Current Events in December 2014

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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 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.

    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 ...

    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 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.

    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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      Safeway Select French Salted Caramel Premium Ice Cream recalled

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

      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.

      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....

      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 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.

      Gulf States Toyota is recalling 142 model year 2015 Toyota Tacoma vehicles manufactured September 2, 2014, to October 15, 2014. The affected vehicles may...

      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 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)

      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...

      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 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. 

      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.

      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.

      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. 

      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. 

      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.

      We 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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 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)

      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...

      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.”

      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.

      “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.”...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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 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.

      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...

      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 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.

      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 ...

      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 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.  

      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...

      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 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.

      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...

      Salsa Cycles recalls bicycle forks

      The bicycle fork can bend or break

      Salsa Cycles, a wholly-owned brand of Quality Bicycle Products Inc., of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 2,500 Salsa Bearpaw bicycle forks.

      The bicycle fork can bend or break, posing a fall hazard to the rider.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves all aluminum Salsa Bearpaw forks sold separately and on Mukluk bicycles. The forks have date code 20130524, 20130710 or 20130826 stamped on the fork steerer, followed by “CWI2201BAN2” and a Salsa compass graphic on the bend of the fork blades.

      Consumers or the dealer will need to disassemble the front of the bicycle to access the steerer tube with the date code and model information. The forks were sold in “tequila lime” with black paint, “metallic gold,” red and black. The bikes were sold in sizes x-small, small, medium, large and x-large.

      The forks, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at bicycle stores nationwide and online at various websites from September 2013, through November 2014, for about $250 separately and for between $1,850 and $4,400 for the bicycles.

      Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles equipped with the recalled Salsa Bearpaw forks and contact a Salsa dealer for a free inspection and replacement fork.

      Consumers may contact Salsa Cycles toll-free at (877) 774-6208 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

      Salsa Cycles, a wholly-owned brand of Quality Bicycle Products Inc., of Bloomington, Minn., is recalling about 2,500 Salsa Bearpaw bicycle forks/ The bicy...

      Police body cameras: Protecting the populace? Violating our privacy? Or both?

      Like them or not, such technological changes are unavoidable

      If you're old enough to remember life before smartphones and the Internet, then by now you're used to reading about real-life legal or political controversies that would've been impossibly unrealistic science fiction when you were a kid.

      For example: Should on-duty police officers be required to wear cameras and microphones to record their interactions with the public? That used to be an utterly ridiculous question, in the days when audiovisual recordings could only be made with heavy, bulky and fragile equipment – no, of course police officers shouldn't be expected to do their jobs with hundred-pound movie cameras strapped to themselves. And there's no need to worry about any civil-liberty implications of such an impractical scenario, either.

      But nowadays, at least where weight, size and mobility are concerned, wearing a body camera is hardly more difficult or intrusive than wearing a badge. (And some police cars have been outfitted with dashcams for many years now – though such cameras always have the ability to be turned off, or their video footage deleted or otherwise lost, should the police choose to arrange this.)

      Russian dashcams

      In the early 21st century, recording technology is exponentially cheaper and ubiquitous than ever before. In February 2013, when an asteroid collided with Earth's atmosphere and exploded several miles above the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, it promptly became the most-viewed meteor strike in history, as countless Russian drivers went online to upload their spectacular dashcam recordings of the event.

      But why did so many Russian drivers have dashcams in the first place? To protect themselves from insurance fraudsters, corrupt cops and other scam-based threats which under the Russian legal system can easily harm innocent people, threats which can be abated if the innocent party has audiovisual proof of what happened, rather than having to rely on a “he said/she said” situation. Hence, the Russian popularity of dashcams set to automatically record every time the car operates.

      Here in America our legal system differs in many ways from Russia's, but one thing both systems do share in common is that drivers and other innocent citizens can find themselves at legal risk, if they're accused of wrongdoing and have no audiovisual proof of their innocence. If you did one thing but a cop says you did something else, who is a judge likely to believe?

      And, especially in the past few months, there has been a growing controversy over police trustworthiness: How honest and reliable are the men and women empowered to arrest or even kill Americans in the name of public safety?

      Last summer, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown, and nobody except Wilson and a small handful of eyewitnesses knows exactly what happened: Did Brown attack Wilson, as he and his supporters claim, or did Wilson overreact and kill a black kid who was trying to surrender, as Brown's family (and some eyewitnesses) claim? In the absence of video showing the shooting and the events immediately leading to it, there's no way to say for certain.

      "Simmering distrust"

      Certain police departments across the country have already adopted the use of body cameras. In Rialto, California, police chief Tony Farrar tried outfitting his officers with cameras for a year and, according to a study conducted by the non-profit Police Foundation (“Advancing policing through innovation & science”), the result was “more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12 months prior to the experiment.”

      This week, President Obama asked Congress for $263 million in funding to provide body cameras to various police forces across the country, in hope of reducing the “simmering distrust” which exists between police forces and minority communities not just in Ferguson, but across the United States.

      But for many police forces, it appears the main thing keeping cameras off their officers isn't lack of money, but lack of desire to record officers' on-duty behavior.

      In Boston, for example, Mayor Martin Walsh said he opposed the use of police body cameras, on the grounds that community outreach and improved education are better ways to improve relations between Bostonians and their police.

      Despite such opposition, the widespread use of police body cameras might be inevitable, given all the other technological changes and advances. Anne McKenna, a Baltimore attorney and expert on electronic surveillance and privacy law, went so far as to tell the Washington Post that “the body camera is here to stay.” (Though it might've been more accurate, and a bit more poetic to boot, had she said: “The body camera is on its way, then once its here it's here to stay.” For now, body cameras remain a statistical rarity, among the number of American police on duty.)

      Privacy concerns

      To be fair: Police who don't want their on-duty behavior monitored are hardly the only ones opposed to mass police use of body cameras; ordinary privacy advocates (who in other contexts tend to disagree with police, where recording issues are concerned) have some qualms as well.

      Consider the already existing controversy over police use of license-plate scanners: since police and privately owned security cameras in various jurisdictions can already scan and keep record of every license plate they see, this means that for all practical purposes, anytime an ordinary driver leaves home, his or her movements and whereabouts are being recorded in real-time and stored in a permanent record accessible to – well, anybody willing to pay.

      Same thing with regular security cameras: visit a store and your visage is caught on their security camera. Walk down the street and you might be recorded by a variety of different security cameras.

      If you're also recorded anytime you come into sight range of a police officer, that can help protect you if the cop misbehaves, perhaps. Otherwise, it merely ensures that there's one more database collecting information about you and your whereabouts – and since police are public employees, there's the chance that their body camera recordings will become public record – not just the recordings of their behavior during disputed incidents, but all recordings.

      Here's an unpleasant hypothetical to consider: Suppose you become a violent-crime victim, and call the police after you're attacked. The officers (who in this instance are thoroughly professional, pleasant and helpful, by the way) nonetheless are seeing you at your absolute worst: you've just been attacked, and now that the police are here, they're basically recording the aftermath of the worst moment of your life.

      Jay Stanley, a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that police video “sometimes captures people at the worst moments of their lives …. "You don't want to see videos of that uploaded to the Internet for titillation and gawking.”

      If you're old enough to remember life before smartphones and the Internet, then by now you're used to reading about real-life legal or political controvers...