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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.”


      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:

      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."


      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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