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.

    FCA recalls Dodge Challengers

    The instrument cluster may become inoperative

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

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

    FCA will notify owners, and dealers will install a software enhancement, free of charge. The recall began on December 15, 2014.

    Owners can contact FCA customer service at 1-800-853-1403. FCA's number for this recall is P74.

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

    Holidays can bring on more migraines

    Here are some tips to improve your odds of avoiding one

    Doctors have known for some time that some foods and drinks can trigger migraine headaches in some people. That's an important fact to remember around the holidays, when your food and beverage consumption may take some crazy twists and turns.

    Dr. David Dodick, Chair of the American Migraine Foundation, cautions people who suffer from migraines to keep their guard up over the next few weeks.

    “This is the season in which many people overindulge in things that can trigger attacks of migraine,” he said. “It’s important to think through food and beverage choices, to help reduce the risk of having a migraine attack.”

    Keep up your routine

    For starters, Dodick says you need to eat regularly. Skipping or missing meals is a much more common trigger of migraine than any particular food, so it is important to stay on a dietary schedule, even through you might not feel like it after loading up on cookies at a Christmas party. By all means, he says, don't skip breakfast.

    Here's a common-sense tip. If previous migraines have helped you identify certain foods that you suspect are triggering attacks, avoid that food during the holidays. Remember that stress can also trigger an attack, so the combination of food and holiday stress can make a migraine more likely.

    When offered a choice of wine, choosing white over red may improve your odds. For many sufferers, red wine is a common trigger.

    Reduce alcohol consumption

    Drinking little or no alcohol may also help you avoid an attack. Because alcohol and dehydration can trigger a migraine attack, alternating a glass of water with an alcoholic beverage may help keep a migraine at bay.

    Eat more healthy food during the holidays. In addition to not skipping meals, limit your intake of processed foods, sodium, sugar, and caffeinated and carbonated drinks.

    The hours before bedtime are also very important. Cut out the caffeine by early afternoon and avoid snacking after dinner.

    Know your triggers

    “Knowing your food triggers and planning in advance can increase your enjoyment of holiday activities with fewer migraine attacks,” Dodick said. “If you don’t know whether you have food triggers, we suggest trying to eliminate specific dietary foods and beverages, such as red wine, processed meats, nuts, chocolate, aged cheese, monosodium glutamate, and gluten-containing foods, to see if they are causing migraine attacks. If these attacks decrease, introducing these items back one at a time can identify the culprit(s), should they exist.”

    Not everyone who suffers from migraine headaches has food triggers, but for those with these triggers, avoiding them can often mean fewer attacks.

    A migraine is very different from the garden variety headache. According to the Mayo Clinic, a migraine can cause intense throbbing or a pulsing sensation in one area of the head and is commonly accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.

    An attack can last for a few hours or a few days and can be so severe that the sufferer can only lie down in a dark room and wait for it to pass.

    Usually they hit you like a bolt out of the blue but can have a few warning signs, such as flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling in your arm or leg.

    Doctors have known for some time that some foods and drinks can trigger migraine headaches in some people. That's an important fact to remember around the ...

    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.

      T-Mobile will pay $90 million in refunds to settle "cramming" suit

      It's the third wireless carrier to face cramming charges this year

      T-Mobile is the latest wireless carrier to run afoul of charges it "crammed" millions of dollars of bogus third-party charges on customers' bills. The company has agreed to fully refund its customers for the unwanted charges, paying at least $90 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit filed earlier this year.

      Earlier this week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) sued Sprint for cramming its customers and in October, AT&T Wireless was fined $105 million

      In addition to the full refunds T-Mobile is paying to settle the FTC lawsuit, T-Mobile will pay $18 million in fines and penalties to the attorneys general of all 50 states and the District of Columbia and $4.5 million to the Federal Communications Commission.

      Consumers rate T-Mobile Billing Disputes

      “Mobile cramming is an issue that has affected millions of American consumers, and I’m pleased that this settlement will put money back in the hands of affected T-Mobile customers,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “Consumers should be able to trust that their mobile phone bills reflect the charges they authorized and nothing more.”

      Under the terms of the settlement, T-Mobile will be required to offer full refunds to all affected consumers. The amount of money the company pays must reach at least $90 million in redress or other payments.

      The settlement requires T-Mobile to contact all of its crammed customers – current and former – to inform them of the refund program and claims process, and to do so in a clear and conspicuous way.

      The FTC filed suit against T-Mobile in July, alleging that the company placed millions of dollars in unwanted third-party charges on its customers’ mobile phone bills, receiving 35 to 40 percent of every charge they placed. The charges were for services like horoscopes, love tips and celebrity gossip, for which T-Mobile typically billed consumers $9.99 per month.

      T-Mobile is the latest wireless carrier to run afoul of charges it "crammed" millions of dollars of bogus third-party charges on customers' bills. The comp...

      Car deals getting more attractive as year end approaches

      Low leases, attractive financing and cash back offers abound

      If you happen to be in the market for a new car, the next couple of weeks could provide an opportunity to snag a good deal. Dealers are trying to move metal, not just for the end of the month but the end of the year as well.

      Kelley Blue Book (KBB) reports lease, financing and cash back deals are among the best they've seen in 2014.

      “Year-end is one of the best times to buy a new car as automakers look to maximize sales numbers for the calendar year,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com. “In the wake of Lexus’ highly successful ‘December to Remember’ campaign that first launched years ago, many automakers have been offering holiday sales events, making now an opportune time for shoppers to get a deal on a car they may have been eyeing all year.”

      KBB has highlighted both 2014 and 2015 models as providing the best value this month. They run the gamut from compact cars to luxury vehicles to three-row SUVs, all equipped with money-saving offers.

      Lease deals

      For the bargain-conscious car shopper, the 2014 Honda Civic offers one of the lowest monthly payments around, at $149. The car has an MSRP of of $20,000 but KBB says it's selling for $17,763 with about $2,000 due at signing.

      If you were ever thinking about a hybrid, this may be the month to buy one. With gas prices plunging, fuel efficiency no longer carries the premium it once did. As a result KBB says you can lease a 2014 Toyota Prius for $249 a month with just $999 due at signing.

      Another enticing lease deal is the 2015 Chevrolet Malibu. It's selling for close to its MSRP of $24,560 but can be leased for just $189 a month with $1,369 down.

      Financing offers

      There aren't nearly as many attractive financing packages as there are leases. In fact, KBB singles out only one that makes its list.

      The 2014 Volkswagen Passat has an MSRP of $27,495 but KBB is finding it for $24,374. While that's a nice discount, the financing is what sells it.

      Qualified buyers can drive away in a Passat paying 0% for 60 months. But you'll need a good credit score to qualify, so it's best to check your score before visiting the dealership.

      Cash back

      Topping the list of overall best December car deals is the 2014 Mazda CX-9. Its MSRP is $30,815 but KBB says you should be able to negotiate a price of $27,749. On top of that nice discount is $4000 back at closing.

      The 2014 Chrysler 300 has a similarly attractive cash back offer. With an MSRP of $30,815, you should be able to negotiate a sale price of $29,767 while pocketing $4,250 cash back.

      The 2014 Toyota Avalon offers both back and attractive financing. Listing for $32,415, the car is selling for under $29,000 and provides $1,000 back and 0% financing for qualified buyers for 60 months.

      If you happen to be in the market for a new car, the next couple of weeks could provide an opportunity to snag a good deal. Dealers are trying to move meta...

      Missouri sues 13 St. Louis County towns for speed-trap profiteering

      Simply put, the towns are making too much money from traffic tickets

      With a total population of barely 1 million, St. Louis County, Missouri -- home of the now-infamous Ferguson -- has no fewer than 90 municipalities. Many are laughably small, some with just a few hundred residents.

      Why so many? Well, the primary reason is that the City of St. Louis, now hovering around 318,000 -- is prohibited from annexing so it has not been able to grow beyond its original borders, leaving a fertile field for suburban upstarts.  (It's actually a little more complicated than that, but let's not get hung up on details).

      And how do all these little towns support themselves? A civil suit filed by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster against 13 St. Louis County towns supplies a big part of the answer. To put it plainly: speed traps.

      The suit alleges that towns have been violating a Missouri law requiring cities and towns to calculate the percentage of their general revenue derived from fines and court costs for municipal traffic violations and to disgorge all fines in excess of the statutory limit. 

      Anytime you have a law specifically prohibiting a practice, you can assume that practice is widespread. And that certainly seems to be the case in St. Louis County, as anyone who has ever tried to drive from downtown St. Louis to the airport, located in the county, will tell you. Interstate 70 winds through a bewildering array of these hamlets and many of them have their constabulary lurking along the highway.

      Macks Creek

      The law -- commonly called the Macks Creek law, states that no municipality may receive more than 30 percent of its annual revenue from fines and court costs for traffic violations.  Towns are required to report the percentage of their general operating revenue that flows from fines and court costs for traffic violations.

      A review by the Attorney General’s Office found a pattern of non-compliance.

       "The Macks Creek law was enacted to protect Missourians from predatory traffic ticketing," Koster said.  "As we continue to identify areas for reform, an important first step is to require St. Louis County municipalities to follow the Macks Creek law to the letter.  Based on my review, these thirteen municipalities did not."

      Koster's lawsuit identifies five municipalities that failed to file their annual reports with the state auditor. The cities of Beverly Hills and Pagedale failed to submit reports for fiscal year 2014. The cities of Breckenridge Hills, Pasadena Park, and Upland Park failed to submit fiscal year 2013 reports.

      Four municipalities—Crystal Lake, Velda Village Hills, the village of Hillsdale and the village of Mackenzie—failed to indicate how much of their operating revenue was derived from fines and court costs.

      And four municipalities—Bellerive Acres, Moline Acres, Normandy, and the village of Vinita Terrace—submitted reports suggesting their revenue from traffic fines exceeded the thirty percent cap.

      For example, the village of Vinita Terrace divided six months' worth of traffic-related fines by the total revenue for the entire year, dramatically misstating the percentage of operating revenue derived from traffic tickets.  Investigators believe the amount of operating revenue Vinita Terrace derives from traffic-related fines is over fifty percent.

      Similarly, the city of Moline Acres appears to derive thirty-four percent of its operating revenue from court fines, and Normandy more than thirty-eight percent.

      "If these municipalities will work with my office to come into compliance, we will work with them," said Koster. "If they fail to work with us, or simply do not have the ability to comply with state law, then they should lose jurisdiction over traffic violations."

      With a total population of barely 1 million, St. Louis County, Missouri -- home of the now-infamous Ferguson -- has no fewer than 90 municipalities. Many a...

      It's a nail-biter to know you could be lowering your child's IQ

      High concentrations of phthalates are thought to be the cause

      Your nail polish could be lowering your child's IQ.  A recent study at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found that certain nail polishes, and other types of cosmetic and glue products, have the potential to lower IQs.

      The study found that children exposed in utero to high concentrations of two specific phthalates had lower IQ scores at age 7. Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often called plasticizers.

      Phthalates are used in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes like raincoats, and personal-care products such as soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes.

      Many times you will find them in children's toys if the toys were made before 2009, when new restrictions went into effect.

      Endocrine disruptors

      The speculation is that  phthalates might act as endocrine disruptors to the mother’s thyroid hormone, which is crucial in the development of a child’s brain.

      “These findings are important to inform policy makers of the potentially harmful effects of this class of chemicals,” the authors wrote.

      328 Dominican and African-American women, as well as their children, took part in this study. They were  studied at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. The researchers measured levels of four phthalates in the mother's’ urine when they were pregnant, and children were given IQ tests at age 7. Their IQ results were a few points lower.

      The lead author was Pam Factor-Litvak, PhD,  she is an associate professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School. She explained that mothers who had concentrations of phthalates in the highest 25 percent ended up having kids with IQ scores up to six to eight points lower than kids of mothers who were in the lowest 25 percent of exposure to phthalates.

      “That’s actually a substantial effect,” Factor-Litvak told Time Magazine. “Honestly, I think we were a bit surprised that the reduction was so large.”

      There is a bright side -- not all soft plastic contains phthalates. Most plastic wraps, water bottles, and food containers are phthalate-free. 

      What to do

      The way we live today it would be pretty tough to avoid all products that have phthalates in them but you can do some things to be proactive.

      You might go au natural instead of buying a fragrance.   When you buy cosmetics, the word "fragrance" or "parfum" on a label almost always means phthalates. What you want to see are words that say "no synthetic fragrance" or "scented with only essential oils" or "phthalate-free."

      Only use plastics that have  recycling codes 1, 2, or 5 -- you can see the numbers on the bottom of the container.

      Hand-me-down toys are great if they were purchased after 2009. Anything before that could be made with phthalates. Phthalates are now banned from children's toys, teethers, bottles, and feeding products. But not before 2009.

      Don't ever microwave in plastic, always use glass. Even BPA- or phthalate-free plastic may contain harmful chemicals. Opt for glass food storage containers, and choose bottles and sippy and snack cups that are mostly stainless steel, silicone, or glass.

      If you give up nail polish think of all the money you will be saving without getting your nails done. It's a win-win. You will have smarter kids as well!

      Your nail polish could be lowering your child's IQ. A recent study at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found that certain nail po...

      Don't let carpet layers walk all over you

      There can be all kinds of hidden charges

      Thinking of getting new carpet? Don't let them walk all over you when you're trying to find someone to install it.  It's wise to know what to look for.

      Inches matter, so make sure they come to your house and take proper measurements. There should be transitions between rooms and seam placement.

      It seems that many people don't know the ins and outs of seams. Carpet rolls are limited in width and a room will many times require a seam. The World Floor Covering Association recommends working with your provider to create a diagram that plots out seams and transitions before carpet is cut.

      One tip is you can minimize a seam if you run it in the direction of light. Of course there is always the old standby of hiding it under the furniture.

      Every organization has guidelines to follow and the carpet industry is no different. It has the Carpet and Rug Institute, which recommends that carpets be power-stretched to minimize wrinkling. Some installers use a smaller stretcher -- often called a "knee kicker" -- that is more appropriate for small repair jobs.

      Pricey add-ons

      Watch the fees. There are many ways to add on to your price of getting a new  carpet. Before you know it your bill will look like a patchwork quilt. They may advertise free or low-cost installation or padding, but then surprise you with other charges. They can charge to move furniture or to throw away your old rug.

      The moldings and the baseboards might have to be removed. They can charge extra to remove them and then patch up the paint.

      You should have no more than 10% of extra carpet for the length and width of a room as long as the installer measured correctly.  You might want to ask about leftovers. For a few extra bucks they can make small rugs with the leftover pieces, which can come in handy to wipe your feet on so you don't ruin the new carpet.

      You probably will want to open a window and let the glue and adhesive smell out once you have had it installed. It's a good idea if they bring a fan to help the process along. It may take 72 hours for odors and volatile organic compounds from the carpet or adhesives to dissipate. You do not want to breathe this stuff for an extended period.

      Whatever you do just make sure they don't hide the extra fees under the rug.

      Thinking of getting new carpet? Don't let them walk all over you when you're trying to find someone to install it. It's wise to know what to look for....

      Prescription drugs still the leading cause of poisonings

      But "bath salts," synthetic marijuana and laundry pods are rising fast

      Prescription drugs are still the leading cause of poisonings in the U.S. but a new study finds that "bath salts," synthetic marijuana and laundry detergent pods are becoming common threats as well.

      The findings come from National Poison Control Center data from 2012 published earlier this week in Annals of Emergency Medicine.

      "The poison center system can provide real-time advice and collect data regarding a variety of poisonings, including those that may be new or unfamiliar to emergency physicians," said lead study author Richard Dart, MD, PhD, of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, Colo. 

      "Emergency physicians are continually challenged by the emergence of new types of poisonings, which lately include illicit street drugs as well as laundry detergent pods."

      In 2012, poison centers across the country recorded 2.2 million human poison exposures.  Most patients who contacted a poison center were managed without involving a health care facility, such as a hospital emergency department.  Involvement of a medical facility for poisonings increased with patient age: In 2012, 11.6 percent of children under 5, 14 percent of children age 6 to 12, 51.2 percent of teenagers and 37.9 percent of adults were treated in a health care facility for poisonings.

      Opioid painkillers

      The majority (83 percent) of poisonings that ended in death in 2012 were linked to a pharmaceutical product, most commonly opioid painkillers, though NPDS also recorded deaths from cardiovascular and antidepressant medications.  The total number of prescription opioid exposures by children more than doubled between 2002 and 2012 (from 2,591 to 5,541). Non-pharmaceutical agents also led to poisoning deaths, with carbon monoxide the leading cause of death in this category.

      In 2012, a new source of poisonings among children emerged in the form of laundry detergent pods, though the adverse effects are generally not life-threatening. 

      The family of designer drugs such as "bath salts" (a type of amphetamine), "plant food," synthetic marijuana and others continue to poison users severely enough that they require emergency medical treatment.  Although bath salts exposures peaked in 2011, new illicit drugs sold to consumers continue to be monitored by poison control centers.

      "Poisoning continues to be a significant cause of injury and death in the United States," said Dr. Dart.  "The near real-time responsiveness of NPDS helps emergency physicians respond to new poisoning threats, while also assisting patients who call for help to know when they need the ER and when they can manage things safely at home."

      Prescription drugs are still the leading cause of poisonings in the U.S. but a new study finds that "bath salts," synthetic marijuana and laundry detergent...

      Mustangs with fuel line issue recalled

      The fuel pressure sensor may not have been seated properly to the fuel jumper line

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 712 model year 2015 Ford Mustangs manufactured September 25, 2014, to October 9, 2014.

      The fuel pressure sensor may not have been seated properly to the fuel jumper line, which may cause a fuel leak. A partially seated fuel pressure sensor could cause a fuel odor or a fuel leak, increasing the risk of a vehicle fire in the presence of an ignition source.

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel jumper line, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in December 2014.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14S27.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 712 model year 2015 Ford Mustangs manufactured September 25, 2014, to October 9, 2014. The fuel pressure sensor may not h...

      Chrysler recalls Dodge Ram 1500 trucks

      The rear axle pinion nut may loosen

      FCA aka Chrysler is recalling 256,956 model year 2005 Dodge Ram 1500 trucks manufactured January 28, 2004, to August 3, 2005.

      The rear axle pinion nut may loosen due to an undersized spline on the pinion gear. If the pinion nut loosens, the rear axle may seize, and/or the driveshaft may detach resulting in a loss of vehicle control, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will install a retention feature to the pinion nut, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 13, 2015.

      Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P77.

      FCA aka Chrysler is recalling 256,956 model year 2005 Dodge Ram 1500 trucks manufactured January 28, 2004, to August 3, 2005. The rear axle pinion nut m...

      Giggles International recalls Animated Sing-Along Monkey toys

      The battery compartment can reach temperatures up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit

      Giggles International of Hong Kong is recalling about 13,000 Animated Sing-Along Monkey toys.

      The battery compartment can reach temperatures up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit, posing a burn hazard.

      The company has received two reports of toys overheating and melting their battery compartments.

      This recall involves Giggles International Animated Sing-Along Monkey toys. The monkey is made of brown and beige plush material and is about 9 inches tall. The toy is designed to hold a song book titled "5 Little Monkeys" and to sing the song when activated. A red music note is on the bottom of the monkey's right foot and the face of a child with its hands covering its eyes are on the bottom of the money's left foot.

      Recalled sing-along monkeys were manufactured between 6/7/2014 and 7/5/2014 and have batch code GP1410028. The manufacture date in the M/D/YYYY format and batch code are printed on the bottom of a white fabric label attached near the base of the monkey's tail.

      The monkey toys came in a tan colored box with words "Animated Sing-Along Monkey," "Sing along with me!" and "I play peek-a-boo with you!" on the front. The age advisory "For ages 3+" and the warning that batteries are included are also on the front of the box.

      The toys, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores nationwide from September 2014, to October 2014, for about $25.

      Consumers should immediately take the animated monkey away from children, remove the batteries and return the toy to any Cracker Barrel Old Country Store or contact Giggles International for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Giggles International at (800) 738-6018 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

      Giggles International of Hong Kong is recalling about 13,000 Animated Sing-Along Monkey toys. The battery compartment can reach temperatures up to 230 de...

      Beyond gasoline, what falling oil prices mean to you

      In more ways than one, cheap oil is a big win for consumers

      Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the conflict between Main Street and Wall Street than the steep plunge in oil prices over the last 3 months.

      Oil prices have gone from over $100 a barrel to below $60. The result has been gasoline prices below $2 gallon in some parts of the U.S. and pump prices well below $3 almost everywhere else.

      The immediate benefit for consumers is fairly obvious. Consumers are now saving an average of 80 cents a gallon every time they fill up. That extra money can be used for groceries and other things. Ask consumers what they think about falling oil prices and 99 out of 100 will probably tell you it's the best thing that's happened all year.

      Hand-wringing

      But ask that question on Wall Street and you get a very different answer. Traders are wringing their hands over the decline in oil prices and the stock market has gone into an end-of-the-year swoon, right at the time that traders were expecting a “Santa Claus rally.”

      What gives?

      When oil is viewed as a trading commodity, a sharp decline in price can be catastrophic for the parties that own it. It is similar to the dot com implosion of 2000. When the value of an asset plunges, people who own that asset lose money.

      Banks at risk

      The concern extends beyond oil traders. Banks have loaned money to small oil exploration companies based on the oil they find selling at $100 a barrel. When it's only worth $50 there are real concerns about the risk associated with that debt.

      In the financial world, the plunge in oil prices is seen as a big negative, with ripple effects that extend far beyond energy. But what's it mean for consumers?

      A big win for consumers

      First, it means it costs less to get around. The drop in gasoline prices is like a big tax cut, putting more money in consumers' pockets.

      Eventually, consumers will get around to spending that extra money and that will help stimulate the economy. Businesses are also paying less for fuel, allowing them to grow faster than they might otherwise.

      This has happened before – 6 years ago. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis oil prices plunged overnight, falling as low as $30 a barrel at one point. Gasoline prices were below $2 a gallon.

      But within months the stock market reached a bottom and surged higher. By June 2009 the economy was growing again, officially ending the Great Recession. Oil prices – and gasoline prices with them – began to rise again.

      Lower food costs

      In a company podcast, Ron Joelson, executive vice president and chief investment officer at Northwestern Mutual, said U.S. agriculture should be a big beneficiary of low fuel costs, since it's a highly energy-intensive industry. Even food manufacturers and wholesalers should see benefits since transportation costs will be lower.

      All of this should translate into lower food costs for consumers – or at least costs that don't go up very much.

      With energy costs going down businesses may be more inclined to hire employees. Unemployment is at a relatively low 5.9% but millions of people have dropped out of the labor force, making that number artificially low. Low fuel costs may allow some consumers who have given up to re-enter the workforce.

      What consumers perhaps should understand is these low prices probably aren't going to last forever. No one thinks oil prices are going to rebound next month but they probably will rise sooner than most experts think.

      So if you were thinking about a small, fuel-efficient car just a few months ago, don't let these low gasoline prices influence you to consider a large SUV instead. If this environment causes dealers to offer a great deal on a hybrid, this is the time to take advantage of it.

      Sooner or later, traders will return to the oil market and prices will rise. It happened before and it'll happen again.

      Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the conflict between Main Street and Wall Street than the steep plunge in oil prices over the last 3 months....

      Workers, college students, and taxpayers all can be hurt by mandatory prepaid debit cards

      If you get a prepaid card as payment, empty it at once so fees don't destroy its value

      For more than a generation now, American college and university tuition costs have increased at a rate far higher than inflation, every year. Up to 40 million Americans currently carry some type of student loan debt, which in many ways is far worse than credit card, medical or underwater-mortgage debt because anyone unduly burdened by those debts at least has the “nuclear option” of declaring bankruptcy, destroying their credit rating but starting over with a net worth of zero, as opposed to a net worth that's a large negative number.

      But student loan debt is bankruptcy-proof, presumably because teenagers and young 20-somethings who go over their heads in debt attending the wrong college deserve to suffer much harsher consequences than, say, middle-aged people who go over their heads in debt trying to profitably “flip” a house, putting too many luxe vacations on their credit cards, or gambling all their money away at the legal casino nearest them – those poor choices can be discharged in bankruptcy, but student debts cannot. (Quoth the high school guidance counselors who encouraged their charges to take on those loans: “Student loan debt is good debt. It's an investment in yourself!”)

      That said: it's possible that certain colleges and universities looked at their young, debt-riddled students and thought, “We are not making as much money off these people as we could be. How can we make more?” And one answer seems to be: by using prepaid debit cards, rather than checks or direct deposit, to disburse students' credit balances (any loan or aid money left over after paying tuition and other bills).

      Deals with schools

      Credit card companies used to make deals with schools, allowing them to market their products to college students on campus, in exchange for the school's getting a cut. But this on-campus credit card marketing ended in 2009 when Congress passed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act which, among other things, prevented credit card companies from marketing on campus, required students under 21 to get parental permission before signing for a college-branded credit card, and required schools who made contracts with card companies to submit those contracts to regulators.

      This week, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a report (available in .pdf form here) noting that, as a result of the CARD act, the number of schools and alumni associations offering credit card deals dropped by 60 percent: 448 college credit card agreements in effect as of 2013, down from 1,045 in 2009.

      Just how much money do colleges and alumni associations make from those credit card deals, anyway? In 2013, “payments by issuers” totaled $42,934,507, according to the CFPB report, which also noted that Bank of America is the chief issuer of college credit cards.

      But students (and graduates) at least can choose whether or not to apply for a college credit card. They can't choose whether to accept refund fees on a debit card – if their school decides to do it, they're stuck.

      Big business

      How big a business are these cards?

      The CFPB report says that

      in February 2013, the Bureau launched an inquiry into other financial products and services marketed to college students. The Bureau found that marketing partnerships between institutions of higher education and financial institutions have shifted from credit cards toward debit and prepaid cards since the CARD Act of 2009 …. as noted previously in this report, the Bureau received 448 college credit card agreements for 2013, down from more than a 1,000 such agreements in 2010. For 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that at least 852 schools had agreements covering the provision of debit or prepaid card services to their students.

      That's roughly 11 percent of colleges and universities in the U.S.

      How much do these debit cards cost the students in fees, and what do the schools get (or pay) for the deal? Those questions cannot always be answered: agreements between colleges and payment-card companies don't have to be made public. Schools need not disclose to students (or their parents) just how much money the schools stand to make off such deals, if they don't want to. And the card companies are not obligated to offer data showing how much they make in fees, either.

      Not just schools

      Colleges and universities are hardly the only large institutions who've found it lucrative to work with prepaid debit card companies: certain employers and even state governments do, too.

      In June 2013, for example, a McDonald's employee in Pennsylvania sued the franchisee she worked for, alleging that she and her fellow employees received their wages on prepaid JPMorgan Chase cards that were riddled with high fees: $1.50 fee for every ATM withdrawal, a per-transaction online payment fee of 75 cents, a $10 inactivity fee after 90 days, and multiple others.

      The plaintiff said that she wanted to receive payment through direct deposit at her credit union, but that option was only offered to management; she and her fellow hourly employees were only offered the prepaid card, and couldn't access their own wages without paying various fees first.

      That autumn, federal regulators including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reminded employers that it is illegal to require employees to accept their wages on such fee-ridden debit or pre-paid cards.

      But there is no such law forbidding state governments from issuing prepaid cards to taxpayers for various reasons. Many states now use prepaid debit cards rather than checks to deliver unemployment benefits.

      For example, Bank of America holds the contract to handle unemployment benefits in Maryland, meaning that anytime a Marylander loses a job, Bank of America gets another customer.

      The Bank of America webpage discussing the Maryland Unemployment Benefits Debit Card has (as of Dec. 17) a “Program update” in all-red letters, reminding out-of-work Marylanders that: “Because the State of Maryland issues all unemployment insurance payments with the Maryland Unemployment Benefits Prepaid Debit Card, you may not be able to close your account. Maryland requires accounts to remain open in order to allow you to receive payments if you continue to qualify for them. Your Deposit Agreement, which can be viewed below via the Terms & Conditions link, has been updated accordingly.”

      Other states made deals with other banks: in Texas, unemployment benefits are paid by Chase Bank debit cards. Georgia's unemployment benefits are dispersed via the “Way2Go” cards issued by Comerica Bank.

      Tax refunds

      Tax refunds can also come via prepaid cards. In 2013, Virginia started using Way2Go to issue tax refunds, touted as saving the state money off the cost of printing checks but potentially burdening taxpayers with fees to get their own money back. Card recipients were allowed one free transaction, with hefty fees attached to anything after that.

      Most government-issued prepaid debit cards are supposed to offer at least one no-fee transaction, letting you get all your money at no additional cost to you. So if you ever get such a card, you should definitely empty all the money off it at once, either in cash or deposited into your own bank or credit union account.

      The same holds true for any college student who receives a prepaid debit card for tuition refunds or financial aid: take all the funds at once, and check to ensure you weren't charged any fees for that. And remember that if your school offers you a special deal on a credit card, debit card or other payment scheme, they're not doing this as a favor to you; they're doing this to make money. (Those shiny new administration buildings won't pay for themselves, you know.)

      For more than a generation now, American college and university tuition costs have increased at a rate far higher than inflation, every year. Up to 40 mill...

      NY charges major retailers are illegally selling prohibited toy guns

      Walmart, Amazon, Kmart, Sears, ordered to stop selling

      The fatal police shooting of a 12-year-old in Cleveland who was holding a toy gun has been widely interpreted as evidence of police misconduct. But it is also indicative of the dangers posed by toy guns that look like the ral thing.

      In New York, it is illegal to sell toy guns in realistic colors such as black, blue, silver or aluminum unless the gun has a non-removable one-inch-wide orange stripe running down both sides of the barrel and the front end of the barrel.

      It's a law that is often ignored, however, at least until today. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced that his office sent cease and desist letters to several major retailers, including Walmart, Amazon, Kmart, and others for allegedly selling prohibited toy guns online to residents of New York State, and, in at least one case, in a K-Mart store in suburban Rochester.

      Sears Holdings said its stores would respond immediately.

      "The safety of our customers is a top priority. We are in the process of immediately removing any non-compliant toy guns that are offered for sale by Sears or Kmart to New York consumers. We will fully cooperate with the New York Attorney General in its investigation," said Howard Riefs, Sears Holdings Director of Corporate Communications.

      The letters call for retailers to immediately stop the in-store and online sale and shipment to New Yorkers of toy guns that violate New York State law pending the resolution of Schneiderman’s investigation. 

      “When toy guns are mistaken for real guns, there can be tragic consequences,” said Schneiderman. “New York State law is clear: retailers cannot put children and law enforcement at risk by selling toy guns that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.”

      Repeat offender: Walmart

      One of the retailers sent a cease and desist letter, Walmart, was the subject of an earlier investigation by the Attorney General’s office into in-store sales of such toys, which resulted in a court order prohibiting them from selling toy guns in New York State.

      It now appears that those sales have moved to the online marketplace, Schneiderman said. This new investigation reveals that many prohibited toy guns, priced from less than $10 to as much as several hundred dollars, can be easily purchased online and shipped into the state. The recent investigation also uncovered that at least one retailer is selling illegal toy guns in its stores.

      Some of the toy guns discovered during the investigation are advertised as “realistic looking” and “full size.” Since they lack the orange striping down both sides of the barrel as required under state law, these imitation assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols closely resemble dangerous weapons, and could be easily mistaken for real weapons by law enforcement and civilians alike. 

      Since 1997, at least four individuals have been killed in New York State, and one child was seriously wounded, when law enforcement officers mistook toy guns for real guns, Schneiderman said.

      The fatal police shooting of a 12-year-old in Cleveland who was holding a toy gun has been widely interpreted as evidence of police misconduct. But it is a...

      Tennessee town tries banning social media criticism

      Clueless commissioners in South Pittsburg now criticized worldwide

      Pre-emptive warning to any readers who might want to post comments about this story: if you live in or near South Pittsburg, Tennessee, there's a good chance that it's illegal for you to do so.

      Granted, the law making it illegal is itself almost sure to be overturned on constitutional grounds, so if you actually were arrested or prosecuted under this law you could sue, and eventually win, and maybe even have an inspirational cable-TV movie made about your experiences … but this will all take several years, and you'd have a miserable time of it in the meanwhile.

      Last week, city commissioners in the Chattanooga suburb of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, voted 4-1 to ban any negative comments about the city or its government on any forms of social media.

      The town was, until now, best known as the home of the National Cornbread Festival.

      This ban does not apply to everybody in the world, however, only to any of South Pittsburg's elected representatives, appointed board members, employees, volunteers, vendors, contractors and anybody else associated with the town in any official capacity, all of whom are now forbidden to post anything critical on any blogs, Facebook discussions, Twitter or any other forms of social media.

      "Just an industry standard"

      The Chattanooga Times Free-Press quoted South Pittsburg City Commissioner Jeff Powers as saying that this ban was necessary because sometimes the commissioners had to spend time discussing negative comments people had made.

      “It seems like every few meetings we're having to address something that's been on Facebook and created negative publicity,” he said. “This is just an industry standard nowadays.”

      Every few meetings! Yikes. When the writers of America's Constitution included First Amendment guarantee of free speech (including speech critical of the government), they surely never intended that elected representatives might actually have to address those criticisms or face negative publicity every few meetings or so, right?

      However, Powers rejected any accusations that city employees were being banned from social media:

      “The first thing everyone wants to say is 'I can't post anything on Facebook.' Well, you can. Just not [anything] that sheds a negative light on any person, entity, board or things of that nature. You can go ahead and post all you want.”

      City attorney Billy Gouger agreed with this interpretation, saying that the new policy is not intended to infringe on free-speech rights. “What this policy tries to do is reconcile that right with other rights,” he said. “It does, to some extent, limit your ability to criticize or comment in an official capacity.”

      He didn't mention what those “other rights” are – presumably the “right” for city commissioners to not have to address criticism? Nor does he explain the apparent contradiction of how something specifically designed to “limit your ability to comment or criticize,” as he said, can be construed as anything other than an infringement on free speech.

      "Out-and-out lies..."

      The city's mayor, Jane Dawkins, also supports the ban, saying it's necessary because “Criticism is one thing … Out-and-out lies and untruths, that's another thing. Those kinds of things are the things that will be directed.” Of course, current free-speech protections already exclude slander and libel, again making South Pittsburg's new law unnecessary.

      The one South Pittsburg commissioner who voted against the ban was Paul Don King, who said he could see both sides of the argument but voted against the ban because it infringed on city employees' freedom of speech.

      While city employees, vendors, contractors and others might be forbidden to criticize the city or its leaders, the rest of the Internet is not, and naturally responded to the ban on social-media criticism by criticizing the hell out of the city on social media.

      Parody Twitter feeds sprang up thanks to anonymous people portraying Mayor Dawkins or Commissioner Powers (who, among other things, decreed that “Any temperature below 0 is henceforth banned. #DownWithNegatives”).

      A Facebook page dedicated to the town got lots of new visitors and comments, almost entirely critical of the news story. Some people offered well-meaning and helpful criticism:

      Is this the kind of press coverage the city officials want?? We grow from our mistakes and being able to hear the good, not-so-good and the ugly should help us dig deeper to work a workable solution. People can complain but have another idea for a solution.

      Meanwhile, other Facebook commenters were more interested in criticizing the city solely for the sake of criticizing it:

      “I don't live in Tenn. I live in Arizona. Are they going to ban me from talking about HOW DUMB YOUR LEADERS ARE! Can I say that and what will they do if I say it? Stupid asses.”

      Another commenter with possibly shaky math skills posted

      “Two words. Streisand Effect. Google it.”

      Formerly clueless

      It does seem safe to say – not as criticism, merely as a neutral observation – that perhaps the city government of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, never heard of the “Streisand Effect,” named after famed singer and formerly clueless privacy buff Barbra Streisand.

      Know Your Meme  defines it as “the unintended consequence of further publicizing information by trying to have it censored. Instead of successfully removing the information from the public, it becomes even more widely available than before as a backlash against the censorship attempt.”

      The label first arose in 2003, after a photographer trying to document the rate of coastal beach erosion in California took a series of airborne photos of the coast. Of course, many photos of the California coast also show various structures built on the coast, including a mansion belonging to Streisand.

      Streisand, through her lawyers, tried to have those photos containing her mansion removed from the erosion survey, citing her privacy. (For what it's worth, the photo shows a large white mansion atop a sandy bluff leading down to the beach. Nice, and obviously expensive, but there is absolutely nothing about it to indicate who owns it or lives there.)

      Streisand's lawsuit gained a lot of media attention, and millions of people who had absolutely no interest in looking at photos documenting California beach erosion were nonetheless very interested in looking at a specific photo which Barbra Streisand deliberately tried to quash.

      And until last week, it was safe to say that few people outside of southwestern Tennessee had even heard of the city of South Pittsburg, let alone cared enough to criticize it.

      Pre-emptive warning to any readers who might want to post comments about this story: if you live in or near South Pittsburg, Tennessee, there's a good chan...