Current Events in July 2015

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    Huxtable’s Kitchen recalls salad products

    The products may contain nitrites, allergens not listed on the label

    Huxtable’s Kitchen of Fife, Wash., is recalling approximately 778 pounds of salad products.

    The bacon in the products may contain nitrites, allergens not listed on the label.

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

    The following products, produced on July 14 and 16, 2015, are being recalled:

    • 9.5 oz. tray containers containing “Trader Joe’s Cobb Salad” with the sell by date 7-20-15, 7-21-15 and 7-22-15.
    • 11 oz. tray containers containing “Trader Joe’s Uncured Bacon & Spinach Salad” with the sell by date 7-20-15 and 7-21-15.

    The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-11079A” or “EST. 11079” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

    Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Andy Foster at (323) 923-2905.

    Huxtable’s Kitchen of Fife, Wash., is recalling approximately 778 pounds of salad products. The bacon in the products may contain nitrites, allergens not ...

    Adultery-dating website AshleyMadison hacked

    Information that was supposed to have been deleted is allegedly still available

    Here's some good news for divorce lawyers, though probably bad news for anyone else involved: this weekend, hackers broke into the adultery-dating website “AshleyMadison” and leaked personal details about some of its clients, including credit card details.

    AshleyMadison (registered motto: “Life is short. Have an affair.®”) is owned by Avid Life Media, which owns other hookup sites including “Established Men” and “Cougar Life.”

    ALM chief executive Noel Biderman confirmed the hacking to security expert Brian Krebs late Sunday evening, and said the company was “working diligently and feverishly” to take down as much of that information as it could. Biderman also suggested that the hacker might be someone who has or had legitimate access to ALM's servers – in other words, a current or former employee or contractor.

    Hackers demand site be taken down

    The hacker or hackers behind the breach self-identify as The Impact Team. The team is threatening to release all of the information it stole from AshleyMadison unless the site is taken down. According to its own statements, The Impact Team's main complaint with AshleyMadison isn't that the website promotes or facilitates adultery, but that it allegedly lies to its clients.

    Specifically, people with dating profiles on AshleyMadison are also offered the chance to pay $19 for a “full delete” function – basically scrubbing your complete profile and activity history from the site.

    But according to the hacker or hackers who comprise The Impact Team, AshleyMadison's “full delete” service is a lie:

    Full Delete netted ALM $1.7mm in revenue in 2014. It’s also a complete lie. Users almost always pay with credit card; their purchase details are not removed as promised, and include real name and address, which is of course the most important information the users want removed. Avid Life Media has been instructed to take Ashley Madison and Established Men offline permanently in all forms, or we will release all customer records, including profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses, and employee documents and emails. The other websites may stay online. …

    ALM today released a statement saying, in part, that: “We have always had the confidentiality of our customers’ information foremost in our minds, and have had stringent security measures in place, including working with leading IT vendors from around the world. As other companies have experienced, these security measures have unfortunately not prevented this attack to our system.”

    The statement did not address the question of whether any of the compromised information was supposed to have been deleted after its owner paid the $19 fee.

    Here's some good news for divorce lawyers, though probably bad news for anyone else involved: this weekend, hackers broke into the adultery-dating website ...

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      When to cash out and sell your house

      It isn't a move to make without a lot of careful thought

      It has been six years since the housing bust, and home prices are starting to recover - though more so in some areas than others. This is prompting home-owners to consider putting a for sale sign in their front yards. 

      Sometimes it's a change in life's circumstances that starts the home-selling process. Sometimes it's activities going on around you.

      Our recent story about the renewed rise of “tear downs” in Chicago neighborhoods brought an email from Rebecca, of Austin, Tex.

      “We live in a small several-street little neighborhood that was formerly like a quiet accidental cul de sac with houses built in late 1970s, with large mature live oaks sitting in large lots,” she wrote. “Folks seem to be trying to buy up as many houses as possible and use as rentals. These rentals don't get much care/maintenance so we worry it may affect our property values at some point.”

      Rebecca says she could sell her home and pocket a profit of $70,000 to $80,000 after owning it just three years. On the other hand, her neighborhood is close to shopping, entertainment, and other amenities that she likes.

      Should she sell?

      That depends on whether she has some other place she would like to go, and can afford. It doesn't sound like the presence of multiple rental homes on the street has depressed property values, so maybe she should wait and see.

      Some of these homes might become owner-occupied again. Starting last year, many hedge funds that bought up distressed property and converted them to rentals started selling them. True, the buyers might turn out to be other investors but many may find their way back onto the real estate market.

      The point is, Rebecca's neighborhood might take a turn for the better. But her question is a relevant one – how do you know when it's time to sell?

      Lifestyle changes

      One of the main reasons to sell is when your home just doesn't fit your lifestyle any longer. Maybe the 2-bedroom bungalow you purchased with your spouse as newlyweds is a bit crammed now that you have a couple of children. It might be time to look for a 3-bedroom ranch close to a good school.

      By the same token, if you are a Baby Boomer couple whose oldest child has finally moved out of the basement, a 2-bedroom bungalow with a small yard might be just the way to downsize.

      Another reason to sell is when all the numbers add up. When you've got plenty of equity in your home, and prices in the neighborhood have rapidly appreciated, then you can benefit greatly from putting it on the market.

      Taking advantage of a hot market

      There are plenty of people who bought homes in 2003 who wish they had sold them in 2006, before prices came crashing back to earth. That's not likely to happen again, but if your neighborhood has enjoyed rapid price appreciation, it may flatten out for a while. Sometimes it's better to sell when a neighborhood is hot.

      Of course, you've got to live somewhere. Before selling your home think about what you can afford to buy in order to replace it. Yes, you could become a renter, but keep in mind that rents are rising faster than home prices in many markets.

      Before deciding whether to sell your home, Realtor.com advises potential sellers to make sure they understand all the costs associated with the sale and the amount of money they are likely to walk away with.

      A typical real estate sales commission is 6% of the sale price. Other assorted costs could end up making you lose a couple thousand more dollars on top of that, so plan accordingly.

      It has been six years since the housing bust, and home prices are starting to recover - though more so in some areas than others. This is prompting home-ow...

      Cost of treating Baby Boomers with Alzheimer's set to surge

      Alzheimer's Association to highlight promising research this week

      It has long been assumed that the combination of Alzheimer's disease and an aging Baby Boom generation will spell trouble. A recent study that was submitted at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference confirms that it will be pretty bad.

      The report projects that 28 million Boomers – Americans born between 1946 and 1964 – will develop Alzheimer's at some point. Researchers predict that the cost of treating them will consume nearly 25% of all Medicare spending by 2040.

      The report starts with the assumption that there will be no significant advancements in Alzheimer's treatment between now and then. Today, Alzheimer's remains a slowly developing disease that robs its victims of their memory before it is ultimately fatal. There is no known cure.

      $11 billion to $328 billion

      If nothing is done by 2020, the projected Medicare costs of caring for Baby Boomers with Alzheimer's is projected to be $11.86 billion in 2014 dollars, making up 2.1% of total Medicare spending. By 2040, when Boomers are aged 76-94, the projected Medicare costs are expected to be $328.15 billion in 2014 dollars.

      "The risk of Alzheimer's increases with age, and as baby boomers get older, the number of people developing the disease will rise to levels far beyond anything we've ever seen before," said Keith Fargo, Alzheimer's Association Director of Scientific Programs & Outreach.

      It's unlikely that medical research will stand still as this disease ravages a generation. Fargo says there is a pipeline of experimental therapies that have the potential to delay the onset of Alzheimer's and perhaps even prevent the disease. Many will get an airing at the association's conference this week in Washington, DC.

      Promising developments

      In fact, there have been a number of developments in the area of Alzheimer's research in the last few months. One of the more promising ones was revealed in October, when researchers said a novel and complex treatment had restored memory function in 9 out of 10 participants.

      The study, conducted jointly by the UCLA Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, is the first to suggest that memory loss in patients may be reversed, and that improvement can be lasting.

      The treatment consists of a 36-point therapeutic program involving comprehensive changes in diet, brain stimulation, exercise, optimization of sleep, specific drugs and vitamins, and many additional steps that affect brain chemistry.

      As we reported just last week, scientists in Texas have isolated a biomarker that may help doctors predict who will get Alzheimer's, allowing for early intervention.

      Financial commitment 

      Fargo points to recent advances in the treatment of HIV, cancer, and heart disease, saying the same financial commitment made to battling those deadly diseases is needed to tame Alzheimer's disease.

      "Alzheimer's is extremely underfunded compared to the magnitude of the problem,” Fargo said. “If we're going to change the current trajectory of the disease, we need consistent and meaningful investments in research from the federal government to ensure a more robust pipeline."  

      It has long been assumed that the combination of Alzheimer's disease and an aging Baby Boom generation will spell trouble. A recent study that was submitte...

      Researchers say consumers would prefer to buy U.S. meat

      Repealing country of origin label law, they say, hurts U.S. producers and consumers

      American meat processors were never fully enthusiastic about the Country of Origin Labeling law (COOL), and when the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled it violated trade agreements, they were quick to advocate its repeal.

      In June North American Meat Institute CEO Barry Carpenter was among those urging the U.S. Senate to repeal the law, which requires labels on fresh meat to inform consumers where the animals had been raised and slaughtered.

      But repealing COOL might ultimately work against the U.S. meat industry, according to marketing researchers at the University of Arkansas.

      Consumers, they say, want to know where meat came from and they would actually prefer to purchase U.S. meat.

      Researchers found that consumers preferred meat from the United States when provided only with information about where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered – and not given information about country-specific meat-processing standards.

      Direct and indirect effects

      “The country-of-origin requirement appears to provide consumers with additional information that has both direct and indirect effects on purchase intentions,” said Scot Burton, a professor of marketing. “The requirement impacts inferred attributes, meaning that meat products from the United States are perceived to be safer, tastier and fresher than meat products from Mexico. Of course, these attributes, in turn, have positive effects on purchase decisions.”

      Burton and his colleagues reviewed 3 studies to arrive at their conclusion. In 2 of the 3 studies consumers, when given a choice, preferred meat from the United States.

      Congress passed COOL in the 2002 Farm Bill and expanded it in 2008. It requires U.S. retailers to provide country-of-origin labeling for most meat and poultry products.

      The law also requires meat labels to identify the country where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The legislation had the backing of farmers and ranchers who raise the livestock but not so much the meat packers, who are responsible for applying the labeling.

      COOL support from cattle country

      In a blistering editorial over the weekend, the Rapid City Journal, a newspaper covering much of South Dakota's cattle country, took Congress to task for rushing to consider a repeal of COOL, or to make it a voluntary program.

      “Voluntary COOL failed because big meatpackers don’t want to disclose the origins of meat,” the newspaper wrote. “In 2013, they sued the USDA claiming that COOL violated their First Amendment free speech rights by forcing them to provide COOL labels against their will. Our federal courts repeatedly rejected their claims.”

      Consumer groups, who were in the forefront of lobbying efforts on behalf of COOL, are also among those urging lawmakers not to repeal it. A coalition of 283 farm, rural, consumer, manufacturer, labor, faith and environmental groups from across the U.S. issued a statement last month, calling 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.”

      The House of Representatives quickly approved a repeal of COOL in late May. Similar legislation is now before the U.S. Senate.

      American meat processors were never fully enthusiastic about the Country of Origin Labeling law (COOL), and when the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled i...

      National Taxpayer Advocate: It was generally a successful tax filing season

      It was the best of years; it was the worst of years

      In her statutorily mandated mid-year report to Congress, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson says the IRS ran a generally successful filing season under difficult circumstances.

      “With funding down about 17% on an inflation-adjusted basis since FY 2010, and with the IRS having had to implement large portions of the [ACA] (Obamacare) and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) this year without any supplemental funding, sharp declines in taxpayer service were inevitable,” she wrote.

      Olson likened the 2015 filing season to “A Tale of Two Cities” saying, “For the majority of taxpayers who filed their returns and did not require IRS assistance, the filing season was generally successful. For the segment of taxpayers who required help from the IRS, the filing season was by far the worst in memory.”

      Highlights and lowlights

      According to the report:

      • The IRS processed 126.1 million individual tax returns compared with 125.6 million last year, and issued 91.8 million refunds (versus 94.8 million last year. The average refund amount was $2,711; it was $2,686 last year.
      • The IRS answered only 37% of taxpayer calls routed to customer service representatives overall, and the hold time for taxpayers who got through averaged 23 minutes. That represents a sharp drop-off from the 2014 filing season, when the IRS answered 71% of its calls and hold times averaged about 14 minutes.
      • The IRS answered only 39% of calls from taxpayers seeking assistance from the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) on the National Taxpayer Advocate (NTA) Toll-Free hotline, and hold times averaged 19 minutes. TAS serves as the IRS’s “safety net” for taxpayers who are experiencing a financial or systemic hardship as a result of IRS action or inaction.
      • Only 17% of calls were answered from taxpayers who called after being notified that their tax returns had been blocked by the Taxpayer Protection Program (TPP) on suspicion of identity theft, and the hold times averaged about 28 minutes. In 3 consecutive weeks during the filing season, the IRS answered fewer than 10% of these calls.
      • The tax agency answered only 45% of calls from practitioners who called the IRS on the Practitioner Priority Service line, and hold times averaged 45 minutes.
      • The number of “courtesy disconnects” received by taxpayers calling the IRS skyrocketed from about 544,000 in 2014 to about 8.8 million this filing season -- an increase of more than 1,500%. The term “courtesy disconnect” is used when the IRS essentially hangs up on a taxpayer because its switchboard is overloaded and cannot handle additional calls.
      • The decline in telephone performance can be attributed largely to three factors: The number of taxpayer calls routed to telephone assistors increased by 41%, the number of calls answered by telephone assistors decreased by 26%, and the average call duration increased by 10%.
      • The IRS sharply restricted the availability of paper copies of forms and publications, imposing burden on taxpayers without Internet access or online literacy. The IRS’s own Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs) and its Tax Form Outlet Partners such as libraries and post offices did not receive forms until February 28, almost halfway through the filing season. Once a TAC ran out of forms or publications, it could not order more.

      Olson says the decline in taxpayer service imposes increased compliance burdens on taxpayers and may lead to erosion in taxpayer trust. “For a tax system that relies on voluntary self-assessment by its taxpayers, none of this bodes well,” she wrote. “In fact, there is a real risk that the inability of taxpayers to obtain assistance from the government, and their consequent frustration, will lead to less voluntary compliance and more enforced compliance.”

      Affordable Care Act impact

      The report says the most significant new challenge the IRS faced during the 2015 filing season was the processing of tax returns reflecting two central provisions of the ACA -- the Premium Tax Credit (PTC) and the Individual Shared Responsibility Payment (ISRP).

      Overall, the report credits the IRS with doing a commendable job implementing those provisions, including by developing or updating information technology systems, issuing guidance, and working with other federal agencies.

      The report says there were some significant glitches that occurred during the filing season, but most were not attributable to IRS error. The most significant was the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ issuance of erroneous Forms 1095-A, Health Insurance Marketplace Statement, to about 800,000 individuals who had purchased health insurance from the federal Exchange.

      The Treasury Department addressed the mistake by issuing taxpayer-favorable guidance informing taxpayers who had already filed returns based on the incorrect information that they did not need to file amended returns and pledging that the IRS would not pursue the collection of any additional tax based on the updated information in the corrected forms.

      The IRS answered about 68% of taxpayer telephone calls on ACA issues that were routed to telephone assistors, which far exceeded the overall average on its customer service lines of about 37%.

      The report says a primary ACA focus for TAS during the upcoming year will be to train its Case Advocates to better assist taxpayers requiring assistance, notably on ACA collection activities and the Employer Shared Responsibility Payment provision.

      TAS will also continue to participate on internal IRS working groups to present a taxpayer perspective on ACA issues and raise concerns it identifies through its casework and other sources.

      In her statutorily mandated mid-year report to Congress, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson says the IRS ran a generally successful filing season un...

      Olympus recalls digital point-and-shoot camera

      An improperly installed part poses an electric shock risk

      Olympus America of Center Valley, Pa., is recalling about 1,200 Olympus VG 170 digital cameras

      An improperly installed part can touch the camera’s circuit board, posing an electric shock risk to the user.

      There are no reported incidents of injury in the U.S.

      The recall involves the Olympus VG-170 Digital Point-and-Shoot Cameras. The VG-170 measures about 4 x 2.5 x 1 inches, weighs 5.1 ounces and comes in white, black or red. “VG 170” is printed on the top of the camera, on the side opposite the shutter button.

      “Olympus” is printed on the upper right hand corner of the front of the camera,“5 X Wide” is printed on lower left hand corner of the front of the camera. The camera has a 3-inch digital LCD screen on the back.

      The cameras, manufactured in China, were sold at HHGregg Appliance stores and online at www.hhgregg.com from September 2013, to December 2014, for about $120.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled digital camera and contact Olympus for a free inspection and repair.

      Consumers may contact Olympus at (800) 622-6372 from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday.

      Olympus America of Center Valley, Pa., is recalling about 1,200 Olympus VG 170 digital cameras An improperly installed part can touch the camera’s circuit...

      Bexco recalls DaVinci brand cribs

      A baby can become trapped in the crib

      Bexco Enterprises of Montebello, Calif., is recalling about 11,700 DaVinci cribs in the U.S and Canada.

      A metal bracket that connects the mattress support to the crib can break, creating an uneven sleeping surface or a gap. If this occurs, a baby can become trapped in the crib, fall or suffer lacerations from the broken metal bracket.

      The firm has received 10 reports of the mattress support brackets detaching. No injuries have been reported.

      The recall includes DaVinci brand full-size cribs including the Reagan crib (model #M2801), the Emily crib, (model #M4791), the Jamie crib (model #M7301), and the Jenny Lind crib (model #M7391) manufactured from May 2012 through December 2012.

      The model number, serial number and manufacture date are printed on a label affixed to the bottom right hand side panel of the crib.

      Cribs included in the recall have serial numbers that begin with “N00,” followed by one of the following numbers:

      Model Number and NameSerial Number (N00 + number below)
      M2801 Reagan 4959/ 5035/ 5109
      M4791 Emily 4648/ 4669/ 4962
      M7301 Jamie 4954/ 5029
      M7391 Jenny Lind 4954/ 4620/ 4669/ 4758/ 4934/ 4994/ 5041/ 4648

      The cribs, manufactured in China, were sold at Target and juvenile products stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com from May 2012, to December 2013, for between $150 and $250.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cribs and contact Bexco for a free replacement mattress support which includes replacement brackets. In the meantime, parents are urged to find an alternate, safe sleeping environment for the child, such as a bassinet, play yard or toddler bed depending on the child’s age.

      Consumers may contact Bexco toll-free at (888) 673-6652 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday. 

      Bexco Enterprises of Montebello, Calif., is recalling about 11,700 DaVinci cribs in the U.S and Canada. A metal bracket that connects the mattress support...

      Boeing: Lithium batteries an "unacceptable fire hazard" in cargo holds

      The warning is expected to be heeded by most of the world's airlines

      It's lithium ion batteries that power the iPhones, iPads and other iStuff that have come to be regarded as the essentials of life. Only problem is, they tend to catch fire, leading Boeing Co. to warn airlines that loading up their planes' cargo compartments with bulk battery shipments pose unacceptable fire hazards.

      There've been plenty of cases of individual phones and other devices catching fire, both on the grund and in the air. Just one blazing phone is a problem; think what a blazing pallet of burning batteries could do.

      That, says the Wall Street Journal, is what led Boeing to issue a formal warning to its customers, urging them to stop accepting large shipments of lithium batteries until safer packaging and fire protection efforts can be worked out.

      Let them take a slow boat from China, Boeing advised, though not in so many words.

      Nothing new

      It's hardly a new problem. There have been many case over the years of cell phones igniting in people's pockets, on airplanes and in other inconvenient locations.

      Last August, an airplane was evacuated in Tel Aviv after an iPhone 5 caught fire and filled the cabin with smoke. Last July, a smartphone caught fire under a 13-year-old girl's pillow in Dallas. And way back in 2008, a laptop computer caught fire in a vintage pickup truck in Nevada, destroying the truck, a Remington rifle and setting off two boxes of ammunition.

      Boeing has reportedly been giving the no-big-battery-cartons advice to airlines who asked but has now issued a formal warning to all of the world's carriers, who are expected to comply. Airlines that disregard the warning would be on shaky legal ground in the event of a disaster attributed to flaming batteries.

      Feds pondering

      Boeing at least beat the U.S. government, which has been considering rules limited lithium batteries in carry-on luggage since 2007. In March 2007, the Department of Transportation said there had been five fires in airplane passenger cabins or cargo holds since 2005, a period of only two years.

      Lithium metal batteries were banned from the cargo holds of U.S. airliners in 2004 but lithium ion batteries -- which are much more common -- are still good to go.

      Lithium metal batteries are nonrechargeable while the lithium ion type is the one we're all familiar with -- requiring frequent plug-ins to keep the juices flowing.

      The problem is that other things can get the juices flowing as well. Both types of batteries contain chemical-infused metals that get very hot very quickly if they come into contact with each other due to a short circuit or leaking seal. The result is a fast-spreading, very hot fire that is very difficult to extinguish.

      While a single battery catching fire in a phone or laptop may start a small fire, a battery catching fire in a shipment of thousands of batteries could start a blaze that would quickly become catastrophic. 

      Many airlines have already stopped accepting battery shipments and Boening's warning may push the recalcitrants to act as well. While Boeing's warning doesn't have the force of law, airlines nearly always comply with formal warnings from manufacturers, so Boeing may have accomplished what governments so far have not gotten around to.

      It's lithium ion batteries that power the iPhones, iPads and other iStuff that have come to be regarded as the essentials of l...

      Finding a brick and mortar bank may be getting harder

      Banks are closing branches because they don't think they need them

      Bank of America's (BOA) announcement this week that it would close some more of its branches underscores a new reality for the banking industry -- consumers are doing more of their banking business online.

      During a conference call to discuss the company's second quarter earnings report, BOA CEO Brian Moynihan mentioned the bank had closed nearly 20% of its branches in the last 5 years, dropping the number from 6,100 to about 4,800. He said more closures would follow, without attaching a number.

      BOA is not alone in cutting its overhead. In June Fifth Third Bank announced plans to close 100 branches, the largest branch closing in the bank's history.

      Part of an ongoing trend

      It's been going on for some time. SNL Financial reports U.S. banks closed a net 1,487 branch locations in 2013, the most since the research firm began collecting the data in 2002.

      Industry analysts agree the reason has nothing to do with declining business. In fact, business for banks has never been better. It's just that banks are convinced they no longer need branches because “everyone” is adopting mobile banking.

      While mobile banking no doubt is growing by leaps and bounds, this trend will work against consumers who like to conduct their banking business with a human being.

      Transformation to smart banking

      Consumers rate Bank of America

      Traditional branch-based banking practices are undergoing transformation into smart banking, according to Frost & Sullivan, a research firm.

      “Banks are now focusing on integration of futuristic technologies and applications to explore new opportunities for higher customer engagement and improving customer experience,” the company said in a recent report, which focused on technology and application innovations that are enabling the transformation.

      Each bank's smart or mobile banking system is different but most offer similar functions. BOA's mobile banking lets customers deposit checks from a mobile device, check account balances and send money to just about anyone.

      Changing with the customers

      During this week's conference call Moynihan said the bank would save money by closing branches but that isn't the only motivation. They're doing it, he said, because customer behavior is changing. The number of BOA's mobile customers has more than doubled in 4 years to 17 million. The company says 13% of the check's deposited in the bank are coming in by mobile.

      If you have fewer branches you need fewer employees. BOA has been steadily cutting staff. Although the bank is beefing up its corps of financial advisors, it has cut more than 70,000 jobs since 2011.

      Bank of America's (BOA) announcement this week that it would close some more of its branches underscores a new reality for the banking industry -- consumer...

      Self-driving Google car gets rear-ended; minor injuries reported

      It took Google 16 days to get around to mentioning it

      Google may be applying the "right to be forgotten" to its own activities. The company revealed in a blog post yesterday that one of its self-driving cars was rear-ended in an accident that sent three employees and the driver of the other car to the hospital for check-ups.

      The accident happened July 1 and Google gave no reason why it took 16 days for it to get around to mentioning it.

      Of course, one could argue that Google is not obligated to reveal details of its internal operations, but since it is using public roads for its experimental commutes and trying to persuade regulators and the public that autonomous cars will be safe, cover-ups aren't exactly helpful.

      The accident happened with one of Google's Lexus RX450h prototypes was rear-ended by another car in Mountain View, Calif., where Google autonomous cars ply the streets regularly.

      The Googlemobile had a green light but the cars in front of it had slowed down to avoid getting stuck in the intersection in an upcoming light change, according to a blog account by Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving project. 

      Whiplash

      The three Google employees in the car and the long occupant of the car that plowed into it all complained about neck pain and were checked out and then released from a local hospital.

      Google says it's the first injury accident in a self-driving car. It's the 14th accident overall involving Google's fleet of self-driving cars. In 11 of those incidents, the Google car was rear-ended.

      Google displayed its usual self-assurance in describing the incident.

      "Our self-driving cars are being hit surprisingly often by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road," wrote Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car project, in the blog post. "The clear theme is human error and inattention" in those incidents.

      Proponents of self-driving cars, as well as some scientists, say there will likely be fewer accidents when computers replace humans at the controls. We'll see.

      Google may be applying the "right to be forgotten" to its own activities. The company revealed in a blog post yesterday that one of its self-driving cars w...

      Senate committee rejects rental of recalled cars

      Instead, it adopts a bill that outlaws such rentals

      A Senate committee has rejected a measure that would have allowed car dealers and rental companies to rent,recalled cars to consumers. Instead, the committee adopted a provision that expressly forbids such rentals.

      "We are now one step closer to permanently keeping recalled rental cars off the road, and I commend Senator (Claire) McCaskill (D-Mo.) and others on the committee for moving this legislation forward," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

      Boxer's bill -- the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act -- was adopted unanimously by the committee, rejecting a measure that car-rental industry sources said was backed largely by car dealers, who frequently rent cars to customers whose vehicles are being serviced.

      Boxer's bill is named for two sisters who were killed near Santa Cruz, Calif., in their rented Chrysler PT Cruiser. The car had been recalled for a power steering hose defect that had not been repaired.

      Boxer first introduced her bill in 2011. The Senate Commerce Committee yesterday adopted it as part of the DRIVE Act, which incorporates numerous transportation programs.

      Backed by car rental companies

      The Houck bill was endorsed by all the major rental car companies -- who say they already withhold recalled cars until repairs are made -- as well as,the American Car Rental Association, Honda,and General Motors, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, and a broad coalition of auto safety, labor and consumer groups.

      The National Automobile Dealers Association and affiliated groups were seen as leading opposition to the measure.

      NADA President Peter Welch testified in 2013 that Boxer's bill was "overly broad,in that it regulates auto dealerships that operate small rental or loaner fleets in the same manner as multi-national rental car giants."

      "Unlike large rental car companies that maintain a wide array of vehicle makes and models in their fleets, many dealers only maintain a single vehicle model in their loaner pools," Welch said, saying the Boxer bill "could cause an economic hardship for small dealers if a part necessary to fix a dealer’s only loaner vehicle model is unavailable."

      Welch also said that some safety recalls are really not for high-priority defects.

      Committee chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) had been backing the,NADA-backed measure, which would have allowed dealers and car rental companies to rent recalled cars as long as consumers signed a waiver in advance.

      Thune did not respond to a request for comment but Frederick Hill, communications director for Thune's committee, said the measure was intended to be "pro-consumer."

      A Senate committee has rejected a,measure that would have allowed car dealers and rental companies to rent,recalled cars to consumers. Instead, the committ...

      Philadelphia woman sues Comcast, alleging 9 months of robocalls for paid-off bill

      Total damages could reach $900,000 under federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act

      It's only been a bit more than a week since a Manhattan federal judge ruled that Time-Warner Cable must pay $229,500 in damages to a Texas woman who received 153 automated calls on her cell phone in less than a year, even after she told Time-Warner they were calling the wrong person. (Indeed, TWC made 74 of those calls after the woman had already filed a lawsuit asking them to stop.)

      Now, Philadelphia resident Kia Elder has filed a similar complaint against Comcast. The lawsuit, available in .pdf form here, alleges that “Beginning in late September 2014, and continuing through June 2015, Defendant [Comcast] repeatedly called Plaintiff [Elder] on her cellular phone …. us[ing] an automatic telephone dialing system and automated and/or pre-recorded messages.”

      In late September, the lawsuit says, Elder spoke with a human Comcast representative, who told her the company was calling to collect a $527 bill. But Elder had actually paid the debt in 2011, and said so. Despite this, Comcast continued robocalling her: “From late September 2014, Defendant placed cellular calls to Plaintiff an average of once or twice each day. Calls continued at least through June 18, 2015.”

      Like the suit against Time-Warner Cable, Elder's suit against Comcast is based on the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (a law intended to reign in abusive telemarketing practices, including robocalls), and asks for damages of $1,500 per call. The TCPA establishes a fine structure of $500 per call, with triple damages awarded for knowing or willful violations. Since Elder told Comcast last September that she'd paid off her debt three years earlier and did not consent to receive any more calls about the matter, she's seeking triple damages for every robocall Comcast made afterward.

      If she's awarded the full $1,500 for every call she alleges Comcast made, the total damages could exceed $900,000.

      The lawsuit, available in .pdf form here, alleges that “Beginning in late September 2014, and continuing through June 2015, Defendant.....

      Obese individuals face huge odds in returning to normal weight

      British researchers conclude current weight loss programs aren't working

      Common sense would tell you that it would be hard to attain a normal weight once you are obese. Researchers at King's College in London have figured out just how hard.

      For an obese man, the odds of getting back a normal body weight is 1 in 210. Obese women face slightly better odds – 1 in 124.

      The study, written up in the American Journal of Public Health, suggests current weight management programs that focus on dieting and exercise are not effective in tackling obesity at the population level.

      First, it might help to understand what is obese and what is normal body weight. The terms are defined by each individual's body mass index (BMI) score. BMI is a measure of body fat that is based on a person's height and weight.

      BMI calculator

      The National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides this BMI calculator to help you find where you fit. You enter your weight and height using either standard or metric measures and the calculator gives you a number, which is your BMI.

      A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal body weight. If your BMI is 25 to 29.9, it classifies you as overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher puts you in the obese category.

      The Kings College researchers wanted to find out how likely it was for someone who was obese to lose enough weight to return to normal weight. They tracked the weight of 278,982 participants – 129,194 men and 149,788 women – using electronic health records from 2004 to 2014.

      The study measured the probability of obese patients attaining normal weight or a 5% reduction in body weight through diet and exercise, excluding patients who received bariatric surgery.

      Temporary results

      The chance obese patients could achieve a 5% weight loss within a year was 1 in 12 for men and 1 in 10 for women. But for those who were able to lose 5% of their body weight, 53% regained the weight within 2 years and 78% had regained the weight within 5 years.

      Out of the nearly 300,000 subjects, only 1,283 men and 2,245 women with a BMI of 30-35 reached their normal body weight, equivalent to an annual probability of 1 in 210 for men and 1 in 124 for women.

      The study concludes that current obesity treatments aren't working for the majority of obese patients.

      “Once an adult becomes obese, it is very unlikely that they will return to a healthy body weight,” said Dr. Alison Fildes, the study's first author. “New approaches are urgently needed to deal with this issue.”

      Fildes says obesity treatments should focus on preventing overweight and obese patients from gaining more weight, while also helping those that do lose weight to keep it off. More importantly, she says, there needs to be more emphasis on preventing weight gain in the first place.

      Bariatric surgery

      According to NIH, bariatric surgery currently is recommended for people categorized as severely obese – with a BMI greater than 40.The surgery restricts food intake, which promotes weight loss and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. It has been shown to be effective, though like any surgery, there are risks associated with it.

      There are also benefits from going from Obese to simply overweight. The Mayo Clinic points out that even modest weight loss can improve or prevent the health problems associated with obesity.  

      Common sense would tell you that it would be hard to attain a normal weight once you are obese. Researchers at King's College in London have figured out ju...

      The economy: Consumer prices and new home construction on the rise in June

      Higher gasoline and food costs pushed the CPI higher

      The cost of living moved moderately higher in June, with gasoline, food and shelter prices all contributing to the increase.

      According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose a seasonally adjusted 0.3% last month and over the last 12 months is up a miniscule 0.1%.

      Food and energy

      Food prices, which were unchanged in April and May, rose 0.3% last month. The food at home category -- things you buy at a grocery store -- jumped 0.4% after declining in each of the 3 previous months. Over three-fourths of that increase came in the price of eggs, which rose 18.3% -- the largest increase since August 1973. Also posting gains were for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (+1.4%), and cereal and bakery products (+0.5%). In contrast, prices for dairy and related products fell for the sixth consecutive month (-0.6%), and the fruits and as did the cost of vegetables (-0.4%. Food at home costs are up 1.0% over the last 12 months.

      Energy prices were up 1.7% following a surge of 4.3% in May, due largely to an advance of 3.4% in gasoline costs. Electricity prices rose 0.2%, and natural gas prices advanced 0.3% -- the first increase since December. Fuel oil was the only major energy component index to decline, falling 1.9%.

      Core inflation

      The core rate of inflation -- all items excluding the volatile food and energy categories -- rose 0.2% in June. The cost of shelter, which rose 0.3%, accounted for over two-thirds of the increase. Other increases include prices for recreation, airline fares, personal care, tobacco, and new vehicles. Those advances more than offset declines in the prices of medical care, household furnishings and operations, used cars and trucks, and apparel. The core rate of inflation is up 1.8% over the past 12 months.

      The complete CPI report is available on the Labor Department website.

      Housing starts

      A surge in new-home construction in June recovered nearly all the losses suffered a month earlier.

      The Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development report privately-owned housing shot up 9.8% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,174,000 -- 26.6% above the same month a year ago.

      Construction of single-family housing was up 0,9% to an annual rate of 685,000, while the rate for units in buildings with 5 units or more was 476,000 -- up 116,000 from May.

      Building permits

      The outlook for construction in the months ahead improved as well.

      Privately-owned housing units authorized by building permits were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,343,000 in June -- 7.4% from May.

      Permits for single-family construction rose 0.9% to a rate of 687,000; authorizations of units in buildings with 5 units or more were at a rate of 621,000 -- a gain of 86,000 from May.

      Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza says the housing market continues to take steps in the right direction. But, she adds, "growth remains far from robust; as we have seen in the recent decline in retail sales, consumers continue to struggle to afford purchases -- particularly large ticket items -- amid stagnant income growth. Still, with the threat of rising rates on the near horizon, some homeowners are jumping in to lock in low rates."

      The full report on housing construction is available on the Commerce Department website.

      The cost of living moved moderately higher in June, with gasoline, food and shelter prices all contributing to the increase. According to the Bureau of La...