how Californians vote. Plastic bags distributed in California carry a wholesale value of about $195 million annually ….”

This two-year suspension presumably applies also to the law mandating that stores collect a ten-cent fee for every paper grocery bag they distribute, even though the primary focus of the petition drive and publicity surrounding it has been on plastic bags and the plastics industry.

As written, the plastic bag ban, and mandatory fee for paper bags, only apply to food and consumable purchases: grocery stores, pharmacies, liquor and convenience stores all must obey the bans. However, clothing, gift and electronics stores do not, and can use plastic or give away free paper bags without limit.

(A cynic might even say, “The bag ban only covers necessities, like food and medicine, which poor people are just as likely as rich people to buy on a regular basis.”)

If a repeal of SB 270 does make it onto the ballot and successfully passes in 2016, it would not apply to various city-level bag bans throughout California. The Sacremento Bee mentioned that Sacremento's own mayor is pushing for a citywide ban on plastic bags, because plastic disposable shopping bags “cause problems by clogging up our recycling equipment …. and we’re forced to use parks and other city personnel to clean up plastic bag pollution all over the city every day.”

The mayor said nothing one way or the other about single-use paper bags, which continue to be lumped together with single-use plastic bags in a currently debated new California law which the plastics industry, among other groups, may yet succeed in overturning.

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OneStopParking the latest paid-parking vendor to get hacked

Pay-to-park customers at extra risk of data theft

If you pay to park your car then you need to be extra-cautious when checking your credit card statements for fraudulent charges. Security expert Brian Kreb...

PhotoIf you pay to park your car then you need to be extra-cautious when checking your credit card statements for fraudulent charges. Security expert Brian Krebs reported today that hackers managed to steal customer credit-card data from OneStopParking.com earlier this month – apparently, the same hackers behind the earlier and far more massive security breaches at Target and Home Depot.

The theft of customer information from OneStopParking is the fourth parking-related customer data theft to be reported in December alone – hacks of Park'N Fly airport parking, the St. Louis Parking Company and SP+ Parking were also discovered and reported this month. Parking lots (or their payment vendors) seem to be the hot new targets in hacker circles.

Where data security breaches are concerned, everyday consumers might find that keeping up with parking-garage or parking lot data theft might be more difficult than keeping up with retail-based thefts. After all, when the average person hears “Target (or any other retailer or restaurant) was breached during this particular time frame,” most people know whether or not they patronized that particular business – ask people whether or not they've recently visited a major chain store, and they can accurately tell you yea or nay.

But that's generally not the case with parking companies. Most people associate parking with location rather than brand name — ask the average person about their pay-to-park habits, and you're sure to hear something like “I park in the lot on 4th Street” or “in the garage next to the mall,” not “I park in lots maintained by ParkNPay International LLC.”

So if you do ever pay to park your vehicle, whether as a daily commuter or an occasional tourist, check to determine the name of the actual company running that paid lot or parking garage; if it's OneStopParking, Park'N Fly, SP+ Parking or the St. Louis Parking Company, your payment card information is at greater-than-usual risk of winding up in some thieving hacker's hands.

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Feds warn BabyBus it must get parents' permission to track children

The FTC says the China-based app developer may be violating child privacy laws

The timing may have been unfortunate -- or fortunate, depending on your point of view -- but the Federal Trade Commission's warning to BabyBus was certainl...

PhotoThe timing may have been unfortunate -- or fortunate, depending on your point of view -- but the Federal Trade Commission's warning to BabyBus was certainly effective.

Just before Christmas, the FTC cautioned the China-based development of children's apps that it appeared to be in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) Rule.

In the letter, the FTC notes that it appears BabyBus' child-directed apps appeared to collect precise geolocation information about users. The letter notes that the company does not get parents’ consent before collecting children’s personal information, which would appear to violate the COPPA Rule.

The apps, available on the Apple App Store, Amazon App Store and Google Play, have been downloaded millions of times but the sites all froze the downloads after receiving a copy of the FTC's letters.

The company also pledged to modify its apps to require parental permission, while noting that it was in compliance with Chinese laws.

"BabyBus is a company based in Mainland China, and statistical plug-ins are not against local laws where the company is registered, including the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Minors," the company said in a statement on its website.

"Yet our products are loved by nearly 60 million babies across the world.Therefore we learn that we must be in accordance with every regulation and law all over the world," the statement continued. "And that's why we right after receiving the letter from FTC we started updating the app to make sure compliance."

The apps are directed to children from ages 1-6, including apps that teach letters, numbers and shapes.

Parental consent required

The COPPA Rule requires companies collecting personal information from children under 13 to post clear privacy policies and to notify parents and get their consent before collecting or sharing any information from a child. The rule was revised in 2013  to adapt to the growth of mobile technology aimed at children.

The letter asks the company to evaluate its apps and determine whether they may be in violation, as well as informing the company that the commission will review the apps again in the next month to ensure they are in compliance with the rule.

BabyBus said it would comply.

"At the moment our products have been corrected and are ready to be released. We will also report to the FTC about the progress," the company said.

 

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Time to recycle that Christmas tree

There's a lot of life left in your dried-out tree

It's all winding down, the sweets are almost gone along with the relatives, and that translates to your tree being ready to coming down as well. Instead of...

PhotoIt's all winding down, the sweets are almost gone along with the relatives, and that translates to your tree being ready to coming down as well. Instead of just chucking it to the curb, why not spread some of that Christmas cheer to other places?

 Mulch it! You can cut off the boughs and run it through a chipper to make mulch. Most cities have a pick-up day when they will take your tree and use it for mulch. You can also cut off the boughs yourself and place them over plants in your garden now.  It will protect plants from an early spring frost and also keep the wind off of them during the winter.

Boughs of evergreens also can be used over compost piles to help retain heat, allowing the compost to continue working during the winter.

Your Christmas tree can become a playground for birds in your yard. Just stick it outside in its stand or put it in the ground if you prefer and let the birds come and enjoy. Birds will be attracted by suet, cranberry and popcorn strings, stale bread and dried, chopped fruit in mesh bags. 

The smell of Christmas can last all year if you make potpourris and sachets. Just strip the branches of the needles and throw them in paper bags. They won't lose their smell as long as you keep them in the paper bag.

Fish food

Fish will love your tree. Not the goldfish in your house but if it is placed in a lake or pond (do this with permission), it can become a habitat for fish and insects. In some shallow wetlands trees can become a barrier to sand and erosion.

Check with your city because some will use trees for hiking trails and they may have a specific drop-off point for that.

If you just felt this was the best tree ever and you would like to use it again. You can just replant it!. Living Christmas trees that come with their roots intact can, of course, be planted. Pack the earth ball containing the roots in a bucket with sawdust, potting soil or other mulch. Keep the soil continually moist. Plant outdoors as soon as possible .

Whatever you do don't burn your Christmas tree in a fireplace or wood stove. You could burn your house down if you throw even a few pine branches into the fire. Dried-out evergreens burn like tinder. Their needles go quickly, sparks will fly, which can shoot  across a room or onto the roof and set your shingles on fire.

Plus, the pitch in the wood creates huge, fast-moving sparks that can jump right out of the fireplace and into your room, or up the chimney and onto the shingles. The combination causes flames, heat and smoke to pour out of a fireplace opening with no warning.

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A December rebound for consumer confidence

Confidence improved with the approach of the end of 2014

The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index®, which had After posing a decline in November, consumer confidence in the economy showed some improvement...

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After posting a decline in November, consumer confidence in the economy showed some improvement this month.

According to the Conference Board, its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 92.6 in December from 91.0 the previous month. The Present Situation Index shot from 93.7 to 98.6, while the Expectations Index dipped to 88.5 from 89.3.

The rebound in consumer in December was “propelled by a considerably more favorable assessment of current economic and labor market conditions,” said Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “As a result,” she adds, “the Present Situation Index is now at its highest level since February 2008. Consumers were moderately less optimistic about the short-term outlook in December, but even so, they are more confident at year-end than they were at the beginning of the year.”

Favorable current conditions

Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions was considerably more favorable in December. Those who said business conditions are “good” was unchanged at 24.8 percent, while those who think they are “bad” fell from 21.8% to 19.6%.

Consumers' assessment of the job market was more positive, with those who believe jobs are “plentiful” increased from 16.2% to 17.1%, and those said jobs are “hard to get” fell from 28.7% to 27.7%.

Optimism about the short-term outlook eased a bit this month. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next 6 months edged slipped from 18.3% to 18.0%, while those expecting things to get worse dropped from 10.4% to 10.1%.

Jobs and income outlook

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was marginally less optimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead decreased from 15.5% to 14.7%, while those expecting fewer jobs rose from 16.1% to 16.9%. People expecting growth in their incomes fell moderately from 16.9% to 16.4%; however the proportion expecting a decline also dropped -- from 11.0% to 10.0%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was December 16.

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Volkswagen recalls Jetta with headlight issue

The light output from the headlights may be insufficient

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 25,007 model year 2015 Jetta vehicles manufactured July 11, 2014, to November 13, 2014. Due to incorrect softwar...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 25,007 model year 2015 Jetta vehicles manufactured July 11, 2014, to November 13, 2014.

Due to incorrect software within the headlight control module, the low beam headlights may turn off when high beam lights are turned on. As a result, the light output from the headlights may be insufficient. Insufficient headlight output may increase the risk of a crash.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will update the headlight control module software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in January 2015.

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 57F6.

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HEB Meat Center recalls chicken and beef products

The products may contain peanuts, allergens not listed on the label

HEB Meat Center of San Antonio, Texas, is recalling approximately 83,666 pounds of pork products. The products may contain peanuts, known allergens, whic...

PhotoHEB Meat Center of San Antonio, Texas, is recalling approximately 83,666 pounds of pork products.

The products may contain peanuts, known allergens, which are not declared on the product label.

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

The following chorizo and pork products were produced on various dates between October 16, 2014 and December 26, 2014:

  • Random weight vacuum-packed clear packages containing “Pork Chorizo.”
  • Random weight clear covered trays containing “HEB Mi Comida Chorizo Pork Chorizo.”
  • Random weight vacuum-packed clear packages containing “SEASONED MEXICAN STYLE PORK FOR CARNE AL PASTOR.”

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “EST. 7231” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail HEB stores in Texas.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact HEB customer relations, at (800) 432-3113.  

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FCA recalls Dodge Rams, Dakotas and Mitsubishi Raiders

The return springs in the clutch ignition interlock switch may break

FCA US, the former Group, is recalling 66,819 model year 2006-2007 Dodge Ram 1500, 2500, 3500, Dakota, and Mitsubishi Raider vehicles with manual transmiss...

PhotoFCA US, the former Chrysler Group, is recalling 66,819 model year 2006-2007 Dodge Ram 1500, 2500, 3500, Dakota, and Mitsubishi Raider vehicles with manual transmissions manufactured July 1, 2005, to July 31, 2006.

The return springs in the clutch ignition interlock switch may break. Broken springs can result in a no-start condition, or cause unintended movement when the ignition is cranked, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

FCA will notify owners, and dealers will replace the clutch ignition interlock switch, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 13, 2015.

Owners may contact FCA customer service at 1-800-853-1403. FCA's number for this recall is P80.

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Nissan recalls Armadas

The parking pawl may not engage fully

Nissan North America is recalling 194 model year 2015 Nissan Armada vehicles manufactured September 15, 2014, to October 14, 2014. Due to interference be...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 194 model year 2015 Nissan Armada vehicles manufactured September 15, 2014, to October 14, 2014.

Due to interference between the parking rod and the transmission housing, the parking pawl may not engage fully. This condition may allow the vehicle to move with the shifter in the "Park" position, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the casting date stamp on the transmission housing and replace the affected transmissions, 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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Beemers with air bag inflator issue recalled

Excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture

BMW of North America is recalling 140,696 model year 2004-2005 325i, 325xi, 330i, and 330xi Sedans; model year 2004-2005 325i Sportswagons; model year 2004...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 140,696 model year 2004-2005 325i, 325xi, 330i, and 330xi Sedans; model year 2004-2005 325i Sportswagons; model year 2004-2006 330Ci, 325Ci, 325i, and M3 Convertibles; and model year 2004-2006 325i, 330i, and M3 Coupe vehicles.

Upon deployment of the driver side frontal air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture with metal fragments striking and potentially seriously injuring the vehicle occupants.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver side frontal air bag, free of charge. The recall began December 1, 2014 for those vehicles originally sold, or currently registered, in Florida, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

All other affected owners will be notified on, or about, February 1, 2015.

Owners may contact BMW Customer Relations at 1-800-525-7417.

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Garcia Foods recalls pork products

The products may contain peanuts, allergens not listed on the label

Garcia Foods of San Antonio, Texas, is recalling approximately 190,450 pounds of pork products. The products may contain peanuts, known allergens, which a...

PhotoGarcia Foods of San Antonio, Texas, is recalling approximately 190,450 pounds of pork products.

The products may contain peanuts, known allergens, which are not declared on the product label.

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

The following Hill Country Fare Chorizo products were produced between October 5, 2014 and December 24, 2014:

  • 12-oz. vacuum-packed, raw pork sausage link pieces of “HILL COUNTRY FARE CHORIZO.”
  • 8-oz. vacuum-packed, raw pork sausage chubs of “HILL COUNTRY FARE CHORIZO.”

The products bear the establishment number “EST. 13205A” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in Texas.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Pete Santos at (210) 349-6262 Ext. 224.

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MINI Cooper Hardtops recalled

Drivers may be able to exit the vehicle when the transmission is not in Park

BMW of North America is recalling 1,928 model year 2014-2015 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2 Door, and Cooper S Hardtop 2 Door vehicles manufactured January 6, 2014,...

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Photo source: MINI Cooper

BMW of North America is recalling 1,928 model year 2014-2015 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2 Door, and Cooper S Hardtop 2 Door vehicles manufactured January 6, 2014, to October 17, 2014.

During service appointments, dealers may have inadvertently reprogrammed the transmission control unit with software that may allow drivers to exit the vehicle when the transmission is not in Park.

If the driver exits the vehicle without the transmission being in Park, the vehicle could roll away as the driver and other occupants exit the vehicle or anytime thereafter, increasing the risk of injury to exiting occupants and bystanders.

MINI will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the transmission control module with the correct software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on February 1, 2015.

Owners can contact MINI customer service at 1-866-825-1525.

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The latest Facebook scam: fake video of missing Flight QZ8501

Within hours of the plane's disappearance, scammers started exploiting it

Yesterday, an Air Asia Indonesia flight en route to Singapore vanished somewhere over the Java Sea. Scammers on Facebook almost immediately used headlines ...

PhotoYesterday, an Air Asia Indonesia flight en route to Singapore vanished somewhere over the Java Sea. Scammers on Facebook almost immediately used headlines about the missing flight as bait to ensnare Facebooks users into a potentially costly phone-billing scam — and possibly into infecting their devices with malware, too.

AirAsia Indonesia Flight QZ8501 went missing on Dec. 28, and as of press time on Dec. 29 neither the flight nor any wreckage from it has been found (although the BBC reports that searchers have seen oil slicks on the water, possibly left by a downed plane).

If and when the plane or its remains are found, pretty much every major news outlet will report this, same way every major news outlet has reported Flight QZ8501's disappearance. Therefore, you should avoid any Facebook post claiming to have “exclusive” information or video footage about the flight or its wreckage.

Hoax-Slayer posted a warning on Dec. 29 about scammy, malware-ridden Facebook posts falsely claiming to be from CNN, claiming that the plane was found in Tacloban, Philippines, and then invites you to click “Play” to watch video of “breaking news” footage.

Text message "service"

If you actually click the play button, what happens then? Hoax-Slayer says:

... a popup on the page will claim that you must like and share the video on Facebook before you can view the footage. But, after you like and share as instructed, another popup will claim that you must complete a survey to see the full video …. The survey links open dodgy third-party websites that ask for your mobile phone number and other personal details, ostensibly to allow you to go in the draw for various prizes.

But, alas, by providing your mobile number, you are actually signing up for an ongoing and very expensive SMS service that will charge you several dollars for every text message they send. …

At some point in the process, you'll also be offered the chance to download a "video player" riddled with malware. Remember, where any Facebook post is concerned, never to trust any post – even if it appears to be from a legitimate news network – claiming to offer “exclusive” footage nobody else has. (And if CNN — or any other news source — actually does have exclusive footage of some newsworthy event, you'll be able to find it on the actual CNN website, and still don't need to click on any Facebook posts.)

Also remember to never gve your phone number to a site demanding it as part of its registration process. And finally, remember that any breaking news story will attract scammers who try using it as bait. The more curiosity you feel about a given story, the more you have to be on guard.

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Holiday hacking update: pretty much everything

Gaming networks, customer accounts, and the Internet itself hacked in the last few days

In light of the various hacking incidents and alleged incidents that came to light in the four days starting on Christmas Eve/the final night of Hanukkah, ...

PhotoIn light of the various hacking incidents and alleged incidents that came to light in the four days starting on Christmas Eve/the final night of Hanukkah, you need to change your passwords and keep an extra-sharp eye on your payment-card accounts.

Of course, such an announcement inspires you to ask: “Which of my passwords and cards are we talking about, here? Which specific ones must I worry about?”

The play-it-safe answer seems to be “All of them” – at least according to the scariest reports to come out of the four-day holiday weekend.

First off, video-game players had a lousy Christmas after hackers shut down the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox live-gaming networks with apparent dedicated denial-of-service (or DDoS) attacks: flooding the Xbox or PlayStation servers with so many false login requests that no genuine players could get in. (In telephone terms, imagine thousands of phones programmed to repeatedly call a single number, for the sole purpose of tying up that line and preventing any legitimate calls from getting through. A DDoS attack does the same thing over the Internet.)

For the millions of people who received new PlayStations or XBoxes for Christmas, the DDoS attack meant they couldn't set up their new consoles, and nobody could connect for multi-player games.

Lizard Squad

A group of hackers calling themselves “the Lizard Squad” claimed credit for the attacks, and apparently even managed to make a $300,000 profit from their activities: on Dec. 26, MegaUpload founder Kim Dotcom reportedly offered the Lizard Squad hackers 3,000 vouchers worth $99 apiece for his content-hosting service, if Lizard Squad would stop the DDoS attacks.

Today, security expert Brian Krebs unveiled the identities of the people he believes are behind the “Lizard Squad” – or at least the identities of the people who've been giving media interviews while claiming to belong to the Lizard Squad.

The next day, Dec. 27, came news that a possibly different bunch of hackers claiming to be associated with hacking super-group Anonymous had supposedly stolen and then leaked 13,000 account numbers, passwords, and/or customer credit-card information from a wide variety of websites, companies and corporations including Amazon, Walmart, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, Hulu Plus, Dell and many more (including several pornographic sites).

That long, long list of affected websites and companies made it sound like a massive, major hacking indeed — until you realize that 13,000 stolen accounts would be a relatively small number for even one of those mega-companies, let alone that entire list.

Planted malware

Apparently, the hackers didn't actually manage to “hack” into the databases of the companies on the list; more likely, they planted malware on individual users' computers or other devices, and stole passwords and other account information from that end.

That's how Russian hackers managed to steal and post 5 million Gmail passwords last September – or so it seemed. When news first broke of “5 million Gmail passwords” leaked in a secret hackers' forum, observers initially worried that Google's actual Gmail databases had been compromised, but that wasn't what happened. Instead, hackers stole passwords and other account information from other, less-protected sites, such as registration-required discussion forums or article comments, then tried those passwords with the victims' other accounts and discovered that they worked.

That might be how hackers got those 13,000 leaked passwords over the holiday weekend, too. But the key word there is “might” – if you have accounts with any of the companies Anonymous listed this weekend, even if all of your passwords are unique and never shared across accounts, you might want to change your password and should definitely keep an extra-sharp eye on any credit or payment cards attached to those accounts, just in case.

The Internet itself

Of course, these weren't the only hacking stories to mar the peace of the holiday weekend. The day after Christmas came news that the Internet itself had been hacked – or at least the website of the Internet Systems Consortium, ISC.org, which went down “for maintenance” that day (and remains down as of press time) because it had been infected with malware – though the ISC says “We have not had any reports of any client machines that have been infected from our website.”

What is the Internet Systems Consortium, and why should you care about it? The short and simple answer is: because the entire planetary “Internet” as we know it essentially resides among 13 different global authoritative DNS (domain name servers) – no DNS means no Internet – and the Internet Systems Consortium operates one of those 13 servers.

So that's the list of holiday hacking victims: the two major gaming networks, various customers of almost every major online retailer or entertainment service provider, plus roughly one-thirteenth of the foundations of the Internet itself. You might enjoy taking time off during the holidays, but criminals never do.

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BlackBerry goes retro with Classic smartphone

BlackBerry fans may love it but will they be enough to turn around the company?

In the wake of the iPhone and all the smartphones that followed, BlackBerry was pretty much left for dead. While it once ruled the mobile universe, by 2010...

PhotoIn the wake of the iPhone and all the smartphones that followed, BlackBerry was pretty much left for dead. While it once ruled the mobile universe, by 2010 its physical QWERTY keyboard seemed almost quaint.

Is it too early for BlackBerry nostalgia?

Maybe not. The company seems to be counting on those fond memories with the release of its latest phone, the BlackBerry Classic.

The Classic looks a lot like your old BlackBerry that's probably collecting dust in a drawer somewhere. The company calls it “a no-nonsense smartphone built to meet the needs of productive people who appreciate the speed and accuracy that can be found with a physical QWERTY keyboard.”

In truth a lot of business users loved their BlackBerries for the rock-solid email platform and the ease of use. And while it was possible to access the web with these phones, it wasn't really what the phone was designed for.

Inside and out

So the Classic looks like the old Blackberry on the outside, but not on the inside. According to the company its browser is 3 times faster, it has 60% more screen space, 50% longer battery life and a plethora of apps through BlackBerry World and the Amazon Appstore.

“We listened closely to our customers’ feedback to ensure we are delivering the technologies to power them through their day – and that feedback led directly to the development of BlackBerry Classic,” said John Chen, Executive Chairman and CEO at BlackBerry. “BlackBerry Classic is the powerful communications tool that many BlackBerry Bold and Curve users have been waiting for. It’s the secure device that feels familiar in their hands, with the added performance and agility they need to be competitive in today’s busy world.”

Security

Another reason the BlackBerry was prized in the business world was its famously secure operating system, with built-in protection against viruses, tampering and data leaks. Today those attributes may be prized even more in light of increasingly aggressive hackers.

The company says the Classic is “private by default,” protecting users with encrypted email and web browsing.

“This device underscores our commitment to helping BlackBerry users be at their most productive and respond to the demands of business from anywhere, at any time,” said Chen. “By bringing back the trusted functionalities, incorporating our latest operating system and building a speedier browser, our users can feel confident they are using the best communications tool out there.”

Mixed reviews

So far, the reviews are somewhat mixed. Marketwatch.com surveyed industry analysts who, while not dwelling on the technical merits, expressed doubts the Classic, and the previous Passport, would be enough to turn around the company's fortunes.

Technical reviewers have been kinder. One reviewer says that “after more than three years tinkering with its technology, the new device is sure to surprise a lot of followers and nonfollowers.”

In its review, technology site CNET liked the keyboard but said it results in a cramped, small screen.

“If you're willing to trade screen size for a superior physical keyboard, the BlackBerry Classic is a fantastic productivity phone for old-school QWERTY junkies,” it concludes.  

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Follow the garden path in 2015

Starting a small garden can teach you a lot ... about plants and about yourself

Looking for a New Year's resolution that you can stick to all year? Why not try gardening? It can be good for not only your soul but the body that is housi...

PhotoLooking for a New Year's resolution that you can stick to all year? Why not try gardening? It can be good for not only your soul but the body that is housing that soul as well.

You want to start the new year out with something healthy and you can't get much more healthy than fruits and vegetables right from your very own garden. If you have trouble getting your kids to eat vegetables try having them help you plant some. They will definitely want to taste what they have grown.

Sprout an interest in a vegetable or fruit you don't particularly like or plant one that you have never tried.  Experimentation is part of the fun of gardening and it can be an avenue to explore with your family.

You don't have to start by transforming your backyard into a little mini farm. Start simple by establishing a container herb garden, possibly using the rosemary Christmas tree left over from the holidays. If you like peppers, then plant several pots of peppers this spring, or dedicate a small sunny area of a flower bed to growing jalapenos, green bells, and/or chile pequins. 

 If space is limited try your patio, a balcony, the fire escape, a window box or even the rooftop. You can always replant them if you find you really do have a green thumb and want to move to a place that offers you more outdoor space.

Make it fun

Go easy on yourself -- this is supposed to be fun and renew your spirit and make you feel good. Pick plants that thrive in your area. All you have to do is ask. Your garden center can tell you which plants will thrive where you live. Consider plants that are native to your area. Obviously they will do better in their native climate.

You want 2015 to be a healthy year for you and your family. You can actually plant health remedies in your garden. Peppermint tea is excellent for an upset stomach. There are many herbs and spices you can grow that will aid in anything from digestion to help with problems sleeping.

When buying plants, check the leaves to make sure they don't have any diseases. Look to see if they are yellow or have leaf distortion or root color.

Saving money is on just about everyone's mind and having a garden can run up your water bill. You can cut that expense by saving rain water in a rain barrel. They hold  to 50 gallons of water on reserve. 

If your garden doesn't produce everything the way you wanted realize It's an ebb and flow thing just like the rest of our lives and you are tackling something new. You might want to think about keeping a journal to record how things grow this year. Try a looseleaf notebook that you can add to each year. Keep track of dates you planted things and pesticides you used to see what worked and what didn't.

Incorporate your personal life in the journal as well how you felt when you planted and what was going on with your life at the time. See how you grew through the year as well as your plants. The journal can be something to to go back and review so you can see what you need to do for next year. Learn from what worked and what didn't. 

Most of all -- have fun on this journey for 2015.
 

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DaBecca Sliced Uncured Apple Smoked Bacon

The products do not contain the USDA mark of inspection

DaBecca Natural Foods of Chicago, Ill., is recalling approximately 3,450 pounds of bacon products. While produced under inspection, the products were pack...

PhotoDaBecca Natural Foods of Chicago, Ill., is recalling approximately 3,450 pounds of bacon products.

While produced under inspection, the products were packaged and shipped with labels that do not bear the USDA mark of inspection. The products were shipped to institutional distributors in California and Texas.

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

The the following products, produced on November 13, 2014, are subject to recall:

  • 15-lb. bulk case of DaBecca Sliced Uncured Apple Smoked Bacon (12 – 14 slices per lb.) with case code 114670 30814

Consumers with questions may contact Jon Pederson, director of operations at (800) 793-6207.

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Snoqualmie Gourmet recalls ice cream, gelato, custard and sorbet

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream is recalling all ice cream, gelato, custard and sorbet for all flavors and container sizes produced on or after January 1, 201...

PhotoSnoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream is recalling all ice cream, gelato, custard and sorbet for all flavors and container sizes produced on or after January 1, 2014, through December 15, 2014

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Two Listeria illnesses have been linked to the recalled products.

The products were distributed in Arizona, Idaho, California, Oregon and Washington, and may have been further distributed and sold in various retail outlets in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

The products are labeled Snoqualmie Ice Cream, Snoqualmie Gelato, Snoqualmie Custard, Snoqualmie Sorbet or Emerald & Spruce Ice Cream or Top Pot Hand Forged Ice Cream and have a production date code located on the bottom of the container.

The date codes included either end in “4”, e.g. XXX4 (pints and cups) or are listed by date: January 1, 2014 through December 15, 2014 (trays & tubs).

Customers who have purchased the recalled product should dispose of it or return it to the place of purchase for a refund.

Consumers with questions or concern may call Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream, Inc. at 213-316-8323, Monday-Friday 9:00am-4:00pm PST.

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BMG Trading recalls pork products

The product was not presented at the Canadian border for USDA reinspection

BMG Trading, of Oakville, Ontario, Canada, is recalling approximately 26,108 pounds of pork products. The product failed to present at the Canadian border...

PhotoBMG Trading, of Oakville, Ontario, Canada, is recalling approximately 26,108 pounds of pork products.

The product failed to present at the Canadian border for USDA reinspection and was distributed into U.S. commerce.

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

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 1800 lb. (approximate) combo bins containing 65 – 75 legs of “PORK LEG FLANK ON COMBO.”

The Pork Leg Flank products were produced on December 16, 2014, and bear the establishment number “394” inside the Canadian mark of inspection as well as a health certificate number listed as “CERT. No. CERT. 097400.”

The products were shipped to retail locations for further processing in Arizona.

Consumers with questions may contact Oscar Brou at (905) 847-8697

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Honda recalls Acura RLX vehicles

Output of the headlights may be diminished

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 9,751 model year 2014 Acura RLX vehicles manufactured November 22, 2012, to January 30, 2014; 2015 Acura RLX vehicles...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Co. is recalling 9,751 model year 2014 Acura RLX vehicles manufactured November 22, 2012, to January 30, 2014; 2015 Acura RLX vehicles manufactured June 4, 2014, to November 18, 2014; and 2014 Acura RLX Hybrid vehicles manufactured November 5, 2013, to July 25, 2014.

An aluminum film applied to the inner reflector of the headlight may experience adhesion issues causing the film to delaminate, which could diminish output of the headlight, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace both headlights, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin January 30, 2015.

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-310-783-2000. Honda's number for this recall is JN2.

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FCA US recalls nearly 3 million vehicles with air bag inflator issue

Excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture

FCA US, the former Chrysler Group, is recalling 2,890,785 model year 2004-2007 Dodge Ram 1500 and Durango; 2005-2007 Dodge Ram 2500, Charger Magnum, Dakota...

PhotoFCA US, the former Chrysler Group, is recalling 2,890,785 model year 2004-2007 Dodge Ram 1500 and Durango; 2005-2007 Dodge Ram 2500, Charger Magnum, Dakota, Chrysler 300, 300C, SRT8; 2006-2007 Dodge Ram 3500 and Mitsubishi Raider; and 2007 Chrysler Aspen vehicles.

Upon deployment of the driver side frontal air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture with metal fragments striking and potentially seriously injuring the vehicle occupants.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver side frontal air bag inflator, free of charge. Some of the vehicles included in this recall were addressed in an earlier recall for vehicles sold, or currently registered, in Florida, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Chrysler has not determined a date for notifying the remaining owners of vehicles included in this national recall campaign.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P81.  

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Bethel Nutritional Consulting recalls B-Lipo Capsules

The capsules contain Lorcaserin, a controlled substance used for weight loss

Bethel Nutritional Consulting is recalling 1 lot of B-Lipo Capsules. The product contains Lorcaserin, a controlled substance used for weight loss. Adverse...

PhotoBethel Nutritional Consulting is recalling 1 lot of B-Lipo Capsules.

The product contains Lorcaserin, a controlled substance used for weight loss. Adverse health consequences associated with taking Lorcaserin range from difficulty thinking, hallucinations, and feeling of intense excitement to changes in blood sugar and heart rate.

No illnesses or injuries have been reported to date in connection with this product.

B-Lipo burgundy and white capsules, which are marketed as a natural herbal supplement for weight loss, are packaged in white plastic bottles containing 30 Capsules per bottle, and labeled with Lot # 20213 EXP DATE 12/22/2016, and bar code 160126 417509.

The product was sold directly to individual customers in the company's New York City sales office and to consumers online at www.bethel30.com.

Consumers should not consume the product should return it immediately to the place of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact Kariny Ramirez by phone at (212) 568-5330 or by e-mail at customerservice@bethel30.com, Monday - Friday, 11:00 am - 4:00 pm, ET.

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Kkot Saem Sprouts recalls soybean sprouts and mungbean sprouts

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Kkot Saem Sprouts of Spanaway, Wash., is recalling Soybean Sprouts and Mungbean Sprouts sold under brand names Kkot Saem, Winter Blossom Bean Sprouts, and ...

PhotoKkot Saem Sprouts of Spanaway, Wash., is recalling Soybean Sprouts and Mungbean Sprouts sold under brand names Kkot Saem, Winter Blossom Bean Sprouts, and Winter Blossom.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

There have been no illnesses or deaths reported to date.

Soybean Sprouts and Mungbean Sprouts were distributed at H-Mart in Washington and Oregon, and G-Mart in Oregon; the last date of distribution was on December 16, 2014.

The mungbean sprouts product has a 5-day shelf life from the packing date and soybean sprouts product has a shelf life of up to 2 weeks from the packing date.

RECALLED PRODUCTBrandNET WT.PACKAGE TYPEUPC
Soybean SproutsWinter Blossom Bean Sprouts1.5 lbs.Plastic bag, multi-colored with orange stripe on top, lower middle portion and at bottom. Orange & black English and Korean letters on white background on front of bag.0 94922 55330 0
Soybean Sproutsun-labeled5 lbs.Clear plastic bag with no labelNone
Mungbean SproutsKkot Saem Winter Blossom Bean Sprouts0.8 lbClear plastic bag with blue letters on white background.  English and Korean letters on front of bag.1 80036 83737 2
Mungbean SproutsKkot Saem2 lbs.Clear plastic bag with no label0 94922 55334 8
Mungbean SproutsKkot Saem5 lbs.Clear plastic bag with no labelNone
Mungbean SproutsWinter Blossom Bean Sprouts10 lbs.Orange and blue labeling in Korean and English on white background.0 94922 55331 7

Consumers who purchased the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase or discard them.

Consumers with questions may call Kkot Saem Sprouts at 253-226-7569, Monday - Friday, 8 am - 5 pm PST.

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Hyundai recalls 1.6 liter Sonatas

The vehicles may have been assembled with an incorrect left axle shaft

Hyundai Motor America is recalling208 1.6 liter model year 2015 Sonata vehicles manufactured August 29, 2014, to October 28, 2014. The vehicles may have ...

PhotoHyundai Motor America is recalling 208 1.6 liter model year 2015 Sonata vehicles manufactured August 29, 2014, to October 28, 2014.

The vehicles may have been assembled with an incorrect left axle shaft which may result in the shaft separating from the transaxle differential. If the left axle shaft separates from the transaxle, the vehicle may stop moving, increasing the risk of a crash.

Additionally, a separated axle shaft may allow the vehicle to roll away as the driver and other occupants exit the vehicle or anytime thereafter. A vehicle rollaway increases the risk of injury to exiting occupants and bystanders.

Hyundai will notify owners, dealers will inspect and replace the axle shaft, as necessary, free of charge.

Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's number for this recall is 126.

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Consumers cutting back on dessert purchases

But researchers find nutritional content of these products hasn't changed much

People tend to load up on empty calories at this time of year but perhaps this year we won't hit the cakes, pies, cookies and chocolate covered donuts quit...

PhotoPeople tend to load up on empty calories at this time of year but perhaps this year we won't hit the cakes, pies, cookies and chocolate covered donuts quite as hard. At least, the recent trend suggests we won't.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina monitored consumers' purchases of these products – known as ready-to-eat grain-based desserts (RTE GBDs). The study appears in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

They found that between 2005 and 2012 consumer purchases of RTE GBDs, which are high in calories and low in nutrition, fell by 24%. That's the good news.

The bad news – at a time when the food industry has made some progress is producing healthier types of food, the improvements really haven't extended to RTE GBDs. These types of products contribute a significant amount of energy, sugar, and saturated fat to Americans’ diets, so making them healthier could be a way to reduce the number of empty calories in the American diet.

Same nutritional content

While Americans are buying fewer of these cookies and pastries, the products that are being sold and consumed still have much the same nutritional content they have always had.

“The results of this study indicated that larger wide-scale efforts are needed among public health officials and all manufacturers of RTE GBDs to shift consumer purchases towards products with lower energy, sugar, and saturated fat content,” said the study's lead author, Dr. Kevin C. Mathias.

When companies do make their dessert and pastry products healthier they don't usually make a big deal about it, not wanting to call attention to the nutritional makeup of the previous version. But Mathias says if consumers were informed about the changes, they might be willing to resume buying the products, leading to an increase in sales.

Mathias says these potential issues highlight the need for continual monitoring of both the amount and nutritional content to ensure that efforts to improve consumer choices are effective.

Challenge for manufacturers

Manufacturers face many challenges when they set out to reformulate existing RTE GBDs to provide healthier food choices. They have to replicate the taste, appearance, and texture of the old products while keeping costs under control. That may be why the researchers say efforts so far haven't been all that impressive.

“The results from this analysis show that the new RTE GBD products released in 2012 did not have lower energy, sugar, or saturated fat densities than the products already existing on the market,” Mathias said.

On the public health sector side there is also room for improvement. Development of new front-of-package labeling systems that shift consumer purchases towards products with lower energy, sugar, and saturated fat content is another opportunity to help consumers improve their dietary intake.

Since obese consumers likely get a lot of their empty calories from RTE GBDs, the Carolina researchers says improving the nutritional content of these products could pay off in healthier consumers.

”The results from the product and purchase level analyses highlight an opportunity for both food manufacturers and public health officials to work together to develop strategies to shift consumer purchases towards products with lower energy, sugar, and saturated fat densities in addition to decreasing overall purchases of RTE GBDs," Mathias said.

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Giving your dog a pill doesn't have to be an ordeal

Camouflage can work but it's important not to be stressed out

Giving your dog a pill, can actually be a pill for you. Dogs aren't any better than kids when it's time to take meds, but there are some ways to make givin...

PhotoGiving your dog a pill, can actually be a pill for you. Dogs aren't any better than kids when it's time to take meds, but there are some ways to make giving a pill a little easier to swallow, both for you and your dog.

Many times vets have the chewable meds as opposed to capsule form. They taste better and dogs think they are a treat. That would be the ideal situation for both of you. You can also ask your vet if there is an injectable form. That's something the vet will have to do but many times it is a stronger dose and it's just one trip to the vet as opposed to many pill episodes.

If that isn't possible there is always the "fake out" method. You take the pill and hide it in the food. If you just feed dry dog food that pill will stick out like a sore thumb so add something wet to it. You can use a little canned dog food or put it in some cheese. Ask your vet if it is ok to crush it up and mix it directly with food. Depending on the medicine, this might not be a good option.

Great disguise

The great disguise can sometimes work. It's a little bit of a distraction. You get something the dog really likes, perhaps soft dog treats. You can use chunks of hot dogs, cheese, even bread that is soft, or pill pockets for dogs -- yes, they make treats that you can actually stick pills in.

My dogs eat the treats and leave the pills behind. Which can be frustrating to say the least. But the key is to disguise these with as much food surrounding the pill as possible. First give a few treats without the pill, then insert the pill inside the treat and see if they go for it. As soon as he has the one with the pill follow up fast with a plain treat.

You can try the "catch me if you can" method. If you normally toss treats to your dog, try slipping a pill in one of the treats, then throw it to your dog. 

This last idea will work and it just might be more stressful to both of you, but it is only for a couple of seconds so it is not the end of the world and just as with kids you know it is for their health. They have to take it and you need to do it.  

Hold the pill in the fingers of one hand. Place that hand on your dog’s lower jaw and the other hand on his upper jaw. Lift his head up toward the ceiling. Open your dog’s mouth and twist your hand around so you can insert the pill. Place the pill to the side of your dog’s tongue as far back as you can reach, and then quickly withdraw your hand as you close your dog’s jaws. Continue to hold your dog’s jaws closed with one hand while keeping his nose pointed up at the ceiling, and gently stroke his throat downward with the other to encourage him to swallow.

This does work and, seriously, it is only for a few seconds. Have a treat ready right after it and praise your dog telling him how good he is. Just keep your eye on your dog to make sure the pill really went down.

Don't be stressed


Try not to be stressed when you do administer a pill. Dogs can read body language and pick up on when you feel tense. If they feel your stress about this it will make them feel uneasy so try to act natural.

One thing you might want to do is to be proactive -- just start practicing in case you do need to give a pill. Teach your dog in advance that whenever you open his mouth and put something in, it’s almost always a tasty treat.

Eventually, your dog will look forward to your putting things into his mouth and he will trust that it always tastes good and it's a reward.
 

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How to turn up the heat on your energy bill

Keeping it cooler inside saves fuel and burns more calories

Let's face it -- it's one thing to freeze your bottom off outside but in your home you want to be toasty and warm. That toasty feeling can put a damper on ...

PhotoLet's face it -- it's one thing to freeze your bottom off outside but in your home you want to be toasty and warm. That toasty feeling can put a damper on your bank account.

Lets see if we can help take the heat off your bank account during these winter months.

If you are going to invest in anything you might want to think about some extra blankets. Keeping the thermostat at 62 at night with a few extra blankets will give you that toasty cozy feeling you are after and also help lower your bill.

By turning your thermostat back 10 to 15 degrees for 8 hours, you can save 5% to 15% a year on your heating bill -- a savings of as much as 1% for each degree if the setback period is 8 hours long. The key is to keep it at the same temperature for an extended period of time -- 8 hours should do the trick.

A common misconception associated with thermostats is that a furnace works harder than normal to warm the space back to a comfortable temperature after the thermostat has been set back, resulting in little or no savings. In fact, as soon as your house drops below its normal temperature, it will lose energy to the surrounding environment more slowly.

The lower the interior temperature, the slower the heat loss. So the longer your house remains at the lower temperature, the more energy you save, because your house has lost less energy than it would have at the higher temperature. 

Add moisture

If you have ever had a baby that needed a humidifier you might remember how warm the room got when you used it. Well why not fire one up to help keep you warm? By using a humidifier you will be adding moisture to your home.

Winter air is cold and dry, that translates to heat escaping more rapidly. Warm, moist air will trap the heat in your home. Can't afford a humidifier? No problem, get some plants. They will actually do the same thing. Once you water them, it will create a condensation effect. The goal is to keep the air moist.

Thermostat placement is important. Be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions so you don't get false readings. If your thermostat is by a window or door where you get lots of sun your reading may be off. It should be located where natural room air currents –- warm air rising, cool air sinking -– occur. Furniture will block natural air movement, so do not place pieces in front of or below your thermostat. 

If you are leaving town, drop your thermostat to 55 degrees. Since you aren't in your home there is no reason to heat it up. You just want to make sure your pipes don't freeze.

If these lower temps are hard to swallow, add this little fact to your brain. When the temperature drops, your personal energy expenditure increases, so you burn more calories (roughly 100 more a day). Over a period of several weeks, that increased energy can translate into an extra 3,500 calories burned, which means one lost pound. You might not even need to spend money on a gym membership -- just one of many savings from lowering your thermostat.
 

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Girls are finally helping build the toy industry

Girls like to build things too, even if they give them different colors

What do Hewlett Packard, IBM and General Motors have in common? All are being run by female CEO's. It's really nothing new anymore, females are leaders in ...

PhotoWhat do Hewlett Packard, IBM and General Motors have in common? All are being run by female CEO's. It's really nothing new anymore, females are leaders in many different businesses and occupations. One place, believe it or not that, needed to catch up with the world was the toy industry.

Toy companies have finally gotten the message -- girls like to build things and are interested in things mechanical even if they have a math component to them.

Parents are demanding that toys their girls play with have some component of math and science. It has been reflected in what girls seem to want to play with. Construction toys have been a hot ticket item for girls, and are becoming a bright spot in the $22 billion industry, which has seen other categories go by the wayside like Barbie dolls. Barbie is still popular but not as popular as it once was.

Mattel Inc. recently purchased Mega Brands, which is known for its bright colored construction sets. Lego has updated its classic building kits with a splash of purple and themes  that girls might find interesting like a pet salon and beauty shop.  New toy companies are designing girl-friendly toys that have that math and science components.

Color scheme

What toy manufacturers are learning is that girls like to build skyrockets and ships just as much as boys do but the color scheme might be what has been missing. 

Michael McNally, senior director of brand relations for Lego Systems said Lego devoted four years to researching the female market. They found girls didn't demand their toys as much as boys did. In 2012 they introduced their Friends line which was targeted to females.

The sets have a bright colors that include lots of purple, and come with more human-like figures.“It changed the perception that Lego is for boys,” McNally said. “It’s been a gateway for girls.”

The introduction of the Friends line was a game-changer for Lego. Before the Friends line was launched only about 10% of Lego sets were bought for girls. Within 8 months after the line was introduced it grew to 25%.

Why are girls wanting to build more now? The reason could be the change in family structure. More dads are at home and partaking in childcare. Parents are also more open to gender equality and if a boy wants to paint his toenails, they are more open to the experimentation of it. The same goes for females that might want to get a Builder Bob toy as opposed to a Dress-Up Barbie.

“Parents are telling kids it’s OK to be different,” said analyst Michael Swartz, research analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. Swartz explained that  Hasbro has introduced an Easy Bake Oven with a color scheme more appealing to boys.

Goldieblox  was one of the most talked about toy startups this holiday season and was founded by Debbie Sterling a woman with an engineering degree from Stanford. Goldieblox  is just one of the lines that encourages the STEM philosophy (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) trend that's become very popular in the toy industry.

Goldieblox is a pastel-colored construction set that comes with a book featuring the adventures of Goldie, a girl inventor. Sterling was motivated to create a construction toy for girls after she was in school and saw there weren't many women who were majoring in engineering.

Although Goldieblox has a female CEO the toy world is not very well represented when it comes to women being the leaders. Lego's senior management is made up of 22 men and two women. Mattel, the maker of Barbie, doesn't look all that different, with 11 men and one woman at the top. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, the CEO of a consulting firm focused on gender diversity, has a theory -- she thinks that toy companies need more women at the top. 

Will having more women at the top change the way girls play? Will women create more toys for girls? It might, as Springer seems to have tapped into what little girls find appealing. Hasbro has a male CEO and it has made boy toys and girl toys as well as gender neutral toys.

What Hasbro has  succeeded at most, at least from a marketing perspective, is its openness to discussion and goals to appeal to girls even with Nerf guns. Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner, who has a daughter, told BusinessWeek that the company tries to understand how girls play to create toys they'll buy. Hasbro says revenue from its girls division rose 26 percent in 2013, topping $1 billion for the first time and more than tripling its $300 million in 2003 sales.

Mattel ought to take note -- Construction Barbie could be the next big thing!

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E-readers may not make good bedtime reading

Not if you want to get a good night's sleep

If you are in the habit of curling up in bed with a good book before dropping off to sleep, you might consider sticking with old fashioned books and not a ...

PhotoIf you are in the habit of curling up in bed with a good book before dropping off to sleep, you might consider sticking with old fashioned books and not a tablet or e-reader.

There's new evidence that exposure to the e-reader's lighted screen may interfere with your circadian clock, interfering with your sleep.

"Electronic devices emit light that is short-wavelength-enriched light, which has a higher concentration of blue light -- with a peak around 450 nm -- than natural light," said Anne-Marie Chang, assistant professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. "This is different from natural light in composition, having a greater impact on sleep and circadian rhythms."

iPad vs. book

Chang and her colleagues base their conclusion on two week observations of 12 adults. Participants read each night before going to bed, sometimes from an iPad and sometimes a printed book. The researchers monitored the participants' melatonin levels, sleep and next-morning alertness, as well as other sleep-related measures.

They found that their subjects took nearly 10 minutes longer to fall asleep and had a significantly lower amount of REM -- rapid eye movement -- sleep after reading from the iPad than they did after reading from a printed book,

Surprise

"Our most surprising finding was that individuals using the e-reader would be more tired and take longer to become alert the next morning," said Chang. "This has real consequences for daytime functioning, and these effects might be worse in the real world as opposed to the controlled environment we used."

And it wasn't just an iPad that interfered with shut-eye. The experiment measured the amount of brightness coming from several devices, including an iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Kindle Fire and Nook Color.

The Kindle e-reader does not give off light, while the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook Color emit similar amounts of light. However, the iPad is the brightest of the devices measured.

The study lasted 14 days and was conducted in a hospital setting. Each of the subjects read from an iPad before bedtime 5 consecutive nights, then switched to a printed book for five straight nights. Hourly blood samples measured melatonin levels.

Sleep-restricted society

"We live in a sleep-restricted society, in general," said Chang. "It is important to further study the effects of using light-emitting devices, especially before bed, as they may have longer term health consequences than we previously considered."

In a poll released earlier this month the National Sleep Foundation discovered that 45% of Americans said poor or insufficient sleep affected their daily activities at least once in the past seven days.

Despite sleeping within the recommended number of hours a night, 35% of Americans report their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair.” Twenty percent of Americans reported that they did not wake up feeling refreshed on any of the past seven days.

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Feds challenge wart-removal and weight-loss supplement promoters

There's no evidence the products work, the FTC alleged

You can't believe everything you read about wart removal and weight loss, the Federal Trade Commission cautions. Case in point: claims made by DermaTend an...

PhotoYou can't believe everything you read about wart removal and weight loss, the Federal Trade Commission cautions. Case in point: claims made by DermaTend and Lipidryl. The FTC says the claims were unsubstantiated and deceptive.

The agency challenged ads for DermaTend, a skin cream that was promoted for do-it-yourself removal of moles, skin tags, and warts, as well as Lipidryl, a supplement promoted for weight loss. In another case, the agency challenged claims for Photodynamic Therapy anti-aging lotions, as well Shrinking Beauty, a supposed body-slimming lotion.

The FTC settlements in both cases prohibit the defendants from misleading consumers about whether their products actually work and about whether their claims are backed by scientific evidence. In addition, the marketers of DermaTend and Lipidryl are required to disclose when people promoting the products are paid for their endorsement.

“These companies made outrageous claims that their products could provide a range of benefits – from removing warts to decreasing the appearance of cellulite to providing substantial weight loss,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The common thread for all of these claims was the fundamental lack of scientific evidence. Consumers deserve better.”

DermaTend and Lipidryl

PhotoAaron Lilly, a Nevada-based marketer, owns and operates both Solace International, Inc. and Bioscience Research Institute LLC, which sell DermaTend and Lipidryl, respectively. DermaTend was advertised in SkyMall (both the magazine and website), as well as on Amazon.com and eBay, and through Google AdWords. It was also sold on company-owned websites and marketed through affiliates.

A 1.7 ounce container of the “Original” formula sells for $39.95, while a 3.4 ounce container of “Ultra” sells for $69.95. Consumers who bought DermaTend also received an emery board and instructions directing consumers to file down their mole, skin tag, or wart with the emery board before applying the product.

Bioscience, Lilly’s other company, charged $129.99 for a three-month supply of Lipidryl, which contains African mango seed extract. The FTC complaint charges that ads for Lipidryl falsely claimed that the supplement was clinically proven to cause substantial weight loss (such as 28 pounds in 10 weeks) and reduce users’ waistlines.

The order prohibits the defendants from making a number of specific unsubstantiated representations; requires disclosure if endorsers are provided with compensation; and requires monitoring of affiliate marketers. The order also requires the defendants to pay $402,338 and to provide the Commission with the proceeds from the sale of four homes in Texas.

DERMAdoctor, Inc.

PhotoAccording to the FTC’s complaint, DERMADoctor, Inc. and its majority owner, Audrey Kunin, M.D., violated the FTC Act by making deceptive claims about their anti-aging products and a body-slimming lotion. DERMAdoctor is based in Missouri and marketed Photodynamic Therapy Liquid Red Light Anti-Aging Lotion and Photodynamic Therapy Liquid Red Light Eye Lift Lotion, as well Shrinking Beauty, a “firming, sculpting & toning lotion with lobster weight loss inspired technology.”

The complaint states that since October 2010, the defendants have marketed and sold Photodynamic Therapy lotion with extract of the noni fruit, which was promoted as able to capture UV light and transform it into visible red light that has purported anti-aging effects on the skin. The defendants charged $85 for a one-ounce bottle of the face lotion. DERMAdoctor products are sold in retailers such as Nordstrom, Sephora, and Ulta, and according to the FTC, Photodynamic Therapy was advertised on QVC, the DERMAdoctor website, and in women’s magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Shape.

Since December 2012, the defendants also have marketed and sold Shrinking Beauty, with a retail price of $58 for a 5.5-ounce tube. Through ads in magazines such as Health and on the DERMAdoctor website, the defendants claimed the product would improve the appearance of cellulite, smooth and tighten skin, and that the results were “clinically proven to reduce measurements up to one inch in two weeks.”

The proposed settlement order with DERMAdoctor requires that the defendants have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support future anti-aging and cellulite-reduction claims, as well as at least two randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical studies to support claims relating to weight loss or reduction of body size. It also prohibits them from misrepresenting the existence or results of any scientific test, study or research. The order requires payment of $12,675.

 

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Feds say data broker sold consumers' identity to scammers

LeapLab bought payday loan applications, then sold the info, FTC charges

The Federal Trade Commission charges that a data broker, LeapLab, sold the sensitive personal information of hundreds of thousands of consumers – including...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission charges that a data broker, LeapLab, sold the sensitive personal information of hundreds of thousands of consumers – including Social Security and bank account numbers – to scammers who allegedly debited millions from their accounts.

According to the FTC’s complaint, filed yesterday, LeapLab bought payday loan applications of financially strapped consumers, and then sold that information to marketers who it knew had no legitimate need for it. At least one of those marketers, Ideal Financial Solutions – a defendant in another FTC case – allegedly used the information to withdraw millions of dollars from consumers’ accounts without their authorization.  

“This case shows that the illegitimate use of sensitive financial information causes real harm to consumers,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Defendants like those in this case harm consumers twice: first by facilitating the theft of their money and second by undermining consumers’ confidence about providing their personal information to legitimate lenders.”

Payday loan websites

The defendants collected hundreds of thousands of payday loan applications from payday loan websites known as publishers. Publishers typically offer to help consumers obtain payday loans. To do so, they ask for consumers’ sensitive financial information to evaluate their loan applications and transfer funds to their bank accounts if the loan is approved. 

These applications, including those bought and sold by LeapLab, contained the consumer’s name, address, phone number, employer, Social Security number, and bank account number, including the bank routing number.

The defendants sold approximately five percent of these loan applications to online lenders, who paid them between $10 and $150 per lead. According to the FTC’s complaint however, the defendants sold the remaining 95 percent for approximately $0.50 each to third parties who were not online lenders and had no legitimate need for this financial information.

The Commission’s complaint alleges that these non-lender third parties included: marketers that made unsolicited sales offers to consumers via email, text message, or telephone call; data brokers that aggregated and then resold consumer information; and phony internet merchants like Ideal Financial Solutions.

In the FTC’s case against Ideal Financial Solutions, the commission charges that between 2009 and 2013, Ideal Financial allegedly purchased information on at least 2.2 million consumers from data brokers and used it to make millions of dollars in unauthorized debits and charges for purported financial products that the consumers never purchased.

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A pre-Christmas rise in mortgage applications

Initial jobless claims continue to fall

Mortgage applications rebounded from the previous week's decline, rising 0.9% in the week ending December 19. According to the Mortgage Bankers Associatio...

Photo
© emiliezhang – Fotolia.com

Mortgage applications rebounded from the previous week's decline, rising 0.9% in the week ending December 19.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, the Refinance Index was up 1%, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 67% of total applications from 66% the week before.

Additionally, the adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity rose to 6.5% of total applications, the FHA share slipped to 8.6% from 8.7% and the VA share dropped to 10.3% from 10.6%. The USDA share of total applications 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) dipped 4 basis points -- from 4.06% to 4.02%, the lowest level since May 2013 -- with points increasing to 0.26 from 0.21 (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) rose to 4.07% from 3.99%, with points falling to 0.23 from 0.28 (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 fell 5 basis points to 3.81%, with points rising to 0.00 from -0.04 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages slipped to 3.29% from 3.33%, with points increasing to 0.29 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 shot to 3.10% from 3.00%, with points falling to 0.31 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.

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Initial claims

The decline in the number of people applying for state jobless benefits for the first time continues.

The Labor Department (DOL) reports initial claims were down 9,000 in the week ending December 20, to a seasonally adjusted total of 280,000. DOL says there were no special factors affecting the claims total.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a better gauge of the labor market, fell by 8,500 -- to 290,250.

Economists generally consider levels below 300,000 indicative of an economy at, or near, full employment.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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The latest wedding accessory: exotic animals

Want to ride down the aisle on an elephant? It will cost you dearly

It used to be the bride in white and the groom in a tux, a pretty punch bowl, a little rice, and you had a decent wedding. But weddings have gotten a littl...

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Bribery -- a quick fix for parents but a long-term problem for kids

Too much emphasis on rewards can make children materialistic

Those gifts under the tree can be leverage to get the most from your children in terms of good behavior this time of year. A new study, however, urges pare...

PhotoThose gifts under the tree can be leverage to get the most from your children in terms of good behavior this time of year. A new study, however, urges parents to avoid this temptation. You may be doing more harm then good.

It's a quick fix for you as a parent to get what you need, which is cooperation or chores done, but it may be harming your child in the long run.

A study was done at the University of Missouri. They gathered 700 adults and asked them  questions about their childhood circumstances,their relationships with parents and what types of punishments they received.

What the researchers concluded is that three  types of parenting strategies lead to increased materialism:

1) Using gifts as a reward when children have accomplished something, such as good grades or making a team;
2) Giving gifts as a way of showing affection; and
3) Taking away gifts or favourite toys as a way to punish children.

What's so bad?

What's so bad about materialism? Empires are built on people who have a keen focus on making money. Marsha Richins, one of the researchers who is a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri, explains why this is damaging:

“Our research suggests that children who receive many material rewards from their parents will likely continue rewarding themselves with material goods when they are grown – well into adulthood – and this could be problematic.”

Kids who are raised like this develop the attitude as "the one with the most toys wins." I am sure you have seen the bumper sticker. What happens is they end up thinking that success in life is defined by the quality and number of material goods acquired, and that acquiring material objects will make them more attractive. 

There is an increased risk for adults who have this belief system to have a higher risk of marital problems, to have addictions like gambling and to run into financial issues. All of this translates into poor self-esteem. 

Earlier studies

This recent study coincides with other research that was collected. A long-term study was published in the November 2003 issue of Psychological Science  it linked data that was collected 19 years apart on 12,000 people who had attended elite colleges and universities in the 1970s -- one drawn in 1976 when they were freshmen, the other in 1995.

On average, those who had initially expressed stronger financial aspirations reported lower life satisfaction two decades later than those expressing lower monetary desires. But as the income of the higher-aspiration participants rose, so did their reported life satisfaction, the team found.

Then there's price you pay for learning to be grateful. A 2003 study at the University of California at Davis showed that grateful people report higher levels of happiness and optimism -- along with lower levels of depression and stress. To keep your children emotionally healthy give them the gift of teaching them to be grateful. Their most important teacher will be you. 

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Kkot Saem Sprouts recalls soybean sprouts and mungbean sprouts

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Kkot Saem Sprouts of Spanaway, Wash., is recalling Soybean Sprouts and Mungbean Sprouts sold under brand names Kkot Saem, Winter Blossom Bean Sprouts, and ...

PhotoKkot Saem Sprouts of Spanaway, Wash., is recalling Soybean Sprouts and Mungbean Sprouts sold under brand names Kkot Saem, Winter Blossom Bean Sprouts, and Winter Blossom.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

There have been no illnesses or deaths reported to date.

Soybean Sprouts and Mungbean Sprouts were distributed at H-Mart in Washington and Oregon, and G-Mart in Oregon; the last date of distribution was on December 16, 2014.

The mungbean sprouts product has a 5-day shelf life from the packing date and soybean sprouts product has a shelf life of up to 2 weeks from the packing date.

RECALLED PRODUCTBrandNET WT.PACKAGE TYPEUPC
Soybean SproutsWinter Blossom Bean Sprouts1.5 lbs.Plastic bag, multi-colored with orange stripe on top, lower middle portion and at bottom. Orange & black English and Korean letters on white background on front of bag.0 94922 55330 0
Soybean Sproutsun-labeled5 lbs.Clear plastic bag with no labelNone
Mungbean SproutsKkot Saem Winter Blossom Bean Sprouts0.8 lbClear plastic bag with blue letters on white background.  English and Korean letters on front of bag.1 80036 83737 2
Mungbean SproutsKkot Saem2 lbs.Clear plastic bag with no label0 94922 55334 8
Mungbean SproutsKkot Saem5 lbs.Clear plastic bag with no labelNone
Mungbean SproutsWinter Blossom Bean Sprouts10 lbs.Orange and blue labeling in Korean and English on white background.0 94922 55331 7

Consumers who purchased the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase or discard them.

Consumers with questions may call Kkot Saem Sprouts at 253-226-7569, Monday - Friday, 8 am - 5 pm PST.

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Peanut Butter and Cranberry Crunch nutrition bars recalled

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Perfect Bar is issuing a nationwide recall of specific lot numbers of its Peanut Butter and Cranberry Crunch flavor recipes The products may be contaminat...

PhotoPerfect Bar is issuing a nationwide recall of specific lot numbers of its Peanut Butter and Cranberry Crunch flavor recipes

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses to date have been associated with any of the recalled products to date.

The recalled products, which reached the distributor, retail and end user level, have packaging and/or wrappers with the expiration date and lot codes listed below:

BRANDFLAVORSIZEUPC CODEEXP DATELOT CODE
Perfect BarPeanut Butter2.5 oz8-55569-00302-909-02-1502814
Perfect BarCranberry Crunch1.6 oz8-55569-00305-009-02-1502814
Perfect BarVariety Pack (Costco)1 lb 9.6 oz8-55569-00313-509-02-15
09-01-15
08-24-15
02814V
02914V
03714V

Consumers who have any recalled products should dispose of them immediately.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 866-628-8548, extension 3, Monday through Saturday, 8:00AM – 5:00PM PST.

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Katadyn North American Foods recalls spicy sausage products

The product contains pork, which is not listed on the label

Katadyn North American Foods of Rocklin, Calif., is recalling approximately 2,719 pounds of spicy sausage products produced on various dates from June 14 –...

PhotoKatadyn North American Foods of Rocklin, Calif., is recalling approximately 2,719 pounds of spicy sausage products produced on various dates from June 14 – November 13, 2014.

The label indicates that the product contains beef, but is actually formulated with pork sausage, which is not indicated on the label.

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

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 5 -oz. foil laminated pouches containing “ALPINEAIRE SPICY SAUSAGE PASTA.”

The products bear the establishment number “EST. 8132” inside the USDA mark of inspection and were shipped to retail locations nationwide.

The problem was discovered by FSIS inspection personnel during a label review. The label indicates that the product contains beef, but is actually formulated with pork sausage. Pork is not indicated on the label.

Consumers with questions may contact Tim Pratt, general manager, at (800) 322-6325 x-15.

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Real Foods recalls Tofu Pad Thai Bowl and Thai Noodle Salad

The products contain shellfish, an allergen not listed on the label

Real Foods of Kent, Wash., is recalling 299 units of Tofu Pad Thai Bowl and 178 units of Thai Noodle Salad. The products contain shellfish (shrimp), an al...

PhotoReal Foods of Kent, Wash., is recalling 299 units of Tofu Pad Thai Bowl and 178 units of Thai Noodle Salad.

The products contain shellfish (shrimp), an allergen not declared on the product label.

No adverse reactions or illnesses have been attributed to the recalled item.

The products subject to the recall are:

STOREITEM DESCRIPTIONUPC NUMBERBEST BY
Fred Meyer13.5 oz. rigid plastic container of Tofu Pad Thai Bowl0 30223 00914 612/23/14
12/24/14
Quality Food Centers13.5 oz. rigid plastic container of Tofu Pad Thai Bowl0 30223 00914 612/23/14
12/24/14
12/25/14
Haggen/Top Foods8.5 oz. rigid plastic 
container of Thai Noodle Salad with Thai Peanut Salad
0 45009 10116 712/18/14
12/19/14
12/20/14
12/21/14
12/22/14
12/23/14

Two units were produced on 12/18/14 with a best by of 12/23/14, and 2 were produced on 12/19/14 with a best by of 12/24/14. The 4 units were shipped to one Fred Meyer store in Kent, Wash.

A total of 295 units were produced on 12/18/14, 12/19/14 and 12/20/14 and shipped to Quality Food Centers stores in the following cities:

Belfair, Wash; Tacoma, Wash; Port Townsend, Wash; Lacey, Wash; Portland, Ore; Vancouver, Wash; Kent, Wash; Seattle, Wash; Mercer Island, Wash; Bellevue, Wash; Kirkland, Wash; Bothell, Wash; Redmond, Wash; Issaquah, Wash; North Bend, Wash; Mukilteo, Wash; Bothell, Wash; Lynnwood, Wash; Sequim, Wash; Edmonds, Wash; Everett, Wash; Mill Creek, Wash; Mt. Lake Terrace, Wash; Enumclaw, Wash; Renton, Wash; Stanwood, Wash; Maple Valley, Wash; Gig Harbor, Wash; and Pt. Hadlock, Wash.

There were a total of 178 units produced on 12/14/14 through 12/19/14 and were shipped to a limited number of Haggen/Top Foods stores in Washington State and Oregon only.

This product was distributed and sold to Haggen/Top Foods stores in the following cities:

Olympia, Wash; Bellingham, Wash; Burlington, Wash; Stanwood, Wash; Snohomish, Wash; Ferndale, Wash; Mt. Vernon, Wash; Lake Stevens, Wash; Marysville, Wash; Auburn, Wash; Puyallup, Wash; Woodinville, Wash; Aberdeen, Wash and Tualatin, Ore.

No other products or code dates are affected by this recall.

Customers who purchased this product and are sensitive to shellfish (shrimp) products or have shellfish (shrimp) allergies should not consume the above-mentioned product. It may be returned to the store where purchased for a full refund.

Consumers may call Bill Tarazawich at 214-354-1662 for any further information Monday to Friday, between the hours of 8am-5pm (PST).

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Honda recalls Crosstour vehicles

The inflator tube for the side curtain air bag may have been manufactured incorrectly

American Honda Motor Company is recalling 1,252 model year 2015 Crosstour 4 Cylinder vehicles manufactured October 1, 2014, to November 4, 2014; Crossto...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Company is recalling 1,252 model year 2015 Crosstour 4 Cylinder vehicles manufactured October 1, 2014, to November 4, 2014; Crosstour V6 2WD vehicles manufactured September 30, 2014, to November 13, 2014; and Crosstour V6 4WD vehicles manufactured September 30, 2014, to November 18, 2014.

The inflator tube for the side curtain air bag may have been manufactured incorrectly. If the side curtain air bag does not inflate properly, it can affect the performance of the air bag in the event of a vehicle crash, increasing the risk of occupant injury.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the left and/or right side curtain air bags, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin January 9, 2015.

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-310-783-2000. Honda's number for this recall is JN0, JN1, and JN3.

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UCLA researchers excited by Alzheimer's findings

Latest study suggests memory restoration possible in early stages of the disease

The twin tragedies of Alzheimer's disease are that it is always fatal and, before the patient dies, they lose all memory function....

PhotoThe twin tragedies of Alzheimer's disease are that it is always fatal and, before the patient dies, they lose all memory function.

Researchers at UCLA are convinced they are on the cusp of a breakthrough in which memory loss can not only be slowed but lost memories restored in patients in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

We reported in October on a small study conducted jointly by the UCLA Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. It was the first to suggest that memory loss in patients may be reversed, and that improvement can be lasting. Since then there has been nothing to temper that optimism.

The latest research focuses on where memories are actually stored in the brain. The assumption has always been that these memories are stored at the synapses -- the connections between brain cells, or neurons -- which are destroyed by Alzheimer's disease. The latest research provides evidence contradicting that assumption.

Radical idea

"Long-term memory is not stored at the synapse," said David Glanzman, a senior author of the study, and a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology and of neurobiology. "That's a radical idea, but that's where the evidence leads. The nervous system appears to be able to regenerate lost synaptic connections. If you can restore the synaptic connections, the memory will come back. It won't be easy, but I believe it's possible."

The UCLA team came to this conclusion, oddly enough, by studying snails. From that study the scientists conclude that the body may be able to grow new synaptic connections. It all has to do with protein substances created in the body naturally and which are tied to memory formation.

As long-term memories are formed, the brain creates new proteins that are involved in making new synapses. If something happens to disrupt this process – for example by a concussion or other injury -- the proteins may not be synthesized and long-term memories cannot form. This is why people cannot remember what happened moments before a concussion.

Role of proteins

"If you train an animal on a task, inhibit its ability to produce proteins immediately after training, and then test it 24 hours later, the animal doesn't remember the training," Glanzman said. "However, if you train an animal, wait 24 hours, and then inject a protein synthesis inhibitor in its brain, the animal shows perfectly good memory 24 hours later.”

In other words, once memories are formed, if you temporarily disrupt protein synthesis, it doesn't affect long-term memory. Glanzman says that's true for the brains of both snails and humans and explains why people's older memories usually survive a concussion.

Stored in neurons?

But what does this have to do with Alzheimer's disease? Glanzman says he believes his team has shown that memories are not stored in synapses but elsewhere in the brain – most likely in neurons. So when damaged synapses are restored, there would be restored access to those memories.

Glanzman said the research could have significant implications for people with early-stage Alzheimer's disease. Specifically, just because the disease is known to destroy synapses in the brain doesn't mean that memories are destroyed.

"As long as the neurons are still alive, the memory will still be there, which means you may be able to recover some of the lost memories in the early stages of Alzheimer's," he said.

But in advanced stages of Alzheimer's neurons die. If Glanzman is correct that memories reside in neurons, that likely means the memories cannot be restored once the neurons are destroyed.

There is a new urgency to Alzheimer's research since the large Baby Boom population is entering the period of highest risk. While Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging the Alzheimer's Association says people age 65 and older are at the highest risk.

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Emergency gifts for last-minute procrastinators: make-your-own tin or basket combos

This late in the holiday season, most stores have sold out of "good stuff." You must improvise

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and the last day of Hanukkah, so if you're still looking for this-year's holiday gift ideas … yeah, you already wish you'd done t...

PhotoTomorrow is Christmas Eve and the last day of Hanukkah, so if you're still looking for this-year's holiday gift ideas … yeah, you already wish you'd done this sooner, you know putting things off until the last minute is a bad idea, and you resolve to do better next year. Lesson learned.

Meanwhile, you still need a gift to give this year and it's too late to order anything online or through the mail, which means you're limited to what's available in the brick-and-mortar stores nearest you … and by now all the good stuff's probably gone.

If you can't find anything to buy except cheap, uninspiring (and usually non-gift-worthy) items, remember the cynical old saying: quantity has a quality all its own. Take candy, for instance: a single ordinary candy bar isn't an appropriate holiday gift, but a variety of different candy bars in a decorative container might be, if you do it right.

Candy is one possibility, but of course there's plenty of other themes you can use to put together a “gift basket,” “gift tin” or something similar.

First you need the actual basket or tin – check your nearby thrift store or secondhand shop, if it's still open, before you commit to paying full price at your local retailer. Arts-and-crafts shops are likely to still have some decorative baskets or tins in stock, even at this late hour, though their prices tend to be much higher than the same items bought at a Target/Kmart/Walmart-type of store, which in turn are higher than what secondhand shops would likely ask.

Once you have your container, all you need to do is fill it.

Jams and jellies

One jar of jam or jelly is a pretty lame holiday gift, but a variety of jars in different flavors, combined with a box or two of fancy crackers, can make a passable plausible last-minute gift, if they're attractively presented.

Chocolate gift set

Fill the box or basket with chocolate items or accessories, such as small packages of chocolate-covered cookies, pretzels or other affordable delicacies, or hot cocoa packets combined with decorative mugs and perhaps a package of marshmallows.

Tin or basketful of candy

Self-explanatory.

Stationery/writing supplies

Even in today's electronic era, there's still room for old-fashioned writing paraphernalia. Fill a tin or basket with various writing implements: nice pens; writing paper and envelopes; blank-page books with decorative covers; and similar items.

Art or drawing supplies

Fill the decorative container with a box of colored pencils (or a large box of crayons, if the recipient is a young child); black drawing pencils; blank-page sketch pads or sketch books; paints and paint brushes; and so forth.

Decorative candles

A couple of nice candles plus the appropriately sized candlesticks or candle holders. Candle snuffers are also a nice accessory if you can find them inexpensively. Avoid scented candles if possible, unless you know exactly which scents the recipient likes.

Winter car emergency kit

This is a “sensible” rather than “fun” gift, for drivers living in parts of the country where snowstorms are a possible winter hazard: combine a box of wooden matches, a small collection of metal-cup tealight candles, a metal coffee can or decorative tin, and a common other common household items into an emergency heating kit for drivers stranded in their cars. Instructions are here.

Of course, this list is only meant to provide a partial sampling of ideas. The possible options are limited only by your own imagination ... and what's still available in local stores, this late in the holiday season.

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No surprise: EZ Pass knows how fast you're going

And penalizes speeders in 5 out of the 15 EZ Pass states

If you're enrolled in EZ Pass, take note: you won't be surprised to hear that in addition to collecting toll fees, it can also monitor your speed — and mig...

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Hotels take aim at wi-fi hotspots

They want you to use their slow, expensive, inconvenient system

You ever notice how hotels are always a decade or two behind. It wasn't long ago you could put a quarter in the slow and get a massage from your bed. And t...

PhotoYou ever notice how hotels are always a decade or two behind? It wasn't long ago you could put a quarter in the slot and get a massage from your bed. And they're still trying to charge for in-room movies, having not yet gotten wind of the iPad. 

Not long ago, hotels made out like bandits when they began treating their telephone systems as cash machines -- charging guests for making calls and even, worst-case scenario, charging by the minute. Of course, that was just about the time everyone got a cell phone so all those expensive highway-robbery phone systems began gathering dust.

All of this would be weird-old-aunt amusing if it weren't for the latest insidious plot -- blocking personal wi-fi hotspots. Yes, you read that right. Big hotel chains are lusting to install devices that will block your smartphone's ability to work as your own personal broadband hotspots.

Good plan, but illegal

This is, as it should be, illegal at the moment. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not allow unlicensed devices that interfere with lawful communications. But Marriott and other hotel chains are working to change that.

They want the FCC to amend its rules to allow them to block their guests from having any broadband contact with the outside world that doesn't go through them. This might be called the North Korea school of communications policy.

But the tech industry, which is not nearly as keen on lobbying as it it maybe should be, is fighting back. Google and Microsoft are the latest tech giants to sign onto an industry lobbying effort to block the hotels' efforts to block the rest of us from breaking out of the walled gardens the hotels are planting.

Marriott has good reason to want the FCC's rules changed. It was fined $600,000 in October after the FCC found that it had blocked consumer Wi-Fi networks during a convention at a Nashville hotel. The hotel had demanded that consumers pay up to $1,000 per device to use its wi-fi network instead of the broadband service they already had. 

Hilton is also on board with the effort to stifle its guests.

“Hilton could not meet its guests’ expectations were it unable to manage its Wi-Fi networks, including taking steps to protect against unauthorized access points that pose a threat to the reliability and security of that network,” Hilton Worldwide wrote in a recent filing in support of Marriott and the hotel industry’s request, according to Recode.net.

In its filing, Google said that while it "recognizes the importance of leaving operators flexibility to manage their own networks, this does not include intentionally blocking access to other Commission-authorized networks, particularly where the purpose or effect of that interference is to drive traffic to the interfering operator’s own network (often for a fee)."

Better coffee

PhotoWhat hotels have perhaps not considered is the effect the wi-fi ban might have on their restaurants and coffee shops. After all, the coffee is better and the wi-fi is free at Starbucks, which is quite likely just around the corner from the hotel.

Most hotel eateries aren't exactly gastronomic delights anyway. Turning remaining customers into wi-fi hostages may not be the greatest marketing idea ever.

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Coke dumps voicemail; says it's lost its fizz

Do you really think anyone will miss it?

There are those who argue that if email had been invented first, the telephone would never have gotten off the ground. While that may be a little far-fetch...

PhotoThere are those who argue that if email had been invented first, the telephone would never have gotten off the ground. While that may be a little far-fetched, ask yourself: if voicemail had never been invented, would the world be better off?

Coca-Cola asked itself that question and decided the answer was yes, so it is ditching voice mail at its offices. It's not a cost-saving measure, it's just intended to increase productivity, Bloomberg reports.

Internal callers -- Coca-Cola's employees -- are being encouraged to use email or text. Some might even walk around the corner and get in a little facetime. We would mention gathering around the water cooler but maybe they don't have those at Coke's offices. Soda machine, maybe?

Good-bye

External callers -- customers, suppliers and such pests as customers and reporters -- instead of the infuriating voicemail tree, will get a message suggesting they use "an alternative method" to contact the department or person they're looking for. Then, they will hear the sweet fizzing sound of the dial tone. 

While Coca-Cola may be one of the biggest companies to banish voicemail, it's far from the only one. Increasingly, companies have voicemail but simply don't use it very much. Employees and suppliers know each other's direct smartphone numbers and either call or text when they have something to say.

Besides annoying callers, voicemail is a soul-deadener for the poor souls who must start or end their day wading through 30 minutes of more of messages that, most likely, should have been directed to someone else anyway.

What will be the last company to pull the plug on voicemail? Our money is on Verizon, which has perfected the art of the voicemail tree that leads nowhere except to a website that takes you in circles. It is, after all, when you get right down to it, still a telephone company and voicemail seems deeply encoded in its DNA.

Years ago, when working as a consultant, this reporter counted a few telephone companies among his clients. It was not unusual for voicemails from various Dilberts to come in faster than I could listen to them, meaning that I never actually accomplished anything other than listening to voicemails complaining that nothing was getting done on our various projects.

Which, when you come right down to it, is exactly what's wrong with voicemail. And maybe the phone company. 

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Seventy-one vehicles garner IIHS safety awards

Ranks of winners grow, despite tougher standard

Consumers now have more choices for optimum protection in car crashes. The number of vehicles earning either of two awards from the Insurance Institute fo...

PhotoConsumers now have more choices for optimum protection in car crashes.

The number of vehicles earning either of two awards from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has jumped to 71 from 39 this time last year, while the number of winners in the top tier -- TOP SAFETY PICK+ -- has increased by 11 for 2015, despite a tougher standard for front crash prevention.

"This is the third year in a row that we are giving automakers a tougher challenge to meet," says IIHS President Adrian Lund. "The quest for TOP SAFETY PICK and TOP SAFETY PICK+ awards is driving improvement in the small overlap front crash test and getting manufacturers to offer automatic braking technology on more and more vehicles."

While the bar has been raised for TOP SAFETY PICK+, the criteria for TOP SAFETY PICK are unchanged from 2014: a good or acceptable rating in the challenging small overlap front test and a good rating in each of the Institute's four other crashworthiness evaluations -- moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints.

The 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK+ designation is awarded to vehicles that meet those criteria and also have an available front crash prevention system that earns an advanced or superior rating.

Changing criteria

For 2014, vehicles could qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK+ with only a basic rating for front crash prevention. Warning systems that meet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) performance criteria but don't include autobrake qualify for a basic rating. For an advanced or superior rating, vehicles must stop or slow down without driver intervention before hitting a target in IIHS tests at 12 mph, 25 mph or both.

As a result of the change in criteria for 2015, 15 vehicles that qualified for 2014 TOP SAFETY PICK+ are now simply TOP SAFETY PICK winners. In all, there are 33 TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners and 38 TOP SAFETY PICK winners.

"Although forward collision warning on its own is a valuable feature, we decided to tighten our criteria to encourage manufacturers to offer autobrake. Systems that don't require a driver response to avoid or mitigate a crash have the most potential for reducing crashes," Lund says. "Nevertheless, the models that are losing their plus signs are still great choices for safety, as are all the TOP SAFETY PICK winners."

The small overlap challenge

Most vehicles produced in recent years have had little trouble with the Institute's moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests. The small overlap front test, which 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, represented a new hurdle when it was introduced in 2012.

For 2013, IIHS continued to award TOP SAFETY PICK to vehicles that earned good ratings in the four older tests, regardless of their small overlap ratings. Those with good or acceptable small overlap ratings earned TOP SAFETY PICK+. Only 13 vehicles managed it at the beginning of the award year.

Since then, automakers have steadily increased the number of good or acceptable small overlap ratings by factoring in the test when they redesign a vehicle or introduce a new model and by making modifications to the structure and airbags between redesigns.

The Honda CR-V, a 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK+ winner, is an example of a vehicle that was successfully modified for improved protection. The small SUV earned a marginal rating when it was tested in 2012. The structure did not hold up, with intrusion into the driver space exceeding 1 foot. The dummy's head barely contacted the front airbag before sliding off as the steering column moved to the right.

Honda made changes to the vehicle's front end structure, occupant compartment and restraint system for the 2015 model year. In the most recent test, maximum intrusion was 5 inches at the parking brake pedal, and the dummy's head remained on the front airbag until rebound. Today's CR-V earns a good rating.

The Toyota Prius v, which also earns TOP SAFETY PICK+, saw even greater improvement. The midsize car had been one of the worst performers ever in the small overlap test. In the 2012 test, the structure collapsed, and the dummy's head hit the instrument panel and ended up between the side curtain airbag and the door. Measures from the dummy showed left hip and lower leg injuries were very likely.

After the structure was improved and the side curtain airbag was lengthened, the 2015 Prius v performed well all-around, with low levels of intrusion, good restraint performance and low injury measures.

Front crash prevention spreads

The list of 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners shows how quickly front crash prevention systems with autobrake are spreading. In total, there are 27 superior-rated 2015 models and 33 with an advanced rating. (Some of those vehicles don't qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK+ because they don't meet all the crashworthiness criteria.)

Most of the TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners earn the award only when equipped with optional front crash prevention systems. However, when not equipped, they still meet the crashworthiness criteria for TOP SAFETY PICK.

Currently only three automakers offer standard front crash prevention systems. Volvo models have standard City Safety, a low-speed autobrake system. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class and E-Class have a warning and autobrake system, but the standard autobrake components haven't been tested yet. The Mercedes-Benz M-Class and CLA and the Acura RLX offer standard warning systems. All these vehicles are available with optional systems that earn higher ratings than the standard equipment. The CLA, which earns an advanced rating with its optional system, hasn't been tested for crashworthiness.

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A November drop in new home sales

Incomes and spending were on the rise last month

The string of increases in new home sales is over. After rising for 2 straight months, sales of new single-family homes fell 1.6% in November to a seasona...

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© Brian Jackson – Fotolia

The string of increases in new home sales is over.

After rising for 2 straight months, sales of new single-family homes fell 1.6% in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 438,000. Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show this is also 1.6% below the sales level of a year earlier.

Prices mixed

The median sales price of new houses sold last month was $280,900, up $3,800 from a year earlier. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower. The average sales price was $321,800, down $13,800 from November 2013.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of November was 213,000, representing a supply of 5.8 months at the current sales rate.

The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.

 

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© kentoh – Fotolia.com

Incomes and spending

Separately, the Commerce Department reports personal incomes edged up 0.4%, or $54.4 billion, in November, with disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less current personal taxes -- increasing $42.4 billion, or 0.3%.

Personal consumption expenditures (PCE), meanwhile, were up $67.9 billion, or 0.6%.

Wages and salaries

Private wages and salaries rose $38.7 billion last month following a $24.9 billion increase in October. Payrolls of goods-producing industries increased $7.3 billion in November, the same increase as in October, with manufacturing payrolls up $3.9 billion.

Services-producing industries' payrolls posted an advance of $31.5 billion, compared with an October increase of $17.6 billion. Government wages and salaries were up $1.8 billion.

Personal outlays and saving

Personal outlays, which include PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments. rose $67.7 billion in November.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $576.5 billion in November, compared with $601.7 billion in October.

The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- fell 0.2% in November to 4.4%.

The complete report may be found on the Bureau of Economic Analysis website.

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The economy takes off

The increase in the GDP is the largest in 11 years

Looks like the economy has finally found its footing. According to the "third" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, real gross domestic p...

PhotoLooks like the economy has finally found its footing.

According to the "third" estimate released by 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 5.0% in the third quarter.

It's the biggest increase since a surge of 6.9% in the third quarter of 2003 and follows an increase of 4.6% in this year's second quarter.

Additional data available

This latest estimate is based on more complete source data than were available for last month's "second" estimate, which had the GDP expanding at a 3.9% annual rate. issued last month. The third estimate for the third quarter had both personal consumption expenditures (PCE), or consumer spending, and nonresidential fixed investment increasing more than previously estimated.

An increase in federal government spending, exports and state and local government spending also played a role.

GDP inflation

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, rose 1.4% -- the same as in the second estimate; it had increased 2.0% in the second quarter.

Excluding the volatile food and energy sectors, the “core rate” of GDP inflation rose at an annual rate of 1.6% in the third quarter, compared with an increase of 1.7% in the second three months of the year.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Toyota recalls model year 2015 Siennas

The second row overhead assist grips may detach deployment of the curtain shield airbag

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 25,552 model year 2015 Sienna vehicles manufactured September 2, 2014, to November 14, 2014. In the...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 25,552 model year 2015 Sienna vehicles manufactured September 2, 2014, to November 14, 2014.

In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the curtain shield airbag (CSA), the second row overhead assist grips may detach, striking a vehicle occupant, increasing the risk of injury.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will modify the headliner near the second row overhead assist grip, free of charge. The recall is expected begin on January 15, 2015.

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

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Acura TLX vehicles recalled

The transmission may not be able to shift into the Park position

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 9,391 model year 2015 Acura TLX V6 2WD vehicles manufactured July 14, 2014, to November 12, 2014, and certain 2015 TL...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Co. is recalling 9,391 model year 2015 Acura TLX V6 2WD vehicles manufactured July 14, 2014, to November 12, 2014, and certain 2015 TLX V6 SH-AWD vehicles manufactured August 26, 2014, to November 10, 2014.

The automatic transmission parking pawl may become contaminated or the park rod may become dislodged or broken. This may prevent the transmission from shifting into the Park position.

If the shift indicator displays "Park" but the park lock does not engage, the vehicle may roll away increasing the risk of a crash.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the transmission if necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin January 6, 2015.

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-310-783-2000. Honda's number for this recall is JM8.

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Ten last-minute gift ideas

Time is slipping away so this might help

The weekend – the last before Christmas – was huge for retail as shoppers hit the stores for last minute gifts. But if you still find yourself with more to...

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Image: Lowes.com

The weekend – the last before Christmas – was huge for retail as shoppers hit the stores for last minute gifts. But if you still find yourself with more to do and the big day just days away, here are 10 last minute gift ideas.

Polaroid iD610 HD Water-Resistant Pocket Camcorder with 5x Optical Zoom and 2" LCD Since smartphones came along there hasn't been a big market for pocket camcorders but they seem to be making a comback. This small HD camcorder packs good video quality in a small package and its SD memory card allows for easy back up and storage. It's less than $20 at Walmart.

Joseph Abboud Joseph Abboud Mens Pebble Grain Leather Passcase Wallet Men tend to carry a wallet until it falls apart. It isn't usually something they think about buying for themselves. This Joseph Abboud leather wallet at Sears is an inexpensive but thoughtful gift, that may be greatly needed.

Berts Bees tips and toes kit This 6 piece gift set contains trial size portions of almond milk beeswax hand cream, therapeutic honey and grapeseed oil hand cream and hand salve. Available at many department stores, including Target.

Cashmere sweater It's taken for granted that no one wants to get a sweater for Christmas, right? Maybe, but there is an exception. If it's a cashmere sweater it is likely to be viewed in a completely different light. And cashmere isn't as expensive as you think, starting at around $30 at Kohls.

Cool tools For those handy – and not so handy – around the house, a nifty tool makes a thoughtful gift. For a son or daughter who has just moved into their own place, a basic household tool set can be among the most practical gifts they'll receive.

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Image: Target.com

Legos For kids, it's hard to go wrong with Legos, a way to engage young minds without employing a screen or diode. These popular toys are available everywhere, including Target.

Bose SoundLink bluetooth speaker Your smartphone, among its many other jobs, is a music player. It can hold hundreds of songs on the device itself and also stream music and podcasts from the web. But what if you'd like to listen without wearing headphones or earbuds?

Fortunately there's a wide selection of high-quality speakers that connect wirelessly, turning your smartphone or tablet into a stereo. The Bose SoundLink bluetooth speaker costs $130 at Target.

Clinique A Little Happiness coffret fragrance gift set Perfume is a traditional gift for her, but it doesn't have to be a cliché. Clinique's A Little Happiness coffret fragrance gift set, available at Macy's, is smart and stylish and costs just $40.

Modern Gent's shaving kit maca root Unless the guy on your list has a beard, chances are he shaves just about every day. So the Modern Gent's shaving kit maca root is a gift that will get a lot of use. It's available at The Body Shop, recently marked down to $24.

Metrokane Rabbit ZippityWine Tool Kit If someone on your list appreciates a good bottle of wine, you could buy them one. A nice gift, but once they drink it, it's gone. So why not give them the Metrokane Rabbit Zippity wine tool kit instead? It includes everything they need to open, serve and seal a bottle of win and is available at Bed Bath and Beyond for $20.

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Two Fox channels get the boot from Dish

Each side blames the other for the impasse

Don't go looking for Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network on Dish. With the latest contract between the satellite TV provider 21st Century Fox having...

PhotoDon't go looking for Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network on Dish.

With the latest contract between the satellite TV provider 21st Century Fox having expired on Saturday at midnight, the 2 channels have been given the boot.

Subscribers are outraged. 

""We the people need to find a better company to give our money to," said Franciela of Marion, Kan, who said in a ConsumerAffairs review that Fox told her it would cost $660 to end her contract early. 

Fox News, the only news channel I watch, was removed without notice, from my DISH TV subscription package," Frank of Fountain, Colo., said. "When I started with DISH, it was part of what they offered. Where is my rebate from taking away what I watch almost all the time? Better yet, put FOX back on immediately and restore what you promised me when I signed up."

"Doing this dirty Dish deed to Fox during Christmas week exemplifies their 'holier-than-thou' opinion of themselves," said Robert of Burney, Calif. "One would be wise to dump Dish stock and switch carriers. The only way to retaliate against such crassness is through the pocketbook."

And as you might expect, the finger-pointing by Dish and Fox is in full swing.

In a statement on its website, Dish says Fox introduced other channels into negotiations despite those channels not being included in the contract up for renewal. “It’s like we’re about to close on a house and the realtor is trying to make us buy a new car as well,” said Warren Schlichting, DISH senior vice president of programming. “Fox blacked out two of its news channels, using them as leverage to triple rates on sports and entertainment channels that are not in this contract.”

Fox, for its part, told the Associated Press that Fox was offering Dish a deal similar to what it has with various cable providers.

"How can I continue a relationship with someone who feels that they can be treated differently?," said Tim Carry, executive vice president of distribution for Fox News.

Dish says negotiations are continuing. Dish went through a similar episode with CNN and other Turner channels last month. 

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Google turns tables, sues an attorney general

Mississippi AG calls a truce after Google accuses him of selling out to Hollywood

We've all read a lot of stories about attorneys general suing big Internet companies but when's the last time you read a story about a big Internet company...

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AG Jim Hood (Photo: jimhood.org)

We've all read a lot of stories about attorneys general suing big Internet companies but when's the last time you read a story about a big Internet company suing an attorney general?

It's odd but that's what's happened in the ongoing scuffle between Google and the attorney general of Mississippi, Jim Hood (no relation to the author of this story).

Hood has been a leading critic of Google and, along with AGs from other states, has persuaded Google to block at least some search queries for child porn and to stop carrying ads for illegal drugs. But Hood says more needs to be done and he and 23 other AGs have written letters over the last year requesting meetings with Google. Stymied by a lack of positive response, Hood issued a 96-page subpoena asking Google to produce various documents.

Google did produce some documents, although Hood says they were so jumbled as to be useless, but it also filed suit against Hood in a Mississippi federal court accusing him of conspiring with the movie industry.

Cloak-and-dagger

How, you might ask, do movies come into it? Well, Google contends that powerful movie industry lobbyists have been using Hood to bring pressure on Google to make it harder for consumers to find pirated movies and other contraband on the Web.

Hood was supposedly being influenced by a former Mississippi attorney general who is now a lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), according to a recent report in The New York Times. 

But Hood says he was merely trying to protect consumers in his state from child sex trafficking, illicit drug use and other evils, and says Google is using the recent Sony hacking scandal to draw an overblown picture of influence-peddling in the entertainment business.

"Feeling emboldened with its billions of dollars, media prowess and political power, some of [Google's] more excitable people have sued trying to stop the State of Mississippi for daring to ask some questions," Hood said in a prepared statement. "We expect more from one of the wealthiest corporations in the world."

Besides its allegations of cloak-and-dagger activities, Google argues in the suit that Mississippi and other states do not have jurisdiction over the Internet. Hood says he and the other AGs are simply trying to enforce their states' consumer protection laws.

Hood has now called a "time-out," saying he hopes that cooler heads prevail. But whether Google will withdraw the suit remains a question. 

 

 

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Consumers often pay a steep price for cybercrime

Despite promises, survey shows many victims don't get reimbursed

Cyberattacks are in the news this month, especially when Sony Pictures was victimized by hackers intent on preventing a new movie satirizing North Korea's ...

PhotoCyberattacks are in the news this month, especially when Sony Pictures was victimized by hackers intent on preventing a new movie satirizing North Korea's ruler from being shown, broke into the company's network.

But attacks on consumers are a much more common occurrence. We hear a lot about consumers falling for online scams, having their credit and debit card accounts hacked and being victimized by other types of cyber-fraud. We rarely hear about what happens next.

Do these stories have a happy ending? It turns out a lot of them don't.

Still waiting for their money

A survey by Kaspersky Lab and B2B International found that nearly half of the consumers who reported losing money in fraudulent online transactions did not get all – or sometimes any – of their money back.

Remember that many banks and credit card companies have policies of reimbursing money lost due to cybercrime. Despite that, only 56% of respondents reported that they could fully recoup their losses.

Of those who lost money, 16% of victims received only partial compensation while 28% said they couldn't recover any.

Consumers in some countries have it worse than others. In places like Russia, 58% of those surveyed said there was no hope of getting any money back, and 13% received only part of the stolen money.

Some of the losses are significant. The average amount stolen by cybercriminals was $218 and 18% of respondents reported a loss in excess of $1,000.

“Even if you are sure that the financial company or online store will refund any stolen money in the event of online fraud, you should still be cautious, said Elena Kharchenko, head of Consumer Product Management, Kaspersky Lab. “You may indeed get all the money back – although the figures suggest this only happens about half the time – but the time and stress you will suffer are impossible to compensate. That’s why it’s important to pay special attention to the protection of confidential information, including your financial data.”

Lack of awareness

Some consumers fall victim because they aren't aware of the danger. The survey found that 22% of respondents believe they won't be the target of an attack. However, statistics show that about 43% of users faced financial cyberthreats at least once during the previous year.

CNA Financial, an insurance provider, warns the threat is growing and is especially dangerous around busy shopping periods like the holiday season.

"The digital universe has become increasingly complex and it's important to know how to protect your identity online," said Robert Allen, CNA's Chief Security Officer. "As convenient, quick and easy as online shopping can be, it also leaves businesses and individuals vulnerable to security risks."

Tips

The company offers a number of consumer tips to reduce your risk when shopping online:

Make sure the site is secure. Once you're ready to check out, look for signs that the site is secure, including locating the "closed padlock" icon on your Web browser's address bar. Other sites may have a URL address that begins with "https://"; the "s" means the site is secure.

Don't shop on a public Wi-Fi connection. If you don't have to use a password to get online, the network isn't secure. Someone else on the network could actually monitor what you're doing online. Sometimes, attackers create fake networks which allow them to intercept and modify communication between two parties.

Stay current with your security updates. All software, Web browsers and operating systems should be up to date.

Don't save credentials in Web browsers. When a pop-up displays asking if you want the site to save your information, click "Continue Without Saving." Hackers will use stored data, including saved credentials.

Avoid using debit cards. Even with debit protections, if your cards information is stolen, the money is taken immediately from your account. Getting that money back may prove to be difficult.

Keep a paper trail. Print and/or save records of your transaction, including the product description, price, receipt, terms of the sale and copies of any communications from the vendor. After receiving your credit card statement, make sure all transactions match and there are no unauthorized charges.

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DirecTV launches streaming Spanish-language service

Yaveo brings U.S., Latin American and Spanish programming to the Internet

While Dish Network is locked in its latest licensing fight -- this time with Fox -- competitor DirecTV is launching Yaveo, a new streaming video service fo...

PhotoWhile Dish Network is locked in its latest licensing fight -- this time with Fox -- competitor DirecTV is launching Yaveo, a new streaming video service for Hispanic consumers.

It's an Internet-only subscription video service that promises access to thousands of hours of movies, TV shows and sports, all for $7.99 a month. No DirecTV subscription is needed and there is no contract; the service is month-to-month, with the first month free. It's available only in the U.S.

“Yaveo gets DIRECTV into the OTT (over-the-top) business and we’re excited to start with a compelling Spanish-language service targeted to the Hispanic community,” said Paul Guyardo, chief revenue and marketing officer. “We’ll learn a great deal, use the findings to grow and improve the Yaveo platform and expand our OTT offering over time.”

The Yaveo linep includes Univision telenovela “La Malquerida;” “All the Pretty Horses” with Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz; Roberto Rodriguez’s 1995 “Desperado,” starring Antonio Banderas; and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” starring Kevin James.

Program sources include:

beIN Sports en Español
Nick en Español
Canal 22
Pasiones
Canal Once
RCN
Caracol
TMN (The Movie Network)
Cine Sony Television
Tr3s
El Garage
Univision suite of networks
¡Hola!TV
Video Rola
MTV

 

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Sugar Bowl scammers snag a few victims

Never trust online sellers who emphasize their military, religious or political status.

College football fans beware: scammers are selling fake tickets to the upcoming “Sugar Bowl” game between Ohio State and Alabama....

PhotoCollege football fans beware: scammers are selling fake tickets to the upcoming “Sugar Bowl” game between Ohio State and Alabama.

On Monday, Ohio's attorney general, Mike DeWine, issued a warning to Ohioans (and any other state's consumers, for that matter) to “be skeptical of individuals offering tickets to the 2015 Sugar Bowl, after two Ohioans reported losing $800 each to Sugar Bowl ticket scams on Craigslist.”

In one instance, the scammer posted an ad on Craigslist claiming to be in the military and offering to sell six lower-level seats for $800. The buyer verified that the seller did indeed have a genuine military ID — but only after losing his money did the buyer realize that the ID had been stolen from its rightful owner.

DeWine's warning listed four red flags indicating a possible scam, including:

An online seller who draws attention to his or her military status

Requests for payment via wire transfer or money transfer

Requests for payment using a prepaid money card

Prices that are too-good-to be true (such as Sugar Bowl 2015 tickets for less than $100 or $200 each)

Military status

DeWine specifically mentioned military status because the Sugar Bowl scammers mentioned in his press release both pretended to be active-duty military. But where scam warnings are concerned, you can replace the word “military” with “religious” or “political” and the warning still works. For example: beware of any would-be seller who draws attention to his or her status as a Christian, Muslim, or follower of any other religious affiliation.

Why? Because in the context of such a business transaction – assuming a legitimate business transaction, not a scammer out to defraud a victim – one's religious, political or military status is thoroughly irrelevant.

Scammers mention this irrelevant (and usually false) status solely in order to make you want to trust them. “Hey, of course I wouldn't cheat you – I'm active-duty military, and we're held to high standards!” “No need to worry a devout practitioner of my religion would ever lie or steal, nope, not a chance.” “Say, did you know I have the exact same political opinions as you? That proves I'm wise and trustworthy, too!”

On a similar note, you should also be wary of any would-be seller who tries making you feel sorry for them or otherwise makes plays for sympathy: “I can't afford to feed my children,” “I lost my house,” and so forth. Basically, be wary of doing business with anyone who tries manipulating your emotions first.

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Rule change could open the Web to more TV shows

FCC would require networks to negotiate with online video streaming channels

Forget about net neutrality for a minute. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has officially proposed a rule change that could open the Web to stre...

PhotoForget about net neutrality for a minute. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has officially proposed a rule change that could open the Web to streaming video from all networks, potentially spelling the end of cable's dominance.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler had said back in October that he planned to propose just such a rule change and he made good on that pledge last Friday. 

"Big company control over access to programming should not keep programs from being available on the Internet," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "Today, we propose to break that bottleneck." 

Under the proposed rule change, any company using any technology would be authorized to license content owned by cable and broadcast networks. Currently, broadcasters and cable are able to shut out new entrants, like Aereo, which filed for bankruptcy after losing a legal struggle to win licensing rights to stream local TV stations via the Internet.

Start-up video streamers would still have to pay for the programming they added to their stream but broadcast and cable networks would not be able to simply refuse to negotiate licensing fees.

Writing on his blog in October, Wheeler said the change was long overdue, arguing that "21st century consumers shouldn’t be shackled to rules that only recognize 20th century technology."

Basically, Wheeler's proposal simply extends the rules that Congress once used to give satellite TV providers a leg up, an effort that was clearly successful.

Following Friday’s proposal, there will be a 30- to 45-day comment period on the proposal.
 

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Staples confirms security breach: customer card information stolen from 115 stores in 35 states

If you've shopped at Staples and paid with a card, you might be at risk

Over the weekend, Staples officially confirmed what various security experts and banking professionals have suspected since October: hackers used malware t...

PhotoOver the weekend, Staples officially confirmed what various security experts and banking professionals have suspected since October: hackers used malware to successfully steal the payment-card information of millions of customers who shopped at various Staples stores between April and September 2014.

Security blogger Brian Krebs first reported on Oct. 20 that his sources from a half-dozen different banks and other financial institutions suspected that customer data had been stolen from at least 11 different Staples stores: seven in Pennsylvania, three in New York City and one in New Jersey.

Turns out the actual damage was far more widespread. Late last Friday afternoon, Staples spokespeople released a statement admitting that “criminals [had] deployed malware to some point-of-sale systems at 115 of its more than 1,400 U.S. retail stores.”

Staples also released a list, available in .pdf form here, identifying which specific stores were hit and when (though April is listed as the “official” start of this particular breach, most of the stores on that list didn't have their security compromised until August). The affected stores are divided among 35 different states.

40 days

Krebs spoke to Aviv Raff, the chief technology officer for Seculert, who said that on average, the amount of time it takes a typical store to notice and respond to such a security breach is about 40 days. Indeed, if you think about all the various retail or business hacking stories you've read about these past couple of years – or all the various times you personally had to cancel your accounts and get various payment cards re-issued after they'd been compromised in a breach – you never, ever see timelines like this: “Hackers got in on Monday, we noticed the problem on Wednesday and fixed everything before the weekend.”

If you've used a payment card to buy anything at any Staples store in the past eight months, you should check this .pdf list to make sure your store isn't on it. If it is, contact the compny which issued your card and take all the usual card-security precautions.

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Existing-home sales slip in November

The decline in sales was felt all across the county

What went up in October came back down last month. The National Association of Realtors reports sales of existing homes -- completed transactions that inc...

PhotoWhat went up in October came back down last month.

The National Association of Realtors reports sales of existing homes -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- fell 6.1% in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.93 million after hitting their highest level of the year a month earlier.

The decline put sales at their lowest annual pace since May; still, they are above year-over-year levels for the second straight month.

Sales activity was choppy throughout the country in November and housing inventory began its seasonal decline. “Fewer people bought homes last month despite interest rates being at their lowest levels of the year,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “The stock market swings in October may have impacted some consumers’ psyches and therefore led to fewer November closings. Furthermore, rising home values are causing more investors to retreat from the market.”

Inventory and pricing

Total housing inventory at the end of last month fell 6.7% to 2.09 million existing homes available for sale, repressing a 5.1-month supply at the current sales pace. That's about the same as October. Despite the tightening in supply, unsold inventory remains 2.0% higher than a year ago, when there were 2.05 million existing homes available for sale.

The median existing-home price for all housing types in November was $205,300 -- 5.0% higher than November 2013 and the 33rd consecutive month of year-over-year price gains. The median is the point at which half the homes cost more and half less.

“Lagging home building activity continues to hamstring overall housing supply and is still too low in relation to this year’s promising job growth,” says Yun. “Much faster price and rent appreciation -- easily exceeding wage growth -- will occur next year unless new construction picks up measurably.”

Regional breakdown

  • Sales of previously-owned home sales in the Northeast fell 4.2% to an annual rate of 680,000, but are still 4.6% above a year ago. The median price was $246,100 -- 1.3% more than in November 2013.
  • In the Midwest, sales were down 8.9% to an annual level of 1.13 million, and are now 1.7% below the same time last year. The median price was $160,500, up 7.0% from a year ago.
  • Existing-home sales in the South decreased dipped 3.2% to an annual rate of 2.09 million but remain 5.0% above November 2013. The median price was $176,500, a year-over-year gain of up 5.2%.
  • Sales in the West plunged 9.6% to an annual rate of 1.03 million, and are 1.0 percent below a year ago. The median price in the West was $292,700 -- 3.5% above November 2013.
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Southeast Toyota Distributors recall vehicles with seat heater issue

Compression of the seat cushion may damage the seat heater wiring

Southeast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 3,233 model year 2010-2011 Prius and Corolla, 2009-2011 Venza, 2006-2010 Avalon, 2007-2010 FJ Cruiser, 200...

PhotoSoutheast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 3,233 model year 2010-2011 Prius and Corolla, 2009-2011 Venza, 2006-2010 Avalon, 2007-2010 FJ Cruiser, 2005-2011 Sienna and Sequoia, 2006-2011 Tacoma 4x2 and 4x4, Camry, Highlander, Tundra 4x2 and 4x4, and 2007-2011 Rav4 and 4Runner vehicles.

The recalled vehicles may experience compression of the seat cushion which may damage the seat heater wiring. Damage to the seat heater wiring could cause the wires to short, increasing the risk of the seat burning and causing personal injury to the occupant.

SET will notify owners, and dealers will disconnect the seat heaters with copper strand heating elements and refund the purchase price of the seat heater accessory, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin December 24, 2014.  

Owners may contact SET customer service at 1-954-429-2000.

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Comfort Research recalls vinyl bean bag chairs

Children can crawl inside the chairs and become trapped

Comfort Research of Grand Rapids, Mich., is recalling about 125,000 bean bag chairs. The zippers on the bean bag chairs can be opened by children who can ...

PhotoComfort Research of Grand Rapids, Mich., is recalling about 125,000 bean bag chairs.

The zippers on the bean bag chairs can be opened by children who can then crawl inside, become trapped, suffocate or choke on the bean bag chair’s foam beads.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves vinyl polystyrene-filled bean bag chairs with a single zipper on the exterior cover. The round vinyl bean bag chairs measure 88 and 98 inches in diameter. Colors and patterns included in the recall are black, hot pink, lime, purple, royal blue, ruby red, and baseball, basketball, football and soccer ball.

A tag sewn into bean bag chair’s cover seam reads “Made By Comfort Research” and “100% Polystyrene.”

The chairs, manufactured in the U.S. and China, were sold at Burlington Coat Factory, Kroger, Meijer and other retail stores nationwide, and online at Amazon, Bean Bag Company, Groupon, Kohls, Target, Toys R Us, Walmart, Wayfair and other online retailers between January 2010, and October 2013, for between $30 and $40.

Consumers should immediately take the recalled bean bag chairs from children and check them for zippers that can be opened. Consumers can contact Comfort Research for instructions to permanently disable the zipper.

Consumers may contact Comfort Research toll-free at (844) 578-8933 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Ford recalls older Mustangs and GTs

Excessive internal pressure may cause the airbag inflator to rupture

Ford Motor Company is recalling 462,911 model year 2005-2008 Ford Mustang vehicles manufactured August 1, 2004, to June 30, 2007, and 2005-2006 Ford GT ve...

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FCA recalls Dodge Challengers

The instrument cluster may become inoperative

FCA US, the former Chrysler Group, is recalling certain model year 2015 Dodge Challenger vehicles manufactured June 30, 2014, to October 8, 2014. The ins...

PhotoFCA US, the former Chrysler Group, is recalling certain model year 2015 Dodge Challenger vehicles manufactured June 30, 2014, to October 8, 2014.

The instrument cluster may become inoperative, which could cause the gauges to oscillate at zero and the Vehicle Theft Alarm could remain illuminated. If the instrument cluster becomes inoperative, it can increase the risk of a vehicle crash.

FCA will notify owners, and dealers will install a software enhancement, free of charge. The recall began on December 15, 2014.

Owners can contact FCA customer service at 1-800-853-1403. FCA's number for this recall is P74.

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Holidays can bring on more migraines

Here are some tips to improve your odds of avoiding one

Doctors have known for some time that some foods and drinks can trigger migraine headaches in some people. That's an important fact to remember around the ...

PhotoDoctors have known for some time that some foods and drinks can trigger migraine headaches in some people. That's an important fact to remember around the holidays, when your food and beverage consumption may take some crazy twists and turns.

Dr. David Dodick, Chair of the American Migraine Foundation, cautions people who suffer from migraines to keep their guard up over the next few weeks.

“This is the season in which many people overindulge in things that can trigger attacks of migraine,” he said. “It’s important to think through food and beverage choices, to help reduce the risk of having a migraine attack.”

Keep up your routine

For starters, Dodick says you need to eat regularly. Skipping or missing meals is a much more common trigger of migraine than any particular food, so it is important to stay on a dietary schedule, even through you might not feel like it after loading up on cookies at a Christmas party. By all means, he says, don't skip breakfast.

Here's a common-sense tip. If previous migraines have helped you identify certain foods that you suspect are triggering attacks, avoid that food during the holidays. Remember that stress can also trigger an attack, so the combination of food and holiday stress can make a migraine more likely.

When offered a choice of wine, choosing white over red may improve your odds. For many sufferers, red wine is a common trigger.

Reduce alcohol consumption

Drinking little or no alcohol may also help you avoid an attack. Because alcohol and dehydration can trigger a migraine attack, alternating a glass of water with an alcoholic beverage may help keep a migraine at bay.

Eat more healthy food during the holidays. In addition to not skipping meals, limit your intake of processed foods, sodium, sugar, and caffeinated and carbonated drinks.

The hours before bedtime are also very important. Cut out the caffeine by early afternoon and avoid snacking after dinner.

Know your triggers

“Knowing your food triggers and planning in advance can increase your enjoyment of holiday activities with fewer migraine attacks,” Dodick said. “If you don’t know whether you have food triggers, we suggest trying to eliminate specific dietary foods and beverages, such as red wine, processed meats, nuts, chocolate, aged cheese, monosodium glutamate, and gluten-containing foods, to see if they are causing migraine attacks. If these attacks decrease, introducing these items back one at a time can identify the culprit(s), should they exist.”

Not everyone who suffers from migraine headaches has food triggers, but for those with these triggers, avoiding them can often mean fewer attacks.

A migraine is very different from the garden variety headache. According to the Mayo Clinic, a migraine can cause intense throbbing or a pulsing sensation in one area of the head and is commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.

An attack can last for a few hours or a few days and can be so severe that the sufferer can only lie down in a dark room and wait for it to pass.

Usually they hit you like a bolt out of the blue but can have a few warning signs, such as flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling in your arm or leg.

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T-Mobile will pay $90 million in refunds to settle "cramming" suit

It's the third wireless carrier to face cramming charges this year

T-Mobile is the latest wireless carrier to run afoul of charges it "crammed" millions of dollars of bogus third-party charges on customers' bills. The comp...

PhotoT-Mobile is the latest wireless carrier to run afoul of charges it "crammed" millions of dollars of bogus third-party charges on customers' bills. The company has agreed to fully refund its customers for the unwanted charges, paying at least $90 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit filed earlier this year.

Earlier this week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) sued Sprint for cramming its customers and in October, AT&T Wireless was fined $105 million

In addition to the full refunds T-Mobile is paying to settle the FTC lawsuit, T-Mobile will pay $18 million in fines and penalties to the attorneys general of all 50 states and the District of Columbia and $4.5 million to the Federal Communications Commission.

Consumers rate T-Mobile Billing Disputes

“Mobile cramming is an issue that has affected millions of American consumers, and I’m pleased that this settlement will put money back in the hands of affected T-Mobile customers,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “Consumers should be able to trust that their mobile phone bills reflect the charges they authorized and nothing more.”

Under the terms of the settlement, T-Mobile will be required to offer full refunds to all affected consumers. The amount of money the company pays must reach at least $90 million in redress or other payments.

The settlement requires T-Mobile to contact all of its crammed customers – current and former – to inform them of the refund program and claims process, and to do so in a clear and conspicuous way.

The FTC filed suit against T-Mobile in July, alleging that the company placed millions of dollars in unwanted third-party charges on its customers’ mobile phone bills, receiving 35 to 40 percent of every charge they placed. The charges were for services like horoscopes, love tips and celebrity gossip, for which T-Mobile typically billed consumers $9.99 per month.

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Car deals getting more attractive as year end approaches

Low leases, attractive financing and cash back offers abound

If you happen to be in the market for a new car, the next couple of weeks could provide an opportunity to snag a good deal. Dealers are trying to move meta...

PhotoIf you happen to be in the market for a new car, the next couple of weeks could provide an opportunity to snag a good deal. Dealers are trying to move metal, not just for the end of the month but the end of the year as well.

Kelley Blue Book (KBB) reports lease, financing and cash back deals are among the best they've seen in 2014.

“Year-end is one of the best times to buy a new car as automakers look to maximize sales numbers for the calendar year,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com. “In the wake of Lexus’ highly successful ‘December to Remember’ campaign that first launched years ago, many automakers have been offering holiday sales events, making now an opportune time for shoppers to get a deal on a car they may have been eyeing all year.”

KBB has highlighted both 2014 and 2015 models as providing the best value this month. They run the gamut from compact cars to luxury vehicles to three-row SUVs, all equipped with money-saving offers.

Lease deals

For the bargain-conscious car shopper, the 2014 Honda Civic offers one of the lowest monthly payments around, at $149. The car has an MSRP of of $20,000 but KBB says it's selling for $17,763 with about $2,000 due at signing.

If you were ever thinking about a hybrid, this may be the month to buy one. With gas prices plunging, fuel efficiency no longer carries the premium it once did. As a result KBB says you can lease a 2014 Toyota Prius for $249 a month with just $999 due at signing.

Another enticing lease deal is the 2015 Chevrolet Malibu. It's selling for close to its MSRP of $24,560 but can be leased for just $189 a month with $1,369 down.

Financing offers

There aren't nearly as many attractive financing packages as there are leases. In fact, KBB singles out only one that makes its list.

The 2014 Volkswagen Passat has an MSRP of $27,495 but KBB is finding it for $24,374. While that's a nice discount, the financing is what sells it.

Qualified buyers can drive away in a Passat paying 0% for 60 months. But you'll need a good credit score to qualify, so it's best to check your score before visiting the dealership.

Cash back

Topping the list of overall best December car deals is the 2014 Mazda CX-9. Its MSRP is $30,815 but KBB says you should be able to negotiate a price of $27,749. On top of that nice discount is $4000 back at closing.

The 2014 Chrysler 300 has a similarly attractive cash back offer. With an MSRP of $30,815, you should be able to negotiate a sale price of $29,767 while pocketing $4,250 cash back.

The 2014 Toyota Avalon offers both back and attractive financing. Listing for $32,415, the car is selling for under $29,000 and provides $1,000 back and 0% financing for qualified buyers for 60 months.

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Missouri sues 13 St. Louis County towns for speed-trap profiteering

Simply put, the towns are making too much money from traffic tickets

With a total population of barely 1 million, St. Louis County, Missouri -- home of the now-infamous Ferguson -- has no fewer than 90 municipalities. Many a...

PhotoWith a total population of barely 1 million, St. Louis County, Missouri -- home of the now-infamous Ferguson -- has no fewer than 90 municipalities. Many are laughably small, some with just a few hundred residents.

Why so many? Well, the primary reason is that the City of St. Louis, now hovering around 318,000 -- is prohibited from annexing so it has not been able to grow beyond its original borders, leaving a fertile field for suburban upstarts.  (It's actually a little more complicated than that, but let's not get hung up on details).

And how do all these little towns support themselves? A civil suit filed by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster against 13 St. Louis County towns supplies a big part of the answer. To put it plainly: speed traps.

The suit alleges that towns have been violating a Missouri law requiring cities and towns to calculate the percentage of their general revenue derived from fines and court costs for municipal traffic violations and to disgorge all fines in excess of the statutory limit. 

Anytime you have a law specifically prohibiting a practice, you can assume that practice is widespread. And that certainly seems to be the case in St. Louis County, as anyone who has ever tried to drive from downtown St. Louis to the airport, located in the county, will tell you. Interstate 70 winds through a bewildering array of these hamlets and many of them have their constabulary lurking along the highway.

Macks Creek

The law -- commonly called the Macks Creek law, states that no municipality may receive more than 30 percent of its annual revenue from fines and court costs for traffic violations.  Towns are required to report the percentage of their general operating revenue that flows from fines and court costs for traffic violations.

A review by the Attorney General’s Office found a pattern of non-compliance.

 "The Macks Creek law was enacted to protect Missourians from predatory traffic ticketing," Koster said.  "As we continue to identify areas for reform, an important first step is to require St. Louis County municipalities to follow the Macks Creek law to the letter.  Based on my review, these thirteen municipalities did not."

Koster's lawsuit identifies five municipalities that failed to file their annual reports with the state auditor. The cities of Beverly Hills and Pagedale failed to submit reports for fiscal year 2014. The cities of Breckenridge Hills, Pasadena Park, and Upland Park failed to submit fiscal year 2013 reports.

Four municipalities—Crystal Lake, Velda Village Hills, the village of Hillsdale and the village of Mackenzie—failed to indicate how much of their operating revenue was derived from fines and court costs.

And four municipalities—Bellerive Acres, Moline Acres, Normandy, and the village of Vinita Terrace—submitted reports suggesting their revenue from traffic fines exceeded the thirty percent cap.

For example, the village of Vinita Terrace divided six months' worth of traffic-related fines by the total revenue for the entire year, dramatically misstating the percentage of operating revenue derived from traffic tickets.  Investigators believe the amount of operating revenue Vinita Terrace derives from traffic-related fines is over fifty percent.

Similarly, the city of Moline Acres appears to derive thirty-four percent of its operating revenue from court fines, and Normandy more than thirty-eight percent.

"If these municipalities will work with my office to come into compliance, we will work with them," said Koster. "If they fail to work with us, or simply do not have the ability to comply with state law, then they should lose jurisdiction over traffic violations."

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It's a nail-biter to know you could be lowering your child's IQ

High concentrations of phthalates are thought to be the cause

Your nail polish could be lowering your child's IQ. A recent study at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found that certain nail po...

PhotoYour nail polish could be lowering your child's IQ.  A recent study at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found that certain nail polishes, and other types of cosmetic and glue products, have the potential to lower IQs.

The study found that children exposed in utero to high concentrations of two specific phthalates had lower IQ scores at age 7. Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often called plasticizers.

Phthalates are used in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes like raincoats, and personal-care products such as soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes.

Many times you will find them in children's toys if the toys were made before 2009, when new restrictions went into effect.

Endocrine disruptors

The speculation is that  phthalates might act as endocrine disruptors to the mother’s thyroid hormone, which is crucial in the development of a child’s brain.

“These findings are important to inform policy makers of the potentially harmful effects of this class of chemicals,” the authors wrote.

328 Dominican and African-American women, as well as their children, took part in this study. They were  studied at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. The researchers measured levels of four phthalates in the mother's’ urine when they were pregnant, and children were given IQ tests at age 7. Their IQ results were a few points lower.

The lead author was Pam Factor-Litvak, PhD,  she is an associate professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School. She explained that mothers who had concentrations of phthalates in the highest 25 percent ended up having kids with IQ scores up to six to eight points lower than kids of mothers who were in the lowest 25 percent of exposure to phthalates.

“That’s actually a substantial effect,” Factor-Litvak told Time Magazine. “Honestly, I think we were a bit surprised that the reduction was so large.”

There is a bright side -- not all soft plastic contains phthalates. Most plastic wraps, water bottles, and food containers are phthalate-free. 

What to do

The way we live today it would be pretty tough to avoid all products that have phthalates in them but you can do some things to be proactive.

You might go au natural instead of buying a fragrance.   When you buy cosmetics, the word "fragrance" or "parfum" on a label almost always means phthalates. What you want to see are words that say "no synthetic fragrance" or "scented with only essential oils" or "phthalate-free."

Only use plastics that have  recycling codes 1, 2, or 5 -- you can see the numbers on the bottom of the container.

Hand-me-down toys are great if they were purchased after 2009. Anything before that could be made with phthalates. Phthalates are now banned from children's toys, teethers, bottles, and feeding products. But not before 2009.

Don't ever microwave in plastic, always use glass. Even BPA- or phthalate-free plastic may contain harmful chemicals. Opt for glass food storage containers, and choose bottles and sippy and snack cups that are mostly stainless steel, silicone, or glass.

If you give up nail polish think of all the money you will be saving without getting your nails done. It's a win-win. You will have smarter kids as well!

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Don't let carpet layers walk all over you

There can be all kinds of hidden charges

Thinking of getting new carpet? Don't let them walk all over you when you're trying to find someone to install it. It's wise to know what to look for....

PhotoThinking of getting new carpet? Don't let them walk all over you when you're trying to find someone to install it.  It's wise to know what to look for.

Inches matter, so make sure they come to your house and take proper measurements. There should be transitions between rooms and seam placement.
 
It seems that many people don't know the ins and outs of seams. Carpet rolls are limited in width and a room will many times require a seam. The World Floor Covering Association recommends working with your provider to create a diagram that plots out seams and transitions before carpet is cut.

One tip is you can minimize a seam if you run it in the direction of light. Of course there is always the old standby of hiding it under the furniture.

Every organization has guidelines to follow and the carpet industry is no different. It has the Carpet and Rug Institute, which recommends that carpets be power-stretched to minimize wrinkling. Some installers use a smaller stretcher -- often called a "knee kicker" -- that is more appropriate for small repair jobs.

Pricey add-ons

Watch the fees. There are many ways to add on to your price of getting a new  carpet. Before you know it your bill will look like a patchwork quilt. They may advertise free or low-cost installation or padding, but then surprise you with other charges. They can charge to move furniture or to throw away your old rug.

The moldings and the baseboards might have to be removed. They can charge extra to remove them and then patch up the paint.

You should have no more than 10% of extra carpet for the length and width of a room as long as the installer measured correctly.  You might want to ask about leftovers. For a few extra bucks they can make small rugs with the leftover pieces, which can come in handy to wipe your feet on so you don't ruin the new carpet.

You probably will want to open a window and let the glue and adhesive smell out once you have had it installed. It's a good idea if they bring a fan to help the process along. It may take 72 hours for odors and volatile organic compounds from the carpet or adhesives to dissipate. You do not want to breathe this stuff for an extended period.

Whatever you do just make sure they don't hide the extra fees under the rug.
 

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Prescription drugs still the leading cause of poisonings

But "bath salts," synthetic marijuana and laundry pods are rising fast

Prescription drugs are still the leading cause of poisonings in the U.S. but a new study finds that "bath salts," synthetic marijuana and laundry detergent...

Photo
File photo

Prescription drugs are still the leading cause of poisonings in the U.S. but a new study finds that "bath salts," synthetic marijuana and laundry detergent pods are becoming common threats as well.

The findings come from National Poison Control Center data from 2012 published earlier this week in Annals of Emergency Medicine.

"The poison center system can provide real-time advice and collect data regarding a variety of poisonings, including those that may be new or unfamiliar to emergency physicians," said lead study author Richard Dart, MD, PhD, of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, Colo. 

"Emergency physicians are continually challenged by the emergence of new types of poisonings, which lately include illicit street drugs as well as laundry detergent pods."

In 2012, poison centers across the country recorded 2.2 million human poison exposures.  Most patients who contacted a poison center were managed without involving a health care facility, such as a hospital emergency department.  Involvement of a medical facility for poisonings increased with patient age: In 2012, 11.6 percent of children under 5, 14 percent of children age 6 to 12, 51.2 percent of teenagers and 37.9 percent of adults were treated in a health care facility for poisonings.

Opioid painkillers

PhotoThe majority (83 percent) of poisonings that ended in death in 2012 were linked to a pharmaceutical product, most commonly opioid painkillers, though NPDS also recorded deaths from cardiovascular and antidepressant medications.  The total number of prescription opioid exposures by children more than doubled between 2002 and 2012 (from 2,591 to 5,541). Non-pharmaceutical agents also led to poisoning deaths, with carbon monoxide the leading cause of death in this category.

In 2012, a new source of poisonings among children emerged in the form of laundry detergent pods, though the adverse effects are generally not life-threatening. 

The family of designer drugs such as "bath salts" (a type of amphetamine), "plant food," synthetic marijuana and others continue to poison users severely enough that they require emergency medical treatment.  Although bath salts exposures peaked in 2011, new illicit drugs sold to consumers continue to be monitored by poison control centers.

"Poisoning continues to be a significant cause of injury and death in the United States," said Dr. Dart.  "The near real-time responsiveness of NPDS helps emergency physicians respond to new poisoning threats, while also assisting patients who call for help to know when they need the ER and when they can manage things safely at home."

 

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Mustangs with fuel line issue recalled

The fuel pressure sensor may not have been seated properly to the fuel jumper line

Ford Motor Company is recalling 712 model year 2015 Ford Mustangs manufactured September 25, 2014, to October 9, 2014. The fuel pressure sensor may not h...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 712 model year 2015 Ford Mustangs manufactured September 25, 2014, to October 9, 2014.

The fuel pressure sensor may not have been seated properly to the fuel jumper line, which may cause a fuel leak. A partially seated fuel pressure sensor could cause a fuel odor or a fuel leak, increasing the risk of a vehicle fire in the presence of an ignition source.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel jumper line, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2014.

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14S27.

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Chrysler recalls Dodge Ram 1500 trucks

The rear axle pinion nut may loosen

FCA aka Chrysler is recalling 256,956 model year 2005 Dodge Ram 1500 trucks manufactured January 28, 2004, to August 3, 2005. The rear axle pinion nut m...

PhotoFCA aka Chrysler is recalling 256,956 model year 2005 Dodge Ram 1500 trucks manufactured January 28, 2004, to August 3, 2005.

The rear axle pinion nut may loosen due to an undersized spline on the pinion gear. If the pinion nut loosens, the rear axle may seize, and/or the driveshaft may detach resulting in a loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will install a retention feature to the pinion nut, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 13, 2015.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P77.

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Giggles International recalls Animated Sing-Along Monkey toys

The battery compartment can reach temperatures up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit

Giggles International of Hong Kong is recalling about 13,000 Animated Sing-Along Monkey toys. The battery compartment can reach temperatures up to 230 de...

PhotoGiggles International of Hong Kong is recalling about 13,000 Animated Sing-Along Monkey toys.

The battery compartment can reach temperatures up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit, posing a burn hazard.

The company has received two reports of toys overheating and melting their battery compartments.

This recall involves Giggles International Animated Sing-Along Monkey toys. The monkey is made of brown and beige plush material and is about 9 inches tall. The toy is designed to hold a song book titled "5 Little Monkeys" and to sing the song when activated. A red music note is on the bottom of the monkey's right foot and the face of a child with its hands covering its eyes are on the bottom of the money's left foot.

Recalled sing-along monkeys were manufactured between 6/7/2014 and 7/5/2014 and have batch code GP1410028. The manufacture date in the M/D/YYYY format and batch code are printed on the bottom of a white fabric label attached near the base of the monkey's tail.

The monkey toys came in a tan colored box with words "Animated Sing-Along Monkey," "Sing along with me!" and "I play peek-a-boo with you!" on the front. The age advisory "For ages 3+" and the warning that batteries are included are also on the front of the box.

The toys, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores nationwide from September 2014, to October 2014, for about $25.

Consumers should immediately take the animated monkey away from children, remove the batteries and return the toy to any Cracker Barrel Old Country Store or contact Giggles International for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Giggles International at (800) 738-6018 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Beyond gasoline, what falling oil prices mean to you

In more ways than one, cheap oil is a big win for consumers

Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the conflict between Main Street and Wall Street than the steep plunge in oil prices over the last 3 months....

PhotoPerhaps nothing better demonstrates the conflict between Main Street and Wall Street than the steep plunge in oil prices over the last 3 months.

Oil prices have gone from over $100 a barrel to below $60. The result has been gasoline prices below $2 gallon in some parts of the U.S. and pump prices well below $3 almost everywhere else.

The immediate benefit for consumers is fairly obvious. Consumers are now saving an average of 80 cents a gallon every time they fill up. That extra money can be used for groceries and other things. Ask consumers what they think about falling oil prices and 99 out of 100 will probably tell you it's the best thing that's happened all year.

Hand-wringing

But ask that question on Wall Street and you get a very different answer. Traders are wringing their hands over the decline in oil prices and the stock market has gone into an end-of-the-year swoon, right at the time that traders were expecting a “Santa Claus rally.”

What gives?

When oil is viewed as a trading commodity, a sharp decline in price can be catastrophic for the parties that own it. It is similar to the dot com implosion of 2000. When the value of an asset plunges, people who own that asset lose money.

Banks at risk

The concern extends beyond oil traders. Banks have loaned money to small oil exploration companies based on the oil they find selling at $100 a barrel. When it's only worth $50 there are real concerns about the risk associated with that debt.

In the financial world, the plunge in oil prices is seen as a big negative, with ripple effects that extend far beyond energy. But what's it mean for consumers?

A big win for consumers

First, it means it costs less to get around. The drop in gasoline prices is like a big tax cut, putting more money in consumers' pockets.

Eventually, consumers will get around to spending that extra money and that will help stimulate the economy. Businesses are also paying less for fuel, allowing them to grow faster than they might otherwise.

This has happened before – 6 years ago. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis oil prices plunged overnight, falling as low as $30 a barrel at one point. Gasoline prices were below $2 a gallon.

But within months the stock market reached a bottom and surged higher. By June 2009 the economy was growing again, officially ending the Great Recession. Oil prices – and gasoline prices with them – began to rise again.

Lower food costs

In a company podcast, Ron Joelson, executive vice president and chief investment officer at Northwestern Mutual, said U.S. agriculture should be a big beneficiary of low fuel costs, since it's a highly energy-intensive industry. Even food manufacturers and wholesalers should see benefits since transportation costs will be lower.

All of this should translate into lower food costs for consumers – or at least costs that don't go up very much.

With energy costs going down businesses may be more inclined to hire employees. Unemployment is at a relatively low 5.9% but millions of people have dropped out of the labor force, making that number artificially low. Low fuel costs may allow some consumers who have given up to re-enter the workforce.

What consumers perhaps should understand is these low prices probably aren't going to last forever. No one thinks oil prices are going to rebound next month but they probably will rise sooner than most experts think.

So if you were thinking about a small, fuel-efficient car just a few months ago, don't let these low gasoline prices influence you to consider a large SUV instead. If this environment causes dealers to offer a great deal on a hybrid, this is the time to take advantage of it.

Sooner or later, traders will return to the oil market and prices will rise. It happened before and it'll happen again.

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Workers, college students, and taxpayers all can be hurt by mandatory prepaid debit cards

If you get a prepaid card as payment, empty it at once so fees don't destroy its value

For more than a generation now, American college and university tuition costs have increased at a rate far higher than inflation, every year. Up to 40 mill...

PhotoFor more than a generation now, American college and university tuition costs have increased at a rate far higher than inflation, every year. Up to 40 million Americans currently carry some type of student loan debt, which in many ways is far worse than credit card, medical or underwater-mortgage debt because anyone unduly burdened by those debts at least has the “nuclear option” of declaring bankruptcy, destroying their credit rating but starting over with a net worth of zero, as opposed to a net worth that's a large negative number.

But student loan debt is bankruptcy-proof, presumably because teenagers and young 20-somethings who go over their heads in debt attending the wrong college deserve to suffer much harsher consequences than, say, middle-aged people who go over their heads in debt trying to profitably “flip” a house, putting too many luxe vacations on their credit cards, or gambling all their money away at the legal casino nearest them – those poor choices can be discharged in bankruptcy, but student debts cannot. (Quoth the high school guidance counselors who encouraged their charges to take on those loans: “Student loan debt is good debt. It's an investment in yourself!”)

That said: it's possible that certain colleges and universities looked at their young, debt-riddled students and thought, “We are not making as much money off these people as we could be. How can we make more?” And one answer seems to be: by using prepaid debit cards, rather than checks or direct deposit, to disburse students' credit balances (any loan or aid money left over after paying tuition and other bills).

Deals with schools

Credit card companies used to make deals with schools, allowing them to market their products to college students on campus, in exchange for the school's getting a cut. But this on-campus credit card marketing ended in 2009 when Congress passed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act which, among other things, prevented credit card companies from marketing on campus, required students under 21 to get parental permission before signing for a college-branded credit card, and required schools who made contracts with card companies to submit those contracts to regulators.

This week, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report (available in .pdf form here) noting that, as a result of the CARD act, the number of schools and alumni associations offering credit card deals dropped by 60 percent: 448 college credit card agreements in effect as of 2013, down from 1,045 in 2009.

Just how much money do colleges and alumni associations make from those credit card deals, anyway? In 2013, “payments by issuers” totaled $42,934,507, according to the CFPB report, which also noted that Bank of America is the chief issuer of college credit cards.

But students (and graduates) at least can choose whether or not to apply for a college credit card. They can't choose whether to accept refund fees on a debit card – if their school decides to do it, they're stuck.

Big business

How big a business are these cards?

The CFPB report says that

in February 2013, the Bureau launched an inquiry into other financial products and services marketed to college students. The Bureau found that marketing partnerships between institutions of higher education and financial institutions have shifted from credit cards toward debit and prepaid cards since the CARD Act of 2009 …. as noted previously in this report, the Bureau received 448 college credit card agreements for 2013, down from more than a 1,000 such agreements in 2010. For 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that at least 852 schools had agreements covering the provision of debit or prepaid card services to their students.

That's roughly 11 percent of colleges and universities in the U.S.

How much do these debit cards cost the students in fees, and what do the schools get (or pay) for the deal? Those questions cannot always be answered: agreements between colleges and payment-card companies don't have to be made public. Schools need not disclose to students (or their parents) just how much money the schools stand to make off such deals, if they don't want to. And the card companies are not obligated to offer data showing how much they make in fees, either.

Not just schools

Colleges and universities are hardly the only large institutions who've found it lucrative to work with prepaid debit card companies: certain employers and even state governments do, too.

In June 2013, for example, a McDonald's employee in Pennsylvania sued the franchisee she worked for, alleging that she and her fellow employees received their wages on prepaid JPMorgan Chase cards that were riddled with high fees: $1.50 fee for every ATM withdrawal, a per-transaction online payment fee of 75 cents, a $10 inactivity fee after 90 days, and multiple others.

The plaintiff said that she wanted to receive payment through direct deposit at her credit union, but that option was only offered to management; she and her fellow hourly employees were only offered the prepaid card, and couldn't access their own wages without paying various fees first.

That autumn, federal regulators including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reminded employers that it is illegal to require employees to accept their wages on such fee-ridden debit or pre-paid cards.

But there is no such law forbidding state governments from issuing prepaid cards to taxpayers for various reasons. Many states now use prepaid debit cards rather than checks to deliver unemployment benefits.

For example, Bank of America holds the contract to handle unemployment benefits in Maryland, meaning that anytime a Marylander loses a job, Bank of America gets another customer.

The Bank of America webpage discussing the Maryland Unemployment Benefits Debit Card has (as of Dec. 17) a “Program update” in all-red letters, reminding out-of-work Marylanders that: “Because the State of Maryland issues all unemployment insurance payments with the Maryland Unemployment Benefits Prepaid Debit Card, you may not be able to close your account. Maryland requires accounts to remain open in order to allow you to receive payments if you continue to qualify for them. Your Deposit Agreement, which can be viewed below via the Terms & Conditions link, has been updated accordingly.”

Other states made deals with other banks: in Texas, unemployment benefits are paid by Chase Bank debit cards. Georgia's unemployment benefits are dispersed via the “Way2Go” cards issued by Comerica Bank.

Tax refunds

Tax refunds can also come via prepaid cards. In 2013, Virginia started using Way2Go to issue tax refunds, touted as saving the state money off the cost of printing checks but potentially burdening taxpayers with fees to get their own money back. Card recipients were allowed one free transaction, with hefty fees attached to anything after that.

Most government-issued prepaid debit cards are supposed to offer at least one no-fee transaction, letting you get all your money at no additional cost to you. So if you ever get such a card, you should definitely empty all the money off it at once, either in cash or deposited into your own bank or credit union account.

The same holds true for any college student who receives a prepaid debit card for tuition refunds or financial aid: take all the funds at once, and check to ensure you weren't charged any fees for that. And remember that if your school offers you a special deal on a credit card, debit card or other payment scheme, they're not doing this as a favor to you; they're doing this to make money. (Those shiny new administration buildings won't pay for themselves, you know.)

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NY charges major retailers are illegally selling prohibited toy guns

Walmart, Amazon, Kmart, Sears, ordered to stop selling

The fatal police shooting of a 12-year-old in Cleveland who was holding a toy gun has been widely interpreted as evidence of police misconduct. But it is a...

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Surveillance video shows a 12-year-old holding a toy gun in Cleveland

The fatal police shooting of a 12-year-old in Cleveland who was holding a toy gun has been widely interpreted as evidence of police misconduct. But it is also indicative of the dangers posed by toy guns that look like the ral thing.

In New York, it is illegal to sell toy guns in realistic colors such as black, blue, silver or aluminum unless the gun has a non-removable one-inch-wide orange stripe running down both sides of the barrel and the front end of the barrel. 

It's a law that is often ignored, however, at least until today. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced that his office sent cease and desist letters to several major retailers, including Walmart, Amazon, Kmart, and others for allegedly selling prohibited toy guns online to residents of New York State, and, in at least one case, in a K-Mart store in suburban Rochester.

Sears Holdings said its stores would respond immediately.

"The safety of our customers is a top priority. We are in the process of immediately removing any non-compliant toy guns that are offered for sale by Sears or Kmart to New York consumers. We will fully cooperate with the New York Attorney General in its investigation," said Howard Riefs, Sears Holdings Director of Corporate Communications.

The letters call for retailers to immediately stop the in-store and online sale and shipment to New Yorkers of toy guns that violate New York State law pending the resolution of Schneiderman’s investigation. 

“When toy guns are mistaken for real guns, there can be tragic consequences,” said Schneiderman. “New York State law is clear: retailers cannot put children and law enforcement at risk by selling toy guns that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.”

Repeat offender: Walmart

One of the retailers sent a cease and desist letter, Walmart, was the subject of an earlier investigation by the Attorney General’s office into in-store sales of such toys, which resulted in a court order prohibiting them from selling toy guns in New York State.

It now appears that those sales have moved to the online marketplace, Schneiderman said. This new investigation reveals that many prohibited toy guns, priced from less than $10 to as much as several hundred dollars, can be easily purchased online and shipped into the state. The recent investigation also uncovered that at least one retailer is selling illegal toy guns in its stores.

Some of the toy guns discovered during the investigation are advertised as “realistic looking” and “full size.” Since they lack the orange striping down both sides of the barrel as required under state law, these imitation assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols closely resemble dangerous weapons, and could be easily mistaken for real weapons by law enforcement and civilians alike. 

Since 1997, at least four individuals have been killed in New York State, and one child was seriously wounded, when law enforcement officers mistook toy guns for real guns, Schneiderman said.

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Tennessee town tries banning social media criticism

Clueless commissioners in South Pittsburg now criticized worldwide

Pre-emptive warning to any readers who might want to post comments about this story: if you live in or near South Pittsburg, Tennessee, there's a good chan...

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South Pittsburg residents at the 2013 National Cornbread Festival (Photo: Nationalcornbreadfestival.com)

Pre-emptive warning to any readers who might want to post comments about this story: if you live in or near South Pittsburg, Tennessee, there's a good chance that it's illegal for you to do so.

Granted, the law making it illegal is itself almost sure to be overturned on constitutional grounds, so if you actually were arrested or prosecuted under this law you could sue, and eventually win, and maybe even have an inspirational cable-TV movie made about your experiences … but this will all take several years, and you'd have a miserable time of it in the meanwhile.

Last week, city commissioners in the Chattanooga suburb of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, voted 4-1 to ban any negative comments about the city or its government on any forms of social media.

The town was, until now, best known as the home of the National Cornbread Festival.

This ban does not apply to everybody in the world, however, only to any of South Pittsburg's elected representatives, appointed board members, employees, volunteers, vendors, contractors and anybody else associated with the town in any official capacity, all of whom are now forbidden to post anything critical on any blogs, Facebook discussions, Twitter or any other forms of social media.

"Just an industry standard"

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Commissioner Powers and Mayor Dawkins

The Chattanooga Times Free-Press quoted South Pittsburg City Commissioner Jeff Powers as saying that this ban was necessary because sometimes the commissioners had to spend time discussing negative comments people had made.

“It seems like every few meetings we're having to address something that's been on Facebook and created negative publicity,” he said. “This is just an industry standard nowadays.”

Every few meetings! Yikes. When the writers of America's Constitution included First Amendment guarantee of free speech (including speech critical of the government), they surely never intended that elected representatives might actually have to address those criticisms or face negative publicity every few meetings or so, right?

However, Powers rejected any accusations that city employees were being banned from social media:

“The first thing everyone wants to say is 'I can't post anything on Facebook.' Well, you can. Just not [anything] that sheds a negative light on any person, entity, board or things of that nature. You can go ahead and post all you want.”

City attorney Billy Gouger agreed with this interpretation, saying that the new policy is not intended to infringe on free-speech rights. “What this policy tries to do is reconcile that right with other rights,” he said. “It does, to some extent, limit your ability to criticize or comment in an official capacity.”

He didn't mention what those “other rights” are – presumably the “right” for city commissioners to not have to address criticism? Nor does he explain the apparent contradiction of how something specifically designed to “limit your ability to comment or criticize,” as he said, can be construed as anything other than an infringement on free speech.

"Out-and-out lies..."

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Civic leaders at the 2013 cornbread festival (Photo: Nationalcornbreadfestival.com)

The city's mayor, Jane Dawkins, also supports the ban, saying it's necessary because “Criticism is one thing … Out-and-out lies and untruths, that's another thing. Those kinds of things are the things that will be directed.” Of course, current free-speech protections already exclude slander and libel, again making South Pittsburg's new law unnecessary.

The one South Pittsburg commissioner who voted against the ban was Paul Don King, who said he could see both sides of the argument but voted against the ban because it infringed on city employees' freedom of speech.

While city employees, vendors, contractors and others might be forbidden to criticize the city or its leaders, the rest of the Internet is not, and naturally responded to the ban on social-media criticism by criticizing the hell out of the city on social media.

Parody Twitter feeds sprang up thanks to anonymous people portraying Mayor Dawkins or Commissioner Powers (who, among other things, decreed that “Any temperature below 0 is henceforth banned. #DownWithNegatives”).

A Facebook page dedicated to the town got lots of new visitors and comments, almost entirely critical of the news story. Some people offered well-meaning and helpful criticism:

Is this the kind of press coverage the city officials want?? We grow from our mistakes and being able to hear the good, not-so-good and the ugly should help us dig deeper to work a workable solution. People can complain but have another idea for a solution.

Meanwhile, other Facebook commenters were more interested in criticizing the city solely for the sake of criticizing it:

“I don't live in Tenn. I live in Arizona. Are they going to ban me from talking about HOW DUMB YOUR LEADERS ARE! Can I say that and what will they do if I say it? Stupid asses.”

Another commenter with possibly shaky math skills posted

“Two words. Streisand Effect. Google it.”

Formerly clueless

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Barbra Streisand's estate (Photo via Wikipedia)

It does seem safe to say – not as criticism, merely as a neutral observation – that perhaps the city government of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, never heard of the “Streisand Effect,” named after famed singer and formerly clueless privacy buff Barbra Streisand.

Know Your Meme  defines it as “the unintended consequence of further publicizing information by trying to have it censored. Instead of successfully removing the information from the public, it becomes even more widely available than before as a backlash against the censorship attempt.”

The label first arose in 2003, after a photographer trying to document the rate of coastal beach erosion in California took a series of airborne photos of the coast. Of course, many photos of the California coast also show various structures built on the coast, including a mansion belonging to Streisand.

Streisand, through her lawyers, tried to have those photos containing her mansion removed from the erosion survey, citing her privacy. (For what it's worth, the photo shows a large white mansion atop a sandy bluff leading down to the beach. Nice, and obviously expensive, but there is absolutely nothing about it to indicate who owns it or lives there.)

Streisand's lawsuit gained a lot of media attention, and millions of people who had absolutely no interest in looking at photos documenting California beach erosion were nonetheless very interested in looking at a specific photo which Barbra Streisand deliberately tried to quash.

And until last week, it was safe to say that few people outside of southwestern Tennessee had even heard of the city of South Pittsburg, let alone cared enough to criticize it.

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3D printing gives dog a new leash on life

Derby the dog becomes a canine blade runner

Imagine being a dog seeing a ball but never being able to run for it let alone walk to it....

PhotoImagine being a dog seeing a ball but never being able to run for it let alone walk to it.

3D printing technology has completely changed that scenario for one lucky dog. Derby was born with a birth defect, a congenital deformity characterized by small forearms and no front paws. He was only able to get around on soft surfaces. Places like the sidewalk were off-limits because he would scrape up his legs.

3D Systems employee Tara Anderson had been fostering Derby through a rescue group Peace and Paws in Hillsborough, N.H. She tried to help Derby initially with a cart and wheels but saw that it really didn't give him true mobility. She knew that 3D technology could create prosthetics to help Derby walk.  

Anderson recruited two designers along with Derrick Campana, an animal orthotist. They scanned Derby’s legs and made cradles and blades that fit him perfectly. The team used Geomagic Freeform, a digital sculpting platform, which allowed them to create organic shapes and smooth curves for Derby’s shape.

The prosthetics were made in just a few hours and shipped so Derby could try them out.

“The beauty of 3D printing is that if the design needs to be adjusted, we don’t have to wait for time-consuming and expensive traditional manufacturing processes, we can simply print out a new set,” said Buddy Byrum, Vice President of Product and Channel Management, 3DS.

“The dovetailing of 3D scanning and design with the ProJet 5500X multi-material 3D printing allowed for the creation of complete prosthetics printed in a single build, custom-fit to Derby,” he said.

Derby now has new owners, Sherri and Dom Portanova, and he is able to run all over them as well as past them, as shown in this video:

“He runs with Sherri and I every day, at least two to three miles,” said Dom Portanova. “When I saw him sprinting like that on his new legs it was just amazing.”

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Air pollution in pregnancy linked to increased autism risk

Genetics and airborne pollution seen as significant

Pregnant women exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter -- particularly during the third trimester -- may face up to twice the risk of having a ch...

PhotoPregnant women exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter -- particularly during the third trimester -- may face up to twice the risk of having a child with autism than mothers living in areas with low particulate matter, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

The greater the exposure, the greater the risk, researchers found. It was the first U.S.-wide study exploring the link between airborne particulate matter and autism.

"Our data add additional important support to the hypothesis that maternal exposure to air pollution contributes to the risk of autism spectrum disorders," said Marc Weisskopf, associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology and senior author of the study. "The specificity of our findings for the pregnancy period, and third trimester in particular, rules out many other possible explanations for these findings."

Pollution and genetics

Prior studies have suggested that, in addition to genetics, exposure to airborne environmental contaminants, particularly during pregnancy and early life, may affect risk of autism. This study focused specifically on the pregnancy period.

"The evidence base for a role for maternal exposure to air pollution increasing the risk of autism spectrum disorders is becoming quite strong," said Weisskopf. "This not only gives us important insight as we continue to pursue the origins of autism spectrum disorders, but as a modifiable exposure, opens the door to thinking about possible preventative measures."

The study population included offspring of participants living in all 50 states in Nurses' Health Study II, a cohort of more than 116,000 female U.S. nurses begun in 1989. The researchers collected data on where participants lived during their pregnancies as well as data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other sources on levels of fine particulate matter air pollution.

The researchers identified 245 children who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a control group of 1,522 children without ASD during the time period studied.

Exposure to particulate matter was significantly associated with autism during pregnancy, but not before or after, the study found. And during the pregnancy, the third trimester specifically was significantly associated with an increased risk.

The study appears online in Environmental Health Perspectives.

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No lie -- you can stop your kid from lying

Fear of punishment doesn't work

The best way to help your child tell the truth and be honest, is to not threaten them with punishment if they spill the beans and fess up. That's the prima...

PhotoThe best way to help your child tell the truth and be honest, is to not threaten them with punishment if they spill the beans and fess up. That's the primary finding of a study conducted at McGill University in Canada with 372 children between the ages of 4 and 8.

The study left each child in a room alone for one minute with a toy that was placed behind them on a table. Researchers told the child not to look behind them to see the toy, then left the room. A hidden camera recorded what went on in their absence.

When the researchers returned to the room, they asked the child a simple question: “When I was gone, did you turn around and peek at the toy?”

Some kids were told, “If you looked at the toy, you will be in trouble” and others were told, “If you looked at the toy, you won't be in trouble.”

Lots of little liars

It will come as no surprise that 68 percent of the kids looked at the toy, and almost all of them (67 percent) lied about doing so. Results indicated that with age, children are more likely to lie and maintain their lie during follow-up questioning.

What was interesting was that children were less likely to tell the truth if they feared a consequence, as opposed to telling the truth either because it would please the adult or because it was the right thing to do and would make the child feel good.

The research found that younger children were more intent on telling the truth because they thought it would please the adults, the older children had more of a conscience which made them tell the truth because it was the right thing to do.

“The bottom line is that punishment does not promote truth-telling,” says Victoria Talwar of McGill’s Dept. of Educational and Counselling Psychology, the lead researcher on the study. “In fact, the threat of punishment can have the reverse effect by reducing the likelihood that children will tell the truth when encouraged to do so."

Talwar added that  parents can encourage honesty by creating a safe place to tell the truth. 

 

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"Hypoallergenic" means what, exactly?

Not much, according to some experts

"Hypoallergenic" is like "natural" -- it just makes you feel good all over, as long as you don't break out in a rash. Neither word has any legal meaning, a...

Photo"Hypoallergenic" is like "natural" -- it just makes you feel good all over, as long as you don't break out in a rash. Neither word has any legal meaning, and should basically be considred as marketing hype.

Many consumers seek out shampoos, soaps and cosmetics that are labeled "hypoallergenic" or "dermatologist tested," words that imply the products are safe to use. But recent research gives shoppers reason to question what those labels really mean.

Now some scientists and consumer advocates are calling for change, according to an article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society.

Britt E. Erickson, a senior editor at C&EN, notes that the definitions of the terms "hypoallergenic" and "dermatologist tested/recommended" is currently left to the manufacturers that put them on their products. The Food and Drug Administration has not set any standards for using these descriptions.

Regulation challenged

The last time the agency attempted to do so was in the 1970s, but cosmetic industry giants Almay and Clinique challenged the regulation and ultimately won in an appeals court.

A recent study led by Carsten R. Hamann, a medical student at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California, confirms that the hypoallergenic label on many products, particularly those marketed for children, is meaningless.

The researchers find that many products labeled as hypoallergenic contain at least one known skin allergen.

Hamann and colleagues analyzed 187 personal care products intended for children from six retailers in California. They looked for 80 common allergens, including fragrances, preservatives, and surfactants. All of the products were labeled “hypo­allergenic,” “dermatologist recommended/tested,” “fragrance free,” or “paraben free.”

Of the products studied, 89% contained at least one chemical known to cause contact dermatitis and 11% contained five or more contact allergens. 

The products included shampoos and conditioners, sunscreens, diaper creams, and “anything marketed toward kids that was supposed to be used on skin,” Hamann says.

Some companies are self-regulating and moving away from using certain compounds, such as those that release formaldehyde. But that doesn't necessarily guarantee a safer product. And one preservative that some manufacturers have turned to in place of parabens, which are endocrine disruptors, can cause allergic reactions. Some researchers are calling for the FDA to step in. But for now, it is up to consumers to shop by trial and error.

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Texas company sued for sham credit card

Consumers were duped into thinking the company was affiliated with unions

When is a credit card not a credit card? According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), when it's offered by Union Workers Credit Services. ...

PhotoWhen is a credit card not a credit card? According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), when it's offered by Union Workers Credit Services.

The agency is suing the  Texas-based company on charges it deceived consumers into paying fees to sign up for a sham credit card. According to the CFPB the company falsely advertises a general-use credit card that -- in actuality -- can only be used to buy products from the company.

Union Workers Credit Services also deceptively implies an affiliation with unions by -- among other things -- using pictures of nurses, firefighters, and other public servants in its advertising, the lawsuit says. The court action seeks compensation for victims, a civil penalty and an injunction against the company.

“The business model for Union Workers Credit Services is built on duping consumers into signing up for a sham credit card,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Hundreds of thousands of people, including a great many union members who were specially targeted, have been tricked into spending millions of dollars for a so-called credit card that can really only be used to buy the company’s own products. From the misleading photos of nurses and firemen on its website to its bogus credit card, Union Workers Credit Services is illegally deceiving consumers.”

History of deception alleged

The CFPB claims that the company, which has been in operation since roughly 2004, generates the vast majority of the its revenue from selling a buying-club membership card that it falsely advertises as a general-purpose credit card.

Most consumers never use the membership card but cannot recoup their membership fees -- $37 if they apply through the mail or $95 if they apply online. Union Workers Credit Services allegedly has collected membership fees from hundreds of thousands of consumers throughout the U.S., totaling millions of dollars.

According to the lawsuit, Union Workers Credit Services is:

  • Falsely advertising a general-use credit card: The complaint alleges that through direct-mail ads and on its website, the company advertises a credit card that it falsely implies is for general use. The company’s ads suggest to consumers they can receive a pre-approved “platinum card” with a credit limit of up to $10,000 and a 5% annual percentage rate. The offer says consumers do not have to worry if they “have been denied access to a Visa or MasterCard.” Later, many consumers realize what they really bought was a buying-club membership card to purchase only goods from the company itself, rather than from other retailers.
  • Falsely advertising an association with unions: The CFPB also claims that the company deceives consumers by falsely suggesting that it is affiliated with labor unions. The banner of its website has photos of police, firefighters, and medical workers. The online application form asks consumers to select their union membership from a drop-down list.
  • Misusing consumer credit reports: Federal law requires that when companies use consumer credit reports to target certain advertisements to consumers without their advance consent, they must advise those consumers of their right to opt out of receiving such advertising. The lawsuit alleges that Union Workers Credit Services failed to do this.

Thousands of consumers have filed complaints with law enforcement agencies and the Better Business Bureau about Union Workers Credit Services, which has also been sued by multiple government authorities, including the New York State Attorney General and the U.S. Postal Service.

In addition to seeking to stop the alleged unlawful practices of Union Workers Credit Services, CFPB has requested that the court impose penalties on the company for its conduct and require compensation be paid to consumers who have been harmed.  

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Another drop in weekly jobless claims

And there are more signs of continued moderate economic growth

The number of people filling out initial applications for state unemployment benefits continued to decline last week. According to the Labor Department (D...

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia


The number of people filling out initial applications for state unemployment benefits continued to decline last week.

According to the Labor Department (DOL) first-time jobless claims totaled a seasonally adjusted 289,000, in the week ending December 13 down 6,000 from the previous week's level, which had been revised up by 1,000 -- to 295,000.

Economists at Briefing.com, who were forecasting a total of 292,000 claims, says the claims data continue to suggest an economy at, or near, full employment.

The 4-week moving average, which strips out the volatility in the weekly number, and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was down 750 from the week before to 298,750.

The full report is available on the DOL website.

 

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© kbuntu - Fotolia

Economic indicators

In other economic developments, The Conference Board reports its Leading Economic Index (LEI) was up 0.6% in November, following an identical increase in October, and a jump of 0.8% in September.

“The increase in the LEI signals continued moderate growth through the winter season,” said Conference Board Economist Ken Goldstein. “The biggest challenge has been, and remains, more income growth. However, with labor market conditions tightening, we are seeing the first signs of wage growth starting to pick up.”

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Bleating Heart Cheese recalls various cheeses

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Bleating Heart Cheese (BHC) is recalling some of its sheep milk and cow’s milk cheese produced in late May, late June and early July of 2014 A sampling by...

PhotoBleating Heart Cheese (BHC) is recalling some of its sheep milk and cow’s milk cheese produced in late May, late June and early July of 2014

A sampling by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) that found the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in at least one sample of the following cheeses:

  • “Ewelicious Blue” – natural rind, aged 2 – 3 months, identifying code 14-0618 on the bottom side of the label
  • “Fat Bottom Girl” - natural rind, aged 2 – 3 months, identifying code 14-0702 on the bottom side of the label
  • “Goldette Tommette” - natural rind, aged 2 – 3 months, identifying code 14-0527 on the bottom side of the label

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The above cheeses and lot numbers were distributed or sold beginning on October, 2014 to distributors servicing the San Francisco Bay area retail food shops, restaurants and stores.

Consumers who purchased the recalled products should return them to the distributor for a full refund. The cost of the returned cheese will be covered by BHC upon proof of purchase.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 858-472-1754 ions (Monday-Friday 9:00am-4:00pm PST) or by email at dave@bleatingheart.com.

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Trend-watchers offer predictions for 2015

More secure ways to pay and stronger economic growth could be in our futures

It's that time of year again. No, not the holidays. The time when trend-watchers peer into their crystal balls and make bold predictions about what the upc...

PhotoIt's that time of year again. No, not the holidays. The time when trend-watchers peer into their crystal balls and make bold predictions about what the upcoming year might bring.

J. Walter Thompson and its affiliate, JWT Intelligence, look for trends in industry, technology, business, culture, beauty, health and wellness, food and drink, lifestyle, retail, travel and sustainability. They see a number of trends taking shape in 2015.

Among them is what the company calls Food 2.0 Start-ups. There are already businesses hard at work creating new kinds of food and this effort should only get bigger in the year ahead. JWT Intelligence reports food-science startups are beginning to draw serious venture capital. That could translate into new food products in the months ahead.

Feminism

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Via YouTube

In culture, feminism is evolving – “rebooted for the digital era,” according to JWT. As a result, feminist rhetoric is occupying the center of popular discourse. JWT points to examples ranging from Sarah Silverman’s viral video about the pay gap in the U.S. to toy manufacturer GoldieBlox championing girl coders, to Disney’s "Frozen" co-opting parents with its female-friendship narrative rather than the traditional prince-rescues-princess theme.

In technology look for big changes in the way we pay for things, which may take on new urgency in the wake of hacking concerns. To improve security, JWT says businesses are starting to adopt systems that identify and authenticate people based on physical or behavioral characteristics.

As a result, iris scans, digital fingerprints, voice prints, vein or facial maps could become more common in 2015.

Economic growth

Meanwhile, personal finance website WalletHub.com is making predictions about the U.S. economy in 2015. Among them, that the U.S. economy will grow at about 3%.

Economic growth in 2014 has been inconsistent to say the least. If you'll recall the economy actually fell into negative territory in the first quarter of this year, a fact blamed on the polar vortex.

At the same time, the company predicts the unemployment rate will continue to decline as businesses grow and need more employees. WalletHub predicts the jobless rate will hit 5% in 2015.

Other predictions include a 3% increase in average wages, a rising stock market, continued low interest rates and a slight boost in home prices. Rising incomes would be a key development since many consumers have been treading water the last 5 years.

“A lack of wage growth is one reason many people have questioned the strength of the economic recovery, or at least its equality, and it will continue to serve as an easily identifiable example of this country’s income divide moving forward,” the authors write.

As for gasoline prices, they should continue to remain well below $3 a gallon in most areas as the price of oil will drop to $50 a barrel before it stabilizes. In fact, the price is closing in on that price level even before the end of 2014.

Track record

How did trend predictors do last year? You be the judge.

At the end of 2013 JWT predicted 3D printing would make major advances in 2014. In fact, it has. Late this year researchers were designing techniques to replicate human organs through 3D printing.

JWT also predicted 2014 would be a big year for virtual reality, allowing “arm chair travel.” As the year draws to a close there are virtual reality workout programs, allowing you to do your workout in the Swiss Alps if you choose.

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Sprint faces huge fine for unauthorized charges

It's the latest to be snagged for wireless cramming violations

In October, AT&T Wireless was fined $105 million for billing customers hundreds of millions of dollars for bogus cellphone subscriptions to horoscopes, lov...

PhotoIn October, AT&T Wireless was fined $105 million for billing customers hundreds of millions of dollars for bogus cellphone subscriptions to horoscopes, love tips and other detritus they had never ordered. It was the largest fine in the FCC's history.

Now it's Sprint's turn. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) today sued Sprint charging it illegally billed wireless consumers tens of millions of dollars in unauthorized third-party charges.

“Today we are suing Sprint for allowing illegal charges to be crammed onto consumers’ wireless bills,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Consumers ended up paying tens of millions of dollars in unauthorized charges, even though many of them had no idea that third parties could even place charges on their bills. As the use of mobile payments grows, we will continue to hold wireless carriers accountable for illegal third-party billing.”

The Bureau’s complaint alleges that Sprint operated a billing system that allowed third parties to “cram” unauthorized charges on customers’ mobile-phone accounts and ignored complaints about the charges. The CFPB seeks refunds for affected consumers and penalties to deter unauthorized third-party charges in the future.

The practice of billing customers for third-party services they did not order is known as cramming, and it is one of the plagues of the deregulated telecommunications environment. The charges tend to be small -- usually about $10 a month -- and are often missed by consumers when they examine their bills each month.

The charges are for such generally useless services as horoscopes, ring tones, sports scores and other information and features that are widely available at no charge on the Internet. 

The CFPB said that Sprint outsourced payment processing for these digital purchases to vendors called “billing aggregators” without properly monitoring them.

The lack of oversight gave aggregators near unfettered access to consumers’ wireless accounts. Sprint’s system attracted and enabled unscrupulous merchants who, in some cases, only needed consumers’ phone numbers to cram illegitimate charges onto wireless bills. The charges ranged from one-time fees of about $0.99 – $4.99 to monthly subscriptions that cost about $9.99 a month. Sprint received a 30-40 percent cut of the gross revenue from these charges.

Most consumers were targeted online. Consumers clicked on ads that brought them to websites asking them to enter their cellphone numbers. Some merchants tricked consumers into providing their cellphone numbers to receive “free” digital content and then charged for it. Many others simply placed fabricated charges on bills without delivering any goods or communicating with consumers, the suit alleges.

Others charged

Besides AT&T, the FCC has also sued T-Mobile in a case that is still pending. Prosecutors have said they will argue that T-Mobile made hundreds of millions of dollars through similar cramming schemes.

Sprint PCS  Dec. 17, 2014, 2:22 a.m.
Consumers rate Sprint PCS

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other agencies have gone after the third-party operators who promote the schemes and process the bills. 

Today the FTC said that one of the defendants behind a massive landline cramming operation that placed more than $70 million in unauthorized charges on consumers’ phone bills has agreed to settle charges against him.

Nathan M. Sann, one of the defendants in the American eVoice, Ltd. case has agreed to settle the FTC’s charges related to his alleged participation in the scheme.

In its complaint, the FTC alleged that the operation placed charges ranging from $9.95 to $24.95 per month on consumers’ landline phone bills for voicemail services they never signed up for and never even knew they had.  The case against the other entities and individuals involved in the scheme is on-going.

The settlement contains a monetary judgment of more than $21 million, which represents the amount of consumer injury attributable to Sann during his involvement with the scam.  The judgment will be suspended due to Sann’s inability to pay upon his surrender of certain personal assets.  Under the terms of the settlement, if Sann has misrepresented his financial condition, the full judgment would become due.

In August, the FTC reached a settlement from Andrew Bachman, who with a number of other defendants pitched text message services offering “love tips,” “fun facts,” and celebrity gossip alerts, and placed charges for these services – typically $9.99 a month – on consumers’ wireless bills without their permission.

Bachman, who appears to be typical of the relatively small operators who have turned wireless telecommunications networks into treacherous territory, agreed to surrender more than $1.2 million in assets, including the contents of numerous bank accounts, two luxury cars, shares in a number of startup companies and multiple luxury watches.

Unlike Bachman and other small-time defendants who lose all of their personal assets in negotiated settlements, AT&T, Sprint and other telecom giants simply pay the fines and move on, their executives free of personal liability and virtually never threatened with jail terms for the misdeeds that occurred on their watch.  

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Spirit of Black Friday extending well into December

Survey shows consumers are still in search of bargains, and finding them

Maybe one reason Black Friday sales were a bit disappointing to retailers is consumers appear to be in no rush to wrap up their holiday shopping. American ...

PhotoMaybe one reason Black Friday sales were a bit disappointing to retailers is consumers appear to be in no rush to wrap up their holiday shopping. American Express predicts the vast majority of shoppers plan to be in stores right up until Christmas, and even the day after.

With sales starting in early November savvy consumers are betting the deals will only get better as the big day draws closer. American Express says it's a definite shift from previous years.

“This year’s holiday shopping season does not seem to have a clear-cut beginning, middle or end,” said David Rabkin, Senior Vice President of Consumer Lending Products at American Express. “Americans are spending steadily over a longer period of time, willing to hold out for better deals, even planning to hit the stores even after Christmas to get the gifts they want at the right price.”

More last-minute shoppers

In American Express' survey, 79% of consumers said they plan to do last minute shopping, up from 75% last year. Average projected spending on the day after Christmas, known as Boxing Day in the UK, is $192, up from $188 in 2013.

Regifting is also becoming more common. About 75% now say giving an unwanted gift to someone else is socially acceptable, with kitchenware the most likely gift to be repurposed. So if you give someone on your list a set of steak knives, it's likely to end up as someone else's birthday present.

Electronics are the least likely items to be regifted. After all, who doesn't like a new gadget?

Returns

While re-gifting is getting more popular, plenty of people will be lining up at customer service to return or exchange a gift. Among shoppers who plan to return and/or exchange gifts the day after Christmas, 95% say they plan to spend the same or more at the store that day.

And returning a gift is not nearly the social faux pas it once was. Nearly half of consumers say they have no qualms about telling the person who gave them the gift that they returned it.

Despite lower gasoline prices and an improving economy, this holiday season is not shaping up as one of over-indulgence. In fact, more shoppers – 70% – insist they are sticking to their budgets this year.

Higher holiday costs

Tempering the urge to splurge are some unexpected higher holiday season costs. Shipping costs are up this year, as are holiday decorations and wrapping paper. And even though oil prices have plunged, holiday air travel hasn't gotten any cheaper.

While consumers have done a good job of trimming their gift lists this year, more consumers have shopped for an additional person – themselves. American Express projects 74% of consumers will have bought themselves a gift this year, up from 53% last year. Not surprisingly, more than half those purchases will be impulse buys.

Feeding the trend

Retailers are feeding the trend for ongoing bargain hunting by continuing promotions that typically end with Cyber Monday. Walmart.com this week launched Cyber Monday 2.0, offering deals on electronics, toys and games, appliances and jewelry. There's free shipping on orders over $50.

Other retailers are slashing prices with more than a week to go before Christmas. According to BlackFriday.com, Amazon.com this week marked down the popular video game Assassin's Creed for Playstation 4 from $59.99 to $29.99.

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Parking lots and their payment vendors are the popular new hacker targets

Park-n-Fly, the St. Louis Parking Company and their customers all among the latest victims

Take note if you've paid to park your car recently: various banks are reporting a series of fraudulent credit card charges suggesting that hackers managed ...

PhotoTake note if you've paid to park your car recently: various banks are reporting a series of fraudulent credit card charges suggesting that hackers managed to steal information belonging to online customers of Park-n-Fly, an Atlanta-based offsite airport parking and valet service whose customers can reserve parking spots for themselves in advance.

Parking services, or the vendors which process their payments, seem to be the latest popular hackers' target. Last month, hackers attacked the payment vendor for SP+ Parking, owner of thousands of parking garages across the country, and in St. Louis, the St. Louis Parking Company recently announced the discovery that hackers had access to their customer credit card data for most of the month of October.

Security blogger Brian Krebs notes that card numbers stolen in such hackings are being offered for sale in the same “underground crime store” where hackers sold data stolen in earlier breaches at Target and Home Depot.

As always when news of a hacking breaks, take care to closely scrutinize your credit or debit-card bills, to ensure all the charges there are legitimate. Of course, you should be in the habit of doing that anyway, whether you've patronized a recently hacked business or not.

Park 'N Fly Canada is a separate, unaffiliated company and was not affected by the breach, a spokesman said.

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Heat boosts phthalate emissions from vinyl crib mattress covers

Infants are exposed to fumes from the covers for 12 to 14 hours per day

Keeping kids safe from potentially toxic chemicals isn't always as easy as it sounds. Take phthalates, for example. It's a chemical that's used to make pla...

PhotoKeeping kids safe from potentially toxic chemicals isn't always as easy as it sounds. Take phthalates, for example. It's a chemical that's used to make plastic softer but it has been linked to potential health effects, including reproductive issues and an increased risk for asthma and allergies.

Trying to reduce the risk, Congress banned six kinds of phthalates from toys in 2008, and manufacturers have been turning to alternative plasticizers, which are different phthalates. 

A new study aims to improve scientists' understanding of one possible exposure route for babies: vinyl crib mattress covers. Scientists report in the American Chemical Society's "Environmental Science & Technology" that as these covers warm up, they emit more phthalates into the air.

But little is known about the toxicity of these replacements and it's unclear whether they waft into the air that infants breathe for 12 to 14 hours per day at potentially harmful levels.

Ying Xu and Yirui Liang decided to find out whether infants, who breathe in far more air (given their low body weight) than adults, might be getting exposed to high levels of alternative phthalates.

The researchers tested the amounts of the alternative-phthalate plasticizers released from vinyl crib mattress covers at different temperatures and estimated how much of that the infants might breathe in.

They found that, under warm conditions, the covers emitted significantly higher levels of phthalates that could cause a baby's exposure to increase four-fold. They say the preliminary study is an essential first step to investigating the potential risk posed by these new phthalates.

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14 indicted in 2012 meningitis outbreak that killed 64

Charges against New England Compounding Center pharmacists include second-degree murder

A 131-count criminal indictment was unsealed today in Boston in connection with the 2012 nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak caused by contaminated vials...

PhotoA 131-count criminal indictment was unsealed today in Boston in connection with the 2012 nationwide fungal meningitis outbreak caused by contaminated vials of medication prepared by the New England Compounding Center (NECC). Sixty-four people died and 751 were sickened.

Barry J. Cadden, owner and head pharmacist of the compounding pharmacy and supervisory pharmacist Glenn A. Chin were charged with 25 acts of second-degree murder in Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.   

The outbreak was caused by contaminated vials of preservative-free methylprednisolone acetate (MPA) manufactured by NECC, located in Framingham, Massachusetts.  

Twelve other individuals, all associated with NECC, including six other pharmacists, the director of operations, the national sales director, an unlicensed pharmacy technician, two of NECC’s owners, and one other individual were charged with additional crimes including racketeering, mail fraud, conspiracy, contempt, structuring, and violations of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

“As alleged in the indictment, these employees knew they were producing their medication in an unsafe manner and in insanitary conditions, and authorized it to be shipped out anyway, with fatal results,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.  “Actions like the ones alleged in this case display not only a reckless disregard for health and safety regulations, but also an extreme and appalling indifference to human life."

The 25 second-degree murders are included in the indictment as predicate racketeering acts under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).  These charges relate to patients who received NECC MPA and died in Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. 

Generally speaking, second-degree murder does not require the government to prove Cadden and Chin had specific intent to kill the 25 patients, but rather that Cadden and Chin acted with extreme indifference to human life.

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Consumer prices drop in November thanks to lower gasoline costs

Energy costs overall were lower

The plunging cost of gasoline sent consumer prices spiraling downward in November. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the sharpest decline in gasolin...

PhotoThe plunging cost of gasoline sent consumer prices spiraling downward in November.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the sharpest decline in gasoline prices in almost 6 years pushed the Consumer Price Index (CPI) down 0.3% last month. Over the past 12 months, the CPI is up a modest 1.3%.

Energy prices

Overall, energy prices fell 3.8%, the fifth decline in a row. Gasoline was down 6.6% in November -- the sharpest decline since December 2008, and has fallen 10.5% over the last 12 months. The cost of fuel oil was down 3.5%, its ninth consecutive decline. Natural gas prices dipped 1.7%, while electricity was the only energy component to rise; it increased 0.1% last month and has risen 2.8% over the past year.

Food costs

Food prices, on the other hand, rose 0.2% on top of a 0.1% increase the month before. The cost of meats, poultry, fish, and eggs was up 0.6% as beef and veal posted their tenth consecutive increase. Nonalcoholic beverage prices rose 0.5%, and the index for other food at home increased 0.4%. In contrast, prices for fruits and vegetables were down 0.7%, dairy and related products and cereals and bakery products both fell 0.2%.

Core inflation

Prices for all items excluding food and energy -- the so-called “core rate” of inflation advanced 0.1% percent in November, with shelter costs up 0.3%, and prices for medical care, airline fares and alcoholic beverages also higher. The costs of apparel, used cars and trucks, recreation, household furnishings and operations, personal care, and new vehicles all declined. The core rate of inflation over the last 12 months is up 1.7%.

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

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Dish dishes up Netflix

It's the first pay-TV service to add the popular streaming channel

Dish has been in the news lately for dropping, then reinstating, CNN and CBS stations in licensing disputes. Now it's adding something -- Netflix, the most...

PhotoDish has been in the news lately for dropping, then reinstating, CNN and CBS stations in licensing disputes. Now it's adding something -- Netflix, the most popular and widely-watched streaming network.

Netflix will be available on Dish's second-generation Hopper box, rolling out today. That gives customers the ability to instantly stream Netflix movies and TV shows, including "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black," from the same platform used to access their linear television channels.

"This app integration eliminates the need to switch television inputs to access content on varying devices. It gives our customers easy access to their favorite shows and movies, on both DISH and Netflix, without ever having to leave their Hopper," said Vivek Khemka, Dish senior vice president of product management.

Hopper customers will find the same Netflix user interface found on most other platforms. The app is easily accessible from any channel by clicking the blue button on the Dish remote and selecting the Netflix icon, or from the Netflix icon on the Hopper main menu. 

The Netflix app is currently available on all broadband-connected second-generation Hopper set-top boxes. In the coming months, DISH expects the app to rollout to Joey, Super Joey and Wireless Joey clients.

Additionally, in the future, titles available on Netflix could be integrated into the search functionality across live, recorded and Video On Demand programs for both the Hopper as well as DISH's forthcoming OTT service.

 

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How much is that doggie in the window?

Pet store puppies often come from puppy mills, canine concentration camps

The holiday season is often a time when families think about adding a dog to their homes. The look of joy on a child’s face when he sees that adorable litt...

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If we ate like a cat, we'd have heart disease

Cats aren't like dogs. Or people, for that matter.

Many people feed their dogs like they feed their family. I have a sister who buys her maltese a cooked chicken from Costco each week. She cooks for her dog...

PhotoMany people feed their dogs like they feed their family. I have a sister who buys her Maltese a cooked chicken from Costco each week. She cooks for her dog like it was one of her kids.

If she had a cat it might not turn out too well. Nutrition for cats is a little more complicated than it is for dogs. Cats are carnivores. They need a lot of meat for protein and for fat.

"If we ate like cats, we'd have heart disease by age 20," said Louise Murray, DVM, vice president of the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York. She says that cats aren't like dogs nor are they like humans.

Because people don't know better they treat their cats like their dogs and think they can throw them random leftovers as they do their dogs. Some people even feed their cats dog food and that can be fatal over a period of time because cats aren't getting the proper nutrition. Dog food has a lot of carbs in it and cats can't digest them well.

Cats also have trouble with obesity and carbs tend to pack on the pounds which in turn can make a cat susceptible to diabetes.

"Feeding cats correctly is definitely a ʻpay me now or pay me laterʼ issue," said veterinarian Lisa A. Pierson on her website, catinfo.org.

High on the list is water. Cats need water and are prone to kidney problems without it, although cats themselves are not too aware of this.

"Cats do not have a very strong thirst drive when compared to other species. Therefore, it is critical for them to ingest a water-rich diet. Think of canned food as flushing your cat's urinary tract several times a day," Pierson said. "This is a very important tool to keep your cat from developing urinary tract problems including life-threatening urethral blockages, infection, inflammation (cystitis), and possibly chronic kidney disease which is a leading cause of death in cats."

Too dry

Pierson is not a big fan of dry cat food. The water content is low and dry cat food is full of carbs. 

You can ask your own vet what they recommend for your cat. Many factors will decide how and what you should feed them. Does your cat just stay indoors or is it a more active outdoor cat? Has it been spayed or neutered? These can affect the nutrition needs of your pet. Again your vet is your best guideline.

When you are picking your cat's food look for the label that says it meets the standards set by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). That ensures that the food meets at least the minimum nutritional needs of your cat.

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Drunk driving deaths decline in 2013

The news comes as the feds begin their holiday drunk driving crackdown

Fewer people died last year in car crashes involving drunk driving. According to the Transportation Department (DOT and the National Highway Traffic Safet...

PhotoFewer people died last year in car crashes involving drunk driving.

According to the Transportation Department (DOT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drunk driving deaths declined by 2.5% in 2013. Even with this decrease, 10,076 people died in crashes involving a drunk driver in last year --1 death every 52 minutes. December 2013 was the month with the lowest number of drunk driving fatalities -- 733 lives lost.

“We will continue to be relentless in our effort to curb drunk driving because each life is precious,” said DOT Anthony Secretary Foxx. “Too many lives are still being cut far too short because of drunk driving. We can stop these tragedies by making the decision not to allow ourselves or our loved ones to get behind the wheel after drinking.”

SaferRide app unveiled

SaferRide a new app introduced by NHTSA is designed to help keep drunk drivers off the road by allowing users to call a taxi or a friend and by identifying their location so they can be picked up. The app is available starting for Android devices on Google Play.

“We’re making progress in the fight against drunk driving by working with law enforcement and our safety partners, and by arming people with useful tools, such as our new SaferRide app,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman. “This holiday season, don’t make the selfish and deadly choice to drink and drive.”

During this year’s crackdown, which started on December 15 and continues until January 1, 2015, more than 10,000 participating police departments and law enforcement agencies will be out in force to get drunk drivers off the road. These efforts are supported by an $8 million dollar U.S. DOT national advertising campaign conveying NHTSA’s Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over message.

It is against the law in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to drive a vehicle while legally drunk, with a blood alcohol concentration BAC of .08 or higher. All states also prohibit anyone under the age of 21 to drink and to drive with any BAC in their system.

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Mortgage applications down again

Concerns about the economy are having an impact

Mortgage applications fell last week for the third time in four weeks. decreased 3.3 percent from one week earlier, according to Data from the Mortgage B...

PhotoMortgage applications fell last week for the third time in four weeks. 

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show that after rising the previous week, applications were down 3.3% during the week ending December 12.

“Amid plummeting oil prices and heightened concerns regarding global economic growth, interest rates dropped sharply through the course of the week, with longer-term Treasury yields falling more than 10 basis points. The average mortgage rate also dropped during the week, with several lenders offering 30-year fixed-rate loans with rates below four percent. The 30-year conforming rate was at its lowest level since May 2013, and the 30-year jumbo rate averaged 3.99 percent for the week,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist.

“Surprisingly -- given this large drop in rates -- applications for conventional refinance mortgages did not increase last week.” But, he added, “there was a notable pickup in government refinance applications, which were up 11% for the week, led by an almost 16” increase in VA refinance applications.”

The Refinance Index was unchanged from the previous week, while the refinance share of mortgage activity increased to 66% of total applications -- the highest level since December 2013.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity dropped to 6.2% of total applications, while the FHA share fell to 8.7%. The VA share of total applications rose to 10.6% and the USDA share of total applications 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 5 basis points -- from 4.11% to 4.06% -- the lowest level since May 2013. Points decreased to 0.21 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate was lower.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dropped to 3.99% -- the lowest level since May 2013 -- from 4.07%, with points rising to 0.28 from 0.16 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA slipped 1 basis point 3.86%, with points dipping to -0.04 from 0.03 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was down from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages slid to 3.33% from 3.35%, with points decreasing to 0.27 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs plunged 11 basis points to 3.00%, with points increasing to 0.43 from 0.19 (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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Wegmans recalls Moody Face Stress Balls

The balls can break into pieces when squeezed

Wegmans Food Markets is recalling about 7,000 Gift Gallery Moody Face Stress Balls. These rubber stress balls can break into pieces when squeezed, posing ...

PhotoWegmans Food Markets is recalling about 7,000 Gift Gallery Moody Face Stress Balls.

These rubber stress balls can break into pieces when squeezed, posing a choking hazard to young children.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The Gift Gallery Moody Face Stress Balls are solid rubber balls that you can squeeze in your hand. They were sold in five colors: blue, green, orange, red and yellow and have black eyes and mouth as a smiley face printed on the front with pink, orange or yellow yarn hair on top. The balls measure about 2.5 inches in diameter.

The stress balls were packaged in a clear bag with a white square label that has the “Gift Gallery” logo, model number 205617 and UPC code 0-67103-30053-6.

The balls, manufactured in China, were sold at Wegmans in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia during September 2014 for about $1.

Consumers should immediately stop using these stress balls and return them to any Wegmans service desk for a full refund.

Consumers may contact Wegmans consumer affairs toll-free at (855)-934-3663 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Study: Teen use of e-cigarettes growing

Hawaii research at odds with national studies

When e-electronic cigarettes arrived on the scene they were billed as a safer alternative to cigarettes and a nicotine alternative that could help some smo...

PhotoWhen electronic cigarettes arrived on the scene they were billed as a safer alternative to cigarettes and a nicotine alternative that could help some smokers quit.

They may be that, though the jury is still out. But anti-smoking activists worried that these devices, which deliver nicotine through water vapor instead of smoke, would eventually be adopted by teens, hooking them on nicotine. Sooner or later, the activists said, these young people would graduate to cigarettes.

Cancer researchers in Hawaii say they are seeing evidence teens are, in fact, gravitating to e-cigarettes. Their data, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that nearly 30% of the more than 1,900 teens surveyed in Hawaii had tried e-cigarettes. Of those, 17% were regularly using e-cigarettes, a practice known as “vaping.”

Three times greater

Those numbers are about 3 time greater than previously reported in earlier research. In fact, very few adolescents in the national studies were just using e-cigarettes.

The Hawaii survey, which questioned 14- and 15-year-olds, measured responses to a broad range of substances – e-cigarettes, cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana. Researchers said teens who only used e-cigarettes were found to be intermediate in levels of risk and protective factors between nonusers and those who used both cigarettes and e-cigarettes.

“This raises a question about whether e-cigarettes are recruiting low-risk youth, who would otherwise not try smoking, to tobacco product use,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Thomas Wills, of the University of Hawaii Cancer Center's Prevention and Control Program, said researchers aren't sure why the rate of e-cigarette use is so high among teens in Hawaii. He thinks one reason may be that young people underestimate the difficulty of abstaining from nicotine once you become addicted. But there could be other reasons.

Aggressive marketing

"The marketing is very aggressive here," he said, noting that manufacturers place ads at venues such as movie theaters that are accessible to teenagers.

They also make flavored liquids in varieties such as mango and pineapple. Other reasons could include the high tax rate on cigarettes in Hawaii, which makes alternatives such as e-cigarettes more attractive from a cost perspective.

The Food and Drug Administration has been studying these issues for more than a year, with the expectation the agency will issue e-cigarette regulations. Some manufacturers have supported regulations that would bar e-cigarette sales to minors.

Fuel for debate

The Hawaii study may add fuel to the debate over e-cigarettes, and whether these devices are a gateway to tobacco. Researchers at the University at Buffalo say it may be hard to determine that, since the data we have on teen smoking is not that accurate.

Their study says many public health agencies rely too heavily on reports of monthly cigarette use, a broad statistic that makes it difficult to draw conclusions about current habits and historical changes in behavior.

“We need information on smoking intensity to assess health risk, because heavy smoking causes more disease and death than light smoking,” said study co-author Lynn Kozlowski. “Also, non-daily smokers often represent lower-level exposure to carcinogens and can be more likely to quit.”

Not only should there be more accurate ways to assess cigarette smoking, Kozlowski says health researchers need much better data on who is using e-cigarettes and how they're using them.

“Given the increasing popularity of vaping, there needs to be more regular and diligent reporting of frequency and intensity of the use both of cigarettes and tobacco/nicotine products like e-cigarettes to insure accurate conclusions about the trends in teen tobacco use,” Kozlowski said.

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Amazon, Walmart extend holiday shipping deadlines

Trying to wring every last minute out of the holiday shopping season

Amazon and Walmart are trying to wring every last minute out of this year's holiday shopping season, extending their deadlines for online purchases to be d...

PhotoAmazon and Walmart are trying to wring every last minute out of this year's holiday shopping season, extending their deadlines for online purchases to be delivered by Christmas.

United Parcel Service (ups) Dec. 16, 2014, 2:13 p.m.
Consumers rate United Parcel Service (ups)

Amazon says its customers can order with free shipping by Dec. 19 and receive items before the Christmas holiday. Prime members can order by Dec. 22 and, for the truly last-minute shoppers, customers in 12 major metro areas can choose from as many as a million eligible items for same-day delivery, order as late as 10:00 a.m. on Dec. 24 and have items delivered before Santa arrives.

Walmart last week said it would guarantee Christmas Eve delivery for packages ordered with standard shipping by Dec. 19.

Last year was something of a nightmare for FedEx, UPS, the Postal Service and other delivery companies and this year, they've issued what they say are firm guidelines for consumers to follow. Big corporate clients get more flexible deadlines, however. They also pre-sort packages and otherwise accommodate the couriers' needs.

The weather, of course, is always the potential spoiler. An ice storm in Memphis or a blizzard in the East or Midwest can throw a wrench into the best-engineered plans.

Without much fanfare, UPS and FedEx have suspended their money-back guarantees for ground deliveries until after Christmas, something they do every year. 

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Don't sell or give away your old things without taking these precautions

Because you don't want to sell or give away more than you intended

For some households, the Hanukkah or Christmas season doesn't “officially” end until they visit the thrift store to donate various old things they no longe...

PhotoFor some households, the Hanukkah or Christmas season doesn't “officially” end until they visit the thrift store to donate various old things they no longer need because they got newer, better versions as holiday presents. Other households do the exact opposite, and kick off the holiday season by unloading things they already have to make room for gifts to come.

But when you're giving things away (or selling them, for that matter), you must take a few precautions to ensure you don't give away more than you intended.

Old electronics? Wipe them clean

When you've giving away your old computer, smartphone, or any other data-recording communications device, of course you don't want to also give away all the (often-confidential) documents, photos and other data you have there.

Having the device wiped clean or getting a factory reset is supposed to ensure your files are safely deleted — but last summer, experimenting security researchers were able to successfully retrieve data from some Android phones which had supposedly been wiped clean.

So if you want to be double-extra certain your old data is gone, your best bet is to not merely delete or wipe your old files, but then overwrite the memory space with new data — innocuous or even meaningless files and photos.

Donating furniture? Check behind the cushions and drawers

Last month, a Massachusetts man made headlines after he bought an old desk at an auction for $40, and found $125,000 worth of bonds in one of the drawers.

Ironically, the family who originally owned the desk and the bonds within sold the desk at auction because they needed money (and thought the bonds had been lost). Fortunately for them, the buyer took the trouble to track them down and return the bonds. But not everyone would have been that honest.

If you're giving away old furniture, remember: don't just look inside any drawers, look behind and beneath them — not just for money and potential valuables, but also for any bank or credit card receipts, and other things which an identity thief might be able to use against you. And make sure you look behind the cushions and between the upholstery, too.

Even if you don't have a forgotten fortune in bonds there, you might have some paper money — or a credit card statement, bank deposit receipt, or other documents containing information which an identity thief might find useful.

Check the pockets

Don't give away any coats or clothes without first checking every pocket to make sure nothing important or valuable is in there.

Empty those purses, wallets and backpacks

Before discarding an old purse, backpack or similar item you should not merely empty it, but turn the entire thing inside out, because it's very easy for small items or pieces of paper to get stuck in the lining-folds of what appears to be a completely empty purse or bag.

Riffle through the books

When you're giving away any of your old books, riffle through their pages first to make sure nothing falls out.

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U.S. Mint still loses money minting pennies and nickels

It takes money to make money, but even so ....

Changing times lead to changing language. For example: do you remember Ben Franklin's old saying “A penny saved is a penny earned?” He first said that long...

PhotoChanging times lead to changing language. For example: do you remember Ben Franklin's old saying “A penny saved is a penny earned?” He first said that long before the introduction of income tax, and related concepts like “pre-tax income” and “take-home pay.”

With those factored in, the proverb becomes, “A penny saved is anywhere from 1.2 to 1.6 pre-tax pennies earned, depending on your local and state tax rates, number of dependents, possible business or investment losses and whether or not you file as head of household.”

And sooner or later Franklin's proverb is destined for total meaninglessness, when pennies vanish from American currency. It's still too early to offer any firm prediction when the U.S. Mint will stop minting one-cent pieces, but the Mint has wanted to for years.

Expensive money

Here's the problem: thanks to inflation, an actual U.S. dollar is worth a little bit less every year. That's why most things (with the exception of computers, smartphones and other high-tech electronics) tend to cost more money in actual U.S. dollars and cents every year — including dollars and cents. In other words, every years it costs the U.S. Mint more and more money to mint pennies, nickels and other currency coins, even as those coins' actual spending value decreases a little more each year.

This week, the Mint released its biennial report to Congress (available in .pdf form here). The Mint is legally obligated to produce such reports because, as noted in the report's background section:

The Coin Modernization, Oversight, and Continuity Act of 2010, Public Law 111-302 (Act) (Appendix 1) authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury (Secretary) to conduct research and development (R&D) on alternative metallic materials for all circulating coins with the goal of reducing production costs. The Act also requires the Secretary to provide a biennial report to Congress on the status of coin production costs and analysis of alternative content.

And here's the short version of the report's results: minting pennies and nickels costs the Mint more money than those coins are actually worth, as has been true for years now. It cost 1.7 cents for the Mint to make a one-cent piece, and 8 cents to make a nickel five-cent piece.

Of course, given the coins' intended use as currency, that “loss” doesn't really matter so long as the coin remains in circulation – you spend a nickel at the store, the store owner spends the nickel at a restaurant, the restaurant's next customer receives the nickel as part of her change – but even so, the Mint would like to reduce the cost of producing coins if it could.

Copper coating

The last major change the Mint made to the content of American coinage was in 1982, when the Mint stopped making one-cent pieces from copper and chose instead to make them out of zinc with a thin copper-colored coating. The Mint did this because zinc is much cheaper than copper: at today's metal prices, a pre-1982 copper penny is worth more than 2 cents for the copper alone, whereas a zinc penny contains less than half a cent's worth of zinc.

Zinc is one of the cheapest metals out there – if the Mint is to keep minting one-cent pieces, it really can't save money by switching to a cheaper material. But five-cent pieces, also known as nickels, are another matter: it costs eight cents to make a five-cent piece, yet almost five cents of that cost comes from the actual metal used in the coin.

The Mint would not be able to change the composition of coins without Congressional approval. Realistically, that's unlikely to happen anytime soon, regardless of how much it costs to mint pennies and nickels, because if the Mint changed the metal composition of coins, then American vending machine manufacturers would also have to make major changes to their machines, in order to accept the coins. As the Mint's report says:

Equipment manufacturers emphasized that any change that alters size, design, or content of a coin without comprehensive consultation and coordination with the industry could harm the economy. Specifically, if coin design or material content changes are orchestrated hurriedly without regard to the equipment and other stakeholders, the currently reliable United States coin circulation infrastructure could be adversely affected or fail altogether. In addition, co-circulating same denomination coins with different weights would be ruinous for coin weighing technology, as co-circulating coins would have to be separated for counting.

So expect the Mint to keep losing a mint minting low-value one- and five-cent pieces, at least for the foreseeable future.

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Chrysler gets a new name

The Big Three now consists of Ford, GM and FCA

Chrysler Group LLC has a new name: FCA US LLC. Catchy, no? It stands for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and mirrors the company's European name, which is now FC...

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Malibu's Decker Canyon Drive was nearly too much for this Fiat 500 (Staff photo)

Chrysler Group LLC has a new name: FCA US LLC. Catchy, no? It stands for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and mirrors the company's European name, which is now FCA Italy SpA.

It's the first of the Big Three American auto manufacturers to fall into foreign arms and take the name of its new parent. Ford and General Motors are still U.S.-based and still plodding along with their ancestor's monikers.

Chrysler originally eloped with German carmaker Daimler-Benz AG back in 1998 and was known as DaimlerChrysler for awhile. But at the end of the nine-year relationship, Chrysler moved back in with its Detroit neighbors and changed its name back to Chrysler LLC.

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A 70s-vintage Fiat Spider (File photo)

Fiat came along and swept Chrysler off its wheels in 2011 and finally gained full control last January.

But, just as a rose by any other name is still a rose, Chrysler products are still Chrysler products, wrestling with such familiar problems as Takata air bags, gas tank fires in some Jeep models and unproven but persistent allegations of unintended acceleration in other Jeeps.

What's in a name?

The party line is that the name change is no big deal.

“When you think about it, when someone changes their name from Smith to Jones for personal or professional reasons, they’re still the same person," said Ed Garsten, FCA US’s head of digital media, Automotive News reported. "The change just makes sense for them.  In that vein, our commitment to quality, style, performance and service hasn’t changed, we just have a new name to reflect our role in our new company, and that makes sense.”

For now, Fiat is hanging onto its title of the world's sixth-largest automaker, although sales are said to be weak in Europe and South America. In the U.S., Chrysler and Jeep products are selling well but the dinky Fiat 500 -- Fiat's answer to the MINI Cooper -- is still little more than a decimel point.

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Walter P. Chrysler (Photo via Wikipedia)

The name change, effective immediately, could be called a formality. It could also be called a tribute to Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne, who has long wanted to see Fiat get a little recognition now that it has become sort of a globe-girdling colossus.

The Chrysler name was a tribute to Walter P. Chrysler, who founded the company in 1925. A native of Wamego, Kansas, Chrysler was a machinist and entrepreneur who was lured away from a railroad job to help improve manufacturing efficiencies at Buick. He became president of Buick, then left to head up the ailing Willys and later acquired control of what was then Maxwell Motor Co. and merged it into his new company -- Chrysler Corporation. 

Chrysler became fabulously wealthy and was lionized for his vision and innovation. It's what we used to call an American success story.

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New home construction falls for a second straight month

Building permits took a hit as well

Developers broke ground on a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,028,000 new homes during November -- a drop of 1.6% from the October rate of constructio...

PhotoDevelopers broke ground on new homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,028,000 during November -- a drop of 1.6% from the October rate of construction and down 7.0% from the same month a year ago.

Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show single-family housing starts last month were down 5.4% from October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 677,000, while the November rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 340,000.

Building permits

The outlook for the near-term construction of new homes isn't all that promising.

Housing units authorized by building permits were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,035,000 in November, a decline of 5.2 % from the previous month, and down 0.2% from November 2013.

Authorizations for single-family homes were off 1.2% to a rate of 639,000, with permits for buildings with five units or more at a rate of 367,000 in November.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Ford issues regional recall for Ranger and GT vehicles

Excessive internal pressure may cause the air bag inflator to rupture

Ford Motor Company is conducting a regional recall for certain model year 2004-2005 Ford Ranger and 2005-2006 Ford GT vehicles vehicles originally sold, or...

PhotoFord Motor Company is conducting a regional recall for certain model year 2004-2005 Ford Ranger and 2005-2006 Ford GT vehicles vehicles originally sold, or ever registered, in geographic locations associated with high absolute humidity.

Vehicles sold, or ever registered, in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Saipan, Guam and American Samoa, as well as certain areas of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Georgia, are included.

Upon deployment of the passenger side frontal air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture with metal fragments striking and potentially seriously injuring the vehicle occupants.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the inflators in all affected vehicles, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in the latter part of January 2015.

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14S28.

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BMW recalls MINI Cooper Hardtop 2 Doors

The driver and front passenger seatback adjustment mechanism may not be fully engaged

BMW of North America is recalling 846 model year 2015 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2 Door vehicles manufactured August 12, 2014, to September 2, 2014. The driver ...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 846 model year 2015 MINI Cooper Hardtop 2 Door vehicles manufactured August 12, 2014, to September 2, 2014.

The driver and front passenger seatback adjustment mechanism in the recalled vehicles may not be fully engaged. That could allow the seatback to fold during a rear impact collision, increasing the risk of injury to the seat occupant.

MINI will notify owners, and dealers will re-align and re-tighten the seatback adjustment mechanisms, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2014.

Owners can contact MINI customer service at 1-866-825-1525.

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Flat Creek Farm & Dairy recalls cheese products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Flat Creek Farm & Dairy of Swainsboro, Ga., is recalling 3 lots of cheese with lot codes 140802XAZ (Aztec Cheddar), 140702XAZ (Low Country Gouda voluntary ...

PhotoFlat Creek Farm & Dairy of Swainsboro, Ga., is recalling 3 lots of cheese with lot codes 140802XAZ (Aztec Cheddar), 140702XAZ (Low Country Gouda voluntary recall) and 140725XGO (Aztec Cheddar voluntary recall). The lot codes can be found on the front of the packages.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

Flat Creek records show that as of 11:00 am,November 25, 2014, at 11:00am, all of purchasers have been notified and all but 1.5 pounds of the cheese has been recovered.

The recalled products were distributed in certain parts of Georgia via Flat Creek delivery and through online order.

The products are packed in clear plastic and range in sizes from ½ pound to whole wheels.

Consumers who have purchased the products should return them to the place of purchase.

Consumers may contact Flat Creek at 478-237-0123, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. EST.

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A tool that predicts your personal wealth

The answers to 5 simple questions may determine how well off your become

Remember the Magic 8 Ball? You could ask it a question, like “Will I be rich and famous?” and the Magic 8 Ball would give you an answer....

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Photo © tiero - Fotolia

Remember the Magic 8 Ball? You could ask it a question, like “Will I be rich and famous?” and the Magic 8 Ball would give you an answer.

Fun, but not that accurate.

The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank has developed a tool that might do a better job of predicting your personal wealth.

William Emmons and Bryan Noeth came up with their “financial health scorecard” that is based on the answers to 5 simple questions. They explain how it works in the Fed publication In The Balance.

Emmons and Noeth studied the responses to the 5 questions that participants provided in the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances between 1992 and 2013. They then cross-referenced the answers to the respondents’ reported wealth.

Strong correlation

They placed the consumers who responded to the survey in groups based on age, education, and race and ethnicity, forming 48 non-overlapping groups. What they found was a very strong relationship between their simple measure of a group’s financial health and its actual wealth.

Here are the 5 questions:

  • Did you save any money last year?
  • Did you miss any payments on any obligations in the past year?
  • Did you have a balance on your credit card after the last payment was due?
  • Including all of your assets, was more than 10 percent of the value in liquid assets?
  • Is your total debt service (principal and interest) less than 40 percent of your income?

If you save money, pay your bills on time, pay off credit card balances each month, have most of your wealth in performing assets and a low income-to-debt ratio, your chances of building personal wealth are greater.

Education not a good predictor

The authors noted several patterns among the group and found that the level of education the consumers had attained was not a reliable indicator of personal wealth. Age and ethnicity were.

Older families generally had greater financial health and wealth than younger and middle-aged families for any given race, ethnicity or level of educational attainment.

At the same time, non-Hispanic white and Asian families typically had greater financial health and wealth than Hispanic and African-American families for any given age or level of educational attainment.

“Whatever the causal mechanisms, our simple financial health scorecard provides a surprisingly accurate prediction of the median wealth of groups of families defined by their age, educational attainment, and race or ethnicity,” they wrote.

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Verizon's secure encryption still lets hackers and government agents in

New Voice Cypher app has a backdoor granting NSA access

If you're planning to try Verizon's new secure encrypted Voice Cypher app, bear in mind that when Verizon uses words like “secure” or “encryption,” it migh...

PhotoIf you're planning to try Verizon's new secure encrypted Voice Cypher app, bear in mind that when Verizon uses words like “secure” or “encryption,” it might not necessarily mean what ordinary non-Verizon people thinks it means.

The original purpose of encryption is supposed to be “security” -- everybody knows how easy it is for determined hackers to break into your device, eavesdrop on a supposedly private communication or otherwise grab data they're not supposed to have. (The past couple years have made it plain that even wealthy multinational corporations worth billions of dollars can't afford security good enough to keep all hackers and malware away from them; what chance do us ordinary non-billionaires have?)

Therefore, say the pro-encryption arguments, if you can't prevent hackers from intercepting that data, you can code or encrypt it so that when they do steal it, it's nothing but meaningless gibberish to them. Of course, this concept predates computers by thousands of years: codes and encryptions to keep meanings hidden have existed almost as long as writing itself.

So it's easy to understand why criminal hackers would hate the idea of their would-be victims securely encrypting their data. And, provided you have the properly cynical mindset, it's easy to understand why various branches of the U.S. government hate the idea of American citizens (or anybody else on the planet) having secure encrypted data, too.

Make it illegal

Barely two months ago in October 2014, for example, FBI director James Comey suggested that Congress ought to pass a law (or rewrite an existing one) to make it illegal for anyone in the U.S. to have securely encrypted data. Why? Because Comey wants to make sure that the U.S. government always has the ability to remotely break into anybody's devices and read whatever's there.

The National Security Agency also enjoys being able to remotely break into devices and read data at will, and Verizon's new “Voice Cypher” encrypted calling app (by Cellcrypt) allows them to do that.

Verizon's actual webpage promoting Voice Cypher doesn't mention that, of course; instead it discusses how you can “Place secure calls and send secure messages on virtually any 4G, 3G or WiFi Network” thanks to “AES 256-bit encryption, NIST FIPS 140-2 Certified.”

What the marketing copy doesn't highlight is that Voice Cypher comes with a backdoor allowing easy access to this supposedly secure and encrypted data.

But Verizon and Cellcrypt both say that only law enforcement and other authorized government officials will be allowed to walk through this backdoor to steal or peruse this supposedly secure data. For example, Cellcrypt VP Seth Polansky dismissed any suggestion that such a backdoor created a security risk. “It's only creating a [security] weakness for government agencies …. Just because a government access option exists, it doesn't mean other companies can access it.”

For those who genuinely do worry about security matters, such reassurances fail on two different levels: one, it's ridiculous to assume that criminals wouldn't be able to hack into or otherwise take advantage of password-protected things theoretically limited to law enforcement; and two, even if this backdoor genuinely is limited only to duly authorized agents of the U.S. government, who's to say they can all be trusted?

"Good police work"

Of course, right now it's too early to say how many customers will choose Voice Cypher anyway. Last week, Google executive (and Verizon rival) Eric Schmidt dismissed the idea that any devices equipped with “trapdoors” could ever be secure, and also said they're unnecessary: “[Google's] argument, which I think is clear now, is the government has so many ways — properly so, by the way — to go in the front door. They’re called warrants. They’re called good police work.”

In other words: the law and Constitution already offer police and other government authorities plenty of ways to legitimately gather evidence to arrest and prosecute criminals, when necessary. The police can even take data off your phone without your consent or help – they just have to go to court and get a warrant first, as the Constitution demands. But it is true that, without these backdoors or trapdoors or whatever you want to call them, the government cannot easily and remotely access your encrypted device without your knowledge. That, ultimately, is what's at stake here.

Indeed, in October 2012 – before James Comey took over the FBI – the FBI's own online security agents published a list of “Safety tips to protect your mobile device,” which included urging “smartphone users” to encrypt their devices if the option was available. Two years later, FBI director Comey suggested that such advice ought to be illegal.

If you are a Verizon customer, or are considering becoming one, you'll have to decide whether Voice Cypher is worth having. Verizon hopes you'll think so.

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Big wireless carriers under financial pressure as growth slows, costs rise

Poaching each other's customers gets expensive; so does meeting growing data demands

It's a tough time to be a big cell phone carrier, even though it's not likely AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon will get much sympathy from anybody....

PhotoIt's a tough time to be a big cell phone carrier, even though it's not likely AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon will get much sympathy from anybody.

The United States is just about cell-phoned out -- meaning everybody who conceivably could have a phone already has one. So the only way to eke out any growth is to raise prices or poach each other's customers. Obviously, you can't do both, so the big carriers have been spinning out all kinds of discounts aimed at prying customers away from their competitors.

This costs money. Lots of money, and it's not just the discounts and sign-up bonuses, it's the loss in value caused by investors taking a hard look at the industry's prospects.

The way the Wall Street Journal does the math. the four biggest carriers have lost $45 billion in market capitalization in just the last month -- more than the total capitalization of Sprint and T-Mobile combined.

Basically, investors have come to realize that customers are burning up more and more data -- which increases costs for the carriers -- while resisting price increases. Also, those stingy consumers are refusing to reproduce as quickly as necessary to create new smartphone users.

It's similar to what has happened to the cable TV business, which is starting to resemble the daily newspaper industry, which has been slowly going out of business for decades.

Spectrum space

Complicating it is an upcoming auction of spectrum space. The companies will have to pony up big bucks to get the additional spectrum they need to meet customers' data demands, then they'll have to invest heavily in more equipment and towers, all while coming up with aggressive new discounts to grow their customer base while fighting off tiny companies like Ting, Consumer Cellular and Republic, which just won Consumer Reports annual customer service ratings derby.  

Interestingly, many of those responding to the Consumer Reports survey -- as well as those commenting in ConsumerAffairs reviews -- say they experience better reception and fewer dropped calls from the smaller competitors. This is particularly galling to the Big Four since the smaller competitors actually operate on the big guys' networks, making it likely that the perceived differences are illusory. 

So, does all this mean that customers are getting a bargain? Not necessarily. In fact, it means the companies are working harder than ever to find ways to lasso consumers while looking for ways to jack up prices as time goes by. Both sides are locked in a tug-of-war for a service that didn't even exist until a few decades ago but which is now seen as essential to modern existence. 

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NY toddler dies after drinking liquid nicotine in e-cig refill

Incidents of nicotine poisoning have surged with the popularity of e-cigarettes

A toddler in New York is the latest apparent victim of a new household hazard -- liquid nicotine refills for e-cigarettes. Police in Fort Plain, N.Y., said...

PhotoA toddler in New York is the latest apparent victim of a new household hazard -- liquid nicotine refills for e-cigarettes. Police in Fort Plain, N.Y., said they answered a call concerning an unresponsive child. The child was taken to a local hospital and died a short time later.

Sgt. Austin Ryan of the Fort Plain police said investigators were told the child drank from a bottle containing liquid refills for e-cigarettes.

Though shocking, such accidents are becoming increasingly common. Earlier this year, it was reported that a CDC study published in the agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that calls to poison control centers for nicotine ingestion by children shot up from 1 per month in September 2010 to 215 per month this past February. And, the report says, the number of calls per month involving conventional cigarettes did not show a similar increase during the same time period.

The New York General Assembly recently passed a measure requiring child-resistant containers on e-cigarette refills, which are often flavored with fruit and other sweet substances attractive to children.

The CDC report said that more than half (51.1%) of the calls to poison centers due to e-cigarettes involved young children 5 years and under, and about 42% of the poison calls involved people age 20 and older.

The analysis, which compared total monthly poison center calls involving e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes, found the proportion of e-cigarette calls jumped from 0.3% in September 2010 to 41.7% in February 2014.

Poisoning from conventional cigarettes is generally due to young children eating them. Poisoning related to e-cigarettes involves the liquid containing nicotine used in the devices and can occur in three ways: by ingestion, inhalation or absorption through the skin or eyes.

Red flag

“This report raises another red flag about e-cigarettes -- the liquid nicotine used in e-cigarettes can be hazardous,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Use of these products is skyrocketing and these poisonings will continue. E-cigarette liquids as currently sold are a threat to small children because they are not required to be childproof, and they come in candy and fruit flavors that are appealing to children.”

"One teaspoon of liquid nicotine could be lethal to a child, and smaller amounts can cause severe illness, often requiring trips to the emergency department," the American Association of Poison Control (AAPC) centers said recently.

Adults should use care to protect their skin when handling the products, and they should be out of sight and out of the reach of children, AAPC said. Additionally, those using these products should dispose of them properly to prevent exposure to pets and children from the residue or liquid left in the container.  

The American Association of Poison Control Centers recommends the following steps:

  • Protect your skin when handling the products.
  • Always keep e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine locked up and out of the reach of children.
  • Follow the specific disposal instructions on the label.
  • If you think someone has been exposed to an e-cigarette or liquid nicotine, call your local poison center at 1-800-222-1222 immediately.
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Lots of Trix at new cereal restaurants

The servers wear pajamas and there are plenty of toppings available

Cat cafes are popping up all over so who's to say that a cereal cafe wouldn't be a hit as well?...

PhotoCat cafes are popping up all over so who's to say that a cereal cafe wouldn't be a hit as well?

It really appears that cereal is making a comeback despite companies not being able to milk it for all it's worth. Either that or nostalgia is getting the best of Generations X and Y. Perhaps their childhoods weren't so bad because they ate Trix or Rice Krispies every morning.

London is a place where many trends get a boost and twins Gary and Alan Keery have decided to open up a cereal cafe in London called The Cereal Killer Cafe. It features breakfast cereals from the 80's and 90's and the people who loved them.

The cafe pipes in music from the 80's and 90's and has formica furniture along with cereal boxes from the past. The menu will consist of over 100 cereals from 7 different countries, your choice of different types of milk and a little side of Pop tarts. A bowl of cereal will cost as much as box of cereal at the grocery store -- between $4-$5.50 depending on the size of the bowl.

This cereal nostalgia restaurant is the first of its kind in the UK but there is a chain in the good ole USA called Cereality.

According to Cereality's website: "Customers choose from their favorite brands and toppings. Pajama-clad Cereologists fill the orders. And customers choose and add their own milk, just the way they like it."

I bet you can't eat just one? Oh wait, that was a potato chip ad. But even so, I can't eat just one bowl of cereal, so at $4-5.50 a bowl, I'll eat mine at home in my PJ's and do a couple of helpings from the box.

Not a bad gig though for servers working there -- being able to wear your PJ's to work!

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Spruce up the house with the best live tree

It takes a little bit of planning to find just the right tree

One of the best aromas of Christmas is the smell of a live natural tree. Just like picking the best oranges or pineapples, picking the right tree isn't jus...

PhotoOne of the best aromas of Christmas is the smell of a live natural tree. Just like picking the best oranges or pineapples, picking the right tree isn't just luck of the draw.

Before you even get to the lot to pick out your tree you want to make sure you measure. It's a pain in the neck to have to cut part of it off yourself, especially if you only have scissors in your house. Nothing worse than buying that perfect tree and then realizing it's a foot too big. Measure the height of your ceiling and be sure to measure your Christmas tree stand as well.

Fresh trees should last you about 6 weeks. There are a couple of options you might want to consider. If you have kids you probably want to be careful with the needles -- they can be sharp and hurt if poked or stepped on, so you most likely will want a fir or a pine. The needles are a bit softer. No kids, nothing to worry about then, a spruce tree might be just what you are looking for.

Color is what it's all about. Some trees will start out a deep rich green and as they dry out become almost gray so make sure it's not a tree that tends to have dry spots or it will dry quickly.

Bend the needles

When getting a cantaloupe you press the top in for freshness. You can't turn a tree upside down, but you can bend the needles. Take a few in your hands and see how they do. Fresh firs should snap, while fresh pines bend and should not break.

You want your needles to stay put, not be all over the floor as soon as you get home. Do the needle test. Take the inside of a branch and gently pull the branch toward you. The needles should stay on the tree. The other way is simple -- just tap the tree a bit by grabbing the base and seeing if anything starts falling. You expect a few needles to fall off, but if half the tree goes, you may want to move on to the next tree. 

Just like roses or flowers, you want to cut off a portion of the stem, or in this case the trunk. You can ask the guys at the tree lot to do that for you.The fresh cut will absorb more water, so your tree holds its needles and keeps its color longer. Put the tree in water as quickly as you can after making the cut.

Stay away from the heater or the fireplace. Obviously you don't want to start a fire and there are many this time of year because of trees and lights as well as fireplaces. Although live trees can catch on fire they also can dry out rather quickly if placed near the heater or fireplace.

Make sure your tree has plenty of water. It will keep it green and make it last that much longer.

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Feds stomp bogus "Federal Debt Commission"

FTC: Mortgage modification scammers preyed on distressed homeowners

The "Federal Debt Commission" sounds like something pretty official. So does the "Federal Assistance Progam" and the "Federal Mortgage Marketplace." But in...

PhotoThe "Federal Debt Commission" sounds like something pretty official. So does the "Federal Assistance Progam" and the "Federal Mortgage Marketplace." But in fact, all three were scams that tricked financially-strapped consumers into paying for mortgage-relief services that were never provided, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

“Years after the economic meltdown, the FTC is still exposing and shutting down bogus mortgage relief schemes,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. “This case highlights the depths to which scammers will sink to defraud struggling homeowners, and our resolve to hold them accountable.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, filed earlier this year, Jonathan Herbert and his Fort Lauderdale-based operation falsely claimed that it was affiliated with the federal government’s Making Homes Affordable assistance program, and that it would renegotiate consumers’ mortgages to reduce monthly payments by several hundred dollars. The FTC alleged that Herbert hid his involvement in the scam through the use of stolen identities, shell corporations, and other ruses.

More than $800,000

Deceptively using the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s (FDIC) logo, Herbert’s companies promised consumers their mortgage modifications would be completed quickly and for free. They also told consumers to stop communicating with their lenders, and to send their “new” mortgage payments to addresses in Washington, DC, which turned out to be UPS Stores, not government office buildings. These payments were then forwarded to Herbert in Florida.

Although Herbert and his companies collected more than $800,000 in payments from hundreds of consumers, they made no effort to obtain loan modifications and did not apply any of the money to pay down consumers’ existing mortgages, the FTC said. As a result, many consumers lost their homes, as well as thousands of dollars.

The court order settling the FTC’s charges imposes a judgment of $815,865. It also bans Herbert for life from any involvement with all debt-relief programs, including mortgage loan modifications. The order also prohibits him from misrepresenting any aspect of a financial product or service or the terms and conditions associated with such products or services.

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General Motors is recalling 679 vehicles equipped with electric power steering

The vehicles may experience a sudden loss of power steering assist

General Motors is recalling 679 model year 2015 Chevrolet Silverado, Suburban, Tahoe, GMC Sierra, and Yukon XL vehicles, equipped with electric power steer...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 679 model year 2015 Chevrolet Silverado, Suburban, Tahoe, GMC Sierra, and Yukon XL vehicles, equipped with electric power steering (EPS).

Due to a problem with the EPS module, the vehicles may experience a sudden loss of power steering assist during operation, increasing the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the power steering assist motor kit, free of charge. The recall began on November 17, 2014.

Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet), or 1-800-462-8782 (GMC). GM's number for this recall is 14743.

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Toyota is recalling 5,650 vehicles

The left-side front suspension lower arm may have been manufactured incorrectly

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 5,650 model year 2014 Toyota Camry, Camry HV, Avalon, and Avalon HV vehicles equipped with 16-inch an...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 5,650 model year 2014 Toyota Camry, Camry HV, Avalon, and Avalon HV vehicles equipped with 16-inch and 17-inch rims.

The left-side front suspension lower arm may have been manufactured incorrectly. As a result, the left side lower arm may not have enough clamping surface area for one of the bolts that secures the lower arm to the lower ball joint. Because of the insufficient clamping force, the lower arm may separate from the ball joint, increasing the risk of a crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace the left side lower arm, free of charge. The recall was expected ti begin around mid-December 2014.

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

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Giant Eagle recalls apple pistachio salads

The products may be contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes

Giant Eagle is recalling Giant Eagle Apple Pistachio Salad and Apple Pistachio Salad with Chicken. The salads may contain fresh cut Gala red apples curren...

PhotoGiant Eagle is recalling Giant Eagle Apple Pistachio Salad and Apple Pistachio Salad with Chicken.

The salads may contain fresh cut Gala red apples currently recalled by Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. due to potential Listeria monocytogenes contamination.

Giant Eagle says it has not received any reports of customer illnesses associated with this recall.

The salads may have been sold in Pennsylvania and Ohio Giant Eagle locations from November 29 through December 9 with sell-by dates of December 1 through December 11.

Labels attached to the product packaging bear the names “Apple Pistachio Salad” and “Apple Pistachio Salad With Chicken”. Sell-by dates December 1 through December 11 can be found directly underneath the product names.

Customers who have purchased the recalled products should dispose of them or return them to their local Giant Eagle store where they will receive a refund.

Consumers may call Del Monte at 1-800-659-6500 (operating 24 hours a day).

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Chrysler expands recall of vehicles with air bag inflator issues

The company says it's unaware of any accidents or injuries related to these inflators

Chrysler Group is expanding a regional field action with a recall to replace front passenger-side air bag inflators in an estimated 208,783 older-model veh...

PhotoChrysler Group is expanding a regional field action with a recall to replace front passenger-side air bag inflators in an estimated 208,783 older-model vehicles originally purchased or ever registered in 7 states and 5 U.S. territories.

The vehicles are equipped with front passenger-side air bag inflators from a product family code-named "PSPI."

The company says it is not aware of any injuries or accidents involving PSPI inflators of the type covered by this campaign, nor has its investigation identified a defect in these components.

Further, it says, laboratory tests on nearly 600 such inflators did not result in any failures.

The inflators affected by this campaign differ in design and construction from PSPI inflators used by other auto makers.

Affected by this recall are the following vehicles, provided they were purchased, ever registered or still registered in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the U.S. Virgin Islands:

  • 2003-2005 Dodge Ram 1500 Pickup
  • 2003-2005 Dodge Ram 2500 Pickup
  • 2003-2005 Dodge Ram 3500 Pickup
  • 2004-2005 Dodge Durango
  • 2005 Chrysler 300, 300C, SRT8
  • 2005 Dodge Magnum
  • 2005 Dodge Dakota Pickup

Affected customers will be notified beginning Feb. 8. Service will be performed free of charge.

This recall covers an estimated 69,668 vehicles also affected by the initial regional field action. The additional 5 states and 3 territories accounts for an incremental gain of approximately 139,115 vehicles.

The regional field action, which remains under way, affects 371,309 older-model vehicles in Florida, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

A third similar action also is continuing, with Chrysler replacing passenger-side air bag inflators from a product-family code-named "SPI," in an estimated 149,150 model-year 2003 pickup trucks registered, ever registered or originally purchased in 7 states and 5 U.S. territories.

The third action covers 39,409 vehicles also affected by the initial regional field action. Affected customers will be notified beginning Jan. 19.

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Who knew choosing a gift card was this complicated?

Still more conflicting advice on what is supposed to be the easiest gift

Giving someone a gift card was supposed to simplify things. But somehow, it hasn't. There are now nearly as many opinions about gift cards as there are the...

PhotoGiving someone a gift card was supposed to simplify things. But somehow, it hasn't. There are now nearly as many opinions about gift cards as there are the products themselves.

We are told that it's better to give a store-branded gift card because they carry fewer fees than ones issued by credit card companies and can be used anywhere.

Last month we reported on a National Retail Federation survey that found most consumers would rather receive a gift card than a nicely wrapped present, while e-gifting firm CashStar did its own survey that found most of us feel guilty about asking for a gift card.

It's not personal

Mary Steffel, researcher and assistant professor of marketing the University of Cincinnati's business school says it's even more complex than that. She's come up with a list of ways consumers make mistakes when they buy gift cards. The first, she says, is trying to make the gift card overly personal, which on the face of it, seems like a contradiction in terms.

"Givers often fail to anticipate that the gifts they prefer to give are not necessarily the ones recipients prefer to receive," she said.

But how in the world does one personalize a gift card? Easy, says Steffel.

“For example, a giver might personalize a gift card for a friend who loves sports by getting him a gift card for his favorite sporting goods store or a local sports venue,” Steffel said. “However, the sports lover might prefer a more general card, like a Visa or Mastercard-backed gift card, as it would allow him to purchase sporting equipment, tickets to a sporting event or anything else that he might want or need.”

Has the data

Steffel says she has data to back this up. She found that when people get very specific types of gift cards, they take longer to use them. Or they might not even use them at all.

This is especially tricky, she says, when choosing a gift card for a significant other. The gift card giver, perhaps feeling a little pressure, tends to over-think it.

“Ironically, these attempts to be thoughtful can backfire,” Steffel said. “We find that givers tend to choose more specific, less versatile gift cards when shopping for romantic partners than friends, but that recipients prefer more versatile gift cards regardless of how close they are to the giver.”

Maybe a sweater's not so bad

If all this conflicting advice about gift cards makes your head hurt, you might take the advice of another professor. Back in 2006, Gettysburg College philosophy professor Steven Gimbel told us that giving a “bad” gift was preferable to giving a gift card.

"Giving a good gift is a very difficult task because it requires thought on several different levels. To start, there is the care that gives rise to the desire to give the gift," Gimbel said. "A good gift is also something that the recipient will use to make their life better and something someone wants."

Gimbel's advice? Shoot to give a good gift -- not a gift card -- even if your gift ends up to be a bad one.

"A bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes the bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought of a bad gift that counts," Gimbel said.

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Comcast email alert: don't click that link!

Actual non-spam Comcast emails trick customers into ordering expensive new modems

As of last week, Comcast is facing a federal class-action suit over its Xfinity routers which, if the lawsuit allegations are correct, forces unwitting cus...

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Keeping your holiday illness-free

Following a few common-sense rules will help you do just that

Everybody wants to be remembered as a good host after their holiday party is over. A step in the right direction is to avoid sending your guests home with ...

PhotoEverybody wants to be remembered as a good host after their holiday party is over. A step in the right direction is to avoid sending your guests home with a foodborne illness.

To do that, the Agriculture Department’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) offers these tips on protecting yourself, your family and your guests from illnesses that may well spoil their holiday.

During holiday grocery shopping

  • Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood away from other foods in your grocery cart.
  • Buy cold foods last.
  • Ask the cashier to place your raw meat, poultry and seafood in a separate bag.

During food preparation

  • Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and ready-to-eat items like vegetables or bread.
  • Prepare uncooked recipes before recipes requiring raw meat to reduce cross-contamination. Store them out of the way while preparing meat dishes to ensure they don’t become contaminated after preparation.
  • Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of dishes to ensure they are fully cooked and safe to eat. Fresh beef, pork, veal, and lamb should be cooked to 145 ˚F with a three minute rest time; fish should be cooked to 145 ˚F; ground beef, veal and lamb should be cooked to 160 ˚F; egg dishes should be cooked to 160 ˚F; and all poultry should be cooked to 165 ˚F.

When cooking for groups

  • Keep hot food hot and cold food cold, using chafing dishes or crock pots and ice trays. Hot items should remain above 140 ˚F and cold items should remain below 40 ˚F.
  • Use several small plates when serving food.
  • Discard perishable foods left out for 2 hours or more.

When cooking a holiday roast

  • Use separate cutting boards, plates and utensils for raw roasts and cooked roasts to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Wash items such as cutting boards that have touched raw meat with warm water and soap, or place them in a dishwasher.
  • To ensure the juiciest possible roast this holiday, use a meat thermometer. Once it has reached the USDA recommended internal temperature of 145 F, the roast is safe to eat.
  • Remember all cuts of pork, beef, veal, and lamb need a three minute rest time before cutting or consuming.

If you have specific food safety questions you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov.

These services are available from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish.

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Watch out for the “letter from Santa” scam

Unsolicited emails are almost always scammy. This one's no different

Scammers don't take time off for the holidays; they're rather take advantage of your holiday spirit instead. This week, the Better Business Bureau warned a...

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Cocaine quadruples risk of sudden death in 19-49 age group

Spanish researchers conducted first-of-its-kind study

It's pretty widely known that using cocaine increases the risk of heart disease but Spanish researchers have now put some numbers behind that assumption. T...

PhotoIt's pretty widely known that using cocaine increases the risk of heart disease but Spanish researchers have now put some numbers behind that assumption. They found that for those in the 19-49 age bracket, the risk of sudden cardiovascular death is quadrupled among cocaine users.

In fact, for those under 50, cocaine becomes the main risk factor for sudden cardiac death, according to researchers at the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country, the Basque Institute of Forensic Medicine, and CIBERSAM.

The study, published in Addiction, is the first to be conducted using forensic samples taken from deceased individuals.

Researchers analyzed the cases of 437 people who died of sudden cardiovascular death and whose death was not due to disease or acute intoxication. To conduct the research, they also studied the cases of another 126 people who died of different causes.

Those sudied had died either instantly or within six hours of being stricken and all were beneath the age of 50, thus reducing the influence of age-related cardiovascular disease.

Research data

In all the cases, a full post-mortem examination plus toxicological and histopathological studies were conducted, and the clinical data and circumstances of the deaths were reviewed. Gas chromatography and liquid spectrometry were conducted to detect therapeutic drugs, drug abuse and ethanol. A time link was established between recent cocaine consumption and death, and the researchers took into consideration obesity, hypertension, diabetes and smoking in relation to other risk values for suffering a heart attack.

The analysis of the data shows that cocaine consumption multiplies the risk of dying by four compared with non-consumption. Specifically, the percentage of cases among the deceased owing to sudden death in which drug consumption was detected was nearly 10%, while among the people who had died of other causes it was 2%. In comparison with the estimated data in the general population, the proportion of people who used cocaine recently was between 13 and 58 times higher in the cases of sudden death than in the general population. 

Cocaine increases heart rate and blood pressure and also diminishes coronary blood flow, is related to the formation of clots, and cardiac arrhythmias, it can increase ventricular irritability and lower the fibrillation threshold, among other effects. 

The doctors Benito Morentin, Javier Ballesteros, Luis F. Callado and J. Javier Meana were the primary researchers. 

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Feds shut down student "debt relief" scams

Beware of companies charging high fees for federal loan repayment benefits

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has taken action against two student “debt relief” scams that illegally tricked borrowers into paying upfro...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has taken action against two student “debt relief” scams that illegally tricked borrowers into paying upfront fees for federal loan benefits.

The CFPB, in a joint filing with Florida’s Attorney General, shut down College Education Services and separately filed a lawsuit against Student Loan Processing.US for illegally marketing student debt relief services.

The Bureau is issuing a consumer advisory warning student loan borrowers to be wary of paying high fees for free federal loan benefits.

“Student loans are already a significant debt for many Americans. College Education Services and Student Loan Processing.US added to that hardship by taking advantage of troubled borrowers and failing to describe their services honestly,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “When scam artists prey on student loan borrowers, we will take action to halt their illegal activity.”

The U.S. Department of Education offers numerous plans to borrowers with federal student loans to make payments more affordable. These include options that let borrowers set their monthly payment based on their income. Monthly payments under these plans can be as low as zero dollars per month for unemployed or very low-wage borrowers.

The Department of Education does not charge any fees to apply for or enroll in these plans, for which many student loan borrowers qualify.

College Education Services

College Education Services, its owner, Marcia Elena Vargas, and advisor and employee, Frank Liz, marketed and advertised debt relief services to student loan borrowers with loans in default. Based in Tampa, Florida, the company advertised through Internet ads and operated websites including CollegeDefaultedStudentLoan.com and HelpStudentLoanDefault.com. The company reaped millions of dollars in advance fees from thousands of consumers before it ceased operations around February 2013.

Student Loan Processing.US

Student Loan Processing.US, a fictitious business name of Irvine Web Works, Inc., is headquartered in Laguna Nigel, California, with an office in Dallas, Texas.

The CFPB alleges that since at least July 2011, the company and its owner, James Krause, has been marketing and advertising services to advise and assist borrowers applying for Department of Education federal student loan repayment programs. The company operates websites under the names StudentLoanProcessing.us, StudentLoanProcessing.org, and slpus.org. 

Consumers warned 

As student loan borrowers run into roadblocks while trying to get help from their loan servicers, such as lost paperwork or payment processing problems, they may grow discouraged with their prospects of an alternative payment plan.

In its consumer advisory, the CFPB warns students to avoid paying for plans that they can easily get for free. The services offered by third-party debt relief providers are not a substitute for high-quality student loan servicing and may cost borrowers thousands of dollars and drive them further into debt.

The CFPB’s consumer advisory points out that enrollment in alternative repayment programs, like the Income-Based Repayment program or the Pay As You Earn program, is available at no cost to federal student loan borrowers. Companies offering special services do not have the ability to negotiate with creditors in order to obtain a “special deal” under the federal student loan programs. The advisory also provides warning signs that a company offering student loan debt relief may be a scam. These signs include:

· Pressure to pay high upfront fees: Consumers should avoid companies that require payment before they actually do anything, especially if they try to get a credit card number, bank account information, or require that consumers sign a contract.

· Requests for a Federal Student Aid PIN: Consumers should be cautious of companies that ask for their Federal Student Aid PIN. This unique ID is the equivalent of a consumer’s signature and giving it away is giving a company the power to perform actions on the consumer’s student loan. Honest companies will work with consumers to come up with a plan without the PIN.

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IRS posts standard mileage rates for 2015

Not everyone is likely to be pleased with the changes

If you use your car, van, pickup or panel truck for business purposes, you'll like this: Starting Nan. 1, the optional standard mileage rate is rising to 5...

PhotoIf you use your car, van, pickup or panel truck for business purposes, you'll like this: Starting Nan. 1, the optional standard mileage rate is rising to 57.5 cents per mile from 56 cents in 2014.

At the same time it made than announcement, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) said the amount you are allowed for medical or moving purposes is dropping 0.5 cent from 2014 -- to 23 cents in 2015 per mile driven. And the amount per mile driven in service of charitable organizations will be 14 cents.

How it's figured

The standard mileage rate for business is based on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile, including depreciation, insurance, repairs, tires, maintenance, gas and oil. The rate for medical and moving purposes is based on the variable costs, such as gas and oil. The charitable rate is set by law.

Taxpayers always have the option of claiming deductions based on the actual costs of using a vehicle rather than the standard mileage rates.

Prohibitions

A taxpayer may not use the business standard mileage rate for a vehicle after claiming accelerated depreciation, including the Section 179 expense deduction, on that vehicle. Likewise, the standard rate is not available to fleet owners (more than four vehicles used simultaneously).

Details on these and other special rules are in Revenue Procedure 2010-51, the instructions to Form 1040 and various online IRS publications including Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax.

Besides the standard mileage rates, Notice 2014-79, posted on IRS.gov, also includes the basis reduction amounts for those choosing the business standard mileage rate, as well as the maximum standard automobile cost that may be used in computing an allowance under a fixed and variable rate plan.

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UVEX Sports recalls bicycle helmets

The chinstrap anchor can fail, causing the helmet to slide off

Uvex Sports of Germany is recalling about 46,800 bicycle helmets. The helmet’s chinstrap anchor can fail, causing the helmet to slide off, posing a head i...

PhotoUvex Sports of Germany is recalling about 46,800 bicycle helmets.

The helmet’s chinstrap anchor can fail, causing the helmet to slide off, posing a head injury hazard. The bicycle helmets also do not comply with the impact requirements of the CPSC safety standards for bicycle helmets.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves seven models of UVEX helmets, which come in a variety of colors with different colored chin straps. The helmets have a model number inside the helmet under the fitting pad on the top right side.

The affected helmet model numbers are XB017, XB022, XB025, XB027, XB032, XB036 and XB038.

The helmets, manufactured in Germany, were sold at sporting goods and bicycle specialty stores nationwide from September 2009, through June 2014, for about $100 to $260.

Consumers should stop using the helmets and contact UVEX for a free compliant helmet or a refund of the purchase price.

Consumers may contact UVEX Sports toll-free at (844) 767-0656 from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.  

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Ford recalls F-150 with brake pedal issue

The brake pedal position switch may not be adjusted properly

Ford Motor Company is recalling 618 model year 2014 F-150 vehicles manufactured March 1, 2014, to March 13, 2014. The brake pedal position switch man not...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 618 model year 2014 F-150 vehicles manufactured March 1, 2014, to March 13, 2014.

The brake pedal position switch man not be properly adjusted. As a result, the brake lights may illuminate with a delay or not at all. If the brake lights fail to illuminate, or illuminate after a delay, there is an increased risk of a crash.

Until the vehicle has been remedied, owners are advised not to use their cruise control system.

Ford has notified owners, and dealers will adjust the brake pedal position switch, free of charge. The recall began on November 24, 2014.

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14C09.

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Del Monte Fresh recalls fresh cut fruit containing Gala red apple

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Del Monte Fresh Produce is recalling fresh cut fruit containing Gala red apples grown in Pennsylvania. The product, distributed to a limited number of c...

PhotoDel Monte Fresh Produce is recalling fresh cut fruit containing Gala red apples grown in Pennsylvania.

The product, distributed to a limited number of customers in a few states in North East U.S., may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

A total of 3,051 consumer packages containing fresh cut red apples were distributed to Giant Eagle, Amazon Fresh, Sunoco, Peter’s Fruit, Wegmans, Sheetz and 7-Eleven and have “Best If Enjoyed By” dates of 12/3/14, 12/6/14, 12/7/14 and 12/8/14.

The fresh cut red apples have a red color skin. The recalled fresh cut fruit packages containing red apples were distributed for sale in clear plastic containers with one of the following labels and markings:

Finished Product DescriptorPackage size/WeightBIUBRetailerBrand/Label Lot NumberProduct Quantities
Red/Green Apples W/Dip9 oz12/8/2014Giant EaglePlain Transparent Label233210150
Gala Apples12 oz12/8/2014Giant EaglePlain Transparent Label233210120
Apple W/Dip24 oz12/8/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle233210162
Apple Tray W/Dip24 oz12/8/2014Giant EaglePlain Transparent Label23321016
Red/Green Apples W/Dip5 oz12/8/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle23321018
Red Apple Slices12 oz12/7/2014AmazonDel Monte23321016
Red/Green Apples W/Dip5 oz12/7/2014AmazonDel Monte23321016
Pineapple Medley16 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle2332101156
Pineapple Medley8 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle2332101114
Apples/Grapes/Cheese7 oz12/6/2014SunocoNature Made233210196
Gala Apples12 oz12/8/2014Giant EaglePlain Transparent Label23321012
Gourmet Bowl64 oz12/6/2014Giant EaglePlain Transparent Label23321014
Pineapple Medley16 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleDel Monte23321016
Pineapple Medley8 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleDel Monte23321014
Snack Pack7 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle233210114
Apples/Grapes/Cheese7 oz12/6/2014PetersNature Made2332101108
Red Apple With Caramel5 oz12/8/2014PetersDel Monte233210160
Gourmet Bowl40 oz12/6/2014AmazonDel Monte23321013
Red Apples/Grapes/ Cheese/ Dip7 oz12/6/2014AmazonNature Made23321016
Gourmet Bowl64 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle2332101120
Pineapple Medley32 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle2332101128
Apple Cinnamon Yogurt6.5 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle233210144
Gourmet Fruit Bowl4 Lbs12/3/2014WegmansWegmans233210178
Gourmet Fruit Bowl4 Lbs12/3/2014WegmansWegmans233210150
Red Apple Gala12 oz12/8/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle2332101142
Red and Green Apple With Dip24 oz12/8/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle233210156
Apple with Dip24 oz12/8/2014Giant EaglePlain Transparent Label233210114
Gourmet Bowl64 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle233210160
Pineapple Medley32 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle233210180
Pineapple Medley16 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle23321014
Pineapple Medley8 oz12/6/2014Giant EagleFarmer's Market - Giant Eagle2332101140
Red apple With Cheese5 oz12/6/2014SheetzSheetz M-T-O233210148
Apples/ Carrots/ Cheese with Dip7 oz12/8/2014SheetzSheetz M-T-O2332101156
Harvest Blend4 oz12/6/20147-Eleven7-Eleven23321011200

Consumers who posses the recalled product should dispose of it in an appropriate waste container.

Consumers may call 1-800-659-6500 (operating 24 hours a day) for more information, or email Del Monte Fresh at Contact-US-Executive-Office@freshdelmonte.com.

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Dodge Journey vehicles recalled

Tire placard labels may contain inaccurate information

Chrysler Group is recalling 667 model year 2014-2015 Dodge Journey vehicles manufactured October 25, 2013, to August 22, 2014. The vehicles may be equipp...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 667 model year 2014-2015 Dodge Journey vehicles manufactured October 25, 2013, to August 22, 2014.

The vehicles may be equipped with tire placard labels which contain inaccurate seating capacity and occupant/cargo combined weight information. This could lead the operator to overload the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will install a correct tire placard label, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P70.

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Why auto leases are surging

In December, the best lease deals can be found in surprising places

Auto leases have surged in 2014. According to Experian, leases on new cars increased to more than 29% of the financing market in the third quarter, up from...

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A recent leasing ad

Auto leases have surged in 2014. According to Experian, leases on new cars increased to more than 29%of the financing market in the third quarter, up from just 7.1% a year earlier.

With the average transaction price of a new vehicle approaching $34,000, according to Kelly Blue Book (KBB), it's little wonder more consumers are turning to leases, which typically come with much lower monthly payments than purchases.

“The higher cost of new vehicles is definitely increasing the lease rate on today’s cars,” Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, told ConsumerAffairs. “This is especially true in non-luxury brands, where leasing has historically been low but is much higher today. This confirms that many new car shoppers who would normally buy from a volume brand are now leasing from those same volume brands to reduce their monthly payment.”

The reason lease payments are lower is simple. The buyer is only paying the difference between the price of the new car and its value at the end of the lease period, when it is returned.

Because they aren't paying for the entire vehicle, the payments are lower. On the downside, they are absorbing one of the biggest costs – the depreciation on a new car.

Things to consider

In addition, Brauer says there are other things a consumer needs to think about when considering a lease, including the restrictions a lease agreement entails.

“Chief among these are the mileage restrictions, which can add up quickly during the lease return process if the vehicle’s mileage exceeds the contract limit,” he said.

On the typical 3-year lease, drivers are restricted to 36,000 miles, which equates to 1,000 miles per month. Regular out-of-town trips can easily put you over that limit.

“Another restriction centers on modifications to the vehicle,” Brauer said. “Essentially, a lessee must keep the car 100% original, meaning no upgraded wheels or audio equipment.”

But in many instances, that isn't a problem. And when it comes down to the choice between a $200 payment and a $500 payment, for many it's a no-brainer.

“For buyers who can stay within mileage limits and don’t plan on modifying the vehicle a lease can be a good option, though it also means you have to keep the same car during the lease term, and you must find a new car when the lease ends or buy the leased vehicle at the end of the term if you want to keep driving it,” Brauer said.

2015s might be cheaper to lease

There are many attractive lease offers at the end of the year but some might be easy to overlook. When the calendar gets ready to turn dealers are motivated to close out the current model year – in this case the 2014s.

But that may not be where the best lease deals are. You might find a lower payment on the 2015 models.

An analysis by nationwide car lease marketplace, Swapalease.com, shows consumers can lease a 2015 Toyota Camry for $293.71 per month, compared to a new 2014 model priced at $319.22.

A 2015 Chevrolet Malibu lease is priced at $246.21 per month, while a new 2014 model is priced at $319.74.

If this seems counter-intuitive, you have to remember how leases are structured. You are paying the difference between the new car price and the residual price – what the car is worth when you turn it in.

A 2015 model purchased in December 2014 is going to be worth more in December 2017 than a 2014 model purchased this month. A higher residual value equates to a lower monthly payment for the consumer.

If you plan to shop for a lease in December, ask the dealer to do a side-by-side comparison of a new 2014 model lease versus a 2015 model lease, especially for the same vehicle make and model.

The newer model doesn't always work out to be cheaper, but the Swapalease analysis shows it often does.

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Conditions improving for home buyers

But mortgage process may still pose obstacles

First, gasoline prices plunged, giving motorists a little breathing room in their fuel budgets. Now, it appears that getting a mortgage to buy a home is ge...

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© Rob Hyrons - Fotolia

First, gasoline prices plunged, giving motorists a little breathing room in their fuel budgets. Now, it appears that getting a mortgage to buy a home is getting a little easier after five years of restrictive lending standards.

Things may be finally looking up for consumers.

The Mortgage Bankers Association's (MBA) latest Mortgage Credit Availability Index (MCAI) shows an increase of 1.2% in November. An increase means more money is available in the pipeline for mortgages.

“Credit availability increased in November, largely due to the addition of jumbo loan programs that permit cash-out refinancing,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “Home price appreciation and larger equity cushions have likely made some lenders more willing to allow certain borrowers to take cash out, while still low mortgage rates may make this a more attractive opportunity for some.”

Obstacles remain

While that's a hopeful sign – especially for first-time buyers – would-be homeowners can still face obstacles. A report by J.D. Power and Associates finds a decline in customer satisfaction with the mortgage process.

Six areas appear to give consumers heartburn; loan offerings; application/approval process; interaction; closing; onboarding; and problem resolution. JD Power notes that 58% of survey respondents were first-time buyers, suggesting lack of experience and uncertainty about the process could have caused some discomfort.

“Recent National Association of Realtors data indicates the percentage of first-time home buyers is well below historical norms. With many prospective borrowers looking for guidance and reassurance, it is imperative that lenders are fully prepared to provide the detail and information these customers desire or the borrowers may decide to stay on the sidelines,” said Craig Martin, director of the mortgage practice at J.D. Power. “The loan representative is the face of the organization for most borrowers and is relied upon to provide effective explanations, set accurate expectations and ensure consumers have confidence that they are making a good decision.”

Failure to communicate

In fact, 54% of first-time home buyers said they didn't fully understand the different loan options available to them. Only 41% of first-time buyers and 56 percent of experienced mortgage customers indicate their representative completely explained the types of loans, terms, special programs, fees and options to reduce their down payment.

George Ferger, a Realtor in Pompano Beach, Fla., says loan officers need to be more proactive, especially with first-time buyers. Lack of experience and uncertainty about the process may keep first-timers from asking the right questions that could result in the right loan. Buyers may also be reluctant to share key financial information that could help the lender provide better guidance.

His advice?

Buyers should look for a lender who will take the time with them. Ask for referrals from people who have recently purchased a home.

He says it will all work out best for everyone if buyers are upfront with their lender. Be willing to provide basic information your lender needs -- income, debts and obligations such as child support or student loan.

Let the lender know what your plans are. If you plan to only live in the house a couple or years the loan she may recommend may be different from one that would be suitable if you plan to settle down for the next decade.

Finally, Be flexible about your goals and don't try to get a loan that's beyond your means. You'll build equity and wealth much more quickly if you buy a home you can comfortably afford.

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Woman almost loses $40K to online dating scammer

Our response to one woman applies to anyone tempted to give money to people they met online

For as long as there's been Internet dating, there have been Internet-dating scammers. The most common version involves a fake-romantic persona who is alw...

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Roller coaster blamed for four-year-old's stroke

Sudden acceleration and deceleration caused a tear in the carotid artery

Two roller coaster rides on a family vacation are being blamed for a stroke in a four-year-old boy. The case was reported by doctors at Loyola University M...

PhotoTwo roller coaster rides on a family vacation are being blamed for a stroke in a four-year-old boy. The case was reported by doctors at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, where the boy was treated.

Prior to his stroke, the boy was healthy. But during an out-of-state vacation with his parents, he rode two roller coasters. The next day while on the flight back home, the boy vomited and developed a droop on the left side of his face. By the time he arrived home, he was unable to walk and had weakness on his left side.

He was rushed to the hospital, where imaging exams showed he had experienced a carotid artery dissection and stroke. He received low-dose aspirin and doctors observed a steady improvement. At a six-month follow-up visit, his gait had improved considerably, and he had only mild muscle weakness and stiffness on the left side.

Sudden movements

Sudden movements that can hyperextend the neck or rotate the neck -- such as whiplash, certain sports movements or even violent coughing -- can result in a dissection of the carotid artery. A dissection begins as a tear in one layer of the artery wall. A blood clot can form in the area of the tear. If it's large enough, the clot can block blood flow to the brain. Or, pieces of the clot can break free, travel up to the brain and block blood flow to the brain. In either case, the result is a stroke.

A child under age 10 is vulnerable to sudden neck movements and rotations due to weak neck muscles, a relatively large head and other factors. "This hypermobility, combined with other kinetic and linear forces experienced during a roller coaster ride, could theoretically explain why some children, albeit rarely, sustain dissections," Dr. Jose Biller and colleagues wrote in a scholarly article on the subject. 

Strokes previously have been reported in adult roller coaster riders, but there are only a few previous reports of strokes in children who rode roller coasters, including a 13-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy. The 4-year-old boy described by Loyola neurologists is one of the youngest reported in the medical literature.

Biller is an internationally known expert on strokes in children and young adults. He has written a textbook on the topic and is a co-author of the American Heart Association's guidelines for management of stroke in infants and children. 

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Congress ignores wishes of D.C. voters, protesters where marijuana legalization is concerned

Fine print in the federal budget makes D.C.'s lack of self-rule painfully obvious

On Election Day last month, voters in Washington, D.C. chose by a margin of more than 2-1 to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes....

PhotoOn Election Day last month, voters in Washington, D.C. chose by a margin of more than 2-1 to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.

A month later, Congress decided to overturn those election results. District residents pay taxes to the United States but have no Congressional representation and their elected city council's actions can be overturned by Congress for any or no reason. That's why D.C. license plates have the slogan “Taxation without Representation.”

The House Appropriations Committee put out a three-page press summary (available in .pdf form here) including three paragraphs dedicated to the District of Columbia. The first paragraphs mention the size of next year's federal payment to D.C. ($680 million) and offers a partial breakdown of how that money's been earmarked ($479 million for “public safety and security costs” including “DC Courts” and “supervision of offenders and defendants.” The second paragraph discusses money spent for schools and other educational costs in D.C. And the third paragraph says this:

In addition, the legislation maintains a longstanding provision prohibiting federal and local funds from being used for abortion in the District of Columbia, and prohibits both federal and local funds from being used to implement a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana use in the District.

In the actual spending bill, which is 1,603 pages long, this paragraph is on page 660:

None of the funds contained in this act may be used to enact or carry out any law, rule or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act or any tetrhydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.

The Will of Congress

In other contexts, various members of Congress and especially the House Appropriations Committee have surely said nice things in favor of democracy, voting, the Will of the People and other things mentioned in civics textbooks.

Yesterday, various protesters (incuding members of D.C.'s city council) gathered in the city's downtown. Some of them were specifically protesting the marijuana issue, others the larger issue of D.C. self-rule (basically, demanding that residents of the district have the same voting rights as any other American citizens, including the right to vote on local issues rather than have Congress manage their local affairs for them).

NBC's Washington blog reported late last night that the “marijuana protesters” (some of whom were protesting not in favor of legal marijuana, so much as the larger issue of self-rule for D.C. residents) joined up with another group demonstrating against police brutality against ordinary citizens.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland), who firmly opposes marijuana legalization, led the behind-the-scenes strategy to overturn election results in D.C. He told Politico magazine that if D.C. residents don't like Congressional oversight, they should live somewhere else: “That’s the way the Constitution was written …. If they don’t like that oversight, move outside of the federal district to one of the 50 states that is not covered by the jurisdiction of Congress as a whole.”

Of course, in America as a whole, a slight majority of polled voters now support marijuana legalization, which is why some political analysts predict the Republicans' short-term victory in successfully overriding the will of D.C. voters will hurt them on the national stage in the long run. For now, Congressional oversight of Washington, D.C. will continue to ignore the wishes of the majority of voters in D.C. and the rest of the country, at least where marijuana laws are concerned.

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This pet detective is spot on

UV flashlight lights up the ammonia in urine

If you can't tell by the smell then you might want to get one of these, a Pet Urine Detector or its official name "UV Stain Detective." It could save you h...

PhotoIf you can't tell by the smell then you might want to get one of these, a Pet Urine Detector or its official name "UV Stain Detective." It could save you hundreds of dollars in cleaning bills if it works as well as its manufacturer claims.

The UV Stain Detective looks pretty much like a standard flashlight. It is equipped with 12 LED lights and a sturdy but compact body with a on-off switch. Just to round off the difference between the UV Stain Detective and other products they threw in the 3 AAA batteries which come already inserted in the device.

Working families are not always able to get home as quickly as they like and it leaves a dog or cat to find a favorite spot or two. This can be a great way to detect where they have actually gone as opposed to where you think they may have gone. That smell can be tricky to pinpoint.

The ammonia in the urine shows clearly under the glare of the black light when conditions are otherwise dark. so you can actually see where the animal has relieved themselves. That makes cleaning easier and you can spot clean as opposed to having your entire carpet cleaned.

We haven't tried it yet. Have you? Let us know how it works out.

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Birds flying drunk a big problem this time of year

Some birds just can't resist fermented berries; the results are predictable

They come in with juice-stained beaks and some less fortunate ones fly into buildings....

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© Barry Barnes - Fotolia

They come in with juice-stained beaks and some less fortunate ones fly into buildings.

Birds that feed on winter berries in the Northern Hemisphere are getting loaded. Drunk as a skunk so to speak. What happens is alcohol forms in the berries as they start to ferment with the first frosts and the birds go crazy for them. It's like an open bar at a frat party. It happens much more often than we think, according to scientists.

This fall there was an episode in which a bunch of Bohemian waxwings flew into Whitehorse, Yukon, and ended up in "drunk tanks" after bingeing on fermented berries of the rowan tree.

Hamster cages

Anticipating the problem a wildlife facility in the territory was equipped with modified hamster cages on standby waiting for the surge of berry seeking migrants. There is no bird breathalyzer test but it was pretty clear the waxwings were flying under the influence, according to Meghan Larivee, a laboratory coordinator at the government agency Environment Yukon in Canada.

"They cannot coordinate their flight movements properly or at all, and they are unable to walk in a coordinated way," she said in an email to National Geographic.

There are many reports that have come from North America and Europe describing the exact same thing but no testing has been done to confirm that alcohol was a factor in the incidents with birds in those regions. The problem is there is no test for alcohol in animals and alcohol leaves their systems rather quickly, according to Paul Duff a veterinary scientist with the U.K.'s Animal and Plant Health Agency.

In 2011 Duff confirmed a case of blackbirds in Northern England who succomed to alcohol deaths by consuming fermenting rowan berries. A liver sample was what brought him to his conclusion. The blackbirds that had died were all young; it is possible that mature blackbirds have learned to avoid the berries.

In the United States it seems that spring is when the waxwings get sloshed. Last March a berry binge led to the deaths of about 50 cedar waxwings found along a road in Harris County, Texas. National Wildlife Health Center tests showed that berries collected from a nearby Ilex shrub contained 800 ppm ethanol by wet weight -- enough to produce intoxication in these birds that could have resulted in compromised behavior and subsequent fatal trauma.

The suggestion is if you find a bird that appears to have had one too many berries, put them in a box with a little water and put holes in it. Let them sober up for a couple of hours, then set them free.

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Retail sales post second consecutive monthly gain

Jobless claims were down again last week

Building on an upwardly revised advance of 0.5% in October -- the first in 8 months -- retail sales rose 0.7% during November, according to figures release...

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© Stuart Miles – Fotolia

Building on an upwardly revised advance of 0.5% in October -- the first in 8 months -- retail sales rose 0.7% during November, according to figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The increase of $449.3 billion put sales up 4.7% from the same period a year ago.

The November gain was paced by a 1.7% surge in sales by auto and other motor vehicle dealers, an increase in 1.4% by building material & garden equipment & supplies dealers an a rise of 1.2% by Clothing and clothing accessories stores.

Those were partially offset by a decline of 1.7% in sales by miscellaneous store retailers and an 0.8% dip in gasoline sales.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) credits increasing wages combined with lower gas prices. “Every economic indicator is pointing toward a strong holiday season,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz, adding, “Healthy November sales should provide momentum for an even stronger December as customers continue to seek out deals all the way to Christmas.”

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia
Initial jobless claims

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, meanwhile reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits continues to fall.

Initial jobless claims totaled 294,000 in the week ending December 6 -- down 3,000 from the previous week. The government says there were no special factors affecting the claims level, which analysts say continues to show an economy at, or near, full employment.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly figure and is considered a better gauge of the labor market, rose by 250 last week to 299,250.

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

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On-time airline performance slips in October

Cancellation rates, however, showed improvement

The top airlines in the U.S. arrived at their destinations on time 80% of the time during October, down a touch from the previous months rate of 81.1% The...

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© John Takai - Fotolia.com

The top airlines in the U.S. arrived at their destinations on time 80% of the time during October, down a touch from the previous months rate of 81.1%

The Transportation Department’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report also shows carriers canceled just 1.1% of their scheduled domestic flights compared with 1.4% in September.

Tarmac Delays

Domestic flights also got off the ground in a timely fashion. There were no tarmac delays of more than three hours, and just and one tarmac delay of more than four hours on an international flight. DOT is looking into the international delay.

The consumer report also includes data on chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, on mishandled baggage, as well as consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints.

In addition, the consumer report incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air.

The complete report is available on the DOT website.

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Global Garlic recalls fresh curd products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes

Global Garlic of Miami, Fla., is recalling De Mi Pais products: Cuajada Fresca (Fresh Curd) 12-oz. and Cuajada Olanchana (Fresh Curd) 12-oz. The products ...

Photo
Photo source: FDA

Global Garlic of Miami, Fla., is recalling De Mi Pais products: Cuajada Fresca (Fresh Curd) 12-oz. and Cuajada Olanchana (Fresh Curd) 12-oz.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes.

The Food and Drug Administration is investigating illnesses associated with the product.

The recalled products were distributed to distributors and retail stores in Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee and North Carolina from April 1 - October 14, 2014.

Both products can be identified by the same UPC code on the label of the plastic bag (896211002380) and by the Best Used by Date sticker on the label of the plastic bag of 07/01/14 through 12/31/14.

FDA is investigating illnesses associated with the product.

Consumers who purchased the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the Global Garlic at (305)545-6305 Monday thru Friday 9:00 am – 4:30 pm EST.

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Real Foods recalls chef salads with ham and turkey

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

Real Foods of Kent, Wash., is recalling approximately 308 pounds of chef salad with ham and turkey. The product contains anchovies, an allergen not listed...

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Photo source: USDA

Real Foods of Kent, Wash., is recalling approximately 308 pounds of chef salad with ham and turkey.

The product contains anchovies, an allergen not listed on the label. The product is labeled for Ranch dressing, but contains a Caesar salad dressing pouch. The Caesar salad dressing contains anchovies.

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

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 12.5-ounce clear plastic containers of “CHEF SALAD WITH HAM (WATER ADDED) AND TURKEY.”

The product, produced on Dec. 6, 2014, bears the establishment number “34834” inside the USDA mark of inspection and has “Sell by: 12/11/2014” printed on the product label.

The product was shipped to retail outlets in Oregon and Washington.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Erin Sherry at (206) 432-3426.

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BMW recalls X5 vehicles

The seat belt attachment could break and fail to restrain an occupant

BMW of North America is recalling 11 model year 2015 X5 vehicles manufactured September 12, 2014, to September 21, 2014 and equipped with the optional rear...

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Photo source: BMW

BMW of North America is recalling 11 model year 2015 X5 vehicles manufactured September 12, 2014, to September 21, 2014 and equipped with the optional rear comfort seat.

The left rear seat belt attachment point in the affected vehicles may not have been sufficiently welded. In the event of a crash, the seat belt attachment could break and fail to restrain a seat occupant, increasing the risk of injury.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the left rear seat frame, free of charge. The recall began November 2014.

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417 or CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

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GCI Outdoor recalls stadium seats

The backrest can fail, posing a risk of injury

GCI Outdoor is recalling about 6,000 stadium seats. The backrest can fail, posing a risk of injury. The company has received 1 report of an incident wher...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

GCI Outdoor is recalling about 6,000 stadium seats.

The backrest can fail, posing a risk of injury.

The company has received 1 report of an incident where backrest support failed and the consumer fell to the ground from the top of a 4-foot tall bleacher and suffered neck and back injuries.

This recall involves GCI Outdoor BleacherBack stadium seats made of a powder-coated steel frame, a stitched fabric backrest and a fabric-covered padded bottom. The backrest has a mesh pocket on the back side.

The seat bottom has a strap that runs from one side through two D rings on the upper part of the backrest and back down to the other side. The strap has a yellow buckle. The backrest and seat bottoms were sold in the colors black, green, maroon, navy blue, red and royal blue.

When open, the seats measure 16 inches wide x 12 inches deep x 17.5 inches high. The backrest folds forward to a height of 4 inches.

Recalled stadium seats have the following purchase order (PO) numbers: 

41223,41269,41273,
41332,41348,41367,41371,41371,41379,41380,41390
41401
41515,41520,41537,41538,41539,41540,41541,41542
41627,41628,41629,41630,41631,41632,41633,41634,41635,41636,41639
41640,41641,41642,41643,41644,41645,41646,41647,41648,41649,41668
41715,41716,41717,41718,

The seats, manufactured in China, were sold at Academy Sports and Outdoors, Big 5 Sporting Goods, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Sports Authority and other sporting goods retailers nationwide and online at GCIoutdoor.com and other online retailers from January 2013, to August 2014, for about $25.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled stadium chairs and contact GCI Outdoor for a free strap repair kit that includes installation instructions, an additional safety strap and a new warning sticker.

Consumers may contact GCI Outdoor at (800) 956-7328 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Thursday and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET on Fridays.

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What to ask your doctor before surgery

These 5 questions will help you be better prepared

You might be told you need surgery for any number of medical issues. Some may seem more simple than others, which might appear downright scary....

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Photo © fivepointsix - Fotolia

You might be told you need surgery for any number of medical issues. Some may seem simpler than others, which might appear downright scary.

But a patient's reaction is usually based on incomplete information. To fill in these blanks, you need to ask the right questions.

After all, it's your body and it’s your disease; you should feel comfortable asking those questions before you enter into something as major as surgery.

How do you know what questions to ask? Robert Cima, M.D., a surgeon and chair of Mayo Clinic’s surgical quality subcommittee, says your family and friends can help in that area. They probably have questions that haven't even occurred to you.

Beyond that, he suggests adding these 5 questions for your doctor to the list:

Are you board-certified to perform this procedure?

Don't assume the answer is yes. Board certification is a credential that physicians earn in addition to state medical licenses. It's a sign that a surgeon has studied and become qualified to perform a particular type of operation, such as cardiovascular surgery.

“They are recognized by the institution as well as the national organizing body for that specialty as having met all the important standards for practice, competency and background,” said Cima, who is board-certified in general surgery and colon and rectal surgery.

Board certified surgeons may also have submitted their case logs and had their outcomes reviewed. Once certified, they may be required to be re-certified on a regular basis.

Will it help if I lose weight before the operation?

Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of complications following an operation. Cima says the healthier the weight, the better.

If you are going in for joint replacement surgery, it may be difficult to exercise prior to the operation. If so, discuss a safe and effective diet, high in protein and low in fat, with your surgeon. And building strength can be as important as burning calories.

“Just like an athlete, you’re going to perform better if you’re in better shape and your strength is better,” Cima said. “Surgery is a major event, a physiologic injury, and you have to be able to respond to that.”

Does it matter if I’m a smoker?

You probably already know the answer to that. Smoking is a risk factor for many surgical complications, such as infections, slow healing, pneumonia and cardiovascular problems. Cima says even ending tobacco use just two weeks to a month before surgery can pay off.

“Unfortunately, smoking has significant negative impacts on almost all surgical procedures we’ve looked at,” Cima said. “The nicotine and many of the compounds in tobacco smoke constrict the small blood vessels. You need those blood vessels to be open to bring blood down to the level of the healing wound.”

What if I have sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea can be a problem. As many as 20% of older surgical patients have obstructive sleep apnea, and the breathing disorder has been associated with higher rates of post-surgery complications.

If you have sleep apnea, make sure your surgeon knows. If you’re being treated with a continuous positive airway pressure machine, bring your CPAP machine with you for your hospital stay. If you're not sure you have it but think you run a high risk, ask to be tested.

Cima says Mayo Clinic actually screens for apnea in the postoperative period in the recovery room.

Is there anything we can do to shorten my hospital stay?

In most cases complications are the reason for an extended hospital stay. Avoid complications and you are likely to go home on time, or even early.

One of the biggest complications is infection, but Cima says it's very preventable. A Mayo Clinic study found that simply having patients shower with an antiseptic cleanser the day before and the day of surgery can help reduce infection risk.

The bottom line? Entering the hospital for surgery as an “optimized patient” – at a healthy weight, not smoking and aware of any complicating conditions – may make surgery a little less scary than it might seem.

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Uber's troubles mount but so does its ridership

Regulators fume and sue but consumers are going along for the ride

Is Uber today's version of Bonnie and Clyde? Or perhaps Robin Hood? It seems everyone hates the cyber-taxi service except consumers, many of whom are wonde...

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This is how Uber promotes its black car service. Not all consumers would agree. Photo credit: Uber

Is Uber today's version of Bonnie and Clyde? Or perhaps Robin Hood? It seems everyone hates the cyber-taxi service except consumers, many of whom are wondering how they ever got by without it.

But to regulators, the upstart car-service company is an outlaw. Government agencies worldwide are tripping over each other in their haste to sue Uber, which skirts the usual process for starting a cab company by simply announcing it is starting service in city after city.

Among the latest developments:

Los Angeles and San Francisco have sued Uber for allegedly unlawful business practices. The district attorneys of each city are seeking a permanent injunction that would prohibit Uber from misleading consumers about the accuracy of its background checks on drivers and from using fare schedules that have not been approved by the state.

“These companies can be innovative in the way they deliver services without ignoring the laws that protect the public,” said San Francisco’s George Gascón and Los Angeles’ Jackie Lacey in a published statement.

Lyft, meanwhile, has agreed to pay civil penalties of $500,000, get approval to operate at the city's airports and submit its app for testing by the state. Lyft agreed to get authorization from airports and submit its app for state testing.

Portland, Oregon, sued Uber on Monday, three days after it began operating in the city, claiming Uber is running an "illegal, unregulated transportation service." The city says its laws subject Uber to the same regulations as licensed taxis. It also charges that Uber is violating a city ordinance that requires 20% of a cab company's fleet to be accessible to disabled consumers.

Madrid, Spain, has issued a cease-and-desit order and Bangkok, Thailand, has ordered Uber to shut down there. Delhi, India, banned the company after a passenger was allegedly raped by an Uber driver.

Consumers shrug

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Uber photo

Consumers are largely OK with all of this. There are scattered complaints about dirty cars, novice drivers and unexpectedly high fares but for the most part, consumers seem to welcome the competition that has broken open the decades-long monopoly that the cab industry has enjoyed in much of the world.

If there is a sticking point, it is Uber's policy of charging more at times of high demand -- during a snowstorm, for example. Uber argues that this is simple supply and demand but critics say it is highway robbery.

"You allow a driver to charge $411 for a twenty minute ride, how is that okay?" asked Angela Pitzenberger in a post on Uber's Facebook page

In New York City, consumers have complained that some Uber and Lyft drivers display the same bad habits as licensed NYC cabbies -- chiefly aggressive driving and a slovenly appearance.  

A Los Angeles consumer visiting New York for a formal dinner complained that she ordered an Uber Black car and got a large and ungainly SUV driven by a fellow who looked like he'd slept in his clothes. She canceled the ride and ordered again. Another large and rather dirty SUV showed up. She gave up and climbed in.

"Riding in a truck is not my idea of luxury," she sniffed.

Mixed results

"I used Uber twice on a recent trip to Houston with mixed results," said Matt of Lake Tahoe, Nev., in a ConsumerAffairs review. "First I used an UberX ($12.88), to save money. The driver showed up and spoke poor English and his car was beat up. He was nice but didn't really know where we were going. Ultimately it worked out but the experience was like a mediocre to bad cab ride, though it cost a lot less."

"Next I took a Black ($20) car. The car was nice, the driver knew where to go. (I got the nicer car since I was taking my date to dinner)," Matt continued. "In the future I'd use a Black car where available, even though it was 55% more money. It's worth an extra $7 to have an actively good experience."

Not wanting to miss out on the transportation story of the year, I have been using Uber and Lyft whenever possible. I recently summoned Uber for a trip to Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., and was surprised to find the driver had no idea how to get there other than relying on his GPS, which is no way to navigate rush-hour traffic. I wound up giving him directions and coaching him on upcoming lange changes.

Yesterday I tried to get Uber to pick me up at the local Volkswagen dealer, where my car was being serviced but the driver kept going to an address across the street and eventually gave up. I finally summoned Lyft and the driver showed up in five minutes. 

All of the Uber and Lyft drivers I have encountered have spoken minimal English but, in fairness, this is true of many people in service occupations in large cities these days, certainly including licensed cabbies. It is also something of a blessing, considering what often passes for banter among homegrown taxi drivers.

Tremendous growth

All the problems, lawsuits and gripes run right off Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's back.

"We are 6 times bigger today than 12 months ago – and grew faster this year than last. This progress is remarkable, but it is in the coming years that Uber truly scales and the impact in cities becomes visible," Kalanick said in a recent blog posting. He said Uber now operates in 250 cities in 50 countries, and is just getting started.

"In 2015 alone, Uber will generate over 1 [million] jobs in cities around the world and with that millions of people may decide that they no longer need to own a car because using Uber will be cheaper than owning one," he said. "Parking could become less strained in our biggest cities, and city congestion may actually start to ease due to uberPOOL’s expansion and success."

uberPOOL is a newly announced service that helps riders form ad hoc car pools. 

 

 

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Apple's AirDropped astronaut sloths: a silly photo highlights a serious security flaw

If you have a Mac or any iGadget with AirDrop, you MUST check its settings

Today's “Helpful, straightforward advice that would've made absolute zero sense when we were kids” is this: If your Apple device recently received the Astr...

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Image credit: Pedro Dionísio

Today's “Helpful, straightforward advice that would've made absolute zero sense when we were kids” is this: If your Apple device recently received the Astronaut or Space Sloth photo via AirDrop, learn from this and be thankful it wasn't a nasty virus instead.

Now to deconstruct that statement. “Apple” with a capital A refers not to fruit but the tech company that makes Macintosh (Mac) computers, and other gadgets with a lowercase “i” at the beginning of their names: iPhone, iPad, iPod, iWatch, etc. And, according to the Apple company, “AirDrop lets you send files from your Mac to nearby Macs and iOS devices.”

Sounds pretty straightforward so far. Of course, anything that lets you send files can potentially be hijacked so someone else can send files – say, a hacker trying to plant dangerous malware or other viruses on your devices.

Or, less harmfully, a prankster highlighting (or taking advantage of) a little-known AirDrop security flaw by using it to send unsuspecting Mac and iGadget owners an unsolicited picture of a sloth wearing an astronaut's outfit – the Space Sloth.

Last month, on Nov. 10, Josh Lowensohn wrote an oddly confessional article for The Verge tech blog, admitting “I used Apple's AirDrop to troll strangers with photos of space sloths, and it's been going on for months.”

How does he do this?

Each day I get on the train to make the half hour voyage into San Francisco for work, I am surrounded by people using their phones. Many have iPhones or iPads, and have a setting turned on that lets me send them unsolicited files through AirDrop. Where Apple envisioned it as a way to send useful files and websites to friends and acquaintances, I use it to send photos of sloths to strangers. And not just any sloths, but sloths wearing spacesuits.

Lowensohn then discusses the history of the astronaut sloth photo and its creator, digital artist Pedro Dionísio, before going back to the technical features of AirDrop:

By default, the feature is not set to share with everyone. In fact, AirDrop itself is not even turned on until you use it for the first time. But I've found that a surprising number of people have flipped it on, and set it to accept things from the entire world. I assume that's by mistake, but by the time they've realized that, I've already struck. They can, of course, decline the AirSloth, but I know they've seen a small preview of it.

No big deal, right? But suppose that instead of a silly picture of an astronaut with a sloth's head, Lowensohn had chosen to send a nasty, explicitly pornographic picture (as many trolls seem to enjoy doing) – if that happens, you can certainly decline to accept an explicit, not-safe-for-work photo, but you've already seen a small preview of it, and depending on the circumstances it's possible that your kid or your boss did, too.

Even worse, suppose that instead of a photo, obscene or otherwise, Lowensohn had decided to send a virus to infect your device. Once you see that small preview, it's too late to stop it.

Name change

Lowensohn went on to describe how, in order to increase the chance of random iGadgets receiving the Space Sloth via AirDrop, he'd change the name of his phone based on his surroundings:

People name their phones all sorts of obvious and generic things. I, on the other hand, go with a handle that presents the possibility and plausibility of authority depending on the situation. Take the train for instance. It's Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART for short. When I'm on there, I'll quickly rename my phone "BART." If it's a coffee shop, I'll change it to "Starbucks."

Changing names is a standard operating procedure for malicious hackers, too. Remember last June, when security researchers learned how ridiculously, insanely easy it was for malicious hackers to set up public wi-fi hotspots that looked like legitimate ones? Turns out that if you're a hacker wanting to fool a typical smartphone or tablet into thinking your malware-riddled hacker-bait hotspot is actually, for example, the free wi-fi at your local Starbucks, all you have to do is program your hotspot's electronic signal to say “I'm Starbucks wi-fi.” Then you can easily access any smartphone, tablet or other device that connects to you.

It really is that easy: say you are anyone you want to be, and the device will believe you because somehow its security-software writers made it all the way to adulthood and even a professional software-writing gig without internalizing the important security concept “Sometimes, people lie.”

That particular security flaw is relatively easy for smartphone owners to get around, by turning off the auto-connect features on their mobile devices. And it's similarly easy for iGadget owners to protect themselves from the AirDrop security flaw Lowensohn bragged about last month.

Did Apple ever envision people using it like this? I sure hope so. I can tell you that at a recent technology conference, I happened to be sitting a few feet away from a certain Apple executive and one of the company's PR people. I fired up AirDrop out of curiosity and both their phones immediately popped up, names included. During a break I ventured to ask why he'd left the setting on, and he told me it was to make it easier to share things with friends, and that he just left it on that way. When I told him what I used it for, I got a stern look of disapproval. Maybe they didn't think this through.

Apple action?

So that was the status quo a month ago, a long time in Internet terms, so surely by now Apple's done something-or-other to patch up that potential security leak, no?

No. On Dec. 1, FastCompany technology editor Harry McCracken took to his Twitter account to show the Space Sloth photo and say “Not sure if it's an accident or spam, but I was just AirDropped by a legendary Boston gangster.” Someone using the name Whitey Bulger had sent him the picture, and various people responded by linking to Lowensohn's Verge confessional.

By Dec. 10, the U.K.'s sensationalist Daily Mail tabloid asked its readers “Have you been a victim of SPACE SLOTH?” before pointing out, more reasonably, that the “Viral prank highlights [the] dangers of accepting unknown files using Apple's AirDrop.”

Think about ordinary email spam: you know that whoever sent it is up to no good, and you also know not to click on any links or download any attachments sent with it. Luckily, your email account doesn't have any setting equivalent to “automatically click on any link or download any file attachments in an email” — given the amount of spam email in existence, such a setting would be downright insane.

And you don't want AirDrop set up to automatically accept messages from just anybody, either – even if you don't receive anything worse than a silly photo of an spacefaring sloth.

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Increasingly, it's a mobile world

Do you own a tablet? No? Chances are you soon will.

The 1980s brought the personal computer revolution. The 1990s brought the Internet revolution, providing a way to use all those different kinds of PCs. But...

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Photo credit: Microsoft

The 1980s brought the personal computer revolution. The 1990s brought the Internet revolution, providing a way to use all those different kinds of PCs. But Gartner, Inc., a technology research term, says the future belongs to mobile devices.

In the developing world consumers are already using smartphones as their exclusive mobile devices while in developed economies, multi-device households are becoming the norm. Tablets are growing at the fastest rate of any computing device.

“The use pattern that has emerged for nearly all consumers, based on device accessibility, is the smartphone first as a device that is carried when mobile, followed by the tablet that is used for longer sessions, with the PC increasingly reserved for more-complex tasks,” said Van Baker, research vice president at Gartner.

And while wearables, like the upcoming Apple Watch, are not yet a factor, Baker says they soon will be.

Consumption v. creation

“As content consumption tasks outweigh content creation tasks, this will further move users away from the PC,” he said.

This will also bring about big changes at work. Already, many businesses have adopted a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, allowing employees to use personal mobile devices to access the corporate network. Gartner says that's going to rapidly change how all these devices talk to one another.

“Ethernet cabling has been the mainstay of the business workspace connectivity since the beginning of networking. However, as smartphones, laptops, tablets and other consumer devices have multiplied, the consumer space has largely converted to a wireless-first world,“ said Gartner VP Ken Dulaney.

And just as personal computer prices plunged from the 1980s to the 1990s, consumers are beginning to find lower prices on phones – even phones not subsidized by the carrier.

Mobile shopping surge

We witnessed the impact of the meteoric rise of mobile on the just-past Black Friday and Cyber Monday. IBM Benchmark data show online retailers experienced an 8% growth in Black Friday sales with 47% of those sales made from a mobile device.

On Cyber Monday, IBM estimates about 41% of sales came from mobile devices.

Does that mean the PC is about to disappear? Probably not. More complex business-related functions will probably always require one. This reporter would be hard pressed to write a story on a tablet, much less a smartphone.

Hybrids

But some tablets may begin looking and acting more like PCs. Microsoft is marketing its Surface Pro 3 tablet as a replacement for a laptop because it runs Windows and you can add an optional keyboard.

Can it replace your laptop? The claim was met with a lot of skepticism, but TechRadar gave it a spin and concluded that the boast is not far off.

In its review, in the video below, TechRadar says the Surface Pro 3 makes vast improvements over its predecessors.

Is it the future? Only time will tell. And if the rapid rate of technology evolution is any indicator, we won't have to wait long for the future to arrive.

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Holidays can be stressful for kids

It's important to retain at least some routine and time for relaxation

It's the most wonderful time of the year, and you want it to be so special for your child. While you are busy creating memories by frantically running to t...

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Photo © sunnysky69 - Fotolia

It's the most wonderful time of the year, and you want it to be so special for your child. While you are busy creating memories by frantically running to the mall, decorating cookies, figuring out how to please everyone, you might not realize the toll it is taking on the people you are trying to make everything so perfect for.

Findings from a 2008 poll on holiday stress conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed that eight out of ten Americans anticipated stress during the holiday season. In the APA's 2012 Stress in America survey it was found that 69% of Americans attribute their stress to money related concerns and 61% attributed stress to the economy.

It's important to remember that parents and kids need time to relax and enjoy the season. It can be tough for kids that see their parents buying many things and appear over-loaded. The parent comes home stressed out because they just blew their whole paycheck on Christmas shopping. Your child isn't quite sure how to interpret that.

Be aware of some signs that your child may be becoming stressed out:

  • Crying for no reason, whiny.
  • They become nervous start biting their nails and twirling their hair.
  • All of a sudden they start getting stomachaches or headaches.
  • Friends don't seem very enticing to them; they start to withdraw.
  • They become markedly different in their attitude and behavior.

Stay normal

The ways to help keep things "normal" is to actually keep things normal. Stick to your routine.

Jana N. Martin, Ph.D., a child and family psychologist based in Long Beach, Calif., suggests you aim to keep at least some aspect of the routines your child is accustomed to.

For instance, if you can't tuck them in at their regular time, keep up at least one typical pre-bed ritual, like a bedtime story or a glass of warm milk. "This lends focus to the chaos," says Martin. "Kids know that no matter what else is going on, this is something they can count on."

Exercise is a natural stress buster and even though it may be cold outside, bundle them up and send them outside for an afternoon of building snow forts or sledding, or set up a game of at-home bowling with empty plastic water bottles and a foam rubber ball. Keep their minds active and their hearts pumping -- it helps those endorphins kick in and creates less downtime to think about things that may be troubling.

You don't have to attend every holiday party. You are allowed to say no. It can be taxing on a child to have to have good manners and not run around and be dressed up. It's tough for many adults in social situations and not much easier on a child.

Family traditions can bring comfort to your child. It's a sense of familiarity and again the routine. Many don't realize how important traditions are to themselves and their children.

Let your kids be kids. "Overscheduling activities can lead to tense and anxious kids," notes Ruth Peters, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist based in Clearwater, Fla. And since stress over a prolonged period taxes the immune system, it may even result in physical ailments, such as colds or flu. Consider getting a sitter for some of the parties and such so they have down time.

Feed the hunger. "Giving your kids meals and snacks at regular intervals keeps blood sugar regulated and nerves on an even keel," explains Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., author of The Cortisol Connection Diet. If you are waiting for a big meal and they can't wait, a little piece of cheese or a small snack can help keep hunger in check.

Above and beyond everything, the holidays are a fun time -- so embrace the fun try not to give into the pressure of the "shoulds" and what you think "should" be happening. You know what is best for your family more so than anyone and it is about family so remember to take care of them and you so you are able to enjoy the holidays!

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Mustang, Genesis, Golf named Car of the Year finalists

Automotive journalists last year picked the Corvette Stingray for top honors

They're perhaps not the cars you dream of during idle moments but the Ford Mustang, Hyundai Genesis and Volkswagen Golf have captured the attention of the ...

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IIHS Photo

They're perhaps not the cars you dream of during idle moments but the Ford Mustang, Hyundai Genesis and Volkswagen Golf have captured the attention of the automotive journalists who choose the North American Car of the Year. They're the finalists from which a winner will be chosen.

Over in the truck garage, the Lincoln MKC, Ford F-150 and the Chevy Colorado were named the truck/utility finalists.

The winner will be announced Jan. 11, 2015 and the title will pass from the current holders, the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and the Chevrolet Silverado.

Factors weighed by the judges include innovation, design, safety, handling, comfort, value and driver satisfaction.

Of course, like all beauty contests, this is just one of many and the consumer still has the vote that counts. 

Speaking of which, Consumer Reports recently named the Tesla S the winner for the second straight year of its owner satisfaction survey. The Tesla nosed out Porsche in the magazine's survey of 350,000 vehicles ranging from one to three years old.

A whopping 98% of Tesla owners said they would "definitely" buy another one. 

What about the 2% who wouldn't? Debra of Newport Beach, Calif., may be one of them. She recently bought a Tesla and said in a ConsumerAffairs review that she has "had service issues from the day I put down my $2,500 deposit."

Problems have been mostly minor but the service has been a major annoyance, she said. "The car is great but there are NO grown ups servicing the company. ... Their customer service consists of smiling and saying no."

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Picking the perfect Poinsettia

And no, they're not toxic to humans

It's one of the mainstays of Christmas but it hasn't been around quite as long as Santa Claus. The poinsettia was introduced to the United States in 1825 b...

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Photo © leekris - Fotolia

It's one of the mainstays of Christmas but it hasn't been around quite as long as Santa Claus. The poinsettia was introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett, first U. S. ambassador to Mexico who obtained plants from the wilds of southern Mexico.

They are pretty hardy plants and they are great for a quick gift and no matter where you are, you can always find them at the hardware store, the grocery, drug store and, of course, the florist.

December 12th is National Poinsettia Day and so that might be a prime day to purchase one, better even than Black Friday.

How do you pick a perfect poinsettia?

Even though the flowers are red you want to look for green, a dark green to be exact. Look at the leaves because fallen or damaged leaves indicate poor handling or fertilization, lack of water or a root disease problem. Choose bracts (modified leaves) that are completely colored.

You want your flowers to be in proportion to the plant and pot size. The plant should be 2 1/2 times taller than the diameter of the container.

Sometimes when you go to the store the plants have paper or plastic around them. Ditch those. Those plants will not thrive or do well. Plants that are placed close together aren't a good option for you. Crowding isn't healthful.

Root rot

The soil is a good indicator of root rot. Check the soil. If it’s wet and the plant is wilted, this could be an indication it's got a problem with its roots.

Check the poinsettia’s maturity. The true flowers are located at the base of the colored bracts, or leaves. Look for them, if the flowers are green or red-tipped and fresh looking the bloom will "hold" longer than if yellow pollen is covering the flowers.

Once you bring it home, don't over-water it -- that can also lead to root damage.
Examine the soil daily, and when the surface is dry to the touch, water the soil until it runs freely out the drainage hole in the container. No more than that, though.

Let the sun in. If you obtain a poinsettia for your home, place it near a sunny window where it will have the most available sunlight. If it's cold outside, don't let the plant touch a window pane.

Keep the temp comfortable. It should be 65 to 70 degrees during the daylight hours. If possible, move it to a cooler place at night. Don't put it anywhere colder than 60 F.

Contrary to what you may have heard, poinsettias are not toxic to humans. Research that was done at Ohio State University and some other institutions, has shown the old wives' tale that poinsettias are poisonous is false. They are mildly toxic to cats and dogs but symptoms are nearly always mild and don't require medical treatment.

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You can have their cake and eat it too

Would you believe $7,500 for a single slice?

People collect weird things and they are willing to pay a pretty penny for what they collect....

People collect weird things and they are willing to pay a pretty penny for what they collect.

How about wedding cake? If you have been married and divorced a few times you may have a couple of pieces of wedding cake lying around in your freezer. Or you might just be a wedding cake collector. If so, you missed a piece up for grabs.

You know that cute couple from across the pond, Prince William and Duchess Catherine? A slice of their life went up for auction recently in Beverly Hills. A piece of their wedding cake from 2011 was auctioned off for $7,500. All I can say is that cake better get better with each passing day. You can only keep turkey for three days. Wedding cake, though, goes for years I guess.

Julien's of Beverly Hills had thought they would bring about $2,000 for the piece of history and they were pretty shocked when they saw how high the bidding went. The cake, which was eight tiers, took the baker five weeks to make and is said to peak in flavor 13 months after it was baked. It came in a tin along with a blank invitation to the wedding presented on the Queen's stationery.

I guess if you can pass around a fruitcake at the holidays year after year, a piece of wedding cake would be, well, a piece of cake.

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A rebound for mortgage applications

Applications for refinancing surged

After falling for two straight weeks, mortgage applications shot higher last week. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage A...

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© emiliezhang -Fotolia.com

After falling for two straight weeks, mortgage applications shot higher last week.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications rose 7.3% during the week ending December 5.

The Refinance Index, meanwhile, jumped 13% from the previous week, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 64% of total applications from 60% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 7.0%.

The FHA share of total applications dipped to 9.0% this week from 9.3% last week. The VA share rose to 9.6% from 9.4 percent last week, and the USDA share of total applications 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) rose 3 basis points -- from 4.08% to 4.11%, with points unchanged at 0.28 (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) slipped to 4.07% from 4.11%, with points decreasing to 0.16 from 0.22 (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 inched up 2 basis points to 3.87%, with points dropping to 0.03 from 0.09 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate remained unchanged from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs increased to 3.35% from 3.30%, with points rising to 0.30 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was 3.11% -- up 4 basis points, with points decreasing to 0.19 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was the same as last week.

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

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Ford recalls Mustangs with seat belt issues

The passenger safety belt tension sensor may misclassify the size of the front passenger seat occupant

Ford Motor Company is recalling 50 model year 2015 Ford Mustang vehicles manufactured August 18, 2014, to October 2, 2014. The passenger safety belt tens...

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Photo source: Ford

Ford Motor Company is recalling 50 model year 2015 Ford Mustang vehicles manufactured August 18, 2014, to October 2, 2014.

The passenger safety belt tension sensor in the recalled vehicles may misclassify the size of the front passenger seat occupant, causing a child-sized occupant to be classified as an adult and an adult passenger to be classified as a child.

If the tension sensor misclassifies the front passenger, improper passenger air bag deployment may occur, increasing the risk of occupant injury in the event of a vehicle crash.

Ford has notified owners, and dealers will replace the passenger safety belt buckle, free of charge. The recall was expected to began in October 2014.

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14C08.

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BMW recalls X3 and X4 Sports Activity Vehicles

The driver's side exterior rearview mirror may not meet federal safety standards

BMW of North America is recalling 53 model year 2015 X3 and X4 Sports Activity Vehicles manufactured July 28, 2014 to July 29, 2014. The vehicles may hav...

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Photo source: BMW

BMW of North America is recalling 53 model year 2015 X3 and X4 Sports Activity Vehicles manufactured July 28, 2014 to July 29, 2014.

The vehicles may have been produced with a driver's side exterior rearview mirror that was designed to meet non-US market requirements. Thus, these vehicles fail to comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards No. 111, "Rearview Mirrors." The driver may not notice that vehicles viewed in the mirror are closer than they appear, increasing the risk of a crash.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver's side exterior rearview mirror, free of charge. The recall was expected to begin November 1, 2014.

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417 or CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

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Dream On Me recalls play yards

The play yard’s rails can collapse

Dream On Me of South Plainfield, N.J., is recalling about 10,000 play yards. The play yard’s rails can collapse, presenting a strangulation hazard to youn...

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Photo source: CPSC

Dream On Me of South Plainfield, N.J., is recalling about 10,000 play yards.

The play yard’s rails can collapse, presenting a strangulation hazard to young children.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recall includes Dream On Me Incredible two-level deluxe adjustable height play yards with model number starting with 436A, 436B, 436G, 436O, 436P and 436R. The play yards, made with a steel, powder-coated frame base with rolling, hooded casters, have a fabric and mesh covering that comes in a variety of colors.

The play yard includes a changing top, a toy bar with soft toys for entertainment, a side pocket for storage and a carrying case. “Dream On Me” is printed on the bottom left-hand side outside of the product. The model number is printed on a label attached to the play yard’s mattress. The play yard can be folded for storage.

The play yards, manufactured in China were sold online at Amazon, Kohls, Toys R US, WalMart, Wayfair and other online retailers from March 2010, through January 2014, for about $60.

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

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

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Ford recalls vehicles with steering issues

The problem could result in a loss of steering control

Ford Motor Company is recalling 36,888 model year 2005-2011 Ford Crown Victoria, 2005-2011 Mercury Grand Marquis vehicles manufactured March 23, 2004, to A...

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Photo source: Ford

Ford Motor Company is recalling 36,888 model year 2005-2011 Ford Crown Victoria, 2005-2011 Mercury Grand Marquis vehicles manufactured March 23, 2004, to August 30, 2011, and 2005-2011 Lincoln Town Car vehicles manufactured March 8, 2004, to August 30, 2011, and on which the upper intermediate shaft was serviced during the course of safety recall 13V-385.

Improper servicing of the upper intermediate shaft could cause the shaft to separate, which can then result in a loss of steering control, increasing the risk of a crash.

Ford will notify the owners of vehicles whose repair records reflect that the upper intermediate steering shaft was repaired during the course of a prior recall.

Dealers will inspect and replace the upper immediate shaft if necessary free of charge. If the steering column lower bearing has separated, a retainer clip will be installed. The recall began November 17, 2014.

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14S25.

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New high blood pressure treatment could be in the works

Preventing leptin from getting to the brain may be the key

For years doctors have known that obesity is a strong link to cardiovascular disease, and with it conditions like hypertension, or high blood pressure....

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Photo © popyconcept - Fotolia

For years doctors have known that obesity is a strong link to cardiovascular disease, and with it conditions like hypertension, or high blood pressure.

Now, doctors are learning more about why carrying too much weight contributes to high blood pressure, a major risk for stroke and heart attack.

An international team of health researchers has published findings that focus on the role of leptin, a substance produced by fat cells.

Leptin is key

It turns out that leptin levels in the body are significantly elevated following weight gain. The increase in leptin acts in the brain to increase blood pressure.

The researchers reached their conclusion when they ran a series of experiments on both animal and human subjects. First, they set up roadblocks in the brain to keep the leptin signals from getting through. They even went so far as to remove leptin receptors from the brain.

Interrupting that communication had a dramatic effect. It reduced both high blood pressure and obesity.

80% of hypertension cases

The research team maintains as much as 80% of common hypertension is linked to excess body fat. This study breaks new ground because it describes how obesity raises blood pressure.

More importantly, it could lead to new approaches for treating both conditions.

"Our data suggest that pharmacological approaches based on altering the effect of leptin in the dorsomedial hypothalamic region of the brain, could potentially represent a therapeutic target for the treatment of obesity induced hypertension and potentially could be exploited to alleviate the incidence of obesity induced cardiovascular diseases," said Professor Michael Cowley, of Australia's Monash University.

Translated, that means it may be possible to produce a drug that would stop leptin from telling the brain to raise the body's blood pressure. If so, it would come as welcome news to millions of Americans.

Epidemic of hypertension

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates some 67 million American adults – about 31% of the adult population – have high blood pressure and only about half of them have their condition under control.

The condition affects men and women more or less equally over their lifetimes. However, for people younger than 45 years old, the condition affects more men than women. For people 65 years old or older, high blood pressure affects more women than men, the CDC says.

Because it is so closely linked to heart disease and stroke, more than 348,000 American deaths in 2009 included high blood pressure as a primary or contributing cause, working out to about 1,000 deaths a day.

In addition to heart-related illness high blood also pressure increases your risk for kidney disease.

Natural remedies

High blood pressure is usually treated with medication but changes in lifestyle are also very effective in bringing it under control. A healthy diet, regular exercise and maintaining a normal weight will do as much as anything to keep your blood pressure under control.

How high is high blood pressure? Recently, there has been some disagreement about that in medical circles. We recently looked into that question here.

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Amazon will let buyers haggle with select sellers

Company introduces new Make an Offer option for sellers

Amazon's newest feature – no, make that Amazon's newest experience, because that's the terminology Amazon's “Media Room” uses in its PR marketing writing –...

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Screenshot from Amazon.com
Amazon's newest feature – no, make that Amazon's newest experience, because that's the terminology Amazon's “Media Room” uses in its PR marketing writing – will apparently introduce the possibility of haggling into Amazon's online marketplace:

Amazon.com today [on Dec. 9] announced the ‘Make an Offer’ experience that allows customers to negotiate even lower prices on thousands of items. Expanding on Amazon’s traditional fixed price model, the new pricing feature allows customers to offer to buy items at even lower prices. … more than 150,000 items from sellers on Amazon are enabled with the ‘Make an Offer’ experience across Sports and Entertainment Collectibles, Collectible Coins and Fine Art. …

If done right, this could indeed prove useful for those wishing to sell or buy antique, collectible or secondhand items on Amazon. Whether you call it a “feature” or “experience” – the press release uses both – Amazon says it will work this way:

Sellers enable the ‘Make an Offer’ feature for items to show customers they are willing to negotiate for a lower price than the price listed. When selecting ‘Make an Offer’ on an item’s product detail page, a customer can enter and submit a new price of their choosing. The seller will receive the customer’s lower price offer through email, at which point the seller can accept, reject or counter the offer. The seller and customer can continue to negotiate through email until the negotiation is complete. When a seller accepts a customer’s offer, the customer is notified and can place the item into their shopping cart at the agreed upon [sic] new price for checkout and purchase.

However, Amazon's example seems to assume only one potential buyer at a time would make an offer on a given item. It doesn't say whether sellers will be able to see offers from more than one buyer at a time, though it does specify that items will not be sold in an open-auction format.

It also says that sellers have up to three days to respond to a buyer's offer, which when added to shipping time means that, however successful the make an offer feature proves in the future, it might have arrived on the scene just a little bit too late for buying this year's Hanukkah and Christmas gifts.

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Don't forget those required retirement plan distributions

The deadline for a lot of them is Dec. 31

Uncle Sam wants his bite out of your retirement savings. And to make sure he gets it, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding taxpayers born befor...

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© karenfoleyphoto - Fotolia

Uncle Sam wants his bite out of your retirement savings.

And to make sure he gets it, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding taxpayers born before July 1, 1944 that they generally must receive payments from their individual retirement arrangements (IRAs) and workplace retirement plans by Dec. 31.

These RMDs, or required minimum distributions, normally must be made by the end of the year. But a special rule allows first-year recipients of these payments -- those who reached age 70½ during 2014 -- to wait until as late as April 1, 2015 to receive their first RMDs.

That means that those born after June 30, 1943 and before July 1, 1944 are eligible for this special rule. Though payments made to these taxpayers in early 2015 can be counted toward their 2014 RMD, they are still taxable in 2015.

Who must take an RMD?

The required distribution rules apply to owners of traditional IRAs -- but not Roth IRAs -- while the original owner is alive. They also apply to participants in various workplace retirement plans, including 401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) plans.

An IRA trustee must either report the amount of the RMD to the IRA owner or offer to calculate it for the owner. Often, the trustee shows the RMD amount on Form 5498 in Box 12b. For a 2014 RMD, this amount was on the 2013 Form 5498 normally issued to the owner during January 2014.

The special April 1 deadline only applies to the RMD for the first year. For all subsequent years, the RMD must be made by Dec. 31.

So, a taxpayer who turned 70½ in 2013 (born after June 30, 1942 and before July 1, 1943) and received the first required payment on April 1, 2014 must still receive the second RMD by Dec. 31, 2014.

Calculating the RMD

The RMD for 2014 is based on the taxpayer’s life expectancy on Dec. 31, 2014, and the account balance on Dec. 31, 2013. The trustee reports the year-end account value to the IRA owner on Form 5498 in Box 5. Use the online worksheets on IRS.gov or find worksheets and life expectancy tables to make this computation in the Appendices to Publication 590.

For most taxpayers, the RMD is based on Table III (Uniform Lifetime) in the IRS publication on IRAs. If the taxpayer turned 72 in 2014, the required distribution would be based on a life expectancy of 25.6 years. A separate table, Table II, applies to a taxpayer whose spouse is more than 10 years younger and is the taxpayer’s only beneficiary.

Though the RMD rules are mandatory for all owners of traditional IRAs and participants in workplace retirement plans, some people in workplace plans can wait longer to receive their RMDs. Usually, employees who are still working can -- if their plan allows -- wait until April 1 of the year after they retire to start receiving these distributions.

Employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations with 403(b) plan accruals before 1987 should check with their employer, plan administrator or provider to see how to treat these accruals.

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Proposed California bill would require HOAs to allow fake grass

Despite deepening drought, many state HOAs require water-wasting aesthetics

The state of California is entering the fourth year of its historic drought, and the San Diego County Water Authority has proposed a bill before the state ...

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The state of California is entering the fourth year of its historic drought, and the San Diego County Water Authority has proposed a bill before the state legislature which, if passed into law, would require homeowners' associations (HOAs) throughout the state to let homeowners have artificial lawns in their front yards.

Replacing thirsty genuine lawns with waterless fake ones would seem like a no-brainer when “reducing water use” is the goal, yet most HOAs throughout the state ban artificial turf.

The state legislature passed similar proposed bills in 2010 and 2011, but then-governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the 2010 bill and current governor Jerry Brown vetoed the next one.

However, despite recent rains and even flooding in parts of California, the statewide drought has grown considerably more severe in the years since that 2011 veto.

In 2014, California declared an official state of emergency over the drought, and a variety of water-conservation measures went into effect throughout the year, including a bill which the legislature passed and the governor signed into law this past summer, forbidding HOAs from penalizing homeowners whose lawns turn brown during drought conditions.

In light of these factors, supporters of the bill hope that this time, it will successfully make it into law, and California residents who live under HOAs will have the legal right to put synthetic grass in their front yards, in lieu of any plants requiring regular watering.

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Company's charitable contributions make consumers more forgiving of error

Study finds customers more likely to forgive bad service by charitable business

Bad service or a defective product can quickly drive consumers to the nearest online review site, with unpleasant consequences for the business that came u...

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Bad service or a defective product can quickly drive consumers to the nearest online review site, with unpleasant consequences for the business that came up short.

But, a new study finds, companies that practice corporate social responsibility -- by giving to charity and supporting local causes -- are more likely to be forgiven. 

Writing in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, researchers say that corporate social responsibility (CSR) - such as donating money to build a new children's hospital or implementing onsite daycare to accommodate parents - can act as an insurance policy against failure.

"Whereas most studies have focused on reactive strategies, such as apologies and compensation, little is known about the effect of proactive strategies, such as CSR, on consumer behavior following negative events," said Jeff Joireman, marketing professor at Washington State University and lead author of the study. "If CSR buffers firms against service failures, firms may be more willing to adopt preemptive CSR initiatives that maximize return."

The paper is the first to test the effectiveness of value-aligned CSR in response to service failures.

Benefits confirmed

The researchers conducted two studies. The first study revealed that customers are less likely to experience anger and spread negative word of mouth following a service failure when a firm engages in high levels of environmentally focused CSR that aligns with consumers' environmental values; for example, allocating 15 percent of profits to a campaign to promote safe drinking water.

"We found that when a firm donates money to environmental causes, environmentalists 'cut the firm slack' following a service failure, but non-environmentalists don't," said Joireman.

The second study explored the benefits of CSR policies offering customers choice over the firm's allocations. Results showed that a CSR policy that offered customers a choice over the CSR allocations enhanced consumers' perceived value alignment with the firm, reduced negative word of mouth and increased positive word of mouth and repurchase intentions.

"While apologies, compensation and proactive approaches to service failures can yield more satisfied and less vengeful customers, they do little to benefit a broader range of stakeholders," Joireman said. "In contrast, value-aligned CSR with choice is an effective approach to dealing with service failures and also yields positive societal outcomes."

The researchers' efforts coincide with a growing movement to understand what companies can do - before customers complain directly to the firm - to promote more favorable responses to service failure.

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Wake up! French Toast Crunch is coming back

Do consumers really yearn for the days when cereal was both crunchy and gooey?

Apparently Americans aren't finding cereal as magically delicious as they did back when Lucky Charms cereal was in its heyday. Cereal lovers' ardor has coo...

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© General Mills

Apparently Americans aren't finding cereal as magically delicious as they did back when Lucky Charms cereal was in its heyday. Cereal lovers' ardor has cooled a bit compared, especially in the last year.

In a quarterly report that came out in September, General Mills reported that sales for its U.S. cereal business, which is made up of such brands as Cheerios, Lucky Charms, and Wheaties, dropped 9% from a year ago.

Kellogg is also a little soggy. The maker of such classics as Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, and Fruit Loops said their cereal segment in some markets was "challenging."

Apparently people are eating more yogurt and breakfast bars. Also there are no more Saturday morning cartoons that sold the stuff like, well, like hot cakes.

But a resurgence of sorts may be starting in other corners of the food business, as a few companies are bringing the oldies but goodies back. Mars reintroduced crispy M&Ms and Burger King brought back a 40-year-old hoagie, the Yumbo.

Now cereal lovers from the 90's can recreate their morning childhood experience with the comeback of Kellogg's French Toast Crunch. Perhaps this will wake up the cereal business for General Mills.

“We have been overwhelmed by the consumer conversations, requests and passion for the cereal to come back,” General Mills marketing manager Waylon Good said in a statement. “We value our fans and are so excited to be able to bring it back for them.”

A Facebook memorial page was set up to bring the sugary syrupy cereal back. There were at least five petition campaigns on Change.org, supposedly launched by those pining for a return to the days when breakfast cereal was both crunchy and gooey. 

One of the petition organizers was Maryssa Lovejoy of Sebastopol, Calif., who urged General Mills to "recontinue selling French Toast Crunch." She didn't get any signers. She only got 50 signatures. (Sometimes it's more about who you know.)

At any rate if you are a fan of French Toast Crunch it will be back on the shelves starting in January.

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Class-action suit claims Comcast forces residential customers to pay for its public wi-fi hotspots

Lawsuit alleges higher electricity costs, slower connections and greater risks for home router users

A federal class action suit filed in San Francisco last week accuses Comcast of forcing its residential customers to bear the costs of building and maintai...

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© doomu - Fotolia

A federal class action suit filed in San Francisco last week accuses Comcast of forcing its residential customersto bear the costs of building and maintaining Comcast's for-profit network of public wi-fi hotspots.

It's no secret that Comcast's plan for public wi-fi entails piggybacking on residential routers (as opposed to costlier-for-them options, such as building a network of transmission towers). In other words: your home router becomes a public wi-fi spot, although in this context, “public” does not mean “free,” merely that anybody with the right subscription credentials can access it.

Last March, we told you how Comcast's then-newest Xfinity routers automatically set up a second wi-fi network -- wide open and available for anyone within range. But Comcast said at the time that your residential network would not be in any way affected by the public network going through your router, and Comcast executive Tom Nagel told the Chicago Tribune that “They'll look like two separate networks and they'll act like two separate networks …. Any use on the public side doesn't impact the private side.”

Not true, suit claims

The class-action suit filed against Comcast last week basically alleges that such reassuring claims aren't true. Courthouse News reports that on Dec. 4, lead plaintiff Toyer Grear sued Comcast on the grounds that it “has externalized the costs of its national wi-fi network onto its customers,” according to the lawsuit. These costs allegedly include electricity: Grear's lawsuit says the public-hotspot routers use considerably more electricity than the old private-only routers, resulting in electric bills up to 30 or 40 percent higher than before, which the lawsuit calls “a cost borne by the unwitting customer.”

The complaint also says that tests of the actual routers and their total energy consumption suggests that “Comcast will be pushing tens of millions of dollars per month of the electricity bills needed to run their nationwide public wi-fi network onto consumers,” according to court documents. The lawsuit also alleges that home wi-fi customers whose routers also power public hotspots suffer slower home connections and increased security and privacy risks, due to the countless strangers who are using their home routers.

Comcast has not commented on the suit, which seeks a declaratory judgment, an injunction, restitution and damages for violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act and California's Unfair Competition Law.

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Conference showcases progress in fighting leukemia

Researchers focusing on treatments for the toughest cases

Researchers from academia and the pharmaceutical industry came together last weekend to share information about novel targeted therapies for increasing the...

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Researchers from academia and the pharmaceutical industry came together last weekend to share informationabout novel targeted therapies for increasing the survival rate among leukemia. The results should provide new hope for patients battling the disease.

The 56th American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting and Exposition in San Francisco focused on treatments for the toughest cases – patient populations with historically poor prognoses.

In recent years, the odds have dramatically increased in favor of patients with leukemia, except for some more vulnerable subgroups of patients, including elderly patients and patients with aggressive genetic mutations. Most of the ASH studies specifically address these groups.

Two studies suggest that combining treatments can be effective in treating newly diagnosed young or elderly patients with acute leukemias. Other evidence shows that adolescents and young adults may respond better to treatment with a chemotherapy regimen used first in pediatric patients rather than with standard adult regimens.

Progress

The depth and breadth of the studies presented suggests researchers are making progress in battling not only leukemia but cancer in general.

“This group of studies represents important progress on our continued quest to develop new therapies and to maximize use of existing therapies to yield improved results for patients with leukemias, particularly those with aggressive disease that is resistant to current approaches,” said David Steensma, MD, a faculty member in the adult leukemia program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Doctors at the conference said they want to better understand how to tailor treatment approaches to each different type of leukemia, with the goal of improving long-term outcomes.

T-cell reprogramming

One leukemia treatment appears to have made great strides since we first reported on it last year. The treatment showed “highly promising” results in children who were treated in a pilot study.

This unique procedure involves removing the patient's T-cells from their blood, re-engineering them and injecting them back into the blood stream. T-cells, the workhorses of the body's immune system, are reprogrammed to attack B cells, other immune cells that become cancerous in specific leukemias such as ALL. These reprogrammed cells function as cancer hunters, killing the leukemia cells that normally escape regular T cell surveillance.

Researchers say 92% of the 39 children receiving bioengineered T-cells had no evidence of cancer at one month after treatment. In some cases they were still cancer free after 2 years.

Exciting results

"As we continue to follow children in this study, we see exciting results for patients who have exhausted their other treatment options," said study leader Stephan A. Grupp, a pediatric oncologist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The treatment was used on children suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a highly aggressive cancer and one of the more common forms of leukemia striking children.

Of the 39 children treated in the Pennsylvania study, 36 had complete responses one month after treatment. Of those 36 patients, 25 remained in remission at a follow-up of 6 months after treatment.

While the treatment results were promising, they weren't perfect. There were 10 relapses among the 36 patients with complete responses and 5 of the relapsed patients died.

However, 9-year old Emily Whitehead, the first child to receive this experimental treatment more than 2 years ago, remains healthy and cancer free.

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Ford recalls F-150 and Flex vehicles

The vehicles have a reduced clearance between the seat frame and the seat track assembly

Ford Motor Company is recalling 113,418 model year 2014 Ford F-150 and Flex vehicles manufactured March 1, 2014, to May 31, 2014. The vehicles were manuf...

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Photo source: Ford

Ford Motor Company is recalling 113,418 model year 2014 Ford F-150 and Flex vehicles manufactured March 1, 2014, to May 31, 2014.

The vehicles were manufactured with a reduced clearance between the seat frame and the seat track assembly. This can cause the Occupant Classification System (OCS) to inaccurately register passenger weight and improperly suppress the passenger front airbag when the passenger seat is occupied by an adult passenger.

Improper suppression of the passenger airbag increases the risk of an injury to the seat occupant in the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the front passenger airbag.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will widen the gap between the seat frame and seat track assembly and recalibrate the seat OCS, free of charge. The recall began November 25, 2014.

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14C10.

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Hyundai recalls Genesis and Equus vehicles

The stop lamps may not illuminate

Hyundai Motor America is recalling 42,925 2009-2011 Hyundai Genesis vehicles manufactured April 30, 2008, to November 21, 2010, and 2011 Hyundai Equus vehi...

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Photo source: Hyundai

Hyundai Motor America is recalling 42,925 2009-2011 Hyundai Genesis vehicles manufactured April 30, 2008, to November 21, 2010, and 2011 Hyundai Equus vehicles manufactured July 31, 2010, to November 21, 2010.

Due to a circuit failure, the stop lamps in the affected vehicles may not illuminate. A following vehicle may not recognize that the vehicle is slowing or coming to a stop if the stop lamps do not illuminate as expected, increasing the risk of a rear-end crash as a result.

Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will repair the stop lamp switch circuit, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-714-865-3920. Hyundai's number for this recall is 125.

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Nissan recalls various vehicles with fuel pressure sensor issue

The fuel pressure sensor may loosen and cause a fuel leak

Nissan North America is recalling 133,592 model year 2012-2014 Nissan Juke, 2012-2013 Infiniti M56, QX56, and 2014-2015 Infiniti Q70, and QX80 vehicles. ...

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Photo source: Infiniti

Nissan North America is recalling 133,592 model year 2012-2014 Nissan Juke, 2012-2013 Infiniti M56, QX56, and 2014-2015 Infiniti Q70, and QX80 vehicles.

The fuel pressure sensors may not have been sufficiently tightened during production. As a result, the fuel pressure sensor may loosen with vehicle usage and cause a fuel leak. A fuel leak in the presence of an ignition source could cause a vehicle fire.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel pressure sensors, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on or before January 26, 2015.

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

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Dynamic Tire recalls Towmax STR tires

The tires may have the incorrect load capacity and inflation pressure stampings

Dynamic Tire Corp. is recalling 17,369 Towmax STR tires, size ST225/75 R15 manufactured June 15, 2014, to October 14, 2014. The affected tires may have t...

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© vimax001 - Fotolia

Dynamic Tire Corp. is recalling 17,369 Towmax STR tires, size ST225/75 R15 manufactured June 15, 2014, to October 14, 2014.

The affected tires may have the incorrect load capacity and inflation pressure stampings. The misinformation on the label could lead a driver to overinflate the tires, increasing the risk of a tire failure and raising the risk of a crash.

Dynamic will notify owners, and dealers will replace all eligible tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin December 10, 2014.

Owners may contact Dynamic customer service at 1-905-595-3593.

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Volkswagen recalls Beetles

The glass sunroofs may break

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 7,062 model year 2013-2015 Beetles manufactured June 13, 2013, to July 3, 2014. The glass sunroofs may break whe...

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Photo source: Volkswagen

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 7,062 model year 2013-2015 Beetles manufactured June 13, 2013, to July 3, 2014.

The glass sunroofs may break when the vehicles are operated over a hard road surface or strike a pothole, injuring occupants with falling glass. A sunroof break during vehicle operation also increases the risk of driver distraction and a resulting vehicle crash.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the sunroof, free of charge. VW intends start its recall campaign on or about December 19, 2014.

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-822-8987. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 60B9.

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Honda recalls Grom125 and Forza motorcycles

The fuel pump could fail

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 10,076 model year 2014 Grom125 motorcycles manufactured June 12, 2013, to September 24, 2014, and 2014 Forza-NSS300 a...

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Photo source: Honda
American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 10,076 model year 2014 Grom125 motorcycles manufactured June 12, 2013, to September 24, 2014, and 2014 Forza-NSS300 and NSS300A motorcycles manufactured June 18, 2013, to May 21, 2014.

The resin bracket inside the fuel pump may swell, interfere with the impeller, and potentially lead to a fuel pump failure. This could cause the motorcycle to stall, increasing the risk of a crash.

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel pump with an updated fuel pump, free of charge. The recall began November 28, 2014.

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-310-783-2000. Honda's number for this recall is JL1 NSS300 (Forza) and JL2 Grom (Grom125).

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BMW recalls i8 vehicles

The fuel tank could leak

BMW of North America is recalling 223 model year 2014 i8 vehicles manufactured from May 16, 2014, to September 16, 2014. A bolt used to attach a ground c...

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Photo source: BMW

BMW of North America is recalling 223 model year 2014 i8 vehicles manufactured from May 16, 2014, to September 16, 2014.

A bolt used to attach a ground cable between the tank and the vehicle chassis may not have been properly welded during manufacturing. An inadequate weld could cause a fuel leak. In the presence of an ignition source, a fuel leak could lead to a fire.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the fuel tank if necessary, free of charge. The recall began in November 2014.

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417 orby email at CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

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Flu season starting to heat up

This week is the last chance to get protected before the holidays

Early data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that the 2014-2015 flu season could be severe....

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Photo © Marco Govel - Fotolia

Early data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggeststhat the 2014-2015 flu season could be severe.

“I think it's just getting kicked off but we see already that in several states there's widespread activity so we're expecting it to ramp up rather quickly,” Dr. Michael Martino, medical director at AFC/Doctors Express in South Bend, Ind., told ConsumerAffairs.

AFC/Doctors Express operates urgent care facilities nationwide and sees lots of patients who have come down with the virus. So far Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, Puerto Rico, Louisiana and Alaska have seen widespread flu outbreaks but Martino expects other states may quickly join them.

If you haven't gotten a flu shot yet, there's good reason to do it soon. The CDC says so far this year seasonal influenza A H3N2 viruses have been most common. During years when they are predominant resulting illnesses are more severe, increasing the number of hospitalizations.

Vaccine doesn't cover all viruses

Making matters worse, this year's vaccine – which has to be produced well in advance of the flu season – covers only about half of the active H3N2 viruses in the vaccine. But Martino says that's no reason to skip the flu shot.

“In a normal year getting a flu shot might reduce your risk of getting the flu 70% to 80%,” he said. “It's going to be a little less than that this year but there's no question it will help avoid getting sick, and reduce the severity of the flu if you happen to get it.”

At the CDC, director Dr. Tom Frieden says however severe the season turns out to be, Americans need to be prepared.

“We can save lives with a three-pronged effort to fight the flu: vaccination, prompt treatment for people at high risk of complications, and preventive health measures, such as staying home when you’re sick, to reduce flu spread,” Frieden said.

Holidays increase flu risks

Since the vaccine takes about 2 weeks to become effective, getting vaccinated this week is your last window of opportunity to protect yourself before the holidays. And that's important because each year, the holidays seem to produce a multiplier for the flu virus.

“We're traveling, so we're exposed to people from a wider area,” Martino said. “We have increased traffic in public areas so there's increased exposure. And we have close contact with a lot of people, whether it be hand shaking, hugging and kissing relatives – and those are all ways to get exposed to the flu.”

Prevention tips

Even if you get a flu shot, Martino says it's important to take simple precautions during flu season. They include:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
  • If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
  • Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

If you get sick, get treated

If, despite everything, you do get the flu Martino says you can reduce the effects of the illness if you seek treatment quickly.

“It's very smart to go to your doctor or seek urgent care treatment within 48 hours of developing flu symptoms,” he said. “Drugs like Tamiflu are very effective and can shorten the duration and severity of the flu and helps prevent complications.”

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Pack holiday packages well and send them early

USPS, FedEx and UPS specify the last "ship-by" dates to get presents there on time

You are so thoughtful. You really took the time buying that special gift for people who mean so much to you. Now you want to make sure they get to see what...

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Photo © aboikis - Fotolia

You are so thoughtful. You really took the time buying that special gift for people who mean so much to you. Now you want to make sure they get to see what it looks like in one piece as opposed to many little pieces, and preferably a week before 2015.

If you are mailing your holiday package yourself, here are a few suggestions to help you get it off the ground.

Size matters

According to UPS, you should use the following formula:

Length + 2x Width + 2x Height

Step 1. Determining Length Measure the longest side of the package, rounding to the nearest inch. This is your length.

Step 2. Determining Girth (2x Width + 2x Height) Measure the width of the package, rounding to the nearest inch. Multiply this number by 2. Measure the height of the package, rounding to the nearest inch. Multiply this number by 2.

Add these two numbers together. This is your girth.

Step 3. Add the length and the girth together. This is your package measurement.

Step 4. Weigh the package to obtain its actual weight.

The outside matters too

It's a good idea to use a new box. You want a sturdy box, one that can withstand the pounding and throwing around that happens during the holiday shuffle.

Having a little cushioning is a good idea too.Just a few inches of space on all sides should work. Use at least 1 to 2 inches of cushioning around the item — top, bottom and all sides. Plastic air cushioning material, foam packing peanuts or packing paper are all good options. USPS has free holiday boxes for shipping.

Inside info 

Because things do really get tossed around and also it's the time of year where weather can be messy. Both of these things can cause your labels to get smudged or torn off. It's a good idea to make sure you leave all the info like to whom the package is going along with your return address on the inside flap of the box or a piece of paper inside the box so if they can't read the label they will know where to send it.

Put your wrapped gift in the box. Don't try to decorate the shipping box. It will get caught on sorting machines, which can slow things down and can even end up tearing the whole box apart.

Deadlines, deadlines

Now that you are packed and have it ready to go here are shipping deadlines for USPS, FedEx, and UPS.

USPS

First ClassSaturday, 12/20
Priority MailSaturday, 12/20
Priority Mail ExpressTuesday, 12/23
Standard PostMonday, 12/15
DNDC Drop ShipFriday, 12/19
DDU Drop ShipMonday, 12/22

FedEx

FedEx Smart PostFriday, 12/12
FedEx Home DeliveryWednesday, 12/17
FedEx GroundWednesday, 12/17
FedEx Express SaverSaturday, 12/20
FedEx 2DayMonday, 12/22
FedEx 2Day AMMonday, 12/22
FedEx Standard OvernightTuesday, 12/23
FedEx Priority OvernightTuesday, 12/23
FedEx First OvernightTuesday, 12/23

UPS

UPS has organized its advice a bit differently:

Saturday, 12/20Delivery of UPS Worldwide Express, UPS Next Day Air and UPS 2nd Day Air packages processed and labeled for Saturday Delivery.
Pickup service provided to regular Saturday pickup customers for air and international packages, or if prearranged by Friday, Dec. 19. All locations of The UPS Store will be open.
Monday, 12/22Normal pickup and delivery service. This is the last day to ship UPS 2nd Day Air packages in time for Christmas (arriving Wednesday, Dec. 24).
Tuesday, Dec. 23Normal pickup and delivery service. This is the last day to ship UPS Next Day Air packages in time for Christmas (arriving Wednesday, Dec. 24).
Tuesday, 12/23Normal pickup and delivery service. This is the last day to ship UPS Next Day Air packages in time for Christmas (arriving Wednesday, Dec. 24).
Wednesday, 12/24Normal delivery of air, international and ground shipments. Pickup service available for air and international shipments if prearranged by Tuesday, Dec. 23. UPS On-Call Pickup service and UPS Drop Boxes are available to all customers for air and international shipments. No UPS Ground, UPS Standard or 3 Day Select pickups until Friday,
Thursday, 12/25No UPS pickup or delivery service. (UPS Express Critical service is available for urgent packages. Call 1-800-714-8779.)
Friday, 12/26Delivery of air and international packages.* Normal pickup service (all service levels).

In all cases, exceptions, deviations and unexpected changes are possible. Always check with the carrier to be sure the information applies in your specific case.

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Payment systems breached at U.S. bebe stores

Hackers had access to customer information for most of November

There's bad news for shoppers of bebe clothing stores. On Friday, the company confirmed what security blogger Brian Krebs had reported the day before: for ...

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Photo credit: bebe.com

There's bad news for shoppers of bebe clothing stores. On Friday, the company confirmed what security blogger Brian Krebs had reportedthe day before: for most of the month of November, hackers managed to breach bebe stores' payment systems and steal customer data, possibly including their name (as it appears on the card), account number, the expiration date and verification code.

If you shopped with a payment card at a physical bebe store location in the U.S., Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands between Nov. 8 and Nov. 26, 2014, your information might be compromised. However, the company said that its website and mobile payment apps, as well as its physical stores in Canada and other international locations, were not affected.

"Our relationship with our customers is of the highest importance," said Jim Wiggett, Chief Executive Officer, bebe. "We moved quickly to block this attack and have taken steps to further enhance our security measures."

As usually happens in such cases, bebe stores is offering customers a year of free credit monitoring protection even though, as Krebs pointed out, such services “do nothing to help consumers block fraud on existing accounts.”

Whether you have professional credit monitoring or not – and, for that matter, even if you've never shopped at a bebe store or any other retailer known to have been hacked, you need to carefully scrutinize your credit-card statements every month, to ensure that you recognize and authorized each and every one of them.

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Draggin' the line can be tough on your pup

Learning to walk on a leash can take time, but it's worth it

In today's world dogs don't really get the chance to do what they were bred for. Even if you have a backyard your dog can run in, it's most likely not givi...

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Photo © cbckchristine - Fotolia

In today's world dogs don't really get the chance to do what they were bred for. Even if you have a backyard your dog can run in, it's most likely not giving him what he needs -- sensory stimulation, something that walks can provide. The meet-and-greet and the smells of other dogs and people are things you dog sorely needs.

The best way to help you and your dog in this walking adventure is to start them off as a puppy.

Your dog should a secure-fitting collar or harness and ID tag, and you want to get them used to wearing it before you attempt to take them for walks.

Usually at first dogs aren't crazy about having a collar on so start with that first. Put it on, let them just walk around with it for a day so they feel comfortable. Make sure you can get a couple of fingers under it so it's not too tight. You can also use a head halter or harness, which doesn't pull as much as a collar.

Next, get some type of light line about 4-6 feet long. Use something like a light cotton rope and tie it to the collar. Let your pup walk around with this for a day or so. That way they will get used to the feel. If they step on it they will feel the pressure and learn to yield to pressure. Once the dog is used to the line, swap it out for a 10-15 ft line. You are now ready to embark on the great outdoors.

Start slowly

Initially it's a short trek with your pal. You just want to get them used to walking with a lead. Allow puppy to drag the line behind him for a bit, then pick up the opposite end. Let him lead you around for a few seconds while you hold the line just off the ground. Slow down so he’s forced to slow down, ultimately to a stop. Take a short break for praise and a little playtime.

This next little bit of advice is to help you so you don't get that pulling action. Let your dog drag the line again but when you pick up your end this time, call him and stand still. If he pulls, hold your ground without pulling him in your direction. You want to have slack in the line and make him do that himself by moving toward you. When he puts slack in the line, praise him and call him to you. You should do this for a few times. It's all about the reward at the end.

Once you are able to walk with a loose lead you are now ready for a real leash.

There is always one in every crowd that is a little more stubborn and still pulls. Don't continue to pull your dog because you can cause severe neck injuries.

Try this instead. Maintain the tension on the line and turn your back on your pup. Allow time for it to occur to her she can’t win by pulling against you.

Remain still with your back to her holding the tension in the line – don’t jerk the line, don’t pull or yank her toward you, and don’t put slack in the line yourself, which will teach her the way to get slack is to pull at the line.
You are telling your dog that this will not get him anywhere and you mean literally.

The second that your dog pulls you have to teach him this behavior will get him nowhere. Just like humans, some catch on quicker than others so patience is a requirement. Given time and understanding your dog will catch on.

As we all know, if you don't exercise the pounds just start to mount up and it's the same with your dog. That is why the leash needs to be your dog's friend. It's the conduit to getting him outside. Dogs need exercise every three days, minimum, in order to maintain muscle tone and prevent muscle wasting. Consistent daily aerobic exercise should be the goal.

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Safeway Select French Salted Caramel Premium Ice Cream recalled

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

Safeway is recalling Saf-owned stores from November 4, 2014, through December 5, 2014. The product contains peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label....

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Photo source: Safeway

Safeway is recalling Safeway Select French Salted Caramel (Fleur De Sel) Premium Ice Cream sold in all Safeway-owned stores from November 4, 2014, through December 5, 2014.

The product contains peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label.

No illnesses or injuries have been reported.

The recalled product is in a 1.5-quart package and displays the following UPC Code and Best Before Date:

Product NameUPC CodeBest Before Date
Safeway Select French Salted Carmel (Fleur De Sel) Premium Ice Cream21130 08970Nov 03 2015

The UPC Code is located on the side panel. The Best Before Date is located on the bottom of the package.

The recalled product was sold in all Safeway, Carrs, Genuardi’s, Pak ‘N Save, Pavilions, Randalls, Tom Thumb and Vons stores throughout the United States.

Customers should discard the product or return it to their local store for a full refund.

Customers may contact Safeway at 1-877-SAFEWAY.

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Gulf States Toyota recalls Tacomas

The vehicles may contain an incorrect Load Carrying Capacity Modification label

Gulf States Toyota is recalling 142 model year 2015 Toyota Tacoma vehicles manufactured September 2, 2014, to October 15, 2014. The affected vehicles may...

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Photo source: Toyota

Gulf States Toyota is recalling 142 model year 2015 Toyota Tacoma vehicles manufactured September 2, 2014, to October 15, 2014.

The affected vehicles may contain an incorrect Load Carrying Capacity Modification label which may result in the vehicle being overloaded, increasing the risk of a crash.

Gulf States has notified owners, and dealers will install an accurate label, free of charge. The recall began December 1, 2014.

Owners may contact Gulf States customer service at 1-800-444-1074.

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House of Flavors recalls Ciao Bella Dark Cocoa Sorbetto

The product may contain dairy allergens not listed on the label

House of Flavors of Ludington, Mich., is recalling Ciao Bella Dark Cocoa Sorbetto. Ingredients may include a dairy allergen, not listed on the label. The...

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Photo source: FDA

House of Flavors of Ludington, Mich., is recalling Ciao Bella Dark Cocoa Sorbetto.

Ingredients may include a dairy allergen, not listed on the label.

The company has received one consumer complaint that included an allergic reaction.

Only Ciao Bella Dark Cocoa Sorbetto 14-oz. plastic containers stamped with UPC code 9951201206 and date code 14102 and marked “Best by Date: October 12, 2015” is affected by the recall.

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

Consumers may contact House of Flavors consumer affairs at 1-800-930-7740, extension 2229, Monday through Friday 7 a.m. until 5 pm. (EST)

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5 Daily Deal websites to make shopping easier and more exciting

Some people never pay full price for anything. You could be one of them.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You get what you pay for. There's no free lunch. We've all heard these aphorisms many times and they're t...

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A few Groupon offerings

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You get what you pay for. There's no free lunch. We've all heard these aphorisms many times and they're true most of the time. Or at least they were until the daily deal phenomenon came along.

The weird thing about daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial is that they often live up to their billing, at least for consumers who by paying attention and choosing wisely can often get bargains that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

In the long run, some experts say the daily deals are giving consumers such great deals that retailers are being harmed by them and will have to raise their prices or cut the quality of their products to make up for it. Could be, but you know what? That's not our problem. 

The retailer's job is to find new customers, make them happy and keep them coming back. The consumer's job is to find the best deals they can and snatch them up before they're gone. It's not the consumer's job to look out for the best interests of the businesses they patronize.

Do you think Jeff Bezos tosses and turns at night worrying whether Amazon did everything it could the previous day to keep customers happy? Well, actually, he might but most businesspeople worry mostly about their bottom line. If they don't want to offer daily deals, they don't have to. So, stop worrying and start shopping. There are lots of daily deals sites, big and small, out there. Here are our 5 favorites: 

Groupon 

It's a combination of "group" and "coupon" and it's generally recognized as the first daily deal site. It got its start in Chicago in 2008 and grew like kudzu for the first few years. Groupon has had its setbacks since then and has dipped into red-ink territory at times but it continues to offer the widest selection of discounted goods and services -- everything from wine-tasting to wheel alignment to an Indian buffet at Bollywood, just down the street from us.

The Bollywood deal is fairly typical -- for $15, you get $30 worth of gourmet Indian food surrounded by scenes from Bollywood films. It's that simple. A few things to keep in mind: Your tip should reflect the full, non-discounted price of your meal and you must be sure to cash in your Groupon before the expiration date, usually a month or two in the future. If you fail to use the deal in time, your coupon is still worth $15 but you won't get the other $15. 

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A few of Groupon's deals in the D.C. area

If you see a deal you like, be advised that others will probably like it too so don't dawdle around; only a certain number of deals are offered and once they're gone they're, well, gone. More than 480 people had bought the Bollywood deal when we checked it out. Although the total number offered isn't disclosed, chances are it's in the few-hundred category. 

Restrictions sometimes apply, so be sure to read each deal carefully.

Originally, it was this kind of deal -- lunches, oil changes, hair styling -- that typified Groupon but it has since grown to include just about everything, including the kind of retail merchandise you might find on eBay or Amazon. For example, we found full-motion HDTV wall mounts for $39.99 that list at $299.99. Hey, if your spouse will let you drill holes in the wall, go for it.

At ConsumerAffairs, we've heard from only 8 consumers about their experiences with Groupon, which is pretty amazing considering the company's millions of customers around the world. This makes it a pretty safe bet for anyone who is careful to read the conditions and who takes time to understand the deal.

One Kings Lane

You might call this Groupon's mirror image. Instead of offering deals on just about anything you can think of, One Kings Lane specializes in "flash sales" on home goods -- furniture, bedding, lighting and so forth. 

By definition, a flash sale lasts just a day or two. Once an item is sold out, that's it, so this is one of those times when impulse buying may not necessarily be a bad thing. Each item on the One Kings Lane site has a number in the upper right corner showing how many are left in stock, thus eliminating some of the guesswork.

We checked out the lighting section, looking for a bathroom bar to replace an aging specimen in the hall bath, and found some impressive bargains in brushed nickel fixtures with discounts in the neighborhood of 60%. The selection was not as large as Lamps Plus, our usual source for lighting supplies, but the prices were highly competitive.

While it may not be a household word, One Kings Lane is nearing the $1 billion mark, having recently raised $112 million in a fund round that valued the San Francisco-based company at $912 million. This should translate into an expanded inventory and bigger customer service staff as the company drives towards its goal of dominating the online home goods flash sales segment.

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One Kings Lane aims to dominate the online home goods market

The selection is already pretty impressive, and is attractively displayed in a navigation scheme that makes it easy to find what you're looking for on any particular day. 

Woot

If One Kings Lane cultivates a quiet, buttoned-up look, Woot sort of lets it all hang out. Originally a "one day, one deal" site, Woot has morphed into a flash sale site hawking everything from electronics to wine.

There's still a featured deal each day, a "Woot-Off." When we checked in a few days ago, Woot was pushing a reconditioned Galaxy tablet with a high-def 2560x1600 display for $249.99. Woot doesn't supply real inventory numbers but advised us at 11:40 a.m. that 62% of the tablets were still in stock.

Other, non-Woot-Off, items are on sale until a certain date or until the supply is sold out.

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Today's Woot-Off was a Samsung tablet.

Woot generally has sort of a rummage sale atmosphere that is fun if you're into that kind of thing. Merchandise is mid-market -- the kind of thing you'd find at Walmart rather than an upscale specialty retailer.

We've received only one consumer complaint about Woot, so it looks like a safe bet as long as you read the conditions and understand the terms and exercise all the usual careful consumer cautions.

SweetJack

To be honest, I'd never heard of SweetJack but turns out, it's owned by Cumulus Media, the second-largest group of radio stations in the country. This means it has feet on the street -- i.e., advertising salespeople -- all over the country who are signing up local businesses for SweetJack.

This sales muscle is evidence. The Washington, D.C., version of the site is stuffed with deals, some of them actually eye-popping. One offers four $50 Restaurant.com egift cards for $32 -- $200 worth of dining for $32. 

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We also found cheap tickets to the Newseum -- one of Washington's most popular tourist attractions. (Though as a lifelong news industry wage slave, it's sad to see journalism is now something that exists mostly in a museum, sort of like a panda in a zoo). The Newseum tickets are normally $24. SweetJack had them for $17, which I think works out to about 30% (everybody knows newspeople can't do math).

Some categories -- most notably travel -- are still pretty light. But given SweetJack's newcomer status, it's likely these will be filling up soon. We'll be keeping an eye on Jack and will let you know how things are progressing. 

We've had one report of a rocky experience. Let's hope it's growing pains. 

HauteLook

A Nordstrom property, HauteLook and its sister site, NordstromRack, offer upscale shopping at daily deal prices. But don't think you can just stroll in and rummage through the merchandise to see if it's worth joining. Oh no, you have to join up first. It's free but it's still just one more place that now has your name, email, zip code and one of your passwords. 

No doubt Nordstrom's security is better than Target's but it's surprising to see a brand as respected as Nordstrom's being so haute and oublieux about a topic as sensitive to shoppers as this.

That being said, this is the place to be if you're in the market for Cole Haan, Natori, DKNY and other top-tier brands. 

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We found some flat platform Cole Haan Chukka boots going for $119, a savings of more than $100 from the $228 list price, although 9.5 was the biggest size still available. 

HauteLook's sales are time-sensitive. The boots had another 2 days and 22 hours left when we looked at them. However, consumers we've heard from have said they ordered items that were shown as in stock and still on sale and not only didn't get them but had trouble getting the charge removed from their credit card. So there may still be some kinks to be worked out.

Other than that, the deals are attractively presented and there are plenty of them. 

LivingSocial

LivingSocial has had sort of a hard life, with lots of layoffs and dire reports about its survival. But after years of cheap massages, cut-rate sky-diving and too many dinners to count, it's still here and is generally regarded as the No. 2 daily dealer, second only to the mighty Groupon. 

Certainly in the D.C. area, where LivingSocial (and your reviewer) are based, there's a huge menu of adventures, meals and deals offered up every day.

Looking for a top-to-bottom house-cleaning? LivingSocial has a $200 job available for $99. Unlimited brunch buffet in Georgetown, normally $70? $35 on LivingSocial. You can even get your car washed -- three times no less -- a $69 value for $39.

PhotoWe have heard from a few consumers about problems with their LivingSocial experience -- items not received, disputed charges, etc., but considering the volume of business that flows through the site the number of complaints is vanishingly small.

In addition to the daily deal coupons, LivingSocial has started selling all kinds of products online, much like Woot. There's everything from a three-day juice cleanse -- $89, normally $185 -- to a stove-top grill, $21.99, marked down from $49. (Hint: Try the grill before the cleanse). There's a big selection and the prices are attractive. 

A shocking admission ...

Although I am surrounded by people constantly waving Groupon and LivingSocial coupons at me, I must admit that I have never used any of these services myself so my observations are based strictly on what others tell me and on what the sites themselves say.

The reason is that I am an extremely lazy, even careless, consumer who values time over money. I buy virtually everything -- from books to pretzels -- from Amazon. The reason is that, like many people, I really hate shopping and want to spend as little time on it as possible. This helps me empathize with our many readers, since I routinely stumble into the same pitfalls they do.

I must admit, however, that after years of being dragged by spouses and friends to dinners, wine tastings, concerts and so forth that cost next to nothing and after examining all of the sites covered in this article, I'm starting to think it could actually be entertaining to keep an eye on the daily deal/flash sale world and snag a bargain every now and then. Might even save a few bucks. 

If you're also a daily deal novice, I'd advise making a modest start. Sign up at a few sites, nose around until you feel familiar with the system and then order a few modestly-priced items that are not completely essential to keeping you fed and housed. If things work out well for you -- or if they turn out badly -- let us know. Our review button is always there for you.

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Honda goes national with recall of cars equipped with Takata airbags

Previous recalls have affected only cars in high-humidity areas

While federal safety regulators and Takata Corp. wrestle over expanding the recall of cars equipped with the airbags, Honda says it will expand its recall ...

PhotoWhile federal safety regulators and Takata Corp. wrestle over expanding the recall of cars equipped with the airbags, Honda says it will expand its recall to include another 3 million cars.

Like other automakers, Honda initially recalled only cars in high-humidity regions, based on Takata's claim that the defect in the airbags which can cause them to spew shrapnel into the passenger compartment is only a problem in humid areas.

Honda is Takata's largest customer and the companies have a relationship that stretches back more than 50 years, but the current crisis is putting that relationship to the test.

Five deaths in Honda cars have been attributed to the Takata airbags. So far, 12.5 million cars from various manufacturers have been recalled in the U.S. since 2008

NHTSA last month asked Takata to expand its regional recalls to include the entire United States but the company has refused and failed to meet a deadline for doing so earlier this week.

NHTSA has threatened to order a recall itself if Takata fails to do so. It could also fine the company up to $35 million. 

Honda owners should wait to receive official notice of the recall before taking their cars to be fixed, since it can take as long as several months for parts and instructions to be distributed to dealers nationwide.

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Merry Christmas: Gas prices are going lower

AAA says they could fall another 20 cents by New Years Eve

The oil price war being waged by Saudi Arabia against U.S. shale producers has resulted in a collapse of fuel prices since the summer. While Wall Street fr...

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Photo © ViewApart - Fotolia
The oil price war being waged by Saudi Arabia against U.S. shale producers has resulted in a collapse of fuel prices since the summer. While Wall Street frets over the “bear market” for oil, it has been a bonanza for consumers.

Consider this: nationwide gasoline prices are more than 50 cents a gallon less expensive they they were a year ago. According to AAA, U.S. consumers are saving about $200 million per day on gasoline compared to a year ago.

“Gas prices have fallen at a remarkable pace that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago,” said Avery Ash, AAA spokesman. “Lower gas prices represent real doorbuster savings as everyone begins their holiday shopping.”

Year-long gift

But no one in the industry sees the gift ending with the holidays. It's like consumers are receiving a fruit-of-the-month gift, with each month bringing lower prices at the pump – at least for a year.

The national average price of a gallon of self-serve regular has fallen to about $2.70. By New Years Eve AAA expects the price could fall another 20 cents a gallon because retail gas stations haven't been able to keep up with how fast the wholesale price of fuel has plummeted.

“The holiday joy should continue as gas prices drop even further in the weeks ahead,” Ash said. “We could see prices drop to the lowest levels since the Great Recession if the cost of crude oil continues to set multi-year lows.”

Broken pattern

Over the last few winters oil prices have escalated sharply into the summer driving season – usually blamed on geopolitical unrest somewhere. No one is expecting that to happen this winter. The entire Middle East could go up in flames and as long as the Saudis continued pumping the price of oil would remain near recent historic lows.

Banks and hedge funds that have played the oil commodities market since 2005's Hurricane Katrina have fled the scene, and their absence has pretty much left the market to players that actually use oil. As long as the Saudis continue their pressure on U.S. producers, there is likely to be much less speculation among oil traders.

Additional data from AAA shows just why the Saudis are so concerned about American oil production.

U.S. oil production has increased by more than 70% since 2008 and the America may soon become the world’s largest oil producer. U.S. refiners have been buying U.S. oil instead of OPEC oil and the Saudis have watched with alarm as they have lost market share in the world's most lucrative market.

Long-range forecast

As a result, oil industry experts keep pushing back their forecast for a rise in oil prices. This week Reuters reported its survey of 31 analysts and economists found most expect oil prices to significantly rise no earlier than late next year or early 2016.

The oil experts predict Brent oil – the more expensive crude not produced in the U.S. – will average $82.50 a barrel in 2015. It's currently selling for around $70 but has averaged $102 this year.

Even states like California and New York, where motorists paid more than $4 a gallon at the pump at times this year, are enjoying the gift of lower prices. According to AAA the statewide average in California is $3.04 a gallon and $3.15 in New York.

Meanwhile, here are the 5 states where AAA found the lowest statewide average prices.

  • Missouri ($2.44)
  • Mississippi ($2.51)
  • South Carolina ($2.51)
  • Texas ($2.52)
  • Oklahoma ($2.53)
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Toy-related injuries on the rise

Foot-powered scooters appear to be largely responsible

Hot on the heels of the U.S. Federation of Public Interest Research Groups' release of its annual Survey of Toy Safety – reporting that some unsafe toys ar...

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This "Hello Kitty" toy was recalled because it contains small parts that could be aspirated by infants. Photo :CPSC.gov

Hot on the heels of the U.S. Federation of Public Interest Research Groups' release of its annual Survey of Toy Safety– reporting that some unsafe toys are still on store shelves – researchers have given parents something else to think about.

Lots of toys can be dangerous and injure children.

The Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital reports an estimated 3,278,073 children were treated in in U.S. emergency rooms (ER) from 1990 through 2011 for a toy-related injury.

In 2011 alone, a child was treated every 3 minutes after being injured by a toy. The younger the child, the higher the risk. A little more than half of the injuries involved children under age 5.

What's interesting that the injury rate has increase in recent years. Odd, because a few decades ago kids played with things like sharp metal-tipped darts and toy guns that fired projectiles – toys that would appear to be a lot more dangerous than those on the market today.

Dangerous scooters

Yet the researchers found that the rate of injury rose almost 40% during the 22-year study period. Much of the increase was linked to one type of toy – foot-powered scooters.

“A child’s job is play, and toys are the tools,” said Dr. Gary Smith, the study’s senior author and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “We want children to explore, challenge themselves, and develop while using those tools safely.”

All of this might give parents shopping for their kids some pause. So it might be helpful to delve deeper into the numbers and see what types of things constitute the greatest risk.

Small is not beautiful

Smith says kids who are younger than 3 are at a particular risk of chocking on small toys and pieces of toys. For children in that age group, small is not beautiful when it comes to toys. If the toy is small enough to fit in a child's mouth, chances are it will end up there.

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This "Just Like Home" toaster was also recalled because of small parts posing an aspiration hazard. Photo: CPSC.gov

During the study period researchers documented more than 109,000 cases of children under 5 who swallowed or inhaled “foreign bodies.” That works out to nearly 14 cases per day.

Riding toys can pose a risk of injury to older children. During the years under study foot-powered scooters, wagons, and tricycles were linked to 42% of injuries to children 5 to 17 years of age and 28% of injuries to children younger than 5.

These toys can also present some of the more serious injuries. They were 3 times more likely to involve a broken bone or a dislocation than other toys.

Advice

If the researchers have any advice for parents considering toys for their children, it might be to think twice about a toot-powered scooter. From 2000, after a new kind of foot-powered scooter first became popular, through 2011, there were an estimated 580,037 injuries, or about 1 every 11 minutes. Much of the increase in the overall toy injury rate after 1999 is due to foot-powered scooters, the researchers found.

“The frequency and increasing rate of injuries to children associated with toys, especially those associated with foot-powered scooters, is concerning,” said Smith. “This underscores the need for increased efforts to prevent these injuries to children. Important opportunities exist for improvements in toy safety standards, product design, recall effectiveness, and consumer education.”

It should be noted that the toy injuries documented in the report almost all were caused by toys that had not been recalled. The researchers say that points up the need for parents to use discretion when choosing a toy for their child. Some of the risk can be reduced by following age restrictions and other manufacturers' guidelines for all toys.

In the meantime, it is also smart to check to make sure a toy you are considering hasn't been recalled. You can be sure by consulting the government's online database.

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Clean out the clutter, before the holiday brings you more

Your stuff is supposed to make your life better. Too much of it makes your life worse

“I paid a dollar for a silk skirt, 25 cents for that cut-crystal dish and 50 cents for this hardcover book with gilded-edge pages.”...

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Photo via "Hoarders" © A&E

“I paid a dollar for a silk skirt, 25 cents for that cut-crystal dish and 50 cents for this hardcover book with gilded-edge pages.”

No, that's not my great-grandmother talking about what things cost during the Great Depression. That's me circa 2014, bragging about various awesome and super-cheap thrift shop, library sale or flea market finds I've made recently.

Not that I deserve any special credit for this — spend enough time roaming around the right rummage sales, charity bazaars and other secondhand-item emporiums, and of course you'll find various wonderful things selling for ridiculous-cheap prices. That's the whole point!

But a couple years ago it led to a problem for my household, a problem shared by so many of my fellow Americans, they've helped to make self-storage rentals a $24 billion per year business in this country: we had so much stuff, and kept acquiring so much more, eventually we plain ran out of room to keep it all.

Books especially – my husband and I love to haunt library sales and other secondhand-book bazaars, and when prices usually range from a dime to a dollar or two, even thrifty and frugal book-lovers (especially thrifty-n-frugal book-lovers) can soon find ourselves in possession of vastly more books than shelf and even basement space to store them. And more clothing than closet space, plus enough knickknacks to overwhelm the display areas they're supposed to decorate, all in addition to the stuff we've received as gifts over the years …. my household never quite crossed that fine line separating “cluttered abode” from “outright hoarders' den,” but another two library-sale visits or three flea-market scores probably would've shoved us over the limit.

No extra space

But we never went so far as to rent extra storage space. After all: the whole point of bargain-hunting is to be thrifty and save money, whereas committing to pay additional monthly bills to rent extra space is the exact opposite. Rather than rent space to store our ever-growing cache of stuff, we thankfully came to our senses and implemented two immediate and obvious changes: stop acquiring new things (at least until we have room for them), and start discarding some of the things we already have.

There's a popular genre of “reality” TV show starring outright hoarders who start with a house infinitely more cluttered than mine ever was, then they hire a bunch of haulers and clear everything out in a single day or two. That makes for dramatic television, but it's not how I de-cluttered my home and basement: no outside help, but instead of rushing to fix everything in a single day or a weekend I took a more relaxed pace, ultimately taking about three weeks (and two weekends) in all.

Technically speaking, I never did set out to “declutter the whole apartment”: that task was too dauntingly huge to contemplate. Instead, each day I dedicated a small block of time to meeting a couple of small, easy goals: here's one empty kitchen garbage bag and one empty box — we'll fill the bag with clothes and the box with books to donate to the thrift store near my workplace.

De-cluttering the whole apartment might be too much to manage, but filling a box and a bag's easy enough. I didn't even mind repeating that simple task a couple more times, enough to fill my car's backseat and trunk with donation bags and boxes. And then I had to stop for the evening, or until I unloaded my car at the thrift store.

A sense of liberation

I don't usually enjoy cleaning or housekeeping tasks (and have never met anyone who does), but I did feel a genuine sense of satisfaction – even liberation, if that makes sense – when I'd remove those items from my home, and see piles of clutter slowly melt away and eventually vanish. I imagined it like spring thaw after an unusually brutal winter: yeah, our apartment's still buried in snow, but I can see the drifts are a little smaller today than they were yesterday, and tomorrow they'll shrink smaller still.

The one problem with de-cluttering – especially for frugal types – is overcoming maxims like “waste not, want not” and other ideas which work well in moderation, but are counterproductive when taken to extremes: habits like thriftiness and bargain-hunting are supposed to make your life better, not worse.

Gathering garbage in bags and throwing them away would've been easy for my husband and me – if we'd had any garbage cluttering our place. But we didn't. Our problem wasn't garbage; our problem was wonderful, useful, good-condition stuff, only far too much of it. Too many books, too much clothing, too many glass or porcelain items. And, of course, for every book and item we gave away or threw away, we could easily imagine multiple reasons why we ought to keep it, just in case it one day proved useful.

There's no fast-and-easy trick to help overcome that attitude. But remember: your stuff is supposed to enhance your life, not make it annoying. Like all those books in my old place: I love reading books, but I didn't like seeing piles (or stacked boxes) of them in every direction I looked. An attractive or interesting knickknack or tchotchke loses its charm if it becomes just one more clump in a pile of clutter, and you can own the most gorgeously flattering outfit in the world and it won't benefit you if it's hanging forgotten at the back of your clutter-crammed closet.

If your place is always a mess, not even because you can't bother putting things in their places but because you have no places to put them — yeah, seriously, you need to clean your place out. But you don't have to do it all at once, and it's probably better if you don't even try that. Just start with one bag, one box, or one basket, and fill that with things to discard. Then do it again tomorrow — or today, if you still feel the momentum.

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Car dealer sentenced in Superstorm Sandy scam

Fraudulent titles were used to sell storm-damaged cars to unsuspecting consumers

A New Jersey car dealer has been sentenced to three years in prison for using fraudulent vehicle titles to sell cars damaged in Superstorm Sandy to unsuspe...

PhotoA New Jersey car dealer has been sentenced to three years in prison for using fraudulent vehicle titles to sell cars damaged in Superstorm Sandy to unsuspecting customers. 

A suspended Motor Vehicle Commission technician who helped him obtain the fraudulent vehicle titles previously was sentenced in the criminal scheme, and charges are pending against a former salesman at the dealership.

Jonathan Olin, 42, of Manalapan, the former operator of D&D Auto Sales on Englishtown Road in Old Bridge, was sentenced to three years in state prison by Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mellaci Jr. in Monmouth County.

Olin pleaded guilty on Aug. 25 to an accusation charging him with second-degree theft by deception. He was also ordered to pay full restitution to the victims. In pleading guilty, Olin admitted that he orchestrated a scheme in which fraudulent titles were obtained for eight flood vehicles, seven of which were then sold to unsuspecting customers.

“Olin proved himself to be the lowest form of con artist and parasite by cashing in on the tragedy of Superstorm Sandy,” said Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman. “Not only did he rip off car buyers, he put them and other drivers in danger by selling storm-damaged cars that could fail or even catch fire.”

Co-defendant Jessie Dinome, 30, of Jackson, who formerly worked as a technician at the Freehold Motor Vehicle Agency, was sentenced on Oct. 31 to two years of probation, conditioned upon her performing 100 hours of community service. She pleaded guilty on Aug. 25 to an accusation charging her with third-degree tampering with public records or information. Dinome forfeited her state job and is permanently barred from public employment.

A former car salesman at D&D Auto Sales, Jacob Douek, 40, of Staten Island, N.Y., faces pending charges for allegedly deceiving customers about the flood vehicles.

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Girl Scouts take their cookies online

The scouts end their ban on digital cookie sales

The Girl Scouts now have online cookies -- not the kind that track you around the Web but the kind you eat. Thin Mints and Trefoils, shortbread and the res...

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Photo credit: GirlScouts.org

The Girl Scouts now have online cookies -- not the kind that track you around the Web but the kind you eat. Thin Mints and Trefoils, shortbread and the rest of the cookies are going online for sales.

Now you no longer have to be embarrassed when you want to buy 10 boxes of Thin Mints.

They will be sold through a national platform called Digital Cookie. This breaks the organization's ban on e-sales of Thin Mints and Samoas.

The Girl Scouts liked the learning aspect of girls going door to door or standing at the grocery store or even better yet letting your little girl go through the office and getting people to buy cookies, but they also realize the Internet is a good place to learn as well.

"Digital Cookie will also allow customers to help girls learn 21st-century skills grounded in technology, along with valuable interpersonal skills girls will acquire through their continued participation in traditional booth and door to door sales," the organization said.

The organization was worried about girls who had tech-savvy parents and were able to build a kingdom at the expense of everyone else. They wanted to make sure that the 2.3 million Girl Scouts all had a fair shake at selling.

A little Thin Mint trivia for you: Girl Scouts sold more than 50 million boxes last year, or roughly 1.6 billion cookies (with an average of 32 cookies per box). Thin Mints made up 25% of total cookie sales. They were the number 1 seller.

Online cookie sales start December 12 and the regular selling season starts in January.

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Christmas can be dangerous to your pets

Ornaments, lights, plants, small toys -- they're all hazards

Every holiday presents dangers for pets. Christmas is no different. You have to be so careful with the tree and the lights. Ornaments look like playthings ...

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Photo © dmitrimaruta - Fotolia

Every holiday presents dangers for pets. Christmas is no different. You have to be so careful with the tree and the lights. Ornaments look like playthings for cats.

Lets just start with the live tree. It's beautiful in all its glory, but be ever so careful it stays upright! Make sure that you have it firmly anchored. If it falls that means the water is most likely going with it. Water may have fertilizers in it. That can be very dangerous to your pets. They can get really sick to their stomachs. Water that has been sitting for a while can have bacteria that can cause diarrhea and nausea.

Christmas plants When you say Christmas plants, bright red Poinsettias pop up in my mind. They are pretty to look at but don't digest so well for cats and dogs -- they can irritate the mouths and stomachs and cause vomiting. Lilies come in several varieties, and even eating a small amount can cause kidney failure in cats.

Mistletoe One kiss of that and you could possibly be kissing your pet as it's choking. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea as well as difficulty breathing, collapse, erratic behavior, Holly not jolly at all -- intense vomiting, diarrhea and depression.

Deck the halls I saw on Facebook someone had their tree in a huge cage so their cat couldn't get to the bulbs. Not a bad idea! If a cage isn't your thing, try putting the breakable ornaments up high on the tree. You might want to reconsider the tinsel. It is all shiny and bright but it is horrendous for your pets. If your pets eat even a little bit, it can create blockages in their intestines as well as severe vomiting and dehydration.

Hung up on lights Lights add all the color and spirit to a tree but the cords can be shocking to your pet and burn their mouth if they decide to chew on them. Check to make sure nothing is frayed and use a three-prong extension to be safe.

Batteries While they make remote controlled cars go pretty fast, they will slow down your dog or cat by causing chemical burns on the tongue, mouth, muzzle, and stomach.

The smells of the season Liquid potpourri and sachets, popular during the holidays, can be very dangerous. Exposure can cause skin or oral damage to your pet and may cause illness or death.

The final part of preventive care is knowing what to do in an emergency. Do you know where to take your pets when your regular veterinary hospital is closed for a holiday? Do you have the phone number? Here's a number to keep handy: ASPCA poison control, (888) 426-4435.

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The job market roars!

But the unemployment rate holds steady

Growth in professional and business services, retail trade, health care, and manufacturing led to a surge of 321,000 in nonfarm payroll positions in Novemb...

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© vinnstock - Fotolia.com

Growth in professional and business services, retail trade, health care, and manufacturing led to a surge of 321,000 in nonfarm payroll positions in November -- the best showing in almost 3 years.

Still, figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the unemployment rate held at 5.8%, and the number of unemployed persons was little changed at 9.1 million. Over the year, the jobless rate and the number of unemployed persons were down by 1.2% and 1.7 million, respectively.

In addition, he change in total nonfarm payroll employment for September was revised from +256,000 to +271,000, and the change for October was revised from +214,000 to +243,000. With these revisions, employment gains in September and October combined were 44,000 more than previously reported.

And there was more good news for those who are employed. Average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 9 cents in November -- to $24.66 in November. Over the year, average hourly earnings have risen by 2.1%.

Broad-based hiring

Employment in professional and business services increased by 86,000 last month, compared with an average gain of 57,000 per month over the prior 12 months.

Retail trade added 50,000 jobs, versus an average gain of 22,000 per month over the year, with additions in motor vehicle and parts dealers (+11,000); clothing and accessories stores (+11,000); sporting goods, hobby, book, and music stores (+9,000); and non-store retailers (+6,000).

Health care added 29,000 jobs, with employment trending up in doctors' offices (+7,000), home health care services (+5,000), outpatient care centers (+4,000), and hospitals (+4,000).

Manufacturing added 28,000 jobs, with durable goods manufacturers accounting for 17,000 of the increase, with small gains in most of the component industries. Employment in non-durable goods increased by 11,000, with plastics and rubber products (+7,000) accounting for most of the gain.

Financial activities added 20,000 jobs in November, with half of the gain in insurance carriers and related activities. Over the past year, insurance has contributed 70,000 jobs to the overall employment gain of 114,000 in financial activities.

Construction employment also continued to trend up in November (+20,000), with employment in

specialty trade contractors rising by 21,000, mostly in the residential component. Over the past 12 months, construction has added 213,000 jobs.

Who's working

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for adult men rose to 5.4%, while the rates for adult women (5.3%), teenagers (17.7%), whites (4.9%), blacks (11.1%, Hispanics (6.6%) and Asians (4.8%) were little changed from a year earlier.

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was little changed at 2.8 million in November, accounting for 30.7% of the unemployed. Over the past 12 months, the number of long-term unemployed has fallen by 1.2 million.

The civilian labor force participation rate held at 62.8% in November and has been essentially unchanged since April. The employment-population ratio, at 59.2%, was unchanged in November but is up by 0.6% over the year.

The complete report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Quality Meats recalls pork belly product

The products were not presented at the U.S. border for import inspection

Quality Meats of Omaha, Neb., is recalling approximately 44,372 pounds of frozen pork belly product because they were not presented at the U.S. border for ...

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© Gstudio Group - Fotolia

Quality Meats of Omaha, Neb., is recalling approximately 44,372 pounds of frozen pork belly product because they were not presented at the U.S. border for import inspection.

Without the benefit of full inspection, a possibility of adverse health consequences exists.

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

The product subject to recall includes:

  • Various weight cases of "rosderra IRISH MEATS Swine Pork Belly”

The recalled product was packaged March 18, 2014, through April 10, 2014 and bears the Ireland establishment number “IE 356 EC.” It was shipped to retail establishments and distributors in Georgia, Illinois and Washington, where it would have been repackaged.

Consumers with questions may contact Ton Kelly at (402) 509-2065.

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HobbyZone Super Cub S Radio-Controlled Aircraft recalled

Power supply units and chargers sold with the model aircraft can overcharge the battery

Horizon Hobby of Champaign, Ill., is recalling about 6,800 HobbyZone Super Cub S Ready-To-Fly and Super Cub S Bind-N-Fly Power Supply and Charger. Power s...

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Photo source: CPSC

Horizon Hobby of Champaign, Ill., is recalling about 6,800 HobbyZone Super Cub S Ready-To-Fly and Super Cub S Bind-N-Fly Power Supply and Charger.

Power supply units and chargers sold with the model aircraft can overcharge the battery, posing a risk of fire and property damage.

The firm has received 18 reports incidents involving the power supply units and chargers including reports of small fires, exploding batteries and property damage to the surrounding areas.

This recall involves the power supply and charger included exclusively with the HobbyZone Super Cub S Ready-To-Fly aircraft, model number HBZ8100 and the HobbyZone Super Cub S Bind-N-Fly model number HBZ8180. Aircraft model numbers are located on the packaging.

The power supply is 2 ½ inches by 1 ¾ inches by 1 ¼ inches and is black with a blue label that reads “HobbyZone” and model “HBZ1004.” The DC auxiliary charger is 5 inches by 2 ½ inches by 1 ¾ inches and is black with a blue label that reads, “HobbyZone” and model “HBZ1003.”

The supply units and chargers, manufactured in China, were sold at at hobby stores nationwide and online at HorizonHobby.com from April 2014,through August 2014, for $170 for the Bind-N-Fly and $200 for the Ready-to-Fly.

Consumers should stop using the power supply and chargers immediately and contact Horizon Hobby for a replacement AC charger.

Consumers may contact Horizon Hobby toll-free at (877) 504-0233 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.  

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General Motors recalls Chevrolet Colorados and GMC Canyons

The driver air bag connections may have been wired incorrectly

General Motors is recalling 2,283 model year 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon vehicles manufactured January 6, 2014, to October 1, 2014. The drive...

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Photo source: Chevrolet

General Motors is recalling 2,283 model year 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon vehicles manufactured January 6, 2014, to October 1, 2014.

The driver air bag connections may have been wired incorrectly, which could reverse the deployment sequence and disrupt the deployment timing of the driver air bag.

If the driver air bag does not deploy as designed, there is an increased risk of driver injury in the event of a crash necessitating air bag deployment.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the inflatable restraint sensing and diagnostic module (SDM), free of charge. The recall began on October 6, 2014.

Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet) or 1-800-462-8782 (GMC). GM's number for this recall is 14690.

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Salsa Cycles recalls bicycle forks

The bicycle fork can bend or break