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“Prized” app developer settles charges that it hijacked phones for cryptocurrency mining

App users were promised prizes, but only got drained batteries and burned-out data plans

The developer of an app called “Prized” has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission and New Jersey's Attorney General over charges that the...

PhotoThe developer of an app called “Prized” has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission and New Jersey's Attorney General over charges that the app hijacked users' mobile devices and used them to mine virtual currencies, or cryptocurrencies, on behalf of the app developer.

As part of the settlement, Ohio-based company Equiliv Investments and app developer Ryan Ramminger agreed to pay $50,000. The agreement says that $5,200 of that money will go to New Jersey to cover the state's legal costs, with the remaining $44,800 to be suspended and vacated after three years if Ramminger keeps to the rest of the agreement. In other words: if he doesn't create any more malware in the next three years, he'll get that $44,800 back. Ramminger and Equiliv are also supposed to destroy any customer information they collected while distributing the app.

Harvesting cyptocurrency without consent

The FTC's complaint, available in .pdf form here, says that Prized, which was available “since at least February 2014” in the Google Play and Amazon App Stores in addition to various third-party sites, claimed to “give consumers points redeemable for prizes in exchange for completing tasks, such as downloading affiliated apps, playing video games embedded with advertisements, or taking online surveys.”

Instead, the app used malware to turn people's devices into zombie miners harvesting cryptocurrency without the owners' knowledge. As the FTC explains: “Virtual currencies are created by solving complex mathematical equations, and the complaint alleges that the app attempted to harness the power of many users’ devices to solve the equations more quickly, thus generating virtual currency for the defendants.”

This, in turn, caused the devices' batteries to lose power more quickly and recharge more slowly, and also burned through users' data plans. Depending on how much data and computing power it used compared to how much the device actually had, the app was intrusive enough to potentially render the devices all but unusable.

And, of course, nobody received any of the redeemable “prize points” the app initially promised.

A "Trojan horse"

To top it all off, the Prized app's terms of use explicitly stated that “any computer software code and/or advertising tags loaded on an end users' device by Prized are and will be free of malware, spyware, time bombs, and viruses.”

Acting New Jersey Attorney General John J. Hoffman said, “Consumers downloaded this app thinking that at the very worst it would not be as useful or entertaining as advertised. Instead, the app allegedly turned out to be a Trojan horse for intrusive, invasive malware that was potentially damaging to expensive smartphones and other mobile devices.”

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Appeals court upholds $400 million e-book price-fixing settlement with Apple

Apple illegally colluded with publishers to prop up e-book prices, suit charged

Apple fans may be agog today over the company's new streaming music services but its lawyers are no doubt feeling gobsmacked over a federal appeals court r...

PhotoApple fans may be agog today over the company's new streaming music services but its lawyers are no doubt feeling gobsmacked over a federal appeals court ruling that sets Apple up to pay $400 million to consumers who bought e-books through the Apple Store.

The second U.S. Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court ruling that found Apple liable for damages, along with five of the nation's largest publishing companies. Most of the other defendants settled the case years ago but Apple has continued to fight and could still appeal to the Supreme Court.

“This anticompetitive price-fixing collusion between Apple and the publishers caused the price of e-books to skyrocket 30 to 50 percent,” said Steve W. Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, the lead attorney representing the consumer class.

The attorneys general of 33 states and a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of consumers charged that Apple and the publishers conspired to keep e-book prices artificially high by limiting competition.

U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote ruled against Apple in July 2013, after a three-week bench trial, finding that the federal and state government plaintiffs demonstrated that five major publishers “conspired with each other to eliminate retail price competition in order to raise e-book prices, and that Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing that conspiracy.”  

"Against the law and it is wrong"

“The publishers and Apple manipulated the marketplace by artificially increasing prices,” the late Beau Biden, who was then Delaware's attorney general, said at the time of the ruling. “That is against the law and it is wrong.”

Today, New York Attorney General A.G. Schneiderman echoed Biden's comment: “The Court’s decision shows that even the biggest, most powerful companies in the world must play by the same rules as everyone else. This victory takes us a major step toward recovering $400 million that Apple illegally overcharged E-book readers."

Money distributed to consumers in the case will be in addition to amounts already received from several purhcasers, who have already paid out more than $166 million. Most of the refunds have been received in the form of credits sent by Amazon and other retailers.

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Apple launches Apple Music services today

With streaming music, artists' social media, a radio station and musical “bubbles”, you never need leave

Today, Apple finally launched its long-anticipated Apple Music streaming subscription service. In fact, Apple launched three separate services today, all h...

PhotoToday, Apple finally launched its long-anticipated Apple Music streaming subscription service. In fact, Apple launched three separate services today, all huddled together under a single “Apple Music” umbrella: the Apple Music streaming service; iTunes Connect (a sort of Apple Music/social media hybrid); and the Beats 1 radio station.

You'll need to upgrade your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to iOS 8.4 if you want to sign up for Apple Music right now. An Android-compatible version is supposed to come out this autumn.

Apple fans have been able to buy music by the song since 2003, when the iTunes Store opened. But the iTunes Store is a la carte, whereas Apple Music is more like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Basic ad-free Apple Music streaming subscriptions will be free for the first three months, and will then cost a flat monthly fee – $9.99 per month for an individual, or $14.99 per month for a family plan covering up to six people. (The numerical cost is the same in pounds and euros, too – £9.99 per month in the United Kingdom, €9.99 monthly in the Euro zone.)

Customizing the music experience

Although the supply of songs is almost “unlimited” from Apple's end, remember that streaming music does count against your mobile phone's data limits.

In addition to Apple Music, there's also iTunes Connect, which is a type of social media – but only for musicians, not fans. Artists will be able to set up profile pages to share content, most likely videos or music tracks. But fans will not be able to use Connect to communicate with each other — which makes it hard to predict whether Connect will actually be successful. As the Guardian noted, “a lot of the success or failure of the service will depend on whether or not artists genuinely aid music discovery, or simply use the service for self-promotion. Following Pharrell Williams to find out his favourite tracks is one thing; following him to see a playlist of his last few singles is rather less exciting.”

The Beats 1 radio station will be free for everyone, even people who don't subscribe to Apple Music.

Among the features available to subscribers is the For You tab, which Mashable called the “real heart of Apple Music …. basically your music homescreen.”

When you tap For You, you'll see a series of “bubbles” representing different genres of music; you can expand the bubbles corresponding to genres or artists you do like, and discard the bubbles you don't like. Also, as Rolling Stone said, “The service will also scan your music library to see your preferred artists. Much like Netflix, this feature tells the company what music you like and what artists you are indifferent to … so that it can make educated guesses on playlists and other content.”

Scanning your music library

What if you don't want Apple to scan your pre-existing music library? Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an opt-out feature.

A reporter for Business Insider commented, “It's really useful that Apple figures out your music taste for you, as it saves customers from manually selecting which artists and genres they like.” Whether he was being sincere or sarcastic is hard to tell.

That said, if you genuinely have a hard time knowing what taste in music you have – “Look at all these songs in my collection! But which ones do I actually enjoy? I cannot possibly be expected to know such arcane trivia” – then you will be relieved to learn there's an app for that, and Apple Music's bubble system makes it easy to expand your musical bubble without ever having to leave it.

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Increasing home inventory could fuel summer housing market

Buyers, motivated by rising rates, are finding more homes to choose from

A lack of houses for sale has had two main effects: it has reduced the selection of homes that consumers can choose from while making those that are availa...

PhotoA lack of houses for sale has had two main effects: it has reduced the selection of homes that consumers can choose from while making those that are available more expensive than they might otherwise be.

Higher prices have had some positive effect, helping homeowners regain some lost equity, but the lack of inventory has mostly been a negative, keeping down the number of home sales.

That now appears to be shifting as Realtor.com's Advance Read on June Trends finds inventories are rising. It says that could lead 2015 to be the best year for housing since the bubble-peak year of 2006.

Rising rates a factor

“Factors lending themselves to the market’s upswing are the psychological effect of recently increased mortgage rates as well as the specter of the Fed raising interest rates later this year, said Realtor.com chief economist Jonathan Smoke. “Although demand has been strong all year, in June we’re finally beginning to see an uptick in supply as sellers become more confident about home prices.”

But the rise in home prices may be slowing – which you might expect with rising inventories – and that could have the short-term effect of spurring sales.

"What we're seeing is the passing of the baton, as mortgage rates begin to rise and incomes and household formation rates increase – from a stimulus-driven housing market to one driven by fundamentals," said Dr. Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow, a competing real estate site. "This transition from housing recovery to a more normal market is a good thing in the long-term, but we can expect some bumps along the way. In the end, increasing household formation and stronger income growth should be able to overcome the headwind of rising mortgage rates and return markets to health."

First time buyers are back

Realtor.com says other demand drivers include an increase in the number of first time home buyers – many of whom are Millennials who previously had been held back by challenging market conditions.

Realtor.com carefully analyzes its site traffic to monitor consumer behavior and is able to break it down along demographic lines. In June, it added a survey and found 65% of older Millennials said they intend to purchase a home within 3 months – an increase of 12% compared to just 6 months ago.

Smoke says the National Association of Realtors' announcement this week, which stated that May's pending home sales hit a 9-year high, joins a growing collection of optimistic indicators.

“All show both demand and supply improving, foretelling further gains this summer,” Smoke predicted.

Hottest markets still in California

Some areas are experiencing this improvement faster than others. Three of Realtor.com's hottest June housing markets are in California – San Francisco, Vallejo-Fairfield and Santa Rosa – and its Top 20 list includes 5 other California metros

But the list also includes Detroit at number 9, Billings, Mont., at 14 and Ft. Wayne, Ind., at 20.

Nationally, the median list price increased to $233,000, up 7% year-over-year and 2% over May.  

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Feds and Florida tag-team robocall operation

Orlando firm charged with peddling bogus services to seniors

The state of Florida and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have gone to federal court to temporarily shut down an Orlando-based telemarketing operation. ...

PhotoThe state of Florida and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have gone to federal court to temporarily shut down an Orlando-based telemarketing operation.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi says the telemarketer used robocallers to blast consumers with massive campaigns that tried to dupe people into purchasing “worthless” credit card interest rate reduction programs.

Bondi says her office, along with the FTC, obtained an order stopping the calls, many of which allegedly targeted seniors and claimed to represent credit card services and card member services.

“These scammers were making illegal robocalls to people nationwide, some of whom were seniors on fixed incomes,” Bondi said.

Unauthorized charges

According to the attorney general, consumers were told that they were purchasing services, but none were delivered. Adding insult to injury, she says the telemarketers placed unauthorized charges for other things on victims' credit cards.

“My office, in partnership with the FTC, has shut down this illegal credit card interest rate reduction scam and brought those responsible under the control of a federal court receiver," she said.

Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, says robocallers are a special menace to older consumers.

“It’s illegal to sell products or services with out-of the-blue robocalls, and if you get one you can expect that the sales pitch is a lie, too,” Rich said.

The defendant is identified as Payless Solutions, and Bondi charges that it illegally called thousands of consumers across the country, claiming that its program would quickly save consumers at least $2,500 in interest rate reductions or related savings.

Up to $4,999 in charges

If the telemarketers could convince consumers to sign up for the plan, they were then required to provide credit card information. Bondi says once they had that all-important information, the defendants then charged between $300 and $4,999 in up-front costs for the worthless services. In some cases, consumers were illegally charged without consent.

The complaint also claims that the defendants made a large number of calls to consumers whose phone numbers are on the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry, a violation of the federal Telemarketing Sales Rule and Florida’s Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The telemarketers were also accused of using consumers’ personal information to apply for new credit cards, usually without their knowledge or consent.

Product of technology

If you answer the phone and hear a recorded message instead of a live person, it's a robocall. The FTC says it has recorded a significant increase in the number of illegal robocalls because of technology.

The agency says internet-powered phone systems allow scammers to make cheap and easy illegal calls from anywhere in the world, and to hide from law enforcement by displaying fake caller ID information.

That's why you get these calls even if your number is registered on the Do Not Call list. If your number is registered and you get one of these calls, you can bet whatever is being pitched is bogus.

However, not all of these scammers are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law. To date, the FTC has brought more than 100 lawsuits against over 600 companies and individuals responsible for billions of illegal robocalls and other Do Not Call violations.

To fight back, the FTC is woking with developers to design tools that block robocalls and help investigators track down and stop them.

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One simple microchip could end animal testing

A new microchip can mimic the functions of human organs and help researchers test products in a cheaper, safer manner

A new type of transparent microchip may put an end to animal testing. The chip, which mimics the functions of human organs, would allow scientists to test ...

PhotoA new type of transparent microchip may put an end to animal testing. The chip, which mimics the functions of human organs, would allow scientists to test drugs and cosmetics in a safer and more cost-efficient manner without having to rely on animal test subjects.

The European Union banned the sale of any cosmetics or cosmetic ingredients that were tested on animals in 2013. As a result, companies all around the world have abandoned animal testing for these products so that they could sell to markets in Europe. Although the practice has been applauded by animal rights activists, it has left producers with fewer ways to test their products.

Mimicking organ functions

The introduction of “organs-on-chips” may provide the answer that they have been looking for. It was developed at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and is designed to mimic the functions of human organs on a microscale. Some of the organs it can mimic include the human heart, lungs, and intestines.

“When viewed through the specious prism of social media, the world can seem to have harnessed technology primarily either for frivolity, or for war,” stated the Independent’s editorial team. “Organs-on-Chips is a reminder that technological advances also enable very clever people to push boundaries in ways beneficial to us all.”

The chips are the size of a computer memory stick. They replace the structures of an organ with microfluidic channels lined with living human cells. It then stimulates those organs’ functions. They are clear and made of a flexible polymer, which allows scientists to look at things in real time and on a microscale. The goal of the researchers is to build chips with different organ functions so that they connect them all together to create whole human body. This will allow them to see the effects of drugs and cosmetics on an entire person.

There still needs to be further research before these chips can completely replace animals for testing purposes, but there is hope that one day we will be able to analyze the effects of certain products on humans with greater accuracy. 

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Your car's tires could be a new energy source

A small device inserted into your vehicles' tires might improve mileage ratings by as much as 10%

Gasoline may be relatively cheap now but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking for ways to make transportation more efficient. A group of University...

PhotoGasoline may be relatively cheap now but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking for ways to make transportation more efficient.

A group of University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) engineers and a collaborator from China are doing just that. They report success in developing a nanogenerator that harvests energy from a car's rolling tire friction – literally, where the rubber meets the road.

A nanogenerator is a system that can convert mechanical or thermal energy created by small-scale physical change into electricity. Using one, the team believes automakers will be able to increase the efficiency of the vehicles they produce, reducing consumers' fuel consumption.

Triboelectric effect

When two different objects – like a rubber tire and an asphalt highway – rub against one another it produces what is called the triboelectric effect. It's an electric charge that no one really notices in the case of a vehicle because it is allowed to dissipate.

Xudong Wang, an associate professor at UW-Madison, says the nanogenerator provides an excellent way to take advantage of friction-created energy that is usually lost.

"The friction between the tire and the ground consumes about 10% of a vehicle's fuel," Wang said. "That energy is wasted. So if we can convert that energy, it could give us very good improvement in fuel efficiency."

Integrated into the tire

A nanogenerator would take the form of an electrode integrated into a segment of a tire. Every time this part of the tire surface comes into contact with the pavement, the friction created by those 2 surfaces produces an electrical charge – the triboelectric effect. The electrode captures it.

How do they know it works? It was relatively simple. When they tested their theory Wang and his colleagues used a toy car outfitted with LED lights to demonstrate the concept.

The team placed the nanogenerator onto the wheels of the car. When they rolled the car across the ground, the LED lights flashed on and off.

The movement of electrons caused by friction was able to generate enough energy to power the lights, supporting the theory that energy created by friction can actually be collected and reused.

Reclaiming lost energy

"Regardless of the energy being wasted, we can reclaim it, and this makes things more efficient," Wang said. "I think that's the most exciting part of this, and is something I'm always looking for, how to save the energy from consumption."

The amount of energy created and collected from this friction is determined largely by two factors – how much the vehicle weighs and how fast it goes. Both are directly related to friction.

Still, using typical weights and average speed, Wang estimates a nanogenerator could reduce a vehicle's fuel consumption by 10%, based on 50% friction energy conversion efficiency.

"There's big potential with this type of energy," Wang said. "I think the impact could be huge."

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Researchers create two antibodies that could prove to be the first treatments for MERS

Results in animal models have been promising so far

...

PhotoResearchers have developed two possible treatments for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Both rely on the creation of two new antibodies that show an ability to neutralize the virus. This news comes at a fortuitous time, as the respiratory virus continues to affect hundreds of people in South Korea.

MERS was first observed in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Researchers believe that it spread to humans after affecting camels. It has similar qualities to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), in that both affect the respiratory system and can be fatal. Statistics show that MERS has a death rate of 40 percent, and it has killed more than 400 people since it was discovered.

Promising results

In order to combat this deadly virus, scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have been testing two antibodies that have been proven to treat it in animal models. The results have been promising so far, and the researchers hope that further testing will show that the antibodies can be helpful to humans.

“While early, this is very exciting, and has real potential to help MERS patients," said Matthew B. Frieman, who is the lead researcher and assistant professor at the University of Maryland. “We hope that clinical study will progress on these two antibodies to see whether they can eventually be used to help humans infected with the virus.”

The researchers worked with representatives from Regeneron, which is a biopharmaceutical company based out of Tarrytown, NY. Using the company’s technology, both parties were able to develop the two antibodies, currently designated as REGN3051 and REGN3048.

In order to properly test the antibodies, scientists also developed a new strain of mice that have been partially humanized in their physiology. This was necessary because MERS does not affect mice; the new models will help scientists immensely by allowing them to study potential treatments and understand how the virus causes disease in people.

A glimmer of hope

The recent outbreak of MERS in South Korea has spurred researchers onward to finding possible treatments. So far, approximately 180 people have been infected, and nearly 30 of them have died.

“Prof. Frieman’s work provides the first glimmer of hope that we can treat and cure this threatening virus… I know that [the researchers] will continue to work hard to see whether these compounds can take the next steps to clinical trials,” said E. Albert Reece, who is the vice president of Medical Affairs at the University of Maryland and Dean of the School of Medicine. 

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A bit of a slowdown in home price gains during April

The increases are keeping pace with consumer expectations

Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. The National Home Price...

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

 

The National Home Price Index, covering all 9 U.S. census divisions, posted a 4.2% annual gain in April, with the 10-City Composite up 4.6% year-over-year, and the 20-City Composite rising 4.9%.

 

Both Composites and the National index showed slightly lower year-over-year gains compared to last month. The 10-City Composite gained 4.6% year-over-year, while the 20-City Composite gained 4.9% year-over-year.

 

The West leads the way

 

Denver and San Francisco reported the highest year-over-year gains with price increases of 10.3% and 10.0%, respectively, over the last 12 months. Dallas posted an 8.8% year-over-year gain to round out the top three cities.

 

Nine cities reported faster price increases in the year ended April 2015 over the year ended March 2015. Las Vegas prices rose 6.3% in the year to April versus 5.7% in the year to March.

 

In 11 cities, however, the rate of annual price gains slowed. Boston home prices were up 1.8% in the 12 months ending in April versus a 4.6% gain in the 12 months ending in March 2015.

 

“Home prices continue to rise across the country, but the pace is not accelerating,” said David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices.

 

“Moreover, consumer expectations are consistent with the current pace of price increases," he pointed out. "A recent national survey published by the New York Fed showed the average expected price increase among both owners and renters is 4.1%. Both the current rate of home price increases and the consumers’ expectations are a bit lower than the long term annual price change of 4.9% since 1975.”

 

Month-over-month

 

Before seasonal adjustment, the National index increased 1.1% in April and the 10-City and 20-City Composites posted gains of 1.0% and 1.1%, respectively month-over-month. After seasonal adjustment, the National index was unchanged; the 10- and 20-city composites were up 0.3% and 0.4%.

 

All 20 cities reported increases in April before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, 12 were up and 8 were down.

 

 

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JetBlue begins charging for checked bags with some fares

Southwest is now the only carrier not charging for bags

Last November JetBlue announced the day would come when it would have to start charging checked baggage fees. That day has come.The airline has introdu...

PhotoLast November JetBlue announced the day would come when it would have to start charging checked baggage fees. That day has come.

The airline has introduced a tiered fare system with the lowest-priced fares assessing fees for checked bags. The middle fare allows for 1 free checked bag and the top 2 tiers allow for 2 free bags.

Travelers booking a JetBlue flight will now choose from several fare options, called Blue, Blue Plus, Blue Flex and Mint. The airline says the fare you choose will be based on what is most important to you, such as the number of checked bags, bonus points earned, and change/cancel fees.

Perks remain

All tiers will retain free DIRECTV and SiriusXM Radio and access to wi-fi. The airline says the new fare structure applies to customers who booked their travel on or after June 30, 2015.

Customers who booked travel prior to June 30, 2015, will be allowed a single checked bag free of charge and may check a second bag for a $35 fee.

Under the new system travelers who book the lowest-priced Blue fare may check the first bag for $20 when purchased during web check-in or at a kiosk, or $25 at the check-in counter. The second checked bag is $35.

On Blue Plus fares, one checked bag is free. If you check a second bag, you pay $35.

For those booking the Blue Flex fare, as well as the Mint fare, 2 bags may be checked without paying a fee. For all fares, a third checked bag will cost $100.

International flights

Some international flights carry some exceptions. For Blue and Blue Plus fares for flights to or from Santo Domingo, Santiago, Port-au-Prince, Port of Spain, Kingston, Cartagena, Medellin, Bogota, Lima and Mexico City: one checked bag is included and the second checked bag fee is $35.

The new baggage fees leave Southwest as the only U.S. airline that does not charge a fee for checked bags. JetBlue announced in November that it would move to the new system, largely under pressure from Wall Street investors who were growing impatient with JetBlue's lackluster profit performance.

Since domestic airlines began charging baggage fees in 2008 – which at the time was said to compensate for sky-high fuel prices – the industry has become much more profitable.

By the government's accounting, U.S. airlines collected more than $3.5 billion in baggage fees alone last year. Fees charged to customers in order to change reservations amounted to another $3 billion.

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Survey finds more slippage in national brand loyalty

A lot of major brands are being left on the shelf

A study of more than 354 brands across 34 product categories has some disturbing news for the nation's big food, beverage and household brands: Roughly 73%...

PhotoA study of more than 354 brands across 34 product categories has some disturbing news for the nation's big food, beverage and household brands: Roughly 73% of consumer packaged goods (CPG) categories show an overall decline in their brands’ “must-have” status -- meaning that shoppers would purchase whether on sale or not.

 

That doesn't necessarily mean smooth sailing for the other guys. The Deloitte annual "American Pantry" study also showed a drop in store brands’ appeal, improved consumer perceptions of the economy, and shoppers’ willingness to pay a premium for attributes such as health and convenience. This could signal a turning point that is set to further disrupt the CPG industry after years of consumer caution.

 

“This is a critical moment for consumer product companies,” said Barb Renner, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and US Consumer Products leader. “While the majority of consumers say they are committed to sustained frugality year after year, our findings point to early signs that they may finally be responding to a belated but increasingly strong economic recovery.

 

“It creates tremendous opportunities and risks for companies in this sector, given households’ lack of commitment to national brands brought on by years of stretching dollars to the limit,” she noted, adding, “Brands that get things right can use the economy’s momentum to regain their place on consumers’ shelves, but those that move too slowly could very well be left behind.”

 

Reversal of fortune?

 

While previous years of economic stagnation fueled consumers’ interest in store brands, this year’s study revealed that trend may be reversing as recession-weary consumers loosen their purse strings. The number of consumers who view store brands as a sacrifice (43%) jumped 10%, while fewer consumers (65%) indicate they are more open to trying store branded products, an eight% point decline.

 

Moreover, roughly 25% of consumers indicate they are willing to pay 10% or more for a product that is new or innovative, and 33% will do so for a craft version of food or beverages.

 

Digital purchasing

 

According to the study, more than half (55%) of consumers use digital tools to research products -- up 10% from last year, and ahead of the number who do so to compare prices (48%, which remained flat compared with last year.

 

Additionally, 37% use devices to make shopping lists or meal plans. These behaviors signal multiple points to interact with people along the path to purchase outside of traditional discounts, from building today’s list to planning next week’s dinner.

 

Price not the main driver

 

Roughly half (51%) of consumers make purchase decisions at the shelf, and while discounts and promotions are important, they are not the only deciding factor. When asked what triggers an impulse buy, 89% of shoppers cite discounted prices, but many also indicate that they bought an item because they remembered it when they spotted it in the store (81%), and nearly two-thirds (63%) say they did so because they wanted to try a new product.

 

“Although price remains the single biggest factor influencing at-the-shelf purchases, many other aspects can also catch shoppers’ attention,” said Rich Nanda, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP and co-author of the study. “CPG companies should step back and consider challenging the status quo, rather than immediately resorting to discounts and promotions. Focusing more effort on non-price related triggers might seem risky in the short-term, but may improve long-term brand health, loyalty and margins.”

 

Health and wellness attributes also rank high on consumers’ shopping lists. Nearly nine in 10 consumers (86%) prefer convenient options that are also healthy, and 25% are willing to pay a 10% premium or more for healthier versions of a product. Further, 41% chose the product at the shelf because the label addressed their health and wellness concerns.

 

 

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Obama plan to boost overtime pay moves ahead

It lowers the threshold at which employers would have to pay time-and-a-half

President Obama plans to kick off the July 4th holiday weekend by setting off a proposed new overtime rule that would raise wages for an estimated 5 millio...

PhotoPresident Obama plans to kick off the July 4th holiday weekend by setting off a proposed new overtime rule that would raise wages for an estimated 5 million workers as early as 2016.

Obama is expected to announce the proposed regulation formally on Thursday during a trip to La Crosse, Wisconsin, but details are to be released by the White House today. 

As we reported a few weeks ago, the rule would nearly double the salary above which employees become eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay. The current limit, $23,660, would increase to about $52,000 under the proposed revision to Labor Department rules.

It's being called the most sweeping policy yet undertaken by the Obama Administration to boost the middle class. It would be the biggest federal intervention in the wage economy in recent memory and would affect workers ranging from fast-food clerks to middle managers at banks and insurance companies. 

Hard day's work

“We’ve got to keep making sure hard work is rewarded,” President Barack Obama wrote in an op-ed published Monday in The Huffington Post. “That’s how America should do business. In this country, a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay.”

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a long-time proponent of the idea, saying it's "a step in the right direction and good news for workers.”  

Business interests say the measure would have the opposite of its desired effect, as employers cut back employee hours to avoid tripping the overtime requirement.

Since the measure is an administrative rules change, it does not require approval by the GOP-dominated Congress. But, like many measures implemented administratively by the Obama White House, it could be rolled back by a future Republican president. 

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Try parenting like the Amish

Adapting parenting techniques from Amish communities can help you mold your children into well-adjusted adults

We all want our kids to be well-behaved. Sometimes it’s not so easy to reach this goal, since there are so many distractions along the way. But, if we go b...

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Consumer confidence soars in June

Optimism is expected to fuel an increase in spending

May was good; June was even better. After posting a modest gain the month before, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index shot up in June to 101....

PhotoMay was good; June was even better.

 

After posting a modest gain the month before, The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index shot up in June to 101.4 from 94.6. Also encouraging was an increase in the Present Situation Index to 111.6 from 107.1, and an advance in the Expectations Index from 86.2 last month to 94.6.

 

“Over the past two months, consumers have grown more confident about the current state of business and employment conditions,” said Conference Board Director of Economic Indicators Lynn Franco. “In addition, they are now more optimistic about the near-term future, although sentiment regarding income prospects is little changed. Overall, consumers are in considerably better spirits and their renewed optimism could lead to a greater willingness to spend in the near-term.”

 

A closer look

 

Consumers’ assessment of current conditions improved again in June. Those who say business conditions are “good” increased from 24.7% to 26.4%, while those who see them as “bad” was virtually unchanged at 17.8%.

 

Consumers were also more positive about the job market. Those who think jobs are “plentiful” rose to 21.4% from 20.6%, while those with an opposing view fell from 27.2% to 25.7%.

 

Optimism about the short-term outlook also increased in June. The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next 6 months jumped from 16.0% to 18.5%, while those who believe conditions will worsen dropped from 11.3% to 9.8%.

 

Jobs & income

 

Consumers’ outlook for the labor market was also more upbeat. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead went up from 14.7% to 17.8%, while those expecting fewer jobs slipped to 15.1% from 16.6%.

 

The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes will rise was pretty much unchanged at 17.5%, while those who think there'll be a decline edged down slightly from 10.7% to 10.2%.

 

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 June 18.

 

 

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Rocky Mountain Foods recalls nut products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Rocky Mountain Foods is recalling certain lots of Island Fruit and Nut Trail Mix packaged under the Free Range Snack brand, and certain lots of bulk macada...

PhotoRocky Mountain Foods is recalling certain lots of Island Fruit and Nut Trail Mix packaged under the Free Range Snack brand, and certain lots of bulk macadamia nuts.

 

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to-date.

 

The following products are being recalled:

AFFECTED PRODUCTPACKAGE SIZEUPC CODEBEST BY DATE RANGE
Free Range Snack Co.
Island Fruit and Nut
Trail Mix
16 oz. Tub0-76958-55077-511/15/2015
Free Range Snack Co.
Macadamia Nuts
BulkNone4/15/2016 - 5/28/2015

Consumers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them and return them to the store where purchased for a full refund or replacement. The products were sold at stores in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma , Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Rocky Mountain Foods customer service at (303) 371-3511 Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM., MT.

 

 

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Goodies By Nature raw cashews recalled

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Grand BK of Maspeth, N.Y., is recalling 450 cases of Goodies raw cashews. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella No illnesses have been reported...

PhotoGrand BK of Maspeth, N.Y., is recalling 450 cases of Goodies raw cashews.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

 

No illnesses have been reported to-date.

 

The product is labeled as “Goodies by Nature Raw Cashews 9-oz.” and is packed in 9-oz. clear plastic tubs. It has sell-by dates of 04.29.2016 and 05.02.2016 and a UPC code of 846034010055.

 

The recalled product was sold in in H Mart retail stores in New York, New Jersey,Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Georgia.

 

Customers who purchased this product should discard it and bring in their receipt to the place of purchase for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 718-417-5607, Monday through Friday 9am,-5pm, EST.

 

 

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July 4th motorists to find higher-than-expected fuel prices

Pump prices are coming down but not that fast

The predicted summer decline in U.S. gasoline prices has been slow to materialize. While July 4th travelers will find fuel prices much lower than last year...

Photo
Photo (c) justasc - Fotolia

The predicted summer decline in U.S. gasoline prices has been slow to materialize. While July 4th travelers will find fuel prices much lower than last year, they have been slow to fall from their normal springtime highs.

Gas Buddy's senior analyst DeHaan Tweeted Monday that 9 states saw gasoline prices go up overnight, 4 remained unchanged and 37 went down. DeHaan reports 14.8% of U.S. stations are charging under $2.50 a gallon, up from 10.7% week ago.

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AAA: National average gas prices 6/29/2015

Prices may now be moving in the right direction for motorists but DeHaan and many other industry analysts had expected them to be lower than they are right now. Prices at the pump rose steadily over the late winter and early spring as refineries curtailed operations for seasonal maintenance and completed the switch over to summer blends of gasoline.

Still on the high side

Now that all that is out of the way and the price of oil remains about 60% of what it had been, it's reasonable to expect gasoline prices would be a bit lower by now.

AAA notes that pump prices often fall leading up to the Independence Day holiday. What's different this year, it says, are regional supply shortages due to localized refinery issues and global crude prices that have recovered from multi-year lows this spring.

As it is, motorists traveling over the holiday can expect to pay around a national average $2.77 a gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey. That's actually 3 to 4 cents a gallon higher than last May, when prices should just about have peaked.

Hard to complain

Still, it's hard to complain when the average national price of gasoline is about 90 cents a gallon than it was last year. This holiday weekend, travelers will find the highest gasoline prices in California, Washington and Oregon. It'll be least costly to fill up in South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.

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AAA: Gas price heat map

AAA says concerns about oversupply continue to characterize the world oil market, keeping prices from rising. Lately, worry about a Greek default has been depressing prices but for the last several months it has been the growing gut of oil, especially in the U.S that has kept prices down.

One industry analyst, Leonard Brecken of Oil Price, has raised the possibility that the glut doesn't really exist, but is an invention of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Brecken notes that the EIA began to revise U.S. oil production totals right at the time that there have been large increases in U.S. consumption.

That has two effects, he says. It could mean the U.S. has less oil than it realizes, setting up a future price shock. Second, it's having a devastating impact on small, independent oil produces who might be out of business by the time the country realizes it needs to start pumping more oil.

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The grill debate: propane or charcoal?

If you're buying a grill for the first time, you have to choose

If you are headed out to purchase your first barbecue grill in preparation for the July 4th holiday weekend, the first question you need to ask yourself is...

PhotoIf you are headed out to purchase your first barbecue grill in preparation for the July 4th holiday weekend, the first question you need to ask yourself is the one that has divided backyard chefs for eons – propane or charcoal?

Experts say the choice largely comes down to personal preference, but cost is a factor as well. AmazingRibs.com points out that pricey steakhouses grill with gas to provide even searing and a consistent color. Gas grills can also deliver high heat very quickly, without waiting for coals to heat up.

“But most sear burners are narrow and can only sear one or two steaks at a time, perfect if you're an empty nester, but if you're hosting the graduation party you will want more real estate,” the site points out. “A charcoal grill can lay up to 900°F on the surface of a lot of steaks at once. A major reason to go charcoal.”

Smokey

Charcoal can also add the element of smoke. Most slow-cooked barbecue is actually cooked as much by the smoke from smoldering wood mixed in with the charcoal as it is by the heat. But the experts as AmazingRibs say smoke is not likely to add much flavor to thin pieces of meat, like hot dogs – the typical July 4th fare.

Controlling temperature is easier with propane than charcoal. With charcoal, control is applied by increasing or decreasing the amount of charcoal you burn. With gas you just turn a knob.

Although both can get very hot,  Chow.com notes that some cheaper gas grills may not reach a sufficient temperature to sear well. But backyard chefs who prefer to cook slowly usually only need to reach a grilling temperature of around 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cost favors charcoal

A final consideration may be cost. Generally, you will pay more for a propane grill, especially one with greater grilling capacity and bells and whistles. Perceived quality and name brands will also make a difference. At Home Depot, a Brinkman 6 burner gas grill with side burner goes for $199, while a Weber Genesis with half the burners costs nearly $1000.

Charcoal grills tend to be cheaper. On the low end an Aussie charcoal grill is about $50 while the Weber Performer Delux goes for around $500.

Condiments of choice

Once you have selected a grill and put on a spread of hot dogs, you have to select your condiments. Hot dog maker JJ's Red Hots conducted a survey in advance of the July 4th holiday to find what consumers are putting on their dogs this year.

The survey found that, while mustard remains the preferred condiment, there were a few surprising choices making the top 10. It was no surprise that onions and chili were second and third, but pimento cheese appeared at number 5, bacon at number 7, salsa at 9 and caramelized onions at number 10.

"People are getting more and more experimental with their toppings, said company owner Jonathan Luther. “It seems that the dreaded 'foodie' movement is creeping its way into the mainstream. Heaven help us."

Luther notes with relief that ketchup did not make the list, suggesting that consumers won't submit their hot dogs to that indignity when given better options.

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Scientists create a new set of compounds that have the potential to treat a wide variety of cancers

Scientists are attempting to target the energy source that cancer cells need to grow

Researchers from St. Louis University have formulated a new theory on how to treat a wide variety of cancers. Unlike other methods, which usually target sp...

PhotoResearchers from St. Louis University have formulated a new theory on how to treat a wide variety of cancers. Unlike other methods, which usually target specific genes and mutations, this research is investigating cancer cell metabolism, and attempting to shut down the energy that these cancerous cells need in order to multiply.

Metabolism, at its core, is a living thing’s ability to use energy. All types of cancer affect this process by intensifying it to extreme levels. As a result, cancerous cells grow at an incredible rate and the tissues surrounding these cells die.

Targeting the energy source

The goal of cancer cells is to divide and grow as quickly as possible. There are many ways that they can do this on a molecular level, but scientists have found that they do have preferences.

“Cancer cells look for metabolic pathways to find the parts to grow and divide. If they don’t have the parts, they just die,” said Thomas Burris, who is the chair of pharmacology and physiology at Saint Louis University. One way in which cancer cells look to grow is by using glucose as an energy source. This preference is called the Warburg effect, or glycolysis.

“The Warburg effect ramps up energy use in the form of glucose to make chemicals required for rapid growth and cancer cells also ramp up another process, lipogenesis, that lets them make their own fats that they need to rapidly grow,” says Burris.

Burris and his team have hypothesized that if you can target the Warburg effect and lipogenesis, then you could stop cancer cells from having the tools they need to grow. If it is proven to be viable, this research could be useful for treating a broad range of cancers.

“Targeting cancer metabolism has become a hot area over the past few years, though the idea is not new,” said Burris.

Effective without side effects

Burris and his team created compounds that affect a receptor that regulates fat synthesis in cells. One compound, named SR9243, started as an anti-cholesterol drug. It effectively inhibits cells so that they cannot create their own fat. This effectively shuts down the process of lipogenesis.

SR9243 also suppresses abnormal glucose consumption in cells, which is the preferred fuel source for cancerous cells. So, by regulating lipogenesis and the Warburg pathway, this new drug has the capacity to destroy cancer cells or turn them into more normal cells.

Normal cells do not need excess glucose, and they can bring in fat from outside of themselves to survive, so SR9243 only affects cancer cells. It also proven to be very safe to use. It does not cause weight loss, liver toxicity, or inflammation, which are side effects that other cancer treatments are known to cause.

Positive results

Testing of the drug has yielded positive results so far. Scientists have applied it to cultured cancer cells and in human tumor cells that have been grown in animal models.  “[The drug] worked very well on lung, prostate, and colorectal cancers, and it worked to a lesser degree in ovarian and pancreatic cancers,” said Burris.

SR9243 also appears to work well with other chemotherapy drugs. When combined, it increased both its own and the other drugs’ effectiveness in fighting cancer. The full study has been published in Cancer Cell. 

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FCA tells 65 Jeep, Dodge owners to stop driving their vehicles

Suspension components may be faulty and could lead to rear-end instability

It's unusual for an automaker to tell consumers to stop driving their cars but that's what FCA US LLC -- Chrysler, in other words -- is telling 65 new Jeep...

PhotoIt's unusual for an automaker to tell consumers to stop driving their cars but that's what FCA US LLC -- Chrysler, in other words -- is telling 65 new Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango owners. It's advising them to park their SUVs until they can be repaired.

Another 7,690 cars built around the same time are being recalled for examination. Is yours included? See http://recalls.mopar.com/ to find out.

The problem is that improperly heat-treated rear control arms may have been used in the suspension, possibly leading to component breakage, rear-end instability and reduced braking power, the company said in a news release.

Phoning customers

The company faces a hearing later this week before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to determine whether it has been dragging its feet on recalls. 

FCA US said it is phoning customers who have taken delivery of the potentially flawed vehicles to arrange on-site inspections. If an inspection determines a vehicle is equipped with a suspect component, the vehicle will be transported to a dealership for service.
  
FCA US said it is unaware of any related injuries, accidents or customer complaints.

The problem was discovered by a component supplier and FCA US was alerted. Vehicle shipments from the assembly plant were halted and dealers were told not to sell any of the cars made during the eight-day period that the faulty components were in the pipeline.

Included in the recall are model-year 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Durango SUVs assembled from June 12 through June 20. While 5,608 are believed to be in the U.S., it’s estimated that 255 are in Canada and 65 are in Mexico.

An estimated 1,829 are destined for markets outside the NAFTA region, but they have not been shipped and await inspection.
 
 

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For food companies, the times they are a changin'

Millennials' values are driving what we'll all be eating

When the U.S. Census Bureau reported this week that Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers, the news was significant for a number of industries that now mu...

PhotoWhen the U.S. Census Bureau reported this week that Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers, the news was significant for a number of industries that now must adjust their marketing approaches.

Most likely the food industry is taking special notice since it has been rocked by this emerging demographic shift for several years. That's because Millennials tend to view food very differently than their parents.

“What Millennials want in food today is what we will all soon be asking for,” declares Millennial Marketing magazine.

And Millennials appear to be very particular about their food – where it's grown, how it's grown, its nutrient content and ingredients and how fresh it is. This mindset appears to be partly responsible for McDonald's recent slump, since its massive scale makes it very difficult to adapt to Millennials' “small is beautiful” approach to food.

Challenges to going natural

Lester Wilson, professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, believes major food companies will experience similar difficulties as they try to adapt to this new generation that is driving the marketplace.

He notes that several major food companies have recently disclosed plans to remove artificial ingredients like color and flavor – largely shunned by Millennials – from their products within the next few years. Recently General Mills announced it would remove artificial ingredients from all of its popular breakfast cereals by 2017, noting some cereals are already using natural coloring agents.

“The industry is going to react to what consumers want because we vote with our pocketbook,” Wilson said. “The challenge for these companies as they switch from artificial colors is trying to find the right natural pigments that fit and withstand the process for making those products.”

There is a reason food manufacturers have used artificial colors for years. They're more heat stable and hold their color longer.

Wilson says natural pigments are more sensitive to environmental conditions, such as heat, acid, oxygen levels, and light. As a result, going “natural” may alter the flavor, taste, color, or texture of well-established products, as well as the price.

Natural ingredients more expensive

That's because natural ingredients are often more expensive. Wilson points to the price difference for vanilla ice cream made with vanilla extract, compared to the artificial ingredient vanillin, which is much cheaper.

Not only is there a difference in cost, but vanilla extract’s flavor is not as strong, he said. This is just an example of the factors that companies must address in making this move. It also explains why the change won’t happen overnight.

“It’s going to take time for some of these companies to find all of the replacement ingredients that fit,” Wilson said. “In doing this, companies want to be viewed as good citizens. They want to provide a healthy product, something that tastes good and something that they can make a profit with so the company survives. They’re juggling a lot of different components in this issue.”

Being viewed as “good citizens” may be vitally important for food companies that want to sell products to Millennials. Millennial Marketing says this generation has injected “social responsibility” into its food shopping.

“Seventy percent of Millennials are buying less bottled water because of the negative environmental impact,” the magazine reports. “This generation prefers to go grocery shopping with friends rather than alone, and they use phone apps to scan barcodes and find out more about a product before adding it to their cart.”

Wilson says food companies must walk a fine line between appealing to the growing Millennial “foodie” movement and maintaining the consistency of its products. If the natural ingredients dramatically change what consumers like most about the products, they'll stop buying them, he says.

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Where you have a stroke determines what kind of care you get

Only 4.2% of stroke victims get the most effective drug

It's a fact of life that where you live often determines the level of health care you receive. If you happen to live in an area of top-notch research hospi...

PhotoIt's a fact of life that where you live often determines the level of health care you receive. If you happen to live in an area of top-notch research hospitals, your care is likely to be better than if you live in a rural area with few hospitals.

But where you are if you were to suffer a stroke may also determine whether or not you get what many physicians believe to be the most effective treatment.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School report only 4.2% of more than 844,000 stroke victims receive a drug type called tPA, which has been shown to be an effective “clotbuster.” If given in the first hours after a stroke, tPA and other treatments can restore blood flow in the brain and prevent the damage that causes stroke-related disability and drives up the long-term cost of caring for stroke survivors.

The Michigan researchers broke down tPA use geographically, and their map graphic shows it isn't concentrated in just one or two areas. In fact, deep divides exist all across the country.

One-fifth of markets don't use it at all

When the researchers looked at how tPA was used for Medicare participants who had strokes in each of the nation's 3,436 different hospital markets between 2007 and 2010, they found tPA was completely missing in a fifth of these regions.

On the other hand, markets such as Stanford, Calif., and Asheville, N.C. use the drug a lot, with as many as 14% of stroke patients getting it.

"These results scream that a major opportunity exists to improve emergency stroke care, if only we can understand how these differences arise and how to eliminate them," said James Burke, the study's senior author. "If we had a perfect system in place nationwide, which delivered treatment at the highest rates seen in this study, thousands of patients could be spared disability."

Surprises

There were more surprises, especially when regions were grouped from best-performing to worst-performing. In the top fifth, an average of 9% of patients got the clot-busting treatment, while in the bottom fifth, no patients received it.

The researchers say older patients, women, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups were less likely to receive tPA, regardless of where they lived.

"We can clearly do much better, but existing policy solutions are only going to get us so far," said Burke. "In our findings, we do see positive results from primary stroke center designation and ambulance bypass, but we are talking about a complex mix of hospital, EMS, and individual response to stroke. We need to understand better what the areas with the highest rates of use are doing differently."

Gold standard

Tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) is the only FDA approved treatment for ischemic strokes and the American Stroke Association calls it “the gold standard” for treatment. It works by dissolving the clot and improving blood flow to the part of the brain being deprived of blood flow.

Sometimes availability is not the reason a stroke patient doesn't receive the drug. If it can't be administered within 3 or 4 hours of a stroke, it isn't used.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) lists some health conditions that also preclude its use. The drug is not given to someone who is having a hemorrhagic stroke, meaning there has been bleeding in the brain. The drug could make things worse by causing increased bleeding.

When it comes to tPA use, the overall quality of healthcare in the area does not seem to be a determining factor. According to the researchers' map graphic, the top 20 areas for tPA use are scattered across the country, in urban and rural areas, and in rich and poor ones.

However, the researchers say variation in tPA use did track to lower average levels of education and income, and higher unemployment in hospital service areas. Use of the drug type was slightly higher across all densely populated areas compared with more sparsely populated areas.

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Study: people with high blood pressure have lower Alzheimer's risk

But it might not be the condition, but the drugs patients are taking for it

Researchers searching for new treatments for Alzheimer's disease recently made a startling observation. They found that people with a genetic predisposi...

PhotoResearchers searching for new treatments for Alzheimer's disease recently made a startling observation.

They found that people with a genetic predisposition to high blood pressure also had a lower risk for Alzheimer's, a fatal condition that robs its victims of their memory.

That seemed counter-intuitive until they closely. The people with the genetic link to hypertension but who weren't getting Alzheimer's were being treated for their high blood pressure.

"It's likely that this protective effect is coming from antihypertensive drugs," said study co-author John Kauwe, an associate professor of biology at Brigham Young University (BYU). "These drugs are already FDA approved. We need to take a serious look at them for Alzheimer's prevention."

Researchers from around the world worked on the study, which examined genetic data from 17,008 people with Alzheimer's and 37,154 people free of the disease.

Looking for causal relationships

The research team was actually looking for something else – links between Alzheimer's disease and health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol. Specifically, they were looking for links to conditions that could be modified, like high blood pressure. But the assumption going into the project was that these modifiable conditions might be a contributor to Alzheimer's risk.

Amazingly, the strongest correlation that emerged was a “significant” association between higher systolic blood pressure and reduced Alzheimer's risk.

"Our results are the opposite of what people might think," said fellow co-author Paul Crane, a University of Washington associate professor of internal medicine. "It may be that high blood pressure is protective, or it may be that something that people with high blood pressure are exposed to more often, such as antihypertensive medication, is protecting them from Alzheimer's disease."

Role of ACE inhibitors

As we reported back in 2007, the scientific community has suspected that a certain class of hypertension drug might also help protect against Alzheimer's disease. Wake Forest University researchers made the case that a class of hypertension drugs known as ACE inhibitors might help reduce the inflammation that could contribute to Alzheimers disease.

The study found a link between taking centrally active ACE inhibitors and lower rates of mental decline as measured by the Modified Mini-Mental State Exam, a test that evaluates memory, language, abstract reasoning and other cognitive functions.

For each year that participants were exposed to ACE inhibitors that cross the blood brain barrier, the decline in test results was 50% lower than the decline in people taking other kinds of high blood pressure pills.

The results are not conclusive and this story is published only as general information. It is not medical advice and no one should make any decisions based on general news publications. Only your doctor can advise you about medications and treatments. 

Could be significant

The findings coud be significant since the global population is rapidly aging. Worldwide, about 44 million people have dementia, a group of brain degeneration disorders characterized by an irreversible decline in memory, communication, and other cognitive functions. Dementia mainly affects older people, and because people are living longer, experts estimate that more than 135 million people will have dementia by 2050.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, which accounts for 60% to 70% of cases. The earliest sign of Alzheimer's is often increasing forgetfulness. As the disease progresses, affected individuals gradually lose the ability to look after themselves, they may become anxious or aggressive, and they may have difficulty recognizing friends and relatives. 

 

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New research study says Google harms consumers by manipulating search results

Evidence suggests Google promotes its own content over rivals' to apparent detriment of users

A research paper published today claims that Google manipulates search results to promote its own content over that of its competitors, which “yields serio...

PhotoA research paper published today claims that Google manipulates search results to promote its own content over that of its competitors, which “yields serious concerns if the internal content is inferior to organic search results.”

Worse yet, the study found Google-produced content does appear inferior to organic search results. Users who took part in a “randomized controlled trial” searching for various local businesses were 45% more likely to “engage with universal search results … when the results are organically determined.”

The paper, titled “Is Google Degrading Search? Consumer Harm from Universal Search” was co-authored by legal scholar and former Federal Trade Commission adviser Tim Wu, Harvard Business School economist Michael Luca, and a team of researchers from Yelp, which bankrolled the study. Last weekend, Yelp presented the study to the Antitrust Enforcement Symposium, hosted at Oxford University in the U.K.

Multiple accusations

This is not the first time Google has been accused of manipulating search results for its own benefit — although the company has successfully beaten such accusations before. In January 2013, the FTC completed what was then a 19-month-long study into Google's practices, and concluded that the “facts just weren't there” to support charges of biased search results.

At least, that's what the FTC publicly proclaimed at the time. Yet in March 2015, the Wall Street Journal acquired and published some internal FTC documents which claimed the opposite. The FTC staff members who investigated Google's practices a few years ago recommended at the time that the agency sue the company on anti-competitive grounds over its allegedly biased search-engine results, yet the FTC publicly voted to do the exact opposite. (The FTC denied these allegations in a press release.)

In 2012, the FTC started investigating Google and concluded that the company's search engine results “boosted its own shopping, travel and local business services” while intentionally giving lower search rankings to rival products, according to the FTC staff report acquired by the Journal — and then the FTC publicly made the opposite announcement the following January.

Not presenting its best product

At the time, Tim Wu believed the FTC's public announcement, going so far as to write a column in the New Republic asking “Why does everyone think Google beat the FTC?” and lamenting how “too many reporters fell for the line that Google used some fancy combination of executive charm and lobbying prowess to beat the federal government at its own game. You'd easily believe, from reading what has become the conventional wisdom, that Google managed to avoid any sanctions by meeting with John Kerry or paying off think tanks.”

That's what Tim Wu wrote two and a half years ago. What happened since then to make him change his mind?

“When the facts change, your thinking should change,” Wu said to Re/code. “The main surprising and shocking realization is that Google is not presenting its best product. In fact, it’s presenting a version of the product that’s degraded and intentionally worse for consumers.”

Wu admits that Yelp paid the cost of the study, saying, “They are paying me for my time. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think this new evidence was a game-changer.”

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Lean Cuisine tries to distance itself from the "D" word

Frozen diet foods are no longer cutting edge

Lots of things aren't cool anymore and one of them is dieting. When's the last time you heard someone say they were on a diet? Eating fresh and local, goin...

PhotoLots of things aren't cool anymore and one of them is dieting. When's the last time you heard someone say they were on a diet? Eating fresh and local, going gluten-free, becoming vegan-ish -- sure. But dieting? No.

This has the folks at Lean Cuisine worried. After all, they basically make diet dinners. And so, after months of hungering for a solution, Lean Cuisine is swearing off the weight-loss pitch and converting its advertising and "branding," as they say in the biz, to more of a foodie approach.

This is somewhat complicated, though. After all, a fresh and local pitch gets a little tricky when your product is, well, frozen. Of course, frozen food really is just as nutritious as freshly picked in most cases but that's not really a discussion you can have in a 30-second commercial.

Weigh This

So Lean Cuisine will be talking instead about its customers' lives, their aspirations and so forth, trying to mold itself in their image. It's launching a new campaign called "Feed Your Phenomenal," which Ad Age tells us will celebrate the exceptional lives today's women lead. (Lean Cuisine is seen as a product that appeals to women. Men who buy it have to hide it under a newspaper at the check-out counter to avoid having couscous kicked in their face).

An accompanying social media campaign is called "Weigh This" and encourages women to weigh their accomplishments. Is this a little too cute? Maybe, but stranger campaigns have worked and it's not really a time for the frozen food business to sit around doing nothing. Their situation is about as bad as those faced by domestic beers and newspapers.

It's not just Nestle's Lean Cuisine that's suffering falling sales. The entire frozen food segment is being dissed by shoppers who now hang out in the fresh produce section. Talk about climate change -- Kellogg, General Mills, ConAgra and Nestle are all feeling the heat.

As their market melts away, the big manufacturers have been running a campaign called "Frozen. How Fresh Stays Fresh." Lean Cuisine is borrowing from this campaign, using such phrases as "freshly made, simply frozen."

 

 

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Pending home sales at 9-year high

Home prices are on the rise as well

Pending home sales are at levels unseen since April 2006. According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR) the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), whi...

PhotoPending home sales are at levels unseen since April 2006.

 

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR) the Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, climbed 0.9% in May to 112.6, putting it 10.4% above its year-ago level.

 

The index has now increased year-over-year for 9 consecutive months and is at its highest level in 9 years.

 

Off and running

 

Contract activity rose again in May for the fifth straight month, increasing the likelihood that home sales are off to their best year since the downturn. "The steady pace of solid job creation seen now for over a year has given the housing market a boost this spring," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "It's very encouraging to now see a broad based recovery with all four major regions showing solid gains from a year ago and new home sales also coming alive."

 

At the same time, Yun warns that this year's stronger sales amidst similar housing supply levels from a year ago have caused home prices to rise to an unhealthy and unsustainable pace.

 

"Housing affordability remains a pressing issue with home-price growth increasing around 4 times the pace of wages," adds Yun. "Without meaningful gains in new and existing supply, there's no question the goalpost will move further away for many renters wanting to become homeowners."

 

Regional breakdown

 

  • The PHSI in the Northeast surged 6.3% to 93.9 in May, and is now 10.6% above a year ago.
  • The index in the West rose 2.2 % to 104.5, and is 13.0% above May 2014.
  • In the Midwest the index dipped 0.6% to 111.4, but still shows a 7.8% year-over-year gain.
  • Pending home sales in the South were down 0.8% to an index of 127.8 but are up 10.6% from the same time last year.  

 

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Sticky fingers stick it to retailers

Shoplifting in 2014 cost retailers an estimated $44 billion

Retailers call it “shrink.” What it is -- actually -- is stealing. And its a serious and expensive problem. According to a new study from NRF Protect, the...

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Moving with your dog; some ways to make it easier

Introducing your dog to his new surroundings over time and setting new ground rules can be very helpful

The summer is a time when many families choose to move. They do it before school starts, and you can unpack all of your belongings without having to deal w...

PhotoThe summer is a time when many families choose to move. They do it before school starts, and you can unpack all of your belongings without having to deal with freezing temperatures. Many corporations and companies choose to move employees during the summer as well.

Everyone is usually excited about planning the move. You get to decide who sleeps where and how you’re going to decorate all of the rooms. One member of your family may not be so ecstatic about all of the changes though: your dog. His cherished comfort zone is being disrupted by this big change.

From a dog’s perspective, moving to a new home can be a jolt to the regularity of life. Here are a few ways that you can make it easier on them:

Adjusting to changes

Take things slowly. All of these changes are new to your dog, and it’s going to take some time until they learn the smells and sounds of the neighborhood. Start off by introducing your dog to the new house one room at a time. One room should contain all of their basic needs in the beginning, including a water and food bowl, a dog bed, and their favorite toys. You should not give them free reign of the house right away. Let their territory grow over time as they adapt to the new surroundings.

Try to be very consistent with your dog’s schedule. Predictability and routine are key. Feed and walk your dog at the same time every day if you can. The latter can be great for getting them out to smell and explore the neighborhood. This will help them get accustomed to their new home more easily.

Be sure to keep your dog safe while packing and moving. Keep your door shut so that they do not run away before you can move. It is probably best to keep them in a quiet room away from the commotion. You can also bring them to a friend’s house or put them in a dog crate for the day. After you move to your new home, take your dog outside and carefully allow them to investigate your new backyard while on a leash. Because they aren’t used to their surroundings yet, there is an increased chance of them wandering off and getting lost. Check your yard for anything that could pose a danger to your dog- including pesticides, tools, or ways of escape.

Teach your dog some new habits. This is the perfect time to place boundaries on the furniture and other areas you may not want your dog to go. Designate an area where they can go to the bathroom, especially if you have grass. This will help prevent damage to your lawn and give your dog a special place to go.

Your new neighbors may not know who your dog belongs to if they get out or wander off. Make sure they have up-to-date ID tags on their collar. If your dog hasn’t been microchipped yet, now would be a great time to get that done. 

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OFT recalls beef products

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection

OFT, Inc., of Henderson, Nev., operating as Whakyung Foods, is recalling approximately 67,232 pounds of commercial-use beef leg bone extract and beef conce...

PhotoOFT, Inc., of Henderson, Nev., operating as Whakyung Foods, is recalling approximately 67,232 pounds of commercial-use beef leg bone extract and beef concentrate products produced in Australia and New Zealand.

 

The products were not presented at the U.S. point of entry for inspection. Without the benefit of full inspection, a possibility of adverse health consequences exists.

 

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

 

The the following concentrated extract items, produced and imported from July 29, 2014, through June 2, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 44 pound bags contained in brown cardboard boxes marked “Beef Leg Bone Extract” Manufactured by Est. 662, CJ Nutracon Ltd (Australia)
  • 44 pound bags contained in brown cardboard boxes marked “Beef Leg Bone Extract” Manufactured by TBE1, Taranaki Bio Extracts Ltd (New Zealand)
  • 44 pound bags contained in brown cardboard boxes marked “Beef Concentrate with Salt” Manufactured by Est. 662, CJ Nutracon Ltd (Australia)

The recalled products bear the establishment certification “New Zealand TBE1 Inspected” for the beef leg bone extract and identifier “Est. 662 PRODUCT OF AUSTRALIA” for the beef leg bone extract and beef concentrate with salt.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Jason Lee at (702) 778-6401.

 

 

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Ford vehicles with steering issue recalled

The electric power steering assist systems that may shut down

Ford Moor Company is recalling 393,623 model year 2011-2012 Ford Fusion vehicles without a 3.5L engine and Lincoln MKZ hybrid electric vehicles, 2011 Mercu...

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Whole Foods Market is recalling packaged raw macadamia nuts

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Whole Foods Market is recalling packaged raw macadamia nuts. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No illnesses have been reported to-date. T...

PhotoWhole Foods Market is recalling packaged raw macadamia nuts.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to-date.

 

The recalled product was labeled as "Whole Foods Market Raw Macadamia Nuts, and packaged in 11-oz. plastic tubs. It has has best-by dates of March 19, 2016, through June 21, 2016, a UPC code of 0-76958-62059-1.

 

The recalled item was sold in Whole Foods Market Stores in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.

 

Customers who purchased this product should discard it and may bring in their receipt for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Whole Foods Market customer service, 512-477-5566 ext. 20060, Monday – Friday 9:00am – 5:00pm, CDT.

 

 

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Some gay couples may have to marry to keep benefits

Supreme Court ruling could have an unexpected result for some same-sex couples

When the Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, it was understandably a cause for celebration in the LGBT community. ...

PhotoWhen the Supreme Court ruled Friday that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, it was understandably a cause for celebration in the LGBT community.

Activists have worked for years to get to that moment. Couples who have been together for decades are now able to marry like anyone else and receive the same financial benefits marriage offers, not least of which is Social Security filing benefits.

But the ruling could have a complicating impact on some relationships for gay couples living in the 16 states where, until Friday, same-sex marriage had not been legal. Depending upon where they work, couples who can now marry may have to do so if they want to keep their benefits.

As PBS reported at the end of May, some large employers that had been extending benefits to same-sex domestic partners were phasing out that practice in the 35 states and District of Columbia, where same sex marriage was legal. The reason was fairness.

Bringing benefits in line

“We’re bringing our benefits in line, making them consistent with what we do for everyone else,” Verizon spokesman Ray McConville told PBS last month.

Verizon is one of many major U.S. corporations that had extended benefits to domestic partners. It only seemed the fair thing to do since same-sex couples could not be legally married.

But as one state after another struck down the ban on same sex marriage, the benefits policy appeared to discriminate against heterosexual couples who lived together but chose not to get married and thus, did not receive benefits coverage for both partners.

Entrepreneur Magazine reported last month that Delta Airlines had also slowly begun phasing out health benefits for domestic partners in states where same-sex marriage was legal, but has compensated by agreeing to pay federal and state income and payroll taxes associated with the coverage, relieving employees of the tax burden. The company said it planned to even out benefits and tax treatment for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

Now that same sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, gay couples who work for companies that, like Verizon, are revising their benefits policies, may have to make a choice. The PBS report interviewed representatives from some benefits consulting companies and advocacy groups who said there are legal, financial and other reasons that some gay couples may not want to get married.

“A little bossy”

While some advocates may understand the reasoning behind benefits policy changes, they nonetheless chafe at the pressure. Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, an advocacy organization for gay, lesbian and transgender people, told PBS she the policy feels “a little bossy.”

When same-sex marriage was only legal in some states and not others, corporations had more leeway in expanding benefits coverage. Now that it is legal everywhere, it remains to be seen how they will respond.

Some employers already allow benefits for both same-sex and opposite-sex partners who can provide documents showing they are financially responsible for each other. Those policies should be unaffected by the court ruling.

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Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage could generate $2.5 billion across the nation

The Supreme Court's landmark decision could provide a huge surge to many industries in the U.S.

Today the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. The landmark decision, which passed with a vote of ...

PhotoToday the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. The landmark decision, which passed with a vote of 5-4, states that all couples will be able to get married in any part of the United States.

While the whole country will feel this decision’s impact on a social level, the economic effect will also be significant. Many couples will see changes to their personal finances, and many industries will be feeling an economic surge.

Changes to public opinion underlie this decision by the Supreme Court. After years of activism on behalf of same-sex couples, recent polls have indicated that most Americans now approve of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court has been methodical in its approach to handling the gay marriage issue. Last October they refused to hear appeals from rulings that allowed same-sex marriage in five states. This was a victory for gay rights, and now that decision has led to a sweeping change to legislation.

Economic implications

While many will celebrate the social victories won by the decision, the economic implications are also something worth noting. Same-sex couples will now be much more financially secure due to their marriage status. This includes benefits guaranteed by Social Security, Medicare, military, civilian, and federal employee benefits.

“Our Social Security system is designed to protect workers and their families in the event of disability, death, or old age. Not only is this a victory for fairness but also for economic security of same-sex married couples. They now with absolute certainty cannot be denied the Social Security benefits they have earned for each other,” said Nancy Altman, Co-Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign.

States will also be feeling the economic surge from this decision. Researchers have estimated that each state has the potential to add millions of dollars to their economies through same-sex marriages. While the numbers will fluctuate over the next few years, they say that same-sex marriage could have a $2.5 billion dollar impact nationwide.

These numbers are not even reflective of some industries that will thrive due to increased business from same-sex weddings. Florists, wedding and event planners, and catering companies, to name a few, will get a boost. Tourism may also be affected due to destination weddings and increased travel by honeymooners.

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How accurate is your car's fuel economy rating?

Tests by AAA conclude any discrepancy is probably caused by the driver

Every new car comes with an EPA fuel economy sticker, telling a potential buyer how many miles per gallon a driver can expect. Drivers have long complained...

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Disney bans selfie sticks in its theme parks

All Disney parks to be selfie-stick-free by July 1

Bad news for Disney fans fond of self-portraits: this morning, a company spokesperson announced that Disney will be banning selfie sticks from its theme pa...

PhotoBad news for Disney fans fond of self-portraits: this morning, a company spokesperson announced that Disney will be banning selfie sticks from its theme parks. The ban comes into effect on Tuesday at Florida's Walt Disney World theme park, on June 30 at Disneyland in California, and on July 1 at Disney parks in Paris and Hong Kong.

Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty said “We strive to provide a great experience for the entire family, and unfortunately selfie sticks have become a growing safety concern for both our guests and cast.”

At the Disney California Adventure Park this week, cast members had to halt a roller coaster after a passenger pulled out a selfie stick in mid-ride. The roller coaster was closed for an hour.

Disney already conducts bag checks for guests entering the park. If selfie-sticks are found during these bag checks, guests will be given the options of surrendering the sticks and retrieving them later, as they leave the park; or returning to their car or hotel room to store them.

The previous policy banned the use of selfie sticks on certain rides, but officials have been debating parkwide bans for some time.

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New Jersey jury rules against gay conversion therapy

Claims that gays can be converted to straights amount to consumer fraud, suit charged

Now that the Supreme Court has approved gay marriage nationwide, there may be less demand for gay-to-straight conversion therapies, which could be a boon f...

PhotoNow that the Supreme Court has approved gay marriage nationwide, there may be less demand for gay-to-straight conversion therapies, which could be a boon for consumers who say they’ve thrown their money away trying to transform their sexual preferences or those of their family members.

Just yesterday in New Jersey, a jury needed only a few hours to find that JONAH -- Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing -- made gross misrepresentations in advertising its program and awarded damages of $72,000. Three gay men and their parents had filed suit against JONAH, basically claiming it had committed consumer fraud.

“My clients needed help,” said James Bromley, a lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs. “They went to JONAH. JONAH lied, and JONAH made it worse,” Religion News Service reported.

Not a mental illness

The defense argued that JONAH’s ideology and methods were both scientific and based on Jewish values. But that argument was undermined by a February ruling in which, Judge Peter Bariso held that it was a violation of the consumer fraud act to call homosexuality a mental illness or disorder -- thought to be the first such ruling in the country.

JONAH’s program included weekend retreats called “journey into manhood” weekends which allegedly included standing naked in front of a mirror while touching one’s genitals. JONAH insists its program works and says it will appeal the jury’s verdict.

Several states already prohibit licensed therapists from providing “conversion therapy” to minors and a bill pending in Congress would classify commercial conversion therapy and advertising that claims to change sexual orientation and gender identity as fraud.

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Domain name dealer reined in by feds

Network Solutions didn't follow through on 30-day guarantee promise

Network Solutions is one of those companies most people have never heard of although they interact with it constantly. It’s the largest of the domain name ...

PhotoNetwork Solutions is one of those companies most people have never heard of although they interact with it constantly. It’s the largest of the domain name registrars -- the backroom operations that assign and administer website names, or URLs as they’re known in the business.

This is a pretty simple business that manages to get fairly complex when you delve into the details but for most people, it amounts to paying a few bucks and getting a name -- CowtownUSA.com or whatever -- for a period of one or more years.

As more and more people build websites, the business has gotten somewhat competitive, so Network Solutions began offering a “30 Day Money Back Guarantee” for customers who for whatever reason wanted to back out of their purchase.

30% fee

The only problem, the Federal Trade Commission charged, is that the company didn’t disclose that it would withhold up to 30% of the purchase price from any refund. In previous cases, the FTC has made it clear that a company must describe money-back offers clearly and deliver on its promises.

Although it was not slapped with a fine, Network Solutions did agree not to do it again and also to be totally upfront with any other promise it makes to customers. The FTC approved the final consent order and it is now in effect.

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Popular subreddit r/stopdrinking is gaining popularity and making a difference for alcoholics

This online support group claims it is the "support group in your pocket"

Alcohol consumption has become widespread in the United States. Recent statistics show that 71% of adult Americans consume at least one alcoholic beverage ...

PhotoAlcohol consumption has become widespread in the United States. Recent statistics show that 71% of adult Americans consume at least one alcoholic beverage per year. 7.2% of Americans have had an alcohol-related disorder, such as alcoholism.

Support groups and treatments are available to those who want to get better, but one particular social network is gaining popularity rapidly due to its rewarding features and ease of use.

Reddit is a popular entertainment, social networking, and news site where users come to share online content, ideas, and opinions on a plethora of different topics. The site is divided into sections called subreddits, so that users can find the topics that they want to read about or discuss. Each subreddit can be easily accessed by typing in the URL www.reddit.com, followed by “r/” and whatever topic they want to find.

Share personal struggles and give support

One particular subreddit called “r/stopdrinking” has accrued a massive following since its inception. It allows users to share their personal struggles with alcohol dependence and give support to each other. Researchers at recovery.org analyzed the top posts for the group, including interactions between members, and during which times of the year the site had the most traffic.

They found that the holidays seemed to provide the most challenges for users using the subreddit. There is often a temptation to drink at family gatherings and holiday parties, and the number of posts can vary greatly on those days. Holidays such as the Fourth of July, Christmas, and New Years can be especially hard on those suffering from alcoholism. A full breakdown of each holiday’s effect on the subreddit can be viewed on the researcher’s web page

The number of members on the subreddit has continued to grow. From October of 2012 to January of 2015, the group more than quadrupled in size. It now has nearly 28,000 readers who utilize it for support.

Fantastic Features

The rise in numbers may be due to the features that the subreddit offers. Each user has a badge that tracks the number of days that they have gone without a drink, which can be a strong deterrent to relapsing. There are also real-time chat features and surveys that members can take to gain support and identify their particular weaknesses.

The site is easily accessible from any computer or mobile device. It gives users assurance that they can access support at any time, day or night. “The subreddit r/StopDrinking is an excellent place to turn to for support when you need it most. Unlike meetings, this is not only a place where alcoholics can turn to discuss their issues with total strangers in a truly anonymous fashion, but it’s also a place where people can get almost instantaneous support at any hour,” the researchers said.

Recovery.org offers its own recovery programs, including live assistance and personalized recovery solutions. They believe that support communities can play a vital role in helping people maintain their sobriety. “After going through any of our recovery programs, support communities, such as r/StopDrinking, are wonderful tools to help you maintain a sober, healthy lifestyle.”

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Feds study brake problems in Ford pickups

Power assist failed without warning, owners of 2011-2012 trucks complain

Federal safety regulators are investigating reports of loss of power braking in Ford F-150 pickup trucks from the 2011 and 2012 model years. The Nationa...

PhotoFederal safety regulators are investigating reports of loss of power braking in Ford F-150 pickup trucks from the 2011 and 2012 model years.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says it has received 32 complaints from truck owners who said they had no warning before the electric vacuum assist pump failed, causing increased stopping distance and requiring increased brake pedal effort to stop the full-sized pickups.

The reports all came from owners of truck equipped with the 3.5-liter GTDI engine. Two reports involved accidents.

NHTSA said the complaints show “an apparent increasing trend, with approximately 60% of complaints received within the past nine months.”

The agency has opened what it calls a preliminary evaluation, which could lead to a full-scale investigation, which could eventually lead to a recall.

 

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Self-driving cars nearly drive themselves into each other

Near-miss in California raises questions about autonomous cars

Humans aren't very good drivers but maybe computers won't be much better. Everyone's been assuring us that autonomous cars like those being designed by Goo...

PhotoHumans aren't very good drivers but maybe computers won't be much better. Everyone's been assuring us that autonomous cars like those being designed by Google will be oh so much better than the ones with a breathing carbon unit behind the wheel.

But on San Antonio Road in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, a self-driving Audi Q5 being developed by Delphi Automotive was motoring along minding its own business Tuesday when a Google-driven Lexus SUV cut it off.

Delphi's software does not yet include such responses as laying on the horn and extending a certain digit out the window but fortunately, one of those soon-to-be-obsolete humans was on board and was able to take the wheel and avoid a fender bender, or worse, according to Reuters as interpreted by Business Insider, the Washington Post and others. 

(Fewer and fewer events are witnessed by human reporters these days but thanks to Google, we're better than ever at looking over each other's shoulder. When a tree falls in the forest, we may not be there to hear it but we will quickly report others' accounts.)

There have been several -- at least 11 -- fender benders on California streets since self-driving cars became sort of legal there. In each case, Google and the DMV have said, the self-driving car wasn't at fault, although consumer groups have insisted Google needs to release more information about those accidents. 

But what happens when two self-driving cars collide? Will it bring new meaning to the phrase "no-fault?" That hasn't happened yet, although Tuesday's incident suggests it won't be long now.

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Jaguar creates good vibrations by developing mind-reading tech

The carmaker is utilizing mind reading technology in order to gauge when a driver is tired or distracted when on the road

It’s pretty tough to top a car that can drive itself, but they are making their way onto the highways and byways very soon. One carmaker is looking to beco...

PhotoIt’s pretty tough to top a car that can drive itself, but they are making their way onto the highways and byways very soon. One carmaker is looking to become quite the innovator by utilizing some other high tech options.

Jaguar Land Rover is making roads a little safer by developing a mind-reading technology that can detect if a driver is distracted or tired.

Making roads safer

Jaguar is researching a technology called Mind Sense. The company says that the human brain emits brainwaves on four different frequencies, and that they can tap into them in order to detect if a driver is falling asleep at the wheel or not paying attention to the road.

While most modern brainwave monitoring systems use close-range sensors on a head band, the company is investigating a system based on technology used by NASA and the U.S. bobsled team. It uses sensors integrated into the steering wheel to detect and amplify brainwaves.

Scientists are still attempting to figure out how to not confuse background noise with brain waves, but there has been progress. If the system is able to recognize that a driver is not paying attention to the road, the steering wheel and pedals will vibrate to get the driver’s attention so that they can refocus.

The "good vibrations" company

There are also measures in place to stop speeding. If a driver exceeds the speed limit, an actuator at the top of the accelerator pedal arm will create a warning that the driver needs to hit the brakes and slow down.

Mood lighting and LED’s are also being implemented in a lot of Jaguar vehicles. They contribute to the Wellness Monitoring System, which uses a medical-grade sensor to track the driver’s stress levels and heart rate. After gathering information, it then adjusts the car’s mood lighting system, climate control, and audio volume to reduce stress on the driver. Really, who needs a spa anymore? It seems so passé.

Jaguar is really working on road safety by helping the consumer keep their eyes on the road and their mind active. They are quickly becoming the “good vibrations” automobile company. 

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Toyota recalls Lexus NX200t vehicles

A malfunctioning Anti-Lock Braking System actuator could cause a loss of vehicle stability

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 3,013 model year 2015 Lexus NX200t vehicles manufactured December 18, 2014, to February 2, 2015. The...

PhotoToyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 3,013 model year 2015 Lexus NX200t vehicles manufactured December 18, 2014, to February 2, 2015.

These vehicles are equipped with an Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS), Traction Control System (TRAC), and Vehicle Stability Control System (VSC) which are controlled by an ABS actuator. A component inside the actuator may have been damaged during its assembly and may cause the actuator to not function properly.

Under some driving conditions, when the ABS is activated, the malfunctioning ABS actuator could cause a loss of vehicle stability, increasing the risk of a crash.

Toyota will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the ABS actuator, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in early July 2015.

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

 
 
 
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Mazda recalls vehicles with air bag issue

The air bag inflator could rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants

Mazda North American Operations is recalling 444,907 model year 2003-2008 Mazda6 vehicles manufactured May 29, 2002, to May 5, 2008; 2004-2008 RX-8 vehicl...

PhotoMazda North American Operations is recalling  444,907 model year 2003-2008 Mazda6 vehicles manufactured May 29, 2002, to May 5, 2008; 2004-2008 RX-8 vehicles manufactured April 10, 2003, to February 18, 2008; and 2006-2007 Mazdaspeed6 vehicles manufactured August 4, 2005, to June 29, 2007.

The recalled vehicles are equipped with a dual-stage driver front air bag that may be susceptible to moisture intrusion and other factors, including manufacturing variability that, over time, could cause the inflator to rupture.

In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the air bag, the inflator could rupture with metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death

Mazda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver's frontal air bag inflator, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Mazda customer service at 1-800-222-5500. Mazda's number for this recall is 8215F.

 
 
 
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Northern Tool + Equipment recalls Little Digger toy

The red paint on the Little Digger toy frame contains excessive levels of lead

Northern Tool + Equipment Company of Fredericksburg, Va., is recalling about 7,000 Little Digger toys....

 

PhotoNorthern Tool + Equipment Company of Fredericksburg, Va., is recalling about 7,000 Little Digger toys.

The red paint on the Little Digger toy frame contains excessive levels of lead, which is prohibited under federal law.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

This recall involves Wel-Bilt brand Little Diggers, Item # 28303. It is a stationary scooper toy with moveable poles that allow the child to scoop items up into the bucket. The item has a red powder-coated steel frame with a black plastic seat and black adjustable scoop with two yellow plastic grips on the poles and a six-sided frame base.

The toy is about 17 inches high and 25 inches wide.It has a manufacture date of August 2014, through June 2015.Wel-Bilt is printed on the front of the bucket and the manufacture date is written on the tracking label located on the bucket.  The item number #28303 is printed only on the toy’s packaging

The toy, manufactured in China, was sold at Northern Tool + Equipment retail stores and catalogs and online at www.amazon.com, www.kotulas.com  andwww.northerntool.com from August 2014, through June 2015, for about $30.

Consumers should immediately stop using the Little Digger Toy, put it out of reach of children and contact the firm for a full refund.

 

Consumers may contactNorthern Tool + Equipment toll free at (888) 518-0339 from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., CT, Monday through Friday.

 

 

 
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As rents rise Millennials more willing to consider buying

Two studies suggest young consumers are being pushed from being renters to homeowners

In the seven years since the financial crisis home ownership rates have plunged. In its latest report on The State of U.S. Housing, the Harvard Joint Cente...

PhotoIn the seven years since the financial crisis home ownership rates have plunged. In its latest report on The State of U.S. Housing, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies notes that the home ownership rate has dropped to 64.5%, a 20-year low.

That, the study says, has had a profound impact on rents. The share of renters in the 25-34 age group who pay more than 30% of their incomes for housing increased from 40% to 45% last year.

“With rents rising and incomes well below pre-recession levels, though, the number of housing cost-burdened renters set another record, far surpassing public efforts to provide affordable housing,” the authors write. And despite the rebound in much of the nation, a number of minority and low income neighborhoods remain severely distressed.”

Bad timing for gen-X

Generation X, consumers born between 1965 and 1984, is among the most distressed, since the financial crisis arrived just as it was entering its prime first-time home-buying years. As a result, home ownership rates among gen-Xers — now mostly in the 35–44 and 45–54 year-old age groups — have fallen further than those of any other age group. They stand 4–5 percentage points below rates among same-aged households 20 years ago.

Millennials have joined them, competing for increasingly expensive rental property. That has allowed landlords to consistently raise rents year after year.

Since incomes have remained stagnant, an increasing number of renters are feeling the squeeze. The report found that nearly 20% of renters earning $45,000 to $75,000 a year are among those spending 30% or more of their monthly income on rent.

Home-buying alternative

High rent may be prompting Millennials to get serious about home ownership. At least that's how Realtor.com is interpreting the results of a consumer behavior survey it conducted. They polled 12,000 people in the first half of this year.

Realtor.com chief economist Jonathan Smoke says Millennials are showing more positive home-buying sentiment.

“Despite the slow indicators we saw earlier this year, 2015 is on pace to be one of the best years for housing since 2006 due to strong sales and higher than predicted home prices,” Smoke said. “Additionally, we’re observing an uptick in Millennial traffic and sentiment that we expect will result in more first-time home buyer sales in the later part of the year.”

Since the beginning of the year, Realtor.com has counted a slight increase in older Millennials – between the ages of 25 and 34 years old – visiting its website looking at homes for sale. Traffic appeared to build throughout the first 6 months of the year.

In the first half of June, Realtor.com says its share of traffic represented by older Millennials looking for a home to purchase increased to 23%, as compared to 21% in January. In mid-June, it also saw its share of those looking for property to rent fall to 20%, from 26% in January.

Buying not that easy

Shopping, of course, isn't the same as buying - and plenty of obstacles remain for younger consumers who want to buy their first home, not least of which is saving for a down payment.

Qualifying for a mortgage is also harder to do than in the pre-bubble years. Buyers need good credit scores, documented income in the same industry for at least 2 years, and a comfortable debt to income ratio. Those who meet those requirements may still find the loan process arduous and frustrating.

Yet hope springs eternal. The survey in mid-June found that 65% of 25-34 year-olds indicated that they intend to buy a home within 3 months, up from 54% in January.

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Homeowner expenses that have nothing to do with the monthly payment

When comparing owning and renting, don't forget maintaining

If you compare rent to what a mortgage payment would be with these rock-bottom interest rates, owning a home might look a lot cheaper than renting. But ...

PhotoIf you compare rent to what a mortgage payment would be with these rock-bottom interest rates, owning a home might look a lot cheaper than renting.

But as every homeowner knows, the monthly payment isn't the end of homeowner costs. Keeping the property in good repair and maintaining its systems carries a cost too.

According to the real estate website Zillow, hidden costs can add more than $9,000 a year to the cost of owning a home. Included in that calculation is property tax and homeowners insurance. However, those costs are almost always wrapped into the monthly mortgage payment which still is less than rent for a comparable home.

Maintenance costs are something else. A homeowner must pay them but a renter does not, at least not directly.

Common maintenance chores

Zillow and Thumbtack, a marketplace for connecting consumers with service professionals, recently calculated several common outsourced maintenance costs, like yard care and carpet cleaning, for the nation and across 15 metros.

Homeowners can save money by performing many of these chores themselves, but some might be physically unable. For them, paying someone to do them is about the only alternative.

For example, Thumbtack users often request help for house cleaning, yard care, gutter cleaning, carpet cleaning, and pressure washing. These tasks add up to an average $3,435 per year on a national level. But in San Francisco, homeowners will pay closer to $4,653 per year – the highest in the metros analyzed – compared to Denver homeowners who pay around $2,782 for the same projects.

Don't fixate on the sticker price

"Home buyers too often fixate on the sticker price or monthly mortgage payment on a house, and don't budget for the other expenses associated with ownership – which can add up quickly," said Amy Bohutinsky, Zillow's chief marketing officer. "For example, new buyers can get really excited about having a backyard of their own for the first time, without budgeting for how they plan to maintain that space."

Other things that tend to get overlooked include vital systems contained in the home. Not only are there costs to maintaining a heating and cooling system, furnaces and air conditioners have a finite lifespan – eventually they have to be replaced.

That's why when considering whether to buy a home, it is important to inspect these systems. A heat pump, for example, has a lifespan of about 12 to 15 years. If it is already that age when you buy the home, you will have to pay for a new system when the old one dies, most likely on the coldest day of winter or the hottest day of summer.

Roof lifespan

The same is true for the roof. Depending on the quality, an asphalt shingle roof can last as long as 30 years or as short as 10 of 15.

A home's exterior is another potential maintenance cost. A brick or vinyl exterior will require minimal maintenance. A wood exterior will require a lot.

Thumbtack chief economist Jon Lieber says some of these homeowner costs will vary region to region, but that it's important to know what they are and consider them before you buy, not after.

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A new treatment gives patients hope; sends leukemia into remission

Researchers have developed a new treatment that has the potential to send many types of cancer into remission

A new study is breaking ground with a treatment that has the ability to send leukemia into remission. This can be a life-saver (literally) for cancer patie...

PhotoA new study is breaking ground with a treatment that has the ability to send leukemia into remission. This can be a life-saver (literally) for cancer patients for whom standard therapies have failed. By combining immunotherapy and epigenetic practices, researchers hope that they can battle many other types of cancer as well.

The specific type of cancer that researchers have been testing this method on is T-cell prolympocytic leukemia. Their method uses immunotherapy, which boosts the body’s immune system, and epigenetics, which manipulates certain gene activity. There has been a lot of positive reactions to how the therapies are working on patients when combined.

Every single patient back into remission

“It was unbelievable, really, seeing a patient who had already failed Campath [the drug typically used to treat the disease] literally going back into remission… We were able to get every single patient back into remission,” said Dr. Thomas P. Loughran Jr., who is the director of the University of Virginia Cancer Center and a leader of the study.

The study began by applying the treatment to eight patients who had T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia. While it did not cure them of the disease, each of them went into remission as a result. Patients received the treatment repeatedly and each time the same result was achieved. It has allowed doctors vital time in looking for bone marrow/stem cell donors to better treat each patient’s condition.

Some limitations 

Despite their success, the study and treatment do have some limitations. T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia is very rare, so finding participants has been a challenge. There are also concerns about repeatedly applying the treatment to patients. There are many toxins involved, and the immune system of each patient is often compromised for some time. This can lead to infections and other complications.

The results do not lie, though. One patient who underwent treatment went on to live for 34 months after being told that he would only live for four. Two other patients were still alive and battling their diseases when this data was being compiled. These are promising signs for the treatment.

The drugs used in the treatment are already commercially available, so further testing does not have to be too extensive. However, Loughran and his team believe that larger sample sizes and additional research must be conducted before the treatment can be used on a larger scale. “We’d be very glad to see [additional patients] here, if they want to come see us,” he said.

The study has been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine

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Takata CEO delivers personal apology for airbag fiasco

But company still hasn't isolated the problem responsible for 8 deaths

As recalls of cars equipped with Takata airbags mount, Takata Corp. President Shigehisa Takada has delivered a personal apology for the deaths and injuries...

PhotoAs recalls of cars equipped with Takata airbags mount, Takata Corp. President Shigehisa Takada has delivered a personal apology for the deaths and injuries that have resulted from his products' defects.

Takada has previously apologized in written statements, but following the company's annual shareholders meeting in Tokyo, the executive appeared at a press briefing to say his company is reviewing several different ways to help victims, including a fund to compensate them.

“I apologize for not having been able to communicate directly earlier, and also apologize for people who died or were injured,” Takada said. “I feel sorry our products hurt customers, despite the fact that we are a supplier of safety products.”

Supposed to save lives

Airbags, of course, are designed to save lives. In high-impact crashes they deploy with sudden force, providing a cushion of air to protect occupants. In over 30 years of use they have been shown to be extremely effective and are now standard safety equipment on all vehicles.

The problem with the Takata airbag is that more than air comes shooting out of them when they deploy. Bits of loose metal can also be fired from the inflator, with incredible force, into the bodies of the occupants. These bits of shrapnel have been blamed for 8 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

The family of the eighth victim of a lethal airbag, 26-year old Jewel Brangman, has sued a rental car company, claiming it ignored recall notices for the car in which the victim died. The car had been recalled back in 2009 but its owner, Sunset Car Rental of San Diego, had never bothered to take the car in to have the recall carried out, the suit alleges.

More Toyotas recalled

Meanwhile, more cars with Takata airbags are receiving recall notices. Toyota has announced it is expanding its recall, adding approximately 1,365,000 additional 2003-2007 Corolla and Corolla Matrix; 2005-2006 Tundra; 2005-2007 Sequoia; 2003-2007 Lexus SC430 vehicles to the list.

That makes nearly 3 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles with Takata airbags recalled so far.

While Toyota is a major Takata customer, so is Honda, whose total number of recalls thus far has outpaced Toyota's. In fact, the Takata airbag is so widespread that as many as 30 million cars on U.S. highways, from a wide range of automakers, have received recall notices.

Meanwhile, we don't really know why the inflators on Takata airbags are prone to firing bits of metal when they deploy. Takada told his company's shareholders an internal investigation so far has not come up with a definitive answer.

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Whole Foods accused of 'routine' overcharging in NYC

Consumer agency says shoppers overcharged as much as $14.84 on package of shrimp

Prices for everything are almost always higher in New York City and Whole Foods has a reputation for being expensive. That said, the city's Department of C...

PhotoPrices for everything are almost always higher in New York City and Whole Foods has a reputation for being expensive. That said, the city's Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) says the upscale grocery chain has crossed the line.

After an investigation, the DCA charged Whole Foods stores in New York City of “routinely” overcharging customers by, in effect, putting its thumb on the scale and inflating the weights of its pre-packaged products – including meats, dairy and baked goods.

The DCA said it tested packages of 80 different types of pre-packaged products and found – not just a few but all – of the products had mislabeled weights.

The federal government sets limits on how much the label of an individual package of food can deviate from the actual weight. DCA officials say that 89% of the packages it tested did not meet the federal standard, with overcharges ranging from 80 cents for a package of pecan panko to $14.84 for a package of coconut shrimp.

The tip-off

Whole Foods  June 25, 2015, 1:12 p.m.
Consumers rate Whole Foods

The DCA became suspicious when it discovered that packages of things like nuts, berries and seafood all had labels showing a uniform weight, when it was a statistical impossibility for that to be true. The investigators quickly suggested that it meant individual packages are routinely not weighed or are inaccurately weighed, resulting in overcharges for consumers.

For example, the DCA inspected 8 packages of vegetable platters, which were priced at $20 per package. Consumers who purchased these packages would have been, on average, overcharged by $2.50, a profit of $20 for the 8 packages. One package was overpriced by $6.15, DCA said.

When the agency inspected 8 packages of chicken tenders, it found consumers who bought them would have been, on average, overcharged by $4.13, making for a profit of $33.04 for the 8 packages. One package was overpriced by $4.85.

Company response

In a statement to The New York Times, Whole Foods' lawyer takes issue with the agency's charges, saying the products in question were sold as a unit, not by the pound. The attorney said the company has been working with the DCA since December to resolve the issues and that in some cases, consumers were getting more than their moneys worth.

DCA Commissioner Julie Menin is not swayed.

“Our inspectors tell me this is the worst case of mislabeling they have seen in their careers, which DCA and New Yorkers will not tolerate,” Menin said. “As a large chain grocery store, Whole Foods has the money and resources to ensure greater accuracy and to correct what appears to be a widespread problem – the city’s shoppers deserve to be correctly charged.”

Menin maintains this might not just be an isolated case. Her department says an investigation in California also found pricing irregularities in the state’s Whole Foods stores. The DCA says Whole Foods agreed to pay close to $800,000 in penalties and initiate a stringent in-house pricing accuracy effort that included a statewide compliance coordinator, a designated employee at each location for pricing accuracy, and random audits.

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Possible payment card breach at Pennsylvania's Hershey Park

Be wary if you visited the park from mid-March through late May

If you visited Pennsylvania's Hershey Park between March and May of this year, be warned: it looks like hackers might've breached Hershey Park security and...

PhotoIf you visited Pennsylvania's Hershey Park between March and May of this year, be warned: it looks like hackers might've breached Hershey Park security and stolen customer payment-card data.

Security expert Brian Krebs said that his sources at “multiple financial institutions” have been investigating a pattern of fraudulent transactions on cards which apparently share one trait in common: they'd all been used at various Hershey locations earlier this season, including ticket stations, the Hershey Lodge, and food and beverage outlets. The affected cards appear to have been used at those locations between mid-March and late May 2015.

A Hershey Park spokeswoman said:

We have received reports from some of our guests that fraud charges appeared on their payment cards after they visited our property. We take reports like this very seriously. While our company does have security measures in place designed to prevent unauthorized access to our network, we immediately began to investigate our system for signs of an issue and engaged an external computer security firm to assist us. The investigation is ongoing.

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Stepping on the scale daily helps you lose weight

Researchers have found that weighing yourself daily can help you make better food choices.

Attempting to lose weight is a struggle for many people. Controlling what you eat and how you live can be very difficult, but a new study suggests that wei...

PhotoAttempting to lose weight is a struggle for many people. Controlling what you eat and how you live can be very difficult, but a new study suggests that weighing yourself every day could be helpful.

The initial phase of the study took place over a year. Researchers gathered 162 participants and told them that they were allowed to use whatever means they wished to lose weight. The participants each had a goal of losing 10 percent of their initial body weight by the end of the first year.

Maintaining weight loss

Members of the control group were given no additional directions, but the experimental group, which consisted of 88 people, were each given a scale. Researchers asked the latter group to weigh themselves every day and track their progress on a chart.

The experimental group outperformed the control group in its weight loss goal. Those who weighed themselves and recorded the results lost an average of three percent of their body weight in the first year. Those who did not receive additional directions did not see any significant change in their weight, on average.

After the first year, the experimental group continued to outperform the control group. They maintained their weight loss more effectively over the course of the following year. “There are thousands of ways to lose weight … Losing weight is not the problem, but to maintain that weight loss is the problem,” said David Levitsky, an author of the study and professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University.

Of the two groups, those that weighed themselves daily were more than twice as successful at losing at least five percent of their initial weight during the first year (29% vs. 11%). Those that reached the goal of losing 10 percent of their initial body weight were also stacked in the experimental group’s favor (9% vs. 5%).

Losing weight is still a challenge

These results show that losing weight is still a challenge, but that regularly stepping on the scale can make a difference. It is not clear why this is the case, but researchers theorize that those that weigh themselves every day are more conscious of the food choices they make daily.

“If you find what you did yesterday made you gain weight, I think that acts as a negative reinforcement,” said Levitsky. Weighing yourself can also make you more likely to skip dessert or control your portion size more effectively.

The study was published in the Journal of Obesity on June 17th

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Does it matter if your imported beer was made in the U.S.?

Consumers appear unwilling to cut global beer makers the same slack they give carmakers

Globalization has changed the way many consumers think about borders, and the value premium one country might add over another. Take BMW for example. On...

PhotoGlobalization has changed the way many consumers think about borders, and the value premium one country might add over another.

Take BMW for example. Once upon a time consumers prized it for its German engineering. It's still a German company but many of its cars in U.S. showrooms were assembled in South Carolina.

American cars are made in Mexico and Japanese cars are made in America. Does it matter if the import you're driving isn't really imported?

Premium beer

Maybe not, but what about beer? Imported beer has always seemed just a little bit better than what we brew locally. Consumers, in fact, have been willing to pay extra for it.

But while we appear willing to accept carmakers' borderless approach, applying the same standard to beer seems to be a bridge too far.

Beck's is a long-established German beer brand that American consumers have been willing to pay extra for because – well, because it was made in Germany. It had to be better than American beer, right?

But Beck's is now owned by U.S. beer giant Anheuser-Busch, which of course makes beer in the U.S. A group of consumers filed a class action suit, claiming Anheuser-Busch tricked customers into believing Beck's was made in Germany when it was actually made in St. Louis.

Class actions

According to The Wall Street Journal, the settlement will provide refunds to Beck's customers, both those who can produce receipts and even those who can't. In fact, the Journal reports even consumers who knew Beck's wasn't brewed in Germany, but bought it anyway, can be eligible for a small refund.

This isn't the first time Anheuser-Busch has faced this kind of charge. Another class action suit accused the brewer of misrepresenting to consumers that its Kirin Ichiban and Kirin Light beers are brewed in, and imported from, Japan.

The plaintiffs contended that these beers are in fact domestically brewed but priced as a premium imported beer, which violates Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. The beer-maker settled that suit earlier this year, agreeing that consumers who bought Kirin from Oct. 25, 2009, through Dec. 17, 2014, will be able to receive 50 cents per six-pack of 12-ounce bottles, $1 per 12-pack of 12-ounce bottles, or 10 cents for each individual bottle or can.

Rise of craft beers

Ironically, imported and major domestic brands have rapidly lost market share in recent years to craft beers that were brewed in the U.S. But it is the way these beers are produced that have raised their profiles with consumers.

Most craft beers originate in small “micro” breweries, located not far from their primary market areas. These beers are valued for the care and quality that goes into them – often the same attributes once assigned to imported brands.

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Protect your pets this Fourth of July

Utilizing these strategies can help your pet cope this Fourth of July and keep them from running away

Fourth of July celebrations may be the most enjoyable time of the summer for many people. Unfortunately, this holiday leads to a large number of missing pe...

PhotoFourth of July celebrations may be the most enjoyable time of the summer for many people. Unfortunately, this holiday leads to a large number of missing pets every year. National statistics report that animal control officers see a 30-60% increase in lost pets between July 4th and July 6th every year. Pet experts at DogVacay have suggestions to help you keep track of your animals.

New technologies have come a long way in helping your pet cope with anxiety. One product called the Thundershirt can help pets in a variety of different situations. It acts as a jacket for your pet, and applies a gentle, constant pressure that can alleviate fear and anxiety. Having one for your pet this coming July 4th can help your pets deal with fireworks and other stressors.

You can also work with your pet before the holiday by desensitizing them to loud sounds. By using video sharing sites, like YouTube, you can play firework sounds at a lower volume. This will allow your pet to get used to the sound so that the actual thing does not worry them as much.

Pairing the firework sounds with things that your pet likes, such as treats, hugs, meals, or walks, can also help them create a positive association. Gradually raise the sound of the fireworks until your pet is comfortable with listening to it at full volume.

Act appropriately

Exercise is one of the best stress relievers for both humans and dogs. Get your pet to run or take them for a long walk. This will tire them out so that they aren’t so active during the festivities.

Even if you are able to prepare for the holiday, there is no guarantee that your pet will not get out and become lost. Microchip your pet so that you can track them if they get away. It will make finding them much easier.

Remember that your pet often looks to you for cues on how to act. If you are calm, then your pet is more likely to be calm. Issue commands that are firm and direct, and act as if everything is normal. You can also shut windows and doors, but make sure they are locked. If pets become scared, they can often scratch up these openings until they are able to get away.

As a final tip, be sure to keep your pets away from firecrackers and other fireworks. They can be easy to chew on, and visits to the vet can be very expensive during the holidays. Be safe and enjoy the holiday with your pets!

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Personal income and spending post gains in May

The savings rate, however, took a hit

U.S. consumers saw their incomes rise in May -- and they ran right out and spent the money. Figures released by the Commerce Department show personal inco...

Photo
© Kentoh – Fotolia

U.S. consumers saw their incomes rise in May -- and they ran right out and spent the money.

 

Figures released by the Commerce Department show personal income rose 0.5%, or $79.0 billion, last month, with disposable personal income (DPI) also up 0.5% or $65.5 billion.

 

Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) jumped 0.9%, or $105.9 billion.

 

Wages and salaries were up $37.1 billion in May, compared with an increase of $21.6 billion the previous month, with private wages and salaries increasing $34.8 billion, and government wages and salaries up $2.4 billion.

 

Personal outlays and saving

 

Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- shot up $106.9 billion in May, compared with an increase of $9.5 billion in April

 

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $685.5 billion in May, compared with $726.9 billion in April. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of DPI -- was 5.1% in May, compared with 5.4% in April.

 

The complete income and spending report is available on the Commerce Department website.

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Initial jobless claims

 

The number of workers applying for first-time unemployment benefits inched higher last week.

 

The Labor Department (DOL) reports initial applications for jobless claims rose by 3,000 in the week ending June 20 to a seasonally adjusted was 271,000. The previous week's level was revised up by 1,000 to 268,000.

 

DOL says no special factors affected the initial claims

 

The 4-week moving average, which economists consider a more accurate gauge of the labor market, came in at 273,750 -- a drop of 3,250 from the previous week's average, which was revised up by 250. 

 

The full report may be found on the DOL website.

 

 

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The humanization of pet foods is leading to market growth

Companies are trending towards humanizing their pet foods to make them more appetizing to consumers.

Everyone knows that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, it works that way with pet food as well. The marketing companies know you love y...

PhotoEveryone knows that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, it works that way with pet food as well. The marketing companies know you love your pet, and the way to get you to buy their pet food is to make it look and sound good enough for you to eat too.

Natural Balance does a pretty good job of describing their ingredients. They boast that their food is “Available in a variety of mouthwatering flavor combinations, which include Tuna with Shrimp, Salmon, Ocean fish and Chicken & Turkey, as well as Chicken, Liver, Duck & Salmon”.

Those selections could be on a fine dining menu anywhere. Nature’s Recipe has pictures of fresh cooked chicken breasts with green beans and sweet potatoes, and state that “Our recipes are crafted to help your pet thrive”.

Great for your pets' health

Not only do the foods sound delicious, they are great for your pets’ health too. Many companies are sure to mention the vitamins, minerals, and proteins that they include in their pet foods to keep your pet going strong. They also shun artificial colors, preservatives, and other ingredients that may make you doubt them.

It all sounds good enough to feed your kids tonight (though that is definitely not recommended). Pet food companies across the nation are trending toward humanizing their food. They are ensuring nutritional benefits and their manufacturing standards have been set as high as with human food.

Dog treats, in particular, have had a spotlight on them in the last few years. Ever since products from China were shown to make pets sick, owners have been extremely careful about what they feed their pets. They look for products that contain whole grains, and a survey reports that 55% of people are worried about the fillers that go into treats, such as animal byproducts.

At least 45% of consumers are concerned with what pet food tastes like. They say that it is one of the most important factors when deciding which type to buy; price comes in at a very close second. Overall, price limits the capacity for consumers to upgrade to premium products.

A growing industry

Organic pet foods sell very well in grocery stores. 39% of consumers agree that organic pet food options are better than non-organic ones. Millennials are even cooking their pet’s food to make sure it is healthy and fresh.

U.S. sales of pet food totaled $21 billion in 2014, which was an increase of 0.4% from the previous year. Mintel forecasts that pet food will grow to a $22.8 billion dollar industry by 2019. This shows how the humanization of these products have led to market growth. 

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Online skincare deals rubbed consumers the wrong way, feds charge

Consumers found themselves being charged for thinks they didn't order, FTC alleges

The Federal Trade Commission has charged seven individuals and 15 companies with using deceptive marketing strategies to charge consumers for products that...

PhotoThe Federal Trade Commission has charged seven individuals and 15 companies with using deceptive marketing strategies to charge consumers for products that they did not intend to buy.

The defendants were in the business of selling skincare products, which included brands like AuraVie, Dellure, LéOR Skincare, and Miracle Face Kit. They would draw consumers in by offering “risk free trials” in order to obtain credit and debit card information, the FTC alleged, saying that afterwards, they would charge consumers the full price for their products and set up recurring fees that were difficult to stop.

“The sellers of AuraVie tricked people into paying a lot of extra money for skin care products," said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Companies need to give clear, honest information about charges. If a company advertises a ‘risk free trial,’ then that’s what it must provide.” 

The defendants have allegedly been practicing these deceptive marketing methods since 2010. They marketed their products on a number of high-profile sites, such as Amazon.com, Huffingtonpost.com, and Lowes.com. Their “risk free offers” would pop up on these sites and direct consumers to another site from which they could take advantage of the “deals”.

Unauthorized membership sign-ups

Consumers reported that they had been charged nearly $100 after signing up for the trials. The terms that allowed the defendants to do this were in the fine print of the agreements. They also signed people up for recurring orders of the product, which they would also be charged for. The agreements made it very difficult to get out of memberships, stop or avoid the charges, or obtain a refund, the FTC said.

In addition to these unauthorized membership sign-ups, the defendants misrepresented their businesses by claiming to be accredited by the Better Business Bureau. They claimed to have an A- score, when in actuality the Better Business Bureau had given them ratings of an “F”.

If convicted, the defendants will have to refund all defrauded consumers. Fines and jail time are also possible repercussions. A full list of the defendants and the FTC’s complaint can be found on the FTC website.

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Mitsubishi recalls vehicles with sun visor- air bag issue

The passenger side sun visor may detach when the air bag deploys

Mitsubishi Motors North America (MMNA) is recalling 459,618 model year 2000-2005 Eclipse vehicles manufactured April 5, 1999, to December 17, 2004; 2001-20...

PhotoMitsubishi Motors North America (MMNA) is recalling 459,618 model year 2000-2005 Eclipse vehicles manufactured April 5, 1999, to December 17, 2004; 2001-2005 Eclipse Spyder vehicles manufactured January 19, 2000, to March 18, 2005; 2001-2005 Chrysler Sebring vehicles manufactured April 17, 2000, to February 21, 2005; and 2001-2005 Dodge Stratus vehicles manufactured April 17, 2000, to February 22, 2005.

 

The passenger side sun visor may be folded down in such a position that, if the passenger frontal air bag deploys, the passenger side sun visor may detach. If the passenger side sun visor detaches and is propelled rearward, there is an increased risk of occupant injury.

 

MMNA will notify their owners, and Chrysler will notify the Chrysler and Dodge owners. Dealers will install a tether strap to retain the passenger sun visor, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact MMNA customer service at 1-888-648-7820. Chrysler and Dodge owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. MMNA's number for this recall is SR-15-005.

 

 

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Bicycles with SR Suntour bicycle forks recalled

The front wheel could come off the bicycle

SR Suntour North America of Vancouver, Wash., is recalling about 101,600 bicycles with SR Suntour bicycle forks in the U.S. and Canada. The bolt that atta...

PhotoSR Suntour North America of Vancouver, Wash., is recalling about 101,600 bicycles with SR Suntour bicycle forks in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The bolt that attaches the upper part of the bicycle’s fork to the lower part of the fork can break or separate and cause the front wheel to come off the bicycle, posing a crash hazard.

 

There have been 15 reports of the bolts breaking or separating from the bicycles, including 2 reports of minor injuries, including abrasions, cuts and bruises.

 

This recall involves Cannondale, Diamondback, Giant, GT, INA International, Schwinn, Scott and Trek brand bicycles with SR Suntour bicycle forks models M3010, M3020, M3030, NEX and XCT.

 

The recalled forks have serial numbers in the top row beginning with “K” and ending with a number between 141101 and150127. The fork model and serial numbers are located on the back of the fork’s crown. The serial number is the first row. The model number is in the second row. “SR Suntour” is printed on stickers on both sides of the fork legs.

 

A detailed list of the specific model numbers included in the recall is on the firm’s websitehttp://www.srsuntour-cycling.com/service/download-bereich/consumer-downloads/recall/fixingbolt/ .

 

The bicycles, manufactured in China, were sold at bicycle stores, sports stores and mass merchandisers from November 2014, through May 2015, for between $300 and $400 for the bicycles.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using bicycles with the recalled SR Suntour bicycle forks and return the bicycle to the place of purchase for a free inspection and repair.

 

Consumers may contact SR Suntour toll-free at (888) 820-8458 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., CT, Monday through Friday.

 

 

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School Specialty recalls NeoRok Stools

The stool can break during use

School Specialty of Greenville, Wis., is recalling about 1,350 NeoRok Stools. The stool can break during use, posing a fall hazard. The company has recei...

PhotoSchool Specialty of Greenville, Wis., is recalling about 1,350 NeoRok Stools.

 

The stool can break during use, posing a fall hazard.

 

The company has received 2 reports of stools breaking. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves three models of Classroom Select NeoRok Stools with a tilting and rocking feature, for use by children in the classroom. Recalled stools were sold in three sizes: 15 inch tall (Item Number 1496633), 18 inch tall (Item Number 1496340) and 20 inch tall (Item Number 1496342).

 

The Classroom Select logo/name is printed on one side of the base and the NeoRok name is printed on the other side of the base. The stools have a round black rubber seat insert with a solid color plastic seat and black rimmed base, and were were sold in five colors: Pistachio (green), Paprika (orange), Periwinkle (light blue), Cardinal (red) and Marine (navy blue).

 

The stools, manufactured in the U.S., were sold in Classroom Direct catalogs, School Specialty Furniture and Equipment catalogs, School Specialty Education Essentials catalogs, School Specialty Early Childhood catalogs, and on www.schoolspecialty.com from May 2015, through June 2015, for between $105 - $115.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled stools and may contact School Specialty. The company is contacting consumers directly and sending free replacement stools with a prepaid return shipping label and instructions.

 

Consumers may contact School Specialty toll-free at (877) 204-3948 from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., CT, Monday – through Friday.

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Good Seed recalls soybean sprouts and mung bean sprouts

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Good Seed of Springfield, Va., is recalling all packages of soybean sprouts and mung bean sprouts. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocyto...

PhotoGood Seed 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 May 8, 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 May 8, 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 May 8, 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 May 8, 2015.
  • 10-lb bags of soybean sprouts in black plastic bags labeled with a sticker "GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts" produced on or after May 8, 2015.
  • 10-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled with a sticker "GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts" produced on or after May 8, 2015.

The recalled products were distributed to retail stores in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey.

 

Customers who purchased these products should return them to the place of sale 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 804-786-8899.

 

 

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Jeep Cherokees with power liftgates recalled

The liftgate control modules may be inadvertently exposed to water

Chrysler (FCA US) is recalling an estimated 164,000 model year 2014 and 2015 Jeep Cherokee SUVs equipped with power liftgates. The power liftgate control...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US) is recalling an estimated 164,000 model year 2014 and 2015 Jeep Cherokee SUVs equipped with power liftgates.

 

The power liftgate control modules may be inadvertently exposed to water, which could cause a short-circuit, creating a fire hazard.

 

The company says it is unaware of any related injuries or accidents.

 

The recall affects an estimated 99,436 vehicles in the U.S.; 13,195 in Canada; 2,406 in Mexico and 48,966 outside the NAFTA region.

 

Chrysler says it will advise vehicle owners when they may schedule service. If the modules show signs of water exposure, they will be replaced at no cost to the owners.

 

In the interim, the cargo areas of the recalled vehicles should be monitored and kept dry.

 

Customers with questions may call the Chrysler customer information center at 1-800-853-1403.

 

 

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Check-writers beware: your checks can be cashed more than once

Remote deposit capture makes double deposits easy – accidentally or otherwise

If you still write checks to pay various bills – actual physical checks, not withdrawals made from a check card – there's a new and growing form of check-c...

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FBI warns against dangerous CryptoWall ransomware

American victims have lost $18 million since April of 2014.

The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) issued an alert yesterday identifying a virulent form of ransomware known as CryptoWall as “the most curren...

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Samsung disables Windows Update, leaving computers vulnerable to massive malware threats

Secret software update even includes an app openly named Disable_Windowsupdate.exe

If you have a Samsung laptop, beware: Samsung has apparently disabled the Windows Update feature on many of its laptops, leaving you vulnerable to any secu...

PhotoIf you have a Samsung laptop, beware: Samsung has apparently disabled the Windows Update feature on many of its laptops, leaving you vulnerable to any security holes which Windows updates are supposed to patch.

Patrick Barker, a Microsoft VP, first posted yesterday that, while trying to figure out a problem with Windows Update (WU) on a user's Samsung laptop, he discovered the problem wasn't an accident, but the desired end result of a Samsung software update:

...the program that was responsible for disabling WU was Disable_Windowsupdate.exe, which is part of Samsung's SW Update software.

SW Update is your typical OEM [Original Equipment Manufacturer] updating software that will update your Samsung drivers, the bloatware that came on your Samsung machine, etc. The only difference between other OEM updating software is, Samsung's disables WU.

Installing a secret app

Not only did Samsung secretly install an app to disable Windows Update, it even gave that name to the app. Worse yet, even if the user notices this and deliberately re-enables Windows Update, SW Update and Disable_Windowsupdate.exe will disable it again, the next time your computer reboots.

TheNextWeb news, which first brought Barker's blog post to wider notice, said that “According to a support representative, it’s there to stop the computer from automatically downloading drivers from Windows Update that could be incompatible with the system or cause features to break. … Samsung’s software update service doesn’t actually ship with the application installed, it’s silently downloaded in the background at a later time from a non-HTTP server and installed without asking the user.”

But Gizmodo used less diplomatic phrasing to summarize Samsung's intent (original vowel replaced with anti-obscenity asterisk): “Windows updates … patch critical security flaws with alarming regularity. So if a manufacturer decided to disable Windows Update to favor its own crappy bloatware, that would be incredibly f*cked. Oh hey there, Samsung!”

Leaving users vulnerable

Not only does disabling Windows updates leave users vulnerable to whatever security flaws those updates were supposed to fix, but the actual act of (secretly) installing the disabling app also leaves users at risk, as TheNextWeb explains:

Samsung delivering the app via a non-secure protocol also means that if the server were to be compromised, it could allow an attacker to quietly install apps without you ever knowing about it.

Samsung has not yet offered public comment on the matter. Meanwhile, if you have a Samsung computer, you might want to check and see if Windows Update still works.

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An atlas of elderly brain scans could help diagnose Alzheimer's disease

An atlas of elderly brain scans could be used to diagnose neurodegenerative diseases much more quickly.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders may be easier in the future. A new study suggests that digitally mapping the brains of...

PhotoDiagnosing Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders may be easier in the future. A new study suggests that digitally mapping the brains of older people may help doctors detect anomalies and treat conditions much more quickly.

Doctors currently use MRI’s of healthy brains to compare individual cases and make diagnoses. The problem is that most of these MRI’s are of young or middle-aged brains. Diseases and disorders like Alzheimer’s primarily affect people who are older, so many of the MRI’s do not accurately depict what happens in our brains as we age.

Mapping the elderly brain

To remedy this, researchers from the University of Edinburgh created a detailed atlas of an aged human brain. The atlas was created from scans of over 130 people who were 60 years of age or older.

After creating the atlas, the research team compared brain scans of healthy, older brains and the brains of patients that had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The atlas was able to locate areas in the brain where brain tissue was deteriorating, which can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s if caught in the early stages.

Earlier Diagnoses

“We’re absolutely delighted with these preliminary results and that our brain MRI atlases may be used to support earlier diagnoses of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Earlier diagnoses are currently our strongest defense against these devastating diseases and, while our work is preliminary and ongoing, digital brain atlases are likely to be at the core of this defense,” said Dr. David Alexander Dickie, who is the first author of the study and a researcher at The University of Edinburgh’s Brain Research Imaging Center.

While researchers have had a great measure of success with their atlases, they are always looking for more data to make them more precise. They urge brain imaging centers to continue collecting scans of brains of people of all ages so that they can create large brain image banks to work from.

The full study is published in the journal PLOS ONE

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Ford enlisting some customers into ride-share enterprise

Smart Mobility program aimed at cash-strapped Millennials

Faced with a growing number of young consumers who aren't sure if they need or can afford a car, Ford Motor Company is trying to expand their options to ma...

PhotoFaced with a growing number of young consumers who aren't sure if they need or can afford a car, Ford Motor Company is trying to expand their options to make it more attractive.

The company has launched a pilot program in London and six U.S. cities which allows customers who are financing their vehicles through Ford Credit to rent their rides to other drivers when they aren't using them. The program falls under what Ford calls its Smart Mobility plan.

“My great-grandfather helped put the world on wheels so everyone could enjoy the benefits of mobility,” said Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford. “Our vision today is to expand that same thinking using advanced technology and new business models, and addressing the mobility challenges people face around the world.”

But when Henry Ford was marketing the Model-T, there were very few roads, and those that existed were little more than rut-filled trails. Today, there are congested highways which make travel almost as frustrating.

Smart Mobility

For that reason many urban consumers, who in the past might have purchased a car out of necessity, now find they can get by with alternate transportation and ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. After six months of research, Ford's Smart Mobility strategy focused on two areas – flexible use with ownership of vehicles and multi-modal urban travel solutions.

“We now are moving from experimentation to implementation,” said Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO. “We have learned a lot in the past six months, and now are ready to put insights into action. Our goal is to make people’s lives better by helping them more easily navigate through their day, address societal issues and, over time, change the way the world moves – just as Henry Ford did more than 100 years ago.”

Under its flexible use and ownership initiative, Ford is inviting a total of 26,000 customers to sign up to rent their Ford Credit-financed vehicles to prescreened drivers for short-term use, which it says will help offset monthly vehicle ownership costs.

On the fence

These consumers will participate in the program through the Web-based software of ride-share company Getaround, while London drivers connect through a similar rental system called easyCar Club. The program is aimed at consumers who are on the fence about whether they really need to buy a vehicle. The purchase will be easier to justify, Ford believes, if buyers know it can generate revenue when they aren't using it.

“Consumers tell us they are interested in sharing the costs of vehicle ownership, and this program will help us understand how much that extends to customers who are financing a Ford vehicle,” said David McClelland, Ford Credit vice president of marketing. “As most vehicles are parked and out of use much of the time, this can help us gauge our customers’ desires to pick up extra cash and keep their vehicles in use.”

In addition to London, the U.S. cities where Ford will offer flexible use and ownership are Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, California; Portland, Oregon; Chicago, Illinois; and Washington, D.C. It runs through November of this year.

The program is clearly aimed at Millennials who have adopted “sharing” as part of a lifestyle. The Ford research suggests much of Millennials' enthusiasm for sharing is economically based.

The research found that one-third of U.S. Millennials said they are interested in renting out their own belongings as a way to supplement their income. Most compelling for Ford, the carmaker says young Americans rank car rides second only to book lending as things they are most open to sharing.

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Air conditioner maintenance tips

Keeping surfaces clean and changing filters regularly can prevent a nasty surprise on a hot summer day

With summer officially here, and seasonally stifling heat and humidity across wide areas of the U.S., many consumers will hope that their home air conditio...

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Why young adults need to be checking their blood pressure

Elevated, but 'normal' blood pressure could be dangerous for young people in middle age

In recent years doctors have determined that older adults can enjoy health with higher elevations of blood pressure than had previously been considered nor...

PhotoIn recent years doctors have determined that older adults can enjoy health with higher elevations of blood pressure than had previously been considered normal.

In 2013 a medical panel on hypertension, or high blood pressure, issued guidelines suggesting patients over 60 were fine with a blood pressure reading of 150/90. Blood pressure goals were also eased for adults with diabetes and kidney disease.

In March 2014 researchers at Duke University ran an analysis and determined that an estimated 5.8 million adults no longer needed blood pressure medicine under the new guidelines.

Sub-clinical heart damage

But researchers are careful to point out that the same cannot be said for young adults. In fact, a federal study led by Johns Hopkins researchers says mild elevations in blood pressure considered to be in the upper range of normal during young adulthood can lead to sub-clinical heart damage by middle age, a condition that could lead to full-blown heart failure.

Elevated blood pressure is one that tops 140/90, a reading that measures the force of pressure in the heart as it contracts – that's the top number – and as it relaxes between contractions, the bottom number. High blood pressure has been long implicated as a risk factor in a range of cardiovascular diseases.

What is different about the new study is its suggestion that pressure just below that threshold, what is called high normal pressure, begins to fuel heart damage in people as young as 20 and can lead to changes in heart muscle function in as little as 25 years.

Troubling

Investigators are especially troubled because their findings come from a group of patients, most having had no hypertension. They are concerned that a pattern of high normal blood pressure in early adulthood could be indicators of 2 forms of heart failure, a condition marked by the progressive weakening heart muscle and the organ's gradual loss of blood-pumping ability.

“Our results suggest the heart muscle may be more exquisitely sensitive to the effects of even subtle elevations in blood pressure than we thought,” said principal investigator Joao Lima.

To review, the most recent clinical guidelines issued by the Joint National Committee in 2014 define hypertension as blood pressure above 140/90, which is higher than it has been in recent years. The guidelines also call on clinicians and patients to aim for a pressure below 150/90.

The Johns Hopkins team says these guidelines are not “one size fits all.” They do not apply to all ages, and what constitutes normal should probably change with age, they say.

“Our results suggest that 'high-normal' blood pressure may be too high and far from normal for some people,' said lead author Satoru Kishi, M.D., a cardiologist at Mitsui Memorial Hospital in Tokyo who worked on the study as a research fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “A concerning number of young adults with pressures in the high-normal range develop insipient heart dysfunction in middle age.”

Young people may suffer from elevated blood pressure because of lifestyle issues. Diet and body mass are big influencers.

Young people who are overweight or obese, eat an unhealthy diet and get little exercise may experience elevated blood pressure levels. In the past these levels were seen as fairly normal. The Hopkins team says now they should be cause for concern.

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A shrinking economy

The nation's gross domestic product is moving in the wrong direction

The national economy, as measured by real gross domestic product -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S., adjusted for price chang...

PhotoThe national economy, as measured by real gross domestic product -- the value of the production of goods and services in the U.S., adjusted for price changes -- declined at an annual rate of 0.2% in the first quarter, according to the "third" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

 

Real GDP grew at a 2.2% annual rate in the final 3 months of 2014.

 

The GDP estimate released today is based on more complete source data than were available for the "second" estimate issued last month.

 

In the “second” estimate, the decrease in real GDP was 0.7%. but this latest estimate is based on more complete data. With the third estimate, exports decreased less than previously estimated, and personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and imports increased more.

 

The decline in real GDP primarily reflected decreases in exports, nonresidential fixed investment, and state and local government spending that were partly offset by contributions from PCE, private inventory investment, and residential fixed investment. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

 

GDP inflation and spending

 

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, fell 1.6% in the first 3 months of the year. It was down 0.1% in the fourth quarter. Excluding food and energy prices, the price index for gross domestic purchases was up 0.1%, compared with an increase of 0.7% in the previous quarter.

 

PCE increased was up 2.1% in the first quarter, compared with an increase of 4.4% in the fourth. Durable goods spending increased 1.3%, versus an advance of 6.2%, while spending for nondurable goods inched up 0.8% after rising 4.1%. Spending for services rose 2.7% versus 4.3%.

 

The full GDP report may be found on the Commerce Department website.

 

 

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Virtual reality therapy may help those suffering from alcohol dependence

Researchers hope to diminish cravings for alcohol by utilizing virtual-reality software.

Therapy involving the use of virtual-reality software may help people with alcohol dependence. A new study suggests that the treatment can slow a patient’s...

PhotoTherapy involving the use of virtual-reality software may help people with alcohol dependence. A new study suggests that the treatment can slow a patient’s brain metabolism, which can diminish their cravings for alcohol.

Virtual-reality therapy has been used in the fields of psychology and psychiatry to treat many different disorders, including phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It allows researchers and doctors to expose people to the things that trigger their fears and anxiety while ensuring they are in a safe and controlled setting.

Senior researcher Dong Hyun Han and his team conducted the study with the help of 12 patients who were being treated for alcohol dependence. After detoxing for a week, each patient took part in 10 sessions of virtual reality therapy.

Changing brain chemistry

The sessions placed each patient in three virtual situations. The first was a relaxing environment with no stressors. The second was a “high-risk situation”, where patients were placed in a restaurant where other people were drinking. The third was an “aversive situation”, where patients were surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of people getting sick from drinking too much.

Although measurable outcomes are hard to measure in this kind of study, researchers were able to observe what the treatment did to the patients’ brain chemistry. Before beginning the sessions, Han and his team took brain scans of the patients and noted that each had a faster metabolism in the brain’s limbic circuit. Having a faster brain metabolism makes a person more sensitive to stimuli, like alcohol.

After the virtual-reality therapy sessions were complete, doctors scanned the patients again and noticed that their brain metabolisms had slowed. Han suggests that this shows a reduced craving for alcohol.

Better manage real-life situations

Han and his team believe that this therapy is a promising approach to treating alcohol dependence. It puts patients in realistic situations and makes them actively participate in the process. The researchers hope that being exposed to triggers in sessions will help patients better manage situations that may occur in real life.  

Although it has not been proven, virtual-reality therapy may be useful in treating substance abuse disorders as well. Longer-term studies are still needed, however, to determine if the treatments can help patients remain abstinent and avoid relapses.

The full study has been published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

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Doctors say blood cancer drugs too expensive

Just the latest researchers to call out drug companies

When a patient is diagnosed with one of several blood cancers, he or she may receive extremely expensive drugs to combat the disease.Researchers at the...

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Don't let summer storms lay waste to your food supply

We have some tips on what to do when the bad weather hits

After a long, difficult winter, summer is finally here. That means outdoor fun, swimming and picnics. But it also can mean extremely hot weather and -- in...

PhotoAfter a long, difficult winter, summer is finally here. That means outdoor fun, swimming and picnics.

 

But it also can mean extremely hot weather and -- in some cases -- severe weather than can knock the power out. And, of course, when the power goes so does the refrigeration. So, how do you hold on to your food if you cant keep it cold?

 

What to do

 

The Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recommends the following steps

 

If the power goes

  • Keep appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer to ensure temperatures remain food safe during a power outage. Safe temperatures are 40°F or lower in the refrigerator, 0°F or lower in the freezer.
  • Freeze water in one-quart plastic storage bags or small containers prior to a storm. These containers are small enough to fit around the food in the refrigerator and freezer to help keep food cold. Remember, water expands when it freezes so don’t overfill the containers.
  • Freeze refrigerated items, such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately -- this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Know where you can get dry ice or block ice.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours.
  • Group foods together in the freezer. This ‘igloo’ effect helps the food stay cold longer.
  • Keep a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that don't require cooking or cooling.
  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if the door is kept closed. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).
  • Place meat and poultry to one side of the freezer or on a tray to prevent cross contamination of thawing juices.
  • Use dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible during an extended power outage. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for 2 days.

 

After a weather emergency

  • Check the temperature inside your refrigerator and freezer. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.
  • Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture or feels warm to the touch.
  • Check frozen food for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below.
  • Never taste a food to decide if it’s safe.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.
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The volatility continues in mortgage rate applications

Applications rose last week following a decline the week before

It continues to be difficult to get a handle on applications for mortgages. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Application...

PhotoIt continues to be difficult to get a handle on applications for mortgages.

 

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show a applications rose 1.6% during the week ending June 19 after dipping the previous week.

 

The Refinance Index were up 2%, increasing the refinance share of mortgage activity increased to 49.0% of total applications from 48.5% the week before.

 

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 7.0% of total applications -- the highest level since December 2014., while the FHA share of total applications slipped to 13.9% from 14.2 percent the week prior.

 

The VA share of total applications decreased to 10.9% from 11.5% a week earlier and the USDA share was unchanged at 0.9%.

 

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) dipped 3 basis points -- to 4.19% from 4.22%, with points decreasing to 0.38 from 0.46 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) slipped from 4.18% to 4.14%, with points decreasing to 0.35 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was down 4 basis points 3.96%, with points decreasing to 0.14 from 0.20 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs dropped to 3.38% from 3.43%, with points rising to 0.37 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs plunged 11 basis points to 3.04%, with points decreasing to 0.46 from 0.52 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

 

 

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Ford recalls Mustangs with possible fuel tank issue

Prolonged exposure to elevated underbody temperatures can cause degradation of the fuel tank

Ford Motor Company is recalling 19,095 model year 2015 Ford Mustangs manufactured February 14, 2014, to February 10, 2015, and equipped with 2.3L engines. ...

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 19,095 model year 2015 Ford Mustangs manufactured February 14, 2014, to February 10, 2015, and equipped with 2.3L engines.

 

Prolonged exposure to elevated underbody temperatures can cause degradation of the fuel tank and/or fuel vapor lines, which may eventually result in a fuel leak. In addition, this condition could cause seals in the parking brake cable to degrade, potentially affecting parking brake function.

 

If the vehicle experiences a fuel leak in the presence of an ignition source it can, increase the risk of a vehicle fire. Reduced parking brake function could potentially result in unexpected vehicle movement, which may increase the risk of injury.

 

Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the fuel tank shield, add thermal patches to the fuel tank and parking brake cable, and add thermal wraps to the fuel vapor lines. The repairs will be performed at no charge. The recall is expected to begin July 6, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 15S19.

 

 

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EPIC fail for Uber's new privacy policy: FTC asked to block “deceptive data collection”

Electronic Privacy Information Center files anti-Uber complaint on Monday

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a non-profit privacy rights group, has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking that th...

PhotoThe Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a non-profit privacy rights group, has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking that the FTC halt the “unfair and deceptive data collection practices” which car-sharing company Uber plans to impose on customers starting in mid-July.

Among other things, Uber's new “User Privacy Statement” claims the right to track its users even when they're not currently using the app.

Uber's posted announcement of this update included the sentence “We value your privacy and encourage you to review the new statement” prominently backlighted in blue at the top of the page. When you scroll down to the fourth full paragraph, you find this:

Location Information: When you use the Services for transportation or delivery, we collect precise location data about the trip from the Uber app used by the Driver. If you permit the Uber app to access location services through the permission system used by your mobile operating system (“platform”), we may also collect the precise location of your device when the app is running in the foreground or background. We may also derive your approximate location from your IP address.

In other words: when the app is on, we can use it to track your location, and when it's not, we can use your IP address instead. The policy goes on to say that it can use your address-book contact information “to facilitate social interactions through our Services and for other purposes,” a polite way of saying they can spam anybody in your email contact list.

Lax Views on Privacy

Uber already has a storied history of coming under fire for its lax views on privacy. Last November was a particularly bad month for Uber's public relations department. First, BuzzFeed reported that Uber executive Emil Michael floated the idea of handling any criticism of the company by digging up dirt on any journalists who dared criticize it.

When an editor from the website PandoDaily accused Uber of “sexism and misogyny” for apparently working with a French “escort service,” Michael suggested, among other things, that Uber's dirt-diggers could expose the editor by proving a very particular, specific (and presumably unflattering) claim about her personal life.

Such an attitude arguably sounds bad expressed by any company executive, but are especially damaging coming from a tech company like Uber which, by its very nature, has access to lots of information which customers might prefer to keep private — in Uber's case, its business model ensures that it knows where its customers live, what places they visit, and when. (Indeed, with such information, you could prove lots of particular and specific claims about various people's personal lives, no?)

Also last November, it came out that an Uber executive had used a program called “God View” to track a journalist's location and movements. Not that “God View” itself was breaking news by then; the previous month, Forbes magazine reported that Uber used “God View” as a form of entertainment at company launch parties, letting staffers enjoy watching real-time “God's eye” views of Uber passengers at that moment, including their identities, current locations and trip itineraries.

Then, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, Newsweek reported Uber's tendency to advertise its services by sending “ghost texts” – spammy messages allegedly sent from Uber drivers that urged their friends to sign up as well, except the drivers never sent their friends such messages, and didn't even know about them.

A host of complaints

EPIC's complaint (available as a .pdf here) lists all of these anti-Uber complaints and several more, and also quotes the proposed new privacy policy before spelling out some of its implications:

Uber’s Revised Business Practices Will Allow the Company to Routinely Track the Location of Internet Users Even When They are not Customers of Uber

Uber’s revised privacy policy creates several risks for American consumers. Uber will now collect the precise location of the user when the app is running in the foreground through traditional GPS location services. Uber will also collect precise location information if the app is operating in the background. On phones running iOS, this means that Uber may be able collect location data even after an app has been terminated by the user. … Further, given Uber’s statement that it will collect location data from a user’s device only “[i]f you permit it to,” a user would reasonably assume that the company does not track his or her location by other means. In fact, Uber may continue to “derive your approximate location from your IP address.”

EPIC's complaint does go on to note that Uber claims “it will allow users to opt-out of these features,” but says Uber's “change in business practices places an unreasonable burden on consumers and is not easy to exercise: while iOS users can later disable the contact syncing option by changing the contacts setting on their mobile devices, the Android platform does not provide any such setting. These statements could lead users to believe that that [sic] they can choose to not share location data with the company after downloading the app, which is not true.”

The 23-page complaint also points out that “prior to the emergence of Uber and similar services, American consumers could routinely hire taxis without any disclosure of personal information or tracking of their location.” EPIC asks the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Uber's business and data-collection practices; investigate Uber's “possible violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act”: “Halt” Uber's collection of contact list information and user location data unless it is required for actual provision of the service; and also investigate other companies engaged in similar practices.

But representatives for Uber say neither EPIC nor the FTC have any reason for complaint. Spokeswoman Jessica Santillo said that “We care deeply about the privacy of our riders and driver-partners. These updated statements don't reflect a shift in our practices, they more clearly lay out the data we collect today and how it is used to provide or improve our services.”

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Egg prices surge in many areas of the country

Avian influenza has reduced egg-laying population by at least 35 million

The impact of the avian influenza outbreak in the Midwest is being felt at diners and supermarkets around the country.As producers have culled devastat...

PhotoThe impact of the avian influenza outbreak in the Midwest is being felt at diners and supermarkets around the country.

As producers have culled devastated hen populations, fewer eggs are making it to market. Those that do carry a higher price tag.

According to the American Egg Board, more than 35 million egg-laying hens in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin are no longer producing eggs for American tables. That works out to about 12% of all “layer hens” in the U.S., and more than 30% of the layers dedicated to the egg-products business, which includes frozen, liquid and powdered eggs.

Disruption of supply

“Unfortunately, this situation will likely create some disruption of supply as we work to restore the egg-farming community to full production levels,” the board said in a statement. “Egg farmers in unaffected areas are ramping up to supply the marketplace, but this will take time. Although there may be some intermittent shortages for food service operators, some operators are using shell eggs, which are currently less affected by AI (avian influenza), in place of liquid eggs.

The latest Department of Agriculture (USDA) accounting of U.S. egg production is for April, just two months into the health crisis. For that month, however, table egg production had already been affected, totaling 593 million dozen, 0.6% lower than a year earlier.

The forecast for table egg production for 2015 has been lowered to 6.9 billion dozen, a decline of 5.3% from 2014 and a decrease of 334 million dozen compared with last month’s forecast.

“Prices can vary widely from where you live and who you buy your eggs from to what arrangement businesses have with their wholesale suppliers,” Mark O’Neill of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau told the Daily Item, a newspaper serving Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley. “In some cases, supermarkets have increased prices, but have also decided not to pass the entire cost onto consumers.”

But in other parts of the country, consumers are feeling the full brunt of the price increases. In East Tennessee, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports egg prices have doubled, posing special difficulties for restaurants. Prices have more than doubled in Kansas City, according to the Kansas City Star.

Political issue

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) predicts egg prices could go even higher unless Congress stops proposed cuts of $500 million dollars recently made to USDA funds. He says the research-based funds are essential to farmers and scientists as they look to beat back threats like avian influenza.

“When the cost of eggs skyrockets, we all feel it in our wallets because, unlike other foods, most egg substitutes use egg ingredients,” Schumer said. “Yet, despite being hit with one of the worst bird flu outbreaks of our generation and sky-high egg prices, Congress is looking to slash $500 million from the USDA’s budget to beat back avian influenza.”

Schumer said the money could be used towards preventing the outbreak from spreading. After a shopping trip he reported a dozen eggs at New York City's Food Emporium last week cost $4.99, up from $3.69 last month.

He says restaurants and other food producers are also feeling the effects of the egg shortage. “Breaker” eggs, which are sold in liquid form to restaurants and packaged-food-producers, including McDonald’s, increased by 273%, Schumer said.

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Smart patches could be a game changer for diabetics

Researchers have developed smart patches that are more precise, and less painful, than standard insulin injections.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina and NC State have developed a small insulin patch that may help the 387 million people who suffer from di...

PhotoResearchers from the University of North Carolina and NC State have developed a small insulin patch that may help the 387 million people who suffer from diabetes. If successful, the patch could replace painful insulin injections and better regulate blood sugar levels in the human body.

The developing patch is a thin square that is no bigger than a penny. It is covered with over one hundred “microneedles” that each hold a small store of insulin and a sensor that detects glucose. When you apply the patch to your skin, the sensors in the needles will detect if your blood sugar levels are too high. If they are, then the needles release their insulin stores to regulate your glucose levels.

“We have designed a patch for diabetes that works fast, is easy to use, and is made from nontoxic, biocompatible materials,” said Zhen Gu, who is co-senior author of the study. “The whole system can be personalized to account for a diabetic’s weight and sensitivity to insulin, so we could make the smart patch even smarter.”

Impractical and imprecise

The current standard for those with diabetes is to prick their fingers to test their glucose levels, and take an insulin shot if they need to. This can be a dangerous practice, though. John Buse, who is another co-senior author of the study, calls it impractical and imprecise.

“Injecting the wrong amount of medication can lead to significant complications like blindness and limb amputations, or even more disastrous consequences such as diabetic comas and death,” he said.

Researchers have already begun testing their patches on mice to see if they could control their blood sugar levels. One set of mice was given a standard insulin injection; their blood sugar levels dropped to normal levels, but rose back up to hyperglycemic range quickly. Another set of mice was given the new smart patch; their blood sugar levels were brought under control within 30 minutes and stayed that way for several hours.

These tests reflect positively on the smart patch’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels in people. Mice are less sensitive to insulin, so the stabilizing effects of the patch could last even longer when given to humans. Researchers hope that the patch could last up to a few days before needing to be changed. This would save a lot of time for diabetics who need to constantly be on top of their blood sugar regulation.

“The hard part of diabetes care is not the insulin shots, or the blood sugar checks, or the diet, but the fact that you have to do them all several times a day, every day, for the rest of your life,” said Buse. “If we can get these patches to work in people, it will be a game changer.

The full study has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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How ready are you for retirement?

Millennials are preparing at at a surprising rate

Ask different financial planners how much you need to retire and you are likely to get several different answers. That's because there are a lot of variabl...

PhotoAsk different financial planners how much you need to retire and you are likely to get several different answers. That's because there are a lot of variables, depending on each individual's situation.

But all will tell you the same thing. You need to be saving money. Now.

Fidelity Investments suggests that by age 35, you should have saved 1 times your current salary, then 3 times by 45, and 5 times by 55.

“Setting up clear goals linked to your salary can help simplify your planning, and help you determine if you are on track throughout your working life,” said Fidelity Executive Vice President John Sweeney. “Having such guideposts is particularly important in today’s workplace, where layoffs, job switching, longer life expectancy, and escalating health care costs can complicate your efforts to save for retirement.”

How you save is important

The U.S. Department of Labor points out that how you save can be just as important as what you save. Inflation and the type of investments you make play important roles in how much you'll have accumulated at retirement.

For example, if you're putting your savings into low-yield bonds, or even worse, certificates of deposit, it may reduce risk of losing the investments but it will do well to keep up with inflation.

Know how your savings or pension plan is invested. Learn about your plan's investment options and ask questions.

Diversify

One way to reduce risk is to diversify, by putting your savings in different types of investments. Your investment mix may change over time depending on a number of factors such as your age, goals, and financial circumstances. Financial security and knowledge go hand in hand.

While young people have the advantage of a long time line before retirement, they face a very difficult savings environment. Wages have been slow to grow while many everyday expenses haven't. With young families, many Millennials face obstacles in setting aside money for the future.

However, they appear to be doing it. T. Rowe Price's latest Retirement Saving & Spending Study concludes this generation has relatively good financial habits, especially when compared with a national sample of their parents' generation.

Both samples in the study had 401(k) retirement accounts. While Millennials are not saving at least 15% of their annual salary for retirement as recommended, they acknowledge the importance of saving for retirement and are interested in saving more.

Better habits

The study identified several areas where Millennials have better money habits than Baby Boomers. They are more likely to carefully track monthly expenses and stick to a budget.

"It's encouraging to learn that millennials are so receptive to saving for retirement and are generally practicing good financial habits," said Anne Coveney, a senior executive at T. Rowe Price. "These Millennials are working for private sector corporations, with a median personal income of $57,000 and an average job tenure of five years. So their circumstances may be somewhat driving their behaviors. When they have the means to do the right thing, it appears that they often do.”

Yet Coveney worries about the difficulty young savers face. Median pay raises for this group were a paltry 3%. Still, she says she's impressed by Millennials' financial discipline in managing their spending and are defying stereotypes that this generation is “prone to spend-thrift, short-sighted thinking."  

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Feds probe ejections in rollover crashes of GM SUVs

Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon side curtain air bags may not work

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking into complaints that side curtain air bags may not work properly in Chevrolet Tahoe a...

PhotoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking into complaints that side curtain air bags may not work properly in Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon vehicles.

A petition submitted to the agency alleges that second- and third-row passengers could be ejected from the SUVs in a rollover. It cites a 2011 Texas crash of a 2010 Tahoe. Several occupants were ejected from the vehicle and one was killed.

NHTSA said its preliminary review of consumer complaints found no similar reports. It also reviewed Early Warning Reporting data submitted by General Motors.

NHTSA said a defect petition has been opened to evaluate the issue and make a "grant or deny" decision. GM said it was cooperating with the probe.

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Bring your dog to work on June 26th

Promote awareness for pet adoption by bringing your dog into work this Friday.

You better start packing an extra lunch and a few toys; don’t forget about a bowl for water! Friday is Take Your Dog to Work Day, and many companies will b...

PhotoYou better start packing an extra lunch and a few toys; don’t forget about a bowl for water! Friday is Take Your Dog to Work Day, and many companies will be participating.

Take Your Dog to Work Day was created in 1999 by the group Pet Sitters International (PSI). They wanted to find a way to give back to the pet community from which their members earn their living. It is estimated that 300 businesses participated in the event in that first year. The event is held annually on the Friday after Father’s Day.

If you are a business that is participating in Take Your Dog to Work Day, PSI asks that you focus on the fun employees and employers have, celebrate the value of pets in the workplace, and encourage pet adoptions amongst workers.

Not left out

In an effort not to leave out other kinds of pets, PSI has sponsored Take Your Pet to Work Week as well. Every day leading up to the Friday, businesses are encouraged to let employees bring their pets to work.

If you are an employee of a company that is on the fence about participating in PSI’s event, there are some very convincing facts that you can bring up to your boss. According to a study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012, employees who brought their dogs to work produced lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout the day. Other studies show that bringing dogs to work can increase interaction between co-workers and employee satisfaction.

Animal shelters all over the United States are having trouble staying open due to an overflow of animals. Help create awareness for pet adoptions and show your community how your company supports animals this Friday.

If you would like more information on how you can participate, go to www.takeyourdog.com.

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Monitor your student athletes for head injuries from your cell phone

New technologies help determine when a head injury occurs and how to keep student athletes safe.

Injuries can occur all too often in youth sports. One of the most problematic to diagnose and treat is a concussion. The effects of a concussion sometimes...

PhotoInjuries can occur all too often in youth sports. One of the most problematic to diagnose and treat is a concussion. The effects of a concussion sometimes take days to affect a person, and some athletes do not know if they’ve had one until years after they occur.

A new technology aims to fix this problem by allowing parents and coaches to get medical information within seconds after an injury has taken place.

Triax Technologies Inc. has developed two products, the SIM-G and Sim-P, which help monitor and prevent head injuries. They are based on a cloud radio frequency that collects data in real time and broadcasts it to your smart phone or tablet.

The athlete that uses this technology wears a 1.27-inch monitor that is placed either by a headband or a skull cap. This monitor can send information to coaches and parents so they can detect how hard players are impacted during a game. The process takes only 20 milliseconds, and allows officials to get medical attention to an athlete right after an injury occurs.

Monitor players

The SIM-P can be used to monitor an individual player, while the SIM-G has the capacity to monitor entire teams of athletes. Each of them is waterproof and can be adapted for water polo, skiing, and other extreme sports. Each device also comes with a charging station when you purchase it. The charge on each device can last up to two full weeks.

The devices are also designed to teach coaches how to properly teach skills that involve using an athlete’s head. For example, those who coach soccer can teach their team how to properly head the ball out of the air without harming themselves. The company who developed the products is very focused on educating the consumer about head injuries.

Triax Technologies Inc. also hosts a website where coaches, parents, and athletes can learn about how to prevent, treat, and recover from a concussion. According to their site, between 1.6 and 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur every year. Head traumas are one of the most dangerous injuries that an athlete can face, so being prepared can make all the difference. 

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Tobacco use on the decline? Not necessarily

The FDA has some facts and figures that might surprise you

You might think that all the warnings about tobacco use would sink in. In a lot of cases it has, but in too many it hasn't happened. While the number of k...

PhotoYou might think that all the warnings about tobacco use would sink in. In a lot of cases it has, but in too many it hasn't happened.

 

While the number of kids smoking cigarettes is down, the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), co-conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finds, the number using other tobacco products is way up.

 

“This is the only nationally representative survey of middle and high school students that focuses exclusively on tobacco use,” says Benjamin J. Apelberg, Ph.D., branch chief of epidemiology at FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.

 

Survey results provided a national snapshot of what tobacco products today’s middle and high school youth are using, as well as emerging trends over time.

 

Key findings

 

Here's what the survey discovered:

  • In 2014, 1 in 4 high school students and 1 in 13 middle school students reported being tobacco users (using one or more tobacco products in the previous 30 days).
  • Of the then-current 4.6 million youth tobacco users, 2.4 million reported using e-cigarettes.
  • Between 2011 and 2014, the percentage of students reporting current use of cigarettes plunged from 15.8% to 9.2%.
  • Between 2011 and 2014, hookah use among high school students doubled and e-cigarette use increased even more dramatically.
  • In 2014, nearly 2.2 million students reported using 2 or more tobacco products.

The rise of e-cigarettes

 

Since the survey started collecting data on e-cigarettes in 2011, their current use surpassed current use of every other tobacco product -- including conventional cigarettes -- for the first time in 2014 .

 

“One thing the study confirms for us is that the tobacco product landscape has changed dramatically,” Apelberg says. “Middle and high school kids are using novel products like e-cigarettes and hookahs in unprecedented numbers, and many are using more than one kind of tobacco product.”

 

It’s something of a good news/bad news picture, says FDA epidemiologist Catherine Corey. “While we’re glad to see cigarette smoking decreasing in middle and high school youth, the increase in the use of e-cigarettes and hookahs undermines progress in reducing tobacco use among kids,” she says.

 

Nicotine's consequences

 

Nicotine is dangerous and highly addictive for kids at any age, whether it comes from an e-cigarette, hookah, cigarette or cigar. Because the brain is still developing, adolescence appears to be a particularly vulnerable time.

 

Research has clearly demonstrated that exposure to nicotine at a young age increases the chance that kids will become addicted. In addition to nicotine exposure, tobacco use can be harmful due to the numerous other chemicals present in tobacco products that can cause disease.

 

“Youth should not use tobacco in any form,” Apelberg says.

 

At this time, FDA has regulatory authority over cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco. The agency is in the process of completing work on a rule that would extend its authority to regulate additional products that meet the legal definition of a tobacco product, such as electronic cigarettes, cigars and hookahs. FDA is also proposing a minimum age of 18 for buying tobacco.

 

“These latest findings serve to strengthen existing scientific evidence that novel tobacco products like e-cigarettes and hookah have great appeal to youth, and that comprehensive youth prevention efforts that focus on reducing all forms of tobacco use are needed,” says Corey.

 

 

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Roadside zoos charged with multiple violations

A father and daughter have been brought up on charges of animal mistreatment due to poor conditions in their zoos.

A father-daughter duo in Florida allegedly operated roadside zoos that became dungeons of death for the animals that were being held. Eric Mogensen and his...

PhotoA father-daughter duo in Florida allegedly operated roadside zoos that became dungeons of death for the animals that were being held. Eric Mogensen and his daughter Meghan have allegedly euthanized their animals by drowning and shooting them. Both are now facing federal animal mistreatment charges.

According to the North West Florida Daily News, the two operated a roadside zoo called Gulf Breeze Zoo in Gulf Breeze, Fla. They were charged with multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has discovered that they used medications that were outdated and killed animals unmercifully. Some of the animals, such as the tigers, were put in pens that had no ventilation and sharp nails that stuck out on the inside. They would often cut themselves and were not treated properly.  

Many of the enclosures were allegedly in horrible condition. The food bins for the lions and tigers were horrific and unclean. Other animals, like the sheep and goats, did not have adequate shelter, with no protection from the elements.

The Florida location was not the only one that was investigated; the Mogensens have two locations in Virginia that have also been under investigation for alleged abuses.

At their Reston Zoo and Virginia Safari Park Zoo, officials fear that animals were drowned in order to euthanize them.

The Humane Society states that the vast majority of animal exhibitors licensed by the federal government do not meet industry accreditation standards. Thousands of animals suffer in roadside zoos and menageries. “It’s important that people understand what goes on at these roadside zoos,” they said.

Roadside zoos run the gamut from small menageries, where animals are kept in barren cages constructed of concrete and metal bars, to larger compounds that are surrounded by chain-link fencing. They are usually privately owned and not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Lisa Wathne, a captive wildlife specialist with the animal welfare organization, said that Meghan Mogensen has been accused of animal cruelty before and plead guilty to it. She was accused while working at the Reston Zoo in Virginia and later transferred to her location in Gulf Breeze.

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Amazon's Echo will turn on your lights, open the garage door and remind you to take out the garbage

No one at home to nag you? Here's the answer

We talk to our computers and other gadgets all the time but, like our significant others, they mostly ignore us. Amazon hopes to chan...

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Photo (c) Amazon

We talk to our computers and other gadgets all the time but, like our significant others, they mostly ignore us. Amazon hopes to change all that with its latest gee-whiz gadget -- the Echo, a slender tube that is somehow reminiscent of the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey," only without corners.

The Echo doesn't appear to do much but Amazon assures us that it's always listening, ready to respond to our slightest wish, as long as that wish is something that can be answered by a weather report, Taylor Swift tune or other digitally-rendered data or activity.

And no, it's not just a knock-off of Apple's Siri. While Siri just rides around in your pocket, the Echo stays home and gets stuff done.  

It's a smart hands-free remote control, in other words. It's been available by invitation-only for the past seven months and Amazon assures us that the initial users have been nothing short of ecstatic, giving it a 4.5 (out of 5) rating.

Alexa-powered

Photo“The customer response to Amazon Echo has been incredibly positive, and we’ve been working hard to build more as quickly as possible,” said Greg Hart , Vice President, Amazon Echo. “We’re excited to get Echo into the hands of even more customers and continue to invent new features and experiences.”

The slender tube-like device uses far-field voice recognition with an array of seven microphones to keep tabs on your every whim. It is also stuffed with dual downward-firing speakers that are said to produce 360-degree omni-directional, room-filling audio. It doesn't mumble under its breath when it talks back to you, in other words.

Echo is powered by Alexa, Amazon's cloud-dwelling repository of data that, unlike people, keeps getting smarter, we're told. At launch, Echo featured hands-free voice control for music (Amazon Music, Prime Music, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn), information from Wikipedia and the web, weather, timers and alarms, news, and shopping/to-do lists.

Does this sound like something you just can't live without? If so, Amazon will ship you one for $179.99 starting July 14.

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Colleges with the lowest student loan default rates

But in a world where delinquency is rapidly rising, they are the exception

A statue of George Mason greets visitors to the GMU campus Most of the time it is the colleges with the highest student loan default rates – the Corin...

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A statue of George Mason greets visitors to the GMU campus

Most of the time it is the colleges with the highest student loan default rates – the Corinthian Colleges of the world – that get the attention.

So it is refreshing to learn that there are plenty of public and private schools graduating students out into the world who are able to pay back their student loans. BestColleges.com has released its 2015 ranking, finding Virginia's George Mason University has the best default rate of any public college and California's Claremont McKenna College the best record among private schools.

Among public colleges and universities, Virginia institutions rank 1 and 2 for the lowest student default rates. George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., just outside the nation's capital, leads the nation with a default rate of only 1.8%. James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va., was close behind.

According to the Department of Education, the national average student loan default rate is 13.7%.

Able to get jobs

“It shows that our students get jobs and are able to pay back their loans, and that is the most significant part,” said Carol Brosseau, George Mason University’s senior associate director for student financial aid.

It helps that George Mason's in-state tuition is a bargain for a quality public university – just over $5,000 per semester.

About 58% of Mason students graduate with a loan debt that averages $26,710, Brosseau said. Generally, students have 10 years in which to pay back their loans.

“It's telling you students are graduating and finding jobs,” Brosseau said. “And that is what everyone hopes for.”

In addition to providing millions of dollars in funding every year, BestColleges.com says George Mason is focused on preparing students to be competitive for top jobs upon graduation. Innovative internship programs and continual career networking opportunities ensure students gain experience and build contacts throughout their education, giving them a number of options upon graduation.

Fewer students take out loans

On the private side, Claremont, Calif.'s Claremont McKenna has the lowest default rate, in part, perhaps, because fewer of its students take out loans. According to the ranking, only 16% of the students take out loans to pay for their education. Those who do, however, graduate with about $35,000 in debt.

Approximately half of the study body received scholarship and grant aid in 2014, averaging $35,693 per student.

Claremont, Calif. is also home to Pomona College, a private school that coincidentally places number 2 in the rankings. The university is known for providing excellent scholarship and grant opportunities. Only 15% of all students took out a loan to pay for their education, with the average amount $4,490 per year.

While annual tuition totals $45,500, in the 2013-14 academic year, the average financial aid reward was $41,213.

Meanwhile, here is a list of the colleges whose students have the toughest time paying back their student loans.

Make no mistake, student loan defaults are a serious problem, not just for the students who are drowning in debt but for the financial institutions holding the notes. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, the implied delinquency rate for all student loan borrowers is over 27%.

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More consumers may have health insurance but aren't using it

Survey finds consumers having a hard time connecting with the system

Obama signs "Obamacare" into law (White House photo) Health care remains a fractious issue in American politics with the Affordable Care Act, otherwis...

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Obama signs "Obamacare" into law (White House photo)

Health care remains a fractious issue in American politics with the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, still dividing Democrats from Republicans.

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on the legality of government subsidies that millions of people use to help pay for their health insurance.

But amid all the noise about health care in Washington, a new survey of consumers has uncovered a level of frustration that has led many to forgo seeking regular medical care. At least that's one interpretation.

The poll, commissioned by the online health platform ZocDoc, reveals 80% of Americans are delaying or not getting care altogether. The results are more pronounced among Millennials, with 93% not seeing a doctor.

With health care insurance now more accessible to more people, you might expect the opposite to be true. But the survey results suggest even people with coverage might not be using it.

Hard to see a doctor

When the survey takers asked why respondents were declining to see a doctor, nearly a third said it was too hard to get an appointment at the last minute, suggesting they aren't getting preventive care but reacting only when they are sick.

Instead of seeking medical treatment from one of the many retail walk-in clinics, 43% said they were more inclined to consult Dr. Google to diagnose and treat what ailed them. ZocDoc says policymakers should pay attention.

Photo
"Dr. Google"

"There's an important health care debate happening in Washington, but we're missing the conversation on Main Street, where patients are struggling to simply find the right doctor and make and keep appointments, amidst family and work obligations," said ZocDoc founder and president Dr. Oliver Kharraz. "Instead of the empowered consumer that we're used to, in the role of patient, many Americans are passively engaging with health care."

Time crunch

Kharraz says there are many reasons consumers – especially those with young families – are not fully engaged with the health care system. A big reason is the time crunch.

In the survey, 61% of consumers characterized health and wellness as “a struggle to manage,” admitting it takes a back seat to personal finances, career goals, family obligations, friendships and social life, household responsibilities, beauty routines and even pets' health.

“With so many priorities, it's no wonder nearly 37% of people say they have held off booking a checkup because they don't remember how long it's been since their last doctor's visit, or they have forgotten to make an appointment entirely,” the authors write.

Other reasons for not seeing a doctor for routine preventive care is not being able to get away from work or frustration in making an appointment.

For Millennials who prefer to book online, calling for an appointment can be so painful and counter-cultural that if patients are not successfully scheduled on the first call, 26% say they wait at least a few weeks to try making an appointment again, if they even attempt to or remember at all.

The survey also shows women are more likely than men to put off preventive care. If they are sick, nearly two-thirds of women would rather wait it out than make a doctor's appointment right away.

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New homes sales in May build on April increase

Home prices were mixed

It's 2 gains in a row for sales of new homes. A joint report by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development puts the sales pace ...

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© kentoh - Fotolia

It's 2 gains in a row for sales of new homes.

 

A joint report by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development puts the sales pace for new single-family houses in May at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 546,000 – up 2.2% from the revised April rate of 534,000. It's also 19.5% above the year-ago rate of 457,000.

 

Inventory and prices

 

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end last month was 206,000, representing a supply of 4.5 months at the current sales rate.

 

The median sales price of new houses -- the point at which half sold for more and half for less -- was $282,800, down $2,800 from a year ago. The average sales price was $337,000, a gain of $13,500 from May 2014.

 

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

 

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(c) teena137 - Fotolia

FHFA house prices

 

In a separate report, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reports its House Price Index (HPI) rose 0.3% in April, matching the March advance

 

On a year-over-year basis house prices were up 5.3%. Still, the index is 2.3% below its March 2007 peak and is roughly the same as the February 2006 index level.

 

For the 9 census divisions, seasonally adjusted monthly price on a month-to month basis ranged from -0.8% in the East North Central division to +1.4% in the West North Central division.

 

The 12-month changes were all positive, ranging from +2.3% in the Middle Atlantic division to +7.5% in the Pacific division.

 

The FHFA HPI uses home sales price information from mortgages sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

 

The complete report may be found on the FHFA website.

 

 

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Fiat 500e hatchbacks recalled

Cruise-control software is being upgraded

Chrysler (FCA US) is recalling an estimated 3,975 Fiat 500e hatchbacks to upgrade cruise-control software. An investigation by company engineers discover...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US) is recalling an estimated 3,975 Fiat 500e hatchbacks to upgrade cruise-control software.

 

An investigation by company engineers discovered the vehicles were inadvertently equipped with software that may misread torque levels generated by their motors, causing them to shift into neutral – a prescribed failsafe mode.

 

This condition may occur only while cruise-control is engaged and the driver attempts to override the feature with accelerator-pedal applications or rapid tapping of the accelerate/decelerate buttons. Restarting the vehicle restores normal function.

 

The Company says it is unaware of any related injuries, accidents or customer complaints.

 

Owners with questions may call the Chrysler customer information center at 1-800-853-1403.

 

 

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Auto safety regulators, lashed by blistering audit, vow to do better

NHTSA says it will crack down on automakers and tighten its own procedures

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is vowing to crack down on automakers -- and on itself, following a blistering audit that finds ...

PhotoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is vowing to crack down on automakers -- and on itself, following a blistering audit that finds that agency has missed too many safety defects because of poor training, haphazard data collection and inconsistent procedures.

But, says safety activist Clarence Ditlow, the agency also needs to become more transparent in its actions and more accountable to the consumers who put their lives on the line each time they start their cars and trucks.

"All the people who have died from safety defects in the past and all the people who can be saved from safety defects in the future deserve nothing less than an agency that is willing and able to take on any defect," said Ditlow, executive director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety.

The audit by the U.S. Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General identified three basic shortcomings of the troubled agency:

Lack of resources NHTSA has just one person to initially screen all the complaints sent in by consumers, allowing only a few seconds for each, which Ditlow said "amounts to nothing more than sorting the mail." The result is that defect data goes unread.

"Investigators must have training and training costs money the agency doesn’t have," Ditlow said. "NHTSA doesn’t even have its own research facility like other agencies; instead it must rent space from Honda."

Lack of transparency and accountability "No one knows why investigations aren’t opened and no one is held accountable for not opening an investigation," Ditlow said. "People die due to unopened investigations."

Lack of will to take on major defects "NHTSA doesn’t get the hard job done," Ditlow said, instead spending time on investigations with no known deaths or injuries. "Lack of will means settling for inadequate Service Campaigns or geographic recalls instead of needed national Safety Recalls when a manufacturer balks at doing anything more."

Early warning

PhotoIn its response to the audit today, NHTSA said it will tighten its early-warning reporting requirements by next June, requiring automakers to be more proactive in notifying the agency when it learns of a dangerous defect.

NHTSA has conceded that it failed to catch the safety defect in ignitions used in General Motors sedans even though early signs of the problem occurred as early as 2003. Meanwhile, more than 117 people died and at least 237 were injured in accidents that happened when the ignition switch unexpectedly cut power to the engine, air bags and such vital equipment as power-assisted steering and brakes. GM belatedly recalled 8.7 million vehicles because of the defect.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, named earlier this year to run the agency, has called for automakers to be more "proactive" in their approach to safety and has said the agency needs to have more than 380 fulltime employees to ride herd on automakers effectively.

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Eighth Takata airbag death involves a rental car

Car rental companies aren't required to perform safety recalls or to warn customers that recalls haven't been carried out

Photo: Sunset Car Rental's Facebook pageThe latest death-by-airbag case illuminates a larger danger -- renting a car that may have uncompleted safety...

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Photo: Sunset Car Rental's Facebook page

The latest death-by-airbag case illuminates a larger danger -- renting a car that may have uncompleted safety recalls.

Jewel Brangman, 26, was driving a rented Honda Civic last Sept. 7 when she was involved in a collision. The Takata airbag spewed shrapnel-like metal into the car, inflicting a severe neck laceration and killing Ms. Brangman, who became the eighth person known to have died from Takata-caused injuries.

The car had been recalled back in 2009 but its owner, Sunset Car Rental of San Diego, had never bothered to take the car in to have the recall carried out, a lawsuit filed by Ms. Brangman's family alleges. Perhaps surprisingly, it was within its rights to ignore the recall.

Convenient loophole

Because of one of those oh-so-convenient loopholes that benefit well-lobbied business interests at the expense of consumers, car rental companies don't legally have to have recalls performed and aren't required to tell consumers that the car has been recalled but not fixed.

Even when rental companies sell cars, they're not required to perform the recalls or warn the purchaser.

Congress has tried to fix the "oversight" -- to use a polite term -- a few times but with no success. Major rental companies say they do carry out the recalls but there is no public evidence that this is true.

Everyone is sorry

Both Takata and Honda say they are sorry Ms. Brangman was killed.

Honda said four separate notices were sent to the car's owner since the recall for the driver side airbag was issued in July 2009 but all were apparently ignored.

A second recall -- this one for the passenger side airbag -- was issued in April 2013. It was also ignored, the lawsuit charges.

About 34 million Takata airbags have been recalled because of a defect that can cause their inflaters to explode and hurl metal into cars' passenger compartments. More than 100 injuries have been recorded.

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Traffic safety agency may face a tough week

Leaked report takes National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the woodshed

A hearing Tuesday by the Senate Commerce Committee will review a government report on the National Highway Traffic Safety A...

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Photo © mrivserg - Fotolia

A hearing Tuesday by the Senate Commerce Committee will review a government report on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – set for release Monday – and the result may not be all that comfortable for the agency.

The Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (OIG) has completed a lengthy review of NTHSA's performance and the report – leaked to the media over the weekend – takes the safety agency to task for numerous failures to hold automakers accountable for repeated safety defects.

Reuters, which says it saw a copy of the report before the official release, reports NHTSA is faulted for obtaining insufficient data to identify safety issues, doesn't adequately screen the data and by and large gives carmakers a pass when they put lives in jeopardy.

"Collectively, these weaknesses have resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked," Reuters quotes the report as stating.

“Scathing”

The Detroit News, which also obtained a copy of the report, calls it “scathing” in its characterization of NHTSA's performance. It says the agency routinely rejects staff recommendations to open investigations into safety issues.

According to the News' account, the OIG claims NHTSA personnel ignored complaints that air bags failed to deploy in GM cars, adding that the agency didn't document why it didn't investigate them.

The report comes in the wake of a flood of vehicle safety issues, to which NHTSA has been forced to react. This year alone has seen the recall of 2.6 million GM cars because of an ignition switch defect blamed for the deaths of 100 people.

GM is also accused of hiding the defect from NHTSA, and left unsaid is the fact that NHTSA didn't uncover it, even after mounting complaints.

Meanwhile, millions of cars were recalled this spring because the Takata airbags they were equipped with were found to spray dangerous shrapnel when they deploy, resulting in injuries and deaths.

As we reported earlier this month, drivers have continued to report cases of unintended acceleration in their cars, even after NHTSA determined that a rash of similar complaints in 2011 about Toyotas was because of the vehicle floor mats. NHTSA dismissed 16,000 addtional complaints as due to drivers stepping on the wrong pedal.

Damage control

Perhaps in damage control mode in advance of the report, both the Department of Transportation and NHTSA issued their own reports in early June promising more stringent oversight of the auto industry from federal regulators, and said they would even consult with personal injury lawyers, who routinely are out well ahead of the federal agency when it comes to identifying potential safety issues.

“Our obligation to save lives and prevent injuries must include sober self-examination, and when we find weaknesses, we have to fix them,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said as the stepped-up enforcement plans were released. “These reports outline how NHTSA is already improving its systems for identifying and addressing vehicle safety defects, and offers options for building the workforce it needs to meet its obligations to the traveling public.”

NHTSA said it would also step up its own efforts to identify defects, expanding its defects investigation office, which currently has the equivalent of 64 full-time employees, adding 380 employees longterm, a sevenfold increase.

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Colleges may no longer be the gatekeepers to the middle class

More young people seeking success without a four-year degree

With high school graduation season reaching its peak, millions of 18-year olds who plan to attend college in the fall have just been through the nerve-wrac...

PhotoWith high school graduation season reaching its peak, millions of 18-year olds who plan to attend college in the fall have just been through the nerve-wracking process of college admissions.

A college degree has always been viewed as a ticket to the middle class, but in recent years that ticket has been harder to come by, even if you could afford it.

Sometime during the 1990s even state-supported colleges and universities got more choosy about the students they admitted.

Open enrollment, whereby any resident of the state who had received a high school diploma was automatically admitted, gave way to selective enrollment, long practiced at elite private schools. If you wanted to get a college degree you had to make it past the college admissions gatekeepers, who didn't just look at grades and SAT scores but delved into a host of personal attributes as well.

In a noteworthy piece in April 2000, The New York Times explored the admission process at one school, Wesleyan University, finding that the subjective criteria of a compelling personal saga could sway a committee of gatekeepers and often make the difference between making it to college or being shut out of the middle class.

Plenty of student loans available

Of course, most people aspiring to the middle class wanted to attend college. As it became more competitive to get in, colleges found they could raise tuition rates without diminishing the pool of students. After all, student aid was available, as were student loans.

While inflation in the general economy slowed to a crawl, the average cost of tuition at a four-year college has increased by 41% in the past 10 years, according to the College Board. It's up nearly 100% since 2000.

As a result millions of students who were smart, skilled and savvy enough to make it past the gatekeepers are contending with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Even if they have been lucky enough to get a good job after graduation, their monthly student loan payments sometimes make it feel like they haven't quite made it to the middle class.

So it may not be all that surprising that the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll finds many younger Americans no longer believe college provides the only route to success. Their definition of success has some things in common with their parents and some things that aren't.

Different paths

“Young people want the ‘American Dream’ of homeownership, career and financial security, though they’re working hard to achieve it on different paths compared to their parents and other generations,” said Troy Hawkes, Field Senior Vice President of Allstate.

For example, it's more important to young people to live in an area with a strong sense of community and volunteerism and more public services. And, they think it might be a better choice to wait for financial stability before getting married and having children.

That's because, according to the poll, 45% of them are still paying student loans. A separate survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling found that 53% of the college students it polled said concern about their student loan debt was causing the most stress in their lives. Stress over credit card bills was only 22%.

Opting out of college

While most young people still believe a college degree is important to success, a growing number are deciding to reach for success without it. In May the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) reported college enrollments are declining because fewer Millennials are attending.

Among the interpretations of the NSCRS report is young adults in their mid 20s are choosing to go to work rather than attend college. The report does not make clear whether these young adults are leaving school to pursue the workplace or not attending college in the first place.

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Why the housing market is still a shadow of its former self

Remaining underwater homeowners likely stuck for years to come

When the housing market collapsed in 2008, millions of homeowners found themselves underwater, owing more on mortgages tha...

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Photo (c) chris711- Fotolia

When the housing market collapsed in 2008, millions of homeowners found themselves underwater, owing more on mortgages than their homes were worth.

Over the last seven years home prices have recovered – in some markets more than others – and each month more people find that the have a small bit of equity once again in their once-underwater homes.

But a report this month from Zillow shows just how much farther the housing market has to go before it fully recovers. The report found that more than half the homeowners who are still underwater are so far under they have almost no chance of re-surfacing for years to come.

This explains a lot about the housing market and the headwinds it faces in trying to get back to its pre-bubble equilibrium.

The good news

First, the good news. The rate of negative equity among mortgaged homeowners was 15.4% in the first quarter of 2015, down from 16.9% in the fourth quarter, a marked improvement. And the numbers have been improving each quarter.

But of those remaining underwater homeowners, about half -- some 4 million owners – still owe over 20% more than the value of their home. For example, if they owe $200,000 on their mortgage they could only sell their home for $168,000.

The report further found that lower-priced, entry level homes were more than three times as likely to be underwater than more expensive homes. All of this has a distorting effect on the housing market.

First, there are some four million homes that might have gone on the market in the last seven years but haven't, because their owners are essentially hopelessly trapped. These homes are concentrated in the lower end, where they would normally be purchased by first-time home buyers.

Tight inventories

That may be partly responsible for tight inventories, which have helped prices increase because of fewer homes for sale. But it has also resulted in fewer sales, which has a ripple effect on many other types of businesses, such as home centers, decorators and furniture retailers.

Because there are millions of entry-level homeowners still underwater, they can't move up by purchasing a more expensive home, resulting in a slowdown in sales in that segment.

The recovering housing market has slowed in recent months and this may be partly why. Rising prices helped many homeowners close to the break-even point escape. Going forward, it's clear fewer negative equity homeowners will be able to get their heads above water.

Toughest situations remain

At the peak of the housing market crisis, more than 15 million homeowners were underwater on their homes. Foreclosures, short sales and rising home values freed nearly half of those homeowners, leaving 7.9 million homeowners upside down at the end of the first quarter of 2015. Zillow says the homeowners who remain underwater will likely be the toughest to free from negative equity.

"It's great news that the level of negative equity is falling, but what really worries me is the depth of negative equity,” said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Stan Humphries. “Millions of Americans are so far underwater, it's likely they may not regain equity for up to a decade or more at these rates."

That creates a real problem for first-time buyers, the consumers who normally drive the housing market. The selection of homes they can afford is smaller than it should be because many of these homes simply can't be sold.

“And owners of those homes can't move up the chain because they're stuck underwater in the entry-level home they bought years ago,” Humphries said. “The logjam at the bottom is having ripple effects throughout the market, and as home value growth slows, it will be years before it gets cleared up.”

In the meantime, Humphries predicts the housing market will be left with volatile prices, limited inventory, tepid demand, elevated foreclosures and “a whole lot of frustration."

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Security flaw in Android apps from Google Play store leaves user passwords vulnerable

Affected apps include those for Safeway, Pizza Hut, NBA Game Time and Match.com

Android owners take note: security researchers from AppBugs, a free Android app designed to spot dangers in other apps on the same device, have discovered...

PhotoAndroid owners take note: security researchers from AppBugs, a free Android app designed to spot dangers in other apps on the same device, have discovered “dozens” of Android apps in the Google Play store that leave user passwords and other sensitive data exposed because the apps either fail to properly apply encryption, or don't bother applying it at all.

The faulty apps include the official apps from the National Basketball Association, Safeway supermarkets, Pizza Hut, and Match.com.

AppBugs' CEO Rui Wang told Ars Technica that the Match.com app uses an unencrypted hypertext transfer protocol to send user passwords, which in turn means pretty much anybody in a position to monitor the traffic (such as somebody using the same wi-fi network as the Match app user) to read those passwords.

Meanwhile, other apps including NBA Game Time and the Safeway and Pizza Hut apps do attempt encryption but don't apply it correctly, leaving those apps' users vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks (which allow hackers to alter, spy on or control data while it's traveling between the sender and receiver).

"S" for secure

“Hypertext transfer protocol” is the “http:” you see at the beginning of many web addresses. Essentially, it's the protocol that lets visitors view a website and send information back to the server. If, instead, you see an address starting with “https,” that's not the plural form of http; in this context, the “S” stands for “secure.”

So if you're engaged in sensitive, password-protected online activities – such as email, online banking or credit card activity – the web address for that page should start with “https,” not “http,” to indicate that your data is being encrypted before it's sent.

But AppBugs discovered that some Google Play apps, including Match.com, didn't bother using a secure “https” address in the first place, whereas other apps including Safeway and Pizza Hut at least made the attempt, but didn't implement it properly.

This is not the first time such flaws were discovered in official Google Play apps; last September, student researchers from City College of San Francisco discovered a fatal HTTPS flaw in several Android apps including those of OKCupid Dating and CityShop – for Craigslist. Those apps, like Safeway, NBA Game Time and others recently discovered by AppBugs, attempted and failed to apply secure encryption, leaving users vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks.

The faulty apps exposed by AppBugs have a total of more than 200 million downloads between them.

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General Mills to remove artificial colors and flavors from all breakfast cereals

Starting with children's cereals this year, and including 100% of cereal portfolio by 2017

General Mills announced today that it would remove all artificial colors and flavors from its breakfast cereals, starting with Trix, Cocoa Puffs and Reese'...

PhotoGeneral Mills announced today that it would remove all artificial colors and flavors from its breakfast cereals, starting with Trix, Cocoa Puffs and Reese's Puffs by the end of 2015, and including all General Mills cereals by the end of 2017.

The company says that more than 60% of its current cereal offerings, including Cinnamon Toast Crunch and plain Cheerios, are already made without artificial dyes or flavorings. The transition schedule calls for 90% of its cereals to use natural colors and flavors by the end of 2016 before going 100% artifical-free the next year.

Jim Murphy, president of General Mills' cereal division, said the recipe switch was in response to consumer demand. “At General Mills Cereals, we have been upgrading the nutrition and ingredients in our cereals for years to meet people's needs and desires. We've continued to listen to consumers who want to see more recognizable and familiar ingredients on the labels and challenged ourselves to remove barriers that prevent adults and children from enjoying our cereals.”

Fewer colors

The company intends to replace artificial colors such as Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 1 and others with colors made from fruit and vegetable juice concentrates, or from intensely colored spices such as turmeric (for yellow) and paprika (for red).

Trix will have four colors rather than its current six, because the company says it has not yet found adequate natural substitutes for blue and green dyes.

General Mills is not the only food company this year to announce plans to remove artificial dyes and flavors from its products. In February, Nestle said its candy products would have entirely natural ingredients by the end of 2015, and then in April, Kraft said it would remove artificial color and flavor from its iconic boxed macaroni and cheese by January 2016.

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Fried food, sugary drinks headed back to schools in Texas

State says students don't eat the healthy stuff, so why serve it?

Texas lawmakers are working toward bringing deep-fried foods and sugary drinks back to their schools. The move is meant to eliminate wasteful spending on f...

PhotoTexas lawmakers are working toward bringing deep-fried foods and sugary drinks back to their schools. The move is meant to eliminate wasteful spending on food that will be thrown out, but it certainly won’t help obesity rates that continue to rise in the state.

The present guidelines that tell Texas' school lunchrooms what they should be serving have done little to curb the obesity rates of the state. Commissioner Sid Miller, of the Texas Department of Agriculture, believes that restoring these unhealthy foods will give choices to school districts that have been unable to cut down on obesity rates over the past 10 years.

“They have resulted in millions of dollars of food not being eaten and thrown away, and I’m here to put an end to that,” said Miller, referring to the healthy eating guidelines.

The initial shift toward serving healthier food began several years ago, when Michelle Obama pushed for children to be put on more nutritious diets. The schools adjusted, but students rejected the change in many states. Kids from Georgia, New Mexico, and Tennessee mourned the loss of their favorite food staples, even though they were very unhealthy.

The American Heart Association isn’t supporting Miller's move, saying it makes little sense and citing surveys that show how most parents support nutrition standards for school meals.

“Commissioner Miller's attempt at addressing childhood obesity is well intentioned, but it fails to align with evidence-based policies that are supported by the AHA and have been a main component in reversing this epidemic such as keeping fried foods and sodas out of reach from our children," they said.

 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 16 percent of Texas high school children were obese as of 2013; that is a 2 percent increase from where it was 10 years ago.

 

There are many theories on what has prompted this rise in obesity. Differences in opinion between school nutritionists from different parts of the country have played a major factor, but the cultural values attached to food may be something that some students can’t get past. If a food has a certain taste to it and you change one core component, many kids will simply throw it away for tasting different.

 

So although we may see a rise in the popularity of school lunches, the obesity rate may rise right along with it. 

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Feds charge 10 people with selling counterfeit 5-hour ENERGY drinks

Drinks were manufactured in unsanitary conditions with ersatz ingredients, indictment alleges

Ten people have been arrested for allegedly attempting to produce and distribute a counterfeit of the liquid dietary supplement 5-Hour ENERGY. One addition...

PhotoTen people have been arrested for allegedly attempting to produce and distribute a counterfeit of the liquid dietary supplement 5-Hour ENERGY. One additional defendant has not been detained a warrant has been issued.

According to the indictment that was released on June 18th, all of the defendants attempted to illegally repackage and counterfeit the popular energy supplement. 5-Hour ENERGY is owned by the group Living Essentials, which maintains full copyright and production rights to their product.

The indictment explains that Joseph Shayota and his wife, Adriana Shayota, agreed with Living Essentials to distribute 5-Hour ENERGY in Mexico through their own company, Baja Exporting LLC. After receiving instructions to only distribute the product in Mexico, the defendants diverted their shipments back to the United States with the intention of selling it for a higher price.

Labels in Spanish

Initial efforts to sell the product failed because the labeling on the product was in Spanish, so the defendants replaced the packaging with counterfeit labels and boxes. The indictment reports that the defendants repackaged over 350,000 bottles of 5-Hour ENERGY and sold it at a price that was 15% lower than Living Essentials was charging for the product.

By December of 2011, the defendants had sold off all of their stock of 5-Hour ENERGY that had been given to them by Living Essentials. They then allegedly moved into counterfeiting the entire product. They manufactured the liquid in unsanitary conditions and mixed unregulated ingredients with the goal of mimicking the actual product. They bought machines to shrink wrap counterfeit labels onto plastic bottles and placed false lot numbers and expiration codes to give them an air of authenticity.

“Criminals that produce and sell counterfeit and misbranded dietary supplements put the public health at risk by utilizing unknown and unregulated ingredients that could put the consumer in danger of serious illness or death,” said Special Agent in Charge Lisa L. Malinowsk of the FDA.

“The defendants’ alleged conduct demonstrates a complete disregard of the health and safety of consumers….My office will continue to vigorously prosecute those individuals who place greed over the well-being of the community by distributing counterfeit dietary products,” said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag.

The indictment also alleges that the company Midwest Wholesale Distributors, which is owned by some of the other defendants that have been arrested, distributed more than four million bottles of the counterfeit product in the United States.

The charges for all 11 defendants include conspiracy to traffic in counterfeit goods, conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement, and conspiracy to introduce misbranded food into interstate commerce. If convicted of at least one count in each charge, the defendants look to face 20 years of prison time and fines totaling 2.5 million dollars. 

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Google changes search policy to crack down on revenge porn

Google promises to honor takedown requests from revenge porn victims

Google has announced a policy change to crack down on “revenge porn” -- henceforth, the company will honor requests from victims to remove “revenge porn” i...

PhotoGoogle has announced a policy change to crack down on “revenge porn” -- henceforth, the company will honor requests from victims to remove “revenge porn” images from its search engine, and will stop linking to the results.

Google senior vice-president Amit Singhal explained the rationale in a post on the company's public policy blog Friday:

Our philosophy has always been that Search should reflect the whole web. But revenge porn images are intensely personal and emotionally damaging, and serve only to degrade the victims—predominantly women. So going forward, we’ll honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results. This is a narrow and limited policy, similar to how we treat removal requests for other highly sensitive personal information, such as bank account numbers and signatures, that may surface in our search results.

Nasty trend

Revenge porn is arguably one of the nastier online trends of the past few years. As the name (and Singhal's wording) suggests, it's a practice wherein people, usually angry ex-lovers, post identifiable nude or sexually explicit photos of their partners, along with the partners' names and other identifying information, with the intention of humiliating them and/or damaging their careers.

Online advocacy groups such as “End Revenge Porn” share horrifying real-life stories from revenge-porn victims.

Google's announcement makes it the latest major tech or social media company this year to announce a policy crackdown on revenge porn. Reddit and Twitter announced policy changes in February and March, respectively; Twitter's stated “content boundaries” now include the clause “You may not post intimate photos or videos that were taken or distributed without the subject's consent.”

A few days after Twitter announced this change, Facebook also updated its policies to disallow revenge porn; although it was already disallowed under Facebook's previous no-nudity policies, Facebook later updated its policies specifically to forbid “images shared in revenge or without permissions from the people in the images.”

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Curb is a new smart tool aimed at lowering utility bills

Most homeowners need all the help they can get

Traditional ways to lower your home's energy use include adding insulation, weatherstripping, caulk and wearing a sweater in the winter. A new “smart” prod...

PhotoTraditional ways to lower your home's energy use include adding insulation, weatherstripping, caulk and wearing a sweater in the winter. A new “smart” product, Curb, is trying to make all that more efficient, along with your energy usage.

Curb is a small gadget that is hardwired into your home's breaker box. Once activated, it monitors everything that's plugged into your home's electric outlets.

The device's sensors look for the electrical signatures of each appliance or device that is drawing power, monitoring in real time how much energy they are using. It alerts you to make adjustments if it finds a device is using more energy than it should.

Budget

First, it's up to you to decide how much you want to spend on your electric bill. Curb will keep you in the loop, sending reminders when you begin to get close to your projected budget, allowing you to make adjustments as needed.

The device will make recommendations as it learns about your home and its energy requirements. It might suggest energy upgrades, product swaps and changes in behavior – yes, like wearing a sweater in the winter – to help lower your bill.

A smartphone app allows you to control your home's other smart devices remotely. The app's radial dial is green when you're saving energy but changes to red when your home is wasting it. A bar graph gives you a live breakdown of the things in your home that are using electricity.

Turn the oven off

Curb will also watch for unusual energy usage and even unsafe conditions. For example, if you leave the oven on Curb will remind you to turn it off.

The base model sells for $249 but for most houses, a system will run $349 to $649.

Electricity is a significant part of the cost of living and can have serious budgetary impact in summer and winter. But costs vary around the country.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the cost of electricity is highest in the New England states, where it average 20.83 center per kilowatt house in March 2015. In contract, it averaged between 10.45 and 11.46 cents per kilowatt hour in the southeast.

How the electricity is generated will also influence the price. Coal is the cheapest source of electricity but has faced stiff regulatory pressure, prompting many utility to abandon it. Renewable sources, favored by regulators, are the most expensive.

As we reported in March, U.S. utilities are adding 20 gigawatts (GW) of electricity production this year, largely made up of more expensive renewable sources. At the same time, the industry is expected to take 13 GW of coal-produced electricity off line this year.

That suggests electric bills will keep going up, and a smart device to make them go up less just might be a good investment.

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Existing-home sales rebound in May from April's slump

First-time buyers may have been the difference

After posting a decline the previous month, sales of previously-owned homes were on the comeback trail in May. The National Association of Realtors report...

PhotoAfter posting a decline the previous month, sales of previously-owned homes were on the comeback trail in May.

 

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports existing-home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- rose 5.1% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.35 million, the highest pace in nearly 6 years.

 

In addition, sales have now increased year-over-year for 8 consecutive months and are 9.2% above the year-ago pace of 4.90 million.

 

More choices

 

"Solid sales gains were seen throughout the country in May as more homeowners listed their home for sale and therefore provided greater choices for buyers," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "However, overall supply still remains tight, homes are selling fast and price growth in many markets continues to teeter at or near double-digit appreciation. Without solid gains in new home construction, prices will likely stay elevated -- even with higher mortgage rates above 4 percent."

 

Total housing inventory at the end of May increased 3.2% to 2.29 million existing homes available for sale, and is 1.8% higher than a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 5.1-month supply at the current sales pace, versus 5.2 months in April.

 

The percent share of first-time buyers rose to 32% in May, up 2% from April, matching the highest share since September 2012. A year ago, first-time buyers represented 27% of all buyers.

 

"The return of first-time buyers in May is an encouraging sign and is the result of multiple factors, including strong job gains among young adults, less expensive mortgage insurance and lenders offering low down payment programs," said Yun. "More first-time buyers are expected to enter the market in coming months, but the overall share climbing higher will depend on how fast rates and prices rise."

 

The median existing-home price for all housing types in May was $228,700, up 7.9% above the same month last year and the 39th consecutive month of year-over-year price gains.

 

Regional Breakdown

 

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast surged 11.3% to an annual rate of 690,000, and are now 11.3% above a year ago. The median price -- the point at which half the homes sold for more and half sold for less -- was $269,000, 4.8% higher than May 2014.
  • In the Midwest, sales rose 4.1% to an annual rate of 1.27 million and are 12.4% a year earlier. The median price in the was $181,900, up 9.4% from a year ago.
  • Sales in the South increased 4.3% to an annual rate of 2.18 million -- a year-over-year gain of 6.9%. The median price was $198,300, up 8.2% from May of last year year ago.
  • In the West sales climbed 4.3% to an annual rate of 1.21 million and are 9.0% above a year ago. The median price was up 10.2% from a year earlier to $324,000.

 

 

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Amazon will pay some authors by the page instead of by the book

Think about it: this may actually be a good thing for readers

Oh-oh. It just got a little harder for writers to eke out a meager living. First it was the Internet, which made it possible for skinflint publishers to te...

PhotoOh-oh. It just got a little harder for writers to eke out a meager living. First it was the Internet, which made it possible for skinflint publishers to tell which newspaper stories people actually looked at (hint: not many), thus spelling the end of many posh assignments.

Now Amazon wants to start paying some authors based on how many pages of their books consumers actually read. 

Books are, after all, one of the few commodities that are often purchased but seldom consumed. In fact, it's hard to think of anything comparable, unless it's that 2001 Porsche 911 that is slowing sinking through the floor of your 94-year-old neighbor's garage. He always meant to drive it but just never seemed to get around to it. Same type of thing is often true of books.

Back when there were such things as real books, people proudly displayed them on coffee tables and bookshelves, prompting occasional queries along the lines of: "Golly, did you actually read all these here books?"

Now it's more an impulse buy. After all, its hard to impress anyone by showing them the contents of your Kindle. But happily for authors, though sadly for readers, Amazon's one-click shopping makes it easy to buy titles that we never quite get around to reading.

In the case of many self-published books in the Amazon library, we get around to starting them but quickly bail out. Because, let's face it, lots of this stuff is not too good and would never have seen the light of day had Amazon not made it as easy to publish an e-book as to post some dumb comment on Facebook.

They take up space

It's not that Amazon's literary sensibilities are offended by much of the dreck in their library but simply that, being penny pinchers, the Amazonians have discovered through digital skullduggery that many of these self-published books are bought but not read in their entirety. This is bad for business; it annoys consumers and takes up bits and bytes that could be used to store listings for stuff that consumers actually consume, like potato chips or gluten-free bread (which is nearly as hard to digest as some self-published books we could name).    

To tighten things up a bit, Amazon says that effective July 1, the way authors get royalties for self-published books in the Amazon Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited services will change. 

As Amazon put it in a note to authors: “We’re making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read. Under the new payment method, you’ll be paid for each page individual customers read of your book, the first time they read it.”

Free refills, in other words.

Literary tip jar

The by-the-page payout applies only to Amazon's "subscription" services -- those for which customers pay a set monthly fee. Like the tip jar at Starbucks, all the money from these services gets thrown into a virtual pot and at the end of each month, has been divided among authors based on how many of their books were downloaded that month.

Next month, royalty payments will be based on how many pages readers actually flip through. 

While some might say this will be the end of publishing as we know it, others might say it will be a great service to consumers as it will save us all those two-minute blocks of time we previously wasted reading the first few pages of something that should never have been sold in the first place.

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Feds probe brake issues in 2013 Dodge Darts

Consumers report having to use the parking brake to stop their car

Federal safety regulators are looking into reports of braking problems in 2013 Dodge Darts.The National Highway Traffic Safety Administrtion (NHTSA) sa...

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Feds arrest 1,140 sex offenders over two-month period

Task forces launch Operation Broken Heart and arrest child sex offenders from 41 states.

1,140 child predators from 41 different states have been arrested over the last two months according to an announcement by the Office of Juvenile Justice a...

Photo1,140 child predators from 41 different states have been arrested over the last two months according to an announcement by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The arrests stem from a two-month, nationwide operation conducted by ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) Task Forces.

A total of 61 ICAC Task Forces conducted Operation Broken Heart during the months of April and May of 2015. The aim of the operation was to intensify efforts to identify and arrest child sexual predators across the nation.

The amount of cooperation and support lent to the ICAC Task Forces was enormous. Over 3,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies participated in the operation. Each agency targeted offenders who possess, manufacture, and distribute child pornography; entice children online for sexual purposes; engage in commercial sexual exploitation, or prostitution, of children; and engage in child sex tourism.

Clear message

“By arresting and prosecuting child predators across the country, our task forces are sending a clear message that we are working together better than ever before to bring these perpetrators to justice…The ICAC Task Forces’ dedicated efforts and professionalism help fulfill the ultimate goal of keeping children safe,” said Lt. Andrea Grossman of the LAPD. She also acts as Commander of the Los Angeles Regional ICAC Task Force and chair of the ICAC Public Awareness and Outreach Committee.

The OJJDP launched the ICAC Task Force Program in 1998 in order to help investigate offenders who use online communications and technologies to exploit children. ICAC Task Forces are responsible for more than 54,000 arrests on such individuals since its inception. The organization also helps communities by holding presentations on Internet safety to young children through school programs. 

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Trimming your gardening time

Use these tips to create a beautiful garden for a fraction of the effort

Gardening doesn’t have to be a labor of love. In fact, it doesn’t have to be labor (or at least not much of one) if you do it wisely. There are many ways t...

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Champ's Sliced Crimini Mushrooms recalled

The product be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

United Salad of Portland, Ore., is recalling Champ's Sliced Crimini Mushrooms, a product of Canada. The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocyto...

PhotoUnited Salad of Portland, Ore., is recalling Champ's Sliced Crimini Mushrooms, a product of Canada.

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

 

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product to date.

 

The following product is being recalled:

Brand nameCommon nameSizeUPCCodes
Champ's MushroomsSliced Crimini Mushrooms227 g (8 oz)6 78286 88877 5Not available

The recalled mushrooms were distributed from 06/13/15 to 06/14/15 to retailers and supermarkets in Oregon and Washington.

 

Individual containers do not have code date; however product average shelf life is 10 days.

 

Consumers who have the recalled product in their possession should not consume it and should destroy or discard it.

 

This recall is being made with the knowledge of the Food and Drug Administration.

 

Consumers may contact the company at 1-800-547-5536 Monday – Friday between 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM (PDT).

 

 

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Boulder Dog Food Company recalls Chicken Sprinkles

The product many be contaminated with Salmonella

Boulder Dog Food Company is recalling 3-oz. bags of Chicken Sprinkles. The product many be contaminated with Salmonella. One complaint was received from ...

PhotoBoulder Dog Food Company is recalling 3-oz. bags of Chicken Sprinkles.

 

The product many be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

One complaint was received from a consumer who had contact with the product.

 

The recall is limited to Chicken Sprinkles with a “Best By” date of “05/04/16”, Lot # “998” and a UPC Code of 899883001231. The product is packaged in a clear poly bag, with the UPC Code located in the lower right hand corner of the label on the front of the bag. The “Best By” date and Lot Number are on a label on the reverse side of the bag.

 

The recalled product consists of 10 bags of Chicken Sprinkle that were distributed to 2 retail stores in Colorado, 1 retail store in Washington state, and 1 retail customer in Maryland. Eight of the 10 bags have been retriever and the company says it believes the remaining 2 bags have been used or destroyed.

 

Consumers who may posses the recalled product should discontinue use of it and return the unused portion to either the retailer where it was purchased or Boulder Dog Food Company.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Boulder Dog Food Company at 303-449-2540 Monday – Friday between 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM (MDT.)

 

 

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General Motors recalls Cadillac ATS and CTS vehicles

The rod that actuates the brakes that may fracture

General Motors is recalling 2,163 model year 2015 Cadillac ATS and CTS vehicles. The recalled vehicles have a bracket between the brake pedal assembly, a...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 2,163 model year 2015 Cadillac ATS and CTS vehicles.

 

The recalled vehicles have a bracket between the brake pedal assembly, and the rod that actuates the brakes that may fracture during normal brake pedal operation. If the bracket fractures, the driver would not be able to apply the brakes, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the vehicle and replace any affected bracket, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin August 1, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is 15352.

 

 

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Top Fin plastic aquarium heaters recalled

An electrical problem poses a risk of fire or electrical shock

PetSmart Phoenix, Ariz., is recalling about 117,000 Top Fin plastic aquarium heaters in the U.S. and Canada. Some 33,000 heaters were recalled in August 20...

PhotoPetSmart Phoenix, Ariz., is recalling about 117,000 Top Fin plastic aquarium heaters in the U.S. and Canada. Some 33,000 heaters were recalled in August 2014.

 

An electrical problem with the aquarium heaters poses a risk of fire or electrical shock to the consumer.

 

The firm has received 13 reports of incidents, including 4 reports of minor shock, 7 reports of the water tanks overheating and 1 report of property damage from an electrical shortage resulting in fire.

 

This recall involves all 50-, 100-, 150-, 200- and 250-watt Top Fin brand plastic aquarium heaters sold between August 2014 and April 2015 with model numbers: HT50, HT100, HT150, HT200 or HT250.

 

The black cylindrical-shaped heaters are about 1.5 inches in diameter and about 13 inches tall. “Top Fin Premium Aquarium Heater,” the model number and the heater's wattage are printed on the side of the heater near the top.

 

The lot number is printed beneath the words “Made in China.” All lot numbers are included in this recall.

 

The heaters, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at PetSmart stores nationwide from August 2014, to April 2015, for between $25 and $40.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled heaters and return them to any PetSmart store for a full refund.

 

Consumers may contact PetSmart toll-free at (888) 839-9638 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. MT Monday through Friday.

 

 

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Shirk's Meat recalls pork and beef products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Shirk’s Meat of Dundee, N.Y., is recalling approximately 2,478 pounds of pork and beef products. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytoge...

PhotoShirk’s Meat of Dundee, N.Y., is recalling approximately 2,478 pounds of pork and beef products.

 

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

Some products may be frozen and in consumers' freezers.

 

Ready-to-eat products should be reheated to 145 degrees with a 3 minute rest time.

 

The following pork and beef items, produced between April 1, 2015, and May 12, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 2-lb. vacuum sealed packages of “Smoked Ham End Roast Prepared for Seven Bridges Farm” with a use by/sell by date of April 7, 2016.
  • 2-lb vacuum sealed packages of “Smoked Ham Center Cut Slices Prepared for Seven Bridges Farm” with a use by/sell by date of April 7, 2016.
  • 1-lb. vacuum package of “Beef Mild Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of May 8, 2015.
  • 1-lb. vacuum package of “Pork Mild Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of May 8, 2015.
  • 1-lb. vacuum package of “Beef Hot Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of May 8, 2015.
  • 1-lb. vacuum package of “Pork Mild Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of May 8, 2015.
  • 30-lb. bag of “Smoked Pork Andouille Sausage Prepared for Perfectly Pickled Products” with a use by/sell by date of May 9, 2015.
  • 1-lb. package of “Pork and Beef Hotdogs” with a use by/sell by date of April 15, 2016.
  • 10-lb packages of “Pork and Beef Hotdogs” with a use by/sell by date of April 24, 2016.
  • 1-lb vacuum sealed bag of “Pork Beef Hotdogs,” with use by/sell by dates of May 04, 2016.
  • 10-lb vacuum sealed bag of “Pork Beef Hotdogs” with a use by/sell by date of May 4, 2016.
  • 1-lb vacuum package of “Pork Beef Hotdogs Prepared for Triangle T Ranch” with a use by/sell by date of May 4, 2016.
  • 1-lb package of “Seven Bridges Farm Pork Mild Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of April 1, 2016.
  • 12 to 14-lb bucket of “Lard/Pork Fat” with a use by/sell by date of June 13, 2015.
  • 9 to 12-oz vacuum sealed bag of “Smoked Sausage with Cheese” with a use by sell/by date of June 6, 2015.
  • Random weights of “Smoked Whole Hams” with a use by/sell by date of June 13, 2015.
  • 12 to 16-oz vacuum package of “Smoked Pork Chops” with a use by/sell by date of April 16, 2016.
  • 1-lb vacuum sealed bag of “Smoked Ham Hocks” with a use by/sell by date of April 16, 2016.
  • Random weights of whole vacuum sealed “Smoked Whole Ham” with a use by/sell by date of April 23, 2016.
  • 1-lb package of “Beef Sweet Bologna” with a use by/sell by date of May 30, 2015.
  • 1-lb package of “Cooked Picnic Roll” with a use by/sell by date of May 30, 2015.
  • 2-lb package of “Smoked Ham Center Cut Slices” with a use by/sell by date of April 29, 2016.
  • 2-lb package of “Smoked Ham End Roast” with a use by/sell by date of April 29, 2016.
  • 1-lb package of “Smoked Ham Hocks” with a use by/sell by date of May 1, 2016.
  • 12 to 16-oz vacuum sealed package of “Smoked Pork Kielbasa Prepared for Triangle T Ranch” with a use by/sell by date of May 1, 2016.
  • 6 to 8-oz vacuum sealed bag of “Beef Mild Snack Stix” use by/sell by date of June 15, 2015. This product does not bare the FSIS mark of inspection.
  • 6 to 8-oz vacuum sealed bag of “Beef Hot Snack Stix” use by/sell by date of June 15, 2015. This product does not bare the FSIS mark of inspection.
  • 6 to 8-oz vacuum sealed bag of “Pork Milk Snack Stix” use by/sell by date of June 15, 2015. This product does not bare the FSIS mark of inspection.
  • 6 to 8-oz of vacuum sealed bag of “Pork Hot Snack Stix” use by/sell by date of June 15, 2015. This product does not bare the FSIS mark of inspection.

The recalled products bear the establishment number “EST. 18894” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to a various retail locations in New York.

 

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Naomi Shirk at (607) 243-5581.

 

 

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600 million Samsung Galaxy devices vulnerable to hackers

Security flaw discovered seven months ago, sitll not patched

Samsung Galaxy owners beware: Researchers at a cybersecurity firm discovered that every Galaxy device from the S3 through the S6 contains a massive securit...

PhotoSamsung Galaxy owners beware: Researchers at a cybersecurity firm discovered that every Galaxy device from the S3 through the S6 contains a massive security vulnerability in its keyboard software that hackers could easily exploit in order to spy on you.

Researchers at the security firm NowSecure say they discovered the flaw and first told Samsung about it in November, and went going public with the information this week, seven months later, only because Samsung has continued to not-address the issue.

As NowSecure posted on its security blog:

A remote attacker capable of controlling a user’s network traffic can manipulate the keyboard update mechanism on Samsung phones and execute code as a privileged (system) user on the target’s phone. This can be exploited in a a manner that requires no user interaction — a user does not have to explicitly choose to download a languagePack update to be exploited.

The Swift keyboard comes pre-installed on Samsung devices and cannot be disabled or uninstalled. Even when it is not used as the default keyboard, it can still be exploited. It's estimated that 600 million Samsung Galaxy devices are at risk.

So this security vulnerability is in a program that comes pre-installed on every Samsung Galaxy device, cannot be un-installed, and leaves you vulnerable even if you never use it.

Exploit in action

NowSecure also posted a YouTube video showing the exploit in action, and pointed out: “It can be seen that no user interaction is required other than connecting to a network, opening the keyboard, and rebooting the device.”

NowSecure's CEO, Andrew Hoog, said that on a 10-point rating scale, with 10 being the worst possibly cybersecurity vulnerability, this one rates about 8.3.

Hackers would definitely be able to take advantage of this exploit to hijack a mobile device connected to an insecure or public wi-fi network, but researchers say users also might be vulnerable even when they're on cell phone networks.

Ordinary Samsung Galaxy owners aren't the only ones at risk here, of course; last autumn the National Security Agency officially approved Samsung Knox devices for official government use.

Samsung, for its part, released a statement to reporters saying that it “takes emerging security threats very seriously... and [is] committed to providing the latest in mobile security,” and of course intends to patch the hole in its mobile device security very soon now.

 

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Electronic Frontier Foundation annual privacy report praises Apple and Yahoo, slams AT&T and WhatsApp

EFF asks “Who has your back?” The answer is, not as many companies as you'd like

(c) iQoncept - Fotolia The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has released its fifth annual “Who Has Your Back?” report, which grades various tech c...

Photo
(c) iQoncept - Fotolia

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has released its fifth annual “Who Has Your Back?” report, which grades various tech companies according to how well they're “protecting your data from government requests.”

The EFF is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that “champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation .... We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows.”

The “Who Has Your Back?” report essentially asks five yes-or-no questions about a given tech company, to determine if it “follows industry-accepted practices”; “tells users about government data demands”; “discloses policies on data retention”; “Discloses government content removal requests” and whether it has a “pro-user public policy: opposes backdoors.”

To be fair, given America's current legal climate, companies have to be graded “on the curve,” so to speak. For example: when it comes to telling users about government data demands, it's often illegal for companies to do so.

Consider the case of Yahoo (which got five out of five stars on the EFF's “Who Has Your Back” survey this year). Last September, Yahoo won what was then hailed as a “major court victory” – specifically, it finally won legal permission to admit that it had been spying on its own users, and giving the government massive amounts of their personal data, ever since 2008.

Had Yahoo not complied with the government's warrantless data demands, the company would've initially been fined $250,000 per day, with the amount set to double every week: $500,000 per day for the second week, $1 million a day for the third, then $2 million, then $4 million … enough to bankrupt the company in a matter of months.

Legal blackmail

There's also reason to suspect that Apple (another five-star company on the EFF report) has been secretly sharing data with the government — not because it wants to, but because it's facing legal blackmail similar to Yahoo's threatened crippling fines. Last September, around the same time Yahoo won the legal victory of being allowed to talk about what the government forces them to do, Apple released its third “Transparency Report.”

The company only started producing transparency reports in November 2013, and sharp-eyed observers noticed that the first such report contained a certain phrase which Apple's subsequent transparency reports omitted: “Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.”

Section 215, among other things, allowed the FBI to demand information about a person without showing probable cause or even reasonable grounds to believe that person was engaged in criminal activity. Section 215 also made it illegal for organizations to disclose the fact that they'd been required to hand over information.

And that's why various organizations ranging from local public libraries to multinational tech giants like Apple developed the habit of posting statements which are known as “warrant canaries”: statements claiming that the organization has not been forced to comply with a secret government data-grab coupled with a legal gag order. And if the “warrant canary” statement later disappears, that implies the opposite: “We have been helping the government collect information on people, but we're not allowed to talk about it.”

That's the legal climate under which the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been releasing “Who Has Your Back?” reports for the past five years. In addition to Apple and Yahoo, the other tech companies to get five stars this year were Adobe, Credo Mobile, Dropbox, Sonic.net, Wikimedia, and WordPress.com.

At the opposite extreme, EFF's two worst companies, rating only one star apiece, were AT&T; and WhatsApp.

Here is the complete list, as provided by EFF:

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Move over kale, here comes quinoa

10 reasons it's the latest hot health food

The undeniable trend in food is toward healthy, which is right up there with “fresh” and “locally sourced.” If that's your hot button, a team of internatio...

PhotoThe undeniable trend in food is toward healthy, which is right up there with “fresh” and “locally sourced.” If that's your hot button, a team of international food researchers recommends adding quinoa (keen'-wah) to your diet.

Quinoa is an ancient grain, domesticated some 4,000 years ago in what is now Latin America. It's closely related to more familiar plants like beetroots, spinach and tumbleweeds.

Sound appetizing? Researchers from Rutgers University, Universidad Arturo Prat and Universidad de Las Américas say its health benefits far outweigh the taste. In a publication of the Institute of Food Technologists, the scientists list 10 major health benefits.

Protein

Lately nutritionists have stressed adding protein to our diets. Quinoa has a higher protein content than barley, oat, rice and maize. And it's gluten-free, another reason for its growing popularity, no doubt.

Carbohydrate and Fiber

Quinoa is loaded with dietary fiber, essential for digestive health. It can also promote satiety, reduce cholesterol absorption, and reduce risk and severity of gastrointestinal infection and inflammation, the researchers say.

Lipids

Quinoa seed oil contains polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) with a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than other plant oils. Other fatty acids promote brain development, insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular health, and immunity.

Vitamins

Quinoa just about covers the alphabet, rich in vitamins A, B, C, and E. These vitamins play a major role in metabolism, regulating cell growth and development and improving vision.

Minerals

Quinoa helps the body replenish and maintain its mineral content. It contains generous amounts of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc – higher than that of rice, wheat and other cereals.

Saponins

Saponins are present in the outer seed coat of quinoa. They're helpful in producing organic crops.

Phytoecdysteroids

Phytoecdysteroids can help build muscle and reduce stress. They also serve as an antioxidant and antidepressive.

Phenolics

Phenolics are another source of antioxidants and the researchers says they have anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antidiabetic, anti-obesity and cardioprotective effects. They're present in abundance in quinoa.

Betalains

Betalains have several health properties but are valued primarily because they give quinoa their yellow, red and black colors. They also serve as a natural dye for food.

Glycine betaine

Glycine betaine is an amino acid found in quinoa. It has be used in the treatment and prevention of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Something that healthy couldn't possibly taste good, right? It all depends on what you cook with it. Recently Cooking Light  featured 27 recipes for quinoa.

They include quinoa and roasted pepper chili, quinoa with dried cherries and pistachios and curried quinoa salad with cucumber-mint raita.

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Fisher-Price latest to use LGBT theme in advertising

"Proud Parenting" campaign running across digital media outlets

New data from Google and YouTube shows that messages about diversity and equality for the LGBT community have widespread impact. Companies and brands are s...

PhotoNew data from Google and YouTube shows that messages about diversity and equality for the LGBT community have widespread impact. Companies and brands are starting to recognize this, and have been directly marketing to them in order to improve business.

One company in particular, Fisher-Price, is launching a new advertising campaign that will increase visibility on same-sex parents. Fisher-Price has teamed up with an online LGBT community forum called “Proud Parenting” to launch an all-inclusive photo campaign. The photo collection features LGBT parents and their families. It will be featured across various digital media outlets and promoted by the Gay Ad Network.

“Fisher-Price is proud to help all parents give their children the best possible start in life,” said Hailey Sullivan, the Director of Marketing for Fisher-Price. “[It can] lead the way for a new generation of families,” adds Jeff Bennett, the Editor-in-Chief of Proud Parenting.

Other companies have come out in support of the LGBT community as well. Last year, Burger King introduced new pride advertising in support of the LGBT community. Their timing coincided with the San Francisco Pride events, and boasted the tag line “Be Your Way,” which is a twist on their 40-year-old slogan, “Have It Your Way”. The company even went so far as to wrap their products in rainbow wrappers. On the inside of each wrapper, the phrase “We are all the same inside” was written.

The advertising move from Burger King was deemed a huge success. Many consumer reactions were recorded and uploaded to various digital media sites, such as Facebook and YouTube. They have received over 5.4 million views on these videos to date.

Honey Maid launched its own campaign in 2014, entitled “This is Wholesome.” Their initiative focused on families. While the typical American family had changed over time, they asserted that it still remained wholesome at its core. Their video, “Love,” went viral and received over four million views. As a result, the company saw a 7% increase in sales while the campaign ran.

It is estimated that there are over three million LGBT parents in the United States. Over six million Americans have a parent that identifies as LGBT.  

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Medical debt collector hit with hefty penalty

The company prevented consumers from exercising debt collection rights

Syndicated Office Systems is being ordered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to provide over $5.4 million in relief to harmed consumers, c...

PhotoSyndicated Office Systems is being ordered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to provide over $5.4 million in relief to harmed consumers, correct its business practices, and pay a $500,000 penalty for causing consumers “distress and confusion.”

 

“Syndicated Office Systems mistreated consumers and prevented them from exercising critical debt collection rights,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “These violations are particularly egregious given the challenges many consumers already face who are attempting to navigate the medical debt maze.”

 

High consumer impact

 

The company, which does business as Central Financial Control, is a debt collection agency that primarily collects medical debt on behalf of hospitals, doctors and other healthcare providers. It's an indirect subsidiary of Conifer Health Solutions, which provides billing and other services to more than 600 hospitals nationwide.

 

Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a publicly traded healthcare services company based in Dallas, Texas, is the parent company of Conifer Health Solutions.

 

Companies that collect medical debt and supply this information to credit reporting agencies have a significant impact on consumers’ credit scores. More than 43 million consumers have medical debt adversely affecting their credit reports, and more than half of all overdue debt on consumer credit reports is from medical debt.

 

A recent CFPB report found that the complex processes by which medical bills are incurred, collected by a wide range of debt collectors, and reported to credit reporting agencies can create unique challenges for consumers. The agency also found that medical debt can overly penalize consumer credit scores.

 

A CFPB investigation revealed that Syndicated Office Systems failed to send debt validation notices to thousands of consumers. It also found that the company mishandled consumer credit reporting disputes by failing to investigate and respond to consumers within the 30-day timeframe required under the law. Because the company furnishes information related to past-due medical debt, the information consumers seek to dispute or validate has the potential to lower credit scores.

 

The CFPB order charges the company with violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The violations specifically include:

  • Mishandling consumer credit reporting disputes
  • Preventing consumers from exercising important debt collection rights

Together, these violations had the potential to harm thousands of consumers and in some cases, negatively impact their credit scores, the CFPB said, which can hinder consumers’ ability to obtain credit or increase the rates they may pay for credit.

 

In some cases, the company reported inaccurate information to the credit reporting agencies and then failed to provide a timely response to consumer disputes about the errors. Some consumers may also have been able to avoid negative information on their credit reports if they had known about their right to assess and dispute the debt in question.

 

Enforcement action

 

To address these violations, the CFPB consent order requires Syndicated Office Systems to take the following actions:

  • Provide over $5 million in relief to harmed consumers
  • End illegal credit reporting and debt collection practices
  • Establish consumer safeguards
  • Pay a civil monetary penalty of $500,000

 

 

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Feds enlist international help against sales of unapproved drugs

But consumers may be buying them because of sky-high U.S. drug prices

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has enlisted a number of international partners to help with its campaign against unapproved and counterfeit dr...

PhotoThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has enlisted a number of international partners to help with its campaign against unapproved and counterfeit drugs.

This week the FDA took action against against more than 1,050 websites, many based in other countries, that it says illegally sell potentially dangerous, unapproved prescription medicines and medical devices to U.S. consumers.

These actions include a wide range of measures, from regulatory warnings to the operators of offending websites to the actual seizure of illegal medicines and medical devices worldwide.

It was all part of the Eighth Annual International Internet Week of Action (IIWA), a global cooperative effort, led by INTERPOL.

400 warning letters

The international effort, called Operation Pangea VIII, resulted in warning letters to nearly 400 websites selling either unapproved or misbranded prescription medication. Nine other firms were warned about distributing unapproved or uncleared medical devices online.

Working with other federal agencies, FDA inspectors screened and seized suspected illegal drug products and medical devices moving through International Mail Facilities (IMFs) in Chicago, Miami and New York. They flagged 814 parcels this week for further screening.

The FDA says there is a distinct pattern to the illegal drugs being sold to U.S. consumers. Many claim to be FDA-approved generic versions of brand name drugs and include “Generic Nolvadex,” “Generic Meridia,” “Generic Valium,” “Generic Truvada” and “Generic Advair Diskus.”

The appeal to consumers

Why would U.S. consumers risk breaking the law by purchasing these drugs online? Perhaps they don't realize it is illegal or that the drugs might be unapproved knock-offs or out-and-out fakes.

It's also possible they turn to shadowy Internet salesmen because the drugs they need are either hard to find in the U.S. or prohibitively expensive.

For example, Nolvadex is used to treat breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, to treat breast cancer in certain patients after surgery and radiation therapy and to reduce the chances of breast cancer in high-risk patients. Truvada is used in the treatment of HIV.

Specialized drugs

Patients with chronic and specialized diseases routinely face huge costs for the drugs used to treat their conditions. People with multiple sclerosis (MS) provide a case in point.

On Thursday a federal court invalidated a patent, clearing the way for the sale of a generic form of Copaxone, a common drug in the treatment of MS. However, The New York Times  reports the new generic version of Copaxone will still cost around $63,000 a year.

But that's a bargain, compared to Sovaldi, a specialty drug used to treat hepatitis C. According to AARP, a 3 month supply will run about $84,000.

Little wonder, then, that U.S. consumers look elsewhere, even to unknown and unreliable online dealers. The FDA that's not a real solution.

That's because there is no way to know if the drugs you are purchasing contain dangerous ingredients or are anything more than placebo. In addition to health risks, the FDA says illegal online pharmacies and illegal online medical device retailers pose other risks to consumers, including credit card fraud, identity theft and computer viruses.

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Southeast Toyota Distributors recalls Tundras with tire pressure information issue

The tire placcard incorrectly states the recommended cold tire inflation pressure

Southeast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 144 model year 2015 Toyota Tundras manufactured March 11, 2015, to April 11, 2015 and equipped with Nitto ...

PhotoSoutheast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 144 model year 2015 Toyota Tundras manufactured March 11, 2015, to April 11, 2015 and equipped with Nitto Terra Grappler G2 275/60R20 116S XL tires.

 

The recalled vehicles have a tire placard that incorrectly states the recommended cold tire inflation pressure. If the operator inflates the tires according to the information on the tire placard, the tires may be underinflated, increasing the risk of tire failure which could result in a crash.

 

SET will notify owners, and dealers will install a new tire placard with the correct cold tire inflation pressure information, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin July 14, 2015.

 

Owners may contact SET customer service at 1-866-405-4226. SET's number for this recall is SET15C.

 

 

 

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Should you worry if Greece defaults?

In a global economy it's hard to measure the potential impact

If you happen to be a consumer living in Greece, you probably spend a lot of time wondering what a default by the government on its massive debt means to y...

PhotoIf you happen to be a consumer living in Greece, you probably spend a lot of time wondering what a default by the government on its massive debt means to you. If you're a U.S. consumer, probably not so much.

In Greece, consumers have been lining up at ATMs to get cash out of the bank while the government and the rest of the European Union try to reach some kind of terms.

In case you haven't been following the Greek drama, the country has been teetering for months, finding it increasingly difficult to repay the bondholders who have been lending the government money for years.

Standoff

Creditors have demanded the Greek government cut social programs and live more within its means as a condition for further aid. But in the last election, Greek voters elected a government that pledged not to give in to demands for austerity. So a standoff has ensued.

If Greece ends up stiffing its bond holders, it will almost certainly leave the EU and stop using the euro. For Europe, and especially for Greece, things will be fairly chaotic for a while.

But what about in the U.S.? What will a Greek default mean here? No one really knows for sure.

Uncertainty

While it is known that Greece owes billions in debt, it isn't precisely known to whom it owes the money. When it comes to markets and economies, uncertainty is a dangerous thing.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was before the House Financial Services Committee Wednesday, warning lawmakers that a Greek default could destabilize the U.S. financial system. That kind of warning hasn't been heard in Washington since 2008, when the subprime mortgage collapse threatened to bring down the banking system.

Lew told lawmakers Americans shouldn't be complacent about what is happening half-way round the world.

"In today's globally integrated financial markets, foreign shocks have the potential to disrupt financial stability in the United States," Lew told lawmakers.

Ripple effect

Unfortunately, U.S. banks don't have to hold Greek debt in order to be affected. U.S. banks could hold European bank debt and it could be the European banks that hold the Greek bonds. If that is the case, the ripple effect would surely reach American shores.

There are only two weeks left to work out a deal between the Greek government and its extensive list of creditors. After that the International Monetary Fund bailout program expires and Greece will be essentially broke.

CNBC “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer thinks the U.S. stock market would take a one- or two-day hit in the event of a Greek default, but the real impact, he says, will fall in Europe.

Crammer says the European Central Bank may have to step up with new massive amouns of aid, just to keep Greece from starving and its population fleeing to other European nations, placing a massive burden on those countries' resources.

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Safety groups raise alarm over cellphone 'deadwalkers'

Injuries mounting because people aren't paying attention

Perhaps there is no better sign of the times in which we live than a policy change at a Utah college. Officials at Utah Valley University (UVU) divided ...

PhotoPerhaps there is no better sign of the times in which we live than a policy change at a Utah college.

Officials at Utah Valley University (UVU) divided the stairway in the Student Life & Wellness Center into three lanes – one for walking, one for running and the third for texting. Students who want to check their phones while walking have their own lane, so they won't hurt themselves or others because they aren't paying attention.

“When you have 18- to 24-year-olds walking on campus glued to their smartphones, you’re almost bound to run into someone somewhere; it’s the nature of the world we live in,” said Matt Bambrough, UVU’s creative director.

Bambrough said adding the lane was not done with serious intent. He said it was actually an attempt at humor rather than a real attempt to direct traffic flow. But there are plenty of people who think people who are walking while distracted by their smartphones is serious business.

Epidemic of fractures

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) says distracted "deadwalkers" are causing an epidemic of fractures and other orthopaedic injuries. The groups says more and more pedestrians fall down stairs, trip over curbs or other objects, and in many instances, step into traffic, causing serious injury, and even death, each year, prompting the creation of a public service campaign (below).

"We know that the number of injuries to pedestrians using their phones has nearly tripled since 2004, and surveys have shown that 60% of pedestrians are distracted by other activities while walking," said Alan Hilibrand, MD, chair of the AAOS Communications Cabinet.

Significant safety threat

In fact, distracted walking injuries involving cell phones accounted for an estimated 11,101 injuries between 2000 and 2011 according to the National Safety Council, making it a significant safety threat. Most of these injuries, the group says, actually occur at home – not on a public sidewalk.

"Whether we are in the car or on foot, it is important to be aware of our surroundings, even if they are familiar," said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. "More than half of all unintentional injuries each year happen at home, so don't take your safety for granted. No call, text or update is worth an injury."

Statistics show distracted walking injuries involving cellphones were most common among women and those ages 40 and younger, but the recent study found older adults are contributing to the danger as well. Twenty-one percent of those injured in these accidents were 71or older.

Despite the perception that texting while walking poses the biggest threat, talking on the phone accounted for 62% of injuries, the most common of which were dislocation or fracture, sprains or strains and concussions. In nearly 80% of these incidents, the injuries were were caused by a fall.

The problem posed by both distracted driving and walking may have something to do with the sudden explosion in mobile devices. The National Safety Council points out there has been an 8-fold increase in mobile phone use in the last 15 years.

Consumers adopted and began using these devices faster than society could come up with rules and established behavior governing their use.

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Are Samsung washing machines prone to cause flooding?

A recent class-action filing plus numerous consumer complaints suggest maybe they are

This week, in Newark, New Jersey, consumers filed an attempted class-action claim against Samsung, claiming that the company's washing machines (specifical...

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What it means when your check engine light comes on

And where it costs most to get it fixed

You could be driving anywhere when your car's “check engine” light comes on, sending a shudder of exasperation through your body. “Great, now what?” you...

PhotoYou could be driving anywhere when your car's “check engine” light comes on, sending a shudder of exasperation through your body.

“Great, now what?” you might ask.

The light might signal significant trouble or it might be something minor. The only way to know for sure is have it checked out.

5 main reasons

According to Auto Zone, there are 5 primary reasons the light alerts drivers. One of the simplest is the gas cap is loose. Just tightening the cap may make the light go off and prevent the loss of fuel through evaporation.

The light could also indicate a faulty oxygen sensor (O2). Not getting it fixed could result in poorer fuel economy.

The check engine light could mean the catalytic converter needs to be replaced. If neglected the car could run hot, get reduced fuel economy and fail an emissions test.

The light could also mean the mass airflow sensor has gone out. Not replacing it could damage spark plugs and other engine sensors.

The light could also indicate your spark plugs or spark plug wires are at the end of their life. Not replacing them, according to Auto Zone, could eventually damage other engine parts.

Costs of repairs

While you might be relieved if the light doesn't portent anything major, it almost always costs something to find out what the problem is and fix it. CarMD.com, an automotive site, conducted a survey to find out where it costs the most and the least.

It found that drivers in Washington, DC paid the most – an average of $467.11. Drivers in Wyoming, on average, paid the least – $308.76.

"Many factors contribute to overall repair costs such as vehicle make and age, parts availability and cost, and hourly labor rates that are often beyond a car owner's control,” said David Rich, CarMD's technical director. “However, something everyone can control is how quickly they address check engine light issues when they arise."

A closer examination of the data shows the least expensive states have a higher percentage of 'quick fix' repairs that can be addressed in minutes, rather than major repairs that require days in the shop.

What it means

Rich says that suggests drivers in those states were more vigilant in addressing repair needs quickly. It could also indicate repair shops in the most expensive states managed to find more complicated issues, rather than the most simple fix.

The survey analyzed parts and labor needs data from nearly 100,000 model year 1996 to 2014 vehicles needing repairs in 2014. After Washington, DC, the most expensive states for check engine light repairs were Delaware, New Jersey, California and Connecticut.

After Wyoming, the most affordable states for the repairs are Montana, Nebraska, Michigan and Vermont.

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IIHS rates LATCH hardware in vehicles for ease-of-use

Most vehicles are sorely lacking; BMW, Mercedes, VW models earn good rating

Of the more than 100 vehicles evaluated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), only 3 have child restraint installation hardware that earns ...

PhotoOf the more than 100 vehicles evaluated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), only three have child restraint installation hardware that earns a good rating for ease of use. More than half have hardware that is poor or marginal.

 

LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is intended to make it easier to install a child seat properly. Child restraints installed with LATCH, rather than with vehicle safety belts, are more likely to be installed correctly, research has shown.

 

The Institute's new LATCH ratings will serve as a resource for families looking for a vehicle that makes it easy to transport their children safely. They also are intended to encourage vehicle manufacturers to pay attention to this equipment and make improvements.

 

Greater protection offered

 

Properly installed, age-appropriate child restraints provide considerably more protection for children in crashes than safety belts alone. However, observational studies have found that parents and caregivers often fail to secure them tightly or make other installation mistakes.

 

But in many vehicles, LATCH hardware could be better. Parents are more likely to install the seat correctly when the LATCH hardware meets certain key ease-of-use criteria.

 

"LATCH is meant to simplify child seat installations, but it doesn't always succeed," said Jessica Jermakian, an IIHS senior research scientist. "Parents often struggle to locate the anchors in the vehicle or find it’s difficult to attach the seats to them. We believe fixing these problems will make the task less frustrating for parents and increase the likelihood that children will ride in properly installed seats.”

 

Good LATCH defined

 

LATCH has been required in vehicles and on child restraints since 2002. In a vehicle, the lower anchors are located where the seatback meets the bottom seat cushion, an area known as the seat bight. Attachments at the bottom of the child restraint connect to these. The top tether connects the top of the child seat to an anchor located on the vehicle's rear shelf, seatback, floor, cargo area or ceiling.
 

Child restraints can be installed with lower anchors or safety belts. A top tether should be used with every forward-facing child restraint, whether it is secured using the safety belt or using the lower anchors.

 

In the new ratings system, vehicle LATCH hardware is rated good if it meets the following criteria:

  • The lower anchors are no more than 3/4-inch deep in the seat bight.
  • The lower anchors are easy to maneuver around. This is defined as having a clearance angle greater than 54%.
  • The force required to attach a standardized tool to the lower anchors is less than 40 pounds. (The tool
  • represents a lower connector of a child seat, though the actual force required when installing a seat varies depending on the specific connector.)
  • Tether anchors are on the vehicle's rear deck or on the top 85% of the seatback. They shouldn't be at the very bottom of the seatback, under the seat, on the ceiling or on the floor.
  • The area where the tether anchor is found doesn't have any other hardware that could be confused for the tether anchor. If other hardware is present, then the tether anchor must have a clear label located within 3 inches of it.

Under federal regulations, most vehicles must have at least two rear seating positions with full LATCH hardware and a third with at least a tether anchor. The IIHS ratings are based on the best two LATCH positions available in the vehicle's second row.

 

To earn a good rating, two LATCH positions must meet all 5 criteria, and a third tether anchor also must be easy to use. For an acceptable rating, 2 LATCH positions must each meet at least 2 of the 3 requirements for lower anchors and at least 1 of the 2 tether anchor requirements. If either position meets neither of the tether anchor requirements or meets only one of the lower anchor requirements, then the vehicle is marginal. If even fewer criteria are met, the vehicle is poor.

 

The ratings measure ease of use only. A correct installation in a vehicle with poor LATCH is just as safe as a correct installation in a vehicle with good LATCH. The same is true for an installation with a vehicle safety belt: If it's done correctly -- including attaching the tether in the case of a forward-facing restraint -- the child will be just as safe as with an installation using lower anchors.

 

How vehicles rate

 

Of 102 current models that IIHS has rated for LATCH, the three good ones are the BMW 5 series, a large luxury car; the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, a large SUV; and the Volkswagen Passat, a midsize car. Of the rest, 44 are acceptable, 45 are marginal, and 10 are poor.

 

The poor-rated vehicles run the gamut of vehicle types from minicars to large pickups. Most glaring is the Toyota Sienna. As a minivan, it's commonly bought to ferry children.

 

The online ratings information helps consumers understand exactly why a vehicle gets the rating it does. A diagram for each vehicle shows the location of all LATCH-equipped seating positions and which criteria those positions meet and which they miss. The location of extra tether anchors, for use with restraints attached with vehicle safety belts, is also shown.

 

In some cases, center seating positions don't have their own lower anchors, but manufacturers allow anchors to be "borrowed" from adjacent positions. The rating diagrams show when such borrowing is allowed by the vehicle manufacturer. (Some child restraint manufacturers advise against using borrowed anchors; consumers should check the restraint manual.)
 

"Even if you're not in the market for a new vehicle, our ratings can be a helpful source of information about a vehicle you already own," Jermakian says. "We're essentially providing you with a map of where child seats can be installed most easily in your vehicle, including the specific hardware available for each seating position."

 

Seating configurations and LATCH hardware can vary depending on the trim level or type of seats. The rating details indicate which specific vehicle was measured.

 

Good+ to reward greater flexibility

 

The Institute plans to award extra credit to vehicles with good-rated LATCH that also provide parents with additional LATCH options beyond the two required seating positions. In particular, the "good+" rating would encourage the availability of LATCH in the second-row center position, the safest place for children to travel. Currently, no vehicles qualify for good+.

 

A 2-row vehicle that meets the criteria for a good rating and also has acceptable or good LATCH in the center will be rated good+. The center LATCH position may use either dedicated anchors or borrowed anchors.

 

A 3-row vehicle must have one additional full LATCH position and tether anchors in all rear seating positions to earn good+. If the vehicle has a second-row center seating position, it must have the ability to use LATCH there as well.

 

 

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Getting released as student loan co-signer is not that easy

Study finds 90% of requests for release as co-signer are rejected

Many young people heading off to college are unable to secure student loans without a family member or friend co-signing for them. But co-signing situation...

PhotoMany young people heading off to college are unable to secure student loans without a family member or friend co-signing for them. But co-signing situations often go awry and student loans are no exception. There are pitfalls for both borrower and co-signer.

For example, in 2010 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimated 3 out of 4 co-signers were left to pay off a loan because the borrower had defaulted.

Having a co-signer on a private student loan can also be risky for the borrower. Let's suppose you needed a co-signer in order to get a private student loan. Maybe a grandparent volunteers. You received the loan and started making payments.

But then your co-signer died. Many private college lenders have a provision in their loan documents that allows them to demand full repayment if the co-signer dies, even if the borrower is making on-time payments. It's called auto-default.

Almost impossible to separate

But here's the rub. Once two parties come together as borrower and co-signer, it is very hard to separate.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Student Loan Ombudsman investigated procedures private lenders put in place to allow co-signers to withdraw, then looked at how many were actually permitted to do so. The CFPB analysis found that the lenders and servicers granted very few releases. Of those borrowers who applied for co-signer release, 90% were rejected.

“Parents and grandparents put their financial futures on the line by co-signing private student loans to help family members achieve the dream of higher education,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Responsible borrowers and their co-signers should have clear information and standards for releasing the co-signer if the time is right. We’re concerned that the broken co-signer release process is leaving responsible consumers at risk of damaged credit or auto-default distress.”

Lots of confusion

The CFPB report also found that most borrowers and co-signers are in the dark about a lender's criteria for being released as a co-signer. Consumers reported being confused about their eligibility for obtaining a co-signer release as well as not understanding why they had been denied.

Most private student loan contracts continue to contain auto-default clauses, despite promises last year by several lenders they would discontinue the practice. The report shows almost none of them have.

The report also expressed concern that borrowers are at risk when loans are packaged and sold as securities on Wall Street. While a lender may have pledged not to invoke auto default, the report says the investors who buy the loan can change that.

In addition to auto-default clauses, the CFPB analysis found other potentially harmful clauses hidden in fine print of some loans including “universal default” clauses. Lenders have long used these clauses to trigger a default if the borrower or co-signer is not in good standing on another loan with the institution, such as a mortgage or auto loan, that is unrelated to the consumer’s payment behavior on the student loan. These clauses can increase the risk of default for both the borrower and co-signer.

The report calls for a number of policy changes, including improving transparency around co-signer release criteria and examining potentially harmful clauses contained in the fine print.

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Post office Grinches arrested for scamming children's Christmas charity

Three workers allegedly stole gifts from Operation Santa

Three workers at a Manhattan post office were arrested for allegedly scamming valuable gifts out of Operation Santa, a charitable program intended to provi...

PhotoThree workers at a Manhattan post office were arrested for allegedly scamming valuable gifts out of Operation Santa, a charitable program intended to provide Christmas presents to poor children.

The post office's Operation Santa program takes children's wish-list letters to Santa Claus and matches them with “Secret Santa” donors who agree to anonymously buy the gifts and take them to the post office, which then delivers the gifts to the children on Santa's behalf.

But authorities say that Terry Jackson, Mahogany Strickland and Nickyeves Saintalbord, who worked at the main James A. Farley Post Office in Manhattan, scammed the Operation Santa program in two ways: first, by stuffing the Operation Santa files with letters they wrote themselves (while pretending to be children); and second by putting their own addresses on gift boxes which various Secret Santas had bought for actual underprivileged kids.

Jackson, Strickland and Saintalbord allegedly used the scheme to snag iPads, laptops, printers, clothing and even a toy train for themselves, among other things.

They are being charged with mail fraud, conspiracy and receipt of stolen mail.

Dead-letter office

The trio allegedly operated during the 2013-2014 holiday season. Operation Santa received more than 300,000 children's letters, but could only process 7,000 of them. Out of those, less than half the letter-writers were actually assigned a Secret Santa donor.

The prosecutor's complaint says that “Because Operation Santa was not able to fulfill all of the requests, every gift that was fraudulently obtained by a participant in the scheme effectively deprived an underprivileged child of a gift.”

The Postal Service released a statement saying it would take disciplinary action against the three, and hopes that donors' trust in the Operation Santa program was not shaken. “For more than 100 years, the Operation Santa program has helped thousands of children and families in need. The Postal Service and our employees plan to continue the proud tradition of responding to those who write to Santa.”

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Rising gasoline costs help push consumer prices higher

Jobless claims slip

A spike in the cost of gasoline was a major factor in the rise in the consumer price index (CPI) during May. Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Stati...

Photo
© mybaitshop – Fotolia

A spike in the cost of gasoline was a major factor in the rise in the consumer price index (CPI) during May.

 

Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show the CPI was up 0.4% last month, but that over the last 12 months, the index is unchanged.

 

Energy and food

 

Energy prices overall were up 4.3% in May following a decline in April, with gasoline costs shooting up 10.4%. Fuel oil edged up 0.7%, natural gas was unchanged and electricity prices fell 1.2%. Over the last 12 months, electricity is up just 0.5% -- its smallest 12-month increase since January 2013. The other energy components have sharply declined over the last 12 months, with fuel oil down 27.6%, gasoline off 25.0%, and natural gas off 15.4%.

 

Food prices were unchanged in May. As was the case in April, the index for, with 4 of the 6 major grocery store food group indexes declining, led by the dairy and related products with a drop of 0.7%. Meats, poultry, fish, and eggs were down 0.5%, beef and veal off 0.1% and nonalcoholic beverages inching down 0.2%. In contrast, fruits and vegetables increased 0.3% and the “other food” category was up 0.1%. food at home index rose 0.6 percent For the 12 months ending May, prices were up 0.6%.

 

Core inflation

 

The “core” rate of inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy categories was up just 0.1% last month after rising 0.3% in April. The cost of shelter rose 0.2% percent, airline fares soared 5.7% after declining in 5 of the last 6 months and medical care was up 0.2%. Also posting gains were new vehicles (+0.2%), tobacco (+0.4%) and alcoholic beverages (+0.2%). Apparel index, meanwhile, declined 0.5%, household furnishings and operations fell 0.3% and prices for used cars and trucks decreased 0.4%. Thew core rate has risen 1.7% over the past 12 months, compared with an increase of 1.8% for the 12 months ending April.

 

The complete CPI report is available on the Labor Department (DOL) website.

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Jobless claims

 

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits dipped last week.

 

The DOL reports initial jobless claims plunged by 12,000 in the week ending June 13 to a seasonally adjusted 267,000.

 

The government says there were no special factors affecting the claims level.

 

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market came in at 276,750, a decline of 2,000 from the previous week.

 

The full report may be found on the DOL website.

 

 

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Feds target servicemember auto lender

The company is accused of using aggressive debt collection tactics

Security National Automotive Acceptance Company (SNAAC) -- an auto loan company -- is being accused of using a combination of illegal threats and deceptive...

PhotoSecurity National Automotive Acceptance Company (SNAAC) -- an auto loan company -- is being accused of using a combination of illegal threats and deceptive claims in order to collect debts from servicemembers.

 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has filed a complaint in federal court seeking compensation for harmed consumers, a civil penalty, and an order prohibiting the company from committing future violations.

 

“Security National Automotive Acceptance Company took advantage of military rules to put enormous pressures on servicemembers to pay their debts,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “For all the security they provide us, servicemembers should not have their financial and career security threatened by false information from an auto loan company.”

 

Unfair, deceptive and abusive practices alleged

 

SNAAC, an Ohio-based auto finance company that operates in more than 2 dozen states, lends money primarily to active-duty and former military to buy used motor vehicles.

 

The CFPB claims the company violated the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act’s prohibitions against unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices by using aggressive collection tactics that took advantage of servicemembers’ special obligations to remain current on debts.

 

Both active-duty and former servicemembers could encounter trouble with the company if they missed or were late on payments. Once consumers defaulted, they became subject to repeated threats to contact their chain of command. In many other instances, the company exaggerated the consequences of not paying. Thousands of people were victims of the company’s aggressive tactics.

 

The CFPB alleges that the company has:

  • Exaggerated potential disciplinary action that servicemembers would face: The company told customers that their failure to pay could result in action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as well as a number of other adverse career consequences, including demotion, loss of promotion, discharge, denial of re-enlistment, loss of security clearance, or reassignment. In fact, these consequences were extremely unlikely.
  • Contacted and threatened to contact commanding officers to pressure servicemembers into repayment: The company would repeatedly contact commanding officers to disclose the debts in an effort to force payment, and suggest that the servicemembers were in violation of military law and other regulations. These company’s tactics, the CFPB claims, took advantage of the servicemembers’ inability to protect their interests in their transactions with the company and was unfair.
  • Falsely threatened to garnish servicemembers’ wages: The company implied to consumers that it could immediately commence an involuntary allotment or wage garnishment. But such consequences could not or would not occur because -- through the military pay system -- involuntary allotments are only processed once a judgment by a court is obtained. The company would threaten to pursue an involuntary allotment before they had even determined whether the servicemember would be sued.
  • Misled servicemembers about imminent legal action: In many instances, the company threatened to take legal action against customers when, in fact, it had not determined whether to take such action. In fact, in numerous instances, the company did not intend to take such action at the time.

Through its lawsuit, the CFPB seeks to stop the alleged unlawful practices of the company. It has also requested that the court impose penalties on the company for its conduct and require that compensation be paid to consumers who have been harmed.

 

The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the company has actually violated the law.

 

 

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Foreclosure activity moving higher again

But the May numbers don't suggest a housing market relapse

Numbers don't lie but at times they can be misleading.So it is with the May foreclosure report from RealtyTrac, an online marketer of foreclosure prope...

PhotoNumbers don't lie but at times they can be misleading.

So it is with the May foreclosure report from RealtyTrac, an online marketer of foreclosure properties.

The report shows foreclosure filings, which include default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions (REO), were up 1% in May from April but a more attention-getting 16% over May 2014, a 19-month high.

While that might sound like cause for alarm, Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, says it really isn't. At least, not entirely.

“May foreclosure numbers are a classic good news-bad news scenario, with the number of homeowners starting the foreclosure process stabilizing at pre-housing crisis levels but the number of homeowners actually losing their homes to foreclosure still well above pre-crisis levels and on the rise,” Blomquist said. “Lenders and courts are pushing through stubborn foreclosure cases that have been languishing in foreclosure limbo for years as options to prevent foreclosure are exhausted or left untapped.”

Bank repossessions surge

So many of the foreclosure filings that show up in the May numbers aren't really new. They might have started years ago but became active again last month when the lender took possession of the property. Bank REOs were down slightly from April but up 58% year-over-year.

May's REOs were 56% below the peak of 102,134 REOs in September 2013 but still nearly twice the average monthly number of 23,119 in 2005 and 2006 before the housing bubble burst in August 2006.

But the numbers certainly have significance for people who want to buy or sell a home. If you are trying to sell your home in a neighborhood where several REOs suddenly have come on the market, it could affect how quickly you can sell and what you'll be able to get for your home.

REOs typically sell for well below the market value. Not only will the REOs siphon off potential buyers, their comps set the market price lower in your neighborhood.

Increased inventory

If you are hoping to buy a home, this might help. The market in many areas has suffered from tight inventories, forcing potential buyers to compete for available properties. In areas where REOs are coming on the market, inventories should rise and prices may be less firm.

Real estate varies market to market so the effects of the increase in repossessed homes hitting the market won't be felt evenly across the country. According to the RealtyTrac reports, New Jersey had the biggest rise in REOs at 197%. Bank repossessions were up 116% in New York, 114% in Ohio, 108% in Georgia and 106% in Pennsylvania.

“As available housing inventory begins to increase, we are noticing slight increases in foreclosure activity across Ohio,” said Michael Mahon, president at HER Realtors, which covers the Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus markets.

Mahon says much of the REO activity in Ohio has occurred for properties under $200,000 – many of them he says triggered by home equity lines of credit coming due and the homeowners being unable to pay.

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Pinnacle Foods Group recalls poultry products

The product contains monosodium glutamate, which is not declared on the label

Pinnacle Foods Group of Fayetteville, Ark., is recalling approximately 668,316 pounds of poultry products. The product contains monosodium glutamate (MSG)...

PhotoPinnacle Foods Group of Fayetteville, Ark., is recalling approximately 668,316 pounds of poultry products.

 

The product contains monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is not declared on the label.

 

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

 

The following poultry dinner item, produced between December 11, 2013 through June 9, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 383-g frozen dinners of “Swanson Stuffing Baked Turkey.”

The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-138” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in Canada.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the company at (888) 815-6480.  

 

 

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Colnago recalls bicycles and frame kits

The front brakes can detach from fork during use

Colnago America of Chicago is recalling about 434 bicycles and bicycle frame kits in the U.S> and Canada. The front brakes can detach from fork during use...

PhotoColnago America of Chicago is recalling about 434 bicycles and bicycle frame kits in the U.S> and Canada.

 

The front brakes can detach from fork during use, posing a crash hazard.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves all Colnago CF10 and Colnago V1-r racing bicycles and bicycle frame kits that fit 28-inch wheels. "Colnago for Ferrari" is on the downtube and the Ferrari logo is on the seat tube of the CF10. "Colnago" is on the downtube and the Ferrari logo is on the crossbar of the V1-r. Model numbers CF10 or V1-r are on both sides of the front fork.

 

Model CF10 frames come in the colors black with white letters and red trim, and black with white letters and yellow trim. Model V1-r frames come in the colors black with white letters and red trim, gray with black letters and black trim, gray with white letters and white trim, and white with silver letters and silver trim.

 

The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold authorized Colnago dealers from August 2014, to April 2015, for between $4,800 and $12,000.

 

Consumers should stop using the recalled bicycles and bicycle frame kits and contact Colnago America for a free inspection. If the hole in the front fork for the brake mounting bolt is not at least 12 mm in depth, the front fork will be replaced free of charge.

 

Consumers may contact Colnago America toll-free at (844) 265-6246 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., CT, Monday through Friday.

 

 

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Mortgage applications turn back downward

Contract interest rates continued their climb

After rising the previous week for the first time in 8 weeks, applications for mortgages have resumed the downward trek. Applications were down 5.5% for f...

PhotoAfter rising the previous week for the first time in 8 weeks, applications for mortgages have resumed the downward trek.

 

Applications were down 5.5% for the week ending June 12, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey.

 

“Rising rates continue to create volatility in weekly mortgage applications activity,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “The 10-year Treasury hit 2.5% percent last week and our survey’s 30-year fixed rate of 4.22% is at its highest level since October 2014,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist.

 

The Refinance Index dropped 7% from the previous week to the lowest level since January, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 48.5% of total applications. The FHA share of total applications slipped to 14.2% from 14.3% the week prior, the VA share of total applications was unchanged at 11.5$, and the USDA share dropped to 0.9% from 1.1% the week before.

 

Contract interest rates

 

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was up 5 basis points -- from 7.17% to 4.22%, with points increasing to 0.46 from 0.38 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose to 4.18% from 4.15%, with points decreasing to 0.36 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA jumped 10 basis points to 4.00%, with points increasing to 0.20 from 0.19 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs climbed to 3.43% from 3.37%, with points increasing to 0.33 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose 9 basis points to 3.15%, with points increasing to 0.52 from 0.50 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

 

 

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Americans losing faith in religion

White Protestants continue to drift away, Catholics stabilize

We don't normally think of religion as a consumer product but it has a lot of similarities to, say, an expensive newspaper s...

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Photo © alswart - Fotolia

We don't normally think of religion as a consumer product but it has a lot of similarities to, say, an expensive newspaper subscription or a health club -- something you may pay for regularly even if you don't make much use of it.

But business hasn't been so good over the last four decades as consumer confidence in religion has fallen to this year's all-time low of 42%, Gallup reports.,Confidence in religion began faltering in the 1980s, while the sharpest decline occurred,between 2001 and 2002,as the Catholic Church grappled with a major sexual abuse scandal. Since then, periodic improvements have proved temporary, and it has continued to drift lower.

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Catholic confidence stabilizes

U.S. Protestants' confidence in the church and organized religion,hit a new low this year, with 51% now saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in it. While confidence among U.S. Catholics is also at 51%, this represents a steadying after more than a decade of varying confidence during which their ratings reached as low as 39%.

Although confidence among Protestants has been sliding since 2009, Catholics' has remained above 50% each of the last two years, the first time it has achieved this since 2003-2004. The leadership of the,popular Pope Francis, including his recent initiative to hold high-ranking leaders of the Catholic Church accountable for their role in past child sex abuse scandals, may be a factor.

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Gallup does not have data on confidence in the church broken out by Protestants and Catholics for most of the 1990s, but the trends prior to that show that confidence in organized religion fell among both religious categories starting in the mid-1980s, before it recovered somewhat in 1991.,

Televangelist scandals

Previous Gallup analysis,suggests the drop was related to numerous Protestant televangelist scandals. Yet Protestants generally maintained higher confidence in religion than Catholics did during this period.

As low as confidence in the church and organized religion is among Protestants and Catholics relative to the past, it is predictably much lower among nonreligious adults as well as non-Christians. In the latest poll, conducted June 2-7, only 10% of the nonreligious and non-Christians combined said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church or organized religion.

In addition to serious scandals that have come to light surrounding various religious leaders and church institutions in recent decades, the increase in the share of Americans identifying as nonreligious or as members of a non-Christian faith is another reason that confidence in the church has declined.

The total percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic, Protestant or other Christian in Gallup polls has fallen, while the percentage with no religious affiliation has risen considerably.

Ranks below the police

Organized religion is losing its footing as a pillar of moral leadership in the nation's culture. Once reliably at the top of Gallup's confidence in institutions list,,it now ranks fourth,behind the military, small business and the police, and just ahead of the medical system.

The good news for the church is that it still ranks among the more well-respected institutions at a time when fewer than one in four Americans have confidence in several others, including Congress and the media.

Poor behavior on the part of some religious leaders has caused serious self-inflicted wounds for the church and organized religion -- damaging its image among Protestants and Catholics as well as among non-Christians.

At the same time, the nation is becoming less Christian and less religious, and those outside of Christianity naturally view the church with less respect.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 2-7, 2015, with a random sample of 1,527 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

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Dodge Challengers with airbag issue recalled

The driver's side air bag inflated curtain may have a loose or missing rear mounting bolt

Chrysler (FCA US) is recalling 73 model year 2015 Dodge Challengers manufactured March 28, 2015, to April 1, 2015. The driver's side air bag inflated cur...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US) is recalling 73 model year 2015 Dodge Challengers manufactured March 28, 2015, to April 1, 2015.

 

The driver's side air bag inflated curtain (SABIC) may have a loose or missing rear mounting bolt. A loose or missing SABIC rear mounting bolt may alter the air bag inflated curtain's deployment, increasing the risk of occupant injury in the event of a side impact or roll-over crash.

 

Chrysler has notified owners, and dealers will inspect and repair the vehicles, as needed, free of charge. The recall began on May 28, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R22.

 

 

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Bunnies by the Bay recalls pull toys

Hub caps on the wheels can break or come off the wheel

Bunnies by the Bay of East Windsor, N.J., is recalling about 810 Bud and Skipit Wheely Cute pull toys in the U.S. and Canada. Hub caps on the wheels can b...

PhotoBunnies by the Bay of East Windsor, N.J., is recalling about 810 Bud and Skipit Wheely Cute pull toys in the U.S. and Canada.

 

Hub caps on the wheels can break or come off the wheel, posing a choking hazard for young children.

 

No incidents have been reported.

 

Bud, an 8-inch high soft brown puppy with a blue and white pull cord, stands on red wooden wheels with blue hub caps. There is a red, blue and white soft ball at the end of the pull cord.

 

Skipit, an 8-inch high cream-colored bunny with an orange and white pull cord, stands on blue wheels with orange hub caps. There is a soft cloth carrot at the end of the pull cord.

 

Lot code YM5/14 is on the label sewn on the back leg of each toy. The item number for Bud Wheely Cute Toy, found on the lower right-hand corner of the original packing, is #401101. The item number for Skipit Wheely Cute Toy is #401103.

 

The pull toys, manufactured in China, were sold at gift and specialty stores nationwide and online at Bunniesbythebay.com and amazon.com from February 2015, through April 2015, for about $30.

 

Consumers should take the toys away from young children immediately and return the item to where it was purchased for a full refund.

 

Consumers may contact Bunnies by the Bay toll-free at (866) 763-8869 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., ET, Monday through Friday or by email at customerservice@kidspreferred.com.

 

 

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Seniors leave money on the table when they don't ask for a discount

But most businesses that provide discounts make you ask for them

Age has its advantages. Wisdom. Respect. Senior discounts. It's actually pretty amazing how many companies in just about any business you can think of o...

PhotoAge has its advantages. Wisdom. Respect. Senior discounts.

It's actually pretty amazing how many companies in just about any business you can think of offer discounts to older consumers, who actually don't have to be all that old to get them.

And perhaps “offer” is not quite the right word. These businesses will give a discount to a consumer that fits their particular category of “senior,” but the consumer must ask for it -- it isn't offered in most cases.

Vanity

Yet, not every eligible senior asks for a discount. Some because they don't know about them. Some because vanity won't let them think of themselves as “senior.” Either way, they're leaving money on the table.

Writing for AARP's blog, journalist Julianne Malveaux admits to being somewhat reluctant to ask for a senior discount, even when she would be able to save about $5 on her purchase. She says she quickly came to her senses.

“We can ask retail establishments if they offer a senior discount, and use our AARP membership card to get discounts when we can,” she wrote. “Ten percent here, 15% there add up. Sometimes we have to ask and resist the vanity that tells us that we don’t look 60, and don’t want to act that way either.”

AARP discounts

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All seniors have to do on Southwest is click the "Senior" farebox.

AARP, as a huge senior organization, has an equally huge list of companies that provide discounts to its members, if those members ask for it and show their AARP card. Many are travel related and include hotels, car rentals, cruise lines and tourist attractions.

But there are discounts you might not expect, such as 10% off Amazon Kindle e-readers, a 10% discount on pet insurance and 25% off regular menu prices at Papa John's. Since AARP membership is open to those age 50 and up there are a lot of consumers who might take advantage of these price breaks.

But you don't have to be a member of AARP to take advantage of many senior discounts. There are plenty of businesses that will provide a discount to older consumers who ask for one. TheSeniorList.com publishes a list of what it has judged to be the best discounts for seniors.

Other senior discounts

For example, Applebees gives a 15% discount to consumers 60-plus who have a Golden Apple Card and CiCi's Pizza gives 10% off to consumers who are 60 and over. At iHop, you can get 10% off if you're 55 or older.

You can even save on your cellphone bill. AT&T; and Verizon Wireless compete for senior business by offering a $29.99 monthly plan to consumers 65-plus.

Air travel is one area where discounts of any kind are hard to come by. Even so, TheSeniorList says American, Southwest, US Airways and United all provide some type of senior discount on a limited basis. To get it, however, you must go through a few extra steps, which vary by airline.

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Change your password for LastPass! Hackers breached their security last week

Company says stored passwords weren't compromised, but master passwords should be changed anyway

If you use the LastPass password manager to store your online passwords, be warned: yesterday, in a “Security Notice” posted on the LastPass corporate blog...

PhotoIf you use the LastPass password manager to store your online passwords, be warned: yesterday, in a “Security Notice” posted on the LastPass corporate blog, company CEO Joe Siegrist admitted that hackers managed to breach security, compromising the email addresses and certain security features attached to customers' accounts.

Siegrist said that the actual passwords stored in the LastPass database were not accessed by the hackers, but customers should change their LastPass master password just in case.

 

We want to notify our community that on Friday, our team discovered and blocked suspicious activity on our network. In our investigation, we have found no evidence that encrypted user vault data was taken, nor that LastPass user accounts were accessed. The investigation has shown, however, that LastPass account email addresses, password reminders, server per user salts, and authentication hashes were compromised. … we are taking additional measures to ensure that your data remains secure. We are requiring that all users who are logging in from a new device or IP address first verify their account by email, unless you have multifactor authentication enabled. As an added precaution, we will also be prompting users to update their master password.

LastPass went on to say it will be sending emails to all of its users about the incident.

Anytime such a mass security breach is announced, you can safely bet that scammers will try taking advantage of it, so be warned: if you do receive an email, apparently from LastPass, urging you to change your master password or anything else involving your LastPass account, do not click on any links, or open or download any file attachments, in that email. (This anti-malware rule applies not only to LastPass, but also pretty much any email from any business or organization you can think of: never click a link or download a file in an unsolicited message.)

Instead, when you change your LastPass master password, go directly to the LastPass website, and log in. On the left side of the page, you should see a sidebar offering various menu options. Choose “Account Settings,” then “Login Credentials,” and finally “Change Master Password.”

You should get a Password Reset form, where you'll have to type your current master password. Then type in your new password, and type it again for confirmation. You'll also be asked to type a password reminder, in case you forget your new one.

Siegrist's security notice ended by asking and answering the frequently asked question:

Do I need to change my master password right now? LastPass user accounts are locked down. You can only access your account from a trusted IP address or device – otherwise, verification is requested. We are confident that you are safe on your LastPass account regardless. If you’ve used a weak, dictionary-based master password (eg: robert1, mustang, 123456799, password1!), or if you used your master password as the password for other websites you need to update it.

Again, that bit of advice applies not just to LastPass, but any important password-protected account: never use the same password across multiple accounts, to minimize the damage a hacker can do after stealing the password to one.

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Nine consumer privacy groups walk out to protest federal facial-recognition policies

The 16-month-long series of meetings completely broke down last week

For over a year now, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NITA), a division of the Commerce Department, has hosted talks with te...

PhotoFor over a year now, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NITA), a division of the Commerce Department, has hosted talks with tech-company trade associations as well as various consumer- and privacy-protection groups in hope of developing a set of guidelines tech companies could follow to protect consumers' privacy when the companies use facial recognition technology.

Those efforts have gone so badly that yesterday, nine privacy and consumer groups walked out of the talks because, as they said in a joint statement, “we do not believe that the NTIA process is likely to yield a set of privacy rules that offers adequate protections for the use of facial-recognition technology.”

Why not? As the joint statement (put out by the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Consumer Federation of America and a half-dozen other organizations) said:

At a base minimum, people should be able to walk down a public street without fear that companies they’ve never heard of are tracking their every movement — and identifying them by name – using facial recognition technology. Unfortunately, we have been unable to obtain agreement even with that basic, specific premise.

Biometric data

Facial-recognition technology, a form of biometric data collection, has concerned privacy advocates for years. In summer 2011, for example, privacy groups raised an outcry after Facebook started using facial-recognition technology to make it easier for users to “tag” (identify) people in photographs they posted.

At that time, the FBI was already compiling (.pdf) a nationwide facial recognition service, the Next Generation Identification (or NGI) program,currently estimated to hold at least 51 million photographs in its database, with more added every day.

But the NTIA's meetings with trade groups and consumer-privacy organizations focused on the biometric data collection activities of private companies rather than government organizations. NTIA held its first meeting in February 2014 and has hosted 12 meetings to date. None of those meetings went particularly well (at least from a pro-consumer privacy perspective) but, as the Washington Post reports, the final straw landed during last Thursday's meeting:

...First, Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Law, asked if companies could agree to making opt-in for facial recognition technology the default for when identifying people -- meaning that if companies wanted to use someone's face to name them, the person would have to agree to it. No companies or trade associations would commit to that, according to multiple attendees at the meeting.

Then Justin Brookman, the director of the Center for Democracy  & Technology's consumer privacy project, asked if companies would agree to a concrete scenario: What if a company set up a camera on a public street and surreptitiously used it identify people by name? Could companies agree to opt-in consent there? Again, no companies would commit, according to several attendees....

Joint statement

Bedoya and Brookman were two of the nine people who signed their names to the statement (available in Dropbox as a .pdf here) issued jointly by members of nine privacy groups yesterday. The other groups include the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Common Sense Media, Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, Consumer Action and Consumer Watchdog.

In addition to that joint statement, many of the individuals or groups involved issued statements of their own.

Susan Grant, the Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy for the Consumer Federation of America (and a signer of yesterday's joint statement), said that “there is no point in continuing to participate in the multi-stakeholder process convened by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration …. because there is no incentive for companies to agree to anything that might constrain their current or future business practices. In the 16 months that the process has dragged on there has been no meaningful progress and it has become clear that we will be unable to reach consensus on fundamental issues such as consumer consent to be subject to facial recognition.”

The Center for Digital Democracy, meanwhile, said that “the approach the Administration embraced to protect consumers’ rights to their personal information was flawed. It relied on the data collection and digital marketing industry to support significant new policies that would empower individuals to make decisions about how their information can be collected and used …. It never made sense to expect industry to turn away from business practices that reap billions of dollars.”

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GM faces racketeering charges in ignition switch case

New complaint alleges GM conspired to conceal the deadly defect

You can add racketeering charges to the problems facing General Motors. Lawyers representing consumers who are suing GM over faulty ignition switches have ...

PhotoYou can add racketeering charges to the problems facing General Motors. Lawyers representing consumers who are suing GM over faulty ignition switches have added racketeering allegations to their suit, claiming the company conspired to conceal the safety defect that has been blamed for more than 100 deaths.

The government has not brought any criminal charges against GM, although the automaker did pay a $35 million fine for not alerting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to the defective switches quickly enough.

GM has recalled 2.6 million vehicles equipped with ignition switches that can upexpectedly shut off the engine. That, in turn, cuts power to the airbags, power steering, brakes and other onboard equipment.

$10 billion

The court filing, made late Friday in New York federal court amends existing suits for personal injury, wrongful death and falling car values. It seeks more than $10 billion in damages.

The filing claims GM conspired with a law firm and claims administrator to conceal information about the switch and argues that those actions amount to an "unlawful enterprise" as defined in the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

A GM spokesman said the new complaint "contains no new information," the Wall Street Journal reported. "We look forward to setting the record straight in court.”

The case against GM is what is called "multidistrict litigation." It is similar to a class action suit in that it allows plaintiffs in multiple states to sue jointly rather than each party having to file in a separate jurisdiction. 

Separate from the ongoing litigation, GM has established a victims' compensation fund that so far has linked 100 deaths and 200 injuries to the ignition defect.

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Customer-card security breach at Fred's Super Dollar

Hackers planted malware on POS systems; full extent of the breach not yet known

Southern and Midwestern shoppers beware: it looks like Fred's Super Dollar, a discount pharmacy and general merchandise retailer, is the latest business to...

PhotoSouthern and Midwestern shoppers beware: it looks like Fred's Super Dollar, a discount pharmacy and general merchandise retailer, is the latest business to lose customer payment-card data after hackers planted malware on the point-of-sale (POS) systems used in checkout lanes at Fred's locations.

PhotoSecurity expert Brian Krebs reports that he contacted the company last week, after “about a pattern of fraud on customer cards indicating that Fred’s was the latest victim” of malware planted on POS systems.

Fred's Inc. responded in a formal statement on Friday, admitting that:

Fred’s Inc. recently became aware of a potential data security incident and immediately launched an internal investigation to determine the scope of the issue. We retained Mandiant, a leading independent forensics firm, to examine our data security systems.

We want to assure our customers that protecting their information is one of our top priorities and we are taking this potential incident very seriously. Until this investigation is completed, it will be difficult to determine with certainty the scope or nature of any potential incident, but we will continue to work vigilantly to address any potential issues that may affect our customers.

Scope unknown

So far, that's the only information available: Fred's had a security breach, and hired investigators to look into it. The scope of the breach has not yet been determined: how long ago did the hackers plant the malware? How long were the hackers then able to monitor any transactions on those infected POS systems? And how many Fred's locations were affected?

Krebs' sources are “unclear” on that last bit, but said “the pattern of fraudulent charges traced back to Fred’s stores across the company’s footprint in the Midwest and south, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.”

So if you are or have been a Fred's shopper in any of those states, and paid with a card rather than in cash, check your card statement extra-closely to see if you can spot any fraudulent charges.

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Feds ease reverse mortgage policy for non-borrowing spouse (again)

Move is aimed at reducing foreclosures

After an increasing number of horror stories, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has again revised a policy that will now allow reverse...

PhotoAfter an increasing number of horror stories, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has again revised a policy that will now allow reverse mortgage lenders to transfer some loans to HUD when a borrower dies but is survived by a non-borrowing spouse.

Previously a non-borrowing widow or widower usually had to find another place to live. The policy change gives loan servicers a new option.

It is very dangerous for a married couple to jointly own a residence, yet have only one half of the couple on the mortgage. It is especially dangerous in the case of a reverse mortgage, which has very strict guidelines.

In early January we heard from Lorna, a New Hampshire real estate broker, who relayed the story of one of her clients -- a recent widow who was about to lose her home because her husband took out a reverse mortgage and then died shortly thereafter.

Not old enough to be on the mortgage

“My client at the time was not 62 so could not go on the mortgage,” Lorna told ConsumerAffairs.

So the reverse mortgage was in her husband's name only, even though he owned the property jointly with his wife. Or at least he did at one time.

In order to receive a reverse mortgage, both homeowners must be at least 62. Since Lorna's client was not 62 at the time her husband took out the loan, she was either never on, or was removed from, the property deed.

“This issue has perplexed homeowners, lenders, and housing counselors for years and it is a relief to have clarity,” said Peter Bell, President of the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association.

Previous attempts fall short

Previous attempts to address the issue seemed to fall short of satisfying anyone. For example, an earlier policy directive required some non-borrowing spouses to pay some of the unpaid principal before being spared foreclosure. It also only applied to loans originated before August 4, 2014.

Under the government's revised policy, lenders will be allowed to proceed with submitting claims on reverse mortgages, also known as home equity conversion mortgages (HECM) with eligible surviving non-borrowing spouses and case numbers assigned before August 4, 2014, in accordance with the terms of the mortgagee letter by:

  • Electing to assign the HECM to HUD upon the death of the last surviving borrower, where the HECM would not otherwise be assignable to FHA solely as a result of the death of the borrower. (The Mortgagee Optional Election Assignment)
  • Allowing claim payment following sale of the property by heirs or estate; or
  • Foreclosing in accordance with the terms of the mortgage, and filing an insurance claim under the FHA insurance contract as endorsed.

In many cases HUD says lenders will be permitted assign an eligible HECMs to HUD despite the death of the last surviving borrower and regardless of the loan’s unpaid principal balance. Still, there are plenty of caveats and conditions to the new policy.

The takeaway is this: a reverse mortgage is still not advisable unless both spouses can be parties to the loan agreement.  

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Cigarettes blamed for nearly half of 12 smoking-related cancer deaths

Incidence of smoking is down but risks to smokers may be increasing

The good news is that fewer people are smoking but the risk to those who continue to smoke may increase over time, a new study warns. Researchers studie...

PhotoThe good news is that fewer people are smoking but the risk to those who continue to smoke may increase over time, a new study warns.

Researchers studied 346,000 deaths from 12 smoking-related cancers and found that nearly half -- 48.5% -- were attributable to cigarette smoking, according to an article published online by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researcher Rebecca L. Siegel, M.P.H., of the American Cancer Society and coauthors provide an updated estimate because they note that smoking patterns and the magnitude of the association between smoking and cancer death have changed in the past decade.

While smoking prevalence decreased from 23.2% in 2000 to 18.1% in 2012, some data suggest the risk of cancer death among smokers can increase over time, according to background in the study.

The study estimates that of 345,962 deaths there were 167,805 attributable to smoking cigarettes. The largest proportions of smoking-attributable deaths were for cancers of the lung, bronchus and trachea (125,799, 80.2%) and larynx (2,856, 76.6%).

About half of the deaths from cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus and urinary bladder were attributable to smoking, according to the results, which were reported in a research letter.

“Cigarette smoking continues to cause numerous deaths from multiple cancers despite half a century of decreasing prevalence. … Continued progress in reducing cancer mortality, as well as deaths from many other serious diseases, will require more comprehensive tobacco control, including targeted cessation support,” the researchers said.

Study details

The authors used data from the 2011 National Health Interview Survey, the Cancer Prevention Study III and the pooled contemporary cohort. The National Health Interview Survey provides smoking prevalence estimates based on in-person interviews of a representative sample of U.S. adults and the other data sources ascertained smoking from self-administered questionnaires.

The authors mention study limitations including that study populations were less racially diverse and more educated than the U.S. population and that tobacco exposures other than cigarettes were not included in the analysis.

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A helping hand for consumers shopping for health insurance coverage

Consumers’ access to important plan information is the goal

Consumers and employers will have an easier time comparing their options when shopping for and renewing health insurance coverage, according to the Departm...

PhotoConsumers and employers will have an easier time comparing their options when shopping for and renewing health insurance coverage, according to the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor, and the Treasury, which have just issued final regulations.

 

The rules also implement what officials call “streamlined processes to help health insurance issuers and group health plans provide consumers easy to understand information.”

 

“The Administration is committed to improving the information consumers receive when shopping for health care coverage so they can make informed choices for themselves and their families,” said Acting Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Andy Slavitt. “These clarifications will also make it easier for issuers and group health plans to provide the most accurate health coverage information to consumers.”

 

Impact of the rules

 

Health insurance issuers must provide online access to a copy of the individual coverage policy for each plan or group certificate of coverage. These documents must be made publicly available to all potential consumers prior to when a consumer applies, so they are clearly informed about what a plan will and will not offer. The final rules make few changes to the rules proposed in December 2014.

 

Health insurance issuers and group health plans must still provide a brief summary of benefits and coverage (SBC) that includes coverage examples and a uniform glossary to consumers. Revisions to the SBC, coverage examples, and uniform glossary are anticipated to be completed by next January after the departments utilize consumer testing and receive additional input from the public, including the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC).

 

The revisions will apply to SBCs for coverage beginning on or after January 1, 2017.  

 

 

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CVS taking over Target's in-store pharmacies

Deal makes CVS nation's largest drug store chain

In a massive $1.9 billion deal, CVS Health Corporation will take over and re-brand Target's in-store pharmacies. The deal allows the drug store chain to in...

PhotoIn a massive $1.9 billion deal, CVS Health Corporation will take over and re-brandTarget's in-store pharmacies. The deal allows the drug store chain to instantly add 1,660 locations in 47 states, while its MinuteClinic walk-in health care service takes over 80 Target in-store clinics.

In addition, whenever Target opens a new store with a pharmacy, it will be a CVS/Pharmacy location.

Both companies view the deal as one made in heaven. The two retailers, they says, have complementary strengths, brands and cultures. While CVS enjoys a significant overnight growth in its footprint, Target expects to benefit from the additional traffic of existing CVS Health customers.

New era of growth

"When we introduced the new name for our company, CVS Health, we began a new era of growth with a broader health care focus and an appreciation of the rise of health care consumerism with consumer choice and accountability growing,” said Larry Merlo, CVS Health President and CEO. “This relationship with Target will provide consumers with expanded options and access to our unique health care services that lead to better health outcomes and lower overall health care costs."

Target CEO Brian Cornell says the deal is a natural for his company, allowing it to focus on what it does best.

"At Target, we've talked a lot about the evolving preferences of our guests and this partnership demonstrates that we're committed to putting them at the forefront of everything we do," Cornell said.

More to come?

Both companies suggest there could be future strategic partnerships in the works. In a joint statement they said they will carefully evaluate and select locations for new small format Target stores with a CVS/pharmacy inside. Additionally, Target and CVS Health said they will explore new market offerings that have the potential to generate strong returns on investment and offer long-term benefits for customers.

"We operate in a rapidly changing health care and regulatory environment," said Merlo. "This requires companies like CVS Health to continually innovate, providing additional points of access, lowering costs and improving quality for both consumers and payers."

Target is the second largest retailer in the U.S., behind Walmart, but it's profits took a hit in early 2014, in the wake of a massive data breach. It eventually offered a $10 million settlement to customers whose credit and debit cards were compromised.

While the company has recovered under a new CEO, it announced in March it would streamline its operations. Part of that strategy includes elimination of several thousand jobs to cut costs.

CVS is the nation's second largest drug store chain, after Walgreens. Before this deal it operated some 7,600 stores in the U.S. so this deal is likely to make CVS larger than its competitor.

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Mortgage rates on the rise

Some have moved above the 4% mark

Brighter economic news is pushing mortgage interest rates higher. According to Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey, the 30-year fixed-rate mortga...

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Builder confidence hits 9-month high

The increase in the Housing Market Index was broad-based

Things are looking better for home builders than they have in a long time. Builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes is up 5 p...

PhotoThings are looking better for home builders than they have in a long time.

 

Builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes is up 5 points this month to a level of 59 on the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) /Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI). It's the highest reading since September 2014.

 

“Builders are reporting more serious and committed buyers at their job sites,” said said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods,, adding that “this is reflected in recent government data showing that new-home sales and single-family construction are gaining momentum.”

 

Derived from a monthly survey, the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six 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.

 

Across-the-board strength

 

All 3 HMI components posted healthy gains in June. The component gauging current sales conditions jumped 7 points to 65, the index charting sales expectations in the next 6 months increased 6 points to 69, and the component measuring buyer traffic rose 5 points to 44.

 

Looking at the 3-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the South and Northeast each rose 3 points to 60 and 44, respectively. The West posted a 2-point gain to 57 while the Midwest dipped by one point to 54.

 

“The HMI indices measuring current and future sales expectations are at their highest levels since the last quarter of 2005, indicating a growing optimism among builders that housing will continue to strengthen in the months ahead,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “At the same time, builders remain sensitive to consumers’ ability to buy a new home.”

 

 

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Food fight: organic group takes shot at Whole Foods

Claims chain is devaluing Certified Organic label

Just days after Whole Foods announced a new chain of lower-priced stores, the Cornucopia Institute, which advocates organic growing, has taken the popular...

PhotoJust days after Whole Foods announced a new chain of lower-priced stores, the Cornucopia Institute, which advocates organic growing, has taken the popular brand to task for its “Responsibly Grown” marketing plan.

The group charges that label has devalued the Certified Organic label while promoting conventionally grown food products.

While devising a new labeling program that identifies fruits and vegetables as “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” Cornucopia says Whole Foods is asking the growers to pay for participating in the retailer’s verification program.

“Onerous and expensive”

The group has released a letter (PDF) to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, signed by 5 major organic producers in Pennsylvania and California. In it, the producers complain that Whole Foods' newly launched Responsibly Grown rating program is “onerous, expensive, and shifts the cost of this marketing initiative to growers.”

Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, calls the new labeling Robin Hood in reverse.

“Although their market capitalization has taken quite a hit recently, at over $14 billion Whole Foods remains one of the wealthiest grocers in the United States,” he said. “In an effort to enhance their image, they are asking modestly scaled family farmers to pick up the tab for a program whose benefits will almost exclusively accrue to the corporation.”

Devaluing organic label

But the group says the biggest objection to Responsibly Grown is that it ends up devaluing in consumers' eyes the importance of the Certified Organic label.

Under the Whole Foods program, the group says conventionally grown produce, treated with toxic agrochemicals, can be rated higher than Certified Organic produce, which is grown under strict, legally enforced compliance overseen by the USDA.

It cites as an example photographs taken this spring at Whole Foods stores in California. Cornucopia says the photos show conventionally grown asparagus, imported from Mexico, priced at $4.99 per pound with signage identifying it as “Best.”

At the same time, the store had locally grown, Certified Organic asparagus for $7.99 per pound, which could only muster the stores’ lowest rating, “Good.”

Why pay more?

“Why would a customer pay $3 more per pound for the Certified Organic asparagus when they could buy what a trusted retailer has labeled Best?” asked Kastel.

Whole Foods introduced the Responsibly Grown ratings system last October as a tiered produce rating system that judges growing practices that impact human health and the environment.

“The new rating system labels fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers as good, better or best to help shoppers make more informed choices in the produce and floral departments, and it prohibits some of the most hazardous neurotoxins still allowed in agriculture,” the company said in its introduction.

But the Cornucopia Institute says it often comes down to money. Until an organic producer can pay to participate in the Responsibly Grown program, its produce is “unrated,” giving it the lower “good” rating.

“Now the Responsibly Grown program is attempting to put some of this conventional food on a pedestal higher than organic,” Kastel said.

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Feds enlist tax preparation industry to help combat fraud

Identity theft related to tax returns now the government's top consumer complaint

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is enlisting help from the tax preparation industry and state governments to clamp down on the growing plague of identit...

PhotoThe Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is enlisting help from the tax preparation industry and state governments to clamp down on the growing plague of identity theft-related tax fraud.

The current system is vulnerable to fraudsters who steal someone's Social Security number. With it he or she can file a made-up tax return, showing a refund due of several thousand dollars. Once the legitimate holder of that Social Security number gets around to filing a tax return, the IRS has already sent out a refund to the fraudster.

The IRS says it will work with representatives of tax preparation and software firms, payroll and tax financial product processors and state tax administrators. The strategy is aimed at finding ways to differentiate a real tax return from a fake one.

Sharing information

The challenge, of course, is identifying ways to do that. The IRS says it will probably hinge on increased sharing of information between the tax industry and government agencies.

"We've made tremendous progress, and we will continue these efforts,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. Taxpayers filing their tax returns next filing season should have a safer and more secure experience."

The parties involved have been working on a system over the last 12 weeks. Those involved say it will include important new ways to identify the person who is filing the tax return.

For example, there could be a review of how each return is submitted, looking for the improper or repetitive use of Internet Protocol numbers, the Internet ‘address’ from which the return is originating.

The system might also review computer device identification data tied to where the return originated and review the time required to complete a tax return, so computer mechanized fraud can be detected. The system might also be sensitive to metadata in the computer transaction that would allow the IRS to more easily isolate identity theft-related fraud.

Other aspects of the new system, officials say, will include greater information sharing among the states, the IRS and the tax preparation industry. The industry will share aggregated information about tax return filings with the IRS to help identify fraud.

Seamless process?

Ideally, implementing these changes would be a seamless process, a behind-the-scenes effort that won't impact the individual taxpayer. But anytime major changes are implemented in the tax system, it has the potential to slow things down in the next tax-filing season.

According to the IRS, many major system and process changes will be made this summer and fall with the goal of being ready for the 2016 filing season. The partners will also continue to work together to address longer-term issues facing the tax community and taxpayers.

The IRS does not publish numbers concerning tax fraud cases but has said the issue is an increasingly serious problem. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which tracks consumer complaints, has said identity theft-related tax fraud made up just 4.8% of total consumer complaints in 2005 but had surged to 32% of the total in 2014, making it the top category of consumer complaints.

To help taxpayers avoid falling victim to identity theft, the IRS has posted this guide on its website.

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It's never too late to switch careers

Firm offers free guidance to those who want to make a change

If you are in mid-career, it may have dawned on you by now that you'll probably have to work a lot more years than you anticipated before you can afford to...

PhotoIf you are in mid-career, it may have dawned on you by now that you'll probably have to work a lot more years than you anticipated before you can afford to retire.

If you love your job that could actually be good news. If you hate your job, the whole idea might make you depressed.

But that begs the question, if you hate your job, why don't you just do something else? Don't think you can? Well, plenty of other people are doing it.

Scientific approach

One organization is trying to make the process of job change a more scientific process, based on psychology, statistics and expert advice.

“We’ve seen reports stating people change jobs 11 times in their lifetimes, said Joseph Schmoke, founder and CEO at University Research & Review, an education start-up founded by former college administrators and professors. “It seems then that people should get better at making career change decisions as they go from job to job. Unfortunately, that’s obviously not the case.”

It's true that most job changes occur out of necessity. You get laid off or the company you work for goes out of business. Schmoke and his organization focus on voluntary job changes – how to pull them off and make them go smoothly.

Surprising data

University Research & Review started off advising clients who were thinking about going back to college, to finish a degree or get an advanced degree. But after analyzing the company’s data the firm found that a surprising percentage of users were interested in guidance about changing careers.

For example, a 50-year-old female had worked years in a family-owned business but it had recently been sold. She did not feel comfortable with the new owners but was concerned she was too old to change careers.

“I asked her if she was still breathing,” Schmoke said. “So we took her through our free process and advised her of careers that, based on a test we offer, suited her personality.”

University Research & Review is still primarily focused on helping students select the right college but Schmoke says the processes of selecting schools and and vocations have things in common. As for the reason employees want to change careers, he says they tend to be shared by people of all ages.

Reasons for switching careers

  • Career lacks in purpose and personal fulfillment;
  • Does not leave sufficient time for balance;
  • Educational and professional background does not match well;
  • The money is insufficient to properly care for self and loved ones; and
  • Consistent feelings of disrespect and dread from superiors.

Schmoke says people need to understand that a career where you are happy and valued is not just a pipe dream. University Research & Review's college guidance is free and so is its career advice.

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What kind of floor is best for your pet?

Vinyl may be the best solution for most pets

Pets are becoming a staple in homes; 68 percent of U.S. households own a pet, which equates to 82.5 million homes. In those 82.5 million homes, there are 8...

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Larry’s Custom Meats recalls beef tongue product

The product may have been shipped with lingual tonsils still attached

Larry’s Custom Meats of Hartwick, N.Y., is recalling approximately 529 pounds of beef tongue product. The product may have been shipped with lingual tonsi...

PhotoLarry’s Custom Meats of Hartwick, N.Y., is recalling approximately 529 pounds of beef tongue product.

 

The product may have been shipped with lingual tonsils still attached.

 

Lingual tonsil, located at the back of the base of the tongue, is a small mound of lymphatic tissue which is considered specified risk materials (SRMs) and must be removed from cattle in accordance with FSIS regulations.

 

SRMs are tissues that may contain the infective agent in cattle infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), as well as materials that are closely associated with these potentially infective tissues.

 

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

 

The following beef tongue item, produced between October 23, 2014 and June 12, 2015, is being recalled:

  • 1 ½ lb. packages of “Larry’s Custom Meats Inc. Beef Tongue.”

The recalled product bears the establishment number “EST. 40359” inside the USDA mark of inspection and was shipped to retail locations in New York and Pennsylvania.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Lawrence Althis at (607) 293-7927.

 

 

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House votes to repeal country of origin labeling

U.S. Senate and President Obama to have the final say

It's now up to the United States Senate and President Obama to determine whether the U.S. repeals its country of origin labeling law, known as COOL. As of...

PhotoIt's now up to the United States Senate and President Obama to determine whether the U.S. repeals its country of origin labeling law, known as COOL. As of now, it doesn't like either will ride to the rescue of the consumer-friendly law.

The House this week voted 300 to 131 to repeal the law that is the focus of an international trade controversy.

The law was part of the 2002 Farm Bill and was expanded to include some non-meat food products in 2008. It requires labels to tell consumers where beef, pork, fish, lamb and chicken came from.

Canada and Mexico objected, saying the U.S. law violates international trade agreements. Their appeal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) was upheld, allowing the two countries to impose retaliatory sanctions on U.S. exports if the law remained in place.

Swift reaction

The reaction on Capitol Hill was swift and fairly uniform across party lines. The threat of potential trade retaliation prompted the House Agriculture Committee to vote to repeal COOL within days of the WTO decision.

The Country of Origin Labeling Amendments Act, which repeals COOL, passed the full House with the backing of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX), who called the repeal a common sense measure.

“Two of our top trading partners announced earlier this month their intention to seek more than $3 billion in retaliatory sanctions against U.S. exports,” Conaway said. “This would extend far beyond the agriculture industry and would hurt nearly every sector of the U.S. economy.”

Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee’s Livestock and Foreign Agriculture Committee, was another yes vote, saying COOL was a law that harms U.S. beef, pork, and poultry producers, including in his state.

“California exports billions of dollars of commodities and manufactured goods to Canada and Mexico, many of which are produced in the San Joaquin Valley,” Costa said. “The tariff retaliations will cost California more than $1 billion, inflicting a devastating blow to the state’s economic well-being.”

Consumer groups unhappy

Consumer groups, which originally pushed for COOL and worked for its expansion, are incensed. Chris Waldrop, a spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), says Congress bowed to overblown threats of retaliation and repealed the pro-consumer legislation prematurely.

“In fact, the WTO process is still ongoing, as the WTO must determine the level of retaliation, if any, Canada and Mexico are allowed to impose on the U.S.,” Waldrop said. “That process will take several more months. Even then, the 3 countries could agree on a resolution to the issue before a single sanction is applied.”

Waldrop says U.S. consumers want more information about their food, not less. He cited a recent CFA poll that found that a large majority of Americans strongly support mandatory country of origin labeling for fresh meat.

Meanwhile, the repeal legislation now goes to the Senate. Should the Senate also pass the repeal, it would then be up to President Obama to decide whether or not to sign it. So far, the White House hasn't commented.

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Net neutrality rules in effect today

A federal appeals court panel rejected carriers' objections to new FCC rules

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has cleared the way for implementation of new net neutrality rules, allowing the rules to go into effect today...

PhotoA federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has cleared the way for implementation of new net neutrality rules, allowing the rules to go into effect today.

"The Internet is the most dynamic platform for free speech ever 
invented and our Internet economy is the envy of the world. Sustaining this platform, which keeps us innovative, fierce, and creative, should not be a choice – it should be an obligation," said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Federal Communications Commission member.

The new rules basically treat the Internet like a public utility and prohibit carriers from blocking or delaying traffic. The rules had been challenged by the United States Telecom Association, which represents AT&T, Verizon and other carriers.

The FCC voted 3-2 in February to enact the new rules which are intended to prevent carriers from favoring some content providers over others. Previous attempts by the FCC to enshrine the net neutrality principle were overturned by the courts and today's ruling by a three-judge appeals court panel is not likely to end the dispute.

The telecom association has already asked the court to speed up the proceedings and further hearings are a certainty.

The carriers are arguing that the FCC's rules are arbitrary and unnecessary. Consumer groups, however, contend that smaller content providers and future start-ups could be squished by onerous fees that might be imposed by the carriers at some future date. 

“The news today from the D.C. Circuit Court is clear: the Internet is open for business for everyone. I applaud the court for its decision to deny industry’s requested stay of the FCC’s Open Internet order," said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass). "Consumers, innovators, activists and entrepreneurs – anyone who counts on the Internet to connect with the world around them – will fully benefit from these essential net neutrality protections."

 

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Wholesale inflation on the rise in May

A spike in gasoline prices was a major factor

Following a decline the previous month, the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand shot up 0.5% in May. Still, according to the Labor Department (DOL)...

PhotoFollowing a decline the previous month, the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand shot up 0.5% in May. Still, according to the Labor Department (DOL), for the 12 months ended in May the PPI was down 1.1% -- the fourth straight 12-month decrease.

 

It was higher prices for final demand goods (+1.3%) that drove the increase as the index for final demand services was unchanged.

 

Goods and services

 

Eighty percent of the broad-based advance in goods is attributable to prices for energy, which jumped 5.9%, including a 17.0% surge in the cost of gasoline. In the overall goods sector, prices for diesel fuel, chicken eggs, jet fuel, pharmaceutical preparations and motor vehicles also moved higher. The costs of residential natural gas, hay, hayseeds and oilseeds, and for primary basic organic chemicals also were lower.

 

As far as services are concerned, the prices of food and alcohol retailing, apparel, jewelry, footwear, and accessories retailing; television, video, and photographic equipment and supplies retailing; inpatient care; and residential real estate services posted gains. Prices for services related to securities

brokerage and dealing; machinery and equipment wholesaling; loan services; health, beauty and optical goods retailing; and wireless telecommunication services were lower.

 

The "core" PPI, which strips out the volatile food, energy, and trade services categories, edged down 0.1% in May. For the 12 months ended in May, the core rate was up 0.6%.

 

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

 

 

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FAA proposes stiff fine against Mexico-based Volaris

The carrier is accused of not meeting numerous maintenance requirements

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is accusing Volaris of Mexico City, Mexico, of operating an aircraft that was not in compliance with Federal Avia...

PhotoThe Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is accusing Volaris of Mexico City, Mexico, of operating an aircraft that was not in compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations.

 

The agency, which has proposed a $735,000 civil penalty, claims that on March 12, 2013, Volaris returned a U.S.-registered Airbus A319 to service after performing a heavy maintenance inspection.

 

Numerous violations alleged

 

During that inspection, mechanics allegedly failed to ensure that certain safety tasks related to the heavy maintenance underwent required inspections according to Volaris’ maintenance manual. These included removing and replacing an emergency slide, verifying that ailerons were properly rigged, and verifying the aircraft’s weight and balance calculations.

 

On March 19 after reviewing the carrier’s maintenance records, FAA inspectors told the company the required inspections had not been done. On March 27, Volaris allegedly performed the required inspections on the slide and aileron tasks, but not the weight and balance calculation.

 

On April 4, a subsequent FAA inspection found that Volaris allegedly still had failed to complete the inspection of the weight and balance calculations. Additionally, the inspection found the company had allegedly failed to perform the required inspections for two additional tasks related to the heavy maintenance: a right wing slat seal edge replacement and a nose landing gear spring nut replacement.

 

According to the agency, Volaris then flew the aircraft on a total of 121 passenger flights before bringing the aircraft into compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations.

 

“Safety must be the top priority of everybody in the aviation industry,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “The traveling public relies on airlines to ensure that airplanes are properly maintained, which includes paying close attention to all maintenance requirements.”

 

Volaris has 30 days from receipt of the FAA’s enforcement letter to respond to the agency.

 

 

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Study finds daily aspirin can block breast cancer growth

A similar effect was previously found in other types of cancer

Aspirin is good for a lot of things. But who would have thought a daily aspirin could block breast tumor growth? That's the finding of a lab study being pu...

PhotoAspirin is good for a lot of things. But who would have thought a daily aspirin could block breast tumor growth? That's the finding of a lab study being published in the July 2015 issue of Laboratory Investigation.

Previous studies have shown a similar effect on colon, gastrointestinal, prostate, and other cancers.

The trick, says Dr. Sushanta Banerjee, research director of the Cancer Research Unit at the Kansas City, Mo. Veterans Affairs Medical Center, is to ensure conditions around cancer stem cells aren't conducive for reproduction, something aspirin seems able to do.

"In cancer, when you treat the patient, initially the tumor will hopefully shrink," says Banerjee. "The problem comes 5 or 10 years down the road when the disease relapses."

Cancer has stem cells, or residual cells. They can survive chemotherapy or other cancer treatment and go dormant until conditions in the body are more favorable for them to again reproduce. "When they reappear they can be very aggressive, nasty tumors," Banerjee says.

Study details

To test his theory that aspirin could alter the molecular signature in breast cancer cells enough that they wouldn't spread, Banerjee used both incubated cells and mouse models.

For the cell test, breast cancer cells were placed in 96 separate plates and then incubated. Just over half the cultures were exposed to differing doses of acetylsalicylic acid, commonly known as aspirin.

According to Banerjee, exposure to aspirin dramatically increased the rate of cell death in the test. For those cells that did not die off, many were left unable to grow.

The second part of his study involved studying 20 mice with aggressive tumors. For 15 days, half the mice were given the human equivalent of 75 milligrams of aspirin per day, which is considered a low dose. At the end of the study period, the tumors were weighed. Mice that received aspirin had tumors that were, on average, 47 percent smaller.

To show that aspirin could also prevent cancer, the researchers gave an additional group of mice aspirin for 10 days before exposing them to cancer cells.

After 15 days, those mice had significantly less cancerous growth than the control group.

"We found aspirin caused these residual cancer cells to lose their self-renewal properties," says Banerjee. "Basically, they couldn't grow or reproduce. So there are two parts here. We could give aspirin after chemotherapy to prevent relapse and keep the pressure on, which we saw was effective in both the laboratory and the mouse model, and we could use it preventatively."

Experts suggest patients consult with a doctor before starting a daily aspirin regimen. The drug is known to thin the blood and increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding.

"Of course there is a risk," says Banerjee, "but you have to weigh that against the risks of cancer. It's true this is relatively new and we don't know all the side effects yet, but this was a very low dose."

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Crowdfunding campaign financed founder's high life, feds charge

Consumers invested in a game but it turned out it was all just a game

Venture capitalists say investing in start-up businesses is often like throwing money out the window. And crowdfunding? That's often like setting your mone...

PhotoVenture capitalists say investing in start-up businesses is often like throwing money out the window. And crowdfunding? That's often like setting your money on fire.  

The Federal Trade Commission has just wound up its first case against the deceptive tactics of a project creator who raised money to produce a board game through a Kickstarter campaign, but instead used most of the funds on himself.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Erik Chevalier, also doing business as The Forking Path Co., sought money from consumers to produce a board game called "The Doom That Came to Atlantic City" that had been created by two prominent board game artists.

“Many consumers enjoy the opportunity to take part in the development of a product or service through crowdfunding, and they generally know there’s some uncertainty involved in helping start something new,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But consumers should be able to trust their money will actually be spent on the project they funded.”

Doomed from the start?

According to the FTC’s complaint, Chevalier represented in his Doom campaign on Kickstarter.com that if he raised $35,000, backers would get certain rewards, such as a copy of the game or specially designed pewter game figurines.  

He raised more than $122,000 from 1,246 backers, most of whom pledged $75 or more in the hopes of getting the highly prized figurines.  He represented in a number of updates that he was making progress on the game. But after 14 months, Chevalier announced that he was cancelling the project and refunding his backers’ money.

Despite Chevalier’s promises he did not provide the rewards, nor did he provide refunds to his backers. In fact, according to the FTC’s complaint, Chevalier spent most of the money on unrelated personal expenses such as rent, moving himself to Oregon, personal equipment, and licenses for a different project.

Under the settlement order, Chevalier is prohibited from making misrepresentations about any crowdfunding campaign and from failing to honor stated refund policies. He is also barred from disclosing or otherwise benefiting from customers’ personal information, and failing to dispose of such information properly.

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Going away? Stage your home

The lived-in look protects against burglaries, intrusions

The summer months are the most opportune time for criminals to invade your home. Many homeowners take vacations in the summer months, and it only take a cu...

PhotoThe summer months are the most opportune time for criminals to invade your home. Many homeowners take vacations in the summer months, and it only take a cursory inspection to ascertain whether someone is just running errand, or if they are away from home for an extended period.

Even if you are home, there is no guarantee that you will not be a victim of a home invasion. Although you can’t prevent all thefts from occurring, there are some things you can do to make your home safer.

Below you will find several things you can do to protect your home and family from home invasions. The list is adapted from the National Crime Prevention Council.

-       Install light timers in your home. These can make it appear that someone is in the house when there actually isn’t.

-       Install outdoor lights so that your property is lit up at night. This is the most convenient time for robberies to occur, so taking away the advantage of darkness can make all the difference.

-       Plan your landscaping so that it gives maximum visibility of your property. Taking away the areas where a burglar can hide is extremely important.

-       Cut any tree limbs back away from your home so that there is no easy access through windows or balconies.

-       Make sure you have good locks on all of your windows and doors. It is one of your greatest lines of defense for protecting your home.

-       Place a piece of wood or another type of block to secure sliding glass doors. These are especially easy to break into.

-       Install a home security alarm and arm it when you are not home. This will alert the authorities to any activities that happen while you are away.

-       Do not let mail or newspapers accumulate in front of your house. This is an easy sign for burglars to recognize that no one is home.

-       Call your local police and ask them to patrol your neighborhood if you are going on an extended vacation. The extra security is a big deterrent for criminals.

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Statistics, victims of burglary offenses suffered an estimated $4.9 billion dollars in lost property in 2011. Do not let your home become a part of this horrible statistic. With a few extra precautions, you can make sure your home and family are safe. 

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Accepted Alzheimer's prevention tools have their limits

Remaining active doesn't alter biological markers, study finds

For years doctors have advised older adults to remain physically and mentally active, to reduce the likelihood of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It's ...

PhotoFor years doctors have advised older adults to remain physically and mentally active, to reduce the likelihood of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

It's still good advice, researchers say, but if you have the underlying markers for the disease, there are limits to its effectiveness.

“While a lifelong history of physical and mental activity may support better memory and thinking performance, this relationship may possibly be separate from any protection against the markers of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain,” said study author Keith A. Johnson, MD, with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, followed older adults who had different levels of lifelong physical and mental activity. The most active engaged in things like bike riding, dancing, walking and gardening and mentally stimulating activities such as crosswords and reading. Make no mistake, those activities help.

Significantly higher IQs

The study participants took tests of their thinking and mental abilities. Results showed that participants who took part in stimulating cognitive activities had significantly higher IQ and better cognitive performance compared those who did not take part in mentally stimulating activities very often.

But there was no relationship between frequent mental or physical activity and any of the markers of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain.

“This suggests that sustaining a lifetime of intellectual engagement may help preserve cognitive function into old age,” said Johnson. “In addition, our findings should not discourage people from engaging in physically and mentally stimulating activities, as they have been shown in numerous studies to generally offer many brain benefits.”

In fact, the National Institute on Aging, which partially funded the study, says scientists continue to study other non-genetic risk factors for Alzheimer's, and continue to stress the importance of both physical and mental stimulation, along with social engagement and a nutritious diet, to delay the onset of the disease.

Other possible links

The Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), says scientists are also investigating associations between cognitive decline and heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

“Understanding these relationships and testing them in clinical trials will help us understand whether reducing risk factors for these diseases may help with Alzheimer's as well,” the agency says on its website.

The Alzheimer's Association, which also funded the Harvard study, still stresses that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

"The research on cognitive decline is still evolving," said Angela Geiger, chief strategy officer, Alzheimer's Association. "But there are actions people can take. Certain healthy behaviors known to combat cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes may also reduce the risk of cognitive decline.”

And those activities, says Geiger, include staying mentally active, engaging in regular physical activity and eating a heart-healthy diet that benefits both body and brain. She says there is also some evidence people may benefit from staying socially engaged with friends, family and the community.

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Airlines improve on-time arrival and cancellation rates

Not many folks were left stranded on the tarmac, either

Traveling by air was a little less aggravating in April. According to the Transportation Department's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, the nation’s large...

PhotoTraveling by air was a little less aggravating in April.

 

According to the Transportation Department's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, the nation’s largest airlines posted an on-time arrival rate of 81.8% in April, an improvement from both the 79.6% on-time rate in April 2014 and previous month's 78.7% mark.

 

At the same time, the carriers reported canceling just 0.9% of their scheduled domestic flights compared with 1.1% a year earlier and 2.2% in March.

 

Perhaps best of all, there was just 1 tarmac delay of more than 3 hours on a domestic flights and no tarmac delay of more than 4 hours on international flights. DOT is looking into the circumstances surrounding the delay that was reported.

 

The consumer report also includes information on chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, statistics on mishandled baggage reports and consumer service, disability, and discrimination complaints received by DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

 

Additionally, there are reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of animals traveling by air.

 

The full report is available on the DOT website

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Garden-Fresh Foods recalls potato salad

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Garden-Fresh Foods is recalling its Garden Fresh Steakhouse Potato Salad potato salad sold at Jewel food stores. The product may be contaminated with List...

PhotoGarden-Fresh Foods is recalling its Garden Fresh Steakhouse Potato Salad potato salad sold at Jewel food stores.

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

There are no reported illnesses associated with the recalled product.

 

The product was distributed to Jewel stores in the Chicago area and may have been sold at delicatessen counters between May 30 and June 9 under the brand name Garden Fresh Steakhouse Potato Salad.

 

No other Garden-Fresh products and no other potato salad sold in the delis at Jewel are involved in this recall.

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should dispose of the product immediately or return it to their local store for a refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact Garden-Fresh Foods by email at information@gardenfreshfoods.com or by calling 1-414-204-4611 Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., CT.

 

 

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Ramart recalls swing chairs

The swing chairs can tip over

Ramart LLC, of Tulsa, Okla., is recalling about 250 swing chairs. The swing chairs can tip over, posing a fall hazard to consumers. The company has recei...

PhotoRamart LLC, of Tulsa, Okla., is recalling about 250 swing chairs.

 

The swing chairs can tip over, posing a fall hazard to consumers.

 

The company has received 11 reports of the swing chairs tipping over with consumers in them, including 4 reports of injuries to adults and a baby.

 

This recall involves green, apple-shaped swing chairs and brown, teardrop-shaped swing chairs. They hang from a chain connected to a metal stand with a circle-shaped base. The chairs are made from plastic rattan and have red cushions. The chairs measure about 42 inches in diameter and 43 inches tall with a 48 inch wide seat cushion. The stand measures about 77 inches tall.

 

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at HomeGoods stores nationwide from March 2015, through May 2015, for about $400.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled swing chairs and return them to a HomeGoods store for a full refund.

 

Consumers may contact HomeGoods at (800) 888-0776 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., ET, Monday through Friday.

 

 

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Wealth Index begins to favor renting over buying

But only if renters invest the money they would have used for a down payment

It is now cheaper to buy a house and make monthly mortgage payments than it is to pay rent. In some markets, that is. But if you are still renting, don'...

PhotoIt is now cheaper to buy a house and make monthly mortgage payments than it is to pay rent. In some markets, that is.

But if you are still renting, don't feel bad. A quarterly index produced by Florida Atlantic and Florida International universities measures how owning or renting affects wealth accumulation. It concludes it's becoming more favorable for renters.

The Beracha, Hardin & Johnson Buy vs. Rent (BH&J) Index attempts to answer one of the toughest questions American consumers face: is it better to rent or buy a home in today’s housing market?

But instead of looking at the question strictly from a cash flow standpoint – whether a mortgage payment or rent payment is lower – the BH&J Index looks at how the two scenarios affect someone's net worth.

23 key cities

The index examines the entire housing market and isolates the markets of 23 key cities.

According to the researchers, as of the end of the first quarter of 2015, the housing market in the U.S. and all cities in the index are trending either closer to renting being the better option or strictly favoring renting over purchasing a home.

For example, if you live in Dallas, Denver or Houston, you're clearly better off renting, with property pricing out-pacing rents, meaning buyers must tie up more of their assets.

“Potential buyers should be cognizant that ‘the deals’ are out of the marketplace and that it is essentially a tossup between rent and ownership as to which way will, on average, provide greater wealth accumulation,” said Ken Johnson, a real estate economist who is one of the index’s authors and an associate dean of graduate programs and professor in FAU’s College of Business. “Miami, in particular, deserves attention as it has been trending toward rent territory for several reporting periods. In Miami, potential buyers should seek to bargain more aggressively.”

In other words, don't be too quick to offer the asking price.

On the bubble

Seven cities – Miami, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle – are on the bubble. The Index has them at or near the balance point between ownership and renting.

In other words, in these cities the spread between monthly rent payments and ownership payments appears to be at a point where neither ownership nor renting is statistically favored.

Midwest still favors buying

There are four Midwestern cities – Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit – that remain in strong buy territory. Their Index scores have historically favored wealth accumulation through home ownership.

An important distinction should be noted. The Index assumes that a consumer who rents will take the money that would have been used for a purchase down payment and to pay for maintenance and invest it. Assuming a normal return on investment, the Index determines that paying a higher rent than comparable mortgage payment is better if the resulting investments grow faster than equity in the home.

However, for renting to be a faster wealth-builder, the renter must also be willing to invest his or her money -- not spend it on entertainment and consumer goods. Admittedly, not every renter falls into that category.

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New York attorney general questions PayPal and eBay robocall mandates

The two companies' new user agreements are so offensive, they might even be illegal

Last week eBay and PayPal both announced some upcoming changes to their user agreements, changes indicating such breathtaking contempt for their customers'...

PhotoLast week eBay and PayPal both announced some upcoming changes to their user agreements, changes indicating such breathtaking contempt for their customers' preferences and privacy, it might (hopefully) be illegal for the companies to put those policies into effect.

This week, the New York State Attorney General's office sent letters to both eBay and PayPal, expressing concern that their proposed new policies might violate a number of state or federal regulations, including the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Otherwise, the eBay policy changes are scheduled to come into force on June 15, and PayPal's on July 1. And those changes basically say that the company reserves the right to plague customers with robocalls and text messages for any reason.

"Otherwise obtained"

Check out this excerpt from PayPal's revised rules regarding mobile telephone numbers (bold print emphasis added):

You consent to receive autodialed or prerecorded calls and text messages from PayPal at any telephone number that you have provided us or that we have otherwise obtained.  We may place such calls or texts to (i) notify you regarding your account; (ii) troubleshoot problems with your account (iii) resolve a dispute; (iv) collect a debt; (v) poll your opinions through surveys or questionnaires, (vii) contact you with offers and promotions; or (viii) as otherwise necessary to service your account or enforce this User Agreement, our policies, applicable law, or any other agreement we may have with you.

Translation: PayPal reserves the right to call you for any reason it wants, at any number they can find for you whether you voluntarily gave them the number or not.

The ways in which you provide us a telephone number include, but are not limited to, providing a telephone number at Account opening, adding a telephone number to your Account at a later time, providing it to one of our employees, or by contacting us from that phone number. If a telephone number provided to us is a mobile telephone number, you consent to receive SMS or text messages at that number. … Standard telephone minute and text charges may apply if we contact you.

Spam outreach

PhotoSo if you so much as call them from your own phone, they reserve the right to bombard that phone with unwanted calls, SMS or text messages henceforth, and you're responsible for any costs of their phone calls or text messages. (On a limited data plan? You might have to pay for an upgrade, to ensure PayPal's self-serving spam outreach program doesn't exceed your limit.)

And if you don't want to be pestered by, let alone pay extra for, promotional calls or advertising texts, what can you do about it?

If you do not agree to these amended terms, you may close your account within the 30 day period and you will not be bound by the amended terms.

Translation: take it or leave it.

So this week, the New York attorney general's office sent separate letters (available as Wall Street Journal .pdfs here and here ) to eBay and PayPal. Kathleen McGee, the Internet Bureau Chief for the New York AG's office, signed the letters, which criticized the mandatory robocalls policy on various grounds:

This practice raises issues under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, and implicates whether the customer actually consented to such calls in light of its inconspicuous disclosure in a dense 12-page user agreement. It is also inconsistent with consumers’ aversion to this invasive form of marketing and the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission’s recent efforts to limit their use. The FCC received over 215,000 complaints about this issue in 2014 alone.

That quote was from the letter to eBay; the PayPal letter says the same thing, except the “12-page user agreement” is a “20-page user agreement” instead.

McGee also criticized the “like it or leave it” choice as being no choice at all: “Additionally, without any way to opt-out of the communications, customers can either agree to the new policies in their entirety or stop using the service completely. In other words, customers must accept automated marketing calls, emails and text messages or close their account.”

This might work for some companies, but in light of eBay and PayPal's “dominant market position” in their respective fields (online auctions and online payment systems), “it is unclear whether consumers really have a choice at all.”

A PayPal representative told Reuters that the company had indeed received McGee's letter and would respond to it, and also said that PayPal customers could choose not to receive robocalls.

Representatives for eBay, however, “did not immediately respond” to requests for comment.

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Are you in danger of losing your job to a robot?

Robots will become viable alternative to human work force, report warns

Some really smart people have warned that humans are playing with fire when they develop more advanced machines and robots. Scientist Stephen Hawking says...

PhotoSome really smart people have warned that humans are playing with fire when they develop more advanced machines and robots. Scientist Stephen Hawking says developing full artificial intelligence (AI) “could spell the end of the human race.” Entrepreneur Elon Musk says AI is “our biggest existential threat.”

But these warnings have done little to slow the rapid pace of AI development. Wired magazine reports a British supermarket chain is developing humanoid robots that may be able to understand and help humans in real time.

Rise of the robots

Should people with jobs be concerned about the rise of robots? After all, you don't have to pay these guys overtime. In fact, you don't have to pay them at all.

“As smart machines become increasingly capable, they will become viable alternatives to human workers under certain circumstances, which will lead to significant repercussions for the business and thus for CIOs (chief investment officers),” said Stephen Prentice, vice president and Gartner Fellow.

A new report from Gartner, Inc., suggests the business world has already taken notice of this emerging trend. The community is divided, the report finds, between those who welcome the trend and those who are worried about what it means to the human work force.

As we have previously reported, robots have been deployed for years in one form or another. Robots not only help put vehicles together on the auto assembly line, they help consumers check out faster at the supermarket.

Widely deployed in multiple roles

“As smart machines become more capable, and more affordable, they will be more widely deployed in multiple roles across many industries, replacing some human workers. This is nothing new,” Prentice said. “The deployment of new technology has eliminated millions of jobs over the course of history.”

But the report also notes that new technologies have also produced millions of new jobs over that time. Prentice says the issue isn't exactly cut and dried.

“Organizations must balance the necessity to exploit the significant advances being made in the capabilities of various smart machines with the perceived negative impact of resulting job losses,” he said.

“Unstoppable”

Over the next five years, the report predicts that smart machines will start making more key business decisions, leading some to fear that they may become “unstoppable” or run out of control. Prentice, for one, doesn't seem that worried.

“Within the confines of currently known technology, the idea of machines attaining some level of ’self-awareness,’ ’consciousness’ or ’sentience’ is still the stuff of science fiction,” he said. “Even with the coming generation of smart machines, which actively ’learn’ and will be able to adapt their actions to optimize their progress toward a goal, humans can choose to remain in control.”

That's a way of saying managers' jobs are relatively safe, even if the rank and file perhaps should be looking over their shoulders.

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Retail point-of-sale hacking affects winery customers in northern California

Transaction data stolen from April 2015

Oenophiles be warned: hackers have apparently breached security and managed to steal customer payment-card data from Missing Link Networks, Inc., a card pr...

PhotoOenophiles be warned: hackers have apparently breached security and managed to steal customer payment-card data from Missing Link Networks, Inc., a card processor and point-of-sale (POS) vendor serving a number of wineries primarily in northern California.

The hackers were able to steal information about payment card transactions during the month of April 2015.

Security expert Brian Krebs first investigated such claims earlier this week, when one of his sources at an unnamed Sonoma winery told him that the winery's POS processor, provided by Missing Link, had been breached. Today, Missing Link CEO and founder Paul Thienes released a statement confirming the problem:

Beginning on May 27, 2015, we began notifying our winery customers that eCellar Systems, our consumer-direct sales platform, had been breached during the month of April, 2015 by an unknown intruder. To that end, each of our winery clients will be sending out notice of this event to their customers and it is likely that individual consumers may receive a similar notice from multiple wineries.

Anytime you hear about a single hacking incident affecting many different businesses (such as wineries) rather than a single company, that usually indicates a POS rather than a database breach. Rather than break into a company's database to steal whatever information might be in its computer files, the hackers will somehow manage to plant malware on the point-of-sale systems that handle electronic payments, and can then steal whatever information is used to conduct further transactions on the affected systems.

Think of it as the business-payment-systems equivalent of keylogging malware on a regular computer: it can't read your previously saved files, but it does read and record everything you type from the point of infection onward.

Regarding the POS breach at Missing Link Networks, Thienes went on to say that the hackers “gained access to customer names, credit/debit card numbers, the related billing addresses, and any dates of birth in our system during the window of April 1st through 30th this year,” but “did not have access to any driver license numbers, Social Security numbers, CVV verification numbers, or PIN numbers (data which we would typically not collect anyway).”

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Consumer and manufacturing groups fight to save COOL

Congress urged not to repeal the Country of Origin Labeling law

In the past nothing could dampen cocktail party chatter faster than bringing up some world trade issue. Then along came Ross Perot warning of a “giant suck...

PhotoIn the past nothing could dampen cocktail party chatter faster than bringing up some world trade issue. Then along came Ross Perot warning of a “giant sucking sound” from Mexico if the U.S. approved NAFTA and American manufacturers headed south of the border, taking with them millions of America jobs.

Today trade issues are among the hottest political issues in Washington. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the latest trade deal on the table, dividing the Democratic Party and making strange bedfellows of President Obama and Senate Republicans, who are pushing for the deal.

Adding to the confusion, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a leading opponent of TPP, finds herself on the same side of the issue with some right-wing talk show hosts, who share her strong opposition.

One issue is jobs. There are fears that lowering trade barriers will mean U.S. workers will be competing with much cheaper labor in Asia. Erosion of national sovereignty is another concern for some, who see U.S. laws taking a backseat to international consensus.

In fact, there's growing concern about the latter issue.

Push back

When the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled last month that America's country or origin labeling (COOL) law violates international trade agreements and must be changed, it struck a nerve. Congress passed the law in 2002 and expanded it in 2008, to give consumers information about where certain agricultural products, in this case fresh meat, came from. Congress is now considering legislation to repeal the law.

That doesn't sit well with Joel Joseph, Chairman of the Made in the USA Foundation. Joseph claims the WTO is basically a secret organization with hand-picked delegates from around the world. It does not promote U.S. interests, he argues.

“WTO decisions make a mockery of U.S. and European laws designed to protect the health of consumers and the environment,” Joseph said in a statement. The WTO is unfair, unethical and undemocratic and needs to be overhauled.”

Canada and Mexico, the U.S.'s NAFTA trading partners, brought the complaint before the WTO, claiming COOL is an illegal restraint to free trade. The WTO ruled in favor of the complaint, meaning Canada and Mexico may impose punitive tariffs on U.S. products if COOL remains unchanged.

Conflict of interest

Joseph charges the WTO ruling is tainted, claiming that 1 of the 3 judges appointed to decide the matter is Recardo Ramírez-Hernández, a Mexican citizen who Joseph says has represented Mexico on trade matters.

“Even with a biased group, the WTO appellate panel recognized that the COOL measure is an internal measure of the United States, as opposed to a customs or border measure,” Joseph said.

And as Joseph points out, the law requires retailers in the United States to affix labels providing country of origin information on certain products, regardless of whether the products are imported or domestically produced.

Joseph is hardly alone in his defense of COOL. A coalition of 283 farm, rural, consumer, manufacturer, labor, faith and environmental groups from across the U.S. has called for Congress to refrain from repealing the consumer legislation.

“If Congress repeals COOL, then the next time consumers go shopping for a steak or chicken for their families, they won’t be able to tell where that product came from,” said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “That's completely unacceptable. Consumers want more information about their food, not less.”

Joseph says the U.S. should withdrawal from the WTO, something that is highly unlikely. Still, it points to the passions trade issues now arouse and suggest an increasingly difficult path for future trade deals, including TPP.

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Walgreens vitamins recalled

The packaging is not child-resistant and senior friendly

International Vitamin Corporation (IVC) of Freehold, N.J., is recalling about 17,000 containers of Multivitamin Women 50+ tablets The packaging is not ch...

PhotoInternational Vitamin Corporation (IVC) of Freehold, N.J., is recalling about 17,000 containers of Multivitamin Women 50+ tablets

 

The packaging is not child-resistant and senior friendly as required by the Poison Prevention Packaging Act. The tablets inside the bottle contain iron, which can cause serious injury or death to young children if multiple tablets are ingested at once.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves “Well at Walgreens” Multivitamin Women 50+ tablets. The white plastic bottles contain 200 multivitamin tablets. “Well at Walgreens Multivitamin Women 50+” is printed on the bottle’s white and silver label. A yellow band at the top of the label states “Value Size.”

 

UPC number 3-11917-17262-0 and one of the following lot numbers -- 000001 (EXP 9/2016), 000002 (EXP 12/2016) or 000003 (EXP 11/2016) -- are printed on the back of the bottles on a white label.

 

The vitamins, manufactured in the U.S., were sold exclusively at Walgreens drug stores nationwide from January 2015, through March 2015, for about $16.

 

Consumers should immediately place recalled bottles out of the reach of children and contact International Vitamin for a free replacement child-resistant cap.

 

Consumers may contact International Vitamin Corp. toll-free at (866) 927-5470 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., ET, Monday through Friday.

 

 

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Natural Grocers expands recall of Macadamia nuts

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is expanding its last month's recall of Natural Grocers brand Macadamia Nuts. The product may be ...

PhotoVitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is expanding its last month's recall of Natural Grocers brand Macadamia Nuts.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

There are no reports of illness

 

The following product, packaged in clear plastic bags with Natural Grocers label, is being added to the list of products previously recalled:

 

UPC CodeDescriptionPacked on Dates
000080657552Raw Macadamia Nuts 10 oz.14-328, 14-337, 14-360, 14-365, 15-020, 15-041, 15-056, 15-077, 15-090, 15-104, 15-127

 

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

 

The recalled product was distributed to Natural Grocers’ 97 stores located in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

 

Customers who purchased this product should return it to the store for credit or refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at (303) 986-4600, ext. 531, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (MST).

 

 

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Study: 50 hospitals mark-up their medical costs 1000%

Another study shows doctors routinely order unnecessary tests

Two new studies suggest some reasons why U.S. consumers face increasingly high health care costs.One study found that some hospitals are marking up cos...

PhotoTwo new studies suggest some reasons why U.S. consumers face increasingly high health care costs.

One study found that some hospitals are marking up costs as much as 1,000%. Another found that expensive but unnecessary medical tests are routinely being ordered.

Gerard F. Anderson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Ge Bai of Washington & Lee University took a close look at how hospitals mark up and pass on their costs.

They discovered 50 U.S. hospitals with what they say is the highest markup of prices over their actual costs. Their research shows these hospitals are charging out-of-network patients and the uninsured, as well as well as some insurers, more than 10 times the costs allowed by Medicare.

It's a stunning markup of more than 1,000% for the same medical services.

No regulation or competition

The researchers blame a combination of a lack of regulation of hospital charges in the U.S. and no market competition for what they term “price-gouging” that trickles down to nearly all consumers, whether they have health insurance or not.

“There is no justification for these outrageous rates but no one tells hospitals they can’t charge them,” said Anderson, a professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management. “For the most part, there is no regulation of hospital rates and there are no market forces that force hospitals to lower their rates. They charge these prices simply because they can.”

Anderson and Bai looked at the 2012 Medicare cost reports from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to determine a charge-to-cost ratio, which indicates how much hospitals are marking up charges beyond what Medicare agrees to pay for.

The 50 hospitals, they found, charged an average of more than 10 times the Medicare-allowed costs. Then again, nearly all hospitals treat themselves to a pretty generous profit margin on their costs. The average U.S. hospital marked-up costs 3.4 times the Medicare-allowable cost in 2012.

In other words, when a hospital paid $100 of Medicare-allowable costs, it turned around and charged $340.

Of the 50 hospitals with the highest mark-ups, 49 are for-profit hospitals and 46 are owned by for-profit health systems. One company in particular, Community Health Systems, Inc., operates 25 of the 50 hospitals on the list. Needless to say, it's a highly profitable publicly traded company, earning $2.45 a share, according to Yahoo Finance.

See a list of the 50 hospitals here.

Expensive tests

A second study looks at the continued prevalence of now-discouraged pre-operative medical tests. Despite the fact these tests have fallen out of favor with professional physician associations, researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center say they are routinely ordered for elective surgery.

“Our findings suggest that professional guidance aimed at improving quality and reducing waste has had little effect on physician or hospital practice,” said Dr. Alana E. Sigmund, the lead investigator.

Among the tests that continue to be ordered are plain radiography, or x-rays done without contrast; hematocrit, or the measurement of the percentage of red blood cells; urinalysis, and cardiac stress testing.

The costs of the tests add up, considering 30 million Americans undergo surgery each year, and 60% of patients undergo ambulatory procedure, performed on an outpatient basis.

“While it’s important to ensure patients can safely undergo surgical procedures, many of these procedures are low-risk, and the tests rarely improve patient management,” said Dr. Joseph Ladapo, senior investigator on the study.

Ladapo doesn't attribute the continued testing to bill padding, but rather a hold-over from outdated residency training. Still, huge hospital mark-ups and unnecessary tests shed some light on fast-rising health care costs.

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Travel report suggests plenty of bargains for rest of 2015

Strong dollar isn't the only thing boosting savings

With a very strong dollar U.S. consumers have found travel around the world isn't as expensive as it used to be.A new analysis of global travel, by Exp...

PhotoWith a very strong dollar U.S. consumers have found travel around the world isn't as expensive as it used to be.

A new analysis of global travel, by Expedia and Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC), suggests that money-saving trend will continue for the rest of 2015. even extending to many U.S. destinations.

Specifically, the report analyzes average ticket price fluctuations on key international routes, travel demand and package growth savings opportunities and the impact of foreign exchange on air travel and how long travelers are staying on vacation.

At the beginning of the year, the two companies predicted international air fares would decline 2% across North America and Europe and 7% across Asia, a prediction they say has been borne out in the first half of the year.

How much you can save

How's the rest of the year shaping up? The report says the deals will get better. Specifically, it predicts travelers can save:

  • 22% on airfare from Malaysia to Australia
  • 22% on airfare from Italy to Portugal
  • 17% on air fare from Brazil to the U.S.
  • 17% on air fare from Spain to Thailand
  • 16% on air fare from Germany to Portugal
  • 16% on air fare from Japan to France
  • 15% on air fare from the U.S. to Dubai

The report also predicts that travelers who bundle will save even more. It notes that by bundling, travel suppliers have more flexibility on the rate offered and will offer better deals to achieve a competitive advantage.

"An analysis of air industry data suggests that, with smart planning, the second half of this year will be an optimal time to explore the world," said Greg Schulze, senior vice president Expedia Global Tour & Transport.

Airlines are adding seats

Chuck Thackston, managing director of enterprise information management at ARC, says travelers are benefiting as airlines modernize their fleets and add seats. That, he says, is resulting in lower average ticket prices, especially for North America and Europe.

"This additional capacity, plus other factors reported by Expedia such as length of stay and dynamic currency valuations, provides a great opportunity for travel deals this year," Thackston said.

After crunching the numbers, the report predicts travelers who bundle and travel between June and September will save up to $648 across all destinations.

Destinations offering best deals

For certain destinations, package savings for 2015 can be even greater. For example, travelers to London can save $1,424, or 30%. A trip to Maui, Hawaii will by 22% off, saving over $1,000. Travel to Paris should be 24% cheaper, saving $1,058.

Within the continental U.S., the report predicts you can save 23% on travel to San Diego, 22% on travel to Las Vegas and 20% on travel to Orlando.

When the report analyzed length of stay (LOS) for travelers, it found travelers on flights originating in the U.S. had the shortest LOS of all. The authors suggest that means – despite the strong dollar that makes exploring the world cheaper – U.S. consumers are opting to travel domestically on short trips.

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Your dog can make waves but don't let him drink them

Dogs can pick up dangerous diseases by drinking lake or salt water

It's summer and who doesn’t love to take their dog fishing or just hanging out by the lake? A dog beach is wonderful too but watch your dog carefully so he...

PhotoIt's summer and who doesn’t love to take their dog fishing or just hanging out by the lake? A dog beach is wonderful too but watch your dog carefully so he doesn't lap up the water in the lake or drink a huge gulp of salt water from the ocean.

You have to be so careful because lakes and waterways contain organisms and chemicals that can be harmful to your dog, some of which can put you at risk for zoonotic disease as well. A zoonotic disease is a disease that can be passed between animals and humans. Zoonotic diseases can be caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi.

Salmonella can be spread through water as well. Water that’s contaminated with animal or human waste can contain microscopic bacteria, including species of salmonella, campylobacter, Escherichia coli and Leptospira .  If it’s not good enough for you to drink it’s not good enough for your dog.

Best case

If it doesn’t hit your dog too hard the bacterial infection at its lowest point would create diarrhea. You can imagine what a full blown effect would be like. Some of these infections can be in the stools and then if you pick it up and don’t wash your hands it can be transmitted to you.

Leptospira is not something that you want to mess around with. It thrives in areas like muddy marsh waters or stagnant waters. It can be very hazardous to your dog and create an infection, which can can result in liver or kidney damage and death. There is a vaccine for Leptospira. Ask your vet about it.

Watch for algae -- the blue-green kind. It forms blooms on top of the water and dogs consume the blooms, some of which produce toxins, such as microcystins, which can lead to liver failure, and anatoxins, which typically affect the nervous system. Signs can begin soon after ingestion and may include vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, collapse and death. Get your dog to the vet at once if this happens.

If your dog is swimming in the lake drinking the water, you can be sure it is drinking chemicals. Think of all the gas from boats as well as other streams that run off into the lake that have pesticides in them and herbicides.

Ocean water is full of salt and while a little won’t hurt if they consume to much they will get diarrhea and it will mess with their electrolytes.

So what can you do if you are out and about with your pup and it's thirsty? Bring plenty of water for your dog in a backpack. Bring a bowl and when you see your dog is thirsty push him to your bowl of water. He can swim and play -- just don’t let him drink the water.

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Apple seeks to cover all the music bases with Apple Music

Music service to compete head-to-head with Spotify and Pandora

Apple revolutionized the music business with iTunes. Now, with the introduction of Apple Music, it wants to own the space. Steve Jobs brought about the ...

PhotoApple revolutionized the music business with iTunes. Now, with the introduction of Apple Music, it wants to own the space.

Steve Jobs brought about the 99-cents-per-song download, giving consumers the freedom to purchase just the songs they liked. That's great if you know what you like but many consumers frankly aren't sure what they like.

That's why apps like Pandora, Spotify, I Heart Radio and TuneIn have been so successful. With Pandora, you enter the name of an artist or a song and the app puts together a playlist of similar tunes.

With Spotify, consumers may browse music titles or search by artist, album, genre, playlist, or record label. I Heart Radio and TuneIn are collections of radio stations around the world – some Internet radio only – that can be accessed on a digital device.

Apple Music, unveiled this week at the World Wide Developers conference, seeks to encompass all of that, and maybe a little more.

Music streaming

First, it's a streaming service giving subscribers access to the entire Apple Music catalog on all their devices. Consumers who have a personal collection of digital songs from iTunes or ripped from CDs can store them in their Apple Music library and play them on any of their Apple devices.

People spinning records on the radio used to be called disk jockeys. Now they are called "curators." Apple says it's hired top curators around the world to suggest songs to individual subscribers, based on their preferences.

The app will also present a wide range of new Internet radio stations, each one programmed to meet a particular music niche. The new stations range in genres from indie rock to classical and folk to funk. But unlike traditional radio, when you hear a song you don't like, you can change the tune without changing the station.

Beats 1

Apple Music's flagship radio station is Beats 1, a live station dedicated to music and music culture and will be available in more than 100 countries. Beats 1 will feature influential DJs Zane Lowe in Los Angeles, Ebro Darden in New York and Julie Adenuga in London. Listeners around the globe will hear the same great programming at the same time, regardless of time zones.

Apple Music has enlisted Siri's help as well. She might not be a music expert but she does know how to find things. If you're in the mood to relive a certain era, just ask Siri to play the tops songs from 1985.

The service launches June 30 with a 3-month free trial period. After that, an individual subscription is $9.99 a month and a family plan, allowing as many as 6 individual users, costs $14.99.

Competitors in the space are preparing for Apple's ambitious entry into their space. If they are concerned, they aren't saying so publicly. Spotify's CEO says the company has 20 million paid subscribers and doesn't expect to lose many to Apple.

Meanwhile, Spotify and Pandora both have free, ad-supported music services and I Heart Radio and TuneIn are both free.

Will consumers pay for Apple's music service? Apple is betting they will.

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Marriott switching over to Internet-connected TVs

But the surfing choice is limited to Netflix

In another sign that watching TV online has become mainstream, Mariott Hotels has announced it will begin replacing guest room TV sets with Internet-connec...

PhotoIn another sign that watching TV online has become mainstream, Mariott Hotels has announced it will begin replacing guest room TV sets with Internet-connected sets.

A press release announcing the move emphasizes a relationship with Netflix, noting guests will be able to watch Netflix content on TV sets in their rooms when they travel. However, Marriott isn't providing a Netflix subscription, only a way to watch it.

Smart TVs, connected to the Internet, will replace those that just offer typical cable channels. To watch Netflix, guests must access their own accounts or subscribe.

According to the press release the Internet-connected TVs will have the Netflix app. Presumably there will not be apps for Netflix competitors and no way to view other Internet content.

Changing consumer preferences

“Our collaboration with Netflix responds to changing consumer preferences in the way our guests access and watch content, while recognizing the leading role Netflix is playing in driving this transformation,“ said Matthew Carroll, vice president brand management, Marriott Hotels. “Because consumers are choosing to take their streaming content with them when they travel, Marriott Hotels is making the industry’s first rollout of Netflix a priority.”

While Marriott isn't exactly making everything on the Internet accessible through in-room TVs, it's a big step for any hotel chain. Many hotels, after all, sell premium content to guests. Watching Netflix for free could be stiff competition.

With the agreement, Marriott says it is the first hotel brand authorized to offer guests direct access to their Netflix accounts as part of its guest room entertainment offering. Netflix is currently available at 6 Marriott properties, with 6 more launching this summer.

All hotels by the end of 2016

The hotel plans to expand Internet TVs to 100 of its properties by the end of 2015, and to nearly all of its more than 300 properties in the U.S. by the end of 2016.

Marrriott says Internet TVs have been installed at:

  • New York Marriott East Side
  • San Jose Marriott
  • Princeton Marriott
  • Newport Marriott
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Marriott Solana
  • Bethesda Marriott Suites

The next properties to get Internet TVs are:

  • Marriott Marquis Washington, DC
  • San Francisco Marriott Marquis
  • Atlanta Marriott Marquis
  • Dayton Marriott
  • San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino
  • Anaheim Marriott

The company says guests staying multiple days only have to login to their accounts once throughout their stay. When guests checkout, it says all account information is wiped clean from the televisions.

Marriott said a report from Accenture, showing more than half of U.S. consumers watch Internet television, was persuasive in moving it in that direction. In testing at hotels, the number of guests using any of the Internet apps on the guest room televisions was as high as 26%, depending on the property.

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Mortgage applications finally turn higher

It's the first increase in 7 weeks

After declining for 6 consecutive weeks, applications for mortgages moved upward last week. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mort...

PhotoAfter declining for 6 consecutive weeks, applications for mortgages moved upward last week.

 

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications rose 8.4% during the week ending June 5.

 

“Mortgage application volume rebounded strongly in the week following the Memorial Day holiday, indicating that the holiday had a larger impact on business activity than originally assumed, “said MBA Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni. “Strong job gains in May and initial signs of wage growth are supporting the purchase market.”

 

The Refinance Index increased 7% from the previous week, but the refinance share of mortgage activity was unchanged at 49% of total applications.

 

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 6.3% of total applications, the FHA share dipped to 14.3% from 14.9%, the VA share dropped to 11.5% from 12.0% and the USDA share of total applications inched up 1.1% from 1.0% 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) jumped 15 basis points -- from 4.02% to 4.17% percent, its highest level since November 2014, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) rose to 4.15%, its highest level since October 2014, from 4.01%, with points increasing to 0.37 from 0.30 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA jumped 13 basis points to 3.90%, its highest level since November 2014, with points dipping to 0.19 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 3.37%, its highest level since November 2014, from 3.27%, with points slipping to 0.32 from 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose 9 basis points to 3.06%, with points unchanged from 0.50 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

 

 

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Big Easy Foods Louisiana Cuisine recalls poultry products

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

Big Easy Foods Louisiana Cuisine of Lake Charles, La., is recalling approximately 93,006 pounds of both raw and cooked stuffed chicken product. The produc...

PhotoBig Easy Foods Louisiana Cuisine of Lake Charles, La., is recalling approximately 93,006 pounds of both raw and cooked stuffed chicken product.

 

The product contains wheat, 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:

  • 3-pound chipboard cartons of BIG EASY FOODS of LA “Boneless Stuffed Chicken with Pork Sausage and Potato Stuffing” with sell by dates of June 9, 2015 through June 8, 2017.
  • 3-pound chipboard cartons of BIG EASY FOODS of LA “Fully Cooked Boneless Stuffed Chicken with Pork Sausage and Potato Stuffing” with sell by dates of July 21, 2013 through April 11, 2015.

The products, produced from June 9, 2013, through June 9, 2015, bear the establishment number “13251” inside the USDA mark of inspection and have the sell by date printed on the product label.

 

The products were shipped to retail outlets in Louisiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, New Jersey, Arizona, Florida and Tennessee.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Mitzie Midkiff at 1-337-477-9296 ext 1133.  

 

 

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Volkswagen recalls Tiguans

The vehicles may be missing the required tire pressure information

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 2,957 model year 2015 Tiguans manufactured January 22, 2015, to March 20, 2015. The recalled vehicles may be equ...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 2,957 model year 2015 Tiguans manufactured January 22, 2015, to March 20, 2015.

 

The recalled vehicles may be equipped with Certification labels that are missing the required tire pressure information and may state incorrect weight and loading information. If the labels have incorrect weight and loading information, the operator may overload the vehicle which could cause vehicle instability, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will correct the information on the certification label, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in June 2015.

 

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 01A5.

 

 

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A simple rule to avoid debt and build savings

Live below your means, admittedly not as simple as it sounds

Everyone knows what it means to live above your means. You spend more than you make, accumulate debt, live paycheck-to-paycheck and never seem to be able t...

PhotoEveryone knows what it means to live above your means. You spend more than you make, accumulate debt, live paycheck-to-paycheck and never seem to be able to get ahead.

There's also the opposite of living above your means that doesn't get talked about all that much – living below your means. However, personal finance experts generally suggest it is the most important step to getting ahead – spending less than you make each month.

Easier said than done, right? Today's consumer economy almost demands that you spend everything you have and more.

Advertisements promote tempting consumer products and services and encourage you to indulge yourself. Leaving money on the table at the end of the month is almost considered unpatriotic.

How do they do it?

But then, millions of other consumers somehow manage to do it and as a result, have less debt and more savings. There's no shortage of advice on how to achieve that and we're going to pass along some of it.

U.S. News' Frugal Shopper says living below your means doesn't have to be all about sacrifice. You can still have some of the same things you've always had, just find ways to pay less for them. One example is the cable bill.

Instead of giving up cable TV, call your TV provider, and maybe a few competitors, and try to get a better rate. Call your auto insurance company and do the same thing. You could find wide variations in price for the same coverage just by shopping around.

Are you paying a monthly service charge to your bank for your checking account? It's an unnecessary expense. Independent community banks and credit unions usually offer free checking. Just by moving your bank account you could save $10 or more per month.

Frugal millionaires

Thomas Stanley, author of “The Millionaire Mind,” says most of us have the mistaken assumption that rich people live like they are rich. Most of them don't.

In an interview with Bankrate.com, Stanley says the wealthy generally avoid ostentatious homes, for example. He says 1,138,070 millionaire households live in homes valued under $300,000, far more than the relatively few who live in mansions.

If you really want to live like you're rich, Stanley says, you'll eat fewer restaurant meals, drive a modestly-priced car and pay off your credit card bill each month.

How much is that doggy in the window?

If you are struggling to make ends meet, getting a dog you must take care of for the next 10 or 12 years might not be such a good idea. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) points out that purchase and adoption costs may vary based on species, breed, and location so you should be familiar with those numbers before making a specific pet choice.

Before you bring a pet into your home, NFCC suggests researching the behavioral, care, and health history of the particular breed to make sure it will be compatible in your household. It might also be worthwhile to find a veterinarian in advance who can offer additional advice about home and medical care.

Run your household like a business

Robert Kiyosaki, who writes the “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” financial advice books, is not a big believer in living below your means. Rather, he advises people who are financially stressed to find ways to increase their income.

There is something to be said for that. If you think of your household budget as a business balance sheet, there is the “top line” revenue figure representing income, and a bottom line number, which is what's left after expenses have been subtracted.

In a successful business, that bottom line figure should be a positive number, or else the business is in trouble. The same is true for a household.

A successful business, as well as a successful household, finds ways to grow the top line as well as the bottom line numbers, and then putting much of the bottom line “profit” into savings.

Ways to grow the top line? The most obvious way is to find a second job, perhaps a part-time or free-lance gig. Besides producing additional income, the second job will burn off spare time that would otherwise be filled with expensive entertainment. 

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Gucci products are upscale but fragile, consumers find

Also, the sandals are slippery and the boot laces are irreplaceable (literally)

Gucci is about as high fashion as you can get but the products could be a little more rugged, according to consumers we've heard from. Take Anthony of R...

PhotoGucci is about as high fashion as you can get but the products could be a little more rugged, according to consumers we've heard from.

Take Anthony of Ridgefield, N.J. who is happy with his 7900M watch except for one thing: "The watch band and little metal band that holds the strap in place keeps coming loose and the watch band frays."

Things have gotten worse over the years, Anthony finds "The watch band started to fray pretty quickly and now I have to send it back to get a new strap and metal band. When you pay $250.00 just for that, the costs add up pretty quickly," Anthony said in a ConsumerAffairs review.

Pilar of Vermont doesn't have a service issue with her Gucci sandals. It's her knees that need repairs whenever she wears the sandals.  

"I bought two sandals this summer. I only used once each one because every time I used them I fell in the street and bled (see photo). The material used as insole is so slippery that with the normal summer sweating causes the feet from slipping inside the sandals causing instability," Pilar said. "These sandals were quite expensive. This only happened to me with these sandals and now I think back to use them because I'm afraid to fall back again. What to do?"

Fraying tote

Then there's Christine of Orlando. "Bought a Gucci Sukey Canvas Tote Bag and just after one year the natural vertical folds have several spots that are fraying. This is not excessive wear, as I have several bags in rotation," she said.

"Gucci customer care will do nothing to fix this issue. They do not stand by their product. For a handbag as expensive as Gucci they should accommodate this issue or modify the design," she said.

Belts are also a sore point with some Gucci customers, like this one:

No laces

But if you want to find someone who's really tied in knots, talk to Doug of Garland, Texas.

"I had to take my boots back to Gucci at the Galleria Mall in Dallas of all things to get a new pair of laces for my boots. ... The laces obviously wear out and need to be replaced. I originally called Gucci to get a new pair of laces but I was told I needed to ship the boots back to them for this. I thought this was a pretty ridiculous option but finally I had to as I could not find a dressy pair of laces for the boots."

Doug took the boots back to the Galleria to have the laces replaced. Six weeks went by. No boots.

"After 6 weeks I called into the store to check on them and spoke with the store manager. We finally got to the point of him agreeing to contact the 'Repair Center' and call me back. He never did," Doug said. "I followed up today and he told me he had asked them to pull them and ship them back. I asked if they were being sent back without being given a new pair of laces. He told me that is what I asked him to do."

Doug admits he "went off" on the manager upon hearing this but asks: "Who in their right mind would return the boots after I have already waited that long for SHOE LACES?"

Doug says he's taking bets that he'll never see the boots again.

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Why some states are better for retirement than others

It's not always about the weather

Everyone seems to have an opinion about the best places to retire, but it all depends on what characteristics are most valued. Retirement nirvana is in the...

PhotoEveryone seems to have an opinion about the best places to retire, but it all depends on what characteristics are most valued. Retirement nirvana is in the eye of the beholder.

Bankrate.com recently picked the worst cities for retirees, with New York, Little Rock, Ark., and Hartford, Conn., topping the list. New York was disqualified for its high taxes, cost of living and crime rate. Little Rock got a failing grade for high taxes, along with a “less than stellar” health care system.

Personal finance publication Kiplinger's has taken a different approach, listing what it considers the 10 best states in which to retire. The list contains some states you might not expect and Florida, typically thought of as a retirement Mecca, only comes in at number 2.

Financial considerations

Stacy Rapacon, online channel editor at Kilplinger's, says states weren't considered for their climate, a usual retirement consideration. Rather, states were analyzed for being tax-friendly to seniors, having a significant population of other seniors, and having towns and cities where seniors can find affordable housing and a pleasing lifestyle.

Topping the list is Delaware, a state known to be friendly to corporations.

“It's great for retirees for the same reason it's great for corporations,” Rapacon told ConsumerAffairs. “Social Security benefits are exempt from state taxes, there's not a sales tax and only a modest state income tax.”

Delaware does have nice beaches but that doesn't enter into its ranking. Neither do Florida's beaches. Rather, it's the state's tax environment and the number of current retirees.

“There are nearly 3.4 million residents in Florida who are age 65 and up,” Rapacon said. “That was a huge factor pushing Florida to the number 2 spot.”

Overall cost of living

PhotoTaxes and numbers of seniors weren't the only criteria for selection to the list. Rapacon said the overall cost of living, especially as it relates to seniors, was a big factor. Much of cost of living centered around housing, so rural states with low taxes and affordable housing got special recognition.

It was one reason West Virginia made the list at number 3, South Dakota at number 5 and Iowa, Kansas and Wyoming at 8, 9 and 10 respectively. Hawaii, however, a very expensive state, comes in at number 7.

“You have to be able to afford Hawaii in order to retire there,” Rapacon said. “But if you can afford it, it's a great place to be. A lot of well-off seniors have retired there. If you look at the data, a large percentage of the 65-plus population has incomes well above average.”

America's heartland

In America's heartland, Iowa, Kansas and Wyoming all have in common plenty of wide open spaces that lead to very affordable housing prices. In addition, all three have small cities that offer stimulation and amenities, but are also very livable.

Arizona and Pennsylvania are already popular with retirees – in part because of their favorable taxes – helping to earn places on the Kiplinger's list.

Rapacon says many factors go into choosing a place for retirement, including family proximity and climate. But she says financial considerations should be part of the decision-making process.

“If you're living on a fixed income it's so important that you understand the tax situation in the different places you're considering,” she said. “You have to make that money last, especially now that people are living so much longer.”

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CPSC launches campaign to prevent furniture and TV tip-over deaths and injuries

“Anchor It!” offers tips for parents and care-givers

Unstable and unsecured TVs and large pieces of furniture kill a child every 2 weeks, on average, in tip-over incidents that are easily preventable, accordi...

PhotoUnstable and unsecured TVs and large pieces of furniture kill a child every two weeks, on average, in tip-over incidents that are easily preventable, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

 

For that treason, the agency has launched “Anchor It!” -- a national public education campaign to prevent furniture and TV tip-overs from killing and seriously injuring children.

 

CPSC data show 38,000 people go to emergency rooms each year with injuries related to tip-overs of top-heavy furniture or televisions placed on furniture, instead of a TV stand. Two-thirds of those injuries involved children younger than five. Additionally, between 2000 and 2013, 84% of the 430 deaths reported to CPSC involved kids under 10.

 

A recent CPSC report found that a TV tipping over from an average size dresser falls with thousands of pounds of force -- that the impact of a falling TV is like being caught between two NFL linemen colliding at full-speed -- 10 times.

 

“Every 24 minutes in the U.S. a child goes to the emergency room because of a tip-over incident involving furniture or a TV,” said CPSC Commissioners Marietta Robinson and Joseph Mohorovic. “We must take action now. CPSC’s new ‘Anchor It!’ campaign is a call to action for parents and caregivers to ‘get on top of it, before they do.’ If we can prevent one more death, it will be worth it.”

 

Public education

 

The “Anchor It!” campaign includes broadcast public service announcements (PSAs), print PSAs, and an informational site (www.AnchorIt.gov). The site outlines the dangers of tip-overs and explains how easy it is to anchor furniture and TVs properly.

 

The PSAs show a hazard in the home that is unknown to most parents, yet has a simple solution. Outdoor billboard PSAs for buses and subway trains will supplement the television PSAs.

 

Foundations, organizations, and companies will collaborate with CPSC and serve as “Anchor It! Advocates,” to deliver safety messages to their communities and participate in earned and social media efforts.

 

In addition, HGTV star Tiffany Brooks, an interior designer, wife, mother and HGTV host, will serve as an Anchor It! campaign spokesperson, along with CPSC Commissioners Robinson and Mohorovic.

 

What to do

 

Cards and posters providing tips and describing the hidden dangers of tip-overs, as well as the simple steps to eliminate these dangers, are being distributed to parents and caregivers of toddlers at daycare centers and pre-schools. These safety steps advise consumers to:

  • Buy and install low-cost anchoring devices to prevent TVs, dressers, bookcases or other furniture from tipping.
  • Avoid leaving items, such as remote controls and toys, in places where kids might be tempted to climb up to reach for them.
  • Store heavier items on lower shelves or in lower drawers.
  • Place TVs on a sturdy, low base and push them as far back as possible, particularly if anchoring is not possible.
  • If purchasing a new TV, consider recycling older ones not currently used. If moving the older TV to another room, be sure it is anchored properly to the wall.

 

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Job openings in April at highest level in 14 years

Both hires and separations were fairly stable

There were 5.4 million job openings at the end of April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) -- the highest level since the series began in D...

PhotoThere were 5.4 million job openings at the end of April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) -- the highest level since the series began in December 2000.

 

At the same time, number of hires was little-changed at 5.0 million and the number of separations was fairly steady at 4.9 million. Within separations, the quits rate was 1.9% and the layoffs and discharges rate was 1.3% -- both little different from the previous month.

 

Job openings

 

The number of job openings was essentially unchanged for government. At the industry level, job openings rose in health care and social assistance but fell in arts, entertainment and recreation. By region, job openings increased in the West.

 

The number of job openings (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in April for total nonfarm, total private and government. Job openings increased over the year for many industries with the largest changes occurring in professional and business services and in health care and social assistance. Job openings decreased over the year in mining and logging and in arts, entertainment, and recreation.

 

The number of job openings increased over the year in all 4 regions.

 

Hires

 

The number of hires was little changed for total private and government, with little change in the number of hires in all industries and regions over the month.

 

Over the 12 months ending in April, the number of hires (not seasonally adjusted) was little-changed for total nonfarm and total private, and increased for government. At the industry level, hires increased in accommodation and food services and in state and local government. The number of hires decreased over the year in mining and logging and in arts, entertainment, and recreation.

 

The number of hires was essentially unchanged over the year in all 4 regions.

 

Separations

 

Total separations includes quits, layoffs and discharges, and other separations, and 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 includes separations due to retirement, death, and disability, as well as transfers to other locations of the same firm.

 

There were 4.9 million total separations in April -- about the same as in March, for a separations rate of 3.5%. The number of total separations was little-changed for total private and government, and in all industries and regions over the month.

 

There were 2.7 million quits in April, little-changed from March, for a quits rate 1.9%. The number of quits was little-changed for total private and government over the month. The number of quits did not increase over the month for any industries, but fell in retail trade and in accommodation and food services. The number of quits was little-changed in all 4 regions.

 

The number of quits (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in April for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Over the year, quits increased in several industries with the largest rises occurring in durable goods manufacturing; finance and insurance; and health care and social assistance. The number of quits increased over the year in the South.

 

There were 1.8 million layoffs and discharges, about the same as in March -- a rate of 1.3%. The number of layoffs and discharges was little-changed over the month for total private and government, and in all 4 regions.

 

The number of layoffs and discharges (not seasonally adjusted) was little-changed over the 12 months ending in April for total nonfarm, total private, and government. The number of layoffs and discharges

increased over the year in mining and logging and in accommodation and food services, but decreased in health care and social assistance. There was little change in layoffs and discharges over the year in all 4 regions.

 

There were 395,000 other separations for total nonfarm, about the same as in March. Over the month, the number of other separations was little-changed for total private at 326,000 and for government at 69,000.

 

Over the 12 months ending in April, the number of other separations (not seasonally adjusted) was

little-changed for total nonfarm, total private, and government, and in all industries and regions.

 

The full report is available on the BLS website.

 

 

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Children's exposure to marijuana up 147% in recent years

More liberal attitudes towards the drug are having consequences for children's health

The debate over the legalization of marijuana has continued to rage on as states begin to adopt more lenient legislation on the matter. Proponents point ou...

PhotoThe debate over the legalization of marijuana has continued to rage on as states begin to adopt more lenient legislation on the matter. Proponents point out that there are numerous economic and health benefits that come along with legalizing the drug, but there are bound to be negative consequences as well.

One study shows that the chances of young children swallowing, breathing in, or otherwise being exposed to marijuana has increased dramatically as policies shift in its favor.

The numbers that have been uncovered by the study are truly staggering. From 2006 to 2013, exposure to marijuana for children five years of age or younger has risen 147.5% across the U.S. This number is small potatoes when compared to states that legalized marijuana for medical purposes. In these states, the rate increased almost 610% in the same time period.

States that legalized marijuana from 2000 to 2013 have had child exposure rates increase steadily. There is roughly a 16% increase each year, and there is always a more dramatic jump in the year that marijuana was legalized in each state.

But it is not just states that legalize marijuana that have to worry. Even states that had not legalized marijuana by 2013 saw a rise of 63% in marijuana exposure in young children from 2000 to 2013.

But why exactly is this exposure to young children occurring? Henry Spiller, who co-authored the study and is the director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s, explains why children may be attracted to the drug.

"The high percentage of ingestions may be related to the popularity of marijuana brownies, cookies and other foods," he says. "Very young children explore their environments by putting items in their mouths, and foods such as brownies and cookies are attractive."

Coma, seizures, other complications

Exposure to marijuana has produced a range of results when it comes to children. While most instances resulted in minor clinical effects, some children suffered from coma, decreased breathing, or seizures. These more serious conditions could be due to increased amounts of THC in marijuana food products.  

Gary Smith, who is the senior author of the study and the director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s, urges that states need to have child protection laws in place when it comes to marijuana. Although the total number of exposure cases is less than 2,000, he believes that the growing trend in states that have legalized marijuana is very telling.

"Any state considering marijuana legalization needs to include child protections in its laws from the very beginning," Dr. Smith said. "Child safety must be part of the discussion when a state is considering legalization of marijuana," he said.

Should be locked up

Other researchers endorse the idea that marijuana be treated like other chemicals and medicines in a household. If marijuana products are being kept in the house, they should be kept out of sight of children. If possible, they can be locked in a cabinet to ensure that they cannot be swallowed by mistake.

The full study was published in Clinical Pediatrics on June 8, 2015.

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Could your child's cat lead to mental health problems in adulthood

It's one of several health risks being studied by researchers

That sweet little cat that purrs and sits on your lap could be carrying a disease that can facilitate miscarriages, fetal development disorders, weeks of f...

PhotoThat sweet little cat that purrs and sits on your lap could be carrying a disease that can facilitate miscarriages, fetal development disorders, weeks of flu-like illness, blindness, and even death. It has also been associated with mental health problems, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The parasite toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is one of the most commonly carried parasites. It can attach itself to, and infect, any warm-blooded species, and is often carried by cats. It is possible that you may be carrying it yourself. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 60 million people in the U.S. may have it.

If you do have it, you may not notice it or have any symptoms, although people with weakened immune systems are much more likely to exhibit symptoms and be affected. If you are infected with T. gondii you can contract an illness called toxoplasmosis, which could lead to flu-like symptoms or miscarriages if you are pregnant. Two more studies have been published that associate it with mental health disorders.

Mental health link

Several universities have conducted research for decades in order to prove a causal link between the parasite and mental health problems. E. Fuller Torrey, of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, and Dr. Robert H. Yolken, from the Stanley Laboratory of Developmental Neurovirology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, have been studying the link between the T. gondii infection and schizophrenia. Their most recent work was published in Schizophrenia Research.

Researcher Wendy Simmons, who also worked with Torrey and Yolken, has compared their research with studies that were conducted previously. These studies explored a link with owning a cat as a child and then developing schizophrenia later in life.

Simmons explored an unpublished survey on mental health from 1982, 10 years before any data on cat ownership and mental illness had been published. By comparing the studies, they concluded that exposure to a cat in childhood may have a connection, or be a risk factor, for developing mental disorders.

Schizophrenia risk

Another recent study, which was conducted by the Department of Psychiatry at the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, investigated the findings of 50 published studies. They confirmed that the T. gondii infection is associated with mental disorders. Results showed that an individual infected with T. gondii was almost twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.

"In schizophrenia, the evidence of an association with T. gondii is overwhelming," the authors said. "These findings may give further clues about how T. gondii infection can possibly alter the risk of specific psychiatric disorders." This research was published in the journal Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 

The cat population is huge, and according to the Humane Society there are 75 to 80 million pet cats and another 30 to 40 million stray or feral cats roaming the United States. It would make perfect sense to say that outdoor cats have an increased likelihood of infection.

What to do

You can protect your children by making sure your cat stays indoors. If you have a sand box, keep it covered when you aren’t using it. The CDC recommends that pet owners change their cat's litter box daily, since T. gondii does not become infectious until one to five days after it is shed in feces. Also take precaution in feeding cats raw food or food that hasn’t been cooked all the way through. 

Toxoplasmosis is something an unborn baby can be affected by, so it is recommended that pregnant women avoid cleaning litter boxes. If this cannot be avoided, be sure to wear disposable gloves and wash your hands.

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Survey: Father’s Day spending to hit $12.7 billion

“Experience gifts” get the lion's share of the bucks

When it comes to spending, consumer outlays ($21.2 billion) for Mother's Day far outdistance Father's Day. Still, dad does okay. According to the National...

PhotoWhen it comes to spending, consumer outlays ($21.2 billion) for Mother's Day far outdistance Father's Day. Still, dad does okay.

 

According to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 2015 Father’s Day Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, spending for dad is expected to reach $12.7 billion. The survey also finds the average person will shell out $115.57 about the same as last year, with 75.4% of consumers saing they plan to celebrate Father’s Day.

 

“After a less than stellar first half of the year, retailers are ready to welcome the warm weather and the millions of shoppers that come along with it and kick off the summer spending season just in time for Father’s Day,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Spending on grilling and patio necessities, pool gear, sporting goods, apparel and other gift and seasonal merchandise could be the positive stepping stone retailers need heading into the second half of the year.”

 

What does he want, what does he need?

 

When it comes to gifts for dad, 4 in 10 (39.7%) will purchase apparel items such as a new dress shirt or necktie and spend a total $1.7 billion overall. Another 43.3% will spend a total of $2.6 billion for so-called “experience gifts” such as tickets to a ballgame or a special meal with the family.

 

The survey also found that 1 in 5 (19.7%) shoppers will pick out new gadgets such as a tablet or smartphone, totaling $1.6 billion. Additionally, 4 in 10 (39%) gift buyers will opt to let dad pick his own gift and will get him a gift card, spending a total of $1.8 billion. Six in 10 (62.2%) consumers will thank dad with a greeting card and at an overall cost of more than $777 million.

 

Loved ones will also spend on home improvement or gardening supplies ($710 million), new tools or appliances ($668 million), personal care items ($684 million), sporting goods or leisure items ($665 million) and books or CDs ($538 million).

 

Where to shop

 

Online shoppers plan to spend an average $157 -- more than the typical Father's Day shopper -- and nearly 4 in 10 plan to use their smartphones to research products and compare prices.

 

Consumers will look all over for gifts, with most people planning to shop at department stores (36.4%), while others will shop online (29.2%) and at discount stores (25.2%); Nearly 17% will shop local at a small business.

 

“After splurging on mom and graduates this year and recognizing that dad is a little more laid back when it comes to celebrations and gifts, consumers will keep spending similar to about what they spent last year on Father’s Day,” said Prosper’s Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow. “Regardless, they’ll still find a way to make sure that dad has a special day, whether they’re taking advantage of sales and promotions or treating him to an experience he’ll never forget.”

 

More than half of those surveyed are planning to buy for their father or stepfather (51.8%), while others will shop for their husband (27.6%) or son (8.9%) this Father’s Day.

 

 

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Santa Barbara Smokehouse recalls Cold Smoked Salmon

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Santa Barbara Smokehouse of Santa Barbara, Calif., is recalling all smoked salmon EXCLUDING Hot Smoked Salmon produced from March 1 to April 8, 2015. The ...

PhotoSanta Barbara Smokehouse of Santa Barbara, Calif., is recalling all smoked salmon EXCLUDING Hot Smoked Salmon produced from March 1 to April 8, 2015.

 

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date.

 

Cold Smoked Salmon was distributed within the United States through retail stores and food wholesaler.

 

The following brands are being recalled:

  • Cambridge House,
  • Coastal Harbor,
  • Harbor Point,
  • North Shore S.F. Specialty,
  • Channel Islands and
  • Santa Barbara.

The batch range is 1015 – 3949.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-805-966-9796.

 

 

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Bariatric Fusion recalls bags of Soft Chews

The packages fail to meet child-resistant closure requirement

Bariatric Fusion of Elma, N.Y., is recalling about 800 bags of Soft Chews Iron with Vitamin C dietary supplements. The packaging is not child-resistant an...

PhotoBariatric Fusion of Elma, N.Y., is recalling about 800 bags of Soft Chews Iron with Vitamin C dietary supplements.

 

The packaging is not child-resistant and senior friendly as required by the Poison Prevention Packaging Act. The chews inside the package contain iron, which can cause serious injury or death to young children if multiple chews are ingested.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves all 60-count bags of cherry flavor Soft Chews Iron with Vitamin C dietary supplements. The pink re-sealable bag has an image of cherries and a leaf on the front of the package.

 

“Soft Chews Iron with Vitamin C,” “Cherry flavor,” “Bariatric Fusion,” "60 Soft Chews" and “Dietary Supplement” are also on the front. Lot number 14191C2 is printed near the bottom of the back of the bags being recalled.

 

The recalled product, manufactured in the U.S., was sold at Bariatric Fusion distributors, drug stores, and medical and wellness centers nationwide and online at BariatricFusion.com, BariatricChoice.com and DietDirect.com from September 2014, to February 2015, for about $23.

 

Consumers should immediately place the product out of a child’s sight and reach, and return it to the place of purchase for a full refund or for free supplements in compliant packaging.

 

Consumers may contact Bariatric Fusion toll-free at (866) 259-0602 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., ET, Monday through Friday.

 

 

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Want to attend college for free? Work for the right company

Anthem is latest employer to pick up the tab

There is an alternative to running up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt in pursuit of a college degree. All you have to do is work for a co...

PhotoThere is an alternative to running up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt in pursuit of a college degree. All you have to do is work for a company that will pay your college tuition for you.

Companies routinely sweeten their benefits package to attract and retain good employees. Providing excellent health coverage is a highly prized perk. So is a college education and more companies are responding by offering partial or full tuition aid as an incentive.

Healthcare benefits provider Anthem is the latest, just announcing a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) to make an associate's or bachelor’s degree available at no charge to any of its eligible full-time or part-time employees.

Competency-based curriculum

Participating Anthem employees will work through SNHU's College for America, which specializes in working with employers to offer competency-based, online curriculum designed to help adults earn a college degree while they are holding down jobs.

What makes this an ideal alternative for debt-averse students is you don't even have to work full-time. As long as you work 20 hours per week you can earn a degree at no cost.

"Anthem is committed to offering its associates a robust benefits package that goes beyond salary and health benefits,” said C. Burke King, president, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “Our partnership with College for America has proven successful for our parent company associates who participated in the pilot program in New Hampshire and we want to build on that success by providing opportunities for education, development and career advancement to all our associates.”

SNHU is an old private not-for-profit university with an idyllic campus setting in Manchester, N.H. But more than a decade ago SNHU embarked on an ambitious online education curriculum targeting working adults, offering credit for experience already gained in the workplace.

“This is a tremendous win-win for Anthem and its associates,” said Paul LeBlanc, SNHU's president. “As an employer, Anthem is building talent and the skills needed for promotion in its workforce while associates earn an accredited degree that will help them get ahead in their life and career without taking on debt.”

Other opportunities

SNHU's College for America partners with more than 65 other U.S. employers who help their associates achieve a college degree, either through full or partial tuition reimbursement. And it isn't alone.

Starbucks is partnering with Arizona State University's online program to cover the costs of its employees' – it calls them partners – ASU degree. Under the program the student seeks any financial aid he or she may be eligible to receive and Starbucks takes care of the rest.

Other companies that include at least partial tuition aid to employees include AT&T, Bank of America, Best Buy, Gap, Home Depot, UPS and Verizon Wireless.

Maybe the whole idea of what it means to go to college is changing. Living in a lavish dorm, roaming an ivy-covered campus and enjoying a college social life carries a steep price tag, and increasingly it's a price that can be avoided, along with the debt hangover that usually follows.

Earning money while having your tuition paid by your employer might not just make economic sense, it could advance you toward your career while earning a degree.

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Understanding mortgage basics

Here's what you need to know before shopping for a home

For most people who buy a home, applying for a mortgage is part of the process. Besides investors and the very wealthy, very few people pay cash for a hous...

PhotoFor most people who buy a home, applying for a mortgage is part of the process. Besides investors and the very wealthy, very few people pay cash for a house.

A mortgage is a loan product that allows you to purchase a piece of property, even though you only have a portion of the purchase price. The portion that you have to apply to the purchase is the down payment.

The rest is the mortgage, loaned to you for a specific time, at a fixed or adjustable interest rate, with the property serving as the collateral on the loan. There are many different kinds of mortgages, so finding the one that best suits your needs will lead to a more satisfactory experience.

Getting qualified

If you decide to buy a home and take out a mortgage, first you must make sure you qualify. In other words, a lender considers whether or not you are credit-worthy and whether you can afford the loan. To do that a lender looks at a borrower’s income and how much they already owe.

Benjamin Albies, a sales development manager at Nationstar Mortgage, says the borrower's debt-to-income ratio (DTI), a measure of debts and obligations compared to income, is a critical piece of information – especially these days.

“In the wake of the financial crisis new rules have been enacted that prevent lenders from writing loans that borrowers can’t afford,” Albies told ConsumerAffairs. “Recently the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) has passed a rule called the Ability to Repay Rule (ATR) which requires lenders to verify a borrower’s ability to repay the loan with income documentation. Depending on the loan product, there is typically a maximum DTI that is allowable.”

A lender also examines a borrower’s credit history and score in making a decision to lend money. A lender doesn’t just need to know a borrower’s ability to repay the loan, but how he or she has managed their current and past debts.

Tips from Nationstar on what you need to do to get prequalified for a mortage. 

Once pre-qualified for a mortgage amount, the would-be home buyer must decide how much money he or she can pay as a down payment. A large down payment, of 20% or more of the purchase price, can save money since mortgage insurance will not be required.

Down payments of less than 20% will require mortgage insurance, which protects the lender in case of default. The insurance premium is a small percentage of the loan balance and is paid as part of the monthly payment.

See the different kinds of mortgages Nationstar offers 

Fixed rate or adjustable

A home buyer will usually have the option to choose a fixed interest rate or one that adjusts from time to time call an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM). As a rule, fixed rate loans are more secure for the home owner but adjustable rates tend to be slightly lower. However, they can also rise if mortgage rates go up. Each homebuyer's particular situation, goals and long-term plans should be considered to determine whether a fixed rate or ARM would be more advantageous.

“Most ARM’s are fixed for the first 3,5,7,or 10 years of the loan and then adjust annually for the duration of the loan based on an index,” Albies said. “ARM’s can be a smart move for the right type of borrower given that the interest rate on ARM’s is always lower than prevailing fixed rates.”

For example, Albies says a borrower who expects to be in a home for a shorter period of time can save considerably on their payments by taking an ARM loan versus a fixed rate loan. Borrowers who don't plan to move and are on a fixed income are generally advised to consider fixed rate loans because the interest rate and payments on ARM’s can increase after the initial fixed period if rates go up.

A fixed rate mortgage is usually repaid over 30 years. However, there are 15-year loans and even 10-year loans. Adjustable rate mortgages may be repaid over similar time periods but the rates adjust at specified times. When the rate goes up, so does the monthly payment.

Components of the monthly payment

The interest rate isn’t the only thing that influences your monthly mortgage payment. The payment is made up of principal and interest. If an escrow account is established, the monthly payment also incudes taxes and insurance.

Even if an escrow account is not set up, taxes and insurance remain the homeowner's responsibility and must be considered as part of the overall monthly mortgage obligation. An escrow account is required the majority of the time.

You arrive at the principal and interest by amortizing the loan over the specified term. Using a formula, a portion of each payment is dedicated to paying the interest and a portion to the principal. Over the term of the loan, the portion going to principal gets larger while the portion going to interest gets smaller.

The local jurisdiction where the property is located imposes a property tax. To make sure it is paid on time, the loan servicer collects it from the borrower and pays it from the escrow account, if one has been established. The same house in a high-tax jurisdiction will cost more each month than in a low-tax jurisdiction. That’s something to keep in mind when house-hunting.

To make sure the property carries adequate insurance coverage, the loan servicer will also collect money each month for the insurance policy, if an escrow account has been set up.

Taken together, these 4 elements make up the monthly payments, with the additional element of mortgage insurance if the down payment is less than 20%.

Use this calculator at Nationstar’s website to determine what your monthly payment would be. 

For most consumers, a mortgage is the largest debt they will ever have and it might seem a bit overwhelming. But consider this: everyone incurs some kind of cost in order to have a home to live in. Some pay rent, others pay a mortgage. Either way you will face a cost to having a roof over your head.

In years past house payments were usually higher than a consumer would pay for rent. Today, that is not always the case because interest rates have remained low while rents in many markets have rapidly increased.

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Congressmen want forward collision avoidance systems on big trucks

The deaths of five nursing students in a Georgia crash bring calls for improved safety technologies

Five Georgia Congressmen have written to federal safety regulators to urge that large trucks and buses be equipped with forward collision avoidance technol...

PhotoFive Georgia Congressmen have written to federal safety regulators to urge that large trucks and buses be equipped with forward collision avoidance technology and braking systems that would help avoid rear-end accidents like the one that killed five Georgia nursing students last month.

The five are reported to be preparing to introduce legislation that would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to implement the regulation.

The nursing students were killed when a tractor trailer truck slammed into two SUVs carrying the women on Interstate 16. The SUVs were stopped in traffic from another crash two miles ahead.

"The trucker didn't brake,” said Bob Cheely, an Atlanta attorney representing the victims' families, WSB-TV reported. “He was traveling 68 miles an hour according to the black box on the trailer. He didn't make any evasive action, and the truck was equipped with a crash avoidance system."

4,000 fatalities

The Congressmen said the type of mitigation system they are advocating could have prevented that crash and could also reduce the annual toll of about 130,000 crashes, 4,000 fatalities and 80,000 injuries caused by large vehicles rear-ending passenger cars and SUVs.

They noted that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has repeatedly called for faster deployment of safety technology on both commercial and personal vehicles. 

"We must take full advantage of technological advancements that improve sfaety and demonstrate a net benefit to society," said Reps. Henry C. "Hank" Johnson, John Lewis, Sanford D. Bishop, Jr., Earl L. "Buddy" Carter and David Scott.

Comedian Tracy Morgan was injured and one of his writers, James "Jimmy Mack" McNair, was killed in a similar crash on the New Jersey Turnpike a year ago. In that accident, a Walmart truck plowed into Morgan's limo as it swerved to avoid slowed traffic.

The driver in that case, Kevin Roper, has pleaded not guilty to assault and death by auto charges.  

Widespread support

In their letter to NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, the Congressmen not that there is widespread support for crash-avoidance technology from the trucking industry and auto safety organizations, including the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, the Truck Safety Coalition, the Center for Auto Safety, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Road Safe America.

"I encouterage NHTSA to work with safety advocates, industry and the enforcement community to ensure that the devices are effective, and that any regulations put into place are enforceable," the letter concluded. 

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What to do if your data has been hacked

There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of someone running up debs in your name

Recent data breaches at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) show that businesses keeping files on consumers' pe...

PhotoRecent data breaches at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) show that businesses keeping files on consumers' personal information are not the only entities that are vulnerable.

In fact, last week's report (.pdf) by the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) reveals that government databases have become a target-rich environment for hackers. Through the first five months of 2015, ITRC shows 23 government or military breaches, compromising 1.33 million records.

But by far, the largest source of compromised data has come from the health care system. The ITRC report shows medical and healthcare entities have suffered 121 data breaches so far this year, resulting in nearly 101 million compromised records.

With those numbers – and that's just for this year – your chances of having your records among those now in the possession of criminals are pretty high. A report last year by Javelin Strategy & Research counted 13 million U.S. victims of identity theft in 2013 and found data breaches to be one of the greatest risk factors, as nearly 1 in 3 consumers who received data breach notification letters became a victim of identity fraud.

When you're a victim

Once an identity thief has possession of your personal information, he or she may be able to do a lot of damage. In most cases a thief could open new credit accounts in your name but not pay back borrowed money or pay for purchases. That ruins your credit.

An increasingly popular method is filing a fake income tax return using a stolen identity, showing a large refund is due. The identity thief finds that successful since it doesn't involve the three credit reporting agencies.

When a thief tries to take out a loan using your identity, the lender runs a check through the credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and Trans Union. All three offer safeguards to consumers to reduce the chances of that happening.

Fraud alert and credit freeze

For example, Experianoffers a fraud alert and a credit freeze, both of which can be effective deterrents. When you add a fraud alert to your account, potential credit grantors must verify your identification before extending credit in your name.

That gives you a heads up that your have been compromised. The alert stays in place for 90 days and can be renewed.

A stronger level of protection is the credit freeze. It is designed to prevent credit, loans and services from being approved in your name without your consent. However, it could also delay or interfere with or even prohibit timely approval of legitimate credit applications in your name.

Equifax and Trans Union offer similar services. If you believe your personal information has been compromised in a data breach – and the odds it has are increasingly high – it's worth considering asking the credit bureaus to alert you when someone tries to access your credit.

To reduce your chances of becoming a tax fraud victim, file your federal income tax return as early as possible. That will reduce the risk of someone filing a fake return in your name.

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Obama may raise threshold for overtime pay

A proposed rule change could make millions of workers eligible for overtime

The Obama Administration is expected to propose a new rule that would nearly double the salary above which employees become eligible for time-and-a-half ov...

PhotoThe Obama Administration is expected to propose a new rule that would nearly double the salary above which employees become eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay. The current limit, $23,660, would increase to $52,000 under the proposed revision to Labor Department rules.

Business interests are marshalling opposition to the measure and GOP presidential hopefuls have generally been dismissive while Democrats Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders have endorsed it.

Sanders, in fact, has been exhorting Obama to implement the rule since at least January and frequently mentions it in his campaign speeches.

Photo
Bernie Sanders

"We must ... end the scandal in which millions of American employees, often earning less than $30,000 a year, work 50 or 60 hours a week – and earn no overtime," Sanders said in his May 26 campaign kick-off speech in Burlington, Vt.

“Too many Americans are working longer and harder without anything to show for their efforts in their paychecks. These long hours are straining middle class workers and their families,” Sanders and 25 other Democratic senators wrote in a letter to President Obama in January.  

The proposed rule is seen as the closest the Obama White House can come to raising the minimum wage, also strongly opposed by business interests and Republican candidates.

Currently, employers must pay overtime to anyone who makes $23,660 or less if that person works more than 40 hours per week, regardless of whether they are considered to be an "exempt" administrative -- salaried rather than hourly -- worker. 

That figure, which has not been increased since the 1970s, is below the poverty line for a family of four. The $52,000 salary level would be closer to the median wage and would vastly expand the number of workers who qualify for overtime pay.

Net effect

The White House argues that its measure would increase earnings for millions of workers. Republicans say employers would react by downsizing their workforce. The arguments are basically the same as those rolled out whenever the minimum wage is being discussed.

The liberal Economic Policy Institute estimates that about 6.1 million more workers would become eligible for overtime pay at the $52,000 threshold.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it's not practical to impose the higher threshold nationwide and says the Administration should apply different thresholds in different geographic regions.

The revision has been in the works for months and is likely to be formally inroduced this week, Politico reports today

 

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Consumers bitten by mortgage relief scam to get checks

Thousands were taken by a scheme that promised lower payments

The checks are in the mail. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which won a court action against Jackson, Crowder & Associates and Crowder Law Group, send...

PhotoThe checks are in the mail.

 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which won a court action against Jackson, Crowder & Associates and Crowder Law Group, sending out 2,653 checks totaling more than $467,000.

 

According to the FTC, the defendants falsely promised to modify consumers’ mortgages and substantially reduce their monthly payments, exaggerated the role an attorney would play, and pretended to be affiliated with a government agency.

 

Consumers who get the checks from the FTC’s refund administrator for this matter, Gilardi & Co. LLC, should deposit or cash them within 60 days of the mailing date. Keep in mind, the FTC never requires consumers to pay money or to provide information before refund checks can be cashed. The amount of the check will vary based upon each consumer’s loss.

 

If you receive a check and have questions, you may contact Gilardi & Co. at 1-888-561-9023.

 

 

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Texas governor expected to sign law deregulating hair braiding

State regulations will finally recognize that braiding and barbering aren't the same thing

Texas Governor Greg Abbott is expected to sign House Bill 2717 into law, deregulating the practice and teaching of professional hair braiding and repeal th...

PhotoTexas Governor Greg Abbott is expected to sign House Bill 2717 into law, deregulating the practice and teaching of professional hair braiding and repeal the occupational-licensing requirements that required hair braiders to meet the same strict licensing requirements as barbers and cosmetologists.

Texas' state House of Representatives unanimously voted to pass HB 2717 in April, after a contentious legal battle spanning three decades.

Texas law strictly regulates barbers and cosmetologists, mainly on safety grounds: among other things, those trades require the use of sharp tools and potentially dangerous chemicals. Braiding hair requires neither, yet in 2007, when the state started regulating hairbraiders and teachers of the art, it mandated that they meet the same licensing requirements as barbers or cosmetologists.

Dallas resident and African hairbraiding expert Isis Brantley has been braiding hair professionally for over 30 years — and the law has hassled her over it for almost that long.

She started braiding at home in her kitchen, but was arrested when she tried opening a salon. “As soon as I opened up the shop, wow, the red tape was wrapped around my hands,” she told the Texas Tribune in April. “Seven cops came in, in front of my clients, and arrested me an