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Comparing an FHA and conventional mortgage

These days, both require very low down payments

You've spent months on real estate websites and toured dozens of properties. You've finally found the right house in the right location for the right price...

PhotoYou've spent months on real estate websites and toured dozens of properties. You've finally found the right house in the right location for the right price and your offer has been accepted.

Now you have to select the method to finance your purchase, and for most first-time buyers there are two main options – an FHA or a conventional mortgage.

Which is better will depend on your individual circumstances. Both have their advantages.

Guaranteed

An FHA loan is guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). If you qualify for an FHA mortgage, the U.S. government guarantees to the lender that the loan will be repaid.

The loan has some advantages and disadvantages for the borrower. The first is that it is easier to qualify for an FHA loan than it is a conventional mortgage.

Because it is a program to encourage homeownership, and the government stands behind the loan, a borrower may qualify with less than perfect credit. While overall lending requirements are much tighter in the wake of the housing crash, FHA requirements are a bit less tight.

Debt-to-income ratio

For example, a lender looks at a borrower's debt-to-income ratio – what you owe vs. how much money you make. FHA gives you more leeway than conventional loans, meaning if you are early in your career and are still paying on some student loans, an FHA loan may allow you to buy more house than a conventional loan would.

You can purchase a home with an FHA loan without putting 20% down, which is less of an advantage these days because there are many conventional mortgage programs with similar low down payments.

An FHA loan requires as little as 3.5% as a down payment but there are now conventional loans with as little as 3% down.

Lower interest rates

When it comes to interest rates, the advantage usually goes to FHA. FHA loans almost always have lower interest rates than conventional loans, but the rate spread will differ state to state.

If you choose to put less than 20% down you will be required to pay mortgage insurance, whether it is an FHA or conventional loan. Mortgage insurance protects the lender from loss in case the borrower defaults.

Here, the advantage you get with a lower interest rate on an FHA mortgage is wiped out by the slightly higher rate you will pay for mortgage insurance. These insurance costs are based on a percentage of the loan and for FHA mortgage insurance, the percentage is slightly higher.

But in a decided advantage for a conventional loan, you can appeal to the lender to discontinue the mortgage insurance requirement once you have achieved 25% equity in the home. With an FHA loan, the mortgage insurance requirement is permanent for the life of the loan.

Because of mortgage insurance, a conventional loan payment might turn out to be lower than an FHA payment, even though it has a lower interest rate.

If you are just beginning your home search, you should discuss the FHA vs. conventional options with a mortgage officer during the pre-approval process so you will know exactly how much you will be able to pay for a home.

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Unemployment still high for young and old

Survey shows half of older workers out of work for 5 years still not working

The nation's unemployment rate, which hit 10% in the wake of the Great Recession, has slowly come down over the last 6 years and now approaches normal leve...

PhotoThe nation's unemployment rate, which hit 10% in the wake of the Great Recession, has slowly come down over the last 6 years and now approaches normal levels. At least on paper.

As many have pointed out, the official jobless rate only counts people who are still looking for a job. It doesn't count those who have been out of work so long they've given up, or are working a part-time job because they can't find a full-time one.

A closer look at the jobless numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also shows that workers at either end of the wage spectrum appear to be most likely to be out of work. In its annual report, released in August, the BLS found the youth unemployment rate was significantly lower than in previous decades.

Older workers

Older workers are also more likely to be out of the labor market. A new report by AARP claims that half of the people in the U.S., age 45 to 70, who lost their job during the last 5 years are still not working.

Fifty percent of people in that age group responding to the survey said they were either unemployed or had dropped out of the labor force and were no longer looking for a job. AARP says nearly half of those who had lost a job and found another were earning less than they did in the job they lost.

"As the economy continues to recover and the unemployment rate falls, there are still far too many people struggling," said Debra Whitman, Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP. "Many Americans want to work as long as possible but our survey confirms that, once unemployed, it can take a long time for older workers to find a quality job."

Of the older Americans in the survey who were not working, 38% described themselves as unemployed and still looking. Twelve percent said they were no longer looking for a job and had dropped out of the labor force.

Interesting facts

AARP says its survey uncovered some interesting facts about older workers. For one, being out of work for a long time usually means you earn less when you finally land a job.

Being out of work for an extended time also increases the likelihood that the job seeker will settle for a part-time job, even though she wants to work 40 hours a week. In fact, 41% of those who experienced long-term unemployment are working in part-time jobs.

It's possible that many of these older workers were in jobs or vocations that suffered serious dislocation because of advances in technology and productivity. The survey seems to suggest that.

Of the long-term unemployed older workers in the survey who were successful in getting another job, 53% were in an occupation different from the one they had prior to becoming unemployed. Of workers out for work for a short time, just 46% were in a different occupation.

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Texas veterinarian vows Supreme Court challenge in Internet advice case

The state suspended Dr. Ron Hines' license for giving advice to pet owners over the Internet

Texas veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines says he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review his lawsuit challenging the Texas Veterinary Board’s prohibition on offe...

PhotoTexas veterinarian Dr. Ron Hines says he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review his lawsuit challenging the Texas Veterinary Board’s prohibition on offering veterinary advice over the Internet.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld Texas law requiring that a veterinarian physically examine an animal prior to offering advice on how to treat or care for it.

Since 2002, Hines kept active in his retirement by providing advice on his website to pet owners around the world, many of them in remote locations, often for free.

But in 2013, the Texas Veterinary Board suspended Hines' license, fined him and made him retake portions of the veterinary licensing exam, finding that he had violated a Texas law tht makes it illegal for a veterinarian to give advice about an animal he has not physicall examined.

“This case stands at the crossroads of internet freedom, free speech, and economic liberty,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes, who represents Dr. Hines. “Dr. Hines gives advice for a living, and advice is speech protected by the First Amendment. This case is ripe for review because the federal courts of appeal across the country disagree about the extent to which the First Amendment protects the speech of licensed professionals when they give individually tailored advice.”

Hines is expected to file his petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court in late June. He has 90 days from the date of the Court of Appeals’ decision.

The Institute for Justice is currently litigating a similar case in Kentucky that challenges the state’s use of psychology-licensing statutes to regulate the speech of a newspaper advice columnist.

In June 2014, IJ scored a victory in the District of Columbia, where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the city’s tour-guide licensing scheme, finding that it was an unconstitutional infringement of tour guides’ free speech rights.

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25-year-old hot chocolate sends family to the emergency room

Some 1980s relics hold up better than others

Every year, Americans waste enormous quantities of perfectly good food (worth $115 billion annually, according to USDA estimates) due to the false belief t...

PhotoEvery year, Americans waste enormous quantities of perfectly good food (worth $115 billion annually, according to USDA estimates) due to the false belief that as soon as a canned or dried product reaches its “expiration” or “best by” date, it's immediately gone bad and must be discarded.

Even organizations whose primary focus is on keeping bad and gone-bad food out of people's diets have started noticing the issue of food waste caused by erroneous fear of bad food; last August two safety inspectors writing on the USDA blog published an article explaining how to tell when certain “out of date” foods were still safe to eat.

So packaged foods don't necessarily go bad as soon as they hit their best-by date — but that doesn't mean they never go bad. A family in Italy discovered this the hard way, when they had to be hospitalized after drinking hot chocolate made from 25-year-old mix.

The Local.it offers an English translation of an Italian-language news article which first appeared in Corriere del Veneto (Venetian Courier): an unidentified woman from Vicenza made hot chocolate for her son and two grandchildren (aged 8 and 12), and also had a cup herself. But the cocoa packets had expired in 1990, and the entire family, along with the woman's partner, ended up in the emergency room.

Although it was an accident, and the grandmother drank some of the chocolate herself, Corriere del Veneto says that she has been charged with causing injury.

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FDA to hold two-day public hearings on homeopathic product regulation

Can 18th-century medical theories withstand 21st-century scrutiny?

The Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that it will be hosting a two-day public hearing late in April, on the topic of homeopathic product re...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that it will be hosting a two-day public hearing late in April, on the topic of homeopathic product regulation.

The purpose of this hearing, as explained on the FDA's website, is “to obtain information and comments from stakeholders about the current use of human drug and biological products labeled as homeopathic, as well as the Agency’s regulatory framework for such products.”

The hearing will take place April 20 and 21 at the FDA's White Oak Campus in Silver Spring, Maryland (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), though the agency will also host a live webcast of the event.

The FDA's online compliance manual offers this capsule summary of the subject:

The term "homeopathy" is derived from the Greek words homeo (similar) and pathos (suffering or disease). The first basic principles of homeopathy were formulated by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700's. The practice of homeopathy is based on the belief that disease symptoms can be cured by small doses of substances which produce similar symptoms in healthy people.

To be fair: such an idea sounded plausible in the 1700s, before humanity discovered the germ theory of disease in the 1860s.

And given the abysmally ignorant state of medical knowledge in the 1700s – some of the official bloodletting prescriptions of the time called for draining more blood out of the patient than a typical adult human body actually contains – it's true that in those days, getting no medical treatment at all (or taking a placebo) was often a better option than seeking official medical attention.

Science has advanced

But medical science has advanced considerably since the 1700s, while homeopathy has remained the same. Homeopaths claim that diluting substances in water actually makes those substances more potent, and that water can “remember” and maintain the qualities of substances once diluted in it. If you inspect the ingredients label of a homeopathic product, you’ll see the “active” ingredients are usually measured in C units: “This ingredient 6C,” “that ingredient 30C,” and so forth.

They’re not talking about temperature measured in Celsius; the C in homeopathy stands for “centesimal,” which is another way of saying “dilute to one part in a hundred.”

Suppose you have a shotglass full of whiskey and want to dilute/strengthen it according to homeopathic principles. If you combine one drop of whiskey with 99 drops of water, you'll get 1C whiskey, which is 99 percent water and 1 percent whiskey.

Combining one drop of 1C whiskey with 99 drops of water results in 2C whiskey, which is 99.99 percent water and 0.01 percent whiskey. One drop of 2C added to 99 drops of water makes 3C, which is water containing 0.0001 percent whiskey, and so on.

Once you reach 12C you crash against the physical barrier of Avogadro’s limit, which means that your 12C whiskey probably doesn’t contain even a single molecule of alcohol. Yet, if the homeopathic “dilution increases strength” idea were true, drinking a glass of that 12C water should give you a much stronger alcoholic buzz than a glass of undiluted whiskey, and a glass of 200C water would presumably make you pass out from booze intoxication even though you never downed a singledrop of alcohol.

Not remotely funny

While the thought of someone watering down alcoholic beverages in hope of increasing their potency might be worth a laugh or two, there's nothing remotely funny about watering down otherwise-effective doses of medication – or, more likely, ignoring effective medical treatments altogether in lieu of drinking watery homeopathic quack-juice. Either choice can lead to disastrous consequences.

Earlier this month, Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) completed an extensive review of previous studies on homeopathic remedies, yet “found no good quality, well-designed studies with enough participants to support the idea that homeopathy works better than a placebo, or causes health improvements equal to those of another treatment.” Though there are studies claiming efficacy for various homeopathic remedies, a closer look revealed “the quality of those studies was assessed as being small and/or of poor quality. These studies had either too few participants, poor design, poor conduct and or reporting to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness of homeopathy.”

It is no exaggeration to say that a glass of tap water from a random American public water supply probably contains higher levels of active medical ingredients than any bottle of “homeopathic medicine” on the market, especially homeopathic medicine rated 12C or higher. Consider this: back in 2008, the Associated Press published the results of a five-month investigation showing that the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans contain traces of pharmaceutical products.

A vast array of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows.

To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe.

Chances are those utilities are right: medicines — even outright poisons — won’t affect you when taken in such vanishingly small amounts. The AP discovered traces of contraceptives in the public water supplies of multiple municipalities where children continued to be conceived and born even though every woman (and man) in town took daily doses of homeopathic hormonal birth control pills.

Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission has gone after several marketers for making unsupported claims about homeopathic drugs. In 2010, the manufacturer of Cold MD, Germ MD and other products was fined $5.5 million on false advertising charges.

In October 2013, the FTC sued the maker of “HCG Platinum” diet products, which claimed to homeopathically make unwanted fat melt away.

That same month, a group of parents filed a class-action suit against another homeopathic producer, HomeoLab, claiming that it's “KidsRelief” brand homeopathic cold and flu remedies “are worthless, and HomeoLab unfairly, deceptively and unjustly enriches itself o[n] the backs of children to turn a corporate profit.”

Despite the claims of their supporters, consumers looking for effective healthcare should avoid all homeopathic medicines. In the best-case scenario, you’ll waste your money. In the worst-case scenario, you could die of what would have been an easily treatable illness, had you relied on 21st-century medical knowledge rather than believed the guesses of an 18th-century German who lived and died too early to even know that viruses cause the common cold.

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Dietitians pull "Kids Eat Right" seal from Kraft Singles

Rank-and-file dietitians had a meltdown over the apparent endorsement

You won't be seeing the "Kids Eat Right" seal on Kraft Singles cheese packages after all. Oh wait -- you will be seeing it but only for a few months. That'...

PhotoYou won't be seeing the "Kids Eat Right" seal on Kraft Singles cheese packages after all. Oh wait -- you will be seeing it but only for a few months. That's because dietitians have successfully petitioned their own organization to withdraw the seal, saying it makes it look like dietitians are endorsing the cheesy product.

Earlier this month, it was announced that the Academy of Nutrition and Diatetics had agreed to put the "Kids Eat Right" logo on the cheese packages as part of an effort to raise awareness about kids not getting enough calcium and Vitamin D. 

But rank and file dietitians developed a bad case of indigestion and started a petition demanding the deal be ditched. 

Now Kraft and the Academy say that because of "misperceptions," the agreement has been terminated. However, the seal will be showing up on cheese packages that have already been printed.

Neither side is discussing the finances of the defunct arrangement, if any.

The Academy hasn't issued a public statement but sent a letter to its members apologizing for the misstep, Consumerist reported. 

 

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Tangling with hairballs

Hairballs happen but there are ways to keep them manageable

Cats and hairballs are a given and they can be scary. They can have some pretty rough consequences such as intestinal blockages, which can be a serious he...

PhotoCats and hairballs are a given and they can be scary.  They can have some pretty rough consequences such as intestinal blockages, which can be a serious health problem for your cat. The upside of it is you probably have a cat that likes to be clean. Very clean for the most part because they keep grooming themselves.

What happens is as your cat licks himself or herself clean the tiny hook like structures on their tongue catch all the dead and loose hair and they swallow it. Usually most of the hair goes right through the digestive tract. Some of the hair will stay in the stomach and it can form what we call a hairball.

You would think this nice little ball of fur would come out in a round form, but no, that's not the way it goes down ... or up I should say. The cat will eventually vomit the hairball to get rid of it. Because hairballs pass through the narrow esophagus on the way out, they often appear thin and tubelike, rather than round.

When your cat was a kitten you most likely weren't dealing with hairball issues and that's because as a cat grows older it becomes more adept at grooming itself.

Not a pleasant sound

When you hear your cat in the middle of a hairball episode it can be tempting to perform the Heimlich maneuver on them. It's a discomforting sound. But like a person that chokes, once they finally get it up it's all over except for the cleaning-up part that you get to do.

If you notice the following hairball symptoms, be sure to contact your veterinarian, as they could indicate that a hairball has caused a potentially life-threatening blockage:

  • Ongoing vomiting, gagging, retching, or hacking without producing a hairball;
  • Lack of appetite;
  • Lethargy;
  • Constipation; or
  • Diarrhea

You can't really stop hairball episodes from happening but you can do some things in order to keep them manageable.

Do your part in grooming so your cat doesn't feel the need to do as much. Combing or brushing your cat on a daily basis is an easy and effective way to minimize hairballs.

 

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Denver, Miami and Dallas pace increase in home prices

The rate of increase, however, is slowing

Home prices continued their rise across the country over the 12 months ending in January, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. At the sa...

PhotoHome prices continued their rise across the country over the 12 months ending in January, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

 

At the same time, though, monthly data reveal slowing increases and seasonal weakness.

 

Year-over-year

 

Both the 10-City and 20-City Composites saw year-over-year increases, with the 10-City Composite up 4.4% and the 20-City Composite gaining 4.6%. The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which covers all 9 U.S. census divisions, recorded a 4.5% annual gain in January.

 

Denver and Miami reported the highest year-over-year gains, as prices increased by 8.4% and 8.3%, respectively. Fourteen cities reported higher price increases in the year ended January 2015 over the year ended December 2014.

 

Chicago led the way with a reported increase of 2.5% -- up 11 basis points from December. Six cities reported declines, with San Francisco leading the declining annual returns with a reported rate of 7.9%, compared with 9.4% annually.

 

"The combination of low interest rates and strong consumer confidence based on solid job growth, cheap oil and low inflation continue to support further increases in home prices" says David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee for S&P Dow Jones Indices. "Regional patterns in recent months continue: strength in the west and southwest paced by Denver and Dallas with results ahead of the national index in the California cities, the Pacific Northwest and Las Vegas. The northeast and Midwest are mostly weaker than the national index.”

 

Month-over-month

 

The news wasn't quite as good on a month-over-month basis. The National index declined for the fifth consecutive month in January, reporting a -0.1%. Both the 10- and 20-City Composites reported virtually flat month-over-month changes.

 

Of the 9 cities that reported increases, Charlotte, Miami, and San Diego led all cities in January with increases of 0.7%. San Francisco reported the largest decrease of all 20 cities -- -0.9%. Seattle and Washington, D.C., reported decreases of -0.5%. Unusually cold and wet weather may have weakened activity in some cities.

 

"Despite price gains, the housing market faces some difficulties”, said Blitzer. “Home prices are rising roughly twice as fast as wages, putting pressure on potential home buyers and heightening the risk that any uptick in interest rates could be a major setback.

 

He also pointed out that the new home sector is weak. “Residential construction is still below its pre-crisis peak,” he said. “Any time before 2008 that housing starts were as low as the current rate of one million, the economy was in a recession."

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Consumers hit the stores for Easter goodies

Candy and new spring apparel top shoppers' lists

With Easter just days away, 80% of consumers are eagerly looking forward to a fun, family-filled holiday, according to the National Retail Federation’s Eas...

PhotoWith Easter just days away, 80% of consumers are eagerly looking forward to a fun, family-filled holiday, according to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Easter Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics.

 

The survey found that the average person celebrating Easter will spend $140.62 -- slightly more than last year’s $137.46. Total spending for Easter, which includes purchases of apparel, decorations, gifts, candy, food, flowers and more, is expected to reach $16.4 billion.

 

“Easter will be the perfect segue into spring for both consumers and retailers who have longed for warmer weather for quite some time,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “As one of the busiest times of year for several retail sectors and as shelves begin filling with both traditional spring and holiday merchandise, retailers are looking forward to welcoming shoppers with attractive promotions on home goods, garden equipment and traditional Easter items.”

 

New duds

 

Consumers, the survey says, will use Easter as the perfect opportunity to spruce up their spring wardrobes, with 45% of those celebrating buying clothing -- spending more than $2.9 billion on bright colored apparel items for themselves and their families.

 

However, more people plan to buy food for the holiday: 85.7% will purchase food for a family meal or other festivity, spending more than $5.3 billion on Easter fare.

 

Children and sweet-toothed adults will also purchase candy this Easter: 87.1% of those celebrating say they will buy candy, spending more than $2.2 billion on jelly beans, chocolate bunnies and flavorful chick-shaped Peeps.

 

Consumers this holiday will also spend $2.4 billion on gifts, $1.1 billion on flowers, $998 million on decorations and $695 million on greeting cards.

 

Where we shop

 

With a laundry list of items to buy, 58.6% will head to discount stores to purchase their holiday merchandise. Another 40.7 will shop at department stores, while 23.8% plan to shop at a local or small business. Additionally, 21.8% will head to a specialty store like a florist or jewelry store and 18.8 percent will shop online.

 

Busy Easter shoppers will take advantage of their mobile devices to help them find meal items, gifts, candy and more. According to the survey, 21.4% of those who own smartphones and are planning to celebrate Easter will use their phone to research products and/or compare prices, and another 13.5% will purchase items with their smartphone.

 

Nearly one-quarter (24.9%) of tablet owners will research products and/or compare prices for their Easter needs on tablets; 16.6% will purchase something via their tablet.

 

What we're doing

 

For the first time, NRF asked consumers about the activities they are planning for Easter Sunday, and the survey found many of the traditional aspects of the holiday will be in play this year. Nearly 6 in 10 (57.4%) plan to visit friends and family, half (50.8%) will go to church and 12.9% plan to open gifts.

 

Not forgetting the little ones, 3 in 10 (30.9%) adults will plan a special Easter egg hunt for the children in their lives. Additionally, 15% of those celebrating will opt out of doing dishes and head to a restaurant to celebrate the holiday and 24.1% will surf the Web throughout the day.

 

“Easter remains a beloved affair for consumers young and old, and this year it looks like families are ready to dig into their budgets to make the most of the special day,” said Prosper’s Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow. “The warm weather should help fuel some interest in celebrations, especially given the record-breaking winter much of the country experienced the last several months.”

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Feds bounce bad-check collectors

Debt collectors used threats of arrest to intimidate borrowers

A debt collection agency that threatened to have consumers arrested for bouncing checks will pay $50,000 in penalties if a proposed settlement with the Con...

PhotoA debt collection agency that threatened to have consumers arrested for bouncing checks will pay $50,000 in penalties if a proposed settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is approved by a federal district court.

The National Corrective Group used deceptive threats of criminal prosecution and jail time in order to intimidate consumers into paying debts for bounced checks. The company also misled consumers into believing that they must enroll in a costly financial education program to avoid criminal charges.

“National Corrective Group masqueraded as prosecutors and used deceptive tactics to intimidate consumers into paying hundreds of dollars in extra fees to avoid potential criminal prosecution,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today we are taking action to put a stop to these illegal debt collection practices.”

The CFPB’s proposed order names National Corrective Group, a privately-held, California-based corporation that operates nationwide and specializes in the collection of consumer debt for bounced checks, and several affiliated companies. Together, these companies operate one of the largest bad check diversion programs in the United States.

The CFPB alleges that National Corrective Group deceived consumers by sending them notices on prosecutors’ letterheads and creating the false impression that consumers may be prosecuted for writing bounced checks. However, the letters went to consumers before any district attorney had determined prosecution was likely.

Consumers were told by the company that to qualify for the diversion program and avoid prosecution they must pay the bounced check debts as well as enroll in the company’s financial education class for an additional fee. The cost of the financial education classes were typically around $200, which was often several times the amount of the alleged bad check debt.

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Need more time to prepare your tax return? Get it now

But you still need to pay up on time

With just over 2 weeks to go before the federal tax-filing deadline, a lot of folks are beginning to realize they are nowhere near ready to send in the ret...

PhotoWith just over 2 weeks to go before the federal tax-filing deadline, a lot of folks are beginning to realize they are nowhere near ready to send in their returns.

 

Not a problem, says the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The tax agency says it's actually easy to get more time; in fact, it can even be done online.

 

Chill out

 

If you haven’t yet filed, the IRS has this advice: Don’t panic. Taxpayers who need more time to complete their tax return can request an automatic 6-month extension.

 

The fastest and easiest way to get the extra time is through the Free File link on IRS.gov. In a matter of minutes, anyone, regardless of income, can use this free service to request an extension on Form 4868.

 

Filing this form gives you until Oct. 15 to file a return. To get the extension, taxpayers must estimate their tax liability on this form and should also pay any amount due.

 

No free pass

 

The IRS stresses that a request for an extension will give extra time to file a tax return -- not extra time to pay any taxes owed. By filing either a regular tax return or requesting an extension by the April 15 filing deadline, taxpayers will avoid a stiff penalty -- the late-filing penalty. Taxpayers should file even if they can’t pay the full amount of taxes they owe.

 

The late-filing penalty, normally 5% per month based on the unpaid tax balance, applies to returns filed after the April 15 filing deadline. In addition, any payment made with an extension request will reduce or eliminate interest and late-payment penalties that apply to payments made after April 15.

 

The interest rate is currently 3% per year, compounded daily, and the late-payment penalty is normally 0.5% per month.

 

No need to ask

 

Some taxpayers get more time to file without having to ask for an extension. These include:

 

  • Taxpayers abroad. U.S. citizens and resident aliens who live and work abroad, as well as members of the military on duty outside the U.S., have until June 15 to file. Tax payments are still due April 15.
  • Members of the military and others serving in Afghanistan or other combat zone localities. Typically, taxpayers can wait until at least 180 days after they leave the combat zone to file returns and pay any taxes due. For details, see Extensions of Deadlines in Publication 3, Armed Forces’ Tax Guide.
  • People affected by certain recent natural disasters.
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BMW recalls various convertibles

The driver's front air bag deployment timing may be incorrect

BMW of North America is recalling 2,067 model year 2015 428i Convertible, 428i xDrive Convertible, 435i Convertible, and 435i xDrive Convertible vehicles m...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 2,067 model year 2015 428i Convertible, 428i xDrive Convertible, 435i Convertible, and 435i xDrive Convertible vehicles manufactured October 22, 2014, to February 27, 2015.

 

Due to a programming error, the driver's front air bag deployment timing may be incorrect, posing an increased risk of personal injury in the event of a vehicle crash.

 

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will reprogram the air bag control module with corrected software version, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in April 2015.

 

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

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Yaris vehicles sold in Puerto Rico recalled

The roof headliner may not provide the proper occupant protection

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 16,582 model year 2012-2015 Yaris vehicles manufactured August 31, 2011, to February 9, 2015, and sol...

Photo
Photo source: Toyota

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 16,582 model year 2012-2015 Yaris vehicles manufactured August 31, 2011, to February 9, 2015, and sold in Puerto Rico.

 

The recalled vehicles may have been manufactured with a roof headliner that does not provide the proper occupant protection in the event of a crash. This could increase the risk of occupant injury in the event of a crash.

 

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will replace the headliner, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in mid-April 2015.

 

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

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Aurora Products expands recall of walnut and trail mix products

The products may contain Salmonella

Aurora Products is expanding its earlier nationwide recall of certain lots of natural walnuts and trail mixes containing walnuts. The products may contain...

PhotoAurora Products is expanding its earlier nationwide recall of certain lots of natural walnuts and trail mixes containing walnuts.

 

The products may contain Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The recalled products were distributed through retail stores nationwide and in Canada and Bermuda.

 

Private label products that use store branded labeling include: America Choice, Belmont Market, Boiceville Market, Gaul’s Market, Green Hills Market, Harvest Co – Op Market, Hurley Ridge, Lees, Miles Market, Palmers Market, Union Market, Walter Stewart , Windfall Market and Wild Acorns.

 

The recalled products are listed below:

America Choice Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts12 oz. Plastic Pouch7548077904910/29/15 – 12/7/15
Cranberry Health Mix12 oz. Plastic Pouch7548077904610/30/15 – 12/13/15
 

Belmont Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup6558520058510/30/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts20 oz. Plastic Tub6558520034011/4/15 – 12/13/15
5 K Omega Trail Mix10 oz. Plastic Cup6558520070311/3/15 – 11/16/15
 

Boiceville Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520024311/10/15 – 12/10/15
 

Citarella Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup7908450594910/30/15 – 12/19/15
Cranberry Health MixBulkNO UPC10/30/15 – 12/13/15
 

Food Emporium Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
6 – Section Nut Tray Assortment26 oz. Plastic Tray0111907901211/6/15 – 12/10/15
4 – Section Nut Tray Assortment13 oz. Plastic Tray0111907901111/6/15 – 12/10/15
Cranberry Health Mix7.5 oz. Gift Bag0111907904410/30/15 – 12/13/15
Raisin Nut Party Mix7.5 oz. Gift Bag0111907905011/10/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts6.5 oz. Gift Bag0111907904211/4/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts20 oz. Plastic Tub0111907909511/4/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts20 oz. Plastic Tub0111907903911/10/15 – 12/10/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup0111907901010/30/15 – 12/19/15
Walnuts14.0 oz. Plastic Tub0111907909610/29/15 – 12/7/15
Walnuts12.0 oz. Plastic Pouch7229745100410/29/15 – 12/7/15
 

Gaul’s Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup6558520058510/30/15 – 12/13/15
Raisin Nut Party Mix11.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009411/10/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520024311/10/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520008411/4/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts20 oz. Plastic Tub6558520034011/4/15 – 12/13/15
 

Gourmet Garage Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup7908450593110/29/15 – 12/7/15
Walnuts14.0 oz. Plastic Tub7908450537110/29/15 – 12/7/15
Roasted Mixed Nuts with sea salt

9 oz. Plastic Cup

7908450592211/4/15 – 12/19/15
Roasted Mixed Nuts No Salt

9 oz. Plastic Cup

7908450601011/10/15 – 12/19/15
Roasted Salted Mixed Nuts Deluxe

9 oz. Plastic Cup

7908450594511/18/15 – 12/19/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts with sea salt20 oz. Plastic Tub7908450584211/4/15 – 12/19/15
San Fernando Sunshine Mix

11 oz. Plastic Cup

7908450593611/10/15 – 12/19/15
5 K Omega Trail Mix10 oz. Plastic Cup7908450594711/3/15 – 12/19/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup7908450594910/30/15 – 12/19/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup7908450560310/30/15 – 12/19/15
 

Green Hills Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup6558520058510/30/15 – 12/13/15
 

Harvest Co – Op Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Raisin Nut Party Mix11.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009411/10/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520024311/10/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520008411/4/15 – 12/13/15
 

Hurley Ridge Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Walnuts12 oz. Plastic Pouch6558520031610/29/15 – 12/7/15
Raisin Nut Party Mix11.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009411/10/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520024311/10/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520008411/4/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup6558520058510/30/15 – 12/13/15
 

Lees Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup6558520058510/30/15 – 12/13/15
 

Miles Market Brand Products (Bermuda)

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
 

Palmers Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520008411/4/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520024311/10/15 – 12/10/15
 

Union Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
5 K Omega Trail Mix10 oz. Plastic Cup6558520070311/3/15 – 11/16/15
 

Walter Stewart Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts14.0 oz. Plastic Tub6558520007010/29/15 – 12/7/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520024311/10/15 – 12/10/15
 

Windfall Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
 

Wild Acorns Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup8195740107510/29/15 – 12/7/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup8195740105211/4/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup8195740104011/10/15 – 12/10/15
Raisin Nut Party Mix11.0 oz. Plastic Cup8195740103111/10/15 – 12/10/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup8195740102510/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix16.0 oz. Plastic Pouch8195740111410/30/15 – 12/13/15
 

Wild By Nature Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558527028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558527008411/4/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558527024311/10/15 – 12/10/15
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558527009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Consumers who have the recalled products should not eat them, but destroy them or return them to the place of purchase.

Customers with questions may contact Aurora Products at (800)-898-1048 between 9:00AM – 5:00 PM EST Monday – Friday.

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Toyota recalls vehicles with power steering issues

The electric power steering system could fail

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 110,085 model year 2015 Camry, Camry Hybrid, Highlander, and Highlander Hybrid, and 2014-2015 Rav4 ve...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 110,085 model year 2015 Camry, Camry Hybrid, Highlander, and Highlander Hybrid, and 2014-2015 Rav4 vehicles.

 

A component of the electric power steering (EPS) electronic control unit (ECU) may have been damaged during the manufacturing process. Over time, this damage may result in failure of the electric power steering system, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the serial number of the EPS ECU or steering column assembly. If the number is within the affected range, the EPS ECU will be replaced, free of charge.

 

The recall is expected to begin in April 2015. Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331.

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Wall Street "consumer advocates" -- for real or gaming the system?

Watchdog group says Wall Street is unfairly profiting from some supposedly pro-consumer efforts

Conventional wisdom holds that it is selfless, civic minded non-profit groups that take on businesses that abuse consumers. And in many cases, it is....

PhotoConventional wisdom holds that it is selfless, civic minded non-profit groups that take on businesses that abuse consumers. And in many cases, it is.

But what are we to make of the Wall Street-connected individuals who recently have taken on large, publicly traded corporations and just happen to have a financial stake in the corporations' comeuppance? Are their efforts to be encouraged?

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a D.C. watchdog group, says they are not. And in some cases, the group argues, these efforts may be illegal.

“First it was Steve Eisman working over the Department of Education while he shorted the stocks of for-profit colleges and now it’s William Ackman ginning up a federal investigation into Herbalife to make good on a billion dollar bet against the company,” said CREW Interim Executive Director Anne Weismann.

Shorting a stock

Weismann is talking about a common practice on Wall Street. “Shorting” a stock is when a trader borrows shares of a stock from a broker and sells them, depositing the proceeds in an account. At a point in the future, the trader then purchases the same number of shares and gives them back to the broker.

If the share price has declined since the time the trader “shorted” the stock to the time he “covered” the short, the trader makes money. For example, if the trader shorted 1000 shares and the stock price declined $10 a share, the trader makes $10,000.

Traders short a stock when they have good reason to believe its price will do down in the future. CREW said some large Wall Street players are pressing consumer issues before regulators and legislators to make sure the share price of the company in question – the company whose stock they are shorting – goes down.

'Unprecedented lengths'

According to CREW, Ackman and his hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital Management, have gone to “unprecedented lengths” to urge federal regulators to crack down on Herbalife, claiming it is a pyramid scheme that preys on mostly minority consumers.

While Ackman may be completely sincere in his attacks on Herbal Life – attacks the company has vehemently denied – CREW says the fact that his company stands to make money if Herbalife's stock price suffers, makes his attacks highly suspect.

CREW said it has obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that show Ackman’s lawyer regularly contacted Lois Greisman, the Associate Director of the Division of Marketing Practices at the FTC, with emails attaching articles and blog posts critical of Herbalife, many the group argues, which appear to be part of an orchestrated campaign.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Ackman late last week revealed one of the contractors working with him on the Herbalife campaign has been subpoenaed by federal investigators looking into possible market manipulation of Herbalife stock.

Other cases

And Herbalife is just one instance, the group says. It maintains that in 2011 U.S. regulators cracked down on for-profit colleges owned by publicly traded corporations largely at the bidding of investors who were shorting those stocks.

In 2012 CREW says a prominent short seller pressed the FDA not to approve a new drug by a biotech firm after taking a significant short position in the company stock.

“Many Americans already believe Wall Street is a rigged game,” Weismann said. “Watching billionaire hedge fund managers get richer by instigating government action can only lead to further decreased confidence in the country’s financial markets and government leaders.”

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GNC agrees to "landmark reforms" for herbal supplements

Deal follows NY investigation which found most supplements didn't contain the listed ingredients

GNC has agreed to implement new standards to authenticate the ingredients of herbal supplements, ensure their purity and educate consumers about their cont...

PhotoGNC has agreed to implement new standards to authenticate the ingredients of herbal supplements, ensure their purity and educate consumers about their content.

The agreement with New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman follows a study by the AG's office that found the majority of supplements being sold by GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart did not contain the ingredients they claimed. 

Under today’s agreement, GNC will perform DNA barcoding on the “active” plant ingredients used in its products; implement testing for contamination with allergens, both before and after production; and post prominent signage advising consumers of the processed, chemical nature of extracts.

GNC will be required to implement these new procedures in all of its more than 6,000 stores nationwide, making this agreement the first in the nation to require testing standards for herbal supplements that exceed current FDA requirements.

“When consumers take an herbal supplement, they should be able to do so with full knowledge of what is in that product and confidence that every precaution was taken to ensure its authenticity and purity,” said Schneiderman. “When it comes to consumer health, we expect companies to reach a high safety bar. ... I urge all herbal supplements manufacturers and retailers to join GNC in working with my office to increase transparency and put the safety of their customers first.”

Contamination in herbal supplements could pose a significant danger to those who have food allergies or take medication – and there have been a number of examples of supplements endangering consumer safety. A 2013 outbreak of hepatitis that struck at least 72 people in 16 states was traced to a tainted supplement. Last October, an infant at a Connecticut hospital died when doctors gave the child a popular probiotic supplement that was later found to be contaminated with yeast.

Authenticity and purity

Last month's study failed to detect identifiable genetic material for the plants depicted on the labels in most of the four retailers’ herbal supplement products. The study further detected DNA associated with plants not listed on the labels, as well as the presence of potential allergens.

In launching his investigation, the Attorney General raised concerns about the measures put in place by manufacturers and retailers to ensure the authenticity and purity of herbal supplements – which are taken by more than half of all American adults – and the sufficiency of federal standards regulating this $60 billion worldwide industry.

Earlier this month, joined by the Connecticut and Indiana state attorneys general and the Puerto Rico Secretary of Consumer Affairs, Schneiderman formed a coalition to further investigate the business practices of the herbal supplement industry.

Federal standards fall short

While the Attorney General’s study found that GNC’s herbal supplements were produced in compliance with FDA regulations requiring the use of current good manufacturing practices, the investigation raised questions regarding the sufficiency of those requirements in relation to state consumer protection laws.

For instance, the FDA does not mandate the use of DNA-based technologies, like barcoding, to authenticate herbal supplements. Instead, the FDA allows companies to support their claims through other methodologies.

Given the existence of chemically-similar natural or synthetic substitutes, the Attorney General’s Office remains concerned that these alternate methodologies do not provide adequate assurances of the authenticity of herbal supplements. Current FDA regulations allow for low levels of inadvertent contamination, including from allergens, and there is no federal testing required to confirm that contamination falls below relevant safety thresholds.

DNA barcoding is a technique used to authenticate organic materials using unique reference sequences of DNA, which holds great promise as a scientific technique for the verification of plant species. GNC will commit to implementing this procedure during herbal supplement production, enhancing other aspects of its operations, and leading the industry to adopt the same standards, as follows:

“This agreement provides stronger consumer protections for these GNC supplements and highlights the relative weak federal standards," said Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, whose office is part of the multistate coalition. "Hopefully this will lead others in the supplement industry to follow suit and encourage the FDA to review the existing national standards that are currently in place that has resulted in attorneys general making efforts to ensure better consumer protections for dietary and herbal supplements."

 

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Mr. Transmission not always in sync with consumers' expectations

Complaints include free estimates that get expensive, repairs that don't stay in gear

Mr. Transmission sounds like a place that would really be top-level experts when it comes to transmissions. Or maybe it sounds like just another franchise ...

PhotoMr. Transmission sounds like a place that would really be filled with top-level experts when it comes to transmissions. Or maybe it sounds like just another franchise operation whose local outlets vary widely in the quality of the service they deliver. 

Which of those descriptions sounds accurate to you? Before you form an opinion, you may want to consider the experiences of some consumers who've taken their cars to one of the Mr. Transmission outlets.

Brenda of Newport News, Va., drove into a Mr. Transmission but is wishing she had hit reverse instead:

"Free" estimates

Besides the problem of repairs that seem to slip out of gear, there's the matter of estimates and diagnoses. 

Some consumers say they were promised a free estimate but wound up with big bills and no repairs. 

"Went in for free estimate," a Nashville consumer wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. "Madison Mr. Transmission called later saying it would be $3,900 to fix my car (which is worth only $2,700) or I could pay them $595 to pick up my car NOT repaired. I said I was coming to pick it up and was not paying them because of the FREE ESTIMATE and they said they would have me arrested for theft of services."

Morgan of Charlotte, N.C., had a similar experience.

"They told me the diagnostic was free and that I would only pay anything if I choose to put my transmission back in the car. ... Now they are threatening to keep my car unless I get work done with them," Morgan said. "I advised them that I don't want to have to file suit. They told me to take them to court."

If you suspect you may need transmission service sometime soon, it would pay you to review the reviews on our site and others carefully. While the idea of a franchise is that service is standardized, that's not always the case. Reading through the reviews you will find that some locations come up with many more negative reviews than others.

It's probably a good idea to keep it in neutral until you have shopped around a bit. A good starting point is to find a service center that displays the ASE shield, indicating that its technicians and mechanics have been certified by the National Institute for Automative Service Excellence. That's a more reliable credential than any franchise logo.   

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Student loan debt may be worse than we thought

Educator argues for increased financial literacy for college students

What we know about student loan debt is sobering enough. "The average student loan debt for a U.S. graduate of the Class of 2013 was $28,400, according to...

What we know about student loan debt is sobering enough.

"The average student loan debt for a U.S. graduate of the Class of 2013 was $28,400, according to the Project on Student Debt," said Deborah Figart of the School of Education, at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. "Each month, young adults are burdened with 25% to 30% or more of their net pay dedicated to student loan debt."

The total outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. has now surpassed $1.2 trillion. A September 2014 report by the credit bureau Experian found student loans in the U.S. had surged 84% since the Great Recession, with more than 40 million consumers having at least 1 student loan.

It's a debt burden that many recent graduates – and especially those who left school before graduating – cannot easily bear. In its Project on Student Debt, the Institute for College Access & Success reports that more than 650,000 federal student loan borrowers who began repaying their loans in 2011 had defaulted by 2013. The institute reported that students who attended for-profit colleges had a much higher average default rate than other types of schools: 19.1%, compared to 7.2% at nonprofit colleges.

Horror stories

Behind those statistics are specific horror stories. Figart says she has heard from graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in interest-accruing debt but are earning minimal wages. She's heard from law school graduates who can't get a license to practice, despite passing the necessary bar exams, because of a bad credit record.

She says there are restaurant school graduates hoping to become chefs but earning a fraction of what they owe for their degree peeling potatoes.

While the Experian report shows 40 million consumers with at least 1 student loan, Figart says the reality is actually worse. She says the average student has around 8 to 10 loans and the total student debt far outweighs the nation's total credit card bills.

Solution?

The answer, Figart says, is giving prospective college students full and transparent advice before they take out loans for an education that will follow them from campus to the workplace. She says the federal "Know Before You Owe Private Student Loan Act" does not go far enough in several ways and so also fails to protect students from debt.

Figart has taught financial and economic literacy to students and teachers, covering subjects related to budgeting and consumer debt. And, while some states require courses to include a component related to budgeting and finance, she contends too many students are "falling through the cracks."

The solution? Figart says students must be counseled in topics like loan repayment options, average salaries for a wide range of jobs, suggested debt-to-income ratios, and the likely consequences of defaulting on loan repayments.

"In an economy where job security and job quality are increasingly elusive, students pursue higher education as an investment, not simply a means of personal fulfillment," she said. While financial counseling may dash the dreams of some or at least postpone those dreams, it could nevertheless save thousands of students from a fate worse than debt.”

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Grow up -- or, how to plant vertically

You can save space and make plain walls and fences more attractive

​Space is a big consideration when you decide you want to plant fruits and vegetables. When deciding, you may see rows of tomatoes in your head or raised b...

PhotoSpace is a big consideration when you decide you want to plant fruits and vegetables. When deciding, you may see rows of tomatoes in your head or raised boxes with green peppers. But it just doesn't seem feasible in your yard. You might be thinking there just isn't enough room. In this case you just have to think outside the box and grow up.

Planting vertically can be an option. In fact you don't have to be out of room to plant this way. It's a wonderful way to cover those cement brick walls of your house. Envision this lush, greenery winding on the side of your house with pollinator-friendly flowers.

You can kill a bird with two stones. Of course dead birds aren't what we are after, but you will cover unattractive cement and be helping the environment at the same time. Living walls transform unused space into gardens where small fruits, vegetables and herbs can thrive. In the summer it can help with the air conditioning bill and in the winter it will help prevent heat loss. It's an extra form of insulation.

Trellis or ropes is an old school method for creating beautiful climbing gardens. There is a new generation of wall systems. They come equipped with water recycling methods as well as custom containers. They are a little bit more complex than the old standby of trellises but they offer convenience because they are so much easier to maintain.

Box planting doesn't have to be sitting in your yard. Areas that are no more than 3 feet by 3 feet are perfect for smaller living wall systems like a framed small box system. You are framing nature in a box. Utilizing growing capabilities on a wall or door can be easier to tackle for a newbie grower so you won't become overwhelmed.

Unless you decide weeding is the perfect therapy, it's just not the highlight of gardening and with wall gardening there is no tilling or weeding necessary. A pocket vertical gardening system can cover the same amount of ground with half of the work. Watering is easier as well and you won't need to use as much water because the water will drip down thus covering your plants in one fell swoop.

Fences work too

Fences can be another area that lacks a little luster and you can brighten them up with vertical plants. Most garden designs along walls feature ground plantings or shrubs with little or no vertical eye appeal. Growing hundreds of flowers or ornamental edible vegetable plants along large stretches of outdoor fencing can be an amazingly beautiful addition to a garden.

There is a buzz about wall gardens when you plant with bees in mind for pollinating. The pollinator movements concern is for food safety. Planting mostly with flowers to make it a haven for bees and other pollinators is important. 

If you are inspired to try a different type of gardening and just not quite sure how to climb the wall, check out these books:

"The Vertical Garden" by Patrick Blanc or a new book by Shawna Coronado  "Grow a Living Wall" . 

Hopefully things will be looking up with your new adventure.

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Hackers breach British Airways frequent flyer accounts

Customer accounts temporarily frozen while BA sorts out the mess

Frequent flyers take note: on Sunday, British Airways confirmed that hackers had managed to successfully breach tens of thousands of the airline's frequent...

PhotoFrequent flyers take note: on Sunday, British Airways confirmed that hackers had managed to successfully breach tens of thousands of the airline's frequent flyer accounts.

Although the company says that the hackers were not able to view anyone's personal information, it has frozen everyone's accounts in the meanwhile, which means that even if your account remains unaffected by hackers, you still won't be able to see or use any of your earned miles for the duration.

A company spokesperson said in a statement that: “British Airways has become aware of some unauthorised activity in relation to a small number of frequent-flyer executive club accounts. This appears to have been the result of a third party using information obtained elsewhere on the internet, via an automated process, to try to gain access to some accounts.... we are not aware of any access to any subsequent information pages within accounts, including travel histories or payment-card details.”

The Guardian, reporting on the hacking, did not offer additional specific details but did say that, while it's not known who was behind this latest hacking, it's believed that the hacker or hackers used an automatic computer program to search for vulnerabilities in British Airways' online security systems.

BA's sfreqent flyer system is expected to be back up and running in a day or two.

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Solid gains in Midwest, West push pending home sales up in February

The Pending Home Sales Index is at its highest level since last June

Pending home sales in February shot to their highest level in 8 months as solid gains in the Midwest and West offset small declines in the Northeast and So...

PhotoPending home sales shot to their highest level in 8 months in February as solid gains in the Midwest and West offset small declines in the Northeast and South.

 

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says its Pending Home Sales Index -- a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings -- rose 3.1% to 106.9 last month -- and is now 12.0% above February 2014 level.

 

The index is also at its highest level since June 2013, has increased year-over-year for 6 consecutive months and is above 100 -- considered an average level of activity -- for the 10th straight month.

 

Growing demand

 

Demand appears to be strengthening heading into the spring buying season. “Pending sales showed solid gains last month, driven by a steadily-improving labor market, mortgage rates hovering around 4% and the likelihood of more renters looking to hedge against increasing rents,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “These factors bode well for the prospect of an uptick in sales in coming months. However, the underlying obstacle -- especially for first-time buyers -- continues to be the depressed level of homes available for sale.”

 

According to the NAR’s monthly Realtors Confidence Index, the percent share of first-time buyers increased slightly in February for the first time since November 2014 -- up to 29% from% percent in January.

 

“Several markets remain highly-competitive due to supply pressures, and realtors are reporting severe shortages of move-in ready and available properties in lower price ranges,” adds Yun. “The return of first-time buyers this year will depend on how quickly inventory shows up in the market.”

 

Activity by region

 

  • The PHSI in the Northeast fell 2.3% to 81.7 in February, but is 4.1% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index surged 11.6% to 110.4, and is now 13.8% above February 2014.
  • Pending home sales in the South dipped 1.4% to an index of 120.2, but still shows a year-over-year gain of 10.8%.
  • The index in the West climbed 6.6% last month to 102.1, the highest since June and 18.3% above a year ago.

 

A look ahead

 

Total existing-homes sales this year are forecast to be around 5.25 million, according to the NAR, an increase of 6.4% from 2014. The national median existing-home price for all of this year is expected to rise by about 5.6%.

 

Existing-home sales declined 2.9% in 2014, while prices rose 5.7%.

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A February increase in personal incomes and spending

Consumers also tucked more money into their savings accounts

Consumers had more money in their pockets in February, which led to an increase in personal outlays. The Commerce Department reports personal income rose ...

PhotoConsumers had more money in their pockets in February, which led to an increase in personal outlays.

 

The Commerce Department reports personal income rose $58.6 billion, or 0.4% the third increase in a row. Disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- increased $54.2 billion, or 0.4%.

 

Personal consumption expenditures (PCE), or consumer spending, inched up 0.1% or $11.8 billion -- or 0.1% -- the first increase in 3 months.

 

Wages and salaries

 

Wages and salaries were up $23.9 billion in February, less than half of January's increase of $47.3 billion. Private wages and salaries made up $21.9 billion of that , while government compensation came to $2.1 billion. Pay raises for federal civilian personnel added an additional $0.6 billion.

 

Personal outlays and saving

 

Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments – rose $14.2 billion last month after falling $25.4 billion in January.

 

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was up more than $40 billion from January -- to $768.6 billion. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of DPI -- was 5.8%, compared with 5.5% the month before.

 

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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General Motors recalls Buick Encore and Chevrolet Trax vehicles

The vehicles could experience a sudden loss of electric power steering assist

General Motors is recalling 2,295 model year 2015 Buick Encore vehicles manufactured November 27, 2014, to February 24, 2015, and 2015 Chevrolet Trax vehic...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 2,295 model year 2015 Buick Encore vehicles manufactured November 27, 2014, to February 24, 2015, and 2015 Chevrolet Trax vehicles manufactured November 18, 2014, to February 17, 2015.

 

The steering column assembly housing may contact the power steering printed circuit board causing the circuit board to wear. The circuit board wear may cause a sudden loss of electric power steering assist, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the steering column assembly, as necessary, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Buick customer service at 1-800-521-7300 or Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 15168.

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Toyota recalls Rav4 EV vehicles

The vehicle could lose drive power

Toyota Motor Engineering & manufacturing is recalling 2,497 model year 2012-2014 Rav4 EV vehicles manufactured July 24, 2012, to August 29, 2014. Due to...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & manufacturing is recalling 2,497 model year 2012-2014 Rav4 EV vehicles manufactured July 24, 2012, to August 29, 2014.

 

Due to a software issue within a component of the Electric Vehicle Traction Motor Assembly, the electric propulsion motor may shift to "neutral" resulting in a possible loss of drive power. A loss of drive power may increase the risk of a crash.

 

Toyota will notify owners beginning in April 2015. The remedy is still under development, but will be provided free of charge.

 

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

 

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

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How to tell if you are at risk for type 2 diabetes

American Diabetes Association introduces app to help answer that question

As Americans have become increasingly overweight and obese, there has been an explosion in the cases of type 2 diabetes. Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 is ...

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File photo

As Americans have become increasingly overweight and obese, there has been an explosion in the cases of type 2 diabetes. Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 is largely tied to lifestyle risk factors.

In 2014 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated 29.1 million people – 9.3% of the U.S. population – had diabetes, a chronic condition that affects the way your body metabolizes sugar, or glucose.

Type 2 was once most common in adults – typically older adults – but the Mayo Clinic reports that it has increasingly begun to affect large numbers of children. The disease is managed through insulin drugs, as well as by eating well, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight.

In addition to the growing number of diabetes cases, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) estimates another 86 million American adults probably have prediabetes, meaning their blood sugar levels are higher than normal. More disturbing, the group says about 8 million Americans may have the disease and not know it.

Risk factors

How do you know if you or your child is at risk of developing type 2 diabetes? Being obese and living a sedentary lifestyle are 2 significant risk factors.

The ADA has developed a Diabetes Risk Test, an online app that allows users to measure their risks of developing the disease. The quiz asks users to answer short questions about weight, age, family history and other potential risk factors for diabetes.

PhotoThe results are compiled into a numerical score that indicate either a low or high risk for developing type 2 diabetes. If the results suggest a high risk, the ADA urges you to speak with a health care provider to learn more about ways to either reduce the risk or delay the onset of the disease.

“Awareness is crucial in the effort to stop Diabetes,” said David Marrero, an executive at ADA. “We’re asking the public to take It. Share it. Step out. Take one minute to take the risk test today, share it with your loved ones and get started getting active by getting involved in your local Step Out event. The Diabetes Risk Test can be the first step in knowing your risk and helping us get closer to our vision of a life free of diabetes and all of its burdens.”

Primary risk factors

Doctors say you are most at risk of developing type 2 diabetes if you are overweight, sedentary, over the age of 45 and have a family history of diabetes. African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are at an increased risk, as are women who have had gestational diabetes or had babies weighing more than nine pounds at birth.

Symptoms

How do you know if you have the disease? Symptoms can include blurred vision, excessive thirst and frequent urination. The problem is, these symptoms may not show up at the onset of the disease.

ADA is trying to close what it sees as a diagnosis gap, getting treatment to patients earlier in the disease and heading off dangerous complicaitons, like heart disease, blindness, kidney disease, stroke, amputation and even death.

The group cites studies showing type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed by losing just 7% of body weight, regular physical activity and healthy eating.

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March Madness spurs vasectomies

It's the perfect reason to lie around and watch the action

March Madness has turned into a marketing bonanza for urologists. In the last few years, all across the country urologists have reported increases of as mu...

PhotoMarch Madness has turned into a marketing bonanza for urologists. In the last few years, all across the country urologists have reported increases of as much as 50 percent in the number of vasectomies scheduled in the days leading to the NCAA tournament.

Men have figured a way to take a four-day vacation that permits them to sit on the couch and eat pizza and nobody can ask them to lift anything.

It's a marketer's dream.  You could say it's cutting edge. Many urologists offer discounts during the tourney along with extended hours. They offer gift packs like T-shirts, food, sports memorabilia and even ice bags with your favorite team’s logo. That's pretty hard to turn down.

During last year's tournament, the Urology Associates of Cape Cod lured patients with pizza coupons and an ad featuring the tag line "Want to watch college basketball guilt-free?"

This year, a urology group in Austin, Texas, is sponsoring a "It's Hip to Get Snipped" Vas Madness promotion that includes extended office hours during games ("much less crowded than a sports bar" says one ad), continuous TV coverage in the lobby, free snacks, a pledge to have patients "ready for love" by the postseason and the icing on the cake: official doctor's orders prescribing three days on the couch.

Snip City

Many people credit the seemingly odd concept to the Oregon Urology Institute which ran a “Snip City” radio ad in the late ’00s, encouraging men to have a little “snip-snip,” followed by “doctor’s orders to sit back and watch nonstop basketball.”

A vasectomy involves cutting and sealing the tubes in the reproductive system that carry sperm.  According to the Mayo Clinic, the surgery takes only about 15 to 20 minutes, but men are advised to limit their activity afterwards, and rest for one to two days.  Many men schedule the procedure on a Thursday or Friday so they can have the weekend to relax.

Vasectomies are the fourth most popular form of birth control, behind condoms, hormonal methods and tubal ligation, according to the American Urological Association.

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Studies suggest distracted driving getting worse

But not all distractions are related to cellphones

Two new studies of highway accidents and driver behavior are shedding new light on distracted driving, in particular on the part of young drivers....

PhotoTwo new studies of highway accidents and driver behavior are shedding new light on distracted driving, in particular on the part of young drivers.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that distracted driving was a contributing factor in nearly 60% of moderate-to-serious crashes involving teen drivers.

This was something of a surprise since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had previously estimated that distracted driving contributed to only 14% of accidents involving teen-age drivers.

According to the study drivers were seen engaging in some type of potentially distracting behavior leading up to 58% of all crashes that were examined. Two distractions played the biggest roles: in 14.9% of the crashes the driver got distracted while attending to a passenger. In 11.9% of the accidents, he or she was using a cell phone.

Cell phone use was significantly more likely in cases where the vehicle left the road. Overall, males and females were equally likely to be engaged in potentially distracting behavior. However, females were more likely than males to have been using a cell phone, engaged in personal grooming, or singing or dancing to music prior to the crash.

Driver behavior

A second study, sponsored by Erie Insurance, also points to a wide range of distracting behaviors behind the wheel that have the potential to lead to traffic accidents. To gather its data the study asked subjects whether they engaged in certain behaviors.

Besides the obvious phone distractions of texting and talking, other distractions people admitted to ranged from public displays of affection to personal grooming to taking selfies.

"A distraction is anything that causes a driver to take their eyes off the road, their hands off the wheel, or their mind off their primary task of driving safely," said Doug Smith, senior vice president of personal lines at Erie Insurance. "Our survey found drivers unfortunately are engaging in a wide range of distracting and potentially dangerous behaviors."

Non cellphone distractions

For example, 15% admitted to engaging in a romantic encounter, with public displays of affection, with someone while driving. An equal number admitted to combing or styling their hair while behind the wheel.

Believe it or not 9% said they had changed clothes while driving. Eight percent said they had put on make-up and 4% said they had flossed or brushed their teeth while driving.

Amazingly, 3% said they, as a driver, had changed positions with a passenger while underway.

Other distractions showing up in the survey include putting in contact lenses or eye drops; curling eyelashes; scratching off lottery tickets; and even playing the guitar while driving.

Regional difference

When it comes to texting behind the wheel, there appears to be pronounced regional differences. Drivers in the south are most likely to text while driving, with 35% admitting to having done it. However, only 24% of drivers in the northeast admit to texting behind the wheel.

Overall, the Erie survey suggests texting and driving remains a significant problem, with 30% of drivers saying they've done it and 75% saying they have seen other drivers do it.

The survey found that texting while driving also remains a serious problem, with about one-third of drivers saying they themselves have done it and three-quarters saying they've seen others do it.

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Court shuts down company that calls itself "FTC Credit Solutions"

The company markets credit repair services to Spanish-speaking consumers

"FTC Credit Solutions" sounds pretty official, like something affiliated with the government. And that, says the Federal Trade Commission, commonly known a...

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The business didn't get many good reviews on Yelp

"FTC Credit Solutions" sounds pretty official, like something affiliated with the government. And that, says the Federal Trade Commission, commonly known as the FTC, is exactly the problem.

At the FTC's request, a federal court has issued a temporary restraining order, closing the company down and seizing its assets.

The FTC alleges that defendants deceived Hispanic consumers in the Los Angeles area by claiming to be affiliated with or licensed by the Federal Trade Commission, falsely promising that they could remove negative information from consumers’ credit reports, and guaranteeing consumers a credit score of 700 or above within six months or less.

"Peddling lies"

“Peddling lies under the name of the Federal Trade Commission to target consumers who are in difficult financial situations is appalling,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “This scam used the promise of a fresh start to hurt consumers when they most needed help, so we are pleased the court has taken a first step to ending it for good.”

The FTC’s complaint quotes a radio advertisement hosted by defendant Guillermo Leyes, in which he falsely stated that FTC Credit Solutions had a license from the FTC. 

According to the FTC’s filings, in undercover calls placed to the company by FTC investigators posing as consumers seeking debt repair services, defendant Maria Bernal, an employee of the company, said that the company “works under the Federal Trade Commission, which is a law that was signed by the President in 2010.” She also falsely promised that the company could “delete” and “get [the investigator] a pardon” for $19,000 in debt.

The FTC further alleges that the company unlawfully charged consumers fees in advance of providing the promised credit repair services.  The company also sent the major credit bureaus letters with false information on behalf of numerous consumers.

 

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Data plan paradox: overage-alert warnings might hurt consumers, not help them

University study suggests alerts cost consumers money in the long run

If you're a cell phone customer with a limited data plan, getting notifications when you're about to exceed your data limits should help you save money in ...

PhotoIf you're a cell phone customer with a limited data plan, getting notifications when you're about to exceed your data limits should help you save money in the long run, right?

A recent study from faculty at the University of Toronto and Boston College suggests that, paradoxically, the exact opposite might apply. Customers who received alerts to avoid “bill shock” (from unexpected charges) spent, on average, $33 per month more on their phone plans than customers who received no such messages:

…. such warnings can be more costly, because cellphone companies adjust their plans and fees accordingly to maintain profits. While some consumers do benefit, others either decrease or stop usage, end up with more expensive plans or continue to underestimate their usage and choose the wrong plan.

Matthew Osborne, a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and Michael Grubb, a professor at Boston College, co-wrote the study, which is published in a recent issue of American Economic Review. The two professors reached their conclusion after they analyzed billing data from a group of student cellphone customers between 2002 and 2004.

Granted, the cell phone market has changed considerably in the decade-plus since that data was first generated, and it's also possible that the behavior of student cell phone customers might not necessarily apply to cell phone customers as a whole.

Even so, the researchers say, verification tests suggest that bill shock alerts can still result in higher bills for customers – which in turn suggests that policies hoping to help customers by requiring such alert notices might paradoxically have the exact opposite effect.

“Perhaps a better avenue is policy that helps consumers do a better job of forecasting their usage,” Osborne said.

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Radio Shack's customer lists may be up for sale

The retailer's bankruptcy puts confidential data at risk

You may not have been following the Perils of Pauline decline and fall of Radio Shack as it struggles through the final stages of bankruptcy but there's on...

PhotoYou may not have been following the Perils of Pauline decline and fall of Radio Shack as it struggles through the final stages of bankruptcy but there's one element worth noting: if you've been a Radio Shack customer, your data may be among the assets being sold off.

Radio Shack has about 13 million customer emails in its files as well as the names and addresses of about 65 million customers. It may also have information on those customers' shopping habits, interests and preferences -- data that has quite a bit of value to marketers who covet such information.

But not everyone thinks that data should be for sale to the highest bidder or to anyone else, among them several state attorneys general.

“When a company collects private customer data on the condition that it will not be resold, it is the company’s responsibility to uphold their end of the bargain,” said New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. “My office will continue to monitor Radio Shack’s bankruptcy sale and whether it includes auctioning off private customer data. We are committed to taking appropriate action to protect New York consumers.”

The company’s privacy policy currently states that:

“We will not sell or rent your personally identifiable information to anyone at any time.

We will not use any personal information beyond what is necessary to assist us in delivering to you the services you have requested.

We may send personally identifiable information about you to other organizations when: We have your consent to share the information (you will be provided the opportunity to opt-out if you desire).”  - RadioShack Privacy Policy, 3/25/2015

"Direct violation"

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton added a warning that selling the information could be not only wrong but downright illegal.

"RadioShack gave customers explicit assurances it would not sell their personal information, and that company’s attempts to sell this data would not only be a direct violation of the terms of its own privacy policies, but also a clear violation of Texas law. We will vigorously fight to protect consumers’ personally identifiable information," Paxton said.

At last count, 30 states had weighed in to warn Radio Shack to do the right thing ... or else.

At the moment, hedge fund Standard General appears to be the "winner" in the bidding for Radio Shack's assets. It has said it will try to keep about 1,740 stores open in conjunction with Sprint, which would operate some of the stores.

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Doorway pull-up bar can come loose, class action charges

The lawsuit claims the bar can throw the user to the floor

A class action lawsuit claims a doorway pull-up bar sold by Implus sporting goods can detach from the door frame, throwing the exerciser to the ground....

A class action lawsuit claims a doorway pull-up bar sold by Implus sporting goods can detach from the door frame, throwing the exerciser to the ground.

Lead plaintiff Matthew Weininger claims that "top leverage doorway bars" are defectively designed and can injure or kill users.

The bars are installed over the top of a doorframe and allegedly use the exerciser's weight to keep the bar in place as the bar pushes against the wall in both directions, Courthouse News Service reported.

Weininger says that, to maintain their grip on the door frame, the bars require the user to maintain a completely vertical position, something he says most people can't do since the body's natural inclination is for the legs to swing forward on the way up and backward on the way down.

This creates a "pendulum like effect" that can cause the bar to detach, Weininger argues.

He is represented by attorney Gene Stonebarger, of Folsom, Calif.

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A slowdown in the rate of economic growth

The fourth quarter was less than half of the pace set in the previous three months

The government's third estimate of fourth quarter real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S., adjus...

PhotoThe government's third estimate of fourth quarter real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S., adjusted for price changes -- is in and it looks just like the second estimate.

 

According to the Commerce Department, GDP increased at an annual rate of 2.2% -- the same reading we saw a month ago in the second estimate. By way of comparison, the economy grew at a 5.0% annual rate in the third quarter.

 

While there was no change in the bottom line, this latest estimate is based on more complete source data than were available last month. While there were larger increases in exports and in personal consumption expenditures (PCE) than previously estimated, the change in private inventories was smaller.

 

As a result, the general picture of the economy for the fourth quarter remains the same.

 

Additions and subtractions

 

The increase in real GDP in the fourth quarter reflected positive contributions from PCE, nonresidential fixed investment, exports, state and local government spending, and residential fixed investment. These were were partly offset by declines in federal government spending and private inventory investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

 

The deceleration in real GDP growth primarily reflected an upturn in imports, a downturn in federal government spending, a deceleration in nonresidential fixed investment, and a larger decrease in private inventory investment that were partly offset by accelerations in PCE and in state and local government spending.

 

For 2014 as a whole, real GDP increased 2.4% compared with an advance 2.2% in 2013.

 

Inflation

 

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, slipped 0.1% in the fourth quarter -- the same decrease as in the second estimate following a 1.4% increase in the third quarter.

 

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

 

Corporate Profits

 

Profits from current production plunged $30.4 billion in the fourth quarter, after soaring $64.5 billion in the third.

 

For all of 2014, corporate profits were down $17.1 billion; they rose $84.1 billion the year before.

 

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

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Viz Cattle recalls flap meat

The product does not list ingredients on the product label

Viz Cattle of Irvine, Calif., is recalling approximately 6,082 pounds of flap meat. While the product does not list ingredients on the label, it does no...

PhotoViz Cattle of Irvine, Calif., is recalling approximately 6,082 pounds of flap meat.

 

While the product does not list ingredients on the label, it does not contain any undeclared allergens or ingredients of public health concern.

 

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

 

The following flap meat beef product, produced between February 19 and February 26, 2015, and March 2 and March 4, 2015, is being recalled:

 

  • 30-lb. cardboard boxes containing “FLAP MEAT TB.”

 

The recalled product bears the shipping marks “MXLS0020” or “MXLS0014” and “TIF 120” inside the Mexican Mark of Inspection. They were shipped for institutional use to locations in California.

 

The problem was discovered during a routine label review when an inspector noticed that the product lacked an ingredient statement.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Edwin Botero at (310) 702-7319.

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La Terra Fina expands recall of products containing organic spinach

The products may be contaminated with Listeria

La Terra Fina is expanding its recall of products containing organic spinach to include these products that were manufactured on the same production equipm...

PhotoLa Terra Fina is expanding its recall of products containing organic spinach to include these products that were manufactured on the same production equipment on the same day as the product in the original recall.

 

The products may be contaminated with Listeria.

 

There have been no confirmed cases of illness in relation to these products.

 

The following recalled products were distributed to Costco stores in the Northwest, Midwest, Northeast and Southeast regions and Smart & Final stores along the West Coast only:

Product DescriptionItem #UPC CodeBest By DateRetailer Region
Spinach Artichoke & Parmesan Dip made with Greek Yogurt 31oz. tub3799036-40410-51338-94/14/15
4/20/15
Costco - NW Region
Chunky Spinach Artichoke & Parmesan Dip 31oz. tub4076006-40410-51193-43/31/15
4/5/15
4/29/15
Costco - MW, NE & SE Regions
Chunky Spinach Artichoke & Parmesan Dip 31oz. tub43001936-40410-51193-43/28/15
4/29/15
Smart & Final-West Coast

 

The "best by" date for each product can be found on the side of the container.

 

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

 

Consumers may contact La Terra Fina at 510-404-5889 between Monday and Friday, 8:30AM - 5PM PST.

 

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BMW recalls motorcycles with rear wheel issue

The rear wheel mounting flange may crack

BMW of North America is recalling 43,426 model year 2005-2010 R1200GS and R1200RT, 2006-2010 R1200GS Adventure, 2007-2010 R1200R, 2007 R1200S and K1200R Sp...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 43,426 model year 2005-2010 R1200GS and R1200RT, 2006-2010 R1200GS Adventure, 2007-2010 R1200R, 2007 R1200S and K1200R Sport, 2005-2007 R1200ST, 2008-2009 HP2 Megamoto, 2006 HP2 Enduro, 2008-2010 HP2 Sport, 2005-2008 K1200S, 2006-2008 K1200R, K1200GT, 2009-2011 K1300S, 2010-2011 K1300R, and 2009-2010 K1300GT motorcycles.

 

The rear wheel mounting flange may crack if the rear wheel mounting bolts are overtightened. This could loosen the mounting bolts and the rear wheel may not remain secured to the motorcycle, causing a loss of stability and increasing the risk of a crash.

 

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the existing aluminum rear wheel flange with a steel one, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin April 21, 2015.

 

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

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Specialized Bicycle Components recalls Aerobars

The bolt used to affix the Aerobars to the bicycle can loosen

Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling about 8,300 Aerobars bicycle handlebars. The bolt used to affix the Aerobars to the b...

PhotoSpecialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill, Calif., is recalling about 8,300 Aerobars bicycle handlebars.

 

The bolt used to affix the Aerobars to the bicycle can loosen, posing a fall hazard to the rider.

 

The firm has received 4 reports of the Aerobars bolt loosening. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves carbon and alloy Aerobars sold individually and with model years 2012 through 2015 Specialized Shiv bicycles and model year 2013 Specialized Transition Apex bicycles.

 

The carbon Aerobar was sold in black with a white Specialized logo on the top side of the handlebar, and the alloy model was sold in black with no markings.

 

The Aerobars, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at authorized Specialized Bicycle dealers nationwide and online at www.specialized.com from November 2011 to February 2015 for between $200 and $575.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled Aerobars and contact Specialized Bicycle Components to receive replacement extension mounting hardware.

 

Consumers may contact Specialized Bicycle Components at (800) 722-4423 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Scientists think saccharin could be a cancer-fighting tool

It may destroy harmful protein, making other cancer drugs more effective

In the 1960s, when American consumers first began to worry about their waistlines, food manufacturers started using more of the artificial sweetener saccha...

PhotoIn the 1960s, when American consumers first began to worry about their waistlines, food manufacturers started using more of the artificial sweetener saccharin, as a sugar substitute.

It wasn't long before scientists were issuing warnings. Saccharin, they said, was linked to bladder cancer in rats.

It turns out it wasn't, but it took about 30 years for other scientists to reach that conclusion. Today, saccharin is still a widely used artificial sweetener and now, in something of an irony, might turn out to be an effective weapon against some types of cancer.

In information presented this week at the American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting in Denver, researchers shared tantalizing findings that suggest this popular sugar substitute could potentially play a role in the development of drugs capable of combating aggressive, difficult-to-treat cancers with fewer side effects.

Untapped uses

“It never ceases to amaze me how a simple molecule, such as saccharin — something many people put in their coffee everyday — may have untapped uses, including as a possible lead compound to target aggressive cancers,” said Robert McKenna, of the University of Florida. “This result opens up the potential to develop a novel anti-cancer drug that is derived from a common condiment that could have a lasting impact on treating several cancers.”

Without getting too technical, the scientists working with saccharin found it binds to and deactivates a protein found some some of the more aggressive forms of cancer, such as in the breast, lung, liver, kidney, pancreas and brain.

The researchers believe a saccharin-based drug could slow the growth of these cancers and maybe make them less resistant to chemo or radiation therapies.

The destructive protein attacked by saccharine is very similar to other substances that the body needs to keep cells healthy. Previous drug candidates have all damaged the healthy proteins as well as the cancer-causing one.

Building on previous work

But in previous research, scientists at the University of Florence, Italy, discovered that saccharin inhibits the actions of the harmful protein but not the 14 other carbonic anhydrase proteins that are vital to human survival.

In other words, saccharine only attacks the harmful protein while ignoring the healthy ones.

Building on this finding, a team of researchers at Griffith University, Australia, created a compound in which a molecule of glucose was chemically linked to saccharin.

This small change turned out to have big effects. Not only did it reduce the amount of saccharin needed to inhibit the harmful protein, the compound was 1,000 times more likely to bind to the enzyme than saccharin.

Using X-ray crystallography, McKenna and his students Jenna Driscoll and Brian Mahon are investigating how saccharin-based compounds might be tweaked to enhance their anti-cancer treatment potential.

McKenna’s team is currently testing the effects of saccharin and saccharin-based compounds on breast and liver cancer cells. If successful, these experiments could lead to animal studies.

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Marchionne insists fire-prone Jeeps are safe; consumer questions safety of supposed fix

The hitches being installed to prevent fires are not suitable for towing

Older Jeep Grand Cherokees are not defective, even though 270 deaths have been attributed to fires caused by exploding gas tanks, according to Sergio March...

PhotoOlder Jeep Grand Cherokees are not defective, even though 270 deaths have been attributed to fires caused by exploding gas tanks, according to Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of FDA US LLC, the company that was once called Chrysler.

Marchionne testified earlier this week in the trial of a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the parents of Remi Walden, 4, killed when the family's 1999 Grand Cherokee burst into flames after it was rear-ended in 2012.

This has been Marchionne's position throughout the controversy surrounding older Jeep Cherokee and Liberty models that were built with the gas tank behind the rear axle, making it prone to damage in rear-end collisions. 

Way back in 2011, consumer crusader Ralph Nader called the Jeeps "a modern day Pinto for soccer moms with a fuel tank located dangerously behind the rear axle in the crush zone of an impact." The Pinto also had its fuel tank mounted behind the axle and was prone to fires in rear-end accidents.

Nader called on Chrysler to recall the Jeeps before more lives were lost but nothing was done. Chrysler denied the Jeeps were unsafe and federal safety regulators continued to study the issue. 

"Not an engineer"

Photo
Sergio Marchionne

In his videotaped testimony, Marchionne said he is "not an engineer" and had "no way of knowing" whether more recent Jeeps, with the gas tanks in front of the rear axle, are safer. 

Yet, although he is not an engineer, Marchionne negotiated a non-recall solution to the issue in a secret meeting with outgoing federal safety officials at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

As a result of that secret, off-the-record meeting, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) agreed to let Chrysler install trailer hitches on the affected Jeeps, the idea being that the hitch will protect the gas tanks from impacts, even though no engineering studies were presented to support that theory.

Safety advocates were furious.

"We call on NHTSA to do crash tests of Chrysler's proposed remedy, just as it did with Ford's proposed remedy for the Pinto in 1978, to determine that the modified Jeeps meet the present Safety Standard just as the Pinto's had to the meet the new Safety Standard in 1978," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. 

Instead, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood approved the deal and "retired," embarking on a lucrative career as a lobbyist and public affairs executive.

The hitch that isn't

The non-recall, meanwhile, has been going about as smoothly as the years-long effort to get Chrysler to take responsibility for the problem. Consumers have been complaining that dealers say they don't have the parts they need to make the modifications, even though the parts in question consist of a simple trailer hitch and even though Chrysler has been urging consumers to bring their Jeeps in promptly to have the hitch installed.

Consumers who do that and who pay attentiion may be surprised, however. We heard recently from a Jeep owner named Jeff who had the modification performed but isn't convinced it's much of a safety solution.

"A communication from Chrysler emphatically states that this assembly NOT be used for towing, since no wiring harness and/or other heavy-duty components are not included," Jeff said.

"This poses a few questions. One, why did the recall take so long to implement since we are using already designed stock parts? Two, if the towing package cannot be used, why not bolt on some structural steel and be done? Three, if a future owner doesn't know that the hitch is not to be used, what prevents him from using it and possibly damaging the vehicle?" he asked.

Good questions. 

Timeline of Jeep Cherokee Fire Scandal 
 

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Northern Arizona named top online college

School cited for affordability, flexibility and academic rigor

Once almost exclusively a feature of for-profit colleges, online degree programs have since flourished at non-profit private and public universities. As a ...

PhotoOnce almost exclusively a feature of for-profit colleges, online degree programs have since flourished at non-profit private and public universities. As a result, a college education has recently become more flexible and more affordable.

More flexible in that a college student can work full or part time while completing their degree from the comfort of their living room, doing the course work at any hour of the day or night.

Affordable, in that the competition between colleges and universities for online students has kept tuition hikes in check.

Ranking online schools

So which online college is best? There are any number of ratings services but BestCollegeReviews.com has just reviewed 400 online colleges and picked its top 25.

It used three criteria to measure the colleges and universities – criteria that consumers might also use in selecting a school.

First, the reviewers looked at affordability, measuring the average cost of attending one semester, taking 15 credit hours.

Second, they assessed flexibility, counting the number of bachelor's degree-granting programs students may enter. A secondary consideration – the flexibility with which students may obtain a degree.

Finally, the reviewers measured academic rigor and support, looking at the strength and reputation of the online program’s parent institution as well as the range of support services for online college students.

$2,500 per semester

When all was said in done, Northern Arizona University topped the list. It won praise for its 45 bachelor’s level degrees that can be completed entirely online.

It was also one of the most affordable schools on the list with an estimated per-semester cost of only $2,500. Students may take an unlimited number of courses online for a six month period. There are no lab or course fees, and all materials required by the courses are available online.

Arizona State University was second on the list. It's far from the least expensive school, but won praise for its 47 bachelor’s degree programs that are fully online. There are 80-plus programs when specializations and non-bachelor’s level programs are included.

Value for the money

Degree offerings are comprehensive, ranging from art, business, communications, culture, education, engineering, health, language, to STEM. There are 6 start dates available per year, allowing students to start on their degree when it works best for them. The $7672 per semester tuition is considered a good value for the education and flexibility it provides.

Granite State College places third on the list, with 29 fully online bachelor’s level degrees that may be completed at full-time, part-time, or accelerated rates. Program offerings are comprehensive, ranging from digital and social media, to nursing, to education. Its tuition is the 10th most affordable, coming in at $4,675 per semester.

Rounding out the top 10 are:

4. University of Central Florida

5. State University of New York

6. Oregon State University

7. American Public University System

8. Ft. Hayes State University

9. Pennsylvania State World Campus

10. Grand Canyon University

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A spot of tea for Spot

"Tea for Spot" is starting to show up in pet botiques

Tea for two and two for tea, one for my dog and one for me. That's not quite how the song goes but it's the dog version. A new beverage is on the market fo...

PhotoTea for two and two for tea, one for my dog and one for me. That's not quite how the song goes but it's the dog version. A new beverage is on the market for your dog and it’s full of natural ingredients -- veggies, whole grains, herbs and spices. It's quite simply tea for your dog.

Heather Norris, an entrepreneur, has developed a tea specifically for dogs. Yes for dogs. It's called "Tea For Spot.” This year at the Global Pet Expo in Orlando, it was named one of the “12 Hottest New Pet Products” by Dogster Magazine.

Tea For Spot is 100% caffeine-free, a proprietary blend of organic tea, herbs, spices and all-natural ingredients touted as safe and dog-friendly by nutritionists and holistic practitioners.

The tea comes in four different flavors -- Daily Brew, No Worries Mutt, Leaps & Bounds and Kissably Canine.  

“It’s been very well received,” Norris says. “Most of the health benefits of herbal remedies will transfer from humans to dogs. It’s really a matter of getting someone to take a chance and give it a try. The blends have a medicinal quality from a calming blend to ease anxiety, to joint and bone health for active dogs, to a good old fashioned freshener for when Fido’s breath has turned sour.

They all sound good, full of chamomile, Valerian Root and Tumeric to name a few. It's when you get to the bone meal that your palate goes from scrumptious to thinking, well, maybe the dog will like this.

“Tea For Spot” was a collaboration between friends. It started with Norris who is a tea lover herself and believes in the benefits that tea has to offer.

“One day in 2007, the idea of tea for dogs popped into my head. I started mixing up blends. But then, with the demands of life and family, the idea of tea for dogs was put aside, it sat. But I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she said, according to a report in the the Hamlet Hub

A few years later she met a friend and fellow dog lover who was searching for a business opportunity. Norris shared her idea and a cup of passion brewed a full blown pot of tea. They put their tea cups together and created in 2014 “Tea for Spot”. Norris showcased it at the 2015 Global Pet Expo to much enthusiasm and is pleased to see the cute little tins of dog tea that are starting to make their way into boutique pet stores across the country.

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Almost half of all Android OS devices vulnerable to “Android Installer Hijacking”

Major malware threat when downloading third-party apps

Bad news for Android phone users: security researchers at Palo Alto Networks have discovered a vulnerability they've dubbed “Android Installer Hijacking” i...

Bad news for Android phone users: security researchers at Palo Alto Networks have discovered a vulnerability they've dubbed “Android Installer Hijacking” in Google's Android operating systems, and even after the release of a security patch almost half of all Android handsets remain vulnerable to it.

The vulnerability seems to apply when you either download apps from third-party app stores, or click on ads from a mobile advertisement library. If you have an Android OS but have only ever downloaded apps from the official Google Play store, it appears you have nothing to worry about, at least where this particular threat is concerned.

According to Palo Alto researcher Zhi Xu, the vulnerability has been patched in Android versions 4.3_r0.9 and later, but devices with Android 4.3 remain vulnerable – which corresponds to roughly 49.9 percent of currently monitored handsets, according to Google estimates.

Xu wrote that Android Installer Hijacking is essentially a Time-Of-Check To Time-Of-Use vulnerability (TOCTTOU, pronounced “Tock Too”), which “allows an attacker to modify or replace a seemingly benign Android app with malware, without user knowledge.”

Switcharoo

TOCTTOU is basically the malware version of what pre-computer con artists might've called “the old switcharoo.” Basically, before an app can be installed, it must pass the permissions process: your phone's security program inspects the file to make sure it's valid. And it is, so the app gets permission to be installed on your device – except that in the nanosecond between “granting permission to the file” and “installing it,” TOCTTOU lets the hacker pull the old switcharoo, replacing the valid permission-granted file for a invalid and malware-riddled one.

So what happens if your phone falls for this particular TOCTTOU? Your standard malware-infection problems – in this instance, “full access to a compromised device, including usernames, passwords, and sensitive data,” according to Palo Alto.

If you have a device with an Android OS, and you've downloaded third-party apps (as opposed to apps acquired through the Google Play store), Palo Alto released a vulnerability scanner app in the Google Play store, and posted a tutorial video for it here.

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A bigger-than-expected drop in jobless claims

The total is well below the 300k level

A large decline in initial jobless claims sent the total well below the 300,000 level last week. Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) put the to...

PhotoA large decline in initial jobless claims sent the total well below the 300,000 level last week.

 

Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) put the total of first-time applications for state unemployment benefits at a seasonally adjusted 282,000 during the week ending March 21, down 9,000 from the previous week.

 

The consensus estimate of economists surveyed by Briefing.com was for a much smaller decline -- to 290,000.

 

The government says there were no special factors affecting this week's initial claims.

 

Bankrate.com Chief Washington Correspondent Mark Hamrick points out that the level of new claims for unemployment benefits has remained at a level underscoring that layoffs are not the chief irritant for the U.S. economy. “As hiring has accelerated over the past few years, we've seen a steady decline in the unemployment rate.” he said. “Despite some concern about another soft patch in the U.S. economy this winter, the level of jobless claims indicates the job market is remaining in largely the same trajectory as seen before.”

 

After 3 weeks above the 300,000 level, the 4-week moving average was down 7,750 -- to 297,000. The measure strips out the volatility found in the initial claims data, and is considered by analysts to be a more accurate gauge of the labor market.

 

The full report may be found on the DOL website.

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Proposal would require payday lenders to be sure borrowers could repay their loans

Feds say their proposal would plug "debt traps" that snare unwary consumers

Millions of consumers wind up in a cycle of debt when they're unable to repay their payday loans, car title loans nd other high-cost loans. The Consumer Fi...

PhotoMillions of consumers wind up in a cycle of debt when they're unable to repay their payday loans, car title loans nd other high-cost loans. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a proposal that it thinks would improve the situation.

The bureau is proposing rules that would require lenders to be sure consumers have the ability to repay their loans before loaning them the money. The proposed rule would also ban lenders from trying to raid consumers' bank accounts in ways that tend to rack up excessive fees. 

The proposed rules would apply to payday loans, vehicle title loans, deposit advance products, and certain high-cost installment loans and open-end loans.

“Today we are taking an important step toward ending the debt traps that plague millions of consumers across the country,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Too many short-term and longer-term loans are made based on a lender’s ability to collect and not on a borrower’s ability to repay. The proposals we are considering would require lenders to take steps to make sure consumers can pay back their loans. These common sense protections are aimed at ensuring that consumers have access to credit that helps, not harms them.”

Lenders not thrilled

Predictably, payday lenders aren't thrilled with the idea.

"Payday loans represent an important source of credit for millions of Americans who live from paycheck to paycheck," said Dennis Shaul, CEO of the Community Financial Services Association, an industry group, in a prepared statement. "The traditional banking system alone does not adequately serve 24 million underbanked households, according to the FDIC. More than 19 million households choose to use payday loans each year for their credit needs."

Consumer advocates, on the other hand, praised the proposals.

“The evidence shows that payday loans are easy to get into and hard to get out of,” said Tom Feltner, director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.  “An objective assessment of a borrower’s ability to repay a loan based on their income and expenses promises to end the financial hardship that inevitably follows abusive lending.”

The CFPB said it is publishing an outline of its proposals today in preparation for convening a Small Business Review Panel to gather feedback from small lenders, which is the next step in the rulemaking process.

Vulnerable consumers

The proposals under consideration cover both short-term and longer-term credit products that are often marketed heavily to financially vulnerable consumers.

The CFPB said it recognizes consumers’ need for affordable credit but is concerned that the practices often associated with these products – such as failure to underwrite for affordable payments, repeatedly rolling over or refinancing loans, holding a security interest in a vehicle as collateral, accessing the consumer’s account for repayment, and performing costly withdrawal attempts – can trap consumers in debt. These debt traps also can leave consumers vulnerable to deposit account fees and closures, vehicle repossession, and other financial difficulties.

The proposals under consideration provide two different approaches to eliminating debt traps – prevention and protection. Under the prevention requirements, lenders would have to determine at the outset of each loan that the consumer is not taking on unaffordable debt.

Under the protection requirements, lenders would have to comply with various restrictions designed to ensure that consumers can affordably repay their debt. Lenders could choose which set of requirements to follow. 

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Twin City Foods recalls various spinach products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Twin City Foods of Stanwood, Wash., is recalling the following spinach products, which may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes: Cadia Organic Cut ...

PhotoTwin City Foods of Stanwood, Wash., is recalling the following spinach products, which may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes:

  • Cadia Organic Cut Spinach, 16 oz. frozen packages; UPC 15369 01165; Package code: 23424; Product distributed only in California
  • Meijer Organics Chopped Spinach, 16 oz. frozen packages; UPC 41250 02362; Package code: BEST BY FEB 2017 50415; Distributed to warehouses in Mich., Ohio, and Wis.
  • Wild Harvest Organic Cut Leaf Spinach, 16 oz. frozen packages; UPC 11535 50170; Package code: SELL BY 08.DEC.2016 L084WE, Distributed to warehouses in Ariz., Calif., and Wash. Package code: SELL BY 22.JAN.2017 A225WE, Distributed to warehouses in Pa., and Va. Package code: SELL BY 30.JAN.2017 A305WE, Distributed to warehouses in Del., Maine, Pa., and Va. Package code: SELL BY 04.MAR.2017 C045WE, Distributed to warehouses in Maine and Pa.
  • Wegmans Organic Just Picked Spinach, 12 oz. frozen packages; UPC 77890 32932;Package code: BEST USED BY JAN.26.2017 50265, Distributed to warehouses in N.Y., and Pa. Package code: BEST USED BY FEB.02.2017 50335, Distributed to warehouses in N.Y., and Pa.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

Consumers who purchased the affected products should not consume them and immediately return them to the store where purchased for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Mark Hubbard at (804) 385-3772 Monday through Friday, between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. ET, or by email at mhubbard@mwcllc.com.

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General Motors recalls model year 2011-2013 Volts

There could be a build up of carbon monoxide

General Motors is recalling 50,236 model year 2011-2013 Volts manufactured August 25, 2010, to June 26, 2013. If the driver exits the vehicle without tur...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 50,236 model year 2011-2013 Volts manufactured August 25, 2010, to June 26, 2013.

 

If the driver exits the vehicle without turning off the electrical system, the battery may drain low enough that the gasoline engine will automatically start itself to recharge the electric battery. If the engine runs for an extended period of time in an enclosed space, there may be a build up of carbon monoxide, increasing the risk of personal injury.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will update the engine management software to limit the time that the stationary vehicle can be left in the ON position, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 14617.

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Superior Foods recalls Simply Balanced frozen organic chopped spinach

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Superior Foods of Watsonville, Calif., is recalling 8,475 Cases Of Simply Balanced 10-oz packages of Frozen Organic Chopped Spinach. The product may be co...

PhotoSuperior Foods of Watsonville, Calif., is recalling 8,475 Cases Of Simply Balanced 10-oz packages of Frozen Organic Chopped Spinach.

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

The company says it is not aware of any illness complaints to date.

 

The following recalled product was sold by Target retail stores nationwide:

 

Simply Balanced Organic Chopped Spinach 10-oz steam in bag; DPCI # (Department, Class, Item.) 270-00-0663; UPC Code - 85239 00663;

 

Production Date Code and Best By Code:

  • 4360SF3 through 7 J1 Best By 26/06/2016;
  • 4360SF3 through 7 J2 Best By 26/06/2016
  • 5026SF4 through 8 J1 Best By 26/07/2016
  • 5026SF4 through 8 J2 Best By 26/07/2016
  • 5051SF2 through 4 J1 Best By 20/08/2016
  • 5051SF2 through 4 J2 Best By 20/08/2016

Consumers who have any of the product identified are urged to dispose it, or return it to the store where it was purchased for an exchange or full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may call 1-866-672-0811 Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

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Linon Home Decor Products recalls foldable wood patio chairs

The chair can unexpectedly tip over when a consumer sits on the edge of the seat

Linon Home Decor Products of Mineola, N.Y., is recalling about 3,300 foldable outdoor patio chairs. The chair can unexpectedly tip over when a consumer s...

PhotoLinon Home Decor Products of Mineola, N.Y., is recalling about 3,300 foldable outdoor patio chairs.

 

The chair can unexpectedly tip over when a consumer sits on the edge of the seat, posing a fall hazard.

 

The firm has received reports of 4 consumers who have fallen from tipped-over chairs, including 2 reports of minor injuries.

 

This recall involves foldable outdoor patio chairs sold individually and as a table and two chair bistro set. The teak stained wood chairs measure 22 inches wide by 36 inches tall and have spaced wood slats on the back and seat. The foldable table measures 28 inches round by 28 inches tall.

 

The chairs, manufactured in Vietnam, were sold at Bed Bath & Beyond, Daily Fair, Home Goods, Marshalls, Old Time Pottery and T.J. Maxx stores nationwide from February 2014, to February 2015, for about $30 for the chair and $150 for the set.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled folding chairs and return the product to the store where purchased for a full refund.

 

Consumers may contact Linon Home Decor Products at (800) 262-1852 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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Realtors see 'unsustainable' gap between rents and incomes

Industry says many will soon be unable to buy or rent

It's no secret that renting a home has gotten more expensive over the last six years. Even with millions of foreclosed properties snapped up by investors a...

PhotoIt's no secret that renting a home has gotten more expensive over the last six years. Even with millions of foreclosed properties snapped up by investors and turned into rentals, demand has outpaced supply, putting upward pressure on rents.

Since consumer income has been stagnant, or grown very little during that time, rents have grown less and less affordable.

“In the past five years, a typical rent rose 15% while the income of renters grew by only 11%,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR). “The gap has worsened in many areas as rents continue to climb and the accelerated pace of hiring has yet to give workers a meaningful bump in pay.”

New construction needed

NAR says it reviewed all the data on income growth, housing costs and changes in the share of renter and owner-occupied households over the past five years in metro areas across the U.S. Yun says the results show renters are being squeezed in many metro areas, including New York, Seattle and San Jose, Calif. He says the situation could get worse unless there is a meaningful increase in home construction.

More people are renting because they aren't buying. Though recent statistics show home sales are slowly rising, they are nowhere near the level they were before the housing market crash.

Yun says consumers who were financially able to buy a home in recent years were insulated from rising housing costs since most take out 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with established monthly payments. Their net worths have risen, albeit slightly, because of upticks in home values and declining mortgage balances.

“Meanwhile, current renters seeking relief and looking to buy are facing the same dilemma: home prices are rising much faster than their incomes,” said Yun. “With rents taking up a larger chunk of household incomes, it’s difficult for first-time buyers – especially in high-cost areas – to save for an adequate down payment.”

Declining inventories

In recent months the inventory of homes, both existing and new, has been on the decline. Not only are there fewer to choose from, even if you wanted to buy one, sellers have more leverage and can ask more for their property. Yun believes a building spurt could help both buyers and renters.

But home builders have been hesitant since the housing crash to add supply because of rising construction costs, limited access to credit from local lenders and concerns that there may not be that many younger buyers.

Yun estimates housing starts need to rise to 1.5 million, which is the historical average. However, housing starts have averaged about 766,000 per year over the past seven years. Still, he's hopeful builders will at least target those markets where rents have risen the fastest.

“Many of the metro areas that have experienced the highest rent increases are popular to millennials because of their employment opportunities,” said Yun. “With a stronger economy and labor market, it’s critical to increase housing starts for entry-level buyers or else many will face affordability issues if their incomes aren’t compensating for the gains in home prices.”

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License-plate readers: recording your everyday movements and adding them to the public record

ArsTechnica looked at Oakland's license plate scans, and knows what its residents are doing

You've known for years now about the ever-growing presence of license plate scanners that record and store the realtime movements of essentially all vehicl...

PhotoYou've known for years now about the ever-growing presence of license plate scanners that record and store the realtime movements of essentially all vehicles on public roadways where scanners are in use —either fixed-position scanners recording passersby on various roads, or roving scanners attached to police cars and other vehicles.

Perhaps you've even pondered the privacy implications of having all this information stored in a publicly accessible database, and wondered just how much personal information might be gleaned from these public records.

Cyrus Farivar from ArsTechnica wondered the same, and this week published the analysis of a public records request he'd filed with the city of Oakland, California, to see the results of the 33 automated license plate readers (LPRs) the police department operates throughout the city:

… we obtained the entire LPR dataset of the Oakland Police Department (OPD), including more than 4.6 million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December 23, 2010 and May 31, 2014. …

After analyzing this data with a custom-built visualization tool, Ars can definitively demonstrate the data's revelatory potential. Anyone in possession of enough data can often—but not always—make educated guesses about a target’s home or workplace, particularly when someone’s movements are consistent (as with a regular commute).

For instance, during a meeting with an Oakland city council member, Ars was able to accurately guess the block where the council member lives after less than a minute of research using his license plate data. ...

No detectives needed

Indeed, it doesn't require Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the address where a person's car is parked overnight every night just might be where that person lives, nor to figure out that the daytime address where the car goes every Monday through Friday might correspond to that person's place of employment.

But, for all the ways this might destroy the privacy of everyday innocent people, at least it could help catch a few criminals too, right?

A few criminals, yes. Very few:


LPR collection began in Oakland back in 2006, and an early OPD analysis showed that the overwhelming majority of the data collected was not a “hit.” In April 2008, the OPD reported to the city council that after using just four LPR units for 16 months, it had read 793,273 plates and had 2,012 hits—a “hit rate” of 0.2 percent. In other words, nearly all of the data collected by an LPR system concerns people not currently under suspicion.

Despite this, in that same report, then-OPD Deputy Chief Dave Kozicki (who has since retired) dubbed the LPR setup an “overwhelming success.” Today, OPD's LPR hit rate has fallen slightly, to just 0.16 percent.

The privacy-invading potential of license plate scanners has been an issue in California (among other states) for awhile now. Last May, California state senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) conducted an experiment to demonstrate the invasive potential of the scanners: he hired a private detective to track his wife's whereabouts and habits. The detective never had to actually “track” her; he merely paid to acquire her license plate records to get a record of where and when she drove and parked her car — including a particular gym 100 miles from her home.

Other public-record surveillance data is even more intrusive. A man in San Leandro filed a public-records request and learned that, in addition to more than 100 photos of his license plate in various locations, the public record also includes photographs of his daughters standing in their own driveway.

No escape

Realistically, there's no getting rid of the license plate scanners and other cheap, ubiquitous recording devices already blanketing the public sphere — they will only grow more numerous as the technology continues improving.

But it is possible to put legal limits on how much of this data police and other agencies can collect, or how long they can keep it. Earlier this month, for example, the Virginia State Senate voted unanimously to pass a bill which, if signed into law, would limit police to storing license plate scanner records for only seven days, unless there is an active criminal investigation.

In California there is no state limit, though some municipalities set limits of their own: Menlo Park holds data for 30 days, Los Angeles for two years. Oakland currently has no legal limit in place.

The vast amount of data ArsTechnica got from Oakland comes from just 33 license plate readers in a city covering 78 square miles. In other cities, license plate scanners are even more common. As early as 2011, there were over 250 scanners in Washington D.C. (68.3 square miles) and its immediate suburbs.

Public record

Since license plate scanner data is usually public information, that means anybody can access it, without a warrant. 

ArsTechnica, as part of its experiment with the Oakland records, searched for the license plate information for Howard Matis, a physicist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Sure enough, Ars was able to determine where Matis lived and worked, as well as a couple of locations where he and his wife frequently visited.

“If anyone can get this information, that’s getting into Big Brother,” Matis said. “If I was trying to look at what my spouse is doing, [I could]. To me, that is something that is kind of scary. Why do they allow people to release this without a law enforcement reason? Searching it or accessing the information should require a warrant.”

One answer to that is that public information belongs to the people. It is, after all, gathered by public employees using publicly-owned equipment, all at taxpayer expense. Journalists have fought for centuries to keep governments from locking up information that rightfully belongs to taxpayers. Rather than reverting to more secrecy, press freedom advocates suggest the government simply stop collecting the information. Failing that, they can emulate Virginia and keep it for only a short time.

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Mobile Technology: Changing the Landscape of Customer Care

Online retailers must develop user-friendly mobile apps to stay competitive

In October and December of 2014, 47 percent of online retail traffic stemmed from smartphones and tablets, according to Demandware. Consumers are turning t...

PhotoIn October and December of 2014, 47 percent of online retail traffic stemmed from smartphones and tablets, according to Demandware. Consumers are turning to new technologies to express product satisfaction, concerns or questions with major brands. Companies are developing high-tech methods to strategically track every step of the customer journey to stay competitive in the retail market.

As customers turn to their smartphones to make purchase decisions, online retailers need to develop user-friendly mobile apps to stay competitive. JackThreads, a leading retail website for men, understands the value of building relationships with consumers and is making it easy for people to engage with the customer service team. It is focusing on contextualizing customer service interactions on mobile apps as mobile traffic continues to grow.

Photo
Matthew D'Uva

Consumers want to interact with interesting, genuine people when they call into customer service departments, as well as receive respectful and calculated answers from brand representatives. JackThreads has matched their customer base with a diverse team of highly-trained people who are passionate about service and fashion. Throughout the customer service industry phone calls generally have an 86 percent resolution rate, in comparison to 44 percent rate via email and 27 percent via social media; companies need to empower associates to be confident and personable to all callers.

JackThreads encourages associates to help customers by keeping the tone of conversations lighthearted and respectful, as if the representative were talking to a friend. It is standard to hear associates speaking with callers about a recent ball game or read an online chat that has an emoji.

Businesses are creating a seamless customer experience through an omnichannel approach that engages multiple interfaces including apps, retail websites, social media and live chats. Today’s consumer uses any and all of these channels to engage when and where they want to; and they want an integrated experience so that, just to name one example, they can use the same rewards card whether they shop online, in a store or on the phone.

Although the phone is still the most dominant channel, with 75 percent of consumers still dialing in with questions and concerns, consumers are also using social media, chat functions and mobile devices to interact with customer care departments. To manage this expectation, companies are constantly developing creative outlets at an increased rate for customers to ask questions.

Mobile apps are expected to dominate the market in the upcoming years. JackThreads customers enjoy the easy shopping experience delivered on mobile devices through iOS and Android apps. As nearly 60 percent of our traffic comes from mobile sources, we ensure we are providing the same engagement for customers as in store.

Photo
Jason Rosser

According to extensive research, JackThreads customers who engage with representatives via live chat functions spend 80 percent more each year than those who don’t. This statistic serves as a motivator for businesses to improve their online and mobile communication skills to foster brand loyalty and repeat purchases.

It is imperative that brands increase engagement on preferred channels. Customer satisfaction is highest in live chat, so JackThreads quickly added mobile chat in their apps. Starting with iOS, companies need to continue to develop user friendly platforms on Android and mobile websites. Businesses also need to extend the hours their teams are available because consumers use their mobile devices later in the evening and weekends. Having chat functions in apps will bring brands even closer to customers and continues to build strong loyalties.

Successful companies have focused on contextually adjusting how customers get help by removing the friction and encouraging more engagement. By training representatives to give respectful and timely responses to users, and meeting the needs of consumers around the clock via mobile apps businesses will retain a loyal customer base.

Matching the rapidly changing technology trends can be a challenge for many companies. As technology continues to evolve quickly, the customer service landscape follows suit, meeting the needs of customers on an individual level.

--- 

Matthew D’Uva is president and CEO of SOCAP International, a leading association for customer care professionals from Fortune 1,000 companies.

Jason Rosser is the head of customer experience operations at JackThreads.

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Corporations embrace your values to make you like them

But shouldn't you be more focused on whether you like their products?

When Starbucks announced its “Race Together” campaign earlier this month, it was probably assumed that it would be great for business....

PhotoWhen Starbucks announced its “Race Together” campaign earlier this month, it was probably assumed that it would be great for business.

Baristas were encouraged to write “Race Together” on customers' cups and try to strike up conversations about racial issues in America. But this ended up embarrassing just about everyone involved.

A week later CEO Howard Shultz announced the end to the coffee klatch experiment but said the overall initiative was far from over.

“We have a number of planned Race Together activities in the weeks and months to come,” Shultz wrote in a memo to Starbucks employees.

Social media skeptics

But the campaign appeared to backfire on the Seattle based company. Some took to social media suggesting the company might start the race conversation in its own boardroom, pointing out the coffee company's senior executive team is mostly white and male. Others pointed out that Starbucks has almost no presence in areas with mostly minority populations.

While Starbucks may have suffered some embarrassment, it isn't the first corporation to pledge allegiance to what it perceives as its customer base's value system. Food businesses have been doing it for some time.

Restaurants now routinely brag that their food is “locally sourced,” purchased from local farmers and not from a huge agribusiness operation. It's hard for fast food restaurants to make that claim but Chipotle, from the beginning, has adopted a “food with integrity” mantra.

Food with integrity

“Food with integrity is our commitment to finding the very best ingredients, raised with respect for animals, the environment and farmers,” the company declares on its website.

Using quality, fresh ingredients should make the food taste good but good-tasting food almost isn't enough these days. Connecting with the values of the consumer is another way to solidify customer loyalty.

McDonald's became an empire when it figured out how to deliver the same food, prepared exactly the same way, tasting exactly the same, at countless locations across the U.S. That consistency has been a hallmark of McDonald's success. But now that food has become politically correct, consistency is not exactly a virtue.

McDonald's competitor Wendy's appears to be shifting toward the Chipotle model, as the recent commercial for its salad, seen below, suggests. It's not just that the salad tastes good, but where it comes from that's important.

Values, Attitudes, Lifestyles

The concept of a business trying to attract customers by adopting their values actually goes back about 3 decades. In 1978 the Stanford Research Institute developed Values, Attitudes and Lifestyles (VALS), a proprietary research methodology used for psychographic market breakdown. It was designed to help companies develop their products and services to appeal to the consumers most likely to purchase them.

In the past, consumers might purchase a product primarily because they perceived value in the product. Today, it seems companies believe their customers will buy their products and services simply because the business espouses the consumers' values.

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Don't plant these on your dog

There's a lot of poisonous stuff in and around your garden

Everybody wants to get out of the house in spring. It's warmer and while you are perhaps planting your garden your dog might be roaming around the yard. Th...

PhotoEverybody wants to get out of the house in spring. It's warmer and while you are perhaps planting your garden your dog might be roaming around the yard. There are some dangerous pitfalls to that.

Pets can be accidental casualties in the war against weeds and pests. Two of the top ten culprits in accidental poisonings -- insecticides and snail and slug bait -- are found in the garden. If you arm yourself with the knowledge you can help steer your pet away from any of the things that could harm them. 

Disulfoton is a class of pesticides. For the most part they have been taken off the market but you can still find them in some things like Ortho Rose Pride or other rose protection products. The issue with this is that dogs really like the taste because the stuff is mixed with fertilizers that contain blood and bone meal. They will chow down on it without a problem. It will make them extremely sick though.

It will cause vomiting diarrhea, seizures, and potentially death.

Another toxin dogs can get their paws on is rodent bait. It's another palate favorite. The problem with this is you won't see the effects from this for about 7 days. You have to catch them in the act to know they ate it.

Mulch madness

One culprit that causes a lot of problems that you might never suspect is mulch. The brown mulch is taken from a tree that is a cousin of chocolate. Pets that chew the mulch can get chocolate toxicity, possibly causing vomiting, diarrhea and potentially death.

Spring bulbs unfortunately can be toxic. So when you plant don't plant where your dog normally digs. They will just dig them up and wind up with stomach distress and choking.

Then there's slug and snail bait with metaldehyde. It can cause tremors, seizures, and even death. Use something else. Baits containing ferric phosphate are a less toxic version.

Herbicides can cause vomiting if eaten. Take the dog in when you apply them on your grass and weeds. Don't forget to bring in their water bowls and any toys, anything they may be putting in their mouth. Keep them in until it is all dry. Once it's dry it is safe to let the dogs out because the chemical has gone down to the root and your lawn is considered dog safe.

With dogs running around you know how thirsty they get and any water is good, even if it is a puddle. But you have to be careful -- antifreeze from cars sits in the puddles. Make sure you have fresh water at all times.

A good rule of thumb is if you have to keep it away from your kids it’s safe to say keep it away from your pets.

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A surge in mortgage applications

Contract interest rates were lower

Mortgage applications broke a 2-week streak of declines last week. The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) says its Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey sho...

PhotoMortgage applications broke a 2-week streak of declines last week.

 

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) says its Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows applications jumped 9.5% during the week ending March 20.

 

The Refinance Index was up 12% from the previous week, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity up to 61% of total applications from 59% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 5.8 percent of total applications.

 

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 5.8% of total applications, while the FHA share slipped to 13.3% from 14.3% last week. The VA share fell to 10.1% from 10.3% and the USDA share of total applications decreased to 0.8% this week from 0.9% last week.

 

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 9 basis points -- from 3.99% to 3.90%, with points decreasing to 0.37 from 0.40 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dropped to 3.89% from 3.94%, with points decreasing to 0.25 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 FRMs backed by the FHA slipped 3 basis points to 3.71%, with points increasing to 0.21 from 0.12 (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 was down to 3.22% from 3.28%, with points decreasing to 0.28 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dipped 2 basis points to 2.97%, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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Would you pay $30 to be a Jerk?

The Federal Trade Commission doesn't think you should

Jerk.com is one of those websites that probably has a reason for being even if it's not immediately apparent to the naked eye. Whether it's worth $30 a yea...

PhotoJerk.com is one of those websites that probably has a reason for being even if it's not immediately apparent to the naked eye. Whether it's worth $30 a year is debatable, at least in the Federal Trade Commission's view.

Jerk calls itself "the anti-social network" and says its site is "for educational purposes." While it may be able to back up its claim of being anti-social, it's a little hard to see what's so educational about it.

Last time we looked at it, it featured what seemed to be a post complaining that the poster's acquaintance had refused to share a bite of his dinner. Other posts and videos had to do with the etymology of a racist term that starts with "N."

As the FTC sees it, it's downright deceptive for Jerk to claim that the rather odd material on its site comes from its readers. In fact, the FTC says its investigation has found that much of the content comes from Facebook profiles "mined" by the jerks at Jerk.

Jerked around

The Commission also found that Jerk misrepresented the benefits of a paid membership which, for $30, purportedly allowed consumers to update information in their Jerk.com profiles but in fact merely jerked them around.  

In fact, the FTC said, consumers who paid for the membership were unable to correct information about them on the site, and did not receive anything of value for their “membership.”

The FTC's order requires the company to delete all personal and customer information collected during the operation of the site within 30 days, and prohibits it from selling or disclosing any of that information. The order also prohibits Jerk from misrepresenting the source of any content on a website, including personal information, and from misrepresenting the benefits of joining any service.   

 

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Modified Audi A6 earns top IIHS safety award

The vehicle was modified to improve small overlap protection

Modifications to the 2016 Audi A6 stellar performance in the small overlap front test earns the vehicle the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS)...

PhotoModifications to the 2016 Audi A6 stellar performance in the small overlap front test earns the vehicle the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) Top Safety Pick+ award.

 

The large luxury car already had good ratings in the Institute's other crashworthiness tests and an advanced rating for its optional front crash prevention system. The good small overlap rating applies to A6s built after January.

 

Test results

 

In the small overlap test, the driver's space was maintained well, with maximum intrusion of 4 inches at the foot rest. The dummy's movement was well-controlled. The head hit the front airbag and stayed there until rebound, and the side curtain airbag deployed with sufficient coverage to protect the head from contact with side structure and outside objects. Measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of this severity.

 

The small overlap test 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.

 

Vehicles that earn a good or acceptable rating for small overlap protection and good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint evaluations qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK.

 

To qualify for Top Safety Pick+, vehicles must also have an available front crash prevention system that earns an advanced or superior rating.

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Rising Moon Organics frozen ravioli recalled

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Carmel Food Group is recalling certain Rising Moon Organics frozen Ravioli items. The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The compa...

PhotoCarmel Food Group is recalling certain Rising Moon Organics frozen Ravioli items.

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

The company says it is not aware of illnesses associated with these products.

 

The recalled products were produced with organic spinach which was found in test results performed by the spinach supplier to show the presence of Listeria.

 

The following products, which were sold by retail stores nationwide, are being recalled:

Item Description, Pack/SizeUPC#Recalled Case SELL BY date(s)Recalled Package SELL BY date(s)
Rising Moon Organics Garlic & Veggie Ravioli, 6/8 oz7-85030-00011-3010916JAN092016
Rising Moon Organics Spinach Florentine Ravioli, 6/8 oz7-85030-22770-1011916JAN192016
Rising Moon Organics Spinach & Cheese Ravioli, 6/8 oz7-85030-55561-3122215, 123015, 123115, 010216, 011916, 012016DEC222015, DEC302015, DEC312015, JAN022016, JAN192016, JAN202016

Consumers should return the product to the place of purchase for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 510-429-0356. Monday – Friday, 8am to 5pm, PT.

 

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Blue Bell Ice Cream recalls institutional/food service ice cream cups

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Blue Bell Ice Cream of Brenham, Texas, is recalling 3-oz. institutional/food service ice cream cups -- chocolate, strawberry and vanilla -- with tab lids. ...

PhotoBlue Bell Ice Cream of Brenham, Texas, is recalling 3-oz. institutional/food service ice cream cups -- chocolate, strawberry and vanilla -- with tab lids.

 

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

There have been no reported illnesses to date.

 

These cups are not sold thru retail outlets such as convenience stores and supermarkets.

 

The following ice cream cups were distributed in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming via food service accounts:

 

  • Ice Cream Cup Chocolate (3 FL OZ) No UPC - SKU #453
  • Ice Cream Cup Strawberry (3 FL OZ) No UPC - SKU #452
  • Ice Cream Cup Vanilla (3 FL OZ) No UPC – SKU #451

 

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

 

Consumers with questions may call 979-836-7977, Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. CST.

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Wegmans recalls frozen spinach

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Wegmans Food Markets is recalling approximately 12,540 packages of Wegmans Organic Food You Feel Good About Just Picked Frozen Spinach. The product may be...

PhotoWegmans Food Markets is recalling approximately 12,540 packages of Wegmans Organic Food You Feel Good About Just Picked Frozen Spinach.

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

No illnesses associated with this recall have been reported to date.

 

The 12-oz. (UPC 77890-32932) packages of the recalled product were sold in the frozen food department of the company’s 85 stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts between January 27 and March 21, 2015.

 

Packages with the following codes are being recalled:

 

  • BEST USED BY JAN 26 2017 50265
  • BEST USED BY FEB 02 2017 50335

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product from Wegmans should return them to the service desk for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Wegmans consumer affairs department toll free at 1-855-934-3663 Monday through Friday, between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm (ET).

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Why gasoline prices go up early in the year

In part, it's the cost of cleaner air

In most areas of the country gasoline prices have started to drift lower again after rising during most of January and February. It's a pattern that tends ...

PhotoIn most areas of the country gasoline prices have started to drift lower again after rising during most of January and February. It's a pattern that tends to repeat itself every year.

But why? And why this year, when crude oil prices have remained at multi-year lows?

There are two main reasons and both, at least indirectly, are the result of U.S. government policies.

During February, U.S. oil refineries switch over to producing a summer blend of gasoline, which costs more to refine than the grade of gasoline used during the winter months. According to Popular Mechanics, winter gas is cheaper to produce but worse for the environment.

There is another complicating factor. Because of overlapping state and federal regulations, U.S. refiners must blend about 20 different grades of gasoline to meet these regulations.

Smog prevention

The regulations were put in place to control volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs. When fuel has more VOCs during hot weather these compounds are more likely to produce smog.

The switch-over process can also produce added costs for consumers. That's because it normally reduces a refinery's gasoline output temporarily. That smaller output reduces the nation's stockpile for gasoline –again, only on a temporary basis.

But because gasoline – like oil – is a commodity sold in a market, its price will fluctuate, based on what market traders expect the cost to be in the future. Patrick DeHaan, senior analyst as Gas Buddy, a company that tracks retail gasoline prices nationwide, says news of a refinery problem anywhere during the winter can send prices higher.

“Unfortunately motorists are stuck paying the price traders are buying at,” DeHaan told ConsumerAffairs. “A refinery kink develops and traders are forced to increase their bids. It's unfortunate that motorists are on this wild rise because, essentially, there's a declining number of refineries.

Fewer refineries

That's another contributing factor to volatile gasoline prices – there are fewer refineries in the U.S. turning crude oil into gasoline. DeHaan says just two decades ago the U.S. had 100 more refineries than it does now.

“They were smaller in size and more spread out, which is part of the reason why they closed,” DeHaan said. “Not to say the Clean Air Act is bad but some smaller refiners decided it wasn't worth the cost of compliance with some of these air pollution requirements that had been placed on them by the EPA and instead of installing controls they've closed.

As a result the U.S. now relies on fewer but larger refineries. That, says DeHaan, makes consumers more vulnerable to price volatility.

“When there is an event at one of these refineries it is more disruptive of the flow of gasoline to the pump,” he said.

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TeslaCrypt ransomware threatens Minecraft, World of Warcraft and other game files and platforms

Another reason why you should always have backup copies of your files

In case you needed another reminder why you should always back up your files: there's a new form of ransomware called TeslaCrypt that primarily targets gam...

PhotoIn case you needed another reminder why you should always back up your files: there's a new form of ransomware called TeslaCrypt that primarily targets game files, encrypting all of your files and demanding $1,000 for the decryption key to let you access them again.

As with all ransomware hack attacks, if your device becomes infected with this malware (which is apparently spread from a compromised WordPress site), you should not pay the requested ransom. After all: even if you do, there's no guarantee the crook will keep his word – he might take your money without decrypting your files and even if he does decrypt them, that doesn't necessarily mean he's removed the malware from your device.

The ransomware, first discovered by the California-based security firm Bromium, targets multiple games and platforms including Minecraft, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Diablo, various EA sports games, and several more. Bromium's full list of at-risk titles and platforms is here.

Worse still: though the ransomware apparently starts by attacking game files, it doesn't stop there; it will also encrypt Word documents, Excel files, PowerPoint presentations and various image files, too.

There are free tools available to possibly decrypt some files lost to ransomware, but your best defense (after not getting infected in the first place) is to have backup copies of all of your files just in case a hacker (or a hard drive crash or some other calamity) destroys or encrypts the originals.

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Telecoms challenge FCC's new Internet rules while big video streamers ask for fast lanes

HBO, Sony, Showtime all seeking "managed" services that help them get around congestion

To no one's surprise, telecommunications companies are challenging the Federal Communications Commission's new Internet rules, saying they are unlawful, un...

PhotoTo no one's surprise, telecommunications companies are challenging the Federal Communications Commission's new Internet rules, saying they are unlawful, unconstitutional and unnecessary. 

The challenges come just four days after the Wall Street Journal reported that HBO, Sony and Showtime asked Comcast and other carriers to set them up with "managed" access for their new streaming video services -- high-speed lanes, in other words.

Consumer organizations were fervent in their support for the Obama Administration's "net neutrality" rules, based on the somewhat nebulous fear that small start-ups would be hurt by congestion on the Internet when most telecom observers say it's larger streamers -- like Netflix -- who both contribute to and suffer from congestion and its effects.

Foot in the door

In its lawsuit, the U.S. Telecom Association asks the FCC to review and set aside its new Open Internet rules. It doesn't contain any detailed arguments, saying instead it wanted to file the action before a ten-day review period had elapsed. The association is the trade group of AT&T, Verizon and other carriers.

The second lawsuit was filed by Alamo Broadband, a small Texas company, which says that it has been "aggrieved" by the FCC's action. Again, it doesn't specify just how that's happened, again saying it wanted to get its objection on the record before the ten-day deadline passed.

The FCC says the petitions are premature and should be dismissed.

Managed services

Then there are those requests by HBO, Showtime and Sony for "managed" services, which are largely outlawed by the new rules, which have not yet gone into effect. 

To a large extent, these requests have to do with the "last mile" -- the portion of the Internet that, in telecom jargon, runs from the curb to the consumer's home. Despite open access rules, there are fears that this last mile could get jammed up as consumers binge on streaming video. To use the very tired information highway metaphor, this would be a clogged off-ramp.

How the FCC's new rules address this situation in actual practice remains to be seen.     

 

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Lawsuits may force feds to define "natural" foods

FDA, FTC, USDA have all dropped the ball

After decades of debate there remains no generally accepted definition of a "natural" food product. Regulatory agencies have refused to settle the issue bu...

PhotoAfter decades of debate there remains no generally accepted definition of a "natural" food product. Regulatory agencies have refused to settle the issue but may be under new pressure from consumer lawsuits, according to a new study in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

"Consumers don't agree on a definition either, yet clearly believe that 'natural' is important," writes author Ross D. Petty of Babson College. "In 2009, 30% of newly launched foods claimed to be natural but by 2013 this dropped to 22%, possibly due to an increase in the number of consumer lawsuits. Lawyers are increasingly willing to take cases which regulatory agencies have abandoned."

In 1973, the Federal Trade Commission warned that no other area of national health was as abused by deception as nutrition, but by 1983 the FTC had given up on the issue of defining "natural" products.

The FDA required in 1977 that artificial flavors be identified as such, but refused to define "natural." When federal district courts in 2014 questioned the legality of promoting genetically modified ingredients as natural, the FDA declined to give an opinion.

The US Department of Agriculture fared better, requiring that "natural" meats be free of substances such as artificial flavoring. The industry itself sporadically addressed the "natural" problem, with the Council of Better Business Bureaus advising Nutrasweet to cease claiming it was "made from natural ingredients."

Progress limited

Industry progress in general, however, has been limited. With no regulations to fall back on, consumers have begun resorting to legal action, petitioning the FDA in 2001 to act against "natural" food products that hid genetically modified ingredients.

Next came the "Sugar Wars," with the Sugar Association and Equal suing Splenda for claiming it was natural. Splenda resisted, and as of April 2014, no natural community class action lawsuit has actually gone to trial.

"Though natural food lawsuits to date have disappointed, they encourage marketers to drop the claim of being natural or reformulate their products to avoid future lawsuits. Perhaps this will persuade the FDA or FTC to consider creating, finally, a definition for the meaning of natural," concludes the author.

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Fruit loops for your dog

Fruit is just as good for dogs as it is for people

Spring and summer bring a plethora of fresh fruits to your table. Why not let your dog enjoy a few of these as well? With obesity being high on the list of...

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New home sales surge in February

House prices were on the rise also

Despite the rugged winter weather in February, sales of new single-family houses posted a solid gain. Figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and th...

Photo
© Brian Jackson – Fotolia

Despite the rugged winter weather in February, sales of new single-family houses posted a solid gain.

 

Figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show sales jumped 7.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 539,000. Even more impressive, the rate is 24.8% above the February 2014 pace 432,000.

 

The median sales price of new houses -- the point at which half of the prices are higher and half are lower -- was $275,500, up $7,100 from a year earlier. The average sales price was $341,000, a year-over-year gain of $15,100.

 

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of February was 210,000, representing a supply of 4.7 months at the current sales rate.

 

The full February housing report is available on the Commerce Department website

 

Photo
© teena137 – Fotolia

Housing prices

 

A fair start for housing prices in the new year.

 

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports its monthly House Price Index (HPI) was up 0.3 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis in January. The previously reported December advance of 0.8% was revised downward to a gain of 0.7%.

 

From January 2014 to January 2015, house prices were up 5.1%. The HPI remains 3.5% below its March 2007 peak and is at roughly the same level as the December 2005 level.

 

For the nine census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price changes from December 2014 to January 2015 ranged from -0.4% in the Middle Atlantic and South Atlantic divisions to +2.3% in the East South Central division.

 

The 12-month changes were all positive ranging from +1.7% in the Middle Atlantic division to +8.2% in the Pacific division.

 

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

 

The complete report is available on the FHFA website.

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Consumer prices post first gain in 4 months

Energy, food and shelter were major factors

Here's something we haven't seen in a while: an increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The Labor Department (DOL) reports hikes in the costs of energ...

PhotoHere's something we haven't seen in a while: an increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

 

The Labor Department (DOL) reports hikes in the costs of energy, food and shelter sent the CPI up 0.2% in February, the first increase since it rose 0.1% last October. The index is unchanged over the last 12 months.

 

Energy and food hikes

 

The cost of energy rose 1.0% last month after posting seven consecutive declines. Gasoline costs jumped 2.4%, fuel oil was up 1.9% and electricity 0.3%. The only major energy component to fall was natural gas, which dropped 2.0%. Energy costs have plunged 18.8% over the last 12 months.

 

Food prices were up 0.2%, with “food at home” rising 0.1%. The cost of nonalcoholic beverages advanced 0.6%, the meats, poultry, fish and eggs category gained 0.3%, and veal and beef prices rose 0.7 % -- the thirteenth consecutive increase. In contrast, dairy and related products were down 1.0%, fruits and vegetables dipped 0.3% -- with fresh fruits up 0.6% but fresh vegetables down 2.0% -- and cereals and bakery products were down 0.2%. Over the last 12 months food prices are up 3.0%.

 

 

Core inflation

 

The core rate of inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy categories, rose 0.2% in February, the same as in January. Within the core, prices for used cars and trucks, apparel, new vehicles, tobacco, and airline fares were higher, medical care costs were unchanged and personal care prices were down. The core rate has risen 1.7% over the last 12 months.

 

The full February inflation report is available on the DOL website.

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New Jersey poker player/investment advisor bilked clients, state charges

Investors' money was diverted to the advisor's own use, an indictment alleges

It's always good to have an investment advisor but it's also essential to do a thorough background check before entrusting your funds to any third party. P...

Photo
Evan Kochav (Photo credit: NJ Attorney General)

It's always good to have an investment advisor but it's also essential to do a thorough background check before entrusting your funds to any third party. Professional poker players should be avoided, as a recent New Jersey case shows. 

Acting New Jersey Attorney General John J. Hoffman said a Jersey City man has been indicted on charges he stole over half a million dollars from clients of his investment firm and spent the money on personal expenses, including playing poker at casinos and gambling on poker websites.

Evan Kochav, 33, of Jersey City, was indicted by a state grand jury on second-degree charges of theft by deception, money laundering and misconduct by a corporate official. He also was charged with four counts of third-degree passing bad checks for allegedly writing four bad checks totaling over $85,000 to a client who questioned what happened to his funds.

“Kochav bluffed investors like the poker player he is, claiming ties with lucrative business ventures around the globe to convince clients their hard-earned money was securely invested,” said Acting Attorney General Hoffman. “In reality, White Cedar Group was a scam, and Kochav allegedly stole investor funds to gamble and bankroll a lifestyle he otherwise could not afford.”

Kochav was initially investigated by the New Jersey Bureau of Securities, which revoked his registration as a securities agent in October 2014 and assessed a $2 million civil penalty against him and his Red Bank-based firm, White Cedar Group, LLC. The Bureau of Securities referred the case to the Division of Criminal Justice.

It is alleged that between October 2012 and April 2014, Kochav stole approximately $561,745 that he solicited from 10 investors, often urging the investors to transfer funds from existing accounts at other brokerage firms. He promised to invest the funds in various business interests and investment vehicles.

In reality, Kochav allegedly diverted the investor funds, using them to pay personal expenses or to make nominal payments to investors to cover up the scam. He allegedly laundered at least $274,000 through several bank accounts.

Kochav, a professional poker player, allegedly spent a large amount of the investor money at casinos in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida, and on at least two poker websites. He also allegedly transferred investor funds to his wife and misused investor funds to pay for shopping, dining, air travel, hotels, football tickets and other entertainment.

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Stock Yards Meat Packing Co. recalls roast beef

The product was mistakenly labeled as corned beef

Stock Yards Meat Packing Co. of Tucson, Ariz., is recalling approximately 2,149 pounds of roast beef. The product was mistakenly labeled as corned beef on...

PhotoStock Yards Meat Packing Co. of Tucson, Ariz., is recalling approximately 2,149 pounds of roast beef.

 

The product was mistakenly labeled as corned beef on the product label.

 

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

 

The following item, produced on February 18, 2015, is being recalled:

 

  • 6-10 pound cryovac packages of “Ready to Cook CORNED BEEF Bottom Round Flat.”

 

The product bears the establishment number “EST. 6071” inside the USDA mark of inspection and has “Use or Freeze by: 4/22/2015” printed on the product label. It was shipped to businesses in Arizona and California.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Stacy Roth at (847) 232-5898.  

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Amy’s Kitchen recalls various products because of possible health risk

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Amy’s Kitchen is recalling approximately 73,897 cases of products that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The company says it is not aware o...

PhotoAmy’s Kitchen is recalling approximately 73,897 cases of products that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

The company says it is not aware of any illness complaints to date related to the recalled products.

 

The products with the select code dates and manufacturing codes listed below are being recalled:

Product NameAmy’s Item #Consumer Unit UPCLot CodesRetail Unit SizePackage TypeCountry of DistributionDates Made
Vegetable Lasagna, 12pk0000320-42272-00032-630-A2159.5 oz. (269g)BoxUSAJan-21-2015
30-A305Jan-30-2015
30-B115Feb-11-2015
30-C045Mar-04-2015
Vegetable Lasagna, CAN, 12pk000032F0-42272-90032-930-A215269gBoxCanadaJan-21-2015
Tofu Vegetable Lasagna, 12pk0000330-42272-00033-330-B1359.5 oz. (269g)BoxUSAFeb-13-2015
Garden Vegetable Lasagna, 12pk0000410-42272-00041-830-B02510.3 oz. (291g)BoxUSAFeb-02-2015
30-C095
Tofu Scramble, 12pk0000540-42272-00054-810-A3059.0 oz. (255g)BoxUSAJan-30-2015
Enchilada Verde Whole Meal, 12pk0000850-42272-00085-210-A30510.0 oz. (284g)BoxUSAJan-30-2015
Spinach Pizza, 8 pk0001020-42272-00102-630-A28514.0 oz. (397g)BoxUSAJan-28-2015
30-B105Feb-10-2015
Brown Rice & Vegetables Bowl, 12 pk0001610-42272-00161-330-A20510.0 oz. (283g)BoxUSAJan-20-2015
Stuffed Pasta Shells Bowl, 12 pk0001780-42272-00178-130-C05510.0 oz. (284g)BoxUSAMar-05-2015
Vegetable Lasagna Multi Pk,
6/57, CLUB
0002010-42272-00201-630-A20557 oz (6/9.5 oz.)BoxUSAJan-20-2015
Vegetable Lasagna LIS, 12 pk0002400-42272-00240-530-C1459.5 oz. (269g)BoxUSAMar-14-2015
Brown Rice & Vegetables
Bowl LIS, 12 pk
0002430-42272-00243-630-A19510.0 oz. (283g)BoxUSAJan-19-2015
30-C035Mar-03-2015
Gluten Free Tofu Scramble
Breakfast Wrap, 12 pk
0008070-42272-00807-030-A2655.5 oz. (156g)BoxUSAJan-26-2015
30-B025Feb-02-2015
Gluten Free Tofu Scramble
Breakfast Wrap CAN, 12 pk
000807F0-42272-90807-330-B025156gBoxCanadaFeb-02-2015
Gluten Free Dairy Free Veg
Lasagna, 12 pk
0008140-42272-00814-830-B0459.0 oz. (255g)BoxUSAFeb-04-2015
Gluten Free Dairy Free
Veg Lasagna, CAN, 12 pk
000814F0-42272-90814-130-B045255gBoxCanadaFeb-04-2015
Vegetable Lasagna, 8 pk0009330-42272-00032-630-A3059.5 oz. (269g)BoxUSAJan-30-2015
Enchilada Verde Whole Meal, 8pk0009400-42272-00085-210-A30510.0 oz. (284g)BoxUSAJan-30-2015
Family Size Vegetable Lasagna, 8 pk0009650-42272-00965-730-C04528.0 oz. (794g)BoxUSAMar-04-2015
The above products were distributed to stores nationwide in the U.S. and in Canada.

 

Consumers who have any of the recalled products should dispose them or return them to the store where they were purchased for an exchange or full refund.

 

Consumers may call Amy’s at (707) 781-7535 Monday through Friday between 9 am and 5 pm (PT).

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La Terra Fina recalls organic spinach dip

The product may be contaminated with Listeria

La Terra Fina is recalling its Organic Spinach Dip. The product, sold at Costco stores in the San Francisco Bay area, may be contaminated with Listeria. ...

PhotoLa Terra Fina is recalling its Organic Spinach Dip.

 

The product, sold at Costco stores in the San Francisco Bay area, may be contaminated with Listeria.

 

There have been no reports of illness.

 

The following Product is being recalled:

  • La Terra Fina Organic Thick & Creamy Spinach Dip & Spread; 24-ounce tub; UPC Code 640410513730; Best-By Dates: 3/24/2015, 4/01/2015, 4/14/2015, 4/20/2015

Consumers who purchased the recalled product should discard any opened or unused product and contact their local Costco store for a refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact La Terra Fina’s consumer affairs at 510-999-0050.

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Boa Vida Imports recalls pork and beef products

The products were imported from an ineligible country

Boa Vida Imports of New Bedford, Mass., is recalling approximately 385 pounds of pork and beef products. The products were imported from Portugal, which i...

PhotoBoa Vida Imports of New Bedford, Mass., is recalling approximately 385 pounds of pork and beef products.

 

The products were imported from Portugal, which is not eligible to export meat products to the U.S., and were also not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection.

 

Without the benefit of full inspection, including determining the equivalence of a foreign food regulatory system, a possibility of adverse health consequences exists.

 

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

 

The following pork meat and beef tripe stew with beans items, produced on various dates between July and October 2014, are being recalled:

 

  • 1-lb. cans of “NOBRE Receitas Caseiras CHISPALHADA” with a use or sell by date of 10/21/2016 on the can.
  • 1-lb. cans of “NOBRE Receitas Caseiras DOBRADA COM FEIJAO BRANCA” with a use or sell by date of 09/23/2016 on the can.
  • 1-lb. cans of “NOBRE Receitas Caseiras FEIJOADA A TRANSMOTANA” with a use or sell by date of 07/10/2016 on the can.

 

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “PT RTR 79 CE” inside the Portugal mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in Southeastern Massachusetts.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Antonio Coutinho at (744) 206-1625.

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Biogen's promising Alzheimer's drug advances to Phase 3 trial

Aducanumab has been shown to reduce amyloid plaque in the brain

Over the last 5 years or so researchers have made tantalizing progress against the scourge of Alzheimer's disease, but the developments have yet to get to ...

PhotoOver the last 5 years or so researchers have made tantalizing progress against the scourge of Alzheimer's disease, but the developments have yet to get to the final phase of testing.

Then suddenly last week a drug from pharmaceutical giant Biogen Idec grabbed the attention of the scientific world. It also got the attention of a perhaps harder-to-impress group – Wall Street traders. Biogen stock surge nearly 10% in a single day.

It was all because the company announced that a Phase 1b study of one of its drugs, aducanumab, demonstrated that it was safe for people to take. The reason people would take the drug is it is believed to be a powerful weapon against Alzheimer's disease.

Reduces plaque

Previous studies have show that treatment with aducanumab reduced the amount of amyloid plaque in the brain. Amyloid plaque is believed to be largely responsible for the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's.

The company points to a series of exploratory analyses, showing a dose-dependent, statistically significant effect of slowing clinical decline was observed on the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) and Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) scales.

“This is the first time an investigational drug for Alzheimer’s disease has demonstrated a statistically significant reduction on amyloid plaque as well as a statistically significant slowing of clinical impairment in patients with prodromal or mild disease,” said Dr. Alfred Sandrock, group senior vice president and chief medical officer at Biogen. “Based on these results, we are advancing the aducanumab clinical program to Phase 3 with plans to initiate enrollment later this year.”

Phase 3 trial

That last sentence is key. During a Phase 3 trial, the drug or treatment is given to large groups of people to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to commonly used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug or treatment to be used safely. It is the last step before applying to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval to be marketed in the U.S.

According to the Wall Street Journal, industry analysts were excited because brain imaging scans have shown reductions in plaque, corresponding to clinical improvements. The paper quotes Christopher Raymond, analyst for Robert Baird, as saying “these data are more impressive than anything we have seen in Alzheimer's disease.”

Biogen says its Phase 3 trial, testing the efficacy of the drug, will include more than 1,000 patients.

Hopeful news for Boomers?

It's significant any time there is a promising development in treatment for a chronic disease that is ultimately fatal. Because of a population trend, this development might prove to be particularly significant.

One of the major Alzheimer's risk factors is age. With the huge Baby Boom generation now entering its senior years, the risk of a surge in Alzheimer's cases is growing.

A report (PDF) last month by the Alzheimer's Association projected the cost of treating the disease in the U.S. could swell to $1 trillion a year by 2050.

In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 25 million individuals worldwide were living with Alzheimer's. Researchers believe changes to the brain typically begin years prior to the symptoms that lead to a clinical diagnosis.  

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Which is cheaper, buying or renting?

In many markets, the balance is shifting to buying

The question of whether you are better off buying or renting doesn't have a simple answer. A lot of factors come into play because a lot depends on where y...

PhotoThe question of whether you are better off buying or renting doesn't have a simple answer. A lot of factors come into play because a lot depends on where you live and what your future plans are.

Complicating matters is the fact that the real estate market is usually in a state of flux, with home prices going up one month and rental costs another.

Deciding whether you are better off buying or renting starts with your local market; how do home prices compare to rents?

Home prices have recovered significantly since they bottomed in 2011 but are still under their 2007 peak in many areas. When you factor in historically low interest rates – and we're talking 4% or less – then houses look a lot more affordable.

Rents on the rise

Rents, on the other hand, have been moving higher over the last 5 years or so, a product of supply and demand.

“The demand for rental properties has never been higher, and because of the high demand, the expense has never been higher either, said Dana Dillard Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Officer at Nationstar Mortgage.

Real estate site Zillow recently reported that rents have escalated in some markets where they had remained flat for years.

For example, rents in Kansas City were up 8.5% year-over-year in January. The average rent in St. Louis was up 4.4% after being flat, or even falling, in previous years.

If you rent your home you can expect the rent to go up every year. For the nation as a whole, Zillow reports rents rose 3.3% from 2014 to 2015.

But if the water heater goes out, you don't have to pay to repair or replace it – the landlord does. If you decide to move out of the area, you don't have to sell a home first.

Effect on cash flow

Purchasing a home still presents challenges for many people. Dillard says lending requirements definitely tightened up after the housing crisis, and it has not loosened very much since then.

“The best advice I have on keeping your options open is to ensure you understand how your credit score works and know what actions can have a negative impact on it,” Dillard said. “The higher your credit score, the more options you'll have when it comes to making housing decisions."

Read more about the importance of your credit score. 

Assuming you can qualify for a mortgage and can save up for the down payment – which can be as little as 3% for both conventional and government-backed loans – chances are your monthly payment will be less that what you would pay in rent for the same home. Sometimes, hundreds of dollars a month less. And it will likely stay the same each year, going up a few dollars now and then when insurance costs and taxes rise.

Explore different loan options from Nationstar

Measured strictly on a monthly cash-flow basis, owning will in many cases be much easier on your budget. However, you will be responsible for maintenance on the home and replacing that water heater when it breaks.

There are also costs associated with both buying and selling a home, so the longer you own it the less a factor those costs become because they can be spread over a number of years. Still, all of these costs of owning a home are real and should be considered.

Calculators

Can you afford to buy a home? Nationstar's website provides a calculator to help you find out. 

A “Buy vs. Rent” calculator can help you compare the relative costs of both options by entering relevant personal data. For example, Realtor.com's calculator measures the relative cost of a home and rent in the area where you live.

It gives you a breakdown of the costs of owning, including the initial costs, what you pay in mortgage payments and projected maintenance costs, the cost of eventually selling the property and what it calls “lost opportunity” costs – what you might have made if you had invested the initial costs in a profitable venture.

It compiles a similar breakdown for renting and then gives you a graph showing when, if ever, buying is more advantageous than renting.

If you want a less complicated calculator, Trulia offers one that works off much less data. It takes the price of a house you are considering, the amount of rent you would otherwise pay, the number of years you plan to live in the house, your tax bracket and interest rate and creates a chart showing by what percentage owning or renting is cheaper.

Intangibles

Then there are intangible factors that make renting or owning a better fit. If you think you might be moving in a year or 2, buying a home is probably not the right move.

On the other hand, if you plan to remain in an area for at least five years and need more space for a growing family or a pet or 2, it might be smart to buy.

If you have a pet – let's say a large dog – your choice of rental properties will be smaller since not all rentals allow pets. And those that do usually charge a rather large pet fee for large dogs.

The decision to buy a home isn't always based entirely on dollars and cents. Some people want to personalize their living space, making modifications that simply aren't possible with a rental.

Consumers got in trouble during the housing boom when they bought more house than they could afford, or saw their adjustable interest rates surge. Dillard says consumers must make sure they can afford all the costs associated with homeownership, not just the down payment and closing costs, which by themselves are often a challenge.

“If putting together the upfront cash proves to be financially taxing, it may not be the right time for you to make a big commitment like a mortgage,” Dillard said.

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Why isn't there generic insulin?

Two Johns Hopkins researchers look for the answer

Patients diagnosed with diabetes are usually treated with insulin, a natural substance in the body that regulates how sugar is broken down and processed....

PhotoPatients diagnosed with diabetes are usually treated with insulin, a natural substance in the body that regulates how sugar is broken down and processed.

For decades insulin has been a life saver and allowed diabetics to live a healthier, more active life.

But for diabetics who lack prescription drug benefits, insulin prescriptions are costly, running anywhere from $120 to $400 a month. While many expensive drugs have less-expensive generic alternatives, insulin does not – at least not in the U.S.

Normally, pharmaceutical companies obtain a patent for a drug, allowing them exclusive right to sell it under a name brand. Eventually the patent expires, and other drug companies may then produce it and sell it for less in its generic form.

But that hasn't happened with insulin, even though it was introduced more than 90 years ago.

Evergreening

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Johns Hopkins researchers Jeremy Greene and Kevin Riggs say insulin is an example of what's called “evergreening.” The drug company holding the patent keeps making small improvements to the drug and each time it does it renews the patent.

These regular tweaks result in more effective medication for people with diabetes but has had the effect of blocking entry of a generic insulin drug to the market.

True, generic drug makers could produce the older versions of the drugs, but the authors say they don't because they have less incentive. As a result, they say many patients who should be taking insulin don't because they can't afford it.

While there are generic drugs for just about everything else, Greene and Riggs say a generic insulin would be highly beneficial.

Limits of competition

“We see generic drugs as a rare success story, providing better quality at a cheaper price,” said Greene, who is an associate professor of the history of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a practicing internist. “And we see the progression from patented drug to generic drug as almost automatic. But the history of insulin highlights the limits of generic competition as a framework for protecting the public health.”

There have been many notable improvements to insulin over the years. In the 1930s and 1940s, insulin treatments became longer-acting, so that most patients only had to take a single dose each day.

In the 1970s and 1980s, manufacturers improved the purity of cow and pig extracted insulin. Since then, several companies have developed synthetic forms.

The authors say the patents on the first synthetic insulin expired last year, but these newer forms are harder to copy so these unpatented versions will go through a lengthy Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process and will cost more to make.

Riggs and Greene say there may ultimately be some generic versions of these insulin drugs but they probably won't be a lot cheaper than the name brands.

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FCC fines TV station $325,000 for sexual images

A Virginia broadcast images from an "adult" site during its 6 p.m. newscast

It's been eight years since the Federal Communications Commission fined a television station for indecency violations, but today it made up for the haitus ...

PhotoIt's been eight years since the Federal Communications Commission fined a television station for indecency violations, but today it made up for the haitus with the highest fine ever for a single broadcast.

The commission said it intends to fine WDBJ Television,
Roanoke, Va., $325,000 -- the maximum allowed -- for broadcasting graphic and sexually explicit material during the station'’s evening newscast.  

The FCC’ said it had investigated viewer’ complaints that WDBJ aired a news report that included graphic sexual images taken from an adult film website in the report. 

The commission's Enforcement Bureau said WDBJ had aired a news story about a former adult film star who had joined a local volunteer rescue squad.  The investigation found that station staff 
obtained a sexually explicit video clip from an adult film website and broadcast them in the 6 p.m. news report on July 12, 2012. 

"“Our action here sends a clear signal that there are severe consequences for TV stations that air sexually explicit images when children are likely to be watching,”" said Travis LeBlanc, Chief of the FCC’'s Enforcement Bureau.

Long overdue

The action was long overdue, in the view of decency advocates.

“The FCC is the guardian of broadcast decency and it must enforce the law. We praise FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler for initiating this enforcement action and for the message it will send to broadcasters everywhere,” stated Dawn Hawkins, Executive Director of National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE). 

It is a violation of federal law to air indecent programming from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when there is reasonable risk that children may be in the audience. The FCC has defined broadcast indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.”  

While this was the first action against a TV station in eight years, the commission has fined two radio stations for broadcasting vulgar language in recent years.

Hawkins said both broadcasters and the commission have "ignored the law for years." 

“Indecency on TV sexualizes our children and prepares them to become participants in the pornified world that awaits them," she said.

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A turn-around for existing-home sales

Prices, meanwhile, continue to shoot higher

After getting off to a slow start in January, sales of previously-owned homes moved higher last month. Figures released by the National Association of Rea...

PhotoAfter getting off to a slow start in January, sales of previously-owned homes moved higher last month.

 

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) show existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops – were up 1.2% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.88 million. That's a gain of 4.7% from a year ago and above year-over-year totals for the fifth straight month.

 

Thanks to constrained inventory levels, the median existing-home price for all housing types in February was $202,600 -- up 7.5% from February 2014, the 36th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains and the largest since an advance of 8.8% last February. The median is the point at which half the homes are priced higher and half are lower.

 

Market stagnation

 

Although February sales showed modest improvement, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun says there’s been some stagnation in the market in recent months. “Insufficient supply appears to be hampering prospective buyers in several areas of the country and is hiking prices to near unsuitable levels,” he said. “Stronger price growth is a boon for homeowners looking to build additional equity, but it continues to be an obstacle for current buyers looking to close before rates rise.”

 

Yun adds that severe winter weather likely had an impact on sales.

 

Regional sales

 

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast dropped 6.5% in February to an annual rate of 580,000, but are still 3.6% above a year ago. The median price was $241,800 -- 3.3% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest, existing-home sales were unchanged from the previous month at an annual level of 1.08 million, but still 4.9% above February 2014. The median price jumped 8.8% from a year earlier to $152,900.
  • Sales in the South rose 1.9% to an annual rate of 2.11 million in February, showing a year-over-year gain of 5.0%. The median price was $177,900 -- up 8.5% from a year ago.
  • Sales of previously-owned homes in the West climbed 5.7% to an annual rate of 1.11 million in February, and are now 2.8% above February 2014. The median price rose 4.2% from a year earlier -- to $290,100.
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Ways to ease pet med costs

Vets charge a lot for drugs but there are less expensive options

Our pets are living longer and you can thank modern medicine for that. It can be expensive, though, to treat conditions that your dog or cat may have. Are ...

PhotoOur pets are living longer and you can thank modern medicine for that. It can be expensive, though, to treat conditions that your dog or cat may have. Are there any ways to defray the cost? Fortunately, yes.

Your vet -- as wonderful as he or she may be -- is a business owner and medicine is big business. According to Consumer Reports, vets’ markups over wholesale start at 100 percent and frequently hit 160 percent, plus a $5 to $15 dispensing fee. 

But you don't have to pay that much. You can get your meds at Target, Walmart, Costco and most drugstores. You also can buy them online.

Why aren't people using these alternatives? Love and convenience would be the reasons. If your pet is sick and hurting it's pretty easy to just wait and have the vet tech fill the prescription. You don't have to take your dog home and then go back out and get the medicine.

How to do it

But assuming you're willing to go to a little extra trouble to keep expenses down, here are a few things you can do.

Make sure your vet will write a script that can be filled in a place other than the vet's office. If your vet won't do that it might be a good time to look for another vet.

Your vet should be able to tell you how you can get the medicine filled and where you can go  to pick it up. They should be able to give you suggestions so that you can find the place with the greatest savings.

Ask the vet if the medicine can be replaced with a human drug that does the same thing but might come at a lower price point.

Compare prices at online pet pharmacies. Don’t overlook the discount drug card programs offered by many retailers, as well as such sites as Needymeds.org, AAA and AARP. Many of these programs cover veterinary drugs as well as human medications.

A seal of approval doesn't hurt. If you are buying online look for Vet-VIPPS. It stands for Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites, a program run by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. These sites comply with federal and state licensing requirements and quality assurance.

Some online options include: www.1800petmeds.com/www.petcarerx.com/ and www.drsfostersmith.com/

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In vino truth. Also arsenic

It's in lots of other things too, if that's any comfort

Arsenic isn't something you normally want to accompany your dinner. But the naturally occurring substance turns up in all kinds of places you wouldn't expe...

PhotoArsenic isn't something you normally want to accompany your dinner. But the naturally occurring substance turns up in all kinds of places you wouldn't expect.

The latest is cheap wine. A class action lawsuit last week named wines including Franzia White Grenache, Trader Joe's Two-Buck White Zinfandel and Ménage à Trois Moscato as containing up to 50 parts per billion of arsenic.

That might not sound like much but the federal standard for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion. So, yeah, it's 5 times that. 

Of course, it was just a few years ago that pricier French wines were found to be loaded with pesticides, so the old "name your poison" saying may not be too far wrong.

The problem with arsenic is that it's just that -- poison. Of course a few parts per billion won't kill you right away but over time, well, researchers recently found that mice develop cancer after being exposed to low doses of arsenic.

Not just wine

Even teetotalers aren't off the hook, though. Arsenic has also been found in apple juice, poultry and rice, among many other things. It is naturally occurring and can find its way into all sorts of plants but some researchers think that pesticides may also be a major source.

Whatever the answer, the lawsuit seeks all the usual remedies, including huge damages. It was filed based on research conducted by Kevin Hicks, who analyzed 1,300 bottles of wine and found elevated arsenic levels in nearly a quarter.

Hicks found that, generally speaking, cheaper wines had more arsenic than the more expensive stuff. 

There's no way for consumers to know how much arsenic -- or anything else, for that matter -- is in the wine they drink since there's no requirement that ingredients be listed on the label.

Spokesman for the wine industry shot back that Hicks was just trying to make a lot of money by suing large wine producers, which doesn't really answer the question of how the arsenic gets there.

And while it's true that most of us drink more water than wine, guzzling a glass or two per evening could, as Hicks sees it, be a genuine health risk.

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Aurora Products recalls walnuts and trail mixes

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Aurora Products is recalling certain lots of natural walnuts and trail mixes containing walnuts. The products may be contaminated with Salmonella. No ill...

PhotoAurora Products is recalling certain lots of natural walnuts and trail mixes containing walnuts.

 

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The recalled products were distributed through retail stores nationwide and in Canada and Bermuda.

 

Consumers who have the products listed below should not eat them and destroy them or return them to the place of purchase.

All Potentially Affected Aurora Branded Items are Listed Below:

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009710/29/15 – 12/7/15
Walnuts14.0 oz. Plastic Tub6558520007010/29/15 – 12/7/15
WalnutsBulkNO UPC10/29/15 – 12/7/15
Walnuts4.0 oz. Plastic Pouch6558520049010/29/15 – 12/7/15
Walnuts12.0 oz. Plastic Pouch6558520031610/29/15 – 12/7/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520008411/4/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts4.5 oz. Plastic Pouch6558520025211/4/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts20 oz. Plastic Tub6558520034011/4/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted Salt Mixed NutsBulkNo UPC11/4/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520024311/10/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed Nuts10 oz. Plastic Pouch6558520080511/10/15 – 12/10/15
Roasted No Salt Mixed NutsBulkNo UPC11/10/15 – 12/10/15
Raisin Nut Party Mix11.0 oz. Plastic Cup6558520009411/10/15 – 12/10/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix10.0 oz. Pillow Pouch6558520082610/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix16.0 oz. Plastic Pouch6558520082710/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix18 oz. Plastic PouchNO UPC10/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup6558520058510/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix4.5 oz. Single Serve6558520020810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix1.35 oz. Single Serve6558520057412/16/15
Cranberry Health MixBulkNO UPC10/30/15 – 12/13/15
5 K Omega Trail Mix20 oz. Plastic Cup6558520012111/3/15 – 11/16/15
5 K Omega Trail Mix10 oz. Plastic Cup6558520070311/3/15 – 11/16/15
Forest Bounty Grail Mix13 oz. Plastic Cup6558520057110/28/15 – 12/13/15
Forest Bounty Grail Mix13 oz. Plastic Pouch6558520029010/28/15 – 12/13/15
Forest Bounty Grail Mix17.5 oz. Plastic Cup6558520049610/28/15 – 12/13/15
6 – Section Nut Tray Assortment26 oz. Plastic Tray6558520014511/6/15 – 12/10/15
4 – Section Nut Tray Assortment13 oz. Plastic Tray6558520014111/6/15 – 12/10/15

Martins Food Markets, Stop&Shop, Giant Carlisle Food Store, Giant of Maryland, Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Walnuts6.5 oz. Plastic Cup6882671359410/29/15 – 12/7/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup6882671369210/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6882671471310/30/15 – 12/13/15
Roasted Salt Mixed Nuts9.0 oz. Plastic Cup6882671473611/4/15 – 12/13/15

Whole Foods Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE CODE RANGE
Cranberry Health Mix9.25 oz. Plastic Cup6558520028810/30/15 – 12/13/15
Cranberry Health Mix21 oz. Plastic Cup6558520058510/30/15 – 12/13/15

 

Consumers with questions may contact Aurora Products at (800)-898-1048 between 9:00AM – 5:00 PM, EST, Monday – Friday.
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O’Coconut recalls 3 products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Nutiva, which bills itself as an “organic superfoods company,” is recalling 3 of its O’Coconut items. The products may be contaminated with Salmonella Th...

PhotoNutiva, which bills itself as an “organic superfoods company,” is recalling 3 of its O’Coconut items.

 

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

 

The following products are being recalled:

Product #DescriptionPackagingUnit UPCDisplay UPCMaster Case UPCLot CodeExp Date
BAR312O'Coconut™ ClassicSingles/Bag of 86-92752-10557-9N/A6-92752-10558-618FEB15L18 FEB 16
BAR202O'Coconut™ Hemp & ChiaSingles/Caddy of 246-92752-10502-96-92752-10503-66-92752-10386-524FEB15L24 FEB 16
BAR302O'Coconut™ ClassicSingles/Caddy of 246-92752-10500-56-92752-10501-26-92752-10385-820FEB15L20 FEB 16

 

The latter two items (BAR202 & BAR302) were distributed via Nutiva.com or as samples only.

 

Customers with questions or who would like product replacements or refunds may call (800) 993-4367 or email help@nutiva.com.

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Nature’s Eats Natural Macadamia Nuts recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Texas Star Nut and Food Co., of Boerne, Texas, is recalling Nature’s Eats Natural Macadamia Nuts. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella No illn...

PhotoTexas Star Nut and Food Co., of Boerne, Texas, is recalling Nature’s Eats Natural Macadamia Nuts.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

 

No illnesses have been reported in relation to this product at this time.

 

The recalled product, lot code #31435001 and packed in cello bags, was distributed only to HEB stores, in Texas, between 12/30/2014 and 3/20/2015. The Best Before -- 12/23/2015 -- is located on the bottom of the nutritional label on the back of the bag.

 

Consumers who purchased the recalled product should not eat or discontinue consuming it and return it to HEB for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-844-571-5555 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. CST.

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Van Lang Foods recalls pork and chicken products

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

Van Lang Foods of Countryside, Ill., is recalling approximately 232 pounds of pork potstickers and chicken dim sum The products contain egg, a known aller...

PhotoVan Lang Foods of Countryside, Ill., is recalling approximately 232 pounds of pork potstickers and chicken dim sum

 

The products contain egg, a known allergen which was 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:

 

  • 12-oz. trays of “Sid Wainer and Son Domaine de Provence Pork Potstickers”
  • 12-oz. trays of “Sid Wainer and Son Domaine de Provence Chicken Dim Sum”

 

Although the recalled products were packaged in boxes that bear the establishment number “P-18403” or “EST 18403” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection, the consumer labels do not have the mark of inspection.

 

The chicken dim sum was produced on November 11, 2014, and the pork potstickers on November 12, 2014. Both were shipped to a distributor for retail sales in New Bedford, Mass.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Nick Podoba at (708) 588-0800.

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5 fitness companies that can outfit your home gym

But do your research and make sure the equipment is a good fit for your body and goals

A gym membership can be expensive, and having to travel to another location to get in a workout can also be inconvenient, especially for busy people....

Photo
Assembling the NordicTrack recumbent bike was a challenging exercise (Staff photo)

A gym membership can be expensive, and having to travel to another location to get in a workout can also be inconvenient, especially for busy people.

That's why many consumers opt to purchase one or two pieces of exercise equipment for their home, so that they can get in their exercise whenever they have a few spare minutes, or while they are watching TV. Depending on the type and quality of the equipment you purchase, you should be able to get as much value from home exercise equipment as you would a gym membership.

Choosing a piece of home exercise equipment to buy is similar to selecting the equipment you want to use at a gym. Different equipment provides different benefits.

Types of equipment

At the gym, the treadmill might be among the most popular machines. It rates high for burning calories and promoting cardiovascular health.

Elliptical machines and stationary bikes don't have quite the calorie burn rate of treadmills but they are both a lot easier on joints. For people who are overweight, starting on one of these machines might be a better option than a treadmill.

Resistance training machines promote muscle development in specific areas of the body. They are used to increase body strength and are an important complement to cardio equipment.

Just as the machines at the gym, your home exercise equipment should also provide plenty of data about your workout. Quality cardio machines, such as treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes, should come with controls allowing consumers to easily change the exercise information and control display.

Data collection

A good treadmill, for example, should include time and distance monitoring. That display tells you how far you would have traveled if you were on an open surface and how long you have been exercising.

By entering some data about yourself – primarily your weight – a calorie monitor should estimate how many calories you have burned during your workout. By adjusting the speed and incline of the treadmill you can increase or decrease the calorie burn rate.

Choosing the brand of equipment to purchase requires a bit more research. Fortunately, ConsumerAffairs readers have posted hundreds of reviews, detailing their experience with the products and the companies that sell them. 

Here are a few of the better-known brands:

Yowza Fitness

 

Photo
A Yowza elliptical trainer

Yowza Fitness specializes in treadmills and elliptical equipment. The company offers a lifetime limited warranty and interest-free financing on select models.

Yowza's transformer treadmills are folding treadmills, designed to save space when they aren't in use. Its Sebring model is a popular product, selling for $1299. It can stand up to the most powerful foot-pounding and is fully loaded with features, including an iPod/MP3 port.

Holly, a reader from Jacksonville, N.C., says she did a lot of research and liked what she saw. She particularly likes the Sebring's weight management tool and the scale that goes with it.

“After looking at everything that we compared it to, it was a great brand,” she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. “The customer service representative was very good, knowledgeable, and explained the product thoroughly.”

ProForm Fitness

PhotoProform Fitness also makes a wide variety of treadmills and ellipticals, as well as stationary bikes and rowing machines. Its Pro 16.0 NE elliptical is its top of the line, retailing for $1499.

An elliptical is sometimes called a “cross trainer” and simulates climbing stairs, walking or running without putting excessive pressure on foot and knee joints. For that reason, these machines are popular with people recovering from injuries.

ProForm's Pro 16.0 NE is popular because it comes mostly assembled, reducing the set-up time. The electronics package includes a built-in full color touch screen display that not only shows your exercise data but also connects to the Internet.

Bowflex

 

Photo
Bowflex free weights

Bowflex makes several types of home exercise equipment but is perhaps best known for its home gym products, promoting strength training. The Bowflex Xtreme 2 SE Home Gym, which lists for $1599, provides a number of different exercises in one piece of equipment.

The company says its Power Rod units provide resistance, or weight, that feels as good as or better than free weights, but without the drawbacks, such as inertia or risk of joint injury. The Extreme 2 SE comes with 210 pounds standard, but is upgradable to 310 pounds.

The no-change cable pulley system allows you to go from squats to lats to leg workouts without having to change. You not only save time but keep your heart rate up as you progress through your workout.

Lifespan Fitness

 

Photo
A Lifespan treadmill desk

Lifespan Fitness produces a full line of fitness equipment for the home, workplace and health clubs. The equipment may be more expensive but it is often the same machines you find at a commercial gym.

Besides treadmills, stationary bikes and elliptical machines, Lifespan sells several models of recumbent bikes, on which the rider's legs stretch horizontally to reach the peddles, instead of straight down. The Lifespan R31 recumbent bike, recently marked down from $1799 to $1199, offers horizontally adjustable seats with full back support and holds riders up to 400 pounds.

It comes with 17 preset bike workouts that include weight management, healthy living and home training programs. The system helps you track your health progress, allowing you to upload your data via a USB to the LifeSpan Club — a free membership that comes with your purchase.

Lifespan also sells treadmill desks – stand-up workstations that allow workers to not only stay on their feet while on the job but to keep moving, burning calories throughout the day. These workstations have become more popular in response to recent research showing that sitting for prolonged periods is harmful to cardiovascular health.

SOLE Fitness

Photo
A SOLE treadmill

SOLE Fitness markets a full range of fitness equipment for home use, including SR500 Fitness Rower, marked down from $1,499 to $999. Rowers are simple, yet effective cardio machines that work your body harder than many other electric-powered fitness machines on the market. With a rower, the user provides all the power.

It’s good for burning fat, building muscle endurance, increasing cardiovascular fitness and it requires users to give equal effort to both the upper and lower body. One of the best things about it is users of all age and fitness level can use it. It works the abs, core, legs and lower back, providing a full body workout.

SOLE says the SR500 features “smooth air and magnetic resistance” to make you actually feel like you are pulling yourself across the water. According to the company, it was designed by rowers, with a clean smooth motion and the ability to adjust all of the settings to make the machine work for you and your body type. It accommodate users up to 6'7" tall.

SOUL offers 7 treadmill models and 6 ellipticals at prices ranging from $799 to $3499.

Take a test ride

If at all possible, try to find a store or showroom where you can try out the model you're considering. ConsumerAffairs ordered a NordicTrack recumbent bike for this story. We found assembling it quite a challenge as many pieces simply did not fit very well. 

Worse yet, after assembly was completed we found that our two testers -- one 6 feet tall, the other 5'7" -- didn't fit very well either. They had a choice of banging their knees on the handlebars or moving the seat back so far that it was hard to reach the pedals. 

An email to the company drew this response:

Thank you for contacting us. ... We do not have an optional seat that your seat can be replaced with, you will need to adjust the seat to the comfortability of each user.

What to look for

To give you a solid workout and the means to track your progress, any electronic fitness equipment should have several pre-programmed routines that deliver different results, based on your health and fitness goals. For example, on most treadmills, stationary bikes and ellipticals, consumers can choose from exercise routines promoting a healthy heart, burning calories and other goals.

The equipment should also allow you to input your personal data. The computer needs to know your height, weight and sex so it can tailor the workout exercise to your specific needs.

If your primary goal is to lose weight, you probably require a different level of resistance than people who are exercising to maintain a healthy weight, improve heart health or gain muscle mass.

The machines should also provide heart-controlled workouts. These routines provide the minimum cardiac exercise needed to keep the heart functioning the way it should.

Vital signs monitors

Photo
A Yowza vital signs monitor

Fitness equipment should also give users a way to monitor their vital signs during a workout. Perhaps the most important one is a heart rate monitor.

Most types of equipment have special handles that, when gripped, automatically track the user's pulse and display the heart rate on a monitor. That way, the user can adjust the machine's speed and resistance to maintain the preferred level of exertion.

Machines that track heart rate usually provide calorie burn data, provided the user has input the required personal data. Some equipment also provides breathing rate monitors, which can measure how quickly the user is breathing.

Resistance

A quality piece of exercise equipment should offer a variety of resistance levels that alter the intensity of the workout. The greater the resistance the more calories the user burns and the more stress placed on muscles, promoting their strengthening.

A primary form of resistance is incline. Stair steppers, exercise bikes and treadmills all have an incline mode, which simulates walking up a hill. Machines should have pre-programmed resistance workouts as well as the ability to manually increase and decrease resistance during the workout. These controls should be easy to operate during a workout.

Video displays not only provide an easy way to monitor your workout but can provide an entertaining diversion while you exercise. Some models connect directly to cable TV. Others connect to the Internet and some connect to both.

Some exercise equipment utilizes the video screen for video games, as a way to fight the boredom of a long workout. Sometimes stationary bikes and rowing machines include virtual displays of terrain and water to make the user feel like they are peddling up a mountain or zooming across a lake.

Final thoughts

Ready to go shopping? Good. Sure, you can exercise with only a couple miles of sidewalk and a good pair of sneakers, but a good piece of exercise equipment can be a sound investment in your health.

But before making that investment, experts at the Harvard Medical School offer this advice: exercise equipment comes in all sizes, shapes, and price ranges. Do your research, consulting reviews from both consumers who actually use the equipment and experts.

After selecting a piece of equipment, learn to use it properly. Otherwise, you could injure yourself and set back your efforts to improve your health.

Finally, make sure the equipment is a good fit for your body and your goals. The best equipment only produces results when it is used regularly.

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Report: 2012 FTC investigators wanted to sue Google for antitrust violations

Yet the FTC publicly announced the exact opposite conclusion.

The Wall Street Journal has acquired and released internal Federal Trade Commission documents that raise some interesting questions about the FTC's officia...

PhotoThe Wall Street Journal has acquired and released internal Federal Trade Commission documents that raise some interesting questions about the FTC's official handling of an antitrust investigation into Google's practices.

Specifically, FTC staff members investigating Google's practices a few years ago recommended at the time that the agency sue the company on anti-competitive grounds over its allegedly biased search-engine results, yet the FTC publicly voted to do the exact opposite.

In 2012, the FTC started investigating Google and concluded that the company's search engine results “boosted its own shopping, travel and local business services” while intentionally giving lower search rankings to rival products, according to the FTC staff report acquired by the Journal.

But that's not what the American public initially heard. In January 2013, the FTC publicly announced that, after 19 months of investigation into Google, the “facts just weren't there” to support charges of biased search results. At a press conference, the then-current chairman Jon Leibowitz said that the FTC's bipartisan commission voted 5-0 that Google's search results were not biased to favor its own products over its competitors'.

Not everyone convinced

Not that everyone back then was convinced by the FTC's reassurances. The California-based nonprofit Consumer Watchdog group, for example, responded to the FTC's January 2013 announcement by saying that “Google clearly skews search results to favor its own products and services while portraying the results as unbiased. That undermines competition and hurts consumers.... The FTC rolled over for Google.”

The following December, Consumer Watchdog filed a complaint with the FTC alleging deception in Google Shopping results. “The way that the Internet giant is featuring results from Google Shopping without making it clear that the highlighted results are nothing more than advertisements for merchants who bid for placement is an unfair and deceptive act …. Moreover, consumers are actually being harmed because the featured results from Google Shopping more often than not return higher prices than can be found elsewhere, when consumers would reasonably expect Google’s suggestions to be the best,” CW's Privacy Project Director said at the time.

This week's revelations suggest that the FTC itself agreed with such criticisms all along, despite publicly claiming otherwise.

The FTC has not commented about the report, but Google's general counsel, Kent Walker, said in a statement that, “After an exhaustive 19-month review, covering nine million pages of documents and many hours of testimony, the FTC staff and all five FTC Commissioners agreed that there was no need to take action on how we rank and display search results. Speculation about potential consumer and competitor harm turned out to be entirely wrong.”

Furthermore, said Walker on behalf of Google, “since the investigation closed two years ago, the ways people access information online have increased dramatically, giving consumers more choice than ever before. And our competitors are in fact thriving. For example, Yelp calls itself the ‘de facto local search engine’ and has seen revenue growth of over 350% in the last four years, TripAdvisor claims to be the web’s 'largest travel brand' and has nearly doubled its revenues in the last 4 years.”

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When to give your child a smartphone

Parent groups urge stricter rules

For parents, the decision to give a child a smartphone is often rationalized on grounds of safety....

PhotoFor parents, the decision to give a child a smartphone is often rationalized on grounds of safety.

“I want to be able to contact my child at all times, or I want my child to be able to contact me,” an anxious parent might say.

But increasingly, children barely past the toddler stage are carrying smartphones and pediatricians, as well as some parent organizations, are expressing concern.

There’s been a recent proliferation of smartphone apps for children. Many are entertaining games but others are educational in nature, teaching children colors and numbers.

Education tool?

That’s often a rationale for introducing children to digital devices at an early age. The website NQ Family Guardian says it heard from a parent whose child advanced an entire grade level because of her playing with her smartphone.

But NQ Family Guardian is skeptical that those benefits outweigh potential drawbacks and others agree. At issue, they say, is a question of balance.

"Our children are being raised as digital natives and we want them to thrive in this technological age," said Rawdon Messenger, CEO of TeenSafe, a family support organization. "We want them in-the-know when it comes to technology so they can be successful, well-rounded adults when they leave our home. At the same time, we must take responsibility in guiding them through the pre-teen to 18 years and the struggles that come with being a teen today."

So TeenSafe and other organizations say there needs to be some rules. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has incorporated recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in its guidelines for limiting screen time.

AAP has taken the position that children should get no screen time until at least age 2 because the brain develops better through unstructured playtime and human interaction. And screen time is not limited to digital devices.

TV and video games are included

"Screen time is a term used for activities done in front of a screen, such as watching TV, working on a computer, or playing video games,” the NIH guidelines explain. “Screen time is sedentary activity, meaning you are being physically inactive while sitting down. Very little energy is used during screen time.”

TeenSafe recommends children age 2 to 5 get no more than an hour of screen time a day. That little amount hardly warrants handing a child that young their own smartphone.

Even a 10 year old shouldn’t have more than 3 hours of screen time per day, TeenSafe says.

Whatever the age, the group advocates a 20-20-20 rule. That means when kids are using media, for every 20 seconds they are staring at a screen they should spend another 20 seconds looking at something that is at least 20 feet away.

While that might be healthier, it sounds like it would be hard to enforce. In the end, most parents just want to know what is the appropriate age to hand their child a phone. For that TeenSafe says parents need to answer some questions.

Questions

  • Have you set limits for digital device use and does your child understand and respect these limits?
  • Does your child need a phone to stay in contact with you in case of an emergency?
  • Can they be trusted not to use the phone during inappropriate times, like class?
  • Have you laid the foundation for responsible smartphone behavior and talked with them about sexting?

And it doesn’t stop there. When a parent decides a child is ready for a smartphone, the parent must stay in touch with the child's online behavior, making sure the rules are being followed. 

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Food TV is fun but may also be fattening

Researchers caution viewers not to try this at home

Cable TV networks broadcasting cooking shows have enjoyed ratings success with shows featuring delicious, rich natural ingredients made from scratch....

PhotoCable TV networks broadcasting cooking shows have enjoyed ratings success with shows featuring delicious, rich natural ingredients made from scratch.

But if you not only watch these programs but also try a lot of their recipes in your kitchen, you could run the risk of putting on a few pounds. At least that's the conclusion of a study appearing in the journal Appetite.

The University of Vermont's Lizzy Pope, the study's lead author, says the message is pretty clear.

“Food TV should be a viewing experience only, not a cooking experience,” she said.

On one hand these findings are hardly surprising. If you eat food rich in butter, cream and sauces, how could you not gain weight?

The study

But the scientists had to prove a correlation, so they asked 501 women between the ages of 20 and 35 where they got the information about the new foods they tried, how frequently they cooked from scratch, and then some physical data, like their heights and weights.

It turns out that women in the study who watched food television and cooked frequently from scratch had a higher body-mass-index, (BMI), weighing on average 10 more pounds than those who got their recipes from family and friends, magazines and newspapers, or cooking classes.

The researchers even found that people who frequently cooked from scratch using a recipe, but didn’t watch food TV, did not have a higher BMI. More significantly the researchers say, is that women in the study who enjoyed watching the programs but did not cook meals from scratch also avoided the extra pounds.

Don't try this at home

“Those who are watching just for entertainment are fine,” Pope said.

What's the takeaway from this? Study co-author Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, says the recipes on cooking shows are not the healthiest. Viewers feel like it's okay to indulge in either less nutritious food or bigger portions.

At the same time, Food TV is not all about high-calorie comfort food dishes. Food Network, for examples, also highlights quick and healthy recipes, including this one for a 20-minute broiled chicken dinner.

The study authors agree that there is plenty of blame to go around, and in fact found that people who try recipes they see on social media sites also had a higher BMI.

“It could be that seeing photos of ‘perfect,’ often rich foods your friends post on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram makes it seem like their unhealthy eating patterns are the norm,” Pope said.

How food TV can help

Pope said Food TV producers can help their viewers eat healthier and more nutritious foods by using more recipes that demonstrate how food can look good, taste good, be exciting and be social.

Pope also leaves us with one final thought; making meals from scratch isn't always the best and healthiest option.

“It definitely can result in healthier food than eating out all the time, but only if you're cooking healthy recipes and healthy food,” she said.

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Identity thieves keep busy as this year's tax deadline approaches

Fraudulent tax returns get more attention than usual this year

With less than a month to go before this year's federal income tax filing deadline, that still leaves plenty of time for identity thieves and other forms o...

PhotoWith less than a month to go before this year's federal income tax filing deadline, that still leaves plenty of time for identity thieves and other forms of scammer to try and enrich themselves at your expense.

Of course, various forms of IRS scam have existed for almost as long as the IRS itself, but this year, the particular problem of IRS-related identity theft rose to national prominence after Minnesota briefly stopped accepting state tax returns e-filed through TurboTax, because too many scammers were using it to file fraudulent tax returns in the names of legitimate state taxpayers.

Minnesota soon lifted the ban and allowed TurboTax e-filing again – but in the meantime, the revenue commissioners from multiple other U.S. states announced that they would be delaying the payment of state tax refunds in order to double-check for fraud.

Last August, the Government Accountability Office conducted an investigation which concluded that the IRS may have lost $5.8 billion paying out fraudulent tax returns for the 2013 tax filing season. (That loss is limited to the federal level; there's no knowing how many fraudulent returns were paid by income-tax-collecting states.)

The GAO report also noted that for those honest taxpayers whose identities were used to file fraudulent returns, the taxpayers had to wait an average of 300 days to see resolution on their cases.

Earlier this month, U.S. senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) proposed a bill (summary available in downloadable .pdf form here) called the Identity Theft and Tax Fraud Prevention Act of 2015, which, among other things, would:

  • call for the IRS to resolve and close identity theft cases within 90 days;
  • require the IRS to assign ID victims a “single point of contact” rather than have to explain their entire situation to a brand-new IRS employee who knows nothing of their case, every time they contact the agency;
  • give taxpayers the ability to “opt-out” of electronic filing (thus making it impossible for scammers to e-file fraudulent returns in their names);
  • inform identity theft victims if the thief who stole their identity has been caught; and
  • a few additional protections.

The bill's six co-sponsors, all Democrats, are Bill Nelson of Florida, Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer of New York.

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Deadline to take required retirement plan distributions is approaching

The window closes April 1

If you turned 70½ during 2014, the clock is ticking. No, not that way but in terms of receiving your required minimum distribution (RMD) from your Indivi...

PhotoIf you turned 70½ during 2014, the clock is ticking.

 

No, not that way but in terms of receiving your required minimum distribution (RMD) from your Individual Retirement Account (IRA) and workplace retirement plan. You have until Wednesday, April 1.

 

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the April 1 deadline applies to owners of traditional IRAs but not Roth IRAs. Normally, it also applies to participants in various workplace retirement plans, including 401(k), 403(b) and 457 plans.

 

Additionally, the April 1 deadline applies only to the required distribution for the first year. For all subsequent years, the RMD must be made by Dec. 31. So, if you turned 70½ last year and receive the first required payment on April 1, for example, you must still take the second RMD by Dec. 31, 2015.

 

Calculating the RMD

 

Affected taxpayers who turned 70½ during 2014 must figure the RMD for the first year using the life expectancy as of their birthday in 2014 and their account balance on Dec. 31, 2013. The trustee reports the year-end account value to the IRA owner on Form 5498 in Box 5. Worksheets and life expectancy tables for making this computation can be found in the Appendices to  Publication 590-B.

 

Most taxpayers use Table III (Uniform Lifetime) to figure their RMD. For a taxpayer who reached age 70½ in 2014 and turned 71 before the end of the year, for example, the first required distribution would be based on a distribution period of 26.5 years. A separate table, Table II, applies to a taxpayer married to a spouse who is more than 10 years younger and is the taxpayer’s only beneficiary.

 

Exceptions

 

Though the April 1 deadline is mandatory for all owners of traditional IRAs and most participants in workplace retirement plans, some people with workplace plans can wait longer to receive their RMD.

 

Usually, employees who are still working can, if their plan allows, wait until April 1 of the year after they retire to start receiving these distributions. See Tax on Excess Accumulation in Publication 575.

 

Employees of public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations with 403(b) plan accruals before 1987 should check with their employer, plan administrator or provider to see how to treat these accruals.

 

The IRS encourages taxpayers to begin planning now for any distributions required during 2015. An IRA trustee must either report the amount of the RMD to the IRA owner or offer to calculate it for the owner. Often, the trustee shows the RMD amount in Box 12b on Form 5498.

 

For a 2015 RMD, this amount would be on the 2014 Form 5498 that is normally issued in January 2015.

 

More information on RMDs, including answers to frequently asked questions, may be found on IRS.gov.

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Consumer group warns of safety shortcomings in driverless cars

A human must be able to take control when necessary, Consumer Watchdog argues

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is saying his company will have driverless cars in the U.S. by this summer. Google is working on its pod-shaped driverless cars and jus...

PhotoTesla CEO Elon Musk is saying his company will have driverless cars in the U.S. by this summer. Google is working on its pod-shaped driverless cars and just about everyone else is talking about getting into the act.

The assumption is that driverless cars will be safer than those with humans at the wheel. But is that really true? A California consumer group says it's not convinced.

Consumer Watchdog warned the California Department of Motor Vehicles that it must not allow Google and others with a vested interest in developing driverless vehicles to push the DMV into issuing rules regulating the public use of robot cars on highways that are inadequate to protect public safety.

“Most importantly, a driverless vehicle must allow a licensed driver to assume control when necessary,” wrote John M. Simpson, ConsumerWatchdog Privacy Project director in a letter to DMV Director Jean Shiomoto.

“Despite Google’s public relations campaign and statements that it hopes to have robot cars for public use operating on the road within five years, it is important to understand what its vehicles cannot do,” wrote Simpson. “Recognition of the Google driverless cars’ shortcomings should help inform the DMV’s ‘autonomous vehicle’ public use rulemaking process.”

Consumer Watchdog’s letter noted a long list of shortcomings of Google’s driverless car technology, including:

  • Weather.  Heavy precipitation interferes with the vehicle’s sensors and they don’t work in the snow, nor in heavy rain.  
  • Human hand signals. The robot cars can’t interact reliably with hand signals given by the human driver of another vehicle, or a policeman using only hand signals to direct traffic.
  • Sunshine. If the sun is behind a traffic light, it can interfere with the driverless car’s ability to determine the traffic light’s color.
  • Changing road conditions. The sensors don’t recognize large potholes and would not detect an open manhole.  If a traffic light were installed overnight as in the case of a road construction site, the car’s driverless navigation system would not expect it.  
  • Pre-mapped roads. Google’s robot cars rely on detailed sensor mapping of routes before the robot car hits the road. If a Google driverless car tried a route that had not been specially mapped, probably even a large parking lot, it wouldn’t know what to do. 
  • Humans. The driverless cars’ video sensors can’t reliably distinguish between a tree branch blowing in the wind and a pedestrian.

The decision on whether to allow a particular manufacturer’s driverless cars to be offered to the public should be informed by the results of safety testing that is being done under the DMV testing regulations now in effect, Consumer Watchdog said.

DMV regulations governing the testing of driverless cars on California highways took effect on Sept. 16, 2014. A key safety provision of the testing regulations is the requirement that there must be a test driver in the driver’s seat who is capable of assuming control of the car.

“Ironically, a little more than a week after the DMV adopted the testing regulations, Google announced plans for a fleet of robot cars that have no steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator,” wrote Simpson.  “There would be no way for an occupant to take control in an emergency; occupant lives would be in the hands of Google’s driverless technology, completely at the Internet giant’s mercy.”
 

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Amazon test drones cleared for take-off

FAA gives preliminary approval for test flights

The Federal Aviation Administration has given Amazon clearance to begin test flights of its commercial delivery drones. The agency announced it has approve...

PhotoThe Federal Aviation Administration has given Amazon clearance to begin test flights of its commercial delivery drones. The agency announced it has approved Amazon's initial design, authorizing the company to begin test flights.

The FAA earlier gave Hollywood studios similar approval for the drones moviemakers hope to use to shoot aerial shots that would otherwise require expensive helicopter flights. 

"Under the provisions of the certificate, all flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions," the FAA said, adding that the drone "must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer."

In addition, the ground-based pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification.

Amazon is dreaming of the day when it can begin offering Amazon Prime Air, a service that would deliver merchandise to customers literally within hours, if not minutes. 

Amazon says it hopes to be in the air by the end of the decade although that may be pushing it a bit, considering all the legal and regulatory hurdles that must be cleared before the skies can begin buzzing hordes of busy drones.

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Electric cars are cool in more ways than one

They help reduce the "heat island" effect in urban areas

Everybody knows that electric cars help reduce air pollution but studies show that there may be two hidden benefits that electric cars have over convention...

PhotoEverybody knows that electric cars help reduce air pollution but studies show that there may be two hidden benefits that electric cars have over conventional vehicles.

The first is that they can help reduce the “heat island effect.” This refers to built-up areas, usually in urban settings, that are hotter than nearby rural areas.

For example, the annual mean air temperature of a city with one million people or more can be 2-5 degrees warmer than outlying areas. This is due to the heat given off by gas-powered vehicles and other machinery. This difference can jump as high as 22 degrees during the evening in warmer months.

Electric cars only emit about 20% of the heat that gas-powered vehicles do. Introducing more of them into cities could create a noticeable difference in temperatures.

The second benefit is that they can save you money by lowering the amount of power you use. By reducing the heat island effect through reduced emissions, you will no longer have to spend as much money on air conditioning costs -- which is another benefit to the environment.

Heat waves kill

Decreasing temperatures in urban areas is a necessity. Increased temperatures lead to higher demands for energy, increased air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, heat-related illnesses and deaths, and poorer water quality.

Jianguo Liu, head of the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU and director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, points out that “heat waves kill, and in terms of climate change, even one degree can make a difference.”

But if the environmental impact isn’t enough to change your mind, there are also many monetary benefits to owning an electric car.

At the federal level, you can earn a consumer tax credit of $2500 for every plug-in electric car that you own. This can be increased by $417 for each kilowatt per hour (kWh) of battery capacity your car can produce in excess of five kWhs. The total credit allowed per vehicle is capped at $7500, and all vehicles currently on the market qualify for the full credit.

There are even more incentives offered at the state level across the country, at least in some states. These include rebates and tax credits for the purchase of vehicles and charging infrastructure, as well as access to carpool lanes and free public parking in some municipalities.

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New CFPB policy gives voice to complaints about financial companies

You can now opt-in to share your complaint narrative with the public

Feel the need to gripe publicly about your bank or credit card company? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is putting the finishing touches o...

PhotoFeel the need to gripe publicly about your bank or credit card company?

 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is putting the finishing touches on a policy that will let you do just that.

 

“Consumer narratives shed light on the full consumer perspective behind a complaint,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Narratives humanize the problems consumers face in the marketplace.”

 

The new policy, he added. “will serve to empower consumers by helping them make informed decisions and helping track trends in the consumer financial market.”

 

Consumer complaint narrative policy

 

The CFPB’s final Consumer Complaint Narrative Policy lays out the specific procedures and safeguards being put in place to publish narratives in the database. When consumers submit a complaint to the bureau, they fill in information such as who they are, who the complaint is against, and when it occurred.

 

They are also given a text box to describe what happened and can attach documents to the complaint. The CFPB forwards the complaint to the company for response, gives the consumer a tracking number, and keeps the consumer updated on its status.

 

Under the new policy, when consumers submit a complaint to the CFPB, they will have the option to check a box and opt-in to sharing their narrative. In order for companies to learn about this new system, the any consented-to narrative will not be published for at least 90 days after the policy’s publication in the Federal Register.

 

Safeguards established

 

The policy establishes a number of important safeguards for a clear, fair, and transparent process, including:

 

  • Consumers must opt-in to share their story: The CFPB will not publish the complaint narrative unless the consumer provides informed consent. This means that when consumers submit a complaint through consumerfinance.gov, they have to check a consent box to give the bureau permission to publish their narrative. Currently, only narratives submitted online are available for the opt-in to publish.
  • Personal information will be removed from narratives: The bureau will take reasonable steps to remove personal information from the complaint to minimize the risk of re-identification. This means the CFPB will use a thorough process to ensure complaints are scrubbed of information such as names, telephone numbers, account numbers, Social Security numbers, and other direct identifiers.
  • Companies can choose a response to publish: Companies will be given the option to select from a set list of structured response options as a public-facing response to address the consumer complaints. Companies will be under no obligation to offer a public response, and they have 180 days after the consumer complaint is routed to them to select the optional, public response. Companies will have the option to address all consumer complaints submitted after this policy announcement, not just those where a consumer consented to publication.
  • Consumers can opt-out at any time: If a consumer decides at any time that he or she would like to withdraw consent to publish their narrative in the Consumer Complaint Database, he or she has the ability to do so.
  • Complaints must meet certain criteria to qualify for narrative publication: In order for the bureau to share a consumer’s complaint narrative publicly, the complaint must meet certain requirements. These include that the complaint is submitted through the CFPB website, that the complaint is not a duplicate submission, and that the consumer has a confirmed relationship with the financial institution. Complaints will not be published if they do not meet all of the publication criteria.
  • The new policy builds on the safeguards the CFPB’s database already has in place. Complaints are listed in the database only after the company responds to the complaint or after it has had the complaint for 15 days, whichever comes first.
  • The CFPB will disclose the consumer narrative when the company provides its public-facing response, or after the company has had the complaint for 60 calendar days, whichever comes first.
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Gasoline prices surge in the Midwest this week

Spike linked to refinery issues and should be temporary

Gasoline prices in the U.S. are still lower than they have been in years but nonetheless are higher than they were a month ago. And in a handful of Midwest...

Photo
Photo © pathdoc - Fotolia

Gasoline prices in the U.S. are still lower than they have been in years but nonetheless are higher than they were a month ago. And in a handful of Midwestern states, sharply higher.

According to the AAA Fuel Gauge survey, the average price of self-serve regular in Indiana jumped 10 cents a gallon in 24 hours, from $2.16 a gallon to $2.26. In Michigan, the average price also jumped a dime a gallon, from $2.25 to $2.35 a gallon.

In Illinois, the increase is much less dramatic, rising from $2.35 a gallon to $2.38. But the average price of gasoline surged in Ohio, jumping from $2.19 a gallon to $2.29.

Patrick DeHaan, senior analyst at gas price monitoring site Gas Buddy, links the Great Lakes region price surge to refinery issues and the seasonal switch over to summer grade fuel and says the higher prices should be temporary.

Photo
Source: AAA

Conspiracy theories

“Conspiracy theories abound with these seasonal refinery problems that always have a tendency to develop almost on schedule,” DeHaan told ConsumerAffairs.

In the rest of the U.S., prices at the pump have been slowly coming down again after rising early in the year, as refineries reduced capacity for winter maintenance. In fact, AAA reports fuel prices rose 40 straight days before starting their descent.

The national average price of self-serve regular, according to AAA, is around $2.42 a gallon. AAA spokesman Michael Green says the seasonal hike in gasoline prices is being offset in part by the huge build in oil reserves and a falling price for crude.

“Crude oil prices declined by more than 10% last week due to abundant supplies, a stronger U.S. dollar, and the possibility of even more oil entering the market soon,” Green writes in a AAA commentary. “Every $10 per barrel decline in the cost of crude oil can send gas prices down by nearly 25 cents per gallon.”

West Coast price rise

West Coast gasoline prices have also started to come down a bit after that region suffered its own refinery issues, which sent prices at the pump sharply higher. In a highly unusual ranking, California has the highest average fuel cost in the nation – $3.37 a gallon – even higher than Hawaii, normally the highest in the U.S., because of taxes and transportation costs.

At the other end of the spectrum, motorists in the southeast are enjoying the lowest prices. South Carolina has the lowest average price – $2.13 a gallon.

Lower prices this summer

In some good news for consumers, DeHaan says those lower fuel prices will likely be the norm across the U.S., once refineries complete their maintenance and the switch over to the summer blend of gasoline.

“Summer time is looking good, like it will be best summer to hit the road in the last 5 years,” DeHaan said.  

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Millennials pivot into the housing market

Realtors' survey finds once-committed renters now embracing home ownership

It was just a few short months ago we reported on a trend that seemed to suggest Millennials were not rushing to buy a home. It was seen as one reason the ...

PhotoIt was just a few short months ago we reported on a trend that seemed to suggest Millennials were not rushing to buy a home. It was seen as one reason the housing market had flattened out.

A Fannie Mae survey found the percentage of the younger generation preparing to buy a home fell from 35% to 26% in just 2 years. A panel of property experts assembled by Zillow concluded that, because Millennials were content to be renters, the rate of home ownership would probably decline in the years ahead.

But Millennials seem to have changed their minds. When the National Association of Realtors (NAR) conducted its 2015 survey of generational trends, it found that Millennials represent the largest share of recent home buyers.

According to the report, those 34 and younger made up 32% of all buyers. Generation X, ages 35-49, wasn't far behind behind with a 27% share. Millennial buyers represented more than double the number of Baby Boomers buying a home.

Normal pattern

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the survey shows young adults are starting to follow the path of previous generations, albeit on a different timetable.

“Over 80% of Millennial and Gen X buyers consider their home purchase a good financial investment, and the desire to own a home of their own was the top reason given by Millennials for their purchase,” he said. “Fixed monthly payments and the long-term financial stability homeownership can provide are attractive to young adults despite them witnessing the housing downturn and subsequent slow recovery in the early years of their adulthood.”

In fact, in many housing markets rents are rapidly escalating, making a property more expensive to rent – at least on a monthly cash flow basis – than it is to own, especially since the FHA mortgage rate is hovering around 3.5%.

Yun says younger home buyers stayed out of the housing market in the aftermath of the credit crisis for obvious reasons. Many couldn't qualify for mortgages at the suddenly-imposed tougher lending standards. Others were wary of getting into the market at a time when home prices were still declining.

Could have been bigger

If not for the headwinds caused by the financial crisis, Yun believes the Millennial and Gex X share of the housing market would be much larger.

“Many millennials have endured underemployment and subpar wage growth, and rising rents and repaying student debt have made it very difficult to save for a down payment, he said. “For some, even forming households of their own has been a challenge.”

The financial crisis and the crash of the housing market was a sobering reality for many home owners who had previously considered their house a financial investment. Many who purchased near the top of the market and put little or no money down found themselves underwater – owing more on their mortgage than the house was worth.

Reset

Several years of stability in the market seems to have reset that perspective. Seventy-nine percent of all buyers in the survey considered their home purchase a good financial investment, with Millennials and Gen X believing that more strongly than older buyers.

But today's young buyers have one distinctly different expectation than buyers a decade ago, when “flipping” a house was the norm and homeowners could often sell and move after only a couple of years.

Since home prices don't rise nearly as fast today, Millennials in the NAR survey say they plan to stay in their home for an average of 10 years.

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Four found guilty in complex scheme to fraudulently control HOA boards

Homeowners' association legal and repair jobs sent to conspirators' law firm and construction com[any

A federal jury in Las Vegas has found four defendants guilty of various counts in a bizarrely complicated scheme to fraudulently take control of various ho...

PhotoA federal jury in Las Vegas has found four defendants guilty of various counts in a bizarrely complicated scheme to fraudulently take control of various homeowners' associations (HOAs) so that the HOAs' legal work and repair jobs would be given to a law firm and construction company owned by various members of the scheme.

The FBI's Las Vegas field office announced that Vegas residents Keith Gregory, Edith Gillespie and David Ball, plus Salvatore Ruvolo of nearby Henderson, Nevada, were all found guilty of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. Gregory and Ball were also convicted of two counts of wire fraud, Ruvolo for three counts of wire fraud, and Gillespie for one count.

Another defendant, Leon Benzer, pleaded guilty to various charges last January. Benzer owned a construction company, Silver Lining Construction, which over the course of the scheme allegedly received $7 million worth of construction work from just one HOA taken over by the group.

Straw purchasers

The evidence presented at trial suggests that, from summer 2003 through early 2009, the conspirators would identify condominium complexes with “potential construction issues” that likely would require repairs. The group would then purchase condominiums in those complexes, usually hiding behind “straw purchasers” to keep their ownership secret.

After buying their way into a particular condo complex, they'd run for election to its HOA board, and ensured victory through additional deceitful tactics, including submitting fake or forged ballots, and hiring attorneys who were secretly in on the scheme in order to oversee the elections as supposedly impartial “special election masters.”

After the group took control of the HOA board for a given condominium complex, the FBI said, they would then divert HOA legal or repair business to the businesses owned by their co-conspirators. As for the condominiums they'd originally bought to join the HOAs in the first place? Evidence presented at the trial showed that 33 of the 37 condos eventually went into foreclosure.

Sentencing hearings for the defendants are scheduled to start on June 17.

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Are you and your child ready for summer camp?

Time away from home is just what some kids need after a long school year

Spring break is upon us but summer vacation is right around the corner and you might already be thinking what to do with the kids this summer. Sleep-away ...

PhotoSpring break is upon us but summer vacation is right around the corner and you might already be thinking what to do with the kids this summer.  Sleep-away camp is always a possibility.

How do you know if you and your child are really ready for an experience away from the security of home? Here are a few things to mull over.

“The biggest indicator of success with kids is if they have reasonable social skills,” says Arnie Gerson, director of Camp Bournedale, a sports-focused camp for boys in Plymouth, Mass. “Do they relate well, have good friends? Are they amenable, agreeable, that type of thing? If so, they’re going to do well at camp.”

Other things to consider: How do they do with sleepovers? Can they handle the night away? Did your child take care of themselves when they spent the night out? How were they with brushing their teeth and combing their hair?

How does your child do with routines? Camp counselors will make sure everyone is up, but they have to be independent and get dressed on time and follow the schedule. Camp is full of fun but it is also structured fun, where everything is on a schedule. Some kids need a summer free of structure just to recover from the school year. So it is something to give extra thought to.

A trusted companion

A sibling or a friend can be an asset when your child leaves home for the adventure of a lifetime. It is always a comfort to have a friend that can help with the few moments of homesickness to at least commiserate or push your child through the experience. Is there a companion that can share the experience with them?

Are you as a parent ready to pack up your most beloved possession and send them on their way and handle not being there to monitor what they eat and wear? What if those pearly whites miss a few days without the toothbrush?  Are you willing to let them discover how resilient they are and how they can make choices and be just fine with them? You both will find out how competent they can actually be.

Michael Thompson, the author of “Homesick and Happy” says that if you want an independent child, you have to master your own childsickness.

"Try remembering the sweetest moments from your own childhood. Most adults tell me that the sweetest, most memorable times of their childhood were when they were away from their parents, doing something with friends in the out-of-doors, taking a challenge or doing something a bit risky,” she said.

That sounds like summer camp in a nutshell.
  

 

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“Integration of data” versus “cross-device tracking”: what are online advertisers doing?

Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, to-may-to, to-mah-to....

Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission announced it was seeking public comment about the privacy implications of the growing marketing/advertising practic...

PhotoYesterday, the Federal Trade Commission announced it was seeking public comment about the privacy implications of the growing marketing/advertising practice of what the FTC calls “cross-device tracking,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

Basically, cross-device tracking means that instead of tracking your online activities and identity on one electronic communications device, you can be tracked across multiple devices, so that advertisers and tech companies in addition to the NSA and whoever the heck else can easily connect the dots and know what you're doing on your laptop and your desktop and your smartphone and your tablet.

The advertisers and tech companies who engage in cross-device tracking do not actually call it “cross-device tracking,” however; they are more likely to talk about the “integration of data.” And integration is a good thing, right? Sure sounds like it. After all, it's the opposite of “segregation,” which in turn has nasty connotations for anyone familiar with modern American history.

New ad tools

So last September, when Facebook announced that it would start using new advertising tools to let it track Facebook users' online activities across multiple devices, Facebook shunned words like “tracking” and instead discussed how it would “integrate” people's online activity across multiple devices. No “tracking” and certainly no “spying,” only integrating.

Today, the day after the FTC announced it wanted to discuss the privacy implications of cross-device tracking, AOL announced that it would enter a partnership with tech-marketing company Kenshoo to start integrating data across Facebook and Twitter, via an upcoming new advertising platform called “One.”

MediaPost first broke the news on Thursday, in a story headlined “Two to 'One': AOL Platform Now Targets Facebook And Twitter Users.” From an advertisers' or marketers' perspective the Kenshoo product does indeed sound pretty useful, allowing brands to “advertise across its network” and “open[ing] new opportunities for brands to target content … to specific audience segments,” as MediaPost put it, because “The platform signals a move toward the destruction of silos and integration of data.”

“Integration” again. Not cross-device tracking, nor any type of tracking at all, only integration. The words “track” and “tracking” aren't mentioned at all.

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Bill would outlaw marketing and sales of e-cigarettes to minors

Manufacturers using candy flavors to appeal to children

Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and five co-sponsors today introduced a measure that would ban companies from selling and marketing e-cigarettes to ...

PhotoCongresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and five co-sponsors today introduced a measure that would ban companies from selling and marketing e-cigarettes to children. It would also direct the FDA to establish regulations for their safe packaging, doses, and labeling.

“E-cigarette makers think they can take us back to the days of Joe Camel,” said Speier. “They are selling nicotine to children in flavors like gummy bear, cotton candy, and chocolate cake. Something is gravely wrong with that picture. The SMOKE Act (Stop Selling and Marketing to Our Kids E-Cigarettes) would establish that e-cigarettes are for adults, not minors, and it would ensure they are safely regulated and packaged so that they can’t harm children.

The SMOKE Act would direct the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to prohibit e-cigarette advertising that increases usage of the products by children. It would designate such advertising as an unfair or deceptive practice and vest the FTC and state attorneys-general with authority to prosecute violators and subject them to penalties.

More authority

The act would also give the FDA authority to ban e-cigarette sales to minors. It would require the FDA to establish childproof packaging standards, dosage limits, maximum levels of nicotine concentration, and nicotine concentration labeling requirements.

The bill would mandate a study on the impact that e-cigarette flavorings have on children’s use and smoking cessation, requiring the FDA to consider banning or restricting flavorings based on those findings.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that e-cigarette use by middle and high school students more than tripled from 2011 to 2013. Lack of child proof packaging has led to an escalating number of e-cigarette-related calls to Poison Control Centers, 51.1 percent of which involved young children, Speier noted.

E-cigarettes contain poisonous and addictive chemicals including nicotine and 5 to 15 times the level of formaldehyde present in regular cigarettes, she said.

The bill is supported by American Association of Cancer Research (AACR).

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Target offers $10 million settlement over 2013 data breach

Individual victims could claim up to $10,000 in damages, if a federal judge accepts Target's proposal

Target has offered to pay $10 million to settle class actions related to its massive pre-Christmas customer payment-card data breach from 2013, which compr...

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MINI Cooper illegally denied warranty repairs: FTC

Dealers told customers their warranties would be voided if they went elsewhere for service

Is it true that if you don't take your car to the dealer for service your warranty will be voided? The answer is a resounding "No" as BMW has just been rem...

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California senator wants clearer labels on baby furniture containing flame retardants

The chemicals have been linked to cancer, hyperactivity and other maladies

​Fire is dangerous but so are the chemicals that slow the spread of flames in furniture. And a California state senator thinks parents should have a choice...

PhotoFire is dangerous but so are the chemicals that slow the spread of flames in furniture. And a California state senator thinks parents should have a choice about which risks their children ae exposed to.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) is pushing a bill that would require juvenile products to be clearly labeled with whether or not they contain flame retardant chemicals.

Although they may increase safety in the event of a fire, these chemicals have been linked to health hazards like cancer, infertility, hormone disruption, and hyperactivity. The look and the feel of the products is soft and safe, but flame retardants can create carbon monoxide when burned. This is not only a threat to families, but also can also be hazardous to firefighters, Leno said.

Leno is looking to cover as many child-oriented items as possible in his new legislation, Senate Bill 763. This includes bassinets, high chair pads, nap mats, strollers, kid’s upholstered furniture, infant seats, baby carriers worn by parents, and many more. The new bill also would apply to common household items that children come into contact with on a daily basis.

Consumer options

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Sen. Mark Leno

This is not Leno’s first attempt at getting flame retardants in check. He has been a longtime advocate of updating California’s flammability standards, which led to prevalent use of fire retardants in the first place.

Leno’s main goal is to let consumers have options when making important purchases, he said.

“It’s important to label them because these are products with which our youngest and most vulnerable have their most intimate daily contact. They’re possibly sucking on them, they’ve got their head buried in them, they’re embraced by them, and these chemicals are most dangerous to them,” Leno said.

If passed, Leno’s bill could have some serious consequences for those that don’t label their goods appropriately. There would be fines and penalties if a company doesn’t adhere to the guidelines. A first offense could carry a $1,000 fine, which could be increased to $10,000 for a fourth or subsequent violation.

Not everyone agrees with Leno. The American Chemistry Council says the retardants are a vital tool and already subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

We should “not lose sight of the fact that flame retardants provide an important layer of fire protection and help save lives,” said council spokesman Brian Goodman. His alternative to Leno’s proposition would have legislators work with California policymakers to “build on the progressive fire safety measures that have been responsible for the reduction in fires and fire deaths in California over the last several decades”.

Leno's bill has been co-sponsored by the California Professional Firefighters, the Center for Environmental Health, and the Consumer Federation of California.

Leno says his objective is to give consumers the option to make informed choices on what they want to expose their families to. He thinks that providing this option will also help create an industry standard which will have an effect on the world market. People will be able to make clear choices on what they prefer.

--

Additional editing and reporting by Christopher Maynard

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Good records key to claiming gifts to charity

Make sure you get all the breaks allowed by law

You're a good person -- you contribute to worthwhile charities, right? The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says that in order to make sure you claim all th...

PhotoYou're a good person -- you contribute to worthwhile charities, right?

 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says that in order to make sure you claim all those donations when you file your federal tax return you need to make sure you have accurate record.

 

In particular, this includes insuring you have received required statements for 2 contribution categories: each gift of at least $250 and donations of vehicles.

 

What the law requires

 

First, to claim a charitable contribution deduction, donors must get a written acknowledgment from the charity for all contributions of $250 or more -- both cash and property. For the latter, the acknowledgment must include -- among other things -- a description of the items contributed.

 

In addition, the law requires that taxpayers have all acknowledgments in hand before filing their tax return. These acknowledgments are not filed with the return but must be retained along with other tax records.

 

Second, special reporting requirements generally apply to vehicle donations, and taxpayers wishing to claim these donations must attach any required documents to their tax return. The deduction for a car, boat or airplane donated to charity is usually limited to the gross proceeds from its sale.

 

This rule applies if the claimed value is more than $500. Form 1098-C or a similar statement, must be provided to the donor by the organization and attached to the donor’s tax return.

 

The IRS says taxpayers should be sure any charity they are giving to is a qualified organization. Only donations to eligible organizations are tax-deductible. Select Check, a searchable online tool available on IRS.gov, lists most organizations that are eligible to receive deductible contributions.

 

In addition, churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and government agencies are eligible even if they are not listed in the tool’s database.

 

Who can claim

 

Only taxpayers who itemize their deductions on Form 1040 Schedule A can claim gifts to charity. Thus, taxpayers who choose the standard deduction cannot deduct their charitable contributions. This includes anyone who files a short form (Form 1040A or 1040EZ).

 

A taxpayer will have a tax savings only if the total itemized deductions (mortgage interest, charitable contributions, state and local taxes, etc.) exceed the standard deduction. Use the 2014 Form 1040, Schedule A to determine whether itemizing is better than claiming the standard deduction.

 

Besides Schedule A, taxpayers who give property to charity usually must attach a special form for reporting these noncash contributions. If the amount of the deduction for all noncash contributions is over $500, a properly-completed Form 8283 is required.

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Initial jobless claims edge higher

Moderate economic growth is being forecast for the months ahead

There was a slight uptick last week in the number of people applying for the first time for state unemployment benefits last week. According to the Labor ...

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

There was a slight uptick last week in the number of people applying for the first time for state unemployment benefits last week.

 

According to the Labor Department (DOL), initial claims rose by 1,000 from the previous week's revised level of 290,000 to 291,000 in the week ending March 14.

 

Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were calling for an increase to 293,000. Analysts say the claims level below 300,000 suggests a small improvement in the labor market, but add that the volatility of recent weeks makes it hard to determine market conditions.

 

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile, was 304,750 -- an increase of 2,250 from the previous week.

 

The full report is on the DOL website.

 

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© Melpomene - Fotolia

Leading Economic Index

 

From The Conference Board, word that its Leading Economic Index (LEI) was up 0.2% in February, following advances of 0.2% and 0.4% in January and December, respectively.

 

"Widespread gains among the leading indicators continue to point to short-term growth," said Ataman Ozyildirim, a Conference Board economist. "However, easing in the LEI's six-month change suggests that we may be entering a period of more moderate expansion. With the February increase, the LEI remains in growth territory, but weakness in the industrial sector and business investment is holding economic growth back, despite improvements in labor markets and consumer confidence."

 

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

 

  1. Average weekly hours, manufacturing
  2. Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance
  3. Manufacturers' new orders, consumer goods and materials
  4. ISM Index of New Orders
  5. Manufacturers' new orders, nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft orders
  6. Building permits, new private housing units
  7. Stock prices, 500 common stocks
  8. Leading Credit Index
  9. Interest rate spread, 10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds
  10. Average consumer expectations for business conditions
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Wegmans Organic Walnut Halves & Pieces recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

First Source of Buffalo, N.Y., is recalling 3,276 plastic tubs of Wegmans Organic Walnut Halves & Pieces. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella....

PhotoFirst Source of Buffalo, N.Y., is recalling 3,276 plastic tubs of Wegmans Organic Walnut Halves & Pieces.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

There have been no reported illnesses associated with this recall to date.

 

The recalled product, in 6-oz tubs, was distributed to Wegmans’ 85 stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts between January 27, 2015, and March 17, 2015.

 

The following product is being recalled:

 

  • Wegmans Organic Food You Feel Good About Walnut Halves & Pieces, NET WT 6-oz, packed in clear plastic tubs; Best Before 1/27/16 (located on the bottom label); UPC: 077890358009

 

Consumers who purchased this product should return it to the service desk at Wegmans for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Wegmans consumer affairs department toll free at 1(855) 934-3663 Monday through Friday, between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. ET.

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Stoneridge Wholesale Division recalls pork tenderloin product

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

StoneRidge Wholesale Division of Wautoma, Wis., is recalling approximately 31,851 pounds of pork tenderloin product. The product contains milk, a known al...

PhotoStoneRidge Wholesale Division of Wautoma, Wis., is recalling approximately 31,851 pounds of pork tenderloin product.

 

The product contains milk, a known allergen not declared on the product label.

 

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

 

The following product, produced from March 2, 2014 through Mar. 16, 2015, is being recalled:

 

  • 1 to 2-lb. vacuum sealed packages of “StoneRidge Roasted Garlic Pork Tenderloin.”

 

The recalled product bears the establishment number “EST. M33989” inside the USDA mark of inspection and “use or freeze by” dates through Apr. 30, 2015, and was shipped to retail locations in Illinois and Wisconsin.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Trevor Diedrick at (920) 787-5444 Ext. 302.

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Honda recalls Accords, Civics and Pilots

Excessive internal pressure may cause the front air bag inflator to rupture

American Honda Motor Company is recalling 104,871 model year 2001 Accords, 2004 Civics and 2008 Pilots. Upon deployment of the driver side front air bag,...

American Honda Motor Company is recalling 104,871 model year 2001 PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Company is recalling 104,871 model year 2001 Accords, 2004 Civics and 2008 Pilots.

 

Upon deployment of the driver side front air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture. In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the driver side front air bag, the inflator could rupture with metal fragments striking and potentially seriously injuring the vehicle occupants.

 

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver side front air bag inflator in all affected vehicles, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-800-999-1009.

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Vitamin Cottage expands recall of organic garlic powder

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets, Inc., a Lakewood, Colorado based natural grocery chain, is expanding its February recall of Natural Grocers brand org...

PhotoVitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets, Inc., a Lakewood, Colorado based natural grocery chain, is expanding its February recall of Natural Grocers brand organic garlic powder to include all lots.

 

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

The company says it has received no reports of illness to date.

 

The recalled product is packaged in clear plastic bags with Natural Grocers label notating Julian pack on dates and pricing per pound. The product was produced in size ranges of 0.25 pound to 0.30 pound.

 

The lots being recalled are identifiable by Julian packed on date and include:

 

  • 61-15, 40-15, 20-15, 351-14, 006-15, 316-14, 329-14, 288-14, 301-14, 275-14, 267-14, 252-14, 237-14

 

The product was distributed to Natural Grocers’ 95 stores in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

 

Consumers can find the specific locations of Natural Grocers stores at: http://www.naturalgrocers.com/store-locations.

 

Only packages bearing the Julian packed on dates listed above are subject to recall.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 303-986-4600, ext. 531, Monday through Friday 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. MST.

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Data breach at Premera Blue Cross affects 11 million medical and financial records

Information dating as far back as 2002 might be at risk; observers suspect Chinese involvement again

Health-insurance company Premera Blue Cross admitted yesterday that the financial and medical records of at least 11 million people (dating as far back as ...

PhotoHealth-insurance company Premera Blue Cross admitted yesterday that the financial and medical records of at least 11 million people (dating as far back as 2002) were stolen in a data breach.

On the website PremeraUpdate.com, which the company established to post information about the breach, Premera said it “has been the target of a sophisticated cyberattack” which initially started on May 5, 2014. The company first learned of this on January 29, 2015, and waited until yesterday to announce this to the public.

The brands affected by this breach include Premera Blue Cross, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, and the affiliated brands Vivacity and Connexion Insurance Solutions, Inc.

As for what information the hackers may have stolen, Premera's statement says that:

Our investigation determined that the attackers may have gained unauthorized access to applicants and members’ information, which could include member name, date of birth, email address, address, telephone number, Social Security number, member identification numbers, bank account information, and claims information, including clinical information. This incident also affected members of other Blue Cross Blue Shield plans who sought treatment in Washington or Alaska.
Individuals who do business with us and provided us with their email address, personal bank account number or social security number are also affected. The investigation has not determined that any such data was removed from our systems.  We also have no evidence to date that such data has been used inappropriately.

Watch the mail

Premera intends to send letters notifying affected customers and employees. The website also specifically said that:

Premera won't email you or make unsolicited phone calls to you regarding this incident. Please be on the alert if you are contacted and asked to provide personal information.

Despite this warning, there will be plenty of would-be scammers posing as Premera representatives, sending emails or making phone calls to intended victims in hope of cheating them. Delete any email and hang up on any caller claiming to be from Premera with information about this breach.

If you have been affected in this breach, Premera says it will offer two years of free credit monitoring and identity protection, for those who enroll by Sept. 20.

Who is behind this hacking? Premera hasn't said, but security expert Brian Krebs suggests that the hackers might have the backing of the Chinese government.

The Chinese are also suspected of being behind other recent high-profile hackings, including the Anthem insurance hacking discovered last month, last November's announced hacking of a U.S. Postal Service database containing the personal information of 800,000 USPS employees, and the discovery last July that hackers breached the federal Office of Personnel Management, stealing the data of up to 5 million government employees and contractors who hold security clearances. (China's government, for its part, has repeatedly denied any role in any American hacking activities, and points out that hacking is illegal under Chinese law.)

Premera is working with the FBI and also with the security firm Mandiant which, as Krebs points out, specializes in identifying and blocking attacks from state-sponsored hacking groups, particularly those based in China.

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Energy costs are low but electric bills aren't

Home builders find electric bill biggest cost of owning a home

The National Association of Homebuilders recently studied the consumer costs of owning a home. The biggest, far and away, was paying the monthly electric b...

PhotoThe National Association of Homebuilders recently studied the consumer costs of owning a home. The biggest, far and away, was paying the monthly electric bill.

In every state electric utilities are regulated, but even so the rates consumers pay to keep the lights on and, in some cases heat and cool their homes, has been going up. Because different states have different ways of regulating utilities, the average monthly electric bill can vary widely, depending on where you live.

Outside of Alaska and Hawaii, the states with the highest average monthly bill are located in the west south central U.S. and include Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. The average monthly electric bill in that region was $126.75 in 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

In the Pacific region, made up of California, Oregon, and Washington, the average bill is the lowest in the U.S. – $90.84. The state with the highest average monthly electric bill was Hawaii at $190.36 or nearly 2.5 times the average electric bill in New Mexico, which was the lowest in 2013 at $76.56.

Not all energy is getting cheaper

It may seem counter-intuitive for consumers, but at a time when they are paying sharply reduced prices for gasoline to power their cars and trucks, they are paying more to their utility for electricity. In fact, the EIA stats show residential consumers are paying more for electricity that businesses.

The average retail price paid by residential consumers in 2013 was 12.13 cents/kWh. The average retail price paid by commercial consumers was 10.31 cents/kWh while industrial consumers paid 6.88 cents/kWh.

While an overabundance of oil is mostly responsible for driving down the price of gasoline at the pump, electricity “supplies” are not increasing nearly as fast.

As we reported last week, U.S. utilities are projected to add 20 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity to the power grid this year but are expected to remove 16 GW of capacity – mostly coal generating plants. That leaves a net gain of only 4 GW.

Much of the new capacity is being generated through alternative energy sources, most notably wind. But EIA points out not all power sources deliver the same bang for the buck.

“Because different types of generating capacity have very different utilization rates, with nuclear plants and natural gas combined-cycle generators having utilization factors three to five times those of wind and solar generators, capacity measures alone do not directly show how much generation is actually provided by new capacity of each type,” EIA said in a report.

What to do

For consumers who have endured a bitterly cold winter and look forward to higher air conditioning bills in the months ahead, conservation measures are the best way to keep electric bills in check.

If you have an electric water heater, lower the temperature. Most homes heat water at higher than necessary temperatures, requiring additional electricity to maintain that level.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates a water heater set at 140 degrees or hotter can waste more than $60 in energy costs were year.

Change your HVAC air filter on a regular basis. If possible, replace the disposable filter with a reusable one. When filters fill up with dirt and lint it increases the work load on the air handler, using more electricity.

If your appliances are old, consider an update. New appliances are much more energy efficient. If you are going to eventually have to replace them, doing it sooner rather than later will start saving on your monthly electric bill.

A programmable thermostat can quickly pay for itself. By raising the home's temperature during the hours no one is home and then restoring the comfort level just before the family is scheduled to return, a programmable thermostat can dramatically trim electricity costs.

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Mac 'n cheese a health food? How did that happen?

Skeptics wary of Kraft winning seal of approval from dietitians

Grilled cheese has been a food staple of children for many years. This gooey delicacy has made food trucks famous and brought relief to the beleaguered par...

PhotoGrilled cheese has been a food staple of children for many years. This gooey delicacy has made food trucks famous and brought relief to the beleaguered parents of young, picky eaters.

Despite its tastiness and easy construction, though, many have had reservations about its dietary benefits, fearing that the Kraft American Cheese slices, typically the main ingredient of the meal, were not healthy for children.

In fact, the dish was traditionally viewed as more of a “junk food”. Well, it may come as surprise, then, that some Kraft products are receiving a seal of approval from professional dietitians.

As of 2015, Kraft American Cheese slices became the first product to earn a seal of approval from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics -- an organization made up of 75,000 registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals.

Kids Eat Right

PhotoWith the seal of approval, Kraft is now able to adorn the packaging of its Singles products with the academy’s new “Kids Eat Right” label -- something that may attract consumers who are looking for healthy food alternatives for their children.

In an age of increased health consciousness, the seal of approval could not have come at a better time for Kraft. Parents still want foods that are easy to prepare, but there has been a shift in what types of ingredients they are willing to put in their children’s bodies. Many are trying to persuade their children to eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables to replace less wholesome snacks.

One main dietary ingredient that has assumed increased importance is calcium. According to Kari Ryan, director for nutrition science and regulatory affairs at Kraft, 80% of girls and 75% of boys between the ages of 4 and 18 do not get enough calcium, while almost half of all children lack adequate vitamin D in their diets.

Ryan, who is also a dietitian and member of the academy, said that both Kraft and her organization have a mutual goal to drive education and awareness of the dietary needs of children to the public.

The academy says that while the seal of approval is not necessarily an endorsement, it does help advance the goals of the “Kids Eat Right” program. The executive director of the academy, Mary Beth Whalen, points out that including the logo on Kraft packaging drives “broader visibility to KidsEatRight.org, a trusted educational resource for consumers.”

No poster company

Kraft hasn't necessarily been the poster company for children's health advocates and have been the target of criticism is the past. Detractors balk at the amount of fat, sodium, sugar, artificial dyes, and preservatives that are included in many Kraft products.

As of 2003, the FDA ordered the company to change the language on packages of Singles and Velveeta because, in addition to milk and other dairy products, they contained “milk protein concentrate”, which isn’t quite the real thing. The ingredient did not fall under the FDA’s definition of a “pasteurized process cheese food”, which is how Kraft had labeled it.

The academy is also taking heat from those who question its motives. Over the past few years, there have been several allegations that the academy has created ties that are too close to certain industries.

Companies such as PepsiCo, Kellogg, and ConAgra have attended several annual academy meetings -- sometimes holding seminars and providing samples for members.

Andy Bellati, who is the founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, said that one “would think that an organization that has come under fire for so many years for its relations with food companies might pick something other than a highly processed cheese product for its first endorsement.” 

---

Additional reporting and editing by Christopher Maynard

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Dog tags becoming extinct in San Antonio

Pets will need a microchip instead

San Antonio may become one of the first cities to do away with dog and cat licenses. Actually they aren't getting rid of the licenses, just the little tag ...

Photo
Staff photo

San Antonio may become one of the first cities to do away with dog and cat licenses. Actually they aren't getting rid of the licenses, just the little tag that the animals have to wear.

The tags are proof that the dog or cat has been vaccinated and also lists their address. That will all be passé if the city council goes ahead with a plan to eliminate the tags and require microchips instead. 

Lisa Norwood of San Antonio Animal Care Services says the microchip makes more sense, as veterinarians' offices and ACS now have the equipment to read the information which is stored on pet microchips.

"What it does is provides a lifetime identification for your pet," she said.  "Micro-chipping is really easy. It is a onetime implantation, a onetime investment." 

The American Humane Association estimates over 10 million dogs and cats are lost or stolen in the U.S. every year. Many end up in shelters.

It's part of an effort to become a no-kill city. If lost pets can be quickly returned to their owners, they won't be filling up shelters, which often leads to euthanizing animals.

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You can send money through Facebook Messenger

Tie your debit card to your Facebook account and pay away

It's always been easier to spend money than to make it. And now it's even easier yet for Facebook users, who can now send money to one another through the ...

PhotoIt's always been easier to spend money than to make it. And now it's even easier yet for Facebook users, who can now send money to one another through the company’s standalone messaging app, Messenger.
 
Just link your debit card to your Facebook account and you'll be able to send and receive payments from others using Messenger.

The Messenger app now includes a small “$” icon above the keyboard which opens a payments screen where you type the amount you want to send.
 
The money is then transferred through Facebook, which holds the money for “seconds” before sending it along to the other user’s bank. 

How to do it

Here's the procedure as Facebook outlines it:

To send money:

Start a message with a friend
Tap the $ icon and enter the amount you want to send
Tap Pay in the top right and add your debit card to send money

To receive money:

Open the conversation from your friend
Tap Add Card in the message and add your debit card to accept money for the first time

The money you send is transferred right away. It may take one to three business days to make the money available to you depending on your bank, just as it does with other deposits.

The new product makes Facebook an instantaneous competitor to other peer-to-peer payments companies like Venmo, Square, and even Snapchat, which rolled out a similar pay-through-text service in November called Snapcash.

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Federal Trade Commission seeks public comment about “cross-device tracking"

Cookies only track your online activities on one device.

The Federal Trade Commission announced today that it will hosting a workshop this November to examine the privacy issues surrounding the practice of “cross...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission announced today that it will hosting a workshop this November to examine the privacy issues surrounding the practice of “cross-device tracking," which the FTC describes as “the tracking of consumers' activities across their different devices for advertising and marketing purposes.”

Prior to this workshop, the FTC will be collecting public comments on the matter through mid-October.

Pretty much everyone with any type of Internet connection knows about tracking cookies and has seen them in use, too: they're the reason anybody who searches for or reads information about Niftywidgets will start seeing Niftywidget ads on every subsequent website they visit.

But cookies are device-specific: the cookies on your laptop won't put Niftywidget ads on your smartphone and tablet, or vice versa.

Integrated activities

Of course, various tech companies and advertisers would like to change that. Last September, for example, Facebook announced its introduction of a new advertising program called Atlas, which marketers and advertisers liked for its ability to “integrate” your online activity across multiple devices: if you use your smartphone to look at items on Niftywidgets.com, then the next time you visit Facebook on your laptop or other non-smartphone device, you'll see Niftywidget ads in your feed.

This is the sort of cross-device tracking the FTC intends to discuss at its Nov. 16 workshop. As the FTC's statement explains:

The use of multiple devices creates a challenge for companies that want to reach these consumers with relevant advertising.  The traditional method of using cookies to track consumers’ online activities are proving to be less effective. A cookie may not provide  a complete picture of a consumer who uses different web browsers at home, at work and on their mobile device, for example.

Industry has adopted different approaches to address this issue [including] … methods that rely on various characteristics about a user to match their behavior from one device to another – often without the consumers’ awareness or control.

The FTC’s workshop seeks to address a number of questions about the potential benefits to consumers of effective cross-device tracking, as well as to examine the potential privacy and security risks.

The FTC will also be seeking comment from members of the public until Oct. 16. Comments can be submitted online here.

Be succinct; each comment is limited to 4,000 characters.

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Bad news is good news for consumers, study finds

Economists make an alarming discovery: news is helpful

Journalists are puzzled, even miffed, when consumers complain about "bad" news. To us, it's like calling medicine "bad" because you only take it when you'r...

PhotoJournalists are puzzled, even miffed, when consumers complain about "bad" news. To us, it's like calling medicine "bad" because you only take it when you're sick. 

The purpose of news is to point out things that need attending to, that citizens need to know about, after all. It's bad when important things go unreported, not the other way around.

A group of economists at Washington State University recently stumbled onto this rather simple truth through a study that looked at the way people use information from news articles to enhance their well-being and avoid losses.

Their model analyzed how much happiness consumers derived from choosing either bad or good news. The results showed greater individual benefit from reading the bad news.

Collectively, this tendency creates a societal preference for negative news stories said Washington State professor Jill McCluskey.

Idle speculation

"Newspapers act on this demand by reporting more bad news to attract readers and sell more papers," she concluded, just as one might conclude that university professors conduct studies to raise their professional standing and improve their income.   

In designing their study, the researchers built their model on an economic theory asserting that as an individual's income increases, the impact of each additional dollar diminishes.

"When you are very poor and hungry, for example, each dollar is worth a lot as it helps you buy enough food to eat," McCluskey said. "But once you have more money and can count on regular meals, it's the losses that will affect you more. In terms of happiness and well-being, a $1,000 loss will affect you more than a $1,000 windfall."

The same idea applies to information offered in newspapers, the Internet, TV or radio, she said. In their model, the researchers used a measurement called utility to assess the benefits or drawbacks people get from consuming a good or service - in this case, positive and negative news stories.

Their findings highlight a strong human tendency to avoid risk.

McCluskey said consumers read good news to glean information about benefits from a positive event, which might improve their own income or welfare. Reading about the success of a Fortune 500 company, for example, might help one decide to invest in their stock.

Bad news, on the other hand, provides information on how to avoid a negative event or loss to one's well-being. Reading bad news helps consumers avoid making bad choices.

"Food scares are a good illustration as they are widely covered by the media," McCluskey said. To protect their health, "people choose to avoid the suspected food - such as beef during the Mad Cow scare, or spinach with the E.coli outbreaks."

Over time, McCluskey said the model clearly showed individuals gain a greater advantage from reading bad news than good news. These consumers, either consciously or subconsciously, then continue to choose newspapers with more negative reporting.

In response, news outlets take advantage of that risk aversion to maximize their profits, she asserted. 

Bad news badness

Despite its benefits to readers, bad news generates negative consequences of its own, the researchers found. For instance, too much bad news can be depressing to some people.

And bad news can lead to extended or exaggerated responses to a negative event.

"Even after the E. coli scare was over, people still wouldn't buy spinach. There can be a lot of impact on growers and wasted food with these scares," she said. McCluskey did not say whether the researchers thought some consumers might have avoided being poisoned by reading news reports of the E. coli outbreak. 

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Internet Explorer drifts into history

Despite its privileged parentage, IE never quite found its way in the world

It's better to be an explorer if you're living in a time when nobody knows where anything is. Christopher Columbus, Americus Vespucci, Ponce de Leon and ot...

PhotoIt's better to be an explorer if you're living in a time when nobody knows where anything is. Christopher Columbus, Americus Vespucci, Ponce de Leon and other titans of exploration basically sailed around until they bumped into something, then claimed it for their sponsor.

Back in the day, the Internet was sort of like that. There was lots of stuff available but finding it was tough. An early explorer called Netscape came along and added a graph interface to what had previously been a landscape marked only by command line gibberish.

But close behind was an explorer perhaps less intrepid but with much more marketing prowess owing to its being part of the giant armada known as Microsoft.

Microsoft lashed together an Internet browser that most regarded as inferior to Netscape but bundled it into Windows, which was itself regarded as inferior to its rivals, most of whom are thought to have sailed over the edge of the earth, never to be seen again.

Sailing away

Now Explorer is about to join them. Microsoft has announced that IE's days are numbered and it will soon by replaced by a lean and hungry young successor known for now as Project Spartan.

Like today's explorers of the physical world, Spartan will be able to navigate in all planes of being -- in other words, it will run on phones, tablets and personal computers. IE sort of limped along on computers but never really found its way on phones and tablets.

Spartan will be fast and flashy, we're told. You know, sort of like Windows 8.

10 looms

Speaking of Windows, Microsoft is now saying that its newest dreadnaught, Windows 10, will sail into view "this summer." OK, that's not too specific but that's the best Microsoft can do at the moment.

Upgrades to 10 will be available free for at least awhile to Windows 8 users. Again, details are still sketchy.

This is all part of the effort by Microsoft's new CEO, Satya Nadella, to make the company an innovator instead of a conqueror that simply sails ashore and crushes those who landed first.

It may be a tough battle though. Take the little matter of upgrades. Microsoft cranks out a new version of its operating system every few years and likes to charge a small fortune for them. Apple is on a similar calendar but its upgrades are free.

Then we have the Google Chromebook (on which this is being written), which updates itself every few days, largely in the background. The various Linux operating systems, from which the Chromebook OS is derived, do likewise. 

Besides eliminating the need to think up goofy and confusing names for updates -- Leopard, Yosemite and so forth in Apple's case; 95, XP, Vista, 7, 8 and 10 in Microsoft's -- these constant little updates keep things on course instead of letting them drift for years in between navigation corrections.

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Most consumers are in the dark about health care costs

Research finds providers slowly moving toward fee transparency

Studies show that when consumers are presented with information about what health services cost, they tend to make better decisions. The hard part, however...

PhotoStudies show that when consumers are presented with information about what health services cost, they tend to make better decisions. The hard part, however, is finding out what things cost.

New research by Public Agenda, a non-profit research organization, has found that 57% of consumers with health insurance and 51% of those lacking coverage are unaware of what their health care provider charges.

Without this information, the group says, consumers can't compare prices or look for less expensive providers when they are quoted a price they can't afford.

The study found that 56% of U.S. consumers have actively looked for prices before getting care, and 21% say they have compared prices across several providers. Of that group, nearly all say the price comparison influenced their decisions and ended up saving them money.

Consumers who compare prices charged by different providers tend to get more regular medical treatment. The study shows 42% of people who have compared prices before getting care receive regular medical treatment, compared with 33% of those who have not ever sought price information before getting care.

Make it easier to discuss prices

The authors say their findings suggest consumers want price information about their health care. They urge the industry to make it easier for providers, staff and insurance company personnel to discuss prices.

“The finding that many Americans are already trying to get price information from receptionists and hospital staff, insurance companies, doctors, hospital billing departments and nurses suggests a need to strengthen these professionals’ capacity to provide and discuss price information,” the authors write.

Consumers also need assistance in knowing where to look for price information. Part of the problem is health insurance. Some providers charge different rates, depending on whether the patient has a healthcare policy, and if so, what kind. However, a federal report recently found this does not happen as much as it once did.

Here's an example of a health care provider that posts its fee schedule, for both insured and uninsured patients.

More out-of-pocket costs

Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) went into effect, health care consumers have been getting familiar with high deductible health insurance policies, according to the latest Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF).

A high deductible means the consumer pays the first $5000 or so of medical costs each year before certain aspects of the coverage kick in. It's designed to give consumers incentive to seek out lower health care prices.

But again, if consumers don't know what the care costs, and don't know where to look for the information, they aren't in a position to save money.

While ACA has made coverage more affordable, the high deductibles often mean many consumers can't afford to use their coverage.

“We assume that households pay premiums out of current income, but that they may need to use savings or other assets if they become seriously ill in order to meet the deductible or the out-of-pocket limit under their health insurance policies,” the SCF authors write. “We show that many households, in particular those with lower incomes or where someone lacks insurance, have low levels of resources that would make it difficult for them to meet health insurance cost sharing demands.”

All the more reason, it would seem, that health care consumers need an easy, transparent way to find out what things cost.

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You can still contribute to an IRA for 2014

But you'd better hurry; time is running out

While we're well into the first quarter of 2015, it's not too late to contribute to an IRA for last year and -- in many cases -- qualify for a deduction or...

PhotoWhile we're well into the first quarter of 2015, it's not too late to contribute to an IRA for last year and -- in many cases -- qualify for a deduction or even a tax credit.

 

Individual retirement arrangements (IRAs), which have been available in one form or another since the mid-1970s, are designed to enable employees and self-employed people to save for retirement.

 

Contributions to traditional IRAs are often deductible, but distributions -- usually after age 59½ -- are generally taxable. Though contributions to Roth IRAs are not deductible, qualified distributions, usually after age 59½, are tax-free. Those with traditional IRAs must begin receiving distributions by April 1 of the year following the year they turn 70½, but there is no similar requirement for Roth IRAs.

 

Taking advantage

 

Most taxpayers with qualifying income are either eligible to set up a traditional or Roth IRA or add money to an existing account. To count for 2014, contributions must be made by April 15, 2015. In addition, low- and moderate-income taxpayers making these contributions may also qualify for the saver’s credit when they fill out their 2014 returns.

 

Eligible taxpayers can contribute up to $5,500 to an IRA. For someone who was at least age 50 at the end of 2014, the limit is increased to $6,500. There’s no age limit for those contributing to a Roth IRA, but anyone who was at least age 70½ at the end of 2014 is barred from making contributions to a traditional IRA for 2014 and subsequent years.

 

Exceptions

 

The deduction for contributions to a traditional IRA is generally phased out for taxpayers whose incomes are above certain levels and are covered by a workplace retirement plan. For someone covered by a workplace plan during any part of 2014, the deduction is phased out if the taxpayer’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) for that year is between $60,000 and $70,000 for singles and heads of household and between $0 and $10,000 for married persons filing separately.

 

For married couples filing a joint return where the spouse who makes the IRA contribution is covered by a workplace retirement plan, the income phase-out range for the deduction is $96,000 to $116,000. Where the IRA contributor is not covered by a workplace retirement plan but is married to someone who is covered, the MAGI phase-out range is $181,000 to $191,000.

 

The deduction for contributions to a traditional IRA is claimed on Form 1040 Line 32 or Form 1040A Line 17. Any nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA must be reported on Form 8606.

 

For detailed information on contributing to either Roth or traditional IRAs, including worksheets for determining contribution and deduction amounts, see Publication 590-A, available on IRS.gov.

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Mortgage applications post second straight weekly decline

Contract interest rates also were lower

Another drop in mortgage applications -- the second in as many weeks. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) reports applications were down 3.9% during ...

PhotoAnother drop in mortgage applications -- the second in as many weeks.

 

The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) reports applications were down 3.9% during the week ending March 13.

 

The Refinance Index dropped 5% from the previous week, putting the refinance share of mortgage activity at 59% of total applications -- the lowest level since October 2014. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity slipped to 5.5% of total applications.

 

The FHA share of total applications edged up to 14.3% this week from 14.0% last week. The VA share dipped to 10.3% from 10.8%, and the USDA share of total applications rose to 0.9% from 0.8% last week.

 

Contract interest rates

 

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) slipped to 3.99% from 4.01%, with points increasing to 0.40 from 0.39 (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) fell 8 basis points -- to 3.94% from 4.02%, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.27 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA dropped to 3.74% from 3.80%, with points decreasing to 0.12 from 0.20 (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 was down to 3.28% from 3.29%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs tumbled 19 basis points to 2.99%, with points increasing to 0.43 from 0.40 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

 

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

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Alewel’s Country Meats recalls beef products

The product was produced using the wrong inspection legend

Alewel’s Country Meats of Warrensburg, Mo., is recalling approximately 134 pounds of beef products. The product was produced using the wrong inspection l...

PhotoAlewel’s Country Meats of Warrensburg, Mo., is recalling approximately 134 pounds of beef products.

 

The product was produced using the wrong inspection legend.

 

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

 

The the following Buffalo Jerky items, with a “Use By” date of “06-12-15,” “05-11-15,” or “04-02-15”, and production dates of “12-11-14,” “11-11-14,” and “10-02-14.” are being recalled:

 

  • 12-lbs. vacuum-sealed packages containing 1 oz. of “BUFFALO JERKY.”
  • 26-lbs. vacuum-sealed packages containing 2 oz. of “BUFFALO JERKY.”
  • 96-lbs. vacuum-sealed packages containing 4 oz. “BUFFALO JERKY.”

 

The recalled products bear the establishment number “EST. 5766” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in Missouri.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Randy Alewel at (660) 747-8261.

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Trader Joe’s recalls raw walnuts

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Trader Joe’s is recalling its brand of raw walnuts because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. The company says it has not receive...

PhotoTrader Joe’s is recalling its brand of raw walnuts because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

The company says it has not received any illness complaints related to these recalled products.

 

The products are packaged in clear plastic bags with the UPC Codes printed on the back.

 

For the Raw California Walnut products, the “BEST BY” dates and Lot Numbers can be found printed on the back of the packages.

 

For the Organic Raw Walnut products, the “BEST BY” dates can be found printed on the front of the packages.

 

The products were distributed to Trader Joe’s stores nationwide.

 

The following products are being recalled:

UPCProduct Description“BEST BY” DatesLot Numbers
00373685Trader Joe’s Nuts Raw California Walnut Pieces – 16oz12/2015GU4345
00943338Trader Joe’s Nuts Raw California Walnut Halves & Pieces – 16 oz12/2015GU4346
GU4349
GU4356
00519342Trader Joe’s Nuts Raw California Walnut Baking Pieces– 16 oz12/2015GU4350
00519328Trader Joe’s Nuts Raw California Premium Walnut Halves – 16oz12/2015GU4343
GU4344
GU4351
GU4352
00586627Trader Joe’s Organic Raw Walnut Halves & Pieces – 12ozOCT 15 2015
OCT 16 2015
OCT 17 2015
OCT 20 2015
OCT 21 2015
NOV 17 2015
NOV 18 2015
NOV 19 2015
NOV 20 2015
NOV 28 2015
DEC 01 2015
N/A

Customers who have purchased any of the recalled products should not eat it, and dispose of it or return it to any Trader Joe’s for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Trader Joe’s customer relations at (626) 599-3817 Monday through Friday, 6:00AM to 6:00PM PST.

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Are you sharing too much information about your child?

"Sharenting" poses risks of embarrassment for the child later in life

Some parents – and even grandparents – can't resist the urge to post any and all kinds of photos and information about their kids on Facebook....

PhotoSome parents – and even grandparents – can't resist the urge to post any and all kinds of photos and information about their kids on Facebook.

You know who you are.

But pediatricians as well as privacy advocates have some real concerns about this.

“By the time children are old enough to use social media themselves many already have a digital identity created for them by their parents,” said Sarah J. Clark, associate director of the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health and associate research scientist in the U-M Department of Pediatrics.

There's a term for it – “Sharenting,” and Clark says her survey shows it isn't going away anytime soon. More than half of mothers in the survey and one-third of fathers say they discuss child health and parenting on social media and nearly three quarters of parents say social media makes them feel less alone.

Safety and privacy risks

“Sharing the joys and challenges of parenthood and documenting children’s lives publicly has become a social norm so we wanted to better understand the benefits and cons of these experiences,” Clark said. “On one hand, social media offers today’s parents an outlet they find incredibly useful. On the other hand, some are concerned that oversharing may pose safety and privacy risks for their children.”

It turns out parents have some of these concerns too. Nearly two-thirds said they were concerned someone would pick up private information about their child or share photos. More than half also conceded that what they were posting about their children online could embarrass them when they were older.

Still, parents do it. When asked why, they most often said it was to gain advice. Some of the common questions are how to get kids to go to sleep, how to get them to eat their vegetables and how to handle discipline problems.

“These networks bring parents together in ways that weren’t possible before, allowing them to commiserate, trade tips and advice, share pride for milestones and reassure one another that they’re not alone,” Clark said.

Blurred lines

But it's clearly a double-edged sword. Clark says there is potential for blurring the line between sharing and over-sharing.

“Parents may share information that their child finds embarrassing or too personal when they’re older but once it’s out there, it’s hard to undo,” Clark said. “The child won’t have much control over where it ends up or who sees it.”

While parents don't always see “sharenting” tendencies in themselves, the survey showed they are quick to pick up on it when they see it in others. Three-quarters of the parents in the poll had at least one story about extreme “sharenting,” when another parent posted embarrassing stories, posted photos that could be construed as inappropriate and even gave information that could be used to pinpoint the child's location.

It turns out that parents don't stop embarrassing their children online, even after they become teens and young adults. BuzzFeed collected numerous examples that should provide a sobering wake-up call for any parent tempted to go overboard on social media.

Spoiler alert – it's really funny.

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Virginia may limit police retention of license plate scanner data

Data not part of an active criminal investigation to be purged after seven days

If you live in modern America, there's a good chance that anytime you live your house, your movements and whereabouts are being recorded in realtime and st...

PhotoIf you live in modern America, there's a good chance that anytime you live your house, your movements and whereabouts are being recorded in realtime and stored in a database accessible to pretty much anybody willing to pay for it.

This has arguably been the case ever since digital (as opposed to film-dependent) cameras and video recorders became cheap and ubiquitous, around the start of the century. There's also the growing use of license plate scanners, often seen mounted on police cars or even at stationary points along roadways.

Those license plate scanners can record your whereabouts (well, the whereabouts of your vehicle), upload this information to a database in realtime, and maintain an extensive historical record of your outside-the-home movements, too. And in most states, there are no limits to how much of this data police can collect, nor on how long they keep it.

But some states are pushing back against such privacy encroachments. Virginia is one of them; last week, state Senate Bill 965 made it onto Governor Terry McAuliffe's desk, presumably to be signed into law. SB 965, also called the “Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act,” passed the State Senate and House of Delegates unanimously.

Seven days

The bill, if signed into law, will still allow the use of license plate scanners in Virginia – but police would be limited to holding those records for only seven days, unless there is an active, ongoing criminal investigation.

The bill says, among other things, that:

B. The General Assembly finds that:

1. An individual's privacy is directly affected by the extensive collection, maintenance, use and dissemination of personal information;

2. The increasing use of computers and sophisticated information technology has greatly magnified the harm that can occur from these practices;

3. An individual's opportunities to secure employment, insurance, credit, and his right to due process, and other legal protections are endangered by the misuse of certain of these personal information systems; and

4. In order to preserve the rights guaranteed a citizen in a free society, legislation is necessary to establish procedures to govern information systems containing records on individuals.

Democratic state senator Chap Petersen, who authored the bill, told ArsTechnicathis week that the bill was deliberately written in broad language, to cover potential future threats:

"My bill speaks broadly to any technology that is used to capture data in a passive or indiscriminate way … It could be used for facial recognition or VIN numbers. I'm not just worried about this technology, I'm worried about future technologies.
"It was clear to me that the state had no business collecting this information. I wasn't a criminal suspect, so why are they taking pictures of me? Or my wife? Law enforcement only has powers that we authorize them. They shouldn't just be able to use any tech that they want or to surveil people when they're not subject to an investigation. You can't just do it because you feel like it, and that to me is very critical."

Not hypothetical

Petersen's fears of mass surveillance are not hypothetical, not even in his own state. In 2008, for example, the Virginia State Police used automatic license plate scanners to track and record motorists who attended political events — though this information didn't come out until five years later, after the ACLU demanded to see certain law enforcement records.

If SB 965 does become state law, then such secretive monitoring will no longer be allowed in Virginia, since another section of the bill says:

Recordkeeping agencies of the Commonwealth and political subdivisions shall adhere to the following principles of information practice to ensure safeguards for personal privacy:

1. There shall be no personal information system whose existence is secret.

Privacy advocates hope that other states will follow Virginia's lead in limiting the storage time for license plate scanner data, or even go farther. New Hampshire, for example, has banned license plate tracking altogether.

Police in Boston “indefinitely suspended” their use in December 2013, after a media investigation raised serious privacy concerns.

On the other hand, while cities like Boston and states like Virginia limit their use of scanners, other cities are choosing to adopt them. The city council in Dallas voted in 2013 to start using license plate scanners.

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More consumers cut the cable cord last year

Nielsen finds dramatic increase in homes with streaming services

To be clear, most U.S. households get their video content from one of the pay-TV providers. But those cable giants have to be looking over their shoulders...

PhotoTo be clear, most U.S. households get their video content from one of the pay-TV providers. But those cable giants have to be looking over their shoulders as more households are cutting the cord and relying solely on the Internet.

Nielsen, the media ratings company, has issued a report showing a dramatic increase in the number of what it calls subscription-based video on-demand services, known as SVODs. These are households that subscribe to services like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu but not necessarily to pay TV services.

The number of these households is still quite small compared to homes that have cable, but the number is growing.

“Increased video viewing on digital platforms to both native digital content and TV-produced content, as well as the rise of subscription-based video on-demand (SVOD) across all platforms, are changing the way we look at the consumption of traditional media,” Nielsen said in its report. “While the risks and rewards are potentially high in this environment, the ability to stake a claim in the expanding industry pie is central to companies’ growth.”

40% of U.S. homes

According to Nielsen, over 40% of U.S. homes had access to an SVOD service as of November 2014, and 13% of homes had access to multiple streaming services. Their number increased by 1.75 million in 2014 while homes with pay TV services – which still make up the overwhelming majority of homes – declined by 2 million.

The numbers suggest a trend we reported a year ago is continuing. Last April Experian Marketing Services found that 48% of all U.S. adults and 67% of young adults watch streaming or downloaded video during a typical week, whether they subscribe to a cable of satellite TV service or not. And they weren't usually sitting on the couch while they were watching.

Experian found mobile was the preferred screen for watching, streaming or downloading video, with 24% of all U.S. adults and 42% of smartphone owners watching downloaded video each week.

Cost

One factor driving the trend may be costs. The typical cable TV bill is around $80 a month while the Netflix subscription costs just $8. Increasingly content is finding its way to YouTube, which can be watched for free.

Earlier this month HBO, which provides premium content to cable networks, announced it would start offering an online streaming service called HBO Now. Broadcast television networks already make much of their entertainment programming available through streaming web sites.

Streaming Seinfeld

Underscoring this trend is news that Sony Television is taking bids from streaming services for the entire Seinfeld library, currently available only through television syndication.

Live sports coverage remains pay TV's strongest hold on its core business, as the start of the NCAA basketball tournament will undoubtedly illustrate over the next few weeks.

No one expects that to change anytime soon – even though ESPN announced last month that it will stream the ICC Cricket World Cup event, “as an experiment.”

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Stress at work? Call in the dogs

Study confirms the health benefits of furry friends

​Job stress can fray nerves, keep you up at night, and contribute to health problems such as heart disease and depression. ...

PhotoJob stress can fray nerves, keep you up at night, and contribute to health problems such as heart disease and depression.

While some workplace stress is normal, excessive stress can interfere with your productivity and impact your physical and emotional health. Your ability to deal with it can mean the difference between success or failure.

“Chronic job strain can put both your physical and emotional health at risk,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, the president of the American Institute of Stress.

Being able to release that stress can only lead to better productivity in work and at home. Oxytocin is a hormone that does everything from making you feel good to helping you feel connected to others. Touching or cuddling is one way to release this hormone. It has been proven that cuddling with animals helps this as well. It is one of the reasons therapy animals are so popular.

Hormonal changes

So it's not too surprising that new research from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests the hormonal changes that occur when humans and dogs interact could help people cope with depression and certain stress-related disorders.

Preliminary results from a study show that a few minutes of stroking our pet dog prompts a release of a number of "feel good" hormones in humans, including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin.

Companies have sought out different methods for working with employees to help them reduce stress. Company gyms have become popular. Fitness programs and yoga have been integrated into the work place.

In Florida, an animal shelter is barking up the same tree to help reduce stress with a whole new approach. The Humane Society of Broward County will deliver lovable critters to snuggle with for up to an hour and a half at a time.

You can schedule friends for a snuggle delivery for a minimum donation of $150 to the shelter. Proceeds from this service will benefit all the homeless animals at the Humane Society of Broward County. Think of the possibilities.Your office can throw a snuggle party.

If you happen to find a puppy or kitten that you think is the perfect snuggle bunny (they might have those too) you will have the option to adopt it right on the spot.

"We’ll bring all the necessary paperwork with us, and the pets will be spayed/neutered prior," the spokesman said. For more info http://humanebroward.com/snuggles/

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Study links diet soda to belly fat in older consumers

Chronic consumption could raise risk of diabetes, heart attack and stroke

People drink diet soda because -- well, it's diet so they think it will help them lose weight. But a new study finds that in adults 65 and older, increasin...

PhotoPeople drink diet soda because -- well, it's diet so they think it will help them lose weight. But a new study finds that in adults 65 and older, increasing diet soda intake is directly linked to obesity, specifically abdominal obesity. Belly fat, in other words.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, raise concerns about the safety of chronic diet soda consumption, which could contribute to increased risk of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases.

Metabolic syndrome, which can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, is one of the results of the obesity epidemic.

An industry group took issue with the study.

“Previous research, including human clinical trials, supports that diet beverages are an effective tool as part of an overall weight management plan. Numerous studies have repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of diet beverages – as well as low-calorie sweeteners, which are in thousands of foods and beverages – in helping to reduce calorie intake," the American Beverage Association said in a prepared statement. "It’s important to recognize that this observational study looked at an aging population – those over 65 at the beginning of the study, who are already at risk of weight gain and cardiovascular disease – and then made conclusions based on associations."

Rates have risen

Interestingly, obesity rates have risen at the same time as diet soda's popularity has taken off. While previous studies have looked at the effects of diet soda on the young and middle-aged, this one looked at older Americans.

"Our study seeks to fill the age gap by exploring the adverse health effects of diet soda intake in individuals 65 years of age and older," explained lead author Sharon Fowler, MPH, from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "The burden of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, along with healthcare costs, is great in the ever-increasing senior population."

The study -- dubbed the San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging (SALSA) -- enrolled 749 Mexican- and European-Americans who were aged 65 and older at the start of the study (1992-96). Diet soda intake, waist circumference, height, and weight were measured at study onset, and at three follow-ups. 

"The SALSA study shows that increasing diet soda intake was associated with escalating abdominal obesity, which may increase cardiometabolic risk in older adults," Fowler concluded.

The researchers recommend that older individuals who drink diet soda daily, particularly those at high cardiometabolic risk, should try to cut back.

 

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Hyundai may roll out a small pickup truck

The "sport truck" wouldn't compete with the likes of the Ford F-150

A few weeks ago, we reported that Hyundai was planning to enter the big-truck market. It turns out the Korean automaker also has its eye on the U.S. small ...

Photo
The Hyundai Santa Cruz concept truck (Photo credit: Hyundai)

A few weeks ago, we reported that Hyundai was planning to enter the big-truck market. It turns out the Korean automaker also has its eye on the U.S. small truck market.

The Hyundai Santa Cruz has been making the rounds at auto shows lately. It's very much a small pickup, sort of like a Honda CR-V with a short truck bed where the cargo area would normally be.

Hyundai insists the Santa Cruz isn't intended to compete with "real" pickups like the Ford F-150 or the Chevrolet Colorado. Instead, it's for suburban dwellers who don't like putting bags of mulch in their nice clean crossovers. A "sport truck," if you will -- something you can drive to work during the week and to the Home Depot and garden center over the weekend.

Photo

Market research

The idea is still in the "being floated" stage but if the market research is favorable, you could be seeing the Santa Cruz in showrooms within the next few years, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Hyundai is also looking at an entry-level SUV, something smaller than its Tucson. The new model would compete with models like the Honda HR-V and the Mazda CX-3. 

Why so many new models? Hyundai is facing the plateau problem. After years of rapid growth, its sales have leveled off now that it has models in nearly every segment from compact to luxury cars. Ah, but it doesn't have any trucks or small SUVs, so the hope is that adding models in those segments will get things moving again.

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Uncle Sam may have some money for you

Refunds totaling $1 billion are available for people who didn't file a tax return for 2011

Even if you didn't file a federal income tax return for 2011, you may have some money waiting for you. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it has refu...

PhotoEven if you didn't file a federal income tax return for 2011, you may have some money waiting for you.

 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says it has refunds totaling $1 billion waiting for an estimated 1 million taxpayers. To collect the money, you have to file a 2011 tax return no later than Wednesday, April 15, 2015.

 

"Time is running out for people who didn’t file a 2011 federal income tax return to claim their refund," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. "People could be missing out on a substantial refund, especially students or part-time workers. Some people may not have filed because they didn’t make much money, but they may still be entitled to a refund.”

 

The IRS estimates half of the potential refunds for 2011 are more than $698.

 

How it works

 

In cases where a tax return was not filed, the law provides most taxpayers with a 3-year window of opportunity for claiming a refund. For 2011 tax returns, the window closes this April 15. If no return is filed to claim a refund within 3 years, the money becomes property of the U.S. Treasury.

 

The law requires the tax return be properly addressed, mailed and postmarked by that date. There is no penalty for filing a late return that qualifies for a refund.

 

A reminder: Your check may be held if you haven’t filed tax returns for 2012 and 2013. In addition, the refund will be applied to any amounts still owed to the IRS, or your state tax agency, and may be used to offset unpaid child support or past due federal debts, such as student loans.

 

A lot at stake

 

By failing to file a tax return, people stand to lose more than just their refund of taxes withheld or paid during 2011. Many low-and-moderate income workers may not have claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

 

For 2011, the credit is worth as much as $5,751. The EITC helps individuals and families whose incomes are below certain thresholds. The thresholds for 2011 were:

 

  • $43,998 ($49,078 if married filing jointly) for those with three or more qualifying children,
  • $40,964 ($46,044 if married filing jointly) for people with two qualifying children,
  • $36,052 ($41,132 if married filing jointly) for those with one qualifying child, and
  • $13,660 ($18,740 if married filing jointly) for people without qualifying children.

 

Current and prior year tax forms and instructions are available on the IRS.gov Forms and Publications page, or by calling toll-free: 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

 

Taxpayers who are missing Forms W-2, 1098, 1099 or 5498 for the years: 2011, 2012 or 2013 should request copies from their employer, bank or other payer.

 

If these efforts are unsuccessful, taxpayers can get a free transcript showing information from these year-end documents by going to IRS.gov. Taxpayers can also file Form 4506-T to request a transcript of their tax return.

 

Where they are

 

Individuals who did not file a 2011 return with a potential refund:

State or District

Estimated

Number of

Individuals

Median

Potential

Refund

Total

Potential

Refunds*

Alabama

19,900

$693

$17,794,000

Alaska

5,300

$795

$5,703,000

Arizona

27,700

$618

$23,649,000

Arkansas

10,600

$678

$9,371,000

California

103,700

$627

$92,209,000

Colorado

21,100

$668

$19,258,000

Connecticut

13,400

$777

$13,415,000

Delaware

4,800

$726

$4,579,000

District of Columbia

3,900

$736

$3,812,000

Florida

67,500

$720

$64,106,000

Georgia

36,200

$628

$31,250,000

Hawaii

7,100

$742

$6,842,000

Idaho

4,700

$595

$3,838,000

Illinois

44,000

$763

$43,177,000

Indiana

23,900

$732

$22,135,000

Iowa

11,100

$719

$10,128,000

Kansas

11,600

$667

$10,421,000

Kentucky

14,300

$736

$12,935,000

Louisiana

22,000

$693

$21,432,000

Maine

4,500

$645

$3,748,000

Maryland

25,000

$694

$23,628,000

Massachusetts

25,800

$736

$25,005,000

Michigan

36,200

$721

$34,254,000

Minnesota

16,500

$632

$14,148,000

Mississippi

11,100

$629

$9,625,000

Missouri

23,600

$655

$20,378,000

Montana

3,700

$676

$3,381,000

Nebraska

5,700

$683

$5,108,000

Nevada

13,300

$702

$12,185,000

New Hampshire

4,600

$775

$4,518,000

New Jersey

34,200

$780

$34,520,000

New Mexico

8,500

$688

$7,799,000

New York

63,400

$765

$62,809,000

North Carolina

31,700

$595

$26,248,000

North Dakota

2,600

$761

$2,591,000

Ohio

39,600

$699

$35,218,000

Oklahoma

19,300

$707

$17,988,000

Oregon

17,500

$598

$14,262,000

Pennsylvania

44,000

$770

$42,228,000

Rhode Island

3,400

$748

$3,270,000

South Carolina

13,200

$609

$11,160,000

South Dakota

2,600

$732

$2,480,000

Tennessee

20,700

$690

$18,630,000

Texas

101,800

$743

$103,164,000

Utah

8,000

$610

$6,944,000

Vermont

2,100

$707

$1,921,000

Virginia

32,100

$685

$29,647,000

Washington

28,400

$750

$28,705,000

West Virginia

5,100

$784

$5,023,000

Wisconsin

14,100

$621

$11,953,000

Wyoming

2,800

$835

$2,984,000

Totals

1,117,900

$698

$1,041,576,000

* Excluding the Earned Income Tax Credit and other credits.

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New-home construction plunges in February

Heavy snow and cold took a toll on building

How tough has this winter been? People in the home-bulding business know. According to figures released by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing...

PhotoHow tough has this winter been? People in the home-bulding business know.

 

According to figures released by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, privately-owned housing starts in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 897,000 -- down 17.0% from January and 3.3% the same month a year ago.

 

A major contributor to the decline was a slide of 14.9% in single-family construction to an annual rate of 593,000. The February rate for units in buildings with 5 units or more was 297,000, down 82,000 units from January.

 

Analysts at Briefing.com point out that record snowfall in the Northeast and extreme cold in the Midwest likely played a large part in curtailing new construction. "Housing starts in these regions declined 45.0% in February, from 262,000 in January to 144,000," they said. "Those regions," they note, "accounted for 64% of the entire February decline in housing starts."

 

"Housing clearly remains under pressure," said Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza, adding, "With consumers struggling amid minimal wage growth, housing is unlikely to be a sizable contribution to headline growth in the near term."

 

Building permit applications

 

The outlook for improvement in the months ahead is a little brighter, though.

 

Applications for building permits rose 3.0% last month to 1,092,000 00 7.7% (±2.0%) above the year-ago level.

 

Breaking that down, authorizations for single-family homes were at a rate of 620,000, down 6.2% from January, while permits for of units in buildings with 5 units came in at 445,000 a gain of 74,000 from the month before.

 

The complete report may be found on the Commerce Department website.

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Airlines improve on-time performance in January

There was both year-over year and month-over month improvement

Airline passengers saw their chances of getting to their designation on time improve during January. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Tra...

PhotoAirline passengers saw their chances of getting to their designation on time improve during January.

 

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report shows the nation’s largest airlines had an on-time arrival rate of 76.8% in January, compared with 67.7% a year earlier and 75.3% in December.

 

Additionally, the reporting carriers canceled 2.5% of their scheduled domestic flights in January – 4% improvement over the 6.5% cancellation rate posted the previous January, but worse than the 1.4% rate in December.

 

In and out

 

January marked the first month in which Spirit Airlines was required to report on-time performance and mishandled baggage data as it became a ranked carrier in those sections of the report. However, AirTran Airways no longer appears as a ranked carrier in the report as result of the completion of its merger with Southwest Airlines in December 2014.

 

Meanwhile, American Airlines and US Airways -- following their December 2013 merger announcement -- will report separately until DOT approves single carrier reporting and a single economic certificate is issued.

 

Other areas of interest

 

The Air Travel Consumer Report report also includes data on tarmac delays, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays filed with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics by the reporting carri