Follow us:
  1. Home
  2. News
  3. 2015
  4. August

News in August 2015

Browse by year

2015

Browse by month

Get trending consumer news and recalls

    By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

    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 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

    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...
    Read lessRead more

    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.,

    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.

    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.,...
    Read lessRead more

    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 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.

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

    Get trending consumer news and recalls

      By entering your email, you agree to sign up for consumer news, tips and giveaways from ConsumerAffairs. Unsubscribe at any time.

      Thank you, you have successfully subscribed to our newsletter! Enjoy reading our tips and recommendations.

      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, 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.  

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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:

      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
      TruTrimBulk11/30/2011
      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
      XcelleratorBulk10/27/2011-
      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.

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

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      With rising tuition costs, tuition insurance becoming more common

      But like any insurance, costs are based on coverage

      Whenever you spend large amounts of money on things, some risk of loss is involved. That's why you purchase home and auto insurance.

      With the skyrocketing cost of college tuition, many parents are beginning to seek protection if their children have to withdraw from school for medical reasons. Thousands of dollars in tuition expense would otherwise be wasted. If the wasted tuition is part of a student loan, it's even worse – it's money you don't have but have to pay back.

      That's why part of the college application process is now likely to include a pitch for tuition refund insurance. Sallie Mae, a provider of student loans, offers tuition refund insurance on its website through a third-party company, Next Generation Insurance Group.

      “Tuition refund insurance helps you and your family protect your investment in education by covering up to 100% of tuition and fees lost due to a medical withdrawal or a withdrawal due to a mental health condition,” according to Sallie Mae.

      No protection from flunking out

      To be clear, tuition insurance does you no good if your student flunks out of school, or is dismissed for disciplinary reasons. It does protect against unexpected, involuntary termination of the semester because of death, illness – including mental condition – or injury.

      According to Sallie Mae, most insurance policies provide refunds of tuition, academic fees, and some other educational expenses.

      Allianz Global Assistance, a major provider of travel insurance, has also recently moved into the tuition insurance field.

      “With the average annual cost of tuition and fees passing $42,000 for a private, four-year university, the cost of education can be an enormous financial burden for American families,” the company says on its website. “Most colleges will give only a small tuition refund or none at all, if a student withdraws after classes begin.”

      Costs

      Like any insurance policy, the more coverage you receive the more you pay for the policy. Allianz says its basic policy costs just $29.95 but reimbursement is limited to $2,500.

      Allianz's Preferred policy, which it says is its most popular, pays up to $50,000 of eligible, non-refundable expenses. The cost is 1.35% of the covered expenses. If the tuition, fees and room and board totaled $42,000, the cost of the policy would be $567.

      The Advantage policy, which provides more coverage, costs significantly more – 6% of the covered expense.

      Some colleges and universities offer tuition insurance through third party companies. Whether you should purchase depends on your risk tolerance and what the institution's refund polices are like. If the college has a generous refund policy in case of an illness, then tuition insurance might be less useful.

      Pre-existing conditions

      FinAid.org, a non-profit financial aid website, also points out that most tuition insurance policies exclude pre-existing conditions – at least for the first six months. That means if your child has a medical condition that might force her to withdraw from school before completing the term, the policy might not pay off.

      The site's authors conclude that because most 17 to 21 year-olds are healthy, tuition insurance might not be a good investment, even though it does provide peace of mind.

      Whenever you spend large amounts of money on things, some risk of loss is involved. That's why you purchase home and auto insurance.With the skyrocketi...
      Read lessRead more

      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 $67.1 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.

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

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

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

      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..

      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 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.

      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....
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.
      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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.

      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.

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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
      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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? 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.

      They 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.

      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?...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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."

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.  

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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. 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

      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. 

      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. ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

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

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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.

      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.

      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....
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.  

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 Zillowreports 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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.

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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) 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.

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

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.  

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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.

      A final tally of deaths and injuries linked to General Motors' faulty ignition switches finds 124 deaths and 275 injuries, 17...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Chetak New York recalls Deep Coriander Powder

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Chetak 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).

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.
      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.
      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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, 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.”

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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.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.”

      In a masterpiece of understatement, the Associated Press reported that the United Nations has “expressed concern” over recent revelations that AT&T (the U....
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      ,

      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.

      ,

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Pension loan companies duped consumers, feds and NY charge

      Consumers weren't aware of high interest charges and fees associated with the loans

      A pension advance loan is just that -- a loan that's paid off by your monthly pension payment. It's similar to payday loan and often includes the sky-high interest rates typical of payday loans.

      Promoters of these loans are often very creative in their claims, and that spells trouble for two of them -- Pension Funding, LLC and Pension Income, LLC. The companies are being sued by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS).

      The agencies say the companies deceived consumers about the costs and risks of their pension advance loans and duped consumers into borrowing against their pensions by deceptively marketing the product as a sale instead of a loan and failing to disclose high interest rates and fees.

      “These companies duped consumers into taking out pension advance loans by deceiving them about the terms of the deal,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We are working to put a stop to the illegal practices these companies are using to sell their bogus product to military veterans and other pensioners.”

      The companies, both based in California, operated from 2011 until about December 2014, offering consumers lump-sum cash advances for agreeing to redirect all or part of their pension payments over a period of eight years.

      “As outlined in our complaint, the defendants used blatantly deceptive practices to harvest the hard-earned pensions of seniors and military personnel,” said Anthony J. Albanese, Acting New York Superintendent of Financial Services. “This scheme involved false advertising, illegal loans at high interest rates, and other abusive tactics."

      The complaint filed in federal district court alleges that the companies and individuals violated the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act by:

      ·         Misrepresenting the product as a sale and not a loan: The CFPB and NYDFS allege that the companies represented to consumers that their product was not a loan, but rather a “sale” of their future pension income. In fact, the CFPB and NYDFS allege, the product was a loan.

      ·         Failing to disclose or misrepresenting the interest rate and fees for the loans: The CFPB and NYDFS allege that the defendants, in many cases, misrepresented or failed to inform consumers of the applicable interest rate or fees for the loans. In some cases, the defendants advised consumers that the product was better than a home equity line of credit or a credit card because of lower rates and fees. In fact, the effective interest rate typically was greater than 28 percent, higher than many comparable products available to consumers, such as credit cards and home equity lines. Charges for life insurance and other fees also applied.

      A pension advance loan is just that -- a loan that's paid off by your monthly pension payment. It's similar to payday loan and often includes the sky-high...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      Wall Street mergers have become commonplace in the last two decades as everything from airlines to hotel chains have consolidated. Researchers at Johns ...
      Read lessRead more

      Mortgage interest rates edge upward

      Lower rates are having an impact on the housing market

      Mortgage 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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

      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.

      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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. 

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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. 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.

      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....
      Read lessRead more

      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 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].”

      A month after the adultery-dating website AshleyMadison.com (registered motto: “Life is short. Have an affair.®”) admitted that hackers had managed to brea...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.  

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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% ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      A surge in refinancings last week helped push applications for mortgages higher. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Sur...
      Read lessRead more

      Audi plans all-electric SUV and announces pricing for A3 plug-in hybrid

      The e-tron quattro is targeted at Tesla's forthcoming SUV

      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

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Truecaller releases app to ID all incoming texts

      Free app puts a name and face to phone numbers

      If you get a text from a friend or someone in your list of contacts, their name pops up, making it easy to know who is sending a message.

      But if it is just a number that flashes on your screen, it could be from anyone – and most likely it's an anonymous spammer.

      Truecaller, a mobile call management company, has just released Truemessenger, an app which the company claims will make texing smarter and more social. It's a free download on Google Play.

      The purpose of Truemessenger is to put a name, and even a face, to every incoming number.

      Filter and block spam

      “It helps you filter and block spam by tapping into vibrant community of more than 150 million members who help protect one another from annoying intrusions,” the company said in a release.

      When you receive a text, the app, which is integrated with Truecaller's network of 1.7 billion numbers worldwide, scans social networks and automatically assigns photos, nicknames, and other contact information to the incoming message.

      The app also allows you to set up your own spam rules, just like you can with email. SMS spam is either filtered out of your inbox or blocked altogether. You have less clutter in your inbox and aren't left guessing who might be trying to reach you.

      Truecaller Takes Aim at Mobile Spam

      Right now Truecaller says spam accounts for 15% of all SMS messages sent, which represents 1.2 trillion spam messages each year. In the U.S. market, while there are plenty of other communication options, texting is still the most-used app, making it a prime target for telemarketers and fraudsters.

      You know, the free gift card offers, marketing promotions, and outright phishing scams? The scammers trying to pull them off lose their anonymity.

      And if you happen to be the target of an anonymous cyber-bully who texts hateful messages, the app can gather and present quite a bit of information about your tormentor.

      Truecaller says its Truemessenger app gives users the ability to detect, block, and report spam alongside other Truecaller members. Users also have the option to avoid messages from unwanted numbers and contacts.

      Orderly inbox

      The result is a clean and neat inbox where spam messages disappear into a separate folder. Users may also add advanced filtering options by creating customized filters with known spam keywords or number series, such as area codes or country codes.

      “We are in the middle of the Wild West in terms of spam messages we receive on our mobile phone, and despite the evolution of services in other areas, little has been done to curb the number of spam messages we receive on a daily basis,” said Alan Mamedi, CEO & co-founder of Truecaller.

      The brief video clip below shows how Truemessenger works.

      If you get a text from a friend or someone in your list of contacts, their name pops up, making it easy to know who is sending a message.But if it is j...
      Read lessRead more

      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) 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.

      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)...
      Read lessRead more

      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: 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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. 

      Besides pork, corn and early Presidential primaries, Iowa has been a producer of dietary supplements but one major supplier has been sh...
      Read lessRead more

      New home construction inches upward in July

      Permits for future construction was another story

      Construction 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      Southwest Airlines is in trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The agency is proposing a $325,000 civil penalty against the Dallas-based...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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.

      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.”  

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      Pleasant House Bakery of Chicago, Ill., is recalling an undetermined amount of steak and chicken pie products. The products, distributed without the bene...
      Read lessRead more

      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-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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 exactly what that is. Competition, after all, is supposed to be a good thing. 

      In a speech yesterday at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., FTC Chair Edith Ramirez discussed a "statement of principles" the commission had approved earlier, sayiing the statement "makes time-honored principlex explicit" but "does not signal any change of course in our enforcement practicies and priorities."

      Reaction mixed

      Reaction to the statement was mixed.

      Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D, Conn.) called it "historic" and said he hoped it would “lead to more frequent and effective enforcement actions to protect both consumers and businesses.” Blumenthal is the top Democrat on a committee that oversees the FTC.

      The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the statement didn't go far enough. Sean Heather, who oversees antitrust issues for the group,  called the guidance “disappointing,” saying that it “fails to establish an objective standard that closes the door to varying interpretations,” Bloomberg reported.

      But the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington nonprofit, said the statement appears "to narrow the ability of the Commission to pursue unfair business practices and were announced without any formal opportunity for public comment."

      EPIC noted that it and other advocacy groups have urged the FTC to use its authority to police unfair competition to address growing concerns about industry consolidation and privacy protection.

      It noted that the one dissenter in the 4-1 bipartisan vote to adopt the statement of principles, Commissioner Maureen K. Olhausen, noted the FTC's lack of public comment in its deliberations.

      EPIC has also noted the failure of the FTC to incorporate public comments in its proceedings, as required by law.

      Antitrust laws

      The statement enumerates the principles that the commission says it will follow when deciding whether to challenge unfair methods of competition, including:

      • the Commission will be guided by the public policy underlying the antitrust laws, namely, the promotion of consumer welfare;
      • the act or practice will be evaluated under a framework similar to the rule of reason, that is, an act or practice challenged by the Commission must cause, or be likely to cause, harm to competition or the competitive process, taking into account any associated cognizable efficiencies and business justifications; and
      • the Commission is less likely to challenge an act or practice as an unfair method of competition on a standalone basis if enforcement of the Sherman or Clayton Act is sufficient to address the competitive harm arising from the act or practice.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two new endoscopic bariatric therapy techniques that may make this anti-obesity procedure more accessib...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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; 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.”

      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 ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      Britax Child Safety is recalling 213,753 Advocate ClickTight child seats, model numbers E9LT95Q, E9LT95Z, E9LT95N, and E1A025Q; Boulevard ClickTight child ...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Are cable TV's days numbered?

      Maybe not, but cable companies will have to quickly evolve

      Last 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?

      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....
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.  

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 (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.”

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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, 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

      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,...
      Read lessRead more

      Alphabets wonder why Google chose to use their name

      Is it really so hard to come up with something unique?

      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

      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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      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 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.

      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...
      Read lessRead more

      Consumer complaints about airline service on the rise

      Air travelers also found themselves stuck on the ground longer than they liked

      People traveling by air were an unhappy bunch during the first 6 months of the year.

      According to the latest Department of Transportation (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, consumer complaints filed with the Aviation Consumer Protection Division during the first 6 months of this year were up 20.3% from the same period a year earlier.

      During the latest January – June period, there were 9,542 consumer complaints, compared with 7,935 in the first 6 months of 2014. In June alone, DOT received 2,052 complaints about airline service, up 47.3% from the total of 1,393 filed in June 2014 and up 37.5% from the 1,492 received a month earlier.

      If things weren't bad enough, there were 2 tarmac delays of more than 3 hours on domestic flights in June. However there were no delays of more than four hours on international flights. DOT is investigating the delays.

      Other areas covered

      The consumer report also includes data on on-time performance, cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays. In addition, there are statistics on mishandled baggage reports, passengers denied confirmed space (oversales/bumping) and aviation service complaints filed with DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division by consumers regarding a range of issues such as flight problems, baggage, reservation and ticketing, refunds, consumer service, disability, and discrimination.

      The consumer report also includes reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of animals traveling by air.

      The full report is available on the DOT website.

      People traveling by air were an unhappy bunch during the first 6 months of the year. According to the latest Department of Transportation (DOT) Air Travel...
      Read lessRead more

      Fewer job openings in June

      The rate of those leaving jobs held steady

      The number of job openings on the last business day of June was down a little -- 5.2 million versus 5.4 million the month before.

      The bureau of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also reports the number of hires and separations was little changed at 5.2 million and 4.9 million, respectively. Within separations, the quits rate remained at 1.9% for a third straight month, and the layoffs and discharges rate was little changed at 1.3%.

      Job openings

      Even with the slight decline, the job openings rate for June was 3.6% for the third month in a row. The number of job openings was little changed for total private and government. Job openings decreased in nondurable goods manufacturing and were little changed in all four regions.

      The number of job openings (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in June for total nonfarm and total private. The number of job openings for government was little changed.

      Job openings rose over the year for several industries with the largest increases occurring in professional and business services and in health care and social assistance.

      Job openings declined over the year in mining and logging and in finance and insurance. The number of openings rose over the year in the South and Midwest regions.

      Hires

      The number of hires was 5.2 million in June, up 200,000 from May, for a hires rate of 3.7%. The number of hires was little changed for total private and government in June. There was little change in the number of hires in all industries and regions over the month.

      Over the 12 months ending in June, the number of hires (not seasonally adjusted) increased for total nonfarm, total private, and government. At the industry level, there was more hiring in construction, other services, and state and local government.

      Among the industries, the number of hires fell over the year in mining and logging. The number of hires increased in the Midwest.

      Separations

      Total separations includes quits, layoffs and discharges, and other separations. Total separations is referred to as turnover.

      Quits are generally voluntary separations initiated by the employee, and therefore the quits rate can serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs. Layoffs and discharges are involuntary separations initiated by the employer. Other separations includes separations

      due to retirement, death, and disability, as well as transfers to other locations of the same firm.

      There were 4.9 million total separations in June, about the same as in May. The separations rate was 3.5%. The number of total separations was little changed for total private and government, but increased in construction. There was little change in all regions over the month.

      There were 2.7 million quits in June, about the same as in May. The quits rate in June was unchanged at 1.9%. The number of quits was little changed for total private and government over the month, and little changed in all industries and in all 4 regions.

      The number of quits (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in June for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Quits increased in durable goods manufacturing and in state and local government. The number of quits increased in the Northeast and West regions.

      There were 1.8 million layoffs and discharges in June, up 100,00 from May. The layoffs and discharges rate was 1.3%. The number of layoffs and discharges was little changed over the month for total private and government, and in all 4 regions. Seasonally adjusted estimates of layoffs and discharges are not available for individual industries.

      The number of layoffs and discharges (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed over the 12 months ending in June for total nonfarm, total private, and government. The number of layoffs and discharges

      increased over the year in construction and educational services but decreased in health care and social assistance. There was little change in layoffs and discharges over the year in all 4 regions.

      In June, there were 392,000 other separations for total nonfarm, about the same as in May. Over the month, the number of other separations was up, 10,000 for total private at 334,000 and down 10,000 for government to 57,000. Seasonally adjusted estimates of other separations are not available for individual industries or regions.

      Over the 12 months ending in June, the number of other separations (not seasonally adjusted) was little changed for total nonfarm, total private, and government. Other separations increased in professional and business services, health care and social assistance, and accommodation and food services. Other separations decreased in wholesale trade. The number of other separations was little changed in all 4 regions.

      The full report is available on the BLS website.

      The number of job openings on the last business day of June down a little in June 5.2 million versus 5.4 million the month before. The bureau of Bureau o...
      Read lessRead more

      Little change in mortgage applications last week

      Contract interest rates were mostly flat

      Mortgage applications barely budged in the week ending August 7.

      Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey show applications edged up just 0.1%.

      The Refinance Index, on the other hand, jumped 3% to its highest level since May, taking the refinance share of mortgage activity up to 53.1% of total applications from 51.3% the previous week. That's the highest refinance share since April.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 6.8% of total applications, the FHA share dropped to 13.3% from 13.8%, the VA share of total applications was 11.3% and the USDA share came in at 0.7%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was unchanged at 4.13%, with points decreasing to 0.31 from 0.34 (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) was unchanged at 4.08%, with points increasing to 0.34 from 0.27 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA slipped 2 basis points, from 3.96% to 3.94%, with points unchanged at 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 fixed-rate mortgages rose to 3.39% from 3.36%, with points increasing to 0.38 from 0.37 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs rose 9 basis points to 3.11%, with points decreasing to 0.32 from 0.43 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.

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

      Mortgage applications barely budged in the week ending August 7. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey sh...
      Read lessRead more

      Breezer Downtown bicycles recalled

      The bicycle pedal can separate from the spindle (axle) during use

      Advanced Sports International is recalling about 1,700 Breezer Downtown bicycles.

      The bicycle pedal can separate from the spindle (axle) during use and cause the rider to lose control, posing a crash hazard.

      The firm has received 12 reports of pedals separating from the spindle. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves Breezer Bicycles models Downtown 3, Downtown 3-ST, Downtown 8, Downtown 8-ST, Downtown EX and Downtown EX-ST. The main frame is made of steel and has either a single or dual water bottle mount, and the wheel sets are aluminum.

      The bicycles come in eight different sizes and a variety of gloss colors, including candy apple, chartreuse, chocolate, dark blue, dark green, shale and slate. The model is printed on the top tube of the bicycle.

      The bicycles, manufactured in China, were sold at authorized Breezer Bicycles dealers nationwide from July 2014, through May 2015, for about $450 to $650.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the bicycles and return then to a Breezer dealer for a free pedal replacement.

      Consumers may contact Advanced Sports International toll-free at (888) 286-6263 between 8 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (ET) Monday – Friday or visit www.breezerbikes.com.

      Advanced Sports International is recalling about 1,700 Breezer Downtown bicycles. The bicycle pedal can separate from the spindle (axle) during use and ca...
      Read lessRead more

      More Good Seed soybean sprouts & mung bean sprouts recalled

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Good Seed of Springfield, Va., is once again recalling packages of soybean sprouts and mung bean sprouts.

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      An earlier recall was issued in May.

      The following products are being recalled by the firm.

      • 1-lb bags of soybean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled "GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts" "Keep Refrigerated" with a UPC Code of "21111 10035" produced on or after June 22, 2015.
      • 1-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled "GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts" "Keep Refrigerated" with a UPC code of "21111 20136" produced on or after June 22, 2015.
      • 2-lb bags of soybean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled "GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts" "Keep Refrigerated" with a UPC Code of "21112 58772" produced on or after June 22, 2015.
      • 2-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled "GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts" "Keep Refrigerated" with a UPC code of "21111 25871" produced on or after June 22, 2015.
      • 10-lb bags of soybean sprouts in black plastic bags labeled with a sticker "GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts" produced on or after June 22, 2015.
      • 10-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled with a sticker "GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts" produced on or after June 22, 2015.

      These products were sold in retail stores in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey.

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should return them to the place of sale for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 703-392-0075 or the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Food Safety Program at 804-786-3520.

      Good Seed of Springfield, Va., is once again recalling packages of soybean sprouts and mung bean sprouts. The products may be contaminated with Listeria ...
      Read lessRead more

      Google gets a new parent

      Don't worry, there'll still be plenty of search and Gmail ads to look at

      As one observer put it, Google has birthed its parent company. Known as Alphabet, the parent company will do what parents have always done -- try to keep the brawling brood in line, encouraging the brighter bulbs and trying to keep the wastrels from bringing down the entire clan.

      Google is the biggest and brawniest of the Alphabet family and does the down-and-dirty work -- search, email, thermostats -- that pay the bills. It may not be glamorous but it's what the first-born does: trudges to the office each day carrying on the family name.

      The others? Well, who knows. Google over the years has tried all kinds of things. Some look promising, others not. The idea behind this reorganization is to run Google like a business while leaving company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin free to chase ideas without running up a big tab that draws down Google's earnings.

      A to Z

      Alphabet -- A to Z, get it? -- will have enough money to pursue big ideas but will not get its hand into the Google cookie jar more often than the parent dictates.

      Google will have its own CEO -- Sundar Pichai -- whose task is to keep Google's nose to the grindstone, doing what it does best, which is selling advertising. He's been in charge of that part of the business for quite some time so keeping it stoked and steaming ahead should be no challenge. 

      What this means for consumers is that Google should continue to innovate and grow its core businesses, producing even more targeted ads in even more places. Not that anyone was ever really afraid it would stop doing so.

      Although everyone is too polite to say so, Google has now turned into something that's just a little bit boring -- it makes scads of money but at the end of the day, well, it's work. This is what happens to start-up companies that are truly lucky: they become so successful that their founders begin to get edgy and want to go try their hand at something else.

      Midlife angst

      This kind of midlife angst makes Wall Street nervous. It wants a steely-eyed businessman running the company day-to-day, crunching numbers, hitting financial goals and keeping everyone in line. 

      Some of us have been around long enough to remember when Google started. It was so under-financed that it canceled its affiliate advertising deals with sites like this one because they were too expensive.

      We emailed Google at the time and said we thought their new search engine was so valuable that we would run the ads for nothing. We never heard back though, so they must still be doing all right. 

      As one observer put it, Google has birthed its parent company. Known as Alphabet, the parent company will do what parents have always done -- try to keep t...
      Read lessRead more

      Hybrid owners: enjoy it while you can

      California joins states considering a per-mile car tax to replace gas tax

      Fess up, hybrid owners. You know this deal's too good to last. Drivers of hybrid and all-electric cars have been basically getting a free ride on America's highways and byways. But the good times are about to stop rolling.

      In Washington, attempts to pass a new highway bill are stalled more or less permanently despite the best efforts of the concrete lobby, largely because of disagreements over whether to raise the gas tax. This leaves the states to scratch around on their own and they are increasingly looking at a per-mile tax to replace or, ahem, "enhance" the gas tax.

      California is the latest -- and by any measure the largest -- to consider the idea. Even though it has more cars than any other state, its gas tax revenues have been falling in recent years and it,estimates its road repair backlog at $5.7 billion.

      Gov. Jerry Brown last year authorized a limited study of the per-mile idea, which is winning growing acceptance around the country.

      “We’re going to have to find another way to finance the upkeep of the roads,” Brown said during a January budget briefing. “Whether people use electricity or natural gas or whatever they use, they’re still wearing down the roads.”

      What about tolls?

      Of course, this brings up the unpleasant subject of tolls -- an increasingly popular way of financing roads, especially in the Washington, D.C., area and elsewhere on the East Coast.

      It is not difficult to spend $20 on tolls driving around Northern Virginia -- and that's before you even get within 10 miles of D.C. In Maryland, a tolled portion of I-95 now charges $6 if you have a Maryland-issued EZ-Pass, $8 for everyone else, which surely defines the very concept,of inhibiting interstate commerce and denying equal protection.

      Virginia likes to talk about its "public-private partnerships." What that means is that the state sells its roads to private companies who then lease them back to taxpayers, one toll at a time.

      Virginia, which is sometimes so far behind it appears to be ahead, charged electric cars an annual surcharge of about $40 until last year, when a new Democratic administration rescinded the charge. The state that prides itself on being the home of the Bill of Rights (and the CIA) just couldn't see how a Prius had a freer right to travel than a Mustang.

      While the per-mile tax may sound tame, so did tolls when they started. Many can remember taking extra quarters when driving on the New Jersey Turnpike. Now you need to take extra $20s.

      Do the math

      How much money are we talking about? The RAND Corp. suggested in a study a few years ago that a per-mile charge of 1.1 cents might generate 20 percent more revenue than gas taxes by 2030. That might solve the states' problems for a little while -- and, of course, the tax could always be raised.

      Let's see how those RAND numbers work.,Say you drive 30,000 miles per year. At 1.1 cents per mile, you'd run up an annual tab of $330.

      Currently, if you drive a mid-sized car that gets 20 miles per gallon, you're probably burning about 1,500 gallons. In California, the gas tax is supposedly around 18,cents (although some would argue it's closer to 40 when you add in various fees and surcharges) so you're paying about $270. In Virginia, the tax is 11 cents (not counting hundreds of dollars per month in tolls for many unhappy commuters), so the comparable figure is $165.

      Good deal, no? Well, maybe, although no one says RAND's 1.1 cent per mile charge will stick. And there's some question about the additional fees that get tacked onto gas purchases in addition to the gas tax.

      Also, tax-wary conservatives note, consumers currently are to a great extent in control of how much they pay for highway usage. If you want to spend less on gas and gas taxes, you can always get a Prius, Chevy Volt, or even a Tesla.

      Most Volt owners average 85 miles per gallon, which gets your annual fuel consumption down to about 352 gallons, running up a tax bill of $63,in California or $38 in Virginia (wow, old Tom Jefferson was right on target with that $40 annual fee).

      Differing goals

      The problem now, obviously, is that the states and their subjects have differing goals. The states want more money, their taxpayers want to pay less, or at least not more, while still having roads that don't crumble beneath their wheels.

      The per-mile tax idea might fly in states already being strangled by lousy highways and outrageous tolls (e.g., Virginia and Maryland), but it could be a hard sell elsewhere.

      One thing you can count on: if a per-mile tax is eventually enacted,,crafty legislators will build in a provision that allows an unelected commission of some sort to set the tax rate based on some obscure,formula so that future generations of politicos can decry the ever-rising rate while professing that there have no control over it.

      Fess up, hybrid owners. You know this deal's too good to last. Drivers of hybrid and all-electric cars have been basi...
      Read lessRead more

      Clinton proposes $350 billion plan to reduce college costs

      Money would be given to states that increased support for public colleges

      Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has proposed a $350 billion education program aimed at lowering tuition at 4-year public colleges and universities and that would pay tuition costs for students attending community colleges.

      The plan would also cut the interest rates on student loans. Clinton outlined the details of her plan during a town meeting Monday in New Hampshire.

      The plan would not directly lower college costs, since public colleges and universities, as well as community colleges, are operated by states, not the federal government. However, the plan would provide incentives to the states by funneling federal money to pay for cutting tuition costs.

      No-loan education

      Under Clinton's plan, the aim is to lower tuition to the point where students don't have to assume student loan debt in order to attend college. Only states that lowered tuition to “no-loan” levels would get the federal money.

      There's also incentives for private colleges and universities. Those that provide significant financial aid to low income students would receive federal funds to help offset those costs.

      Certain students would have no tuition costs. The Clinton plan would provide tuition-free education for military veterans and those who provide volunteer services to organizations like Americorps.

      The plan also has something for consumers who have already incurred student loan debt. The plan would allow them to refinance their student loan balances at lower interest rates, providing on average a savings of $2,000 over a 10 year period.

      Clinton said she would pay for her plan with a tax hike on upper income tax payers, achieved mostly by capping itemized deductions.

      Other proposals

      Some of Clinton's rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have already staked out positions on college affordability. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced legislation in May to provide a free 4-year education at public colleges and universities.

      Sanders' proposal would provide $70 billion a year in college assistance – two-thirds from the federal government and one-third from states.

      A third Democratic hopeful, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, proposes legislation that would allow students already holding student loan debt at high interest rates to refinance.

      “Because unlike homeowners or businesses, student borrowers can’t refinance their loans,” O'Malley said. “This is outrageous. If we were able to bail out big banks, we can figure out a way to refinance college loans.”

      Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has offered education cost cutting measures of its own that have gone nowhere in Congress. For example, Obama has proposed spending $60 billion a year to pay tuition costs for students attending community college. He's also proposed capping upper income tax deductions to raise extra money for education.

      Rising college debt levels and the burden they place on college graduates and their families is a key issue among Democrats, more so than Republicans. GOP presidential hopefuls have not yet offered formal policy proposals but several have mentioned the 1.3 trillion debt burden in speeches and its negative impact on the economy.

      The Republican candidate who has mentioned student debt the most is Donald Trump, who has been vocal in his criticism of the U.S. government making a profit from student loans.

      In an interview with The Hill, Trump said he thinks it is “terrible” that one of the only profit centers the U.S. government has is student loans.

      Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has proposed a $350 billion education program aimed at lowering tuition at 4-year public colleges and unive...
      Read lessRead more

      Insurance dongle security hole let hackers remotely cut a Corvette's brakes

      But almost any make and model of car is vulnerable

      It's common knowledge nowadays that any computer can be hacked, and any wireless connection can be compromised. In other words, any “smart” device is vulnerable, including smartphones, smart TVs, and smart cars (which are basically computers on wheels).

      Indeed, in February a Senate committee report determined that almost every new car sold on the American market was vulnerable to hackers in some way or other.

      Hackable car exploits

      In just the past two weeks, dangerously hackable exploits have been uncovered in cars from three different manufacturers. On July 24, Fiat/Chrysler USA recalled 1.4 million vehicles from model year 2013 and later, to fix a massive software flaw allowing hackers to remotely seize control of a vehicle's major operating systems, including steering, brakes, and transmission.

      A week later, another security researcher discovered a way to remotely seize control of the OnStar systems used in various General Motors vehicles.

      Five days ago, Tesla Motors issued a software patch to fix a security hole that allowed hackers to take control of a Tesla Model S and abruptly turn it off.

      And today, security researchers from the University of California at San Diego found yet another hackable-car threat with the potential to affect almost all makes and models of modern cars – although the specific brand hacked in this security test was a 2013 Corvette.

      Common gadget

      Wired reports that a team of researchers from UC San Diego discovered that a commonplace gadget which trucking companies and insurance firms use to remotely monitor vehicles' location, speed, and other factors also leaves those vehicles vulnerable to hackers: “By sending carefully crafted SMS messages to one of those cheap dongles connected to the dashboard of a Corvette, the researchers were able to transmit commands to the car’s CAN bus—the internal network that controls its physical driving components—turning on the Corvette’s windshield wipers and even enabling or disabling its brakes.”

      A dongle is essentially a small piece of hardware that attaches to a computerized or electronic device in order to allow additional functions – such as remote speed and location monitoring, when a dongle is attached to the computer in a car. The specific device in this instance is an OBD (on-board diagnostics) dongle made by French firm Mobile Devices and distributed by American corporate customers such as Metromile, a San Francisco-based insurer which uses the dongles to charge per-mile rates for insurance.

      Not that the use of such devices is limited to insurance customers looking for discounted rates. In March, the White House issued an executive order mandating the use of similar OBD monitoring systems by federal agencies with fleets of 20 or more vehicles.

      Moving too fast?

      Metromile says it has already issued a wireless patch for that particular security hole. However, as The Verge dryly noted, the Metromile Dongle hack is “the newest in a recent rash of security vulnerabilities in cars that is raising questions about whether automakers and suppliers … should be moving as quickly as they are to connect their products to the Internet.”

      One could raise similar questions regarding whether the U.S. government, which over the past year has developed the annoying habit of having its sensitive computer systems and databases breached by Chinese or Russian hackers every few weeks, should be in such a rush to add its automobile fleet to that ever-growing list of hackable things.

      It's common knowledge nowadays that any computer can be hacked, and any wireless connection can be compromised. In other words, any “smart” device is vulne...
      Read lessRead more

      American Express adds Apple Pay for corporate cards

      Company was among the first to accept it for consumer cards

      American Express says it is the first major corporate card portfolio that has been activated for Apple Pay, allowing business members to pay on the go using their compatible Apple mobile devices.

      Cards that may be used with Apple Pay include only corporate cards issued to employees of commercial card customers working in the U.S. The Corporate Green Card, Corporate Gold Card, Corporate Platinum Card, Corporate Centurion Card, Business Extra Corporate Card and Corporate Defined Expense Program Corporate Card are all eligible. Prepaid Cards and other products are not eligible.

      “Businesses today are going digital, and American Express is at the forefront of digital innovation, helping companies to streamline their payments systems and simplify their processes,” said Greg Keeley, Executive Vice President, Global Corporate Payments, American Express. “We continue to invest and expand digital offerings for our corporate customers in ways that maximize security and enhance the user experience.”

      For use at contactless merchants

      Apple Pay allows American Express members to register their eligible card and pay with their mobile devices at contactless merchants – those using a smart chip technology – in stores, or within participating apps that accept American Express.

      The company adopted Apple Pay for its consumer cards and OPEN Small Business Cards in late 2014.

      American Express praised Apple Pay for its security and privacy features, saying they mesh well with those that it offers. When you add a card to Apple Pay, the actual card numbers are not stored on the device, nor on Apple servers.

      Apple Pay instead issues a unique Device Account Number, that is encrypted and securely stored in the secure element on the customer's device. Each transaction is authorized with a one-time unique dynamic security code.

      But as with any wireless, encrypted technology, nothing is 100% secure. As we reported in June, security researchers at the mobile security company Wandera discovered and warned Apple about a vulnerability in iOS that would allow hackers to set up a wi-fi spot and then, once an iDevice connects to it, present it with a fake “captive portal” page imitating the genuine Apple Pay page asking users to enter their credit card data.

      How it works

      Apple Pay debuted last October, getting Apple into the mobile wallet game. To use it, customers just hold an iPhone 6 near the contactless reader with a finger on Touch ID. You don’t even have to look at the screen.

      Among phones, Apple Pay is only compatible with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which are the only iPhones equipped with the requisite NFC radio antennae.

      To pay with Apple Watch, just double-click the side button and hold the display of Apple Watch up to the contactless reader. A gentle tap and beep confirm that your payment information was sent.

      According to MacWorld, Whole Foods Market has seen mobile payments increase by more than 400% since Apple Pay launched last year. Square integration is expected to expand its use to small, independent retail businesses.  

      American Express says it is the first major corporate card portfolio that has been activated for Apple Pay, allowing business members to pay on the go usin...
      Read lessRead more

      A simple microchip can prevent losing your pet forever

      The microchip makes it possible to identify and return lost pets

      Does your dog or cat have a microchip? Microchips are tiny transponders, about the size of a grain of rice, that are implanted in your pet between the shoulder blades, providing a permanent means of identification. The implantation is no more painful than a vaccination, and most pets don’t even notice when it is happening.

      Each microchip has a unique identification number, and you enroll that number in a microchip registry with your pet’s profile and your contact information, for a nominal fee. If your dog or cat is ever lost, and then found, a veterinary hospital or shelter will scan for a microchip, and alert the microchip registry that the animal was found. The registry then contacts you. Some registries, like HomeAgain, also send out email alerts when you report your dog lost, and have apps for your smart phone.

      Unlike collars or tags, the microchip is permanent, and can’t be pulled off or lost. And microchips have been responsible for thousands of reunions, including some amazing stories of animals missing for years that are now home with their families because of microchips.

      Success story

      Last month, a cat named Bogie was reunited with his family after being lost at Honolulu International Airport as the family was moving to Michigan. Nineteen months later, Bogie was caught living with a feral cat colony at the airport, and thanks to his microchip, he was rapidly identified and reunited with his family.

      In 2006, a Boxer named Boozer went missing from Tennessee. Picked up by someone, he was kept for 9 years, then turned into a shelter in Colorado when that person moved and could no longer have a dog. The Colorado shelter scanned him, and his Tennessee family, who never expected to see their dog again, were notified that their missing Boozer was in Colorado. Reunited with Boozer just a few days ago, the family is ecstatic to have him home.

      Internationally, a dog named Emile was originally microchipped and registered in England. When his family moved to France, they changed to a French registry, but when Emile went missing, he was rescued from a highway by an Italian truck driver, who took him to Italy. Scanned for a chip in Italy, Emile and his family were reunited thanks to the Europetnet microchip database.

      Ask your vet

      If you love your dog or cat, and it isn’t yet microchipped, ask your vet about it on your next visit. The average cost for microchipping in this country is less than $50, and often includes the fee for registration. You can also check with your local Humane Society, municipal shelter, SPCA or spay/neuter clinic for a lower-cost alternative. Vetco, the veterinary clinics at Petco stores throughout the country, offer microchipping for only $15.

      If your pet is already microchipped, and the chip has not been checked for placement recently, you should have your pet scanned to make sure that the chip is easily readable, since there are rare cases of chips migrating to other parts of an animal’s body. This Saturday, August 15 is Check the Chip Day, sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association. This event is to encourage having microchips checked for placement, and remind people to update their registration information.

      Remember, to greatly increase the chances of a lost pet returning to you, follow these steps:

      1. Microchip the dog or cat

      2. Register that microchip

      3. Have your vet check for placement with each vet visit

      4. Regularly check that the registry information is up-to-date, with current phone numbers and addresses.

      For more information, try these websites:

      AVMA Microchipping FAQs

      Check the Chip Day

      Vetco Clinics

      HomeAgain® Microchips and Registry

      Does your dog or cat have a microchip? Microchips are tiny transponders, about the size of a grain of rice, that are implanted in your pet between the shou...
      Read lessRead more

      Completed foreclosures continue to fall in June

      The foreclosure inventory is down nearly 70% from its 2011 peak

      Foreclosures were on the decline again in June, according to the CoreLogic National Foreclosure Report.

      The provider of property information, analytics and services reports the foreclosure inventory plunged 28.9% and completed foreclosures were down 14.8% on a year-over-year basis.

      The number of foreclosures nationwide decreased year over year from 50,000 in June 2014 to 43,000 this past June, representing a slide of 63.3% from the peak of 117,119 completed foreclosures in September 2010.

      “The foreclosure rate for the U.S. has dropped to its lowest level since 2007, supported by a continuing decline in loans made before 2009, gains in employment, and higher housing prices,” said Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “The decline has not been uniform geographically, as the foreclosure rate varies across metropolitan areas.”

      Completed foreclosures are an indication of the total number of homes actually lost to foreclosure. Since the financial meltdown began in September 2008, there have been approximately 5.8 million completed foreclosures across the country. Since homeownership rates peaked in the second quarter of 2004, there have been approximately 7.8 million homes lost to foreclosure.

      As of June 2015, the national foreclosure inventory included approximately 472,000, or 1.2%, of all homes with a mortgage, compared with 664,000 homes, or 1.7%, in June 2014. The June 2015 foreclosure rate is the lowest since December 2007.

      Mortgage delinquencies fall

      CoreLogic also reports that the number of mortgages in serious delinquency (defined as 90 days or more past due, including those loans in foreclosure or REO) fell 23.3% from June 2014 to June 2015, with 1.3 million mortgages, or 3.5%, falling into this category. This is the lowest serious delinquency rate since January 2008. On a month-over-month basis, the number of seriously delinquent mortgages declined by 3.4%.

      “Serious delinquency is at the lowest level in seven and a half years reflecting the benefits of slow but steady improvements in the economy and rising home prices,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “We are also seeing the positive impact of more stringent underwriting criteria for loans originated since 2009 which has helped to lower the national seriously delinquent rate.”

      Report highlights

      • On a month-over-month basis, completed foreclosures increased by 4.8% from the 41,000 reported in May 2015. As a basis of comparison, before the decline in the housing market in 2007, completed foreclosures averaged 21,000 per month nationwide between 2000 and 2006.
      • The 5 states with the highest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in June 2015 were: Florida (102,000), Michigan (46,000), Texas (33,000), California (29,000) and Ohio (27,000). These 5 states accounted for almost half of all completed foreclosures nationally.
      • Four states and the District of Columbia had the lowest number of completed foreclosures for the 12 months ending in June 2015: South Dakota (32), the District of Columbia (107), North Dakota (313), Wyoming (499) and West Virginia (566).
      • Four states and the District of Columbia had the highest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes: New Jersey (4.7%), New York (3.7%), Florida (2.7%), Hawaii (2.5%) and the District of Columbia (2.4%).
      • The five states with the lowest foreclosure inventory as a percentage of all mortgaged homes were: Alaska (0.3%), Minnesota (0.4%), Montana (0.4%) Nebraska (0.4%) and North Dakota (0.4%).
      Foreclosures were on the decline again in June, according to the CoreLogic National Foreclosure Report. The provider of property information, analytics a...
      Read lessRead more

      Bogus credit repair scheme operators settle FTC charges

      The scammers are accused of preying upon Spanish-speaking consumers

      The operators of a bogus credit repair scheme that allegedly tricked Spanish-speaking consumers into paying thousands of dollars each to supposedly improve their credit have settled the charges with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

      A federal court complaint filed in March claims the defendants did business using the name FTC Credit Solutions, misleading consumers not only about the nature of the alleged credit repair services they offered, but also claiming an affiliation with the FTC that did not exist.

      “These defendants were shameless. They scammed consumers who were in need of financial help and used the good name of the Federal Trade Commission to do so,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

      According to the FTC, the defendants -- First Time Credit Solution, Corp., Guillermo Leyes, Jimena Perez, Fermin Campos, and Maria Bernal -- violated the FTC Act by claiming to be affiliated with or licensed by the Federal Trade Commission. They are also accused of falsely promising they could remove negative information from consumers’ credit reports and guaranteeing consumers a credit score of 700 or above within six months or less.

      The FTC said the defendants violated the Credit Repair Organizations Act by making these misrepresentations and charging consumers up front for credit repair services.

      Fines and bans imposed

      Under the terms of two settlements, the four individual defendants will be subject to a monetary judgment of $2.4 million. Leyes will be responsible for the full amount of the judgment. In the cases of Perez, Campos and Bernal, the judgment will be partially suspended due to their inability to pay. The defendants will be required to surrender the money in their bank accounts.

      In addition, the settlements permanently bar the defendants from selling or advertising credit repair services to consumers and from deceiving consumers about any good or service they are selling. The settlements also bar the defendants from selling or otherwise benefiting from customers’ personal information.

      The operators of a bogus credit repair scheme that allegedly tricked Spanish-speaking consumers into paying thousands of dollars each to supposedly improve...
      Read lessRead more

      Early to rise just doesn't cut it for students, study says

      Most U.S. middle and high schools start the school day too early

      Is your middle or high school-aged child getting enough sleep? Not according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

      The agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report says fewer than 1 in 5 began the school day at 8:30 AM or later during the 2011-2012 school year, the start time recommended by the 2011-2012 Schools and Staffing Survey of nearly 40,000 public middle, high, and combined schools.

      The American Academy of Pediatrics says too-early start times can keep students from getting the sleep they need for health, safety, and academic success.

      Consequences of too little sleep

      Schools that have a start time of 8:30 AM or later allow adolescent students the opportunity to get the recommended amount of sleep on school nights -- about 8.5 to 9.5 hours. Insufficient sleep is common among high school students and is associated with several health risks such as being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and using drugs -- as well as poor academic performance. The proportion of high school students who fail to get sufficient sleep (2 out of 3) has remained steady since 2007, according to the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Report.

      “Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance,” said Anne Wheaton, Ph.D., lead author and epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Population Health. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”

      Study findings

      • 42 states reported that 75-100% of the public schools in their respective states started before 8:30 AM.
      • The average start time was 8:03 AM.
      • The percentage of schools with start times of 8:30 AM or later varied greatly by state. No schools in Hawaii, Mississippi, and Wyoming started at 8:30 AM or later; more than 75 percent of schools in Alaska and North Dakota started at 8:30 AM or later.
      • Louisiana had the earliest average school start time (7:40 AM), while Alaska had the latest (8:33 AM).

      In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement urging middle and high schools to modify start times to no earlier than 8:30 AM to aid students in getting sufficient sleep to improve their overall health.

      School start time policies are not determined at the federal or state level, but at the district or individual school level. Future studies may determine whether this recommendation results in later school start times.

      What to do

      The authors report that delayed school start times do not replace the need for other interventions that can improve sleep among adolescents. Parents can help their children practice good sleep habits. For example, a consistent bedtime and rise time, including on weekends, is recommended for everyone, including children, adolescents, and adults.

      Health care providers who treat adolescents should educate teens and parents about the importance of adequate sleep in maintaining health and well-being.

      Is your middle or high school-aged child getting enough sleep? Not according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). T...
      Read lessRead more

      Northwest Farm Food Cooperative recalls frozen raw cat food

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Northwest Farm Food Cooperative of Burlington, Wash., is recalling frozen raw cat food.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No pet or consumer illnesses from this product have been reported to date.

      The recalled product was sold from the company's facility in Burlington, Wash., in 50-lb. blocks and cases of six 10-lb. chubs packaged in a white plastic bag labeled “Cat Food.” They have the production code Jul12015B, which can be found on the outside of the case (box), and no UPC code.

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should stop using it and return it to the place of purchase for a full refund, or dispose of it immediately.

      Consumers with questions may call (360) 757-4225 Monday – Friday from 9:00 am – 4:00 pm (PST).

      Northwest Farm Food Cooperative of Burlington, Wash., is recalling frozen raw cat food. The product may be contaminated with Salmonella. No pet or consum...
      Read lessRead more

      Discount Tire recalls light truck replacement tires

      The tire tread may separate and cause rapid air pressure loss

      Discount Tire is recalling 79,513 Pathfinder SAT LT245/75R17E1 121R W tires manufactured September 16, 2013, to May 19, 2015; Pathfinder SAT LT265/75R16E1 123Q W tires manufactured August 5, 2013, to May 19, 2015; Pathfinder SAT LT265/70R17E1 121S B tires manufactured September 2, 2013, to May 19, 2015; and Pathfinder SAT LT275/65R18E1 123S B tires manufactured October 7, 2013, to May 19, 2015.

      These replacement light truck tires may have been manufactured with a inner liner gauge that is lower than specified. As a result, the tire tread may separate and cause rapid air pressure loss, which can increase the risk of a vehicle crash.

      Discount Tire will notify owners, and dealers will provide replacement tires or refund the purchase price, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in August 2015.

      Owners may contact Discount Tire customer service at 1-888-519-6914.

      Discount Tire is recalling 79,513 Pathfinder SAT LT245/75R17E1 121R W tires manufactured September 16, 2013, to May 19, 2015; Pathfinder SAT LT265/75R16E1 ...
      Read lessRead more

      Chinese hackers compromise private email accounts of high-ranking U.S. officials

      Security breach dates back to at least April 2010, and is still ongoing

      Once again, hackers with suspected foreign-government connections (Chinese, this time) have managed to break into and read the emails of top U.S. government officials. More precisely, once again, the American public has been informed of such a breach, though the breach itself has been ongoing for much longer.

      Government hacking

      NBC News reported today that since at least April 2010, Chinese cyber spies have been able to access and read the private emails of “many” high-ranking officials in the Obama administration. However, it does not appear that the compromise affected any official government-issued email accounts.

      Last April, the New York Times reported a similar attack that did. Hackers with suspected Russian government support were able to breach network security at the State Department, then use that as a jumping-off point to hack into the network of the White House itself.

      And just last week, the Defense Department temporarily took its email systems offline after Russian hackers successfully targeted email systems at the Pentagon.

      Breach is still ongoing

      The Russian breaches from last summer and last week compromised actual government-issued accounts and networks, not private accounts as in this latest Chinese breach. On the other hand, the security holes exploited by those Russian hackers have presumably since been fixed, whereas the Chinese breach is still going on, according to an unnamed “senior official” who spoke to NBC News.

      At a top secret National Security Agency briefing in 2014, the NSA said that the Chinese email grab was first detected in 2010, and was and is still ongoing. U.S. officials gave it the codenames “Dancing Panda” and then “Legion Amethyst.”

      NBC says that “In 2011, Google disclosed that the private gmail accounts of some U.S. officials had been compromised, but the briefing shows that private email accounts from other providers were compromised as well.” However, the senior official who spoke to NBC said that the government emails assigned to those officials had not been compromised, since they are more secure.

      In addition to reading officials' emails and any sensitive content therein, the Chinese hackers also sent malware to the friends and colleagues listed in their address books.

      String of security breaches

      U.S. security experts suspect this newly uncovered email hacking is merely the latest in a string of massive data security breaches backed by China (although the Chinese government has consistently denied responsibility for all of them). In July, the director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, which oversees security clearances for government employees and contractors, resigned after exposure of a massive security breach believed to have affected the sensitive (and often blackmail-worthy) records of 22 million people.

      Those OPM hackers are believed to be the same ones responsible for last November's breach of the United States Postal Service, the February breach at Anthem health insurance, the Premera Blue Cross breach in March, and another breach at CareFirst Blue Cross/Blue Shield in May.

      Last week, NBC published a map from that 2014 NSA briefing, showing all of the successful Chinese-backed thefts of U.S. corporate and military secrets and data over a five-year period: over 600 targets in all, with special focus on stealing data related to electrical and communications infrastructures. NBC noted that “the prizes that China pilfered during its 'intrusions' included everything from specifications for hybrid cars to formulas for pharmaceutical products to details about U.S. military and civilian air traffic control systems, according to intelligence sources.”

      The specific U.S. officials targeted in this latest Chinese cyber attack have not been publicly identified.

      Once again, hackers with suspected foreign-government connections (Chinese, this time) have managed to break into and read the emails of top U.S. governmen...
      Read lessRead more

      Verizon Wireless phasing out phone subsidies

      New subscribers will have to pay full retail price

      Cellphones – even before they were smartphones – have always been a pricey consumer purchase. That's why carriers have always “subsidized” the cost of a phone, giving it to you at a cheaper price, if you sign a 2-year service agreement.

      If you cancelled before the 2 years was up, the carrier charged an early termination fee (ETF) to make up for the part of the phone subsidy it wouldn't get back by billing you each month.

      Verizon Wireless has been discouraging that business model for months now and starting August 13, is ditching it entirely for new subscribers. That means new Verizon subscribers will either pay the full retail price of a phone – usually more than $600 for the latest model – or will make monthly payments on the phone at the full retail price.

      Disappearing subsidy

      Gone will be the option to pay $200 for a $600 phone and sign a 2-year contract. On the other hand, there will be no need for a 2-year contract, although consumers will have to pay off the balance on financed phones if they cancel their service.

      Verizon Wireless buried this news in a press release outlining its new data plan line-up that also goes into effect August 13.

      Verizon is hardly the first carrier to end the subsidy business model. T-Mobile did it back in 2012, allowing customers to finance the cost of the phone in monthly payments on their bill. Verizon used that approach with its Verizon Edge – a monthly financing option that becomes the norm this week.

      Starting Thursday, Verizon Wireless says its new pricing plan will simplify things for customers. It compares its 4 service plans to the sizes you choose from for your morning cup of coffee.

      4 sizes

      • Small: $30/month for 1GB of shareable data
      • Medium: $45/month for 3GB of shareable data
      • Large: $60/month for 6GB of shareable data
      • X-Large: $80/month for 12GB of shareable data

      Verizon says each size comes with unlimited talk and text and if you need extra data one month, you can get it for $15 per GB. Why change?

      “Customers said they don’t want to have to do a lot of math to figure out their best options, and we heard them,” said Rob Miller, vice-president of consumer pricing for Verizon Wireless. “A plan with small, medium, large and x-large choices makes sense for the way people actually use their wireless service.”

      Verizon is also changing its monthly line access charges. Every smartphone line is $20 per month, tablet and Jetpack lines are $10 per month, and connected device lines for devices like smart watches are $5 per month, all the time. All 4 data options can be shared with up to 10 devices.

      If you have an account with a subsidized account, Verizon says you can keep it. But if you want to switch to one of the new data plans, you have to put your subsidized phone in a drawer and buy a new one, at the full retail price.

      Cellphones – even before they were smartphones – have always been a pricey consumer purchase. That's why carriers have always “subsidized” the cost of a ph...
      Read lessRead more

      It's getting more dangerous to travel on foot

      States propose ways to reduce the number of pedestrian accidents

      Walkable neighborhoods are in demand, the real estate industry tells us. Millennials, especially, want to live in neighborhoods that are within easy walking distance to shopping, entertainment, and amenities.

      While that may be a positive trend when it comes to physical health, state officials have expressed increasing concern about pedestrian safety. A recent report shows an estimated 2,125 pedestrians were killed in the first half of 2014, about the same as the year before. Deaths are up 15% since 2009.

      Based on that data, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) has proposed 21 steps for states to take in order to improve pedestrian safety.

      Foot travel could be safer

      "States are developing and implementing programs to ensure the safety of all roadway users," said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins, who oversaw the development of the proposals. "But clearly more can be done to make travel on foot as safe as possible.”

      To help states improve safety, the report looked at who is most likely to suffer a pedestrian accident. According to the data, that victim is most likely to be male and around 46 years old. In fact, males account for about 70% of pedestrian deaths.

      That victim is less likely to get hit by a vehicle while walking in a neighborhood and more likely to become an accident victim after a vehicle breakdown, forcing him to walk along the side of a busy highway for help. First responders clearing a highway accident are also frequent victims.

      "It's incumbent upon states and their partners to educate motorists about how to stay safe in the event of a vehicle breakdown or roadside stop to minimize risk," said Adkins. "That, coupled with a strong Move Over Law that explains what to do if they encounter a first responder on the side of the road, are critical."

      Distraction a growing problem

      The report also noted a significant uptick in pedestrian accidents caused by distracted walking – with the victim talking or texting on a cellphone or listening to music on headphones. While the number of pedestrians killed while using a cell phone increased from less than 1% to 3.6% between 2004 and 2010, it's estimated that as many as two million pedestrian injuries were related to cell phone use in 2010.

      The report found teenagers were particularly likely to be distracted by their cellphone while walking. It cites research in which 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 8 middle schoolers have been observed crossing the street while texting, wearing headphones, or talking on a cell phone.

      Alcohol and speed also tend to be major factors when pedestrians get hurt. In 2013, a third of pedestrians 16 years of age and older involved in fatal crashes had blood alcohol concentrations of .08 or higher, while 15 percent of motorists who fatally struck pedestrians were also over the legal limit.

      Conclusions

      The report concludes communities should be allowed to lower speed limits within their jurisdictions or establish slow speed zones in areas with a history of pedestrian accidents. It also says communities should be encouraged to reduce vehicle speed limits in neighborhoods with schools, parks, day cares, and senior centers.

      The report also points out that cities like New York, Portland, and Seattle have reduced pedestrian accidents after carefully controlling vehicle speeds in areas of high pedestrian traffic.

      Pedestrians distracted by their mobile devices may be a growing problem, but, at the moment, drivers hitting pedestrians and first responders on the side of a highway account for more accidents, the study concludes.

      It says today's drivers need to be better educated about the danger of pedestrian accidents and how to avoid them.

      Walkable neighborhoods are in demand, the real estate industry tells us. Millennials, especially, want to live in neighborhoods that are within easy walkin...
      Read lessRead more

      Builder optimism about the 55+ housing market remains solid

      The condo sector is showing real strength

      Even with a slight decline, builder confidence in the single-family 55+ housing market remains in positive territory.

      The National Association of Home Builders' (NAHB) reports its 55+ Housing Market Index (HMI) for the second quarter of 2015 dipped 1 point for a reading of 57 -- the fifth consecutive quarter with a reading above 50.

      “Although builder confidence in the 55+ housing sector is down slightly from its peak, builders are still optimistic about the market going forward,” said Timothy McCarthy, chairman of NAHB's 55+ Housing Industry Council. “According to our survey, one area in particular that’s improved recently is the condo market, and we expect this momentum to continue.”

      There are separate 55+ HMIs for two segments of the 55+ housing market: single-family homes and multifamily condominiums. Each measures builder sentiment based on a survey that asks if current sales, prospective buyer traffic, and anticipated six-month sales for that market are good, fair, or poor (high, average, or low for traffic). An index number above 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

      Single family vs. multifamily

      Two of the three components of the 55+ single-family HMI posted slight decreases from the previous quarter: present sales dipped 2 points to 62 and expected sales for the next 6 months edged down a point to 66, while traffic of prospective buyers increased 3 points to 43.

      The 55+ multifamily condo HMI rose 5 points to 43, with all 3 components showing increases as well: Present sales rose 3 points to 44, expected sales for the next 6 months jumped 10 points to 49 and traffic of prospective buyers increased 8 points to 41.

      All four indices tracking production and demand of 55+ multifamily rentals declined in the second quarter. Present production plunged 12 points to 46, expected future production fell 3 points to 49, current demand for existing units declined 9 points to 59 and future demand was down 1 one point to 63.

      “Overall, builders in the 55+ housing sector remain positive about the market,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “However, many builders are being cautious as lot availability and skilled labor shortages remain a challenge in some parts of the country.”

      Even with a slight decline, builder confidence in the single-family 55+ housing market remains in positive territory. The National Association of Home Bui...
      Read lessRead more

      Neighbor wasting water? Turn 'em in

      California uses I Spy technique to make water-wasters dry up

      Big Brother may not be watching all the time but your neighbors are. And in California, it's neighbor against neighbor when it comes to watering lawns, washing cars and taking long showers.

      There's a severe drought in California, which is not only the nation's most populous state but also the top agricultural producer. Add up 38 million people and $21 billion worth of nuts, fruits and other produce and you have a lot of thirsty mouths and roots.

      Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered everyone to cut back their water usage by 25% but enforcing that isn't easy, so the State Water Resources Control Board is pitting enlisting ordinary water-loving Californians to turn in their neighbors and anyone else seen wasting precious water.

      The agency has set up a website, SaveWater.CA.gov, where eagle-eyed conservationists can report sprinkler runoff, leaking faucets and so forth.

      “Everyone needs to save water, and this is one effective way alert residents can help everyone – and every community – save water during this historic drought,” said State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “Every drop saved – and every suspected leak or water waste reported and corrected – will help stretch the state’s limited water supply, because we don’t know if next year will be a fifth year of drought.”

      It's completely anonymous and, yes, you can include photos of the perpetrators in action. Each report will be turned over to local water agencies, which are charged with tracking down the suspects and ordering them to throw down their hose and come out.

      “The beauty of this system is that it sends reports directly to the water suppliers,” Marcus said. “Since the State Water Board passed emergency water conservations regulations in July 2014, hundreds of state residents have emailed us and called asking what they can do to report suspected water waste."

      Big Brother may not be watching all the time but your neighbors are. And in California, it's neighbor against neighbor w...
      Read lessRead more

      Dependence on bodybuilding supplements compared to eating disorder

      Researchers say marketers target male insecurities

      Illegal anabolic steroids are not the only way men have tried to get a bodybuilding advantage. Most men are now well aware of the hazards those drugs can carry and avoid them.

      Instead, more men are turning to legal over-the-counter bodybuilding supplements and it's these products that health officials are worried about.

      Research presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention warns that some users rely on these products so much that it should be considered an eating disorder.

      Ubiquitous fixture

      “These products have become an almost ubiquitous fixture in the pantries of young men across the country and can seemingly be purchased anywhere and everywhere -- from grocery stores to college book stores,” said Richard Achiro, of the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, Los Angeles, who presented the research.

      Achiro says marketing efforts for these product target “underlying insecurities associated with masculinity.” He says they're presented as a solution to fill a void so many young men feel.

      The study involved young men who purchased legal performance-enhancing supplements and worked out at a gym at least two times a week. They were questioned about supplement use, self-esteem, body image, eating habits and gender role conflicts.

      Concerns

      The researchers said they were concerned when they learned more than 40% of the young men in the survey reported that their use of supplements had increased over time and 22% said they replaced regular meals with dietary supplements that are not intended to be meal replacements.

      Most alarming, said Achiro, was that 29% expressed concern about their own use of supplements and 8% said their physician had told them to cut back on or stop using supplements due to actual or potential adverse health side effects.

      A few of the participants had actually suffered negative health effects. About 3% said they had been hospitalized for kidney or liver problems that were related to the use of supplements.

      “The most critical implication for these findings is to put risky/excessive legal supplement use on the map as an issue facing a significant number of men,” said Achiro.

      Body issues not limited to women

      Achiro says the results make clear that body-conscious issues aren't limited to young women. Why men are also effected isn't exactly clear, but he says evidence suggests it's a combination of factors, including body dissatisfaction and gender role conflicts.

      “Body-conscious men who are driven by psychological factors to attain a level of physical or masculine ‘perfection’ are prone to use these supplements and drugs in a manner that is excessive and which was demonstrated in this study to be a variant of disordered eating,” said Achiro. “As legal supplements become increasingly prevalent around the globe, it is all the more important to assess and treat the psychological causes and effects of excessive use of these drugs and supplements.”

      The bodybuilding community has not written off all supplements – just some. An essay on Bodybuilding.com warns users to avoid certain products, including ones that contain Vanadyl, which it says mimics insulin and is possibly harmful.

      Illegal anabolic steroids are not the only way men have tried to get a bodybuilding advantage. Most men are now well aware of the hazards those drugs can c...
      Read lessRead more

      Kaboom Action Strips and Lida Daidaihua recalled

      The products contain undeclared active pharmaceutical ingredients

      Blue Square Market of North Huntingdon, Pa., is recalling Kaboom Actions Strip 12 Pack, which is marketed for what the firm calls “men’s vitality,” and LiDa DaiDaiHua, which is marketed for weight loss.

      Kaboom was found to contain sulfoaildenafil and LiDa DaiDaiHua was found to contain sibutramine and phenolphthalein. The appetite suppressant, sibutramine, was withdrawn due to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Phenolphthalein is an ingredient previously used in over-the-counter laxatives, but because of concerns of carcinogenicity, it is not currently approved for marketing in the U.S.

      The company says no illnesses or injuries have been reported to date in connection with these products.

      Kaboom Action Strips comes in packages of 12 strips in a black box with a picture of the strip on the front of the box and a stamped expiration date of 9/17 on the box.

      LiDa DaiDaiHua comes in a light green and grey box with a picture of a woman on the front, with a stamped expiration date of 1/17 on the bottom.

      Blue Square Market’s online store, www.calcompnutrition.com, was one of many that sold these retail products, but the company is neither the manufacturer nor the distributor of the product -- only a retailer.

      Blue Square Market is notifying its customers by letter and is arranging for return and refund of all recalled products.

      Customers who purchased Kaboom Actions Strip 12 Pack from March 20, 2015, to July 7, 2015, with expiration date of 9/17, or Lida DaiDaiHua from Feb 23, 2015, to May 7, 2015 with expiration date of 1/17, should immediately discontinue use and return them to Blue Square Market for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact Blue Square at 1-877-919-9992 Monday - Friday from 9am – 4:30pm EST.  

      Blue Square Market of North Huntingdon, Pa., is recalling Kaboom Actions Strip 12 Pack, which is marketed for what the firm calls “men’s vitality,” and LiD...
      Read lessRead more

      Real Foods of Seattle recalls salad kits

      The products may contain peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label

      Real Foods of Seattle of Kent, Wash., is recalling 29 cases of Harvest Slaw Kit and 13 cases of Broccoli Salad Kit.

      The products may contain peanuts, an allergen not listed on the label.

      There have been no reported adverse reactions or illnesses attributed to the recalled items to date.

      The recalled products may be packaged with sunflower seeds mixed with peanut pieces. The Harvest Slaw Kit has a net weight 5.75 lbs. and the Broccoli salad kit has a net weight 11 lbs.

      Products were sold to consumers directly from deli counter orders between August 5, 2015, and August 7, 2015. There are no codes on these containers.

      38 cases were shipped to deli departments in Haggen stores in the following cities in Oregon and Washington.

      • Oregon: Ashland, Eugene, Lake Oswego, Keizer, Milwaukie, Oregon City.
      • Washington: Aberdeen, Auburn, Bellingham, Bremerton, Burien, Edmonds, Federal Way, Ferndale, Gig Harbor, Lake Forest Park, Lakewood, Liberty Lake, Marysville, Milton, Mount Vernon, Oak Harbor, Puyallup, Renton, Shoreline and Tacoma.

      One (1) case of Broccoli Salad Kit was shipped to Plaza Market in Camano Island, Wash., two (2) cases of Broccoli Salad Kit were shipped to County Market stores in Woodinville, Wash., and Kingston, Wash., and one (1) case of Harvest Slaw Kit was shipped to Archie’s IGA in Pullman, Wash.

      Customers who purchased these products and are sensitive to peanut products or have peanut allergies are urged to discard them or return them to the store where purchased for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may call Jami Brock at 206-432-3459 Monday – Friday, between 8am – 5pm (PST).

      Real Foods of Seattle of Kent, Wash., is recalling 29 cases of Harvest Slaw Kit and 13 cases of Broccoli Salad Kit. The products may contain peanuts, an a...
      Read lessRead more

      Victor’s Market recalls chicken products

      The products were slaughtered under religious exemption which was not declared on the product label

      Victor’s Market Company of Hawthorne, Calif., is recalling approximately 7,368 pounds of chicken products.

      The products were slaughtered under religious exemption which was not declared on the product label.

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

      The following whole chickens or chicken pieces, produced from April 10, 2015, through July 20, 2015, are being recalled:

      • Approximately 50-lb. box packages containing “Primal Pastures Chicken Whole.”
      • Approximately 50-lb. box packages containing “Primal Pastures Chicken Back”
      • Approximately 50-lb. box packages containing “Primal Pastures Chicken Wing.”
      • Approximately 50-lb. box packages containing “Primal Pastures Chicken Thigh.”
      • Approximately 50-lb. box packages containing “Primal Pastures Chicken Neck.”
      • Approximately 50-lb. box packages containing “Primal Pastures Chicken Head.”
      • Approximately 50-lb. box packages containing “Primal Pastures Chicken Feet.”
      • Approximately 50-lb. box packages containing “Primal Pastures Chicken Drumstick.”
      • Approximately 50-lb. box packages containing “Primal Pastures Chicken Breast.”

      The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-6087” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were distributed nationwide.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Bruce Penso at (310) 676-0127.

      Victor’s Market Company of Hawthorne, Calif., is recalling approximately 7,368 pounds of chicken products. The products were slaughtered under religious ...
      Read lessRead more

      10 now dead in New York's Legionnaires' Disease outbreak

      State helping city in effort to trace the source of the outbreak

      Unless you live in New York City, the recent outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease may have escaped your notice. People of a certain age may not even know what the disease is, but, unfortunately, it has now claimed 10 victims in the Big Apple.  

      In 1976 more than 2,000 members of the American Legion attended a convention at Philadelphia's Bellevue Stratford Hotel. In the following days, 221 of them contracted a strange, new, pneumonia-like illness and 34 of them died.

      Since then there have been a few similar, but more limited, outbreaks in other parts of the world and the American veterans group's name has been permanently attached to the illness.

      Traced to water tower

      After the initial outbreak, doctors traced the origin to an old fashioned water tower still common in Philadelphia and other urban centers. The bacteria thrives in warm water, ideally at around 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

      The bacteria does not travel through the air, but does travel in airborne moisture. It is not transmitted person-to-person, which fortunately has limited its spread. It has been found to live in hot water tanks, cooling towers, and in the condensers of large air conditioning systems

      The New York City outbreak is centered in the South Bronx. WCBS-TV reports 100 people have been diagnosed with the disease with more than half receiving hospital treatment, then being released.

      Testing the water

      The New York City Health Department said it is testing water from cooling towers and other potential sources in the area to determine the source of the outbreak. State government agencies are also involved.

      New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced the state is providing free testing at all public buildings in the Bronx and across the state.

      “This is primarily a health crisis and must be handled as such, but at the same time, we must address the needs and fears of our citizens to make sure they understand that the matter is under control,” Cuomo said in a statement. “Public confidence is paramount.”

      Cuomo said he has been in touch with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which he says is sending a team to New York to investigate and inform citizens about efforts to track the source of the outbreak.

      The city's health department advises people who live and work in the area to take quick action if they develop symptoms such as fever, cough, chills and muscle aches. If residents find they have any of these symptoms, then they should seek medical attention right away.

      The department says groups at high risk include people who are middle-aged or older—especially cigarette smokers— people with chronic lung disease or weakened immune systems, and people who take medicines that weaken their immune systems.

      Unless you live in New York City, the recent outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease may have escaped your notice. People of a certain age may not even know what...
      Read lessRead more

      Clinton Campaign promises sharp focus on student loan debt

      Major policy proposal expected Monday in New Hampshire

      The issue of America's vast student loan debt is likely to get a lot of attention during the 2016 presidential campaign.

      With the 17 candidates in the Republican field, other issues are taking precedence so far, but Democrats are already moving it up the list of candidates' talking points. Hillary Clinton has promised to unveil the details of her proposed plan to deal with exorbitant education costs and the debt associated with it next week.

      In advance of the announcement, which is expected to come Monday in New Hampshire, Clinton Campaign operatives are building expectations. Politico quotes a campaign insider as saying the proposal will be big and costly, addressing the whole issue of affordable higher education.

      Incentives to states

      The source says it may provide incentives to state governments to increase support for public colleges and universities. The idea would be to bring down the cost of tuition – or at least an individual student's share of it.

      Clinton herself may have tipped her hand on social media. In a recent Facebook interaction with a commenter describing himself as a student, Clinton said she would make specific proposals to allow students to refinance their student loans, making the payments more affordable. She called the student loan issue one of her biggest economic and educational priorities.

      Rivals' plans

      Some of her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have already staked out positions in this area. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced legislation in May to provide a free 4-year education at public colleges and universities.

      “We live in a highly competitive global economy,” Sanders said when he introduced the legislation. “If our economy is to be strong, we need the best educated work force in the world. That will not happen if every year hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college and if millions leave school deeply in debt.”

      Sanders' proposal would provide $70 billion a year in college assistance – two-thirds from the federal government and one-third from states.

      Personal experience

      A third Democratic hopeful, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, has a personal connection to the issue. He and his wife have over $300,000 in student loan debt from sending their children to college.

      On his campaign website, O'Malley calls for legislation that would allow students already holding student loan debt at high interest rates to refinance.

      “Because unlike homeowners or businesses, student borrowers can’t refinance their loans,” O'Malley said. “This is outrageous. If we were able to bail out big banks, we can figure out a way to refinance college loans.”

      As the Republicans winnow their field of candidates, the party may join the student loan debate. After all, it's a huge segment of debt held by American consumers that impacts the economy. Total student loan debt is now estimated to stand at more than $1.3 trillion.

      The issue of America's vast student loan debt is likely to get a lot of attention during the 2016 presidential campaign....
      Read lessRead more

      The old IRS dogs are back with some new tricks

      The IRS says scammers, armed with new variations, are on the prowl

      Yet another warning from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that tax scammers have an ever-evolving array of deceitful tactics to con people.

      These schemes -- which can occur over the phone, in e-mails or through letters with authentic looking letterhead -- try to trick you into providing personal financial information or scare you into making a false tax payment that ends up with the criminal.

      Thousands of victims, millions of dollars

      The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has received reports of roughly 600,000 contacts since October 2013 and aware of nearly 4,000 victims who have collectively reported over $20 million in financial losses as a result of tax scams.

      “We continue to see these aggressive tax scams across the country,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said. “Scam artists specialize in being deceptive and fooling people. The IRS urges taxpayers to be extra cautious and think twice before answering suspicious phone calls, emails or letters.”

      Scammers posing as IRS agents first targeted those they viewed as most vulnerable, such as seniors, newly arrived immigrants and those whose first language is not English. These crooks have expanded their net and are now targeting virtually anyone.

      A new twist

      In a new variation, scammers alter what appears on your telephone caller ID to make it seem like they are with the IRS or another agency such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. They use fake names, titles and badge numbers. They use online resources to get your name, address and other details about your life to make the call sound official. They even go as far as copying official IRS letterhead for use in email or regular mail.

      The most brazen of the bunch will even provide their victims with directions to the nearest bank or business where the victim can obtain a means of payment such as a debit card. And in another new variation of these scams, con artists may then provide an actual IRS address where the victim can mail a receipt for the payment -- all in an attempt to make the scheme look official.

      The most common theme with these tricks seems to be fear. Scammers try to scare people into reacting immediately without taking a moment to think through what is actually happening. They often angrily threaten police arrest, deportation, license revocation or other similarly unpleasant things. They may also leave “urgent” callback requests, sometimes through “robo-calls,” via phone or email. The emails will often contain a fake IRS document with a telephone number or email address for your reply.

      It is important to remember the official IRS website is IRS.gov. Don't be confused or misled by sites claiming to be the IRS but ending in .com, .net, .org or other designations instead of .gov. Don't ever provide personal information, financial or otherwise, to suspicious websites or strangers calling out of the blue.

      The “tells”

      Here are 5 things scammers often do that the real IRS would never do.

      The IRS will never:

      • Angrily demand immediate payment over the phone, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
      • Threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
      • Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
      • Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.
      • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.

      What to do

      If you think you’re the target of an IRS impersonation scam, here are some actions you can take:

      • If you actually do owe taxes, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040. IRS workers can help you with a payment issue.
      • If you know you don’t owe taxes or do not immediately believe that you do, you can report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 1-800-366-4484.
      • If you’ve been targeted by any scam, be sure to contact the Federal Trade Commission and use their “FTC Complaint Assistant” at FTC.gov. Add “IRS Telephone Scam” to the comments of your complaint.

      Yet another warning from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that tax scammers have an ever-evolving array of deceitful tactics to con people. These schemes...
      Read lessRead more

      Solid job growth in July

      Unemployment among teens posted a big drop

      More people -- 215,000 -- found work in July, even as the unemployment rate held steady at 5.3%.

      According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job gains occurred in retail trade, health care, professional and technical services, and financial activities.

      Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for teenagers declined to 16.2% last month compared with 18.1% in June, while the rates for adult men (4.8%), adult women (4.9%), whites (4.6%), blacks (9.1%), Asians (4.0%) and Hispanics (6.8%) showed little or no change.

      The number of long-term unemployed -- those jobless for 27 weeks or more -- was little changed at 2.2 million. These people accounted for 26.9% of the unemployed. Over the past 12 months, the number of long-term unemployed is down by 986,000.

      The civilian labor force participation rate held steady at 62.6% in July, after declining by 0.3% in June. The employment-population ratio, at 59.3%, was also unchanged and has shown little movement so far this year.

      Who's hiring

      Employment in retail trade increased by 36,000 last month and is up by 322,000 over the year. In July, motor vehicle and parts dealers added 13,000 jobs, and employment continued to trend up in general merchandise stores (+6,000).

      Also adding jobs were health care (+28,000), professional and technical services (+ 27,000), financial activities (+17,000) and manufacturing (+15,000).

      Among the losers were mining employment , with a drop of 5,000 jobs in July. Since a recent high in December 2014, employment in the industry has fallen by 78,000. Construction, wholesale trade, information and government showed little change over the month.

      Average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 5 cents to $24.99. Over the year, average hourly earnings have risen by 2.1%. Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees was up 3 cents to $21.01.

      The full report is available on the BLS website.

      More people -- 215,000 -- found work in July, even as the unemployment rate held steady at 5.3%. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job ga...
      Read lessRead more

      Changes to Prius c minicar earn TOP SAFETY PICK award

      The vehicle now has an acceptable rating in the small overlap front crash test

      Toyota made a midyear change to the Toyota Prius c that took it from a poor to an acceptable rating in the small overlap front crash test. That was enough to put the vehicle on the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety's (IIHS) list of TOP SAFETY PICK winners.

      To improve small overlap protection, Toyota made structural improvements to the front end of the occupant compartment of 2015models of the scaled-down version of the hybrid-only model that were built after May. The side curtain airbags also were lengthened.

      Improved test results

      When IIHS put the modified minicar through the small overlap test, the driver space was maintained reasonably well. Maximum intrusion was 9 inches at the lower door-hinge pillar, compared with 12 inches in the test of the earlier, poor-rated version. Upper intrusion also fell by 3 inches.

      The performance of the vehicle's safety belts and airbags wasn't ideal. The dummy's head barely contacted the frontal airbag before sliding off the left side. The safety belt allowed the dummy's head and torso to move too far forward, and the head hit the instrument panel. The driver's seat also tipped forward and toward the B-pillar.

      The side curtain airbag deployed and, in contrast to the earlier model, had sufficient forward coverage to protect the head from contact with side structure and outside objects.

      Measures taken from the dummy indicate that injuries to the left lower leg would be possible in a crash of this severity. The risk of other significant injuries is low.

      With good ratings in the Institute's other crashworthiness evaluations -- moderate overlap front, side, head restraints and roof strength -- the Prius c qualifies for the TOP SAFETY PICK award. It has no available front crash prevention system, so it isn't eligible for TOP SAFETY PICK+.

      Changing criteria

      Since the small overlap test was added to the Institute's awards criteria in 2013, IIHS has allowed vehicles to qualify with an acceptable rating in order to put awards within reach of more models.

      Starting with 2016 TOP SAFETY PICK, a good small overlap rating will be required. Vehicles with an acceptable rating such as the Prius c will need further improvements if their manufacturers want to hold on to the honors.

      Toyota made a midyear change to the Toyota Prius c that took it from a poor to an acceptable rating in the small overlap front crash test. That was enough ...
      Read lessRead more

      Electronic mortgage closings seen benefiting consumers

      Consumers reported greater understanding, efficiency, and feelings of empowerment

      If you're in the process of buying or selling a home, you might want to give some thought to an electronic closing or eClosing.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) published a report on its “Know Before You Owe” eClosing project that found that borrowers can benefit from the process.

      Specifically, according to the agency, the results of the pilot indicate that those who closed their mortgage using an electronic platform are generally better off on measures of understanding, efficiency, and feeling empowered than borrowers who used just paper forms.

      “While technology alone will not address all consumer concerns in the closing process, our study showed that eClosings do offer the potential to make the process less complex,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “We expect this pilot project and its findings to help inform further innovation that will be a win-win for consumers and industry alike.”

      Pain points

      Back in April of last year, the CFPB released a report outlining the major pain points associated with the closing process -- the last step before consumers are contractually obligated to their loan. The report found that consumers felt like they did not have enough time to review the documents. They also felt overwhelmed by the stack of complex paperwork. Finally, consumers complained about finding errors in the documents.

      The CFPB identified eClosings, as one solution to address some of these pain points. Electronic closings are mortgage closings that rely on technology for borrowers to view and sign closing documents electronically. The benefits can include faster delivery of the documents and embedded links to help consumers understand specific terms as they come across them.

      While eClosing transactions are already happening in the market today, adoption is low. The CFPB believes that the eClosing process has the potential to give consumers more time to review closing documents while also providing them with educational tools that can help them navigate the closing process more successfully.

      The CFPB project took place over a four-month period and involved 7 lenders, more than 3,000 consumers, 4 technology companies, and many settlement agents and real estate professionals. Some consumers used traditional paper documents, others used a complete eClosing process, and others used a hybrid of electronic resources and paper documents. Borrowers who completed mortgage transactions during the pilot were invited to complete a follow-up survey. About 1,200 surveys were completed.

      eClosing benefits

      Specifically, the project found that eClosings were associated with:

      • Better consumer understanding: The CFPB measured whether consumers felt like they understood the process. The study found a 7% positive difference in perceived understanding scores for borrowers using eClosings compared to borrowers using paper documents.
      • A more efficient process: The study found a 17% positive difference in scores for borrowers using eClosings compared to borrowers using paper documents.
      • Greater feelings of consumer empowerment: The study found a 15% positive difference in the scores for the eClosing borrowers compared with borrowers using paper documents.

      The study also found that the consumers who showed the best results on all three measurements of empowerment, efficiency, and understanding received and reviewed their closing documents in advance of the closing meeting. This was regardless of whether the paperwork was received electronically or through paper copies, though CFPB believes using an eClosing process can facilitate faster document delivery.

      If you're in the process of buying or selling a home, you might want to give some thought to an electronic closing or eClosing. The Consumer Financial Pr...
      Read lessRead more

      Privacy groups offer “Do Not Track” compromise; will online advertisers and publishers accept it?

      Tracking and data-mining might prove too profitable for publishers to willingly abandon

      To be tracked, or not to be tracked? That is the question which privacy and advertising groups have debated since the Internet went public.

      This week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), along with the privacy company Disconnect and a “coalition of Internet companies” proposed a new Do Not Track, or DNT, standard for web browsing.

      The EFF's press release said that this new standard, “coupled with privacy software, will better protect users from sites that try to secretly follow and record their Internet activity, and incentivize advertisers and data collection companies to respect a user’s choice not to be tracked online.”

      Companies against DNT options

      As its name suggests, the Do Not Track project seeks to give users the option to go online without having every website they visit monitored and recorded, or “tracked.” Though popular with everyday Internet users – the potential trackees – Do Not Track efforts tend to generate less enthusiasm among potential trackers.

      Indeed, most companies go out of their way to avoid offering Do Not Track options at all. In April 2014, for example, Yahoo updated its privacy policy to say that henceforth, “web browser Do Not Track settings will no longer be enabled on Yahoo.” Google Chrome's “Do Not Track” help page, last updated in October 2012, says that “At this time, most web services, including Google's, do not alter their behavior or change their services upon receiving Do Not Track requests.”

      In June 2014 the Digital Advertising Alliance, an advertisers' trade organization, went so far as to urge Internet standards organizations to abandon do-not-track efforts altogether, and especially criticized companies such as Microsoft, which automatically turned on do-not-track signals for certain Internet Explorer users, on the grounds that default DNT settings might not accurately reflect users' desires to be tracked.

      Full stop

      As industry consultant Alan Chapell said: “There’s no mechanism for anyone in the digital media ecosystem to trust any DNT signal they receive. As a result, the entire framework is open to question. In any other group, this issue would result in a full stop until the questions are addressed.”

      So, Reader: if you're worried that Microsoft or some other nefarious entity is secretly not-tracking you when you'd prefer it monitor and record your every online activity, you can take courage from knowing organizations such as the Digital Advertising Alliance have your back.

      If, on the other hand, you'd rather not be tracked, you're arguably better represented by pro-Do Not Track groups such as the EFF. And yet, even privacy advocates admit that the current Do Not Track status quo does cause some legitimate problems for advertisers (which is exactly why the EFF is proposing a new tracking standard).

      Advertising legitimacy 

      Advertising is not inherently bad. Indeed, where free-to-the-consumer media is concerned, advertising is downright necessary: if a website, television channel, or other media provider lets viewers see its content for free, it needs advertising to pay for producing and distributing that content and for paying the taxes that not-for-profit advocacy groups don't pay. 

      That's how TV networks operated, in the days before cable and other forms of pay television: viewers paid nothing to watch a program, but advertisers paid to air commercials during the program breaks.

      Of course, the advertisers who made old-school TV commercials didn't know exactly who would see their ads, though they could make some educated guesses based on programming content: if someone's watching a televised NASCAR race, it's better-than-average odds that person has an interest in fast cars and car-related accessories, especially compared to the typical viewer of, say, “My Little Pony.”

      But such broad interest generalizations pale in comparison to the hyper-specific data collection possible over the Internet. Instead of content-specific ads as seen on TV commercials, the Internet can allow for viewer-specific ads – especially if said viewer's online activities can be fully tracked.

      Except that many Internet users object to such tracking for obvious privacy reasons. So to protect themselves, users will install ad blocking software (such as that offered by Disconnect) which can save users' privacy – at the cost of making it harder if not impossible for ad-dependent websites to make any money.

      Personal data is golden

      Couldn't Internet advertisers simply use content-specific ads, as TV and radio advertisers do? Sure, but they wouldn't be nearly as effective. As the Wall Street Journal noted in its report on the EFF's latest Do Not Track proposal:

      Personal data is the currency of the Internet. Advertisers, especially, use it to target specific people for a particular ad based on search terms they have entered, sites they have visited, and so on—an industry worth roughly $50 billion last year.

      Publishers can charge between three and seven times more for targeted ads than those placed on Web pages blindly, according to a study funded by the Digital Advertising Alliance. The Do Not Track effort has foundered because many online businesses were unwilling or unable to find another way to make money.

      The Digital Advertising Alliance, you might recall, is the same group which last year urged wholesale abandonment of any Do Not Track efforts — and that study, suggesting that targeted ads generate three to seven times more money than non-targeted ads, explains why.

      New proposal

      Sadly for the Digital Advertising Alliance and similar groups, many Internet users who couldn't opt out of tracking responded with ad-blocking software. Thus, instead of making three to seven times as much ad money off of various viewers, publishers end up making no money at all.

      So the EFF, Disconnect, and other privacy-supporting groups are offering what the Wall Street Journal calls a “Do Not Track compromise” [and the EFF dubbed it a “privacy-friendly Do Not Track policy”] allowing Internet users to avoid tracking while still making it possible for web publishers to collect ad revenue.

      Here's how it would work: publishers and web companies would agree not to track users who signed on for Do Not Track. Or, “compliant entities should not collect unique identifiers such as cookies, fingerprints, or supercookies from DNT users, unless … the user has given her informed consent,” as EFF said.

      Also, publishers would not retain individual visitors' browser and IP address information longer than 10 days, unless they are legally required to do otherwise.

      In exchange, the publishers and websites would get to display what the Journal called “the EFF's 'seal of approval'” on their sites, privacy-policy language assuring users the site would not track them. Users with ad-blocking software would then get the option to disable the ad-blockers on that particular EFF-approved website, so that the viewer will potentially see ads (read: generate ad revenue for the website) without having to be tracked in the process. So far the proposal has no real enforcement mechanism, but would largely operate on the honor system.

      Disconnect's CEO, Casey Oppenheim, said in support of the proposal that “The failure of the ad industry and privacy groups to reach a compromise on DNT has led to a viral surge in ad blocking, massive losses for Internet companies dependent on ad revenue, and increasingly malicious methods of tracking users and surfacing advertisements online. Our hope is that this new DNT approach will protect a consumer’s right to privacy and incentivize advertisers to respect user choice, paving a path that allows privacy and advertising to coexist.”

      To be tracked, or not to be tracked? That is the question which privacy and advertising groups have debated since the Internet went public.This week, t...
      Read lessRead more

      Surprise! Millennials driving the housing market

      "Renting generation" turns conventional wisdom about housing market upside down

      It's funny how quickly conventional wisdom about Millennials and the real estate market can change. In the wake of the Recession, it seemed no one under 30 was buying houses.

      As recently as June a research report from UBS Financial Services called Millennials “the renting generation,” predicting homeownership trends among this population would continue to fall.

      But the recent increase in first-time buyers entering the housing market is largely made up of Millennials, seeking the stability of mortgage payments that rise very little, if at all, year to year. Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), says Millennials are buying houses for many of the same reasons their parents did.

      “Fixed monthly payments and the long-term financial stability homeownership can provide are attractive to young adults despite witnessing the housing downturn,” Yun said.

      Generational headwinds

      After compiling NAR's Home Buyer and Seller Generational Report, Yun said the share of Millennial purchases would likely be higher if not for four negative factors that are providing generational headwinds: underemployment, subpar wage growth, rising rents, and student debt. He notes that all four make it difficult to save for a down payment.

      “For some, even forming households of their own has been a challenge,” Yun said.

      Student debt is an often-overlooked factor. A new Bankrate Money Pulse Survey reveals 45% of people with student loans, and 56% of those between 18 and 29, have put off a major life event like buying a house because of the burden of that debt.

      But Millennials may be making up for lost time. The NAR report makes clear that in recent months, it has been Millennials driving the housing market. That generation has made up 32% of home buyers, significantly more than Baby Boomers.

      68% of first-time buyers

      Millennials have also made up 68% of first-time buyers and are more likely than their older peers to have looked for a house online first.

      The younger generation is also shaping the kinds of new housing developments that are being built, and where they are being built. NAR research has found that Millennials prefer to live in “walkable” neighborhoods, close to shopping and restaurants.

      Because of that preference, they are less interested in suburban single-family homes and are more interested in urban condos and townhouses.

      The research also shows that Millennials show a stronger preference than other generations for expanding public transportation and providing transportation alternatives to driving, such as biking and walking, while also increasing the availability of trains and buses. They also support the development of communities where people do not need to drive long distances to work or shop.

      The emphasis on walkabout neighborhoods is likely evidence of Millennials' growing influence in the housing market. The survey found that Americans prefer walkable communities more so than they have in the past.

      It's funny how quickly conventional wisdom about Millennials and the real estate market can change. In the wake of the Recession, it seemed no one under 30...
      Read lessRead more

      Study finds dementia now starts much earlier

      Researchers place much of the blame on "modern life"

      Doctors in the UK treating cognitive decline recently made a startling discovery: their patients are getting younger.

      Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia usually show up when people are in their 60s, but doctors providing information for the Young Dementia UK charity say they have begun to treat patients in their 40s and 50s.

      Researchers at Bournemouth University believe “modern life” may be mostly to blame. They studied adults in 21 Western countries and found that the problem was most severe in the U.S. They believe that environmental problems like pollution and pesticides could be at fault.

      Deaths on the rise

      At the same time, deaths resulting from neurological disease are up significantly in adults aged 55-74. For adults 75 and older, the rate has almost doubled in every Western country in just the last 20 years.

      In the U.S., neurological disease deaths in men over 75 have nearly tripled and have increased even more in women. For the first time since records began, more elderly American women died of brain disease than cancer.

      “The rate of increase in such a short time suggests a silent or even a hidden epidemic, in which environmental factors must play a major part, not just aging," said Colin Pritchard, a professor at Bournemouth University, who led the study. “Modern living produces multi-interactional environmental pollution but the changes in human morbidity, including neurological disease is remarkable and points to environmental influences.”

      Hidden epidemic

      As a result of the “hidden epidemic,” Prichard says health services are being swamped. He also says neurological diseases are becoming more common on a relative basis because many physical diseases are becoming less common. He does not that there is one big difference, though.

      “Crucially it is not just because people are living longer to get diseases they previously would not have lived long enough to develop but older people are developing neurological disease more than ever before,” he said.

      Why? Because the world is a very different place, he says.

      “The environmental changes in the last 20 years have seen increases in the human environment of petro-chemicals – air transport- quadrupling of motor vehicles, insecticides and rises in background electro-magnetic-field, and so on,” Pritchard said.

      Doctors in the UK treating cognitive decline recently made a startling discovery: their patients are getting younger. Alzheimer's disease and other type...
      Read lessRead more

      Small businesses not yet ready for new secure card payment system

      Wells Fargo survey finds just 31% have installed new EMV chip card readers

      October 1 is an important date for businesses that accept credit cards. That's when a new rule takes effect, shifting the liability for fraudulent credit card purchases from the banks to the business making the sale, if it has not installed EMV chip card technology.

      Unfortunately, a survey by Wells Fargo shows small businesses, by and large, are not only unprepared – they aren't aware of what's coming.

      In its quarterly Small Business Index Survey, just 49% of small business owners who accept point-of-sale card payments today report being aware of the impending liability shift, when a card issuer or merchant that does not support EMV chip card technology will assume liability for any fraudulent point-of-sale card transactions.

      Financial institutions have been sending their customers new EMV chip-enabled credit and debit cards. These cards are designed to protect against fraudulent transactions by encoding cardholder information within an encrypted microchip and data that changes with each transaction.

      For the cards to work, merchants must convert to new card readers or add EMV capability to their existing magnetic stripe card reader payment terminals. That costs money.

      Only 31% compliance

      With only three months remaining before the deadline, Wells Fargo and Gallup, which conducted the survey, found that only 31% of small business owners said that their existing credit card processing system accepts chip-enabled cards.

      When asked if they plan to upgrade their point-of-sale credit card terminals to accept EMV chip cards, just 29% said they would before the Oct. 1 deadline. Another 34% said they will at some point in the future after October. Twenty-one percent said they never plan to upgrade.

      "While our industry has made great progress in the last year informing and preparing small business owners for the EMV liability shift, the survey findings show us that we have more work to do," said Debra Rossi, head of Wells Fargo Merchant Services.

      The bank said it is trying to build awareness, prepare small businesses for the EMV liability shift, and encourage business owners to adopt EMV chip-card technology. It has been providing EMV-capable equipment to customers since 2012.

      It said all new and re-issued Wells Fargo Business Credit Cards and Business Elite Cards provided to customers are chip-enabled.

      Card issuers take the lead

      In fact, card issuers have been well ahead of businesses in adopting the EMV technology. Visa and Mastercard announced last year that they had formed a “new cross-industry group focused on enhancing payment system security” to spearhead adoption of the new technology, which has been in use in Europe for years.

      Despite the split between businesses that intend to upgrade their payment terminals to accept EMV chip cards and those that don’t, small business owners seem to agree on one thing: when consumers buy something, they told the Wells Fargo survey takers, they prefer customers pay with cash or a check.

      October 1 is an important date for businesses that accept credit cards. That's when a new rule takes effect, shifting the liability for fraudulent credit c...
      Read lessRead more

      Senate report addresses airline fee transparency

      Passengers being "nickel-and-dimed to death," report makes recommendations

      Trying to pin down an airline fare is tougher than ever. Between fuel surcharges, checked bag charges, "enhanced" seat charges, change and cancellation penalties and pay-as-you-go drinks and snacks, who knows what a flight will really cost?

      Congress has been hearing about this from the folks back home and a new report released today by the minority staff of the Senate Commerce Committee finds that ancillary fees are increasingly keeping consumers in the dark about the true cost of air travel.    

      “The traveling public is being nickel-and-dimed to death,” said Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the panel’s top Democrat.  “What’s worse is that many flyers don’t learn about the actual cost of their travel until it’s too late.” 

      The report made a number of recommendations to create more transparency in pricing and Nelson said he intends to press his colleagues to act on the report’s recommendations when the Senate begins its work on legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. 

      Preferred seats

      In the case of preferred seating charges, the report found that consumers who purchase tickets through airline websites are sometimes only presented seats which require an additional fee.  In such instances, many travelers often pay the fee, unaware that the airlines will randomly assign them an available free seat at a later date. 

      Additionally, the review found that consumers generally did not receive prominent or clear flight change and cancellation fee disclosures when they purchased tickets from airline websites.  In some instances, penalties for changing flight plans can double the cost of travel – even when the change is made far in advance of the flight.

      Among the report’s recommendations:

      • Better and earlier disclosure of ancillary fees to help consumers compare costs among airlines;
      • Require checked baggage and carry-on baggage fees to have a clear connection between the costs incurred by the airline and the baggage fees charged;
      • Require airlines to promptly refund fees for any bags that are delayed more than 6 hours on a domestic flight;
      • Limit airline change fees to a reasonable amount tied to lead time prior to departure and an amount less than the original fare;
      • Mandate that airlines place clear disclosures that “preferred seat” charges are optional;
      • Require airline and travel agency websites to have a clear and conspicuous links to the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection website; and,
      • Update the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection website to better assist the flying public.

      The report comes at a time of growing traveler frustration over airline fees.   According to one recent study, airlines around the world pocketed a record $38.1 billion in extra fees last year – an increase of more than 1400% since 2007.

      Trying to pin down an airline fare is tougher than ever. Between fuel surcharges, checked bag charges, "enhanced" seat charges, change and cancellation pen...
      Read lessRead more

      Senate bill would raise gas tax 4 cents per year for 4 years

      The measure would extend some tax credits to make up for the higher gas tax

      He doesn't have many supporters for the measure, either in Congress or out, but Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is pushing for four years of four-cent gas tax hikes to fix the nation's highway funding shortfall.

      The Highway Trust Fund is running short of money in part because the current generation of fuel-efficient cars aren't burning as much gas as their predecessors -- meaning that while inflation keeps pushing up the cost of highway construction and maintenance, gas tax revenues stay flat or even decline.

      "Rather than lurching from crisis to crisis, increasing country's debt, and borrowing more money from foreign governments to pay for our transportation system, I say it’s time to do what’s right," Carper said. "At a time when gas prices are some of the lowest we've seen in recent memory, we should be willing to make the hard choice to raise the federal gas tax."

      To balance the 16-cent cost of a gas tax hike, Carper suggests making permanent certain expiring tax cuts that he says would "directly benefit hard-working Americans."

      The legislation would also extend and expand the earned income (EITC) and child (CTC) tax credits. It would make both credits permanent, as well as expand the EITC for childless workers, index the CTC to inflation, and make it easier for working Americans who qualify to claim the EITC, Carper said.

      Carper's bill, the Traffic Relief Act, isn't given much chance of passage in a GOP-controlled Congress that generally opposes any tax increase.

      What about hybrids?

      Any mention of the gas tax always brings up the issue of hybrids and all-electric cars, which use less or, in the case of all-electric cars, no gas and thus pay less or no gas tax.

      On the one hand, fairness seems to dictate that those cars should pay some alternative fee for using the nation's highways. On the other, environmentalists say the cars' other benefits should earn them a free ride.

      There aren't really enough zero-emission cars out there to make much of a difference financially but conservatives have a hard time accepting the notion that greenies should thumb their noses at the gas tax while pick-up truck drivers pay through the nose.

      Until recently, Virginia had a special yearly tax for electric cars but it was withdrawn when Democrats took over several statewide offices in the most recent election.

      He doesn't have many supporters for the measure, either in Congress or out, but Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is pushing for four years of four-cent gas tax hik...
      Read lessRead more

      Hackers hit Tesla, bring the targeted car to an abrupt halt

      A Jeep was hacked a few weeks ago as hackers take aim at rolling computers

      A generation or two ago, young guys liked to mess around with cars, trying to make them faster, louder and generally more disreputable. Then computers came along and all the shade-tree mechanics became hackers.

      Now things have come full circle. Cars have become rolling computers, making them objects of desire for hackers, who are having a picnic finding ways to hack into cars' operating systems.

      Just a few weeks ago, Fiat Chrysler (FCA USA LLC) conceded that its Uconnect system was vulnerable after researchers took control of a Jeep and shut it down.

      Now cybersecurity researchers say they took control of a Tesla Model S and turned it off at low speed, using one of six security flaws they found in the car, the Financial Times reported.

      Only a test?

      You'll recall this is how the whole hacking phenomenon began -- well-intentioned hacks intended to demonstrate vulnerability, quickly followed by wholesale criminal hacking of just about everything.

      "We shut the car down when it was driving initially at a low speed of five miles per hour," Marc Rogers of Cloudflare, a cybersecurity firm, told the newspaper. "All the screens go black, the music turns off and the handbrake comes on, lurching it to a stop."

      Rogers was joined in his efforts by Kevin Mahaffey of Lookout. The two said they chose Tesla because of the company's reputation for high-end software.

      Tesla said it is issuing a patch, which will be sent to all drivers today. The Chrysler hack also resulted in a "virtual recall," in which patches were downloaded to 1.4 million Jeep Grand Cherokees.

      A generation or two ago, young guys liked to mess around with cars, trying to make them faster, louder and generally more disreputable. Then computers came...
      Read lessRead more

      U.S. workforce takes heaviest hit since 2011

      Employers cut more than 105,000 last month

      Employers cut jobs in July at a clip not seen in nearly four years.

      Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas says 105,696 workers were dropped from their companies' payrolls last month, topping 100,000 for the first time since September 2011.

      The July tally is 136% greater than the 44,842 job cuts recorded in June, and 125% higher than the same month a year ago.

      So far this year, 393,368 jobs have been lost - 34% more than during the first 7 months of 2014. It's the highest 7-month total since 2009, when 978,048 job cuts were announced amid the worst recession since the Great Depression.

      Military cuts a major factor

      More than half of the July job cuts were the result of massive troop and civilian workforce reductions announced by the U.S. Army. Those cutbacks will eliminate 57,000 from government payrolls over the next two years.

      “When the military makes cuts, they tend to be deep,”said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “In fact, the last time we saw more than 100,000 job cuts in September of 2011, it was 50,000 cuts by the U.S. Army that dominated the total. With wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down and pressure to cut government spending, the military has been vulnerable to reductions.”

      Indeed, some of the biggest job cuts announced in recent years have come from the military and other government agencies. In addition to the 50,000 cuts announced by the Army in 2011, the Air Force announced plans in 2005 to reduce its headcount by 40,000. Between 2002 and 2010, the U.S. Postal Service announced 3 separate job cuts that affected a total of 90,000 workers.

      Other cuts contribute

      While the government sector saw the heaviest cuts last month due to military reductions, the technology sector announced several major workforce reductions. Microsoft shuttered the recently acquired Nokia division, which resulted in 7,800 job losses.

      Electronics and telecommunications equipment manufacturer Qualcomm announced plans to fire 4,500 workers. Chipmaker Intel also announced workforce reductions totaling 3,180 during the month.

      Together, computer and electronics firms announced 18,891 job cuts in July. Computers firms have now announced 25,542 job cuts this year, which is 47% lower than the 48,361 cuts announced by these employers by this point last year.

      Jobless claims

      From the government, word that first-time applications for state unemployment benefits rose last week for the second week running.

      The Labor Department (DOL) reports initial jobless claims totaled 27,000 in the week ending August 1, up 3,000 from the previous week's unrevised level.

      Officials say there were no special factors affecting this week's initial claims

      The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly calculation and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market, fell 6,500 to 268,250.

      The complete jobless claims report may be found on the DOL website.

      Employers cut jobs in July at a clip not seen in nearly four years. Outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas says 105,696 workers were droppe...
      Read lessRead more

      Mahina Mele Farms recalls macadamia nut products

      The products are contaminated with Salmonella

      Mahina Mele Farms is recalling its macadamia nut products after FDA testing found Salmonella in them.

      No illnesses have been reported in connection with these products to date.

      The following products, distributed to retail stores from May 26-29, 2015, primarily on the East Coast and in Hawaii, are being recalled:

      PRODUCTUPCLOT #SIZE
      Izzie Macs! Macadamia Nuts6890767926770166oz (salted)
      Izzie Macs! Macadamia Nuts6890767935750166oz (unsalted)
      Izzie Macs! Macadamia Nuts68907679277601616oz (unsalted)
      Izzie Macs! Macadamia Nuts68907679297401616oz (salted)
      Bulk Macadamia nuts
      (salted and unsalted; wholes and pieces)
      --0165lb bag
      Baby Bruddah's Mac Nut Buttah75318224201901612oz
      Baby Bruddah's Chocolate Mac Nut Buttah73518224204001612oz

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them and should return them to the store where purchased for a full refund or replacement.

      Consumers with questions may call 808 328 8987.

      Mahina Mele Farms is recalling its macadamia nut products after FDA testing found Salmonella in them. No illnesses have been reported in connection with t...
      Read lessRead more