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    Survey suggests where you lie down can affect quality of your sleep

    It's true, side matters

    There is an old expression that, when someone is especially disagreeable or in a bad mood, that they “got up on the wrong side of the bed.”

    There might actually be something to that.

    Most people have very set patterns for how they get their shut eye, and that extends to which side of the bed they lie down on and which direction they face. It stands to reason they would get up on the same side of the bed most of the time.

    A survey by mattress maker Saatva suggests something as simple as picking the right side of the bed or facing or not facing your partner actually make a difference in how well you sleep. The survey quizzed consumers on their bedside practices and how it affects their sleep and mood the following day.

    Creatures of habit

    Not surprisingly, it found that 40% of adults have always slept on the same side of the bed. Perhaps more of a surprise, more than half said they don't ever remember making a conscious decision about the side of the bed on which to lie down.

    When asked to think about it and actually pick on one side of the bed or the other, 20% ended up choosing the opposite side of the bed from their normal side.

    The survey-takers discovered that more Americans sleep on the right side of the bed than the left. Men prefer the right side by 58%, with only 50% of women choosing the right side.

    When asked why they chose the right side of the bed, 71% of men said it made them feel more relaxed.

    Sleepers of both sexes appear happier with their partner facing away from them in bed as compared to sleeping towards them but women appear to prefer it the most. Seventy-two percent of women said they need their space and prefer they face away from their partners.

    Practical choices

    Sometimes people choose a side of the bed, not because of how it makes them feel, but for more practical reasons. Among reasons for choosing, 75% of respondents said being close to an electrical outlet, to plug in a clock or other devices, determines where they settle in for the night.

    Other practical considerations include proximity to the bathroom or to a door or window.

    "Americans need to be more conscious of every aspect of the sleep choices they make today," said Ron Rudzin, CEO of Saatva Mattress. "Making a concerted effort to understand each factor of sleep wellness – even having open conversations about which side to sleep on – can make a difference in a good night's sleep."

    Tips for better sleep

    Americans spend billions of dollars on special mattresses, pillows and other sleep enhancement tools in an effort to get the right amount of restful sleep. Sleep problems are particularly common among older people.

    The National Council on Aging suggests following a regular sleep schedule and to avoid napping during the day, if you find it hard to sleep at night. While there is some research that suggests short naps can be healthy, they can also disrupt nighttime sleep patterns.

    Other tips include a bedtime routine, such as reading or listening to soothing music. Bedrooms should be dark and at a moderate temperature.

    Things to stay away from just before bedtime – caffeine, large meals and alcohol. All 3 are sleep disruptors, making you cranky the next day, regardless of which side of the bed you got up on.

    Most people have very set patterns for how they get their shut eye, and that extends to which side of the bed they lie down on and which direction they fac...
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    Suicide rates rising for older adults

    Rates up about 40% since 1999 for adults aged 40-64

    Suicide, especially involving suffocation, is rising at a rapid rate for adults between 40 and 64, with researchers pointing to the economic downturn as the likely culprit. 

    "Relative to other age groups, a larger and increasing proportion of middle-aged suicides have circumstances associated with job, financial, or legal distress and are completed using suffocation," said Katherine A. Hempstead, one of the authors of a new study.

    "The sharpest increase in external circumstances appears to be temporally related to the worst years of the Great Recession, consistent with other work showing a link between deteriorating economic conditions and suicide. ... Financial difficulties related to the loss of retirement savings in the stock market crash may explain some of this trend," she added.

    Economic factors

    In the study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers found that external economic factors were present in 37.5% of all completed suicides in 2010, rising from 32.9% in 2005.

    In addition, suffocation, a method more likely to be used in suicides related to job, economic, or legal factors, increased disproportionately among the middle-aged. The number of suicides using suffocation increased 59.5% among those aged 40-64 years between 2005 and 2010, compared with 18.0% for those aged 15-39 years and 27.2% for aged >65 years.

    The data came from the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), which links information on violent deaths from multiple sources.

    The suicide circumstances were grouped into three major categories: personal, interpersonal, and external.

    Examples of personal circumstances are depressed mood, current treatment for a mental health problem, or alcohol dependence. Interpersonal circumstances include an intimate partner problem, the death of a friend, or being a victim of intimate partner violence. Examples of external circumstances are a job or financial problem, legal problem, or difficulty in school.

    Increased awareness

    The four planning and intent factors are crisis in the past two weeks, leaving a suicide note, disclosing an intent to commit suicide, or a history of prior attempts.

    "Increased awareness is needed that job loss, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and other financial setbacks can be risk factors for suicide, the study authors noted. "Human resource departments, employee assistance programs, state and local employment agencies, credit counselors, and others who interact with those in financial distress should improve their ability to recognize people at risk and make referrals."

    Suicide, especially involving suffocation, is rising at a rapid rate for adults between 40 and 64, with researchers pointing to the economic downturn as th...
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      Google backs down; says it won't ban adult-content blogs after all

      Censorship plan abandoned after three days

      Earlier this week, Google inspired an uproar when it announced a stunning change in its longstanding policy toward bloggers: starting next month, it would ban anyone on Blogger or Blogspot websites from being “able to publicly share images and video that are sexually explicit or show graphic nudity,” according to a Feb. 24 announcement Google posted on its support forum:

      Starting March 23, 2015, you won't be able to publicly share images and video that are sexually explicit or show graphic nudity on Blogger.
      Note: We’ll still allow nudity if the content offers a substantial public benefit, for example in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts.

      At best, Google said, such content would have been made “private,” which means that the only people able to see the blog would be the blog's own administrators, plus those individuals with personal invitations from the blog owner. At worst, Google might delete the content, or disable access to the author's Google and/or Blogger accounts: a longstanding blog over a decade old could suddenly vanish along with all of its content.

      At the same time it made the announcement, Google reminded everyone on Blogger and Blogspot that if they didn't like the upcoming policy change, this Google support page explained how to save your blog content as an .xml file, then move the entire blog onto a different platform with more liberal policies (such as WordPress or Tumblr).

      Another course change

      Today, three days after announcing this abrupt policy change, Google changed course again and rescinded its intended ban. Jessica Pelegio, a Social Product Support Manager at Google, posted this announcement on Google's user forums:

      Hello everyone, 

      This week, we announced a change to Blogger’s porn policy. We’ve had a ton of feedback, in particular about the introduction of a retroactive change (some people have had accounts for 10+ years), but also about the negative impact on individuals who post sexually explicit content to express their identities. So rather than implement this change, we’ve decided to step up enforcement around our existing policy prohibiting commercial porn.  

      Blog owners should continue to mark any blogs containing sexually explicit content as “adult” so that they can be placed behind an “adult content” warning page.

      Bloggers whose content is consistent with this and other policies do not need to make any changes to their blogs.

      Thank you for your continued feedback.  

      The Blogger Team

      Google also changed some of the language in its online “Blogger Content Policy”; as of Feb. 27 it says this:

      Adult Content: We do allow adult content on Blogger, including images or videos that contain nudity or sexual activity. If your blog contains adult content, please mark it as 'adult' in your Blogger settings. We may also mark blogs with adult content where the owners have not. All blogs marked as 'adult' will be placed behind an 'adult content' warning interstitial. If your blog has a warning interstitial, please do not attempt to circumvent or disable the interstitial - it is for everyone’s protection.

      Earlier this week, Google inspired an uproar when it announced a stunning change in its longstanding policy toward bloggers: starting next month, it would ...
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      A spurt in pending home sales

      They are now at their highest level in 18 months

      Rising buyer demand has pending home sales on the rise.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says its Pending Home Sales Index, (PHSI) a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, jumped 1.7% in January to its highest level since August 2013. All major regions except for the Midwest saw gains in activity in January.

      Last month's advance put the PHSI 8.4% above January 2014 for its fifth consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

      “Contract activity is convincingly up compared to a year ago despite comparable inventory levels,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “The difference this year is the positive factors supporting stronger sales, such as slightly improving credit conditions, more jobs and slower price growth.”

      Yun also also is optimistic about the months ahead, but notes, “the pace will greatly depend on how much upward pressure the impact of low inventory will have on home prices. Appreciation anywhere near double-digits isn't healthy or sustainable in the current economic environment.”

      Regional breakdown

      • The PHSI in the Northeast inched up 0.1% to 84.9 in January, and is now 6.9% above a year ago.
      • In the Midwest the index fell 0.7% to 99.3, but is 4.2% above January 2014.
      • Pending home sales experienced the largest increase in the South, surging 3.2% to an index of 121.9 -- the highest since April 2010 -- and are 9.7% above last January.
      • The index in the West rose 2.2% in last month to 96.4 and is 11.4% above a year ago.

      NAR projects total existing-homes sales this year to be around 5.26 million, an increase of 6.4% from 2014. The national median existing-home price for all of this year is expected to increase near 5%.

      Existing-home sales fell 2.9% last year, while prices rose 5.7%.

      Rising buyer demand has pending home sales on the rise. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says its Pending Home Sales Index, (PHSI) a forward-loo...
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      Nissan Sentra earns IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK award

      Improvement in the small overlap front crash test was the key

      Improving from a poor to good rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front crash test, has won the 2015 Nissan Sentra the IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK award.

      The big change? The small car's front structure, A-pillar and door sill were modified to reduce intrusion in small overlap crashes. Also, the side curtain airbag was lengthened to protect the driver's head.

      In the latest test, IIHS said, the driver space was maintained well, with maximum intrusion of less than 5 inches at the lower door hinge pillar. The dummy's movement was well-controlled; the head hit the front airbag and stayed there until rebound, while the side curtain airbag had enough forward coverage to protect the head from contact with side structure and outside objects. Measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of injuries in a crash of this severity.

      Big improvement

      In contrast, the 2013-14 Sentra didn't hold up as well in the test. Intrusion measured as much as 13 inches at the lower hinge pillar. The dummy's head slid off the left side of the frontal airbag, and the side curtain airbag didn't offer adequate coverage. Measures from the dummy indicated that injuries to the left leg would be possible in a crash of this severity.

      The Sentra's good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests carry over to the 2015 model year.

      To qualify for the 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK award, a vehicle must have good ratings in those four tests and a good or acceptable rating in the small overlap test, which replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or a utility pole.

      Improving from a poor to good rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) small overlap front crash test, has won the 2015 Nissan Sentra...
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      A slowdown in the fourth quarter economic growth rate

      It's considerably slower than what we saw in the previous 3 months

      The second estimate of fourth-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S., adjusted for price changes -- is in, and the growth rate isn't quite as robust as first estimated.

      According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, GDP increased at an annual rate of 2.2% not the 2.6% reported last month. It increased 5.0% in the fourth quarter of of last year.

      The GDP estimate released today is based on more complete source data than were available last month. A third and final estimate will be released in March.

      In the second estimate, private inventory investment increased less than previously estimated, while nonresidential fixed investment increased more.

      Contributors

      The growth in real GDP in the fourth quarter reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), nonresidential fixed investment, exports, state and local government

      spending, private inventory investment, and residential fixed investment. These were partly offset by a

      decline in federal government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

      The deceleration from the advance estimate primarily reflected an upturn in imports, a downturn in federal government spending, and decelerations in nonresidential fixed investment and in exports that were partly offset by an acceleration in PCE, an upturn in private inventory investment, and an acceleration in state and local government spending.

      GDP inflation

      The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, dipped 0.1% in the fourth quarter, compared with a decline of 0.3% in the first estimate. During the preceding quarter, the index was up 1.4%.

      Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, the “core” price index for gross domestic purchases jumped 0.7%, compared with the 1.6% surge reported last month.

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

      The second estimate of fourth-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S., adjusted for price cha...
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      Chrysler 200s recalled

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

      Chrysler (FCA US) is recalling 25,734 model year 2015 Chrysler 200 vehicles manufactured March 9, 2014, to December 15, 2014, and equipped with a 9-speed automatic transmission.

      The automatic transmission parking pawl may become contaminated or the park rod may become dislodged or broken. This may prevent the transmission from shifting into the Park position. If the shift indicator displays "Park" but the park lock does not engage, the vehicle may roll away increasing the risk of a crash.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers inspect the transmission. Any transmission found with contamination or a park rod will be replaced, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on April 10, 2015.

      Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R08.

      Chrysler (FCA US) is recalling 25,734 model year 2015 Chrysler 200 vehicles manufactured March 9, 2014, to December 15, 2014, and equipped with a 9-speed a...
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      General Motors recalls Cadillac ATS vehicles

      A faulty roof panel switch could increase the risk of personal injury

      General Motors is recalling 58,698 model year 2013-2015 Cadillac ATS vehicles manufactured April 25, 2012, to February 9, 2015.

      The power-operated roof panels auto-close when the non-recessed "Slide" or "Tilt" switches are pressed. Because the switch is not recessed, the roof panel switch may inadvertently be pressed resulting in unintended auto-closure of the roof panel, increasing the risk of personal injury.

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the roof console accessory switch trim plate, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is 15119.

      General Motors is recalling 58,698 model year 2013-2015 Cadillac ATS vehicles manufactured April 25, 2012, to February 9, 2015. The power-operated roof p...
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      Sunset Farm Foods recalls sausage products

      The products contain hydrolyzed soy protein, an allergen not listed on the label

      Sunset Farm Foods of Valdosta, Ga., is recalling approximately 42,669 pounds of link sausage products.

      The products contain hydrolyzed soy protein, an allergen not listed on the label.

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

      The following link sausage items, produced on various dates between September 3, 2014, and January 28, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 11-lb. vacuum-packed case containing “SOUTHERN CHEF BRAND SMOKED LINK SAUSAGE.”
      • 11-lb. vacuum-packed case containing “GEORGIA MAID SMOKED LINK SAUSAGE.”

      The products bear the establishment number “EST. 9185” inside the USDA mark of inspection and have a sell-by date between January 1, 2015 and May 28, 2015. They were shipped to consumers and retail locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and New York.

      The problem was discovered by FSIS in-plant personnel during routine label verification.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Dan Houston, quality assurance manager, at (800) 882-1121 or info@sunsetfarmfoods.com.  

      Sunset Farm Foods of Valdosta, Ga., is recalling approximately 42,669 pounds of link sausage products. The products contain hydrolyzed soy protein, an al...
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      FCC votes in favor of net neutrality; makes broadband Internet a public utility

      Proposal would also apply to mobile devices

      The Federal Communications Commission has voted 3-2 to require “net neutrality” rather than allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to create and charge extra for “fast lanes.”

      Specifically, the FCC voted that broadband Internet service should henceforth be classified as a public utility, similar to telephone lines, with ISPs becoming utilities, as “the phone company” has been for generations. The FCC's proposal would cover not just home Internet connections, but mobile devices as well.

      Discord on the Commission

      FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who supports net neutrality, said the policy would ensure that “no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the Internet.” It would also ban ISPs from “blocking, ban throttling, and ban paid-prioritization fast lanes.”

      But FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who cast one of the two votes against the proposal, said the FCC was “turning its back on Internet freedom” by leaving the Internet vulnerable to more government regulation.

      Pai and Michael O'Reilly, who cast the other dissenting vote, also complained that the complete policy (which is over 300 pages long) was not publicly released or debated beforehand.

      What's it all about?

      Net neutrality, as the label suggests, is basically the idea that all websites should be treated equally (or viewed neutrally) by ISPs: You can reach all websites at the same speed, whether those websites belong to big rich companies, or small-time bloggers and mom-and-pop startups. This also means the ISPs must carry all content equally, rather than make distinctions (or charge different prices) based on content.

      Proponents of net neutrality feared that without it, the Internet would be divided into haves and have-nots -- easily accessible websites for companies rich enough to pay for fast-lane service; slow and clunky websites for everyone else.

      Last May, the FCC rather confusingly spoke in favor of “net neutrality” while simultaneously arguing in favor of a “fast lane” proposal that would allow ISPs to charge content providers, such as Netflix, YouTube (or any other website), extra money in order to ensure that ordinary Internet customers could reach their sites in a timely fashion.

      While ISPs supported the fast lane proposals, the American public overwhelmingly did not; last November, when President Barack Obama publicly spoke against the FCC's proposed fast lanes, he cited “almost 4 million public comments” made to the FCC against fast lanes and in favor of net neutrality.

      ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have long been opposed to net neutrality proposals, and are expected to sue in hope of overturning the FCC's decision.

      The Federal Communications Commission has voted 3-2 to require “net neutrality” rather than allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to create and charge ex...
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      Takata ordered to preserve defective air bag inflators

      Feds want access to all testing data

      As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) continues its air bag investigation, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx  has ordered Takata to preserve all air bag inflators removed through the recall process as evidence

      “This department is focused on protecting the American public from these defective air bags and at getting to the bottom of how they came to be included in millions of vehicles on U.S. roads,” said Foxx . “This preservation order will help us get the answers we need to accomplish those goals.”

      Investigation upgrade

      Foxx also said NHTSA will upgrade the Takata investigation to an engineering analysis, a formal step in the agency’s defect investigation process.

      Upgrading the investigation is an important step in determining the actual cause of the air bag failures and the appropriateness of remedies, as well as determining whether Takata’s refusal to notify the agency of a safety defect violates federal safety laws or regulations.

      Since 2008, automakers have recalled about 17 million vehicles with Takata air bags that can rupture when they deploy, producing fragments that can kill or seriously injure occupants. In 2014, five automakers -- BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda and Mazda -- launched national recalls at NHTSA’s urging for defective driver-side air bags.

      Those five, plus General Motors, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota, are recalling vehicles for defective passenger-side air bags in areas of consistently high absolute humidity, which is believed to be a factor in the ruptures.

      Order requirements

      Among the key provisions of the order:

      • Takata is prohibited from destroying or damaging any inflators except as is necessary to conduct testing.
      • Takata is required to set aside 10% of recalled inflators and make them available to private plaintiffs for testing.
      • Takata is required to submit for NHTSA’s approval plans for gathering, storing and preserving inflators already removed through the recall process and inflators removed in the future, as well as written procedures for making inflators available to plaintiffs in private litigation cases and automakers who request access.
      • Plaintiffs or automakers who seek access to inflators must submit to the terms of the preservation order, which grants NHTSA access to all testing data.
      • NHTSA retains the ability to collect inflators for its own testing if it determines such testing is necessary.

      On Feb. 20, NHTSA began levying $14,000 a day in civil penalties against Takata for failure to respond to requests for information about more than 2.5 million pages of documents it has produced under NHTSA orders.

      As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) continues its air bag investigation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHT...
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      Front-loader or top-loader -- which is better?

      Early front-loaders caused a lot of problems but have gotten better with time

      Front-loader or top-loader -- which is better? It's a little like under or over with your bathroom toilet paper. With washing machines we have seen a lot o..

      House prices rise for the 14th straight quarter

      Initial jobless claims spike above 300k

      Housing prices across the nation rose on both a quarterly and monthly basis.

      According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the House Price Index (HPI) was up 1.4% in the fourth quarter of 2014 -- the 14th consecutive quarterly price increase. The seasonally adjusted monthly index for December was up 0.8% from November.

      On a year-over-year basis, house prices jumped 4.9% from the fourth quarter of 2013 to the fourth quarter of 2014. The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

      “Contrary to prior indications of a possible slowdown, home price appreciation in the fourth quarter was relatively strong,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “The key drivers of appreciation over the last few years -- low inventories of homes available for sa​le and improvement in labor markets -- likely played a role in driving up prices during the quarter.”

      Report highlights

      • ​​Between the fourth quarter of 2013 and the fourth quarter of 2014, the seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI rose in 48 states and the District of Columbia. The top 5 areas in annual appreciation: 1) District of Columbia: 12.5%; 2) Nevada: 9.0%; 3) North Dakota: 8.4%; 4) Colorado: 7.9%; and 5) Michigan: 7.8%.
      • ​As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., fourth quarter price increases were greatest in the San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, Calif., area, where prices increased by 6.0%. Prices were weakest in the El Paso, Texas, where they fell 6.6%.
      • Of the nine census divisions, the Mountain division experienced the strongest increase in the fourth quarter, posting a 1.8% quarterly increase and a 5.5% increase since last year. House price appreciation was weakest in the New England division, where prices fell .03%.
      • The monthly seasonally adjusted, purchase-only index for the U.S. has increased for 23 of the last 24 months (November 2013 showed a decrease).

      The full report is available on the FHFA website

      Initial claims

      Separately, the government reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits shot up 31,000 during the week ending February 21 to a seasonally adjusted 313,000. The previous week's level was revised down by 1,000 -- from 283,000 to 282,000.

      The Labor department (DOL) says there were no special factors affecting this week's initial claims

      The 4-week moving average, which is not as volatile as the weekly figure and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, came in at 294,500, an increase of 11,500 from the previous week.

      The complete report may be found on the DOL website.  

      Housing prices across the nation rose on both a quarterly and monthly basis. According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the House Price Inde...
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      Lower energy costs send consumer prices tumbling in January

      There's been no inflation over the last 12 months

      Consumer inflation is not just under control; it's nonexistent.

      According to the Labor Department (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was down 0.7% in January on a seasonally adjusted basis. Moreover, the cost of living is down 0.1% over the last 12 months -- the first negative 12-month change since the period ending October 2009.

      Looking to give credit? It's mostly energy prices, which were down 9.7%, thanks largely to an 18.7% plunge in the cost of gasoline. Had gasoline prices been unchanged, the CPI would have gone up 0,1%

      Energy and food prices

      In addition the the slide in gasoline prices, the energy sector was affected by declines in the costs of fuel oil (-9.9%) and natural gas (-3.4%). The only increase in the category was electricity (+0.9). Over the past year, energy prices are down 19.6%, with the gasoline costs falling 35.4%.

      Food prices were unchanged last month after rising through all of 2014. Four of the 6 major grocery store food groups declined in January: fruits and vegetables (-0.9%), dairy and related products (-0.9%), meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (-0.1%) and other foods (-0.1). Over the last 12 months, the food category is up 3.3%, with all six major grocery store food groups rising over that span.

      Core inflation

      Prices for all items less the volatile food and energy sectors -- the so-called “core rate” of inflation --- rose 0.2% in January, with shelter personal care, apparel and recreation posting gains. Medical care costs were unchanged, while prices for household furnishings and operations, alcoholic beverages, new vehicles, used cars and trucks, airline fares, and tobacco declined.

      Over the last 12 months, the core rate has risen 1.6% over the past 12 months, the same figure as for the 12 months ending in December.

      The complete CPI report is available on the DOL website.

      Consumer inflation is not just under control; it's nonexistent. According to the Labor Department (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was down 0.7% in J...
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      Housing affordability inches higher

      Lower interest rates are a big factor

      Consumers hoping to buy a home are in a better position to do so, thanks to slightly lower interest rates.

      According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) /Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI), there was a slight increase in nationwide housing affordability in the fourth quarter of 2014.

      In all, 62.8% of new and previously-owned homes sold between the beginning of October and end of December were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $63,900. That's a 1% improvement from the third quarter.

      The national median home price fell from $220,800 in the third quarter to $215,000 in the final three months of the year, while, average mortgage interest rates dipped to 4.29% from 4.35% in the same period.

      “Affordable home prices, historically low mortgage rates and an improving job market will release pent-up demand and help keep the housing market moving forward in the year ahead,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe.

      Affordability by market

      Syracuse, N.Y., claimed the title of the nation’s most affordable major housing market, as 92.8% of all new and existing homes sold in the fourth quarter of 2014 were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $67,700.

      The median is the point at which half of all incomes are higher and half are lower

      Also ranking among the most affordable major housing markets in respective order were Akron, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pa.; and Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, Pa; The latter two tied for fourth place.

      Meanwhile, Cumberland, Md.-W.Va. topped the affordability chart among smaller markets in the final quarter of 2014. There, 96.2% of homes sold during the fourth quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $54,100. Other smaller housing markets at the top of the index include Kokomo, Ind.; Wheeling, W.Va.-Ohio; Binghamton, N.Y.; and Salisbury, Md.

      For a ninth consecutive quarter, San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, Calif. was the nation’s least affordable major housing market. There, just 11.1% of homes sold in the fourth quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $100,400.

      Other major metros at the bottom of the affordability chart were Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, Calif.; Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine, Calif.; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.; and New York-White Plains-Wayne, N.Y.

      Pricey California

      All 5 least affordable small housing markets were in California. At the very bottom was Napa, where 12% of all new and existing homes sold were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $70,300.

      Other small markets included Santa Cruz-Watsonville, Salinas, Santa Rosa-Petaluma, and San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles; in descending order.

      Consumers hoping to buy a home are in a better position to do so, thanks to slightly lower interest rates. According to the National Association of Home B...
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      Fairway brand raw hazelnuts recalled

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Fairway of New York, N.Y., is recalling its Fairway brand raw hazelnuts (filberts).

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      There have been no reported illnesses to date.

      The recalled product was distributed to Fairway stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and also through home delivery programs provided by Google and Instacart.

      The product is packaged in clear, plastic cello bags of varying weights of less than 1 pound and bears Item Code 228119 XXXXXX.

      All “SELL BY” Date codes of May 15, 2015 and earlier are being recalled.

      Consumers who purchased the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at (855) 856-9566, Monday – Friday, 9 am – 5 pm EST.

      Fairway of New York, N.Y., is recalling its Fairway brand raw hazelnuts (filberts). The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. There have been no r...
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      Former Corinthian students go on "debt strike"

      The "Corinthian 15" join forces with the Debt Collective to protest federal student loan policy

      Last summer the federal government started cracking down on Corinthian College, the for-profit chain behind Everest Institute, WyoTech and Heald schools. Corinthian was already under investigation in 20 different states by last June, when the Department of Education temporarily suspended all federal financial aid to Corinthian schools.

      In July, Corinthian missed a deadline to reach an agreement with the federal government, and started selling off some of its campuses. In September, the feds sued Corinthian for predatory lending practices against its students, and only a couple of weeks ago, the Department of Education and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau jointly announced that certain Corinthian students would be forgiven a collective $480 million worth of private, high-cost “Genesis” loans.

      Despite all of this, many former Corinthian students still find themselves saddled with enormous debts for worthless degrees — in many instances, their Everest or Corinthian credits won't transfer to other schools, and employers are rarely impressed by Corinthian-generated credentials.

      Also, student-loan debt is worse than most other forms of debt because it is bankruptcy-proof, to ensure that teenagers and young 20-somethings who go over their heads in debt attending the wrong school face much harsher consequences than, say, middle-aged adults who go over their heads in debt trying to profitably “flip” a house, charging too many luxe vacations on their credit cards, or gambling all their money away at the legal casino nearest them – those poor financial choices can be forgiven in bankruptcy, but student debts cannot.

      Student strike

      Last week, 15 former Corinthian students associated with an offshoot of the Occupy movement known as the Debt Collective announced that they were staging a “debt strike” and refusing to repay their student loans in order to protest the government's legal and financial support of the company.

      On the Debt Collective's “Student Strike” page, the “Corinthian 15” posted an open letter to the Department of Education saying that:

      Who are we? We are the first generation made poor by the business of education.

      We are people living paycheck to paycheck, single mothers, and young people just starting out. We wanted an education because we were driven to learn and to achieve a better life for ourselves and for our families.

      We trusted that education would lead to a better life. And we trusted you to ensure that the education system in this country would do so. But Corinthian took advantage of our dreams and targeted us to make a profit. You let it happen, and now you cash in. … We are not alone in this fight. Corinthian’s predatory empire pushed hundreds of thousands into a debt trap. But even beyond for-profit schools, tens of millions of students are in more debt than they can ever repay. And you are the debt collector, with powers beyond a payday lender’s wildest dreams. …

      Legitimate grounds

      The Corinthian 15 might have legitimate legal grounds to demand the discharge of their loans. Even some U.S. senators think so.

      Last December, six senators led by Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, urging that the Department of Education “immediately discharge” the federal debt obligations of former Corinthian students.

      The letter pointed out that such cancellations are allowed according to the DoE's own rules: when students sign the documents to take out a federal student loan, the fine print says that “In some cases, you may assert, as a defense against collection of your loan, that the school did something wrong or failed to do something that it should have done.”

      Warren's complete letter to Duncan is available in .pdf form here.

      The New Yorker spoke to Mallory Heiney, one of the Corinthian 15 who attended a Michigan branch of Everest Institute in hope of becoming a nurse. But, she said, her instructors stopped showing up for classes due to Corinthian's financial troubles.

      Inside Higher Ed spoke to another member of the Corinthian 15, Makenzie Vasquez, who said she dropped out six months into an eight-month program because she could not afford payments on the private loan offered by Corinthian, and now owes more than $30,000 in debt.

      The federal government does offer certain income-based repayment programs for low-income students burdened by excessive student loan debt. Vasquez says she knows about such programs but says that, as a matter of principle, she does not want to repay the loans: “I didn’t get anything for this money, so I don’t see why I should have to give them anything …. I was conned going into this school. They sold me a dream and I got a nightmare.”

      Educators generally advise consumers thinking of enrolling at a for-profit school to consider their local community college instead. Almost all community colleges will allow you to take on a part-time rather than full-time courseload, if necessary, so you can still work while attending school, and even pay your tuition and other costs as you go, rather than take on a student-loan debt that can't even be discharged in bankruptcy.

      Last summer the federal government started cracking down on Corinthian College, the for-profit chain behind Everest Institute, WyoTech and Heald schools. C...
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      The Federal Communications Commission's other controversial move

      Banks pressing to allow exceptions to telemarketing rules

      In Washington, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to make a highly controversial move that some say would have a deep impact on consumers.

      Oh, you're probably thinking of the proposed net neutrality rules that would regulate the Internet as a public utility. True, plenty of people are worked up over that.

      But while changing the regulatory structure of the Internet has gotten all the attention, another proposal has been quietly making its way toward final action. The measure before the FCC, supported by the banking industry, would make changes to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991.

      Loosen restrictions on robocalls

      Under current telecom law, telemarketers cannot use robocalls or robo texting to reach consumers on their cell phones unless the consumer has given prior consent, in writing. The American Bankers Association (ABA) and the Consumer Bankers Association (CBA) are seeking changes to the TCPA to create two exceptions to the ban on robocalls to consumers’ cell phones.

      The first exception clears the way for automated calls and messaging to alert consumers of fraudulent activity on their accounts. The second exception would protect banks if automated calls or messaging is directed to cell phones of consumers who had not given their consent. Banks couldn't be held liable unless it could be proved it wasn't an accident – that they did it on purpose.

      Slippery slope

      “Allowing specific industries to carve out exceptions to an important consumer protection law is a slippery-slope, which is why we’re asking the FCC to stop these proposed changes,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, one of several state attorneys general asking the FCC to refrain from changing its rule.

      The law now allows consumers to opt-in to robocalling or robo messaging for fraud alerts. Koster says there is no reason to change the current system because it works. He's joined by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who has met with FCC officials to underscore his concerns.

      “Allowing industry groups to chip away at our country’s telephone privacy laws is bad for consumers,” Zoeller said. “It’s the state attorneys general who hear endless complaints from their citizens about unwanted calls and who are responsible for prosecuting bad actors. These lobbying attempts will give violators more legal loopholes to avoid penalty for invading peoples’ privacy.”

      The TCPA is only one of two federal laws protecting consumers from unwanted telemarketing calls. Under the TCPA, automated calls or “robocalls” and text messages to consumers’ cellphones are not permitted unless the consumer has given “prior express consent” and the state law enforcement officials want it to stay that way.

      “Telemarketing laws place the burden on telemarketers to operate lawfully,” said Koster. “Allowing certain industries to violate the law and later claim it was unintentional to escape liability is not acceptable to Missouri. Raising the threshold to prove intent makes it even harder for states to protect their consumers from unwanted telemarketing.”

      In Washington, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to make a highly controversial move that some say would have a deep impact on consumer...
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      What doctors say is the best diet for heart health

      It's probably not the one you think it is

      Heart disease is a major killer and that fact, over the years, seems to have gotten through to a lot of people. There is a new emphasis on diet and exercise to improve overall health and, in particular, reduce the risk of heart disease.

      A survey by the Cleveland Clinic shows 52% of Americans have embraced healthy eating in the last 12 months to improve their heart health. But unfortunately, the survey also suggests many of us aren't sure what to eat to accomplish that goal.

      The survey found that most Americans are using low-fat diets to improve their cardiovascular health. Instead, say doctors at Cleveland Clinic, they should be following the Mediterranean diet, which research has shown to be the best diet for the heart.

      Whole grains and lean protein

      The Mediterranean diet incorporates many of the basics of healthy eating, flavored with olive oil and perhaps even a glass of red wine. The Mediterranean diet is also includes generous helpings of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and lean protein.

      The Mayo Clinic also recommends the Mediterranean diet, citing research showing it reduces the risk of heart disease. In fact, an analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

      Most Americans have yet to make this connection, even though nearly half report having heart disease or family members affected by it. However, they appear open to change as 68% have said they are likely to change their diets to promote better health.

      “It’s encouraging that Americans are aware of their history of heart disease and want to take steps to prevent and manage their risk factors,” said Dr. Steve Nissen, chairman of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “However, there is still a tremendous need for education around understanding what the right diet choices are to improve cardiovascular health.”

      Too much sodium

      The survey also found that Americans tend to underestimate the harmful effects of too much sodium. Of those in the survey, 43% were unaware that many breakfast cereals contain high amounts of sodium.

      One-third also rated canned vegetables as a food promoting heart health, unaware that most of these products are very high in sodium. The American Heart Association recommends that you consume less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, which is the level with the greatest effect on blood pressure.

      People who engage in vigorous physical activity, such as athletes or manual laborers, require more than that.

      “Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in this country, so heart health is something that should be taken very seriously,” Nissen said. “Becoming more aware of the dietary factors that contribute to heart disease can save lives.”

      In the meantime, here is a Mediterranean diet meal plan to get started on a more heart healthy regimen.

      Heart disease is a major killer and that fact, over the years, seems to have gotten through to a lot of people. There is a new emphasis on diet and exercis...
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      Report: medical identity theft costs victims $13,500 to resolve

      Over 2 million Americans suffered medical identity theft last year

      This week, the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance released its Fifth Annual Study on Medical Identity Theft, which looks at the extent and impact of medical identity theft on people in the United States. The report says that in 2014, there were more than 2 million victims of medical identity theft in the United States, almost 500,000 more than in 2013.

      What's worse is that, compared to other forms of identity theft, victims of medical identity theft are more likely to suffer personal financial consequences as a result.

      Victims of credit card or similar forms of financial fraud are not expected to pay out of pocket to resolve the problem – but victims of medical identity theft often have to.

      The report says that more than half (65%) of medical identity theft victims paid more than $13,000 to fix it, including payments to legal counsel, healthcare or health insurance providers, and identity-protection services. That's in addition to the average of 200 hours of time the typical victim had to spend on the issue.

      Victims of medical identity theft are seldom informed of this by their insurer, and more than half of respondents said that even if they did discover a fraudulent or incorrect bills charged to their medical insurance benefits, they would not even know how to report this.

      This week, the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance released its Fifth Annual Study on Medical Identity Theft, which looks at the extent and impact of medical i...
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      Mortgage applications continue to fall

      Contract interest rates were on the rise

      Another decline in applications for mortgages.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows applications slumped 3.5% during the weekending February 20. The results include an adjustment to account for the Presidents’ Day holiday.

      Applications fell more than 13% the week before

      The Refinance Index plunged 8% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 62% of total applications from 66% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity decreased to 5.2 percent of total applications.

      Additionally, the FHA share of total applications rose to 15.3% this week from 15.2%, the VA share of jumped to 9.6% from 8.0%, and the USDA share was unchanged 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) rose 6 basis points -- to 3.99% from 3.93% -- with points decreasing to 0.33 from 0.35 (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) rose to 4.09% from 3.92%, with points decreasing to 0.21 from 0.28 (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 jumped 9 basis points to 3.82%, with points increasing to 0.15 from 0.12 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs increased to 3.28% from 3.24%, with points falling to 0.30 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs shot up 19 basis points to 3.28%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.47 (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.

      Another decline in applications for mortgages. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows applications shows appl ...
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      New home sales start the new year with little change

      Prices showed a year-over-year gain

      Sales of new single-family houses slipped in January -- but not by much.

      A report released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show sales dipped 0.2% from the revised December rate to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 481,000. Even with that decline, the sales pace was 5.3% a year earlier.

      Pricing and inventory

      The median sales price of new houses sold last month was $294,300, down $7,800 from the previous month, but a year-over-year gain of $24,500. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower.

      The average sales price in January was $348,300 -- a drop of $30,300, but up $11,000 from January 2014

      The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of the month 218,000, which works out to a supply of 5.4 months at the current sales rate – the same as December.

      The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Sales of new single-family houses slipped in January -- but not by much. A report released jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housin...
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      FJ Cruisers with steering issue recalled

      An intermediate steering shaft weld could fail

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 116 model year 2014 FJ Cruisers manufactured August 7, 2013, to August 20, 2013.

      The intermediate steering shaft connecting the steering wheel and the steering gear box may have an inadequate weld. If the weld fails, there would be a loss of steering control, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

      Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace the intermediate steering shaft, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in March 2015.

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

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 116 model year 2014 FJ Cruisers manufactured August 7, 2013, to August 20, 2013. The intermediate s...
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      Proliferation of smartphones may be affecting posture

      Text-neck is becoming a more common health problem

      You see it every day. People standing, sitting or even walking with head bent, fingers flying across the screen of a smartphone or tablet. These devices that have become a fixture in everyday life may be damaging people's health in unexpected ways.

      The potential damage is to the spine. Bending your neck to look at the screen is what's doing the damage. Research suggests that pressure on the spine doubles with each inch you bend your head.

      Unfortunately, many of us bend our heads a lot and for extended periods. Kenneth Hansraj, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine, says smartphone users spend an average of 2 to 4 hours per day hunched over mobile devices.

      Lasting impact

      It's no surprise that back and neck pain have increased among users of electronic gadgets, and the effects may not go away quickly.

      "Poor posture is easy to spot in the hunched over forms of older adults who have carried bad habits for a lifetime," said Stephen Gubernick, Doctor of Chiropractic at The Joint Chiropractic. "However, few people realize that there are health implications that make good posture essential for healthy living at any age."

      Gubernick says a misalignment of the spine can affect overall health and well-being. Your spine provides protection to the nervous system, which in turn controls and coordinates all the different functions of your body.

      When there is a disruption in the nerve communication to organs and tissues, messages may be scrambled resulting in abnormal function.

      What to do

      Poor device posture can be corrected by not using your smartphone so much – but let's be real, is that really likely to happen? So it might be wise to change the way we hold the device.

      In the case of a smartphone, hold the phone higher, closer to eye level, so that you don't have to bend your head. It's important for parents to encourage children to improve their device posture, since their bodies are still developing.

      Back pain is normally a complaint among older people but a 2013 survey in the United Kingdom found a startling 84% of young people said they have suffered an aching back in the previous year. The survey by Simplyhealth also found most adults of all ages spent as much time hunched over a device of some sort as they spent sleeping.

      Important to health

      In fact, good posture may be a little-appreciated contributor to long-term good health. The Cleveland Clinic advises training your body to stand, walk, sit and lie in positions where the least strain is placed on supporting muscles and ligaments during movement or weight-bearing activities.

      It keeps bones and joints in the correct alignment so that muscles are being used properly, helps decrease the abnormal wearing of joint surfaces that could result in arthritis and decreases the stress on the ligaments holding the joints of the spine together.

      You see it every day. People standing, sitting or even walking with head bent, fingers flying across the screen of a smartphone or tablet. These devices th...
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      Study: Eating peanuts in infancy prevents peanut allergy

      Clinical trial found feeding babies peanuts reduced incidence of allergy 81%

      Peanut allergy is a serious and growing threat but a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health finds a simple and effective way to prevent it: feed high-risk babies peanuts.

      “The results have the potential to transform how we approach food allergy prevention,” said Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

      Researchers led by Gideon Lack, M.D., of King’s College London, designed a study called Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP), based on observations that Israeli children have lower rates of peanut allergy compared to Jewish children of similar ancestry residing in the United Kingdom.

      Unlike children in the UK, Israeli children begin consuming peanut-containing foods early in life. The study tested the hypothesis that the very low rates of peanut allergy in Israeli children were a result of high levels of peanut consumption beginning in infancy.

      “For a study to show a benefit of this magnitude in the prevention of peanut allergy is without precedent. The results have the potential to transform how we approach food allergy prevention,” Fauci said.

      Two strategies

      LEAP compared two strategies to prevent peanut allergy — consumption or avoidance of dietary peanut — in infants who were at high risk of developing peanut allergy because they already had egg allergy and/or severe eczema, an inflammatory skin disorder.

      “The study also excluded infants showing early strong signs of having already developed peanut allergy. The safety and effectiveness of early peanut consumption in this group remains unknown and requires further study,” said Dr. Lack. “Parents of infants and young children with eczema or egg allergy should consult with an allergist, pediatrician, or their general practitioner prior to feeding them peanut products.”

      More than 600 high-risk infants between 4 and 11 months of age were assigned randomly either to avoid peanut entirely or to regularly include at least 6 grams of peanut protein per week in their diets. The avoidance and consumption regimens were continued until 5 years of age. Participants were monitored throughout this period with recurring visits with health care professionals, in addition to completing dietary surveys by telephone.

      The researchers assessed peanut allergy at 5 years of age with a supervised, oral food challenge with peanut. They found an overall 81 percent reduction of peanut allergy in children who began early, continuous consumption of peanut compared to those who avoided peanut.

      A follow-up study called LEAP-On will ask all LEAP study participants to avoid peanut consumption for one year. These results will determine whether continuous peanut consumption is required to maintain a child’s tolerance to peanut.

      Peanut allergy is a serious and growing threat but a new study funded by the National Institutes of Health finds a simple and effective way to prevent it:...
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      Retirement looking less scary to more workers

      Boomers starting to think seriously about retiring

      In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis and Great Recession, people approaching retirement decided to keep working. The thought of living without a paycheck, even among those who had been saving for retirement, just seemed too scary.

      It's apparently looking less scary if a survey by jobs site CareerBuilder.com is accurate. The annual retirement survey finds the number of people age 60 or older who plan to put off retirement for a few years is at a post-recession low.

      It's still pretty high – about 53% – but it's down sharply from last year's 58% and 66% in 2010. There are some encouraging economic factors contributing to this new-found confidence.

      Rebounding from the recession

      “As household financial situations continue to rebound from the recession, economic confidence among senior workers is significantly improving,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer for CareerBuilder. “Reaching retirement, however, is proving to be a challenge for millions.”

      For those who plan to keep working – or find new jobs – past the traditional retirement age, there is good news. Companies seem to value employees who have a little gray hair. Haefner says employers are hiring seniors at a faster rate than in recent memory.

      Deep scars

      The survey shows the Great Recession has left deep scars on older workers. Of those saying they plan to delay retirement, 75% attribute their decision to the recession.

      Twelve percent say they don’t think they will ever be able to retire. That's up slightly from 11% last year. Of those delaying retirement, nearly half think retirement is at least 5 years out.

      Working after retirement

      Retirement, of course, isn't what it used to be and many who are quitting their day jobs plan to find other work once they retire. More than half of 60-plus workers say they'll work after retiring from their current career, a sharp increase from the 45% who said that in last year's survey.

      Of this group, 81% say they’ll most likely work part-time, while 19% plan to continue working full-time.

      Why stop working, only to take another job? Most likely it can be explained by a desire to do something else. Some people stick with a job they don't particularly like because it pays well or has a nice benefits package.

      The new job might not pay as well but might be a lot more personally gratifying. Bankrate.com lists 10 part-time jobs for retirees including consulting and customer service.

      U.S. Newsnarrows the list down to 8, but includes working for a retailer where you like to shop. Uber is running an online pitch to retirees to become drivers, working when they want to pick up some extra cash.

      Whatever kind of post-retirement work people look for, the Careerbuilder survey suggest they will find willing employers. Fifty-four percent of private sector employers hired people age 50 or older in 2014 – up 6 points from last year’s 48% – and 57 percent plan to do so in 2015.

      In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis and Great Recession, people approaching retirement decided to keep working. The thought of living withou...
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      Some consumer confidence giveback

      The February decline follows a gain in January

      After hitting it's highest level in 7 years during January, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index fell sharply in February.

      The Index now stands at 96.4 down 7.4 from January, with the Present Situation Index dropping to 110.2 from 113.9, and the Expectations Index declining to 87.2 from 97.0 in January.

      Still on the upside

      “After a large gain in January, consumer confidence retreated in February, but still remains at pre-recession levels,” said Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Consumers’ assessment of current conditions remained positive,” she added, “but short-term expectations declined. While the number of consumers expecting conditions to deteriorate was virtually unchanged, fewer consumers expect conditions to improve, prompting a less upbeat outlook.

      Franco says despite this month’s decline, “consumers remain confident that the economy will continue to expand at the current pace in the months ahead.”

      How they see it

      Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions was moderately less favorable in February than in January. Those saying business conditions are “good” fell from 28.2% to 26.0%, however those who think business conditions are “bad” declined from 17.3% to 17.0%.

      Consumers were also somewhat less positive in their assessment of the job market, with the proportion stating jobs are “plentiful” dipped from 20.7% to 20.5%, and those who see jobs as “hard to get” rising from 24.6% to 26.2%.

      Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook was considerably less positive in February. Those expecting business conditions to improve over the next 6 months dropped from 18.9% to 16.1%, while those who expect conditions to worsen increased from 8.2% to 8.7%.

      The outlook for the labor market was also less optimistic. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead fell from 17.3% to 13.4%. However, those think there will be fewer jobs declined from 14.8% to 14.3%. The proportion of consumers expecting growth in their incomes dropped to 15.1% from 19.5%. The percentage expecting a decline rose from 10.8% to 12.0%.

      The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was February 12.

      After hitting it's highest level in 7 years during January, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index fell sharply in February. The Index now stan...
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      A good year for home prices

      Prices grew in 2014 at twice the rate of inflation

      If you're a home owner, you likely saw the value of your house post a nice gain last year.

      According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, both the 10-City and 20-City Composites posted year-over-year increases in December. The 10-City Composite gained 4.3% year-over-year, up from 4.2% in November. The 20-City Composite gained 4.5% year-over-year, compared to a 4.3% increase in November.

      The National Home Price Index, which covers all 9 U.S. census divisions, recorded a 4.6% annual gain in December 2014 versus 4.7% in November.

      The fastest year-over-year gains were in San Francisco and Miami, where prices rose 9.3% and 8.4% respectively over the last 12 months. Twelve cities, including Cleveland, Denver, and Seattle, saw prices rise faster in the year to December than a month earlier. Las Vegas led the declining annual returns with 6.9%, down from 7.7% annually.

      Month-over-month

      The National index was slightly negative in December, on a month-over-month basis, while both composite Indices were positive.

      Both the 10- and 20-City Composites reported inched up 0.1%, while the National Index slipped 0.1%. Miami and Denver led all cities in December with increases of 0.7% and 0.5% respectively. Chicago and Cleveland offset those gains by reporting decreases of 0.9% and 0.5% respectively.

      December recorded mixed monthly figures. Nine cities recorded higher monthly figures, and 6 posted decreases. Five cities reported relatively flat monthly changes for December. Miami had the largest increase of all 20 cities -- 0.7%.

      “The housing recovery is faltering,” said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “While prices and sales of existing homes are close to normal, construction and new home sales remain weak. Before the current business cycle, any time housing starts were at their current level of about one million at annual rates, the economy was in a recession.”

      Blitzer notes that the softness in housing comes despite what he calls, “favorable conditions elsewhere in the economy: strong job growth, a declining unemployment rate, continued low interest rates and positive consumer confidence.”

      Regional patterns

      Movements in home prices show clear regional patterns. Blitzer points out that the western half of the nation plus Miami and Atlanta enjoyed year-over-year increases of 5% or more, with San Francisco and Miami the strongest. Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas and Atlanta also experienced solid gains, he added, with Phoenix an exception to the western strength with only a 2.4% increase; San Diego was a bit under 5% at 4.8%.

      The Midwest and Northeast lagged. Boston was the strongest among this weak group with prices up 3.8%. The regional patterns and the weakness in new construction and new sales may reflect decreasing mobility -- fewer people moving to different parts of the country or seeking jobs in different regions.

      If you're a home owner, you likely saw the value of your house post a nice gain last year. According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, both the ...
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      Redesigned Kia Sorento wins top safety award

      The midsize SUV's makeover paid off in a higher safety rating

      The 2016 Kia Sorento got a makeover that paid off in terms of its ratings with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

      A redesign of has taken the midsize SUV's small overlap front rating from poor to good, earning it a TOP SAFETY PICK award.

      In the small overlap crash test, the driver space of the new Sorento was maintained well, with maximum intrusion of less than 4 inches at the footrest, according to IIHS. The dummy's movement was well-controlled, and the front and side curtain airbags worked well together to keep the head away from any stiff structure or outside objects. Measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of this severity.

      Big improvement

      It's a marked improvement from the previous generation Sorento. In the test of the 2014 model, the driver's space was seriously compromised, with intrusion measuring as much as 11 inches at the parking brake pedal. The side curtain airbag didn't deploy, and the dummy's head barely contacted the front airbag before sliding off the left side, as the steering column moved to the right. Measures from the dummy indicated a high likelihood of injuries to the left lower leg and possible injuries to the left thigh and knee in a crash of this severity.

      The small overlap test, which was introduced in 2012, replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or a utility pole.

      Like the previous generation, the 2016 Sorento earns good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests. The across-the-board good ratings mean the Sorento qualifies for 2015 TOP SAFETY PICK.

      The award is given to vehicles that earn a good or acceptable small overlap rating and good ratings in the other four crashworthiness tests.

      The Sorento is available with optional forward collision warning, earning it a basic rating for front crash prevention.

      The 2016 Kia Sorento got a makeover that paid off in terms of its ratings with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). A redesign of has taken...
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      Nothing goofy about the new prices at Disneyland

      Disney parks hit the $100 a day mark but there are ways to save

      Mickey is acting Goofy since he got his raise. Disney theme parks have hit the $100 mark to be able to stay and play with all your Disney friends.

      A one-day ticket to the Walt Disney World Resort's flagship theme park, the Magic Kingdom, now costs $105, up from $99. They just had a $4 increase last year. The price of admission applies to anyone 10 years and older entering the Orlando-area theme park. Younger children, aged 3 to 9, pay $99.

      Prices also increased for the other Disney World theme parks -- EPCOT, the Animal Kingdom Park and Hollywood Studios -- to $97 for visitors aged 10 and older, compared to $94 last year.

      An adult one-day ticket to Disneyland or Disney California Adventure will rise from $96 to $99. A one-day park hopper add-on will increase from $54 to $56.

      Tickets for children ages 3 to 9 will climb from $90 to $93. A price for a Premium annual pass with parking and no blackout dates will go up 11 percent, from $699 to $779.

      Cutting corners

      It's not easy for a family to afford a vacation like this. There are some ways to cut corners though when visiting.

      The best route is to avoid single park tickets altogether and buy a "Park Hopper" instead. A "Park Hopper" allows you to hop from one Disney park to another in a single day, and it's only an additional $50 per person

      Decide where you are going to stay -- at one of the Disney hotels or off-site.

      Disney hotels are crazy expensive and just because you can get a wakeup call from Mickey or Snow White you need to think if that is really worth it. On the other hand having to pay for parking at $15 a shot and lug a stroller around can also be enough to wear you out before you get there.

      Food at a theme park is overpriced. Pack a lunch and agree with your kids that they can buy one treat. You can easily save $100 a day by bringing your own food and drinks. You can get lockers if you don’t want to carry around your items -- or swing a backpack over your shoulder and save the extra walking to go back to the locker.

      Everyone wants a souvenir but if your kids are young enough that you can get by with it, buy them ahead at Walmart -- they are so much cheaper and what a surprise you can give them when you get back to the room and Donald Duck is in your suitcase.

      Buy things on sale at the Disney Store ahead of time and have them sent directly to your hotel. Imagine the surprise when it comes right to your door. Yes this requires planning but you will save money and make your kids happy and what is the goal

      There are several free apps that you can download to keep track of the wait times for rides. If you stay at a Disney Hotel you can get into the park an hour early. That hour goes crazy fast (and note there are big lines at the hotel too so don’t leave your room at the last second or you might miss part of your hour.)

      Would you like to have this site at your fingertips while you’re at Disneyland? Accessing MouseSavers.com on a smartphone (iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, etc.) makes it convenient to look up tips and tricks, check on dining discounts, see what events are happening during your stay, and lots more.

      Although this costs nothing remember to have fun.

      Mickey is acting Goofy since he got his raise. Disney theme parks have hit the $100 mark to be able to stay and play with all your Disney friends....
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      Tireco recalls Milestar tires

      The tires may crack in the lower sidewall

      Tireco is recalling 3,793 Milestar BS623 Premium All Position tires, size 225/70R19.5; and Milestar BD733 Regional Open Shoulder Drive tires, size 225/70R19.5, manufactured June 9, 2014, to September 28, 2014.

      The tires may crack in the lower sidewall, increasing risk of a sudden failure, which raises the risk of a crash.

      Tireco will notify owners, and purchasers of the affected tires will receive full refunds. The recall is expected to begin February 27, 2015.

      Owners may contact Tireco customer service at 1-310-767-7990.

      Tireco is recalling 3,793 Milestar BS623 Premium All Position tires, size 225/70R19.5; and Milestar BD733 Regional Open Shoulder Drive tires, size 225/70R1...
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      Rising rents and fewer homes for sale squeezing would-be buyers

      Many cities with stable rents see sudden increases

      If you rent your home it isn't exactly a news flash that rents continue to go up. But what may be something of a surprise is where they are going up.

      In its January report, real estate site Zillow found that rents are rapidly rising in some unexpected places. Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles have been hot markets for some time. But by last month, Zillow said some heartland markets like St. Louis and Kansas City were catching up.

      In Kansas City, the Zillow Rent Index (ZRI) grew 8.5% year-over-year, twice as fast as the national average. It was also at a faster pace than in markets where rapidly growing rents are an old story,

      In 2013, when West Coast rents were rapidly rising, growth in St. Louis' rental market was flat and even falling. But in the last 12 months, rents there rose 4.2%.

      Both Midwestern markets, however, have a long way to go before catching up to San Francisco. In January it remained the fastest growing rental market in the nation, with the median rent up 15% year-over-year for the fourth straight month.

      Hot on its heels were Denver, Kansas City, Nashville, Portland, Ore.,and Charlotte. Nationally, Zillow said rents were up 3.3% in January year-over-year and 0.4% from December to a median rent of $1,350 a month.

      Rental freight train

      "Rental appreciation has been a freight train these past few years, chugging along without any appreciable slowdown. Since 2000, rents have grown roughly twice as fast as wages, and you don't have to be an economist to understand why that is hugely problematic," said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Stan Humphries. "More than one-third of Americans are renters, and today's renters are tomorrow's buyers. For many current renters, buying a home could mean both a lower and more stable monthly payment, but rising and increasingly unaffordable rents make it difficult to save for a down payment on a home.”

      Renters who would like to become buyers are facing other obstacles, namely there are fewer homes available to buy.

      Declining inventory

      Another real estate site, Realtor.com, reports the inventory of homes continues to fall. Inventory dropped sharply in January, down 6.7% month over month and about 8.7% year over year.

      “January’s inventory data suggest a continuation of the tightening trend we identified last month in the December data, and with a shortage of inventory typically comes increased home prices,” Smoke said.

      Indeed, that appears to be happening. Smoke said half of the 200 markets the site racks experienced year-over-year price increases of at least 6% in January.”

      When renters are able to find a home they can afford they have to move quickly. Realtor.com reports the median home spends a little more than 3 months on the market before being sold.

      If you rent your home it isn't exactly a news flash that rents continue to go up. But what may be something of a surprise is where they are going up....
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      ACLU documents reveal police use of secret cell phone tracking program

      No warrants, and no legislative or judicial oversight either

      The American Civil Liberties Union has released records it had obtained via Freedom of Information requests from police agencies across the state of Florida, detailing widespread law enforcement use of surveillance technology kept secret not only from ordinary American citizens, but from judges and the court system, too.

      This secrecy is allegedly justified in the name of “national security” although, as the ACLU notes in the records it released yesterday, a detailed list of over 250 investigations from just one city's police department showed not a single case related to national security.

      And although yesterday's ACLU investigation only looked at Florida, state and local law enforcement agencies in at least 20 states and Washington D.C. use this secret surveillance technology.

      It's called Stingray, and its tracks people's whereabouts (more specifically, it tracks the whereabouts of people's phones) though the use of devices called “cell site simulators.” As the label suggests, such devices simulate cell phone towers in a way that forces cell phones in the area to broadcast information which can be used to locate and identify them.

      How extensively does law enforcement use this program? The ACLU notes that Florida alone has spent more than $3 million on Stingrays and related equipment since 2008.

      “The documents paint a detailed picture of police using an invasive technology — one that can follow you inside your house — in many hundreds of cases and almost entirely in secret.

      “The secrecy is not just from the public, but often from judges who are supposed to ensure that police are not abusing their authority. Partly relying on that secrecy, police have been getting authorization to use Stingrays based on the low standard of “relevance,” not a warrant based on probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment.”

      Little oversight

      In other words, police keep information about this program secret not only from the public they presumably serve, but from the judges who presumably are supposed to oversee those police to ensure their behavior stays within legal and constitutional guidelines.

      Indeed, authorities would sooner let an armed robber avoid jail than reveal any details of how they use Stingray. On the same day the ACLU released its records about Stingray use in Florida, the Washington Post ran a story (based in part on the ACLU's revelations) illustrating that:

      [Tadrae McKenzie] and two buddies robbed a small-time pot dealer of $130 worth of weed using BB guns. Under Florida law, that was robbery with a deadly weapon, with a sentence of at least four years in prison. But before trial, his defense team detected investigators’ use of a secret surveillance tool. ... In an unprecedented move, a state judge ordered the police to show the device — a cell-tower simulator sometimes called a StingRay — to the attorneys. Rather than show the equipment, the state offered McKenzie a plea bargain.

      McKenzie took the plea: six month's probation, no jailtime.

      Even elected officials are unable to learn details about the program. Last December, the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis ran an expose about a then-two-year-old agreement between the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the FBI to keep information about the tracking program secret from the public:

      “The revelation comes after a lengthy attempt to obtain contracts and nondisclosure agreements for the FBI’s cellphone tracking devices, known as StingRay II and KingFish. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) has long resisted disclosure requests from the public, news media and even the Minnesota Legislature, saying that doing so would violate trade secrets and expose investigative techniques that could be exploited by criminals.....”

      The “trade secrets” mentioned belong to Harris Corp., the Florida-based company that manufactures the StingRay and similar cell phone tracking devices. There's a lot of money at stake; a single StingRay sells for anywhere from $68,000 to $134,000, according to Department of Justice documents quoted by the Washington Post.

      The ACLU's records show that one Stingray customer, the city of Tallahasee, went on to use its Stingrays in 250 investigations over the six years spanning mid-2007 to early in 2014. As the Post noted, “That’s 40 or so instances a year in a city of 186,000, a surprisingly high rate given that the StingRay’s manufacturer, Harris Corp., has told the Federal Communications Commission that the device is used only in emergencies.”

      The ACLU's records also show that police have not been obtaining warrants before using these cell phone trackers to determine peoples' locations. The full Florida Stingray records collected by the ACLU are available online here.

      The American Civil Liberties Union has released records it had obtained via Freedom of Information requests from police agencies across the state of Florid...
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      Marijuana much safer than previously thought, study finds

      Alcohol, on the other hand, is even more dangerous than commonly realize

      Advocates of legalizing marijuana have been saying for years that it's the safest recreational drug of all, and now a study suggests that that's actually an understatement.

      Marijuana is even safer than everyone thought it was while alcohol is even more dangerous, according to the study, published in Scientific American.  

      Looking at what it takes to ingest a lethal dose, the researchers found that alcohol was 114 times more dangerous than THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. 

      The study compared the estimated lethal dose of a number of drugs to the estimated human intake. Using this approach, alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and heroin fell into the "high risk" category, with alcohol having by far the highest risk profile.

      Legal in Alaska

      This perhaps comes as good news in Alaska, where a ballot measure to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults takes effect tomorrow (Tuesday). Alaskans age 21 and older will legally be able to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and cultivate no more than six plants at home, though commercial sales will have to wait until regulations have been established.

      Colorado, Oregon and Washington have also legalized marijuana, and medical marijuana is permitted in 23 states and Washington D.C.

      “We anxiously await the same public safety improvements from Alaska that we have already seen in Colorado and Washington,” said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “Cops will spend more time going after dangerous criminals and protecting communities, and parents can rest assured that their local marijuana retailer is barred from selling to their children.”

      Legalization efforts continue in Congress, where Representatives Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) introduced separate bills to tax and regulate the sale of marijuana for adults at the federal level. The measure is seen as having little chance of winning passage in the Republican-controlled Congress.

      Advocates of legalizing marijuana have been saying for years that it's the safest recreational drug of all, and now a study suggests that that's actually a...
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      A weak 2015 start for existing-home sales

      Low supplies and rising prices appear to be the culprits

      Sales of previously-owned homes fell in January -- a somewhat inauspicious start to the new year.

      Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR), show existing-home sales were down 4.9% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million -- the lowest rate 9 nine months.

      Even as all major regions experienced declines, the pace was still higher than a year ago for the fourth straight month.

      “Somewhat disappointing”

      NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun says the housing market got off to a somewhat disappointing start to begin the year. “January housing data can be volatile because of seasonal influences, but low housing supply and the ongoing rise in home prices above the pace of inflation appeared to slow sales despite interest rates remaining near historic lows,” he said. “Realtors are reporting that low rates are attracting potential buyers, but the lack of new and affordable listings is leading some to delay decisions.”

      Total housing inventory at the end of the month increased 0.5% to 1.87 million existing homes available for sale, but is 0.5% lower than a year ago (1.88 million). Unsold inventory is at a 4.7-month supply at the current sales pace, compared with up from 4.4 months in December.

      The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $199,600 -- 6.2% above January 2014, and the 35th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains. The median is the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower.

      “Although sales cooled in January, home prices continued solid year-over-year growth,” Yun pointed out, adding, “The labor market and economy are markedly improved compared to a year ago, which supports stronger buyer demand. The big test for housing will be the impact on affordability once rates rise.”

      Regional breakdown

      Existing-home sales in the Northeast fell 6.0% in January to an annual rate of 630,000, but are 3.3% above a year ago. The median price rose 2.7% from a year ago to $247,800.

      In the Midwest, sales were down 2.7% to an annual level of 1.08 million, but are still 0.9% above January 2014. The median price was $151,300 -- up 8.2% from a year ago.

      Existing-home sales came in at an annual rate of 2.07 million in the South -- down 4.6%, but posted a year-over-year gain of 5.6%. The median price was $171,900, up 7.4% from a year ago.

      Sales of previously-owned homes in the West plunged 7.1% to an annual rate of 1.04 million, but are 1.0% above a year ago. The median price rose 7.2% to $291,800, 7.2% above January 2014.

      Sales of previously-owned homes fell in January -- a somewhat inauspicious start to the new year. Figures released by the National Association of Realtors...
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      WhiteWave Foods recalls Horizon Cheddar Sandwich Crackers

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

      WhiteWave Foods is recalling 7.5-oz. packages of Horizon Cheddar Sandwich Crackers.

      The product may contain peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label. The outer package is labeled as a cheddar sandwich cracker and the inner package contains the peanut butter sandwich crackers.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The company says it believes fewer than 62,160 boxes of product have been shipped to retailers and wholesalers in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

      A “best before” date of 17 May 2015 is on the top of the individual box, and the bottom of the box contains a Universal Product Code (UPC) of 42365 00464.

      Consumers who purchased the recalled product may return it to the place of purchase for a full refund or exchange.

      Consumers with questions may contact the Company at 1-866-663-4349 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST.

      WhiteWave Foods is recalling 7.5-oz. packages of Horizon Cheddar Sandwich Crackers. The product may contain peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label. ...
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      ESS Food recalls pork products

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

      ESS Food of Denmark is recalling approximately 50,904 pounds of pork belly product produced in Poland.

      The product was 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 product, produced on various dates from March 3, 2014, to April 11, 2014, is being recalled:

      • Approximately 40-lb. boxes containing 4-5 pieces of “PINI POLONA PORK BELLY BONELESS”

      The recalled products bear the establishment number “10023802” inside the Polish mark of inspection, were shipped to a distributor in Texas and a processing facility in Iowa.

      The problem was discovered during routine surveillance of storage facilities when an FSIS investigator

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Michael Stentebjerg, area manager, at (404) 254-8510.

      ESS Food of Denmark is recalling approximately 50,904 pounds of pork belly product produced in Poland. The was not presented at the U.S. point of entry fo...
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      Kenosha Beef International recalls beef product

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Kenosha Beef International of Columbus, Ohio, is recalling approximately 21,427 pounds of ready-to-eat beefsteak patty product.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      There are no reports of illness due to consumption of these products.

      The following fully cooked beefsteak patties were produced on Jan. 24, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 35.3-lb. boxes of “Fully Cooked Black Angus Ground Beefsteak (chopped and formed)” with product number 87657 and “use thru” date of 01/24/16.

      The recalled product bears the establishment number “EST. 10130” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and was shipped to distributors in Illinois and North Carolina for further distribution to restaurants.

      Consumers with questions may contact Dennis Vignieri, president and CEO, at (262) 859-2272.

      Kenosha Beef International of Columbus, Ohio, is recalling approximately 21,427 pounds of ready-to-eat beefsteak patty product. The product may be contami...
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      Insurance rate hikes from moving violations vary widely by state

      North Carolina drivers face the steepest penalties

      If you have auto insurance you probably understand that staying out of an accident is the best way to keep your rates from going up. Filing a claim almost always results in a rate hike.

      Insurance companies, which measure risk when they decide who to cover and how much to charge, also look at your driving record. Getting tagged with a moving violation, such as speeding, will result in higher rates.

      But the increase can vary widely, depending on where you live. A report by insuranceQuotes.com found drivers ticketed on a DUI charge will pay a national average of 92% more for car insurance. North Carolina residents will be hit much harder, with an increase of 337%, while drivers in Maryland will only see their rates go up 15%.

      Hawaii is another tough state. Drivers there who are charged with reckless driving will see insurance rates rise 287%, significantly higher than the national average of 83%. At the other end of the scale, a reckless driving charge in Arkansas results in only a 24% increase in insurance costs.

      Small infractions

      The report shows more minor infractions also vary in the penalty dished out at policy renewal time. Driving without a license in Maryland raises rates by 95% but the same infraction has no consequence in Rhode Island.

      North Carolina was not only the most punitive on drivers with a DUI, it also topped the list for highest rate increase for over half of the violations the study researched. Meanwhile, New York tends to have the lowest percentage increase in rates after a moving violation.

      Most expensive violations

      Averaged nationally, insurance rates jumped highest for DUI, reckless driving and speeding. The least consequential violations are not wearing a seatbelt, driving without a license and violating railroad rules.

      "Most consumers are unaware of how much insurance rates go up even for a minor traffic violation, such as speeding a few miles per hour over the posted limit," said Laura Adams, senior analyst at insuranceQuotes.com. "In many states, drivers can keep small speeding tickets and other minor infractions off their records by going to traffic school or taking a defensive driving course, up to a limited number of times."

      Why the disparity?

      But why the sharp disparity among states in how a violation is treated? Consumer advocates say it has a lot to do with how individual states regulate the insurance industry.

      For example, in some states insurers can use a wide variety of rating factors that aren't connected to how someone drives. Other states are much stricter about the reasons an insurance company can cite to raise auto insurance rates.

      In California, a driver's safety record must be the primary factor in determining what he or she will pay for insurance. Unlike some other states, insurers can't use credit scores to set rates for California residents.

      As a result, any violations that show up on your driving record -- like a DUI or reckless driving violation – will result in a sharper premium hike than in less tightly regulated states.

      If you have auto insurance you probably understand that staying out of an accident is the best way to keep your rates from going up. Filing a claim almost...
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      Airbag-maker Takata hit with stiff fine

      The company is accused of failing to cooperate with the feds

      Airbag manufacturer Takata will pay a heavy price for allegedly failing to cooperate with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) continuing investigation into the company’s defective airbags.

      Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says the company is being fined $14,000 per day. Late last year, NHTSA issued two special orders to Takata requiring the company to provide documentation and other material relating to the agency’s probe. Takata has, NHTSA maintains, has not cooperated fully with the investigation.

      The company said it "surprised and disappointed" by NHTSA's action. "We strongly disagree with their characterization that we have not been fully cooperating with them," the company said in a prepared statement.

      Takata said it has provided NHTSA with almost 2.5 million pages of documents and has been "meeting regularly with NHTSA engineers on efforts to identify the root cause of the inflator issue."

      "We continue to keep NHTSA closely informed on the extensive testing efforts we have undertaken.  That work has, so far, supported our initial view that age and sustained exposure to heat and humidity is a common factor in the small number of inflators that have malfunctioned," Takata said.

      Foxx said that "Takata’s failure to fully cooperate with our investigation is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

      “For each day that Takata fails to fully cooperate with our demands, we will hit them with another fine. But, it’s not enough. I am asking Congress to pass the Grow America Act which would provide the tools and resources needed to change the culture of safety for bad actors like Takata.”

      Airbag manufacturer Takata will pay a heavy price for allegedly failing to cooperate with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) cont...
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      U.S. Treasury will accept payments via PayPal and Dwolla

      The feds are trying to move away from paper transactions

      Bitcoin is still not welcome but the U.S. Treasury says it will now accept some payments via PayPal and Dwolla.

      The Pay.gov site accepts payments for all kinds of things, including fines, penalties and loan repayments. It even accepts contributions, should you feel the need to give more money to the government.

      The government's goal is to move further away from paper-based transactions and more toward electronic ones, which it considers more efficient and secure.

      In 2014, the Treasury Department's Fiscal Service office handled $3.73 trillion in revenue by processing 400 million transactions through such programs as Pay.gov. Almost 98 percent, or $3.69 trillion, were settled electronically.

      Bitcoin is still not welcome but the U.S. Treasury says it will now accept some payments via PayPal and Dwolla....
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      New virus implicated in Kansas man's death

      The Bourbon virus is spread by ticks and mosquitoes

      A new health threat has emerged in Kansas, where a man died last spring from a disease possibly linked to a new virus. 

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it's the first time the Bourbon virus -- named for the county where the patient lived -- has been linked to human illness in the United States and only the eighth known case of human illness attributed to the group of viruses known as thogotoviruses.

      The Kansas man had received multiple tick bites in the days before becoming ill. After test results for many infectious diseases came back negative, a sample of the patient’s blood was sent to CDC for additional testing.

      Initial CDC testing showed evidence of an unidentified virus in the sample. CDC researchers then used Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) and determined that it was a new virus. 

      Symptoms 

      Because there has been only one case identified thus far, scientists are still learning about possible symptoms caused by this new virus.

      In the one person who was diagnosed with Bourbon virus disease, symptoms included fever, tiredness, rash, headache, other body aches, nausea, and vomiting. The person also had low blood counts for cells that fight infection and help prevent bleeding.

      The CDC said that, since there is no vaccine or drug to prevent or treat Bourbon virus disease, preventing bites from ticks and other insects may be the best way to prevent infection.

      Information on preventing tick bites is available on the CDC Ticks website.

      A new health threat has emerged in Kansas, where a man died last spring from a disease possibly linked to a new virus. ...
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      Preventing cancer in cats

      Cancer can be very aggressive in cats, making prevention essential

      Any cat owner knows one of the most fatal things for a cat is cancer and it's not that cats get cancer more often than other animals, it's that it appears to be much more aggressive  in cats.There are some things that the average cat owner can do to help prevent cancer.

       For female cats, being spayed at a young age will significantly decrease the cat’s chances of developing mammary cancer, or breast tumors. Ideally, female cats should be spayed prior to the first heat cycle. Doing so will nearly eradicate the potential for breast cancer.

      What you feed your cat can make a world of difference, just as in humans. There is evidence that fatty acids in the diet, such as EPA and DHA, may be helpful in both preventing cancer and in feeding cats that have cancer. Watch their weight -- obesity can make your cat more prone to cancer.

      Stop smoking around your cat. Secondhand smoke can affect your cat’s lungs and has been implicated as a potential contributing factor in cancer, just as it is in people. Imagine what it does to humans and your cat's lungs are that much smaller.

      Controlling your pet's exposure to sunlight and ultraviolet radiation can significantly reduce the risk of skin cancer. The areas on an animal's body that are most likely to develop skin cancer are those with little or no hair or those that do not have color.

      If you have an outdoor cat be really careful about chemicals in your lawn. Avoid using pesticides and other known cancer-causing agents both on your lawn and in your home.

      Test your cat for the feline leukemia virus and the feline immunodeficiency virus -- both are cancer causing. Feline leukemia virus attacks the body’s lymphoid tissue and may cause tumors in various internal organs or leukemia. The virus also leads to anemia and general weakness of the immune system, which alters the cat’s ability to fight any sort of infection.The stronger the cat’s immune system, the more likely that it will overcome the infection. To test them it is just a simple blood test.

      Regular check-ups with your vet can catch early signs and there is a vaccine for feline leukemia but there is no vaccine that guarantees complete protection. Early detection can lead to a better outcome if cancer is detected.

      Any cat owner knows one of the most fatal things for a cat is cancer and it's not that cats get cancer more often than other animals, it's that it appears ...
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      Planes, trains and your pets

      A bill in Congress would open Amtrak to pets

      Flying pigs, snakes and other creatures have had their moments this past year on airplanes. Many pet owners have tried to get their loved ones on flights across the country with them to no avail. Nobody ever thought about taking a train except for maybe one very determined Congressman.

      Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican, has a BFF named Lily. She's a French Bulldog  and he has taken her coast to coast via the airlines without a problem. But when he tried to take her on Amtrak a couple years back, he discovered that only service dogs were allowed aboard.

      It so happens that Denham chairs a House subcommittee overseeing the agencies that regulate the nation's railroads. He thinks if more people were allowed to bring their dogs and cats in carriers they might be more willing to use the rail system more frequently.

      He is making headway as Amtrak has agreed to try his idea on two different routes in Illinois. So far about 145 people opted in and took their pets on the train and it appears those numbers are increasing.

      Denham now feels it's time for a national roll-out. He has filed a bill that would require Amtrak to come up with a pet policy for passengers traveling less than 750 miles.

      Denham must be dog’s best friend because he has gotten 24 lawmakers to sign onto the legislation and it’s a combo of Democrats and Republicans.

      There are some issues with the idea, including pets traveling long distance and having nowhere to relieve themselves. No one seems to have found a solution to that yet.

      Currently, animals traveling in Illinois have to have an advanced reservation and there is a $25 surcharge. Your animal has to be 20 pounds or less and there's no getting out of the carrier. The pets and their owners also are relegated to a particular train car and customers have to arrive at least 30 minutes before departure so they can sign a release agreement.

      Amtrak reserves the right to remove from the train any pet that smells bad or is disruptive. (If only the same rules applied to humans)

      This could help the railroad industry as it might bring revenue to a business that has seen its share of problems and has relied on taxpayer support to survive.

      Flying pigs, snakes and other creatures have had their moments this past year on airplanes. Many pet owners have tried to get their loved ones on flights a...
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      Unilever recalls Breyers No Sugar Added Salted Caramel Swirl ice cream

      The product contains almonds, an allergen not listed on the label

      Unilever United States is recalling a limited number of tubs of Breyers No Sugar Added Salted Caramel Swirl ice cream.

      The product contains almonds, an allergen not listed on the label.

      No allergic reactions have been reported to date.

      The recalled product was distributed in 1.5-quart (1.41L) paperboard tubs marked with a unit UPC of 7756738393, with a best before date of NOV2915GB, located on the bottom of the tub. It was distributed nationwide to limited retailers and reached consumers through retail stores. No product was shipped outside the U.S.

      Consumers who purchased the recalled product should immediately discontinue use of it, retain the outer box and call 877-270-7402, which is operational 24/7, to request a replacement coupon.

      Unilever United States is recalling a limited number of tubs of Breyers No Sugar Added Salted Caramel Swirl ice cream. The product contains almonds, an al ...
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      Breaking down health care costs in retirement

      Looked at as a monthly cost it's not quite as scary

      Americans approaching retirement age are worried about lots of things, including having enough money to live on after they stop working. With so many people struggling to save for retirement, that might not be an unreasonable fear.

      In particular, retirees and the soon-to-be retired worry about the cost of health care. A new survey by Bankrate.com found upper income households in the U.S. are more concerned about covering medical expenses in retirement than the overall population.

      But it is important to understand the real numbers behind those projected retirement health care costs. Depending on individual circumstances – like whether you have Medicare supplemental insurance, they may not be as high as you think.

      Fidelity Investments estimates a couple retiring in 2014 is expected to need $220,000 in today’s dollars to cover health care costs in retirement, admittedly a hefty amount for most retirees. However, it's important to understand how that number is calculated.

      Cost calculator

      AARP has a retirement health care cost calculator that can help show how this formula works. We decided to check it out.

      After assuming a male in good health is retiring this year at age 65 and will live another 20 years, we entered the data and ran the numbers. The calculator estimates he would need $134,134 worth of health care. Admittedly, that sounds like a lot.

      But our fictitious retiree really isn't going to have to come up with that amount. When we examined AARP's explanation of the numbers, we see that $77,012 would be covered by Medicare. The remaining $57,122 would be paid out of pocket. Still sounds kinda scary.

      Medicare covers 80% but most people purchase Medicare supplemental policies, to cover what Medicare doesn't. So the $134,134 total includes both what Medicare pays for and what a consumer would likely pay out for pocket for health services without having supplemental coverage.

      Breaking it down monthly

      But assuming our retiree would pay around $100 a month for Medicare coverage, deducted from his monthly Social Security payment, and $100 or more a month for a supplemental policy, he would cover his medical expenses for $200 to $300 a month.

      What about the $57,122 he still needs to come up with? Well, that's what the $200 to $300 a month goes toward.

      If you divide $57,122 by 20 years, you get $2,856 a year. Break that down into 12 monthly payments and it's $238 a month – a lot less scary than $134,134.

      Still a significant bite

      None of this is to minimize health care costs in retirement, which will continue to go higher. And retirees will need to be able to to afford the $238 monthly payments while still paying for everything else so there is every reason to put away as much money as you can.

      It just means you don't necessarily have to have $134,134 set aside for medical expenses the day you stop working.

      There will be plenty of other demands on your resources in retirement and unfortunately, the Bankrate survey found a third of Americans said they can't save more for their retirement because they are barely making ends meet now. Only 29% of those questioned in the survey said they were satisfied with what they are able to save.

      Reality check

      One bright spot in the survey is the fact that only 13% of Americans expect Social Security to account for all or most of their retirement income.

      "The average Social Security payout is only around $15,000 per year, so people are realistic to think they'll need to supplement that income," said Sheyna Steiner, senior investing analyst at Bankrate.com. "But despite all the gloom and doom about the future of Social Security, most Americans are optimistic that they'll get at least something from the program. That even includes Millennials – 63% of them think Social Security will fund at least some of their retirement several decades from now."

      Americans approaching retirement age are worried about lots of things, including having enough money to live on after they stop working. With so many peopl...
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      Samsung's Smart TVs send your unencrypted voice commands over the Internet

      Makes it extra-easy for hackers to spy on you

      A couple of weeks ago, Samsung's voice-operated Smart TVs inspired a media uproar thanks to some potentially disturbing language in Samsung's Privacy Policy:

      To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted ... to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. … Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.

      In other words: If you use Voice Recognition for Samsung Smart TVs, there are people who will listen to recordings of what you say, to convert it into text. Those people will be able to hear whatever you say, so don't say anything around your television that you wouldn't want strangers to hear.

      This all sounds bad enough, but earlier this week, British security experts discovered something even more disturbing: when Samsung sends your conversations and other personal information to third parties, that information isn't even encrypted.

      David Lodge at Pen Test Partners didn't know if he should believe the privacy-destroying claims he'd heard about the TVs, so he decided to run a test:

      …. can Samsung listen in on you whilst you're sat on the sofa watching TV? The easiest way is to intercept some traffic from a TV and see what it's trying to do.

      Lodge discovered that yes, Samsung was sending some of his voice commands in text form to unknown third parties – and Samsung did not bother to encrypt any of it:

      What we see here is not SSL encrypted data. … Based on the limited information leaked above in plaintext, there’s plenty to suggest that interesting data is making its way on to the interwebs from your TV. Come on Samsung, how about at least protecting it with SSL?

      Yesterday, when the BBC reported Lodge's discovery, Samsung admitted that at least “some” of its smart TVs were sending their owners' voice data over the Internet without encrypting it, but told the BBC that it intends to release new code which would encrypt users' voice commands before sending them over the Internet.

      A couple of weeks ago, Samsung's voice-operated Smart TVs inspired a media uproar thanks to some potentially disturbing language in Samsung's Privacy Polic...
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      "Bioidentical" hormones widely used by menopausal women, study finds

      But the compounded drugs may present health hazards women aren't aware of

      Here's another thing the Internet has brought us: widely promoted, but untested and unapproved, drugs that can supposedly ease women's journey through menopause.

      An analysis of two large surveys find that as many as 68% of women are using compounded -- so-called "bioidentical" -- hormones without understanding their risks. The analysis was published online in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society.

      "These results indicate a general lack of understanding about key differences between compounded and FDA-approved hormone therapy. This publication establishes the need for better education on this topic," commented Dr. Margery Gass, the society's executive director.

      The analysis found that nearly 40 million prescriptions are being written for compounded hormones. But it seems that women who take them don't know what they're getting into.

      One survey asked women "Do you believe that bioidentical hormone therapies compounded at a specialty pharmacy are FDA-approved?" Only 14% correctly answered "no." Most -- 76% -- weren't sure, and 10% incorrectly answered "yes."

      The risks of taking unapproved compounded hormones are not well documented because the formulations are not tested in clinical trials before they are dispensed and there is no formal mechanism for reporting adverse events after women take them.

      "Hormone hoax"

      But investigative reporting in MORE magazine -- "The Hormone Hoax Thousands Fall For (October 2013) -- demonstrated that filled compounded hormone prescriptions often don't have the amounts of hormone prescribed. That can be especially risky when a woman takes estrogen without enough progesterone, an imbalance that puts women at increased risk of endometrial cancer.

      The FDA also makes distances itself from compounded hormones.

      "The term 'bio-identical' has no defined meaning in any medical or conventional dictionary, and FDA does not recognize the term," the agency cautions in an advisory on its website. "Many compounding pharmacies use 'Bio-identical' as a marketing term to imply that drugs are natural, or have effects identical to those from hormones made by the body. FDA is not aware of credible scientific evidence to support these claims."

      An analysis of two large surveys find that as many as 68% of women are using compounded -- so-called "bioidentical" -- hormones without understanding their...
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      Is your couch making you fat? Study finds flame retardants can lead to obesity

      Researchers say the commonly-used retardants can cause metabolic and liver problems

      We're accustomed to hearing that too much couch time can make us fat. But it's not just sitting around that's making us fat, it may be the couch itself.

      Researchers at the University of New Hampshire say that synthetic flame retardants used in couches and other furnishing and home electronics have been found to cause metabolic and liver problems that can lead to insulin resistance, which is a major cause of obesity.

      "Being obese or overweight increases one's risk of many diseases including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and certain cancers," said Gale Carey, professor of nutrition and the lead researcher.

      Carey and her team of researchers found that laboratory rats exposed to polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, experienced a disruption in their metabolism that resulted in the development of metabolic obesity and enlarged livers.

      "Despite the plethora of resources devoted to understanding the roles of diet and exercise in the obesity epidemic, this epidemic continues to escalate, suggesting that other environmental factors may be involved. At the biochemical level there is a growing body of experimental evidence suggesting certain environmental chemicals, or 'obesogens', could disrupt the body's metabolism and contribute to the obesity epidemic," she said.

      Sluggish cells

      In Carey's research, fat cells isolated from rats dosed with high levels of flame retardants daily for one month developed a sensitivity to hormones that was similar to the sensitivity experienced by people who are overweight: the fat cells became more sensitive to epinephrine and less sensitive to insulin.

      "One of the hallmarks of somebody who is becoming diabetic - and often this accompanies weight gain - is that their fat cells become sluggish in their response to insulin. With epinephrine, the fat cells more easily release the fatty acids into the blood stream and if those fatty acids are not used, they promote insulin resistance," Carey said.

      "Those two features - insulin resistance and epinephrine sensitivity - are two features of fat cells from people who are above normal weight. And that's what we were seeing in our rats. Even though our rats had not gained weight, they were experiencing 'metabolic obesity'," she said.

      The cause of the flame retardant-induced insulin resistance is unknown but one possibility is the suppression of a key metabolic enzyme  in the liver. Carey and her students found that the activity of the enzyme, which is responsible for sugar and fat metabolism, dropped by nearly 50 percent in livers of rats exposed to flame retardants for just one month, compared to controls.

      For more than 10 years, Carey and more than a dozen graduate and undergraduate students have collaborated with researchers from several universities and industries across the nation to examine the persistent organic environmental chemicals that could impact human health.

      "The average person probably has about 300 chemicals in her body that are manmade," she said.

      In a previous study, Carey and a graduate student examined the amount of flame retardant chemicals in breast milk. They found that the levels of these chemicals in breast milk are about two orders of magnitude greater than in European countries that do not allow the use of flame retardant chemicals.

      We're accustomed to hearing that too much couch time can make us fat. But it's not just sitting around that's making us fat, it may be the couch itself....
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      Economic crystal ball suggests continued growth

      Initial jobless claims post a decline

      A closely watched forecaster of U.S. economic performance came in positive again in January.

      According to the Conference Board, its Leading Economic Index (LEI) inched up 0.2% last month following increases of 0.4% and 0,3% in December and November, respectively.

      “The U.S. Leading Economic Index increased again in January, but its pace of growth has moderated in recent months,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, economist at The Conference Board. “While the LEI suggests a positive short-term outlook in 2015, the lack of strong momentum in residential construction, along with a weak outlook for new orders in manufacturing, poses a downside risk for the U.S. economy.”

      The composite economic indexes are the key elements in an analytic system designed to signal peaks and troughs in the business cycle. The leading, coincident, and lagging economic indexes are essentially composite averages of several individual leading, coincident, or lagging indicators.

      They are constructed to summarize and reveal common turning point patterns in economic data in a clearer and more convincing manner than any individual component -- primarily because they smooth out some of the volatility of individual components.

      The 10 components of The Conference Board Leading Economic Index include:

      • Average weekly hours, manufacturing
      • Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance
      • Manufacturers’ new orders, consumer goods and materials
      • ISM Index of New Orders
      • Manufacturers' new orders, nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft orders
      • Building permits, new private housing units
      • Stock prices, 500 common stocks
      • Leading Credit Index
      • Interest rate spread, 10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds
      • Average consumer expectations for business conditions

      Jobless claims

      Good news from the government on the employment front.

      The Labor Department reports first-time applications for state unemployment benefits were down 21,000 in the week ending February 14 to 283,000.

      Analysts at Briefing.com say reports of mass layoffs in the energy sector have not yet shown up in the unemployment claims data, suggesting that -- for the time being -- businesses have not reduced their staff to meet the new lower-priced reality of the energy market.

      The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly tally and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, was down 6,500 from the previous week to 283,250, the lowest point since the end of last October.

      The full report is available on the Labor Department website.

      A closely watched forecaster of U.S. economic performance came in positive again in January. According to the Conference Board, its Leading Economic Index...
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      Ruiz Foods recalls sausage product

      The product contains soy, an allergen not listed on the label

      Ruiz Foods of Denison, Texas, is recalling approximately 59 pounds of sausage product.

      The product contains soy, an allergen not listed on the label.

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

      The following product is being recalled.

      • 4.5-lb. cases containing 3 trays with 8 pieces of “Egg Sausage and Cheese Wrapped in a Flour Tortilla.”

      The recalled product bears the establishment number “EST. 17523A” inside the USDA mark of inspection, was produced February 4, 2015 and shipped to a warehouse in Indiana for distribution to institutional customers.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the company’s consumer line at (800) 772-6474.  

      Ruiz Foods of Denison, Texas, is recalling approximately 59 pounds of sausage product. The product contains soy, an allergen not listed on the label. Th...
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      Toyo recalls Open Country M/T tires

      The tires were made with their belts off center

      Toyo Tire Holdings of Americas is recalling 138 Open Country M/T tires, size 40X15.5R22 127Q, manufactured October 26, 2014, to November 1, 2014 (week code 4314).

      During production, the affected tires were made with their belts off center which may result in tread separation and/or loss of inflation pressure. Tread separation or loss of inflation pressure may increase the risk of a crash.

      Toyo will notify owners, and dealers will replace the tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in February 2015.

      Owners may contact Toyo customer service at 1-800-442-8696.

      Toyo Tire Holdings of Americas is recalling 138 Open Country M/T tires, size 40X15.5R22 127Q, manufactured October 26, 2014, to November 1, 2014 (week code...
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      Michigan Brand recalls pork sausage products

      The products contain hydrolyzed soy protein, an allergen not listed on the labels

      Michigan Brand of Bay City, Mich., is recalling approximately 4,287 pounds of pork sausage products.

      The products contain hydrolyzed soy protein, an allergen not listed on the labels.

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

      The following products are being recalled:

      • 6 oz. packages of “MICHIGAN BRAND Teriyaki Hunter Sausage” bearing production dates of 6/6/14 to 2/17/15 on the label
      • 6 oz. packages of “The Jerky OUTLET Teriyaki Hunter Sausage” bearing production dates of 6/6/14 to 2/17/15 on the label
      • 14 oz. packages of “MICHIGAN BRAND Teriyaki flavor Hunter Sausage” bearing production dates of 6/6/14 to 2/17/15 on the label
      • 14 oz. packages of “The Jerky OUTLET Teriyaki Hunter Sausage” bearing production dates of 6/6/14 to 2/17/15 on the label
      • 40 count boxes of “The Jerky OUTLET Teriyaki Hunter Sausage” bearing production dates of 6/6/14 to 2/17/15 on the label

      The products bear the establishment number “Est. 10306” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and have a shelf life of one year from the date of production. They were shipped to retail outlets and distributors in Michigan.

      Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Michigan Brand plant manager Joe Grillo at Joegrillo@michiganbrand.net or at (989) 859-0081.

      Michigan Brand of Bay City, Mich., is recalling approximately 4,287 pounds of pork sausage products. The products contain hydrolyzed soy protein, an aller...
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      Buy it or rent it, shelter is getting more expensive

      Industry experts see consumer income growth as critical to real estate

      One consequence of the housing crash has been the spectacular rise in residential rent. With fewer people able or willing to buy a home, demand for rental property surged.

      Even with investors buying up distressed homes and converting them to rentals the supply still couldn't quite keep up with the demand. According to real estate website Zillow, that trend isn't likely to change anytime soon.

      In its latest Home Price Expectations Survey 52% of the industry analysts with an opinion said the rental market will eventually correct, but that won't happen for a while. Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Stan Humphries says, when it does happen, it will happen naturally.

      "Solving the rental affordability crisis in this country will require a lot of innovative thinking and hard work, and that has to start at the local level, not the federal level," he said. "Housing markets in general and rental dynamics in particular are uniquely local and demand local, market-driven policies.”

      Home prices rise

      While rents continue to rise, so do home sale prices. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports most U.S. metro areas saw slightly stronger growth in home prices during the fourth quarter of last year. NAR says prices were boosted by fewer homes for sale, a slight increase in demand and a stronger job market.

      Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the long housing recovery is showing legs.

      “Home prices in metro areas throughout the country continue to show solid price growth, up 25 percent over the past three years on average,” he said. “This is good news for current homeowners but remains a challenge for buyers who are seeing home prices continue to out-pace their wages. Low interest rates helped preserve affordability last quarter, but it’ll take stronger income gains and more housing supply to help meet the pent-up demand for buying.”

      The national median existing single-family home price in the fourth quarter was $208,700. That's up 6.0% from the fourth quarter of 2013.

      For all of 2014, the median price increased 4.8% in the third quarter from a year earlier; 4.2% in the second quarter from a year earlier; and 8.3% in the first quarter from a year earlier.

      International buyers remain active

      Rising prices and a strong dollar are doing nothing to discourage foreign investors from buying U.S. homes, particularly homes in California. The California Association of Realtors (CAR) ssays that 14% of its members closed a 2014 transaction with a buyer from another country.

      More than a third of foreign buyers were from China and two thirds of all foreign buyers came to closing with all cash.

      Foreclosures, which triggered the housing crash, haven't completely disappeared as a factor in the housing market. In its most recent report on foreclosures, RealtyTrac found foreclosure filings rose in January from December, including a 55% jump in bank repossessions.

      Still, the 58,000 foreclosure filings were down considerably from the peak of the crisis, when there were 158,000 foreclosure filings in March 2010.

      One consequence of the housing crash has been the spectacular rise in residential rent. With fewer people able or unwilling to buy a home, demand for renta...
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      Sony starts taking pre-orders for its $840 “Smart Glasses”

      Can SmartEyeglass succeed where Google Glass failed?

      It's a little over a month now since Google halted sales of Google Glass, its Internet-connected “smart eyeglasses,” but the Sony Corporation is hoping to succeed where Google previously stumbled.

      Yesterday, Sony started accepting pre-orders in the U.K. and Germany for its “SmartEyeglass Developer Edition,” and said on its website that it would start selling the glasses in the U.S. and Japan on March 10.

      SmartEyeglasses will sell for $840 in the U.S., £520 in the U.K., ¥100,000 in Japan and €670 everywhere else. They're designed to connect to compatible smartphones and superimpose information into the wearer's line of sight without obstructing the wearer's vision (according to Sony).

      Sony's specs suggest that the glasses' bulky power source won't be too impressive: the battery will only hold up to 150 minutes' worth of charge without using the camera and 80 minutes' worth of charge with it, and “[e]ven when not using the camera, battery life will decrease when using wireless LAN connection.” Also, the glasses won't work in cold weather or in too much heat, either; the operating temperature range is only 5 to 35 degrees Celsius (41 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit).

      Nor will the SmartEyeglasses impress anyone on a sartorial level. Re/code's reviewers said that “Sony's $840 smart glasses are too dorky to be believed,” Gizmodo dubbed them “even dorkier than Google Glass,” and the first paragraph of Extreme Tech's review mentioned “these hilariously bulky glasses” and wondered if anyone would “go out in public with these ridiculous goggles on.”

      The glasses themselves are much wider and have much thicker frames than any style of ordinary eyeglasses, and there is also a circular controller housing the battery, microphone, speaker and other hardware; this controller can be clipped onto the wearer's clothing, possibly on the theory that if you're already wearing those dorky glasses it really doesn't matter if you've got a bulky plastic clip-on thing ruining the line of your clothes, too.

      Sony hopes to have the glasses available for full consumer release sometime next year.

      It's a little over a month now since Google halted sales of Google Glass, its Internet-connected “smart eyeglasses,” but the Sony Corporation is hoping to ...
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      Bigger firms more likely to let you work from home

      Survey shows large companies recognize the advantages more than small firm bosses

      For any number of reasons a growing number of people prefer to work from home, rather than report to an office each day.

      If you are one of those people, your chances of being able to do that are better if you work for a large company rather than a small or mid-sized one.

      A new survey by Accountemps, a temporary staffing firm, interviewed chief financial officers (CFO) at a wide variety of companies. It found that 68% of the CFOs at companies with 1,000 or more employees reported an increase in work-from-home and other remote work opportunities.

      But only 34% of CFOs at firms with 20 to 49 employees reported an increase in these remote work opportunities.

      Benefits

      There are many benefits for employees when they can work from home. They save on commuting costs and can be present when children get home from school.

      But what's the motivation for businesses? The survey suggests the main reason companies do it is to please valued employees. And the survey suggests that large companies care about this more than small ones.

      Among companies offering remote work arrangements, higher morale and retention were mentioned most as the reason allowing employees to work away from the office. Companies also see it as good business, with 28% believing it improves productivity.

      In the past companies were slow to adopt remote work arrangements on the assumption that employees would be unproductive if not supervised by a hovering boss in an office environment. It turns out that's not true.

      Supporting evidence

      A study published last year in the Harvard Business Review followed an experiment at a call center operated by Ctrip, a Chinese travel website. Some employees were given the option of working from home and the results were surprising.

      “People working from home completed 13.5% more calls than the staff in the office did—meaning that Ctrip got almost an extra workday a week out of them,” writes Nicholas Bloom, a Harvard business professor who co-authored the study. “They also quit at half the rate of people in the office—way beyond what we anticipated. And predictably, at-home workers reported much higher job satisfaction.” 

      Work-life balance

      The Accountemps survey seems to back that up. The CFOs at companies providing remote work opportunities were asked what benefits, if any, that had seen. By far the most common answer was that it improves employee retention and morale by promoting a better work-life balance.

      "Employee preferences for 'anytime, anywhere' work arrangements are hard to ignore," said Bill Driscoll, a district president of Accountemps. "Although telecommuting isn't suitable for every role, it can be a powerful incentive for employees who want greater flexibility.”

      Driscoll says other advantages to a business include cost savings on office space, the ability to tap into talent in different geographical areas and time zones, and more around-the-clock client service.

      For any number of reasons a growing number of people prefer to work from home, rather than report to an office each day....
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      Rough winter weather sends new home construction tumbling in January

      The outlook for future building was lower as well

      Home builders are feeling the sting of a cold winter.

      In a joint release, the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and urban development report privately-owned housing starts fell 2% in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,065,000. Even with that decline, the rate is 18.7% above the rate posted the same month last year.

      The decline in single-family housing construction made a big impact. Starts were off 6.7% to a rate of 678,000. The January rate for units in buildings with five units or more jumped more than 7% to 381,000.

      “These numbers are consistent with our recent surveys,” said National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Chairman Tom Woods, “and are primarily due to severe weather hitting the Midwest and other parts of the country.

      Building permits

      Privately-owned housing units authorized by building permits, a gauge of builders' plans for the months ahead, dipped 0.7% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,053,000. Permits for single-family homes were down 3.1%, while authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were up more than 3% at a rate of 372,000.

      The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Inflation

      Separately, the government reports a plunge of 0.8% in the producer price index (PPI) the thirds decline in as many months and the largest since November 2009. The PPI is flat year-over-year.

      A major factor in the sharp decline was gasoline prices which plummeted 24.0%. Falling prices for diesel fuel, jet fuel, basic organic chemicals, dairy products and home heating oil also played a role.

      Thecomplete report may be found on the Labor Department website.

      Home builders are feeling the sting of a cold winter. In a joint release, the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and urban development report pri...
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      Another drop in mortgage applications

      Rising interest rates are why

      Applications for mortgages posted a substantial decline last week as interest rates headed higher.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) says its weekly mortgage applications survey shows applications were down 13.2% in the week ending February 13.

      “Mortgage rates increased to their highest level since the beginning of the year last week, and application volume dropped sharply as a result, particularly for refinances,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “The market index declined to its lowest level since the week ending January 2 as purchase application activity decreased 7% and refinance applications decreased 16%. Refinance volume fell particularly for larger loans, as evidenced by the decline of almost $25,000 in the average loan size for a refinance loan.”

      The decline of 16% in the Refinance Index pushed the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 66% of total applications from 69% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity dropped to 5.3% of total applications.

      The FHA share rose to 15.2% from 14.1%, the VA share slipped to 8.0% from 8.3%, and the USDA share rose to 0.9% from 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 6 basis points to 3.93% from 3.84%, with points increasing to 0.35 from 0.31 (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 3.92% from 3.90%, with points increasing to 0.28 from 0.19 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was higher.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose from 3.72% to 3.73%, with points slipping to 0.12 from 0.13 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs jumped 9 basis points to 3.24%, with points increasing to 0.35 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 increased to 3.09% from 3.07%, with points increasing to 0.47 from 0.44 (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.

      Applications for mortgages posted a substantial decline last week as interest rates headed higher. The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) says its weekly ...
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      Nissan recalls vehicles with steering issue

      Extra play in the steering wheel could increase the risk of a crash

      Nissan North America is recalling 16,973 model year 2008 Infiniti EX35 vehicles equipped with the power tilt/telescope option included in the premium package, manufactured June 29, 2007, to April 25, 2008; 2009 Infiniti FX35 and FX45 vehicles manufactured October 31, 2007, to April 16, 2008; and 2009 Nissan GT-R vehicles manufactured March 14, 2007, to April 25, 2008.

      The steering column outer tube may not be round, resulting in extra stress being applied to the upper steering bearing. This stress may cause the bearing retainer to fracture, creating extra play in the steering wheel or a possible loss of steering. Extra play in the steering wheel or a loss of steering may increase the risk of a crash.

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the steering shaft on the Infiniti EX35, FX35, and FX45 vehicles, and will replace the steering column assembly on the Nissan GT-R vehicles, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Infiniti owners may contact customer service at 1-800-662-6200. Nissan owners may contact the GT-R hotline at 1-866-668-1487.

      Nissan North America is recalling 16,973 model year 2008 Infiniti EX35 vehicles equipped with the power tilt/telescope option included in the premium packa...
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      Toyota recalls Yaris and Tacoma vehicles

      The vehicles have axle bolt and tire size issues

      Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., is recalling approximately 230 Model Year 2015 Yaris hatchbacks and approximately 20 Model Year 2015 Tacoma TRD Pro model pickup trucks.

      In the Yaris vehicles, the rear axle bearing bolts may not have been tightened sufficiently during vehicle assembly. If a bolt is loose and falls off during operation, the bolt could damage rear brake components, resulting in reduced brake performance or potential wheel lock up, which could increase the risk of a crash.

      The Tacoma TRD Pro model pickup trucks were distributed to dealers in Puerto Rico without the correct B-pillar tire placard indicating the tire size and recommended cold tire inflation pressure for the front and rear tires. An improperly inflated tire can increase the risk of a crash.

      Toyota is not aware of any crashes, injuries, or fatalities caused by either condition.

      Owners of the involved vehicles will be notified by first class mail. Toyota dealers will repair the vehicles at no cost to the owner.

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

      Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., is recalling approximately 230 Model Year 2015 Yaris hatchbacks and approximately 20 Model Year 2015 Tacoma TRD Pro model picku...
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      How much sleep do you really need?

      New guidelines suggest it's more than you're getting

      Have you noticed how many commercials there are on television promoting mattresses? Not just any mattresses, but super bedding designed to help you sleep better.

      There are even pillows that promise a better night's rest. Whether these products really help can be debated, but it's clear many people are finding sleep is elusive and are looking for ways to get more of it.

      That may be a good thing.

      In a world of increasing stress, sleep is sometimes a casualty. When we're young we might stay out all night partying or pull an all-nighter to complete a school paper.

      When we're older the stresses of family life and a competitive and uncertain workplace can rob us of sleep.

      Health consequences

      Whatever the stage of life and whatever the reason for it, doctors now recognize that not getting enough sleep has real health consequences.

      “In the short term, a lack of adequate sleep can affect judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information, and may increase the risk of serious accidents and injury,” according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. “In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early mortality.”

      But how much sleep is enough? The exact number varies depending on age. But Dr. Lydia DonCarlos of the Loyola University Chicago School of Medicine is a member of a National Sleep Foundation panel that has just issued new recommendations.

      New recommendations

      She says newborns need 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day while senior adults aged 65 and up need 7 to 8 hours per day. Teens, who perhaps need sleep the most yet get it the least, are urged to get between 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night.

      To reach their conclusions DonCarlos said the panel looked at the findings of more than 300 previous studies of sleep.

      “We still have a great deal to learn about the function of sleep,” DonCarlos said. “We know it’s restorative and important for memory consolidation. But we don’t know the details of what the function of sleep is, even though it is how we spend one-third of our lives.”

      What you need

      Here the panel's sleep-time recommendations:

      • Newborns (0-3 months): Sleep range narrowed to 14-17 hours each day (previously it was 12-18).
      • Infants (4-11 months): Sleep range widened two hours to 12-15 hours (previously it was 14-15).
      • Toddlers (1-2 years): Sleep range widened by one hour to 11-14 hours (previously it was 12-14).
      • Preschoolers (3-5): Sleep range widened by one hour to 10-13 hours (previously it was 11-13).
      • School age children (6-13): Sleep range widened by one hour to 9-11 hours (previously it was 10-11).
      • Teenagers (14-17): Sleep range widened by one hour to 8-10 hours (previously it was 8.5-9.5).
      • Younger adults (18-25): Sleep range is 7-9 hours (new age category).
      • Adults (26-64): Sleep range did not change and remains 7-9 hours.
      • Older adults (65+): Sleep range is 7-8 hours (new age category).

      A 2011 study found U.S. teenagers weren't meeting the old sleep recommendations, much less the new ones. It found that 68.9% of adolescents responding to a survey got less than 8 hours of sleep on the average school night.

      Have you noticed how many commercials there are on television promoting mattresses? Not just any mattresses, but super bedding designed to help you sleep b...
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      GM not backing up from its Chevy Bolt plans

      Despite low gas prices company says Bolt will "shake up the status quo"

      General Motors (GM) advanced the concept of the plug-in electric car in January when it announced plans for its new Chevy Bolt, a car with a higher mileage range and a lower price tag than the Volt, which was introduced in 2010.

      At a time when falling gasoline prices have taken the luster off alternative fuel vehicles GM isn't backing away from its bet on electric vehicles (EV). Last week the carmaker said it isn't even slowing down its approach, announcing the new EV will be built at its Orion assembly plant near Detroit.

      GM unveiled the Bolt at the North American International Auto Show.

      “The message from consumers about the Bolt EV concept was clear and unequivocal: Build it,” said GM North America President Alan Batey. “We are moving quickly because of its potential to completely shake up the status quo for electric vehicles.”

      Follow up to the Volt

      Chevrolet introduced the Volt as a plug-in hybrid, which has since racked up awards and high marks from automotive enthusiasts. It operates as an all-EV until its battery capacity drops to the charge level, normally about 38 miles. At that point a gasoline-powered engine kicks in to extend the range, acting as a generator for the electric motors that continue to power the wheels.

      GM has taken what it has learned about battery technology and developed the Bolt EV concept as a long-range pure electric for all 50 states. GM estimates the Bolt will have a range of about 200 miles on a single charge and will sell for around $30,000, after tax credits.

      The extended range and lower price point could make the Bolt an attractive consumer choice as a daily commuting vehicle. GM could have backed away until fuel prices make EVs more popular but has chosen to plow ahead.

      Michigan Gov. Rick Scott welcomed the decision to build the car in his state and predicted the automaker won't be disappointed in the outcome.

      “Michigan unquestionably remains the global automotive leader,” Scott said. “Chevrolet is tapping a skilled workforce that includes some of the most talented and hard-working people in the world for this cutting-edge vehicle. Chevrolet is an important part of our state’s automotive history, and Michigan-made products like the Bolt EV point to a bright future as well.”

      Shaking up the field

      GM says the Bolt will appear in new car showrooms within two years and when it does, Car and Driver predicts it could be bad news for its pricier competition. In particular, the automotive publication predicts it could pose a threat the to Tesla Model 2 and the BMI i3, the subject of an expensive advertising campaign featuring Katie Couric and Bryant Gumble.

      Then again, the Bolt could be in a class by itself, at least for a while.

      “If GM can deliver an EV by 2017 that reaches the 200-mile mark, it won’t have any competition,” the publication declares. “The i3 musters only an EPA-estimated 81 miles and costs $43,350. The next Nissan Leaf will supposedly crack 249 miles, but it’s at least a couple of years away. And the Tesla Model 3—also expected to deliver a 200-mile range and cost $40,000—is banking on both the Gigafactory battery plant and Model X production to run perfectly on schedule.”

      General Motors (GM) advanced the concept of the plug-in electric car in January when it announced plans for its new Chevy Bolt, a car with a higher mileage...
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      GMO apples don't get much applause

      The idea of a non-browning apple seems, somehow, not too exciting

      Last week's announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that it would allow marketing of apples that have been genetically engineered to resist browning is turning some environmental activists several shades of red but food safety groups are taking it relatively well.

      "Unlike most of the commercially approved genetically engineered crops, which provide benefits primarily to farmers, this product provides a modest benefit to consumers. It might make sense to use such a product for pre-sliced apple slices or in fruit salad or salad bars," said Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

      The non-browning "Arctic apples" were developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., a Canadian biotech company. They'll be produced in two varieties -- Granny Smith and Golden Delicious -- and are the first in what Okanagan says will be a bushel or more of produce engineered to hold up to the vagaries of time, weather and insects. Peaches, cherries and pears are close behind, the biotech company promises.

      OSF says its vision is to "marry the age-old art of fruit breeding with modern science tools, creating exciting new products to benefit producers and consumers alike."

      The Okanagan apples will be labeled as "Arctic" but will not be labeled as GMO, the company said. And that's leaving a sour taste in many mouths.

      The Environmental Working Group (ENG) said the USDA's action "underscores the need for a transparent and consistent national labeling standard" but stopped short of saying the biotech apples would be rotten to the core.

      “The non-browning, Arctic apples are some of the first GMO whole foods to reach the U.S. market,” said Mary Ellen Kustin, EWG senior policy analyst. “As we see this GMO fruit hit the stands, it only becomes more important to have a clear labeling requirement to ensure that American consumers have the information they crave and deserve to know.”

      EWG quotes polls showing that more than 90 percent of American consumers want to know more about the food they are eating and favor GMO labeling, already required in 64 countries.

      As if on cue, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act last week. The bill would direct the Food and Drug Administration to require that food manufacturers label foods that contain GMOs.

      “With even more toxic compounds, like 2,4-D and dicamba, being approved for use on GMO crops, and now the green light for the Artic® apple, it’s time for Congress to give consumers the power to make informed decisions about the food they are buying,” Kustin added.

      Apple knockers cautious

      Perhaps not surprisingly, some apple growers are greeting the news cautiously, fearing that consumers fearful of GMO products will avoid all apples rather than just the Okanagan varieties.

      “In the marketplace we participate in, there doesn’t seem to be room for genetically modified apples now,” said John Rice, co-owner of Rice Fruit Company in Gardners, Pa., in a New York Times report.

      The reaction was the same in Washington state, which produces 60% of U.S. apples. The Northwest Horticultural Council -- which represents Washington state apple growers -- who grow more than 60% of the US apple crop -- has expressed opposition to introducing GMO apples.

      Major food companies are also treading carefully. McDonald's and Gerber said they had no plans to use the Arctic apples in any of their products.

      Last week's announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that it would allow marketing of apples that have been genetically engineered to resi...
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      NJ judge finds gay conversion therapy claims amount to consumer fraud

      Judge compares conversion claims to flat-earth theory

      A New Jersey judge has ruled that "conversion therapy" services that claim they can "cure" homosexuals are violating the state's Consumer Fraud Act by depicting homosexuality as abnormal or a mental illness.

      Hudson County Judge Peter Bariso Jr. likened the theory that homosexuality can be cured to the notion that the earth is flat, saying that both have been disproven by scientific evidence.

      Bariso also held that advertising the conversion services without compelling scientific evidence to support their claims also amounted to consumer fraud.

      The decision makes "all the sense in the world," said Hayley Gorenberg, of Lambda Legal in New York. Marlton, N.J., attorney Joseph Osefchen said conversion therapy advertisements are a "class action waiting to happen," the New Jersey Law Journal reported.

      The case was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of four young men who had obtained conversion therapy through Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH).   

      JONAH lead counsel Charles LiMandri said his clients were “devout Jewish people” who did not say homosexuality is a mental illness but will say that “in the context of the Torah, that it is not part of God’s plan.” 

      He added that “people may disagree, they may even be very offended, but it’s a traditional Judeo-Christian belief.”

      According to the SPLC, the ruling marks the first time a U.S. court has found that homosexuality is not a mental disease.

      "This ruling makes clear that when conversion therapists lie about the nature of homosexuality in order to lure these vulnerable clients into their services and their programs, they're committing fraud," said David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Centre which filed the lawsuit for the plaintiffs.

      A New Jersey judge has ruled that "conversion therapy" services that claim they can "cure" homosexuals are violating the state's Consumer Fraud Act by depi...
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      Builder confidence slips in February

      Harsh winter weather gets the blame

      Wicked winter weather is taking some of the starch out of builder confidence.

      According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI), builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes in February fell two points -- to a level of 55.

      “Overall, builder sentiment remains fairly solid,” said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, a home builder from Blue Springs, Mo. He says this month's slight downturn is “largely attributable to the unusually high snow levels across much of the nation.”

      NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe notes that confidence levels have held in the mid- to upper 50s range for the past eight months, which he says, “is consistent with a modest, ongoing recovery. Solid job growth, affordable home prices and historically low mortgage rates should help unleash growing pent-up demand and keep the housing market moving forward in the year ahead.”

      Calculating the HMI

      The HMI gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next 6 months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.” The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.” Scores for 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.

      Two of the 3 HMI components posted losses in February., with the component gauging current sales conditions edging down a point to 61 and the component measuring buyer traffic off 5 points to 39. The gauge charting sales expectations in the next 6 months held steady at 60.

      Looking at the three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the Northeast fell a single point to 46, and the Midwest and South each posted a 2-point drop to 54 and 57, respectively. The West rose 2 points to 68.

      Wicked winter weather is taking some of the starch out of builder confidence.' According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo H...
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      Jack and the Beanstalk recalls soybean sprouts

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Jack and the Beanstalk is recalling soybean sprouts in 1-lb, 1.5-lb, 10-lb, and Natto plastic bags distributed up to and including February 12, 2015 with Best if Used by dates up to February 19, 2015.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      No illnesses that have been reported to date.

      The following soybean sprouts were distributed to San Francisco Bay area stores and restaurants:

      • 1-LB SOYBEAN SPROUT BAR CODE – 7-27580-12366-9
      • 1.5-LB SOYBEAN SPROUT BAR CODE – 7-27580-12365-2
      • 10-LB SOYBEAN SPROUT BAR CODE – 7-27580-12351-5
      • NATTO SOYBEAN SPROUT BAR CODE – 7-27580-12367-6

      Consumers who purchased the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 831-422-8028 Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

      Jack and the Beanstalk is recalling soybean sprouts in 1-lb, 1.5-lb, 10-lb, and Natto plastic bags distributed up to and including February 12, 2015 with B...
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      Scott recalls Vanish Evo bicycle helmets

      The helmets do not comply with CPSC safety standards

      Scott USA of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling about 1,450 2015 Scott Vanish Evo bicycle helmets.

      The helmets do not comply with the impact requirements of the CPSC safety standards for bicycle helmets.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      The helmets have the brand name “SCOTT” printed on the outer shell of the helmet on the left side. For the Vanish Evo black and grey helmets, the lettering is black; for the Vanish Evo white and grey helmets, the lettering is white.

      The following serial number ranges are included in this recall: 2014-06/009359 through 2014-09/027210. The serial number is printed on a white sticker inside the back of the helmet.

      The helmets, manufactured in China, were sold at authorized Scott dealers nationwide and online from July 2014, through December 2014, for about $200.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the bicycle helmet and take it to an authorized Scott dealer for a refund of the purchase price.

      Consumers may contact Scott USA toll-free at (888) 607-8365 extension 2012 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. MT Monday through Friday, or by email at recall@scott-sports.com.

      Scott USA of Salt Lake City, Utah, is recalling about 1,450 2015 Scott Vanish Evo bicycle helmets. The helmets do not comply with the impact requirements...
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      Ford, Chrysler and Hyundai lead best February car deals

      Manufacturers cut prices and sweeten terms for Presidents' Day

      Presidents' Day, which dealers usually manage to expand into a full week or more, is an active time for new car sales. It seems every make and model has a special promotion of some kind to lure consumers into the showroom.

      Who has the best deals? TrueCar.com, an auto pricing website, selects the Ford Fusion as the car with the best savings in February, currently selling at an average 14% below Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP).

      The Fusion has company from the Hyundai Elantra and Chrysler 300C. TrueCar found that both are selling at around 10% below MSRP. These deals may be a reflection of the changing fuel cost landscape.

      Shift in preference

      "TrueCar's data illustrates a change in consumer preference, with transaction prices reflecting generous savings for savvy consumers interested in compact, midsize and large cars this month," said John Krafcik, president of TrueCar. "This observed shift, improved fuel economy on utility vehicles and low gasoline prices drove consumers away from more traditional sedans."

      The 2015 Ford Fusion has an MSRP of $22,835 but TrueCar finds its national “Market Average” sale price at $19,607. The 2015 Elantra, with manual transmission, has an MSRP of $18,075 but is going for $15,873. The 2015 Chrysler 300's MSRP is $41,390 but is selling for $37,191.

      TrueCar says its "Market Average" is based on the national average of recent vehicle transactions, including destination and delivery charges after incentives that are subject to change. It doesn't include tax, title, licensing, documentation or processing fees, other state and governmental charges and/or fees or any other charges or fees allowed by law.

      There are also some attractive deals when it comes to purchase financing and leasing, which affect what you pay each month.

      Financing deals

      Currently, when you purchase a 2015 Honda Civic sedan you may qualify for financing as low as 0.9% for 48 months. The 2015 Toyota RAV4 comes with 0% financing for 48 months while the 2015 Mazda CX-5 offers 0% financing for 60 months for qualified buyers. Volkswagen offers the same deal on its Golf TDI.

      To qualify for those financing offers you'll need a pretty good credit score.

      Lease deals

      The Fusion also shows up on TrueCar's list of best February lease deals, at least as far as the monthly payment goes. However, the $179 a month payment is for just 2 years and only 21,000 miles. The $2,599 down payment is pretty steep in light of that.

      The 2015 Nissan Murano deal is a full 3-year, 36,000 mile lease. It's $319 a month with $2,699 due at signing.

      Some manufacturers are offering cash back on sales this month. Among the best, according to TrueCar, is $1,500 back on the Kia Optima, $1,500 back on the 2015 Ford Explorer and $1,000 back on the 2015 Hyundai Sonota.

      Presidents' Day, which dealers usually manage to expand into a full week or more, is an active time for new car sales. It seems every make and model has a ...
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      Anthem hackers threaten customer records dating back to 2004

      On the bright side, Anthem's paying for two free years of credit monitoring

      News about the Anthem insurance database hacking keeps getting worse: initial reports suggested that the hackers got access to the records of up to 80 million current and former customers.

      Then came news that the hacking first announced in early February 2015 most likely dates back to the previous April – in other words, hackers enjoyed nine months of access to Anthem's database before anyone at Anthem knew about it.

      Does this mean anyone who's been an Anthem customer since April 2014 needs to worry about hackers accessing their data? More than that: late last week the company admitted that some of the customer data lost in the breach dates as far back as 2004.

      On Anthemfacts.com, the website Anthem set up specifically to deal with news of the hacking, the company said that it would offer two years' worth of credit-monitoring services to “current or former members of an affected Anthem plan dating back to 2004”:

      “This includes customers of Anthem, Inc. companies Amerigroup, Anthem and Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield companies, Caremore, Unicare and HealthLink. Additionally customers of Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies who used their Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance in one of fourteen states where Anthem, Inc. operates may be impacted and are also eligible: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, and Wisconsin.”

      To sign up for this coverage, potentially affected customers can click this link to learn how, or you can wait to see if Anthem contacts you first, since the company says it will notify everyone whose data was actually compromised.

      Ignore emails, texts

      These notifications will be printed on paper and sent through the U.S. mail. If you've received any email or text messages purporting to be from Anthem, delete them at once, and especially don't click on any links or download any attachments those messages might contain; such messages are actually scammer-bait. Anthemfacts.com explicitly says that “Anthem will also individually notify potentially impacted current and former members by U.S. Postal mail.” No other forms of communication are mentioned.

      That said: if you contact Anthem about the hacking (or any of the countless other reasons you might need to talk to your health-insurance company), it's certainly possible that an Anthem representative will later call or email you in response. How can you tell the difference between a legitimate message from Anthem, and a missive from a scammer?

      Probably the single most important thing to remember comes from the scam alert Anthem posted on its own “Investor relations” website: “Anthem is not calling members regarding the cyber attack and is not asking for credit card information or social security numbers over the phone.” (Anthem's not unique in this regard: no legitimate, non-scammy company or organization asks for such information over the phone or unsolicited messages; only scammers ever do.)

      News about the Anthem insurance database hacking keeps getting worse: initial reports suggested that the hackers got access to the records of up to 80 mill...
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      Vitamin Natural Cottage recalls organic garlic powder

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling two lots of Natural Grocers brand Organic Garlic Powder.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      There have been no reports of illness

      The recalled product is packaged in clear plastic bags with Natural Grocers label notating Julian pack on dates and pricing per pound. It was produced in size ranges of 0.25 pound to 0.30 pound. The lots being recalled are identified by Julian packed on date and include: 351-14 and 006-15

      The product was distributed to Natural Grocers’ 92 stores located in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

      Consumers who purchased this product should return it to the store for credit or refund.

      Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling two lots of Natural Grocers brand Organic Garlic Powder. The product may be contamin...
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      Sunrise Poultry Processors recalls poultry products

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

      Sunrise Poultry Processors of Alberta, Canada, is recalling approximately 2,705 pounds of poultry products that 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 items, produced on February 2, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 40 lb. bulk cases of “Sunrise Poultry CHICKEN THIGHS.”
      • 25 lb. cases of “Sunrise Poultry CHICKEN THIGHS BONELESS.”
      • 25 lb. cases of “Sunrise Poultry BONELESS CHICKEN BREAST.”
      • 2.5 lb. cases of “Sunrise Poultry CHICKEN WHOLE FRYER.”
      • 4lb. cases of “Sunrise Poultry CHICKEN WHOLE FRYER.”
      • 3.25- 3.75 lb. cases of “Sunrise Poultry CHICKEN WHOLE FRYER.”

      The above products bear the establishment number “Canada 591” and were shipped to retail locations in Washington state.

      Consumers with questions may Doreen Kerr, at (604) 596-9505.

      Sunrise Poultry Processors of Alberta, Canada, is recalling approximately 2,705 pounds of poultry products that were not presented at the U.S. point of ent...
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      Korean Food Co. recalls soybean sprouts

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Korean Food Co. of Irving, Texas, is recalling 8 boxes of (20 bag in each box) Go-Hang Soybean sprouts in 1-lb. and 2-lb. plastic bags and 8 10-lb. black plastic bags distributed Jan 30, 2015 - Feb 6, 2015

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The following soybean sprouts products were distributed to KO-MART in Dallas and H-MART in Plano and Carrollton retail stores in Texas:

      • 1-LB. SOYBEAN SPROUT BAR CODE - 42053-12100
      • 2-LB. SOYBEAN SPROUT BAR CODE - 42053-13650
      • 10-LB. SOYBEAN SPROUT BAR CODE - 42053-13690

      Consumers who have the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 213-500-1893, Sun-Sat, 24 hours a day.

      Korean Food Co. of Irving, Texas, is recalling 8 boxes of (20 bag in each box) Go-Hang Soybean sprouts in 1-lb. and 2-lb. plastic bags and 8 10-lb. black p...
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      Researchers finding biological basis for gender identity disorders

      Doctors have traditionally treated gender disorders as a psychiatric problem

      Gender identity disorders have traditionally been treated as psychiatric problems but researchers at Boston University School of Medicine say there is increasing evidence of a biological basis for the condition.

      It's estimated that as many as 1 in 100 people have gender identity issues. Transgender persons identify with a gender that differs from the identity they were assigned at birth.

      The researchers conducted a literature search and reviewed articles that showed positive biologic bases for gender identity. These included disorders of sexual development, such as penile agenesis, neuroanatomical differences, such as grey and white matter studies, and steroid hormone genetics, such as genes associated with sex hormone receptors.

      They conclude that current data suggests a biological cause for transgender identity.

      "This paper represents the first comprehensive review of the scientific evidence that gender identity is a biological phenomenon," said Joshua D. Safer, MD, FACP, in a review article in Endocrine Practice. "As such it provides one of the most convincing arguments to date for all medical providers to gain the transgender medicine skills necessary to provide good care for these individuals," he added.

      Many physicians resist providing surgical and hormonal treatment to patients with gender issues, instead referring the patients for psychiatric care.  

      The findings of the review study may change physicians' perspective on transgender medicine and improve health care for these patients, Safer said.

      According to the researchers the article does have some limitations due to the small numbers of individuals studied and therefore conclusions should be drawn with caution. Safer recommends that further research focus on specific biologic mechanisms for gender identity.

      Gender identity disorders have traditionally been treated as psychiatric problems but researchers at Boston University School of Medicine say there is incr...
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      States want service stations to stop selling synthetic drugs

      Nine oil companies singled out in letter signed by 43 state attorneys general

      Attorneys general from 43 states are putting the heat on oil companies whose service stations and convenience stores are illegally selling synthetic drugs.

      The AGs say that synthetic drug use has increased dramatically over the past several years. Starting in 2010, over 11,000 people, many of whom were younger than 17, went to the emergency room after using synthetic marijuana.

      The letter said that law enforcement agencies have confirmed over 130 instances of branded gas stations having illegally sold synthetic drugs across the country in recent years.

      “When teens and young adults can find synthetic drugs for sale at gas stations operating under well-known brands, its gives these illegal products the false appearance of legitimacy when in fact they are very dangerous, potentially deadly drugs,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. “Oil companies spend millions of dollars on marketing campaigns designed to convince customers their brands are trustworthy. Prohibiting the sale of synthetic drugs in their stores can only protect their brand reputations while also protecting our youth.”

      The letter was sent to top company officials at British Petroleum, Chevron Corporation, Citgo Petroleum Corporation, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Marathon Petroleum Corporation, Phillips 66, Shell Oil Company, Sunoco, and Valero Energy Corporation. In it, the attorneys general requested that the companies address this growing problem by:

      • Prohibiting franchisees from selling any synthetic drugs;
      • Ensuring the prohibition is understood by store franchisees and their employees by communicating directly with each of them;
      • Establishing a point of contact in corporate offices for franchisees, should they have any questions about synthetic drugs;
      • Revoking the franchisee/franchisor relationship with any gas station or convenience store that sells synthetic drugs; and
      • Reporting to local law enforcement authorities if any franchisee is selling synthetic drugs.

      Joining Madigan in sending the letter were attorneys general from the following states and territories: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

      Attorneys general from 43 states are putting the heat on oil companies whose service stations and convenience stores are illegally selling synthetic drugs....
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      To get the cheapest air fare, timing is everything

      Average fare may change 70 times before flight departs

      In its return to profitability, the airline industry came up with 2 new guiding principles – charge for things that used to be free and fly with few, if any, empty seats.

      To make that second principle work airlines must constantly manipulate fares in the weeks leading up to a flight – lowering them at some point to encourage travelers and raising them when there are only a handful of seats left.

      For consumers, understanding how this timing works can help them get the best deal on a ticket.

      Analyzing the data

      CheapAir.com, a web portal that looks for the cheapest flights, has made it a project to search for the optimal time to purchase a ticket. After analyzing reams of data it has determined that in 2014 the best domestic fares were found booking, on average, 47 days in advance.

      This was based on a review of almost 5 million trips, covering 15,000 destinations, watching fares booked between 1 and 320 days in advance.

      “When you buy your flight makes a huge difference,” said CheapAir CEO Jeff Klee.

      Klee says that the price of an average fare changes 70 times during the period it’s available for sale. The variance in cost can be significant.

      “No one wants to find that the person sitting next to them on a flight paid $100 less for their ticket,” Klee said. “We spend a lot of time collecting and analyzing fare data so our customers can make more informed decisions.”

      Best and worst days

      There is also a “best” and “worst” day on which to book your flight. The study found that the average savings that could be achieved from buying on the “best” day versus buying on the “worst” was $201 per ticket.

      Another fact travelers should be aware of -- flights generally “go on the market” and are able to be booked 11 months before take-off. Klee says fares start off fairly high, since the airline has 11 months to sell out the plane, but slowly drop as the departure date approaches.

      Fares usually reach a low point somewhere between 27 days and 114 days out. The company found that 3 month window, between 1 and 4 months in advance, the prime booking window.

      “Way more often than not, the best fare for a domestic trip will be offered at some point during that window,” Klee said.

      Waiting until the last minute to book a flight is almost always costly. Buying a ticket within 14 days of departure results in a fare that is an average $111 higher. Wait until within 7 days and the price differential jumps to $174.

      By the same token, buying too far in advance will also result in a higher fare but the penalty isn't as steep – only about $50.

      In its return to profitability, the airline industry came up with 2 new guiding principles – charge for things that used to be free and fly with few, if an...
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      New Facebook policy can keep your account alive even when you're not

      You can choose a legacy contact, have your account deleted ... or just do nothing

      Facebook announced a fairly radical policy change today. It's “a new feature that lets people choose a legacy contact—a family member or friend who can manage their account when they pass away.”

      It's a morbid but necessary change. Facebook's previous policy had been to freeze the accounts of the dead, regardless of that person's wishes while alive. But as of today, Facebook users who worry about what will happen to their accounts can choose from two options: either designate an official “legacy contact” to take control of their accounts after death, or arrange for Facebook to delete those accounts altogether, the online equivalent of “burn my journals after my death.”

      Will Facebook's policy change inspire other social media to follow suit? In most cases, the issue of what happens to people's online accounts after they die remains undecided.

      Last August, Delaware made history by becoming the first U.S. state to give a person's digital assets the same status as tangible assets where inheritance laws are concerned — though that law only applies to Delaware residents, not to social media companies with corporate headquarters in Delaware.

      At the time, we noted that certain companies, including Facebook, would likely have to change their policies or terms of service, at least for Delaware residents, in order to comply with the new law. Facebook's “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” had said (and still says) that “You will not share your password (or in the case of developers, your secret key), let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account,” and “You will not transfer your account (including any Page or application you administer) to anyone without first getting our written permission.”

      Until yesterday, such statements presumably meant that even if you wanted to, for example, leave your Facebook login and password information to someone in your will (or just write it down and keep it where your executor will find it), this would officially violate Facebook policy: your heir or executor couldn't even log in to your Facebook page to let your “Friends” know that you are gone.

      Technically, that's still the case. A Facebook user may not do such things – but, as of Feb. 12, Facebook users can go through official Facebook channels to designate an official legacy contact.

      Facebook also says that it is “introducing legacy contacts in the U.S. first and look forward to expanding to more countries.” It's not yet known when Facebook will start offering this option outside of the United States.

      Setting up a legacy contact is optional, not mandatory. 

      Facebook announced a fairly radical policy change today: an announcement posted in its Newsroom boasts of “a new feature that lets people choose a legacy c...
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      Expedia adds Orbitz & CheapTickets to its orbit

      The world's second-biggest travel service bought Travelocity last month

      Expedia, which has slipped behind Priceline to become the world's second-largest travel service, is buying Orbitz and its CheapTickets and ebookers.com websites for about $1.3 billion.

      Expedia was launched by Microsoft in 1996. It has expanded steadily and now owns numerous major travel brands including Hotels.com, Hotwire, eLong Inc. and Trivago.

      The Orbitz acquisition puts Expedia back in the top spot with a global share of the travel market of about 6%, edging out archrival Priceline, at least for now.

      “We are attracted to the Orbitz Worldwide business because of its strong brands and impressive team,” Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive of Expedia, said in a statement.

      Expedia

      Consumers rate Expedia

      Expedia, Inc., which went public just a few years after being founded by Microsoft, has built an extensive brand portfolio that includes:

      • Expedia.com, the world's largest full service online travel agency with localized sites in 31 countries;
      • Hotels.com, with localized sites in more than 60 countries;
      • Hotwire, a discount travel site that offers opaque deals in 12 countries throughoutNorth America, Europe and Asia;
      • Travelocity, an online travel agency in the US and Canada;
      • Egencia, the world's fifth largest corporate travel management company;
      • eLong, a leading mobile and online travel service provider in China;
      • Venere.com, an online hotel reservation specialist in Europe;
      • trivago, an online hotel metasearch company with sites in 49 countries;
      • Wotif Group, a leading operator of travel brands in the Asia-Pacific region, including Wotif.com, lastminute.com.au, travel.com.au, Asia Web Direct, LateStays.com, GoDo.com.au and Arnold Travel Technology;
      • Expedia Local Expert, a provider of online and in-market concierge services, activities, experiences and ground transportation in hundreds of destinations worldwide;
      • Classic Vacations, a luxury travel specialist;
      • Expedia CruiseShipCenters, a provider of expert advice for travelers booking cruises and vacations through its network of 180 franchise locations across North America; and
      • CarRentals.com, a car rental booking company on the web.

      Orbitz

      Consumers rate Orbitz

      Orbitz the consumer travel planning sites Orbitz (orbitz.com), ebookers (ebookers.com), HotelClub (hotelclub.com) and CheapTickets (cheaptickets.com).

      Also within the Orbitz Worldwide family, Orbitz Partner Network (orbitzpartnernetwork.com) delivers private label travel technology solutions to a broad range of partners including some of the world`s largest airlines, bank loyalty programs and travel agencies, and Orbitz for Business (orbitzforbusiness.com) delivers managed travel solutions for companies of all sizes. 

      Expedia, which has slipped behind Priceline to become the world's second-largest travel service, is buying Orbitz and its CheapTickets and ebookers.com web...
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      Sunfood recalls organic Sacha Inchi powder

      The food may be contaminated with staph

      Sunfood of El Cajon, CA is recalling Organic Sacha Inchi Powder, because it has the potential to be contaminated with Staphylococcus enterotoxin.

      The presence of Staphylococcus enterotoxins may be injurious to health and may result in staphylococcal food poisoning. Nausea, vomiting, retching, abdominal cramping, and prostration may occur. In more severe cases there may be headache, muscle cramping, and transient changes in blood pressure and pulse.

      Organic Sacha Inchi Powder was distributed nationwide in retail stores and through mail orders.

      This product is packaged in 8oz white poly bags with lot number 141027 Expiration date 9/30/2016 and UPC Code 803813-28444 1.

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

      The potential for contamination was noted after routine testing was done and revealed the possibility of Staphylococcus enterotoxin in the above noted lot number.

      Sunfood has ceased the production and distribution of the product as FDA and Sunfood continue their investigation as to what caused the problem.

      Consumers who have purchased the affected lot of Organic Sacha Inchi Powder are urged to return it to the place of purchase for a refund. Consumers with questions may contact Sunfood at 1-800-RAWFOOD 8am - 5pm PDT.

      Sunfood of El Cajon, CA is recalling Organic Sacha Inchi Powder, because it has the potential to be contaminated with Staphylococcus enterotoxin. ...
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      Pet International Inc. Recalls Buster's 6” Beef Trachea Pet Treat

      Possible Salmonella health risk

      Pet International of Miami, Florida is recalling 1500 units of 6” Beef Trachea Pet Treat because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. Salmonella can affect animals (i.e. dogs) 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 6” Beef Trachea Pet Treat was distributed to retail stores in the following Cities: Conifer, and Lakewood in Colorado.

      If you have this product, use gloves and put it in a double bag and throw it away as soon as possible. Do not touch the product in any way, and if you do, it’s recommended you must wash your hands immediately with an antibacterial soap.

      The potentially affected product will pertain to a particular lot number, and are specific to a particular size of the pouch it’s sold in. Anyone having these products should verify the following:

      Brand: Buster’s Natural Pet Supply,
      Lot Code: 8501450,
      Size: 6” Beef Trachea/ 12 Pack Plastic Pouch,
      UPC Code: 8501450

      No illnesses have been reported to date. We are still warning consumers that if any of the above information is on the package you have, do not feed it to any animals at all. It may be hazardous and should be disposed of immediately.

      The recall was as the result of a routine sampling program by the Colorado Department of Agriculture and analyzed by FDA, obtained from Buster’s Natural Pet Supply in Conifer, CO. and found to be positive for Salmonella. The product sampled had a Buster’s Label on it, but was manufactured by Pet International. Buster’s Natural Pet Supply recalled the entire product from the two stores that the distributor sells it. The Pet International Inc. continues their investigation as to what caused the problem.

      Consumers with any questions about the recall product may contact the company at by phone at (305) 591-3338 Monday through Friday 9:00am too 5:00pm EST or via e-mail at sergioh@petint.com.

      Pet International of Miami, Florida is recalling 1500 units of 6” Beef Trachea Pet Treat because it has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella....
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      ZETA pocket jump starters recalled

      The battery pack can overheat and start a fire

      ZETA by Jackco Pocket Jump Starters are being recalled. The battery packs can overheat, split apart and melt the battery pack’s enclosure, posing a fire hazard.

      The ZETA by Jackco Pocket Jump Starter - Deluxe Set contains a battery pack used to jump start vehicles and charge cell phones, tablets, laptops and other devices. The set comes in a black canvas case with red trim and a black handle.

      Jackco Transnational has received 487 reports of battery failure, and two reports of a fire resulting in property damage. No injuries have been reported.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled Pocket Jump Starter and contact Jackco Transnational for instructions on how to dispose of the product and how to obtain a refund for the purchase price. Consumers without a receipt will receive $110.

      Consumer Contact:

      Jackco Transnational toll-free at (888) 452-2526 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or online at www.jackco.com and click on “Pocket Jump Starter Product Recall” for more information or send an e-mail to recall@jackco.com.

      ZETA by Jackco Pocket Jump Starters are being recalled. The battery packs can overheat, split apart and melt the battery pack’s enclosure, posing a fire ha...
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      Arctic Cat snowmobiles recalled

      The tie-rod attachment can come loose

      About 19,000 Arctic Cat snowmobiles are being recalled. The lower steering tie-rod attachment can loosen and cause loss of steering control, posing a crash hazard.

       The recall involves the 2012 model year of the F, XF, and M model snowmobiles.

      ModelModel Name/Number
      FF800 LXR, F1100 LXR, F800 Sno Pro, F1100 Turbos, F1100 Sno Pro/Limited/50th
      XFXF800 LXR, XF1100 LXR, XF800 Sno Pro High Country, XF1100 Turbos, XF100 Limited/50th
      MM800, M1100, M800 Sno Pro, M1100 Sno Pro/Limited/50th, M800 HCR, M1100 Turbos

      The model name is located on each side of the hood. The snowmobiles were sold in a variety of these color combinations: black, white and orange, black and orange, black and green and white and green.

      Arctic Cat has received four reports of incidents, including one complete loss of steering control. No injuries have been reported.

      Consumers should immediately stop using these snowmobiles and contact their local Arctic Cat snowmobile dealer to schedule a free inspection and repair. Arctic Cat has notified owners of these snowmobiles directly by mail.

      Consumer Contact: For additional information, call Arctic Cat at (800) 279-6851 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday or visit the firm's website at www.arctic-cat.com

      ​About 19,000 Arctic Cat snowmobiles are being recalled. The lower steering tie-rod attachment can loosen and cause loss of steering control, posing a cras...
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      Oil prices expected to be stable for foreseeable future

      Industry report predicts U.S. oil producers will emerge from current price war even stronger

      U.S. motorists can expect prices at the pump to rise and fall over the rest of the decade, but price movements should be gradual, not like the volatile fluctuations of the last 10 years.

      That's one of the takeaways from the International Energy Agency's (IEA) Medium-Term Oil Market Report, issued this week. In it, the IEA tries to make sense of the recent plunge in world oil prices and what it might hold for the future.

      The good news for U.S. consumers is a return to greater price stability. It will be easier to budget for fuel costs.

      The recent dramatic drop in oil prices, which led to a corresponding decline in prices at the pump, was partly the result of Saudi Arabia's refusal to trim production to draw down a growing surplus of oil. With the Saudis and the rest of the world's oil producers maintaining their normal production levels, that surplus is growing, resulting in the lower gasoline prices consumers have enjoyed lately.

      Oil price war

      The assumption has always been that the Saudis were willing to drive oil prices lower to hurt U.S. shale oil producers, who have emerged as a major threat to the kingdom as the world's preeminent oil producer. If that was indeed the strategy, the IEA report says it won't work.

      “Growth in US LTO (Light Tight Oil) is expected to regain momentum in the latter part of the forecast period as prices recover, and North America remains a top source of supply growth for the remainder of the decade,” the report says. “In contrast, Russia faces a perfect storm of lower prices, sanctions and currency swings, pushing its production into contraction. OPEC’s share of global supply will inch up from recent lows but will not recover to the levels enjoyed before the surge in LTO supply.”

      In other words, when the dust settles from the recent oil price collapse, the U.S. is likely to emerge in an even stronger position in the world oil market. And since current law forbids most U.S. crude oil from being exported, it is likely to be refined for use in the U.S. market.

      "This unusual response to lower prices is just one more example of how shale oil has changed the market," said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. "OPEC’s move to let the market re-balance itself is a reflection of that fact. It may have effectively turned LTO into the new swing producer, but it will not drive it out of the market. LTO might in fact come out stronger."

      Oil price bottom

      Meanwhile, world oil prices have continued to rise this week, suggesting to some market analysts that they have reached a bottom. Still, they remain only half of what they were 6 months ago.

      The slight rebound in oil prices has little to do with the rise in gasoline prices consumers may have noticed in the last 10 days. According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey, the national average price of self-serve regular is up 12 cents a gallon in the last week.

      That's largely due to normal maintenance oil refineries go through at this time of year as they prepare to switch over to producing summer-grade gasoline. Gasoline prices may continue to rise over the next month or so, before leveling off and maybe even dipping a bit in June.

      U.S. motorists can expect prices at the pump to rise and fall over the rest of the decade, but price movements should be gradual, not like the volatile flu...
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      Potential home health threat: caulk containing PCB

      But chances of it being found in newer buildings are remote

      Your home protects you from the elements, but in rare cases, materials used to build your home can pose a threat to the occupants' health.

      A recent example is drywall imported from China and used extensively in the southern U.S. in 2004 and 2005, following a string of destructive hurricanes. The drywall emitted unpleasant odors, corroded metal and some said it made them sick, though federal health officials said they found no evidence that it contributed to 11 deaths.

      These days, there are concerns about caulk containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Last year celebrity model Cindy Crawford made news when she removed her children from a California high school after high levels of PCBs were found in some classrooms. It was believed to be coming from “old” window caulk.

      “Old,” because PCBs haven't been used in caulk since 1979. So if your home was built after that time, chances are very remote that caulk containing PCBs was used in construction or retrofitting. Congress banned the substance in 1976 after it was found to cause cancer and damage the immune and reproductive systems.

      Essential tool

      Caulk is an essential weatherizing tool used primarily around doors and windows to plug up cracks. The flexible material is used to seal small gaps and joints to make them watertight and and prevent cold air from invading during the winter. Some manufacturers added PCBs to their caulk to enhance their water and chemical resistance, durability and elasticity.

      Over time caulk will begin to crack and flake. If it contains PCBs the chemical can escape into the air and be inhaled by occupants.
      “Exposure to PCBs in buildings can occur by directly touching PCB containing caulk and any surrounding materials, hand to mouth contact and breathing in contaminated air or dust,” said Joseph Frasca, Senior Vice President of Marketing at EMSL Analytical, Inc., a PCB testing laboratory. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends testing for PCBs in peeling, brittle, cracking or deteriorating caulk in older buildings. Even caulk that appears to be in good condition may be a source of PCBs.”

      No cause for alarm

      Although this is a serious issue, the EPA says potential presence of PCBs in schools and buildings should not be a cause for alarm. If your school or home was built or renovated between 1950 and 1979, there are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce potential exposure.

      Start by minimizing the potential for PCBs to be present in the indoor air. You can do that by making sure that the ventilation system is operating as designed, and to repair or improve the system if it is not.

      The EPA also says many old lighting systems contain ballasts manufactured with PCBs. These PCBs can get into the air if the ballast fails or ruptures. Replacement of old lighting systems with new, energy efficient systems will eliminate a potential source of PCBs, the agency says.

      Your home protects you from the elements, but in rare cases, materials used to build your home can pose a threat to the occupants' health....
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      FTC: Sweepstakes promoter duped consumers, agrees to $9.5 million judgment

      Puzzles Unlimited used misleading terms to entice consumers to enter

      A sweepstakes promoter has been permanently banned from direct mail marketing and is liable for a $9.5 million judgment under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which charged her with violating a previous court order by running a sweepstakes scam.

      “There’s a price to pay to violating a court order in an FTC case,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “In this case, that’s $9.5 million and a permanent ban on direct mail marketing.”

      In April 2007, Crystal Ewing and other defendants were banned from prize promotions to settle FTC charges that they deceptively enticed consumers in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom to send money to collect large cash prizes that, in fact, did not exist.

      Ewing now admits to violating the 2007 court order through her work with another FTC defendant, Glen Burke, and a prize promotions company, Puzzles Unlimited LLC, that duped consumers with the illusory promise of sweepstakes winnings in exchange for processing fees.

      Payout notice

      Using direct mail ads, Puzzles Unlimited enticed consumers to enter promotions by using terms like “Notice of Grand Prize Payout” and “Grand Prize Guaranteed,” which led consumers to believe they had already won thousands of dollars and just needed to fill out a form containing a simple puzzle and submit a “processing fee” of $10 to $15. 

      But the vast majority of consumers received no “Grand Prize Payout” – or any other payout whatsoever. Instead, the consumers who submitted “processing fees” continued to receive additional rounds of puzzles that they were told they must complete correctly in order to claim the prize money.

      With each round of mailers, consumers were misled with promises of bonus winnings in exchange for additional fees. At each step of the way, consumers were told they were tied for first place in the promotion regardless of whether or not this was true. 

      A sweepstakes promoter has been permanently banned from direct mail marketing and is liable for a $9.5 million judgment under a settlement with the Federal...
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      Hines Nut, Harris Teeter walnuts recalled

      The nuts may be contaminated with salmonella

      Hines Nut Company is recalling WALNUT HALVES & PIECES, Lot Number 6908. The product was sold by GOLD STATE NUT COMPANY of Biggs, CA, and packaged by Hines Nut Company. These nuts may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      The product was packaged and distributed as follows:

      HINES NUT BRAND

      Packed in black foam trays with a Green and Gold Label
      Weight of 12 or 16 ounces
      Packaged between November 25 and December 5, 2014
      Lot Number printed on label
      Distributed in Texas
      Best by dates from September 21, 2015 to October 1, 2015

      HARRIS TEETER FARMERS MARKET BRAND

      Packed in black foam trays with a Red and Black label
      Weight of 10 ounces
      Packaged December 2, 2014
      Lot number printed on Nutrition Facts label on back of package
      Distributed to two distribution centers in North Carolina
      Best by date of September 28, 2015

      The potential for contamination was noted after routine testing by an outside company contracted by the FDA revealed the presence of Salmonella in a package of the product.

      To date, Hines Nut Company, Inc. has not received any complaints concerning illness on this lot number. Consumers who have purchased any of the recalled products are urged not to eat them and to contact Hines Nut Company for information regarding a full refund or for disposal information.

      Consumer contact: Consumers can contact the Company at 1 800-561-6374 for information regarding this recall. This toll-free number is operational Monday – Friday, 7 am to 4 pm CST.

      Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis and arthritis.

      ###

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      Photo: Product Labels

      Hines Nut Company is recalling WALNUT HALVES & PIECES, Lot Number 6908. The product was sold by GOLD STATE NUT COMPANY of Biggs, CA, and packaged by Hines ...
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      Marin Mountain recalls bicycles

      The handlebars can come loose or fall off

      Marin Mountain Bikes is recalling 2014 Marin MBX 50 and Tiny Trail bicycles because the handlebars can loosen or separate.

      This recall involves Marin 2014 model MBX 50 and Tiny Trail boys and girls bicycles with 16-inch knobby tires. The single speed bicycles have high-rise handlebars and training wheels.  

      The boy’s bicycles were sold in red and have serial number HA14980XXXXXX. The girl’s bicycles were sold in purple and have serial number HA14982XXXXXX. Serial numbers are printed on a foil label affixed to the underside of the base of the down tube. “Marin” is printed on the seat and the downtube. “Tiny Trail” or “MBX 50” is printed on the bicycles chain guard.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycle and contact Marin for a replacement handlebar stem.

      Consumer Contact:

      Marin Mountain Bikes at (800) 222-7557 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm’s website at www.marinbikes.com and click on “Recalls/Safety” for more information.

      Marin Mountain Bikes is recalling 2014 Marin MBX 50 and Tiny Trail bicycles because the handlebars can loosen or separate....
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      Free at last: Cell phones can be "unlocked"

      Consumers who own their phone can now move freely among carriers

      It's been a long time coming but effective tomorrow, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, if you own your cell phone outright you can move from one carrier to another.

      That sounds pretty simple but it has taken a long time and a lot of wrangling by regulators, wireless carriers and their lobbying organization. There are also lots of conditions that apply.

      What do we mean by unlocking? Cell phones and wireless devices like tablets have traditionally been "locked" so that consumers are tied to their carrier for the term of their contract.

      But now, if you now have a phone on -- let's say -- the Verizon network, you can switch to AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint or any of a number of others.

      That's assuming that you have paid for your phone and fulfilled your contract. Chances are you haven't, since most smartphones -- which cost hundreds of dollars -- are owned by the wireless carrier until you have lived out your contract, typically two or three years long.

      There also some plans, like Verizon's Edge, that let you buy your phone on the installment plan. To switch carriers, you must have paid off the full amount due on that plan.

      If you haven't met these conditions and are just dying to switch carriers anyway, you will have to pay an early termination fee (ETF), typically a few hundred dollars. (You may want to think twice about this. You don't want to go to a lot of trouble and expense dumping Carrier A only to find that other carriers don't work well in your location either, a not uncommon condition).

      It's also possible that you bought an "unlocked" phone, which puts you that much closer to being able to wave good-bye to your current carrier. Many BlackBerry fans, for example, have bought the new Passport and Classic phones outright, since they are not yet being offered by the major carriers.

      Next step

      So assuming you have met all those conditions mentioned above, what's next? First, make sure your carrier has agreed to the new unlocking rules. This new procedure is not a law, it's just a statement of principles incorporated into the "Consumer Code for Wireless Services" that major carriers have agreed to follow. 

      At the moment, carriers signed on to the code are:

      Each of these carriers will, if history is any guide, have its own procedures and requirements and will probably try to persuade you to hang around, so the process may vary slightly. You can call the customer service line and take your chances or go to your carrier's website using the links above and carefully read through the posted procedures before taking the next step.

      Some carriers may require you to go to one of their stores to have your device unlocked. Others will be able to do it remotely. It may take a day or two, so be patient.

      The carriers have agreed not to charge a fee for unlocking.

      Prepaid phones are also eligible for unlocking within one year of activation, assuming you have been up to date on payments.

      Network types

      Nothing is ever simple in the wireless universe and this is no exception. Agreements and regulations aside, there are several different types of wireless networks -- primarily GSM, LTE and CDMA -- and not all devices are compatible with all network types.

      Most newer phones will work on the most common networks, with many Sprint phones being the exception. 

      The FCC has prepared a guide to unlocking and an unlocking FAQ. Check them out for more details. 

      It's been a long time coming but effective tomorrow, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, if you own your cell phone outright you can move from one carrier to another...
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      Scam alert: Delete those “Anthem” emails, and hang up on “Anthem” callers

      Worried about the Anthem insurance hacking? These scammers hope to take advantage of that

      Last week, when we reported how hackers had breached a database containing the records of 80 million current or former Anthem insurance customers, we also included a “pre-emptive scam warning” alerting you to the fake emails or text messages which scammers were certain to start sending out in Anthem's name.

      Sure enough, the scam artists of the world immediate started producing so much Anthem-themed malware and phishing bait that the Better Business Bureau and Anthem itself have both posted warnings about it.

      To clarify: Anthem has not emailed anybody about the hacking, and it hasn't called anybody either. Therefore, if you get any email supposedly from Anthem about the hacking, you should delete it at once. And if you get a phone call from someone purporting to be an Anthem representative wanting to discuss hacking-security matters with you, hang up. That wasn't a genuine Anthem representative reaching out to you; that was a scammer.

      Anthem posted a scam alert on its “Investor relations” website:

      “Individuals who may have been impacted by the cyber attack against Anthem, should be aware of scam email campaigns targeting current and former Anthem members. These scams, designed to capture personal information (known as “phishing”) are designed to appear as if they are from Anthem and the emails include a “click here” link for credit monitoring. These emails are NOT from Anthem.”

      The scam alert went on to say that “Anthem is not calling members regarding the cyber attack and is not asking for credit card information or social security numbers over the phone.”

      When Anthem starts contacting certain customers about the hacking, these communications will be done through the old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service – no electronic communication at all. Nor will Anthem ask thse customers for any personal information. Indeed, Anthem's online scam-email warning includes this bold-print statement:

      Anthem will contact current and former members via mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service about the cyber attack with specific information on how to enroll in credit monitoring. Affected members will receive free credit monitoring and ID protection services.

      Last week, when we reported how hackers had breached a database containing the records of 80 million current or former Anthem insurance customers, we also ...
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      Senator's report: Hackers can hijack almost any new car

      And most new cars track their owners, too

      Every computer device is vulnerable to malware, and every Internet connection is hackable. In other words, any “smart” device (read: anything computerized and connected) is vulnerable, including smartphones, smart TVs, and smart cars.

      Indeed, the problem with vehicles is bad enough that security researchers already rate cars not according to their fuel efficiency or engine power, but by how easily hackers might gain control of their key systems, including steering and braking.

      The safety and security of smart vehicles on public roads is also of obvious interest to members of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, so this week, committee member Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts released a staff report titled Tracking & Hacking: Security & Privacy Gaps Put American Drivers at Risk.

      Last year, Markey's office asked 19 different vehicle manufacturers about their cars' vulnerability to hackers. Sixteen of them responded, and the results comprise the bulk of Markey's report. The statement his office released this week says in part that:

      “The responses from the automobile manufacturers show a vehicle fleet that has fully adopted wireless technologies like Bluetooth and even wireless Internet access, but has not addressed the real possibilities of hacker infiltration into vehicle systems. The report also details the widespread collection of driver and vehicle information, without privacy protections for how that information is shared and used.”

      Driving history

      In other words: hacking, or unauthorized access, isn't the only potential problem with such vehicles – there's also the huge amount of information made available to authorized agents of the manufacturers. Or, in the dry language of congressional press releases: “Additional concerns came from the rise of navigation and other features that record and send location or driving history information.”

      If consumers are worried about privacy or hacking-security matters, can they vote with their wallets, and buy vehicles without such vulnerabilities? Not necessarily; the report's summary lists its eight major points, with the first one being: “Nearly 100 percent of vehicles on the market include wireless technologies that could pose vulnerabilities to hacking or privacy intrusions.”

      How big of a problem is car hacking, anyway? Nobody knows; the summary's second highlight says that “Most automobile manufacturers were unaware of or unable to report on past hacking incidents.”

      The rest of the summary is just as discouraging. The report notes that “Automobile manufacturers collect large amounts of data on driving history and vehicle performance” – another way of saying “Whoever made your car knows exactly when and where you drive and park it.”

      The report also says, “A majority of automakers offer technologies that collect and wirelessly transmit driving history data to data centers, including third-party data centers, and most do not describe effective means to secure the data.”

      Translation: Whoever made your car not only knows exactly when and where you drive and park it, but makes it easy for hackers to know all this, too.

      Markey's full report is available in .pdf form here.

      Every computer device is vulnerable to malware, and every Internet connection is hackable. In other words, any “smart” device (read: anything computerized ...
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      Upgrading your home? Don't overdo it

      New countertops might look nice but will they help sell your home?

      The snow can get to you and you might be thinking it's time to pack it up and head where it's warmer. It doesn't matter if it's around the block or to a warm weather destination, if you're planning to sell  your home April is the best month, according to a Consumer Reports survey of 300 real-estate agents.

      If you don't make the deadline of April, try and put your home up for sale sometime in Spring, the second-best home-selling period.

      Know this though -- before you start to renovate don't overdo it. In other words don't knock yourself out. Frequently, people put so much money out for upgrades they burn off nearly all the equity of their home.

      If you are going to improve and put a lot of money into the renovation, make sure it's an upgrade that will make a difference in the price you can expect.

      "Just because a house has new counter tops and a brand-new master bath doesn't mean you've made more square footage in your house," said Pat Vredevoogd Combs, past president of the National Association of Realtors and vice president of Coldwell Banker AJS Schmidt in Grand Rapids, Mich. said  "Compared to houses down the street with the same amount of square footage," the prices will be basically the same, she says.

      Location, location ...

      Erik H. Reisner, managing partner of Mad River Valley Real Estate in Vermont, said he recalls a situation where one homeowner owned a $400,000 house in a $400,000 neighborhood.

      The owner "did a ton of renovations and additions" and then listed it for $700,000. Guess what happened? Yes it was difficult to sell and the homeowner took a loss.

      Square footage often will equal a higher home value, but pay attention to how an addition affects the yard. A yard is a major purchase point for buyers and if the size of the yard is diminished it won't matter what you have done on the inside.

      Just remember, as in art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what  may be perfect for you and your family may not be so great for everyone else. In other words, don't sink a lot of money into something that nobody else will want.

      ​The snow can get to you and you might be thinking it's time to pack it up and head where it's warmer. It doesn't matter if it's around the block or to a w...
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      Samsung smart TVs are eavesdropping on their owners

      Is Samsung the only one to do this? Or merely the only one to admit it?

      Here's yet another reminder how very few people actually bother reading the “privacy policy,” “terms and conditions,” or other dense piles of documentation that come with any software or electronics purchase nowadays: this past weekend, the topic of Samsung's smart TV privacy policy started trending on social media and generating fresh headlines in mainstream news media, after the Daily Beast published a Feb. 5 article noting that “Your Samsung TV is spying on you, basically.”

      That's not a lie, nor an exaggeration, and it's not even a secret. Samsung openly says as much in its online “Privacy Policy—Smart TV Supplement”:

      You can control your SmartTV, and use many of its features, with voice commands.

      If you enable Voice Recognition, you can interact with your Smart TV using your voice. To provide you the Voice Recognition feature, some voice commands may be transmitted (along with information about your device, including device identifiers) to a third-party service that converts speech to text or to the extent necessary to provide the Voice Recognition features to you. In addition, Samsung may collect and your device may capture voice commands and associated texts so that we can provide you with Voice Recognition features and evaluate and improve the features. Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.

      Not a new policy

      Translation: If you use Voice Recognition, there are people who will listen to recordings of what you say, so they can convert it into text. Those people will be able to hear whatever you say, so don't say anything around your television that you wouldn't want strangers to hear.

      This is not a new policy from Samsung, though. In early January, Chris Hoffman at the How-To Geek blog held it up as a bad example, in an article titled “Smart TVs are stupid: why you really don't want a smart TV.”

      After first listing and describing various software problems found in typical smart TVs, Hoffman noted that “Some smart TVs come with features like voice commands, but if you dig into their terms and conditions, you might find some really scary language.” To demonstrate, he then quoted that one sentence from Samsung's privacy policy:

      Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.

      The walls have ears

      So if you have anything private to discuss, don't talk about it while you're at home. At least not within hearing distance of your TV. But if you must have a private conversation at home, you could try taking a tip from old black-and-white movies about life in totalitarian countries: when members of the resistance discussed sensitive matters, they'd do so in whispers while playing loud music on the radio, so the Secret Police couldn't hear them.

      Perhaps you needn't do anything so drastic. Samsung's privacy policy does say that “You may disable Voice Recognition data collection at any time by visiting the 'settings' menu,” although that “may prevent you from using all of the Voice Recognition features.” However, disabling Voice Recognition still won't prevent Samsung's smart TV from collecting at least some data about you:

      If you do not enable Voice Recognition, you will not be able to use interactive voice recognition features, although you may be able to control your TV using certain predefined voice commands. While Samsung will not collect your spoken word, Samsung may still collect associated texts and other usage data so that we can evaluate the performance of the feature and improve it.

      In fairness to Samsung: it might be that the company is not unique in making smart TVs that eavesdrop on their owners, only unique in admitting it. As Cnet noted, the privacy policies of companies such as LG and Philips don't offer any information specifically about smart TVs and their capabilities—and in 2013, LG was involved in a privacy-related controversy after its smart TVs were accused of knowing too much about their owners.

      It might even be that “smart TVs” and “privacy as we know it” simply can't co-exist. After all, a voice-recognition system by definition can only work if it can hear whoever is speaking. And even if technology somehow allowed for a completely self-contained computerized voice-recognition system, no other human involvement at all, your smart TV still has all the security weaknesses inherent to anything with an Internet connection.

      Here's yet another reminder how very few people actually bother reading the “privacy policy,” “terms and conditions,” or other dense piles of documentation...
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      TurboTax filing allowed again, but tax refund payments might be delayed

      Multiple states delaying tax refunds to double-check for fraud

      It's been a turbulent weekend for TurboTax — and for state-level taxpayers in general. As of press time, residents of all 50 states are once again allowed to use TurboTax to file their state tax returns, but who knows? That could change as suddenly as this whole mess began.

      It all started last Thursday night, when the Minnesota Department of Revenue announced that it would stop accepting returns filed with TurboTax, since scammers using TurboTax had filed fraudulent returns in the name of actual Minnesota taxpayers.

      Intuit, which produces TurboTax, initially responded to Minnesota's announcement by establishing a toll-free number affected taxpayers could call. That hotline opened for business at 8 a.m. Central time, Friday morning. Less than an hour later, Intuit announced that it was temporarily suspending e-filing via TurboTax in all 50 states.

      However, Intuit's self-imposed nationwide ban lasted less than a day; by Friday evening, Intuit had resumed processing tax returns, presumably with stronger anti-fraud measures in place.

      Consumers rate Intuit - TurboTax

      No way to know

      But how many fraudulent returns went through before Intuit strenghtened its security? There's no way of knowing. Massachusetts responded to the news by temporarily halting tax refunds out of fear that some of those refund requests might be fraudulent. Revenue commissioner Amy Pitter said that the state currently had about 160,000 tax refunds in the pipeline, and needed to make sure those refund requests were all legitimate.

      Massachusetts isn't the only state to delay refunds so it can look for fraudulent returns. On Friday, revenue commissioners from multiple states including Pennsylvania, Georgia, Kentucky, Connecticut, Vermont, Utah and North Dakota all said they would delay state tax refunds in order to look for fraud.

      Although tax refunds are being delayed, all states are accepting tax returns via TurboTax. Even Minnesota's Department of Revenue ended its brief ban on Saturday at 3 p.m. Central time.

      Janelle Tummel, a spokesperson for Minnesota's DoR, said that “We took this step after Intuit implemented new 'targeted security measures.' We will continue reviewing returns and will remain in contact with the company.” Tummel also said that Minnesota residents who already filed their state taxes through TurboTax need not do anything; the state will contact you if anyone discovers a problem with your return, but otherwise your tax return will go through as it normally would.

      It's been a turbulent weekend for TurboTax — and for state-level taxpayers in general. As of press time, residents of all 50 states are once again allowed ...
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      Cellphones are top security threat in prisons, North Carolina jailers say

      Cellphone jamming is illegal and the FCC says it's not the best solution to the problem

      Marriott and other hotel chains have given up, at least for now, on their attempts to block personal wi-fi hotspots after learning the hard way, through a stiff fine in Marriott's case, that blocking lawful wireless communications is illegal.

      But are there times when there should be an exception? Prison officials would like to be able to block cell phone transmissions but are running into the same legal roadblocks as the hotels despite the deadly security threat they say cell phones pose.

      The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says it has made it a "top priority" to end illegal cell phone and wireless use in prisons but says that existing cell phone blockers are not only illegal but impractical for institutions as large as a modern prison.

      The FCC says it is working with state corrections departments to develop new technology. State officials say an answer can't come too soon.

      "It's a constant security issue we're facing on a daily basis," said Kenneth Lassiter, deputy director for operations for the North Carolina prison system, in a report aired by WNCN-TV

      Cell phones are the No. 1 security threat in the state's prisons, Lassier said. They're smuggled in by the hundreds and used to arrange drug deals, escape attempts and criminal activities by inmates' associates who are still on the outside.

      "One cell phone is too many cell phones," Lassiter emphasized to WNCN, which reported that in 2005 only about 30 or so phones were confiscated in prisons across the state, but by 2012 that number jumped up to more than 850.

      Inmate Facebook pages

      It's not just cell phones. In Tennessee, WSMV-TV found more than 100 inmates operating their own Facebook pages, displaying photos and videos of drugs, cash and parties while they are behind bars, even though inmates aren't supposed to have Internet access.

      The photos and videos show inmates claiming to be using drugs, smoking, hoarding snacks, giving each other tattoos, and in one photograph, burning clothes inside a cell.

      "Anyone who sees those videos, they're going to be sickened by it. They're going to be angry," said Verna Wyatt, executive director of Tennessee Voices for Victims, an advocacy group for crime victims.

      In North Carolina, WNCN reported that convicted murderer Rivera Peoples posted pictures and video, showing off the contraband iPhone he somehow got in prison to operate his Facebook page.

      In one video an inmate sitting beside Peoples in the prison yard can he heard saying, "I believe I'm smoking better than everybody."

      The video shows the inmate asking people how much money Peoples has collected while in prison. Peoples responds, "I'm a thousand, definitely a thousand."

      "Call capture" solutions

      Rather than trying to block -- or "jam" -- cell phone transmissions from prison, the FCC says it is working on "call capture" solutions, which rely on cell base stations to capture and block calls to and from numbers known to be associated with imprisoned inmates.

      Whether or not that solution is superior to cell jamming is irrelevant, the FCC says, since it does not have the authority to waive laws prohibiting cell jamming. Congress would have to amend existing law to make that permissible.

      The FCC also argues that jamming all cell phones near and inside a prison would block access to 911 and other essential services by prison staff, visitors and others.

      Also, the FCC says jammers can interfere with other communications devices.

      "State communications officials have expressed concern about jammers bleeding interference outside the prison and disrupting police and firefighter frequencies which are close to cell phone frequencies, the FCC said in a position paper

      While the issue is debated, business proceeds as usual on cellblocks across the country. 

      Marriott and other hotel chains have given up, at least for now, on their attempts to block personal wi-fi hotspots after learning the hard way that blocki...
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      Banks lowering lending standards to sell more cars

      But consumers should make sure they stick to cars they can afford

      New car sales surged in the U.S. in January, increasing 14% over last January and totaling 1.15 million units. Consumers also paid more for their new rides.

      Analysts at Kelley Blue Book estimate the average transaction price in January rose to $33,993, up 5.2% over last year.

      “Lower gas prices are helping with what has already been a growing market for truck and utility vehicles,” said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “In turn, these vehicles are driving increases in average transaction prices across the industry, especially among the domestic automakers.”

      The analysts note another factor driving sales – more credit available for auto loans. Specifically, there is more money available to consumers with poor credit – so-called subprime loans.

      Ally Bank to get more aggressive

      In a conference call last week the new CEO at Ally Bank, Jeff Brown, suggested his bank had been too conservative in the past and promised to increase the subprime portion of the bank's auto lending portfolio.

      “Where we have underachieved, holistically, is we probably didn’t take enough credit risk the last two or three years,” he said.

      Making more loans to consumers with ify credit isn't just being generous. For lenders, there are huge financial incentives to do so.

      Deja vu

      If you'll remember back to the housing bubble, there was a huge demand for mortgage backed securities. Mortgages were bundled and sold to investors who prized the interest income – at the time thought to be very stable.

      Before the bubble popped almost anyone with a pulse could qualify for a mortgage, whether they could afford a house or not. Mortgage brokers cut corners and played fast and loose with the truth when it came to the applicants' income and job stability. When the whole house of cards tumbled it very nearly brought down the world's financial system.

      Some are worried the same thing is happening now with auto loans. Car loans, in particular subprime loans, have been bundled like mortgages were and sold to Wall Street investors. The New York Timesreports so many financial heavyweights have gotten into the game of securitizing auto loans that the total has grown 302% since 2010.

      Other economists say the systemic risks from an auto loan bubble popping is much less than the housing crash experience. They point out that, unlike houses, automobiles are more easily repossessed and resold, reducing losses to investors.

      What about consumers?

      However, no one is really talking about the risk to consumers who are being lured into car purchases they really can't afford. What happens to them when they default and lose their means of transportation? Their risk increases when new and used car prices keep going up while their incomes don't.

      “Car buyers tend to shop with a monthly payment in mind. As a result, we are continuing to see them turn to leasing and longer loan lengths as strategies to keep payments down and make vehicles more affordable,” said Melinda Zabritski, senior director of automotive finance for Experian.

      But that can be a problem – stretching out the loan means you are paying it off more slowly. Meanwhile, the value of the vehicle is going down faster than the loan balance.

      How to avoid the trap

      Here's how to avoid that trap. Just follow the long-established rule of auto financing that states you should be able to make a 20% down payment, finance for 4 years and have a monthly payment that doesn't exceed 10% of your gross monthly pay.

      Purchasing a vehicle for $33,000 should require a down payment of $6750. That means financing $27,000 for 4 years at a prevailing interest rate of 4%, giving you a monthly payment of $609.

      To afford the average new car or truck, you would need a monthly gross income of $6090, or $73,080 a year.

      If the numbers don't work, it's probably wise to shop for a cheaper car.

      New car sales surged in the U.S. in January, increasing 14% over last January and totaling 1.15 million units. Consumers also paid more for their new rides...
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      Consumers still confused, frustrated with reverse mortgages

      Many consumers don't know what they're getting into when they sign these complex agreements

      Reverse mortgages are a source of growing frustration, particularly among baby boomers and their families, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has found, an observation confirmed by the constant stream of complaints to ConsumerAffairs by homeowners.

      “Consumer complaints tell us that the complex terms of reverse mortgages continue to be misunderstood,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “As more baby boomers choose reverse mortgages to tap into their home equity, they need to understand the unique terms and features of this product."

      The CFPB has issued a series of tips to help homeowners. 

      Many complaints show a mismatch between consumer expectations and the way the product functions, the CFPB said. Many consumers, for example, struggle with understanding how quickly their loan balance will go up and their home equity will fall. The top complaints about reverse mortgages included:

      Distress about the inability to add new borrowers to an existing loan. Reverse mortgages prohibit spouses, heirs, and dependents from taking over the loan. This is because loan amounts are, in part, calculated using a borrower’s age and the loan repayment is triggered when the last borrower moves out or dies. This can be a problem for surviving spouses and children. Family members complained to the CFPB about not being able to be added to the loan so they could keep the home.

      Frustration with runarounds when trying to pay off the debt. When the borrower dies, heirs can sell the home, repay the loan balance, or pay 95 percent of the property’s assessed value. Consumers complained that loan servicers do not provide a clear process to allow them to settle the debt. Consumers also complained about appraisal delays, improperly performed appraisals, and inflated home values so they would have to pay more. Others complained about a lack of response from loan servicers, including unanswered calls, and a lack of response to written requests.

      Struggles with foreclosure due to issues with property taxes and homeowners’ insurance. Reverse mortgages require no monthly mortgage payments but borrowers are still responsible for property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. A previous CFPB report found that nearly 10 percent of reverse mortgage borrowers are at risk of foreclosure because they have failed to pay these expenses. Consumers who complained to the CFPB described unsuccessful attempts to halt foreclosure proceedings by paying overdue taxes. Others insisted that their loan servicers had determined incorrectly that their taxes were overdue. Sometimes these inaccuracies were due to a failure by loan servicers to keep accurate records.

      Protecting loved ones

      Because many consumers do not understand the long-term financial impact of reverse mortgages, the CFPB is issuing an advisory to help reverse mortgage borrowers. The advisory highlights three ways consumers who are the borrowers on the loan can help plan so that their surviving heirs are not harmed:

      Verify who is on the loan. If two borrowers took out the reverse mortgage, they should check with the reverse mortgage company to make sure its loan records are accurate.

      Plan ahead for the non-borrowing spouse. For consumers who took out a HECM reverse mortgage in the name of only one spouse before August 4, 2014, they should contact their loan servicer to find out if the non-borrowing spouse may qualify for a repayment deferral. If not, they should make a plan in the event the borrowing spouse passes away first.

      Couples with enough remaining equity could consider taking out a new reverse mortgage, but they will incur new loan fees. Some surviving spouses may also be able to pay off the reverse mortgage, or take out a traditional mortgage, perhaps with another family member. Many will need to plan for where they will live after the home is sold to repay the loan.

      If the loan was originated after August 4, 2014, new changes to the HECM program will allow the non-borrowing spouse, meeting certain conditions, to remain in the home.

      Plan ahead for other family members living in the home. Consumers should make sure any children or other family members living in the home know what to expect when the reverse mortgage is due. If those members want to keep the home, the borrower should contact their reverse mortgage company to have them explain their options. They can also contact a HUD-approved housing counselor to explore their options:

      Reverse mortgages are a source of growing frustration, particularly among baby boomers and their families, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)...
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      Sling TV dishes up "Mad Men," "Walking Dead"

      Dish Network's streaming video service adds AMC to its line-up

      Dish Network's Sling TV goes national today, with a major addition to its previously announced line-up: programming from AMC Networks, including hit shows "The Walking Dead" and "Mad Men" as well as offerings from BBC America, BBC World News, IFC, Sundance TV and WE tv.

      “We flipped the switch this morning opening up Sling TV to all consumers, and we’re giving them something they’ve been asking for: AMC,” said Roger Lynch, CEO of Sling TV.

      AMC will be included in the “Best of the Live TV” core package for $20 per month. Sling TV will announce the launch date as well as additional information regarding package availability of the AMC Networks channels in the coming weeks.

      Sling TV is Dish's big toe in streaming video, a way to position itself as something more than a satellite TV service, something that is starting to look a bit dated as video entertainment increasingly moves to the Internet.

      Streaming services are aimed at "cable cutters" and "cable never" -- mostly younger consumers who are getting rid of their cable TV subscriptions or have never signed up in the first place.

      Sling TV’s “Best of Live TV” core package delivers ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, ABC Family, Disney Channel, CNN, El Rey and Galavision.

      This package additionally features access to WatchESPN and an array of Video-On-Demand entertainment. Customers can choose to tailor their entertainment experience with optional “Sports Extra,” “Kids Extra” and “News & Info Extra” add-on packs, each priced at $5 per month. In addition to live channels and VOD entertainment, Sling TV customers have access to content from Maker Studios.

      Dish Network's Sling TV goes national today, with a major addition to its previously announced line-up: programming from AMC Networks, including hit shows...
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      GM recalls Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia models

      Tire treads may crack

      General Motors LLC (GM) is recalling certain model year 2015 Buick Enclave vehicles manufactured December 9, 2014, to January 14, 2015, 2015 Chevrolet Traverse vehicles manufactured December 9, 2014, to January 20, 2015, and 2015 GMC Acadia vehicles manufactured December 9, 2014, to January 16, 2015, and all equipped with Goodyear P255/65R18 Fortera HL tires.

      These vehicles are equipped with tires that may experience tread cracking. As such, these vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 110, "Tire Selection and Rims and Motor Home/Recreation Vehicle Trailer Load Carrying Capacity Information for Motor Vehicles with a GVWR of 4,536 kilograms (10,000 pounds) or Less."

      If the tire treads crack, a loss of tire pressure and possible tire failure may result, increasing the risk of a crash.

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the tires that were manufactured within a specific date range, free of charge. This manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule. Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-521-7300 (Buick), 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet), or 1-800-462-8782 (GMC). GM's number for this recall is 15025/15067. Note: This recall is for Goodyear P255/65R18 Fortera HL tires installed as original equipment. For tires that were purchased as replacement equipment, see recall 15T-002.

      NOTES:

      Owners may also contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153), or go to www.safercar.gov.

      General Motors LLC (GM) is recalling certain model year 2015 Buick Enclave vehicles manufactured December 9, 2014, to January 14, 2015, 2015 Chevrolet Trav...
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      Recent Jeep Cherokees recalled to fix airbag problem

      Side curtain and seat airbags can deploy accidentally

      FCA US (Chrysler) is recalling certain model year 2014-2015 Jeep Cherokee vehicles manufactured January 1, 2013, to November 19, 2014. The affected vehicles may experience unintended side curtain and seat air bag deployment during vehicle operation.

      If the air bags deploy unexpectedly during vehicle operation, it can increase the risk of personal injury and increase the risk of a crash.

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will re-flash the occupant restraint control module software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on March 26, 2015. Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R05.

      Owners may also contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236 (TTY 1-800-424-9153), or go to www.safercar.gov.

      FCA US (Chrysler) is recalling certain model year 2014-2015 Jeep Cherokee vehicles manufactured January 1, 2013, to November 19, 2014. The affected vehicle...
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      A Monopoly game with real money? Oui, but only in France

      Hasbro is celebrating the game's 80th anniversary with real euros

      You may not win Park Place but you could be lucky and win about $23,000. If you live in France.

      It's Monopoly's 80th anniversary and to commemorate, Hasbro is issuing a handful of special sets in France with real euros in place of the usual colorful paper money.

      There will be 80 special sets; 69 will be complete with five 10-euro notes and five 20-euro notes, another 10 will come with five 20-euro, two 50-euro and one 100-euro bills, and one set will be all cash. That comes out to  20,580 euros -- or about $23,650 in American money.

      I know the big question is whether we will see the same limited edition here in the States. Mum is the word on that and Hasbro hasn't pulled a Chance card yet for the U.S.

      The 80th anniversary edition is out in the U.S. It has  a vintage-styled board, cards and money, wooden houses and hotels along with classic tokens from across the decades such as the lantern and money bag. No real money though.

      Monopoly editions come in a variety of versions from a make-your-own game board, which allows you to customize all the game equipment and rules to your liking, to San Francisco jeweler Sidney Mobell who has the most expensive Monopoly set, a $2 million game with a golden board and diamond-studded dice.

      Monopoly can be traced back to the early 20th century. The earliest known version of Monopoly, known as The Landlord's Game, was designed by an American, Elizabeth Magie, and first patented in 1904 but existed as early as 1902.

      Some stats on Monopoly from Hasbro:

      • More than 275 million sets have been sold worldwide.
      • Monopoly is available in 111 countries in 43 languages.
      • The longest game on record lasted for 70 days. That was on terra firma; Monopoly has also been played underwater and in a treehouse.
      • There are 32 houses and 12 hotels in a standard Monopoly set.
      • A Monopoly board has 40 spaces, including 28 properties. Yes, that includes the railroads.
      • The lowest rent in Monopoly? Mediterranean Avenue with no houses.  It'll cost you $2 to land on it. The most expensive? Boardwalk with a hotel, worth a cool $2,000. Wouldn't it be nice to be a hotel at that bargain price.
      • In 2008, more than 3,000 people played the game at the same time, a record.

      You may not win Park Place but you could be lucky and win about $23,000. If you live in France....
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      Minnesota stops accepting TurboTax; Intuit temporarily halts all TurboTax e-filing

      Possible fraud first detected in Minnesota last night; now at least 18 states might be hit

      If you'd planned on using TurboTax to file your taxes this year, you might need to make other arrangements. Minnesota's state Department of Revenue announced last night that it would no longer accept any tax returns filed through Intuit's TurboTax software, because scammers were apparently using it to file fraudulent returns in the names of legitimate state taxpayers.

      The Minnesota DoR posted this announcement on its website:

      “Some Minnesota taxpayers have recently found that when they log in to TurboTax to file their tax return, they see that a return has already been filed. Due to this potentially fraudulent activity, we have stopped accepting tax returns submitted using TurboTax. We are still accepting returns filed with Intuit professional preparer products (Lacerte, Intuit Tax Online, and ProSeries).”

      The announcement also said that, starting this morning at 8 a.m. Central time (9 a.m. Eastern), Minnesota taxpayers affected by the suspension could call Intuit at 1-800-944-8596 to ask for assistance.

      But by Friday morning the problem had grown even worse. Around 9 a.m. Central time, Intuit announced that it was temporarily disallowing e-filing in all states, after at least 17 state tax departments in addition to Minnesota's reported noticeable increases in the number of fraudulent-return complaints they received.

      For what it's worth, Intuit's blog post announcing the temporary suspension says “Intuit believes that these instances of fraud did not result from a security breach of its systems and that the information used to file fraudulent returns was obtained from other sources outside the tax preparation process.”

      Intuit also said that affected customers who call 800-944-8596 will get “direct access to specially trained identity protection agents who will provide comprehensive support and filing assistance. In addition, Intuit will provide identity protection services and free credit monitoring, as well as provide access to all versions of its software or to the assistance of one of Intuit’s credentialed tax experts who will prepare taxes for affected customers at no expense.”

      As of press time, there's no indication if or when Intuit will lift its TurboTax e-filing ban, or if other revenue departments will join Minnesota in disallowing TurboTax at the state level.

      f you'd planned on using TurboTax to file your taxes this year, you might need to make other arrangements. Minnesota's state Department of Revenue announce...
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      Are you ignoring your septic tank?

      They're very expensive to replace, so regular maintenance is essential

      How's your septic tank doing these days? It's probably not something you will be discussing at the next dinner party but it is something you may want to in..

      Economy adds more than a quarter-million jobs

      And, people who are working saw their wages rise

      Economists looking for a solid jobs report may just have it with the January report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

      Not only were 257,000 jobs created last month, but those who are working earned more money.

      According to the report, the surge in jobs was led buy advances in retail trade, construction, health care, financial activities and manufacturing.

      While the unemployment rate ticked up 0.1% -- to 5.7% -- analysts say that suggests more people are looking for work.

      Nearly as important as the increase in new payroll positions is the fact that average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 12 cents -- to $24.75, following a decrease of 5 cents in December. Over the year, average hourly earnings are up 2.2%.

      Where they're hiring

      Job gains occurred in retail trade (+46,000), construction (+39,000), health care(+38,000), financial activities (+26,000) and manufacturing (+22,000).

      Employment in other major industries, including mining and logging, wholesale

      trade, transportation and warehousing, information and government, showed little

      change over the month.

      Who's working

      Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for teenagers (18.8%) increased in January, while jobless rates for adult men (5.3%), adult women (5.1%), whites (4.9%), blacks (10.3%), Asians (4.0%) and Hispanics (6.7%) showed little or no change.

      The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was essentially unchanged in January at 2.8 million. These individuals accounted for 31.5% of the unemployed. Over the past 12 months, the number of long-term unemployed is down by 828,000.

      The full January employment report is available on the Labor Department website.

      Economists looking for a solid jobs report may just have it with the January report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not only were 257,000 jobs create...
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      Airplane and butterfly push toys recalled

      The toys pose a choking hazard to young children

      LS Import of Houston, Texas, is recalling about 660 airplane and butterfly push toys.

      The wheels of the airplane and the balls at the tip of the butterfly’s antenna can detach, posing a choking hazard to young children.

      The are no reports of incidents or injuries

      This recall involves plastic airplane and butterfly push toys. The airplane push toy is red and has a blue, yellow and red rotor above the cockpit’s canopy and eyelids on the nose of the airplane that open and shut when the toy is been pushed on the floor. It also has a pink plastic rod with a handle that connects to the back of the toy to push it.

      The butterfly push toy’s body is yellow with pink wings and has a pink plastic ball at the end of each of two antennas and a pair of wings that flap up and down when the toy is been pushed on the floor. In addition, it has a green plastic rod with a handle that connects to the back of the toy to push it.

      The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at LS Import stores in Houston, Texas, from May 2014, through July 2014, for between $1 and $2.

      Consumers should immediately take the recalled toys away from children and contact LS Import for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact LS Import Inc. collect at (713) 780-3900 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

      LS Import of Houston, Texas, is recalling about 660 airplane and butterfly push toys. The wheels of the airplane and the balls at the tip of the butterfly...
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      Mima Moon 3-In-1 high chairs recalled

      The seat can loosen and dislodge, allowing the seat and child to fall

      Mima International Limited of Hong Kong is recalling about 1,470 Mima Moon 3-in-1 high chairs.

      The seat can loosen and dislodge, allowing the seat and child to fall. The chair can also fall onto a child crawling underneath the seat, posing an impact hazard to the child.

      The firm has received 14 reports of the high chair seat loosening. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall includes Moon model 3-in-1 high chairs which adjust to a newborn, high and junior chair with a design consisting of a base with two feet supporting a single post that holds up the seat in a clear shell. The shell has a white inner seat with a removable seat pad in white, camel or black. The high chair measures about 3 feet tall when in its highest position.

      There is a “Mima” logo where the metal post attaches to the base to the seat. There is also a “Moon” logo on the inside of the feet that form the base of the high chair. The serial and model numbers are located on a sticker on the inside of one of the two feet that form the base of the high chair.

      Serial Numbers included in recall:

      MC00147U to MC00282U

      MC00283U to MC00313U

      MC00315U to MC00316U

      MC00318 to MC00419U

      MC00420U to MC00556U

      MC00557U to MC00576U

      MC00577U to MC00586U

      MC00587U to MC00596U

      MC00597U to MC00606U

      MC00607U to MC00616U

      MC00617U to MC00636U

      MC00636U to MC00655U

      MC00657U to MC00659U

      MC00707U to MC00756U

      MC00757U to MC00796U

      MC00798U to MC00806U

      MC00807U to MC00906U

      MC00907U to MC00956U

      MC00957U to MC01006U

      MC01007U to MC01031U

      MC01032U to MC01056U

      MC01057U to MC01059U

      MC01061U to MC01095U

      MC01096U to MC01115U

      MC01116U to MC01125U

      MC01126U to MC01135U

      MC01136U to MC01170U

      MC01171U to MC01175U

      MC01176U to MC01265U

      MC01266U to MC01295U

      MC01296U to MC01305U

      MC01306U to MC01325U

      MC01326U to MC01415U

      MC01416U to MC01623U

      Most of the high-chairs, manufactured in China, were given away at the May 9, 2014, taping of the Ellen DeGeneres TV show. The remaining chairs were sold at children’s juvenile product stores in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, Texas and Virginia from February 2014, through September 2014, for about $500.

      Consumers should stop using the high chair immediately and contact Mima to receive a free replacement upper chair section or instructions on receiving a refund.

      Consumers may contact Mima at (800) 392-1206 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

      Mima International Limited of Hong Kong is recalling about 1,470 Mima Moon 3-in-1 high chairs. The seat can loosen and dislodge, allowing the seat and chi...
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      Krehbiels Specialty Meats recalls bratwurst

      The product label does not include an accurate list of ingredients

      Krehbiels Specialty Meats of McPherson, Kan., is recalling approximately 29 pounds of pork bratwurst product.

      The product label does not include an accurate list of ingredients, including pork, Oasis brand beer, salt, natural flavor, spices and dextrose, due to a printing error.

      None of these ingredients contain allergens.

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

      The following product, produced on April 9, 2014, is being recalled:

      • 16-oz. Vacuum Sealed Roll Stock packages of “FRESH BEER BRATWURST MADE WITH TALLGRASS BREWERY OASIS BEER.”

      The recalled product bears the establishment number “EST. 13149” inside the USDA mark of inspection and was shipped to directly to consumers through an Internet retailer.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Jeff Krehbiel at (620) 241-0103.  

      Krehbiels Specialty Meats of McPherson, Kan., is recalling approximately 29 pounds of pork bratwurst product. The product label does not include an accura...
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      Lifesmart recalls Lifepro portable mini space heaters

      The back plate can detach when removing the heater from the outlet

      Lifesmart of Plano, Texas, is recalling about 17,000 Lifepro portable space heaters.

      The screws used to attach the back plate to the heater are too short and allow the back plate to detach when removing the heater from the outlet, posing an electrical shock hazard to the user.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall is for Lifepro brand portable infrared quartz space heater models LS-IQH-DMICRO and LS-IQH-MICRO. The recalled heaters are about 6 1/2 inches tall x 5 inches wide x 3 3/4 inches deep and made of black plastic. They have a three-prong plug built into the back to allow them to be plugged directly into an electrical outlet. The Lifepro logo is molded into the front bottom of the heaters.

      Model LS-IQH-DMICRO is a 400-watt heater with digital display on the top. Model LS-IQH-MICRO is a 450-watt heater with no display. The model name and wattage are printed on a label on the back of each heater below the plug.

      The heaters, manufactured in China, were sold at Meijer stores, Northern Tool stores, QCI Direct stores and Tuesday Morning stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com, BJs.com, HomeDepot.com, QCIDirect.com, Samsclub.com, Walmart.com and Wayfair.com from January 2014, through December 2014, for between $40 and $50.

      Consumers should immediately unplug and stop using the recalled space heaters and contact Lifesmart to receive either a free repair kit consisting of 4 longer screws with instructions on how to install them; a free replacement heater with the modified screws; or a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Lifesmart at (866) 484-2066 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

      Lifesmart of Plano, Texas, is recalling about 17,000 Lifepro portable space heaters. The screws used to attach the back plate to the heater are too short ...
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      Toyota recalls FJ Cruisers

      A weld connecting the steering system intermediate shaft to the steering gear box may be inadequate

      Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., is recalling approximately 120 model year 2014 FJ Cruiser.

      The steering system contains an intermediate shaft connecting the steering wheel to the steering gear box, which could have received an inadequate weld. Under some circumstances, the weld could separate, resulting in the loss of steering control and increasing the risk of a crash.

      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 replace the intermediate shaft.

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

      Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., is recalling approximately 120 model year 2014 FJ Cruiser. The steering system contains an intermediate shaft connecting the s...
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      Cash-back websites can multiply your savings

      BeFrugal.com pays an average 7% back on purchases

      Savvy consumers know you need to take advantage of every opportunity to stretch a dollar. It helps explain why online coupons and daily deal websites have become so popular.

      A cash-back website takes that concept and runs with it, actually putting money in your pocket. BeFrugal.com, founded 6 years ago, rang up $250 million in retail sales last year, earning a percentage of that from its 4,000 participating retailers.

      Jon Lal, founder and CEO of BeFrugal.com, says consumers who signed up and purchase all those products and services were rewarded in a very tangible way.

      Cash-back rewards

      “What we do is pass this dollar amount back to the consumer in the form of cash-back rewards,” Lal told ConsumerAffairs. “For the consumer it's a loyalty reward for doing your online shopping through us.”

      Lal says there is no fee for registering. You just give an email address and that's it. When you order something through BeFrugal.com, you get a portion of that purchase back.

      Consumers get paid when their cash-back account balance reaches $25. Since the average cash-back on a transaction is 7%, Lal says it doesn't take long to reach that amount. And there are 3 ways to get paid.

      “We will send the consumer, either a check in the mail or send it to a PayPal account, or they can even get an Amazon gift card from us,” Lal said.

      Different way to shop

      For consumers, it's a different way of shopping. If they want to purchase something from Macy's, for example, they might normally go directly to the Macy's website. But if they purchase the item at Macy's through the BeFrugal website, they get money back. And Lal says there are ways to increase the savings even more.

      “Find a Macy's coupon at our site – and our average coupon will save a consumer $27 – and because you're making the purchase through BeFrugal.com, you're also getting cash-back. So you save 2 ways, you're basically doubling up.”

      To find what you're looking for, Lal says you can search 2 ways. You can search by retailer or by category. It's a way to find the best price and then get a discount in the form of cash-back.

      Travel savings too

      Among the 4,000 retailers are the big box stores you would expect, but also hotels and airlines. Lal says travel offers consumers some of the biggest advantages because it tends to be a big ticket item – a much bigger advantage, he says, than a cash-back credit card.

      “With a cash-back credit card you're getting maybe 1% or 2% back,” he said. “With BeFrugal.com, you sign up, and membership is absolutely free, and the savings are way more than a rewards credit card.”

      Savvy consumers know you need to take advantage of every opportunity to stretch a dollar. It helps explain why online coupons and daily deal websites have...
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      Hackers breach Anthem health insurance database; up to 80 million records exposed

      All Anthem brands and product lines are affected

      On Wednesday evening, the Anthem health insurance company confirmed that hackers breached a database holding the records of 80 million current and former customers.

      The information in that breached database includes peoples' names, birthdays, Social Security numbers, home addresses, email addresses and employment information including income data. However, Anthem says that nobody's personal financial information was made available to hackers, and there is currently no evidence that the hackers were able to access medical records, either.

      Anthem has already set up a website, Anthemfacts.com, dedicated to releasing information about the breach, which it calls “a very sophisticated external cyber attack.” The website's Frequently Asked Questions page says that “all product lines are impacted,” and later specifies that the impacted brands include Anthem Blue Cross, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Amerigroup, Caremore, Unicare, Healthlink, and DeCare.

      The FAQs page also promises that over the next few weeks, “All impacted members will receive notice via mail which will advise them of the protections being offered to them as well as any next steps.”

      Watch out for fake emails

      (On another note, here's a pre-emptive scam warning: when Anthem said that people “will receive notice via mail,” they're talking about notices printed on paper and sent through the old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service, not an email, text message or any other form of electronic communication. Over these next few weeks, if you receive any emails or text messages purporting to be about the Anthem breach – especially messages that urge you to click on links or download attachments – ignore and delete them. Those emails and texts didn't come from Anthem, but from scammers out to trick you. Even people who've never been an Anthem customer will get these messages.)

      Anthem has also set up a toll-free number for current and former members seeking information: 877-263-7995. The company says it will provide free credit monitoring for everyone affected.

      Based on the available information so far, the Anthem breach is shaping up to be the new record-holder for “largest consumer hacking in corporate history,” with the number of affected customers dwarfing those from previous breaches at retailers, such as Target and Home Depot.

      We'll keep you posted as more information becomes available.

      On Wednesday evening, the Anthem health insurance company confirmed that hackers breached a database holding the records of 80 million current and former c...
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      Beware those scammy friend requests on Facebook

      It's easy for scammers to impersonate genuine Facebook identities, including your real-life friends and relatives

      If you're familiar with Facebook and the various types of scams there, then you already know to be suspicious of messages or “friend” requests from people..

      Job cuts shoot higher in January

      Falling oil prices are blamed for a good chunk of them

      Falling oil prices may be good for a lot of consumers, but those who work in the oil patch aren't celebrating.

      Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports U.S.-based employers announced plans to cut 53,041 jobs from their payrolls to start 2015, with 40% of them directly related to oil prices.

      Last month's total was up 63% from December, and 18% higher than the same month a year ago. In fact, January saw the highest monthly job-cut tally since February 2013 and the highest January total since 2012.

      Oil industry takes a hit

      Of the 53,041 job cuts announced in January, 21,322 were directly attributed to the recent and sharp decline in oil prices. Most occurred in the energy industry, where employers announced a total of 20,193 layoffs (19,722 of which were directly attributed to oil prices). The January total is 42% higher than the 14,262 job cuts announced by the energy industry in all of 2014.

      Falling oil prices also contributed to job cuts in the industrial goods manufacturing sector, where companies supplying products and materials to oil drillers were forced to shut down operations. These firms announced 4,859 job cuts in January, of which 1,600 (or 33%) were due to oil prices.

      “We may see oil-related job cuts extend well beyond those industries directly involved with exploration and extraction,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “The economies throughout the northern United States that have been thriving as a result of the oil boom could experience a steep decline in employment across all sectors, including retail, construction, food service and entertainment.”

      Initial claims

      From the government, word that the number of people filing first-time applications for state unemployment benefits rose last week.

      Initial claims rose 11,000, in the week ending January 31 to a total of 278,000. At the same time, the previous week's level was revised up by 2,000 -- from 265,000 to 267,000.

      The government says there were no special factors affecting this week's initial claims.

      The 4-week moving average, which is considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market because it is less volatile than the weekly tally, came to 292,750 -- a decline of 6,500 from the previous week.

      The full report is available on the Labor Department website.

      Falling oil prices may be good for a lot of consumers, but those who work in the oil patch aren't celebrating. Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray &...
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      Tough Treadz Auto Carrier toy sets recalled

      The die-cast metal cars can have sharp edges

      Family Dollar Services of Matthews, N.C., is recalling about 254,000 Tough Treadz Auto Carrier toy sets.

      The die-cast metal cars can have sharp edges that pose a laceration hazard.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves a plastic toy truck with a plastic case that holds 6 die-cast metal toy cars in assorted colors. The truck is 14 inches long x 3 inches wide x 5 inches high. The cab of the truck comes in black, blue or red.

      The package is labeled as “Tough Treadz Auto Carrier” and has a white sticker in the upper right-hand corner with “$5” and “SKU 1004247” printed in red. The UPC code appears on a label on the back stating “Made in China.”

      The following UPC codes are included in this recall: 678565114083, 678565114090, 678565114106.

      The toy sets, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Family Dollar Stores nationwide from September 2014, through December 2014, for about $5.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled toy sets, take them away and return them to any Family Dollar Stores location for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact Family Dollar Stores at (800) 547-0359 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

      Family Dollar Services of Matthews, N.C., is recalling about 254,000 Tough Treadz Auto Carrier ty sets. The die-cast metal cars can have sharp edges that ...
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      Wyked Labs recalls 8 dietary supplement products

      FDA says the products contain prohormone ingredients

      Wyked Labs of Winter Park, Fla., is recalling of all lot codes of the following products:

      • Wyked Labs Ml-Alpha
      • Wyked Labs M14-Ment
      • Wyked Labs Halo-70
      • Wyked Labs 7-Ment Alpha
      • Wyked Labs Estrastain
      • Wyked Labs Swoll-250
      • Formexx Black (an Anabolic Science Labs product)
      • Slim X Lean (an Anabolic Science Labs product)

      The Food and Drug Administration ("FDA") says the products contain ingredients that do not meet the requirements of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Specifically, the recalled products are prohormone products or are otherwise adulterated. FDA says prohormones are synthetic steroids that bear a similarity to anabolic steroids.

      The company says it has not received any reports of adverse effects related to this recall.

      The recalled products were distributed nationwide to various nutritional supplement retail outlets and via the Internet, and can be identified as follows:

      • Wyked Labs Ml-Alpha is packaged in a white plastic bottle containing 60 capsules.
      • The product can be identified by the brand name Wyked Labs and the product name Ml­ Alpha, Mega Mass Builder.
      • Wyked Labs M14-Ment is packaged in a white plastic bottle containing 90 capsules.
      • The product can be identified by the brand name Wyked Labs and the product name
      • M14-Ment, Advanced Mass Builder.
      • Wyked Labs Halo-70 is packaged in a white plastic bottle containing 60 capsules. The product can be identified by the brand name Wyked Labs and the product name Halo-70, Mega Mass Builder.
      • Wyked Labs 7-Ment Alpha is packaged in a white plastic bottle containing 90 capsules.
      • The product can be identified by the brand name Wyked Labs and the product name 7- Ment Alpha, Advanced Mass Builder.
      • Wyked Labs Estrastain is packaged in a white plastic bottle containing 60 capsules.
      • The product can be identified by the brand name Wyked Labs and the product name
      • Estrastain, Pro-Anabolic Mass and Hardening Complex.
      • Wyked Labs Swoll-250 is packaged in a black plastic bottle containing 90 capsules. The product can be identified by the brand name Wyked Labs and the product name Swoll- 250, Super Mass Builder.
      • Formexx Black is packaged in a black plastic bottle containing 60 capsules. The product can be identified by the brand name Anabolic Science Labs (ASL) and the product name Formexx Black.
      • Slim X Lean is packaged in a clear plastic bottle containing 56 capsules. The product can be identified by the brand name Anabolic Science Labs (ASL) and the product name.

      Consumers with any of the recalled products should stop using them and return them to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Eric Dubois at 1-407-679-7986 or by email at ericnutrizone@hotmail.com, Monday through Friday from 9 am to 5 pm EST.

      Wyked Labs of Winter Park, Fla., is recalling of all lot codes of the following products: Wyked Labs Ml-Alpha Wyked Labs M14-Ment Wyked Labs Halo-70 Wyk...
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      BMW recalls MINI Cooper Hardtop two door vehicles

      The Tire Information Placard may contain incorrect information

      BMW of North America is recalling 13,130 model year 2014-2015 MINI Cooper Hardtop two door vehicles manufactured December 1, 2013, to December 14, 2014.

      The vehicles may have been manufactured with an incorrect maximum capacity weight stated on the Tire Information Placard. The maximum weight listed on the label is incorrect (too low) and therefore does not comply with Federal Regulations.

      MINI will notify owners, and dealers will replace the incorrect labels with corrected labels, free of charge. Owners will notified by March 13, 2015.

      Owners may contact MINI customer service at 1-866-825-1525.

      BMW of North America is recalling 13,130 model year 2014-2015 MINI Cooper Hardtop two door vehicles manufactured December 1, 2013, to December 14, 2014. ...
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      Whole Foods Market recalls raw macadamia nuts

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Whole Foods Market is recalling packaged raw macadamia nuts.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The product was labeled as “Whole Foods Market Raw Macadamia Nuts” and was packaged in 5.6-oz. plastic tubs with sell-by dates of 4/22/15, 5/4/15 and 5/6/15 and a UPC code of 7-23055-21415-3.

      The recalled product was distributed to Whole Foods Market, Greenlife Grocery, and Harry’s Farmers Market stores in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

      Customers who have purchased this product at stores in the affected states should discard it and bring in their receipt for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact Whole Foods Market customer service, 512-477-5566 ext. 20060 Monday – Friday 9:00am – 5:00pm CDT.

      Whole Foods Market is recalling packaged raw macadamia nuts. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses have been reported to date. T...
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      Researchers point to economic reasons for obesity

      Presence of big box retailers, fast food and supercenters tied to expanding waistlines

      The rise in U.S. obesity rates is undeniable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one third of U.S. adults – 78.6 million people – are obese.

      Obesity rates have more than doubled in both adults and children since the 1970s, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

      The question is why. Food industry critics blame food additives and fast food restaurants. The food industry points to an increased sedentary lifestyle.

      But researchers at Georgia State University economists quote political operative James Carville – “It's the economy, stupid.”

      Abundance of calories

      Theories about the economic causes of obesity have gained traction in recent years, but Georgia State health economist Charles Courtemanche says it's more fact that theory. He and his team conducted a study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, concluding that the abundance of cheap calories available to consumers is largely to blame for our expanding waistlines.

      "People are doing a lot of eating," said Courtemanche, an assistant professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. "But as economists, we know people's preferences don't change overnight, so the steady rise since 1980 must involve their incentives to eat."

      To arrive at their conclusions, the Georgia State team studied obesity rates in 27 states, looking at a number of economic variables. Things like unemployment and income, food prices, the density of food retail, and physical activity as it is influenced by gasoline prices and fitness centers.

      Answering the question

      They titled their study "Can Changing Economic Factors Explain the Rise in Obesity?" and answer it in one word: yes.

      The bottom line? They conclude that big-box retailers Costco, Sam's Club, BJ's Wholesale and Walmart, along with full-service and fast-food restaurants, are key contributors to the nation's obesity epidemic.

      "Changes in variables related to calorie intake collectively explain 37% of the rise in body mass index (BMI) rates and 43% of the rise in obesity," Courtemanche said. "And our data show that the pervasive presence of supercenters, warehouse clubs and restaurants are responsible for most of these gains."

      Simply put, the researchers say what has changed over the last 3 or 4 decades is the abundance of cheap calories. We have gone from a time when calories were expensive – food wasn't that plentiful and cost a lot to prepare – to a time when someone with $5 in their pocket can easily ingest 1,000 or more calories.

      Less physical occupations

      Here's another economic factor the researchers say contributes to obesity – the loss of blue collar jobs and the rise of office workers and the unemployed. When people did physical labor, not only were they burning calories all day, they didn't have time to stop and snack.

      "The best explanation for the difference between these workers, outside of physical movement, is time flexibility," Courtemanche said. "White-collar workers have the flexibility to graze all day at their desks, and they can take lunch out. It all points to caloric intake."

      On the other side of the coin, economic factors like high gasoline prices and the presence of fitness centers worked to reduce obesity rates. But the research suggests these effects are not the same for everyone.

      "The greatest rise in weight is concentrated among people already at risk for obesity," Courtemanche said.

      Food technology

      Courtemanche and his team are not the first to suggest that economic factors are a significant driver of obesity. In 2003 a Harvard study (pdf) pointed to technological advances in food preparation as a significant contributor to obesity. It held out the potato as an example.

      “Before World War II, Americans ate massive amounts of potatoes, largely baked, boiled or mashed,” the economists wrote. “They were generally consumed at home. French fries were rare, both at home and in restaurants, because the preparation of French fries requires significant peeling, cutting and cooking.”

      Then along came technology. French fries are now typically peeled, cut and cooked in a few central locations using sophisticated new technologies. They are then frozen and shipped to restaurants and supermarkets. Today, the French fry is the dominant form of potato and America’s favorite vegetable.

      A medium-sized baked potato has 129 calories before you add butter or sour cream. A medium order of McDonald's French fries contains around 380 calories.

      The rise in U.S. obesity rates is undeniable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one third of U.S. adults – 78.6 ...
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      Hackers may have stolen payment card info from White Lodging's Marriott hotels

      Possbly connected to breach from 2013

      Travelers beware: it looks like hackers managed once again to steal credit or debit card data from the hotel franchise firm White Lodging Services Corporation, specifically a handful of Marriott properties which White Lodging owns.

      Security blogger Brian Krebs said that multiple financial institutions have noticed a pattern of fraudulent charges on cards which appear to share one trait in common: all had been used at a White Lodging-owned Marriott. (White Lodging, meanwhile, says it is investigating, but has found no sign of a new breach.)

      If confirmed, this security breach would be the second one to be discovered at White Lodging properties in a little over a year. In January 2014, information came to light suggesting that hackers had managed to lift customer information from various White Lodging properties throughout most of 2013 – not just White Lodging-owned Marriotts, but certain hotels under the names Hilton, Sheraton and Westin, as well.

      Now, 13 months later, Krebs' sources in financial institutions are once again seeing evidence of security breaches at many of the same White Lodging-owned hotel properties hit before:

      Banking sources say the cards that were compromised in this most recent incident look like they were stolen from many of the same White Lodging locations implicated in the 2014 breach, including hotels in Austin, Texas, Bedford Park, Ill., Denver, Indianapolis, and Louisville, Kentucky.  Those same sources said the compromises appear once again to be tied to hacked cash registers at food and beverage establishments within the White Lodging run hotels. The legitimate hotel transactions that predated fraudulent card charges elsewhere range from mid-September 2014 to January 2015.

      Contacted about the findings, Marriott spokesman Jeff Flaherty said all of the properties cited by the banks as source of card fraud are run by White Lodging.

      So if you've stayed at a White Lodging-run Marriott hotel in the past few months – or if you merely had a drink in the hotel bar or dined in the hotel restaurant – keep an extra-sharp eye out for indications that the card you used for payment has been compromised.

      ​Travelers beware: it looks like hackers managed once again to steal credit or debit card data from the hotel franchise firm White Lodging Services Corpora...
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      ADP: A January jump in job creation

      Analysts say improvement is likely throughout 2015

      January was another strong month for new jobs.

      The ADP National Employment Report (NER), produced by ADP in collaboration with Moody's Analytics, says private sector employment increased by 213,000 jobs last month.

      "January marks another month of solid job gains and is in line with the NER's twelve-month average of over 200,000 jobs added per month," said Carlos Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of ADP.

      Strength in the services sector

      Service-providing employment rose by 183,000 jobs in January, down from 207,000 in December, with professional/business services contributing 42,000 jobs. Trade/transportation/utilities grew by 54,000, while 11,000 jobs were added in financial activities.

      Employment among goods-producing firms rose by 31,000 jobs. The construction industry added 18,000 jobs, and manufacturing added 14,000 jobs.

      Payrolls for businesses with 49 or fewer employees increased by 78,000. Companies with 50-499 employees added 95,000 jobs, while employment at large companies -- those with 500 or more employees – was up 40,000 jobs. Firms that employ 500-999 people added 14,000 jobs, and those with over 1,000 employees created 26,000 jobs.

      "Employment posted another solid gain in January, although the pace of growth is slower than in recent months,” noted Moody's Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi. “Business in the energy and supplying industries are already scaling back payrolls in reaction to the collapse in oil prices, while industries benefiting from the lower prices have been slower to increase their hiring. All indications are that the job market will continue to improve in 2015."

      January was another strong month for new jobs. The ADP National Employment Report (NER), produced by ADP in collaboration with Moody's Analytics, says pri...
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      A pick-up in mortgage applications

      FHA refinance applications were sharply higher

      Mortgage applications were on the rise again last week after slipping the previous week.

      According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications rose 1.3% in the week ending January 30.

      The Refinance Index jumped 3% from the previous week, although the refinance share of mortgage activity dipped to 71% of total applications from 72% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity decreased to 5.3% of total applications.

      “Following several weeks of already elevated refinance activity due to falling interest rates, FHA refinance applications increased 76.5% in response to a reduction in annual mortgage insurance premiums which took effect January 26,” said Lynn Fisher, MBA’s Vice President of Research and Economics. “Conventional refinance volume was up only 0.5% for the week while VA refinance volume was down 24.3%. FHA purchase applications were also up 12.4% over the week prior, despite a decrease in purchase applications in the rest of the market.”

      The FHA share of total applications was 13.1%, the VA share was 8.5% and the USDA share was 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) fell 4 basis points -- from 3.83% to 3.79%, the lowest level since May 2013 -- with points increasing to 0.29 from 0.26 (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) dropping to 3.82%, the lowest level since May 2013, from 3.87%, with points declining to 0.22 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages backed by the FHA dipped 2 basis points to 3.69%, with points unchanged at 0.07 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages inched down to 3.14% from 3.15%, with points increasing to 0.31 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose 7 basis points to 3.03%, with points decreasing to 0.39 from 0.42 (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.  

      Mortgage applications were on the rise again last week after slipping the previous week. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mort...
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      Quadski amphibious vehicles recalled

      The handlebar can fail while the vehicle is in operation

      Gibbs Sports Amphibians of Auburn Hills, Mich., is recalling about 320 Quadski and Quadski XL amphibious vehicles.

      The handlebar can fail while the vehicle is in operation, causing the operator to lose control of the steering and braking system of the vehicle, posing a risk of injury.

      No consumer incidents have been reported. Three reports of breakage during testing have been reported; one involved injury to the neck of the test operator.

      This recall includes Gibbs’ Quadski which is a one-seater and Quadski XL which is a two-seater. The products are high speed amphibious vehicles that are an ATV on land, and also operate on water.

      The recalled vehicles have HIN numbers ranging from US-GSA601J213 though US-GSAJ1048C414 on Quadski and US-GSAJ5001J213 though US-GSAM5203H415 on Quadski XL.

      HIN numbers are printed on a plate located on the right rear corner of the vehicle. Brand and model names are printed on the back panel and on the side of the vehicle.

      The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Gibbs Sports Amphibians dealers nationwide from January 2012 through October 2014 for about $42,000.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled vehicles and contact an authorized dealer for a repair at no cost.

      Consumers may contact Gibbs’ Sports Amphibians toll-free at (877) 230-0888 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

      Gibbs Sports Amphibians of Auburn Hills, Mich., is recalling about 320 Quadski and Quadski XL amphibious vehicles. The handlebar can fail while the vehic...
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      Uber & Google headed for road rage?

      Google is said to be thinking of launching its own ride-hailing service

      Google is starting to have the kind of problem that comes with phenomenal success: It's getting so big it is running out of competitors, forcing it to compete with itself.

      Sound crazy? Consider this: Uber has built a big business using Google's money and Google's map software. Now it's reported that Google may be going into competition with Uber, possibly launching its own virtual taxi service, even though it owns a big chunk of Uber.

      Back when Uber was just getting started, Google Ventures -- the company's venture capital arm -- invested $258 million in the brazen start-up, which uses its own software combined with Google Maps to send cars anywhere and everywhere.

      Everyone expected that Google would take Uber under its wing and the companies would work closely together, especially as Google developed its self-driving cars that would fit perfectly into Uber's business, leaving Uber's drivers as road kill.

      Collision course

      But now, according to a Bloomberg report, the companies may instead be on the path towards being ferocious competitors.  A Google executive who sits on Uber's board has reportedly informed Uber that Google is developing its own ride-hailing service. And Uber executives have reportedly seen screenshots of Google's ride-sharing app.

      Google would indeed be a formidable competitor. It now only has money, scale and technological prowess, it also has -- through Google Maps -- access to just about everything there is to know about Uber's operations. 

      Uber has also made few friends and lots of enemies in its short time on the scene, basically invading cities and operating however it pleases, daring regulators to do something about it.

      It has lately been cleaning up its act but its pugnacious behavior leaves a big opening for a competitor offering a more genteel approach.

      Neither company is commenting on the report.

      Google is starting to have the kind of problem that comes with phenomenal success: It's getting so big it is running out of competitors, forcing it to comp...
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      $480 million in debt relief for Corinthian College students

      Holders of “Genesis” private loans can see their debt burdens reduced by 40%

      Today, the U.S. Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced $480 million in debt forgiveness, for current and former Corinthian College, Everest College and WyoTech students who took out private, high-cost “Genesis” loans.

      As part of this agreement, the ECMC Group, which owns several Corinthian campuses, agreed to forgo operating any private student loan program for seven years, and also agreed to abide by certain consumer protections. Student borrowers affected by the forgiveness plan should see their debt burden decrease by 40%, according to the CFPB.

      CFPB's director, Richard Cordray, said the agreement “will provide substantial relief to current and past students who were harmed by Corinthian’s predatory lending scheme …. These consumers were lured into high-cost loans destined to default, and then targeted with aggressive debt collection tactics. We will be vigilant to ensure that consumers receive this important relief and that others are protected in the for-profit college industry.”

      Here's how those loans worked, according to the CFPB's Feb. 3 press release:

      In September 2014, the CFPB sued Corinthian Colleges, Inc. for luring tens of thousands of students to take out private loans, known as “Genesis loans,” to cover expensive tuition costs by advertising bogus job prospects and career services. The lawsuit also alleges that Corinthian used illegal debt collection tactics to strong-arm students into paying back those loans while still in school. Under the Genesis loan program, nearly all student borrowers were required to make monthly loan payments while attending school. More than 60 percent of Corinthian school students defaulted on these high-cost loans within three years. Even for borrowers who did not default, interest rates were more than twice as expensive compared to interest rates on federal loans. The CFPB’s litigation is ongoing.

      Two months later, in November, ECMC bought several Corinthian properties. Under ordinary circumstances, buying a company means you also buy responsibility for any lawsuits or other legal matters against it. However, ECMC made an agreement with the DOE and CFPB to release itself from “potential liability for Corinthian's alleged illegal activity,” as the CFPB put it.

      Hence the $480 million debt relief program, which also requires ECMC to agree to: stop offering private student loans for a period of seven years; stop lawsuit threats and improper debt collection practices related to those debts; remove negative information from borrowers' credit reports; and agree to follow various consumer protection rules.

      This agreement with ECMC applies only to ECMC; it does not apply to Corinthian Colleges, and does not shield Corinthian from possible legal liability.

      What to do

      If you are a current or former Corinthian student, how can you determine if this debt forgiveness program applies to you? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a five-page bulletin, available here in .pdf form, answering that question and a few more:

      What do I need to do to sign up for this relief? How do I know if I am eligible?

      Nothing. Your loan servicer (the company that collects payments from you) will notify you if you benefit from today’s agreement, as well as any remaining balance you may owe.

      You should be sure your servicer has your most recent contact information.

      This debt forgiveness plan is unlikely to wipe out your debt in its entirety, though page 3 of the bulletin does say this:

      How much debt relief will I receive?

      The total amount of relief for borrowers with eligible loans is approximately $480 million. These borrowers will immediately see the amount they owe reduced by 40%.

      Remember that this forgiveness applies only to private “Genesis” student loans, not to any federal student loans or other private loans which Corinthian, Everest or WyoTech students might owe.

      Today, the U.S. Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced $480 million in debt forgiveness, for current and for...
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      Feds find "biodegradable" pooper scooper bags full of ...

      The environmental claims made by 20 manufacturers are overblown, FTC warns

      Responsible dog owners pick up after their dogs. Some use the New York Times delivery bag but those who want to be environmentally responsible may even go so far as to buy dog waste bags promoted as "biodegradable" or "compostable."

      Trouble is, the claims are often not true, according to Federal Trade Commission staffers who have written to 20 manufacturers and marketers of the bags warning them their environmental claims may be deceptive.

      The letters, which the staff sent after examining the companies’ environmental, or “green,” claims on their websites and in other media, provide examples of potentially deceptive statements regarding the bags’ biodegradability or compostability.

      “Consumers looking to buy environmentally friendly products should not have to guess whether the claims made are accurate,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It is therefore critical for the FTC to ensure that these claims are not misleading, to protect both consumers and honest competitors.”

      Must break down

      The FTC's guidelines require that a product described as "biodegradable" must break down into its natural components within one year after normal disposal. Most waste bags, however, end up in landfills where no plastic biodegrades in anywhere close to one year, if it biodegrades at all.

      Consumers generally think that unqualified “compostable claims” mean that a product will safely break down at the same rate as natural products, like leaves and grass clippings, in their home compost pile, the FTC said.

      This doesn't mean, by the way, that you should start throwing your dog waste into a compost pile. It's not really safe since the waste may contain parasites and other contaminates that could prove troublesome.  

      So which doggy doo bags are biodegradable? The FTC isn't saying. It didn't release the names of the companies who got the warning letters,, so for now consumers have no way of knowing which bags are greener than others.

      The letters are intended as a warning bark, giving the companies the opportunity to clean up after themselves.

      Responsible dog owners pick up after their dogs. Some use the New York Times delivery bag but those who want to be environmentally responsible may even go...
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      Another year-over-year increase for home prices

      On a month-over-month basis, though, prices were lower

      The CoreLogic Home Price Index (HPI) posted its 34th consecutive year-over-year gain in December.

      According to the provider of property information, analytics and data-enabled services, home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- increased 5% in December compared from the same period the year before. Distressed sales include short sales and real estate owned (REO) transactions.

      On a month-over-month basis, home prices nationwide fell by 0.1% from November.

      "For the full year of 2014, home prices increased 7.4%, down from an 11.1% increase in 2013," said Sam Khater, deputy chief economist at CoreLogic. "Nationally, home price growth moderated and stabilized at 5% the last 4 months of the year.”

      The moderation can be clearly seen at the state level, he pointed out, with Colorado, Texas and New York at the high end of appreciation, ending the year with increases of about 8%. This contrasts with previous appreciation rates in the double digits -- for instance, Nevada and California which experienced increases of more than 20 percent earlier in 2014.

      Approaching the peaks

      Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia are at or within 10% of their peak. Three states showed year-over-year home price depreciation, including distressed sales, in December; these states were Maryland (-0.7%), Vermont (-0.9%) and Connecticut (-2.2%).

      Excluding distressed sales, home prices increased 4.9% in December 2014 compared with December 2013 and increased 0.1% month-over-month versus November 2014.

      Report highlights

      • Including distressed sales, the 5 states with the highest home price appreciation were: Colorado (+8.4%), Texas (+7.8%), New York (+7.6%), Nevada (+7.3%) and Michigan (+7.2%).
      • Excluding distressed sales, the 5 states with the highest home price appreciation were: New York (+8.0%), Colorado (+7.8%), Massachusetts (+7.2%), Texas (+7.1%) and Nevada (+7.1%).
      • Including distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the national HPI (from April 2006 to December 2014) was -13.4%. Excluding distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the HPI for the same period was -9.6%.
      • Including distressed sales, the 5-year HPI change (from December 2009 to December 2014) was 18.9%.
      • The 5 states with the largest peak-to-current declines, including distressed transactions, were: Nevada (-36%), Florida (-33.5%), Arizona (-29.5%), Rhode Island (-29.1%) and Connecticut (-25.2%).
      • Including distressed sales, the U.S. has experienced 34 consecutive months of year-over-year increases; however, the national increase is no longer posting double-digits.
      • Eighty-nine of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas (CBSAs) measured by population showed year-over-year increases in December 2014. The 11 CBSAs that showed year-over-year declines were: Worcester, MA-CT (-2.5%); Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT (-2.3%); Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD (-1.9%); Memphis, TN-MS-AR (-1.1%); McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX (-1.0%); New Haven-Milford, CT (-0.9%); Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, AR (-0.8%); Winston-Salem, NC (-0.6%); Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT (-0.4%); Rochester, NY (-0.2%) and Wilmington, DE-MD-NJ (-0.03%).

      The forecast

      The CoreLogic HPI Forecast indicates home prices -- including distressed sales -- are projected to increase 0.1% month-over-month from December 2014 to January 2015. Full-year 2015 (December to December) increase is projected to be 4.8%.

      Excluding distressed sales, home prices are also expected to increase by 0.1% month-over-month from December 2014 to January 2015 and increase by 4.5% year-over-year from December 2014 to December 2015.

      "Nationally, home price appreciation took a pause in November and December 2014 and we expect a slow start to 2015," said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. "As the year progresses, we expect upward pressure as low inventories and more first-time buyers drive up home prices."

      The CoreLogic Home Price Index (HPI) posted its 34th consecutive year-over-year gain in December. According to the provider of property information, analy...
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      Morrison Meat Packers recalls cooked pork products

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

      Morrison Meat Packers of Miami, Fla., is recalling approximately 70,077 pounds of cooked pork products.

      The products 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, produced Dec. 22, 2014, through Jan. 27, 2015, are being recalled:

      • Various weight packages containing 2 or 4 pieces of “EL TORO COOKED PORK AND WATER PRODUCT.”
      • Various weight packages containing 2 pieces of “VIDA LATINA COOKED PORK AND WATER PRODUCT.”

      The products bear the establishment number “EST. 17882” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and “Use By” dates ranging from Feb. 27, 2015, to Mar. 29, 2015. They were shipped to a distributor in Florida, and contain lot numbers 356, 363, 002, 008, 015, 022, or 027.

      Consumers with questions may contact Gilda Rodriguez, recall coordinator, at (305) 836-4461.  

      Morrison Meat Packers of Miami, Fla., is recalling approximately 70,077 pounds of cooked pork products. The products contain peanuts, an allergen which is...
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      Clemens Food Group recalls pork rib products

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

      Clemens Food Group of Hatfield, Pa., is recalling approximately 42 pounds of uncooked pork rib products.

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

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

      The following products are being recalled:

      • Two 20-lb. cases with code #4109 containing 6 individually wrapped and labeled packages with code 354 of “Hatfield Smokey Chipotle Dry Rub Seasoned St. Louis Style Ribs”

      The products bear the establishment number “EST. 791” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were produced December 20, 2014. One case was shipped internally to the Clemens Food Group Employee Store, and the other case was shipped to one of 7 possible individual retail locations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

      Consumers with questions may contact Clemens Food Group customer service at (800) 743-1191.  

      Clemens Food Group of Hatfield, Pa., is recalling approximately 42 pounds of uncooked pork rib products. The products may contain peanuts, an allergen not...
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      Hawkins, Inc. recalls pork products

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

      Hawkins, Inc., of Roseville, Minn., is recalling approximately 529 pounds of pork products

      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.

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

      • 131.6 lbs. of “SCAN PORK DP-941 NATURAL DEHYDRATED PORK STOCK/NATURAL DEHYDRATED PORK BROTH” and bearing packaging codes “P0010586” on the labels.
      • 397.5 lbs. of “SCAN PORK DP-1075 NATURAL DEHYDRATED PORK STOCK/NATURAL DEHYDRATED PORK BROTH” bearing packing code “P0010628” on the label.

      The products bear establishment number “Denmark Est. 215” inside the mark of inspection, and were distributed to processing plants in Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

      The products likely did not reach consumers.

      Anyone with questions about the recall may contact Richard Erstad at (612) 331-6910.

      Hawkins, Inc., of Roseville, Minn., is recalling approximately 529 pounds of pork products The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for ...
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      Food safety starts in your kitchen

      Researchers find most consumers spread germs when they cook

      Over the last decade food safety has become a hot button issue in Washington, resulting in the recently-passed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more power to regulate food production.

      The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food-related disease and illness make millions of people sick each year and kill thousands. CDC spends a lot of resources tracking single cases of foodborne illness and investigating outbreaks.

      While many outbreaks have been traced to stops along the food production chain, the biggest food safety threat to the average U.S. consumer may be lurking in their own kitchen. Researchers at Kansas State University have documented it.

      They videotaped people in a kitchen, preparing a meal containing raw meat and a ready-to-eat fruit salad. The raw meat contained a nonpathogenic organism so researchers could trace contamination in the kitchen.

      90% contamination

      The result? Researchers found that 90% of the participants had prepared the meal in such a way that the tracer organism in the meat found its way to the salad.

      "Almost all of the fruit salads we analyzed contained levels of the tracer organism, which we were representing as being salmonella," said Randy Phebus, professor of food safety at Kansas State University and one of the authors of the study.

      The purpose of the study was to test which of the government's food safety messages and campaigns directed at consumers were most effective. It turned out that almost none of them were very effective.

      In the past, researchers have relied on consumer surveys to rate food safety. They asked groups of consumers about their methods of food preparation and caution exercised in the kitchen.

      What the consumers said and what they did turned out to be very different, making the previous studies, in Phebus' words, unreliable.

      Pictures don't lie

      "When you actually videotape it and observe it, most consumers are doing a really bad job in terms of preventing food contamination," he said.

      In fact, the study found that all the consumers made mistakes in the kitchen that could lead to potential foodborne illnesses. The kitchen was wiped down after each participant prepared a meal, making it pristine for each new cook.

      Afterward, the team looked for contamination. It found it on handles of pots and pans, on countertops and faucets. It was especially prevalent on hand towels, suggesting the participants were at least trying to be careful. They just fell short.

      "We found that most people tried to wash their hands, but did it very ineffectively — either only using water or not washing for long enough," Phebus said. "By not washing their hands correctly, they spread contamination to the hand towels.”

      The hand towels get used over and over, and each time they recontaminate things in the kitchen.

      “It ultimately leads to contamination in the food product," Phebus said.

      The U.S. government's food safety experts say one way to reduce kitchen contamination is to use paper towels for drying hands, not the dish towel. It offers other safety tips in the short video below.

      Over the last decade food safety has become a hot button issue in Washington, resulting in the recently-passed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), giving...
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      EITC: What it is and how to get it

      Many workers may not know about this important tax benefit

      Millions of low and moderate-income workers may be missing out on a significant tax credit that can be as much as $6,000.

      If you earned $52,427 or less last year, you may qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for the first time in 2015. About a third of the people eligible for EITC fluctuate each year based on changes to their marital, parental and financial status.

      “About 4 out of 5 eligible workers and families get the credit they earned. That leaves millions missing EITC every year,” said Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen. “It’s an important credit and one of the government’s best tools to fight poverty.”

      Last year, almost 28 million eligible workers and families received $66 billion total in EITC, with an average EITC amount of $2,400.

      The amount of EITC varies depending on income, family size and filing status. Those who work for someone else or those who run a business or farm and who earned $52,427 or less during 2014 could receive larger refunds if they qualify for the EITC. This could mean up to $496 in EITC for people without children, and a maximum credit of up to $6,143 for those with three or more qualifying children.

      The EITC is refundable. That means those eligible may get a refund from the IRS even if they owe no tax or had no taxes withheld from their paycheck.

      Workers potentially eligible to claim the credit should visit IRS.gov/eitc to learn if they qualify, how to claim the credit and more. The EITC Assistant will also determine their filing status, if they have a qualifying child or children and estimate the amount of the EITC they could get. If an individual doesn’t qualify for EITC, the Assistant explains why and a summary of the results can be printed.

      How to claim the EITC

      To get the EITC, workers must file a tax return, even if they are not legally required to file, and specifically claim the credit. Free tax help is available to those eligible for the EITC:

      • Free File on IRS.gov Free brand-name tax software walks people through a question and answer format to help them prepare their returns and claim every credit and deduction for which they are eligible. Free File also provides online versions of IRS paper forms, an option called Free File Fillable Forms which is best suited for taxpayers comfortable preparing their own returns.

      • Free tax preparation sites EITC-eligible workers can seek free tax preparation at thousands of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) sites. Taxpayers can locate the nearest site using a search tool on IRS.gov or through the IRS2go smartphone application.

      Documentation required

      It is important for taxpayers to bring along all the required documents and information to make sure they get the EITC they deserve. Also, those who bought coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace should receive Form 1095-A, Health Insurance Marketplace Statement, from their Marketplace in early February.

      It’s important to also bring the Form 1095-A to the volunteer site. Any taxpayer who does not receive it by early February should contact their Marketplace, not the IRS. The IRS will not have access to the information on the form.

      Like last year, the IRS expects to issue more than 9 out of 10 refunds within 21 days. The IRS reminds taxpayers that the fastest way to get a refund is to e-file their tax return and choose direct deposit. It takes longer to process paper returns. Because of budget cuts resulting in a smaller staff, it may take an additional week or more to process paper returns, meaning that those refunds are expected to be issued in seven weeks or more. Taxpayers can track the status of their refund with the “Where’s My Refund?" tool. l available on IRS.gov or on IRS2go.

      The role of Obamacare

      The Affordable Care Act requires that a taxpayer and each member of his or her family have qualifying health insurance coverage for each month of the year, qualify for an exemption from the coverage requirement, or make an individual shared responsibility payment when filing a federal income tax return.

      If taxpayers bought coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, they should receive Form 1095-A, Health Insurance Marketplace Statement from their Marketplace by early February. They should save this form because it has important information needed to complete their tax returns.

      If taxpayers are expecting to receive Form 1095-A and has not received it by early February, they should contact the Marketplace where the coverage was purchased. Due to the fact that the IRS does not have this information, it is recommended that taxpayers contact the appropriate marketplace.

      Anyone who benefited from advance payments of the premium tax credit must file a federal income tax return. The taxpayer will need to reconcile those advance payments with the amount of premium tax credit they’re entitled to based on actual income. As a result, some people may see a smaller or larger tax refund or tax liability than they were expecting. When filing their returns, taxpayers will use IRS Form 8962, Premium Tax Credit (PTC), to calculate the premium tax credit and reconcile the credit with any advance payments.

      The Affordable Care Act requires that a taxpayer and each member of his or her family either has qualifying health insurance coverage for each month of the year, qualifies for an exemption, or makes an individual shared responsibility payment when filing a federal income tax return.

      Reporting requirements. Most taxpayers will simply check a box on their tax return to indicate that each member of their family had qualifying health coverage for the whole year. No further action is required. Qualifying health insurance coverage includes coverage under most, but not all, types of health care coverage plans. Taxpayers can use the chart on IRS.gov/aca to find out if their insurance counts as qualifying coverage.

      Exemptions. A taxpayer may be eligible to claim an exemption from the requirement to have coverage. If eligible for an exemption, the taxpayer will need to complete the new IRS Form 8965, Health Coverage Exemptions and attach it to their return. The individual must apply for some exemptions through the Health Insurance Marketplace. However, most of the exemptions are easily obtained from the IRS when filing a tax return.

      Individual Shared Responsibility Payment. If an individual does not have qualifying coverage or an exemption for each month of the year, they will need to make an individual shared responsibility payment when filing their return for choosing not to purchase coverage. Examples and information about figuring the payment are available on the IRS Calculating the Payment page. More information about the Affordable Care Act and the 2014 income tax return is available at IRS.gov/aca.

      Get It right

      Taxpayers are responsible for the accuracy of their tax return even if someone else preparers it for them. The rules for EITC are complicated. The IRS urges taxpayers to seek help if they are unsure of their eligibility, whether from a paid tax professional or at a free tax return preparation site. Deliberate errors can have lasting impact on future eligibility to claim EITC and leave taxpayers with a penalty.

      Taxpayers should reply promptly to any letter from the IRS requesting additional information about EITC. If taxpayers need assistance or have questions, they should call the number on the IRS letter.

      Millions of low and moderate-income workers may be missing out on a significant tax credit that can be as much as $6,000. If you earned $52,427 or less la...
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      Taiwan, China attack Internet addiction

      Asian countries impose penalties on parents who don't limit kids' exposure

      Asia has a problem. Research published in December last year found that 7.1% of the population in Asia is addicted to the internet. But unlike other countries with similar problems, Asian countries are trying to do something about it.

      Taiwan has decided to do something about it and has enacted some strict bans. It has banned children under the age of two from using electronic devices such as iPads, televisions and smartphones. If you decide to let your little one play with the devices you face a fine of $1,000.

      The new law also states that parents must ensure that under-18s only use electronic products for a "reasonable" length of time. The problem with that is a reasonable length of time seems to have no definition. Although the law proposed by Taiwanese MP Lu Shiow-yen said his intention was to protect young people by stopping them from using electronic devices for more than 30 minutes at a time

      China has its issues as well. Online addiction affecting young people has become a problem with an estimated 24 million children considered "web junkies." China has more than 250 military style boot camps that have been set up across the country to tackle under-18 internet addiction.

      Instant feedback

      “Technology itself is extremely addicting because it provides immediate feedback,” says Hilarie Cash, PhD, founder of reSTART, which claims to be the first inpatient Internet addiction treatment center in the U.S. “Children are growing up with so much Internet exposure that they are becoming dangerously uncomfortable without it.”

      When the University of Leeds carried out a study into internet overuse, it found that those who were addicted were more likely to suffer depression as a result.

      The American Academy of Pediatrics says two hours tops of screen time should be the limit for letting your kids play online.

      There are sources for help if you feel you or a family member are starting to suffer from an online addiction Look into: NetAddiction.com, MentalHelp.net and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

      Asia has a problem. Research published in December last year found that 7.1% of the population in Asia is addicted to the internet. But unlike other countr...
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      Vaccinations linked to trust in government

      Republicans, independents less likely than Democrats to submit to vaccination

      Who are these people who don't believe in vaccinations? That's the question that's been asked -- often in heated tones -- following an outbreak of measles that started at Disneyland.

      Would you believe they're more likely to be Republicans and independents than Democrats? That's the conclusion of a new study by researchers at Ohio State University. 

      The study re-analyzed national survey data from 2009 that examined Americans' views on a then-new vaccine for the H1N1 virus -- commonly known as swine flu.

      Results showed that Republicans and independents were significantly less likely than Democrats to say they would get the vaccine. But it wasn't their political affiliation itself that was driving Republican and independent views, said Kent Schwirian, professor of sociology at OSU.

      "It's not that Republicans reject vaccination because of their conservative views or exposure to certain media," Schwirian said. "It was their lack of confidence in the government to deal with the swine flu crisis that was driving their anti-vaccination views."

      The study found that people trusting the government's ability to deal with the epidemic were almost three times more likely to take the vaccine than were others.

      Lack of confidence

      The results may apply to the current measles outbreak that started in southern California last year, Schwirian said. Some research has blamed the outbreak on clusters of people in Marin County, California, and other politically liberal areas who didn't vaccinate their children.

      But Schwirian doesn't necessarily see any conflict between these results that find Republicans were less likely to accept vaccines and current work that finds Democrats who are against vaccine use.

      "I believe it is a lack of confidence in government -- not political affiliation -- that may unite the anti-vaccination people in our study with those from today," Schwirian said. "Even in our study, about a third of Democrats said they were not likely to get swine flu vaccine and many of those had low confidence in government."

      During the winter of 2009-2010, the swine flu was a big deal, Schwirian said. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak the first worldwide pandemic in more than 40 years. In the United States, the virus killed 12,500, hospitalized 275,000 and sickened 61 million.

      A vaccine was developed, but during the winter of 2010 the vaccination program became a heated public issue and the number of people who said they would get the vaccine plummeted.

      Only 50.4%

      Overall, only 50.4% of those who participated in the Pew survey indicated that they would take the vaccine.

      A larger percentage of Democrats (63.7%) were willing to take the vaccine than Republicans and independents (both about 43%).

      Nearly 60% of those with confidence in government were willing to take the vaccine, compared to 32% of those with less confidence. Those who watched more news were also more likely to want the vaccine.

      When the researchers used a statistical model to analyze the data, they learned that confidence in government was the driving force in vaccination views.

      Those distrusting the government's ability were more likely to be older, middle income, politically conservative and less likely to follow media reports about the outbreak.

      "Republicans were the most likely to have less confidence in government, so that's why we saw this strong relationship between Republican affiliation and skepticism about the swine flu vaccine," Schwirian said.

      This survey didn't ask about participants' trust in science and medicine, which may also be related to views on vaccines, he noted.

      "But this finding is certainly consistent with studies that have shown that the confidence of political conservatives in science has decreased in recent years."

      Schwirian conducted the study with Gustavo Mesch, a Ph.D. graduate of Ohio State who is now a professor of sociology and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Haifa in Israel. Their results appear online in the journal Health Promotion International and will be published in a future print edition.

      For this newly published study, the researchers did a secondary analysis of the Pew Research for the People and Press survey from October 2009. The Pew institute conducts regular surveys of public opinion, and this survey asked about the willingness of Americans to take the swine flu vaccine. A total of 1,000 people were surveyed.

      Who are these people who don't believe in vaccinations? That's the question that's been asked -- often in heated tones -- following an outbreak of measles ...
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      Are brand name drugs better than generics?

      They're chemically identical and nearly always much cheaper

      Mrs. Thomas took her prescription for her heart medication to the pharmacy to have it filled. “I don’t want one of those generic drugs either,” she stated. “I want the real thing.” So, are brand name drugs really better than generic version?

      According to recent information published in Consumer Reports, the answer is an emphatic no. To win approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the manufacturer of the generic medication must show that the drug has the same active ingredient and that it is identical in strength, dosage form, route of administration and labeling as the brand name drug.

      The company must also demonstrate that individuals absorb and excrete the medication at the same rate. Says a pharmaceutical scientist who worked for decades at the FDA, “People may think that brand name products are better because they’re more expensive, but the body doesn’t know whether the drug came from a brand name or a generic company.”

      When a medication goes off patient, other pharmaceutical manufacturers are free to create generic versions of that drug. The consumer can save considerable money by switching to the generic form of that drug. But the price of the drug does not go down immediately after the generic is released to the market.

      Let’s take a mythical medication, Fat-no-more, used for weight loss, as an example. The brand’s retail price for a month’s worth of Fat-no-more is $220. Then it goes generic. After one year, the generic price is about half: $110. After 2 years on the market, it goes to $48. After 3 years, the price is $12.

      Why does it take so long for the price to go down? When a drug is about to go off patent, manufacturers file lawsuits to challenge the patent. The company that wins obtains a 6-month period to sell that generic exclusively. When that period is over, other generic houses can produce that drug, forcing the prices even lower. Today, 8 out of 10 prescriptions filled in the US are for generic drugs, says the FDA. Cost is a big factor because generics can be as much as 85% cheaper than their brand counterparts.

      Costs soaring

      The cost of generic drugs is soaring, however.

      Relatively cheap as they are compared with brand name products, the price gap between brand name drugs and generics is beginning to narrow – and it is not because proprietary drugs are getting cheaper. A 2014 article in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that certain older drugs, many of which are generic and not protected by patents or market exclusivity, are now also extremely expensive.

      Examples:

      • Captopril, used for hypertension and heart failure, increased in price by more than 2,800% between November 2012 and November 2013, from 1.4 cents to 39.9 cents per tablet.
      • Doxycycline, a broad-spectrum antibiotic that has been in existence since 1967, zoomed in price from 6.3 cents to $3.36 per pill.
      • Clomipramine, a long-established antidepressant, has jumped in price from 22 cents to $8.32 per pill.
      • Digoxin, used for atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) and heart failure by millions of Americans, saw a price increase of 637% between 2002 and 2013.
      • Some generic versions of codeine formulations for migraine, thyroid medicines, as well as the generic steroid prednisolone, have all more than doubled in price since last year, according to industry analyst EvaluatePharma. 

      Yet, low-cost generics have saved the health care industry $209 billion in 2012, $239 billion in 2013 and almost $1.5 trillion over the past decade, according to the most recent data.

      Sadly, prices have spiked for certain medications because of shortages of raw materials, supply disruptions or other factors that have led some manufacturers to stop producing those medications, resulting in a near monopoly. The number of manufacturers of digoxin, for example, has fallen from 8 to 3.

      As Aaron Kesselheim, MD, assistant professor of pharmaceutical economics at Harvard Medical School, stated, “Studies show it is not until you have 4 or 5 companies manufacturing the same generic will the prices really drop.” Therefore, ask your doctor to switch your medications to another drug in that class if you are spending more money than you would like.

      Mrs. Thomas’ pharmacist explained the generic process to her and she agreed that perhaps the generic form of her pricy heart medication was as good as the “real thing” and she agreed to switch to the generic. She was pleased at the money she saved, as well as the confidence she gained from her pharmacist’s counseling.

      Mrs. Thomas took her prescription for her heart medication to the pharmacy to have it filled. “I don’t want one of those generic drugs either,” she stated....
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      Consumers tighten their belts in December even as incomes rise

      That helped the personal savings rate rise

      Rather than open their wallets during December, consumers chose to sock more away for a rainy day.

      According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Personal consumption expenditures (PCE)

      fell by $40.0 billion, or 0.3%, while personal income increased $41.3 billion, or 0.3%. Disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- increased $35.8 billion,

      or 0.3%.

      Wages and salaries

      Wages and salaries inched up just $6.9 billion in December, after surging $42.2 billion in November.

      Private wages and salaries were up $4.9 billion, while government wages and salaries increased $1.9 billion.

      Supplements to wages and salaries increased $3.3 billion in December.

      Personal outlays and saving

      Personal outlays, which include PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments, were down $39.2 billion compared with an increase of $59.7 billion in November.

      Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $643.2 billion in December, compared with $568.2 billion in November.

      That pushed the personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- to 4.9% from 4.3% the month before.

      The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.   

      Rather than open their wallets during December, consumers chose to sock more away for a rainy day. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Personal ...
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      Freeland Foods recalls sunflower seeds

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Freeland Foods of San Jose, Calif., is recalling the Go Raw Organic Sunflower Seeds, UPC number 8 59888 00009 7 with lot number “Enjoy before August 22, 2015 R5.”

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

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

      The recalled product, sold in 1-lb. (454-g) re-sealable plastic bags sold by Ecomax, was distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada through distributors, retailers and direct customers.

      Consumers with questions 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 the Go Raw Organic Sunflower Seeds, UPC number 8 59888 00009 7 with lot number “Enjoy before August 22, 2015...
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      Stone Mountain Pecan Company recalls certain pecan products

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Stone Mountain Pecan Company of Monroe, Ga., is recalling 540 packages of the “Pecanettes.”

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      There have been no reports of illnesses associated with this recall to date.

      The products were sold in 8-oz. clear plastic packages, Lot code 4032A, with a “sell by date” of 12/30/15.

      Consumers who have purchased the Pecanettes should return them for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 770-207-6486 between 8 a.m.-4 p.m. (EST), Monday through Friday.

      Stone Mountain Pecan Company of Monroe, Ga., is recalling 540 packages of the “Pecanettes.” The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. There have...
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      Nissan recalls vehicles with hood release issue

      The hood release latching may not engage fully

      Nissan North America is recalling 170,665 model year 2013-2014 Nissan Pathfinder vehicles manufactured June 20, 2012, to November 18, 2013; 2014 Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid vehicles manufactured July 18, 2013, to November 18, 2013; 2013 Infiniti JX35 vehicles manufactured November 29, 2011, to June 14, 2013; 2014 QX60 vehicles manufactured May 16, 2013, to November 18, 2013; and 2014 Infiniti QX60 Hybrid vehicles manufactured July 18, 2013, to November 18, 2013.

      The hood release cable assembly in the recalled vehicles may have been installed incorrectly preventing the latching claw from engaging fully. The secondary latch may remain in the open position when the hood is closed.

      If the primary hood latch is released and the secondary latch fails during operation of the vehicle, it could cause the hood to open during vehicle operation impairing the driver's vision, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will modify the angle of the hood release mechanism to provide additional length to the release cable, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

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

      Nissan North America is recalling 170,665 model year 2013-2014 Nissan Pathfinder vehicles manufactured June 20, 2012, to November 18, 2013; 2014 Nissan Pat...
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      Great Lakes Smoked Meats recalls salami product

      The product may contain Clostridium perfringens

      Great Lakes Smoked Meats of Lorain, Ohio, is recalling approximately 2,863 pounds of smoked salami product.

      The product may have experienced temperature abuse and may contain Clostridium perfringens.

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

      The the following smoked salami product, produced on Dec. 12, 2014 through Dec. 14, 2014,is being recalled:

      • Approximately 2.25-2.3 lb. vacuum-packed sticks of “SMOKEHOUSE DELI KARPATSKAYA SMOKED COOKED SALAMI”

      The recalled product bears the establishment number “1029 SEOH” inside the Cooperative Interstate Shipment mark of inspection. “Sell By” dates for the recalled product range from Mar. 16, 2015, to Mar. 19, 2015. It was shipped to retail locations in California, New York and Pennsylvania.

      Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Ben Fligner at (440) 242-6328.

      Great Lakes Smoked Meats of Lorain, Ohio, is recalling approximately 2,863 pounds of smoked salami product. The product may have experienced temperature a...
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