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Follow up-recall of 2.12 million cars and SUVs ordered

Feds say previously recalled vehicle remedies are not working as designed

More than 2.12 million Acura, Dodge, Jeep, Honda, Pontiac, and Toyota vehicles are being recalled for a defect that may cause airbags to deploy inadvertent...

PhotoMore than 2.12 million Acura, Dodge, Jeep, Honda, Pontiac, and Toyota vehicles are being recalled for a defect that may cause airbags to deploy inadvertently.

The recalls will provide vehicle owners with a new remedy after the manufacturers’ original attempts to fix the defects proved ineffective in some vehicles.

“Keeping the traveling public safe is our number one priority, and we expect the manufacturers to get this remedy right to prevent injury to drivers and their families,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The new recalls cover 2.12 million Acura MDX, Dodge Viper, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty, Honda Odyssey, Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix and Toyota Avalon models made in the early 2000s. The vehicles were subject to earlier recalls to address a problem with an electronic component manufactured by TRW that caused some airbags to deploy inadvertently -- that is, in the absence of a crash.

Previous fixes questioned

The National Highway Traffic safety Administration (NHTSA) discovered through the monitoring of incoming data from consumers and automakers that some vehicles remedied under the previous recalls may have experienced inadvertent deployments. The agency, which urged the automakers to issue new recalls to implement a more effective remedy, has identified about 40 vehicles in which airbags deployed unexpectedly after receiving the original remedy.

Action by consumers is especially important because about 1 million Toyota and Honda vehicles involved in these new recalls are also subject to a recall related to defective Takata airbags that may deploy with enough explosive force to cause injury or even death to vehicle occupants.

Because of the dangers involved in an inadvertent deployment, and because some of the vehicles involved may also have defective Takata airbags, NHTSA urges consumers who were covered by the original recalls to take their vehicles to their local dealer for the original remedy. That remedy significantly reduces the chance of an airbag deployment that presents a safety risk.

“This is unfortunately a complicated issue for consumers, who may have to return to their dealer more than once,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “But this is an urgent safety issue, and all consumers with vehicles covered by the previous recalls should have that remedy installed. Even though it’s a temporary solution until the new remedy is available, they and their families will be safer if they take the time to learn if their vehicle is covered and follow their manufacturers’ instructions. A hassle is much better than a family tragedy.”

More actions

NHTSA will take a series of additional steps to ensure safety, including:

  • Seeking additional information from TRW, which made the electronic part believed to be involved in the inadvertent deployments, about the potential defect, its causes, and whether other makes or models might be affected.
  • Seeking information from the automakers about how quickly they can make the new, more effective remedy available.
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Measles outbreak blamed on skipping vaccinations

Health officials dismiss the belief vaccine carries any risk

Measles, a childhood disease most Baby Boomers endured, is back. Cases linked to the Disneyland theme park in California are approaching 100 and have sprea...

PhotoMeasles, a childhood disease most Baby Boomers endured, is back. Cases linked to the Disneyland theme park in California are approaching 100 and have spread to at least 7 states.

Health officials haven't been shy about their belief the new outbreak is because a growing number of parents are withholding the measles vaccination from their children, in the belief it is linked to autism. The officials say that belief is wrong.

While that belief will likely remain the focus of fierce debate, health care providers are trying to contain the outbreak with an education campaign aimed at primary care providers and the public.

Highly contagious

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), measles is an airborne virus and one of the most contagious diseases in existence. Here's one of the things that can make it so potent – it can linger in a room for up to 2 hours after the infected person has left.

It starts with a fever, runny nose, sore throat and cough much like the flu. Then the tell-tale rash develops over the body, with red splotches. That's when you know it's the measles.

The CDC says about 3 out of 10 people who get measles will develop complications, which can include pneumonia, ear infections and diarrhea. Complications are more common in adults than children.

Back from extinction

"Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000,” said Dr. Paul Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). “Sadly, this status is endangered.”

He notes that many parents and physicians have never seen a case of measles before.

“This outbreak demonstrates why we can never let our guard down against vaccine-preventable diseases," Jarris said.

But here's the rub. There are thousands of parents who have not vaccinated their children against measles, believing there is something in the vaccine increasing their risk of autism. Most health officials insist this is not the case.

Exceptions

But there are exceptions. CBS News recently reported on one Santa Monica, Calif., doctor who routinely grants parents' request to exempt their children from the measles vaccine. The reason? He sees little harm if kids get the disease.

“Measles is almost an always a benign childhood illness," said Dr. Jay Gordon.

Most health officials, however, don't see it that way. ASTHO says measles can be a matter of life and death. It concedes that measles deaths decreased by 73% worldwide between 2000 and 2013, but notes measles still caused 145,700 deaths globally in 2013.

Detective work

The organization is busy tracing those exposed to the current measles outbreak and, if they haven't been immunized, is using them to get the vaccine.

"At ASTHO, I'm proud of the work that the California Department of Public Health and other states are doing to protect our children by containing this outbreak, preventing future ones, and bringing us closer to maintaining full elimination status," Jarris says.

There is also a financial issue involved in stamping out measles once again, Jarris says. A study last year found that there were 16 measles outbreaks in 2011 that resulted in 107 cases, which cost local and state public health departments an estimated $2.7 million to $5.3 million.

Every dollar spent on the child measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine saves $23.30, according to CDC.

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FCC changes broadband regulations to require almost 6X faster speeds

Minimum downloading speed raised from 4 to 25 Mbps

The number of Americans with access to “broadband Internet” took a massive plunge on Thursday, after the Federal Communications Commission voted to raise t...

PhotoThe number of Americans with access to “broadband Internet” took a massive plunge on Thursday, after the Federal Communications Commission voted to raise the minimum speed required for a connection to qualify as “broadband.”

The new standard is a download speed of 25 Mbps (megabytes per second) and an upload speed of 3 Mbps. The old standard had been a minimum downloading speed of 4 Mbps , and 1 Mbps to upload. By way of comparison, Netflix recommends a minimum speed of 5 Mbps to stream a video in HD, or 3 Mbps for SD.

As of last August, when the FCC first started considering a raise in broadband speed, almost one-fifth of all Americans lived in areas where 5-1 broadband was not available.

And as of today, the number of Americans who lack broadband access is vastly greater: 53 percent of rural Americans and 8 percent of urban Americans currently lack access to 25-3 Internet speeds, according to an FCC report.

If you currently have a home “broadband” connection with, for example, a downloading speed of 10 Mbps, the new FCC ruling does not mean that your home Internet connection will now become 2.5 times faster. Most likely, this means that, at least for the immediate future, you'll have the same Internet connection as before, only your ISP won't be able to call it “broadband” anymore.

Hopefully, though, your ISP will invest in network upgrades so that it can once again call itself “broadband,” since everybody knows that in Internet terms, “non-broadband” is basically synonymous with “slow.”

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Whose wi-fi is faster? Cablevision sues Verizon over its claims

Verizon trying to undercut Cablevision's Freewheel roll-out, suit charges

Like a couple of Dodge City gun-slingers back in the 1800s, Verizon and Cablevision are dueling over who's the quickest. ...

Photo
A infographic issued by Verizon to promote its FiOS broadband service

Like a couple of Dodge City gun-slingers back in the 1800s, Verizon and Cablevision are dueling over who's the quickest. 

No, not the quickest draw. The quickest wi-fi. Verizon has been advertising that it has the "fastest WiFi available" -- a claim that Cablevision says is false and intended to mislead consumers about Cablevision's service.  

“Verizon’s false claim of WiFi speed superiority is deliberately designed to undercut Cablevision’s competitive WiFi advantage in the marketplace,” the suit charges, adding that Verizon's claims are likely to interfere with Cablevision's newly announced Freewheel WiFi-only cell phone service.

Cablevision says that Freewheel "will allow its customers to communicate at a fraction of the cost now offered by Verizon and other cellular providers. This innovation poses a competitive threat to Verizon’s cellular phone service."

Verizon responded that the suit is basically a marketing ploy by Cablevision.

“This is a boldface ploy to promote Cablevision’s latest wireless gambit.  A third party has tested and validated the FiOS Quantum Gateway Router.  It offers the fastest in-home Wi-Fi available from any provider, " said Verizon spokeswoman Deidre Hart. "As usual, Cablevision is confusing consumers by using apples to oranges comparisons, in this case of in-home and public Wi-Fi."

“We welcomed hundreds of thousands of new FiOS customers last year, many of them former Cablevision customers. In survey after survey, FiOS customers rank us above the competition. The voices of our customers are much louder than Cablevisions feeble attempt to distract and confuse consumers,” Hart said.  

The fight is centered in the New York City market, where Verizon hawks its FiOS service and where Cablevision is rolling out its new WiFi-only product.

Cablevision argues that Verizon bases its "fastest WiFi" claim on the AC1750 802.11ac router it has begun installing throughout its network. Cablevision says it uses the same router "within the same area of service."

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Work-at-home scam targets college students

This is a bad one even by scam standards

College students beware: the Better Business Bureau and the FBI have both issued warnings about a new work-at-home scam targeting students through their sc...

PhotoCollege students beware: the Better Business Bureau and the FBI have both issued warnings about a new work-at-home scam targeting students through their school email accounts. This latest scam is a bad one even by scam standards: with most such scams, the victims “only” need worry about losing their money or personal-computer security. But anyone who falls for this latest work-at-home scam risks being arrested and prosecuted for various felonies!

Most work-at-home scams are actually check scams, and most check scams try to cheat their victims by asking them to deposit bad checks in their bank accounts, then withdraw a small portion of that money and give it to the scammer before the check clears – or, more specifically, before the bank informs you that the check did not clear, because it's a fake.

Suppose you have $1,000 in your bank account, and receive a scam check for $500; the scammer asks you to send him $50, and you can keep the rest. So you deposit the $500 check in your account, still having no idea it is fraudulent.

Now, your account's “current balance” is $1,500 — that's the combined amount of the $1,000 you definitely have, plus the $500 you might have, if and when the check clears. But your “available balance,” the money actually available for withdrawal, remains only $1,000, and won't increase unless and until that $500 check clears.

You withdraw $50 to send to the scammer, bringing your current and available balances down to $1,450 and $950, respectively — but when your bank finds out there's no money to back up that $500 check, your current and available balances both say $950 – and the $50 you gave the scammer is gone.

That's why you should never trust a deposited check until after the bank confirms that the funds did indeed go through, and your current and available balances match. However, that will not protect college students from falling for this particular variant of the work-at-home scam.

"Payroll department"

Here's how it seems to work, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) : the would-be victim gets an email offering a job with a fictitious company, usually a job in the “payroll” or “human resources” department. Should you accept the job, here's what happens next:

The “position” simply requires the student to provide his/her bank account number to receive a deposit and then transfer a portion of the funds to another bank account. Unbeknownst to the student, the other account is involved in the scam that the student has now helped perpetrate. The funds the student receives and is directed elsewhere have been stolen by cyber criminals. Participating in the scam is a crime and could lead to the student’s bank account being closed due to fraudulent activity or federal charges.

In other words, your scam-boss is not asking you to deposit a fake check so he can extract money from your account; he's sending you real money which he stole from someone else! And your “job description” basically boils down to money laundering.

The easiest way to protect yourself from this scam (and other forms of check scams) is to remember that in legitimate, non-scammy jobs, money only ever flows in one direction: from the boss to the worker, from employer to employee.

No honest employer will ask you to reverse that flow of money, not even in the event of overpayment: if someone in your payroll department made a typo and gave you an extra hundred bucks this week, chances are you'll either receive $100 less in your next paycheck, or (depending on the timing), that initial, too-large paycheck will be cancelled and a new one for the proper amount issued immediately.

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Crash victim hadn't been notified of airbag recall

The previous owner hadn't had the Takata airbag repaired

The death of a Honda Accord owner highlights a major flaw in the current safety recall system -- namely, the failure of car owners and dealers to have reca...

PhotoThe death of a Honda Accord owner highlights a major flaw in the current safety recall system -- namely, the failure of car owners and dealers to have recalls performed before selling a car.

According to a lawsuit, Carlos Solis IV bought his 2002 Honda Accord in April 2014 from All Stars Auto Sales in Cypress, Texas, not knowing that the previous owner had ignored several recall notices mailed in 2011.

On Jan. 18, Solis was involved in what was described as a "relatively minor" collision with a 2003 Infinit G35. When his airbag deployed, shards of metal from the recalled Takata airbag allegedly struck Solis in the neck, killing him, Automotive News reported.

More than 8 million cars have been recalled in a massive effort to replace airbags that may contain faulty inflators. At least five deaths have been attributed to the airbags.

“Our heartfelt condolences go out to the driver's family," Takata said in a statement. "The incident cited involved a vehicle that had been previously recalled, and we are working in close collaboration with Honda to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the vehicle's status at the time of the incident. Takata's number one priority is the safety of the driving public.”

The car had been recalled a second time more recently, in June 2014, as the original Takata airbag recall was expanded. But Honda said it had not notified Solis of that recall at the time the accident happened. 

Used car dealers are not required to repair recalled vehicles and are not even required to inform consumers that they are purchased a recalled car or truck.

The only way consumers can check with their vehicle has any outstandint recalls is to check an online database like the one maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Carfax also has easy-to-use recall search.

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Landlord evicts "Rent Is Too Damn High" candidate Jimmy McMillan

The unsuccessful mayoral candidate has a habit of suing his landlord (and everyone else)

You may remember Jimmy McMillan, who ran for governor of New York on the Rent Is Too Damn High ticket....

PhotoYou may remember Jimmy McMillan, who ran for governor of New York on the Rent Is Too Damn High ticket.

He's been evicted. 

McMillan filed suit in federal court earlier this week, claiming that he was locked out of his apartment building on St. Marks Place in New York City, forcing him to sleep in his car, the park and "sometimes on the street," Courthouse News Service reported.

McMillan says he was served with an eviction notice earlier this month, although he says he is "undergoing treatment for PTSD" and can't remember details of the case.

The suit names Lisco Holdings, his landlord, seeking to block the eviction notice and demanding $1.3 million in damages.

It's not the first time McMillan has sued Lisco. In fact, he has sued them at least once a year since 2012 but this is the first time he's been evicted. As in the many other court cases he's filed, McMillan is representing himself, although he is not an attorney.  

McMillan became something of a folk hero when he ran for mayor in 2010, with a message that resonated to rent-poor New Yorkers.

In 2012, McMillan -- who got 1% of the vote in teh mayoral election -- sued the state elections board for removing the word "Damn" from the name of his party on the mayoral ballots. He also demanded a recount. 

He has also filed numerous suits against just about everyone else, including media outlets and the Internal Revenue Service.

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Rate of economic growth slows considerably in 4th quarter

GDP expansion was about half the rate of the previous 3 months

The economy continued to grow in the final 3 months of last year, but not at the rate we saw in the previous quarter. The Commerce Department reports real...

PhotoThe economy continued to grow in the final 3 months of last year, but not at the rate we saw in the previous quarter.

The Commerce Department reports real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S. -- increased at an annual rate of 2.6 percent in the 4th quarter. This was the government's "advance" estimate; there will be 2 more in the months ahead when more data become available.

For all of 2014, real GDP expanded 2.4% compared with 2.2% the year before, and was the best year since 2010 when it grew 2.5%.

Why it slowed

The deceleration in real GDP growth in the 4th quarter primarily reflected an upturn in imports, a downturn in federal government spending, and slowdowns in nonresidential fixed investment and in exports that were partly offset by an upturn in private inventory investment and an acceleration in PCE.

Positive contributions came from from personal consumption expenditures, private inventory investment, exports, nonresidential fixed investment, state and local government spending, and residential fixed investment.

GDP inflation

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, fell 0.3% in the October-January period, in contrast to an increase of 1.4% in the 3rd quarter.

Excluding food and energy prices, the “core” price index for gross domestic purchases rose 0.7%, compared with a 3rd quarter increase of 1.6%.

The complete GDP report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Korean Farm recalls chicken stew products

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

Korean Farm of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., is recalling approximately 14,610 pounds of chicken stew products produced in the Republic of Korea. The products...

PhotoKorean Farm of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., is recalling approximately 14,610 pounds of chicken stew products produced in the Republic of Korea.

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection. Without the benefit of full inspection, a possibility of adverse health consequences exists.

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

The recalled products, produced on August 24, 2014, and February 24, 2014, are being recalled:

  • 1.87-lb. pouches of “Ginseng Chicken Stew”
  • 1.32-lb. pouches of “Ginseng Chicken Stew”

The products bear the establishment number “DGA 14001” inside the Republic of Korea mark of inspection, and were shipped to a retail locations and restaurants in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Maryland, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Stephanie Rhee at (562) 789-9988.

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Arcadia Tradings recalls Red Thread Fish

The fish are uneviscerated

Arcadia Trading of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling all packages of Red Thread Fish. The fish are uneviscerated, and sale of uneviscerated processed fish is p...

PhotoArcadia Trading of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling all packages of Red Thread Fish.

The fish are uneviscerated, and sale of uneviscerated processed fish is prohibited under New York State Agriculture and Markets regulations because Clostridium botulinum spores are more likely to be concentrated in the viscera than any other portion of the fish.

No illness have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

The recalled product, which comes in a 7-oz. heat sealed plastic bag, was distributed in supermarkets nationwide. Consumers are warned not to use the product even if it does not look or smell spoiled.

Consumers who have purchased Red Thread Fish are urged to return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 718-782-6888.

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Goodyear recalls Fortera HL tires

The tire tread may crack

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company is recalling 48,512 Fortera HL P255/65R18 109S tires manufactured November 30, 2014, to January 10, 2015. The affected tir...

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Holmes oil filled heaters recalled

The oil-filled heaters can spray heated oil

Sunbeam Products of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling about 34,000 Holmes oil-filled heaters. The oil-filled heaters can spray heated oil, posing a scald haz...

PhotoSunbeam Products of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling about 34,000 Holmes oil-filled heaters.

The oil-filled heaters can spray heated oil, posing a scald hazard.

The firm has received approximately 40 reports of units that unexpectedly sprayed heated oil, resulting in reports of property damage involving damaged carpet and fabrics. No injuries are reported.

This recall involves Holmes brand oil-filled heaters that are black or white in color. The recalled heaters are about 23 inches tall, 6 inches deep and 12 inches wide, and have model number HOH3000 or HOH3000B printed on a label on the bottom of the product. The “Holmes” logo is near the power switch and temperature control.

The recalled products have a code on the heater plug blade within the following range: G192 through G298. No other codes are affected.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled heater, unplug it and contact Sunbeam for instructions on how to obtain a full refund.

Consumers may contact Sunbeam Products at (800) 515-4715 anytime.

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Finding the best value in an online degree

A growing number of non-profit schools are making a degree more affordable

For-profit colleges were the first to really jump on the Internet and start offering courses to students all over the country....

PhotoFor-profit colleges were the first to really jump on the Internet and start offering courses to students all over the country.

There had been “distance learning” programs in the past but companies like the University of Phoenix built a business model around it.

University of Phoenix was founded in 1976, long before the Internet came along. But it was always aimed at students who already had jobs and needed to work school in around their careers.

It's now owned by Apollo Group, a publicly traded company, and has more than 200,000 students, down from a reported 600,000 in 2010. These days, traditional public and private non-profit colleges have gotten into the online education game, giving University of Phoenix and other for-profit colleges some pretty stiff competition.

We reported last year on five traditional colleges that have made a name for themselves offering quality education at competitive tuition rates. It turns out there are a lot more.

Nonprofit options

Nonprofit Colleges Online, a website edited by Brett Gershon and Liz Robertson, singles out colleges and universities it says “put students before profits and education before the bottom line.”

The site recently recently singled out what it considers the top online graduate degree programs offered by non-profit colleges and universities.

Earning the top spot for its online MBA program is Amberton University of Garland, Texas. The cost of the 2-year program is $8,712 for out-of-state students.

Columbia College of Missouri was second and Mississippi State University was third. Both have 2-year tuition costs that come in below $13,000.

Valuable means to an end

"MBA programs are considered a valuable means to an end, intended to help employees advance their careers and contribute significantly to their respective workplaces,” Robertson said. “The networking students do in MBA programs is invaluable to their professional lives; friendships made in a competitive graduate school will likely serve as beneficial professional relationships throughout one's career. With so many accelerated programs available to the non-traditional, modern student - including online, distance programs - and the increasingly relevant and growing global economy, there has never been a more convenient, opportune time to apply for admission to an MBA program.”

And it goes without saying, earning such a degree for under $15,000 in many cases, doesn't saddle the degree recipient with crushing student loan debt.

Bachelor's degrees, which take at least four years to complete, cost more. The good news is Nonprofit Colleges Online can help here too.

Non-profit bachelor's degrees

When it recently rated undergraduate programs it singled out Eastern Oregon University as the best value for a bachelor's degree in business administration. The estimated tuition cost for the degree is $18,700.

Stephen F. Austin State University was second at $19,816 and Fort Hayes State University was third at $23,126.

For students planning to complete their degree online, non-profit colleges likely offer significantly lower costs than most for-profit institutions.

The savings may be even greater if an in-state non-profit school offers online degree programs, since in-state tuition is much less than for out-of-state students.

The lesson is pretty clear. When shopping for an online education, it pays to look beyond for-profit schools and consider the well-established and reputable non-profit schools offering online degree programs.

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Comcast apologizes for changing customers' name to “A**hole”

Offers refund to customer, and fires the a-hole presumed responsible

A Comcast spokesperson publicly apologized to Spokane, Washington resident Ricardo Brown, after he and his wife Lisa received official Comcast bills addres...

PhotoA Comcast spokesperson publicly apologized to Spokane, Washington resident Ricardo Brown, after he and his wife Lisa received official Comcast bills addressed to “A**hole Brown.” (For the benefit of people reading this at work, we're using the well-known anti-obscenity trick of replacing key letters with asterisks. So, for the duration of this article, anytime you see an asterisk, please replace it with the letter “S.”)

Comcast has given the couple a refund of their past two years' cable bills, and fired the employee presumed responsible for the name change.

Comcast Cable Service Jan. 29, 2015, 7:52 p.m.
Consumers rate Comcast Cable Service

Consumer and travel blogger Christopher Elliott first reported the story yesterday (and Comcast representatives quickly confirmed it): Ricardo and Lisa Brown have been having financial difficulties, so Lisa called Comcast and asked them to cancel the cable portion of their account. Instead, the Comcast representative transferred her to a “retention specialist,” whose job is to “retain” customers who are already inclined to leave. Somehow, this resulted in the name on a certain Comcast account changing from “Ricardo Brown” to “A**hole Brown.”

Even worse, Lisa Brown could not convince anyone at Comcast to change the name back until after she contacted Christopher Elliott.

As Elliott said:

Brown has tried to fix the name herself. She’s visited her local Comcast office and phoned higher-ups in the Washington [state] region. But she wasn’t getting anywhere and needed help.

My first thought was that someone was trying to pull a practical joke on a consumer advocate. So I asked for a copy of the billing statement and the correspondence between her and Comcast.

And no kidding, it looked like someone had changed the name. How impolite!

Next, I contacted Comcast to find out what its records said. It’s fairly easy for any customer to doctor a photo of a bill to shame a large company, so I wanted to make sure Comcast was seeing the same thing.

It was.

However, within a few minutes of Elliott's discovery, he got a call from Comcast VP Steve Kipp, who said that “We have zero tolerance for this type of disrespectful behavior and are conducting a thorough investigation to determine what happened. We are working with our customer to make this right and will take appropriate steps to prevent this from happening again.”

Of course. At noon today another Comcast VP, Charlie Herrin, updated Comcast's corporate blog to talk about “Respecting Our Customers,” and said that

… Each and every customer deserves to be treated with respect, and in a recent situation with a customer in Spokane that clearly didn’t happen.   

We have apologized to our customer for this unacceptable situation and addressed it directly with the employee who will no longer be working on behalf of Comcast.  We're also looking at a number of technical solutions that would prevent it from happening moving forward. …

In addition to whatever high-tech technical solutions Comcast intends to explore, the company might also consider the low-tech option “If a customer calls to complain about the name on her bill, do something about it rather than stonewall until she's frustrated enough to take her complaints to the media.”

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CVS pays $500,000 for letting drugs get too hot

Two New Jersey stores left drugs in stores experiencing air-conditioning failures

We've all seen the prescription labels that specify the drug should be stored at room temperature. Maybe CVS should have read those labels more closely. It...

PhotoWe've all seen the prescription labels that specify the drug should be stored at room temperature. Maybe CVS should have read those labels more closely. It has been ordered to pay more than $500,000 for keeping medication and infant formula in overheated stores.

The court settlement follows two 2012 incidents in which CVS pharmacies in New Jersey experienced air conditioning outages for multiple days but continued to operate even after temperatures in the stores exceeded the maximum recommended for the storage of drugs.

“We have taken an incident in which the public was exposed to potential harm, and turned it into an opportunity to create model practices for pharmacies across New Jersey,” Acting New Jersey Attorney General John J. Hoffman said. “Under this settlement, CVS will keep a close eye on the temperatures at its New Jersey pharmacies, and will act immediately to remove affected medications before they are sold to the public. Failure to do so will be punishable under New Jersey’s laws governing consumer fraud and pharmacy operations.”

Since the incident, CVS has worked to improve its ability to respond to heating, ventilating, or air-conditioning failures and similar incidents.

Among other things, CVS is converting its New Jersey stores to web-accessible systems to monitor temperatures; establishing protocols and mechanisms to inspect merchandise and notify corporate headquarters about outages at New Jersey stores; changing its HVAC service provider in New Jersey; and assigning new field leadership to provide management and oversight of CVS pharmacies in New Jersey.

The company has also agreed to quarantine any drugs or other products that are exposed to extremely high temperatures for more than 72 hours.

 

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No jail time for California cop who stole nude photos from arrestees' phones

The other cops involved aren't even facing charges

Here's another reason why you should always put a strong password on your smartphone and any other computer devices: Last autumn, former California Highway...

PhotoHere's another reason why you should always put a strong password on your smartphone and any other computer devices: Last autumn, former California Highway Patrolman Sean Harrington resigned his position and faced felony charges over allegations that he and his colleagues stole personal (and often explicit) photos off the phones of people they'd arrested.

Fans of former officer Harrington will be relieved to learn that he won't be spending any time in jail, however. Last November, shortly after his initial arrest, Harrington pleaded not guilty to the various charges he faced. This week, however, he accepted a plea deal wherein he pleaded no contest to two felony charges of unauthorized access to a computer and copying computer data.

Harrington had faced up to three years and eight months in prison if found guilty, but as a result of his plea, he'll instead receive three years' probation and a 180-day suspended jail sentence. He also must speak at a “community violence solutions class” to talk about what he did, presumably in a disapproving tone of voice, and is barred from future work as a police officer.

Harrington was first arrested last October, after a young woman whom he'd arrested on suspicion of DUI complained that, while she was in jail and her phone in Harrington's possession, some of her personal photos had been forwarded from her phone to a phone number which turned out to be Harrington's.

Not explicit enough

The Contra Costa Times reported that, according to court documents, Harrington told investigators he and his fellow officers Robert Hazelwood and Dion Simmons had been collecting and trading such images for years, and that police viewed it as a “game.” The Contra Costa district attorney obtained a search warrant for the officers' phones and discovered that the three would frequently exchange photos, rate them based on attractiveness, and even complain if the stolen photos weren't explicit enough:

-- Aug. 7, 2014, exchange after Harrington said he took two photos of a DUI suspect in a bikini from the 19-year-old's phone while she received X-rays following a car accident. He forwarded the images to a CHP colleague:
CHP officer Sean Harrington -- 2:46 p.m. -- "Taken from the phone of my 10-15x while she's in X-rays. Enjoy buddy!!!"
CHP officer Robert Hazelwood -- 2:48 a.m. -- "No f---ing nudes?"
Harrington -- 2:49 a.m. -- "Nope. Gotta work with what's there"

According to prosecutors, Harrington admitted to stealing photos from more women than the two who stepped forward to complain. The DUI charges against those two women have since been dropped.

Robert Hazelwood and Dion Simmons, the police officers who received the stolen photos from Harrington, are not facing any criminal charges over the matter.

Of course, it is illegal in most states (not just California) for police to go through people's phones unless they first obtain a search warrant — but if you could trust everybody to obey the law, we wouldn't need police officers in the first place, let alone need to worry about the corrupt ones.

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Revenge porn site banned by feds

Women were forced to pay hundreds of dollars to have their images taken down

The operator of an alleged “revenge porn” website has been banned from sharing nude videos or photographs of people without their consent and will have to ...

PhotoThe operator of an alleged “revenge porn” website has been banned from sharing nude videos or photographs of people without their consent and will have to destroy the intimate images and personal contact information he collected while operating the site.

The Federal Trade Commission’s complaint against Craig Brittain alleges that he used deception to acquire and post intimate images of women, then referred them to another website he controlled, where the women were told they could have the pictures removed only if they paid hundreds of dollars.

“This behavior is not only illegal but reprehensible,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “I am pleased that as a result of this settlement, the illegally collected images and information will be deleted, and this individual can never return to the so-called ‘revenge porn’ business.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, Brittain acquired the images in a number of ways, such as by posing as a woman on the advertising site Craigslist, and offering nude photos purportedly of himself in exchange for photos provided by women. When women provided him with the photos, Brittain posted them on his site without their knowledge or permission.

In addition to collecting and posting the images himself, Brittain solicited viewers of his site to anonymously submit nude photos of people to his site, according to the complaint. He required submissions to include sensitive personal information about the people in the photos, including their full name, town and state, phone number and Facebook profile.

Bounty system

Brittain also allegedly offered a “bounty system” on his site, wherein users could offer a reward of at least $100 in exchange for other users finding pictures and information about a specific person. Overall, Brittain’s site included photos of more than 1,000 individuals, according to the complaint.

Brittain’s site also advertised content removal services under the name “Takedown Hammer” and “Takedown Lawyer” that could delete consumers’ images and content from the site in exchange for a payment of $200 to $500. Despite presenting these as third-party services, the complaint alleges that the sites for these services were owned and operated by Brittain.

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Keeping your dog safe -- it's not that hard

A microchip, some basic training and a little common sense is all it takes

Most people who have dogs would say that they are invested in keeping those dogs safe. Whether because the dog was an expensive purchase from a breeder, or...

PhotoMost people who have dogs would say that they are invested in keeping those dogs safe. Whether because the dog was an expensive purchase from a breeder, or because the dog is considered a member of the family, people believe they are doing the best they can to ensure that their dogs never go missing.

Yet every day, hundreds of dogs are lost or stolen. Wise County, Texas has a population of only 60,000, yet 40 dogs have disappeared in the past two months, and none have been found. Citizens and law enforcement personnel believe that a dog theft ring is operating in that area, targeting dogs that are left outside unattended.

The most basic things you can do to avoid losing your dog are simple:

  • Train your dog to sit/stay at the door when it opens.
  • Train your dog to recall, meaning that when you call him, he returns to your side. This is especially important for a dog with a high prey drive that might be tempted to bolt and chase a deer or other animal.
  • Never leave your dog outside unobserved, even in a fenced yard.

It is also important to choose a reliable pet sitter for your dog if you go out of town and elect not to board your dog. During the holiday season, about half of the dogs listed on one statewide social media lost dog site were lost by a family member or friend who was caring for the dog in the family’s absence.

In one case, a puppy being cared for by a friend was put outside into an unfenced area because the friend grew annoyed that the puppy was not fully housebroken. That puppy disappeared, and was never found. Other dogs were let outside and forgotten by people not used to having a dog in the house. And some dogs were lost when they broke away from someone who doesn’t regularly walk a dog.

Just in case 

Despite precautions, however, dogs do get lost. There are steps you can take, however, to make it more likely that you will be reunited with your dog if he does go missing.

First, have your vet microchip your dog, and keep the microchip registry updated with your current information. Dogs are reunited with their families every day because of microchips. In one case, a dog lost in Denver was located in Georgia almost 8 years later, when the dog was picked up as a stray and was scanned for a chip.

In addition to a microchip, make sure your dog wears a collar and a tag with your current contact information, because that is the fastest way for someone who finds him to then find you. And that collar will buy him time if he is picked up as a stray and taken to a shelter, since the “stray hold” period is often 5 days for a dog without a collar, and 10 days for a dog with a collar. After the stray hold period has passed, a dog may be euthanized, if the shelter is crowded.

Finally, take photos of your dog, with full-face and body shots showing markings and any unusual features, like a tail with a kink or one ear that flops over. Make sure your photos are in focus. You will need those photos for flyers and posters, and to share his information on social media sites.

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Jobless claims drop to lowest level in nearly 15 years

The decline breaks 3 straight weeks above 300k

Initial applications for state jobless benefits plunged last week. Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show first-time claims were down 43,000 ...

PhotoInitial applications for state jobless benefits plunged last week.

Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show first-time claims were down 43,000 in the week ending January 24 to a seasonally adjusted initial claims 265,000. That put claims at the lowest level since April 15, 2000, when they stood at 259,000.

DOL says there were no special factors affecting the initial claims level.

The 4-week moving average, which strips out the volatility of the weekly initial claims, and is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was down 8,250 from the previous week to

298,500.

The full report is available on the DOL website.

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A December dip in pending home sales

Lower interest rates didn't seem to make a difference

After showing some improvement in November, pending home sales lost ground last month despite interest rates being at their lowest level of the year. The ...

PhotoAfter showing some improvement in November, pending home sales lost ground last month despite interest rates being at their lowest level of the year.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, fell 3.7% to 100.7. Still, it's 6.1% above December 2013 -- the fourth consecutive month it's remained above year-over-year levels.

Even with the December decline, the largest since a 5.8% loss in December 2013, the index enjoyed its largest year-over-year gain since June 2013 (11.7%).

Fewer homes, higher prices

Fewer homes available for sale and a slight acceleration in prices likely led to December’s decline in contract signings. “Total inventory fell in December for the first time in 16 months, resulting in fewer choices for buyers and a modest uptick in price growth in markets throughout the country,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “With interest rates at lows not seen since early 2013, the strength in existing-sales in upcoming months will largely depend on the willingness of current homeowners to realize their equity gains from the past couple years and trade up.”

Regional performance

  • The PHSI in the Northeast suffered the largest decline -- dropping 7.5% -- to 82.1, but is still 6.3% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index was down 2.8% to 97.1, but is 1.9% above December 2013.
  • Pending home sales declined 2.6% in the South to an index of 116.6 in December, but are 8.6% above last December.
  • The index in the West fell 4.6% in December to 94.0, but is 6.3% above a year ago.

The outlook

The NAR is projecting total existing-homes sales to be around 5.26 million this year, an increase of 6.6% from 2014. The national median existing-home price for all of this year is expected to increase between 4 and 5%.

Existing-home sales declined 3.1% last year while prices were up 5.8%.

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Washington Beef recalls boneless beef trim product

The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

Washington Beef of Toppenish, Wash., is recalling 1,620 pounds of boneless beef trim product. The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 There...

PhotoWashington Beef of Toppenish, Wash., is recalling 1,620 pounds of boneless beef trim product.

The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

There are no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of this product.

The following boneless beef product, produced on Nov. 28, 2012, is being recalled:

  • 60 lb. bulk packs of “TRIM 65/35 (FZN)”

The recalled product bears the establishment number “EST. 235” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

It was shipped for further processing to a single grinding facility, then on for use in hotels, restaurants and institutions in Oregon and Washington.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may call Jay Theiler at (855) 472-6455.

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General Motors recalls Corvettes

The vehicle can suffer a reduction in stability and steering control

General Motors is recalling 43 model year 2015 Chevrolet Corvettes manufactured September 26, 2014, to October 2, 2014. The toe link outer ball joint on ...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 43 model year 2015 Chevrolet Corvettes manufactured September 26, 2014, to October 2, 2014.

The toe link outer ball joint on the rear suspension may not have been properly tightened during the assembly process. The Toe link may loosen with the vehicle use and eventually separate, resulting in a reduction in vehicle stability and steering control, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace any damaged parts, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet). GM's number for this recall is 14857.

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Toyota recalls Avalons

The subwoofer could overheat, increasing the risk of a fire

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., is recalling approximately 52,000 model year 2011-2012 Avalon sedans. Cargo could contact one of the audio system subwoofer wir...

PhotoToyota Motor Sales U.S.A., is recalling approximately 52,000 model year 2011-2012 Avalon sedans.

Cargo could contact one of the audio system subwoofer wires located inside the trunk, and move it out of its normal position. If one of these wires contacts the metal frame of the subwoofer, it may result in an intermittent short circuit, causing the subwoofer to overheat, increasing the risk of a fire.

Toyota says it is not aware of any crashes, injuries, or fatalities caused by this condition.

Owners of the involved vehicles will receive a notification by first class mail. Toyota dealers will provide a repair for the audio system. Until the remedy is available, as a precaution, Toyota dealers will disconnect the rear subwoofer.

Consumers may call Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331.

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Gasoline prices likely bottomed this week

Refinery maintenance will raise prices over the next couple of months

For weeks now, motorists have enjoyed falling gasoline prices at the pump. In various industry surveys the national average price of self-serve regular is ...

PhotoFor weeks now, motorists have enjoyed falling gasoline prices at the pump. In various industry surveys the national average price of self-serve regular is hovering just above $2 a gallon, giving consumers a much-needed break.

But Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for the Midwest and southeast at GasBuddy.com, says prices likely hit bottom early this week and will begin drifting higher. Even so, the increase might not be felt everywhere right away.

“There are 3 or 4 states in the Great Lakes region where prices started to move higher this week,” DeHaan told ConsumerAffairs.

Oil and gasoline disparity

Consumers might be puzzled to see their pump prices rise while oil prices have yet to find a bottom, but there's a good reason for that. The price of crude oil is just one, albeit a big, factor in the price of gasoline.

The oil has to be refined into gasoline and here's where the costs can rise. In fact, it happens every year at about this time.

Refineries normally reduce operations while they perform winter maintenance. That reduces capacity and they don't turn out as much gasoline. As a result, supplies tighten and the price goes up.

“Gasoline prices will probably begin to ramp up in early February,” DeHaan said. “Then in March the upward trend will continue.”

A 45 cents-a-gallon increase

As a result, DeHaan says the national average price of gasoline could go up about 45 cents a gallon from its low, even if the price of oil is stable or still falling. And just as in past years, some areas of the country will feel it more than others.

“Parts of California will feel it,” DeHaan said. “Actually, the whole West Coast will likely see a bigger boost in prices since it's pretty much an isolated market.”

In its Fuel Gauge Survey, AAA also noted this week that price declines had begun to slow. While 40 states and Washington, D.C. are registering savings over the past 7 days, drivers in 10 states are paying a bit more at the pump over the same period.

Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C. are still saving a nickel or more a gallon and in 2 states, prices are down by a dime. But those savings are partially offset in the Midwestern states of Indiana, where pump prices have risen by 10 cents and in Michigan, where the price is up a nickel gallon. DeHaan attributes the price bump in the Midwest to “refinery kinks.”

Lower prices in June

While motorists will undoubtedly not like to see pump prices start moving in the other direction, they can take solace in the fact that the increase should be slight and short lived. DeHaan says by June, prices at the pump should be headed down again.

“June is normally the cheapest month for gas,” he said.

The unknown, of course, is the price of crude oil, which will remain a huge influence on gasoline prices. But with crude oil stockpiles rising, no one has yet called a bottom to oil's price decline. This week Barclay's slashed its forecast for prices and said it expects the supply glut to extend into early 2016.

For consumers, that means gasoline prices might be higher than they are now from time to time, but nowhere near where they were over the last 6 years.

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FTC fines TracFone $40 million for data throttling on "unlimited" plans

If you are or were a TracFone customer, you might qualify for a refund

The Federal Trade Commission fined TracFone $40 million today for selling customers “unlimited” data service, then throttling data speeds when the customer...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission fined TracFone $40 million today for selling customers “unlimited” data service, then throttling data speeds when the customers reached a certain limit within a pay period.

If you had a Straight Talk, Net10, Simple Mobile, or Telcel America unlimited data plan anytime before now, you can file a claim with the FTC's website here, to see if you qualify for a refund.

The FTC's complaint, available here in .pdf form, says that since 2009, TracFone advertised a prepaid mobile data servce advertising “unlimited talk, text and data” for about $45 per month, but then throttled or even suspended millions of customers' mobile data services after they exceeded whatever limit TracFone was actually imposing on them. The FTC says:

TracFone failed to disclose or adequately disclose its practice of enforcing fixed limits on the amount of mobile data service its customers could use in a thirty-day service period. In fact, until at least September 2013, TracFone did not state in most of its advertising or terms and conditions that it would suspend or throttle its customers’ mobile data service if they used more than a fixed amount of mobile data in a thirty-day service period. In September 2013, TracFone began to include this information for all of its “unlimited” offerings, but often has tucked it away in small print.

In other words, those TracFone ads promising “unlimited” data made no mention of data throttling whatsoever until Sept. 2013, and even then, the throttling was hidden in the small print, where it wouldn't contradict the ad's main claim of “unlimited” data.

Furthermore, the FTC says, TracFone's data throttling activities were not done to relieve network congestion or for any other technical reason, but solely to “reduce the high costs associated” with delivering unlimited data as it pormised.

TracFone is not the only company which the FTC has sued over throttling “unlimited” data plans; the FTC filed suit against AT&T last October, but that case is still in litigation.

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Call-blocking by consumers OK in FTC's view

Consumers being flooded with unwanted telemarketing calls, many from overseas

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has just reminded everyone that it's illegal to block lawful radio communications -- like wi-fi and cellphone c...

PhotoThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has just reminded everyone that it's illegal to block lawful radio communications -- like wi-fi and cellphone calls. 

Now here's the other side of that coin. Is it -- or should it be -- legal for consumers to block unwanted telephone calls from telemarketers, solicitors, politicians and others who intrude brazenly on their privacy?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says yes, it is and should continue to be legal. In a brief filed with the FCC, the FTC said that giving consumers the ability to block certain types of calls would "make a significant dent in the problem of unwanted telephone calls."

The FTC noted that “consumers continue to be plagued with unwanted telemarketing calls, which in many cases violate the law."

Numbers spoofed

The number of such calls has increased exponentially in recent years. Many are now coming from overseas and are being placed via the Internet, using technology that lets the caller "spoof" a number, making it appear that a call from, say, Ukraine looks like it is coming from Washington, D.C., or any other locality.

To combat this problem, a technological solution is needed, and “call-blocking technology – i.e., a ‘spam filter’ for the phone – is an integral part of that technological solution,” the FTC said.

But despite strong consumer demand for call-blocking, telecommunications companies -- phone companies and wireless carriers -- have "resisted offering call-blocking services to their large customer bases,” the FTC observed. 

The carriers claim that the FCC legal framework does not allow phone companies to block calls, even if their customer requests call-blocking. According to the FTC’s comment, however, numerous authorities recognize a carrier’s ability to block telephone calls at a consumers’ request.

Concluding the comment, the FTC writes that, “An affirmative statement from the FCC that common carriers can offer call-blocking services to their consumers without violating their common carriage obligations would be in the best interest of American consumers.

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FCC warns hotels against blocking guests' wi-fi

It's illegal to jam legal radio transmissions of any kind, FCC vows tough enforcement

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Hotels, miffed by guests who used their own wi-fi hotspots instead of paying $12 or more to use the hotels' in-hous...

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Hotels, miffed by guests who used their own wi-fi hotspots instead of paying $12 or more to use the hotels' in-house systems, decided to try blocking personal hotspots.

It didn't work out too well. It turns out it's illegal to interfere with legal radio transmissions and the Federal Communications Commission fined Marriott $600,000 for blocking guests' wi-fi at a Nashville Marriott.

Stung, Marriott, Hilton and hotel trade groups then petitioned the FCC asking for a waiver that would let them soak guests without fear of fines.

No dice, said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in a strongly-worded statement.

“Consumers must get what they pay for," Wheeler said. "The Communications Act prohibits anyone from willfully or maliciously interfering with authorized radio communications, including Wi-Fi. Marriott’s request seeking the FCC’s blessing to block guests’ use of non-Marriott networks is contrary to this basic principle."

Wheeler warned that future infractions will be dealt with harshly.

"Protecting consumers from this kind of interference is a priority area for the FCC Enforcement Bureau. The Enforcement Bureau recently imposed a $600,000 fine on Marriott for this kind of conduct, and the FCC will continue to enforce the Communications Act if others act similarly."

Censors beware

The prohibition, of course, does not apply only to hotels. Churches, schools, theaters and other venues have been known to block -- or jam -- cell phone and wi-fi transmissions, hoping to prevent phones ringing and iChats bleeping during sermons, cantatas, lectures and so forth. 

Some had argued that jamming wi-fi and cellphone calls is permissible because such devices are not licensed. It's true that you don't need a license to use a cellphone but the wireless carriers are licensed and the use of the devices is legal under the Communications Act, meaning it's protected from jamming by those who think they should have total control of their guests, congregants, students and what-have-you. 

 

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What to do when your dog gets the flu

It's about the same as you'd do for a human

You aren't the only one who can get the flu. Your dog can get it too. It's known in veterinary circles as canine influenza, a respiratory infection caused ...

PhotoYou aren't the only one who can get the flu. Your dog can get it too. It's known in veterinary circles as canine influenza, a respiratory infection caused by the H3N8 virus.

It's actually a pretty new strain, which means that nearly all dogs can catch it since they haven't had a chance to build an immunity to it. So if your neighbor’s dog has it or you take your dog to the dog park, watch out.

Symptoms generally appear in 24 to 48 hours. Here's what to watch out for:

A persistent cough. It may sound like kennel cough -- that dry hacking cough. Your dog will probably have a sore throat as well. But it shouldn't create any long-lasting damage. The cough can last from 10-30 days.

Runny nose. The discharge is usually clear at first but it can turn green or yellow. Your vet can give you meds to dry this up.

Fever. Your dog's temperature could go as high as 106 degrees. A normal temp is anywhere from 99.5-102.5.

Taking your dog to the vet is the only way to get an accurate diagnosis. If your dog should get the flu, make sure they are eating properly. Select a high quality pet food and feed 3-4 small meals a day.

Make sure your dog stays inside and has a comfortable place to rest. If you don't have one already, look for a big soft comfy bed. 

Your dog needs rest. While an occasional walk is good, don't do too much -- your dog needs to keep his resistance up. If he is worn out it will hamper his ability to fight off the infection.

Just as with humans, wash your hands to be sure you aren't spreading the virus. Don't let your pets share toys or drink from strange bowls. The virus can stay on an object up to 48 hours.

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An app to let you know if your college student is in class

Educators agree class attendance is essential to success

Two million students will enter college this year. In 6 years 46% still won't have a degree....

PhotoTwo million students will enter college this year. In 6 years 46% still won't have a degree.

Success in college depends on many things but one thing is for sure -- you have to show up for class. The research is pretty clear: your attendance in class equates to how well you will do in school. If you are a parent shelling out large bills for college it might be nice to know if your kids are actually going to their classes. So now there is an app for that. It's called Class 120 and if you skip class it tells your parents.

It's pretty simple. The student first uploads her class schedule. Then an app on the student’s phone tracks if he is in the right place at the right time. If not, the parent gets a phone call or email.

“Class attendance, more than how much you study or how well you study, determines how well a student will do,” said Jeff Whorley, the Founder and CEO of Core Principle, which created Class120. “About 50% of all freshmen that begin do not have a degree in four years. That’s a real problem.”

Whorley came up with the idea after talking to a college professor and discussing how to improve graduation rates. The professor said that the kids with the highest graduation rates happen to be student athletes. The student athletes at this particular school had their absences reported to the athletic department.

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Whole Foods, Wegmans "store-baked" claims are stale, suit charges

Class action argues stores' claims don't rise to the challenge

You wonder why the courts are clogged? Sure, there's a lot of crime and lots of business disputes that need to be adjudicated. Then there's a whole bread b...

PhotoYou wonder why the courts are clogged? Sure, there's a lot of crime and many business disputes that need to be adjudicated. Then there's a whole breadbasket full of claims that seem somewhat half-baked.

Take the lawsuits filed by consumers who argue that Whole Foods and Wegmans aren't really selling freshly store-baked bread, cakes and so forth in their gargantuan supermarkets.

This might fly in the face of what one sees upon entering one of the cavernous emporia, where breads, muffins, cupcakes, pies and cakes are pulled steaming from huge ovens. What was that stuff doing in there if it wasn't being baked?

Well, the answer, the litigants claim, is that it was just being warmed up. In fact, a pair of lawsuits allege, the baked goods that are sold as "store-baked" are in fact baked off-site and simply heated up at the stores.

Wegmans has denied misleading its customers. Whole Foods is still whipping up its response. 

The suit is a bit vague on the damage supposedly suffered by the plaintiffs but nevertheless seeks compensation for customers who bought baked goods at the stores between 2008 and the present. 

Wegmans and Whole Foods stores are too overwhelming for some of us so we seek out smaller stores, like Giant. Giants are big, but not -- you know -- that big.

And because we regularly chat up the bakers at the Fairfax Blvd. Giant in Fairfax, Va., we can vouch for the sourdough bread that issues daily from the on-site oven and is quickly snapped up by California refugees seeking a loaf of real sourdough.

 

 

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Mortgage applications reverse course

Contract interest rates were higher

After rising last week to their highest levels in more 6 months, mortgage applications headed lower last week. The weekly mortgage applications survey con...

PhotoAfter rising last week to their highest levels in more 6 months, mortgage applications headed lower last week.

The weekly mortgage applications survey conducted by the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) shows applications were down 3.2% during the week ending January 23. The results include an adjustment to account for the Martin Luther King holiday.

During the week, the Refinance Index dropped 5% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 72% of total applications from 74% the week before. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity fell to 5.7% of total applications.

The seasonally adjusted Government Index increased 9.2 percent from the previous week to the highest level since July 2013, with the FHA share of total applications jumping to 9.1% from 8.0% the week before. The VA share of total applications increased to 10.7% and the USDA share increased to 0.7%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 3 basis points -- to 3.83% from 3.80%, with points decreasing to 0.26 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) inched up to 3.87% from 3.86%, with points rising to 0.33 from 0.23 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose 5 basis points to 3.71%, with points dipping to 0.07 from 0.15 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages rose from 3.10% to 3.15%, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was up 9 basis points to 2.96%, with points increasing to 0.42 from 0.41 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

The survey covers over 75% of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

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Consumer confidence hits highest point in 7+ years

Both the long-and-short-term outlooks have improved

Consumers seem to be felling their oats. The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, which had inched higher in December, rose sharply thi...

PhotoConsumers seem to be felling their oats.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, which had inched higher in December, rose sharply this month. The Index now stands at 102.9 -- up 9.8 from December. The Present Situation Index rose to 112.6 from 99.9, while the Expectations Index increased to 96.4 from 88.5.

With the big January increase, consumer confidence is now at its highest level since August 2007. “A more positive assessment of current business and labor market conditions contributed to the improvement in consumers’ view of the present situation,” said Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers also expressed a considerably higher degree of optimism regarding the short-term outlook for the economy and labor market, as well as their earnings.”

Through consumers' eyes

Consumers’ assessment of present-day conditions was considerably more favorable in January than last month. Those saying business conditions are “good” increased from 24.7% to 28.1%, while those who describe them as “bad” decreased from 18.9% to 16.8%. They were also much more positive in their assessment of the job market. Those who think jobs are “plentiful” rose from 17.2% to 20.5%. Those who said they're “hard to get” dipped to 25.7% from 27.3%.

Optimism about the short-term outlook was more positive. Consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next 6 months rose from 17.8% to 18.4%, while those expecting them to worsen dropped from 9.9% to 7.7%.

The outlook for the labor market also showed improvement. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased from 14.6% to 16.7%, while those who see fewer jobs was down to 15.0% from 16.5%.

The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to grow surged from 16.2% to 20.0%, while those who think they'll make less money rose from 10.2% to 11.3%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch.

The cutoff date for the preliminary results was January 15.

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Nissan recalls Rogues

The vehicles may experience an electrical short in the harness connector

Nissan North America is recalling 468,815 model year 2008-2013 Nissan Rogue vehicles manufactured March 7, 2007, to November 26, 2013, and 2014 Nissan Rogu...

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Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream recalls dairy products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream is recalling all ice cream, gelato, custard and sorbet for all flavors and container sizes produced on or after January 1, 20...

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

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

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

The products are labeled Snoqualmie Ice Cream, Snoqualmie Gelato, Snoqualmie Custard, Snoqualmie Sorbet or Emerald & Spruce Ice Cream or Top Pot Hand Forged Ice Cream and have a production date code located on the bottom of the container. The date codes included either end in “4”, e.g. XXX4 (pints and cups) or are listed by date: January 1, 2014 through December 15, 2014 (trays & tubs).

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

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

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Probar Base Frosted Peanut Butter Bars recalled

The product main contain milk, an allergen not listed on the label

Probar of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling its Probar Base Frosted Peanut Butter. The product main contain milk, an allergen not listed on the label. T...

PhotoProbar of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling its Probar Base Frosted Peanut Butter Bars.

The product main contain milk, an allergen not listed on the label.

There have been 2 consumer complaints of allergic reactions to date.

This recall involves only Frosted Peanut Butter flavored Probar Base Bars in 2.46-oz. packages distributed to retail stores nationwide and online. Three lots are being recalled:

ProductLot Codes Beginning with:Expiration DateUnit UPC12 Count Box UPC
Frosted Peanut Butter PROBAR Base24289EXP# 01/16/20168-53152-10060-58-53152-10061-2
Frosted Peanut Butter PROBAR Base24188EXP# 10/07/20158-53152-10060-58-53152-10061-2
Frosted Peanut Butter PROBAR Base24160EXP# 09/09/20158-53152-10060-58-53152-10061-2

To locate the Lot Codes:

  • Individual unit Lot Code and Expiration Date: printed on the outer seal of the wrapper
  • 12-unit case Lot Code and Expiration Date: printed outside of the box

Consumers may call 1-800-921-2294, Monday – Friday from 8:30 a.m. -- 5 p.m. MT, or email returns@theprobar.com for more information and how to return the product for a full refund.

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Law enforcement tracks all Americans, but doesn't want Americans tracking them

The DEA expands its national surveillance while cops ask Google to disable cop-locator app

If you're an American citizen (or resident) looking for a single sentence to summarize your relationship with the government, here's one possibility: “The ...

PhotoIf you're an American citizen (or resident) looking for a single sentence to summarize your relationship with the government, here's one possibility: “The government gets to spy on you and know your whereabouts at all times, whereas you aren't even allowed to know where to find the nearest police officer nearest you.”

That's the simplest conclusion to reach after looking at two different and theoretically unrelated news stories from this week.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the Justice Department, primarily the Drug Enforcement Administration, “has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and government documents.”

Not that this should surprise anyone who pays attention. Last May, when we reported how “license plate scanner errors vex innocent motorists,” we pointed out that if you live in modern America, there's a good chance that anytime you leave your house, your movements and whereabouts are being recorded in real-time and stored in a permanent record accessible to anybody willing to pay for database access (or skilled enough to hack into it).

Last May, California state senator Jerry Hill did a little experiment demonstrating just how easily a modern American's whereabouts can be tracked: he hired a private detective to track his wife's activities (presumably with her consent). The detective was easily able to get a fairly inclusive record of whatever she did – including a visit to a gym 100 miles away from home – without having to personally “track” her at all; he merely paid to access a database of license plate scans and used them to reconstruct her whereabouts.

DEA's is even bigger

PhotoAnd, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week, the DEA maintains an even larger database throughout the nation, a database frequently accessed by various state and local law-enforcement agencies seeking to monitor peoples' whereabouts:

The primary goal of the license-plate tracking program, run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, is to seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking, according to one government document. … Officials have publicly said that they track vehicles near the border with Mexico to help fight drug cartels. What hasn’t been previously disclosed is that the DEA has spent years working to expand the database “throughout the United States,’’ according to one email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The DEA collects its information with high-tech cameras placed in strategic locations to monitor public highways. In addition to license plate data, the cameras also photograph vehicles' occupants clearly enough to confirm their identities. The cameras, and the databases of information they collect, let authorized government agents (in addition to the unauthorized hackers who menace any computer data) track people's whereabouts in realtime, in addition to compiling a historical record of people's movements.

Despite all the information presented in the Journal's story, much about the DEA's national surveillance program remains unknown:

The effort began in border states like Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, but the goal has always been expansion, according to current and former federal officials and documents. Officials wouldn’t say how many other states are now feeding data into the system, citing concerns that disclosing such information could help criminals avoid detection.

The federal program hasn’t always been embraced by states. At a 2012 hearing, Utah lawmakers balked when DEA officials sought to have license-plate readers in the state feed into the database—one of the few times the agency has provided even limited facts about the program ….

To reiterate: the federal government has a large and growing nationwide system of cameras set up to monitor and record the locations of literally everybody in America (or, at least, everybody on an American highway).

The federal government won't let citizens or even state-level elected officials know any specifics about how far-reaching this spy-camera program is, and of course justifies this secrecy by saying that if Americans are allowed to know just how much the DEA and other branches of government spy on us, this could “help criminals.”

Police sightings

Photo
WAZE.com

Unsurprisingly, that's pretty much the same argument the NSA [National Sheriffs Association] used last week, to explain why Google ought to disable the police-tracking feature of its popular “Waze” traffic app. Waze is a crowdsourced app that lets users post realtime updates about local road or traffic conditions. It also allows users to report police sightings on public roadways – and, as the Associated Press reported yesterday, the police don't like that idea at all.

Although Waze does show police presence, it offers nothing more specific than a police-shaped icon indicating that police are in an area. But it won't say why — are police in a given location manning a speedtrap? Putting up a roadblock or checkpoint? Taking a lunch break? You won't know; you'll only know that police are there.

But for modern cops, even that is more information than American citizens can be trusted with. Last December, for example, Los Angeles' police chief wrote a letter to Google's CEO complaining that Waze could be “misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community.”

The AP noted that at the National Sheriffs Association meeting last week, Sheriff Mike Brown of Bedford County, Virginia, suggested that “The police community needs to coordinate an effort to have the owner, Google, act like the responsible corporate citizen they have always been and remove this feature from the application even before any litigation or statutory action.”

(Translation: Google should definitely NOT take this as a threat or anything, nobody's threatening any lawsuit or legal actions, we're just urging Google to be responsible and do what we want so we won't have to bother with lawsuits or legal actions, capisce?)

Google declined comment on the matter, but a Waze spokesperson said that Waze works with, and shares information with, police departments around the world, and that “These relationships keep citizens safe, promote faster emergency response and help alleviate traffic congestion.”

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Real estate market getting a lift from 55+ housing

Baby Boomers dropping out once again

While the overall housing market has muddled along over the last 12 months, one segment has been booming – housing developments for people age 55 and over,...

PhotoWhile the overall housing market has muddled along over the last 12 months, one segment has been booming – housing developments for people age 55 and over, often referred to as the “55+” market.

It should come as no surprise that housing for this demographic is ascending. After all, Baby Boomers are by and large, the most affluent segment of the population. They have the money to buy new homes.

They are also at a point in their lives when they are downsizing. Not ready for a retirement home, they are ready for less responsibility and less house. And home builders say they are gravitating toward housing developments that are only open to residents 55 and over.

Healthy segment

"The 55+ housing market has been one of the healthiest segments of the overall housing market, and is likely to remain that way over the next several years," said Paul Emrath, National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) vice president of survey and housing policy research. "When you look at age-restricted single-family starts, there were as many in the first half of 2014 as in all of 2012. And going forward, the steady rise in the 55 and over population will signal an increased need for housing to accommodate that group."

While new home starts have been up and down over the last several years, Emrath says a survey of members that measures builder and developer confidence for that market has regularly posted year-over-year gains.

Proof is in the numbers

The proof of any trend lies in the numbers, not just sentiment. Here, the evidence shows an increase in both people interested in 55+ housing and those actually making the move to purchase a new home.

"We are seeing more consumers actually make the decision to buy a new home as they are able to sell their current home at an acceptable price," said Steve Bomberger, chairman of NAHB's 50+ Housing Council. "We are busier now than ever before. And I don't think it's going to slow down anytime soon."

What's the draw for an age-restricted community? For one, there are no children in the neighborhood. For some, having no kids around is a big plus.

SeniorHomes.com, an online seniors housing resource, says many retirees just want a break from the responsibility of maintaining a home, and to enjoy community amenities or to socialize with people their own age.

Some 55+ communities resemble a resort, offering laundry and kitchen services, along with a 24-hour concierge service. Most communities have recreational facilities like swimming pools and putting greens, as well as activities like art classes and fitness programs.

"Consumers in this market are looking for a home that accommodates their specific needs, and 55+ builders and developers are able to create homes and communities that address these needs," said Timothy McCarthy, vice chairman of NAHB's 50+ Housing Council. "As the economy continues to improve, so does our overall business. Builders in this market have the opportunity to have tremendous success since the population we are serving is so vast."

Costly

But consumers considering a 55+ home need to shop carefully because costs can vary widely. Some developments are non-profit, some are for-profit. In addition to a one-time initial buy-in fee for purchasing a residential unit, 55+ communities typically charge between $2,000 and $5,000 a month for maintenance, upkeep and services, although some facilities may cost less.

Measuring the pros and cons, SeniorHomes.com says residents can enjoy more perks and find assistance in maintaining an active, normal lifestyle as they age in these age-restricted communities.

On the downside, some seniors might feel a sense of loss in the abrupt change from the residential neighborhood where they raised their children. And while the idea of being around only people in your age group might sound attractive, it could be much less so in reality.

Finally, for those who are used to living in single-family homes, apartment-style facilities may prove uncomfortable.

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Carfax counts 46 million vehicles with unrepaired recalls

It's a huge increase over last year's estimate

A year ago Carfax, a company selling automotive data to consumers, reported there were more than 3 million cars on the road in 2013 with an open – or unrep...

PhotoA year ago Carfax, a company selling automotive data to consumers, reported there were more than 3 million cars on the road in 2013 with an open – or unrepaired – safety recall. This year, it counts more than 10 times that number.

Citing new research, Carfax says more than 46 million cars nationwide have at least one safety recall that’s never been fixed. At least 5 million of those vehicles were bought and sold by potentially unsuspecting consumers in 2014, the company says.

Making matters worse is the type of vehicle most likely to have an open recall. Carfax says they are overweighted among so-called family-oriented vehicles – specifically minivans and SUVs. One in 3 minivans and 1 in 5 SUVs have an unfixed recall, according to Carfax.

Cavalier response

“America’s cavalier response to manufacturer safety recalls is putting lives at risk,” said Larry Gamache, communications director at Carfax. “Every morning millions of people drive to work, school and other places in a potential ticking time bomb. Fires, crashes and serious injury are just a few consequences of letting recalls go unfixed. The minor inconvenience that comes from having a recall fixed pales in comparison to what can happen if you don’t.”

When a car is recalled for any reason, the recall notice goes out to the owner of record. But if the owner has sold the vehicle or chooses to ignore the notice, the repair is not made. The vehicle might be sold more than once with the eventual owner completely unaware that the car or truck has a safety defect.

According to Carfax, California, Texas, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania lead the nation in unrepaired recalls. However, the percentage of these vehicles is highest in West Virginia, Michigan, Mississippi, Wyoming and New Jersey.

Surge in recalls

The report is especially troubling since last year saw a huge surge in safety recalls, especially from one manufacturer – General Motors (GM). In November we reported that an estimated 1 million recalled GM cars had still not been repaired.

Driving an unrepaired vehicle can be very dangerous, depending upon the safety issue. In the case of last year's Takata airbag recall, the issue is the fact that exploding airbags could send shrapnel into the body of the driver. The issue has been linked to at least 5 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

A study by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) underlines the importance of having recall repairs made, no matter what defect is involved. It focused on non-crash fires, finding claims went up even after a vehicle had been recalled.

"As one would hope, recalls mitigate the effect of fire-related defects," said HLDI Vice President Matt Moore. "However, even after recalls are issued, these vehicles continue to have higher claim rates. This may be a result of people not following up after receiving a recall notice."

If you are driving an older vehicle – especially one that you purchased used – there is a very simple way to find out if your car has an open recall.

There is a national database of open automotive recalls that can be searched by brand. By entering your car's vehicle identification number (VIN) you can learn if your car has an unrepaired issue. You can access the database here.

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A blizzard is no place for a dog or cat

Pets should be brought inside and kept there, except for very short breaks

As one of the worst winter storms in years wallops the East Coast, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is issuing a pet s...

Photo
Blizzard on Long Island's Great South Bay [Photo (c) Tom Thorson]

As one of the worst winter storms in years wallops the East Coast, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is issuing a pet safety alert.

With a blizzard like this and sub-freezing temperatures bring your pets inside immediately. Make bathroom runs just that -- runs that are quick and to the point.

When taking your pets outside make sure they are prepared. If you have a small pet it may need a coat depending on how thick its fur is. Get booties so their paws don't freeze. Always go out with them and make sure they have ID tags on in case they bolt or something horrible happens.

When you bring them back in make sure you clean them off and check their paws. Look at the paw pads and the spaces in between their toes. Be really careful about ice-melting chemicals and antifreeze -- they can make your pet very ill and they may have a tendency to lick their legs or feet.

Photo
The sun rises over Long Island homes still shuttered after Superstorm Sandy [Photo (c) Tom Thorson]

Pets with diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or hormonal imbalances (such as Cushing’s disease) may have a harder time regulating their body temperature, and may be more susceptible to problems from temperature extremes. The same goes for very young and very old pets.

A warm vehicle engine can be an appealing heat source for outdoor and feral cats, but it’s deadly. Check underneath your car, bang on the hood, and honk the horn before starting the engine to make sure you don't have any extra passengers.

Be careful with space heaters around pets, who could knock them over and start a fire.

Watch where you take that quick walk. When walking your dog, stay away from frozen ponds, lakes and other water. You don’t know if the ice will support your dog’s weight, and if your dog breaks through the ice -- or you do -- it could be deadly.

Photo
The water may look frozen, but don't count on it [Photo (c) Tom Thorson)

Keep an eye out for pets in distress and report them if you see them. In New York City, call 311. 

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FTC urges caution as Internet of Things expands

Interconnected devices are fine but the humans need watching

The Internet of Things -- interconnected devices like appliances and security alarms -- are fine but it's important to protect them against errant humans, ...

PhotoThe Internet of Things -- interconnected devices like appliances and security alarms -- are fine but it's important to protect them against errant humans, a report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cautions.

Consumers are rushing to install Internet-enabled thermostats, smoke alarms, security systems, health and fitness monitors and cars, a trend that promises improved security, economy and efficiency but that also raises privacy and security concerns.

“The only way for the Internet of Things to reach its full potential for innovation is with the trust of American consumers,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “We believe that by adopting the best practices we’ve laid out, businesses will be better able to provide consumers the protections they want and allow the benefits of the Internet of Things to be fully realized.”

There are already more than 25 billion connected devices in use worldwide, with that number set to rise significantly as consumer goods companies, auto manufacturers, healthcare providers, and other businesses continue to invest in connected devices, according to data cited in the report.

The report is partly based on input from leading technologists and academics, industry representatives, consumer advocates and others who participated in the FTC’s Internet of Things workshop held in Washington D.C. on Nov. 19, 2013, as well as those who submitted public comments.

Security was one of the main topics addressed at the workshop and in the comments, particularly due to the highly networked nature of the devices. The report includes the following recommendations for companies developing Internet of Things devices:

  • build security into devices at the outset, rather than as an afterthought in the design process;
  • train employees about the importance of security, and ensure that security is managed at an appropriate level in the organization;
  • ensure that when outside service providers are hired, that those providers are capable of maintaining reasonable security, and provide reasonable oversight of the providers;
  • when a security risk is identified, consider a “defense-in-depth” strategy whereby multiple layers of security may be used to defend against a particular risk;
  • consider measures to keep unauthorized users from accessing a consumer’s device, data, or personal information stored on the network;
  • monitor connected devices throughout their expected life cycle, and where feasible, provide security patches to cover known risks.

Commission staff also recommend that companies consider data minimization – that is, limiting the collection of consumer data, and retaining that information only for a set period of time, and not indefinitely.

The report notes that data minimization addresses two key privacy risks: first, the risk that a company with a large store of consumer data will become a more enticing target for data thieves or hackers, and second, that consumer data will be used in ways contrary to consumers’ expectations.

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Airlines flying high on low oil prices as passenger groups grumble

Lower costs should be reflected in lower fares, advocates argue

Airlines are quick to raise fares and slap on fuel surcharges when fuel costs are high. But they're not so quick to lower fares or eliminate those surcharg...

PhotoAirlines are quick to raise fares and slap on fuel surcharges when fuel costs are high. But they're not so quick to lower fares or eliminate those surcharges when prices tumble. This is starting to irk passengers.

“Because of the big airline mergers, competition has been squeezed out of the system,” said Charlie Leocha, chairman of Travelers United. “With only three network carriers, airlines now have the luxury of ignoring the market and maintaining high prices and low capacity.”

Right on cue, American Airlines reported today that its operating expenses fell 4.1% in the latest quarter to $9.3 billion, primarily because of a 17.3% drop in fuel expense.

It's time for airlines to fasten their seat belts and let fares begin their descent, said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.com, a 50,000-member airline passenger organization.

“We have seen six months of steadily dropping gas costs,” Hudson said in a letter to 12 major U.S. airlines. “By any measure, the money saved by the airlines should be reflected in lower airfares.”

Clear link

American Airlines Jan. 27, 2015, 2:58 p.m.
Consumers rate American Airlines

Airlines are the ones who clearly established the link between fuel and airfares, Hudson said. For the past half-decade while fuel costs were rising, airlines were increasing airfares and regularly proclaiming the dire need for fuel surcharges, baggage fees and other ancillary fees.

“Our organizations are making it clear to Congress and the Department of Justice that the market is not working,” says Hudson. “Consumers should be hearing airlines crow about how airfares are going down and the number of flights increasing thanks to the low cost of oil. Instead we hear deafening silence.”

“Common sense says prices should drop when the biggest cost factor in flying nosedives,” adds Leocha. “This isn’t rocket science. Though economists can make lots of excuses, if there were more competition, consumers would be seeing lower costs to fly.”

“This is a clear consequence of near monopoly in the airline industry,” explains Hudson. “If the airline CEOs don’t take action shortly, Congress, the Department of Transportation and/or the Department of Justice should.”

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A continuing slowdown in home price gains

Analysts are not optimistic about 2015

Home prices across the country continued to rise on a year-over-year basis in November although at a slower rate, while month-over-month, there was a decli...

PhotoHome prices across the country continued to rise on a year-over-year basis in November although at a slower rate, while month-over-month, there was a decline in values.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, both the 10-City Composite gained 4.2% -- down 0.2% from October and the 20-City Composite was up 4.3%%, versus a 4.5% advance the month before. The National Home Price Index -- which covers all 9 U.S. census divisions -- posted a 4.7% annual gain in November 2014 compared with 4.6% in October 2014.

Miami and San Francisco continue to lead all cities, posting gains of 8.6% and 8.9% over the last 12 months. Nine cities -- including Tampa, Atlanta, Charlotte and Portland -- saw annual growth rates climb more than other cities in November; 12-month growth rates for Detroit and Miami dropped the most among all 20 cities.

Month-over-month

Both the National and Composite Indices were down marginally in November. The 10 and 20-City Composites reported declines of -0.3% and -0.2% respectively, while the National Index posted a decline of -0.1% for the month.

Tampa led all cities in November with an increase of 0.8%. Chicago and Detroit offset those gains by reporting decreases of -1.1% and -0.9% respectively.

"With the spring home buying season, and spring training, still a month or two away, the housing recovery is barely on first base," says David Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. "Prospects for a home run in 2015 aren't good. Strong price gains are limited to California, Florida, the Pacific Northwest, Denver, and Dallas. Most of the rest of the country is lagging the national index gains. Moreover, these price patterns have been in place since last spring. Existing home sales were lower in 2014 than 2013, confirming these trends.”

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New home sales surge in December

Sales also posted a gain for all of 2014

Sales of new single-family homes were higher both in December and for the year as a whole. Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Depa...

PhotoSales of new single-family homes were higher both in December and for the year as a whole.

Figures released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show house sold at an annual rate of 481,000 last month -- up 11.6% from the revised November. The previous month's total was revised lower to show an increase of 431,000 instead of the 438,00 reported initially.

The December sales rate was also 8.8% above the rate of 442,000 for December 2013.

For all of 2014, an estimated 435,000 new homes were sold -- 1.2% above the 2013 figure of 429,000.

Prices and inventory

The median price of new houses sold last month was $298,100, up $22,600 from the previous year and a gain of $6,500 from November. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower.

The average sales price was $377,800, a year-over-year gain of $56,600 and up $33,200 from a month earlier.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of December was 219,000, which represents a supply of 5.5 months at the current sales rate.

The complete new home sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Romeos and Juliets will be shelling out more for Valentine’s Day gifts this year

Jewelry and candy are expected to be among the top gifts

Spending on Valentine’s Day gifts is expected to rise this year. According to the National Retail Federation’s ( NRF)Valentine’s Day Consumer Spending Sur...

PhotoSpending on Valentine’s Day gifts is expected to rise this year.

According to the National Retail Federation’s ( NRF)Valentine’s Day Consumer Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, the average person celebrating Valentine’s Day will spend $142.31 on candy, flowers, apparel and more, compared with $133.91 last year. Total spending is expected to reach $18.9 billion -- a survey high.

“It’s encouraging to see consumers show interest in spending on gifts and Valentine’s Day-related merchandise -- a good sign for consumer sentiment as we head into 2015,” said NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay. “Hoping to draw in eager shoppers, retailers will offer unique promotions on gifts, meal options at restaurants and even experiences.”

Candy, Jewelry and flowers

While most (53.2%) plan to buy candy for the sweet holiday, spending a total of $1.7 billion, one in five (21.1%) plans to buy jewelry for a total of $4.8 billion -- the highest amount seen since NRF began tracking spending on Valentine’s gifts in 2010.

Additionally 37.8% will buy flowers, spending a total of $2.1 billion, and more than one-third (35.1%) will spend on plans for a special night out, including movies and restaurants, totaling $3.6 billion. Celebrants will also spend nearly $2 billion on clothing and $1.5 billion on the gift that keeps on giving: gift cards.

Spending to increase

The survey found nine in 10 (91%) plan to treat their significant others/spouses to something special for the consumer holiday, with plans to spend an average of $87.94 on them -- versus $78.09 last year. Additionally, 58.7% will spend an average of $26.26 on other family members and $6.30 on children’s classmates/teachers.

A record one in five (21.2%) say they will include their pets in their Valentine’s Day plans, looking to spend a mere $5.28 on average -- which equates to a whopping $703 million on pint-sized gifts of all varieties.

Eyes on the wallet

Discount (35.2%) and department stores (36.5%) will be among the most visited locations for those looking for the perfect Valentine’s Day gift, as will specialty stores (19.4%) and florists (18.7%). One-quarter (25.1%) say they will shop online and 13.3 percent will shop at a local or small business to find something unique for their loved one.

It seems women are in for the biggest treat this Valentine’s Day. Men will spend nearly double what women plan to spend ($190.53 vs. $96.58 on average, respectively.) Additionally, adults 25-to-34 will outspend other age groups at an average of $213.04; 35-to-44 year olds will spend an average of $176.21 and 18-to-24 year olds will spend an average of $168.95.

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Oscar’s Hickory House recalls sausage products

The products contain soy, milk, wheat and sulfites, allergens not listed on the label

Oscar’s Hickory House of Warrensburg, N.Y., is recalling approximately 376 pounds of sausage products. The products contain soy, milk, wheat, and sulfites...

PhotoOscar’s Hickory House of Warrensburg, N.Y., is recalling approximately 376 pounds of sausage products.

The products contain soy, milk, wheat, and sulfites, allergens not declared on the product label.

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

The following products are being recalled:

  • .75-lb Cryovac 4 link packages of Oscar’s Smoke House “Rabbit Sausage with White Wine (veal and pork added).”
  • .75-lb Cryovac 4 link packages of Oscar’s Smoke House “Elk Sausage with Apples, Pears, and Port Wine (beef and pork added).”
  • .75-lb Cryovac 4 link packages of Oscar’s Smoke House “Hickory Smoked Duck Sausage with Apple Jack Brandy (pork and beef added).”

The recalled products were produced on various dates from March 1, 2014, through January 26, 2015, bear the establishment number “4257” inside the USDA mark of inspection and do not have the sell by date printed on the product label.

They were sold at Oscar’s Hickory House, in Warrensburg, N.Y.

Consumers with questions may contact Jerold Quintal at Oscar’s Hickory House at 1-518-623-3431.

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Volkswagen recalls Touaregs and Audis

The fuel injection system may leak

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 26,008 model year 2011-2012 Audi S4, S5, Q7, 2012 Audi A6, Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, and 2012-2013 Audi A7 vehicl...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 26,008 model year 2011-2012 Audi S4, S5, Q7, 2012 Audi A6, Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, and 2012-2013 Audi A7 vehicles.

The vehicles' fuel injection may leak, and the presence of an ignition source increases the risk of a fire.

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel rails and corresponding seals, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin March 10, 2015.

Owners may contact Audi customer service at 1-800-822-2834 or Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298.

Volkswagen’s numbers for this recall are 24AP for Audi customers and 24BK for Volkswagen customers.

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Green coffee bean promoter to pay $9 million

Dr. Oz ' endorsement carries little weight with the feds

Dr. Oz may think it's great but the Federal Trade Commission says the green coffee bean extract he promoted doesn't live up to its hype. Promoter Lindsey D...

PhotoDr. Oz may think it's great but the Federal Trade Commission says the green coffee bean extract he gushed over doesn't live up to its hype. Promoter Lindsey Duncan and his companies have agreed to pay $9 million to settle FTC deceptive advertising charges.

“Lindsey Duncan and his companies made millions by falsely claiming that green coffee bean supplements cause significant and rapid weight loss,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The FTC charged that Duncan and his companies, Pure Health LLC and Genesis Today, Inc., deceptively claimed that the supplement could cause consumers to lose 17 pounds and 16 percent of their body fat in just 12 weeks without diet or exercise, and that the claim was backed up by a clinical study. In September 2014, the FTC settled charges against the company that sponsored the severely flawed study that Duncan discussed on Dr. Oz.

According to the FTC’s complaint, shortly after Duncan agreed to appear on Dr. Oz but before the show aired, he began selling the extract and tailored a marketing campaign around his appearance on the show to capitalize on the “Oz effect” – a phenomenon in which discussion of a product on the program causes an increase in consumer demand.

Search advertising

For example, while discussing green coffee bean extract during the taping of Dr. Oz, Duncan urged viewers to search for the product online using phrases his companies would use in search advertising to drive consumers to their websites selling the extract.

He reached out to retailers, describing his upcoming appearance on The Dr. Oz Show and saying he planned to discuss the clinical trials that purportedly proved the supplement’s effectiveness. He and his companies also began an intensive effort to make the extract available in Walmart stores and on Amazon.com when the program aired.

The FTC also alleged that Duncan and several of the companies’ paid spokespeople portrayed themselves on television shows as independent sources of information about green coffee bean extract and other natural remedies, while failing to disclose their financial ties to the companies.

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Auto insurers gouge lower-income safe drivers, study finds

High premiums contribute to high rate of uninsured drivers, restrict economic opportunity

Lower-income consumers are being unfairly gouged for car insurance, a study by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) finds, contributing to the high rat...

PhotoLower-income consumers are being unfairly gouged for car insurance, a study by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) finds, contributing to the high rate of uninsured drivers and restricting economic opportunities.

The study found that annual auto insurance premiums are especially high for the estimated 8 million low- and moderate-income drivers who finance their car purchases. These drivers must purchase the comprehensive and collision coverage required by auto lenders in addition to the liability coverage required by states.

In the 15 cities CFA surveyed, annual premium quotes by the nation's five largest auto insurers -- State Farm, GEICO, Allstate, Progressive, and Farmers -- were almost always more than $900 and were usually more than $1,500.

In a related national opinion survey undertaken by ORC International for CFA, nearly four-fifths of respondents (79%) said that a fair annual cost for this auto insurance coverage was less than $750. One-half (50%) said that a fair annual cost was less than $500.

“High auto insurance premiums represent a huge barrier to car ownership, and economic opportunity, for millions of lower-income Americans,” said Stephen Brobeck, CFA’s Executive Director. “Researchers agree that they and other Americans, even those in large cities, gain access to better jobs and other opportunities through access to a car,” he added.

The report faulted state governments for allowing major auto insurers to charge higher premiums based on income and other factors not directly related to safety.

“State governments, which require drivers to purchase auto insurance, have a special responsibility to ensure that this insurance is affordable in an auto-dependent society,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s Director of Insurance and former Texas Insurance Commissioner. “These governments should create low-income programs that pay for themselves, such as California’s, and also end well-documented price discrimination against lower-income drivers.”

For more than a decade, California has made available liability coverage to good lower-income drivers for $226 to $338 a year, depending on county of residence. By law, this program is required to charge premiums that cover claims paid, so is not subsidized by taxpayers or other drivers.

GEICO the lowest

GEICO tended to charge the least (e.g., 6 of the 8 quotes under $900) while Farmers tended to charge the most (e.g., 12 of the 16 quotes over $3,000).
Within individual markets, huge price ranges typically exceeded 100 percent.

“Any economist will tell you that price ranges greater than 100% for essentially the same product reveal lack of true price competition,” noted CFA’s Brobeck.

“As well as denying economic opportunity, these high premiums pressure many lower-income drivers to break the law by driving without insurance,” Hunter said. “We’ve estimated that one-quarter to one-third of these drivers have let their policies lapse or never purchased them in the first place, because they confront the Hobson’s choice of paying for insurance or more basic necessities like food, rent, or electricity.”

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Google, Cablevision ready to wade into wireless wars

You thought Uber was disruptive? Wait til you see this

What was once called the cellphone business is about to face the kind of disruption that has left everything from newspapers to taxis wondering where their...

PhotoWhat was once called the cellphone business is about to face the kind of disruption that has left everything from newspaper barons to taxi drivers wondering where their next meal is coming from.

Google and Cablevision are readying news wireless services that will throw a wrench into the creaking machinery of AT&T, Verizon and their smaller competitors. Comcast may also be cooking up something similar.

If they work as planned, the new services will be close enough to traditional cellphones that most consumers probably won't notice a difference. But there is in fact a big difference -- both will be heavily reliant on wi-fi to supplement the cellphone spectrum that is currently in short supply and held hostage by existing cellphone companies who demand -- and get -- top dollar from customers.

While neither company has formally announced its plans, both are thought to be ready to do so in the first half of this year.

While this could turn out to be good news for consumers struggling with high wireless prices and unpredictable connectivity, it's shaping up to be a collosal headache for AT&T, Verizon and the other entrenched companies who are already in the midst of a modest price war.

Google's system, according to published reports, will use a combination of wi-fi and spectrum space leased from T-Mobile and Sprint while Cablevision apparently plans to rely solely on wi-fi.

You're the tower

And just where is this wi-fi capacity coming from? It may be as close as your home. Comcast has been quietly replacing the routers it supplies to cable customers with new models that have a "channel" for use by the customer and another channel that will be available to anyone with a Comcast account. Cablevision's plan may be similar.

This means that someone driving by your home may be, for at least a few seconds, connecting through the router in your spare bedroom.

Cablevision calls its service Freewheel and says it will include unlimited data, talk and text for $9.95 a month for the company’s broadband Internet subscribers and $29.95 for noncustomers.

There has been some consternation from activists who say Comcast is invading its users privacy and needlessly running up their electricity bills. But Comcast insists the second "channel" -- which isn't really a channel but simply a second user account on the router -- will be completely walled off from the consumer's network and the twain shall never meet.

Google, which already knows pretty much everything worth knowing, has been building a database of routers that have publicly accessible channels and will presumably be using them to supplement the spectrum space it buys from traditional carriers.

Obviously, there are many details still to be worked out, or at least made public, but the takeaway for consumers is that what has essentially been a closed club -- the cellphone business -- is about to burst wide open.

What's your model?

Leaving aside the technical aspects, which are mildly mind-boggling, it's significant that the new entrants are likely to have business models that vary wildly from the incumbents; AT&T and Verizon are in the cellphone business to sell cellphones and time on the network. Google is in business to collect data about its customers and sell advertising while Cablevision and Comcast are in business to sell cable TV and Internet connections.

This makes it very likely that the services offered by Google and the other new entrants will be priced very aggressively and perhaps offered on a bring-your-own-phone basis, letting consumers escape more readily from the ironclad phone leases and service contracts the current big guys insist on.

Skeptics say wi-fi isn't up to the job and the new services won't work very well. Could be, but ask yourself this -- how well does your current wireless service work? If you're like most of us, it works OK sometimes, not so great other times, so what else is new?

 

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Adobe releases second security patch for last week's zero-day exploit

Patch applies to automatic updates only; manual updaters must wait until later this week

Last week Adobe released a update intended to patch a zero-day vulnerability which the security blog Malware Don't Need Coffee had initially discovered in ...

PhotoLast week Adobe released a update intended to patch a zero-day vulnerability which the security blog Malware Don't Need Coffee had initially discovered in certain versions of Flash.

But within hours of releasing that patch last Thursday, Adobe admitted that the hackers who exploited the initial vulnerability had already discovered how to work around the patch, meaning that Flash users were still vulnerable to hackers until at least Jan. 26, the day Adobe said it intended to release the second patch.

Adobe's updated Security Advisory also notes that a patch to fix another security flaw went through on Saturday, Jan. 24 – but only for those set for automatic updates. For those who manually update Flash, the second patch won't be released until sometime this week:

… users who have enabled auto-update for the Flash Player desktop runtime will be receiving version 16.0.0.296 beginning on January 24. This version includes a fix for CVE-2015-0311. Adobe expects to have an update available for manual download during the week of January 26 ….

Until you are able to apply the second update to Flash, your best bet is to play it safe and disable Flash altogether.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Jan. 24 patch fixed the initial vulnerability.
 

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IRS warns taxpayers to watch out for IRS scammers

Whether you owe taxes or expect a refund, there's a scammer trying to trick you over it

With tax-filing season in high gear, the IRS has issued its annual warnings against thieving scammers who pretend to be IRS agents so they can prey on taxp...

PhotoWith tax-filing season in high gear, the IRS has issued its annual warnings against thieving scammers who pretend to be IRS agents so they can prey on taxpayers, either by directly stealing money, or indirectly via identity theft.

Every January, the IRS releases a list of the most common tax-related scams from the previous year. On Friday, the agency kicked off the weekend with an announcement reminding everyone that “Phishing remains on the IRS 'Dirty Dozen' list of tax scams” for this year's tax-filing season.

Of course, phishing scams aren't remotely limited to the IRS; pretty much every genuine company or government agency in existence has scammers operating in its name somewhere. But there's enough phishers posing as federal tax agents that the IRS website has an entire page dedicated exclusively to letting taxpayers “Report phishing and online scams.”

The IRS urges all taxpayers to:

Report all unsolicited email claiming to be from the IRS or an IRS-related function to phishing@irs.gov. Recent scams have used the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS) to attract potential victims.  Also, if you've experienced any monetary losses due to an IRS-related incident, please report it to the Treasury Inspector General Administration (TIGTA) and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) through their Complaint Assistant to make the information available to investigators.

Fake emails from the IRS usually fall into one of two categories: those claiming you must pay taxes, and those claiming you're owed a refund. The “false refund” messages are often attempts to steal your personal information so the scammers can commit identity theft; the email might, for example, request your Social Security and bank account numbers, ostensibly to deposit a tax refund into your account.

The message might also be loaded with malware, and the scammers want you to click on links or download attachments in order to install that malware onto your computer. (Of course, you should never download attachments or click on links in any unsolicited emails, no matter who they're supposedly from.)

Back taxes

On the other hand, you might instead receive emails — or even phone calls — claiming that you owe back taxes to the IRS. In such instances, the caller or email writer will not only demand payment from you, but will threaten you with arrest and imprisonment if you don't pay immediately.

You can be confident that such a message is not actually from an IRS agent. As the IRS' “Report Phishing” page says (with the italicized bold-print word lifted form the original): “The IRS doesn't initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information. This includes requests for PIN numbers, passwords or similar access information for credit cards, banks or other financial accounts.”

The threat of immediate consequences is another tipoff that the message isn't from the IRS: yes, the agency really does go after delinquent taxpayers, and even puts people in prison for non-payment. But the IRS, when going after tax scofflaws, does not demand payment over the phone or via email. Nor would a legitimate IRS agent demand payment in cash, via a pre-paid money card or some other untraceable source.

And, while the IRS does impose deadlines on people, and has the right to say “Pay up by a certain time or face consequences,” that time is always at least several days in the future. You'll never hear an IRS agent tell you “Pay up right now, or you'll be arrested right now.”

For the most part, IRS agents don't threaten people with arrest at all — because, quite frankly, they don't need to. Unlike scammers, real IRS agents know they have the law on their side. Scammers, by contrast, make scary-sounding threats in hopes of pressing your panic button long enough for your fear to override your good sense: “Act now pay now right now, don't calm down and especially don't stop to think how very unlikely it is that you could be a tax scofflaw bad enough that you're headed for prison right now, yet until five seconds ago you had no idea.”

What to do

If you get a phone call or any other communication from someone claiming to be from the IRS, and you don't want to hang up for fear of possibly offending a genuine IRS agent, the IRS says that you should “Record the employee's name, badge number, call back number and caller ID if available.” (If the so-called IRS agent refuses to give you this information, that alone guarantees you're talking to a scammer.)

Once you have this information, the agency says, you should “[c]all 1-800-366-4484 to determine if the caller is an IRS employee with a legitimate need to contact you.” If it was, then call the agent back. Otherwise, the IRS requests that you report the scam attempt by sending an email to phishing@irs.gov, with “IRS Phone Scam” as the subject. You might also consider calling your local police to let them know about the phone-scam attempt in their jurisdiction.

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It's getting expensive to have a dog that's considered dangerous

In fact, the liability attached to a "dangerous" breed may be more than most consumers can afford

If you have a dog that’s deemed dangerous in Florida, you'd better start cutting back on dog treats or maybe get a smaller house and a cheaper car, because...

PhotoIf you have a pit bull or other dog that’s generally considered dangerous, you'd better start cutting back on dog treats or maybe get a smaller house and a cheaper car, because you are going to have a hefty insurance premium -- if you can even find a policy.

Owners of dogs classified as dangerous by Ormond Beach, Fla., for example, will now have to get $100,000 liability insurance coverage to keep their pets after an ordinance passed by the City Commission. Other locales are looking at similar legislation.

How does a dog get a "dangerous" label? It takes just one time, that's it. If your dog attacks a human once or it attacks another animal more than twice in Ormond Beach you will be officially living with a dangerous dog.

Before the vote last week, the dog owner just had to carry a policy for $1,000 but the city fathers felt the higher policy limit was justified because of the cost of treating dog-bite injuries. Research shows that the average medical bill for someone bitten by a dog is around $40,000.

If you don't have the $100,000 insurance, you have to leave the area or surrender your dog.

Homeowners policy not enough

While homeowners and renters insurance usually cover dog bites, they often don't provide enough coverage to handle major injuries. Also, insurance companies are increasingly excluding breeds considered dangerous.

One answer is to buy an "umbrella" policy, which basically covers everything not covered by other policies. But again, insurance companies are excluding dangerous breeds from those policies as well.

Pit bulls and rottweilers are generally considered the most dangerous breeds, according to DogsBite.org.

Laws, of course, vary by state and from one city or two to another within each state but the trend is clearly towards harsh penalties and escalating liability for vicious dogs and their owners.

Maryland recently backed away from laws aimed specifically at pit bulls when then-Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a measure repealing what some called "canine racism." But a few months later, in Frederick, Md., a pit bull attacked and killed its 87-year-old owner, Eugene Smith, as he took down his Christmas tree.

Backers of the anti-canine racism measure disclaimed any responsibility for the incident.

Legal niceties aside, what it comes down to is that owning a dog considered to be dangerous represents a legal liability that is greater than most consumers can afford.

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1 in 5 Americans admit to financial infidelity

What the spouse doesn't know can hurt them

What they don't know won't hurt them. Is that an OK motto for a relationship? About 20% of Americans seem to think it works for them. About 1 in 5 say they...

PhotoWhat they don't know won't hurt them. Is that an OK motto for a relationship? About 20% of Americans seem to think it works for them. About 1 in 5 say they have spent $500 or more without telling their partner.

Then there are the independents who make up 6% and maintain a hidden checking or savings account and use secret credit cards. Of course there are couples who are open about separate accounts, and they have the freedom to spend as they see fit.

Creditcards.com did a national, random telephone survey of 843 American adults who said they were currently living with a spouse or partner or significant other. If you extend the results to the general population that would mean about 7 million Americans are keeping financial secrets and committing financial infidelity.

Paula Levy, a marriage and family therapist in Connecticut who just happens to be a certified public accountant as well, says there is nothing out of the ordinary about couples keeping some financial secrets. “In most cases, the secret is mostly to avoid conflict and to make sure they get what they want," said Levy.

Lack of trust

The problem arises when one of the parties finds out that a secret has been kept from them. That creates a lack of trust and can undermine a relationship.

"Hidden accounts are way more common than people think," said Paula Langguth Ryan, a financial advisor who helps consumers work out debt problems.

Such problems often arise when one spouse is afraid to tell the other how much debt they have run up. The truth usually emerges after something hits the fan such as a car in the driveway being repossessed or a lien on the house pops up seemingly from nowhere.

Who do you think is more likely to be hiding a credit card or checking account? It seems that men hold the wallet closest to their pants pocket; 8% of men admitted to having had secret accounts, compared with 5% of women. Men were almost twice as likely as women to say they spent $500 or more without telling their partners: 26% of men, versus just 14% of women.

On the other hand, men don't seem to be bothered if their spouse or significant other spends large amounts of cash without telling them. Thirty-one percent of men and 18% of women say they would have no problem with their partner spending $500 or more without letting them know.

How do you know?

So how do you know if someone is committing financial infidelity? There are ways to spot it, according to Terry Savage, a financial columnist and co-author of "The New Love Deal: Everything You Must Know before Marrying, Moving in or Moving on."

"The first warning of financial infidelity often comes when something doesn't feel quite right," she said. "Unexpected debits for cash from a debit card, unusual credit purchases, or accounts that don't 'balance' will lead you right to the money leak." Look at bank statements. You should have access to those if you have a joint account.

Like anything in a relationship you need to talk about it. The best time is probably not when you are out to dinner or in a movie. Pick a time where you both can take a look at your credit report and go through it and figure a way to work together to solve the problem. Most money issues aren't about money -- they're about power.

People have money personalities -- you are either a saver or a spender. These personalities were years in the making. If you are spending more than you have -- or if your spouse is -- and you can't seem to work it out, get a financial counselor who can help set up a plan that will work for both of you.

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J.J. Fuds recalls Chicken Tender Chunks pet food

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

J.J. Fuds of Valparaiso, Ind., is recalling a select lot and product of J.J. Fuds Chicken Tender Chunks pet food. The product may be contaminated with Lis...

PhotoJ.J. Fuds of Valparaiso, Ind., is recalling a select lot and product of J.J. Fuds Chicken Tender Chunks pet food.

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The company has received no reports of human or animal illness as a result of these products.

The following product is being recalled:

  • 5-lb. bags of J. J. Fuds Premium Natural Blends, Chicken Tender Chunks with Product UPC Number: 654592-345935; Manufacture/Lot Code Date: 5/5/14

The recalled product was distributed to wholesale and retail customers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. It can be identified by the batch ID code (manufactured date) and UPC code printed on the back of the individual plastic bag or on the master case label.

It is a frozen raw poultry product (see Safe Handling Instructions on package) and has a shelf life of one year if kept frozen.

Pet owners who have the affected product should return it to the retailer for a refund and proper disposal.

Consumers with questions regarding this recall, may call 888-435-5873 Monday-Friday 8AM-4PM, CST.

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Primecut Meats recalls chicken breast fritters products

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

Primecut Meats of Phoenix, Ariz., is recalling approximately 17,700 pounds of chicken breast fritters products. The products contain eggs, an allergen no...

PhotoPrimecut Meats of Phoenix, Ariz., is recalling approximately 17,700 pounds of chicken breast fritters products.

The products contain eggs, an allergen not declared on the product label.

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

The the following items, produced on various dates prior to January 23, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 4 lb. boxes of “Prime Poultry Chicken Breast Fritters.”

The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-27220” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in Arizona and Colorado.

Consumers with questions may contact Chad Poppen, at (602) 455-8834.

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Aspen Foods recalls chicken steak products

The products contain wheat and soy, allergens not listed on the label

The Aspen Foods division of Koch Foods of Chicago, Ill., is recalling approximately 1,140 pounds of chicken steak products. The products contain wheat and...

PhotoThe Aspen Foods division of Koch Foods of Chicago, Ill., is recalling approximately 1,140 pounds of chicken steak products.

The products contain wheat and soy, allergens not declared on the product label.

The problem was discovered after the firm received consumer complaints indicating that the Lemon Pepper flavored ChicNSteakes boxes actually contain Chicken Teriyaki flavored ChicNSteakes. Teriyaki ChicNSteakes contain soy and wheat allergens, which are not in the Lemon Pepper flavored ChicNSteakes.

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

The following ChicNSteakes items, produced on December 13, 2014, are being recalled:

  • 2-lb. selling unit boxes containing vacuum-packages of “Market Day Teriyaki Flavored ChicNSteakes.” in boxes labeled “Market Day Lemon Pepper ChicNSteakes.”

The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-1358” inside the USDA mark of inspection. The inner package and the selling unit boxes will have a Julian Date of “3464” and the outer box will have a pack date of 12/13/14.

The items produced were shipped to locations in Illinois for further distribution.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Mike Fields at (847) 384-5940.

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Freeland Foods recalls Spicy Seed

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Freeland Foods of San Jose, Calif., is recalling Go Raw Organic Spicy Seed Mix. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses have been r...

PhotoFreeland Foods of San Jose, Calif., is recalling Go Raw Organic Spicy Seed Mix.

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date associated with the consumption of this product

Based upon a random sampling, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ("CFIA") has determined that the Go Raw Brand Organic Spicy Seed Mix, UPC number 8 59888 00040 0, lot number "Enjoy before May 12, 2015 R2," sold in 1-lb. (454 g) re-sealable plastic bags sold by Ecomax, tested positive for Salmonella.

Consumers who have purchased this product should destroy it or return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

The recalled product was marketed through distributors, retailers and direct customers across the U.S. and Canada.

Consumer with questions or concerns may contact the company at 1-877-456-8729 between 9AM – 3PM Monday – Friday or by email at returns@goraw.com.

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Feds report growing oil supply

Last week's surge was the largest in 14 years

Forget about oil prices going back up anytime in the near future. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports U.S. petroleum stockpiles surged...

PhotoForget about oil prices going back up anytime in the near future. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports U.S. petroleum stockpiles surged last week by the largest amount in 14 years.

Oil storage facilities are filled to the brim and companies had to scramble to find places to store the extra 10 million barrels of oil U.S. produced and imported. Total stockpiles reached nearly 397 million barrels, the EIA weekly status report said.

The news sent oil prices plunging once again on world markets, with cheaper U.S. crude approaching $45 a barrel. With so much supply engulfing demand, there is little to propel oil prices higher for the foreseeable future, analysts say.

More important, commodities traders have drastically reduced their positions in the oil market over the last six months, no longer competing with end users of oil – a practice that contributed to oil's lofty heights over the last decade.

More gasoline too

The EIA report also shows gasoline stockpiles rose during the week ending January 16, rising .04% from the week before. That increase should continue to place downward pressure on prices at the pump.

As a result, the national average price of self-serve regular continues to drift toward $2 a gallon. At an average $2.04 a gallon, the price is now $1.24 cheaper than at this time a year ago, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey.

Gasoline prices are now at the lowest level since April 2009 and AAA predicts the national average will fall below $2 a gallon before the end of the month. Some drivers are already paying well below $2 a gallon.

Show Me low prices

For example, the cheapest fuel in the U.S. can be found in Missouri, with an average of $1.76 a gallon. It's followed by Oklahoma, at $1.80 and Kansas at $1.81.

Hawaii's gasoline prices, influenced more by taxes and transportation costs than oil prices, are the only U.S. gasoline prices to remain above $3 a gallon at this point. Alaska is the next most-expensive state, at $2.82 a gallon and New York, at $2.50.

In fact, those 3 states are the only ones where the average price remains above $2.50 a gallon.

If history is any guide consumers could see a 30 to 50 cent increase in prices this spring, as refineries reduce capacity for maintenance and switch over to summer grade gasoline. But AAA sees little likelihood the increase will be lasting.

“These sustained lower prices would be a result of projected shifts in the balance between global oil supply and demand,” AAA said.

And of course, this shift was all started when OPEC decided not to react to rising supplies by cutting production. Instead, it continues to pressure U.S. producers to do the cutting.

Until one side blinks, motorists should continue to enjoy lower prices at the pump.

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Zero-day exploit leaves Adobe Flash vulnerable to hackers

Yesterday's security update didn't work. Flaw won't be fixed until at least Jan. 26

Yesterday, Adobe released a new security update initially intended to patch a zero-day security flaw in Flash – but mere hours after releasing the patch, A...

Photo
Photo credit: Adobe

Yesterday, Adobe released a new security update initially intended to patch a zero-day security flaw in Flash – but mere hours after releasing the patch, Adobe admitted that hackers have already figured out how to work around it. Adobe is not scheduled to release the newest security update until Jan. 26, so until then your safest course of action might be to disable Flash altogether.

The zero-day vulnerability was first discovered and reported earlier this week by the security blog Malware Don't Need Coffee. But Adobe also investigated (and eventually confirmed) reports that hackers might already have figured out ways to work around the update, and continue exploiting the vulnerability.

In tech-speak, a “zero-day” threat is one that exploits a previously unknown vulnerability; since nobody (other than bad-guy hackers) knew about the security hole, nobody's had time to patch it, and so zero days pass between the discovery of the vulnerability and the discovery of the attack.

Adobe's Jan. 22 Security Bulletin says that the exploit affects Adobe Flash Player 16.0.0.257 and earlier versions; Adobe Flash Player 13.0.0.260 and earlier 13.x versions; and Adobe Flash Player 11.2.202.429 and earlier versions for Linux. If you don't know which version you have, you can find out by clicking here.

However, rather than worry about which still-vulnerable version of Flash you have, you might be better off disabling it altogether until at least next Monday, when the next patch is released.

For instructions how to disable Flash in Chrome, click here. For Internet Explorer, click here. Chick here for Firefox.

Thus far, the vulnerability doesn't seem to affect Macs, but Mac users might want to disable Flash on Safari just in case.

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Safety regulators add automatic braking to star-rating system

It's intended to reduce the number and severity of rear-end collisions

Federal safety regulators have been looking at beefing up the five-star safety rating system that helps consumers identify cars that perform well in crash ...

PhotoFederal safety regulators have been looking at beefing up the five-star safety rating system that helps consumers identify cars that perform well in crash and rollover tests. Of course, even better than performing well in crashes is avoiding them, which is why the feds are adding automatic braking to the criteria they'll consider for future ratings.

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx announced the change at a Washington conference with automotive engineers, saying he wanted to "keep raising the bar on safety."

Automatic braking is just what the name implies -- when a front-mounted camera detects that your car is closing too quickly on the car in front of you, it applies the brakes. 

The feature is offered as an option on a few high-end luxury vehicles today but is still relatively rare. More common is a warning system that sounds a loud beep and flashes a dashboard warning when it detects an impending collision.

One-third of all police-reported crashes in 2013 involved a rear-end collision with another vehicle, according to data gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency found that a large number of drivers involved in rear-end crashes either did not apply the brakes at all or did not apply the brakes fully prior to the crash.

Automatic emergency baking can intervene by automatically applying the vehicle's brakes or supplementing the driver's braking effort to mitigate the severity of the crash or to avoid it altogether, NHTSA engineers say.

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Deck it out -- small improvements can make a big difference in your home's value

Renters are once again looking to buy; is your home ready?

Americans know that a home is a person’s castle. Single-family housing starts in December reached their highest monthly activity in nearly 7 years. Still, ...

PhotoAmericans know that a home is a person’s castle. Single-family housing starts in December reached their highest monthly activity in nearly 7 years. Still, the increase is coming off very depressed levels and another 50% jump is needed to help relieve a potential housing shortage. But of course there is always your house that can be sold, knowing that there is a shortage.

Perhaps it's time for an upgrade just to modernize your home a bit or to start prepping for a sale.

According to recent Fitch Ratings forecasts, people will be spending more money on home improvements in 2015. The projection is that home improvement spending will increase 6% over the next year. Consumers will be parting with cash for smaller projects and putting off the big ticket renovations. A few upgrades can go a long way toward boosting the value of your home.

One of the first things people see from the exterior of your home is your garage and if the basketball has hit it a few too many times or you have backed into it trying to avoid the bikes and tools, maybe it's time for an upgrade. It can give your house a real facelift. The door should be secure and in good condition. Updating the garage door is an opportunity to boost security and ensure easy access to this important space.

Deck it out

Deck out the back yard with a deck. A deck will provide you with more than a place to flip burgers and soak up the sun. “Buyers see a deck as offering a seamless transition from inside to out,” says Jerry Levine, president of the Levine Group, an architectural and construction firm in Silver Spring, Maryland. Experts suggest using natural, rustic wood.

Knock out the kitchen. By this we mean take out a wall that connects it to another area. “It makes the kitchen feel more spacious," says Phyllis Rockower, owner of the Real Estate Investors Club of Los Angeles in California. "If you're cooking, you can still hear what people are saying during a party, or keep an eye on your kids while they're playing.”

The front door is the entryway to your castle and it's the area where people are first welcomed. According to HGTV, an updated front door can generate a return on your home of over 100% of your original investment. Your home will look appealing and may even be more energy efficient. Many top contractors offer package deals when you update your windows and doors at the same time. Think energy efficient when updating both. Windows can create a whole new look to your entire house.

Nothing like a fresh coat of paint. Paint a house of many colors. Just by modernizing your paint colors inside and outside, the house will have a whole new feel.

Keep it dry

Know this though -- all of the paint and new windows won't mean a thing if your basement has water in it when it rains or the roof leaks or your septic tank backs up all the time. If you are investing in a renovation make sure the basics are covered first. More than 70% of buyers who purchased existing homes knew what they were going to remodel before they even closed on the deal, according to HanleyWood's Housing Continuum Study, conducted in 2002 in conjunction with Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The same study showed that 30% to 40% of buyers of existing homes made home improvements within six months after purchase.

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Texas debt collector sued by feds

The agency allegedly illegally threatened consumers

A Texas debt collector faces charges that it used illegal tactics by threatening consumers with false claims of lawsuits and garnishment....

PhotoA Texas debt collector faces charges that it used illegal tactics by threatening consumers with false claims of lawsuits and garnishment.

“When it comes to debt collection, people have rights,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It’s illegal to harass people, or to make false threats about wage garnishment or lawsuits. Unfortunately, these unscrupulous debt collectors systematically lied to the people they called.”

The FTC’s complaint charges Commercial Recovery Systems, Inc. (CRS), its president, Timothy Ford, and its former vice president, David Devany, with violating the FTC Act and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by using deceptive methods to collect debts.

CRS has been collecting consumer debts nationwide since 1994. The company collects third-party debt, including credit card and auto loan debt. The company’s representatives contact consumers via telephone and mail.

“The defendants in this case are alleged to have lied to consumers in violation of the law,” said DOJ’s Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, Joyce R. Branda. “We will enforce these laws and stop those who would use deception to extract money from American consumers.”

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A strong finish for sales of existing homes

Nonetheless, 2014 was not a strong year

Sales of previously-owned homes rebound last month from their November slump. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports existing-home sales -- co...

PhotoSales of previously-owned homes rebounded last month from their November slump.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- rose 2.4% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.04 million in December. The increase put sales above an annual pace of 5 million for the sixth time in 7 months and 3.5% above the December 2013 level.

That news was tempered, though, by the fact that for all of 2014, there were 4.93 million sales -- down 3.1% decline from the 2013 total of 5.09 million. In a more positive year-over-year comparison, the national median existing-home price was $208,500 -- the highest since 2007 ($219,000) and a 5.8% increase from 2013 ($197,100). That marks the 34th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower.

A second half pickup

Sales picked up in December to close a 2014 that got off to a sluggish start but showed encouraging signs of activity the second half of the year. “Home sales improved over the summer once inventory increased, prices moderated and economic growth accelerated,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Sales were measurably better in the second half -- up 8% compared to the first 6 months of the year.”

Yun says it's not all sunshine and blue skies in the immediate future, though. “A drop in housing supply in December raises some affordability concerns in the months ahead as minimal selection and the potential for faster price appreciation could offset the demand from buyers encouraged by a stronger economy and sub-4% interest rates,” he noted, adding, “Housing costs -- both rents and home prices -- continue to outpace wages and are burdensome for potential buyers trying to save for a down payment while looking for available homes in their price range.”

Regional breakdown

  • December existing-home sales in the Northeast declined 2.9% to an annual rate of 660,000, but are 3.1% above a year ago. The median price was $246,600 -- 3.2% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest, sales fell 3.5% to an annual level of 1.09 million, and are now 2.7% below December 2013. The median price rose 5.3% from a year ago -- to $159,100.
  • Existing-home sales in the South climbed 3.8% to an annual rate of 2.17 million, and are 7.4% above December 2013. The median price was $184,100, a year-over-year advance of 6.6%.
  • Sales in the West shot up 9.8% to an annual rate of 1.12 million, and are 2.8% from a year ago. The median price was $299,600, which is 5.6% above December 2013.
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Nissan recalls Pathfinders, Rogues and Infiniti QX60s

The front wheel hub assembly fasteners may not have been properly torqued

Nissan North America is recalling 893 model year 2014-2015 Nissan Pathfinder and Infiniti QX60 vehicles manufactured August 14, 2014, to November 5, 2014, ...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 893 model year 2014-2015 Nissan Pathfinder and Infiniti QX60 vehicles manufactured August 14, 2014, to November 5, 2014, and 2014-2015 Nissan Rogue vehicles manufactured August 12, 2014, to November 15, 2014.

During the assembly process, the front wheel hub assembly fasteners may not have been properly torqued. The under-torqued fasteners may result in a brake caliper separating from the wheel assembly causing a reduction in braking performance or reduced steering control. These conditions increase the risk of a crash.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the vehicles and tighten any loose bolts to the proper specification, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 25, 2015.

Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

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6 weight-loss programs that can help you keep your New Year's resolution

Some can help you establish good long-term habits; others provide a quick fix

There's no shortage of advice on how to lose weight. You could take up triathlons, switch to a raw or paleo diet or begin counting calories and keep track...

Photo
Graphic © Alexey Bannykh

There's no shortage of advice on how to lose weight. You could take up triathlons, switch to a raw or paleo diet or begin counting calories and keeping track of every morsel that passes your lips.

Some of these might work for some people, some for others. But which one will work for you? And for how long? That's the 64-pound question. The answer, of course, is whichever program helps you eat fewer calories than you burn. The hard part is finding a program that does that and that you can follow from now until forever.

The best place to start is with your doctor, who may already be nagging you about your weight, your cholesterol reading, your blood pressure and your impending metabolic disease. You need to be sure you don't have a condition that requires a special diet before you embark on a major change in your eating habits.

Unfortunately, when it comes to helping patients lose weight, many physicians don't do much beyond nagging. If you're lucky, yours may outline a regimen, refer you to a dietitian nutritionist or recommend a local program. If not, you'll be on your own.

Experts will tell you that the best way to proceed is to find a dietitian nutritionist who can build a diet specifically suited to you and who will help you stick to that diet. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has an online directory that will help you find someone in your city. What you want is a "registered dietitian nutritionist." This is a certified healthcare specialist, not just someone who decided to hang up a shingle. (The term "nutritionist" is not as rigorously defined). 

But if you're like most of us, you'll probably not go that far. Going the do-it-yourself route may work if you're willing and able to do a lot of research, put together a reasonable plaln and stick to it. But just as most of us call a plumber rather than trying to fix the water heater ourselves, most consumers turn to commercial weight-loss plans. 

While there's no shortage of commercial plans, it can be confusing trying to wade through all of them. One good place to start is the ConsumerAffairs Weight Loss Buyers Guide, which reviews several major brands. It's also worth checking out the ConsumerAffairs Weight Loss News Section, a compilation of news stories by our sleek and slender news staff. 

Here's a quick look at some of the better-known plans.

Nutrisystem

You might call Nutrisystem the Amazon of the weight-loss business -- it's huge and has lots of cardboard boxes. It uses those cardboard boxes to send you the meals that fit the profile you've worked out with online and telephone consultants. You order the meals you want off a customized menu and they show up at your door on a regular basis. Selections are also available at Walmart, Amazon and other retailers.

The advantage of this is that it takes the guesswork out of sticking to your diet and, not coincidentally, relieves you of that burdensome question, "What's for dinner?"

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There are those who will argue that the freshest local food is the healthiest and this may be true but it's also true that people who have jobs, children and other responsibilities don't always have time to go to the farmer's market each day and to then spend an hour peeling the carrots and potatoes. There are also many people who simply don't like to cook and aren't very good at it. Nutrisystem is ideal for them. Open the box, pop the ingredients into the microwave and dinner is served.

Does it work? Many who have tried it say it does. A few years ago, reporter Joe Enoch volunteered to try it, and spent the next 28 days eating Nutrisystem meals.

"I dove head first into this diet, only breaking from it once, and briefly, to celebrate at a birthday party which I helped plan. In total, I lost 13 pounds. In a 28-day period, that's fantastic and it has felt great having people ask me if I've lost weight," Enoch reported at the end of the 28 days.

A large guy with a previously big appetite, Joe said he was hungry during the first few days but quickly adapted to eating the smaller, more frequent portions that Nutrisystem supplied. There was also an unexpected plus:

"Because of all the fruits, vegetables and healthy carbs, I often had more energy than I did when I was consuming nearly double the calories. Occasionally I would feel drained, particularly the day after a really long run, but my counselor said I could add a few more calories to compensate," he said.

While Joe was somewhat cautious in his conclusions, consumers posting reviews on ConsumerAffairs were more enthusiastic.

"Nutrisystem Jumpstart 5 day box at Walmart is fantastic!" said Kathleen of Noble, OK. "This changed my life! It is fantastic and I have lost 45 pounds and have a goal to lose 16 more.  I am 52 and past menopause and YES this works for me like nothing else and believe me I have tried every diet out there!"

Even occasional users give Nutrisystem a thumbs-up.

"Every year for the Christian season of Lent I do the Nutrisystem program and every year I lose 20-30 lbs. It’s a great thing to do every year," said Steven of Pleasant Valley, NY.

Weight Watchers

 Weight Watchers has been around for what seems like forever and has a large band of loyal followers. It once relied on support groups and face-to-face counseling to help dieters stay on course. Those options are still available but online and mobile app support has displaced a lot of facetime.

No matter what means you use to access the program, it revolves around the "PointsPlus budget," a calorie-counting plan that is customized for you based on your weight, height, gender and age. You can prepare your own food or eat out, use your own recipes or follow Weight Watchers' suggestions but to get results, you need to follow the daily budget.

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Unlike some weight-loss plans, Weight Watchers counts some calories differently from others. For example, both a cookie and an apple might contain 95 calories. But Weight Watchers assigns two points to the cookie, none to the apple. That's based on the principle that all calories are not created equal -- and that fruit and vegetables are healthier than cakes and cookies.

The good thing about Weight Watchers is that it's flexible -- you can eat pretty much whatever you want. But not much of it. Most experts agree that it works, but you have to pay attention and follow the guidelines.

The most common complaint about Weight Watchers isn't related to the weight-loss program but rather to the monthly fees.

"I canceled my account with Weight Watchers over a month ago, and they still took out my payment," said Tiki of Clayon, N.C., in a typical review. I will never again trust them with my bank account information. Luckily, I paid through Paypal and I plan to appeal it. They make their cancellation process so confusing that when you think you have cancelled, you really haven't."

Jenny Craig

Another grand old name of the weight-loss business, Jenny Craig combines elements of both Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers -- it sells you the food a la Nutrisystem and provides counseling, much like Weight Watchers. Experts and consumers alike agree that it works but some complain about the cost and others find fault with at least some of the food.

Jenny Craig relieves you of the task of planning meals and tracking your food intake. Its counselors work with you to draw up a weekly meal plan, so you know in advance what to eat for lunch Thursday. And every other day.

Actually, you not only meet with the consultant to plan your week's menus, you also pick up the food during the meeting. The menus cover a broad range of tastes, everything from Mexican to continental cuisine.

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Like other effective plans, Jenny Craig lets you eat all day long -- up to six times a day if you want. The portions -- no surprise -- are small but eating smaller meals frequently is a recognized way to minimize hunger and avoid taking on huge caloric loads at a single sitting.

Many of the comments we hear center around the food and the cost of the program.

"I lost 70 pounds using Jenny Craig," said Joyce of Forney, Texas, in a ConsumerAffairs review. "The plan worked for me and I loved the vitamins and the food."

But Joyce said that, like many Jenny Craig clients, she also worked for the company as a counselor for awhile and "hated" that experience because of the pressure to sign new clients.

A recent study by researchers in Singapore supported Joyce's views. It found that Jenny Craig produced the greatest weight loss but was also the most expensive of the programs studied.

Herbalife

Herbalife is a multi-level marketing company that, among other things, sells meals and shakes that can help you lose weight. It's popular among athletes, new moms and, in general, a younger and more active crowd than some of the other programs out there.

Herbalife basically offers more of an "off-the-shelf" program, minus the counselors and extensive menu planning, with meal replacement shakes, energy bars and nutritional supplements.

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You can order online or from a distributor. Like most multi-level ventures, Herbalife is always eager to sign up new distributors, so it's important to stay focused. If you're looking to lose weight, concentrate on that. Getting into a new line of work can come later.

Just ask Maurice of Washington, D.C.

"I had phenomenal success with the weight-loss program. If taken according to directions, the product really works! I cannot say the same for the business program that Herbalife offers. I was told that if I would sign up for the business program, I would be able to buy the product at a discount. That was true, but before long, I was being pressured to invest large sums of money and to create a down line of distributors," Maurice said in a ConsumerAffairs review.

In short, he lost weight but also lost money trying to sell the products.

Medifast

Medifast has had its ups and downs. Originally developed to be used under a doctor's supervision, it now offers a variety of meal replacement programs you can use at home. It cites scientific studies to support its claims but it has also run afoul of government agencies a few times.Photo

In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission fined Medifast $3.7 million after finding it had made unsupported claims about its products.

Some consumers have also reported that they have experienced allergic reactions to the large amounts of soy in the Medifast products.

"I used the products successfully for roughly 10 months and lost 43 pounds. However, I developed a serious allergy to soy and began menopause a bit sooner than was expected with some adverse symptoms," said Kim of Long Beach, Calif., in a ConsumerAffairs review.

Consumers prone to allergies may want to talk to their allergist before starting Medifast or, for that matter, any diet with a heavy soy content.

Right Size

Lose 18 pounds in 12 weeks? That's what Right Size claims on its website: "Even if you have only a few minutes to eat, you’ll have enough time to shake up one of our smoothies. Simply replace your current breakfast and lunch with our easy-to-make smoothies and you can expect to lose up to 18 lbs. in 12 weeks.*"

The asterisk leads to a footnote that says: "*Results not typical. Weight loss was achieved by replacing two meals a day with RightSize Smoothies while following a reduced-calorie diet."

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As with many weight-loss programs, many of the comments we've received have to do with cost.

"I subscribed to Right Size Smoothies for Monthly delivery. I really loved the stuff but had one huge complaint," said Deborah of Fountain Inn, S.C., in a ConsumerAffairs review. "I subscribed at their website, the price was $10.00, not bad, but to my surprise it cost $20.00 shipping and handling. Total was $30.00."

In summary: they're high-protein shakes. As part of a balanced, portion-controlled diet, they can probably help you lose weight but watch out for those shipping charges.

And then what?

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Photo © blas - Fotolia

There's not much doubt that any of these programs can help you lose weight during the time you're following them. But eventually, you'll need to extricate yourself, if for no other reason than that the programs are expensive and even the best of them get boring after awhile.

The big advantage of the more traditional plans, like Nutrisystem and Weight Watchers is that, unlike the two-shakes-a-day plans, they can help you learn good eating habits and adjust your appetite to match the reduced calories demanded by a modern, mostly sedentary lifestyle.

Lean meat, fresh or frozen vegetables, fruits, nuts, bread and pasta will keep you going a long time. A diet program like those we've looked at can get you started. After you've learned how much better you look and feel minus those extra pounds, maybe you'll even be motivated to find that dietitian we talked about earlier.

If you think of weight loss the way we think about fitness, the commercial diet plans are like a personal trainer. You put in some intensive road work, pump some iron and so forth until you reach your personal best, then take it from there with a maintance plan your trainer helps you work out before you go your separate ways.

As with most things in life, there's no one solution to the problem of weight gain. But there are lots of good partial solutions that, when combined, can get you where you want to go. 

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Two foods that may improve blood pressure readings

Blueberries and beet juice both appear to have medicinal effects

Doctors aren't completely sure what can lower your blood pressure but they know of a lot of thing that can raise it – being overweight, consuming too much ...

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Photo ©Lsantilli - Fotolia

Doctors aren't completely sure what can lower your blood pressure but they know of a lot of thing that can raise it – being overweight, consuming too much sodium and not getting enough exercise.

Scientists now say they have additional data suggesting two foods can help lower blood pressure – one that you might like eating, the other perhaps not so much.

Researchers at Florida State University say just one cup of blueberries each day could be important in reducing blood pressure and reducing arterial stiffness.

Perhaps not quite as appetizing is beet juice. But British scientists say drinking a cup of it each day has been shown to significantly lower blood pressure among patients with high blood pressure.

Blueberries or beet juice?

Probably for most consumers, the blueberry option is preferable.

“Our findings suggest that regular consumption of blueberries could potentially delay the progression of prehypertension to hypertension, therefore reducing cardiovascular disease risk,” said Sarah A. Johnson, assistant director of the Center for Advancing Exercise and Nutrition Research on Aging (CAENRA) and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences at Florida State University (FSU).

The team of FSU nutrition and exercise scientists published their findings in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Postmenopausal women

Johnson started her project because of her interest in functional foods — foods that have a positive impact on health beyond basic nutrition. She found that many of these foods can prevent and reverse negative health outcomes, especially for postmenopausal women.

“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States,” she said. “Once women go through menopause, this puts them at an even greater risk for it. Our findings suggest that the addition of a single food, blueberries, to the diet may mitigate the negative cardiovascular effects that often occur as a result of menopause.”

In her study participants who received blueberry powder – the equivalent of a cup of blueberries a day – experienced a 5% decrease in systolic blood pressure. They saw an even greater decrease in diastolic pressure.

Previous studies

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Photo © Africa Studio - Fotolia

Previous studies on blueberries have shown positive effects on cardiovascular risk factors including blood pressure, but they all included large amounts of blueberry powder consumption, anywhere from 50 grams to 250 grams. In the case of 250 grams, that would translate to more than 11 cups of fresh blueberries, which may not be realistic for people to consume on a regular basis.

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London say a daily 250ml glass of beet juice also contributes to a significant drop in blood pressure. They say beet's high content of inorganic nitrate is what provides the medicinal effect.

While previous studies have suggested blueberries have a positive effect on blood pressure, the researchers says this is the first to indicate dietary nitrate supplementation from beet juice has a similar effect.

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Microsoft offers glimpses of upcoming Windows 10

Free upgrade from Windows 7 and 8.1 — but only in the first year

Yesterday Microsoft unveiled a first look at some products it has coming down the pike, including the new Windows 10 operating system slated to launch some...

PhotoYesterday Microsoft unveiled a first look at some products it has coming down the pike, including the new Windows 10 operating system slated to launch sometime later this year.

Arguably the day's biggest surprise was the announcement that Windows 10 will be a free upgrade to anybody who already has Windows 7 or 8.1, provided they make the switch within the first year of Windows 10's release. (What the price will be otherwise has not yet been announced.)

Windows 10 will do away with Internet Explorer, and replace it with a stripped-down browser called “Spartan,” similar to Firefox and Chrome. It's also supposed to be better for PC gamers, who will be able to stream Xbox One games to any device in their home, rather than be limited to the gaming console.

Indeed, Microsoft's making quite a big deal out of Windows 10's ability to work across multiple devices; when Phil Savage live-blogged the briefing for PCGamer.com, he snarkily summarized it as “For the most part, it's just a series of people saying 'devices' in different degrees of sincerity and urgency.”

The latest Apple software already offers this capability in Yosemite, the latest version of its OS X. Apple also offers free upgrades when it issues new versions of its operating system.

Other promised Windows features include voice assistant “Cortana,” Microsoft's answer to Siri.

Possibly the most exciting promised innovation (if it doesn't prove to be simply a piece of vaporware) is the HoloLens, a headset promising the wearer a holographic 3-d virtual reality experience.

Neither a price nor a release date for the HoloLens has been announced yet, but it's supposedy going to be ready in time for the launch of Windows 10.

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Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase fined $24 million for mortgage kickbacks

The banks will also pay $11 million in redress to customers

Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase are facing $24 million in fines and more than $11 million in redress payments to customers for their part in a mortgage kick...

PhotoWells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase are facing $24 million in fines and more than $11 million in redress payments to customers for their part in a mortgage kickback scheme.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Maryland Attorney General charged that the banks and Genuine Title, a defunct title company, ran an illegal marketing-services-kickback scheme. The Bureau and Maryland also took action against former Wells Fargo employee Todd Cohen and his wife, Elaine Oliphant Cohen, for their involvement.

Genuine Title gave the banks’ loan officers cash, marketing materials, and consumer information in exchange for business referrals.

The proposed consent orders, filed in federal court, would require $24 million in civil penalties from Wells Fargo, $600,000 in civil penalties from JPMorgan Chase, and $11.1 million in redress to consumers whose loans were involved in this scheme. Cohen and Oliphant Cohen also will pay a $30,000 penalty.

“Today we took action against two of the nation’s largest banks, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, for illegal mortgage kickbacks,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “These banks allowed their loan officers to focus on their own illegal financial gain rather than on treating consumers fairly. Our action today to address these practices should serve as a warning for all those in the mortgage market.”

Quid pro quo

“Homeowners were steered toward this title company, not because they were the best or most affordable, but because they were providing kickbacks to loan officers who referred consumers to them,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. “This type of quid pro quo arrangement is illegal, and it’s unfair to other businesses that play by the rules.”

Genuine Title was a Maryland-based title company that offered real-estate-closing services from 2005 until it went out of business in April 2014. As part of the marketing-services-kickback scheme, Genuine Title offered loan officers valuable services to increase the amount of loan business generated. Genuine Title conducted this scheme at several financial institutions. The services the company offered included purchasing, analyzing, and providing data on consumers and creating letters with the banks’ logos that the company had printed, folded, stuffed into envelopes, and mailed.

In return, the banks’ loan officers would increase Genuine Title’s profits by referring homebuyers to the company for closing services. This scheme was especially profitable for the loan officers, who generally are paid by commission.

The Bureau’s investigation identified more than 100 Wells Fargo loan officers in at least 18 branches, largely in Maryland and Virginia, who participated in this scheme. The Bureau alleges that these loan officers referred thousands of loans to Genuine Title over the course of the scheme.

The CFPB also found that loan officers at JPMorgan Chase participated in the marketing-services-kickback scheme with Genuine Title. The Bureau alleges that at least six Chase loan officers in three different branches in Maryland, Virginia, and New York were involved. These officers referred settlement business to Genuine Title on almost 200 loans.

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Service dogs may get their own Siri

Wearable tech could take on a whole new meaning

Wearable tech might be on the way out as fast it came in but for one segment of the population it might be something worth fetching. Fetching in the sense ...

PhotoWearable tech might be on the way out as fast it came in but for one segment of the population it might be something worth fetching. Fetching in the sense of dogs. There's a new vest for service dogs that has GPS, can call 911 and can talk back like Siri.

The vest's lead inventor is Dr. Melody Jackson, director of the Center for BioInterface Research at Georgia Tech. She is heading up a project called The FIDO Project. FIDO stands for Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations.

The idea behind the project is to expand on what the service dog already can do. The vest will have little sensors on it that dogs will self-activate by doing what they would normally do, like pulling or biting something in order to perform a task.

There are a variety of uses for the vests. Dogs are trained for many things -- for example, to help people who get seizures. Normally these dogs are trained to push people up against a wall if they have a seizure so they don't fall. "But what if the dog could also activate a tug sensor that would use the owner's cellphone to dial 911 and summon help?" Dr. Jackson said.

Search and rescue dogs can sniff for hours but if the dog was able to activate a GPS sensor on its vest it could continue its tracking and at the same time its handler would know exactly where it was at all times via the GPS sensor.

Usually when the search and rescue dogs find the person they are looking for they go back to their handlers and lead them to what they found but what if the dog was able to stay with the person as a comfort and the GPS tracker could tell the handler and emergency crew exactly where the target was via the GPS?

Imagine a hearing-impaired person who can’t hear a tornado siren warning but his service dog can and then the service dog sets off an alert on his pack with a flashing light to let the hearing impaired person know to go to the basement for cover.

Probably the biggest issue right now is battery life — a problem affecting most portable devices, because battery technology hasn’t kept pace as gadgets get smaller and more widely used.

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Hackers hijack Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty programs

Another example why you should always use a different password for every important account

Pretty much any collection of online security tips will remind you not to use the same password across multiple accounts, and this week's news that scammer...

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House prices up in November

Values remain below the 2007 housing boom peak

The price of homes across the U.S. rose during November. Tthe Federal Housing Finance Agency's (FHFA) monthly House Price Index (HPI) shows prices were up...

PhotoThe price of homes across the U.S. rose during November.

Tthe Federal Housing Finance Agency's (FHFA) monthly House Price Index (HPI) shows prices were up 0.8% on a seasonally adjusted basis, while the previously reported 0.6% advance in October was revised downward to show a gain of 0.4%.

Regional changes

For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from October 2014 to November 2014 ranged from -0.9% in the New England division to +1.8% in the East South Central division.

The 12-month changes were all positive, ranging from +1.6% in the New England division to +7.5% in the Pacific division.

The FHFA HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

From November 2013 to November 2014, house prices were up 5.3%, although the index is 4.5% below its April 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the October 2005 index level.

The complete report is available on the FHFA website.

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A retreat for first-time jobless claims

Still, the level remains above 300k

Initial jobless claims fell last week after a surprise increase the previous week. The Labor Department (DOL) reports applications for state unemployment ...

PhotoInitial jobless claims fell last week after a surprise increase the previous week.

The Labor Department (DOL) reports applications for state unemployment benefits were down 10,000 during the week ending January 17 to seasonally adjusted 307,000. The previous weeks increase, reported at the time as 19,000 was even worse. The figure was revised upward to show an advance of 20,000 -- to 317 thousand.

DOL says there were no special factors affecting the initial claims increase.

The 4-week moving average, which is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market as it lacks the volatility of the initial claims calculation, rose 6,500 to 306,500.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Holiday Foods recalls beef, chicken and pork products

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

Holiday Foods of Hollywood, Fla., is recalling approximately 1,819 pounds of beef, chicken and pork products. The products may contain peanuts, an, which ...

PhotoHoliday Foods of Hollywood, Fla., is recalling approximately 1,819 pounds of beef, chicken and pork products.

The products may contain peanuts, an allergen which is not declared on the product label.

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

The following products are being recalled:

  • 5 corrugated brown packages with case code YX43242; weighing 4.4-lbs each; and containing 100 pieces of “Peruvian Brand Marinated Beef for Brochett on a Specialty Bamboo Skewer 4801804”
  • 50 corrugated brown packages with case code YX42172; weighing 5-lbs each; and containing 100 pieces of “Chicken Taquitos: Chicken Breast w/Rib Meat, Salsa and Cheese Wrapped in a Tortilla 4801273”
  • 55 corrugated brown packages with case codes YX43023 and YX43423; weighing 4.4-lbs each; and containing 100 pieces of “Mango Chutney Chicken Samosa 4802693”
  • 232 corrugated brown packages with case codes YX43283, YX42753 and YX42613; weighing 5.625-lbs each; and containing 100 pieces of “Beef (Tenderloin & Short Rib) and Manchego Cheese Empanada 4802622”

The products bear the establishment number “EST. 18074” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were produced between August 5 and December 8, 2014. They were shipped to wholesale distributors in Illinois, Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Texas.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Holiday Foods at (877) 301-6691 between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. (CST) Monday through Friday.  

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House of Bricks Realty recalls pork product

The product was not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

House of Bricks Realty of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is recalling approximately 130 pounds of French pork rillette. The product was not presented at the U.S. poin...

PhotoHouse of Bricks Realty of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is recalling approximately 130 pounds of French pork rillette.

The product was not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection, presenting the possibility that adverse health consequences exist.

There are no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of this product.

The following product is subject to recall:

  • 3.2-oz jars of “Les Trois Petits Cochons Rillettes De Pork” in French and “The Three Little Pigs Pork Rillettes” in English with BBY 04/2018/101 15:37 656” and “FR29 225 001CE” printed on the gold lid.

The cases contain 12 jars each and bear the French establishment number “29.225.001” and “P L J” ” 155” and Enjoy by 04/11/18. The product was shipped to distributors for further sale to consumers.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Tracy Blaine at (570) 823-9778 ext. 133.

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La-Z-Boy recalls Silver Luxury Lift Chair control wands

The wand that controls the chair’s movements can overheat

La-Z-Boy of Monroe, Mich., is recalling about 4,000 La-Z-Boy control wands sold with Silver Luxury Lift Chairs The wand that controls the chair’s movement...

PhotoLa-Z-Boy of Monroe, Mich., is recalling about 4,000 La-Z-Boy control wands sold with Silver Luxury Lift Chairs

The wand that controls the chair’s movements can overheat, posing a burn hazard.

The company has received 3 reports of the control wands on floor samples becoming warm. No injuries have been reported.

The recalled control wands were sold with the La-Z-Boy Silver Luxury Lift model chairs only. These electric wands allow the user to control the movement of the chair, i.e. to recline it and or to make entering or exiting the chair easier.

The rectangular-shaped black plastic wands have a large round circle on the top of the wand with two circle-shaped graphics that read “LIFT” and “RECLINE” and the La-Z-Boy logo printed in white lettering at the bottom of the wand.

The words “La-Z-Boy,” “REV: 0” and S/N number 37205143800005310 are printed on a label on the back of the wand. The Silver Luxury Lift model chairs were sold in a variety of sizes, colors and fabrics including leather.

The wands, manufactured in China, were sold at La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries stores and independent furniture stores nationwide from August 2014, through November 2014, with the Silver Luxury Lift Chair for between $900 and $1700.

Consumers should unplug the chair from the wall outlet and contact the local dealer from whom they purchased the chair, who will schedule a time for a service technician to install a free replacement control wand.

Consumers may contact La-Z-Boy toll-free at (855) 592-9087 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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How to deal with a hostile boss

Believe it or not, researchers say you should be hostile right back

When the boss gets on your case your life can be miserable. But when a demanding attitude crosses the line to hostility, it can be even worse....

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Court finds Dish Network violated telemarketing rules "tens of millions" of times

More charges going to trial later this year; penalties not yet levied

Dish Network has been taking lots of heat lately for its licensing battles with CNN and Fox News but what has left consumers steaming for years are annoyin...

PhotoDish Network has been taking lots of heat lately for its licensing battles with CNN and Fox News but what has left consumers steaming for years are annoying and seemingly endless calls from telemarketers.

The CNN and Fox tussles have been settled but the phone calls may be a bigger problem. A federal court in Illinois has found Dish liable for tens of millions of calls that violated the Federal Trade Commission’s telemarketing rules.

Cindy of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was one of the millions of consumers annoyed by Dish's calls.

"I received numerous phone calls from Dish Network from telemarketers from a 208 area code. The reps were rude and threatening and ran up excessive charges on my cell phone despite blocks that were added," she said in a complaint to ConsumerAffairs. "I incurred a $139 vs. $49 phone 1 month and $89 vs. $49 the 2nd month before they called."

"Today I was at my parents and the phone rang, I answered it and it was a telemarketer trying to sell Dish Network," Patrick of Beaverton, Mich., said in a similar complaint. "I explained I was not interested and hung up. The phone rang every time I had it hung up for over an hour."

The FTC’s complaint alleged that Dish and its agents made telephone calls to phone numbers on the National Do Not Call (DNC) Registry. Other charges are still pending and will be resolved at trial later this year.

Millions and millions

In the current ruling, the court found Dish liable for 4,094,099 calls it or its vendors made to numbers on the Registry and for 2,730,842 calls its retailers made to numbers on the Registry.

The complaint also alleges that Dish made calls to people who had previously said that they did not wish to receive such calls. On this count, the court ruled that Dish is liable for 1,043,595 calls to consumers whose telephone numbers were on Dish’s internal do-not-call list or were marked “DNC” by Dish’s telemarketing vendor.

In addition, the complaint alleges that Dish and its agents abandoned calls, in violation of the “abandoned-call” provision of the FTC's telemarketing rules. On this count the court ruled that Dish is liable for 49,738,073 abandoned calls that Dish and three of its retailers made. The court found that Dish is liable for both its own calls, and for causing these retailers’ abandoned calls.

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Facebook cracking down on hoaxes

Changing its algorithms, and making it easy for users to report fake news

Here's possible good news for Facebook users annoyed by the large number of hoax articles and fake copyright notices cluttering more desirable content out...

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Facebook's "hoax box"

Here's possible good news for Facebook users annoyed by the large number of hoax articles and fake copyright noticescluttering more desirable content out of their News Feeds: the company announced yesterday that it's made changes in hopes of reducing the number of hoaxes people see in their feeds.

Facebook also added an option to let people flag stories as being “purposefully fake or deceitful news, [or] a hoax disproved by a reputable source,” similar to the already existing system to let people flag spam.

Facebook's “News Feed FYI” from Jan. 20 says that “[t]oday’s update to News Feed reduces the distribution of posts that people have reported as hoaxes and adds an annotation to posts that have received many of these types of reports to warn others on Facebook.” However, “We are not removing stories people report as false and we are not reviewing content and making a determination on its accuracy.”

Last May, Facebook faced harsh criticism over the fake news stories appearing on people's News Feed as “Related Articles.” For example, readers who clicked on a then-current news story about Michelle Obama talking to a 10-year-old with an unemployed father were also offered “Related Articles” alleging that a Secret Service officer found the Obamas having “S*X in Oval Office.”

At the time, an unnamed Facebook spokesperson blamed the related-articles problem on “algorithms.”

Clickbait headlines

In August, when Facebook said it would crack down on those annoying clickbait headlines, the company admitted its main motivation for the crackdown is that clickbait links on people's News Feeds crowded out links they actually wanted to see, thus increasing the likelihood that people would spend less time on Facebook, or even stay away altogether.

And that's the primary reason Facebook is now seeking to crack down on hoaxes in people's feeds – because most people find those hoaxes annoying, and too much annoying content will crowd out content people actually might like.

But how, exactly, does Facebook identify what a hoax is?

Hoaxes are a form of News Feed spam that includes scams (“Click here to win a lifetime supply of coffee”), or deliberately false or misleading news stories (“Man sees dinosaur on hike in Utah”). People often share these hoaxes and later decide to delete their original posts after they realize they have been tricked. These types of posts also tend to receive lots of comments from friends letting people know this is a hoax, and comments containing links to hoax-busting websites. In fact, our testing found people are two times more likely to delete these types of posts after receiving such a comment from a friend.

So, presumably, Facebook will make changes to the algorithms determining which articles appear on News Feeds. The algorithms are proprietary, so nobody outside of a few highly placed people within Facebook knows what they are, but in the past, Facebook has freely admitted that popularity plays a large part in that: the more people who post, share or like an article, the more likely that article is to appear in other people's News Feeds.

Now, those algorithms will also take note when large numbers of people who shared or posted an article deleted it later – or if large numbers of people see the post and make comments including word such as “hoax,” or link to hoax-debunking sites.

If that happens, the posts won't disappear entirely but they will appear under a small warning message letting people know that many others on Facebook had flagged it as a possible hoax. Websites that are clearly labeled “satirical,” such as The Onion, aren't supposed to be affected by the changes.

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Third Xbox hacker pleads guilty

Hackers conspired to steal $100 million worth of software, feds charged

A 20-year-old Baltimore man is the third member of an alleged hacking ring to plead guilty in what prosecutors say was an attempt to steal more than $100 m...

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Photo credit: Microsoft

A 20-year-old Baltimore man is the third member of an alleged hacking ring to plead guilty in what prosecutors say was an attempt to steal more than $100 million of intellectual property.

And just which collection of priceless wisdom would this be? Why, the code to Microsoft's Xbox Live onling gaming system and many of the most popular games that run on the system.

Nathan Leroux, 20, of Bowie, Maryland, is the latest to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and criminal copyright infringement. Leroux has been in custody since attempting to flee into Canada from Buffalo, New York, on June 16, 2014. 

Sanadodeh Nesheiwat, 28, of Washington, New Jersey, and David Pokora, 22, of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, previously pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge on Sept. 30, 2014. They remain in custody pending their sentencing hearings, which are scheduled for April 2015.

Pokora’s guilty plea is believed to have been the first conviction of a foreign-based individual for hacking into U.S. businesses to steal trade secret information. Charges against a fourth defendant, Austin Alcala, 19, of McCordsville, Indiana, remain pending.

Besides the Xbox code, prosecutors said the band of hackers also targeted games including the “FIFA” online soccer series; “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3;” and “Gears of War 3.”

The conspirators allegedly accessed and stole unreleased software, software source code, trade secrets, copyrighted and pre-release works, and other confidential and proprietary information. Members of the conspiracy also allegedly stole financial and other sensitive information relating to the companies – but not their customers – as well as some company employees.

Leroux admitted in court that he and others used the stolen intellectual property to build, and attempt to sell, counterfeit versions of the Xbox One console before its public release in November 2013. In July 2013, the FBI intercepted a counterfeit console built by Leroux, which was destined for the Republic of Seychelles.

Leroux also admitted that he developed a software exploit that allowed him and others to generate millions of “coins” for the FIFA soccer games playable on the Xbox Live platform. These coins are the virtual, in-game currency used to build a “FIFA Ultimate Team” in the games.

Without the authorization of Electronic Arts, the intellectual property rights holder to the FIFA games, Leroux and others sold bulk quantities of the “FIFA coins” via online black markets.

The value of the intellectual property and other data stolen by the hacking ring, as well as the costs associated with the victims’ responses to the conduct, is estimated to range between $100 million and $200 million. To date, the United States has seized over $620,000 in cash and other proceeds related to the case.

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Amazon diaper falls down, goes boom

The "Elements" line of diapers is being disposed of, at least for now

It was with great fanfare that Amazon began selling its own brand of diapers last month. But now the Elements line of diapers is being disposed of as uncer...

PhotoIt was with great fanfare that Amazon began selling its own brand of diapers last month. But now the Elements line of diapers is being disposed of as unceremoniously as, well, a used diaper.

"Based on early customer feedback, we are making some design improvements to the diaper. In the meantime, Amazon Elements Soft & Cozy Diapers are no longer available, and we've stopped your subscription," Amazon said in an email to customers who'd signed up for regular diaper shipments, Gigaom reported.

Consumers weren't exactly singing the praises of the new diapers. Some reviews on Amazon's own site panned them for being saggy.

To get the diapers, parents had to be members of Amazon's Prime program, the $99-per-year membership that includes free videos, free two-day shipping and other perks.

As part of its pitch for the diapers, Amazon had said they and other Elements products would be more "transparent" -- meaning that the packaging would include information about the used in making the products, as well as where they're made. Diaper brands in the past have been hit by accusations that their products gave babies rashes and other maladies.  

“Our obsession with customers and drive to continuously innovate on their behalf has led us to create Amazon Elements. The two things customers told us they want are premium products that meet their high standards, and access to information so they can make informed decisions, Amazon Elements offers both,” said Sunny JainAmazon.com Consumables Vice President.

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Mortgage applications post a solid gain

Refinancings lead the way

Applications for mortgages hit their highest levels in more than 6 months last week, thanks to a big jump in refinancings. Data from the Mortgage Bankers ...

PhotoApplications for mortgages hit their highest levels in more than 6 months last week, thanks to a big jump in refinancings.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications shot up 14.2% during the week ending January 16.

The Refinance Index soared 22% percent from the previous week, sending that sector's share of mortgage activity to 74% of total applications -- the highest level since May 2013.

The increase, according to MBA Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni, “was largely due to mortgage rates dropping to their lowest level since May 2013. However, the recent reduction in FHA mortgage insurance premiums also played a role: FHA refinance applications increased 57% last week. Even with this increase, refinances made up only 48% of FHA volume, compared to 73% for VA, and 77% for conventional loans.”

Conventional purchase applications were down about 3% for the week on a seasonally adjusted basis, but up 5% relative to last year at this time. FHA purchase applications were down 1% for the week on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Loan activity

MBA now provides additional data regarding the composition and level of application activity for government loan programs, including breakouts for FHA, VA, and USDA loans.

Conventional refinance applications increased 21% from the previous week, while government refinances increased 29%, driven by a 57% surge in applications for FHA loans, which also boosted the FHA share of refinance applications to 5.2% from 4.1% the prior week.

The FHA share of total applications increased to 8.0%, the VA share fell to 9.4% and USDA share decreased to 0.6%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) dropped 9 basis points -- from 3.89% to 3.80%, the lowest level since May 2013, with points increasing to 0.29 from 0.23 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dipped to 3.86%, the lowest level since May 2013, from 3.88%, with points unchanged at 0.23 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA fell 5 basis points to 3.66% percent, the lowest level since May 2013, with points rising to 0.15 from -0.05 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.10%, the lowest level since May 2013, from 3.16%, with points decreasing to 0.29 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs fell 7 basis points to 2.87%, the lowest level since June 2013, with points decreasing to 0.41 from 0.46 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

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A rebound for new home construction

Home builders look for a more robust 2015

New home construction bounced back in December from the decline it posted the previous month. In a joint announcement, the Census Bureau and Department of...

PhotoNew home construction bounced back in December from the decline it posted the previous month.

In a joint announcement, the Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development said privately-owned housing starts rose 4.4% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,089,000. At the same time, the November figure was revised higher to show a rate of 1,043,000 instead of the 1,028,000 reported last month.

The advance in December was led by a 7.2% increase in single-family housing starts, while the rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 339,000.

All together, construction was started on an estimated 1,005,800 homes in 2014 up 8.8% from the year before.

Building permits

Authorization for construct of new homes, however, tumbled last month.

Building permits slipped 1.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,032,000.

Single-family authorizations rose 4.5%, while permits for buildings with 5 units or more were at a rate of 338,000.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

Home building forecast

Separately, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) is looking for good things in the year ahead.

“The signs point to a more robust year for housing," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "Household balance sheets are returning to normal levels, home owners' equity is increasing and significant pent-up demand is rising. More than 7 million existing home sales were postponed or lost during the downturn; and while some are lost forever, we should see some catch-up."

NAHB expects single-family production to rise 26% this year to 804,000 units. "While a good beginning, this is still well below a normal level of 1.3 to 1.4 million single-family starts," Crowe said.

On the multifamily front, the group projects 358,000 starts -- up 2% from 352,000 last year.

The sale of new single-family homes is expected to hit 564,000 this year, a 29.3% increase from last year's 436,000 sales.

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Purr Complete Feline Poultry Meal recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Oma’s Pride of Avon, Conn., is recalling Purr-Complete Feline Poultry Meal. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. There have been no illnesses...

PhotoOma’s Pride of Avon, Conn., is recalling Purr-Complete Feline Poultry Meal.

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

There have been no illnesses reported to date.

The recalled product was distributed through retail stores, distributors, and directly to consumers nationwide.

Purr-Complete Feline Poultry Meal is sold frozen in clear 12-oz. (UPC: 8 79384 00017 9) and 2-lb. (UPC: 8 79384 00018 6) plastic packaging under the Oma’s Pride brand as a poultry blend with code #1524.

It was manufactured on September 12, 2014, with a use by recommended date of September 12, 2015.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Oma’s Pride Monday through Friday, 9:00am – 4:30pm, at 1-800-678-6627.

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Queseria Bendita recalls fresh cheeses and sour cream

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Queseria Bendita of Yakima, Wash., is recalling all lots of Panela, Queso Fresco, Requeson, Cotija fresh soft cheese products and sour cream to include tho...

PhotoQueseria Bendita of Yakima, Wash., is recalling all lots of Panela, Queso Fresco, Requeson, Cotija fresh soft cheese products and sour cream to include those with best by dates up to 4/16/2015.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

To date, there are a total of 3 cases of Listeria monocytogenes infections linked to consumption of soft cheese produced by Queseria Bendita, including 2 hospitalizations and 1 death.

The recalled products were distributed to Hispanic grocery stores in Washington and Oregon; the firm also sold products from its on-site store in Yakima, Wash.

The products are packaged with clear plastic wrapper or plastic tub, and are stamp coded with the best by date up to 4/16/2015. They are refrigerated and have a shelf life of up to 90 days.

The following products are being recalled:

Productpackage sizecontainer typeUPCBest By Date
Panela1 lb.plastic wrap6 10074 99341 4Up to 041615
Queso Fresco1 lb.plastic wrap0 94922 10602 5Up to 041615
Queso Fresco3 lbs.plastic wrapNoneUp to 041615
Requeson1 lb.Tub0 94922 10603 2Up to 041615
Sour Cream/Crema Agria1 lb.Tub0 94922 10608 7none
Cotija Cheese1 lb.plastic wrap none

Consumers and retailers should remove the recalled products from their shelves and destroy.

Consumers with questions may call the firm at 509-961-8949 between 8 am-4 pm PST.

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Southeast Toyota Distributors recalls Rav4s

Faulty software could turn off the electrical current and trailer lights

Southeast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 1,140 model year 2013-2015 Toyota Rav4 vehicles manufactured June 1, 2013, to December 29, 2014, and equip...

PhotoSoutheast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 1,140 model year 2013-2015 Toyota Rav4 vehicles manufactured June 1, 2013, to December 29, 2014, and equipped with an accessory trailer light module.

The software within the module may incorrectly detect an electrical short and preventively turn off the electrical current and the trailer lights, increasing the risk of a crash.

SET will notify owners, and dealers will replace the trailer light module with a new unit with corrected software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 23, 2015.

Owners may contact SET customer service at 1-866-405-4226. SET's number for this recall is SET-15A.

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Rader Farms Fresh Start smoothie and fusion products recalled

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Inventure Foods of Phoenix, Ariz., is recalling its Rader Farms Fresh Start Smoothie Blend, Fresh Start Sunrise Refresh Fusion and Fresh Start Daily Power ...

PhotoInventure Foods of Phoenix, Ariz., is recalling its Rader Farms Fresh Start Smoothie Blend, Fresh Start Sunrise Refresh Fusion and Fresh Start Daily Power Fusion.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

There are no known illnesses linked to consumption of these products to date.

Fresh Start Smoothie Blend is distributed in 48-oz. (3-lb.) packages at Costco in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada.

The Fresh Start Sunrise Refresh Fusion and Fresh Start Daily Power Fusion products are distributed in 35-oz. packages at Walmart in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The packages carry the Rader Farms and Fresh Start logos and are sold in the frozen fruit aisle of the store. The following products are being recalled:

Product NameRetailerSizeItem NumberUPCLot Code(s)
Fresh Start Smoothie BlendCostco48 oz.91188588403885148930055A0201
30055B0220
30065A0201
30065B0220
30075A0201
30075B0220
30145B0220
30155A0201
32794A0201
32794B0220
33034B0220
33044A0201
33044B0211
33074A0201
33074B0220
33084A0201
33094A0201
33094B0220
33154A0201
33154B0220
33424A0205
33424B0220
33434A0205
33434B0220
33554A0220
33554B0211
Fresh Start Smoothie BlendCostco Canada48 oz.91188588403885148930075A0201
30145A0201
30145B0220
32674A0201
32674B0220
32764A0218
32684A0201
32684B0220
32674B0220
32764B0211
32674B0220
32684A0201
32684B0220
32764B0211
Fresh Start Daily Power FusionWalmart35 oz.55288878388403885153332274A0201
32584A0201
33644A0220
Fresh Start Sunrise Refresh FusionWalmart35 oz.55288878288403885154033644A0220
32274A0201
32284A0201
32584A0201

Consumers who have purchased the above products should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Inventure Foods customer service department at 866-890-1004, Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. PST, 0r by email at info@inventurefoods.com.

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More renters leaning toward buying homes

Various signs point to renewed interest among first-time buyers

While 2014 was a pretty dull year for real estate, 2015 may see more action – particularly from consumers who have been content, until now, to rent....

PhotoWhile 2014 was a pretty dull year for real estate, 2015 may see more action – particularly from consumers who have been content, until now, to rent.

There are still obstacles to entering the housing market for the first time – gathering a down payment and closing costs and presenting a good credit score to name two – but there are signs things are beginning to swing around in buyers' favor.

Historically low mortgage rates are still falling. The average fixed-rate 30-year mortgage is now well below 4%.

It should be no surprise that the first full week of 2015 saw a surge in applications for mortgages. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey applications shot up 49.1% during the week ending January 9.

Just 3% down payment

Policymakers are also providing incentives. Fannie Mae recently introduced a 97% loan program targeted to first time home buyers, making it easier to come up with a down payment.

Then there is the matter of economics. The employment picture has strengthened, providing more potential buyers with stable income and increasing their confidence to take on a long-term commitment.

And perhaps the clincher – the rent consumers are paying for their housing continues to go up.

"With rents now rising at a 7-year high, historically low rates and moderating price growth are likely to entice more buyers to enter the market in upcoming months," Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), noted last month.

Yun says Realtors are still fighting the misconception that a large down payment is needed in order to buy a home, but as word spreads about low down payment loan programs, that will begin to change.

More people seeking advice

Another indication that more consumers are considering a home purchase comes from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). The group says its members report a surge in consumers seeking advice about purchasing a home.

It says more than 73,000 consumers sought housing counseling in 2014, the largest volume since the housing crash.

“Seeing that more people are realizing the value of housing counseling is a sign that the next wave of home buyers will be better prepared to preserve home ownership” said Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the NFCC.

For the housing market, it means that a new wave of buyers may be ready to shop for a home, or begin an aggressive savings program to gather up the down payment. While that's good news for Realtors, NFCC is concerned that too many first time buyers may be headed into the market with too little information.

It points to a recent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) survey that revealed 47% of home buyers are not comparing lenders for the best rate and lowest fees. The group says those who compare multiple offers are likely to save more than those who only worked with a single lender.

The NFCC recommends seeking the advice of a nonprofit housing counselor in order to learn about every aspect of purchasing and maintaining ownership before making any financial commitment.

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Portable artificial heart allows more normal life while awaiting transplant

You really can wear your heart on your sleeve

Heart transplant operations have given people with severe heart disease a new lease on life. Pioneered in the 1960s, these operations have now become almos...

PhotoHeart transplant operations have given people with severe heart disease a new lease on life. Pioneered in the 1960s, these operations have now become almost routine.

But like any transplant operation, there must be a healthy donor whose blood type is a match with the recipient's. That means some patients die while waiting for a donor.

In 1982 Dr. Robert Jarvik made headlines when he created an artificial heart and implanted it in a patient named Barney Clark. The purpose was to keep the patient alive long enough to find the right human heart.

Over the years artificial hearts have been improved but most still require their recipients to be hospitalized. However, the new artificial hearts allow for much greater mobility. Doctors at the University of Michigan are among the latest to implant a wearable artificial heart.

Going home with an artificial heart

Twenty-four-year-old Stan Larkin, of Ypsilanti, Mich., went home to spend Christmas with his family after his heart had been removed as he waits for a donor. His artificial heart is powered by a portable 13-pound device that keeps blood flowing through his body.

Larkin is the first to leave a Michigan hospital without a human heart and is part of a unique group of heart patients in the United States who’ve gained independence because of the mobile technology.

“The device Stan has is the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart, a mechanical pump to bridge him to transplantation,” said University of Michigan cardiac surgeon Jonathan Haft. “He’s still listed for a heart transplant and we hope to transplant him as soon as an organ is available. In the meantime he can be at home, he can be functional, and continue to rehabilitate himself so he’s in the best possible shape when his opportunity comes.”

Simple, yet critical function

The machine performs a simple, yet critical function. There are 2 tubes that extend from the body, connected to a machine that can deliver compressed air into the ventricles to allow blood to be pumped through the body.

Before this device came along, the only approved temporary Total Artificial Heart was the “Big Blue” hospital driver which weighs 418 pounds and is the size of a washing machine.

Because of a shortage of donated hearts and the need for a biological match, artificial heart patients were sometimes confined to a hospital bed for months, even years. The portable device, called the Freedom driver, does the same thing as its heavier and bulkier counterparts, except people using it can carry on a much more normal life.

“I had a lot of questions but I was enthusiastic to learn,” said Larkin who was discharged Dec. 23. “This is what’s keeping me going. I can’t wait to get a heart transplant so I can truly feel like myself again.”

The American Heart Association says 5.7 million Americans are living with heart failure and about 10% have advanced heart failure.

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Utility bill scammers cheat small business out of $1,000

Hang up on any caller who threatens to cut off your electricity – even if the caller claims to be from the electric company

Thieves have used the “utility bill scam” to try cheating honest people out of their money for about as long as utility companies have existed. But a local...

PhotoThieves have used the “utility bill scam” to try cheating honest people out of their money for about as long as utility companies have existed. But a local-news story out of Arkansas this week showcased an uncommon variant of the scam: the would-be thieves didn't merely claim to be from the local electric company, but appeared to have evidence proving it.

In a typical utility-bill scam, or utility scam, scammers posing as bill collectors from the local utility company call people or businesses and threaten to turn off their electricity immediately unless the victims pay up. Real utility companies don't actually operate like that – they'll send cutoff notices through the mail, rather than make threatening phone calls – but the threat of losing electricity within the hour is usually dire enough to make some people panic, and fall for the scam.

This week, in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, a utility scammer managed to extort money from a veterinarian's office. There's nothing particularly unusual about that — but what is unusual is that this time, the scammer somehow had access to oddly specifc details which only the electric company would ordinarily have.

Becky Brandt, who handles bill payments and phon communications for Village Veterinary Service, told ArkansasMatters.com that “That's what is scary about all of this, they can have your account number and what your bills are.”

Spoofed phone number

Indeed, the scammers had the veterinarian's account number and payment history with local electric company Entergy Arkansas. In addition, the scammers called from a spoofed phone number, so that the veterinarian's caller ID falsely identified the call as coming from Entergy.

They demanded $1,000 from Brandt, and said they'd cut off the power if she didn't pay it — which would seriously impede the office's ability to care for sick animals. Brandt said, “Without electricity we have no heat. We don't have any water. You can't clean.”

No matter where you live in the United States, your local electric company is not going to call you over the phone to threaten you with possible disconnection, so if ever you get such a call, feel free to hang up.

But suppose you're the worrying type, and can't quite bring yourself to completely ignore such a dire threat, just in case it really is the electric company behind it. In that instance, thank your caller for bringing this past-due bill to your attention, assure the caller you'll take care of it immediately, then hang up before the caller can say anything else – and call your electric company's payment office, to see if you actually are on the verge of disconnection for non-payment.

The answer is almost certain to be “no” – if you really were about to lose power, you'd have received letters at your home, and probably a notice in your last electric bill, too – so be glad you didn't waste money on that utility scam, and make sure your friends and neighbors know to watch out for it, too.

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Survey finds parents worried about bullying at school

Parents also concerned about nutrition, physical activity

Schoolyard bullies used to be regarded as a fact of life. Now they're the top worry parents have about their children's experiences at school, a new survey...

PhotoSchoolyard bullies used to be regarded as a fact of life. Now they're the top worry parents have about their children's experiences at school, a new survey finds.

Despite nationwide efforts to address bullying and healthy lifestyles, parents still have major concerns about their children’s school environments, the study by Bright Horizons Family Solution found.

Nearly 8 in 10 say bullyiing worries them. It remains the top concern regardless of the parents’ geographic location, income, or whether they live in a rural, urban or suburban community. Younger working parents, those between the ages of 18 and 49, are more likely to be concerned about bullying than those 50+.

The two-part survey of 1,000 parents across the U.S. looked at the challenges parents face when trying to balance work and their family life. Bright Horizons is  a company that focuses on employee-sponsored child care.

Besides bullying, the survey found that parents think it's critical their children are involved in extracurricular activities and sports, despite the additional logistical challenges that poses for the family and the stress that creates on getting them to their destination on time as well as the financial components that are needed to support the sport or activity.

“These new results show that there are many school-related issues on top of work-related issues causing stress for parents," said Dave Lissy, CEO of Bright Horizons Family Solutions. "They have serious concerns about their children’s school environments and are anxious to ensure that their children are involved in after-school activities. These issues along with workplace obligations are all competing for time and mindshare and ultimately can sap a person’s productivity and creativity if they don't have the supports to make it all happen.”

Obesity has reached epidemic proportions and parents say they're not sure schools are doing all they can to keep kids healthy. Nearly 58% of working moms and dads report being concerned about the lack of nutritious food options in their children’s school. Roughly the same number are concerned with the lack of physical activity available to their children at school.

Parents are most concerned about nutrition in the schools in the Southern and Western portions of the U.S. Both at 63%. These findings reflect the statistics that the southern and western states have the highest amount of children enrolled in the free lunch program .

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January is the month for fantasy planting

It's a good time to order the seeds you'll need in a few months

This is it, this is the month that all the seed catalogs come out and try to warm your heart by letting you know that spring is right around the corner. Of...

PhotoThis is it, this is the month that all the seed catalogs come out and try to warm your heart by letting you know that spring is right around the corner. Of course we hope it is right around the corner, it's a little difficult to imagine when it's 27 degrees outside with a wind chill of 10.

This whole idea of enticing you into spring is nothing new. According to the Special Collections & Archives Research Center at Oregon State University, nurserymen, seedsmen and botanists from the late sixteenth to eighteenth centuries published gardening books, pamphlets, and gardeners’ calendars that listed seeds or plants for sale. Over the years, these lists became more ornate, morphing into the colorful catalogs we get today.

Some suggestions when buying from a catalog:

Be sure to decide how much variety you are really after. You can get small packets of individual plants that don't cost very much, but also don't give you much variety. If variety is what you are really after you can purchase a seed mixture packet which will give you many types of plants but it will usually cost much more.

It's probably a good idea to look for seed packets that grow best in the area where you live. What may thrive in Arizona could easily have trouble sprouting in Minnesota no matter how much you water it.

Don't throw away the catalogs. Find a place to store them because they can be used as a reference guide and give you information about taking care of certain plants.

Shop the catalogs and find the best deals. You could save enough to buy more pots, plants and gardening tools by making sure you get the best deal on seeds.

Don't think that everything you read in the catalog is exactly right. Like cooking a little of this and a little of that can make something better, most times the growth and maturity timing they give for a plant is just an estimate not an exact date.

Look for All America selections, they are a bit hardier and will grow in a vast array of conditions.

When you order your seeds make it clear you want untreated seeds. They don't have any chemicals or fungicide on them.

What "new" means

Carol Prybell is a member of the Porter County Master Gardeners Association in Valparaiso, Indiana, and she says use caution when seeing the word “new” in gardening catalogs.

“This can mean one of two things…the offering is new to this company but has been around for a while or the offering is new to the market,” she says. “A simple Google search of the plants botanical name will give you a good idea of which 'new' you’re dealing with.”

As enticing as the idea of a beautiful plant new to the market is, Prybell offers two words of advice — stay away.

According to Mother Earth News, 70% of gardeners use catalogs to buy their seeds. There are other options though. You pick up packets at retail stores and even big-box stores now carry organic and heirloom seeds, or you can look for more specialized selections at garden centers and health food stores.

Don't forget -- gourmet shops as well as food co-ops and independently owned health food stores often have displays from regional seed companies.

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Helicopter parents may make good pet parents

A study finds that needy, neurotic people are kind to their pets

You know what helicopter parenting is -- it's when parents hovers ove their children. It hasn't had the most favorable reviews. Parenting critics have clai...

PhotoYou know what helicopter parenting is -- it's when parents hovers over their children. It hasn't had the most favorable reviews. Parenting critics have claimed it is an enabling style of parenting that doesn't let children feel consequences or learn by their own decisions.

Helicopter parents now have a place where they can engage in that style of parenting and not feel the wrath of criticism. Some experts think that it might be very beneficial if the child that you’re parenting has four legs. Rejoice overprotective parents -- a new study says this style of parenting could be what's right for your pet.

UC Berkeley and California State University, East Bay did a survey and assessed nurturing styles of over 1,000 people who had to pick if they were dog lovers, cat lovers, both or neither.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science and the researchers discovered that the more neurotic the study participants were, the more they gave attention and affection to their animals, and that’s not such a bad thing.

"The fact that higher levels of neuroticism are associated with affection and anxious attachment suggests that people who score higher on that dimension may have high levels of affection and dependence on their pets, which may be a good thing for pets," says co-author Mikel Delgado, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UC Berkeley.

Other studies

There have been other studies that have looked at how people are attached to their pets, but this is the first one in the U.S. that focuses on the human attachment theory, which looks at the bond between parents and children or between partners who have a romantic relationship and categorizes pet owners' personality types -- you know, dog person or cat person.

The survey was done via an online questionnaire and it was based on human as well as animal attachment assessments including five human characteristics --   openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Pet owners were also rated according to the Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale, which measures affection for pets, and the Pet Attachment Questionnaire, which gauges “anxious attachment” and “avoidant attachment.”

The conclusion is that people who had a higher score of anxious attachment tend to need more reassurance from their love interest. They tended to fall into the younger category and said cats were their pets of choice.

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Builder confidence shows little change in January

Optimism is highest in the West

Builder confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes remains fairly steady in January. The latest National Association of Home Builders (N...

PhotoBuilder confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes remains fairly steady in January.

The latest National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) /Wells Fargo Housing Market Index slipped 1 point -- to 57, marking the third straight month that the index has hovered in the upper 50s range.

"After 7 months above the key 50 benchmark, builder sentiment is reflecting the gradual improvement that is occurring in many markets throughout the nation," said NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly, a builder and developer from Wilmington, Del.

How they see it

The Index gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next 6 months as "good," "fair" or "poor." The monthly survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as "high to very high," "average" or "low to very low." Scores from each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

"January's HMI reading is in line with our forecast as we head into the new year," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "Steady economic growth, rising consumer confidence and a growing labor market will help the housing market continue to move forward in 2015."

The HMI component gauging current sales conditions remained at 62 in January while the index measuring expectations for future sales dropped 4 points to 60 and the component gauging traffic of prospective buyers fell 2 points to 44.

Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the West rose by 4 points to 66, the Midwest registered a 3-point gain to 57 and the Northeast was up 2 points to 47. The South dropped 2 points to 58.

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Sentry Food Solutions recalls chicken and beef products

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

Sentry Food Solutions of Tucker, Ga., is recalling approximately 14,130 pounds of chicken and beef products. The products may contain peanuts, known aller...

PhotoSentry Food Solutions of Tucker, Ga., is recalling approximately 14,130 pounds of chicken and beef products.

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

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

The following items,produced on various dates between Nov. 20, 2014, and Jan. 7, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 7,770 lbs. - 3 bags of 5 lbs. in 15 lb. cases of “SABOR LATINO PEPPER STEAK” with packaging codes “11/24/15, 11/26/15, 12/3/15, 12/9/15, 12/12/15, 12/16/15, 1/6/15 or 1/7/16”
  • 2,160 lbs. - 3 bags of 5 lbs. in 15 lb. cases of “SABOR LATINO BEEF & POTATO STEW” with packaging codes “11/24/15, 12/5/15 or 12/10/15”
  • 2,160 lbs. - 3 bags of 5 lbs. in 15 lb. cases of “SABOR LATINO CHICKEN FRICASSEE” with packaging codes “11/20/15, 11/26/15, 12/4/15, 12/9/15 or 1/6/16”
  • 2,040 lbs. - 3 bags of 5 lbs. in 15 lb. cases of “SABOR LATINO BEEF PICADILLO” with packaging codes “11/24/15 or 12/12/15”

The above products bear the establishment number “P-19031” or Est. 19031” inside the USDA mark of inspection and were produced for institutional use in Florida.

Consumers with questions may contact Quality Assurance Manager Luci de Jesus at 470-268-8440, Ext. 13.  

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La Guadalupana Wholesale recalls chicken products

The products were not subjected to federal health regulations

La Guadalupana Wholesale of Chicago, Ill., is recalling approximately 8,856 pounds of chicken tamales. The products were not produced under a fully implem...

PhotoLa Guadalupana Wholesale of Chicago, Ill., is recalling approximately 8,856 pounds of chicken tamales.

The products were not produced under a fully implemented Ready-To-Eat (RTE) Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan; a Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) program; and a hazard analysis.

There are no reports of illness due to consumption of these products.

The products subject to recall include:

  • 2 packs of 6 tamales in each vacuum-packed bag of “LA GUADALUPANA CHICKEN TAMALES”

The products bear the establishment number “P-21094” inside the USDA mark of inspection with packaging dates from Nov. 19, 2014 through Jan. 4, 2015 on the label, and were distributed for retail sale in Chicago, Ill..

The products were produced from Dec. 1, 2014, through Jan. 5, 2015, and then packaged using a Cryovac machine by a co-packer of La Guadalupana Wholesale from Nov.19, 2014, through Jan. 2, 2015.

The firm's co-packer did not conduct a hazard analysis to determine the food safety hazards reasonably likely to occur in the cryovacing process and did not identify the preventive measures the establishment could apply to control those hazards.

The chicken tamales are a RTE product and fall within the Fully Cooked Not Shelf Stable category. As such, their production requires an Lm program. The product is also processed by means of physical handling and packaging, thus further requiring a HACCP plan.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact company General Manager Alejandro Castro at at 1-866-954-3654 or by email at info@senortamale.com.

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Food Club recalls pork products

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

Food Club, the importer of record, of Key Biscayne, Fla., is recalling approximately 3,233 pounds of pork products. The products were produced in Spain an...

PhotoFood Club, the importer of record, of Key Biscayne, Fla., is recalling approximately 3,233 pounds of pork products.

The products were produced in Spain and were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection. Without the benefit of full inspection, a possibility of adverse health consequences exists.

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

The following Sociedad Cooperativa Valle de Los Pedroches items are subject to recall:

  • Whole hams of “COVAP JAMÓN DE BELLOTA 100% IBERICO BONE IN DRY CURED ACORN FED IBERICO PORK HAM” and bearing lot numbers “13314, 14124, 14444 or 14503” on the packaging labels.
  • 2.5-oz. individually wrapped packages of “COVAP JAMÓN DE BELLOTA DRY CURED ACORN FED IBERICO SLICED HAM” and bearing lot numbers “13323, 13472, 14105, 14344, 14423 or 14484” on the packaging labels.

The products were included in 6 different shipments bearing establishment number “Spain 29” inside the Spain mark of inspection and have “Sell-by” dates from June 19, 2014 through Dec. 10, 2015. These products were shipped to customers in California via the Internet.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the company’s owner, Eduardo Rebollo, by email at info@ibericoclub.com.   

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Kalle USA recalls pork products

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

Kalle USA of Chicago, Ill., is recalling approximately 168,473 pounds of pork products. The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for in...

PhotoKalle USA of Chicago, Ill., is recalling approximately 168,473 pounds of pork products.

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection. Without undergoing a full inspection, a possibility of adverse health consequences exists.

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

The following items, produced between Oct. 18, 2013, and Nov. 19, 2014, are being recalled:

  • 2,976 - 44.10 lb. bags of “SCAN PORK DP-941 NATURAL DEHYDRATED PORK STOCK/NATIONAL DEHYDRATED PORK BROTH” and bearing packaging codes “JJ820738638, JJ820860580, JJ82082258, JJ820889803 or JJ820645387” on the labels.
  • 1 - 44.10 lb. bag of “SCAN PORK DP-1075 NATURAL DEHYDRATED PORK STOCK HOT SETTING” and bearing packing code “JJ820822580” on the label.
  • 800 – 44.10 lb. bags of “SCAN PORK FI-805 FRESH INJECTION PORK PROTEIN” and bearing packaging codes “JJ820670757 or JJ820665997” on the labels.

The above products were included in 6 different shipments bearing establishment number “Denmark Est. 215” inside the mark of inspection. They were distributed in Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Consumers with questions about the recall may email company President John Lample at kalle@kalleusa.com.

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Kabob’s Acquisition recalls beef and chicken products

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

Kabob’s Acquisition of Lake City, Ga., is recalling approximately 869 pounds of beef and chicken products. The products may contain peanuts, known allerg...

PhotoKabob’s Acquisition of Lake City, Ga., is recalling approximately 869 pounds of beef and chicken products.

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

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

The following items, produced on various dates from November 13, 2014 to January 15, 2015, are subject to recall:

  • Cases containing shrink wrapped plastic trays of 100 “Kabob’s Chipotle Steak Churrasco 1053”
  • Cases containing shrink wrapped plastic trays of 100 “Kabob’s Latin Inspired Chicken and Cheese in Pastry 7172”
  • Cases containing shrink wrapped plastic trays of 100 “Kabob’s White Chicken Meat for Tandoori (Made in USA) 2415”
  • Cases containing shrink wrapped plastic trays of 100 “Kabob’s Beef Pastelitos 7159”

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “EST. 6640” or “P-6640” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to distribution centers in Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma and Texas for shipment to catering firms.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Jonathon Herrera at (404) 361-6283.

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Buffalo Provisions recalls chorizo products

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

Buffalo Provisions of Bronx, N.Y., is recalling approximately 48,210 pounds of chorizo product. The products may contain peanuts, an allergen which is no...

PhotoBuffalo Provisions of Bronx, N.Y., is recalling approximately 48,210 pounds of chorizo product.

The products may contain peanuts, an allergen which is not declared on the product label.

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

The following items subject to recall were produced on various dates between October 9 and January 15, 2015:

  • 12-oz. vacuum packages of “Brooklyn Cured Chicken Chorizo” with sell by date “2/13/15”
  • 14-oz. and 5-lb. vacuum packages of “La Centro Americana Chorizo Salvadoreno” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 14-oz. vacuum packages of “La Centro Americana Chorizo Salvadoreno” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 20-lb. loose butcher packages of “El Casero Mexican Longaniza” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 14-oz. of vacuum packages of “El Casero Longaniza” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 14-oz. vacuum packages of “El Casero Chorizo Poblano” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 5-lb. vacuum packages of “El Casero Chorizo Poblano” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 5-lb. vacuum packages of “El Casero Spanish Chorizo” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 14-oz. vacuum packages of ‘El Casero Chorizo Ecuadoriano” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 5-lb. vacuum packages of “El Casero Chorizo Colombian” with sell by date “2/9/15”
  • 14-oz. vacuum packages of “El Casero Chorizo Colombian” with sell by date “2/9/15”
  • 14-oz. vacuum packages of “La Centro Americana Colombian Chorizo Hondureno” with sell by date “2/9/15”
  • 5-lb. vacuum packages of “El Casero Chorizo Jalapeno” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 14-oz. vacuum packages of “El Casero Chorizo Picoso” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 16-oz. vacuum packages of “El Casero Chorizo Jalapeno” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 10 lbs. vacuum packages of “El Casero Chorizo Jalapeno” with sell by date “1/20/15”
  • 14-oz. vacuum packages of “La Centro Americana Chorizo Picante Mexican Sausage” with sell by date “1/20/15”

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “EST. 4312” or “P-4312” inside the USDA mark of inspection and were shipped to retail and wholesale locations in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Jamen Armendariz at 718-292-4300.  

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5 weight-loss strategies to avoid in 2015

It's not enough to know what works, knowing what doesn't is also helpful

If you've resolved to lose weight this year, congratulations. It's a healthy goal. But how you go about it will have a lot to do with whether you succeed....

PhotoIf you've resolved to lose weight this year, congratulations. It's a healthy goal. But how you go about it will have a lot to do with whether you succeed.

Dr. Aaron Michelfelder of Loyola University Health System is well acquainted with weight-loss strategies that work and those that don't. He's identified 5 in particular that he sees time and again but with poor results.

Bad strategy No. 1: losing weight at the gym.

Gym memberships soar in January because that's when many people decide to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Working out is good for your health and can help to maintain your weight. But exercise alone is not very effective in shedding unwanted pounds.

Michelfelder says most consumers have no idea how few calories are burned during exercise. Walking on a treadmill for a half hour, for example, will only burn about 200 calories. To lose weight, you will need to eat fewer calories each day. It's that simple.

Bad Strategy No. 2: dramatically changing your diet

Making an abrupt change in diet is not only not a good idea, Michelfelder says it is not even necessary. A better strategy? Try cutting a few hundred calories a day.

First, figure out where your break-even point is calorie-wise. For the average person it might be 2,200 to 2,500 calories a day. To lose a pound a week, consume about 500 fewer calories a day.

Reduce snacking and avoid high-calorie beverages. When going to a restaurant, eat an apple before dinner to dull your appetite, then skip the bread before the main dish arrives. Eat smaller portions and ask for a to-go container.

Bad Strategy No. 3: relying on weight-loss supplements

Michelfelder, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, says supplements burn more muscle than fat. When you stop taking them, he warns you will gain back more fat than muscle, making you worse off than before you started taking them.

Bad Strategy No. 4: trying to lose it fast

Reality shows like The Biggest Loser may inspire the overweight and obese, but create the impression that slimming down can be done quickly. In most cases, it can't – at least, not if you want to keep it off.

Michelfelder says a more realistic -- and healthy -- strategy is to try to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week. Remember, cutting back 500 calories a day, such as a bagel with cream cheese, will help you drop a pound a week.

Can't do 500 calories? Eliminate 250 calories a day and you'll lose 2 pounds per month.

“This will provide the slow-and-steady type of weight loss that will be long-lasting,” Michelfelder said.

Bad Strategy No. 5: giving up

It's easy to become discouraged because losing weight is a process that takes place over an extended period of time. Most of us are accustomed to instant gratification. Weight loss doesn't work that way.

Michelfelder says you shouldn't stress if you don't drop down to a trim, normal weight, defined as a body mass index of between 18.5 and 24.9. If you are overweight or obese, he says losing 10% of your body weight will improve your appearance and have significant health benefits, such as lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of diabetes. Even losing as little as 5 pounds will be good for your joints.

As for structured programs, like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, Michelfelder says they can be effective – but more effective if you attend in person instead of participating online.

“For the New Year, most of us should add some weight loss to our resolutions,” Michelfelder said. “Obesity is now so common in the United States that it causes more disease and years of life lost than smoking.”

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Feds probe fires in Jeeps, new ones this time

FCA (Chrysler) CEO suggests the U.S. auto industry is plagued by recall "overkill"

Where there's smoke, there may be a Jeep. The popular SUVs seem to have more than their share of incidents involving fires, including one that caught the e...

PhotoWhere there's smoke, there may be a Jeep. The popular SUVs seem to have more than their share of incidents involving fires, including one that caught the eye of federal safety regulators just about the time FCA (a/k/a Chrysler) CEO Sergio Marchionne was talking about recall "overkill."

The latest probe involves more than 50,000 Jeep Cherokees from the 2015 model year. It was opened after a consumer filed a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about an engine compartment fire.

Margareta Knoos of La Jolla, Calif., had bought the Jeep just two days before, and said it burst into flames within seconds after being parked. She told KFMB-TV the car had only 50 miles on it at the time of the blaze.

"The complaint alleged white smoke coming from under the hood immediately after parking the vehicle and while the ignition is off," the NHTSA account said. NHTSA said it had at least one other similar complaint. A Chrysler spokesman said the company was "cooperating closely" with NHTSA.

"Overkill"

Marchionne's comments about "overkill" were made last week at a news conference at the Detroit Auto Show. 

“In some instances, we may have overreacted to a particular problem,” Marchionne said during a discussion of the Takata airbag recalls, according to published reports. “In a lot of ways, the all-encompassing issue to the airbag issue may have been overkill.”

Marchionne has been condemned by safety advocates for what they say is his company's slow response to fires in older Jeep Cherokees and Libertys. 

Chrysler resisted recalling hundreds of thousands of 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty and 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee models that critics say are prone to buest into flames when rear-ended because their gas tanks are located in a vulnerable spot behind the rear axle.

Even after it finally got underway, the recall has progressed slowly. FCA says that's because the recalled Jeeps are so old that it's difficult to find their current owners. Critics argue that FCA could try harder.

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Inflation report doesn't tell whole story for most consumers

Gasoline prices may be lower but food costs aren't

Friday's report by the U.S. Labor Department showing a sharp drop in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is, at first glance, good news for consumers....

PhotoFriday's report by the U.S. Labor Department showing a sharp drop in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is, at first glance, good news for consumers.

The December CPI fell 0.4%, largely on the steep drop in gasoline prices. That gave consumers who drive cars a nice end-of-the-year bonus.

But consumers who don't drive a car didn't fare nearly as well. And even motorists had to give back some of their fuel savings when they sat down at the dinner table.

Rising food prices

While the government's gasoline index plunged 9.4% – a massive one-month decline – the food index rose 0.3%, the largest jump since September. Drilling deeper into the food index we see that food consumed at home also rose 0.3%, as 5 of the 6 major grocery store food groups were more costly.

The cost of dairy and related products increased by the largest amount, rising 0.6% after declining slightly in November. Fruits and vegetables also cost more. The fresh vegetables index rose 2.4%, negating a 1.3% decline for fresh fruit.

Prices for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs all went up. The index for other food at home increased 0.3% while the cereals and bakery products index advanced 0.2%.

Give and take

In short, it cost less to drive to the grocery store but cost more to fill up the cart when you got there. And this is not just a one-off in December. The government statistics show the cost of food prepared and consumed at home has risen 3.7% over the last 12 months.

It also cost more to eat at restaurants. The index for food consumed away from home rose 0.3% in December on the heels of a 0.4% increase in November, and has risen 3.0% over the last year.

Other items, in addition to food, were more costly in December. Even though oil and gasoline prices were lower, people heating their homes with natural gas paid 1.5% moe last month. Homes using electricity – and that's about all of them – paid 0.8% more.

It cost more to put a roof over your head, with rents and owners' equivalent rent and lodging away from home all rising 0.2%.

It cost more to go to the doctor in December, with medical care rising 0.5%. The index for prescription drugs rose 0.9% and the hospital services index increased 0.5%.

Air travel and used cars cheaper

Was anything else besides gasoline cheaper? Sure. If you bought a used car or truck, took a trip on an airline, bought some clothing, selected a new sofa for the living room or restocked the liquor cabinet, you saved a little money.

But to say that inflation plunged in December, as the headlines proclaimed? Not really, at least not for most consumers.

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Dietary supplement maker ordered to halt sales

The California firm failed to comply with FDA manufacturing practice regulations

A federal court has ordered Health One Pharmaceuticals of City of Industry, Calif., and Richard S. Yeh, its president and owner, to stop selling its produc...

PhotoA federal court has ordered Health One Pharmaceuticals of City of Industry, Calif., and Richard S. Yeh, its president and owner, to stop selling its products until the company comes into compliance with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) dietary supplement manufacturing regulations and other requirements.

Health One Pharmaceuticals is a private label and contract manufacturer of dietary supplements.

The decree, signed by U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell of the Central District of California, requires Health One Pharmaceuticals -- under FDA supervision -- to recall and destroy all dietary supplements that were manufactured, prepared, packed, labeled, held or distributed between September 1, 2011, and January 15, 2015.

“When a company puts consumers at risk, the FDA will take action to protect public health,” said Melinda K. Plaisier, FDA associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “Our goal is to ensure that consumers have access to dietary supplements that meet federal standards for safety and quality.”

Serious violations alleged

FDA issued Health One Pharmaceuticals a warning letter on March 28, 2012, that outlined serious violations of FDA’s current good manufacturing practice (cGMP) requirements.

The violations included failure to perform tests to verify the identity of dietary ingredients used to manufacture the supplements; failure to establish appropriate manufacturing controls; and failure to maintain, clean and sanitize equipment.

Despite assurances from the firm that it was correcting the violations noted in the warning letter, follow up inspections showed that the company failed to correct all of the manufacturing violations. Failure to follow cGMP requirements made the firm’s products adulterated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

According to the complaint filed with the court, certain dietary supplements manufactured by Health One Pharmaceuticals also were not properly labeled because the labels did not list the common or usual names of all product ingredients.

In order to resume operations, Health One Pharmaceuticals needs to receive permission from the FDA and hire an independent expert to assess whether the firm is in compliance with cGMP requirements.

Audit reports documenting compliance with FDA manufacturing regulations then need to be filed with the agency biannually for at least five years.

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Number of students qualifying for reduced-price lunches exceeds 50%

The figure has been climbing steadily over the last decade

In 2014, U.S. businesses added more jobs than in any year since the '90s. We are seeing gas at less than $2.00 a gallon in some places. No doubt when Presi...

PhotoIn 2014, U.S. businesses added more jobs than in any year since the '90s. We are seeing gas at less than $2.00 a gallon in some places. No doubt when President Obama gives his State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening, the economy will be a highlight.

But not all of that economic good news trickles down to school children.

More than half of all public school kids qualify for a free lunch according to a study by the Southern Education Foundation. Mississippi has an even bigger problem with 71% of their students qualifying for reduced or free lunch. Of the 5 billion means served to 31 million students during the 2013-2014 school year, 62% were free of charge, 8% were reduced price, and the other 30% were paid.

The figures come from 2013 federal data on kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch based on their family's income.

For a family of four, the poverty level is less than $24,000 a year and 185 percent of that figure is about $44,000. Children from families with incomes over 185% of poverty pay a full price, though their meals are still subsidized to some extent. 

The percentage of children qualifying for free or reduced-price meals has been climbing for years. It was 40% in 2000.

The South seems to have the largest population of children in need, although in California, 55% of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in 2013.

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Heywood’s Meat Haus & Provision Co. recalls pork products

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

Heywood’s Meat Haus & Provision Co., of Marietta, Ga., is recalling approximately 931 pounds of tasso (pork shoulder) products. The products may contain ...

PhotoHeywood’s Meat Haus & Provision Co., of Marietta, Ga., is recalling approximately 931 pounds of tasso (pork shoulder) products.

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

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

The following item, produced on various dates from August 25, 2014, to January14, 2015, is subject to recall:

  • 10-lb. cases of “Heywood’s Provision Company Tasso”

The recalled product bears the establishment number “EST. 44805” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and was shipped to restaurant locations in Georgia.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Patrick Gebrayel at (404) 410-7997.

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Fox returns to Dish after three-week hiatus. Was it fair? You decide.

The fight may have looked political but relax, it was just about money

Dish Network may have saved a few dollars in its contract tussle with Fox but it has rebranded itself as Satan in the minds of many loyal Fox fans....

PhotoDish Network may have saved a few dollars in its contract tussle with Fox but it has rebranded itself as Satan in the minds of many loyal Fox fans.

"I called and told them that if they lost Fox News I would leave...They did and I did!!!" said an angry Fox follower named Wayne in one of many angry reviews and emails submitted over the last few weeks. 

"Dish has violated my contract," said a viewer who signed herself Mary Mary. "When I joined Dish you offered Fox News. Since you no longer supply what I signed up for i no longer have to pay you. I will not pay until Fox News is back."

Not to be contrary, but Mary Mary should check her contract, as should anyone else who tried to dump out of their Dish agreement. There are numerous clauses that hold Dish harmless if any of its suppliers (i.e., program producers) can't or won't deliver the goods. 

What Wayne and many others missed was that the dispute was not political -- after all, Dish had a similar falling out with CNN just a few weeks earlier -- but just another in a seemingly endless series of disputes over licensing fees.

After all, while Fox, MSNBC, CNN, et al, may seem like political organizations to their viewers, the truth is that they and their distributors, like Dish, are in it for the bucks and both parties are trying to maximize their return. It's like the coffee bean farmers who sell their produce to Starbucks, although the networks are in a stronger position than your average coffee bean farmer.

News is a lot like coffee, actually. You have to keep brewing up a fresh batch or it gets stale and bitter. 

DISH Network  Jan. 16, 2015, 2:48 p.m.
Consumers rate DISH Network

So despite the turmoil among a healthy number of its 14 million subscribers, Dish Network is now back on track, Fox is back on the satellite and all is right with the world for at least the next three years, which is how long the companies' new contract extends.

Besides Fox News, the new deal covers Fox Business as well.

“We thank the viewers of Fox News and Fox Business and Dish customers for their patience throughout this process,” the companies said in a joint statement.

Gee, thanks guys. Feel free to hold us hostage anytime. 

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How the oil price plunge is like the housing crisis

But consumers were big losers in one, big winners in the other

For a couple of months now we consumers have watched with wide smiles on our faces as the price of gasoline has fallen....

PhotoFor a couple of months now we consumers have watched with wide smiles on our faces as the price of gasoline has fallen.

It fell below $3.30 a gallon, then $3. By mid-December it was below $2.50 a gallon – and even well below $2 in the cheapest states. It was a wonderful thing. For consumers.

The financial community, however, is terrified.

Why? Because the collapse of oil prices poses a systemic risk, albeit a smaller one, just as the collapse in home prices in 2009 did.

Housing similarities

When home prices collapsed their value as assets evaporated. On an individual basis, many homeowners saw their equity disappear. They might have gone from having $100,000 in home equity to being “under water,” owing more than their homes were worth.

Some people who had owned their homes for a decade or longer or owed very little on their original mortgage decided to take advantage of surging home valuations, refinancing and taking out tens of thousands of dollars in equity. Many lost their homes when home values sank.

The systemic risk to the economy, however, came from bundling these mortgages into securities and selling them to investors – investors who largely borrowed the money from banks to buy them. When home values fell and many went into foreclosure, these assets became “toxic.” Other investors wouldn't touch them because it was impossible to tell which bundles contained mortgages in default.

Shale revolution

The collapse in oil prices has been similar, but so far, on a smaller scale. And while both consumers and financial institutions were affected by the housing collapse, consumers have actually benefited from oil's collapse.

How did all this happen? In the past 5 years American oil production has surged, largely because of the shale revolution – and cheap money.

With historically low interest rates tiny oil companies could borrow huge amounts of capital to expand their drilling operations. Banks were only too willing to lend the money since oil was $100 a barrel or more and no one could imagine it going down – just like no one could imagine home prices falling in 2008.

Rob Raymond of RCH Energy made this comparison last month in an appearance on CNBC.

Homes and oil wells

“The issue with this has become, what were houses in Florida and Arizona in 2000 to 2006 became oil wells in North Dakota and Texas in 2009 to 2014, and most of that was funded in the high-yield market and by private equity," he told the business news channel. “And now that a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil has fallen from $100 to $60 in five months, those energy producers are in trouble.”

And just maybe, so are the banks that loaned them money and the investors who purchased their bonds.

But where the housing crisis crushed millions of consumers who bought or refinanced their homes at the wrong time, consumers are mostly winners with oil's collapse – at least, so far. And they are starting to figure out they have been paying inflated prices for fuel for years.

Because more and more analysts are beginning to refer to oil as “a bubble” that has finally popped. When a commodity is in a bubble, it's price is not determined by the costs of producing it but what people are willing to pay for it.

Stocks, houses, oil

We've seen this movie before. There was a tech-fueled stock market bubble in the late 1990s. There was a housing bubble in the early to mid 2000s. Since 2005, there has been an oil bubble.

But the speculators who drove up the price of oil are now not willing to pay very much, and in some cases have profited by “shorting” the oil market, betting prices will go even lower, basing their decision on the belief the world is producing more oil than it can consume.

As long as it doesn't bring down the economy, this is good news for consumers.

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The 2015 tax season is off and running

Free File is now open with E-file cranking up next week

Are you ready to file your 2014 federal income tax return? Probably not. But if you are, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is ready for you. The tax agen...

PhotoAre you ready to file your 2014 federal income tax return? Probably not. But if you are, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is ready for you.

The tax agency is touting what it calls “a growing array of online services,” including features it says will help you understand how the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will affect you tax time, along with the availability of the Free File program.

The IRS expects to receive about 150 million individual income tax returns this year, with more than 4 out of 5 returns filed electronically. The Free File program opens today, and the agency will begin accepting and processing all tax returns on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

Obamacare kicks in

This year’s return will include new questions to incorporate provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The majority of taxpayers -- more than 80% -- will simply need to check a box to verify they have health insurance coverage. For the minority of taxpayers who will have to do more, useful information and tips regarding the premium tax credit, the individual shared responsibility requirement and other tax features of the ACA may be found at IRS.gov/aca.

“Our employees will be working hard again this season to help the nation’s taxpayers,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. “We encourage people to use the tools and information available on IRS.gov, particularly given the long wait times we anticipate on our phone lines. As always, taxpayers can benefit by filing electronically.”

Free File ready for business

Taxpayers can begin preparing their returns using the Free File system today. Available only at IRS.gov, Free File offers two filing options:

Brand-name software, offered by IRS’ commercial partners to about 100 million individuals and families with incomes of $60,000 or less; or

Online fillable forms, the electronic version of IRS paper forms available to taxpayers at all income levels and especially useful to people comfortable with filling out their own returns.

E-file, when combined with direct deposit, is the fastest way to get a refund. More than 3 out of 4 refund recipients now choose direct deposit. People who e-file make fewer mistakes, and it costs nothing for those who choose Free File.

In all, 14 software companies will be participating in this year’s Free File program.

Taxpayers who purchase their own software can also choose e-file, and most paid tax preparers are now required to file their clients’ returns electronically. In addition to Free File, commercial software companies also are currently available for taxpayer use.

The IRS will begin accepting and processing all returns -- whether e-file, Free File or paper tax returns -- on Jan. 20.

Like last year, the IRS expects to issue more than 9 out of 10 refunds within 21 days.  

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"Rachel from Cardholder Services" pays up

Checks are in the mail to consumers who fell prey to the scheme

The Federal Trade Commission is mailing 16,590 refund checks totaling more than $700,000 this week to consumers who lost money to a “Rachel from Cardholder...

More

Southwest fined $1.6 million for tarmac delay rule violation

It's the largest civil penalty assessed for violating tarmac delay rules

Southwest Airlines is being fined $1.6 million for violating violated federal rules involving long tarmac delays last January. It's the largest civil penal...

PhotoSouthwest Airlines is being fined $1.6 million for violating violated federal rules involving long tarmac delays last January. It's the largest civil penalty a carrier has been assessed for violating the rules.

According to the Transportation Department (DOT) Southwest failed to offer passengers on 16 aircraft delayed at Chicago Midway International Airport the chance to get off the plane within 3 hours of arrival and failed to have sufficient staff available to implement its Tarmac Delay Contingency Plan.

“Airline passengers have rights, and the Department’s tarmac delay rules are meant to prevent passengers from being stuck on an aircraft on the ground for hours on end,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We have aggressively enforced, and will continue to aggressively enforce, our tarmac delay rule to ensure carriers have adequate resources to minimize passengers’ exposure to lengthy tarmac delays.”

Southwest staffing problems

Under the DOT’s aviation consumer protection rule enacted in 2009, airlines may not allow tarmac delays longer than 3 hours on domestic flights at U.S. airports without giving passengers an opportunity to leave the plane. Exceptions are allowed only for safety, security, and air traffic control-related reasons.

An investigation by DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office found that on January 2 into January 3, 2014, 16 Southwest flights experienced lengthy tarmac delays at Midway in excess of 3 hours. Southwest experienced a malfunctioning of its crew scheduling system and an unexpected shortage of staff, particularly the carrier’s ramp-crew, which inhibited the carrier’s ability to clear aircraft from Southwest’s gates in a timely manner to accommodate arriving flights. Severe winter weather at Midway contributed to the tarmac delays.

Prior to this order, the largest civil penalties were $1.1 million in 2012 and $900,000 in 2011. DOT assessed a larger civil penalty against Southwest because the lengthy tarmac delays involved more flights and affected more passengers than those in 2011 or 2012 (neither of which involved Southwest).

To date -- including this order -- DOT has issued 17 orders assessing a total of $5.24 million dollars in civil penalties for violations of its tarmac delay rules.  

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Consumer inflation goes AWOL in December

Falling energy prices -- chiefly gasoline -- are a major factor

A sharp drop in the cost of gasoline helped push the Consumer Price Index (CPI) lower in December. According to figures released by the Labor Department (...

PhotoA sharp drop in the cost of gasoline helped push the Consumer Price Index (CPI) lower in December.

According to figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) the CPI was down 0.4% on a seasonally adjusted basis. For all of 2014, the cost of living rose 0.8%, a notable improvement over the 1.5% advance in 2013 and the second-smallest December-December increase in the last 50 years. The average annual increase over the last 10 years is 2.1%.

Energy and food

The cost of gasoline was down sharply -- 9.4% -- a big contributor to the decline of 4.7% in overall energy prices last month. For the year, energy prices are down 10.6% over the span.

Food prices, meanwhile, rose 0.3% -- the largest increase since September. The cost of fresh vegetables led the advance, with a gain of 2.4%. Fresh fruit prices, on the other hand, were down 1.3%. Meats, poultry, fish and eggs edged up 0.3%. For the year, food prices shot up 3.4% -- more than triple the 2013 increase.

The “core rate” of inflation, which excludes the volatile food and energy sectors, was unchanged in December. Last month was only the second time since 2010 that it did not increase. For all of 2014, the core rate is up 1.6%, versus a 1.7% increase in 2013, and below its 1.9% annual rate over the past ten years.

The complete CPI report is available on the DOL website.

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Completed foreclosures down again in November

Only Washington, D.C., saw a rising foreclosure rate

The number of U.S. foreclosures continued to dwindle in November. According to CoreLogic, a provider of property information, analytics and data-enabled s...

PhotoThe number of U.S. foreclosures continued to dwindle in November.

According to CoreLogic, a provider of property information, analytics and data-enabled services for the month of November 2014, there were 41,000 completed foreclosures across the country, down 9.6% from the 46,000 tallied a year earlier and a drop of 64% from the peak of completed foreclosures in September 2010.

On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures were down 12.6% from 47,000 in October. As a basis of comparison, completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month nationwide between 2000 and 2006 -- prior to the housing market meltdown in 2007.

“The foreclosure rate fell in every state, with only the District of Columbia seeing a small increase," said Molly Boesel, CoreLogic senior economist. “However, some states still have foreclosure rates of more than twice the national rate. While the national level of foreclosures may normalize in the next 2 years, there will always be the potential for some pockets of distress in the mortgage market.”

Completed foreclosures are an indication of the total number of homes actually lost to foreclosure. Since September 2008, there have been approximately 5.5 million completed foreclosures across the country, and since homeownership rates peaked in the second quarter of 2004, there have been approximately 7 million homes lost to foreclosure.

November highlights

  • November represents 26 consecutive months of double-digit declines in the year-over-year percent change in the foreclosure inventory.
  • All states posted double-digit declines in foreclosure inventory year over year; but the District of Columbia saw a 17.8% increase.
  • Thirty-five states showed declines in year-over-year foreclosure inventory of greater than 30%, with the largest declines in Florida (-48.1%) and Utah (-48.9%).
  • The national serious delinquency rate was 4.0% in November -- down 22.8% from November 2013 and the lowest rate since June 2008.
  • The 5 states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in November 2014 were: Florida (118,000), Michigan (50,000), Texas (36,000), California (29,000) and Ohio (29,000). These states accounted for almost half of all completed foreclosures nationally.
  • Four states and the District of Columbia experienced the lowest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in November 2014: South Dakota (54), District of Columbia (62), North Dakota (298), West Virginia (534) and Wyoming (573).
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Toyota recalls Prius V vehicles

The airbag may fail to deploy

Toyota Motor Sales is recalling approximately 5,000 model year 2014-2015 Prius V vehicles. The front passenger seat is equipped with an Occupant Classific...

PhotoToyota Motor Sales is recalling approximately 5,000 model year 2014-2015 Prius V vehicles.

The front passenger seat is equipped with an Occupant Classification System (OCS), which activates / deactivates the passenger seat air bag system depending on the weight of the seat occupant. There is a possibility that some OCS's may not have been calibrated properly during the vehicle manufacturing process.

Under some conditions, this could result in the failure of the airbag to deploy, increasing the risk of an injury to a front seat passenger in the event of crash.

Toyota says it is not aware of any injuries or fatalities caused by this condition.

Owners of the recalled vehicles will receive a notification by first class mail, and dealers will recalibrate the OCS properly.

Consumers may call Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331.

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Survey suggests used car leases could make a comeback

Leasing could make driving a late model used car more affordable

One thing driving new car sales in the last couple of years has been the rise of leasing. Once most common on luxury cars, consumers increasingly are choos...

PhotoOne thing driving new car sales in the last couple of years has been the rise of leasing. Once most common on luxury cars, consumers increasingly are choosing to lease all sorts of vehicles, mainly because financing the purchase of a new car has become cost prohibitive for many consumers.

Because leases are structured, based on the value of the car at the beginning of the lease and what it's worth at the end, lease payments are much lower than purchase payments. With a lease you pay only for the value of the car you use. With a purchase, you pay for the whole thing.

Scot Hall, Executive Vice-president of Swapalease.com, has studied used car leasing and says its payments would be even lower than new car leases. Because of that, he thinks the concept of used car leasing is poised for a comeback.

A comeback, because it's hard to find a used car lease these days.

Hard to find

“To the best of my knowledge there's no one doing it at the scope at which it used to be done, pre-recession, Hall told ConsumerAffairs. “There definitely was an appetite for it, but these leasing companies went away from it for some reason.”

Swapalease, an online marketplace matching up people who want out of their lease with those who would like to drive the car for the remainder of the term, commissioned a survey to see what consumers think about leasing a used car.

The survey found 82% of drivers across the U.S. would consider leasing a 3 year-old used car or truck.

Hesitation

The biggest hesitation the survey found was the issue of maintenance. If you lease a new car, it's under warranty the entire time you drive it. It's new, so it shouldn't have any repair issues.

But Hall says leasing a used car shouldn't be any more scary than buying one. And the used cars most likely to be leased would only be 3 years-old and have an extended warranty.

“If the car is part of a typical certified, pre-owned program – and I can't think of a manufacturer that doesn't have one – then it's going to have an extended warranty and have gone through a fairly rigorous reconditioning,” Hall said.

Lower monthly payment

The biggest draw for used car leases, however, is probably the cost. Used car leases will, in most cases, be much lower than the lease of a new car, because of the way leases are structured. Remember, it's the cost of the car when you get it and its value when you turn it in.

“One of the benefits from a mathematical standpoint on a used car lease, most of the depreciation is going to have already taken place,” Hall said. “In fact, year 1 is going to be the year that vehicle takes the biggest depreciation hit.”

So how much lower is the typical used car lease payment going to be? Hall says it's going to vary, depending on the kind of car.

“But I think it's safe to say that the savings that one would realize on a used car lease, if set up properly, is somewhere in the range of $100 to $150 a month, which is pretty substantial, considering you're going to be driving a car that has a warranty and has been reconditioned,” he said. “It's not going to be a new car, but for that significant difference in price, I think it makes for a compelling argument to go that way.”

For now, however, consumers may have a hard time finding a dealer that offers a used car lease. In time, though, Hall predicts more will.

With the surge in new car leases over the last couple of years, Hall says those vehicles will hit the used car market in the next year or two. He expects many will be leased instead of purchased.

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Google halts sales of Google Glass ... for now

Glass 2.0 will be developed outside the limelight

Google is halting sales of its controversial Google Glass, saying it wants to develop the next version outside the harsh glare of publicity. The first vers...

Photo
File photo

Google is halting sales of its controversial Google Glass, saying it wants to develop the next version outside the harsh glare of publicity. The first version of the wearable, voice-activated device was slammed by privacy advocates.

Consumer Watchdog -- a California non-profit -- said Google should not offer a new version until the privacy issues are resolved.

“Google Glass may have appealed to a bunch of socially clueless ‘Glassholes’ who were oblivious to our privacy rights, but the device fulfilled no real consumer need,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “I’m only surprised it took them so long to kill the program as we know it.”

Last April, the group issued a report that found Glass inappropriate for the broad consumer market and urged consumers not to buy the device. 

By withdrawing the product from public view while it undergoes further testing and development, Google is adopted the methodology used by Apple, which develops products in secret and releases them only when they are in their final version.

Google said it will continue to sell Glass to corporations and developers but will not sell to the public after Jan. 19.

"Stalker's tool"

Consumer Watchdog said that Glass 2.0 must include privacy protections. The key problem with the wearable device, Consumer Watchdog said, is that it allows a user to easily make surreptitious and intrusive video recordings.

“Simply put, it is a perfect stalker’s tool,” said Simpson. “It’s difficult to see how they solve that.”

“Glassholes wanted the device because they thought it made them look cool,” said Simpson. “Now even Google gets that it didn’t.”

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The “Grandma” or “Imposter” scams: ignore those emailed cries for help!

Never give money to a friend or relative in need — unless you verify their identity first

If you have an email account, it's pretty much guaranteed that sooner or later you'll receive a vaguely addressed and poorly written message, supposedly fr...

PhotoIf you have an email account, it's pretty much guaranteed that sooner or later you'll receive a vaguely addressed and poorly written message, supposedly from a friend, relative or someone else who has your email in their address book, claiming to be in deep trouble and begging you for money to help them get out. (Indeed: chances are you've already received dozens, if not hundreds, of these messages — but for the sake of this hypothetical let's pretend that you, Fearless Reader, just got your first-ever email account today.)

Sometimes the senders of those messages claim to be stranded in a foreign country, after thieves stole their money and passport. Other times they'll say they're stranded in another state, after their car broke down in Sticksville and they can't afford repairs. Or perhaps they say they've been arrested for some petty offense, and need money to bail themselves out of jail.

Whatever that email says, it's almost certainly a scam. Sometimes it's called the “Grandma scam” or “Grandparent scam,” because the scammers often claim to be the victims' grandchildren in need of emergency help, but the grandparent scam is merely one variation of what's better known as an “imposter scam”: you think it's a friend or relative who contacted you, but it's actually an imposter.

It's a big-enough problem that last summer, the U.S. Senate's Special Committee on Aging held hearings about it, and collected heartbreaking (and all-too-typical) testimony from various victims such as “Roger W.” (his full name is being withheld for fear additional con artists will seek him out): in December 2013, Roger, who was 81 years old at the time, got a call from a scammer claiming to be his grandson.

Supposedly, the grandson had been arrested for speeding and drug possession, and needed bail money. Roger and his wife eventually bought and sent $7,000 worth of prepaid (and untraceable) money cards before finally contacting their actual grandson on the phone and learning he was fine – no speeding tickets, no arrests and certainly no calling his grandparents to request thousands of dollars in bail money.

Imposter scams

Imposter scams conducted over email are even more commonplace, because a typical person can only make one phone call at a time, whereas the number of emails you can send out at once is nearly endless. Here's a missive ConsumerAffairs' editor just received today, supposedly from a former contributor who wrote for us a few years ago:

Subject: Greetings

I Hope you get this on time, i and my family made a trip to Turkey for a Conference Meeting and am having financial difficulties here because Our bags stolen from us with Our Mobile and personal effects therein. I don't know if you can help me with a short loan, the bad news is Our flight will be leaving very soon. let me know if you can be of my help.I promise to refund you once i return back home and am sorry if i am inconveniencing you.

Hope to read back from you soon.

Regarrds,

[Name]

Chances are this email sounds familiar because you've received similar ones, with only slightly different details: last year we got a message supposedly from a realty agent with whom we had a slight acquaintance, claiming to be trapped in Italy rather than Turkey.

If you receive such a scammy message, the safest and simplest thing to do is simply delete the email. If you're worried that the supposed sender actually is someone you know and care about, stranded overseas (or wherever) without any money, then you can take steps to call or contact that person through your regular communication channels – i.e., call your grandson, or the police department who claims to have arrested him, before giving any money for supposed bail payments. (If you don't have any “regular communication channels” with that person – say, because the email supposedly came from a realty agent you haven't spoken to since you rented that apartment from her several years ago – then go back to “delete the email.”)

And remember this anti-scam rule: ignore any request for money or payment in cash, or via a wire transfer or prepaid money card – in other words, any request for money that is untraceable once it's sent.

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When should you itemize deductions?

Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometimes it isn't

Using the “short form” is the quickest and easiest way to file your tax returns and millions of taxpayers use it. But with that form you can't itemize dedu...

PhotoUsing the “short form” is the quickest and easiest way to file your tax returns and millions of taxpayers use it. But with that form you can't itemize deductions, you must take the Standard Deduction.

At some point taxpayers may have deductible expenses and think they should drop the short form and go with the standard Form 1040, so that they can take advantage of those deductions.

But sometimes they shouldn't. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), you should only itemize deductions if your total deductions are greater than the standard deduction amount.

Standard Deduction

For the 2014 tax year, the standard deduction for a single taxpayer is $6,200 and $12,400 for a married couple filing jointly. That's what a taxpayer may deduct from their income without itemizing any expenses.

That means if a couple purchased a home at the beginning of 2014 with a mortgage of $140,000, they probably paid a little more than $5500 in mortgage interest last year. They could itemize deductions and write off the $5,500.

But just because they can, doesn't mean they should. If they itemize they can't take the Standard Deduction. If the mortgage interest is the only deductible expense they have, they're taking a $5,500 deduction and giving up a $12,400 one.

Consider all deductions

That said, there may be several other expenses you incurred through the year that could also be write-offs, if you itemize deductions. Besides mortgage interest on your home, you can also deduct the taxes paid.

If you have significant uninsured casualty or theft losses, that could add to the deduction total. If you have large uninsured medical or dental expenses or large un-reimbursed employee business expenses, itemizing may be in your best interest.

The key number is the standard deduction. You probably shouldn't itemize if your total expenses don't exceed it.

Tax bracket

A secondary consideration is your tax bracket. If you are in a high tax bracket, a deduction is worth more than if you are in a low bracket.

Here's an example. John and Loretta have a taxable income of $80,000. That puts them in the 25% bracket, meaning they pay 25% of their income in taxes.

George and Linda earned $195,000. That puts them in the 33% tax bracket.

Each dollar of itemized deductions will save John and Loretta 25 cents while George and Linda will realize 33 cents.

When it's not obvious

Sometimes the decision to itemize or not is not that obvious. That's when you should seek help from tax experts. They may lean toward itemizing because, frankly, filling out the long form and itemizing usually results in higher fees than just filing with the short form.

But TurboTax says 1 out of 4 taxpayers will end up paying less in taxes when they itemize. The company points out that other considerations, like age, can affect your bottom line tax.

H&R Block notes there might be cases when your itemized deductions are less than your standard deduction, but it still makes sense to itemize. It says you might want to do this if itemizing on your state return provides a savings that more than makes up the difference on your federal return.

Meanwhile, the IRS says it will begin accepting returns electronically on Jan. 20. Paper tax returns will begin processing at the same time.

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Parking company representatives confirm: hackers stole customer information

No word yet on how long the breaches lasted

This week, two different parking companies confirmed what had previously been suspected since last month: representatives for Park 'N Fly and OneStopParkin...

PhotoThis week, two different parking companies confirmed what had previously been suspected since last month: representatives for Park 'N Fly and OneStopParking both admitted that hackers managed to steal customer financial data from their payment systems.

Park 'N Fly Canada is a separate, unaffiliated company and was not affected by the breach, a spokesman said.

Security expert Brian Krebs, whose financial-industry sources first told him about the possibility of such breaches last month, noted this week that, although Park 'N Fly representatives in mid-December had initially denied finding any proof of criminal intrusion into their systems, a month later they said something else. On Jan. 13, with little fanfare, Park 'N Fly released a “Security Update” on its website, admitting that the company “has become aware of a security compromise involving payment card data processed through its e-commerce website” and “some data from certain payment cards that were used to make reservations through PNF’s e-commerce website is at risk,” including:

the card number, cardholder’s name and billing address, card expiration date, and CVV code. Other loyalty customer data potentially at risk includes email addresses, Park ‘N Fly passwords, and telephone numbers.

As of press time, Park 'N Fly's main homepage currently is not processing transactions, but directs customers to a 1-800 number if they wish to make reservations:

We apologize for the inconvenience but we are performing some system maintenance on our website and are unable to process your transaction.

The company has not yet said how long the breach actually lasted. Krebs also spoke to a representative of OneStopParking, who confirmed a breach:

Reached via phone [on Jan. 14], the site’s manager Amer Ghanem said the company recently determined that hackers had broken in to its systems via a vulnerability in Joomla for which patches were made available in Sept. 2014. Unfortunately for OneStopParking.com and its customers, the company put off applying that Joomla update because it broke portions of the site.

Oops. The stolen customer data is illicitly being offered for sale at the same online underground crime shop that previously handled information stolen in breaches at Home Depot, Target, Sally Beauty Supply, P.F. Chang's and Harbor Freight.

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Have movie theaters gotten too expensive?

Survey finds more than half of consumers find movie tickets too expensive

Eight bucks may not sound like a lot of money but multiply it times two or three and add another $4 or so per person and you have a fairly expensive night ...

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Marriott abandons plan to block guests' wi-fi

Says it will look for "appropriate market solutions"

Marriott has given up -- for now, anyway -- its plan to block guests' personal wi-fi hotspots but in a brief statement says it will "continue to look to th...

PhotoMarriott has given up -- for now, anyway -- its plan to block guests' personal wi-fi hotspots but in a brief statement says it will "continue to look to the FCC to clarify appropriate security measures."

Marriott and Hilton had asked the Federal Communications Commission to change its rules to allow hotels to block the use of personal wi-fi hotspots, claiming the devices posed  security risk. Tech companies including Google and Microsoft, among others, opposed the request.

Marriott was fined $600,000 in October 2014 for blocking personal wi-fi at its Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville.

FCC rules prohibit deliberately interfering with lawful, licensed communications. Although wi-fi is unlicensed, it is a lawful use of the assigned frequencies and prevailing legal opinion has been that it's protected from purposeful interference.

Question at hand ...

Marriott has claimed it was concerned not with individual hotel guests but with large crowds at conferences and conventions. It said earlier this month that it has legitimate security reasons for controlling the use of wi-fi in spaces where large crowds gather. 

"The question at hand is what measures a network operator can take to detect and contain rogue and imposter Wi-Fi hotspots used in our meeting and conference spaces that pose a security threat to meeting or conference attendees or cause interference to the conference guest wireless network," Marriott said earlier this month.

But today the hotelier threw in the towel and said it was, for now, backing off from any plan to block guests' wi-fi access. 

"Marriott International listens to its customers, and we will not block guests from using their personal Wi-Fi devices at any of our managed hotels," the company said in a statement. "Marriott remains committed to protecting the security of Wi-Fi access in meeting and conference areas at our hotels.  We will continue to look to the FCC to clarify appropriate security measures network operators can take to protect customer data, and will continue to work with the industry and others to find appropriate market solutions that do not involve the blocking of Wi-Fi devices."

Hilton, which did not respond to earlier requests for comment, has not revealed its plans. A Jan. 2 ConsumerAffairs report recounted the experience of a guest who said his AT&T hotspot did not work in a New Jersey Hilton but worked elsewhere in the New York City area.

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Target bids adieu to Canada after losing $2 billion

The retailer's move will leave 17,600 without jobs

Things just haven't been working out lately for Target. Besides the well-publicized hacking of private data on more than 70 million customers, the chain ha...

PhotoThings just haven't been working out lately for Target. Besides the well-publicized hacking of private data on more than 70 million customers, the chain has been through a series of reversals and executive suite shake-ups.

Now it's pulling out of Canada after losing more than $2 billion there, closing all of its stores and leaving 17,600 people out of work. 

“We were unable to find a realistic scenario that would get Target Canada to profitability until at least 2021,” Target CEO Brian Cornell said in a prepared statement. “This was a very difficult decision, but it was the right decision for our company.”

Target, the second-largest discount chain in the U.S., moved into Canada in 2011, buying 220 locations from Zellers Inc., a subsidiary of Hudson's Bay Co. It was Target's first expansion outside the U.S.

Cornell said the company had been hoping for a sales boost during the recent holiday season but it didn't materialize, leaving little choice but to close the 133 stores that were still operating.

Analysts said Target never worked out problems in the Canadian stores that included empty shelves and higher prices than in the U.S.

Cornell took over as CEO after Gregg Steinhafel was ousted following the hack attack. Target's U.S. stores are performing better than expected, with sales expected to increase 3% this quarter, the company said.

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CFPB proposes a "Safe Student Account Scorecard"

Colleges too often pave the way for scammy credit offers

Colleges seem trustworthy. After all, we entrust them with our children's education. But, as in most of life, all is not always as it seems. Too often coll...

PhotoColleges seem trustworthy. After all, we entrust them with our children's education. But, as in most of life, all is not always as it seems. Too often colleges partner with financial institutions that lure students into checking and prepaid card accounts that are anything but attractive. 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) would like to level the playing field a little and is proposing a “Safe Student Account Scorecard” that would help colleges to avoid partnering with financial institutions that offer less than desirable deals.

The scorecard would help colleges access upfront information about fees, features, and sales tactics before agreeing to a sponsorship. 

“An important issue for young people is how best to manage their money while they are still in school,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Because of the influence schools may have on the financial products students choose, we are working to arm them with the information they need to negotiate safe and affordable products for students.”

The idea sounds good to Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California. She said UC "supports transparency and is continuously monitoring its own vendors and financial partners to ensure they comply with UC's high standards and that our students' financial interests are protected."

She said universities "should look to CFPB's new tool as part of their efforts to assess their institutions' financial services arrangements and the impact on their students."

Kickbacks

Many colleges now make deals with financial institutions, where the college helps with or allows the promotion of credit, debit, or prepaid cards, sometimes endorsed with a college logo or linked to a student identification card.

Colleges, either directly or indirectly, typically get a share of the revenue generated from the cards -- a kickback, in other words. The CFPB has identified agreements where financial institutions offer royalty payments for use of college trademarks or bonuses based on the number of student account sign-ups.

The Credit CARD Act of 2009 (CARD Act) restricted financial institutions from using certain types of credit card marketing practices on college campuses and requires that agreements between credit card issuers and colleges be publicly available.

But marketing partnerships between colleges and banks have shifted over the past five years. Agreements to market student debit and prepaid cards have surpassed the number of agreements to market student credit cards. Forty percent of college students attend schools with agreements to provide debit or prepaid cards.

A CFPB analysis of one university system revealed that the school-endorsed financial product received the highest adoption by students receiving financial aid.

 

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Weekly jobless claims move sharply higher

Applications shoot above the 300k mark

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits are at their highest level since last June. Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show fi...

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits are at their highest level since last June.

Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show first-time applications for state unemployment compensation surged by 19,000 in the week ending January 10 to a seasonally adjusted 316,000.

At the same time, the level for the previous week was revised up by 3,000 -- from 294,000 to

297,000.

Analysts at Briefing.com, who expected the claims level to fall to 290,000, say the increase may be tied to the drop in oil prices, which could result in job cuts as fracking becomes uneconomical.

The 4-week moving average, which lacks the volatility of the initial claims data and is considered a better gauge of the labor market, was 298,000 -- up 6,750 from the previous week.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

 

Photo
© mybaitshop – Fotolia

Inflation

In a separate report, DOL says the Producer Price Index (PPI) fell 0.3% in December, the second consecutive monthly decline and the second in three months. That puts the increase in the PPI for all of 2014 at 1.1% following a rise of 1.2% the previous year.

More than 70% of the December decline is due to gasoline prices, which plunged 14.5%. Overall, energy prices were down 6.6%.

Food prices slipped 0.4% last month and have fallen in 4 of the last 5 months.

The full report is available on the DOL website.

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Agri Star Meat & Poultry recalls beef products

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

Agri Star Meat & Poultry of Postville, Iowa, is recalling approximately 1,690 pounds of beef products. The products may contain peanuts, an allergen not d...

PhotoAgri Star Meat & Poultry of Postville, Iowa, is recalling approximately 1,690 pounds of beef products.

The products may contain peanuts, an allergen not declared on the product label.

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

The following item, produced on September 29, 2014, is subject to recall:

  • 13.5-oz. vacuum-packed packages containing 8 pieces of “Aaron’s BEST GLUTEN FREE Beef Franks Hot & Spicy CHIPOTLE.”

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “EST. 4653A” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and weree shipped to retail locations nationwide

Consumers with questions may contact Yaakov Labowitz at (718) 440-0459.

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J & G Foods recalls ground beef products

The products may be contaminated with plastic materials

J & G Foods of Sutton, Mass., is recalling approximately 33,948 pounds of ground beef products. The products may be contaminated with plastic materials....

PhotoJ & G Foods of Sutton, Mass., is recalling approximately 33,948 pounds of ground beef products.

The products may be contaminated with plastic materials.

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

The following ground beef products, produced on Dec. 23, 2014, are subject to recall:

  • 1-lb. vacuum sealed packages of “Wegman’s Organic 93% Lean/7% Fat Grass-Fed Ground Beef.”
  • 3-pack containing three 1-lb packages of “Wegman’s Organic 93% Lean/7% Fat Grass-Fed Ground Beef.”

The products bear the establishment number “EST. 8466” inside the USDA mark of inspection and “USE OR FREEZE BY 01/16/15” and were shipped to retail locations in Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Edward R Briggs, quality assurance manager, at (508) 865-1101.

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NPD Furniture recalls dining chairs

The chair legs can break, posing a fall hazard

New Pacific Direct (NPD) of Newark, Calif., is recalling 250 Abby dining chairs The chair legs can break unexpectedly, posing a fall hazard. The company ...

PhotoNew Pacific Direct (NPD) of Newark, Calif., is recalling 250 Abby dining chairs

The chair legs can break, posing a fall hazard.

The company has received 4 reports of a chair leg breaking. No injuries have been reported.

The Abby dining chair has dark brown wooden legs with seat and back upholstery in either gray or green fabric with black or white edge piping. The chair is approximately 20 inches wide, 24 inches deep and 36 inches tall.

The SKU number 428136-CS-C or 428136-GS-C is printed on the product packaging. There are no identifying labels on the product itself.

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold at various home furnishing retailers nationwide between July 2014, and November 2014, for about $200.

Consumers may contact NPD Furniture at (800) 976-8188 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. PST Monday through Friday.

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Despite falling oil prices automakers doubling down on fuel economy

Auto show displays new developments in hybrids and electrics

The oil bubble may have popped, resulting in less burdensome prices at the pump, but carmakers aren't backing away from fuel efficiency. Despite an uptick...

PhotoThe oil bubble may have popped, resulting in less burdensome prices at the pump, but carmakers aren't backing away from fuel efficiency. Despite an uptick in truck and SUV sales, there are some interesting new hybrids and electric vehicles (EV) headed for the U.S. market.

The evidence is on display at this week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. General Motors (GM) grabbed the early headlines with the introduction of its 2016 Volt, which the company says will appeal to a wider market and cost less than its predecessors.

Hyundai's offerings

Meanwhile, Hyundai has shown up with both a new EV and a hybrid. The 2016 Sonata Hybrid has a lot of new bells and whistles but the company is stressing its fuel economy, which is expected to improve more than 10%.

The Sonata Hybrid will be built at Hyundai's Asan, South Korea assembly plant and will go on sale early this summer.

The 2016 Sonata Hybrid has a downsized 2.0-liter Nu GDI four-cylinder engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. It houses a beefed up 38 kW electric motor and clutch where the torque converter would normally be found.

“Significant” upgrade

Hyundai calls the transmission upgrade “significant,” using an electric oil pump, which the company says helps improve efficiency. Hyundai says the car will be able to operate solely on electric power at speeds up to 75 miles per hour by decoupling the gasoline engine from the rest of the drivetrain.

The gasoline engine produces 154 horsepower while the electric motor generates 51 horsepower. The car is expected to get up to 39 mpg in the city, 44 mpg on the highway and have a combined EPA rating of 42 mpg.

Plug-in hybrid

Hyundai has also launched its first plug–in hybrid vehicle, competing with GM's Volt. The Plug–in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) is expected to be able to travel up to 22 miles – fewer than the Volt – on electric power and can recharge in about two and a half hours with a Level 2 charger.

The plug-in will also have a Sonata body and go on sale in select markets later this year. Hyundai did not announce price points for the car.

Safety features

As for safety features the Plug-in Hybrid comes standard with 7 airbags, including a new driver’s knee airbag. Electronic Stability Control, Vehicle Stability Management, Traction Control, ABS and a Tire Pressure Monitoring System with individual tire pressure display, and a rearview camera are also standard.

Advanced safety technologies like Forward Collision Warning and Lane Departure Warning are also available as options.

Carmakers, or course, were locked in on their committment to more energy efficient vehicles long before oil prices went into their dramatic decline. And that will probably pay off in the long run.

While energy efficient vehicles are currently out of favor, consumers know in the backs of their minds that oil prices will one day start going up again. They may not reach their inflated levels again for quite a while, but spending less on fuel, no matter what the price is, helps money go farther.

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Wireless keyboards can be very easy to hack

Another day, another way hackers can spy on your life

Here are two rules you must always keep in mind regarding your own personal computer or information-based security: One, anything with an Internet connecti...

PhotoHere are two rules you must always keep in mind regarding your own personal computer or information-based security: One, anything with an Internet connection can be hacked. Two, this means anything wireless is also hackable.

Computers, tablets, smartphones and anything connected to those: hackable, every one. Even worse, many people never think about or even notice the hackability of their everyday devices (possibly for the same reason fish don't notice water).

Today, for example, Bryan Cockfield at that Hackaday blog reported the discovery of how incredibly easy it is to hack certain types of Microsoft wireless keyboard with a “keystroke sniffer” (or keylogger) that looks like an ordinary AC adapter:

The scary thing here isn’t so much that this device exists, but that encryption for Microsoft keyboards was less than stellar and provides little more than a false sense of security. This also serves as a wake-up call that the things we don’t even give a passing glance at might be exactly where a less-honorable person might look to exploit whatever information they can get their hands on.

Other examples

Indeed. If you want other examples of this, it isn't hard to find them. Last April, a still-unknown hacker took remote control of the baby monitor in an Ohio family's home — which was discovered only after he used the monitor to yell obscenities at the infant girl one night, and her parents overheard.

That story of a hacked baby monitor – and others like it – have made national headlines in America since at least 2013: anything from “smart” cars and thermostats to home security systems, baby monitors and webcams can all be hacked and used against their owners.

Despite this, countless consumers who buy such devices are careless enough to not even bother changing the default passwords they're set with. Last Halloween, Vice's tech blog warned readers about an unnamed voyeurism website dedicated to streaming cameras footage from unprotected personal IP [Internet protocol] cameras typically found on baby monitors and home-security systems.

Again: that voyeurism website wasn't produced by criminal masterminds who cunningly worked around strict security procedures; it streamed footage from cameras whose owners never bothered taking the elementary step of putting a password on a password-protected device.

Even battery chargers

Even something as innocuous as a battery charger can be hacked to steal data from whichever devices it plugs into. Last September, when Russia hosted the G20 Summit Council in St. Petersburg, summit attendees each received “gift bags” which allegedly contained some infected devices, including USB data sticks equipped with spyware, and mobile phone chargers which could secretly monitor all communications on that phone. (The Russian government denied all such allegations.)

And of course, the number of hackable devices in your life will only increase as technology marches on. Last week, vendors at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas unveiled everything from hackable laundry machines to hackable coffee makers to hackable robot vacuum cleaners that can suck up dirt while hackers take control of their cameras to spy on you in your house.

Anything you can wirelessly control, a hacker can control too-- including your computer keyboard.

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Fear of falling is a big part of growing older

But a simple game of catch might be part of the answer

When you are a child you might hit the ground several times a day and bounce right back up. When you are past 65, it's a different story....

PhotoWhen you are a child you might hit the ground several times a day and bounce right back up. When you are past 65, it's a different story.

For older adults, a fall can be a life-threatening situation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the death rates from falls among older men and women have risen sharply over the past decade.

In 2011, about 22,900 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries. Men are more likely than women to die from a fall. After taking age into account, the fall death rate in 2011 was 41% higher for men than for women.

In 2013, 2.5 million nonfatal falls among older adults were treated in emergency departments and more than 734,000 of these patients were hospitalized.

“I've fallen and I can't get up!”

While young people never think about falling or its consequences, it's often all older people think about. The long-running commercial promoting an emergency monitoring service with the catch line, “I've fallen and I can't get up” has entered the popular culture, in part because it hits home for a large segment of the population.

Why do so many elderly people fall? Geriatric health experts say several factors contribute to the problem.

Many people stop getting exercise when they get older, leading to poor muscle tone, decreased bone mass, loss of balance and reduced flexibility.

Sometimes they simply don't see as well as they once did and trip over things. They may be taking medications with side effects that make them more prone to losing their balance.

Whatever the cause, the CDC says falling is a largely preventable health issue. Regular exercise may be the most important counter measure. The agency says Tai Chi programs may be especially helpful.

Simple game of catch

So might a simple game of catch. Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) conclude that having the elderly engage in simple exercises involving catching a weighted medicine ball can improve their balance and might reduce falls.

Alexander Aruin, professor of physical therapy at UIC, says the brain plays a huge role in keeping us vertical. When someone is jostled by a bump or a stumble, for example, he says the brain uses two strategies to maintain balance and prevent a fall.

"When the perturbation is predictable, for example, if when walking down the street you see someone about to bump into you, you brace yourself," Aruin said. The brain activates muscles in anticipation of the jolt.

The second strategy is corrective – the brain engages muscles after the bump to prevent us from losing our balance, he said, which might involve taking an extra step, or changing body position. When we're young, our brains have no problem doing that.

Losing balance control

As we age, we lose that control, the ability to ready ourselves to maintain balance. As a result, our muscles don't react. Our resources for maintaining balance become more limited and we become less stable and more prone to falls.

Aruin and the other researchers found the exercise of playing catch with the medicine ball improved electrical activity of leg and trunk muscles. In older adults, the researchers found that not only can they improve those muscle functions, but they also improve at performing a task that was not part of the training.

While exercise is key to remaining upright, the researchers say a particular kind of exercise just might prove to be more effective.

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Microsoft and Google feud over latest security update

What happens when Patch Tuesday and Project Zero butt heads?

Standard modern living checklist: make sure you drink clean water every day; make sure you have enough to eat; make sure you've updated your Adobe Flash an...

PhotoStandard modern living checklist: make sure you drink clean water every day; make sure you have enough to eat; make sure you've updated your Adobe Flash and Microsoft operating system, if you haven't already this week. As security blogger Brian Krebs noted, Microsoft posted eight different security patches for Windows this Tuesday while Adobe put out at least nine patches for vulnerabilities in its Flash Player.

Granted, security patches are pretty much a standard part of any software update; the very phrase “Patch Tuesday” came about because Microsoft usually releases its software updates on Tuesdays. What makes this latest update noteworthy is what's going on in the background: a recent public spat between Microsoft and Google. One of the latest Microsoft updates (all of which are listed at this link) involves fixing a Windows 8.1 vulnerability announced first announced on Sunday — by security researchers working for Google.

Google's initial announcement was part of Project Zero, a security initiative (and possible publicity stunt) the company launched last summer. In the July 15 blog post announcing Project Zero, Google researcher Chris Evans wrote:

You should be able to use the web without fear that a criminal or state-sponsored actor is exploiting software bugs to infect your computer, steal secrets or monitor your communications. Yet in sophisticated attacks, we see the use of "zero-day" vulnerabilities to target, for example, human rights activists or to conduct industrial espionage. This needs to stop. We think more can be done to tackle this problem.

Project Zero is our contribution, to start the ball rolling. Our objective is to significantly reduce the number of people harmed by targeted attacks....

January's Patch Tuesday

As part of Project Zero, when Google discovers a security vulnerability in the software of some other company (such as Microsoft), it will tell the company in private, then wait 90 days before making a public announcement.

Google told Microsoft about the 8.1 exploit on Oct. 13, 2014. Microsoft asked Google to keep quiet about it until January's Patch Tuesday, which fell on the thirteenth, 92 days after Google first told Microsoft.

Google held firm to the 90-day Project Zero deadline and announced the Windows 8.1 vulnerability on Sunday, Jan. 11, two days before Patch Tuesday. In response, Microsoft’s Security Response Center director Chris Betz published a Jan. 11 blog post calling for “better coordinated vulnerability disclosure” between various tech companies (such as Microsoft and Google); in other words, Google shouldn't announce such security vulnerabilities before Microsoft can release the fix:

[Coordinated vulnerability disclosure] philosophy and action is playing out today as one company - Google - has released information about a vulnerability in a Microsoft product, two days before our planned fix on our well known and coordinated Patch Tuesday cadence, despite our request that they avoid doing so.  Specifically, we asked Google to work with us to protect customers by withholding details until Tuesday, January 13, when we will be releasing a fix. Although following through keeps to Google’s announced timeline for disclosure, the decision feels less like principles and more like a “gotcha”, with customers the ones who may suffer as a result. What’s right for Google is not always right for customers. We urge Google to make protection of customers our collective primary goal. 

On the other hand, Betz's post didn’t say why Microsoft needed 92 days to make develop and release a patch for that problem, nor why Microsoft couldn't have released the patch during an earlier Patch Tuesday, or even on a different day of the week. After all, hackers certainly don't respect the scheduling needs of their intended victims; why should security fixes adhere to a strict schedule when security threats do not?

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Propane exchange tank suppliers ordered to halt efforts to restrain competition

Blue Rhino and AmeriGas are accused of ganging up on Walmart

Knock it off! That's the word from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to Blue Rhino and AmeriGas Cylinder Exchange. The two leading suppliers of propane ...

PhotoKnock it off!

That's the word from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to Blue Rhino and AmeriGas Cylinder Exchange.

The two leading suppliers of propane exchange tanks were accused of illegally colluding to push Walmart -- a key customer -- to accept a reduction in the amount of propane in exchange tanks.

According to the FTC’s administrative complaint, Blue Rhino and AmeriGas controlled approximately 80% of the market for wholesale propane exchange tanks in the U.S. In 2008, the two companies each decided to implement a price increase by reducing the amount of propane in their exchange tanks from 17 pounds to 15 pounds, without a corresponding reduction in the wholesale price.

Faced with resistance from Walmart, the two companies colluded by secretly agreeing to coordinate their negotiations with Walmart in order to push it to accept the fill reduction, the complaint says. The agreement between Blue Rhino and AmeriGas to maintain a united front against Walmart had the effect of raising the price per pound of propane sold to Walmart, and likely to the ultimate consumers.

Under the settlements, each company is barred from agreeing with competitors to modify fill levels or otherwise fix the prices of exchange tanks, and from coordinating communications to customers.

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NY assemblywoman doesn't want you to declaw your cat

The state would be the first to ban the procedure if the bill passes

Should you declaw your cat? New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal says no, unless there is a compelling medical reason. She is so adamant about it she has...

PhotoShould you declaw your cat? New York Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal says no, unless there is a compelling medical reason. She is so adamant about it she has introduced legislation to ban the feline procedure.

"It's like taking off your first knuckle," Rosenthal told the New York Daily News. "Cats are born with claws and they are meant to have claws. It's cruel to remove them for the sake of human convenience and saving your furniture."

The ASPCA goes into greater detail describing the procedure: “The standard declawing procedure calls for the removal of the claw, and the last bone of the toe. The operation is usually performed on the front feet. It is actually an amputation comparable to the removal of the fingers of the human hand at the last knuckle. The cat experiences considerable pain in the recovery and healing process.”

Once a cat is declawed it can't go outside because it can no longer defend itself. How else can it escape from danger? Even if you keep the cat indoors for its whole life it can still have issues not being able to grasp onto things, which means that it could fall and be injured. Also, the cat will gradually lose its balance and motor control, because the muscles will start to weaken.

There aren't any conclusive studies on behavior of declawed cats but veterinarians and owners say they have seen personality changes in declawed cats.

Rosenthal's bill, which hasn't made it to the state senate yet, has a few backers that carry some weight. The Humane Society of New York and the Paw Project, a California-based group dedicated to stopping cat declawing. If it does go through and is enacted, New York would be the first state to ban cat declawing.

The American Veterinary Medical Association agrees but not wholeheartedly. It said the procedure should be a last resort, but shouldn't be banned. The AVMA said declawing may be appropriate if a cat is using its claws destructively or if there is some type of health risk for the owner.

Rosenthal has been an animal advocate and introduced many bills protecting the rights of animals, including one that stopped the tattooing or piercing of pets. She was also behind the city having special powers to shut down puppy mills and was instrumental in making the “rescue cat” New York’s official cat.

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California chefs have something to quack about

Foie gras returns to the menu in California after court squabble

If duck or goose liver is your thing you can rejoice -- it's now back on the menu in California. Foie gras is back after a statewide ban on the fatty liver...

PhotoIf duck or goose liver is your thing you can rejoice -- it's now back on the menu in California. Foie gras is back after a statewide ban on the fatty liver delicacy was lifted and dhefs in California are ecstatic.

Last week Los Angeles U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson ruled that California's prohibition of the sale of foie gras wasn't legal because it encroached on the regulatory domain of the federal government.

There is a federal law called the Poultry Products Inspection Act that regulates the sale and distribution of all bird-related products, and it supersedes state laws. It has nothing to do with animal cruelty, it's just a matter of jurisdiction.

Feathers ruffled

Foie gras has been ruffling feathers for a long time in California. Lawmakers passed a bill in 2004 outlawing it, on the theory that force-feeding ducks and geese until their liver swelled was inhumane. Chefs were outraged and fought the battle all the way to the Supreme Court.

But everything is not so ducky with all of this as California could can still appeal the decision and ask the court to keep the ban intact. But chefs are boiling to keep things as they are, with foie gras for all.

As you can imagine PETA is not very happy about this.

“The decision can’t change the fact that foie gras, the diseased liver of force-fed ducks and geese, comes from blatant animal abuse,” said Matthew Strugar, an attorney for PETA in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

 

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December disappoints as retail sales fall

Retail sales posted a decline last month, bringing gloom to retailers

It apparently wasn't a very Merry Christmas for retailers after all. Figures released by the Census Bureau show retail sales fell 0.9% or $442.9 billion l...

PhotoIt apparently wasn't a very Merry Christmas for retailers after all.

Figures released by the Census Bureau show retail sales fell 0.9% or $442.9 billion last month on top of a November gain that was revised downward from 0.7% to 0.4%.

Still, there was year-over-year advance of 3.2% and total sales for 2014 were up 4.0%.

The consensus estimate by Briefing.com for December was for a sales gain of 0.1%. Analysts blame the decline on poor income growth, noting that there was a contraction in average hourly wage, which -- after accounting for payroll gains -- resulted in flat aggregate income growth.

A major factor in the December decline was a plunge of 6.5% in gasoline sales. Other areas posting declines were building material and garden equipment and supplies dealers (-1.9%), electronics and appliance stores (-1.6%) and motor vehicle and parts dealers (-0.7%).

Among sales gainers were restaurants and bars (+0.8%), furniture and home furnishing stores (+0.8%) and health and personal care stores (+0.5%)

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department web site.

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Fewer airline flight cancellations in November

Getting there on time, though, was tricky

Things got a little better in terms of airline flight cancellations during November. The Air Travel Consumer Report released by the Transportation depart...

PhotoThings got a little better in terms of airline flight cancellations during November.

The Air Travel Consumer Report released by the Transportation department (DOT) says the nation’s largest airlines canceled just 0.9% of their scheduled domestic flights during the month, compared with rates of 1.0% a year earlier and 1.1% in October 2014.

The on-time arrival rates, on the other hand, were a mixed bag. The reporting carriers posted an on-time arrival rate of 80.6% in November, versus the 83.5% rate in November 2013, and the 80.0% mark in October 2014.

Included in the latest report are data on tarmac delays, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, statistics on mishandled baggage, as well as consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints

The consumer report also contains information on incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air.

The complete report is available on the DOT website.

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Mortgage Applications on the rise

Last week's gain was the largest since November 2008

The first full week of 2015 saw a surge in applications for mortgages. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications ...

PhotoThe first full week of 2015 saw a surge in applications for mortgages.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey applications shot up 49.1% during the week ending January 9.

The Refinance Index, meanwhile, jumped 66% from the previous week -- to the highest level since July 2013 -- pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity to 71% of total applications from 65% the previous week.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 5.9% of total applications, and the FHA share of total applications fell to 7.5%. The VA share of total applications dropped to 9.7%, while t The USDA share of total applications slipped to 0.8%.

“The US economy and job market continued to show signs of strength, but weakness abroad and tumbling oil prices have led to further declines in longer-term interest rates,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 12 basis points -- from 4.01% to 3.89%, the lowest level since May 2013 -- with points decreasing to 0.23 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dropped to 3.88%, the lowest level since May 2013, from 3.99%, with points decreasing to 0.23 from 0.24 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was down 10 basis points to 3.71%, the lowest level since May 2013, with points decreasing to -0.05 from -0.03 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs slipped to 3.16%t, the lowest level since May 2013, from 3.24%, with points unchanged at 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs plunged 15 basis points to 2.94%, the lowest level since October 2014, with points decreasing to 0.46 from 0.51 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

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Ford recalls Lincoln MKCs

The engine may shut off inadvertently

Ford Motor Company is recalling 11,144 model year 2015 Lincoln MKC vehicles manufactured August 20, 2013, to September 9, 2014. The Push-to Start/Stop (P...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 11,144 model year 2015 Lincoln MKC vehicles manufactured August 20, 2013, to September 9, 2014.

The Push-to Start/Stop (PTS) button located at the bottom of the shift transmission controls may be pushed inadvertently, causing the engine to shut off.

If the PTS switch is pressed inadvertently, the vehicle may stop unexpectedly, increasing the risk of a crash. In the event of a crash with the vehicle turned off, the air bags and seat belt restraints may not function as intended, increasing the risk of injury.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will relocate the PTS switch and reprogram the Powertrain Control Module (PCM), free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 23, 2015.

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14S29.

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IKEA recalls crib mattresses

The mattresses could pose an entrapment hazard

IKEA North America Services of Conshohocken, Pa., is recalling about 169,000 VYSSA crib mattress. The crib mattresses could create a gap between the mattr...

PhotoIKEA North America Services of Conshohocken, Pa., is recalling about 169,000 VYSSA crib mattress.

The crib mattresses could create a gap between the mattress and crib ends larger than allowed by federal regulations, posing an entrapment hazard to infants.

The firm has received two reports of infants becoming trapped between the mattress and an end of the crib. They were removed from the gap without injury.

This recall involves IKEA VYSSA style crib mattresses with the following five model names: VACKERT, VINKA, SPELEVINK, SLÖA and SLUMMER. The involved mattresses were manufactured on May 4, 2014 or earlier.

An identification label attached to the mattress cover has the date of manufacture in Month-DD-YYYY format and the VYSSA model name. A gap between the mattress and crib ends larger than two finger width is an indication of the defective mattress.

The mattresses, manufactured in Mexico, were sold exclusively at IKEA stores nationwide and online at www.ikea-usa.com from August 2010, to May 2014, for about $100.

Consumers should inspect the recalled mattress by making sure there is no gap larger than the width of two fingers between the ends of the crib and the mattress. If any gap is larger, customers should immediately stop using the recalled mattress and return it to any IKEA store for an exchange or a full refund.

Consumers may contact IKEA toll-free at (888) 966-4532 anytime.

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Our year in a Chevrolet Volt

The car is great but the tax incentives don't always add up

Our one-year test of the electrically powered Chevrolet Volt ended a few weeks ago but it's been so enjoyable -- and economical -- we're likely to keep the...

Photo
Staff photo

Our one-year test of the electrically powered Chevrolet Volt ended a few weeks ago but it's been so enjoyable -- and economical -- we're likely to keep the car for at least another year, even though our test pales in comparison to Erick Belmer of Ohio, who has piled up 200,000 miles on his 2012 Volt. 

According to Clean Technica, Belmer drives so much that he routinely exhausts the battery and runs on the back-up gas engine. Even so, he has achieved an average of 60 miles per gallon over the last two years, all with no breakdowns, repairs or noticeable loss of capacity in the battery.

Belmer loves his car and so do many of the Volt owners we've run across in our year of driving electrically. Several have volunteered that it's the best car they've ever had.  

I'm not certain I would go quite that far but I can't really think of any of the other 31 cars I've owned or leased that were any better, and certainly none that achieved anything like the average 84 MPG that I racked up in 2014. Perhaps a more meaningful figure is the average cost per mile, which came out to a whopping 4.24 cents, not counting electricity. This chart shows the total year's activity:

DATEGALS$MI
12/319.00$0.000
1/88.20$32.44592
5/235.00$21.001341
5/257.40$33.002174
5/318.00$34.322528
7/31.50$6.602761
7/192.00$8.813282
7/195.70$25.033405
8/215.40$21.713663
10/94.00$16.034182
10/134.00$15.144566
12/278.30$29.255727
 68.50$243.335727
    
MPG  83.61
$/Mi  $0.04

If I had driven those 5727 miles in my 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan, which barely gets 21 miles per gallon, I would have burned through about 272 gallons of premium gas. At an average of $3.50 per gallon in my neighborhood, that would have cost me $952, or 16 cents a mile.  

It's true I have not accounted for the cost of the electricity consumed by the Volt. That's mostly because our electricity bills have been much lower than the previous year, thanks largely to our converting to LED lights and replacing an aging heat pump, so the energy used by the Volt has simply been undetectable. 

GM this week is unveiling the 2016 Volt, which is expected to have several improvements, including enhanced regenerative braking and other upgrades that will improve its efficiency even further.

Quibbles & pluses

Photo
A Volt battery (Photo credit: GM)

So why doesn't everybody rush out and buy a Volt? Well, for one thing, it's a little on the small side when it comes to seating. The Volt seats only four people. The battery intrudes into the passenger compartment to such an extent that a large hump down the middle divides the seating areas rather decisively. GM has disguised the hump with cup holders and so forth but there's no question that seating is tight. 

The car is designed to squeeze every last mile out of each speck of energy, which results in an aerodynamic design that includes a sharply raked windshield and a very low roof.

I'm just 6 feet tall, which is pretty average for an American male, and it's hard for me to get into the Volt without cracking my head on the roof. Once seated, two very large roof pillars intrude into the driver's field of vision; you really need to be careful turning corners lest pedestrians or bicyclists wind up in your lap.

Cargo space is tight but like most hatchbacks, the Volt will hold a lot more than you'd expect. On a recent trip to New York, we had much more luggage than usual thanks to a family member having endured a recent knee replacement. We tried to load bags, wheelchair, walker and other paraphernalia into the Tiguan -- which, after all, is supposed to be a mini-SUV. No dice.

We lugged everything over to the Volt and a few minutes later, glided off towards the Beltway. 

The common wisdom is that the Volt is a good city car but not so great on the highway. This is not true, at least in my book. I find the Volt to be a fun car for road trips. It accelerates instantly and smoothly, handles well and is quite comfortable in a solid sort of way. 

In the kind of gridlock that prevails in the D.C. area, the Volt is a godsend. This car loves to creep. There's none of the jerky, stop-and-go stuff you get with a spritely gas-powered car. The Volt brings a zen-like attitude to crawling along at 3 mph. 

About those freebies

PhotoA final word of caution: If you're counting on the much-advertised $7,500 income tax credit that is supposed to entice you to go electric, be careful. I didn't get the credit for 2013 because my accountant had not handled the procedure before and did not file the proper forms. He thinks -- thinks, mind you! -- that he can file an amended return and maybe -- maybe! -- get the money but doesn't sound very confident.

I don't know about you but I consider $7,500 to be a little more than walking around money. So review everything and be sure you know exactly what you need to do to get the tax credit if you decide to Volt up. Here are a couple of places to start: IRS Form 8936 and a posting on an enthusiast's blog. Most improtant: talk to your account before you buy the car and make sure he has reviewed the process thoroughly and knows what needs to be done to pry the money loose from the government.

And finally, check around to see if there are local and state tax incentives. California and other western states tend to have reduced licensing fees for plug-ins and some also require utilities to provide discounted electrical rates. Some states allow hybrids in the carpool lanes on busy freeways.

None of this (except, sometimes, the carpool lane exemption) happens in Virginia, where my Volt lives. In fact, until last year, Virginia had a special hybrid tax of $60 or so. It was supposed to make up for the fact that hybrids don't use as much gas and therefore don't pay their share of highway maintenance. 

Fairfax County, which sees itself as a suburban environmentalist's nirvana, hit me with a $1,000 personal property tax bill for the Volt, just to thank me for helping to clean up its ozone-filled atmosphere. And Dominion Resources, the local utility, does exactly zip to make life easier for plug-in owners. Discounted rates, cheaper overnight energy, separate meters? Forget it.

In other words, you might want to move to California before you buy a Volt. Hey, the weather's nicer anyway and there are more Trader Joe's stores. 

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The flap about doggie doors

Safety and energy are two big considerations

Not everybody wants to take their pup for a walk in below freezing weather, but your dog still needs to go out. One option that might make it easier on you...

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Families aren't what they used to be, study finds

They now come in many more shapes and sizes

The 60's were wonderful. Everybody had an Afro, even the girls. Black lights would make a white tee shirt glow and everything was psychedelic. Go-go boots ...

PhotoThe 60's were wonderful. Everybody had an Afro, even the girls. Black lights would make a white tee shirt glow and everything was psychedelic. Go-go boots were hot and bellbottoms were the craze. Families were intact -- traditional families.

No more. 

The latest survey on families from Pew Research finds that just 46% of kids who are under 18 live in "traditional" families headed by hetrosexual couples who are in a first marriage. Going back to the year 1960 it was 73%.

Having kids before you're married is up as well from the 60's; 41% of kids are born outside of marriage, up 5%.

Lots of people are staying single. In fact the amount of people who aren't married is at a record high. In 2012, one-in-five adults ages 25 and older had never been married. In 1960, only about one-in-ten adults (9%) in that age range had never been married.

These days, 15% of kids are living in "blended" families, meaning their are in a second (or third, or fourth) marriage. 

Single parents

One of the biggest changes in the way families are structured now is single-parent households. 

Today, 34% of children are living with an unmarried parent — up from just 9% in 1960, and 19% in 1980. 

Grandparents as parents has become a new phenomenon. Years ago it wasn't uncommon for a traditional family to be living with grandparents. Now it is grandparents doing the parenting minus the parents. That translates to the remaining 5% living with grandparents -- no parents to be found.

Gay couples were not broken out in the study.

 

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US Foods recalls beef product

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

US Foods of Blasdell, N.Y., is recalling approximately 700 pounds of beef product. The product contains peanuts, an allergen are not declared on the prod...

PhotoUS Foods of Blasdell, N.Y., is recalling approximately 700 pounds of beef product.

The product contains peanuts, an allergen not declared on the product label.

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

The following beef fajita strip product, produced on November 25, 2014, December 10, 2014, and December 15, 2014, is being recalled:

  • 5-lb. cryo packed cases containing two 5-lb packages of “BEEF CUT STRIPS FOR FAJITA.”

The product bears the establishment number “EST. 7817” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and was shipped to other US Foods divisions in Norwich, Conn., Peabody, Mass., and Buffalo, N.Y.

Consumers with questions may contact Roberto Bellavia at (773) 491-1411.

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Ford Escape and Lincoln MKC vehicles recalled

The fuel pump may fail

Ford Motor Company is recalling 9,038 model year 2014 Ford Escape vehicles manufactured April 15, 2014, to May 8, 2014, and 2015 Lincoln MKC vehicles manuf...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 9,038 model year 2014 Ford Escape vehicles manufactured April 15, 2014, to May 8, 2014, and 2015 Lincoln MKC vehicles manufactured April 21, 2014, to May 15, 2014.

Improper nickel plating of components within the fuel pump may result in the fuel pump failing which could cause the vehicle to stall without warning, increasing the risk of a crash.

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel pump, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 23, 2015.

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 14S30.

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'Free' community college could be a game-changer

It could cut deeply into rising student loan debt while posing issues for other colleges

President Obama has proposed taking state and local initiatives providing free community college for 2 years and making them a national program. The propo...

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News of Chevrolet's Bolt overshadows its recharged Volt

Hyundai merges into the plug-in lane with a new version of the Hyundai Sonata

So far, electric cars have been something of a novelty item or, if you prefer, a niche product for geeks and greenies. Those with loads of cash are drawn t...

Photo
A prototype of the Chevrolet Bolt (Photo credit: GM)

So far, electric cars have been something of a novelty item or, if you prefer, a niche product for geeks and greenies. Those with loads of cash are drawn to the $80,000 Tesla while tighter-fisted look towards the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf or perhaps the Hyundai Sonata plug-in, announced today. 

But America is a big country, with more miles of highway than just about anywhere else, causing the dread condition known as range anxiety -- fear of being caught on the road with a dead battery.

Chevrolet labored long and hard a few years back and brought forth the Volt, an electric car with a built-in gasoline engine that takes over when the battery has burned through its 35-40 mile range. This gives the Volt an effective range of more than 300 miles -- equal to most other cars -- and an effective gas mileage that is often somewhere in the 80-mpg range.

You would think that this would have produced a best seller but, in fact, sales of the Volt have been somewhat anemic, with only 73,000 being sold to date, even though owners of the car give it high marks.

None of this seems to have discouraged Hyundai, however, which today unveiled its Hyundai Sonata plug-in hybrid, expected to travel up to 22 miles  on battery power, with a combined output of 202 horsepower from a 2.0-liter gasoline engine and an electric motor -- more power than the redesigned Volt, but less than half the range in all-electric mode.

Photo
The Hyundai Sonata plug-in (Photo credit: Hyundai)

Volt's a slow seller 

Critics say GM has simply not marketed the Volt effectively but GM predicts the 2016 Volt -- which gets its first showing today at the International Auto Show in Detroit -- will appeal to a wider market. The Volt 2.0 will get slightly better gas mileage when running on the gasoline engine and may cost a little less than the $35,000 to $40,000 Volt 1.0 price tag -- a financial hit that is sometimes softened by a $7,500 tax credit.

Some owners, however, have complained that the tax credit is an illusion, maintaining that their application for the credit was denied or ignored for unknown reasons. 

Hyundai will be selling the Sonata plug-in in California and the nine other states that require automakers to sell at least some zero-emission vehicles. Hyundai has also been promotion hydrogen power, leasing its hydrogen-fueled Tucson crossover in California.

Nobody really knows which type of electric car -- if any -- will eventually catch on so manufacturers are trying to cover all the bases.

A placeholder

The Volt 2.0 may turn out to be something of a placeholder for the Bolt, an all-electric hatchback Chevrolet displayed today at the auto show and is planning to roll out  in a few years. It will reportedly go about 200 miles on a full charge and, unlike the Volt, will not have a backup gas engine.

That puts the Bolt squarely in the spot Tesla is shooting for with its new, lower-priced model, also expected to debut sometime in 2017. Both the Bolt and the still-unnamed Tesla model are expected to sell for about $35,000 and likely to resemble a Volkswagen Golf in terms of overall shape and size.

“The Bolt EV concept is a game-changing electric vehicle designed for attainability, not exclusivity,” said General Motors CEO Mary Barra. “Chevrolet believes electrification is a pillar of future transportation and needs to be affordable for a wider segment of customers.”

Why would anyone want to buy an electric car when gas is hovering around $2 a gallon? Well, the easiest answer is that the price of gas fluctuates -- it won't be $2 forever. There's also the environmental factor -- most people consider electric cars to be environmentally more friendly than gas-powered buggies.

But slowly emerging from the shadows are the current owners of Teslas and Volts, raving about their cars' performance, praising their acceleration, their eerily silent operation and that indefinable something VW once called farfegnugen. Simply put, they're a hoot to drive.

Gas-powered cars with their clunky transmissions and rumbling engines seem like candidates for the vintage car museum once you've gotten used to gliding swiftly and smoothly through traffic on nothing but volts (with maybe a few amps thrown in for good measure). 

It's a market that may take awhile to grow but GM and Tesla obviously think its time is coming and are willing to keep turning the crank on the generator until it happens.

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Going green in the latrine

Plants will brighten up your bathroom

Besides your bedroom there is one other room in your house where you spend a great deal of time. Yes, your bathroom. It gets a great deal of traffic b...

PhotoBesides your bedroom there is one other room in your house where you spend a great deal of time. Yes, your bathroom. It gets a great deal of traffic but it's a small space and if you don't want to spend the money on fancy tiles or an expensive sink, you might want to consider plants to brighten up the space and drop a little spring in when it's a little cold and gloomy outside. 

Most house plants purify the air, and I can't think of a better place to purify the air. Plants will work in a place where the lights are low and there is a lot of humidity, think rain forest. It would be ideal if you had one window that brought in a ton of sunlight. Obviously it will help your plants flourish, but if not you can grow with the low lights. It is not a problem. As a rule, south- and east-facing windows bring in the most light, while west- and north-pointing windows let in the least.

Make sure that your bathroom fixtures use fluorescent light bulbs  as fluorescents produce the wavelengths closest to the sun.

Where you place your plant will depend on the amount of light that gets into your bathroom. Generally a plant by the tub will do pretty well. Most bathroom plants will do well on a shelf or hanging from the ceiling. If your bathroom has a window, a window sill is good also.

If your bathroom is pretty small, try putting the plant on top of the toilet tank or the window sill. If you have a rather spacious bathroom, you might want to find a metal plant stand or a bookshelf even a side table.

Make sure you are aware which plants do well in bathrooms. The following are good starter plants:

  • ZZ Plant
  • Bamboo
  • Orchids
  • Spider plant
  • Jade plant
  • Philodenron

There are plants on the most wanted list because they are almost impossible to kill (some of these made both lists). They are:

  • Aloe
  • Jade 
  • philodendren
  • Jade plant
  • ZZ plant

Green plants brighten up a bathroom that is full of white. The green is just a fresh accent. You can always add color with flowering plants as well. Adding the plants to the bathroom will give your home the feel of a personal spa and just make it that much more inviting.

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President Obama calls for laws governing data theft and student privacy protection

Possibly foreshadowing his State of the Union address next week

In a speech before the Federal Trade Commission on Monday, President Obama called for new federal legislation intended to protect private customer data in ...

Photo
White House photo

In a speech before the Federal Trade Commission on Monday, President Obama called for new federal legislation intended to protect private customer data in the event of business hackings, and also to prevent technology companies from exploiting the ever-growing amount of data they collect from students as schools become more technology-dependent.

Obama said that various forms of online attack cost the U.S. economy “billions of dollars” each year, and called this “a direct threat to the economic security of American families … If were going to be connected, we've got to be protected.”

Ironically – or perhaps not – while Obama gave this speech, hackers apparently breached the Twitter and YouTube accounts of the U.S. Central Command, temporarily flooding both accounts with messages supporting ISIS terrorists.

The president's proposed Personal Data Notification and Protection Act would, among other things, require companies to inform customers within 30 days of the companies' discovering that customer data has been hacked. The proposed Student Data Privacy Act would make it illegal for tech firms to profit from any student information they collect in schools.

Might be too lax

Thus far, Obama hasn't unveiled the exact details of these proposals, yet some observers fear they might be too lax. For example, 48 out of 50 states already have state-level laws governing how companies must inform customers of a data breach – and some of those state laws are even stricter than Obama's proposed 30-day notification window. Mark Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the New York Times that he fears a 30-day federal law might pre-empt stronger state laws already in play.

But until the president releases more information, it's still too early to tell. Obama's annual State of the Union speech is next week, and observers think cybersecurity is going to be one of its themes; to that end, Obama and his press office have been dropping “spoilers” regarding upcoming legislative proposals.

As NetworkWorld's TechWatch blog observed: “mentioning anything tech-related in the State of the Union is completely unprecedented — but so is the threat.”

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"Smart home" devices took center stage at Consumer Electronics Show

Even if you never leave home, you'll soon need a smartphone to keep tabs on your appliances

Even if you never call anybody, you may still need a smartphone to keep things running smoothly at home. That at least is the impression left by last week'...

PhotoEven if you never call anybody, you may still need a smartphone to keep things running smoothly at home. That at least is the impression left by last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where many of the products on display used smartphone apps to control things in your house.

While you may not feel a strong attachment for your washer and dryer, being able to control them and keep tabs on them when you're out running errands may come in handy.

That's how Whirlpool sees it anyway. It has introduced washers and dryers that link to a mobile app and even work in conjunction with the Nest thermostat. An accompanying "detergent assistant" even lets you know when it's time to buy more detergent.

Want a cup of coffee waiting when you get up? You can use your smartphone to instruct the "Wi-Fi Coffee Machine by Smarter" to have your coffee ready for you in the morning. Of course, if you're at home anyway, it's not clear why you need this but that's another matter. It will, of course, call you when the coffee's ready, so that's something anyway.

It also has a "welcome home" feature that will make a fresh brew at the end of the day, although a Martini might be more appropriate.

Suck it up. That’s what Samsung had in mind when they created a robot vacuum that -- we're told -- can suck up to 60 times more than conventional robot vacuums for removal of dirt and other debris. Although this one is not connected to your phone it does guide itself back to its charger base when the battery is low.

Seems like everything digital comes with a camera and this robot vacuum is no different. It has an onboard digital camera, high performance chips and sensors. The "Visionary Mapping Plus System" creates a complete map of the home to calculate the most efficient cleaning path, avoiding roadblocks like a set of steps or a child’s toy.

Even the weather is going the way of social media. Bloomsky has created the first crowd-connected weather station, that's right in your own back yard. The ball-shaped unit is meant to sit on top of a custom pole, which is driven into the ground.

It can measure UV light and notice the start of any significant rain or snow. Of course it will be equipped with an HD camera plus a wi-fi radio. It will be taking pictures and sending them to you during any intense meteorological event. The goal is to build a network that you share with friends and family on the Internet and social networks.  

The info will be accessible to the general public through an app — but individual probe owners can choose whether to share specific location info, just in case you don't want anyone to know what the weather is in your backyard.

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Santa Barbara Smokehouse recalls cold smoked salmon

The products may be contaminated with Listeria Monocytogenes

The Santa Barbara Smokehouse of Santa Barbara, Calif., is recalling the following brands and batches of cold smoked salmon produced and packed between Dece...

PhotoThe Santa Barbara Smokehouse of Santa Barbara, Calif., is recalling the following brands and batches of cold smoked salmon produced and packed between December 17th and December 24th 2014:

  • Cambridge House Private Reserve
  • Cambridge House Mild
  • Cambridge House Mild 4-oz
  • Cambridge House Royal
  • Cambridge House Royal 4-oz,
  • Cambridge House Royal Pastrami
  • Cambridge House Royal Lemon and Dill
  • Cambridge House Royal Prime Tenderloin
  • Cambridge House Mild Lemon Pepper
  • Cambridge House Balmoral
  • Cambridge House Balmoral 4-oz
  • Cambridge House Gravadlax
  • Cambridge House Mild Citron Vodka
  • Coastal Harbor
  • Coastal Harbor Oak
  • Coastal Harbor Oak Beech
  • Coastal Harbor Beech
  • Coastal Harbor Oak Beech Pastrami
  • Coastal Harbor 1lb Trimmings
  • Coastal Harbor Nova
  • Santa Barbara Smokehouse Balmoral
  • Harbor Point Atlantic
  • Harbor Point Scottish Style
  • Gelsons Market Cambridge House Private Reserve
  • Fresh & Easy Atlantic Smoked Salmon 4-oz
  • Fresh & Easy Scottish Smoked Atlantic Salmon 4-oz
  • Fresh & Easy Smoked Salmon Trimmings 4-oz
  • Channel Island Atlantic
  • Local Abundance 4-oz
  • Local Abundance Norwegian
  • Local Abundance unsliced
  • Gordon Foods Private Reserve Wild

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The following batch numbers may be found on the rear of the package:

  • 200
  • 596
  • 4261
  • 5042
  • 5251
  • 5264
  • 5609
  • 5699
  • 5731
  • 5761
  • 5792
  • 5904
  • 5924
  • 5934
  • 5969
  • 5979
  • 6012
  • 6029
  • 6042
  • 6054
  • 6061
  • 6072
  • 6082
  • 6175
  • 6194
  • 6204
  • 6214
  • 6285
  • 6304
  • 6314
  • 6322
  • 6339
  • 6344
  • 6351
  • 6362
  • 6379
  • 6434
  • 6449
  • 6452
  • 6461
  • 6479
  • 6481
  • 6492
  • 6572
  • 6569
  • 6572
  • 6584
  • 6594
  • 6604
  • 6612
  • 6664
  • 6674
  • 6684

Consumers who have purchased any of the above products should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-805-966-9796.

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Unibright Foods recalls beef and pork products

The products may be contaminated with extraneous metal materials

Unibright Foods of Bell Gardens, Calif., is recalling approximately 48,139 pounds of frozen, ready-to-eat sukiyaki beef and gingered pork products. The pr...

PhotoUnibright Foods of Bell Gardens, Calif., is recalling approximately 48,139 pounds of frozen, ready-to-eat sukiyaki beef and gingered pork products.

The products may be contaminated with extraneous metal materials.

There are no reports of injury or illness from consumption of the products.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 2.2-lb. packages of “MISHIMA SUKIYAKI BEEF” bearing the establishment number “EST.1163” inside the USDA mark of inspection and package ID number “15069.”
  • 1.7-lb. packages of “MISHIMA GINGERED PORK” bearing the establishment number “EST.1163” inside the USDA mark of inspection and package ID number “15059.”

The beef product was produced between Aug. 12, 2014, and Dec. 16, 2014. The gingered pork product was produced between Aug. 5, 2014, and Aug. 6, 2014. Both were shipped to institutions and retail outlets in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and New York.

Consumers with questions may contact Jacob Fernandez at (562) 806-3221.

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Shirk’s Meats recalls pork sausage products

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

Shirk’s Meats of Dundee, N.Y., is recalling approximately 1,062 pounds of pork sausage product. The product contains peanuts, an allergen not listed on th...

PhotoShirk’s Meats of Dundee, N.Y., is recalling approximately 1,062 pounds of pork sausage product.

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

There are no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of the product.

The following product, produced on November 26, 2014, is being recalled:

  • 30-lb. bags of “Smoked Pork Andouille Sausage.”

The product bears the establishment number “EST. 18894” inside the USDA mark of inspection and was shipped to a firm in New York for further processing, and distribution to retail locations.

Consumers with questions about the recall may can contact Naomi Shirk at (607) 243-5581.

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Headlight problems leave drivers in the dark

Headlights used to be pretty simple but like everything else, they've become more complex

Cars have gotten really complicated, what with all the new safety features, energy-saving processes and entertainment geegaws. But amidst all this complexi...

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Study says 20% of hysterectomies may not be necessary

Most are done for benign conditions

A hysterectomy is a surgical operation to remove a woman's uterus. It's fairly common, with more than 600,000 of the operations completed in 2003, though t...

PhotoA hysterectomy is a surgical operation to remove a woman's uterus. It's fairly common, with more than 600,000 of the operations completed in 2003, though the number has declined sharply since then.

But even with the decline, a new study suggests women getting a hysterectomy don't really need it. Researchers at the University of Michigan say about 20% of these operations are not medically necessary.

The study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology makes the case for seeking alternatives to the surgery that leaves women unable to bear children. The authors say there are plenty of good alternatives that are underused.

In fact, those alternatives may be largely responsbile for the recent declines in this operation. Even so, the researchers estimate 1 in 3 women in the U.S. will have undergone the operation by age 60.

Declining numbers

“Over the past decade, there has been a substantial decline in the number of hysterectomies performed annually in the United States,” said senior author Daniel Morgan. “An earlier study found a 36.4% decrease in number of hysterectomies performed in the U.S. in 2010 compared to 2002. However, despite the decrease in numbers of hysterectomies in the U.S., appropriateness of hysterectomy is still an area of concern and it continues to be a target for quality improvement.”

Why do doctors recommend a hysterectomy? The researchers say a majority – about 68% – are for benign conditions, like excessive or painful bleeding. An estimated 10% are to treat cancer.

In many of the benign cases the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended alternatives to hysterectomy – things like hormonal management or a minimally invasive gynecological procedure called operative hysteroscopy.

Missing alternatives

Just how often do doctors suggest alternatives to hysterectomy? The Michigan researchers looked at the medical records of 3,397 women who underwent hysterectomies for benign conditions. Upon examining the data they discovered that nearly 40% of women did not have documentation of alternative treatment before having the operation.

Fewer than 30% received medical therapy, while 24% had other minor surgical procedures before the hysterectomy.

When alternative treatment did occur, the patient was more likely to be younger – under age 40.

Underutilized

“This study provides evidence that alternatives to hysterectomy are underutilized in women undergoing hysterectomy for abnormal uterine bleeding, uterine fibroids, endometriosis, or pelvic pain,” Morgan said.

A hysterectomy is a major surgery that is not without risk. According to the National Institutes of Health, risks include allergic reactions to medicines, trouble breathing, blood clots, bleeding, infection and injury to nearby body areas.

It can also be costly. The Healthcare Bluebook says a total abdominal hysterectomy normally costs close to $12,000.

Obviously the decision to have a hysterectomy is one to be made in consultation with your doctors. And it might not be a bad idea to seek a second opinion.

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Regret yielding to that high-pressure sales pitch? The FTC's “Cooling-Off Rule” might help

Better yet: Just say no to pushy door-to-door salesmen

The New Year will bring about some changes to the Federal Trade Commission's “Cooling-off Rule” — though the average consumer who buys things from door-to-...

PhotoThe New Year will bring about some changes to the Federal Trade Commission's “Cooling-off Rule” — though the average consumer who buys things from door-to-door salespeople is unlikely to notice much difference.

The Cooling-Off Rule dates back to 1972.  The FTC's website explains the Cooling-Off Rule like this:

If you buy something at a store and later change your mind, you may not be able to return the merchandise. But if you buy an item in your home or at a location that is not the seller's permanent place of business, you may have the option. The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) Cooling-Off Rule gives you three days to cancel purchases of $25 or more. Under the Cooling-Off Rule, your right to cancel for a full refund extends until midnight of the third business day after the sale.

The Cooling-Off Rule applies to sales at the buyer's home, workplace or dormitory, or at facilities rented by the seller on a temporary or short-term basis, such as hotel or motel rooms, convention centers, fairgrounds and restaurants. The Cooling-Off Rule applies even when you invite the salesperson to make a presentation in your home.

There are some exceptions to the Cooling-Off Rule – among other things, it does not apply to purchases of real estate, securities or certain other investment options, nor to purchases made at craft fairs and similar locations – but for the most part, the rule is supposed to provide a level of protection for customers against aggressive, high-pressure door-to-door salespeople. (And in all seriousness: if you are in the market to buy some real estate or securities, you really shouldn't be buying these from door-to-door salespeople anyway.)

Changes made

This week, the FTC announced in the Federal Register that, starting in March, there would be some changes made to the Cooling-Off Rule. For traveling salespeople who peddle their wares outside people's workplaces or other non-home locations, the limit has been raised to $130, before the Cooling-Off Rule applies. However, $25 remains the limit for purchases made in people's homes, where people are off-guard and thus arguably more vulnerable to high-pressure tactics..

As the FTC wrote in its rationale for the rule: “Some consumers feel pressured to enter into contracts with door-to-door salesmen solely to get the salesmen to leave their homes.”

Indeed, ConsumerAffairs often hears from readers who have done exactly that. For example, Marie from Fort Dodge, Iowa, wrote us on Dec. 19 to complain about pushy salesmen hawking Kirby Vacuum Cleaners:

“When they came to the door I was in the market for a new vacuum, so I was willing to listen. Three hours later I finally bought it just to get rid of them - I was exhausted.”

But did she at least get a decent vacuum cleaner out of the exhausting afternoon? No. “The vacuum is way too heavy. I bought an Oreck canister to do the stairs (love that). I like the suction, but the belt breaks easily. Too complicated to use the other attachments. ... To be honest I have made some bad purchases, but this tops them all. I hate this vacuum. Any one want one cheap?”

Although the Cooling-Off Rule should apply to anyone who buys a Kirby Vacuum from a door-to-door seller, remember that it only applies if you cancel your order before midnight on the third day after you bought it. Unfortunately, Sieg from Owatonna, Minnesota, didn't do that. Here's what he said:

I had a Dyson, with all the attachments, which I loved!! I had a Bissell shampooer, which was wonderful!! And I had another vacuum. I live in a mobile home with very little carpet area. This friggin salesman talked me into buying a new very expensive vacuum and giving him all my other items to boot! By the weekend, I had realized what I had done and I called to cancel the order. Well, they refused to cancel it cause it had been like 4 days.

Setting up shop

Tim, from Springfield, Oregon, was luckier than Sieg or Marie: the Kirby salespeople still ate up three hours of his time, but he stood his ground and avoided wasting money on a vacuum. He wrote on Dec. 16: “Just like everyone else, they offered to clean a portion of my carpet for free to get their name out there for their company. I thought it was going to be a short deal.”

Not even close. “They left a young kid and he started setting up shop in my living room while the boss left an hour and two hours later he showed back up and started the high-pressure sales. My girlfriend and my baby is due this week and they took three hours of our evening, guilting us about how our house is filthy and how we shouldn't live in this filth with her new baby coming this week. Everything they say is a lie. They will guilt you and try to manipulate you into purchasing one of their overpriced vacuums! Thankfully we didn't!”

If you see a Kirby vacuum salesman, Tim advises you to “never ever let them in your house!”

Sieg from Minnesota agrees: “I can't tell you how upset I am, and want to warn everyone, if a Kirby salesman comes to your door, slam it closed!”

And Dominique from Aurora, Colorado told us something similar just yesterday. “Slam the door as soon as they say they're selling a Kirby!!! Wishing I had.”

Rude, pushy or even insulting salespeople who overstay their welcome is a very common theme among Kirby complainants. Patty from Missouri said on Dec. 20: “High pressure salesman and I was exhausted when they left! I had my 2 year old grandson with me and it was way past his bedtime! They just wouldn't leave!”

If you're in the market for a new vacuum cleaner, remember: in modern America there's no need to wait for a salesman to knock on your door peddling one. Do a little research to determine not only which brand of vacuum you want, but which store in your area offers the best price. There's no need to pay extra for the dubious extra service of having multiple salespeople come out to your house and give a three-hour live performance demonstrating how much their vacuum sucks.

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Don't let your GPS override your own good sense

Drivers who obey bad directions cause anything from fender-benders to trainwrecks

When you're driving through unfamiliar territory, GPS can be a wonderfully useful tool to help you find your way. But any tool can be misused if you're not...

PhotoWhen you're driving through unfamiliar territory, GPS can be a wonderfully useful tool to help you find your way. But any tool can be misused if you're not careful, so you must remember that even the best GPS is no substitute for your own eyes.

For example: on Sunday night, a man in Lockport, Illinois, blamed his GPS after he drove his car onto a set of railroad tracks and couldn't drive back off of them. A passenger train hit his car a few minutes later, though fortunately, nobody was hurt.

A police lieutenant speculated to the local Herald-News that perhaps the GPS “may have been telling [the driver] to turn on Commerce Street, but he went onto the tracks and the vehicle got stuck sideways.”

The week before Christmas, a driver in Palo Alto, California made a similar mistake: drove his car onto railroad tracks and got stuck. Again, a passenger train hit the car, though nobody was hurt. Firefighters who removed the damaged car from the tracks said that the driver turned onto the tracks after his GPS recommended he do so.

Bear in mind: even under ideal conditions, when the device can make strong, unbroken connections to multiple positioning satellites, a typical commercial GPS only has an accuracy rating of roughly 10 to 50 feet (3 to 15 meters). And for a typical railroad crossing, 10 to 50 feet of variance is more than enough room to confuse a road or parking lot with a stretch of railroad track, or vice versa. (It's even enough to confuse a roadway with a river, which happened last May to a man who blamed bad GPS directions after he drove his car into the Susquehanna.)

Traffic updates

Even if GPS technology enjoyed perfect accuracy, a GPS device still can't tell you anything about road or traffic conditions. On New Year's weekend in Montgomery, New Jersey, two different drivers forgot that and caused minor crashes as a result.

First, on Dec. 29, a driver who'd hit a parked pickup truck told police she hadn't noticed the truck since her eyes were on her GPS. The next day, a different driver used the same excuse to explain why she rear-ended the driver in front of her.

If you rely on GPS to tell you where you need to go, remember the most important safety rule: you-the-driver need to look at your GPS in addition to looking at the road, not in lieu of looking at the road.

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A quarter-million new jobs in December

The unemployment rate is now 5.6%

The U.S. economy appears to have turned into a job machine. Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) created 250,000 payroll positions last month as...

PhotoThe U.S. economy appears to have turned into a job machine.

Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show 250,000 payroll positions were created in December as the unemployment rate dropped 0.2% -- to 5.6%.

At the same time, though, the civilian labor force participation rate edged down 0.2% last month to 62.7%. Since April, the participation rate has remained within a narrow range of 62.7 to 62.9%. The employment-population ratio was 59.2% for the third consecutive month, although the employment-population ratio is up by 0.6% over the year.

The strong December gain pushed monthly job growth in 2014 to an average of 246,000 compared with an average monthly gain of 194,000 in 2013.

Winners and losers

Employment in professional and business services rose by 52,000 in December, led by administrative and waste services (+35,000), computer systems design and related services (+9,000), and architectural and engineering services (+5,000). Employment in accounting and bookkeeping services declined (-14,000).

Construction added 48,000 jobs as specialty trade contractors gained 26,000 position, equally split between residential and nonresidential contractors. Employment also increased in heavy and civil engineering construction (+12,000) and in nonresidential building (+10,000).

Employment in food services and drinking places increased by 44,000, while health care added 34,000 jobs and manufacturing employment rose by 17,000. Manufacturing added an average of 16,000 jobs per month in 2014, compared with an average gain of 7,000 jobs per month in 2013.

Who's working and who's not

The unemployment rate for adult women fell 0.2% in December to 5.0%, while the rates for adult men (5.3%), teenagers (16.8%), whites (4.8%), blacks (10.4%), Hispanics (6.5%) and Asians (4.2%) were little-changed.

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or longer) was essentially unchanged at 2.8 million and accounted for 31.9% of the unemployed. Over the year, the number of long-term unemployed has declined by 1.1 million.

The number of people employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) was little changed in December at 6.8 million. These individuals, who would have preferred full-time employment, were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job.

The full report may be found on the DOL website.

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Cell phones make a comeback in NYC schools

Mayor de Blasio overturns his predecessor's citywide ban

New York City's Department of Education is lifting its ban on cell phones. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted the ban originally. Many parents were...

PhotoNew York City's Department of Education is lifting its ban on cell phones.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted the ban originally. Many parents weren't as happy about the ban as it made it difficult to get in touch with their kids. It made it hard to make after-school arrangements and made it tough for kids to get in touch with their parents.

Not every school complied with the ban. Some schools let kids carry them as long as staff members didn't see them. It was almost a don't ask don't tell sort of policy. On the other end of the spectrum, schools that had metal detectors kept a very strict ban on the phones. In the latter scenario, it created a big business for trucks that would let you park your cell phone for a dollar a day while you were in school.

Enter Mayor Bill de Blasio who made a campaign promise to bring cell phones back to the city's schools. His Honor has a son in high school and said he felt felt it was important thing for his son to have a phone in case of an emergency. Mayor de Blasio announced the revised regulation Wednesday at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunications Arts and Technology.

Schools will now be free to institute their own policies regarding the use of cell phones.

A few things  will remain consistent in all schools, including the prohibition of cell phones during examinations as well as during internal emergency drills and exercises. Schools will have a range of options for discipline in cases where cell phones are misused, including confiscation. 

Among the policies open to schools are:

  • Store mobile devices in backpacks or a designated location during the school day;
  • Allow mobile devices to be used during lunch or in designated areas only; and
  • Allow mobile devices for instructional purposes in some or all classrooms.

 

"This new policy recognizes that, in this day and age, technology is very much a part of students' and families' everyday lives," said Xhenete Shepard, principal of High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology. "Our time is better spent not fighting technology, but rather helping students recognize how to use technology productively and responsibly. This is a common-sense reform, and I look forward to the positive impact it will have on my students and school."

The proposed changes still  must be approved by the Panel for Educational Policy. If approved, they will go into effect on March 2.

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Daniel Weaver Company recalls beef products

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

The Daniel Weaver Company of Lebanon, Pa., is recalling approximately 7,092 pounds of Halal Beef products. The product contains peanuts, an allergen not...

PhotoThe Daniel Weaver Company of Lebanon, Pa., is recalling approximately 7,092 pounds of Halal Beef products.

The product contains peanuts, an allergen not declared on the product label.

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

The following Halal Beef Soujouk products, produced between November 13 and December 3, 2014, are subject to recall:

  • 16-oz. hoops of “YORUK BRAND HALAL BEEF SOUJOUK DRIED BEEF SAUSAGE.”
  • 16-oz. links of “YORUK BRAND HALAL BEEF PARMAK SOUJOUK DRIED BEEF SAUSAGE.”

The above products bear the establishment number “EST. 669” and were shipped to a distribution location in New Jersey.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact customer service at (717) 274-6100.  

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Why now might be a good time to buy a home

Your fellow consumers' concerns might be your opportunity

Let's start by conceding that buying a house these days is a lot different than it used to be. Before the housing crash, you could be pretty confident that...

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Feds fine Honda $70 million for failing to report safety defects

New safety chief warns of stricter oversight, more recalls, tougher fines this year

It may be a coincidence but it was just yesterday that the new chief of NHTSA -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- told automakers to s...

Photo
Photo credit: Honda

It may be a coincidence but it was just yesterday that the new chief of NHTSA -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- told automakers to shape up. Today, the agency announced it was fining Honda $70 million for failing to report deaths, injuries and warranty claims as required by federal law.

Speaking with reporters yesterday, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind predicted there would be even more recalls this year than last year's record number as the agency sharpens up its oversight activities. 

Photo
Mark Rosekind (NTSB photo)

"This was the year of the recall right? Put your seatbelt on, folks," he said, according to Politico. "If you're getting the work done, if you're finding those defects, you're reporting them in five days, etc., thank you. We'll make sure we use that to help keep everybody safe. If you're not getting that job done, you can pretty much count on us being there," 

If nothing else, the tougher oversight is likely to put an even bigger dent in automakers' profits. Recall campaigns are expensive to conduct and NHTSA's fines are getting tougher than ever. In 2014 alone, NHTSA issued more than $126 million in civil penalties, exceeding the total amount collected by the agency during its forty-three year history.

"Honda and all of the automakers have a safety responsibility they must live up to – no excuses," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "Last year alone, we issued more fines than in NHTSA's entire history. These fines reflect the tough stance we will take against those who violate the law and fail to do their part in the mission to keep Americans safe on the road."

Honda said it would "fully cooperate" with NHTSA to improve its reporting in the future.

Honda's failures

NHTSA's investigation into Honda's safety reporting found that the automaker failed to submit early warning reports (EWR reports) identifying potential or actual safety issues.

The first civil penalty -- for $35 million, the Congressionally established limit for fines -- is a result of Honda's failure to report 1,729 death and injury claims to NHTSA between 2003 and 2014. The second civil penalty -- also $35 million -- is due to the manufacturer's failure to report certain warranty claims and claims under customer satisfaction campaigns throughout the same time period. 

"Today's announcement sends a very clear message to the entire industry that manufacturers have responsibility for the complete and timely reporting of this critical safety information," Rosekind said. "The actions we are requiring will push Honda to significantly raise the bar on the effectiveness of its EWR reporting program. Our ongoing oversight will ensure compliance and determine if there is cause for additional actions."

Rosekind, who was confirmed by the Senate Dec. 22, is a former NASA scientist and member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He brings a strong science background to his post, unlike many of his predecessors.

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Want plastic surgery? Do your homework first

Botched-surgery horror stories are commonplace these days. Don't add yourself to the list

Any magazine or website discussing celebrity gossip is pretty much guaranteed to publish regular stories (often illustrated by wince-inducing photographs) ...

PhotoAny magazine or website discussing celebrity gossip is pretty much guaranteed to publish regular stories (often illustrated by wince-inducing photographs) on the theme “Famous person's plastic surgery goes horribly wrong.”

This week, for example, former “Teen Mom” reality TV star Farrah Abraham tweeted a photo (not for the easily squeamish) showing the result of her own badly botched lip surgery; her upper lip is swollen to grotesque proportions, presumably an allergic reaction either to anesthetic, as she suggested to celebrity-gossip site TMZ, or to the silicone injected into her lip.

Such problems aren't remotely limited to reality TV stars, or celebrities in general. A few days before Farrah Abraham shared the results of her own botched cosmetic-surgery procedure, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) launched what it calls “a new public safety campaign” to “help consumers understand how to make informed decisions about plastic surgery.” As part of the campaign, the ASPS is also highlighting examples of “surgery gone wrong” – and botched plastic surgeries can't always be fixed, either.

Botched surgeries

Dr. Scot Glasberg, president of the ASPS, said that the campaign came about in part because ASPS members were seeing larger numbers of new patients seeking to fix earlier, botched surgeries. “Plastic surgery is real surgery and patients need to do their homework before they undergo any plastic surgery procedure,” Glasberg said. “People spend more time selecting the model and color of a car than they do selecting their plastic surgeon. That needs to change.”

In all fairness, few people are accustomed to “shopping for surgeons” the same way they shop around for consumer goods and services. If someone does want plastic surgery, what does selecting a plastic surgeon actually entail? ConsumerAffairs asked Glasberg about this.

“There are two big questions [a potential plastic surgery patient] needs to ask,” Glasberg said. “The first is: are you a board-certified plastic surgeon? The ABPS, the American Board of Plastic Surgery, is the only certifying agency …. the second question is, is this facility accredited?”

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then Glasberg recommends you ask another round of questions, including: how many procedures has that surgeon done? You should also ask to see before-and-after photos of previous procedures, and also ask to speak to some of the surgeon's previous patients. If a potential surgeon will not let you see photos of his or her prior work, or speak with prior recipients of it, that's a bad sign.

Risks & complications

You should also about the risks associated with a given procedure. “Ask the surgeon, what are the risks? What are the complications? And if you hear the phrases 'There are no risks' or 'I never have complications,' walk away,” Glasberg said. “That's too good to be true …. every medical procedure has risks.”

A potential plastic-surgery recipient should also have a good idea of what can and cannot be done. “Sometimes you'll hear somebody say 'I want surgery to look exactly like X celebrity, for example – that's not possible,” Glasberg said. There's also the possibility that a relatively commonplace and safe plastic-surgery procedure is not feasible for a specific patient, due to that patient's own medical history. “There might be medical reasons why a procedure can't be done,” Glasberg said.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons maintains an online listing of board-certified plastic surgeons in the U.S. and Canada.

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When binge drinking turns deadly

Alcohol poisoning kills 6 people a day in the U.S.

“Everything in moderation,” the old saying goes. It particularly applies to alcohol consumption....

Photo“Everything in moderation,” the old saying goes. It particularly applies to alcohol consumption.

In recent years health officials have worried about the increasing tendency of some people to “binge” drink, consuming multiple alcoholic beverages in a short period of time. This pattern often develops during the college years.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men in about 2 hours.

Many of the dangers of binge drinking are fairly obvious. Accidents are much more likely when you are intoxicated. Over time, binge drinking can bring on serious health effects.

Alcohol poisoning

One often-overlooked danger, health officials say, is binge drinkers might die of alcohol poisoning. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that more than 2,200 people in the U.S. die each year from alcohol poisoning – consuming too much alcohol in too short a period of time.

When this happens it often results in very high levels of alcohol in the body, which can shut down critical areas of the brain that control breathing, heart rate, and body temperature - resulting in death.

A lot of people are at risk, perhaps more than you might think. The CDC says more than 38 million U.S. adults report binge drinking an average of 4 times per month, consuming an average of 8 drinks per binge.

CDC scientists analyzed deaths from alcohol poisoning among people aged 15 and older, using multiple cause-of-death data from the National Vital Statistics System for 2010-2012. Alcohol showed up as a contributing factor in about 30% of the deaths.

While that's more than the researchers were expecting to find, they conclude that the actual number is probably higher.

"Alcohol poisoning deaths are a heartbreaking reminder of the dangers of excessive alcohol use, which is a leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.," said CDC Principal Deputy Director Ileana Arias. "We need to implement effective programs and policies to prevent binge drinking and the many health and social harms that are related to it, including deaths from alcohol poisoning."

Make it cost more

Researchers at Boston University who have studied binge drinking from a policy angle say higher taxes on alcoholic beverages may be the answer.

The study found that a 1% increase in alcohol beverage prices from taxes resulted in a 1.4% decrease in the proportion of adults who binge drink. Most previous studies have examined the effect of taxes on average consumption, while the effect of taxes on high-level drinking has been controversial.

"This is really significant for public health," said lead author Ziming Xuan.

Xuan says binge drinking causes more than half of nearly 90,000 alcohol-attributable deaths in the U.S. each year, and accounts for three-quarters of the $224 billion in annual economic costs.

The study shows that as combined alcohol taxes rise, binge drinking rates fall, with taxes accounting for some 20% of the difference in binge drinking prevalence rates across the states.

The state with the highest beer combined taxes - Tennessee--had the lowest binge drinking rate in 2010, the study found. Conversely, states with low alcohol taxes, such as Montana, Wisconsin and Delaware, had relatively high binge drinking rates.

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Spas and limos for kids -- overindulgence?

Kids like being pampered, but it is really appropriate?

Ah, the life of a kid these days. It can be hard work with soccer practice, gymnastics and homework. A kid really needs a little "me time". So the spa indu...

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Cold snap strains public electricty providers

During times of increased demand, these energy-saving hints are extra-helpful

For the past couple of days, most of the continental United States has been shivering as masses of cold Arctic air “surge” as far south as Florida, resulti...

PhotoFor the past couple of days, most of the continental United States has been shivering as masses of cold Arctic air “surge” as far south as Florida, resulting in temperature and wind chills far lower than usual for this time of year.

In North Carolina, usually accustomed to much milder winter temperatures, the cold snap is so severe – and inspired such an unusually high spike in electricity use to power space heaters, heat pumps and other heat sources – that electrical provider Duke Energy asked its residential customers to reduce their electricity use for at least 24 hours over Wednesday and Thursday, to reduce the strain on the electrical grid.

On Thursday morning, Duke Energy posted a plea on its Facebook page:

Carolinas: every little bit helps! Energy use in our region is at near record demand this morning. Please continue to conserve power until 10 a.m.

(Of course, Duke Energy customers who'd already lost electricity in the region's recent storms were understandably unimpressed by this. “I don't have any power to conserve. Haven't for 12 hours. How about you focus on the thousands of customers with no power instead,” ran one typical post-10 a.m. comment on Duke Energy's Facebook announcement.

Even so, the electricity-saving tips which Duke posted on its website are worth following all winter long, not just in extreme conditions. Lower electricity use means lower electric bills for you — and it's better for the environment, too.

What to do

If you have one or more ceiling fans in your house, turn them on and watch the blades. Are they turning clockwise, or counter-clockwise? Duke advises that you “Operate ceiling fans in a clockwise direction, which pushes warm air back down into the room.”

Most models of ceiling fan have the default setting to turn counter-clockwise, keeping rooms cooler in hot summer temperatures. The switch to change the blades' direction is usually located in the “base” of the fan, close to your ceiling.

If you actually need to flick that switch and change the direction of the blades, you will of course need to turn the fan off and wait for its blades to stop moving, before you reach between them to move the switch. You should also clean the thick, dirty dust off the forward edge of the fan blades before you turn the fan back on to rotate in this new direction; otherwise, some of that dust will fall off on its own, after the blades start moving again. (No need for fancy cleaning materials; a paper towel or cloth rag made damp with tap water or white vinegar will work fine.)

Other electricity (and money)-saving wintertime tips include: During the daytime, leave your window curtains or blinds open so sunlight can help warm the house, and turn your thermostat down to the lowest temperature you and your family members can stand. If you leave home for the day, turn it down a little lower still. Should you feel chilly, try putting on a sweater or other, warmer clothes before turning the temperature up.

Of course, during hot-weather seasons of the year, you must do the exact opposite of these things: turn your ceiling fan blades counter-clockwise to draw warm air up closer to the ceiling; close the curtains and blinds to keep out the sun; keep the temperature in your house as high as you can stand it, while wearing thin clothes.

But other energy-saving tips apply all throughout the year, whether excessive heat or excessive cold is your main home-climate problem: turn off unnecessary lighting, and unplug your phone and tablet chargers, which draw energy even when they're not in use.

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Gallup: Flu wallops Americans

The infection rate in December was the highest since Gallup began its flu surveys

A ferocious virus is storming through North America, felling U.S. citizens at a rate higher than ever measure by the Gallup research organization....

PhotoA ferocious virus is storming through North America, felling U.S. citizens at a rate higher than ever measure by the Gallup research organization.

Ebola? No, flu. Americans nearly came unhinged when a handful of Ebola victims showed up for treatment last year but that was a mere drop in the ocean compared to the flu.

Gallup reports that an average 4.0% of Americans reported being sick with flu on any given day in December -- more than all previous Decembers since Gallup began tracking the flu daily in 2008, and one of the highest rates for any month over the past 7 years. The all-time high is 4.7%, measured in January 2013.

Given that reports of having the flu are typically highest in January or February, the 2013-2014 flu season could end up being the worst flu season in Gallup's records. However, it may also be that the flu is peaking early this season, as happened in 2009-2010, when the flu peaked in October amid the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

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As we reported earlier this week, the flu is already being blamed for the deaths of 15 children and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found the flu "widespread" in 43 states. Nationwide, the CDC reports that 5.9% of doctor visits involved flu-like symptoms in the last week of December, up from 4.3% in the same week in 2013.

At the CDC, director Dr. Tom Frieden says that however severe the season turns out to be, Americans need to be prepared.

“We can save lives with a three-pronged effort to fight the flu: vaccination, prompt treatment for people at high risk of complications, and preventive health measures, such as staying home when you’re sick, to reduce flu spread,” Frieden said.

This year's vaccine is not as effective as in some previous years because the flu virus continued evolving after the vaccine was formulated, so some strains don't respond to the vaccine. But that's no reason to skip getting a flu shot, CDC officials caution.

According to its study of the 2012-2013 flu season, the CDC estimates that the flu vaccine prevented 79,000 hospitalizations and 6.6 million illnesses. Still, more than 381,000 Americans were hospitalized because of flu-related illness during that season.

May be understated

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index asks Americans each day whether they were sick with the flu "yesterday." This differs from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's measure, which tracks influenza infections reported from doctors and hospitals. However, Gallup's data closely conform with CDC data for December. 

In December, an average 11.6% of Americans reported they "were sick with a cold yesterday," the highest percentage Gallup has found for any month since 2008. Prior to December 2014, the highest rate was 10.8% in January 2013. The highest December reading before this year was in 2008, when an average 10.3% of Americans reported being sick with a cold.

Generally, about three times as many Americans report having a cold as report having the flu.

It is possible that Gallup's measures of daily cold and flu underestimate the true infection rate, because those who were sick the day before may be less likely to respond to a phone survey than those who were not sick.

Additionally, it may be difficult for people to accurately self-diagnose the medical distinction between the flu and a cold, given the similarity in the symptoms of both conditions. Still, year-over-year comparisons provide useful information about the relative prevalence of flu and colds in the U.S. population.

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December job cuts plunge 9% from November's level

Job cutting in 2014 was the lowest since 1997

Another good sign that the economy is back on track comes in news from outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas that job cuts declined for a s...

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© Marc Scott-Parkin – Fotolia

Another good sign that the economy is back on track comes in news from Challenger, Gray & Christmas that job cuts declined for a second straight month in December.

According to the outplacement consultancy, U.S.-based employers announced plans to reduce payrolls by 32,640 -- the third lowest monthly total of 2014 -- and down 9.2 percent from 35,940 planned reductions in November.

All told, 2014 saw the fewest planned job cuts since 1997.

Last year's total of 483,171 announced job cuts is down 5.0% from the 509,051 cuts tracked in 2013 and the lowest annual total since 434,350 job cuts were recorded in 1997.

“Layoffs aren’t simply at pre-recession levels; they are at pre-2001-recession levels” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “This bodes well for job seekers, who will not only find more employment opportunities in 2015, but will enjoy increased job security once they are in those new positions.”

Computer industry leads the cut parade

In 2014, the top three job-cutting industries of the year are all examples of sectors that are, for all intents and purposes, enjoying the fruits of expansion. However, various companies for various reasons made significant cuts to their payrolls.

Despite the overall strength of the tech sector, employers in the computer industry saw the heaviest downsizing of the year, announcing a total of 59,528 planned terminations -- a surge of 69% from a year ago, when they cut 35,136 jobs. A large portion of the pink slips came from tech giants Hewlett Packard and Microsoft, where both are attempting to become more nimble in a very competitive market.

Job cuts in the retail sector fell 11% in 2014, but the industry still ranked second with 43,783 reductions announced during the year -- including 2,195 in December. The third-ranked health care sector also saw fewer firings last year, going from 52,637 job cuts in 2013 to a 2014 total of 38,359.

Overall, 16 of the 28 industries tracked by Challenger saw fewer job cuts in 2014, with an average decline of 34%. The insurance industry experienced the biggest decline, with job cuts falling 65% from 6,519 in 2013 to 2,259 last year.

The largest increases in job cuts occurred among employers in the entertainment industry and electronics; job cuts more than doubled in both. In the entertainment and leisure industry, job cuts jumped 125% from 2013, while reductions in the electronics industry shot up 120%.

 

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Initial claims

Following last week's unexpected surge, the number of people filing first-time applications for unemployment benefits fell last week.

The Labor Department (DOL) reports there were a seasonally adjusted 294,000 initial jobless claims submitted in the week ending January 3, down 4,000 from the previous week.

While DOL says there were no special factors affect this week's initial claims, analysts at Briefing-com say there have been anecdotal reports of increased job-cutting in the energy sector due to low oil prices.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly tally and considered a more accurate barometer of the labor market, fell 250 -- to 290,500.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Nijiya Market recalls boneless beef products

The imported products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

Nijiya Market of Torrance, Calif., is recalling approximately 359 pounds of frozen boneless beef products produced in Japan. The products were not present...

PhotoNijiya Market of Torrance, Calif., is recalling approximately 359 pounds of frozen boneless beef products produced in Japan.

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection, raising the possibility of adverse health consequences.

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

The following products are subject to recall:

  • Packages of various sizes containing cuts of Tender Loin, Chuck Roll, Ribeye, Strip Loin, Brisket, Chuck Short Ribs, Inside, Outside, Short Ribs, Top Sirloin Butt, Clod, Knuckle, Short Plate and Shank all sold with a Nijiya Market label

These items were produced in Japan on August 6, 2014 and imported in September. The importer cut, repackaged and sold the products at a retail store in Torrance, California.

Consumers with questions may contact Mitsuhiro Ueda at (310) 787-3305.  

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Eillien's Candies recalls various brands of Walnut Pieces

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Eillien's Candies is recalling various sizes and brands of Walnut Pieces. The products may be contaminated with Salmonella. The company says it has not r...

PhotoEillien's Candies is recalling various sizes and brands of Walnut Pieces.

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

The company says it has not received any reports of illnesses in connection with the recalled items.

The recalled products were sold in stores in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, New York, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming,

The BEST BY DATES can be found on the back of the bags.

Item Description:

034952-007022EILLIEN'S WALNUT PIECES 2OZBEST BY 7/31/15
034952-129991EILLIEN'S WALNUT PIECES 4OZBEST BY 9/10/15
034952-572759EILLIEN'S WALNUT PIECES TRAY 11OZBEST BY 6/9/15
034952-129977EILLIEN'S WALNUT PIECES 14OZBEST BY 7/30/15
034952-129977EILLIEN'S WALNUT PIECES 14OZBEST BY 7/31/15
034952-129977EILLIEN'S WALNUT PIECES 14OZBEST BY 9/10/15
034952-573282EILLIEN'S WALNUT PIECES 16OZBEST BY 7/30/15
034952-561968EILLIEN'S WALNUT PIECES 24OZBEST BY 8/13/15
034952-561968EILLIEN'S WALNUT PIECES 24OZBEST BY 9/9/15
034952-812770BLAIN'S FARM AND FLEET WALNUT PIECES 16OZBEST BY 7/31/15
034952-360011MILL'S FLEET FARM WALNUT PIECES 24OZBEST BY 9/9/15
034952-360479MILL'S FLEET FARM WALNUT PIECES 16OZBEST BY 9/9/15
034952-579789PIGGLY WIGGLY WALNUT PIECES 2OZBEST BY 7/31/15
034952-574463PIGGLY WIGGLY WALNUT PIECES TRAY 11OZBEST BY 6/9/15
034952-584875RURAL KING WALNUT PIECES 16OZBEST BY 7/30/15
034952-564679TRIG'S WALNUT PIECES 14OZBEST BY 9/9/15

Consumers who have purchased the items with the BEST BY DATES listed above should not consume them and should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund or replacement.

Consumers with questions about the above recall may may contact Eillien’s Candies customer service toll-free at 800-448-1556 Monday through Friday 6:00 AM – 5:00 PM, CT.

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Health-wise, fast food shows little change

But researchers find room for optimism

A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sponsored analysis of fast food over a 17-year period has some good news and some not-so-good news for consumers tr...

PhotoA U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sponsored analysis of fast food over a 17-year period has some good news and some not-so-good news for consumers trying to stick to a healthy diet.

While the overall trend in restaurants has been to increase portion size, as a way to compete for customers, fast food restaurants, for the most part, haven't taken part.

Researchers at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University found little change in fast food portion sizes and product formulation between 1996 and 2013.

Calories, sodium & fat

They also found that average calories, sodium, and saturated fat didn't change much, meaning they remain at pretty high levels. But they did observe a consistent drop in the trans fat found in French fries. In some ways, fast food restaurants are doing a better job than the rest of the restaurant industry.

"There is a perception that restaurants have significantly expanded their portion sizes over the years, but the fast food we assessed does not appear to be part of that trend," said Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA. "Our analysis indicates relative consistency in the quantities of calories, saturated fat, and sodium.”

That said, some fast food chains are serving up healthier fare than others. And while most chains now have salads and wraps on their menu for health-conscious customers, that's not what tends to get ordered most.

Combo meals

So the researchers looked at burgers and fries, particularly the items frequently sold together as a meal. Lichtenstein says these meals often push the limits of what we should be eating to maintain a healthy weight and sodium intake.

"For example, among the three chains, calories in a large cheeseburger meal, with fries and a regular cola beverage, ranged from 1144 to 1757 over the years and among restaurants, representing 57% to 88% out of the approximately 2000 calories most people should eat per day," Lichtenstein said. "That does not leave much wiggle room for the rest of the day."

Using the researchers' 2013 data, calorie content of the cheeseburger meal among the three chains represented 65% to 80% of a 2,000 calorie per day diet and sodium content represented 63% to 91% of the recommendation.

Pay particular attention to sodium content. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults limit their salt intake to a maximum of 2,300 milligrams per day.

Depending on the chain, between 1996 and 2013, eating a single 4 ounce cheeseburger could have accounted for 1100 to 1450 mg of daily sodium representing 48% to 63% of target limits.

The researchers focused on four popular menu items – cheeseburgers, fries, grilled chicken sandwiches and regular cola.

Lower trans fat

Over the years there were only small fluctuations in calorie content and the amount of saturated fat and sodium found in these products. The notable exception was fries, which decreased first in saturated fat in 2001 and then trans fat, most likely due to changes in the fat used to cook them.

"The decline in trans fat we saw between 2005 and 2009 appears to be related to legislative efforts," Lichtenstein said. "The success of New York City's trans fat ban and others like it, suggest it is worth pursuing these types of approaches because they make the default option the healthier option. Of course, it is important to note that the healthier option in terms of fat does not translate into lower calories or less salt."

The researchers continue to see fast food restaurants as contributing to America's obesity epidemic and say the industry could help by downsizing portions and cutting back on fat and sodium. But they conclude on a note of optimism.

"From what we hear some fast-food chains are heading in that direction and also introducing new healthier options,” Lichtenstein said. “If taken advantage of, these changes should help consumers adhere to the current dietary recommendations."

In other words, consumers have to make the healthier choice. Eating at McDonald's does not have to result in consuming 1,500 calories in one sitting. McDonald's Southwest Salad with grilled chicken contains 290 calories – adding balsamic dressing only increases it to 325 calories.

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Sony updates the Walkman for a new century

Rather than portability, the new device emphasizes sound reproduction

“The '80s called, they want their Walkman back,” is no joke. Sony has indeed reintroduced that decade's most ubiquitous portable music player....

Photo“The '80s called, they want their Walkman back,” is no joke. Sony has indeed reintroduced that decade's most ubiquitous portable music player.

As you might imagine, there are some significant differences from the original Walkman, which played cassette tapes through lightweight headphones while clipped to your belt, and the new High Resolution NW-ZX2 Walkman unveiled this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

The original Walkman was all about freedom and portability. No longer did you have to sit in front of a hi-fi to enjoy music. You could listen to it while you walked, exercised or commuted to work. The sound was pretty good, even if you did have to put up with the background hiss from analog tape.

All about sound

The new Walkman is all about sound. Sony says it has applied unique audio technologies that bring listeners closer to what the original performance sounded like as it was captured.

Along with the new Walkman, Sony rolled out its new MDR-1ABT wireless headphones and the PHA-1A headphone DAC/amplifier, all designed to more exactly replicate an artist's performance.

"We have been focused on developing products that will reproduce the ultimate sound quality from any location," said Mike Woulfe, a senior vice president at Sony. "Sony's new portable audio line-up represents a new music experience for consumers where environmental restrictions no longer exist and they can freely enjoy the best music, regardless of where they are."

Sony's competition in marketing a music player is Apple's iPod and the smartphone you have in your pocket or purse. After all, today's phones play high quality music and hold hundreds of songs. So why buy a device that just plays music?

Appealing to audiophiles

Sony is appealing to audio purists, who not only love music but want the best reproduction of it possible. Its new Walkman has a multitude of controls and connectivity features, as illustrated in this video review by The Verge.

Sony says the Walkman NW-ZX2 can reproduce master quality recordings just as the artists originally intended. The digital amplifier, developed for hi-res audio playback, is designed to reduce distortion and noise while reproducing wide frequency response for a clearer acoustic experience.

When it streams sources that are not hi-res, Sony says the amp “upscales” -- also known as "upsampling" -- the signal to provide a higher quality sound.

The NW- ZX2 supports digital music files up to 192 kHz/24 bit and plays MP3, WMA, AAC, FLAC, AIFF, WAV and ALAC files. It also comes with 128GB of built-in memory, as well as micro SD card slot, Wi-Fi and a Lithium-ion battery that Sony says provides up to 60 hours of music playback per charge.

When the Sony Walkman was introduced in the U.S. in 1980, it cost around $200. The new Walkman will retail for as much as $1,200 when it goes on sale later this year.

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Beware the burglary scams popping up all over the country

Don't open your door to “service workers” you weren't expecting

With all the warnings you see lately about various forms of computer-based fraud and theft – hackers using malware to do anything from stealing credit card...

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ADP: Job creation surges in December

Small business was the biggest contributor

Nearly a-quarter million people found work last month. According to the ADP National Employment Report, the economy created 241,000 private sector jobs du...

PhotoNearly a-quarter million people found work in the private sector last month.

According to the ADP National Employment Report, the economy created 241,000 jobs during December.

The report, produced by the payroll concern and Moody's Analytics, measures the change in total nonfarm private employment each month on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

"December delivered another strong number well above 200,000 to close out a solid year of employment growth with over two and a half million jobs added," said Carlos Rodriguez, president and CEO of ADP. "Small businesses continued to lead the way, but mid-sized and large companies also showed solid gains."

Businesses with 49 or fewer employees increased the number of jobs by 106,000 jobs in December, compared with 99,000 in November. Employment among companies with 50-499 employees rose by 70,000, versus 73,000.

Employment at large companies -- those with 500 or more employees -- increased went from 54,000 in November to 66,000 jobs last month, while companies with 500-999 employees added 22,000 jobs, 10,000 more than the month before. Companies with over 1,000 employees added 43,000 jobs.

A manufacturing boost

Employment in goods-producing industries rose by 46,000 jobs in December, with manufacturing adding 26,000 jobs up from 40,000 jobs for the second highest monthly total of 2014. The construction industry added 23,000 payroll positions.

Service-providing employment rose by 194,000 jobs last month. Professional/business services contributed 69,000 jobs, wile trade/transportation/utilities grew by 44,000, and financial activities added 16,000 jobs -- the largest monthly gain in that sector for 2014.

With businesses across all industries and sizes adding to payrolls, Moody's Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi says that at the current pace of job growth, “the economy will be back to full employment by this time next year."

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Mortgage applications post sharp 2-week decline

The latest calculations include adjustments for the holiday season

Mortgage applications plunged 9.1% from two weeks earlier in the week ending January 2. The most recent week’s results from the Mortgage Bankers Associati...

PhotoMortgage applications plunged 9.1% from two weeks earlier in the week ending January 2.

The most recent week’s results from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey include an adjustment to account for the New Year’s Day holiday, while the previous week’s results were adjusted for the Christmas holiday.

The decline in the Refinance Index was even sharper -- 12% from two weeks ago, with the refinance share of mortgage activity increasing to 65% of total applications from 63% in the previous period.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity dropped to 4.9% of total applications, while the FHA share increased to 9.3%. The VA share rose to 10.7% this week, and the USDA share of total applications held steady at 0.9%.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 3 basis points -- from 4.04% to 4.01%, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dropped to 3.99% from 4.05%, with points slipping to 0.24 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA inched down 1 basis point to 3.81%, with points decreasing to -0.03 from 0.08 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.24% from 3.32%, with points decreasing to 0.30 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was down 7 basis points to 3.19%, with points increasing to 0.51 from 0.48 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The survey covers over 75% of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

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Full Tilt Ice Cream recalls various All Dairy Based Ice Cream products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Full Tilt Ice Cream of Seattle, Wash., is recalling all Dairy Based Ice Cream flavors (except the non-dairy frozen desserts), sold under the Full Tilt bran...

PhotoFull Tilt Ice Cream of Seattle, Wash., is recalling all Dairy Based Ice Cream flavors (except the non-dairy frozen desserts), sold under the Full Tilt brand.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The products were distributed in Oregon and Washington through grocery stores and retail scoop shops, and sold in 16oz paper containers with a 7 digit code ending in 14x (ie: 0219142), as well as 1.5 gallon and 3 gallon plastic gallon tubs produced before 12/19/2014.

The following products are being recalled:

Name of productsizeproduction datestype of packaging
Full Tilt Ice Cream16 oz containers01/01/2014-12/19/2014paper
Full Tilt Ice Cream1.5 gallon containers01/01/2014-12/19/2014plastic gallon
Full Tilt Ice Cream3 gallon containers01/01/2014-12/19/2014plastic gallon

Consumers who have purchased Full Tilt are urged to return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-206-963-5038 between 9am and 4pm PST Monday thru Friday.

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Kroger brand caramel apples recalled

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Happy Apples is expanding its earlier recall of caramel apples to include Kroger Brand caramel apples with a best use by date of September 15 – November 1...

PhotoHappy Apples is expanding its earlier recall of caramel apples to include Kroger Brand caramel apples with a best use by date of September 15 – November 18th 2014.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Kroger brand caramel apples are sold in single packs and 3-packs and each package has a best use by date on the front of the label. The products were distributed in Arizona, Alaska, Kansas, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Consumers who have any product may return it to the store where purchased or dispose of them in a secure container to avoid potential contamination in animals.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 636-584-6001 Monday through Friday during normal business hours or by email at customercare@happyapples.com.

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Petco removes dog and cat treats from China -- first major chain to do so

The treats are suspected of being linked to pet illnesses and deaths

Petco, responding to a rash of unexplained illnesses in dogs and cats, says it has removed all China-made dog and cat treats from shelves at more than 1,30...

PhotoPetco, responding to a rash of unexplained illnesses in dogs and cats, says it has removed all China-made dog and cat treats from shelves at more than 1,300 retail stores nationwide, including Unleashed by Petco stores and online at Petco.com.

Walmart quietly pulled China-made treats from its shelves in 2007 following the well-publicized death of a two-year-old Chihuahua who died suddenly after eating Bestro chicken jerky strips. Walmart did not publicly comment on the action and did not commit to keeping Chinese treats off its shelves in the future.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been collecting and studying case reports of pet illnesses for years has still not pinned down the exact cause of the problems, although the agency said in May 2014 that it had confirmed the presence of a prohibited antiviral drug in treats containing chicken from China.

In its latest report, the FDA said it has combed through more than 4,800 complaints of illness in pets that ate chicken, duck, or sweet potato jerky treats, nearly all of them imported from China.  

The reports include more than 1,000 canine deaths and involve a total of more than 5,600 dogs, 24 cats and three people. Some consumers reported illness in more than one pet.

While there's no guarantee that pet treats made in the U.S. or other non-Chinese venues are safe, many pet owners have vowed to stop buying treats from China.

“As a trusted partner for pet parents, we believe this is the right thing to do, and we’re proud to take this step in the best interest of pets,” said Jim Myers, Petco CEO. “What we feed our pets matters, and this milestone supports the company’s steadfast commitment to putting our customers, partners, animals and the communities we serve first.”

The safety and health benefits of food and treats continue to be top concerns for pet owners, according to a recent survey.

The survey by Packaged Facts found that 55% of dog owners and 48% of cat owners agree that fear of pet food contamination and product safety is a key consideration for the pet foods they buy. The survey also found that 61% of dog owners and 50% of cat owners seek out food made in the U.S.

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Whirlpool offers socially networked kitchen

The Interactive Kitchen of the Future 2.0 is on display in Las Vegas this week

In 1959 Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev debated the merits of the capitalist and communist systems while visiting an exhi...

PhotoIn 1959 Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev debated the merits of the capitalist and communist systems while visiting an exhibit of the typical American kitchen of the future. Nixon noted all the modern appliances and gadgets to make his points in what became known as “the Kitchen Debate.”

As impressive as that 1959 exhibit probably was, it's doubtful either man could foresee the kitchen Whirlpool assembled at this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

The company has unveiled what it calls the "Interactive Kitchen of the Future 2.0," a food-preparation environment that is fully connected, with a social media hub that syncs all the appliances so that everyone in your circle can be part of the food-preparation process.

Interactive backsplash

The kitchen features an interactive backsplash with personalized touch screens so you can instantly chat with someone while cooking. For example, you get stuck in the middle of assembling a dish and need to reach out to your Mom for help.

Sure, you could pick up the telephone – as people have done for decades – but that doesn't seem nearly as futuristic.

There's more, of course. The interconnectivity allows you to turn on the oven just in time to ensure dinner is ready. The refrigerator will send you a text to let you know when food is at its freshest.

“We’re using technology’s biggest stage to showcase what our design team does best – visualizing the future of appliance technology that has yet to be invented and its influence on the home,” said Brett Dibkey, vice president and general manager of Integrated Business Units for Whirlpool Corporation. “We take special care to merge our designs with cultural observations. A lot of people are connecting a lot of things, but very few are creating true consumer value. Whirlpool brand’s purposeful use of technology does not get in the way, it points the way.”

Adapts to cooking curveballs

The theory behind all this is that delivering more information, to the right end point at exactly the right time, makes life easier and produces a better food product. They way Whirlpool puts it, “the system auto-adapts to any cooking curveballs.”

Using its gathered information, the system might remind the cook of ingredients already inventoried in the fridge and make a wine recommendation based on the meal being prepared. If dinner guests get lost, the system can track them using GPS – all from the nerve center located in the backsplash.

Laundry room

Connectivity also extends to the laundry room. The "Smart Top Load Washer and Dryer" has “home and away” controls, allowing consumers to manage their wash from anywhere. Whirlpool says that helps prevent wrinkles and delays cycles when energy costs are high, saving money.

It says the the new top load triggers a quiet mode within the Whirlpool Mobile app while at home for a little extra peace when you really need it.

Where did these ideas come from? Whirlpool says they came from you. Whirlpool's Jon Hall says the company studies how consumers use their products and never use technology that doesn't provide a real and useful benefit.

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Now may be the time to buy a fuel-efficient car

Gas prices are low but don't bet on them staying that way forever

It seems to be an economic rule of the automotive market. When fuel prices are high, cars that get good gasoline mileage command a premium price....

PhotoIt seems to be an economic rule of the automotive market. When fuel prices are high, cars that get good gasoline mileage command a premium price.

But when fuel prices fall, consumers tend to view these cars as less desirable and dealers have to provide strong incentives to move them off the lot.

We find ourselves in the latter scenario and, if you are in the market for a new or late-model used car, it may be worth your while to kick the tires on a few hybrids and other high-mileage models.

At one time Toyota placed a surcharge on the price of its Prius hybrid. But last month the Japanese automaker was offering very attractive lease terms on the Prius – $999 down and $249 a month for 36 months.

Honda hybrids lagging

Automotive website Torque News reportsHonda has seen a dramatic drop in its hybrid sales, concluding the higher costs of hybrids, compared to 4-cylinder gasoline engines, can't be justified in light of $2 a gallon gasoline.

Even gasoline-powered cars getting great fuel economy are requiring more attractive incentives to ring up sales. Last month Honda's Civic compact could be leased for as little as $149 a month.

There is nothing to suggest that these deals on fuel-efficient cars will disappear anytime soon and consumers in the car market might be wise to give them strong consideration.

Just because gasoline is relatively cheap now – and experts predict it will be for some time to come – doesn't mean prices at the pump won't rebound at some point. In fact, it could come earlier than the experts think.

Return of the speculators

In recent years, oil prices have been influenced, not just by the natural law of supply and demand, but by commodity speculators as well. Many of these investors fled the oil market late in the year when it became clear that supply would continue to outstrip demand for a while.

But not all have left the market. Vox.com's Matthew Yglesias noted last week that speculators have bought or leased old oil tankers and other storage facilities and have been quickly filling them up with cheap oil.

Oil producers can't just turn off the spigot when the price of crude drops – that's a costly and time-consuming process so they just keep pumping. That oil has to go somewhere. When it goes into speculators' storage tanks, it's out of circulation.

Yglesias notes that actual end users of oil – refiners, airlines and heating oil companies – are once again bidding against speculators who are buying oil and sitting on it.

Betting on oil's bounce-back

They're betting that at some point – and maybe not in the distant future – oil prices will start going up again. When they do, they'll sell their cheap oil for a tidy profit.

Since most people drive their cars 6 or more years now, buying a fuel-efficient car when gas prices are low – and these cars aren't in demand – might pay off in the long run.

For most of the years that you own that new car you are likely to be paying a lot more for fuel than you are now.

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The year-over-year increase in home prices continues

All states saw prices head higher

Home prices nationwide, including distressed sales (short sales and real estate owned transactions), rose 5.5% in November 2014 from the same time a year a...

PhotoHome prices nationwide, including distressed sales (short sales and real estate owned transactions), rose 5.5% in November 2014 from the same time a year ago. The increase marks 33 months of consecutive year-over-year advances in home prices nationally.

However, on a month-over-month basis, home prices nationwide inched up just 0.1% from October. And that leads CoreLogic, a property information, analytics and data-enabled services provider, to predict a month-over month decline when figures for December 2014 are released in February.

“After decelerating for most of the year, home price growth has been holding firm between a 5-and-6% growth rate for the last four months,” said Sam Khater, deputy chief economist at CoreLogic. “However, pockets of weakness are clear in Baltimore and Washington D.C., and 3 of the top 4 states with the highest price appreciation are energy intensive and had been benefiting from the energy boom which is currently receding as oil prices trend downward. These states -- Texas, Colorado and North Dakota -- may see some downward pressure on prices in 2015.”

According to CoreLogic's Home Price Index (HPI) report, all states and the District of Columbia showed year-over-year home price appreciation in November. Twenty-nine states are at or within 10% of their peak. Seven states -- Colorado, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming -- reached new highs in the home price index.

Storm clouds?

The CoreLogic HPI Forecast indicates that home prices, including distressed sales, are projected to fall by 0.1% month over month from November 2014 to December 2014, while increasing by 4.6% on a year-over-year basis.

“The pace of home price gains have slowed as we exit 2014 but this is probably only a temporary lull,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “While the CoreLogic HPI Forecast shows a slight dip in prices next month, we believe that prices will be up a year from now as continued economic growth fuels buyer confidence and their willingness to purchase a home and invest in their future.

November highlights

  • Including distressed sales, the 5 states with the highest home price appreciation were: Michigan (+9.0%), Colorado (+8.8%), Texas (+8.5%), North Dakota (+7.9%) and Nevada (+7.9%).
  • The peak-to-current change in the national HPI (from April 2006 to November 2014) was -12.9%.
  • The 5-year HPI change (from November 2009 to November 2014) is 18.9%.
  • The 5 states with the largest peak-to-current declines were: Nevada (-35.7%), Florida (-33.4%), Arizona (-29.3%), Rhode Island (-29.1%) and Connecticut (-23.2%).
  • The U.S. has experienced 33 consecutive months of year-over-year increases; however, the national increase is no longer posting double-digits.
  • Ninety-six of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) measured by population showed year-over-year increases in November 2014. The four CBSAs that showed year-over-year declines were: Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, Md.; Camden, N.J.; Greensboro-High Point, N.C.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.
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Dish launches Sling TV -- streaming video for cord cutters and "cord nevers"

The satellite network also unveiled a "Ultra HD" set-top box

Cable and satellite networks are feeling the heat from streaming video services that make it easier for "cord cutters" and "cord nevers," a younger generat...

Photo
Photo credit: Dish

Cable and satellite networks are feeling the heat from streaming video services that make it easier for "cord cutters" and "cord nevers," a younger generation that prefers Internet streaming to more traditional sources of news and entertainment.

 

DISH Network  Jan. 6, 2015, 4:06 p.m.
Consumers rate DISH Network

Dish Network is fighting back, announcing today a new streaming video service called Sling TV, featuring sports network ESPN, Food Network and TNT, priced at $20 per month without a contract or long-term commitment.

ESPN is the most expensive network for cable channels and also one of the most popular in the known universe, featuring live and on-demand sports of every description.

Notably missing from the line-up are offerings from major networks like CBS, NBC and Fox. Industry watchers say there are two reasons: one is that the younger crowd isn't particularly eager to sit around and watch old-style programming, while the other is that the big networks aren't eager to offer just a few of their channels, which is apparenty what Sling TV wanted.

4K Joey

PhotoThe announcement follows yesterday's unveiling of 4K Joey, an "ultra HD" set-top box that works with Dish's Hopper DVR system.

Dish said that 4K Joey is dedicated hardware that will be compatible with all HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2-compliant televisions. The 4K Joey will play back 4K ultra HD content and also support side-by-side display of two programs, each in HD.

This picture-in-picture (PiP) capability was not possible previously and is ideal for sports fans who want to watch two games playing at the same time, Dish said.

"Our new 4K Joey offers the most versatile, future-proofed 4K setup for our customers," said Vivek Khemka, a Dish senior vice president. "It's easy to install and works with the most 4K televisions, so no matter what brand customers bought over the holiday season, they can enjoy content through Dish."

 

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Your success in life could be predicted by age 3

"Sensitive caregiving" during childhood seen as crucial in later life

How your parents respond to you up to age 3 can be a predictor of your success in life....

PhotoHow your parents respond to you up to age 3 can be a predictor of your success in life.

A new longitudinal study from authors at the universities of Delaware, Minnesota and Illinois says "sensitive caregiving" plays a role decades later in a person's academic and career performance, as well as their romantic and social relationships.

Sensitive caregiving can have a variety of interpretations but it really seems to boil down to how you react when your child has needs and whether you react promptly. It involves being positive with your child and providing a secure base for your child to explore his or her environment.
 
The researchers looked at an earlier study that examined maternal sensitivity in the first 3 years of life and its association with social competence and academic skills through age 15. The new study wanted to go one step further and take it into adulthood, not stopping at adolescence.

Luckily for them there was an even earlier study called the The Minnesota Longitudinal Study that tracked children from just before birth to age 32. The researchers used information from 243 individuals who were born into poverty, and came from a range of racial/ethnic backgrounds. They collected  a great deal of information about development that the authors were able to use.

Although families' economic resources were important predictors of children's development, these variables didn't fully account for the persistent and long-term influence of early caregiving experiences on individuals' academic success.

The new study's authors say that after collating all the date, they have determined that our first three years are key to what the future holds for us in terms of relationships and career performance.

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Jump Your Bones Roo Bites (Cubes) pet treats recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Jump Your Bones of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling Jump Your Bones brand Roo Bites (Cubes). The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No pet or c...

PhotoJump Your Bones of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling Jump Your Bones brand Roo Bites (Cubes).

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

No pet or consumer illnesses from this product have been reported to date.

Salmonella can affect animals eating the products and there is risk to humans from handling contaminated pet products, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with the products or any surfaces exposed to these products.

The recalled lots were distributed to retail pet food stores nationwide and through pet food retailers/distributors, and were sold in Boutique Bags and online stores.

The products are identified only with the following UPC codes:

  • 63633010041 for 80g. / 2.82oz. including samples of .32 oz.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled products should stop feeding them to pets and return them to the place of purchase for a full refund or dispose of them immediately.

Consumers with questions may call (888) 249-6755 from Monday – Friday 9am – 5PM, EST.

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AMD Imports recalls lamb products

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

AMD Imports of Houston, Texas, is recalling approximately 35, 275 pounds of Australian lamb products. The products were not presented at the U.S. point of...

PhotoAMD Imports of Houston, Texas, is recalling approximately 35, 275 pounds of Australian lamb products.

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection, raising the possibility of adverse health consequences.

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

The following products are subject to recall:

  • Lot A, 17,500lbs: 416 containers of Australian Bone-In Lamb Shoulder weighing from 36 to 51 lbs each with package code “730030”. The product was packaged by Wagstaff Canbourne on dates ranging from September 8, 2014 – October 10, 2014.
  • Lot B, 17,775lbs: 416 containers of Australian Bone-In Lamb Shoulder weighing from 36 to 51 lbs each with package code “730030”. The product was packaged by Wagstaff Canbourne on dates ranging from September 8, 2014 – October 10, 2014.

The products bear the Australian mark of inspection with establishment number “2773.” The product was shipped to AMD Imports, and further distributed to other distributors and retail locations.

Consumers with questions may contact Dan Martinez at (713) 928-3111.

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RAW motorcycle helmets recalled

Some helmets failed to conform to federal impact attenuation requirements

Shark is recalling 2,538 medium and extra large RAW motorcycle helmets manufactured August 22, 2013, to June 29, 2014. During testing, some of the affect...

PhotoShark is recalling 2,538 medium and extra large RAW motorcycle helmets manufactured August 22, 2013, to June 29, 2014.

During testing, some of the affected helmets failed to conform to the impact attenuation requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218, "Motorcycle Helmets."

By wearing a helmet that fails to meet impact requirements, the user may not be adequately protected in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of personal injury.

Shark will notify and direct owners to contact service provider Realtime Results who will replace the helmet, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on January 20, 2015.

Owners may contact Realtime Results at 1-888-770-7157.

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Pink’s Ice Cream recalls most flavors of ice cream

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Pink’s Ice Cream of Seattle, Wash., is recalling all ice cream flavors produced in 2014 with the exception of Coconut Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert. The produc...

PhotoPink’s Ice Cream of Seattle, Wash., is recalling all ice cream flavors produced in 2014 with the exception of Coconut Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses related to the consumption of Pink’s Ice Cream products have been reported to date.

The recalled products were distributed through grocery stores and restaurants around the Puget Sound area including Uwajimaya and Metropolitan Market in Washington.

The 16-oz. pints of ice cream are sold with a six-digit numerical product code between on the bottom of the product. That six digit code will start with two numbers between 00**** and 52****. The recall includes all codes within that range with the exclusion of 01**** and 41****.

The following products are being recalled:

Name of ProductFlavorsSizeProduction DateType of Packaging
Pink’s Ice CreamBlack Sesame, Durian, Green Tea, Mango, Red Bean, Spicy Ginger, Taro, Thai Tea16 oz1/1/14-12/21/14Paper Carton
Pink’s Ice CreamBlack Sesame, Durian, Green Tea, Mango, Red Bean, Spicy Ginger, Taro, Thai Tea1.0 gal1/1/14-12/21/14Plastic Gallon

Consumers who have purchased the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 206-861-9098 Monday – Friday, 9am-5:00 PST).

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Fisher brand Chopped Walnuts and Pecan Cookie Pieces recalled

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

John B. Sanfilippo & Son is recalling Fisher 8-oz. Chopped Walnuts and Fisher 8-oz. Pecan Cookie Pieces packaged in plastic bags. The products may be cont...

PhotoJohn B. Sanfilippo & Son is recalling Fisher 8-oz. Chopped Walnuts and Fisher 8-oz. Pecan Cookie Pieces packaged in plastic bags.

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

The company says it has not received any reports of illnesses

The following items are being recalled:

JBSS Item CodeUPC#BRANDPRODUCT DESCRIPTIONUNIT WT.UMBEST BY DATE
       
P02352070690 02360 3FisherChopped Walnuts8oz.10/31/15 TQ2
P02352070690 02360 3FisherChopped Walnuts8oz.11/01/15 TQ1
P02352070690 02360 3FisherChopped Walnuts8oz.11/01/15 TQ2
P02352070690 02360 3FisherChopped Walnuts8oz.11/03/15 TQ1
P02352070690 02360 3FisherChopped Walnuts8oz.11/03/15 TQ2
       
P02351

 

070690 02351 1

 

Fisher

 

Pecan Cookie Pieces

 

8

 

oz.

 

11/03/15 TQ1

 

P02351070690 02351 1FisherPecan Cookie Pieces8oz.11/03/15 TQ2

The BEST BY DATES can be found on the back of the bags.

The recalled products were sold in stores in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas or online.

Consumers who purchased these products should not consume them, but return them to the store where purchased for a full refund or replacement.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at (800) 874-8734 Monday - Friday from 8:15 AM - 5:15 PM, Central Time.

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Selling your car on consignment

There are alternatives to taking the dealer's offer or selling it yourself

New car dealers are always eager to take your old car in a trade-in, figuring you will accept less money for it in exchange for avoiding the hassle of sell...

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Over 50? Get that shingles shot

Don't wait -- it's better to get the vaccine early

Marie, 75, has been suffering from shingles for almost 2 months now and she came into the pharmacy in excruciating pain. She needed medications to manage h...

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Stop posting those “copyright statements” on Facebook!

An old hoax gets revived for the New Year

If you've checked your Facebook account in the past couple of days then you've probably noticed a sudden sharp uptick in the number of official-sounding “c...

PhotoIf you've checked your Facebook account in the past couple of days then you've probably noticed a sudden sharp uptick in the number of official-sounding “copyright notices” appearing on your feed. Here's a typical example, which appeared on mine:

As of January 5th, 2015 at 6:20 a.m. Eastern standard time, I do not give Facebook or any entities associated with Facebook permission to use my pictures, information, or posts, both past and future. By this statement, I give notice to Facebook it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, or take any other action against me based on this profile and/or its contents. The content of this profile is private and confidential information. The violation of privacy can be punished by law (UCC 1-308- 1 1 308-103 and the Rome Statute). NOTE: Facebook is now a public entity. All members must post a note like this. If you prefer, you can copy and paste this version. If you do not publish a statement at least once it will be tactically allowing the use of your photos, as well as the information contained in the profile status updates. DO NOT SHARE. You MUST copy and paste.

(As a general rule, anytime you see anything on Facebook claiming either “you MUST do this” or “YOU MUST NOT” do that, lest something horrible happen as a result – that's either a hoax or a scam.)

You might also have seen a longer version of this post, which instead of starting with a specific time and time zone starts out with this statement: “In response to the new Facebook guidelines, I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings, professional photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention)....”

Don't even bother

Don't bother sharing this notice – or cutting and pasting it, either. It's a hoax – there are no new Facebook rules (or old ones, either) requiring members to share or copy any specific posts, nor any special privileges or protections which Facebook account holders enjoy in exchange for making certain posts. And Facebook, for all its various flaws and annoying, oft-changing policies, does not impose super-secret policy changes which can nonetheless be avoided – but only if you post a particular paragraph chockful of legalese on your Facebook wall (or anyone else's).

Legal eagles (or people who know how to use online search engines) will also note that there's no such thing as a “Berner Convention,” although there is a Berne Convention involving literary copyright law. The Berne Convention does not require people with accounts on Facebook or any other form of social media to copy and paste any particular posts, either.

If you post any variation of this notice on your Facebook wall, whether by “sharing” it or as a copy-and-paste, you will not derive any particular copyright protections for yourself; you'll only annoy your other friends on Facebook.

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Netflix will start recommending the smartest smart TVs

Better performance means more time watching Netflix

If you have a "smart TV" -- one with built-in Internet video streaming -- you may have come to the conclusion that it's not as "smart" as it might be. Netf...

Photo
Source: Netflix

If you have a "smart TV" -- one with built-in Internet video streaming -- you may have come to the conclusion that it's not as "smart" as it might be. Netflix wants to change that and today announced its "Netflix Recommended TV" program, an independent smart TV evaluation program to help consumers identify televisions built for a superior Internet TV experience.

"We've created the Netflix Recommended TV program to help consumers identify smart TVs that offer better performance, easier menu navigation and new features that improve the experience for Internet TV services,'' said Neil Hunt, chief product officer at Netflix. "When you see a TV with the Netflix Recommended TV logo, it means that TV will provide an excellent Netflix experience, based on criteria our members tell us matter most.''

What's the big deal? Basically, some TVs don't provide the speed and convenience that consumers have come to expect from their Roku or Amazon Fire boxes and Google Chrome TV sticks.

Many smart sets are slow to start up and some have menus that seem designed to confuse and baffle the user. Some also have a ponderous upgrade process that renders them essentially unconscious for long periods of time.  

This is potentially bad news for Netflix, since frustrated viewers could flip over to cable, DVD or over-the-air programs instead.  

"Great Netflix experience"

Photo
A Samsung smart TV (Staff photo)

So Netflix says that over the last seven years, its engineers have worked with makers of Internet-ready televisions, game consoles, set-top boxes and mobile devices to test their products and "ensure consumers get a great Netflix experience right out of the box," the company said in a news release.

With the Netflix Recommended TV logo, TV manufacturers will be able to highlight products that offer both the best Netflix experience and superior smart TV performance, Netflix said.

This spring, Sony Electronics, LG Electronics, Sharp Electronics, VIZIO and manufacturers of Roku TVs™ are expected to be among the first smart TV set-makers to deliver models designated by Netflix to receive a 'Netflix Recommended TV' logo.

Among other performance criteria also expected to be announced this spring, the program recognizes consumer benefits including turning the TV on instantly, faster app launch and faster resume of video playback. Though initially a US-based program, global television manufacturers will incorporate many of these features in sets sold worldwide.

''As more and more of Sony BRAVIA TV customers choose streaming to watch movies and TV shows, the Netflix Recommended TV program will point them to some of the innovative features we're introducing to make Internet TV just as easy and intuitive as linear TV,'' said Masashi Imamura, president of Sony Visual Products Inc.

Televisions certified under the program will be available at many different price points and screen sizes.

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Census Bureau may drop some questions about marriage

The nose-counters are trying to make the survey form shorter

Planning a big wedding? Your guests might like to know when and where, but the Census Bureau may not think twice about it any longer. It has announced a pl...

PhotoPlanning a big wedding? Your guests might like to know when and where, but the Census Bureau may not think twice about it any longer. It has announced a plan to drop seven questions from its annual American Community Survey (ACS), five of them related to marriage.

This survey has been a pretty big one in the past. With a sample of more than 3 million U.S. households each year, it's the largest survey of its kind outside of the official U.S. Census, which is taken only once every ten years.

The questionnaire covers a variety of things from incomes and housing arrangements to daily commutes and relationship status, among others. The purpose of the questions is to determine funding for government programs. It also is a marker for trends within society.

Researchers use the information to gauge Americans and their lifestyles. Jim Treat, the census official responsible for the American Community Survey, told a blogger for the New York Times, Justin Wolfers, that he did not know whether there would be any other way to measure the national divorce rate if his agency stopped collecting the information.

Treat justified the shorter survey when he spoke to Politifact saying that the reason for the change wasn't that his agency thinks marriage is unworthy of study. It just wanted to make the survey shorter, and when they polled other government agencies to determine which questions they could cut, they were told that the marriage data was the least useful to the majority of agencies.

Not everyone approves

Not everyone thinks this is a great idea. 

"Marriage patterns are changing more rapidly than in any time in our history, without this data, we would have no idea that a third of the people who are 20 to 24 years old now will never get married. We wouldn't know that divorce has surged among Baby Boomers," said Steve Ruggles, a population researcher with the Population Association of America. 

The Population Association of America’s (PAA) Committee on Population Statistics (COPS) and Association of Population Centers (APC) sent a letter stating the effect they feel the lack of information will have on the population.

"If these questions are now dropped, the United States will become the only country in the developed world that does not generate annual age-specific rates of marriage and divorce," the letter states.

The lack of info would also present difficulties for actuaries and economists inside the Social Security Administration as they will only be able to rely on speculation.

A preliminary report will be released in April by the bureau and if it is upheld it will take effect in 2016.

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Study: Kids' sports physicals need work

Better screening could save lives now lost to undetected cardiac abnormalities

Cardiac abnormalities among children are rare but sudden cardiac death remains the leading cause of death among young athletes during sporting events, and ...

PhotoCardiac abnormalities among children are rare but sudden cardiac death remains the leading cause of death among young athletes during sporting events, and a new study by George Mason University researchers says a new nationwide standard exam could reduce the toll.

The study examined current policies in 50 states and Washington, D.C., and found that requirements for their use and the content of the evaluations vary and are determined individually by each state.

“No one had studied enough until now whether best practices are being used uniformly across the country,” Shane Caswell of the Virginia university said. “The pre-participation physical evaluation (PPE) plays an important role in ensuring safe participation in sport. Our findings demonstrate that many states have been slow to adopt best practices and further reiterates a need for nationwide PPE standardization.”

The study found that while 98% of states require a physical exam before sports participation, 53% of the states use outdated or generic forms. Newer or more specific forms include questions on the athlete’s family and cardiac history.

Sudden death

Including these components in addition to a physical exam can help increase detection of rare cardiac abnormalities that can lead to sudden death in athletes.

“You wouldn’t go to an eye doctor to have him or her listen to your heart,” says Caswell. “We need people with appropriate training assessing the cardiovascular system for the PPEs.”

“It’s very important to ensure the health and safety of young people in sport,” says Caswell, himself a former collegiate and high school athlete who was motivated by his own injuries on the field to research sports medicine. “PPE information needs to be collected in a standardized manner. It could save lives.”

A nationwide electronic exam form that included the athlete's family medical history would help detect rare but dangerous abnormalities that now go unnoticed, the researchers said. 

The study appears in the January 2015 issue of Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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What to do if you come down with the flu

Disease begins 2015 at epidemic levels

The current flu season became much more severe in December, with the outbreak now approaching epidemic levels in more than half the states, according to th...

PhotoThe current flu season became much more severe in December, with the outbreak now approaching epidemic levels in more than half the states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Federal health officials say that 15 children have died of flu-related complications in nine states – Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. The most severe outbreaks are located in the southeast and Midwest, while the west has escaped the worst of the flu season so far.

But the season has months to go before it runs its course in the spring and, if you haven't gotten a flu shot yet, the CDC recommends that you still do so.

Even if you have been vaccinated you could still get the flu. This season's vaccine covers about 50% of the strains that are currently making people sick. If you have been vaccinated and get sick, doctors say the severity of your illness should be less.

If you get the flu

If you do come down with the flu, the CDC advises you to stay home and avoid contact with other people, except to get medical care. For how long?

CDC recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone. Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol. You should stay home from work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings.

“Most people with the flu have mild illness and do not need medical care or antiviral drugs,” the CDC says.

High-risk cases

But people at risk of flu complications – young children, people over 65, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions – may need antiviral drugs prescribed by a doctor. These drugs work better for treatment the sooner they are started.

How do you know whether what you are coming down with is the flu or just a bad cold? Some of the symptoms are similar but generally, you feel more miserable when it's the flu.

Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches, chills, fatigue and often, diarrhea and vomiting.

When it gets serious

When flu complications set in, the symptoms are often different and more severe. They can also be different in adults than in children.

Children can have trouble breathing and their skin may turn a bluish color. You'll notice they don't drink enough liquids or interact with others. They may become so irritable they don't want to be held.

When these symptoms appear, you should seek medical help right away, according to the CDC.

Adults with flu complications may also have trouble breathing and feel dizzy and have pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen. They may become confused and be affected by bouts of severe and persistent vomiting.

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Great Feeling Foods recalls Groove Gluten-Free Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Great Feeling Foods of Portland, Ore., is recalling all Groove Gluten-free Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches produced between May 16, 2014, and December 20, 2014...

PhotoGreat Feeling Foods of Portland, Ore., is recalling all Groove Gluten-free Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches produced between May 16, 2014, and December 20, 2014.

These products contain custard ice cream base produced and recalled by Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream as an ingredient. This custard ice cream base has the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses related to the consumption of Groove Gluten-free Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches have been reported to date.

The recalled products were distributed to and sold in various retail outlets in western and central Oregon and southwest Washington.

The products are sold in 3 fl. oz. single packs and 6 fl. oz. 2-packs and labeled as Groove. “Best By” dates are located on the bottom of the package with lot codes printed above the “Best By” dates.

The following table summarizes the affected products:

Product NameUPC CodesBest By DatesLot Codes
Groove Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookie & French Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich3 oz.: 8 52692 00404 6
6 oz.: 8 52692 00400 8
010715, 041715, 050915, 071115, 072215, 081215, 081915, 092415Ending in the digits “14”  (e.g. XXXX14)
Groove Gluten-Free
Dark Chocolate Cookie & French Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich
3 oz.: 8 52692 00405 3
6 oz.: 8 52692 00403 9
010715, 041715, 050915, 071115, 072215, 081215, 081915, 092415Ending in the digits “14”  (e.g. XXXX14)
Groove Gluten-Free Oatmeal Raisin Cookie & French Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich3 oz.: 8 52692 00406 0
6 oz.: 8 52692 00402 2
010715, 041715, 050915, 071115, 072215, 081215, 081915, 092415Ending in the digits “14”  (e.g. XXXX14)
Groove Gluten Free Peanut Butter Cookie & French Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich3 oz.: 8 52692 00407 7
6 oz.: 8 52692 00401 5
010715, 041715, 050915, 071115, 072215, 081215, 081915, 092415Ending in the digits “14”  (e.g. XXXX14)
Groove Gluten Free
Dark Chocolate Cookie & French Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwich
3 oz.: 8 52692 00409 1
6 oz.: 8 52692 00408 4
010715, 041715, 050915, 071115, 072215, 081215, 081915, 092415Ending in the digits “14”  (e.g. XXXX14)
Groove Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Cookie & French Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwich3 oz.: 8 52692 00411 4
6 oz.: 8 52692 00410 7
010715, 041715, 050915, 071115, 072215, 081215, 081915, 092415Ending in the digits “14”  (e.g. XXXX14)

Consumers who have purchased the affected products should dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Great Feeling Foods at 503-329-2750 Monday-Friday 9:00am-5:00pm, PST.

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Mini Cooper 2-door Hardtops recalled

The vehicles do not meet the side impact performance requirements for the rear seat passengers

BMW of North America is recalling 3,679 model year 2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop 2 door vehicles manufactured December 1, 2013, to May 14, 2014. The vehicles ...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 3,679 model year 2014 Mini Cooper Hardtop 2 door vehicles manufactured December 1, 2013, to May 14, 2014.

The vehicles do not meet the side impact performance requirements for the rear seat passengers. If the side impact performance requirements are not met, rear seat passengers may be at a higher risk of injury during a crash.

The remedy for this recall is still under development. The recall is expected to begin February 18, 2015.

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-831-1117.

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Bleating Heart Cheese expands recall

All cheese produced from February 14, 2014, to September 19, 2014, is included

Bleating Heart Cheese (BHC) is expanding a recall notice published in December 2014 to cover all its sheep milk, goat milk, water buffalo milk and cows mil...

PhotoBleating Heart Cheese (BHC) is expanding a recall notice published in December 2014 to cover all its sheep milk, goat milk, water buffalo milk and cows milk cheese produced between February 14, 2014 (coded as 14–0214) and September 19, 2014 (coded as 14-0919).

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The company says it has not received any reports of illnesses.

The codes on the bottom label of all Bleating Heart cheese represent “Year-Month & Day of the Month” when the cheese was produced.

The following products are subject to recall:

  • “Buff Ewe Blue” and “Buff Blue” – natural rind, blue-style cheese, aged 3 – 4months
  • “Double Down Blue” - natural rind, blue-style cheese, aged 3 - 4 months with a double heart imprint on the rind
  • “Ewelicious Blue” – natural rind, blue-style cheese, aged 2 – 3 months
  • “Fat Bottom Girl” - natural rind, aged 2 – 3months
  • “Funky Beats” – washed rind, aged 2-3 months. Note: this cheese has been sold out for some time and is not likely to be in the market place
  • “Goldette Tommette” - natural rind, aged 2 – 3months
  • “Mixtress” - natural rind, aged 2 - 3months
  • “Moolicious Blue” - natural rind blue-style cheese, aged 3-4months
  • “Shepherdista” - natural rind, aged 2-3months

The cheeses listed above were sold to distributors servicing the California and Pennsylvania areas who in-turn sold to retail food shops, restaurants and stores.

Consumers who have the recalled products in their refrigerators should discard it in a manner to prevent consumption.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 858-472-1754 Monday-Friday, 9:00am-4:00pm PST or by email at dave@bleatingheart.com.

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Suzuki recalls SX4s and Kizashis

The shift selector can be moved out of the "Park" position without depressing the brake pedal

Suzuki Motor of America is recalling 60,823 model year 2010-2013 SX4 vehicles manufactured July 16, 2009, to November 1, 2012, and 2010-2013 Kizashi vehicl...

PhotoSuzuki Motor of America is recalling 60,823 model year 2010-2013 SX4 vehicles manufactured July 16, 2009, to November 1, 2012, and 2010-2013 Kizashi vehicles manufactured October 13, 2009, to October 31, 2012.

The shift selector can be moved out of the "Park" position without depressing the brake pedal. That could allow the vehicle to roll unexpectedly, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

Suzuki will notify owners, and dealers will replace the shift selector assembly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin January 19, 2015.

Owners may contact Suzuki customer service at 1-714-996-7040. Suzuki's number for this recall is VL.

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J & B Sausage expands recalls of chicken products

Nearly 10,000 pounds of product have been added

J & B Sausage Co of Waelder, Texas, is recalling an additional 9,909 pounds of chicken products. The products may contain peanuts, allergens not declared ...

PhotoJ & B Sausage Co of Waelder, Texas, is recalling an additional 9,909 pounds of chicken products.

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

The recall expansion includes items produced on various dates between August 19, 2014, and December 2, 2014. The following product is subject to recall:

  • 12-oz. packages of fully cooked “CAJUN HOLLAR BRAND INC. CREOLE STYLE BOUDIN.”

In late December, the company recalled 45, 904 pounds of Chicken and Beef products that were produced between August 25 and December 15, 2014.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Bonnie Hyman at (830) 203-9002.

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GM recalls vehicles with ignition issues

The ignition could get stuck in the "Start" position

General Motors is recalling 83,572 model year 2011-2012 Cadillac Escalade, Escalade ESV, Escalade EXT, Chevrolet Avalanche, Silverado HD, Silverado LD, Sub...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 83,572 model year 2011-2012 Cadillac Escalade, Escalade ESV, Escalade EXT, Chevrolet Avalanche, Silverado HD, Silverado LD, Suburban, Tahoe, GMC Sierra LD, Sierra HD, Yukon, and Yukon XL vehicles.

The ignition lock actuator may bind, making turning the key difficult or causing the ignition to get stuck in the "Start" position.

If stuck in the "Start" position, the ignition may suddenly snap back into the "Accessory" position, causing a loss of engine, steering, and braking power, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash. If the vehicle is in a crash, the air bags may not deploy, increasing the risk of occupant injury.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the ignition lock housing, as necessary, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-458-8006 (Cadillac), 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet), or 1-800-462-8782 (GMC). GM's number for this recall is 14696 for the original equipment, and 14912 for the service replacement parts.

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Southeast Toyota Distributors recalls vehicles with incorrectly installed accessories

The accessory attaching fasteners were not tightened with the proper torque

Southeast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 3,942 model year 2014-2015 Toyota 4Runner, Tacoma, FJ Cruiser, Land Cruiser, RAV4, Scion FRS and XB vehicl...

PhotoSoutheast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 3,942 model year 2014-2015 Toyota 4Runner, Tacoma, FJ Cruiser, Land Cruiser, RAV4, Scion FRS and XB vehicles.

The vehicles may have accessories installed by SET, such as running boards or other items, that were incorrectly installed. The accessory attaching fasteners were not tightened with the proper torque, possibly causing the accessory to detach from the vehicle. Accessories that detach from a vehicle may result in a vehicle crash and/or personal injury.

SET will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and tighten the affected bolts, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin February 9, 2015.

Owners may contact SET customer service at 1-954-429-2000. SET's number for this recall is SET-14B.

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What to know before making a weight-loss resolution

Committing to a change in lifestyle is a key to success

Millions of people start the new year resolving to improve their health – in particular, lose weight. Most of us go into it with no clue about what we're u...

PhotoMillions of people start the new year resolving to improve their health – in particular, lose weight. Most of us go into it with no clue about what we're up against.

First, it's hard to lose weight. To lose even modest amounts of fat you need to consume fewer calories each day than you burn – in some cases 500 fewer.

It also has to be maintained over the long-haul. For some, when success doesn't come early, they give up. This can be particularly true if you have a lot of weight to lose.

You might also have some initial success, only to regain the weight weeks or months later. To guard against this frustration, obesity experts recommend a number of novel approaches to improve obesity therapeutics.

No cookie-cutter diets

They include added emphasis on an individualized approach to weight-loss treatments and maintenance, and the integration of behavioral psychology to identify interventions that work.

“Despite advancements in our understanding of obesity, weight regain after weight loss remains the most substantial problem in obesity treatment – with both the body and the mind conspiring against individual efforts to maintain weight loss,” said Dr. Paul MacLean, co-chair of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) working group who authored the report.

MacLean says differences in our behavioral and genetic makeups lead some to do well with one weight-loss approach while others do not. What works for a friend or coworker may be very different from a weight-loss program that’s most effective and sustainable for you over the long term.

Get your doctor's input

The bottom line? You have to pick a weight-loss program that is right for you. A mass market weight-loss program might work for you, then again it might not. You and your doctor may need to collaborate on a combination of diet and exercise that you can maintain over time. And “over time” is the key qualifier.

“Personalized medicine is not a new idea,it is one that is applied and encouraged across many areas of medicine,” said Chris Ochner, PhD, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Why not apply it to obesity treatment? Weight loss is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Finding a diet and exercise lifestyle you can live with is part of the battle. Perhaps a deeper part is being willing to change the behavior that is causing you to be overweight.

Are you ready to change?

Meg Baker, director of the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) Employee Wellness, says while the focus on self-improvement is good, an individual must be ready to make a change in order to actually do so.

“Readiness to change is a big factor,” she said. “You have to want to change your lifestyle to successfully improve your health.”

To help prepare for any lifestyle change, Baker offers these tips:

  • Develop small, short-term goals that will fit into your schedule; these should be realistic.
  • Consider the benefits and reasons for the change.
  • Talk to a family member, friend or co-worker about goals; this accountability will increase the likelihood of your staying committed to a new gym regimen or smoking cessation plan, and they may want to join you.

To improve your chances of success, Baker suggests starting small. Find a form of exercise that you love, make small nutritional changes like packing a lunch or cooking dinner at home, and get digital reinforcements by using tracking systems and apps like those offered by the American Heart Association, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

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EpiPens now required in California schools

The devices can be life savers when severe allergy attacks occur

California schools must have EpiPens on hand under terms of a new law that went into effect Jan. 1. The devices are used to inject a potentially life-savin...

PhotoCalifornia schools must have EpiPens on hand under terms of a new law that went into effect Jan. 1. The devices are used to inject a potentially life-saving dose of epinephrine when someone suffers a severe allergy attack.

With rates of food allergies rising among U.S. children, schools need to be prepared to act quickly when severe attacks occur, according to state Sen. Bob Huff, who introduced the legislation requiring schools to stock the devices.

 “It’s real important that they get medical attention within the first five minutes. Our medical response is not that fast,” Huff said.

The most severe allergic attacks -- known as anaphylaxis -- generally occur in connection with food allergies but can also be caused by insect stings, medications and latex. Anaphylaxis can quickly shut down breathing and circulation, making fast action essential.   

According to the health advocacy group Food Allergy Research and Education, 15 million Americans have food allergies and are at risk for life-threatening anaphylaxis.

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When pigs fly, maybe they'll have their own seating area

Airlines facing more dilemmas as travelers seek to bring their pets along

2014 was the year of strange animal flights on US Airways. A woman who had boarded a Connecticut flight out of Bradley International back in November was k...

Photo2014 was the year of strange animal flights on US Airways. A woman who had boarded a Connecticut flight out of Bradley International back in November was kicked off her plane when her emotional-support pig started squealing and relieving himself in the aisle of the plane. 

A Portland, Oregon, woman's recent request to take her hedgehog on a US AIrways flight was met with resistance. Zoe Herman was shocked to discover that Heloise the hedgehog could only board a flight if she was stowed in the airplane's cargo hold -- something she says is just not safe for the delicate little animal.

Despite the resistance to pigs flying, a recent survey of 430 customers conducted by airport shuttle service Go Airport Express, found 52% of fliers saying they would be OK with pets traveling in airplane cabins, rather than being stowed as cargo.

This past weekend a little dog was sitting on a runway in a pet carrier in  the rain on a flight from Houston. The picture of the little guy was tweeted 1500 times, prompting outrage at United Airlines. But a United spokesman said the dog was never unattended and its kennel was placed under an airplane wing to protect it from the rain, per the carrier's standard procedure.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Consumer Air Travel Report. In 2013, there were 21 deaths and 15 injuries to pets on U.S. airlines, and six were lost.

Even though most people don't seem to have an issue flying with pets in the cabin 63% of those people feel there should be a designated area because of allergies and such.

Remember when there were no smoking sections on planes? Perhaps they will now offer limited seating for pets in a special section.

As of now, to pack your pet in the cargo section is pretty pricey. On average it's around $250, sometimes more and even more expensive if flying overseas.
 

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