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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 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.

    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...
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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.

    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.

    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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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.

      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,...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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).

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

      It 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.

      Harris 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.

      Founded 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.

      Much 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

      Lazard 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.  

      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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      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 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.

      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 ...
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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. 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.

      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...
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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 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.”

      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...
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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 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.”

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

      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.

      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%.

      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.

      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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      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 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

      Because 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.

      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...
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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.

      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.

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

      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...
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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 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.  

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

      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.

      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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      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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

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

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

      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) ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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.

      The 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.

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

      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 ...
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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 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:

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.”

      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...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.”

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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).

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 $160,000.

      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.

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

      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 ...
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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. 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.

      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....
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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% 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
      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%...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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      Credit reporting agencies agree to consumer-friendly changes

      Experian, Equifax and TransUnion will also pay $6 million to 31 states

      Whether it is applying for a mortgage, buying a car or even applying for a job, consumers are at the mercy of their credit reports. If there is negative information that is wrong, it is often a difficult, cumbersome process to correct it.

      Soon, it should be easier. The attorneys general from 31 states have reached a settlement with the three credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – to implement a broad list of consumer-friendly reforms. In addition, the companies will pay the states $6 million.

      The changes include providing better protections for consumers who find errors on their credit reports, limiting when medical debts can be placed on a consumer’s credit report and establishing specific protocols for victims of identity theft who find fraudulent accounts and debts in their name.

      Mounting complaints

      Amid mounting consumer complaints, the 31 state officials launched an investigation into how the three credit reporting agencies compile and maintain consumer data and how they investigate and handle consumer disputes. The investigation found room for improvement.

      The probe looked closely at how the credit reporting agencies investigate consumer disputes about errors on credit reports, hold accountable the providers of credit reporting information, known as data furnishers, maintain accurate consumer information and market credit monitoring products to consumers who call the credit reporting agencies to dispute information on their credit report.

      As a result the credit reporting agencies will now have to hold data furnishers to higher standards, provide greater protections for consumers who dispute information on their credit reports, limit the kinds of information that can go on a credit report and provide additional consumer education.

      The agencies have also agreed to dial back the direct-to-consumer marketing of their credit monitoring and other services.

      How the changes will help

      From now on, when there are complex disputes, such as those involving identity theft, there will be an escalated process for handling it. When one agency finds one consumer’s information has been mixed with the file of another, it must notify the other two agencies of the mix-up.

      The settlement bars certain types of data from being added to a consumers file. For example, if you get a speeding ticket, that doesn’t go into your file.

      Medical debts cannot be placed in a consumer’s file for 180 days. That is to give the consumer time to work things out with the insurance company, since these debts are often the results of mistakes in billing.

      The settlement also requires debt collectors who report a debt to the credit agencies to provide the original creditor’s name and information about the debt.

      Greater control for consumers

      "Credit reports can be very useful, but when they are inaccurate, they can disrupt and damage the lives of hardworking families," said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. "This settlement helps ensure more accurate credit reporting and provides consumers greater control over the financial records that are compiled by the credit reporting agencies."

      The changes required under the settlement will be implemented in three phases to allow the credit reporting agencies to update their IT systems and procedures with data furnishers. All changes must be completed by three years and 90 days following the settlement’s effective date.

      Participating in the settlement are the attorneys general from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

      Whether it is applying for a mortgage, buying a car or even applying for a job, consumers are at the mercy of their credit reports. If there is negative in...
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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.

      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.

      For the third time since February, a Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurer admitted that hackers had breached security and compromised customer records....
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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 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.”

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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      April sees slowdown in existing-home sales

      Analysts blame low supply and high prices

      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.

      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.

      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...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      LQNN, Inc., of Garden Grove, Calif., is recalling approximately 213,192 pounds of chicken, beef and pork products. The products were produced without the ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Last week, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier urged the Department of Education (DoE) to investigate the for-profit college operator ITT Educational Se...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Schools churn out educated citizens (we hope) but they also churn out a lot of waste, including polystyrene fo...
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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 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.

      An increase in mortgage and Treasury rates pushed mortgage applications lower again last week. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly M...
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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, 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"

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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

      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?"

      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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      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 consumers that researchers at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) report finding traces of gluten in more than half the popular probiotics they tested.

      Tests performed on 22 top-selling probiotics revealed that 12 of them had detectable amounts of gluten.

      Probiotics are commonly taken by patients for their theoretical effect in promoting intestinal health, though evidence of benefits is limited to a few clinical situations.

      Supplement users have more symptoms

      “Many patients with celiac disease take dietary supplements, and probiotics are particularly popular,” said Dr. Samantha Nazareth, a gastroenterologist at CUMC and the first author of the study. “We have previously reported that celiac patients who use dietary supplements have more symptoms than non-users, so we decided to test the probiotics for gluten contamination.”

      Gluten is a protein in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Even though it has become trendy in recent years to exclude it from your diet, people with celiac disease really need to avoid it. Otherwise, they could encounter pain and gastric distress. There is some evidence it raises their cancer risks.

      It's important to note that the majority of the probiotics that tested positive for gluten contained really small amounts – less than 20 parts per million of the protein. In fact, they would be considered gluten-free by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards.

      However, four of the brands – 18% of the total – contained in excess of that amount. Two of them, the researchers said, carried a label declaring them to be “gluten free.”

      Inaccurate labeling

      “We have been following reports in the scientific literature and news media on inaccurate labeling of nutritional supplements, and it appears that labels claiming a product is gluten-free are not to be trusted, at least when it comes to probiotics,” said Dr. Peter Green, professor of medicine and director of the Celiac Disease Center, “This is a potential hazard for our patients, and we are concerned.”

      However, even the researchers concede it isn't clear if these trace amounts of gluten are enough to cause harm to someone with celiac disease.

      "We know that most patients with celiac disease only develop intestinal damage when consuming more than 10 milligrams of gluten daily, and it is unlikely that contaminated probiotics can lead to that amount unless patients are ingesting mega-doses," said Dr. Benjamin Lebwohl, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Celiac Disease Center and a co-author of the study. Still, these findings raise troubling questions.”

      For one, he asks why is there any gluten in these products at all, given that many of the people using it have no tolerance for the protein. He also wonders if other products labeled “gluten free” in fact might not be.

      “And given the great consumer interest in probiotics, will regulatory bodies take action to protect the public?” he asked.

      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 ...
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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.

      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.”

      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...
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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.

      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.

      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. ...
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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 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.

      Natural Creations of Woodbine, Iowa, is recalling a small quantity of Natural Creations New Zealand Colostrum dietary supplements. The product contains mi...
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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 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.

      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...
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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-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.

      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...
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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.

      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

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      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
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      Palmers Market Brand Products

      AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST IF USED BY DATE or DATE CODE RANGE
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      Walter Stewart Market Brand Products

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      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
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       Wild By Nature Brand Products

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      MACADAMIA NUTS8.0 oz. Plastic Cup6 - 55852 - 70083 - 012/10/15 – 12/30/15

      Aurora Products is recalling raw macadamia nuts packaged under the Aurora brand label and various store brand labels. The products may contain Salmonella...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Last week, the Window Covering Manufacturers Association (WCMA) announced that it was launching the “Best For Kids” program, a third-party certification pr...
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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 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.

      After the downfall of Corinthian Colleges, which declared bankruptcy earlier this month following years of legal troubles which included federal agencies r...
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      Walmart launching a free-shipping program for online sales

      Walmart joins Jet.com is targeting price-conscious shoppers

      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.

      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

      Fledgling 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.

      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. 

      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...
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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 in a new book, "Homes that Cook: Best Kept Secrets for Buying, Selling and Creating a Home."

      The book offers tips for selling your home but also includes more than 100 pages of recipes and cooking tips.

      "I have taken two very happy areas of my life and combined them in a book of real estate buying and selling tips along with delicious family recipes, with the hope that they will enrich people's lives and their quest for a home that cooks," Southerland said.

      Recipes are fine but for someone hoping to sell their home this spring the part dealing with real estate will probably be more useful.

      There are tips you may have heard before – things like having the closets half empty and changing to higher wattage light bulbs.

      On the other hand, there are probably some that could be new to you. Several have to do with holding an open house, a staple of real estate marketing.

      Open house dos and don'ts

      For example, don't attend your open house. Most Realtors will suggest the same thing for a very good reason. When you are looking at real estate you don't want to worry about offending the owner with very pointed and critical questions. But if you're going to buy the house, those questions have to be asked.

      Don't hang around your open house pretending to be a potential buyer. Southerland calls that “crazy behavior” that will likely drive away people who might actually make an offer. If you want feedback, ask your agent.

      Schedule your open house at a normal time. In most markets, that's Sunday afternoon. Southerland says there is something to be gained by scheduling your open house when other houses will be open. People who go to open houses usually like to visit several.

      Your neighbors are curious and may want to see your house. Instead of contemptuously dismissing them as “Lookie Lous,” Southerland says you should embrace them. Your neighbors can be good assets because they may know people who want to live in the neighborhood and can tell their friends about your property. Invite them to your open houses and offer flyers they can pass along.

      You can provide hospitality for your open house visitors but Southerland says going over-the-top could end up detracting from the event. After all, people are there to see real estate.

      Still, she says there's no harm in providing cool drinks on a hot day to make buyers more comfortable. It could actually motivate them to stay longer and see more of the house.

      Seasons

      When considering when it put your home on the market, consider seasons. What time of year will highlight its best features?

      A roaring fireplace in winter or beautiful spring blooms may help you get a better offer.

      When your property is being shown the showing agent should have full access to the property, including outbuildings. Unless safety is an issue, Southerland says you should not make any rooms, closets, or areas off limits to potential buyers.

      Finally, the most important tip has to do with price. All other things being equal, if the price is too high the home will sit on the market.

      If you want the home to move quickly, Southerland suggests having an appraisal to determine the market value of the home, then pricing it 15% to 20% below that.

      This may sound counterintuitive, but in many markets this will likely cause a bidding war between potential buyers that may drive the price up even higher than it's worth.

      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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      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 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.    

      Prospective homebuyers continue to face the prospect of paying more for the money they borrow. Freddie Mac reports average fixed mortgage rates are higher...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be looking into student loan servicing practices that can make paying back loans a hassle. Among the ...
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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 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.”

      For the first time ever, consumers are spending more at restaurants than grocery stores.National Restaurant Association (NRA) Chief Economist Bruce Gri...
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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 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.

      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.

      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...
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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 (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.

      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...
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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, 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.

      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,...
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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 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

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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).

      Toyota Motor Sales is expanding its recalls involving Takata air bag inflators. First, the automaker is conducting a recall to replace Takata-supplied dr...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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.

      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.   

      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...
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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 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.

      For a third consecutive week there's been a decline in applications for mortgages. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications S...
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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 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%).

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      In recent years high school students and their parents have obsessed over the college admissions process. Certain colleges have become like designer con...
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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 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.

      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...
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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

      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.

      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...
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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 acceptable ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), but many models -- including three newly rated SUVs from Fiat Chrysler and one from Hyundai -- continue to struggle with the test.

      The Nissan Murano earns a good rating and, with a superior-rated optional front crash prevention system, qualifies for the Institute's highest award, TOP SAFETY PICK+. The Ford Flex earns an acceptable rating and qualifies for TOP SAFETY PICK.

      Choices abound

      Consumers looking for a midsize SUV now have seven choices that qualify for awards from IIHS. The earlier winners are the Toyota Highlander with TOP SAFETY PICK+ and the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Kia Sorento and Nissan Pathfinder, which all earn TOP SAFETY PICK.

      Among the seven 2015 models in this round of testing, the Jeep Wrangler four-door model also picked up a good small overlap rating. However, the Wrangler offers only marginal protection in side and rear crashes, so it's not a recommended choice. It also lacks a fixed roof, so it can't provide good protection in rollover crashes.

      Aside from the Wrangler, three other Fiat Chrysler SUVs were tested for small overlap protection and didn't fare well. The Dodge Journey earns a poor rating, and the Dodge Durango and Jeep Cherokee earn marginal ratings. The Hyundai Santa Fe also earns a marginal rating.

      The test

      The small overlap test replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object such as a tree or utility pole. In the test, 25 percent of a vehicle's front end on the driver's side strikes a rigid barrier at 40 mph.

      The test is more difficult than either the head-on crashes conducted by the government or the longstanding IIHS moderate overlap test. That's because, in a small overlap test, the main structures of the vehicle's front-end crush zone are bypassed, making it hard for the vehicle to manage crash energy. The occupant compartment can collapse as a result.

      Since IIHS began small overlap testing in 2012, manufacturers have responded to the challenge in two ways: One is by taking the test into account when models are redesigned. The other is by making smaller modifications to beef up the front structure and improve airbags even before a model gets a full overhaul.

      "This test presented a major challenge for manufacturers when it was introduced three years ago, and many have adapted quickly," said IIHS Chief Research Officer David Zuby. "Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep have had some successes with redesigned models, but they haven't done much in the way of interim improvements. As a result, they still have many models that rate poor or marginal."

      Murano tops the list

      The best performer in the current group of seven is the redesigned 2015 Murano. It hit all the marks for ideal small overlap protection. The driver space held up well, with maximum intrusion of 5 inches at the lower door hinge pillar. The dummy's movement was well-controlled, and its head hit the front airbag and stayed there until rebound.

      The side curtain airbag deployed with sufficient forward coverage to protect the head from contact with side structure and outside objects. Measures taken from the dummy indicate a low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of this severity.

      In addition to earning a good small overlap rating, the Murano improved its roof strength rating to good from the previous generation's marginal rating. The optional front crash prevention also is new for 2015. The Murano's autobrake nearly avoided a collision in the 12 mph IIHS track test and reduced the vehicle's speed by 11 mph in the 25 mph test. The Murano also earns a point for meeting federal criteria for forward collision warning systems.

      Journey at the bottom

      The Journey is the worst performer in the group and a classic example of poor small overlap protection. The occupant compartment failed to hold up, with intrusion measuring as much as 9 inches at the instrument panel and the parking brake pedal, which tore through the dummy's left lower leg. Injuries to the left hip, left knee and right lower leg also would be possible.

      The dummy's head barely contacted the front airbag before sliding off the left side, as the steering column moved to the right. The side curtain airbag failed to deploy, leaving the dummy's head vulnerable to contact with side structure and outside objects.

      The Journey was introduced in 2009, and its poor rating applies to the previous models.

      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...
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      Spring home buyers face tightening market conditions

      Prices are rising but the number of available homes isn't

      With the economy improving and rents rising, more people may be looking to transition into home ownership this spring. But a new report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) suggests this year's housing market poses some stiff challenges.

      In it's review of the first quarter of the year, NAR finds home prices have risen while the number of homes on the market has not kept pace. That means attractively priced real estate in good locations often draws multiple offers.

      That said, some markets are more competitive than others. In some areas houses move quickly while in others, they linger on the market.

      Median price up in 85% of markets

      Still, the report shows the number of U.S. metros experiencing double-digit price appreciation doubled compared to last quarter. For existing single family homes, the median price increased in 85% of the measured markets.

      The median price dipped in only 14%, or a total of 25 markets.

      "Sales activity to start the year was notably higher than a year ago, as steady hiring and low interest rates encouraged more buyers to enter the market," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "However, stronger demand without increasing supply led to faster price growth in many markets."

      The national median existing single-family home price in the first quarter was $205,200, up 7.4% from the first quarter of 2014. Still, that's not yet back to pre-housing crash levels.

      According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation's median home price peaked in February 2008 at $245,300.

      Sales declined

      Despite the rising prices for single-family homes, the number of existing home sales actually went down in the first quarter – a quirk Yun attributes the the tighter inventory of homes for sale.

      At the end of March there were 2 million existing homes available for sale in the U.S., slightly above the 1.96 million homes for sale at the end of the first quarter in 2014. But demand for homes was greater than the year before, resulting in higher sale prices.

      The average supply during the first quarter was 4.6 months – down from 4.9 months a year ago. NAR says a supply of 6 to 7 months represents a healthy balance of supply between buyers and sellers.

      Buyers are out there

      NAR President Chris Polychron says all indicators point to renewed interest on the part of potential buyers.

      "Realtors are reporting increased foot traffic this spring as more consumers are feeling confident about their financial situation and looking to lock-in before rates eventually start to climb," he said.

      But he too notes that supplies of homes in many markets are tight, especially at entry level prices. Yun says one reason is because current homeowners who have accumulated equity appear reluctant to move up.

      "They aren't confident they'll find another home to buy,” he said. “This trend – in addition to subpar homebuilding activity – is leading to the ongoing inventory shortages and subsequent run-up in prices seen in many markets."

      With the economy improving and rents rising, more people may be looking to transition into home ownership this spring. But a new report from the National A...
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      Gripes about airline service on the rise

      Complaints rose on both a year-over-year and month-over-month basis

      The airline industry is getting an earful from its passengers.

      According to the Transportation Department’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, consumer complaints filed with its Aviation Consumer Protection Division shot up 55.1% from the same time a year ago and rose 27.2% from the previous month.

      The report shows DOT received 1,733 complaints about airline service from consumers this past March, compared with the total of 1,117 filed in March 2014, and the 1,362 received in February.

      For the first quarter of the year, there were 4,580 complaints -- up 14.4% from the 4,002 filed during the first quarter of 2014. DOT routinely contacts individual carriers when it notices spikes or significant variations in complaint types or complaint levels in regulated areas.

      The consumer report also includes data on tarmac delays, on-time performance, cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays. In addition, it contains statistics on passengers denied confirmed space (oversales/bumping), mishandled baggage, and disability and discrimination complaints.

      Finally, the consumer report includes reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of animals traveling by air.

      The complete report is available on the DOT website.  

      The airline industry is getting an earful from its passengers. According to the Transportation Department’s (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, consumer com...
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      Fewer jobs up for grabs in March

      Hiring was up in the Midwest

      There were fewer jobs available in March than there were in February.

      The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports there were 5.0 million job openings on the last business day of March, compared with 5.1 million the month before. Hiring also were little changed at 5.1 million in, as were separations were little changed at 5.0 million.

      Job openings

      The number of job openings (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in March

      for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Job openings increased over the year for many industries including professional and business services, health care and social assistance, and accommodation and food services. Job openings fell over the year in mining and logging.

      The number of job openings increased over the year in all four regions.

      Hires

      Over the 12 months ending in March, the number of hires (not seasonally adjusted) increased for total nonfarm and total private and was little changed for government. Hires increased in wholesale trade as well as in accommodation and food services. The number of hires decreased in mining and logging.

      The number of hires increased in the Midwest region.

      Separations

      The separations rate was 3.5%.Total separations, which includes quits, layoffs and discharges, and other separations, is referred to as turnover. Quits are generally voluntary separations initiated by the employee. Therefore, the quits rate can serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs.

      Layoffs and discharges are involuntary separations initiated by the employer. Other separations include separations due to retirement, death, and disability, as well as transfers to other locations of the same firm. The number of total separations was little changed in total private and government but increased in the Midwest region.

      Over the 12 months ending in March 2015, hires totaled 59.7 million and separations totaled 56.7 million, yielding a net employment gain of 3.0 million.

      These totals include workers who may have been hired and separated more than once during the year.

      The full report is available on the BLS website. 

      There were fewer jobs available in March than there were in February. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports there were 5.0 million job openings on ...
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      Schylling recalls Police Press and Go toy vehicles

      The hat can detach from the policeman’s head and pose a choking hazard

      Schylling Inc. of Rowley, Mass., is recalling about 15,300 Police Press & Go toy vehicles in the U.S. and Canada.

      The hat can detach from the policeman’s head and pose a choking hazard to young children.

      The company has received 1 report of the police hat detaching from the toy vehicles. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves the Police Press & Go toy vehicles. The white plastic toy cars have a painted dark blue hood and trunk, light blue windshield with a black eyes and mouth painted on the front of the car. There is a police head coming out of the roof of the car wearing a blue police hat with a green star on the center of the hat. When the police head is pressed down it winds up the motor and the car moves forward.

      The toy vehicles measure about 2.5 inches wide by 3.5 inches long by 3.5 inches tall. “Schylling Rowley, MA” and UPC number “01964922782” are printed on the bottom of the toy cars.

      The toys, manufactured in China, were sold at specialty toy and gift stores nationwide from April 2010, through April 2015, for about $5.

      Consumers may contact Schylling at (800) 767-8697 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday, or by email at SafetyAlert@Schylling.com.

      Schylling Inc. of Rowley, Mass., is recalling about 15,300 Police Press & Go toy vehicles in the U.S. and Canada. The hat can detach from the policeman’s ...
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      Good Seed recalls soybean & mung bean sprouts

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Good Seed Inc. of Springfield, Va., is recalling all packages of soybean sprouts and mung bean sprouts.

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      The following products are being recalled:

      • 1-lb bags of soybean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled “GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts” “Keep Refrigerated” with a UPC Code of “21111 10035” produced on or after April 1, 2015.
      • 2-lb bags of soybean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled “GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts” “Keep Refrigerated” with a UPC Code of “21112 58772” produced on or after April 1, 2015.
      • 10-lb bags of soybean sprouts in black plastic bags labeled with a sticker “GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts” produced on or after April 1, 2015.
      • 1-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled “GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts” “Keep Refrigerated” with a UPC code of “21111 20136” produced on or after April 1, 2015.
      • 2-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled “GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts” “Keep Refrigerated” with a UPC code of “21111 25871” produced on or after April 1, 2015.
      • 10-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled with a sticker “GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts” produced on or after April 1, 2015.

      These recalled items were distributed to retail stores in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and North Carolina.

      Customers should return the products to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company directly at 703-392-0075 or the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Food Safety Program at 804-786-1006.

      Good Seed Inc. of Springfield, Va., is recalling all packages of soybean sprouts and mung bean sprouts. The products may be contaminated with Listeria mon...
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      Financial decisions should be based on reason, not fear

      But there seems to be a lot of fear out there

      Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul has been getting more screen time lately than his son Rand, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

      The senior Paul, who sought the GOP nomination himself representing the Libertarian wing of the party, is a Tea Party favorite and harsh critic of the Federal Reserve. His image is all over the Internet and cable TV under the dire headline “Crisis Bigger than 2008 is coming!”

      Though in many of its Internet placements it looks like a news story, it is actually an advertisement for a company called Stansberry Research. In a video infomercial produced by the company, Paul warns of a coming currency crisis affecting the U.S. dollar that he says will wipe out the savings of millions of Americans, primarily seniors.

      “It's not a question of if this will happen,” Paul says confidently in the video, “but when.”

      Stansberry research, which says you can protect yourself and even profit from the coming crisis, doesn't sell annuities or other investment products. It describes itself as a publisher, producing financial newsletter and reports about those products and the financial landscape in general.

      Disclaimer

      “Under no circumstances should you construe anything that appears in our newsletters, reports, or on our website as personalized investment advice,” the company declares in its disclosures. “Our recommendations and analysis are based on Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings, current events, interviews, corporate press releases, and what we've learned as financial journalists. It may contain errors, and you shouldn't make any investment decision based solely on what you read here.”

      In other words, the company looks at publicly available financial data and draws its own conclusions, publishing those opinions in reports and newsletters that it sells to the public. Nothing wrong with that.

      It's just using a strong dose of fear to close the deal. And it isn't alone.

      Prepring for World War III

      Another frequent Internet warning comes from Money Morning, another financial publisher, with the headline “CIA insider breaks silence of global currency wars.” It features a video interview with former CIA operative Jim Rickards, who warns U.S. intelligence agencies have begun preparing for World War III.

      Like Paul, Rickards traces the problem to the Fed, charging it is essentially broke. But in the video, he outlines specific investments that he says could profit in such a catastrophic environment. For its part, Money Morning is a bit less emphatic.

      “Readers should be aware that although our track record is highly rated, and has been legally reviewed for presentation in this invitation, investment markets have inherent risks and there can be no guarantee of future profits,” its disclaimer reads. Likewise, our past performance does not assure the same future results. Warning: The past performance of any trade whether actual or hypothetical is not necessarily an indication of future results.”

      Remember gold?

      In fact, investors would be wise not to be swayed by scary pitches. One only has to remember 2011 and 2012 when the Internet and cable TV airwaves carried countless ads urging investors to sink their money into physical gold to protect themselves from impending financial doom. As we reported last year, investors who followed that advice haven't fared so well.

      In the post-financial-crisis environment, investing profitably isn't easy and there are plenty of things to consider and even worry about. But like most important decisions, ones involving finances should be based on careful reason rather than fear.

      Actually, Stansberry Research offers some pretty good advice, buried deep within its disclosure.

      “If you are not an experienced investor, we urge you to get as much education as possible and to consult a licensed individual advisor before making investments of any kind.”

      You can find a Certified Financial Planner here

      Former Texas Congressman Ron Paul has been getting more screen time lately than his son Rand, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. The...
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      Facebook-funded Facebook study concludes Facebook News Feed biases are not Facebook's fault

      Yet the sample population was arguably too small and too biased for the study to be of much use

      Fairly or not, Facebook's algorithms have long been blamed for various complaints Facebook users have about what appears in their feeds, including the complaint (common to many social media platforms) that Facebook participation tends to result in an online “echo chamber,” where you're only shown stories that reinforce, rather than challenge, whatever views and opinions you already have.

      But last week, those algorithms were apparently vindicated after the scientific journal Science published a paper titled “Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook,” written by Facebook-employed researchers, which basically concluded that neither Facebook nor its algorithms are to blame for any echo-chamber effects in your feeds; you are.

      Or, as MIT's Technology Review put it, “Facebook says you filter news more than its algorithm does; a Facebook study of 10 million users shows that your selection of friends holds more sway than filtering algorithms when it comes to seeing news from opposing political viewpoints.”

      Facebook's researchers studied the URLs shared by millions of anonymized American Facebook users whose profiles self-identified them as either politically liberal or politically conservative, then concluded that (contrary to popular belief) the news a politically opinionated Facebook user sees “while interacting via Facebook’s algorithmically ranked News Feed” is influenced more by that user's own self-selected Facebook friends than by the algorithms. So any problems you might have with your Facebook feed are your own fault, not Facebook's.

      "Not our fault"

      At least, that's how some critics interpreted the results. The day after Facebook's Science article appeared, Wired magazine summarized it as “Facebook: It's Not Our Fault.”

      PandoDaily was a bit more opinionated, calling the Science article “less a piece of objective scientific inquiry and more the work of corporate-commissioned data tricksters —  a rancid pile of pro-Facebook propaganda that derives and frames its conclusions with the sole purpose of making Facebook look good.”

      It's hard to say conclusively what's going on, in part because Facebook's algorithms are proprietary secrets known only to a handful of high-ranking Facebook insiders, and also because those algorithms are always changing.

      For example: last May, when Facebook came under fire for promoting blatantly false news stories as part of its then-new “related articles” system, an unnamed Facebook spokeswoman blamed the problem on “algorithms” (whereas critics suggested the actual problem was more a lack of standards on Facebook's part).

      If you're active on Facebook, you've surely noticed (and even enjoyed the occasional laugh about) how foolish those algorithms often seem to be: post a withering insult about your least-favorite politician, and Facebook's algorithms will latch on to his name and recommend that you “Like” his page and donate to his re-election campaign. (Which, in all fairness, is pretty much the exact opposite of any “echo chamber” complaints.)

      Doctor Who vs. "a doctor who"

      Nor is this limited to political topics. A couple summers ago a good friend of mine, an American fan of the British science fiction series Doctor Who, kept getting constant Facebook recommendations that he read news articles about then-current doping allegations in the world of European competitive bicycle racing; eventually he figured out it's because the articles all mentioned a doctor who might have helped certain athletes cheat.

      Then again, Facebook users such as my Doctor Who-loving friend were not included in Facebook's Science study, which focused only on American users who don't merely have opinions about politics, but choose to self-identify as either “liberal” or “conservative” in their Facebook profiles.

      So how many people are we talking about? Only 4% of American Facebook users, all of whom share a particular trait not shared by the other 96% – the specific trait of putting one of the two most common American political labels (“liberal” or “conservative”) in their own Facebook profile descriptions.

      As Zeynep Tufekci, as assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, pointed out in a Medium post about the study (italics lifted from the original): “The gold standard of sampling is random, where every unit has equal chance of selection, which allows us to do amazing things like predict elections with tiny samples of thousands. … [but] in cases like this, the sampling affects behavior: people who self-identify their politics are almost certainly going to behave quite differently, on average, than people who do not, when it comes to the behavior in question which is sharing and clicking through ideologically challenging content. So, everything in this study applies only to that small subsample of unusual people.”

      Fairly or not, Facebook's algorithms have long been blamed for various complaints Facebook users have about what appears in their feeds, including the comp...
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      Lower gas prices likely to produce a lot more Memorial Day travelers

      Prices at the pump are about $1 a gallon cheaper than last year

      Millions of people are going to be taking to the nation's highways over the Memorial Day weekend – May 21 – 25, and unlike the last few years, they're going to feel a little better about it.

      Since 2008 refueling stops on the first unofficial weekend of summer were filled with angst. In 2011 prices had just peaked at a national average price of just under $4 a gallon when the holiday weekend arrived.

      Gasoline prices vary state to state but most drivers will likely see the lowest Memorial Day pump prices in at least 5 years. The recent national average price of $2.66 a gallon suggests rising prices during the spring, due to refinery maintenance and the switch-over to summer blends of fuel, has just about peaked.

      $1 a gallon less

      Even at that elevated price – about 26 cents a gallon more than a month ago -- fuel is $1.00 less than last year's average Memorial Day price.

      Travel is expected to be up all the way around with AAA projecting that 88% will travel by car and another 2.6 million booking flights on airlines, an increase of 2.5% from last year.

      While gasoline prices and air fares are down travelers may find it more expensive this year to stay in a hotel. Still, AAA says many consumers are ready to splurge a little.

      "Following a harsh winter, many Americans are trading in their snow boots for flip flops and making plans to start the season with a vacation getaway," said Marshall L. Doney, president of AAA. "AAA is expecting more Memorial Day travelers this year than any time in the past 10 years as confident consumers come out of hibernation ready to explore national parks, beach destinations and America's great cities."

      Lower gasoline prices, which have yet to make much of an impact on economic data over the last 6 months, may finally be showing up. Doney says savings at the gas pump, along with more encouraging hiring data from U.S. employers, are lifting both consumers' optimism and their disposable income.

      Travel tips

      For travelers hitting the road a couple of weeks from now, AAA has some advice; inspect your car – particularly battery and tire condition – before heading out on a holiday getaway. AAA says its principal Memorial Day weekend road service calls are for flat tires and dead batteries, along with lock-outs.

      If you plan to travel by air to your holiday weekend destination, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reminds travelers to plan for extra time to clear security.

      TSA said it screens approximately 1.8 million passengers each day at more than 450 airports nationwide. During major holidays, including the Memorial Day travel period, TSA sees a spike in the number of passengers screened at airport checkpoints across the country.

      If you or a member of your party has disabilities or medical conditions that make air travel difficult there's a special TSA hot line that will answer questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint. Injured service members and veterans including individuals associated with a wounded warrior program may contact TSA Cares to help facilitate the screening process.

      The hotline number is 1-855-787-2227.

      Millions of people are going to be taking to the nation's highways over the Memorial Day weekend – May 21 – 25, and unlike the last few years, they're goin...
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      Study finds TV ads still promote unhealthy food to children

      Researchers say industry's voluntary standards are too lax

      Amid concerns about childhood obesity, the food industry adopted voluntary standards for the food it advertises on television programs for children.

      The industry agreed to nutritional standards the advertised food should meet, setting limits on trans fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium.

      So how does reality sync up with aspiration? Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, organized a research project to monitor 103 kids' shows on 2 cable channels and 5 broadcast networks.

      The team said it found the industry has kept its promise, but still has a lot of room for improvement.

      Nutritionally deficient food

      "The long-standing pattern favoring nutritionally deficient food products over more-healthy items clearly persisted despite the advent of industry self-regulation,” Kunkel said. “This outcome occurred largely because participants in self-regulation achieved no significant improvement in the nutritional quality of their advertised foods between 2007 and 2013."

      The research team found that 80% of the food products advertised to children fall into what it calls the poorest nutritional category set by US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guidelines.

      So how can the food industry be keeping its promise but still be falling short? Kunkel says it has to do with the industry standards.

      In 2006 the industry formed the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), the means for the nation's 17 largest food companies to set nutritional standards for child-targeted ads.

      However, it was left up to each participating company to set its own standards. For example, Kellogg pledged that all child-targeted advertising will contain a maximum per serving of 200 calories, 2 grams (g) saturated fat/0 g trans fat, 230 milligrams (mg) sodium, and 12 g added sugar.

      Industry meeting its guidelines

      The study finds that CFBAI-participating companies have completely delivered on promises by advertising only products that meet nutritional guidelines agreed to by their parent corporations and have used licensed characters solely in advertising for products that comply with their parent corporations' guidelines for healthier products.

      In that regard, Kunkel says the industry has done everything it promised. His complaint is with the standards themselves. He says a number of companies have classified a product as healthy if only a small portion of an unhealthy ingredient has been removed from its formulation.

      When the researchers analyzed the products they found the food hit the companies' stated benchmarks but fell short of HHS nutritional standards. Companies that did not sign on to CFBAI standards, Kunkel says, tended to advertise the least-healthy food products.

      "Deficiency in the nutritional standards employed by industry self-regulation has already been recognized as a critical shortcoming," Kunkel said.

      The Association of National Advertisers takes strong exception to Kunkel's conclusions. A spokesman told Reuters that the nutritional standards the researchers are holding the food industry to “went way overboard,” claiming 87% of the most consumed food products in the U.S. wouldn't pass the test.

      "In the face of pleas for advertising reform, the food industry has achieved what might be labeled as baby steps," Kunkel said.

      But he says the takeaway from the study is the limits of self-regulation. Continuing to rely on self-regulation, he predicts, won't achieve the goal of reducing childhood obesity.

      Amid concerns about childhood obesity, the food industry adopted voluntary standards for the food it advertises on television programs for children. The...
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      Shelters fight Black Dog Syndrome

      Black dogs and cats spend longer in shelters than lighted-colored critters

      It is a fact -- black dogs have a harder time getting adopted than lighter-colored dogs. Shelter and rescue group workers call it BDS -- Black Dog Syndrome..

      Baby’s Dream recalls cribs and furniture

      The paint on the products exceeds federal lead limits

      Baby’s Dream Furniture of Buena Vista, Ga., is recalling about 4,600 cribs and furniture pieces.

      The vintage grey paint on the cribs, furniture, and accessories exceeds federal lead limits. If ingested, lead can cause adverse health effects.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Baby’s Dream full-size cribs, furniture and accessories sold in a vintage grey paint finish under the Brie, Braxton, Heritage, Everything Nice and Legendary collections. Cribs and furniture included in this recall were manufactured between March 2014 and March 2015.

      A label affixed to the bottom of the crib’s back frame and the back panel of the furniture lists the product name, date and location of manufacture, model number and purchase order number (PO#).

      The following model numbers are included in the recall:

      EVERYTHING NICE COLLECTION

      PRODUCT

      MODEL

      PO#

      Spice Crib

      SPCRPVG

      4812-2, 4816-2, 4820-1

      Sugar Crib

      SUCRPVG

      4812-3, 4815-1, 4817-2, 4820-2

      Hutch

      EVHUPVG

      4814-7, 4822-6

      Double Dresser

      EVDDPVG

      4812-7, 4814-6, 4817-4, 4821-5

      Single Dresser

      EVSDPVG

      4817-5, 4823-6

      5-Drawer Chest

      EV5CPVG

      4813-6

      Bookcase

      EVBCPVG

      4816-7

      Nightstand

      EVNSPVG

      4814-12, 4818-11, 4822-12

      LEGENDARY COLLECTION

      PRODUCT

      MODEL

      PO#

      Panel Flat Crib

      LGSPFPVG

      4814-4, 4820-6

      Stationary Crib (Flat Top)

      LGCRFPVG

      4813-5

      Safety-Gate Crib (Flat Top)

      LGSGFPVG

      4814-3, 4818-5

      Stationary Crib (Curve Top)

      LGCRCPVG

      4815-5, 4822-4

      Safety-Gate Crib (Curve Top)

      LGSGCPVG

      4815-4, 4819-2

      Hutch

      LGHUPVG

      4814-11, 4819-6

      Double Dresser

      LGDDPVG

      4813-8, 4815-10, 4817-8, 4819-5

      Single Dresser

      LGDRPVG

      4815-11

      5-Drawer Chest

      LG5CPVG

      4815-9, 4818-8

      Bookcase

      LGBCPVG

      4823-8

      Nightstand

      LGNSPVG

      4812-16, 4815-13

      Legendary Guard Rail

      LGGRPVG

      4814-16, 4822-13

      Caps & Short Post

      LGSGCSPVG

      4814-17

      BRIE & BRAXTON COLLECTION & HERITAGE SINGLE DRESSER

      PRODUCT

      MODEL

      PO#

      Brie Crib

      BECRPVG

      4813-1, 4816-1, 4818-1

      Braxton Crib

      BXCRPVG

      4812-1, 4817-1, 4819-1

      Heritage Single Dresser

      HGSDPVG

      4815-8, 4817-7, 4818-7

      ACCESSORIES

      PRODUCT

      MODEL

      PO#

      Baby’s Dream Changer Tray

      BDCTPVG

      4812-15, 4816-11, 4821-10

      Universal Guard Rail

      BDGRPVG

      4819-9, 4813-12, 4815-15

      Universal Full Bed Adult Rails

      BDARPVG

      4811-18, 4812-18, 4814-15, 4815-14, 4818-13, 4821-11

      Universal Queen Bed Adult Rails

      BDQRPVG

      4812-20, 4816-13, 4821-12

      The cribs and furniture, manufactured in Chile, were sold at specialty furniture stores nationwide and online at BabysDream.com from March 2014, through March 2015, for between $350 and $900 for the cribs, and between $450 and $1,000 for the dressers, hutches, nightstands, bookcases and chests. Additional accessories were sold for between $100 and $300.

      Consumers should immediately contact Baby’s Dream to arrange for an exchange at (800) 835-2742 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

      Baby’s Dream Furniture of Buena Vista, Ga., is recalling about 4,600 cribs and furniture pieces. The vintage grey paint on the cribs, furniture, and acce...
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      Walker's Foods recalls pork products

      The products contain soy, an allergen not listed on the label

      Walker's Foods of Carrollton, Ga., is recalling approximately 46,612 pounds of pork-with-sauce products.

      The products contain soy, an allergen not listed on the label.

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

      The following products are being recalled:

      • 38,462.5 lbs. (in 5-lb. tubs) of "WALKER'S PIT COOKED BARBEQUED PORK WITH SAUCE" bearing packing codes "50115 to 50716."
      • 8,150 lbs. (in 24- oz. tubs) of "WALKER'S PIT COOKED BARBEQUED PORK WITH SAUCE" bearing packing codes "50115 to 50716."

      The products, which bear the establishment numbers "EST. 9062" inside the USDA mark of inspection, were shipped for institutional distribution and to retail stores in Alabama and Georgia.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Walker's Foods Public Relations Manager Nicole Walker at (770) 834-8171 or by email at Nicole@walkermeats.com.

      Walker's Foods of Carrollton, Ga., is recalling approximately 46,612 pounds of pork-with-sauce products. The products contain soy, an allergen not listed ...
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      Honda recalls CBR1000S motorcycles

      The motorcycles may have been built with an improperly manufactured rear shock absorber

      Honda is recalling 504 model year 2014 Honda CBR1000S motorcycles manufactured December 9, 2013, to March 28, 2014, and 2015 Honda CBR1000S motorcycles manufactured October 20, 2014, to February 27, 2015.

      The recalled motorcycles may have been built with an improperly manufactured rear shock absorber. The nut on the damper rod for these shock absorbers may loosen, resulting in a loss of damping and the possible disassembling of the shock.

      If the damper rod nut loosens, shock absorber performance would be affected, possibly causing a loss of vehicle control and increasing the risk of a crash.

      Honda will notify owners, and dealers will remove the shock assembly and send it to the supplier's service center for repair. Once repaired, the supplier's service center will ship the shock assembly back to the dealer and the dealership will reinstall the shock on the motorcycle. This work will be performed free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-866-784-1870. Honda's number for this recall is JQ3.

      Honda is recalling 504 model year 2014 Honda CBR1000S motorcycles manufactured December 9, 2013, to March 28, 2014, and 2015 Honda CBR1000S motorcycles man...
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      Will the Apple Watch make distracted driving worse?

      Some people are already worrying about the device's potential downside

      There is no doubt the Apple Watch does many cool things and over time, consumers may find even more uses for it.

      But people who worry about distracted driving now have a new concern – that drivers wearing an Apple Watch might become even more distracted, making the highways less safe.

      Maybe they have a point. You might be driving in traffic and your Apple watch vibrates. If it were your cellphone, maybe you would leave it in your pocket until you could safely pull over and retrieve and respond to the message.

      But the watch is on your wrist. All you have to do is glance at it. Is that a dangerous distraction? There are people trying to figure that out.

      Still trying to figure it out

      “The Apple Watch has great potential,” said Eddie Bermudez, Manager of Product Development for GPSTrackIt.com. “But we’re still trying to get a handle on cell phone use and the impact that has on distracted driving.”

      GPSTrackIt.com is a firm in the fleet management industry, meaning it assists companies that operate fleets of cars and trucks. One of its roles is to make sure the vehicles are operated in a safe manner.

      This industry has been focused on distracted driving since cellphones became a ubiquitous part of modern life. It has backed state laws that fine drivers for talking or texting while behind the wheel.

      According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 14 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands all have some form of primary handheld device ban. This applies to using a smartphone for navigation as well as for communication.

      “This means that law enforcement doesn’t need another reason to pull you over,” said Bermudez. “And those are just the states that ban the use of handheld devices while driving. Many other states have cell phone or texting bans, with specific criteria like for school bus drivers or novice drivers.”

      Uncharted waters

      So now a new device has entered the mix, one that is always close at hand and performs a multitude of functions. Users can receive text messages on the watch, which vibrates to alert them to an incoming message.

      With the watch attached to the wrist, Bermudez says a user will need the other hand to manipulate the device's controls.

      “Now they’re not just distracted, they’re driving one-handed,” he said. “And the watch is smaller, so it requires more attention to manipulate it.”

      Bermudez admits it is very early in the Apple Watch product cycle so it is hard to know just how it will add to driver distraction, if it does at all. But he says technological advances, even when it was expected they would improve safety, haven't always worked out that way.

      “Think about what happened with Google Glass,” he said. “They thought a ‘heads up display’ would be safer for drivers, but even that proved to be too distracting.”

      Many fleet managers have policies that require their drivers to turn off cell phones while driving. To make sure they do, some companies have even installed lock boxes in their vehicles to prevent drivers from even handling their phones while driving.

      That probably makes fleet vehicles a little safer on the road. But there are no such requirements for all the other drivers.

      There is no doubt the Apple Watch does many cool things and over time, consumers may find even more uses for it. But people who worry about distracted d...
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      Report finds Blue Bell Creameries knew about Listeria in 2013

      Recall didn't begin until March 2015

      Over the spring, Blue Bell Creameries recalled a number of ice cream products potentially contaminated with the Listeria bacteria. In late April it expanded the recall to include all products.

      Now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded that the company had evidence of the contamination long before it began recalling its products.

      According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as many as 10 consumers were infected with the Listeria bug in Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas between 2010 and 2015. There were 3 deaths in Kansas.

      Recalls began in March

      Blue Bell began the recalls in early March. On March 13, it reported that it had removed the affected ice cream products from the market by picking them up directly from the retailers and hospital settings the company serves. The firm also said it shut down the production line where the products were made.

      As part of the investigation, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) and the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) collected environmental samples, which are swabs from surfaces likely to come in contact with food, from the hospital kitchen.

      On April 3, the company said it had voluntarily suspended operations at its Broken Arrow, Okla., plant. But the FDA reports (PDF) Blue Bell uncovered at least 17 positive tests for Listeria at that plant as early as 2013, but did not take steps to improve sanitation procedures.

      Company will respond

      For it's part, the company said it is preparing a detailed response to the agency's inspection observations. However, a company spokesman confirmed to  The Wall Street Journal  that Blue Bell had discovered the presence of Listeria at a location inside its Broken Arrow plant but thought it had eliminated the problem.

      “The Broken Arrow plant has been closed for cleaning and sanitizing since April 3, 2015,” the company posted on its website. “Numerous cleaning, upgrade and facility construction projects are well underway or have been completed, including floor repairs, extensive equipment disassembly and sanitizing, and a re-design of the processing and production areas to increase production and cleaning efficiency and eliminate potential contamination pathways.”

      It also said the process of updating, cleaning and sanitizing the four Blue Bell production facilities, as well as training employees and implementing new programs and procedures, “will take longer than we initially anticipated.”

      Three strains

      The FDA said the three strains of Listeria related to the illnesses reported in Kansas and four other rare strains were found in samples of Blue Bell Creameries single serving Chocolate Chip Country Cookie Sandwich and the Great Divide Bar ice cream products collected by the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control.

      The samples were found during routine product sampling at a South Carolina distribution center on February 12, 2015. These products are manufactured at Blue Bell Creameries’ Brenham facility.

      The Texas Department of State Health Services later collected product samples from the Blue Bell Creameries Brenham facility. The FDA says these samples yielded Listeria monocytogenes from the same products tested by South Carolina and a third, single-serving ice cream product, Scoops, which is also made on the same production line.

      According to the Kansas health officials, hospital records available for four patients show that all were served ice cream from Blue Bell Creameries’ prepackaged, single-serving products and milkshakes made from these products. The hospital receives ice cream manufactured by Blue Bell Creameries but it could not be determine which plant produced it.

      Over the spring, Blue Bell Creameries recalled a number of ice cream products potentially contaminated with the Listeria bacteria. In late April it expande...
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      Job creation back on track

      The unemployment rate fell to a 7-year low

      After creating an anemic 85,000 (revised downward from 126,000) jobs in March, the economy got fired up and cranked out 223,000 nonfarm payroll positions in April, pushing the unemployment rate down 0.1% to 5.4% -- a 7-year low.

      Figures released by the Labor Department (DOL) show most of the job gains came in professional and

      business services, health care, and construction, while mining employment continued to decline.

      On and off the job

      Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for Asians rose to 4.4%, while the rates for adult men (5.0%), adult women (4.9%)+, teens (17.1%), whites (4.7%), blacks (9.6%), and Hispanics (6.9%) showed little or no change.

      The number of long-term unemployed (those without jobs for 27 weeks or more) was little-changed at 2.5 million, accounting for 29.0% of the unemployed. The number of long-term unemployed has decreased by 888,000 over the last 12 months.

      The civilian labor force participation rate (62.8%) showed little change last month. In the past year, it has remained within a narrow range of 62.7% to 62.9%. The employment-population ratio held at 59.3%, where it has been since January.

      Gains and losses

      Employment increased in professional and business services (+62,000 jobs), health care (+45,000), and construction (+45,000) while employment in mining continued to decline (-15,000).

      There was little change during the month in other major industries, including manufacturing,

      wholesale trade, retail trade, information, financial activities, leisure and hospitality, and government.

      The average workweek for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls held steady at 34.5 hours and average hourly earnings rose by 3 cents -- to $24.87. Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have increased by 2.2%.

      The complete employment report is available on the DOL website.

      After creating an anemic 85,000 (revised downward from 126,000) jobs in March, the economy got fired up and cranked out 223,000 nonfarm payroll positions i...
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      Ford F-150s recalled

      The vehicles may have loose or missing underbody heat shields

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 73 model year 2015 Ford F-150s manufactured January 30, 2015, to January 31, 2015.

      The affected vehicles may have loose or missing underbody heat shields. A missing underbody heat shield can lead to degradation or melting of the fuel or vapor lines, increasing the risk of a fire.

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the vehicle for missing underbody heat shields and fasteners, and will install the missing components as required, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on May 11, 2015.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 15S12.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 73 model year 2015 Ford F-150s manufactured January 30, 2015, to January 31, 2015. The affected vehicles may have loose o...
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