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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 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.”

    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...
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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 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.

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

      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...
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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.

      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.

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

      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...
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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

      Researchers 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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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..

      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 101.4 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.

      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....
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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.

      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.

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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. 

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

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

      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...
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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), 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.  

      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...
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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 retail industry’s largest loss prevention event, retailers lose billions of dollars to shoplifting, employee and vendor theft and administrative error – collectively known as inventory shrink.

      The National Retail Federation/University of Florida National Retail Security Survey (NRSS) found that retailers say inventory shrink averaged 1.38% of retail sales -- or $44 billion -- in 2014. The report was sponsored by The Retail Equation.

      Specifically, retailers surveyed estimate shoplifting accounted for the largest part of reported shrink last year -- 38% -- followed by employee/internal theft (34.5%), administrative and paperwork errors (16.5%), vendor fraud or error (6.8%) and unknown loss (6.1%).

      “Retail loss prevention professionals have one of the hardest jobs in the industry -- protecting their customers, employees and merchandise from the threat of harm and fraud, and the results of this survey prove the enormity of their task,” said National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Retailers will continue to review best practices and work to better educate decision makers in Washington about the burdens these crimes place on consumers, retail companies, their employees and the economy.”

      No big deal?

      “A common misperception about shoplifting is that retailers can ‘afford’ the loss of a candy bar or a pair of jeans, but the truth is that the industry loses billions of dollars each year at the hands of callous criminals that could be put towards human capital, promotions and other necessary business operations,” said NRF Vice President of Loss Prevention Bob Moraca. “Though we are encouraged by the partnerships forged with law enforcement over the years and advances in technology that will help deter a crime before it happens, criminals continue to thwart much of the progress retailers have made thus far.”

      When it comes to loss prevention budgets, 39.4% of those surveyed say their budget for 2015 increased over last year; just over one-third (36.6%) said their budgets would be similar to what they were last year -- leaving 23.9% of respondents with decreased resources.

      Dr. Richard Hollinger, criminology professor at the University of Florida and lead author of the NRSS for the past 24 years, notes this year’s shrink percentage is the lowest seen in the survey’s history.

      “Loss prevention professionals have done a commendable job of elevating the issue of shrink and retail fraud within their own companies and with industry insiders and the public, but the battle wages on to find ways to contain further losses to their businesses,” said Hollinger. “As retail issues like shrink and security become more complex, retailers should continue to work together as an industry to ensure continued partnerships, with the end goal of finding the most effective asset protection solutions possible.”

      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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      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.

      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.

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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.

      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.

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

      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...
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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.

      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.

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

      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...
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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 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.

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

      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...
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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 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.

      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.

      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...
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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 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. 

      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...
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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; 2001-2005 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

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

      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...
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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 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

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

      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 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.

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

      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...
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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 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

      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...
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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 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.

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

      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.

      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. ...
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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 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.”

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

      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...
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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 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."  

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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

      “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.

      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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      Colleges with the lowest student loan default rates

      But in a world where delinquency is rapidly rising, they are the exception

      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%.

      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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      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 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.

      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.

      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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      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 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.

      Chrysler (FCA US) is recalling an estimated 3,975 Fiat 500e hatchbacks to upgrade cruise-control software. An investigation by company engineers discover...
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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

      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.

      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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      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-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.

      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...
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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 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."

      When the housing market collapsed in 2008, millions of homeowners found themselves underwater, owing more on mortgages tha...
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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 “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.

      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...
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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” 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.”

      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...
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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 (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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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).

      United Salad of Portland, Ore., is recalling Champ's Sliced Crimini Mushrooms, a product of Canada. The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocyto...
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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 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.)

      Boulder Dog Food Company is recalling 3-oz. bags of Chicken Sprinkles. The product many be contaminated with Salmonella. One complaint was received from ...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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      Business names on Facebook? Punctuation makes it a scam. Period.

      Like-farming scammers use added punctuation to squat on company names

      If you spend enough time on Facebook, you're pretty much guaranteed to see lots of posts from “like-farming” scam pages.

      Like-farmers start pages and fill them with content dedicated to collecting as many “likes” or “shares” as possible in the shortest amount of time, in order to drive up the page's popularity ranking. Once it's high enough, the like-farmer removes the original page content and replaces it with anything from scam advertising to dangerous malware infections.

      Anytime you see a Facebook post with such phrases as “Like and share if you agree!” or “Like and share to win a valuable prize!” it's almost certain to be from a like-farmer seeking to drive up his popularity rank.

      Many like-farms take the names of legitimate businesses, but alter them slightly. If you see a company Facebook page with the company's own name misspelled, it's a safe bet you're looking at a scam page. For example, there are two Disney-branded theme parks in the United States — a California park with the one-word name “Disneyland,” and a Florida park whose full name has three words: “Walt Disney World.”

      So when you see Facebook pages with such names as “Disney Land” or “Disney World” or “Walt Disney Land,” you can dismiss them as fake pages without even inspecting their content.

      Problem is, this particular scam-detection method only works if you already know the full, exact, trademarked name of a given business well enough to recognize a fake (and there are lots of non-Disney employees who understandably can't be bothered to keep track of the differences between Disneyland, Disney Land, Walt Disney Land, Walt Disney World, Disney World, and so forth).

      Even easier

      But there's an easier way to detect a scammy Facebook business page that requires no “name knowledge” at all: look at the page's business name to see if there's any punctuation. If there is, it's probably a scam.

      Last month, we warned you about a then-new like-farming scam falsely promising the chance to win Disney theme park tickets and thousands of dollars cash spending money for anyone who “liked” and “shared” a particular Facebook post.

      That scammy like-farming Facebook page went by the name “Disney World.” — with a period at the end of the name. Of course, the incorrect name and the unnecessary punctuation weren't the only signs indicating a scam page: the real Walt Disney World Facebook page is identified as a “Theme Park” in its cover banner, whereas the “Disney World.” like-farming page (which, at press time, hasn't been updated since that May 14 like-farming fertilizer promising bundles of cash and “all paid for Disney World Vacation[s]” to 75 lucky winners) identifies as a “Transport/Freight” company in its banner.

      Most obvious of all, the real Walt Disney World Facebook page is entirely filled with various forms of pro-Disney advertising: videos, photos and articles all hammering home the message “Look how much fun you could have, if you spent money here at Walt Disney World!” But like-farming pages only have posts offering valuable prizes if you like and share their content.

      A current search for Facebook pages going by the name “Disney World.” (two words followed by a period) shows over half a dozen different like-farms currently in operation: in addition to the “Transport/freight” page, there's “Disney World.” with a “Computers/Technology” banner, offering $5,000 cash plus Disney park tickets if you “like” and “share” their most recent post; “Disney World.” in the “Engineering/Construction” business offering $2,500 plus Disney tickets if you like and share; a Disney World-plus-period “University” (offering tickets plus $3,500); a “Food/Beverages” company (tickets and $2,000); a “Travel/Leisure” group (tix plus $5,000) and a “Community Organization” (ditto).

      You'll find similarly scammy offers on Disney-name variants such as “Disney-World.” (note the period and the hyphen).

      There's also such oddities as the “Walt Disney Land” page with a “Local business” banner which, as of June 18, has some fairly impressive statistics (27K people “like” this) and a page history dating back to 2010. Yet there's not a single post visible on that page, anywhere.

      How does a Facebook page collect over 27,000 “likes” without posting any content?

      It doesn't. What's happening is the “like farmer” has already stripped whatever posts he used to collect likes and shares – almost certainly posts promising the chance to win valuable prizes.

      Of course, Disney isn't the only company whose theme parks are used as like-farming bait. Six Flags is another whose legitimate Facebook page has many poorly punctuated like-farming doppelgangers.

      “Six Flags.” with a period includes a “Government Organization” whose most recent post, from January, offered the chance to win Six Flags tickets and $2,500 cash if you “Just Share & Like this photo. (Comment to double chances).”

      A particularly lazy like-farmer must've been behind “Six Flags.” the “Community” page, whose most recent post, offering Six Flags season tickets and VIP perks, dates back to September 2013. Equally out-of-date are the pages belonging to “Six Flag's Vacation's” whose banner photo identifies them as a “Fictional Character,” and “Six Flag's Vacations” the “Community.”

      But in all such cases, the incorrect name or unnecessary punctuation was only the first of many signs that these are scammy like-farming pages; the main clue is the content. With any post you see on Facebook, remember that if you see such phrases as “Like and share if you agree!” or “Like and share to win a valuable prize!” there's almost certain to be a like-farmer behind the post.

      If you spend enough time on Facebook, you're pretty much guaranteed to see lots of posts from “like-farming” scam pages. Like-farmers start pages and fi...
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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 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.

      Samsung Galaxy owners beware: Researchers at a cybersecurity firm discovered that every Galaxy device from the S3 through the S6 contains a massive securit...
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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, 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

      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...
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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 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 Timesreports 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Southeast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 144 model year 2015 Toyota Tundras manufactured March 11, 2015, to April 11, 2015 and equipped with Nitto ...
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      FCC beefs up consumer protections against robocalls, auto-dialers and spam texts

      Telephone companies freed to use robocall-blocking technology

      That constantly ringing telephone may finally fall silent for at least a few minutes. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted new rules intended to protect consumers against unwanted robocalls and spam texts, affirming that consumers have a right to control the calls they receive.

      The Commission also made clear that telephone companies face no legal barriers to allowing consumers to choose to use robocall-blocking technology, something consumer groups have been seeking for a long time.

       “We are especially pleased that the FCC has provided a “Green Light for ‘Do Not Disturb’ Technology,” which will enable wireless and landline carriers to offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers, noted Delara Derakhshani, counsel with Consumers Union.

      The rulings are the result of thousands of consumer complaints about robocalls that have been pouring into the FCC every month. Complaints related to unwanted calls are the largest category of complaints received by the Commission, numbering more than 215,000 in 2014.

      “We applaud the FCC for holding the line to keep the plague of unwanted robocalls from becoming even worse,” added Susan Grant, director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at Consumer Federation of America. “Since the FCC has now clarified that telephone companies can block these types of calls, we expect the companies to act quickly to implement blocking options for their customers.” 

      Today’s action addresses almost two dozen petitions and other requests that sought clarity on how the Commission interprets the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), closing loopholes and strengthening consumer protections already on the books.

      The TCPA requires prior express consent for non-emergency autodialed, prerecorded, or artificial voice calls to wireless phone numbers, as well as for prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential wireline numbers.

      Landline and wireless protections

      Highlights for consumers who use either landline or wireless phones include:

      Green Light for ‘Do Not Disturb’ Technology – Service providers can offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers and implement market-based solutions that consumers can use to stop unwanted robocalls.

      Empowering Consumers to Say ‘Stop’ – Consumers have the right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time.

      Reassigned Numbers Aren’t Loopholes – If a phone number has been reassigned, companies must stop calling the number after one call.

      Third-Party Consent – A consumer whose name is in the contacts list of an acquaintance’s phone does not consent to receive robocalls from third-party applications downloaded by the acquaintance.

      Wireless protections

      Additional highlights for wireless consumers include:

      Affirming the Law’s Definition of Autodialer – “Autodialer” is defined as any technology with the capacity to dial random or sequential numbers. This definition ensures that robocallers cannot skirt consumer consent requirements through changes in calling technology design or by calling from a list of numbers.

      Text Messages as Calls – The Commission reaffirmed that consumers are entitled to the same consent-based protections for texts as they are for voice calls to wireless numbers.

      Internet-to-Phone Text Messages – Equipment used to send Internet-to-phone text messages is an autodialer, so the caller must have consumer consent before calling.

      Very Limited and Specific Exemptions for Urgent Circumstances – Free calls or texts to alert consumers to possible fraud on their bank accounts or remind them of important medication refills, among other financial alerts or healthcare messages, are allowed without prior consent, but other types of financial or healthcare calls, such as marketing or debt collection calls, are not allowed under these limited and very specific exemptions. Also, consumers have the right to opt out from these permitted calls and texts at any time.

      Today’s actions make no changes to the Do-Not-Call Registry, which restricts unwanted telemarketing calls, but are intended to build on the registry’s effectiveness by closing loopholes and ensuring that consumers are fully protected from unwanted calls, including those not covered by the registry.

      That constantly ringing telephone may finally fall silent for at least a few minutes. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted new rules intended ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      Of the more than 100 vehicles evaluated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), only 3 have child restraint installation hardware that earns ...
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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 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.

      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...
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      Feds: Black & Decker Spacemaker coffee pot hazard wasn't reported promptly

      Dozens of consumes were burned when the coffee pot handle broke, suit charges

      The Justice Department is suing the makers of Black & Decker Spacemaker coffee pots, charging that the company knew that handles could break off the coffee pots but didn't report the hazard promptly, as federal law requires.

      The coffeemakers generated hundreds of complaints from consumers over more than three years before the company finally notified the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of the carafe defect and recalled the product.  Dozens of consumers contacted the company to report burns related to the handle suddenly detaching. 

      Consumers rate Black & Decker Coffee Maker

      “Hundreds of consumers complained to the company about this dangerous defect over the years,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.  “We rely on companies to report these safety issues immediately, as the law requires, to prevent unnecessary injuries." 

      “We believe Spectrum Brands and Applica Consumer Products knew about the hazard with these coffeemakers for years,” said CPSC Chairman Elliot F. Kaye.  “Despite the fact that these firms were required to report potential hazards and risks to CPSC immediately, it appears they chose to profit from continued sales instead.  Their failure to follow the law and report, resulted in dozens of injuries to unsuspecting customers.”

      The complaint was filed against Spectrum Brands, a Delaware corporation headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin, that distributes a wide variety of brand-name small appliances, hardware, and home and garden products.  Applica Consumer Products was the Florida company that imported and distributed the coffeemaker.  Applica became a subsidiary of Spectrum in 2010, and the two companies merged in 2014.

      The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, charges that the companies knowingly violated the reporting requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act with respect to defective carafe handles that could detach and cause hot coffee to pour onto consumers. 

      Kept selling them

      The government also alleges that, in addition to failing to notify the CPSC of the defect  “immediately” as required by law, the companies continued to distribute a small number of the defective coffeemakers to retailers even after the recall was announced.

      The companies distributed the coffeemakers from 2008 to 2012.  The complaint alleges that beginning as early as 2009 and continuing until April 2012, the companies received approximately 1,600 consumer complaints about defective carafe handles.  The coffeemakers were recalled in June 2012. 

      The Justice Department is suing the makers of Black & Decker Spacemaker coffee pots, charging that the company knew that handles could break off the coffee...
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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 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.

      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.

      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...
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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 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.

      Security National Automotive Acceptance Company (SNAAC) -- an auto loan company -- is being accused of using a combination of illegal threats and deceptive...
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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 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.

      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...
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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), 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.  

      Pinnacle Foods Group of Fayetteville, Ark., is recalling approximately 668,316 pounds of poultry products. The product contains monosodium glutamate (MSG)...
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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, 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.

      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...
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      AT&T fined $100 million for throttling “unlimited data” connections

      Company plans to fight FCC fine, claims throttling is actually network management

      A record-breaking $100 million fine has been levied against AT&T; for throttling the connections of its “unlimited data” customers (although AT&T; has said it intends to fight the fine in court).

      AT&T; started throttling its “unlimited” customers' connections in 2011, ultimately affecting millions of its customers, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

      What exactly is “data throttling,” and why would AT&T; inflict it on “unlimited data” customers? To make an analogy: imagine you paid for an “all you can eat” buffet promising “unlimited” amounts of food. But there's a catch. Turns out that, after you finish your first full plate of food, your buffet connection is henceforth “throttled” so you're required to eat far more slowly than people usually do: anytime you swallow a mouthful of food, you have to wait a full minute before you're allowed to take another bite, and after cleaning your plate you must wait ten minutes before going back for a refill. So in theory, you can eat all the food you want, but in practice you can't even enjoy an ordinary-sized meal under such restrictive conditions.

      That's essentially what AT&T; has done to its mobile customers, only restricting data rather than food. Last October, the Federal Trade Commission sued AT&T; for its data-throttling practices, claiming that some smartphone customers with unlimited data plans had their data speeds reduced by as much as 90%. The FTC alleged that AT&T; began throttling data speeds in 2011 for its unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2 gigabytes of data in a billing period.

      And in March, a federal judge rejected AT&T;'s attempt to hide behind common-carrier exemptions to avoid the FTC's lawsuit.

      It is true that sometimes, when networks are congested from heavy use, a certain level of throttling (especially against the heaviest data users) genuinely is necessary to keep the network running smoothly for all.

      On a related note, that's why when hurricanes, major earthquakes or other natural disasters damage infrastructure and knock out utilities over a wide region, cell phone and smartphone users are asked to use light-bandwidth text messages rather than heavy-bandwidth voice or video calls to keep in contact with friends and family.

      Should you ever have the bad luck to find yourself in a literal disaster area someday, don't be surprised to discover that everybody's wireless connections have been throttled so that streaming video and other data-heavy online activity is impossible for the duration.

      Revenue enhancement

      But that's not what AT&T; has allegedly been doing. Long before the FTC filed its lawsuit, AT&T;'s critics have claimed that the company uses data throttling not for network management reasons but for revenue enhancement — and pointed to the company's own advertised pricing policies as evidence.

      For example: in January 2014, AT&T; launched its then-new “Sponsored Data” program, which it said would shift “mobile data costs from the consumer to the content provider.” (In other words, websites would have to pay in order to ensure AT&T; mobile visitors could access them in a timely fashion, in complete opposition to proposed “net neutrality” rules.)

      At the time, TechDirt called the program “an admission that data caps have nothing to do with congestion.”

      Today, in its press release announcing the $100 million fine, the Federal Communications Commission explained that:

      AT&T; began offering unlimited data plans in 2007, allowing customers to use unrestricted amounts of data. Although the company no longer offers unlimited plans to new customers, it allows current unlimited customers to renew their plans and has sold millions of existing unlimited customers new term contracts for data plans that continue to be labeled as “unlimited”.


      In 2011, AT&T; implemented a “Maximum Bit Rate” policy and capped the maximum data speeds for unlimited customers after they used a set amount of data within a billing cycle. The capped speeds were much slower than the normal network speeds AT&T; advertised and significantly impaired the ability of AT&T; customers to access the Internet or use data applications for the remainder of the billing cycle.

      Locked in

      Consumers rate AT&T; Wireless

      Adding insult to injury, the FCC also said that “Consumers also complained about being locked into a long-term AT&T; contract, subject to early termination fees, for an unlimited data plan that wasn’t actually unlimited.”

      So AT&T; not only sold an unlimited data plan that actually had strict secret limits, it penalized customers who then tried to get out after learning that AT&T; wasn't upholding its end of the promised bargain.

      To return to the all-you-can eat buffet analogy, this is like locking customers in the restaurant and forcing them to slowly eat all of their meals there.

      AT&T;, for its part, says it will “vigorously dispute the FCC’s assertions.” The company is also implying that its data throttling practice is actually legitimate network management (akin to throttling video in a storm zone). As The Verge noted:

      [AT&T;] argues that the commission has "identified this practice as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources," although that's sort of ignoring what the FCC is actually saying. The commission isn't taking issue with AT&T;'s throttling for the purpose of "reasonable network management," it's taking issue with AT&T; throttling customers indiscriminately because they've used a lot of data.

      Trick or treat

      And it's alleged that AT&T;'s own behavior strongly supports the FCC's claim. Last September, for example, AT&T; offered a then-new promotion slated to run through Halloween: new customers who signed up for AT&T;'s “Mobile Share Value Plan” before Halloween would get double the data limits of ordinary mobile customers. At the time, the standard Mobile Share Value Plan offered customers 15 gigabytes (GB) of data per billing period, whereas new customers who signed up before Oct. 31 were offered 30 GB per billing period.

      Meanwhile, customers with “unlimited” data plans had their connections throttled after only 5 GB per bill period. To recap: AT&T; users with unlimited data plans got throttled after only 5GB, whereas “ordinary” new customers got at least 15GB unless they signed on during that special Halloween promotion in which case they got 30GB – six times what “unlimited” data users enjoyed before throttling. And that was with the smallest data plan; AT&T; offered another with a whopping 100GB of shared data – for $375 per month.

      Yet the same company that can provide up to 100 gigabytes of shared data to certain customers also claimed that “network management” obligates it to throttle any unlimited data user who shares a mere 5 gigabytes of data. That's how math works at AT&T; company HQ: 5GB from an “unlimited” plan causes more congestion than a 100GB limit, and putting strict limits on unlimited data.

      Still, AT&T; said, in response to the FCC's latest fine, that “The FCC has specifically identified this practice [data throttling] as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources for the benefit of all customers, and has known for years that all of the major carriers use it …. We have been fully transparent with our customers, providing notice in multiple ways and going well beyond the FCC’s disclosure requirements.”

      Photo © v.poth - FotoliaA record-breaking $100 million fine has been levied against AT&T for throttling the connections of its “unlimited data” custo...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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 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.”

      For over a year now, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NITA), a division of the Commerce Department, has hosted talks with te...
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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 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.

      You can add racketeering charges to the problems facing General Motors. Lawyers representing consumers who are suing GM over faulty ignition switches have ...
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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 lose customer payment-card data after hackers planted malware on the point-of-sale (POS) systems used in checkout lanes at Fred's locations.

      Security 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.

      Southern and Midwestern shoppers beware: it looks like Fred's Super Dollar, a discount pharmacy and general merchandise retailer, is the latest business to...
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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 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.  

      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...
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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 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.”

      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...
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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 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.

      Just days after Whole Foods announced a new chain of lower-priced stores, the Cornucopia Institute, which advocates organic growing, has taken the popular...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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.

      "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."

      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...
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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), 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.

      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)...
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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 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."

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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'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.

      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'...
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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' 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

      So 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.

      Last week eBay and PayPal both announced some upcoming changes to their user agreements, changes indicating such breathtaking contempt for their customers'...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      International Vitamin Corporation (IVC) of Freehold, N.J., is recalling about 17,000 containers of Multivitamin Women 50+ tablets The packaging is not ch...
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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 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).

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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-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.

      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...
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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 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.

      After declining for 6 consecutive weeks, applications for mortgages moved upward last week. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mort...
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      Homeowners' association threatens to sue residents over wheelchair ramp

      Because learning from someone else's mistake is just too easy

      Last month, a homeowners' association in Franklin, Tennessee paid $156,000 to settle (with no admission of wrongdoing) a lawsuit brought by former residents who said that the HOA discriminated against them and violated the Fair Housing Act, when it refused to let them build a therapeutic sunroom where their two children with Down syndrome could play and receive in-home physical therapy.

      And this week, another HOA in nearby Brentwood is threatening to sue a couple unless they remove a wheelchair ramp necessary for the husband to enter his own home.

      WSMV reports that, after Michael Broadnax suffered a stroke last summer, his wife Charlotte put a small ramp in front of their house so her husband could have his rehabilitation therapy at home. But their HOA, the Woodlands of Copperstone, sent them a letter dated June 1 and demanding the ramp be removed within 14 days.

      “The association demands that within 14 days of the date of this letter, you remove the wheelchair ramp and restore the exterior of your home,” the letter said, or else “the association [will] come onto your property and remove the ramp and charge you with the work.” Furthermore, “If you force the association to sue you, it will seek a court order” and then charge the Broadnaxes for attorney's fees.

      Charlotte Broadnax says that she installed the ramp around Thanksgiving. “The nursing home said they were sending my husband home and I needed a ramp put up.” So she hired a legal contractor to install the ramp, whch passed the nursing home's inspection, and she also says that neither her neighbors nor anybody else ever complained to her about the ramp — until she received the certified letter threatening legal action if she didn't remove it within two weeks.

      Ghertner and Company, which manages the HOA, said in a press statement that:

      The governing documents for this community require that all exterior improvements receive prior approval. A letter was sent to the owner regarding the ramp as no application for approval had been received.

      The board did not know the ramp was for the homeowner, Mr. Broadnax. The association would like to work with the owners on a compromise regarding the appearance and location of the ramp and compliance with any applicable codes.

      The Federal Fair Housing Act bans “discrimination in sale or rental of housing,” including discriminatory HOA policies, and says that “discrimination includes a refusal to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modifications of existing premises occupied or to be occupied by such person if such modifications may be necessary to afford such person full enjoyment of the premises.” (And last March, an HOA in North Carolina had to pay $20,000 to settle allegations that it discriminated against a disabled resident by trying to get rid of said resident's wheelchair ramp.)

      It is arguably impossible to experience “full enjoyment” of any premises if you cannot enter them because you are confined to a wheelchair and your HOA wants your wife to tear down your wheelchair ramp. Then again, the management company did say they didn't know the ramp was for the homeowner's use. Maybe they'll change their minds now that they know the ramp is intended for medicinal rather than recreational purposes.

      Last month, a homeowners' association in Franklin, Tennessee paid $156,000 to settle (with no admission of wrongdoing) a lawsuit brought by former resident...
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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 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.  

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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 ...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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.

      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...
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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 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. 

      Five Georgia Congressmen have written to federal safety regulators to urge that large trucks and buses be equipped with forward collision avoidance technol...
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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' 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.

      Recent data breaches at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) show that businesses keeping files on consumers' pe...
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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, 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.

      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...
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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 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 and took me to jail like a common criminal. The crime was braiding without a cosmetology license.”

      Wrapped in red tape

      Brantley spent years challenging the hairbraiding regulations in court, and in 2007 the state modified the requirements: henceforth, hairbraiders seeking a license would only have to show 35 hours of formal training rather than 1,500 hours, and Brantley specifically was “grandfathered in” and granted a braiding license.

      So she won the legal right to professionally braid hair, but when she tried opening a school to give others the 35 hours of instruction they'd need to to do the same, the state told her a braiding school must meet the same standards as a barber school.

      Brantley sued the state in 2013, saying that the barber regulations on her braiding school were unconstitutional and unreasonable. The non-profit Institute For Justice, which joined Brantley in filing her suit, outlined the requirements Texas set before Brantley could legally teach the art of traditional African hairbraiding:

      … Isis must spend 2,250 hours in barber school, pass four exams, and spend thousands of dollars on tuition and a fully-equipped barber college she doesn’t need, all to teach a 35-hour hairbraiding curriculum.  Tellingly, Texas will waive all these regulations if Isis goes to work for an existing barber school and teaches hairbraiding for them. 

      That “fully equipped” barber college would have to include at least 10 student workstations, each with a reclining barber chair, plus one hair-washing sink for every two workstations. None of these are required, or used in any way, for braiding hair.

      In January, a federal judge ruled that Texas' regulations on hairbraiding schools were unconstitutional and did nothing to advance public health or safety, nor meet any other legitimate government interest.

      During that trial Arif Panju, the Institute For Justice attorney who represented Brantley in her court battle, noted that the state couldn't identify a single hairbraiding school capable of meeting those strict barber-school requirements. And today, Panju called Governor Abbott's stated intention of signing HB 2717 into law this afternoon “a final victory for natural hair braiders across Texas. It also serves as recognition that occupational licensing has gone too far when 1 in 3 Texans are forced to obtain a government license to simply go to work each morning.”

      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...
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      New $25 blood test can identify every virus you've ever had

      Experimental test can “read” the infectious history written in your immune system

      According to a research article published in the latest issue of Science, a new, still-experimental blood test called VirScan can identify almost every virus you've ever been exposed to, by testing only a single drop of your blood. Better still, this test is expected to only cost $25 to perform.

      On June 5, Science published a research article discussing “Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome.” The study's senior author is Stephen Elledge, a professor of genetics and medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

      Elledge admits that the current version of the test has some limitations – it can overlook smaller viruses, or miss past infections for which the immune response has dwindled, but the test can apparently detect signs of exposure to over 1,000 strains from 206 different species of virus — almost every virus known to infect humans.

      The study's abstract page offers a brief explanation of how this works: “In addition to causing illness, viruses leave indelible footprints behind, because infection permanently alters the immune system. Blood tests that detect antiviral antibodies can provide information about both past and present viral exposures.” But researchers “developed a blood test that identifies antibodies against all known human viruses” by “[u]sing a synthetic representation of all human viral peptides.”

      Amino acids

      Peptides are combinations of amino acids, and amino acids are what combine to make various proteins. A virus, meanwhile, is essentially just a scrap or genetic material, either DNA or RNA, wrapped in a protein shell.

      Viruses are not considered living organisms in their own right, because they cannot reproduce by themselves (or in conjunction with other members of their species). Viruses can only reproduce by invading the cells of living organisms – usually plants, animals or bacteria – and then commandeering those living cells to produce new copies of the virus.

      When you get a virus, your immune system (ideally) responds by producing special proteins called “antibodies” to fight the viral infection. But traces of those antibodies will remain even after you've beaten that virus, which means you now enjoy what's called “acquired immunity” to that virus: even if you're exposed to that particular virus again, your immune system knows how to produce the necessary antibodies and fight off the virus before you even feel sick.

      Consider the viral disease people call “the common cold” even though it's technically inaccurate to talk about the common cold, because it's not a single disease. There are over 200 different viruses that cause cold-like symptoms in people, and once you've had a particular cold virus, you then enjoy acquired immunity to it.

      Something going around

      This explains, among other things, why young children seem to catch colds all the time, whereas middle-aged and older adults rarely do: all else being equal, the older you are, the more colds you've already had and thus the more acquired immunities you've collected. It also explains the occasional mystery “Seems like everybody in my social circle caught a nasty cold — except me. I wonder why I didn't catch it?” Maybe it's because you already had that particular strain of cold virus a few years ago, and acquired immunity before your current companions did.

      (Vaccines, meanwhile, work by using dead or weakened strains of certain viruses to stimulate the immune system into producing the right strain of virus-fighting antibodies without actually suffering from the viral infection.)

      So if your doctor wants to know whether you have or had a particular viral infection, it's relatively easy to find out by looking for those virus-specific antibodies in your blood. But VirScan promises to vastly streamline this process by testing not merely for one viral antibody, but almost all of them. This not only makes it easier to determine a patient's full viral history, but will also make it easier to detect and treat certain viral infections before the patient even shows symptoms.

      For example, people with hepatitis C have a pretty good prognosis if they are treated right away — but the disease usually takes awhile to develop noticeable symptoms, and by the time that happens the infection's advanced enough to be difficult to treat.

      Better treatment options

      In addition to improving treatment options for individual patients, VirScan also promises to make it much easier for researchers to study the overall history and development of certain diseases – how do they spread, and which populations are most vulnerable. It can also further research to study whether individual viruses or the body's own immune response to them could in turn lead to other diseases, or even in the development of certain cancers.

      As Stephen Elledge said, “I'm sure there’ll be lots of applications we haven’t even dreamed of. That’s what happens when you invent technology — you can’t imagine what people will do with it. They're so clever.”

      According to a research article published in the latest issue of Science, a new, still-experimental blood test called VirScan can identify almost every vir...
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      Maybe pet insurance isn't such a great idea; it all depends

      There are several factors to consider before taking out a policy on your pooch

      Having a pet costs a little bit of money. After all it’s one more mouth to feed and right behind that is veterinary care.

      Americans spend an estimated $15 million on veterinary care a year. That’s a lot of office exams. When you think of all of the strides made in modern medicine for humans the same has followed suit for your dogs and cats. It costs a great deal for all of the specialized tests and medicine.

      According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, pet policies have grown an average of 13% each year since 2009. Considering Americans spent $58.5 billion on their pets last year, it makes sense.

      Keep in mind ...

      Some dog breeds cost more to insure. Among the most expensive breeds to insure are Rottweilers, Great Danes and Bernese mountain dogs. It’s not because they are big and dangerous, it’s just because they are big and larger breeds are genetically predisposed to costly conditions like cancer and hip dysplasia. The least expensive to insure are Shih Tzus and poodles.

      According to Trupanion Insurance, factors other than breed that go into the cost of insuring your dog:

      • Your dog’s age at enrollment;
      • Gender;
      • Where your dog lives; and
      • Whether your dog has been spayed/neutered

      Similar to humans 

      Since human insurance is what you are most familiar with it is the easiest to use for comparison. When we get a health insurance policy there is a deductible -- you meet it and then you can start factoring the savings.

      But with pet insurance some companies work differently. The deductible applies to each condition being treated. For example, if your policy has a $250 deductible, you’ll pay the first $250 of the bill when your dog eats a box of raisins, then another $250 weeks later when your cat scratches the dog in the eye. It is best to ask about the policy and how the deductible actually works.

      Similar to other types of insurance, premiums are lower when deductibles are higher. You may find some that will reimburse just a flat amount rather than a percentage.

      Be aware those premiums can rise each year. Premiums can be linked to your pet's aging. Premiums may also differ from one state to another. 

      We humans can no longer be discriminated because of a pre-existing condition but if you’re a dog or cat you can be.  All pet insurers exclude pre-existing conditions. They might also impose a maximum limit on treatment for individual conditions or on the yearly or lifetime reimbursement for those conditions. 

      One of the important things to think about is the type of pet that you have. Is it predisposed to a certain condition? Is it vulnerable to getting sick? If the answer is no you might want to hold off on pet insurance and just put money away in the bank each month. 

      But if you know you have a breed that is susceptible to a skin condition or cancer it makes sense to protect yourself and your pet. There is a lot of emotion tied up in having a pet and if it’s just peace of mind then it might be worth your while to get a policy.

      Having a pet costs a little bit of money. After all it’s one more mouth to feed and right behind that is veterinary care. Americans spend an estimated $...
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      Chevrolet Colorado, and GMC Canyon trucks with leaky brakes recalled

      The front brake calipers may leak brake fluid

      General Motors is recalling 14,838 model year 2015 Chevrolet Colorado, and GMC Canyon trucks manufactured January 6, 2014, to December 24, 2014.

      The recalled vehicles may experience the front brake calipers leaking brake fluid due to air pockets, an imperfection in the metal caliper body.

      If the vehicle experiences a brake fluid leak it can increase the stopping distance, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace the front-brake calipers if necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin July 10, 2015.

      Owners may contact GM customer service at 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet), or 1-800-462-8782 (GMC). GM's number for this recall is 14888.

      General Motors is recalling 14,838 model year 2015 Chevrolet Colorado, and GMC Canyon trucks manufactured January 6, 2014, to December 24, 2014. The rec...
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      Benedetti Farms recalls chicken and turkey sausage products

      The products are wrapped in hog and sheep casings not listed on the labels

      Benedetti Farms of a Sonoma, Calif., is recalling approximately 11,670 pounds of chicken and turkey sausage products.

      The products are wrapped in hog and sheep casings not listed on the labels. Hog and sheep casings may elicit allergic reactions in individuals known to be allergic to pork or sheep proteins.

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

      The following items, produced from December 14, 2014 through June 4, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 10-lb.case containing 5-lb. clipped bag packages of 1-oz. pieces of “Sierra Sausage Co. Chicken Apple Sausage.”
      • 10-lb.case containing 5-lb. clipped bag packages of 2-oz. pieces of “Sierra Sausage Co. Chicken Apple Sausage.”
      • 10-lb.case containing 2.5-lb. clipped bag packages of 3-oz. pieces of “Sierra Sausage Co. Chicken and Basil Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Chorizo Sausage.”
      • 10-lb.case containing 2.5-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Apple Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Apple Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of 4-oz. pieces of “Willie Bird Turkey Apple Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of 1-oz. pieces of “Willie Bird Chicken Apple Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey ‘Hot’ Italian Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Cajun Style Sausage.”
      • 10-lb.case containing 2.5-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Basil Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Breakfast Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Italian Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Basil Sausage with Sundried Tomato.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Jalapeno and Garlic Sausage.”
      • 20-lb.case containing 4-lb. clipped bag packages of “Willie Bird Turkey Habanero and Garlic Sausage.”

      The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-18216” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to wholesale and institutional locations in California.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Greg Brodsky at (707) 545-3308.

      Benedetti Farms of a Sonoma, Calif., is recalling approximately 11,670 pounds of chicken and turkey sausage products. The products are wrapped in hog and ...
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      Chevy Malibus with seat belt issue recalled

      Steel cables that connect the seat belts to the vehicle may be bent

      General Motors is recalling 437,045 model year 2011-2012 Chevrolet Malibus manufactured April 8, 2010, to October 11, 2012.

      The flexible steel cables that connect the seat belts to the vehicle at the outside of the driver seat and the front passenger seat may be bent from being sat on while entering the vehicle. This repeated bending may result in the cable breaking.

      If the cable breaks, the seat occupant may not be restrained properly in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of injury.

      GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the outboard lap anchor mounting bracket and inspect the flexible steel cable, replacing it as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin July 3, 2015.

      Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 15031.

      General Motors is recalling 437,045 model year 2011-2012 Chevrolet Malibus manufactured April 8, 2010, to October 11, 2012. The flexible steel cables tha...
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      Mazda B-series light trucks recalled

      The air bag inflator could rupture upon deployment

      Mazda North American Operations is recalling 27,149 model year 2004-2006 Mazda B-series light trucks manufactured from April 17, 2003, through May 2, 2006.

      The recalled vehicles are equipped with a passenger side front air bag that may be susceptible to moisture intrusion which, over time, could cause the inflator to rupture upon deployment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment of the passenger's frontal air bag, the inflator could rupture with metal fragments striking the vehicle occupants, potentially resulting in serious injury or death.

      Mazda will notify owners, and dealers will replace the the passenger side frontal air bag inflator, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by the end of July 2015.

      Owners may contact Mazda at 1-800-222-5500. Mazda's number for this recall is 8315F.  

      Mazda North American Operations is recalling 27,149 model year 2004-2006 Mazda B-series light trucks manufactured from April 17, 2003, through May 2, 2006....
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      Quincy Street recalls pork products

      The products may be contaminated with foreign materials

      Quincy Street, Inc., of Holland, Mich., is recalling approximately 49,308 pounds of pork sausage products.

      The products may be contaminated with foreign materials.

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

      The following pork sausage items, produced on April 22, 2015 through April 23, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 10-lb. packages containing 2-oz. pieces of “Skin On Sausage Links” with reorder number 466301.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 2-oz. pieces of “Pork Sausage Patties” with reorder number 313963.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1.8-oz. pieces of “Skin On Sausage Links” with reorder number 505361.
      • 12-lb. packages containing 1.5-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Quincy Street Soy Patties” with item number 012010.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1-oz. pieces of “Skin On Sausage Links” with reorder number 245852.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1-oz. pieces of “Skin On Buffet Style Links” with reorder numbers 266876.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1-oz. pieces of “Skin On Buffet Style Links” with reorder numbers 161100.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 0.8-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Blackstone Skin On Breakfast Links with Sage” with item number 55571.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1.8-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Blackstone Mild Skin On Sausage Links” with item number 55545.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 0.8-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Blackstone Mild Skin On Sausage Links” with item number 55522.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Skin On Pork Sausage Links with Sage” with item number 55521.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Quincy Street Skin On Pork Sausage Links” with item number 12008.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1.5-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Blackstone Breakfast Patties with Sage” with item number 55544.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 2-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Blackstone Breakfast Patties with Sage” with item number 55572.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 0.8-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Blackstone Skin On Pork Sausage Links with Sage” with item number 55517.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1-oz. pieces of “Quincy Street Skin On Breakfast Links” with item number 010716.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 5.3-oz. pieces of “Quincy Street Bold n’ Spicy Sausage Patties” with item number 010749.
      • 10-lb. packages containing “Quincy Street Bold n’ Spicy Bulk Pork Sausage” with item number 010745.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 2-oz. pieces of “Quincy Street Pork Sausage Patties” with item number 010706.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1-oz. pieces of “Quincy Street Russ’ Own Special Blend Pork Sausage Links” with item number R10702.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1-oz. pieces of “Quincy Street Skin On Breakfast Links” with item number 010716.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1-oz. pieces of “Quincy Street Skin On Pork Sausage Links” with item number 010702.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 1.8-oz. pieces of fully cooked “Quincy Street Skin On Pork Sausage Links” with item number 010781.
      • 10-lb. packages containing 5.3-oz. pieces of “Quincy Street Bold n’ Spicy Sausage Patties” with item number 010749.

      The recalled products bear the establishment number “EST. 18963” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to institutions nationwide.

      Consumers with questions may contact Ron Potts at (616) 738-5303.  

      Quincy Street, Inc., of Holland, Mich., is recalling approximately 49,308 pounds of pork sausage products. The products may be contaminated with foreign m...
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      Feds vow tougher scrutiny of automakers' safety efforts, may collaborate with personal-injury lawyers

      Early warning reports of suspected defects will be more tightly monitored, officials vow

      Automakers are being put on notice that they'll face much more stringent oversight from federal safety regulators following such debacles as the GM ignition switch crisis, the epidemic of exploding Takata airbags and alleged recall foot-dragging by Chrysler.

      The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) today released two reports outlining their,plans for tougher oversight and identifying shortcomings in its own efforts.

      But nothing drew more gasps than the revelation that DOT and NHTSA would be consulting with personal injury lawyers, who often find and document safety hazards long before they come to NHTSA's attention.

      In fact, lawyers who specialize in auto accidents and product liability already have their own informal but highly sophisticated,networks that share data the attorneys collect as they build evidence against automakers. In many cases, records are sealed after a trial ends in an out-of-court settlement, especially those involving huge damage awards arising from injuries caused by safety defects, so the information is never made public.

      Which truck roof pillar collapses?

      For example, every lawyer who handles such cases can tell you with great specificity what model and year pick-up truck has weak windshield pillars that often cause the roof to collapse in a roll-over accident, crushing the occupants to death. The lawyers' private networks also guide attorneys to expert witnesses who have already done much of the research needed to bring similar cases to trial.

      While lawyers would still be barred from disclosing specifics of past cases, they could lead federal investigators in the right direction.

      Sober self-examination

      “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 will 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.

      The reports released by Rosekind also identify instances in which the agency could have taken stronger measures, most notably in the case of the GM ignitions, which have been linked to,109 deaths,and more than 200 injuries.

      NHTSA said that GM withheld information but also conceded the agency did not push back hard enough, merely analyzing the incomplete GM responses and discounting outside theories that suggested the reason airbags did not deploy was that the faulty ignition switch had cut power to the engine -- and therefore the airbags -- prior to the crash.

      Decades lost

      NHTSA has been bitterly criticized by decades by safety advocates who say it is too cozy with automakers, too slow to identify safety defects and lax in policing the recall process to ensure that all affected vehicles are repaired promptly.

      For example, FCA US LLC -- the company formerly known as Chrysler -- is currently under scrutiny for delays in carrying out modifications to Jeep Cherokees that are allegedly prone to burst into flames in rear-end collisions. FCA executives face a July 2 hearing before NHTSA to discuss whether the company has properly handled recalls affecting more than 10 million vehicles.

      Safety advocates greeted the reports positively but cautiously, noting that increased Congressional funding was by now means assured.

      "The assessment calls for a new paradigm in funding and resources to match the dramatic increase in the number of vehicles on the road and the increasing sophisticated technology in vehicles," said Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety.

      "NHTSA in the 1970's with a more adequate budget and aggressive enforcement was much like the New Paradigm in the Path Forward. But as funding decreased and secrecy increased in the 1980's and beyond, the agency became a weak enforcer and mass vehicle defects became common behind closed doors," Ditlow noted.

      "Killing drivers ... for years"

      On Capitol Hill, Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the NHTSA must resolve to prevent future tragedies like the GM ignition switch debacle.

      “We are pleased that NHTSA has acknowledged neglecting critical information that should have moved it to take action much earlier on faulty GM ignition switches that were killing drivers and passengers for years. Unfortunately, for more than a decade, NHTSA failed to address the information and evidence it had in its own database linking defective ignition switch to fatal accidents," the senators said in a joint statement.

      "It is incumbent upon Administrator Rosekind to put in place permanent measures necessary to prevent another tragedy like this from ever happening again. Those measures must include a requirement that the types of secret documents that NHTSA had access to are made public, and the enactment of our legislation that requires more information to be reported to NHTSA’s Early Warning Reporting database when auto manufacturers first become aware of incidents involving fatalities.”

      The two have introduced legislation that they say would ensure more transparency and earlier reporting of safety issues to prevent auto injuries and fatalities.

      The legislation, the Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act, would require NHTSA make the information it receives from auto manufacturers publicly available in a searchable, user-friendly format so that consumers and independent safety experts can evaluate potential safety defects themselves.

      The trailer hitch-equipped Jeep in which Cassidy Jarmon, 4, burned to death (Photo: Center for Auto Safety)Automakers are being put on notice that th...
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      Hackers swipe confidential files on 4 million federal workers

      Second major breach in a year of federal personnel records

      Hackers have gained access to confidential personnel records of more than 4 million current and retired federal employees, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said late Thursday. It's the second major breach of federal personnel records in a year.

      "The FBI is working with our interagency partners to investigate this matter," the FBI said in a statement Thursday night. "We take all potential threats to public and private sector systems seriously and will continue to investigate and hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace."

      OPM, the federal government's equivalent of a private company's Human Resources department, said it couldn't say exactly what data the hackers took but said it could be used in "spear-phishing" attacks -- emails designed to make targets think they are dealing with a legitimate request. 

      For example, a hacker might have enough information to trick a federal employee into thinking an email came from a colleague or an OPM official.

      News of the breach was not well received on Capitol Hill.

      “Today's reported breach is part of a troubling pattern by this agency in failing to secure the personal data of federal employees – the second major breach in a year," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "Cyberattacks present a critical threat to our national security and our economy.  We cannot afford to keep dragging our feet in addressing the escalating threats posed by hackers out to steal individuals’ personal information.”

      Chinese involvement?

      It's one of the largest hacks of government information ever and unofficial reports said the attack bore the markings of the Chinese government.

      OPM said it detected the breach in April -- while it was trying to clean up after a March 2014 hack attack -- and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it had concluded "at the beginning of May" that sensitive data had been stolen. Why it took more than a month to inform taxpayers and federal employees of the breach wasn't explained.

      In a typically oblique statement, OPM said -- in effect -- that it had stumbled onto the attack while attempting to shore up its defenses:

      Within the last year, OPM has undertaken an aggressive effort to update its cybersecurity posture, adding numerous tools and capabilities to its networks. As a result, in April 2015, OPM became aware of the incident affecting its information technology (IT) systems and data that predated the adoption of these security controls.

      "OPM immediately implemented additional security measures to protect the sensitive information it manages," the statement concluded.

      Sen. Warner said he is currently preparing to introduce data breach legislation that would create a "comprehensive, nationwide and uniform data breach standard requiring timely consumer notification for breaches of financial data and other sensitive information," presumably one that would require businesses and government agencies to notify employees as soon as intrusions are detected.

      Warner chaired the first hearing in Congress in the aftermath of a breach of the retailer Target.  On the heels of that hearing, Sens. Warner and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) called for the private sector to cooperate in creating Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs) to share information on data breaches, something the retail and financial services industries now have pursued on a voluntary basis.

      Additionally, Sens. Warner and Kirk introduced legislation in the last Congress to strengthen consumer protections for debit cardholders by capping liability for fraud at $50, the same amount as for credit cards.  Sen. Warner currently is working on legislation to require enhanced private sector data security measures and consumer breach notification.

      What to do

      Here's the advice OPM offered to federal employees whose records may have been lost due to its inability to safeguard them:

      • Monitor financial account statements and immediately report any suspicious or unusual activity to financial institutions.
      • Request a free credit report at www.AnnualCreditReport.com
      • Review resources provided on the FTC identity theft website, www.identitytheft.gov.
      • You may place a fraud alert on your credit file to let creditors know to contact you before opening a new account in your name.  Call TransUnion at 1-800-680-7289 to place this alert.  TransUnion will then notify the other two credit bureaus on your behalf.

      Hackers have gained access to confidential personnel records of more than 4 million current and retired federal employees, the U.S. Office of Personnel Man...
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      Australia's medical board urges doctors to stop prescribing homeopathic remedies

      At best they'll waste your money, and at worst they'll ruin your health

      On Wednesday, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (Australia's equivalent to the American Medical Association, more or less) formally asked pharmacists to stop stocking homeopathic “medicines” and doctors to stop prescribing them, on the grounds that homeopathic remedies do absolutely nothing.

      The request comes three months after Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) published an extensive review of previous studies on homeopathic remedies and concluded that homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo for treating any medical condition, and previous studies claiming otherwise all proved deeply flawed upon inspection:

      ….Although some studies did report that homeopathy was effective, the quality of those studies was assessed as being small and/or of poor quality. These studies had either too few participants, poor design, poor conduct and or reporting to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness of homeopathy....

      Dr. Frank Jones, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said that people who use homeopathic products to treat medical conditions endanger their health, because homeopathic users thus either delay getting effective medical treatment, or avoid it altogether. Jones expressed particular concern about reliance on so-called homeopathic vaccines.

      "Do not prevent diseases"

      “These alternatives do not prevent diseases or increase protective antibodies and there is no plausible biological mechanism by which these alternatives could prevent infection,” Dr. Jones said. “Individuals and the community are exposed to preventable diseases when homeopathic vaccines are used as an alternative to conventional immunization.”

      The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in America reached the same conclusion in a background paper on homeopathy: “it is not possible to explain in scientific terms how a remedy containing little or no active ingredient can have any effect.”

      What exactly is homeopathy? The Food and Drug Administration offers this capsule summary:

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

      Here is an example of how this supposedly works, offered by a pro-homeopathic website in the U.K.:

      Although homeopathy has its roots in Ancient Greek medicine, the system as we know it today is only around 200 years old. It all began with the observation that some remedies, when taken in raw form by a healthy person, produced very similar side-effects to the illnesses they were meant to treat. This led to the conclusion that 'like cures like' or, in other words: substances that produce symptoms can be used to treat those same symptoms when they are produced by an illnesses. This explains why Allium cepa (taken from onion, which causes watery eyes and running noses) is used to treat hay fever and common cold symptoms (like watery eyes and running noses). Another example is poison ivy, which causes itchiness, redness and intense burning and is used to treat conditions such as herpes and eczema, which both cause itchiness, redness and burning.

      Sounded good in 1700

      To be fair: such ideas sounded plausible in the 1700s, before humanity discovered the germ theory of disease in the 1860s, or started figuring out how allergies worked in the early 1900s – in other words, before we could even begin to accurately pinpoint the causes of various medical and biological problems that plague us.

      Samuel Hahnemann died in 1843, two decades too early to even suspect that herpes and the common cold are actually caused by various invisible, not-quite-living things called “viruses.”

      And given the abysmally ignorant and downright harmful state of the medical art in Hahnemann's day – some bloodletting prescriptions called for draining more blood out of a patient than we now know a typical adult human body actually contains – it's true that back then, getting no treatment at all (or taking a placebo) was often a better option than seeking official medical attention. For that matter, even rubbing poison ivy on your skin is less harmful than swallowing arsenic, bloodletting, purging and other spectacularly dangerous 18th-century medical treatments.

      But medical science and science in general has advanced considerably since the mid-1700s, whereas homeopathic theories remain essentially unchanged. Another core pillar of homeopathic belief (which, again, might have sounded plausible before humanity really understood anything about atomic structure, the periodic table of elements, how atoms combine into molecules and other basic aspects of modern chemistry) is that diluting substances in water actually makes those substances more potent, and that water can “remember” and maintain the qualities of substances once diluted in it.

      If you inspect the ingredients label of a homeopathic product, you’ll see the “active” ingredients are usually measured in C units: “This ingredient 6C,” “that ingredient 30C,” and so forth. They’re not talking about temperature measured in Celsius; the C in homeopathy stands for “centesimal,” which in homeopathic terms means “dilute to one part in a hundred.”

      "Dilution increases strength"

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

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

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

      If the homeopathic belief in dilution could be confirmed and reproduced under controlled circumstances, it would be a Nobel-worthy and world-changing discovery. No more shortages of life-saving drugs: just water one dose down (and strengthen it up) until there's enough for everybody.

      No need to worry about high grocery costs, if a single bowl of nourishing soup plus a few hundred gallons of clean water can make enough fattening and filling homeopathic stew to feed a typical family all year. And if watering down gasoline strengthened its potency rather than destroyed your car's engine, humanity could solve the triple problems of “climate change,” “environmental pollution” and “high energy costs” in approximately half a day.

      Unfortunately, despite the massive wealth and worldwide acclaim that would accrue to anybody proven capable of performing such wonders, no trustworthy, reproducible test results have ever shown homeopathic principles to work. That's why the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners urges doctors to stop risking their patients' health (and wasting untold amounts of money) prescribing ineffective homeopathic remedies.

      As the RACGP's Dr. Frank Jones said: “Given this lack of evidence, it does not make sense for homeopathy products to be prescribed by GPs or sold, recommended or supported by pharmacists.”

      Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy (Photo via Wikipedia)On Wednesday, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (Australia's equival...
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      Home buyers continue to make smaller down payments

      This suggests more entry-level shoppers are buying homes

      Though the traditional down payment is 20% of a home's purchase price, down payments can be much smaller – 3.5% for an FHA loan and as little as 3% for some conventional loans. New programs can lower them even more.

      As home prices creep higher, it becomes harder to meet the benchmark 20% down payment. So it isn't too surprising that homebuyers have been putting less down on recent home sales.

      RealtyTrac, which collects and markets a wide variety of housing data, reports the average down payment for single family homes, condos and townhomes purchased in the first quarter of 2015 was 14.8% of the purchase price, down from 15.2% in the previous quarter and down from 15.5% a year ago. It's the lowest down payment since the first quarter of 2012.

      RealtyTrac's Daren Blomquist says there was an increase in the number of FHA loans, with low down payments, during the period and that was partly the reason for the falling number. As far as housing trends go, he said it's a healthy sign.

      Return of the first-time buyer

      “Down payment trends in the first quarter indicate that first time homebuyers are finally starting to come out of the woodwork, albeit it gradually,” Blomquist said. “New low down payment loan programs recently introduced by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with the lower insurance premiums for FHA loans that took effect at the end of January are helping, given that first time homebuyers typically aren’t able to pony up large down payments.”

      Blomquist says first-time buyers increased their purchases in the first quarter, in part, because they had less competition from large institutional investors that had been buying up starter home inventory as rentals.

      Some lenders now have programs that offer financing with even less than 3% down. Blomquist says these plans represent a concerted effort by lenders to draw first-time buyers into the market.

      “I see the rise in low down payments as a positive for our market. In Seattle, it’s primarily a function of the price growth in our region combined with buyers looking to take advantage of the new Fannie/Freddie 97 loan to value programs,” said OB Jacobi, president of Windermere Real Estate, covering the Seattle market.

      In Seattle, low down payment loans were 13% of all purchase loans in King County and 31% of all purchase loans in Snohomish County.

      “As long as qualifying for mortgages remains stringent, I don’t see this as being problematic,” Jacobi said. “Our region continues to expand economically and the desire to buy remains high.”

      Nationwide, the share of low down payment loans — defined in the report as purchase loans with a loan-to-value ratio of 97 percent or higher, which would mean a down payment of 3% — was 27% of all purchase loans in the first quarter, up from 26% in the fourth quarter. Low down payment loans accounted for 83% of FHA purchase loans originated in the first quarter, while 11% of conventional loans were low down payment loans.

      More risk?

      Requiring buyers to put less of their own money into their home purchase sounds like a significant risk to the housing market. Isn't that what happened during the housing bubble?

      Craig King, COO of Chase International brokerage, in the Lake Tahoe andReno, Nev., market, says there are important distinctions.

      “The dangers of interest only, negative amortization, and low, low credit score loans are not a part of today’s low down loan programs,” King said. These are the components that got buyers in trouble during the severe downturn.”

      After all, mortgage qualification standards remain stringent. Without the types of high risk components rampant in the industry before 2009, King says low down payment loans can be a sound strategy.

      Though the traditional down payment is 20% of a home's purchase price, down payments can be much smaller – 3.5% for an FHA loan and as little as 3% for som...
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      Half of older Americans have no retirement savings

      Social Security becomes an increasingly fragile lifeline

      As data continues to pile up about the financial condition of older Americans, one conclusion is becoming pretty clear. For millions of Americans, there probably won't be any retirement.

      At least, not a retirement that fits into the traditional meaning of the word. A new report (PDF) from the General Accountability Office (GAO) shows a disturbing number of Americans are approaching their retirement years with no savings and few, if any, assets.

      Their future may then depend on whatever income they can derive from continued employment and the increasingly fragile lifeline provided by Social Security.

      52% have no savings

      In a report produced as the request of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the GAO found that 52% of U.S. households age 55 and older have no retirement savings, such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA. Worse still, the agency found many older households without retirement savings have few other resources, such as a defined benefit pension, non-retirement savings or other assets.

      The older Americans who do have retirement savings are in much better shape because the GAO found they typically also have other financial resources, such as pensions, non-retirement savings and real assets like property.

      Among those who have some retirement savings, the median amount of those savings is about $104,000 for households age 55-64 and $148,000 for households age 65-74. GAO estimates that is the equivalent to an inflation-protected annuity of $310 and $649 per month, respectively.

      Relying on Social Security

      Social Security provides most of the income for about half of households age 65 and older. GAO says these benefits offer 2 primary advantages; they are monthly payments that continue until death and adjust each year to provide cost-of-living increases.

      But U.S. workers have been paying into Social Security at a much slower rate than retirees have been withdrawing it. As a result GAO says the Social Security trust fund is projected to run out of money in 2034.

      What happens then is anyone's guess but one option is to reduce payments to cover just 75% of benefits. Another is to increase the withholding of the FICA tax, as was done in 1983.

      The Social Security Administration reports that as of April 2015 the average Social Security benefit received by retirees was $1,333 a month.

      Unable to maintain lifestyle

      GAO said it reviewed a number of different surveys and studies about Americans' retirement savings pattern and found widely differing conclusions. But its analysis shows that at least one-third to two-thirds of workers will be unable to maintain their present lifestyle if and when they retire.

      Perhaps because of that, younger Baby Boomers say they plan to work longer than they previously assumed. Workers age 55 and older say they expect to retire later and a higher percentage plan to work during their traditional retirement years.

      For those who can keep working, that helps address the lack of savings. However, as the GAO report points out, about half of current retirees said they retired earlier than planned when health problems cropped up or when their employer downsized or went out of business.

      The GAO report says that suggests that many workers may be overestimating their future retirement income and their ability to accumulate future savings.  

      As data continues to pile up about the financial condition of older Americans, one conclusion is becoming pretty clear. For millions of Americans, there pr...
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      Employment and the jobless rate both moved higher in May

      More good news: Those with jobs were earning more

      May was a strong month for job creation.

      According to the Labor Department (DOL), the economy cranked out 280,00 nonfarm payroll positions last month following a revised total of 221,000 new jobs in April.

      At the same time, the unemplopyment rate edged up 0.1% to 5.5%. But even that was good news as people who had given up looking for work re-entered the job market -- a sign of growing optimism.

      Nearly as important, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 0.3%, or 8 cents, in May to $24.96. Over the year, average hourly earnings are up 2.3%.

      Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza calls the May increase "a step in the right direction from the more pronounced weakness in March," but adds, "it remains a significant step in the wrong direction from the 324k pace at the end of last year. "

      Who is and isn't working

      Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (5.0%), adult women (5.0%t), teenagers (17.9%, whites (4.7%), blacks (10.2%), Asians (4.1%) and Hispanics (6.7%) showed little or no change in May.

      The civilian labor force rose by 397,000, but the labor force participation rate was little changed at 62.9%. Since April of last year, the participation rate has remained within a narrow range of 62.7% to 62.9%. The employment-population ratio was essentially unchanged in May at 59.4%.

      The number of people unemployed for less than 5 weeks fell by 311,000 to 2.4 million last month, following an increase in April. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) held at 2.5 million in May and accounted for 28.6% of the unemployed. Over the past 12 months, the number of long-term unemployed is down by 849,000.

      Where the jobs are

      Professional and business services added 63,000 jobs in last month and 671,000 jobs over the year. Employment also increased in computer systems design and related services (+10,000), temporary help services (+20,000), management and technical consulting services (+7,000) and in architectural and engineering services (+5,000).

      Employment in leisure and hospitality increased in May (+57,000) as did arts, entertainment and recreation (+29,000), while there's been little net change over the past 3 months in hiring at food services and drinking places.

      Also adding jobs were health (+47,000), retail trade (+31,000), construction (+17,000), transportation and warehousing (+13,000) and financial activities (+13,000).

      On the other hand employment in mining fell for the fifth month in a row, with a decline of 17,000 in May, while job creation in manufacturing, wholesale trade, information and government showed little change over the month.

      The complete report is avilable on the DOL website.

      May was a strong month for job creation. According to the Labor Department (DOL), the economy cranked out 280,00 nonfarm payroll positions last month foll...
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      Looking for a job? Check these fast-growing industries

      CareerBuilder highlights those expected to experience at least 15% job growth in 5 years

      With jobs a little more plentiful, consumers can be choosier when deciding whether to stay put or look for a new job. And those who are ready to make a move might find job site CareerBuilder.com'slatest survey useful.

      The company has just issued a list of industries that, based on its research, are expected to add jobs at a a faster pace from 2014 to 2019. The study is based on data pulled from over 90 national and state employment resources.

      The survey projects that the U.S. economy will probably create 8 million jobs from 2014 to 2019 – a 5% increase. As you might expect, some industries will grow more slowly, some will likely experience a greater%age gain during this period.

      Outperforming the national average

      “Around one third of all U.S. industries are expected to outperform the national average for employment growth over the next 5 years,” said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder. “While it’s not surprising that technology and health care made the list, the accumulation of new jobs will take place within a diverse mix of industries requiring a broad range of skills and experience.”

      To make the list, CareerBuilder had to determine that an industry would add at least 10,000 jobs over the 5 year period and experience at least 15% growth. A total of 20 industries made the list.

      The fastest growth – 36% – goes to a somewhat unlikely category, translation and interpretation services. However, it is only expected to add a little over 12,000 jobs, taking it from 34,431 in 2014 to 46,832 in 2019.

      In terms of sheer numbers, home health care services tops the list. With aging Baby Boomers it's expected to grow from 1,344,672 to 1,677,455 – an increase of 332,782 or 25%.

      Other growth areas include residential remodelers. With recent declines in home building activity more older housing stock will need to be updated and renovated to meet housing demand, creating opportunities for skilled tradesmen.

      CareerBuilder projects that industry will hire an additional 148,250 people, taking that workforce to 708,646 by 2019.

      Marketers in demand

      With competition to sell things never greater, CareerBuilder says marketing consultants will be in demand. Job growth should reach 55,142, a 21% increase.

      Computer systems design should also remain a hot field for the foreseeable future. Jobs should grow from 893,689 in 2014 to 1,083,160 – a 21% increase. Internet publishing and broadcasting should see 17% growth, rising from 164,367 jobs in 2014 to 192,240 in 2019.

      A large number of these jobs and industries do not require a 4-year college degree, which could increase a recent trend among Millennials to opt out of college.

      With jobs a little more plentiful, consumers can be choosier when deciding whether to stay put or look for a new job. And those who are ready to make a mov...
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      Smart Lipo dietary supplement recalled

      The products contain undeclared ingredients

      SmartLipo365 is recalling 122 lots of Smart Lipo (800, 900, 950 mg) capsules, that contain undeclared ingredients of sibutramine, desmethylsibutramine and phenolphthalein.

      Sibutramine and Phenolphthalein are not currently approved for marketing in the U.S. because of safety concerns. Health risks associated with phenolphthalein could include potentially serious gastrointestinal disturbances, irregular heartbeat and cancer with long-term use.

      These undeclared ingredients make these products unapproved new drugs for which safety and efficacy have not been established. These products may also interact in life-threatening ways with medications a consumer may be taking.

      Smart Lipo is marketed as a dietary supplement and is packaged in bottles of 30 capsules, with 22 bottles of 800mg, 77 bottles of 900mg, and 23 bottles of 950mg.The affected Smart Lipo products include the following expiration dates:

      • 800mg capsules - 9/15/2017,
      • 900mg capsules - 7/30/2017, and
      • 950mg capsules - 7/30/2017 & 7/30/2018.

      Smart Lipo was sold in stores, Centro Naturista in Richardson, Texas, SmartLipo365 in Arlington, Texas, as well as distributed nationwide via the Internet.

      The company is notifying its distributors and customers by e-mail and letter and will not continue the distribution of Smart Lipo.

      Consumers, distributors and retailers who have the recalled product should stop using it and dispose of it.

      Consumers with questions may contact SmartLipo365 at 1-(800)-547-6365 or by email at info@smartlipo365.com on Monday through Friday from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M. (CT).  

      SmartLipo365 is recalling 122 lots of Smart Lipo (800, 900, 950 mg) capsules. The products contain sibutramine, desmethylsibutramine and phenolphthalein,...
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      Demes recalls chicken and pork products

      The chicken sausages were wrapped in hog casings that were not listed on the labels

      Demes Gourmet Corp., of Fullerton, Calif., is recalling approximately 29,052 pounds of poultry and pork products.

      The chicken sausages were wrapped in hog casings that were not listed on the labels. Hog casings may produce allergic reactions in the rare cases of individuals known to be allergic to pork proteins.

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

      The following items, produced on various dates between Sept. 17, 2014, and June 1, 2015, are being recalled:

      • 18 lb. cases of 12 oz. tray packs of “Panama Sweet Chicken Longanisa.”

      The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-2888” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in California.

      Consumers with questions may contact Ruby Phillips at (714) 870-6040 or by email at demesgourmetcorp@gmail.com.

      Demes Gourmet Corp., of Fullerton, Calif., is recalling approximately 29,052 pounds of poultry and pork products. The chicken sausages were wrapped in ho...
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      Mazda recalls vehicles with driver-side 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 vehicles manufactured April 10, 2003, to February 18, 2008; and 2006-2007 Mazdaspeed6 vehicles manufactured August 4, 2005, to June 29, 2007.

      The vehicles are equipped with a dual-stage driver frontal 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 driver's frontal 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.

      Vehicles that have had their driver's frontal air bag replaced previously as part of a recall remedy need to have their air bag replaced under this recall as well.

      Owners may contact Mazda customer service at 1-800-222-5500. Mazda's number for this recall is 7914J.  

      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...
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      Big Lots recalls hanging chairs

      The hanging chairs can tip over when they face sideways and swing beyond the base

      Big Lots Stores of Columbus, Ohio, is recalling about 16,000 hanging chairs.

      The hanging chairs can tip over when they face sideways and swing beyond the base, posing a fall hazard.

      The company has received 8 reports of the hanging chairs falling in stores with consumers in them, including 5 reports of minor injuries.

      This recall involves egg-shaped hanging chairs made from brown plastic wicker pattern mesh and have red seat cushions. They hang from a chain connected to a black metal pole and U-shaped base.

      The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Big Lots stores from December 2014, through January 2015, for about $300 including the base.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled hanging chairs and return the chairs to Big Lots for a full refund. Consumers can discard the base.

      Consumers may contact Big Lots toll-free at (866) 244-5687 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., ET, Monday through Friday.

      Big Lots Stores of Columbus, Ohio, is recalling about 16,000 hanging chairs. The hanging chairs can tip over when they face sideways and swing beyond the ...
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      Industry analysts predict gasoline prices ready to fall

      Prices usually go down in June but history doesn't always repeat itself

      Gasoline prices began the month of June at their high for the year, up more than 70 cents a gallon since January, but they remain well below recent historical norms.

      A number of industry sources are predicting prices at the pump will be headed lower soon, treating drivers to what AAA predicts will be the cheapest summer gasoline prices since 2009.

      “This could be the year of the summer road trip with lower gas prices motivating millions of people to travel,” said AAA spokesman Avery Ash,. “Many drivers are likely to save hundreds of dollars this summer as gas prices remain more affordable than in recent years.”

      Even though prices have been creeping higher for weeks, to a national average of around $2.76 a gallon, fuel is a lot cheaper than it was at this time last year when it averaged $3.66 a gallon. And it might be about to get even cheaper.

      June pattern

      GasBuddy.com's Will Speer, writing on the site's blog, notes that there is a well established pattern of falling pump prices after Memorial Day, especially in certain markets.

      “Looking at the average of the last 5 days of May and June over the last 5 years, we see a common trend among the 4 largest U.S. markets,” Speer writes. “Los Angeles, despite having the highest absolute gas price, had the second highest drop in gas price from May to June with 11.3 cpg. The volatile Chicago market had the largest decrease in prices at 16.3 cpg over the 5 year period.”

      For its part, AAA says gas prices lose upward momentum in June as refineries complete seasonal maintenance and gear up production for the busy summer driving season. Gas prices have declined by an average of 12 cents per gallon in June over the past five years.

      “This production trend likely will continue this year, which means gasoline supplies could soon grow even more plentiful,” AAA says.

      Exceptions

      Maybe, but there are always exceptions and analysts will stay busy scanning the latest industry data for signs of anomalies. For example, in the 4 largest markets last year, prices actually rose slightly in June.

      In it's release of petroleum data this week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported a decline in both gasoline and crude oil inventories, a trend not usually associated with price declines.

      However, the drop in crude supplies was slight and the stockpile remains 88 million barrels above last year's levels. So there is plenty of oil on hand.

      And even with a slight drop in gasoline supplies, to 220 million barrels, that's still 4% higher than a year ago when gasoline prices were well above $3 a gallon.

      Refineries operated at only 93% of capacity last week but the EIA report notes that total products sent to market over the last 4 weeks averaged nearly 20 million barrels a day, up 4.3% over the same period last year.

      Gas Buddy predicts areas of the upper Midwest may be slower to see price declines than elsewhere in the U.S. It says 2 major refineries in the Chicago area are still undergoing maintenance. A new refinery issue in Toledo is expected to keep supplies tight for a while in the Great Lakes region.

      Gasoline prices began the month of June at their high for the year, up more than 70 cents a gallon since January, but they remain well below recent histori...
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      Applying for a mortgage: how to get started

      Here's what you need to know, ask and be able to put your hands on

      Whether you are buying a home for the first time or downsizing after the kids have moved out, applying for a mortgage is a more rigorous and complicated process than it once was.

      It's about to get more complicated when new government regulations go into effect so, if you plan to buy a home and apply for a mortgage there is reason to do it sooner rather than later.

      But where to start? It will help if you gather some information first and get organized. The Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) recently offered up some tips for making the process go smoothly.

      Know your numbers

      You need to have an honest appraisal of your finances and it starts with your banker. ICBA naturally suggests talking with a community banker, and there's a lot to be said for that advice. But if you already have a relationship with a bank, that may be a place to start too.

      Discuss your plans and ask your banker what he or she thinks you can afford, given your income and current debt. It's worth the small fee required to obtain your credit score, since that will play a big part in qualifying for a mortgage. You can get a free copy of your credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com.

      If you start your conversation with a mortgage loan officer, this is where you might get prequalified. The important thing is to complete this step with a realistic idea of how much you can pay for a house. The important thing, says ICBA, is to stay within your means.

      Analyze

      You need to know what you are spending now and what you are likely to be spending each month if you purchase a home. Check how much you spend on rent and utilities and compare that to what a mortgage payment will be.

      Remember that a mortgage payment isn't just principal and interest but usually includes taxes and insurance. If you are putting less than 20% down, it will also include mortgage insurance. If the property is a condo, there will be a condo fee on top of that.

      But with low interest rates and rising rents, you may be pleasantly surprised that the monthly costs of owning may be comparable to, or less than renting. But check.

      Organize

      Applying for a mortgage requires a lot of documents. The mortgage underwriter who will decide whether you are qualified for the loan you've requested will demand all manner of documents proving how much money you make, how much you have and how much you owe.

      You can prepare by gathering and organizing this paperwork in advance. Items you should have readily available include paycheck stubs, W2 forms, tax returns and bank and investment statements for the last two years.

      Improve your financial health

      Having a large credit card balance could be an issue when you apply for a mortgage. If possible pay it down significantly or pay it off before applying for a mortgage.

      By the same token, postpone any credit purchase like a car until after you have closed on the home purchase. Don't open new credit accounts, such as credit cards or even store charge cards.

      Learn about mortgages

      Here your banker can be of help. Ask about the different types of mortgages and which would be right for you. Check into current mortgage rates and any government programs that might be available to assist with down payment and closing costs.

      Hurry

      There may be good reason to expedite the process. The government is implementing new regulations that combine the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) and Truth in Lending Act (TILA) into one disclosure rule. The change is set to take effect August 1.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says