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Experian sounds alarm over home equity loans

Credit agency concerned repayment requirements will stress many borrowers

Consumers who own homes have access to a flexible and attractive source of credit in a home equity line of credit (HELOC). But like any credit product, it...

PhotoConsumers who own homes have access to a flexible and attractive source of credit in a home equity line of credit (HELOC). But like any credit product, it must be used carefully or you can quickly land in trouble.

Experian, one of the three credit agencies that keep up with consumers' credit histories, is voicing some concern that borrowers who tapped equity 7 to 10 years ago could be facing some stress.

Experian has just issued a study showing that a large portion of HELOC loans issues between 2005 and 2008 – just before the financial crisis – are outstanding and nearing the repayment phase of the loan. With most HELOCs, the borrower can draw money for a 10-year period, then begin to repay the money – often over another 10-year period but sometimes in less time.

Financial stress

Here's Experian's concern: If there is a significant balance on the HELOC and the borrower must now stop drawing and start repaying, it could put him or her under a lot of financial stress.

There is added worry about borrowers who tapped their home's equity before the housing crash. While the housing market has recovered nicely in some areas, many people with HELOCs could still owe more than the home securing the loan is worth.

Experian estimates that outstanding balances on HELOCs taken out between 2005 and 2008 total $265 billion.

“This analysis is critical as we want to not only help lenders prepare and understand the payment stress of their borrowers, but also give consumers an opportunity to understand what the impact may be to their financial status and how to be better prepared for it,” said Michele Raneri, Experian’s vice president of analytics and business development.

More likely to go delinquent

The study concludes that consumers coming to the end of draw on their HELOC are more likely to go delinquent — not just on the HELOC loan, but also on other types of debt. It stands to reason that if you suddenly have a new debt taking funds from your monthly budget, you will have less to meet current obligations.

The Experian report highlights another trend. Since the end of the housing crash HELOCs have been steadily increasing as more homeowners take advantage of this convenient source of credit. As of the fourth quarter of last year, loan originations are up 81% over the same period of 2010.

Experian isn't quite sure how to interpret this.

Good news or bad?

“This could be a sign of the economy further recovering, yet there are still concerns about the pre-recession HELOCs that are now in repayment and how that could negatively impact consumers and the economy as a whole,” Raneri said.

Offsetting some of the concern is a bit of good news contained in the report. The percentage of HELOCs that are in late-stage delinquency – those 90–180 days past due – is down to 0.5% from its highest level of 1.81% in 2009.

Raneri says that can be viewed as a positive sign for both consumers and the industry, at least for now.

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Here's something else to think about before getting a tattoo

Body art often comes with a painful rash

Getting a tattoo should require a lot of consideration. After all, a tattoo is forever. But doctors say there may be something else to think about besid...

PhotoGetting a tattoo should require a lot of consideration. After all, a tattoo is forever.

But doctors say there may be something else to think about besides the design you want etched onto your body for the rest of your life. Researchers at the NYU Medical Center say as many as 6% of New Yorkers who get tattoos end up with some form of tattoo-related rash.

When these rashes appeared, researchers said the severe itching or swelling could last longer than four months and, in some cases, for many years.

Alarmed

“We were rather alarmed at the high rate of reported chronic complications tied to getting a tattoo,” said Dr. Marie Leger, a dermatologist and senior study investigator. “Given the growing popularity of tattoos, physicians, public health officials and consumers need to be aware of the risks involved.”

Tattoos are more than simply popular, they have become mainstream. Once mostly found on sailors, tattoos are now part of popular culture.

And just as very few middle-aged people take up smoking, tattoos are mostly embraced by the very young. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 36% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have gotten tattoos. The body art is as equally popular with women as men.

May require surgery

Leger says some cases of “tattoo rash” are treatable with anti-inflammatory steroid drugs, but others may require laser surgery. There have even been instances of particularly strong reactions when surgery was necessary to remove tattooed areas of the skin or built-up scar tissue.

While the NYU survey, conducted in New York's Central Park, is in line with previous European studies, Leger says it's impossible to know if the problem affects more than 6% of people with tattoos. With very little regulatory oversight, she says it is hard to know the true scope of tattooing complications.

For example, she says the chemical composition of colored inks used in the designs is not well understood, nor is it even standardized among manufacturers.

“It is not yet known if the reactions being observed are due to chemicals in the ink itself or to other chemicals, such as preservatives or brighteners, added to them, or to the chemicals’ breakdown over time,” said Leger. “The lack of a national database or reporting requirements also hinders reliable monitoring.”

The study also found that as many as 10% of people getting a tattoo experienced other types of short-term complications, such as delayed healing, pain, swelling, and infection within weeks of getting tattooed. Leger isn't surprised.

“The skin is a highly immune-sensitive organ, and the long-term consequences of repeatedly testing the body’s immune system with injected dyes and colored inks are poorly understood,” she said. “Some of the reactions appear to be an immune response, yet we do not know who is most likely to have an immune reaction to a tattoo.”

Tattoo removal

While tattoos are undoubtedly popular, enough people suffer buyer's remorse that there is a thriving industry in tattoo removal. Just Google “tattoo removal” and you'll find scores of dermatologists in your area offering to remove a tattoo, most often with a laser procedure.

The Mayo Clinic points out that when you get a tattoo, the ink is placed below the skin. That makes removing it a complicated, and more expensive procedure than getting a tattoo in the first place.

If you want to remove a tattoo, the clinic says you need to see a dermatologist. Do it your self remedies, such as creams, don't work.

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Is your cat allergic to fleas?

If so, summer is the time it's most likely to be miserable

Summer is approaching and with it comes high humidity and ripe conditions for fleas.  Those pesky little fleas can really cause havoc with your cats. T...

PhotoSummer is approaching and with it comes high humidity and ripe conditions for fleas.  Those pesky little fleas can really cause havoc with your cats.

The flea's saliva can cause an allergic reaction that is extremely itchy. You may find your cat itching so much it gets a secondary infection.

It doesn’t take a lot of fleas to cause an issue. Your cat can become uncomfortable with getting bitten just a couple of times every few weeks. If your cat is allergic to fleas it will be itching like crazy all the time. Some cats are more susceptible than others.

The really awful news about fleas is they don’t just take a bite and die. They have a tendency to hang around the house for a while. They have a life span of 6-12 months and will be happy to suck out as much blood as they possibly can from your little feline.

Humidity makes it worse

Heat is an invitation but the teal  key is the humidity. When the humidity is 75 to 85 percent and the temps are 65 to 80, conditions are truly flea-friendly. 

You will want to look for in your cat is severe itching. Watch for it gnawing at its tail and constantly biting it. It will also be uncomfortable on the rear end and back legs. It can scratch so severely that it will develop hot spots. Keep an eye on those if you see them because your cat can start to get infections from hot spots.

How can you tell if it’s a flea allergy or another condition? One of the best ways is to get flea medication. If it works, you have found your culprit. Your cat's past history will also be a clue. If you had the same issues last year and it’s back for this summer, then you know your cat is really allergic to fleas.

Being proactive is the best way to prevent a comeback or even a startup. Use an effective safe flea control product on your cat on a regular basis beginning one month before the flea season starts and continuing up until one month after the flea season ends.

Keep the carpet clean. Be sure to frequently vacuum and clean the carpet to remove eggs and larvae from the cat's indoor environment. Use a professional carpet cleaner to make sure you clean the carpet thoroughly.

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Service members to get $60 million in student loan refunds

Navient Corp. charged excessive interest on Sallie Mae loans

Nearly 78,000 members of the U.S. military will be getting checks ranging from $10 to more than $100,000. The checks represent excessive interest charges i...

PhotoNearly 78,000 members of the U.S. military will be getting checks ranging from $10 to more than $100,000. The checks represent excessive interest charges imposed by Navient Corp. when it was servicing student loans as part of Sallie Mae. 

The checks, totaling about $60 million, are scheduled to be mailed on June 12 and will average $771. Check amounts will depend on how long the interest rate exceeded 6% and by how much, and on the types of military documentation the service member provided.

“This compensation will provide much deserved financial relief to the nearly 78,000 men and women who were forced to pay more for their student loans than is required under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery.  “The Department of Justice will continue using every tool at our disposal to protect the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces from unjust actions and illegal burdens.”

The payments are required by a settlement that the Justice Department reached with Navient last year to resolve the federal government’s first-ever lawsuit filed against owners and servicers of student loans for violating the rights of service members eligible for benefits and protections under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). 

Nationwide pattern

The United States alleged that Navient engaged in a nationwide pattern, dating as far back as 2005, of violating the SCRA by failing to provide members of the military the 6% interest rate cap to which they were entitled for loans that were incurred before the military service began. 

There are actually three defendants -- Navient Solutions Inc. (formerly known as Sallie Mae, Inc.), Navient DE Corporation (formerly known as SLM DE Corporation), and Sallie Mae Bank -- referred to collectively as Navient.

The settlement covers the entire portfolio of student loans serviced by, or on behalf of, Navient.  This includes private student loans, Direct Department of Education Loans, and student loans that originated under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program. 

The department’s investigation of Navient was the result of a referral of service member complaints from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of Servicemember Affairs, headed by Holly Petraeus. 

The Department of Education is now using a U.S. Department of Defense database to proactively identify borrowers who may be eligible for the lower interest rate under the SCRA, rather than requiring service members to apply for the benefit.

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Insurance company tells hospitals: we shouldn't pay if you're careless with patient data

Cottage Health put unencrypted patient data online, and now Columbia Casualty cries foul

A relatively small data-theft hacking from two years ago might prove to have huge future implications regarding the thorny legal question of just who shoul...

PhotoA relatively small data-theft hacking from two years ago might prove to have huge future implications regarding the thorny legal question of just who should be responsible for the costs when customer data is stolen from companies.

In December 2013, news broke that Cottage Health System, which operates a handful of hospitals in southern California (including Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital and Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital), suffered an obvious data-security breach. Confidential data from almost 33,000 Cottage Health patients going back to September 2009 was exposed on the Internet.

This data included patients' names, addresses and dates of birth, and sometimes their diagnoses, lab results and any procedures performed.

Lawsuit filed

In February 2014, former patients filed a class-action lawsuit against Cottage Health and inSync (the company responsible for putting Cottage records in a secure online location), complaining that from Oct. 8 through Dec. 2 of the previous year, the records of people who attended any Cottage hospital from Sept. 29, 2009 through Dec. 2, 2013 were available online, and that inSync “failed to provide any encryption or other security to prevent anyone from reading the medical records.”

However the courts ruled, the data breach was bound to prove expensive for Cottage Health. Luckily, the company has insurance to cover the costs of such a data breach.

So Cottage filed a claim with its insurer, Columbia Casualty – and this month Columbia filed a counter-claim (available in .pdf form here) seeking repayment of the money it shelled out for Cottage's claim, on the grounds that the healthcare provider failed to follow “minimum required practices” as specified in the insurance policy.

17. The complaint alleges that the breach occurred because Cottage and/or its third-party vendor, INSYNC Computer Solution, Inc. (“INSYNC”), stored medical records on a system that was fully accessible to the internet but failed to install encryption or take other security measures to protect patient information from becoming available to anyone who “surfed” the internet.

18. The complaint alleges that Cottage violated its nondelegable duties under CMIA and HIPAA to maintain the security of its patients’ confidential medical records and to detect and prevent data breaches on its system that would allow such information to become available to the public through the internet.

Or, as the Naked Security blog summarized Columbia's argument: “We don't cover stupid.”

Anti-stupidity clause

Most insurance policies contain similar anti-stupidity clauses. For example, suppose your auto insurance includes coverage in case your car is stolen. You're still expected to take reasonable care to protect the car from thieves – which means, if your car gets stolen because you parked it with the doors unlocked, windows rolled down and keys in the ignition, your insurance company can probably refuse to pay on the grounds that they don't cover stupid.

And putting unencrypted, confidential patient data online where it can be seen in Google searches and other standard Internet activities is even stupider than that.

Remember earlier, when we referred to the Cottage Health data breach as a “hacking”? That's actually not the right word to describe what happened; during the two months that unencrypted data was available online, you wouldn't need to be a “hacker” to see it, anymore than you need be a “hacker” to read this news story, which is posted on a public website available to all major search engines.

And the non-hacking nature of the Cottage data breach, in turn, makes it extremely difficult to know just who might've seen that data while it was available. In fact, almost anyone might've seen that data, maybe without even realizing what they were looking at — perhaps it was one of the search results you saw when you searched the name of your old friend from high school, a former classmate who now lives in southern California and sought medical treatment a Cottage hospital earlier this decade.

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Consumer group says many auto insurance rates unfair

Consumer Federation of America draws attention to wide rate variations by ZIP code

There often seems to be little rhyme or reason to auto insurance rates. If you drive a sports car, have had a couple of claims or a speeding ticket or two,...

PhotoThere often seems to be little rhyme or reason to auto insurance rates. If you drive a sports car, have had a couple of claims or a speeding ticket or two, you understand why your rate may be higher than average.

But other reasons for a high insurance bill aren't always so clear cut.

The fact is, insurance companies take many things into consideration when setting individual rates. The Consumer Federation of America (CFA) says some of them aren't fair to consumers and the group will lobby for reform.

CFA has seized on a new report by Bankrate.com, illustrating how living in a particular ZIP code can affect what you pay for auto insurance. The report notes you can get vastly different quotes from the same insurance company at two addresses a relatively short distance apart but in different ZIP codes.

Illegal in California

This is not exactly new information. In fact, California bars insurance companies from using ZIP codes as a factor in setting auto rates. But CFA says the Bankrate report underscores the extent to which other states allow the practice and the extent to which it can make a difference in what consumers pay.

For example, in one extreme example a 30-year-old Chicago are man could pay 64% more for the exact coverage as another 30-year-old man who lived three-tenths of a mile away but in a different ZIP code.

CFA notes that insurance companies claim that the use of ZIP codes is related to actuarial loss data, but argues that whatever differences there might when comparing dense neighborhoods with sparsely populated communities cannot account for dramatic price differences being charged to drivers on different sides of a street.

"State laws require that every driver has to buy auto insurance, no matter where they live," said Stephen Brobeck, Executive Director of CFA. "So how can it be fair that insurers charge the same person radically different rates for moving just a few blocks away?"

Impact on low-income consumers

CFA says it has researched the cost of auto insurance and its impact on low to moderate income consumers. It concludes that in many low-income communities across the country, good drivers have access to few or no policies that cost less than $500 per year, which meets the standard of a reasonable price for basic insurance coverage.

It says it has also found 100% premiums spikes for good drivers with low credit scores, another metric insurance companies use to assess risk when they set rates. A recent CFA report found that some large insurers do not even consider mileage when setting auto premiums.

Trying to predict what your auto insurance premium will be isn't always easy. A recent study by personal finance website WalletHub.com found some factors you would expect to impact insurance costs didn't.

The price of the car, for example. The study found cars in the same price range could have a difference in premiums of up to 39%.

Price optimization

Price optimization is another way insurance companies set rates, and it is a practice that California is also targeting. Price optimization is a technique by which insurance companies measure the shopping habits of its customers in order to set individual premiums as high as possible regardless of a customer's risk profile.

In other words, long-time customers who do not shop other car insurance rates tend to be charged higher rates.

In February California's insurance commissioner sent notices to more than 750 insurance companies they must end that practice in the state within 6 months.

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Economy shifts into reverse

The contraction in growth is the first in a year

The economy petered out in the first three months of this year. According to the "second" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, real gross...

PhotoThe economy petered out in the first three months of this year.

 

According to the "second" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S. adjusted for price changes -- decreased at an annual rate of 0.7% in the first quarter. It was the first contraction since the first quarter of 2014 and the worst quarterly showing since the Great Recession.

 

In the advance estimate, released last month, real GDP increased 0.2 percent. With the second estimate, which is based on more complete source data than were available earlier, imports increased more and private inventory investment increased less than previously estimated.

 

Real GDP grew by 2.2% in the final 3 months of 2014.

 

The first-quarter declined primarily reflected declines in exports, nonresidential fixed investment, and state and local government spending. They were were partly offset by positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), private inventory investment, and residential fixed investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.


GDP inflation

 

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, fell 1.6% in the first quarter, a downward revision of 0.1% point from the advance estimate; this index decreased 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter.

 

Excluding food and energy prices, the price index for gross domestic purchases increased 0.2 percent, compared with an increase of 0.7 percent.

 

PCE

 

Real PCE increased 1.8% in the first quarter, compared with an increase of 4.4% in the fourth. Durable goods increased 1.1% versus 6.2%, while nondurable goods increased 0.1%, compared with an increase of 4.1%. Services increased 2.5%, compared with an increase of 4.3%.

 

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

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Government completes review of major student loan servicers

Lenders found mostly in compliance with laws protecting active duty military personnel

The U.S. Department of Education has reviewed four major student loan servicers to make sure they followed the law by extending the proper interest rates t...

PhotoThe U.S. Department of Education has reviewed four major student loan servicers to make sure they followed the law by extending the proper interest rates to active duty members of the U.S. armed forces.

For the most part, it found that they did. The report said Navient, Great Lakes, PHEAA and Nelnet complied in the vast majority of cases with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) as required by the Higher Education Act (HEA).

The reviews closely examined active-duty servicemembers' SCRA eligibility between 2009 and 2014. They reveal that in fewer than 1 percent of cases, borrowers were incorrectly denied the 6% interest rate cap required by the laws.

"For all of the sacrifices they have made on behalf of our country, our brave service members have the right to the benefits provided to them under federal law and should not be subjected to additional red tape to manage their student loans," said Under Secretary Ted Mitchell. "What's more, every student who has taken out a federal student loan should have the peace of mind that the Education Department's servicers are following the law and treating all borrowers fairly."

Streamlined process

The government says the laws for those in the military have streamlined the process for those students when they are called to active duty. Their loan rates are more or less automatically adjusted when they report for duty. Before, they had to apply for the lower interest rate and then prove they were on active duty.

The just-completed reviews were triggered by last year's Justice Department settlement with Navient and its predecessor, Sallie Mae. The settlement addressed

Navient's violations of the SCRA on federal and private student loans.

Th report also presents the results of the review of Navient’s compliance with the SCRA for federally-held FFEL Program and Direct Loan Program loans it serviced under the TIVAS contract.

Results

For the period under review, the government found that in Navient's case, it notified 52 borrowers of their potential eligibility. Navient eventually granted the cap to 16 borrowers, including 6 who were not eligible. It denied the lower rate to 7 borrowers, including 1 who should have received it.

The review found similar results for Great Lakes, PHEAA and Nelnet.

The Department of Education said it is also expanding its review of compliance with the SCRA and HEA to the Department's seven non-profit servicers as well as commercial Family Federal Education Loan (FFEL) servicers. These reviews are expected to be completed later this year.

Interest rates on student loans can vary widely, depending on the type of loan and the type of student that is borrowing. You can check current interest rates here.

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Van users urged to check tires before driving

Some common-sense actions will help keep you safe

With the so-called “summer driving season” now upon us, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is advising operators of 15-passenger va...

PhotoWith the so-called “summer driving season” now upon us, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is advising operators of 15-passenger vans to follow proper tire maintenance to avoid potentially deadly crashes.

 

Unlike passenger vehicles, 15-passenger vans, which are often used by summer camps, youth groups, and religious organizations, are substantially longer and taller than most light vehicles. These factors may increase the chance of a rollover crash if operators don't conduct routine safety checks and follow proper tire maintenance. The potential for multiple serious injuries or deaths in crashes involving these vehicles makes them an area of special concern.

 

Be alert

 

Between 2004 and 2013, 653 people died in crashes in the U.S. while riding in 15-passenger vans -- an average of 65 occupants per year, according to NHTSA data. Nearly 60% of the deaths in these crashes were in vehicles that rolled over. Making sure the vehicles have tires that are the right size and load rating which are correctly inflated will help reduce the chance of a rollover crash

 

It is also important for operators to remember that tires degrade over time, even if the tread is not worn down. Therefore, older spare tires should not be used as replacement tires. Tips for proper tire maintenance can be found on NHTSA’s TireWise website.

 

What to do

 

  • If you are a passenger, make sure you buckle up for every trip
  • If you are a driver, before every trip, check the tires for proper inflation, and make sure there are no signs of wear or damage. Correct tire size and inflation pressure information can be found in the owner’s manual and on the driver’s side door pillar.
  • Never overload the vehicle.
  • Never drink and drive.
  • If you are an owner, make sure the vehicle is regularly maintained.
  • Owners should have suspension and steering components inspected according to the manufacturer’s recommended schedule and replace or repair these parts as necessary.
  • Owners should ensure that vehicles are equipped with properly sized and load-rated tires.
  • Owners should follow manufacturer guidance on when to replace tires, including your spare. Learn how to determine the age of your tires: tirewise/tire-aging.
  • Owners should also make sure drivers are properly licensed and experienced in operating a 15-passenger van.
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FAA nails 3 companies for alleged hazardous materials violations

Civil penalties ranging from $54,000 to $81,669 have been proposed

Three companies that allegedly violated hazardous materials regulations could face civil penalties ranging from $54,000 to $81,669. In each case, the Fede...

PhotoThree companies that allegedly violated hazardous materials regulations could face civil penalties ranging from $54,000 to $81,669.

 

In each case, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) claims the shipments were not accompanied by shipping papers to indicate the hazardous nature of their contents and were not marked, labeled or packaged in accordance with the federal regs.

 

The companies also allegedly failed to provide emergency response information and ensure their employees received required hazardous materials training.

 

DGI Menard

 

The FAA contends that on Jan. 12, 2015, DGI Menard knowingly offered an undeclared hazardous material shipment to FedEx for air transport from Carnegie, Pa., to Crystal Lake, Ill. The shipment included 8 1-pint cans of Lubemaster’s Fire Up, which is a flammable liquid, and 6 bottles of Diesel Mate All Seasons, which is a flammable petroleum distillate.

 

FedEx employees at the company’s sort facility in Cary, Ill., discovered the package was leaking and notified the FAA.

 

DGI Menard which could be fined $81,669, has 30 days from receipt of the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond.

 

Aqua-Chem

 

The FAA is proposing a $54,000 penalty against Aqua-Chem of Knoxville, Tenn, alleging that on April 3, 2013, the firm offered UPS an undeclared shipment containing 6 1-pint plastic containers of corrosive phosphoric acid solution. Workers at the UPS package sort facility in Louisville, Ky., discovered the shipment.

 

Aqua-Chem has contacted the FAA about the case.

 

Rust-Oleum

 

The FAA alleges that on Jan. 5, 2015, Rust-Oleum of Vernon Hills, Ill., offered 4 containers of spray paint to FedEx for shipment by air from Vernon Hills to Huntington Beach, Calif. Employees at the FedEx sort facility in Northbrook, Ill., discovered the flammable paint and notified the FAA.

 

Rust-Oleum has 30 days from receipt of the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond to the agency, which has proposed a civil penalty of $54,000.

 

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Cycling Sports Group recalls GT Fury mountain bicycles

he front wheel hub can break and cause the disc brake system to fail

Cycling Sports Group of Wilton, Conn., is recalling about 160 GT Fury downhill mountain bicycles, The front wheel hub can break and cause the disc brake s...

PhotoCycling Sports Group of Wilton, Conn., is recalling about 160 GT Fury downhill mountain bicycles,

 

The front wheel hub can break and cause the disc brake system to fail, posing crash and injury hazards to the consumer.

 

The company has received 2 reports of broken hubs. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves all 2015 model year GT Fury Elite and GT Fury Expert downhill mountain bicycles. The recalled 2015 Fury Elite model is white with blue and red accents. The recalled 2015 Fury Expert model is metallic grey with lime green accents.

 

The bicycles have front and rear disc brakes and come with rear shock absorbers and front suspensions. "Fury" is printed on the top tube, the GT logo is on the down tube and the chainstay. The model names are printed in small letters on the top tube of the bicycles near the word Fury.

 

The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at authorized GT dealers from November 2014, to March 2015, for between $3200 and $4400.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and return them to the nearest authorized GT dealer to have the complete front wheel replaced free of charge.

 

Consumers may contact Cycling Sports Group at (800) 726-2453 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by email at custserve@cyclingsportsgroup.com.

 

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Great States recalls Earthwise cordless electric lawn mowers

The mower can start when the key is not in the starting position

The Great States Corporation of Shelbyville, Ind., is recalling about 1,200 cordless 17-inch electric lawn mowers. The mower can start when the key is not...

PhotoThe Great States Corporation of Shelbyville, Ind., is recalling about 1,200 cordless 17-inch electric lawn mowers.

 

The mower can start when the key is not in the starting position, posing an injury hazard to the user.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves Earthwise cordless electric push lawn mowers with a 17-inch mowing deck. The recalled mowers have a silver motor housing and deck with a side discharge chute, a black foldable handle and a bright green bail lever, height adjustment lever and handle knobs.

 

The mowers have a 24-volt removable, rechargeable battery. Brand name “Earthwise” and “17” appear on the front of the mowers. Model number 60517 is on the name plate on the back of the motor cover.

 

The mowers, manufactured in China, were sold at Menards stores, Seventh Avenue catalogs and online at PowerSales.com and SeventhAvenue.com from January 2014, to May 2014, for about $250.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled electric mowers, remove the battery and contact Great States Corporation for a replacement mower.

 

Consumers may contact Great States Corporation at (800) 633-1501 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by email at sales@reelin.com.

 

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LQNN expands recall of poultry, beef and pork products

The products were produced without the benefit of inspection

LQNN of Garden Grove, Calif., has added additional items to the list of products it recalled earlier this month. The added products should have been part ...

PhotoLQNN of Garden Grove, Calif., has added additional items to the list of products it recalled earlier this month.

 

The added products should have been part of the original 213,192 pounds of chicken, beef and pork products that were recalled on May 20, 2015. The new total recalled poundage is 440,923pounds.

 

The products used, without approval, another facility’s mark of inspection, which has been identified as Establishment number 18995. LQNN, operating as Lee’s Sandwiches, has been processing products from federally-inspected establishments and re-packaging them without the benefit of inspection. Products produced without inspection present potential of increased human health risk.

 

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

 

These additional poultry, beef and pork items, produced prior to May 26, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 63,734-lb of “Ham & Cheese CROISSANT.”
  • 5,218-lb. of “Coo ked Dry SHREDDED PORK Cha Bong Thit Heo.”
  • 8,631-lb. of “SHREDDED PORK Bi.”

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Tom Quach at (714) 333-8688.

 

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Natural Grocers recalls Macadamia nuts

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling two lots of Natural Grocers brand Macadamia nuts. The product may be contaminated w...

PhotoVitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling two lots of Natural Grocers brand Macadamia nuts.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

The company has received no reports of illness

 

The following product, distributed to Natural Grocers’ 96 stores located in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming is being recalled:

UPC CodeDescriptionPacked on Dates
0000080657552RAW MACADAMIA NUTS 10oz15-041 and 15-056

Only packages bearing the Julian packed on dates listed above are subject to recall.

 

Consumers who purchased this product should 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 a.m. to 5 p.m. (MST).

 

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5 investment banks for baby boomers ready to sell their businesses

Getting the right advice and support could mean not leaving money on the table

You’ve lived the American dream, starting your own business from the ground up, building it into a thriving successful enterprise...

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Photo (c) ra2 studio

You’ve lived the American dream, starting your own business from the ground up, building it into a thriving successful enterprise that has supported your family, provided a needed product or service and created jobs.

Now that it’s time to retire, what do you do with the business?

You have a number of options. Many business owners sell to current key employees. Others sell to a competing or complementary company.

Regardless of the type of sale, many owners of “middle market” companies hire the services of an investment bank to facilitate a sale for the best price and on the best terms. There is no precise definition of a middle market company but it’s generally considered to be a business generating between $5 million and $1 billion in revenue per year.

One of the most important things an investment bank will do is establish a value for the business. Setting the right price means selling it quickly without leaving money on the table.

When entering into an agreement with one of the investment banks serving this sector, it is important to understand how it goes about its job and how it will analyze and help you establish a fair value for your business.

Industry experts say personalities will be very important. A seller needs to be comfortable with the bank’s representatives and confident they will be able to deliver.

There are many investment banks but we’re going to review 5 that may be ideally suited to help Baby Boomer business owners transition to retirement. They are Houlihan Lokey, Harris Williams, Baird, William Blair and Lazard Middle Market.

Houlihan Lokey

Houlihan Lokey, Inc., based in Los Angeles and founded in 1972, is one of the largest privately owned investment banks in the world. Its wide-ranging business includes advising large public, as well as closely held companies. It also provides services to institutions and government entities.

PhotoIt specializes in mergers and acquisitions (M&A;), capital markets, restructuring, fairness opinions and valuations.

Houlihan Lokey is known for assembling smart, talented teams. Its rigorous hiring practice tries to identify and employ quantitative thinkers who can devise creative solutions to clients’ problems.

Global in its reach, Houlihan Lokey has more offices than you might expect for a middle market bank – throughout the U.S. as well as Europe and Asia. Its U.S. presence is evenly spread across the country.

Most banks have specialties and Houlihan Lokey is highly experienced dealing with aerospace and defense, financial services, business services, energy, consumer food and retail, health care, media and telecommunications, real estate, hospitality, technology and transportation.

Our experts say Houlihan Lokey is a good choice for owners of privately held or publicly traded companies, owners of family businesses, executives at any middle market business and representatives at private equity firms.

Harris Williams

Harris Williams was founded in 1991 by 2 Harvard Business School graduates and since 2005, has operated as a subsidiary of PNC Financial Services. Based in Richmond, Va., the firm has offices in San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Minneapolis, London and Frankfurt.

From the beginning the company built its reputation on its expertise in leveraged buyout (LBO) services. Because of this it has extensive connections to private equity sponsors.

PhotoHarris Williams takes a team approach, setting up industry groups that focus on aerospace, defense and government, building products and materials, business services, consumer, energy and power, health care and life sciences, industrials, specialty distribution, technology, media and telecom and transportation and logistics.

In one of its recent transactions, Harris Williams advised Health & Safety Institute, Inc. (HIS) on its sale to The Riverside Company. The firm deployed 2 of its teams to guide the transaction – Todd Morris, Andy Dion and Andrew Hewlett of the Healthcare & Life Sciences Group and Mike Wilkins of Harris Williams’ Technology, Media & Telecom Group.

"We are thrilled to have represented HSI’s shareholders in this transaction,” Morris said. HSI’s history of innovation and outstanding product quality, customer service and dedication to helping save lives has positioned it for strong continued growth and success in partnership with Riverside."

“HSI is well positioned to capitalize on training industry trends driving demand for its online and mobile products and services,” Wilkins said. "We expect to see additional growth and consolidation in the broader education and training markets.”

Our experts suggest Harris Williams is a good fit for owners of both privately held and public companies, owners of family businesses, executives at any type of middle market business, representatives at private equity firms and family offices, and representatives of local governments and sovereigns.

Baird

Baird is a major global middle market investment bank with a wide array of talent and a broad focus. It provides advisory, financing and restructuring services to publicly traded corporations, privately held and entrepreneur-owned companies, and private equity firms through an interconnected and highly specialized international team.

PhotoFounded in 1919 as the securities department of First Wisconsin National Bank, the Milwaukee-based financial services firm today has offices on 3 continents, providing investment banking, capital markets, private equity, wealth management and asset management services to individuals, businesses, institutional investors and governments.

Baird’s primary middle market investment banking offerings and focus are in equity raises, M&A; and public finance. One of its most recent M&A; transactions was when it advised Bad Daddy’s International LLC on its acquisition by Good Times Restaurants Inc.

In 2007, Bad Daddy’s founders’ created an upscale burger concept with “simple foods prepared to high culinary standards.” Bad Daddy’s became known for its signature burgers, salads, appetizers and sandwiches paired with local craft microbrew beers and signature cocktails and has won many awards and accolades for its culinary creations.

Bad Daddy’s, based in Charlotte, N.C., consists of seven company-owned restaurants and six franchised / licensed restaurants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Colorado.

Good Times Restaurants Inc. operates Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard, an upscale quick-service restaurant chain focused on fresh, high quality, all natural products, making it a good fit with Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar, a full service, “small box” better burger casual dining chain.

Baird also specializes in equity financing. It recently completed a $249 million refinancing of P&L; Development’s existing debt. PLD is a company that manufactures, packages and distributes over-the-counter pharmaceutical products and health care goods.

Baird is often referred to a “one-stop  shop” investment bank because of the range of services it provides. Our experts say it is a good fit for many middle market business owners who can profit from Baird’s expertise.

William Blair

Founded in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, William Blair today is an employee-owned firm providing investment banking and other financial services from its Chicago base and offices in London, San Francisco, Tokyo, Liechtenstein and Zurich.

PhotoMuch like Baird, William Blair is thought of as a one-stop shop, whether a company is trying to raise equity or launch an initial public offering (IPO). It benefits from a stellar reputation among its peers, a result of rigorously protecting its brand.

The company has deep ties into the private equity community which can benefit both it and sellers hoping to be acquired by a private equity firm. Its strategic investment in BDA, another international investment bank, gives Blair special access to Asia, a significant source of investment dollars.

The investment bank’s focus is on consumer and retail, energy, financial services, health care, industrials, services and technology. Its advisory services include comprehensive sell- and buy-side advice for publicly traded and privately held companies. Its strength, the company says, is being able to identify the best transaction partners anywhere in the world, structure and negotiate transactions, and deliver the best outcomes for clients.

It can facilitate financing through equity capital markets or by providing access to private equity, leveraged finance and debt capital markets.

In early 2015 William Blair acted as the exclusive financial advisor to PowerPlan, Inc., a portfolio company of JMI Equity and TPG Growth, in connection with its sale to Thoma Bravo. The transaction closed in February.

Blair said it positioned PowerPlan as the only enterprise software vendor capable of helping asset-centric businesses such as utilities and oil and gas pipelines optimize financial performance of fixed assets.

“As the undisputed leader in a market with high barriers to entry and a strong growth profile, PowerPlan commanded strong interest from both private equity investors and strategic acquirers,” the bank said in a statement.

Our experts say William Blair is an ideal fit for privately held corporations, owners of publicly traded companies,, owners of family held businesses, executives at any type of middle market business,, representatives at private equity firms and family offices.

Lazard Middle Market

PhotoLazard Middle Market (Lazard MM) is the middle market arm of the elite boutique investment bank Lazard, founded in 1848. Lazard Middle Market focuses primarily on putting together deals in the U.S. It. has offices in Chicago, Charlotte, Houston, Minneapolis and New York.

Lazard Middle Market is highly active in the area of M&A;, making it a good choice for middle market firms that would like to be acquired. Because the bank works closely with private equity groups it is ideally placed to put buyers together with sellers.

Like other banks, Lazard Middle Market has its areas of specialty: business services, education services and technology, financial services, food and consumer, healthcare and industrials. Senior bankers focus on specific industries, allowing them to use their insight into and understanding of the various business sector ds and key players.

The bank tailors its services to meet the unique needs of mid-sized companies. It is able to provide the sophisticated services, global perspective and broad resources of Lazard, its parent.

Our experts believe Lazard Middle Market is a good fit for owners of both privately held and publicly traded companies and executives at any type of middle market business. It could be especially advantageous for companies in the higher end of the middle market.  

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Mass hackings increasingly threaten the American healthcare system

Medical ID theft is the most dangerous kind of all, both for individual victims and the country as a whole

Here's a bit of bad news that's guaranteed to get worse: Since the start of 2015, three major health insurance companies have discovered and admitted that ...

PhotoHere's a bit of bad news that's guaranteed to get worse: Since the start of 2015, three major health insurance companies have discovered and admitted that hackers breached their customer-information databases.

In February, Anthem admitted that hackers had compromised the records of 80 million current and former Anthem customers dating back to 2004. In March, Premera Blue Cross admitted to a breach compromising 11 million medical and financial records dating back to 2002. And earlier this month, CareFirst Blue Cross/Blue Shield discovered a breach compromising up to 1.1 million customer records.

And remember: it's almost certain that those were not the only three American health insurance companies to have been hacked, merely the only three to have discovered and admitted such security breaches.

Of all the many types of identity theft Americans must worry about, medical identity theft is arguably the worst of all. Consider: If criminals steal your bank account or credit card numbers, it's fairly easy (albeit annoying and time-consuming) for you to cancel the contaminated accounts and switch over to new ones. Changing your Social Security number is far more difficult, but it can be done if absolutely necessary.

But you can't change your health and medical history; if that information falls into untrustworthy hands, there's nothing you can do to make it obsolete.

Life-threatening

Most identity theft threatens your financial well-being, but medical identity theft can threaten your very life. Earlier this month, the Ponemon Institute published a study (sponsored by the Medical Identity Fraud Alliance, or MIFA) focusing on medical ID theft cases in the United States. Ann Patterson of MIFA defined medical I.D. theft not merely as theft of medical records and related data, but “when someone uses someone else's identity to obtain medical goods or services.”

Imagine someone steals your health insurance information and uses it to get health care for themselves: “Your medical identity is corrupted with the identity thief's health information. So their blood type, their allergies, their diseases, their health conditions that are not accurately reflecting your health.... It is most certainly a life-or-death situation,” Patterson said.

However, the available evidence suggests that the hackers who broke into Anthem, Primera and CareFirst weren't trying to score free medical care for themselves — security investigators familiar with those cases say that the available evidence suggests the hackers enjoyed backing from the Chinese government. (China's government, however, denies any role in America hacking activities, and points out that hacking is illegal under Chinese law.)

Your child's medical file

Yesterday, Larry Ponemon of the Ponemon Institute and Rick Kam of ID Experts, writing for the Dark Reading security blog, went so far as to suggest that “escalating cyberattacks threaten U.S. healthcare systems.”

Imagine a hostile nation-state with your psychiatric records. Or an organized crime ring with your child’s medical file. Or a disgruntled employee with your medical insurance information.

(Indeed, when news of the Anthem hacking first broke, the security investigators who first suggested the possibility of Chinese-government involvement also offered an ominously plausible motivation for it: “The attack appears to follow a pattern of thefts of medical data by foreigners seeking a pathway into the personal lives and computers of a select group -- defense contractors, government workers and others.” And CareFirst primarily serves customers in Washington, D.C. and its immediate suburbs — in other words, a region where a huge proportion of the population works for either the federal government or its various contractors.)

Even for hackers interested in money rather than medical care or political power, stolen healthcare and health insurance data is far more lucrative than stolen bank account or payment-card information. Jim Trainor, from the FBI's cyber security division, talked about the black-market value of various types of stolen data bought and sold by identity thieves: “Credit cards can be say five dollars or more, where [protected health information] records can go from 20 say up to — we've even seen $60 or $70.”

It's getting worse

And Kam and Ponemon suggest the problem of medical-record theft will only get worse, mainly because the healthcare and health insurance companies don't have the money to defend against it:

… criminal attacks are up 125 percent since 2010, according to benchmark study data. For the first time, in fact, criminal attacks are now the number one root cause of data breaches, rather than user negligence/carelessness or system glitches. … Despite these growing threats, half of all organizations have little or no confidence in their ability to detect all patient data loss or theft. In addition, only 40 percent of covered entities and 35 percent of business associates are concerned about cyber attackers. This lack of concern is reflected in a lack of appropriate budget....

And there's another potential problem Kam and Ponemon didn't mention: the possibility that the very concept of “Internet security” might be inherently impossible, even a contradiction in terms.

Remember the early days of the Internet, when it was often called the “information superhighway?” The Internet as we know it was designed with the explicit purpose of making it easier to share information, whereas “Internet security” seeks the opposite, making information harder (if not impossible) for certain people to access.

You can make it easier to share something, or you can make that something harder to steal – but if you try accomplishing both tasks at once, with the same tool, you're setting yourself up for failure.

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FCC may OK blocking telemarketing and robo calls to consumers' phones

Telemarketing calls & texts top the list of consumer complaints

"I keep getting calls on my line from Bridgett at cardholder services. I’ve asked them repeatedly to stop callin...

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Photo (c) Carsten Reisinger - Fotolia

"I keep getting calls on my line from Bridgett at cardholder services. I’ve asked them repeatedly to stop calling. Can you help me?" a consumer named Roger asked us the other day.

We get this same email in one form or another every day, all day. Very simply, consumers are being driven mad by endless calls to their wireline and wireless phones. The calls come from Rachel, Bridget, charities, politicians and political fund-raisers.

There is, of course, a Do Not Call list but it is ineffective against overseas callers and anyone who thinks that laws are written for everyone else. 

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler says he's heard just about enough and is proposing a new set of rules that would allow phone companies to be more aggressive in blocking unwanted calls. The proposal will be voted on at the FCC's June 18 meeting.

"Last year alone, we received more than 215,000 complaints related to unwanted and intrusive calls and texts. The filer of one complaint detailed receiving 4,700 unwanted texts over a 6-month period," Wheeler said in a blog posting. "We've also seen reports of 27,809 unsolicited text messages over 17 months to one reassigned number, despite requests to stop the texts."

Just say "stop"

If approved, the new rules would:

Empower Consumers to Say ‘Stop’ – Consumers would have the right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time. (Applies to wireless and landline home service.)

Give Green Light for ‘Do Not Disturb’ Technology – Carriers could offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers. It would give the go-ahead for carriers to implement market-based solutions that consumers could use to stop unwanted robocalls. (Applies to wireless and landline home service.)

Make Clear Reassigned Numbers Aren’t Loopholes – Consumers who inherit a phone number would not be subject to a barrage of unwanted robocalls to which a previous subscriber of the number consented. If a phone number has been reassigned, callers must stop calling the number after one call. (Applies to wireless and landline home service.)

Define an Autodialer – An “autodialer” is any technology with the capacity to dial random or sequential numbers. The rulings would ensure robocallers cannot skirt consumer consent requirements through changes in calling technology design or by calling from a list of numbers. (Applies to wireless.)

Allow Very Limited and Specific Exceptions for Urgent Circumstances – Free calls or texts to, for example, alert consumers to possible fraud on their bank accounts or remind them of important medication refills would be allowed. The proposal is very clear about what such messages can be and what they cannot be (i.e., no marketing or debt collection). In addition, consumers would have the ability to opt out of even these permitted calls and texts. (Applies to wireless.)

Early warning signs

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Tom Wheeler (Photo credit: FCC)

Wheeler has tackled a lot of issues in his brief term as FCC chair, everything from mega mergers to net neutrality. But junk phone calls may be the most contentious issue yet. It's something everyone is mad about. Even companies that make millions of calls per year have complained that existing rules are confusing and often contradictory.

Initial comments on Wheeler's blog are an early warning sign that not everyone is on board with his proposal. 

"It appears that the FCC is seeking to seize power from the FTC in this area (just as it has attempted to do with cybersecurity, via its illegal "open Internet" order) without the knowledge, funds, or experience to follow through. It has no database; it has no expertise; it has no infrastructure for this task," said a commenter identified as Brett Glass. "Perhaps it would be best, as other commenters have said, for the FCC to concentrate on eliminating Caller ID forgery while the FTC continues to work on enforcement (which is advantageous because it can also go after junk callers for fraud and deceptive advertising)."

"So, will the telcos be required to offer the robocall-blocking tools at no cost? It will be truly annoying if I must pay for blocking when the robocallers have wasted (stolen) so much of my time," said Thomas O'Brien.

Hopeless bunglers

Even calls that are at least semi-legitimate are often so bureaucratically automated that they do nothing but waste everyone's time, like the call Christine of Roslindale, Mass., complained about last year. 

"I received a text message on my cell phone to call FIA Card services at 816-564-8172 by 11 p.m. tonight regarding a servicing matter. This sounded urgent. I have no idea who FIA Card services is. So, I called the number and the prompt asked me if I want an account balance. Then asked me if I wanted to make a payment. Then asked me if I wanted to speak with a representative. I said representative. A gentleman answered and asked me what I was calling for. I said because your company sent me an urgent text to call.

"He said he needed the telephone number associated with the account. I said what account. He said the one I am calling about. I said I have no idea what I am calling about. I received text I had to respond to. He said he needed a phone number. I decided to give him the text number my cell number, that I received the text on. He next asked me if I was 'Joe' which is my dad and brother's name. I said no. I said this could be my dad who is elderly. He said he could not give me any more information. I asked what type of matter this was. He said he could not give me any information. I said then "why are you texting me and incurring charges for me." He said because they have my number. I said 'I never heard of FIA.' I gave up. I am just blocking them. What a cost ineffective company."

In fact, the text to Christine's phone may have been illegal under existing FCC rules. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (pdf) requires prior consent for autodialed and prerecorded calls and texts to wireless phones, whether they are telemarketing or informational calls. This includes calls related to debt collection.

 

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Taxpayer data breach just the latest cyber wake-up call

Experts say new approach to information security is badly needed

The data breach at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), compromising as many as 100,000 taxpayers, is a wake-up call for government as well as businesses. D...

PhotoThe data breach at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), compromising as many as 100,000 taxpayers, is a wake-up call for government as well as businesses. Department stores like Target and Neiman Marcus aren't the only lucrative targets for cyber thieves.

Security specialists have been warning us for a decade or longer. In a November 2014 interview with ConsumerAffairs, Larry Bridwell, the global security strategist at password management software provider Sticky Password, said that today's cyber thieves are focusing their efforts on big targets more than individual consumers.

“What we've seen over the last 18 months to 2 years has been the larger loss of personal and financial data hasn't come from the individual being tricked into doing things like clicking on links or providing information like we used to see,” Bridwell told ConsumerAffairs. “It's because there's been a security breach at the point-of-sale services.”

Or in this case, the IRS. Either way, consumers lose, whether their credit cards are stolen from a store or their identities are stolen from a government agency.

“Medieval strategy”

Dr. Bruce McMillin, professor of computer science and associate dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at Missouri Science and Technology University, says the way U.S. institutions defend sensitive information systems is a throwback to the Dark Ages.

“Most of our cyber defenses are modeled after medieval perimeter security – a firewall is much like a castle moat – and the idea of ‘keeping the bad guys out,’” McMillin said. “We live inside modern systems that are both physical and computational, and in such a smart living environment, attacks can come from multiple different sources, some even inside what we consider protected.”

McMillin took note earlier this year when the chief of U.S. Cyber Command testified before Congress that the federal government’s efforts to deter computer attacks are falling short. On March 19, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the head of the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the command’s efforts are not working.

He pointed out that criminals attacking the U.S. cyber infrastructure want to move beyond disrupting those networks to establish “a persistent presence” on them.

Training students in new approaches

McMillin says he and other researchers at the university are working to produce improvements in cyber security while passing on what they learn to the students preparing to enter the field.

“We must focus on the information that both flows into and out of every portion of our smart living environment, both hiding what we consider security and private, and disrupting the ability of our adversaries to launch information attacks,” McMillin said.

And it's not just taxpayer information that requires protection. McMillin says he and his colleagues are developing new ways to protect the electric power grid, oil, gas and water systems and transportation systems from attack.

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Court dismisses for-profit schools' challenge to "gainful employment" rule

The Obama Administration rule cuts off aid to colleges whose students have high debts and low earnings

For-profit colleges lost a round in court this week as a federal judge dismissed an industry lawsuit challening the U.S. Department of Education's "gainful...

PhotoFor-profit colleges lost a round in court this week as a federal judge dismissed an industry lawsuit challenging the U.S. Department of Education's "gainful employment" rule.

The rule, scheduled to go into effect in July, cuts off federal aid to schools whose students graduate with high debt loads and low earnings. The schools' lawsuit said the rule violated their right to due process.

U.S.  District Judge Lewis Kaplan of New York ruled that the Education Department had the legal power to create the controversial rule in the first place and that it followed proper procedures in developing its second iteration of the regulations. The first version of the rule was thrown out in 2012 in an earlier lawsuit.

Dorie Nolt, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said the department was pleased with the ruling.

"Every student deserves to graduate from higher education with a degree or certificate that equips them for success. These regulations will hold career colleges accountable for the programs they offer and promote improvements that protect students, benefit consumers, and honor taxpayers’ investment,” Nolt said.

"Steadfast conviction"

The lawsuit was brought by the Association of Proprietary Colleges, which represents 20 for-profit colleges in New York.

The group's executive director, Donna Stelling-Gurnett, said she was disappointed with the ruling.

“While we agreed with the department’s goals for this rule from the outset, we remain steadfast in our conviction that this regulation does not achieve those goals,” Stelling-Gurnett said in a statement.

In dismissing the suit, Judge Kaplan said that for-profit colleges don’t have a “vested right" to participate in federal student aid programs and they therefore don't need to be afforded due process protections.

“While for-profit colleges have become heavily reliant on federal student aid, that reliance is of their own creation, not of necessity,” he wrote.

Kaplan had sharp words for the association's argument that the rule infringed upon the states' role in overseeing colleges.

“This argument is quite surprising, but not for its merit,” Kaplan wrote. “It is surprising because it is at best ill-conceived and at worst misleading.”

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Gardening and ergonomics just naturally go together

Things don't get easier as you get older; having the right tool can help

One of the biggest pitfalls of gardening is your back. After all, things look great once they bloom but the process getting there can ...

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A Corona pruner

One of the biggest pitfalls of gardening is your back. After all, things look great once they bloom but the process getting there can be painful. It’s a lot of bending and using your wrists. Your fingers see a lot of action as well and as you get older it can be hard to manipulate small tools or just even hold them in your hands.

The good news is there are many tools, adaptors and methods that will allow you to garden much more easily as the aging process takes over.

Ergonomic chairs have been popular in offices for a few years, since sitting on your bum for hours isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered for your spine. And now, ergonomics has moved into the gardening area as well.  

An ergonomic tool is one that allows you to keep wrists and other body parts in a neutral position. It usually will weigh under three pounds and it works off your center of gravity. An ergonomic tool can boost your productivity. It will help keep the dirt in one spot and let you plant so things look a little more organized because you won't be as tense.

The physical benefits are key. Because of the design of the specific tool it creates more flexibility for you and allows you to work longer and smarter. 

The purpose is to eliminate any discomfort you might have. It will also work to ease physical stress while you use it as the tools are usually lighter and structured for people that have trouble squeezing or working with their hands for long periods of time.

Easy to spot

Ergonomic tools are easily identifiable. They have rubber padding on the handle with a feel of a non-slip texture and a diameter greater than or equal to 1.5 inches. Long handed tools can be hard to hold even when you are equipped with normal body strength. To get the benefits of being ergonomic, the upper part of the shaft should bend so it’s more horizontal with a second hand grip along the shaft.

If it is uncomfortable to use don’t use it because you will be positioning your body to over-compensate and defeating the purpose.

There are now a number of tools available for gardeners with physical limitations from specialty garden product makers like Fiskars, Corona, Gripworks, disABILITY Work Tools, Life with Ease and others.

Jan McNeilan, consumer horticulture agent for the Oregon State University Extension Service suggests that gardeners who have bad backs should use long-handled tools and use plastic handle extenders to help improve leverage. Try to maintain a good neutral posture while you garden and push rather than pull so you don’t pull your back along with the weeds.

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Google study concludes: security questions aren't very secure after all

Except for the questions so secure, the accounts' own owners can't remember them

If you think those identity-verification security questions actually keep your data secure, think again — a study by Google researchers shows most typical ...

PhotoIf you think those identity-verification security questions actually keep your data secure, think again — a study by Google researchers shows most typical security questions fail on one of two levels: Hackers can easily guess the answers, while the actual account owners are likely to forget them.

Google anti-abuse researcher Elie Burzstein and software engineer Ilan Caron posted on Google's security blog last week a summary of a more detailed paper they'd presented at the WWW 2015 conference.

… secret questions are neither secure nor reliable enough to be used as a standalone account recovery mechanism. That’s because they suffer from a fundamental flaw: their answers are either somewhat secure or easy to remember — but rarely both.

Downright useless

Turns out that certain easy-to-remember security questions are also downright useless, although which specific questions prove useless vary throughout the world:

With a single guess, an attacker would have a 19.7% chance of guessing English-speaking users’ answers to the question "What is your favorite food?" (it was ‘pizza’, by the way)

With ten guesses, an attacker would have a nearly 24% chance of guessing Arabic-speaking users’ answer to the question "What’s your first teacher’s name?"

With ten guesses, an attacker would have a 21% chance of guessing Spanish-speaking users’ answers to the question, "What is your father’s middle name?"

With ten guesses, an attacker would have a 39% chance of guessing Korean-speaking users’ answers to the question "What is your city of birth?" and a 43% chance of guessing their favorite food.

Of course, companies could offset such problems by adding more, and harder, security questions, but that would lead to the exact opposite problem: Too many legitimate account holders would forget the answers, and be unable to recover their accounts.

Surprise, surprise: it’s not easy to remember where your mother went to elementary school, or what your library card number is! Difficult secret questions and answers are often hard to use. … 40% of our English-speaking US users couldn’t recall their secret question answers when they needed to.

So what can tech companies do to protect their customers from this question conundrum? Probably nothing, as Burzstein and Caron said in the abstract of their research paper: “We conclude that it appears next to impossible to find secret questions that are both secure and memorable.”

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Op-ed: Every career is a STEM career

STEM skills are needed in every career on a daily basis

As important as STEM careers are, the notable dropout rate in STEM focused college programs and the growing segregation of students into...

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Pending home sales climb to 9-year high

Initial jobless claims, meanwhile, headed upward

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) rose 3.4%in April to 112.4 in April -- its highest level in 9 years....

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© karelnoppe – Fotolia

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) rose 3.4%in April to 112.4 in April -- its highest level in 9 years.

 

The modest monthly increase put the index, a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, 14.0% above its year-ago level April 2014 (98.6) -- the largest annual increase since September 2012. The PHSI has now increased year-over-year for 8 consecutive months and is at its highest level since May 2006.

 

All four major regions of the U.S. posted increases in April led by the Northeast and Midwest.

 

Strong buyer demand

 

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the steady gains in contract activity each month this year highlight the fact that buyer demand is strong. "Realtors are saying foot traffic remains elevated this spring despite limited — and in some cases severe — inventory shortages in many metro areas," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist.

 

"Homeowners looking to sell this spring appear to be in the driver's seat, as there are more buyers competing for a limited number of homes available for sale."

 

Regional activity

 

  • After falling 4 straight months in the Northeast, the PHSI bounced back solidly (10.1%) to 88.3, and is now 9.4% above a year ago.
  • In the Midwest the index rose 5.0% to 113.0, and is 13.3% above April 2014.
  • Pending home sales in the South gained 2.3% for an index reading of 129.4; sales are 14.8% above last April.
  • The index in the West inched up 0.1% to 103.8, and is 16.4% above a year ago.

 

Looking ahead

 

Following April's decline in existing-home sales, Yun expects a rebound heading into the summer, but says the likelihood of meaningful gains will depend on a much-needed boost in inventory and evidence of moderating price growth now that interest rates have started to rise.

 

"The housing market can handle interest rates well above 4% as long as inventory improves to slow price growth and underwriting standards ease to normal levels so that qualified buyers -- especially first-time buyers — are able to obtain a mortgage," he said

 

NAR projects total existing-home sales in 2015 to be around 5.24 million -- an increase of 6.1% from last year. The national median existing-home price (the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower) for all of this year is expected to increase around 6.7%.

 

In 2014, sales were down 2.9% while prices rose 5.7%.

 

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© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Initial claims

 

Another increase in first-time applications for state unemployment benefits.

 

The Labor Department (DOL) reports initial claims jumped by 7,000 in the week ending May 23 to a seasonally adjusted 282,000. At the same time, the government revised the previous week's level upward by 1,000 -- to 275,000.

 

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

 

The 4-week moving average, which smooths out the volatility of the weekly figure and is consider a more accurate gauge of the labor market, rose 5,000 from the previous week to 271,500.

 

Analysts at Briefing.com say employment conditions remain strong as the initial claims level holds at 15-year lows.

 

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Amazon banking on speedier delivery to bolster business

Now offering free 1-day delivery to Prime members in 14 metros

Amazon.com built its business selling all kinds of things online, making it one of the nation's largest retailers. To win even more business, it's trying t...

PhotoAmazon.com built its business selling all kinds of things online, making it one of the nation's largest retailers. To win even more business, it's trying to get those purchases to consumers faster – for a price.

When ordering from Amazon, standard delivery is 3 to 5 business days. If you select that option, chances are you won't see you purchase any sooner than that.

In 2005 Amazon launched Amazon Prime. For an annual fee of less than $100 members received free 2-day shipping on all orders. To get their money's worth consumers often felt the need to order lots of stuff, so it worked out.

Amazon has since added other benefits to Prime, including access to streaming video content, added in 2011. But pretty soon, 2-day delivery didn't seem all that fast, so Amazon has consistently focused more attention on ways to get items to consumers even faster.

Same day delivery

PhotoBecause it has massive distribution centers scattered around the country Amazon is able to offer same-day delivery in several cities, for an extra shipping fee of $5.99.

Amazon has just announced it is extending that service to Prime members in certain cities without the extra shipping charge. They will be able to get some items delivered in just one day, included in the $99 annual fee.

There are several strings attached. Not all items will qualify and purchases must total $35 or more to be eligible.

Purchases must also be made before noon to arrive the same day and the delivery must be to one of 14 metro areas.

Selling delivery

It might be said that delivery has, itself, become a commodity in the marketplace. Other competitors like Walmart and eBay are working on their own delivery deals, perhaps prompting Amazon to push the envelope a bit.

In 2013 Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced plans to use drone aircraft to make deliveries – a plan that still must navigate some challenging regulatory turbulence from the Federal Aviation Administration before it can begin to be implemented.

Last week Amazon disclosed its Prime Now service will provide 1-hour delivery service from other local stores, along with many Amazon items, to members in select Manhattan neighborhoods.

“Our Prime Now hub in Manhattan is home to tens of thousands of products that are being delivered to customers in an hour or less. Now, we are expanding the service to include delivery from local stores,” said Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations. “So whether you’re ordering diapers and a big-screen television from Amazon, fresh produce from D’Agostino, a chef-made prepared meal from Gourmet Garage or cupcakes from Billy’s Bakery, we will get all of the items right to your door in lightning-fast speeds as well.”

Amazon says that service and will eventually spread to include other Manhattan neighborhoods and other major U.S. cities.

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Chevy adding smartphone integration to 14 models

GM's MyLink systems will be compatible with both iPhone and Android

General Motors (GM) isn't taking sides. Whether you have an iPhone or an Android device, it will offer a way to integrate the phone with the vehicle on 14 ...

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FAA proposes $58,600 civil penalty against FedEx

The company is accused of violating hazardous material regs

If the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), gets its way, FedEx will pay a $58,600 civil penalty for allegedly violating hazardous materials regulations....

PhotoIf the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), gets its way, FedEx will pay a $58,600 civil penalty for allegedly violating hazardous materials regulations.

 

According to the agency, FedEx accepted a box containing 1.7 liters of flammable liquid for air transportation in June 2014 that lacked the proper shipping name of the hazardous materials. The FAA further contends that 2 months later, the company accepted a hazardous materials shipment consisting of 2 pounds of consumer commodity that had shipping papers incorrectly indicating the amount of hazardous materials inside.

 

The shipments were not properly classed, described, packaged, marked, labeled and in the condition for shipment required by the hazardous materials regulations, the FAA claims.

 

Additionally, the FAA accuses FedEx of failing to provide the pilots in command with accurate and legible written information about the amount of hazardous materials on board 3 other flights in June, July and August 2014.

 

The shipments according to the feds, contained radioactive material, flammable printing ink and flammable and combustible paint.

 

The FAA says it discovered the alleged violations during a dangerous goods inspection at the FedEx facility at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn.

 

FedEx has asked to meet with the FAA to discuss the case.

 

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Failure to report defective office chairs to cost Office Depot

The chairs were plagued with seatback failures and related injuries

Office Depot will pay a $3.4 million civil penalty to settle Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staff’s charges that the company knowingly failed to...

PhotoOffice Depot will pay a $3.4 million civil penalty to settle Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) staff’s charges that the company knowingly failed to report -- as required by federal law -- defects and an unreasonable risk of serious injury concerning the Quantum and the Gibson models of office chairs.

 

The seatbacks of both models failed, resulting in multiple back and other injuries.

 

Failure to report

 

Federal law requires parties like Office Depot to report to CPSC immediately (within 24 hours) about a consumer product containing a defect that could create a substantial product hazard or presenting a risk of serious injury.

 

Office Depot received dozens of reports of seatback failures and related injuries involving both the Quantum chairs and the Gibson chairs. It never reported the Quantum chair hazard to CPSC, and reported the Gibson chair hazard only after receiving a request from staff.

 

By the time the Quantum and Gibson chairs were recalled, Office Depot had received 33 and 153 reports – respectively -- of seatback detachment from the chairs, and 14 and 25 reports – respectively -- of injuries, some of which required medical attention.

 

Office Depot sold about 150,000 Quantum chairs nationwide between May 2006, and August 2009, for about $350 each, and about 1.4 million Gibson chairs nationwide between 2003, and 2012, for about $40 each.

 

Settlement terms

 

In addition to paying the $3.4 million civil penalty, Office Depot has agreed that the company has, and shall maintain, a compliance program designed to ensure compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Act and a related system of internal controls and procedures. The program must include written standards and policies designed to convey information obtained from sources such as complaints, parts requests, and incident reports to personnel responsible for CPSC compliance.

 

The compliance program also must address:

  • confidential employee reporting of compliance concerns to a senior manager;
  • effective communication of compliance policies and procedures, including training;
  • senior management responsibility for, and general board oversight of, compliance; and
  • requirements for record retention.

 

Office Depot neither admits nor denies CPSC staff’s charges.

 

 

 

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GM recalls Chevrolet Impalas with braking issue

Brake pads may remain partially engaged

General Motors is recalling 126 model year 2014 Chevrolet Impalas manufactured March 22, 2013, to May 22, 2014. The electronic parking brake piston actuat...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 126 model year 2014 Chevrolet Impalas manufactured March 22, 2013, to May 22, 2014.

 

The electronic parking brake piston actuation arm in the recalled vehicles may not fully retract, causing the brake pads to stay partially engaged. Brake pads that remain partially engaged with the rotors may cause excessive brake heat that could result in a fire.

 

GM has notified owners, and dealers will reprogram the electronic parking brake control module with new software, free of charge. The recall began on May 6, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 15259.  

 

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Ford recalls more than 400,000 vehicles in North America

The recalled vehicles have steering or temperature issues

In the first of 2 actions, Ford is recalling 423,000 Ford Taurus and Flex vehicles, Lincoln MKS and MKT vehicles, 2011-2012 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ veh...

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Photo source: Ford

In the first of 2 actions, Ford is recalling 423,000 Ford Taurus and Flex vehicles, Lincoln MKS and MKT vehicles, 2011-2012 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ vehicles, and 2011 Mercury Milan vehicles.

 

A potential intermittent electrical connection in the steering gear might result in the loss of electric power steering assist while driving. If this happens, the steering system defaults to manual steering mode, making the vehicle more difficult to steer, especially at lower speeds. This could result in the increased risk of a crash.

 

Ford says it's aware of 4 minor accidents that might be related to this condition, but no injuries.

 

Dealers will perform one of 2 service fixes, depending upon whether certain diagnostic trouble codes are present in the vehicle. They will either update software for the power steering control module or replace the steering gear.

 

Photo
Photo source: Ford

Mustang recall

 

Ford is also recalling 19,500 2015 Ford Mustang vehicles with a 2.3 liter engine.

 

Prolonged exposure to elevated underbody temperatures might cause degradation of the fuel tank and fuel vapor lines, which could eventually result in a fuel leak. In addition, prolonged exposure to elevated underbody temperatures might cause the parking brake cable seals to degrade, potentially affecting parking brake functions.

 

A fuel leak in the presence of an ignition source increases the risk of a fire. Impaired parking brake function could result in unexpected vehicle movement, which might increase the risk of injury.

 

Ford says it's not aware of any accidents, injuries or fires resulting from this condition.

 

Dealers will replace the current fuel tank shield with a shield with better insulating capability, install thermal patches on the fuel tank and parking brake cable, and install thermal wraps on the fuel vapor lines.

 

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Hackers steal 100,000 tax records from Internal Revenue Service site

Attack reveals sophisticated, targeted approach

With identity theft-related tax fraud such a lucrative enterprise for scammers, it should be no surprise that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has been t...

PhotoWith identity theft-related tax fraud such a lucrative enterprise for scammers, it should be no surprise that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has been the target of a hack attack.

The agency has disclosed that hackers penetrated security systems and obtained access to the tax records of as many as 100,000 taxpayers. For an identity thief, it's like hitting the jackpot.

With your tax return a criminal not only has access to your Social Security number, he or she knows a lot about you. The hacker can see where your sources of income came from and next year, file a bogus return in January that is a dead ringer for the one you filed this year. If the attack went undetected the IRS wouldn't bat an eye before sending out a refund – not to you but to the scammer filing your return.

In an email to ConsumerAffairs Wednesday, Leah, a taxpayer in Georgia, reports she has been an apparent victim of identity theft-related tax fraud. When she filed her return earlier this year, expecting a $3000 refund, she learned that the IRS had already processed her return.

“The original refund was addressed to someone in Texas,” she wrote. “I live in Georgia.”

Chances are, there could be many other cases like Leah's next year.

Get Transcript

The part of the IRS that was compromised is a section called Get Transcript. Taxpayers who have created an account at IRS.gov may log in and obtain transcripts of their tax records for previous years. People applying for a mortgage often need to do this.

If you have not set up a Get Transcript account, you should not be at risk in this breach. Taxpayers attempting to log into the Get Transcript website Wednesday are greeted with this message:

Alert: The online Get Transcript service is currently unavailable. Transcripts may still be ordered using the Get Transcript by Mail service. We apologize for any inconvenience.

To log in normally, a taxpayer enters a user name and password. The people who hacked the system had that information.

Second tier of security

A second tier of security then asks a security question that the account holder selected and answered when setting up the account. In about half the cases, the IRS says the hackers knew the answer. Of the 200,000 accounts targeted, about 100,000 were breached.

That suggests this breach was highly sophisticated and targeted, not random. Officials speculate, for example, that by combing social media sites hackers were able to learn information about their potential victims that would help them answer those security questions – what was your high school's mascot, for example.

IRS response

In addition, to disabling the Get Transcript portion of its website, the IRS said it has taken steps to protect taxpayers. They include:

  • Sending a letter to all of the approximately 200,000 taxpayers whose accounts had attempted unauthorized accesses, notifying them that third parties appear to have had access to taxpayer Social Security numbers and additional personal financial information from a non-IRS source before attempting to access the IRS transcript application.
  • Offering free credit monitoring for the approximately 100,000 taxpayers whose Get Transcript accounts were accessed to ensure this information isn’t being used through other financial avenues.

In addition, the IRS said it is flagging the underlying taxpayer accounts on its core processing system to alert for potential identity theft to protect taxpayers going forward — both right now and in 2016.

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Yes, that really is your whisky bottle talking to you

"Smart" labels are coming soon to a Johnnie Walker bottle near you

Whether people are getting any smarter is open to question but devices certainly are. Take whisky bottles. Soon they'll be keeping you company so you never...

PhotoWhether people are getting any smarter is open to question but devices certainly are. Take whisky bottles. Soon they'll be keeping you company so you never have to drink alone.

You can thank beverage company Diageo for bringing interactivity to the whisky bottle. Its Johnnie Walker Blue brand will soon come in bottles that are more inviting than ever. That's because they're being equipped with printed sensor tags that communicate with your smartphone using Near Field Communication (NFC).

So while you're standing there in the liquor store gazing at the row of Scotch bottles, Johnnie will be calling to you, or at least communicating with the mother ship to let it know you're near.

"Although these are very traditional product categories, there is a huge amount of digital interaction that is happening with our products," Diageo's Venky Balakrishnan Iyer said in a recent issue of CIO. "These are people standing in stores or bars and wondering whether they buy the single malt or the blend, highland or lowland."

Like everyone else, Diageo keeps track of how many people are searching for its products at any given time. But not many companies know whether mobile searchers are standing in front of one of their bottles, as about half of Johnnie Walker searchers are.

Could this mean that sometime soon, Johnnie or one of his Diageo kin might give you a come-hither look, or even whisper sweet nothings in your ear or onto your smartphone screen? 

We're not sure about that, but one thing the Johnnie Blue bottle will soon know about you, assuming the prototype system is finalized, is whether or not you've opened it. 

Once you do, Diageo wants to continue communicating with you but Balakrishnan says the conversation will shift gears from a sales pitch.

"We know the bottle opening event has occurred," he said. "Our communication can change from guiding the consumer on which bottle to buy to how to best enjoy this product."

Well, this may be going a bit far. I mean, really, does anyone not know how to enjoy a fifth of Johnnie Blue?

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Ashworth College settles complaint with the FTC

$11 million judgment suspended due to Ashworth's "inability to pay"

The Federal Trade Commission announced yesterday that for-profit Ashworth College “agreed to settle” charges that Ashworth misled potential students about ...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission announced yesterday that for-profit Ashworth College “agreed to settle” charges that Ashworth misled potential students about the value of an Ashworth education.

Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said that “When schools promise students they can transfer course credits or get a better job after completing their programs, they’d better be able to back up those claims. Ashworth College didn’t tell the truth when it made those promises to prospective students.”

Ashworth's settlement with the FTC includes an $11 million judgment — which is currently “suspended” due to Ashworth's “inability to pay.” In addition to not-paying this fine, Ashworth is also expected to not-make certain misleading claims to students. Or, as the FTC said:

The proposed stipulated court order prohibits Ashworth College from misrepresenting that:

  • completing Ashworth’s program will qualify students to obtain vocational licenses without any additional training or experience;

  • Ashworth’s programs provide all the training and credentials required to switch careers or obtain a job in a new field;

  • there will be job security or steady employment for consumers completing its programs; and that

  • course credits are generally recognized by, and accepted, by other postsecondary institutions.

For-profit schools

Ashworth is the latest in a series of for-profit schools to come under legal scrutiny for similar reasons. Corinthian Colleges, which operated schools under the Heald, Everest and WyoTech brands, had to cease operations and close its remaining schools late last month (and declared bankruptcy a week later), after years of legal troubles including multimillion-dollar fines, suspensions of federal student aid, federal lawsuits charging “predatory lending,” and more.

In mid-April, shortly before Corinthian closed its remaining schools and filed for bankruptcy, it was fined $30 million for misrepresenting its job placement rates to students.

ITT Educational Services also started coming under increased scrutiny this month. A couple weeks ago, Congresswoman Jackie Speier urged the Department of Education to investigate ITT for “deceptive and predatory lending practices, pushing students into high-interest loans they know cannot be repaid.”

A few days later, California suspended GI Bill benefits for ITT Technical Institute locations in the state.

Students at ITT and Corinthian schools both paid high tuition rates (or, more likely, went deep into bankruptcy-proof student loan debt) in order to get what turned out to be useless degrees: traditional four-year colleges or universities generally wouldn't accept course credits from these schools, and neither will state professional licensing boards.

No student loans

The FTC settlement with Ashworth suggests that Ashworth students have the same problem, but they do have one slight advantage (or one less disadvantage) than students of ITT, Everest and similar for-profit schools. The FTC says:

Tuition at Ashworth College ranges from hundreds to several thousand dollars. Ashworth College does not accept student loans, and students are required to pay tuition in full or make monthly payments. However, it does accept military benefits including GI Bill payments, and has directed some of its advertising to military servicemembers and their families.      

So Ashworth students may waste large amounts of money or squander their military tuition benefits on what turns out to be relatively worthless college-course credits — but at least they don't have bankruptcy-proof student-debt millstones weighing them down, too. By the sad standards of contemporary American for-profit higher-educational victims, that actually leaves Ashworth students ahead of the game.

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Foreclosures are up and so are rents

The foreclosure numbers may not be a problem. The rent numbers probably are.

Two troubling housing trends have appeared this spring. After months of decline, foreclosures rose in April to an 18-month high. At t...

Photo
Photo: Homes.com

Two troubling housing trends have appeared this spring. After months of decline, foreclosures rose in April to an 18-month high. At the same time, soaring rents outpaced home values for the first time in years. 

RealtyTrac, a company that markets foreclosures, reports foreclosure filings, which include everything from default notices to scheduled auctions to bank repossessions, increased 3% in April over March and 9% over April 2014. 

The company says the April jump occurred largely because of a 25% surge in bank repossessions (REO) over March and a staggering 50% increase over April 2014, the largest number in 27 months. Despite the jump, the number of REOs is still 56% below the September 2013 peak. 

Not a new crisis 

As bad as it sounds, RealtyTrac vice-president Daren Blomquist says it's just the result of a build-up of scheduled auctions and does not suggest the start of a new crisis. 

“Many of those scheduled auctions are now taking place, and properties are going back to the foreclosing lender," Blomquist said. "Meanwhile we continue to see foreclosure starts decrease, and foreclosure starts nationwide are now running consistently below pre-crisis levels — indicating that the overall increase in foreclosure activity in April is a continuation of the clean-up phase of the last housing crisis." 

While that may be a relief for homeowners, consumers who rent are feeling anything but relief. A report by real estate website Zillow.com says rents are rising so fast it could deepen what it calls a "rental crisis." 

Zillow says its April Home Value Index rose to $178,400, a modest 3% year-over-year advance. But the Zillow Rent Index rose 4%, to $1,364. 

Even worse in hot markets 

Zillow says the increase in rent has actually been outpacing home value growth for several months in some of the nation's hottest markets. In San Francisco, for example, rents started rising faster than home values in July 2014, and have been growing faster ever since on an annual basis. In Boston, annual rental growth has outpaced home value appreciation since August 2014. 

Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Stan Humphries says recent entry-level housing growth has been fed by renters taking advantage of low interest rates and buying their first homeBut it's a trend that may not last. 

"It will be increasingly difficult for many renters to realize these benefits as this country's growing rental affordability crisis continues to worsen," he said"More income going to rent means less going to savings for a down payment and other costs, keeping renters renting longer and feeding into the high demand that is contributing to rising rents in the first place." 

It's a cycle, he says, that will be difficult to break and represents another sign that there are still imbalances in the U.S. housing market. Building more houses and consumers getting better pay might help, but Humphries says there is no indication either will come quickly.

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Hot cars are no fun for dogs

Dogs can quickly become overheated in a closed car

Hot dogs only take a few minutes on the grill and the four-legged kind only take a few minutes in the car. As the weather heats up, people are out and abou...

PhotoHot dogs only take a few minutes on the grill and the four-legged kind only take a few minutes in the car. As the weather heats up, people are out and about more often and it’s fun to tote your dog along for those errands that you think are just innocent quick trips.

But nothing is quick or Ok when you decide to leave your dog in the car to patiently wait for you to come out from whatever you are doing.

It takes only minutes for your pet to face death — and it doesn't have to be that hot out. On a 78-degree day, the temperature inside a parked car can reach 160 degrees. Even with the windows cracked. 

It’s actually a form of cruelty to do this and many states have laws on the books to back it up. Under these laws, police, animal control agents, peace officers and others may be authorized to enter by whatever means necessary to remove the animal. Most likely if they see your dog sitting in the car with its tongue hanging out and panting, they will come in and grab your dog.

Overheated dogs can suffer heat exhaustion, heat stroke or sudden death from cardiac arrhythmias. You can tell your dog is overheated when you see it panting, followed by disorientation and fast, noisy breathing.

If this happens, be careful about giving the dog water because it could easily create bloat. When the dog is so heated that it is panting severely, only let it have a few laps of water. Water in the stomach does not cool the dog, you just need to keep the mouth wet so the panting is more effective.  Once the temp is going down and panting has slowed to more normal panting then allow water.

You can avoid this situation by keeping your dog out of the passenger’s seat on hot days.

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Hospice providers can help both the dying and their families

Study finds spouse of hospice recipient less likely to suffer depression

No one likes to think about dying, much less talk about it. So when a medical diagnosis is terminal, the first reaction is shock. The second is wondering w...

PhotoNo one likes to think about dying, much less talk about it. So when a medical diagnosis is terminal, the first reaction is shock. The second is wondering what to do next.

Increasingly U.S. consumers are turning to hospice care, which is medical care with a different goal – maintaining or improving the quality of life for someone whose illness, disease or condition is unlikely to be cured. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization estimates (PDF) that in 2012, 1.6 million parents received hospice services.

One appeal of hospice is the dying patient often remains at home. A family member usually serves as the primary caregiver and, when appropriate, helps make decisions for the terminally ill patient.

Members of the hospice staff make regular visits to assess the patient and provide additional care or other services. Hospice staff is on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Caregiver support

Hospice care, which becomes available when the prognosis is 6 months or less, also offers practical support for the caregiver(s) during the illness and grief support after the death. It seems to help.

A new report from researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found spouses of people getting hospice for three or more days had suffered less from depression than those who did not have hospice assistance.

“We know hospice provides high quality care to patients, but now we’re also seeing a benefit for spouses,” said Katherine Ornstein, lead author of the study. “If we want to understand the impact of hospice care, we should consider the potential benefit not just to the patient, but to the caregiver, and perhaps, the entire family and social network. We need to remember that care near the end of life affects not only patients, but also their loved ones.”

What hospice does

But the primary emphasis is on the patient. Hospice representatives control pain and provide comfort while ensuring that medication, therapies and treatments all support a care plan that is centered on the patient’s goals.

The care isn't simply clinical in nature. Art and music therapists inspire joy. Pet therapy and massages are offered as part of many programs as well. These extras often lead to a patient focusing on living life as long as possible, since he or she is no longer has to endure difficult treatments, such as chemotherapy.

Hospice services become available to a patient when a hospice physician and a second physician, usually the individual’s family doctor or specialist, certify the patient meets specific criteria – generally, the patient’s life expectancy is 6 months or less if the illness, disease or condition runs its typical course. However, if the individual lives longer than six months and their condition continues to decline, they may be re-certified by a physician or nurse practitioner for additional time in hospice care.

Similarly, if a hospice patient's condition improves, he or she may be discharged from hospice care. The patient is eligible for hospice again if his or her condition begins to decline.

According to the Hospice Foundation of America (HFA), most hospice providers offer essentially the same services to meet Medicare guidelines. Still, there may be some extras that set some providers apart.

HFA offers this advice for finding the right provider.

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New technology may extend cellphone battery life

Ohio State researchers say they can keep devices going 30% longer between charges

Photo © rfvectors.com - Fotolia As long as there have been cellphones, there have been complaints about cellphones’ short battery life. Not only do ba...

Photo
Photo © rfvectors.com - Fotolia

As long as there have been cellphones, there have been complaints about cellphones’ short battery life. Not only do batteries never seem to last long enough, they invariably die in the middle of an important call.

Researchers at Ohio State University are riding to the rescue. They are announcing a technology they claim will extend your battery life by 30%.

You don’t have to buy a new battery and you don’t need a special kind of cellphone. With modifications, their invention is said to work with any device.

Harnessing radio signals

It works like this: special circuity converts some of the radio signals produced by the device into direct current (DC) power which is routed back to the battery to recharge it. The researchers say the new technology can be built into a cell phone case, without adding more than a small amount of bulk and weight.

“When we communicate with a cell tower or Wi-Fi router, so much energy goes to waste,” said Chi-Chih Chen, research associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and one of the inventors. “We recycle some of that wasted energy back into the battery.”

The inventors who came up with this system are all researchers at Ohio State. They’re now working with a spin-off company to fine-tune the technology and will launch a Kickstarter campaign in June to bring the idea to market.

Not a new idea

PhotoThis isn’t necessarily a new idea. There are already some products that capture stray radio signals to charge tiny devices like temperature sensors. But it hasn’t been tried on this scale before, and not to charge a common consumer product like a cellphone.

And there are other differences. For one, the cellphone charger is working with considerably more power.

“These other devices are trying to harvest little bits of energy from the air,” said Robert Lee, professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Our technology is based on harvesting energy directly from the source. They can capture microwatts or even nanowatts, but cell phones need milliwatts or higher.”

Lee estimates that nearly 97% of cellphone signals never get to their destination and are simply lost. While not all can be recaptured, some can.

Battery extender

He says the objective is to reduce power consumption by retrieving some of that lost power. Rather than call the technology a battery charger, Lee prefers to think of it as a battery “extender.”

The inventors actually look at their technology as something based on a fairly simple principal, something they should have thought of a long time ago. The basic technology is almost as old as commercial electricity. It relies on the fact that radio waves are actually just a very high-frequency form of electric current.

If you are not using the phone for voice or data – instead, playing a game or listening to downloaded music – the new technology won’t be of any help. The phone needs to be transmitting through the airwaves for the technology to work.

But that’s exactly how most people, in fact, use their phones. Chen and his colleagues believe their as-yet unnamed technology will soon be an indispensable part of everyone’s cellphone, reducing the number of complaints about short battery life.

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Mortgage applications post fifth consecutive decline

Contract interest rates, though, headed higher

Five in a row. That's how many weeks applications for mortgages have been on the decline. According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) ...

PhotoFive in a row. That's how many weeks applications for mortgages have been on the decline.

 

According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications were down 1.6% during the week ending May 22.

 

The Refinance Index tumbled 4%, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity down 1 percent -- to 51% of total applications. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 6.4% of total applications.

 

Contract interest rates

 

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 3 basis points -- from 4.04% to 4.07%, with points increasing to 0.35 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) increased to 4.06% from 4.04%, with points increasing to 0.29 from 0.25 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA edged up 3 basis points to 3.83%, with points increasing to 0.16 from 0.06 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs went from 3.26% to 3.29%, with points dipping to 0.24 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs jumped 5 basis points to 3.04%, with points increasing to 0.48 from 0.45 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

 

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A May rebound for consumer confidence

Consumers are more upbeat about the labor market

After posting a decline in April, The Conference Board' Consumer Confidence Index increased moderately this month. It now stands at 95.4 -- up 1.1 from th...

PhotoAfter posting a decline in April, The Conference Board' Consumer Confidence Index increased moderately this month.

 

It now stands at 95.4 -- up 1.1 from the previous month's reading. The Present Situation Index rose 3 points -- to 108.1, while the Expectations Index edged down to 86.9 from 87.1.

 

“After a three-month slide, the Present Situation Index increased, propelled by a more positive assessment of the labor market,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board. “Expectations, however, were relatively flat following a steep decline in April. While current conditions in the second quarter appear to be improving, consumers still remain cautious about the short-term outlook.”

 

Gauging the consumer view

 

Consumers’ assessment of current-day conditions improved in May. Those saying business conditions are “good” edged down from 25.5% to 25.2 percent. However, those who think they're “bad” also decreased -- from 19.2 % to 17.4%.

 

The assessment of the job market was mixed. Those who see jobs as “plentiful” rose from 19.0% to 20.7%, while those saying they are “hard to get” rose from 25.9% to 27.3%.

 

Optimism about the short-term outlook edged lower in May. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next 6 months inched up from 15.4% to 15.6%, while those who predict business conditions will worsen also increased -- from 9.1% to 10.8%.

 

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market, however, improved. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased from 13.8% to 14.6%, while those who look for fewer jobs declined from 16.4% to 15.5%.

 

The proportion of consumers expecting growth in their incomes was unchanged at 17.4%, while the proportion expecting a decline rose slightly from 10.8% to 11.1%.

 

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was May 15.

 

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Lexus NX vehicles recalled

The Anti-Lock Braking system actuator may be damaged

Toyota Motor Sales is recalling approximately 3,000 model year 2015 Lexus NX 200t vehicles. The recalled vehicles are equipped with an Anti-Lock Braking ...

PhotoToyota Motor Sales is recalling approximately 3,000 model year 2015 Lexus NX 200t vehicles.

 

The recalled vehicles are equipped with an Anti-Lock Braking system (ABS), Traction Control System (TRAC) and Vehicle Stability Control System (VSC) which are controlled by the ABS actuator. There is a possibility that a component inside the actuator could be damaged during assembly and later not operate properly. Under some driving conditions, if the ABS is activated, this could cause a loss of vehicle stability, which can increase the risk of a crash.

 

Toyota says it is not aware of any crashes, injuries or fatalities caused by this condition to date, .

 

All known owners of the recalled vehicles will be notified by first class mail. Lexus dealers will inspect the ABS actuator and if necessary replace it with a new one.

 

Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331, or Lexus customer service at 1-800-255-3987.

 

 

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BRP recalls youth model Can-Am all-terrain vehicles

The vehicles fail to meet federal performance requirements

Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) of Canada is recalling about 12,500 all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). The youth ATVs fail to meet performance requiremen...

PhotoBombardier Recreational Products (BRP) of Canada is recalling about 12,500 all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

 

The youth ATVs fail to meet performance requirements of the federal standard for maximum unrestricted speed and parking brakes, posing a crash hazard.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall is for model year 2008 through 2015 Can-Am Mini DS ATVs. The recalled vehicles are youth model ATVs and have engines sizes of 70 cubic centimeters and 90 cubic centimeters. They were sold in the colors black and yellow. "Can-Am DS" and the engine size is on both sides of the vehicle's fairing. "Can-Am" appears in white letters on both sides of the seat.

 

Model year 2008 through 2014 DS 70 ATVs fail to meet requirements pertaining to the unrestricted maximum speed of the vehicle. Model year 2008 through 2015 DS 70 and DS 90 ATVs fail to meet requirements pertaining to parking brakes.

 

The ATVs, manufactured in Vietnam, were sold at Can-Am dealers nationwide from July 2007, through January 2015, for between $1,800 and $2,800.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled ATVs and contact a BRP dealer to schedule a free repair. BRP is notifying registered consumers directly.

 

Consumers may contact BRP toll-free at (888) 272-9222 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

 

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Gerber recalls Cohort knives

The locking mechanism can fail to hold the blade

Gerber Legendary Blades of Portland, Ore., is recalling about 161,000 Cohort folding knives. The locking mechanism can fail to hold the blade, posing a la...

PhotoGerber Legendary Blades of Portland, Ore., is recalling about 161,000 Cohort folding knives.

 

The locking mechanism can fail to hold the blade, posing a laceration hazard.

 

The company has received 6 reports of laceration injuries, 2 of which required stitches.

 

The Cohort is an open frame folding clip knife with either a black or dark gray anodized aluminum handle. The tail end of the handle includes a lanyard hole. When the knife blade is fully extended, it is held in the open position with a liner lock function. When fully extended, the overall length of the knife is about 7 inches. When closed, the knife measures about 4 inches.

 

The knife blade is 3 inches long, weighs less than 3 ounces and has the Gerber “sword and shield” trademark in silver on the non-clip side of the blade. The Gerber name appears on the knife clip.

 

The following models are being recalled:

 

Gerber Model Numbers 
30-000645N31-002488NDIP
31-001714N31-002722HDN
31-001714NDIP31-002885HDN
31-001715N31-002885HDQP
31-002488N 
  
Home Depot SKU Numbers 
10000442111000246978

 

 

Model numbers can be found underneath the UPC barcode on the lower right corner on the rear of the hanging blister packaging. For box packaging, the model number is found on the bottom of the box.

 

A product date code appears on the blade, beneath the thumb stud, on the clip side of the knife. The last figure in the code is a letter, and the recall applies to all Cohort knives with the letters “E” and “F.”

 

The knives, manufactured in China, were sold at Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, Home Depot, other retailers nationwide and online at www.gerbergear.com and other online sporting goods stores from January 2013, through March 2015, for about $30.

 

Consumers should stop using the knife and contact Gerber for a replacement.

 

Consumers may contact Gerber Legendary Blades toll free at (877) 314-9130 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

 

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4 things to consider when buying an older home

More than an updated kitchen, these factors can make or break a deal

We are well into the spring home shopping season and in many markets, would-be buyers are having to compete for properties. Inventories of available homes ...

PhotoWe are well into the spring home shopping season and in many markets, would-be buyers are having to compete for properties. Inventories of available homes remain tight in many metros.

So when you come across the cute “mid-century” rancher in a good neighborhood at an attractive price you may be ready to pounce. But before you do, there are four parts of the home you should closely examine. They can be the difference between a good deal and a money pit.

They are, in order of importance, the roof, the basement or crawlspace, the heating and cooling system (HVAC) and the electrical service.

Roof

The roof protects the integrity of the structure. If it leaks, moisture is getting inside and causing all sorts of damage.

If shingles are missing or are cracked and peeling, the roof may already be leaking. If the shingles are intact but are curling or torn, they are on their way to failing.

Discolored shingles can be a sign of mold or algae growth on the roof. That holds moisture and can cause rapid deterioration.

Inside, water spots on the ceiling can be a telltale sign of a leaky roof. That may be reason enough to walk away. The cost of replacing a roof will be several thousand dollars and that doesn’t cover the repairs to any damage that may have already occured.

If the house is going to need a roof replacement soon after you move in, that cost should be reflected in your offer. On the other hand, if the roof has recently been replaced, that’s a big checkmark in the house’s favor.

Crawlspace or basement

Just as moisture invading your home from above, an invasion from below is just as damaging. Water can get under the structure any number of ways. Sometimes the contour of the lot allows rain water to collect next to the foundation, but more often than not the water comes from the roof, by virtue of overflowing gutters or downspouts.

Subterranean water is easier to spot in a basement because of easier access. In addition to the musty odor you can detect water marks on walls where water has entered. If basement walls have recently been painted it may be reason enough to suspect a water problem.

Water is harder to hide in a crawlspace, but may require crawling into a dark, cramped space with a flashlight. Moisture can usually be detected by the musty smell. If water is present, there is a chance of mold and insect damage as well.

Whether it’s a basement or a crawlspace, addressing water issues is usually a costly home repair and to be avoided, if possible.

HVAC

HVAC systems keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Furnaces tend to last a lot longer than air conditioners but you still want to pay attention to the furnace’s age. The same is especially true for air conditioners.

Window units that cool specific parts of the home, are relatively inexpensive and easily replaced. Not so with central air units. According to the experts at This Old House, central air conditioning units last 10 to 15 years, heat pumps about 16.

A home with a newer cooling system is a big plus. One with an older system will likely need replacing soon, at a cost of several thousand dollars.

Electric service

All homes have electricity but some have more of it than others. Many older homes are still powered by 100 amp service, which was the standard when they were built. Modern homes have 200 amp service and are able to handle today’s greater electricity demands.

For example, a home may need a 200 amp service to handle a large load HVAC system or other large appliances. If a home doesn’t have it, it can cost several thousand dollars to add and should be considered before making any offer.

Home shoppers often get fixated on granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. Before considering the cosmetics, better focus on structural basics like roof, foundation, HVAC and electric service.

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Federal oversight of General Motors extended

The automaker's reporting will continue for another year

General Motors will remain under Uncle Sam's thumb. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has decided to extend federal oversight of ...

PhotoGeneral Motors will remain under Uncle Sam's thumb.

 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has decided to extend federal oversight of the automakers’ review, decision-making and communications about potential vehicle safety issues for an additional year.

 

That means GM will have to continue submitting reports to and meeting with NHTSA in order for the agency to monitor the progress of company's investigation of potential safety issues and other actions required by NHTSA’s May 2014 Consent Order.

 

“GM learned a hard lesson last year,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Foxx. “We expect to see the improvements they’ve made continue and that their new approaches are applied to every GM safety issue and every recall.”

 

The consent order

 

Last May, the company agreed in the Consent Order to pay a record $35 million civil penalty and to take part in unprecedented oversight requirements as a result of findings from NHTSA's timeliness investigation regarding the Chevrolet Cobalt and the automaker's failure to report a safety defect in the vehicle to the federal government in a timely manner.

 

The defect resulted in the non-deployment of airbags in certain Chevy Cobalt and other GM models. Today’s action is an extension of certain requirements of that agreement. Other requirements continue for an additional two years.

 

NHTSA says it extended its oversight “because the consent order has proven to be a productive and effective tool to proactively and expeditiously address potential safety-related defects.”

 

“Our oversight has been effective and GM’s in a better place,” according to NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, adding, “We expect that our agreement will help them continue to improve their safety culture. Follow the rules, be accountable for your products, take good care of your customers and always make safety the priority.”

 

Criminal charges?

 

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports there's a chance federal prosecutors will bring criminal charges against the company over an ignition-switch defect that prompted GM to recall 2.6 million vehicles.

 

The defective switch can slip out of the run position and cut power to safety systems including air bags, power steering and power brakes. 

 

The Journal reports a settlement is possible, but quotes people close to the situation as saying sticking points remain, including whether GM will have to enter a guilty plea and how big a fine it it may face.

 

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Charter acquires Time Warner Cable, pending regulatory approval

"Little" Charter defeats Public Enemy No. 1 is the spin we're hearing today

It was just a few weeks ago that Comcast bowed to opposition from consumer activists and skepticism from regulators and withdrew i...

Photo
Photo via Wikipedia

It was just a few weeks ago that Comcast bowed to opposition from consumer activists and skepticism from regulators and withdrew its offer for Time Warner Cable.

Now Charter is buying Time Warner for about $55 billion and predicts the deal will be approved because a combined Charter/Time Warner would be a stronger competitor for Comcast.

Charter Communications May 26, 2015, 1:08 p.m.
Consumers rate Charter Communications

Comcast, with 22 million subscribers, is the biggest cable and Internet provider in the country and has a knack for making enemies. Charter, by comparison, is a mere pup with about 6 million subscribers. Bright House, owned by the Newhouse interests, which would also be acquired by Charter, has about 2.5 million. The three companies combined would have about 20 million subscribers.

Charter is seen by the people who make their livings generating spin about deals like this as more consumer-friendly, perhaps because it's smaller. It's not that small, though. Its largest shareholder is billionaire John Malone who has enjoyed a lengthy career building gigantic media enterprises.

Back to the future

There is a certain method to this apparent madness. If you look back a few years to 2013, you'll find that Charter was then trying to acquire -- yes -- Time Warner. Time Warner said no and Charter's bid escalated into an attempted hostile takeover.

Time Warner rebuffed Charter by leaping into the waiting arms of Comcast and the invisible hand of public opinion manipulation went to work stoking up opposition to the Comcast deal.

PhotoThe argument went something like this: Comcast will be oh so big that it will squash such small competitors as Netflix in the fast-congealing gob of cable and streaming video.

Activist groups like Public Knowledge and Consumers Union took to the barricades, warning that the sky would fall if Comcast's evil empire grew any larger. Charter's slightly smaller evil empire? No problem.

“It appears much less of an antitrust concern than the Comcast deal,” said Public Knowledge president Gene Kimmelman in a Washington Post report.

Squash newcomers

It seems to escape everyone's attention that Malone, 74, has spent the past several years preaching the gospel of cable consolidation as a weapon against the emerging threat that streaming video represents to cable interests. Cable operators must join forces to stamp out the newcomers, in other words. 

A combined Charter/Time Warner may have only a size 11 boot but that will likely be just about as effective as the size 12 boot Comcast/Time Warner would have brought to the party. 

Meanwhile, the largest cable provider is about to be none of the above. The AT&T/DirecTV merger appears to be smoothly moving towards completion. Anyone who thinks AT&T will deal gently with intruders on its turf should do a little research into the history of the telecommunications business.

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Vaccines developed for two strains of bird flu

Scientists hopeful it can blunt future outbreaks

Avian, or bird, flu, has devastated commercial chicken and turkey operations in the Midwest, resulting in the culling of millions of birds. But beyond its ...

PhotoAvian, or bird, flu, has devastated commercial chicken and turkey operations in the Midwest, resulting in the culling of millions of birds. But beyond its economic impact there are serious health concerns.

In Asia strains of the avian flu have passed from bird to humans, with health officials estimating 1 in 3 humans who contract the illness die.

Now, researchers in the U.S. have developed a vaccine for two new strains of bird flu. While providing some protection it is also expected to help researchers make additional vaccines for new strains of avian influenza more quickly.

As a result, the number and intensity of large-scale outbreaks at poultry farms could diminish and transmission to humans become less of a threat.  Jürgen Richt, Regents director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases says it could also lead to flu vaccines for pigs and other livestock.

H5N1

Richt and his colleagues at Kansas State Univesity focused on H5N1, a new strain seen mostly in Indonesia, Egypt and other Southeast Asian and North African countries. H5N1 also has been found in wild birds in the U.S. but is not believed to be widespread.

"H5N1 is a zoonotic pathogen, which means that it is transmitted from chickens to humans," Richt said. "So far it has infected more than 700 people worldwide and has killed about 60% of them. Unfortunately, it has a pretty high mortality rate."

The new vaccine for H5N1 came about when scientists put 2 viruses together. Tests show that the combined virus was an effective vaccine for chickens against both Newcastle disease virus and H5N1.

H7N9

Next the scientists focused their efforts on the bird flu subtype H7N9, which has been infecting birds in China since at least 2013. Since then there have been about 650 cases of H7N9 in humans and some 230 people have died. There are aspects of the new virus that make it more dangerous than previous strains.

"In Southeast Asia there are a lot of markets that sell live birds that people can buy and prepare at home," Richt said. "In contrast to the H5N1 virus that kills the majority of chickens in three to five days, chickens infected with the H7N9 virus do not show clinical signs of sickness. That means you could buy a bird that looks perfectly healthy but could be infected. If an infected bird is prepared for consumption, there is a high chance you could get sick, and about 1 in 3 infected people die."

Again, tests showed that chickens vaccinated with the new Newcastle virus-based vaccine were protected against H7N9.

Welcome news

A vaccine that could stop bird flu from spreading would be welcome news to the poultry and egg industries. Nearly 40 million U.S. chickens have died or been exterminated as poultry producers try to stop the spread of the disease. That’s more than double the number lost in the last outbreak back in the 1980's.

All of this is having an impact at the supermarket. Some turkey producers have warned of possible shortages of the Thanksgiving Day staple and egg prices are skyrocketing.

The Wall Street Journal has reported wholesale prices for the eggs sold at supermarkets are up about 85% at $2.20 a dozen in parts of the country. Restaurants specializing in breakfast are also feeling the pinch and will likely pass along the higher costs to consumers.

A vaccine that could limit the carnage would likely alleviate much of this economic fallout, though it isn’t known how quickly that could happen.

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Gambling pays. Cops split $9.6 million

Feds shut down Internet gambling sites, split the take with local police

Federal agents have shut down a network of gambling sites and seized nearly $10 million that is being distributed to federal and local law enforcement agen...

PhotoFederal agents have shut down a network of gambling sites and seized nearly $10 million that is being distributed to federal and local law enforcement agencies.

The gambling sites allowed bettors to place thousands of wagers from New York, Florida, Indiana, California, Texas, Kansas, Nevada  and elsewhere.  Over a four-year period, at least $10 million in illegal gambling proceeds were deposited into accounts in the names of sham corporations and accounts in Panama, Andorra and the Cayman Islands, prosecutors said. 

One of the defendants, Philip Gurian, said that he was making $150,000 from the sites each day. Michele Lasso admitted helping Gurian launder the gambling proceeds, depositing at least $8 million. Alan Gould admitted involvement in $3.8 million in transactions. Jay Goldman admitted accepting nearly 9,000 bets totaling over $1.5 million using foreign websites and eighteen different routers.

"No money, no crime"

“Stripping criminals of illegal profits deprives them of the fuel that sustains their illegitimate enterprises,” said U.S. Attorney Richard S. Hartunian.  “In illegal gambling, money is both the way the crime is committed and the reason for committing it.  No money equals no crime."

Hartunian said the seized funds would be put to good use.

"Forfeiting the proceeds and instrumentalities of crime puts the money to work for good – helping the victims of crime, funding community programs and providing resources to be used to promote public safety," he said. "Such sharing can enable a local police chief, sheriff, or district attorney to commit the necessary resources to conduct a complex, long term investigation that in the end enhances public safety.”

A total of $9,628,093.75 was distributed by the U.S. Marshal’s Service to the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, the IRS, the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, the Saratoga County District Attorney’s Office and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office as shown below:

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Website operator sentenced to prison for facilitating prostitution

It's the first prison sentence for a website publisher accused of aiding prostitution

myRedBook seized by the fedsA website operator has been sentenced to 13 months in prison for facilitating prostitution and has agreed to forfeit near...

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myRedBook seized by the feds

A website operator has been sentenced to 13 months in prison for facilitating prostitution and has agreed to forfeit nearly 1.3 million in cash and property. It's thought to be the first such conviction anywhere in the U.S.

Eric Omuro, also known as Red, 53, of Mountain View, California, published a site called myRedBook.com. It hosted advertisements from prostitutes containing photos, descriptions of their services and prices.

Omuro pleaded guilty in December and was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick of the Northern District of California to using a facility of interstate commerce with the intent to facilitate prostitution.  

Omuro admitted that members of his website and prostitutes typically used acronyms for sex acts, which were defined in graphic detail in the website’s “Terms and Acronyms” section.  While prostitutes could post advertisements for free, myRedBook.com offered additional options for a fee. 

For example, prostitutes could pay a fee to have their advertisement featured more prominently on the website.  Similarly, customers could access myRedBook.com for free. If a customer purchased a membership, however, the customer obtained early and enhanced access to prostitute reviews, enhanced prostitute review search options and access to additional VIP forums, among other things.

According to an affidavit submitted in connection with the sentencing hearing, the FBI identified more than 50 juveniles who were advertised on myRedBook for the purpose of prostitution.

 

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Hyundai introduces software syncing phones with navigation system

Google apps on Android phones will run on cars' screens

Technology increasingly pulls consumers into new car showrooms. New cars have a lot more technology in the dash than even three-year-old models. Hyundai...

PhotoTechnology increasingly pulls consumers into new car showrooms. New cars have a lot more technology in the dash than even three-year-old models.

Hyundai is trying to raise the bar, not with hardware but with software. It has introduced Android Auto, a system that integrates some Android phones with the navigation system in the 2015 Hyundai Sonota.

"Android Auto aligns with Hyundai's core interior design principles of safety, intuitiveness and simplicity," said Dave Zuchowski, president and CEO, Hyundai Motor America. "We launched this highly anticipated feature on our best-selling Sonata, adding to our promise of value. With the launch of Android Auto, we provide more owners with the experience of cutting-edge technology."

What about safety?                         

Having more and more gadgets at your disposal behind the wheel doesn’t sound like such a good idea but Zuchowski says the new system will actually promote safety. He points out that just about any time of day there are thousands of people driving while trying to manipulate some type of electronic gadget.

Hyundai says the new interface will help keep drivers' eyes and attention on the road by integrating the advanced driving-related functions of the user's smartphone with the familiar centralized screen, physical controls and microphone of their car.

As an added safety feature, the company says the synced smartphone's screen becomes "locked," so drivers are not tempted to look down and interact with their phones directly while Android Auto is in use.

Free download at dealers

If you are driving a 2015 Sonata with the navigation package you can get the free software download at any Hyundai dealer. Within a few weeks the company says you’ll be able to download the software yourself if you have a MyHyudai account.

To use the new software your phone needs to run Android 5.0 Lollipop or later and the Android Auto companion app on a compatible phone. A micro USB cable is required to connect the phone to the car's USB port.

The first time you plug a phone into a parked Sonata, the phone will prompt the download of the Android Auto companion app from the Google Play. From there you download familiar Android phone applications, such as Google Maps, Google Now, messaging, phone calling and Google Play Music.

Voice controls

Hyundai stresses that these apps controlled by voice, as well as steering wheel controls and touchscreen. Android Auto can also launch many popular third-party audio apps that owners have on their phones, including iHeartRadio, Spotify, TuneIn, NPR, Stitcher, Skype and TextMe.

How would you use this software package? Hyundai says Google Now provides suggested locations and travel times based on the user's searches, calendar entries and home and office locations, as well as weather information and "now playing" information for music streamed over the phone.

The software is automatically updated because the apps live on the phone. Hyundai says users can easily bring their personal reminders, suggested destinations, calendar appointments and music preferences with them when they get in their car.

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The Who releases 50th anniversary music collection

And naturally, it's on vinyl

Rock music in the 60's and 70's was all about youth and rebellion and was the soundtrack of a generation. So it must come as a shock to Baby Boomers, and e...

PhotoRock music in the 60's and 70's was all about youth and rebellion and was the soundtrack of a generation. So it must come as a shock to Baby Boomers, and even younger fans, to learn that the legendary rock band The Who is observing its 50th anniversary this year.

Fiftieth anniversaries are what your grandparents celebrate, not your rock idols. But the surviving members of The Who are grandparents, or at least old enough to be. Roger Daltrey is 71. Pete Townshend is 70. But many fans consider their music timeless, not to mention ageless.

Radio programmer and one of the pioneers of the “classic rock” format, Gary Guthrie, says no rock group other than The Rolling Stones has endured generational hand-offs, from older fans to younger fans, like The Who.

Impact

“I might even go as far as saying that The Who made an impact on more genres and conceptual thinking with their punk'y ‘mod’ sound and what they did with 'Tommy' and 'Quadrophenia,'” Guthrie told ConsumerAffairs.

"Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" came after the band had earned worldwide fame. But to celebrate the 50th anniversary The Who is re-releasing its early work, when it was competing with dozens of other British groups invading America.

As part of the ongoing celebrations the band is releasing a series of 7-inch singles box sets containing work it produced while hopping from one record label to another. The first collection is "The Brunswick Singles 1965-66."

The follow-up is "The Reaction Singles 1966," a 4-part set of classic Who singles by labels Brunswick, Reaction, Track and Polydor. It contains five 7-inch singles from the Reaction label pressed on heavyweight vinyl with paper sleeves  and reproducing the period graphics front and back with die-cut center holes.

The singles come in a rigid lid-and-tray outer box that features a 7-inch sized color booklet with liner notes about each release by Who biographer Mark Blake.

Controversy

The period of time covered by the initial products are not without controversy. The rock music world was something of a Wild West environment during those years with performers routinely walking away from record labels in contract disputes. The Who was no exception.

During one such dispute The Who released a song called “Substitute,” which had to be recalled over a rights issue. After its second release was successfully challenged in court The Who released it a third time, eventually hitting number 5 on the British charts.

"The Reaction Singles 1966" collection includes “Substitute,” “Instant Party,” “Waltz For A Pig,” I’m A Boy,” “Ready Steady Who,” “Disguises,” “Circles,” “Batman,” Bucket T,” “Barbara Ann,” “Happy Jack” and “I’ve Been Away.”

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A step-up in home-price gains

San Francisco and Denver lead the way

The rise in home prices continued during March on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, b...

PhotoThe rise in home prices continued during March on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis

 

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, both the 10-City and 20-City Composites saw year-over-year increases. The 10-City Composite was up 4.7%, while the 20-City Composite jumped 5.0%. The National Home Price Index -- covering all 9 U.S. census divisions -- recorded a 4.1% annual gain in March versus a 4.2% increase in February.

 

San Francisco and Denver reported the highest year-over-year increases -- 10.3% and 10.0%, respectively, over the last 12 months. San Francisco’s annual gain is its first double-digit year-over-year increase since July 2014. Dallas reported a 9.3% year-over-year gain to round out the top 3 cities.

 

Ten cities reported higher price increases in the year ended March 2015 over the year ended February 2015. Tampa led the way with a reported increase of 1.4%. Ten cities also saw their prices decrease annually, led by Cleveland -- down 1.2% in the year ending March 2015.

 

Month-over-month

 

The National index increased again in March with a 0.8%. Both the 10- and 20-City Composites increased significantly, reporting month-over-month gains of 0.8% and 0.9%, respectively. Of the 19 cities reporting increases, San Francisco led an advance of 3.0%.

 

Seattle followed with a reported surge of 2.3%, while Cleveland was up 0.4%, its first positive month-over-month increase since last August. New York was the only city to report a decline for March -- -0.1%.

 

“Home prices have enjoyed year-over-year gains for 35 consecutive months,” said David M. Blitzer, Managing Director & Chairman of the Index Committee for S&P Dow Jones Indices. “The pattern of consistent gains is national and seen across all 20 cities covered by the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. I would describe this as a rebound in home prices, not bubble and not a reason to be fearful.”

 

FHFA home prices

 

Separately, from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), word that its House Price Index (HPI) rose 1.3% in the first quarter of 2015 -- the fifteenth consecutive quarterly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index.

 

The seasonally adjusted monthly index for March was up 0.3% from February.

 

"The first quarter saw strong and widespread home price growth throughout most of the country," said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. "Home prices are now, on average, roughly 20% above where they were 3 years ago. This run-up has been historically exceptional and is particularly notable in light of the limited household income growth and modest rate of overall inflation observed during that same time period."

 

The seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI, which is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, rose 5.0% from the first quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of 2015, while prices of other goods and services fell 1.5%. The inflation-adjusted price of homes thus rose approximately 6.5% over the latest year.

 

Report highlights

 

  • Between the first quarter of 2014 and the first quarter of 2015, home prices rose in 48 states. The top 5 states in annual appreciation:

   1. Colorado – 11.2%

  1. Nevada – 10.1%

  2. Florida – 8.75;

  3. Washington – 7.65;

  4. California – 7.5 percent.

  • Among the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., 4-quarter price increases were greatest in Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley, Calif., where prices increased by 13.4%. Prices were weakest in the Greensboro-High Point, N.C., where they fell 2.3%.
  • Of the 9 census divisions, the Mountain division experienced the strongest increase in the first quarter, posting a 2.6% quarterly increase and a 6.8% increase since last year. House price appreciation was weakest in the West North Central division, where prices rose 0.7%.

 

The complete report is available on the FHFA website.

 

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Sales of new homes rebound in April

Prices headed higher, too

Sales of new single-family houses moved higher in April following a double-digit plunge a month earlier. Estimates released jointly by the Census Bureau a...

PhotoSales of new single-family houses moved higher in April following a double-digit plunge a month earlier.

 

Estimates released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show sales last month at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 517,000 up 6.8% from March's revised rate of 484,000. The previous month's sales rate had earlier been put at 481,000 . The April figure is also 26.1% above the year-ago estimate of 410,000.

 

Sales and inventory

 

The median sales price of new houses sold in April was $297,300, up $22,800 from the same time a year ago. The median is the point at which half the prices were higher and half were lower.

 

The average sales price was $341,500, up $16,400 from April 2014.

 

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of April was 205,000, representing a supply of 4.8 months at the current sales rate.

 

The full report may be found on the Commerce department website.

 

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Target's cheap chic re-captives discounter customers

Consumers will show you the way ... if you let them

A new TargetExpress scheduled to open in October in Rosslyn, Va. We’'ve said this a thousand times, but here it is again, once more wrapped up with an...

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A new TargetExpress scheduled to open in October in Rosslyn, Va.

We’'ve said this a thousand times, but here it is again, once more wrapped up with an in-market validation ribbon: Emotional aspects of a category count more to consumers than rational ones when it comes to consumer engagement and brand profitability. 

That’s true in B2C and B2B categories. The only time rational category aspects primarily on their own create the kind of consumer behavior that substantively boosts the bottom line is if you’re talking about a commodity, like selling bags of sand.

Here'’s another proof positive. It’'s going to end up a marketing case history at some business school somewhere -- that'’s the only time rational category aspects on their own or primarily on their own, create the kind of consumer behavior that substantively boosts a bottom line, but here it is now. 

In our Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI) for the Discount Retail Category, Target has generally appeared in the #2 spot -- after Walmart and just ahead of Kmart. Those are the only three national discount retailers so the list isn’'t long. 

Upscale-feeling

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Robert Passikoff

Target, a division of Dayton Hudson Corporation, grew and finally the company went with the name “Target” for all its’ divisions. Round about the early ’90s Target began to differentiate its stores by offering more upscale-feeling, trend-forward, merchandise at lower costs.

It created a category unto itself, even if just perceptually, called “cheap chic,” in direct opposition to the Walmart model of focusing on low, lower, lowest-priced goods. Kmart didn’'t actually have a strategy other than locations with low prices, but not quite as low as Walmart. 

Back then Target was rated #1 in our CLEI, and It worked out pretty well for them because their engagement strategy relied on the emotional value of style, rather than the rational value of price. People felt good about themselves when they shopped at Target. They saw themselves as having good taste and they were getting a good deal.

Target held the cheap chic positioning for a decade or so and did pretty well, but when the recession hit, Target panicked and walked away from style and turned to a low-price strategy positioning, hoping the Target logo alone would speak to their style heritage. Alas, logos only go so far and only speak so loud, and consumers'’ memories of bygone strategies (however once-engaging) are short. Target seemed perennially to become #2.

Target's refocused

Whether by design or happenstance Target has recently returned to its’ cheap-chic strategy. They'’ve refocused on the kind of fashion and style that resonated with consumers years ago that when asked where they had shopped, consumers would say “Tar-ghay,” with a faux-French accent, putting an ironic spin on shopping for style at a discount retailer!

So, has the return to an emotional strategy worked?

Mais oui! Target has been posting better than predicted earnings, and just did that again –a day after Walmart posted their own disappointing numbers. This is the third straight quarter of sales growth for Target. They reported a 52% increase in profit, with revenues up nearly 3%.

Along with a return to a more emotional positioning is the recognition that the retail game will be won according to what share-of-wallet and frequency of visits a brand can engender, which are, of course, rational aspects of business, only in this case they’re driven by an emotional connection to the brand. 

And, sure, everyone shops everywhere, but as the brand has returned to style and chic for it’s differentiating position in discount, it’'s selling more expensive items to more shoppers who have more money to spend more frequently.

In light of that, Target CFO John Mulligan has noted, “we'’re letting consumers lead us to the right answer,” which is always the smart thing to do and the kind of thing that shows up in biz school case studies where brand success is the bottom line -- –and usually the result of increased consumer emotional engagement with the brand. 

---

Robert Passikoff is founder and president of Brand Keys, a national brand consultancy.

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Court puts brakes on global sweepstakes scam

Consumers were taken for millions despite prize money ‘guarantee’

A federal court, acting on a request from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has temporarily shut down a sweepstakes operation based in Fort Lauderdale th...

PhotoA federal court, acting on a request from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has temporarily shut down a sweepstakes operation based in Fort Lauderdale that took more than $28 million from consumers throughout the U.S and other countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

 

The FTC wants a permanen end to the allegedly illegal practices and a return of money to victims.

 

“This outfit promised people huge prizes and collected millions in fees but never paid out a dime,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If someone says you have to pay to claim a sweepstakes prize, assume it’s a scam.”

 

The charges

 

The FTC’s complaint and other court filings claim the defendants mailed personalized letters that falsely told consumers they had won large cash prizes -- typically more than $2 million. The prizes are “guaranteed,” the letters stated, but to collect the money, consumers had to mail the defendants a $20-$30 fee by cash, check or money order. To create a false sense of urgency, they set a deadline, typically 10 days, and warned consumers they would forfeit their winnings if they didn’t pay on time.

 

In reality, consumers had not won anything. The defendants have no connection to any sweepstakes and cannot award or pay anyone the promised prizes.

 

“Only in dense, confusing language, at the bottom or on the back of the letters,” the FTC explains, do they admit that the only service they provide is compiling “reports” about sweepstakes and contests offered by other parties that are open to the public.

 

By design, the defendants’ disclaimers are unclear and inconspicuous, and fail to alert consumers to the truth, and most consumers don’t even receive the “reports” and would never have agreed to pay $20-$30 for them.

 

The parade of defendants

 

The defendants are Mail Tree Inc.; Michael McKay Co.; Spin Mail Inc.; MCP Marketing Activities LLC, also doing business as Magellan Mail and Magellan Marketing; Trans National Concepts Inc.; Romeria Global LLC, also d/b/a Lowenstein Varick and Nagel; Supreme Media LLC; Vernier Holdings Inc.; Awards Research Consultant LLC; Mailpro Americas Corp.; Masterpiece Marketing LLC, also d/b/a Affiliated Opportunities Group (AOG), Corporate Accounting Authority (CAA), Dispatch Notification Services (DNS), Information Reporting Group (IRG), National Directory Center (NDC), and Priority Information Exchange (PIE); Matthew Pisoni; Marcus Pradel; John Leon; and Victor Ramirez. The court issued an order that temporarily stopped the illegal conduct, froze the defendants’ assets, and appointed a receiver to control the operation while the FTC pursues the case.

 

“No one is permitted to steal hard-earned money from members of our community,” U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer said. “This office will work with international, national and local law enforcement agencies to prevent these types of sweepstake fraud schemes, and we will bring those who commit these crimes to justice.”

 

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Hanging from a balcony is OK if you're a plant

You'd be surprised how many vegetables you can grow in a small space

Hanging from a balcony can be a good thing -- if you're a plant. This is the perfect time of year to plant in small spaces. Most balconies don't have a ton...

PhotoHanging from a balcony can be a good thing -- if you're a plant. This is the perfect time of year to plant in small spaces. Most balconies don't have a ton of room but they do have enough to plant both cool and warm season vegetables

You probably won't be able to feed your crew the whole summer on these but herbs are a perfect choice if you are a gardener with limited space. They will add a tremendous amount of flavor to your food and they attract bugs, but the good kind of bugs -- bugs that are beneficial to your garden and that repel insects. They do a lot for the amount of space. They serve not only your family but also a purpose.

Kale is all the rage on every green menu and not just in the health food stores -- it has become mainstream and it has tremendous health benefits. It will be easy to grow and it is very nutritious.

Salad greens are just an all-around plant. They do well in the cool wet season but they also thrive in hot weather. It is probably a good idea to plant lettuce and greens from seeds; it’s much cheaper and you will be able to treat yourself to a wide variety including all the old standbys.

The staple of every garden is the little red balls that are bursting with flavor -- the juicy tomato. They are a summer treat, but it can be challenging keeping them healthy when the weather gets damp. In order to keep them healthy you need a great deal of heat and the leaves need to stay dry. You can keep them in large pots under an awning and that will allow you to control the water.

Potatoes are also a great addition to your garden, even if you're not in Idaho. There are many varieties and they do grow well. You don't need to give up tons of space, either. Special "grow bags" and tall containers designed for potatoes mean you can grow spuds on your balcony.

Jack and the beanstalk really wasn't a tale too tall except for the length of the bean stalk. Good luck getting one to grow to the sky, but Jack's grew overnight and yours can also. Push in a bean and you'll have a sprout in a few days. Small spaces will allow you to plant a variety of beans.

Nothing screams summer like fresh veggies and how wonderful to be able to toss a salad with your own homegrown vegetables from your own little garden no matter how small your space may be.

 

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Walmart is improving the lives of animals

The nation's biggest grocer is a leader in humane treatment of animals

Walmart is helping change the way food animals are trated across the retail industry.  Walmart is asking meat producers, egg suppliers and others to use...

PhotoWalmart is helping change the way food animals are trated across the retail industry. 

Walmart is asking meat producers, egg suppliers and others to use antibiotics only when needed for disease prevention or treatment, not to fatten their animals, a common industry practice.

It is also trying to halt pig gestation crates and any other type of housing that doesn’t give an animal enough room to move. Walmart is also requesting that dehorning and castration be done with painkillers.

Activists are applauding Walmart touting its guidelines and saying it could become the blueprint of the food industry. McDonald’s Corp., Nestlé and Starbucks Corp., have already pledged to reduce or eliminate the use of gestation crates for pregnant sows and otherwise improve animal treatment.

Consumer demand

Much of the Walmart's motivation is no doubt simple market economics. Shoppers are more aware of their health than ever before and it’s no longer just the food pyramid. People want to know where their food comes from, what the animals are fed and how they are treated. Consumers are pushing for more transparency when it comes to how things are grown.

Walmart said its own research showed 77 percent of its shoppers said they will increase their trust and 66 percent will increase their likelihood to shop at a retailer that improves the treatment of livestock.

Activists have been loud and clear about abuses that have gone on in the farms that supply food to Walmart and other large companies.

According to Kathleen McLaughlin, senior vice president of Walmart’s sustainability division, Walmart is now asking for suppliers to give them annual reports on antibiotic use and animal welfare and post them on their own websites.

The World Organization for Animal Health outlined Five Freedoms that it wanted to see for animal health. Walmart has adopted those and they include freedom from pain and injury, and freedom to express normal behavior.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, says he is thrilled that Walmart has taken a stand and said he feels that the impact is a “game-changing progress and signals to agribusiness that the era of confining farm animals is ending.”

Walmart's guidelines also to their sister company, Sam’s Club.

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Old World Meats recalls roast beef product

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

Old World Meats of Duluth, Minn., is recalling approximately 12 pounds of roast beef product. The product contains soy, an allergen not listed on the labe...

PhotoOld World Meats of Duluth, Minn., is recalling approximately 12 pounds of roast beef product.

 

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

 

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

 

The following sliced roast beef product, produced on April 3 and May 8, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 0.5-lb. packages containing “OLD WORLD MEATS TOP ROUND ROAST BEEF.”

The recalled product bears the establishment number “EST.34448” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and was sold at a retail location in Minnesota.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Paul Wrazidlo at (218) 340-7682.

 

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Culinary Brands recalls pork product

The product may contain a mushroom risotto which contains wheat, an allergen which is not listed on the label

Culinary Brands of Vernon, Calif., is recalling approximately 4,038 pounds of pork products. The product was mistakenly mislabeled and may contain the wr...

PhotoCulinary Brands of Vernon, Calif., is recalling approximately 4,038 pounds of pork products.

 

The product was mistakenly mislabeled and may contain the wrong product, a mushroom risotto which contains wheat, an allergen not declared on the label.

 

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

 

The following pork chile verde product, produced on March 30 and April 2, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 9-oz. plastic tray packages labeled “Simply Balanced Pork Chile Verde” bearing lot #A5089G2.

The recalled product bears the establishment number “EST. 6009” inside the USDA mark of inspection and was shipped to retail locations nationwide.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Frank Calma at (626) 289-3000 (ext. 116).

 

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Grill like a pro

Gas or charcoal, it doesn't really matter if you get everything else right

Memorial day gets summer started and that usually means the grill gets going as well. One of the key ingredients to that grill is the fire. Keep the fire b...

PhotoMemorial day gets summer started and that usually means the grill gets going as well. One of the key ingredients to that grill is the fire. Keep the fire burning and you can cook anything. Besides having a good fire in order to grill like a pro you need the right tools.

A grill is a good start but there are so many it can be overwhelming to decide what is right. That big question pops up. Do I use gas or charcoal? This statement won’t make it much easier on you but it really depends on what you like to cook with because the flavor comes from the drippings, not the fuel.

When those drippings hit the heat source below, the oils, sugars, and proteins burst into smoke and flame. That heat creates new complex molecules that rise in the smoke and warm air to coat the food you're grilling.

Nothing in that process relies on charcoal. That is the scientific answer so there is no bias.

Charcoal

If you decide to go with a charcoal grill there really isn’t that much difference between them. It boils down to size, ventilation, and ease of operation.

If you are cooking for several people, size is important. You can create an ultra-hot searing zone while leaving the other side of the grill relatively cool in order to gently finish cooking chicken breasts, burgers, or steaks to your desired level of doneness.

Look for a rack that will let the coals ventilate. It is better for the coals to be above the floor. It will allow them to burn faster and more efficiently.

Gas

If you decide gas is what you want, plan on spending a little more. All of the same rules for charcoal apply to gas but you have to talk to the store salesperson on how each of the gas grills burn -- some are quicker than the others and your food will look Cajun even of that wasn't the plan. Check how the grease will drain as it can cause flare-ups.

Some required tools of the trade are a pair of tongs. Look for ones made from two separate arms connected with a spring-loaded hinge. While a locking mechanism is nice for storage, it's by no means essential. You want your tongs to be heavy so you can pick things up without dropping them or bending the tongs. You should be able to tell by feel. Stay away from heat-proof nylon-tipped tongs. Not only do they give you less grip and less control, they also aren't really that heat-proof.

A clean grill is essential and a dedicated grill brush is a tool you will use every time you use your grill.

Spatulas that are thin and flexible are important for flipping chicken and not piercing the breasts so that you let all the juices out.  It would be best to get a model with a slanted head, great flexibility, and a full tang (the metal head should continue all the way through the handle in one single piece).

Medium well done or rare. How can you tell without cutting into your meat? A thermometer is key. You want to keep your meat favorable and juicy. The best way to do that is not to have to slice it and dice it. A good thermometer will help.

 

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Military consumers have narrow escape on Capitol Hill

House Republicans almost succeeded in blocking new consumer protections for servicemembers

World War II and Korean War vets arrived at Washington's Reagan National Airport recently on one of several weekly Honor Flights (Staff photo) It's ha...

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World War II and Korean War vets arrived at Washington's Reagan National Airport recently on one of several weekly Honor Flights (Staff photo)

It's hard to find anyone who doesn't pay lip service to honoring military personnel but on this Memorial Day weekend, it's worth taking time out to note that there are also plenty of unscrupulous businesses that are only too happy to take advantage of servicemembers, aided by their friends on Capitol Hill.

Congress talks a good game but, when not attending Memorial Day parades and fund-raisers, House Republicans were hard at work on behalf of the banking industry this year, trying to delay new rules that shield servicemembers from predatory loans.

In September 2014, the White House issued new rules in enforcement of the Military Lending Act to limit the interest the lenders could charge military men and women. Servicemembers often fall victim to payday loans and other predatory loans can add up to 400% or more per year.

In an executive order, President Obama authorized changes to the rules that would cap most loans to military personnel at 36%.

Heck no

This set off a flurry of activity in the House Armed Service Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) threw his weight behind a measure that would have indefinitely delayed the new rule, supposedly to make time for more study. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) had already conducted a study based on more than 5,000 complaints of financial abuse it had received from military members by July 2013. 

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Rep. Duckworth addresses veterans in her home district. (Photo: Duckworth office)

The blocking tactic was tucked into annual legislation that sets policy for the Department of Defense. But consumer adocates "outed" the measure and Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraqi War veteran, introduced legislation striking the banker-backed provision.

“The American people are disappointed with the constant gridlock in Washington and the inability of Congress to act,” said Duckworth. “This is especially true when it comes to supporting our Service Members and Veterans.

"As the Department of Defense and CFPB’s own reports show, Service Members have not been fully protected since the Military Lending Act was passed, and further delay will put more service members and their families in harm’s way. ... Our troops should not have to wait any longer for these common sense protections,” Duckworth said.

Military consumers

Here are some highlights of other recent consumer developments affecting military personnel:

11-21-2014 -- Military Allotment reforms aim to protect service members  Some types of payments will no longer be deducted from paychecks

7-18-2014 -- Military personnel often targets of financial abuse Credit counselors offer financial literacy support

7-16-2014 -- Military consumers: Steps to take before you deploy Active duty servicemembers have important legal protections

3-4-2014 -- Suicide in the military -- don't blame deployments  A new study points to risk and protective factors

1-14-2014 -- Extra headaches for underwater mortgages in the military Active-duty military status complicates financial matters -- but help is available

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Older vets' Honor Flight visits to Washington aren't always somber. This Wisconsin veteran had women waiting in line as he danced to the Fairfax (Va.) Main Street Band's rendition of 1940s era tunes. (Staff photo)

 

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Feds move to take control of Takata recalls

Current "patch-work solutions" not enough to ensure motorists' safety, agency decrees

DOT photoFederal safety regulators want to put the hammer down and get the Takata recall into high gear. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administ...

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DOT photo

Federal safety regulators want to put the hammer down and get the Takata recall into high gear. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is invoking powers it has never used before to to take charge of the millions of recalls now being conducted separately by 11 different automakers.

In an order prepared for publication in the Federal Register, NHTSA said the current "patch-work" process is moving too slowly to ensure motorists' safety, given that millions of people are driving around in cars whose airbags may explode and send shrapnel hurling into the passenger compartment.

“Today is a major step forward for public safety,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “The Department of Transportation is taking the proactive steps necessary to ensure that defective inflators are replaced with safe ones as quickly as possible, and that the highest risks are addressed first. We will not stop our work until every air bag is replaced.” 

Miles to go

Roughly 17 million vehicles were already on the recall list prior to this week, when another 17 million or so were added as Takata caved in to regulators' demands that it concede the airbags are defective. Actually, the process of identifying which cars have the defective airbags is still underway so most of the additional recalls have not yet been issued.

The size and complexity of the process means it is likely to take years to complete. Many of the cars equipped with the faulty airbags may be in the junkyard before the recall reaches them. 

NHTSA wants to take charge of the flow of replacement parts to ensure that replacement airbag inflators are being manufactured and distributed to dealers in a timely manner. It is also going to try to expedite the process of finding all the cars that need repairs.

At least seven people have died as a result of Takata airbag malfunctions, according to the non-profit Center for Auto Safety and more than 100 have been injured.  

What to do

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We checked our Chevy Volt for recalls at mycarfax.com

It will take time for all of the cars equipped with the defective airbags to be officially recalled so it's a good idea to check the list every week or two.At the moment, it's basically up to you to check whether your car is on the recall list. You can do so at NHTSA's site by inserting your VIN number. Carfax also offers a free app that will alert you to recalls and will track your service record and other data. You can use your VIN number or license plate number to get started. 

If your car is recalled -- for defective airbags or anything else -- contact any dealer who sells that model and get your name on the appointment list. Parts are almost never available when a recall is announced, so you may have to wait a few weeks, possibly much longer.

You can ask for a loaner car. Some dealers may oblige, but you may have to be persistent. Most consumers we've heard from have gotten very little satisfaction from dealers. Again, part of the problem is that most of the affected cars are older and dealers may not see the current owner as a likely prospect to replace their car with a newer model anytime soon.

Up to speed

Part of the reason NHTSA has lost patience with the Takata recall process is that, in many cases, it is taking months for cars to be repaired once the recall is issued and owners notify dealers, leaving consumers to stew and worry about their safety.

That's the situation Claudia of New York, N.Y., described in a recent ConsumerAffairs review:

A few months ago, I received a recall notice concerning the driver and passenger side airbags of my 2003 Honda Accord. I contacted my local Honda dealer (Honda of New Rochelle located at 25 E Main St., New Rochelle, NY) on February 4, 2015 to schedule an appointment to have the airbags replaced. I also contacted the customer service department of American Honda Motor Co. that same week to see if there was any way that I could have my service expedited.

I was told by the American Honda Motor Co. customer service representative that I would hear back from the local dealer to schedule an appointment within 2-3 weeks. After such time, I contacted the America Honda Motor Co. representative handling the case, leaving her a message that I still had not received an appointment to have my airbags replaced.

After countless attempts and two months later, no one from either American Honda Motor Co. or the local dealer has returned any of calls. Currently, I am still waiting to schedule an appointment to have the airbags replaced.

"Very disappointing"

Claudia says the entire affair has left her with a very bad impression of Honda.

"I think it’s unconscionable that the representatives from Honda whom I’ve contacted have not responded to any of my inquiries regarding this matter. I do not have an alternate vehicle to get to work or drive my six-year-old son to school so I depend on my car as the primary source of transportation," she said.

Especially annoying, she said, is the callous treatment she has received from Honda representatives at the same time the company is issuing soothing bromides via its p.r. apparatus.

On February 11, 2015, American Honda posted a message onto its website stating the following: “We want to reassure our customers that Honda has an ongoing customer service procedure that addresses each customer’s needs and concerns. For customers concerned about the issue of Takata airbags in certain Honda and Acura vehicles, our customer service will make arrangements for, as appropriate, the replacement of airbag inflators and the provision of or reimbursement for temporary alternative transportation.”

It is very disappointing to see public statements, such as these, made by Honda expressing concern for the safety of consumers who drive their vehicles yet at the same time, no one from Honda has addressed my safety concerns or offered to provide a courtesy vehicle or reimbursement for rental car charges while I wait for an appointment to have the airbags replaced.

Killed or injured

Carolyn of Newport, N.C.: is also steaming about Honda's two-faced approach to the problem.

"Honda refuses to provide rental car while recall parts are back-ordered. Honda's Recall Letter to us states - if we drive our 06 Honda Pilot, 'The defects in these vehicles could kill or injure you or other people in your vehicle.'"

If that's the case, says Carolyn, you'd expect quick action from Honda and its dealers. That's why the very day she got the letter from Honda, she called Parker Honda, Morehead City, N.C., to schedule the work.

"I was told it would be several weeks before the parts could be ordered and installed. Parker Honda said to contact Honda Customer Service (HCS) about a rental car. I called HCS to get a rental vehicle that day and got a Case #. I was told we could not immediately have a rental car for the 'several weeks' until our vehicle can be repaired."

Carolyn said she is paying for a rental car out of her own pocket while Honda refuses to help her and has stopped returning her calls and messages.

 

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Highways, airports face crowded weekend

Recent rise in fuel prices shouldn't deter holiday travelers

If you plan to spend the Memorial Day weekend at home, grilling some burgers or simply relaxing on the patio, you may be in the minority this year. With lo...

PhotoIf you plan to spend the Memorial Day weekend at home, grilling some burgers or simply relaxing on the patio, you may be in the minority this year. With lower fuel prices and higher employment numbers, more people are packing their bags.

Despite the fact that gasoline prices have crept higher over the spring, the national average price of self-service regular is about 90 cents a gallon less than last Memorial Day weekend. According to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Survey, the highest average price is in California, at $3.78 a gallon (remember, it's an average; many prices will be higher than that). The lowest state average is South Carolina’s, at $2.42 a gallon.

Price surge

According to AAA, prices at the pump “surged” ahead of the holiday weekend, despite the fact that oil prices have remained fairly stable. With the exception of Pennsylvania, where the price has moved lower by fractions of a penny, consumers in every state and Washington, D.C. are paying more at the pump week-over-week, AAA reports.

The recent trend of rising prices, however, should not deter motorists. The gasoline monitoring site GasBuddy.com has released a survey showing 73% of consumers plan to travel between this weekend and Labor Day, with 83% estimating they will take at least two trips during that time.

“People can’t get enough of the classic, summer road trip,” said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy. “Nearly half of the people who responded claimed they love going on them and wish they could take more. Even with the current uptick in gas prices, we predict most U.S. travelers will pay the cheapest Memorial Day gas prices since at least 2009.”

The GasBuddy survey found that 85% of road trippers plan trips of more than 200 miles round trop, with half expecting to drive a total of 500 miles. The top reason for hitting the road is to visit family and friends.

Declining infrastructure

The U.S. Travel Association says people taking road trips and catching flights at major airports will likely notice a need for improvements in the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

“Our roads and skies are nearly busting at the seams, and as the economy improves we’re only going to see the number of travelers increase,” said association CEO Roger Dow. “With many of our national transportation policies set to expire this year—some within just two short weeks—we encourage policy leaders to look to long-term solutions to address these capacity concerns and support legislation which provides for a sustained and robust infrastructure, keeping travelers on the move and our economy thriving.”

Even so, economists at the U.S. Travel Association predict consumers traveling over the Memorial Day weekend will spend an average of $330 per person.

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Egg prices headed up as bird flu scrambles supply

Nearly 40 million birds have died or been exterminated

Gas may be cheaper this summer but that's not the case for another staple of daily life -- the lowly egg. Thanks to a massive outbreak of bird flu in the M...

PhotoGas may be cheaper this summer but that's not the case for another staple of daily life -- the lowly egg. Thanks to a massive outbreak of bird flu in the Midwest, there just aren't enough healthy chickens reporting for work each day to keep up with the demand.

Nearly 40 million chickens have died or been exterminated as poultry producers try to stop the spread of the disease, more than double the number lost in the last outbreak back in the 1980's.

Wholesale prices for the eggs sold at supermarkets are up about 85% at $2.20 a dozen in parts of the country, according to the Wall Street Journal. Similar increases are hitting industrial users like McDonald's, which could affect the price you pay at the drive-through window depending on how long it takes the nation's poultry flock to recover.

No human risk seen

There's no apparent risk, other than menu disruption, to humans from the H5N2 strain of avian influenza but it is hitting the bird population very hard. Scientists say the strain is a combination of a virus that originated in Asia and later combined with North American versions. It's apparently being spread through the droppings of wild ducks and geese.

The disease is centered in the Midwest, leading Iowa state officials to announce a ban on live-bird shows for the rest of the year. Minnesota has done the same.

"We are asking producers and bird owners to increase their biosecurity measures and we feel this is a needed step to further minimize the risk of spreading the virus," Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said. "The scale of this outbreak has been unprecedented, so we think it is important we take every possible step to limit the chance that this disease will spread any further."

Iowa, the nation's top egg producer, has had 63 avian flu outbreaks affecting more than 25 million birds.

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Hawaiian Airlines fined for violating baggage compensation and price advertising rules

It'll cost the carrier $160,000

A finding that Hawaiian Airlines violated federal rules on liability for mishandled domestic baggage and full-fare advertising will cost the carrier $160,0...

PhotoA finding that Hawaiian Airlines violated federal rules on liability for mishandled domestic baggage and full-fare advertising will cost the carrier $160,000.

 

In addition to levying the monetary penalty, the Department of Transportation ordered the airline to cease and desist from further violations.

 

“Consumers deserve truth in advertising, and fair treatment when airlines lose or damage their property,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We will continue to make sure airlines comply with DOT’s consumer protection rules.”

 

Baggage and advertising violations

 

DOT’s Enforcement Office, in response to a consumer complaint, investigated Hawaiian’s handling of monetary claims for mishandled checked baggage on domestic flights. The review revealed that the carrier limited reimbursement for damages associated with delayed baggage to $30 a day for a maximum of 3 days, limiting its liability to an amount far less than the $3,400 minimum level required by federal law.

 

In addition, the Enforcement Office investigated a promotional program associated with the Hawaiian Visa Signature credit card program. Hawaiian advertised a “one-time 50% round-trip companion travel discount” for flights between North America and Hawaii if consumers signed up for the credit card.

 

However, consumers who got the card and tried to use the discount on a fare advertised on the carrier's website were automatically provided a higher fare when they attempted to apply the 50% discount. By advertising a travel discount on fares that effectively was not available, Hawaiian violated the full fare advertising rule.

 

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Cambridge study concludes: Android factory reset does not wipe all confidential data

If you sell, give away or lose your Android phone, wiping the device won't wipe all your files

Warning to Android owners who want to sell or give away their old phones, or need to remotely wipe their data after their device was lost or stolen: A new ...

PhotoWarning to Android owners who want to sell or give away their old phones, or need to remotely wipe their data after their device was lost or stolen: A new study out of Cambridge University shows that the factory reset option, which is supposed to wipe away all data, doesn't.

Cambridge researchers Laurent Simon and Ross Anderson estimate that 500 million Android phones failed to completely wipe all data during a factory reset, leaving open the possibility that future owners could recover the previous owners' login credentials, passwords, contacts, e-mails and more; and 630 million phones fail to wipe clean all photos and video.

Their research paper, Security Analysis of Android Factory Resets, is available in .pdf form here.

Not too surprising

The paper's results are not entirely surprising (though the enormous scale of the problem might be); other security researchers have previously discovered problems with Android's data-wiping capability. Last July, for example, a digital forensics team at the security software company Avast performed an experiment on secondhand Android phones: they bought 20 used smartphones on eBay, all of which had been wiped clean, subject to factory reset, or otherwise treated so that their original owners figured their data was no longer on them.

Yet, from those phones, the Avast team was able to extract more than 40,000 photos (including at least 250 nude selfies), hundreds of email and text messages, a completed loan application (with all the personal financial data therein), and the identities of four of the phones' previous owners — and remember, that's four out of only 20 phones.

What's even more frightening is that Avast's team didn't have to invent some fancy new digital forensics tools to get all this information; the team only used readily available, off-the-shelf data-retrieval tools.

Even encryption not always effective

The Cambridge study tried a similar experiment: Simon and Anderson tested the factory reset options of 21 Android smartphones bought from five different vendors, all running Android versions v2.3.x to v4.3. (The researchers later told ArsTechnica that it is “plausible some newer devices are also affected.” Google had no comment on the matter.)

Even after the Android phones were factory reset, the researchers could retrieve the same types of confidential data as could the Avast team last summer. Worse still, the Cambridge study determined that even encryption doesn't offer full protection, as the abstract says:

We estimate that up to 500 million devices may not properly sanitise their data partition where credentials and other sensitive data are stored, and up to 630M may not properly sanitise the internal SD card where multimedia files are generally saved. We found we could recover Google credentials on all devices presenting a flawed Factory Reset. Full-disk encryption has the potential to mitigate the problem, but we found that a flawed Factory Reset leaves behind enough data for the encryption key to be recovered.

The researchers go on to discuss various technical changes Google could conceivably implement, to make the Android factory reset more effective.

What to do

But in the meanwhile, what can Android device owners do, if they want to sell or donate an old phone, but don't want to give away their personal files too? Must you abandon all hope of giving the device to someone else, and destroy it instead?

Maybe not. There is a way to truly erase all your data, but it's very time-consuming (and not guaranteed 100% effective).

If you have an erased or factory reset phone and want to hobble any future owners from retrieving your data, your best best is to overwrite the memory with new data: Save a bunch of innocuous stock photos or videos (they don't even have to be your own) onto the phone. Or just save one large file, over and over again until you run out of memory space. Override your previous personal emails and messages by filling your phone with innocuous or even meaningless messages.

To make an analogy: Imagine your phone or computer as being like an old-fashioned three-ring binder. That binder holds many sheets of loose-leaf paper, which is its memory capacity and data storage space. And all the data saved on your device – every photo and video, email and text document, password and credential and everything else – is written or drawn in pencil on that loose-leaf paper.

If you have an eraser, it's pretty easy to wipe away your pencil-marks and make the paper “blank” again — but a person willing to take the time and effort could probably look at that “blank” paper and reconstruct at least some of what you erased. But retrieving your erased writings will be much harder, hopefully impossible, if you then write or at least scribble new pencil marks all over the site of your old erased ones.

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How many Americans are gay -- 23% or 3.8%?

Gallup survey finds the percentage is much lower than most people think

To hear defenders of "traditional" lifestyles tell it, you'd think the entire country had turned gay. And in fact, Gallup reports that the American public ...

PhotoPhoto (c) fotogestoeber - Fotolia

To hear defenders of "traditional" lifestyles tell it, you'd think the entire country had turned gay. And in fact, Gallup reports that the American public estimates on average that 23% of Americans are gay or lesbian, little changed from Americans' 25% estimate in 2011.

These estimates are many times higher than the 3.8% of the adult population who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in Gallup Daily tracking in the first four months of this year.

Photo

Stable estimates, changing attitudes

It's interesting that these wildly inaccurate estimates have remained so stable over time while attitudes about the morality and legality of gay and lesbian relations have changed so markedly in the past two decades.

Whereas 38% of Americans said gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable in 2002, that number has risen to 63% today. And while 35% of Americans favored legalized same-sex marriage in 1999, 60% favor it today.

The U.S. Census Bureau documents the number of individuals living in same-sex households but has not historically identified individuals as gay or lesbian per se. Several other surveys, governmental and non-governmental, have over the years measured sexual orientation, but the largest such study by far has been the Gallup Daily tracking measure instituted in June 2012.

In this ongoing study, respondents are asked "Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?" with 3.8% being the most recent result, obtained from more than 58,000 interviews conducted in the first four months of this year.

Wildly off the mark

Of course, what people say and what they do are not always the same, as Gallup concedes. As it pointed out in its initial report of LGBT data in 2012, "Exactly who makes up the LGBT community and how this group should be measured is a subject of some debate."

Still, all available estimates of the actual gay and lesbian population in the U.S. are far lower than what the public estimates, and no measurement procedure has produced any figures suggesting that more than one out of five Americans are gay or lesbian.

The widely off-the-mark nature of Americans' estimates is underscored by the finding that in the most recent update, from May 6-10, only 9% of Americans estimate that the gay and lesbian population is less than 5% -- where Gallup's tracking figure would put it -- while at the other end of the spectrum, 33% estimate it as more than 25%.

Poor statistical skills

Part of the explanation for the inaccurate estimates rests with Americans' general unfamiliarity with numbers and demography.

Previous research has shown that Americans estimate that a third of the U.S. population is black, and believe almost three in 10 are Hispanic, more than twice what the actual percentages were as measured by the census at the time of the research.

Americans with the highest levels of education make the lowest estimates of the gay and lesbian population, underscoring the assumption that part of the reason for the overestimate is a lack of exposure to demographic data. 

Photo

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 6-10, 2015, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-

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Consumer prices barely move in April

In fact, prices have fallen over the last 12 months

Not much to see here, folks. According to the Labor Department (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inched ahead just 0.1% in April, and for the last 12 ...

PhotoNot much to see here, folks.

 

According to the Labor Department (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inched ahead just 0.1% in April, and for the last 12 months is actually down 0.2%.

 

One of the biggest factors in the tiny increase was a rise of 0.7% in the cost of medical care -- the largest increase since 2007.

 

Energy and food

 

Energy costs were down 1.3% percent in April after rising in February and March, with fuel oil down 8.4%, natural gas off 2.6%, gasoline posting a 1.7% decline and electricity unchanged. For the last 12 months, energy costs are down 19.4%, with all the major components declining except electricity.

 

Food costs were unchanged, with food at home -- grocery prices, if you will -- down 0.2%. Dairy and related products posted the largest decline (-0.8%), followed by meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (-0.7%), and cereals and bakery products (-0.3). In contrast, the nonalcoholic beverage prices rose 0.5% while fruits and vegetables edged 0.2% higher. Food at home has increased 1.3% for the 12 months ending April -- the smallest 12-month increase since the year ending February 2014.

 

Core rate

 

Prices for items less the volatile food and energy categories -- the “core rate” of inflation -- rose 0.3% last month, with costs for shelter, medical care, household furnishings and operations, used cars and trucks, and new vehicles all posting gains. Apparel prices and airline fares moved lower.

 

Over the last 12 months, the core rate has risen 1.8%, the same increase as for the 12 months ending March, and slightly below its 1.9% annualized increase over the past 10 years.

 

The complete CPI report is available on the DOL website.

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Don't let summer cookout fun land you in the emergency room

We have some tips to help you stay safe and healthy

The Memorial Day weekend is upon us -- time to break out the grill, knock off the dust and rust and fire it up. But nothing can spoil cookouts, camping, r...

PhotoThe Memorial Day weekend is upon us -- time to break out the grill, knock off the dust and rust and fire it up.

 

But nothing can spoil cookouts, camping, road trips and other activities than food improperly prepared or gone bad.

 

To keep that from happening, the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has some tips to help you get the most out of your summer.

 

"This Memorial Day weekend and all summer long, I encourage families to get outside and enjoy our natural resources, national parks and forests, and the variety of food America's farmers are able to provide," said Agriculture Secretary Vilsack. "It's important to remember that bacteria grow faster in the same warm temperatures that people enjoy, so extra care needs to be taken to prevent food poisoning when preparing meals away from home. USDA reminds everyone to use a food thermometer, and take advantage of resources like our FoodKeeper app to help with any food handling questions."

 

USDA has launched the FoodKeeper mobile app, which contains specific guidance on more than 400 food and beverage items, including safe cooking recommendations for meat, poultry and seafood products. It also provides information on how to store food and beverages to maximize their freshness and quality.

 

To help consumers stay healthy and safe, USDA offers the following food safety recommendations:

 

Bringing food to a picnic or cookout

 

  • Use an insulated cooler filled with ice or frozen gel packs. Frozen food can also be used as a cold source.
  • Foods that need to be kept cold include raw meat, poultry, and seafood; deli and luncheon meats or sandwiches; summer salads (tuna, chicken, egg, pasta, or seafood); cut up fruit and vegetables; and perishable dairy products.
  • A full cooler will maintain its cold temperature longer than a partially filled one. When using a cooler, keep it out of the direct sun by placing it in the shade or shelter.
  • Avoid opening the cooler repeatedly so that your food stays colder longer.

 

Cooking on the grill

 

  • Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and ready-to-eat items like vegetables or bread.
  • Keep perishable food cold until it is ready to cook.
  • Use a food thermometer to make sure meat and poultry are cooked thoroughly to their safe minimum internal temperatures
  • Beef, Pork, Lamb, & Veal (steaks, roasts, and chops): 145 °F with a 3 minute rest time
  • Ground meats: 160 °F
  • Whole poultry, poultry breasts, & ground poultry: 165 °F
  • Always use a fresh, clean plate and tongs for serving cooked food. Never reuse items that touched raw meat or poultry to serve the food once it is cooked.

 

Serving food outdoors

 

  • Perishable food should not sit out for more than two hours. In hot weather (above 90 °F), food should NEVER sit out for more than one hour.
  • Serve cold food in small portions, and keep the rest in the cooler. After cooking meat and poultry on the grill, keep it hot until served – at 140 °F or warmer.
  • Keep hot food hot by setting it to the side of the grill rack, not directly over the coals where they could overcook.
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Infants and dogs -- not a good combination

Children are the most frequent victims of dog bites, study confirms

It’s estimated that 70 million dogs are living with families. Not surprisingly, millions of people – most of them children – are bitten by dogs every year....

PhotoIt’s estimated that 70 million dogs are living with families. Not surprisingly, millions of people – most of them children – are bitten by dogs every year. The majority of these bites, if not all, are preventable.

A new study that was done by the Mayo Clinic in collaboration with Phoenix Children’s Hospital looked at these injuries a little more extensively. The study was just published last month in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery.  It backed up some previous research that said most kids that were bitten were bitten by dogs that they knew.

This latest study confirmed that, finding that 50% of the dog bite injuries treated at Phoenix Children's Hospital came from dogs belonging to an immediate family member.

The retrospective study was done in the years 2007-2013 and involved 670 participants. A good portion of these kids, 270 were bitten so severely that they were seen by the trauma team. The age that seemed to get bitten the most were five-year olds but the study looked at participants as old as 17.

Pit Bull most frequent biter

All kinds of dogs bite and 28 particular breeds were the culprits but the breed that appeared the most in reports was the Pit Bull. Children, elderly, and postal carriers are the most frequent victims of dog bites. The American Humane Association reports that 66% of bites among children occur to the head and neck.

"More than 60 percent of the injuries we studied required an operation. While the majority of patients were able to go home the next day, the psychological effects of being bitten by a dog also need to be taken into account," said the lead author of the study, Erin Garvey, MD, a surgical resident at the Mayo clinic.

The most important message from the study is that familiarity does not guarantee your child’s safety with the family dog.

“It creates a false sense of safety," said Ramin Jamshidi, MD, senior author on the study and a pediatric surgeon at Phoenix Children's Hospital and Medical Director of Pediatric Trauma at Maricopa Medical Center.

What to do

The Injury Prevention Center at Phoenix Children's Hospital has these suggestions to help keep your child safe.

  • Never leave infants or young children alone with a dog, including the family dog;
  • Make sure all dogs in the home are neutered or spayed;
  • Take time to train and socialize your dogs;
  • Keep dogs mentally stimulated by walking and exercising them; and
  • Teach children appropriate ways to interact with animals.

Saturday wraps up dog bite prevention week. It’s a great opportunity to learn more and educate yourself so you don't have to deal with a disaster that can be avoided.

 

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Leading Economic Index up again

There's still cause for economic concern, though

A chief indicator of future economic performance posted a solid gain last month. The Conference Board reports its Leading Economic Index (LEI) was up 0.7%...

PhotoA chief indicator of future economic performance posted a solid gain last month.

 

The Conference Board reports its Leading Economic Index (LEI) was up 0.7% in April following a March increase of 0.4% and a 0.2% decline in February.

 

“April’s sharp increase in the LEI seems to have helped stabilize its slowing trend, suggesting the paltry economic growth in the first quarter may be temporary,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, economist at The Conference Board. “However, the growth of the LEI does not support a significant strengthening in the economic outlook at this time. The improvement in building permits helped to drive the index up this month, but gains in other components, in particular the financial indicators, have been somewhat more muted.”

 

The 10 components of the LEI include:

 

  1. Average weekly hours, manufacturing
  2. Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance
  3. Manufacturers’ new orders, consumer goods and materials
  4. Institute for Supply Management 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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OXO recalls Nest booster seats

The restraint straps may separate from the seat

OXO of El Paso, Texas, is recalling about 25,000 Nest booster seats in the U.S. and Canada. The stitching on the restraint straps can loosen which allows ...

PhotoOXO of El Paso, Texas, is recalling about 25,000 Nest booster seats in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The stitching on the restraint straps can loosen which allows the straps to separate from the seat, posing a fall hazard to children.

 

The firm has received 5 reports of the stitching coming undone releasing the straps following a child pulling on the strap or an adult tightening the straps. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves the Nest booster seat sold in green (model 6367200), pink (model 6367300), taupe (model 6367500) and orange (model 6367400) with a white base. A sticker affixed to the underside of the seat reads “Nest Booster Seat” with the model number and manufacture date. The manufacture date code represents the month and year in MMYY format and recalled units have the code: 0714, 0814, 0914, 1014, 1114 or 1214.

 

The formed plastic seats are about 13 inches wide, by 14 inches tall, by 12 inches deep and have a grey 3-point child restraint strap system. The OXO logo is embossed on the restraint system’s buckle.

 

The booster seats, manufactured in China, were sold at Buybuy Baby, Toys“R”Us/Babies“R”Us and independent specialty stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com from September 2014, through April 2015, for about $55.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the Nest booster seats and contact OXO for a free repair kit with redesigned safety straps and installation instructions.

 

Consumers may contact OXO at (800) 545-4411 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by email at info@oxo.com.

 

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Lincoln MKZs with daytime running lights recalled

The light output may exceed federal limits in some instances

Ford Motor Company is recalling 21,435 model year 2015 Lincoln MKZ vehicles manufactured February 17, 2014, to March 19, 2015, and equipped with daytime ru...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 21,435 model year 2015 Lincoln MKZ vehicles manufactured February 17, 2014, to March 19, 2015, and equipped with daytime running lights (DRL).

 

The parking lights do not reduce their light output from a DRL level when used in conjunction with the headlights and may exceed the permissible amount allowed by federal regulations. Excessive light output could temporarily blind oncoming traffic, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Ford has notified owners, and dealers will update the lighting control software, free of charge. The recall began on May 8, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for the recall is 15C02.

 

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FCC orders Internet providers to take “reasonable, good faith steps to protect consumer privacy”

Common-carrier status brings new responsibilities under FCC regulations

Here's possible good news for Internet users: yesterday the Federal Communications Commission issued an Enforcement Advisory (available in .pdf form here) ...

PhotoHere's possible good news for Internet users: yesterday the Federal Communications Commission issued an Enforcement Advisory (available in .pdf form here) warning Internet service providers (ISPs) that “broadband providers should take reasonable, good faith steps to protect consumer privacy.”

Of course, the terms “reasonable” and “good-faith” are widely open to interpretation. What does the FCC mean? Basically, since ISPs are being reclassified as “common carriers” next month, similar to telephones in the pre-Internet era, they must respect similar types of privacy protections.

“The Commission has found that absent privacy protections, a broadband provider’s use of personal and proprietary information could be at odds with its customers’ interests,” as the FCC noted in an admirable example of understatement.

Not hypothetical

It's not just a hypothetical problem. In February, for example, AT&T; introduced its high-speed GigaPower home Internet service to Kansas City residents (who already had the option of buying high-speed Internet through Google Fiber for $70 per month).

AT&T;, by contrast, offered a two-tiered GigaPower price plan: $70 monthly for a standard GigaPower connection, or $99 per month to “opt out” of what AT&T; called its “Internet Preferences” program — “Internet Preferences” basically being a euphemism for “tracking and monitoring your online activities”:

When you select AT&T; Internet Preferences, we can offer you our best pricing on GigaPower because you let us use your individual Web browsing information, like the search terms you enter and the web pages you visit, to tailor ads and offers to your interests.

How thoughtful of them.

Not that AT&T; deserves to be singled out; as early as 2013, Verizon was (among other things) offering select advertisers a then-new service called Precision Marketing that allowed sports clubs and athletic venues to track their smartphone-owning fan's activities before and after a game. When Pizza King, for examples, buys ads on the in-game scoreboards, are sports fans more likely to actually visit a Pizza King afterwards? Precision Marketing could let you know!

Vast potential

For modern Americans, the Internet (and any devices connected to it) arguably plays a much bigger role in everyday life than old-fashioned landline telephones ever did — and as a result, the potential privacy violations that arise from monitoring people's online activities is correspondingly greater than what applied to telephones.

For now, as the FCC explains in its Enforcement Advisory, the Commission has not gone so far as to take the specific telephone-based privacy regulations currently in existence and explicitly apply them to ISPs. The FCC does have the option of setting broadband-specific standards later, if necessary — but first, it's giving ISPs the benefit of the doubt and giving them the chance to take “reasonable, good faith steps” toward doing so on its own.

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CareFirst Blue Cross/Blue Shield hacked; up to 1.1 million customer records at risk

This is the third Blue Cross/Blue Shield hacking to be discovered since February

For the third time since February, a Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurer admitted that hackers had breached security and compromised customer records....

PhotoFor the third time since February, a Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurer admitted that hackers had breached security and compromised customer records.

In February, Anthem admitted that hackers had compromised the records of 80 million current and former Anthem customers (including customers of Amerigroup, Anthem and Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield companies, Caremore, Unicare and HealthLink) dating back to 2004. In March, Premera Blue Cross admitted to a breach compromising 11 million medical and financial records dating back to 2002.

In both instances, security experts familiar with the case saw signs indicating that the hackers might enjoy unofficial backing from the Chinese government – which, incidentally, is also suspected of having a hand in other recent high-profile hackings, including last November's discovered 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 American hacking activities, and points out that hacking is illegal under Chinese law.)

And so it goes for this latest Blue Cross health-insurance hacking: CareFirst, a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan primarily serving people in the Washington, D.C. area (including parts of Maryland and Virginia), admitted that hackers had breached security and compromised customer records. This breach apparently happened last June, but was only recently discovered.

No forced entry

That tends to be the case in all database hackings: “breaking into” a database doesn't leave physical signs of forced entry, the way breaking into a physical building does. And stolen information doesn't disappear from the database, the way burglarized items disappear from their owners' possession. That's why hacking can go undetected for months or even years before their victims even know they've been victimized.

Investigators speaking off the record suggested the CareFirst Blue Cross hacking might be connected to the two previous Blue Cross/Blue Shield hackings, and once again suspect signs of Chinese involvement.

So far, though, this latest health-insurance hacking appears to be on a much smaller scale than the previous two: CareFirst says that up to 1.1 million customer records might be affected. Also, CareFirst says that, while the hackers gained access to customer names, birthdates and email addresses, they did not steal confidential medical or financial data: no medical claims, credit card information or Social Security numbers.

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You don’t have to spend a fortune on a fun new car

Kelley Blue Book finds 10 cool cars under $18,000

Photo (c) GajusNew car sales continue to set records and so do the costs of a new ride. Industry sources show that the average buyer paid more than $...

Photo
Photo (c) Gajus

New car sales continue to set records and so do the costs of a new ride. Industry sources show that the average buyer paid more than $33,000 for a new car or truck in April.

But you don’t have to spend nearly that much to get a new car that is “cool” and fun to drive. In fact, Kelley Blue Book has singled out 10 cars it says can be purchased for $18,000 or less and make you look forward to your morning commute.

“This year’s list of budget-smart cool cars includes a repeat winner, an all-new Jeep and a few cars that have been completely redesigned for 2015, said KBB market analyst Jack Nerad. “All of them are fun, stylish and versatile to varying degrees, and each and every one is enticingly affordable.”

Counting down the top 10

PhotoJust making the list at number 10 is the 2015 Fiat 500. It has a thoroughly European feel and its 101-horsepower 4-cylinder engine delivers a 31/40 MPG rating.

The 2015 Subaru Impreza is in 9th place. The small sedan is the only vehicle on the list that comes with standard All Wheel Drive, making it ideal for icy conditions. It has a 148-horsepower engine with 27/36 MPG.

The 2015 Chevrolet Sonic is number 8 on the list. This subcompact is not only fun to drive, KBB says it has the lowest starting price of any car on the list. Fun and affordable is a very good combination.

Coming in at number 7 is the 2015 Honda Fit. This car has been totally redesigned for the current model year. It earned its spot on the list for that, along with its passenger and cargo versatility.

The 2015 Ford Fiesta holds down the number 6 spot. Its 1.6-liter 4-cylider engine cranks out 120 horsepower while delivering a 28/37 MPG.

Honda’s best seller

PhotoThe Honda Civic is a best seller, especially with younger consumers, so it is no surprise the 2015 model makes the list at number 5. KBB says Honda’s venerable subcompact is both refined and reliable and even comes in a cool coupe configuration.

Fourth on the list is the 2015 Jeep Renegade. It’s a subcompact SUV that still delivers 24/31 MPG. It also wins the highest KBB consumer rating – a perfect 10.

The 2015 KIA Soul makes the list at number 3. KBB says it earns that lofty spot for its distinctive design, general likability and “up for anything” attitude.

In second place is the 2015 Volkswagen Golf. This seventh generation model is redesigned for 2015 and offers the interior and driving feel of a more expensive European sedan.

Mazda 3 is number 1

PhotoNumber 1 on the list for a second year is the Mazda3. The 2015 model reigns supreme, KBB says, because it’s “gorgeous, fun to drive and tech savvy.” Its 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine has plenty of pep while delivering 30/41 MPG.

In fact, the best part of the cars on this list may be their price, since it is clear consumers month after month are purchasing new cars they cannot afford.

A rule of auto financing that is rarely observed any longer states that you should be able to make a 20% down payment, finance for four years and have a monthly payment that doesn't exceed 10% of your gross monthly pay.

To afford the average new car or truck, you would need a monthly gross income of $6090, or $73,080 a year. The average American household income in 2012 was $51,371.

Unless you make $73,000 a year, this list might be a good place to start shopping for a new car.

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Today's housing developments emphasize ‘walkability’

Younger buyers are seeking out revitalized downtown neighborhoods

In the 1970s the hot real estate trend was planned communities. In the ‘90s it was village center developments. Now, real estate developers are eyeing the ...

PhotoIn the 1970s the hot real estate trend was planned communities. In the ‘90s it was village center developments. Now, real estate developers are eyeing the older, rundown areas of urban centers for residential and commercial redevelopment.

There are already plenty of examples. Areas of Brooklyn and Detroit are now flourishing with stylish residences and exciting new businesses. When publications like USA Today feature the best up-and-coming neighborhoods in America, they almost always are made up of urban enclaves that have been transformed.

They all seem to have something else in common. Residents can easily get around on foot. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says buyers put a premium on “walkable” neighborhoods.

Creating walkability

“Creating walkability with restaurants and stores can help transition an edgy part of town into one that is hip and hopping with pedestrians,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “This type of real estate development transforms the community for the better.”

Older, renovated homes and lofts are highly sought-after and don’t linger on the market. People seem to like the idea of walking to a nearby restaurant, movie theater or the corner market.

City governments like it too. NAR says walkable communities generate four times the tax revenue of regional and business malls, adding more value to a region.

“Walkable urban regions in the U.S. have a 41% higher Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over non-walkable regions,” said Christopher Leinberger, professor at George Washington University School of Business and president of Locus, a national coalition of real estate developers and investors. “That’s the difference between countries like Germany and Romania.”

Living in an urban walkable community might also be more affordable than living in the suburbs. NAR cites statistics showing urban residents spend about 43% of their incomes on housing and transportation while the typical suburbanite spends about 48%.

“If a family can get rid of one car, they can increase their mortgage capacity by as much as $150,000,” said Leinberger.

Zoning issues

At a recent NAR-sponsored symposium, panelists suggested urban redevelopment could occur at a faster rate if more municipalities reviewed their zoning regulations and worked with developers toward a common goal.

Earlier this month researchers at the University of Chicago and University of California Berkley found tight land use regulations tended to drive up home prices in America’s most expensive cities. Rolling back some of these regulations in just 3 metros – San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., and New York would boost U.S. economic growth, the researchers said.

 “We’ve been bumping along at 2% GDP growth, and we should be at 3.5%, and obsolete zoning is what is holding us back,” said Leinberger. “Less than 10% of land would need to be rezoned, and that is where 80 percent of the development is going to go.”

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Here’s a reason your retirement savings may be lagging

Study finds many employees don't take advantage of employer match

American aren’t saving enough for retirement. That’s one problem. But a second problem is that Americans who have the chance to boost their retirement savi...

PhotoAmerican aren’t saving enough for retirement. That’s one problem. But a second problem is that Americans who have the chance to boost their retirement savings by taking advantage of their employers’ match simply aren’t doing it.

In some companies, but not all, an employer will match a portion of the employee’s contribution to his or her retirement account, based on how much the employee saves. The bigger the employee’s contribution, the bigger the employer’s match.

Since it is essentially free tax-deferred money it is one of the best ways to boost your retirement savings. But a new report from Financial Engines has found a large number of Americans who have access to an employer match aren’t taking full advantage of it.

Two conclusions

The study reached two main conclusions. First, 25% of employees did not save enough in their 401(k) accounts to achieve a full match by their employer. In 2014 the average employee left $1,336 in matching contributions on the table because they did not put enough of their own money into the savings account.

Second, lower income and younger employees were the most likely to pass up the free money. That’s likely because lower income employees don’t believe they can afford to put money aside and younger employees have not yet focused on the reality of eventual retirement.

Of the employees not taking advantage of their employer’s match, the average worker will miss out on $42,855 of retirement savings over a 20 year period.

“We estimate that nationwide, American employees are passing up approximately $24 billion in employer matching contributions by not saving enough to receive their full employer 401(k) match,” the authors write.

The study found that 42% of plan participants who earned less than $40,000 a year do not take full advantage of the employer match. On the other hand, only 10% of those earning $100,000 or more are passing up the money.

When age was considered, 30% of younger workers left money on the table while only 16% of older workers did.

What to do

If you find yourself in the situation where you are not taking full advantage of your employer’s plan, there are things you can do to turn that around. First, find out more about the plan and how the employer match works. For example, how much do you have to contribute to trigger your employer’s full match.

Talk to an unbiased financial advisor about ways to take full advantage of your employer’s retirement plan. An advisor may also propose ways to increase your savings you haven’t thought of.

Resolve to increase your retirement savings at every opportunity. If you can’t afford to increase your savings enough today to achieve the full match, make that your goal and up your savings each year.

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Privacy advocates and tech giants support encryption, which the FBI director finds “depressing”

Until three years ago, the FBI supported encryption too

There's a privacy battle brewing between the FBI and other federal government groups on one side, and tech companies, cryptologists, privacy advocates (and...

PhotoThere's a privacy battle brewing between the FBI and other federal government groups on one side, and tech companies, cryptologists, privacy advocates (and some elected American lawmakers) on the other.

Basically, the FBI (circa-2015 edition) opposes the use of encryption to keep data secure from hackers, on the grounds that the government couldn't get at it either.

So this week, a wide variety of organizations ranging from civil-liberty groups and privacy advocates to tech companies and trade associations to security and policy experts sent President Obama an open letter (available in .pdf form here) urging him to reject any legislation that would outlaw secure encryption:

We urge you to reject any proposal that U.S. companies deliberately weaken the security of their products. We request that the White House instead focus on developing policies that will promote rather than undermine the wide adoption of strong encryption technology. Such policies will in turn help to promote and protect cybersecurity, economic growth, and human rights, both here and abroad.

Strong encryption is the cornerstone of the modern information economy’s security. Encryption protects billions of people every day against countless threats—be they street criminals trying to steal our phones and laptops, computer criminals trying to defraud us, corporate spies trying to obtain our companies’ most valuable trade secrets, repressive governments trying to stifle dissent, or foreign intelligence agencies trying to compromise our and our allies’ most sensitive national security secrets. Encryption thereby protects us from innumerable criminal and national security threats.

Change of heart

The FBI used to take the same view: encryption is a good way for innocent people to protect themselves and their personal data from criminals, so if encryption is available to you, you should use it.

In October 2012, the FBI's “New E-Scams and Warnings” website even published an article warning that “Smartphone Users Should be Aware of Malware Targeting Mobile Devices and Safety Measures to Help Avoid Compromise.” That article included a bullet-pointed list of “Safety tips to protect your mobile device.”

And the second tip on the list says this: “Depending on the type of phone, the operating system may have encryption available. This can be used to protect the user’s personal data in the case of loss or theft.”

But in September 2013, when current FBI director James Comey took over the bureau, he also took a very different view of encryption: he thinks it only benefits criminals.

"Very dark place"

For example, when Apple launched its iPhone 6 last September, it bragged about the phone's strong security features, including automatic data encryption. Comey then predicted that encrypted communications could lead to a “very dark place,” and criticized “companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law” (as opposed to, say, “Marketing something expressly so people know hackers can't steal photographs, financial information and other personal data off their phones”).

Comey went so far as to suggest that Congress make data encryption illegal via rewriting the 20-year-old Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act to make it cover apps and other technologies which didn't exist back in 1994.

And this week, in response to the tech companies' and privacy advocates' open letter to President Obama, Comey said he found the letter depressing: “I frankly found it depressing because their letter contains no [acknowledgment] that there are societal costs to universal encryption …. All of our lives, including the lives of criminals and terrorist and spies, will be in a place that is utterly unavailable to the court-ordered process. That, I think, to a democracy should be very concerning.”

Get a warrant

Yet despite Comey's concerns, the idea that encryption would make it utterly impossible for police and courts to stop angerous criminals is not true. Even with encryption, police or the FBI can still get data off your phone; they just can't do it without your knowledge. As Jose Pagliary pointed out:

The FBI can still get your phone data. Now, they can't do it secretly by going to Apple or Google. Agents must knock on your front door with a warrant in hand -- the way it's always been.

If you don't give the FBI access to your phone, it can ask a federal judge to force you. If you refuse, the government can throw you in jail and hold you in contempt of court.

That's what FBI Director James Comey finds “depressing,” or likely to lead to a “very dark place”: the idea that if the government wants access to your personal data, it still has to get a warrant first.

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Endocrine disrupters found in teething rings

German scientists say two out of ten teethers tested contained the chemicals

German scientists say they found endocrine-disrupting chemicals in two out of ten teething rings they tested. One product contained parabens, which are...

PhotoGerman scientists say they found endocrine-disrupting chemicals in two out of ten teething rings they tested. 

One product contained parabens, which are normally used as preservatives in cosmetics, while the second contained six so-far unidentified endocrine disruptors.

"The good news is that most of the teethers we analyzed did not contain any endocrine-disrupting chemicals. However, the presence of parabens in one of the products is striking because these additives are normally not used in plastic toys," said Dr. Martin Wagner, of the Department Aquatic Ecotoxicology at the Goethe University. 

The substances detected -- methyl, ethyl and propyl parabens -- can act like natural estrogen in the body and, in addition, inhibit the effects of androgens such as testosterone. The EU Commission recently banned two parabens in certain baby cosmetics, because of concerns over their health effects.

"Our study shows that plastic toys are a source of undesirable chemicals. Manufacturers, regulatory agencies and scientists should investigate the chemical exposure from plastic toys more thoroughly", Wagner concluded.

He said the additives have only limited benefits for the quality of the product, but can represent a potential health issue, especially for babies and infants, whose development is orchestrated by a delicately balanced hormonal control and who are more susceptible to chemical exposures than adults.

The findings were reported by researchers at the Goethe University in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Toxicology.

Information: Dr. Martin Wagner, Department Aquatic Ecotoxicology, Goethe University, Phone: +49 (0) 69 798-42149, wagner@bio.uni-frankfurt.de; Elisabeth Berger, Phone: +49 (0) 60516 1954-3117, elisabeth.berger@senckenberg.de

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Bankruptcy court agrees to protect Radio Shack customer data

Most customer data will be destroyed

State attorneys general from across the country have reached a settlement to protect consumers' personally identifiable information in the sale of RadioSha...

PhotoState attorneys general from across the country have reached a settlement to protect consumers' personally identifiable information in the sale of RadioShack's trademark and intellectual property. A coalition of 38 states, led by Texas, joined together to oppose the sale of consumer data.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement reached after mediation, the overwhelming bulk of RadioShack's consumer data will be destroyed, and no credit or debit card account numbers, social security numbers, dates of birth or even phone numbers will be transferred.  The bankruptcy court approved the settlement on Wednesday.

"The settlement is a victory for consumer privacy," said Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring. "I glad we could be a part of this multi-state effort to limit the types of customer information covered by the sale and to provide former customers of RadioShack with a meaningful opportunity to decide whether their personal information is transferred to the new operator."

General Wireless obtained bankruptcy court approval to purchase RadioShack's entire e-commerce business, intellectual property and remaining assets, including certain customer data limited by this settlement. In March, General Wireless, a subsidiary of RadioShack's largest shareholder, purchased 1,750 RadioShack stores out of bankruptcy.

Out of the 8.5 million customer email addresses in RadioShack's files, the new owner will be allowed to retain only a limited number of email addresses, specifically the email addresses of those who specifically requested product information within the last two years. Customers whose email address is sold to General Wireless will also be contacted by the company and given the opportunity to opt out of future communications.

General Wireless further agreed it will not sell or share any of this customer information in the future with any other entity, including its new co-branded business partner Sprint Communications.

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April sees slowdown in existing-home sales

Analysts blame low supply and high prices

Despite properties typically selling faster than at any time since July 2013, existing–home Sales of previously-owned homes slowed in April even though p...

Photo
© Brian Jackson - Fotolia

Sales of previously-owned homes slowed in April even though properties are typically selling faster than at any time since July 2013.

 

The National Association of Realtors reports total existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co–ops -- dipped 3.3% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.04 million. Despite the decline, the sales rate was above 5 million for the second straight month.

 

Supply and demand

 

"April's setback is the result of lagging supply relative to demand and the upward pressure it's putting on prices," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "However, the overall data and feedback we're hearing from Realtors continues to point to elevated levels of buying interest compared to a year ago. With low interest rates and job growth, more buyers will be encouraged to enter the market unless prices accelerate even higher in relation to incomes."

 

Total housing inventory at the end of April increased 10.0% to 2.21 million existing homes available for sale, but is still 0.9% below a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 5.3–month supply at the current sales pace -- up from 4.6 months in March.

 

The median existing–home price for all housing types in April was $219,400, which is 8.9% above a year earlier. This marks the 38th consecutive month of year–over–year price gains and is the largest since January 2014. The median is the point at which half of the prices are higher and half are lower.

 

Regional Breakdown

 

  • Existing–home sales in the Northeast fell 3.1% in April to an annual rate of 620,000, but are 1.6% above a year ago. The median price was $253,200, up 3.6% higher than April 2014.
  • In the South, sales were down 6.8% to an annual rate of 2.04 million, but are 3.6% above the year-ago level. The median price rose 8.5% from the previous year -- to $189,400.
  • The West saw a sales decline of 1.7% to an annual rate of 1.16 million -- 6.4% above a year ago. The median was $318,700, an increase of 10.0% above April 2014.
  • The only exception came in the the Midwest, where sales rose 1.7% to an annual rate of 1.22 million, and are 13.0 percent above the previous April. The median price jumped 11.4% from a year ago to $173,700.

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Initial jobless claims

 

From the government, word that first-time applications for state unemployment benefits ticked higher last week.

 

The Labor department (DOL) reports initial jobless claims, which have hovered for weeks at lows not seen in more than a decade, surged by 10,000 in the week ending May 16 to a seasonally adjusted 274,000.

 

DOL says there were no special factors affecting the claims level.

 

Even with that increase, the 4-week moving average -- which is seen as a more accurate gauge of the labor market -- was down 5,500 to 266,250. That's the lowest level for this average since April 15, 2000, when it was 266,250.

 

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

 

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Abercrombie turns up the lights, pulls its pants up

Scantily clad models, dim lighting being downplayed as chain goes a bit more mainstream

One mom can make a difference, a million can really cause a stir. Abercrombie & Fitch has made a few moms turn their heads over the scantily clad models in...

PhotoOne mom can make a difference, a million can really cause a stir. Abercrombie & Fitch has made a few moms turn their heads over the scantily clad models in its stores budt may be pulling its pants up and getting a little more conservative.

Monica Cole of American Family Association's One Million Moms cites a couple of changes the new Abercrombie management is making.

“They're no longer using half-dressed models at live events or undressed models on their shopping bags,” she explains. “One Million Moms feels that consumer complaints and concerns had a lot to do with these changes.”

Cole says consumers making a purchase and receiving a bag with a lewd image on it were actually displaying soft porn as they carried it through the mall.

Sexualized marketing

Former CEO Michael Jefferies has left the company and Abercrombie appears to be easing into a more family friendly environment.  "By the end of July, there will no longer be sexualized marketing used in marketing materials, including in-store photos, gift cards and shopping bags," Abercrombie said in a news release.

Abercrombie & Fitch is not unaccustomed to controversy. Not long ago a Muslim woman said A&F refused to hire her because she wore a traditional head scarf. She sued for discrimination and her lawsuit is pending before the Supreme Court.

According to brand experts this whole put-your-clothes-back-on campaign could backfire because doing away with what made the brand popular could leave Abercrombie standing for nothing unless it successfully builds a new image.

The stores will also be a bit brighter, doing away with the dimness that some shoppers complained about. 

Fran Horowitz, the president of Abercrombie’s Hollister brand, told the Wall Street Journal the company is trying to navigate the transition successfully.

“We do have very strong, iconic brands, and our intent is to make sure that we keep the spirit of those things alive while modernizing what’s happening here,” Horowitz said.

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Jinyu YS78 and Evergreen ES89 AT tires recalled

The tire belts may separate

Shandong Jinyu Industrial Co. LTD, is recalling 5,068 Jinyu YS78 and Evergreen ES89 AT tires, size LT225/75R16, manufactured April 1, 2011, to August 31, 2...

PhotoShandong Jinyu Industrial Co. LTD, is recalling 5,068 Jinyu YS78 and Evergreen ES89 AT tires, size LT225/75R16, manufactured April 1, 2011, to August 31, 2014 (DOT date codes 1611 through 4314).

 

The affected tires may not be able to properly dissipate heat, and as a result, the tire belts may separate. If the tire belts separate, the tire may suddenly lose air, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

The remedy for this recall is still under development. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Shandong customer service at 1-786-521-1296.

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LQNN recalls poultry, beef and pork products

The products were not inspected and misused the USDA mark of inspection

LQNN, Inc., of Garden Grove, Calif., is recalling approximately 213,192 pounds of chicken, beef and pork products. The products were produced without the ...

PhotoLQNN, Inc., of Garden Grove, Calif., is recalling approximately 213,192 pounds of chicken, beef and pork products.

 

The products were produced without the benefit of inspection and misused the USDA mark of inspection.

 

According to USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) the products which were moved and sold in commerce, included the unapproved use of another facility’s mark of inspection, which has been identified as Establishment number 18995.

 

LQNN, operating as Lee’s Sandwiches, has been processing products from federally-inspected establishments and re-packaging them without the benefit of inspection. Products produced without inspection present potential of increased human health risk.

 

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

 

The products, produced between May 18, 2014, May 18, 2015, were sent to various restaurant locations in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas to be cooked and served to consumers.

 

The following recalled products may contain “Est. 11041” or “P-11041” inside the USDA mark of inspection:

  • 54,509 -lb. of “Banh Bao Pork & Egg Steamed Bun.”
  • 15,147 -lb. of “Banh Bao Trung Cut Pork & Quail Egg Steamed Bun Vietnamese Style.”
  • 55,114 -lb. of “PORK PATE CHAUD (LARGE).”
  • 6,016.5-lb. of “PORK PATE CHAUD (SMALL).”
  • 50,036-lb. of “CHICKEN PATE CHAUD (LARGE).”
  • 6,184.5-lb of “CHICKEN PATE CHAUD (SMALL).”
  • 22,812-lb. of “SLICED OIL BROWNED TURKEY PREMIUM BREAST MEAT FULLY COOKED.”
  • 2,453.5-lb. of “SLICED SALAMI MEAT with wine FULLY COOKED.”

The following recalled products may contain “Est. 18995” inside the USDA mark of inspection:

  • 222.25-lb. of 4-oz. plastic containers of “FRUIT BEEF JERKY (Kho Bo).”
  • 352-lb. of 4-oz. plastic containers of “B.B.Q. BEEF JERKY (Kho Bo).”
  • 354-lb. of 4-oz. plastic containers of “Curry BEEF JERKY (Kho Bo).”

Consumers with questions may contact Tom Quach at (714) 333-8688.

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Ford F-150 trucks with steering issue recalled

The steering upper intermediate shaft was improperly riveted

Ford Motor Company is recalling 8,963 model year 2015 Ford F-150 trucks manufactured March 19, 2015, to March 30, 2015. The affected vehicles may have be...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 8,963 model year 2015 Ford F-150 trucks manufactured March 19, 2015, to March 30, 2015.

 

The affected vehicles may have been built with a steering upper intermediate shaft that was improperly riveted. If the intermediate shaft was improperly riveted, it could separate from the intermediate shaft flex coupling, resulting in a loss of steering control and increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

 

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the intermediate shaft and replace it, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in May 2015.

 

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 15S17.

 

 

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Woman sued by debt collector awarded $83 million verdict

It all started over a $1,000 credit card bill

Many a consumer has tried to explain to a debt collector that the debt he or she is calling about belongs to someone else. Of course, it’s often like talki...

PhotoMany a consumer has tried to explain to a debt collector that the debt he or she is calling about belongs to someone else. Of course, it’s often like talking to a brick wall because the debt collector has heard it all before.

But many times the consumer is right. A Jackson County, Mo., Circuit Court jury has delivered a not-so-subtle message to one debt collector that in situations like that, it had better do a little more thorough investigation before it hauls an alleged debtor into court.

$1000 debt

Portfolio Recovery Associates LLC, one of the largest buyers of written-off debt in the U.S., tried to collect a $1,000 credit card debt from Maria Guadalupe Mejia, who insisted the debt wasn’t hers. She tried to explain that the person they were looking for was actually a man with a name that was similar, but not the same, as her name.

The company didn’t believe her and took her to court. In court, the debt collector could not or would not provide requested information, so the judge struck its pleadings. But the jury wasn’t finished.

Acted maliciously

After 5 days of deliberation, it returned a verdict, finding Portfolio Recovery Associates acted maliciously in its pursuit of Mejia. The defendant was awarded $250,000 in actual damages for violation of her rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The jury then added $82,990,000 in punitive damages.

Remember, it was the debt collector who brought the suit in the first place.

In a statement to Credit.com, Portfolio Recovery Associates called the verdict “outlandish” and defying all common sense. It says it expects the judge to set aside the verdict.

Still, any consumer who has ever been on the receiving end of repeated phone calls about a non-existent debt can’t help but get a vicarious thrill.

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

More importantly, the case underscores of knowing your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

While the law does not protect you from people to whom you owe money, it does provide a number of protections when the creditor turns the debt over to a third-party debt collector.

A collector may contact you in person, by mail, telephone, telegram, or fax. However, a debt collector may not contact you at inconvenient times or places, such as before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., unless you agree. A debt collector also may not contact you at work if the collector knows that your employer disapproves of such contacts.

Within five days after you are first contacted, the collector must send you a written notice telling you the amount you owe; the name of the creditor to whom you owe the money; and what action to take if you believe you do not owe the money.

If you are contacted about a debt you think you owe, then you should pay it. But if you do not owe the debt, tell the debt collector you need to receive the written statement you are entitled to under the FDCPA. Additionally, consumers who want to consolidate their debts can utilize ConsumerAffairs' debt consolidation resource. Consolidating debts may reduce exposure to debt collection agencies.

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ATM debit-card theft soars to highest levels in 20 years

Fraud crackdowns in one area lead to increased criminal activity elsewhere

Cracking down on data theft is kind of like squeezing a balloon: press down on a bulge in one area, and it'll only swell somewhere else.So perhaps it's...

PhotoCracking down on data theft is kind of like squeezing a balloon: press down on a bulge in one area, and it'll only swell somewhere else.

So perhaps it's no surprise that today's Wall Street Journal reports the distressing statistic that, while brick-and-mortar merchants have been cracking down on data fraud at the checkout counter, criminals responded by attacking automatic teller machines, targeting not just bank-owned ATMs but the independently owned “cash kiosks” common in shopping malls, restaurants and other businesses.

(And that's not even counting the prevalence of hidden “skimmers” used to steal data from any ATM card swiped through them.)

Relatively easy

For a thief equipped with the right tools, it's relatively easy to steal debit card information and make counterfeit debit cards, which are then used to steal money from ATMs. The Journal said that according to FICO, the credit-scoring and analytics firm, the period spanning from January to April 9, 2015 saw more debit-card ATM attacks than any previous period in the past 20 years:

Debit-card compromises at ATMs located on bank property jumped 174% from Jan. 1 to April 9, compared with the same period last year, while successful attacks at nonbank machines soared by 317%, according to FICO. … The company declined to disclose the total number of such incidents, citing contractual restrictions with its customers.

ATM fraud has been growing overseas, too. Just last week, we reported the discovery of a new form of ATM fraud plaguing banks in Britain: thieves armed with nothing more than an iPod and a piece of plastic can spy on would-be ATM customers, steal their passcode and arrange for the machine to “eat” their cards – which are then retrieved and used to drain money from the account while the victim contacts bank personnel about their apparently faulty ATM. However, that form of fraud involves stealing and using legitimate ATM cards, not making counterfeit cards as reported by FICO.

It's important to remember that from an individual cardholder's perspective, debit card fraud is much worse than credit card fraud, because debit cards withdraw money directly from your savings accounts, whereas credit card purchases essentially borrow money from the credit card company.

This means that even if your debit-card fraudulent-charge complaint is ultimately settled in your favor, with the bank ultimately making full restitution to you – you still have to go without your money while the matter is being resolved.

If you do have a debit card, even if you're convinced that your account numbers are safe from thieves, you still need to check your account activity on a regular basis, whether you've used the card recently or not, so that if fraudulent withdrawals do occur, you can report them to your bank as soon as possible.

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Five big banks plead guilty to felony charges

Fines for conspiring to fix international monetary prices will exceed $2.5 billion

Five major banks – Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Barclays PLC, The Royal Bank of Scotland plc and UBS AG – have agreed to plead guilty to felony charges ...

PhotoFive major banks – Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Barclays PLC, The Royal Bank of Scotland plc and UBS AG – have agreed to plead guilty to felony charges that they conspired to fix international monetary prices.

Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, and The Royal Bank of Scotland have agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to manipulate the price of U.S. dollars and euros exchanged in the foreign currency exchange (FX) spot market and the banks have agreed to pay criminal fines totaling more than $2.5 billion. 

A fifth bank, UBS AG, has agreed to plead guilty to manipulating the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) and other benchmark interest rates and pay a $203 million criminal penalty.

“Today’s historic resolutions are the latest in our ongoing efforts to investigate and prosecute financial crimes, and they serve as a stark reminder that this Department of Justice intends to vigorously prosecute all those who tilt the economic system in their favor; who subvert our marketplaces; and who enrich themselves at the expense of American consumers,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch.  

“The penalty these banks will now pay is fitting considering the long-running and egregious nature of their anticompetitive conduct.  It is commensurate with the pervasive harm done.  And it should deter competitors in the future from chasing profits without regard to fairness, to the law, or to the public welfare,” she said.

Coded language

According to plea agreements to be filed in the District of Connecticut, between December 2007 and January 2013, euro-dollar traders at Citicorp, JPMorgan, Barclays and RBS – self-described members of “The Cartel” – used an exclusive electronic chat room and coded language to manipulate benchmark exchange rates. 

Those rates are set through, among other ways, two major daily “fixes,” the 1:15 p.m. European Central Bank fix and the 4:00 p.m. World Markets/Reuters fix.  Third parties collect trading data at these times to calculate and publish a daily “fix rate,” which in turn is used to price orders for many large customers. 

“The Cartel” traders coordinated their trading of U.S. dollars and euros to manipulate the benchmark rates set at the 1:15 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. fixes in an effort to increase their profits. 

As detailed in the plea agreements, these traders also used their exclusive electronic chats to manipulate the euro-dollar exchange rate in other ways.  Members of “The Cartel” manipulated the euro-dollar exchange rate by agreeing to withhold bids or offers for euros or dollars to avoid moving the exchange rate in a direction adverse to open positions held by co-conspirators. 

By agreeing not to buy or sell at certain times, the traders protected each other’s trading positions by withholding supply of or demand for currency and suppressing competition in the FX market.

Corporate probation

Citicorp, Barclays, JPMorgan, RBS and UBS have each agreed to a three-year period of corporate probation, which, if approved by the court, will be overseen by the court and require regular reporting to authorities as well as cessation of all criminal activity. 

All five banks will continue cooperating with the government’s ongoing criminal investigations, and no plea agreement prevents the department from prosecuting culpable individuals for related misconduct.  Citicorp, Barclays, JPMorgan and RBS have agreed to send disclosure notices to all of their customers and counter-parties that may have been affected by the sales and trading practices described in the plea agreements.

Today, in connection with its FX investigation, the Federal Reserve also announced that it was imposing on the five banks fines of over $1.6 billion; and Barclays settled related claims with the New York State Department of Financial Services (DFS), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) for an additional combined penalty of approximately $1.3 billion. 

 

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The Takata airbag recall: What should you do?

It will take years to find and fix all the defective airbags

The expanded Takata airbag recall means that millions more cars will be getting new airbags sometime, although with an estimated total of 34 million defect...

PhotoThe expanded Takata airbag recall means that millions more cars will be getting new airbags sometime, although with an estimated total of 34 million defective airbags, it is going to take years for the massive effort to be complete.

While this introduces an air of uncertainty, it also means that millions more cars will be fixed eventually, notes Jack Gillis of the Consumer Federation of America.  

“There is good news and bad news with the announcement of the Takata air bag recall:  the good news, millions more Americans are covered for a fix to this serious problem, the bad news, it could take years to get safe parts manufactured and replaced in affected vehicles,” said Gillis, CFA’s automotive expert and author of The Car Book, published with the Center for Auto Safety.

What to do

Gillis offers some tips for consumers wondering if their car is included, or will eventually be included in the recall.

  • Obtain your vehicle’s identification number (VIN) by looking in at your dash from the outside of the driver’s side or on the outer edge of the driver’s door.  (It is also available on your registration card.)
  • Go to www.safercar.gov/vin and type in your VIN. Alternatively, the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety offers a complete list of Takata recalls to date. 
  • If your vehicle is part of the recall, contact ANY dealer of your vehicle immediately to schedule a replacement appointment — there is no charge for this fix.
  • Ask your dealer (or the manufacturer of your vehicle) for a ‘loaner vehicle’ while parts are being manufactured.
  • If your vehicle is NOT currently listed as being involved in this recall, it is important to check back on a regular basis to see if it gets added.

“The sooner you contact a dealer, the sooner you’ll get on the list for repairs,” said Gillis.  “Traditional recall response rates are around 70%, so in the end, if consumers don’t respond to this recall, there could potentially be over 10 million vehicles with this dangerous defect on the road.”

“While the root cause of this problem is not fully understood, humid regions with high moisture in the air can exacerbate the problem.  Consumers in those areas have likely already received a recall notice and should respond immediately,” added Gillis.

What else?

Of course, there's some question whether all of the defective airbags have been identified, which isn't much comfort to consumers, especially those driving older cars in humid areas

Other than taking the bus or staying home, how can you avoid being hit in the face with flying projectiles? Good question, and one to which there's not yet a definitive answer.

“Folks shouldn’t have to drive around wondering if their airbag is going to explode in their face or if their car is going to be on another recall list,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee and a key figure in a congressional probe into the defective airbags.  “We’ve seen the recall list double now to 30 million cars.  Let’s hope Takata’s admissions today tells us the whole story.” 

“But Floridians, especially, have reason to be worried because the evidence is that these airbags explode in more humid climates.  This needs to get fixed pronto,” he added.

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California suspends GI Bill benefits to ITT Technical Institute

New legal troubles hit the embattled for-profit chain of schools

Last week, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier urged the Department of Education (DoE) to investigate the for-profit college operator ITT Educational Se...

PhotoLast week, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier urged the Department of Education (DoE) to investigate the for-profit college operator ITT Educational Services, Inc., which she said has allegedly “engaged in deceptive and predatory lending practices, pushing students into high-interest loans they know cannot be repaid, at vast taxpayer expense” at its ITT Technical Institute schools.

And this week, the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet), which among other things oversees GI Bill tuition benefits for military veterans in the state, ordered 15 ITT locations to stop enrolling new or returning students who use the GI Bill for payment.

Military.com reports that “The suspension only stops future enrollments or reenrollments of Veterans, or their dependents, using the GI Bill,” but “does not affect current students.”

Financial statements

CalVet instituted the suspension because ITT apparently will not or can not produce audited financial statements, as required by both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the DoE.

Consumers rate ITT

Speier mentioned something similar in her complaints to the DoE last week, saying in an open letter to the Secretary of Education that “The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed charges on May 12, 2015 alleging that that [sic] the CEO and CFO of ITT Educational Services covered up ballooning loan obligations stemming from the company's …. predatory lending programs.”

But ITT responded to the SEC's charges by releasing a statement saying “We vehemently disagree with the SEC’s position and we are confident that the evidence does not support the SEC’s claims …. We are eager to have the court clear our reputation that has been unnecessarily endangered by the SEC’s action.”

Whatever the courts ultimately decide about ITT's financial activities, another problem shared by ITT students and graduates involves the school's lack of worthwhile accreditation. Speier said that even ITT grads who'd earned high grade-point averages discovered their degrees were worthless: no reputable four-year college or university would accept ITT transfer credits, and potential employers aren't impressed by ITT-generated credentials, either.

Grads' complaints

Last week, when we reported Speier's complaint about ITT, we also shared the stories of several ITT grads. One woman who studied electronics at an ITT school discovered just how little employers think of ITT: “I have gone on numerous interviews just to be laughed at and questioned about why ITT.”

Another man who had to start his four-year college degree from scratch after no school would accept his two-year ITT degree advised all potential students to stay away from ITT: “Since it is not an accredited school if you ever plan to further your education and want to transfer to a real college you are much better off going to a real college from the start.”

A two-year state community college will cost you much less than a for-profit “institute” such as ITT, and the credits you earn at an accredited state community college are far more likely to either transfer to other traditional four-year schools or be accepted by potential employers.

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Bag handlers used security clearance to smuggle drugs, feds charge

Airport security is tight for passengers, not so much so for airport workers

It's sort of an open secret that the biggest airport security loophole is not the travelers and airline crews who are scanned, frisked and prodded but rath...

PhotoIt's sort of an open secret that the biggest airport security loophole is not the travelers and airline crews who are scanned, frisked and prodded but rather the airport employees who come and go more or less at will.

Case in point: the 14 baggage handlers arrested at Oakland Airport in California this week and charged with using their behind-the-scenes access to smuggle drugs around the country. 

The bag handlers, who are not required to pass through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, work in an area known as the Air Operations Area (AOA), which is off-limits to taxpayers and travelers.

According to the FBI, the baggage handlers used their security badges to open a secure door that separates the AOA from the "sterile" passenger terminal where outbound passengers, who have already passed through the TSA security and screening checkpoint, wait to board their flights. 

The baggage handlers then allegedly gave the baggage containing drugs to passengers who transported the drugs in carry-on luggage on their outbound flights.  After arriving in a destination city, the drugs were distributed and sold.

Besides the Oakland bag handlers, nine defendants were arrested elsewhere in the San Francisco area. 

According to the complaint, the conspiracy was operating as early as July 2012.  The defendants have been charged in a complaint with conspiracy to distribute, and possess with intent to distribute, 100 kilograms or more of marijuana.

Defendants

Baggage handlers Kenneth Wayne Fleming, 32, of San Leandro, California; Keith Ramon Mayfield, 34, of Oakland, California; and Michael Herb Videau, 28, of Oakland, California, are accused of using their security badges to cross security barriers while carrying unscreened baggage filled with packages of marijuana. 

They would then hand off the baggage to co-conspirators, including Major Alexander Session III, 24, of Oakland, California; Clyde Barry Jamerson, 41, of Oakland, California; Kameron Kordero Eldridge Davis, 26, of Dublin, California; Ronnell Lamar Molton, 34, of Oakland, California; Francisco Manuel Carrasco, 29, of Hayward, California; Sophia Cherise West, 44, of Castro Valley, California; and others, who then would board outbound aircraft and bring the drugs to destinations throughout the country, the FBI said.

Proceeds from the sale of the marijuana eventually were deposited into accounts controlled by defendants Ahshatae Marie Millhouse, 27, of Oakland, California; Laticia Ann Morris, 40, of Little Rock, Arkansas; Donald Ray Holland II, 42, of Discovery Bay, California; and others.  Additionally, Mayfield used his privileges as an airline employee to ship drugs as cargo and have co-conspirators such as Brandon Jarred Davillier, 27, of Slidell, Louisiana, receive them for distribution, according to the FBI.  

Nine defendants were taken into custody in arrests coordinated throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and Arkansas.  Eight defendants made their initial appearances before the Honorable U.S. Magistrate Judge Kandis A. Westmore, in Oakland, California.  The defendants’ next appearances are scheduled as follows: defendants Holland, Fleming, Baker, Session, Davis and West are scheduled to appear tomorrow morning for a hearing at which they may be appointed counsel.  Defendants Mayfield and Videau are scheduled to appear on May 21, 2015, for detention hearings.  Defendant Morris made her initial appearance in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was released on bond.  Defendants Jamerson and Molton are currently serving state prison sentences in Arkansas and Louisiana, respectively, for possession with intent to distribute marijuana.  Defendants Davillier, Millhouse and Carrasco are presently fugitives. 

The maximum penalty for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute marijuana is 40 years imprisonment and $5 million.  The offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment. 

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Employers increasingly turn to Internet when screening candidates

Wrong kind of online information can hurt chances, but not enough information can too

With an over-abundance of invasive technology these days it's not surprising a lot of people are curtailing their online presence. While not exactly going...

PhotoWith an over-abundance of invasive technology these days it's not surprising a lot of people are curtailing their online presence. While not exactly going off the grid, they resist appeals to establish LinkedIn accounts or set up other professional profiles online.

But a survey suggests that what is gained in privacy may be lost in job opportunities.

Job site CareerBuilder.com's annual social media recruitment survey found that 35% of employers said they are less likely to call a job candidate for an interview if they can't find out more about them online.

Social media recruitment

Not having a Facebook or Twitter presence might also hurt. Fifty-two percent of employers said they use social networking sites to research job candidates, up from 43% last year and 39% in 2013.

“Researching candidates via social media and other online sources has transformed from an emerging trend to a staple of online recruitment,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder.

CareerBuilder chalks part of this trend up to an increasingly competitive job market. Recruiters want to make the right decision and are looking for anything they can find that will help them. Haefner says job candidates need to take advantage of that.

Best foot forward

“Rather than go off the grid, job seekers should make their professional persona visible online, and ensure any information that could dissuade prospective employers is made private or removed,” she said.

Social media has been used to torpedo a candidate's chances in some well-publicized cases. Nearly everyone has heard stories of a candidate on the fast-track upended when a prospective employer found weird rants on Facebook or revealing photos from a vacation in Cancun.

But Haefner says that's not really what most recruiters are looking for when they Google a job prospect's name. Six in 10, she says, are “looking for information that supports their qualifications for the job.”

What employers look for

For some positions, this could include a professional portfolio. According to the survey, 57% of recruiters want to see if the candidate has a professional online persona, 37% want to see what other people are posting about the candidate, and yes, 21% admit they’re looking for reasons not to hire the candidate.

Not all business sectors rely on online screening to the same degree. Hiring mangers in the information technology sector are most likely to screen online – 76% said they do it. Retail recruiters do it the least – at 46%.

What kind of information should be in your profile? CareerBuilder suggests posting professional type information that supports the qualification you've put on your resume. First and foremost, that's what recruiters are hoping to find.

What they don't want to see are provocative or inappropriate photographs or tales of drunken escapades.

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Schools ditch polystyrene trays, switch to compostable plates

The move will keep 225 million trays out of landfills each year

Schools churn out educated citizens (we hope) but they also churn out a lot of waste, including polystyrene fo...

PhotoSchools churn out educated citizens (we hope) but they also churn out a lot of waste, including polystyrene food containers from the cafeteria that clutter up landfills.

But now a coalition of urban school districts is taking steps to dump the polystyrene -- or Styrofoam, which is the best-known brand of polystyrene -- replacing it with disposable plates made of compostable material. 

“This news is a game changer,” said Eric Goldstein, chief executive officer of School Support Services for the New York City Department of Education. “As leaders in school meals, we’re proud to create a product that students will not only find easy to use, but one that also protects the environment for many years to come.”

The six large school districts that make up the Urban School Food Alliance say they will remove 225 million polystyrene trays a year from landfills by creating the new compostable round plate for cafeterias.

The alliance is made up of school disrticts including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando.

Why can't it be recycled?

Technically, polystyrene can be recycled but as the American Chemical Society explains in this video, processing it is just too expensive.

Smarter choice

Food and nutrition directors in the aliance specified the round shape to allow students to eat their food off plates like they do at home, replacing the institutional rectangular lunch tray.

The districts in the alliance collectively procure more than $550 million in food and supplies annually to serve more than 2.9 million students enrolled in their schools.

“These cities are teaching kids that sustainability and smarter choices can be integrated into every part of your daily life – even your lunch,” said Mark Izeman, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit partner of the alliance. “Shifting from polystyrene trays to compostable plates will allow these cities to dramatically slash waste sent to landfills, reduce plastics pollution in our communities and oceans, and create valuable compost that can be re-used on our farms. We are proud to work with a group of school systems dedicated to driving landmark changes in the health and sustainability of school food.”

Schools across America use polystyrene trays because they cost less than compostable ones. Polystyrene trays average about $0.04 apiece, compared to its compostable counterpart, which averages about $0.12 cents each. Given the extremely tight budgets in school meal programs, affording compostable plates seemed impossible until the Urban School Food Alliance districts used their collective purchasing power to innovate a compostable round plate for schools at an affordable cost of $0.049 each.

The American-made molded fiber compostable round plate is produced from pre-consumer recycled newsprint. It is FDA-approved and manufactured in Maine by Huhtamaki North America.

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Toys in the attic could pose hazards

Vintage toys contain heavy metals that are regulated today

Baby boomers who are now grandparents are often amazed at changes to toy safety standards over the years. After all, they grew up playing with all manner o...

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New research suggests omega-3s keep aging minds sharp

Subjects who ate a lot of fish performed better on mental dexterity tests

Children aren’t the only ones we should be encouraging to eat all their vegetables. As people age doctors say good nutrition becomes even more important. ...

PhotoChildren aren’t the only ones we should be encouraging to eat all their vegetables. As people age doctors say good nutrition becomes even more important.

The National Institute on Aging encourages people of advancing years to maintain a healthy diet as a prevention against osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease and even certain types of cancer.

You might not think you need as much energy as when you were younger, but the agency, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), says you definitely need the nutrients contained in a healthy diet.

Mental sharpness

Researchers at the University of Illinois say that diet should include plenty of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Their recently-published study found that older adults who consumed a diet with lots of omega-3s did better than their peers on tests measuring cognitive flexibility – the ability to efficiently switch between tasks or areas of focus.

Brain scans also revealed they had a bigger anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that contributes to cognitive flexibility.

The researchers stop short of claiming an absolute link between DHA and EPA, two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, and increased mental dexterity in older adults but say the evidence is persuasive.

Critical link

"Recent research suggests that there is a critical link between nutritional deficiencies and the incidence of both cognitive impairment and degenerative neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease," said University of Illinois professor Aron Barbey, who led the study. "Our findings add to the evidence that optimal nutrition helps preserve cognitive function, slow the progression of aging and reduce the incidence of debilitating diseases in healthy aging populations."

Most discussion of cognitive impairment focuses on memory loss, especially in cases of Alzheimer’s. But Marta Zamroziewicz, co-author of the study, says cognitive flexibility and other executive functions are a better predictor of daily functioning.

"Executive function describes processes like planning, reasoning, paying attention, problem solving, impulse control and task switching,” she said. "These functions tend to decline earlier than other cognitive functions in aging."

There have been previous studies that have made the association between omega-3s and cognitive flexibility, suggesting such a link may in fact exist.

What the study found

The Illinois study focused on 40 cognitively healthy older adults between the ages of 65 and 75 who are carriers of a gene variant -- APOE e4 -- that is known to contribute to the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer's disease. It found the greater the presence of omega-3s in the blood, the better the subjects performed on tests and the larger the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain.

While fish is a rich source of omega-3s, you can also get these nutrients from some vegetables and nuts. Whereever you happen to get them, Harvard professor Dr. Frank Sacks recommends everyone should get at least one rich source of omega-3 daily.

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Higher interest rates send mortgage applications tumbling again

It's the fourth decline in as many weeks

An increase in mortgage and Treasury rates pushed mortgage applications lower again last week. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly M...

PhotoAn increase in mortgage and Treasury rates pushed mortgage applications lower again last week.

 

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications were down 1.5% in the week ending May 15 -- the fourth consective decline.

 

“Mortgage rates increased last week, and Treasury rates increased to a recent high at mid week before falling at the end of the week,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “Overall purchase activity fell for the week, along with conventional refinance volume, but government refinance volume increased. The level of purchase applications remained 11% higher than the same week last year, but the drop this week may indicate borrowers being wary of the recent run up in mortgage rates.”

 

The Refinance Index increased 0.3%, sending the refinance share of mortgage activity up to 52% of total applications from 51% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 6.4% of total applications.

 

Contract interest rates

 

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 4 basis points -- from 4.00% to 4.04%, its highest level since December 2014, with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) increased to 4.04% from 3.99%, with points dropping to 0.25 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages backed by the FHA was up 4 basis points 3.80%, with points decreasing to 0.06 from 0.14 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages inched up to 3.26% from 3.23%, with points slipping to 0.30 from 0.40 (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 dipped 1 basis point to 2.99%, with points decreasing to 0.45 from 0.46 (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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Cardiologists pitch in to save a cat

Rare surgery repairs congenital heart defect

One lucky cat used up only one of her nine lives thanks to a group of human cardiologists. Vanilla Bean is a one-year-old Burmese cat from Mill Valley, Cal...

PhotoOne lucky cat used up only one of her nine lives thanks to a group of human cardiologists. Vanilla Bean is a one-year-old Burmese cat from Mill Valley, California. She was diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect by a veterinary cardiologist, Kristin MacDonald, a former UC Davis cardiology resident.

The problem was that the blood was not flowing properly through the chambers of her heart. That would eventually clog one of the chambers making it full and creating,congestive heart failure. This same issue is also found in children.

Dr. MacDonald was familiar with a procedure to correct the defect. A special technique for correction has been reported only once before by Dr. Josh Stern, DVM, when he was practicing at North Carolina State University.

Luckily for Vanilla Bean, Dr. Stern has since joined the faculty of the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH) at UC Davis. Instead of being 3,000 miles away, the possible answer to Vanilla Bean’s problem was less than 100 miles away. So Dr. MacDonald contacted Dr. Stern, and started the process of referring the case to UC Davis.

Vanilla bean went to UC Davis and had an ultrasound to allow the doctors to see if she would be a good candidate for surgery.,She turned out to be a good candidate and they moved forward.

Dream team

Since this is so rare in cats Dr. Stern wanted to bring in a team of human cardiologists to help him. It is also rare in children but it has been performed more frequently in children than in cats. A dream team was formed of both human and veterinary surgeons.

Because cats are so small it is extremely difficult to perform such delicate surgery. The procedure went relatively well although,Vanilla Bean lost a lot of blood and suffered an acute kidney injury. Doctors feared she would die.

Remarkably, as the weeks progressed she progressed and now the doctors say at her four-month re-check examination, Vanilla Bean has continued to improve. She is no longer in congestive heart failure, and is off all medications.,,Dr. Stern expects her to make a complete recovery.

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PayPal slapped for signing up consumers for "Bill Me Later" credit plans

The e-pay giant will pay $15 million in refunds and a $10 million fine

PayPal has agreed to pay $15 million in refunds on top of  $10 million fine for signing up consumers for its online credit plan without their permission, t...

PhotoPayPal has agreed to pay $15 million in refunds on top of  $10 million fine for signing up consumers for its online credit plan without their permission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced.

The CFPB said that PayPal deceptively advertised promotion benefits that it failed to honor, signed customers up with permission and made them use PayPal Credit or its predecessor, Bill Me Later, without consent. 

PayPal said it was working to improve its processes.

“PayPal Credit takes consumer protection very seriously. We continually improve our products and enhance our communications to ensure a superior customer experience. Our focus is on ease of use, clarity and providing high-quality products that are useful to consumers and are in compliance with applicable laws,” a PayPal spokesperson said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

“PayPal illegally signed up consumers for its online credit product without their permission and failed to address disputes when they complained,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Online shopping has become a way of life for many Americans and it’s important that they are treated fairly. The CFPB’s action should send a signal that consumers are protected whether they are opening their wallets or clicking online to make a purchase.”

Consumers writing to ConsumerAffairs would agree with Cordray.

"I love PayPal but I made the mistake of accepting PayPal credit and debit," said Gayle of Palm Coast, Fla., one of the many consumers who have complained about the service. "I have been trying to close the account online for months, and it wouldn't let me, even with $0 balance and waiting until the payment had processed. I finally called customer service. After four conversations (with helpful agents) and one dropped call, I finally accomplished the task. What a mess!"

Since 2008, PayPal has offered PayPal Credit to consumers across the country making purchases from thousands of online merchants, including eBay. The CFPB alleges that many consumers who were attempting to enroll in a regular PayPal account, or make an online purchase, were signed up for the credit product without realizing it.

The company also failed to post payments properly, lost payment checks, and mishandled billing disputes that consumers had with merchants or the company. Tens of thousands of consumers experienced these issues.

"Deceptive and misleading"

PayPal Credit (formerly Bill Me Later) May 19, 2015, 2:51 p.m.
Consumers rate PayPal Credit (formerly Bill Me Later)

One of them was Chris of Elk Grove, Calif., who posted a ConsumerAffairs review about her experience.

"I ordered and paid for an item using my PayPal account. I thought I was signing in and paying for my purchase - just by following the on-screen prompts. What I didn't realize was that I was signing up for a PayPal Credit account," Chris said. "I did not find this out until I received a bill in the mail about 2 weeks later. It was only for $7.00 but I thought the transaction was complete. I then noticed the $7.00 was for a monthly reoccurring fee for the credit account I had unknowingly opened."

Chris then tried to close the account. She called PayPal and talked to a service rep, who refused to cancel the $7 payment.

"The way PayPal's payment website is designed, it makes it extremely easy for a casual user to sign up for a credit account without the user's knowledge. In my opinion it is a deceptive and misleading business practice. ... I always thought Paypal was reliable and an asset to internet merchandising but I will try to avoid PayPal in the future," Chris vowed.

Settlement terms

Under the proposed settlement announced today, PayPal would be required to:

Pay $15 million in redress to victims: PayPal would reimburse consumers who were mistakenly enrolled in PayPal Credit, who mistakenly paid for a purchase with PayPal Credit, or who incurred fees or deferred interest as a result of the company’s inadequate disclosures and flawed customer-service practices.

Improve disclosures: PayPal would be required to take steps to improve its consumer disclosures related to enrollment in PayPal Credit to ensure that consumers know they are enrolling or using the product for a purchase. 

Pay $10 million civil penalty: PayPal would pay $10 million to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.

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Feds, states charge sham cancer charities bilked consumers for $187 million

Money donated to help cancer victims allegedly went to fund lavish lifestyles

Four bogus cancer charities bilked consumers out of $187 million, pocketing the money they pledged would help cancer patients, the Federal ...

Photo
File photo

Four bogus cancer charities bilked consumers out of $187 million, pocketing the money they pledged would help cancer patients, the Federal Trade Commission and all 50 states charged today.

Named in the federal court complaint are Cancer Fund of America, Inc. (CFA), Cancer Support Services Inc. (CSS), their president, James Reynolds, Sr., and their chief financial officer and CSS’s former president, Kyle Effler; Children’s Cancer Fund of America Inc. (CCFOA) and its president and executive director, Rose Perkins; and The Breast Cancer Society Inc. (BCS) and its executive director and former president, James Reynolds II.

The proposed final orders against BCS and Reynolds II impose a $65,564,360 judgment, the amount consumers donated between 2008 and 2012. The proposed final order against Effler will impose a judgment of $41,152,231, the amount consumers donated to CSS between 2008 and 2012.

“Cancer is a debilitating disease that impacts millions of Americans and their families every year. The defendants’ egregious scheme effectively deprived legitimate cancer charities and cancer patients of much-needed funds and support,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The defendants took in millions of dollars in donations meant to help cancer patients, but spent it on themselves and their fundraisers.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said, “The allegations of fundraising for personal gain in the name of children with cancer and women battling breast cancer are simply shameful. This is the first time the FTC, all 50 states, and the District of Columbia have filed a joint enforcement action alleging deceptive solicitations by charities and I hope it serves as a strong warning for anyone trying to exploit the kindness and generosity of others.”

CCFOA and Perkins, BCS, Reynolds II and Effler have agreed to settle the charges against them. Litigation will continue against CFA, CSS and James Reynolds Sr.

Telemarketing, mail, websites

PhotoAccording to the complaint, the defendants used telemarketing calls, direct mail, websites, and materials distributed by the Combined Federal Campaign to portray themselves as legitimate charities with substantial programs that provided direct support to cancer patients in the United States, such as providing patients with pain medication, transportation to chemotherapy, and hospice care.

In fact, the complaint alleges that these claims were deceptive and that the charities “operated as personal fiefdoms characterized by rampant nepotism, flagrant conflicts of interest, and excessive insider compensation, with none of the financial and governance controls that any bona fidecharity would have adopted.”

According to the complaint, the defendants used the organizations for lucrative employment for family members and friends, and spent consumer donations on cars, trips, luxury cruises, college tuition, gym memberships, jet ski outings, sporting event and concert tickets, and dating site memberships. They hired professional fundraisers who often received 85 percent or more of every donation.

Inflated revenues

The complaint alleges that, to hide their high administrative and fundraising costs from donors and regulators, the defendants falsely inflated their revenues by reporting in publicly filed financial documents more than $223 million in donated “gifts in kind” which they claimed to distribute to international recipients. I

In fact, the defendants were merely pass-through agents for such goods. By reporting the inflated “gift in kind” donations, the defendants created the illusion that they were larger and more efficient with donors’ dollars than they actually were. Thirty-five states alleged that the defendants filed false and misleading financial statements with state charities regulators.

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New studies may lead to earlier Alzheimer's disease diagnoses

Risk may be identified as early as age 30

Two studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association today focus on the presence of plaque amyloid in the brain of adults as an early w...

PhotoTwo studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association today focus on the presence of plaque amyloid in the brain of adults as an early warning of Alzheimer's disease.

The studies analyzed adults of all ages and included those with some dementia and those who showed no signs of cognitive impairment. The results may help diagnose the progressive and fatal disease much earlier than is now possible.

The findings have added importance because Alzheimer disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia. It affected about 25 million people worldwide in 2010 but that number is expected to double by 2030 because of longer life expectancy.

In one study researchers from the Netherlands measured the presence of amyloid in people with normal memory function, subjective cognitive impairment (SCI) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Presence of amyloid is key indicator

The researchers found the prevalence of amyloid pathology in all three groups of adults age 50 to 90. Those with normal memory had the least while those who already showed some mild cognitive loss had the most.

Those who carried a certain gene, called apolipoprotein E, had two to three times the presence of anyloid as those who didn't have the gene.

The researchers believe this study has several implications for understanding how Alzheimer's disease develops.

“The observation that key risk factors for AD-type dementia are also risk factors for amyloid positivity in cognitively normal persons provides further evidence for the hypothesis that amyloid positivity in these individuals reflects early AD,” the authors write.

As early as age 30

They also maintain their findings show that AD pathology can start as early as age 30. This means there could be a 20- to 30-year interval between the first signs of amyloid positivity and dementia, suggesting that there is a large window of opportunity to start preventive treatments.

The second study, conducted by another group of Dutch researchers, looks at ways to more narrowly interpret the clinical significance of positron emission tomography (PET), used to find amyloid positivity in the brain. Specifically, the researchers focused on ways to better understand the prevalence of amyloid positivity across different types of dementia and how this is associated with demographic, genetic, and cognitive factors.

They studied people diagnosed with Alzheimer's as well as those who had other types of dementia. Those diagnosed with Alzheimer's had an average prevalence of amyloid positivity of 88%, that actually decreased with age unless they carried the apolipoprotein E gene. Those sufferings from non-AD dementia showed an increase in amyloid as they aged.

Implications

The researchers conclude that the early signs of Alzheimer's might be easier to find in younger adults, even before they start to show symptoms of cognitive impairment.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's but there are treatments that doctors say can slow the progression of the disease.

The Alzheimer's Association says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 2 types of drugs to treat the symptoms of memory loss and reasoning. There are also treatments available to address changes in behavior brought on by Alzheimer's disease.

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Starbucks adds new email security questions, presumably in response to app hackings

But you should probably disconnect any links between the app and your financial accounts

What exactly is going on with the Starbucks mobile app? Last week, after a (relative) handful of customers complained about thieves hacking into their S...

PhotoWhat exactly is going on with the Starbucks mobile app?

Last week, after a (relative) handful of customers complained about thieves hacking into their Starbucks apps and stealing money from whatever bank accounts or payment cards were connected to them, Starbucks did finally acknowledge that these thefts were happening.

However, the company also suggested the problem was not with Starbucks' own network security, but with the individual customers who got hacked, presumably because they either used weak passwords or used the same password across multiple accounts – in other words, because those victimized customers failed to take certain very basic online security precautions.

And in fairness to Starbucks: the initial evidence, combined with the relatively small number of app customers who had this problem, seemed to suggest that Starbucks was correct. After all: if the company itself had suffered a security breach, you'd expect to see almost every Starbucks app user suffer as a result, right? And since it was only a handful of customers here and there, that would suggest the Starbucks app problem was similar to the Dropbox and StubHub “hackings” from last year: neither Dropbox nor StubHub had any breach of their network or database security, but millions of individual customer accounts were breached after hackers managed to steal those individual passwords from another source.

May be other reasons

Yet Bob Sullivan, the consumer journalist who first broke word of the Starbucks hackings early last week, pointed out last night that there might be reasons to suspect there's something else going on with the Starbucks app problems.

In the first place, “A few victims I’ve spoken to say they use strong passwords.  One victim who said his card had been hit for four $50 refills said their password randomly generated 15 characters. … consumers are often mistaken about their password management skills, but corporations aren’t always transparent about their security practices, either.”

Something else to consider: last month, Starbucks suffered a temporary outage to all of its point-of-sale (POS) systems, an outage which the company said “was caused by an internal failure during a daily system refresh and was not the result of an external breach.” However, the company insists that its current app issues are in no way related to that POS outage.

An altered state

Meanwhile, Starbucks.com has apparently altered the email requirements for any customer trying to change their login information. As of Monday, anyone trying to change their login credentials was asked two apparently new questions: “Can you still access email at your previous address?” and “Why are you changing your email address today? To stay organized/to avoid spam/for security reasons/other.”

Whoever stole money from these hacked Starbucks apps did so by taking advantage of the app's auto-reload function: even if you only have, for example, $10 worth of credit loaded on your Starbucks app, that does not mean any thief is limited to only stealing your $10; once in the account, the thieves adjusted the auto-reload settings so that as soon as they drained that initial $10, they'd simply arrange to re-load the money and re-drain the account.

If you are going to use the Starbucks mobile app and want to be absolutely sure no hacker can use it to drain your bank accounts or run up your credit card charges, you need to de-link all such financial accounts and cards from the app altogether, and manually re-load money into the app account (rather than arrange for these re-loads to be done automatically).

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Vegetarian offerings increase in number and quality

Food manufacturers and restaurants aren't fighting the trend, they're profiting from it

In one of the great ironies of the 21st century, millions of kids who balked at eating their vegetables at the family dinner table have grown up to be vege...

PhotoIn one of the great ironies of the 21st century, millions of kids who balked at eating their vegetables at the family dinner table have grown up to be vegetarians.

A study by Vegetarian Times shows 3.2% of U.S. adults, or 7.9 million people, now follow a vegetarian diet. Nutrition Business Journal estimates as much as 26% of consumers now fall into the category of “flexitarians,” people who still eat meat but who prefer a more plant-based diet.

These growing trends are affecting the kinds of food products available on supermarket shelves and on restaurant menus. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) predicts there will be even more meatless products in the months and years ahead.

Consumers usually become vegetarians based on health, ethical or environmental concerns. But IFT says going vegetarian is also beginning to attract consumers because vegetarian products are getting better.

Role of technology

Technological developments have also made an impact by offering a bigger variety of prepared vegetarian products in the form of shelf-stable, refrigerated, and frozen food.

For example, not long ago vegetarians were mostly limited to soy and wheat for protein in their meat-free products. Now, manufacturers are deploying a greater variety of plant-based protein sources such as ancient grains, nuts, and seeds.

IFT has observed a notable rise in products with ingredients such as pea protein, rice protein, almond, coconut, and quinoa as food companies offer products for consumers who avoid gluten and soy or follow paleo diet regimens.

Restaurant offerings

Restaurants are also getting on board and are apparently profiting from it. The industry as a whole has been pressured to offer healthier, less fattening fare, especially for children.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) reports the rising cost of meat has prompted restaurants to push fresh produce to the top of the menu. The trade group has done surveys that found 72% of consumers are more likely to visit restaurants that offer healthy options.

NAR says this trend has been good for business. As an example, it cites Silver Diner, a suburban Washington, D.C., chain.

Kids' meals now come with sides that include salads, mixed vegetables and fresh fruit. Ype von Hengst, Silver Diner’s co-founder and executive chef, credits the menu additions in part to a 25% increase in sales.

The next wave of meatless food products may be designed to appeal to meat lovers, with the goal of reducing the current scale of meat production. Impossible Foods, a start-up profiled last week by CNBC, is working on plant-based substitutes for both meat and cheese.

Re-inventing the hamburger

It plans to introduce the Impossible Burger next year, a product that is said to look, smell and taste like a beef patty hot off the grill.

From a business standpoint, investors smell a profitable trend. CNBC reports the company, started by a Stanford University biochemistry professor, has drawn $76 million in investment capital from top shelf investors, including Bill Gates.

IFT calls it a paradigm shift in packaged foods. Currently, it says most of these meatless products are being consumed by young people while older consumers, who could perhaps reap the health benefits, tend to ignore them.

But if food manufacturers really can whip up a plant-based burger that tastes like the real thing, that could quickly change.

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Half of Americans 60+ suffer from metabolic syndrome

The syndrome includes obesity, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes

Sickness and disease are something that we all deal with on a regular basis. While different groups of people feel their impact in different ways, perhaps ...

PhotoSickness and disease are something that we all deal with on a regular basis. While different groups of people feel their impact in different ways, perhaps the group that is the most at risk are the elderly.

A recent study shows that 35% of all U.S. adults, and 50% of those who are 60 years of age or older, were estimated to have the metabolic syndrome -- a major cause of cardiovascular illness and death.

The metabolic syndrome is a loose term that is used to describe a variety of health concerns. These include obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and several others. You may think that some of these health conditions come naturally with age, but that does not make them any less worrisome.

The study, which was conducted by Dr. Robert J. Wong of the Alameda Health System at Highland Hospital, examined data from 1999 to 2012 to see how many people are affected by the metabolic syndrome in the United States. As of 2012, the prevalence of the metabolic syndrome in all U.S. adults was 34.7%.

Women, Hispanics most at risk

Unfortunately, this number does not completely show which groups of people are affected the most by it. In general, prevalence in women was higher when compared to men. In terms of ethnicity, the metabolic syndrome was the most pervasive in Hispanic people.

The prevalence of the metabolic syndrome increased dramatically as people aged. It grew from roughly an 18% prevalence in adults aged 20-39 to nearly 47% for those who were 60 years of age or older. These can be very dangerous numbers when you consider how the U.S. population is aging. The “baby boomer” age bracket is now entering this danger zone.

Dr. Wong and his team stress that recognizing the health consequences of the metabolic syndrome is extremely important. Their hope is that improvements can be made to preventative medicine to help minimize risk factors, such as hypertension and diabetes.

The study was published in the May 19th issue of JAMA, and is available to the public. 

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Zen ordered to stop selling dangerous recalled magnets

At least one death has been attributed to high-powered magnet sets

Zen Magnets, of Denver, Colo., is under a federal court order to stop selling recalled and dangerous high-powered magnets. The ruling from federal judge...

PhotoZen Magnets of Denver, Colo., is under a federal court order to stop selling recalled and dangerous high-powered magnets.

 

The ruling from federal judge Christine M. Arguello, which applies to the recalled magnets and magnets Zen commingled with them, stated that Zen Magnets “has essentially turned its pledge to continue to defy the CPSC into a marketing campaign” and has “openly vowed” not to stop selling the recalled magnets absent an injunction.

 

The court issued the injunction after finding a substantial likelihood that Zen Magnets had violated the Consumer Product Safety Act, which prohibits the sale of recalled products.

 

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed suit against Zen Magnets and its owner Shihan Qu on May 5, 2015, alleging that Qu bought 917,000 magnets from Star Networks shortly before Star recalled the magnets, and then sold those magnets after they were recalled.

 

Victory for child safety

 

“The Court’s order to stop the ongoing sale of these recalled high-powered magnets is a big victory for the safety of children,” said CPSC Chairman Elliot F. Kaye. “Along with the U.S. Department of Justice, we will continue to move aggressively to enforce the law and protect consumers from the sale of recalled products, especially those that put children at risk.”

 

“The Justice Department will continue to work with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to enforce our consumer protection laws and protect consumers from dangerous products,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “Efforts to evade the law and sell products that have already been recalled will not be tolerated.”

 

Dangerous product

 

When a person ingests more than one magnet from a magnet set, there is damage to intestinal tissue, including tissue death. The magnets are attracted to each other in the digestive system, damaging the tissue that becomes trapped between the magnets. In many incidents, surgery has been required as the result of magnet ingestion.

 

High-powered magnet sets were found to be responsible for the death of a 19-month-old girl and, according to CPSC analysis, an estimated 2,900 emergency room-treated injuries between 2009 and 2013.  

 

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A surge in new-home construction

Building permits were up sharply as well

Construction of new homes shot higher in April, building on March's modest advance. Figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Ho...

PhotoConstruction of new homes shot higher in April, building on March's modest advance.

 

Figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development show privately-owned housing starts jumped 20.2% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,135,000. The April rate is 9.2% above the rate (1,039,000) posted a year earlier.

 

The major contributor was the surge of 16.7% in single-family housing starts in April to a rate of 733,000. The April rate for units in buildings with 5 units or more was 389,000 -- up 102,000 from the month before.

 

Building permits

 

The outlook for construction of new homes in the months ahead is encouraging.

 

Privately-owned housing units authorized by Building permits totaled 1,143,000 in April, up 10.1% from March and 6.4% from April 2014.

 

Within that, permits for single-family homes rose 3.7% to a rate of 666,000, and authorizations of buildings with 5 units or more were at a rate of 444,000 in April -- for a month-over-month gain of 66,000.

 

The full report is available on the Commerce Department website.

 

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After a baby arrives, who picks up the workload?

Researchers confirm what mothers have long known

In previous generations men and women filled very defined gender roles. Men went to work every day and women stayed home to take care of their children. ...

PhotoIn previous generations men and women filled very defined gender roles. Men went to work every day and women stayed home to take care of their children.

In the typical family today, both spouses go to work and divide up child care responsibility. If you ask them many educated, affluent couples might say the division of labor is equal. But researchers who did, in fact, ask found that's usually not the case.

Researchers at Ohio State University were specifically interested in how the birth of a first child changed a couple's workload. When asked directly, men and women both estimated the first child increased their daily work responsibilities an average of 4 hours.

Then the researchers asked all the participants to keep detailed diaries accounting for their time. The diaries told a different story.

What the diaries showed

First, both spouses overestimated their increased workload – but by widely varying amounts. Women only had to work an extra two hours each day, not four. But men, it turns out, only put in an extra 40 minutes a day.

“Women ended up shouldering a lot more of the work that comes with a new baby, even though both men and women thought they added the same amount of additional work,” said Claire Kamp Dush, Ohio State assistant professor and co-author of the study.

The study also uncovered the fact that, before the first baby was born, couples were sharing the work around the house pretty evenly. Study co-author Jill Yavorsky says the addition of a baby to the household dramatically altered the division of labor.

No longer equal

“What was once a relatively even division of household work no longer looked that way,” she said.

The findings came out of The New Parents Project, which is a long-term study trying to learn how dual-earner couples make the adjustment to becoming parents. And the couples profiled in the study weren't exactly average couples.

Participants had higher-than-average levels of education, both spouses had jobs and both said they planned to keep working after the child was born. These couples were selected for a very specific reason.

“These are the couples you would expect to have the most egalitarian relationships,” Kamp Dush said. “They have the education, the financial resources and the other factors that researchers have believed would lead to equal sharing of responsibilities. But that’s not what we found.”

What they found was that despite their professed intentions to equally divide domestic and childcare chores, men did about 10 hours a week of physical child care – the less fun work like changing diapers and bathing the baby. Meanwhile, women put in 15 hours per week.

Men do more of the fun stuff

Part of parenting is fun, like reading to the baby and playing. That's called “child engagement,” and here there's a much smaller gender gap. The diaries show men spent about 4 hours per week in child engagement while women spent about 6 hours.

At the same time, men cut back their housework by 5 hours per week but women did not reduce their housework to compensate for additional childcare work. Nor did they reduce their time at their job, the study shows.

It all adds up to longer days for a new mom.

“And the key is that this new routine seems to be that the woman is doing more of the housework and more of the child care, while not doing any less paid work,” Kamp Dush said. “The egalitarian relationship they had before the baby was born is essentially gone.”

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Community banks seek relief from 'excessive' regulation

Senate banking committee onsidering legislative relief

In the wake of the financial crisis Congress passed laws and the Federal Reserve tightened regulations aimed at keeping big banks – those deemed “too big t...

PhotoIn the wake of the financial crisis Congress passed laws and the Federal Reserve tightened regulations aimed at keeping big banks – those deemed “too big to fail” – in business. It worked, but at the same time hundreds of small community banks went under.

Thanks in part to a huge government bail-out, big banks passed their most recent Fed-required “stress tests” but community banks are still struggling. Community bankers say that’s largely because they are stuck with meeting much the same regulatory requirements as the big guys.

A recent Harvard study found that community banks make up a “disproportionately large amount of key segments of the U.S. commercial bank lending market,” providing money for agricultural, residential mortgage, and small business loans. In other words, they fund a lot of things the big banks don't.

But when total assets and lending markets are considered, community banks' market share has fallen from over 40% in 1994 to around 20% today.

Losing ground

“Interestingly, we find that community banks emerged from the financial crisis with a market share 6% lower, but since the second quarter of 2010 – around the time of the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act – their share of U.S. commercial banking assets has declined at a rate almost double that between the second quarters of 2006 and 2010,” the authors write.

Community bankers are trying to convince Congress to exempt them from some of what they term “the more onerous” provisions of the new regulations.

“Regulation is suffocating nearly every aspect of community banking and changing the very nature of the industry away from community investment and community building to paperwork, compliance, and examination,” the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) declares in a position paper. “A fundamentally new approach is needed: Regulation must be calibrated to the size, lower-risk profile, and traditional business model of community banks.”

Mortgage regulations

Among its proposals ICBA wants relief from certain mortgage regulations, especially for loans held in portfolio. Many of the new regulations are designed to reduce the risk in a system where major mortgage lenders bundle loans and sell them as securities – a practice that led to the financial crisis.

But most community banks hold many of their mortgages themselves, servicing the loans and collecting the interest. ICBA proposes giving “qualified mortgage” safe harbor status for loans originated and held in portfolio by banks with less than $10 billion in assets, including balloon mortgages. It would also like to exempt banks with assets below $10 billion from escrow requirements for loans held in portfolio.

Some relief may be in sight. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) has released a draft of a bill to alter some banking regulations. ICBA President and CEO Camden Fine says the draft contains a number of provisions that would offer relief.

Legislative fix

“The draft bill includes several important regulatory relief provisions from ICBA’s Plan for Prosperity platform, including less restrictive mortgage regulations, relief from excessive regulatory examinations and quarterly reporting requirements, and an exemption from the Volcker Rule,” Fine said.

He says “common sense” regulatory relief would free up resources that could be used to make loans and promote economic growth.

Consumers have a stake in this fight. Adjustments to regulatory requirements would probably make it easier, and less cumbersome, to get a mortgage from your local bank. Also, if you do your banking at one of the “too big to fail” national banks, you almost certainly pay a monthly service fee on your checking account. If you bank at a hometown community bank, you probably don't.

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Serious food poisoning infections decline

But new types of Salmonella show big increase

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some good news and bad news when it comes to food safety in the U.S. Rates of infection from a ...

PhotoThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some good news and bad news when it comes to food safety in the U.S.

Rates of infection from a serious strain of E. coli and one of the more common types of Salmonella declined in 2014. But other less common forms of Salmonella posted increases, when compared to 2006 through 2008.

That was a particularly bad period of time for food safety. In 2006 millions of candy bars were recalled because of tainted chocolate. In 2007 Salmonella in peanut butter sickened an undetermined number of consumers nationwide.

Data compiled by CDC's FoodNet shows the Salmonella strains Campylobacter and Vibrio rose again in 2014, continuing the increase that started during the past few years.

But infection with the very serious Shiga-toxin producing E. coli O157, which can sometimes lead to kidney failure, declined by 32% when compared with 2006-2008 and 19% when compared with the most recent three years.

E. coli 0157 is usually caused by eating undercooked ground beef or raw leafy vegetables. In 2011 a California nut producer recalled bulk and packaged hazelnuts contamined with E. coli 0157.

Another serious bug, Salmonella Typhimurium, was down 27%. It largely shows up in poultry and beef.

Big jump in other Salmonella types

What is unclear to government health researchers is why 2 less common types of Salmonella, Javiana and Infantis, more than doubled since the 2006-2008 time period.

Salmonella Javiana struck mostly in the southeastern U.S. but has spread to other parts of the country as well. Campylobacter cases jumped 13% and Vibrio surged 52% compared with 2006-2008. FoodNet says Yersinia has declined enough to meet the Healthy People 2020 goal.

FoodNet tracks 9 common foodborne pathogens and monitors trends in the illness they cause in about 15 percent of the U.S. population. In 2014 FoodNet counted just over 19,000 infections, about 4,400 hospitalizations, and 71 deaths from the 9 germs it tracks.

Salmonella and Campylobacter accounted for about 14,000 of the 19,000 infections reported. Taken as a whole, the report provides a mixed picture of the current state of food safety.

Cautiously optimistic

“We’re cautiously optimistic that changes in food safety practice are having an impact in decreasing E.coli and we know that without all the food safety work to fight Salmonella that more people would be getting sick with Salmonella than we are seeing now,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne Waterborne and Environmental Diseases. “However, much more needs to be done to protect people from foodborne illness.”

FoodNet links the decline in E. coli 0157 to tougher scrutiny of beef production, brought on by changes in the Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) regulatory practices.

Tighter controls are coming to other areas of the food chain as well. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to publish major new regulations in 2015 aimed at improving produce safety, implementing preventive controls on processed foods, and improving the safety of imported foods.

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Nissan recalls Pathfinders and Sentras

The passenger side front air bag inflator could rupture

Nissan North America is recalling 263,692 model year 2004 Pathfinders manufactured January 6, 2004, to July 19, 2004, and 2004-2006 Sentras manufactured Ja...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 263,692 model year 2004 Pathfinders manufactured January 6, 2004, to July 19, 2004, and 2004-2006 Sentras manufactured January 7, 2004, to August 26, 2006.

 

Upon deployment of the passenger side front air bag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to rupture. Metal fragments could strike and seriously injure the vehicle occupants.

 

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger air bag inflator, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on June 15, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

 

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ZYK recalls boneless veal trim products

The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

ZYK Enterprises of Duvall, Wash., is recalling 2,522 pounds of boneless veal trim and whole veal muscle cut products. The product may be contaminated with...

PhotoZYK Enterprises of Duvall, Wash., is recalling 2,522 pounds of boneless veal trim and whole veal muscle cut products.

 

The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

 

There are no reports of illnesses associated with consumption of this product.

 

The following boneless veal trim and whole veal muscle cuts produced from January 2-23, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 60 lb. bulk boxes of boneless veal trim with a package produced date of January 5, 2015.
  • 60 lb. bulk boxes of boneless veal trim with a package produced date of January 20, 2015.
  • Various size bulk boxes ranging from 22 to 63 lb. of boneless veal trim and whole muscle cuts with multiple package dates from January 2-8 through January 23, 2015.

The recalled products bear the establishment number “EST. 9325” inside the USDA mark of inspection on the boxes. Product from these lots was shipped for further processing to wholesale establishments in California, Massachusetts and Washington state.

 

Consumers are advised to prepare their raw meat products, including fresh and frozen,safely, and consume only ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160 ° F. 

 

Consumers with questions may call Zeeshan Qazi at (425) 788-1128.

 

 

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Feds call Fiat Chrysler onto the carpet, could order buyback of vehicles deemed unsafe

Federal safety regulators have "significant concerns" about Chrysler's handling of safety recalls

DangerousJeeps.com logoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has ordered FCA US LLC, the company formerly known as Chrysler, to ...

Photo
DangerousJeeps.com logo

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has ordered FCA US LLC, the company formerly known as Chrysler, to appear at a July 2 hearing that will determine whether the company has properly managed 20 recall campaigns affecting more than 10 million vehicles.

If the company is found to have violated U.S. auto safety laws, NHTSA could order it to buy back affected vehicles. The recall campaigns in question include the highly controversial and long-running case involving Jeep SUVs that critics say are prone to explode into flames when rear-ended. At least 269 people have died in fires in the affected models, according to a database maintained by the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety.

“In each of those 20 recalls, NHTSA has significant concerns about Fiat Chrysler’s performance,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said on a conference call with reporters today, Automotive News reported

Read a partial timeline of the Jeep fire-death scandal

Latest lawsuit

Photo
Remi Walden, 4

In one of the the latest Jeep fire developments, an attorney for a pregnant 23-year-old woman killed in the Detroit area in November 2014 said he expects to file a wrongful death lawsuit against FCA.

Southfield, Mich., attorney Gerald Thurswell is representing the family of Kayla White.

Thurswell said he had been waiting to file until the conclusion of a Georgia case involving the burning death of a four-year-old boy. A jury in that case awarded the family of Remington Walden $150 million on April 3. FCA has said it will appeal.

In the Detroit case, Clarence Quentin Heath Jr., the driver who rear-ended Kayla White's Jeep was sentenced to one year in jail. Thurswell said Heath “caused the accident, but he did not cause her death.”

“If the vehicle had not caught on fire ... she would have already delivered her baby, and she and the baby would be fine,” Thurswell said, according to the Detroit News.

FCA reluctantly recalled about 1.5 million 1993-98 Jeep Cherokees and 2002-07 Jeep Liberty models after years of refusing that the placement of the gas tank in the "crush zone" between the axle and the rear bumper met safety standards at the time the vehicles were manufactured.

Not just the fires

Photo
FCA US CEO Sergio Merchinne

But Rosekind said that's not the only recall NHTSA is concerned about.

“We’re really trying to emphasize that it’s not about one recall. We’re looking at 20 recalls affecting over 10 million vehicles, so we’re looking at a pattern of difficulty in responses here,” Rosekind said, Automotive News said. “It’s really across the board, which is why we’re looking at all 20 of them.”

In an emailed statement, FCA US said, "The average completion rate for FCA US LLC recalls exceeds the industry average and all FCA US campaigns are conducted in consultation with NHTSA. The company will cooperate fully."

Rosekind said his agency has also received consumer complaints about replacement parts being unavailable, not being notified about recalls, having trouble getting service appointments and “misinformation from dealers."

“Significant questions have been raised as to whether this company is meeting its obligations to protect the drivers from safety defects, and today we are launching a process to ensure that those obligations are met,” Rosekind said. “It is not enough to identify defects. Manufacturers have to fix them.”

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Hackers steal money from Starbucks apps accounts, presumably those with weak passwords

Any app attached to your credit card or bank accounts is an obvious security risk

The discovery that hackers can use your Starbucks mobile app to drain your bank and PayPal accounts or run up charges on your credit cards proves once and ...

PhotoThe discovery that hackers can use your Starbucks mobile app to drain your bank and PayPal accounts or run up charges on your credit cards proves once and for all that the old conventional wisdom regarding the safety of apps is now officially obsolete.

According to the old conventional wisdom (“old” here meaning “before summer 2014”), smartphone apps are much safer than traditional Internet-connected website-visiting computers. After all: not until last August did security researchers first discover a previously unknown security weakness that left Android, Windows and iOS mobile operating systems vulnerable to what was basically the app equivalent of malware.

And only in November did anyone discover the first serious virus threatening iPhones and iPads.

But those circa-2014 stories both involved dangers from third-party apps; the conventional wisdom could still believe you'd stay safe so long as you stay away from third parties and stick to officially approved app store options.

That happy state of affairs ended during the first week of January 2015, when researchers discovered a bad app in the official Google Play store, a malware app that “pretends to protect your data, then steals it.” More bad apps were discovered in (and removed from) the Google Play store in February.

Passwords compromised

And late last week, Starbucks acknowledged that hackers were stealing money from some customers' mobile accounts — although Starbucks insists that the company itself wasn't hacked; instead, the thieves managed to break into individual users' Starbucks apps, most likely after the thieves managed to somehow steal that person's password. (The initial evidence, plus the genuinely small number of Starbucks app users who've complained of theft, suggests that Starbucks is right.)

Consumer advocate Bob Sullivan first pointed out the problem last week. Once the thieves gain entrance to your Starbucks app account, they can steal from your credit card without even knowing its account number, by taking advantage of the Starbucks app's ability to auto-reload money to the account. As Sullivan explains:

Maria Nistri, 48, was a victim this week. Criminals stole the Orlando wom[a]n’s $34.77 in value she had loaded onto her Starbucks app, then another $25 after it was auto-loaded into her card because her balance hit 0.  Then, the criminals upped the ante, changing her auto reload amount to $75, and stealing that amount, too. All within 7 minutes. … The trouble started at 7:11 a.m. on Wednesday when she received an automated email saying her username and password had been changed, and if she hadn’t authorized the change, she should call customer service.  She tried, but the number she called notified her an operator couldn’t answer until 8 a.m.

“Whoever did this knew the right time to do it,” she said.

When Nistri launched her phone's Starbucks app, she could actually see the thieves stealing first the $25, then $75, in real-time as it happened — and other Starbucks app users report suffering similar thefts, too.

Starbucks, for its part, says that it won't hold consumers responsible for the costs in cases like this — which is definitely a wise public-relations move on Starbucks' part.

But what would happen if Starbucks (or some other company in the same situation) chose instead to leave customers holding the bag for these costs? As Sullivan points out, “it’s unclear what level of consumer protection consumers would be legally entitled to. Because their credit card accounts aren’t actually compromised and their cards not stolen, it’s unclear that standard 'Regulation E' credit card liability protections would apply.  Prepaid card users don’t enjoy the same level of consumer protection.”

If you use the Starbucks mobile app – or any app connected to actual monetary accounts – treat it with the same stringent protection you'd use for your actual online banking or investing. Use a very strong password, and make sure it's an exclusive password. You should never use the same password across multiple accounts, especially financial accounts, to ensure that a thief who steals the password to one of your accounts at least can't use it to break into others.

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Op-ed: The end of GMO farming in America

National GMO labeling is "an international trade bill in disguise"

Why is Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) trying to pass a national labelling law for genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)? Well, to appease E...

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Mischa Popoff

Why is Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) trying to pass a national labelling law for genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)? Well, to appease Europe of course.

From the American Farm Bureau to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a lot of the people who run America’s food system say we need Pompeo’s bill to stop the spread of a patchwork of state-level GMO labelling laws. But it’s not as though these laws have been a runaway success. Many were voted down, and the ones that passed face court challenges, leading many to suggest Pompeo’s bill is like taking a sledgehammer to a fly.

Whatever happened to informing voters before they go to the ballot box? And why isn’t Pompeo invoking the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution (Article I, § 8) which precludes states from interfering in interstate commerce?

Rick Tolman, former CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, says stopping local anti-GMO measures is only part of Pompeo’s goal. America’s trade relations also have to be considered. But how exactly does a law that applies only to Americans bear upon our trade relations?

"Nothing but a front"

Alas, it turns out the GMO-labelling portion of Pompeo’s bill is nothing but a front. It’s actually an international trade bill in disguise. Buried within H.R. 1599 is the following:

The Secretary shall promulgate regulations to specify a maximum permissible level of food consisting of a bioengineered organism that may be inadvertently present in food bearing claims [that bioengineering was not used]. (SEC. 425, emphasis added.)

A threshold limit on something renders it a potential contaminant, and you can rest assured America would not be the world leader in GMO farming today had GMO crops been labelled as contaminants when introduced in the 1990s. This codification of a maximum permissible level will make it possible, for the first time ever in America, for organic farmers to sue their neighbors when their neighbors’ GMO crops “contaminate” their organic crop above that level.

But if GMOs actually pose a threat to organic crops, would it not behoove Pompeo to include the precise point at which this threat becomes reality? Instead, the bill leaves it to “The Secretary,” a political appointee, to “promulgate regulations” after this law is passed, reminiscent of when Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of Obamacare that "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

Arbitrary limit

Photo
Hybrid corn (Photo credit: Burpee)

The reason Pompeo avoids being specific is because he knows full well any such limit will be arbitrary. GMOs pose no threat to organic crops. Nonetheless, here's the European Union’s regulation that will be cribbed in order to maintain America’s trade relations with anti-GMO nations:

Organic production outlaws the use of genetically modified organisms. However, the regulation on genetically modified food and feed lays down a threshold (0.9%) under which a product's GMO content does not have to be indicated. [Only] Products with GMO content below this threshold can be labelled organic.

And that, my friends, is how you screw American GMO farmers while facilitating “regulatory cooperation” with Europe, Japan, China and Russia.

Elitist leaders in these anti-GMO nations prevent their farmers from growing GMOs even as they import millions of tons of GMOs from America every year. And they have now managed to force a Republican and a Democrat (G.K. Butterfield) to join hands here in America to pass a law that ostensibly allows for the voluntary labelling of GMO foods, but which is really designed to force America to adopt a European-style, make-believe threshold limit on GMOs in organic food.

An American invention

America invented GMOs. And we’re the leader in this field precisely because we do not have a threshold limit on GMO content. Why would we? Even European scientists say GMOs are perfectly safe. As such, American organic stakeholders agreed not to set a threshold limit for GMO “contamination” of an organic crop back in 1997 during President Clinton’s second term when America’s National Organic Program (NOP) was written.

Synthetic pesticides, by contrast, do have a threshold limit because they can be dangerous. But GMOs are not. So American organic farmers are only prevented from making use of GMOs, and can’t claim damage from them. And by all accounts, this arrangement has served the American organic industry very well, resulting in “remarkable growth domestically and globally.”

But, alas, activists want more. They want it all in fact. And by caving in to them, Pompeo and Butterfield are not only trashing the 2002 bipartisan Act of Congress that passed America’s NOP into law; they’re also putting the future of every American GMO farm on the line, while providing a huge disincentive for researchers to develop new GMO crops. Indeed, where are the farmers crazy enough to grow new GMO crops when the threat of a lawsuit hangs over their heads?

GMO labelling is bad for America whether at the state or federal level, which is why organic activists are so muted in their opposition to Pompeo’s bill. It plays right into their hands.

---

Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and USDA-contract organic inspector, and is the author of "Is it Organic?"

More

Study finds gluten in many probiotics

Amounts are tiny, but researchers ask why there is any at all

People with celiac disease must avoid gluten in their diets and many take probiotics to aid the digestive process.So it might come as a shock to these ...

More

FTC asks bankruptcy court to protect Radio Shack's customer lists

Customer data is among the assets being put up for sale

The Radio Shack bankruptcy not only means it may soon be harder to find an RCA phono plug "Y" connector, it may also be harder to protect the privacy of th...

PhotoThe Radio Shack bankruptcy not only means it may soon be harder to find an RCA phono plug "Y" connector, it may also be harder to protect the privacy of the millions of pieces of consumer data the company has collected over the years.

The Federal Trade Commission today asked the bankruptcy court handling the case to place conditions on the sale of consumers’ names, addresses, e-mail addresses, and purchase histories.

Documents indicate information from tens of millions of consumers may be among the assets for sale.

In a letter to the court's privacy ombudsman, Rich points to the extensive privacy promises that RadioShack made to consumers both online and in its stores – including promises not to sell consumers’ information or the company’s mailing lists.  

Toysmart case

She notes the FTC’s previous intervention in the bankruptcy of online retailer Toysmart, which sought to sell its customers’ personal information, counter to the promises the company made in its privacy policies.

In the Toysmart case, a settlement with the company placed a number of conditions on the sale of the data that allowed the company to divest the assets while protecting consumers’ information from being used in ways they did not anticipate.  Rich’s letter recommends similar conditions be applied to the sale of RadioShack customer information.

Among the conditions recommended in the letter are that consumers’ information not be sold as a standalone asset, but be bundled with other assets.

The letter recommends that consumer information be sold only to another entity that is in substantially the same line of business as RadioShack, that the buyer agree to be bound by the RadioShack privacy policies that were in place when the consumers’ data was collected, and that the buyer provide consumers with notice and obtain their affirmative consent before using data in a way that is materially different from the promises RadioShack made to consumers.

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These third-party home screen apps leave you vulnerable to phishing scams

Be extra-vigilant if you use third-party apps

History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes: back when the Internet was still new, email fairly rare, and screensavers genuinely necessary to prevent patt...

PhotoHistory doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes: back when the Internet was still new, email fairly rare, and screensavers genuinely necessary to prevent pattern burn-ins from damaging old-fashioned CRT screens, many of the earliest computer virus/malware epidemics were spread via infected screensaver offerings.

When mobile (though not necessarily “smart”) phones started getting big, malware writers used the lure of free decorative “wallpaper” to spread their unwanted products.

And now that smartphone or mobile device apps are the big thing, of course malware writers are working through third-party home screen apps, because – really, who expected anything different this time?

New phishing scam

Today, security researchers at Cheetah Mobile announced the discovery of a new phishing scam which takes advantage of vulnerabilities in various third-party homescreen apps for Android devices:

...many homescreen applications contain potential safety threats. These apps will treat fake SMS messages, such as those sent by hackers, the same as common SMS messages and present them to the user for viewing. This kind of behavior is great for hackers as it means their SMS messages will be easily read and users will fall for them.

The bulk of this security threat comes from third-party home screen applications:

If your Android system is lower than version 4.4, then you may have heard of the ‘Fake SMS’ Leak, which is where this potential threat comes from. When user turns on the homescreen application, it will take over the SMS inbox and help organize your messages. Therefore it does not have the same kind of security safeguards as the regular inbox, and fake messages may be pushed as normal messages.

Cheetah Mobile posted lists of affected systems and affected applications here.

Of course, if your Android is a version more recent than 4.4 you probably have nothing to worry about, but f you use an older version, check your systems and applications against this list, and update them as necessary.

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Attention cactus juice drinkers: the check's in the mail

TriVita issuing about $3 million in refunds to consumers

Back in the day, about the only people who even thought about drinking cactus juice were prospectors and pioneers who'd gotten lost in the desert. But time...

PhotoBack in the day, about the only people who even thought about drinking cactus juice were prospectors and pioneers who'd gotten lost in the desert. But times have changed and now you can order a whopping four-pack of 32-ounce bottles of Nopalea cactus juice from a company called TriVita.

Why would you want to do that?

Well, according to the company's website, its cactus juice from the blazing hot Sonora Desert of southern Arizona is downright anti-inflammatory. You know, sort of like it fights fire with fire.

Or as TriVita puts it: "Featuring the superfruit of the prickly pear (nopal) cactus, it contains a powerful class of nutrients called Bioflavonoids."

Checks being mailed

Could be but the Federal Trade Commission is mailing nearly 500,000 checks totaling about $3 million to consumers who actually ordered the stuff and, presumably, drank it based on TriVita's claims that the juice, sold under the name Nopalea, would treat a variety of health problems.

In July 2014, the FTC settled charges against TriVita Inc. for using unsupported product claims to deceive consumers, including infomercials with testimonials from consumers who received a commission for selling its products.

The stuff is still being sold but its promoters are, one hopes, being more circumspect in their claims. 

What to do

If you get one of the checks, from the FTC's administrator, Gilardi & Co. LLC, it should be deposited or cashed right away, no later than within 60 days of the mailing date. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or to provide information before refund checks can be cashed. The amount will vary based upon the amount of each consumer’s loss.

 

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Nice-Pak moist toilet tissues not all that flushable: FTC

Costco, CVS, Target, BJ’s all sold the tissues under their store brands

Nice-Pak Products Inc. makes what are called "wet wipes." They're basically an adult version of baby wipes -- moistened toilet tissue. But unlike toilet ti...

PhotoNice-Pak Products Inc. makes what are called "wet wipes." They're basically an adult version of baby wipes -- moistened toilet tissue. But unlike toilet tissue, which is paper, the wipes can be hard for sewer and septic systems to digest, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

“The evidence didn’t back up Nice-Pak’s claims that their wipes were safe to flush,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If you claim a product is flushable, it needs to flush in the real world, without clogging household plumbing or sewer and septic systems.”

Nice-Pak sells the under the Nice 'N Clean brand. Large retailers, including Costco, CVS, Target and BJ's sell them under their store brands. 

Nice-Pak has agreed to flush the flushability claims from its ads and packaging unless it can scientifically substantiate it, the FTC said today. The company said it has discontinued the products that were causing problems.

“All claims related to our current flushable product portfolio are fully substantiated as safe to flush, and the Consent Agreement does not require any change to our existing products or claims," Nice-Pak said in a statement. "Nice-Pak entered into a voluntary Consent Agreement with the FTC regarding certain wipe products labeled as flushable.  While the products that were the focus of the FTC’s inquiry at all times were subject to extensive testing on flushability, we are pleased to bring a resolution to this matter in an amicable manner.  These products have been discontinued since 2014."

Nice-Pak said it "will also continue our leadership position in proactively educating consumers on safe flushable practices, including labeling all of our non-flushable wipes with a prominent 'Do Not Flush' logo.” 

The FTC had charged that Nice-Pak misrepresented the flushability of some of its products by claiming that they: 

1) are safe for sewer systems;

2) are safe for septic systems;

3) break apart shortly after being flushed; and

4) are safe to flush.

The company’s tests did not reflect real-world household plumbing or septic conditions, the FTC alleged.

Consent order

The proposed administrative consent order settling the FTC charges prohibits Nice-Pak from misrepresenting that any wipe is safe to flush, unless it can substantiate that the wipe will disperse in a “sufficiently short amount of time” after flushing to prevent clogging and/or damage to household plumbing, sewage lines, septic systems, and other standard wastewater treatment equipment.

The test must also replicate the physical conditions of the environment where the wipes will be disposed.

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Builder confidence falters in May

Overall, though, the outlook is solid

After rising in April for the first time in four months, builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes is on the decline again. Ac...

PhotoAfter rising in April for the first time in four months, builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes is on the decline again.

 

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) confidence was down 2 points in May to a level of 54. Still, the HMI is up 9 points from the same period a year ago.

 

“Consumers are exhibiting caution, and want to be on more stable financial footing before purchasing a home,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “On the bright side, the HMI component measuring future sales expectations has been tracking upward all year, mortgage rates remain low and house prices are affordable. These factors should spur the release of pent-up demand moving forward.”

 

Mixed components

 

The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next 6 months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.” The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.” Scores for each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

 

The component charting sales expectations in the next 6 months rose 1 point to 64, the index measuring buyer traffic dropped a single point to 39, and the component gauging current sales conditions dipped 2 points to 59.

 

Looking at the 3-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the South and Midwest each rose 1 point to 57 and 55, respectively. The Northeast fell a point to 41 and the West dropped 3 points to 55.

 

“Despite this month’s slight dip, builder confidence in the new home market remains above the 50-point benchmark,” said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, a home builder from Blue Springs, Mo. “Overall, the second quarter of 2015 is shaping up to be very solid.”

 

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More Millennials opting out of college

Expensive for-profit schools see sharp drops in enrollment

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) has issued a report that highlights what could be a very interesting trend. College enrollments ...

PhotoThe National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) has issued a report that highlights what could be a very interesting trend. College enrollments are declining because fewer Millennials are attending.

This is an abrupt change from just a few years ago, when college enrollments shot up in the wake of the recession. With jobs harder to come by more people went back to school in hopes of making themselves more marketable.

Conventional wisdom holds that earning a four-year degree is necessary to increasing one's earnings power and enjoying a middle class lifestyle. But as we reported last week, there are plenty of solid careers that don't require a four-year degree.

Apparently, these jobs are attractive. Among the interpretations of the NSCRS report is young adults in their mid 20s are choosing to go to work rather than attend college. The report does not make clear whether these young adults are leaving school to pursue the workplace or not attending college in the first place.

For-profit schools big losers

The report does break down where enrollments are declining. The biggest decline has been in for-profit colleges, which also tend to be among the most expensive in terms of tuition and fees.

For-profit schools as a whole have been under closer regulatory scrutiny lately in the wake of complaints that many students who attended and ran up huge student loan debts couldn't find good jobs once they graduated.

Last year the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) sued one for-profit school, Corinthian College, for what it called an illegal predatory lending scheme. Weeks ago, Corinthian College closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy.

Community colleges also lose ground

But bad press and market forces can't fully explain the drop in college enrollment documented by NSCRS. Because while for-profit enrollments dropped by 4.9%, enrollments in one of the better education values, two-year community colleges, declined by 3.9%.

Only four-year state-supported colleges showed any increase in enrollment, and it wasn't much – just 0.1%.

NSCRS points out the drop in college enrollment only covers young adults in their early to mid 20's, those who might have started their college careers late or are taking their time getting their degree. The report found no change in the number of students entering college right out of high school.

The intriguing question no one seems to have an answer for is what is responsible for the shift?

Is it because Millennials see more opportunity in the job market right now and are less convinced of the need of a degree and unwilling to take on debt to pay for it? Or is economic necessity – the need to produce immediate income – driving them into the workplace?

The answer, whatever it is, may say a lot about the real state of the U.S. economy.

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There's a cleaning cocktail for every job

These aren't cocktails you drink, though they may give you a celebratory buzz

The right cleaning cocktail can make all the difference, but just be sure you don't drink it. For the most part it consists of water, lemon juice and a lit...

PhotoThe right cleaning cocktail can make all the difference, but just be sure you don't drink it. For the most part it consists of water, lemon juice and a little soap and is a good alternative to harsh chemicals.

Nothing holds odors better than a microwave. It also wears spaghetti sauce well. The chemical cleaners will make it shine but imagine what they taste like when you cook them. Stay away from the harsh chemicals.

The dirt in the microwave just needs a little soap and water with an extra boost that you can get from vinegar and lemon. Get a half a cup of water and half a cup of vinegar or a lemon, cut in half and squeezed, into a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for 2-3 minutes, or until the microwave door starts to steam up.

Leave it to cool for a few minutes, then wipe around the insides of the microwave with a damp sponge -- any remaining food residue should come away nice and easily.

The old wooden chopping block is a great way to keep everything you ever ate all in one place. You will need the other half of that lemon we used in the microwave. Rub it over the board, then scatter some sea salt on top. Rub the salt into the board to dislodge any remaining food particles, then wash with soap and water and dry as usual.

Blenders grind everything up and go from chunky to smooth. That’s what they are known for, but one of the less talked about subjects with your blender are those little pieces of banana that get stuck on the underside of the blade or the strawberry seeds that are lodged in the crevices. It appears that your blender is clean but when you look closely you see the gunk.

Use what you have and put it to good use. Make that blender work for you. Take some dish-washing soap and squirt it in the blender, then half-fill the blender with water. Turn it on and let it run for about a minute and a half, rinse with warm water and you will see those little pieces will be gone.

Is your furniture growing its own animal? Maybe your dog or cat is shedding and leaving hair wherever it goes. It’s horrible on furniture. It probably doesn't bother you too much, but it’s when you have company that it gets embarrassing. Ditch the lint rollers with the tape on them. You will be rolling until next season. Try this method. Get a rubber glove and some water. Just use it over the area and you will see the hair come right off.

It will be amazing what the world looks like through clean windows. Try not to clean them on a sunny day though. The windows will dry quickly which will leave streaks. Your mom used to use the newspaper but, well, the newspaper went out with the cassette player. Nowadays we use something called microfiber clothes they are amazing and don’t leave streak marks. Vinegar and water make a great cleaning solution and will dry quickly.

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Acura recalls MDX and RLX vehicles

The Collision Mitigation Braking System could malfunction

Acura is recalling approximately 19,500 model-year 2014-2015 MDX and RLX vehicles equipped with the Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS) in the U.S. ...

PhotoAcura is recalling approximately 19,500 model-year 2014-2015 MDX and RLX vehicles equipped with the Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS) in the U.S.

 

The CMBS may incorrectly determine that there is the potential for a forward collision if a vehicle detected ahead is traveling near a metallic structure, such as a metal guard rail or fence. This could lead the CMBS to apply the vehicle brakes unexpectedly, increasing the risk of a crash with following traffic.

 

No crashes or injuries have been reported related to this issue in the U.S., but 1 crash was reported in Japan.

 

Owners should take the recalled vehicle to an authorized dealer as soon as they receive notification of this recall. Mailed notification to customers will begin in June.

 

Owners can determine if their vehicles require repair by calling (800) 382- 2238 and selecting option 4.

 

 

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Natural Creations recalls New Zealand Colostrum dietary supplements

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

Natural Creations of Woodbine, Iowa, is recalling a small quantity of Natural Creations New Zealand Colostrum dietary supplements. The product contains mi...

PhotoNatural Creations of Woodbine, Iowa, is recalling a small quantity of Natural Creations New Zealand Colostrum dietary supplements.

 

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

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The recalled product was distributed principally through retail stores in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming.

 

The product is packaged in a white plastic container containing 120 capsules, with lot numbers 1112301 and 3102914 located directly below the supplement box on the label. The UPC code is 877730001016.

 

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

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-877-647-1601 Monday - Friday 7:30-4:00 CST.

 

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OC Raw Dog recalls dog food product

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

OC Raw Dog of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., is recalling 2,055 lbs. of Turkey & Produce Raw Frozen Canine Formulation. The product may be contaminated w...

PhotoOC Raw Dog of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., is recalling 2,055 lbs. of Turkey & Produce Raw Frozen Canine Formulation.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

The recall affects Turkey & Produce Raw Frozen Canine Formulations that were packaged into 6.5-lb. Doggie Dozen Patties and 5-lb. Bulk Bags with the lot number 1511 and use by date of 10/8/15.

 

The products were distributed in Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Colorado and sold to consumers through independent pet specialty retailers.

 

Customers who posses the recalled product are asked to submit a picture of the package with the lot number to Olivia@ocrawdog.com for verification of product in the marketplace. The product may be returned to the place of purchase for a full refund or replacement product.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-844-215-DOGS (3647) Monday thru Friday 9am – 5pm PST.

 

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Gulf States Toyota recalls Siennas

A trim panel may detach and strike a vehicle occupant

Gulf States Toyota (GST) is recalling 387 model year 2015 Toyota Siennas manufactured January 23, 2015, to April 13, 2015, and equipped with non-Toyota-bra...

PhotoGulf States Toyota (GST) is recalling 387 model year 2015 Toyota Siennas manufactured January 23, 2015, to April 13, 2015, and equipped with non-Toyota-brand overhead entertainment accessories installed by GST.

 

During reassembly of the interior after the overhead entertainment system installation, a trim panel securing clip may have been reused instead of being replaced. If the clip was damaged during the entertainment system installation, the trim panel may detach in the event of a side curtain air bag deployment and strike a vehicle occupants increasing the risk of injury.

 

GST will notify owners, and dealers will replace the trim panel securing clip, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin June 8, 2015.

 

Owners may contact GST customer service at 1-800-444-1074. GST's number for this recall is 15R1.

 

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Aurora Products recalls raw macadamia nuts

The products may contain Salmonella

Aurora Products is recalling raw macadamia nuts packaged under the Aurora brand label and various store brand labels. The products may contain Salmonella...

PhotoAurora Products is recalling raw macadamia nuts packaged under the Aurora brand label and various store brand labels.

 

The products may contain Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

The recalled products were distributed to retail stores in Connecticut, District of Columbia, Delaware. Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia.

 

Consumers who have the recalled products listed below 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.

AURORA BRANDED PRODUCT

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 00083 - 012/10/15 – 12/30/15

PRIVATE LABEL PRODUCT

Private Label Products That Use Store Branded Labeling Include: Belmont Market, Citarella, Ernest & Klein, Gourmet Garage, Harvest Co – Op Market, Le District, Lees, Palmers Market, Walter Stewart, Whole Food Market and Wild By Nature.

Belmont Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 00083 - 012/12/15 – 12/26/15

Citarella Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup1 - 50209 - 12050 - 112/30/15

Ernest Klein Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 00083 - 012/26/15 – 1/8/16

Gourmet Garage Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup7 - 90845 - 05025 - 312/17/15 – 12/30/15

Harvest Co – Op Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 00083 - 01/9/16

Le District Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 00083 - 012/19/15

Lees Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 00083 - 012/12/15

Palmers Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 00083 - 01/8/16

Walter Stewart Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 00083 - 012/11/15

Whole Foods Market Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 00083 - 012/10/15 – 1/6/16

 Wild By Nature Brand Products

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 70083 - 012/10/15 – 12/30/15

 

 

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Google says its driverless cars are ready to hit the road in California

The company has not yet applied for the permit the cars will need, however

Google says its fully autonomous pod-shaped cars are ready to roll but the company has not yet applied for the permit it will need to hi...

Photo
Photo: Google

Google says its fully autonomous pod-shaped cars are ready to roll but the company has not yet applied for the permit it will need to hit the road in California.

Google has been testing Lexus SUVs retrofitted with its self-driving software and hardware for quite some time but it is now itching to take its fully autonomous prototypes out for a ride.

What's the difference? Well, besides being a lot smaller than an SUV, the Google pod cars have no steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator. They are inended to be just what the name implies -- fully autonomous, leaving the "driver" with nothing to do but sit there.

That, after all, is the whole idea -- creating a car that is basically a personal transport pod, according to a blog post by Chris Urmson, director of the project.

"When we started designing the world’s first fully self-driving vehicle, our goal was a vehicle that could shoulder the entire burden of driving. Vehicles that can take anyone from A to B at the push of a button could transform mobility for millions of people, whether by reducing the 94 percent of accidents caused by human error, reclaiming the billions of hours wasted in traffic, or bringing everyday destinations and new opportunities within reach of those who might otherwise be excluded by their inability to drive a car," Urmson said.

25 mph

The pod cars will be scooting around Google's hometown of Mountain View, Calif., collecting real-world experience that can be used to refine the process and iron out any kinks.

Urmson said speeds will be capped at 25 miles per hour and drivers will be on board with removable steering wheels, brake pedals and accelerators so they can take control of the car if needed.

He noted that the Lexus vehicles have been logging 10,000 miles per week and, although they've been involved in three fender-benders, all the accidents were minor and were the fault of the other car's driver. 

Not everyone is happy with that explanation.

“It is important that the public know what happened,” wrote John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog in a letter to Google.  “You are testing driverless vehicles on public highways, quite possibly putting other drivers at risk.” 

Simpson said Google should release all of the data it has on the accidents, however minor.

California enacted legislation in September that allows autonomous cars on its streets and highways, although each model must be tested and granted a permit. So far, Google hasn't applied for that permit, Automotive News reported.

 

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Ice cream recall prompts layoffs of Blue Bell employees

Furloughs and pay cuts have also been ordered

Last month's massive recall of ice cream due to Listeria contamination has prompted Blue Bell to make what CEO and President Paul Kruse called “the agoniz...

PhotoLast month's massive recall of ice cream due to Listeria contamination has prompted the Blue Bell to make what CEO and President Paul Kruse called “the agonizing decision” to cut the size of its work force and take other cost-cutting measures.

 

The company says the need to reduce its workforce, furlough some workers and cut salaries is “due to the extended timeline required to ensure the highest quality and safety of Blue Bell’s products when the company resumes production." The company adds that supply and distribution will be limited for some time to come.

 

An “agonizing decision”

 

“The agonizing decision to lay off hundreds of our great workers and reduce hours and pay for others was the most difficult one I have had to make in my time as Blue Bell’s CEO and President,” Kruse said. While saying Blue bell “did everything we could to keep people on our payroll for as long as possible, “ Kruse added, “we have an obligation to do what is necessary to bring Blue Bell back and ensure its viability in the future.”

 

Blue Bell says the process of cleaning and improving its 4 production plants is going to take longer than the company initially anticipated, especially at the main plant where major repairs and equipment replacements are expected. There is no firm timeline for when Blue Bell will begin producing ice cream again. When production resumes, it will be limited and phased in over time.

 

The employee actions affect three groups:

  • Those who are essential to ongoing operations and cleaning and repair efforts will continue to work but have their pay reduced.
  • A second group of employees will be placed on partially paid furlough. They will be paid a substantial portion of their current pay, with the expectation that they will return to work as production resumes.
  • Because there is not a clear timeline for when production will resume, and because supply and distribution will be limited when it does, a third group of employees will be laid off.

Approximately 1,400 employees will be furloughed, and approximately 750 full-time and 700 part-time employees -- or 37% of the total Blue Bell workforce of 3,900 -- will be laid off.

 

Blue Bell is also suspending operations and laying off employees at the following distribution centers:

  • Phoenix (2 branches) and Tucson, Arizona;
  • Denver, Colorado;
  • Indianapolis, Indiana;
  • Kansas City and Wichita, Kansas;
  • Louisville, Kentucky;
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico;
  • Las Vegas, Nevada;
  • Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina;
  • Columbia, South Carolina; and
  • Richmond, Virginia.

Blue Bell says its executives will be contacting area chambers of commerce to ask for their help for employees who have been laid off. Business owners who may have jobs available are asked to contact Blue Bell at 979-830-9831 or at jobs@bluebell.com.

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The dangers of online pharmacies

Consumers trying to buy hard-to-find drugs may get less than they bargained for

The Internet has made it easy to get your prescriptions filled or refilled. Many pharmacies have the means to fill your order online and mail it to you, of...

PhotoThe Internet has made it easy to get your prescriptions filled or refilled. Many pharmacies have the means to fill your order online and mail it to you, of have it ready for pick-up when you visit the store.

But that's not to be confused with ordering your prescription drugs from an online pharmacy you aren't familiar with, one that may not be located in your city, your state or even your country.

The Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, known as ASOP Global, warns that buying from one of these drug sellers is a prescription for trouble.

“These days, buying prescription drugs on the Internet is easy, but finding a safe source for those medicines is not,” said ASOP Global Founder and Executive Director Libby Baney.

50% of medicines fake

She says there are between 35,000 and 50,000 active online drug sellers and that 97% do not comply with U.S. laws. Worse still, she claims that 50% of medicines sold online are fake or counterfeit.

That's a warning echoed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has found in many instances counterfeit medicine – pills passed off as being from an established pharmaceutical company – don't even have an active ingredient, or might have ingredients that are dangerous.

Consumers aren't the only victims. In April the FDA reported that a counterfeit version of Botox was found in the U.S. and much of it had been sold to doctors' office and medical clinics.

In 2012 the agency warned consumers about a counterfeit version of the widely-prescribed ADHD drug Adderall. FDA laboratory tests revealed the counterfeit version contained the wrong active ingredient. Consumers were turning to unregulated online pharmacies to buy it because the genuine version was in short supply.

It could contain anything

Since by their very nature counterfeit drugs are unregulated, they can be made anywhere by anyone – even in someone's basement. Since no agency is examining what the drugs contain, they have been found to contain everything from floor wax, mercury, concrete, chalk, boric acid, road tar and paint, to anti-freeze and other poisons.

“This means that consumers are just a click away from buying products that may cause harm, treatment failure or even death,” Baney said.

There's an added danger to doing business with an illegal online pharmacy. You are giving your credit card or other personal information to someone who is, in fact, a criminal. If they are willing to sell you a pill that might kill you, they are certainly capable of stealing and misusing your financial information.

Illegal online pharmacies are big business, however, and Baney says the largest of them generate millions in sales each month. Because they are largely anonymous and mostly located outside the jurisdiction of the United States, it makes it very hard to prosecute them.

The only way to know if a drug is counterfeit is through chemical analysis done in a laboratory. Since you probably don't have that capability, your best advice is to only order prescription drugs from your local pharmacy or other trusted sources.

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Why gasoline prices should stay low for a long time

Producers are still pumping oil despite selling less of it

If gasoline prices quickly rise in the next several months, it won't be because oil prices have gone up. More and more industry experts believe world oil p...

PhotoIf gasoline prices quickly rise in the next several months, it won't be because oil prices have gone up. More and more industry experts believe world oil prices will remain flat for the foreseeable future and U.S. government data tends to agree.

Since last fall consumers have enjoyed gasoline prices averaging under $3 a gallon in almost all areas of the country, made possible by the sharp drop in world oil prices. The price of oil has declined because there is too much oil on the market and not enough demand.

While prices have slowly crept back up to $60 a barrel, the latest government forecasts suggest there may not be enough demand to push them much higher. This is a remarkable turnaround from just a few years ago.

2008's record high prices

Just before the financial crisis of 2008 gasoline prices hit a record high, with a national average of $4.17 a gallon and the price over $6 in some areas. At the time the U.S. was already in the midst of a recession but it was said the rest of the developing world, principally China, had a voracious appetite for oil.

Even after the price of oil crashed in late 2008, it was climbing again early in 2009, primarily because China was a major importer. Then, two things happened that brought us to where we are today.

First, the U.S. oil industry roared to life, thanks to fracking technology. U.S. oil production surged in places like North Dakota and Ohio, rivaling the output in more traditional oil producing areas.

The U.S. is producing so much oil that Saudi Arabia has entered a price war with U.S. producers, trying to drive down the price and gain market share. In short, producers are pumping more oil than the world needs right now.

Demand hasn't materialized

It was expected that world oil demand would eventually suck up the excess production, but that hasn't happened – and might not for a longer than expected time. It turns out that China's robust economic machine is slowing down, as are economies in other developing nations that in the past have driven up the price of oil.

After processing all this data, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) concludes that U.S. gasoline price should remain stable, allowing for seasonal fluctuations at refineries.

“EIA expects U.S. regular gasoline retail prices, which averaged $3.36/gal in 2014, to average $2.43/gal in 2015 and $2.63/gal in 2016,” EIA said in a report this week. “The average household is expected to spend $675 less for gasoline in 2015 compared with last year because of lower prices.”

Even though the long-term trend looks promising for motorists, AAA reports the national average price of gasoline has increased 26 out of the last 27 days. Regional refinery issues on the West Coast have pushed up prices in a handful of states, mostly in the west but prices are expected to head lower in June.

California is the most expensive state in which to drive, with an average gasoline price of $3.72 a gallon. South Carolina, at $2.37 a gallon, is the cheapest.

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Window coverings with dangling cords remain dangerous to young children

The Consumer Federation of America wants them off the market

Last week, the Window Covering Manufacturers Association (WCMA) announced that it was launching the “Best For Kids” program, a third-party certification pr...

PhotoLast week, the Window Covering Manufacturers Association (WCMA) announced that it was launching the “Best For Kids” program, a third-party certification process “designed to help consumers and retailers identify window covering products that are certified as best suited for use in homes with young children.”

Although window coverings seem innocuous to anyone with adult sensibilities, some types can indeed be fatal to small children – especially window blinds with long cords. Last year, during the 22-day period spanning February 8 through March 1, four children in America died after they accidentally strangled themselves on window-covering cords.

The WCMA's “Best For Kids” certification program is intended to address this problem. In order to win that certification, the WCMA says, “a window covering product must either have no cords or the inner cords cannot be accessible, as defined by the industry's safety standard.... If accessible inner cords are present in products with no operating cords, the accessible inner cords cannot create a hazardous loop in accordance with [certain] test procedures.”

Not far enough

But critics say this doesn't go far enough. Today, the Consumer Federation of America responded to and criticized the “Best for Kids” program on the grounds that it would still allow dangerous corded window coverings to be bought and sold:

Unfortunately, while this program provides assurances that cordless products are available to consumers, it fails to effectively address hazards posed by all corded window coverings and require that all window covering products be safe.  Under this program, WCMA member companies will still be selling window coverings that pose unreasonable and unacceptable risks to children. … The clear solution is to ensure that only cordless products, or products with cords made inaccessible by a passive guarding device, are available for sale. 

Meanwhile, you can take steps to ensure your own home's window-coverings are safe. If you have small children. or if you entertain visitors with small children in tow, do an inventory: do your window-coverings have any long ropes or cords, anything from velvet ties holding back long curtains to miniblind pull-strings with plastic aglets on the ends? That's the part most likely to be hazardous to young children.

If you cannot afford to replace your current window coverings with “cordless” varieties, at least make sure the ends of any rope-ties or pull-cords are up high, out of reach of any young child. For example: if the ends of your miniblind pull-strings dangle low enough for small kids to reach, try driving a small nail or decorative hook high into the wall next to the window, and keep the cords looped around that.

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Department of Education urged to investigate ITT Educational Services

Are we looking at a repeat of the Corinthian Colleges debacle?

After the downfall of Corinthian Colleges, which declared bankruptcy earlier this month following years of legal troubles which included federal agencies r...

PhotoAfter the downfall of Corinthian Colleges, which declared bankruptcy earlier this month following years of legal troubles which included federal agencies ranging from the Department of Education (DoE) to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), plus the attorneys general of several different states, all alleging that Corinthian-owned schools defrauded students in various ways, lawmakers and other public officials have turned a sharper eye to other for-profit schools dependent upon a steady stream of federally backed, bankruptcy-proof student loans to stay in business.

Today, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-California) released an open letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan urging the DoE to “conduct an investigation of and exercise increased oversight over the for-profit college operator ITT Educational Services, Inc.,” which has allegedly “engaged in deceptive and predatory lending practices, pushing students into high-interest loans they know cannot be repaid, at vast taxpayer expense.”

Speier's letter, available in .pdf form here, includes a list of complaints which sound depressingly familiar to anyone who knows Corinthian's story.

Predatory lending

Consumers rate ITT

Last year, for example, the feds sued Corinthian for “predatory lending practices,” and Speier's letter mentions similar practices from ITT: “The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed charges on May 12, 2015 alleging that that [sic] the CEO and CFO of ITT Educational Services covered up balloning loan obligations stemming from the company's …. predatory lending programs.”

Last November, a former ITT student in Pennsylvania wrote us to say “I was one of those students who signed for a private loan in order to continue my education. Unaware of the lies and deceit that was going on within the company. The program of study was electronics.... I was assured that upon graduation I would have a career, not a job.”

But after graduating in 2011, she discovered her degree was useless: “I am a temporary employee. My credit is shot and I make a little above minimum wage. I have gone on numerous interviews just to be laughed at and questioned about why ITT. … I am over $50,000 in debt because I believed I was getting a good education that would lead to a good future.”

And remember: that debt, like almost all student-loan debt, can't even be discharged in bankruptcy. But a former student who goes over his head in debt to attend a traditional, accredited state college or university at least has an authentic college degree (or credits to count toward one) to show for that outrageous debt load. ITT students say they don't even get that.

Good grades but ...

Mike from Oregon told us in January: “I went to ITT and I finally graduated with really good grades, 3.8 … in 1994.” A few years later, Mike wanted to enroll in a regular four-year school to earn a bachelor's degree, but learned that no reputable school would “transfer any credits at all from ITT, so I had to start over from scratch …. since it is not an accredited school if you ever plan to further your education and want to transfer to a real college you are much better off going to a real college from the start.”

Still, Mike says, his degree from ITT isn't completely useless: “you can hang it on the wall to cover up a hole or you can use it to cover a stain.”

Jay in Massachusetts made a similar observation from a different perspective. He spent one academic year – September 2013 through the following June – teaching at an ITT “Electronic Technology School.”

"Rot-gut shameless"

I have been a PhD electrical engineer for 25 years, mostly in the defense sector. But have never worked for such a rot-gut shameless enterprise, not even close. You need to understand [the] whole enterprise, ITT I mean, is a colossal nationwide profiteering scam. There are so many problems with ITT, I hardly know where to begin …. Recruiters routinely tell students that ITT courses will transfer should a student decide to complete a conventional 4-year program at another school after, say, completing an associates degree program at ITT. This is false. Credits will transfer to another ITT school (or possibly to another for-profit school like ITT) - that much is true - but not to an accredited state university.

In her letter to Education Secretary Duncan, Rep. Speier alludes to such complaints, and previous problems with the now-defunct Conrinthian schools, when she says:

The Department of Education has conducted increased oversight and exercised enforcement options in the past, as it did with the Corinthian Colleges [but] those investigations have been plagued with delays. In fact, Corinthian Colleges, Inc. was investigated by the SEC in June 2013 – a full year before ED opened their own June 2014 investigation …. This delay harmed students who continued to take loans on a worthless education, and taxpayers who footed the bill. I ask that in this case you take action quickly and responsibly.

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Walmart launching a free-shipping program for online sales

Walmart joins Jet.com is targeting price-conscious shoppers

Walmart.com Big box stores are fine but Walmart would like to have a bigger piece of the online space as well, so the giant retailer is launching a $5...

Photo
Walmart.com

Big box stores are fine but Walmart would like to have a bigger piece of the online space as well, so the giant retailer is launching a $50-per-year program that will compete with Amazon Prime.

Wal-Mart May 15, 2015, 4:41 p.m.
Consumers rate Wal-Mart

Walmart says deliveries will be made within three days. Prime, priced at $99 per year, promises two-day delivery on most purchases and throws in a lot of extras like free video and music streaming.

Walmart isn't saying much about the program yet -- said to be code-named Tahoe -- and hasn't yet seen fit to post anything about it in its newsroom, which is generally pretty devoid of anything timely, something the big retailer might want to fix if it really wants to become an online player. Getting stuff into the weekly paper won't quite cut it.

Walmart currently offers free shipping on purchases above $50 so its cost-conscious customers may not be too eager to shell out an extra $50 a year when they could just be sure to order $50 worth of goods each time they buy from Walmart.com.

Perhaps taking a page from Google, or maybe just because it doesn't have a clue how to sell it, the new program will initially be offered by invitiation only, according to press reports.

Not too exciting

So far, no one seems too excited about Walmart's prospects.

“Amazon’s Prime program offers a lot of comprehensive benefits that Walmart will not be able to offer anytime soon,” said David Biernbaum, senior marketing and business development consultant at David Biernbaum Associates, in a Forbes report. “[Tahoe] will carry only what Walmart carries, and believe it or not, that selection is fairly limited to mostly commodities, basics and every day pantry items.”

As Biernbaum notes, one of Prime's major strengths is that it includes just about anything. You can find a saxophone reed, ketchup, an obscure auto part or a lawn tractor on Prime, order it with a single click and, in most cases, find it on your doorstep two days later.

Although Amazon doesn't release sales information for Prime, anecdotal evidence indicates that many consumers habitually go first to Prime when they need something and only in rare circumstances go elsewhere to complete the purchase. That's a habit that's going to be hard to break.

Jet.com's dreams

PhotoFledgling online retailer Jet.com is also in the pre-launch phase of its Prime-like shopping service but denies that it has Prime in its sights.

"While a lot of outlets have been quick to make the Amazon connection because it makes for a good headline, Jet isn’t actually trying to directly compete with Amazon or get existing Amazon Prime customers," said Jet publicist John Harrington, who besides his other talents is apparently able to discern the motivations of reporters and editors.

According to the Commerce Department, currently only 8% of retail sales happen online, which leaves a lot of space for Amazon and Jet to co-exist, Harrington said in an email to ConsumerAffairs a few days ago, after we reported on Jet's plans.

Amazon.com May 15, 2015, 4:41 p.m.
Consumers rate Amazon.com

"The e-commerce space is going to be growing rapidly over the coming years and Jet’s aim is not about competing with Amazon, but rather about offering current or future shoppers an option that’s focused on getting them the lowest possible price," he said.

"Feel free to reach out if you’re in need of anything for a future story!" Harrington exclaimed. We took him up on that and asked if we could get an inside look at Jet.com's beta site so we could report on it more fully.

That wasn't in the cards, though. Saying the site was still in "a pretty early beta," Harrington declined, although Re/code and other tech-focused publications have been allowed inside, perhaps reflecting Jet's faith that the key to successful retailing is technology, rather than those pesky consumers. 

 

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Tips for selling your home faster

Have an open house but don't hang around for it

Lettiann Southerland is a Kansas City area real estate agent and a foodie. Despite the fact those two things have little in common, she has combined them i...

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New labels and cooking instructions for mechanically tenderized beef products

Feds say consumers will have information they need to enjoy these products safely

A new set of labels is on the way from the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). These will deal with raw or partially cooke...

PhotoA new set of labels is on the way from the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

 

These will deal with raw or partially cooked beef products that have been mechanically tenderized. According to the FSIS, consumers, restaurants, and other food service facilities “will now have more information about the products they are buying, as well as useful cooking instructions so they know how to safely prepare them.”

The hazards of tenderizing

 

Product tenderness is a key selling point for beef products. To increase tenderness, some cuts are tenderized mechanically by piercing them with needles or small blades in order to break up tissue. This process, says the FSIS, can introduce pathogens from the surface of the cut to the interior, making proper cooking very important.

 

The potential presence of pathogens in the interior of these products means they should be cooked differently than intact cuts. Officials say the new labeling requirements are needed because mechanically tenderized products look no different than intact product, but that consumers need to know that they should be handled differently.

The labels

 

Under the new rule, will become effective in May 2016, or one year from the date of the rule’s publication in the Federal Register, these products must bear labels that state that they have been mechanically, blade or needle tenderized.

 

The labels must also include validated cooking instructions so that consumers know how to prepare them safely. The instructions will have to specify the minimum internal temperatures and any hold or “dwell” times for the products to ensure that they are fully cooked.

 

“Labeling mechanically tenderized beef products and including cooking instructions on the package are important steps in helping consumers to safely prepare these products,” said Deputy USDA Under Secretary Al Almanza. “This common sense change will lead to safer meals and fewer foodborne illnesses.”

 

Since 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received reports of 6 outbreaks attributable to needle or blade tenderized beef products prepared in restaurants and consumers’ homes. Failure to cook a mechanically tenderized raw or partially cooked beef product thoroughly was found to be a significant contributing factor in each of these outbreaks.

 

FSIS predicts the changes brought by this rule could prevent hundreds of illnesses every year.

 

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Mortgage rates continue to climb

Rising government bonds are a big part of it

Prospective homebuyers continue to face the prospect of paying more for the money they borrow. Freddie Mac reports average fixed mortgage rates are higher...

PhotoProspective homebuyers continue to face the prospect of paying more for the money they borrow.

 

Freddie Mac reports average fixed mortgage rates are higher for a third consecutive week as Treasury yields continue to climb.

 

The rate for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) rose 5 basis points in the week ending May 14, to an average of 3.85% from 3.80% -- just below the high for 2015. A year ago at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.20 percent.

 

The 15-year FRM this week averaged 3.07%, also up 5 basis points. It averaged 3.29% a year ago at this time.

 

5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) slipped to an average of 2.89% from 2.90% last week 2.90 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 3.01%.

 

1-year Treasury-indexed ARM averaged 2.48% up 2 basis points from last week's 2.46%. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.43%.

Bankrate: Mortgage rates rise to a 5-month high

 

Mortgage rates as tracked by Bankrate.com's weekly national survey were up for a fourth consecutive week.

 

The benchmark 30-year FRM was up 2 basis points to 4.01%, the highest level since mid-December. The average 15-year FRM climbed to 3.22% from 3.17%, while the larger jumbo 30-year FRM rose to 4.09%. Adjustable rate mortgages were mixed, with the 5-year ARM sliding to 3.17%.

 

Bankrate economists point out that the rise in mortgage rates has been tame compared with the increase in benchmark Treasury yields. They've climbed nearly twice as much during the same period due to more selling of government bonds than mortgage bonds, and is evidence that the rise is not necessarily based on underlying economic fundamentals, but rather from traders unloading positions and perpetuating the increase.

 

Just three weeks ago, the average 30-year FRM was 3.79%. At that time, a $200,000 loan would have carried a monthly payment of $930.78. With the average rate now at 4.01 percent, the monthly payment for the same size loan would be $955.98 -- a difference of $25 per month for those waited.    

 

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Improvements earn Audi Q5 the IIHS TOP SAFETY PICK+ rating

The car offers added protection in small overlap front crashes

The 2015 Audi Q5, a midsize luxury SUV, earns the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest award after its structure was improved for protection in...

PhotoThe 2015 Audi Q5, a midsize luxury SUV, earns the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest award after its structure was improved for protection in small overlap front crashes.

 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) TOP SAFETY PICK+ award and the good rating in the small overlap test have been awarded to to the Audi Q5.

 

The rating and the IIHS's top award went to vehicles that have come off the line after January with a reinforced front end and occupant compartment giving them protection in small overlap front crashes..

 

Strong overlap showing

 

During the crash, in which a vehicle is sent toward a barrier at 40 mph so that only its left front corner collides with it, the driver dummy's movement was well-controlled. The driver's space was maintained reasonably well, with maximum intrusion of 4 inches at the lower door hinge pillar.

 

The dummy's head hit the front airbag and stayed cushioned until rebound. The side curtain airbag deployed and provided enough forward coverage to protect the head from contact with side structure and outside objects.

 

Measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of injuries in a crash of this severity.

 

To qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK or TOP SAFETY PICK+, vehicles must earn a good or acceptable small overlap rating and a good rating in the Institute's four other crashworthiness tests -- moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints.

 

The "plus" is awarded to vehicles that have an available front crash prevention system that earns an advanced or superior rating from IIHS.

 

The Q5's optional system earns an advanced rating.

 

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General Motors recalls Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon trucks

The hooks that secure the driver's and/or front passenger's seat frame may not have been properly attached to the vehicle body

General Motors is recalling 49,980 model year 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon trucks manufactured January 6, 2014, to April 1, 2015. The hooks tha...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 49,980 model year 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon trucks manufactured January 6, 2014, to April 1, 2015.

 

The hooks that secure the driver's and/or front passenger's seat frame may not have been properly attached to the vehicle body during assembly. Thus the seat may not be anchored adequately to the vehicle, and in the event of a crash, the seat occupant could be at an increased risk of an injury.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the seats, correcting their installation as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in May 2015.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020 or GMC customer service 1-800-462-8782. GM's number for this recall is 15150.

 

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AA Poultry Processing recalls chicken and turkey products

The products may have been contaminated with trichloro-s-triazinetrione

AA Poultry Processing of Ridgeland, Wis., is recalling approximately 2,191 pounds of chicken and 21 pounds of turkey products. The products may have been ...

PhotoAA Poultry Processing of Ridgeland, Wis., is recalling approximately 2,191 pounds of chicken and 21 pounds of turkey products.

 

The products may have been contaminated with trichloro-s-triazinetrione, which is not approved for use in poultry processing.

 

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

 

The following whole and cut chicken and turkey pieces, produced from May 4, 2015, through May 11, 2015, are being recalled:

  • Various weights of whole or cut chicken and turkey parts.

The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-45525” inside the USDA mark of inspection. Following processing, the carcasses were returned to their original owners in Wisconsin.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Ty Martin at (715) 949-1108.

 

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Feds to probe student loan servicing practices

The focus is on “student debt stress”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be looking into student loan servicing practices that can make paying back loans a hassle. Among the ...

PhotoThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be looking into student loan servicing practices that can make paying back loans a hassle.

Among the issues: industry practices that create repayment challenges, hurdles for distressed borrowers, and the economic incentives that may affect the quality of service.

At the same time, the CFPB is also re-launching an enhanced version of its Repay Student Debt online tool to help borrowers figure out their options for affordable repayment.

“Student debt stress can make borrowers feel like they are walking a tightrope where any false move in paying back a loan can cause them to fall,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Today’s inquiry seeks information on the pain points in student loan servicing that make repayment a more difficult and stressful process.”

Huge debt market

Student loans make up the nation’s second largest consumer debt market. The market has grown rapidly in the last decade. Currently there are more than 40 million federal and private student loan borrowers and collectively these consumers owe more than $1.2 trillion. The market is now facing an increasing number of borrowers who are struggling to stay current on their loans.

Servicers are a critical link between the borrowers and the lenders. They manage borrowers’ accounts, process monthly payments, and communicate directly with borrowers. When facing unemployment or other financial hardship, borrowers must contact student loan servicers to enroll in alternative repayment plans, obtain deferments or forbearances, or request a modification of loan terms. A servicer is often different than the lender, and a borrower typically has no control over which company services a loan.

Borrower complaints

The CFPB has heard from borrowers through its complaint handling, its Tell Your Story function, and from staff travelling across the country. The agency has observed that many borrowers are experiencing significant student debt stress. Consumers have complained about billing problems associated with payment posting, prepayments, and partial payments.

For example, borrowers report that payments may be processed in ways that make repaying student loans even more expensive. Other consumers have complained about lost records, slow response times to fixing errors, and a general lack of customer service. Often, consumers who have their loan transferred from one servicer to another report experiencing interruptions when receiving notices, billing statements, or other routine communications.

The CFPB has also heard from distressed borrowers that student loan servicers may have difficulty helping them avoid defaults and delinquencies. Repayment roadblocks can worsen problems.

Distressed borrowers complain that they are given the runaround when they ask for help, they have a hard time getting straight answers from servicing staff, and that the staff are untrained or unequipped to deal with their problems.

Joyce of Fairmont, W.Va., tells ConsumerAffairs of the problems she experienced with Wells Fargo Education Financial Services, with loans she took out for her daughters. "All of the loans were set up on the deferment option as my girls were taking the loans over as soon as they found jobs," she writes in a recent post. "Since then, I've had nothing but problems. They sent statements out late and the due dates were 3 days from date I received it. This, of course, caused all of my payments to be late, because according to one of their CRS, all payments took 10 days from the date Wells Fargo received it to be credited to my account. When I called about this, I was told 'We don't have to send you a statement, and you are still responsible for making payments.' "

The CFPB's public inquiry focuses on the following:

  • Industry practices that create repayment challenges: The CFPB’s inquiry seeks information about specific practices that could potentially create problems as consumers repay their loans.
  • Hurdles for distressed borrowers: The agency requests information on whether servicers’ policies and procedures are resulting in struggling borrowers paying more fees or prolonging repayment.
  • Economic incentives affecting the quality of service: The CFPB is seeking information on whether the typical ways that servicers are paid may indirectly lead to borrower harm.
  • Application of consumer protections in other markets: The CFPB is analyzing whether there are protections in other consumer credit markets -- such as credit cards or mortgages -- that could inform policymakers and market participants when considering options to improve the quality of student loan servicing.
  • Availability of information about the student loan market: The CFPB is looking at whether a general lack of transparency in the market may be contributing to consumer harm.

Repay Student Debt 2.0

The CFPB has re-launched its Repay Student Debt web tool, which offers a step-by-step guide to navigate borrowers through their repayment options, especially when facing default.

The new version of this tool provides student loan borrowers with sample instructions to send to their student loan servicer to protect themselves against payment processing problems and auto-defaults.

It also has information about how to request a lower monthly payment when experiencing financial distress.

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The 5 cheapest housing markets in America

The biggest bargains appear to be in the evolving Rust Belt

You probably know where America's most expensive homes are. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), they are mostly in California, stretch...

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Patent filed for promising leukemia drug

Drug staves cancer cells instead of poisoning them

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories, the University of Maryland and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston have filed a patent application for a ...

PhotoResearchers at Sandia National Laboratories, the University of Maryland and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston have filed a patent application for a new drug they say could destroy the childhood disease acute lymphoblastic leukemia — and potentially other cancers as well.

According to the Mayo Clinic, acute lymphocytic leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children. Current treatments result in a good chance of a cure. However, when the disease occurs in adults survival rates are much lower.

The researchers say their drug may change that. It represents a sharp departure from the current approach.

New approach

“Most drugs have to go inside a cell to kill it,” said Sandia researcher Susan Rempe. “Instead, our method withholds an essential nutrient from the cell, essentially starving it until it self-destructs.”

One of the big drawbacks to current cancer treatments is they usually employ chemicals to kill cancer cells. While this can work, one side effect is the chemicals often make the patient sick.

The new drug focuses on a nutrient in the body called asparagine. Cells need it to survive but cancer cells can't produce it on their own. Remove cancer cells' access to asparagine and they die – it's simple as that.

Well, not quite that simple. The ideal nutrient-deprivation strategy for cancer cells requires a difficult balancing act. Doctors must remove enough asparagine from the blood to cripple the cancer, but leave enough of a chemically-similar molecule called glutamine so the patient can tolerate chemotherapy.

Right balance

Using computer simulations, the researchers think they have found that right balance. When they tried it out in test tube experiments, the new drug left glutamine untouched. Follow-up tests they conducted in petri dishes showed that the mutated enzyme they created killed a variety of cancers.

There are more tests underway on laboratory mice at MD Anderson. They should be completed by early next year. If successful, Rempe says the drug will then be tested on humans.

“If we’re wrong, and keeping glutamine intact is not the answer to the cancer problem, we’ll continue investigating because we think we’re onto something,” she said.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia is a type of leukemia that starts from white blood cells in the bone marrow, which is the soft inner part of bones. It grows from cells called lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell central to the immune system. It can also develop from lymphoblasts, an immature type of lymphocyte.

Once the disease gets into the blood stream is can spread throughout the body to other organs, though it doesn't usually produce tumors like many types of cancer. It is an acute type of leukemia, which means it can progress quickly. Without treatment, the National Cancer Institute says it can be fatal within a few months.

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Police respond to ACLU lawsuit over license plate scanner data retention

A Virginia-based lawsuit has national privacy implications

A Virginia man with help from the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Fairfax County Police Department, charging that Fairfax PD's habit of storing...

PhotoA Virginia man with help from the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Fairfax County Police Department, charging that Fairfax PD's habit of storing all license plate scanner data for a full year is not only a privacy rights violation, but also a violation of Virginia state law. The county posted a response on its website today.

Earlier this year, the Virginia State Senate and House of Delegates unanimously voted in favor of SB 965, also called the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, which among other things would allow police to continue using Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) to collect license plate data from vehicles on Virginia roads – but police would only be allowed to store those records for seven days, unless they were part of an active, ongoing criminal investigation.

Given the bills' overwhelming bipartisan popularity, observers expected Governor Terry McAuliffe would sign it into law. Instead, McAuliffe amended the bill's language so radically, the bill's author called it a “quasi-veto”: rather than require police to delete ALPR data after a week, it would allow cops to keep those records for 60 days.

ACLU sues

McAuliffe's April action ultimately led to the ACLU of Virginia filing suit against Fairfax police the following month.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, said “Governor McAuliffe had the opportunity to clarify that the Data Act prohibits law enforcement from collecting Virginians’ personal information unless there is a documented need and relevance established in advance. Instead, he chose to veto the legislation and left the ACLU of Virginia with no choice but to go to court to ensure that law enforcement follows the Data Act. While the facts of this case are focused on just one type of surveillance technology, the reasonable protections established in the Data Act apply equally to all surveillance technologies.”

The ACLU filed this suit along with Fairfax resident Harrison Neal, who is suing the police after discovering that his license plate data was scanned and entered into the police database twice, even though Neal is not the subject of any police investigation.

The mass collection and storage of ALPR data is not exclusive to Virginia, but growing ever-more common through most of the country. Last year, for example, a California man who filed a public records request learned the public record includes over 100 photos of the man's license plate in various locations — and photographs of the man's daughters standing in their own driveway.

At the same time, a California state legislator paid a private investigator to track his wife's whereabouts (presumably with her consent), and discovered the detective could, for a relatively small amount of money, pay to acquire her ALPR license-plate data to get a near-complete record of everyplace she drove and parked — including a particular gym 100 miles from her home.

And such data is being collected about every driver on every road where ALPRs are in operation, though the ACLU's lawsuit in Fairfax, Virginia is believed to be the first of its kind.

Today, Fairfax County responded to the ACLU's lawsuit by posting an announcement on the county government website:

On May 13, 2015, the Fairfax County Police Department and its chief, Edwin C. Roessler Jr., were served with a lawsuit (Neal v. Fairfax County Police Department, et al) that was recently filed in Fairfax Circuit Court challenging the Police Department’s use of Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs). The lawsuit does not challenge the “active” use of ALPR data, but only the “passive” use of ALPR data.  … The Police Department retains the data for 364 days after which it is automatically purged unless it has become part of an active criminal investigation. Roessler strongly believes that retaining this data for 364 days serves a legitimate law enforcement purpose. This retention period is intended to increase protection of the community by providing an investigative tool to aid in the detection or investigation of terrorism or a series of related crimes. In fact, many other jurisdictions retain ALPR data for up to two years.

So Fairfax PD is basically saying that yes, it does record the whereabouts of every driver in the county and keeps these records for a whole year, but you shouldn't be disturbed by any privacy implications because the police think it's really useful and besides, other police departments hoard such data for even longer.

And it's true: other police departments and government agencies throughout the country do hoard such data. The state of California, for example, sets no legal limit on how long ALPR data can be kept. So in March, Ars Technica tried a little experiment with some disturbing results: it collected and analyzed four years' worth of ALPR data from Oakland, California as part of a public records request, and was able to deduce huge amounts of personal information about pretty much any resident of Oakland – or at least, any licensed driver in the city.

When license plate data records every place you park and drive, after all, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the address where you park your car overnight every night might correspond to where you live, nor to figure out that the daytime address your car visits every Monday through Friday might have something to do with your job.

Neal's and the ACLU's lawsuit in Fairfax County, Virginia is almost certain to set a precedent nationwide. Whether that precedent helps or hinders privacy advocates – well, that's what the court will decide.

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Is your dog brilliant or just a genius?

A new test will tell the tale

Is your dog an Ace, Charmer, Socialite, Expert, Renaissance Dog, Protodog, Einstein, Maverick or Stargazer? What, you may be asking? Well, these are all ac...

PhotoIs your dog an Ace, Charmer, Socialite, Expert, Renaissance Dog, Protodog, Einstein, Maverick or Stargazer? What, you may be asking? Well, these are all actual names for a personality type that dogs have been given. Read on to find out where your dog fits in.

The Dognition Assessment uses 20 games to determine a dog's level of empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning. People believing they have the world's smartest dog can see if their pet fits the bill on Nat Geo Wild's three-part series "Is Your Dog a Genius?" airing May 15-17. It sounds more entertaining than "Is your dog smarter than a 5th grader?"

"People will learn about and come to a new understanding of their best friends," said host Brian Hare, who helped develop the assessment as an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University in North Carolina.

It sounds interesting and everyone wants to feel like their dog has unique characteristics that sets them apart from other dogs. It costs $19 to take the assessment. For that you will get the list of games to play with your dog at www.dognition.com. You will record the results and Duke puts together your pet's profile.

A dog will be dubbed an Ace, Charmer, Socialite, Expert, Renaissance Dog, Protodog, Einstein, Maverick or Stargazer. 

No numbers

The dog's brain power isn't measured as it is with humans. "We don't deal in numbers," Hare said. "In the animal world, we recognize there are lots of kinds of intelligence, and they vary widely. You can be a genius in one area but not in another."

An example is the cup test. You may have seen this test on the street where someone puts a ball under the cup and they switch the cups around and you have to guess where the ball is. It’s similar.

Cups are overturned and a treat is put under the cup. You point to the empty cup and see where your pet goes. Both show a kind of genius: If your dog goes to the empty cup, he's good at following orders and bonding. If he goes the other, he's able to rely on his own devices - and gets the treat.

As long as my dogs are happy, wag their tails and give those great kisses, it doesn’t matter to me how smart they are.

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Sally Beauty CEO offers security-breach update

Company confirms customer-data theft, but date and extent of the breach still unknown

This morning, the Sally Beauty company released an update about their most recent customer-data security breach.In the past 14 months, hackers have sto...

PhotoThis morning, the Sally Beauty company released an update about their most recent customer-data security breach.

In the past 14 months, hackers have stolen customer payment-card information from the company twice: the first theft discovered in March 2014, and the second breach earlier this month.

The March 2014 breach was initially uncovered by security expert Brian Krebs, after he learned that 282,000 credit and debit card numbers stolen from Sally Beauty in the previous month were being offered for sale in an illicit online criminals' forum. And Krebs (more specifically, his unnamed sources at various card-issuing financial institutions) was also the first to suspect this second Sally Beauty breach, after various banks' fraud investigators noticed a pattern of fraudulent-charge complaints sharing one trait in common: every defrauded cardholder had recently used that card to pay for something at a Sally Beauty store.

"Unusual activity"

So on May 4, Sally Beauty released a statement saying, in part, that it “is currently investigating reports of unusual activity involving payment cards used at some of our U.S. Sally Beauty stores.”

This morning, the company went a small step further when President and CEO Chris Brickman confirmed that there is “sufficient evidence to confirm that an illegal intrusion into our payment card systems has indeed occurred. However, we will not speculate on the scope of the intrusion as our forensics investigation is still underway.”

Thus far, nobody involved in the investigation – whether official Sally Beauty spokespeople, or anonymous financial-industry insiders – has offered any estimates regarding the time frame of this security breach, nor how many customers were affected. Any Sally Beauty payment-card customers concerned about their accounts can call Sally Beauty at 1-866-234-9442, or send an email to customerserviceinquiry@sallybeauty.com .

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Restaurant sales now exceed grocery sales

The mystery of where consumers are spending their fuel savings appears to be solved

For the first time ever, consumers are spending more at restaurants than grocery stores.National Restaurant Association (NRA) Chief Economist Bruce Gri...

PhotoFor the first time ever, consumers are spending more at restaurants than grocery stores.

National Restaurant Association (NRA) Chief Economist Bruce Grindy reached that conclusion after crunching the numbers from U.S. Census Bureau data. He found a dramatic shift toward restaurants in the last 10 months.

In June 2014, grocery store sales were still in front of restaurant sales by $1.6 billion. By April of this year that gap had reversed, with restaurant sales outpacing grocery store sales by $1.5 billion.

In total, the $3.1 billion sales shift seen in the last 10 months is almost as much as what occurred during the previous 4 and a half years.

Mystery solved

It also might answer the question “what are consumers doing with the money they are saving on gasoline?” The answer appears to be, they're eating out, not at home.

This shift in how consumers are spending on food has coincided with the sharp drop in gas prices. While economists predicted this savings would likely be spread across the entire retail sector, it hasn't been. Now it appears that consumers have used their savings at the pump to treat themselves to a meal or two.

To determine if this is actually what is happening the NRA commissioned a national telephone survey of 1,008 adults. Eighty percent of consumers who own cars said the recent drop in fuel prices made a positive impact on household finances.

The lower the income of the household, the more impact gasoline price savings had, the survey found.

Forty-nine percent of car owners said lower prices at the pump made it more likely they would purchase meals, snacks or beverages from restaurants, fast food places or coffee shops.

A majority of car owners in households with incomes below $50,000 said their fuel savings increased their willingness and ability to go to restaurants, fast food places or coffee shops.

NAR says its research suggests this trend is likely to continue as long as gasoline prices remain lower than the recent norm.

Obesity concerns

What this may suggest is that, given the means and a choice, today's consumers would rather eat out than eat a meal prepared at home. This is a trend that could hold significance for health policy makers concerned about obesity.

A steady diet of restaurant meals – particularly fast food – has been linked (PDF) to America's expanding waistline. But not all restaurant meals are loaded with calories.

Restaurants that post calorie information on menus give consumers a means to measure their caloric in-take that eating meals at home might not offer. And some restaurants go out of their way to offer healthier choices.

The Daily Beast posted this guide to the “25 Healthiest Restaurant Meals.”

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Producer prices back on the downside

First time applications for jobless benefits slip

After rising in March for the first time since last October, the governments producer price index (PPI) is headed lower again. Figures released by the Bur...

Photo
© mybaitshop – Fotolia

After rising in March for the first time since last October, the governments producer price index (PPI) is headed lower again.

 

Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show prices were down a seasonally adjusted 0.4% last month. For the 12 months ended in April, the PPI is down 1.3%

 

The broad-based decline was led by a 2.9% drop in energy costs, with a 4.7% plunge in gasoline playing a major role. Prices for diesel fuel, jet fuel and utility natural gas also fell.

 

Food costs also were down 0.9%,with pork prices lower, but the costs of fresh and dry vegetables rising.

 

The “core rate,” less the volatile food and energy categories, was down 0.1%

 

The full PPI report is available on the Labor Department website.

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Initial claims

 

Separately, the government reports initial jobless claims were down by 1,000 in the week ending May 9 to a seasonally adjusted 264,000. Officials say there were no special factors affecting the tally.

 

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly count, fell 7,750 to 271,750 -- the lowest level since April 22, 2000 when it

 

Details may be found on the Labor Department website.

 

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A solid gain in housing affordability

The first quarter saw more people able to buy into the American dream

It's been a good 3 months for those looking to buy a home. According to the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (H...

PhotoIt's been a good 3 months for those looking to buy a home.

 

According to the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI), 66.5% of new and existing homes sold between the beginning of January and end of March were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $65,800. That's a gain of 3.7% from the final 3 months of 2014.

 

“Consumers benefited from continued low mortgage rates and some fall in the price of homes sold in the first quarter, as these conditions offer a great time to buy,” said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, a home builder from Blue Springs, Mo.

 

The past two quarters have seen an improvement in affordability as mortgage rates remain low. “Eighty-five percent of the metropolitan areas measured experienced an increase in affordability,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “Along with favorable home prices and pent-up demand, this broad improvement should help encourage more buyers to enter the marketplace.”

 

Prices head lower

 

The national median home price -- the point at which half the prices are higher and half are lower -- fell from $215,000 in the fourth quarter to $210,000 in the first quarter. Meanwhile, average mortgage interest fell from 4.29% to 4.03% in the same period.

 

For the second straight quarter, Syracuse, N.Y., was the nation’s most affordable major housing market, as 95.6% of all new and existing homes sold in the first quarter of 2015 were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $68,500.

 

Also ranking among the most affordable major housing markets in respective order were Toledo, Ohio; St. Louis; Akron, Ohio; and Harrisburg-Carlisle, Pa.

 

Meanwhile, Sandusky, Ohio, topped the affordability chart among smaller markets in the first quarter of 2015. There, 96.3% of homes sold during the first quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $69,600. Other smaller housing markets at the top of the index included Cumberland, Md.-W.Va.; Elmira, N.Y.; Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, Iowa-Ill.; and Kokomo, Ind.

 

Not so affordable

 

For a 10th consecutive quarter, San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, Calif., was the nation’s least affordable major housing market. There, just 14.1% of homes sold in the first quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $103,400.

 

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

 

All 5 least affordable small housing markets were in California. At the very bottom was Santa Cruz-Watsonville, where 21.6% of all new and existing homes sold were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $87,000. Other small markets included Salinas, Napa, San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta in descending order.

 

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Use of walking aids jumps 50% in 10 years

Health researcher asks why so many people are cruising the grocery aisles in scooters

You perhaps are aware of it more in places like Walmart or large supermarkets. Amidst the sea of shopping carts is a growing number of shoppers riding arou...

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Good jobs that don't require a college degree

However, they may require getting outside your comfort zone

The conventional wisdom is a four-year college degree is required for anything but a minimum wage job.Not true, says Tony Lee, publisher of CareerCast,...

PhotoThe conventional wisdom is a four-year college degree is required for anything but a minimum wage job.

Not true, says Tony Lee, publisher of CareerCast, a job search portal. Lee's company has analyzed its job postings and found many that offer a comfortable salary and don't require a four-year degree.

While it is true that a college degree will give you a leg up on the better jobs, people without degrees aren't carrying any of the $1.2 trillion in student loan debt that has burdened many higher-earning college grads.

"Starting a career without a degree may be unconventional, but succeeding in the workplace without one is far from impossible," said Lee.

What you need, he says, are two things; an entrepreneurial spirit and specialized training.

Entrepreneurial spirit

An entrepreneurial spirit will make you valuable to an employer and help you get ahead. Specialized training will prepare you for a specialized job, more so than most college curriculum.

It might be harder to land that first job so Lee suggests working pro bono where possible. Also, working as an independent contractor allows an employer to see what you can do without making a major commitment.

What are some of the better jobs? Lee says a dental hygienist can make a median salary of $70,000 with a projected hiring outlook of 33%.

In fact, health care is a hot field with growing opportunities. Lee says a registered nurse earns around $65,000. A respiratory therapist earns more than $55,000.

IT opportunities

The increasing demand for IT professionals can mean more opportunities, even if you only have a high-school diploma. The median salary for a web developer is $62,000 a year with a projected 20% hiring outlook. A multimedia artist earns a median salary of $61,000.

Skilled tradesmen can do well too. Lee says the median salary for an electrician is $49,000 while a carpenter makes about $40,000.

Some of the great jobs available to those without a degree require some specialized education but not a full four years. You'll find some states require certification to become a skincare specialist, dental hygienist or personal trainer, for example, while trade crafts such as electrician and carpenter demand either advanced training or apprenticeships.

The full list of jobs is here.

Kiplinger's list

Carpenter, dental hygienist, nurse and electrician also make Kiplinger's list of the best jobs that don't require a 4-year degree. But so does computer user support specialist – someone who helps others deal with increasingly complex technology. Kiplinger's says that job can pay anywhere from $35,000 to $60,000 a year.

Unofficial apprenticeships also are invaluable for job seekers without a college degree.

Lee says a willingness to get outside your comfort zone is definitely an asset for those seeking a good job without a college degree. Technology, he says, can help.

For example, he says you could use CareerCast's Part-Time Network to connect with potential clients. Social media tools can also help.

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The cable TV industry hopes you'll forget its connections to the cable TV industry

FCC chairman turned Chief Cable Lobbyist doesn't like the word “cable”

Deservedly or not, cable TV companies have a bad reputation these days. Multiple bad reputations, in fact: one bad reputation for high prices, another alle...

PhotoDeservedly or not, cable TV companies have a bad reputation these days. Multiple bad reputations, in fact: one bad reputation for high prices, another alleging poor-to-nonexistent customer service, a reputation for limited or inflexible program offerings, and others.

It's bad enough that the cable industry is trying to distance itself from the very word “cable” and rebrand itself as something else.

Last week, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) held its annual trade show in Chicago, a trade show formerly known as “The Cable Show.” But this year, as Bloomberg initially noted, The Cable Show was renamed “The Internet & Television Expo.”

Michael Powell, the former Federal Communications Commission head who now serves as president of the NCTA, said he “hates” the world “cable” because it's so outdated: “It doesn’t fairly capture what they do.”

Resist the temptation, here, to make snide commentary regarding just which terms would “fairly capture” what the cable companies do. According to Powell, the term “cable company” has “a proud history, but it needs to be retired,” in order to focus on “its future as it's associated with the Internet.”

Uphill climb

Time Warner May 13, 2015, 8:04 p.m.
Consumers rate Time Warner

And yet, as TechDirt pointed out: “when your entire business revolves around using coaxial cable to deliver Internet and television service, deciding to drop the word in the hopes of forcing a brand refresh might be an uphill climb.”

Yet even if Powell succeeds in his effort to make people completely and utterly forget the word “cable” in this particular context, that doesn't mean they'll forget the complaints that gave the word such a bad reputation in the first place.

For example: last month, after a Minnesota man lost his home after a vicious wind-driven fire destroyed it (plus a couple other homes in his neighborhood), it took a full week plus media attention before Comcast would let the man cancel his Comcast account. As of press time, that story has 12 reader comments posted on it, every one critical of Comcast. One commenter asked:

Is it Comcast or Time Warner that has the worst customer service record in the entire business industry?? If not one, than the other is, and the other is in second place. Soon there will be an alternative to cable, and hopefully this company will go out of business.

Another one said: “Customer service is dead. A moment of silence. Comcast is a constant nose bleed.”

Taken at face value, it's pretty obvious neither of those commenters (nor any other on that story) have any problems with the word “cable,” nor with any of the individual syllables comprising the word; their complaints involve customer service, or the lack thereof.

Or take a gander at any of the 1,268 complaints ConsumerAffairs has collected about Time Warner cable.

On April 25, for example, Reynaldo from San Antonio, Texas had this to say about the company's tech support: “...I had to beg for someone to come out to look at my PC and TV. Finally someone came out and replaced the modem. Service sucks. I would not recommend Time Warner and am considering changing service.”

That same day, Reynaldo's fellow Texan Thomas, from Cedar Park, wrote in with a detailed complaint about Time Warner, ending with: “This is the worst customer service I have ever dealt with. They took my money which I still have not received back, lied to me about 3 scheduled appointments, and have completely wasted my time. I will never even consider doing business with them again....”

“Service sucks.” “Worst customer service.” Memo to Michael Powell and other upstanding members of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association: your bad reputation derives from what you do, not what you call yourself.

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Newest ATM security threat: one iPod plus a little plastic equals a big problem for banks

Be especially wary if an ATM “eats” your card; that's how this scam starts

British police have uncovered the latest security threat to ATM cardholders, a threat so simple from a thief's perspective that it's pretty much guaranteed...

PhotoBritish police have uncovered the latest security threat to ATM cardholders, a threat so simple from a thief's perspective that it's pretty much guaranteed to come to America — if it hasn't already.

Security-savvy ATM users have known for years now to watch out for illegal “skimmers” — electronic devices placed over a legitimate ATM-card reader to steal personal identification numbers (PINs) and other information from any swiped cards.

Many of these skimmers are small and thin enough to escape a typical ATM user's notice (unless that sharp-eyed user knows exactly what to look for) — but a thief hoping to use a skimmer generally needs either technological ability sufficient to build his own, or criminal “connections” sufficient to buy one.

No barriers

However, as Security Affairs reported yesterday, the latest criminal threat to ATM security has no such barriers to entry. An off-the-shelf iPod hidden behind a panel with a pinhole drilled in it is all it takes to make a pinhole spy camera capable of recording the PINs of anyone who visits that particular ATM.

Though there's a little more to the scam than that. Apple's iPods have been on the market for years, but only last January was the first such incident of this particular iPod-based ATM spy camera scheme discovered in Gatley, Stockport (a suburb of Manchester, England). As the oft-sensationalist Daily Mail reported last January:

These pictures show the lengths criminal gangs are going to in an attempt to steal card details at ATM machines - as a trick of using hidden iPods as spy cameras continues to spread.

It involves strapping the musical device to the roof of a cash point and setting it to record video of a person inputting their personal identification number (PIN).

The iPod is concealed in a specially-designed fascia with the camera recording through a pinhole-sized gap.

A fascia is simply a long, thin board covering the area where a wall joins a roof or ceiling — the architectural equivalent of a beveled edge, more or less.

Card-eater

So long as the thief has a few minutes of privacy, it's very easy to attach an iPod to the roof or upper wall of an ATM cash point, hidden behind a fascia of the same color. After installing this hidden camera, the fraudsters then slip a thin piece of plastic into the actual ATM card slot.

Now they're ready to pull their scam, which works like this: a victim walks to the ATM, inserts his card and types his PIN, unaware of the hidden camera recording this information. Meanwhile, that piece of plastic in the card slot traps the card inside the ATM. So the victim can't get his card out of the machine, and eventually leaves – most likely to contact the bank and complain about a faulty card-eating ATM.

Once the victim leaves, the thieves go to the ATM, retrieve the card from the slot and the PIN from the video recording, and use these to withdraw cash from the victim's account.

When British police discovered such a setup at a Barclays ATM, they immediately removed the device and informed Barclays, which in turn urged its customers to keep a sharp eye on their accounts and immediately contact the bank if they notice any signs of fraudulent activity.

And if you're an American ATM user, regardless of who you bank with, you need to do the same thing.

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Tips for job-hunting college grads

This spring's job market may be the best in years

For this month's college graduates preparing to enter the workforce, the April jobs numbers, released last week, were pretty good news.The U.S. economy...

PhotoFor this month's college graduates preparing to enter the workforce, the April jobs numbers, released last week, were pretty good news.

The U.S. economy is still producing more than 200,000 new jobs each month and the unemployment rate is back at a pre-recession 5.4%

It's that low because millions of people are no longer looking for work, but for someone just entering the workforce, that means less competition.

In the years just after the Great Recession young men and women coming out of college usually felt lucky to find any job. This spring, things are a little different.

You can afford to be a little picky

Katharine Brooks, executive director of personal and career development at Wake Forest University, says 2015 graduates don't have to jump at the first job offered.

“It’s not surprising coming out of the previously poor economy that new grads may feel pressure to accept the first offer they receive, thinking that the ideal job is in a distant future,” Brooks said. “But, there are questions to ask before accepting a job that can help determine if it’s really the best career choice and a good first step.”

She counsels job seekers to carefully consider what the job pays, both in salary but also benefits. At the same time, she advises grads to ask themselves whether the work is something that aligns with their values. It does no good, she says, to take a job for the generous pay but hate going to work every day.

“Rarely is a job the right one or the wrong one,” Brooks said. “Entering a new position with an attitude of growth and learning shows a respect for your employer and an understanding that every experience brings is valuable to learning more about yourself.”

Student loans can be a complicating factor

For grads with student loans and no job lined up, the next few weeks can be crucial. Kathryn Bossler, a counselor at GreenPath Debt Solutions, suggests graduates contact their student loan servicer to arrange for a short deferment in payments.

She also says new job seekers need to have their financial lives in order before going on interviews.

"Graduates need to realize how much an impact their credit history can have on their future," Bossler said. "As more hiring departments take personal finances into consideration, recent college graduates need to make sure their credit and debts are in order."

Live like a college student

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban also has some advice for those just starting their careers; live like they are still college students. In his book “How to Win at the Sport of Business,” Cuban writes “living cheaply” is the key to financial success.

Instead of buying an entry level luxury car, models of which are increasingly marketed to Millennials, Cuban suggests paying off bills and starting a saving and investment program.

Bossler also suggests developing thrifty habits early in a career. She suggests direct depositing a portion of your paycheck into savings.

Even though most 21-year olds can't yet conceive of ever being old enough to retire, they should take advantage of an employer's retirement plan, especially if there is a match.

If you're carrying credit card debt, begin aggressively reducing those balances to minimize the amount of interest you're paying.

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Toyota expands Takata airbag safety recalls

Investigations into the problem are continuing

Toyota Motor Sales is expanding its recalls involving Takata air bag inflators. First, the automaker is conducting a recall to replace Takata-supplied dr...

PhotoToyota Motor Sales is expanding its recalls involving Takata air bag inflators.

 

First, the automaker is conducting a recall to replace Takata-supplied driver front airbag inflators on approximately 160,000 model year 2004 and 2005 RAV4 sport utility vehicles. The inflators could be susceptible to rupture when deployed in a crash, increasing the risk of injury to vehicle occupants.

 

For similar reasons, Toyota is expanding 2 existing recalls for Takata-supplied front passenger airbag inflators, namely:

  • The nationwide recall launched in April 2013 will expand to include approximately an additional 177,000 model year 2003-2004 Tundra and model year 2004 Sequoia vehicles; and
  • The recall in areas of high absolute humidity launched in 2014 will expand to include approximately an additional 300,000 vehicles built through the 2006 or 2007 model year. This recall will now cover additional vehicles within model years 2005-2007 Toyota Corolla, Corolla Matrix, and Sequoia; model years 2005-2006 Tundra; and model years 2005-2007 Lexus SC.

Areas of high absolute humidity encompass Coastal Areas around the Gulf of Mexico for Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana; and Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

 

Multiple investigations into the root cause of the potential for inflator rupture are taking place, including by Orbital ATK, an independent engineering firm commissioned by an industry-wide joint testing initiative composed of the 10 automakers conducting Takata-related recalls.

 

All known owners of the affected Toyota / Lexus vehicles will be notified by first class mail to return their vehicles to a Toyota / Lexus dealer. The dealer will replace the airbag inflator with a newly manufactured one.

 

Consumers may contact Toyota at 1 800-331-4331, and Lexus at (1 800-255-3987).

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The dark side of mold

Spring is prime time for mold

When black mold invades it can look horrendous and it puts a black mark literally on your house-cleaning skills. Moisture is your enemy when it comes to bl...

PhotoWhen black mold invades it can look horrendous and it puts a black mark literally on your house-cleaning skills. Moisture is your enemy when it comes to black mold and you have to be careful because of the toxicity of mold period. It can cause allergic reactions.

In most cases, depending on the length of exposure and the number of spores inhaled, symptoms can include chronic fatigue or headaches, fever, irritation to the eyes, mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and throat, sneezing, rashes, and chronic coughing.

In cases of prolonged or severe exposure, or cases exacerbated by an allergic reaction, more extreme symptoms can include nausea, vomiting and bleeding in the lungs and nose. This is why you have to be very careful when you are cleaning it yourself.

Black mold is most likely to appear in areas of the home that are particularly warm, humid and damp. Basements or crawlspaces that may have leaks or other sources of moisture are often susceptible to toxic black mold growth. Black mold is called black for a reason, it’s black. Most other molds are green or gray in color, but toxic black mold is a dark black.

To remove requires an investment not only in protective gear but patience as well. Find a way to muster up the courage to go into dark places where fungus is definitely among us.

Moisture has to be sucked out of the area and removed. Leaks have to be terminated and any form of condensation needs to be eradicated. If you leave either of these the mold will most likely return.

Sealing off doorways and any other opening is also of utmost importance. Heavy plastic can be used to cover doorways and just use duct tape to keep it sealed on. An exhaust fan will be a good aid in the room if there are outdoor openings to help remove mold spores.

You really need to cover up in order to do this, head to toe. Wear a respirator or a facemask rated for black mold spore protection, and cover arms, legs and hands to avoid contact with mold spores. Mold should remove pretty easily by using a sponge with soap and water. If the moldy area is dry, lightly spray with water, as this will reduce the incidence of airborne mold spores during cleaning.

There are products that are made specifically for black mold. You can find them at most hardware stores or the big stores like Home Depot or Lowes. Bleach does work very well and the only issue you will have is to make sure it doesn’t discolor any surfaces or materials, like furniture or splash on curtains.

 

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Retail sales unchanged in April

However, March was somewhat better than first reported

April was not a particularly good month for retail sales, despite the exit from the harsh winter weather. The Census Bureau reports sales were flat last m...

PhotoApril was not a particularly good month for retail sales, despite the exit from the harsh winter weather.

 

The Census Bureau reports sales were flat last month, totaling $436.8 billion. If auto sales a stripped out, sales were up a meager 0.1%.

 

Still sales were up 0.9% from the same time last year, and March sales were revised higher -- showing a gain of 1.1% instead of the .09% advance initially reported.

 

For the month, health and personal care stores; sporting goods, hobby, book & music stores; and nonstore retailers were the bright spots -- all showing advances of 0.8%. Losers were department stores (-2.2%), furniture and home furnishing stores (-0.9%) and gas stations (-0.7%)

 

Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza says no matter how you slice it, sales were downright weak. "Any lingering claim that the weakness at the start of the year was solely the result of unseasonably cold winter weather has now officially been squashed, she pointed out, adding, "Clearly the consumer remains under pressure resulting from fundamental weakness as opposed to Mother Nature -- including lackluster job opportunities and minimal income growth."

 

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

 

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Feds charge hackers broke into Photobucket.com, sold access to nude photos

Two men were arrested on conspiracy charges and face up to 15 years in prison

Two men who allegedly sold software that let consumers break into Photobucket.com's system and download pictures of naked women have been arrested by FBI a...

PhotoTwo men who allegedly sold software that let consumers break into Photobucket.com's system and download pictures of naked women have been arrested by FBI agents.

Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh said the two sold the app, called "Photofucket" -- that allowed users to get around the privacy and security settings on Photobucket. It also allegedly automatically found photos of nude and scantily-clad women and downloaded them.

FBI agents arrested Brandon Bourret, 39, of Colorado Springs, Colo. and Athanasios Andrianakis, 26, of Sunnyvale, Calif., at their homes yesterday. If convicted, they could face up to 15 years in prison.

“It is not safe to hide behind your computer, breach corporate servers and line your own pockets by victimizing those who have a right to protected privacy on the internet,” said U.S. Attorney Walsh.  “The U.S. Attorney’s Office is keenly focused on prosecuting those people for their theft -- and for the wanton harm they do to innocent internet users.”       

"Knowingly conspired"

According to the indictment, beginning on July 12, 2012 and continuing through July 1, 2014, Bourret and Andrianakis knowingly conspired to commit computer fraud and abuse, access device fraud, identification document fraud and wire fraud. 

Bourret and Andrianakis both face one count of conspiracy, which carries a penalty of not more than five years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine.  They also each face one count of computer fraud, aid and abet, which also carries a penalty of not more than five years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine.  Finally, they each face two counts of access device fraud, which carries a penalty of not more than ten years in federal prison, and up to a $250,000 fine, per count.

 

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FTC sues Lunada Biomedical over Amberen weight loss claims

"Clinically proven" claims don't hold up, FTC alleges

Amberen is one of the "anti-aging" dietary supplements promoted by Lunada Biomedical. But the Federal Trade Commission says the company's claims aren't sup...

PhotoAmberen is one of the "anti-aging" dietary supplements promoted by Lunada Biomedical. But the Federal Trade Commission says the company's claims aren't supported by the evidence.

The FTC charges in a federal lawsuit that Lunada advertises that Amberen causes substantial weight loss for women over 40, and says the company sold nearly $65 million worth of the supplement between 2010 and 2013.

“Lunada marketed Amberen to women over 40 as ‘clinically proven’ to cause weight loss,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But their own studies didn’t support those claims. The best way to lose weight is still diet and exercise.”

The company disputes the charges and says it "prefers ... to litigate this matter before an impartial judge."

Increased metabolism

According to the FTC’s complaint, the company's ads claimed Amberen could cause significant weight loss and loss of belly fat, and increase the metabolism of perimenopausal or menopausal women over 40.

Lunada’s websites and other advertisements pitched the capsules using female announcers saying things like: “Amberen restores hormonal balance naturally, so the weight can just fall right off. Even that stubborn belly fat.” They also claimed that Amberen is “the ONLY product on the market today clinically proven to cause sustained weight loss for women over 40.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, however, a clinical trial conducted in 2001 by the Russian scientists who developed the Amberen formula, used a double dose of Amberen and did not specifically measure weight loss; a subsequent clinical study failed to show a statistically significant difference in weight loss between the test and control groups.

Russian study

In a statement, Lunada said a recent study supports its claims.

“Scientific evidence, including a recent randomized, double blind, placebo controlled clinical trial, involving 102 test subjects, just released by the world renowned First Moscow State Medical University (the premier educational, scientific and medical institution in Russia since 1758) supports the conclusion that Amberen achieves weight loss in menopausal women," a company spokesman said.

"The data obtained during the study was evaluated independently by the prestigious Institute of Mathematical Problems in Biology, a division of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  Additional peer reviewed scientific evidence supports the conclusion that Amberen also reduces many menopausal symptoms," the company's statement added. 

The FTC also charges that the defendants falsely claimed a consumer satisfaction and success rate of 93 percent and failed to disclose their relationship with certain endorsers, including one who blogged about the benefits of the supplement.

The complaint further alleges that the defendants falsely claimed that consumers could try Amberen “risk-free” for 30 days, through statements such as, “You can try Amberen absolutely risk FREE and get a one month supply FREE.” In fact, customers were provided a ninety-day supply of Amberen and to qualify for a refund, consumers had to return two unopened product boxes at their own expense, within 30 days of placing the order.

Moreover, in many cases consumers were not reimbursed the shipping and handling charges they had paid when they ordered the product, the FTC said.

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US Airways nears its final destination

American Airlines will phase out US Air as early as October

Like Amtrak and the late Eastern Air Lines, US Airways has been an East Coast tradition as often despised as embraced. Plagued by fickle weather, congestio...

PhotoLike Amtrak and the late Eastern Air Lines, US Airways has been an East Coast tradition as often despised as embraced. Plagued by fickle weather, congestion in the skies and overcrowded airports, it has had more than its share of setbacks, delays, cancellations and complaints.

Consumers rate US Airways

Take Robert of Richmond, Va., who posted a ConsumerAffairs review recently.

"This is my second miserable experience with USAir in 8 weeks. Same airports and same flights in 8 weeks," Robert wrote. "First experience was a 24 hour delay from a trip that would have taken no more than seven hours of driving. This trip at this point is now going into it 9th hour. Sitting on the tarmac waiting for a gate to open and then being dumped on the tarmac 200 feet from the terminal entrance in the pouring rain. Now hearing at 11 pm that 'we have an aircraft but are trying to locate a crew.'" 

Time to spare ...

There are those who say that it was US Airways or one of its predecessors that coined the phrase, "time to spare, go by air." As a largely regional carrier for much of its existence, US Airways has had a lot of ups and downs -- lots of short hops that are more prone to disruptions than long-haul routes. This leads to lost bags, lost seats and, as in Robert's case, lost crews.

American Airlines May 13, 2015, 12:54 p.m.
Consumers rate American Airlines

But all of that is about to end. Soon it will be American Airlines that inherits its customers' enmity. American, which merged with US Airways last year, says it will phase out the smaller carriers' operations beginning in July and possibly completing the process by October. You'll still see airplanes flying the US Airways colors after that but the reservations system -- the heart of any airline -- will be all American's when the switchover is complete.

Chaos has ensued in other airline mergers when the change to the dominant carrier's reservations system was made too abruptly, so American has chosen to slowly phase out the US Airways system, switching a few routes at a time.

Passengers shouldn't notice a change, the airline said. Uh-huh.

All-American becomes all American

It's perhaps appropriate that US Airways completes its journey via merger. It is, after all, the product of numerous mergers. It took off back in 1939 as All-American Airways, morphed into Allegheny Airlines (known in some road warrior circles as Agony Air), then took over Mohawk Airlines and became US Air. Somewhere along the line, Empire Air was added to the mix.

After a series of misstarts and aborted strategies, new management came aboard and changed the name to US Airways, causing the predictable jokes about the airline needing more than an airway to stay alive.

But stay alive it did, merging with America West to become a truly national carrier, eventually adding international routes as well.

When the merger is complete, there will be just four big airlines -- American, United, Delta and Southwest -- controlling 80% of the market. Welcome aboard.   

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Mortgage applications post third straight decline

Climbing interest rates punctuated the week

For a third consecutive week there's been a decline in applications for mortgages. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications S...

PhotoFor a third consecutive week there's been a decline in applications for mortgages.

 

The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey shows applications were down 3.5% in the week ending May 8.

 

The Refinance Index posted a drop of 6%, with the refinance share of mortgage activity calling from 52% of total applications to 51% -- its lowest level since May 2014. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity, on the other hand, rose to 6.3% of total applications.

 

The average loan size for purchase applications rose to a survey high of $298,500.

 

The FHA share of total applications fell 2 basis points -- from 14.0% to 13.8%, the VA share was unchanged at 11.9% and the USDA share of total applications inched up to 0.9% from 0.8% the week prior.

 

Contract interest rates

 

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) rose 7 basis points to 4.00%, its highest level since March, with points increasing to 0.36 from 0.35 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) increased jumped to 3.99%, its highest level since March, from 3.91%, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.24 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA surged 7 basis points to 3.76%, its highest level since March, with points decreasing to 0.14 from 0.21 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs increased to 3.23%, its highest level since March, from 3.19%, with points increasing to 0.40 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was up 13 basis points to 3.00%, its highest level since March, with points increasing to 0.46 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

 

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Completed foreclosures, foreclosure inventory on the decline

The serious delinquency rate is far below its 2010 peak

More big declines in foreclosures. CoreLogic reports there were 41,000 completed foreclosures nationwide in March -- down 7,000, or 15.5% from the same mo...

PhotoMore big declines in foreclosures.

 

CoreLogic reports there were 41,000 completed foreclosures nationwide in March -- down 7,000, or 15.5% from the same month in 2014, representing a plunge of 65.2% from the peak of completed foreclosures in September 2010.

 

Also in March, the foreclosure inventory declined by 25.7%.

 

Completed foreclosures are an indication of the total number of homes actually lost to foreclosure. Since the financial meltdown began in September 2008, there have been approximately 5.6 million completed foreclosures across the country, and since homeownership rates peaked in the second quarter of 2004, there have been approximately 7.7 million homes lost to foreclosure.

 

Declines in delinquency

 

CoreLogic also reports the number of mortgages in serious delinquency was down 19.1% from March 2014 to March 2015 with 1.5 million mortgages -- or 3.9% -- in serious delinquency. Serious delinquency is defined as 90 days or more past due, including those loans in foreclosure or real estate owned (REO). This is the lowest delinquency rate since May 2008. On a month-over-month basis, the number of seriously delinquent mortgages dipped 1.9%.

 

As of this past March, the national foreclosure inventory included approximately 542,000 homes, or 1.4%, of all homes with a mortgage compared with 729,000 homes, or 1.9%,the year before, representing a year-over-year decline of 25.7%.

 

“We are seeing additional improvement in housing market conditions due to a decline in the serious delinquency rate to 3.9%, far below the peak of 8.6% in early 2010,” said Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “Despite the decline in the number of loans that are 90 days or more delinquent or in foreclosure, the percent of homeowners struggling to keep up is still well above the pre-recession average of 1.5%.”

 

Report highlights

 

  • On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures increased by 7% from the 38,000* reported in February 2015. As a basis of comparison, before the decline in the housing market in 2007, completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month nationwide between 2000 and 2006.
  • The 5 states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in March 2015 were: Florida (110,000), Michigan (50,000), Texas (34,000), Georgia (28,000) and Ohio (28,000). These 5 accounted for almost half of all completed foreclosures nationally.
  • Four states and the District of Columbia had the lowest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in March 2015: South Dakota (16), the District of Columbia (87), North Dakota (326), West Virginia (462) and Wyoming (517).
  • On a month-over-month basis, the foreclosure inventory was down by 1.3% from February 2015. The March 2015 foreclosure rate of 1.4% is back to March 2008 levels.
  • Four states and the District of Columbia had the highest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes: New Jersey (5.3%), New York (3.9%), Florida (3.3%), Hawaii (2.7%) and the District of Columbia (2.5%).
  • The 5 states with the lowest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes were: Alaska (0.3%), Nebraska (0.4%), North Dakota (0.5%), Montana (0.5%) and Colorado (0.5%).

 

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Cost Plus World Market recalls twist swivel stools

The weld joint attaching the stool seat to the center post can break

Cost Plus Management Services of Oakland, Calif., is recalling about 125,000 twist swivel stools. The weld joint attaching the stool seat to the center po...

PhotoCost Plus Management Services of Oakland, Calif., is recalling about 125,000 twist swivel stools.

 

The weld joint attaching the stool seat to the center post can break, posing a fall hazard.

 

The firm has received 12 reports of the stool’s joint breaking. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves twist swivel stools with a light brown-finish wood seat and base with four black metal legs. They measure 24.5 inches high in the non-extended position and 29.5 inches when fully extended. SKU number 438000 is printed on the UPC sticker attached to the underside of the stool seat.

 

The stools, manufactured in Indonesia, were sold exclusively at Cost Plus World Market and World Market stores nationwide and online at www.worldmarket.com from February 2011, through February 2015, for about $120.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled stool and return it to any Cost Plus World Market or World Market store for a full refund. Refunds can be used toward the purchase of a replacement stool when it becomes available.

 

Consumers may contact Cost Plus World Market toll-free at (877) 967-5362 from 7 a.m. to midnight ET daily.

 

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La-Z-Boy recalls wall-saver power reclining furniture

When reclined, the furniture can tip forward if the consumer exits without bringing the chair to an upright position

La-Z-Boy of Monroe, Mich., is recalling about 2,600 PowerReclineXRw pieces of reclining furniture. When reclined, the furniture can tip forward if the con...

PhotoLa-Z-Boy of Monroe, Mich., is recalling about 2,600 PowerReclineXRw pieces of reclining furniture.

 

When reclined, the furniture can tip forward if the consumer exits without bringing the chair to an upright position, posing a fall hazard.

 

The company has received 5 dealer reports of the furniture tipping forward when the chair was in a reclined position. No injuries have been reported.

 

The recalled power reclining furniture involves three series of the PowerReclineXRw: P16, 32P and 39P. The P16 series is a single-seat recliner; the 32P series is a loveseat recliner; and the 39P series is a loveseat with a middle console.

 

The furniture’s back and leg rest are raised and lowered electronically by pressing buttons built into the furniture’s side or on an optional attached controller. All models are upholstered in a variety of fabrics or leather products.

 

The series and style numbers are printed on a white label stapled to the front rail behind the leg rest or the underside of the leg rest. The first three characters of the number will be P16, 32P or 39P, followed by the style number.

 

The following recliners are being recalled:

 

P16 PowerReclineXRw Recliners

SERIES

STYLE

NAME

DIMENSIONS

P16

366

Reese Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.50" H x 40.00" W x 38.50" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 18.50" W x 21.00" D

P16

403

Vail Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 40.50" H x 32.00" W x 36.00" D
Seat: 18.00" H x 17.50" W x 19.50" D

P16

502

Joshua Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.50" H x 39.00" W x 45.00" D
Seat: 20.50" H x 23.00" W x 23.00" D

P16

508

Coleman Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 40.50" H x 32.00" W x 36.50" D
Seat: 19.00" H x 19.50" W x 19.00" D

P16

512

Pinnacle Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 43.50" H x 38.00" W x 40.00" D
Seat: 22.00" H x 20.00" W x 22.50" D

P16

515

Lancer Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 43.00" H x 38.00" W x 42.00" D
Seat: 19.50" H x 20.50" W x 20.50" D

P16

516

Mason Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.00" H x 34.00" W x 37.00" D
Seat: 19.00" H x 19.00" W x 20.00" D

P16

521

James Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 42.50" H x 39.00" W x 38.00" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 21.50" W x 21.00" D

P16

528

Larson Power-Recline XRw Recliner

Overall: 42.00” H x 37.00” W x 38.00” D

Seat: 18.5” H x 20.00” W x 21.00” D

P16

530

Greyson Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 43.00" H x 37.50" W x 41.00" D
Seat: 20.50" H x 20.00" W x 23.00" D

P16

535

Conner Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.00" H x 38.00" W x 39.00" D
Seat: 19.50" H x 21.00" W x 20.00" D

P16

537

Hayes Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 40.00" H x 37.50" W x 37.00" D
Seat: 19.50" H x 21.00" W x 20.50" D

P16

563

Gibson Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 44.00" H x 40.00" W x 43.00" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 17.00" W x 22.50" D

P16

572

Lawrence Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.50" H x 38.50" W x 37.00" D
Seat: 18.50" H x 19.50" W x 19.00" D

P16

582

Maverick Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 42.00" H x 38.00" W x 39.00" D
Seat: 21.00" H x 19.00" W x 22.00" D

P16

701

Briggs Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.50" H x 39.00" W x 38.00" D
Seat: 19.00" H x 21.00" W x 21.00" D

P16

702

Easton Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.00" H x 36.50" W x 38.00" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 22.00" W x 21.00" D

P16

705

Gabe Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 42.00" H x 36.00" W x 39.50" D
Seat: 19.00" H x 19.50" W x 20.50" D

P16

707

Maxx Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 40.50" H x 33.50" W x 38.50" D
Seat: 19.00" H x 23.50" W x 20.00" D

P16

708

Forester Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 40.50" H x 36.00" W x 38.00" D
Seat: 19.00" H x 19.00" W x 22.00" D

 

 

P16

709

Jasper Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 42.00" H x 40.00" W x 38.50" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 21.50" W x 20.00" D

P16

711

Asher Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.50" H x 41.00" W x 41.00" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 21.50" W x 21.50" D

P16

714

Jace Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.00" H x 40.00" W x 38.50" D
Seat: 19.50" H x 21.50" W x 23.00" D

P16

735

Sullivan Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.00" H x 38.50" W x 39.00" D
Seat: 21.00" H x 21.00" W x 22.50" D

P16

740

Barrett Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 42.00" H x 40.00" W x 39.50" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 21.00" W x 22.00" D

P16

745

Carter Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 42.00" H x 39.00" W x 40.00" D
Seat: 19.00" H x 21.00" W x 22.00" D

P16

746

Duncan Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.00" H x 37.00" W x 40.00" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 22.00" W x 23.50" D

P16

765

Rowan Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.00" H x 34.00" W x 39.00" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 22.50" W x 21.00" D

P16

770

Ace Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 41.00" H x 35.00" W x 39.00" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 22.00" W x 20.00" D

P16

801

Amelia Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall: 40.50" H x 33.50" W x 38.00" D
Seat: 20.00" H x 21.25" W x 21.00" D

 

P16 PowerReclineXRw Tall Base Recliners 

SERIES

STYLE

NAME

DIMENSIONS

P16

519

Astor Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall : 44.50" H x 37.50" W x 42.50" D
Seat : 21.00" H x 21.00" W x 21.00" D

P16

716

Logan Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall : 43.50" H x 38.00" W x 40.00" D
Seat : 22.00" H x 20.00" W x 22.50" D

 

P16 PowerReclineXRw Short Seat Recliners 

SERIES

STYLE

NAME

DIMENSIONS

P16

798

Impulse Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall : 39.00" H x 30.00" W x 37.00" D
Seat : 19.00" H x 23.00" W x 19.50" D

P16

799

Harbor Town Power-Recline-XRw Recliner

Overall : 41.00" H x 30.00" W x 37.00" D
Seat : 19.00" H x 23.00" W x 19.50" D

 

 

 

32P PowerReclineXRw Loveseats 

SERIES

STYLE

NAME

DIMENSIONS

32P

512

Pinnacle Power-Recline-XRw Full Reclining Loveseat

Overall : 41.00" H x 57.00" W x 38.00" D
Seat : 20.00" H x 44.50" W x 20.00" D

32P

582

Maverick Power-Recline-XRw Full Reclining Loveseat

Overall : 42.50" H x 64.00" W x 39.00" D
Seat : 22.00" H x 45.00" W x 22.50" D

32P

746

Duncan Power-Recline-XRw Full Reclining Loveseat

Overall : 41.50" H x 63.00" W x 41.00" D
Seat : 21.00" H x 47.00" W x 23.00" D

32P

765

Rowan Power-Recline-XRw Full Reclining Loveseat

Overall : 41.00" H x 61.00" W x 37.00" D
Seat : 22.00" H x 47.50" W x 20.00" D

32P

770

Ace Power-Recline-XRw Full Reclining Loveseat

Overall : 41.50" H x 62.00" W x 38.50" D
Seat : 20.00" H x 47.00" W x 21.00" D

 

39P PowerReclineXRw Loveseats with Console 

SERIES

STYLE

NAME

DIMENSIONS

39P

582

Maverick Power-Recline-XRw Full Reclining Loveseat w/ Middle Console

Overall : 42.50" H x 79.00" W x 39.00" D
Seat : 22.00" H x 60.00" W x 22.50" D

39P

746

Duncan Power-Recline-XRw Full Reclining Loveseat w/ Middle Console

Overall : 41.50" H x 78.00" W x 41.00" D
Seat : 21.00" H x 62.00" W x 23.00" D

39P

770

Ace Power-Recline-XRw Full Reclining Loveseat w/ Middle Console

Overall : 41.50" H x 76.00" W x 38.50" D
Seat : 20.00" H x 61.00" W x 21.00" D

 

The recliners, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries stores and independent furniture stores nationwide from January 2015, through March 2015, for $600 to $4300.

 

Consumers should stop using the chair and contact the local dealer where the chair was purchased for a refund or a repair. A service technician will schedule a time to come to the consumer’s home and install a new part.

 

Consumers may contact La-Z-Boy toll-free at (855) 592-9087 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

 

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Good colleges you probably haven't heard of

You don't have to go to a name brand school to be successful

In recent years high school students and their parents have obsessed over the college admissions process. Certain colleges have become like designer con...

PhotoIn recent years high school students and their parents have obsessed over the college admissions process.

Certain colleges have become like designer consumer products, a sign of status and announcing to the world that this young person is embarking on a meaningful and successful career. Of course, it doesn't always work out that way.

Some graduates of name-brand colleges flame out in their careers. Others fall into depression because they weren't accepted by the school of their choice.

In his book “Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argues that the Ivy League has no monopoly on corner offices, governors' mansions, or the most prestigious academic and scientific grants.

His book is a recounting of the stories of highly successful people who didn't attend the most exclusive schools. In fact, he writes there are many great colleges and universities that aren't well known. You just have to be able to find them.

University Research & Review, which offers college placement advice, has issued a list of what it believes are the best colleges you've never heard of. Attending one of them, the company says, will offer a great education and set the stage for a successful career.

Here's their list:

Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College Located in rural Georgia this school, as the name implies, might be ideal for those pursuing a career in making things grow. The school offers a degree in, among other things, turfgrass management for those aspiring to a career in the golf course industry. They even have their own golf course where students practice what they learn.

Amridge University Flexible is one way to describe Amridge University. All of its courses are also offered online with live course lectures viewed in real time and optimized for mobile devices. The school's low tuition also makes it attractive.

Brandman University University Research & Review calls Brandman “one of the most progressive institutions in the country. It now embraces competency based education, meaning if you know the subject matter you are not held back by outdated seat time requirements. This could be a good choice for serious adult learners who want to get on with life and career.

Brescia University There are only about a thousand students at Kentucky's Brescia University, offering both classroom and online programs. Most of the school’s mostly female students are full-time and enroll in programs such as social work, teacher education, and business.

Kettering College This might be a good choice for someone planning on a career in health care. It wins high marks for a professional and committed faculty and a responsive administration.

Lincoln Memorial University Lincoln Memorial is also popular among those interested in health careers. Students can become a doctor of osteopathic medicine, or of veterinary medicine, or maybe earn one of several master’s degrees.

Special features

Park University, Patten University, Western Governors University and William Carey University all have attributes that set them apart. About 90% of Park's students are part-time and about half take their courses online.

Patten University tries to help students avoid taking out loans by developing an inexpensive monthly payment program where a student can take all the courses he or she can handle. All courses are available online.

Western Governors University is a pioneer in competency based education, meaning you can get a degree sooner than you might think. Its course offerings are also 100% online.

William Carey University has unique scholarship and assistance programs available for students. There are special assistance programs for low income families, and students with excellent academic records may qualify for full tuition and fees plus a room allowance.

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Verizon buying AOL to beef up its digital content & advertising

Maybe grandpa will finally be able to cancel his AOL subscription?

Verizon is buying AOL for an estimated $4.4 billion, saying the purchase will help its efforts to "drive growth in video and digital platforms," subject to...

PhotoVerizon is buying AOL for an estimated $4.4 billion, saying the purchase will help its efforts to "drive growth in video and digital platforms," subject to the usual regulatory approvals. AOL owns major content brands including The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Engadget, MAKERS and AOL.com.

“Verizon’s vision is to provide customers with a premium digital experience based on a global multiscreen network platform," said Lowell McAdam, Verizon chairman and CEO. "This acquisition supports our strategy to provide a cross-screen connection for consumers, creators and advertisers to deliver that premium customer experience.”

AOL still makes much of its money by billing customers for dial-up servicers many consumers don't even know they still have. Others think the monthly charge is for AOL email, which is actually free. Those who discover the charges often have a difficult time trying to cancel.

A 2013 class action lawsuit accused AOL of ripping off non-tech-savvy seniors, citing the case of Harvey Dunn, then 76. He was still paying AOL for outmoded dial-up service, which he was no longer using since he had become a Time Warner client.

When Dunn saw the monthly $17.95 charges on his credit card bill, he didn't realize that AOL was charging him for content and email services it gave away free to others. 

Nearly obsolete

"AOL is well aware that the vast majority of its paying customers are not using its nearly obsolete 'dial-up' services, and misunderstand what they are paying for," the complaint stated. "AOL's technology allows it to easily tell which of its paying customers are using AOL's dial-up ISP services. AOL knows that plaintiff, and millions of other consumers have absolutely no use for their paid accounts, or AOL dial-up service they do not need and are not using."

It was recently estimated that 2.6 million Americans were still paying AOL for dial-up service. The company was something of a pioneer, introducing an easy-to-use Internet dial-up service in the 1990s. Its attempts to become an advertising-supported content provider have returned spotty results, apparently making AOL reluctant to turn its back on all those widows and orphans sending in their $20 or $30 each month.

If anyone thinks Verizon will be quick to release customers still stuck with its outmoded dial-up, McAdam's press release listed AOL's "subscription business" as among its "key assets."

Verizon says the acquisition will help drive its LTE wireless video and OTT (over-the-top video) strategy. The agreement will also support and connect to Verizon’s IoT (Internet of Things) platforms, creating a growth platform from wireless to IoT for consumers and businesses, the company said.

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Google defends its self-driving cars' accident rate

In most of the incidents, the Google car was rear-ended, the company says

A Google self-driving Lexus (Photo credit: Google) Google, founded on Sept. 4, 1998, will be turning 17 in a few months and, like many teens, it's eag...

Photo
A Google self-driving Lexus (Photo credit: Google)

Google, founded on Sept. 4, 1998, will be turning 17 in a few months and, like many teens, it's eager to get out on the open road after a few years of puttering around town with driving instructors and anxious parents looking over its shoulder.

Critics have been questioning whether Google's self-driving cars are safe and Google, like many an adolescent driver before it, is arguing that a few dings here and there don't really amount to much and says it's getting better with experience.

The Associated Press reported recently that three of Google's self-driving cars have been involved in accidents since September, when California allowed them to begin using public roards. Google doesn't deny that but says its cars have logged 1.7 million miles since 2009, more than twice the 700,000 the AP reported. They've also been involved in 11 minor accidents, according to Google, not just three.

Driving record

Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving initiative, says 11 accidents in 1.7 million miles is a lot better record than most humans achieve.

Also chiming in is Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit organization that is calling on Google to release all of the data it has on the accidents.

“It is important that the public know what happened,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, in a letter to Google.  “You are testing driverless vehicles on public highways, quite possibly putting other drivers at risk.” 

But Urmson says Google's cars are much safer than those driven by humans.

"If you spend enough time on the road, accidents will happen whether you’re in a car or a self-driving car. Over the 6 years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident," Urmson wrote in a blog posting on Medium. 

Urmson said that in most of the accidents, there was nothing Google's driver -- human or otherwise -- could have done to avoid being hit.

"Rear-end crashes are the most frequent accidents in America, and often there’s little the driver in front can do to avoid getting hit; we’ve been hit from behind seven times, mainly at traffic lights but also on the freeway," he said. "We’ve also been side-swiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign. ... We have a detailed review process and try to learn something from each incident, even if it hasn’t been our fault.

Simpson said Google should make all of the accident reports public.

“Rather than hide behind the cloak of DMV confidentiality, Google should disclose the accident report and the full details of the incident.  We also call on you to commit to making all future accident reports public,” he said in a letter to Google executives.

 

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Small overlap tests on midsize SUVs yield mixed results

Three vehicles from Chrysler and one from Hyundai struggle

Results from the latest round of small overlap front crash testing of midsize SUVs are in, and the results are mixed. Three vehicles achieved good or acce...