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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 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.”

    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...
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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 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.

    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...
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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 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.

      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.

      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.

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

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

      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...
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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) 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.

      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)...
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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 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.

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

      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.

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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, 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.     

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

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

      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 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

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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. 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.

      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...
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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 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).

      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...
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