Current Events in December 2014

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    Giving to charity? Here's how to keep from running afoul of the tax rules

    Following a few tip from the IRS will help you keep everything in line

    With the end of the year within shouting distance, many individuals and businesses are making year-end gifts to charity in order to ease their tax burden.

    The Internal revenue Service (IRS) reminds you that several important tax law provisions have taken effect in recent years.

    Here are some of the changes you should keep in mind:

    Rules for charitable contributions of clothing and household items

    • Household items include furniture, furnishings, electronics, appliances and linens. Clothing and household items donated to charity generally must be in good used condition or better to be tax-deductible. A clothing or household item for which a taxpayer claims a deduction of over $500 does not have to meet this standard if the taxpayer includes a qualified appraisal of the item with the return.
    • Donors must get a written acknowledgment from the charity for all gifts worth $250 or more. It must include, among other things, a description of the items contributed.

    Guidelines for gifts of money

    • A taxpayer must have a bank record or a written statement from the charity in order to deduct any donation of money, regardless of amount. The record must show the name of the charity and the date and amount of the contribution. Bank records include canceled checks, and bank, credit union and credit card statements. Bank or credit union statements should show the name of the charity, the date, and the amount paid. Credit card statements should show the name of the charity, the date, and the transaction posting date.
    • Donations of money include those made in cash or by check, electronic funds transfer, credit card and payroll deduction. For payroll deductions, the taxpayer should retain a pay stub, a Form W-2 wage statement or other document furnished by the employer showing the total amount withheld for charity, along with the pledge card showing the name of the charity.
    • These requirements for the deduction of monetary donations do not change the long-standing requirement that a taxpayer obtain an acknowledgment from a charity for each deductible donation (either money or property) of $250 or more. However, one statement containing all of the required information may meet both requirements.

    Don't forget

    Here are some additional reminders to help you plan your holiday and year-end gifts to charity:

    • Qualified charities. Check that the charity is eligible. Only donations to eligible organizations are tax-deductible. Select Check, a search able online tool available on Misgovern, lists most organizations that are eligible to receive deductible contributions. In addition, churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and government agencies are eligible to receive deductible donations. That is true even if they are not listed in the tool’s database.
    • Year-end gifts. Contributions are deductible in the year made. Thus, donations charged to a credit card before the end of 2014 count for 2014, even if the credit card bill isn’t paid until 2015. Also, checks count for 2014 as long as they are mailed in 2014.
    • Itemize deductions. For individuals, only taxpayers who itemize their deductions on Form 1040 Schedule Acan claim deductions for charitable contributions. This deduction is not available to individuals who choose the standard deduction. This includes anyone who files a short form (Form 1040A or 1040EZ). A taxpayer will have a tax savings only if the total itemized deductions (mortgage interest, charitable contributions, state and local taxes, etc.) exceed the standard deduction. Use the 2014 Form 1040 Schedule A to determine whether itemizing is better than claiming the standard deduction.
    • Record donations. For all donations of property, including clothing and household items, get from the charity, if possible, a receipt that includes the name of the charity, date of the contribution, and a reasonably-detailed description of the donated property. If a donation is left at a charity’s unattended drop site, keep a written record of the donation that includes this information, as well as the fair market value of the property at the time of the donation and the method used to determine that value. Additional rulesapply for a contribution of $250 or more.
    • Special Rules. The deduction for a car, boat or airplane donated to charity is usually limited to the gross proceeds from its sale. This rule applies if the claimed value is more than $500. Form 1098-C or a similar statement, must be provided to the donor by the organization and attached to the donor’s tax return.

    If the amount of a taxpayer’s deduction for all non cash contributions is over $500, a properly-completed Form 8283 must be submitted with the tax return.

    With the end of the year within shouting distance, many individuals and businesses are making year-end gifts to charity in order to ease their tax burden. ...

    Mortgage applications drop for second straight week

    Contract interest rates were mostly lower

    Mortgage applications fell a sharp 7.3% during the week ending November 28, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey.

    The results include an adjustment for the Thanksgiving holiday.

    In addition, the Refinance Index plunged 13%, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down 3% -- to 60% of total applications The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity dropped to 6.7% of total applications, while the FHA share of total applications was 9.3%.

    The VA share of total applications came in at 9.4%, and the USDA share remained 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) was down 7 basis points -- from 4.15% to 4.08%, the lowest level since May 2013. Points increasing to 0.28 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate dropped from last week.
    • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose to 4.11% from 4.10%, with points decreasing to 0.22 from 0.25 (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 3.85%, with points slipping to 0.09 from 0.13 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
    • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs fell from 3.35% to 3.30%, with points remaining at 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was down from last week.
    • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs increased to 3.07% from 3.06%, with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.41 (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.

    Mortgage applications fell a sharp 7.3% during the week ending November 28, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage...

    Chrysler recalls vans and Jeep Wranglers

    The low tire pressure warning light could malfunction

    Chrysler Group is recalling 10,390 model year 2014 Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured March 20, 2014, to April 22, 2014, and 2014 Jeep Wrangler vehicles manufactured March 21, 2014, to April 22, 2014.

    Due to a software error, the Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) may fail to learn the locations of the individual sensors while the vehicle is being driven. As a result, the low tire pressure warning light will illuminate, despite the the tire pressures being within specification. Should one of the tires lose air pressure, the driver would not be notified of the change in air pressure. This could result in tire failure, increasing the risk of a crash.

    Chrysler has notified owners, and dealers will reprogram the TPMS module, free of charge. The recall began on October 23, 2014.

    Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P63.

    Chrysler Group is recalling 10,390 model year 2014 Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured March 20, 2014, to April 22, 201...

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      Acura MDX and RLX vehicles recalled

      The driver and front passenger seat belt may not extend or retract in low temperatures

      American Honda Motor Company is recalling 43,481 model year 2014-2015 Acura MDX vehicles manufactured April 23, 2013, to August 25, 2014, and 2014 Acura RLX vehicles manufactured November 5, 2012, to November 25, 2013.

      The driver and front passenger seat belt may not extend or retract in low temperatures, increasing the risk of injury in a crash.

      Honda has notified owners, and dealers will replace the driver and front passenger seat belts, free of charge. The recall began in November 2014.

      Owners may contact Acura customer service at 1-800-382-2238.

      Honda's number for this recall is JK7 for the MKX, and JK8 for the RLX.

      American Honda Motor Company is recalling 43,481 model year 2014-2015 Acura MDX vehicles manufactured April 23, 2013, to August 25, 2014, and 2014 Acura RL...

      When should you worry about memory problems?

      As soon as you notice them, but most seniors don't seek help

      As people get older they often assume that losing a step mentally is just part of the aging process. Having a “senior moment” might be just that, or it might be the sign of something else.

      People who are concerned they may be experiencing memory issues need to talk about it with their doctor, but most don't. University of Michigan (UM) researchers and their colleagues conclude that more than half of seniors with signs of memory loss never see a doctor about it.

      The Michigan findings suggest that as many as 1.8 million Americans over the age of 70 with dementia have not been evaluated for cognitive symptoms by a medical provider. Getting help, the researchers say, could lead to treatments that can improve memory function, or slow down its decline.

      Not getting needed care

      "Early evaluation and identification of people with dementia may help them receive care earlier," said study author Vikas Kotagal.

      It can also help families make plans for care and watch for future problems that can occur.

      “In some instances, these interventions could substantially improve the person's quality of life," Kotagal said.

      Why?

      The study failed to find out why more seniors with with onset of memory problems don't get help but it made some interesting observations.

      Married seniors were more than twice as likely to get cognitive exams as people who were not married. Kotagal believes that's because a spouse will be less hesitant to bring up the subject than an adult child would be. And a spouse observes the patient on a daily basis, while an offspring might not.

      "Another possibility could be that unmarried elderly people may be more reluctant to share their concerns with their doctor if they are worried about the impact it could have on their independence," Kotagal said.

      Alzheimer's disease

      Not all dementia is related to Alzheimer's disease but a lot of it is. Dementia is a condition caused by damage to neurons in the brain that interfere with memory function.

      With Alzheimer's, the neuron damage is so severe it eventually interferes with life functions and the patient dies. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's makes up as many as 80% of dementia cases.

      Warning signs

      According to the National Institute on Aging, here are the warning signs seniors and their caregivers should be aware of:

      • Asking the same question or repeating the same story over and over again
      • Forgetting how to do activities that were previously routine, such as cooking, making repairs, or playing cards
      • Losing the ability to handle money or balance a checkbook
      • Getting lost in familiar surroundings or misplacing household objects
      • Neglecting to bathe or wearing the same clothes over and over again and often insisting that he or she has bathed or that his or her clothes are still clean
      • Relying on someone else, such as a spouse, to make decisions or answer questions he or she previously would have handled themselves.

      In the meantime, Kotagal says both patients and their physicians should be more proactive on the issue. Doctors, he says, should more frequently recommend cognitive exams and patients should request them.

      They reason they don't, Kotagal concludes, is that neither sees that much value in them. But the Michigan researchers say early intervention can help patients and lower societal costs.

      As people get older they often assume that losing a step mentally is just part of the aging process. Having a “senior moment” might be just that, or it mig...

      Feds investigate recall of Graco child seats

      Was the largest such recall in U.S. history mishandled?

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is taking a close look at the handling of Graco Children’s Products’ reporting of a safety defect in child seats.

      The defect involves buckles of child and infant car seats that stick or become stuck in the latched position, creating an unreasonable risk to a child’s life in the event of an emergency.

      Graco, after continued pressure from NHTSA, eventually recalled over 6 million defective car seats earlier this year -- the largest child seat recall in U.S. history.

      “The (Transportation) Department is committed to ensuring that parents have peace of mind knowing that the car seat in which they are placing their child and their trust is safe and reliable,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Any delays by a manufacturer in meeting their obligations to report safety issues with the urgency they deserve -- especially those that impact the well-being of our children -- erodes that trust and is absolutely unacceptable.”

      Timeliness at issue

      Under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, once a manufacturer knows or should reasonably know that an item of motor vehicle equipment -- such as a car seat -- contains a safety related defect, the manufacturer has a maximum of 5 business days to notify the agency. NHTSA’s investigation will evaluate the facts of the case to determine if Graco violated the law.

      “There is no excuse for delaying a recall to address any safety related defect,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman. “If Graco delayed in protecting children and infants from this defect, we will hold them accountable.”

      If NHTSA’s investigation finds Graco was untimely in reporting the defect, the company could be fined up to $35 million in civil penalties. The agency's 4-year reauthorization bill -- the Grow America Act -- proposes to increase the Congressionally-established cap on fines from $35 million to $300 million.  

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is taking a close look at the handling of Graco Children’s Products’ reporting of a safety defe...

      Fewer Americans are lighting up

      Smokers are now concentrated in certain demographics

      Fans of the AMC series “Mad Men” are reminded in each episode just how much smoking was a part of American life as recently as the 1960s. Smoke-free restaurants? Not a chance.

      But after decades of strict controls on marketing and sale of tobacco products and publicity about the health dangers of smoking, fewer adults are lighting up.

      In its most recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that only 17.8% of U.S. adults were smokers in 2013, down from 20.9% in 2005.

      More work to do

      “There is encouraging news in this study, but we still have much more work to do to help people quit,” said Tim McAfee, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. “We can bring down cigarette smoking rates much further, much faster, if strategies proven to work are put in place like funding tobacco control programs at the CDC-recommended levels, increasing prices of tobacco products, implementing and enforcing comprehensive smoke-free laws, and sustaining hard-hitting media campaigns.”

      The report makes another significant observation. We have gone from an era when everyone smoked to the present, when it seems that just consumers in certain demographics do. If you live below the poverty level or have little education you are more likely to be a smoker.

      And since punitive taxes have been placed on cigarettes over the years to discourage smoking, that tax falls most heavily on the people least able to pay it.

      Other groups that tend to smoke in much greater numbers than the population as a whole are American Indians, residents of the South and Midwest, people with a disability and people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual.

      Cutting down

      But even those who still smoke are apparently trying to quit, or at least cut down. The report shows the proportion of those who light up every day fell from nearly 81% in 2005 to 76.9% in 2013.

      Smokers who only smoke on some days rose from 19.2% in 2005 to 23.1% in 2013. Even among daily smokers, the number of cigarettes smoked each day is falling.

      “Though smokers are smoking fewer cigarettes, cutting back by a few cigarettes a day rather than quitting completely does not produce significant health benefits,” said Brian King, a senior scientific advisor with CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. “Smokers who quit before they’re 40 years old can get back almost all of the 10 years of life expectancy smoking takes away.”

      Role of e-cigarettes

      Some smokers say they have been able to cut back, or quit altogether, by using e-cigarettes – devices that create a water vapor containing nicotine that can be inhaled, just like cigarette smoke. Anti-smoking groups generally hate the devices but public health experts are conflicted.

      In an interview with the NPR program “Here and Now,” Thomas J. Glynn, former director of cancer science and trends at the American Cancer Society, said the jury is still out on the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes, but said the devices need to be considered as a possible way to get consumers to stop smoking cigarettes.

      Tobacco companies have seen the declining numbers of smokers in the U.S. and have embraced e-cigarettes as a new revenue source. America's largest tobacco company, Altria, has gotten into the business of manufacturing and marketing e-cigarettes. So has Reynolds-American.

      Perhaps the first tobacco company to realize the revenue potential of e-cigarettes was Lorillard, which in 2012 purchased the already-established e-cigarette brand Blu.

      Sales of e-cigarettes in the U.S. are estimated to be $1.5 billion a year and poised to grow nearly 25% by 2018.

      Fans of the AMC series “Mad Men” are reminded in each episode just how much smoking was a part of American life as recently as the 1960s. Smoke free restau...

      Contributor by Google: Wave of the future or marketing ploy?

      Sign up for an invitation to pay for the chance to see slightly fewer ads online

      There's a common saying about social media, and the Internet in general: if you're not paying them anything, you're not their customer; you're what they're selling. The same holds true for traditional broadcast television, and terrestrial radio: you pay nothing to watch or hear these broadcasts, so you're not really the TV or radio station customer. The customers are the advertisers who pay to air their commercials where you might hear them.

      With that in mind, you could say Google's new “Contributor” plan works by letting ordinary Internet users stop being what's for sale, and become paying customers instead. Indeed, Google more or less says as much on its own site, calling Contributor “an experiment in additional ways to fund the web” and noting that “today's Internet is mostly funded by advertising. But what if there were a way to directly support the people who create the sites you visit each day? Introducing Contributor by Google.”

      Right now, you cannot simply sign up and start paying for Google Contributor – thus far the service is invitation-only, and the main Contributor by Google page offers visitors the chance to click on one of two different green link-buttons: the one on the left says “Need an invitation? Join the waitlist” and on the right, “Already have an invitation? Get started now.”

      A chance to pay

      That's pretty standard for new Google services – Gmail and Google+ were both invitation-only when they started, too – but those services were and are free to the end user. Contributor, by definition, is not. But if you receive and accept an inviation to join Contributor, you get the chance to pay Google in exchange for not seeing ads on websites that use Google advertising services. Some of that money you pay Google is supposed to go to the website, in lieu of the ad revenue it otherwise would've received.

      Thus far, even for those who have signed on with Contributor, there are only 10 websites, or “publishing partners,” taking part in the venture, including Science Daily, WikiHow and Mashable. Contributors who visit other websites using Google ad platforms will still see ads.

      Thus far, Google hasn't offered specific details of exacly how the program works. Contributors can choose from three payment options – you can pay $1, $2 or $3 per month – though the differences between the different plans hasn't been specified yet.

      Things to come?

      Is Contributor likely to be the shape of Internet browsing to come? Over in the U.K., the BBC spoke to one tech-startup executive (of a company which, incidentally, produces interactive games intended to replace ads) who said that such programs “could change the publisher landscape and how people browse content online.” (Semantic note: “could” covers a lot of ground. After all: anybody could become independently wealthy after receiving an inheritance from a long-lost relative you never knew you had — but don't bet your future on that.)

      The Guardian took a more cynical view of Contributor, observing that “Internet giants are exploring new ways to raise cash from their users, but harvesting our data remains key to their strategy.”

      And, of course, even if you are invited to give Google one to three dollars per month to divvy up among the various websites you visit, it only works when you're online through your Google account.

      There's a common saying about social media, and the Internet in general: if you're not paying them anything, you're not their customer; you're what they're...

      Strung out over holiday lights?

      They can be maddening but with a little planning, all should be merry

      It can be very frustrating trying to get that perfect holiday feel in your home, especially when you have lights that won't cooperate. Here a few tips that may help you light the way.

      Everything is done in feet. To figure out exactly how many lights you will need for your tree, the formula that seems to work best average 100 lights for every foot of tree height.

      Give it a good once over. Before you get all strung out dealing with these lights, check for bulbs that might be broken or missing. Make sure the cords aren't frayed and there are no loose connections. For sets with bulb outages, use the LightKeeper Pro for incandescent lights or the LED Keeper for LEDs to find and fix the problem in seconds

      Oh choices -- LED or incandescent? Do you want to spend a little more upfront? The benefit is that your bulbs will last longer so it might be worth the extra cash. LED lights cost a little more but they will give you a little more as well. They also can be paired with more sets because of their low voltage. Look for lights that have the seal of approval from an independent testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Modern lights have fused plugs, preventing sparks in case of a short circuit. Ditch old strands of lights that don't have fuses and get a set of newer, safer lights.

      Your connection. Become knowledgeable about how many strands are safe for LED lights by reading the manufacturers instructions. Don't use more than three strands of mini-string sets and a maximum of 50 bulbs for screw-in bulbs. Use the three-light-set rule for one extension cord. Otherwise you may have a blow-out.

      What goes in doesn't always go out. Be aware of which lights are for use inside versus outside. Outside lights are exposed to water, so should be rated for outdoor use. Outdoor lights should be plugged into circuits protected by ground-fault-interrupters (GFCIs). Indoor lights often have thinner insulation, which can become cracked and damaged when exposed to the elements outdoors.

      The star of the show. You really have to be very careful with the tree, many trees catch fire. There are 250 Christmas tree fires and 14 related deaths each year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Water the tree so your house doesn't burn down. To string lights on an evergreen, begin at the top of the tree and wind strands through its center, widening with the tree's shape.

      For deciduous trees, work your way up. Wrap lights around the base of its trunk, moving upward in a spiral formation. If you use an artificial tree, choose one that is tested and labeled as fire resistant. Artificial trees with built-in electrical systems should have the UL label. Oh also, don't use candles to light the tree.

      It can be very frustrating trying to get that perfect holiday feel in your home, especially when you have lights that won't cooperate. Here a few tips that...

      Home prices rise for 32nd consecutive month

      CoreLogic says the pre-meltdown home-price is continuing to narrow

      Home prices rose for a 32ndstraight month during October, with all 50 states showing year-over-year home price appreciation.

      CoreLogic a provider of property information, analytics and data-enabled services, reports its Home Price Index (HPI) jumped 6.1% in October from the same month a year ago. On a month-over-month basis, home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales – were up 0.5%.

      Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia were at or within 10% of their home price peak in October, with the HPI reached new highs in Colorado, Louisiana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.

      “Home price growth is moderating as we head into the late fall and is currently running at half the pace it was in the spring of 2014,” said Sam Khater, deputy chief economist at CoreLogic. “However, there are still pockets of strength, especially in several Texas markets, as well as Seattle, Denver and other markets with strong economic fundamentals.”

      Excluding distressed sales, which include short sales and real estate owned (REO) transactions, home prices nationally posted a year-over-year advance of 5.6%, and month-over-month gain of 0.6%.

      Also excluding distressed sales, 49 states and the District of Columbia showed year-over-year home price appreciation in October, with Mississippi the only state to experience a decline (-1.2%).

      October highlights

      • Including distressed sales, the 5 states with the highest home price appreciation were: Michigan (+10.5%), South Dakota (+10.4%), Montana (+9.1%), Texas (+8.7%) and Colorado (+8.6%).
      • Excluding distressed sales, the 5 states with the highest home price appreciation were: South Dakota (+10.4%), Massachusetts (+9.7%), Maine (+8.4%), Texas (+8.1%) and Michigan (+8.0%).
      • Including distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the national HPI (from April 2006 to October 2014) was -12.4%. Excluding distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the HPI for the same period was -8.9%.
      • The 5 states with the largest peak-to-current declines, including distressed transactions, were: Nevada (-36.1%), Florida (-33.5%), Arizona (-29.0%), Rhode Island (-28.3%) and Maryland (-21.9%).
      • Including distressed sales, the U.S. has experienced 32 consecutive months of year-over-year increases; however, the national average is no longer posting double-digit increases.
      • Ninety-four of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) measured by population showed year-over-year increases in October 2014. The six CBSAs that showed year-over-year declines were Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, Conn.; Worcester, Mass.-Conn.; Greensboro-High Point, N.C.; Rochester, N.Y.; Camden, N.J. and Winston-Salem, N.C.

      The outlook

      The CoreLogic HPI Forecast indicates that home prices -- including distressed sales -- are will increase 0.2% month-over-month from October 2014 to November 2014 and, on a year-over-year basis, by 5.1% from October 2014 to October 2015.

      Excluding distressed sales, home prices are expected to rise 0.2% month-over-month from October 2014 to November 2014 and by 4.7% year-over-year from October 2014 to October 2015.

      “The gradual recovery of the housing market continues to be propelled by improving employment, more buyer and seller confidence, continued low rates and, in certain parts of the country, investor demand. The continued actual and projected rise in home prices confirms that fact,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “Based on our projections, home prices in over half the country will have reached or surpassed levels last seen at the height of the housing bubble sometime in mid-2015.”

      Home prices rose for a 32nd straight month during October, with all 50 states showing year-over-year home price appreciation. CoreLogic a provider of prop...

      Continental Tire the Americas recalls ProContact GX SSR MOE tires

      The tires may have been deformed during the curing process

      Continental Tire the Americas is recalling 5,993 ProContact GX SSR MOE tires, size 225/45R18 95H XL, manufactured June 22, 2014, to July 28, 2014.

      The tires are used for front axle fitment on 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class vehicles.

      The tires may have been deformed during the curing process, and could cause the tire tread to appear distorted when inflated. Such a tire may suddenly fail during use, increasing the risk of a crash.

      CTA has notified owners, and tire dealers or Mercedes-Benz dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The recall began on October 30, 2014.

      Owners may contact CTA customer service at 1-888-799-2168.

      Continental Tire the Americas is recalling 5,993 ProContact GX SSR MOE tires, size 225/45R18 95H XL, manufactured June 22, 2014, to July 28, 2014. The tir...

      General Motors recalls various vehicles with headlamp issues

      The lights could intermittently or permanently fail to illuminate

      General Motors is recalling about 273,182 Buick LaCrosse sedans and Chevrolet, GMC, Buick, Saab and Isuzu midsize SUVs in the U.S. for possible intermittent or permanent loss of low beam headlamps.

      Affected models are:

      • 2006-2009 Buick LaCrosse sedans;
      • 2006-2007 Chevrolet TrailBlazer and 2006 TrailBlazer EXT;
      • 2006-2007 GMC Envoy and 2006 Envoy XL;
      • 2006-2007 Buick Rainier;
      • 2006-2008 Saab 9-7X and
      • 2006-2008 Isuzu Ascender midsize SUVs.

      If the headlamp driver module (HDM) is not operating correctly, the low-beam headlamps and daytime running lamps could intermittently or permanently fail to illuminate. This condition does not affect the high-beam headlamps, marker lamps, turn signals, or fog lamps.

      GM has not been able to confirm whether the HDMs in these vehicles caused any vehicle accidents.

      The total population, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico and exports from North America is 316,357.  

      General Motors is recalling about 273,182 Buick LaCrosse sedans and Chevrolet, GMC, Buick, Saab and Isuzu midsize SUVs in the U.S. for possible intermitten...

      Cyber Monday just another shopping day

      Retailers started online promotions over the weekend

      In the distant past – 2007, for instance – Black Friday and Cyber Monday were their own standalone holiday shopping events.

      People lined up in front of department stores in the early morning hours the day after Thanksgiving for door-buster specials.

      Then the following Monday they would go to work and, while the boss wasn't looking, go online to shop for bargains on electronic gadgets.

      Ah, the quaint days of yesteryear.

      Blurred lines

      Now, November has become one long triathlon for competitive retailers and bargain-hungry consumers. The lines between Black Friday and Cyber Monday have blurred into one long weekend of sales promotions.

      Eric Jones of Jones-Dengler Marketing, operator of the BestBlackFriday.com website, says most retailers shifted gears from Black Friday to Cyber Monday over the weekend without skipping a beat.

      “In other words, there is really no difference,” Jones told ConsumerAffairs. “Stores are continuing the same online sales with slightly different products but the same theme and just renaming each one.”

      In fact, he says his company's Black Friday website had more traffic on Thanksgiving than Black Friday itself while his Cyber Monday website surpassed the Black Friday website in traffic over the weekend.

      Cyber Monday started Saturday

      Meanwhile, major online retailers like Best Buy and Amazon.com started their Cyber Monday sales promotions on Saturday.

      Amazon, which pioneered Cyber Monday marketing, is stretching the event into 8 days, running into next weekend. While the earliest Cyber Monday shopping events focused mostly on electronics, Amazon and other retailers are pushing discounts on toys, housewares, apparel and other gift categories.

      In announcing its early bargains, Amazon said it will be selling a Sony 40-inch 1080p LED TV for $298; an LG 49-inch Smart 4K Ultra HD LED TV for $999 with 15% back in rewards; and an Acer Chromebook at $149.

      Over the weekend the Amazon Appstore offered sale prices on popular apps and games.

      It works

      Why have retailers stepped up the selling pressure? In short, because they have found that it pays off. Giving consumers more opportunities to shop for bargains usually means they will shop and buy more. And that may be especially true this year.

      Since 2009 retailers have had to compete for a shrinking consumer dollar, as the financial crisis and Great Recession meant consumers were much more bargain-conscious. Consumers continue to look for deals – and have many more technology tools to help them find them – but this year they have a little more money in their pockets, thanks to falling gasoline prices.

      But the fear that their competitor will get to the customer first has sparked the earlier, and more intense holiday sales promotions, all of which threaten to take the wind out of the sails of these traditional holiday shopping days.

      Preliminary figures suggest foot traffic was down at brick and mortar locations on Black Friday. That may be because more purchases were made online -- and not by people sitting at their computers at home.

      Branding Brand, a mobile commerce platform provider, reports just over one-third of online purchases on Black Friday were made from mobile devices, up 48% over last year.

      As more purchases move to online sales and start earlier and last longer, Cyber Monday may turn out to be just another shopping day.

      In the distant past – 2007, for instance – Black Friday and Cyber Monday were their own stand-alone holiday shopping events. People lined up in front of d...

      Black Friday, Cyber Monday and one more -- Giving Tuesday

      After the holiday shopping blow-out, a day about giving back

      Giving Tuesday -- it's not a shopping day and you won't get a day off of work, but it is a day worth investigating with your family.

      According to the website #GivingTuesday is a global day dedicated to giving back. On Tuesday, December 2, 2014, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world will come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give.

      It's a day for you and your family as well as businesses to give back and do something for someone else.

      They came together in Congress, where U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI-2) and Congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL-18) introduced H.Res. 761 to recognize #GivingTuesday.

      “There are too many things that cause divisions within our communities, but one thing that can bring us together toward a common goal is that of giving to others, and making a positive impact on their lives,” said Gabbard. “We should always be looking for opportunities to serve others and give generously of our time and resources to worthy causes. ‘Giving Tuesday’ is a great way to raise awareness of our responsibility to serve others before ourselves, and give back to our communities. I encourage everyone to embrace these values and the spirit of Giving Tuesday.”

      This is the third year that Giving Tuesday has been observed. More than 16,000 U.S.-based partners have celebrated the art of giving. It was started in New York by the 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation in 2012 .

      There is not a better gift that you can give your kids than teaching them to be empathetic and give of themselves to others. It's not always a thing we give, sometimes it's just a gesture or a helping hand. There are many ways to give but giving them that lesson will have an impact on your kids as individuals and others as well as your family unit as a whole.

      Check out their Facebook page or their website and see who is giving and to pick up some ideas for you and your family.

      Giving Tuesday -- it's not a shopping day and you won't get a day off of work, but it is a day worth investigating with your family....

      Deep-discount bargain on luxury goods? Probably counterfeit

      Up to a quarter of Facebook ads and other online offers are fake, researchers confirm

      If you're thinking of buying those designer-name luxury whatevers you see in your Facebook ads, think again — a mid-November study published by two cybersecurity researchers suggests that almost a quarter of all luxury fashion goods offered for sale in Facebook ads are counterfeit.

      Researchers Andrea Stroppa and Agostino Specchiarello set up a dozen dummy Facebook accounts, to collect random samplings of ads. Stroppa and Specchiarello programmed bots to collect over a thousand different ads, which the two researchers then manually analyzed.

      Those sites were set up using various techniques to trick visitors, according to the researchers. They often had legitimate looking URLs, such as www.rayban-ireland.com, and even included fake logos of security and payment system companies.

      Many of those domains, according to the research, were registered in China, and their apparent owners used Chinese email accounts. And while it's impossible to prove these sites are run by Chinese organizations, the researchers wrote, there are various clues pointing in that direction.

      In all fairness, Facebook is hardly unique in having this problem. Google removes hundreds of millions of “bad ads” every year, and that's in addition to ad-free “bad sites.”

      An Uggly problem

      This website frequently hears complaints from readers who thought they'd found a bargain price on luxury items, but only found themsleves scammed. Last year, we heard from a woman who'd found an entire website selling nothing but Ugg boots at roughly half the price of regular Ugg stores – but she only received a pair of shoddily made counterfeit boots that weren't even in the color or size she ordered.

      That particular scammy website was shut down via court order the day after we published our story about it. And the website's Chinese operators might have needed up to ten seconds before opening another website under a different name, using the same graphics to peddle the same low-quality counterfeits.

      Here is an unpleasant but unavoidable truth you must understand to avoid being scammed: for certain specific brand-name items, including but not limited to the current high-demand newest-generation smartphone, or this season's high-demand luxury-label clothing or fashion item, it's pretty much impossible for you to find them at a legitimate bargain price in time for Christmas or Hanukkah this year.

      See an ad promising you a new iPhone 6 for half-price or less? Fake. That website selling gorgeous designer-name bridal gowns at rock-bottom prices? Scam. If you respond to these ads, you'll either spend money and receive nothing in return, or spend money and receive a poor-quality counterfeit item in return.

      If you're thinking of buying those designer-name luxury whatevers you see in your Facebook ads, think again — a mid-November study published by two cyberse...

      U.S. PIRG releases its 29th annual hazardous toy warnings

      Choking hazards are relatively easy to avoid. Toxic hazards? Not so much

      For almost three decades now, the U.S. federation of Public Interest Research Groups, or U.S. PIRG, has kicked off the December holiday shopping season by releasing an Annual Survey of Toy Safety.

      Today, U.S. PIRG released its 2014 report, saying that “Among the toys surveyed this year, we found numerous choking hazards and five toys with concentrations of toxics [sic] exceeding federal standards.”

      When a toy is deemed a “choking hazard,” that generally refers to something which adults and older children can safely own and enjoy – though that same item can be dangerous or even fatal to children young enough to repeatedly put items in their mouths, and possibly swallow them.

      PIRG further subdivided choking hazards into two subcategories: choking hazards and ingestion hazards. Sixteen of the listed toys pose “choking hazards,” meaning they had parts small enough to possibly choke a child who swallowed them.

      Three magnetic toys were listed as “ingestion hazards,” referring to small magnetic parts which, if swallowed, can magnetically attract or “stick to” each other through body tissue, giving them the potential to cause dangerous intestinal blockages, or worse.

      PIRG listed a couple other common-sense rules to keep in mind when buying gifts for young children: battery-operated items are dangerous because if the batteries are swallowed, they contain corrosive chemicals with can cause fatal internal bleeding. Children three years old or younger can choke on small balls “less than 1.75 inches in diameter.” And be wary of giving un-inflated balloons to kids below a certain age:

      Balloons are easily inhaled in attempts to inflate them and can become stuck in children’s throats. Balloons are responsible for more choking deaths among children than any other toy or children’s product. As in past years, we continue to find balloons on store shelves marketed to children under eight.

      While hazards such as these can be avoided with a little common sense, the five toys which PIRG identified as posing “toxic” hazards cannot. PIRG mentioned, for example, “lab tests revealed that a tambourine marketed to children ages two and older contained chromium at nearly 10 times the legal limit.” (Dig a little deeper into the report, and you'll see the specific tambourine was a cheap-looking “Jake and the Neverland Pirates” toy.)

      Common sense and your own two eyes can tell you that something with lots of tiny little parts cannot be safely given to a toddler — but there's no common-sense way to determine whether a toy contains too much chromium. Nor would you know that there's lead in a set of toy police badges, or guess that a certain Dora the Explorer backpack and Hello Kitty hairclip contained phthalates, according to PIRG.

      The full report (in .pdf form) can be downloaded here.

      For almost three decades now, the U.S. federation of Public Interest Research Groups, or U.S. PIRG, has kicked off the December holiday shopping season by ...