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Environmental hazards of buying a foreclosure

Germs and toxins can lurk in long-vacant homes

In a last gasp, the housing crisis of 2008 is sending thousands of foreclosed homes onto the real estate market.These are not news cases of homeowners ...

PhotoIn a last gasp, the housing crisis of 2008 is sending thousands of foreclosed homes onto the real estate market.

These are not news cases of homeowners running into trouble. Rather, they're the last of the old foreclosures that are finally being liquidated.

Very often foreclosures go into the market at a price less than a comparable house would cost, since the bank just wants to get the home off its balance sheet. It can represent a good value for a savvy buyers, but be warned – there could be some hidden hazards.

We're not talking about financial hazards, but environmental ones. LA Testing, a California laboratory that tests for toxic contaminates, says a foreclosed home can contain hidden risks, especially if it has been vacant for several years, as many of these homes have.

Look for mold

Long-vacant homes can be contaminated by mold, which can start to grow in wet or high humidity environments in as little as 24 to 48 hours. Mold will grow on many common materials used to build and furnish properties.

If it is an older home, built before the 1970s, it might have lead in paint or other products around the house. In an older home, asbestos might also be a problem. It was used widely in the past in a variety of building construction materials due to its fiber strength and heat-resistant properties.

If a home has been standing empty for years, it can suffer damage that isn't noticed or repaired right away. If the problem involves a sewage backup, it might present the threat of infectious diseases and microbial pathogens, including E. coli.

Vapor intrusion can occur when there is a migration of volatile chemicals from contaminated groundwater or soil into a building above it. If someone has renovated the home and is selling it, it might have high levels of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) due to off-gassing of new materials.

Former meth lab?

And here's a potential problem you have probably not considered; if the house was ever used as clandestine drug laboratory, as some abandoned homes were, it may contain toxic chemical residues.

“Whether you are an investor or a first-time home buyer, knowing if there are hazards in a property is essential for the health and wellbeing of future building occupants and for its future resale value,” said Michael Chapman, Laboratory Manager at LA Testing’s Garden Grove facility.

Bringing in someone to test for traces of meth in the wallpaper might be required in only the most extreme cases. However, having a qualified home inspector go over the property as a contingency to the sale is even more important in the case of a home that has been sitting empty for some time.

When purchasing a foreclosure that has been vacant for a while, make sure the home inspector you hire is qualified to search for and detect mold and other environmental hazards.

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Katrina's legacy felt in insurance coverage

At one point, State Farm pulled out of Mississippi

The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is being observed in many ways, but for consumers the disaster's biggest impact has come in the area of insurance...

PhotoThe 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is being observed in many ways, but for consumers the disaster's biggest impact has come in the area of insurance.

In the wake of the storm, it got very expensive, especially if you live near the water.

For policyholders along the Gulf Coast, it also got a lot harder to even find an insurance company to cover your property. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, Risk Management Solutions, an insurance industry analyst, placed a $100 billion price tag on the damage -- an estimate that turned out to be remarkably accurate.

The company said that what it calls the "2005 Great New Orleans Flood" has developed into the most damaging flood in U.S. history. It initially estimated that at least 150,000 properties had been flooded, surpassing the previous U.S. record from flooding and levee failures on the Lower Mississippi river in 1927, which inundated 137,000 properties.

Insurance hassles

Two weeks after Katrina hit, ConsumerAffairs was reporting many homeowners were encountering delays and denials. Typical homeowners policies don't cover flooding, so if a homeowner could not demonstrate the house was damaged by non-flooding aspects of the storm, insurance companies refused to pay.

It prompted Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to sue the insurance industry, seeking to declare void and unenforceable certain provisions contained in property casualty insurance policies issued to Mississippi Gulf Coast residents - excluding coverage from damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

After State Farm lost a court battle in Mississippi over the disputed claims in early 2007, the insurance company declared it would no longer insure any homes in the state.

"It is no longer prudent for us to take on additional risk in a legal and business environment that is becoming more unpredictable," said Senior Vice President Bob Trippel, in a February 2007 statement.

Biggest lesson

The American Insurance Association(AIA) says the biggest lesson of Hurricane Katrina is the importance of preparedness. In other words, take steps beforehand to minimize the damage and losses from natural disasters.

“The devastation Hurricane Katrina caused emphatically underscored the need for greater resilience and catastrophe planning for consumers, insurers and governments alike,” said Leigh Ann Pusey, AIA’s president and CEO. “Since Katrina, insurers have continued to improve the claims experience for their customers, worked to improve predictive tools, and intensified their focus on risk engineering to better protect policyholders’ property exposures.”

Pusey says preparation should include preparing a disaster plan, safe-proofing a home or business, maintaining an up-to-date inventory of possessions, and having the right insurance coverage.

“Don’t wait until it’s too late,” she said.

AIA has published a four-step guide to protecting your property here.

Ten years later, Hurricane Katrina remains the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The storm claimed more than 1,800 lives and caused $100 billion in total economic damage, $41 billion in insured property damage, and $16 billion in flood insurance damage.

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Unpopular Windows 10 privacy problems now available for Windows 7 and 8, too

You can either not-install the latest Windows 7 and 8 updates, or disable these features therein

Microsoft launched the Windows 10 operating system in late July, and critics soon responded by launching what's been a near-constant barrage of stories det...

PhotoMicrosoft launched the Windows 10 operating system in late July, and critics soon responded by launching what's been a near-constant barrage of stories detailing the various ways Windows 10 violates users' privacy.

Windows 10: a "privacy nightmare"

Slate almost immediately dubbed Windows 10 a “privacy nightmare,” because “By default, Windows 10 gives itself the right to pass loads of your data to Microsoft’s servers, use your bandwidth for Microsoft’s own purposes, and profile your Windows usage.”

A week later, BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow noted that Windows 10 “automatically spies on your children and sends you a dossier of their activity” (without informing children or their parents).

Critics worried about the obvious Orwellian implications of such a policy. “Now we are teaching children from the youngest age their every motion is being digitally watched & they should self-censor as appropriate,” as “Glitch Girl” @mcclure111 later posted on Twitter. “When I was a kid I was terrified of my parents, and I ran to computers because it was the one place that was safe, where I could keep myself …. Maybe soon there will be a generation of children who has no space at all.”

By last week, less than a month after the first Windows 10 rollout, the overwhelming consensus was, as PC World said, that “There’s no doubt about it: Windows 10 is veritably infused with data-tracking tidbits and hooks into all sorts of Microsoft’s online services.”

Revisions to Windows 7 and 8

Also last week, Microsoft revised its service agreements to Windows 7, 8, and 8.1, with the intention of blocking unauthorized or pirated games and software. But the end result, as Forbes put it, is that “Windows 10 worst feature [is] installed on Windows 7 and Windows 8.”

Ghacks.net first discovered and reported on the Windows 7 and 8 revisions on Aug. 28, under the innocuous headline “Microsoft intensifies data collection on Windows 7 and 8 systems.”

The blog post itself uses more pointed language, saying that “The operating system slurps data like there is no tomorrow, especially when systems are set up using the express settings. … it is nearly impossible to stop all of the data collecting that is taking place. While users may disable some, for instance by using privacy tools (of which there are plenty), others cannot be disabled or stopped that easily, for instance because of hardcoded host and IP address information that bypass the Hosts file of the operating system.”

Avoiding privacy problems

The simplest way to avoid the worst privacy problems in the Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 updates is to not install them in the first place. If they've already been installed, it's possible to disable some of them either by using the Control Panel (instructions here), or by using an elevated command prompt to run the following commands:

  • wusa /uninstall /kb:3068708 /quiet /norestart

  • wusa /uninstall /kb:3022345 /quiet /norestart

  • wusa /uninstall /kb:3075249 /quiet /norestart

  • wusa /uninstall /kb:3080149 /quiet /norestart

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Community colleges continue to shake up education

Study finds second tier status is undeserved

While policymakers have wrung their hands over the increasing cost of a college education, and students and families have been buried deeper in student loa...

PhotoWhile policymakers have wrung their hands over the increasing cost of a college education, and students and families have been buried deeper in student loan debt, community colleges have evolved into an efficient, practical, and affordable educational choice.

That's the conclusion of a study of the nation's community colleges by WalletHub, a personal finance website, which finds in some cases community colleges are outperforming four-year colleges and universities.

Community colleges have long been associated with students who couldn't win acceptance to a traditional college or university, and with non-traditional students – those returning for their education while holding down a full-time job.

“Much of their 'second-rate college' stigma stems from three factors: price, demographics and graduation times,” the authors write. “Although their relatively cheaper tuition rates are a clear incentive, affordability also signals subpar educational quality to skeptics. And with an average student age of 28, the nontraditional profile of the typical community-college attendee perpetuates a misconception — one that assumes these students flunked out of high school and consequently failed admissions standards at 'real' universities.”

The study points out that a vast majority of non-traditional students are balancing their studies with jobs, family, or both — commitments that often limit their enrollment to one or two classes per semester and force them to delay graduation.

Drawing traditional students

But increasingly, as college tuition costs have skyrocketed, many traditional students have chosen to attend a community college for their first two years – at much less cost – then finish at a traditional four-year college, drastically reducing the cost of a bachelor’s degree.

The WalletHub study also notes that in 22 states, community colleges have expanded to include four-year bachelor’s degree programs in high-demand fields.

Besides their low cost, the study finds schedule flexibility, rigorous coursework, and smaller class sizes make community colleges appealing to a wider number of students. Of course, some of these institutions are better than others.

Ratings

The WalletHub study compared 670 community colleges in the U.S. to find the best, relying on a total of 17 key metrics, ranging from the cost of in-state tuition and fees to student-faculty ratio.

Among the winners is Dine College of Arizona, which scored the lowest cost of in-state tuition and fees.

Guttman Community College in New York spends the most per student. It was also tops in Highest Level of Collaborative Learning and Highest Level of Student-Faculty Interaction.

Renton Technical College took top honors for the Highest Graduation Rate.

Six schools – West Georgia Technical College; Alabama Southern Community College; Dine College; Rich Mountain Community College in Arkansas; Columbia College and Porterville College, both in California, tied in the important category of Lowest Student Loan Default Rate.

Northern Oklahoma College was judged to have the Highest Return on Educational Investment.

According to the College Board, the average in-state tuition at a community college is $3347. That compares to $9,139 for in-state tuition at a public four-year university.

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California bill would outlaw drones over private property

Industry lobbyists say the measure would strangle a growing business

California yards and rooftops may soon be "no-fly zones." A bill awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's signature would outlaw flying drones over private property.,...

PhotoCalifornia yards and rooftops may soon be "no-fly zones." A bill awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's signature would outlaw flying drones over private property.,

The measure is the brainchild of California Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) who said her concern about drones results from an incident that occurred during a vacation in Hawaii, when a drone went buzzing past her.

“Drones are a new and exciting technology with many potentially beneficial uses. But they should not be able to invade the privacy of our back yards and our private property without our permission,” Jackson said in a statement Thursday.

The bill basically creates a “no-fly zone” over homes and private property. It doesn’t affect public places like parks, schools, and beaches.

Jackson's concerns seem to center around privacy but there are also some very real safety issues. Most notably, fire crews fighting this year's disastrous wildfires have been hampered by drones that created a hazard for aircraft dropping water and slurry on fires.

18,000 jobs

It's a touchy issue in California, which is home to many of the companies, most notably Google, that are working on home delivery plans involving drones.

“SB 142 would damage California’s leadership and handcuff innovation, just as this largely California-based and dynamically expanding industry is poised to bring major job growth to the state – adding roughly 18,000 new jobs and more than $14 billion in economic impact in the first decade once federal guidelines are implemented,” the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Consumer Electronics Association said in a joint statement.

Brown has said her bill would not prevent companies like Amazon from using drones to make deliveries to customers’ doorsteps, since consumers would have to give their consent before such deliveries were made.

The Federal Aviation Administration is also concerned about drones and has issued a proposed regulation after reporting more than 171 incidents in which pilots observed drones in the vicinity of their aircraft.

Gov. Brown has not said whether he will sign the measure.

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Netflix ending relationship with major movie provider

Will focus instead on exclusive content

Netflix subscribers will notice that some recently released Hollywood blockbusters will disappear from the on-demand line-up soon.The company has annou...

PhotoNetflix subscribers will notice that some recently released Hollywood blockbusters will disappear from the on-demand line-up soon.

The company has announced it is ending its relationship with Epix, the cable network that holds the rights to popular movies like Hunger Games: Catching Fire, World War Z, and Transformers: Age of Extinction.

The movies go away at the end of September when the Epix contract with Netflix expires. But if you think it is Epix that is pulling the plug on Netflix, then you would be mistaken.

Focusing on exclusive content

In an announcement Sunday, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said Netflix has chosen not to renew its agreement because Epix movies are available from other providers. It's part of the company's strategy to focus on original and exclusive content.

It appears to be a very different situation from four years ago, when Netflix was primarily an on-demand movie service heavily dependent on Starz Entertainment's vast library. In September 2011, Starz announced it would not renew its contract with Netflix.

Netflix was willing to pay Starz's price for the movies, but that was not the issue. The issue, apparently, was that Netflix did not charge consumers enough to view the content.

“This decision is a result of our strategy to protect the premium nature of our brand by preserving the appropriate pricing and packaging of our exclusive and highly valuable content,” Starz CEO Chris Albrecht said at the time. “With our current studio rights and growing original programming presence, the network is in an excellent position to evaluate new opportunities and expand its overall business."

Starz also licensed its content to cable TV providers, who charged a lot more for their services. The implication being that allowing Netflix to provide access to movies at $8 a month was a threat to services charging 10 times that amount.

Turning lemons into lemonade

Then an unexpected thing happened. Netflix did not crumble as perhaps many in the industry hoped it would. It began buying up rights to TV series – the only content it could find to replace the lost movies. Subscribers seemed to embace it.

“Binge watching” entered into the common vocabulary, as viewers would sit down and watch an entire season of a series in a weekend. It helped that many of the series that were available, like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” were of higher quality than most movies.

Since then, Netflix has more or less redefined itself and now has an emphasis on original programming, with series like the award-winning House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Sarandos says the emphasis on original content will continue, and will also extend to feature films.

“Just like we’ve changed the game for TV watchers by releasing entire seasons around the world at the same time, we have begun making movies that will premiere on Netflix globally and in some cases, simultaneously in theaters,” Sarandos wrote in a blog post. “It will take us time to build a robust slate of original movies, but we’re hard at work on it with such great stars and directors as Brad Pitt, Ricky Gervais, Judd Apatow, Angelina Jolie, Sofia Coppola and Adam Sandler.”

Meanwhile, Epix films will be available elsewhere. The company signed a deal with Amazon Prime in 2012 and will begin distributing content through Hulu in October.

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Louisiana creates mobile pet shelters for disasters

The new shelters are fitted with cages of varying sizes, a cooling system, running water, and electricity

It has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina, and some part s of New Orleans are still suffering from its impact. Looking back, some of the iconic images ...

PhotoIt has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina, and some parts of New Orleans are still suffering from its impact. Looking back, some of the iconic images that you may remember were the number of pets and other animals that littered the streets after not surviving this tragic storm. Now, ten years later, the city has put a plan in place so that they can save many of the animals that would not survive another storm of this magnitude. By creating mobile shelters, officials hope that the city can respond and round up many potential animal victims.

These mobile shelters are, in fact, huge 18-wheelers that have been repurposed to support lost animals in a time of emergency. They cost the city $80,000 each, and were purchased from the state Agricultural Department’s fleet of vehicles. John Walther, assistant commissioner and director of emergency programs with the Agriculture Department, is taking steps to ensure that each truck can be efficient in an emergency. “[The trucks] will be retrofitted with permanent cages of varying sizes, a ramp, a ventilation and cooling system, and running water in a stainless steel sink,” he said.

In addition to these features, each truck will have its own generator. This will allow the driver and occupants to plug into available sources of electricity if the city’s power goes down. And, because they are completely mobile, they can be used for other emergencies that may occur throughout the country. “It can be deployed in a moment’s notice to anywhere in America,” said Walther.

Improved legislation

The idea for this kind of program comes after the hard lessons that were learned from Hurricane Katrina. Many people refused to evacuate their homes because they feared what would happen to their pets, which put many human lives in danger. After the storm had passed, many pets had gone missing, and their owners had no idea where to go in order to find them.

As a response, the federal government passed the Federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act in 2006. It requires local and state disaster plans to include provisions for pets and service animals in case of a disaster. Not content with these requirements, Louisiana passed the Pet Evacuation Bill, Act 615 that same year. The mobile shelters were created due to that piece of legislation. The state hopes that other areas of the country will follow their example in creating a better disaster plan. 

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UL says pest repeller poses shock hazard

Withdraws authorization to bear UL seal

In a brief announcement, UL, an independent safety science company, says the Ultrasonic Pest Repeller, manufactured by Intellitec International Ltd., may p...

PhotoIn a brief announcement, UL, an independent safety science company, says the Ultrasonic Pest Repeller, manufactured by Intellitec International Ltd., may pose a shock hazard.

It says the products do not comply with UL's safety standards and are not authorized to bear the UL Mark for the United States and Canada. Currently, the product bears the UL seal.

UL identifies the products as the Model SB-104 and SB-194, numbering between 20,000 and 25,000 units. They were made between November 2012 and November 2014.

According to UL, the pest repellers use an electrical receptacle. It says the receptacle is mis-wired and may pose an increased risk of shock.

The pest repellers are sold at major U.S. retailers for around $25. They are marketed as devices emitting high-frequency sounds that reportedly drive away bugs and rodents.

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Miracle Diet 30 and Miracle Rock 48 recalled

The products contain undeclared ingredients

The One Minute Miracle Inc. is recalling one lot each of Miracle Diet 30 and Miracle Rock 48. Miracle Diet 30 contains undeclared phenolphthalein, phenol...

PhotoThe One Minute Miracle Inc. is recalling one lot each of Miracle Diet 30 and Miracle Rock 48.

 

Miracle Diet 30 contains undeclared phenolphthalein, phenolphthalein was an ingredient used in over-the counter laxatives but was removed from the market because of concerns of carcinogenicity. Health risks of long term phenolphthalein consumption could include serious gastrointestinal disturbances, irregular heartbeat, and cancer with long term use.

 

The product is marketed as a dietary supplement to support appetite control and lose weight, and is packaged in 30-count plastic bottles. The affected Miracle Diet 30, Lot Number 150416, Expiration 04/15/2018, was distributed via the Internet nationwide in the U.S.

 

Miracle Rock 48 contains undeclared thiosildenafil, an analogue of sildenafil which is an approved drug used for the treatment of male sexual enhancement. Based on the similarity of chemical structures thiosildenafil, the analogue of sildenafil is likely to have a similar pharmacological effect as sildenafil and could cause a sudden and significant drop in blood pressure that may be life threatening.

 

The product is marketed as a dietary supplement for male sexual enhancement and is packaged in two blister packages of 2-count capsules, four capsules per box. The product, Lot Number 20150602, Expiration 06/01/2018, was distributed via the Internet nationwide in the U.S.

 

The undeclared ingredients in Miracle Diet 30 and Miracle Rock 48 make them unapproved drugs.

 

The company has received no reports of illness associated with these products to date.

 

In addition to the recall of the above products, the company is withdrawing all sizes and lots of the following products from the marketplace:

 

  • Miracle Cholesterol
  • Miracle Night Time
  • Miracle Joint-Flex
  • Miracle Stud 72
  • Miracle Magic Man
  • Male Mint Gum
  • Miracle 48 Hrs
  • Miracle Magic Woman
  • Miracle Cougar
  • Miracle Cougar Gum
  • Miracle Cougar G-Spot
  • Miracle G-Spot
  • Vagina Rejuvenation
  • Miracle Anti-Wrinkle
  • Miracle Stud Delay
  • Miracle Male Stud Spray
  • Miracle Male Stud Coffee
  • Miracle Male Coffee
  • Male 10
  • Miracle Male Stud Sublingual
  • Male 72 Hr
  • Miracle Tongue Sublingual
  • Miracle Tongue
  • Master Blaster

The company is notifying its customers via mail and is arranging for return of recalled products.

Customers who have the recalled products recalled should stop using them and return them immediately to:

 

The One Minute Miracle Inc.

3322 NE 166 Street

North Miami Beach, FL 33160

 

Consumers with questions regarding this recall may contact the firm at (305)947-6244 or by email at theoneminutemiracle@gmail.com Monday through Friday, 9:00am through 5:00pm EST.  

 

 

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Swanson Meats recalls beef products

The products were formulated with soybean oil, MSG and papain, which were not listed on the labels

Swanson Meats of Minneapolis, Minn., is recalling approximately 20,063 pounds of beef products. The products were formulated with soybean oil, MSG, and p...

PhotoSwanson Meats of Minneapolis, Minn., is recalling approximately 20,063 pounds of beef products.

 

The products were formulated with soybean oil, MSG, and papain (a meat tenderizer), which are not listed on the labels. Soy is an allergen and MSG may cause allergy-type reactions in those who may have sensitivity to it.

 

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

 

The following boneless beef tender tips, produced from Feb. 26, 2015, through Aug. 26, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 20-lb cases of “Marinated Boneless Beef Tender Tip”

The recalled products bear case code “SM04291” and establishment number “Est. 5697” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Robert Schuneman at (612) 465-0379 or at by email at bschuneman@swansonmeats.com.

 

 

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Kapowsin Meats expands recall of pork products

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Kapowsin Meats of Graham, Wash., is expanding an earlier recall of pork products to a total of 523,380 pounds of products. The products may be contamina...

PhotoKapowsin Meats of Graham, Wash., is expanding an earlier recall of pork products to a total of 523,380 pounds of products.

 

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been conducting intensified sampling, which revealed positive results for Salmonella on Whole Hogs for Barbeque, associated pork products and throughout the establishment.

 

FSIS has deemed sanitary improvement efforts made by the Kapowsin Meats insufficient, and the scope of this recall has been expanded to include all products associated with contaminated source material. The establishment has voluntarily suspended operations.

 

FSIS has determined that there is a link between whole hogs for barbeque and pork products from Kapowsin Meats and these illnesses. Traceback investigation has identified 36 case-patients who consumed products from this establishment prior to illness onset. These illnesses are part of a larger illness investigation.

 

Based on epidemiological evidence, 152 case-patients have been identified in Washington with illness onset dates ranging from April 25, 2015, to August 12, 2015.

 

The following whole hogs and associated items, produced between April 18, 2015, and August 26, 2015, are being recalled:

  • Varying weights of boxed/bagged Whole Hogs for Barbeque
  • Varying weights of boxed/bagged fabricated pork products including various pork offal products, pork blood and pork trim.

The recalled products bear the establishment number “Est. 1628” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to various individuals, retail locations, institutions and distributors in Alaska, Oregon and Washington.

 

Customers who purchased these products are urged not to consume them, and should throw them away or return them to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact John Anderson at (253) 847-1777.

 

 

 

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California Qi Li’s Braised Chicken recalls duck products

The products contain soy and wheat, allergens not listed on the labels

California Qi Li’s Braised Chicken of Fremont, Calif., is recalling approximately 6,644 pounds of duck head and duck neck products. The products contain s...

PhotoCalifornia Qi Li’s Braised Chicken of Fremont, Calif., is recalling approximately 6,644 pounds of duck head and duck neck products.

 

The products contain soy and wheat, allergens not listed on the labels.

 

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

 

The following duck products, produced between Feb. 11, 2015, and Aug. 13, 2015, are being recalled.

  • 10” x 8” vacuum sealed packages of “Chinese Brand Spicy Duck Heads”
  • 10” x 8” vacuum sealed packages of “Chinese Brand Spicy Duck Necks”

The recalled products bear establishment number “P-40286” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in California.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Ling Li at (408) 857-0901.

 

 

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Huffy recalls bicycles with front disc brakes

The front wheel can come to a sudden stop or separate from the bicycle

Huffy is recalling about 460 bicycles equipped with front disc brakes. An open quick release lever on the bicycle’s front wheel hub can come into contact ...

PhotoHuffy is recalling about 460 bicycles equipped with front disc brakes.

 

An open quick release lever on the bicycle’s front wheel hub can come into contact with the front disc brake assembly, causing the front wheel to come to a sudden stop or separate from the bicycle, posing a risk of injury to the rider.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported

 

The recalled products are all model year 2014 Huffy TR 745 and TR-S 740 bicycles with 27.5-inch wheels. “Huffy” is on the downtube of the frame of both bicycles and model name TR 745 or TR-S 740 is on the rear portion of the frame.

 

The TR 745 has a green frame with model number 26504M on the bottom of the frame near the pedals. The TR-S 740 has a white frame and model number 26604M on the bottom of the frame near the pedals.

 

Bicycles that have a green dot on the inside of the quick release lever are not included in this recall.

 

The bicycles, manufactured in China, were sold at Walmart.com, Sears Puerto Rico and The Northwest Company (Cost U Less) from September 2014, through May 2015, for between $250 to $370.

 

Consumers should stop using the bicycles immediately and contact Huffy for a free replacement quick release lever for the front wheel.

 

Consumers may contact Huffy toll-free at 888-366-3828 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, email at Service@Huffy.com or online at www.huffybikes.com and click on “Recalls” at the bottom of any page.

 

 

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Novacare recalls dietary supplements

The products contain salicylic acid, making the supplements unapproved new drugs

Novacare of Murray, Utah is recalling all lots of the following dietary supplements: Thin & Slim,Fataway Ultimate Stack, ThermoFX, MaxOut Body, Metabolic A...

PhotoNovacare of Murray, Utah is recalling all lots of the following dietary supplements:

Name*Brand NameQuantityUPCDates of
Manufacture
Thin & SlimFataway Ultimate Stack120 capsules8530020030252/21/2011-
3/16/2011
ThermoFXThermoFX<90 capsules7935739026654/5/2011
Thin and
Slim
MaxOut Body60 capsulesN/A10/24/2011-
2/11/2014
Metabolic
Accelerator
Metabolic Accelerator120 capsules6376871145932/23/2011-
3/18/2013
Thin and
Slim
Burn Fat Now>90 capsulesN/A10/29/2011-
10/29/2014
Thin and
Slim
Thermogenic Fat Burner90 capsules02002550009510/29/2011-
10/29/2014
TruTrim Bulk 11/30/2011
Thin and
Slim Naturally AM
Thin and Slim Naturally90 capsules63768701900310/29/2011-
10/29/2014
Thin and
Slim
Extreme Stack90 capsules6376870191331/30/2012,
3/20/2012
Xcellerator Bulk 10/27/2011-
3/26/2012
Asia BlackAsia Black100 capsules8596132742295/19/2011-
5/13/2014
Black WidowBlack Widow 25100 capsules8596132522581/25/2011-
8/10/2014
MethyldreneMethyldrene Original 25100 capsules8596136384961/19/2011-
6/28/2013

The products contain salicylic acid, an undeclared drug ingredient, making the supplements unapproved new drugs.

 

Salicylic acid is acutely toxic, not recommended for oral use and is harmful if swallowed.

 

No illnesses from these products have been reported to date.

 

These products were marketed as dietary supplements aiding in weight loss, produced in capsule form, and were sold in bottles nationwide to distributors.

 

Novacare, LLC is notifying its distributors and customers by certified mail and is arranging for return of all recalled product.

 

Consumers/distributors/retailers who have the recalled products should stop using, distributing, or selling them and return them to:

 

Novacare, LLC

Returns Dept.: MS# 2000

913 West 2900 South

Salt Lake City, UT 84119

 

Consumers with questions may contact Novacare directly at (801) 261-2252, Monday through Friday from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm (MST). Consumers should contact their physician or healthcare provider if they have experienced any problems that may be related to taking any of the aforementioned products.

 

 

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Suit charges asphyxiation danger in keyless ignitions

At least 13 deaths have been blamed on the devices

The "keyless" ignition is one of those supposed conveniences that comes with a lot of downsides, the most extreme being the risk of asphyxiation.At lea...

PhotoThe "keyless" ignition is one of those supposed conveniences that comes with a lot of downsides, the most extreme being the risk of asphyxiation.

At least 13 people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning that apparently resulted from their inadvertently leaving their engines running in the mistaken belief that they would automatically shut off.

Now a class action lawsuit filed in federal district court in Los Angeles accuses the world's biggest automakers of hiding the dangers inherent in the system and continuing to market the keyless ignition despite knowing of the dangers it presents.

The suit names BMW, Mercedes Benz, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors Co, Honda, Hyundai/ Kia, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

Distracted or confused

The keyless ignition allows a driver to start the car simply by pressing a button instead of having to insert a key into an ignition.

The fob that replaces the traditional key must be in or near the car for the system to work; the suit alleges that it's easy for drivers to become distracted or confused and to think that the engine will automatically stop running when they walk away from the car, taking the fob with them.

In fact, although the fob is needed to start the car, in most models the engine will continue to run even when the driver (and fob) aren't there. The lawsuit contends this presents an unacceptable danger when cars are left in garages attached to homes and other buildings.

The lawsuit claims automakers have known of the risks since at least 2003 yet have continued to market their vehicles as safe. It contends they could have easily installed a system to turn off engines in unattended and unoccupied cars and says Ford and GM took steps to patent such a feature.

The lawsuit says at least 27 complaints have been filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since 2009.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction requiring automakers to install automatic shut-off features on all existing and future models.

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Traffic fatalities rise dramatically

Possible causes: more miles driven, distracted driving, faster cars

Anyone who drives regularly on I-95, I-5 or any of the other freeways in highly populous sections of the country can tell you that average speeds are highe...

PhotoAnyone who drives regularly on I-95, I-5 or any of the other freeways in highly populous sections of the country can tell you that average speeds are higher than ever and truly outlandish daredevil stunts are more common than ever.

That's just an anecdotal observation, of course. But here's a hard number: 7,500. That the estimate of the number of people killed on U.S. highways during the first quarter of 2015 and it represents a nearly 10 percent increase over the first quarter of 2014.

It may,be even worse than that. The National Safety Council recently estimated traffic deaths in the first four months of 2015 were up 11 percent over the same period a year ago and notes that,U.S. traffic deaths increased every month for six,straight months.

Why? Good question. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says the figures are just estimates and final figures won't be in until next year. The final data will include more complete information on each accident and may provide clues to what's behind the increase.

Photo
Source: NHTSA

More miles

One factor is rather simple: we're driving more, perhaps because of an improving economy and cheaper gas prices. Preliminary data reported by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the first three months of 2014 increased by about 9.8 billion miles, or about a 3.9,percent increase.

The safety council says distracted driving is a big part of the reason.,The NSC says cell phone,related activities are to blame for 27% of all crashes.

They,estimate that,texting-related crashes jumped from 5% to 6%, while crashes involving drivers talking on cell phones remained at 21%.

NHTSA is not so sure. "It is too soon to speculate on the contributing factors or potential implications of any changes in deaths on our roadways," the agency said.,

Whatever the reason, the rising death toll makes it clear that while cars may be safer, highways remain treacherous and should be navigated with great care.

"Follow the numbers: the trend we are seeing on our roadways is like a flashing red light – danger lies ahead," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. "Be a defensive driver and make safe decisions behind the wheel. Your life really depends on it."

Many law enforcement types blame today's cars. Although loaded with more safety equipment than ever, modern cars handle and brake well and their turbocharged engines are highly responsive, increasing the temptation to speed. 

What to do

Defensive driving and up-to-date safety equipment remains the best way to protect yourself and your passengers, safety experts say. The National Safety Council offers these tips:

  • Make sure every passenger buckles up on every trip
  • Designate an alcohol and drug-free driver or arranging alternate transportation
  • Get plenty of sleep and taking regular breaks to avoid fatigue
  • Never use a cell phone behind the wheel,,even hands-free
  • Stay engaged in teens' driving habits. Teens are three times as likely to crash as more experienced drivers.
  • Learn about your vehicle's safety systems and how to use them.,My Car Does What,can help drivers understand the ins and outs of features such as adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning systems and backup cameras.

Shootings more common?

If it's any consolation, your chances of being shot to death may be even higher than than the risk of being killed in a highway crash, The Atlantic recently reported.,

The magazine quoted a,recent report from the Center for American Progress that cited,CDC data suggesting guns will kill more Americans under 25 than cars in 2015. Already more than a quarter of the teenagers—15 years old and up—who die of injuries in the United States are killed in gun-related incidents,,according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Atlantic said that car crashes killed 33,561 people in 2012, the most recent year for which complete NHTSA data is available.,Firearms killed 32,251 people in the United States in 2011,,the most recent year,for which the Centers for Disease Control has data.

That led to the prediction that gun deaths would soon outpace traffic deaths, although the startling jump in fatal highway crashes may cast doubt on the outcome.

,

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D.C. appeals court lifts injunction against NSA bulk metadata collection

The NSA is free to collect such data until November, then the phone company will do it for them

An appeals court in Washington D.C. has lifted a previous injunction against the National Security Agency's bulk metadata collection program. This means th...

PhotoAn appeals court in Washington D.C. has lifted a previous injunction against the National Security Agency's bulk metadata collection program. This means the NSA is free to legally resume mass monitoring of Americans' phone connections until at least November. That month, a new law is supposed to make NSA bulk metadata collection illegal anyway, in lieu of a new program wherein the phone companies will hold such data instead, and investigators will have to ask for it.

The injunction against the NSA had initially been granted in December 2013, as the result of a lawsuit brought by former prosecutor Larry Klayman. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that Klayman's suit “demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success” that the NSA's activity was an unconstitutional violation of his Fourth Amendment right to privacy.

But this week, the court of appeals reversed Leon's decision. Circuit Court Judge Stephen Williams wrote that Klayman and his co-plaintiffs “lack direct evidence that records involving their calls have actually been collected.” However, Williams did not toss the case out, because he said that the plaintiffs might be able to show standing at some future point.

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Ashley Madison's CEO resigns after hacking and data dumps

The company apparently intends to stay in business

This morning, more than a month after hackers first breached the database of the “adultery dating” website Ashley Madison, and a week after the first of se...

PhotoThis morning, more than a month after hackers first breached the database of the “adultery dating” website Ashley Madison, and a week after the first of several subsequent data dumps, Ashley Madison's parent company Avid Life Media announced that CEO Noel Biderman is resigning, effective immediately and “in mutual agreement with the company.”

Avid Life Media is already facing at least four class action suits over the hacking and subsequent data dumps, which made public vast amounts of supposedly confidential user data and administrative records, including company emails to and from Biderman himself. Among other incriminating things, the data shows that Ashley Madison may have lied about the size of its (practically non-existent) female clientele, hired workers to create fake female profiles, and even hacked into a competitor's website in 2012. A look at leaked company emails also suggests that the married Biderman himself had multiple affairs, though not with Ashley Madison clients.

Avid Life's full statement says:

Effective today [August 28], Noel Biderman, in mutual agreement with the company, is stepping down as Chief Executive Officer of Avid Life Media Inc. (ALM) and is no longer with the company. Until the appointment of a new CEO, the company will be led by the existing senior management team.

This change is in the best interest of the company and allows us to continue to provide support to our members and dedicated employees. We are steadfast in our commitment to our customer base.

We are actively adjusting to the attack on our business and members’ privacy by criminals. We will continue to provide access to our unique platforms for our worldwide members.

We are actively cooperating with international law enforcement in an effort to bring those responsible for the theft of proprietary member and business information to justice.

As of press time, Ashley Madison's website remains active, still promises “100% discreet service” and continues to claim that “Thousands of cheating wives and cheating husbands signup everyday [sic] looking for an affair.”

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Fat deposits in the brain may be an Alzheimer's trigger

Discovery could provide a treatment breakthrough

Alzheimer's researchers at the University of Montreal Hospital have made an odd discovery. They believe it could unlock the secret to the age-related disea...

PhotoAlzheimer's researchers at the University of Montreal Hospital have made an odd discovery. They believe it could unlock the secret to the age-related disease.

When the researchers examined brains of patients who died from Alzheimer's, they discovered the brains all contained droplets of fat. Could there be a connection?

"Our experiments suggest that these abnormal fat deposits could be a trigger for the disease", said Karl Fernandes, a researcher at the hospital and a professor at the University of Montreal.

Astonishing discovery

The study started out as a way to solve the mystery of why the brain's stem cells don't repair brain damage in people with Alzheimer's like they would with other brain injuries and diseases. Doctoral student Laura Hamilton, who was conducting the research, said she was astonished to find fat droplets near the stem cells on the inner surface of the brain in mice predisposed to develop the disease.

"We realized that Dr. Alois Alzheimer himself had noted the presence of lipid accumulations in patients' brains after their death when he first described the disease in 1906,” she said. “But this observation was dismissed and largely forgotten due to the complexity of lipid biochemistry."

Further research revealed the fat deposits on the brains of nine Alzheimer's victims were triglycerides enriched with specific fatty acids, which can also be found in most animal fats and vegetable oils.

"We discovered that these fatty acids are produced by the brain, that they build up slowly with normal aging, but that the process is accelerated significantly in the presence of genes that predispose to Alzheimer's disease," said Fernandes.

In animal experiments, the researchers found that the fatty acids occur very early in life, correspnding in human years to the early twenties.

Cause or consequence?

Therefore, we think that the build-up of fatty acids is not a consequence but rather a cause or accelerator of the disease," Fernandes said.

If it turns out that these fat deposits are a significant contributor to Alzheimer's, the researchers say it would be a huge breakthrough. That's because there are existing drugs that inhibit the enzyme that produces these fatty acids.

The research team concludes these molecules, which are currently being tested for metabolic diseases such as obesity, could be effective in treating Alzheimer's disease.

"We succeeded in preventing these fatty acids from building up in the brains of mice predisposed to the disease. The impact of this treatment on all the aspects of the disease is not yet known, but it significantly increased stem cell activity," Fernandes said. "This is very promising because stem cells play an important role in learning, memory and regeneration."

The researchers say their discovery also supports the argument that Alzheimer's disease is a metabolic brain disease, almost like obesity or diabetes. They say it could lead to an entirely new approach to treatment.

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New malware-spreading campaign impersonates the Electronic Frontier Foundation

The website eff.org is legit, but electronicfrontierfoundation(dot)org is a dangerous malware source

Privacy fans beware: there's a new malware-spreading phishing scam that impersonates the Electronic Frontier Foundation, including a fake website that look...

PhotoPrivacy fans beware: there's a new malware-spreading phishing scam that impersonates the Electronic Frontier Foundation, including a fake website that looks similar to the EFF's real one.

The EFF's genuine web address is at eff.org. But on Aug. 4, somebody registered a new domain name at electronicfrontierfoundation(dot)org. Yesterday, the real EFF posted a warning about the fake website, which was originally discovered by researchers from Google's security team. Even though the scam site has been identified, the EFF said that “At the time of this writing the domain is still serving malware.”

Malware campaign

The fake Electronicfrontierfoundation site appears to be part of a larger malware campaign known as Operation Pawn Storm. Pawn Storm dates back to at least October 2014, when security researchers at Trend Micro discovered “a series of attacks that targets military officials as well as various defense contractors.”

The current phase of Pawn Storm, including the EFF impersonation, apparently started in mid-July (and shortly before the Aug. 4 registration of the false Electronicfrontierfoundation site). On July 11, Trend Micro posted a Pawn Storm update announcing that they'd discovered a new zero-day exploit taking advantage of a vulnerability in Java.

In tech-speak, a zero-day exploit is a vulnerability which bad-guy hackers discovered how to use before good-guy researchers knew it was there. Thus, zero days pass between the discovery of the vulnerability and the discovery that someone's already used it for bad purposes. (Imagine a homeowner who says “I never knew my house even had a back door – until I found a burglar using that door to rob the house.” The previously unknown back door was a zero-day flaw, and the burglary a zero-day exploit.)

Possible Russian involvement

The genuine EFF, in its warning about its malware-spreading impostor, said that it is currently “unclear who the [current attack's] intended targets were,” although “The group behind the attacks is possibly associated with the Russian government and has been active since at least 2007.”

Like many malware campaigns, this latest Pawn Storm update snags most of its victims by sending out fake emails purporting to be from legitimate organizations – the EFF, in this instance. Those emails contain a link leading to the fake, malware-riddled spoofing site, which then loads keylogging software onto your computer.

If nothing else, this EFF-impersonating Pawn Storm attack should serve as another reminder of why you should never click on any link (or download any file) from an unsolicited email.

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What to make of Wall Street's wild week

Economist sees strong positives for economy, even as stock values slide

Granted, most consumers are not active investors in the stock market, so when the major averages rise and fall with whipsaw-like speed in the space of a fe...

PhotoGranted, most consumers are not active investors in the stock market, so when the major averages rise and fall with whipsaw-like speed in the space of a few trading days, fewer people feel they are directly related.

But millions have the bulk of their retirement savings invested in stock mutual funds, and large pension funds are heavily invested in stocks; so, what happens on Wall Street matters.

Then what is the average consumer to make of this week's action in the financial markets? After huge intra-day swings, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is likely to end the week about 800 points or so higher than where it began on Monday.

Then again, it would still be about 800 points lower than where it began the previous week.

Overdue correction

Most market-watchers have concluded the turbulence is the result of a long-overdue correction, based on the fact that the Federal Reserve finally appears ready to begin raising interest rates. When the cheap money disappears, stock valuations have to be adjusted lower.

But is that all there is to it? Rajeev Dhawan of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, says the markets are also reacting to events in China, which has devalued its currency and sent other signals that its huge economy is badly in need of a jump start.

Although financial markets reacted negatively to China's currency devaluation, Dhawan says the move was “positive news for the economy overall” that will boost domestic profit margins on imported goods.

Consumer-friendly news

There is other consumer-friendly news out there, he says. Between low gas prices and wealth gains from reflated home prices and stock portfolios, he believes consumers are finally in the mood to spend, albeit judiciously, on necessities, if not luxuries.

Car sales are up, driven in large part by low interest rates. As for oil, Dhawan expects prices will stay below $60 a barrel until late 2016 due to a drop in global demand and an increase in drilling efficiency by U.S. producers.

“People can safely expect low gas prices to continue for the next year,” he said.

Businesses appear to be investing more in personnel and infrastructure. Dhawan expects the increase in business investment will be the final piece of the economic puzzle for the Fed, prompting it to start raising interest rates before the end of this year.

Stronger economic growth

Economic growth also appears stronger. After an anemic showing in the first quarter of 2015, the second quarter showed much more evidence of a rebound, with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rising at an annual rate of 3.7%.

Dhawan also thinks it will be easier to get a job in the months ahead. He expects jobs to grow by a monthly rate of 219,000 in 2015, 226,000 in 2016 and 214,000 in 2017.

So despite the sideshow on Wall Street this week, Dhawan says the underlying economy is showing improvement, even if it is coming slowly.

As for the markets, the turbulence is likely to continue for a while. Corrections, after all, usually take weeks, not days.

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RadioShack, New York reach agreement on unredeemed gift cards

The company's bankruptcy had put the cards' value in doubt

An agreement between RadioShack and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman will preserve the value of many gift cards held by consumers nationwide....

PhotoAn agreement between RadioShack and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman will preserve the value of many gift cards held by consumers nationwide. The electronics chain's bankruptcy had left the value of the cards in question. 

“Businesses must honor their commitments to consumers, and that includes consumers who have purchased gift cards,” said Schneiderman. “We will ensure that debts owed to consumers across New York and across the country are a top priority in RadioShack’s bankruptcy proceedings.”

The agreement provides that RadioShack will pay holders of unredeemed gift cards that were purchased by consumers at 100% of the value of their cards. The agreement applies to gift cards purchased from RadioShack or other merchants who sold RadioShack gift cards and applies to consumers nationwide.

The settlement does not impose a minimum dollar threshold for consumer claims and is supported by the Attorneys General of Texas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Tennessee, and New Hampshire.

If the settlement is approved by the Bankruptcy Court, consumers will have 12 months after RadioShack’s plan of liquidation becomes effective to file a simplified proof of claim form that will be available online or by mail. The exact notice procedures are still being negotiated by the parties.  

An escrow account with $500,000 will be established so that the first half million dollars’ worth of qualifying unredeemed gift card claims will be paid promptly and will not be delayed in the bankruptcy process. In the event that qualifying gift card claims exceed that amount, additional funds will be provided.

Gift cards that were issued as promotional giveaways, offered for store credit on returns, or otherwise not paid for by any consumer may not receive priority status under the agreement.

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Personal incomes and spending move higher in July

The savings rate posted a gain as well

American consumers were earning, spending and saving more money in July. Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show personal income rose $67...

PhotoAmerican consumers were earning, spending, and saving more money in July.

Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show personal income rose $67.1 billion, or 0.4% for a fourth straight month, disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- increased by 0.5%, or $61.5 billion, and personal consumption expenditures (PCE) advanced $37.4 billion, or 0.3 % for the second month in a row.

Wages and salaries increased $35.8 billion in July, following a $14.3 billion gain in June. Private wages and salaries were up $32.7 billion, more than triple the previous month's advance, while government wages and salaries were up $3.1 billion, compared with an increase of $3.3 billion in June.

Personal outlays and saving

Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments – were slightly above June's $36.5 billion at $37.7 billion.

Personal saving, which is DPI less personal outlays, was $651.1 billion in July, up $23.8 billion from June. That pushed the personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- to 4.9% in July from 4.7% in June.

The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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FDA warns three cigarette companies about marketing claims

Agency exercises new tobacco powers for first time

ITG Brands LLC, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company Inc., and Sherman’s 1400 Broadway N.Y.C. Ltd. — three brands that describe their cigarettes on product lab...

PhotoITG Brands LLC, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company Inc., and Sherman’s 1400 Broadway N.Y.C. Ltd. — three brands that describe their cigarettes on product labeling as “additive-free” and/or “natural” – have all received warning letters from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

That description violates section 911 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C; Act), the FDA said.

This is the first time the FDA has exercised its authority under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 to pursue regulatory action regarding the use of “additive-free” or “natural” claims on tobacco product labeling.

“The FDA’s job is to ensure tobacco products are not marketed in a way that leads consumers to believe cigarettes with descriptors like 'additive-free' and 'natural' pose fewer health risks than other cigarettes, unless the claims have been scientifically supported,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “This action is a milestone, and a reminder of how we use the tools of science-based regulation to protect the U.S. public from the harmful effects of tobacco use.”

2009 law

Congress moved in 2009 to give the FDA the power to regulate cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco. At the same time, the law created channels for companies to use if they wanted to make claims of modified risk for their products.

Under the law, a “modified risk tobacco product” is “any tobacco product sold or distributed for use to reduce harm or the risk of tobacco-related disease associated with commercially marketed tobacco products.”

Companies that make this claim have to go through an approval process with the FDA and be prepared to back it up. The companies getting the warning letters, the agency says, did not do this.

Specific infractions

Specifically, ITG Brands was cited for marketing its Winston cigarettes with the MRTP claim “Additive-free.”

Santa Fe Natural Tobacco was cited for its Natural American Spirit cigarettes with the MRTP claims "Natural” and “Additive-free.”

The FDA said Sherman’s 1400 Broadway N.Y.C. has been marketing its Nat Sherman cigarettes with the MRTP claim “Natural.”

To make any of those claims, the FDA has determined that these products need an FDA modified risk tobacco product order before they can be legally introduced as such into interstate commerce.

As we reported Thursday, several anti-smoking groups have petitioned the FDA to crack down on such labeling. In particular, these groups said the FDA should look into Reynolds American's Natural American Spirit cigarette brand, which uses phrases like "additive free" and "organic tobacco," making it seem like the cigarettes might be less harmful than other brands.

The groups, in a letter to the FDA, say the tobacco may be “additive free” but smoking it is still a health hazard.

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Luxe app now finds a valet to drive you home

Parking app expands to provide someone to drive you and your car home after a night on the town

Uber is a convenient app to summon a ride. But what if you've had a few too many with friends and are concerned about getting your car home?The on-dema...

PhotoUber is a convenient app to summon a ride. But what if you've had a few too many with friends and are concerned about getting your car home?

The on-demand valet parking service app Luxe has launched a new feature called Drive Home. The company says a valet can be summoned to get both you are your vehicle home safely.

The new valet feature has started in Boston, San Francico, Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Luxe says the Drive Home valet service is covered under its $5 million insurance policy that covers valets, drivers and cars. The company says it's partnering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the new venture and donating $1 from each ride to the organization.

"According to MADD studies, someone is killed by a drunk driver every 53 minutes. In Massachusetts alone, 36% of all traffic deaths are caused by drunk driving," said Lauren Sheerr, Luxe's Boston General Manager. "Luxe wants to provide a solution. By allowing our valets to drive you home in your own vehicle, we are making the streets of Boston safer for everyone."

Same app works

If you have the Luxe app, you can summon a Drive Home valet by using the app's additional services menu. The cost is $25 plus an additional $3 per mile.

Drive Home requires the valet request to be made at least an hour before closing time. Once the request comes in, Drive Home personnel contact the user to get the destination and return time.

A valet picks up the customer in his or her own vehicle and drives the customer to a chosen destination before parking the car in the driveway and handing over the keys. 

On-demand valet parking

Luxe describes itself as an on-demand valet parking service, based in San Francisco. It offers its service in the crowded urban areas of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, New York, Boston, Austin and Philadelphia, where parking is at a premium.

Instead of hunting for a parking garage and hoping for an empty space once inside, a Luxe user arranges to hand over the car at his or her destination. A Luxe driver then takes the customer's car to a secure lot. Optional services including washing and a fuel fill-up.

With 15 minutes notice, Luxe says it will return the customer's car anywhere within its service area. The cost averages $5 an hour, the company says.

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Study finds kids do better with a four-day school week

Cutting the week by one day could save money, improve student performance

You might think that taking an extra day off from school each week would hurt student performance, but a study finds that the opposite is the case.Rese...

PhotoYou might think that taking an extra day off from school each week would hurt student performance, but a study finds that the opposite is the case.

Researchers at Georgia State University and Montana State University found that shortening the school week to four days has a positive impact on elementary school students' academic performance in mathematics.

"What interested me about our results is they were completely opposite to what we anticipated," said Mary Beth Walker, dean of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State. "We thought that especially for the younger, elementary school kids, longer days on a shorter school week would hurt their academic performance because their attention spans are shorter. Also, a longer weekend would give them more opportunity to forget what they had learned."

Although the shortened school week did not have a measurable impact on reading outcomes, "the idea that the change in the calendar did not have negative effects we thought was an important result," Walker said.

The study, published in the journal Education, Finance and Policy in July, analyzed the impact of a four-day school week on student achievement by comparing fourth-grade reading and fifth-grade math test scores from the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) for students who participated in a four-day school week, versus those who attended a traditional five-day school week.

Could cut costs

The study suggests there is little evidence that moving to a four-day week compromises student academic achievement, an important finding for U.S. school districts seeking ways to cut costs without hampering student achievement.

A number of school districts in the United States have moved from the traditional Monday through Friday schedule to a four-day week schedule as a cost-saving measure to reduce overhead and transportation costs.

Four-day weeks have been in place for years in rural school districts in western states, particularly in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Over one-third of the school districts in Colorado have adopted a four-day schedule. The alternative schedule has also been considered in school districts in Oregon, Missouri, Florida, and Georgia.

The four-day school week requires school districts to lengthen the school day to meet minimum instructional hour requirements.

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Sid Wainer and Son recalls Jansal Valley raw macadamia nuts

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Sid Wainer and Son of New Bedford, Mass., is recalling Jansal Valley brand raw macadamia nuts. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella No illness...

PhotoSid Wainer and Son of New Bedford, Mass., is recalling Jansal Valley brand raw macadamia nuts.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

 

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

 

The product is packaged in a plastic bag labeled as “Jansal Valley Raw Macadamia Nuts,” in both a 1-lb. and 8-oz. ounce size with Lot code 469566, and were sold through mail orders and retail stores nationwide.

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-800-423-8333, ext.168 or 119 between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm.

 

 

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General Mills recalls frozen Cascadian Farm Cut Green Beans

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

General Mills is recalling a limited quantity of frozen Cascadian Farm Cut Green Beans One package of the product tested positive for Listeria monocytoge...

PhotoGeneral Mills is recalling a limited quantity of frozen Cascadian Farm Cut Green Beans

 

One package of the product tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

 

No related illnesses have been reported in connection with this product.

 

produced over two days in March 2014. The recall is being issued as a precaution after one package of finished product tested positive for the presence of Listeria monocytogenes. No related illnesses have been reported in connection with this product.

 

This recall is limited to 10-ounce bags of frozen Cascadian Farm Cut Green Beans, produced over two days in March 2014, with either of two “Better If Used By” dates printed on the package:

  • 10APR2016
  • 11APR2016

The recalled product was sold at retail stores nationwide.

 

Customers should dispose of the recalled product.

 

Consumers who have products covered by this recall may contact Cascadian Farm Consumer Relations at 1-800-624-4123 for a replacement.

 

 

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Preparing for disaster on a tight budget

Disaster prep is easy if you have lots of money. Here's some advice in case you don't

How can Americans lose water, electricity, or other vital utilities through no fault of their own? Let me count the ways: tornado, derecho, El Niño, nor'ea...

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Brainless autoplay videos widen exposure to revenge killing

Social media users ambushed by grisly video of journalists' murders

The Internet is basically brainless. It has been built by thoughtless technocrats and heedless entrepreneurs who disdain the centuries-old notion that a hu...

PhotoThe Internet is basically brainless. It has been built by thoughtless technocrats and heedless entrepreneurs who disdain the centuries-old notion that a human mind should make an informed decision about what to publish on public media.

Just a few decades ago, everything that went into print or got onto the air passed before one or more editors who at least tried to determine if it was a.) true and b.) "fit to print," as the New York Times motto has it.

This doesn't mean that shocking, even repellant, photos and videos are never used. News is often unpleasant but it's every citizen's duty to be informed on issues of public interest. Hence photos of war scenes, like the grisly Civil War photos taken by Mathew Brady and printed by newspapers around the country.

Photo
The Battle of Gettysburg (Photo by Mathew Brady)

These days, anything and everything -- lies, pornography, stupid selfies, defamatory statements, false reviews and shocking acts of violence -- is immediately posted to social media. Everyone involved is very proud of what they have done and seem to think that it is somehow the pinnacle of free expression.

Live shot

Yesterday's fatal shooting of two Virginia television journalists and the wounding of their interview subject during a "live shot" was inadvertently broadcast on the local TV station but it also wound up on Facebook, Twitter and just about everywhere else.

Facebook and Twitter have only recently enabled "autoplay" videos on their platforms and may be regretting that today. Although they removed the videos and closed the account of accused shooter Vester Flanagan (who had posted his own video of the shooting), the video was already in wide circulation on the Web.

Flanagan, who Virginia State Police say shot himself after being apprehended, thus became the first non-ISIS perpetrator to use social media for something even worse than revenge porn. 

Many consumers were upset by the violent videos.

Photo
A Twitter posting quoted by BuzzFeed

Twitter declined to comment and Facebook said the video was removed for "violating our Community Standards," according to a BuzzFeed report

The Roanoke TV station, WDBJ, couldn't avoid carrying the shooting as it happened but refrained from repeating it endlessly throughout the day, as did most other outlets staffed by humans. 

What to do

Bad things do happen and shouldn't be hushed up but being ambushed by an autoplay video is something many consumers would like to avoid. Parents, in particular, may want to shield their children from coming on such horrors without advance notice.

Fortunately, it is possible, at least for now, to disable autoplay on many social media feeds. PC World offers step-by-step instructions.

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Faking profiles, hacking competitors, DMCA abuse, and more: the Ashley Madison saga continues

The website still claims to offer “100% discreet service”

The fallout still hasn't settled from the hacking and subsequent data dump of the “adultery dating” website Ashley Madison, yet every new revelation makes ...

PhotoThe fallout still hasn't settled from the hacking and subsequent data dump of the “adultery dating” website Ashley Madison, yet every new revelation makes the story progressively more bizarre.

Ashley Madison (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.”

Recent hacking

In July, a hacker or group of hackers self-identifying as The Impact Team said that it had broken into Ashley Madison and stolen all information available therein. At the time, the hackers threatened to release all of the stolen information unless the website was taken down. According to its own statements, The Impact Team's main complaint with Ashley Madison isn't that the website promotes or facilitates adultery, but that it allegedly lied to its clients.

Ashley Madison offered clients a “full delete” service, scrubbing a client's complete profile and activity history from the site for $19. But The Impact Team said Ashley Madison lied about the full delete: they'd collect the $19 without bothering to scrub the client's data.

Thirty days after the hack, The Impact Team made good on its threat and posted 9.7 gigabytes of stolen Ashley Madison data to the dark web. And a preliminary analysis of that first data dump suggested that The Impact Team was right: Ashley Madison did lie about its full delete service.

The Impact Team also claimed that Ashley Madison lied about the number of women on its site, by creating “thousands” of fake female profiles.

But when Gizmodo's Annalee Newitz analyzed the data, she concluded that the number of fakes was far greater than even The Impact Team had indicated; turns out “almost none of the women in the Ashley Madison database ever used the site.”

Fake profiles and hacking the competition

Of the 37 million profiles on the Ashley Madison site, 5.5 million allegedly belonged to women. From the perspective of a man seeking a hetero hookup, that statistic is dismal enough: more than six men for every woman. But how many of those accounts were real women – and more importantly, how many of those real women actually used those accounts for their advertised purposes?

The data released by The Impact Team included lots of business and administrative data of the sort intended to be seen only by Ashley Madison employees, not clients. This includes private-message records: how many messages did AM members send, receive, read, or respond to?

Newitz says “About two-thirds of the men, or 20.2 million of them, had checked the messages in their accounts at least once. But only 1,492 women had ever checked their messages. It was a serious anomaly.”

Newitz found a similarly huge differential when she checked the reply_mail_last_time field, which shows when a given AM member had last replied to a message from another member: “5.9 million men had done it, and only 9700 women had. … Overall, the picture is grim indeed. Out of 5.5 million female accounts, roughly zero percent had ever shown any kind of activity at all, after the day they were created.”

Though perhaps this isn't a surprise. A couple of days after The Impact Team's first Ashley Madison data dump, a former Ashley Madison employee claimed that her job had been to create hundreds of fake female profiles alluring enough to convince men to sign up for the site. Doriana Silva, a Brazilian woman who worked at Ashley Madison headquarters in Toronto, tried suing her employer after claiming that she developed a repetitive stress injury after having to create 1,000 fake profiles in less than a month. Silva actually filed her suit in 2012, and settled with Avid Life Media earlier this year.

The fake profiles arguably aren't even the most incriminating reveal from the data dumps. A release of internal Ashley Madison employee emails suggests that hacking victim Ashley Madison had itself hacked into a rival dating website back in 2012.

Security expert Brian Krebs noted on Monday that leaked emails between company CEO Noel Biderman and former Chief Technology Officer Raja Bhatia show that Bhatia had discovered a way to download and manipulate the entire user database of rival website Nerve.com.

Despite all of this, AshleyMadison.com not only remains online, but still tours itself as “the world's leading married dating service for discreet encounters” (bold-print italic from the original website, where it also appears in a hot-pink font). This promise of “discreet” encounters appears right next to a row of three colorful little icons bragging that Ashley Madison holds a “Trusted Security Award,” offers “100% Discreet Service” and is an “SSL Secure Site.”

For what it's worth, the site is still getting visitors – if not paid memberships. Digiday's Jordan Valinsky noted yesterday that an analysis of web traffic data shows that from Saturday, Aug. 22 to Sunday, Aug. 23, the number of desktop visitors to Ashley Madison increased by 2 million. There's also been a significant increase in the number of people who visited Ashley Madison from a pay-per-click ad on another website – in other words, an increased number of visitors whom Ashley Madison is paying for.

Damage control

Meanwhile, Ashley Madison has made various attempts at damage control, with limited success. On Monday, Avid Life Media offered a reward of $500,000 Canadian (about $377,730 in U.S. dollars) for information leading to the hackers' capture.That same day, police in Toronto said that two people “associated with” the leaked Ashley Madison data had committed suicide.

In a more misguided damage-control effort, the company has also attempted to force websites to take down the leaked data by claiming copyright infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act even though, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation said, “Copyright isn’t designed for keeping secrets (in fact, it was generally meant to do the exact opposite by encouraging disclosure).” Ashley Madison has sent takedown notices to Reddit, Twitter, and other websites, activities which Techdirt's Mike Masnick summarized as “Ashley Madison continues to use dubious legal takedown threats to try to disappear the data it failed to protect.”

As of press time there are at least four attempted class action lawsuits filed against Ashley Madison, all by members of the oft-litigious Doe family: two male plaintiffs named John Doe, a female named Jane Doe, and five plaintiffs of indeterminate gender who filed as J. Doe. So far, the attempted lawsuits all claim negligence and breach of implied contract over the hacking and data dump, for failing to keep users' confidential data confidential. So far, nobody has yet tried suing Ashley Madison for fraud based on the many apparently fake female profiles.

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Are you addicted to your smartphone?

If you are, you are far from alone

Since cellphones, then smartphones, became ubiquitous in modern life, we have become highly dependent on them - not to make calls so much as connect to the...

PhotoSince cellphones, then smartphones, became ubiquitous in modern life, we have become highly dependent on them - not to make calls so much as connect to the Internet.

These devices, after all, are small computers in our pockets with vastly more processing power than the computers that sent men to the moon in 1969. And we use them a lot.

Bank of America's  2015 Trends in Consumer Mobility Report found 71% of consumers sleep with their smartphones and 35% say it is the first thing they think of when they wake up in the morning.

The report breaks down usage by age and finds younger Millennials, who grew up with smartphone technology, are the most dependent consumers.

Mobile addicts

A report from Flurry, a mobile analytics firm, says for a growing number of consumers, mobile technology dependence has crossed over into addiction, and that it's a global trend.

Regular users, consumers who admit to accessing apps between once and 16 times daily, grew from 784 million to 985 million in just a year, a 25% increase. So-called super users, consumers who use apps between 16 and 60 times daily, grew even more in that same period, from 440 million to 590 million, a 34% increase.

According to Flurry, mobile addicts are consumers who use apps 60 times or more per day.

“We saw this group is growing at the fastest rate, from 176 million in Q2 2014 to a whopping 280 million in Q2 2015, a 59% increase,” the company said.

Facebook and Instagram

What are mobile addicts using these powerful mini computers to do? Unfortunately, they're not looking for a cure for cancer. The Flurry research shows addicts are most likely to be using messaging and social apps to communicate with friends. In other words, to entertain themselves.

The research shows mobile addicts use messaging apps nearly seven times more than the average mobile device user.

Mobile commerce surging too

While posting content on social media is the main activity, plenty of consumers are using their mobile devices to purchase products.

Coupofy.com, a database of online coupon codes, reports an explosive growth in redemption of mobile coupons. It says in 2014 there were 560 million mobile coupon users who redeemed 16 billion coupons. The company predicts that will rise to 1.05 billion users and 31 billion coupons by 2019.

Smartphones have been responsible for the phenomenon of “showrooming,” when consumers find a product they want in a store, they use their phone to shop for the best price and order it. Coupofy's data suggests this trend will continue to grow.

Regular ecommerce is projected to grow by 13% between 2013 and 2016, but the company says mobile commerce is expected to surge by 42%. A lot of it will occur outside the U.S.

Denmark, Norway, Sweden, China, and Spain are leading this growth, the company says, with each seeing a rise of around 50% in mobile shopping popularity between the same time period.

They're catching up to emerging markets like India and Taiwan, which saw a 60% increase between 2012 and 2014 as mobile devices became more prevalent among their populations.

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Researchers find shopping at a farmers' market is a political act

Morality increasingly injected into food choices

You may think you stop at the farmers' market because the tomatoes are better. In reality, say University of Iowa researchers, your patronage of a farmers'...

PhotoYou may think you stop at the farmers' market because the tomatoes are better. In reality, say University of Iowa researchers, your patronage of a farmers' market is a political act.

"It's not just about the economical exchange; it's a relational and ideological exchange as well," said Ion Vasi, an associate professor at the University of Iowa and corresponding author of the study.

The way Vasi sees it, the local food market is what sociologists call a "moralized market" – a market in which people combine economic activities with their social values. That seems to be a major trend in all manner of commerce these days, not just food. Not content to wear their political views on their sleeves, a growing number of consumers serve it on their plates.

The Iowa researchers say they found local food markets were more likely to develop in areas where residents had a strong commitment to civic participation, health, and the environment.

Relationships with the farmers

"It's about valuing the relationship with the farmers and people who produce the food and believing that how they produce the food aligns with your personal values," Vasi said.

That can mean a lot of different things, from growing organically to paying high wages and providing health care to workers. If the food happens to taste better, well so much the better.

Obsessing over food – where and how it's grown and how it's prepared, is a relatively new phenomenon. These consumers are called “foodies".

Vasi has coined another term – “locavores” – to describe the consumers he says are ideologically driven to shop at farmers' markets. He says these consumers enjoy knowing who grows their food and are driven to eat locally grown produce and meat because it “makes them feel a part of something greater than themselves.”

Striking a blow against big business

The study says that for these “locavores,” supporting the local food movement is “an act to preserve their local economy against the threats of globalization and big-box stores.”

To demonstrate how widespread this trend has become, Vasi cites the Agriculture Department's (USDA) estimate that national direct-to-consumer food sales increased three-fold between 1992 and 2007, growing twice as fast as total agricultural sales.

The number of farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Markets increased from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014. Plus, the Iowa researchers found the number of Internet searches for farmers markets has almost tripled during that same 10-year period, and the number of newspaper articles that mention farmers markets has almost quadrupled.

Marketing buzzwords

While “locavores” may look askance at multinational food companies, this trend has not escaped these corporations' notice. Food packaging has begun to prominently feature words like “fresh” and “natural.”

Food and beverage marketers also use words like “craft”, “limited edition”, and “small batch” because – surprise – we like it. A new Harris Poll found "handmade/handcrafted" tops the provided list as a mark of quality, with nearly 6 in 10 adults saying it strongly or somewhat communicates that a product is high quality.

"Artisan/artisanal" and "custom" are the next best messengers of high quality, with 46% of adults saying each communicates this, followed by "craft" at 44% and "limited edition" at 41%. Just 31% say the same of "small batch".

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Why you might not be saving what you should for retirement

Do you have a "live for today" mentality?

Charles Schwab commissioned a survey of consumers approaching retirement to gauge how they were saving and, if their saving fell short, the reasons for it....

PhotoCharles Schwab commissioned a survey of consumers to gauge how they were saving and, if their saving fell short, the reasons for it.

The survey found that most workers need no convincing that the 401(k) is a key tool to build retirement income. But it appears people do need convincing to put money into these tax-deferred retirement accounts. A “live for today” mentality appears to be the biggest obstacle.

More than one-third – 35% – say they aren’t saving more for tomorrow because they are unwilling to sacrifice their quality of life today. They say they don't want to cut back on expenditures like dinners out and vacations.

Dealing with everyday life can be another obstacle. Thirty-one percent say paying for unexpected expenses and covering basic monthly bills is an impediment to putting money away. Twenty-four percent say credit card debt takes their extra money each month.

Indispensable tool

Even so, the survey found that most workers think a 401(k) is an indispensable tool.

“When it comes to retirement, there’s been a significant shift of responsibility from employer to employee over the past 30 years, making the 401(k) plan a critical part of the retirement system,” said Steve Anderson, head of Schwab Retirement Plan Services. “Our survey found only one in five participants would be confident in their ability to save for retirement without a 401(k) plan. In fact, participants worry as much about having enough money to enjoy retirement as they do about being healthy enough to enjoy retirement.”

Since most 401(k) plans are self-directed accounts, some basic knowledge of finance is necessary. However, it could be lacking. While 90% of workers in the survey knew what an ideal credit score is, only 58% knew how much they needed to save for a comfortable retirement.

Health insurance material is more clear

Nearly half said materials explaining their 401(k) plan investments are more confusing than materials explaining their health & medical benefits. Nearly 30% said they have reduced or made no change in the money flow into their retirement account in the last two years.

Anderson says many employers recently tweaked their 401(k) plans to encourage more participation. They are using automatic enrollment, automatic savings rate increases, and automatic investment advice to help their employees prepare for retirement.

“The industry needs to focus more on plan design features like these if we are to further our goal of improving participant outcomes,” Anderson said.

Employer match is key

Stock picking guru Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's Mad Money, has famously criticized 401(k)s for their high management fees and limited investment choices that give savers little control. However, he says if an employer matches the employee's contribution, they can be good retirement vehicles.

Most employees appear to have embraced the 401(k). The Schwab survey found 60% said the 401(k) is their only or largest source of retirement savings.

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Tesla's new Model S blows the doors off Consumer Reports' test

It's the second time a Tesla has gotten a perfect score

You might think of the Consumer Reports staff as a fairly stuffy group, the kind of people who read the minute specifications of every conceivable brand of...

PhotoYou might think of the Consumer Reports staff as a fairly stuffy group, the kind of people who read the minute specifications of every conceivable brand of toaster before making a decision.

That may very well be true, but the car-testing staff knows a hot car when it sees one. About a decade ago, it was so blown away by the Porsche Boxster that it rejiggered its test scoring.

And now, for the second time, the Tesla Model S has left the testers breathless, scoring 103 on what is supposed to be a 100-point scale.

“It blew away everything else we’ve ever tested,” Jake Fisher, CR's automotive testing director, according to Automotive News, forcing the magazine to once again recalibrate its test.

Fast & frugal

Simply put, the new Model S P85D is fast, frugal and beautiful. It leaps from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds, gets the electric equivalent of about 87 miles per gallon, and offers a luxurious and flashy ride.

Of course, it costs nearly $128,000 but price isn't a consideration in the testing. 

CR was similarly impressed by the first Model S when it came out two years ago, giving it a score of 99, which was at that time the highest rating ever.

The Model S isn't quite perfect, of course. You have to find a Tesla charging station to recharge it when you're away from home, something that's not always easy. Also, the CR reviews said the interior isn't quite as posh as some other luxury cars.

The magazine’s next-highest-rated luxury car is the Mercedes-Benz S550, with a 96.

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Bad week for Tor: too anonymous for IBM, not anonymous enough for Agora

Depending who you ask, tracing locations over Tor is either too easy or too impossible

In a new threat intelligence report, IBM advised companies to stop using Tor anonymizing software and block it completely from their corporate networks, as...

PhotoIn a new threat intelligence report, IBM advised companies to stop using Tor anonymizing software and block it completely from their corporate networks, as protection from the increasing risk of ransomware and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks conducted over Tor networks.

According to IBM, Tor makes it too easy for cybercriminals to not merely plant malware, but hide where the malware originated from.

Ironically, while IBM warned that Tor makes it too dangerously easy for people (nefarious or otherwise) to hide their online activities, a leading dark web marketplace temporarily suspended service for the exact opposite reason.

Yesterday, the dark market site Agora announced that it was temporarily shutting down due to Tor vulnerability concerns. In an encrypted message later copied at PasteBin and Reddit, Agora said that “Recently research had come that shed some light on vulnerabilities in Tor Hidden Services protocol which could help to deanonymize server locations.”

Agora didn't say what specific vulnerability inspired the shutdown, but Karl Bode at Techdirt pointed to a paper recently published by researchers at MIT and Qatar University suggesting that, with the right resources, it would be possible to exploit a Tor vulnerability to identify Tor hidden services at an accuracy rate of up to 88 percent.

IBM's threat report for the third quester of 2015, meanwhile, said that from January through May 2015, there were over 300,000 “events” wherein companies suffered from cyberattacks with origins masked by Tor.

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Pending home sales rebound -- sort of -- in July

Inventory shortages could have an effect later on

After falling in June for the first time in 5 months, pending home sales are on the rise again -- although the increase was miniscule. The National Associ...

PhotoAfter falling in June for the first time in five months, pending home sales are on the rise again -- although the increase was miniscule.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, inched ahead 0.5% in July 110.9. The index is now 7.4% above July 2014 and has increased year-over-year for 11 consecutive months. The July reading is the third highest of the year, behind April (111.6) and May (112.3).

A positive start for the second half

"Led by a solid gain in the Northeast, contract activity in most of the country held steady last month, which bodes well for existing-sales to maintain their recent elevated pace to close out the summer," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. "While demand and sales continue to be stronger than earlier this year, Realtors have reported since the spring that available listings in affordable price ranges remain elusive for some buyers trying to reach the market and are likely holding back sales from being more robust."

Looking ahead, with inventory shortages likely to persist into the fall, Yun expects the national median existing-home price to increase 6.3% in this year to $221,400. He also predicts total existing-home sales this year to increase 7.1% to around 5.29 million, about 25% below the prior peak set in 2005 (7.08 million).

Regional sales

  • The PHSI in the Northeast rose 4.0% to 98.8 in July, and is now 12.1% above a year ago.
  • Pending home sales in the South inched up 0.6% for a reading of 124.2, and are now 6.5% above last July.
  • In the Midwest the index was unchanged at 107.8, and is up 5.7% year-over-year.
  • The index in the West dipped 1.4% to 103.0, but is still 7.5% above a year ago.
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Nation's economy showing strength

Jobless claims on the decline

The government has taken a second look at how the economy was doing in the April – June period, and it appears we're in better shape than we thought. Acco...

Photo
© z_amir – Fotolia

The government has taken a second look at how the economy was doing in the April – June period, and it appears we're in better shape than we thought.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, real gross domestic product -- the value of the goods and services produced by the nation’s economy less the value of the goods and services used up in production, adjusted for price changes – rose at an annual rate of 3.7% in the second quarter.

Growth contributors

The “advance estimate” of a 2.3% growth rate was based on less data than was available for this latest reading. The acceleration in real GDP in the second quarter reflected an upturn in exports, an acceleration Personal consumption spending (PCE), a deceleration in imports, an upturn in state and local government spending, and an acceleration in nonresidential fixed investment. These were partly offset by decelerations in private inventory investment, in federal government spending, and in residential fixed investment.

GDP inflation

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents, increased 1.5% in the second quarter, in contrast to a decline of 1.6% in the first quarter. Excluding food and energy prices, the “core” rate of GDP inflation increased 1.2%, compared with a rise of 0.2% in the previous quarter.

Real gross domestic purchases -- purchases by U.S. residents of goods and services wherever produced -- increased 3.4% in the second quarter, compared with an increase of 2.5% in the first.

Corporate profits

Profits from current production (corporate profits with inventory valuation adjustment and capital consumption adjustment) increased $47.5 billion in the second quarter, in contrast to a decrease of $123.0 billion in the first.

The complete GDP report is avaliable on the Commerce Department website.

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Jobless claims

Separately, the Department of Labor (DOL) reports first time applications for state jobless benefits fell by 6,000 in the week ending August 22 to a seasonally 271,000. Officials say there were no special factors affecting the claims level.

The four-week moving average, which is considered a more accurate barometer of the labor market as it strips out the volatility found in the weekly report, came to 272,500 -- up 1,000 from the previous week.

Analysts at Briefing.com say this leads them to believe that the August employment report will show more than 200,000 jobs were created during the month.

The full report can be found on the DOL website.

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Walmart builds holiday promotions around Star Wars

Retailer also getting an early start on its layaway program

After Amazon.com rang the pre-holiday cash register in a big way with his July 15 Prime Day sales promotion, it isn't surprising competitors are coming up ...

PhotoAfter Amazon.com rang the pre-holiday cash register in a big way with his July 15 Prime Day sales promotion, it isn't surprising competitors are coming up with summer holiday promotions of their own.

Walmart has announced Toy Week, which begins Friday, and has started its holiday layaway program two weeks earlier than in the past.

The retailer says Toy Week will reveal “some of the biggest holiday trends” and leads into its Force Friday events on Sept. 4, when it says the wraps come off new and exclusive Star Wars merchandise. The cult movie merchandise isn't limited to toys but includes grocery, apparel, and even healthcare products.

Layaway program changes

Friday also marks the start of Walmart's holiday layaway program, a full two weeks earlier than last year. In addition to the earlier start, the company has lowered the price for eligible items to $10 with a $50 minimum basket.

Customers aren't required to pay a fee to open an account, just pay 10% of the purchase. Customers have until Dec. 14 to pick up their merchandise and make their final payment.

“Outside of the holiday season, we could be looking at the biggest week of 2015 for toys and we’re giving customers every reason to choose Walmart,” said Anne Marie Kehoe, vice president of toys at Walmart. “We’ve made a tradition out of letting kids tell us which toys will be most popular during the holidays. Between their selections this year and the excitement around Star Wars, parents know exactly what will top kids’ wish lists, and they can count on us for great prices.”

The Force Awakens

It's no surprise that Walmart is pushing its inventory of Star Wars: The Force Awakens products, including some that the retailer says it will have exclusively. The company says consumers can preorder the Legendary Yoda toy now at Walmart.com.

Then at midnight Friday, Sept. 4, 2,900 Walmart stores will open their doors to kick-off a Star Wars- related sales event. Walmart has posted a prevview of some of its Star Wars products here.

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, customers could only shop in stores,” Kehoe said. “Today, we make it easy and convenient to find new Star Wars merchandise in our stores, on a mobile device or on Walmart.com with light speed shipping options.”

Meanwhile, the retailer says Toy Week will spotlight the toys it believes will be the hot commodities of the season, based on feedback it got from children enlisted to play with the items. Near the top of the list are:

  • Wicked Cool Girl Scout Cookie Oven
  • Mattel Hot Wheels Terrain Twister
  • Mattel Frozen Ice Castle
  • Spin Master Paw Patrol Mission Chase
  • Fisher Price Little People Zoo
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Organic cigarettes are still deadly, antismoking groups argue

They want the FDA to crack down on ads for Natural American Spirit

Slap an "organic" label on something and it's likely to sell better, even if it costs more. But what if the product is something that's inherently harmful?...

PhotoSlap an "organic" label on something and it's likely to sell better, even if it costs more. But what if the product is something that's inherently harmful? Like arsenic. Or cigarettes.

A coalition of health and anti-smoking organizations want the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to do something about Renolds American's Natural American Spirit cigarette brand, which uses phrases like "additive free" and "organic tobacco," making it seem like the cigarettes might be less harmful than other brands.

The groups don't dispute that the Natural American cigarettes are free of additives like glycerol and corn syrup found in other brands, nor that they are made with organically grown tobacco.

But the health groups say that doesn't make them less likely to cause cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and other diseases associated with smoking. Yet that's what advertisements for the cigarettes imply, the groups say.

PhotoThey say the ads violate the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act and they want the FDA to order the ads pulled. The small-print warnings that appear in the ads and on cigarette packs are inadequate, the groups argue.

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IIHS rates cars with automatic braking capability

Of the 19 tested, 14 received a superior rating

Driverless cars!! What a concept -- someday in the future. But vehicles that can brake without driver intervention if a crash is imminent are already on th...

PhotoDriverless cars!! What a concept -- someday in the future. But vehicles that can brake without driver intervention if a crash is imminent are already on the nation's roads

To help consumers zero in on automatic braking systems with the most stopping power, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is putting these vehicles through their paces and rating them for front crash prevention in 2013.

More than a dozen of them have earned the highest rating of “superior” in the latest round of testing.

In its third year of releasing ratings for front crash prevention systems, IIHS rates vehicles as basic, advanced, or superior for front crash prevention depending on whether they offer autobrake and -- if so -- how effective it is in tests at 12 and 25 mph.

"Most motorists won't be riding in driverless cars anytime soon," says David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer. "In the shorter term, automatic braking is an accessible technology that's within reach for many drivers. We've seen an uptick in the number of luxury and mainstream models with available autobrake. That's a welcome sign for highway safety and helps pave the way for the eventual deployment of fully autonomous vehicles."

How they rank

In the latest round of tests,14 new models earn a superior rating and five earn an advanced rating. Earning superior are:

2016 Acura ILX, MDX, RDX, and RLX;

  • 2016 BMW X3;
  • 2015 Chrysler 300 and its twin, the 2015 Dodge Charger;
  • 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class (both Collision Prevention Assist Plus and Pre-Safe Brake equipped versions), CLA (both Collision Prevention Assist Plus and Distronic Plus equipped versions), and E-Class; and
  • the 2016 Mazda 6 and CX-5.

The 2016 Volkswagen Golf, Golf SportWagen, Jetta, and 2015 Volkswagen Touareg are rated advanced for front crash prevention.

The BMW X3 earns an advanced rating when equipped with camera-only system called City Braking Function and is rated superior when equipped with a camera- and radar-based system.

Rating the vehicles

Forward collision warning systems that meet performance criteria set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and autobrake systems that provide only minimal speed reduction in IIHS tests earn a basic rating.

Vehicles that combine the warning with moderate speed reductions earn an advanced rating. It also is possible to qualify for an advanced rating with an autobrake system that doesn't first warn the driver before taking action. Models that provide major speed reductions in IIHS tests earn a superior rating.

Autobrake availability is on the rise, Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) data shows. Among 2015 models, 212 of 784 offer autobrake -- more than twice as many as in the 2012 model year.

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Trek Recalls Superfly bicycles

The seatpost can crack and break

Trek Bicycle Corporation of Waterloo, Wis., is recalling about 330 Trek 9.8 Superfly FS SL, X1 and XT bicycles. The seatpost can crack and break, posing a...

PhotoTrek Bicycle Corporation of Waterloo, Wis., is recalling about 330 Trek 9.8 Superfly FS SL, X1 and XT bicycles.

 

The seatpost can crack and break, posing a fall hazard to the rider.

 

The company has received two incidents report involving the recalled bicycles. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves model year 2015 Trek 9.8 Superfly FS SL, X1 and XT bicycles equipped with Bontrager Approved Carbon seatposts. Recalled bicycles have a serial number ending in J or K. The serial number is located on the bottom of the bicycle frame. Superfly FS, X1 or XT is printed on the bicycle’s top tube. Trek is printed on the frame downtube. “Bontrager Carbon” is printed on the seatpost.

 

The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at bicycle stores nationwide from September 2014, through July 2015, for about $5,300 for the FS SL and about $3,500 for the X1 and XT bicycles.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and contact an authorized Trek retailer for a free replacement seatpost plus a $20 coupon toward any Bontrager merchandise. The coupon can be used through December 31, 2015.

 

Consumers may contact Trek at 800-373-4594 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, or online at http://www.trekbikes.com/us/en/ and click on Safety & Recalls at the bottom of the page for more information.

 

 

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Federal-state gaps add to doubt about car safety inspection programs

States want federal auto safety regulators to be more forthcoming; consumers want lower fees

The federal government and its myriad agencies aren't always the best at communicating with their counterparts in the states, and the National Highway Traf...

PhotoThe federal government and its myriad agencies aren't always the best at communicating with their counterparts in the states, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is no exception.

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office says there is no designated channel through which NHTSA communicates with the state officials who run inspection programs in their states. The gap adds to doubts about whether the programs are as effective as they should be.

The state officials say they need and want more information on such new technologies as LED brake lights so that they can be sure that their safety inspections look at all the crucial elements in their annual inspections.

"State officials also said that it is not clear whether or how to inspect new safety technologies, such as tire pressure monitoring systems, required by NHTSA for new vehicles," the report says. "Without information, states have implemented different inspection pass-fail criteria or chosen not to include new technologies in their inspections, potentially reducing the safety benefit of their programs."

Are they worth it?

PhotoBesides the lack of federal-state coordination, there's considerable debate about whether the state inspection programs actually accomplish much.

Some state officials told GAO that inspections help identify vehicles with safety problems and result in repair or removal of unsafe vehicles from the roads. For example, Pennsylvania state data shows that in 2014, more than 529,000 vehicles (about 20% of vehicles in the state) failed inspection and then underwent repairs to pass.

But nationwide, NHTSA estimates faulty equipment is a factor in only 2% to 7% of traffic accidents, which could suggest that spending the money which is appropriated to inspections on better traffic enforcement might get more results. GAO said it reviewed several studies but came to no conclusion.

Additionally, the safety inspections are often conducted in conjunction with emission checks, which makes it hard to break out the costs associated with each type of inspection.

Big bills

Many consumers, like Donald of Norristown, Pa., find the inspections to be little more than an excuse for service stations to run up big bills.

"So it's like this, I came in with a fine car for State Inspection. Paid STS $973.37 -- the cost I was told that would have my car inspected (successfully). Pulled out of the bay without my stickers, or my $973.37, or a car that can even run," Donald said in a ConsumerAffairs review. "I think this could have been done without robbing me of all my money needed to find a new ride. With the fine (for not having a current sticker), it cost me $1023.37 with nothing to show for it."

Consumers are also often surprised to find that they must pay large amounts for safety inspections on cars that have been consistently serviced by their dealer. That's what happened to Beth of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. 

"Today I went to purchase my two-year-old Lexus which I leased at Brumos Lexus of Jacksonville. I had my lease contract showing the purchase price and assumed I would owe that amount plus sales tax and any registration needs," she said.

"I was told the car had to have a 'safety inspection' which had to be scheduled. Come to find out that came with a mandatory $500 charge. My car was serviced there for a 15,000 check-up two months ago but they said I had to have this done."

On the other hand, many consumers like Joyce of Baton Rouge, La., rely on the programs to ensure that their cars -- as well as rentals -- meet at least a minimum level of safety. 

"I went to pick up a 15 passenger van from Enterprise rental," Joyce said in a recent ConsumerAffairs review. "Upon inspection of the vehicle, I noted the safety inspection sticker expired March 2015, one brake light was out, and one reverse light was out as well. Hence, no safety inspection in 16 months (the inspections in Louisiana are good for 1 year, which expired 4 months ago)."

Her experience with the van, perhaps not surprisingly, was disappointing.

"The van shakes and pulls so bad, it made my back and shoulder hurt trying to keep it on the road. It starts to rain, the wipers are in such poor condition it was impossible to see. Only two cup holders, in this 15-passenger vehicle are in working order."

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Oh wait, omega 3 supplements may not slow cognitive decline

Then again, they might, but an NIH study didn't establish that link

Consumers can be excused if they're frustrated by all the competing studies. This thing is good for you, one study declares. Not it's not, declares another...

PhotoConsumers can be excused if they're frustrated by all the competing studies. This thing is good for you, one study declares. Not it's not, declares another.

Well, here we go again.

No less an authority than the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has declared that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids has not been shown to slow cognitive decline in older people, based on a large five-year study.

“Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t see any benefit of omega-3 supplements for stopping cognitive decline,” said Emily Chew, M.D., deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Applications and deputy clinical director at the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of NIH.

Part of an eye study

The study began when researchers were testing whether a combination of nutritional supplements could slow age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a major cause of vision loss among older Americans. It later added omega-3 and found it made no difference, either in AMD progression or in warding off dementia.

We reported as recently as May on a University of Illinois study that found omega-3 may help aging minds stay sharp. That study found that older adults who consumed a diet with lots of omega-3s did better than their peers on tests measuring cognitive flexibility – the ability to efficiently switch between tasks or areas of focus.

Brain scans also revealed they had a bigger anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that contributes to cognitive flexibility.

Health claims

Health claims associated with omega-3 have been the source of controversy since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved them in 2004. Back in 2007, the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the FDA to stop seven egg producers from promoting omega-3 content in their eggs as a source of heart health.

The NIH researchers say they aren't prepared to rule out omega-3's contribution to brain health, just that their test didn't uncover it. That's not to say that future trials might not prove that connection.

Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia and affects as many as 5.1 million Americans age 65 and older in the U.S., is predicted to explode over the next four decades. Some research has examined the potential benefits of DHA, a component of omega-3, for Alzheimer’s.

NIH says animal studies found that DHA reduces beta-amyloid plaques, abnormal protein deposits in the brain that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s. However, it notes a clinical trial of DHA showed no impact on people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

“The data adds to our efforts to understand the relationship between dietary components and Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline,” said Lenore Launer, Ph.D. senior investigator in the Laboratory of Epidemiology and Population Science at the National Institute on Aging. “It may be, for example, that the timing of nutrients, or consuming them in a certain dietary pattern, has an impact.”

She says more research might reveal if dietary patterns or taking the supplements earlier in the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s would make a difference.

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Study: kids are tossing, not eating, healthier lunches

Researchers gather photographic evidence

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink -- or so the old saying goes. That wisdom might also apply to school children required under law...

PhotoYou can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink -- or so the old saying goes. That wisdom might also apply to school children required under law to be served healthier lunches.

You may recall that Congress passed a law mandating more fruit and vegetables in school lunches, in an effort to stem the alarming rise in child obesity. It banned past high-calorie favorites and replaced them with green beans and kale.

Any parent who has tried to persuade a child to eat their vegetables could have predicted the result. In this case, University of Vermont researchers produced a study that confirms the suspicions of school officials – many students are putting the fruits and vegetables they're now required to take straight into the trash, consuming fewer than they did before the law took effect.

Photographic evidence

The study reached that conclusion by using digital imaging to capture students' lunch trays before and after they exited the lunch line. The researchers says it is also one of the first studies to compare fruit and vegetable consumption before and after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed.

It concludes fruit and vegetable consumption at school has declined since the mandate was put in place in 2012, while waste of these food items has increased 56%.

"The basic question we wanted to explore was: does requiring a child to select a fruit or vegetable actually correspond with consumption," said Sarah Amin, Ph.D., a researcher in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont and lead author on the study. "The answer was clearly no. It was heartbreaking to see so many students toss fruits like apples into the trash right after exiting the lunch line."

The research team installed cameras over lunch lines at two elementary schools in the northeast and photographed lunch trays before the law went into effect. The researchers returned on multiple occasions after lunch lines began serving up the mandated fruits and vegetables.

Kids like processed food

Amin and her colleagues also looked at what kinds of fruits and vegetables children selected before the stricter mandates went into effect. They found that kids liked processed fruits and vegetables such as the tomato paste on pizza or 100% fruit juice instead of an orange or apple.

The researchers conclude those previous options should be returned to the school lunch menu. They also offered up these suggestions to encourage children to eat a healthier lunch:

  • Cut up fresh vegetables and serve them with dip
  • When you serve orange and apples, cut them into slices, don't serve them whole
  • Adopt trendy farm-to-school programs that make it “cool” to eat heathier, fresh food
  • Find ways to encourage parents to serve more fruits and vegetables at home, instead of grabbing take out for dinner each night

Amin says policymakers shouldn't give up on the mandates, believing they will eventually take hold, especially if schools make some adjustments in how they implement them.

"An important message is that guidelines need to be supplemented with other strategies to enrich fruit and vegetable consumption,” she said. “We can't give up hope yet."

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Illinois to allow electronic monitoring in nursing homes

State has received thousands of complaints from nursing home residents and their families

Stories of neglect and abuse of nursing home residents have become so common in recent years that Illinois has passed a law that allows families to install...

PhotoStories of neglect and abuse of nursing home residents have become so common in recent years that Illinois has passed a law that allows families to install electronic monitoring systems in residents' rooms.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the new piece of legislation late last week. It takes effect January 1, 2016, and will make Illinois one of four states in the nation that explicitly allows for cameras in nursing homes.

"The Illinois Department of Public Health receives approximately 19,000 complaints of abuse and neglect against long-term care residents yearly," said Bob Gallo, AARP Illinois State Director. "AARP commends the General Assembly and Governor Rauner for their leadership on this issue and for helping to protect the state's most vulnerable residents."

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who drafted the legislation and lobbied for passage, says it will give families much-needed peace of mind.

Peace of mind

"Deciding to place a loved one into a nursing facility is extremely difficult, and as Baby Boomers age, more families will be faced with that decision," said Madigan. "This law makes Illinois one of the first states in the nation to give families peace of mind by allowing them to monitor their loved one's care when they cannot be present."

Madigan said the legislation sprang from complaints her office received from nursing home residents and families who are concerned for their relatives' care and security. The new law allows residents of nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities or their family members to purchase and install video or audio monitoring devices in their rooms.

"The vast majority of Illinois' nursing homes provide high-quality services to their residents, but this law allows commonly used modern technology [to] add another layer of care," said Rep. Bob Harris, a co-sponsor of the legislation. "These recording devices will help families ensure that their loved ones are receiving respectful and compassionate care."

The new law stipulates that recordings are only to be used for civil, criminal, or administrative proceedings related to the health, safety, or welfare of a resident.

At residents' expense

Residents or their families must pay for the equipment and its installation. A resident or their guardian must consent to the use of a camera having the monitoring equipment in the resident's room. If a resident has a roommate, his or her consent is also required.

If monitoring equipment is installed, the facility manager must be notified and a sign placed on the door of the room stating: "This room is electronically monitored."

The law also provides protection to facility residents from any retaliation by facility staff. Staff could face criminal charges if they knowingly hamper, obstruct, or disable monitoring equipment.

Madigan has long cited an increasing need for additional safety measures at Illinois nursing homes as the state's population continues to age. At the moment, Illinois has more than 860 nursing home facilities with more than 76,000 residents.

Madigan said the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) investigates approximately 5,000 complaints every year, the majority of which involve long-term care facilities. In 2013, the IDPH found 106 allegations of abuse, neglect, or misappropriation of property against residents by facility staff to be valid.  

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Late August gas prices the cheapest since 2004

But not if you live in the west or upper Midwest

When it comes to U.S. gasoline prices, it's a tale of two countries. Consumers are enjoying a national average price of $2.57 a gallon – the lowest for lat...

PhotoWhen it comes to U.S. gasoline prices, it's a tale of two countries. Consumers are enjoying a national average price of $2.57 a gallon – the lowest for late August since 2004, according to AAA.

But it all depends on where you live. That $2.57 average is highly misleading.

For example, if you happen to live in South Carolina, your average gasoline price is the nation's lowest, at $2.10 a gallon. In Alabama you're paying an average of $2.16 and in Mississippi, $2.17 a gallon. Not bad.

But across the country in California, the average price at the pump is $3.45 a gallon. It's $3.02 in Washington state and $2.99 in Illinois.

Refinery outage

Motorists in Illinois and elsewhere in the upper Midwest are still suffering because BP’s largest refining unit at its Whiting, Indiana refinery remains out of commission. Repairs to the unit are said to be ongoing, but in the meantime the crimp in supplies has drastically increased the price of gasoline.

Prices at the pump are especially high in Chicago. In the city, the average price of gas, according to AAA, is $3.45 a gallon, the same as in California. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan have sent a letter to the Illinois Petroleum Council and its member oil companies demanding an explanation for the recent gas price spike.

“Gasoline is not an optional purchase for many hard-working Illinois residents, and paying more for gas means less money to spend on other essentials like rent, groceries and medicine,” said Madigan. “Unfortunately, every time gas prices rise, the oil companies give us excuses. The oil companies need better contingency plans because drivers deserve answers and relief from these outrageous prices.”

Two weeks ago Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuett sent a similar letter to BP, after the refinery issues sent Michigan pump prices skyrocketing.

Playing games?

The state officials, who are no doubt hearing from angry constituents, hint broadly that they suspect refiners and wholesalers are “playing games” with supply to justify significantly higher prices.

“We will not tolerate any unscrupulous behavior that violates Michigan law when it comes to gouging and price fixing,” Schuette warned earlier this month.

In addition to the Midwest, motorists in the western U.S. are feeling pain at the pump. AAA says five of the six states with averages above $3 per gallon are located in this region. California leads the region, and is followed by Alaska, Nevada, Hawaii, and Washington state.

Other western states are not far behind. The state-wide average price of gas in Wyoming is $2.81. In Utah it's $2.77.

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Scientists predict that the coming El Niño will last through the winter

Make sure your home is prepared

Weather forecasters are saying that the big one is on the way. A strong El Niño is expected to be hitting its peak in late fall or early winter. ...

Photo
NOAA

Weather forecasters are saying that the big one is on the way. A strong El Niño is expected to be hitting its peak in late fall or early winter. This weather pattern has the potential to generate huge storms, and there are many things you should be doing in order to prepare your home for the coming inclement weather.

An El Niño occurs when several different weather conditions are met. A more detailed description can be found here, but basically an El Niño is the result of weaker winds pushing ocean water from east to west. This causes the water in the Pacific to become warmer, which in turn makes the winds even weaker; this cycle can become very problematic.

An El Niño can last for several months. It is characterized by wet winters over the Southeastern U.S. and droughts in Indonesia and Australia. El Niño’s usually occur every 3-7 years, and they make it much more likely that dangerous weather conditions, like huge thunderstorms, will occur.

The last El Niño took place in 1997-1998, and it ravaged much of the western United States. It caused an estimated $550 million in damage and killed 17 people in California; 35 counties were declared federal disaster areas as well.

Readying your home

Photo
Photo © Dudarev Mikhail - Fotolia

It's important to prepare your home so that you can minimize the impact that the weather may have. By being proactive, and taking the following measures, you can get out in front of the storms and take away their edge.

Inspect and repair your roof. Doing this before snow starts flying will make the work much easier. Check for any areas that are sagging and can’t hold up to large amounts of snow. If you find any leaks, be sure to take care of them right away.

Clean out your gutters. Lots of debris can build up in your gutters over time, which can cause clogs and blockages. If not checked, the excess water could back up and cause damage to your roof, walls, ceiling, and insulation. Be sure to check them during the winter months as well. Ice dams can often form in your gutters, which can cause permanent damage to your home. If you do have any signs of damage, then call a professional immediately.

Be prepared for burst pipes. Cold temperatures can often cause pipes to burst, and it is always a real mess to clean up. If you know the temperature is going to be under 20 degrees, let any high-risk faucet drip so that the water is not sitting in the pipes. A high-risk faucet would be any that is being fed by a pipe that was previously broken or near an outside wall. Know where your water shut-off valve is so you can shut down water flow if a pipe does burst.

Check to make sure your furnace is in good working order. Being stuck in sub-zero temperatures with a broken furnace is extremely dangerous, so performing regular maintenance is always a good idea. Have a professional come to your house to inspect pipes for any gas leaks. If your furnace needs a new filter, than have it installed before winter sets in. Finally, be sure to never keep anything flammable around your furnace. You would just be asking for trouble.

If you take these precautionary steps, you should be in good shape when the El Niño finally hits. Do not put any of these tasks off; the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that there is a greater-than-90-percent chance that this El Niño will last through the coming winter. 

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Feds shut down Vemma Nutrition

The alleged pyramid scheme lured college students as salespeople

Want to make up to $50,000 a week selling sports drinks? That was the promise made to college students and other young adults by Vemma Nutrition, a multile...

PhotoWant to make up to $50,000 a week selling sports drinks? That was the promise made to college students and other young adults by Vemma Nutrition, a multilevel marketing scheme that the Federal Trade Commission says is actually a pyramid scheme.

Like other multilevel marketers, Vemma recruited salespeople who in turn recruited other salespeople and earned a percentage of their recruits' sales. But the company's emphasis was more on recruiting salespeople than selling products, the feds alleged. 

“Rather than focusing on selling products, Vemma uses false promises of high income potential to convince consumers to pay money to join their organization,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We are also alleging that Vemma is an illegal pyramid scheme.”

Things had been going pretty well for Vemma. The Arizona company earned more than $200 million last year and just a few months ago was proudly proclaiming that it had just been recognized by the Better Business Bureau with "one of the [Bureau's] highest ratings."

The FTC charged that, BBB ratings notwithstanding, Vemma focused on recruitment rather than retail sales of its products to generate income while the vast majority of participants make no money, and most of them lose money.

According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants’ websites, social media, and marketing materials show seemingly prosperous young people with luxury cars, jets, and yachts, and falsely claim that Vemma affiliates can earn substantial incomes – as much as $50,000 per week. The defendants allegedly claim that affiliates’ earning potential is limited only by their own efforts and that Vemma provides young adults an opportunity to bypass college and student loan debt.

Vemma urges consumers to make an initial investment of $500-$600 for an “Affiliate Pack” of products and business tools, buy $150 in Vemma products each month to remain eligible for bonuses, and enroll others to do the same.

Consumer losses are inevitable because Vemma is an illegal pyramid scheme that rewards affiliates for recruiting participants rather than for selling products, the FTC alleges. The defendants provide affiliates little guidance for selling products, but instead teach them to give away products as samples when recruiting new participants. Vemma offers no meaningful discounts or incentives to encourage retail sales, according to the complaint.

In addition to allegedly running an illegal pyramid scheme, the defendants are charged with making false earnings claims, failing to disclose that Vemma’s structure ensures that most people who join will not earn substantial income, and furnishing affiliates with false and misleading materials to recruit others.

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OXYwater promoters sentenced for wire fraud, money laundering

Investors thought they were getting a piece of a successful sport-drink business

It sounded like a good deal at the time. Investors who bought into OXYwater thought they were getting a piece of a successful and fast-growing company that...

PhotoIt sounded like a good deal at the time. Investors who bought into OXYwater thought they were getting a piece of a successful and fast-growing company that made sports drinks.

But according to prosecutors, they were investing in the opulent lifestyle of Preston J. Harrison, 43, and Lovena Harrison, 42, an Ohio couple who simply took investors' money and spent it on themselves.

The two were sentenced to prison in U.S. District Court yesterday for their roles in a fraud scheme related to the company Imperial Integrative Health Research and Development LLC and its product, OXYwater.

“Preston Harrison and his co-conspirators made OXYwater appear to be a lucrative and profitable financial investment, touting investments and endorsements from athletes, a musician and others,” said U.S. Attorney Carter M. Stewart.  “After they convinced folks to invest, they misappropriated that money to fuel their own lavish lifestyle, buying items like jewelry, luxury vehicles, weapons and swimming pools.”

$8 million

Preston Harrison was sentenced to serve 83 months in prison and three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $375,985.15 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and $8,840,706 to victims of the fraud, and to forfeit $1.1 million, including two vehicles, eight weapons, cash, and the contents of a bank account. 

Lovena Harrison was sentenced to serve one year and one day in prison and three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $375,985.15 in restitution to the IRS. 

According to court testimony, Jackson and Preston Harrison operated Imperial, based in Westerville, Ohio, and developed OXYwater, a beverage that promoters claimed was an all-natural, vitamin-enhanced sports drink that contained added oxygen for improved physical performance.

The defendants engaged in a scheme to deceive the investors in Imperial about Imperial and OXYwater’s structure, composition, finances, sales, and profits in order to make the company appear to be a lucrative and profitable financial investment, according to evidence introduced in court. They produced and sent false documents to deceive investors, then misappropriated that money for their own personal use, including the purchase of jewelry, a Cadillac Escalade, a BMW vehicle, weapons, clothing, home improvements, and a swimming pool.

Another defendant in the case awaits sentencing in October.

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Just Mayo just isn't, FDA decrees

Hampton Foods advised it is violating food labeling laws

You can't make an omlette -- or mayonnaise -- without breaking eggs. Acting on that premise, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says Just Mayo isn't ma...

PhotoYou can't make an omlette -- or mayonnaise -- without breaking eggs. Acting on that premise, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says Just Mayo isn't mayo.

The FDA has warned Hampton Creek Foods that it is breaking the law by calling its vegan-friendly, eggless spread mayo.

“The use of the term ‘mayo’ in the product names and the image of an egg may be misleading to consumers because it may lead them to believe that the products are the standardized food, mayonnaise,” the FDA wrote in a letter to the company dated Aug. 12 but posted online Tuesday.

“The use of the term ‘Just’ together with ‘Mayo’ reinforces the impression that the products are real mayonnaise by suggesting that they are ‘all mayonnaise’ or ‘nothing but’ mayonnaise,” the agency continued. “However, your Just Mayo and Just Mayo Sriracha do not meet the definition of the standard for mayonnaise. According to the labels for these products, neither product contains eggs. Additionally, the products contain additional ingredients that are not permitted by the standard of identity for mayonnaise, such as modified food starch.”

In other words, it would probably be OK if Hampton Foods took a leaf from the Unilever "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" songbook and called their product "Not Mayo" but to say that it is "just" mayo when in fact it just isn't, well, that's just not right. It's also a violation of the food labeling laws, FDA said.

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Uber, Lyft cleared for take-offs from LAX

Taxi industry howls but city officials cave to consumer demands

It used to be said of New York that those who "made it" there could make it anywhere. The same might be said of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), th...

PhotoIt used to be said of New York that those who "made it" there could make it anywhere. The same might be said of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), the big hot mess through which 70 million travelers trudge annually.

And now Uber has made it there. 

Los Angeles yesterday became the biggest city in the nation to open its airport to Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing companies, allowing them to operate alongside cabs.

There's no rail line to LAX, bus service is slow and hard to figure out, and limos -- though plentiful -- are expensive. It seems a perfect fit for the Ubers of the world, though that didn't stop critics from imploring and beseeching the LA City Council to hold back the tide. 

Cab drivers said allowing Uber onto the grounds of the West Coast's busiest airport would drive them into the history books. There were suggestions that ride-hailing drivers are dangerous, which brought hoots from taxi passengers.

Clean and friendly

Uber fans said that the drivers are friendly, the cars clean, and, not incidentally, a lot cheaper. A cab ride from LAX to downtown LA is about $50, not including tip. Uber or Lyft will charge you about $30, depending on traffic. 

Consumers already take Uber and Lyft to the airport, but to get home, they're stuck with cabs, limos, shuttles, or the tender mercies of friends. The council's action will, in a few weeks, make it possible to summon up an Uber or Lyft ride home from LAX.

Opponents, chiefly the cab companies and their lobbyists, will be watching and ready to pounce at the first sign of trouble, but the ride-hailing services are so popular with consumers that political observers say it will be nearly impossible to deep-six them once they've become entrenched.

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Mortgage applications showed little movement 08/21/15

The tiny increase was the result of an increase in government purchase loans

Mortgage applications showed little movement during he week ending August 21, Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applicati...

PhotoMortgage applications showed little movement during the week ending August 21.

Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show an increase of just 0.2%.

The Refinance Index dipped 1.0% percent from the previous week, pulling the refinance share of mortgage activity down to 55.3% of total applications from 55.5% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity fell to 6.8% of total applications.

Applications for government home purchase loans drove the weekly increase. The seasonally adjusted FHA purchase index rose by 5.6% from the previous week while the VA purchase index rose by 5.2%. Conventional purchase applications were essentially unchanged from the previous week.

The FHA share of total applications rose to 13.1% from 12.9% the week prior. The VA share was up to 11.4% from 11.1% and the USDA share of total applications was unchanged at 0.8%.

Conventional purchase applications were essentially unchanged from the previous week.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell three basis points -- to 4.08% from 4.11% -- with points decreasing to 0.36 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dipped to 4.00% from 4.03%, with points decreasing to 0.24 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose two basis points to 3.90%, with points increasing to 0.21 from 0.17 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs dropped to 3.33% from 3.37%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.36 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs was down two basis points to 2.96%, with points decreasing to 0.36 from 0.40 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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Kraft Heinz Foods recalls turkey bacon products

The products may spoil before the “Best When Used By” date

Kraft Heinz Foods Company of Newberry, S.C., is recalling approximately 2,068,467 pounds of turkey bacon products. The products may spoil before the “Best...

PhotoKraft Heinz Foods Company of Newberry, S.C., is recalling approximately 2,068,467 pounds of turkey bacon products.

 

The products may spoil before the “Best When Used By” date.

 

The company has received reports of illness related to the consumption of these products.

 

The following turkey bacon products, produced between May 31, 2015, and August 6, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 56 oz. cardboard boxes (containing four plastic wrapped packages) marked Oscar Mayer “Selects Uncured Turkey Bacon” bearing the plant number P-9070, the line number RS19 and Product UPC 0 4470007633 0, and with “Best When Used By” dates of 24 AUG 2015 through 26 OCT 2015.
  • 36 oz. cardboard boxes (containing three plastic wrapped packages) marked Oscar Mayer Turkey Bacon “Smoked Cured Turkey Chopped and Formed” bearing the plant number P-9070, the line number RS19 and Product UPC 0 7187154874 8, and with “Best When Used By” dates of 28 AUG 2015 through 20 OCT 2015.
  • 48 oz. cardboard boxes (containing four plastic wrapped packages) marked Oscar Mayer Turkey Bacon “Smoked Cured Turkey Chopped and Formed” bearing the plant number P-9070, the line number RS19 and Product UPC 0 7187154879 3, and with “Best When Used By” dates of 3 SEPT 2015 through 30 OCT 2015.

The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-9070” inside the USDA mark of inspection, as well as the line number “RS19”. They were shipped nationwide and exported to the Bahamas and St. Martin.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the Kraft Heinz consumer relations center at (800) 278-3403.

 

 

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Lincoln MKT Town Cars recalled

The vehicles are missing a row of seating

Ford Motor Company is recalling 265 model year 2015 Lincoln MKT Town Cars equipped with the livery package manufactured February 4, 2015, to June 23, 2015....

PhotoFord Motor Company is recalling 265 model year 2015 Lincoln MKT Town Cars equipped with the livery package manufactured February 4, 2015, to June 23, 2015.

 

The vehicles were intended to seat five passengers, but were delivered without the second row seating. Accordingly, the vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 110.

 

The vehicles also fail to comply with FMVSS No. 225, "Child Restraint Anchorages" since they were delivered without a tether anchorage at the front passenger seating position, and as is required for vehicles without a second row of seats.

 

The vehicles do not have the seats and restraints that they were intended to have. Unrestrained or improperly restrained occupants are at an increased risk of injury in the event of a crash.

 

Dealers will inspect and install second row seating if it is missing. The recall began on July 28, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 15C08.

 

 

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Scag Power Equipment recalls lawn mowers

The gas tank can leak

Scag Power Equipment, a division of Metalcraft of Maryville, of Maryville, Wisc., is recalling about 4,400 Scag Liberty-Z zero-turn lawn mowers. The gas t...

PhotoScag Power Equipment, a division of Metalcraft of Maryville, of Maryville, Wisc., is recalling about 4,400 Scag Liberty-Z zero-turn lawn mowers.

 

The gas tank can leak, posing a fire hazard.

 

The company has received five reports of gas tank leaks on the mowers. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves two Scag Liberty-Z zero-turn lawn mowers: model SZL48-22KT with serial numbers K7100001 through K7102353 and model SZL52-24KT with serial numbers K7200001 through K7202020. The model and serial numbers are printed on a vertical plate under the mower’s seat.

 

“Scag” in red letters, “Liberty Z” in white letters and a blue “Z” are printed on a plate below the front of the seat. The mowers have an orange base with two orange and black steering handles. The mowers also have two large black with orange rim wheels in the back of the mower and two smaller black with orange rim wheels in the front of the mower.

 

The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Scag Power Equipment authorized dealers nationwide from October 2014, through May 2015, for about $4,500.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled lawn mowers and contact Scag Power Equipment or an authorized dealer for a free repair. Scag Power Equipment authorized dealers have contacted all known owners.

 

Consumers may contact Scag Power Equipment toll-free at 844-491-4859 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CT Monday through Friday or online at www.scag.com.

 

 

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The market is crazy! Is my retirement account safe?

It may be a bumpy ride for a while but most advisers say hold tight

The stock market is snapping back Tuesday after three days of heavy selling and plunging share prices. Consumers who aren't active traders but have the bul...

Photo
Photo © vicky - Fotolia

The stock market is snapping back Tuesday after three days of heavy selling and plunging share prices. Consumers who aren't active traders but have the bulk of their retirement funds in equities are alarmed.

Should they be?

The New York Times reports financial advisers have been getting that question a lot from clients as China's huge stock market sell-off last week spilled over to U.S. markets.

Gallup's Economic Confidence Index was -14 for the week ending Aug. 23, down slightly from -11 the week prior, indicating some degree of equanimity among consumers. 

PhotoThe Times reports the advice clients are getting is almost universal. Don't panic.

Tuesday's market action is an indication that investors are heeding that advice. While it is true that many U.S. stocks have been over-valued for months, the carnage of the last three trading sessions brought many valuations back to earth.

Some stocks that weren't over-valued got sold off in Monday's stampede, meaning they could actually be under-valued at this point. In other words, Tuesday's rebound is simply because so many big money investors have been waiting for just such a pull-back to buy stocks.

Investors might feel a little better if they understand what is happening in the markets and why.

Why did this happen?

The short answer is stocks, both in the U.S. and China, got too expensive too quickly. The Federal Reserve's 0% interest rate policy has made it exceedingly cheap to borrow money to buy stock – yes, people do that – and that's created something of a bubble in stocks, similar to what happened with housing.

The Fed has been telegraphing its intention to begin raising interest rates. The market sees that as a sign that the party is over and big money players are preparing to take the money and run.

Ironically, the market turmoil of the last few days may persuade the Fed to put off a rate hike for a few more months instead of hiking in September, which only a few weeks ago many market analysts believed was baked in the cake.

The notion that the 0% interest rate party may go on for a while longer may be largely responsible for the snap-back in U.S. stock prices.

Is your 401(k) safe?

Assuming your assets are in solid companies with real earnings and you are well diversified, then yes. However, it might be prudent to place more of your retirement assets in things besides stocks.

As we reported earlier this month, Fidelity Investments warned Baby Boomers they had too much money in stocks and not enough in other assets. Fidelity made that judgment after an analysis of its Baby Boomer stock portfolios.

"One thing we learned from the last recession is that having too much stock, based on your target retirement age, in your retirement account can expose your savings to unnecessary risk – it's the hidden danger that many workers are unaware of,” said Jim MacDonald, president, Workplace Investing, Fidelity Investments. “This is especially true among workers nearing retirement, who should be taking steps to protect what they've worked so hard to save."

No time to panic

But that doesn't necessarily mean panic selling. It is instructive to think back to the financial crisis, when many stock prices were cut in half or more in a few short months.

Those who sold in March 2009 would have booked huge losses. They would have also missed an incredible bull market rally that began that month and has lasted six years.

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Court ruling against Wyndham puts corporate cybersecurity under FTC authority

FTC says Wyndham hotels' privacy policies “misrepresented” actual company security measures

Where news headlines are concerned, “Hackers breach corporate security, steal massive amounts of confidential customer data” has been depressingly commonpl...

PhotoWhere news headlines are concerned, “Hackers breach corporate security, steal massive amounts of confidential customer data” has been depressingly commonplace for years now. And such reports are almost always followed by a round of financial hot potato, as the people and organizations involved all argue — with varying degrees of justification — that the costs of repairing the damage should be borne by someone else, not them.

So who is responsible for such costs, and who has legal authority to enforce these responsibilities? Such matters haven't always been easy to decide, because the Internet and related technologies keep changing and evolving faster than the law can keep up. But yesterday's ruling by a federal appeals court in Philadelphia has arguably offered an answer.

Federal Trade Commission takes charge

Specifically, the appeals court ruled that the Federal Trade Commission can move forward in its lawsuit against vacation-resort company Wyndham Worldwide Corporation, despite Wyndham's counter-argument that the FTC lacks authority over such matters.

In June 2012, the FTC filed a complaint against Wyndham and three subsidiaries for “alleged data security failures that led to three data breaches at Wyndham hotels in less than two years.” These breaches, in turn, led to fraudulent charges on consumers’ accounts, millions of dollars in losses, and the export of hundreds of thousands of consumers’ payment card account information to an Internet domain address registered in Russia, according to the FTC.

That said, the FTC's complaint isn't based so much on the fact that Wyndham was triple-hacked, but that its privacy policy “misrepresented the security measures that the company and its subsidiaries took to protect consumers' personal information.”

The FTC's June 2012 court complaint, available as a .pdf here, quotes extensively from Wyndham's own posted privacy policy, which of course swears that it “recognize[s] the importance of protecting” customers' privacy. As quoted by the FTC, Wyndham promised consumers that “We safeguard our Customers’ personally identifiable information by using standard industry practices. Although 'guaranteed security' does not exist on or off the Internet, we take commercially reasonable efforts to create and maintain 'fire walls' and other appropriate safeguards ….”

That's what Wyndham said it would do. According to the FTC's lawsuit, here's a sampling of what it actually did: “failed to use readily available security measures to limit access between [various Wyndham hotel networks] and the Internet, such as by employing firewalls; allowed software ... to be configured inappropriately, resulting in the storage of payment card information in clear readable text; failed to [have] implemented adequate information security policies and procedures …. failure to remedy known security vulnerabilities....” and six additional listed failures, for a total of ten.

Wyndham security complaints

As a result of these lax measures, the FTC went on to assert, hackers were able to breach Wyndham's network three times between April 2008 and January 2010, using similar techniques each time, yet “After discovering each of the first two breaches, Defendants failed to take appropriate steps in a reasonable time frame to prevent the further compromise of the Hotels and Resorts' network.”

At a court hearing last March, Wyndham did not deny any of the FTC's claims. Instead, it argued that the FTC should not penalize the company, since Wyndham itself was a victim of a crime. Furthermore, Wyndham said, if the FTC has the authority to regulate a hotel's data security practices, then it has the authority to “regulate the locks on hotel room doors.”

But the court called this argument “alarmist” and said it “invites the tart retort that, were Wyndham a supermarket, leaving so many banana peels all over the place that 619,000 customers fall hardly suggests it should be immune from liability.”

For what it's worth: although ConsumerAffairs' own review archives does show a slew of complaints about Wyndham – eight received in August 2015 alone, with a week yet to go in the month – the bulk of those complaints deal with typical time-share problems: aggressive or dishonest hardsell tactics, inflated maintenance fees, substandard amenities, and the like.

But scattered here and there is the occasional complaint suggesting issues with the company's handling of data security problems. In May 2011, Huma of Wayne, New Jersey wrote us to say that “A charge of 115$ was made by minors on my Wyndham Rewards Visa; they are run by Barclay Bank apparently. I complained to the vendor and the credit card customer service department. I was told that the charge would be removed if I provided proof of not having received item.”

However:

after I provided the proof of not having the item, they started quoting me some ** about the time having expired for a dispute although there is nothing like this on their site nor were any letters sent to me, indicating that I had a certain time limit to dispute this case. The customer service reps are rude, misinformed and it takes almost 30 minutes to get connected to the right department after they ask you about your issue several times.

I am warning everyone not to sign up for Wyndham Rewards since this is how this nightmare started. They promise you a free hotel night to sign up for the card. Once you sign up, you have to make additional purchases to qualify for the points and then when you try to redeem them, their system is always down, or you have to wait 20+ minutes to speak with a rep about your account. It's not worth the time and frustration!

Regulating "cybersecurity"

Yesterday, when the Philadelphia appeals court ruled that the FTC does have authority to sue Wyndham, it also noted that the FTC might be able to pursue “cybersecurity” cases under 15 U.S.C. Sec. 45 which, among other things, grants the FTC power to prohibit “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”

After the court ruling yesterday, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement that the decision “reaffirms the FTC’s authority to hold companies accountable for failing to safeguard consumer data. It is not only appropriate, but critical, that the FTC has the ability to take action on behalf of consumers when companies fail to take reasonable steps to secure sensitive consumer information.”

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Scientists learning how to reprogram cancer cells

Mayo Clinic researchers say they may be able to "turn off" cancer

Cancer researchers have begun to approach the deadly disease in a completely different way. As a result, they are making huge strides toward finding a cure...

PhotoCancer researchers have begun to approach the deadly disease in a completely different way. As a result, they are making huge strides toward finding a cure.

One such giant step may be the work done by researchers at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, who say they have discovered a way to potentially “reprogram” cancer cells back into normal cells.

Mayo Clinic cancer researcher Panos Anastasiadis says the breakthrough represents “an unexpected new biology that provides the code, the software for turning off cancer.”

Scientists were able to unlock that code when they discovered that adhesion proteins — the glue that keeps cells together — interact with the microprocessor, a key player in the production of molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs).

Critical role of miRNAs

These miRNAs orchestrate whole cellular programs by simultaneously regulating expression of a group of genes. The investigators found that when normal cells come in contact with each other, miRNAs help keep the cells from growing.

In a cancer cell, the miRNAs don't work the way they are supposed to. When that happens, cells grow out of control.

The breakthrough occurred when the Mayo researchers went into cancer cells and restored the normal miRNA levels. When they did, cancer cells stopped growing.

Lead author Antonis Kourtidis says it solved a mystery for research scientists, who were struggling to understand how adhesion proteins affected cell behavior.

“Most significantly, it uncovers a new strategy for cancer therapy,” he said.

New strategy

That strategy involves going into cancer cells and making adjustments that restore these cancer cells to normal cells.

“Initial experiments in some aggressive types of cancer are indeed very promising,”Anastasiadis said.

This is just the latest cancer research representing a different approach to treatment. Instead of using toxic drugs to kill the cells, or surgery to remove them, scientists are tweaking the body's internal operating system to turn malignant cells into benign ones.

Recent research has focused on using the body's T-cells to find and destroy malignant cells. T-cells are a type of lymphocyte – a type of white blood cell – that plays a key role in regulating the body's immune system.

T-cells don't do a very good job of distinguishing between healthy or cancerous cells on their own. But in 2013, scientists working at Immunocore were basically able to arm the body's T-cells with a guidance system that helped them target the cancer cells.

Increasingly, cancer researchers are thinking outside the box – and looking to the body's own systems and tools as a means to find a cure for cancer.

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Adulterers file suit against Ashley Madison

John Doe files a class action suit seeking compensation from cheaters' website

You could see this coming -- angry adulterers are lining up to sue Ashley Madison, the dating site for married people looking for hook-up partners. There's...

PhotoYou could see this coming -- angry adulterers are lining up to sue Ashley Madison, the dating site for married people looking for hook-up partners. There's just one problem: the plaintiffs don't want to be identified.

Thus, it's a certain Mr. John Doe who is the sort-of-named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed against Madison's parent company, Avid Life Dating, Courthouse News Service reports.

The issue is, of course, the release by hackers of "highly sensitive user profile data such as photographs and sexual fantasies" of the site's 37 million registered users, including thousands who had paid $19 to have their profiles deleted.

You'll recall that hackers breached Ashley Madison's database, downloaded user data, and then released it publicly when Avid refused to close down the site.

"Catastrophic effects"

"Needless to say, this dumping of sensitive personal and financial information is bound to have catastrophic effects on the lives of the website's users," the complaint states. Indeed. There have already been at least two suicides blamed on the release.

The site -- like so many others -- assured its subscribers that their private data was safe and would never be revealed. It went so far as to call itself the "last truly secure space on the Internet," the complaint alleges, even though it actually stored the data in an unencrypted database.

Such behavior is exactly what the Federal Trade Commission has been trying to stop, through a series of actions against websites that have lost control of user data despite promises that the data was safe. A federal appeals court recently upheld the FTC's authority over such incidents. 

Mr. Doe asserts in his complaint that, although he himself was demonstrably not a very trustworthy dude, he trusted Ashley Madison to keep his nefarious affairs secret when he provided his credit card number and uploaded his photos and profile information in March 2012.

Doe seeks compensation for "mental anguish, disability, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life, and expense of medical care and treatment" but -- as far as we know -- makes no such demands for his spouse. 

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Honda Pilot aces safety test

Midsize SUV does very well in difficult small front overlap test

The Honda Pilot has always enjoyed a good safety reputation, and the latest safety tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has done no...

PhotoThe Honda Pilot has always enjoyed a good safety reputation, and the latest safety tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has done nothing to diminish that. Rather, it's improved that reputation.

The newly redesigned 2016 midsize SUV came through IIHS' small overlap front test with flying colors. Its available front crash prevention system earned a superior rating, helping it qualify for the 2015 Top Safety Pick+ award.

“The 2016 model's good small overlap performance is a dramatic change from the earlier generation Pilot, which rated poor,” IIHS said in a statement

Front quarter, head on

The small overlap front test consists of a head on collision in which a front quarter of the vehicle encounters a hard, stationary object. In the past, it has been a particularly challenging test for most small and midsize SUVs, including the Pilot.

The IIHS video below demonstrates the test and shows how destructive it can be.

 

 

In the test of the latest model Honda Pilot, the driver space held up well, with maximum intrusion of four inches at the parking brake pedal. The test results reveal the dummy's movement was well-controlled, with the front and side curtain airbags working well together to keep the dummy in place and protect the head from contact with the intruding structure and outside objects.

The IIHS stated that measures taken from the dummy showed a low risk of any significant injuries in a crash of this severity.

Significant improvement

For the Pilot, it's a significant improvement. While the car scored well in many tests, the 2014 Pilot did not fare well in the small overlap front test. In fact, the driver space was “seriously compromised,” suggesting injuries to the driver.

In last year's test the parking brake pedal moved nearly 17 inches inward, and the door hinge pillar moved in about 14 inches. Video shows the dummy's head barely contacted the front airbag before sliding off to the left, as the steering column moved to the right and toward the driver. The side curtain airbag didn't extend far enough forward to protect the head.

The new Pilot, like the previous models, scored good ratings in the Institute's four other crashworthiness tests — moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints.

Top Safety Pick+

When equipped with front crash prevention, the Honda Pilot qualifies for a Top Safety Pick+ award.

Vehicles must earn a good or acceptable small overlap rating and good ratings in the four other tests to qualify for that ranking. To earn a plus sign, vehicles must also have an available front crash prevention system that garners an advanced or superior rating.

IIHS engineers rated the Pilot's optional system “superior.” They say the autobrake prevented a collision in the Institute's 12 mph track test and cut the vehicle's speed in half in the 25 mph test.  

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Report: time for new pacifier safety standards

Choking and laceration hazards make pacifiers inherently dangerous

A report on pacifier safety suggets it may be time for federal safety regulators to take a new look at the risks posed by the devices, which have a tendenc...

PhotoA report on pacifier safety suggets it may be time for federal safety regulators to take a new look at the risks posed by the devices, which have a tendency to rip or become lodged in a child's mouth or throat.

“Pacifiers have a unique combination of being almost ubiquitous yet inherently very risky due to the fact that they go into a child’s mouth,” said Diana Suder, a researcher with Kids In Danger (KID). “That makes it extremely important to assure the product meets strong safety guidelines.”

In a recent report, Suder and her colleagues analyzed data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) that found pacifiers can pose a choking and laceration risk to infants and toddlers.

The databases reviewed include both recalls of pacifiers issued by the CPSC as well as reported incidents and injuries through SaferProducts.gov and hospital data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS).

Key findings included:

  • Seventy-nine percent of injuries reported to the CPSC involved babies choking on pacifier pieces and/or the pacifier impeding airflow to the child by getting stuck in the child's mouth or throat.
  • Recalled pacifiers have been known to break and leave sharp pieces inside children’s mouths. The broken pacifier pieces also inflict lacerations inside and around the mouth due to sharp, exposed edges.
  • In the time studied, there were 97 incident and injury reports and 11 recalls.

Time to reevaluate

The CPSC has a standard for pacifier safety, but it has not been revised in years. KID's report suggests it may be time to reevaluate. The choking risk makes it especially important to ensure maximum safety in pacifiers, KID said, since a choking child can die within minutes.

KID recommends that:

  • Parents and caregivers make sure that the pacifier they buy for their child is not a recalled model. Check for recalls on saferproducts.gov or kidsindanger.org.
  • If a pacifier has any rips, cracks, or signs of significant wear, it must be replaced immediately.
  • If you experience an incident with a pacifier, report it at SaferProducts.gov to help spread awareness.

“In addition to steps parents and caregivers can take, KID recommends CPSC take action to improve the safety of pacifiers,” said Nancy Cowles, KID Executive Director. “These incidents and recalls should lead to a reexamination of the current standard for pacifiers and perhaps point to the need for stronger surveillance to assure only those that meet the standard are reaching the marketplace.”

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Geico to pay $6 million to California for "misleading, discriminatory" quotes

The state took issue with Geico's online premium quoting system

Geico has agreed to pay $6 million dollars and implement several changes to its business practices, as part of a settlement with the California Department ...

PhotoGeico has agreed to pay $6 million dollars and implement several changes to its business practices, as part of a settlement with the California Department of Insurance.
 
The settlement stems from a petition in which the Consumer Federation of California alleged that Geico's online premium quoting system was discriminatory and misleading to consumers.
 
GEICO  Aug. 25, 2015, 6:59 p.m.
Consumers rate GEICO
"Consumers are entitled to a fair estimate, that does not misrepresent material information, and discloses fully what they are getting for their money," said California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. "Insurers must adhere to the letter of law when developing quotes, whether in person or through an online system."
 
Based on information obtained through extensive testing of the Geico website, the Consumer Federation of California said the insurer misrepresented a $100,000/$300,000 limit quote as being a lowest-limits quote, when in fact, it was not. Consumer Federation of California alleged in their petition that these higher policy limits were only quoted to certain consumers, based on their education level, occupation, and gender.
 
Though insurers may also offer and sell policies with higher limits, California law requires insurers to offer a minimum limits policy of $15,000/$30,000. Geico's online premium quoting system was inaccurately describing quotes for higher limits as the lowest limits.
 
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones issued an order approving the settlement agreement and requiring Geico to discontinue using consumers' education level or occupation to quote coverage limits, and to offer a quote for a $15,000/$30,000 policy to certain consumers for the next three years. The insurer has also agreed to submit to twice-yearly audits of its website for the next three years, to ensure it is complying with the law.
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Zillow: home values slip first time in four years

Analysts say market is getting back to normal

For economists worrying that home prices were rising too far, too fast – here's some good news. Real estate market site Zillow reports that the average hom...

PhotoFor economists worrying that home prices were rising too far, too fast – here's some good news. Real estate market site Zillow reports that the average home went down in value last month for the first time since the market began its recovery in 2011.

U.S. homes lost 0.1% of their value in July, falling to a Zillow Home Value Index of $179,900. But on a year-over-year basis, homes still went up in value by 3.0%, down from 3.4% in June.

The numbers suggest the run-up in prices is more of a pause than a reversal, though the next few months will tell that story.

Zillow covers 517 metros in its housing index and 204 metros saw a slowdown in July. Strong markets like Washington, DC and Cincinnati gave some ground last month. Market analysts at Zillow say the slowing appreciation is simply a sign that the market is returning to normal.

Back to normal

Markets like Denver, San Francisco, San Jose, and Dallas slowed from double-digit growth to the single digits.

"This slight dip in home values is a sign of the times. Many people didn't think it was happening, but it is: we're going negative," said Zillow Chief Economist Svenja Gudell. "We've been expecting to see a monthly decline as markets return to normal.”

Gudell says recent homebuyers shouldn't panic. This is not a bursting of a bubble and 10% declines are on no one's radar.

“The market is leveling off, and it's good news, particularly for buyers, because it will ease some of the competitive pressure," she said.

Rising inventories

The leveling off of prices comes at a time when banks are putting a lot more foreclosed homes back on the market, replenishing declining inventories. In many markets, it was the lack of homes for sale that put upward pressure on home prices.

As we reported just last week, there were 124,910 foreclosure filings in the U.S. in July, a sharp 7% rise from June and a 14% surge from July 2014. But that was because many old foreclosures were finally seized by lenders and placed back on the market, in many cases at below market prices.

As distressed properties sell in the coming months, their lower prices can be expected to pull down the average sales price, or at least keep it from rising very much. But that doesn't necessarily mean the real estate market is slipping.

Boost for first-time buyers

And it might very well be good news for the millions of first-time buyers who have put off homeownership but now are sticking their toes into the market. In addition to more distressed property for sale, Zillow says homeowners who have been waiting to sell until prices hit their peak may now be ready to move.

Meanwhile, the incentives to buy remain strong. Interest rates remain near their historic lows and Zillow reports rents continue to grow at a rapid pace, up 4.2% from last July.

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A surge in consumer confidence

The jobs outlook appears more upbeat

Consumers are feeling a whole lot better about the economy than they did in July. The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, which which ...

PhotoConsumers are feeling a whole lot better about the economy than they did in July.

The Conference Board reports its Consumer Confidence Index, which which lost ground last month, rebounded in August and now stands at 101.5. The Present Situation Index shot from 104.0 to 115.1, while the Expectations Index improved to 92.5 from 82.3 a month earlier.

“Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was considerably more upbeat, primarily due to a more favorable appraisal of the labor market,” said Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “The uncertainty expressed last month about the short-term outlook has dissipated and consumers are once again feeling optimistic about the near future. Income expectations, however, were little improved.”

How they see it

Consumers’ assessment of current conditions was considerably more favorable in August. Those saying business conditions are “good” dipped slightly from 23.4% to 23.2%. Those who think business conditions are “bad” dropped from 18.2% to 17.6%.

There was a more positive view of the job market. Those who believe jobs are “plentiful” rose 2% -- to 21.9%, while those who think jobs are “hard to get” plunged from 27.4% to 21.9%.

Consumers’ optimism about the short-term outlook also improved. The percentage of those expecting business conditions to get better over the next six months increased from 15.3% to 15.8%, while those expecting it to worsen declined from 10.3% to 8.3%.

The outlook for the labor market was more upbeat. Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead rose to 14.6% from 13.7%, while those who think there will be fewer jobs was down sharply from 19.0% to 13.6%.

The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to increase declined moderately from 17.0% to 16.2%, while the proportion expecting a decline dropped from 11.3% to 10.0%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cut-off date for the preliminary results was August 13.

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New home sales jump in July

Prices were on the rise as well

After falling in June to their lowest rate in eight months -- the first decline in three months -- sales of new single-family homes rebounded in July. Th...

PhotoAfter falling in June to their lowest rate in eight months -- the first decline in three months -- sales of new single-family homes rebounded in July.

The Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are reporting jointly that sales last month totaled a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 507,000 up 5.4% from the revised June rate of 481,000, 25.8% higher than the same time a year ago.

On a month-over-month basis, sales were up 23.1% in the Northeast, 6.7% in the West, and 5.8% in the South. They declined 6.9% in the Midwest.

Prices and inventory

Prices gained ground in July, too. The median price of new houses sold during the month was $285,900, up $5,500 or roughly 2% from July of 2014. The median is the point at which half the homes cost more and half cost less. The average sales price was $361,600, a year-over-year gain of 16,400 or 4.5%.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of July was 218,000, which translates to a supply of 5.2 months at the current sales rate.

The complete report may be found on the Commerce Department website.

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The climb continues for home prices

Cities in the west continue to lead the way

Home prices continued their rise across the country over the last 12 months during June, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller http://us.spindices.com/ Home P...

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

The latest data shows that on a year-over-year basis, June was a better month for price hikes than May. The National Home Price Index, which covers all nine U.S. census divisions, recorded a 4.5% annual increase in June versus a 4.4% increase in May.

The 10-City Composite had marginally lower year-over-year gains, with an increase of 4.6% year-over-year. The 20-City Composite year-over-year pace was virtually flat, rising 5.0% year-over-year.

Way out west

Denver, San Francisco, and Dallas reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities with price increases of 10.2%, 9.5%, and 8.2%, respectively. Eleven cities reported greater price increases in the year ending June 2015 over the year ending May 2015.

Denver is the only city with a double digit increase, and Phoenix and Detroit had the longest streaks of year-over-year increases. Phoenix reported a 4.1% in June 2015, the seventh consecutive year-over-year increase. Detroit recorded 5.7% in June 2015, the sixth consecutive year-over-year increase.

“Nationally, home prices continue to rise at a 4-5% annual rate, two to three times the rate of inflation,” said David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “While prices in San Francisco and Denver are rising far faster than those in Washington D.C., New York or Cleveland, the city-to-city price patterns are little-changed in the last year. Washington saw the smallest year-over-year gains in five of the last six months; San Francisco and Denver ranked either first or second of all cities in the last five months. The price gains have been consistent as the unemployment rate declined with steady inflation and an unchanged Fed policy."

Month-over-month

Before seasonal adjustment, the National index and 20-City Composite both reported gains of 1.0% month-over-month in June. The 10-City Composite posted a month-over-month gain of 0.9%. After seasonal adjustment, the National index posted a gain of 0.1% while the 10-City and 20-City Composites were both down 0.1% month-over-month.

All 20 cities reported increases in June before seasonal adjustment; after seasonal adjustment, nine were down, nine were up, and two were unchanged.

FHFA prices

Separately the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI) shows prices were up 1.2% in the second quarter -- the 16th consecutive quarterly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index. FHFA's seasonally adjusted monthly index for June was up 0.2% from May. House prices rose 5.4% from a year earlier.

"Home price growth in the second quarter once again far exceeded the pace of overall inflation, even as mortgage rates drifted upwards," said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. "Although too early to tell whether it's a sign of a slowdown, the monthly appreciation rate in June was more modest than we have seen in a while."

Report highlights

  • Home prices rose in every state between the second quarter of 2014 and the second quarter of 2015. The top five areas in annual appreciation: 1) Colorado – 10.6%, 2) Nevada – 10.5%, 3) Florida – 9.7%, 4) Hawaii – 9.5% and 5) Washington – 8.8%.
  • Among the 100 most-populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., four-quarter price increases were greatest in San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, Calif., where prices increased by 18.3%. Prices were weakest in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, Pa.-N.J., where they fell -1.1%.
  • Of the nine census divisions, the South Atlantic division experienced the strongest increase in the second quarter, posting a 1.7% quarterly increase and a 6.1% increase since last year. House price appreciation was weakest in the Middle Atlantic division, where prices were flat in the second quarter.

The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The complete report is avaliable on the FHFA website.

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Checks in the mail to purchasers of bogus childhood speech disorder treatments

The dietary supplements, Speak and Speak Smooth, were deceptively marketed

Refund checks are being mailed to consumers who lost money buying dietary supplements, Speak and Speak Smooth, which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sa...

PhotoRefund checks are being mailed to consumers who lost money buying dietary supplements, Speak and Speak Smooth, which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says were deceptively marketed as proven effective at treating childhood speech disorders -- including those associated with autism.

 

The refunds are from money collected through a settlement with the FTC, under which the NourishLife, LLC defendants agreed to stop making allegedly deceptive claims that their products develop and maintain normal, healthy speech and language capabilities in children.

 

These 6,936 checks -- each for $25.18 -- are legitimate, and the FTC is encouraging consumers who receive them to cash them before they expire on October 23.

 

Checks that are not cashed within 60 days of the date they are issued will become void.

 

Recipients should note that the FTC never requires consumers to pay money or provide information before redress checks can be cashed.

 

 

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GM recalls Chevy Impalas

The front passenger air bag may deploy with a child seat in the front passenger seat

General Motors is recalling 5,493 model year 2014-2015 Chevrolet Impalas manufactured April 15, 2013, to June 19, 2015, equipped with front vented-heated p...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 5,493 model year 2014-2015 Chevrolet Impalas manufactured April 15, 2013, to June 19, 2015, equipped with front vented-heated passenger seats.

 

The Automatic Occupant Sensing (AOS) system may fail to suppress the front passenger air bag if a child seat is in the front passenger seat. These vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 208, "Occupant Crash Protection."

 

If the front passenger air bag deploys with a child seat in the front passenger seat, the risk of injury to the child is increased.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will correct the calibration-learning error by preconditioning the empty seat, and also resetting the ECU to a seat zero-value, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 15400.

 

 

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Chrysler is recalling 5,485 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Durangos

There could be a change in ride height, loss of rear end stability and reduced braking capabilities

Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 5,485 model year 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Durangos manufactured June 12, 2015, to June 20, 2015. The vehicl...

 

Photo
Photo source: Chrysler

Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 5,485 model year 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Durangos manufactured June 12, 2015, to June 20, 2015.

 

The vehicles may be equipped with rear lower control arms that may have been incorrectly heat-treated, causing the rear lower control arm to fracture.

 

If the rear lower control arm fractures it may result in a change in ride height, loss of rear end stability, and reduced braking capabilities, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and if necessary replace the lower control arms, free of charge. The recall began July 29, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R38.  

 

 

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Are economic warning signs flashing “recession?”

Consumer activity in the next few weeks may provide a clue

Last week's stock market carnage has Wall Street traders – as well as millions of consumers with retirement accounts in mutual funds – a bit nervous. The s...

PhotoLast week's stock market carnage has Wall Street traders – as well as millions of consumers with retirement accounts in mutual funds – a bit nervous. The stock indices are now in bear market territory with the first major correction since 2011.

The debate on Wall Street is whether the selling is over. Even if it's not, many economists say the U.S. economy is still fairly strong and job growth is good.

But there are warning signs everywhere that may suggest otherwise.

It's true that the stock market sell-off could just be a long-overdue correction from abnormally-high stock valuations. But there are troubling signs that suggest the economy is weaker than many think.

Weak growth numbers

It starts with the economic growth rate. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is estimated to be around two percent for the year. But in the first quarter of both 2014 and 2015, growth was dismal. In fact, in both years there was negative growth in the January through March period.

The weak showing in 2014 was blamed on a cold winter and this year on a labor action that blocked West Coast ports for a time. But every first quarter is cold, because it's in the winter. Winter doesn't appear to have been a negative factor in years before the financial crisis. For example, GDP in the first quarter of 2004 was 2.4%.

So even if economic growth picks up in the rest of the year, as it usually does, the fact the U.S. economy has gone in reverse to begin the last two years doesn't exactly paint a picture of a robust economy.

Cheaper commodities

Consumers are probably well aware of falling oil prices, but the price of just about every other commodity has been falling too. Falling oil prices are good for consumers but have hurt the U.S. oil industry, whose rapid growth the last few years has helped keep the economy afloat. That stimulus is no longer the economic driver it once was.

Oil prices are lower because there is an oversupply but the situation with other commodities, like copper, is different. There just doesn't seem to be as much demand. Falling demand could be a sign of an economic slowdown.

The economies of other nations may already be in recession. Countries like Brazil that rely on the export of oil and minerals are reeling because of falling prices.

China's woes

China, the world's second-largest economy, also appears to be in trouble. China last week took aggressive action to devalue its currency to prop up its fading export market. True, the U.S. imports more from China than it exports, but many U.S. corporations rely on the vast Chinese market. Apple stock's plunge the last few weeks is attributed in part to a belief Apple will sell fewer iPhones in China if that country's economy tanks.

This all creates strong headwinds for the U.S. economy, especially in light of an ever-strengthening dollar,that makes U.S. exports more expensive.

So, is the U.S. sliding toward recession? Very few people think so but the U.S. consumer may be a strong indicator. Keep an eye on back to school sales, now under way. As we reported last week, consumers don't appear to have spent heavily so far.

“As expected, families are carefully measuring where, when and how they should spend on fall apparel items, school supplies, electronics and other necessities,” said National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Late summer promotions and sales tax holidays around the country are likely contributing to the delay in back-to-school shopping this year, which means the next few weeks could be exceptionally busy for retailers large and small.”

If it's not exceptionally busy, it could be a bad sign. In 2008 retailers suffered a dismal back to school shopping season. It was followed a month later by the financial crisis, in which a garden variety recession turned into the Great Recession.

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Ashley Madison offers $377,000 bounty to catch hackers

Meanwhile, at least two suicides are believed related to last week's data dump

If you know who is behind The Impact Team, the hacker or hackers who broke into the adultery-dating website Ashley Madison last month and dumped the data o...

PhotoIf you know who is behind The Impact Team, the hacker or hackers who broke into the adultery-dating website Ashley Madison last month and dumped the data online last week, you can collect a reward of 500,000 Canadian dollars (roughly $377,730 in U.S. dollars, at an exchange rate of 76 U.S. cents per one Canadian dollar).

BBC News reported today that Ashley Madison's Canadian parent company Avid Life Media offered the reward for information – along with the more somber news that police in Toronto say two people “associated with” the leaked data have committed suicide.

Bryce Evans of the Toronto police said, in an address intended for The Impact Team, that “I want to make it very clear to you your actions are illegal and we will not be tolerating them. This is your wake-up call.”

Possible leads, but not promising

On Saturday, Ars Technica reported a possible mistake that the hackers made. They hope that it might help investigators track them down. Whoever posted the 200,000 internal emails from the hacking apparently forgot to cover their tracks at first: “A Web interface for administering the BitTorrent server was left exposed to the Internet without a password, making it possible for outsiders to access. … The box seeding the torrent was located at 94.102.63.121.”

So can't investigators simply trace that IP address and find the hackers? Not necessarily. Also on Saturday, the Toronto Star (Ashley Madison's hometown newspaper) ran a piece on “Why the Ashley Madison hackers probably won't get caught” and pointed out that determining responsibility for a hack attack is extremely difficult, because even if you can trace an attack to a given computer, that doesn't mean the computer's owner/operator was behind it – that computer itself could've been hacked into.

Indeed, among the many different malware variants that can infect your computer, one type is called “zombie” software because it essentially takes over your device and turns it into a zombie, mindlessly and unknowingly obeying the malware-writers' commands. A botnet, sometimes called a “zombie army,” is a network of private computers all infected with zombie malware and working toward some common goal for the malware writer.

If you've ever had your email spoofed – and didn't know about it until your friends asked “Hey, why are you sending me these weird spammy emails?” – then you've suffered a mild case of zombification or been ensnared in a botnet yourself. The Ashley Madison hackers may have left a few footprints last weekend, but it's still too early to tell if those footprints lead to their house.

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UVA hackers probably interested in school's Chinese or government connections

Two specific employees had their emails targeted

A couple of weeks ago, the University of Virginia had to temporarily shut down its computer network after an attack by hackers believed to operate out of C...

PhotoA couple of weeks ago, the University of Virginia had to temporarily shut down its computer network after an attack by hackers believed to operate out of China.

Little information was made available about the hack at the time, though unnamed “officials” did say that the hackers had not been able to access anybody's personal information, nor any of the “sensitive research material” at the university.

That doesn't mean the hackers didn't try, though.The cybersecurity firm Mandiant, which UVA hired to investigate the attack, recently concluded that the hackers' intended targets were two specific university employees whose work is somehow connected to China (although, for obvious reasons, neither Mandiant nor the school is willing to detail exactly what sort of work those employees do).

Increased hacking threats

With all the recent stories about foreign hackers stealing data from various parts of the U.S. government – such as the 22 million security-clearance files stolen from the federal Office of Personnel Management – sometimes it's easy to forget that, from the perspective of someone seeking to harm U.S. interests, government networks aren't the only ones worth hacking.

Last November, for example, security researchers from Kaspersky announced that for at least four years, a hacking ring had successfully carried out an espionage campaign dubbed “Darkhotel,” which attacked and intercepted the Wi-Fi networks of expensive luxury hotels patronized by high-ranking corporate executives on business trips. The hackers planted keylogging software onto executives' personal devices and piggybacked from there into confidential corporate networks — and, as a Kaspersky manager said at the time, the hackers' targets were primarily “nuclear themed, but they also target the defense industry base in the U.S. and important executives from around the world in all sectors having to do with economic development and investments.”

Last March, researchers from Cylance made a similar discovery: hackers had breached the public Wi-Fi networks of almost 300 different hotels, convention centers, and data centers spanning 29 different countries. Unlike Darkhotel, which seemed to focus exclusively on high-end hotels, the Cylance hackers hit locations “all up and down the spectrum of cost, from places we've never heard of to places that cost more per night than most apartments cost to rent for a month,” as Cylance said at the time.

And, as The Daily Beast first reported last Friday, the hackers who targeted the University of Virginia were apparently interested in the email accounts of two specific employees. Although neither their names nor their positions have been made public, the university's East Asia Center has dozens of employees – and the UVA Research Center has tenants including Northrup Grumman, Booz Allen Hamilton (Edward Snowden's former employer) and other major U.S. government contractors.

Defense connections

Although UVA is over 100 miles from Washington, D.C., it also has government connections much closer than that. As The Daily Beast noted, “Some firms at the research park work for a large Defense Department installation in Charlottesville less than a mile away. It includes offices for the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is the Pentagon’s primary intelligence organization, as well as the National Ground Intelligence Center, or NGIC, which helps to assess the size and threat of foreign militaries.”

Granted, the fact that such facilities are connected to UVA doesn't mean the UVA hackers managed to breach them — but it makes it much easier to understand why hackers in China would care about a couple of professors at a state school in the Old Dominion.

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Expensive add-ons can push up the price of a new car

Saying no can keep your monthly payment more affordable

Each month new car sales go up - and each month it seems the transaction cost of a new car purchase also rises.Kelley Blue Book tracks prices each mont...

PhotoEach month new car sales go up - and each month it seems the transaction cost of a new car purchase also rises.

Kelley Blue Book tracks prices each month and reports the estimated average transaction price (ATP) for light vehicles in the United States; in July, this figure was $33,453. This means that new-car prices have increased by $856 from July, 2014.

"Transaction prices continue to climb across the industry, with some notable gains from small and medium volume brands like Fiat, Kia, Mazda and Subaru," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "However, Nissan reports the largest average transaction price increase among the large manufacturers with prices up nearly 6%, driven primarily by its Maxima, Murano, Rogue and Sentra models."

Transaction prices sometimes rise because dealers continue to find creative ways to boost the final price with add-ons at the end of the process.

Fabric protection

For example, many dealers recommend buyers purchase fabric protection. Consumers leasing a car are told this option could save them some wear and tear expense at the end of the lease.

But various automotive experts point out that modern vehicle interiors come from the factory with a lot of protection. In recent years manufacturers have made automotive fabrics more resilient.

Even if you decide you need another layer of protection for your seats, there are cheaper options – including spray-on stain repellent.

Extended warranties

An extended warranty is another add-on that can significantly bump up the price. It's less of an issue with new cars than used cars because many manufacturers have improved their warranties over the years.

If you're buying a new car, there is very little reason to purchase extended service coverage, unless you expect to have lots of trouble with the car, which begs the question of why you're buying it in the first place. Better to spend that money on regular maintenance, which most mechanics will tell you is the best way to protect your investment.

Credit insurance

If you are financing your new car, you'll probably be offered credit insurance. These policies make payments for you under certain circumstances, such as if you lose your job.

But there are different kinds of policies that pay off in some circumstances but not in others.

“Before deciding to buy credit insurance from a lender, think about your needs, your options, and the cost of insurance,” advises the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Credit insurance can be expensive and, if financed as part of your loan, it will increase your loan amount and you will pay additional interest.”

Kelley Blue Book says the best way consumers can get a good deal on a new car is to do research online before arriving at the dealer. But saving money goes beyond negotiating the best deal. It often means saying no to expensive add-ons.

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Spotify introduces, then backs away from, new privacy policy

The phrase “online privacy” gets more oxymoronic every day

Over the weekend, the music-streaming service Spotify introduced – and then hastily clarified – a new privacy policy which critics largely interpreted as “...

PhotoOver the weekend, the music-streaming service Spotify introduced – and then hastily clarified – a new privacy policy which critics largely interpreted as “If you use our service, you won't have any privacy.”

Some loss of privacy is unavoidable with any online or streaming service. In the case of Spotify (which offers two tiers of service: a free subscription with advertising, or $9.99 per month ad-free), it's practically a tautology that if you listen to music through the service, it therefore knows what sort of music you listen to.

But on August 19, Spotify upped the ante with a revised privacy policy that was instantly, and near-universally, despised: Wired called it “eerie,” Forbes called it “creepy,” and CNN Money dubbed it “super-creepy.”

Privacy changes

What changes inspired such impassioned responses? Here's a sampling: “With your permission, we may collect information stored on your mobile device, such as contacts, photos, or media files. Local law may require that you seek the consent of your contacts to provide their personal information to Spotify, which may use that information for the purposes specified in this Privacy Policy.”

So the music-streaming service wanted access to users' email contacts and personal photos. And that's not all. Spotify also wanted information connected to users' Facebook pages (if applicable), including “your username ... and other information that may be available on or through your Facebook account, including your name, profile picture, country, hometown, e-mail address, date of birth, gender, friends' names and profile pictures and networks.”

Depending on the type of device subscribers used to listen to Spotify, “we may also collect information about your location based on, for example, your phone’s GPS location or other forms of locating mobile devices (e.g., Bluetooth). We may also collect sensor data (e.g., data about the speed of your movements, such as whether you are running, walking, or in transit).” The location-and-speed monitoring was specifically for users of Spotify Running, which automatically matches music to the pace at which you're traveling.

Spotify users who didn't like the new policies were offered the following helpful suggestion: “If you don't agree with the terms of this Privacy Policy, then please don't use the Service.”

Over-reaction?

The almost-instant backlash inspired Spotify CEO Daniel Ek to respond to critics in a blog post titled “SORRY”:

In our new privacy policy, we indicated that we may ask your permission to access new types of information …. Let me be crystal clear here: If you don’t want to share this kind of information, you don’t have to. We will ask for your express permission before accessing any of this data – and we will only use it for specific purposes that will allow you to customize your Spotify experience.

To be fair, it's possible that the entire controversy was merely a misunderstanding. Fast Company, for example, said that “Spotify's privacy gaffe was poor messaging, not bad policy.”

And Ek's apologetic blog post seemed to agree; he repeatedly stressed that these proposed policy changes would only be implemented with users' permission. “We will never access your photos without explicit permission …. We will never gather or use the location of your mobile device without your explicit permission …. We will never access your microphone without your permission …. ”

Furthermore, as Wired later pointed out, Spotify's policy actually isn't different from those of other music services, including Pandora, Tidal, Google Play, and Beats Music. (Tom Warren, editor at The Verge, dismissed the controversy as a “typical overreaction to reading a privacy policy. Go read a bunch of other policies and you'll never use the Internet again.”)

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RockDizMusic.com founder pleads guilty to copyright infringement

The site sold millions of copies of copyrighted recordings

File photoYes, you really can get in big trouble by stealing copyrighted music, as Rocky P. Ouprasith, the founder of RockDizMusic.com has learned....

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File photo

Yes, you really can get in big trouble by stealing copyrighted music, as Rocky P. Ouprasith, the founder of RockDizMusic.com has learned.

Ouprasith, 23, of Charlotte, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to one count of criminal copyright infringement in a federal district court in Virginia last week. He will be sentenced in November.

RockDizMusic.com was the second-largest "pirate" music site in 2013, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Using servers located in Russia, France, and the Netherlands, Ouprasith hosted hyperlinks to music and split the take with affiliates who fed both music and customers to the site.

Ouprasith admitted that, in 2013 and 2014, he either ignored complaints or pretended to take remedial action when copyright holders complained.

In October 2014, federal law enforcement authorities shut down RockDizMusic.com and RockDizFile.com, and law enforcement authorities in the Netherlands and France seized file-hosting servers utilized by Ouprasith.,

In connection with his guilty plea, Ouprasith admitted that the market value of his illegally pirated material was more than $2.5 million.

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Parents claim to find shards of glass in Huggies baby wipes

Company claims that the particles are just fibers

A baby’s skin is probably one of the softest things you can touch, but it is also extremely sensitive as well. So sensitive, in fact, that parents started ...

PhotoA baby’s skin is probably one of the softest things you can touch, but it is also extremely sensitive as well. So sensitive, in fact, that parents started to notice when the Huggies baby wipes that they were using were causing their infants to break out in a rash. After some close examination, many consumers believe that damage is being caused by tiny pieces of glass that are embedded in the Huggies wipes. The company totally rejects this claim, stating that the “shiny particles” that consumers are seeing are simply fibers.

Bob Brand, who is a spokesman for Huggies’ parent company Kimberly-Clark, echoed this sentiment in a press release. “We believe what has been reported as glass shards are, most likely, melted fiber particles of our wipe material used in the manufacturing process of the product,” he said. He does admit, though, that no formal conclusions will be made until Huggies has a chance to “study the product in question thoroughly.”

Consumer reactions

Despite the statement given by Brand, it seems that many parents are still wary of using the baby wipes. All of the negative press started when Melissa Estrella, a U.S. parent, discovered what she thought were tiny shards of glass in the wipes. She posted a YouTube video about it, which soon reached over six million views. In the video she claimed that the “glass” rubbed right off when used.

Other parents around the world began echoing Estrella’s concerns soon after. One mother in Guam made another video that ended up going viral. It caught the attention of Kmart in Guam, and they soon had to pull the product from their shelves due to numerous complaints.

Some consumer experiences seem to go against these videos, though. This is the case with one consumer named John Martinez. He shared his story on the Huggies Facebook page.

“I did notice what looks like very small specks of crystal or glass in my Huggies wipes after reading the complaint. It kind of glints in the light. However, I tried my hardest to ick some out with tweezers and failed to do so. I also rubbed the wipe up and down my arm for about 3 or 4 mins. About as hard as I could. The result was no burns, no scratches, and no discomfort. For all I know, it’s something that is supposed to be there,” he said.

Until their investigation turns up some answers, Huggies welcomes you to contact them with any questions or concerns. You can do so online or call 1-888-485-6839.

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GM fixes total ignition-switch deaths at 124

Millions of cars were recalled because of the defective switches

A final tally of deaths and injuries linked to General Motors' faulty ignition switches finds 124 deaths and 275 injuries, 17...

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A Chevy Cobalt ignition

A final tally of deaths and injuries linked to General Motors' faulty ignition switches finds 124 deaths and 275 injuries, 17 of them serious, although additional cases are pending in the courts.

More than 4,000 claims were filed with Attorney Kenneth Feinberg's office, though 90 percent of them were found to be ineligible. He was hired last year by GM to compensate victims of the faulty switches, which led to the recall of more than 2.6 million vehicles last year.

Those who filed with Feinberg's office waived their right to sue, instead agreeing to let Feinberg's team decide on an appropriate damage award.

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Source: www.gmignitioncompensation.com/

GM set aside $625 million to pay victims. It also paid a $35 million fine for not alerting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the defective switches quickly enough.

Death claims were eligible for a $1 million payout for the dead person and $300,000 each for a surviving spouse and any dependents. Awards for severe injuries could go higher, depending on the circumstances.

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Feds probe Jeep roll-aways

Cars allegedly roll away after being left in Park

Federal safety investigators are looking into reports that 2014 and 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2014 Dodge Durango vehicles can roll away after their tran...

PhotoFederal safety investigators are looking into reports that 2014 and 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2014 Dodge Durango vehicles can roll away after their transmissions are left in the Park position.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has received 14 complaints from consumers. Some of the complainants said the rollaways occurred when the engine was running, others said it occurred after the engine had been shut down.

The suspect vehicles have an electronic gear selector, a "shift-by-wire" system rather than the traditional system in which a shifter moves mechanically along a gate path. 

NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation said it has opened a "preliminary evaluation" of the problem, the first step in a process that could eventually lead to a recall.

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Chrysler recalls Ram 4500 and 5500 pickup trucks

The vehicles could experience reduction of suspension stability control

Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 199 model year 2015 Ram 4500, and 5500 pickup trucks manufactured January 30, 2015, to February 6, 2015. The vehicles ...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 199 model year 2015 Ram 4500, and 5500 pickup trucks manufactured January 30, 2015, to February 6, 2015.

 

The vehicles may have inadequate penetration of the front upper control arm loop to spacer weld, reducing the front suspension stability.

 

A reduction of suspension stability control could affect control of the vehicle, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and replace any upper control arms, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin September 19, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R34.

 

 

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GM recalls Cadillac ATS vehicles

The vehicles' roof panel could close automatically when the non-recessed switches are pressed

General Motors is recalling 63,665 model year 2013-2016 Cadillac ATS vehicles manufactured April 25, 2012, to June 25, 2015. The vehicles' roof panel cou...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 63,665 model year 2013-2016 Cadillac ATS vehicles manufactured April 25, 2012, to June 25, 2015.

 

The vehicles' roof panel could close automatically when the non-recessed switches are pressed and the roof panel is open. These vehicles fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) No. 118, "Power-Operated Window, Partition, and Roof Panel Systems."

 

Because the switch is not recessed, the roof panel switch may inadvertently be pressed resulting in unintended auto-closure of the roof panel, increasing the risk of personal injury.

 

GM will notify owners and dealers will replace the roof console accessory switch trim plate, free of charge. The recall began on August 19, 2015, and supersedes one issued in February 2015.

 

Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is 15568.

 

 

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Chrysler is recalling 8 model year 2015 Chrysler 200 vehicles

Certain electrical components may experience intermittent power failures

Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 77,834 model year 2015 Chrysler 200s manufactured January 7, 2014, to September 23, 2014. The vehicles may have a Powe...

PhotoChrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 77,834 model year 2015 Chrysler 200s manufactured January 7, 2014, to September 23, 2014.

 

The vehicles may have a Power Distribution Center (PDC) electrical connector that may cause intermittent power failures to certain electrical components.

 

An intermittent loss of power to electrical components could cause a vehicle to stall without warning, increasing the risk of a crash.

 

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the C4 connector using a 12 wire split kit for 3.6L engines, or replace the transmission wiring harness for 2.4L engines, free of charge. The parts needed for the recall are currently unavailable. Owners will be notified of the recall on or around September 18, 2015, with second notifications mailed when remedy parts become available.

 

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is R24.

 

 

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Volvo XC90 vehicles recalled

The third row seating side curtain air bags may not inflate fully

Volvo Cars of N.A. is recalling 3,911 model year 2016 Volvo XC90 vehicles manufactured January 27, 2015, to July 10, 2015. The third row seating side cur...

PhotoVolvo Cars of N.A. is recalling 3,911 model year 2016 Volvo XC90 vehicles manufactured January 27, 2015, to July 10, 2015.

 

The third row seating side curtain air bags may not inflate fully.

 

Underinflated air bags may not fully protect third row occupants, increasing the risk of injury in the event of a crash.

 

Volvo will notify owners, and dealers will modify the D-pillar interior panels to allow full inflation of the third row airbags, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on September 14, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Volvo customer service at 1-201-768-7300.

 

 

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Chetak New York recalls Deep Coriander Powder

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Chetak New York http://chetaknewyork.com/ of Edison, N.J., is recalling 300 jars of Deep Coriander Powder. The product may be contaminated with Salmonel...

PhotoChetak New York of Edison, N.J., is recalling 300 jars of Deep Coriander Powder.

 

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

 

The recalled product was distributed nationwide in retail stores from July 30, 2015 – August 13, 2015, in a 14.1-z clear plastic jar marked with UPC number 011433134347 on the rear of the package. The lot number can be located on the bottom of the jar.

 

Customers who purchased the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

 

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-973-835-1906, Monday through Friday from 9 am – 5 pm (EST).

 

 

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General Motors recalls Chevrolet Cobalts

An electrical short could disable the driver side curtain air bag

General Motors is recalling 59,474 model year 2010 Chevrolet Cobalts manufactured January 4, 2010, to June 23, 2010. The vehicles may be equipped with an...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 59,474 model year 2010 Chevrolet Cobalts manufactured January 4, 2010, to June 23, 2010.

 

The vehicles may be equipped with an improperly routed Side-Impact Sensor (SIS) wiring harness in the driver side front door. The misrouted wiring harness could cause an electrical short that disables the driver side curtain air bag.

 

A disabled driver side roof-rail air bag will not deploy in the event of a crash necessitating deployment of that air bag, increasing the risk of injury to the driver.

 

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the sensor's wiring in the driver's door and make repairs as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin August 26, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 15075.

 

 

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Study: black borrowers pay more for mortgages

Reserchers find African Americans' rate is .29% higher

If African-Americans applying for a mortgage sometimes feel they aren't getting the best deal, they may be right, says Ping Cheng, a professor of finance a...

PhotoIf African-Americans applying for a mortgage sometimes feel they aren't getting the best deal, they may be right, says Ping Cheng, a professor of finance at Florida Atlantic University's (FAU) school of business.

Cheng looked at the mortgage rates obtained by home buyers, then divided them up between black and white. He found that there is a wide disparity in the rates between black and white borrowers.

The rate differential averaged 0.29%, which would be an $18 a month difference on a 30-year mortgage of $150,000. Cheng's study found more financially vulnerable black women seem to get the highest rate.

A write up of the study and its results appears in the July 2015 issue of The Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics.

Cheng and his fellow researchers, Zhenghou Lin, Ph.D., and Yingchun Liu, Ph.D., of California State University, Fullerton, found that the rate disparity mainly occurs to young black borrowers with low education, as well as those borrowers whose income and credit disqualify them for prime lending rates.

At the same time,among borrowers in the higher rate groups, black women seem to receive much more disparate treatment than black men.

Black women pay more

“Our finding is that there is a discrepancy between blacks and whites in terms of mortgage rates,” Cheng said. “When we further dig into the data, we find that generally the low-income black women who are heads of households pay the highest. They are the most vulnerable to subprime lending and higher mortgage rates.”

For African-Americans, this is not exactly breaking news. A 2006 study by the Center for Responsible Lending analyzed government data showing minorities tended to be saddled with higher cost subprime loans and found the disparity held up, even when factors like credit scores and down payments were considered.

Because the foreclosure crisis hit subprime borrowers especially hard, many African-American homeowners lost their homes.

In a 2010 analysis, published in the American Sociological Review, researchers Jacob Rugh and Douglas Massey argued that residential segregation created a unique niche of minority clients who were differentially marketed risky subprime loans that were in great demand for use in mortgage-backed securities that could be sold on secondary markets.

Highly racialized process

Although the rise in subprime lending and the ensuing wave of foreclosures was partly a result of market forces that have been well-documented, they argue the foreclosure crisis was also a highly racialized process.

The Florida Atlantic study found that, among women borrowers who fail to qualify for the low-rate prime mortgages, black women on average are charged a little over a half percent more than their white counterparts.

Cheng and his colleagues assume a $250,000, 30-year mortgage at the current prevailing rate of 3.75% per year, finding African-America women pay an extra $82.86 per month in mortgage payments.

To put it in context, Cheng says if that $82.86 per month was placed in some kind of savings or investment account earning a modest 2% per year, the balance would reach $40,825 when the loan is paid off at the end of 30 years.

“When all the traditional variables are controlled – similar mortgage product, similar income level, similar education level, similar shopping behavior – blacks overall as a group end up paying a higher rate on average,” Cheng said.

Why does such a discrepancy exist? Cheng says the study was not set up to address that question. He says it's fair to say the results are consistent with racial discrimination, but it will take a different kind of study to prove it.

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Dermatologists call attention to unnecessary procedures

It's part of an effort to bring down medical costs

Unnecessary medical tests and procedures can be profit centers for healthcare providers, but they drive up the overall cost of health care.In recent mo...

PhotoUnnecessary medical tests and procedures can be profit centers for healthcare providers, but they drive up the overall cost of health care.

In recent months, physicians have been calling attention to potential money-wasters in a bid to make the system more efficient. Along those lines, the American Academy of Dermatology has released new recommendations regarding dermatology tests and treatments that it says are not necessary and in most cases should be avoided.

“The American Academy of Dermatology and its members are committed to serving as good stewards of limited health care resources, and we want to empower our patients to make informed health care decisions,” said academy president Dr. Mark Lebwohl.

Conversation starter

He says the list can help patients with skin, hair, and nail conditions start a conversation with their dermatologist about what tests and treatments are right for them.

Items on the list include avoiding systemic corticosteroids as a long-term treatment for dermatitis. The academy says the potential complications of long-term treatment with oral or injected corticosteroids outweigh the potential benefits.

It urges patients to avoid skin prick tests or blood tests such as the radioallergosorbent test (RAST) for the routine evaluation of eczema. When testing for allergic conditions is necessary, it suggests patch testing with ingredients of products that come in contact with the patient’s skin.

Microbiologic testing is often used in the evaluation and management of acne, but the academy says it should not be an automatic, go-to treatment. In fact, the academy says it's generally unnecessary because it does not affect the management of typical acne patients.

Also making the list is routine use of antibiotics to treat bilateral swelling and redness of the lower leg. It should only be used, the academy advises, if there is clear evidence of infection. It also advises against routine use of antibiotics for inflamed epidermal cysts.

Patient participation needed

Doctors say informed patients can help reduce these unnecessary procedures because evidence shows that providers in all medical disciplines are slow to make changes in the way they have always done things. A recent study by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center finds that despite these a growing number of peer-reviewed recommendations, no significant changes have occurred over a 14-year period in the rates of several kinds of pre-operative tests that have long been flagged as too expensive and unnecessary.

“Our findings suggest that professional guidance aimed at improving quality and reducing waste has had little effect on physician or hospital practice,” said Dr. Alana E. Sigmund, the lead investigator.

Among the tests that continue to be ordered are plain radiography, or x-rays done without contrast; hematocrit, or the measurement of the percentage of red blood cells; urinalysis, and cardiac stress testing.

The costs of the tests add up, considering 30 million Americans undergo surgery each year, and 60% of patients undergo ambulatory procedure, performed on an outpatient basis.

“While it’s important to ensure patients can safely undergo surgical procedures, many of these procedures are low-risk, and the tests rarely improve patient management,” said Dr. Joseph Ladapo, senior investigator on the study.

Ladapo doesn't attribute the continued testing to bill padding, but rather a hold-over from outdated residency training. Still, huge hospital mark-ups and unnecessary tests shed some light on fast-rising health care costs.

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Cities, states look longingly at the digital world, hoping to tax it

There just aren't enough taxes on virtual services to keep the beast fed

You're sitting there watching "Orange is the New Black" on your iPad or maybe your LCD screen that's connected to your Roku box. You're happy. Netflix is h...

PhotoYou're sitting there watching "Orange is the New Black" on your iPad or maybe your LCD screen that's connected to your Roku box. You're happy. Netflix is happy. OTNB is happy. Your Internet provider is happy. Roku is happy. Everybody's happy, right?

Not quite. Down at City Hall, they're not happy at all. Your state's fine Governor isn't happy either and not because he's going to prison (maybe he is, but that's another story).

No, the problem is that the government isn't getting its cut. If you had rented the DVD of the series or bought it outright, the long arm of the state would have gotten its cut -- 6% or so in most places.

The same is true of the Google Cloud and all those other cloud storage services. You don't pay the government to use them. If, on the other hand, you trudged over to Best Buy and bought a 4-TB hard drive for $179, the state would have snatched its $10 before you even knew it was gone.

This is no joke. The government wants your money. It will tell you it needs it for the fire department, the schools, the roads and so forth. That's true, of course, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant.

High stakes

At stake is the $271 billion states collected in sales taxes last year. Not much of that came from virtual products and governments see that as a growing problem, because as more services move into the cloud, sales tax collections shrink, the Wall Street Journal notes in an article today.

Chicago used to call itself the "City that Works" and what it's working on now is a local sales tax on digital goods. The state of Tennessee -- the Volunteer State -- has a whopping, involuntary 7% sales tax and has just extended it to digital items.

The rationale cited by states, besides simply saying they need the money, is that goods that are legally taxable are escaping taxation because of changing technology.

Take those DVDs, for example. States argue that DVDs are taxable so Netflix should be too. Critics say that, yes, a DVD is a tangible product but it is only a way of delivering a TV series, which is basically intangible. Tennessee didn't tax "Gilligan's Island" when it was broadcast back in the 1960s, did it?

There's a saying that all politics is local and the same is true of sales tax. What flies in one spot may crash and burn in another so taxation of digital services is likely to remain a patchwork, but with lots of new 6% and 7% patches sewed on here and there.

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College spending comes under scrutiny

Legislators in Illinois follow the money

Students, parents, and public policymakers who are alarmed at the skyrocketing costs of college tuition are beginning to look a little closer at how colleg...

PhotoStudents, parents, and public policymakers who are alarmed at the skyrocketing costs of college tuition are beginning to look a little closer at how colleges spend all that money.

Is it possible that spending a little less here and there might help rein in rising costs? Illinois legislators think so.

Earlier this month an investigative report by the Illinois Senate Democratic Caucus highlighted a series of lavish perks for top administrators at many of the state's public universities and community colleges.

The report found, among other things, one administrator at a public university received a compensation package totaling $887,244. Others received perks like car and driver services, as well as memberships to multiple country clubs and social organizations.

Executive compensation

“While tuition at Illinois’ public institutions has skyrocketed, so has executive compensation,” the lawmakers wrote. “This report finds that tuition increases have coincided with a dramatic increase in administrative costs, including the size of administrative departments and compensation packages for executives.”

The report focused most of its attention on the dramatic increase in size of college administrations, which the report characterizes as “sprawling behemoths.” But a general increase in spending on “upgrades” all across college campuses may highlight part of the problem of institutions out of touch with reality.

In a press release this week, Aramark, a company providing food services to 500 U.S. colleges, welcomed students back to campus, noting that “campus dining is out, campus culinary is in.”

Students want it all

“Long gone are the days of institutional food service where colleges were only expected to provide basic nourishment three times each day,” the company said in the release. “Today's Gen Z college students want it all – locally grown, sustainable, healthy, customizable, convenient and trendy – all at a good value.”

And Aramark is giving it to them. The company says it has installed “action cooking stations” offering made-to-order, customizable options. Students will use the action stations to create their own omelets, stir fry, pasta, and noodle and burrito bowls. The company says that means custom ingredients and flavors – everything from locally grown produce to a wide variety of spices, seasoning, and flavor profiles.

"We have almost 600 world-class chefs – supported by a team of dietitians and nutritionists -- dedicated to creating innovative and healthful culinary experiences for our astute college consumers," said Brent Franks, CEO for Aramark's Education business. "Our goal is to make sure students enjoy restaurant quality dining without ever having to leave campus."

You can't blame a service provider for providing what the customer will pay for, but it might not be a coincidence that generations that got through school on pizza and burgers at the student union also paid a lot less tuition.

Of course, this hasn't happened overnight. The New York Times noted in 2012 that colleges have been on a long “spending binge” to build the best of everything, with the goal of attracting students who want the best of everything.

In the end though, students end up paying for it. According to the College Board, the average tuition, room and board and fees for in-state students at public, 4-year colleges was $18,943 in 2014. Student loan debt is fast approaching $1.3 trillion.

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Risky eye care behaviors common among contact lens wearers

Many seek care for potentially preventable eye problems

Do you wear contact lenses? If so you have a lot of company. Some 41 million people in this country wear contacts -- and nearly all of them may be engaging...

PhotoDo you wear contact lenses? If so, you have a lot of company. Some 41 million people in this country wear contacts -- and nearly all of them may be engaging in at least one behavior known to increase their risk of eye infections.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one-third of contact lens wearers who participated in a national survey reported going to the doctor for red or painful eyes related to wearing contact lenses.

More than 99% of them admitted to at least one risky behavior. The majority of wearers reported:

  • keeping their contact lens cases for longer than recommended (82.3%);
  • “topping off” solution in the case—adding new solution to the existing solution instead of emptying the case out fully before adding new solution (55.1%); or
  • wearing their lenses while sleeping (50.2 percent).

Each of these behaviors has been reported in previous studies to raise the risk of eye infections by five times or more.

The survey

An online survey was given to a sample of contact lens wearers to determine how often contact they engaged in behaviors that could put them at risk for an eye infection. The CDC collaborated with the Contact Lens Assessment in Youth (CLAY) group, a multi-university group of researchers, to conduct the survey.

A separate survey was used to estimate the number of contact lens wearers -- about 41 million adults. Taken together, the survey results indicate that millions of people could be at risk for serious eye infections because of poor contact lens hygiene behaviors.

“Good vision contributes to overall well-being and independence for people of all ages, so it’s important not to cut corners on healthy contact lens wear and care,” said CDC Medical Epidemiologist Jennifer Cope, M.D., M.P.H. “We are finding that many wearers are unclear about how to properly wear and care for contact lenses."

What to do

To prevent eye infections, contact lens wearers should:

  • Wash hands with soap and water and dry them well before touching contact lenses;
  • Take contacts out before sleeping, showering or swimming;
  • Rub and rinse contacts in disinfecting solution each time they remove them;
  • Rub and rinse the case with contact lens solution, dry with a clean tissue, and store it upside down with the caps off after each use;
  • Replace contact lens cases at least once every three months;
  • Avoid “topping off” solution in lens case (adding fresh solution to old solution); and
  • Carry a backup pair of glasses in case contact lenses have to be taken out.
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Super lice may be coming to a town near you

Researchers have found a more resistant strain of these pests in 25 states

When kids head back to school, you can be assured that they will bring home colds and other illnesses at some time during the year. One particularly nasty ...

PhotoWhen kids head back to school, you can be assured that they will bring home colds and other illnesses at some time during the year. One particularly nasty thing that you hope they don’t bring back is lice. They are horrible, creepy, and you can get itchy just thinking about them.

Because you’ll be in such close contact with your children when they’re home, it is very possible that these pests can spread to you and other members of the family. Taking care of them in the past has not been too difficult; however, this year might be a little different. A new strain of these pesky bugs has been shown to be resistant to the normal over-the-counter treatments that have been used for years. They have been called “super lice”, and researchers have found them in 25 states.

Becoming resistant

Lice and other types of bugs are beginning to build up a resistance to pyrethroids, which are active ingredients in most over-the-counter formulas. Kyong Yoon, who is an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, was part of the team that discovered this new and more powerful strain of insect. He cautions that consumers should be careful of the products they choose to treat head lice. “People using permethrin and pyrethrin based products will probably have a very hard time controlling the lice,” he said.

Pyrethroids have worked in the past by paralyzing head lice so that they couldn’t move. They lock onto the insect’s nervous system and are able to completely disable them. Inevitably, this causes them to die as well. Unfortunately, researchers are finding that lice are becoming more and more resistant to this paralyzing effect.

Possible treatments

So what can you do if your children come home with these little bugs all over their scalps? Who can you call? Ghostbusters might not be up to the task, but nitpickers might do the trick. Nitpicker companies are establishments where you can bring your children to have lice taken care of with a comb treatment. Many people refer to them as “lice salons”. With lice becoming more and more of a problem, you may be able to find one near you. Unfortunately, these businesses are not 100% effective. In fact, many studies show that they can be pretty ineffective depending on the person being treated.

Other more powerful treatments can be an option, but they tend to be pretty pricey. They can cost between $100 and $200 dollars, plus a co-pay to see your doctor for the prescription. But hey, sometimes the price is worth it to know that your child has a clean head of hair. If you can’t afford this level of treatment, then it is still recommended that you try the over-the-counter shampoos and treatments first. If you don’t receive desired results after the first few tries, then be sure to call your pediatrician. 

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Minnesota ER doctors clash with state over insurance policies

Physicians say insurance should pay based on symptoms, not final diagnosis

When should someone go to the emergency room (ER) to seek treatment? It seems a simple question, but the answer appears to be in dispute in Minnesota, wher...

PhotoWhen should someone go to the emergency room (ER) to seek treatment? It seems a simple question, but the answer appears to be in dispute in Minnesota, where the state health department and ER doctors don't see eye-to-eye.

It started when the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) issued a report entitled Potentially Preventable Health Care Events in Minnesota. The report focuses on opportunities to reduce unnecessary healthcare spending, including for emergency care.

It's the latter category where the American CollegeofEmergencyPhysicians (ACEP) and Minnesota ACEP have taken issue.

Symptoms vs. final diagnosis

The report looks at ER visits and makes a judgment about whether or not they could have been avoided. But the standard by which they are judged is the final diagnosis, not the symptoms that brought the patient to the ER in the first place.

For example, a 56 year old woman suffers intense chest pain and goes to the ER because she thinks she may be having a heart attack. It turns out to be a really bad case of indigestion. Based on MDH's standard, this would classify as an avoidable healthcare event.

But the ER physicians group says this doesn't take into consideration the national "prudent layperson" standard, which says emergency visits must be covered by insurance companies based on patients' symptoms, not their final diagnoses. In fact, ACEP says this standard is included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Alarming

"It is very alarming that a report like this is being issued that directly undermines language in the ACA and patients' responsible use of the emergency department," said Dr. Michael Gerardi, president of ACEP. "Patients never should be forced into the position of self-diagnosing their medical condition out of fear of insurance not covering the visit. This applies 20/20 hindsight to possibly life-threatening conditions and it violates the national prudent layperson standard designed to protect patients' health plan coverage of emergency care."

Dr. Thomas E Wyatt, president of the Minnesota Chapter of ACEP, worries the report only serves to potentially scare patients away from the ER when they may need it most.

"Insurance companies historically have denied payment for emergency care based on patients' final diagnoses, not symptoms,” he said. “But symptoms are what determine whether visits are appropriate. Patients with chest pain should get immediate medical attention to determine whether or not they are having a heart attack. If the doctor discovers it was a panic attack, it was still right for that patient to seek immediate medical care, and his or her insurance should absolutely cover the visit."

The physicians say the MDH finding that a large number of ER visits should have been preventable, based on the final diagnosis, is at odds with other research on the subject. The groups say the latest national data on ER visits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found 96% of emergency patients needed medical care within two hours in 2011.

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Back-to-school also means back-to-school lunches

We have some food-safety tips for parents and caregivers

The beginning of a new school year means lots of things: back to the books, back shuttling students to and from extracurricular activities and, in many cas...

PhotoThe beginning of a new school year means lots of things: back to the books, back to shuttling students to and from extracurricular activities, and, in many cases, back to packing lunches and after-school snacks.

One "back" you need to be aware of is foodborne bacteria.

Bacteria that causes food poisoning grows rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. In this range, these microorganisms can multiply to dangerous levels in just two hours, increasing the risk of food poisoning. To make sure lunches and snacks are safe, the Agriculture Department offers these four steps to food safety: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.

Packing tips

  • If the lunch/snack contains perishable food items like lunch meat, eggs, cheese, or yogurt, make sure to pack it with at least two cold sources. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly, so perishable food that is transported without an ice source won't be safe for long.
  • Frozen juice boxes or water can also be used as freezer packs. Freeze these items overnight and use with at least one other freezer pack. By lunchtime, the liquid should be thawed and ready to drink.
  • Pack lunches containing perishable food in an insulated lunchbox or soft-sided lunch bag. Perishable food can be unsafe to eat by lunchtime if packed in a paper bag.
  • If packing a hot lunch, like soup, chili, or stew, use an insulated container to keep it hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Tell children to keep the insulated container closed until lunchtime to keep the food hot at 140 degrees or above.
  • If a child’s lunch is packed the night before, it should be left it in the refrigerator overnight. The meal will stay cold longer because everything will be refrigerator temperature when it is placed in the lunchbox.
  • If you’re responsible for packing snacks for the team, troop, or group, keep perishable foods in a cooler with ice or cold packs until snack time. Pack snacks in individual bags or containers, rather than having children share food from one serving dish.

Storage tips

  • If possible, a child's lunch should be stored in a refrigerator or cooler with ice upon arrival. Leave the lid of the lunchbox or bag open in the fridge so that cold air can better circulate and keep the food cold.

Eating and disposal tips

  • Pack disposable wipes for washing hands before and after eating.
  • After lunch, discard all leftover food, used food packaging, and paper bags. Do not reuse packaging because it could contaminate other food and cause foodborne illnesses.
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Department of Education wants “clearer, more comprehensive” debt forgiveneess for future students of fraudulent schools

But will this help students of now-defunct Cornthian Colleges?

In early June, a month after the Corinthian Colleges chain of for-profit schools ended years of legal battles (including charges of fraudulent lending, ill...

PhotoIn early June, a month after the Corinthian Colleges chain of for-profit schools ended years of legal battles (including charges of fraudulent lending, illegal debt-collection practices, lying about job prospects and educational quality, and worse) by closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy, the Department of Education announced that it would offer debt relief for Corinthian students.

The debt relief program was billed as part of an attempt to “ensure Americans are protected from unscrupulous colleges that deny students meaningful educational opportunities and leave taxpayers holding the bag.”

Under ordinary consumer-protection situations, such loan forgiveness would arguably be a no-brainer: if a company is shut down for fraudulent business practices, any outstanding customer debt based on such fraud would is often forgiven or reimbursement is paid to victims. 

But federally backed student loans (which, along with U.S. military veterans' educational benefits, provided the bulk of the school's profits) are different under the law: unlike most bad debts, they can't be discharged in bankruptcy. And from the money-lender's perspective, the loans are backed by the federal government – meaning, if a student can't or won't pay it back, the taxpayers are on the hook.

Relief plan condemned by critics

Hence the need for the Department of Education to announce a special debt relief program for the defrauded students of now-defunct schools.

Yet student advocates and other critics immediately condemned the DoE's plan as worthless if not worse: “a process that re-victimizes students as a solution to a problem they [the DoE] created,” as the Debt Collective put it at the time.

More specifically, the DoE plan required students to provide transcripts and other documentation which might be impossible to get (mainly because the school generating such documents is out of business and no longer exists).

Students applying for loan forgiveness also had to answer some rather sophisticated legal questions which few if any non-lawyers could manage, including “details about the conduct of the school that the borrower believes violated state law including, but not limited to: The state and applicable law or cause of action (if available)….”

But on Wednesday, the Department of Education said that starting next month, it will launch an “effort to better help defrauded students seeking debt relief,” and also “aim to create a system that makes sure that colleges–not taxpayers–are on the hook for wrongdoing.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was quoted as promising “a clearer, more comprehensive system to assist students who believe they were defrauded by their college.”

Little relief for the present

Unfortunately for students still struggling with the June debt-forgiveness regulations, the DoE press release lauding next month's planned effort at “better help” for “defrauded students” still ends with the following discouraging paragraph:

This regulatory process will not impact the ongoing debt relief efforts the Department outlined in June. Until these regulations are developed and put into effect, borrower defense claims will continue to be reviewed through existing processes and through those developed by the Special Master. Borrowers who believe they have valid claims for defenses to repayment can visit www.studentaid.ed.gov/Corinthian or call a special toll-free borrower defense hotline at (855) 279-6207 for more information.

So the new rules might not help any student victims of Corinthian's frauds, but they might, in the future, keep taxpayers off the hook the next time a school victimizes students in similar fashion.

Whatever the new improved rules are, DoE officials said they hope to have them in place by November 2016, and taking effect in July 2017. However, as the Washington Post noted, “Given the timeline, the rule could be subject to changes if a Republican takes the White House; the GOP has tried to block tougher regulations for for-profit colleges.”

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New app creates customized radio news content

It's a news version of Pandora

Pandora was one of the first music apps to allow you to create your own radio station, simply by selecting an artist, song or genre of music. It has had ma...

Pandora was one of the first music apps to allow you to create your own radio station, simply by selecting an artist, song or genre of music. It has had many imitators since, most recently Apple Music.

Meep is an app following in Pandora's footsteps, but with one huge difference. Instead of music, the iPhone app creates a radio station delivering news about a user's particular interests.

Meep launched this week for iOS with an Android version soon to follow.

Personal stations

According to the creators, the app instantly creates personal stations that play the latest audio stories about topics that users choose. There might also be short clips of ancillary content like music and local weather thrown in for good measure.

The app's developers make it sound simple. Users just pick a subject and start listening, without having to dig through podcasts or blog posts. Once a user skips a story, Meep makes a note of that – just like Pandora – and doesn't offer content along that subject line again.

Meep also has a feature to allow users to record their own content, in the form of short comments about a particular story. These short audio bites are then shared among friends.

Content you don't have to look at

"Meep selects and plays content you're passionate about while you're running, driving, or simply can't look down at your phone," said Mark DiPaola, founder and CEO of Meep. "Now you can use your commute to keep up with your favorite technologies, celebrities, sports teams, companies, cities, and over a million other topics. Want a station dedicated to Asteroids and Alpacas? Presto! We won't even ask why."

Meep is currently lining up a stable of news-readers, who will turn web-based text articles into audio content. If you're interested in trying out, click here. We have no idea what they pay.

Meep is also trying to line up publishers, who would like their content turned into audio. However, print copy is seldom written to be spoken. Radio copy is written for the ear – at least, once upon a time it was.

The Internet is the perfect laboratory for bold and creative ideas. That said, this new app will face some pretty stiff competition.

There are plenty of actual radio stations and thousands of podcasts available from apps like TuneIn and IheartRadio. The most listened-to podcast in the country is This American Life, a compelling NPR show with a talented staff that excels at the art of storytelling.

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Annual drunken driving campaign begins

10,000 law enforcement agencies will be involved in the "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over" crackdown

If you plan on knocking back a few before you get behind the wheel, you'd best be prepared to pay the price. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administr...

PhotoIf you plan on knocking back a few before you get behind the wheel, you'd best be prepared to pay the price.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is launching its annual law enforcement crackdown on drunken driving today. The crackdown, which runs through Labor Day, involves more than 10,000 law enforcement agencies across the country that will be out in force zeroing in on drunken drivers, with zero tolerance for anyone caught with a BAC of .08 or higher -- the legal limit.

"Drunk driving is deadly, it's against the law, and despite years of progress, it's still a problem," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "With the help of law enforcement around the country, we're getting the word out– if you've been drinking, don't drive, because if you do, you will be stopped, you will be arrested and you will be prosecuted."

Sharp reductions

While the number of drunken drivers on the road has been sharply reduced, motorists are still at risk for encountering someone driving drunk at any time of day. That risk rises exponentially between the hours of 6 p.m. and 5:59 a.m. During the Labor Day period in 2013, half of all fatalities at night involved drunken drivers, compared with 14% during the day.

"Targeted enforcement campaigns are an essential element in our strategy to save lives and reduce crashes, and they have helped sharply reduce the number of drunk drivers on our roads," said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. "But too many drivers continue to risk their lives and the lives of others by getting behind the wheel drunk. Our message is clear: drive sober, or get pulled over."

Drunk driving remains a serious public health problem. Alcohol-impaired fatalities accounted for 31% of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the U.S. in 2013. Of the 10,076 people who died in drunken driving crashes that year, 68% were in crashes in which at least one driver in the crash had a BAC of .15 or higher -- nearly twice the legal limit.

What to do

NHTSA reminds motorists that their best protection against a drunken driver is a seat belt.

And for those who find themselves too drunk to safely drive, NHTSA's SaferRide app will help keep drunken drivers off the roads by allowing users to call a taxi or a friend and by identifying their location so they can be picked up.

This free app is available on Google Play (for Android devices) and on the iTunes Store (for Apple devices).

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Discover unseats AmEx in J.D. Power ratings

Rewards and benefits most important to consumers, survey indicates

Discover has unseated American Express to take top place in the J.D. Power,2015 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Study, with survey respondents citing rewards...

Discover has unseated American Express to take top place in the J.D. Power,2015 U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Study, with survey respondents citing rewards and benefits as key drivers of satisfaction.

It's the second consecutive year Discover has ranked highly. It tied with AmEx last year. AmEx was second this year, Chase was third.,

This year, Discover has focused on the customer, improved its reward redemption process and performed well across all six study factors, J.D. Power said.,

The study, now in its ninth year, measures customer satisfaction with credit card issuers by examining six factors (in descending order of importance): interaction; credit card terms; billing and payment; rewards; benefits and services; and problem resolution. Overall satisfaction is at a record high of 790 on a 1,000-point scale, surpassing the previous high of 778 in the 2014 study.

Slightly more than half (52%) of credit card customers indicate they selected their new card for a better rewards program and 24 percent did so for better benefits.

“Reward redemption and benefit use have a tremendous impact on the customer experience,” said Jim Miller, senior director of banking services at J.D. Power. “The fact that Discover ranks highest in satisfaction among all credit card issuers in each of the six factors measured in the study is a testament of the relentless focus and importance the company has placed on the ease of redemption and use of benefits.

"When customers feel the rewards are attractive and when they redeem rewards more frequently, satisfaction improves, they spend more and they are more likely to recommend the card to friends and family,” Miller said.

Reward attractiveness

Discover Aug. 21, 2015, 2:44 p.m.
Consumers rate Discover

When considering the attractiveness of rewards—the desirability of the reward type (i.e., cash, miles and points) and the value received when redeeming rewards—54 percent of customers perceive their rewards as attractive (ratings of ,9 or 10 on a 10-point scale), up from 46 percent in 2014. Customers who rate their rewards as attractive spend more per month—$1,132, on average—than those who consider their rewards unattractive (ratings of 1-5) who spend an average of $744.

Customers redeem their rewards more frequently in 2015, as 53 percent have done so in the past 6 months, compared with 49 percent in 2014. Rewards satisfaction is 128 points higher among customers who have redeemed rewards in the past 6 months (856), compared with those who redeemed rewards 6-12 months ago (828) and those who have never done so (728). Customers who redeem rewards spend an average of $483 per month more than those who do not redeem rewards ($1,128 vs. $645, respectively).

The frequency of using benefits has increased year over year, with 67 percent of customers using at least one benefit in the past year, compared with 57 percent in 2014. Among customers who have used a benefit, satisfaction is 794 vs. 731 when no benefits are used. Customers who use benefits spend an average of $316 more than those who do not use a benefit ($1,107 vs. $791, respectively).

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Honda HR-V vehicles recalled

The vehicles may be missing the required tire placard indicating "Tire and Loading Information."

American Honda Motor Co. is recalling 11,511 model year 2016 HR-V vehicles manufactured January 12, 2015, to May 20, 2015. The vehicles may be missing th...

PhotoAmerican Honda Motor Co. is recalling 11,511 model year 2016 HR-V vehicles manufactured January 12, 2015, to May 20, 2015.

 

The vehicles may be missing the required tire placard indicating "Tire and Loading Information." Thus, they fail to comply with the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 110, "Tire Selection and Rims and Motor Home/Recreation Vehicle Trailer Load Carrying Capacity Information for Motor Vehicles with a GVWR of 4,536 kilograms (10,000 pounds) or less."

 

If the tire placard is missing the driver or owner may not know at what pressure to inflate the tires, resulting in over or under tire inflation, potentially increasing the risk of a tire failure and crash.

 

Honda will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the vehicle, and apply a new label, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin September 18, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Honda customer service at 1-310-783-2000. Honda's number for this recall is JT2, or JT4.

 

 

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New retirees may be better off renting

It's a way to test drive your new lifestyle

Most of the time the debate over whether to buy or rent a home takes place among Millennials.The younger generation was slow to embrace homeownership i...

PhotoMost of the time the debate over whether to buy or rent a home takes place among Millennials.

The younger generation was slow to embrace homeownership in the wake of the housing bust, though recent evidence suggests they are now showing a lot more interest.

Rarely do you hear people approaching retirement debating whether or not they should buy a home when they downsize and relocate. But Jane Bryant Clark, senior editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance, says it's a discussion that more retirees ought to be having.

She writes that she was planning to sell her home when she retires and buy a condo. She found what she thought was the perfect unit – it had everything she was looking for. There was just one problem – it wasn't a condo, it was an apartment.

Financial advisors weigh in

Should she rent instead of own? She posed the question to a number of financial advisors she consults on a regular basis.

“I was actually surprised at how many were receptive to the idea of renting,” Clark told ConsumerAffairs. “Most of them seem to think there are some very good arguments for it. Renting is more flexible, expenses are more predictable. They seemed to think it was a good option, actually.”

It's flexible because you normally sign a one-year lease. No matter how long you stay, when you leave it's a lot easier because you aren't listing a property for sale. You just move.

Clark says financial advisors worry about their clients who retire and embrace big changes, like moving from the suburbs to the city, or moving to an entirely different part of the country.

“That's a big lifestyle change and its possible you just wouldn't like it,” Clark said. “Many of the financial advisors I talked to about this think it's not a bad idea to rent for a while after retirement, just to see.”

The economic argument

Besides whether or not you're happy in your first move in retirement, there's the matter of dollars and cents. Clark says retirees can't automatically assume that buying a home makes the most economic sense – you have to crunch the numbers.

“The New York Times has a very good rent vs. own calculator,” she said. “Punch all the numbers in and see which option makes more sense, based on how much you expect to get out of your house, how much you expect to spend on rent.”

Clark said she went into this experiment thinking she should purchase a condo. But she found arguments for both sides.

“To me, the idea of paying this rent every single month and not building any equity seemed a little scary,” Clark said. “On the other hand, condo association fees can go up and you have no control over that.”

Variables

A lot of variables go into such a decision, including where you happen to live. Some markets are affordable but some aren't. As we have recently reported, rents are rapidly escalating, but in some markets more than others.

Also, you have to be prepared to move again in the short-term when you rent. If you're 68, it may not be such a big deal. If you're 78, it might be.

At any rate, Clark says the idea of renting in retirement may become more common as Baby Boomers retire. It's definitely a subject to bring up with your financial advisor, she says.

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United Nations “concerned” over AT&T allowing NSA to spy on diplomats

Also: the U.N. will soon be accepting bids for a new communications contractor

In a masterpiece of understatement, the Associated Press reported that the United Nations has “expressed concern” over recent revelations that AT&T (the U....

PhotoIn a masterpiece of understatement, the Associated Press reported that the United Nations has “expressed concern” over recent revelations that AT&T; (the U.N.'s current, though probably not future, communications provider) allowed the National Security Agency to monitor all Internet traffic at U.N. headquarters in New York City. The United Nations paid AT&T; $1 million per year for this service.

Yesterday, U.N. spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci said that the world diplomatic organization would discuss the spying issue with AT&T; “over the coming months.” Also, the U.N. said that in the next few months, it will start accepting bids for new communications contracts.

Monitoring communications

According to Maestracci, the United Nations expects all 193 member states (and, presumably, any corporate entities it hires to provide telecom services) “to respect the inviolability of our communications.” She also said that the U.N. has in the past received “assurances from the U.S. government that they were not and would not monitor our communications.”

In 2013, after a report surfaced indicating that the NSA had gained secret access to the U.N.'s videoconferencing system, the U.N. said it had received a pledge from the U.S. goverment that it would not spy on diplomatic communications.

In addition to the United Nations, AT&T; also lets the NSA monitor data from foreign emails, and 1.1 billion U.S. domestic phone calls per day.

Despite this, AT&T; said in a December 2013 letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it shares communications data with the government “only to the extent required by the law.” And in a statement to the media earlier this week, AT&T; insisted that “We do not voluntarily provide information to any investigating authorities other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence.”

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Increase in foreclosure activity has silver lining

Banks are beefing up depleted inventory of homes for sale

There were 124,910 foreclosure filings in the U.S. last month, a sharp 7% rise from June and a 14% surge from July 2014.What's going on? Is the housing...

PhotoThere were 124,910 foreclosure filings in the U.S. last month, a sharp 7% rise from June and a 14% surge from July 2014.

What's going on? Is the housing crisis back? Hardly.

In fact, foreclosure marketplace RealtyTrac – which released the data – says the market is improving and the foreclosure numbers are a sign of that.

Foreclosure “filings” can be a lot of different things – everything from a default notice to the bank taking possession of a property (REO). In recent months, RealtyTrac say banks have finally begun to seize properties that went into foreclosure years ago. These homes are going back onto the market, helping to replenish declining inventory.

Foreclosure starts plunge

RealtyTrac vice-president Daren Blomquist says July bank repossessions reached their highest level since January 2013. At the same time, foreclosure stats were at the lowest level since before the housing meltdown – a 10-year low. So the foreclosure activity is not new distressed property, but old distressed property that is finally being pushed into the sales pipeline.

“This clearing of old distress is evident in the fact that properties foreclosed in the second quarter had been in the foreclosure process an average of 629 days, the longest in any quarter since we began tracking in the first quarter of 2007,” said Blomquist. “It’s also evident that the recent surge in REOs is in fact clearing out more of the bad bubble-era loans from the so-called shadow inventory.”

Data released by RealtyTrac shows 61% of loans still in the foreclosure process were originated during the housing bubble years of 2004 to 2008, down from 68% last year and 75% two years ago.”

Home sales stall put prices rise

An infusion of foreclosed homes into the real estate market comes at a good time. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports sales of existing homes rose only slightly in July, in large part because of declining inventories of homes for sale.

Sales to first-time buyers fell to their lowest level since January. Blomquist notes that since REOs put back on the market tend to be priced below market, they are exactly the kinds of homes that often draw first-time buyers.

But rising home prices could be something of a headwind. The median existing-home price for all housing types in July was $234,000, which is 5.6% above July 2014. July's price increase marks the 41st consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Declining affordability

"Despite the strong growth in sales since this spring, declining affordability could begin to slowly dampen demand," said NAR chief economist Lawence Yun. "Realtors in some markets reported slower foot traffic in July in part because of low inventory and concerns about the continued rise in home prices without commensurate income gains."

In addition to rising prices and minuscule wage growth, homebuilders have not built nearly as many new homes in recent years as they have in the past. Many people who would like to sell existing homes can't because they're still under water.

As a result total housing inventory at the end of July declined 0.4% to 2.24 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 4.7% lower than a year ago.

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Senators urge recall of all Takata airbags

The move follows the explosion of an airbag in a 2015 Volkswagen

Another chapter in the Takata airbag scandal opened yesterday with the revelation that an airbag in a 2015 Volkswagen Tiguan had exploded after the car hit...

PhotoAnother chapter in the Takata airbag scandal opened yesterday with the revelation that an airbag in a 2015 Volkswagen Tiguan had exploded after the car hit a deer. Previously, similar incidents have been confined to older cars.

Now, two U.S. senators who sit on the Senate panel that has been looking into the Takata situation are asking for the recall of all cars equipped with Takata airbags.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.),,today called on the airbag manufacturer to voluntarily recall all vehicles with Takata airbags and to immediately make public data related to the testing of Takata’s airbags, so that it can be reviewed by independent experts and analysts.

Argument not persuasive

Takata has denied that the Tiguan incident is linked to earlier explosions that sent shrapnel into passenger compartments causing deaths and injuries,but that explanation isn't being well-received by Blumenthal and Markey, as they make clear in a letter,to Takata.

“As new reports surface of explosions in the latest models of Takata airbags, we write to express our deep concern over the obfuscation and delay that your company has engaged in while searching for a root cause of these defects," the senators said.

"Takata’s defective airbags have already caused at least eight deaths and more than one-hundred injuries in the United States – numbers that may increase as further cases come to light – and it is essential for your company to do all it can to identify and address the cause of this problem."

17 million so far

More than 17 million older cars have already been recalled because they contain Takata airbags similar to those that have exploded. Takata initially said the problem was limited to regions with high heat and humidity but the recalls were later expanded nationally.

"In light of the most recent incident, which did not occur in one of the regions originally designated as “high humidity,” and which involved a 2015 vehicle not currently subject to recall, we urge you to voluntarily recall,all,vehicles containing Takata airbags,” the senators' letter concluded.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation into the Tiguan incident and has ordered VW and Takata to answer a series of questions and provide data that may help investigators get to the bottom of the problem.

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Used car prices on the rise

Consumers are buying later model vehicles with more bells and whistles

Inflation may be tame, but some things do cost more, including used cars. Automotive website Edmunds.com reports used car prices in the U.S. rose 7.6% in t...

PhotoInflation may be tame, but some things do cost more, including used cars. Automotive website Edmunds.com reports used car prices in the U.S. rose 7.6% in the second quarter.

That doesn't mean you still can't find a deal, however. Edmunds' data comes from used car transactions, and in the second quarter people bought more later model used cars with a lot of options. Those vehicles carry a higher price tag.

The average used car transaction price was $18,800 – $1,300 higher than the second quarter of 2014.

Influx of leases

We're no doubt seeing the result of a sharp increase in auto leases in 2012. Those leased vehicles are coming onto the used car market in huge numbers, leading to more availability and transactions of three-year-old vehicles.

These newer used cars, of course, are typically priced higher than older used cars. But just because newer used cars come at a heftier price point, Edmunds says it doesn't mean that shoppers buying these vehicles are not locking in good values.

"Because there's a growing inventory of newer used cars, the prices on these vehicles seem to be more consumer-friendly than in the past," said Edmunds.com Director of Industry Analysis Jessica Caldwell. "Three-year old used cars, for example, have more bells and whistles than older used cars, and they're actually selling for less than they did just one year ago.”

Supply and demand

It's a supply and demand thing. More vehicles in that age group and price range mean more flexibility on price.

It's not the case for older used cars – they're actually more expensive. Vehicles from the 2007 model year and older are bringing prices 11% or more over last year.

“There's undoubtedly a growing value proposition these days in newer used cars," Caldwell said.

Just as pick-up trucks are leading new car sales, trucks also lead used vehicle sales in the second quarter. Passenger cars, on the other hand, are generally showing year-over-year declines as a result of lower demand.

In a rather strange anomaly, the average amount financed on a used vehicle in the second quarter was greater than the average sale price. Edmunds says that's because many of the more inexpensive transactions are paid in cash.

Loan terms on used cars are growing to offset higher average prices, and for the first time since before the recession, Edmunds reports average interest rates on used car loans are creeping higher.

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Coke responds to criticism of its obesity research funding

Company CEO vows more transparency

Coca-cola took a lot of heat when it was revealed that it bankrolled studies that showed obesity was largely the result of sedentary lifestyles and not ove...

PhotoCoca-cola took a lot of heat when it was revealed that it bankrolled studies that showed obesity was largely the result of sedentary lifestyles and not over-consumption of calories.

Critics pounced, pointing out that there were scores of other studies – not funded by an interested stakeholder – that showed just the opposite. In fact, this week we reported on the conclusions of two Loyola University Chicago researchers who say categorically, exercise doesn't help you lose weight.

Mea culpa

Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, says the way his company has tried to engage the public health and scientific communities on the issue of obesity “isn't working.”

“Our company has been accused of shifting the debate to suggest that physical activity is the only solution to the obesity crisis,” Kent wrote. “There also have been reports accusing us of deceiving the public about our support of scientific research.”

Kent says that's not what Coke was trying to do, but vows that the company will do better.

“By supporting research and nonprofit organizations, we seek to foster more science-based knowledge to better inform the debate about how best to deal with the obesity epidemic,” Kent wrote. “We have never attempted to hide that. However, in the future we will act with even more transparency as we refocus our investments and our efforts on well-being.”

The New York Times reported last week that Coke has funneled money to industry-friendly researchers. It specifically cites Coke's role in setting up the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to investigate the role of calorie consumption vs. lack of exercise in obesity. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says university-based research organizations should sever their ties to the group.

Impartiality in question

“A good first step would be for the schools to comply with the request of Senator Richard Blumenthal to publicly disclose all of their grant arrangements with Coca-Cola and ensure that research on their campuses will be unbiased and unbought, impartial and objective,” Jacobson said in a statement.

The Times cites an analysis published in PLOS Medicine that found studies financed by Coke and other beverage companies were five times more likely to find no link between consumption of sugary drinks and weight gain.

In his op-ed, Kent says Coke will provide smaller portions and increase efforts to promote calorie-free alternatives. In addition, he outlined three steps he said the company would take:

  • Publish on our website a list of our efforts to reduce calories and market responsibly, along with a list of health and well-being partnerships and research activities we have funded in the past five years, which we will continue to update every six months.
  • Charter and recruit an oversight committee of independent experts to advise and provide governance on company investments in academic research.
  • Engage leading experts to explore future opportunities for our academic research investment and health and well-being initiatives.
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Are sports really worth it for your kids?

Knowing who your child is as an individual can help you make your decision

Although school may only just be starting in certain areas of the country, extracurricular sport activities may already be well underway in your area. If y...

PhotoAlthough school may only just be starting in certain areas of the country, extracurricular sport activities may already be well underway in your area. If you feel that time management is already an issue for your children, just wait until the school year really starts.

Schoolwork, part-time jobs, and other responsibilities can be extremely hard to manage for both parents and students if the latter is involved in sports; it leaves many wondering if the juggling, nagging, and lack of sleep is all worth it in the end. Studies show that for some it may be a great way to grow and develop; for others, it may do the exact opposite.

Pros and cons

There has been controversy for years over whether or not sports are good for developing children. Proponents claim that they teach discipline, encourage self-esteem, and cultivate teamwork skills that will be useful later in life. Studies show that children who participate in organized sports during middle and high school will perform better academically and be offered greater job prospects when they grow up.

Sports also teach many other positive attributes that are important for developing children. Intensity, continuity, and balance are all core components of a successful athlete. Having your child develop these qualities early on will help them immensely when they reach adulthood.

On the flip side of the coin, detractors say that sports can be detrimental to children in other ways. Dealing with such a hectic schedule can often be daunting or overwhelming, which can negatively affect self-esteem. Other children may feel less competent, or even inferior, when compared to their peers if they are not athletically inclined. Even something as simple as getting a bad coach can turn a potentially positive experience into a negative one.

Although many athletes are able to thrive academically, there are always exceptions to that rule. Juggling so many responsibilities is not for everyone, and many children allow their schoolwork to slip as a result.

Individual choices

From all of these varying points, we can infer that there is no easy answer to this problem. Knowing if sports is good or bad for your children is ultimately going to depend on what kind of people they are. If they struggle academically and already have a hard time managing their time, then maybe sports is not the best thing for them. Conversely, if they seem to thrive when challenged or could benefit from team-oriented activities, then it can be a great choice.

The important thing to keep in mind is making sure there is balance in your children’s lives. They should not only be absorbed with academics or sports; there are many other extracurricular activities that they could, and should, benefit from. It is not necessarily a numbers game either. Subjects like art, drama, and music can be great outlets for children, and they teach many life skills that can be just as beneficial to them as they grow up.

Even something as simple as volunteering at a food pantry, or doing work with a local church or youth group can be a great experience. The important thing is that your children stay active and use their time meaningfully. So while school sports seasons are already upon us, make sure you weigh the positives and negatives so you can help your children make the best individual choices for themselves. 

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Back-to-school shoppers take their time

Sales tax holidays may be playing a role

They aren't exactly breaking down the doors to get their kids the stuff they need for school. According to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) latest B...

PhotoParents aren't exactly breaking down the doors to get their kids the stuff they need for school.

According to the National Retail Federation's (NRF) latest Back-to-School Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, the average family with children in grades K-12 has completed only about half of its shopping -- roughly the same as last year.

“As expected, families are carefully measuring where, when and how they should spend on fall apparel items, school supplies, electronics and other necessities,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Late summer promotions and sales tax holidays around the country are likely contributing to the delay in back-to-school shopping this year, which means the next few weeks could be exceptionally busy for retailers large and small.”

Though fewer people this year admit that they have not yet started their shopping (19.5%) compared with last year (23.6%), it’s clear that most of those who have started shopping still have quite a bit left on their lists.

A number of families, however, say they already have everything they need for the first day of school with 13.3% saying they have finished their shopping.

Coupons, sales and promotions

Coupons and promotions continue to resonate with today’s shopper. This year's survey found that mom and dad certainly have done their own homework when it comes to the new supplies, apparel, and electronic items on their lists; those who have already started shopping indicate that about half of their purchases (51.3%) were influenced by coupons, sales, and promotions, versus 58% last year.

When it comes to classroom needs, the survey found parents are on the hook to contribute several items. On average, parents say 64.4% of their purchases of pencils, folders, and other school supplies are influenced by classroom lists or school requirements. In addition, 45.9% of their electronics purchases are influenced by the lists and requirements of their family’s schools.

“Given the extra costs some parents take on these days when it comes to stocking their children’s classroom, many will certainly look to take advantage of retailer’s sales and promotions as well as their state’s sales tax holidays as they wrap up their lists,” said Prosper Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow. “More retailers than ever are in the back-to-school spectrum, so it won’t be difficult for mom and dad to find what they need wherever they shop, be it their favorite website for free shipping offers or their local drug store for last-minute deals on supplies.”

Getting out the plastic

When asked what payment method families shopping for back-to-school used most often, 44.6% have or will use their debit cards, while others have or will swipe their credit cards (27.7%) or pay with cash (25.5%).

As for where consumers will finish their shopping, discount stores will see the most traffic (53.4%), while 46.8 % will shop at department stores, 36.6% at clothing stores, and 12.8% will wrap up at electronics stores; another 27.2% will check out retailers’ best online deals, compared with 24.8% last year.

In-store ads, coupons and promotions continue to be the big influencers for families stocking up on back to school supplies. Parents say traditional media have the most impact -- that coupons (43.4%), in-store promotions (35.3%), and advertising inserts (31%) influence them the most to shop at a particular store. Word of mouth (21.5%) and television ads (19.4%) also make a difference.

College shoppers

College shoppers are delaying the inevitable and waiting until absolutely necessary to fill up the family car with their college needs. NRF’s Back-to-College Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics found college students and their families have completed about half (49.1%) of their shopping lists compared with 53.7% last year. Nearly one-quarter (24%) of those planning to shop for college necessities have been busy enjoying the summer days and have not yet begun their shopping, down slightly (26.2%) from last year.

College shoppers are also turning to coupons, sales, and promotions to get the best bang for their buck; the survey found nearly half (48.1%) of what parents have purchased has been influenced by early summer deals and promotions, which is the same as last year but higher than in 2013 (44.4%).

Many colleges and universities today require incoming and/or current students to come armed and ready with their own computer. The survey found 49% of the electronic items college students and their parents have already purchased were influenced by their class or school requirements, versus 56% last year.

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Hospital mergers are driving up costs, researchers say

When competition is reduced, consumers pay more

Wall Street mergers have become commonplace in the last two decades as everything from airlines to hotel chains have consolidated. Researchers at Johns ...

PhotoWall Street mergers have become commonplace in the last two decades as everything from airlines to hotel chains have consolidated.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins believe that it's bad news for consumers when hospitals merge. They allege that, more often than not, it leads to higher costs and declining services. The researchers, writing in the journal JAMA, say there has been too much hospital consolidation lately.

“It’s really Economics 101, but in the health care field, the implications of ‘too big to fail’ hospital systems could be far more devastating than similar consolidations in other industries because ultimately they threaten access and quality of care,” said lead author Dr. Marty Makary, professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

More FTC oversight

Makary and his colleagues are asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to be more skeptical when hospital systems seek approval to consolidate. In particular, they say the FTC needs to pay close attention to geographic regions where proposed mergers could create a single dominant hospital system.

Why is consolidation such a problem? These healthcare insiders argue hospital monopolies can engage in practices that affect both the price of services and patient outcomes because they operate without the checks and balances of a competitive marketplace. That, they warn, could add to rising healthcare costs paid by consumers in the form of high-deductible insurance policies and higher co-pays.

Merger & acquisition (M&A;) activity is on the rise. The Johns Hopkins researchers count 193 mergers in 2013 and 2014. What's worse, they contend that about one-fifth of U.S. hospitals are planning to seek a merger in the next five years.

Corporations don't like competition

Corporations seek to merge for the primary purpose of reducing competition. It also reduces what they see as excess capacity within the system.

The airline industry is a prime example. Multiple mergers have reduced the number of airlines, which has reduced capacity. It has worked very well for the airlines, which are more profitable than they have been in years. Ask frequent fliers whether it has worked well for consumers and you'll probably get a different answer.

The Johns Hopkins researchers say the healthcare system needs more competition, not less, to function properly. They point to a 2013 analysis showing that none of the 306 geographic health care markets in the U.S. is considered “highly competitive.”

Nearly half of these markets, they add, are deemed highly concentrated, with a handful of small hospitals dominated by a single powerful player.

Other watchdogs

Johns Hopkins is home to other medical cost watchdogs. In June we reported Gerard F. Anderson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Ge Bai of Washington & Lee University took a close look at how hospitals mark up and pass on their costs.

They discovered 50 U.S. hospitals with what they say is the highest markup of prices over their actual costs. Their research shows these hospitals are charging out-of-network patients and the uninsured, as well as some insurers, more than 10 times the costs allowed by Medicare. It's a stunning markup of more than 1,000% for the same medical services.

The researchers blame a combination of the lack of regulation of hospital charges in the U.S. and no market competition for what they term “price-gouging” that trickles down to nearly all consumers, whether they have health insurance or not.

“For the most part, there is no regulation of hospital rates and there are no market forces that force hospitals to lower their rates,” Anderson said at the time. “They charge these prices simply because they can.”

Makary and his colleagues say limited integration of healthcare facilities can provide some cost-saving benefits. But they say “unbridled gobbling up” of smaller hospitals by large health care systems could have the opposite effect because it can stifle innovation-stimulating competition.

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How clean is that triple-washed spinach?

Not very, researchers find. The rough surface of the spinach leaf protects bacteria

Ever wonder about those packs of "pre-washed" and "tripled-washed" salads? What does it mean to say a pack of spinach, for example, has been triple-washed....

PhotoEver wonder about those packs of "pre-washed" and "tripled-washed" salads? What does it mean to say a pack of spinach, for example, has been triple-washed.

Not much according to engineers at the University of California, Riverside. They discovered that small peaks and valleys in baby spinach leaves could be a key reason why there have been numerous bacterial outbreaks involving leafy green vegetables.

The reason is that the varied topography of the spinach leaf means that nearly 15 percent of the leaf surface may not receive adequate exposure to the bleach disinfectant in which it's rinsed. 

The disinfectant is put into the rinse water, not rubbed into the leaf's surface, the researchers in the Bourns College of Engineering noted.

As a result, as the leaves move through the processing facility after being rinsed the bacteria may continue to live, grow, spread, and contaminate other leaves and surfaces within the facility.

Following rinsing under the low bleach condition, upwards of 90 percent of adhered bacteria were observed to remain attached to and survive on the leaf surface.

Bacteria protected

"In a sense the leaf is protecting the bacteria and allowing it to spread," said Nichola M. Kinsinger, a post-doctoral researcher working with Sharon Walker, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering. "It was surprising to discover how the leaf surface formed micro-environments that reduce the bleach concentration and in this case the very disinfection processes intended to clean, remove, and prevent contamination was found to be the potential pathway to amplifying foodborne outbreaks."

Kinsinger will present her research on August 19 at the 250th American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 6 Americans become ill and 3,000 die annually from foodborne diseases. Additionally, this causes and an estimated over $75 billion per year loss for the food industry.

Past research has found about 20 percent of single food commodity outbreaks from 2003 to 2008 were attributed to leafy green produce. Contamination of such minimally processed and ready-to-eat produce is of concern since it is frequently consumed uncooked or raw.

One of these outbreaks, involving spinach, occurred in California in 2006. In all, 199 people in 26 states were infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli. Three died.

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Mortgage interest rates edge upward

Lower rates are having an impact on the housing market

Mortgage interest rates, as measured by 2 key institutions moved higher in the week ending August 20, with Freddie Mac's calculation showing the benchmark...

PhotoMortgage interest rates, as tracked by 2 key institutions moved higher in the week ending August 20, with Freddie Mac's calculation showing the benchmark 30-year fixed rate mortgage (FRM) averaging below 4%.

 

According to Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey, the 30-year FRM averaged 3.93% with an average 0.6 point, down 1 basis point from last week when it averaged 3.94%. A year ago at this time, it averaged 4.10%.

 

"There was little movement in financial markets this week as the 30-year fixed mortgage rate remained steady,” said Freddie Mac Chief Economist Sean Becketti. Hoe notes that “housing markets have responded positively to low mortgage rates -- the 30-year fixed mortgage rate has been below four percent for five consecutive weeks,” adding, “overall housing markets remain on track for the best year since 2007."

 

The 15-year FRM was down 2 basis points this week, averaging 3.15% with an average 0.6 point. At this time last year, it averaged 3.23%.

 

The average for the 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) was 2.94% this week with an average 0.5 point. It averaged 2.93% last week and 2.95% a year earlier.

 

The 1-year Treasury-indexed ARM was unchanged at 2.62% with an average 0.3 point. At this time last year, the 1-year ARM averaged 2.38%.

 

The Bankrate tally

 

Bankrate.com's weekly national survey shows a modest increase in rates, with the benchmark 30-year FRM rising to 4.06 percent, with an average of 0.25 discount and origination points an increase of 2 basis points from a week earlier.

 

The larger jumbo 30-year fixed rate slipped below the 4% mark -- to 3.97%, the lowest since late April.

 

The average 15-year FRM mortgage ticked up to 3.28% from 3.26% the previous week, and adjustable mortgage rates also nosing higher. The 5-year ARM reversing last week's move and settling at 3.24% percent while the 7-year ARM edged upward to 3.41%.

 

At the current average 30-year fixed mortgage rate of 4.06%, the monthly payment on a $200,000 loan is $961.76.

 

 

 

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Leading Economic Index posts first decline in 5 months

A drop in housing permits was among the culprits

After posting 4 months of strong gains, The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI) moved lower in July. The decline of 0.2% followed advances of ...

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© z amir – Fotolia

After posting 4 months of strong gains, The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index (LEI) moved lower in July.

The decline of 0.2% followed advances of 0.6% in June, May, and April.

“Despite a sharp drop in housing permits, the U.S. LEI is still pointing to moderate economic growth through the remainder of the year,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, director of business cycles and growth research at The Conference Board. “Current conditions, measured by the coincident economic index, have been rising moderately but steadily, driven by rising employment and income, and even industrial production has improved in recent months.”

The leading index is essentially a composite average of several individual leading indicators. It is constructed to summarize and reveal common turning point patterns in economic data in a clearer and more convincing manner than any individual component – primarily because it smooths out some of the volatility of individual components.

The 10 components of the LEI include:

  1. Average weekly hours, manufacturing
  2. Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance
  3. Manufacturers’ new orders, consumer goods, and materials
  4. ISM Index of New Orders
  5. Manufacturers' new orders, non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft orders
  6. Building permits, new private housing units
  7. Stock prices, 500 common stocks
  8. Leading Credit Index
  9. Interest rate spread, 10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds
  10. Average consumer expectations for business conditions
Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Initial claims

The Department of Labor (DOL) states that initial applications for jobless benefits rose by 4,000 in the week ending August 15 to a seasonally adjusted 277,000.

The previous week's level was revised down by 1,000 to 273,000. DOL says there were no special factors affecting this week's claims level.

The four-week moving average, which smooths out the volatility found in the weekly compilation was up 5,500 to 271,500, still near the low point for several decades.

The complete report is available on the DOL website.

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Springstone Financial to pay for using deceptive health-care credit enrollment tactics

Consumers were lied to about terms of deferred-interest financing for dental work

Springstone Financial has been ordered to provide $700,000 in relief to victims of what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) calls “deceptive cr...

PhotoSpringstone Financial has been ordered to provide $700,000 in relief to victims of what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) calls “deceptive credit enrollment tactics.”

According to the agency, many consumers who signed up for Springstone’s deferred-interest loan product at dental offices to pay for dental work were led to believe that the product was interest-free. In fact, interest accrued from the date of the consumer’s purchase and was charged if the balance was not paid in full before the promotional period ended.

“Deceiving patients in need of medical care into paying for services with risky credit adds insult to injury,” said CFPB Director Richard Corday. “The Bureau will not tolerate financial companies or their providers taking advantage of distressed patients and their loved ones with misleading sales pitches.”

The structure

From January 2009 through December 2014, the Westborough, Mass.,-based wholly-owned subsidiary of San Francisco-based Lending Club Corporation administered its health-care financing program, which offered consumers two credit products: an installment loan and a deferred-interest loan product.

The deferred-interest product incurred no interest if the balance was paid in full within a certain promotional period.

During this timeframe, a network of about 9,000 health-care providers was authorized by Springstone to offer its loan products and assist consumers in enrollment. Receptionists and office staff of these health-care providers could provide consumers with application materials and assist them in filling out the application before submitting it to Springstone on the consumers’ behalf. Springstone terminated the deferred-interest product in December 2014.

The CFPB investigation found that providers who were trained and monitored by Springstone to market the deferred-interest loan product misled consumers about the terms and conditions of the product during the application process.

In some cases, dental office staff told consumers that the deferred-interest product was a “no-interest” loan and failed to mention they would have to pay 22.98% interest on the loan if they didn’t pay it off in full by the end of the promotional period. More than 3,200 consumers may have been affected by these deceptive practices.

The settlement

To ensure that harmed consumers are appropriately compensated, and that consumers will no longer be subject to these illegal practices, the CFPB’s order requires Springstone to:

  • pay $700,000 in consumer relief to about 3,200 consumers as a result of the deceptive marketing and enrollment practices in its dental-services provider network.
  • reimburse consumers affected by these practices. Eligible consumers do not have to take any action to get their refund. Springstone will notify affected consumers and issue a credit or send a reimbursement check to those consumers with an open Springstone account. For those consumers with a closed or inactive account, Springstone will mail a reimbursement check.
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Trump-Carson: the anti-politician ticket

Don't laugh. It's all the buzz in political circles today

You read it here first: Trump and Carson. Inside-the-Beltway tongues are wagging at news that operatives of the Trump campaign have been seen huddling with...

PhotoYou read it here first: Trump and Carson. Inside-the-Beltway tongues are wagging at news that operatives of the Trump campaign have been seen huddling with their counterparts in the Dr. Ben Carson camp.

It's a natural tie-up and race has nothing to do with it. Rather, both men are as far from being professional politicians as it's possible to be -- and that seems to be what voters think they want this time around.

Also a possibility as a Trump running mate if you buy this line of reasoning is Carly Fiorina. Again, it has little to do with gender issues and is based mostly on her credentials -- a self-made businessperson able to run large organizations efficiently.

The strategists who run political campaigns are, of course, basically the same people who run the candidates after they're elected. They care nothing about anything, really, except getting their candidate elected and keeping their special interests happy post-election so they can do it again the next time.

If dogs could run for office, these people would happily clean out the kennels and stock up on short leashes.

Dog days

But seriously, why are we writing about this? It may not seem like a consumer issue, after all. Well, aside from the fact that it is a bone-dry news week in the dog days of summer, the fact is that elections are nothing but a consumer issue -- they're the day we the people/citizens/consumers have our say about whose bones get buried where.

We own the government and pay scads of money to keep it plodding along, after all.

Leaving aside the stuff the candidates babble on about -- immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage and pork on a stick -- elections are about who can best manage the country, keeping the economy spinning, the water flowing and the borders not too porous.

Depending on your point of view, ideology is either supremely important or secondary at best. To the professionals, ideology is just another talking point on the campaign trail, quickly forgotten when the votes are counted. 

Though many may appear to be clowns, or worse, national-level politicians didn't get where they are accidentally. They learned to read the tea leaves and to tell which way the wind was blowing; from there, they made the strategic and tactical decisions that got them into Congress, the governor's mansion or the executive suite. Adaptability is everything.

Continuing to plow the same old furrow -- whether it's liberal dogma, conservative credo or class- and gender-based politics -- isn't something a smart politican and his handlers do in a year when the public decides it has had it up to here with politicians who have never managed anything or displayed any talent for much of anything.

Ferocious reception

No one we know of predicted the ferocity with which voters would greet the prospect of the same old names and faces being trotted out yet again but everyone now sees it and is scrambling to adapt.

The GOP has the edge in fielding anti-politician candidates, of course, because so many business people are Republicans. Democrats tend to have more long-time officeholders in their ranks, which may not be a good thing this year, although seen from this point of view, Sen. Bernie Sanders is playing well as a politician's anti-politician. 

Which is better for consumers? The traditional answer is that Republicans tend to support business innovation, which should produce better products and services. Democrats tend to favor more government oversight of business, which should theoretically produce the same thing. Which actually works best? It depends on the executive-legislative mix you elect to manage the process. 

Not a sermon or a prediction -- just what you'd overhear at some of the better D.C. Starbucks this week. 

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Several police dogs die in recent months from being left in hot patrol cars

These are grim reminders that you should never leave your dog in the car

Every major news outlet has done a story on not keeping your pets in the car when it’s hot outside. It doesn’t matter if you keep the windows rolled up or ...

PhotoEvery major news outlet has done a story on not keeping your pets in the car when it’s hot outside. It doesn’t matter if you keep the windows rolled up or down or if the air conditioning is on or off; no matter what, it puts your pet in danger.

Despite all of these warnings, it seems that a very specific group of people are not taking enough caution. Police dogs have been dying at an unbelievable rate this summer due to heat exhaustion, in many cases while they were locked in patrol cars.

Just last week in Wisconsin, there was a police dog who died from being left in a patrol car. The officer in charge was working at the PGA Golf tournament and had left the air conditioning on for the animal. Unfortunately, at some point during the day the air conditioning failed and the dog died from heat exhaustion. This is not the first case this summer of a dog dying in a car due to faulty air conditioners.

In-car dog deaths have steadily climbed in recent years. The Wisconsin police dog was the 30th dog to die under these circumstances since 2008. Since the last week of May, 11 dogs have died from heat exhaustion, and nine of those are attributable to dogs being left in hot patrol cars.

Punishments

The punishments that have been given to the responsible police officers have been varied. An officer from Hialeah, Florida was responsible for the death of two dogs in his vehicle. He was suspended with pay from the Miami-Dade County Police Department, but may face up to five years in prison for his offense. Many expect that he will get a much more lenient sentence, though.

A Texas sheriff’s deputy faces different charges after his police dog died in his patrol car. He actually lost his job, and an investigation is being conducted to see if he will face more severe punishment.

Another Georgia police dog was left in a patrol car for over seven hours after an officer forgot about him. He has been placed on paid administrative leave and could face charges of animal abuse and reckless conduct, pending an internal investigation.

While these stories do not encompass all of the circumstances behind the police dog deaths, they are a stark reminder that leaving an animal in the car when it’s hot out is like putting them in an oven.

Be sure to look for signs that indicate whether or not your dog is too hot, such as excessive panting or breathing, increased heart and respiratory rate, drooling, mild weakness, stupor, and collapsing. More serious symptoms could include seizures, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and elevated body temperature. Any of these symptoms is cause for alarm, and should be treated right away. 

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Madewell recalls women’s sandals

The metal shank can dislodge and break through bottom of the outsole

Madewell of New York, N.Y., is recalling about 51,000 pair of women's sandals in the U.S. and Canada. The metal shank can dislodge and break through botto...

PhotoMadewell of New York, N.Y., is recalling about 51,000 pair of women's sandals in the U.S. and Canada.

 

The metal shank can dislodge and break through bottom of the outsole, posing a fall hazard.

 

The firm has received 8 reports of metal shanks dislodging and breaking through the bottom of the outsole. No injuries have been reported.

 

This recall involves all Madewell Sightseer sandals from the spring 2015 collection. Sandals with the following 10 style numbers and names in all sizes are being recalled:

  1. C0275 Sightseer Knotted Slide Sandal
  2. C0276 Sightseer T-Strap Thong Sandal in Black Leather
  3. C0277 Sightseer T-Strap Thong Sandal in Metallic Colorblock
  4. C0278 Sightseer Buckle Gladiator Sandal
  5. C0279 Sightseer Slide Sandal
  6. C1105 Sightseer Crisscross Sandal
  7. C5893 Sightseer T-Strap Toe-Loop Sandal
  8. C5895 Sightseer Ankle-Wrap Sandal in Shiny Silver
  9. C5897 Sightseer Lace-Up Sandal
  10. C6090 Sightseer Ankle-Wrap Sandal in Metallic Sand

The style number is located on a sticker on the outsole.

 

The sandals, manufactured in China, were sold at Madewell stores, online at madewell.com, online at shopbop.com from February 2015, to July 2015, for between $60 and $80.

 

Customers should immediately stop using the recalled sandals and contact Madewell to return them for a full refund.

 

Consumers may contact Madewell toll free at (866) 544-1937 anytime, by email at 24-7@madewell.com or online at www.madewell.com and click on Important Notice for more information.

 

 

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Scientists: exercise doesn't help you lose weight

But don't take that as an excuse to camp out on the sofa

See all those people sweating in the health club? All that exercise is certainly good for their cardiovascular systems and overall health, but is it helpin...

PhotoSee all those people sweating in the health club? All that exercise is certainly good for their cardiovascular systems and overall health, but is it helping them lose weight? Not so much.

That's the conclusion of public health scientists Richard S. Cooper, MD and Amy Luke, PhD of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

“Physical activity is crucially important for improving overall health and fitness levels, but there is limited evidence to suggest that it can blunt the surge in obesity,” Luke and Cooper wrote in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The two scientists have been studying the link between physical activity and obesity for years. They say that when they started their research, their assumption was physical activity would prove very important to losing weight. But the more they investigated, they say the more their doubts grew. Now, they say the preponderance of evidence has shown their initial assumption was wrong.

Input and output

Losing weight, after all, is all about input and output. Your body burns a certain number of calories each day. If you consume more than that, you tend to gain weight. If you consume fewer, you tend to lose it.

So burning 300 calories at the gym allows you to consume the same number of calories you normally do and have a net 300 fewer on the consumption side. The problem is, we don't usually consume the same number of calories on days when we burn off 300 at the gym.

If you increase your activity, Cooper and Luke say, your appetite increases and you compensate by eating more food. So with or without increasing physical activity, calorie control remains key to losing or maintaining weight.

“This crucial part of the public health message is not appreciated in recommendations to be more active, walk up stairs and eat more fruits and vegetables,” the authors write. “The prescription needs to be precise: There is only one effective way to lose weight – eat fewer calories.”

Cooper is a professor and chair, and Luke is a professor and vice chair, of the Department of Public Health Sciences of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Food industry isn't helping

They contend the food and beverage industry has tried to divert attention from calorie consumption by promoting the theory that lack of physical exercise is a major cause of obesity. They point to a recent New York Times report that Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, “is backing a new ‘science-based’ solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories.”

In their write up of their study, Cooper and Luke lay out evidence that physical activity alone is not key to losing weight.

A number of clinical trials have found that exercise plus cutting calories achieves virtually the same weight loss as calorie restriction alone. Observational studies find no association between energy expenditure and weight change.

Yes, it's true that some Americans exercise enough to influence body weight – a professional tennis player, for example – but the number who actually achieve that level of physical activity is minuscule.

While physical activity has many benefits, so does eating the right kinds of food. When embarking on a diet to reduce calories, just make sure you aren't depriving your body of needed nutrients.

The National Institute on Aging has reported on numerous studies showing a 30% reduction in calories promotes longer life. Eating a balanced diet, just smaller portions, is one way to achieve that.

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British study: e-cigs 95% less harmful than cigarettes

Brits worry too many smokers don't recognize e-cigs' benefits

Great Britain and the United States haven't always seen eye-to-eye. The latest example: e-cigarettes. Politicians and public health authorities in the U.S....

PhotoGreat Britain and the United States haven't always seen eye-to-eye. The latest example: e-cigarettes. Politicians and public health authorities in the U.S. continue to view e-cigs with caution while England has taken a more positive view -- most notably a new report from Public Health England (PHE) that finds e-cigs about 95% less harmful than smoking.

"My reading of the evidence is that smokers who switch to vaping remove almost all the risks smoking poses to their health," said Professor Peter Hajek of Queen Mary University. Hajek co-authored the report with Professor Ann McNeill of King's College London.

The expert independent evidence review also finds "no evidence so far that e-cigarettes are acting as a route into smoking for children or non-smokers." That contradicts a study by the University of California last year that found that adolescents who used the devices were more likely to smoke cigarettes and less likely to quit smoking. 

Falling smoking rates

The review, commissioned by Public Health England (PHE) -- an arm of the British Department of Health -- goes further and suggests that e-cigarettes may be contributing to falling smoking rates among adults and young people. 

The review found that almost all of the 2.6 million adults using e-cigarettes in Great Britain are current or ex-smokers, most of whom are using the devices to help them quit smoking or to prevent them going back to cigarettes.

It also provides reassurance that very few adults and young people who have never smoked are becoming regular e-cigarette users (less than 1% in each group).

Emerging evidence suggests some of the highest successful quit rates are now seen among smokers who use an e-cigarette and also receive additional support from their local stop smoking services.

Time to reconsider?

The report drew the expected response from the American Vaping Association, which represents manufacturers of the electronic nicotine delivery devices. It called for U.S. organizations and government agencies like the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) to reassess their views on vaping. 

"This report represents a major win for public health. Smokers need to know that vapor products are far less hazardous than smoking and effective for quitting," said Gregory Conley, AVA president. "With over 42 million Americans still smoking cigarettes, there is no excuse for major public health organizations to continue to propagandize against these lifesaving products."

Attitude gap

Nothing better illustrates the attitude gap between the U.S. and Britain than the concern expressed by U.K. health officials that too many people think e-cigs are just as harmful as traditional cigarettes. 

"The problem is people increasingly think they are at least as harmful and this may be keeping millions of smokers from quitting. Local stop smoking services should look to support e-cigarette users in their journey to quitting completely," said Professor Kevin Fenton, Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England. "E-cigarettes are not completely risk free but when compared to smoking, evidence shows they carry just a fraction of the harm." 

Ann McNeill, co-author of the review, agreed:

There is no evidence that e-cigarettes are undermining England’s falling smoking rates. Instead the evidence consistently finds that e-cigarettes are another tool for stopping smoking and in my view smokers should try vaping and vapers should stop smoking entirely.

E-cigarettes could be a game changer in public health in particular by reducing the enormous health inequalities caused by smoking.

 

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Hackers release data stolen from Ashley Madison adultery-dating website

The data dump appears real but the data might be fake; Ashley Madison never verified member registration emails

A month after the adultery-dating website AshleyMadison.com (registered motto: “Life is short. Have an affair.®”) admitted that hackers had managed to brea...

A month after the adultery-dating website AshleyMadison.com (registered motto: “Life is short. Have an affair.®”) admitted that hackers had managed to breach its database, those hackers have apparently made all of the stolen data available online.

Ashley Madison is owned by Avid Life Media, which also owns other hookup sites, including Established Men and Cougar Life. The hacker or hackers behind the breach self-identify as The Impact Team. At the time of the original breach, The Impact Team threatened to release all of the information it stole unless the site was taken down. And now, it appears that they have made good on that threat.

Released data

As Wired first reported last night, yesterday somebody hiding behind anonymizing software and browsers posted 9.7 gigabytes of apparent Ashley Madison data to the dark web. “The files appear to include account details and log-ins for some 32 million users of the social networking site, touted as the premier site for married individuals seeking partners for affairs. Seven years worth of credit card and other payment transaction details are also part of the dump, going back to 2007 [including] names, street address, email address and amount paid, but not credit card numbers.”

At the time of the breach, AshleyMadison.com claimed to have almost 40 million members in all.

According to its own statements, The Impact Team's main complaint with Ashley Madison isn't the fact that the website promotes or facilitates adultery, but that it allegedly lied to its clients. Specifically, people with dating profiles on Ashley Madison were also offered the chance to pay $19 for a “full delete” function – basically scrubbing their complete profile and activity history from the site.

The Impact Team claimed to have discovered proof that the “full delete” service was a lie, and the information never completely deleted from the database. (Granted, there's arguably some inherent contradictions in The Impact Team's claimed motivation “We dislike the fact that this website harmed its clients, so we're punishing the website by releasing data that will harm its clients.”)

Ashley Madison executives did not take the website down and so yesterday, according to Wired, somebody released an alleged data dump, preceded by an introduction saying, in part, that:

Avid Life Media has failed to take down Ashley Madison and Established Men. We have explained the fraud, deceit, and stupidity of ALM and their members. Now everyone gets to see their data.

Find someone you know in here? Keep in mind the site is a scam with thousands of fake female profiles. See ashley madison fake profile lawsuit; 90-95% of actual users are male. Chances are your man signed up on the world's biggest affair site, but never had one. He just tried to. If that distinction matters....

Profiles

Of course, there are other possibilities explaining how and why someone might apparently have a profile on the website. For starters, Ashley Madison doesn’t verify members' emails – you can register with any address, not merely your own. So, for example: although someone did apparently register there with the email address tblair@labour.gov.uk, this does not prove that a certain recent former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom ever actually joined the site. The same holds true for the over 15,000 U.S. government or military email addresses found thus far, or the many teachers and professors whose current or former .edu addresses appear in the data dump (and it's easy to imagine students using their teachers' email addresses for joke registrations, in a more risque version of the old “Let's have a dozen takeout pizzas sent to Teacher's house” prank).

As computer security expert Graham Cluley pointed out on his blog (bold print lifted from the original):

…. being a member of a dating site, even a somewhat seedy one like Ashley Madison, is no evidence that you have cheated on your partner.

You might have joined the site years before when you were single and be shocked that they still have your details in their database, or you might have joined the site out of curiosity or for a laugh... never seriously planning to take things any further.

But more importantly than all of that, if your email address is in the Ashley Madison database it means nothing. The owner of that email address may never have even visited the Ashley Madison site....

Potential to ruin lives

This is especially important to remember because, as Cluley also says: “Others might find the thought that their membership of the site - even if they never met anyone in real life, and never had an affair - too much to bear, and there could be genuine casualties as a result. And yes, I mean suicide.”

This does indeed have the potential to ruin millions of people's lives — and not merely people who somehow “deserve” it, either.

After learning of the stolen data release, Avid Life Media released a statement saying that “Our investigation is still ongoing and we are simultaneously cooperating fully with law enforcement investigations, including by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Ontario Provincial Police, the Toronto Police Services and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. … This event is not an act of hacktivism, it is an act of criminality. … We know that there are people out there who know one or more of these individuals, and we invite them to come forward. ... Anyone with information that can lead to the identification, arrest and conviction of these criminals, can contact [email protected].”

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GOP candidate Scott Walker unveils health care plan

Plan would provide premium subsidies based on age, not income

As anyone who has followed national politics the last six years knows, Republicans have a rather strong dislike for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwis...

PhotoAs anyone who has followed national politics the last six years knows, Republicans have a rather strong dislike for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare. The GOP-controlled House has voted numerous times to repeal it.

So it should be no surprise that a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination would have a plan for a health-care program to replace the ACA. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker outlined his plan Tuesday during a series of campaign stops.

Walker says his plan would enable all Americans to obtain affordable health insurance, which is the goal of the ACA. But Walker's plan has a number of stark differences.

No mandate

For starters, it would do away with the federal mandate – the requirement that all consumers obtain health insurance. This mandate, which survived a Supreme Court challenge, was something the health insurance sought when the ACA was drafted.

The Walker plan is built on two pillars; the existing system of employer-based insurance coverage and tax credits to help consumers purchase coverage. Walker said his plan would have five objectives:

Five objectives

  1. Repeal ObamaCare in its entirety.
  2. Ensure affordable and accessible health insurance for everyone.
  3. Make health care more efficient, effective, and accountable by empowering the states.
  4. Increase quality and choice through innovation.
  5. Provide financial stability for families and taxpayers.

Walker's plan would replace Obamacare's system of tax credits with another system of tax credits. Under the current system, qualifying consumers receive a direct subsidy that reduces the monthly premium of the policy. The subsidy is based on family income. Families that make above a certain limit can still obtain insurance but receive no premium subsidy.

Age qualifier

Walker's plan replaces the income qualifier with an age qualifier. This, he says, provides more help to consumers at the time in their lives when they need it most.

“For example, a 35-year-old woman who makes $35,000 per year and has no children gets $0 in Obamacare subsidies – she’s too young and too middle class,” Walker says in the introduction to his proposal. “Under my plan, this same woman would receive a $2,100 tax credit that she could use to shop for insurance in the open market and put any savings into a health savings account.”

Walker says tax credits would level the playing field between those who purchase coverage through an employer and those who purchase it on the open market, expanding options and lowering costs for health plans offered outside the workplace.

“This would ensure people are not locked into their current jobs just to maintain health insurance coverage and give people the flexibility to switch employers or even careers,” he said.

Medicaid issues

Walker says there could be a smooth transition from Obamacare to his plan, called “The Day One Patient Freedom Plan,” but concedes there are complications. One big one is the fact that many people with ACA policies have actually been moved to the Medicaid rolls.

“Given that 70% of new Obamacare enrollees were covered through Medicaid in 2014, we must implement Medicaid reform when we replace Obamacare,” Walker said.

A change from the status quo would likely create new winners and losers. Kaiser Family Foundation executive Larry Levitt told The Wall Street Journal that providing tax credits based on age rather than income shifts more subsidy dollars to higher-income consumers and away from the poor.

One of the Obamacare provisions Walker's plan would keep is no denial of coverage for pre-existing medical conditions. Walker said no individual should fear being denied coverage, or face huge premium spikes when they get sick and then try to change jobs or insurance plans.  

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Coffee and cranberries may fight colon cancer

Two independent studies conclude food properties could be powerful weapons

Two new studies suggest that a common food and common beverage could be powerful tools to fight colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths in ...

PhotoTwo new studies suggest that a common food and common beverage could be powerful tools to fight colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has completed a large study. The results show that regular consumption of caffeinated coffee may help prevent the return of colon cancer after treatment and improve the chances of a cure.

Other researchers presenting findings at the American Chemical Society meeting this week say cranberries have been shown to shrink tumors in mice with colon cancer.

Four or more cups of coffee

The Dana-Farber study found that patients, all of them treated with surgery and chemotherapy for stage III colon cancer, had the greatest benefit if they consumed four or more cups of coffee a day, amounting to about 460 milligrams of caffeine.

These patients were 42% less likely to have their cancer return than non-coffee drinkers, and were 33% less likely to die from cancer or any other cause. Two to three cups of coffee a day had a more modest benefit, while little protection was associated with one cup or less.

“We found that coffee drinkers had a lower risk of the cancer coming back and a significantly greater survival and chance of a cure,” said Dr. Charles Fuchs, director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber.

He added that most recurrences happen within five years of treatment and are uncommon after that. In patients with stage III of the disease, the cancer has been found in the lymph nodes near the original tumor, but there are no signs of further metastasis. Fuchs said these patients have about a 35 percent chance of recurrence.

As encouraging as the results appear to be, Fuchs said he is hesitant to make recommendations to patients until the results are confirmed in other studies.

“If you are a coffee drinker and are being treated for colon cancer, don’t stop,” he said. “But if you’re not a coffee drinker and wondering whether to start, you should first discuss it with your physician.”

Cranberries

Colon cancer may offer a particularly good target for a dietary treatment, simply due to the anatomy of digestion, said Catherine Neto, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Cranberry extracts may also afford protection toward other cancers, but it seems reasonable to look at colon cancer,” she said. “Cranberry constituents and metabolites should be bioavailable to the colon as digestion proceeds.”

Neto and her team created three cranberry extracts and fed them to mice with colon cancer. After 20 weeks, the mice given the whole cranberry extract had about half the number of tumors as mice that received no cranberry in their chow. The remaining tumors in the cranberry-fed mice were also smaller. Plus, the cranberry extracts seemed to reduce the levels of inflammation markers in the mice.

“Basically, what we found was pretty encouraging. All preparations were effective to some degree, but the whole cranberry extract was the most effective,” said Neto. “There may be some synergy between polyphenol and non-polyphenol constituents.”

Neto said she is looking deeper into the cranberry to see if she can isolate individual components responsible for its anti-cancer properties. The fruit has also gotten the attention of medical researchers who credit it for helping to protect against urinary tract infections.

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FDA approves "pink Viagra" to boost female libido

Whether women are pining for more sex remains to be seen

It may make you faint and could even put you to sleep or make you nauseous but the Food and Drug Administration has approved the so-called "pink Viagra," a...

PhotoIt may make you faint and could even put you to sleep or make you nauseous but the Food and Drug Administration has approved the so-called "pink Viagra," a drug that is supposed to raise women's interest in sex.

The real Viagra, of course, came with its own set of possible side effects, including strokes, heart attacks and marathon erections but that didn't stop males of all ages and physical conditions from doing whatever it took to get their hands on what many of them regarded as a wonder drug.

How wives and significant others felt about Viagra is not as certain. And it's not all that clear, frankly, that women have been pining for a higher state of arousal. It could well be that men will be the driving force in motivating (or at least badgering) women to try the new drug, called Addyi (flibanserin).

It won't be that easy, though, at least not initially. The FDA is requiring both doctors and pharmacists to be specially certified to deal with Addyi, hoping to prevent an outbreak of side effects from reckless or unwarranted use.

In fact, the FDA approved the drug despite its own laboratory analysis which showed "serious risks" of low-blood pressure and fainting, especially if the drug is taken with alcohol.

Serious dangers to women

Critics were quick to question the FDA's decision.

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision to approve flibanserin as a treatment for women with hypoactive sexual desire presents serious dangers to women, with little benefit, and recklessly disregards the worrisome risk information," said Public Citizen's Dr Sidney Wolfe.

Wole said he will not be surprised if the drug is taken off the market in a few years after causing irreversible and life-threatening injuries to women. 

"It is unconscionable that the FDA does not have the courage to prevent such damage from a drug with such a high ratio of risks to benefits," Wolfe said. 

Besides the risks, Wolfe said the supposed benefits of Addyi are ephemeral. The FDA’s analysis showed that women using the drug had an average of only half to one more “satisfying sexual encounter” every month compared to those using a placebo, Wolfe noted.

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Target and Visa settle 2013 card breach for $67 million

The company has yet to settle with MasterCard, though

It's been almost two years now since news first broke that hackers had managed to steal up to 40 million customer credit and debit card numbers from Target...

PhotoIt's been almost two years now since news first broke that hackers had managed to steal up to 40 million customer credit and debit card numbers from Target, and the fallout still hasn't completely settled.

Yesterday, however, the Los Angeles Times reported that Target has come to an agreement with Visa card issuers, offering up to $67 million to settle their costs from the breach.

In April, Target tried settling with MasterCard for $19 million, though MasterCard rejected the offer the following month. The two companies are still trying to reach an agreement.

Earlier still, in March, Target offered to pay $10 million to settle a class action suit brought by individual cardholders harmed by the breach, subject to judicial approval; a federal judge eventually approved Target's offer.

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Pharmaceutical giant settles marketing charges with 48 states

Amgen agrees to pay $71 million and reform its marketing practices

Drug company Amgen will pay $71 million to 48 states and the District of Columbia to settle charges that state it broke the law when it promoted biologic m...

PhotoDrug company Amgen will pay $71 million to 48 states and the District of Columbia to settle charges that state it broke the law when it promoted biologic medications Aranesp and Enbrel for off-label uses.

Specifically, the company was accused of promoting Aranesp for dosing frequencies longer than the FDA approved, without competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate the extended dosing frequencies.

“Pharmaceutical companies are prohibited from making unapproved and unsubstantiated claims about prescription drugs,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, one of the state officials bringing the action. “Consumers need to have confidence in the accuracy of claims made by pharmaceutical companies.”

Lacked FDA approval

The complaint also alleged Amgen promoted Aranesp for anemia caused by cancer without having FDA approval or competent and reliable scientific evidence to support it. It was accused of promoting Enbrel for mild plaque psoriasis even though Enbrel is only approved by the FDA to treat chronic-moderate to severe plaque psoriasis.

“Amgen’s false marketing denied consumers the ability to make educated decisions about their healthcare,” said California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “This settlement will hold the company accountable for its deceptive marketing and prevent it from using misleading practices in the future.”

The complaint also said Amgen overstated the length of Enbrel’s efficacy in treating plaque psoriasis. By obtaining a compendium listing – typically, a non-profit reference book listing a drug’s strengths, qualities, and ingredients – for Aranesp for anemia of cancer, Amgen unlawfully facilitated health care coverage and reimbursement for the drug, the participating attorneys general said.

“Companies marketing medicines to consumers have a responsibility to be accurate about uses, dosages and side effects,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “Mischaracterizing that information can prevent consumers from receiving the relief they need, or have more serious health consequences.”

Marketing reforms

The settlement requires Amgen to reform its marketing and promotional practices. Under the terms, Amgen agrees not to make any written or oral claim that is false, misleading, or deceptive in promoting Enbrel or any drug in the same class as Aranesp.

Enbrel is prescribed for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or ankylosing spondylitis, and to prevent joint damage that can result from these illnesses. It's often used to treat plaque psoriasis in adults and polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis in children who are at least two years old.

Aranesp is a protein that aids the body in producing red blood cells. It is often used to treat people with certain types of anemia, especially those who have suffered kidney failure.

The 49 entities will divide the $71 million settlement. They include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia.

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Parents and Students: Don't forget college tax credits

You may be surprised by the amount for which you qualify

With young adults heading off -- or back -- to college, this is a good time for parents and students to see if they will qualify for either of 2 college ta...

PhotoWith young adults heading off -- or back -- to college, this is a good time for parents and students to see if they will qualify for either of 2 college tax credits or other education-related tax benefits when they file their 2015 federal income tax returns.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit or Lifetime Learning Credit is generally available to taxpayers who pay qualifying expenses for an eligible student.

Eligible students include the taxpayer, spouse, and dependents. The American Opportunity Tax Credit provides a credit for each eligible student, while the Lifetime Learning Credit provides a maximum credit per tax return.

Though a taxpayer often qualifies for both of these credits, he or she can only claim one of them for a particular student in a particular year. To claim these credits on their tax return, the taxpayer must file Form 1040 or 1040A and complete Form 8863, Education Credits.

The credits apply to eligible students enrolled in an eligible college, university, or vocational school, including both nonprofit and for-profit institutions. The credits are subject to income limits that could reduce the amount claimed on their tax return.

Are you eligible?

To help determine eligibility for these benefits, taxpayers should visit the Education Credits web page or use the IRS’s Interactive Tax Assistant tool.

Normally, a student will receive a Form 1098-T from his or her institution by Jan. 31 of the following year. (For 2015, the due date is Feb. 1, 2016, because otherwise it would fall on a Sunday.)

This form will show information about tuition paid or billed along with other information. However, amounts shown on this form may differ from amounts taxpayers are eligible to claim for these tax credits. Taxpayers should see the instructions to Form 8863 and Publication 970 for details on properly figuring allowable tax benefits.

Tax credit features

Many of those eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit qualify for the maximum annual credit of $2,500 per student. Students can claim this credit for qualified education expenses paid during the entire tax year for a certain number of years:

  • The credit is only available for four tax years per eligible student.
  • The credit is available only if the student has not completed the first four years of postsecondary education before 2015.

Here are some more key features of the credit:

  • Qualified education expenses are amounts paid for tuition, fees, and other related expenses for an eligible student. Other expenses, such as room and board, are not qualified expenses.
  • The credit equals 100% of the first $2,000 spent and 25% of the next $2,000. That means the full $2,500 credit may be available to a taxpayer who pays $4,000 or more in qualified expenses for an eligible student.
  • Forty percent of the American Opportunity Tax Credit is refundable. This means that even people who owe no tax can get an annual payment of up to $1,000 for each eligible student.
  • The full credit can be claimed only by taxpayers whose modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is $80,000 or less. For married couples filing a joint return, the limit is $160,000. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels. No credit can be claimed by joint filers whose MAGI is $180,000 or more and singles, heads of household, and some widows and widowers whose MAGI is $90,000 or more.

The Lifetime Learning Credit of up to $2,000 per tax return is available for both graduate and undergraduate students. Unlike the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the limit on the Lifetime Learning Credit applies to each tax return, rather than to each student. Also, the Lifetime Learning Credit does not provide a benefit to people who owe no tax.

Though the half-time student requirement does not apply to the lifetime learning credit, the course of study must be either part of a post-secondary degree program or taken by the student to maintain or improve job skills.

Other features of the credit include:

  • Tuition and fees required for enrollment or attendance qualify as do other fees required for the course. Additional expenses do not.
  • The credit equals 20% of the amount spent on eligible expenses across all students on the return. That means the full $2,000 credit is only available to a taxpayer who pays $10,000 or more in qualifying tuition and fees and has sufficient tax liability.
  • Income limits are lower than under the American Opportunity Tax Credit. For 2015, the full credit can be claimed by taxpayers whose MAGI is $55,000 or less. For married couples filing a joint return, the limit is $110,000. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels. No credit can be claimed by joint filers whose MAGI is $130,000 or more and singles, heads of household, and some widows and widowers whose MAGI is $65,000 or more.
  • Eligible parents and students can get the benefit of these credits during the year by having less tax taken out of their paychecks. They can do this by filling out a new Form W-4, claiming additional withholding allowances, and giving it to their employer.

Other benefits

There are a variety of other education-related tax benefits that can help many taxpayers. They include:

  • Scholarship and fellowship grants -- generally tax-free if used to pay for tuition, required enrollment fees, books, and other course materials, but taxable if used for room, board, research, travel, or other expenses.
  • Student loan interest deduction of up to $2,500 per year.
  • Savings bonds used to pay for college -- though income limits apply; interest is usually tax-free if bonds were purchased after 1989 by a taxpayer who, at time of purchase, was at least 24 years old.
  • Qualified tuition programs, also called 529 plans, used by many families to prepay or save for a child’s college education.
  • Taxpayers with qualifying children who are students up to age 24 may be able to claim a dependent exemption and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The general comparison table in Publication 970 can be a useful guide to taxpayers in determining eligibility for these benefits.  

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Volkswagen latest to face Takata airbag probe

A Takata airbag in a 2015 Tiguan ruptured in June

Millions of cars have been recalled because they contain the Takata airbags that can rupture and spew sharp pieces of metal into the passenger compartment....

PhotoMillions of cars have been recalled because they contain the Takata airbags that can rupture and spew sharp pieces of metal into the passenger compartment. There have been more than 100 injuries and at least eight deaths.

The 30 million recalled cars come from 11 manufacturers. Volkswagen was one of the lucky few note to escape massive recalls.

That may be changing, however, following an incident in June involving a 2015 VW Tiguan, the German automaker's compact crossover.

The car's owner reported hitting a deer and said the side airbag ruptured. The driver did not seek medical attention and there was no police report, so it took awhile for the incident to come to regulators' attention.

But now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating the incident. It has ordered both VW and Takata to turn over information about the rupture.

Unusual incident

It's not known how many VWs are made with Takata airbags. The incident is unusual because the VW was nearly new, whereas most of the previous Takata ruptures have occurred in cars at least ten years old.

Earlier incidents involving older airbags have been linked to heat and high humidity, suggesting that crucial components in the airbags deteriorate over time.

Takata said in a statement that it thinks the latest incident is not related to the earlier ruptures.

"While we are still investigating the cause of this malfunction, we believe it is unrelated to the previous recalls, which the extensive data suggests were a result of aging and long-term exposure to heat and high humidity," Takata said, according to a report in Automotive News.

“Volkswagen considers the safety and satisfaction of its consumers and passengers a top priority,” the company said. “VW is working with the agency and Takata to investigate and understand the situation.”

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CPI barely budges in July

Both food and energy costs were on the rise

There was inflation in July, but you had to look around for it. According to the Labor Department, (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose a tiny 0.1% ...

PhotoThere was inflation in July, but you had to look around for it.

According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose a tiny 0.1% on a seasonally adjusted basis last month, and is up just 0.2% over the last 12 months.

Food prices move higher

The cost of foods rose 0.2% last month, with a 0.3% advance in the food at home category. That came as all six major grocery store food groups rose modestly, including an 0.8% gain in dairy and related products. Nonalcoholic beverage prices were also higher (+0.4%), as were fruits and vegetables (+0.3%), meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (+0.2%); and cereals, bakery products, and other food (+0.2%). All told, the food at home category is up 0.9% over the past 12 months.

Energy prices inch upward

After a 1.7% increase in June, energy costs were up a tiny 0.1% last month, due largely to a 0.9% increase in gasoline prices -- the third straight monthly gain. All other major energy components were down in July, with natural gas falling 1.4%, electricity off 0.4% -- its third decline in the last five months -- and fuel oil nosediving 3.4%.Over the past year, energy costs have plummeted 14.8%

Core inflation

The index for all items less the volatile food and energy sectors -- the so-called “core rate” of inflation -- rose 0.1% in July. The main contributor was a gain of 0.4% in the cost of shelter. Other increases were seen in clothing (+0.3%) and medical care (+0.1%). Several items showed no change, including personal care, recreation, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco. Airline fares declined sharply in July, falling 5.6% -- the largest decline since December 1995. Also lower were prices for used cars and trucks (-0.6%), household furnishings and operations (-0.2%), and new cars (-0.2%). For the last 12 months, the core rate of inflation is up 1.8% -- the fourth time in five months the 12-month change was 1.8%.

The complete CPI report is available on the DOL website.

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Mortgage applications rise on the strength of refinancings

Lower interest rates were behind the increase

A surge in refinancings last week helped push applications for mortgages higher. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Sur...

PhotoA surge in refinancings last week helped push applications for mortgages higher.

The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending August 14 shows a jump of 3.6% in overall applications.

“Concerns about the Chinese economy pushed interest rates down last week, resulting in a 2 basis point decline in 30 year fixed interest rate, bringing the rate down to its lowest since May 2015,” said Lynn Fisher, MBA’s Vice President of Research and Economics. “The pick-up in refinance activity was led by larger loan sizes on average, as continued investor interest drove jumbo interest rates down even further, by five basis points.”

The Refinance Index shot up 7% to its highest level since May, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity to 55.5% of total applications from 53.1% the previous week. The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 6.9% of total applications.

The FHA share, though, slipped to 12.9% from 13.3%, the VA share dropped to 11.1% from 11.3% and the USDA share inched up to 0.8% from 0.7% a week earlier.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell two basis points, from 3.13% to 4.11% -- its lowest level since May, with points increasing to 0.37 from 0.31 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dropped to 4.03%, its lowest level since May, from 4.08%, with points decreasing to 0.29 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was down 6 basis points -- to 3.88%, its lowest level since May, with points decreasing to 0.17 from 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to 3.37%, its lowest level since last month, from 3.39%, with points decreasing to 0.36 from 0.38 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs fell 11 basis points to 2.98%, its lowest level since May, with points increasing to 0.40 from 0.32 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

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

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Audi plans all-electric SUV and announces pricing for A3 plug-in hybrid

The e-tron quattro is targeted at Tesla's forthcoming SUV

The Audi e-tron quattro concept carTired of being left in the dust by Tesla in the electric-car derby, Audi is fighting back. The German carmaker...

Photo
The Audi e-tron quattro concept car

Tired of being left in the dust by Tesla in the electric-car derby, Audi is fighting back. 

The German carmaker today issued a teaser photo of an all-electric SUV -- currently dubbed the "the e-tron quattro" -- that it says it will soon launch to rival Tesla's forthcoming Model X.

Audi says its new SUV will have a range of more than 310 miles and will go into production in 2018. It will be the brand's first mass-market all-electric model.

Audi also recently announced pricing for its 2016 A3 Sportback e-tron, a Chevy Volt-type hybrid that combines battery and gas power. Pricing will begin at $37,900 when the car goes on sale later this year. It will be the first plug-in Audi sold in the U.S.

Four passengers

Photo
The Audi A3 e-tron Sportback

Audi said the e-tron quattro is "designed from the ground up as an electric car," and isn't just an existing model with a large battery stuffed underneath. However, like some other electrics, it seats only four, thanks to the large lithium-ion battery situated between the axles under the passenger compartment.   

Perhaps more impressive, the car shares some aeronautical ideas more commonly found on aircraft. Movable aerodynamic elements at the front, on the sides and at the rear improve the air flow around the car.

The aerodynamically optimized underbody is completely closed, reducing drag and optimizing mileage. Its length is between that of the Audi Q5 and the Q7.

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Stars Mix n’Match Chairs recalled

The chair legs can break, posing a fall hazard

Tvilum and Copenhagen Imports of Phoenix, Ariz., are recalling about 530 Stars Mix n’Match Chairs. The chair legs can break, posing a fall hazard for any...

PhotoTvilum and Copenhagen Imports of Phoenix, Ariz., are recalling about 530 Stars Mix n’Match Chairs.

 

The chair legs can break, posing a fall hazard for anyone sitting in the chair at the time.

 

There have been 2 reports of chair legs breaking and 1 reported injury.

 

The chair seat and back is either black or white molded plastic with a cushion seat. The seat cushion is the same color as the plastic chair. The 4 chair legs are wood and set in a pyramid style.

 

The chairs, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Copenhagen Imports stores in Arizona and Texas from May 2013, to June 2015, for about $160.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and return them to the retailer for a full refund, including delivery charges where applicable. Tvilum is contacting purchasers directly.

 

Consumers may contact Tvilum Customer Support at (800) 932-2006, extension 106, Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. (CT), by email at helpline-us@tvilum.com, Copenhagen Imports at (602) 266-8060 Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (PT) or online at www.copenhagenliving.com/ and click on “Contact Us” for more information or to find a Copenhagen store.

 

 

 

 

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Rite Aid recalls outdoor dining sets

The chair arms and legs can bend and cause the user to fall

Rite Aid of Camp Hill, Pa., is recalling about 13,000 outdoor dining sets. The chair arms and legs can bend and cause the user to fall, posing a risk of i...

PhotoRite Aid of Camp Hill, Pa., is recalling about 13,000 outdoor dining sets.

 

The chair arms and legs can bend and cause the user to fall, posing a risk of injury.

 

The firm has received 4 reports of chairs bending unexpectedly, including 4 reports of injuries to the lower back and hip.

 

This recall involves a 6-piece outdoor patio set containing 4 folding chairs, a table and an umbrella. The brown metal-frame chairs have a red canvas seat and back, and measure 21 ¼ inches tall by 25 ¼ inches wide. The umbrellas are 80 inches tall have a coordinated red with stripes canvas top. The square table also has a metal frame and a hard-plastic clear top.

 

UPC number 011822350303 and item number 9034923 are printed on the packaging of the patio set.

 

The dining sets, manufactured in China, were exclusively at Rite Aid stores nationwide and online at RiteAid.com from January 2015, to July 2015, for between $100 and $150.

 

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and return them to the any Rite Aid store for a full refund. Consumers are not required to return the table and umbrella.

 

Consumers may contact Rite Aid at 800-748-3243 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, or online at www.riteaid.com and click on “Product Recalls” at the bottom of the page under Customer Care.

 

 

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How Siri saved a life

Trapped and injured teen summons helper by butt-dialing

Let's acknowledge up front that this story is an Apple publicist's dream. A young iPhone owner is looking death in the face until Siri – the disembodied an...

Photo 

Let's acknowledge up front that this story is an Apple publicist's dream. A young iPhone owner is looking death in the face until Siri – the disembodied and ever-present voice on iPhones -- comes riding to the rescue.

The story is actually told by publicists at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, where 18-year old Sam Ray was brought in last month with broken bones and internal injuries. But doctors says he might just as easily have made a trip to the morgue instead.

The recent high school graduate was working on his truck in his driveway. Ray had jacked up the vehicle so he could work beneath it.

Needing advice, Ray pulled out his phone and called his father, who advised his son to get out from beneath the truck and wait for him to come home. Ray agreed and put his phone in his back pocket and proceeded to slide out from under the truck. Just then the jack gave way and the 5,000 pound vehicle came crashing down on the young man.

Arms pinned down

The situation was all the more dire because Ray's arms were trapped, making it impossible to access his phone. The phone, however, was in his back pocket so Ray maneuvered his hip as best he could until he managed to push the button to summon Siri. The next thing he knew, a 911 dispatcher was on the line, her voice coming from his back pocket.

“When I heard a woman talking from inside my pocket, I just started shouting,” Ray said. “I didn’t know if she could hear me or not, but I heard her say that help was just around the corner.”

It wasn't long before responders with Rutherford County, Tenn.'s Emergency Medical Services, the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department, the Rutherford County Fire Department, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol responded to the 911 call. They were able to move him out from under the vehicle and then transported him to the Vanderbilt LifeFlight base in Murfreesboro, where he was then flown to Vanderbilt.

Guardian angel

“We’re always concerned with crush injuries, and the longer a patient is trapped, the more problems they can have,” said Kirk Krokosky, one of Vanderbilt's flight nurses. “He could have been there for hours, but as fate would have it, Siri was sort of his guardian angel.”

Doctors say during the estimated 40 minutes the teen was under his truck, he sustained three broken ribs, a bruised kidney, a cut on the forehead, and second- and third-degree burns to one arm that was under the exhaust pipe.

However, an accident like this could have easily had a very different outcome, said his doctor, Richard Miller, M.D., Chief of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care and professor of Surgery at Vanderbilt.

Very lucky

“He’s very lucky. He ended up sustaining injuries that are easily recoverable, but it could have potentially been very serious,” Miller said. “A tool like Siri is a modern-day rescue item that we didn’t have in the past and potentially saved him from more serious or long-term complications from his crush injury.”

Of course, the iPhone isn't the only device with a voice-activated interface. Android phones have a similar feature as well. As a safety precaution, perhaps all of us should learn the art of butt-dialing to summon our phones' helper, so that if we find ourselves immobilized we can summon help.

And maybe Apple should think about changing Siri's name to Lassie.

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Smart City fined $750,000 for illegally blocking personal Wi-Fi at meeting halls and convention centers

Company to pay $750K in government fines; $0 in customer refunds

Today the Federal Communications Commission levied a $750,000 fine against Smart City Holdings, LLC (also known as Smart City Networks), for blocking peopl...

PhotoToday the Federal Communications Commission levied a $750,000 fine against Smart City Holdings, LLC (also known as Smart City Networks), for blocking people's personal mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, thus forcing them to pay “substantial fees to use the company's Wi-Fi service,” as the FCC said in a statement.

Smart City provides Wi-Fi for “convention centers and meeting facilities,” according to its website. The fees for individual meeting attendees or convention-goers wishing to use a Smart City connection ran as high as $80 per person per day, according to the FCC.

Otherwise, “Smart City would automatically block users from accessing the Internet when they instead attempted to use their personal cellular data plans to establish mobile Wi-Fi networks – or 'hotspots' – to connect their Wi-Fi-enabled devices to the Internet.”

Furthermore, the FCC says, “No evidence exists that the Wi-Fi blocking occurred in response to a specific security threat to Smart City’s network or the users of its network.”

In addition to paying the fine, Smart City also agreed to stop blocking mobile hotspots.

In a statement, Smart City said -- in effect -- it didn't see that speed limit sign back there.

“We have always acted in good faith, and we had no prior notice that the FCC considered the use of this standardized, ‘available-out-of-the-box’ technology to be a violation of its rules. But when we were contacted by the FCC in October 2014, we ceased using the technology in question," said Smart City President Mark Haley.

Wi-fi blocking

This is the second fine the FCC has levied against companies blocking personal mobile hotspots in order to sell access to their own. Last October, Marriott had to pay $600,000 for disabling personal Wi-Fi at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Despite the fines, neither company has been required to pay refunds to any customers who actually lost money in unnecessary Wi-Fi fees.

Smart City's fine is bigger, possibly because the company committed violations in more than one spot. The FCC said affected locations included convention centers in Ohio, Indiana, Florida and Arizona.

Both companies' actions violated the Communications Act of 1934, section 333 of which says “No person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to” authorized radio communications.

Various hotel and convention companies, including Marriott and Hilton, have tried or are trying to persuade the FCC to amend its rules, so that hotels, convention centers, and similar businesses would be allowed to block all personal Wi-Fi or broadband connections as they pleased, and make it impossible for visitors or guests to connect with the outside world unless they pay the hotel or convention center's hefty Wi-Fi fees.

Won't fight charges

In a statement to the media, Smart City president Mark Haley said that the company had no idea it was doing anything wrong, only ever used Wi-Fi blockers for legitimate security reasons. 

It stopped using Wi-Fi blockers last October after the FCC demanded it, blocked less than 1 percent of anyone's devices anyway, and is only paying the fine because fighting it would be an expensive distraction.

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Pork pushers challenged over "Other White Meat" slogan

You won't hear the Presidential candidates arguing about this in Iowa

Walk down any office building hallway in Washington and you will agree that there is truly an organization for everything -- peanuts, pearls and especially...

PhotoWalk down any office building hallway in Washington and you will agree that there is truly an organization for everything -- peanuts, pearls and especially beef, veal and pork.

American meat-eaters finance not only the giant livestock operations that bring plastic-wrapped steaks and chops to the supermarket but also large lobbying operations that are semi-governmental in nature.

These lobbying organizations are financed by what is called the "checkoff" -- each time a hog is processed, for example, a small fee is collected to support the activities of the National Pork Board, a semi-governmental agency that, under its charter from the U.S. Agriculture Department, is charged with educating consumers about pork, which of course means promoting it and encouraging its consumption.

The Pork Board, like most governmental agencies, doesn't do much of anything itself, instead farming it out to contractors, including the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), basically a lobbying and p.r. agency which is heavily involved in everything from immigration policy to clean water laws. 

The Other

A few years ago, the NPPC came up with the advertising campaign that used the slogan "Pork: The Other White Meat."

The idea was that pork, like chicken, is lower in cholesterol than -- say -- beef. Veal used to make similar claims. The campaign never exactly went viral and was axed in 2011 when the pork council started a new campaign dubbed "Get Inspired."

But not wanting to bid farewell forever to the pork platitudes, the pork board continues to pay its merry band of lobbyists, the pork council, $3 million a year for the rights to the slogan.

It is to this that The Humane Society takes exception, saying the NPPC uses the money to fight the society's advocacy for humane care for farm animals.

"HSUS must expend additional resources to counter the improper actions of the board and NPPC arising from the unlawful checkoff expenditures at issue," the animal rights group charges in a lawsuit, Courthouse News Service reports.

Since U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack approves the pork board's annual budget, the Humane Society named him as the defendant to its lawsuit.

Pig prices

Joining the Humane Society in the case is pork farmer Harvey Dillenburg, who argues that his checkoff assessments are being misused. The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement is the other plaintiff in the case.

The Humane Society says pork lobby money also worked to block the passage of the Egg Products Inspection Act, a bill that would provide humane improvements in the living conditions for the nation's egg-laying hens.

The case was dismissed in 2013 on the grounds that the Humane Society did not have standing to sue but it was reinstated by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., which held that Dillenburg did have standing and the case could therefore move forward.

"The board's replacement of the mark with Pork: Be Inspired justifies the inference that the mark is no longer worth $3 million annually," Judge Nina Pillard said, writing for the three-judge panel.

Dillenburg says he could sell his hogs at a higher price if the board put redirected its overpayments to NPPC on legitimate advertising that would increase the demand for pork.

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Domestic air fares head higher in the first quarter

That doesn't even count things like baggage and pillow fees

Getting from here to there cost you more in the first 3 months of this year. The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS)...

PhotoGetting from here to there cost you more in the first 3 months of this year.

The Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reports the average domestic air fare rose 1.7%, or an inflation-adjusted $388, from the same period a year ago.

BTS reports average fares based on domestic itinerary fares, which consist of round-trip fares, unless the customer does not purchase a return trip. In that case, the one-way fare is included. One-way trips accounted for 34 percent of fares calculated for the first quarter of 2015.

Fares are based on the total ticket value, which consists of the price charged by the airlines plus any additional taxes and fees levied by an outside entity at the time of purchase. Fares include only the price paid at the time of the ticket purchase and do not include fees for optional services, such as baggage fees.

Averages do not include frequent-flyer or “zero fares,” or abnormally high reported fares. Constant 2015 dollars are used for inflation adjustment.

Inflation-adjusted air fares

First-quarter fares rose 7.9% from the recession-affected low of $348 in 2009 to the first quarter of 2011. Since 2011, first-quarter fares have shown little change, increasing 3.3% from 2011 to 2015.

The first-quarter 2015 fare was down 18.2% from the average fare of $475 in 1999 -- the highest inflation-adjusted first quarter average fare in the 20 years since BTS began collecting air fare records in 1995. That decline took place while overall consumer prices rose 43.1%.

Since 1995, inflation-adjusted fares declined 16.1% compared with a 56.0% increase in overall consumer prices.

U.S. passenger airlines collected 74.6% of their total revenue from passenger fares during the first quarter of 2015, versus 1995 when 87.6% of airline revenue was received from fares.

Quarter-to-quarter change

In the 3-year period from the first quarter of 2012 to the first quarter of 2015, inflation-adjusted fares increased 1.2%. In the 2-year period from the first quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2015, inflation-adjusted fares increased 1.3%.

The complete report is available on the Labor Department website.

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Three sources of water damage inside your home

Sewer backups, leaking washing machine hoses and water heater failures can cause major damage

Most homeowners are worried about flooding from outside -- a heavy rain that floods your basement or damage from an overflowing river or stream.But the...

PhotoMost homeowners are worried about flooding from outside -- a heavy rain that floods your basement or damage from an overflowing river or stream.

But there are three ways that water can cause flooding from inside your home and do as much or more damage. The first is perhaps the nastiest – a sewer backup.

Waste water moves from your home to a municipal sewage treatment plant or private septic field through a drain pipe. If an obstruction occurs in the pipe, waste water will back up, spilling into your home through toilets and drains.

The obstruction doesn't always originate from inside the house. Very often tree roots will enter sewer pipes where links are joined together. The roots can catch hair and debris and quickly cause a backup.

Three signs of trouble

According to Roto-Rooter, there are 3 signs you've got a sewer line problem; a foul stench coming from drains; slow draining bathtubs or laundry lines, or if the use of other fixtures associated with your main line leads to water backup in places such as toilets or showers. Have a plumber snake out the line at the first sign of trouble.

Washing machines

A washing machine is another potential source of indoor water damage. The appliance is connected to an open water spigot by a small length of hose. Should that hose fail, it's like leaving an open faucet running.

In January a group of New Jersey consumers filed suit against Samsung, claiming its top-load washers were especially prone to drain failure.

Assuming there are no flaws in the appliance, consumers can protect themselves by inspecting the hose connections on a regular basis, or turning off the water spigots when the machine is not in use. Check the manufacturer's recommendation for how often to replace the hoses.

Water heater

A third source of indoor flooding is your water heater. Tucked away in a closet, you probably don't give it a moment's thought. But if it should spring a leak, it can sends thousands of gallons of water spilling onto your floors until you discover it and turn off the water main.

A leak in a water heater in the Union County, Pa., Government Center unleashed 2,000 gallons of water in early July, affecting about 12,000 square feet of the building. The estimated repair cost totaled $100,000. All of the damage was caused by a leak in a 30-gallon water heater, smaller than many of the ones found in residences.

It's a good idea to flush the water heater tank twice a year to eliminate sediment buildup. Putting in an inexpensive drip pan below the water heater that drains to the outside of the property can help prevent thousands of dollars in water damage in many cases.

Age is a big factor in water heater failure. Many water heater manufacturers estimate the lifespan of these appliances to be 8 to 12 years, so replacing a unit when it is nearing this age can be good insurance policy against unwanted damage.

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Student sues school alleging damage from wi-fi transmissions

There's little agreement about whether wi-fi sensitivity is real, however

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome is well-known to viewers of the AMC series "Better Call Saul," in which the main character's brother believes he ...

PhotoElectromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome is well-known to viewers of the AMC series "Better Call Saul," in which the main character's brother believes he suffers from the supposed disorder.

There's some controversy about whether the syndrome really exists because of the lack of scientific verification so far. But those who say they suffer from it demand accommodation, among them a 12-year-old boy and his parents who are suing the Fay School, a private boarding school in the Boston area, claiming the school's wi-fi system has aggravated their son's debilitating sensitivity to wi-fi emissions.

According to the lawsuit the Fay School installed a high-powered wi-fi system in spring 2013. A short time later, the child -- referred to as "G" -- began coming home with headaches, itchy skin and rashes, which would disappear over the weekend and holidays, Courthouse News Service reported.

The situation worsened during the 2014 academic year, when G frequently had to leave school early, the lawsuit charges. 

"Exposure to Wi-Fi emissions at the levels emitted by the type of Wi-Fi to which the children are exposed in Fay classrooms causes, in those persons affected, most notably children, the symptoms of EHS, which include severe headaches, fatigue, stress, sleep disturbances, skin symptoms such as prickling, burning sensations and rashes, muscle aches, nausea, nose bleeds, dizziness and heart palpitations," the lawsuit states.

ADA invoked

The parents sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying the school refused to accommodate their son's condition.

"G's continued exposure to the high-density Wi-Fi emissions, without any attempt at a reasonable accommodation by Fay to avoid or minimize them, violates the ADA," the complaint states.

The suit includes a statement by Martin Blank, a Columbia University professor who has researched the issue.

"I can say with conviction, in light of the science, and in particular in light of the cellular and DNA science, which has been my focus at Columbia University for several decades, putting radiating antennas in schools (and in close proximity to developing children) is an uninformed choice," Blank wrote.

But a National Institutes of Health 2009 double-blind study found that when both the researchers and the test subjects were not aware whether or not they were actually being exposed to electromagnetic activity, symptoms of electromagnetic hypersensitivity vanished.

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Mobile app that blocks illegal robocalls wins FTC cash prize

“Billions of unwanted robocalls” could be blocked

Builders of a mobile app that blocks and forwards robocalls to a crowd-sourced honeypot are the big winners in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Robocalls...

PhotoBuilders of a mobile app that blocks and forwards robocalls to a crowd-sourced honeypot are the big winners in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back contest.

A honeypot is an information system that may be used by government, private, and academic partners to lure and analyze robocalls.

The $25,000 cash prize went to Ethan Garr and Bryan Moyles, who created a solution called RoboKiller, which relies on universally available call forwarding that works on both landline and mobile phones, and uses audio-fingerprint technology to identify robocalls.

“We hope the winners bring their dynamic solutions to the marketplace soon,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Their products may block billions of unwanted robocalls, and help people report illegal robocallers to law enforcement.”

RoboKiller gives consumers greater control over how and when they receive calls by sending robocalls to a SpamBox that consumers can access at any time. It utilizes consumer-controlled white and black list filtering, and provides personalized setting options.

DetectaRobo competition

Judges also determined the winners of the FTC’s DetectaRobo analytic challenge, which was hosted in June 2015 in connection with the National Day of Civic Hacking. This contest did not include a monetary prize. Winners are as follows:

Champion RoboSleuth

  • Ved Deshpande and M. Henry Linder (Team HaV)

Master RoboSleuths (Runners-up)

  • Sridhar Ramakrishnan and Shuping Liu (Team Milibo)
  • Charles Julian Knight, Taylor Kelley, Ian Moraes, Rohan Smith, Will Mavis, John Cowhig, Sean Browning, James Albert Snow, and Pablo River (Team RDAC)

DetectaRobo contestants analyzed call data from an existing robocall honeypot and developed algorithms that identified which calls in the data set were likely robocalls.

The winning teams employed similar strategies in examining particular data categories such as temporal information and area codes, and applied machine learning techniques.

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Court shuts down Cold Begone supplements manufacturer

Iowa Select Herbs made unsubstantiated claims, didn't use proper quality control, feds charged

Besides pork, corn and early Presidential primaries, Iowa has been a producer of dietary supplements but one major supplier has been sh...

Photo
Source: Google

Besides pork, corn and early Presidential primaries, Iowa has been a producer of dietary supplements but one major supplier has been shut down by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa.

The court entered a permanent injunction against Iowa Select Herbs, which manufactures and distributes a variety of dietary supplements, consisting primarily of extracts from various plants, including papaya leaf, echinacea, elderberry and nettle leaf. 

The firm also produces a product called “Cold BeGone,” which purports to be a complex of natural ingredients that cure the common cold. 

The company and its owners marketed their products online and through online marketplace websites, such as eBay Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and buy.com.  They also sold their products through a retail location in Cedar Rapids. 

The Justice Department earlier filed a complaint on behalf of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alleging that the company’s dietary supplements are manufactured under conditions that are inadequate to ensure the quality of its products. 

The complaint also alleged that the firm’s dietary supplements qualify as unapproved and misbranded drugs in that they claim to treat or prevent a variety of diseases, including cancer, malaria and heart disease, but have never been submitted to FDA for approval, and have never been found safe and effective for those purposes. 

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New home construction inches upward in July

Permits for future construction was another story

Construction of privately-owned housing rose in July for a second straight month. According to figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Depar...

PhotoConstruction of privately-owned housing rose in July for the second straight month.

According to figures released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing starts were up 0.2% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,206,000.

Single-family housing was the source of what little strength there was, rising 12.8% to a rate of 782,000. Construction of buildings with five units or more was at a rate of 413,000 -- down 85,000 units from June.

On a year-over-year basis, overall residential construction ran 10.1% above the July 2014 rate.

Building permits

The outlook for home construction in the months ahead does not show a lot of promise.

Privately-owned housing units authorized by building permits were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,119,000 in July -- 16.3 % below the revised June rate of 1,337,000. Still, that's 7.5% above a year earlier.

Permits for single-family construction fell 1.9% to a rate of 679,000. Authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 412,000, a decline of 199,000 from the previous month.

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

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FAA proposes civil penalty against Southwest Airlines

A Boeing 737 apparently was not in compliance with federal regs

Southwest Airlines is in trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The agency is proposing a $325,000 civil penalty against the Dallas-based...

PhotoSouthwest Airlines is in trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The agency is proposing a $325,000 civil penalty against the Dallas-based carrier for allegedly operating a Boeing 737 that was not in compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations.

On July 9, 2014, an FAA inspector performed an aging aircraft inspection on the Boeing 737 while it was at a maintenance facility in San Salvador, El Salvador. According to the FAA, the inspector discovered that Southwest improperly recorded a temporary repair to an approximately nine-inch crease in the aluminum skin of the jetliner’s rear cargo door as a permanent repair.

The agency says the inspector discovered that this fuselage damage had first been reported in airline's maintenance records on May 2, 2002, which is when the airline made the temporary repair. The airline was required to inspect the temporary repair every 4,000 flights and complete a permanent repair within 24,000 flights.

However, the FAA alleges the airline operated the aircraft on 24,831 flights without performing the periodic inspections required for the temporary repair. It further claims Southwest operated the plane on 4,831 flights beyond the flight threshold by which it was required to have performed the permanent repair. The final repair was completed on July 24, 2014.

Southwest has asked to meet with the FAA to discuss the case.

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Varying costs may make having a pet very expensive

The social status of pets is on the rise, and many U.S. cities are catering to the needs of pet owners

The importance that families place on pets is increasing as time goes on. Pet owners across the country consider their pets as members of the family; they ...

PhotoThe importance that families place on pets is increasing as time goes on. Pet owners across the country consider their pets as members of the family; they travel with us, eat with us, and are constant companions around the house. This increased status is reflected in the amount of money we spend on them every year. A recent study estimated that $60.59 billion will be spent on U.S. pets in 2015.

Anyone who has a pet knows that the cost of caring for it can sometimes be exorbitant. We open our wallets for things like pet food, grooming, veterinary visits, and medicine – just to name a few. Depending on the type of animal you have, or where you got it, pets can cost $235-$2,000 a year due to different expenses.

The price of buying a pet has certainly gone up, and this is especially true if you choose to buy from a breeder. Many people shell out excessive amounts of money to buy a pet that is pure-bred; you should be careful, though. Pure-bred pets can develop a host of medical problems as they mature that stem from their genetics. You may end up paying for it for years to come, and there is usually very little that you can do about it. If you want a pet but don’t have a lot of money to spend, try looking at your local animal shelter. They usually have the best prices, and most pets will already have their shots taken care of.

Most pet-friendly cities

A recent study conducted by WalletHub, a financial website, compared the pet-friendliness of the 100 largest U.S. cities. They graded each city on several different factors, such as the number and quality of available veterinarians, pet businesses, and dog parks. There were 16 different metrics that were measured in all.

Overall, Cincinnati came out on top as the best city for pet lovers. Although they were the best overall city, there were others that performed best in certain categories. For example, the least expensive medical care for pets could be found in Stockton, California; San Francisco was the best city to dine with your pet, since they had the most pet-friendly restaurants; and the city of Portland, Oregon had the most dog parks per capita.

A fully detailed report of the study’s findings can be found here

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There is no place like home for Millennials

Statistics show that more Millennials are choosing to live at home with their parents

Here’s a question for those of you who may have older children: how many times have you told them that they can always come back home? Well, this well-know...

PhotoHere’s a question for those of you who may have older children: how many times have you told them that they can always come back home? Well, this well-known and comforting offer is being taken to heart by millennials these days. Many younger adults, even those who have a high success rate at getting jobs, are still bunking at home with mom and dad. A new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data shows that more millennials are living at home now than they were in the depths of the recession.

The Millennial Generation is made up of younger people, generally ranging in age from 18-34. Statistics show that this age group is becoming less and less inclined to live out on their own. Unemployment has been a major determining factor for this phenomenon, but even more Millennials are living home now than they were in 2010 when the recession was at its peak. This begs the question of what might be causing this shift.

Financial instability

Researchers believe that there may be several possible answers. An earlier Pew report showed that marriage rates were on the decline, and that more 18-24-year-olds were going to college. Those that have chosen to pursue higher education have also found that they have contributed to one of the largest student debt deficits in the history of the country. This financial instability has forced many to cut corners and tighten their belts – and where better to do this than with your parents?

Millennials who did not go to college are no better off for their decision, though; they are still living at home as well. The struggling job market hasn’t improved very much for these Millennials when compared to their college-bound peers. Unemployment has left many younger adults depending on family members to survive.

Living at home with mom and dad might not be all that bad, though. According to a Clark University poll of parents with children between the ages of 18-29, 61 percent say that living together has been mostly positive. 67 percent say that it even managed to make them feel closer to their children.

Although it might be good that families are creating stronger bonds, more Millennials living at home certainly does not bode well for the economy. With fewer young people looking for houses to buy or rent, many businesses have begun to suffer. These include utility companies, furniture stores, and home and garden stores, to name a few. So while this young generation is looking to find their bearings, other parts of society may be incentivized to help them out. 

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Givaudan Flavors recalls beef tallow products

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

Givaudan Flavors Corporation of Florence, Ky., is recalling approximately 3,950 pounds of beef tallow products produced in Australia. The products were no...

PhotoGivaudan Flavors Corporation of Florence, Ky., is recalling approximately 3,950 pounds of beef tallow products produced in Australia.

 

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

 

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

 

The following beef tallow products, manufactured by York Foods Pty. Limited, Australia - Establishment 133 and were imported through Chicago, are being recalled:

  • 50-lb. bags of generically labeled, powdered “Givaudan Flavors Corporation NATURAL BEEF FLAVOR WONF.”

The recall products bear the Batch numbers DV00130741, DV00130967, DV00134737 and DV00136669 on the label, and were produced on May 15, May 18, July 7 and July 30, 2015.

 

The beef tallow was used in the production of the powdered beef flavor which was then shipped to locations in Ohio and Texas for further processing.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Kate Dailey at (513) 948-4905.  

 

 

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AT&T helped NSA spy on United Nations, foreign emails and 1.1 billion US phone calls per day

Company's cooperation with spy agency stands out even by dismal post-9/11 privacy standards

This has been an especially rough summer for the poor devils working in AT&T's public relations department (to say nothing of the poor devils who are actua...

PhotoThis has been an especially rough summer for the poor devils working in AT&T;'s public relations department (to say nothing of the poor devils who are actual AT&T; customers). Two months ago, the feds levied a record-breaking $100 million fine against the company for its practice of throttling the connections of unlimited data customers – to the extent that customers with “unlimited” plans actually got as little as one-sixth as much data per billing period as was available to customers of AT&T;'s then-lowest metered-data plan.

(The company is fighting the fine in court, arguing that its data-throttling activities didn't actually harm any consumers, and the fine should be reduced from $100 million to no more than $16,000.)

Though perhaps the throttled-data folks did turn out to be the lucky ones. After all: the less data you send and receive over AT&T;'s network, the less data AT&T; can share with the Feds about you. Just yesterday, ProPublica and the New York Times reported that an in-depth analysis of documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden shows that AT&T; has shown an “extreme willingness to help” the National Security Agency spy on people's electronic communications, to the point where, by 2011, the company gave the NSA more than a billion domestic cellphone records every single day, as the Times said:

In 2011, AT&T; began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the N.S.A. after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” according to an internal [NSA] newsletter. This revelation is striking because after Mr. Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.

Mass surveillance 

This domestic (in-country) spying is in addition to what the company is doing in the rest of the world: “by 2013 the program was processing 60 million foreign-to-foreign emails a day.”

But American citizens and residents, plus email address holders throughout the world, aren't the only ones AT&T; is monitoring on behalf of the NSA; the company also helped the agency spy on all Internet traffic at United Nations headquarters in New York City. (Previous Snowden documents said that such activities were going on, but didn't identify the telecom responsible.) The United Nations paid AT&T; $1 million per year to operate its fiber optic network.

Of course, AT&T; is hardly the only company turning over massive amounts of data to the NSA. Remember that in summer 2013, when news first broke of secret documents confirming that the NSA and FBI were indeed engaged in mass surveillance of pretty much everything that went through the central servers of leading U.S. Internet companies (and before former NSA contractor Edward Snowden publicly revealed himself to be the source), initial reports mentioned nine Internet companies cooperating with the program: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

Meanwhile, the first telecom named as part of the surveillance program was not AT&T; but Verizon, as Glenn Greenwald reported for the Guardian on June 6, 2013: “The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.”

Decades-long partnership with government

So why is AT&T; singled out for special attention? Partly because the public has only now learned certain AT&T-specific; details, but mainly because even by post-9/11 standards, wherein American companies and organizations can be legally obligated to both support government spying efforts and say nothing about it (thus giving rise to the practice of “warrant canaries”), AT&T; has been unusually willing to cooperate with the National Security Agency. Other companies might be forced to hand data over to the government, whereas AT&T; is more likely to volunteer.

For that matter, AT&T;'s partnership with the NSA apparently started in 1985, well before the 9/11 terrorist attacks offered any justification for mass government surveillance.

In 1984, the old “Ma Bell” telephone monopoly was broken up, with pieces of it transformed into other companies. Ma Bell's former long-distance division became AT&T; Communications. The following year, that new company became a secret partner in the NSA's then-new “Fairview” program.

Not that AT&T; or the NSA has admitted to this; such information only became disclosed yesterday, after the New York Times and ProPublica deciphered the NSA documents and published their findings. As ProPublica said:

An analysis of the Fairview documents by The Times and ProPublica reveals a constellation of evidence that points to AT&T; as that program’s partner. Several former intelligence officials confirmed that finding. A Fairview fiber-optic cable, damaged in the 2011 earthquake in Japan, was repaired on the same date as a Japanese-American cable operated by AT&T.; Fairview documents use technical jargon specific to AT&T.; And in 2012, the Fairview program carried out the court order for surveillance on the Internet line, which AT&T; provides, serving the United Nations headquarters.

Indeed, the NSA's very ability to capture mass Internet traffic on American soil is based on the agency's “extraordinary, decadeslong partnership” with AT&T.;

"Extreme willingness to help"

One internal NSA document described the collaboration with AT&T; as “highly collaborative” and another praised the company for its “extreme willingness to help.”

Despite all of this, AT&T; has publicly maintained that it shares people's private data with the government “only to the extent required by the law,” as it said in a December 2013 letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (.pdf here).

More recently, AT&T; spokesman Brad Burns said in a joint statement to ProPublica and the New York Times that “We do not voluntarily provide information to any investigating authorities other than if a person’s life is in danger and time is of the essence.”

In light of the 1.1 billion American cellphone calling records which AT&T; shares with the NSA every single day, compared to the 318.9 million people who live in the United States, Burns' statement and that previous SEC filing suggest one of two possibilities must be true:

1. On average, a typical American citizen or resident gets kidnapped, held hostage or otherwise in need of time-sensitive life-saving surveillance-requiring police assistance more than three times per day, every day; or

2. The extent of spying and surveillance “required by the law” is far greater than anybody previously imagined.

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Percentage of income needed to pay rent at all-time high

Real estate site Zillow calls current rents "crazy"

Rents have been going up for some time now, but real estate marketplace site Zillow reports the increases lately have gotten “crazy.”While mortgages re...

PhotoRents have been going up for some time now, but real estate marketplace site Zillow reports the increases lately have gotten “crazy.”

While mortgages remain affordable by historical standards, Zillow proclaims renting is “less affordable than ever before.” That determination is based on Zillow's analysis of U.S. rental and mortgage affordability in the second quarter of 2015.

The analysis suggests people who buy homes should expect to pay 15.1% of their income towards mortgage payments, which is still less than what they spent historically. From 1985 through 2000, homeowners spent about 21.3% of their monthly income on mortgage payments.

But if you are renting, Zillow says you should expect to put 30.2% of your monthly income toward rent – the highest percentage on record. Before the real estate bubble and bust, U.S. renters were spending, on average, about 24.4% of their incomes on rent.

Some markets simply unaffordable

In some red hot real estate markets, both buyers and renters are getting squeezed. In Denver and four California metros, both renters and buyers are paying an increasing amount of their income towards either rent or mortgage payments than in pre-bubble years.

And if you happen to be looking for housing in San Jose, Calif., whether buying or renting, you have to commit about 42% of your income to keeping a roof over your head.

“Rents are crazy right now”

"Our research found that unaffordable rents are making it hard for people to save for a down payment and retirement, and that people whose rent is unaffordable are more likely to skip out on their own healthcare," said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. "There are good reasons to rent temporarily – when you move to a new city, for example – but from an affordability perspective, rents are crazy right now. If you can possibly come up with a down payment, then it's a good time to buy a home and start putting your money toward a mortgage."

Even an increase in mortgage payments from an expected rate hike should keep mortgage costs in an affordable range. Zillow says even if rates reach 6% next year, home buyers can still expect to spend 30% or less of their income on mortgage payments in 265 out of 290 of the metros Zillow analyzed. In fact, mortgage payments will be considered more affordable than in pre-bubble years in 72.1% of metros.

Rents are a different story. Those costs are already unaffordable compared to historic norms in 77% of metros. Unless rents come down or consumers start earning more, Zillow sees no improvement in the short-term rental environment.

As we reported last month, a study conducted by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies found that tenants spend more than 30% of their paychecks on housing in nearly 20.7 million renting households.

Financial advisors counsel that you should spend less than a third of your pay on housing costs, but nearly 11 million renters spend more than half of their paychecks on utilities and rent. That's a 37% increase since 2003.

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Oil prices fall but gasoline prices rise

Drivers in the upper Midwest see a surge

Motorists in California and the upper Midwest must be wondering what's up with gasoline prices. While oil prices are plunging and much of the rest of the c...

PhotoMotorists in California and the upper Midwest must be wondering what's up with gasoline prices. While oil prices are plunging and much of the rest of the country has seen prices at the pump fall, those two areas are getting hit hard.

On Friday the price of U.S. crude oil hit its lowest level since the post-financial crisis days of 2009. West Texas crude hit an intraday low of $41.35 a barrel.

But the AAA Fuel Gauge Survey shows gasoline prices are rising. The national average price of self-serve regular is up about 7 cents a gallon in the last week. Prices are up even more in the Chicago area.

GasBuddy.com senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan, who is based in Chicago, Tweeted that prices at one Chicago station rose 30 cents while he was being interviewed about rising gasoline prices.

Disconnect

The disconnect between falling oil prices and skyrocketing gas prices in Chicago and California is blamed on refinery problems. Refineries turn plentiful and cheap crude oil into gasoline, and when refineries slow their output – for whatever reason – it puts a crimp in supplies and prices rise.

Refineries are seeing big increases in profit margins as they are able to buy low and sell high. For that reason refinery stocks have risen on Wall Street in recent weeks. 

This has not escaped notice of state officials in regions where prices are spiking. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has fired off a warning letter to BP, which owns the Whiting, Ind., facility that is experiencing the outage causing the supply bottleneck. He says all major petroleum companies should be more transparent in the case of an outage or other unexpected event.

“As Labor Day weekend approaches, the effects of an outage at a major Indiana petroleum refinery, combined with additional factors, means Michigan families are seeing an increase in the price at the pump. These circumstances do not constitute a free pass for gas stations to gouge consumers,” said Schuette. “We will not tolerate any unscrupulous behavior that violates Michigan law when it comes to gouging and price fixing.”

Michigan sees price surge

While AAA pegs the national average price of gas at around $2.66 a gallon, motorists in the upper Midwest are starting the week paying a lot more. The statewide average in Michigan is now right at $3 a gallon, up more than 50 cents in the last 7 days.

According to AAA, the Detroit metro has the highest prices, averaging about $3.03 a gallon. Saginaw has the lowest, at $2.92.

Motorists in Illinois are paying even more. The statewide average starts the week at about $3.15 a gallon, up about 55 cents in the last seven days.

Drivers in the Chicago metro are feeling the most pain, paying an average of $3.44 a gallon for self-serve regular. In the city of Chicago, gasoline averages $3.61 a gallon.

Drivers in California have been living with high gasoline prices for weeks. The statewide average is about $3.58 a gallon – which Los Angeles motorists paying the most – about $3.84 a gallon.

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Résumé blunders and how to avoid them

For starters, don't address your cover letter to "Hey you"

The first step to landing a good job is crafting a résumé that puts your career in the best possible light. Whether it's your first job or an attempt to ad...

PhotoThe first step to landing a good job is crafting a résumé that puts your career in the best possible light. Whether it's your first job or an attempt to advance, you want a document that can help seal the deal.

Unfortunately, many job seekers present a résumé that not only doesn't advance their cause, it actually sets it back.

Researchers at employment site Careerbuilder.comrecently asked hiring managers about the importance of résumés and how they influence whether someone is hired or not. They learned that 70% of employers spend less than 5 minutes reviewing a résumé and 48% said they spend less than 2 minutes reading it.

That means a job applicant has very little time to grab a prospective employer's attention. Many make the mistake of overselling, and in many cases fabricating qualifications. This will generally doom your chances, hiring managers say.

Embellishing usually backfires

"Job seekers have the unenviable challenge of grabbing – and holding – a hiring manager's attention long enough to make a strong impression," said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder. "Embellishing your résumé to achieve this, however, can ultimately backfire.”

It turns out most hiring managers are willing to consider candidates who do not meet 100% of the qualifications. What they're looking for is a candidate who can prove past achievements and have an ability to learn, show enthusiasm and demonstrate a cultural fit.

According to the survey, 42% of employers would consider a candidate who met only 3 out of 5 key qualifications for a specific role.

The survey collected some of the more memorable résumé blunders hiring managers encountered. The list serves as a powerful reminder to job applicants to just play it straight.

Memorable blunders

Some of the most memorable résumé blunders include:

  • Applicant claimed to be a former CEO of the company to which they were applying.
  • Applicant claimed to be fluent in two languages - one of which was pig Latin.
  • Applicant wrote "whorehouse" instead of "warehouse" when listing work history.
  • Applicant's personal website linked to a porn site.
  • Applicant introduced himself in the cover letter by writing "Hey you" as a greeting.
  • Applicant vying for a customer service position gave "didn't like dealing with angry customers" as the reason for leaving her last job.
  • User name of applicant's email address was "2poopy4mypants."
  • Applicant claimed to be a Nobel Prize winner.
  • Applicant claimed to have worked in a jail when they were really in there serving time.
  • Applicant who claimed to be HVAC certified later asked the hiring manager what "HVAC" meant.
  • Applicant said to have gotten fired "on accident."
  • Applicant claimed to have attended a college that didn't exist.
  • Applicant for a driver position claimed to have 10 years of experience but had only had a driver's license for four years.
  • Applicant listed as a reference an employer from whom they had embezzled money and who had an arrest warrant out for the applicant.
  • Applicant's stated job history had him in three different companies and three different cities simultaneously.

Honesty is still the best policy

After reading the list, you may see a pattern here. Beyond stupidity, it reveals some job applicants flat out lie. They may think they are putting one over on the person across the desk from them, but 9 out of 10 times they aren't.

According to the survey, 56% of job applicants say they have caught a lie on a résumé. Most say job seekers embellish skill sets or past responsibilities. Twenty-eight percent have found job seekers claiming academic degrees they don't have.

You might not think hiring managers check out these claims, but they do.

What works

Some job seekers present résumés that command attention and respect. The researchers learned that what impresses hiring managers the most is a résumé that has been customized for the open position. Nearly half say they expect to receive a cover letter, in addition to the résumé.

Another way to impress a hiring manager is to address them by name in your cover letter.

Getting a job in this economy isn't easy. If your résumé works against you, it's almost impossible.

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Flights return to normal after 400 weekend cancellations

Chaos traced to air traffic control computer upgrade in Virginia

It was a nightmare weekend for air travelers, as an air traffic control automation problem in the East shut down flights and had a ripple effect of delayin...

PhotoIt was a nightmare weekend for air travelers, as an air traffic control automation problem in the East shut down flights and had a ripple effect of delaying and cancelling flights in other areas of the country.

Before it was all over, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said more than 400 flights had been canceled. The agency took to Facebook on Sunday to report conditions had returned to normal and it was working with airlines who were still repositioning equipment and personnel.

The chaos was traced to a computer glitch.

Statement

“The FAA is focusing on a recent software upgrade at a high-altitude radar facility in Leesburg, Va., as the possible source of yesterday's automation problems,” the FAA statement said.

The upgrade was designed to provide additional tools for air traffic controllers. The FAA said the new features have been disabled while both the agency and the system contractor complete their assessment.

“There is no indication that the problem is related to any inherent problems with the En Route Automation Modernization system, which has had a greater than 99.99% availability rate since it was completed nationwide earlier this year,” the FAA said.

The agency also said the problem was not related to hacking.

Disruption

ConsumerAffairs heard from one United Airlines passenger, Sonia of Palm Harbor, Fla., about how the incident disrupted her family's weekend plans.

“When I arrived at Newark, N.J., there were some problems with air traffic control and my flight was cancelled,” Sonia wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “This was distressing because my son was on his way to the Junior Olympics and was supposed to have been there that evening and did not make it.”

Sonia reports it took 18 hours to eventually reach her destination in Norfolk, Va.

Southwest Airlines won praise from John G. Hickey, who said the budget carrier did a good job of keeping passengers informed.

"Nice job SWA proactive information other airlines could learn from your approach," Hickey said on Southwest's Facebook page.

Shelli Mathews, however, had no kind words for Delta: "Worst experience of my traveling life. Never will fly Delta again. Oh, and I'm still in the baggage drop line," she said in a comment posted early Monday.

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Builder confidence at highest point in nearly 10 years in August

The “gradual strengthening” continues

Another increase this month for builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes. in August rose one point to a level of 61 on The...

PhotoAnother increase this month for builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes.

 

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) is up 1 point this month to a level of 61 -- the highest reading since November 2005.

 

The report, said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe, “is consistent with our forecast for a gradual strengthening of the single-family housing sector in 2015. Job and economic gains should keep the market moving forward at a modest pace throughout the rest of the year.”

 

Derived from a monthly survey, the HMI gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next 6 months as “good,” “fair” or “poor.” The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.” Scores for each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

 

The builders' view

 

Two of the 3 HMI components posted gains in August. The index measuring buyer traffic increased 2 points to 45 and the component gauging current sales conditions rose 1 point to 66. The index charting sales expectations in the next 6 months held steady at 70.

 

Looking at the 3-month moving averages for regional HMI scores, the West and Midwest each rose 3 points to 63 and 58, respectively. The South posted a 2-point gain to 63 while the Northeast held steady at 46.

 

“The fact the builder confidence has been in the low 60s for 3 straight months shows that single-family housing is making slow but steady progress,” said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods, a home builder from Blue Springs, Mo. “However, we continue to hear that builders face difficulties accessing land and labor.”  

 

 

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Feds probe Ford headlight failures ... again

Headlights fail without warning in some models, consumers complain

Federal safety regulators have opened a second investigation into headlight failures in 2003-2005 Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis sedans....

PhotoFederal safety regulators have opened a second investigation into headlight failures in 2003-2005 Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis sedans.

There have been at least 15 crashes and one injury out of more than 3,0000 incidents reported by consumers to Ford and safety regulators. Drivers reported running off the road, colliding with other cars and, in one instance, hitting a deer when their headlights failed.

In October 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration analyzed 605 reports from consumers involving headlight failure after it was petition by the North Carolina Consumers Council, Inc.

The complaints indicate failures of both low-beam headlights, a defect condition that had been evaluated in an earlier investigation.

Most consumers indicated that the headlights failed suddenly and without warning leaving the driver with no forward lighting, however some report the headlights flickered or dimmed prior to turning off.

In some cases drivers were able to turn the headlights back on after a period of time while others reported the headlights would not come back on at all. Consumers noted they were able to hold the "flash to pass" lever on the steering column mounted stalk to activate the high beams.

Ford's records

In April 2015, NHTSA asked Ford if it had any similar reports and Ford produced 3,092 complaints of failed headlights related to the Lighting Control Module (LCM), a device that controls the headlights and other lighting functions.

The Ford complaints included 11 reports alleging a crash occurred. These drivers reported hitting objects, including other vehicles after the headlights failed causing damage to the affected vehicles. One driver was injured when his car struck an unseen object in the road, jerking the steering wheel from his hands and injuring his shoulder.

NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation has agreed to open an investigation into the reports to "assess the scope, frequency, and safety-related consequences of the alleged defect."

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Pleasant House Bakery recalls steak and chicken products

The products were not inspected and contain allergens

Pleasant House Bakery of Chicago, Ill., is recalling an undetermined amount of steak and chicken pie products. The products, distributed without the bene...

PhotoPleasant House Bakery of Chicago, Ill., is recalling an undetermined amount of steak and chicken pie products.

 

The products, distributed without the benefit of inspection, were also missing the ingredient statement and contain undeclared allergens, including eggs, milk, and wheat.

 

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

 

The following steak and chicken pie items, produced between January 1, 2014, and August 14, 2015, are being recalled:

  • 10-oz. of individually wrapped product labeled “Steak & Ale Pie.”
  • 10-oz. of individually wrapped product labeled “Chicken Balti Pie.”

The products were distributed to restaurants and retail establishments in Chicago, Ill. and New Buffalo, Mich.

 

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Arthur Jackson at (312) 804-5247.

 

 

 

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Nissan Maximas with possible fuel tank issue recalled

Fuel may leak from the tank during a crash

Nissan North America is recalling 5,458 model year 2016 Nissan Maximas manufactured March 19, 2015, to June 2, 2015. Due to an improperly installed o-rin...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 5,458 model year 2016 Nissan Maximas manufactured March 19, 2015, to June 2, 2015.

 

Due to an improperly installed o-ring that may not have been seated correctly at the time of assembly, fuel may leak during a crash from the area where the fuel sending unit attaches to the fuel tank. This could increase the risk of a fire in the event of a crash.

 

The remedy for this recall is still under development. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-647-7261.

 

 

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AT&T showed "extreme willingness" to help NSA spy on Americans, report alleges

More than its competitors, AT&T said to be an eager participant in government spying

AT&T outshone its competitor Verizon in at least one area in recent years -- it bent over backwards to help the National Security Agency (NSA) spy on Ameri...

PhotoAT&T; outshone its competitor Verizon in at least one area in recent years -- it bent over backwards to help the National Security Agency (NSA) spy on Americans' Internet usage, according to The New York Times, which based its report on classified documents released by Edward Snowden.

One document cited AT&T; for its "extreme willingness to help" the NSA get access to billions of emails. The company also provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order allowing the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations, the report in Sunday's editions said.

The Snowden documents have given added credence to earlier allegations that AT&T; was an active partner in NSA's spying efforts. In 2006, a class action lawsuit charged that AT&T; had granted the NSA access to its vast database of customer information.

The NSA's secret budget for its AT&T; program was more than twice as large as similar programs with its nearest competitor and included the installation of surveillance equipment at 17 of its Internet hubs, far more than Verizon.

Still operating?

Whether the surveillance programs are still operating isn't known. After Snowden's revelations two years ago, a public outcry supposedly led to the suspension of at least some of the NSA's domestic spying activities.

But while saying it has cut back on some of its spying activities, the federal government continues to fight efforts to make details of the programs public. Federal law makes it a crime to reveal the existence of classified programs but no law makes it a crime to lie to the public about the existence or non-existence of such programs.

The Obama Administration recently argued in a court case that public discussion of telecom surveillance would make any such programs ineffective and pose a threat to national security.

Federal officials, long accustomed to what some might call the lap-dog behavior of the old-line telecom companies, have been perplexed by the attempts of Internet newcomers to thwart government efforts to spy on their customers.

In May, a coalition of privacy groups and tech companies urged President Obama to veto any legislation expanding federal surveillance after FBI Director James Comey suggested that Congress make it illegal for tech companies to encrypt customer communications. Comey said he found it "depressing" that companies would try to protect their customers against rampant surveillance.

"Collect everything"

Last September, Apple CEO Tim Cook obliquely criticized the government's efforts to enlist private companies in its surveillance activities.

“I don’t think that the country or the government’s found the right balance. I think they erred too much on the collect everything side. And I think the [U.S.] president and the [Obama] administration is committed to kind of moving that pendulum back,” Cook said in a televised interview.

Cook also said that Apple,had "never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services." Observers noted at the time the Cook did not deny that Apple may have provided information to the government, merely that it had not allowed the feds to reach in and grab it.

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10 best new car deals in August

Kelley Blue Book rates the best leases, incentives, and financing

August is typically a good month to buy a new car. Manufacturers are rolling out the next model year in full force and dealers come up with all sorts of in...

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Think gas prices are low? Maybe they should be lower

Falling oil prices have not directly translated to lower gas prices in the U.S.

The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is coming up at the end of this month, truly one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. It was also 10 ...

PhotoThe tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is coming up at the end of this month, truly one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. It was also 10 years ago that gasoline prices skyrocketed and have yet to really fall back to earth.

Katrina caused extensive damage to Gulf of Mexico drilling rigs and refineries along the Louisiana and Texas coasts, interrupting the supply of refined fuel products. It was precisely at that point that prices of petroleum products began to be influenced more by the future markets than by oil producers.

For example, the price of oil in 2004 was $37.66 a barrel, about the price it is today in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2006, the price of a barrel of oil averaged $58.30 and kept going up until it peaked in 2008 at over $90 a barrel.

Gas was $1.85 in 2004

What happened to the price of gasoline was even more dramatic. In 2004, the average price of gasoline was $1.85 a gallon. In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina, the average was $2.57 a gallon.

Brian, a reader from Utah, reminded us of this recently and asked why gasoline prices, which seem low at a national average price of $2.65, aren't even lower. Since a barrel of oil is now selling for roughly what it did in 2004 – before Hurricane Katrina sent it soaring – why isn't gasoline priced at around $1.85 a gallon, the way it was then?

It's a good question with an interesting answer. It starts with the business assumption that prices should always go up and rarely come down. When prices rise businesses expand, building more infrastructure and hiring more employees. When prices go down, their profit margins are squeezed.

Role of refineries

If cars ran on unrefined crude oil, then you could make a strong case that fuel prices should be completely based on the price of oil. But crude oil has to go through refineries to be turned into gasoline. These refineries then have to distribute gasoline to stations around the country.

One reason oil prices are so low is that there is a supply glut. Producers are pumping so much they are running out of places to store it. Refineries can only handle so much, so they can become something of a bottleneck. When a refinery reduces output for maintenance, or because of a breakdown or accident, it reduces supply and drives up the price. This seems to happen a lot more now than it did in the past.

On the other hand, demand for gasoline continues to grow, but the U.S. isn't expanding its refinery capacity as fast as demand is rising. That said, refineries have plenty of gasoline.

Supply and demand

Refineries are able to keep a certain balance between domestic supply and demand of gasoline by increasing exports of the fuel – which they have been doing for some time.

Check out this data from the Energy Information Administration. It shows U.S. gasoline exports surged in late 2010 and have steadily increased ever since.

In January 2010 the U.S. exported 6.8 million barrels of gasoline. By January 2011 it had doubled. In January 2015 the U.S. exported 16 million barrels of finished motor gasoline.

Why isn't there a national energy policy that would ensure plentiful supplies of gasoline and avoid abrupt price swings? It would be great for consumers, but, frankly, neither of the two political parties seem interested.

Republicans are ideologically inclined not to interfere with markets. Democrats don't like fossil fuels and are not particularly interested in making them less expensive and more attractive.

So to answer Brian's question, when it comes to gasoline prices, what goes up may come down, just not all the way.

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When to buy travel insurance and when to skip it

Read the fine print before making a decision

Chances are you can't buy an airline ticket or book a cruise without being asked if you'd like to buy some travel insurance too.If you're the kind of c...

PhotoChances are you can't buy an airline ticket or book a cruise without being asked if you'd like to buy some travel insurance too.

If you're the kind of consumer who hates any kind of risk, you might automatically agree. If you're the kind of consumer who thinks travel insurance is always a waste of money, you're likely to say no.

Both consumers could be wrong.

Travel insurance might be a waste of money for some trips, but it could save you thousands of dollars on others. The trick is knowing which trips are worth it.

Read the fine print

Travel insurance is like any other insurance. The more protection it provides, the more it is likely to cost. Consumers first need to understand what a policy covers and what it doesn't. That means reading some fine print, which is never pleasant.

Most standard policies cover your trip if it is canceled or if you can't go because of an unexpected illness or injury. Just because the trip doesn't go the way you planned, that probably won't cut much ice with an underwriter.

Sandra, of Reno, Nev., bought Trip Mate insurance for a special trip to Brazil, where she planned to spend her 65th Birthday with family and friends. It was a special trip and expensive too, so she deemed it well worth insuring.

“Unfortunately the flight from Los Angeles to Miami was cancelled and eventually I was rerouted through New York, but had to wait another entire day to resume my trip to Rio, she wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Ultimately my 65th birthday was spent in a hotel in New York and I missed all the celebrations friends had planned for me in Rio.”

Delays not covered

But the policy did not pay off because Sandra got to Rio, just a day late. In her mind it spoiled the whole trip but the trip was not cancelled – and cancellation was what was covered. The lesson is to make sure the policy you choose covers everything you want it to.

A good rule of thumb is to buy travel insurance for foreign travel and trip packages that are paid for in advance. For inexpensive domestic air travel, a policy might not be necessary, but we hear plenty of stories about how it helped.

Lynn, of Springwater, N.Y., bought an Allianz travel policy for a flight to South Carolina for his wife and himself. Days before the trip there was a death in the family, causing the trip to be put off for two weeks. When he rebooked, the tickets were twice the cost of the previous ones.

“Within 2 weeks of submitting our information to them (Allianz), we had a check for the total amount we were charged for rescheduling our flights,” he wrote.

But not all policies cover a death in the family, so read the fine print.

Finally, remember that some credit cards carry travel insurance when you use the card to pay for travel. Some coverage is better than others, so it pays to research what you card does and doesn't cover.

Most have a provision for lost luggage, or items stolen from luggage. Since that's a more common occurrence these days, it might pay to have that coverage – either through your credit card or from a travel insurance provider.

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FTC tries to define "unfair competition"

A new statement of principles was adopted without public input, critics note

The Federal Trade Commission has been around since 1914. One of its primary duties is to police "unfair" competition, even though no one seems to know exac...

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Feds approve two new endoscopic obesity treatments

Treatment provide similar result as bariatric surgery

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two new endoscopic bariatric therapy techniques that may make this anti-obesity procedure more accessib...

PhotoThe Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two new endoscopic bariatric therapy techniques that may make this anti-obesity procedure more accessible to more people.

Despite the fact that modern bariatric surgery yields good results, the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy (ASGE) says only about 1% of qualified candidates undergo these surgical procedures.

Bariatric surgery helps people lose weight by reducing the size of their stomachs. Sometimes a gastric band is used to reduce stomach size, and sometimes a portion of the stomach is actually removed. This results in the patient not being able to eat nearly as much food as they could before, which allows them to lose weight. 

Long-term studies show the procedures cause significant long-term loss of weight, recovery from diabetes, improvement in cardiovascular risk factors, and a reduction in mortality.

Non-invasive procedures

The newly-approved procedures could be game changers in the battle against obesity because they replace the surgery with a non-invasive endoscopic procedure.

The two procedures are:

  • ReShape Integrated Dual Balloon System
  • ORBERA Intragastric Balloon

"Endoscopic bariatric therapies offer a viable, safe alternative for patients who have been unsuccessful at weight loss with diet and exercise. They may also be appropriate for patients who are not suitable for, or are unwilling to undergo, a more invasive surgical procedure," said Dr. Christopher Thompson, chair of the ASGE Bariatric Endoscopy Task Force.

Complications from surgeries

It's possible that so few obese people elect to have traditional bariatric surgery because they are afraid of the potential medical complications. Studies have shown that patients who have undergone bariatric surgery have had significant risks of complications, both during the initial hospital stay and six months later.

Initially, gastric bypass surgery carried a high risk of mortality. It was still risky when NBC Today Show co-host Al Roker had it in 2002, but it helped him drop 115 pounds. Roker says the surgery helped, but that he had to make lifestyle changes to maintain a healthy weight.

Despite the reduced risks and successful results of today's bariatric surgery, it's still surgery, which may give some people pause. ASGE hopes the two new non-invasive options will cause more people to seek help.

Study

ASGE has completed a meta-analysis that concludes endoscopic bariatric therapies can be effective options and are most beneficial when used as part of a comprehensive program to treat obesity. An ASGE task force concluded that endoscopic IGB therapy with the ORBERA device meets or exceeds efficacy thresholds.

Intragastric balloons intended for weight loss consist of one or more balloons that are placed into the stomach through the mouth using a minimally invasive endoscopic procedure while the patient is under mild sedation. As long as the balloons, filled with saline, are in place they help patients to feel full so they eat smaller amounts.

At some point the balloons are removed, after being deflated using another endoscopic procedure. Balloons are typically removed after six months, with patients remaining in a lifestyle support program for one year to maintain weight loss. Best of all, the intragastric balloon can be placed in an outpatient setting.

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School-aged kids are being overloaded with homework

Researchers suggest that this negatively impacts students and their families

The back-to-school season is already well underway, with some children already back in the classroom and others counting down the final days until they hav...

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FTC silences "Mole Detective" app claims

The widely-advertised app can't detect moles

We may have finally heard the last of the "Mole Detective." The Federal Trade Commission has wound up its action against promoters of an app that claimed i...

PhotoWe may have finally heard the last of the "Mole Detective." The Federal Trade Commission has wound up its action against promoters of an app that claimed it could detect skin cancer, or melanoma after the last defendant agreed to a settlement. 

Avrom Lasarow settled FTC charges that he and other promoters made false and unsubstantiated claims for the app, which sold in the Apple and Google app stores for up to $4.99.

 Melanoma kills an estimated 10,000 people in the U.S. each year.

“We haven’t found any scientific evidence that Mole Detective can accurately assess melanoma risk,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “If you’re concerned that a mole may be cancerous, please see a health professional.”

In a statement to ConsumerAffairs, Lasarow called the FTC's approach "a real disappointment" and said his decision to settle was based on the cost of litigation. 

Lasarow and his company took over marketing the Mole Detective app in August 2012, after it was originally developed and marketed by Kristi Kimball and her company, New Consumer Solutions LLC, and added derivative apps like “Mole Detect Pro.”

Deceptive claims

The Mole Detective apps instructed users to photograph a mole with a smartphone and input other information about the mole. The apps then supposedly determined the mole’s melanoma risk to be low, medium, or high.

The FTC alleged that the marketers deceptively claimed that the apps accurately analyzed melanoma risk and could assess such risk in early stages. The marketers lacked adequate evidence to support such claims, the FTC charged.

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Costa Rica scam artist sentenced to prison

Twelve defendants charged in business opportunity scam

It seemed like a good deal at the time, but consumers who lost more than $6.4 million in a Costa Rica business opportunity scam probably wish they'd taken ...

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Wholesale prices rise again

Falling food and energy costs helped keep a lid on the increase

The Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand -- wholesale prices in plain English -- rose in July for a third straight month. According to the Labor De...

PhotoThe Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand -- wholesale prices in plain English -- rose in July for a third straight month.

 

According to the Labor Department (DOL), the PPI was up a seasonally adjusted 0.2% following advances of 0.4% in June 0.5% in May.

 

On an unadjusted basis, the PPI was down 0.8% for the 12 months ended in July, the sixth consecutive 12-month decline.

 

Services prices up

 

The services sector of the PPI rose 0.4% last month, the sharpest increase since October of last year when it surged 0.6%. Sixty percent of the broad-based July advance was due to a 0.4% rise in the index for services less trade, transportation, and warehousing. Trade services prices also rose 0.4%, while the cost of transportation and warehousing services was up 0.2 percent.

 

Over 40 percent of the increase is the result of a 9.9% surge in prices for guestroom rental. The costs of automotive fuels and lubricants retailing; health, beauty, and optical goods retailing; securities brokerage, dealing, investment advice, and related services; computer hardware, software, and supplies retailing; and transportation of passengers (partial) also moved higher. Conversely, prices for apparel,

footwear, and accessories retailing declined 4.2 percent. Loan services (partial) and truck transportation of freight prices also fell.

 

Goods prices drop

 

The prices of goods inched down 0.1% last month after posting a gain of 0.7% in June. Most of that was the result of a 0.6% decline in energy costs. Food prices dipped 0.1%, leaving prices for all goods less foods and energy unchanged.

 

A major factor in the July decrease in prices for goods was the 2.4% drop in the cost of residential natural gas. Prices for chicken eggs, home heating oil, pork, and nonferrous metals were lower as well. In contrast, the cost of gasoline advanced 1.5%, with prices for corn, motor vehicles and basic organic chemicals also increasing.

 

The complete PPI report is available on the DOL website.

 

 

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Volkswagen recalls various vehicles with possible airbag issue

A loss of electrical connection to the driver's front airbag is possible

Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 420,000 model year 2010-2014 Volkswagen CC, Passat, and Tiguan; 2010-2013 Eos and Jetta; 2011-2014 Golf and GTI; a...

PhotoVolkswagen Group of America is recalling 420,000 model year 2010-2014 Volkswagen CC, Passat, and Tiguan; 2010-2013 Eos and Jetta; 2011-2014 Golf and GTI; and 2011-2013 Jetta Sportwagen vehicles.

 

Debris may contaminate the vehicles' air bag clock spring, a spiral wound, flat cable that keeps the air bag powered while the steering wheel is being turned. This contamination may tear the cable and result in a loss of electrical connection to the driver's front air bag. This would prevent the air bag from deploying in the event of a vehicle crash, increasing the risk of injury.

 

The remedy for this recall is still under development. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

 

Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-822-8987.

 

 

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American SportWorks recalls four-wheel off-road utility vehicles

The throttle can fail to return to idle causing the rider to lose control

American SportWorks (ASW) of Roseland, La., is recalling about 3,500 off road utility vehicles. The throttle can fail to return to idle causing the rider ...

PhotoAmerican SportWorks (ASW) of Roseland, La., is recalling about 3,500 off road utility vehicles.

 

The throttle can fail to return to idle causing the rider to lose control, posing a risk of injury.

 

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

 

This recall includes 6 models of ASW Four Wheel Off-Road Utility Vehicles. The name of each model is located above each front fender and along the sides of the dump bed. Affected vehicles include:

 

BullDog 300, ChuckWagon 300 and LandMaster 300 -- all powered by Kohler 277cc engines with the last 6 Characters of the product identification number between A11746 and A13294, and LandMaster 400, TrailWagon 400 and ChuckWagon 400 all powered by Honda 390cc engines with the last 6 characters of the product identification number between A24835 and A26806. The product identification numbers can be found on a sticker on the firewall above the accelerator and brake pedal.

 

 ModelColor 
LandMaster 300  Red, Green, Black, White, Camo
LandMaster 400 Red, Green, Black, White, Camo
BullDog 300 Red
Trail Wagon 400 Red, Camo
Chuck Wagon 300 Red, Green, Camo
Chuck Wagon 300 Red, Green, Camo
 

 

The vehicles, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Atwood Distributing, Rural King, The Home Depot, Tractor Supply Company and other dealers from September 2014, through June 2015, for between $4,300 and $5,300.

 

Consumers may contact ASW toll free at 800-293-0795 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET_ Monday through Friday or online at www.amsportworks.com. At the top of the page under the SAFETY tab under Recalls, click on “TSB167 & TSB168.”

 

 

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How much is too much?

Consumers agree on the need for higher minimum wage -- but how high?

Consumers agree on the need for higher minimum wage -- but how high? A new Harris Poll finds a large majority of those asked (72%) think the current fede...

PhotoConsumers agree on the need for higher minimum wage -- but how high?

 

A new Harris Poll finds a large majority of those asked (72%) think the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is lower than it should be. However, while they clearly believe it should be higher, exactly how high is a more contentious subject.

 

When told that some U.S. cities have introduced programs to raise their minimum wage rates to $15.00 per hour over the next few years, 59% of U.S. adults -- crossing regional, political, generational, gender and income lines -- say that's at least somewhat higher than it should be.

 

Divergence of opinion

 

But not everyone feels this way. While majorities of Republicans (81%) and Independents (62%) say $15.00 per hour is more than the minimum wage should be, only 4 in 10 Democrats (41%) share this perspective, slightly behind the percentage who think it’s about right (43%).

 

While resistance to this level of compensation likely has many causes, one that may be weighing on adults’ minds is concern over their own bottom lines: eight in 10 consumers (81%) believe a higher minimum wage would increase costs for consumers.

 

When presented with key provisions from the New York State wage board’s recent recommendation to increase the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour for fast food workers at chains with more than 30 locations, sentiments were mixed toward many elements of it.

 

Just over half of those asked (53%) support the end-of-2018 deadline for reaching this wage rate in 2018, while just over half (52%) oppose the mid-2021 statewide deadline. But ultimately consumers most take issue with the divergent standards these dates represent. Six in 10 U.S. adults (60%) oppose New York City and the rest of the state reaching a $15.00 per hour minimum wage at different times.

 

A 55% majority opposes the recommendation’s focus on workers in the fast food industry, while a narrow 52% majority opposes its focus on chains with 30 or more locations.

 

Big picture

 

Stepping back from which cities are planning what wage hikes and looking at these issues more broadly, a resounding 87% of U.S. adults agree -- 52% strongly so -- that raising the minimum wage only for fast food workers is unfair to workers in other industries.

 

Majorities also agree that all workers should be entitled to the same minimum wage, regardless of what industry they’re in (76%) and that all employers should be required to pay the same minimum wage regardless of company size (69%).

 

Fewer than 3 in ten (28%) say there should not be a minimum wage requirement at all.

 

Circling back to the contentious $15.00 figure, when asked directly whether they agree or disagree that the minimum wage should be increased to $15.00 per hour nationwide, consumers are divided down the middle at 50% each. Even drilling down to “strongly” agree and disagree responses reveals an all but even divide, with 29% strongly agreeing and 28% strongly disagreeing.

 

Nearly three-fourths of Democrats (73%) agree that the minimum wage should be increased to $15.00 per hour nationwide, while nearly 8 in 10 Republicans (79%) and over half of Independents (55%) disagree.

 

Divides also exist by generation and income:

  • 58% of Millennials agree, while Gen Xers are divided (49% agree, 51% disagree) and majorities of Baby Boomers (55%) and Matures (56%) disagree.
  • Roughly 6 in 10 (59%) of those who would be affected most by such a move -- those in households earning under $50,000 per year -- agree with the concept, while majorities of those in households earning $75,000 per year or more disagree (61% of those earning $75k-$100k, 59% of those earning $100k or more) disagree.
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Britax recalls Advocate ClickTight, Boulevard ClickTight and Marathon ClickTight child seats

The harness adjuster button may stick in the harness release position

Britax Child Safety is recalling 213,753 Advocate ClickTight child seats, model numbers E9LT95Q, E9LT95Z, E9LT95N, and E1A025Q; Boulevard ClickTight child ...

PhotoBritax Child Safety is recalling 213,753 Advocate ClickTight child seats, model numbers E9LT95Q, E9LT95Z, E9LT95N, and E1A025Q; Boulevard ClickTight child seats, model numbers E9LT86F, E1A135Q, E9LT86G, E9LT85Q, E9LT86A, E9LT86H, E9LT85S, E1A015Q, E1A016A, and E1A016H; and Marathon ClickTight child seats, model numbers E1A116L, E9LT76P, E9LT71Q, E9LT76N, E9LT76B, E9LT75R, E9LT76L, E1A006B, E1A005R and EXA116L, manufactured August 1, 2014, to July 29, 2015.

 

The seats have a red harness adjuster button that may stick in the down (harness release) position allowing the shoulder harness to loosen. If the harness loosens, the child may not be restrained properly, increasing the risk of injury in the event of a crash.

 

Britax will notify registered owners and send them a remedy kit that includes a lubricant to apply to the harness adjuster button, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on August 17, 2015.

 

Owners may contact Britax customer service at 1-888-427-4829, option 3 or by visiting www.BritaxClickTightConvertibleRecall.com.

 

 

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Kapowsin Meats recalls pork product

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Kapowsin Meats of Graham, Wash., is recalling approximately 116,262 pounds of whole hogs. The hogs may be contaminated with Salmonella. The whole hogs of...

PhotoKapowsin Meats of Graham, Wash., is recalling approximately 116,262 pounds of whole hogs.

 

The hogs may be contaminated with Salmonella.

 

The whole hogs of varying weights for barbeque were produced between April 18, 2015, and July 27, 2015. They bear the establishment number “Est. 1628” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

 

The hogs were shipped to various individuals, retail locations, institutions and distributors in Alaska and Washington.

 

Working in conjunction with the Washington State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) determined that there is a link between whole hogs for barbeque from Kapowsin Meats and numerous illnesses.

 

Traceback investigation has identified 32 case-patients who consumed whole hogs for barbeque from this establishment prior to illness onset. These illnesses are part of a larger illness investigation.

 

Based on epidemiological evidence, 134 case-patients have been identified in Washington with illness onset dates ranging from April 25, 2015, to July 29, 2015.

 

There are concerns that some product may be frozen and in consumers' freezers.

 

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact John Anderson at (253) 847-1777.

 

 

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Are cable TV's days numbered?

Maybe not, but cable companies will have to quickly evolve

DirecTV filed form 10-Q with the SEC, reporting among other things, that it suffered a net loss of 133,000 subscribers in the second quarter....

PhotoLast week an innocuous document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rocked Hollywood.

DirecTV filed form 10-Q with the SEC, reporting among other things, that it suffered a net loss of 133,000 subscribers in the second quarter. That was nearly 100,000 more than it lost in the second quarter of 2014.

Research firm MoffettNathanson plugged in those numbers and estimated the pay TV industry as a whole had shed 566,000 subscribers during the period. Most media stocks had a bad week on Wall Street, especially after Disney, owner of cable stalwart ESPN, lowered its guidance for subscriber revenue.

Variety's New York Digital Editor Todd Spangler writes that, while the second quarter is usually the industry's lightest, operators should be concerned that the number of pay-TV households is now shrinking at a much faster rate.

Long-term trend

In fact, this trend has been happening for quite some time. As we reported in April, Nielsen reported a dramatic increase in 2014 in the number of customers for what it calls subscription-based video on-demand services, known as SVODs. These are households that subscribe to services like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu but not necessarily to pay TV services.

The number of these households is still quite small compared to homes that have cable, but the number is growing. And the latest numbers suggest it's happening faster than anyone predicted.

That traditional pay TV providers are seeing a surge in defections year-over-year is made even more dramatic by the fact that household formation in the U.S. is growing. Many of these new households apparently think they can live without the 200 or so channels pay TV provides.

On the other hand, SVOD's have plenty of content for a low monthly fee. Content on YouTube is free.

YouTube stars

It may surprise some to learn that YouTube has turned into a favorite viewing source for some viewers, particularly young Millennials who wouldn't be caught dead watching “television.” These viewers have made a number of amateur producers YouTube stars, whose videos get millions of views.

One YouTube duo, Smosh, is so popular they star in a movie – that will be viewed mostly online, no doubt.

Like nearly every other industry subjected to a disruptive force, the price of entertainment content is coming down. The biggest impact will likely be felt more by the content creators than the companies distributing it.

After all, nearly all cable TV providers nearly all provide broadband Internet services too. As their pay TV revenue falls, their Internet revenue should grow.

The defection of more and more subscribers from pay TV may finally convince these providers that they must embrace the new reality to survive. HBO is already available for on-demand streaming through HBO Go.

Can other cable programming be far behind?

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Pay off your debt by tackling smaller loans first

Researchers have found that paying back smaller loans may give you the motivation to pay off the bigger ones

Being in debt has become a way of life for many people. Car loans, mortgages, and student loans can really start to add up after a while, and it may seem t...

PhotoBeing in debt has become a way of life for many people. Car loans, mortgages, and student loans can really start to add up after a while, and it may seem that getting rid of all debt is an impossible task. So where should you begin chipping away at it? While common sense may lead you to paying off high-interest loans first, a new study shows that paying off your smaller loans can give you the motivation to tackle some of the larger and more troublesome ones.

The study in question was conducted at A&M University by Alexander L. Brown and Joanna N. Lahey. They believe that it is easier to pay off loans if indebted people take steps to put themselves in the right state of mind.

“Winning what are known as ‘small victories’ by paying off small debts first can give consumers a real boost in eventually paying off all their debts...the reason is that meeting a  small goal provides the motivation to then meet a larger goal,” said the authors.

Tackle small tasks first

Brown and Lahey tested their hypothesis by conducting an experiment in which participants had to retype 150 ten-character strings in a Microsoft Excel workbook. The larger task was split up into several different sections; some participants completed the work from most lengthy task to least lengthy, others worked on the tasks in equal parts, and still others worked on the tasks from least lengthy to most lengthy.

The authors found that subjects were able to complete the whole set faster when it was broken up by ascending length (least lengthy to most lengthy). They also found that subjects tended to speed up their work when they were nearing the end of a certain section of their work. However, they worked most slowly when beginning a section; this suggests that a person’s motivation is at its peak when they are almost finished with a task.

This experiment shows that people are able to motivate themselves to complete a large undertaking if they split the work up and start with the smallest parts first. By completing smaller and more manageable tasks first, people allow themselves to accrue motivation. This feeling of accomplishment is what allows them to push forward and complete the more arduous tasks that they might have to undertake. This thought process can greatly help people who are paying off debt or managing their finances.

Find what works for you

"The increased motivational benefits of small victories may make it beneficial to pay off debts from smallest to largest in some cases, ignoring interest rates,” said Brown and Lahey. However, they caution that there are limits on how effective this approach can be. “The increase in motivation may not offset the additional interest accrued by not paying,” they said.

As always, it is best to consult a financial advisor if you are not sure how to handle paying off your debt. Although the authors’ approach may work for some, it is not necessarily going to be the best course of action for everyone. Their full study has been published in the Journal of Marketing Research

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Playing Tetris for a few minutes a day could help you kick an addiction

Researchers have found that playing the game can help block cravings for a variety of vices

Children of the 80s and 90s all remember the explosion in popularity of video games during the time period. It was not uncommon to grow up with a Gameboy c...

PhotoChildren of the 80s and 90s all remember the explosion in popularity of video games during the time period. It was not uncommon to grow up with a Gameboy constantly in hand and your eyes glued to the screen of the newest side scrolling adventure or puzzle game.

Tetris was one such game that helped players kill hours of time on long car rides and before going to bed. Well, it turns out that it may also help you kick an addiction. A new study shows that playing as little as three minutes of Tetris a day can weaken cravings for drugs, alcohol, and other vices.

Tetris study

The study was conducted by psychologists from Plymouth University and Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Over a seven-day period, the researchers observed and recorded information on participants with varying addictions. Some of these included dependencies on drugs, cigarettes, food, alcohol, coffee, and sex.

The study consisted of 31 undergraduates ranging in age from 18 to 27. Each participant was prompted via text message to record and report their cravings seven times a day. They were encouraged to report even more if they wanted to. Out of the 31 participants, 15 were asked to play Tetris on an iPod for three minutes before reporting their craving levels again.

The researchers found that playing Tetris had a tangible effect on the cravings that participants were feeling. “Playing Tetris decreased craving strength for drugs, food, and activities from 70% to 56%. This is the first demonstration that cognitive interference can be used outside the lab to reduce cravings for substances and activities other than eating,” said Jackie Andrade, who is a professor at Plymouth University who helped conduct the study.

No diminishing returns

Researchers were particularly happy to note that the effectiveness of the game did not diminish based on the type of addiction or how much it was played. Jon May, who also teaches at Plymouth University, notes that this is particularly important because of the nature of other similar therapies.

“This finding is potentially important because an intervention that worked solely because it was novel and unusual would have diminishing benefits over time as participants became familiar with it,” he said. This supports the idea that there may be more to Tetris that meets the eye.

“As a support tool, Tetris could help people manage their cravings in their daily lives and over extended time periods,” said Andrade.

Although it is a promising start, more research will need to be done in order to figure out exactly what is making Tetris so effective at fighting addiction. Researchers like May and Andrade should be more than happy to oblige. Their full study has been published in the journal Addictive Behaviors

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Samsung jumps into the mobile payments business

Samsung Pay launches in the U.S. next month

Not to be outdone by its rival Apple, Samsung has announced that Samsung Pay will be available to U.S. consumers starting next month.The service began...

PhotoNot to be outdone by its rival Apple, Samsung has announced that Samsung Pay will be available to U.S. consumers starting next month.

The service began in South Korea earlier this month. The company used a press event in New York on Thursday to announce the September launch in the U.S.

The concept is very similar to Apple Pay. It turns your mobile device into a digital wallet, letting users seamlessly pay for things at retailers.

The company says Samsung Pay will use Near Field Communication (NFC), fingerprint verification, and digital tokenization to shield users' credit card information. It says if a retailer can accept Apple Pay or Android Pay, it should be able to work with Samsung Pay as well.

Step forward

Dan Wagner, ecommerce veteran and CEO of Powa Technologies, says the launch of Samsung Pay, along with its latest devices, represents a step forward for the international mobile payment scene.

“Samsung launching into competition with Apple Pay demonstrates how two of the largest tech leaders in the world are putting mobile payment as a major priority,” he said.

The big news may be that Samsung Pay will work with the old fashioned magnetic strip card readers, at a time when many independent retailers lack the resources to convert to the new chip-based EVM technology.

“Samsung’s inclusion of magnetic strip recognition alongside NFC puts it ahead of Apple Pay, bringing more versatility for users and merchants alike – especially in markets where magnetic strip readers are still the main payment method,” Wagner said.

Still more to do

However, Wagner says both Apple Pay and Samsung Pay both still lack the cutting edge needed to fully meet user demand.

“With consumers’ shopping habits constantly evolving, now is the time to rethink the entire shopping experience and break free from the reliance on point-of-sale terminals and queues,” Wagner said. “What shoppers and merchants alike really want is a cross-channel payment method that allows transactions to take place anywhere, at anytime, from a range of mediums. Until this level of freedom is achieved, mobile payments will remain more of an added bonus than the must-have feature the industry needs.”

Apple Pay got off on a wrong foot with some major retailers soon after its October 2014 launch. Less than a week after it was first made available, Apple Pay encountered its first roadblock when the pharmacy chains CVS and Rite-Aid stopped accepting it.

Although neither chain officially explained why, most observers agree it was because they decided instead to work with a retailer-owned group.  

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Bail denied for Uber driver and middle school teacher accused of raping a passenger

Meanwhile, Uber faces a $1 million lawsuit from another alleged victim in Texas

Three different Uber drivers in three days made headlines this week for alleged sexual assaults against their passengers.On Monday, a part-time Uber dr...

PhotoThree different Uber drivers in three days made headlines this week for alleged sexual assaults against their passengers.

On Monday, a part-time Uber driver and full-time middle school teacher in South Carolina was arrested and held without bail for allegedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting one of his passengers. The Post and Courier reports that Patrick Aiello of Charleston was arrested on charges of kidnapping and first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

On Sunday night, Aiello picked up a man and a woman in nearby Isle of Palms, and dropped the man off at his home in downtown Charleston. The woman also left Aiello's car, but because she was intoxicated and didn't want to walk home in the dark, she asked Aiello if he could drop her off at her home a few blocks away.

Aiello agreed but, according to the arrest affidavit, did not drive her home. When the woman noticed this, Aiello told her she'd have to pay for the ride with sexual favors. The woman said she offered Aiello money and repeatedly asked to leave the car, but Aiello instead pulled off the highway, sexually assaulted her, and kicked her out of the car. When she ran into the highway to get help, another vehicle struck her.

Police arrested Aiello the following afternoon. His arrest affidavit says that Aiello admitted offering the woman a ride because she was “too drunk,” and also admitted that he pulled off the highway, kissed her, performed oral sex on her and then kicked her out of his car.

Aiello, who teaches sixth grade at a local middle school, was put on paid leave from that job. Uber has removed Aiello from its driving platform.

Convicted felon approved for driving

The day after Aiello's arrest, a woman in Texas filed suit against Uber and a limousine company, seeking more than $1 million in medical expenses and damages.

The Dallas Morning News reports that former Uber driver Talal Ali Chammout, who was also registered with Triple Class Limousines in Plano, allegedly drove a woman (which the news identified only as “Jane Doe”) to her home on the night of July 25, then followed her inside, struck her on the back of her head, and sexually assaulted her. Chammout was later arrested, but is now out on bail.

Among other things, Doe's lawsuit accused Uber of negligence for issuing driver privileges to Chammout, who was using a phony driving permit and had spent time in prison on federal weapons charges. “Uber’s actions were akin to letting a tiger loose in a shopping mall,” says the lawsuit. “After Uber began pairing Chammout with unsuspecting women, the question was not whether Chammout would strike, but when and against whom.”

Quentin Brogdon, Doe's attorney, also said “We believe an 8-year-old with access to the Internet and Google could have determined it was a bad idea for this driver to be driving women to their homes late at night.”

Indeed, a Google search for mentions of “Tamil Ali Chammout” prior to July 2015 immediately brought back an October 2007 Fresno Bee article with the lead sentence “Porterville resident Talal Ali Chammout will spend 6 1/2 years in federal prison for being a felon in possession of firearms, but it was the specter of arms dealing and terrorism that dominated Chammout's sentencing hearing.”

Uber said it “mistakenly” granted driver status to Chammout.

Refused plea deal

On Wednesday, a judge in Pennsylvania rejected a lowered-bail plea for yet another Uber driver accused of sexually assaulting a passenger. Philly.com reports that “An Uber driver accused of raping a 24-year-old passenger who had called for a late-night ride from Manayunk will stay in jail after a judge on Wednesday rejected his plea for lower bail. Calling the charges 'very serious,' Montgomery County Court Judge William T. Nicholas kept bail at $1 million cash for Abdellah Elkaddi.”

Elkaddi allegedly assaulted his passenger the night of June 10.

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America's 10 hottest ZIP codes for housing

They're livable, affordable, and only one is on the coast

In the 1990s, 90210 was the hot ZIP code, dripping with Beverly Hills glamour. But when it comes to 2015 real estate, there are many more communities drawi...

PhotoIn the 1990s, 90210 was the hot ZIP code, dripping with Beverly Hills glamour. But when it comes to 2015 real estate, there are many more communities drawing buyer interest that translate into quick sales.

Online marketplace realtor.com established a formula based on the number of times a property listing is viewed and how quickly it sells to rank America's hottest ZIP codes, where you are lucky if you can buy property and even more fortunate if you happen to be selling.

It turns out these ZIP codes have several distinguishing characteristics; healthy housing dynamics, strong local employment and neighborhood "it factors."

"Each locale on this list is emblematic of the key trends driving housing this year – healthy local economics, job opportunities and affordability," said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for realtor.com.

Smoke says these communities offer something for everyone. For first-time home buyers, these communities provide great opportunities to enter the housing market, build a career, and raise a family. Older generations are able to build wealth and enjoy a variety of lifestyles in these communities.

In something of a surprise, only one California ZIP Code makes realtor.com's list and the other nine are located in the nation's interior.

Hot ZIP codes

  1. 02176 – Melrose, Mass. is close to both Boston and Cambridge and has become a magnet for young professionals and families due to its relative affordability, access to public transportation, and attractive downtown area.
  2. 43085 – Worthington, Ohio is a major relocation market and part of the Columbus, Ohio metro. It's home to several major corporations and Ohio State University.
  3. 80122 – Centennial, Colo., a suburb of Littleton, is centrally located south of Denver. It's home to the area's largest employer, Lockheed Martin, and a new Charles Schwab campus opened in October 2014 that is expected to employ approximately 2,000 workers. Houses spend approximately two weeks on the market – the shortest number in the U.S.
  4. 75023 – Plano, Texas is a suburb of Dallas and home to the corporate headquarters of Dell Services, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Ericsson, and Frito-Lay Inc., as well as the future headquarters of Toyota Motors USA. Listings receive nearly 1,200 views per month on average, 2.4 times more views than the rest of the metro and eight times more than the national average.
  5. 48375 – Novi, Mich. is near the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich. and the General Motors Proving Grounds in Milford, Mich., as well as the Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. It's also home to some of the region's largest healthcare systems.
  6. 78247 – San Antonio. Located in the city's North Central district, 78247 is within San Antonio city limits but offers a suburban feel. San Antonio is home to the corporate headquarters of USAA, Valero Energy Corporation, Rackspace, NuStar Energy L.P. and Harland Clarke. It also has a huge military presence.
  7. 63126 – Crestwood, Mo. is a suburb of St. Louis. Home prices and quality of schools have attracted affluent Millennials. Median income for 25-34 year old households in this ZIP code is $73,000, 40% higher than the average millennial household in the U.S.
  8. 78729 – Austin, Texas. One of 78 ZIP codes in Austin, 78729 is located on the city's north side, incorporating the residential Jollyville neighborhood, which offers prime access to many of the city's major tech companies, including Apple, IBM, and Dell. It's a Millennial Mecca, with Millennials making up 23% of the ZIP code's population, 75% higher than the national average.
  9. 58103 – Fargo, N.D. incorporates many smaller residential neighborhoods, just southwest of Fargo's downtown district. It is located just miles from the North Dakota State University campus, and provides many housing options for first-time home buyers.
  10. 92010 – Carlsbad, Calif., nicknamed the "village by the sea," is a tourist destination known for its Legoland theme park. Prices in this region have been steadily increasing over the last 18 months. Located farther from the beach than the other Carlsbad communities, 92010 offers buyers a big selection of multi-family units, which realtor.com says is a way to get into the real estate market for under $600,000.

Another thing that sets these ZIP codes apart is their supply and demand. According to realtor.com's data, these communities sell 4 to 9 times faster than the rest of the country.

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America has a growing appetite for burgers

High beef prices and health concerns aren't hurting sales

Despite recent trends toward healthier foods, U.S. consumers still love hamburgers. A large beef patty piled high with garnish and condiments has never fal...

PhotoDespite recent trends toward healthier foods, U.S. consumers still love hamburgers. A large beef patty piled high with garnish and condiments has never fallen out of favor. In fact, its popularity may be growing.

That fact was underscored this week when Shake Shack, a small chain featuring gourmet burgers and thick, creamy milk shakes, surprised Wall Street with blowout earnings.

The New York based firm, which enjoys a “health halo” among foodies who value its antibiotic-free beef but overlook the massive calories, reported sales jumped nearly 13% in the second quarter. Analysts were looking for an 8.6% rise.

Shake Shack vs. McDonald's

Shake Shack is immensely popular with hip, urban consumers whereas McDonald's, the long-time fast food burger champion, is not. McDonald's has struggled in recent years as it has tried to add healthier fare to its menu and removed some of the lower-priced “value” items that many of its customers like.

But there is evidence that McDonald's is ready to up its game in the burger wars. This week, Wall Street trader Tim Seymour, a regular on the CNBC program Fast Money, filed this video report from a Manhattan McDonald's location that is experimenting with a customizable gourmet burger.

Using a touchscreen kiosk, Seymour was able to create a burger to his liking, including being able to select the type of bun and gourmet condiments he wanted. The kiosks are being added to select McDonald's locations in the roll out of what the company calls the“Create Your Taste” burger.

Game changer

By the time Seymour had created his burger, his custom toppings had pushed the price up to $10, but he seemed to be satisfied. He called the “Create Your Taste” a “game-changer” for the iconic burger franchise.

Technomic's latest Burger Consumer Trend Report says 57% of consumers eat a burger at least once a week. It notes that all burger restaurants, not just those offering high-end, gourmet burgers, are prospering in spite of health concerns and rising beef prices.

"Utilizing value beef cuts and incorporating non-beef proteins can help lower costs and broaden the range of needs burgers can satisfy," said Sara Monnette, Technomic vice president. "Specialty ingredients like pretzel buns can enhance the value perception, and unique toppings and sauces, stuffed patties, and premium sides can add to craveability and brand differentiation."

The report, based on interviews with more than 1,500 consumers and restaurant operators, suggests McDonald's might be on the right track with its “Create Your Taste” feature. It found 61% of consumers think it is important to be able to customize the toppings and condiments, with 43% prioritizing build-your-own burgers.

On a weekly basis, 39% of consumers get their burgers from fast-food restaurants and 39% make them at home.

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Pilots reporting more drone sightings; FAA warns of severe penalties

Pilots report sighting the drones as high as 10,000 feet

Drone sightings by pilots are increasing dramatically and so, says the Federal Aviation Administration, is the safety hazard the unmanned aircraft pose....

PhotoDrone sightings by pilots are increasing dramatically and so, says the Federal Aviation Administration, is the safety hazard the unmanned aircraft pose.

There were 238 sightings of drones by pilots in 2014, compared to more than 650 by August 9 of this year. The FAA says that's way too many and warns that it will be taking legal action against perpetrators.

"The FAA wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal. Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time," the agency warned in a news release.

Pilots of a variety of different types of aircraft – including many large, commercial air carriers – reported spotting 16 unmanned aircraft in June of 2014, and 36 the following month. This year, 138 pilots reported seeing drones at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet during the month of June, and another 137 in July.

Meanwhile, firefighters battling wildfire blazes in the western part of the country have been forced to ground their operations on several occasions for safety reasons when they spotted one or more unmanned aircraft in their immediate vicinity.

The FAA said it,is working closely with the law enforcement community to identify and investigate unauthorized unmanned aircraft operations. The FAA has levied civil penalties for a number of unauthorized flights in various parts of the country, and has dozens of open enforcement cases.

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FDA sick of Kim Kardashian's claims for morning-sickness drug

The celeb's social media postings claim the drug she's promoting is without risk

Whatever it is that has made Kim Kardashian famous, it's not her medical expertise and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would like for her to st...

PhotoWhatever it is that has made Kim Kardashian,famous, it's not her medical expertise and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would like for her to stop making inaccurate and potentially illegal claims about a morning-sickness drug that she is supposedly taking.

“OMG. Have you heard about this?” Kardashian posted on Instagram as she burbled on about Diclegis.,She claimed in the post that she had found no relief from the morning sickness that supposedly accompanied her pregnancy and said she was so impressed with the results she got from Diclegis,“that I’m partnering with Duchesnay USA to raise awareness about treating morning sickness.”

“It’s been studied and there was no increased risk to the baby. I’m so excited and happy with my results....” she exclaimed.

False or misleading

Of course, there is no drug that does not pose a risk of some kind, which is why every drug package and advertisement has a list of potential side effects and possible adverse outcomes. Drug companies are careful to adhere to the FDA's rules that govern drug advertising and the FDA has previously warned that those rules apply to social media postings as well.

The FDA has sent a warning letter to Duchesnay Inc., the drug's manufacturer, saying the post was "was false or misleading." It noted that there are indeed well-known possible adverse reactions associated with Diclegis, with drowsiness heading the list.

Kardashian's post "fails to communicate any risk information associated with its use and it omits material facts,” the FDA's letter said.

As always, consumers should ignore the advice of celebrity endorsers who are generally paid for their claims and who have no scientific basis for their statements.,

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Buying a home got a bit tougher in the second quarter

Rising home values are affecting affordability

Consumers hoping to buy a home in the April – June quarter of this year may have found it a little tougher. The National Association of Home Builders http...

PhotoConsumers hoping to buy a home in the April – June quarter of this year may have found it a little tougher.

 

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI) says rising home prices in many housing markets resulted in a modest drop in nationwide housing affordability.

 

“Home price appreciation in many markets across the nation are a sign that the housing recovery continues to move forward,” said NAHB Chairman Tom Woods. “At the same time, the cost of building a home is rising due to higher costs for buildable lots and skilled labor.”

 

In all, 63.2% of new and existing homes sold in the second quarter were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $65,800, compared with 66.5% in the first three months of the year.

 

This came as the national median home price increased from $210,000 in the first quarter to $230,000. The median is the point at which half the homes sold for a higher price and half lower. Meanwhile, average mortgage rates inched downward -- from 4.03% to 3.99%.

 

Most affordable

 

Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Pa., was rated the nation’s most affordable major housing market, beating out Syracuse, N.Y., which fell to the second slot following 2 straight quarters at the top of the list. In Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, 90.6% of all new and existing homes sold in the second quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $53,700.

 

Rounding out the top five affordable housing major housing markets in respective order were Indianapolis-Carmel, Ind.; Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; and Cincinnati-Middletown, Ohio-Ky.-Ind.

 

Meanwhile, Kokomo, Ind., claimed the title of most affordable small housing market, with 95.5% of homes sold during the second quarter affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $55,200.

 

Smaller markets joining Kokomo at the top of the list included Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, Iowa-Ill.; Lima, Ohio; Elmira, N.Y.; and Cumberland, Md.-W.Va.

 

Least affordable

 

For the11th consecutive quarter, San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, Calif., was the nation’s least affordable major housing market. There, just 11% of homes sold in the second quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $103,400.

 

Other major metros at the bottom of the affordability chart included Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, Calif.; Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine, Calif.; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.; and New York-White Plains-Wayne, N.Y.-N.J.

 

All 5 least affordable small housing markets were in California. At the very bottom of the affordability chart was Santa Cruz-Watsonville, Calif., where 18.2% of all new and existing homes sold were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $87,000. Other small markets at the lowest end of the affordability scale included Napa, Salinas, San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles and Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, respectively.

 

“Though affordability edged slightly lower in the second quarter, the HOI remains well above 50, where half the households can afford half the homes sold,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “Low mortgage rates, pent-up demand and continued job growth should contribute to a gradual, steady rise in housing throughout the year.”

 

 

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Retail sales resume climb after 1-month pause

Initial jobless applications were up again

Helped by an increase in auto and parts sales, overall retail sales posted a modest gain in July. Figures released by the Census Bureau, adjusted for seas...

Photo
© Stuart Miles – Fotolia

Helped by an increase in auto and parts sales, overall retail sales posted a modest gain in July.

 

Figures released by the Census Bureau, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, show sales were up 0.6% last month to $446.5. At the same time, the June decline of 0.3% was revised to show sales were actually flat for the month. Sales were up 1.2% in May.

 

On a year-over-year basis, sales jumped 2.4%.

 

Major factors in the July increase were sales by auto and parts dealers (+1.4%), sporting goods, hobby and book & music stores (+0.9%) and furniture & home furnishing stores (+0.8%). Gas station sales inched up 0.4% after surging 1.8% a month earlier.

 

On the losing side were electronics & appliance stores (-1.2%) and department stores (-0.8%). Grocery store sales were flat.

 

Core sales, which strip out 3 volatile categories -- auto and auto parts dealers, building material and garden equipment and supplies dealers, and gas stations -- were up 0.3%.

 

Stiffel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey M. Piegza notes that while the July increase is a welcome step in the right direction and offers reassurance the consumer isn’t dead, it "does little to suggest the US consumer 'is back.'”

 

The complete retail sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

 

Photo
© Marzky Ragsac Jr. - Fotolia

Initial claims

 

First-time applications for state unemployment benefits rose last week for a third straight week.

 

The Labor Department (DOL reports seasonally adjusted initial claims totaled 274,000 in the week ending August 8 -- an increase of 5,000 from the previous week's level, which was revised down by 1,000.

 

The government says there were no special factors affecting this week's initial claims.

 

The 4-week moving average, considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market because it lacks the volatility of the weekly tally, fell 1,750 from the previous week's revised average to 266,250, its lowest level since April 15, 2000.

 

The full jobless claims report may be found on the DOL website.

 

 

 

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Global oil glut predicted to continue through next year

Fastest demand growth in 5 years hasn't put a dent in the supply

No matter how much oil the world seems to consume lately, there's always a lot more to take its place. That trend will continue well into 2016, according t...

PhotoNo matter how much oil the world seems to consume lately, there's always a lot more to take its place. That trend will continue well into 2016, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its monthly report.

On one hand, demand for petroleum is sharply higher, sparked by improving economic conditions in the U.S. and lower-than-normal fuel prices and growing at the fastest pace in 5 years. But according to the IEA, that's barely made a dent in supplies.

The report says the world oil supply fell nearly 600,000 barrels a day in July, mainly because non-OPEC producers cut back on production. Meanwhile, OPEC countries kept pumping like the price was going up, not down.

Price war

It's widely believed that Saudi Arabia has embarked on a price war strategy to put non-OPEC producers, particularly U.S. oil companies, out of business. OPEC production is clearly contributing to the supply glut that has forced world oil prices lower.

In August, IEA says OPEC crude production held steady near a three-year high. The goal is to force non-OPEC producers to cut back. IEA says it's working.

“As lower prices and spending cuts take a toll, non-OPEC supply growth is expected to slow sharply from a 2014 record of 2.4 million barrels day to 1.1 million barrels a day this year and then contract by 200,000 barrels day in 2016,” the report said.

But there is so much oil out there that it's not going to matter. Inventories aren't going down, they're rising. Inventories were up nearly 10 million barrels in June to hit another all-time high. With all that oil, the world's oil refineries are running at full tilt.

Refinery output

“Global refinery runs reached a record 80.6 million barrels a day in July, 3.2 million barrels a day higher than a year earlier,” the report said.

Looking ahead, IEA makes this prediction: OPEC will continue pumping nearly 32 million barrels a day and the world oil surplus will grow by 1.4 million barrels a day. At that rate, the agency says producers will have a hard time finding places to store all that surplus oil.

It will be the fourth quarter of 2016 – more than a year from now – before world oil demand starts to exceed production, the IEA predicts. That suggests oil prices, which have fallen below $50 a barrel in recent days, won't be going up anytime soon.

That's great news for consumers, of course, but it doesn't automatically translate into cheap gasoline. That's because all that crude oil must first pass through the bottleneck of refineries, where it is turned into gasoline and diesel fuel.

That's where short-term shortages have occurred, as routine maintenance and breakdowns at refineries have slowed output from time to time.

In addition, there are inefficiencies within the gasoline distribution system, which has caused abnormally high prices on the West Coast, particularly in California.

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Renters beware: vacation and residential-rental scams are on the rise

Don't lose your deposit fees to a rental fraudster, in person or online

America's population is constantly churning, with people moving in and out of various places every month of the year. But such moves are most common throug...

PhotoAmerica's population is constantly churning, with people moving in and out of various places every month of the year. But such moves are most common throughout the summer, when new students are leaving for college and new graduates are moving away from their parents, in addition to the many Americans making temporary moves to vacation lodgings.

Unfortunately, this all means that summertime is also peak season for rental scammers. In Philadelphia, police are currently looking for a man named Harry Moore, who allegedly defrauded at least ten people by listing his home for rent, taking deposit money from would-be renters, and then refusing to either rent the house or refund their money. Police say Moore made at least $10,000 from his various victims. Moore's whereabouts are currently unknown.

Moore is unusual by rental-scammer standards, in that he used his own actual house as bait for the scam. Most rental scams are essentially real-estate-flavored versions of phishing scams: instead of copying and using logos and photos from legitimate-business websites for their scambait, rental scammers will copy and use photos and descriptions from legitimate real-estate listings.

Real estate scam signs

I encountered my first rental scammer in the summer of 2012, when I was (obviously) looking for a place to rent, responded to an ad on Craigslist, and soon received a badly misspelled missive mentioning in the very first paragraph that the supposed landlord was currently in China doing missionary work, but if I wired him the deposit money he'd get me the house key.

That's two obvious scam signs right there: one, don't trust any rental ad that requires payment via wire transfer, a pre-paid money card, or any other untraceable method; and two, don't trust any so-called landlord who demands payment before you actually see the house or get the keys.

Coincidentally, the real-estate agent I later enlisted to help find a rental actually recognized that “Chinese missionary” house: it never was available for rent, but a few months earlier its original owners had listed it for sale – and the house sold several weeks before I saw and wrote to that scammy Craigslist ad. But the photos and descriptions from the scam ad had been lifted straight from the honest realty listing from a few months before (though the actual street address was quite different).

That was three years ago, and such scams remain just as common. Today, the Better Business Bureau in British Columbia issued a special warning to area college students desperate to find housing before the start of the next semester, reminding them not to fall prey to rental scams in their rush to find lodging.

Evan Kelly with the British Columbian BBB warned that area scammers used the same basic online scam as my “Chinese missionary” — with the additional recommendation/demand that the would-be renter make a deposit to secure the room right now, before somebody else takes it. “They just use that line, 'You have to secure the property now if you want it, because we have a line of people coming in,'” Kelly said. “So people have that sense of urgency and send in their money, whether it be money or cash or something like that. We're just saying, don't do that.”

Precautions

The Better Business Bureau issued some standard precautions that renters should take to avoid rental scammers, including:

  • Never wire money to 'secure your interest.'

  • Pay no attention to ads or rentees who claim to be out of the country.

  • [Social Security numbers], bank account numbers and credit card numbers are not required to rent a place.

  • Be wary of a landlord who is very eager to rent to you.

  • Meet the person in the ad and view the property first.

Unfortunately, one of those pieces of advice – “view the property first” – isn't necessarily feasible for people seeking to rent a vacation home hundreds of miles away from their regular one. And vacation-rental scammers take advantage of that.

Down in South Carolina, Isle of Palms police are currently investigating a rental scam that ensnared some Maryland vacationers who thought they'd rented a house on Craigslist, only to discover they'd actually sent a large deposit to a scammer. And they didn't discover this until they actually arrived in Isle of Palms, knocked on the door of the supposed rental house and spoke to the home's actual occupants. Police in Isle of Palms say they've had four similar vacation-scam cases in the past year – in a town whose total population is only 4,133, according to the last census.

To protect yourself from rental scams, be extra-vigilant about following the rule against payment via wire transfer or any other non-traceable method. Isle of Palms Detective Sergeant Jeffry Swain advised vacationers to use credit cards, which offer the option of disputing fraudulent or scammy charges.

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Researchers develop a better flu vaccine

Creating stronger and weaker versions will allow them to more safely treat infants and the elderly

With fall and winter just around the corner, the annual flu season will soon be upon us as well. Up to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu every year,...

PhotoWith fall and winter just around the corner, the annual flu season will soon be upon us as well. Up to 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu every year, so it is very important to take proper steps in order to avoid it. Unfortunately, yearly flu vaccinations are not always effective for everyone. Studies show that current flu vaccines are less effective, or even counter-productive, for babies under the age of two and adults over the age of 49; as a result, the flu vaccine has not been approved for either of these two groups of people. Luckily, a new nasal spray flu vaccine method may be able to correct this shortcoming.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health created the new method after studying and creating varying versions of the flu virus. By controlling how strong each virus is, the researchers concluded that they can weaken or strengthen it depending on the needs of those who take it.

“We think we can use our molecular, rational design approaches to make a better flu vaccine for people who really need it,” said Andrew Pekosz, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and leader of the study.

One of the advantages that the study has is that the viruses can be controlled according to the specifications of the researchers. “We can do it in a sophisticated and accurate way, not in a blind manner, which is how these vaccines are usually developed,” said Pekosz.

Treating infants and the elderly

This new method may be particularly helpful to people over the age of 60 and children under the age of two. Older people, in particular, are more likely to get the flu and can often suffer medical complications because of it. Since they have been exposed to so many different flu viruses over the course of their lives, they often need a more potent vaccine in order to provoke an immune response.

On the other hand, children under the age of two have not been exposed to the flu very much, and need a weaker version of the vaccine. Although they can take an injectable version, the nasal spray is preferred by doctors who state that it is a safer option.

The current nasal spray, which is called FluMist, was made by combining nine different mutations of the flu virus. In the past, researchers believed that only five mutations were needed to make a strong vaccine, but Pekosz and his team believe otherwise. They state that using all nine mutations can create a better vaccine that includes fewer side effects.

Pekosz and his team are currently working with MidImmune in order to develop even better versions of FluMist. If all goes well, then a new vaccine could be ready for both older and younger people within 6-12 months. The group’s findings have been published in the journal Vaccine

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FCC levies record-breaking fine for unwanted advertising robocalls

Travel Club Marketing made 185 robocalls to over 142 consumers, most of whom were on the Do Not Call Registry

The Federal Communications Commission has levied the single highest robocalling fine in its history: $2.96 million against Travel Club Marketing, Inc., a F...

The Federal Communications Commission has levied the single highest robocalling fine in its history: $2.96 million against Travel Club Marketing, Inc., a Florida-based company which, according to the FCC, “made or initiated at least 185 'robocalls,' all of which were unsolicited, prerecorded advertising calls to over 142 consumers who had not consented to the robocalls and the majority of whom had placed their telephone number on the National Do-Not-Call Registry.”

The FCC went on to say that at the time Travel Club made the robocalls, the Communications Act and FCC rules required consumers give express consent for all robocalls made to cell phones, and either “prior express consent or an established business relations[hip]” for robocalls made to residential phone lines.

Since then, the rules have grown even more stringent – in October 2013, the Commission removed the established business relationship exemption, and henceforth required “prior express consent be in writing for all advertising robocalls.”

The federal docket shows that the FCC first recommended a fine against Travel Club in 2011.

Unwanted robocalls

If you've been receiving unwanted robocalls, this FCC web portal offers options to file complaints about problem phone calls (in addition to filing complaints regarding TV, radio, the Internet, emergency communications, and Access for People with Disabilities).

The National Do Not Call Registry portal is here, and allows options to register a phone number, verify a registration, or (for already-registered members) submit a complaint. And – since scammers now imitate every legitimate aspect of life – the Do Not Call Registry Portal also has this warning on its front page: “Scammers have been making phone calls claiming to represent the National Do Not Call Registry. The calls claim to provide an opportunity to sign up for the Registry. These calls are not coming from the Registry or the Federal Trade Commission, and you should not respond to these calls.”

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Bluetooth gadget keeps tabs on things you lose

Device placed on keys or in wallet syncs up with your smartphone

Smartphones fill more and more functions in modern life, including a truly important one for people prone to misplacing their keys or their wallet.Trac...

PhotoSmartphones fill more and more functions in modern life, including a truly important one for people prone to misplacing their keys or their wallet.

TrackR is a family of small Bluetooth devices that attaches to your keys, your pet, and other things that tend to get lost. It then syncs up with your Apple or Android phone, emitting a locating sound or showing you a location on a map.

The devices are a little larger than a quarter and use batteries that can be replaced by the consumer. They are easily attached to a wide range of objects.

Its Bluetooth range is advertised at 100 feet, so it is best used for finding objects inside your home. In fact, some initial reviews found the range to be somewhat less than 100 feet, but mostly adequate for finding misplaced keys within the house.

Uses your phone's Bluetooth

To keep tabs on your keys, wallet, or other items, your phone's Bluetooth needs to stay on and the app has to be running in the background. The app displays a map that shows where the missing item is located and if more help is needed, pushing a button will play a chime from the TrackR.

A nifty feature is the Last Known Location function. Once a user loses a tagged item, he or she receives a notification and can see the last known location of the lost item on a map.

What happens if it's your smartphone that goes missing? In that case, TrackR works in reverse. Pushing a button on a TrackR device will cause the phone to ring, even if it is set on silent mode, helping you quickly locate it if it's nearby.

Crowd GPS

Should you lose a tagged item outside the 100 foot range, the Crowd GPS feature kicks in. When an item goes missing with a TrackR device attached, all TrackR enabled phones will begin to search for that item.

If another TrackR app user happens to pass within 100 feet of the lost item, that user's phone will anonymously ping the TrackR server to update the item's owner with new GPS coordinates of when and where it was last seen.

The product only launched in March, so the Crowd feature may take some time to reach critical mass. But TrackR's management is optimistic the Crowd feature will continue to grow.

“We aim to continue building this network so the updates become more real-time, ensuring any lost item will be found,” the company says.

By clicking this link, you can see a map of other TrackR users near you.

The TrackR Bravo is the basic TrackR device. One tracking medallion retails for $29.99. After purchasing the device, there is no monthly fee. The app is a free download.

Two Bravo devices cost $49.99, a 4-pack goes for $89.99 and a package of 10 devices costs $149.99.

The TrackR Bravo may turn out to be a popular holiday gift – for the person who has everything but has a hard time keeping up with it.

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Alphabets wonder why Google chose to use their name

Is it really so hard to come up with something unique?

An Alphabet brand chairBack when Google was founded in 1998, its name was unique and clever. When it founded its parent corporation this week it name...

Photo
An Alphabet brand chair

Back when Google was founded in 1998, its name was unique and clever. When it founded its parent corporation this week it named it Alphabet, which may or may not be clever but which is certainly far from unique.

In fact, there are companies named Alphabet that run the gamut from A to, well, maybe not quite Z but close. First of all, there's the Alphabet Corp. that is owned by BMW, an automotive fleet manager that operates in 18 countries and supplies 530,000 vehicles to its customers.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reports there are no fewer than 103 registered trademarks containing the word "Alphabet" so it seems that, rather than breaking new ground as it once did, Google is taking the path more chosen.

Other Alphabets

 
Photo
Library of Congress listings of Alphabets
Of course, none of the other Alphabets can come close to the power and glory of the Google Alphabet but quite a few of them seem to be well-established, going concerns.

There's Alphabet Acquisition Corp., founded in 1943. It operates a chain of radio stations around the country. There's the Alphabet line of furniture, which makes plastic form-fitting chairs.

There are Alphabet cooking sets that let you make letter-shaped cookies. AlphabetKids,runs lunch programs in Canadian schools.

In Warren, Ohio, there's an Alphabet Group that makes stainless steel assemblies and other industrial equipment.

Probably no one in Mountain View cares much about any of these small companies and feels no compunctions about riding roughshod over their hard-won identity.

While BMW might be a more formidable foe than AlphabetKids, it apparently doesn't feel proprietary about its name.

Trademark issues

A BMW spokesman told Reuters the automaker was "examining whether there are any implications over trademarks" but said there are currently no plans for legal action against Google or its parent, Alphabet.

Google has said it doesn't plan to use the Alphabet name on any of its products or services and will use it only as the name of its holding company.

While it's not likely any of the smaller Alphabets will want to pick a fight with Google, it's not hard to imagine that a few years down the road, Google starts insisting that it and only it owns the Alphabet name and begins sending long letters on fancy legal letterhead to the more insignificant Alphabets.

One might wonder why, since it is the self-appointed fount of the world's knowledge, Google didn't take the trouble to at least come up with a one-off name -- you know, something like "AlphaBit." Even Microsoft managed to jam two words together when it came up with its moniker.

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North Carolina shrimp processor fined for mislabeling imported shrimp as domestic

25,000 pounds of imported farm-raised shrimp was falsely labeled as wild-caught domestic

Shrimp can come from all kinds of places, and many consumers are rather picky about their shrimp. They look for wild-caught U.S.-caught shrimp, for example...

PhotoShrimp can come from all kinds of places, and many consumers are rather picky about their shrimp. They look for wild-caught U.S.-caught shrimp, for example, but there's really no sure way to know, which is where the human element comes in.

Take Alphin Brothers Inc., a North Carolina firm that was sentenced in federal court yesterday for falsely labeling imported shrimp as wild-caught domestic.

The company pleaded guilty to one felony count of making or submitting false records in violation of the Lacey Act. According to court documents, an Alphin Brothers employee directed other employees to falsely label approximately 25,000 pounds of farm-raised imported shrimp as wild-caught product of the United States.  The falsely labeled shrimp was later sold by Alphin Brothers to customers in Louisiana.

The court sentenced Alphin Brothers Inc. to pay a criminal fine of $100,000 and to forfeit approximately 21,450 pounds of shrimp.  The company also will serve three years of probation, including a special condition requiring the company to implement a training program to educate its employees on federal labeling requirements.

Federal regulations require seafood retailers to provide customers with notice of the country of origin and the method of production, wild-caught or farm-raised, of shrimp and other shellfish.  These regulations are known by the acronym COOL -- “country of origin labeling.” 

The COOL regulations allow country of origin and method of production information to be provided in any format, as long as it is placed in a conspicuous location such that it will likely be read and understood by a customer under normal circumstances.

Under the COOL regulations, shrimp may be labeled as “product of the United States” only if they were harvested and processed in the United States or by a United States-flagged vessel and have not undergone any substantial transformation outside the United States.  Packing, repacking, thawing, freezing, cleaning, peeling, deveining, grading, cooking, or soaking shrimp in sodium tripolyphosphate solution does not constitute a substantial transformation under the COOL regulations.

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Price of wind energy at an all-time low

But most consumers have seen electric rates rise this year

The price of oil isn't the only energy source that's going down. A new Department of Energy report, prepared by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, ...

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Too much of the “Southern diet” can kill you, researchers warn

Researchers urge cutting back on the fried foods and sweet tea

Different parts of the country have food favorites that are closely associated with their geography. The Southwest has Tex-Mex. The urban Northeast has hug...

PhotoDifferent parts of the country have food favorites that are closely associated with their geography. The Southwest has Tex-Mex. The urban Northeast has huge deli sandwiches. D.C. has power lunches with lobbyists.

Then there is the Southern-style diet, which researchers at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) contend is the only regional diet that can definitively increase your risk of deadly heart disease.

UAB researchers have previously shown that regularly consuming fried foods, processed meats, foods high in fat, and sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to an increased risk of stroke and death for chronic kidney disease patients.

Their latest effort, published in the medical journal Circulation, finds regularly chowing down on these regional favorites can raise your risk of heart disease — including heart attack and heart disease-related death.

Food as a risk factor

It's well established that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The food you eat, along with the amount, are big risk factors.

The UAB researchers studied data from a massive national study of dietary patterns, in which food consumption was broken down into six categories; convenience, plant-based, sweets, Southern, alcohol, and salad.

The people in the study were grouped into categories, not only by the type of diet they most adhered to, but also by how much or how little they partook. Of all the types of diets, the Southern-style pattern saw the biggest increase in risk for heart disease.

“People who most often ate foods conforming to the Southern-style dietary pattern had a 56% higher risk of heart disease compared to those who ate it less frequently,” said study lead author James M. Shikany.

Shikany says no other dietary pattern was associated with heart disease risk.

Magnitude of risk surprising

“I’m not surprised regular consumption of a Southern-style diet impacts heart disease, but the magnitude of the increased risk for heart disease was surprising,” Shikany said. “However, I was more surprised we didn’t see a protective effect of the plant-based dietary pattern.”

The people in the study who ate more of the Southern diet tended to be middle-aged and younger, and living in the so-called “stroke belt” – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Perhaps not coincidentally, these states tend to place near the top of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) semi-annual list of states with the highest obesity rates.

In the CDC's most recent obesity rankings, the south had the highest prevalence of obesity at 30.2%. Mississippi led the nation with an adult obesity rate of more than 35%.

“For anyone eating a lot of the main components of the Southern dietary pattern, I’d recommend they scale back on their consumption,” Shikany said. “If you’re eating bacon every morning, maybe cut back to only two or three days per week, or if you’re drinking four glasses of sweet tea or several sugar-sweetened soft drinks per day, maybe reduce that to one a day and replace those with non-sweetened beverages.”

If you're hooked on the Southern-style diet, Shikany doesn't suggest going cold turkey. That's harder to stick to, he says. Rather, just make smaller dietary changes and work healthier kinds of food into your meals.

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OK to eat lots of red meat and butter? Maybe but then again ...

Study suggests saturated fat may not be as harmful as once believed

A new study that's getting a lot of attention finds that saturated fat, like that found in red meat and dairy products, may not kill you after all, althoug...

PhotoA new study that's getting a lot of attention finds that saturated fat, like that found in red meat and dairy products, may not kill you after all, although trans-fats may be just as deadly as expected.

What's not getting so much attention is that the researchers who conducted the study are warning that we shouldn't take it too seriously, since it relies mostly on the memory of the people who were studied, and memory is notoriously,unreliable.

,The study by scientists at McMaster University in Canada looked at all causes of death and tried to correlate them with the subjects' previously reported memories of their dietary habits.

It failed to find a link between deaths from heart disease, stroke and diabetes,and diets containing lots of eggs, chocolate, red meat and so forth.

Deadly trans-fats,

However, the study, published in the British Medical Journal, did find a link between death from heart disease and consumption of foods made with trans-fats once used in margarine, snacks and packaged baked goods.

The scientists found that the consumption of industrial trans-fats was associated with a 34 per cent increase in all causes of mortality, a 28 per cent increase in death from coronary heart disease and a 21 per cent increase in the risk of being diagnosed with heart disease.

The study seems to confirm the growing suspicion that maybe a reasonable helping of meat, butter and cheese may be OK now and then. But the lead researcher,,Russell de Souza, warns that we shouldn't get carried away.

“For years everyone has been advised to cut out fats. Trans-fats have no health benefits and pose a significant risk for heart disease, but the case for saturated fat is less clear,” Dr de Souza said.,“That said, we aren’t advocating an increase of the allowance for saturated fats in dietary guidelines, as we don’t see evidence that higher limits would be specifically beneficial to health,” he said.

“It would be foolish to interpret these findings to suggest that it is OK to eat lots of fatty meat, lashings of cream and oodles of butter,” Professor Sanders added.

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Simple changes in pet food could help reduce obesity, study concludes

Varying the size of maize and sorghum nuggets affects digestibility

Take a good look at your dog or cat. What do you see? A lean, fit creature ready to take whatever comes its way? Probably not. The Association for Pet Obes...

PhotoTake a good look,at your dog or cat. What do you see? A lean, fit creature ready to take whatever comes its way? Probably not. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 53% of dogs,and 58% of cats in the U.S. are overweight.

Perhaps more alarming, 90% of pet owners don't realize their companions are too heavy and aren't doing anything about it. The solution, of course, is the same as it is for humans -- a less-fattening,diet and more exercise.

With pet owners not recognizing the problem, it falls to pet food companies,,animal nutritionists and veterinarians to look for solutions.,,

Back to basics

Researchers have been looking at various food additives that could reduce weight but in Sao Paulo, Brazil,,Dr. Aulus Carciofi and colleagues decided to go back to the basics by looking at particle size.

Livestock nutritionists have long known that particle size influences digestibility but there hasn't previously been much research in dogs. So Carciofi and company rounded up 54 beagles and fed them either maize, rice or sorghum in either fine, medium or coarsely ground nuggets.

They found that size matters in,maize and sorghum nuggets but not in rice.

Carciofi concluded that "if properly processed, maize and sorghum are as easily digested as rice-based food." He also believes that dog food processing companies "could look closer at the particle reduction process."

Based on their results and others, rice is easily digested and doesn't depend on the processing. However, maize and sorghum are "dependent on a proper raw material particle size and need to be appropriately extruded to produce highly digestible foods," said Carciofi. In the end, even sorghum, thought to be less digestible, can be similar to rice if cooked and ground properly.

One size doesn't fit all

One readily apparent problem is that most pet food manufacturers "have only one grinding condition for all recipes, and do not change the extrusion size,based on the type of cereal used," said Carciofi. The extrusion process is only configured for fat, protein, and meat inclusions in the diet.

Carciofi's lab is continuing work in the food processing area. Recently, they found an interesting link between food processing and the metabolic responses of the animals. They are also researching mechanical energy transference and starch cooking in dog and cat diets.

These food processing techniques may be a low cost and effective way of producing diets that are potentially more beneficial and can control digestibility and that could reduce obesity among pets, Carciofi concluded.

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