Current Events in December 2014

Browse Current Events by year

2014

Browse Current Events by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thanks for subscribing.

    You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    Hotels take aim at wi-fi hotspots

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

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

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

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

    Good plan, but illegal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Better coffee

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

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

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

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thanks for subscribing.

      You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      Coke dumps voicemail; says it's lost its fizz

      Do you really think anyone will miss it?

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

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

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

      Good-bye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Seventy-one vehicles garner IIHS safety awards

      Ranks of winners grow, despite tougher standard

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

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

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

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

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

      Changing criteria

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

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

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

      The small overlap challenge

      Most vehicles produced in recent years have had little trouble with the Institute's moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests. The small overlap front test, which replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or a utility pole, represented a new hurdle when it was introduced in 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Front crash prevention spreads

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

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

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

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

      A November drop in new home sales

      Incomes and spending were on the rise last month

      The string of increases in new home sales is over.

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

      Prices mixed

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

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

      The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Incomes and spending

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

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

      Wages and salaries

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

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

      Personal outlays and saving

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

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

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

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

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

      The economy takes off

      The increase in the GDP is the largest in 11 years

      Looks like the economy has finally found its footing.

      According to the "third" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, real gross domestic product (GDP -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S., adjusted for price changes -- increased at an annual rate of 5.0% in the third quarter.

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

      Additional data available

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

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

      GDP inflation

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

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

      The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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

      Toyota recalls model year 2015 Siennas

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Acura TLX vehicles recalled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Ten last-minute gift ideas

      Time is slipping away so this might help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Two Fox channels get the boot from Dish

      Each side blames the other for the impasse

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

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

      Subscribers are outraged. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Google turns tables, sues an attorney general

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

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

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

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

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

      Cloak-and-dagger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Consumers often pay a steep price for cybercrime

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

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

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

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

      Still waiting for their money

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Lack of awareness

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

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

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

      Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      DirecTV launches streaming Spanish-language service

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

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

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

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

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

      Program sources include:

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

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

      Sugar Bowl scammers snag a few victims

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Requests for payment via wire transfer or money transfer

      Requests for payment using a prepaid money card

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

      Military status

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

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

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

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

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

      Rule change could open the Web to more TV shows

      FCC would require networks to negotiate with online video streaming channels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      40 days

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

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

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

      Existing-home sales slip in November

      The decline in sales was felt all across the county

      What went up in October came back down last month.

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

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

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

      Inventory and pricing

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

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

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

      Regional breakdown

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

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

      Southeast Toyota Distributors recall vehicles with seat heater issue

      Compression of the seat cushion may damage the seat heater wiring

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

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

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

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

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

      Comfort Research recalls vinyl bean bag chairs

      Children can crawl inside the chairs and become trapped

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

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

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

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

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

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

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

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

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