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

It's true, side matters

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...

PhotoThere 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.

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Evolving store brands putting pressure on big food companies

Today, store brands feature organic, natural and specialty food products

From the beginning, the concept of a store brand was simple. Since a huge part of the cost of a food product is marketing and distribution, a store brand c...

PhotoFrom the beginning, the concept of a store brand was simple. Since a huge part of the cost of a food product is marketing and distribution, a store brand could sell for a lot less.

After all, there is no need for advertising and the store doesn't have to be persuaded to stock it on its shelves. In many cases the store brand might even be produced and packaged by the same food conglomerate that is selling the name brand product, only for a lot more.

Despite that quality parity, consumers in the past often passed up the cheaper store brand, thinking it wasn't quite as good. That began to change during the inflationary late 1970s, when shoppers looked for ways to control their food budgets.

Improving quality

More recently, store brands have gotten so good that many consumers prefer them to the name brand. In it's August 2013 issue, Consumer Reports taste-tested a wide variety of store brands, declaring that Costco, Kmart, Sam's Club, Target,Trader Joe's, Walmart, and Whole Foods had at least one store brand as good as its name brand competitor.

And it wasn't confined to the rather boring category of canned peas, but for things like ice cream and trail mix.

“When we pitted store brands against Heinz ketchup and Hellmann's mayonnaise, we found at least one near-twin for each: Market Pantry (Target) ketchup and Market Pantry, Great Value (Walmart), and Kirkland Signature (Costco) mayos,” the magazine reported. “All are more than one-third cheaper than the name brand.”

Natural and organic store brands

Store brands now extend to a wide range of natural and organic food products. Target has launched its Simply Balanced collection, made without artificial flavors, colors and preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. The Simply Balanced collection offers nearly 250 products across snacks, pasta, beverages, frozen seafood, dairy and cereal.

According to The Stir, organic house brands include Simple Truth at Kroger, O Organics and Eating Right at Safeway, Wild Harvest at Albertson’s, 365 Everyday Value at Whole Foods, and GreenWise at Publix.

This isn't just a U.S. development but an international one, with industry analysts saying it has the potential to significantly altering the marketplace in the years ahead.

International phenomenon

Photo"It is essential for major brands to understand why store brands have become important players in some countries while in others they are slow to take off," write the authors of a new study in the Journal of International Marketing. "Sooner, rather than later, major brands in less-developed nations will likely experience enormous competitive pressure that will threaten their very existence."

The authors – Andres Cuneo, Sandra J. Milberg, Jose Miguel Benavente, and Javier Palacios-Fenech of Universidad Adolfo Ibañez – link the growing dominance of store brands to the growth of supermarkets. In countries where small food markets are still the norm, name brands tend to dominate.

"It took 50 years for supermarkets to become widespread in the United States and Great Britain, but the nations that followed adopted them much more rapidly. While the pace will vary according to nation, store brands will inevitably become a global phenomenon," the authors conclude.

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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 th...

PhotoSuicide, 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."

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FTC: AmeriFreight paid consumers for positive reviews

The auto shipment broker offered a $50 discount for positive reviews

Consumers rely on so-called "crowd-sourced" reviews to be sure they're making smart buying decisions. But those reviews aren't worth much if the customers ...

PhotoConsumers rely on so-called "crowd-sourced" reviews to be sure they're making smart buying decisions. But those reviews aren't worth much if the customers who write them are paid for their effusive praise.

The Federal Trade Commission charged that AmeriFreight, an automobile shipment broker, had done just that.

The FTC’s complaint marks the first time the agency has charged a company with misrepresenting online reviews by failing to disclose that it gave cash discounts to customers to post the reviews.

“Companies must make it clear when they have paid their customers to write online reviews,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If they fail to do that – as AmeriFreight did – then they’re deceiving consumers, plain and simple.”

AmeriFreight has agreed to a settlement with the FTC that will halt the company’s allegedly deceptive practice of touting online customer reviews, while failing to disclose that the reviewers were compensated with discounts and incentives.

AmeriFreight's website has claimed that the company had “more highly ranked ratings and reviews than any other company in the automotive transportation business.” As part of its advertising, it encouraged consumers to “Google us ‘bbb top rated car shipping.’ You don’t have to believe us, our consumers say it all.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, AmeriFreight and its owner, Marius Lehmann, violated Section 5 of the FTC Act by failing to disclose that they compensated consumers for their online reviews. Specifically, according to the complaint, the respondents:

  • Provided consumers with a discount of $50 off the cost of AmeriFreight’s services if consumers agreed to review the company’s services online, and increased the cost by $50 if consumers did not agree to write a review;
  • Provided consumers with “Conditions for receiving a discount on reviews,” which said that if they leave an online review, they will be automatically entered into a $100 per month “Best Monthly Review Award” for the most creative subject title and “informative content”;
  • Contacted consumers after their cars had been shipped to remind them of their obligation to complete a review to receive the “online review discount,” and qualify for the $100 award;
  • Failed to disclose the material connection between the company and their consumer endorsers -- namely, that AmeriFreight compensated consumers to post online reviews;
  • Deceptively represented that its favorable reviews were based on the unbiased reviews of customers.

The proposed order settling the FTC’s charges prohibits the respondents from misrepresenting that their products or services are highly rated or top-ranked based on unbiased consumer reviews, or that customer reviews are unbiased. It also requires the respondents to clearly and prominently disclose any material connection, if one exists, between them and their endorsers.

 

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The Lab fetches the top dog spot again

Bulldogs are grunting their way upwards

The American Kennel Club's list of the most popular dog breeds is out and -- no surprise -- the Labrador Retriever is No. 1 again -- for the 24th time....

PhotoThe American Kennel Club's list of the most popular dog breeds is out and -- no surprise -- the Labrador Retriever is No. 1 again -- for the 24th time.

No breed has held the top position longer than the Lab. Labs hit the top 10 in 1970 and haven't left since. It's no wonder -- Labs are affectionate, more than kind, smart, great with kids and they love water. They were bred to fetch game but give them a ball or two maybe three and they will continuously bring them all back again over and over.

They really can play any canine role -- from search and rescue to therapy dog and of course sporting dog. I am a Lab owner so I have a little bias.

“The Lab truly is America’s dog,” said AKC Vice President Gina DiNardo, “but the lovable Bulldog breeds are clamoring to dominate. Watch out for an upset next year.”

The Bulldog is inching its way up in the ranks, coming in at number 4 this year, the highest ranking in the breed's history. Bulldogs make excellent family companions with a natural tendency to form strong bonds with children, an easy-to-care-for coat, and minimal exercise requirements.   

"They just have such character," says Bulldog Club of America communications chairwoman Annette Noble. The breed is known for being gentle but resolute – given direction, a bulldog may well want "to think about it first and decide whether it's worth it," as Noble puts it.

Underdog

Breaking into the top 10 for the first time is the French Bulldog, coming in at the ninth spot, upsetting the noble Dachshund which has held that position since 1985. 

The French Bulldog is not a sporting breed but a dog that can easily adapt to apartment life, it doesn't need a ton of grooming and doesn't require a great deal of exercise. The little dogs, which resemble Pugs as much as they do Bulldogs, are smart and eager to please.

The full list of 2014's top ten breeds:

1. Labrador Retriever

2. German Shepherd 

3. Golden Retriever

4. Bulldog

5. Beagle

6. Yorkshire Terrier

7. Poodle

8. Boxer

9. French Bulldog

10. Rottweiler

All of these dogs are wonderful but remember there are many dogs that are loving and smart and terrific with kids that need a home that are sitting inside of your local animal shelter.

There are also rescue groups for nearly every breed. If you are in the market for a new dog check out the rescue organizations before you go to a breeder.

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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 ...

PhotoEarlier 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.

 

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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-loo...

PhotoRising 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%.

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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...

PhotoImproving 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.

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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 cha...

PhotoThe 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.

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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 a...

PhotoChrysler (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.

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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 p...

PhotoGeneral 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.

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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 al...

PhotoSunset 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.  

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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 ex...

PhotoThe 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.

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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, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHT...

PhotoAs 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.

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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...

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Private-message phishing scam seeks to snag Facebook users

No, your “Facebook friend” didn't see you in a mysterious video

Facebook users beware: if your close friend or trusted relative sent you a private Facebook message claiming that you were seen (or tagged) in a video – th...

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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 Inde...

Photo
© teena137 – Fotolia

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

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

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.  

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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 J...

PhotoConsumer 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.

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Gardener's gold -- better known as manure

It's about as organic as you can get

You can spend a good chunk of money on fertilized soil with all kinds of toxins in it and watch your garden grow. And it will but you are putting all those...

PhotoYou can spend a good chunk of money on fertilized soil with all kinds of toxins in it and watch your garden grow. And it will but you are putting all those chemicals in the soil.

You can also find some barnyard animals that have left a few droppings from their behinds and watch your garden blossom like it was on steroids. Manure is known as gardener’s gold but there are some things to know about it.

Here is the lowdown on manure and why it's so special. It consists of three basic elements critical to plant health: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. 

Nitrogen allows plants to produce the proteins needed to build living tissue for green stems, strong roots, and lots of leaves. Phosphorus helps move energy throughout the plant, especially important in maturing plants. Potassium aids plants in adapting sugars needed in growth and is especially helpful in root crops.

Together, these three elements form that magic formula, N-P-K, the backbone of all fertilizers, man-made or organic.

Manure inequality

Not all animal manures are equal. They don't all hold the same combinations or levels of nutrients. Chicken manure, for example, is especially high in ammonia, phosphorous and nitrogen. Even decomposed, it can damage tender plant roots.

All animals produce manure, but only livestock produce it in sufficient quantity and in a limited enough location to be of use to gardeners. And in case you’re wondering, it’s not a good idea to use manure from household animals like dogs and cats. Their feces are more likely to contain pathogens harmful to humans. Stick with the droppings from barnyard animals. 

Know that using manure is not a overnight process. It actually is something that needs a little time to sit and stew. It's very similar to a recipe. You’ll need to do some composting before applying it to your plants. How long depends on the type of manure and the season.

Add the manure slowly to your compost pile over several days or weeks, allowing plenty of air to circulate in the compost bin. Add other organic matter like grass clippings and leaves to break up the manure and speed curing. It’s more a food safety issue rather than a nutrient issue. We've all seen the outbreaks of E. coli over the past couple of years. A good rule of thumb is spread it for at least 60 days before you plant.

If you aren't lucky enough to have barnyard animals in your yard, you might be wondering how you find this gold substance. Look online for people selling livestock. Craigslist has a farm and garden section. Tell them you will come haul it away for them. Or if you really want to be a manure over-achiever tell them you will muck the stalls for them in exchange for taking the manure. That is pretty hard to say no to if you are on the other end.

Remember to wash all of your vegetables thoroughly before eating them.

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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 B...

PhotoConsumers 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.

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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 r...

PhotoFairway 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.

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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. C...

PhotoLast 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.

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Anthem hacking affected 78.8 million people, including 19 million non-Anthem customers

The FBI says it's “close” to identifying the hackers

Three weeks ago, when the Anthem health insurance company first admitted that hackers had successfully breached a database holding certain customer records...

PhotoThree weeks ago, when the Anthem health insurance company first admitted that hackers had successfully breached a database holding certain customer records, initial estimates suggested that about 80 million current and former Anthem customers were affected.

Yesterday the company released more details about the hacking, and the news is both better and worse than initially feared. The actual number of affected people is slightly lower than estimated: 78.8 million. (By way of comparison, in 2014 the U.S. had an estimated total population of 314.9 million, so the Anthem hack affected slightly less than 1 out of every 4 people in the United States.)

However, those 78.8 million people are not limited to current and former Anthem policyholders: the company also said that up to 19 million of those records were from people enrolled in “non-Anthem plans.”

The stolen information includes people's names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, home addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers, which Anthem had never encrypted. It's believed that the hacker or hackers only needed to steal a single password to gain access to all that information. However, Anthem says that no medical, banking or financial information was made available to the hackers.

FBI is "close"

Also on Tuesday, the head of the FBI's Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch said that the Bureau was “close” to identifying the Anthem hackers, but would not name names until it was absolutely sure. FBI agent Robert Anderson told reporters that “We’re close already, but we’re not going to say it until we’re absolutely sure.”

Earlier this month, when news of the Anthem hacking was still only a couple of days old, security investigators speaking anonymously suggested that the hackers might be connected to the Chinese government. But when discussing possible culprits on Tuesday, Anderson said, “I don’t know if it’s China or not, by the way.”

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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 consumer...

PhotoIn 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.”

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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 exercis...

PhotoHeart 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.

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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 i...

PhotoThis 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.

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Who do you trust? Your iPhone or your dermatologist?

Mobile apps claim they can detect deadly melanoma

When it comes to diseases, melanoma -- or skin cancer -- is about as bad as it gets. It's the most common cancer in the United States and has a high mortal...

PhotoWhen it comes to diseases, melanoma -- or skin cancer -- is about as bad as it gets. It's the most common cancer in the United States and has a high mortality rate, partly because it often goes undetected until it is in its later stages.

While consumers can and should examine their skin regularly for suspicious growths, regular check-ups by a doctor, ideally a dermatologist, are essential.

Or we can just entrust our lives to a mobile phone app, accordiing to the promoters of MelApp and Mole Detective, which claim they can detect skin cancer in its early stages.

The Federal Trade Commission doesn't think so.

It has challenged the claims and is pursuing charges against two marketers of Mole Detective who did not agree to settle. Another promoter has agreed to stop making unsubstantiated claims.

Deceptive claims

According to the FTC’s complaints, each of the apps instructed users to photograph a mole with a smartphone camera and input other information about the mole. The apps then purported to calculate the mole’s melanoma risk as low, medium, or high.

The FTC alleged that the marketers deceptively claimed the apps accurately analyzed melanoma risk and could assess such risk in early stages. The marketers lacked adequate evidence to support such claims, the FTC charged.

“Truth in advertising laws apply in the mobile marketplace,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “App developers and marketers must have scientific evidence to support any health or disease claims that they make for their apps.”

Mole Detective Kristi Kimball and her company, New Consumer Solutions LLC, developed and first marketed Mole Detective in January 2012.  U.K.-based Avrom “Avi” Lasarow and his company, L Health Ltd., took over marketing the app in August 2012.  The marketers advertised the app primarily online, where it has sold in the Apple and Google app stores for as much as $4.99.

The settlement with Kimball and her company prohibits them from claiming that a device, such as an app, can detect or diagnose melanoma, unless the representation is truthful, not misleading, and supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence in the form of human clinical testing of the device. The agency will pursue a litigated judgment against non-settling defendants Lasarow and his company.

MelApp Settlement Health Discovery Corporation began marketing MelApp online in 2011 for $1.99. The proposed settlement will bar the company from claiming that any device detects or diagnoses melanoma or its risk factors, or increases users’ chances of early detection, unless the representation is not misleading and supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence in the form of human clinical testing of the device.

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Feds swat mosquito wrist band claims

There's no evidence they work, the FTC charges

A mosquito band sounds like a group of three guys who get together in the garage to strum guitars and play drums. But it's actually a wrist band that its p...

PhotoA mosquito band sounds like a group of three guys who get together in the garage to strum guitars and play drums. But it's actually a wrist band that its promoters claim is as repellant to mosquitoes as a garage band is to the neighbors.

Hoping to swat the pest before it bites too many consumers, the Federal Trade Commission has charged Viatek Consumer Products Group, Inc. with making deceptive and unsubstantiated claims for its Mosquito Shield Bands, widely promoted and sold on the Internet for about $20.

The complaint also alleges that the company and its owner violated the provisions of a 2003 administrative order barring them from making deceptive claims about any product he markets.

“The defendants said that their wristbands would protect you from mosquito bites, but their claims weren’t backed up by scientific evidence,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Those claims violate the law and a 2003 FTC order against the defendants.”

Mint oil

Viatek claims the bands will protect or prevent users from being bitten by mosquitos, create a five-foot “vapor barrier” that protects consumers from mosquito bites and protect users from being bitten by mosquitoes for 96-120 hours.

The FTC contends, however, that the defendants did not have competent and reliable scientific evidence to back up these claims.

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Oats for breakfast may not be so healthy

Study finds mold-related toxin in some cereals

Oatmeal and other cereals containing oats are good for your heart. But what about the rest of you? ...

PhotoOatmeal and other cereals containing oats are good for your heart. But what about the rest of you?

Scientists are warning that oat-based products might need closer monitoring for potential mold contamination. They report that some oat-based breakfast cereals in the U.S. contain a mold-related toxin called ochratoxin A (OTA) that's been linked to kidney cancer in animal studies. They say the findings could have implications for consumer health.

Not that OTA is unusual. Researchers Dojin Ryu and Hyun Jung Lee note that OTA is one of the most common toxic products released by molds. Previous studies have found the toxin in samples of pork, dried fruits, wine, coffee and other products.

Scientists don't yet know how the toxin affects human health, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, classifies it as a possible human carcinogen.

Animals exposed to OTA in experiments developed kidney tumors. Although the U.S. doesn't currently regulate the contaminant, the European Union has set maximum limits for OTA in food.

500 samples

Ryu and Lee wanted to see how U.S. breakfast cereals -- a staple in many Americans' diets -- measured up to that standard.

The researchers tested close to 500 samples of corn-, rice-, wheat- and oat-based breakfast cereals purchased from U.S. stores over two years. They found that in most samples, OTA levels were lower than the European threshold. But concentrations exceeded the EU standard in 8 percent of oat-based breakfast cereal samples.

The researchers conclude that oat production, storage and processing need careful review to better protect consumer health.

Their report was published in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

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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 shows appl ...

PhotoAnother 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.

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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 Housin...

PhotoSales 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.

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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 s...

PhotoToyota 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.

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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 th...

PhotoYou 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.

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Google to censor adult content; remains unclear on meaning of word “censor”

All adult blogs set to go “private” next month

Today, Google announced a sudden and unexpected change to its blogging policy: As of March 23, it will be impossible to publicly share pornography and “adu...

PhotoToday, Google announced a sudden and unexpected change to its blogging policy: As of March 23, it will be impossible to publicly share pornography and “adult” content on Blogger platforms (those websites with “blogspot” or “blogger” in their URLs).

At best, such content will be made “private,” meaning that it will only be visible to the blog's owner, and those individuals whom the owner personally chooses to share the blog with. At worst, Google might delete the content, or disable access to the author's Google and/or Blogger accounts.

Paradoxically, Google's online Blogger Content Policy still starts off with a paragraph condemning censorship, followed by several paragraphs explaining that Google will henceforth engage in censorship of sexual content:

Blogger is a free service for communication, self-expression and freedom of speech. We believe Blogger increases the availability of information, encourages healthy debate, and makes possible new connections between people. It is our belief that censoring this content is contrary to a service that bases itself on freedom of expression.

However, in order to uphold these values …. [several paragraphs negating that previously stated belief about censoring deleted.]

Google announced the upcoming policy change in a post 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.

Say what?

Problem is, Google's idea of what exactly constitutes “artistic, educational, documentary or scientific contexts” might be difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary Google users to fathom.

As Emma Wollacott noted in Forbes, “Many of the blogs currently labelled “adult” have had that tag slapped on them by Google itself – and the blog owners don’t necessarily agree. Affected blogs have included those covering LGBT issues and sex education, for example.”

For those who'd rather migrate to a blog on a different platform with more liberal policies (such as WordPress or Tumblr), Google provided a link to a page providing instructions on how to archive or export your posts and other content.

That will likely prove a necessity for most blogs with adult, or potentially adult, content. As Jason Scott of the Internet Archive Tweeted:

It is entirely possible Google will censor/disconnect websites over a decade old because of an arbitrary policy change. Guess we're grabbing [content.]

On the Blogger user forum, Derren Grathy from the Impregnation Erotica blog complained: “Set to private and by ‘invitation only’, our websites will be all but destroyed. The fact that you haven’t deleted our content is of grim consolation when you kill off our entire userbase!”

Vague descriptions

Other users pointed out that Google's vague descriptions of what exactly constitutes objectionable adult material (as opposed to adult material with educational, scientific or other redeeming value), combined with its policy of allowing individual users to report blogs which they claim are in violation of those vague descriptons, might result in bloggers being censored for adult content without even producing any. Fantasy and romance [not pornography] writer Cynthianna Matthews, for example, posted this complaint:


What is the definition of "porn"? I received this Blogger email, but it doesn't tell me WHICH ONE OF MY BLOGS IS PORNOGRAPHIC. Are all of them suspect now? One small posting that someone made in the comment section? What is exactly are they objecting to? If they can't give me a specific answer, how am I to fix the "problem"[?]

The thing is, I don't think there is a "problem"--I think there's just blatant censorship happening here. Someone is jealous of my lovely romance cover artwork and they're wanting to excise it off of Google so they can promote their own work ….You can see where how abusive this policy can be in the hands of jealous or narrow-minded individuals. Unless Google can give specific examples of "porn", then really they're just bullying people indiscriminately.

To prove how "pornographic" my romance book covers are, I'll attach my soon-to-be-release[d] title cover art … for your perusual. I hope you are suitably "shocked" at its "pornography". If not, then I don't think your policy has a leg to stand upon. (If you're a Doctor Who fan--enjoy!)

The attached picture showed a TARDIS (the magic, closet-like “police box” which Doctor Who uses to travel throughout time and space in his TV show). Through the TARDIS' open door is visible a deserted tropical beach. The picture is thoroughly non-sexual, and doesn't even show any living beings who might, theoretically, have sex together at some future point.

So, to reiterate: if you're a blogger on Blogspot or Blogger.com, and your blog contains any sexually explicit content, you should probably export everything to a non-Google platform as soon as possible. And if you're a blogger whose blog does not contain sexually explicit content, you might still want to go ahead and export everything to a non-Google platform as soon as possible, just in case.

If you disagree with Google's new policy change, take heart in the uplifting commentary Google posted about “Content Boundaries” on its Blogger Content Policy page: “Our content policies play an important role in maintaining a positive experience for you, the users.”

More examples of users discussing the alleged positivity of their experiences with Google's new content policy can be found here at the Blogger user forums.

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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:...

PhotoPeanut 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.

 

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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 withou...

PhotoIn 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.

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Study: 2 of every 3 smokers will die of their habit

The Australian study is the first to show such a high death rate from smoking

Everybody knows smoking is bad for you but an Australian study finds it's almost worse than bad. The of more than 200,000 people found that up to 2 of ever...

PhotoEverybody knows smoking is bad for you but an Australian study finds it's almost worse than bad. The of more than 200,000 people found that up to 2 of every 3 smokers will die of their habit if they continue smoking.

"We knew smoking was bad but we now have direct independent evidence that confirms the disturbing findings that have been emerging internationally, said lead author Professor Emily Banks, Scientific Director of the Sax Institute's 45 and Up Study and a researcher at the Australian National University.

"Even with the very low rates of smoking that we have in Australia we found that smokers have around three-fold the risk of premature death of those who have never smoked. We also found smokers will die an estimated 10 years earlier than non-smokers."

Until relatively recently it was thought that about half of smokers would die of a smoking-related illness, but newer studies in UK women, British doctors and Amercian Cancer Society volunteers have put the figure much higher, at up to 67%.

"We have been able to show exactly the same result in a very large population-wide sample," Professor Banks said.

Australia has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world - at 13% of the population and is an international leader on plain cigarette packaging. "But our findings are an important reminder that the war on tobacco is not yet won, and tobacco control efforts must go on," Banks said.

10 a day

The research also found that compared with non-smokers, smoking just 10 cigarettes a day doubles the risk of dying and smoking a pack a day increases the risk four- to five-fold.

The NSW Heart Foundation's CEO, Kerry Doyle, said the Australian Government was on the right path in driving down smoking rates through initiatives like tax increases and plain packaging.

"Higher tobacco prices have been shown to be the most effective intervention available to governments to reduce demand for tobacco. With smoking being a major cause of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease the more deterrents people have between them and smoking, the better,"  Doyle said.

The research was published today in the international journal BMC Medicine.

 

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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 stan...

PhotoAfter 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.

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Who needs Mom when you have a smartphone?

Kids just need to swing, and now you can do it with a tap of the screen

Who needs Mom when you have a smartphone? The rocking chair is so passé to get a crying baby to sleep. Even a baby swing that you manually crank is really ...

PhotoPhotoWho needs Mom when you have a smartphone? The rocking chair is so passé to get a crying baby to sleep. Even a baby swing that you manually crank is really out of date. Fisher Price has taken care of these motherly tasks with the flip of your smartphone.

Fisher Price's new Smart Connect Cradle ’n Swing is what’s on tap and you will literally tap it to make this new Cradle 'n Swing work.  It's a motorized rocking cradle that parents control via their smartphone.

The premise is that when a parent can hear the baby crying or start to get fussy they use an app to remotely set the cradle rocking. Everybody likes to be rocked at their own speed. Fisher Price has given parents and caregivers the option of 6 speeds.

A baby no longer has to suffer from a mother or babysitter who sings off-key.

16 songs

The swing comes with 16 different songs and if you have ever had trouble sleeping yourself, you may have heard about CD's that have nature sounds to soothe you and calm you.

This high-tech Cradle'n Swing wouldn't be complete without three nature sounds that can be programmed in. The mobile is also high tech -- it doesn't just turn with music, it has birds that light up and rotate and one has a mirrored belly.

The cradle itself can be manually rotated 90 degrees relative to the rest of the setup, allowing babies to be rocked either from side to side or head to toe. That cradle can also be removed and placed on the floor, and imagine this, it can be rocked by hand.

This high-tech baby rocker doesn't have to be just accessed via the phone it can be done manually as well. The remote control Cradle ’n Swing does have the ability to be triggered from as far away as 164 feett. There is an AC adapter to help you save on batteries. It does require 4 D batteries.

The life of the swing is from birth until the little one decides they want to swing themselves and start trying to climb out of the cradle. As far as baby swings go it’s competitively priced at around $200 and should be available in the fall of 2015.

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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 ...

PhotoIf 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.

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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...

PhotoThe 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.

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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....

PhotoMickey 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.

 

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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 225/70R1...

PhotoTireco 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.

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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....

PhotoIf 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.

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23andMe genetic test wins federal approval

Food and Drug Administration appears to soften its position

In 2013 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put an end to a popular service provided by 23andMe, a genetics testing company....

PhotoIn 2013 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put an end to a popular service provided by 23andMe, a genetics testing company.

Consumers were sending the company DNA samples, usually saliva, and received in return a list of more than 200 health conditions and traits present in their genetic code. Millions thought it was a great service.

The FDA thought otherwise. It declared the container holding the DNA sample was actually an unapproved medical device. The agency said it feared consumers might receive faulty information and make bad medical decisions as a result.

But the company and the agency kept talking and the FDA now appears willing to consider allowing specific tests. It has authorized 23andMe to market a direct-to-consumer genetic rest for Bloom Syndrome. The test can determine if a healthy person has a variant in a gene that could result in offspring inheriting the serious disorder.

Bloom syndrome is an inherited disorder characterized by short stature, sun-sensitive skin changes, an increased risk of cancer, and other health problems. It's fairly rare and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says its frequency is unknown.

Classification change

To reach approval for this specific test the FDA altered the way it classifies the screening test. It also said it intends to exempt the test from FDA premarket review.

The turn-about suggests the regulatory agency is softening its position on direct-to-consumer genetics testing, willing to at least consider products on a case by case basis.

“The FDA believes that in many circumstances it is not necessary for consumers to go through a licensed practitioner to have direct access to their personal genetic information, said the FDA's Alberto Gutierrez.

He said the FDA's actions are all designed to support innovation that will ultimately benefit consumers.

“These tests have the potential to provide people with information about possible mutations in their genes that could be passed on to their children,” Gutierrez said.

Breakthrough

Photo
23andMe logo

For its part 23andMe said it will not immediately begin returning Bloom syndrome Carrier Status test results or other health results to customers until it completes the regulatory process for additional test reports and can offer a more comprehensive product offering. But it does see the FDA action as a major breakthrough.

"This is a major milestone for our company and for consumers who want direct access to genetic testing," said Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe CEO and co-founder. "We have more work to do, but we remain committed to pursuing a regulatory path for additional tests and bringing the health reports back to the US market.”

Wojcicki also took pains to credit the FDA, saying the approval wouldn't have happened without the agency's guidance and cooperation.

To win approval, Wojcicki said her company had to demonstrate the test's accuracy, validity and user comprehension. It may have also discovered the path to future approval of its other products, including the one banished 15 months ago.

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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 a...

PhotoAdvocates 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.

Photo
Scientific American

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.

 

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Better Business Bureau warns of new “survey scam”

No, your “reward points” aren't “expiring” today; that's a scammer's message

This weekend the Better Business Bureau sent out a scam alert warning about a new version of what it calls a “survey scam” that's been cluttering people's ...

PhotoThis weekend the Better Business Bureau sent out a scam alert warning about a new version of what it calls a “survey scam” that's been cluttering people's email in-boxes: phishing bait disguised as a chance to win free reward points.

“You receive an email with a version of this subject line: "Your Reward Points are Expiring. Claim Now!" or "Your eBalance Points are Expiring Soon!" The email uses the name of a well-known store. Many brands, from Macy's to Walgreens, have been impersonated. 

You are a frequent shopper at the store, so you click to open the message. The email says that you've been selected to complete a survey about your recent customer experience. Finish the questionnaire, says the email, and you will receive $100 or more in "bonus-points."

If you click on the link, the best-case scenario is that it will lead to an actual survey, followed by ads urging you to hand over your credit card information in exchange for scammy products ranging from wrinkle cream to diet pills.

It's also possible that the “survey” will ask for your bank account or credit card numbers, passwords and other information identity thieves find useful. And, of course, anytime you click on a strange link, there's the ever-present threat of malware installing itself on your device.

Remember the rules

In most cases, you can protect yourself from such scams by remembering the “standard” anti-scam rules: If a message is addressed generically, rather than addressed to you by name, it's always a scam. (However, the reverse is not necessarily true: if a message does mention you by name, that alone does not guarantee its legitimacy.)

You should also assume a scam anytime an email or any other unsolicited message threatens dire consequences (such as losing all of your accumulated reward points) on a short deadline: the scammers are trying to press your panic buttons in hope of overriding your common sense just long enough for you to fall into their trap. As the Better Business Bureau says, you should distrust any message that “pushes you to act immediately.... before you have had time to think.”

Anytime you get an email purporting to be from a business or organization, you should also remember to check the sender's address: if it is from a free webmail account, such as @yahoo.com, it's a scam.

And you should also remember the cynical saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” A hundred dollars' worth of reward points, in exchange for a mere few minutes filling out a questionnaire? It sounds too good to be true — and that's because it is.

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You rate Uber, Uber rates you

Drivers, meanwhile, are starting to tally up their costs, both physical and financial

You do know that your Uber driver is rating you, don't you? Uber makes much of the fact that consumers can rate the service they get from each ride but do...

PhotoYou do know that your Uber driver is rating you, don't you?

Uber makes much of the fact that consumers can rate the service they get on each ride but doesn't talk much about the fact that drivers can do the same for passengers.

So if you're an obnoxious backseat driver, someone who complains about it being too hot or too cold or if you are just one of those rude, condescending people who make up a fair portion of the human race, get ready to stand around in the rain wondering why no Uber car races to your aid.

We're told that drivers can't see the passenger ratings yet but  there's speculation that they may be able to soon. Also, it's possible that passengers could find themselves removed from the system if they get too many negative reviews.

A similar situation, we understand from its drivers, holds true for Lyft.

This is not really news, although it is getting a bit of media attention today for some reason. Just about every Uber or Lyft driver we've ridden with has promised to give us a good rating, and implied that he'd appreciate our doing the same.

You could call this a blacklist, of course, and no doubt it will be used by entrenched cab companies as another reason why Uber and its ilk should be shoved to the curb. Licensed taxis, they point out, are legally required to answer all calls in their service area and are barred from discriminating against minorities, the disabled and passengers who live in "undesirable" neighborhoods.

Those who believe these rules are actually followed can take comfort from them. Everyone else should remember to be nice to your local Uber and Lyft drivers.

Disenchantment sets in

Ah, but what of the Uber drivers themselves? How are they feeling? I detect a certain disenchantment lately. 

We were rocking along the snowy streets of D.C.'s Virginia suburbs the other day as an Uber driver complained that his car was showing the stresses of being on the road day in and day out. Also, his back was starting to hurt. Also, Uber had cut its rates to be more competitive, taking money out of the drivers' pockets and forcing them to work longer hours to maintain their income.

"A lot of Uber drivers are going over to Lyft," he said. "You're seeing a lot more pink smiles." This, of course, may be like consumers who get miffed at AT&T and defect to Verizon (or vice versa). One may be much like the other.

What actually seems to be at play here is that drivers are starting to realize that while they're not chained to a desk like a workaday 9-to-5er, they're not exactly out there blazing new entrepreneurial trails either.

Initially, many drivers initially calculated their "pay" based on how much money they took in. But in fact, they need to look at themselves as a business -- which means that "pay" becomes the "top line" -- gross receipts from which must be deducted out-of-pocket expenses, depreciation, insurance and the other intangibles that determine whether or not a business is profitable.

Oh, and don't forget the taxes. As self-employed independent contractors, Uber and Lyft drivers must pay their income taxes quarterly. They're not automatically deducted as is the case with employees. And, one must remember, there are no employer-paid benefits -- no 401k, no health insurance, etc. 

Ironically, all of this was just starting to sink in with our talkative Uber driver just one day after Virginia had legalized Uber and its competitors with much self-congratulatory prose.

“I am proud to sign this legislation, which supports innovation in our transportation system while also protecting the safety of citizens across the Commonwealth,” said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. D.C. also recognizes the new transportation networks while Maryland remains a hold-out, once again complicating even the simplest tasks in the dysfunctional tri-state region that is home to the similarly dysfunctional federal government.

 

 

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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...

PhotoSales 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.

 

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Looking up medical info on the web poses a privacy risk

Study questions claims that browsing data is anonymous

True or false: The Internet is a good place to find health information because it's completely confidential....

PhotoTrue or false: The Internet is a good place to find health information because it's completely confidential.

Answer: False, at least according to a new analysis of over 80,000 health-related web pages. Researchers found that nine out of ten visits result in personal health information being leaked to third parties, including online advertisers and data brokers.

This puts users at risk for two significant reasons:

First, people's health interests may be publicly identified along with their names. This could happen if hackers or other criminals get hold of the information, it is accidentally leaked, or data brokers collect and sell the information.

Second, many online marketers use algorithmic tools which automatically cluster people into groups with names like "target" and "waste". Predictably, those in the "target" category are extended favorable discounts at retailers and advance notice of sales. Given that 62% of bankruptcies are the result of medical expenses, it is possible anyone visiting medical websites may be grouped into the "waste" category and denied favorable offers.

Timothy Libert, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication conducted the study. He wrote a software tool that investigates Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) requests initiated to third-party advertisers and data brokers.

91% of health pages

He found that 91% of health-related web pages initiate HTTP requests to third-parties. Seventy percent of these requests include information about specific symptoms, treatment, or diseases (AIDS, cancer, etc.).

The vast majority of these requests go to a handful of online advertisers: Google collects user information from 78% of pages, comScore 38%, and Facebook 31%. Two data brokers, Experian and Acxiom, were also found on thousands of pages.

"Google offers a number of services which collect detailed personal information such as a user's persona email (Gmail), work email (Apps for Business), and physical location (Google Maps)," Libert writes. "For those who use Google's social media offering, Google+, a real name is forcefully encouraged. By combining the many types of information held by Google services, it would be fairly trivial for the company to match real identities to "anonymous" web browsing data."

Indeed, in 2014, the The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found Google to be violating privacy Canadian laws.

"Wholly anonymous"

"Advertisers promise their methods are wholly anonymous and therefore benign," Libert writes. "Yet identification is not always required for discriminatory behavior to occur." He cites a 2013 study where individuals' names were associated with web searches of a criminal record, simply based on whether someone had a "black name."

"Personal health information - historically protected by the Hippocratic Oath - has suddenly become the property of private corporations who may sell it to the highest bidder or accidentally misuse it to discriminate against the ill," Libert said. "As health information seeking has moved online, the privacy of a doctor's office has been traded in for the silent intrusion of behavioral tracking."

Libert points out that the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) is not meant to police business practices by third party commercial entities or data brokers. The field of regulation is widely nonexistent in the U.S., meaning that individuals looking up health information online are left exposed and vulnerable.

The findings are reported in the article "Privacy Implications of Health Information Seeking on the Web," appearing in the March 2015 issue of Communication of the ACM.

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A TV channel caters to dogs, even though it doesn't show any dogumentaries

Colors and the frame rate are more important than subject matter

Do you ever catch your dog watching TV? Actually there is a channel for dogs called DogTV, and it isn't just shows someone thinks your dog will like. It’s ...

PhotoDo you ever catch your dog watching TV? Actually there is a channel for dogs called DogTV, and it isn't just shows someone thinks your dog will like. It’s been scientifically studied to be engaging for your dog. It has a higher number of frames per second a key ingredient to get your dog interested in it and to be able to hold its attention. 

Domesticated dogs see images on the TV screen just the way that we do. They are smart enough to be able to recognize animals just as they would in real life. They also understand the sounds of barking.

There are a few differences though between us and our four-legged counterparts. One is that dog’s eyes register images quicker than ours. "Older television sets, which show fewer frames per second than modern televisions, would appear to a dog to be flickering like a 1920s movie," said Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Higher frame rate

On DogTV, the shows have a higher frame per second rate and images are specially colored in the hues dogs like. Dogs also have dichromatic vision, which means they see a range of two primary colors, yellow and blue. Human vision is trichromatic, so we see a broader range of colors. 

Breeding plays a significant part in how a dog will react to TV. Hounds, which are driven by smell, aren't as interested in visuals, but herding breeds, such as terriers, may be more stimulated by moving objects they see on the small screen.

If you haven't subscribed to DogTV there are alternatives. You probably are already aware that it's not very likely your dog will sit through a whole "Lassie Come Home" movie. Some suggestions would be anything with animal content, like Animal Planet or any animal show.

Your dog probably won’t be much of a news hound just because of the lack of animals in the news, so you won't have any fights over whether to watch Fox or CNN.

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Ultrasound microwave monitors the temperature of your food

NASA engineer hopes his idea will heat up and attract investors

Modern medicine has made it so you can actually see your child before it is born via an ultrasound and now there is an ultrasound of sorts for your food in...

PhotoModern medicine has made it so you can actually see your child before it is born via an ultrasound and now there is an ultrasound of sorts for your food in the microwave. It's called the Heat Map Microwave. (It is a prototype at this moment.)

Microwaves are quick and easy but you never can really tell if your food is cooked just right. You usually have to open the door and do the finger test, or take a bite and burn your tongue.

Leave it to a former NASA engineer who became an inventor to help with the problem. Mark Rober has invented a thermal vision display of your food as it cooks. He says that infrared cameras can basically see the temperature of things and they are much cheaper than years ago.

He put the infrared lens on top of the inside of the microwave and then the front of the microwave becomes a screen where you can see how you're food is doing. No guessing -- you will know exactly when it is cooked to perfection.

As your food moves from cold to hot, it goes from blue, to red and to white hot when it's time to pull it out. Alternatively the microwave could be programmed to switch off automatically when it reaches this point. And of course you can see it on your phone if you happen to be in the next room. It can be streamed through your mobile device, Wi-FI or bluetooth, as he explains in this video:

The microwave hasn't really had a facelift since Amana introduced the first countertop version in 1967. It may have increased in power but that’s about it. 

Of course, Rober's device is still a dream. He still needs the money to start production. He's hoping consumers will sign up at his website saying they support the idea, signaling to investors that it's a worthwhile project.

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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. ...

PhotoWhiteWave 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.

 

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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 was not presented at the U.S. point of entry fo...

PhotoESS 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.

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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 contami...

PhotoKenosha 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.

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Scam alert: the company is real, but the job offer is fake

Searching for the company online is only the first step in protecting yourself

If you're a job seeker you already know that there exist plenty of scammers posing as employers in hopes of either stealing your identity, or cheating you ...

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Striking a blow for civility on the Internet

Dating site automatically sweetens nasty comments

Last month the popular public radio program and podcast This American Life featured a story by writer Lindy West about her rather amazing encounter with an...

PhotoLast month the popular public radio program and podcast This American Life featured a story by writer Lindy West about her rather amazing encounter with an Internet “troll,” an anonymous individual posting nasty things about her online.

West said she was accustomed to this kind of abuse but the Tweet she received last summer struck her at her core. The troll had created a Twitter account in the name of West's recently deceased father, posting a message about how ashamed he was of his daughter.

“Conventional wisdom says never feed the trolls,” West said on the broadcast. “Don't respond. It's what they want. I do that. It doesn't help.”

And in the case of her father's impersonator, she couldn't ignore it. So against everyone's advice she used her next column to talk about how deeply the troll had hurt her.

Breakthrough

Then an amazing thing happened. The troll emailed her, apologizing profusely. This American Life arranged to record a telephone call between West and her former tormentor, which it included in the program. You can listen to it here.

West, of course, is not the only person on the receiving end of online torment and abuse. It's rampant on both social media and dating sites, so Netherlands-based TagDates, a hybrid social media platform and dating site, gets to see it up close.

Introducing clean mode

To enhance civility on its site, TagDate this week launched “clean mode,” a feature that automatically changes the language – and obviously the writer's intent – when the message or comment turns nasty.

“Content of inbox and status updates are subjected to the default 'clean mode' which convert high frequency foul language and dirty words into cheerful and positive-spirited alternatives,” the company says.

Imagine a troll's horror at firing off a nasty message to someone and seeing their words transformed into something like “you look like a very nice person!” A smiley-face emoticon would be a crowning touch. The company makes clear it is trying to strike a blow for Internet civility.

“The new feature is one key step for TagDates towards building a healthy community where men and women alike do not have to be subjected to harsh languages on visiting landing page sent to them by others,” it said.

Clean mode is used by default but TagDates says users may turn it off when they would like to know what was written in the original messages or statuses that were modified.

Part of a trend?

Some of these tactics may soon be adopted in the effort to stem online bullying. Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, an organization promoting what its name implies, is among the anti-bullying groups thinking outside the box. It says what schools are doing to combat the problem isn't working.

Meanwhile, a 2013 survey suggests Americans are getting fed up with rude behavior. The survey found respondents reporting personal experience with incivility twice a day, on average.

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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) cont...

PhotoAirbag 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.”

 

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How to clean up your Lenovo after SuperFish

Company backtracks from yesterday's response

Yesterday the tech world exploded with the news that for the past couple of years, Lenovo had been pre-installing a particularly nasty form of malware on i...

PhotoYesterday the tech world exploded with the news that for the past couple of years, Lenovo had been pre-installing a particularly nasty form of malware on its computers: “SuperFish,” a form of adware that not only caused third-party ads to pop up on websites and web searches, but intercepted all encrypted communications and installed its own root certificates to intercept, decrypt and re-encrypt all SSL communications.

Even worse, initial reports said that even removing SuperFish would not fix the certificate problem. And Lenovo's response added insult to injury: on Thursday, even as news spread that SuperFish put all encrypted communications at risk the company initially said, “We have thoroughly investigated this technology and do not find any evidence to substantiate security concerns.”

That did not go over well. Wired magazine, for example, noted that “Lenovo's response to its dangerous adware is astonishingly clueless” whereas TechDirt more bluntly called it a “blatantly bullshit statement.”

But that was yesterday. Today, Lenovo's focus has been on damage control. The company has released what it says is a full list of all makes and models of machines which might have SuperFish installed:

E-Series: E10-30

Flex-Series: Flex2 14, Flex2 15, Flex2 14D, Flex2 15D Flex2 14 (BTM), Flex2 15 (BTM) Flex 10

G-Series: G410, G510, G40-70, G40-30, G40-45, G50-70, G50-30, G50-45

M-Series: Miix2 – 8, Miix2 – 10, Miix2 – 11,

S-Series: S310, S410, S415; S415 Touch, S20-30, S20-30 Touch, S40-70

U-Series: U330P, U430P, U330Touch, U430Touch, U540Touch

Y-Series: Y430P, Y40-70, Y50-70

Yoga-Series: Yoga2-11BTM, Yoga2-11HSW, Yoga2-13, Yoga2Pro-13

Z-Series: Z40-70, Z40-75, Z50-70, Z50-75

What to do

If you have any model of computer, not just Lenovo, you can visit this site to see if your computer is infected with SuperFish.

Lenovo also released a set of step-by-step instructions which it says will tell users how to uninstall SuperFish, and also how to remove the SuperFish certificate from Mozilla products and from Internet Explorer, Chrome, Opera, Safari and Maxthon.

All three webpages had the following message across the top:

By using this website you allow us to place cookies on your computer. They are harmless and never personally identify you.

Hopefully, Lenovo is right about that. Of course, that reassurance comes from the same company that pre-loaded its computers with easily hackable encryption-busting fake-security-certificate malware and then, after this was discovered, claimed it could “not find any evidence to substantiate security concerns.” So take Lenovo's reassurances with however many grains of salt you find appropriate.

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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....

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Pay.gov's home page

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.

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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. ...

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A deer tick (File photo)

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 

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The Bourbon virus (CDC photo)

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.

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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 ...

PhotoAny 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.

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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 a...

PhotoFlying 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.

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Survey: Many taxpayers plan to sit on their refunds

Financial security trumps splurging

The days of running out and spending that “new-found money” that comes in the form of a tax refund may be coming to an end. Playing it safe and planning a...

PhotoThe days of running out and spending that “newfound money” that comes in the form of a tax refund may be coming to an end.

 

Playing it safe and planning ahead, consumers plan to stash their tax refunds into savings this year. The National Retail Federation’s annual Tax Returns Survey, conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, find nearly half (47%) of those expecting money back plan to put it into savings. That's the highest percentage in the survey’s history.

 

“Americans are thinking of the future, and remaining financially secure is a big part of that,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “A check from Uncle Sam gives consumers the ability to pay down debt, add a cushion to their savings or splurge on a vacation or big-ticket item.”

 

Plans for their money

 

Consumers have a plan for how they will use their refunds: 39.1% will pay down debt and 25.1% plan to use it for daily expenses. While 13% say they will splurge on a vacation, 10.5% plan to spend on a major purchase like a television or car.

 

More than half of young adults (54.9%) say they plan to put refunds into savings. But not all of them are headed to the bank. About a-third (32.2%) will spend on everyday expenses and 15.4% will make a major purchase. More than half of people ages 25-34 (53.2%) plan to tuck away their refunds in savings or use their refunds to pay down debt (47.6%).

 

“Perhaps having learned a few financial lessons from their parents during the economic downturn, it appears that Millennials are looking for ways to get ahead,” Prosper Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow said. “Less likely to be saddled with mortgages and accumulated debt, tax refunds represent the perfect opportunity for younger consumers to invest in their future.”

 

According to the survey, 64% plan to file their taxes online. Additionally, 37.4% will use computer software to prepare their taxes on their own, while 12.5% will do so manually. Others plan to have a spouse, friend or relative help (9.5%) and 22.2% will use an accountant.

 

With most consumers planning to file in February (35.8%), 23.8% have already filed or plan to file in March (24.9%), with 15.5% waiting until the last minute in April.

 

The survey is designed to gauge consumer behavior and shopping trends related to tax returns. The poll of consumers was conducted from February 3-10 and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 1.3 percentage points.

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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 al ...

PhotoUnilever 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.

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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 peopl...

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Photo © photopitu - Fotolia

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.

PhotoAfter 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."

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Med schools warn of looming doctor shortage

Hospitals fighting for more federal money for training

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is warning that within the next 10 years, the U.S. will have a lot fewer physicians than it needs. The ...

PhotoThe Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) is warning that within the next 10 years, the U.S. will have a lot fewer physicians than it needs. The organization says some communities are already seeing the shortage.

AAMC would like to increase enrollments at medical schools to train more doctors. However, before doctors can finish their training and start practicing medicine they must complete a residency training program and therein lies the problem.

The number of federally funded residency training positions was capped by Congress in 1997 by the Balanced Budget Act. There are 26,000 residency positions now available for first year trainees but AAMC says that will not be enough to provide training for the students graduating from medical school as early as next year.

Medicare funds

Another government program, Medicare, supports graduate medical education (GME), paying a portion of the cost of training, as well as supporting the higher costs of critical care services, such as emergency rooms and burn units. Without enough of this support, AAMC warns, the ability of teaching hospitals to provide essential patient care is threatened.

The problem is already being felt in Florida, according to the state's top teaching hospitals. With a growing and aging population, state medical officials are pushing for an increase in medical residency training programs.

"Florida has fallen behind in training enough physicians to meet our citizens' growing need for quality health care,'' said Steven Sonenreich, chairman of the Teaching Hospital Council of Florida and president and chief executive officer of Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami. "This study provides a roadmap of the demand for physicians and can serve as a benchmark for Florida's long-term planning for graduate medical residency training programs.''

Sonenreich says Florida is near the bottom when it comes to the number of residency training slots relative to its population. To fill the gap, he estimates the state would need to create and fill 13,568 residency positions by 2025. That means producing some 1,360 new residency slots a year for the next decade.

Shortage a myth?

But there are those who not only question those numbers but contend the looming doctor shortage is a myth. As an alternative to putting more federal dollars into medical education to produce more doctors, some suggest making health care delivery more efficient. They argue that some of the work currently being done by doctors could be performed by other types of providers.

"There are a lot of primary care services that can be provided by a lot of people other than primary care doctors," health economist Gail Wilensky. a senior fellow at Project Hope, said in an interview with NPR.

But the fight to expand funding for residency slots is likely to continue. The Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida contends that expanding residency opportunities would allow med school graduates who were trained in Florida to remain in the state.

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Lenovo computers come pre-installed with nasty security threats

Even uninstalling the malware won't make your computer safe

Security researchers discovered this week that Lenovo computers come pre-installed with a particularly nasty form of adware that hijacked users' web connec...

PhotoSecurity researchers discovered this week that Lenovo computers come pre-installed with a particularly nasty form of adware that hijacked users' web connections to make them very easy to spy upon and extremely vulnerable to “man in the middle” attacks (although, as of Thursday afternoon, Lenovo says that henceforth it will stop pre-loading the adware on forthcoming machines).

Any Lenovo computer installed with a program called Superfish is as risk — and uninstalling Superfish won't make the problem go away. Superfish supposedly offers users a “visual search” experience, although what it actually does is insert third-party ads into websites and Google search results (hence its “adware” designation).

As annoying as those third-party ads are to users, they're not the main problem. The real issue with Superfish is that it intercepts all encrypted communications, enabling it to see things it's not supposed to. Worse still is how Superfish does this. As Robert Graham from Errata Security explained:

SuperFish installs its own root CA certificate [and] then generates certificates on the fly for each attempted SSL connection. Thus, when you have a Lenovo computer, it appears as SuperFish is the root CA of all the websites you visit. This allows SuperFish to intercept an encrypted SSL connection, decrypt it, then re-encrypt it again.

And it still gets worse: Superfish uses the same fake security certificate every time, on every Lenovo machine, and even if you remove Superfish from your computer, the flawed fake security certificate remains.

What to do

How can you tell if your Lenovo computer is infected with Superfish or not? Filippo and LastPass have both released online “tests” which will tell you whether your Lenovo is infected or not.

In a worst-case scenario – you discover your machine is infected, but you can't afford to replace it right now – you should at least avoid using that machine for any secure online activities, such as online banking or even checking your emails. Basically, avoid doing anything password-protected with your computer, since you can't get rid of those fake security certificates.

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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 Polic...

PhotoA 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.

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Survey: Consumers expect gas prices to go back up

Consumers will factor fuel costs into their next vehicle purchase

What goes down must go up. That seems to be the prevailing consumer attitude towards gasoline prices and the Consumer Federation of America says Americans ...

PhotoWhat goes down must go up. That seems to be the prevailing consumer attitude towards gasoline prices and the Consumer Federation of America says Americans have not stopped factoring energy costs into their car-buyiing decisions.

The survey finds that consumers expect the national gasoline price average to rise by almost 50% in the next two years – from a nationwide average of about $2.14 to $3.20 – and by over 80% in the next five years – to $3.90.

And, in spite of the current low gas prices, the survey also reveals that consumers have incorporated this expectation into their next vehicle purchase. More than four-fifths (86%) say that gas mileage will be “important” in their next purchase, while over half (57%) say it will be “very important” in determining what vehicle to purchase.

“There’s a good reason why today’s car buyers still believe fuel efficiency is important — they understand that gas prices always go back up,” said Jack Gillis, Director of Public Affairs and author of The Car Book.

A new CFA analysis of the last dip and rise in gas prices, between 2009 and 2014, confirms why consumers still want higher mileage vehicles in the face of low gas prices. In January 2009, the monthly average price of gas was $1.84. Five years later – the typical term of a new car loan – the monthly average gas price rose to $3.36.

In January 2009, consumers who were lulled into purchasing lower-mileage vehicles due to low gas prices ended up spending thousands more than the fuel-efficient buyers during the time they owned the vehicle.

For example, buying a 15 mpg vehicle in January 2009 would have resulted in a monthly gas expenditure of $153 for that January. Five years later, that monthly average expenditure would skyrocket to $268. During the first five years of ownership; these buyers would spend over $6,400 more on gas than if they had purchased a 25 mpg vehicle. 

“Buying an inefficient vehicle during periods of low gas prices condemns the consumer to wider swings in monthly costs, much higher monthly peaks, and a whopping overall increase in lifetime gas costs,” said Dr. Mark Cooper, CFA’s Director of Research. 

Gillis said carmakers should not be lulled into thinking they can ease up on fuel efficiency efforts.

“Clearly consumers want and are buying more fuel efficient vehicles. Those manufacturers who stay on the road to 54.5 mpg by 2025 will be the best-positioned to take advantage of this consumer demand,” said Gillis. “Manufacturers who fall short of the standard, or push back during the mid-course review, do so at their own peril. They will clearly suffer in the market.”

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LinkedIn's new ad network follows you everywhere online

But opting out appears possible -- at least for now

LinkedIn has announced a new product it calls “LinkedIn Network Display” which lets advertisers show their ads to LinkedIn users on websites other than Lin...

PhotoLinkedIn has announced a new product it calls “LinkedIn Network Display” which lets advertisers show their ads to LinkedIn users on websites other than LinkedIn.

In other words: if you have a LinkedIn account, LinkedIn will now follow you everywhere you go online, not just when you're actually on LinkedIn.

BusinessInsider said that LinkedIn Network Display will be selling ads on 2,500 other “business-focused websites” in addition to LinkedIn's.

From an advertisers' perspective, the benefit is that ads can be targeted to extremely specific groups, such as (for example) financial-industry managers who work in Manhattan. Of course, LinkedIn says that those advertisers will not get any individual's identifying information; the advertiser will know that his ad is being seen by Manhattan financial professionals, but isn't supposed to know exactly which ones.

According to AdAge, LinkedIn's new program will allow marketers to target groups as small as 1,000 people (out of the 347 million who currently have a LinkedIn account).

Opt out?

Is it possible for people with LinkedIn accounts to opt out of this web-wide tracking? It's certainly possible to try.

If you have a LinkedIn account, log in, go to your “Account Settings” drop-down box, and then select “Privacy and Settings” from the offered options. Another page will come up; scroll down to the bottom, click on the “Account” tab, select “Manage Advertising Preferences,” and you'll see a pop-up window appear on your screen.

At the top of that pop-up, you'll see the message “LinkedIn may use cookies and similar technologies on third party sites to understand my browsing interests and target ads and personalize services accordingly.”

There's also a little box to the left of that message, and chances are you'll see a check in that box – meaning you have allowed LinkedIn to use those “cookies and similar technologies” to track you.

If you uncheck that little box, and then click the “Save changes” button at the bottom of the pop-up window, that will (at least in theory) turn off LinkedIn's web-wide tracking of you.

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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

An analysis of two large surveys find that as many as 68% of women are using compounded -- so-called "bioidentical" -- hormones without understanding their...

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.

PhotoAn 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."

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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....

PhotoWe'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.

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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...

Photo
© Melpomene - Fotolia

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

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

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.

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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. Th...

PhotoRuiz 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.  

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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...

PhotoToyo 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.

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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 aller...

PhotoMichigan 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.

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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 unwilling to buy a home, demand for renta...

PhotoOne 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.

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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 ...

PhotoIt'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.”

PhotoThe 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.

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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....

PhotoFor 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.

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A robot worth its weight in metal

This robot can do the laundry, sort of

If there was one robot that would be worth his weight in metal it would have to be one that could do your laundry. If it could fold all the better. ...

PhotoIf there was one robot that would be worth his weight in metal it would have to be one that could do your laundry. If it could fold all the better.

Scientists are close, but need to make a few adjustments or the whites won't get separated from the darks. It is tough to get a robot to do this mundane task and not just because they don't like it.

Programming a robot to do the laundry represents a challenging planning problem because current sensing and manipulation technology is simply not good enough to identify precisely the number of clothing pieces that are in a pile and the number that are picked up with each grasp.

Dream robots or helper robots as they are called are supposed to be able to clear the table, do laundry or perform day-to-day tasks with ease. It's the computing to get them to do these things that poses the real challenge.The issue arises when there's uncertainty in how much laundry soap or how many items to clear off of the table. 

As humans we can solve problems without really thinking too much about it, at least as far as doing laundry. The problems of the world are a different story. Who knows though, we may have a robot president someday. 

Don't think too much

"The main issue is how to develop what is called 'generalized plans,' and these are plans that don't just work in a particular situation that is very well defined and gets you to a particular goal that is also well defined, but rather ones that work on a whole range of situations and you may not even know certain things about it," said Shlomo Zilberstein of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has been working on the problem. 

He and other researchers focused on human behavior and how pulling, stuffing and folding laundry is pretty much an unconscious act. They tried to map these repetative actions and create a template for the robots.

The end result is a robot that can do the laundry with a few exceptions. For example, it doesn't yet know how many and what type of clothes need to be washed. For the most part, though, robots do laundry as well as a college student.

For now it looks like we are going to have to continue to fold and pile and just patiently wait until we are replaced, or until you have programmed your children to do it correctly.

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Judge to decide whether GM can escape ignition switch lawsuits

Consumers say the defective switches damaged their vehicle's resale value

​General Motors is facing more than 165 lawsuits from consumers whose cars were among the 2.6 million recalled because of faulty ignition switches....

PhotoGeneral Motors is facing more than 165 lawsuits from consumers whose cars were among the 2.6 million recalled because of faulty ignition switches.

The consumers claim their cars' resale value has been damaged by the recalls. But GM -- which you'll recall is the successor to the bankrupt entity that made most of the cars -- says it shouldn't be held liable for its predecessors' errors.

The outcome of those cases rests with a federal bankruptcy judge in New York City, who heard arguments from both sides today. While it will most likely be months before he rules, Judge Robert Gerber didn't give much indication of which way he's leaning, Automotive News reported.

He did say, though, that it was "a matter of concern" that the 2009 bankruptcy was being used as a "get out of jail free card."

The reason companies and individuals declare bankruptcy, of course, is to escape from their financial obligations but there are always exceptions. Individuals, for example, cannot escape student debt, past-due federal taxes and other liabilities.

As part of its 2009 bankruptcy, GM's profitable assets were separated from the remainder of the company, which survives only as a trust generally known as "Old GM." Most debts and bondholder obligations were wiped out and the trust was established to deal with any holdovers.

The plaintiffs say they should be able to collect from GM because the company concealed the defect at the time the bankruptcy sale was approved.

The resale-value case is completely separate from the procedure that has been set up to benefit the families of consumers who were killed in accidents caused by the defective ignitions, which would cause the engine to suddenly stop running, leaving the car with no power brakes or steering.

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British donut-shop blunder: Krispy Kreme Klub's “KKK Wednesday” promotion ends badly

It seemed like a good idea at the time

A joking old saying claims that the U.S. and England are “two countries separated by a common language,” and this week a hapless donut-shop owner in the U....

PhotoA joking old saying claims that the U.S. and England are “two countries separated by a common language,” and this week a hapless donut-shop owner in the U.K. got a hard reminder of just how true that is.

The Krispy Kreme chain has stores in the United Kingdom, including one in the port city of Hull. And this week is a school holiday for students in Britain, so Hull's Krispy Kreme put up a colorful in-store billboard listing various promotional activities intended to appeal to kids, including “Funday Monday,” “Colouring Tuesday” and “KKK Wednesday.”

The KKK was supposed to stand for Krispy Kreme Klub, and a spokeswoman for the Hull store told her local newspaper, the Hull Daily Mail, that on that day children would get to decorate their own donuts.

Which all sounds very innocuous and wholesome, especially in the East Yorkshire branch of an American donut chain, but in America itself the letters KKK are, of course, associated with the Ku Klux Klan. The Hull Daily Mail explained to its readers that the Klan “was known for violence against African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries and still exists today.”

The store posted on its Facebook page a photo of the advertising billboard listing the week's activities, with KKK Wednesday listed right before Face Painting Thursday. Naturally, the photo almost immedaitely went viral as countless people – some outraged, some amused – all explained the unsavory connotations of KKK.

The store immedaitely took the photo down from its Facebook page, but the damage had already been done. A Krispy Kreme spokesman said that “Krispy Kreme apologises unreservedly for the inappropriate name of a customer promotion at one of our stores. This promotion was never intended to cause offence. All material has been withdrawn and an internal investigation is currently underway.”

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Like French fries & ketchup? Grow your own

New seed combines potatoes and tomatoes

French fries and ketchup just seem to go together, so a British seed company, Thomas & Morgan, has developed a seed that it says combines French fries and ...

PhotoFrench fries and ketchup just seem to go together, so a British seed company, Thomas & Morgan, has developed a seed that it says combines French fries and ketchup -- well, actually, potatoes and tomatoes -- in a single plant.

It sounds odd but tomatoes and potatoes are related, both being nightshades.

"It's like a science project," said Alice Doyle of SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables, the company licensing the plant in the U.S. The process is grafting, which has been around since people started planting seeds thousands of years ago.

The plant is called "Ketchup 'n' Fries." It's made of two different nightshade plants -- the top of a cherry tomato grafted onto a white potato. Because tomatoes and potatoes are in the same family it just works.

Grafted vegetables are often superheroes: stronger, bigger, faster, more able to fend off foes than regular vegetable plants – and they deliver a more abundant harvest.  

The gift of graft

Grafting is widely used to get the best quality vegetable or fruit. It's not the same thing as genetic modification, since there is no modification at the molecular level; two plants are simply joined together without any change to their basic genetic structure. If you take a tree that has resistance to soil diseases and might not give you the sweetest apple, plant breeders can take branches from trees with tastier fruit and graft them onto the hardy rootstocks.

After five years of experimenting, SuperNaturals decided to license an already successful variety of the plant that was developed for Thomas & Morgan. Starter plants will be shipped to growers throughout North America this spring. 

If you are looking for a way to get your kids involved in gardening this might just be the thing.

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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 pri...

Photo
© alisonhancock – Fotolia.com

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.

 

Photo
© mybaitshop – Fotolia

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.

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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 ...

PhotoApplications 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.

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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 packa...

PhotoNissan 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.

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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 picku...

PhotoToyota 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.

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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 b...

PhotoHave 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.

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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...

 

Photo
The Chevrolet Bolt (Photo credit: GM)

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

Photo
A 2014 Volt (Staff photo)

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.”

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Nestle says it will remove artificial colors and flavors from its candy

Products to start coming out mid-year

Today, candy company Nestle USA announced in a press release that it would start removing all artificial flavors and “FDA-certified colors” from its produc...

PhotoToday, candy company Nestle USA announced in a press release that it would start removing all artificial flavors and “FDA-certified colors” from its products:

By the end of 2015, more than 250 products and 10 brands … will be free of artificial flavors and certified colors. Products will begin appearing on store shelves by mid-2015, and will be identified by a “No Artificial Flavors or Colors” claim featured on-pack.

(In the United States, anytime you see the terms “certified colors” or “certified coloring” mentioned in the context of a food ingredients list, that's basically a synonym for “artificial” colors or coloring, because artificial colors used in food must be approved, or “certified,” by the Food and Drug Administration.)

Nestle offered two specific examples of upcoming recipe-changes: right now, the center of a Butterfinger bar is colored with Red 40 and Yellow 5, but Nestle intends to replace them with “annatto, which comes from the seeds found in the fruit from the achiote tree.” Also, Nestle said it will use natural vanilla flavor rather than artificial vanillin in its Crunch bars.

Candy lovers who suffer from food allergies will need to double-check Nestle's new recipes, to make sure they're not allergic to any of the natural flavors or colorings.

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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 resi...

PhotoLast 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.

 

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NJ man fenced stolen coffeemakers on eBay, Amazon

Sales were good but they resulted in a prison sentence

Did you ever wonder why you can sometimes find such low prices on sites like eBay and Amazon? Well, it's because of people like Abraham Baruchov, 49, of Cl...

PhotoDid you ever wonder why you can sometimes find such low prices on sites like eBay and Amazon? Well, it's because of people like Abraham Baruchov, 49, of Clifton, N.J.

Baruchov was sentenced to prison today by a Bergen County judge after pleading guilty to a second-degree charge of receiving stolen property. He admitted selling stolen Keurig and Cuisinart coffee makers and other items online after buying them from the thieves who had stolen them from a major retailer.

In pleading guilty, Baruchov said he knew that some of the items had been stolen through the fraudulent use of stolen credit card information. A state investigation revealed that, in fact, all of the items were purchased online with stolen credit card information, then sold to Baruchov who in turn resold them online.

Hidden black market

“Baruchov took advantage of the anonymity afforded by consumer-to-consumer websites to sell a quarter of a million dollars in stolen appliances in just over a year,” said Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman. “We’re working hard to expose this hidden black market activity on the Internet and bring perpetrators like Baruchov to justice.”

Baruchov was ordered to pay restitution of $275,000 to the major retailer from which the products were stolen. The state previously seized approximately $223,000 in cash and bank accounts from Baruchov that he has forfeited.

“If you encounter someone selling brand new products on the Internet at well below market prices, that should raise a red flag,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We urge consumers to contact us confidentially if they suspect criminal activity on the Internet, so we can investigate. We want to keep e-commerce safe and secure for consumers and retailers alike.”

Baruchov was arrested by detectives of the Division of Criminal Justice on Feb. 17, 2014 on charges including receiving stolen property, fencing and money laundering.

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Appliances really don't last as long as they used to

It's not just your imagination; study confirms shorter lifespan

Appliances, it seems, used to last forever. Today not so much. It appears household appliances have a lifespan of about 10 years according to stats from th...

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Smuckers takes a big bite of pet food

Big food companies are taking over the pet food business

Americans spent an all-time high of $55.7 billion on their pets last year and J.M. Smucker wants to take a big bite of that....

PhotoAmericans spent an all-time high of $55.7 billion on their pets last year and J.M. Smucker wants to take a big bite of that.

Smucker -- the megabrand behind Folgers coffee, Jif peanut butter, Pillsbury, Crisco and its very famous jam -- will pay about $5.8 billion to buy Big Heart Pet Brands, maker of Meow Mix, Milk-Bone, Pup-Peroni and Kibbles 'n Bits.

That falls right behind the candy maker Mars, which paid $2.9 billion to purchase Iams and Eukanuba last year, bulking up the pet section of the company, which already included Whiskas and Pedigree.

Pet food sales have doubled since the year 2000 and it hasn't been generic pet food that's been selling, it's the premium brands. Those premium brands broke records with sales that totaled $10 billion last year.

Consumer surveys by market researcher Mintel found that 79 percent of U.S. pet owners said the quality of their pets’ food is as important as their own.

Consolidation ahead?

With all of this pet food business will the big human food conglomerates start consolidating and taking over the industry? It seems that is the model for other industries. This might not be any different.

About 93 percent of the mid-priced dog and cat food sold in North America goes to only three companies: Big Heart, Mars and Nestle, the giant behind Purina, Dreyer's ice cream and Hot Pockets.

These big boys aren't just buying up the pet food -- they are swallowing whole chains of pet stores. In December, a group of investors landed the biggest private-equity buyout of the year when it paid more than $8 billion to acquire PetSmart. 

Smucker expects pet food will contribute more to its bottom line than Jif, Pillsbury, Crisco and its namesake jams and jellies, combined. It's a win for these companies because they can share ingredients, thus cutting costs in the manufacturing process. Some things that go into dog treats can also go into your jam. That's just the way they roll.

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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 depi...

PhotoA 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.

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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 H...

PhotoWicked 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.

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ATM International recalls beef products

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

ATM International USA of Torrance, Calif., is recalling approximately 1,999 pounds of boneless beef products that were not presented at the U.S. point of e...

PhotoATM International USA of Torrance, Calif., is recalling approximately 1,999 pounds of boneless beef 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 boneless beef products, imported from Japan on various dates between Oct. 9, 2014 – Jan. 15, 2015, and labeled in Japanese only, are being recalled:

  • Tender loin
  • Strip loin
  • Rib eye
  • Chuck Roll
  • Top Sirloin Butt
  • Chuck Ribs
  • Bottom Round
  • Top Round
  • Clod
  • Brisket
  • Short Plate
  • Short Rib
  • Knuckle

The above products would have been shipped in a cardboard box with the Japanese establishment number “M2” and a box marking of “MZA-TN41”, “MZA-TN28” or “MZA-TN1,” or a Styrofoam box bearing the establishment number “EST. 27510” inside the USDA mark of inspection. They were shipped to distributors and retail locations in Arizona, California and Washington.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Yuya Hagiwara at (424) 246-2892.

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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 B...

PhotoJack 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.

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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...

PhotoScott 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.

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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 ...

Photo
2015 Ford Fusion (Photo credit: Ford Motor Co.)

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

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2015 Chrysler 300C (Photo credit: FCA)

"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

Photo
2015 Hyundai Elentra (Photo credit: Hyundai)

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.

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Richard M. Nixon, consumer champion?

He named our site's "godmother" his consumer advisor

The times they are always a-changing, especially when you're talking politics. In today's knee-jerk political rhetoric, Democrats are seen as the champions...

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President Nixon and Virginia Knauer (Photo credit: Nixon Library)

The times they are always a-changing, especially when you're talking politics. In today's knee-jerk political rhetoric, Democrats are seen as the champions of the consumer.

But it hasn't always been that way. Back in 1969, no less a Republican than Richard M. Nixon needed someone to head the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, a post created by President Johnson.

During the 1968 campaign, Nixon had suggested he might abolish the office. Instead, he named Virginia Knauer, who had been running Pennsylvania's Bureau of Consumer Protection, giving her the additional title of special assistant to the president for consumer affairs.

While no one would say the Obama Administration has not championed some consumer issues, its treatment of today's most prominent consumer champion, Elizabeth Warren, can't be said to be comparable to Nixon's support of Mrs. Knauer.

Nixon's addition of the special assistant title made Mrs. Knauer the highest-ranking woman in the executive branch, thus striking a blow for women's rights as well as consumerism. 

Perhaps no one expected much to happen. After all, Mrs. Knauer came from a prominent Pennsylvania family, had studied art in Florence and was married to corporate attorney Wilhelm Knauer, a former Pennsylvania deputy attorney general.

She became active in politics in the 1950s, when she organized women's groups to support Dwight Eisenhower's presidential campaigns. The first Republican woman to win a seat on the Philadelphia City Council, she had just lost her bid for a third term when Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Schafer created the state consumer affairs office and named her to run it.

Greeted skeptically

Photo
Elizabeth Dole and Mrs. Knauer (Photo via Wikipedia)

Her White House appointment a few years later was greeted skeptically by Democrats and consumer advocates. But those who expected Mrs. Knauer to serve tea and cookies while corporations rode roughshod over consumers soon learned they were mistaken. She launched a vigorous series of campaigns, promoting class-action lawsuits, unit pricing and clear labeling of consumer goods.

In fact, her status as a wealthy blue-blood Republican gave her more effective access to corporate America than might have otherwise been the case. Without hurling invective, she looked corporate titans in the eye and told them that good customer relations was good business.

It didn't take long for business leaders to complain that she was pushing too hard but Mrs. Knauer -- none dared call her Virginia -- simply pushed ahead, insisting that being pro-consumer was not anti-business.

She insisted that corporations could not overlook the interests of the people who bought their products. To advance her arguments, she commissioned a study that demonstrated good customer relations were more important in retaining customers than big advertising budgets.

She was an early and energetic advocate for toll-free numbers and insisted businesses should have call centers staffed by well-trained employees who could answer consumers' questions and solve their warranty and product repair issues.

Though sometimes a thorn in the side of business interests, she was nevertheless reappointed by Presidents Ford and Reagan. 

Our godmother

Photo
Camille Haney (Photo credit: University of Wisconsin)

The firm Haney and Knauer later merged with a larger firm where I was then employed, the Strategic Alliances Group, which specialized in bringing warring parties -- like consumers and businesses -- together to pursue their common interests.

Mrs. Knauer's consumer efforts continued long after she left the White House and established her own public affairs firm with Camille Haney, who had worked on consumer issues for the Wisconsin attorney general's office. 

Mrs. Knauer browbeat me into seeing business issues from the consumer's perspective and she and Ms. Haney served as unofficial sounding boards when ConsumerAffairs.com was founded in 1998 -- at a time when more traditional consumer activists said no advertising-supported consumer advocacy site could succeed.

They might be right, but it's 17 years later and we're still here, accompanied by Yelp and countless other consumer advocacy, information and review sites, all self-supporting, paying taxes and providing free services to consumers.

Photo
Binders full of women? In this Rose Garden photograph of women serving in high-level positions in the Nixon White House, Special Assistant to the President Virginia Knauer is in the middle (in the dark coat, next to Rose Mary Woods). First row (left to right): Ethel Bent Walsh, Brigadier General Jeanne M. Holm, Rose Mary Woods, Virginia Knauer, Helen Delich Bentley, Jayne Baker Spain, Evelyn Eppley, Barbara H. Franklin; (second row): Sallyanne Payton, Elizabeth Hanford, Georgiana Sheldon, Virginia Allan, Carol Khosrovi, Paula Tennant, Brereton Sturtevant, Gloria Toote. (Photo credit: Nixon Library)

 

 

  

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Plastic islands in the sea much bigger than first thought

Study traces it back to its source

We're a disposable society. It might not be so obvious unless you visit a landfill. Or sail across the ocean....

PhotoWe're a disposable society. It might not be so obvious unless you visit a landfill.

Or sail across the ocean.

Debris, in particular plastic debris, has been piling up on the 7 seas, largely out of view of people on land. Rotating ocean currents have produced so-called "garbage patches," creating vortexes of trash.

Now, scientists have quantified the mounds of floating plastic trash and traced it back to its source.

The research project brought together experts from the University of California Santa Barbara and the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy. Lead author Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia, coordinated contributions from experts in oceanography, waste management and plastics materials science.

At best, 4.8 million tons

The study calculated that more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans from land each year. On the other hand, the researchers say that figure may be as high as 12.7 million metric tons.

That's one to three times the amount anyone thought. With all the plastic the world dumps into the ocean we could be constructing a floating island nation.

"Using the average density of uncompacted plastic waste, 8 million metric tons -- the midpoint of our estimate -- would cover an area 34 times the size of Manhattan ankle-deep in plastic waste," said co-author Roland Geyer, an associate professor at UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. "Eight million metric tons is a vast amount of material by any measure.”

In fact, it is the same amount of plastic produced throughout the entire world in 1961. Where is it coming from? Not where you might think.

Worst offenders

The study found that countries with coastal borders -- 192 in all -- discharge plastic into the world's oceans and the largest quantities are estimated to come from a relatively small number of middle-income, rapidly developing countries.

The investigators found that just 20 countries accounted for 83% of the wayward plastic waste. Once dumped in the ocean, they say, it's probably there to stay.

"Large-scale removal of plastic marine debris is not going to be cost-effective and quite likely simply unfeasible," said Geyer. "This means that we need to prevent plastic from entering the oceans in the first place through better waste management, more reuse and recycling, better product design and material substitution."

Without efforts to reduce the flow of plastic into the world's oceans, we can expect the floating piles to get bigger – a lot bigger. To put it into terms we can get our arms around, Jambeck says in 2010, if you put all the floating plastic into grocery bags, there would have been 5 bags of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.

By 2025, she says there will be 10 bags of plastic for every foot of coastline.

"So the cumulative input by 2025 would equal 155 million metric tons," she said.

The researchers found that a country's population size and the quality of its waste management systems is linked to the ocean-flowing plastic it produces. In order to reverse this environmentally-destructive trend, the study concludes there needs to be a global effort reduce overall waste and adopt better management strategies.

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FAA releases proposed drone regulations

These rules, if adopted, would make commercial delivery via drone impossible

The Federal Aviation Administration has published a proposed “framework of regulations” (available here as a .pdf file) that would govern the use of unmann...

Photo
Photo: VP Photo Studio - Fotolia

The Federal Aviation Administration has published a proposed “framework of regulations” (available here as a .pdf file) that would govern the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or “drones,” in the U.S. Once these proposed rules are officially published in the Federal Register, the public will have 60 days to comment on them.

For now, at least, the regulations would pretty much guarantee that companies like Amazon and Google X will not be able to use drones for business deliveries, because one part of the FAA proposal demands that drones only be flown within their operators' line-of sight. (That said: the FAA is also seeking comment about the proposed line-of-sight regulations.)

Other proposed regulations include a maximum airspeed of 100 mph and altitude of 500 feet above ground level; a requirement that drones only be operated during daylight hours and under weather conditions clear enough that the operator can see at least three miles; a requirement that all such drones weigh less than 55 pounds; and others.

It is possible that whatever rules the FAA does eventually adopt will be more lenient. The proposed rules, after all, would make it impossible for businesses to profitably (or legally) make use of drones in the United States – which is why companies such as Amazon are already looking to test drone-based business models in other countries.

Red flag laws

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Photo: Daimler.co.uk

Where unmanned aircraft are concerned, the FAA does need to tread carefully, to ensure that whatever sensible-sounding rules it proposes today don't become the future equivalent of the “Red-Flag Laws” various governments passed back when “horseless carriages” were still the radical new transporation technology: in the United Kingdom, for example, early laws made it illegal for “self-propelled vehicles” to drive down public roads unless those vehicles were preceeded by a walking person waving a red flag.

Of course, such laws were soon rescinded – modern life as we know it today would be impossible, if personal and commercial ground-transportation vehicles were legally restricted to moving no faster than a healthy adult can walk.

And there's a pretty good chance that a few generations from now, journalists and textbook writers discussing the history of unmanned aircraft will write “Of course, those early laws were soon rescinded – modern life as we know it today would be impossible, if personal and commercial delivery drones were legally restricted to flying no further away than their operators could see.”

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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 mill...

PhotoNews 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.)

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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 contamin...

PhotoVitamin 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.

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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 ent...

PhotoSunrise 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.

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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 p...

PhotoKorean 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.

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IBM finds most popular dating apps vulnerable to hackers

Of 41 dating apps studied, 60% could expose users to risks

Smartphones have replaced PCs for many consumers, who use them for banking, ordering a pizza, buying merchandise, communicating on social media and looking...

PhotoSmartphones have replaced PCs for many consumers, who use them for banking, ordering a pizza, buying merchandise, communicating on social media and looking for a relationship.

It's that last one that has IBM security analysts concerned.

A study by IBM Security examined 41 major online dating apps and found that 60% were potentially vulnerable to a variety of cyber attacks that are not just creepy, but could expose the user to physical and financial harm.

The study did not list the apps in the study but IBM said it has notified the makers of all the apps with vulnerabilities of its findings. All the apps the company studied operated on the Android platform.

The problem is made worse by the fact that many of these dating apps have access to other features on your smartphone, including the camera and microphone, GPS location history and mobile wallet billing information.

Sounding the alarm

IBM is sounding the alarm, not just because of these security flaws but because dating apps have become so widespread.

A 2013 study by Pew Research found 1 in 10 Americans, or roughly 31 million people, have used a dating site or app and the number of people who dated someone they met online grew to 66%. If these dating sites are accessed through a smartphone, IBM says it can expose users to risks.

"Many consumers use and trust their mobile phones for a variety of applications,” said Caleb Barlow, Vice President, IBM Security. “It is this trust that gives hackers the opportunity to exploit vulnerabilities like the ones we found in these dating apps."

Trouble areas

Here are some of the ways consumers looking for a relationship on their mobile devices can run into trouble:

  • Downloading malware: It's easy to let down your guard in love's first blush. IBM says some of the vulnerable apps could be reprogrammed by hackers to send an alert that asks users to click for an update or to retrieve a message that, in reality, is just a ploy to download malware onto their device.
  • GPS data used to track movements: That's not only creepy, but dangerous. If a hacker decides to stalk you, he can. IBM found 73% of the 41 popular dating apps analyzed have access to current and past GPS location information.
  • Credit card numbers stolen: The study found that 48% of the 41 popular dating apps have access to the user's billing information stored on the device. A semi-skilled hacker can get to it.
  • Remote control of camera and microphone: Okay, this one is really creepy. But besides a hacker spying on your personal life, he or she can listen in on confidential business meetings. So the security flaw on dating apps could end up posing a threat to businesses too, IBM says.

Threat to businesses

In fact, this could turn out to be a big deal for businesses that increasingly are allowing employees to use their personal devices to connect with the corporate network, a policy known as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).

IBM says businesses need to be aware of these vulnerabilities and take steps to protect their infrastructure. IBM said it found nearly half the organizations sampled for this research have at least one of these popular dating apps installed on corporate-owned or personal mobile devices used for work.

In the meantime, consumers need to be aware of that using a dating app on a smartphone might not be just 2-way communication.

"Consumers need to be careful not to reveal too much personal information on these sites as they look to build a relationship,” Barlow said. “Our research demonstrates that some users may be engaged in a dangerous tradeoff – with increased sharing resulting in decreased personal security and privacy."

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The YODA bill would let you buy and sell used electronics without copyright problems

But don't hold your breath expecting it to become law this year

The good news is that a new bill proposed in Congress this week would vastly increase consumers' rights of property ownership, by ensuring that software co...

PhotoThe good news is that a new bill proposed in Congress this week would vastly increase consumers' rights of property ownership, by ensuring that software copyrights did not prevent ordinary people from buying or selling used electronics. The bad news is that the bill is very unlikely to pass; a similar version proposed last September died quietly in committee.

Two congressmen – Texas Republican Blake Farenthold and Colorado Democrat Jared Polis – have proposed the “You Own Devices Act.” (An earlier version of this bill, proposed last Sept. 18, died in committee before ever making it to a House vote.)

Yes, the bill's acronym does spell “YODA,” and yes, that was on purpose; when Rep. Farenthold announced the revived bill on his Twitter feed this week, he used Yoda-style syntax and other Star Wars references to do it:

Reintroduced #YODA bill, today I have. Luke didn’t have to re-license Anakin’s lightsaber, so why should you?

Re-licensing

“Re-licensing” is at the heart of what the YODA bill is all about. Last September, the day before he introduced the 2014 version of the You Own Devices Act, Farenthold attended a hearing on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and expressed concern over the possibility that patent and copyright law might be getting confused, where consumer rights and protections are concerned.

“Traditionally patent law has protected things and copyright law has protected artistic-type works,” he said at the time. “But now more and more things have software in them and you are licensing that software when you purchase a thing.” Current copyright law doesn't offer any way to draw distinctions “between software that is an integral part of a thing as opposed to an add-on app that you would put on your telephone,” and the YODA, if passed into law, is supposed to fix that by adding the following provision to the copyright act:

“if a computer program enables any part of a machine or other product to operate, the owner of the machine or other product is entitled to transfer an authorized copy of the computer program, or the right to obtain such copy, when the owner sells, leases, or otherwise transfers the machine.”

Under current American law, you can own the physical hardware components of electronics, such as the plastic and metal which comprises your computer, but you do not own the software required to actually use it as a computer rather than a big paperweight; as Farenthold said, you only license the right to use the software. This also means that if you sell the hardware, you lose the right to use the software (or that your software license does not transfer to the devices' new owner). Farenthold's bill proposes to end that status quo.

Luke's father's lightsaber

Remember his Tweeted joke mentioning how Luke Skywalker “didn’t have to re-license Anakin’s lightsaber”? Suppose you actually could buy lightsabers, and furthermore that they are computerized or otherwise run on software: under current American law, it is genuinely possible that Luke would be unable to use his father's lightsaber unless he first paid a “software licensing fee” to JediCorp or whoever, because Anakin's license to use the lightsaber died when he did.

That's not merely a hypothetical scenario, either. Companies have already used “software licensing” as a way to exert control over any secondhand market for their products (and make extra money off additional sales, too).

For example: if you're looking to buy some used Hewlett Packard servers from a previous owner who no longer needs them, you'll have to pay Hewlett-Packard $400 for what the company calls a “software license transfer.”

But if Farenthold's YODA bill is passed into law (advice: don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen, at least not this year), you or any other secondhand buyer would not have to pay that fee to Hewlett-Packard.

Like a book

Basically, the YODA bill would give software-run devices the same ownership status as pre-computer forms of media: right now if you own a physical copy of a book, you're allowed to sell it to someone else without first getting permission from the book's author (or whoever owns the copyright on that book).

Conversely, if you want to buy a secondhand book from its current owner, you can do so without paying additional copyright fees to the book's author. Your right to buy or sell used books falls under what's called the “Doctrine of First Sale,” which essentially says that a copyright holder can only control the first sale of a copyrighted work, but has no control over any secondhand market.

The Department of Justice's “Criminal Resource Manual” says this about “first sale doctrine”:

The first sale doctrine, codified at 17 U.S.C. § 109, provides that an individual who knowingly purchases a copy of a copyrighted work from the copyright holder receives the right to sell, display or otherwise dispose of that particular copy, notwithstanding the interests of the copyright owner. The right to distribute ends, however, once the owner has sold that particular copy.

Right now, the manufacturers of software-operated devices can use licensing to skirt around the first sale doctrine, as with those Hewlett-Packard servers mentioned earlier: you don't own the software required to run them, you merely bought a license granting you the temporary right to use it.

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White House holds Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection

Apple CEO to attend; Google, Facebook and Yahoo CEOs turn down invitations

President Obama is urging companies to share information about security threats with each other and with the government, but how companies respond remains ...

PhotoPresident Obama is urging companies to share information about security threats with each other and with the government, but how companies respond remains an open question.

Obama spoke today at the White House Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection at Stanford University. He signed an executive order intended to promote the sharing of cybersecurity information, calling such sharing "an essential element of effective cybersecurity because it ensures that U.S. companies work together to respond to threats, rather than operating alone," according to a White House briefing paper.

The event follows by just a few days the massive pilfering of customer data by hackers who broke into the Anthem Insurance system, just the latest in of a near-constant series of computer hacking incidents these past few years, attacking private businesses, government organizations, financial institutions and any customers they serve.

Early in the day's proceedings, President Barack Obama gave a speech and then signed an executive order urging companies to share information about security threats with each other and the government.

The White House invited several major tech companies to send representatives to the summit, but Apple's Tim Cook was the only CEO scheduled to appear; the heads of Google, Facebook and Yahoo all declined to attend the conference.

Privacy issues

In the past, all of those companies (including Apple) have clashed with the federal government over various privacy issues, especially regarding how much spying the federal government does on its own citizens, and how much the tech companies should be forced to help the government with this spying.

Cook made headlines for Apple last September when, during an interview with PBS' Charlie Rose, he obliquely criticized U.S. government's mass, warrantless surveillance of its citizens, and other revelations exposed by former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Security commitments

The White House said earlier that a number of organizations and companies would be making commitments to increase their cybersecurity, including:        

  • The Cyber Threat Alliance (including Palo Alto Networks and Symantec, Intel Security, and Fortinet) will announce that its new cyber threat sharing partnership is starting to build best practices and standards consistent with the new information sharing Executive Order.
  • The Entertainment Software Association is announcing the creation of a new information sharing and analysis organization that will be built consistent with the new information sharing Executive Order.
  • Crowdstrike is announcing that it will form an information sharing and analysis organization.
  • Box is announcing that it will participate in the standards-development process for ISAOs, and that it will explore ways to use the Box platform to enhance collaboration among ISAOs.
  • FireEye is launching its “Information Sharing Framework,” which allows FireEye customers to receive threat intelligence in near-real-time, and provides anonymized threat indicators 
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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 incr...

PhotoGender 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.

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Thinking of gardening? Think milkweed

The milkweed plant is crucial to the survival of the monarch butterfly

If you're thinking of gardening this spring why not add some beautiful color that can also fly? There is a real need for people to plant milkweed, to help ...

PhotoIf you're thinking of gardening this spring why not add some beautiful color that can also fly? There is a real need for people to plant milkweed, to help save an iconic North American species that is in big trouble.

The monarch butterfly has, according to the most recent estimates, lost over 90% of its population since the 1990s. That's around 970 million butterflies gone, and if nothing is done, we may never see another one.

A campaign is under way by the  U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and they have teamed up with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation(NFWF) to try and get this situation under control. The problem is  there is a bigger issue. It's a symptom of yet a larger problem.

The disappearance of the monarchs is part of a bigger problem. Many pollinators are seeing their habitats disappear as pesticides and herbicides exert their impact on the natural cycle of the environment.

Milkweed seems to be a partial solution. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is going to spend $2 million to plant milkweed and other plants that are butterfly friendly. The plan is a road trip of sorts. They plan to follow the butterflies' migration path from  Minnesota all the way to Mexico.

Here is where your garden can come in. Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed; their caterpillars only eat milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.), and monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs. You can ask your gardening store which type of milkweed is native to your area.

You can also choose native plants.  Native plants will attract more native pollinators and can serve as larval host plants for some species of pollinators. Check field guides to find out which plants the larval stage of local butterflies eat. Contact your local or state native plant society -- they can be a huge help.

Pollinators are key to reproduction of wild plants in our landscape. Without them, existing populations of plants would decline, even if soil, air, nutrients, and other life-sustaining elements were available. Butterflies are not only beautiful, they also play an important role. 

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Should you vaccinate your pups?

Some vaccinations, like rabies, are required

Should you vaccinate your pups? Since it has been such a hot topic for children, it might be worth reviewing the case for vaccinating pets....

PhotoShould you vaccinate your pups? Since it has been such a hot topic for children, it might be worth reviewing the case for vaccinating pets.

Simply put, vaccines help prepare the body's immune system to fight the invasion of disease-causing organisms. Vaccines contain antigens, which look like the disease-causing organism to the immune system but don't actually cause disease.

When the vaccine is introduced to the body, the immune system is mildly stimulated. If a dog is ever exposed to the real disease, his immune system is now prepared to recognize and fight it off entirely or at least reduce the severity of the illness.

There are some core vaccines that every dog should get according to the ASPCA. Core vaccines are considered vital to all dogs based on risk of exposure, severity of disease or transmissibility to humans. Canine parvovirus, distemper, canine hepatitis and rabies are considered core vaccines.

Just as with people, most vaccinations last a long time -- often for a lifetime.

"We know that for [canine] distemper and parvo, for example, the immunity lasts a minimum of five years, probably seven to nine years, and for some individuals for a lifetime,” says veterinarian Jean Dodds, founder of Hemopet, the first nonprofit national blood bank program for animals, located in Santa Monica, Calif.

Just as vaccinations are required for humans by some school districts, employers and the military, animal vaccinations are required in many cases. Take rabies, for example. Each state has its own laws governing the administration of the rabies vaccine. Some areas require yearly rabies vaccination. Other areas call for vaccines every three years. An up-to-date canine rabies vaccination is a legal requirement.

Risks are minor

So what really are the risks of getting vaccinations? Immunizations mildly stimulate an animal’s immune system in order to create protection from specific infectious diseases. This stimulation can create mild symptoms, ranging from soreness at the injection site to fever and allergic reactions. Another less common side effect is the development of immune-mediated disease following vaccination.

As is true of human vaccinations, there really is no debate among health authorities. Vaccinations prevent disease in individual animals and also prevent diseases from being spread from one animal to another. 

 

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Cheap chocolate candy? Might not be chocolate after all

Not all cacao-based “chocolate” products are created equal. Here's how to tell them apart

Chocolate lovers pay heed: Valentine's Day is this weekend, followed immediately by the annual post-Valentine's discounted-holiday-candy sale, meaning that...

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American Express, Costco ending their exclusive relationship

It's not yet known what will replace Amex at U.S. Costco stores

For years, Costco members have had to use an American Express card to make purchases at one of the firm's giant warehouses but, as long rumored, that deal ...

PhotoFor years, Costco members have had to use an American Express card to make purchases at one of the firm's giant warehouses. Those who didn't have an Amex could apply for a free co-branded Costco Amex.

But, as long rumored, that deal is coming to an end.

American Express confirmed today that the exclusive agreement will end on March 31, 2016, but it's not yet known what will happen then. There's been no word from Costco on its plans. 

There have been reports that Costco is negotiating with Capital One to accept its MasterCard, something that has already happened at Costco's Canadian stores.

“Taking a very disciplined approach, we began discussions on a possible renewal with Costco well in advance of the contract expiration," said Kenneth I. Chenault, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of American Express. "However, we were unable to reach terms that would have made economic sense for our Company and shareholders. Instead, we will focus on opportunities in other parts of our business where we see significant potential for growth and attractive returns over the moderate to long term.”

The decision is a blow to Amex and will reportedly wipe out 8% of worldwide annual spending on its cards, roughly $80 billion, according to a Reuters report.

What it means

Costco Feb. 12, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
Consumers rate Costco

Costco has been one of the few retailers that accepts only the Amex card, declining to take MasterCard, Visa or Discover. The member-only chain caters to a more affluent customer base than Walmart or Target; American Express also pitches its products to better-off consumers so the lash-up worked well for most shoppers.

Most of Costco's customer base probably already has a MasterCard or Visa but it's possible that whatever deal Costco finally works out will require its members to have a card issued by a particular bank, possibly Capital One. 

The impact on customers is thus likely to be slight, although there may be some inconvenience for those who want to ditch their Amex entirely and convert to MasterCard or whoever Costco chooses. 

The current agreements with Costco are set to end on March 31, 2016. Until that time, all American Express credit cards will be accepted at Costco warehouse stores in the U.S and on Costco.com. All co-branded cards from American Express and Costco can be used any place American Express cards are accepted through March 31, 2016.

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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 an...

Photo
Photo © Robert Wilson - Fotolia

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.

Photo
CheapAir.com

“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.

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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: an announcement posted in its Newsroom boasts of “a new feature that lets people choose a legacy c...

PhotoFacebook 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. 

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Drone out with NoFlyZone.org

If it works, here's a way to keep pesky drones away

​Many homes have a burglar alarm, either electronic or maybe a four-legged one that gives out a big bellowing bark. And everyone has virus protection on th...

PhotoMany homes have a burglar alarm, either electronic or maybe a four-legged one that gives out a big bellowing bark. And everyone has virus protection on their computer, right? 

But these days, alarms and anti-spy gear may not be the only thing you need to make sure that no one is watching your every move. Drones can take pictures, record images and probably record conversations from far away.

NoFlyZone.org may be the answer. It can establish a No Fly Zone above your house. It's a free service and it basically claims to prevent drones from flying over your property. The company's website does say that it may offer a premium service someday -- one you have to pay for, in other words.

Maybe the Secret Service should look into this and enter 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW? A drone being operated by a drunken intelligence agency employee landed on the White House lawn a few weeks ago. 

For the rest of us, you just enter a few details online and your property will be included in the NoFlyZone database. Of course, only participating drone manufacturers and operators voluntarily agree to respect your desires and no one can guarantee that all drones will be prevented from flying over your property. But it's at least a start.

Drone manufacturers and operators say they want to take a proactive step to self-regulate and deliver quality products and services while minimizing negative consequences so they have created this database of no-drone-zones.

Good idea but, of course, it does put all of your info into yet another computer database.

It's a pretty simple operation, really. Enter the data and the site figures out your home's GPS coordinates. That's relayed to drone manufacturers and operators and a "geofence" is created above your house.

And don't worry about shutting yourself off forever from a Dominos pizza delivery or a pack of paper towels from Amazon. When drone delivery starts in earnest, you'll be able to enter exceptions in your private no fly zone.

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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 web...

PhotoExpedia, 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

Expedia Feb. 12, 2015, 3:39 p.m.
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

Orbitz Feb. 12, 2015, 3:40 p.m.
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. 

 

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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. ...

PhotoSunfood 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.

 

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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....

PhotoPet 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.

 

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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 ha...

PhotoZETA 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.

 

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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 cras...

PhotoAbout 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

 

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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 flu...

PhotoU.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.

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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....

PhotoYour 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.

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Looking for a perfect online match? Be humble

Profiles that look a little too perfect aren't as effective as more modest ones, study finds

By now everyone knows it's a good idea to avoid deals that sound too good to be true. And most everyone has also figured out that the warning applies not j...

PhotoBy now everyone knows it's a good idea to avoid deals that sound too good to be true. And most everyone has also figured out that the warning applies not just to products and services but also to people, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Iowa say consumers using online dating services are searching for a perfect match, but not a perfect person.

In fact, they say people who are looking for love online are less apt to trust a person with a flashy profile, preferring instead a potential partner who appears not only successful, but humble and real as well.

"We found people want to contact a person who appears to be accurate in what they are saying about themselves online," says Andy High, assistant professor in the University of Iowa's Department of Communication Studies and corresponding author of the study.

"It's tough when it comes to dating profiles because we want someone who seems like an amazing person, but we also hopefully will have a relationship with this individual, so we want them to exist," High said.

Not over-the-top

High and Crystal Wotipka, lead author of the study, wanted to know how people who use dating sites respond to different ways people present themselves online.

What they discovered is most people in their study were drawn to individuals whose profiles were positive but not over-the-top glowing. More important, however, participants preferred people whose online persona could be clearly traced to a real person.

That means people want details, not broad generalities, especially about where a prospective love interest works and what he or she does for a living.

"Instead of just saying, 'I write a blog,' name the blog and encourage people to check it out," High says. "If you work for a company, name the company. ... If you can name something or provide people with a link to get there, then do it.

"The idea is the viewer will think this is a real person," he adds.

High and Wotipka presented their preliminary findings in November 2014 at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association. They plan to submit a paper to a peer-reviewed journal in the spring of 2015.

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Car dealers' settle charges their "Buy-Here, Pay-Here" deals foster discrimination

The dealers were accused of "reverse redlining"

It's common for new car dealers to offer financing to their customers but used cars dealers historically haven't been as involved in writing loans, which a...

PhotoIt's common for new car dealers to offer financing to their customers but used cars dealers historically haven't been as involved in writing loans, which a just-settled lawsuit suggests may be a good thing.

The U.S. Justice Department and North Carolina's attorney general had accused two of the state's used car dealers of discriminating against minority consumers through their "Buy Here, Pay Here" plans.

The dealers, Auto Fare Inc. and Southeastern Auto Corp., both of Charlotte, have agreed to pay $225,000 and clean up their lending practices to bring them into compliance with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

The lawsuit charged the dealers had used “reverse redlining” by intentionally targeting African-American customers for unfair and predatory credit practices. The settlement came after the court denied the dealerships’ motion to dismiss the case and agreed that reverse redlining by an auto lender is illegal discrimination.

“It is not only illegal, but also fundamentally wrong, to target borrowers of color for predatory loans and exploit their need for a car to do essential tasks such as getting to work,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division.  “I hope that other buy here, pay here dealerships will evaluate their practices in light of this settlement.”

“All consumers deserve to be treated fairly when they buy a car,” said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.  “We hope this case sends a strong message that car dealers cannot use race when targeting buyers with overpriced cars and oppressive loans.”

Improved practices

The settlement requires the dealerships to implement a number of specific practices to ensure that the terms of their loans and repossession practices are no longer unfair and predatory.  The required changes include:

  • limiting projected monthly payments to no more than 25% of a borrower’s income;
  • requiring interest rates to be at least five percentage points below the state’s rate cap;
  • mandating a lower interest rate for borrowers who have specified evidence of lower credit risk; requiring competitive sales prices;
  • prohibiting hidden fees on top of the required down payment;
  • prohibiting repossessions until at least two consecutive missed payments;
  • providing down payment refunds to borrowers who quickly go into default;
  • requiring strict compliance with provisions of state repossession law enacted to protected consumers;
  • providing borrowers improved disclosures at the time of sale (including disclosing the presence of any GPS, or automatic shut off, device);
  • allowing borrowers to obtain an independent inspection of the car before completing the purchase; and providing borrowers improved notices before repossession.

The settlement also requires defendants to establish a $225,000 settlement fund to compensate victims of their past discriminatory and predatory lending. 

“Predatory lending practices that lock consumers into contracts they cannot afford are illegal and can spell financial disaster for borrowers of lower income or challenged credit history,” said U.S. Attorney Anne M. Tompkins of the Western District of North Carolina.  “Today’s settlement ensures that all customers of Auto Fare Inc. and Southeastern Auto Corp. will have equal access to credit regardless of their race.”

The lawsuit alleged that the two dealerships’ sales prices, down payments, and interest rates were disproportionately high compared to other subprime used-car dealers.  Because the dealerships did not meaningfully assess the customers’ creditworthiness or ability to repay, their rates of default and repossession were disproportionately high.  Additionally, the dealerships engaged in repossessions when customers were not in default.

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Mortgage company lied about veterans' endorsement, feds charge

NewDay Financial didn't disclose that kickbacks were paid to vets' group

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has ordered a Maryland mortgage company to pay a $2 million penalty for allegedly using deceptive advertisi...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has ordered a Maryland mortgage company to pay a $2 million penalty for allegedly using deceptive advertising and paying kickbacks for customer referrals from a veterans' organization.

NewDay Financial, LLC deceived consumers about a veterans’ organization’s endorsement of NewDay products and participated in a scheme to pay kickbacks for customer referrals, the CFPB said.

“NewDay profited from the trust that veterans place in their veteran service organization,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Veterans, and any consumers getting a mortgage, deserve honest information about lender endorsements.”

NewDay is a Maryland-based, nonbank mortgage lender owned by Chrysalis Holdings, a private company. Its primary business is originating refinance mortgage loans guaranteed by the Veterans Benefits Administration, loans which are available exclusively to servicemembers, veterans, and their surviving spouses.

Between July 2011 and July 2014, NewDay sent consumers over 50 million mortgage solicitations by postal and electronic mail.

Beginning in 2010, NewDay entered into a marketing arrangement with a veterans’ organization, agreeing to pay “lead generation fees” to the veterans’ organization and the broker who set up the arrangement. NewDay also paid a $15,000 monthly licensing fee to the broker company.

"Exclusive lender"

As part of the deal, NewDay was named the “exclusive lender” of the veterans’ organization.

NewDay claimed that this title was based on its high standards for service and excellent value. At no point did NewDay disclose to consumers that the veterans’ organization had a financial relationship with NewDay. Under the circumstances, this failure to disclose the relationship constituted a deceptive act or practice, which violates the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank Act), the CFPB said.

The full text of the CFPB’s Consent Order is available online.

 

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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...

PhotoA 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. 

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Distracted driving with your pet isn't a good idea

Pets may be fun passengers but they can cause all kinds of problems

It's a treat for your dog when it can jump in the car and you roll the window down and your mutt gets that fur-blown look. Or perhaps you have a lap dog th...

Photo
Photo © Mat Hayward

It's a treat for your dog when it can jump in the car and you roll the window down and your mutt gets that fur-blown look. Or perhaps you have a lap dog that sits perfectly still on your lap while you make a run to the Post Office.

The problem is it's dangerous. Driving with your pet can be distracting for the driver and very dangerous for your little friend.

At least one state -- Hawaii -- makes it illegal to operate a motor vehicle while holding an animal in your lap. Your animal can't even be close to you while you drive, especially if it interferes with the driver's ability to control the car.

New Jersey offers a slightly different example. Police in the Garden State can stop drivers who are improperly transporting animals, which can include dogs sitting in a driver's lap, according to the state's Motor Vehicle Commission. If caught, drivers could face up to $1,000 in fines, and could even be charged with animal cruelty.

Distracted driving comes in many forms. It can include any activity that prevents you from driving safely -- even eating while driving. Because the definition of distracted driving is so vague, police may be able to pull you over even if you are just singing a song and perhaps adding a few upper body moves.

Restraint required

Photo
A dog safety harness -- $12.99 at Amazon.com

Connecticut's "general distracted driving" law allows drivers to be charged for driving with pets in their laps, according to the state's Office of Legislative Research. The state is in the process of trying to make that specific act a fineable offense -- nothing vague about it. A bill is now before the General Assembly's Transportation Committee.

Gordon Gibson, legislative liaison for the Connecticut State Grange, said pets should be kept away from drivers -- period. He called on lawmakers to go even further and require all animals in moving vehicles be restrained in a suitable safety harness, similar to a seat belt.  He's not so far off.

 Animals can act like "flying missiles" in an impact and can get severely injured -- or even hurt you and other humans in the car.

The good news is that safety harnesses for pets can be easily purchased. And why shouldn't they be? If it is crucial that your child and other human family members are properly strapped in, you should do the same for your pets.

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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 ...

PhotoHines 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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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....

PhotoMarin 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.

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Even Cupid can't counter financial incompatibility

Disagreement about money has derailed many a relationship

With Valentines Day coming up this might be a good time to remind couples of one thing that can throw cold water on red hot romance – money. In particular,...

With Valentines Day coming up this might be a good time to remind couples of one thing that can throw cold water on red hot romance – money. In particular, disagreements about it.

You may disagree about a whole range of lifestyle issues and it's nothing that can't be worked out. But disagree about how to manage money and the wheels can come off a relationship before it even gets started.

Disputes about money management can begin as early as the first date, and they can start to snowball when they go unaddressed. As the years go by, what could have started as a constructive conversation about finance becomes a heated battle over who is right.

Financial infidelity

For example, you can't just observe that partner A tends to spend a lot of unbudgeted money each week without it turning into an accusation. And while sexual infidelity is a huge relationship killer, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) has found financial infidelity – one partner hiding financial dealings from the other – is just as damaging.

In fact, it registered on a survey of couples seeking financial counseling as the top stress point for 25% of the respondents.

“Most people have a different approach to money management than their spouse or partner,” said Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the NFCC. “Left unattended, those differences can lead to the end of the line for many couples.”

McClary says couples can avoid these pitfalls by having candid discussions early in a relationship so both know the rules and what the financial goals are.

Talk it out

“No matter the differences or challenges, the best approach is to start communicating early,” he said.

The NFCC recommends a few money rules for couples:

  • Be honest about all financial matters. Get on the same page and work as a team.
  • Set money rules and follow them.
  • Don't try to hide debt or other sources of income.
  • Don't let financial discussions turn into accusations.

When queried about which of their partner's financial habits irritates them most, 25% of respondents said secrecy or dishonesty about money.

Interestingly, only 2% were upset by a partner who is too frugal while 14% were bothered by a partner who overspends. Being thrifty, it appears, is considered sexy.

Good looks secondary

A 2013 survey by Experian appears to bear that out. It found that among both men and women, financial responsibility is a highly desirable trait in a mate.

In fact, it trumps physical attractiveness. In the survey 96% said financial responsibility is important to 86% who valued good looks.

Consumers have learned the hard way that not being on the same page with a mate can have very negative consequences. Chris, of Lewisville, Idaho, got a rude awakening when she shopped for an insurance policy with Geico.

“Their representative tells me thank you for my interest on my quote and that she would be happy to help me, Chris wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “But she then proceeds to tell me I owe them money on a delinquent account.”

Chris had never had a Geico insurance policy but her ex-husband had, and he didn't pay the bill. All of this happened before they were married, Chris said.

Another reason to talk about finances before things progress very far.

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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...

PhotoIt'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. 

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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 ...

PhotoEvery 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.

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How consumers can simplify the decision-making process

When you are overwhelmed by choices you can make bad decisions

In the 21st century economy, consumers have never had so many choices. That's a good thing, right?...

PhotoIn the 21st century economy, consumers have never had so many choices. That's a good thing, right?

Maybe not. Some of us begin to feel overwhelmed when we have to choose a new cell phone plan or a new health insurance policy. Economists have a term for it – choice overload – and say it can cause frustration and ultimately lead to poor choices.

“Standard economic theory will tell you that more choice is always better,” said Tibor Besedes, an associate professor in the School of Economics at Georgia Tech. “Theoretically, that works out, but when you have to apply it, that’s very different. When you give people a lot of options, they can get bogged down and, at some level, become unwilling to consider anything because it just gets too complicated.”

Three strategies

Researchers devised 3 strategies to help consumers cope with choice overload and tested them on a group of volunteers. The consumers in the study had to choose from among 16 options.

The first strategy was to consider all 16 choices at the same time. The second was called “sequential elimination,” beginning with choosing one option from among four choices. Three additional choices were then added to the one chosen from the first group, and the process continued through five rounds until all but one option was eliminated.

The third strategy was called “sequential tournament.” Four groups of 4 options were randomly chosen by a computer and the subjects were asked to choose 1 option from each group. The “winning” options chosen from the first four groups were then put into a finalist group from which the final selection was made.

The consumers taking part in the experiment liked the tournament strategy the least. But oddly, the researchers found it produced the best choices. One reason for its lack of popularity, they speculate, is that off all 3 methods, it required the most time to arrive at a decision.

Why it works

But here's why it works: when you consider fewer options, you tend to make a better decision. By considering only 4 options at a time, researchers say the consumers had a better chance of arriving at the right choice.

Considering all 16 options at 1 time, on the other hand, was the favorite method of consumers in the test group but produced the worst results.

“We know from all the studies that we’ve done that if you have a smaller choice set, you tend to do better,” Besedes said. “There is a lot of information that you have to go through, and you have to understand what all of those things mean, and from that information, figure out what’s best for you. You can’t do that while choosing from 16 options at a time.”

The study was spurred by concerns over the large number of choices seniors had to make in the Medicare Part D program. But the results suggest the successful choice screening method could be used for choosing retirement programs, health care insurance, automobiles, homes, cell phones and other products or services.

Why choices matter

“The difference between choosing a Medicare Part D plan and picking a cell phone is that the cell phone decision is less important financially,” Besedes said. “If you choose the wrong retirement or prescription drug plan, the cost of making a mistake can be considerable. And by the time you realize you’ve made a mistake, it may be too late to correct it.”

Besedes offers advice to anyone trying to choose from many options:

  • Divide the options into piles of four
  • Choose the best option from each pile
  • Put the winners from the first round into a new finalist pile
  • Choose the best option from winners of the earlier four selections.
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High risk of deadly asbestos-linked cancer seen in southern Nevada

The state tries to put a lid on the report, which suggests naturally-occurring asbestos is to blame;

A deadly cancer, malignant mesothelioma, has been found at higher than expected levels in women and in people younger than 55 years old in parts of souther...

PhotoA deadly cancer, malignant mesothelioma, has been found at higher than expected levels in women and in people younger than 55 years old in parts of southern Nevada, an area that has a high concentration of naturally occurring asbestos and other carcinogenic minerals.

The Nevada Health Department has tried to silence the scientists and revoked one researcher's access to the state's cancer registry, saying there is no cause for concern. 

Malignant mesothelioma is a fatal cancer associated with asbestos exposure that develops on the outer linings of the lungs. The 3-year survival rate is only 8% and there are limited treatment options.

It has a latency period of 30 to 50 years and most of its victims are older men who have been exposed in the workplace to asbestos fibers over a period of years.

Women and children

But in Clark and Nye Counties, Nevada, researchers found a significant number of cases involving younger women and children and a higher overall number of cases than would normally be expected. Health records showed an incidence of 11.28% in the two counties versus the U.S. average of 6.21%.

Significant differences were also found in the male to female ratio of malignant mesothelioma. In all Nevada counties but Clarke and Nye the ratio was 6.33 men to every woman, but in Clarke and Nye counties it was statistically lower at 2.69 men to every woman, which could not be explained by population demographics, as they were the same.

The percentage of individuals younger than 55 was also significantly higher -- 11.28% in the southern Nevada counties versus the U.S. average of 6.21%.

The findings, published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, the official journal of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer, suggest that the elevated number of malignant mesothelioma cases are linked to environmental exposure of asbestos and other carcinogenic mineral fibers.

No asbestos industries

The researchers acknowledge in their paper that women and children can be exposed to asbestos fibers that their husbands and fathers bring home on their clothes. But they note that there are no major asbestos industries in southern Nevada.

The increased number of cases relative to the population and the higher incidence of victims who are young and female point to "environmental exposure which can happen when human activities and natural processes such as wind or water release fibers in the air," said Michele Carbone, senior author of the study.

Carbone said more research is needed to find the highest-risk areas and to identify the activites that are releasing the material into the air.

Official denials

State officials deny that there is a health risk, according to a report today in The New York Times. 

“Asbestos was there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and that has not translated into negative health effects,” said Dr. Ihsan Azzam, the state epidemiologist, said, the Times reported.

The Times chronicled steps taken by the state to quash a presentation about the higher incidence of mesathelioma at a scientific conference. Researchers say they have been "vilified" for their work while state officials insist there is no public health risk and no need for further research.

Despite that, the Nevada Department of Transportation has delayed a $490 million highway project slated for the area. Plans for a proposed Phoenix-to-Las Vegas freeway are also in doubt because of the findings.

 

 

 

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How clean is that pastrami? Study finds delis aren't very clean

People with weak immune systems should buy prepackaged deli meats, researchers warn

A Pursude University study finds that standard cleaning procedures in retail delis may not eradicate Listeria bacteria, posing a serious risk to people wit...

PhotoA Pursude University study finds that standard cleaning procedures in retail delis may not eradicate Listeria bacteria, posing a serious risk to people with vulnerable immune systems.

Consumers with vulnerable immune systems should buy prepackaged deli meats or heat ready-to-eat meats to 165 degrees, the researchers said. Meat contaminated with L. monocytogenes will not show any signs of spoilage, such as sliminess or odor, so there is no way for consumers to know if it is safe.

The study led by Haley Oliver, assistant professor of food science, found that 6.8% of samples taken in 15 delis before daily operation had begun tested positive for L. monocytogenes. In a second sampling phase, 9.5% of samples taken in 30 delis during operation over six months tested positive for the bacteria. In 12 delis, the same subtypes of the bacteria cropped up in several of the monthly samplings, which could mean that L. monocytogenes can persist in growth niches over time.

"This is a public health challenge," Oliver said. "These data suggest that failure to thoroughly execute cleaning and sanitation protocols is allowing L. monocytogenes to persist in some stores. We can't in good conscience tell people with weak immune systems that it is safe to eat at the deli."

In healthy individuals, eating food contaminated with L. monocytogenes may lead to common food poisoning symptoms such as diarrhea or an upset stomach. But the bacteria can cause listeriosis - a serious systemic infection - in immunocompromised people such as the elderly, infants and children, pregnant women and people with HIV.

In severe cases, L. monocytogenescan pass through the intestinal membrane and into the bloodstream or cross the blood-brain barrier. The bacteria can also cross the placental barrier in pregnant women, which can trigger abortion.

Ready-to-eat deli meats are the food most associated with L. monocytogenes, which can grow at refrigerator temperatures, unlike Salmonella and E. coli.

Risks higher in retail delis

Stringent control measures and inspections have tamped down the presence of L. monocytogenes at meat processing plants, but there are no regulations specific to Listeria for retail delis. Recent risk assessments suggest that up to 83% of listeriosis cases linked to deli meats are attributable to products contaminated at retail.

"It's kind of the Wild West," Oliver said. "Manufacturing has a zero-tolerance policy for Listeria, but that dissipates at the retail level. The challenge of developing systematic cleaning procedures for a wide variety of delis - which are less restricted environments than processing plants - can make Listeria harder to control."

Oliver and her team tested for L. monocytogenes and other Listeria species in 30 delis in national supermarket chains in three states. The researchers swabbed surfaces that come into frequent contact with food, such as meat slicers and counters, and surfaces that typically do not.

About 30% of the delis never tested positive for the pathogen, while some delis tested positive in 35% of the samples collected over six months.

"The prevalence of L. monocytogenes is higher than we expected in a significant percentage of delis, and the bacteria is persisting in these delis over time," Oliver said.

Most of the positive samples were collected from surfaces that usually do not come into contact with food, examples being floors, drains and squeegees. But the bacteria can be transferred unintentionally from these surfaces to food, Oliver said.

While the percentage of L. monocytogenes found on food contact surfaces was low, "these numbers would never be acceptable in manufacturing," she said. "The reason we haven't had a listeriosis outbreak tied to a deli is because it's a disease with a long incubation time, and it's difficult to track to a source. There are only about 1,600 listeriosis cases a year. But the likelihood of death is huge."

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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 w...

PhotoThe 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.

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Google wants to play

It is buying Launchpad Toys, sort of a YouTube for kids

Google has just bought some new toys. It bought the children's video firm Launchpad Toys, which could be its latest move in creating a version of its produ...

PhotoGoogle has just bought some new toys. It bought the children's video firm Launchpad Toys, which could be its latest move in creating a version of its products for children.

The San Francisco-based startup was founded in 2010 and is backed by high-profile investors including Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. A senior executive last year had told USA Today that Google was interested in developing some products specifically for kids under 13.

Launchpad has two very popular products -- Toontastic and TeleStory. Toontastic allows children to make animated films by dragging around characters, similar to putting on a puppet show. TeleStory uses the cameras built into devices to allow children to record videos of themselves in augmented reality environments.

Launchpad has been operating Toon Tube, a portal for kids who wanted to make videos, much like YouTube. But it is closing that site down and asking parents to remove the videos by March 4th.

“We’re proud to announce that our little toy company is pairing up with a great big team of tinkerers to empower GAJILLIONS of playful storytellers around the world," Launchpad said on its website. "Launchpad Toys is joining Google to create even more amazing creativity tools for kids. Today, we've made our digital toys and tools free to creative kids everywhere. Tomorrow... well, we can't wait to share :)"

Google isn't the only company getting into the kids video market. Vine also has jumped in. Last week, Vine introduced a version of its six-second video platform called Vine for Kids which is a stream of content that is geared toward the younger set.

Apple created an app called Family Sharing that lets parents monitor what their kids buy from iTunes. The company was constantly getting complaints from parents because kids were buying things without their knowledge.

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Managing risk through buyer protection plans

Consumers have more options in this area than they may think

You know that anytime you buy electronics or appliances at a big box retailer the sales person is sure to offer a service plan – sometimes referred to as a...

PhotoYou know that anytime you buy electronics or appliances at a big box retailer the sales person is sure to offer a service plan – sometimes referred to as an extended warranty.

Consumers might think they have two choices – take the store's plan or decline and have no coverage at all, assuming all the risk of loss. But actually, there's another option.

Stacy Vogler, U.S. Managing Director of Protect Your Bubble, a British-based insurance company, says consumers can easily purchase a protection plan months after they've completed the purchase.

Third option

“If consumers purchase a product, it might be new, or might be a year or 2 old, they decide they need protection for that and they can come directly to our website,” Vogler told ConsumerAffairs. “With a few bits of information about that product, they can get a protection plan for a low monthly rate.”

Protect Your Bubble is not your father's insurance company. It doesn't insure your car or your home. Instead, the company says it protects the important things in your daily life – things like your phone, TV, or washing machine. And they can usually do it for a lot less than the planes stores offer.

Huge markup

When you buy a retailer's service contract, a lot of what you are spending goes directly to the store's bottom line. Consumer's Checkbook estimates on average, the retailer pockets more than half of the selling price of these warranties as pure profit. They use the rest to pay third-party companies to back and administer these policies.

“We offer an alternative to those retail plans,” Vogler said. “Our plans are at a low monthly rate and the more devices you protect, the lower the rate.”

For example, insurance protection for an iPhone 6 through your cell phone carrier might cost $10 or more a month. At Protect Your Bubble it's $5.99.

The more things you protect, the cheaper the rate. For example, let's assume you add 2 laptops to your phone coverage. The monthly cost for the first laptop goes down to $4.99 and the cost for the second drops to $3.99 – for a monthly total of $14.97.

Vogler says consumers should research protection plans at the same time they research the product they are buying – before they go to the store.

“With a few extra steps and a little extra time online, they should also think about protection plans,” she said. “Do a little research there before they go to the store and make an informed decision.”

Other coverage

While Protect Your Bubble doesn't offer homeowners insurance, it does provide renter's insurance policies. It also provides an identity theft prevention service, alerting subscribers to any suspicious activities involving their banking and credit.

When consumers rent cars, they usually are given just 2 options – take the rental car company's loss waiver coverage or using their personal auto insurance to protect them from damage. Protect Your Bubble's rental car insurance is a third option – and a much cheaper one, saving up to 70% on the coverage the rental car company offers.

“Where our plans cost about $7 a day, the rental car companies charge about $35 a day,” Vogler said.

You pay nothing, of course, if you decide to use your personal auto insurance, but that option could prove costly in case of an accident or damage. If you have to make a claim on your personal car insurance for damage to a rental car, deductibles apply and you can expect your premium to go up in the future.

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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...

PhotoHere'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.

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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 ...

PhotoIt'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.

Intuit - TurboTax Feb. 9, 2015, 6:15 p.m.
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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.

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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 that blocki...

Photo
A prisoner patdown (Photo via WNCN-TV)

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. 

 

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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...

PhotoNew 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.

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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)...

PhotoReverse 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:

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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...

PhotoDish 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.

 

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Energy drinks and hyperactivity go together, study finds

Kids who consumed energy drinks were 66% more likely to be hyperactive

Many parents blame television, the Internet, artificial sweeteners and even measles vaccinations for their child's hyperactivity. That may or may ...

PhotoMany parents blame television, the Internet, artificial sweeteners and even measles vaccinations for their child's hyperactivity. That may or may not be, but a new study finds that energy drinks may be the culprit in many cases.

The study, led by the Yale School of Public Health, found that middle-school children who consume heavily sweetened energy drinks are 66% more likely to be at risk for hyperactivity and inattention symptoms.

The finding has implications for school success and lends support to existing recommendations to limit the amount of sweetened beverages schoolchildren drink.

The authors also recommend that children avoid energy drinks, which in addition to high levels of sugar also often contain caffeine. The study is published in the journal Academic Pediatrics.

Some sugar-sweetened beverages and energy drinks that are popular with students contain up to 40 grams of sugar. The students in this study consumed on average two sugared drinks per day, with a range of zero to seven or more drinks. Health experts recommend that children consume a maximum of 21 to 33 grams of sugar daily (depending on age).

The American Beverage Association took issue with the study, saying it "ignores crucial data about energy drinks and caffeine consumption in the U.S."

"Based on the most recent government data reported in the journal Pediatrics, children under 12 have virtually no caffeine consumption from energy drinks," said industry spokesperson Christopher Gindlesperger. "This study’s findings are consistent with an analysis commissioned by FDA and updated in 2012, as well as a published ILSI survey of more than 37,000 people which shows that caffeine consumption in the U.S. has remained stable during the most recent period analyzed, while coffee remains the primary source of caffeine in most age groups."

More study needed

The research team -- led by professor Jeannette Ickovics, director of CARE (Community Alliance for Research and Engagement) at the School of Public Health -- surveyed 1,649 middle-school students randomly selected from a single urban school district in Connecticut.

The researchers found that boys were more likely to consume energy drinks than girls and that black and Hispanic boys were more likely to drink the beverages than their white peers. The average age of the student participants was 12.4 years old. The study controlled for the number and type of other sugar-sweetened drinks consumed.

"As the total number of sugar-sweetened beverages increased, so too did risk for hyperactivity and inattention symptoms among our middle-school students. Importantly, it appears that energy drinks are driving this association," said Ickovics. "Our results support the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that parents should limit consumption of sweetened beverages and that children should not consume any energy drinks."

While more research is needed to better understand the effects and mechanisms linking sweetened beverages and hyperactivity, previous research has shown a strong correlation between children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and poor academic outcomes, greater difficulties with peer relationships, and increased susceptibility to injuries.

In addition to hyperactivity and inattention, heavily sugared beverages also impact childhood obesity, notes Ickovics, and sugar-sweetened beverages are a leading cause of added calories in the diets of obese children. Currently, about one-third of American schoolchildren are considered overweight or obese.

Industry spokesman Gindlesperger said "leading" energy drink makers "voluntarily go far beyond all federal requirements when it comes to labeling and education." He said ABA member companies voluntarily display total caffeine content on their packages along with advisory statements indicating that the product is not recommended for children, pregnant or nursing women and persons sensitive to caffeine.

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Your dog can fetch you a refund

Under certain circumstances, some pet expenses may be deductible

It is the season -- tax season, that is. You are probably looking around your house thinking, "Hmmm what else can I deduct?"...

PhotoIt is the season -- tax season, that is. You are probably looking around your house thinking, "Hmmm what else can I deduct?"

Well, that furry friend of yours might be worth more than you think. Many people ask if they can deduct their pet. The short answer is no, but there are some exceptions. Don't just take our word for it, though. Talk to an accountant before trying to claim any of the deductions mentioned below.

Did you move?

Moving always gives you something to deduct. Typically, though. the move must be for work. The new job has to be at least 50 miles from the old one and you might be able to deduct the cost of moving your pets. A special form is needed.

Do you have a service dog?

If your dog is sick the medical expenses aren't deductible. But if you need a dog because of an illness or disability of your own, the expenses of keeping that animal can become legitimate medical expenses.

All of the costs of vet care, grooming and any other expense that animal needs to help you assistance could qualify.

Therapy animals also fall under this category, as long as you have a medical diagnosis. There are some exceptions though. There is a special threshold for deducting medical expenses -- 10 percent of adjusted gross income for those under age 65 -- before you can deduct guide-animal costs.

Is your dog a guard dog?

A guard dog is not one that just watches for the mailman. It has to be one that is protecting a business property. There are certain breeds that qualify. Although Chihuahuas bark a lot, I doubt the IRS would be too receptive.

Pet rescues or an animal shelter.

Most animal shelters are nonprofits, so if you decide to be a foster parent, you might be able to write off some expenses as a charitable donation. This includes food, supplies and any vet bills. You may also be able to get some mileage expenses.

The key is to keep good records of going back and forth to do work at the shelter or the IRS may challenge your claim. They may challenge your claim regardless so record-keeping is just a good habit to develop.

Is your pet your profession?

Do you show horses or dogs for a living? Are you an animal trainer? Do you breed cats? All of these are legitimate occupations. You might be able to count some or all of your pet expenses against the income they generate.

Be careful because there is a difference between a hobby and a business. Hobby losses are deductible only if you have gains and the hobby has to be a miscellaneous deduction, which can limit the amount you can actually claim. But you may be able to deduct all of your expenses for a business, even if it results in a net loss.

Every situation is different and you definitely want to talk to an accountant before you do this to avoid problems down the road.

 

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California to require measles immunizations for university students

Waivers will still be available for religious or other reasons

College kids doing shots is nothing new but getting them in the arm is....

PhotoCollege kids doing shots is nothing new but getting them in the arm is.

Measles has created a new itch for schools in California, where immunization requirements were not as strict for public schools. Kids were easily be exempt if their parents cited religious or personal reasons for not getting the immunizations.

Stricter laws are in the works and California's universities are following suit.

The University of California system will require incoming students to get full vaccinations to enroll by 2017, but they still will be able to seek waivers for personal, religious or health reasons. UC Irvine already mandates vaccinations because individual campuses are allowed to set their own rules.

The vaccination requirements were not put into effect because of the recent outbreak that started at Disneyland. It was in the works before then, according spokesperson Brooke Converse.

“It’s something that has been going on for a while, and it’s considered a good public-health idea,” Converse said.

Universities will start letting students know about the new standards over the next 2 years. In 2016 they will start putting medical information into the system and everyone should already be vaccinated. They will start enforcing all of this in 2017. If you aren't immunized your registration status will be on hold until you have proof that you have been vaccinated.

The community colleges don't have any type of vaccination requirements at this time. They are free to implement their own rules individually.

The only vaccination that is a must as of now in the University of California system is the hepatitis B vaccination.  All 10 campuses say that you must have that in order to enroll. As of 2017 though you will have to have TB screening and vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella; meningococcus; chicken pox; and tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough.

Students at three California campuses -- Moorpark College, California State University at Channel Islands and California State University at Long Beach -- are now believed to have contracted measles, joining more than 90 other people in the state who have gotten the highly contagious disease.

James Cherry, a pediatrics research professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the new policy couldn't come soon enough.

“It seems to me that this should be done this year, not 2017,” Cherry said. “The way things are going right now, we’re going to have an epidemic on college campuses. That is the situation we're in.”

A statement by the American College Health Association says “Immunizations offer safe and effective protection from vaccine-preventable diseases."  

"The United States is experiencing reemergence of these diseases, in part due to factors such as unimmunized and under-immunized persons and global travel. The [associaton] strongly supports the use of vaccines to protect the health of our individual students and our campus communities."

Currently, at least 22 states do not have any laws requiring college students to be immunized against measles.

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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 Trav...

PhotoGeneral 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.

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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 vehicle...

 

PhotoFCA 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.

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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

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...

PhotoIf 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.

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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...

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Was China's government behind the Anthem hacking?

Investigators see telltale similarities between this and earlier attacks

Those unnamed investigators also suggested that China's government was behind last summer's hacking of the federal Office of Personnel Management, stealing...

PhotoOn Wednesday evening, the Anthem health insurance company confirmed that hackers breached a database holding the records of 80 million current and former customers. It's still far too early to say for certain who is behind the hacking, but a report on Bloomberg.com suggests that the hackers might be connected to the Chinese government:

“Investigators of Anthem Inc.’s data breach are pursuing evidence that points to Chinese state-sponsored hackers who are stealing personal information from health-care companies for purposes other than pure profit …. The attack appears to follow a pattern of thefts of medical data by foreigners seeking a pathway into the personal lives and computers of a select group -- defense contractors, government workers and others, according to a U.S. government official familiar with a more than year-long investigation into the evidence of a broader campaign.”

If this claim is true (right now, that's still a pretty big “if”), it wouldn't be the first time American security investigators suspected the Chinese government was behind a mass hacking.

Last November, the U.S. Postal Service admitted that hackers had managed to breach a database containing information about 800,000 USPS employees, and possibly information about postal customers as well.

At the time, unnamed individuals working with the investigations said that evidence suggested the USPS hackers were connected with the Chinese government – though China's government was quick to deny all such allegations and point out that hacking is officially illegal under Chinese law.

Those unnamed investigators also suggested that China's government was behind last summer's hacking of the federal Office of Personnel Management, stealing information about up to 5 million holders of federal security clearances.

There's no mystery why a foreign government would be very interested in stealing the personal information of security-clearance holders. But why would China care about an American health insurance company, whether Anthem or anyone else?

Bloomberg suggests it's because a large percentage of defense contractors, including employees of Northrop Grumman and Boeing, get their insurance coverage through Anthem (though spokespeople for all three companies – Anthem, Northrop Grumman and Boeing – declined comment when asked about the matter).

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Radio Shack's end is near -- does anyone care?

Radio Shack exits the field, sells stores to Sprint

It lasted 94 years, which is a pretty good run for a retailer. Radio Shack was the first nationwide consumer electronics store, although you might not thin...

PhotoIt lasted 94 years, which is a pretty good run for a retailer. Radio Shack was the first nationwide consumer electronics store, although you might not think of it that way.

For decades, it was the place geeks and tinkerers went to find weird plugs, spare capacitors, odd connectors and other spare parts. It was sort of the nation's junk box for electronics, ham radio and hi-fi hobbyists.

But lately, it's been a sad sort of place where neither customers nor staff are feeling good about things.

"I recently purchased some headphones," said Barry of Bay Shore, NY. "The product doesn't work. When I tried to return it, I couldn't. Thomas, the district manager said, "Who cares we're going bankrupt soon."

Radio Shack stores had sort of a mom-and-pop feel and usually occupied much smaller and more modest quarters than the newcomers in the field -- Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA and so forth. But, in fact, they outlasted most of the newcomers, although Best Buy is still around last time we checked.

Peaks and valleys

The changing landscape produced surges in Radio Shack's business. The 1982 AT&T break-up cracked the home and office telephone market wide open, sending consumers to Radio Shack to buy phones, fax machines, answering machines and other devices that were previously off-limits. 

Then cell phones came along and, over time, Radio Shack turned into a major outlet for Sprint, which unfortunately began steadily losing ground to AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and generic prepaid phones. 

Meanwhile, Amazon and other online retailers were quickly becoming the place to go for those pesky HDMI cables, cable modems and DVD players.

My last visit to Radio Shack occurred in Malibu, Calif., a year or so ago. I needed an HDMI cable and Malibu -- 21 miles long and about one block deep -- has no other stores stocking such a thing. You can buy a perfectly adequate HDMI cable on Amazon for less than $5 so I was somewhat surprised when Radio Shack's version was priced at $80.

"This is a mistake, right?" I asked the clerk, who appeared to be about 12.

"Maybe so, but that's the price," he replied.

This tawdry little episode illustrates a big part of Radio Shack's problem. You can get by with charging prices like that when no one knows any better. But when anyone -- even the most tech-averse -- can go online and find for $5 what you're selling for $80, your business model has just taken a major blow.

Radio Shack's long day's journey into night ended late yesterday when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. About 2,000 or so of its 4,000 stores will be taken over by Sprint and the rest will be closed. 

 

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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 create...

PhotoEconomists 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.

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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...

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

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.

 

Photo
Photo source: CPSC

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.

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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 chi...

PhotoMima 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.

 

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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 accura...

PhotoKrehbiels 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.  

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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 ...

PhotoLifesmart 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.

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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 s...

PhotoToyota 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.

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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...

Photo
Coupons on BeFrugal.com

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.”

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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 c...

PhotoOn 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.

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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...

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Five indicted in alleged Manhattan identity-theft ring

One dishonest insider is all it takes to steal hundreds of peoples' identities

“All it takes is a single insider at a company … to set an identity theft ring in motion.” That comment from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance illust...

Photo“All it takes is a single insider at a company … to set an identity theft ring in motion.” That comment from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance illustrates how easy it is to have your identity stolen — or how impossible it is to avoid it.

Vance's office announced today that it had indicted five people on a total of 394 counts, for allegedly belonging to an identity theft ring that stole the identities of patients at a Manhattan dental office, and used them to fraudulently buy Apple gift cards which in turn were used to buy Apple merchandise.

According to the indictment, Annie Vuong spent six months in 2012 working as a receptionist in a dentists' office. During that time, she allegedly copied the personal identifying information of more than 250 patients, including their names, brithdays, addresses, and Social Security numbers.

Vuong then allegedly emailed the information to Devin Bazile, a former sales associate at Apple, who allegedly used the data to apply for and receive “instant credit.” The indictment also claims that three additional employees from Apple stores helped take part in the scheme.

Common scheme

In all, the group is accused of buying more than $700,000 worth of fraudulent Apple gift cards.

“Using stolen information to purchase Apple products is one of the most common schemes employed by cybercrime and identity theft rings today,” Vance said. “We see in case after case how all it takes is single insider at a company – in this instance, allegedly, a receptionist in a dentists’ office – to set an identity theft ring in motion, which then tries to monetize the stolen information by purchasing Apple goods for resale or personal use.”

Coincidentally, District Attorney Vance's office made the announcement less than one day after the Anthem insurance company admitted that hackers had successfully breached a database holding the personal information of 80 million current and former Anthem customers.

Of course, the Anthem breach impacts exponentially more people than does this small identity-theft ring which allegedly targeted a relative handful of dental patients in Manhattan. (Statistically, there's a good chance at least one of those patients had medical coverage through Anthem, too, because rare indeed is the modern American who only needs to worry about one level of identity theft.)

But those 80 million Anthem customers and couple hundred Manhattan dentists' patients have this in common: their personal information made it into the hands of thieves, yet there was nothing those customers could've done to prevent it. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and your personal information is only as secure as the least-secure company that has it.

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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 &...

Photo
© Marc Scott-Parkin – Fotolia

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.”

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

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.

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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 ty sets. The die-cast metal cars can have sharp edges that ...

PhotoFamily 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.

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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 Wyk...

PhotoWyked 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.

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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. ...

PhotoBMW 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.

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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. T...

PhotoWhole 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.

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Here's a list of ways around Keurig 2.0 machine restrictions

Your old pods and K-cups won't work with new Keurig machines — unless you use one of these workarounds

Next month marks the one-year anniversary of when the Keurig company first announced its plan to produce a new generation of home coffee machines that woul...

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FCC chairman proposes "strongest open Internet protections ever"

The plan bans paid "fast lanes," outlaws throttling for both wireless and fixed networks

The Internet's days as a wide-open, virtually lawless hash-up of networks may be just about over. As expected, Federal Communications Commission Chairman T...

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Image: Ookla.com

The Internet's days as a wide-open, virtually lawless hash-up of networks may be just about over. As expected, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has outlined what he called the "strongest open Internet protections ever proposed."

The plan, outlined in a Wired magazine op-ed, would bring broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, treating it for the first time as a public utility and enshrining the "network neutrality" principles long demanded by consumer advocates.

Wheeler's plan would outlaw "fast lanes" -- the practice of charging content providers like Netflix more money for reliable Internet access. It would also prohibit carriers from blocking or throttling lawful content and would apply to both wireless and landline networks.

The full FCC will vote on the plan later this month.

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Tom Wheeler (FCC photo)

Wheeler had been thought to favor less stringent regulations but President Obama came out in support of Title II reclassification in November. As a Presidential appointee, Wheeler would be expected to abide by the boss' wishes.

Dueling lobbyists

Republicans on Capitol Hill, buoyed by the frantic efforts of telecom industry lobbyists, are threatening to strip the FCC of its authority under Title II but Democrats, cheered on by the equally frantic computer industry lobbyists, aren't likely to go along and, in any event, Obama would be almost certain to veto any such effort.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Science, Space, and Technology said Wheeler's plan would provide "fair, equal access to the internet" to everyone.

"No Internet Service Provider (ISP) should be allowed to block or degrade access to certain sites, nor serve as ‘gatekeepers or toll-booths’ of the Internet," Beyer said. "Companies like Google and Facebook, once small insurgent startups, might never have been able to grow had it not been for fair and equal access to the Internet for everyone, not just big businesses that will pay to gain better access." 

In his op-ed, Wheeler acknowledged carriers' claims that they must throttle some traffic to keep things moving smoothly but said that consumers' interests must also be taken into account.

"Broadband network operators have an understandable motivation to manage their network to maximize their business interests. But their actions may not always be optimal for network users," he said.

Not over-reaching

Wheeler insisted his proposal is not over-reaching but instead is "rooted in long-standing regulatory principles, marketplace experience, and public input received over the last several months," noting that the FCC had received more than 4 million public comments, the majority of them supporting net neutrality. 

The Consumer Federation of America said ISPs have no one but themselves to blame for the prospect of tougher regulation.

"The less the FCC has to use its power, the better, but the behavior of the network operators over the decade since broadband was classified as an information service has made it clear the FCC must have the authority to prevent abusive discriminatory and anticompetitive practices and promote universal service," the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization said in a prepared statement. 

"It is our hope that the edge companies and the network operators recognize that the FCC has the authority to promote the most important goals of the Act and embrace this decision as an opportunity to work out their differences to the greatest extent possible in private negotiations that lead to commercially reasonable outcomes."

Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, a non-profit long supportive of net neutrality, said ISPs "are guilty of spreading tons of misinformation about Title II, and they’ll spew more lies as the vote approaches."

“Neither Congress nor the FCC should delay this issue any further. The FCC should move forward now with the real Net Neutrality protections we need," Aaron.

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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 ...

PhotoThe 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.

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Bad apps from Google Play infect millions of Android devices

If your device has been bedeviled by pop-up ads, these months-old apps might be why

If your Android phone or tablet has been acting funny lately, especially if malware-infested pop-up ads keep erupting on your screen, some months-old enter...

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Guess what? UPS doesn't like you either

Big Brown will start charging more to deliver to residential addresses

Uh-oh. United Parcel Service has been taking a close look at its business and it has come to a conclusion that's fairly obvious when you think about it: It...

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Household pesticides may be linked to ADHD, Rutgers study finds

The pesticides are commonly used in the home, on golf courses and vegetable gardens

Common household pesticides could be linked to ADHD, according to a new Rutgers study....

PhotoCommon household pesticides could be linked to ADHD, according to a new Rutgers study.

Researchers found that a pesticide that is commonly used on golf courses, in the home and on gardens, lawns and vegetable crops could be a factor in the behavioral condition.

Exposure to pyrethroid pesticides, including deltamethrin, may alter the development of the brain’s dopamine system -- responsible for emotional expression and cognitive function – and increase the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (adhd) in children,

"Although we can’t change genetic susceptibility to ADHD, there may be modifiable environmental factors, including exposures to pesticides that we should be examining in more detail,” said Jason Richardson, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Rutgers. 

The researchers found links between exposure to the pesticide and ADHD not only in humans but mice too. The mice that were exposed to the pyrethroid pesticide deltamethrin in utero and also through lactation exhibited several features of ADHD including hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

What is also similar to the findings in humans is that more male mice were affected than female. An estimated 11% of children between the ages of 4-17– about 6.4 million – diagnosed as of 2011 with ADHD. Boys are three to four times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls.

There is strong scientific evidence that genetics plays a role in the disorder, but no specific gene has been identified as the "cause" or contributing factor and environmental factors may contribute to the development of the condition.

Women who are pregnant and young children are more susceptible to pesticide exposure because their bodies are unable to metabolize chemicals quickly. This is why Richardson wants to do more studies to see how the exposure affects young children and also how it effects a fetus in utero.

Precautions need to be taken for those who are high risk and keep exposure at bay.

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Midland National Life agrees to $1.3 million penalty

California's insurance commission uncovered problems while responding to consumer complaints

Midland National Life Insurance Company has agreed to pay a $1.3 million settlement after the California Department of Insurance charged that the insurer w...

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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 Corpora...

PhotoTravelers 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.

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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 pri...

PhotoJanuary 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."

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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 Mort...

PhotoMortgage 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.  

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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 vehic...

PhotoGibbs 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.

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Naked Wines hopes to change the way you buy wine

In exchange for monthly investments, customers get quality wine at a discount

When shopping for wine, most consumers head for the supermarket or wine shop. There, they may find something they like but encounter a wide range of prices...

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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 comp...

PhotoGoogle 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.

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Your income reflects your parenting style

Income more important than marital status, study finds

Chalk one up for single moms. It's not that they aren't good parents, it's just that economically they can't do as much for their kids. A new study by the...

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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 for...

PhotoToday, 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.

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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...

PhotoResponsible 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.

 

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Staples may latch onto Office Depot

The office warehouse business is starting to resemble the bookstore business

It wasn't much more than a year ago that Office Depot's merger with Office Max was approved by antitrust regulators. Now, Staples and Office Depot are said...

PhotoIt wasn't much more than a year ago that Office Depot's merger with Office Max was approved by antitrust regulators. Now, Staples and Office Depot are said to be in serious merger talks, raising the possibility that there will soon be just one nationwide office supply warehouse chain.

This will be the second time around. Staples and Office Depot tried to merge in 1997 but the Federal Trade Commission objected on the grounds that the merger would be anti-competitive.

That, of course, was before Amazon came along and made it easy to buy just about anything imaginable for the office without having to trudge over to the store and lug the purchases back to the office. 

The FTC may raise objections again this time but it's hard to ignore the evidence that hard times have come to the office supply business. Staples announced last March it would close up to 225 stores and Office Depot said last May that it would close up to 400 stores.

Sounds like the bookstore business, doesn't it?

Making things harder for office warehouses is the nature of the customers and the products they buy. If you're a small businessperson, the last thing you have time to do is run out to Staples everytime you need printer paper, an ink cartridge or a new shredder. 

Besides, a lot of office supplies are bulky and/or heavy. There's nothing like lugging a big box of printer paper or a 40-pound shredder out of your car, into the lobby, up the elevator and down the hall to make a hotshot executive cranky. 

It's a lot easier to just order from Amazon and let UPS schlep the stuff over the next day.   

Pressure for the merger is coming largely from Starboard Value, an activist hedge fund, which now owns about 10% of Office Depot and 6% of Staples, according to The New York Times. The theory is that consolidating the two companies would make them better able to compete with Amazon and Walmart.

Of course, that's what Office Depot said when it merged with Office Max. 

 

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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, analy...

PhotoThe 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."

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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...

PhotoMorrison 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.  

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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...

PhotoClemens 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.  

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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 ...

PhotoHawkins, 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.

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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...

PhotoOver 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.

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NYC cabbies defecting to Uber can have it both ways

Hailing an Uber is especially valuable if you're a Blackberry user

If there was any doubt that Uber is unstoppable, this should dispel it: New York City officials are allowing Uber drivers to paint their cars yellow and pi...

Photo
File photo

If there was any doubt that Uber is unstoppable, this should dispel it: New York City officials are allowing Uber drivers to paint their cars yellow and pick up street hails. It's not quite that simple, of course. There are lots of specific requirements.

So many cab drivers have abandoned their medallion cabs that the perennial cab shortage is worse than ever. Also, local politicos have been taking heat from cabbies who say Taxi and Limousine Commission regulations make it too hard for them to switch between being an NYC taxi and an Uber car.

“We’re hoping to make it easier for drivers to move between segments and maximize their economic opportunities,” said TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg.

In New York, as in most other cities, only licensed taxis can pick up consumers who dash into the street with their hand held high. Uber drivers are only allowed to respond to requests that come in through the company's smartphone app. 

As Uber and its competitors have siphoned off business, cabbies have abandoned their distinctive yellow medallion cabs and jumped into the nearest black car after calculating that they could make more money driving for Uber.

To be an official NYC taxi requires a city-issued medallion. There are only about 13,000 medallions in existence, thus limiting the number of cabs while driving up the value of the medallion. A medallion is currently valued at around $1 million. Many cabbies rent their medallions by the day for about $120.  

Uber drivers who want to go yellow will still need to find a medallion that they can lease, which shows you how much political clout the medallion owners wield. This being New York there are also all kinds of additional regulations, including the kinds of cars that can be used as yellow cabs. Check this TLC presentation for all the details. 

Blackberry dilemma

None of this does much to help business travelers and others who hit the Big Apple with Blackberry in hand. Uber's app either does or doesn't work on Blackberry phones, depending on who you talk to. Or maybe which phone you're using. Or both.

Here at ConsumerAffairs, we've been testing the new Blackberry Passport, the somewhat bulky instrument that -- being neither Apple nor Android -- doesn't seem to speak Uber.

Photo
Staff photo

The Passport is designed, like previous Blackberries, to appeal to business users who value robust email, long battery life and a tactile keyboard. Since this is apparently a rather small group, not many people write apps for Blackberries anymore.

But you would think that Uber, Lyft, et al, would want to be sure that business travelers -- who tend to jump in and out of cabs and black cars frequently and tend to be Blackberry users -- would be able to summon up a ride when needed.

We found an Uber app for the Blackberry on the Uber site and installed it but found, while standing on a rainy corner, that it didn't work. Checking the user forums got us the usual confusing array of answers, each insisting to be the correct one.

"We released the Uber app for blackberry in 2013. Here is the blogpost with more information and the link to the Uber app in the blackberry store," Uber spokeswoman Sarah Maxwell told us.

PhotoOnly problem is that the app announced in the blogpost is for the Blackberry 7. The Passport uses a later OS, Blackberry 10.

We next tried contacting Blackberry, which does not include any press contact information on its website. It's not easy to call them, either. As we tried to break out of the voicemail tree, there was a click, followed by a mature-sounding woman who said "Switchboard."

Wow, we didn't know switchboards even existed anymore, especially at a smartphone company. The operator, as I suppose she would be called, assured us there was indeed a press center and said she would "connect" us. She did. To a voicemail that promised a prompt callback.

Sure enough, a bit later we heard from Lisette Kwong from Blackberry's corporate communications office, who confirmed our suspicions.

"We currently do not have an Uber app within our BlackBerry World or Amazon Appstore storefronts. However, we’re working with Amazon to bring these apps to our users in the near term," Ms. Kwong said.

We also heard from a couple of readers who offered various fixes that, unfortunately, didn't work when we tried them. But hey, with those yellow Ubers flooding the streets, maybe it won't matter.

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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 la...

PhotoMillions 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.

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Digitizing slides with the Epson V600

Kodak's quality gets a new lease on life

In 1973 singer and songwriter Paul Simon had a hit song with “Kodachrome,” a tribute to Kodak's popular color film, which included slides. In those days, p...

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Hackers attack another pay-to-park vendor

Book2Park.com the latest parking company to be hit this winter

Throughout this winter, parking vendors and their customers have become the popular new targets among thieving hackers looking to steal credit card numbers...

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