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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 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.
    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...
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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 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.”

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

    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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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.

      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.

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

      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 ...
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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 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.

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

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

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

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

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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

      And, 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

      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.”

      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 ...
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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, 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.

      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,...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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

      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.”

      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...
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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 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.”

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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.

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

      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...
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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 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.”

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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.

      “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.”

      A Texas debt collector faces charges that it used illegal tactics by threatening consumers with false claims of lawsuits and garnishment....
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      A strong finish for sales of existing homes

      Nonetheless, 2014 was not a strong year

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

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

      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.

      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.

      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.

      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.

      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."

      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?

      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. 

      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...
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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 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

      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.

      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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      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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

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

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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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      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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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 wrapnone

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Inventure Foods of Phoenix, Ariz., is recalling its Rader Farms Fresh Start Smoothie Blend, Fresh Start Sunrise Refresh Fusion and Fresh Start Daily Power ...
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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.

      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.

      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....
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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 (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.

      Builder confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes remains fairly steady in January. The latest National Association of Home Builders (N...
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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 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.  

      Sentry Food Solutions of Tucker, Ga., is recalling approximately 14,130 pounds of chicken and beef products. The products may contain peanuts, known aller...
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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 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.

      La Guadalupana Wholesale of Chicago, Ill., is recalling approximately 8,856 pounds of chicken tamales. The products were not produced under a fully implem...
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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 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.   

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Kabob’s Acquisition of Lake City, Ga., is recalling approximately 869 pounds of beef and chicken products. The products may contain peanuts, known allerg...
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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 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.  

      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...
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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.

      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.”

      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....
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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.

      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.

      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....
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Heywood’s Meat Haus & Provision Co., of Marietta, Ga., is recalling approximately 931 pounds of tasso (pork shoulder) products. The products may contain ...
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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.

      "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. 

      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. 

      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....
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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.

      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.

      For a couple of months now we consumers have watched with wide smiles on our faces as the price of gasoline has fallen....
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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 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.  

      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...
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      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 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.  

      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...
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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 (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.

      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 (...
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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 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).
      The number of U.S. foreclosures continued to dwindle in November. According to CoreLogic, a provider of property information, analytics and data-enabled s...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.”

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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.

      First-time applications for state unemployment benefits are at their highest level since last June. Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show fi...
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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, 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      Things got a little better in terms of airline flight cancellations during November. The Air Travel Consumer Report released by the Transportation depart...
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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 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.

      The first full week of 2015 saw a surge in applications for mortgages. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly 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 (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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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
      MPG83.61
      $/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

      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

      A 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. 

      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...
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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..

      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 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.

      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...
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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 proposal, unveiled in a speech in Knoxville, Tenn., last week, has a $60 billion price tag. And in his speech Obama made clear he views this as much as an economic initiative as an educational one.

      “For millions of Americans, community colleges are essential pathways to the middle class because they’re local, they’re flexible," Obama said. “Whether you’re the first in your family to go to college, or coming back to school after many years away, community colleges find a place for you. And you can get a great education.”

      Under the “America's College Promise” proposal, students would have 2 years of community college tuition paid, if they maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Participating community colleges would have to meet academic standards.

      Reducing student debt

      But the proposal is aimed at more than just educating more people. It's also aimed at reducing mounting student loan debt levels. It does nothing for the people already paying on the more than $1 trillion in loans now, but could prevent crippling debt burdens for future students.

      “Think about it,” Obama said. “Students who started at community colleges during those two years, and then go on to a four-year institution, they essentially get the first half of their bachelor’s degree for free. People who enroll for skills training will graduate already ready to work, and they won’t have a pile of student debt. Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today.”

      It sounds good, but does it have a prayer of being approved by the new Republican Congress, that has not exactly seen eye-to-eye with the White House on much of anything?

      Bipartisan pitch

      Obama is trying to make it a bipartisan issue, one that both parties can support. He made his speech in Tennessee because that state already has such a program, signed into law by a Republican governor. In the first year, Tennessee's program has drawn 58,000 applicants – 90% of the state's high school graduates.

      The White House estimates that nationwide, some 9 million students would take advantage of the program. The U.S. government would pick up 75% of the tuition cost while participating states would pay for the rest.

      The concept, at least, has some Republican support. Michigan's Republican governor has expressed interest in the idea but Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who attended the President's Knoxville speech, while liking the idea, thought it should remain a state program.

      Changes for education

      Either way, if some form of free community college becomes widespread, it could be a major game-changer in education. Perhaps the biggest impact would fall on for-profit colleges, among the most expensive. Could any compelling case be made for spending $40,000 to obtain an associates degree at a for-profit school when the same degree could be gotten for free at a community college?

      There could also be some unintended consequences outside the for-profit college sphere. How many underclassmen would non-profit 4-year colleges lose to community colleges? Would they respond by increasing tuition at a faster rate? Would they accept more of the applicants they now turn down?

      And what about the community colleges themselves? Can they handle the expected increase in enrollment?

      All questions that will be sorted out in the months ahead, no doubt. But the proposal is one that has a good chance of being debated on its merits and not buried in partisan bickering.

      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 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.

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      The Santa Barbara Smokehouse of Santa Barbara, Calif., is recalling the following brands and batches of cold smoked salmon produced and packed between Dece...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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) 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.

      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...
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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) 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.

      Any magazine or website discussing celebrity gossip is pretty much guaranteed to publish regular stories (often illustrated by wince-inducing photographs) ...
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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.

      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.

      “Everything in moderation,” the old saying goes. It particularly applies to alcohol consumption....
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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.

      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.

      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.

      A ferocious virus is storming through North America, felling U.S. citizens at a rate higher than ever measure by the Gallup research organization....
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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 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%.

      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.

      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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      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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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      ADP: Job creation surges in December

      Small business was the biggest contributor

      Nearly 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."

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 1,300 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      In 1959 Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev debated the merits of the capitalist and communist systems while visiting an exhi...
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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 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.
      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...
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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 generation that prefers Internet streaming to more traditional sources of news and entertainment.

      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

      The 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."

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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).

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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, 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.

      General Motors is recalling 83,572 model year 2011-2012 Cadillac Escalade, Escalade ESV, Escalade EXT, Chevrolet Avalanche, Silverado HD, Silverado LD, Sub...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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