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    Former Corinthian students go on "debt strike"

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

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

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

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

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

    Student strike

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

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

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

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

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

    Legitimate grounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Banks pressing to allow exceptions to telemarketing rules

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

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

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

    Loosen restrictions on robocalls

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

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

    Slippery slope

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

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

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

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

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

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

      It's probably not the one you think it is

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

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

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

      Whole grains and lean protein

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

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

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

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

      Too much sodium

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Over 2 million Americans suffered medical identity theft last year

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Contract interest rates were on the rise

      Another decline in applications for mortgages.

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

      Applications fell more than 13% the week before

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

      Additionally, the FHA share of total applications rose to 15.3% this week from 15.2%, the VA share of jumped to 9.6% from 8.0%, and the USDA share was unchanged at 0.9%.

      Contract interest rates

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 6 basis points -- to 3.99% from 3.93% -- with points decreasing to 0.33 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose to 4.09% from 3.92%, with points decreasing to 0.21 from 0.28 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

      The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA jumped 9 basis points to 3.82%, with points increasing to 0.15 from 0.12 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

      The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs shot up 19 basis points to 3.28%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.47 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

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

      Prices showed a year-over-year gain

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

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

      Pricing and inventory

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

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

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

      The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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

      An intermediate steering shaft weld could fail

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

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

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

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

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

      Text-neck is becoming a more common health problem

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

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

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

      Lasting impact

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

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

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

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

      What to do

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

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

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

      Important to health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Two strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Boomers starting to think seriously about retiring

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

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

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

      Rebounding from the recession

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

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

      Deep scars

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

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

      Working after retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      The February decline follows a gain in January

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

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

      Still on the upside

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

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

      How they see it

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Prices grew in 2014 at twice the rate of inflation

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

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

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

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

      Month-over-month

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

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

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

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

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

      Regional patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Big improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Cutting corners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Although this costs nothing remember to have fun.

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

      The tires may crack in the lower sidewall

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

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

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

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

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

      Many cities with stable rents see sudden increases

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Rental freight train

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

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

      Declining inventory

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

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

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

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

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

      No warrants, and no legislative or judicial oversight either

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Little oversight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Legal in Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

      Low supplies and rising prices appear to be the culprits

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

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

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

      “Somewhat disappointing”

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

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

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

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

      Regional breakdown

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

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

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

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

      Sales of previously-owned homes fell in January -- a somewhat inauspicious start to the new year. Figures released by the National Association of Realtors...
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